St. Thomas Episcopal Church

We are a welcoming community following Christ through loving service and joyful worship in the Episcopal tradition.

Sermons

All sermons given by the Rector, the Rev’d Dante A. Tavolaro, unless otherwise indicated.

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (29 January 2023). The Scripture readings can be found here

 

The Sermon on the Mount Carl Bloch, 1890 Public Domain

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The Third Sunday after the Epiphany (22 January 2023).  The Scripture readings can be found here

James Tissot, “The Calling of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew (Vocation de Saint Pierre et Saint André)”, 1886-1894, Public Domain

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The Second Sunday after the Epiphany (15 January 2023).  The Scripture readings can be found here

Ottavio Vannini (1585-c. 1643), “San giovanni che indica il Cristo a Sant’Andrea,” Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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The First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord (8 January 2023).  The Scripture readings can be found here

Baptism of Christ fresh by Giotto di Bondone, c. 1305 (Cappella Scrovegni, Padua, Italy), Public Domain

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The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus (1 January 2023).  The Scripture readings can be found here

Circumcision of Christ. Menologion of Basil II, Public Domain

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The Nativity of our Lord: Christmas Day (25 December 2022). The Scripture readings can be found here

Taken by the Rector before the 8am service on Christmas Morning 2022.

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The Nativity of our Lord: Christmas Eve (24 December 2022).  The Scripture readings can be found here

Photo taken by Rector during the singing of Silent Night at the 7pm liturgy on Christmas Eve 2022.

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The Feast of St. Thomas (21 December 2022).  The Scripture readings can be found here

Simone Martini, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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The Fourth Sunday of Advent (18 December 2022). The Scripture readings can be found here

Antonio Ciseri, Il sogno di San Giuseppe, 19th century, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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The Third Sunday of Advent (11 December 2022). The Scripture readings can be found here

Giovanni di Paolo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent (4 December 2022).  The Scripture readings can be found here

St. John the Baptist, 14th century. Public domain

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Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent (27 November 2022).  The Scripture readings can be found here

Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost (20 November 2022).  The Scripture readings (track two) can be found here

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Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost (13 November 2022).  The Scripture readings (track 2) can be found here

James Tissot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Sermon for the Sunday after All Saints’ Day (6 November 2022).  The Scripture readings can be found here

Fra Angelico, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (30 October 2022).  The Scripture readings (track two) can be found here

Zacchaeus by Niels Larsen Stevns. Jesus calls Zacchaeus down from his height in the tree. Public Domain

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Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (23 October 2022). The Scripture readings (track two) can be found here

The Pharisee and the Publican by Gustave Dore (1870), Public Domain

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Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (16 October 2022).  The Scripture readings (track two) can be found here

Interior photo of St. Thomas Church, 1892.

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Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (9 October 2022).  The Scripture readings (track two) can be found here

Francis preaching to the birds. Public Domain

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Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (2 October 2022).  The Scripture readings (track two) can be found here

Parable of the Mustard Seed, etching by Jan Luyken, Public Domain

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Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (25 September 2022).  The Scripture readings (track two) can be found here

Meister des Codex Aureus Epternacensis, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (18 September 2022).  The Scripture readings (track two) can be found here

Parable of the Unjust Steward, etching by Jan Luyken, Public Domain

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Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (11 September 2022).  The Scripture readings (track two) can be found here

Parable of the Lost Drachma, etching by Jan Luyken.  Public Domain

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Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (4 September 2022).  The Scripture readings (track two) can be found here

Onesimus returns to Philemon with Paul’s letter in his hands. Public Domain

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Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (21 August 2022). The Scripture readings (track two) can be found here

Christ healing an infirm woman on the Sabbath, James Tissot, Public Domain

I once had a youth group member who loved asking questions.  Without fail, every time I saw her she would approach me with a litany of questions about our faith.  No exaggeration, upon my return from 6 weeks of medical leave she handed me a notebook entirely full of questions.  While at times a little overwhelming, I cannot begin to tell you how excited our Q&A sessions made me.  I loved working with her, engaging the complicated multifaceted questions she would articulate.  It was amazing to watch her try to make sense of the world around her.  She has a relentless desire to understand, a hope to untangle the messiness around her, to find logic in a human experience that can seem illogical.  In each conversation, she would inevitably offer a rather frustrated, “But, why?!” At that point there were no answers only more questions. 

For generations people have struggled with why questions.  With questions that are often messy, have complicated answers, and can leave us feeling challenged and defensive.  These questions can be invitations to discover something new.  These why questions and their unexpected responses are woven through the lessons we hear today. 

We meet the Israelites at the end of their journey in the book of Isaiah.  At this point in their story they have returned from the Babylonian exile.  While they have returned home after generations of wandering, things are not as they had hoped they would be.  Instead of freedom to enjoy life as they once knew it, they found themselves oppressed.  After so many years of waiting they still ask, “why have God’s promises not been fulfilled.” 

In their frustration they begin to turn away from God.  They blame each other for their problems, they speak hurtful and evil things about their neighbors.  They are forsaking the way of life they have know in vain search for something else that will yield easy answers. 

How often in our impatience do we act like the Israelites?  How often do we blame one another when things do not go as we hope?  How often do we reacted with unchecked emotions instead of taking time to thoughtfully consider a situation?  How often do we turn inward, thinking we can go it alone without God or anyone else by our side? 

This morning we hear from the Prophet Isaiah God’s call to the people.  We hear God offering an invitation to turn back towards God – to forsake the selfish ways they have developed and remember the covenants they have made.  

If the Israelites refrain from blaming others, if they stop speaking evil, if they reach out and care for those in need, if they delight in God then, and only then, will their suffering end.  Then their light shall rise in the darkness and their gloom be like the noonday. (1) For it is only by living into the fullness of their covenanted relationship with God that they will experience the liberation they desire. 

The people of Israel are not the only ones with lingering why questions this morning. The congregation to which the Letter to the Hebrews is written have their own whys to contend with. 

This community is comprised of the second generation of Christians.  This is a community weary of waiting, who have witnessed their companions die without seeing the second coming of Jesus which they expected at any moment.  Not only are they waiting far longer than they ever imagined, they are experiencing increasing levels of persecution.  As things progress they grow evermore isolated from the society around them.  They ask in anguish, “why is this happening to us?”  

That might be the why question we connect with most of all.  Why is this happening to us?  Why do we suffer?  In the midst of pain we frantically search for answers that will make sense of all that we experience.  

What we hear today builds upon what we have read in recent weeks.  Today the writer is saying to the people, if all these faith hall of famers can stay faithful to God so can you.  For they too suffered, they experienced anguish, and they persisted.  To their why questions the writer responds with a question of their own: will you stay faithful, or will you turn your back on God? 

Sometimes in the midst of our questioning, as we seek to make sense of things, we find ourselves speaking out of defensiveness.  When we find someone pushing against established rules and order, breaking customs and traditions, our questions can come from a place of anger – especially if we feel their behavior is taking power and control away from us. 

Following the healing of a woman on the sabbath, Jesus is met by the leader of the synagogue who was absolutely outraged.  He was enraged not because Jesus healed this woman, but because he did so on the sabbath.  

This leader has been tasked with maintaining the traditions and customs which have been handed down to him.  With intention and sincerity he is trying to live his faith and lead his community with integrity.  Even with our best intentions, sometimes we can loose sight of what our traditions are actually all about. 

The sabbath is a gift from God to the people of God.  It is a hallowed day of rest on which no work is done.  Remembering the sabbath and keeping it holy is one of the ten commandments, it is part of the covenant God made with the people of Israel all those generations ago.  Knowing all of this, when the synagogue leader sees Jesus breaking the sabbath he cannot help but cry out, “Why are you doing this?!”  

Jesus rebukes the leader and invites all those around him to be learn the true answer to the question “what is the sabbath?” 

In healing this woman, Jesus gives a glimpse of the kingdom of God – a kingdom where all people are set free of the things that hold them down, that oppress them, that cause any sort of illness or suffering.  In God’s kingdom the relief of suffering, the liberation of the captive, are not held off until tomorrow, they done immediately.  Sabbath is a gift of freedom.  

All of the questions asked today, in one way or another, seek to understand our relationship with God and how God acts in the world.  All of these questions point to a single answer – worship God.  

As the Israelites are called once more to draw near to God, they are reminded that the way they live into their relationship with God is through honoring God in worship and praise.  Through worship they will experience the liberation they desire.  Worship is the way of returning to God when we have fallen short and not lived into covenants we have made with God. 

The passage from Hebrews concludes with a command to worship.  They writer says, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.” (2)

Relationship with God is not something to be entered into lightly, and the same is true of our worship.  If we dare to be in relationship with this all powerful, all knowing, awesome God then we must take this relationship more seriously than any other.  As worship is our entry into this relationship, we must enter worship with all seriousness, care, and intentionality. 

In all of today’s lessons there is one person who truly understands the magnitude of encountering God and how to appropriately respond. 

We hear little about the unnamed woman in Luke.  She does not say a word, and she only does three things: she appears, she stands upright, and she praises God.  She recognized that without asking for it, she has entered into a profound relationship of liberation with God; and the only response is to shout for joy and offer praise. 

Through worship our lives are broken open, through worship we are called to go out and care for all people in need, through worship we are prepared for kingdom life.

This is the very heart of who we are, the most important thing we do. We gather to worship together, to celebrate the Sacraments with one another, to keep the sabbath.  We come to this place for solace and strength, for pardon and renewal.  We come to this moment where past, present, and future all align as the generations sing their unending hymn of praise.  We come together to experience true and lasting relationship in and through our Redeemer.  Let us always gather together offering our prayer and praise to God, opening ourselves up to God’s healing embrace.  

If you have questions, you have come to the right place. For in worship we receive our answers. 

Amen. 

(1) Isaiah 58:10b, NRSV.
(2) Hebrews 12:28, NRSV.

Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (14 August 2022).  The Scripture readings (track two) can be found here

Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / ChurchPOP

When I was working as a chaplain at Rhode Island Hospital my supervisor regularly said to us, “It’s not going to be pleasant, but it’s going to be good for you.” The first time he said it I thought to myself, “what are we a bunch of toddlers refusing to eat our vegetables?”  But as our unit progressed I began to understand what he was talking about.  He used this mantra to encourage us to keep moving forward: to persevere through the difficulties we were experiencing so that we would grow and be better for it.  

It seems to me this is exactly what Jesus is saying to us today: This is not going to be easy, things are going to be difficult, but in the end, if you persist, it is all going to be worth it. 

Today’s Gospel passage opens with words that sound rather harsh: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (1)  If you were not awake before, I suspect upon hearing those words you perked right up.

The Prince of Peace declares that he has come to bring division.  These words should stop us in our tracks.  On the surface they appear radically different than everything we know about Jesus.  I do not know about you but when I hear these words I wonder: is Jesus just having a bad day, is he a bit hangry, or is something deeper going on? 

While we might be savoring these days of summer, Jesus is not enjoying the benefits of vacation.  He is on the road to Jerusalem, he has set his face toward that city which kills the prophets and stones those set to it.  Knowing what lies ahead, Jesus is trying to get his disciples to pay attention so they can be prepared for what’s next.  

Luke’s Gospel, from the very beginning, announces that God is going to become incarnate, God is going to come to us in a form and manner we can comprehend, to bring peace.  This was announced by the angels; foretold in prophecies.  So how it is possible that Jesus now declares that he is not going to bring peace? Were the angels and prophecies wrong?  Or has humanity misunderstood what peace actually means? 

All too often humanity has misunderstood what is meant by peace.  Too often peace becomes synonymous with maintaining the status quo.  Peace becomes the word we use when we really mean, things are going in such a way that we can pretend everything is all right.  Peace becomes the word we use when we are talking about people staying in their lane, knowing their place, not rocking the boat.  

I find it profoundly revealing that the most common charge brought against those fighting for civil rights, for racial justice, for the protection of the LGBT individuals has been disorderly conduct: which is defined as broadly signifying “conduct which tends to breach the peace, disturb those who hear or see it, or endanger the morals, safety, or health of the community.” (2) Those seeking justice, protection, opportunity, and dignity for all people were charged with disturbing the peace, with challenge the status quo, with pushing against the dominant worldview.  The peace which society proclaimed, which cost some the most basic acknowledge of their humanity, it by no means the peace of God. 

In his biblical paraphrase The Message, Eugene Peterson translates the opening of this passage in a way which reveals more clearly what God’s peace is: “I’ve come to change everything, turn everything rightside up – how I long for it to be finished!  Do you think I came to smooth things over and make everything nice? Not so.  I’ve come to disrupt and confront!”

Jesus has come to fulfill those words of the Magnificat, “He has shown the strength of his arm; he has scattered the proud in their conceit.  He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.”(3)  No wonder Jesus announces his message, his ministry, his very life is going to bring division.  Changing the status quo is no easy business.  It is going to cause chaos.  Whenever the cause of justice and liberation is moving strife will follow.  How could it not?  I am sure those powerful ones being cast from their thrones are going to have some feelings about it.  

Jesus further illustrates the coming disruption by talking about familial division.  

The family structure was the fundamental building block of society in Jesus’ day: a microcosm of social reality.  By claiming to bring division that will tear apart the family unity, Jesus is telling those with ears to hear that his mission is going to completely obliterate the current social status.  How we understand who we are is going to change.  No longer will our identity be understood by our lineage, it will now be understood by our connection, our relationship, our unity in the blood of Christ.  After all, Jesus says, when his mother and brothers are trying to bring him home because they think he has lost his mind, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (4)

As harsh as these words might seem, I do believe there is good news.  Provocative news, but good news nonetheless.  Our letter from Hebrews helps us discover the courage to believe this good news. 

This section is often referred to as the “Faith Hall of Fame.”  It recounts the ordinary people who, empower by their faith, did extraordinary things. 

The people receiving this letter need to be reminded of these stories as they struggle to maintain hope.  They need the power of that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before.  They are suffering because of their faith.  They know intimately the division caused by following the ways God; they know what happens when superficial peace is disrupted by God’s peace.  

Look at the unbelievable, impossible things that the faithful have done: “By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land . . . By faith the walls of Jericho fell.” (5) Those who had committed themselves to the household of God, by their faith, “conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, and put foreign armies to flight.” (6) Look at the things achieved when the will of God is abided by, when people of God walk by faith. Look at the things that have happened, that are happening, that continue to happen.  Beloved of God, do not think for a moment that we are called to anything less than the faithful of ages past.  It they can do it by faith, so can we.  

These faith hall of famers were able to see the signs, they saw the seasons change, they made the choice to lean into the difficulty, to walk through that which was certainly not pleasant to receive the good on the other side.  

Just as Jesus reminds the disciples of what happens when the status quo is disrupted, these ancestors are reminders that when we chose to follow the call of God it is possible that we too might face resistance at best and persecution at worst.  Yet, if we persist, it we walk knowing that Jesus has led the way, always going before us and never asking us to endure anything God has not endured first, we can trust that God will provide us with the crown of victory. 

I believe there is something very important that God is calling us to do at this moment.  We are living in a world as fractured and divided as ever.  We are living in a nation, that feels like it is at war with itself.  We read the headlines of violence plaguing our communities, of civil rights being threatened and taken away, of people being targeted by hate – people being harmed because of who God created them to be.  

We at St. Thomas Church embody a way of life, an understanding of Christianity that welcomes the stranger, professes love, and boldly declares that no matter who you are: the color of you skin, who you love, how you identify, you are welcome here.  It is time that more people know the truth of who we are.  It is time for us to figure out how to do a little disturbing the peace of our own.  It is time for us to boldly disrupt the state quo so that we can witness God’s peace prevailing in our lives and in our community.  

Beloved of God let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.  Let us lay aside the delusions of peace that cloud our vision.  Let us follow the way which might be unpleasant in the moment, but will lead us to that good place we long for.  That place where the peace of God which passes human understanding is known by all. 

Amen. 

(1) Luke 12:51, NRSV.
(2) Barron’s Law Dictionary, p.161
(3) The Book of Common Prayer, p. 92
(4) Luke 8:21, NRSV.
(5) Hebrews 11:29-30, NRSV.
(6) Hebrews 11:33-34, NRSV.

Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (7 August 2022).  The Scripture readings (track two) can be found here

Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever had the experience of hearing the exact word you needed during worship?  Have you ever left worship feeling that you have received the comfort, solace, or challenge that your soul craved?  For me, today is one of those days.  Today I need to hear, “Do not be afraid.” (1)

Everywhere we turn there is yet another thing to add to the growing list of fear inducing experiences: domestic and foreign terrorism, environmental catastrophe, rising inflation and pending recession, mass shootings, white supremacy, COVID, and monkeypox – the newest public health emergency.  The signs are all around us.  We see the marks of anxiety and stress on our neighbor’s faces – we see them as we look in the mirror.  Yet in the midst of all this Jesus proclaims, “Do not be afraid.”

But that is not the only important thing we hear God say today.  The words which follow are just as important: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (2) 

How incredibly blessed are we, that in the midst of a time plagued by anxiety, we not only get the reassurance to assuage our fears, but we are also reminded of the profound generosity and love of God.  For the God we profess is not a vengeful God we must appease to avoid divine retribution.  Our God wants nothing more than to bestow upon us the very treasures and graces of God’s kingdom: all that God has to offer, God desires to give us. 

I do not know about you, but when I am reminded of the unfathomable depths of God’s love, I am able to breathe a bit deeper.  I am able to feel that fear and worry, that anxiety and stress melt away. 

Jesus got on to tells the parable of the diligent servants. 

Sometimes this parable is taught in a way that adds to our fear, that says, “here are the things we must do to avoid God’s punishment.”  Too often it is taught with the punchline, be prepared or else.  But that line of thinking clashes with what Jesus tells us is the good pleasure of God. 

This is a parable of invitation, not warning.  It is a parable which teaches the ways we are called to be ready to receive the blessings of God.  Jesus is sharing how we are called to respond to the promise of God, how we are called to be available for the revelation of God in our midst. 

Jesus plainly tells us what we are called to do, “Sell your possessions, and give alms . . . Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit . . . Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (3)

No wonder Jesus begins by saying “Do not be afraid.” This list is intense, it is intimidating, it seems impossible.  

This is where I am grateful that this Gospel passage is paired with today’s reading from Hebrews which begins, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (4)

Just like today’s Gospel reading, this passage begins with words of hope in the midst of despair.  This congregation, to whom the unknown author is writing, faces a rather menacing reality.  They have been subjected to prison, plunder of possessions, and most have experienced hostility, ridicule, and shame for being followers of Jesus.  

This letter is a pastoral note for when a communities’ hope is dashed on the altar of reality.  Here is a letter written to combat despair and melancholy, written to encourage these Christians who were having trouble holding onto hope when Christ did not return immediately after his resurrection. Here is a letter that can speak a word of healing to a world left weary from waiting.  This letter shows us how we maintain hope when hope seems to be the most illusive thing; constantly slipping from our grasp. 

How do we hold onto those in the midst of the impossible?  We look to the past, to our ancestors. 

Through Abraham journeying in faith, trusting in God, descendants were born.  God made a promise to Abraham, that he would be the father of many nations – with descendants more numerous than the stars.  For a man who was so old he was as good as dead, this was surely impossible – it is a promise so outrageous, so beyond comprehension, that upon hearing it Sarah laughed.  God also asks Abraham to get up and go.  To leave his land, his family, and everything he has ever known to go somewhere yet to be revealed.  God asked Abraham to do the impossible in the midst of offering’s God unbelievable promise. 

But for God, and with God, nothing is impossible. 

When things seem bleak, when the task at hand seems beyond our capabilities, when the absurdity of it makes us laugh that is when we most need to take the next step forward: trusting that God always gives us the grace to do these things. 

From Abraham we learn that faith is the restless energy that pushes us out the door and onto the road in pursuit of the inheritance God has promised.  Faith is the audacity to undertake a perilous journey simply because God asks us to – not because we know the destination ahead of time.  Faith is the longing that turns our faces towards the distant stars even on the cloudiest of nights.  Faith is the willingness to stretch our imaginations and see new brith, new life, new joy – even when we feel withered and dead inside. 

According to Jesus’ parable of the diligent servants, faith is a posture of active, engaged alertness.  It is the rightly aligned heart, the dressed-for-action body, the lit lamp on a dark night.  It is the willingness to steward a house we do not posses until its rightful owner comes home.  It is the patient ability to wait on a Presences that has not yet arrived, a promise that has not yet been fulfilled.  It is an overwhelming desire to welcome, serve, and nourish Jesus – whenever and however he makes an appearance.  It is the daily business of living on our tiptoes, our eyes on the door, our hands ready at the knob for the Master’s joy-filled arrival. 

Faith is being ready, being willing, being open to receive God however God reveals God’s self to us. 

Today, as is true every time we gather together as the Body of Christ, we are called to be faithful – and being faithful is a tall order.  That is why God says to us, “Do not be afraid.”  That is why God speaks to us words that have been spoken for generations. 

These are the same words God spoke to Zechariah when the angel announced that Elizabeth would give brith to John the Baptist, they are the same words that God spoke to Mary when the angel announced that she would give birth to the Son of God, they are the same words proclaimed to the shepherds when the angel brought tidings of great joy, the words spoken to Simon Peter when Jesus called him to fish for people, to Jarius before his daughter was restored to life from death, to the disciples when Jesus appears to them in his resurrected glory.  These are the words of divine assurance before something miraculous happens.  These are the words spoken to us today.  

I cannot help but wonder, if we only heed these words, what miraculous thing God is about to do in our midst.  I imagine it is nothing less than kingdom of God breaking forth a little strong and a little brighter than before. 

Amen. 

(1) Luke 12:32a, NRSV.
(2) Luke 12:32, NRSV.
(3) Luke 12:33, 35, 40, NRSV.
(4) Hebrews 11:1, NRSV.

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (24 July 2022). The Scripture readings (track two) can be found here

Statue of St. Margaret of Antioch taken at the Convent of the Society of St. Margaret

“Lord, teach us to pray.”  At the outset of today’s Gospel passage, the disciples make this all important request of Jesus.  They have witnessed his life of constant prayer, they know that John the Baptist taught his disciples, and now they want to learn how to pray themselves.  In what feels like one of those rare moments when the disciples actually get what they ask for Jesus, goes on to tell them what to say when the pray.  He goes on to teach them what we know as the Lord’s Prayer.  

But am I the only one who is feels like this is kind of an odd request?  These are all faithful Jewish people.  Prayer is already a part of their life.  So what are they really asking Jesus about?  What are they hoping to learn? 

The answer to those questions comes from how Jesus responds.  The answer is in the words they are to say, “Father, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.” (1) This prayer is all about our relationship with God, about putting our trust in God, that God will provide for and care for us.  This prayer is one which begs for the ushering in of God’s kingdom here and now.  This prayer, what the disciples are searching for, is not about a few words which sound nice that they can memorize, it is about transformation and the creation of a new world order. “Lord teach us to pray,” is another way of saying, “Lord transform our lives and show us how to live.” 

There is a saying in our tradition which captures this idea well.  The phrase is “lex orandi, lex credendi.”  Translated this means, “the law of prayer, is the law of belief,” or more colloquially, “as we pray, so we believe.”  Now my favorite version of this saying is the less familiar expanded version, “lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi.”  As we pray, so we believe, so we live.  No matter the version used this saying, this fundamental teaching in our Anglican/Episcopal way of being, teaches us that what we pray informs our beliefs, and then those beliefs are to inspire how we live in the world. 

When we pray these words Jesus teaches us, we are conditioning ourselves to actually believe them, and then to live in such a way that makes those beliefs known.  As we do this we can trust that God will give us what we need to experience this transformation.  

In the conclusion of today’s teaching on prayer, Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (2)

Beloved of God, when we pray, together and privately, what are we seeking?  What are we asking for? How are we allowing the words we pray each week to transform us; to seep into our bones, into the fibers of our very being?  

This morning I want to share with you the story of a woman, who understood the miraculous power of prayer, and of a community inspired by her witness.  This is the story of St. Margaret of Antioch.

Blessed Margaret was born sometime in the late third century, in Antioch of Pisidia in Asia Minor – in what is now modern day Turkey.  Her legend tells us that her father was a pagan priest, and her mother died shortly after her birth.  Growing up, Margaret was raised by her nurse – a devout woman who taught her about the Christian faith.  As Margaret became an adult she took on this way of life for herself, even consecrating her virginity to God. This was not without consequence.  Margaret, because of her faith, was kicked out of her house and disowned by her father. 

One day the young and beautiful Margaret was espied by a lecherous Roman prefect who subsequently ordered his servants to kidnap her so he could have her as his own.  But there was more to Margaret than met the eye.  The prefect was horrified by her faith, became enraged when Margaret tried to convert him, and so he hard her arrested and put on trial.  Margaret refused to forsake her faith and return to pagan practices.  This was not well received by the court. 

Now here is where things get interesting in Margaret’s story. Like many in that era Margaret was tortured because of her unyielding faith.  Her tormentors attempted to burn her, but the flames left her unharmed.  Then they bound her hands and her feet and tried to throw her into a cauldron of boiling water, but at her prayer the bonds were broken and she stood uninjured.  After this she was returned to prison.  From prison she prayed that God would make her enemy visible to her – and here my friends I feel obliged to paraphrase that oft repeated saying “be careful what you pray for.”  At Margaret’s request Satan appeared before her in the form of a terrifying dragon and swallowed her. She made the sign of the cross, and the cross she was carrying grew enormously causing the beast to burst open.  It is this part of Margaret’s legend that has inspired centuries of believers to view her as a special patron of expectant mothers, but I digress.  Ultimately Margaret, along we many of her converts, was beheaded by Emperor Diocletian in the early fifth century.  

Margaret knew that her faith was so valuable, so important that it was worth giving everything for.  She had found that pearl of great price, that treasure hidden in a field.  She experienced the transformative power of God, and through her prayer received the courage to face all that was placed before her. Through her prayer she was strengthened to always profess the hallowed name of God.  I think it is safe to say that Margaret indeed learned how to pray. 

Blessed Margaret’s witness did not end with her death.  As the Early Church Father Tertullian said, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The seed which Margaret planted has born great fruit. 

Her life and witness in her own day inspired many converts to the faith.  In the fourteenth century she becomes one the Fourteen Holy Helpers – a group of venerated saints whose intercession is believed to be particularly effective against various diseases.  The emergence of devotions to the Fourteen Holy Helpers emerges during a time of endemic of bubonic plague which would become known as the Black Death.  

Then in 1855 the Reverend John Mason Neale, author of many of our beloved hymn texts, founded a nursing order in the countryside of Sussex, England to care for the poor.  This order was the Society of St. Margaret. Within two decades, in 1873, the first Sisters came to the United States.  

In the centuries since their founding, the Society of St. Margaret has been filled with faithful women who have committed themselves to prayer, to allowing their lives to be transformed by that prayer, to listen to God calling them, equipping them, and sending them forth to make the fruit of that prayer incarnate in the world.  From serving as superintendents at Children’s Hospital in Boston through the late 19th century, to founding parochial schools associated with parish churches, to staffing nursing homes, to establishing schools and homes to care for those with physical disabilities in Haiti, to hosting a summer camp in Duxbury, to caring for first responders after the attacks on September 11th, to community organizing for better resources throughout the city of Boston, to offering retreats, hospitality, and spiritual direction to countless people, these women exemplify what happens when we truly believe what we pray – “Father, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.”

Blessed Margaret of Antioch and the Society of St. Margaret are very near to my heart.  13 years ago  yesterday I became an associate of the Society – and no that does not mean that I am secretly a nun. It means that I have promised to be in relationship with the order, sharing in their life of prayer, assisting the ministries of the community, and supporting them as I can.  The depths of love and gratitude I have for these faithful women knowns no end.  They have cared for, and prayed for, and have stood with me through these years.  In fact, the current superior of the order, Sr. Kristina Francis, was here for our celebration of new ministry back.  I have been privileged to witness through them what it truly means to pray. 

This past Friday, many of us gathered to celebrate St. Margaret’s Day – the patronal festival of the society.  We gathered to give thanks to God for the life of blessed Margaret, to be inspired by her witness, and to pray that we like her may have the courage to claim the name of Christian, to persevere in prayer, to have the strength to go forth proclaiming the kingdom of God which draweth nigh. 

Let us join with the disciples in asking Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  May we be inspired by the witness of blessed Margaret to actually believe the words we say.  Through our prayer, may we be transformed, empowered to go forth into the world, proclaiming the hallowed name of God, slaying dragons along the way. 

Amen. 

(1) Luke 11:2, NRSV.
(2) Luke 11:9-10, NRSV.

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (17 July 2022). The Scripture readings (track two) can be found here

As many of you know, I recently spent several days in Baltimore for the 80th General Convention of the Episcopal Church.  General Convention, our triennial governing body, is a fairly massive bicameral legislature.  A typical General Convention is filled with legislative sessions, a tremendous exhibit hall, the Episcopal Church Women triennial gathering, visitors, events, meals, parities, worship, and so much more.  It truly is a marvelous thing to behold.  I will never forget the Sunday worship at my first General Convention in 2006.  Let me tell you, you haven’t sung hymns until you are singing with nearly 10,000 of your closest EpiscoGeek friends. 

As much as I love General Convention, and I really do, I always have a bit of skepticism as I step foot onto the floor of the House of Deputies. You see, there is at least one moment at every General Convention where I get the urge to drop my head in my hands and wonder, what in the name of all that is holy are we doing? Inevitably there are moments of deep frustration when I want to say to my fellow deputies, what does this have to do with the mission of the Church?  By the way, the mission of the Church, as stated on page 855 for the Book of Common Prayer is, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”  Knowing how radically different this General Convention would be due to the necessary COVID restrictions, I found that my skepticism was a bit higher than usual.  

When I walked onto the floor that first morning, something peculiar caught my eye.  For whatever reason, the Diocese of Western Kansas only sent one clergy and one lay deputy to the convention instead of the usual eight – with four from each order.  So the two deputies would not be alone, their bishop sent along three large teddy bears and one life sized stuffed animal Jesus to join them at their tables.  After stopping to take a picture, I continued to my seat, mumbling to my skeptical and cynical self, “well it’s good to know that Jesus is actually here in the House of Deputies.” 

Sadly there have been too many moments where it feels like God is absent from our work, where we get so caught up in our own stuff, in needing to win the debate, that we miss Jesus in the midst of our ministry.  Seeing that stuffed Jesus a few rows behind us always brought a smile to my face.  As cheesy as it might sound, in those moments of deep frustration – and trust me there were many of them, especially when the wifi would crash bring our work to a halt – it was good to turn around, see Jesus, and remember why we were there. 

All too often, as we get caught up in the moment, our attention is drawn inward, and we lose sight of the true motivation for our ministry.  Sometimes while it might look like we won on paper, we come to discover that we actually failed.  

I want to be clear that not everything that happened in Baltimore was frustrating or devoid of the presence of God.  There were several deeply holy moments which moved us to tears, and will stay with everyone present for a very long time.  But that is a sermon for another time. 

The problem of motivational focus is not just a General Convention problem, it is an every community problem. 

I am sure we can all think of moments in our lives, in this community, where we found ourselves doing something with less than stellar motives. I know there have been times when we get so wrapped up in things that we end up making them all about us, instead of about God.  I truly believe that the vast majority of the time this shift is not intentional, and actually comes from a good place. We want to do the right thing.  We want things to go well.  We worry about the future and want to do everything in our power to ensure things keep moving forward.  Sometimes this shift emerges out of fear.  But as that wise mystic Yoda once said, “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”  The fear, the anxiety, the worry are all distractions that take us farther afield from where we have been called to be. 

This is also not a modern problem.  It is a struggle that dates back to the beginning of human existence.  It is a struggle we hear about in today’s Gospel passage. 

Luke tells us that Jesus and his companions have arrived at the home of Martha and Mary.  By the way, in case you are wondering, this is Martha and Mary of Bethany, the sisters of Lazarus, the man Jesus will later raise from the dead. 

We hear early on in the passage that Martha welcomes Jesus into her home. She is engaging in the important ministry of hospitality.  Luke also tells us that Mary, Martha’s sister is present, and she engages in the important ministry of presence.  She sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to all that he has to say.  In these two women we see a witness to the many and varied ministries to which we are called. 

Quickly, however, we discover that Martha is not so pleased that her sister has chosen a different ministry in this moment.  Martha, distracted by all she had before her, goes into the living room, ticked off that she is working alone while her sister lounges at Jesus’ feet.  Martha wants Jesus to put Mary in her place, to compel her to help, so Martha is not doing all the work alone. 

Jesus responds to Martha’s request saying, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (1) Jesus says to Martha, no, I will not force Mary to get up.  She is exactly where she needs to be. 

Too often we reduce this story to be some sort of epic battle between active ministries and contemplative ones; with Jesus ruling contemplatives as the winner. That is not what this is about, and the Greek makes that really clear.  Don’t worry, I am not about to do a Greek word study with you.  

Simply put Jesus is not saying that service is bad, or is somehow subservient to contemplative life. What he is saying is that Mary has chosen well as her focus is on Jesus, while Martha, in this moment, has chosen herself.  Think about the language she uses in addressing Jesus. After using the profound title of Lord everything else is all about her, “my sister has left me to do all the work by myself . . . tell her to help me.”  

When we carry out the ministry of hospitality, ministry of service, ministry of worship with our attention focused on Jesus we have picked the better part.  We have picked like Mary.  And when we are distracted, get resentful because others are not helping, and only focus on the burdens we carry, then we have missed an opportunity, and stand with Martha as Jesus says we did not get things quite right. 

As in all things we will have Martha moments and we will have Mary moments.  We will have moments when it is all about us, and moments when it is truly all about God.  The goal for us is not to win the non-existent battle between different types of ministry, but to remember in all that we do God is to be our focus. 

The next time you find yourself getting distracted and loosing focus on the important things, imagine yourself walking onto the floor of the House of Deputies, feeling cynical, skeptical, and under caffeinated, and catching a glimpse of Jesus out of the corner of your eye. Take a moment to stop, to take in all that you see, before walking away with the reminder that Jesus is in fact here, always and continually present among us.

Amen.  

(1) Luke 10:41b-42.

Sermon for The Second Sunday after Pentecost (19 June 2022).  The Scripture readings (track two) can be found here

Mosaic of the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac from the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Public Domain

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (1)

These words are amongst my favorite in all of Scripture.  Throughout various chapters of my life they have taken on different levels of meaning and importance.  No matter where I have been – even in those moments when I have felt most excluded from full acceptance in the the Church – these words have been balm for my weary soul. 

Paul in writing to the Galatians is reminding them of what truly matters.  He is calling on them to let go of the categorization of people that they have become obsessed with and come to grips with the reality that those divisions are washed away in the waters of Baptism.  

This washing away is not about wiping away identity.  It is not about forcing one group to assimilate into an identity, into a way of life, that is not authentic to them.  This is about something different.

You see there was significant tension in the early days of the Church to figure out who belonged and what was required to become part of the community.  One of the primary questions was effectively, “how much like a Jew does a Gentile have to be in order to be a Christian?”  The early leaders debated fiercely about which Jewish customs and laws the Gentile converts had to follow.  

These debates were about far more than dietary laws.  They were trying to figure out the implications of welcoming a previously excluded people into the household of God.  For if God made promises to Abraham and his offspring, what does that mean for Gentiles who are not natural heirs?  Simply put they are trying to discover how this new thing fits into the salvation history. 

In this passage Paul takes the opportunity to help the Galatians expand their vision. 

Some people tired to develop a systemswhere Gentiles only had to follow some of the laws, but Paul recognized the danger of going down that path.  So instead of playing a game of legal jenga, Paul invites the Galatians to accept an entirely new theology.  He invites them to rethink the system which has guided their lives, letting go of that which was and claiming what could be.  

Rethinking their theology meant seeing that there had been an appropriate purpose for the law, it meant naming that the law was not bad or faulty, but that the purpose it once fulfilled was no longer needed.  That purpose had been satisfied with the coming of the crucified Christ.

In this new way of being, this way ushered into the world through Jesus, we no longer have to force ourselves to take on identities that are not our own.  We come to the waters of Baptism, we come to the Sacrament by which we are incorporated into the body of Christ, the household of God, to have the fullness of who we are affirmed and to discover how are whole selves are invited to share in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  What is washed away in the waters of Baptism is not the gift of identity and authenticity but the painful and oppressive hierarchical systems that say some identities are more valuable than others. 

To experience this incorporation, to accept this new life where all God’s beloved children are welcomed for who they are, means letting go of old ways of understanding.  It means seeing that there was a time and purpose for prior understandings, but a new day is dawning. 

This new day is not just about us, it is also about those around us.  For when we fail to be open, when we exclude others because they do not fit into our laws and customs, when the way they live their lives makes no sense to us, that which is intended to bring life can actually lead to death. 

Luke tells us that Jesus has arrived at the country of the Gerasenses where he discovers a man afflicted by demons.  Luke describes the man’s experience saying: “for a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.” (2) This man, this unnamed man, has been stripped of his humanity, forced to live in the place of the dead.  

No one knows what to do with him.  He was cast off, deemed unfit to be part of the community.  I wonder if the towns people are hoping he finds somewhere else to go so they are no longer disturbed by him. 

This is the exact same thing we do to countless people today.  Whether it is an identity we do not understand, a family structure that is beyond our imagination, generational history we refuse to accept, or the status of someone’s health and wellbeing – people who do not fit into our boxes, who fall outside of our standards of acceptability, who challenge what we have always known are typically cast aside to live life on the margins.  We continue to allow a restrictive binary to prevent us from being one with each other.  

By way of example, this weekend is RI Pride.  Yesterday, Providence was filled with thousands of people from all walks of life, from all different identities and expressions, for a day of celebration. But pride was not always the corporate sponsored party it is now.  Pride started as a riot.  It started when people were pushed beyond their breaking point and demanded that their humanity be acknowledged and accepted.  While we have come a long way, there is still much to do. Earlier this month news broke that a Texas-based hate group was behind an attempted riot at a pride event in Idaho.  Thanks be to God the authorities discovered their plans before it could be enacted.  Not only are we targeted by hate groups, politicians across the country are working to pass laws restricting the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.  When we do not understand, when we refuse to be one, lives can quickly be destroyed. 

What happens at the beginning of today’s Gospel passage is another example of Jesus showing that God’s mission in the world is about expansion.  He engages the unnamed man, he does not toss him aside.  Then Jesus casts the demons out of him and the man is restored.  Jesus gives the man his humanity back. 

When the people from the wider community heard of what Jesus had done, how he cast out the demons and sent them into a heard of swine, they rushed to the scene.  When they discover the man had been healed, they were filed with fear.  They were overcome by the radical change in what they had known.  They could not handle it.  So they ask Jesus to leave. 

What are those moments in our lives when we are so overcome by change that we find ourselves gripped with fear?  When have we asked God to leave us alone, because we could not bear the new thing that God was doing? How often do we find ourselves saying, “can’t we just go back to what we knew before?  It wasn’t perfect, but it worked for us?” 

Before Jesus departs the man begs to follow him.  Having experienced first hand the transformative power of God, he is ready to walk with Jesus.  In what might be a shocking twist, Jesus says no. Jesus does not let this man journey with him.  Instead, Jesus says, “return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” (3)

Jesus calls the man to stay in his community, to be a reminder to the people of all that God has done. To be a tangible witness to the new thing God is doing, and how this way of life offers healing, wholeness, and restoration, to all who dare ask. 

I wonder, if you were to declare to this community all that God has done for you, what would you say? Is there an experience of healing and redemption that you could share?  Has there been a time in your life where you have found inclusion, where you thought only exclusion was possible?  Have you experience this liberating power of being welcomed for the fullness of you who are?  Have you seen what is possible when we let go of old frameworks, accepting the new thing God is doing? What stories would you tell? 

Beloved of God, things beyond our wildest dreams are possible when we step outside of our comfort zones.  Things we dare not imagine come true when we expand the horizons of acceptability and affirm people for the fullness of who God has created them to be.  Things which are nothing short of miraculous unfold before our eyes when we welcome God into our lives.  All we have to do is ask. 

As we have shared in the waters of Baptism so do we share in the call to recognize that this day God is making all things new.  Let us therefore be witnesses to all that God has done and all God continues to do.  Let us share in what God is already doing in this place, working together so that we might all be one. 

Amen. 

(1) Galatians 3:27-28, NRSV.
(2) Luke 8:27, NRSV.
(3) Luke 8:39, NRSV.

Sermon for The First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday (12 June 2022).  The Scripture readings can be found here

In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity, one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Please be seated. 

Today marks the beginning of a new season: the longest in the Church year, which will last until November 27, the First Sunday of Advent.  As we enter this season, which is cleverly labeled, the season after Pentecost, we may find ourselves needing to connect in new ways.  At times the direction and focus of this season might feel lacking, we may wonder what we are supposed to learn and discover in these weeks, and we might even feel as if we are just wandering and meandering until a “real season” starts again. 

Throughout this season, no matter what if the state of our wandering, we would do well to come back to this day.  For I do not think it is an accident that this season begins with the First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday. 

Trinity Sunday is a Sunday unlike any other.  We keep a very particular commemoration: not of a saint, nor of a particular moment in Jesus’ life.  Today we celebrate a theological doctrine – one rightly called a mystery.  More so than any other Sunday today we are invited into the mystery of God. 

Now mystery is a fascinating word, with a plethora of meanings.  It could mean a novel, play, or movie dealing with a puzzling crime, especially a murder, for example.  While CLUE, staring Tim Curry, is one of my favorite movies – I mean seriously how many movies come with a choose your own ending feature – I am fairly certain that when we talk about the mystery of God, this is not quite what the saints of the Church had in mind.  

The best definition is the very first one listed in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.  Mystery, it says, “is a religious truth that one can know only by revelation and cannot fully understand.”  Mystery is a religious truth we can know but never fully understand.  Or as Richard Rohr writes, “mystery isn’t something that you cannot understand – it is something that you can endlessly understand! There is no point at which you can say, ‘I’ve got it.’  Always and forever, mystery gets you! (1)

When we talk about the Holy and Undivided Trinity, when we talk about God who is three in one and one in three, we are talking about that which we can know but never fully understand.  To talk about God, is to enter into a mystery of endless understanding that is revealed to us as we grow in our knowledge and love of God.  

If anyone ever tells you they fully understand the Trinity, do not believe them.  While this might be a rather bold claim to make, no person is able to comprehend – with 100% accuracy and certainty – the nature of God.  We can only understand God, we can only know God, as God has been revealed to us.  The gift of the divine mystery of the Triune God, the beauty of the revelation of God’s self to us, is that it is never complete.  Our journey here on earth, is a continual exploration of God.  It is, to use Rohr’s words, the journey to endlessly understand. 

If you were hoping to get a complete definition and explanation of the Trinity this morning, I am sorry to disappoint you.  I share with you what I know, how God has been revealed to me; what has been revealed to the saints of ages past continuing through the generations until this very moment. 

What I know is that God has been revealed to us in Three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  God who is ever three and ever one.  God who is the source of all life and all creation.  God who is the source of our redemption.  God who is continually active in our lives and in the world.  God who is the very nature of existence.  I can share with you that I know with every fiber of my being that God is love, and God will go to the ends of the world to shower that love upon us abundantly. 

This is one of the reasons why I believe this season begins on a day such as this: because throughout this season we are invited to understand God in new and deeper ways.  Some Sunday school curricula describe this as the green and growing season.  Just as we watch plants and vegetation grow throughout this season in the natural world, here in church – which after today will be adorned with green vestments and hangings – we seek to grow into our life of faith.  All of that growth is rooted in the very nature of God. 

Part of this process is the expanding of our minds and imaginations, not allowing our intellectual limitations to inhibit God.  All language, from the most erudite to the most basic, is but metaphor for God.  So while, the Church for nearly two millennia has professed God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and while all the ways I have described God thus fare are rooted in Scripture and the teachings of the Church, it is important for us to recognize that these words are limited.  These words can never fully capture the divine, and we can easily point to how they fall short.  Just look at our readings from today. 

In Proverbs, we hear Wisdom (generally understood as the Holy Spirit) referred to as female: “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?” (2)  With just one verse – just one three-letter word, the dualistic, binary construction of God that humanity seems to cherish has a crack in its foundation.  If we can expand our understanding to recognize God as female, maybe we can take another step and recognize God as non-binary as gender non-conforming.  If we can expand our understanding of God, then maybe we can expand our understanding of humanity who is made in the imagine and likeness of God as well.  This is just one example of how the language we use influences our understanding. 

Let me be clear that I am not trying to subtly undermine the traditional Trinitarian formula; suggesting we get rid of it, replacing it with something new.  Actually, I believe quite the opposite.  What I do think is that we need more language to describe God, not less.  We need language that is about relationship and does not reduce God to mere functionality, language that is rooted in Scripture, language that is in keeping with two thousand years of Church teaching and practice.  Let us not get rid of the metaphor, let us add to it. 

As we journey through this season, if you discover images of God in Scripture that resonate with you – brilliant.  Explore those, pray with those, wonder and discover how God is revealing God’s self to you through our sacred text.  And, if you come across stories, which express images that disturb or upset you, fear not.  Wonder what it being triggered for you in that reflection, while knowing that if the metaphor does not work for you, it is okay to find a new metaphor. 

This is Sunday is so important, not because we should scramble our minds over divine math problems, or because it is fun to walk the fine line between orthodox and heretical thought, but because it invites us to seek out the continual revelation of God in our midst, to endlessly understand the greatest mystery of all.  This Sunday is so important, because after all the amazing feasts we have celebrated – Easter, Ascension, Pentecost – this is the day we are invited into the story; absorbed into God.  Today we are invited to bind to ourselves the very name of God – and with that name comes all of creation: all that ever was, and all that ever will be. 

One of the images to describe God that I appreciate most is defined but the world Perichoresis.  This refers to the relationship that the three persons of the triune God have with one another. It comes from two words: one meaning “around” and the other meaning “to give way” or “to make room.”  It is a word that could be translated as “rotation” or “a going around.”  If you were to do an image search for this word you would discover images depicting three figures connected in a circle, dancing together.  

On this day, after we have seen the breath of God move over the waters of creation, after we have seen God liberate God’s people from systems of oppression and violence, after we have seen the Word of God take on human flesh and move into the neighborhood, after we have seen God walk on water and feed multitudes of people, after we have seen God show us the true meaning of love, after we have seen God turn darkness into light and death into life, after we have seen God open the hearts and miss of a scared group of people empowering and emboldening them to preach the Gospel, now we see God dancing. 

The true beauty of this dance, is that is it not a closed circle.  

On Friday, Br. Curtis Almquist wrote a reflection for the Society of St. John the Evangelist’s daily offering Brother, Give us a Word.  In commented on the word belonging he wrote this, “Imagine God as Trinity, and then go one step further.  Try imagining a fourth person.  We are the fourth person in the circle, a circle of belonging and love.  That is how much God loves us.  That is how much we all belong, we who have been created in the very image and likeness of God.”  

As we enter into this new season, that might be the most important take away of all.  God, who is in relationship with God’s self, longs for us to join the circle.  God is reaching out to us, calling us to join in the dance which began before the foundation of the world. 

Over these next many weeks, may we grow in the knowledge of God, may our hearts and imaginations be moved by the miraculous, wonderful, mystery of God, and may we join with God always working to make the circle wider. Let us joyfully enter this green and growing season, discovering what God has in store for us next. 

Amen. 

(1) Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, (New Kensington, Whitaker House, 2016) 27.
(2) Proverbs 8:1, NRSV. 

Sermon for The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday (5 June 2022).  The Scripture readings (Acts as first lesson) can be found here

Pentecost Icon, public domain

Change is never easy. In fact, it seems most people are so uncomfortable with change that they will do whatever necessary to prevent it from happening.  Over the years I have witnessed people going to significant lengths to sabotage the new thing that is emerging, because they are so gripped by the fear of change.  By the way this is just as true for communities as it is for individuals.  After all, how many times has the phrase, “but we’ve always done it this way” echoed through parish halls in Episcopal Churches all across this land? 

It can be incredibly scary when we are confronted by new possibilities and opportunities.  It can be scary when we are forced to consider perspectives that we have never dreamed of.  It can be scary when we must take a new path, because the one we have been traveling on is no longer viable.  

When we hold on to something so tightly, in fear of losing it, we might just discover that our grip suffocates instead of preserves.  If we are able to let go of our fear, if we are able to hold our hands open allowing for growth and transformation we might find that the thing we have been most afraid of is the thing we have needed all along. 

Pentecost, the feast we celebrate today, is an occasion that invites us to be mindful of our grasp. For if we insist on seeing this day as we always have, we will miss out on the life it has to offer. 

Growing up, Pentecost was one of my favorite days in the life of the Church.  Now this excitement had nothing to do with any liturgical pageantry, the Scripture readings, or the fact that many wore red that day.  It had everything to do with coffee hour.  

You see the parish I grew up in celebrated this principal feast day as the birthday of the Church.  Coffee hour therefore, was just one big birthday party.  There were balloons, we sang, “Happy Birthday,” and we blew out candles on not one, but twelve birthday cakes.  My foundational experiences of Pentecost were happy, joyous, sugar fueled parities.  As fun as that was, that is not what Pentecost is actually about. 

When we listen to today’s Scripture readings: especially from the Gospel of John and the Acts of the Apostles, fun and laughter are not the words that come to mind.  The Scripture readings actually speak of intense intimacy, unsettling peace, terrifying transformation, subversive behavior, and unceasing fire.  Now I do not know about you, but I know I have never experience a coffee hour or birthday party characterized by those words. 

What we just heard from John’s Gospel is a testimony to the profound intimacy of God.  Just as we heard last Sunday, we hear again today that Jesus and the Father are one.  That God the Father sent Jesus, who is God the Son, into the world, that all people might come to believe and know God.  With God coming into the world, with the incarnation, came a promise that God would dwell with God’s people forever: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.”  (1)

This Advocate is God the Holy Spirit. So when God the Son is no longer physically present among us, God the Holy Spirit comes to be present to dwell with us.  This is the abiding Spirit that will reveal to us everything we need to know. 

