Sermon 2/18/2018 “Wilderness”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Mark 1:9-15
Day: 1Lent, Year B


Today I want to explore the wilderness, as Jesus did in our gospel lesson. But first I need to acknowledge a confusing thing about that lesson: Our lectionary today warps time, circles back on itself today as we begin Lent. Just last Sunday we were with Jesus up on Transfiguration Mountain during the half-time show of his ministry. And yet today here is Jesus being baptized AGAIN before his pubic ministry had even begun, before he had even called his disciples, as we heard about just seven weeks ago on the First Sunday after the Epiphany.

Well, Jesus wasn’t baptized twice. Those who appointed the Church’s Sunday scripture lessons wanted us to understand back in January that baptism shifts our spiritual life into a new dimension, so we need to begin there, with baptism. Today, though, as we start the 40-day season of Lent, we are meant to place ourselves in the footsteps of Jesus by replicating his 40-days of testing in the wilderness.

Our gospel lesson today says that, immediately after Jesus’ baptism, the very same Spirit that had descended on Jesus “like a dove” drove him out into the wilderness. I know… I know. We modern-day Christians don’t like to think that GOD is the one who drives us into the wilderness, especially when the forces of evil are waiting there to test us. At the very least we want God to explain himself, give an account of his actions, and EXPLAIN how he can be the God of love if he tests us with desolate places and hard times.

NOT going to happen. God is always silent in response to thoughts like these. Maybe Lent is a time when our main task is to recognize that God is God and we are not.

God doesn’t ever explain why he sends us into the wilderness. But, knowing that God DOES send us into the wilderness, don’t think that God causes evil to happen to us. No, God ALLOWS evil to happen; our best explanation is that this is a consequence of giving us the freedom to choose or reject God. We want that freedom, that free will, and yet we also want God to shield us from the consequences of our bad choices. But the wilderness is a consequence of our freedom that we must live with.

So, let’s explore the wilderness. Wilderness is where we meet ourselves face-to-face. What do I mean by that? A literal wilderness is where we are stripped of our usual means of coping: no food, no water, no tobacco or alcohol or other drugs (not even caffeine). Just us. No family, no community, no church. No noise, no phone, no Internet, no TV, no books. No shelter. Reputation, income, power, possessions, assets—all meaningless.

The same is true of the kind of wilderness where we are tested. All those THINGS might be available, just meaningless to help us solve whatever problem is confronting us. For example, there’s a wilderness in Parkland, Florida, this week. There are a lot of parents there dealing with the murder of their children and all the things they have probably aren’t helping them much in coping with their grief and anger and loss.

Did God create this situation? NO! I suspect that each of you think you know the “solution.” Those who are anti-gun think that tighter gun controls will “solve” the problem of mass homicide in our schools. Those who are pro-gun think that arming every person will “solve” the problem. And isn’t THAT where the real wilderness lies for each of us—in that “no person’s land” between us? How will we choose our responses; how will we escape this wilderness?

There are wild beasts in the wilderness, our lesson says, but whether those beasts are a help or a threat is left up to our imagination. I’d guess threats, because wilderness is where we must choose between the forces of life and the forces of death, between God and Satan to use ancient language. Because wilderness is where forces thrive that are hostile to God, where primeval chaos lingers whose goal is to undo creation. THAT chaos ALWAYS points us in the wrong direction, pits us against each other, and tries to alienate us from God, and from each other.

Chaos accomplishes that alienation, when chaos is successful, by offering us anxiety, panic, terror, anger, hardness of heart, a fixation on revenge, and a false certainty about who God is and what God wants. Maybe Lent is when we should identify the forces hostile to God that we have allowed to inhabit our lives.

Or perhaps “with the beasts” isn’t actual animals. Perhaps “beasts,” in this case, is a metaphor for the untamed parts within us, those parts of our human nature that we might be afraid of: our animal nature, our lusts, our rages, our fears, our depressions, our scary imaginations. If so, maybe Lent is a time to acknowledge and ask for God’s help to tame the wild beasts within us.

Our lesson today tells us, using very spare language, another reality about wilderness that I don’t want us to miss: We are not alone in the wilderness, even though we think we are. Did you notice that, when Jesus was in the wilderness, “angels waited on him?” That’s the reality of our lives: We are not alone; God is always with us, always near at hand, even when we think we are alone. God ensures that we are attended and is patiently waiting for us to choose him anew.

