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The Lord Is My Shepherd

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible Readings

Today is unofficially known as Good Shepherd Sunday, because all but one of the readings make reference to shepherds. That one exception is the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. So let’s look at that first before we move on to animal husbandry.

The first line in today’s reading from Acts provides the Church with a spiritual rule of life. The earliest Christians, we are told, “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Like them, we too are to devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching. We do this when we meditate on the New Testament. We do this when we listen to a sermon or attend a Bible study. We devote ourselves to the breaking of bread and the prayers when we attend the Eucharist and when we pray our daily devotions. But what about devoting ourselves to fellowship? Don’t we do that at every coffee hour? Yes and no. The Greek word translated here as “fellowship” is koinonia, and it has a wide range of meanings, such as sharing, participation, communion, and even communal ownership. The earliest Christians understood this kind of fellowship as requiring them to “sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” This is so much more than signing up to bring snacks to the Sunday coffee hour! Such fellowship as is commended to us in the Acts of the Apostles requires profound mutual commitment, up to and including financial support for the poor in our midst.

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Be Known to Us, Lord Jesus, in the Breaking of the Bread

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

How many here remember the film Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray? It was about a man who was cursed to relive the same day over and over again until he learned to love others more than himself. I feel like we are in that movie, reliving the same day. For it is now two weeks since Easter Day, and we are still hearing a Gospel reading that takes place on the evening of the Day of Resurrection. Maybe the editors of the lectionary think we still have a lesson to learn from that great day. And maybe they’re right!

Today’s Gospel reading is the familiar story of the meeting on the road to Emmaus. It’s so familiar that we are tempted not to pay close attention. But we should!

It is early evening on the day of Jesus’ Resurrection, when two dispirited disciples decide to give up and head home. One disciple is a man named Cleopas. The other disciple is not named and could possibly be a woman. The two are discussing Jesus’ death when they are joined by a stranger. The Gospel says that their eyes were forcibly restrained, so that they might not recognize the stranger as Jesus. And unlike Mary Magdalene, neither do they recognize Jesus’ voice. We can only assume that Jesus was the source of this restraint. No reason for it is given. But I suspect Jesus’ plan was to open their minds and their hearts before opening their eyes.

Jesus inserts himself in their conversation, asking them what they are discussing. They go on to tell him, speaking of Jesus as a prophet who had been handed over by the Judean authorities and crucified. It is telling that they do not profess Jesus as the Son of God, but only as a prophet. They had hoped that Jesus was the Messiah, sent from God to free Israel from Roman rule. They had hoped that he would be a great warrior-king. But now all their hopes are dashed. They go on to relate the story of how some women in their group claimed to have had a vision of angels, but it is clear that they think this but an idle tale.

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The Lord Is Risen Indeed. Alleluia!

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

Some 2000 years ago, in a backwater of the Roman Empire, something happened that changed the world. On the first Good Friday, Jesus of Nazareth was executed on a cross. On the first Holy Saturday, he was buried in a borrowed tomb. And then on the first Easter Day, he was raised from the dead, as a sign of God’s love for his Son—and for us. For we are told that if we have faith in God’s saving love, we too will be raised from the dead. That in a nutshell is the Easter message.

But faith is such a tricky matter! If we watch the news coming out of Syria or Egypt or Russia or Sweden, it is ever so easy to believe in Good Friday. It is easy to believe that the world would torture and kill a gentle man whose only wrong was to teach God’s love. It is easy to believe the Holy Saturday message that this man of peace lay dead and buried. But it is harder to believe in the Easter message, that sin and death did not—and do not—get the last word.

We may imagine that ours is the first generation of doubters, but that just isn’t the case. St. John wrote the Gospel account of the Resurrection that we heard proclaimed today for one reason and one reason only: that doubters of every generation might know the truth about what God did on that first Easter Day and, believing that truth, might have eternal life. Of all the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection, John’s is the most vivid and detailed—and the most convincing! In the midst of the miraculous, we get real, believable portrayals of how various disciples of Jesus reacted both to his death and to the mystery of the empty tomb.