Building upon the reiteration of the promise of the Advocate, today’s passage concludes by jumping ahead a few verses so that we might hear Jesus say, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (2) Jesus invites them to let go of their fear as they prepare for this significant transition in their life and ministry.  He knows what lies ahead will not be easy, it will scare them, because the peace which he gives them is peace that changes everything we think we know.  It is peace that unsettles all that has become stagnant and transforms it to the way God intended in creation.  When we pray for peace, this is what we pray for.  We pray for the marvelous peace of God which will transform our lives.  This transformation is at the heart of the Acts of the Apostles. 

In Acts we hear of the flashy, intense, and action packed descent of the Holy Spirit on God’s people.  “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.”  (3) These closet followers of Jesus were back in that upper room, having witnessed Jesus’ ascension trying to make sense of what comes next.  The way things had always been, could not be the way things remained.  

Then all of a sudden, there came the sound – something like the rush of a violent wind.  How completely terrifying.  They were in the place they thought was safe, only to be overwhelmed by a deafening and violent sound that seemed to come out of nowhere.  God the Holy Spirit did not descend upon them like some cute little bird making a soft landing after gliding through the air.  The Holy Spirit came crashing in shattering they way things had always been – opening up a new way of life. 

This transformation, this descent of God, was not something to be confined to those in the house, but quickly spread throughout Jerusalem.  We hear that a bewildered, amazed, and astonished crowd gathered to figure out what was going on.  As each person heard the mighty acts of God proclaimed in their native tongue those feelings only intensified.  Some tried to figure out what had happened, while others mocked and scoffed – writing off this transformation as if the apostles were just a bunch of drunken fools. 

As the chaos continues to unfold, Peter steps up, begins to preach, and explains to the people what is happening.  “Indeed, these are not drunk, as you supposed, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.  No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel.”  (4)

When I stop laughing at Peter’s insistence that the twelve could not be drunk because it is nine in the morning, I cannot help but wonder more seriously, what would it take for the world to be so surprised, bewildered, astonished, and amazed by our actions that the only logical conclusion would be that we have had a little too much to drink a little too early in the day? 

What would it look like if we stepped outside our perceived houses of safety and proclaimed the righteousness of God to the world around us?  What would it look like if we – as exemplified in Paul and Silas last week – praised and worshiped God in such a way that walls came crashing down?  What would it look like if we actually believe that “a hundred men and women turned the known world upside down,” even more to the point, what if we believe that it could happen again? 

This is why the Holy Spirit descends on that Pentecost day, and this Pentecost day, in such a terrifying and startling way.  Beloved of God I need you to believe me when I say that the Spirit of truth dwells in us so richly that if we truly grasp the power God has bestowed upon us we could do greater things than Jesus himself. 

If the Pentecost event teaches us anything it is that the problems and struggles of this world are no match for the power of God.  If one hundred people turned the known world upside down – why can’t we, at the very least, turn Greenville upside down?  If the prayer and praise of Paul and Silas casts down the prison wall, why can’t our prayer and praise break down the walls and barriers that divide the beloved children of God?  

The only reason these things seem impossible, the only reason we might scoff and say that was then this is now, the only thing that stops these words from becoming reality is us. 

It is our hardheartedness, our negativity, the walls we construct around ourselves to inhibit God from entering into our lives – these are the thing that stop us.  It is the ways we fail to practice generosity with our time and with our treasure, the ways we refuse to enter worship and prayer fully, the way we doubt that prayer can even work.  

The Spirit of God is the same now as she was then.  The only thing that is different is us. 

In a few moments we will renew our Baptismal Vows.  We will recommit ourselves once more to a way of life which emerges out of this Pentecost moment.  Together we will promise to continue in the apostles teaching and fellowship in the breaking of the bread and in the prayer – we will promise to pray together, to study Scripture together, to celebrate the Sacraments together.  We will promise to persevere in resisting evil, and when we sin to repent and return to the Lord.  We will promise to proclaim by word and example – to talk the talk and walk the walk of our Fatih.  We will promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons – to stop being mean, to stop tearing people down and instead build them up.  We will promise to strive for justice and peace – promising to work together until every unjust system in our world has come crashing down.  I beg you to take these vows seriously – not only for yourselves, for the sake of the community, but for the sake of the world and the Gospel. 

Having renewed these promises, having been nourished by the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood we will be sent forth from this place as a living Pentecost moment: to share in the intense intimacy of God who is three in one and one in three, to be unsettled by the peace of God and shaken from our complacency, to stand unafraid of the awesome transformational power of God, to act in a way that is so subversive to the ways of this world that people think we are drunken fools, and to share the light of Christ that the world will be set aglow by the fire burning in the depths of our souls.  

“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophecy and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” (5) It is time for us to prophecy, it is time for us to dream.  

I wonder, one year from now, when we gather again to celebrate the Day of Pentecost, will we be able to look back and point to the transformative work of God in our lives and in our community?  Or will we continue to be stuck, frozen by the fear of change, trapped in the grip of the way things have always been?  Today we have a very important decision to make.  Will we receive the power of the Holy Spirit or not?  What happens next is up to you? 

Amen. 

(1) John 14:15-16, NRSV.
(2) John 14:27, NRSV.
(3) Acts 2:1-2. NRSV.
(4) Acts 2:15-16, NRSV.
(5) Acts 2:17, NRSV.

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter: The Sunday after Ascension Day (29 May 2022).  The Scripture readings can be found here

This has been a wonderful week here in the parish. The Church Mouse had another great week, the School for Discipleship is getting ready to launch its next study, and we threw one awesome party. 

This past Thursday we welcomed Bishop Knisely, people from around the Diocese, and those from beyond our tradition into our community to celebrate with us as we begin a new chapter of shared ministry.  The liturgy was glorious, the food outstanding, and our outdoor bistro blew people away. 

In light of our celebration I have been reflecting on what is next for us – reflecting on where we go from here.  It seems to me what happened on Thursday set the path we must follow. A path which begins with the Ascension. 

There is an old story told by the desert fathers.  Now no one really knows where the story comes from, but some say that St. Anthony told it to St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory of Nyssa told it to St. Basil and Gregory Nazianzus as they sat around the campfire.  I will confess that I do not know the facts behind the story, but I know this story to be true.  Following in the footsteps of those great theologians from ages past I want to tell your an Ascension campfire-story: 

As Jesus began to rise, John just could not bear it.  He reached up into the cloud and grabbed a hold of Jesus’ right leg refusing to let go!  To make matters worse, when Mary saw John’s plan, she too, jumped up, and grabbed hold of Jesus’ other leg.  His glorious exit ruined, Jesus looked up into heaven and called out, “Okay, Father . . . now what?” 

A voice came out of the clouds, deep and loud like the rumbling of thunder in the distance.  “Ascend” the voice said. 

So Jesus continued to rise through the air, dangling John and Mary behind him.  Of course, the other disciples could not bear to be left behind either, so they too jumped on board, and within moments there was a pyramid of people hanging in mid-air.  Then, before anyone really knew what to do next, all kinds of people were appearing out of nowhere – friends and neighbors from around Galilee, people who had heard Jesus’ stories, people whom he had healed, people whom he had fed.  They too, refused to be left behind, so they made a grab for the last pair of ankles they could see and hung on for dear life.  

Above all of this scuffling and scrambling the voice of God kept calling out, “Ascend!” 

But then suddenly, from the bottom of the pyramid, there came the piping voice of a small child. 

“Wait” he shrilled, “I’ve lost my dog! Wait for me!”  But Jesus could not wait.  The little boy was not going to be left behind, and he was determined that his dog was coming with him.  So, still holding on with one hand, he grabbed hold of a tree with the other, and held on with all his might.  For a moment, the whole pyramid stopped dead in the air, but Jesus could not stop.  The ascension had begun, and God was pulling Jesus back up to heaven.  

It looked as if the tree would uproot itself, but then the tree held on, and it started to pull the ground up with it.  The soil itself started moving up into the sky.  And hundreds of miles away, where the soil met the oceans, the oceans held on.  And where the oceans met the shores, the shores held on.  All of it held on. 

As Jesus ascended into heaven, he pulled all of creation – everything that ever was, everything that is, everything that will ever be – Jesus pulled it into heaven with him. 

This story uses beautiful imagery to express the idea of Divinization – and no I am not talking about a class they teach at Hogwarts.  Divinization is a theological concept expressed by St. Athanasius: the teaching that the divine becomes human so that human can become divine.  It is the belief that as Jesus ascends into the heaven – he elevated our mortality that we might become divine.  He brings our humanity to dwell with God for all eternity.  What happens in the Ascension completes what began with the incarnation – and no, that does not mean you can keep your Christmas trees up until the 40th day after Easter.

In the incarnation God stoops down to earth taking on the frailty of human flesh.  God comes to be present among us, to set us free, showing us how we are called to live.  In the ascension God takes the fullness of our humanity, elevating our sinful nature to the place it was intended to be from the very beginning of creation.  This is nothing less than the very act of our salvation.  

Our shared ministry is rooted in the tremendous power of the Ascension.  What started out as an answer to alleviate a scheduling conflict resulted in creating a path forward for this next chapter in the history of St. Thomas Church. 

We are part of that great pyramid of people ascending with Jesus, and it is our call to ensure that others are able to come along too.  It is our responsibility to make room for others, extending a hand or ankle as the case may be, that all people will have something to grasp on to. 

Our celebration of new ministry was one of those rare occasions in my life where I got a glimpse of what the Church is supposed to be about.  People from all different backgrounds and identities coming together to celebrate. There were life-long Episcopalians present and people who have not stepped foot in a church in ages.  Yet here, on Thursday night, we all came together.  We broke more than one kind of bread together.  

After seeing that glimpse of what is possible, I believe – now more than ever – we must work to make sure that that experience is not just a rare glimpse, but our ever present reality.  We must do the hard work of educating ourselves so that our ideals and aspirations can be put into action.  We must work together to so that as people arrive they find a safe and welcoming environment.  That means we have to challenge those places of discomfort in our lives – to name the identities and family structures that might make us uncomfortable and work together to overcome those challenges.

Scripture tells us that as Jesus ascended into heaven the disciples were gazing upward watching the event unfold.  When two men suddenly appear and question them, their trance is broken, they check back into reality, and accept that they must be on their way, going forth to do all that God has called them to do. 

Given the state of our world, we might be tempted to stand here gazing towards heaven – we might find ourselves stuck.  Over the last three weeks we have witnessed mass shootings in a church, in a grocery store, and in an elementary school.  We have been filled with anger and grief at these atrocities as we continue to feel all manner of emotions and responses to the coronavirus pandemic, war around the world, and the uncertainties and difficulties of daily life.  But, continuing to gaze up at the sky is not a luxury we – or the world – can afford. 

Rooted in the Ascension, our shared ministry calls us to immerse ourselves into salvation history, committing ourselves to join in the work God is already doing.  If 100 people could turn the known world upside-down on Pentecost, why should we expect anything less of ourselves than to turn Greenville, to turn Rhode Island upside down.  We must strive for justice and peace.  Putting our faith into action so that the gap between the intention of God in creation and the reality of the present moment might narrow. 

Let us gaze heavenward only briefly, seeing the glory of God revealed as the star which lights our path.  Just as the wise men followed the star to the crib of the new born king, may the light of the Ascended Jesus illuminate our way that we might discover God in the world now.  As we follow the light may we share the good news of our faith, sharing God’s love, peace, and truth with a world in desperate need of all three. 

On Thursday members of this community and representative clergy of the diocese presented me with various symbols of the ministry entrusted to my care in this place.  But this new ministry is not just about me.  As the saying goes, it takes two to tango.  This morning I want to induct you for ministry in this place.  Here are the things I believe necessary for that which has been entrusted to your care. 

People of St. Thomas, accept the Word of God, and share in the proclaiming of the Gospel.  

People of St. Thomas, come and worship that we might be rooted in prayer. 

People of St. Thomas, tell the world of what you have experienced here and invite others to come and see. 

People of St. Thomas, be present in the work and ministry of this place. 

People of St. Thomas, share the gift of laughter that we might know joy together. 

People of St. Thomas, shed tears together that we might support one another though frustration and grief. 

People of St. Thomas, join in our parish studies that we might expand our minds and imaginations to see more fully the gift God made known to us in our neighbors.  

People of St. Thomas, receive the bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ, that we might be transformed into Christ’s Body for the world. 

Let all these things be the signs of the ministry which is yours and mine in this place. 

Thank you for calling me to be the 9th Rector of St. Thomas Church.  Thank you for trusting me to share ministry with you, and lead our community into what is next.

We are in a moment of tremendous uncertainty not only for this parish, but for the whole Church.  I promise that I will share ministry with you for as long as God calls me to be here.  I promise that I will commit to do the hard work, and I ask that you promise me the same.  Please know that I would not have accepted the call to be your rector if I did not see, and believe in, the promise and potential of our community to do all of this and more.  

The Rev’d Canon Meaghan Brower ended her sermon Thursday night with these words, “I am endlessly hopeful for what will come next.  And I know that together you will live and love generously.  You will share friendship and kindness easily.  You will keep your sense of humor.  You will be full of forgiveness and grace.  And you will stay faithful to one another, to your church, and to your God.”  

It is my prayer that whenever my time as your rector comes to an end, we can look back on all that we have done together and say that Meaghan was right.

Amen.

 

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (22 May 2022).  The Scripture (John 14:23-29) readings can be found here

Jesus saying farewell to his eleven remaining disciples, from the Maesta by Duccio, 1308–1311. Public Domain

I wonder, how many of us are grieving this morning? 

How many of us find ourselves in places where we are grieving the loss of a loved one? Or grieving the end of a relationship?  Or grieving over a diagnosis?  Or even experiencing the anticipatory grief of a pending transition?  Be it from these things, war around the world, the continued weighted of the coronavirus pandemic, or the overwhelming nature of life, I wonder how many of us are carrying tears just behind our eye?  If you are grieving today, then know you are in good company. 

Something interesting happens with our Scripture readings as we move through Eastertide.  Every year in this season we read primarily from the Gospel of John.  In those first Sundays after Easter Day we hear John’s account of a few post-resurrection appearances: we hear about the upper room and Thomas our patron; we hear about Jesus cooking breakfast on the beach.  But as we shift into the latter part of Eastertide it seems as if we have gone into flashback mode.  If the lectionary cycle were a movie, we would be at the part where the music changes to something more nostalgic, where there is a filter over the image giving it an antiquated look instead of the brightness of the present.  

In these last couple of weeks we have gone back to the dedication of the temple, we have gone back to Judas going out into the darkness during the Last Supper, and today we are dropping into the beginning of Jesus’ farewell discourse.  We have gone back to that three chapter long conversation between Jesus and his disciples that takes place after the foot washing and before they move across the Kidron Valley to that garden where Jesus will wait and be arrested.  This conversation contains the last teaching Jesus will do with his disciples. 

This teaching is not some big mountaintop, triumphalist sermon; it is an intimate conversation around a table.  This farewell discourse is intended for his disciples only, not the curious outsider.  The words we hear today are tender, part of a very privileged conversation between Jesus and his closest companions.

While it might seem odd to hear the farewell discourse at the end of Eastertide, instead of a post-resurrection adventure, this lectionary choice allows us to see that even in the midst of Easter worship, grief will cast its shadow. 

In just a few hours from now, from the words we hear today, the disciples’ world will be thrown into total chaos.  Everything they had thought and hoped for will be shattered.  The story of that welcomed happy morning begins with a solemn procession of women carrying out their burial rituals.  Hearing from the farewell discourse deep in Eastertide keeps at the forefront of our minds that the joy and miracle of the resurrection goes hand in hand with the pain, loss, and grief of life. 

This pairing reminds us of those words from St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians: Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?  While death has been vanquished, stripped of its victory, this sting is present in our midst.  So if you find yourself grieving today, remember you are in good company: For grief is one of the prime emotions behind the words Jesus speaks today. 

With the knowledge of what is to come, I have to image that as Jesus gathered with his closest companions that night he experienced the power and depth of grief.  Jesus, fully human, was not exempt from anything that we experience, so how could he not be filled with grief as he says goodbye to his friends – his brothers? 

Jesus knows what awaits him and them, and so he offers them a final gift.  A gentle word to fortify them for what is to come. 

Jesus says to his friends, “listen I have already told you everything you need to know.  But do not worry if you forget things.  Do not stress if you draw a few blanks along the way.  You are getting another guide to journey with you – you are getting the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said.” 

God is fulfilling that along-standing promise to not leave them comfortless.  While God will no longer walk with them in an incarnate way, God will be amongst them in the very breath of all creation.  That very same Spirit which brings life to the world will descend upon them to lead and inspire them. 

After the assurance of the Holy Spirit to guard and guide them, Jesus offers those ever so striking words: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (1)  There is much in these words.  In offering the disciples his peace, Jesus is promising them nothing less than the full magnitude of the presence of God amongst them always and forever; and it is a presence they are going to need as the peace God promises to them, and to us, is not the peace of the world.  To quote Hymn 661, “They cast their nets in Galilee”, “The peace of God it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.”  

The peace of God often comes at a great cost.  It is a peace that causes strife in this earthly world because it is a peace that results after wickedness gives way to righteousness: when oppression gives way to justice.  It is a peace that can bring great fear to the establishment, and cause those striving for it to face grave consequences.  No wonder Jesus pairs his remarks about peace with words of comfort, “do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” They have no need to fear, because everything they need to continue their vocation as disciples has already been given to them.  These are word that can be drawn on as they move into the dark days ahead.  They are words that can bring comfort as they come face to face with their own fear and anxiety – face to face with their own grief. 

This section of the farewell discourse concludes with an invitation from Jesus to keep moving forward.  Continuing on for two verses beyond what is appointed today, Jesus says, “I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming.  He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.  Rise, let us be on our way.” (2)

Jesus says that it is time to keep moving, to approach what comes next in faith not in fear.  Jesus says it is time to allow the glory of God to break into the darkness of the world.  Jesus says rise, it is time to take up the mantle.  

Here, Jesus says to us: Rise. Let us be on our way. Let us be about the hard work to support our community.  Let us be about the hard work of setting the captive free.  To stop the destructive and oppressive forces of the world which wreak havoc on the beloved creation of God. 

The way we are invited to follow is nothing less than the way of the Cross: the way that will lead Jesus to this earthly human death.  The invitation is heavy, but the burden is light for we have been given the peace of God.  We have been given the greatest of all Advocates. 

As we join with the disciples in embarking on this way, in claiming this vocation as our own, we might just discover a plethora of emotions: fear, anxiety, and that seemingly every-present grief in all its forms.  When those emotions strike hardest we must hold fast to the promises given to us: that we will never walk along, that God will not abandon us to the grave to face a hopeless death. 

For those of us grieving this Eastertide, do not step back, do not go away thinking there is no room for you in this celebratory season.  Eastertide, is especially for those who grieve.  This season is meant to break through the fog, to be a beacon of light, to renew our hope, our faith that love has triumphed, that life has conquered death.  This season, this return to Jesus’ farewell discourse, is the reassurance that while things are difficult now they will not be this way forever – for this is not the end. 

In these final days of Eastertide let us boldly face the complexities of life: the convergence of Easter joy and the shadow of death. As we continue our earthly pilgrimages may we hold fast to the faith entrusted to us.  May we hold fast to the miraculous depths of joy ushered into the world through the glories of the resurrection.  May we hold fast to the promise of God, letting go of our troubles, letting go of our fear. 

Amen. 

(1) John 14:27b, NRSV.
(2) John 14:30-31, NRSV.

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (15 May 2022). The Scripture readings can be found here

Domenico Fatti, Peter’s Vision of a Sheet With Animals, via Wikimedia Commons

Pride is one of the seven deadly sins.  In fact, it has been said that pride is the most serious sin, the original deadly sin.  Pride has been deemed the devil’s most prominent trait.  C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity says of pride, “it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.” (1)

That being said . . . which I am sure are reassuring words to hear from your priest . . . I must confess to being filled with a great deal of pride.  But the pride which courses through my soul is not about me, it is about you.  So, here’s hoping, in this case, that it is not so deadly. 

Recently I have had the opportunity to talk about our community with others both within and outside the wider church.  I have talked about what life has been like over these last two years.  I have talked about the desires the vestry expressed at my interviews, decisions we have made together, and the actions we have been compelled to take.  In all of these things you have borne witness to the desire to truly be a house of prayer for all people.  

It fills me with a deep pride for this community that in our nearly two years of shared ministry we have committed to the work of anti-racism, we have stood up for LGBTQ+ people through the parish leadership’s letter of public affirmation to the town council for hanging pride flags at town hall, we have been exceedingly generous in our outreach towards refugees and those seeking to build a home in a new and foreign country.  

In a world where people are using Christianity as a tool for oppression, it is more important than ever to dedicate ourselves to this work. To find new ways to equip ourselves for this ministry, to do the hard and difficult work of education and awareness building so that our actions, our experience here, matches our desires and intent. This, my friends, is the work that Jesus calls all of his disciples to commit to.  This is nothing short of the very work of God.  This is what we witness in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. 

Peter, we hear in today’s reading, is called to see things differently than he has before.  Earlier in his ministry Peter struggled with accepting gentiles into the budding new community of the Church.  Elsewhere he makes clear that converts must conform themselves to the Jewish tradition – including dietary laws and circumcision among other things – if they are to become part of the body.  

At the outset of the lesson we hear that the circumcised believers were criticizing Peter.  They question him about why he was associating with, why he was eating with, uncircumcised men.  They want to know why he was breaking bread with outsiders.  To answer their question, Peter tells them of his experience in Joppa.  

“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision,” Peter says, “There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven.” (2) On this sheet were all kinds of animals that were forbidden for faithful Jewish people to eat, and once the sheet is lowered a voice calls out, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”  (3) For Peter, a man who has lived his life faithfully, this command is incomprehensible.

Peter says in return, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” (4) Peter says that he will not eat for it will violate the rules he has been called to live by.  To Peter’s protest the voice from heaven responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (5)

Following this vision, the Spirit sends Peter to visit a group of brothers who are Gentiles.  While visiting those to whom he had been sent, the Holy Spirit is poured out upon those Gentiles.  Peter remembers what Jesus has taught, what Jesus told him would happen, he recognized that if the Spirit of God has been poured out upon these outsiders, then maybe they are not outsiders after all.  Peter concludes his remarks to those questioning him by saying, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (6) And with that those who once criticized him, come to understand this new thing that God is doing.  They come to realize that the household of God is expanding. 

This story is incredibly important. It is so important that it is actually told twice nearly verbatim.  In chapter 10, a chapter prior to where we are in today’s passage, Luke tells the story of Peter’s vision as it is happening.  Then today Peter retells the story, cluing the reader to the fact that there is something urgent for us to pay attention to. 

Through Peter’s vision, God calls on Peter to do something radically different, something previously thought of as scandalous.  With this conversion moment, Peter not only comes to believe that Gentiles can join this new community without adhering to Jewish law, he also has his understanding of God expanded.  Peter can see that what God is doing in the world is broader than he first thought. 

The call of those who claim to follow God, is to constantly readjust their vision so that they – so that we – might see the new thing God is doing in our midst.  Here we are, in the town of Greenville, praying.  If a sheet was to descend from heaven with that which we deem unclean upon it, what might we find there?  Who might we find there? 

Let us not allow our vision to be clouded so that we loose sight of who God is calling us to welcome into the community. 

If there is any lingering doubt about our call, about the invitation before us to open our eyes and open our communities to those we might wish to exclude, we need only turn to today’s Gospel passage to have the final bit of doubt washed away. 

Today’s Gospel from John returns us to Maundy Thursday.  We are back in the upper room with the disciples, the place they have gone to prepare the passover meal – the final meal Jesus will share with his friends.  In the midst of what is now known as Jesus’ farewell discourse he teaches his disciples by what characteristic others will recognize their connection to Jesus – their allegiance to the Gospel.  

Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (7)

How will people know we are Jesus’ disciples?  By our love. By our refusal to call what God has made clean, unclean. By refusing to give way to the temptation of sin.  By refusing to let our hearts be taken over by hate.  By refusing to let our vision be narrowed, so we can no longer see the glories of God in our very midst. 

If there is to be an integrity in our lives and in our ministries, this must be the founding principal.  We must do whatever it is we can to let the world know that St. Thomas Church is a house of prayer for all people – especially those who have been told they are not welcome elsewhere, that they are unloveable, that they are not beloved of God.  

Throughout this season of Eastertide we have been reading from the Acts of the Apostles.  We have been hearing of how those earliest disciples began putting into practice everything that Jesus taught them.  We have watched as they let go of their fear, taking that brave step to leave the locked room they gathered in during those first hours after the Resurrection. They are now traveling around sharing the teaching’s of Jesus.  Now that Jesus no longer walks this earthly pilgrimage with them, they have become his presence in the world. They now do that which they witnessed him doing: they preach, the teach, they share in the ministry of healing. They even bring life where there was once death.  Just as is true for the whole world, they have become new in the resurrection of God – they are changed.  They are transformed. 

Every year in Eastertide we read from the Acts of the Apostles because we have been given the same charge as those early disciples.  We are called to be Jesus’ presence in the world.  We are now the hands and the feet of Christ.  We are called to preach and to teach.  We are called to heal.  We are called to raise the dead – bringing life to those places which have only known decay. 

Let us pray this morning, even if it is not in a vision producing trance.  Let us pray that God will inspire us to open our eyes, to illumine our hearts and our imaginations that we might witness the new thing God is doing amongst us.  Let us ask God’s grace that our blindspots might be revealed, that we might discover the ways we have missed seeing God at work among us – even in this very place.  

We have done some remarkable things in these last two years, building upon the foundation which had already laid. Let us not grow complacent.  Let us not give up resting on what we have done in the past.  Let us not be weighed down by pride, but let us continually persevere always rising to whatever obstacle is laid before us.  

May God accomplish a new thing in us, just as God accomplished a new thing in Peter.  As a changed and transformed people let us go forth, witnessing to the love of God made known to us in Jesus. 

Amen. 

(1) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (HarperCollins, San Francisco, 2011), 122.
(2) Acts 11:5, NRSV.
(3) Acts 11:7, NRSV.
(4) Acts 11:8, NRSV.
(5) Acts 11:9, NRSV.
(6) Acts 11:17, NRSV.
(7) John 13:34-35, NRSV.

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (8 May 2022). The Scripture readings can be found here

“The good Shepherd” mosaic in mausoleum of Galla Placidia. UNESCO World heritage site. Ravenna, Italy. 5th century A.D., Public Domain

Over the years, I have acquired a rather interesting collection of what can only be described as religious kitsch.  As soon as I began articulating a sense of call to the priesthood my friends took that as license to get me every Jesus themed tchotchke there is.  From toasters that imprint Jesus’ face into your breakfast, to prophet action figures and bobble-head Jesus, to toddler toys called “my first mass kit,” I have been given it all.  Still, all of this experience did not settle my nerves when one of my football friends came up to me on the field a few weeks ago and informed me that he had a gift for me. 

After he ran back to his car, he approached me with giddiness carrying a framed picture.  While I could only see the back of the frame, all 12 by 18 inches of it made me afraid.  With a huge grin across his face, he said to me, “Are you ready?” Before I could respond, he turned the frame around to reveal a lenticular print of Jesus: and, no, that has nothing to do with the season of Lent, lenticular prints are those pictures that change images as you move them.  

I am fairly certain the first words our of my mouth were “Dear God” as I shook my head and laughed.  I took the photo and started moving it around and discovered Jesus at the Last Supper and different images of Jesus crucified. When I regained my verbal abilities, I thanked my friend and made my way to the field.  By the way, during my game he hung the photo from the handle of my cooler so that Jesus could watch over our game (and yes, we did happen to win both games that day).  In the weeks since receiving this gift, it has sat in my home office, leaning against a chair as I try to figure out what to do with it.  

But a funny thing happened this week.  I was moving things around and accidentally knocked the picture over.  As it slid to the floor I saw it from an angle I had not previously noticed.  Shifting between images of the last supper and the crucifixion was the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd.  

In that moment my mocking and eye rolling gave way to reluctant acceptance, for here in that expert level Jesus kitsch was a powerful statement about who Jesus is. 

Situated amidst the Last Supper, when Jesus’ institutes the Eucharist, when he gives his disciples a new commandment to love one another as he has loved them, and the crucifixion, when Jesus demonstrates what that love is really all about, is Jesus the Good Shepherd. 

Today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, a day colloquially known as Good Shepherd Sunday.  On this Sunday every year we hear from John’s Gospel that Jesus is our Shepherd.  Though, it is only in year B, what we read last year, that we actually hear Jesus say, “I am the Good Shepherd.”  Regardless of the exact words today Jesus makes clear that there is a deep and abiding relationship between him and his sheep, a relationship which can never be thwarted nor destroyed. 

At the outset of today’s Gospel passage, those gathered around Jesus ask him, “How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly?” (1) They are trying to make sense of all that Jesus is doing – everything they have seen and heard.  He has been working miracles, a few verse before today’s passage he refers to himself as the Good Shepherd – a role and image which have clear Messianic implications that the people would have recognized.  The crowd is trying to put together the puzzle pieces Jesus has put forth within the context of their faith tradition and they are struggling to make sense of the developing image. 

There is something so perfect about this question.  At least for me, there is something so relatable in the people’s desire for Jesus to be clear and direct.  Let’s be honest, there are plenty of moments in Scripture where it seems Jesus is being vague or secretive.  For example, think about the parables, it is not always easy to make sense of them.  The people have grown weary of guessing, they want a clear and direct answer from Jesus.  Is he the Messiah or not? 

Obviously, Jesus does not answer their question plainly.  He does not offer a simple yes or no answer to their question.  But it might be a good thing that Jesus does not give in to their demand.  

Plain speaking is not always the best option.  Attempting to talk plainly about inherently complex topics, about things which are beyond our understanding, can be misleading to the hearer and even demeaning to the subject of discussion.  This is especially true when it comes to God.  The trouble with talking plainly about the things of God is that the things of God are anything but plain. 

While he does not answer plainly, Jesus does answer this question in a way which honors the complexity of the answer while fitting within a frame work humanity can understand.  Jesus tells them that words alone will not answer their questions, they have to see the answer unfold before their very eyes.  This is a question which can only be answered through experience. 

There is a deeper understanding and connection achieved through experiencing the work of God, through being in the presence of God.  It is something that intellectual discourse can never fully achieve.  This experience is rooted in relationship. 

Jesus says to the crowd, “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.” (2) The sheep know and trust the shepherd, not because they have gone through any sort of rational, intellectual discernment, but because they have experienced the shepherd and his work.  They have experienced his care, his faithfulness, his protection, his love. 

This is in no way intended to diminish the intellectual pursuit of our faith.  After all Jesus says the greatest commandment is this, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (3) Our minds must be engaged in the work of our faith, but our desire to understand must not inhibit our ability to know in our hearts. 

In other words, what Jesus is getting at here, is that his role and identity cannot be reduced to a title described by a simple yes or no.  Instead his role and identity must be experienced.  

We come to know the answer to the question of Jesus’ identity in the way we experience his life and ministry.  We come to know the answer when he demonstrates humble and loving service during the last meal he shares with his friends.  We come to know the answer as we witness his arms of love stretched out upon the cross.

Just as a shepherd knows and understands their sheep, Jesus knows and understands us.  Jesus calls out to us, calling us by name, inviting us to be in relationship with God.  Inviting us to come and experience God.  

As we accept this invitation, as we enter into this relationship, a promise is offered. Jesus say, “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.  No one will snatch them out of my hand.” (4) God reaches out to hold each of us in the palm of God’s hand.  God reaches out to offer care, protection, faithfulness, and love. 

I wonder if right now what we need most is not more words trying to describe the indescribable, but time to consider the ways we experience God in our lives.  Maybe in the midst of war, disease, difficult relationships, political worries, and all the other things that weigh us down, we need to be reminded of that promise.  

I invite you to think about whatever it is that you are holding in your heart right now: worry for the victims of war, fear for those we love with difficult diagnosis, anxiety over the future of our community, and ask God to take hold of them as God holds us. 

The Good Shepherd comes to tend to our needs, to guide and protect us.  The Good Shepherd reaches out his hand, inviting us to turn over our burdens, to follow where he leads, while answering all of our questions as we walk together.  

The thing about the picture my friend gave me, the thing it took me weeks to realize, is that is does what words cannot do.  It captures something of the identity of God, holding together the final days of Jesus’ earthly life and our relationship with our shepherd.  This picture weaves together the answers to the question, “If you are the Messiah, show us plainly.” 

Amen.

(1) John 10:24b, NRSV.
(2) John 10:27, NRSV.
(3) Matthew 22:37, NRSV.
(4) John 10:27-28, NRSV.

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter (1 May 2022).  The Scripture readings can be found here

James Tissot, “Christ Appears on the Shore of Lake Tiberias”, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This past week Charles M. Blow authored an opinion piece in The New York Times titled, “The Pandemic Exposed Our Empathy Deficit.”  In this article Blow offers his reflections on all the things the pandemic has exposed, and how these revelations point to larger issues within our contemporary culture.  He names the collective trauma we have all experienced, while also acknowledging that for a significant number of people that trauma has been compounded with increased hunger, weaker financial prospects, and escalating violence.  

Truth be told, none of this came as a surprise.  Several others have written similar reflections in recent months.  Yet, I cannot stop thinking about his article.  The reason it has stayed with me, is all because of his conclusion.  He writes:

Hunger, trauma, violence.  The pandemic exacerbated all three, and more.  But we don’t center therapeutic remedies in our discussions of what’s next.  We center crackdowns and handouts.  We center moving on over getting back up.  We center a “return to normal” over the plight of those for whom normal was never enough. 

An America now plagued by endemic disease faces a real challenge: Will we behave differently and do better, will we care for people rather that cuff them, or will we resort to the response we too often have – of not allowing ourselves to truly register need so that we don’t have to really contend with it? (1)

Over the last few days those questions have swirled in my mind, not only because they are good questions for us to consider as a society, but because these questions are Easter questions.  These are the same questions that Jesus’ death and resurrection require us to ask ourselves and our communities.  

Just as these two pandemic years have revealed much to us about what has laid hidden below the surface of our cultural landscape, Lent has revealed to us what has laid hidden below the surface of our lives.  The spiritual disciples we were encouraged to take on in the invitation to a holy Lent given on Ash Wednesday are tools which serve the purpose of peeling back the surface.  Then as the layers are pulled back the cruciform light of God which beams from the cross, the resplendent glory of God which shines from the depths of an empty tomb brings all that was uncovered to light.  As that light shines God asks us, “will you behave differently and do better?” 

In this holy feast of Eastertide we celebrate the miraculous deeds of God, we give thanks for all that God has accomplished, we rejoice that God offers us the gift of salvation.  In response to this gift freely given, it is our task to consider how we live and amend our lives so that we might be reflections of that Easter joy.  

Easter is not about people being perfect.  Easter is about God offering broken people the opportunity for healing and wholeness.  Think about all the pain the women felt when they arrived to see the stone rolled away from the tomb.  Think about the fear which engulfed the disciples as they hid in that upper room.  

The stories we hear today are no exception.  As we encounter Peter and Saul (soon to be named Paul) we witness God offering them redemption, inviting them to experience renewal, and setting them on a path to live differently going forward. 

In today’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles we encounter Saul, a man not to be messed with, a man “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” (2)  This is the same man who stood by holding the coats of those who stoned St. Stephen, the first deacon and martyr.  This is the man who traveled around seeking out disciples of Jesus to bring them to Jerusalem to be tried and punished.  Saul was single handedly trying to destroy the Jesus movement in its earliest days. 

Luke, the author of Acts, tells us that Saul was traveling to Damascus to seek permission to continue his mission of stamping out the early disciples.  While he was on the road “suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.” (3) He is knocked to the ground, and a voice calls out to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (4)

Jesus calls out to Saul, questioning his behavior, before revealing his identity, and calling Saul to live differently and do better.  Jesus calls him to use his gifts, to use his skills, to spread the Good News of God to the Gentiles – to spread the Good News of God to people like you and me. 

God met Saul in exactly the way Saul needed so that he might experience conversion of life and go on to live the life to which he had been called.

Saul is not the only one to experience the redemptive power of God this morning.  John tells us about how breakfast became Peter’s most important meal that day. 

Today’s Gospel passage finds the disciples figuring out what to do next.  In the midst of their pain and fear, in the midst of the overwhelming intensity of the final days of Jesus’ earthly life, the disciples are at a bit of a loss as to what to do next.  They have finally left the upper room where they were hiding – that place where they encounter the Risen Lord not once, but twice.  Then in a very human response to grief and overwhelming emotions, the disciples return to what they know.  They return to fishing.  

John tells us that they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.  As the new day was breaking Jesus stood on the beach, but the disciples did not yet recognize him.  He calls out to them inquiring about the catch, and then tells them to cast their net to the other side of the boat where they experience an enormous catch.  

If you’re having some deja vu, that makes total sense.  This fishing scene unfolds in a remarkably similar way to what we hear in Luke’s Gospel as Jesus is first calling this disciples.  Now, on this side of the resurrection, he is calling them to something new.  He is recommissioning them for this new ministry they are embarking on. 

The beloved disciple is the first to recognize that the man on the beach is Jesus, and Peter impulsively gets dressed, jumps in the water, and rushes to shore.  Then they have breakfast, fish and bread, and after they have eaten Jesus turns to Peter. 

Here is where we witness, Peter’s restoration. 

Not too many days before this, during Jesus final hours, we heard Peter deny Jesus three times before the cock crowed.  Here on the beach, Jesus asks Peter three questions – undoing those three denials. 

Jesus ask Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  Peter responds affirmatively, then Jesus tells him “Feed my lambs.”  A second time Jesus asks him, “do you love me?” Peter again says yes, to which Jesus replies, “Tend my sheep.”  A third time Jesus asks, “do you love me?” Now Peter getting aggravated says, “Yes, Jesus I love you!” To which Jesus responds, “Feed my sheep.” Before going on to offer a prediction about what is to come for Peter. 

Jesus does not leave Peter to dwell in denial, he offers him the opportunity to be restored, to be forgiven, through the confession of his love for Jesus.  Jesus comes to him, in the midst of a familiar and comforting routine and says, “I’m not done with you yet.  There is still more for you to do. Come be restored, and go out to live differently and do better.”  From here Peter goes on to preach and to heal carrying on the responsibility of this new community. 

Saul and Peter both encounter Jesus in the exact way they needed, in ways they could understand and receive so that they might experience newness of life and go on to be Easter people.  While we might not be knocked to the ground by a blinding light, while Jesus might not cook us breakfast on the beach, that does not mean that God is absent from us.  

Jesus comes to each and everyone of us in ways that we can understand, God comes to us through experiences we can receive to transform our lives, to restore us in the ways we need, that we can go forth to do the work God has given us to do. 

As you travel down the street, or as you’re having breakfast, or as you are doing something else entirely God will come searching for you.  God comes seeking you out to ask the question “will you live differently, will you do better?”  God comes to us, opening our hearts that we might not only see the suffering and need around us, but that we might do something to alleviate it.  God comes to us and equips us for what lies ahead. 

This morning we recognize our own need for conversation in the stories of Saul and Peter.  This morning there is one question left to be answered.  Will we live differently now that we have seen the glories of the risen Lord.  Will we do better? 

Amen. 

(1) https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/27/opinion/pandemic-empathy-hardship.html
(2) Acts 9:1, NRSV.
(3) Acts 9:3, NRSV.
(4) Acts 9:4, NRSV.

 

Sermon for Easter Day (17 April 2022). The Scripture readings (Acts, 1 Corinthians, John) can be found here

One of the things I am keenly aware of are all the pressures we put upon the important things of life.  Think of all the milestone markers in your life, how many of those days were framed by our expectations, by those of our family and friends, realistic and otherwise?  Have you ever hyped up something in your head so much that when it actually happens you feel disappointed and let down? 

It seems to me that Easter is one of those times.  

Easter Day is filled with our preconceived notions, the desires of our imaginations, and expectations of enormous proportion. 

We wear our Easter best, maybe even something new and special for the first time.  We expect it to be a gloriously, picturesque, sunny morning.  There are the hopes and demands for the perfect Easter portrait.  We expect a packed house at church, glorious hymns, the fragrance of fresh flowers filling the air – hopefully not sending our allergies into overdrive.  After church we go off for the traditional Easter brunch, or dinner, or egg hunt all with their own set of demands.

With so much put upon this day, I wonder if we might be setting ourselves up for disappointed when all does not go perfectly.  Those times when we are so rushed getting ready that we are left feeling frustrated when we do not look as we think we should.  Those times when the weather is cold, or cloudy, or it’s raining, or because we are in New England, when it snows.  How about those times when the pictures are a disaster.  Then there are the meals – and all that can go wrong there: the food is undercooked, overcooked, or burnt to a crisp.  That one relative you have to pump yourself up to endure.  And let’s not get started thinking about the inevitable tears that come during the egg hunt.  

I wonder, have you ever had things go so wrong that you felt Easter was ruined? 

By the way, on top of all that, I am aware this Easter has an added layer of complication as it is the first time we have been able to gather together for in-person worship since 2019. 

But here is the thing about Easter.  This is the day, that is all about defying expectations and shattered preconceived notions.  

Easter begins in the dark. 

Matthew’s resurrection account tells us, “the first day of the week was dawning.”  Mark tells us that it was “very early.”  Luke’s account begins, “at early dawn.”  And today John tells us, “early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark.”  That first Easter morn was filled with darkness and the hushed glow of the dawning light. (1) 

Easter beings as a funeral procession.  When the women, in this case Mary Magdalene, arrive at the tomb it was to carry out the rituals of burial. No shouts of alleluia were made, no triumphant proclamations of the glories of the resurrection; only sadness, grief, the raw emotions that come as a result of death. Easter begins with the closest of Jesus’ companions wrapped with fear, believing that the Messiah was dead. 

Easter beings with shock.  

Mary Magdalene arrives in the garden, she approaches Jesus’ tomb, and she sees that the massive stone has been rolled away.  Shock, horror, disbelief consume her.  Upon seeing this sight she rushes back.  She runs to where Peter and the disciples are to tell them the terrible news that someone has taken the body of Jesus.  

Peter and the other disciple, the beloved disciple whom Jesus loved, do not believe what Mary has said – they could not believe it.  So they race to the tomb.  This is a perfectly Peter moment, that most impulsive of all disciples, running to the tomb to see for himself what has happened.  We are told that the other disciple, beats Peter to the tomb, but while the other disciple hesitates to go in, bending down to look first, Peter, when he arrives, goes directly into the tomb. 

The details contained in John’s Gospel about this scene are fascinating.  Peter and the other disciple carry out their explorations in silence: they act but the do not speak.  They hear Mary’s words, and they run to see.  They arrive and look around, but say nothing of what is found.  It seems that they come to believe that Jesus’ body has indeed been stolen.  John tells us, “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went it, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” (2)  After reaching this conclusion, what do these two men do?  They go home.  They remain silent. 

Easter is proclaimed by unexpected voices. 

Mary Magdalene is the only disciple who speaks that morning.  She tells the others what has happened.  As the two men return home, John tells us that Mary was outside the tomb weeping.  The visceral emotions overtaking her.  It is Mary who sees, not just the empty tomb, not just the burial cloths lying where the body once was, she sees angels sitting there and she speaks to them.

Then she turns around and sees Jesus, but she does not recognize him.  The tears obscure her view, her certainty as to what has happens blocks her from truly seeing.  Jesus asks her why she is weeping, she begs him who she thinks is a gardener, to tell her where the body of her beloved Lord is.  This supposed worker calls out her name, “Mary!”  Her eyes are opened, she can now see.  “Rabbouni,” she responds.  She recognizes her teacher, her Lord.  

In the light of the new dawn Mary sees, and the passage ends with her back with the other disciples making a second announcement.  It is Mary who makes the first proclamation of Easter when she says, “I have seen the Lord.”

By the way, in each resurrection account, in all four Gospels it is the women who are the first witnesses, who are the first one’s Jesus tells to go and proclaim the Good News of God to the world.  

Easter begins with shattered expectations, defying what was possible, changing the entire cosmos from what has ever been known before.  

Easter turns the world on its head.  Darkness has been turned into light; fear has transformed into joy; silence as given voice to proclamation; death has become for us a means of life.  

In closing I want to share with you a sonnet, which brings to mind the expectation shattering of this day.  It is by Malcolm Guite, and it is titled Easter dawn. 

He blesses every love that weeps and grieves
And now he blesses hers who stood and wept
And would not be consoled, or leave her love’s
Last touching place, but watched as low light crept
Up from the east. A sound behind her stirs
A scatter of bright birdsong through the air.
She turns, but cannot focus through her tears,
Or recognize the Gardener standing there.
She hardly hears his gentle question, ‘Why,
Why are you weeping?’, or sees the play of light
That brightens as she chokes out her reply,
‘They took my love away, my day is night.’
And then she hears her name, she hears Love say
The Word that turns her night, and ours, to Day. (3)

I want to wish you all a very blessed Easter.  May the power of God’s resurrection set us free from all expectations and pressures,  that we might see that our night has in fact become day.

Amen.

(1) John 20:1, NRSV.
(2) John 20:8-9, NRSV.
(3)Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year, “Easter Dawn.” 

 

Sermon for Palm Sunday (10 April 2022). The Scripture readings can be found here

Pietro Lorenzetti, “Untitled, known as Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.” Public Domain

Welcome, beloved of God, to the most important days of our lives. 

Everything we do in the other 51 weeks of the year leads us to this very moment.  What we do this week contains the fullness of everything we believe.  It is in this week that images of our faith are clarified that we might come to see God more clearly.  This week we move from gentle sentimental images to a vision which will push us to the very brink – transforming us and everything else in the process. 

This week the donkey we discover is not nestled gently in a pile of hay in the corner of a manger, but carries Jesus into Jerusalem for his countercultural triumphant entry.  This week we do not discover kings brining gifts and paying homage, but rulers seeking the death of him who challenges their power and authority.  This week we discover that the wood of the new born Messiah’s crib has become the wood of the Cross on which is hung the Savior of the world. This week we discover not the birth of a child, but the birth of a new world order in which death is destroyed once and for all. 

This discovery begins in the convergence of this day.  Two stories are merged together offering a clarion call to all who claim to follow the way of Jesus. 

Today is Palm Sunday.  Upon hearing the name our minds flash to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  We recall our own celebrations: gathering on church lawns, waving our palm fronds, shouting “Hosanna,” and singing “All Glory Laud and Honor.”  These images invoke fanfare and joyous festivities.  But a second look moves us from these comfortable refrains to something deeper.  If we dare to peel back the picture perfect facade we discovered a revolutionary just below the surface. 

The first story we hear today is more than just a happy-go-lucky journey into town.  In this procession Jesus makes a bold statement about the powers of this world.  He takes the things traditionally associated with grand military processions and makes a mockery of them. 

Jesus rides through the adoring crowd, receiving the shouts of praise typically reserved for earthly rulers.  He comes as one who does not lord his authority over others, but leads through acts of humble loving service.  Jesus rejects the pomp, power, wealth, and domination of the ruling powers, and comes instead to stand in solidarity with those who are poor, sick, with the marginalized and oppressed.  Jesus comes not as a mighty warrior, but as one who is vulnerable and refusing to rely on violence.  Jesus’ calculated actions unmask and challenge the dominant social order under the guise of festivity. 

Jesus enters the city leading all those who follow to see a different way of being in the world – a way which unfolds in the second story we tell. 

The emphasis on the Passion reveals to us one of the most important images of Jesus – the one we most often wish to skip over, ignore, or trade for something softer – maybe one where he is holding a cuddly looking sheep. 

What we witness in the Passion puts everything else in perspective.  Everything we do this week draws us closer to the cross.  For it is the cross that makes sense of all that Jesus has taught us. Without the cross there would be no Easter. 

Margaret Farley, theologian, ethicist, and member of the order of the Sisters of Mercy, writes about what discover in the passion of Jesus.  She writes: 

We come to understand, for example, that our call is not merely to bear our own cross, endure our own crucifixion, as Jesus bore his.  The cross of Jesus, we believe, signifies the suffering of all human persons – that burden that Jesus identified with and took upon himself.  Insofar as this is true, Christians are called to stand in solidarity with all those who suffer across time and space.  And while the cross signified every form of human suffering (sickness, tragic accident, aging, and diminishment), there are certain kinds of suffering that are central to its meaning.  Given the context and nature of the final sufferings of Jesus, there is little doubt that the centrally signified form of suffering is suffering that is consequence of injustice – the kind of suffering that does not have to be;  that cries out for an end not in death but in change. (1) 

Dr. Farley articulates the founding principle of the way we are called to follow: standing in solidarity with all who suffer.  When we look upon Jesus hanging from that tree we are called to see Jesus lifting up the wounds and scars of humanity.  Jesus lifts up the suffering from the hands of injustice – the suffering that comes from our culture’s obsession with violence, insistence on greed, companionship with racism, entanglement with white supremacy, with the destruction of this fragile earth our island home.  

Just as Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem invites us to unmask the realities of the way society defines power and acceptability, Jesus’ passion invites us to remove the blinders from our eyes to see the way we have caused others to suffer; to see the way we have benefitted from the suffering of others.  All while recognizing that we too are harmed when others are cast aside.  

As the stories of this day come together we glimpse who Jesus truly is – the love of God incarnate – and we begin to understand what that actually means.  

Dr. Farley goes on to write, “The point of the cross is not finally suffering and death; it is, rather, that a relationship holds.  There is a love stronger than death, that can withstand whatever the forces of evil do against it, and that can hold suffering even as it struggles to alleviate it.” (2)

As we enter into this week, we experience a relationship that holds.  We enter this week to take the beloved images that bring us comfort and joy, and gaze deeply into them to discover why it is that love came down at Christmas.  

Moving through these days is not some historical reenactment – we are not civil war enthusiasts in the park.  Through these days we experience something far greater than a well thought out role play.  We experience the unification of time – past, present, and future coming together in the glorious, eternal, saving acts of God.  