Maybe Jesus’ wilderness experience helped him to realize our need for the Holy Spirit, the Advocate he sent to help us through the wildernesses of this life.

Maybe this is our task this Lent: To observe how we are tempted and consoled in the wilderness, recognizing at last—as the Israelites did—that the wilderness is where we can get closest to God, if we but choose wisely and trust the Holy Spirit to guide us.

All of this reminds me of the methodology recommended by St. Ignatius: observe each day our spiritual successes and failures. Over time we will begin to notice two things: First, how we are most susceptible to the chaos of life, and second, how we have been attended by angels.

I have wondered this week, as I have explored this wilderness, that perhaps God drives US out into the wilderness for another reason, a reason other than testing. Perhaps God wants us in the wilderness at specific times and places to BE that ministering angel to someone else in the wilderness. And we CAN be that presence of help and hope, if we don’t let chaos divert us in the wilderness along the way.

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Sermon 2/11/2018 “Half time”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Mark 9:2-9
Day: LastEpiphany, Year B aka Transfiguration Sunday

“Half time”

I wonder, how many of you saw the Super Bowl last Sunday? Did you see the half-time show? Officially, the show was the “Justin Timberlake’s Pepsi Super Bowl 52 Halftime Show.” I heard the show wasn’t very good this year, so I watched it on YouTube during the week. I wasn’t impressed.

But I decided that, if Mark’s gospel were a football game, today’s lesson would be the Super Bowl half-time show. Think about what you know of Super Bowl half-time shows, even if you may never have seen one yourself:

  • There’s always a dazzling light show.
  • There’s the person who whom we are supposed to pay attention, the star, in sparking clothes, moving around and getting our attention.
  • There often are superstar guests, people past their prime, who put in cameo appearances as a sort of endorsement for the new superstar.
  • And there are always out-of-this world sound effects, endorsing and drawing our attention to the one to whom we are to listen.

Make no mistake: Mark MEANT us to hear today’s gospel lesson as half-time, the half-way, between the beginning and end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. In the first place, today’s lesson is literally just past the half-way point in Mark’s 16-chapter narration of Jesus’ life. Then, too, Jesus had just finished a serious “Who do you say that I am” talk with his disciples. Jesus had told them he would die in Jerusalem. Even in today’s lesson, Jesus had told his disciples to not tell anyone what had happened until after he “was risen from the dead.” He had commanded those who would follow him to pick up their cross and follow him.

So this was half-time—not of a game, but of life. Think about what can happen to us at the half-time of our lives. We have a name for that: mid-life crisis. Like Jesus in Mark’s gospel, we are busy DOING in the first half of life. Jesus was teaching in every town and healing everyone in sight. WE go to school, leave home, launch careers, have children (or not), and then wonder: Is THIS all there is in life?

In today’s gospel lesson, this half-time show, Jesus took his three closest followers up the holy hill to show them what life’s all about: an encounter with God. And God told each of them how to spend their lives: “Listen to Jesus,” he said, “follow Jesus.”

Notice that Andrew wasn’t with them, foreshadowing his disappearance from scripture after Jesus’ ascension into heaven. The others, less Judas Iscariot, evangelized their whole world and founded the Christian Church, but we don’t hear about Andrew. Presumably he didn’t make the half-time turn from being to doing-with-God’s-purpose. So here, just Peter, James, and John accompanied Jesus on this half-time excursion up a mountain to get their AND OUR divine instruction for life: listen to Jesus; follow Jesus.

Why was the great prophet Moses of old on this mountain today with Jesus? If you recall, Moses had climbed a holy hill to talk with God. Then he came down the hill with ten “suggestions” from God for how to live in right-relationship with him and with each other. In other words, Moses brought the Ten Commandments down the hill with him. This covenant between God and humanity was the Law, the Thou Shalts and the Thou Shalt Nots. And now here is Jesus, on another holy hill. Mark was saying that this event marked the time when all of life would be based on the new covenant foretold by Jeremiah:

I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts (God said to Jeremiah)
I will be their God, and they will be my people.

When did THAT happen, if not here at “half-time” in Jesus’ ministry?