The two boys, Peter and the Beloved Disciple, upon hearing that Jesus’ body has gone missing from the tomb, compete in a footrace to see who will get there first. The Beloved Disciple wins, but then chickens out, letting Peter be the first to enter the empty tomb. The Beloved Disciple believes, even though he doesn’t understand, while Peter is just plain confused. The impatient boys head home. And because of their impatience, they miss out on a miracle.

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“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

As I’ve said many times before, the liturgical season of Lent is a jarring time. Well, Holy Week is even more so! Today, Holy Week begins, and by a quirk of liturgical history, we get the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem juxtaposed with Matthew’s account of the Passion. For this reason, this Sunday is given two names in the prayer book: Palm Sunday and the Sunday of the Passion.

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A variety of pious customs have become associated with this Sunday, all of which focus on Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In Russia, pussy willows are carried in procession. In South India, flower petals are strewn on the floor of the sanctuary during the reading of the Gospel of the Palms. (The sexton must just love that!) And in the United States, we solemnly bless palms and carry them in procession as we sing Jesus’ praise. A favorite pastime of both children and adults is to make crosses out of the palm fronds and then keep the crosses on display in the home until Shrove Tuesday. On that day, the palm crosses may be returned to church, burned, and made into the ashes for Ash Wednesday.

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The Raising of Lazarus: Life Out of Death

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel reading

Today we hear about God’s power over death in the story of the raising of Lazarus. Think of today’s Gospel reading as a foretaste of Easter, a preview of something greater still.

Jesus is in a town called Bethany across the Jordan, when a messenger arrives from a town in Judea, also named Bethany. The messenger is sent from his friends Mary and Martha, asking him to come heal their brother Lazarus, who is seriously ill. Now, unbeknownst to all but Jesus, Lazarus is already dead. Considering the distance between the two Bethanies, it turns out that Lazarus must have died the same day the messenger was sent. Perhaps this explains why Jesus was in no great hurry to head out.

Now, in what is one heck of a prophetic double entendre, Jesus explains that “this illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” The double meaning lies in the phrase “that the Son of God may be glorified.” On the one hand, it can simply mean that Jesus will receive honor. On the other hand, it can mean that he will be crucified; for throughout John’s Gospel, glorification is a code word for Jesus’ crucifixion. And indeed, later we’re told that the chief priests plot to kill Jesus precisely because of the stir he caused by raising Lazarus.

By the time Jesus and his entourage arrive at Bethany in Judea, Lazarus has been dead four days. This is significant, because according to popular Jewish belief, the soul stayed in the vicinity of the body for three days and then departed to its final destination. So, after four days, the expectation would be that the soul was irretrievable. Martha approaches Jesus and gently reprimands him for his late arrival. Even so, she declares her continuing belief in Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus’ response is the poignant and profound statement that we hear proclaimed at just about every Christian burial: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”

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Come, See, and Drink!

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

Today’s Gospel reading requires a bit of background if we are to appreciate what is going on. First, we need to know something about the Samaritans and their relationship with the Jews. Second, we need to know something about the significance of a man meeting a woman at a public well.

The Samaritans were a people of mixed religious and ethnic heritage. When the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians, the Assyrians populated the region with peoples from five foreign tribes. These peoples intermarried with the Israelites who remained, and they worshiped their own gods alongside the God of Israel. By Jesus’ time, the Samaritans were politically part of the Roman province of Judea and worshiped the God of Israel; even so, the Jews considered them unclean foreigners because of their mixed ethnic and religious heritage. In particular, a Samaritan woman was considered a source of ritual pollution from the day she was born till the day she died. It was considered wrong for a Jewish man to speak to a Samaritan woman, and if he touched anything that she had touched, he too would become ritually unclean.