We have the chance to not only see, but to experience who Jesus truly is this week.  To glimpse the Kingdom of God fully realized.  This week is our chance to receive a foretaste of the eternal life and victory promised to us as heirs of God.  This week we join a two millennia old tradition of pilgrims walking the way of Jesus.  

Ready or not, just as we are, in this particular moment in our lives, we have entered into Holy Week.  As we begin this journey once more, I want to invite you to enter into these days as fully as possible.  Allow yourself to be pushed to the brink, to let the drama wash over you.

No matter how many times we have made this journey there is always more to learn, always another layer of understanding waiting to be revealed.  Edith Williams captures the lessons we must learn as we gaze upon our Savior in these days in her poem Jesus, so lowly. She writes: 

Jesus, so lowly, child of the earth: christen my wholly, bring me new birth. 

Jesus, so lonely, weary and sad; teach me that only love maketh glad. 

Jesus, so broken, silent and pale; be this the token, love will not fail. 

Jesus, victorious, mighty and free; teach me how glorious death is to be. 

Together may we discover new birth, may we be made glad by love, may we learn how glorious death is to be. Through this week may we be pushed beyond the brink, into the glorious life of God. 

Amen. 

(1) Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 6402-6408). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
(2) Ibid., 1.

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (3 April 2022). The Scripture readings can be found here

Mary Anoints Jesus’ Feet, From a 1684 Arabic manuscript of the Gospels, copied in Egypt by Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib (likely a Coptic monk), via Wikimedia Commons

There is a form of bible study which invites us to explore the word of God by living into the story.  This method, known as the Ignatian method, is one where we put ourselves in the story and imagine the sights, sounds, smells, and emotions on display.  This method can allow for a deeper reflection; for exploration that is more intimate, real, and human than some of the more scholarly modes of interpretation.  We might find it easier to connect with a story trying to envision what things smell and taste like, compared to discerning the historical sources of a text.  This reflection practice can cause the stories of Scripture to leap off the page and come to life.  Please know I do not say this as a way of diminishing other forms of biblical interpretation, for there is merit in approaching scripture from a variety of perspectives.    

The Gospel passage appointed for today is ripe for this sort of biblical reflection – it is a prime candidate for the Ignatian method. For there are few passages so packed with beauty and truth as this anointing scene at Bethany. 

We have arrived in that familiar place.  Jesus has come once more to the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus.  As we step into the story we see Martha serving and preparing another meal.  Can you hear the symphony of pots clanging, stews simmering, and meat sizzling over the open flame? 

Then there is Lazarus pondering how to live his resurrected life, now that Jesus has called him forth from the tomb – raising him from the dead?  Can you see him sitting in the corner, emerged in thought, contemplating the incomprehensible thing God has done? 

While there is much we can learn from Martha and Lazarus, today they are not the focus.  Today our attention is drawn to Mary and Judas.  Imagine if you will, what this experience was life for them. 

Mary of Bethany is a character we are eager to imagine ourselves as, after all, she is the champion of the story – the one who understands.  We naturally slide into her role.  We imagine what the hard ground beneath our knees feels like as we bow before the Messiah.  We listen to the sound of our hair rubbing against Jesus’ rough and callused feed.  And do you smell that; that costly perfume?  It smells something like Chanel No. 5 wafting through the air. 

John the Evangelist is clear, Mary of Bethany is a faithful disciple who devotes the entirety of herself to Jesus.  She is a model of Christian discipleship, silently bearing witness to the costly and extravagant act of Jesus with her own costly and extravagant offering. Mary’s actions foreshadow what is to come.  Anointed for his vocation at Baptism, Mary now anoints Jesus for his death.  Mary washes Jesus’ feet before he will kneel down and wash the feet of his friends. 

Assuming the place of Mary in the story, we are invited to consider our faithfulness as disciples: to consider our extravagant acts of service and devotion to Jesus.  We are reminded that we do not need to know the right things to say to be faithful witnesses; while she never utters a single word, Mary’s actions speak volumes.   

It is good to sit in the place of Mary, and it is good to sit in the place of Judas as well.  In contrast to Mary, it is challenging to put ourselves in Judas’ place.  Taking this role can be uncomfortable, unpleasant, unsettling – and that might not be such a bad thing. 

Imagine yourself in the place of Judas.  Can you feel your body tensing up as you watch Mary provide such a profound example of discipleship?  Can you feel the perspiration dripping from your brow as valuable resources are being wasted on fleeting extravagance?  Can you feel the heat of jealousy, deceit, and pending betrayal course through your views? 

As John, who is harder on Judas than any other Gospel writer, tells the story we are reminded that Judas is the unfaithful disciple with devious motives, who steals from the common purse, and who, in just a few days, will betray Jesus.  For more on that I invite you to join us on the Wednesday in Holy Week – also known as Spy Wednesday. 

From the place of Judas we are confronted by the ways that we betray Jesus.  We are forced to consider the ways we have fallen short and failed to live into our covenanted relationship with God.

But it is not all bad to sit in the place of Judas.  From that place we can see that despite his behavior, despite his rejection of Jesus, there is still hope.  If Jesus came to save the lost, then surely there is hope for Judas. Is there anyone in the Gospel story who is more lost than the one who betrays Jesus – even if that is what God has called him to do?  From this place we are reminded that no one, and I mean no one, is beyond the redemptive love of God. 

The great thing about the Ignatian method is that we do not have to stay in one place, we do not have to stick with one character.  We can move back and forth trying on different identities and points of view; thus learning more about ourselves as we explore the fullness of the story.  Just as we are not entirely the prodigal son or his older brother; none of us is entirely Mary or Judas.  Each and everyone of us is a paradoxical combination of the two. 

As we gaze upon the world around us there is no shortage of displays of human sinfulness.  We also see that reality reflected in our liturgy. Have you noticed the way the Eucharistic Prayer we have been using this Lent names our sinfulness?  Each week we pray, “But we failed to honor your image in one another and in ourselves; we would not see your goodness in the world around us; so we violated your creation, abused one another, and rejected your love.” (1)

Just as our liturgy names our present reality, it also moves us towards redemption.  The reconciling nature of this Holy Sacrament we share means that we do not stay in that place of sinfulness.  We do not need to dwell in that place of betrayal.  God is waiting for us to turn back toward God, to amend our behavior, to welcome us home.  

As our Eucharistic Prayer makes clear, there is absolutely nothing that will stop God from loving us.  The very next sentence of the prayer continues, “Yet you never ceased to care for us, and prepared the way of salvation for all people.” (2) God’s never-ceasing love is there waiting for us to claim it. 

Captured in this season, in this Gospel passage, in our liturgy is the constant movement of our lives – weaving together our sinfulness and the redemptive power of God’s love.  It is a bit like that that 1997 hit from Chumbawamba called Tubthumping – “I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down.” We get knocked down, but we get up again.  We get knocked down by sin, but God’s love pulls us up to our feet, and nothing will ever stop God from coming to our aid. 

And there is something required of us in this movement.  God’s love is a gift freely offered, and it is a gift we must accept.  As a good friend reminded me recently even that which is free comes with a cost.  There is a cost for us in choosing the path of discipleship – in accepting this gift from God.  

The offering Mary of Bethany makes is not light or easy.  Her offering, foreshadowing Jesus’ on that Friday afternoon not too many days from now, is abundant, extravagant, and costly.  Just like Jesus, just like Mary, we are not exempt from making this costly offering.  This begs the question what is the costly element in our liturgical rite?  How do we see this unfold in the ways that we pray.  Certainly the bread and wine we use are not the equivalent to Mary’s costly perfume – I mean that stuff cost something like a year’s wages.  

Every time we celebrate the Eucharist the offertory language is clear.  It is not solely about the bread and the wine, it is not entirely about our monetary offering either.  Our prayers speak of a self-oblation; they speak of offering ourselves.  To quote once more from the Eucharistic Prayer we are currently using, “Grant that we who share these gifts may be filled with the Holy Spirit and live as Christ’s body in the world.” (3) While every prayer has language like this, I believe the most powerful are contained in Rite I Prayer I, which poetically declares, “And here we present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.” (4)

Every time and in every place where Anglicans gather to celebrate this Holy and Blessed Sacrament we pledge to offer all that we are, and all that we have, to follow the way of God in this world.  This is our pledge: to kneel at Jesus’ feet, giving of our bodies for the intimate expression of love we have for our Redeemer. 

Joining with centuries of Anglicans and Episcopalians, with even more centuries of faithful Christian dating back to the earliest days of the Church, through our celebration to the Eucharist we recognize our capacity to be both Mary and Judas.  We claim our identity as faithful disciples, who from time to time fall into temptation, who return home to God with extravagant adoration of praise and thanksgiving.

Next week, when we gather together, we will enter into that Great Week we call Holy.  We will join with the crowds, shouting Hosanna and waving branches of palms along the way.  We will gather in the upper room, sit at the foot of the cross, and wait as the earth stands still while Christ descends to the dead gathering up all who have gone before into the glories of Resurrected life. 

Now more than ever we need to hold together our paradoxical identity of Judas and Mary.  We need to name the ways we have not lived up to our potential, we need to recognize the ways we have rejected God’s love.  Having taken account of ourselves we can claim our vocation as faithful disciples with honesty and integrity.  We can turn back towards the loving embrace of God.  We can shake off the shackles of scarcity and abound in abundance.  We can offer extravagant worship to God, and extravagant care of our neighbor.

Let us walk together into the journey which lies ahead, bringing our full selves into the story.  Let us open our hearts to the transformative power of God’s love that we might be strengthened, healed, renewed, and sent forth to be the Easter people we were created to be. 

Do you smell that? Do you smell the lovely fragrance wafting through the air?  Let us seek it out, for something so beautiful is worth discovering. 

Amen. 

(1) Enriching our Worship 1, p. 58.
(2) Ibid., 58.
(3) Ibid., 59.
(4) The Book of Common Prayer, p. 336.

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (27 March 2022). The Scripture readings can be found here

James Tissot The Return of the Prodigal Son (Le detour de l’enfant prodigue), Brooklyn Museum, Public Domain

Regularly, and especially when I spend time with my non-religiously affiliated friends, I hear someone comment on how they are going to hell.  It is not an exaggeration to say that every time I gather with a particular group of friends someone makes a comment about their pending damnation, questions if hanging out with me will help get them into heaven, or pulls out a monopoly style get out of hell free card – complete with the monopoly man with angel wings.  Truth be told, I can never fully tell if they are joking or serious.  My guess is that it is a combination of the two.  

While I can laugh along with the jokes about the amazing party they are going to throw when they die, behind the laughter is sadness.  You see this group of friends, the people I am thinking about in particular, are all part of the LGBTQ+ community. 

There is a good reason why my friends make these jokes.  It is because many of them have been told just that by people who claim the identity of Christian. In various ways throughout their lives, in my life, we have been told that we are abhorrent to God.  That our very nature, who we are, is sinful; therefore, we will burn in hell for all eternity unless we repent.  By the way, repent here is code for the death yielding denial of our personhood, not the life-giving repentance that God calls each and everyone of us to. 

To my friends, and to those who would damn us, I offer today’s Gospel passage.  For this familiar parable from Luke offers a word of hope to the judged, and a word of caution to the judging.  

I know there are many of us here, who, for a variety of reasons, feel that we are judged by people of faith.  Maybe your identity has made you a target of hate.  Maybe you have been told you are not holy enough, you do not pray enough, you do not read Scripture faithfully enough to earn God’s favor.  (By the way, there is nothing you can do to earn God’s favor, it is a gift freely offered to all.) Maybe you have done something in your past which you have come to repent and atone for, yet still feel there is no hope.  Maybe there is a painful wound deep inside your soul which leaves you feeling unloved, unloveable, and alone.  Whatever the reason, many of us know the devastation of human judgment.  

At the same time I know there are just as many of us here who have put ourselves in the position of judge – given ourselves power that does not belong to us.  We have cast doubt on the behavior of others, we have felt superior for our faithfulness, we have even deigned to know the mind of God – casting ballots of judgement on God’s beloved children.  We give in to the instinctual response that proclaims that person over there is going to hell because . . . or, that person deserves to die, to be killed, because what they have done is so morally reprehensible.  We create hierarchies of sin in our minds so that we can ignore our own sins, because they are not as bad as that person’s over there.  What are my sins, we ask, compared to the one who commits warcrimes, genocide, and holocaust?  If we are not careful we can find ourselves on a pedal of superiority, isolating ourselves from the nourishment and relationship we need most of all. 

Weaving between the stories of these two sons and their father we are offered hope, we are offered reassurance, we are reminded of our proper place, we are cautioned and warned.  

The younger son, the so called prodigal son, offers us hope. 

This young man believes that because of his actions he is no longer worthy of being a son; he only deserves to be a hired hand.  He rehearses to himself how he is beyond the pale of love, having forever severed the familial relationship that once was.  

After mustering the courage to beg for a place, after practicing his speech for the many miles it took to journey home, the younger son is barely able to finish a sentences before his father. Just as he begins his plea, his father calls out for the preparations of a grand party to be made.  The younger son is not given a place as a hired hand in his father’s household.  He is restored to his place as a son.  Not only that, he receives grace and forgiveness in abundance.  He receives the best his father has to offer – the best robe, the best ring, the best fatted calf.  His father commands his household to throw the most off the hook party imaginable because his son has returned.  Because his son who was dead is alive again. 

We all do things which we know we should not do.  We all say and doing things that hurt other people – unintentionally and intentionally.  We all squander gifts we have been given, sometimes even in dissolute living.  But when we summon the courage to return home, none of that matters anymore.  By the way, this is what real repentance is – this is what that greek word metanoia means.  It is about literally turning around, changing our minds, returning once more to the path God has set before us.  When we do that, we are met with love and grace and abundance.  We are welcomed home not as servants, but as beloved children.  We are welcomed home because life has overcome death. 

The older son displays for us the sin of judgment – of claiming a power and authority that does not belong to us.  He believes that he is righteous.  He has toiled away, he has labored. He sees his brother return home to such great fanfare, and he has never received even a modest gift to enjoy with his friends.  He does not understand, nor approve of his father’s response. He lashes out in anger. 

Notice what we are told about the younger son, and by whom.  Luke tells us at the beginning of the parable that the younger son, “travels to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.” (1). Do any of you know what dissolute living actually means?  Dissolute living means living in a way strongly disapproved of by other people.  We imagine in our minds that this son went off on a rager in Vegas, but Luke never actually tells us what he has done that others so strongly disapprove of.  It is the older son, the brother, who adds details to the story.  

As he is confronting his father he says, “But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” (2) It is the older brother who judges the character of his sibling, placing labels and accusations against him.  In an effort to see judgement and condemnation brought upon his brother, the older son levies embellishment and exaggeration.  

There are many who know the weight of the elder brother’s accusations.  How many of us have been accused of dissolute living?  How many of us have been judged by those who fail to understand our story and experience? 

This is why those of us in the LGBTQ+ community joke so easily about our damnation.  It is because of siblings who have placed themselves on pedestals of self-righteousness, having claimed the power of God’s judgment as their own.  They have labeled us as other, as outsider, as deviant, as not worthy of love, but deserving punishment unless we conform our lives to their wills. 

The father does not flinch in the face of this judgement.  He reminds his elder son of love, of grace, of mercy, of the dignity of all. While some might desire death for those they condemn, the father desires life. 

While we are offered hope and caution from the sons, the most important message comes from the father.  For at the end of the day this parable is not about either son, it is about the father. 

As we watch his interactions with his children we glimpse a man who embodies love and compassion; who recognizes the need for forgiveness.  Nothing distracts him.  He remains focused on confessing abundant grace and love. 

We are all lost, mired in sin, guilty of self-righteousness and judgment.  That is not because of any marker of identity, faith affiliation, political position, or the specific things we do.  It is because we are human, and fall short of the glory of God.  But before we knew it, God reached out and offered to the world, offered to us, the most amazing gift of love in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  As Jesus was lifted up, so were we.  God lifts us up and calls us home. 

This parable is not about the sons, it is not about us – about you and me; about your sins and my sins.  It is about God and God’s life-giving love and mercy.  It is about the fact that God desires life for us not death. It is about the fact that God will rush out to us, with arms of love spread wide, drawing us into God’s embrace.  It is about God saying to each and everyone of us, I know you are hurt, I know you are scared, but you are now safe.  

Today’s Gospel passage begins with Luke telling us that the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling against Jesus saying, “This fellow welcome sinners and eats with them.” (3) They see this as a major character flaw; as something which makes Jesus’ actions suspect.  Behind this complaint is the question, “Doesn’t he know sinners, outcasts, those who do not fit the boxes and standards of society are to be judged not welcomed?” 

What they see as cause to grumble, we should see as good news.  We should shout for joy, and dance in the aisle, that Jesus wants to eat with sinners and welcome them.  We should rejoice because that means there is room for us at the table. 

Today we prayed, “Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him.” (4)

Each time we gather around the altar, whenever and wherever we receive the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, we receive into our very beings the the true bread which came down from heaven.  As we eat this bread, and drink from this cup we receive the gift of love, the gift of life which transforms us to be those same gifts for the world.  As we gaze upon the Body and Blood of Christ, sharing in the Sacrament; we are strengthened and transformed – we, because Jesus eats with sinners and welcomes them, become what we receive.

We gather here today as both sons in this parable.  We have done things which we ought not to have done, we have judged others and, we have been judged, weighed down by the embellishments and exaggerations of others, we have been cast aside for no other reason than the prejudice which fills the hearts of humanity.  

But we leave here invited to model our lives on the father.  To cast aside judgment, condemnation, hatred, and to take on the mantle of love so gracious and abundant it is nothing short of scandalous.  We leave here commissioned to build a larger table, to go out seeking sinners, and welcoming them to join in the feast. 

Amen.

(1) Luke 15:13, NRSV.
(2) Luke 15:30, NRSV.
(3) Luke 15:2, NRSV.
(4) The Book of Common Prayer, p. 219.

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent (20 March 2022). The Scripture readings can be found here

Illustrators of the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the great joys of my ministry is serving as a visiting chaplain at ECC.  For those of you who do not know, ECC (short for the Episcopal Conference Center) is our Diocesan camp and conference center located in Pascoag. 

During the summer at ECC, visiting chaplains are not only responsible for helping to run community worship throughout the week, they also run chaplains time  – where campers gather together for various conversations and activities.  I love having this time with campers – especially the younger ones. 

When the campers arrive for chaplains time, I invite them to take off their shoes.  Let me tell you, it is a sight watching twenty or so elementary students climb the stairs to the tower of silence negotiating beach towels, water bottles, taking off their shoes, all while never pausing the intricate weave pattern of the gimp bracelets they are making.  

It is inevitable that during the first sessions of camp, at least one person asks me why.  Why do they have to take off their shoes? To which my answer is always the same, “As God said to Moses so I say to you, remove your shoes for the ground on which you are standing is holy ground.”

While all of camp is holy ground, there is something particular about the tower of silence – something beyond what mere words can capture.  

Every time I draw near to the tower of silence I think about all the pairs of shoes that have been lined up on the porch just outside the door.  Every time I remember the holy ground we share and the revelation of God in our midst.  It is something I truly treasure.  

In light of the Scripture reading we have from Exodus today, my heart has once more been drawn back to the tower.  Today I give thanks that we, as a community, have the opportunity to hear about holy ground and to consider where it is we stand. 

The call of Moses is rather familiar.  Moses is out caring for the flock of is father-in-law, and as he is wandering around Mount Horeb with the sheep he discovers a bush that is on fire.  But this is not your usual shrubbery set ablaze.  This bush is not consumed by the fire.  And if that were not enough amazement for one afternoon, God then speaks to Moses and tells him that he is going back to Egypt to set God’s people free.  

So it is off to Egypt for a playful back and forth between Moses, Pharaoh, and God involving a few plagues, a high speed chariot chase, and the parting of the sea.  

In a somewhat flippant way, what I am trying to say is that the familiarity of this story can cause us to gloss over the call of Moses, move quickly through this blockbuster tale, and get to the other side of the Red Sea where the people of God can finally take a deep breath and begin their journey to the promised land.  When we hear this story we might even become distracted, as images of Charlton Heston as Moses play in the cinema of our minds.  

It would do us good to slow down and savor this story.  For this is the encounter which sets in motion the liberation of God’s people. 

Things have not been going well for the Israelites at this point in their story.  For in this moment, God’s people are not free. They are slaves; living under the oppressive rule of Pharaoh.  They have cried out, they have lamented, they have questioned and wondered if God had abandoned them.  

While God may have appeared to be absent, while they may have felt abandoned, God was always with them. God had heard their cry.  God had taken notice.  

Now, enter stage left, Moses and the sheep.  

It is not surprising that Moses is caught off guard and amazed by the sight of the non-consumed burning bush.  I am pretty sure that if any of us where walking through Deerfield Park or Lincoln Woods and saw a burning bush we would probably stop and at least take a second look before continuing on our way.  

Moses notices what is going one; and because of his awareness, curiosity, and openness, his life, and that of an entire nation, is changed forever. 

From the burning bush, God calls out to Moses and he responds, “Here I am.” 

This exchange is not unique to Moses.  This is the same exchange God has with Abraham, it is the same exchange that God has with Samuel, and Mary’s exchange with the Angel Gabriel is strikingly similar, for she too responds to the call of God by saying, “Here I am.” Just like Abraham,  Samuel,Mary, and anyone else who responds to God’s call with faithfulness and obedience, Moses has now become intricately involved in God’s salvific work in the world. 

Then in an instant, just as quickly as his initial response, Moses tries to back out of his call. Following God’s declaration of identity, Moses hides his face and cowers in fear.  Then after God states God’s plan for liberation of the Israelites, after God makes clear this is not going to happen with the snap of celestial fingers, after God says to Moses, “I will send you,” Moses says, “What now? . . .

Luckily for Moses, and the people of Israel, God does not let Moses out of his vocation just because he feels unworthy and doubts his abilities.  While God gives Moses a seemingly insurmountable task – convincing Pharaoh to set the Israelites free – God will not allow Moses to engage the powers of Egypt alone.  Moses, in expressing his doubt in himself, assumes he needs to be more, to know more, to have more authority to take on his vocation.  Thanks be to God, that God immediately corrects Moses’ false assumptions. 

While Moses will go back to Egypt, and attempt to negotiate with Pharaoh; while he will use his shepherds staff to part the seas marking the path of freedom for God’s people, Moses will not go alone. God reminds Moses that he is enough, because God will be with him; God will once more act in the course of human history to bring about the liberation of God’s people.  

Just as God will not allow Moses to walk alone in his vocation, God does not call us and then leave us to wander alone either.  Just like the ancestors of our faith, when God calls us, God promises to walk beside us; God promises to guard and guide us, God promises to strengthen and protect us along the way.  

In the midst of this debate between God and Moses, Moses asks God for God’s name so that he can convince the people to follow him.  In the remainder of this encounter, God identifies God’s self in three different ways. 

First, God says, “I AM WHO I AM.” (1) Truth be told, there are a variety of ways this line could be translated.  No matter which version we choose, this phrase is a way of withhold the divine name to protect the mystery of God from human manipulation.  This phrase identifies God as the ultimate mystery.  While it does not include a name in the traditional sense, it represents God as an inestimable existence that is beyond naming, unable to be controlled by humanity, and surpassing human understanding.  

Next, God identifies as, “I AM.”  God says, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (2)  This second revelation makes God’s name a verb.  God’s open-ended “I AM” is indicative that God is present for God’s people in an infinite number of salvific ways.  The God Who Is, is now sending Moses in to profess the divine command that God’s people must be free. 

Finally God says, YHWH Elohim.  Here God identities as “The LORD God.”  God is revealing God’s self in relationship to humanity.  The God that sends Moses is the God of their ancestors – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  This is not some distant being out there somewhere, this is not some mysterious force in the world, this is God was was, and is, and will continue to be in relationship with God’s people forever. 

This three-step progression – from God’s identification as Supreme Being, then as Supreme Being who acts in human history by sending shepherds, prophets, and the faithful of every generation, and finally as God in relationship with Israel – is God’s ways of responding to our call.  It is God’s way of responding to our cries with that common refrain, “Here I am.”

Here God is.  Joining with Israel, joining with Moses, joining with us, in living into the vocation and ministry of God and people together.  Here is God inviting us to be participants with God in securing the liberation of all people.  

While our vocations might seem daunting and we might doubt our abilities this story reminds us that with God nothing is impossible.  For God has done some pretty amazing things with some rather questionable characters: Abraham was too old, Isaac was a daydreamer, Jacob was a liar, Lazarus was dead, and Moses was a murderer with a stutter. If God can use them, God can use us too.  

God has promised to be with us, revealing God’s self to us that we might come to know and trust God more fully.  But, for this to work we need to be open.  Letting go of the ideas, the narratives that holds us captive – setting ourselves free from the way it has always been. 

The very first thing God commands Moses to do is to remove his sandals. 

Removing ones shoes in the presence of the divine is a sign of respect and humility, but I think there is something more to it for standing with bare feet makes us vulnerable.  

If our feet are unprotected, we might step on something sharp.  We might have to face the cold or the heat of the ground.  Then there is the reality that so many people are embarrassed by their feet.  They can be callused and worn, they can show signs of stress from bearing the weight of our journey.  Standing with bare feet exposes us.  By removing our shoes and our socks we are revealing something of ourselves.  We are opening ourselves up to feel and experience the world unguarded.

As we gather as a community to discern our several callings, I wonder what it would be like if we let our guards down and shared our vulnerability.  I wonder what it would be like if we removed the barriers that separate us from feeling the holy ground on which we stand.  I wonder what it would be like if every room of our ministry had pairs of shoes lined up outside the door. 

Amen. 

(1) Exodus 3:14a, NRSV.
(2) Exodus 3:14b, NRSV.

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent (13 March 2022).  The Scripture readings can be found here

Mosaic Art at Dominus Flevit, Public Domain

This morning I want to begin by doing something a bit different.  

I invite you to close your eyes. 

Makes sure you are comfortable in your pew, or wherever you are sitting. 

That you feet are flat on the ground. 

Your back rests comfortable against the pew. 

Hold your hands loosely on your lap, in a relaxed position.  

Once you are settled, 

Take a deep breath in . . . and out. 

As you breathe try to quiet your mind.  

Let go of whatever thoughts might come to you. 

Now, I want you to think about Jesus. 

Draw a picture of Jesus in your mind. 

Hold on to that image, 

and when you are ready, open your eyes. 

I wonder, what images came to mind for you as you thought about Jesus. 

Did you think about blond haired, blue eyed, six pack Jesus? I mean seriously, am I think only one who has noticed how ripped Jesus is in so many depictions of the crucifixion? 

Did you imagine a Middle Eastern refugee struggling to find safety? 

Or did you think about the Good Shepherd, about Jesus with a lost sheep slung over his shoulders? 

Maybe the imagines that came to mind for you were a bit less anthropomorphic.  

Anyone think about an open gate? Or for you Chronicles of Narnia fans out there, anyone think of a lion? 

I wonder, did any of you think about a chicken?  Did anyone here imagine Jesus as a good ol’ Rhode Island Red? 

I do not know about you, but I know that a chicken is the last image I come up with when thinking about Jesus.  I think chickens are noisy, obnoxious, smelly, and once as a child, I was chased around a yard by one of them.  Chickens are I are not friends.   By the way, that does not change the fact that I am hoping someone brings chickens to the blessing of the animals this year.  But I digress . . . 

Given my complicated relationship with chickens, I find myself scratching my head a bit when in today’s Gospel reading Jesus says, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” (1) 

I do not understand why Jesus would choose the imagery of a mother hen, when there are so many other powerful images he could have drawn from – images coming right out of Hebrew Scriptures.  For example, he could have looked to the writings of the prophet Hosea and described himself as an enraged she-bear or gone to Deuteronomy to capture the image of a majestic eagle caring for her nest.  Jesus could have even looked to human images that describe maternal power, insight, and sensibility.  The prophet Isaiah has rich imagery of God as a woman in labor.  The Psalms depict God as a mother of happy and healthy children, of God as a skilled midwife.  But instead of all these images and more, Jesus chooses a chicken. 

In fairness, it is not just any chicken that Jesus likens himself too. In this passage, like its parallel in Matthew, we are invited to contemplate Jesus as a mother hen whose chicks do not want her.  Though the mother hen stands with her wings extended offering welcome, belonging, shelter, and protection, her chicks will not come home to her.  The wings of this mother hen are empty, leaving her grief stricken, mourning, maybe even struggling with a sense of failure.  So on this second Sunday in Lent, we are offered an image of God as a scorned, dejected, and rejected mother hen that wants nothing more than to care for, project, and welcome her brood home.

So maybe there is something to this beyond triggering memories of the mean chickens of my childhood. 

Leading up to this self-description Jesus has taught the people to repent or perish, he has healed a crippled woman, and taught the parables of the barren fig tree, the mustard seed, the yeast, and has advised the people to strive to enter through the narrow door.  Jesus is slowly making his way to Jerusalem teaching and preaching, healing and working miracles, whilst welcoming others to follow him along the way. 

Just as Jesus gives another Lukan example of the great reversal coming with the unveiling of the Kingdom of God, just as Jesus say to the people, “indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last,” (3) we pick up today’s passage, when Luke tells us, “At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’” (3)

Herod has heard the news of Jesus, and for him, it is not Good News. 

This Herod – Herod Antipas – is no stranger to Jesus.  Jesus knows that he is to be taken seriously, for this is the same Herod who ordered the head of John the Baptist to be served up on a platter during a dinner party.  Knowing the risk, Jesus does not blink.  Jesus hears the warning of the Pharisees, and what does he do . . . he does not thank them, he does not run, he does not heed their warning.  Jesus offers the biblical equivalent of, “Bright in on Herod.”  Jesus says: 

Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.  Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.” (4)

By calling Herod a fox, Jesus is offering a serious insult to the Earthly authority.  Foxes were known as the slyest of animals, they were considered the most destructive of animals, and they were symbols used to describe someone as worthless and insignificant.  

Here Jesus is passing along a message that says, “Listen you sly, destructive, worthless, insignificant man!  There is nothing that you can do to stop the mission I am on.  You cannot stop the miraculous work of healing and restoration, you cannot stop the saving grace God offers the world.  I am going to keep doing what I am doing.  But don’t you worry, as I work towards the completion of my work on the third day (a clear allusion to the resurrection), as I continue to that third day, I am coming to Jerusalem, and I know exactly what fate awaits me there.”  

Not only has Jesus said, “bring it on.”  He has kicked off his heels, taken off his earrings, and is ready to go. 

Jesus’ message to Herod is a daring, bold, powerful,  victorious statement.  What Jesus does next is just as striking.  Instead of taking a victory lap, instead of bragging about his superiority over the forces of this world, Jesus offers a heart-wrenching lament: 

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (5)

In a breath we go from daring and provocative Jesus to God as a mother hen. 

In this turn, as Jesus pivots from bravado to grief, we learn that this image of God as mother hen portrays God as embracing vulnerability, expressing deep lament, and, at the last, offering nothing short of a gracious invitation home.  What a stunning image that is for our Lenten journey. 

During Lent, we are called to embrace vulnerability.  Despite his intentional and pointed mocking of Herod, Jesus never denies or underestimates just how dangerous Herod is. Jesus never, in Luke or any of the Gospels, promises that he will not suffer and face dangerous, deathly consequences for his work.  In fact, he clearly says the opposite.  

Nor does Jesus guarantee us immunity from harm.  A few weeks ago we heard in the Gospel, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.” (6) Jesus is clear that sharing in his glory means sharing in his suffering as well.  But God does not leave us comfortless.  

Like a mother hen, Jesus offers us the fullness of his unguarded, open-hearted, wholly vulnerable self in the face of all that threatens and scares us.  When confronted by a predator, a mother hen will – without hesitation – use her body to protect her clutch.  She will spread out her wings, and lay her body on top of them, sheltering and protecting them, taking on the full brunt and force of the attack.  That is how Jesus uses his body for us.  With arms spread wide, he offers us a place of refuge and protection from all the dangers and tribulations of the world. 

In this season we are invited to embrace Jesus’ vulnerability as our strength.  To seek our own vulnerability and not hide it as a source of shame, but treasuring if as a gift we can offer to others. 

During Lent, we are also called to lament.  And there is certainly much fodder for our lamentations these days.  The mother hen mourns and grieves the rejection she faces from her brood.  But you do not need to be a parent to mourn missed opportunities, broken promises, crushed hopes, or shattered dreams.  We all know that pain.  This morning we are reminded that just as we mourn and lament, God does too.  Jesus grieves for his lost and wandering children.  Jesus mourns for those who have rejected his love.  Jesus weeps for those who have turned a deaf ear and blind eye towards God. 

Lent invites us to practices of self-examination and repentance.  We have been invited to lament for the ways we have turned our backs on God, on each other, and on ourselves.  It is an invitation we were offered just before our foreheads were marked with ashes and we were reminded of our mortality and our humanity.  We have been invited to join God in lamenting for all that could have been. 

Most of all, in this season, we are invited to rise from our knees, to wipe our foreheads clean, and to move from lamentation to restoration.  We are called to return home. 

The mother hen does not close her wings.  She waits filled with a longing desire for her chicks to return to her: to snuggle into the warmth of her wings.  As we walk with Jesus to Jerusalem and follow along the way of the cross, we journey to God who waits on that hill with arms of love stretched wide.  God waits with a fierce desire for us to return him: for us to be released from our restless wandering.  For as St. Augustine once said, “our hearts are restless until they rest in God.” 

Our Lenten invitation is to open ourselves up and reveal our vulnerability; to be honest and lament the ways we have strayed form the way of love; to recognize that we have wandered far enough and it is time to return home. 

As we continue along this way let us walk together: with gentleness and vulnerability, with kindness and compassion.  May we seek to restore what is broken our lives. And may we finally arrive home: meeting God on the cross, finding shelter in those majestic arm; accepting our invitation to share in God’s resurrected glory. 

Amen. 

(1) Luke 13:34b, NRSV.
(2) Luke 13:30, NRSV.
(3) Luke 13:31, NRSV.
(4) Luke 13:32-33, NRSV.
(5) Luke 13:34, NRSV.
(6) Luke 6:22, NRSV.

Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent (6 March 2022).  The Scripture readings can be found here

Christ in the Wilderness, Ivan Kramskoi (1837-1887), Public Domain

Here we are once again embarking on our yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem; our annual journey to the cross and the grave; to the upper room, and to the empty tomb.  Our journey began on Wednesday as we received the invitation to a holy Lent, and our foreheads were marked with ashes.  This year, as is true each Lenten season, we intentionally revisit the legacy of the cross and the defining miracle it offers the world.  But this year is not like every other year. 

Each and every day the world seems to be plagued by increasing violence and sin.  Untold numbers of people are suffering from environmental disaster made more intense by climate change – the consequence of humanity’s impact on the created order.  States across the country are passing anti-LGBT legislation, and at least one Governor is directing his state to charge parents and other adults with child abuse if they provide life saving, gender affirming care for transgender young people.  We continue to watch and wait as Russia wages war in Ukraine, absolutely devastating the country.  Thanks to modern media and the interconnectedness of the global, the world is watching in real time as the evils and atrocities, the sin of war wreak havoc on innocent people.  

As the calls for love, justice, and peace grow louder, they are matched, and at times outdone, by calls of bigotry and hatred.  And we all know that as we move deeper into this mid-term election year we will once more endure a brutal election season where we treat those who stand opposite ourselves on the political spectrum not as neighbors, but as enemies.  

We are also emerging out of the depths of pandemic life.  Walking back protocols and restrictions, learning to live with COVID in new ways.  As is true for so many communities, we emerge out of this time with a bit of uncertainty.  We wonder what will happen next; discerning how God is calling us into the future.  So we enter this Lenten season with uncertainty, and maybe a little bit of fear, for ourselves and for the world as we make our way through. 

It seems to me, now is the time to think a bit differently about Lent; about our lives, and our relationships with God and one another.  As we embark on this journey, we cannot remain fixated on our own sins; our shortcomings; our mortality.  We must acknowledge these things, we must name them honestly, and then let go and turn towards God again.  We must venture to make ourselves ready for the in breaking of God’s grace, abundance, and love.  

The readings we have from Scripture this morning help us do just that. 

The story of the people of Israel that we hear in today’s passage from Deuteronomy is describing a liturgical act that is simultaneously confessing their beliefs, recounting their history, and offering their praise to the glory of God.  They are confessing that the faithfulness of God to the people of Israel is the basis of their own lives.  They proclaim all the ways God has cared for, provided for, and protect them; they proclaim that holy relationship to be the very foundation of their lives.  From that place they are able not only to express their gratitude to God, but they are also able to claim the history of their people as their own story.  It is not simply something that happened long ago, it is who they are.  This is more than a simple “hey thanks God, that was great, couldn’t have done it without you.”  What we hear today the climax of the exodus story. 

Imagine for a moment what it must have been like to be the Israelites.  After thirty-nine years, eleven months, and one week in the wilderness, the Israelites are gathered on the plains of Moab, poised to enter the promised land. After nearly forty years of feeling lost and unsure, having had to learn a mountain of laws and rules, after being chastised for bad behavior (which frankly was, at times, deserved), and after having spent a good deal of their journey confused, underfed, and poorly housed; wondering why in the world they left Egypt in the first place – after all there they had leeks, and cucumbers, and garlic (I mean I can understand the wondering – what’s life without garlic?!) – after all of that, here they sit on the highland overlooking the Jordan River Valley.  At last the promised land is in sight! 

That which they gave up everything for, that for which they have endured, worked, suffered, sacrificed, and some even died for is finally within their grasp.  The sense of God’s grace and blessings must have been overwhelming.  

This liturgical act of thanksgiving is the retelling of this remarkable history.  It is the expression of their unending, profound gratitude to God for uphold God’s promises. Through this gratitude they offer to God the first fruits of the land that God has given them. 

What we read in Deuteronomy today, is not dissimilar from the path we are on.  

In this season we fast, we give things up, not because God desires us to suffer, or because we just want to make ourselves miserable for a few weeks.  As I have said before and will say again, these disciplines we take on are not to help us restart failed New Year’s resolutions because Lent is the liturgical self-help season. 

The journey we hear about in Deuteronomy, the journey to which Lent calls us, is about celebrating God’s unimaginable grace, abundance, and love.  It is about opening ourselves up so that we might be overwhelmed by God’s grace and blessing.  It is about refocusing our attention so that we might be receptive to God’s grace, that we might be made worthy to participant in the mystery of God-with-us. 

This idea of faithfulness to God, constantly adjusting our focus on God’s call to us is not unique to the Israelite’s in Deuteronomy.  It is also at the core of today’s Gospel passage: Luke’s telling of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. 

This passage is at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  Jesus has just been baptized, the Holy Spirit descended on him, and a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (1) Being full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by that same Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days and forty nights he was tempted by Satan. 

The first time Jesus is tempted, the devil says, “If you are the Son of God.”  This, according to some scholars, is a reasonable translation of the text.  However, it is more likely that the accurate translation should be “Since you are the Son of God.”  After Jesus’ baptism there is no question if he is the Son of God.  The question now is what kind of Son of God will he be.  Will he be the Messiah who takes the easy way out?  Or will he be the Messiah who is faithful to God?  I’ll give you one guess as to the answer. 

These three temptations – turning the rock into bread, claiming all the power and authority of the kingdoms of the world, and testing God – are incredibly important.  First, they are not necessarily bad things.  How bad could it be for Jesus to start ending world hunger by converting the rocky terrain of Jerusalem into bread?  How bad could it be for Jesus to claim power and authority away from the brutal power of the Roman Empire?  How bad could it be for Jesus to ask a sign of God?  

This is the point.  Can Jesus be lured away to take the easy way out?  Can his followers be tricked into following the comfortable Messiah?  

Instead of falling for these temptations, Jesus abides by the most difficult of all the commands to “worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” 

Luke’s portrayal of Jesus, the meaning of his earthly ministry and Baptism is unfolded in these three trials.  While he refused to turn stones into bread, Jesus spends his ministry feeding the hungry.  While he refused political power, his preaching and teaching are proclamations of God’s empire of love and justice. While he refused to test God, he goes to the cross in confidence that God’s will for life, will triumph over the political authority’s desire to execute him.  

Each and every time Jesus is tempted to take the easy way out – to follow the comfortable path, he says no.  By saying “no” to the world, he says “yes” to God.  Truthfully at the heart of the matter, this Gospel passage is not about the power of evil, the nature of Christ, or even the allure of temptation: this passage is about obedience.  It is about Jesus’ choice to be obedient to God, and our invitation to follow in his footsteps.  

This is our invitation to say “no” to easy answers and half-truths, and loudly proclaim “yes” to God.  To shout “yes” to God’s love, to shout “yes” to God’s grace, to shout “yes” to God’s call to action and service. 

Jesus’ journey in the wilderness recalls Israel’s forty years of wandering.  In the harsh environment of the wilderness, habits formed by the Israelites while in slavery in Egypt are discarded and new ways of completely trusting God are formed.  Jesus is the perfect example of this trusting relationship.  As we enter into this wilderness season we are invited to discard all the habits we have picked up while being held in the bondage of sin and death and replace them with the perfect freedom that comes from obedience to God.  

The season of Lent reminds us that we do not have to be stuck in slavery, that we do not need to be stuck in the way we have always done things.  Renewal is possible.  Change can happen.  Because 40 days from now (plus Sundays), the second person of the Trinity, the divine Son of God, Jesus will die on the cross.  He will descend into hell, break down the gates of death once and for all, and rise victorious from the grave.  

Jesus begins this journey, he enters the wilderness, only after being baptized and claimed as Beloved.  We too have shared those same waters.  We too have been claimed as Beloved.  

Jan Richardson, artist and poet, captures the importance of our identity as Beloved children of God on this wilderness journey in her poem “Beloved is Where We Begin.”  In closing I share it with you. 

If you would enter
into the wilderness,
do not begin
without a blessing. 

Do not leave
without hearing
who you are:
Beloved,
named by the One
who has traveled this path
before you. 

Do not go
without letting it echo
in your ears,
and if you find
it is hard
to let it into your heart,
do not despair.
That is what
this journey is for.

I cannot promise
this blessing will free you
from danger,
from fear,
from hunger
or thirst,
from the scorching
of sun
or the fall
of the night. 

But I can tell you
that on this path
there will be help. 

I can tell you
that on this way
there will be rest. 

I can tell you
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
bearing comfort
and strength,
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
curious instance
whisper our name: 

Beloved.
Beloved.
Beloved. (2)

Amen. 

(1) Luke 3:22, NRSV.
(2) Jan Richardson, “Beloved is Where We Begin” https://paintedprayerbook.com/2016/02/11/lent-1-beloved-is-where-we-begin/. © Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com.

Sermon for Ash Wednesday (2 March 2022). The Scripture readings can be found here

This morning, as I began my day, I looked out my kitchen window as I waited for the water to boil so I could make my morning coffee.  The sun had not quite risen yet, and things looked a bit gray and hazy outside.  The snow covered yard and bare branches of tress and shrubs casted a familiar monochrome tint over my view.  Even the birds are the feeder were all of a similar gray-brown hue.  

As my kettle came to a boil, I poured the water over my coffee grounds, set the timer, and waited a few more minutes before I could enjoy that sweet elixir that would awaken my senses.  Leaning against my kitchen counter, I found myself thinking this day is the same as always and yet completely different. 

In many ways Ash Wednesday is the same year in and year out.  Every year, we stop what we are doing to mark the beginning of Lent.  Every year, we pause in the midst of the frantic pace of life to remember our mortality – that we are but dust.  This year, while all of that remains true, is also different.  

You see two years ago Ash Wednesday was one of those rare moments when the realities of mortality confronted us head on.  Two years ago this day served as a light on the truth society tried to deny.  The world around us would go to great lengths to deny death, to hide it, to lure us into forgetting that we are not immortal.  But now, there are constant reminders of that everywhere. 

The dull glow over my yard this morning was not merely a reflection of a New England winter morning following an overnight rain.  It was a reflection of the emotional toll the world has seen in these last two years.

The coronavirus pandemic has been a constant reminder of the fragility of life.  In these two years over 950,000 people have died in the United States; nearly 6 million globally.  While we are moving from the pandemic to the endemic stage, beginning to emerge into life again, we will not soon forget how quickly everything can change.  

It is not just the pandemic that offers us this reminder, each day for the last week we have woken to the news of death and destruction in Ukraine.  Imagines of destruction, or residential apartment buildings being bombed, have flooded our screens.  And we know Ukraine is not the only nation suffering the evils of war this day. 

And while historic flooding devastates Australia and Brazil, and as Madagascar emerges from a deadly cyclone, new reports have emerged effectively saying we must take immediate and drastic action if we want any hope of saving this fragile earth our island home from complete environmental disaster.  Those same reports also admit that for some places, it is already too late. Sadly, the communities suffering the most are the ones who have the least responsibility for creating this crisis. 

We do not need to be reminded of our mortality, because death has been our constant companion.  

So why then, you might be asking, do we still gather to keep Ash Wednesday?

We gather because remembering we are dust, is more than a reminder that some day each of us will die.  We keep this day to make a right beginning for the Lenten journey we are embarking on.  This is a solemn day rooted in invitation and promise, rooted in hope and mercy. 

If you have ever been hiking you might be familiar with the signs at the head of a trail. They often contain maps of the route you are about to set out on, they offer descriptions of the terrain that lies ahead, they may even offer pointers to remember along the journey.  Ash Wednesday is the marker at the beginning of the Lenten trail.  This day is that reassuring sign, letting us know what is to come, offering helpful tips before we set out to climb that holy hill. 

In a few moments I will have the privilege of inviting us to begin this journey with these words: 

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. (1)

These are the tasks, the guides, the work of Lent.  These things, each in their own way, invite us to strip away all that separates us from the love of God.  Each of these things invites us to let go of all that we cling to that is not life giving. 

The work of Lent, the work we are invited to now, is the work of clearing out all the things we have tried to substitute for God.  We follow in the footsteps of Jesus and seek that self-emptying posture, that we might become vessels for God to fill with light, mercy, and love.  This is what Lent is all about. 

Lent is not some liturgical equivalent of a self-help book.  It is not about getting a boost on the latest diet we have wanted to try, or getting a jump start on our spring cleaning.  Lent is about preparing ourselves to be set free from all that holds us captive by the abundant, unceasing, incomprehensible love of God. 

Church of England priest, theologian, and artist Maggie Dawn, in her book Giving it up: Daily Bible readings from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day, writes this in her reflection for Ash Wednesday: 

Acknowledging both the sinful nature of humanity and our own particular flaws may be essential if we’re to escape the arrogance that makes the human heart leaden and ugly, but there’s a fine line between that and an over-emphasis on sinfulness, which so easily transforms the lightness of the gospel into the straitjacket of religiosity . . .  I think, though, that a lightness does emerge from the process of facing down our own demons.  When we look our mortality in the face, the inevitability of our own death asks of us, ‘What are you going to do with the life you have? (2)

This day, this season, invites us to look our own mortality in the face and ask “What are we going to do with the life we have?”  

Our Scripture lessons today helps us begin to answer that question. 

The Gospel passage we heard a moment ago from Matthew is the same passage we hear every year.  If we are being honest there is something humorously ironic about hearing this passage on such a solemn occasion. On the day our foreheads are marked with ashes, we hear Jesus say, “Beware of practicing your piety before others.”  (3)

If we stop and think about what Jesus is saying, we might realize there is something more here than meets the eye.  Do we really think Jesus has a problem with public ministry and outward expressions of faith?  After all, this is Jesus who tells the disciples to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth.  This is Jesus who preached in the public square, who preformed miraculous acts in the presence of all to see.  And, by the way, these words we hear Jesus speak today, are taken from the heart of the Sermon on the Mount.  Not the most “do in secret” location there is.

Given all that we know about Jesus, all that we read in Scripture, it seems to me that Jesus is not speaking about acts of public ministry in general, but the motivation for carrying out such works.  Jesus is talking about the why not the what.  

Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.”  

We are called to pray, to proclaim the good news of God, to be generous to those in need, but we are not to do those things to make ourselves look good – so that others say “look how holy they are, look how pious they are, look how generous they are.”  We do these things for the glory of God.  We pray and proclaim the good news of God so that others might know something of how we have experienced God in our lives.  We are generous as a response to the generosity of God.  We love in response to God’s love for us. 

As we consider what we will make of the lives we have been given, Jesus reminds us to be inventional about our motivations – always focusing on whose glory we seek.  

The Prophet Isaiah helps us understand the what of our lives.  Today we hear the prophet declare: 

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (4)

This is the fast we are called to make.  To share in the work of God which brings liberation, which brings healing, which brings wholeness to the world.  As we peel away the layers of skepticism and cynicism from our lives to make room for the Holy Spirit to dwell in us, we are reminded that this journey seeks to incorporate us into the saving work of God in history.  

There is something incredibly poignant about gathering to keep Ash Wednesday in the midst of pandemic and war and environmental disaster.  This day enables us to confront whatever we encounter in the world, whatever darkness might befall us, to face our mortality without fear, because we know the end of the story.  We know what awaits us at the end of our journey; for we have already glimpsed the glories of the resurrection as we stood with Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration.  We know there is another way: the way of hope, the way of love, the way of God that leads to eternal and everlasting life in the kingdom which shall not pass away.  

Today we make a right beginning choosing the fasts of God as our what, and the wisdom of Jesus as our why.  

This morning as I took my first sips of coffee, I noticed that the dullness on display beyond my window began to lift.  The clouds parted, the sun began to shine, and a glorious day broke forth.  No I do not believe my coffee did that; and yes I understand how weather works and what happens as the sun continues to rise. 

What I witnessed this morning, is not far removed from the moment we are in now.  There has been a haze covering the world, a fog preventing us from seeing clearly.  The world has lost a grasp on the why and what of God.  But this is a new beginning.  

Let us make this journey together discovering that God is lifting the veil from our eyes, inviting us to do what is necessary, that we might see the Son breaking forth through the clouds. 

Amen. 