As for Elijah, the other person on the mountain with Jesus, Elijah was, like Moses, a great prophet, but also a healer, like Jesus. Elijah’s return had been foretold as a sign of the coming of the Messiah, God born among us.

So, having both Moses AND Elijah on the holy hill with Jesus, makes this half-time show the “big reveal,” showing us Jesus’ true and full identity as God’s son. Jesus is the one foretold, the one we are to engrave in our hearts, the one to whom we are to listen and heed as we embrace the Kingdom of God that has drawn near.

If Jesus is The One, the invitation to us is also clear: Follow Jesus, come what may. God is calling us to listen to Jesus and Jesus is telling us to follow him.

The alternatives—not accepting the invitation to move forward—are also clear (but disastrous): We can fail to follow Jesus and get stuck in place—even unto death. OR, we can do God’s work but be blind and deaf to whose we are, leaving us susceptible—like Peter, James, and John—to becoming so anxious that we substitute our pet project for Jesus’ work, which is another kind of stuck in place.

I delight that Church of the Resurrection has learned ITS half-time lesson well and chosen to follow Christ Jesus, trusting where he leads us. There’s safety in numbers; let’s stay together on this!

Today we will honor Carleigh and Araceli, two Girl Scouts who saw an opportunity to feed their hungry neighbors by starting a community garden. This was not an easy task! Christ Jesus must have suggested to them what he wanted them to do and they did it. Something told them they should and could do this difficult thing, and they succeeded.

The Boy Scouts of our Troop 2005 quietly helped. They pitched dirt and mulch and weeds. And, in the process they caught the vision, too.

I want you to know, all associated with this project, that the food pantry supported by the garden you created, by the time we move into temporary quarters in November (God willing) will have feed about 8,000 people. And, I am happy to say, there are plans afoot for “pocket gardens” among the landscaping of what will be our new church and food pantry. So, the reality you helped create will live on.

This is but one story of Jesus’ disciples accepting their half-time question, the question that turns out to be pivotal in each of our lives: will we be takers in this life, or givers? Will we take what we can and leave our world as messed up as it was when we entered it, or will we do as the voice from above said and listen to Jesus: Follow him.

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Sermon 1/28/2018 “The Word sets us free”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Mark 1:21-28
Day: 4Epiphany 2018 (Year B)

“The Word sets us free”

In each issue, the evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, shares a reader’s conversion story, testimony about how Jesus changed that person’s life. These stories make very compelling reading. For example, here’s a condensed version of Francine Rivers’ close encounter with Jesus:

I was addicted to romance novels, Francine said, then God asked me to start writing them, for his glory. Francine grew up in a Christian family and assumed that made her a Christian. She began writing in her grief over a miscarriage, but soon writing had taken over her life. She and her husband met Jesus, though, by reading scripture, and they soon found themselves “in God’s transformative program.” God took away her writing, for a while, until she understood that she had relied on writing for her identity and sustenance, hollow things compared to God. Then, God gave her a new writing mission.

After reading stories such as these, I understood that, to evangelicals at least, conversion begins with an experience that changes a person’s world view. And then, after this “Big Bang” of faith in Jesus, there is an ongoing unfolding of a new way of life in Christ.

We Episcopalians, on the other hand, often experience a more gradual unfolding of our faith, a process that nudges us into more Jesus-like living. There is nothing wrong with coming to Jesus in this way, if we understand that choosing Jesus is more than just “becoming good people.” Christianity is far more than doing good works. But, I’ve noticed, we Episcopalians are very uncomfortable with a spiritual “Big Bang.”

Like the man in the synagogue in today’s gospel lesson, we acknowledge that we know who Jesus of Nazareth was and is: The Holy One of God. And then we often tell Jesus we are afraid that doing what he asks of us will destroy the comfort of our status quo or the benefits of whatever questionable “good gig” we are engaged in.

We don’t know what “good gig” the demon-infected man in the synagogue was afraid Jesus would destroy. In fact, all we know about the man is that he was in the synagogue and he had an unclean spirit—a demon—within him. We don’t know whether he was sitting in the Chief Seats, reserved for religious leaders, or if he was a more ordinary person sitting on the floor.