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But there is more to be said about the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. In Jesus’ day, there was an implicit sexual tension in any meeting between a man and an unescorted woman. But to meet a woman at the public well had a special significance that is lost on us today. In the stories of the biblical patriarchs, it was not unusual for a patriarch to meet his bride at a public well. So, the very setting of the story hints at the possibility of an interracial betrothal, only furthering the impropriety of the encounter.

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Hear, Obey, and Follow

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible Readings

Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and the story of the Transfiguration completes the season by bringing us back full circle to the theme of manifestation. (As you may know, the English word epiphany derives from the Greek word for manifestation.) The season started on the Feast of the Epiphany with the story of the Magi, symbolizing the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Today’s Gospel story deals with another epiphany, the divine manifestation of Christ to his three closest disciples.

the-transfiguration-1520This year, we hear Matthew’s account. And in some ways, his version is the least difficult. In the other accounts, it’s not clear how we are meant to understand this story. Is it real? Is it describing something factual that any bystander would have been able to witness? Matthew’s Gospel helps us here. In this Gospel, Jesus himself refers to what has occurred as a “vision.” Is it real? Yes, but on a level of reality that transcends the everyday. Would any bystander who was at hand have been able to witness this event? Maybe not. Divine visions often belong to the realm of private mystical experience.

moses-receiving-the-tablets-of-law-1966Given that the Transfiguration story is a vision, we should not be surprised by the occurrence of symbolism that requires interpretation. And we find such symbolism in the very first words of the account. The Gospel reading starts by telling us that six days after the Confession of Peter, Jesus takes his three closest disciples to a mountain top. Now in the Old Testament, many numbers had special numerological significance. But 6 isn’t one of them. There is only one place where the number 6 has a special significance—in the story of Moses on Mt. Sinai that we heard read in the first reading. For six days, a cloud covered Mt. Sinai; on the seventh day, God spoke to Moses from the cloud. In the story of the Transfiguration, the very timing of the event has symbolic significance. It hints that what is about to happen is as momentous as the giving of the Law to Moses.

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Building a Fence around the Torah

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

For the last two Sundays, we have been hearing excerpts from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Last week, we heard Jesus say, “… not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Today, we hear what biblical scholars used to call “The Antitheses.” (To be more precise, we hear four of the six Antitheses; the other two will be heard next week.) Now, an “antithesis” is a rhetorical contrast of opposites. And the presumption has often been that Jesus is opposing his new laws against the old Jewish laws. But considering what Jesus said about not abolishing even one stroke of one letter of the Law, it seems unlikely to me that “The Antitheses” are, in fact, antitheses!

What then, is Jesus up to? Well, he’s doing something very Jewish, and Judaism even has a term for it. He’s “building a fence around the Torah.” It has long been a practice in Judaism to draw a legal circle around a commandment, so that one would never even come close to breaking the original commandment. A classic example is the commandment not to eat a baby goat boiled in its mother’s milk. From this came the prohibition against eating meat and dairy products at the same meal. And from this came the further prohibition against cooking meat and dairy products in the same pan or storing meat and dairy in the same refrigerator. I think that this is what Jesus is up to in today’s Gospel reading!

With that in mind, let’s go through each of the four so-called “Antitheses” and try to figure out what Jesus was asking of his disciples then and now.

anger-or-the-tussle-1516The first “antithesis” deals with the issue of anger. Jesus starts out by reminding his audience of the biblical prohibition against murder. He then says that calling someone a fool in anger is tantamount to murder and will land the guilty party in Hell. Now, rest assured that Jesus is using a bit of hyperbole here. Be that as it may, he does so, in order to drive home the point that anger can be deadly, both literally and figuratively.

Jesus then expands on this point with two “mini-parables.” In one, a man has traveled to Jerusalem to make an animal sacrifice at the Temple for the expiation of his sins, when he remembers his sin against a fellow Israelite. He leaves his sacrifice incomplete, travels back to his home town, makes up with his neighbor, and then heads back to Jerusalem to make his peace with God. It’s an improbable scenario. But it points out that reconciliation with God is only possible if we are reconciled with one another first. When we share the Peace later in the service, it is more than just a casual greeting to a neighbor, it is a liturgical sign that we who are gathered here today are reconciled.