(1) The Book of Common Prayer p. 265
(2) Maggi Dawn, Giving it up: Daily Bible readings from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day p. 13
(3) Matthew 6:1, NRSV.
(4) Isaiah 58:6-7, NRSV.

Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany (27 February 2022). The Scripture readings can be found here

Pietro Perugino, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany.  It is a day sometimes referred to as Transfiguration Sunday – a title given due to the fact that on this Sunday, every year, we hear the story of the transfiguration.  But I fear we do ourselves a disservice by exchanging the title given by The Book of Common Prayer, the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, for this more colloquial title. 

You see, the Transfiguration is already on the Church calendar.  It is a holy day which falls on August 6.  When we call today Transfiguration Sunday we risk conflating these two days, diminishing the opportunity to hear how God is speaking to us in this moment.  For this Sunday is about more than giving us the opportunity to celebrate the Transfigurations every six months instead of once a year. 

The difference between today and that holy day sixth months from now is more than a matter of semantics.  The substance of this difference is captured in the collects of the day for these two occasions. 

Hear the words of the collect for the Feast of the Transfiguration: 

O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.  (1)

This is a beautiful prayer, with fabulous poetic language.  I love that phrase, “you well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening.”  

This prayer draws our attention to the resplendent majesty of the revelation of God on the mountain top. 

As wonderful as that prayer is, that is not the prayer we have today.  I know we just prayed these words a moment ago, but hear them once more: 

O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (2)

There it is.  There is the difference between what we do this day and what we do on that holy day in August. 

Today there is no talk of raiment white and glistening, no King in his beauty.  In the middle of that prayer, after we acknowledge the radiance of God, before we get to the part where we are changed from glory to glory, we have to go through the cross.  

We have arrived at the end of the season that stretches from the Feast of the Epiphany until Shrove Tuesday.  Over the course of these last several weeks, we have heard about how God has been made manifest in the world: how God has been, and continues to be, revealed in our midst.  The season began back on January 6, as we recalled the journey of those travelers from that far off and distant land coming to pay homage to the new born king. 

Of the course of a week we moved from Jesus’ infancy to his adulthood.  On the first Sunday after the Epiphany we celebrated the Baptism of our Lord: the day when Jesus stands on the banks of the Jordan River, is immersed into the living waters of Baptism by John, and begins his earthly ministry.  In that inaugural event, as Jesus comes up out of the waters the heavens are opened and the voice of God declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (3)

After Jesus’ Baptism, we heard John’s telling of his first miracle at the wedding feast at Cana.  In hearing this story we were reminded that this miracle is about far more than Jesus wanting to keep the party going.  God acts on behalf of the bridegroom to prevent great shame from coming upon him.  Not only does God act to eliminate shame, God provides abundance and extravagance.  As God acts for that bridegroom in Cana, so does God act for us.  Transforming our lives, removing the shame, providing abundant blessings for us all. 

Throughout this season we have heard stories of God being revealed in the world.  Through healing miracles and the call of disciples, through proclamations of Jesus’ identity, we have glimpsed what this life of faith is all about.  This journey of manifestation, of revelation, brings us to today.  

Luke tells us that Jesus takes Peter, John, and James up the mountain with him to pray.  While they are there, Jesus is transfigured, they behold his raiment white and glistening. 

If Jesus’ dazzling appearance was not enough, Moses and Elijah are there as well.  Moses, the liberator – the one God calls to lead God’s people out of bondage in Egypt.  Elijah, who does not die but is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, in a chariot of fire.  Elijah, that one whose coming again would signal the dawn of the Messiah.  Their presence connects Jesus’ identity to the great linage of the Jewish tradition; giving context to his ministry.  

Here Jesus is transfigured, with these pillars of the faith beside him, revealing that he truly is the Messiah, the one who has come to set the people free.  What an awesome sight.

Peter, always the first one to jump in, makes clear that he does not want to come down from the mountain.  He wants to remain there, showered in the glory of God, removed from what happens at the foot of the mountain.  After making his desires known, a cloud overshadows them, and from the cloud a voice declares, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (4) And with that, things were as they once were.  Moses and Elijah were gone.  They were alone on the mountain with Jesus. 

This is the second time in Luke’s Gospel that a voice from heaven speaks – the first being at Jesus’ baptism.  This time, that voice is directed at the disciples.  That voice declares to them that their master, their teacher, is the Son of God; and they must listen to him.  This is an incredibly important and necessary command.  

There are numerous occasions where the disciples try to control and manipulate Jesus.  They want Jesus to fit into their understanding and expectations of the Messiah.  They want him to forget about this whole suffering and dying thing.  But no matter how hard they try, nothing can stop what is coming next.  All they can do is listen. 

We do not get to stay on the mountain top, basking in the glory of Jesus’ transfigured glory.  Jesus’ identity requires that he comes down from the mountain, sets his face towards Jerusalem, and begins that long walk that leads to the cross. 

Our identity, as those who share in those same baptismal waters in which Jesus’ identity was first revealed, requires us to listen as well.  For it is from that place, atop that other hill, that Jesus’ identity is revealed again.  It is from that place where we are changed into his likeness. 

It seems to me that we hear this story today, and every year on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, because it is time for us to come down from the mountain and begin the next phase of our journey as well.  

Today as we behold the glory of the transfigured Lord we are not allowed even a modicum of delusion that glory can be separated from suffering – that resurrection can come without the crucifixion; Easter without Good Friday.  Today we are reminded to listen to all the things we are about to hear. 

It can be easy to listen to Jesus when he is preaching marvelous things, casting our demons, and healing the sick.  It is easy when our Scripture lessons are filled with inspiring words that lift us up – those passages we might find ourselves quoting, or that make good fodder for a bumper sticker.  But in the weeks ahead we are going to hear some things that are a bit more challenging.  We are going to hear rebukes, we will witness Jesus get angry, we will hear of the death and suffering that is to come.  We might just find that in the weeks ahead, instead of being inspired by miracles, we are called up short.  For when Jesus rebukes those around him, we might hear him rebuking us as well.  We can hear the ways we have fallen short, the ways we have not lived into our potential, the ways we sin – all those things, those barriers, we put between ourselves and each other, between ourselves and God.  This day serves as a transition moment as we enter into that season which invites us to face this reality head on. 

The season of Lent invites us to repentance and self-examination.  It invites us to prayer, fasting, and study.  It invites us to be honest with ourselves and name those things we might not be particularly proud of – those barriers we have set up along the way, those times we have refused to let the love of God into our lives. 

We take on this work of examination, we seek to amend our ways, not because we have to appease an angry and wrathful God set on punishing us into oblivion.  We do this so that we might be who God has created us to be.  That we might experience the fullness of all that God intends for us. 

Lent is not about beating ourselves up; Lent is about love.  Love that seeks to transform us, love that seeks to transfigure our lives that we might live more fully into all the covenants and promises we have made with ourselves, with each other, and with God. 

Lent requires hard work and difficult things from us.  If we get to Easter and the only sense of relief we have is that relief which exclaims, “Yay!  I get to each chocolate again!” then we have missed something.  

The relief we should feel on Easter is the relief that we have made the journey once more.  We have examined those things we might be ashamed of, we have named those things we wish were different, we have honestly and intentionally looked at all the barriers we have setup on our lives; and we have laid those burdens down at the foot of the cross.  We have placed them in the hands of God, that God might redeem them, transform them, and set us free.  That is the relief of Easter.  The relief is basking in the cruciform glow of the cross, the emptiness of the tomb, and hearing God say to us, “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” 

As we come to this day, let us not get stuck on the mountain top.  Let us be brave enough to come down and dwell in the chaos of life with Jesus.  Let us march on, following the path illuminated by our transfigured Lord.  And as we set out on this journey we can let go of our fear.  This is a well-worn path; worn by the footsteps of Jesus, paved with the love of God. 

Just as Jesus’ identity is revealed in Baptism and rooted in the cross, so is our identity.  As we stand beholding the light of God’s countenance may we be strengthened for the road ahead: to make it to that place of the cross for it is from there that we too will be transfigured.  If is from there that we will be changed into Jesus’ likeness from glory to glory. 

Amen. 

(1) The Book of Common Prayer, p. 243
(2) Ibid., 217.
(3) Luke 3:22, NRSV.
(4) Luke 9:35, NRSV.

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany (20 February 2022). Sermon given by The Rev’d Veronica M. Tierney, PhD.  The Scripture readings can be found here

the Providence Lithograph Company, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I wonder how these words of Jesus are sitting with you right now: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Maybe you’re thinking Jesus is just doing that thing where he tells us to do really extreme things like cut off our hands or pluck out our eyes – surely he’s not really serious.  Or maybe you’re worried that he might really be serious, but you’re not so sure any of it is possible? Or at least, not possible for you.  How are we supposed to love and to do good, and to bless and to pray for people who have hurt us? Especially the one who won’t acknowledge the pain they’ve caused, much less apologize for it?  

This story of Joseph and his brothers is beautiful. It’s full of the kind of reconciliation that the Good News of Jesus is all about. It’s got good coming out of evil and triumphing over bad intentions. It’s got the villains of the story suffering, brought low by famine, forced to beg the brother they don’t even recognize for food to stay alive. And at the big reveal, those villains are wracked with guilt over their misdeeds and filled with fear over how the brother they sold into slavery just to get rid of him and his annoying dreams would repay them for their abuse.  

And then, what they get is not their just deserts; what they get is not what they deserve. Instead, they get the tears of a man who missed his brothers. They receive mercy. They receive forgiveness. And they are given, not just the food they had come begging for, but a whole new life. They are given a new home in Goshen, some of the most fertile land in Egypt, for themselves and their families and their flocks and herds.  They receive the protection and patronage of their brother Joseph. 

Joseph has done all the things that Jesus has preached about. Joseph has loved his enemies, done good to those who hated him, bless those who cursed him, and prayed for those who abused him.  Joseph would have been entitled to condemn his brothers, but he laid aside that right and preserved them and provided for their flourishing.

But what about those of us who have been deeply wounded, perhaps by someone dear to us, but who never have the experience of that person’s remorse? Never hear those precious words, “I’m sorry”?  What about those of us who have been hurt by strangers, by their words of hatred or their actions that demean us or threaten us?  Even if we wanted to follow Jesus in love and good works, in blessing and prayer, how can we hope to succeed when the task seems so out of reach?

We call ourselves Christians because we strive to follow Christ. If we’re honest with ourselves, we also know that we fall short. We don’t love our enemies, not really. If we did, if we really and truly loved our enemies, this world would be a radically different place.  The cycle of retribution began with the story of Cain and Abel, where Cain murdered his brother out of jealousy.  And the power and alure of retribution is alive today. We speak about retribution, but we call it justice. We demand an eye for an eye.  We demand that the one who wronged us pays dearly, and yet we’re quick to beg for mercy when we’re the ones at fault.  

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  The cycle of retribution cannot be broken with retribution.  It can only be broken with something totally new, totally different.  At Christmas, we hear the first verses of John’s Gospel: The light shined in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  And those verses invite us to remember that God’s first act was to speak the words: Let there be light.  

This season of Epiphany is all about helping us to recognize Jesus, helping us to understand who he is, and what he’s all about.  Jesus is that inbreaking light that drives out darkness, the love that drives out hate.  Jesus is the one who loves his enemies enough to lay down his life for them.  And even more than that, he prays for their forgiveness.

But here’s the thing. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul teaches that, “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”  We are Joseph’s brothers who gave up their brother to slavery. And we are the crowds who cried out on Palm Sunday, “Crucify him, crucify him.” While we were sinners, while we were enemies of Jesus, he died for us.  He refused to meet our violence against him with violence.  He turned his other cheek after we struck him. He did not withhold his clothing when we stripped him. 

Until we recognize Jesus, until we recognize his love for us that is so far beyond what we deserve, until we acknowledge and accept his mercy and his forgiveness, really and truly, in our bones, then we have no hope of loving our enemies or doing good to those who hate us or any of the rest of it.  And I can say this in all confidence.  Because Jesus tells us that apart from him we can do nothing.  But with him, nothing shall be impossible.  

Just like Joseph’s brothers received a new life in Egypt, so too do we receive new life in Christ when we find ourselves reconciled to God through him. We receive new life, and a new identity and a whole new way of being in this world.  This is what happens in the sacrament of baptism. We die to our old lives, we die to our enmity with God, we share in Christ’s death. And we share in his resurrection, we share in his triumph over all that separated us from God. In our baptism, we are united with Jesus, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.  And each time we partake of the Eucharist, he feeds us by his body and blood.  As we grow in our new life in Christ, as we deepen our discipleship, as we become more and more Christlike, our capacity to love, and to do good, and to bless, and to pray, expands, until, as St. Paul teaches, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” 

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (13 February 2022). The Scripture readings can be found here

James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). The Sermon of the Beatitudes (La sermon des béatitudes), 1886-1896. Public Domain 

Here is a fun fact.  Did you know that there are two different versions of the beatitudes?

Both Matthew and Luke recount what is arguably Jesus’ most memorable sermon.  But if you were to look at these passages side by side, you might discover that they are not actually as similar as they might seem.  There is a reason why everyone knows the Sermon on the Mount, and few know the Sermon on the Plain.

Matthew’s account, the Sermon on the Mount, presents us with a spiritualized version of the beatitudes.  Matthew has Jesus preaching, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (1) and “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”  (2)

Jesus’ sermon, in Matthew’s Gospel, allows us to remain in the spiritual realm, focusing on our souls and the realities of our minds.  It seems this is the version that many prefer; finding deeper connection the spiritualized nature of these words.  I think that might be why Monty Python’s the Life of Brian chooses Matthew’s version to parody instead of Luke’s.  To be clear there is nothing wrong with this.  The state of our spiritual lives is important. It is good and holy work to seek after justice and righteousness.  And, there is also something this account misses.

Luke tells Jesus sermon, the Sermon on the Plain, in strikingly different terms.

Writer Debie Thomas begins a blog post on today’s scripture readings as follows, and I quote, “Blessed are you who are poor, hungry, sad, and expendable.  Woe to you who are rich, full, happy, and popular.  This week’s Gospel in a nutshell.  Boom.” (3)

While we might laugh off, or roll our eyes at, Thomas’ distillation of today’s passage, I think she is on to something.

It really should not come as a surprise that Luke’s version of the beatitudes is real and hard hitting.  Luke, after all, is the Gospel writer who gives us the Magnificat; who from the very first chapter proclaims the great reversal of the way things are to the way things should be – to the way things will be.  In Luke’s Gospel, God does not open the door to let the marginalized and oppressed in; no, God kicks down that door so hard it shattered into splinters.

The beatitudes we hear today are not spiritual; they are not about internal thoughts and the life of the mind.  They are corporeal, they are about real life and the physical suffering of humanity.  This is a sermon meant to be felt not only in our hearts, but in our bodies.

This is a sermon of observation.  Jesus is not playing mind games to discover what the crowd around him is thinking.  He is not making commands, nor is he issuing judgments.  Jesus is naming the truth of the world around him as he sees it, and contrasting that with the truth of the kingdom of God which he has come to proclaim.  As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “It is simply the truth about the way things work, pronounced by someone who loves everyone.”

Jesus is saying to that large multitude gathered around him: when the odds seem stacked against you, when the world seems to do nothing but keep you down, when it is most difficult to hold onto hope, that is when you need to hang on just a bit more.  Whatever you are experiencing now, know that it is not the end.  While this is the way things are now, this is not the way things will be.  The day is coming when the prophecy will be fulfilled.

We heard the prophecy just a few weeks ago on January 23.  We heard it when Jesus stood up in the temple to read these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (4)

Now in this sermon, Jesus lays out what the fulfillment of that prophecy means.  The good news he has come to proclaim is good news for the poor, the outcast, those the world deems expendable.  It is a message which proclaims God is near, that God will provide.  That God does care.  The day is surely coming when the kingdom will be fulfilled, the prophecy will be realized, and your suffering will be no more.

It is a wonderful, amazing, awesome message.

Now if today’s passage stopped at verse 22, if is stopped after the last “blessed” then I think we could all say “Amen” and feel good knowing this is the message God has come to proclaim in our midst.  But the passage does not end in a place which makes us feel good.  It goes on for four more verses, and this is where things get hard.

I will be honest, I wish we could skip these verses.  I want to avoid them because they have the power to convict me.  Because in comparison to the vast majority of the world I am rich.  I am full.  I am laughing.  I am spoken well of . . . I mean at least by a few people.  So woe is me; and I know I am not the only one in this place for whom those woes are addressed.

In this passage we go from what feels amazing to what feels pretty awful.  We go from hearing Good News to hearing a message that is direct and terse, pointed and searing.

So I wonder . . . where do we go from here?  What does Jesus’ sermon mean for us?

Instead of indictment, I think Jesus is offering us an invitation.  I do not think Jesus ever seeks out to shame us, instead he seeks to create opportunities for growth – opportunities to deepen our relationships with God.

There is nothing wrong with money, with being full, with laughing.  The problem comes not from those things in and of themselves, but from our priorities and our idols.  The problem comes when we focus more on our own achievements and accolades that on participating in God’s work in the world.  The problem comes when we fill our lives with so many things that we do not leave room for God – even when those things a good and right.  Jesus is effectively saying, “blessed are you who have God and nothing else, and woe to you who have everything but God.”

As Jesus lifts up the importance of the need for God in our lives, it is important to pay attention to what Jesus is not doing.  This sermon is not one of those parables where sheep are separated from goats.  Jesus does not offer blessings to some and woes to others. Every person is addressed with blessings and woes.  Jesus is naming the world as he sees it.  He names the fact that there are patterns to our lives, cycles that move us from blessing to woe and back again.  We invite blessing every time we find ourselves empty and yearning for God, and we invite woe every time we retreat into self-satisfaction.

When we are full of all the other stuff of life and not God, God comes inviting us to make room.  God comes to empty our lives not as punishment, but as grace.  Not as condemnation, but as loving reorientation.  When we are vulnerable and empty in the world’s eyes, God blesses us with the fullness of divine mercy and kindness.  In other words, our God is a God both of comfort and challenge, and in the divine economy, we are, all of us, on one level.  Blessed and woeful.  Saint and sinner.

If you were nervous about where you fell on the scales of blessed and woe, I hope you will take a deep breath and know that we are a both/and kind of people.  We are both blessed and woe, moving back and forth as we journey through this thing called life.  As we go through the cycles, God comes to us, guiding us along the right path, helping us discern a way that will lead to the life-giving abundance of God.

As we gather this morning, and listen once more to Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain,  I think there is a particular comfort for us.

This has been a difficult week full of tears and mourning.  Two beloved members of our community have died:  Donald Boulais and Jan Boyd.  I know the very sudden nature of Jan’s death has been particularly shocking and difficult for us.  Of course, this is in addition to the grief and pain many of you are carrying and currently experiencing in your own lives.

While there are no easy answers, no magic formulas to make the pain and grief go away.  We are reminded that God is very much present in the midst of our daily struggles.  Just as Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus his friend, so too does God weep with us now.

As we listen to Jesus’ sermon today, we are assured of God’s continual presence with us.  We are reminded that the way things are in this moment is not how they will be forever.  While we mourn now, we will know laughter again.  In our grief God reaches out to us, holding us tenderly, calling us blessed.   

This day let us have the strength to put our trust in God.  Let us have faith to believe that this is not the way things end for Donald, for Jan, or for us.

As we continue to walk this earthly journey may the God who gives and takes away, offers comfort and challenge, grant us the grace to sit with woe, and learn the meaning of blessing.

Amen.

(1) Matthew 5:30, NRSV.
(2) Matthew 5:6, NRSV.
(3) https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/3319-leveled
(4) Luke 4:18-19, NRSV.

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (6 February 2022). The Scripture readings can be found here

James Tissot, “The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (La pêche miraculeuse)” Public Domain

In the mid-aughts an Off Broadway musical premiered in New York called Altar Boyz.  By the way, the word Boyz is spelt b-o-y-z.  This show, which closed in 2010, is a musical comedy satirizing the boy band phenomenon and contemporary Christian-themed music in America. 

While I never saw the show, being the musical theater fan that I am, I of course purchased the soundtrack and spent lots of time rocking out to songs like “The Miracle Song” which is about the miracles of Jesus and “Church Rulez” (also spelt with a z) which recounts the physical motions of worship with poetic lyrics such as “stand up, kneel, sit down, and sing a hymn to heaven.  Stand up, knell, sit down, and watch the organist play.”  Though my favorite words from that song are, “Sit down, and listen to the homily / Sit down, and hear what the priest has to say.”  But I digress . . .

One of the things I have come to appreciate about this musical is the way that the songs, through humor, actually capture important things of our faith. 

Earlier this week, upon reading today’s Gospel passage, I found myself humming one of the songs without even realizing it.  The song is titled “The Calling”  and the opening lyrics go like this. 

Looking outside of my window / Watching the world passing by / Feeling so terribly lonely / Wanting to sit down and cry / Suddenly I felt a presence / Ending my deep dark fears / There was this heavenly sound / Of something ringing in my ears   . . . 

Jesus called me on my cell phone / No roaming charges were incurred / He told me that I should go out in the world / And spread His glorious word. 

Throughout the rest of the song the band members (named Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan, and Abraham) sing of the transformation in their lives as they accepted the call of God.  To each of them the call comes through the everyday things of life.  

As the song ends Luke sings, and keep in mind this was released in 2005: 

Jesus called me on my cell phone (dialing his Nokia He called me on the phone) / the clearest voice I ever heard / He beeped me! / He faxed me! / He emailed my soul! / And said / Till the day I’m dead / That I must spread His glorious word.”

In their mission to spread the word of God, the Altar Boyz remind us that Jesus comes to us where we are, through things that are familiar, casting light into our lives that has the power to cast out all fear – that has the power to lift our lives heavenward.  

Today we hear from Luke the Evangelist, not Luke the boy band member, about another call story.  The story of Simon Peter, along with James and John the Sons of Zebedee. 

Now each Gospel tells the disciples call stories in different ways. In John’s Gospel Peter is not the prime focus, instead his brother Andrew is.  Andrew is the one who encounters Jesus; afterwards going to Simon saying, “We have found the Messiah.” (1) When Andrew brings Simon to Jesus, Jesus looks at him and says, “You are Simon son of John.  You are to be called Cephas” which John tells us is translated as Peter. (2)

Matthew and Mark have nearly identical accounts, in fact Matthew took his account from Mark.  As they tell the story, Jesus is walking along the shore, where he sees Peter and Andrew casting nets into the seas.  Jesus calls them saying “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” (3)  Then they drop their nets and follow, and immediately after, with similarly few words, we hear the call of James and John the sons of Zebedee. 

Luke, draws out this story far more than his counterparts.  Truth be told, I’m grateful we hear Luke’s telling this year.  The emotion which Luke captures, is strikingly similar to the emotion of much of the church today.  

As is true with the other Evangelists, Luke finds Jesus at the shore.  Though in Luke’s telling he is not walking alone.  A crowd is pressing in on him, people have come to hear him preach the word of God.  This scene comes shortly after Jesus was preaching in the synagogue – when what he said angered the people so much they wanted to push him off the cliff.  It comes after he has healed two people.  Word is clearly spreading about him.  People want to know more.  

To get some distance from the crowd so he can continue teaching, Jesus gets into one of the boats.  The one belonging to Simon.  When he has finished, Jesus turns his attention to Simon and says, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” (4)

I wonder what went through Simon’s mind at that moment?  He and all the other fishermen had been out all night from dusk til dawn.  They have spent hours doing back breaking work, and to add insult to injury, they have nothing to show for their labors.  All of those hours and not a single fish.  I imagine the men just want to finish cleaning and go home. 

Whatever was going on for Peter, he responded to Jesus saying, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.  Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” (5) Peter shares with Jesus the honesty of their failure, but trusts enough to do what Jesus says. So once more the fishermen head out into deeper waters and let down their nets.  They do the same thing they have been doing all night long.  But this was not night. 

Following Jesus’ command the fisherman experience a catch beyond their wildest dreams.  This time their nets were so full they were on the cusp of breaking.  They had to call other boats to come help, and when all was said and done the boats were so full they were starting to sink.  How incredibly awesome it must have been to see that extravagant bounty.

Jesus gives Simon a glimpse of what God’s kingdom will look like when it is fully established.  God’s kingdom will suffer no empty nets.  In God’s Kingdom the things of our ordinary lives will be transformed into icons of God’s glory. 

Simon Peter recognized what was happening.  He knew this catch was otherworldly, that something far greater was at work to accomplish such abundance.  And he was terrified by it.  He falls to his knees begging Jesus to leave him for he believes he is unworthy to be the recipient of such grace. 

“Do not be afraid.”  That is what Jesus says in response to Simon Peter’s plea. 

Those four words say so much more than what is contained on the surface.  When Jesus says “Do not be afraid” he is saying that Simon Peter can let go of any sense of unworthiness he might have.  He is saying that this is only the beginning of what will be revealed.  He is saying, my friend you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. He is saying that God is calling him for exactly who he is to be part of the life transforming abundant work of God in the world.  

God comes to Peter in the midst of failure, in the midst of exhaustion, saying do not give up.  Keep trying.  Take the risk of failure one more time. 

As we have sojourned through these 23 months of pandemic life I wonder if we are in a similar place as Peter.  Are we not exhausted?  Have there not been moments where we have had to honestly name our failures?  

As I read stories from around the wider church there seems to be reluctance in holding on to the practices and traditions we have.  People claim, “we have tried that and it did not work.  They profess Simon’s words, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.”  Yet these same stories have cut off the most important words Peter says, “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 

Jesus comes to us, in the midst of our exhaustion, inviting us to continue to persevere, inviting us to trust that God’s abundance will shine, inviting us to hold on to hope. 

Jesus calls Simon Peter, along with James and John the sons of Zebedee in the midst of their daily lives.  Their discipleship is rooted in a context they understand.  He invites them to bring along the knowledge and experience they have – to use their gifts in a new way.

God does not call us into abstraction or in generic terms.  Otherwise Christianity would be nothing more than going to church and being a nice person.  Our calls come in the midst of the particulars of our lives, our communities, our cultures, our families, our experiences.  God uses the gift of fisherman for an abundant catch.  God uses the gift of teachers to instruct the minds and hearts of all God’s beloved children.  God uses the gift of healthcare professionals to make connections and bring about all kinds of healing.  God uses the gift of those who craft to provide warm hats and gloves to those who are cold.  God uses the gifts of a thrift shop to provide resources for a community in need.  God treasures our intellects, backgrounds, education, and skills, and God uses those very gifts to bless and multiply the daily stuff of life for God’s purposes.

God calls us in ways we can understand, in the midst of our daily lives, in contexts that we know. May we turn our ears so that we can hear the invitation to follow from wherever it comes:  be it along the shore, through a phone call, fax, email, or text.  Who knows, maybe we will even discover God’s call through Wordle. 

Later this morning we will gather for our Annual Meeting, to give thanks for what has been and look ahead to what is to come.  As we enter this new year I hope we will hold Simon’s words, “Yet if you say so, I will” close to our hearts.  I hope we will hear Jesus’ words, “Do not be afraid.”  I pray that we, like Simon, will be able to trust God enough to take that leap of faith into the infinite possibility of God.  

May we face whatever comes, always discerning the will of God, honestly naming the truth of where we have been, and then taking the risk to try once more.  May our mantra always be, “Yet if you say so, we will.” 

Amen. 

(1) John 1:41, NRSV.
(2) John 1:42, NRSV.
(3) Mark 1:17, NRSV / Matthew 4:19, NRSV.
(4) Luke 5:4, NRSV.
(5) Luke 5:5, NRSV.

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (30 January 2022). The Scripture readings can be found here

James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue (Jésus dans la synagogue déroule le livre), 1886-1894. Public Domain

It has been said, that you can never go home.  

Once you have left home, once you have experienced new things, once you have grown and changed, it is hard to go back.  It is hard to go back to that place where people knew you when.

Today we hear of Jesus’ return to his hometown.  He is back in his home synagogue teaching, and, as a result of what he says, the congregation is angered to the point where they want to push him off a cliff.  Clearly Jesus is learning what it means to go home again. 

Now I have some sympathy for those gathered in the synagogue for worship.  It is never easy hearing difficult things, being called out on the ways in which we have missed the mark.  It certainly does not make the message easier to digest when it comes from someone you’ve known since they were this high.  But that is exactly what Jesus did, and it is exactly what the lessons force us to contend with as well. 

Our reading today from Luke is the second hall of what we heard last Sunday.  Every time I hear the first half of this story I am filled with inspiration from the marvelous work of God.  How can we not be filled with awe upon hearing these words: 

[Jesus] unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” (1)

In reading those powerful words from the prophet Isaiah; Jesus is calling out to all those with ears to hear then and now, letting us know what his mission is. 

Today, when I so desperately want the Gospel to continue building upon that energy, I find the wind taken out of my sails.  For we hear Jesus saying, “Hang on a minute.  Things are not that simple.”  Today’s part of the story comes with a big reality check. 

This story is so important that all of the synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – have a version of it.  They all show Jesus going back to his hometown, worshipping as was his custom, and saying something that enrages the community.  In going back and teaching in his home synagogue Jesus disrupts the status quo of believers.  He changes the story, challenges what the people have come to believe about how God works in the world.  He angers the people, infuriates those he has known for his whole life.  

Now Matthew and Mark’s account of this episode comes after Jesus’ ministry has already been established.  He has traveled around, called disciples, taught, and headed.  But Luke’s placement of the story is different. 

Luke has transported this incident to make it the foundation of Jesus’ ministry.  Unlike the other versions, Luke does not have Jesus teaching and doing great miracles prior to this visit to the synagogue.  Despite what is said in the passage, Jesus has not done anything nor has he even been to Capernaum yet. 

Luke is interrupting the chronological order of Jesus’ ministry, and he does so intentionally. 

Jesus, as we discover him in Luke’s Gospel, is all about breaking down barriers and boundaries.  In this telling of the Good News, the lowly are lifted up and the mighty are cast to the ground.  Emphasis is placed on God’s compassion as Jesus reaches out to live and work amongst the marginal members of his society: women, shepherds, the less-than-pious, tax collectors, the poor, the sick, the oppressed.  God’s preferential option for the outcast of society is on full display.  That is precisely what Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, and he does so by retelling the stories of the prophets. 

“But the truth is,” Jesus says, while many were suffering in the time of Elijah, he does not go to the many widows of Israel but to a foreigner – the widow at Zarephath.  And while there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha he goes only to a gentile – Naaman the Syrian. 

In retelling these traditions from the prophets, Jesus is illustrating that sometimes foreigners and gentiles – sometimes those outside of the established household of God – experienced God’s aid when Israel did not. 

The recitation of these ancient stories provoked the temple crowd that moments earlier had spoken well of Jesus.  The crowd was incensed that one of their own had the audacity to sit among them and intimate that they would not be the vessels for the unfolding of God’s new narrative. 

If I might be so bold, the Church today, are the modern day equivalent of Jesus’ ancient townspeople.  We are the ones who think we know Jesus best.  We are the ones most in danger of domesticating him.  We are the ones most likely to miss him when he shows up in faces we do not recognize or revere.  This morning’s Gospel passage forces us to take a hard look at our lives, and the life of the Church, and ask, “What will it take to follow God into new and uncomfortable territory?  To see and experience God where we least desire to look?  What will it take to get us to leave home?” 

What gets Jesus into trouble is that he dared to say that his fellow worshippers do not own or control God.  God is not yours, Jesus says, you are God’s. 

I wonder if the way the pandemic has forced us out of our comfort zones is a good launching point for discovering and discerning the new thing God is calling us to as we await post-pandemic life.  We have been forced to follow God into new and uncomfortable places – I mean what we are doing today is a prime example.  I wonder how else are we being called to move into the regions beyond our current imaginings?  I wonder if there is a gift in coming to recognize how little control we actually have? 

As we hear these words today we must ask ourselves, will we be transformed by Jesus’ teaching and go forth from this place seeking the new thing God is doing in the world?  Or will we join the angry mod and attempt to push Jesus off a cliff? 

There is one thing that will enable us to choose the former over the latter: love.

Not just any love, not the Hallmark, Rom-Com kind of love, but the never-stopping, never-giving up, constantly active, tough, resilient, and long-suffering love of God.  The love that Paul describes in today’s epistle. 

Unfortunately this passage has become synonymous with weddings, but truth be told, intimate romantic love between partners was the last thing on Paul’s mind. 

Word has gotten to Paul that the people of Corinth are harming one another.  They have forgotten that they are one body, and instead have created hierarchies ranking themselves by spiritual gift – sorting out who is superior and who is inferior. 

Paul is writing to them reminding them what it means to follow Christ.  Here he is chastising them saying it does not matter if you understand all the mysteries of the universe, if you possess all the knowledge there ever was, if your faith is so strong as to move mountains because if you do any of those things without love you are nothing.  You have lost everything, because you have lost sight of our core identity. 

The love we are called to have is not another virtue to master, it is the defining characteristic of who we are called to be.  

Paul is doing to the Corinthians the same thing that Jesus does to the townspeople of Nazareth.  He inserts this passage into his letter not to offer a pious reflection on the way things should be, but rather to call the Corinthians to account for their behavior.

Our capacity to flourish as the people of God is realized in the extent that we can live in the love of God.  It is revealed in our ability to follow and to participate in the unfolding of God’s new narrative in the world at all costs.  It is to be with and to become an outsider.  It is to risk the journey in the desert, the trek to the Jordan, the road to Jerusalem, and the walk up the hill to the cross.  

As with so many aspects of our faith, this might seem impossible.  As individuals, I think it probably is.  But together, as the body of Christ, empowered by the grace of God, all things become possible.  

If Jeremiah can be one of the great prophets – with all his anxiety, excuses, lack of experience, and doubt – than so can we.  For just as God reaches out and touches Jeremiah, putting God’s word in his mouth, so too does God reach out to us. 

It happens every day, in moments great and small, but there might be no moment when this happens more profoundly than when we gather together to celebrate the Eucharist.  In this Sacrament the Word of God comes to our lips.  As we present our selves, our souls and bodies as we are sanctified to serve in unity, constancy, and peace.  

If we desire to be like Jesus and not the angry townspeople, if we desire to be like Paul and not those cranky Corinthians, then we must practice love together.  If we want to set the captives free, restore sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free, then we must practice love together.  If we wish to see God’s new narrative unfolding in the world, then we must practice love together.  We must practice love that is patient and kind; that is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  Love that risks it all, not counting the cost, going to that place where only God dare go. 

If we can practice this love, if we can embody this love, if we can proclaim this love in thought, word, and deed; then we will have made the decision to follow God.  Then we will be people who embody the love of God.  Then they will say of us, and the ministry we share, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearting.” 

Amen. 

(1) Luke 4:18-21, NRSV.

Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany (23 January 2022).  The Scripture readings can be found here

Raphael, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There are times when after reading the lessons for a particular occasion there is a theme that quickly emerges, demanding attention.  This is one of those occasions, for throughout the week there was one thing that kept jumping out at me.  One thing that consistently emerged in prayer as something requiring our focus.  

Now, this is not to say that the other lessons and ideas should be ignored.  All of today’s lessons have deep layers worthy of being unpacked. 

Today’s passage from Nehemiah speaks powerfully to the importance of worship and the law.  This passage has the ability to open our minds and expand our understanding of what is contained in the law and the prophets.  The law is not about punishment, but rather it is a tool that reveals to us the will of God: calling out the sinful desires of humanity, and helping us put limits on behavior that can corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.  This recalibration of our relationship to the law happens within the context of worship, for it is through worship that our lives are transformed.  Nehemiah can help us understand more fully our connection and relationship to the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament – it can help us see our more clearly our connection and relationship with the Jewish tradition.  

Then in our Gospel passage we hear from Luke what Jesus’ ministry is all about.  Luke situates this story in this precise moment of the Gospel, immediately following Jesus’ baptism and his time of temptation in the wilderness, to convey that the words Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah – which by the way are words he has intentionally chosen – Luke does this to say that these words are what will define Jesus’ ministry.  This is the keynote address, the words which everything else is to be measured by.  Jesus’ ministry is all about care and concern for the marginalized and oppressed.  It should be noted, just as our reading from Nehemiah occurs during worship, so too does this reading from Luke.  

Today I am particularly gratefully that we are a tradition that follows a lectionary cycle, for that means we will hear these scripture lessons together again.  We will return to them again and again, once every three years, so that we can continue to discover the vital implications they have for our ministries.  

As important and necessary as these teachings are, there is one piece that I think it particularly urgent for us to hear. When I say us, I mean those of us gathered here today in-person and virtually, and the members of our community that are absent this morning.  I mean the wider community, the state, the nation, even the world.  This is a message for us all.

In this passage from the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes of the importance of community and our interconnectedness to one another using the imagery of a body.

Now using the metaphor of a body is not a new thing.  This was, and continues to be, a fairly common literary practice.  What Paul does, is put a new spin on it.  

For millennia communities and organizations have been compared to a body.  But more often than not these images are used to establish hierarchies.  The powerful more exalted people considered the head or the brain, while the so called lower members of the community relegated to parts of the body that are a bit less glamorous. It is from this that ideas like “know your place” come from.  It is from this that we might begin to think less of ourselves because we are not the most coveted parts of the body, or we might become full of ourselves thinking we are superior.  

Paul’s twist on this metaphor erases these ideas.  Paul talks about the body in a way where every member, every part, is valued for its unique gift and function; where the body is whole only when all parts are accounted for.

As an aside, these writings, can be used to disparage those who are disabled.  Using Scripture to denigrate those who do not fit the normative standard is antithetical to the work of God. If you do not believe me I invite you to reread today’s Gospel passage. 

Paul is not writing that a person is inferior if their body does not work “as it is supposed to.”  Paul is writing about community and how we are to see one another.  So to use this passage to harm those who are differently abled is a deep perversion of what the apostle is actually doing.  

First and foremost, Paul is reminding those who read this letter that we are all intimately connected and united to each other.  It is through the Baptismal waters we share that our many-ness becomes one-ness, “for in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” (1)

The second point Paul is making comes out of our unity as one body, and here is where the twist to this common literary trope comes in.  Because we are one body, all parts are necessary and of equal importance.  No one can say to another they are not needed, and no part is lesser than another because of its unique identity.  

This second point has some real urgency for Paul’s original audience. 

The Church in Corinth is struggling to maintain its unity.  There are factions that think they are more important than others.  Some are trying to create hierarchies of gifts, establishing a system which says because we have these gifts we are better than those who posses other gifts.  This wrestling for power and superiority threatens to tear the whole community asunder. 

Paul is trying to make clear that it is only when the power of our gifts combine that we see the full strength of the community.  For if we only have the gift of sight how can we hear, and if we only have the gift of smell, how can we taste? 

If there is room for everyone, if all parts are necessary, then there is another implication of this teaching that we cannot miss. 

If we are to insist that every member is needed, that means there is always a place for us.  It means we cannot say that because we do not have that gift, because we are not like those people there is no room for us in the body.  

The diversity of our gifts, experiences, and identities are necessary for the body to function.  For if instead of a face, we just had a massive eye . . . well that’s when we shift from body to monster.  And as interesting as the cyclopes might be in Greek mythology, that is not really what we are going for here. 

As a society we have a lot of stories and sayings that capture what Paul is writing: from the Three Musketeers motto of “All for one, and one for all” to the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers transforming into the Megazord, to like every Superhero universe there is.  However, it feels like we have left that idea to the storybooks – something for fantasy not reality. 

I do not need to tell you how divided our communities and nation are.  I am sure I am not the only one who gets exhausted watching the news, seeing the constant reminder of just how polarized and divided we have become, making any sort of cooperation nigh impossible.  It seems in our desire to be right, in our desire to win, in our desire to be seen as the most valuable, we have lost sight of the fact that we are one – and what happens to one happens to the entire body. 

While this is clearly displayed in the national political arena, we also see it closer to home. Who amongst us has not felt the relief of saying “good riddance they’re gone” when someone we do not get along with leaves the community?  Who amongst us does not stand convicted by these words?  Who amongst us has not questioned our ability to belong?

When Paul writes to the Corinthians he is saying to them, you do not have to go down the path you are currently on.  Each and every day, each and every time we gather, we have the opportunity to start again.  To see our neighbor as beloved, to see our neighbors as important and necessary, as an integral part of the body. 

If we are to see others as beloved, we have to start by seeing ourselves as beloved too. For if our neighbor is integral so are we.  

I wonder if at the heart of our division is a sense of insecurity.  I wonder if sometimes we get so preoccupied with those we think do not belong because it distracts us from any thoughts that say we do not belong.  I wonder if sometimes we might puff ourselves up, thinking we have the superior gift or belief because we are afraid that we are not enough – afraid that we are superfluous.  

Just as no part of the body can say to another “I have no need of you;” no part of the body can say “I am not needed.”  

Alright, let’s be real for a moment.  We are not perfect.  We are all human, which means we all fall short of the glory of God.  Despite our imperfections, I know we are a community that desires to live by these words.  We may not have the right answers to magically fix the deep divisions in our world, but what we do have is the opportunity to work together to transform our community into the body God has called us to be.  A community where all are welcome: a community where all, really does mean all.  

To each and everyone of us God says “you are not the most important person here, and you are absolutely needed here.”  This is not a free pass to allow us to do whatever we want without consequence.  When our actions hurt another part of the body, we must be held to account, but that is another sermon for another time.  Here, today, we must come to accept that though we are many we are one body.  This is our starting point, and  – I guess to preview my sermon three years from now – this is the foundation upon which our other lessons are built.  

Let us join together always striving to live as Christ’s body in the world.  Maybe, just maybe, by our witness others will join in this lifelong effort.   Then who knows, maybe if enough people join in this work we might see that unity is possible – or at the very least maybe the world would be filled with a little less hate, and a little more love. 

Amen. 

(1) 1 Corinthians 12:12, NRSV.

 

Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord (9 January 2022). The Scriptures can be found here

Giotto, The Baptism of Christ, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There are certain moments in life that we will never forget. Moments that always stay with us. One of those moments, for me, happened during my ordination to the priesthood – and it is probably not the moment you are expecting.  It is true I will never forget that holy huddle when all the priests gathered shared with Bishop Knisely in the laying on of hands, but the moment that I am thinking of happened at the very beginning of the service. 

During the first part of the liturgy, known as the presentation, which if you get bored during this sermon and are looking for something to do you can find on page 526 of the Book of Common Prayer, at the end of the presentation the bishop asks the congregation two questions.  First, “is it your will that Dante be ordained a priest?” To which the response was “It is.” Next the Bishop asked, “Will you uphold him in this ministry?” To which those gathered said, “we will.” (1)

Now that “we will” was not some polite, quiet, frozen chosen, apprehensive sort of “we will.”  It was a thunderous declaration. I still remember feeling those words, and I do not mean some sort of emotional and spiritual feeling.  I literally felt the reverberation of those two words in my body. 

In that moment, with clear certainty and conviction, those present that day said we’ve got your back. We are here to support, and encourage, and challenge, and comfort you.  In saying “we will” those present said we will join you in this ministry.  That promise, along with God’s grace, are the only things that make ministry possible. 

One of the things I cherish about our liturgical tradition is that each and every time vows are made that question is asked.  Vows are always taken in the context of a community gathering, and every single time the bishop or priest, or whomever the celebrant may be, asks the congregation “will you support this person, will you support these persons, in their life and ministry.”  Whenever asked the congregation has the opportunity, the privilege, the responsibility to say “we will.”  It is my prayer that every time those words are said, those taking vows will feel the same magnitude of support I felt on the day of my priesting. 

This past Thursday, the Church celebrated the feast of the Epiphany – a principal feast day, one of the seven most important days on the church calendar.  As that day passed, we entered into a new liturgical season – known as the season after the Epiphany.  This brief time, these few weeks might seem to be a time to catch our breath, regroup, and say “we have made it through Christmastide now it is time to get ready for Lent.”  But the season after the Epiphany is not about marking time, it is not a liturgical stop gap, it is important in its own right. After all, it takes its name from the Epiphany. 

Epiphany comes from a greek word which means showing or appearance, it means revelation. In these next weeks we hear about how God is revealed to God’s people.  We hear about how the work of God and the ministry of God is revealed to us.  That revelation begins today on this first Sunday after the Epiphany – when this year and every year we hear about the Baptism of our Lord. 

Just as all our ministries root back to Baptism, so it is true for the ministry of God.  In the tenth chapter of Acts of the Apostles as Peter, whose baptism we also hear about today, is preaching he reminds the people that it is from the moment of Jesus’ baptism, it is after that day, that the message of God spreads throughout all Judea beginning in Galilee.  The healing miracles, the works of resplendent glory, the amazing teachings all start now with Jesus’ baptism. 

Now you, like many commentators and scholars, might be wondering and asking yourself the question, “why?”  Why does Jesus go to John the Baptist, who is doing that baptism of repentance thing that we talked a lot about in Advent?  Why does God need that baptism?  

The truth is, God does not need that . . . we need God to do that.  As Jesus steps into those baptismal waters something very important happens.   

When Jesus steps into the River Jordan the entirety of human history, the entirety of the work of God is united.  It is in that river that John brings the baptism of repentance.  It is in that river that Elijah ends his ministry and passes on his mantle to Elisha.  It is through that river that the Israelites entered into the land of promise. It is out of water that the whole creation comes into existence.  The saving acts of God in the world, that history, that lineage, that genealogy that Jesus steps into in the river comes together in that moment. It is that great sign that all God has been doing is being continued in the person of Jesus.  When Jesus steps into that water, when John the Baptist lowers him, when John immerses him into that water the world is different, because in that moment, when Jesus comes out of that water, the heavens open and God declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  (2)

Jesus’ identity is revealed in that moment.  This is not just some good guy, this is not just a great teacher, this is not just another rabbi, this man is the divine son of God – this man is God.  And that revelation happens in the waters of baptism. 

We need that revelation to happen in these waters, because it is that baptism that gives our baptisms meaning.  Connected with Jesus’ own emergence out of those waters it is through baptism that we become inheritors of the promises of God.  It is through baptism that we are united, we are grafted into the priesthood of all believers.  It is through baptism that we are sent out to spread the message to the ends of the world – beginning here in Greenville.   

Just as it was true for the ministry of Jesus, our ministries begin here, in these waters, as well.  It is from these waters that we emerge and go forth into the world to preach and to teach and to participate with the work of God already alive in the world as is fitting for every vocation that has been placed upon us – each of us carrying out this work in our own time and place. 

As we do that, we should know, if we look to Jesus’ life as our example, that this is not going to be easy.  After Jesus’ baptism he goes out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan, before entering into the world to begin his public ministry.  A ministry that will make him come up against all the powers of this world.  He will begin a mission that will challenge the status quo – which is really going to aggravate some people.  A ministry that will require him to take that long walk through Jerusalem to the cross. 

This baptismal covenant we make, these water we share, will cost us something.  They will demand much of us.  But the good news is that God has passed through these waters first.  The good news is that this baptismal journey does not end with the cross, it goes on to the tomb, to the resurrection, to eternal life with God. 

Today we have the great joy and privilege to baptize three people; to welcoming them into this life that we have claimed as our own.  Three people will go through that water, and as they do, Ethan and Logan and Jamie will begin a new life – a new ministry. And it all starts right now, with the gift of water. 

I think the poet W. H. Auden in his poem “Leap Before Your Look,” written in December 1940, captures what it is that we do in this season after the Epiphany, captures what it is we do in baptism, because this life, this ministry, this sacrament is not about dipping our toes into the water, it is about diving in head first. 

In the first stanza, Auden writes:

The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap. (3)

Beloved of God, this day we have the opportunity to leap into the waters of baptism and all that is contained therein.  It might seem daunting, it might seem dangerous, but that is okay.  It is okay because God has gone first, God has shown us the way.  It is okay because this day, as we have done so many times before, as a community we will commit to doing this together.  As a community we will say we have each other’s backs.  We are here to support, and encourage, and comfort each other in this baptismal way of life.  On this day we will once more say “we will” together. 

Amen. 

(1) The Book of Common Prayer p. 527
(2) Luke 3:22, NRSV.
(3) http://knopfdoubleday.com/2012/04/16/w-h-auden-leap-before-you-look/

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day (2 January 2022). The Scripture readings (Gospel reading is Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23) can be found here

Luc-Olivier Merson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

For the last nine days we have been keeping this season of Christmastide.  I do not know about you, but I have been taking full advantage of these 12 days and blasting my Christmas playlist.  I have had cookies for more meals than I care to admit, and have spent my afternoons reading and watching Christmas classics as I sip hot chocolate out of my Peanuts Christmas mug.  

In recent days, I have put myself in a small Christmas bubble, looking for a reprieve from all that is going on around us.  There is something good and important about finding times of rest and restoration.  There is something good and important about giving ourselves space to feel the joy of the season.  However, we must be careful to not fully block out what is happening in the world.  Singing loud for all to hear, might be the best way to spread Christmas cheer, but it will not actually replace reality with our winter wonderland fantasies.  

As wonderful as sugar fueled holiday traditions are, they are not the summation of Christmastide.  We know that this season is really about the story which unfolds before us. 

Just as there are ways we can frame reality to make ourselves feel good and comfortable, there are ways we can tell this story that will fill us with those warm and fuzzy holiday feelings – that emotional equivalent of being wrapped in a cozy blanket while sipping on our favorite warm beverage.  But to frame the story this way, misses the fullness of what happens during these 12 days. 

The part of the story we hear this morning snaps us back into reality, highlighting just how necessary the reason for the season actually is. 

The Gospel passage we hear from Matthew is commonly referred to as “The Flight into Egypt.”  It is the tale of Mary and Joseph leaving Bethlehem and going to Egypt because Herod was out to destroy Jesus.  Then, when Herod has died, they begin their journey back only to be told that their home country is not yet safe, so instead they go to Nazareth.  

The way the lectionary gives us this passage, the way this story is often taught, is as a very matter-of-fact itinerary.  It seems that we hear this for the sole purpose of proving that Jesus is the promised Message.  In these eight verses we hear twice that what is happening to the Holy Family, is happening so that what was spoken by and through the prophets might be fulfilled.  With this understanding, we can simply check the boxes that prove the messianic nature of Jesus, in light of Jewish tradition, and move on.  But that is not the whole story. 