We know that the evil spirit in this man was afraid Jesus would destroy “us,” presumably the demon AND the man. Notice how the spirit spoke for the person in whom he resided, a person who didn’t (or couldn’t) cry out to Jesus, “Save me. Heal me. Help me.”

This was Jesus’ first recorded miracle, so the people in the synagogue didn’t yet know about Jesus’ healing capabilities. But they recognized his authority as a teacher. They recognized the Word of God that spoke through him. God’s Word is self-validating, and the people, including the evil spirit, knew God’s Word had been spoken.

We don’t know what Jesus said that day, just that he spoke the Word of God, the Word that pierces hearts and makes unclean spirits cry out in fear. Maybe Jesus spoke as he had when calling disciples: “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

And what WAS the gospel then, before Christ Jesus died on the cross and defeated death, so that we all might have life? I had a lot of fun this week, guessing. What about this passage from Zechariah 2?

The Lord says, ‘Shout and rejoice, O beautiful Jerusalem, for I am coming to live among you. Many nations will join themselves to the Lord on that day, and they, too, will be my people. I will live among you…

Or this jewel from Isaiah 61?

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

But we can only guess what Jesus taught on that day. What we know is that then the demon spoke up.

There was a seminary professor, now deceased, who advised preachers to pay no attention to the man with the demon. This professor thought the important message is Jesus’ great authority. This professor was worried his students would lose credibility by their congregation’s modern-day unbelief in demons.

And truly, this professor had a point. “Today we know this man was mentally ill,” people tell me all the time. Well, I didn’t believe in demons, either, until I met someone who was possessed by evil. The most recent time was two years ago at the Mount Vernon Psychiatric Center, where psychiatry wasn’t doing very well in helping the person.

But I digress. My goal isn’t to convince you that evil can invade and enslave us. Evil can; that’s a fact that no amount of denial can wish away.

Unclean spirits use many tools to find a host:

  • Substance abuse and addictions that promise to fill up emptiness;
  • Greed and lust for power that promise false purpose in life;
  • Gossip to assure that we aren’t the only ones who lack perfection; and
  • Certainty that only we know the mind of God, to cure our inferiority complex.

However, an encounter with Christ Jesus and with the Word of God can break through the toughest enthrallment. Jesus confronted the demon, silenced it, and commanded it to leave the man.

Elsewhere in scripture, Jesus says we must be careful at such times. If we leave ourselves empty, other evils, worse evils, can enter in. What Jesus did was free the man so that he could choose for himself his future path: Follow Jesus or become a dry drunk, spiritually speaking. We don’t know which the man chose.

The Good News here is that Christ Jesus can and does free us from whatever holds us captive, if we immerse ourselves in his Word. Repent, and believe in the gospel.

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Sermon 1/21/2018 “Follower, or hired hand?”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Mark 1:14-21 / Psalm 61:6-7
Day: 3Epiphany 2018 (Year B)

“Follower, or hired hand?”

Before I begin, I want to be sure you know that the Alexandria City Council unanimously approved our redevelopment project yesterday. Quite a few of you were there for all 4.5 hours of its deliberations, and I thank you for that. Our Bishop, by the way, sends his joy and gratitude for our vision and our pursuit of making that vision a reality. He asked me to share his pride in Church of the Resurrection and what we have accomplished, so far, together. I wanted you to know this, because after the service we are going to celebrate, but right now I want to talk about something very different: the anxiety that can go along with a project such as ours.

– – – – – – – – – –

I was all set to let our lessons lead me into leaving our fishing nets today to follow Jesus. And that’s certainly the place we want to end up: following Christ Jesus.

But as I began to live into this week, with its endless coughs and ills and meetings and preparation for yesterday’s City Council hearing and our Vestry Conference, I began to notice that our individual and collective anxiety level had risen dramatically. Or maybe it was just MY anxiety level that had risen beyond measure.

I don’t know why. There never was doubt, much, that City Council would nix our affordable housing project yesterday. After all, it had already appropriated the nine million dollars needed for our project by raising our City’s tax rate to a near record high. And if our project was tagged out, wouldn’t God give us another mission to do? Isn’t Christ Jesus always walking near, as he did in today’s gospel lesson, inviting us to follow him?