The next “mini-parable” is about one man taking another man to court over unpaid debts. Jesus says that if the debtor has any sense, he’ll settle out of court and not risk going to debtors’ prison. This little parable is an allegory. The key to the allegory is that the word “debt” in Aramaic is also the word for “sin.” In this parable, the judge is God, and the debtor’s prison is Hell. The decoded message is to make your peace with your fellow human beings before you die, lest you suffer divine condemnation!

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A Nation Divided

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

Blessed be the God of our salvation, who bears our burdens and forgives our sins.

temple-ruins-jerusalem1-webI know that many here today are tired from all their work at the bazaar, and I wish that we had a Gospel reading that might renew and refresh. But we haven’t! Today’s Gospel reading isn’t the least bit cheerful. It speaks of the future destruction of the Jewish Temple and the persecution of the disciples in terms that can only be called apocalyptic. But perhaps this reading is fitting for the times we find ourselves in, for these are undoubtedly turbulent times. I can’t recall a presidential campaign in my lifetime that has been as nasty and base as what we have had to endure these last eighteen months. And I can’t ever recall the level of shock and dread that half this nation seems to be experiencing post-election, myself included.

Perhaps, just perhaps, one aspect of today’s Gospel reading might shed some light on the state of this divided country. You see, the disciples looked at the Temple in all its glory, and they saw a towering symbol of strength, and beauty, and permanence. Jesus, we are told, saw something very different; he saw what that Temple was about to become, a ruin, where not one stone would be left upon another.

I feel like that’s what’s going on in this country today. Half the nation looks at this country and sees a swamp that needs to be drained, a failed democracy that has lost its greatness. The other half sees a nation slowly but surely recovering from economic disaster and experiencing normal cultural growing pains. The recent presidential campaign has only exacerbated this profound disparity of worldview.

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The Parable of the Daring and Decisive Steward

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Click here for the Gospel Reading

In today’s Gospel reading from Luke, we hear an odd parable about a steward, or estate manager, followed by three challenging sayings about mammon, or wealth. All relate to the topic of money, either directly or indirectly. Now, chances are that Jesus did not deliver all these teachings at the same time. Scholars think it more likely that Luke did a little editing and lumped them all together, since they shared a common thread. But the resulting juxtaposition can be a bit confusing.

Let’s look at the parable first. I have always heard this parable called the Parable of the Dishonest Steward. But the title doesn’t really suit the story, since the dishonesty of the steward isn’t really the point at all. Perhaps a better title would be the Parable of the Daring and Decisive Steward.

The story starts out with a rich absentee landowner acting on a malicious accusation against his estate manager. The English translation doesn’t bring out this nuance of the Greek— that the accusation is, in fact, a slander. The rich man doesn’t wait to investigate the truth of the matter. Instead, he presumptuously fires his manager and demands that the account books be handed over. The estate manager realizes that he is ill-suited for hard labor and that he would be too ashamed to beg in the streets for a living. So he cooks up a little scheme! And ironically, the idea for his little scheme comes right from the malicious accusation that got him fired in the first place. So what does the manager decide to do? He calls in his boss’s debtors and asks them to falsify their bills by lowering the amounts that they owe. In other words, he decides to actually do what he had been falsely accused of—dispersing his boss’s property. The purpose of his scheme was to make friends fast, so that he would have some place to go after he was kicked out onto the streets by his boss. Now, somehow the boss finds out what’s going on. And we might well expect him to be furious and have his manager sent to the pokey. Instead, the rich landowner actually praises his scheming manager for his prudent and sensible action. The parable then finishes with Jesus’ comment that “the children of this age are more clever with regard to their own generation than are the children of light.”

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