If you look at the chapter and verse citation for this passage, which you can find in your bulletin as part of the introduction to the Gospel reading, you might notice that the lectionary skips over a few verses.  In doing so, the story has been changed.  For these three skipped over verses drastically alter the tone and experience of this passage.  They give us a very different image of the life and times of Jesus.  In these omitted verses Matthew writes: 

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’ (1)

In what the lectionary gives us, we hear in passing that Herod was out to destroy Jesus, but in these verses we hear the true horrific nature of Herod’s actions.  We hear the work of an insecure and terrified ruler who desperately wants to retain his power – so much so that he will go to any length necessary to destroy any possible threat against him.  

When we put these verses back into the passage we hear the full story. No longer is this simply a fulfillment quotation to prove Jesus is the promised Messiah, no longer does this just explain how the Holy Family ends up in Nazareth, it is now a text of terror in which the saving nature of God is revealed. 

Jesus was born into a very difficult and dangerous world.  It is a world torn apart by violence and strife, where rulers do whatever they want no matter the cost to human life.  In a devastating way, the world into which Jesus is born is not unlike our own.  Like Herod, dictators and rulers around the world use violence and fear to main their power.  Just as the Holy Family was forced to flee, so do unknown numbers of families flee today in hopes that they might find a safe place to hide – that they might find a space place to live out their lives in peace.  This is why these omitted verses are so important: they speak to those whom Jesus came to serve.  

Matthew does not present a sentimental infancy narrative.  There are no shepherds, no angels singing, there is no manger scene with a babe wrapped in bands of cloth.  Matthew presents the birth of the savior in the midst of the turbulence and terror of a very violent history.  But, Matthew also dares to see things as they are and still affirm that God is working, even in the worst that humanity can do. 

Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31:15, “Thus says the Lord: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” (2)

In quoting Jeremiah, Matthew is recalling the great matriarch Rachel and her reaction to the Babylonians overtaking Jerusalem and marching families off into exile.  Rachel’s weeping, her lament, signifies a key turning point in Jeremiah, when the prophet shifts from declaring God’s judgment to God’s promise of hope and redemption.  This is what we hear this morning in our first lesson. 

We hear the prophet proclaim God’s promise, “with weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back,” (3) and “Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry.  I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.” (4)  From the lamentation of Rachel, from the darkest days of Israel’s history, God promises to redeem them.  Matthew, by using these words from Jeremiah is proclaiming that this redemption of God has come in the person of Jesus. 

Through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of this new born baby weeping will be turned into shouts of joy, sorrow will be turned to gladness, and darkness will be turned to light.  Through Jesus the world will be restored to how it was intended to be in creation.  

We celebrate these 12 days of Christmas not because we want a few extra days to sing carols and keep the Christmas lights up, but because through the birth of the Messiah, through the birth of Jesus, the end of the violent and vicious cycle of our world has been made flesh.  It is through the promises of God in Christ that we know light will overcome darkness.  It is through the incarnation that God takes on human flesh so that human flesh, the whole of our humanity, might be redeemed.  The world might be dark, but the light that enlightens everything has come. 

Not only does this passage from Matthew help us tell the full version of the story, it also demonstrates a broad range of what humanity is capable of.  

In the actions of Joseph we see the potential for humanity to be compassionate, trusting, and obedient to the word of God.  In the actions of Herod we see the ability to be oblivious to grace, we see the power that fears yields.  

These actions are accompanied by commands.  Mary and Jospeh flee to Egypt because an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and commanded him to go.  The slaughter of the holy innocents happens because Herod commands it out of fear.  The Holy Family comes out of Egypt and settles in Nazareth because the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.  

These images of humanity combined with the commands to action have a very important message for us – a takeaway not to be missed. 

When we allow fear, anger, and hatred to shut out God’s grace from our lives, that is when we move into that dark and dangerous place where the worst of humanity is on display.  But, if we are courageous enough to follow the commands of God, if we are strong enough to live lives that proclaim the Good News – that tell the story – then we become beacons of the best that humanity can be.  We become reflections of the light which has come into the world.  It is in those moments that we share in the building of God’s kingdom – that we share in the glories of the incarnation. 

Thomas Troeger, retired homiletics professor at Yale Divinity School (by the way homiletics means the study and practice of preaching) reflects on today’s Gospel passage through the lens of a crèche.  He writes: 

It is the custom in most homes and churches that set up manger scenes to take them down after Christmas and store them until the season returns the next year. Matthew’s account of the Holy Family’s trials suggests that this is wrong. Perhaps we should put away the shepherds (Luke) because they returned to their fields, and put away the magi because they returned to their distant home, but we should keep out Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Just the three of them, all alone, facing the terrors of a brutal despot. No visitors. No sheltering barn. No cuddly looking sheep. No friendly oxen. Then we should move the Holy Family to another location in our church or our home. Perhaps to a window looking out on the larger world, the world where there is still violence and repression and terror, and where there are refugees fleeing, needing protection, human beings in whom the Christ is crying to us for protection. (5)

In this reflection, Troeger captures our call.  We, like Joseph, are to listen to the commands of God and protect those in greatest need.  We are to reach out and care for those to whom Jesus came to serve: the lost, the poor, the oppressed, the scared, the hungry, the refugee. 

In a few days our celebration of Christmas will come to an end.  By the way if taking things down on the Epiphany (January 6) seems too soon, you could always live into that order tradition that says Christmastide actually ends on Candlemas (February 2), but I digress.  

Soon Christmas lights will be taken down, trees will be undecorated, and carols will go unsung until next year.  But we have the opportunity to keep the Holy Family present in our midst as a witness to all those holy families around the world living in fear.  We have the opportunity to keep the Holy Family present in our midst as light in the darkness, illuminating our path, leading us to those who so desperately need us to be the disciples we have been called to be. 

God asks us, implores us, begs us, God commands us – as followers of Jesus – to make that hope – to make that light know.  

Amen. 

(1) Matthew 2:16-18, NRSV.
(2) Jeremiah 31:15, NRSV.
(3) Jeremiah 31:9, NRSV.
(4) Jeremiah 31:13, NRSV.
(5) Bartlett, David L.; Taylor, Barbara Brown. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition. 

Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas Day (26 December 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here

In February1923, during a speech given to the Royal College of Surgeons in London, Rudyard Kipling uttered what is now one of his most famous quotations.  On that occasion he said, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” (1) These words were spoken at the beginning of his speech, before he went on to describe the persuasive effect words can have.  

Words can be used to change the way another person thinks and feels; to influence a person to do or feel things that are not typical for them – just as drugs would do.  Some have speculated that Kipling was thinking about Europe and the rise of the Nazi party when we wrote these words. 

Despite the abundance of words we encounter on a daily basis from television, to radio, books magazines, blogs, Facebook, texts, emails, letters, and so on and so forth – despite this over saturation, words have overwhelming power.  

Throughout history people have used words to spark revolutions, to craft nations into existence, to emancipate peoples from the shackles of slavery.  Words have also been used to strike fear into the hearts of millions, to cast doubt on systems of Government, to scapegoat people, to convince individuals to carry out heinous acts of genocide.  As the saying goes, “the pen is mightier than the sword.”  For words are powerful. 

This morning in the prologue to John’s Gospel we hear of another word, or more accurately, we hear about the Word.  John writes: 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (2)

These magnificent words from the prologue to John’s Gospel remind us of the magnitude of God’s initiative in the incarnation.  The most awesome and amazing words in this passage might be these: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  Or, as Eugene Peterson, in his biblical paraphrase The Message, writes the Word, “moved into the neighborhood.” (3)  The Word – the most powerful of all words – comes to be amongst us.  The Word comes to dwell with us not to destroy or punish, but to restore us to life: to bring us back to the heart of how we have been called to live. This Word above all words, moves in next door, to change the way we act, the way we think, what we feel, how we understand the very meaning of life.  

The almighty, eternal, omnipotent God stoops to put on human flesh.  The very author of all creation, becomes incarnate, taking on tangible, vulnerable, humanity.  God comes among us to heal us, to bring light wherever there is darkness, to bring wholeness where there is brokenness.  The Word comes to transform the entirety of creation. 

This is what we celebrate in this season – that love incarnate, love divine, comes down to be among us – that love moves into the neighborhood. 

In today’s Gospel passage, we not only hear about the the Word, we also hear of the one who prepares the way.  Just when you thought we were done with Advent until next year, our quintessential Advent character has returned.  Today we hear once more of John the Baptist. 

John, that man sent from God, that voice crying out in the wilderness, the man who witnessed to the Word, returns to us in these early days of Christmastide.  Maybe we should see this as an invitation to consider John as something more than the voice of Advent.  Maybe he is a voice, not only preparing the way for God to come into the world, but a voice instructing us how to live.  

John comes as a witness to the light of God coming into the world.  As we consider John’s witness, it might be a worthwhile experience to consider what is it that we testify to.  What do our lives, our witness, lead others to believe in?  Do we speak empty words, or do we proclaim the true Word which has been made known to us?  For how we live our lives, what words we use matters – especially if we claim the word Christian for our identity. 

Throughout history people have used Christianity to point towards something other than the Truth and Light of God.  Christianity has been manipulated to speak something other than the Word.  The faith we have inherited has been used as a tool of violence.  It has been used to justify slavery, subjugate women, oppress LGBT people, cast aside those who are considered social outcasts, and demonize those unwilling to conform their lives to a societally approved, normative narrative.  Throughout time – and still today – the Word is twisted and exploited to suit political gains.  The light and truth is used to bring darkness and falsehood.  This most amazing Word is used to erase that which was made incarnate – light, peace, grace, truth, and love. 

We are called to witness in the same way John did.  John testified to the truth of the Word.  John called out anyone who refused to see the Word of God in the world.  John put everything on the line to make sure that as many people as possible knew the light that was coming into the world. 

If we want things to be different, then we must ask ourselves: what word do we intend to speak? 

Speaking this Word is not always easy. We might find ourselves feeling inadequate and not up to the task. For sometimes our faith requires us to act, to speak, to believe, before we fully feel or understand that which we have been called to do. 

Each and everyone of us is created in the image and likeness of God.  All of us, and all of creation for that matter, have come into being through the Word.  From the very beginning of creation we have been infused with the Word – the Truth, the Light, the Wisdom of God.  No matter how dark the world seems, no matter how much we might struggle, we contain within our very beings the ability to proclaim the Word.  We contain deep within our souls the light, which cast out all darkness.  We are heirs of God’s promise, and as such God will always give us the Word we need. 

So when we hear the world altering the meaning of the Word, trying to use the power of the Word in dangerous ways, it is our responsibility to join our voices with the heavenly host, to join our voices with the great cloud of witnesses which surround us, to join our voices with John the Baptist and testify to the truth of the Word that we have experienced and known. 

This is the most central claim of our faith. God becomes one of us, that we might know God more fully.  That we might come to know and be transformed by God’s nature and God’s love.  As that great Early Church theologian St. Athanaisus put it – the divine becomes human so that the human can become divine.  God humbles God’s self to be born of a virgin taking on human flesh, so that we can be redeemed.  

This is the gift we are given in the incarnation; the gift of God’s love freely given.  There is nothing we have done or could ever do to merit or earn God’s love.  It is through this love incarnate that everything is changed and made new.  The only response we can make to God’s unfathomable love is to love God in return.  To live our lives according to that love. 

God comes among us to share in the fullness of our lives, God comes to share our stories, to join our lives with God’s that we might be strengthen and sustained to continually speak the Word.  That we might participate in the building of the Kingdom of God – that we might bear the light and truth of the incarnation in our lives; and pass along the light of Christ to the deepest and darkest corners of the world.  That we might speak the Word into the silence. 

Rudyard Kipling was right, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”  We have been given the gift of the most powerful Word of all eternity.  We have seen and experienced the transformative power of the Word of God in our lives and in this community.  We have been taught how to speak this Word – this gift freely given to us through God’s abundant generosity. 

This morning we prayed, “Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives.”  This day, and every day, may it be so. 

Amen. 

(1) http://www.telelib.com/authors/K/KiplingRudyard/prose/BookOfWords/surgeonssoul.html
(2) John 1:1-5, NRSV.
(3) John 1:14, The Message.

Sermon for Christmas Eve (24 December 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here

 

Have you ever struggled to get into the so called “holiday spirit”?  Have you ever found yourself in the midst of a holiday season going through all the motions, doing all the things you typically do, but never actually getting hooked in?  Do you know what I am talking about? 

That is where I have been this year. I have been doing all the things I usually do, and yet that switch was not flipping in my mind. Earlier in the week I thought, once we get through Advent 4, that is when it will happen. But, Sunday came and went, and nothing changed.  Then I thought, on St. Thomas Day after the liturgy when we decorate the church, that’s it – that will be the moment.  While I marvel at how lovely the church looks, Tuesday came and went and still nothing.  Throughout the rest of the week I kept thinking of things that would be the key to getting me into the holiday spirit, but each came and went and everything stayed the same.  

Yesterday afternoon, while I was in the office finishing things up for this weekend, I decided to give myself permission to just be there I am.  To not continually try to force myself into some sort of holiday spirit.  Before I say anything else, if you are struggling this season, know you are not alone.  Know that here, you do not have to pretend to be anything you are not.  It is okay to just be present in the moment and let things come as they may. 

Things have been hard. Pandemic life has worn thin.  There have been several deaths and serious illnesses in the various communities I belong to.  I have been living in fear that we would not actually be able to gather in-person this Christmas – a decision some of my colleagues around the country have had to make.  Then with every cough or sneeze the thought of COVID immediately comes to mind, and my mind races with the implications of having to quarantine.  

I know many of you have been experiencing the same things.  Many of us are exhausted.  Between the grief, the pressure, the stress, and the uncertainty we are all under,  it is reasonable to feel a little less holly jolly than normal. 

As I was walking from the rectory to the church yesterday I actually said out loud, “It is okay, everything will be fine, just let it go.”  Let go of the pressure of needing this year to make up for last, let go of the need for things to go as perfectly as possible, let go of forcing one more expectation upon myself.  Just be present in the moment, and let go of the rest.  I have to tell you, it felt really good to name this. 

Once I walked into the parish hall I began to do a few things, and I came into the church to put the bulletins for the 12noon service on the check in table.  As I walked back up the center aisle, I looked up, and saw the beautifully decorated altar, bathed in red, blue, and yellow light from the St. Thomas window.  While the rest of the church was dark, the altar was a glow with radiant light.  That was it.  It was the first time I felt like I could actually take a deep breath and exhale.  That was when I was able to let go.  

This year, I needed the reminder to just let the story of this day be the story.  For it is a story that has power no matter where we find ourselves in this moment.  

The Gospel passage appointed for Christmas Eve is what Christmas Cards are made of.  It is from Luke’s Gospel that we hear of angels and shepherds, mangers and bands of swaddling cloth.  No other Gospel has a nativity narrative that translates into crèches and all the other images which come to mind when we think of Jesus’ birth. 

Over the years, because of this picture perfect portrayal we have in our collective imagination, we have built up this night on the pedestal of nostalgia and expectation.  We remember all the Christmas Eves past.  We remember the pageants, and carols, and warm fuzzy feelings.  After all, is not this the night that dreams are made of? We want that same idyllic sense that floods greeting card aisles and television specials. No wonder so many of us feel the pressure to be in just the right mood! 

If that is what this is all about, then I wonder how many people feel left out of Christmas.  Do those who have recently lost loved ones belong?  Or those who have just received a difficult diagnosis?  As this is our second pandemic Christmas, and we still live with restrictions, does this year not really count?  Should those of us who cannot manufacture the prerequisite joy just stay home? 

It is time to let go of it all and just let the story be the story.  For as the Grinch learned: Christmas doesn’t come from a store, it isn’t about presents, or food, it is about much much more.  

Now do not get me wrong.  I love the traditions that come with this season: singing carols, visiting with friends and family, exchanging gifts, and the fabulous cooking and baking of these days.  As wonderful as these things are, they are the externals of this season.  They are not ultimately what this sacred feast is all about.  I promise you that baby Jesus still comes, even if you did not get that last present wrapped and the cookies are over-baked.  

Behind the delicious smells wafting through the air, the melodies of carols ringing in our ears, the festive decorations on display is a deeper story, something so profound that it changed the course of human history.  

The way Luke tells the story, reminds us of what Christmas is truly all about.  

Luke begins by placing the brith of Jesus in a particular moment in history.  “In those days,” Luke writes, “a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”(1)  By naming the emperor, in addition to Quirinius the governor of Syria, Luke is etching their memory into the record of history. He is making clear that Jesus was born into a particular time and place.  It is with the backdrop of their leadership that the story we have come to hear unfolds.  Quickly we discover these rulers, and all they represent, do not play staring roles in the Nativity. 

Next we hear of Mary, that young woman great with child, and Joseph, her husband-to-be who was brave enough to honor their relationship and accept Mary’s pregnancy.  This couple could not be more removed from Augustus and Quirinius.  Yet it is this humble couple who are chosen to help bring God’s gift of hope, the fulfillment of God’s promise, into the world.

As the story continues, Luke moves us further from the halls of power and directly into the fields where the shepherds are watching their flocks by night.  

Shepherds lived on the literal and figurative edges of society.  They were deemed men of questionable morals and ill repute.  Yet it is to them that the Angel of the Lord appears.  They are the first to hear the good news of the Savior’s birth.

Then there is the Angel announcing this glorious occasion.  When the Angel first appeared the shepherds were sore afraid.  The first thing the angel says to them, the first words of this great proclamation, are “Do not be afraid.” (2)

This earth shattering, world changing message, begins with words of comfort.  Something unbelievable is happening, God is acting, you have nothing to fear. 

When God enters into human history, when God humbles God’s self to take on humanity, to become fully human and fully divine, when God is born of Mary, humanity is turned upside down, which is really right side up again.  For the almighty, omnipotent God comes and breaks into this world not as an emperor or governor, not as the rich, powerful, and famous, but as a defenseless, little, baby.  With this single birth, the words of Mary’s song – the Magnificat – come to life.  

God comes into the world so we can let go of our fears, so we can let go the pressure, so we can be present in the moment, letting the story of salvation wash over us, reminding us that all will be well – no matter how we actually feel in this moment.  

God comes into this world to liberate us, to bring us life, to show us how to truly live.  From the moment Jesus is born, he lives and experiences the fullness of our humanity.  He experiences pain and suffering and illness, he experiences joy and happiness, he builds intimate relationships with friends, he experiences the deep grief of death.

That is what our story is all about.  God coming to us in the particular moment we find ourselves in, meeting us exactly where we are, coming among us to share with us the fullness of human life is. 

The true gift of this season is that Christmas comes no matter what.  Christmas comes each year not through our efforts, not because of anything we do or do not do, nor because we achieved the appropriate level of holly jolly-ness.  Christmas comes because of what God does.  Christmas comes because of the gift God has given us – love incarnate in the person of Jesus. 

On this holy night God came down, put on human flesh, entering into human history in the most humbling way possible – a way that is nothing short of scandalous to the world, and maybe even a little uncomfortable for us too.  For the once unknowable, untouchable God who no human could look directly upon and live, can now be seen, and touched, and held, and known.  

As I mentioned, I do really enjoy the trappings of this season.  Most especially I am a fan of what is arguably the greatest Christmas movie of all time – and no I am not talking about Die Hard.  I am talking about the brilliant 1965 cinematic masterpiece A Charlie Brown Christmas.  

There is a scene in that movie which gets me every time.  The gang is in the auditorium where Charlie Brown presents his Christmas tree to his friends, and they all burst out laughing.  After nearly everyone walks away, Charlie Brown says to Linus, “I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about.”  He then shouts, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!” 

“Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about,” Linus replies.  After asking for the appropriate stage lighting, Linus proceeds to share the meaning of Christmas saying: 

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them, “Fear not:

At this point Linus intentionally drops his security blanket before going on to say

for behold, I bring unto you good tiding of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Linus then picks his blanket, walks towards his friend and says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Beloved of God, this is the story we gather to celebrate this night. 

As we move through these days I hope you will find ways to let go, to offer whatever it is you are carrying to our new born king. 

No matter where you find yourself this day, no matter the mood you are in, or where you fit on the scale of Christmas cheer, God is born into the world.  God has come to be present with us in our joys and in our sorrows, when things are easy and when they are difficult.  God has come to remark the world, and invites us to share in the journey.    

Let us rejoice for our Savior has come. 

Amen. 

(1) Luke 2:1, NRSV.
(2) Luke 2:10, NRSV.

Sermon for the Feast of St. Thomas (21 December 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier today, a friend sent me a meme along with a greeting for St. Thomas Day.  The meme was a picture of an icon of St. Thomas, and over it was written, “Hey Thomas! Think anyone will remember your feast day while they’re getting ready for Christmas?  I doubt it.”  Upon receiving this message I laughed, rolled my eyes, and thanked my friend for their greeting. 

Thought the day, I have not been able to stop thinking about this meme.  The first part of it asks a question based on a very real truth.  Few churches will remember blessed Thomas this day.  Having completed celebrations of the Fourth Sunday of Advent, most communities have moved ahead – their hearts and minds already at that great feast we keep later this week.  We, however, have not forgotten.  We always have the memory of blessed Thomas, our patron, before us.  

Then there is the answer to the first part of the meme . . . “I doubt it.”  Now here is where I take issue. 

This punch line is rooted in falsehood.  Despite popular belief, Doubting Thomas, is not who our patron was. 

Blessed Thomas the Apostles was bold, courageous, and brave.  He was an exemplar of discipleship.  The Church, and I mean the whole Church not just this parish, would be greatly enriched if more people followed the example of blessed Thomas – if more communities paused their Christmas preparations to keep this holy day. 

Thomas plays a very important role in the Gospel of John, where we encounter him in three particular ways: as one who makes a bold declaration of loyalty to Jesus, as one who asks the question others are afraid to utter, and as the one who, though seeking confirmation and to have the same experiences as his companions, names Jesus for who he truly is. 

Blessed Thomas is a man of enduring loyalty and faithfulness.  

In the 11th chapter of John’s Gospel, John tells of the death of Lazarus.  Upon hearing the news that his friend has died, Jesus tells his disciples that they must go back to Judea to see him.  The disciples do not want to go.  They say to Jesus, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” (1)  The disciples are clear that the religious authorities are seeking to kill Jesus.  Fearing for their teacher, they beg him not to go. 

At the end of the exchange between Jesus and his disciples, Thomas is the one who stands up and declares his loyalty and faithfulness.  Thomas proclaims that he will follow Jesus wherever the path leads, and encourages the others to do the same saying, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (2) Thomas understood that following Jesus demanded everything.  It was not Peter, not the beloved disciple, but Thomas who said let us follow no matter the cost. 

A few chapters later, Jesus is with his disciples in that upper room for the Last Supper, offering his final teachings: those last words of comfort and encouragement to meet the trials and tribulations ahead. 

After washing their feet, foretelling his betrayal, giving them a new commandment that they love one another, and predicting Peter’s denial, Jesus says:

Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am there you may be also.  And you know the way to the place where I am going. (3)

Jesus is trying to encourage them, telling them that while he is about to leave them, he is not abandoning them. 

Thomas is the one brave enough to ask the question that I have to imagine everyone was wondering, but was too afraid to ask, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?” (4) Thomas is courageous enough to admits he does not have all the answers, he is bold enough to ask the hard questions. 

In response to Thomas’ question Jesus offers one of his greatest self-revelatory statements.  “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (5)  It is because of Thomas that we receive this proclamation, that we learn something of the nature of Jesus.  Thomas’ boldness is the mark of discipleship: always asking questions, always pointing the way to the revelation of God in our midst.

This is the fiercely loyal, bold seeker, that we encounter in that upper room in the early days of Eastertide.  The man we meet in tonight’s Gospel passage. 

The disciples have just lived through Holy Week.  They have watched their beloved teacher and friend be tortured and killed.  They are hiding away for fear that the same fate might befall them.  

Earlier that day they received word from Mary Magdalene that the stone in front of the tomb had been removed.  Simon Peter and the other disciple raced to see for themselves.  Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and instructed her to go announce to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord” and to share what she had witnessed. Talk about an emotional rollercoaster! Their world has been turned upside-down, as they try to wrap their heads around the fact that Jesus has been raised from the dead.  I am sure some are still in a state of shock, overcome with fear, in the face of all that has happened.  

So when Thomas hears that while he was out somewhere else Jesus appeared to the other disciples, it is just too much.  He responds with those words that will forever label him a doubter, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (6)

Thomas is longing for the exact same experience that the other disciples received.  Just before the verses we hear today, John tells of Jesus’ first appearance in that upper room:  

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. (7)

The scene that unfolds with Jesus and Thomas, what we hear today, mimics what the other disciples experienced.  Jesus appears in the room, even though the doors are locked.  Jesus displays his wounds.  Disciples believe.  

When we hold together Thomas’ experience with that of the other disciples we discover that Thomas is not a doubter, he just has a serious case of FOMO – the fear of missing out.  Thomas is not doubting, he is expressing his emotional distress in the midst of his grief.  This loyal, devoted, passionate, and bold disciple seeks the same confirmation and consolation that his friends received.  

There is, however, something different about Thomas’ encounter with the risen Lord.  While Jesus shows the other disciples his hands and his side, Jesus invites Thomas to “put your finger here.” (8) Jesus offers Thomas the privilege of touch – strengthen him to maintain his firm and certain faith. 

John does not tell us if Thomas actually touches Jesus.  What we do hear, is this: upon receiving Jesus’ invitation, Thomas exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”  This is a very unique declaration.  No other disciple names Jesus in this way, and it is one of only a few times where Jesus’ identity is accurately articulated in this Gospel.  It is blessed Thomas who makes a proclamation which returns us to those majestic opening lines of the Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (9)  It is Thomas who gives voice to that which has been true from the very beginning of time. 

Thomas was courageous enough to name what he needed.  For his bravery he was rewarded with the privilege of being inviting to touch someone’s wounds – the most intimate invitation a person can be offered.  

There was nothing lacking in blessed Thomas.  He was everything a disciple should be – everything we are called to be. 

We too are called to have fierce loyalty to God above all else.  We are called to willingly follow Jesus wherever the path may lead.  We are to be question askers: constantly asking the hard questions in the midst of the mayhem, confusion, and uncertainty of life – in the midst of darkness and death.  We are called to muster the courage to ask for what we need, and receive the invitation Jesus offers us – the invitation to that most intimate relationship with God.  

There are ways this is already happening here.  Many of you have made significant commitments to our community through your time, talent, and treasure.  We regularly gathering together through our School for Discipleship to ask questions, engaging and wrestling with our faith, that we might grow in the knowledge and love of God.  We come together as a community, honestly naming our needs, and finding ways to help satisfy the needs of others.  

Imagine what might be possible if we went even deeper into emulating our patron.  

Funke, is a documentary about Los Angeles based chef, Evan Funke, that I have watched numerous times.  My favorite line from the film is when Funke says, “Passionate is not the right word . . . I am maniacal about pasta.” 

Now maniacal is not often understood to have a positive connotation – in fact it often has violent tones to it.  But, it can also mean obsessively enthusiastic. 

I think that it is safe to say that Thomas was obsessively enthusiastic about the Gospel – about bearing witness to all he has seen.  After the resurrection, Thomas goes off to India and parts of Asia to spread the Gospel to the very edges of the known world.  

On this our patronal festival I want to invite us all to be maniacal, maybe about pasta, but most certainly about the Gospel.  We are called to be Gospel Maniacs – obsessively enthusiastic about the work of God in the world.  

I do not know where this next step on our journey together will lead, but as long as we follow Jesus – follow the voice of God calling out to us – I can guarantee you that the journey will be nothing short of miraculous.  

Beloved of God, may we, like our patron, hold fast to our faith; may we continually seek deeper knowledge and love of God; may we journey to the ends of the world to share the light of God which glows amongst us.  May we, like our patron, be Gospel Maniacs. 

When we gather on this day next year, on a night like this, I can’t wait to hear the stories of what maniac activities we have been up to, of what obsessively enthusiastic good news we have to tell about God and our work with God in this place. 

Amen.

(1) John 11:8, NRSV.
(2) John 11:16, NRSV.
(3) John 14:1-4, NRSV.
(4) John 14:5, NRSV.
(5) John 14:6, NRSV.
(6) John 20:25, NRSV.
(7) John 20:19-20, NRSV.
(8) John 20:27, NRSV.
(9) John 1:1, NRSV.

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (19 December 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here

Mariotto Albertinelli, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Over the course of these last three weeks we have heard some rather intense Gospel passages.  We have heard of signs and wonders, we have read apocalyptic literature, and we have been called to repent and return to the Lord.  We have been invited – or maybe better put commanded – to prepare for the second coming of Christ into the world.  That time when God will come again to judge both the quick and the dead.  Finally after all of that, today – on the fourth and final Sunday of Advent – we enter into the first Christmas story. 

If you are having a bit of biblical whiplash, and find yourself wondering how we got from John the Baptist shouting “You brood of vipers” to this touching encounter between Mary and Elizabeth, fear not.  You are not alone. 

In some ways this Sunday stands apart from the other three Sundays of Advent.  This day serves as a bridge between the two advents we prepare for.  Having been reminded of our need to prepare for the second Advent of God, today our attention turns back to that historical moment which forever changed the course of human history. 

We hear this morning of two women, two cousins, Mary and Elizabeth, both miraculously pregnant, meeting together to share their news. 

There is a lot packed into these few verses.  There is a deep sense of honesty, a countercultural narrative, a reminder that God is at work in the world doing the unexpected, and there is one of the most important songs ever to be sung.  That song, the Magnificat, is what we prayed in place of the psalm this morning.  

The Gospel passage begins with Mary on her journey to visit her cousin Elizabeth.  To be clear this is not some typical family visit.  Mary is not casually strolling across the Judean countryside, stopping to take in the vistas and smelling the roses along the way.  Luke tells us she “went with haste.”(1)  Mary travels with urgency.  She is a woman on a mission.  She needs to get to Elizabeth as soon as possible.  

There is something deeply human in the desire for community and companionship.  In Luke’s telling of the story, the entire story of Mary, we get an honest view of this woman.  Stripped of the layers of theology, piety, and politics that we layer upon her, here Mary can be seen and understood as a whole person: the young woman – the teenager – who boldly and courageously says yes to God. 

Mary’s identity is one of the clues that something beyond the cultural norm is going on.  This story is amongst the few female-centric stories in Scripture.  Their male partners are nowhere in sight.  Jospeh is entirely missing from the account, and let us not forget what happened to good ol’ Zechariah.  Not only is he missing from the story, he is speechless.  The Angel Gabriel has silenced him, literally taking his voice away.  For more on that be sure to check out Luke 1:8-20.  

Also, we should not take for granted that we know the names of these two women.  The fact that we know their names only adds to the distinctiveness of this story in the Biblical canon. 

This countercultural cast list reminds us that God acts outside of our expectations.  God does not play by our rules, or the world order humanity has established.  God chooses unlikely people for the important work of salvation.  God calls a young teenager and a woman getting on in years, not the religious leaders, nor the important political figures.  In the words of St. Pauls, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” (2)

If we learn nothing else from the story of Mary and Elizabeth, let it be that God works in ways beyond our understanding.  So if God can use Mary and Elizabeth as key agents of God’s saving work in the world, then God can use us too. God can take our weaknesses, our shortcomings, our sinfulness, God can take all the reasons we say we are not worthy and use those very things to transform the world. 

The lasting gift to us, from this encounter between Mary and Elizabeth, is Mary’s song. 

Now Mary’s song, known as the magnificat, is not just any song.  It is one of the most powerful songs of hope the world has ever heard.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, twentieth century pastor and theologian, describes it this way: 

It is the most passionate, most vehement, one might almost say, most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung.  It is not the gentle, sweet, dreamy Mary that we so often see portrayed in pictures, but the passionate, powerful, proud, enthusiastic Mary, who speaks here.  None of the sweet, sugary, or childish tones that we find so often in our Christmas hymns, but a hard, strong, uncompromising song of bringing down rulers from their thrones and humbling the lords of this world, of God’s power and of the powerlessness of men.  (3)

When we find ourselves faced with doubt and despair, questioning our abilities to carry out the call God has placed on our hearts, we would do well to sing that song and remind ourselves that nothing is impossible for God. 

There is still one more thing left to wonder.  This passage has profound depths for us; it has been a source of inspiration and courage for people throughout the last two millennia.  But what, I wonder, was it like for Mary and Elizabeth . . . 

A Dramatic Reading for Advent (Two parishioners did a dramatic reading with Mary and Elizabeth from Awake My Soul: A Liturgical Resource for use with Children and Adults.  At the conclusion of the dramatic reading the sermon continued) 

And Mary said, 

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (4)

Amen.

(1) Luke 1:39, NRSV.
(2) 1 Corinthians 1:27, NRSV.
(3)Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “God in the Manger at Bethlehem” http://www.swordofthespirit.net/bulwark/december2014p20.htm
(4) Luke 1:46-55, NRSV. 

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent (12 December 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here

Benaki Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The late Bishop Barbara C. Harris was known for incorporating hymns into her preaching and every day conversation.  The musical tradition was so infused into her that the lyrics of hymnody, Anglican and otherwise, became a natural part of her vocabulary.  One such phrase she was known for saying was “Hallelujah, anyhow!”  No matter what was thrown her way, and trust me as the first woman elected bishop in the Episcopal Church, and a black woman at that, plenty was thrown her way, she always held to that phrase “Hallelujah, anyhow!”  

This phrase comes from a hymn by Joseph Pace that goes like this, “Hallelujah anyhow / Never let your troubles get you down / Whenever troubles come your way / Hold your hands up high and say / Hallelujah anyhow!” (1)

No matter what, there is always reason to rejoice.  There is always reason to lift our hands, giving praise and thanks to God.  On this point, it seems that St. Paul is in agreement.  

Blessed Paul, that great letter writer of the New Testament, that powerful leader who spread the good news of Jesus to people and lands far beyond Jerusalem writes to the Philippians and says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” (2)  If you ask me that sounds a lot like Hallelujah, anyhow! 

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul powerfully exhorts his trusted friends to rejoice.  

As we sit here today, we might find ourselves a bit uneasy at Paul’s direction.  Maybe we feel uneasy at rejoicing with all that is going on around us.  Our country has recently witnessed another school shooting, there is the latest COVID variant, the planet continues to suffer from climate change, and there is economic and political uncertainty at home and abroad.  As I wrote in the weekly update this past Friday, there is a significant weight we have been carrying over these last two years that many of us have grown tired of.  So how, in the midst of all of this, are we supposed to rejoice?   And for that matter, why should we rejoice when there is so much suffering around us? 

I wonder if the Church in Philippi found themselves thinking the same things when they received this letter from Paul.  The Philippians are in a situation when rejoicing might not be to the most obvious response.  As one commentator writes, “These dear words mostly float through our consciousness detached from their gritty real-life setting of danger at the Philippians’ door, doctrinal dogs nipping at their faithful feet, and strife between two of their leaders—not to mention prison chains wrapped ‘round the one who wrote them.”(3)  Things were incredibly difficult for the Philippians, and, in case you missed the reference, Paul wrote his friends, commanding them to rejoice, from the darkness of his prison cell. 

By the way the call to rejoice in our lesson from Zephaniah is not made during a time of peace and tranquility either.  Zephaniah writes in the context of terrible spiritual and political corruption, perpetrated by the very leaders who are supposed to care for the poor and the oppressed of Judah. 

The call to rejoice we hear this morning – be it from Paul, Zephaniah, or from Isaiah in Canticle 9 which was appointed in lieu of a Psalm this morning, is not about channeling happiness, but rather it is about cultivating a posture of joy. 

This joy is expressed in a deep longing to be in relationship with God – longing to live as God has called us to live.  This joy is what allows us to wait in patience, trusting that God will fulfill God’s promises to us – that God will not abandon us in our hour of need.  It is this joy that allows us to take the anxiety we carry, and instead of being overcome by it, turning it over to God in prayer.  Then through our prayers, when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with God, trusting God to be tender with us, God takes our anxieties and fears and re-fashions them.  We are called to cultivate joy that brings peace.  When I say peace, I mean the peace of God which passeth all understanding; peace that keeps our hearts and minds open to the knowledge and love of God.  I mean that peace which only God can give.  

The joy we are called to have, the joy which is cultivated in our rejoicing is that which fosters patience, sets us free from fear, and brings us peace. 

Through that joy, no matter what comes our way, we can stand and boldly say: rejoice in the Lord always.  Hallelujah, anyhow! 

Now if we were to play the game one of these things is not like the other with our Scripture lessons today, we might be tempted to say that our Gospel lesson does not belong.  After all does Paul’s command to rejoice really fits with John insulting the crowd?

But what if John points us to the key that unlocks the joy – what if, and stay with me, being called “You brood of vipers!” actually invites us to rejoice? 

Today’s Gospel passage picks up where we left off last week.  Luke tells us that John has been traveling, going into all the region around the Jordan.  As he travels he is preaching and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  The crowds flock to hear what John has to say, hordes of people travel to receive the baptism that he offers.  Then he turns to the crowds that have come out to see him and he shouts, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” (4) 

Imagine what that scene must have been like.  Imagine, if you will, that you were there, standing on the banks of the Jordan River surrounded by crowds of hundreds maybe even thousands of people. 

So you are standing by the river, and the one you have come all this way to hear begins his remarks by saying, “What’s wrong with you people?! Do you think that going through the motions is enough?  Do you think you can participate in some rituals and then get away with slacking off?!”  

How would you feel upon hearing these words? Shock, disbelief, anger? 

I do not know about you, but if I were in that crowd I would scoff, turn around, and start heading home.  I might even feel a bit indignant and mutter loud enough for others to hear, “who does this guy think he is’” as I walk away. 

But that is not what the crowd does.  Instead someone shouts back, “What then should we do?” (5)

John says that if you are going to participate in this baptism, then your actions matter – you cannot simply go through the motions, trusting that you come from the right lineage, and thinking that heritage gets you out of doing the hard and difficult work of the life of faith.  John reminds them that if they are going to talk the talk then they have to walk the walk too.  Otherwise their words are just empty noise.  

John commands the people to wake up and pay attention to how they are living.  When asked for an example of what walking the walk looks like, John tells them, “if you have more than you need, share it with those who go without.”  If you have two coats, give one away.  If you have extra food, give some to the hungry.  And when the tax collectors and the soldiers ask what they should do, John tells them to do their jobs faithfully, not abusing their positions of power.  John calls them to live with honesty and integrity. 

These words call to mind what Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (6) John, in preparing the way for Jesus, he is preparing the people of God for the way of life they will be called to live – one that is predicated on humble and loving service.  A way of life built upon the foundation of welcoming the least, the lost, and the left behind to join the community; to recognize that each and every person is a beloved children of God.  This way of life means following the directions of every kindergarten class: share what you have, treat others with kindness, listen to what you are being taught. 

It seems simple, and yet it is something that we all struggle with.  And maybe that is why we struggle with rejoicing too. 

Maybe in order for us to be able to rejoice we must let go of that which holds us back from following the way.  Maybe John’s startling and stinging language is the wake up call we need to let go, so that we might learn how to rejoice.  

In this season of Advent we are called to repent and believe in the good news.  We are called to readjust our course, returning to the path God has set before us.  We can accept this invitation, because God has promised that there is absolutely nothing we can do that will make God stop loving us.  God is there waiting with outstretched arms.  God is waiting, calling out to us, that we might stop wandering and find our way home again. 

In the Advent proper preface – those seasonal words in the Eucharist Prayer that come after the Sursum Corda (the back and forth at the beginning of the prayer) and before the sanctus (the prayer which begins “Holy, holy, Holy”) – we pray “when he shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the word, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing.” (7)

In this season we have difficult work to do, and we face difficult situations as we await the once and future coming of God into the world.  We have to look honestly at ourselves, our lives, and at the world around us.  We have to see not only where we have grown in our journey of faith, but where we have gotten off course.  We must name that we all stand in need of repentance. 

We can face what comes, we can stand as God comes to us on clouds descending in awesome majesty because the one who judges us, judges in love.  The one who judges seeks not our shame or our fear, but for us to thrive in the fullness of who we have been created to be. 

Sometimes in order to see clearly we need a little wake up call.  Sometimes we need a little help remembering that the obstacles we have set up can be taken down.  Sometimes we need someone to shout, “Rejoice you brood of vipers!  Hallelujah, anyhow!” 

Beloved of God, let us rejoice together.  For our joy, our Savior, draweth nigh. 

Amen.

(1) Barbara C. Harris with Kelly Brown Douglas, Hallelujah, Anyhow! A Memoir, p.xiii
(2) Philippians 4:4, NRSV.
(3) David L. Bartlett; Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
(4) Luke 3:7-8a, NRSV.
(5) Luke 3:10, NRSV.
(6) Matthew 25:40, NRSV.
(7) The Book of Common Prayer, p.345.

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent (5 December 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here

Cerquozzi, Michelangelo; Saint John the Baptist Preaching in the Wilderness; Southend Museums Service; Michelangelo Cerquozzi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever spent time in the wilderness?  Have you ever wandered through the paths covered by leaves and other natural debris, up hills and down steep slopes, ducking and bending around trucks and branches too large to move out of the way?  Have you ever found yourself awestruck by the beauty around you as you listen to the symphony of creation?  Have you ever felt anxiety rise within you as the clouds begin to darken, making it difficult to discern your path through the trees? 

The wilderness is an important location in Scripture.  In the wilderness things are stripped away, people are left vulnerable and exposed, with nothing more than themselves, God, and the truth of the moment revealed in the starkness of the surroundings.  It is through the wilderness that the people of Israel journeyed from slavery to freedom – it was there that they were tested by hardship, forced to wrestle with worry, doubt, and despair.  Their sojourn forced them to ponder the entirety of their relationship with God – recognizing that it was only by trusting in God that they would survive. 

Jesus too faced the crucible of the wilderness.  Following his Baptism he was sent into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights.  It is in the wilderness, fasting and praying, that he was tempted by Satan.  In the wilderness Satan tried to lure Jesus away from his divine vocation, hoping to drown out the voice of God which had just declared, “This is my Son the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Jesus emerges from his wilderness journey with a clear sense of his vocation, with a sense of urgency for his mission and ministry here on earth. 

The wilderness is a place of testing, it is a place where muddied waters are made clear, it is a place that requires honesty.  

It is from this place that a voice emerges for us – a voice emerges for all the world to hear.  From the wilderness comes our longed for cry of hope. 

This week, in the wilderness, we meet the most Adventy of all Advent characters – Mr. Advent himself – John the Baptist. Clothed in camel’s hair, snacking on locusts and wild honey, John, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, offers a word of hope to a weary world.  

John is an integral part to Jesus’ origin story.  John, in all his wilderness wonder, with his real, not pulling any punches, direct call to faith, this John is the only gateway we have to the swaddling clothes, angel’s wings, and fields with their shepherds watching that we hold so dear each December.  As baffling as it may seem, the holy drama of this season – the images and stories which will unfold in Scripture and greeting cards alike – depends on John’s lone, abrasive voice, crying out in the wilderness. 

Luke tells us that John “went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (1) Now as you hear those words, you might be thinking to yourself, “sin and repentance . . . has Dante gone off the deep end?  Doesn’t he know it is Advent not Lent?!”  The answer to your questions is yes. 

Sin and repentance are not for Lent alone.  They are a foundational part to John’s ministry, they are essential to paving the way for the coming Messiah of God. 

John is not inviting the world to beat themselves up, thinking all sorts of self-deprecating thoughts, John is inviting the world to a new beginning.  His call to repentance is not about saying “you’re sorry.”  John’s call comes from the Greek work metanoia.  

Metanoia is a vital part of our life of faith, it is something we are always to have before us.  It means to turn around, to reorient ourselves in another direction.  It means to receive a new start altogether.  John is inviting the people to recognize that they have – that we have – allowed ourselves to drift away from God.  We have gotten distracted by all the shiny objects around us, veering from the path we have been called to walk.  John’s call to repentance is a word to the world that we have lost track of the trail markers, and need help finding our way back.  In the wilderness we can be honest about the ways we are alienated from God, our neighbors, our ourselves, and creations.  We can be honest about the walls we have put up, the ways we have closed ourselves off, the barriers we put in place stiffing the movement of God in, around, and through us.  John is the voice saying, dear friends – there is love, there is mercy, there is grace awaiting you, but you have to walk this way – not the dangerous uncleared, unmarked path you have ended up on. 

There is joy in this call to repentance.  Joy for God’s desire to heal us, to restore us, to be in relationship with us.  Joy for God’s desire not for our punishment and death, but for our life – life abundant – life for each of us. 

Luke, after telling us that John has been traveling to all the region around the Jordan invokes the words of the prophet Isaiah – connecting the words of the prophet with John’s ministry: 

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (2)

This message is why John is preaching repentance.  It is so we can get ourselves ready for God’s coming when the world will be remade in glory.  John is the herald, the longed for prophet calling out from the wilderness.

I believe this is why the people flocked to John.  He may have been the lone voice crying out, but that one voice had the power to bring multitudes near.  The people had a desire to hear his message.  Some may have sought a deeper meaning for life as they knew it, others may have had a longing to have a burden, guilt, or fear lifted from their shoulders, and others may have simply had their curiosity peaked – something beyond articulation compelling them to come.  No matter the reason, the people heard John’s message, and drew near to the waters of Baptism that he offered.  

The people understood that things were not as they should be. They recognized the conversion of life they needed.  They saw that the world around them was not as God intended it to be.  So they came seeking this fresh start – searching for the new beginning contained in repentance, contained in metanoia. 

While this is a timeless message – words all eras and ages must heed; this message is also timely. Luke is writing in a particular context. Luke’s good news, and John’s ministry, happen within a greater historical moment. 

The way Luke tells the story is framed by the political setting of the day.  This story takes place in a nation under occupation, under the reign of a puppet king.  Luke tells the Gospel is such a way that it reveals religious truths and political ones.  Luke tells the story in such a way that the work of God not only has religious consequences, but political ones as well.  There is simply no getting out of politics when it comes to Luke. 

As Church of England priest and theologian Maggi Dawn writes: 

Luke doesn’t shy away from the fact that the gospel arrives in a time of injustice, in an area of war zones and occupied territories, disrupting existing political and religious hierarchies.  The good news is full of life and goodness but it isn’t well-behaved or polite.  It is genuinely good news for real people – people who are faithful and good but also people who are broken-hearted, whose hopes have been dashed, who live under a shadow because society unjustly hangs a question mark over their heads.  Luke begins the good news right in the heart of life: it will affect everything, political, religious, community and family. (3)

The opening of today’s passage, therefore, serves a greater purpose than tripping up clergy tasked with proclaiming it.  In these verses, Luke names the Emperor, Tiberius, he names the governor, Pontius Pilate, he names three rulers, Herod, Philip, and Lysanias, and Annas and Caiaphas the high priests.  Luke names seven people holding positions of significant power, wealth, and influence.  Seven people are the center of spheres of authority, both religious and political.  But Luke also makes clear that God’s word does not go to those seats of power.  The story of God’s in-breaking, of God’s incarnation begins elsewhere – in obscurity, off the beaten path, appallingly far away from the halls of dominion and might.  

This Good News of God is going to confront these institutions of power.  This Messiah is going to clash with these leaders.  What unfolds in this Gospel demonstrates the crossroads of God’s way and the world’s way – and I’ll give you one guess which path will prevail in the end.  

Luke is making clear that if we wish to discover the voice of God, we must look in unexpected places.  We must listen to the words of those we might look past or ignore all together.  After all, who would have excepted a disheveled man, in camels hair eating bugs to be one of the most important voices in declaring the coming of God? 

As we tune our ears to hear the word of God as told by Luke, let us be on the look out for the great reversals of God – for those times when mountains will be laid low and valleys will be filled.  When crooked paths will be made straight, and rough ways transformed to smooth. 

In recent days I have heard people talking about their difficultly with this season of Advent.  I have heard people apologizing for it – and I do not mean apology as in making a defense for something, arguing in favor of it.  This genuinely makes me sad.  It seems to me, with increased urgency as the days go by, we need Advent more than ever.  

In the face of all that plagues us we need the reminder that God will remember us, that God has not abandoned us.  In the face of turmoil and strife, death and destruction we need the reminder that God is at work even now, remaking the world.  We need to hear the call of him who cries out in the wilderness, inviting us to prepare ourselves, to get back on track, to go to those places where God is already at work and join in the ministry of love, peace, justice, and righteousness. 

If you need help remembering this promise of hope – that the darkness does not have the power to overcome the light of God.  All you need to do is look at our Advent wreath.  Last week we began with lighting a single candle, and today there are two.  Slowly throughout this season the light grows strong forcing back the darkness.  The light increases along the journey until we get to that great feast of the incarnation when the center and final candle is lit.  

So it is now in our lives and in our world.  Slowly the light of God is expanding, pushing back the darkness so all the world can see the glow of God’s love.  In time, that final candle will be lit, and all will truly be made well. 

Amen. 

(1) Luke 3:3, NRSV.
(2) Luke 3:4-6,  NRSV.
(3) Maggi Dawn, Beginning and Endings [and what happens in between], p.23.

Sermon for the the First Sunday of Advent (28 November 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here

Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

I have heard it said that New Years is a time to start with a clean slate.  A new year – a fresh new beginning.  Given that today is the first day of a new liturgical year, I wonder if this might be a time for us to consider what new beginning we are being called to make as individuals and as a community.  I wonder if this season might be the perfect opportunity for us to continue our discernment as a parish – discerning who God is calling us to be in this emerging chapter of our life together. 

Advent, as is often explained, is a time of preparation, expectation, and waiting.  But have we ever stopped to ask, what are we waiting for? 

Sometimes Advent can feel like we are pretending we do not know what is going to happen on December 25th.  Or sometimes we might experience this season as if we are reenacting some historical drama – playing a part, living into a cycle that rests on the principle “this is what we’ve always done.”  But what if there was something greater at work?  What if there was more to this season than preparing for something that has already happened?  What if Advent, was really all about time? 