Yes, yes. I know of all the maneuvering by our neighbors and others. Yes, I know about the money worries, given the two-million-dollar reduction in low income housing tax credit funding this application cycle. But, these things are in God’s hands, aren’t they? This is God’s project, isn’t it, not ours? So why worry?

As I pondered these questions this week, I soon realized that THESE are the things that hired hands worry about. You know, the people who James and John left in their boat with their father, to tend their worries, while THEY left all behind and followed Jesus.

Hired hands worry about things; that’s their function. Hired hands are like renters, those who borrow God to deal with the calamities of life. On the other hand, owners—those who rely on God, those who have put their whole trust in God, have faith rather than fear or its low-level manifestation: anxiety.

Now, I’m aware that I am speaking, by and large, to a whole room full of “owners.” You’ve already left the boat, so to speak, and have long been following Jesus.  See, owners come to church each Sunday, even if they needed a visit to a chiropractor to get here. Owners tell others about following Jesus. Owners share the hire hands’ burdens when their anxieties about life become overwhelming.

And the hired hands ARE highly anxious. Anxiety has reached record highs worldwide, especially in the US, especially among those born after 1980. In our country, 18 percent of us have an anxiety disorder, and 8 in 100 of all people in our country suffer from crippling anxiety—we are the most anxious people in the world! Curiously, the people in Nigeria, for example, are almost three times less likely to suffer from anxiety, even though their standard of living is six times worse than ours.

These data have led to speculation about the cause of our anxiety epidemic. There are two theories, not mutually exclusive.

The first theory is that our increase in the time spent online is alienating and isolating us from each other in ways that count. Healthy face-to-face relationships share our anxiety burden. This theory could explain why our young suffer the most from anxiety.

The second theory is that our culture has shifted away from having goals that are wholly internal to us—related to our own development and based on finding meaning. Instead, we have chosen goals focused on material rewards and focused on other people’s judgments. This is a theory of Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, who thinks this shift could cause us to feel out of control, producing anxiety.

There are spiritual consequences to such a change in thinking. If we know there is a power greater than ourselves (God!) who made us and knows us and loves us and is in control, and we place our trust in this power, we are bound to be psychologically healthier than if everything is up to us and we are judged on the things we have, what we earn, and the image we project.

When we rest secure in God, we are complete in the knowledge that everything is not all up to us. The Good News is that God is in control. We just have to do our part. I’m sure, that when Peter, Andrew, James, and John stepped out of their boats that first time, they didn’t know all they were in for. They learned to heal people, while making the Pharisees very upset. They walked on water, and sometimes they sank. They learned that even fierce storms and eventually death itself were nothing to fear, if they were following the right person.

Along the way, I’ll bet they learned about anxiety, and that the opposite of anxiety is faith. And I’ll bet they learned that community helps. The “cure” for anxiety is giving over the fear to God, giving over the situation to God. Isn’t that what our Psalm today speaks of? Our Psalm declares:

For God alone my soul in silence waits,
truly, my hope is in him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation.
my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.

Where will following Jesus lead us this year? I don’t know, exactly. I’m beginning to get a glimmer, since City Council approved our affordable housing mission yesterday. All I know for sure, though, is that I don’t want to be a hired hand, and I don’t want to let my anxiety about where we might be headed get in the way of making the only trip in life that truly counts: the one in which we follow Christ Jesus.

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Sermon 1/14/2018 “Are your ears tingling yet?”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: 1 Samuel 3:1-20
Day: 2Epiphany 2018 (Year B)

“Are your ears tingling yet?”

In our first lesson today, the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”

Have you ever heard of God accomplishing something that made both of your ears tingle? What would God have to do to make your ears tingle?

And how would God accomplish ear-tingling things?

I have a theory, so listen up!

When I was a teen-ager, Saturday morning was chore day. And my siblings and I always wanted to sleep in. That’s when my father would turn on his stereo system, the one he’d wired with speakers throughout the house, and crank this Imperials song up at full volume:

Did you ever hear God, speaking to you,
saying “I got a job to do,
and I’ll sure be needing you,
if it ever gets done?”

And, apparently, God had a dirty job for Samuel to do: God wanted the boy to tell his mentor that he was to become judge in Eli’s place. Why did God want to oust Eli? Not because he was old, although he was. Not because he was blind, although he was. And not because Eli’s sons, both priests themselves, were evil—although they were. God was replacing Eli with the boy Samuel because Eli knew his sons were committing grievous wrongs in the Temple and Eli hadn’t done anything about the situation.

Something of the sort happened to the boy Samuel in our first lesson today. Like me and my siblings, Samuel also was living in a place of privilege: The Lord’s House. In my case, our house was literally attached to the church. There was a door on the back wall of the altar that led into our living room. In Samuel’s case, his barren mother had promised to give her first-born to the Temple if God would give her a child. That child, Samuel, was now 11 or so, we reckon, and he was servant to Eli, the High Priest and next-to-last Judge of Israel. Eli slept next to the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple, whereas Samuel slept next door.I would bolt awake, sit upright in bed, each and every week, with groans and rolling eyeballs, to the realization that the Powers That Be—at least in my household—wanted something from me. And there was that not-so-subtle reminder, somehow, that I owed my very existence, not just room and board and clothes and everything else—to the one who had given me life.

So, God spoke to Samuel. God called to Samuel. God had a job for Samuel to do. The reality is, God is always calling us to do things that should make people’s ears tingle. God apparently had called Eli to deal with his evil sons. But Eli let God’s word “fall to the ground.” Now God was calling Samuel. God spoke directly to him in a voice Samuel knew and trusted, a voice so much like Eli’s voice that Samuel got up and ran to Eli over and over again to see what his mentor wanted.

This child was willing. No groans. No eye rolls. Samuel just went to Eli, who finally recognized what was happening and told Samuel what to do. “When God calls again,” Eli said, “say, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’”

Listening to what God wants, when God speaks, is step one of three in the three-step process of becoming the hands, voice, and heart of God in our community and in our world. Step one is listening. And here are a few hints in addition to Eli’s instruction about how to listen for what God is calling you to do: Slow down. Sit down. Lie down. Turn down the volume. Turn off whatever’s on. Then say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Step two is deciding. Is this a God-task, or my own idea? Will this task help someone? Will it promote the dignity of others? If we decide it is a God-task, we take the final step: we act.

Notice that deciding whether we are qualified to carry out God’s task isn’t part of the decision process. “God doesn’t call the fit; instead, God makes fit those he calls.” This saying was a great comfort to me during seminary, because the reality is that no one is fit to do what God wants them to do. And if we were somehow already “fit” to do God’s will, we would get confused and think that WE were the ones able to do whatever miraculous task God gives us to do. Ut uh: God calls the un-fit and makes them able to do his work so that we will know, so that all will know, this is something God achieved, not us.

“You want me to clean the toilet, Lord? In the middle of the night? Sure thing; I don’t know why you need it done now, but I’ll get right on it.”

“You want us to build affordable housing, Lord? Don’t you know any developers? Property lawyers? Low-income housing tax credit experts? Younger people? Richer people? What’s that? We have everyone, and everything, needed to do what you are asking us to do? And you’ll keep us together? Well, OK, we’ll give it a shot.”

Throughout, we continue to ask: “Am I still doing your will, Lord, or have I veered off your path onto my own way? Is everything provided to do the task? Do I get more energy, overall, than I give by doing it? Does this task, as hard as it is, give me life satisfaction, if not joy?

So, like Samuel, we get up out of our comfort and we do this hard thing God is asking us to do. And, in the end, whatever comes of our actions to do God’s will, remember this scripture lesson today:

The Lord has acted, and we are but his servants.
Let him do what seems good to him, and
let both ears of everyone who hears of it tingle.

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Sermon 1/7/2018 “Using your superpowers for others”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: Mark 1:4-11
Day: 1Epiphany 2018 (Year B)

“Using your superpowers for others”

I know from our Alexandria Lenten series two years ago that many of you are not Harry Potter fans. In fact, most of you have never read J.K. Rowling’s epic stories about a young boy’s coming to terms with life, which is to say, his discovery of who he is and his need to choose between good and evil.

You may not have been enthralled with Harry Potter, but a whole generation of now-adults were, and they will forever view the world through the lens of this tale.