Advent invites us to consider the nature of time.  To think about the difference between chronological time and God’s time, and how these times interact and weave together.  For those of you playing along in Greek, I am talking about chronos and kairos.  Chronos meaning chronological time and kairos meaning God’s time.  

At the start of this new liturgical year we are invited to look ahead and imagine what is to come.  Now when I say look ahead, I do not mean looking ahead to the end of next month or the beginning of next year.  I mean look way ahead.  Like the final consummation of time ahead.  At the same time, this season also invites us to consider the present – how we live in this precise moment; all while remembering the single most revolutionary event that happened over 2000 years ago.  Time past, present, and still to come merger together in Advent.  

All of this is true, all of these things happen together, because, to borrow a phrase from Episcopal priest and theological Fleming Rutledge, Advent is time between.  It is the time between the first coming of Christ, incognito in the stable in Bethlehem, and the second coming in glory, when God will come to judge both the living and the dead.  Advent contains within itself the crucial balance of the now and the not yet our faith requires; the already and not yet of the Kingdom of God.  Advent is more than just another liturgical season, it is a microcosm of what the entirety of Christian life is all about. 

We begin this season, this new liturgical year, by hearing deeply apocalyptic readings.  Today’s Gospel passage continues the theme we have been hearing for the last few weeks.  

At the beginning of today’s Gospel passage Jesus says: 

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. (1)

Jesus is telling all those with ears to hear that the world as they know it is going to end.  Not only is the world going to end, but terrible things are going to happen.  Things even worse than the holiday traffic on 44! 

Jesus, in this passage, paints a rather disturbing picture filled with cataclysmic events: the seas will roar, nations will be filled with conflict and strife, people will become so terrified by the ominous, threatening reality of the world around them that they will actually pass out.  Imagine being so overwhelmed by what you see around you, that you lose consciousness.   

I do not know about you, but I have a hard time moving past this imagery.  It is hard to catch your breath and wrap your mind around all this.  This basically takes all the natural disasters we see around us and combines them into one, ratcheting up the intensity exponentially.  As we regain our focus we hear Jesus go on to say, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (2) I will confess to you that when I hear these words I want to say back to Jesus, “stand up and raise your head?! . . . I think I’ll duck and cover in the corner instead.”  

No matter what our instinctual response to Jesus’ words might be, we cannot allow ourselves to be overcome by fear, and – if I might be so bold – we cannot allow ourselves to ignore these apocalyptic warning either, brushing them off in favor of a more pleasant, easily digestible theology.  If we do that, if we walk away from this or any of the other apocalyptic writings throughout Scripture, then we miss out on the glorious ending that these times reveal.  For apocalypse is not about rapture, it is about the unveiling of the world that we might see the truth lying beneath the surface. 

After issuing this warning, after telling those around him to listen and pay attention to the signs that are about to happen, Jesus tells them a parable about a fig tree.  

“Look at the fig tree and all the trees,” he says, “as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and known that summer is already near.  So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” (3) Jesus uses this parable to offer comfort and reassurance to his followers.  Things might be dark, they might strike fear in your heart, but hold on. Do not give up.  Do not let go. 

Nature unlocks this clue for us.  We know that when the winds blow and the leaves fall, they will come back again.  The trees around us now, mostly stark and bare, with naked branches, will soon sprout again.  That will be the sign for us that spring and summer are near and the long winter is about to end.  With cold temperatures and whipping winds, with snow on the horizon, it might be tough to remember, but we hold on – for we know if we endure the harsh winter we will experience the glories of spring once more.  

As it is true in nature, so it is true in the Kingdom of God.  These warnings that Jesus gives are the signs.  They are the winds blowing and the leaves falling.  When these things happen, if we can hold on, if we can persevere in our waiting, we will see new leaves begin to sprout.  We will see the Kingdom of God come near.  For while everything around us will pass away, the Word of God endures forever. 

In order for the Kingdom of God to come to its fullness, we have to walk through the chaos of transitory times.  God, the primary actor of all things, of all times and seasons, is at work in the world at this very moment.  God is tearing down all those walls that inhibit and harm the people of God.  God is at work turning the world right side up again.  This is difficult work.  If the reconstruction of the 6/10 connector causes anguish and grief, it should be no surprise that the reconstruction of all creation is going to feel pretty scary, causing plenty of anxiety and grief of its own.  But that is when the redemption of God is drawing near.  That is when we need to keep holding on. 

In Luke’s Gospel, redemption is not focused around the forgiveness of sins and deliverance from its just penalty.  Redemption for Luke, is descried as the liberation from the fallen world and its corruption.  That is the promise, the promise of redemption, that we are invited to focus on in this season.  Advent begs us to remember the promise that as we stand amidst the darkness, brokenness, and chaos of life – redemption is coming. 

The world around us is focusing on speeding past the darkness to the safe certainty of light as quickly as possible.  That rushing can cause those of us aware of the pain of life to feel left out of this holidays season.  It can leave us feeling as if there is no room for grief at Christmas.  

If you are feeling this pain, if you know grief in this season, I hope you will feel this place and our worship together is a welcome refuge to the glitter and buzz around us.  Here the full spectrum of life and experience is found in the stories of Advent and Christmas.  Here we know, and we speak of truth, which is far more complicated than what can be captured in pop tunes sung by a cappella choirs.  This season holds together the deepest joys and the deepest pains that humanity experiences.  This seasons holds the tenderness of our souls, cradling them as God’s love is poured out upon us.    

Advent reminds us things worth waiting for happen in the dark.  Next spring’s seeds break open in dark winter soil.  God’s Spirit hovers over the dark water, preparing to create the world.  The child we await grows in the deep darkness of the womb.  There is light at the end of the darkness – there is hope and promise and redemption at the end of turmoil, transition, and chaos.  This hope of what is to come is what enables us to stand.  So let us stand together, raise our heads, for the light is drawing near.  

But when?  When we will be released from darkness?  When will the chaos end?  When will all be perfected and bathed in the light of God?  I am sorry to say that the answer to that question is so far above my pay grade that it is galaxies away.  Unfortunately I cannot tell you when the second coming will happen so that we can mark it on our calendars – setting reminders that will ping our phones with alerts reading “Don’t forget Jesus is coming next Thursday.” 

In the midst of darkness it is hard not to feel anxious waiting for the light.  In the midst of pain it is hard to not lose heart waiting for healing.  Here is where our time and God’s time clash.  We know neither the day nor the hour when all this will take place.  Even more so, there is nothing we can do to usher this kingdom in any faster.  The redemption of humanity – the dawning of the New Jerusalem – the final consummation of the Kingdom of God – will only happen in God’s time.  So here we are left to live in time between. 

Advent is the season where we get to practice what it means to be Christians for the rest of the year.  It is a time to practice living into time between.  It is a time to prepare ourselves for the promised in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.  It is a time to prepare ourselves to be participants with the divine activity already alive in the world.  It is a time to increase in love for one another and for ourselves.  To, as we hear in the First Letter to the Thessalonians, allow God to strengthen our hearts in holiness.  It is the time to live as if the second Advent of God is going to happen at any moment.  

I wonder what it is we can practice together during this season?  What can we prepare ourselves for as we consider our ministries in this place?  How are the investments we make in this community signs of our commitment to this Advent way of life? 

Let us use this time of Advent wisely. Let us be on guard.  Let us be ready.  For our redemption is drawing near.  

Amen.

(1) Luke 21:25-27, NRSV.
(2) Luke 21:28, NRSV.
(3) Luke 21:29-31, NRSV.

Sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost (21 November 2021). The Scripture readings (track II) can be found here

Christ the King, a detail from the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck. St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent. Public Domain

There was a professor that I had in seminary, who my friends and I lovingly referred to as Coach – though never to his face.  I do not fully remember at what point we started to call him Coach, but we did so because he regularly gave us pep talks – varying between the pregame words of encouragement to the half-time we might be loosing but there is always hope for a miracle type of speeches.  In his lectures, or in conversation over a cup of coffee, Coach could regularly be heard saying, in his blended Texas and Connecticut accent, “You’ve got to give them the bread and butter.”  In all things he would remind us that we had to focus on the fundamentals of our faith, the essential things, so that we might share the basic nourishment of our faith with those we would be called to serve. 

It seems to me that today is a bead and butter kind of day.  (And, before you ask, no we will not be serving bread and butter at the altar.) 

Today is the final Sunday in that long, LONG, stretch between the Feast of Pentecost, which we celebrated back on May 23, and the First Sunday of Advent, which is next week (though I still might be in considerable denial about that fact).  While the official name, as recorded in The Book of Common Prayer is the Last Sunday after Pentecost, or Proper 29, this day is commonly known as Christ the King Sunday.  

To be clear, Christ the King Sunday, is not a feast on our calendar, though it is a feast day in the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches. While not on our calendar, the themes of Christ the King are infused into this day.  The collect of the day, that prayer at the beginning of our liturgy which collects the themes of the day, is “a somewhat free translation . . . of the collect of the Feast of Christ the King” from the Roman Missal (1).  We also see the threads of kingship contained in our scripture lessons, interspersed throughout our liturgy, and sung in our hymns.  These themes permeate our worship, shaping and forming us to see and experience the world in particular ways. 

With such a foundational place in our life of faith, we might expect that Christ the King dates back to the earliest days of the Church.  While we see theologians from that era writing about the dominion of Christ and his kingship, this feast is new to Western Christianity’s liturgical calendar.  

In 1925, in the aftermath of World War I, in the face of growing nationalism and totalitarianism, with secularism increasing as these ideologies vied for people’s attention and allegiance, Pope Pius XI instituted this feast – though it was not fixed to this Sunday until 1970.  Pope Pius XI decrees this feast, to remind us where are loyalties are to lie as followers of Jesus. 

Many far wiser then I have pointed out the dangers of this day.  Given the strong influence of worldly kings, with imagery of royalty reaching deep into the recesses of our culture imagination, we might begin to conflate Jesus with the types of kings we see on television.  We might begin to think of Jesus as the next leading character on the Netflix original series The Crown.  

Jesus does not follow the model of earthly kings – expanding his empire through war and colonization; amassing wealth on the backs of the poor; or claiming medals and honors to boost his prestige.  Jesus is not some portly king, decked out in fancy clothes, ready for a gluttonous feast with turkey leg in his hand.  Jesus is a king unlike any the world has ever known. 

“Instead of hearing a story of majestic glory this day, John’s Gospel offers us a picture of Jesus at his physical and emotional worst: arrested, disheveled, harassed, hungry, abandoned, sleep-deprived – and standing before the notoriously cruel Pontius Pilate for questioning.”  If someone submitted this scene for the script of an upcoming series depicting the life of royalty, it would be rejected, returned for having failed to understand the assignment.  While it defies our understanding of kingship, this is the story we have this day (2).

The reign of Jesus is one of kenosis – the self-emptying of Jesus’ own will so that he might be entirely receptive to the will of God.  Jesus lives by humble loving service, lifting up and honoring the least and lost.  Jesus does not behave as one might expect a king to behave – he shares simple meals with his friends, associates with those who are cast to the margins, and in his final hours of earthly life, he takes the roll of the lowliest of all servants, kneeling down to wash the grime and the muck from his disciples’ feet.  This is our king. 

The reign of God is the most sure and certain kingship there has ever been and ever will be.  In the Book of Daniel we hear about the Ancient One taking his throne.  As the narrator is watching the visions unfold we are told, “I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven.  And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.  To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.  His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (3)

Coming with the clouds God establishes God’s dominion on the earth.  Jesus, the one who was with God from the very beginning of existence, him whom there was not a time when he was not, comes to us on clouds descending to establish his reign over the entire world.  Unlike the kingly dynasties of human creation, this one will never be toppled.  

The goal of this kingdom is not further power and might.  It is not the aim of this kingdom to win the game of global domination.  (God is not trying to win the ultimate game of Risk).  The goal of this kingdom, the one who reigns on this throne, seeks unity amongst all the peoples of this world.  To borrow words from our collect of the day, the aim of this kingdom is to “grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule.” (4)

In the midst of the chaos and commotion of the world, in all its eras past and present, in the midst of the fleeting sense of stability, we are reminded that the kingdom of God is steadfast – it is a kingdom we can rely on, a kingdom we can put our trust and hope in.  For “He has made the whole world so sure that it cannot be moved.” (5)  Not only is there nothing that can destroy the kingdom of God, there is nothing that can even cause the foundations to shake. 

There is tremendous power in this kingdom; power that earthly rulers could only dream of.  But what many fail to understand is that our King’s power comes from vulnerability.  His strength comes from humble loving service. From his death comes life. 

We will be transformed as we give ourselves over to his power and authority.  As Debie Thomas writes, “If there is any story about Jesus that can smack the smugness out of us – all arrogance, all gleefulness, all scorn – surely this one has to be it.  This week, our king is an arrested, falsely accused criminal.  A dead man walking.  His chosen path to glory is humility, surrender, brokenness, and loss.” (6)

This path of glory is one that baffles our minds and is incomprehensible to the world.  And yet, it is the only hope we have of transforming this world – it is the only thing that will establish love, justice, and peace on earth. 

As followers of Jesus our King we are called to obey his commands – to “love the Lord [our] God with all [our] heart, and with all [our] soul, and with all [our] mind, and with all [our] strength” and to “love [our] neighbors as [ourselves].” (7) We are called to live as he lives: choosing service over domination, giving to others instead of clinging to things for ourselves, forgiving instead of holding grudges, seeking mercy not retaliation.  We are called to seek not the fanciest tables and most coveted invitations, but simple meals with those who have nowhere else to go.  We are called to build relationships with those excluded from society.  We are called to heal the sick, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, sharing the message of love with the world.  

Supposedly, though there is no actual proof, Mark Twain once said, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”  The world we live in today, has some striking similarities to the world in which Pope Pius XI instituted the feast of Christ the King.

We can look and see a resurgence in authoritarianism around the global; at home and abroad nationalism is on the rise; and the world is increasingly secular holding up greed and power as the ultimate objects of our allegiance.  

The world is also drastically different than what Pope Pius XI knew.  We have greater capacity than ever before.  Consider the remarkable progress around science and medicine.  Think about the ways that communities and individuals have mobilized to stand up to injustice.  Remember the chants that have echoed through our streets as people of God have worked to make the way of love known in our time.  We have unbelievable tools and resources at our disposal to aid our ministries, to help us share in God’s work of building God’s kingdom here and now. 

This is the bread and butter.  The basic substance of our nourishment.  Christ is King, and we are God’s loyal subjects.  

The Kingdom of God is not of this world.  At the end of the age, on that great and glorious morning, all will be united under God’s most gracious rule.  Until that day we worship the One who is King of kings and Lord of lords.  As members of the household of God, the priesthood of all believers, it is our task to show the world where our allegiance lies, conforming ourselves to God’s reign of love.  As we wait that morning when the stars begin to fall, we can see glimpses even now – glimpses of the Kingdom of God being realized all around us. May we have eyes to see, ears to hear, minds to know, and hearts to embrace the royal banners of love that hail the coming of our King. 

Amen. 

(1) Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book p. 195.
(2) https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/3220-what-is-truth
(3) Daniel 7:13-14, NRSV.
(4) The Book of Common Prayer, p. 236.
(5) Psalm 93:2, BCP
(6) https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/3220-what-is-truth
(7) Mark 12:30-21, NRSV.

Sermon for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (14 November 2021). The Scripture readings (track II) can be found here

James Tissot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Things are getting apocalyptic!  

Every year as we approach the final Sundays after Pentecost, just before the first Sunday of Advent – which is mindbogglingly two weeks away, our Scripture readings shift and take on an apocalyptic tone.  In these weeks we read from what is known as the apocalyptic literature in both the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, and the New Testament.  

The word apocalypse can bring to mind a very particular set of images.  From Scripture we hear about false messiahs, wars, earthquakes, and famines – the national calamities that will usher in the advent of the Messiah.  We hear about catastrophic events that proceed God coming to us on clouds descending.  

Apocalyptic imagery has transcended religious spheres capturing the mind of our popular culture.  Maybe when you hear the word “apocalypse” you think of Marvel superhero movies, the “Left Behind” series, or season six of the Showtime series Dexter.  Maybe you imagine interplanetary warfare, the four horsemen, vacant-eyed zombies lurching through decimated neighborhoods, and the wholesale nuclear destruction of the planet? 

With all due respect to the doomsday genre of movies and tv shows, these images do not have anything to do with what the word apocalypse actually means.  While the imagery might have similarities, Hollywood’s messaging is a bit different from that of Scripture. 

An apocalypse is an unveiling.  It is the disclosure of something that has been hidden and kept secret.  To experience an apocalypse is not about being taken up in the rapture; it is about experiencing the revealing of something new – to receive fresh sight, honest discourse, to experience truth.  Journeying through an apocalypse allows us to understand reality as we have never understood it before. 

This is what Jesus is trying to convey to his disciples in today’s Gospel passage. Jesus is inviting them to see something new, to understand reality as they have never understood it before.  For things are being uncovered.

Today, as has been true in recent weeks, we hear Mark’s telling of Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem.  He has made his triumphal entry, accompanied by shouts of Hosanna, what we now refer to as Palm Sunday.  Thought the subsequent week, Jesus has been in the Temple with his disciples.  During this time he has prayed and taught lessons to his followers.  He has openly criticized the practices of the religious officials, drawing attention to the fact that they have veered from the path of God – that they are not leading their people to lives of holiness. 

In this passage, Jesus and his disciples are standing in the courtyard preparing to leave the Temple.  This is shortly after Jesus has drawn their attention to the widow who surrenders her last two coins to the temple treasury saying, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”  (1)

Jesus has just pointed out the exploitative practices of the Temple, practices that leave this poor widow destitute, and what do his disciples say in response, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” (2) They are dazzled by the astonishing architecture.  It is reported that the Temple was a large complex of white marble buildings, some of them even covered in gold.  Herod reportedly used so much gold to cover the outside walls that anyone who gazed at them in the bright sun risked blinding themselves.  There were impressive balconies, monumental staircases, and colonnaded courts.  This complex left those who traveled through it filled with an awe-inspiring wonder.  The disciples are overcome by this awe.  They are lost in the moment, looking at the impressive sight before them. 

Jesus, however, does not share their amazement.  Instead, he foretells the coming apocalypse. 

Jesus does not see what the disciples see. Instead of grandeur Jesus sees ruin, destruction rubble.  He sees fragility, not permanence.  Loss, not glory.  Change, not status.  Jesus replies to their instigation that he joins them in awe by saying, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (3)

Jesus invites them to look beyond the dazzling walls, to see that God cannot be contained in buildings.  This is a message that echos what Jesus says during the Transfiguration – after Peter suggests they build booths for Jesus to remain in his raiment white and glistening, along with Moses and Elijah.  

For these disciples, and for so many like them, the Temple was the unshakable symbol of God’s presence.  They believed God resided there.  But salvation is not contained in bricks and mortar.  God exceeds every edifice, every institution, every mission statement, every strategic plan, every symbol we humans have ever created in God’s name.  

As the temples we have created lie in ruin, we will see God shattering the limitations we have placed upon God, unveiling our eyes to glimpse a deeper truth of God’s divine reality.  We endure the apocalypse so that the truth might set us free. 

These same themes fill our lesson from Daniel.  In fact, this chapter of Mark’s Gospel along with parallels in Matthew and Luke, draw language directly from Daniel.  

The author of the Book of Daniel is foretelling what is to come.  Now in truth, scholars believe that Daniel is actually written after the events described.  The author of this book is not trying to mislead anyone, this was a common practice of the day to establish credibility as a writer.  Instead of predicting the future, this is a message of God’s salvation. 

At the time this book was written around 164 BCE, the Jewish people have experienced a history of oppression, and the recent devastation of the temple would have been absolutely demoralizing.  They needed a message that would give them hope, letting them know what they were experiencing was not the end of the story.  They needed to know that something more would be revealed.

Daniel writes, “There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence.  But at that time your people shall be delivered.”  (4) Daniel writes of a time of destruction and horror unlike anything they have ever experienced before.  In the midst of that suffering, God will provide and care for God’s people.  God will tear down the oppressive structures that destroy God’s people; and God will protect them, delivering them, so that they might shine like the stars forever.  God’s love for God’s people will be unveiled as that which holds them captive comes tumbling down. 

While there is the gift of God’s salvation embedded in these readings, they are intense and anxiety producing.  There is nothing pleasant about dismantling systems and structures – let alone the literal demolishing of grand building complexes.  I think that is why Jesus takes a pastoral tone in the second half of today’s Gospel passage. 

After foreshadowing the destruction of the temple – something that, by the way happens in 70 CE as Jerusalem was under siege by the Romans – after foreshadowing this destruction, Jesus tells his disciples how to live as the walls come crashing down around them.  

Not giving in to the culture’s thirsting for chaos and gore, Jesus insists on calm strength and generous love in the face of this, and every, apocalypse.  Jesus invites the disciples to resist the anxiety of the age, remaining focused on the work he has given them to do.  They are not to get caught up in the difficult and unimportant work of reading the times, they are to remain vigilant in preaching the good news of God – living in love as Jesus demonstrates – especially during this most holy of weeks. 

Jesus says to them, “do not be alarmed.”  (5) Jesus says remain calm.  When truth is shaken, and nations make war, and imposters preach alluring gospels of fear, resentment, and hatred do not fall for it.  Do not give in to terror.  Do not despair.  Do not capitalize on chaos.  Do not be afraid.  For as the wise mystic Yoda said in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, “Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to suffering.” 

Writing on this Gospel passage, Debi Thomas reflects on how we are called to live through an apocalypse.  She writes:

So avoid hasty, knee-jerk judgments.Be perceptive, not pious.Imaginative, not immature.Make peace, choose hope, cultivate patience, and incarnate love as the world reels and changes.For me, this is the great challenge of the Gospel.Not simply to bear the apocalypse, but to bear it well.To bear it with the radical, self-sacrificial love Jesus models on the cross. (6)

We are living through an apocalypse, not unlike the one the disciples lived through.  Things which we have come to rely upon are crumbling around us.  Institutions once stable, now rest on shaky ground.  There is uncertainly in the rapid changes in our daily lives.  Even the Church is uncertain about where God is calling us next – and by Church, I mean the Church, not just this parish.  The division in our nation worsens, we continue to live with an unending pandemic, while wars rage around the world forcing countless people to flee their homes in search of safety. 

The golden covered walls of the way we have always done things are collapsing.  Truths hidden beneath the surface of our communities are being uncovered.  Many have described this last year and half as the great unveiling of American Truth – as the depths of racism and white supremacy; the inequity of our health care system; the political injustice (and let me be clear I am talking about both sides of the aisle), and so much more are laid bare for all to see.  

As chaos rules around us, we are called to focus on Jesus, always walking the path of discipleship.  We are called to remain calm, trusting that God will deliver us from whatever happens next. 

Things are getting apocalyptic; and they will probably stay that way for some time.  This gives us ample time to practice remaining calm, supporting one another as we witness God’s in breaking, God’s unveiling in the world.  

Thanks be to God that we do not have to face this time alone.  We have the gift of facing it as a community.  We come together bringing our anxiety, our pain, our fear; allowing others to care for us, as we turn those things over to God.

Together, filled with God’s love, surrounded by the Holy Spirit, we can, and we will, find the strength to face this and every apocalypse; encouraging each other to follow Jesus – walking this way of love together.  Together may we bear this apocalypse well. 

Amen. 

(1) Mark 12:43-44, NRSV.
(2) Mark 13:1, NRSV.
(3) Mark 13:2b, NRSV.
(4) Daniel 12:1, NRSV.
(5) Mark 13:7, NRSV.
(6) https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2010-not-one-stone

Sermon for the Sunday after All Saints’ Day (7 November 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here

Fra Angelico, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” (1)

From the Book of Revelation we hear of the promise which awaits: the ultimate what’s next for God’s people.  What is described is that place of perfection where we will dwell for all of eternity.  It is the holy city, the New Jerusalem, that place which Jesus has gone ahead to prepare for us with its many dwelling places and mansions.  Surrounding the throne of God, it is there where God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.  It is there where“death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” (2) It is here that we know the peace which only God can give.   

This is the conclusion of our story.  Or, maybe better put, the end of the story as we know it, and the beginning of the next chapter in which glories beyond our comprehension will unfold.  

If this is the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next, what are we to do as we turn the pages in the stories of our lives and ministries?  How do we continue our journey? How do we get to that place of perfection? 

Before I say anything else, let me be clear about one thing.  The promises which God makes to God’s people – the love, mercy, and grace that God has for us – these are gifts freely given.  There is absolutely nothing that we can do to earn or merit God’s love and God’s grace.  

I hope you will hear me, and believe me, when I say, God loves you.  God loves you in the fullness of who you are; exactly who God has created you to be.  There is absolutely nothing that you can do, nothing about your identity, nothing you can be which will make God stop loving you. 

That being said, God’s love and generosity are not some sort of divine pass to do whatever we want.  God’s grace is not the ultimate get out of jail free card.  God offers this gift, but like every other gift we receive, we have to accept it.  We accept this gift by living as though our lives where mirrors, reflecting the wonders of God’s love. 

What we do this day has everything to do with our preparations for entrance into that place which is trustworthy and true.  

We gather today to keep the Sunday after All Saints’ Days, something we can do thanks to a permissive rubric in the Book of Common Prayer.  Put another way, even though it is not November 1st – the actual date of All Saints’ Day – we can still keep and celebrate this principal feast.  This is not something that happens often, and is only permissible in very particular circumstances – highlighting all the more the importance of this day. 

On All Saints’ Day we remember the hallowed – the holy ones of God.  We remember the valiant deeds of those who are the exemplars of our faith.  This day is about those who gave absolutely everything, the entirety of their beings, their hearts, minds, souls, and sometimes their final breath to proclaim the Gospel in word in deed.  

Unlike All Souls’ Day, which we kept on November 2, which remembers all the faithful departed, which draws us together to remember our own beloved dead, this day celebrates the saints of the Church.  People like St Thomas, our patron, St. Peter, St. Paul, Blessed Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Blessed Francis, and all the others who fill the church’s calendar.  Keeping this day reminds us, to paraphrase a line from that beloved hymn, that we mean to be saints too. 

There is a reason why the Church sees fit to remember these people.  It is because these saints of God are folks just like us.  They are ordinary people.  They were sinners, some even scoundrels.  Yet out of the ordinariness of life, God called them to do extraordinary things.  If God can call them to these lives of humble and loving service, then God can call us too. 

At the start of this liturgy we prayed: 

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you . . .(3)

We keep this day, we remember the saints, because they show us how to prepare for those ineffable joys. 

This is all well and good, you might be thinking to yourself.  Fine for these saints to do it, but where do I start? 

What a fabulous question!

Celebrating the saints is not the only thing we do this day. In fact, celebrating the saints – looking to their lives for inspiration for our own – is more like step two.  We start this journey with Baptism. 

This weekend, at all of our services, we remember our baptisms.  At the 5:30pm service and the 8am service we renew our baptismal promises.  We once more commit ourselves to the promises “by which we once renounced Satan and all his works, and promised to serve God faithfully in his holy Catholic Church.” (4) It is a good and holy thing to stop, every time we have the chance, and remind ourselves of the vows we made to God, to our neighbors, and to ourselves.  Living into these vows is one way we accept the gifts God graciously offers us, as we prepare for the life to come.   

Today we are proclaiming that we will do five things: continue, persevere, proclaim, seek, and strive.  These are the words at the heart of each vow we take.  

With God’s help we profess to: 

  • Continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers. 
  • Persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord. 
  • Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. 
  • Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. 
  • Strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. (5)

Today, and every time we renew our baptismal vows, we commit to showing up: joining the corporate prayer of our community, sharing in the Sacraments, participating in fellowship as we grow in the knowledge and love of God together.  

We admit that we are not always going to get things right, we will mess up, we will sin; and we remind ourselves that recognizing our sinfulness is not about being self deprecating.  It is an honest reflection, saying to ourselves, “that could have gone differently”; then doing the work to get ourselves back on the path God places before us.  

We are reminded that if we are going to talk the talk, then we have to walk the walk.  In what we say and in what we do we have to live the Good News of God.  Acting in the world as if we truly believe what we pray. 

We, and this might be one of the hardest vows, promise to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Not only that, we promise to seek and serve – to see and care for – Christ in all persons.  That means we are called to love those who look differently, love differently, think differently, vote differently, and believe differently than we do.  I know this is not easy, and it is required of us.  And maybe, for some, will lead us to practice a bit more repenting and returning. 

Finally we pledge to strive for justice and peace that this world might look a bit more like the kingdom of God today than it did yesterday, and that glimpse might be even stronger tomorrow. 

These are the things the saints of God did.  These things will reflect the light of Christ burning inside us to the whole wide world.  

This weekend, in addition to renewing our vows, we welcome two new people into this way of life.  At our 10am service we will have the great joy of baptizing Ethan Edward Ciacciarelli and Addison Michele Kane.

While this is a great occasion for their families, it is also a great occasion for the whole community.  After we welcome these newly baptized during the liturgy the congregation will say, “We receive you into the household of God.  Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” (6) We will welcome Ethan and Addison to join with us in the good work God has called us to do.  We will pledge to support them as they grow in faith. 

I do not know if you have ever taken a close look at our baptismal font, but if you have or when you do, you might notice that there are a variety of words carved into it.  At the bottom of the font, one such inscription reads, Easter 1853.  That is when this font was consecrated.  That is when this font was set here in St. Thomas Church, to be used to share the Sacrament of Baptism with whomever is drawn to the waters contained therein.  

For 168 years – from 1853 until today – people have been brought to this place, committing their lives to the word of God, pledging to share in the priesthood of all believers.  According to our records, Ethan and Addison will be the 1403 and 1404 people baptized in this place.  They will join in the long line of people baptized here, and the untold number of us who have renewed our baptisms here.  They will join in following the paths of the saints: continuing, persevering, proclaiming, seeking, and striving. 

As many of you know, later this week we will gather as a community to continue our discernment in discovering how God is calling us into the next capture of our lives together.  We will gather and think about all the ways we have, and continue to carry out these saintly actions.  We will wonder together, dreaming of how we will continue the work God has called us to.  It is a fitting thing, and largely accidental, that our meeting falls in this week.  Yet I can think of few days better to frame our conversations. 

This is an amazing moment in time for St. Thomas Church.  We are emerging out of a difficult time, and into new life together.  The Gospel passage we heard today is rich and wonderful, but there is one moment that strikes me as descriptive of where we are as a community.  At the end of the passage, after Jesus has the stone of the tomb rolled away, he yells into the tomb, “Lazarus, come out,” and his friend is restored to life and comes out of the tomb.  As Lazarus comes forth, wrapped in burial cloth, Jesus says, “unbind him, and let him go.”

I wonder if that is what Jesus is saying to us.  I wonder if Jesus is shouting into the depths of this place, “St. Thomas Church, come out!” As we emerge Jesus invites us to be unbound.  Jesus invites us to let go of all that holds us captive so we can experience new life – that we might know something of the power of God’s resurrected glory.  

As we stumble forth, untangling ourselves, may we be clothed anew in the garments of baptism.  May we come out as the people of God in this place, always striving to be saints too. 

Ethan and Addison, along with her parents and godparents who make these promises on her behalf, from this point on your lives will never be the same. After this day, you will have been marked as Christ’s own forever, and nothing can ever take that away.  After this day, the same things that are required of us will be required of you.  There are no promises that it will be easy, and this is a journey absolutely worth traveling.  On behalf of the household of God at St. Thomas Church, we are delighted you are here.  Welcome to this wonderful and wild adventure. 

Amen. 

(1) Revelation 21:1, NRSV.
(2) Revelation 21:4, NRSV.
(3) The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 245.
(4) Ibid., 292.
(5) Ibid., 304-305.
(6) Ibid., 308.

Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost (31 October 2021). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here

James Tissot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“Which commandment is the first of all,” (1) the scribe asks Jesus?  Out of the more than 600 laws and commandments in the tradition which one, which solitary law, reigns supreme.  

Jesus answers by quoting the shema, what we hear in our lesson from Deuteronomy.  Jesus says the answer is love.  Jesus says, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel’ the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (2) 

As a preacher in this moment in time, I struggle with this answer. I struggle not because I think Jesus is wrong, quite the contrary, I struggle because of how hard it is for us to truly hear and understand what Jesus is actually saying.  

First, these words are so well known to us, that we can hear them without ever allowing them to register.  How many of us when hearing the beginning of this phrase can fill in the rest of the words from memory?  The familiarity of these words softens their impact.  We know them so well, that we just slide over their surface until we get to the next sentence.  

On top of that, there is the struggle with the very word at the heart of it all: love.  

I can think of no word in the English language that we have reduced, deflated, and ruined more than the word love.  Think of all the times and ways we use this word.  “I love this TV show,” “I love ice cream, “I love cozying up with a good book,” “I love playing football” – okay maybe that last one is just me.  What do we mean when we say these things?  Do we really mean love?  Should we really be using the same word upon which “hang all the law and the prophets”? (3) The same word which no commandment is greater than?  And this does not even begin to name the baggage this word carries from romance novels, Hollywood films, lifetime movies, and greeting cards. 

Beloved of God, this is the greatest and most important thing in our life of faith.  I wish I knew the surefire way for us to be able to grasp what that means.  I believe with every fiber of my being that if we did – and I stand here falling short of God’s command to love as much as anyone else – if we truly understood, if these words really registered, our lives and this world would be unrecognizable.  

If we lived by these great commandments we would not drive by an increasing number of people who are homeless, begging on the streets for money. If we understood love, people of color would not be terrified of getting pulled over for simple traffic violations and white supremacists would not believe that they could lynch their neighbors and get away with it. If we lived by love workers would not be exploited for their labor, seen as the cost for doing business.  If we lived by love we would not forcibly take land from indigenous peoples.  If we lived by love we would welcome and not fear the stranger in our midst.  If we lived by love all people would be able to claim their identity and flourish in the fullness of who God created them to be.  If we lived by love each year would not be the deadliest on record for the transgender and non-binary community.  If we lived by love we would be building bigger tables not walls.  If we lived by love creation would not be in chaos collapsing around us.  

If we lived by love, would we even recognize the world around us? 

Miracle Max, Billy Crystal’s character from The Princess Bride, was right, “True love is the greatest thing in the world – except for a nice MLT – mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich.”  True love, the love which Jesus proclaims is the first commandment of all, is the greatest thing in the world.  It is the only thing which will transform the world from the nightmare humanity has created to the dream that God intends. 

I think we know this.  This is not an earth shattering revelation.  So how to we go from knowing this in our heads, to knowing it in our hearts? 

The only thing I know to do, as I wrestle with these words, is to stay with them.  To keep turning to this text, not getting lost in its familiarity, but digging in, searching below the surface, not giving up until my heart and my life have been transformed by the incarnate word of God making love known.  I want to invite you to join me in exploring these words, that we might come closer to understanding the true meaning of love. 

Jesus is in Jerusalem. Mark has been narrating the various incidents and conflicts between Jesus and those who represent the dominant voices, those who represent the institutions of power of his day.  How our lectionary is structured we do not hear these stories right now, we hear them at other times of the year.  The lectionary has jumped ahead of what we heard last week so we missed hearing Jesus cursing the fig tree, cleansing the temple, challenging authority, telling the parable of the wicked tenants, and speaking about the resurrection. 

Mark has basically been writing a sort of spirituality slam, a contest to see who comes out on top, who has the best skill, the best grasp, the true mastery of the subject at hand.  These stories are the rounds of this contest, each getting more intense than the last.  The way Mark concludes this passage, the way what we hear today ends, depicts Jesus as the publicly undisputed champion of Jerusalem.  Having been crowd victorious, the only thing left to be seen is what prize awaits Jesus.  

With this final, knock-out answer, and answer of love, the authorities conspire to kill Jesus.  They deepen their desire to be rid of Jesus, a desire that has been brewing since he entered the holy city.  It is because Jesus professed an unhindered, unencumbered, unabashed, no holds barred love that those in power decided to kill him.  

We might be on the cusp of All Saints and Advent, but this Gospel passage is rooted in Holy Week.  We cannot divorce what we hear today from the events that are unfolding in Jesus’ life.  For we do not discover what true love is, we do not discovered how to live out this greatest commandment, until we arrive at the end of the week – until we stand at the foot of the cross. 

If we have any hope of understanding this greatest commandment we have to reorient our understanding of love.  We must erase the connection of love with warm and fuzzy feelings and recognize love’s rigor, robustness, and discomfort.  As Debie Thomas writes in her commentary on this passage: 

We assume that loving God and our neighbors means expressing friendly sentiments to God in Sunday worship, and exchanging warm pleasantries with people who live near us during the week.  We forget that in the scriptures, the call to love is a call to vulnerability, sacrifice, and suffering.  It’s a call to bear a cross and lay down our lives.  Biblical love is not an emotion we feel, it’s a path we travel.  As the children of God, we are called to walk in love.  Think aerobic activity, not Hallmark sentiment. (4)

If we are going to understand the greatest commandment of all, and the second which is like unto it, we must always remember when Jesus said these words. Jesus said them on the cusp of his crucifixion. 

While we are all created in the image and likeness of God, and I know this might be a shocking revelation for some, no person here is Jesus.  None of us are called to be the savior and redeemer of the world, that position has already been filled.  We must then discern what it means for us to love.  We must discern what it means for us to live vulnerably and sacrificially. 

Cornel West, the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Professor of Philosophy & Christian Practice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, famously says, “justice is what Love looks like in public.”  The cross, the most profound act of love the world has ever witnessed, is an act of justice.  It is what has liberated all God’s beloved children from bondage to sin; liberating us to live our love in public.

If Dr. West is right, and I believe he is, this means that our wonderings and questions about what it means to love have answers.  

Answers like stopping when we see a homeless person begging on the street, giving them money, food; and working in our communities and state to create access to affordable housing, job training, affordable and accessible behavioral and medical health care, safe shelters, and other necessary resources.  Answers that lead us to continue, or begin, the work of anti-racism, uncovering the deep seeded sin of racism and white supremacy in our communities, recognizing the way we benefit from our privilege, putting our bodies on the line to stand with those fighting for their lives.  Answers that advocate for just and fair treatment of workers, holding corporations responsible for their practices.  Answers that continue to express outrage at what is happening at the southwestern border or our country.  Answers that lobby for laws making it illegal to fire someone, deny them healthcare, housing and public accommodations, the ability to adopt, or the simple ability to use a public restroom because they are part of the LGBTQ community.  Answers that force us to make significant sacrifices so future generations have a chance at being able to live on our dying planet.  

Answers that lead people to know we are members of the household of God, the body of Christ, without us ever having to make a profession of faith. 

Today’s Gospel passage ends, “After that no one dared to ask him any question.”  The passage ends in silence, with everyone speechless.  I wonder if what we need to reclaim this love, is to linger in the silence.  To remain in the stillness, giving ourselves space to wonder “when was the last time [we were] moved to silence by the call to love?  How long has it been since the challenge and the beauty of the first commandment gave [us] pause?  Undid [us]?  Caused [us] to change course and reorder [our lives]?” (5) Maybe we need to ask ourselves how do we love?  Or even, do we love?  Maybe in the silence, stepping away from the frenzy of daily life, being in the presence of God, we will hear God’s voice calling out to us, instructing us to love, making clear what we are called to do.  Let us not fear the silence for it is there that we discover the answers to our questions.  

Maybe we should thinking about our silent discoveries another way.  Ched Myers points out in his commentary Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, “In Mark’s gospel, we encounter a Jesus who is portrayed not as the answers to our questions, but as the question to our answers.” (6) So maybe, what we find in the silence, is God who challenges our assumptions and pushes us to see the world and our vocation to love in ways we have not imagined before.

Every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, an offertory sentence is given at the conclusion of the announcements.  Every time we have gathered together you have heard me say, “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.” (7) This is what it means to walk in love.  This is what sharing the Sacrament of Eucharist strengthens and nourishes us for.  This is what it is all about. 

Jesus silences the crowd with the ultimate answer to how we are called to live.  Jesus offers words from deep in their heritage and tradition to illuminate the path they are called to walk.  Beloved of God, let us sit in the silence hearing the revelation of God. Then, let us get up and walk together. 

Amen. 

(1) Mark 12:28, NRSV.
(2) Mark 12:29-31, NRSV.
(3) Matthew 22:40, NRSV.
(4) https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=3196
(5) https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=3196
(6) Ched Myers, Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 158
(7) The Book of Common Prayer, p. 376. (Ephesians 5:2).

Sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (24 October 2021).  The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here

Eustache Le Sueur, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In an earlier era of my life, I was the percussionist and occasional woodwind player for a praise band.  While I have since stepped away from that musical and theological genre, having been immersed in it for several years means that there are songs that stay with me. From time to time, as I read Scripture there will be a line or an image or a story that transports me back to that seat behind my drum set.  Over the last several days I have been journeying back to that bygone era with one particular song – a song by Michael W. Smith titled “Open the eyes of my heart.”   

For those of you unfamiliar with this song, it has two verses which are repeated several times in varying configurations for about five minutes.  The words go like this: 

Open the eyes of my heart, Lord
Open the eyes of my heart
I want to see You
I want to see You 

To see You high and lifted up
Shinin’ in the light of Your glory
Pour out Your power and love
As we sing holy, holy, holy (1) 

This song is a prayer, a prayer asking God to help us see.  It expresses that earnest desire to see God in the fullness of God’s glory.  To have our hearts opened, that we might discover God – that we might experience in new ways the power and love of God.

No matter where we stand on the spectrum of secular and sacred music, I hope we can all agree that this is not only a worthwhile, but a necessary prayer and desire.  

One of the constant themes in the Gospels, for that matter in all of Scripture, is the gift of being able to see – the transformation of going from blindness to sight.  At times this is about a physical healing – someone who was blind and after an encounter with God can see again.  At other times, it is about a deeper spiritual blindness.  It is about the process by which God opens the eyes of our hearts that we might see the world, our neighbors, God, and ourselves as God sees.  

Today we hear Mark’s telling of the story of blind Bartimaeus – a story about the gift of sight. 

Bartimaeus was sitting along the roadside on the outskirts of Jericho.  As Jesus leaves that town, the last place he will visit on his final journey to Jerusalem – the last stop before he enters the holy city for the final time during his earthly life – Bartimaeus calls out to him.  Bartimaeus has heard about Jesus, he has heard of the amazing works and miracles he has done, the way he has displayed the power of God for all to see.  Bartimaeus wants to experience that for himself so he cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  Bartimaeus desires God to pour our God’s power and love on him so deeply that he is compelled to cry out.  

When those around him hear this, they try to stop him.  “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet,” (2) many told him to stop making a scene.  But the more they tried, the louder Bartimaeus made his desires known. 

As Jesus and his disciples are leaving, as they journey along, Bartimaeus’ cry come to Jesus’ ear so he stops, he stands still, he listens, and he says, “Call him here.”  Jesus invites Bartimaeus to draw near and make his request known.  

When the two finally meet, Jesus ask Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” (3)  Jesus asks  Bartimaeus the same question he asks James and John the sons of Zebedee in the previous scene – in that story we heard last weekend.  While the question is the same, Bartimaeus responds in a very different way.  James and John ask for the premier places in eternity, they make a request rooted in delusions of grandeur.  Bartimaeus, on the other hand, asks for mercy.  Bartimaeus asks for sight: “My teacher,  let me see again.” (4)

From this point the story moves quickly to its end.  In the concluding verse Mark tells us, “Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” (5)

At its most basic level, this passage proclaims the power of God in the healing of a blind man, whom the crowd wishes to silence.  This is the compassionate Christ who brings near the good news of God’s victory over the physical brokenness of the world.  It is God declaring that no matter how hard some voices try to silence the experience of those in need, God will still hear our cries. 

This story is more than just another healing story.  This story serves as the concluding bookend to a section of Mark’s Gospel in which blindness serves as a unifying theme and it is the introduction to the most important part of the story that is about to unfold. 

Over the last several weeks we have heard passages from Mark’s discipleship catechism – Mark’s teaching on what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  We have heard about the importance of amputating everything that separates us from the love of God. We have heard of a rich man and camel going through the eye of a needle.  We have heard James and John making their demands.  After a series of stories exemplifying what not to do, Mark finally offers an example to be replicated. 

From the very beginning of this passage, Mark clues us in that something big is going on.  Unlike the other thirty-something healing stories in the four Gospels this is the only story – with the exception of the raising of Lazarus, which is arguably something different than a healing story – where the person who is healed is named.  Typically, the closest we ever get to learning the identity of someone is through relational contexts, Jairus’ daughter or Simon Peter’s mother-in-law.  By doing something different, by breaking the pattern, Mark is inviting the reading to pay attention.  To notice that something important, something deeper, is happening. 

Unlike the other healing stories, Jesus does not spit in the dirt and make mud, nor does he even touch this man.  Bartimaeus is healed with a word.  It is through his faith, through his recognition of Jesus as the Messiah, the promised Son of David coming to set the people free, through his recognition of his own need for mercy, compassion, and healing that his sight is restored.  While Jesus tells Bartimaeus to go, it is not that same declaration Jesus makes after healing others.  Bartimaeus is not told to go home.  He is not told to go in silence and secrecy.  Bartimaeus is told to go forth – Bartimaeus is told to follow Jesus on the path which leads directly to Jerusalem. 

At the outset of the story Mark tells us that Bartimaeus is sitting by the side of the road.  Once he has received Jesus’ invitation to come forward Mark describes Bartimaeus’ actions this way, “So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.” (6)

Now I do not know about you, but springing up is not something I do.  Rolling out of bed, sure.  Stumbling into the kitchen to make coffee, absolutely.  Standing up from sitting at my desk to long and letting out a quiet grown in the process – well apparently that is an unfortunate consequence of getting older, or so I am told.  But springing up, who does that? 

In springing up, Bartimaeus demonstrates the excitement, enthusiasm, and eagerness to approach Jesus that all disciples are called to have.  In the midst of the overwhelming and oppressive heat and humidity of Jericho, Bartimaeus uses all the energy he has to encounter the incarnate nature of God – to meet God dwelling amongst us. 

Before he springs up, Bartimaeus throws off his cloak.  At first glance this is an odd sounding details, but it is an important one.  His cloak is presumably his most treasured possession, and certainly contains any money he has made or food he has brought along for his day.  But all of that is not given a second thought when compared to the invitation of God. 

Bartimaeus throws all of that aside – he casts off everything that he has to run to Jesus.  Unlike the rich man who cannot imagine selling off the vast amount of possessions he owns, unlike James and John who want to own the best seats in the proverbial house, Bartimaeus gives it all up to come and follow – he gives it all up to come and see. 

As we hear the story of blind Bartimaeus we see an imagine of discipleship coming forth from one who countless people passed by every day without ever seeing.  It makes us wonder, or at least it makes me wonder, how many disciples do I walk past without ever seeing them. 

With seeing Bartimaeus by his side, Jesus makes his triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  

This bridge, the way the story of Bartimaeus transitions from one part of Mark’s Gospel to the next, sets the tone for what is required as we follow Jesus into Jerusalem.  Jesus’ call to discipleship, Jesus’ invitation to come and follow, seeks not our cognitive assent, nor our churchly habits, nor our liturgical proclivities, nor theological sophistication, nor doctrinal correctness, nor any other poor substitute we have created throughout history.  It requires one thing, our desire to see. 

Do we like Bartimaeus cry out to Jesus, “Have mercy on me?” Do we beg, “Let me see?”  Or do we keep our heads down, not make a scene keeping up appearances that everything is wonderful?  Do we wish to keep our blinders on so we only see that which makes us feel good?  Do we shield our eyes from that which makes us uncomfortable? 

This story is about more than just one man having his physical sight restored.  It is the culmination of story after story shining a light on the spiritual blindness of us all.  It is about taking off the blinders of this world and putting on the glasses of the kingdom of God.  It is about updating our prescriptions from worldly lenses to the lenses of the cross. 

Beloved of God, how is your sight? How is your vision looking today?  

You know that massive mask like thing they use at the eye doctor so the optometrist can figure out what prescription you need.  You know when they say, “is the line clearer on 1 or 2, 3 or 4.”  Are you with me, do you know what I am talking about? 

The job of the community of faith, the job of the Church, is to be that mechanism by which we discover what adjustments are necessary so we can see clearly.  We come to this place so that we can help each other discover which option is just right for this moment – which option allows us to actually be able to read the line.  

As we continue our discernment as a community, as we prepare for our upcoming parish gathering next month, look around.  What do you see in this place? What adjustments are needed so that we can remove the blurriness and see again.  

Jesus is standing here before us, asking the question, “What do you want me to do for you?”  It is my prayer that together we can answer, open the eyes of our hearts Lord.  It is my prayer that together we can say, “Teacher, let us see.” 

Amen. 

(1) https://g.co/kgs/kSB3DA
(2) Mark 10:48, NRSV.
(3) Mark 10:51, NRSV.
(4) Mark 10:51, NRSV.
(5) Mark 10:52, NRSV.
(6) Mark 10:50, NRSV.

Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (17 October 2021).  The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here

Marco Basaiti, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most important things we do as a community is discernment.  

Discernment is the prayerful reflection we use to hear God’s call, and to know how we are to respond.  It involves prayer, sitting in uncertainty, individual and community reflection. 

Discernment is also the pathway to transformation.  In discernment we are invited to consider who we are, how we understand God working in our lives, and what we are called to do and to be in response.  Discernment allows us to discover our true identities.  As a community we must discern what it means to be the household of God at St. Thomas Church.  We must discern answers to the questions: what makes St. Thomas different from other places, what are our gifts, where are our growing edges, what are our hopes for the future, and how are we willing to be co-participants with God in building that future? 

Our starting place for discernment is Jesus.  As a Christian community the core of our identity must be Jesus.  To quote that beloved hymn, “The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord; she is his new creation by water and the word.” (1) Jesus is our foundation, and we come to know God more fully through Water and Word – through Sacrament and Scripture.  Standing upon this foundation we are able to be open to whatever comes next, open to the transformation God offers us, trusting that our foundation will not crumble beneath us.