I was reminded of this aspect of our culture this week, when a much younger friend posted online that he was “deciding how to use his superpowers this year.” We might say he was making his New Year’s resolutions, but in our post-Potter age, that’s not how he sees things. He knows that he has been given gifts (which is to say, he’s been given talents and abilities) that he can use, or not, for good or for evil, to help other people, or merely to perpetuate his own life and well-being at the expense of others.

My friend, by the way, is an administrative law judge in D.C. who funded his move here by winning on Jeopardy multiple times. In other words, he has considerable superpowers to use, or not, for himself or for others.

What superpowers do you have? How will you use them this year? Have you decided yet? How will you use your superpowers in this life? If you don’t yet know, you better get thinking and deciding (or always hold on to the handrail)!

Giotto di Bondone, Baptism of Christ fresco, c. 1305 (Cappella Scrovegni, Padua, Italy, via Wikipedia, public domain

I imagine that a young man from backwater Palestine, a young man named Jesus, might have been asking himself these kinds of existential questions when he sought out John at the River Jordan. WE know that Jesus had the ultimate superpower, that he bore the very essence of God. But did Jesus know this about himself, yet, on this day at this river?

A careful reading of Mark’s gospel suggests that “No,” Jesus became aware of his super-self as his life progressed, as he continually said “yes” to God. I won’t argue this point with you; the alternative could also be true. BUT, there’s no little-boy-Jesus in Mark’s gospel, or any authorized gospel, for that matter, resurrecting dead birds or animating clay figures. THOSE are made-up stories about what life as a boy-God-child might be like. You know, the made-for-TV version of adolescent Jesus, before television existed.

I think J.K. Rowling understood what Jesus’ early life might have been like: like OUR lives, a dawning awareness that we have gifts, a dawning awareness that we can use our gifts for ourselves alone or for others, and the realization that we must make a choice between good and evil, that EVIL IS NOT A MYTH, and that refusing to speak evil’s name somehow gives evil more power.

Jesus never flinched when confronting evil. But his confrontation began, somehow, according to Mark and the other gospel writers, when he arrived at the Jordan River. He came by choice. Like the rest of Jerusalem and Judea, including the spiritually hungry and the merely curious, Jesus came to hear what John the Baptizer had to say. And when John preached repentance and baptism for forgiveness of sins, of course Jesus the Christ chose to participate.

I wish I had a nickel for every word ever written about WHY Jesus, our sinless savior, needed to participate in a repentance ritual. “He was metaphysically washing away the sins of the whole world,” my favorite explanation says. This is a great theoretical answer, and we could discuss for hours on end why, then, if Jesus’ baptism cleansed the whole world of sin, did he have to die on the cross? <long_pause> What we need is A REAL answer, not a theoretical one, for why Jesus chose to be baptized.

Here’s a real answer: Had Jesus not stepped into the water, he would have been saying, “Look at ME, I’m sinless. I don’t need to be baptized. But YOU do.” Instead, he stepped in, let himself be dunked down under, knowing that HE didn’t need repentance waters, but that WE DO. In other words, Jesus led the way for us, showed us the way. He chose living for us, not living for himself. He said “yes” to God, “yes” to good, “yes” to others, and “no” to self. Is there any wonder the heavens literally “split open,” as Mark’s gospel says, and thundered divine approval? Jesus was becoming aware of his identity as Christ, Jesus was using his considerable superpowers in the very way he was sent to do: to show us the way, and ultimately to create that way for us to follow.

We don’t know whether Jesus knew, at that moment, that he would be required to make the ultimate sacrifice, to give his very life for all of mankind. I think not. I think our “yes” choices for good, our choices for God and for others lead us to bigger and bigger chances to use our superpowers in this way. In other words, today’s steps of faith become training for tomorrow’s bigger and bigger leaps of faith.

What’s true for people who are faithful to Christ Jesus is also true for organizations. I’m thinking here of our own Church of the Resurrection. There was a time, when dedicating this building, that our beloved rector Jim Green declared if we ever ran out of money we would jettison the building in favor of helping others. Do you think that having THIS PRIORITY implanted in our very DNA is affecting our priorities now? We haven’t run out of money—far from it, but this priority, implanted deep within our culture, is definitely a factor in our decision-making processes today.

There was a time, for years and years in our history, when we gave away any money with which we were fortunate enough to end the year. The idea was that God would provide for us and, if not, we shouldn’t continue to exist.