Being a community rooted in Jesus, means that we must be open to Jesus working in our community. 

We come to this place with our different backgrounds, journeys, stories, and identities to be in relationships with God and with one another.  If we open ourselves up to the fullness of these relationships our differences will be transformed into unity – for we are all one in the Body of Christ.  This is not to say our differences will be erased or diminished, but rather that we will come to see our differences as reflections of God: things to be celebrated not feared. Transformed into one Body, with our different gifts combined, we go forth a changed people.

This cycle of transformation; this cycle of coming in difference, being in relationship with God, transforming into the Body of Christ, and being sent out to proclaim a new way of being is at the core of the Gospels.

In Mark no time is wasted in revealing this pattern.  People are gathered together from a diversity of places, entered into relationship with Jesus, united in bonds of affection with others along the Way, and sent forth into the world bringing a vision for a new heaven and a new earth.  This Gospel narrative is the foundation on which our discernment stands. 

Discernment requires us to be open.  To come with open hearts, to hear things anew, to accept the call that has been placed on our hearts, and with all the integrity we can muster to commit to being the Body of Christ right here, right now. 

As we continue our discernment, seeking to discover what God has in store for us next, we can turn to Scripture to hear what God is saying to us in this moment – we can hear the Word of God shaping us for what lies ahead. 

Today we hear what is arguably the boldest and most entitled request recorded in the entirety of the New Testament.  We hear James and John, the Sons of Zebedee, ask Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” (2) 

James and John, along with Peter and Andrew, are amongst the first called to the life of discipleship.  They, without hesitation, left their father’s lucrative fishing business to follow Jesus.  They are known as the “Sons of Thunder,” a rather fitting name for two young men so zealous and hotheaded, that elsewhere in Scripture they ask Jesus to rain down heavenly fire on a Samaritan village that refuses to extend hospitality. (3) It is these two brothers that demand Jesus give them what they feel entitled to. 

This request comes immediately after the third time Jesus foretells his death and resurrection.  The sentence which precedes today’s passage reads: 

‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’(4)

Immediately after this, today’s passage begins.  Let that sink in for a moment.

Jesus has just said, in no uncertain terms, that he will be tormented and killed, and what are the first words out of the Sons of Thunder – give us the most prominent seats in your glory.

It might be tempting to dismiss these two young men as arrogant fools, but in doing so we would miss some important lessons.  

There are there things that James and John get right in this passage.  First, they place their full faith in Jesus. Undaunted by Jesus’ foretelling of what awaits him in Jerusalem, they cling to the belief that Jesus will prevail in the end.  They trust him completely.  They trust his word, his love, his power, his leadership, his mission, his kingdom vision.  Their personal hopes and dreams – imperfect as they are – are rooted in Jesus. 

As we continue our discernment, James and John have something to teach us.  With the dreams of James and John in mind, we are invited to ask ourselves: where does the hope for our dreams lie? Is it rooted in ourselves?  Is it rooted in some combination of real and exaggerated images of the past?  Is our hope rooted in the powers and principalities of this world?  Or is our hope rooted in Jesus?  

The second thing the Sons of Thunder get right is that they are ambitious for the reign of God.  They expect and want Jesus to be glorified; they expect and want the world’s wrongs to be righted.  They are not complacent about injustice, oppression, hatred, and violence; they actively long for Jesus’ kingdom to arrive in all its glory and remake the world.

Jesus does not disparage their ambitions, he redirects them.  Instead of chastising them, Jesus offers a radically different definition of greatness.

God wants us to think with the expansive mind, with the abundance and grace that is characteristic of God’s Kingdom.  God can reshape our desires, just as God reshaped the desires of James and John.  

This invites more questions for our discernment: invites reflection on what impediments stand in our way.  Are we reluctant to hope, because we fear disappointment?  Are we unwilling to care, stuck in complacency, because we do not want to fail, or to be hurt, or to disappoint those around us?  Are we afraid to try, because we think we already know how people will respond? 

The third thing that James and John get right, is that they ask.  They approach Jesus boldly, and make their request with hearts full of confidence.  They engage in real relationship with Jesus, and express the authentic desire to remain close to him.  

That is the key to yet another opportunity of us.  We are invited to discern the realities of our relationship with God.  How often do we ask, engage, and lean on God?  How often do we go through our days as if God does not really exist?  How often do we think, prayer is nice, but let’s get serious and makes some decisions? 

Real relationships require honest engagement.  They require love, affection, and an ongoing desire for proximity and intimacy.  In our discernment we must ask, how much of ourselves are we willing to give to experience this same kind of intimacy with God? 

While James and John get these things right, there is something they get wrong.  They fail to understand that service is not a means to an end in the kingdom of God.  Service is the end.  In the life and witness of Jesus we learn that service is power and glory.  Jesus says, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.” (5) The exclusive path to success in God’s economy is through surrendering our most cherished forms of entitlement.  We are to aspire to glory.  But in doing so we must recognize that the glory we are called to seek is different that the glory of this world.  It does not lie in possession, wealth, titles, or prestige.  Glory in God’s Kingdom is an exercise in subtraction.  It is the generous and perpetual giving of one’s self in love. 

If you do not believe me, then I invite you to consider today’s lesson from the Book of Isaiah.  

This passage is the description of the Suffering Servant.  While Jewish interpreters understand the Suffering Servant in a collective sense, as Israel during and after the exile, the primary Christian understanding identifies the Suffering Servant with Jesus on the cross.

Through the Servant we discover the redemptive power of suffering when it is freely chosen.  Think more the suffering of non-violent protesters at restaurant counters in the segregated south, and less why do bad things happen to good people.  

From this suffering, comes transformation.  What the Servant endures brings forth justice to the nations.  The Servant gives himself to God, volunteering his body as an instrument for God’s redemptive work.  

The Servant is called to be a blessing to others, to carry their burdens, exemplifying that there is power in vulnerability.  The Suffering Servant is the perfect example of what Jesus is trying to convey to James and John, to the rest of the disciples, and to us. 

The ability to carry out this servant leadership is within our grasp.  It lies amidst the cycle of coming in difference, being in relationship with Jesus, being transformed into the Body of Christ, and being sent out.  

We too can, and I think must, take on the mantle of servant leadership.  We must place all of our hopes and dreams in Jesus.  We must be filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit to abandon our reluctance, our numbness, and our fear, that we might be ambitious for the reign of God to come near.  We must, above all else, boldly approach Jesus to engage in real relationship predicated on the desire for true intimacy with God.  

As we continue our discernment, as we listen to how God is inviting us into the next chapter of the history of St. Thomas Church, may we learn from James and John and open ourselves to the transformation their witness invites.  As we continue our discernment let us take the words of the Suffering Servant to heart so that we can become those leaders we were meant to be: who have the capacity to take risks, to try new things, to not be paralyzed by fear. 

Amen.

(1) The Hymnal 1982, Hymn 525 v1, words by Samuel John Stone.
(2) Mark 10:37, NRSV.
(3) Luke 9:51-56, NRSV.
(4) Mark 10:33-34, NRSV.
(5) Mark 10:43, NRSV.

Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (10 October 2021). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here

St. Francis preaching to the birds (Master of St. Francis), Public Domain.

There is an image that goes around the various social media platforms every now and again during this time of year.  It is a cartoon of heaven where the flour is made up of fluffy clouds, people are in white robes with halos around their heads, and off in the distance are the pearly gates.  Then, front and center,  is a massive, majestic, golden throne.  But here is where the cartoon deviates from what we might expect.  Instead of a grandfatherly looking type with a long flowing beard sitting on the throne, there is a dog: and above the dog’s head there is a word bubble which reads, “That’s right . . . humanity has been dyslexic this whole time.”

For me this cartoon has the perfect balance of laughter, eye rolling, and reflection.  Every time I see it, it makes me chuckle, it inspires me to roll my eyes at the cheesiness of the joke, and it gets me to think.  Often if brings to mind that other popular meme, throw pillow, bumper sticker phrase, “be the person your dog thinks you are.”  Be that loyal, compassionate, kind, be that generous, protecting, loving person your dog thinks you are. 

Whenever I see this image I am reminded that the person your dog thinks you are, is not so far removed from the person that God has created us to be. 

Over the last few weeks we have heard from Mark’s Gospel stories that highlight what it means to be a disciple.  We have heard Peter’s confession of faith: answering Jesus’ question about his identity with the words, “You are the Messiah.”(1)  We have been reminded that what we do matters – and the dangers of putting stumbling blocks before others.  We have heard about the importance of making sure people are cared for, not exploited – always being mindful of the marginalized and oppressed; doing whatever we can to include those who have been excluded.  The Gospel passage we hear today continues to highlight what it means to be a disciple. 

As Jesus is traveling, continuing his journey to Jerusalem, a man run up to him, kneels down and says, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (2) Jesus responds to this man, refusing his flattery, reminding him that he already knows what is required.  Jesus says, “You know the commandments” (3) before going on to recite  several of them. 

The man is not done asking questions.  This man, who may very well be accustomed to getting his way and receiving answers he wants to hear, pushes Jesus further, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”  At this point he is probably expecting Jesus to offer congratulatory words, along the lines of “Good job, my faithful servant.  Go enjoy the rest of your life, you are all set.”  As is often the case, Jesus does not respond as expected. 

“Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (4) Jesus looks at this man, Jesus loves this man, Jesus wants this man to do what he has claimed, Jesus wants what is best for him.  Therefore, he commands him to go and radically change his life.  The man walks away from this encounter, shocked and saddened, he leaves brokenhearted and grieving because he has many possession.  What is required of him, is just too much. 

When Jesus looks upon this man, he knows who he is.  Jesus, looking upon him with love, sees a rich, self-important, entitled person.  As Ched Myers points out, “From his direct approach we can tell that the man is socially powerful; he wants something and is willing to give deference in exchange.” (5)  Eternal life, is not just another possession that can be bought.  Salvation is not a commodity to be collected along with all our other possessions.  

While the man professes to have kept the commandments from his youth, that profession might be a bit far from reality.  Often, in first century Palestine, men became rich through owning property.  At times lands were seized to pay outstanding debts.  Estates grew because of the exploitation of these small, often poor, farmers.  This land gets passed on as inheritance, building generational wealth, and generational poverty.  While we do not know for certain, it is within reason that this man – with his many possessions – arrives to this point in life because of the oppression of others.  So how it is, that this man could keep the commandments since his youth, when his very station was created by things which undoubtedly violate the commandments?   

Jesus tells the man he lacks one thing, the freedom from tyranny of possessions.  Jesus invites him to make restitution for the injustices that allowed him to reach this status in life.  He must sell all that he has, give the money to the poor.  He must rid himself of that which violates the commands of God, removing that burden from himself, to experience his own liberation and freedom.   

As this passage continues, we are reminded that focus on the acquisition of wealth and material goods will weigh us down so much that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  (6)

We, much like the disciples, might wonder, “if this is true who can be saved.”  We might be feeling dejected like the man with many possessions.  It is true that on our own, we cannot accomplish what is required of us to be a disciple – let alone be saved: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” (7)

This week we celebrate the life of someone who did what this man could not.

St. Francis of Assisi, whom the Church remembers on October 4, was an Italian monk in the late 12th / early 13th century, and is most remembered for being the patron saint of animals.  

Now this reputation is well deserved.  Francis had an incredibly robust theology of creation.  In the few writings of his we have, we discover that he believed that all living things – plants, animals, humans – were meant to be in relationship with one another and with God.  He believed that the best way we can praise God is to be the fullness of ourselves.  The best way to praise God is for dogs to be the best dogs they can be, and for cats to be the best cats they can be, and for us to be the best people we can be.  We gather this weekend, inviting our furry and not so furry friends to join us, that we might celebrate these relationships; committing to support all of creation in living into its fullest potential. 

There is a phrase in Francis’ biography in Lesser Feasts and Fasts, the calendar of saints for the Episcopal Church, that is rather striking.  It says, “Of all the saints, Francis is the most popular and admired, but probably the least imitated.” (8) Francis’ love of creation, is not the only noteworthy part of his story.

Francis grew up in the aristocratic class in Italy.  He had all that he desired, the best that money could buy.  One day Francis was sitting in a local church, a church that was literally crumbling and falling apart.  As he sat there, Francis heard the voice of God calling out to him saying, “Francis, fix my church.”  Francis took these words literally.  He went off to his father’s warehouse, took a large bundle of silk, sold it, and used the money to fix the church. 

Now, as you might imagine, Francis’ father was not too pleased with his son’s generosity.  The two end up in this intense argument in the center of town.  Francis, confronted by his father disowns his family, throws his purse at his father’s feet, and takes off all his clothes throwing them to the ground, before walking off naked.  Francis strips away everything, quite literally, that put a barrier between him and God. 

From that moment Francis goes on to found an order of friars that live in extreme poverty, caring for all those who are placed on the margins.  He care for the lepers, bandaging their wounds, shares meals with them, even kisses them; offering them dignity, recognizing their humanity, doing that which no one else dared to do.  Francis even goes to Jerusalem during the crusades to try to bring about peace in that holy place.  By the way, it was the Christians that Francis failed to convince to strive for the ways of peace.  

In every aspect of his life, beginning with that conversion moment in the street, Francis embodies what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  With amazing dedication he lives into who God has created him to be: that loyal, compassionate, kind, generous, protecting, loving person.

Francis’ commitment to his faith allowed him to proclaim the Gospel not only in words but in deed.  By renouncing the vanities of this world, Francis was able to live in harmony with creation in a way he could not do otherwise.  He was able to live the Good News of God.  In casting off all that separated him from God, his neighbor, and creation, Francis took a tremendous risk, and discovered a life more abundant that he could ask for or imagine.  

Just like blessed Francis we are called to give sacrificially for the work of God.  We are called to give of our financial resources to fix the church.  We are called to give of our time and talent – to support and continue the ministries that are vital to our community.  We are called to give of our lives that we might know how to truly live.  

As we gather this day, recognizing the incredibly difficult invitation of discipleship we have before us: may we be inspired by the witness of St. Francis, may we trust the words of Jesus, and believe that nothing is impossible for God.  Therefore let us give thanks to God with our meows and barks and songs of praise that we might be transformed into the people that God believes, that God created, that God knows us to be. 

Amen. 

(1) Mark 8:29, NRSV.
(2) Mark 10:17, NRSV.
(3) Mark 10:19, NRSV.
(4) Mark 10:21, NRSV.
(5) Ched Myers, Say to this Mountain, p. 124.
(6) Mark 10:25, NRSV.
(7) Mark 10:27, NRSV.
(8) Lesser Feasts and Fasts (2006), p.404.

 

Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (26 September 2021).  The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here

James Tissot, “Jesus Discourses with His Disciples”, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

For the last several days I have been wracking my brain; trying to come up with a fitting illustration or humorous anecdote to break open today’s Gospel passage.  The only thing that came to me was, “What have I gotten myself into?”

Seriously, let’s level for a second.  This gospel passage is messy.  This is one of those readings that makes you do a double take.  It elicits that, “Jesus say what now?!” response.  These verses are jammed packed with serious and difficult sayings from Jesus; effectively serving as Mark’s discipleship catechism.  This is a summary statement of Mark’s teaching on what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  

From a structural perspective, this passage is different than what we are accustomed to hearing.  This is not a parable.  It is not part of a sermon.  This is not some narrative note explaining what is going on or what is about to happen.  What we have here is a mash up of various sayings from Jesus.  These originally independent sayings are linked together by Mark.  For those of you interested in theories of biblical interpretation, or just want to show off at a dinner party, this is called redaction criticism – where things from different places are edited together to form one passage.  

To understand what is going on, what we are supposed to learn from these sayings, we need to separate them out. 

The passage begins, “John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’” (1) John, and presumably others as well, unless John is using the royal we, is concerned that other people are doing ministry in Jesus’ name.  They have heard that some other people, some folks over there, who are not part of the group, are trying to step in on their territory.  The disciples want these other people to stop, because they are not following them, they are doing something different.  Jesus says in response, “Do not stop him for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.’” (2)

If you look closely between the lines you can almost see Jesus shaking his head and thinking, “these guys really don’t get it.”  Jesus has no patience for the disciples complaint.  The disciples are mad because, as they see it, this person – who is healing and liberating people in the name of Jesus – does not have they right qualifications.  This person is not one of them. Maybe he hangs out with the wrong people, maybe he thinks and believes things that are too outside the box, maybe he belongs to that community down the road.  Whatever it is, Jesus is clear.  The things that divide the twelve and this other person – the things that people use to this day to divide us and them – do not matter.  What matters is that the power of Jesus’ name is spreading.  What matters is that people are claiming the name of Jesus and using it to cast out demons, to root out sin and evil, to make people whole again.  

Jesus says to them, “Open your minds.”  See that God can use anyone and everyone to spread the good news.  Jesus invites them to put their petty divisions aside and recognize that “whoever is not against us is for us.” (3)  Jesus says to them, and to us, whoever proclaims the name of God in order to heal this broken and hurting world is for us, and we should support their efforts – not go out of our way to thwart their ministry. 

The first lesson of this discipleship catechism mashup is: Do not worry about what others are doing, trust that God calls all sorts and conditions of people to spread the Gospel to all the ends of the world. 

The next cluster directs our attention away from worrying about what others are doing, to paying attention to our own actions.  This is one of those forget about the speck in your neighbor’s eye until you deal with the log in your own kind of moments. 

What comes next is not for the faint of heart.  Jesus says: 

If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire (4)

This language is figurative and hyperbolic.  It is intense and harsh. 

Now, just to be sure we are all on the same page, when Jesus says, “cut it off,” the command is not to be taken literally.  Please do not head to directly to the kitchen looking for the sharpest knife.  Instead of taking it literally, we are called to take this passage seriously.

These words are an incredibly vivid way of saying that entering into the Kingdom of God, the place of perfection, that dwelling place eternal, is worth any sacrifice necessary to attain it. 

By introducing this teaching with the words, “if any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones,” Jesus is drawing our attention to the way our actions impact others.  This draws our minds to those times when our actions, when the social structures we create and support, hold others captive resulting in harmful consequences.  This is not just tripping over a brick left on the sidewalk – this is about consequences that lead to the marginalization, dehumanization, and worse for God’s children.  

Just as the stumbling block is not to be understood literally, neither are the words “these little ones.”  Jesus here is not just talking about children.  He is talking about anyone, and everyone, who is vulnerable in society.  He is talking about women, children, the orphaned, the widowed, those who live on the margins, even those who are new believers.  He is talking about people of color, people who are differently abled, people who are LGBTQ, people who are refugees from places like Afghanistan and Haiti.  Jesus is talking about people who lack adequate housing, who are unemployed and underemployed, people struggling with addiction.  Jesus is saying to the disciples, if you do anything to harm those whom society disregards and casts aside, you will suffer a fate so terrible that it would be better if you were drowned in the sea.  That is how serious Jesus is being.  That is how important it is for us to love and care for our neighbors – all of our neighbors.  

Lesson number two is: do not do anything that will cause harm to another person.

Next Jesus turns to our actions, and the importance of keeping ourselves in check.  Jesus says, “if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off.”  Sometimes the amputation of a limb, or the removal of a part of the body by surgical means, is the only way to preserve the life of the whole body. 

Ched Myers, author and theologian, reflects on this strange and troubling image.  He writes: 

[The sayings] become both comprehensible and compelling to our ears if we employ the analogy of a battle with substance abuse.  A recovering addict knows in her flesh the searing truth that kicking a habit is very much like cutting off a part of oneself, and such “amputation” is life-saving surgery on the cancer of our illusions and appetites.  “Any struggle with addition . . . involves deprivation,” writes Gerald May in Addiction and Grace, “every false prop is vulnerable to relinquishment.”  Recovery is a life-or-death discipline, and Jesus’ metaphor captures that urgency. (5)

I wonder, if Jesus were here today, offering us this teaching, what he might tell us to remove from our lives? 

Maybe he would say, If your drive to get ahead causes you to ignore those who in need, cut it out.  If your focus on your favorite sports team causes you to neglect your own prayer life, cut it out.  

Maybe Jesus would say, if your allegiance to party platform allows you to ignore those who are seeking a better life for themselves, cut it out.  If your understanding of human identity forces you to constrict individuals into suffocating boxes, cut it out.  If you believe that in order for you to succeed someone else has to fail, cut it out. 

Jesus is calling on us to do the hard work of stripping away every disillusioned idea we have about what matters in life, excising that which does not conform to the good news of God.  For it is better to be deformed than to conform to what oppresses the most vulnerable members of our community.  

Lesson 3 is: This journey will require sacrifice, hard work, and discipline so that we might be transformed from who we are in this moment, to who God intends for us to be. 

Finally, this collection ends with sayings about salt.

In cooking salt adds flavor. Anyone who cooks knows that what salt actually does, how it seasons food, is to enhance the natural flavors already present in the dish.  When salt has lost its saltiness, it looses the ability to spice things up and highlight the natural deliciousness in what we eat. 

Each of us will be salted by God.  God will sprinkle upon us God’s spirit which will enhance what is already true about us.  God will fill us with God’s life giving breath to enhance our true identities – the flavors of our souls.  Jesus is encouraging his disciples to have faith in themselves, to claim the fullness of who they are, to not mask their identities, and share that saltiness with the world. 

So Lesson number four is: do not be afraid to claim your identity, to speak the truth that is deep within you, for the world needs you – the one-of-a-kind well seasoned gift from God that you are. 

Jesus, especially in Mark’s Gospel, is focused on what really matters – the culmination of his ministry on the cross – so he has no time to waste on the trivial things that we get caught up in.  Jesus is heading towards Jerusalem so he is ramping things up.  This passage is a wake up call from Jesus to pay attention to what is really important and forget about the rest.  

I think there is good reason why I was not able to come up with an interesting story, clever tale, or humorous introduction to accompany this passage.  It is because this passage is is no joke. 

Today we are reminded that there is urgency in this journey.  We are reminded that it requires significant sacrifice, because it is not only our lives that are at stake, but the lives of the whole world.  This is a daunting and overwhelming challenge, but it is not impossible.  

Week by week we gather together in this place, like Christians around the world have been gathering for millennia.  We listen to the word of God revealed to us in Holy Scripture.  We share the ministry of prayer for our own needs and those of others.  We participate in the the most holy and sacred meal we will ever enjoy.  We are fed, strengthened, and healed by receiving Christ’s body so that we can make all the necessary investment into the life to which we have been called. 

Jesus is pleading with us to make this commitment, to do the hard and necessary work, so that we can continue to be co-participants with God in the transformation, restoration, and renewal of our lives, our communities, and our world. 

Amen.

(1) Mark 9:38, NRSV.
(2) Mark 9:39, NRSV.
(3) Mark 9:40. NRSV.
(4) Mark 9:42-43, NRSV.
(5) https://radicaldiscipleship.net/2021/09/24/defect-ive-discipleship-recovering-from-domination-culture/

Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (12 September 2021). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here

James Tissot, “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan”, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the deep joys of my ministry thus far, both as a lay professional and as a priest, has been working with young people.  From Sunday school to preschool chapel services to youth group to choristers to visiting staff at ECC, working with young people had fueled my ministry.  One of the things that I love most about working with children and youth is the fearless way they seek out knowledge and experience. 

I love the persistent and insistent way that young people ask questions.  I cherish time spent sitting in a circle with preschool students as one child asked, “why did Jesus have to die?”  A smile crosses my face every time I think about sitting with my former youth group in a local ice cream shop as one young person asked, “Why did God have a son instead of a daughter?”  While at times exhausting, and sometimes mildly terrifying, there is something pure and holy about a bunch of kids running up to one of their priests with a list of questions they came up with the night before.  I have found that young people have a deep longing, curiosity, and intense desire to understand. 

I love this unabashed, unrelenting, insatiable thirst for questions relating to our life of faith.  Truthfully, I wish we all had this same level of curiosity. 

I do not know about you, but sometimes I find myself afraid of questions –  afraid to ask them, and sometimes even afraid to answer them.  What if I ask a silly question?  What if I ask a question which has an all too obvious answer? What if I do not know the answer?  Even worse – what if I answer incorrectly and look like a fool?  Sometimes I find myself overwhelmed by the societal pressure to have all the answers, to live and speak with absolute certainty.  These feelings are at their most intense when the questions are about God.  The moment you put on a clerical collar, everyone expects you to have all the answers all the time. 

Questions are a powerful thing.  They can be the source of great intellectual struggle, they can shape and form us, propelling us in our growth, and they can shatter the image of reality that we rely on. 

Today’s Gospel passage is the midpoint in Mark’s Gospel, and this section serves as a hinge.  The first half of Mark has heralded the way.  The stage has been set, putting things in motion preparing us for what is to come.  Now, in the second half of the Gospel we are clearly on the way.  This half of Mark’s Gospel is going to move as quickly to Jerusalem as a rollercoaster moves when it passes the crest of its first major peak.  Just before that first major drop, Jesus asks the disciples two questions – the first easy, the second a bit more complicated. 

First, Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” (1) Jesus wants to know what the word on the street is.  I imagine Peter and the other disciples feeling a wave of relief wash over them.  Finally a question they know the answer to.  

As I think about this scene, in my mind I picture the disciples as a group of over eager school children thrusting their arms into the air with that intense “ooo ooo pick me” urgency – with their arms about to fly out of their sockets.  

Having felt the wave of excitement at correctly answering this warm up question, Jesus comes back at them with a question that must have felt like all the wind was taken out of their sails.  Jesus asks, “But who you you say that I am?” (2) The group that in one moment acted like a bunch of overeager school children instantly turns into a bunch of seminarians who clearly have not done the reading, are embarrassed to not know the answer, and are praying fervently not to be called on – not that I know anything about that particular scenario. 

Imagining that scene I wonder just how palpable the awkward silence was.  I wonder how many of them were muttering to themselves, “please don’t call on me.”  Finally, unable to take the silence any more, Peter cuts through the tension to proclaim four of the most important words in the Gospel, “You are the Messiah.”  (3)

Peter’s answer is the A-plus, 100% correct, go directly to graduation sort of answer.  However, things are not always that simple when it comes to Jesus’ questions. 

As technically correct as Peter’s answer is – and let me be clear it is – what Peter means by Messiah, does not come close to Jesus’ definition. 

Peter’s understanding of the Messiah has been formed by the world around him.  Throughout his life he has been taught that the Messiah would be a great military leader.  Someone of such military might that they would lead the conquest and subsequent defeat of the Roman Empire setting the people free.  When Peter professes Jesus as the Messiah, he believes that Jesus will inspire the people to rise up and lead them to military victory over the Romans.

As is often the case, God’s ways, God’s thoughts, God’s understandings are not the same as ours. 

Immediately following Peter’s confession of faith, Jesus begins “to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering.” (4)  This revelation from Jesus, these words which are the first of three passion predictions in Mark’s Gospel, are words that are too much for Peter to endure.  They are words that are at complete odds, the exact opposite, of what Peter understands about the Messiah.  Jesus’ words touch a nerve so raw for Peter, that Peter takes Jesus aside to rebukes him.  Talk about gutsy!  If we listen closely we can almost hear Peter say, “Listen here, Jesus!  You’ve got to knock it off with this suffering nonsense and start acting like the Messiah we’ve been waiting for!”

Jesus rebukes Peter, putting him back into his place by saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” (5) I am fairly certain this was not the answer Peter was hoping for when he pulled Jesus aside. 

In this rebuke Jesus is not engaging in school yard name calling because the scolding he received from Peter hurt his feelings.  Jesus is challenging Peter’s assumption.  He is teaching Peter, and those around them, not to tempt him with the power of this world.  Jesus is saying do not try to tempt me to fashion my life according to your will, according to your expectations and desires, instead of God’s. 

In the movie version of this scene currently playing in my mind, everything up to this point has been fast paced and full of energy.  But after this rebuke, the energy shifts.  The background music goes from bright and bouncy to suspenseful and somber.  Things get a bit darker as Jesus takes a deep breath, lowers his voice, and with great intensity and emotion tells the disciples what the true definition of Messiah is. 

No longer is the Messiah a triumphant military leader, from now on the Messiah is to be connected with suffering, rejection, and public execution.  The difference in definition is startling, and Jesus does not stop there.  Not only does he debunk the popular understanding of the Messianic title, he also makes clear what is expected of those who decide to follow. Followers must be willing to endure the same fate as their leader – they must give up their life to order to save it.  Those who choose to journey this way, must pick up the cross. 

It cannot be understated how earth shattering, how devastating, how scandalous this revelation was and is.  Jesus’ answer to the question of his identity destroys all expectations and assumptions; it destroys the very foundation on which the disciples have been standing.  Everything they have hoped for will not happen – at least not in the way they want it to.  

I wonder if the scandal of this message, both ancient and modern, comes from our tendency to try to domesticate Jesus.  I wonder if it comes from the human tendency to want a softer gospel message, a more easily digestible mission from God, a call to discipleship in which God conforms to our wills and desires instead of the other way around.  I wonder if it comes from a deeply embedded desire to seek simple straight forward answers for a God who transcends human understanding.  

All of this comes from a single question – a question that, strictly speaking, Peter answers correctly. 

Maybe the point of all of this – the point of our journey of faith lies not in the answers, but in the questions.  I wonder if the real problem with Peter’s answer was that his definition was static.  What if the problem is that his answer, his correct and profound confession of faith, ends with a period instead of a comma.  What if, instead of seeking answers, we are called to live the questions? 

As individuals and as a community there are many pressing questions we must face. 

Here at St. Thomas we have several important questions about the future of this community. We are in a transition moment of our own, a hinge point if you will.  We have been dwelling in a liminal space, between what was and what will be. At our meeting this past week the vestry began to name some of these questions.  In the months ahead there will be opportunities for the whole community to think and pray and discern together the path leading to the next chapter in the history of St. Thomas Church. As we approach these questions we might find them scary and daunting.  We might even wish to ignore them, hoping they will go away if we keep our heads down long enough.  Just as the disciples could not get out of answering Jesus’ questions, we cannot get out of answering the questions God has placed before us.  It is okay to be nervous, maybe even a little afraid.  It is possible the answers we receive will unsettle and shock us.  We might be called to things we have never imagined.  As long as we live the questions, not getting stuck in static answer, keeping ourselves open to the work of God in our lives, we will be fine.    

Things are about to get rocky for the disciples, and Jesus offers a road map for navigating the approaching terrain, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  (6)

There is so much in this phrase that we could remain here until next Sunday and still barely scratch the surface.  So instead, I want to invite us to view this oft quoted phrase from a different perspective.  

I wonder, how many of us, when we think of the cross, immediately think of Good Friday?  What if we interpret the cross, not solely from the darkness and solemnity for Good Friday, but from the triumph, glory, and joy of Holy Cross Day? 

Holy Cross Day comes from the tradition that a relic of the true cross of Christ was discovered as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was being constructed in Jerusalem.  The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was dedicated on September 14, 335 and to this day the Church celebrates the discovery of that relic every year on September 14.  

Holy Cross Day invites us to view the cross from the perspective of power, glory, and love.  We can rejoice that we have been drawn into the loving embrace of God; that we share in the glory of God’s redemption completed in the work of the cross.  We celebrate that in the waters of Baptism we have taking on a new identity.  In Baptism we are claimed, we are marked, we are sealed forever by that same cross of glory.   

This cruciform lens highlights the love, the glory, the light that beams from the most bold and daring act of love that the world has ever seen.  An act that allows for the full human experience to be assumed, healed, and restored by God.  An act that allows us to live the questions with faith, trusting in the abiding presence of God.  

This is the life, the way, we are invited to follow when Jesus tells us to pick up the cross.  When we carry our cross and follow him who loves us more than we deserve, we commit ourselves to love others more than we think they deserve.  We commit ourselves to standing with God as God breaks down every barrier of systemic oppression that exists.  We join ourselves in the work and witness of transforming this world from the nightmare it often is to the dream that God intent.  That dream, that vision, displayed from the cross.  The cross we lift high to proclaim the love of Christ to the world.  

Peter’s confession of faith signals the beginning of a journey, not the final answer to some sort of test for salvation.  As we witness Peter begin this journey let us hear Jesus asking us the same question: “who do you say that I am?”  

Instead of offering a static answer, let us accept the invitation to continue – or even begin – this journey of discovering the answers that await.  This day let us give thanks for questions with no easy answers, questions that take us a lifetime to ponder.  Let us give thanks that we never have to face these questions alone. 

Amen. 

(1) Mark 8:27, NRSV.
(2) Mark 8: 29a, NRSV.
(3) Mark 8:29b, NRSV.
(4) Mark 8:31, NRSV.
(5) Mark 8: 33, NRSV.
(6) Mark 8: 34, NRSV.

 

Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (5 September 2021). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here

Photo of the Fall 2019 Season of the Providence Gay Flag Football League.  Photo by Paul Martin

I have been blessed to be part of several amazing faith communities – being a parishioner and staff member of some wonderful parishes.  I was privileged enough to receive world class education and formation while in seminary, which built upon the remarkable education I received in high school and college.  With each day I increase in gratitude for all those who made it possible for me to be part of these communities.  

As I think about the formation I have had thus far, there is one community that stands out amongst the rest as the pinnacle of experience.  One community that has taught me more about being a priest, being a person of faith, than any other. This formation has taken place in Warwick, at North Country Club Field – the home of the Providence Gay Flag Football League. 

The Providence Gay Flag Football League is one of 25 leagues that comprise the National Gay Flag Football League.  The league seeks to create a safe and inclusive environment where people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, can participate in a competitive and friendly team sport, develop a social support system, and building lifelong friendships.  As our motto says we gather to compete, unite, and connect. 

When I first started playing in the fall of 2019, I was incredibly nervous.  My anxiety had nothing to do with my identity, the fact that I was not in the best of shape, or that the last time I played football was as a second grader.  I was nervous because I am a priest.  I worried about what the others would think, how they would respond, once they found out.  You see, the Church and the LGBTQ community have not always had the best relationship.  

The Church has a long history of discrimination against the Queer Community.  To this day some traditions actively lobby to limit the freedoms of Queer people across the country.  While the Episcopal Church has made significant strides towards the full inclusion of all people, we still have work left to do.  

I knew, that many of the people would have negative feelings towards people of faith – especially those representing institutions – due to past traumas.  I worried that I would be ostracized and my very presence would make others feel unsafe.  On my way to new player orientation, I almost dropped out of the league before stepping foot on the field.  

While I did not intend to out myself as a priest, pretty quickly people found out.  If you had not noticed, Rhode Island is a small place.  One of the other players is a parishioner at a parish in our Diocese.  While I was less than pleased in the moment, I am grateful he shouted across the table at lunch, “Hey!  Aren’t you the Associate Rector at St. Luke’s!”  Being outed for my vocation, opened up an entirely new world of possibilities. 

For the first time, I was part of a community where I could be the fullness of who I am.  Queer man, trans man, priest, and total nerd.  No censoring was required, and there were no complicated power dynamics to navigate.  Stepping onto the field was a moment of liberation.  

Over the last several seasons I have had amazing conversations, be trusted with deep truths and experiences, have been able to listen as others shared the spiritual harm done to them by faith communities in the past, and have tried to be a witness to an expression of faith that welcomes all people.  By the way, many of you have helped expand this witness.  You should see the faces of my teammates when I share that parishioners here at St. Thomas have talked about coming and being cheerleaders for our games.  Being able to share the affirmation and support I have here, is inviting others to think maybe their previous experience is not the only expression of faith there is.  

The Providence Gay Flag Football league is about far more than playing a game.  It is a place making incarnate the full inclusion of all people, where integrity to mission is maintained without exception, where no apologies are made for being authentic to our identities individually and as a community, it is a place where lives are saved for it is a place that realizes that in being opened up others are empowered to be open as well.  From where I sit, in my totally biased place, this league is doing a really good job of being the Church. 

Being open, being available to be opened, creating spaces which invite openness is a primary objective of our life of faith.  When we are closed off, when we are in environments that force us to build protective barriers around ourselves, we are unable to live the fullness of life which God desires for us.  No creature of God was created to live life in a stiffed, closed off manner.  

In the creation account, as God journeys through the days of creation, building the layers of the world, inhabiting the earth with every kinds of plant, animal, and human imaginable, God steps back along each step of the way and pronounces the creation good.  Once God has finished creating everything that ever was and ever will be, God steps back and pronounces all of creation very good.  In those early experiences of life things are thriving.  All are working together for the flourishing of everything that has breath.  Yet even in that perfect garden, temptation was too great. 

Once humanity yields to the temptation to know more, to have more, to experience more than was designed, things start to turn.  The openness of our created order begins to be closed off. 

As civilization is birthed into existence more barriers and boundaries are created.  Tribalism takes hold and we begin to define ourselves by who we are not – we are us, not them.  In the search of greater power we create rules and laws that support our agendas, give us the advantage, but do not bring everyone along.  There is something deeply human, and incredibly powerful about the establishment of social norms that great hierarchies of worth and dignity, hierarchies of inclusion and exclusion. 

The societal rules shape and form the way we see the world.  We become comfortable with the hierarchy; shifting our attitudes and actions to be in compliance with the way things are.  No one is immune from the power and pull of these norms.  Not even Jesus. 

Jesus is journeying through the region of Tyre.  He is trying to stay under the radar, he does not want anyone to know where he is.  Given Mark does not tell us if the disciples are with him, it is possible that Jesus just wants some time alone.  This is understandable.  He has recently been rejected in his home town of Nazareth, his cousin John the Baptist has been killed, he fed five thousand men plus women and children, walked on water, he has healed the sick, liberated the demon-posses, and quarreled with the Pharisees and scribes.  Clearly Jesus needs a day off! 

Despite his desire to be alone, where no one knows where he is, a woman tracks him down and begs him to heal her daughter.  Not only has this woman shattered Jesus’ respite, she is an outsider.  She is not part of the community, she is not even Jewish.  She is a Syrophoenician woman, a gentile. 

What happens next is profoundly disturbing and demonstrates just how powerful the ideologies of the world are. 

We all expect Jesus to . . . well . . . be Jesus.  We expect him to hear the cries and pleas of this woman.  We expect him to heal her daughter. But that is not what happens. 

Jesus, filled with all the influences of the world, looks down on the woman and denies her request. Jesus, in a moment where we see clearly that he is indeed fully human, ignores the suffering of this woman and her daughter.  Instead of compassion he offers a bitter insult.  Jesus says to this woman, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (1) Talk about cringe worthy!

In this exchange Jesus succumbs to the closed-off posture which the normative standards of the world professes.  In this incredibly human moment, Jesus shows us that he is a product of the age in which he lives.  He has been formed and shaped by the messages around him that say some people are worthy of respect and dignity and others are not.  Filled with the outside influences of prejudice  Jesus uses an ethnic slur to send this Gentile woman away. 

But bless this woman, because she is having none of it.  She throws the insult right back at Jesus saying, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (2) Her response allows Jesus to have a conversion of sorts, it moves him from that closed off stance to the openness which is at the heart of his mission.  

Jesus has traveled around, his reputation precedes him.  His ministry has been all about boundary-breaking, taboo-busting, division-destroying good news for all people.  He has eaten with tax collectors and prostitutes, he breaks bread with sinners.  His disciples have just been scolded by the Pharisees and scribes for not keeping to the traditions and costumes of the elders by eating with defiled hands.  This woman, challenges Jesus, saying, “Where is my good news.”  She says, “if all of these people eat at your table, where is my seat?” 

In this encounter we see the pain that being closed off can cause.  We witness how biting cruelty limits dignity, respect, and compassion.  As the exchange comes to an end, we also see what it means to allow ourselves to be opened.  Jesus allows this complete and total outsider – this ethnic, religious, and gendered outsider – to teach him something of compassion, to break down his barrier of prejudice preventing him from truly seeing her, to change his stance from closed to open. 

From this encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus is immediately offered the opportunity to share this openness with others.  A man who is blind and deaf is brought to Jesus, and from his restored place of openness, Jesus is able to open this man: “Then looking up to heaven, [Jesus] sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.”  (3)

Just as closed hard-hearted behavior begets more closed hard-hearted behavior; openness begets more openness. 

Being open is a risky thing.  There are reasons why we build up barriers, it is to protect ourselves.  Being open leaves us vulnerable.  Taking down our walls means we will feel the blows of closed fists more intensely.  But, liberated from that restrictive armor, we are more nimble.  Just like the Syrophoenician woman we are able to redirect the insults, offering others an opportunity to be liberated – to be opened.  

When the scales fall, when chains are released, when cells are unlocked, restoration and new life are possible.  For it is then that “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then they lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” (4)

As individuals and as a community we must be honest about the places where we are closed off.  We must consider the ways we refuse to see, and the things we refuse to hear.  It is important for us to reflect on when what we profess about ourselves does not align with our behavior.  We must recognize the ways we are products of the world we live in, and have taken on the values of the society in both conscious and subconscious ways.  

If I might be so bold, I think, if we are honest, we will discover that we are both opened and closed.  There are times when we see and times when we turn a blind eye; times when we hear and times when we refuse to listen.  

It is an amazing thing that we have a desire to be an inclusive and open community.  That is a fact that should not be taken for granted.  And we still have more work to do to create the kind of openness we long for – work around dismantling white supremacy, work around creating an affirming environment for members of the LGBTQ community, work around welcome those who are differently abled, and work around being in relationship with those who sit across the political divide from us.  

We will not always get it right, we will still have some cringe worthy moments.  In the midst of this work God comes to us, with fingers stuck in our ears, spitting, and touching our tongues.  God comes to us in ways that might not seem entirely pleasant in the moment.  God comes face to face with us and proclaims, “Be opened.”  God, who has given us the will to do these things, gives us the grace and power to perform them. 

There is no doubt in my mind that the Episcopal Church as a whole, and this parish, can be places which nurture a spirit of openness – places where people can experience the same things that my teammates and I experience on the field.  With a deep breath, looking up to heaven, letting out a sigh, may we take the next step on our journey.  Let us be opened. 

Amen. 

(1) Mark 7:27, NRSV.
(2) Mark 7:28, NRSV.
(3) Mark 7:34-35, NRSV.
(4) Isaiah 35:5-6a, NRSV.

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (29 August 2021). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here

James Tissot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the things I appreciate about our liturgical tradition, about the way we worship in the Episcopal Church, is that we use a regular set of prayers.  Sometimes we use the same prayers every week, sometimes we will keep the same prayers throughout the course of a particular season, and there are times when we use prayers but once a year.  This pattern allows us to develop a familiarity with our prayers, to learn and know them deeply in a way that would not be possible if I were to create new prayers for every service.  This repetition enables the liturgy to seep into our bones – to dwell within us, and become integrated into our very beings.  In the midst of this comfortable familiarity, there are moments when glimmers of newness shine through. 

There are occasions where the words ring in our ears, echoing through our souls, as if we are hearing them for the first time instead of for the umpteenth time. I wonder, have you ever had that experience?  Have you ever been listening to something or reciting something that you know well, only to be caught by a word of phrase you have never noticed before?

I had one of those experiences this week with our Collect of the Day – the prayer used at the beginning of our liturgy that collects the themes of the day.  I have heard these words on a great number of occasions: every year on the Sunday closest to August 31 and throughout the entire week that follows.  This is a prayer I know, and yet, as I read these words earlier in the week, it was as if I was hearing them for the first time.  In a way unlike other times I can remember, the phrase “increase in us true religion” leapt off the page.  

I do not know why these words have been so present to me on this particular year.  Maybe the Spirit is bringing something to my attention, maybe it is because global events are encouraging conversations about the “true” expression of various faith traditions, or maybe it is in response to something else entirely – like the way the light hit the page as I was read.  All I know is that throughout this past week I have been wondering what exactly we are praying for when we ask God to “increase in us true religion.”

In the name of religion, people have done unbelievable and amazing things.  

In the name of religion, some of the most breathtaking and amazing feats of creativity have been birthed into existed through art, architecture, and literature.  In the name of religion people have been housed, clothed, fed, loved, and liberated.  

At the same time, some of the most amazingly horrific things have been done in the name of religion: people have been colonized, impoverished, enslaved, tortured, and killed all in the name of the a supposed “true” expression of faith. 

Author Debie Thomas, writing on this week’s Scripture lessons, considers all that humanity has done in the name of religion.  She writes:

In short, our relentless desire to seek, serve, appease, or placate the sacred has never been a benign thing.  Religion has always had the power to elevate or ruin us.  To make us compassionate and creative, or stingy and small-minded.  To grant us peace, or stir us to war.  If our past teaches us anything, it is that we dare not treat our pursuit of God casually; the stakes are too high.  What we profess and practice when it comes to religion really, really matters. (1)

Looking back to the very beginning of human history through to this past week, we can see exactly what Thomas is saying.  

How we choose to profess and practice our faith, how we claim our religion, will determine the fate of our communities, the fate of our nation, and the fate of the entire world. 

Throughout the Gospel the Pharisees and Jesus quarrel about the practice of religion.  They debate and engage in verbal skirmishes over what it means to be faithful.  Repeatedly the Pharisees accuse Jesus and his disciples of getting it wrong. The first words spoken in today’s Gospel passage are from the Pharisees making such a critique.  They say to Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (2) This defiled hands remark is not about dirty hands, it is about not abiding the ritual customs of washing.  It is not about health and sanitary concerns, it is about ritual purity. 

Pausing for a moment to offer some side commentary, which I will do every chance I get, this passage is another opportunity for us to broaden our vision and understanding of the Pharisees.  Too often our modern ears hear the story of the Pharisees and write them off as rigid, blind, and out of touch.  We might find ourselves wondering how they can fail to understand what is happening around them.  The Pharisees are doing what faithful clergy throughout the history of religion have done.  They are doing the same thing that I, and every other ordained person in the Episcopal Church  is charged with at our ordinations.  To live lives of faithfulness, carrying on the traditions we have inherited, instructing others to do likewise so that generations to come might know the miraculous power of God. 

Unfortunately for the Pharisees, and for us too, we can become so narrowly focused on the rules, on getting things right, that we miss the larger picture.  In trying to sort out the complexity of tradition and human experience, the Pharisees, just like religious leaders today, can enforce rules that lead to the exclusion of others and further perpetuate the marginalization of God’s children. 

This broader theme is on display in today’s passage.  When they Pharisees ask Jesus the question about his disciples and their defiled hands, they are asking something of great importance – they are asking about the authentic and true practice of religion.

The Pharisees are using the practice of religion as a litmus test to define the community.  Based on what practices people have, which rituals they follow, individuals can be labeled as part of the community or as outsiders. In this system, whether they are labeled “in” or “out” determines if they are deserving of God’s favor or not.  Debie Thomas writes of this practice, “This is religion as fence-building.  Religion as separation.  Religion as institution for institution’s sake.  And Jesus – never one to mince words – calls it what it is.”  (3)

Jesus responds to the Pharisees saying, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘this people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”  (4) 

Before we start throwing away and casting aside all the rubrics and canons we have, it is worth noting that Jesus never condemns ritual, nor does he pronounce religious traditions void through a variety of negative labels.  In his rebuke, Jesus highlights that legalism for the sake of legalism, rituals and laws for the sake of rituals and laws create obstacles from practicing the greatest laws of all, “‘you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  (5) 

When we establish boundaries in the name of religion that keep others out, we harm our neighbors and we harm ourselves, as it is those very boundaries that inhibit us from freely loving all God’s children and creation. 

Stepping back and looking at the larger picture, Jesus instructs the Pharisees and all those gathered what actually defiles a person.  It is the things that come forth from us; our anger, greed, hatred, and violence.  These are the things which defile – the evil things that come from within, not the ritual status of our hands. 

In this vignette we discover what true religion is not.  True religion is not legalism, self-righteousness, or wall building exclusionary practices.  Nor is true religion expressed in the evil things, the things contrary to God’s commands, that come forth from within ourselves both in word and deed.  

True religion is that which focuses on breaking down barriers.  It brings forth the fruits of the Spirit from our lives, it brings forth those things which sanctify: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (6)

This way of life, is described in today’s epistle from the letter of James.  

As one commentator notes, “James was a keen observer of human nature, and he paid close attention to the details of everyday living.  He noticed the generous acts, the small gifts, the gestures and the words we use.  He knew that such small acts are the nuts and bolts of everyday life, holding together the scaffold on which we build community and the social order.” (7) James noticed the same thing that Mother Teresa did centuries later that “we can do no great things, only small things with great love.” 

Everything we do matters: the words we speak, they way we listen, or refuse to listen, how we show up, and the various ways we respond to others throughout the day. These seemingly small and insignificant things, when done in love, build up the body; and, if those same things are done with hardness of heart, they will teardown the scaffolding holding us all together. 

James is clear, just as Jesus is, to simply speak the correct words, to give lip service to authentic religious practice is just another expression of false worship.  True religion, religion that is pure and undefiled before God, is religion which expands the love of God to all people. 

When we pray, “increase in us true religion,” we are imploring God to open our hearts to see the larger picture which Jesus paints.  We are asking God to help us not get lost in the weeds, focusing on the things which are not necessary, wrapped up in that which will only turn people away; but, instead focus on building upon the foundation of love on which we stand.  

As we seek to practice our faith is ways that are pure and undefiled before God, may we be ever vigilant of our motives, striving always to act from love instead of self-righteousness, acting for the good of the whole community instead of seeking individual gain.  May we practice regular reflection and interior discernment, cleansing ourselves of the things which defile, that we might be filled with the life giving Spirit of God.  May we always endeavor to see the world the way God sees the world – correcting our vision, trying on new lens, so that our embrace might be as wide as God’s.  

Amen. 

(1) https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=3122
(2) Mark 7:5b, NRSV.
(3) https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=3122
(4) Mark 7:6-7, NRSV.
(5) Mark 12:30-31, NRSV.
(6) Galatians 5:22-23, NRSV.
(7) Bartlett, David L.; Taylor, Barbara Brown. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ) (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 694-696). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition. 

Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (22 August 2021). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here

The altar of St. Thomas Church.  Photo taken by the Priest-in-Charge.