Thanks be to God and to you, we are going to end 2017 with a surplus without having to draw on any of the almost $28,000 from savings that we had programed for operations. Are we going to give this money away? You betcha: it’s going to buy food to feed our hungry neighbors through our food pantry. And this will help us manage the uncertainties of our budget for next year, because we were going to feed people first, as a priority.

I wonder what this act will become a training leap for, in our future? Can you hear the heavens opening? Can you hear the voice calling US “beloved?”

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Sermon 1/5/2018 “A time capsule life”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Church of the Resurrection
Text: John 11:21-27
Day: Karl Boughan’s Memorial Service

“A time capsule life”

You are in a time capsule today, a literal time capsule.

You know what a time capsule is, don’t you? A time capsule is something we collect now and leave for people in the future to discover and use. A time capsule is usually intended to give future people (such as archaeologists, anthropologists, or historians) a glimpse into who we are and what motivates us to act the way we do. A time capsule is our intentional witness to the future, if and when we decide to create and leave this kind of witness. Not a legacy, but a witness.

If you were going to create a time capsule, what things and what information would you include? Undoubtedly you would include a photo or video of your family, those you love, and others who are important to you. You might include a recording of the music you love. You might tell what you did to earn a living, and what touched your soul when you got to play instead of work. You might include your conclusions about the purpose of “life, the universe, and everything,” or just why you thought you existed.

Karl Boughan is one of the things (most dear!) we place in our Church of the Resurrection time capsule today. Karl was one of the very best things about Resurrection. He came here, originally, when he was “four days dead,” like Lazarus in today’s gospel lesson. This might sound backwards to you. You might ask me to explain, pointing out that Karl didn’t die until last week. And I will tell you what Karl would tell you, if he could speak for himself today, that when he came here he was “lost,” that he was in that “lost decade” you might have read of in the biography of Karl’s life. He was “four days dead.”

And yet, Jesus loved Karl, just like he loved his friend Lazarus so long ago, just like he loves each of you, and me today: beyond measure. So, Jesus poked Will—a longtime member here, and pointed out to Will that it was cold, and Karl didn’t own a coat. So, Will gave his coat to Karl. Not an extra coat from his closet, but the coat off his back, literally; Will took off his coat and handed it to Karl. Karl was touched, and Karl returned. He didn’t dwell on this part of his story, but he made no secret of it, either. He wanted everyone to know that Christ Jesus calls sinners, not he pure, to repentance, just like he calls dead people, not the living, into life.

This dead Karl I speak of happened a long time ago, you understand. In recent years Karl was vibrantly alive, paying forward all that he had been given: his musical gifts, his love of learning, his awareness that not everyone who appears to be alive really is alive (but can be), that a little help can go a long way in providing hope, his rock-solid belief in Christ Jesus and his deep conviction of life eternal. And, over time, Karl’s belief in a far-away, all-powerful but unknowable God changed into a living relationship with Jesus Christ. He was wise and, for the most part, gentle. He spent a lot of time helping others. Karl wasn’t quite sure how and when it all happened, but something had happened to him over time, and his became a living, daily relationship with Christ Jesus. Not that we Episcopalians talk about such things much; it’s one of our failings. But we sing about them, and every hymn today is one that Karl loved deeply.

Do you believe that you will never die? (I do!) Like Lazarus’ angry sister Martha, who deeply grieved her brother’s loss, Karl believed that Jesus is the Christ and that, through him, he would never die. Karl had already received, had already experienced new life in Christ, you see, right here in this time capsule. Before the surgery to repair the damage to his neck from his fall, the most unimaginable outcome to Karl was not death, but the possibility that he might not be able to sing when all was said and done. And yet, shortly before he died, when he could speak at last, Karl merely expressed gratitude for all that had been done for him.

I pray that God has or will give you the kind of faith that Martha had so long ago, the kind of faith that Karl had. “Yes Lord, I believe that I will never die.” And, I will add, I believe that Karl is singing now, even more gloriously than he ever did here in his earthly life. Which isn’t to say that we are not grieving Karl’s loss. But we know, deep in our hearts, that we can’t really keep Karl in a time capsule. All we can do is rejoice that he found life in this life, before he died, rejoice that we were privileged to know him, and that he found life everlasting.

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