Each Wednesday morning, a group of us gather together to pray.  Our weekly healing service is a time when we gather together to listen to the Holy Scriptures, to hear the stories of the saints of the Church, and to lift before God those for whom we offer our prayers.  During our time together we offer intercessory prayer for our community and for the world: we pray for places experiencing war and violence, we pray for this nation in the face of our division and stiff, we pray that justice and peace might prevail on the earth.  As we come together we offer prayers for healing: praying for friends and members of our community, that they might be healed of whatever illness is afflicting them, that the course of treatment might work as intended; we pray that those we hold in our hearts might know the healing power of God’s love.  

There is one particular moment in this liturgy that I find incredibly poignant.  This moment, this particular prayer, has remained with me since I first heard it several years ago in my previous parish.  It is the final petition in the litany of healing when the litanist says “Hear us, O Lord of Life,” and the people respond, “heal us, and make us whole.” 

Hear us, O Lord of life: 

Heal us, and make us whole. 

These words bring together all that we do when we gather for our healing service.  We pray to God, the source, the giver, the author, the Lord of life; that God might restore us, that God might be present to us no matter what lies ahead.  We pray that God would heal us and make us whole.  It is this wholeness that we strive for, that we support one another in journeying towards, that we ask God’s assistance in reaching. 

Unlike other prayers offered during this liturgy, this petition is a prayer for all of us not just those we hold in our hearts.  When I pray these words, it is a prayer not only for those on our parish prayer list, not only for those who attend the service, but for myself as well.  For to pray that God would make us whole, is to pray for our very salvation. 

We have finally arrived at the end of our sojourn through the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel – this is our final week of the bread of life discourse.  For five weeks we have listened to the Word of God telling us that Jesus is the bread of life, bread that sustains us for eternity, bread that nourishes us, bread that satisfies our deepest hungers.  We have been promised that those who eat this bread will abide in God in the same way that Jesus abides in God.  Along this journey we have been discovering the identity of Jesus. 

John’s Gospel centers around the mystery of the person of Jesus – the Word made flesh who dwells among us.  Jesus, the Word of God incarnate, stoops down to us that we might see, and touch, and taste God.  John’s narrative points us towards this revelation, inviting us to see that it is through Jesus, that we have the ultimate access to God.  John uses signs and miracles paired with conversation to convey to us, to teach us, the who God is.  

John disavows our binary, either/or thinking.  There must be incorporation, bringing the various part together, so that wholeness is achieved.  This is how John reveals God to us: miracle and discourse, sign and word, human and divine, flesh and spirit.  In order for us to understand, in order for God to be revealed, we must embrace inclusion and integration.      

In this passage we discover Jesus coming to us in the fullness of who he is. Jesus comes to us in flesh and blood and spirit – Jesus comes to us as the fullness of life.  But all too often we refuse to acknowledge the wholeness of God, just as we refuse to acknowledge the wholeness of ourselves, our neighbors, and the world around us. 

Through this Gospel we have the opportunity to reconsider our practices of consumption.  In our daily lives we miss the incarnational reality of the world.  We have a tendency to forget that God has infused God’s Spirit into all of creation.  We eat up, we consume, in ways that lead to death instead of life.  As a society we consume people – we use them, as dispensable commodities, to enhance the profit of the few.  We stand by and cheer as human bodies are sacrificed for entertainment, with little concern about longterm repercussions of repeated head and other bodily injuries.  We have establish untenable working conditions, taking advantage of our workers, forcing them to sacrifice their health and wellbeing, under the banner of efficiency.  

We have treated this fragile earth our island home in the same way.  We have used an abused natural resources, stripping the earth of its riches for our constant production needs, and our quest to always have more.  We have used creation as a disposal ground for our waste, poisoning water supplies and destroying the atmosphere.  We have ignored the health of the earth for so long that we are in the midst of a climate crisis, with temperatures rising, storms growing in intensity, while the world literally burns around us.  We use people and creation to our benefit, and then, when spent, crudely toss them aside. 

John’s bread of life discourse leads us to a single question: will we treat the world around us as incarnational or simply as material? 

We answer this question by how we respond to Jesus’ invitation to eat his flesh and drink his blood.  We answer this question by deciding to abide in God or not. 

Throughout the course of history peoples have had this choice before them.  They have had to choose to follow God, the Lord of Life, or the other gods of the world. 

In our lesson from the Book of Joshua we hear that the people of God are yet at another crossroads moment where they must decide if they will continue to follow God or not. 

Led by Joshua, the people of Israel are at the threshold of entering into the promised land.  They have made that arduous journey, but now they must commit themselves once more. 

Joshua, in the same way Moses did before him, reminds the people of all that God has done for them.  He tells of the miraculous birth of the people of Israel through Abraham and Sarah, he reminds them of the deliverance from slavery in Egypt, how God brought the people through the sea on dry ground, saving them from the chariots and horsemen of the Egyptians.  Having this affirmation of God’s love for the people before them, Joshua tells them that they must make a choice – will they trust in the Lord or will they turn their backs on God.  

This scene happens within the context of a threefold litany of charge and affirmation: the charge is the Covenant God has made with God’s people, the affirmation is the way God has guarded, protected, and cared for the people.  This litany is the foundation for the people’s worship.  They make their reaffirmation of the Covenant with God in the midst of praying together, in the midst worship. 

In worship, just like the people Israel, we have the opportunity to renew our own covenanted relationship with God, to affirm our identity as the people of God, and make the faithful commitment of obedience to God.  Our primary mode of worship, our opportunity for sharing in this litany, is sharing in the body and blood of Christ – it is gathering to celebrate the Eucharist. 

As we gather at this table we make the conscious choice to align our lives with God’s.  To live in accordance with the covenant we have made with God – the promises we made at our Baptism.  Here we choose to live incarnational lives, letting go of the materialistic consumption of the world that dishonors the beautiful creatures of God.  

Gathering here is not about transaction – it is not about getting something from God because we have done the “right thing,” because we have checked all the right boxes.  It is about mutuality, it is about relationship.  For it is here that we are made whole. 

This meal we are offered, the bread we share, is an invitation to abide with God – to be at home with God.  Home is that place where there is the promise of safety, of security; a place where fear does not have the upper hand.  Home, as Michael Fitzpatrick writes, “is an interweaving of comfort and familiarity, crafting a space where we feel a sense of belonging.  It is a location of safety and nourishment, a place where we can rest when weary or find respite from suffering; where we can retire to good food and a warm bed.  It is a place in which we can love and be loved in all our fragility and vulnerabilities.”  (1) 

It is here that we can bring the fullness of who we are: the parts we let the world around us see and those places in our lives we go to any length necessary to hide.  It is here that we can bring our body, our blood, our spirit.  It is here that we can bring the wounds and scars from the ways we have been used and commodified by the world.  It is here that we invite, through the daily sustenance of life, through bread, the Spirit of God to fill our lives weaving together all the aspects of our identities into one whole creation.  This is the only place on earth where we can bring all that we are, all of who we are, without shame or fear, without pretense or disguise.  This is the place where we can come as we are and simply be.  

It is here that God, that Jesus, comes to us in the fullness of who he is: fully human and fully divine, miracle worker and teacher, Word and Sacrament, that we might be who we fully are – the incarnational people of God. 

This place is our true home, gathered together around this altar, sharing in the fullness of God in gifts of bread and wine. Wherever you are in your journey of integration know that you are welcome here.  Know that you are welcome here in the fullness of your racial identity, in your gender identity, in your sexual orientation identity, in your political identity, in the fullness of every identity you claim as your own.  Know that you are welcome to join us as we pray: hear us, O Lord of life, heal us and make us whole. 

Amen.

(1) https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=3117

Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (15 August 2021).  The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here

Jan van Eyck (1390-1441), “The Ghent Altarpiece: Adoration of the Lamb” (1425-1429), public domain

While I was on vacation, I spent my Sunday mornings worshipping virtually with the Society of St. John the Evangelist – an Episcopal monastic community in Cambridge, MA.  Yes, just like the Roman Catholic Church, we too have monks and nuns.  On Sunday, July 4, Br. James Koester preached a sermon titled “Frozen Roles.”  I was struck by this sermon in the moment of hearing it, and have continued to return to it over these last several weeks. 

Br. James began his sermon by talking about a period in the community’s life when they felt stuck.  They did not know which direction they wanted to go in, nor did they know the process by which they would make that decision.  Eventually the community was connected to a woman named Jean.  Jean worked with the brothers guiding and coaching them as they discerned what God was calling them to next.  During their time together, Jean introduced the community to the idea of frozen roles.  Of this idea, Br. James said, “Jean’s point was that we often cannot see what another is doing, or saying, because we think we know what they will do, or say, even before they do, or say it.  She always reacts this way.  He always does that.  I don’t need to bother listening, because I already know what they will say.  We freeze people, and even ourselves, into certain patterns, and we don’t allow them to break out.”  (1) 

I wonder if you have ever experienced this?  Have you ever been sitting in a meeting, have you ever been gathered with a group of people, and you find yourself rolling your eyes and muttering “here they go again” as someone gets up to speak?  

This week we continue our journey through the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel – working our way through the bread of life discourse.  We are still talking about bread, we are still being drawn to discover the ways which God desires to nourish us.  

As we approach today’s passage we might be tempted to say, “there Jesus goes again,” and allow our thoughts to drift to grocery lists, brunch plans, or guessing how long the preacher is going to prattle on for, as we wilt in the heat.  But maybe there is good reason for us to linger over these words.  

William H. Willimon writes, “John’s Gospel is noted not only for its poetry, its high Christology, and its rich metaphorical imagery, but also for its redundancy.” (2) John knows that some things are worth repeating.  John knows that some things are so difficult for us to understand that we need to be reminded again and again and again to finally begin to comprehend.  Willlimon goes on to write, “it is as if, Jesus knows that what he is talking about is against our natural inclinations, against our accustomed means of making sense, so much so that he must be redundant and repetitive, in order to keep hammering upon our cognitives defenses until we comprehend that when he says ‘bread,’ he is not talking about flour, water, and yeast; he is talking about something that has ‘come down from heaven.’” (3) It is if Jesus knows we are stuck. 

Over the last few weeks we have heard references to the conflict and disputes that have arisen as Jesus proclaims he is the bread of life.  Despite his consistent repetition, the people cannot wrap their minds around what he is saying.  Jesus is offering something new and different, something that defies human logic, something that seems to contradict everything that they have known and believed throughout their lives.  The crowds who have gathered, the religious leaders, community members, and disciples all struggle to understand.

John tells us that “The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” (4) It is important to note that whenever John says “the Jews” he means the religious leaders, not all Jewish people.  This distinction becomes increasingly important as John’s Gospel progresses.  

The religious leaders have been listening to Jesus, they have never heard anything like this, they do not understand what he is talking about.  These leaders have been tasked with upholding the religious traditions, customs, and understandings that they have inherited.  This is good and noble work.  This is the same charge every deacon, priest, and bishop in the Episcopal Church is given at their ordination when we declare by word and signature that we “do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church.” (5) These religious leaders are doing their best to follow the vows they have made.  So when they hear Jesus preaching and teaching things which seem to be a radical departure from what they have known, it is reasonable to think there might be fear and anxiety from those leaders.  They are debating and wrestling with each other trying to figure out what these words mean.  In the midst of all they are holding together, it is possible (at least as John tells the story) that these leaders are stuck unable to see the new thing God is doing in their midst – they are frozen in the way things have always been. 

We have heard and will continue to hear that even for many disciples this is just too hard.  This bread of life teaching is so out there, it is so difficult that they thing no one is going to believe it.  So they walk away.  They discovered a message that seemed implausible so they stopped following the way, turned around, and went home.  These too were stuck, they were frozen by fear and uncertainty. 

Br. James, in his aforementioned sermon says, “Frozen roles and frozen expectations quench possibilities and stifle innovation.  In the end if you stay there, everyone gets stuck, and no one can move.  Patterns of behaviour and response are frozen, as are the relationships around them”  (6) Here, in this Gospel passage, we discover that the crowd, the religious leaders, the on lookers, those who have begun to follow Jesus are frozen in the way they see the world and understand God working in it.  They are stuck, unable to discovered something new, frozen in patterns of belief and response.

In this case, the stakes for staying stuck, the stakes for remaining frozen go beyond stifling imagination and innovation.  Jesus responds to the dispute of the religious leaders by saying, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (7)  This is a matter of life and death.  

To refuse this nourishment from God, is to refuse that which is the source of life.  Jesus goes on to say, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (8) The gift of this bread, the gift of Christ’s body broken for us, is our nourishment now, our nourishment in the eternal habitations of God, and it is the source of our intimate relationship with God.  For as we eat this bread, we are united to God, sharing in God’s flesh, abiding in God as God abides in us.  Receiving this bread which comes down from heaven, sharing in the intense intimacy of consuming Christ’s body, God dwells in us, and that indwelling thaws the ice we are captured by.  This bread unfreezes us so that the Spirit of God might flow through us freely. 

Pain and grief, fear and uncertainty, blind devotion to tradition, the pandemic, these and other things have frozen us in place.  We have been stuck waiting for the Spring thaw so that we might discover the movement and momentum of life and ministry again.  

As we go through this process of melting we may discover that things we have been carrying are no longer needed.  We might find that we can let go of old things, so that our newly freed hands can grasp new tools and ideas for the journey ahead.  In our unfreezing process here at St. Thomas it is vital that we listen to the still small voice of God calling out to us, inviting us to discern what new thing God is doing now.  

There is hard work ahead, and plenty of uncertainty remains in our current climate.  Thanks be to God that we have the bread of life to sustain us.  Thanks be to God that we are nourished by the body of Christ.  Thanks be to God that we can hold God in the palm of our hands to be thawed by the warmth of God’s love. 

Amen. 

(1) https://www.ssje.org/2021/07/04/frozen-roles-br-james-koester/#more-31621
(2) Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16) (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 12735-12736). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
(3) Ibid., Kindle Locations 12738-12741
(4) John 6:52, NRSV.
(5) The Book of Common Prayer, p. 513,526,538.
(6) https://www.ssje.org/2021/07/04/frozen-roles-br-james-koester/#more-31621
(7) John 6:53, NRSV.
(8) John 6:54-56, NRSV.

Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (8 August 2021). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here

Dieric Bouts, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As I wrote in the weekly update, I have been feeling rather demoralized in recent days.  For months we watched new cases, percent positive rates, and hospital admissions decline, as vaccination rates increased.  Things were opening up, and we were gaining access to increasing senses of normalcy.  The outlook was bright and hopeful.  What better way to enter into summertime here in Rhode Island?  

But in the last couple of weeks things have changed.  Cases started to rise.  Hospitalizations increased.  Vaccination efforts started to stall.  

Two weeks ago Bishop Knisely wrote the clergy encouraging us to suspend singing for indoor worship last Sunday, and announced that new recommendations would be forth coming.  This week as our state moved into the high transmission category – the highest community transmission threshold there is – clergy and lay leaders gathered on zoom to hear the latest recommendations from the Bishop’s office. 

As I scrolled through the grid of participants on our zoom call, I could see the exhaustion in the faces of my colleagues.  There was a lot of head shaking, sighing, and people holding their faces in their hands.  When the meeting ended a friend called me, and we both agreed the only word to describe how we were feeling was demoralized. 

I have noticed that as the numbers have increased so has my frustration.  Many of us have sacrificed much, making difficult decisions, doing whatever necessary to aid the common good; and yet, because many have chosen to act differently, we are now in a place of uncertainty, with things changing daily once more.  After Thursday’s call, and needing to implement more protocols here at St. Thomas, my frustration has turned into downright crankiness and anger.  It is not a good sign, when at the age of 31, a person starts to consider retirement. 

In the midst of all of these emotions, I sat down to read the scripture lessons for today.  When I finished reading them I made that “hmm” sound which is part groan, part sigh, and conveys the sentiment, “I don’t like this.  This is going to make me think differently about what is going on and maybe even change my mind, or at least my attitude.”  

Jaime Clark-Soles, in writing about today’s lesson from the letter to the Ephesians, considers the characteristics that the author encourages us to put away.  Jamie writes, “the six discards cause discord: wrath, bitterness, anger, clamor, slander, and malice.  They act as a suit of armor protecting the real flesh-and-blood us.  But church is not a gladiatorial event.” (1) 

In reading these words I began to realized that all the frustration and anger I have been carrying, are attempts to create a suit of armor to protect myself, particularly in this demoralized state.  It is easier to be angry and frustrated than to be honest about what is really going on inside.  For in taking down our armor, discarding that frustration, letting go of that wrath, bitterness, and anger, we become vulnerable, which is at the same time both terrifying and incredibly liberating. 

I wonder, be it about the current state of the coronavirus pandemic or something else, have you ever had a similar experience? Have you ever found yourself struggling to hold on to hope?  Have you ever found yourself angry and frustrated and bitter only to realize later that those were reactions set to protect the deeper pain and grief going on inside – armor to protect the vulnerability of truly being seen and known in those moments of distress? 

Throughout the lessons we hear today, we are given the reminder that it is okay to be vulnerable with God, we are shown how community has the ability to lift us up, we are offered the assurance that we do not have to figure things out on our own, for God provides for our needs.    

I do not know about you, but for me our lesson from First Kings feels a little out of place as it stands.  These verses, on their own, feel like a scraped sketch for a one of those Snickers commercials in which a person is not themselves, they are hangry – that anger that comes from hunger – so they eat a snickers bar and return to normal. 

In these verses we hear some guy is out alone in the wilderness, under a single tree, in a clearly distressed state.  He falls asleep, an angel comes, gives him a snack, is he returned to his usual self, and can continue along his journey. Cue announcer voice saying, “You’re not you when you’re hungry . . . eat a snickers.” 

Put back into context these verses paint a different picture.  This guy out alone in the wilderness is the prophet Elijah.  He is in the midst of an arduous and perilous journey.  We find him today not hangry, but without hope, at the end of his strength, wishing to die so that he does not have to face the hardships of another day. 

What brings Elijah to this point, is a story that could be an action movie staring Liam Neeson, Tom Cruise, or Bruce Willis.   Elijah is challenging the pagan tradition; fighting a war on behalf of God.  In a blockbuster scene Elijah dramatically and violently defeats the prophets of Baal – literally calling down fire from heaven, decimating his opponents, and proving to everyone that Yahweh is the true God. 

When all is finished, Elijah is not elated; he is terrified, and as some argue, depressed and suicidal.  He is carrying the weight of an incredible burden.  Queen Jezebel is outraged by Elijah’s actions, so she sends a messenger to him saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” (2)  Jezebel has signed Elijah’s death warrant, forcing him to flee for his life.  So he runs, and many hours later, collapses under a solidity broom tree, prays for death, and falls asleep. 

Knowing all that has happened, putting these verses into context, changes what we hear today from a story about a nap and a snack, into a vision of God’s tenderness for humanity.  

An angel, one of God’s heavenly beings, gently nudges Elijah awake.  The angel has made a warm cake, and offers that along with a jug of water.  After having a few bites, when Elijah lays down again, the angel continues to care and provide for him.  Waking Elijah up again the angel implores him to eat, “otherwise the journey will be too much.”  From this meal, from this angelic nourishment, Elijah is strengthened and able to continue along his journey – continuing on for forty days and forty nights.  

Elijah is honest with God, he prayers out of his emotions before falling asleep.  How God responds through the angel, is exactly how God responds to us in our moments of need.  

Debie Thomas, in a blog post on today’s lessons titled “Bread to Carry” says this: 

I love that the angel never minimizes or dismisses the difficulties of Elijah’s journey.  She never says, “Buck up, Elijah; your situation isn’t so bad.” Or, “You’ve survived the worst of it, I promise; it’ll all be downhill from now on.” . . . No.  She says, “Eat.” “Eat because the journey is hard.  Eat because you won’t ever make it on your own.  Eat because God longs to nourish you with food that will save your life.”  The angel doesn’t spiritualize Elijah’s exhaustion, or deny his difficult reality.  She doesn’t offer him a shortcut; the journey is his to make, and it can’t be sidestepped.  But, she says, he can choose how he makes the journey.  He can decide what condition he’ll be in when he embarks.  Famished or fed.  Strengthened or weak.  Accompanied or alone.  He gets to choose.  (3)

Just like Elijah, we can share honestly with God whatever it is we carry.  We can be vulnerable with God, taking off the masks and armor we bear.  We can trust that God will send angels our way, even angels in disguise, with arms full of bread for the journey.  The choice then, is ours to make.  Will we accept the invitation.  Will we sit down and eat. 

We have available to us the bread that gives life to the world.  We have Jesus the bread of life.  

Today we hear Jesus compare himself, his body, to the manna which sustained God’s people in the wilderness.  We hear Jesus promise us that as we eat his flesh – the body of Christ, the bread of heaven – we will be strengthened for the journey.  Jesus desires to be our sustenance in a way that meets us where we are.  

In the same way that the angel does not diminish Elijah’s struggle, offering platitudes of false assurance that “it gets better,” Jesus does not offer false claims that things will be light and breezy if we accept what he has to offer us.  Jesus knows, better than anyone, that the journey is hard.  Jesus knows the challenges, fears, and grief that are inescapable parts of life.  What Jesus offers, what God provides, is the exact nourishment we need to be strengthen for every twist and turn that lies before us.  Jesus offers us the nourishment needed to take off our armor, exposing the fullness of who we are, to let go of bitterness, wrath, anger, and frustration, and reclaim hope in our lives.  Jesus offers us bread for the journey that allows us to be imitators of God. 

It is this imitation that the author of the letter to the Ephesians calls the community to. 

It seems that there may have been a few things going on in the church in Ephesus.  The author of this epistle paints quite the picture of behavior: telling the people to put away falsehood, to quit evil speaking, and to stop being bitter, angry, and full of malice.  These are not the characteristics you advertise on the front of a brochure welcoming newcomers to the community. 

All joking aside, scholars believe, that there is good reason to think this letter is not written to a specific community, but rather is a general word to every community.  What is described here is not unique.  Every church I have been a part of has moments where these less than life giving qualities come to the surface – our beloved St. Thomas amongst them.  These traits are the result of human inclination and sinfulness.  They are the defense mechanisms we deploy, when we would rather not, or are unable to, deal with the deeper emotions of what is really going on.    

In this epistle the author outlines a series of contrasts that highlight behaviors which can either build or destroy a community.  Anger is important and can be used to hold people accountable appropriately, but when we allow it to fester it can be a source of sin and destruction.  Our words carry great power.  We can make the choice to speak truth that builds up, or allow our words to tear down our neighbors.  We can work for our own selfish gain and ambition, or we can work so that we might share resources with those who go without.  We can live in a way that grieves the Holy Spirit, or in ways that show the world the Spirit is alive and dwelling amongst us.  

At the conclusion of this passage the author issues a command, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (4)

As the children of God we are called to do more than just love God, or praise God, or worship God, or thank God.  We are called to imitate God.  To model our lives, our thoughts, our actions on God’s; always working to close the gap between God’s behavior and our own.  Jamie Clark-Soles ends their aforementioned commentary with these words, “To imitate God, only one thing is needful: kenotic love (5:2), love that sacrifices for the good of others.  If we get that, we get it all.”

To imitate God, to be the body of Christ, is to be like angels tenderly caring for one another, sharing bread for the journey that all may be strengthened to carry on. 

Malcom Guite, in his latest book David’s Crown: Sounding the Psalms, writes a new poem to respond to each psalm.  In closing, I offer his poem responding to the psalm we prayed today. 

He raises and delivers us from death,
And even now he shows us how to live
That we might savour life with every breath, 

That we might taste and see, might truly thrive,
Might see the good days that he wants for us
And make the best of all he has to give. 

And so he comes to live as one of us
And teaches us afresh the ways of peace.
He lives the fullest life in front of us

And shows us how to break the bonds, release
The captive, seek the truth that sets us free,
To choose the right and do it, to increase 

The reach of love, the possibility
Of fruitful life together, and to hear
The poor cry out and help them speedily. (6)

 Amen.

(1) Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16) (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 11682-11684). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
(2) 1 Kings 19:2, NRSV.
(3) https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=3101
(4) Ephesians 5:1-2, NRSV.
(5) Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16) (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 11690-11692). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
(6) 
Malcolm Guite, David’s Crown: Sounding the Psalms, (Canterbury Press, Norwich, 2021), 34.

Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (1 August 2021).  The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here

Christ feeding the multitude (Coptic Icon), Public Domain

One of the songs in the 2003 hit broadway musical Avenue Q is titled “Purpose.”  The song begins, and I quote with a slight paraphrase, “Purpose, it’s that little flame that lights a fire under your [behind]. Purpose, it keeps you going strong like a car with a full tank of gas.”  Purpose, as is declared here, is that life sustaining force; that thing which gives meaning to our days. 

But for Princeton, the character who sings this song, his purpose has yet to be revealed and discovered.  He goes on to sing, in a slower and more emotional way, “everyone else has a purpose so what’s mine.”  He then finds a penny on the ground from the year he was born and triumphantly sings, “it’s a sign!”    The rest of the song takes an upbeat tone and is Princeton’s declaration that he is going to seek out his purpose in life. 

What is described in this song is a deeply instinctual longing to search out fulfillment in life – something that will make us feel complete.  It is about satisfying that most basic longing we have.  To put this song into church speak, it is about discovering the hungers lying deep within our souls.  It is about discerning our vocations – those intersections where our life’s greatest joys meet the world’s greatest needs.  

I wonder, how would you describe you purpose?  If it would be helpful close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, try not to fall asleep, and call to mind what it is that you rely on to propel you forward?    What gives meaning to your life?  What keeps you getting out of bed in the morning?  What do you hunger for? 

We are in the midst of a multi-week emersion into John’s bread of life discourse.  This is week two of a five week journey through the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.  Along this journey we encounter Jesus who feeds the multitudes, who seeks after the longings and hungers of the people, who says to the crowds, “I am the bread of life.”  (1)

This discourse, and more specifically the lessons we have this day, invite us to dive into the depths of our beings to explore and discover what it is we hunger for, what it is that sustains us; they invite us to discover our purpose. 

The gospel passage appointed for this morning picks up where last week’s gospel passage left off. Last week we heard John’s telling of the feeding of the five thousand.  After this miracle moment, Jesus goes off to pray by himself, the disciples get in a boat and start sailing across the water.  As they are traveling they discover Jesus walking on the water – which is a terrifying sight for the disciples.  Jesus says to them, “It is I; do not be afraid,”(2) and they reach their destination before they are able to get Jesus into their boat. 

Today we hear that the crowds have journeyed across the sea to Capernaum looking for Jesus.  When they find him, there is an exchange between Jesus and the people.  The people have just been amazed by the miracle of the feeding of the multitudes. As the people ask Jesus why he left them to come to this new place, Jesus says to them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”  (3)

Jesus seems to be pushing back against the people, questioning their motives for following.  It is as if Jesus is saying to them “you are only here because you had a filling meal, not because you understand what is really going on.”  

Jesus then goes on to say this, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.  For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” (4) Jesus tells the people, he has something far more powerful, far more wonderful, far more satisfying to offer than a single filling meal.  

With an offer like that, how can the people refuse?  They want to know what signs Jesus will preform to prove to them that he is telling the truth; they want to know what he will do to help them believe all that he has said.  The people, by way of comparison, tell Jesus of the signs their ancestors received – the manna in the wilderness given to them in the exodus.  They tell Jesus of the story we heard in our first lesson this morning.  

What happens next opens the eyes of the people and connects from them the things which God has done in previous generations to the new thing God is doing in the present.  Jesus says: 

“Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”  Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (5)

The manna their ancestors were sustained on in the wilderness, that strengthened them as they left behind the old ways and journeyed towards the new life offered to them, was not a gift from Moses, but a gift from God.  It is not surprising that the people press Jesus, desiring this bread for themselves.

Instead of having it rain down manna again, Jesus offers them something more.  Jesus offers himself – the bread of life.  Jesus offers them a source of nourishment from which there is eternal satisfaction; the elimination of desire, hunger, and longing.  

In this moment Jesus is offering the people, Jesus is offering us, not just an opportunity to learn, or to believe, or to follow.  Jesus gives to all people the intimate invitation of his body.  He invites us into communion with him.  He invites us to eat him, and in being nourished by his body we discovere that our hunger never returns. 

This is an invitation that moves us beyond self-sufficiency, beyond any notion that leads us to believe “I can take care of myself,” and moves us into that radical, whole-life dependence on God whom we can taste but not control.  This invitation asks us to give over the entirety of ourselves to God. 

I am sure you have heard it said, “you are what you eat.” So if we are to eat the body of Jesus, if his body is the meal we are invited to share, then what, beloved of God, are we becoming?  

By accepting Jesus’ invitation, we accept the call to be transformed.  As we gaze upon the Body and Blood of Christ on the altar, as we participate in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood, as we receive the Eucharist, we are transformed into what we are given.  We behold upon the altar what we are; we become what we receive.  

Having been transformed into the Body of Christ we are called to live differently in the world.  The letter to the Ephesians offers us a vision of how we are called to live out this transformed life.  This epistle helps us discover our purpose, our vocation, as the people of God in this time and place.  The author writes, “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (6) These principles, by which we are called to live, are the same principles by which Jesus lived his earthly life.  

While we all are called to these same characteristics, we are all called to live them in different ways – ways that align with the gifts we have been given; and “the gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” (7)

God gave gifts that some would be teachers, care givers, musicians, doctors, nurses, veterinarians, accountants, construction workers, and so much more.  No matter what vocation God has placed on our hearts, everything we do is to build up the the people of God – build up the body of Christ.  Teachers build up the body as they instruct students, empowering them to claim their full potential, helping them to persevere, building up their confidence so they learn to believe in themselves.  Musicians use their God given gifts to bring joy and delight to their audiences.  They use their gifts to convey messages of hope and transformation for the people.  Doctors, nurses, veterinarians, and all those in caring professions use their God given skills to bring healing to all of God’s creatures.  In all that we do we can build up the community, care for the body of Christ, bringing the truth of love to the world. 

In one of my high school religion classes at Mount St. Charles Academy, the then school chaplain, Br. Nelson, taught our class the following saying, “We bring our lives to the liturgy, and the liturgy to our lives.”  There is beauty and truth in this simple phrase.  

We are fed and nourished in the liturgy, as we gather around the altar to be fed by this most sacred meal.  Then we bring that nourishment and strength out into the world, we bring ourselves, the body of Christ, to fed the world.  Then, week by week, we come back to this table to be fed and strengthened and transformed again.  

The hunger that is met at this altar, the nourishment we receive, is more than physical nourishment.  What we receive is spiritual, emotional, soul satisfying nourishment.  The hungers that are satisfied here are hungers that can only be filled by the bread of heaven. 

Debie Thomas in an article titled, “Deep hungers” wonders about the variety of hungers we might bring with us to this sacred feast.  She writes:

What are those hungers? A hunger for security and belonging? Meaning and purpose?  A longing for connection communion, intimacy, and love?  A desire to know and be known?  A hunger for delight, for joy, and for creative engagement with the world in all of its complexity, mystery, and beauty?  An ongoing hunger for wholeness, redemption, and courage?  A craving for the healing of old wounds? What would you add to this list? (8)

Beloved of God, what hungers do you bring with you to this place? 

This day we are invited to receive the body of Christ, the bread of heaven.  We are invited to feast upon the only thing that can satisfy the deepest hungers we carry within us – those things that we try to feed with imitations and substitutes, but are always left wanting more.  

As we share this meal, as we are transformed, as we claim our identity as the body of Christ, we discover our purpose.  We discover that flame which lights a fire under us, propelling us into the world to build up the body with humility, patience, and love. 

This day, we are invited to bring the fullness of who we are to the altar.  We are invited to gaze upon what we are.  We are invited to become what we receive. 

Amen. 

(1) John 6:35, NRSV.
(2) John 6:20, NRSV.
(3) John 6:26, NRSV.
(4) John 6:27, NRSV.
(5) John 6:32-35, NRSV.
(6)Ephesians 4:1-3, NRSV.
(7) Ephesians 4:11-12, NRSV.
(8) Debie Thomas, “Deep Hungers,” Posted 25 July, 2021, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=3086.

Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (25 July 2021). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here

James Tissot (1836-1902), “The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes” (1886-1894) Brooklyn Museum, Public Domain

I grew up surrounded by good food.  I am lucky enough to have parents who know how to cook, and to have extended family with a wide range of culinary skill.  Being Irish and Italian meant that my formative years were spent gathered in boisterous kitchens and dining rooms overflowing with food and drink as aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents and friends gathered for holidays, celebrations, or just random Tuesday nights.  In these moments relationships were built, formed, and strengthen.  We laughed together when blenders were not sealed properly and concoctions covered the cabinets and ceiling.  We conspired together to go steal bites of whatever grandma was cooking – our adrenalin rushing from the the fear of being caught by an Italian grandmother with a wooden spoon.  Dreams were shared, plans were made, tears were consoled around those tables.  We were fed, and fed fully, in every sense of what that word means.  Looking back, I can see clearly that there was something sacramental about those meals. 

Feeding and being fed are fundamental parts of life.  Without them we cannot survive; we will starve to death.  Despite this life sustaining requirement, too many of us go without proper nourishment.  For too many of us, meal time is just about eating something quickly, maybe even on-the-go, so we can get back to whatever “more import” thing is before us.  I am sure I am not the only one here who has gotten so wrapped up in work that they forget to eat or are so overwhelmed they intentionally skip a meal because there is “too much to do and not enough time.” In our over-programed, over-scheduled, over-worked lives, meals are stripped down to the bare essentials; transformed from the sacramental into the utilitarian. 

This is true for our spiritual and emotional nourishment as well.  How many times do we say I wish I could do fill-in-the-blank activity more, but I just have too much work to do – too many responsibilities to manage?  How often do we neglect our prayer life, leaving daily prayer as something we can only pull off during Lent, if that?  If we are going to survive, let alone thrive, then we all, myself included, have to stop and pay attention to how and with what we are nourishing our selves, our souls, and bodies. 

While I do not claim to know the mind of God, everything I have experienced through personal encounters, studying theology, and reading scripture leads me to believe that God cares deeply about how we are fed.  God cares about, and provides for our physical, spiritual, and emotional nourishment.  This morning we hear about God’s provision in very particular ways. 

In today’s lesson from the Second Book of Kings, a man arrives bringing with him the first fruits of his harvest to God’s prophet Elisha.  When the man arrives Elisha tells his servant to “Give it to the people and let them eat.” (1) The servant responds, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” (2) Translated another way the servant says to Elisha, “You have got to be kidding me? You are out of your mind to think this could feed all these people?”  In the face of this response, with all real and imagined emotional emphasis, Elisha declares what the Lord has spoken.  “Give it to the people,” Elisha says, “for thus says the Lord, They shall eat and have some left.” (3) So they ate, they were filled, and there was, indeed, some left.  The Lord fulfilled what the Lord had promised.  

This story, like the entire chapter it is found in, is all about the miraculous power of God at work in and through the prophet Elisha.  It is about Elisha trusting God, relying on God, believe that God will do what God has promised.  Elisha is carrying on the mantel of his mentor that great prophet Elijah.  Elisha witnessed Elijah following God’s commands, he saw what it meant to be faithful to the vocation God places on our hearts, he knew he needed to do likewise. 

There is a difference, however, between how Elijah and Elisha carry out their prophetic ministries.  While Elijah was the renegade outsider attacking the popular establishments of his day, Elisha is intimately bound to his community.  He is enmeshed in the community, continually surrounded by various groups of people.  Elisha’s witness illustrates the way of life rooted in community: community that is formed around the power of God; community whose way of life is defined by that relationship with God.  In this brief passage we discover the qualities of this way of life: stewardship, hospitality, and an expectation of abundance.  

This miraculous moment begins in stewardship.  A man brings to Elisha a portion of the first fruits of his harvest.  This unnamed name is offering the first yields of his annual harvest to God.  He does not hoard it until he has whatever is deemed enough, and only then giving the remaining scraps to God.  He gives first, trusting that more will come, trusting after he makes his offering to God, from whom all that we have and all that we are comes, he will still have enough to feed and support his family.  The initiating characteristic of community life is stewardship: giving first to God out of our source of income, out of what we make, trusting that there will be enough left over to provide for our needs. 

This principle of stewardship gives way to hospitality.  From this initial gift is the impetus to feed the people gathered.  You do not have to be Italian to know that when people get together you have to feed them.  We offer our gifts to God, through the community, and in turn those gifts are shared so others can be fed.  Hospitality is the act of caring for one another, sharing from whatever we have, knowing that God will transform our offerings to bring life to the community. 

That transformation is the final community characteristic.  From these acts of stewardship and hospitality flows the abundance of God.  When we offer whatever we have, even when it seems insignificant, God takes what we offer and transforms into something abundant.  Not only does God command the people to eat, but the Lord says, “they shall eat and have some left.” (4)  With God there is always enough, and there will even be some left. 

This passage from Kings is mirrored in our Gospel passage from John. 

John tells us that a large crowd is following Jesus.  They are drawn to him as they witness his acts and signs of wonder; as they discover his teachings and experience his healing ministry.   

As the story unfolds, we hear that a boy is there with five barely loaves and two fish.  Another comically small offering with no chance of providing enough for this crowd of about five thousand people.  But God’s ways are not our ways.  God sees the world in ways we cannot begin to imagine.  For God nothing is impossible.

Jesus takes the fish and bread, he gives thanks, and the food is distributed to the people.  This food is traveling food for the poor, enough to get by for a short period of time, and yet through the power of God the people are filled by this meal, all eat as much as they want, and at the end the disciples gather up twelve baskets full of left over pieces so nothing is lost or wasted.  Once more God takes what we have, and uses it for God’s purposes, infusing and transforming it with God’s abundance and generosity. 

There is one detail in this story that often gets skipped over as our attention immediately goes to the fish and bread and to the miraculous multiplication.  After Andrew tells Jesus that there is a boy with a few fish and some bread, Jesus – before he takes it and gives thanks – says, “Make the people sit down.”  (5) 

In order to witness what God is doing, in order to receive this nourishment, the people have to stop what they are doing and sit down. They have to pause whatever is before them and be present in the moment.  

When I hear these words from Jesus I cannot help but wonder how many miraculous moments, how many opportunities to witness and experience God’s transformative power, have been missed because we were too busy to stop and be present? 

Our lesson and our Gospel remind us of principles for the rule of life we are called to have as the people of God in this place: stewardship, hospitality, and the expectation of God’s abundance.  We give fully of what we have, offering first to God, not hoarding for ourselves; those offerings are then used for the good of the community – those resources are shared, to fuel the life of the community in witness to God’s love; and as we give and share we trust that God’s abundant power will transform what we offer ensuring there will not only be enough, but there will some left over.  It is this rule of life which enables us to cast off the scarcity minded, not enough to go around, zero-sum game mentality of the world and embrace Gospel life.  

In the midst of the assurance of our physical nourishment the author of the letter to the Ephesians reminds us that God cares and provides for the fullness of who we are – not only our bodies but also our souls.  God strengthens our inner beings, empowering us through the Spirit.  Just as God’s power of abundance transforms fish and bread to feed thousands, God expands our interior lives that we might become vessels for Christ to dwell in.  Filled with Christ’s presence we are able to be the stewards God has called us to be. 

Through the grace, love, and power of God we are fully nourished; we are transformed; we are well fed. 

One of the things that has been revealed during this pandemic time are the countless ways the world hungers.  There is a regular theme of experience being shared that expresses an unveiling of true priorities.  Many have given voice their discoveries of how disordered their lives were, and their renewed efforts to seek out balance – to seek proper nourishment of mind, body, and soul – as we move into our new normal.  

As individuals and as a community we have the opportunity to ask the question how do we go from utilitarian forms of feeding back to seeing all the ways we are fed as sacramental. 

I wonder what would happen in our lives if we were all more attentive to the ways we need to be fed, and the ways we are called to feed others.  Our parish life can help us think more intentionally about seeking and sharing this nourishment.  For when we gather together to share the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood – to celebrate the Eucharist – we are fed together.  When we gather on Zoom for the healing service and pray for the needs of the community we are fed together.  When we come together with the School for Discipleship we are fed together.  When we share our resources and seek to love and serve our neighbors, like what we are currently doing with our City Camp meal bags, we are fed together.  When we check in on each other we are fed together.  When we live by the principles of stewardship, hospitality, and the expectation of God’s abundance we are fed together. 

I wonder, what do you hunger for?  What nourishment do you need?  How can we work together until we are all satiated – until we are well fed bodily, emotionally, and spiritually?  

As we continue to write this next chapter of the life of St. Thomas Church, I hope we will find ways to resume familiar modes of being fed and discover new sources of nourishment as well.  In all that we do I hope we will be an example to the community, showing what is possible when we open ourselves to that nutritional transformation.  I hope we will capture that sacramental joy of family and chosen family meals – though maybe without blenders exploding and the threats of wooden spoon wielding grandmas.  

Beloved, God has prepared a magnificent feast for us – now is the time to come, sit down, and eat. 

Amen. 

(1) 2 Kings 4:42, NRSV.
(2) 2 Kings 4:43, NRSV.
(3) 2 Kings 4:43b, NRSV.
(4) 2 Kings 4:43b, NRSV.
(5) John 6:10, NRSV.

Sermon for The Third Sunday after Pentecost (13 June 2021). The Scripture readings (Track II) can be found here

Photo taken by The Rev’d Dante A. Tavolaro on 13 June 2021.

“See, everything has become new!”  (1) 

It is difficult to gather in this place today, to stand in this pulpit for the first time as your Priest-in-Charge, and not be overcome with emotion.  For the first time in our shared ministry, we gather together in this sacred place to worship together – to offer our prayer and praise to God.  For me, and hopefully for you, it feels as if a new day has dawned.  Today we share in that emphatic proclamation of St. Paul, “See, everything has become new!” 

As is true with any sort of transition moment, I find myself inclined to pause and reflect.  This morning we take what is arguably the most anticipated step of our regathering journey, and as we do so, it is important to look back on the road we have traveled thus far. 

On March 14, 2020 life as we knew it changed.  That was the day when then Governor Gina Raimondo, in her afternoon press conference, asked all faith communities to suspend in-person worship.  It was a startling reminder of how quickly things could change. Just a few weeks before the thought of suspending in-person worship was so foreign that it was beyond the pale of imagination.  Together, across the state, we all did what was needed in the face of the emerging crisis. 

At that point in time we all thought this would only last a few weeks.  It was early Lent, many held out hope we would be back by Easter.  Then the projections started to forecast a mid-May return day, and before we knew it Pentecost had come and gone.  Slowly the reality began to set in, we were in this for the long haul. 

During this time we began our new ministry together as priest and people. Slowly we began our discernment, listening to how God was calling us in this moment.  We wondered together about what the implications were for our worship life and our ministries.  Together we made the best of an incredibly difficult situation. 

In the midst of the uncertainty and grief things started to happen.  Conversations were shared.  Emails were sent.  Ideas were given voice.  In countless situations I heard the work of community discernment in action.  The comfortable, what we had always done was not possible, so we were forced to listen to the whisperings of the Spirit speaking the words, “see I make all things new.” 

Together it became clear this pandemic was not going to stop St. Thomas Church from being St. Thomas Church.  Worship went virtual, the School for Discipleship took on new topics and difficult conversations, we redoubled our efforts to care for our neighbors in need through seasonal outreach projects.  Through it all the community lived into our identity as a place of generosity and commitment: commitment and generosity in our faith, in our relationships with one another, and in our ministries. 

Through that faithfulness, inspired and empowered by the grace of God, we did things never before imaginable.  Members of our community learned new skills that brought them into the digital realm, and enabled us to learn, grow, and pray together with friends from around the state and country.  There was an exponential increase in our seasonal outreach efforts.  Not only did we figure out ways to adapt these ministries, we lived into them in ways beyond what was previously achieved.  This parish is known for its generosity in all things, and that spiritual gift thrived during this time.  Members of our community stayed faithful to their financial commitments, and even increased their pledging.  As needs arose you continued to share out of the resources God has provided.  And just a few weeks ago we had by far the most successful dollar Sunday ever.  Thank you for continuing to live the discipleship journey in the midst of incredible uncertainty.  

Things in this past year have not been easy.  As we did amazing things, visioning and wondering about the things God was calling us to do, imagining the people God was calling us to be, we knew pain and loss.  Along the way we experienced difficult moments where the weight and pressure of pandemic stress just seemed to be too much.  We have known grief as members of our community died, and felt the heartbreak of not being able to gather together in prayer.  

In the midst of it all St. Thomas Church has persisted, endured, and met the occasion with the grace and skill only possible through the mercy and love of God.  Through it all we opened ourselves to the work of God amongst us, convinced that God would see us to the other side – guiding us through the wilderness, protecting us through the storm. And here, my friends, we are – returned home rejoicing at the marvels of what our Lord has done. 

As we return to what we might describe as normal, I pray that we will see this as the new normal.  Things will never be the same as what they once were, we can never go back to how life was on March 14, 2020 in those moments before the Governor’s press conference.  We cannot go back.  We can only go forward. 

Our faith teaches us that in order to experience the new life of grace promised to us by God, we must let go of old ways of being in the world.  God is constantly seeking to transform our lives, building us up, equipping and empowering us to meet whatever moment we find ourselves in.  

St. Paul reminds us in today’s Epistle from the Second Letter to the Corinthians that through the death and resurrection of Jesus we have been recreated – changed from who we once were to who we are becoming.  Paul writes, “And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” (2)  Paul is reminding us that through the work of God on the cross, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, our vision has changed.  We are now able to see the world as God sees the world, to live in the world as God is in the world. Through the waters of Baptism we have been reborn in Christ, sharing in his death and resurrection, we have received the amazing gift of incorporation into the priesthood of all believers – the whole household of God.  In those holy waters we shed the old garments of this world that constrain and bind us from living the kingdom life – from thriving as the beloved children of God who have been claimed as Christ’s own forever. 

Through this time of exile God has been working in us in ways we did not recognize in the moment and in ways we are still yet to discover.  

Jesus said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?  It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (3) This tiny, insignificant, unnoticeable seed produces a great, mighty, enormous shrub.  In the parable of the mustard seed we are given an example of things being made new; of the way the kingdom of God is overpowering the ways of this world and offering something beyond our wildest imaginations.  This is an image of hope – if God can transform a mustard seed in such a way, what is possible when we allow God to transform us? 

This chapter of Mark’s gospel is all about parables.  In using these short, provocative stories, Jesus recognizes the importance of the imagination.  In using parables Jesus is seeking to shift our imaginations, to shift the way we see ourselves, the way we see others, to shift the way we see God.  Such a shift might seem small and insignificant like that yellow or brown mustard seed, but when the shift is made, when the seed becomes a mighty plant, new things are brought forth in the world and in our relationships.  We see what was once inconceivable.  By shifting our vision, by recognizing the power of God exhibited in the mustard seed, we can notice – we can witness – that out of the small seed, out of our smallness, God can bring forth something powerful.  Rooted in Christ we become a new creation. 

The growth God provides remains a mystery to us.  Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.  But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come” (4) 

Try as we might we do not understand the mysterious ways of God.  It is our task to scatter the seed, trusting that God will provide the growth.  Over these last 15 months numerous seeds have been planted in this community.  Seeds are planted by way of phone calls.  Like the one I received asking the question how are we going to respond to the murder of George Floyd.  From that seed, a stalk has emerged.  We have begun important anti-racist work.  We continue our discernment, watching and waiting to see what growth God will provide – discerning what our harvest work will be.  Seeds are planted in conversations that begin, “a few of us were talking and we wanted to run an idea by you,” and from those seeds the Church Mouse Thrift Store has begun to sprout.  We eagerly await the bloom of this plant, gathering the community to share in the harvest.  

I wonder what others seeds have been planted in our community?  I wonder what seeds have been planted in our individuals lives? 

Earlier this week I was on a zoom meeting for the alumni network of my seminary.  During that call it was mentioned that one alum has decided not to use the words “regathering” and “returning” to describe this journey we are on.  Instead their parish has used the language of revival.

Revival is not about returning to the way we have always done things, revival is not about going back to the comfortable and familiar.  Revival is about openness to new possibilities, it is about accepting the transformation of God to restore us and bring us to new places.  Revival is another way of saying God is making us a new creation.

Beloved of God at St. Thomas Church through our faithfulness, rooted in the nothing less than the love and grace of God, we have been revived.  Let us embrace the newness of our life together, watching and waiting to see what new growth will spring forth in our midst.  Let us be crazy enough to believe that the small offering we present unto God might flourish, through the work of God, to be transformed by God into gifts of abundance.  

As we step forth into this new creation, we give great thanks for the gift of this community.  We have, by the grace of God, made it to this moment.  Together, guided by the Spirit, we will continue to persevere and thrive together. 

Amen. 

(1) 2 Corinthians 5:17, NRSV.
(2) 2 Corinthians 5:15, NRSV.
(3) Mark 4:30-32, NRSV.
(4) Mark 4:26-29, NRSV.

Sermon for The Second Sunday after Pentecost (6 June 2021).  The Scripture (track II) readings can be found here 

Adam and Eve try to hide from the sight of God. Artist: Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. Source: Die Bibel in Bildern, Plate 9 Public Domain

Relationships are complicated.  No matter the type of relationship: parent/child, siblings, friends, romantic, even relationships between priest and parish can be complicated.  In the blink of an eye they can go from rock solid to crumbling.  One choice, one decision, can mean the difference between a relationship flourishing and a relationship floundering.  

As human beings we are not perfect.  We all fall short of the glory of God.  We are all sinners in need of redeeming. There is no point in denying it.  There is a reason why, “will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” (1) is one of the promises we make in the Baptismal Covenant.  And it is the same reason why the prayers of the marriage liturgy include the petition, “give them grace, when they hurt each other, to recognize and acknowledge their fault, and to seek each other’s forgiveness and yours.” (2) The prayer book does not say “if” it says “when.”  Try as we might, at some point or another, we will get things wrong and relationships will be impacted.    

This is not a new phenomenon, something that emerged with the dawn of the modern era.  This is a tale as old as time – or at least as old has human beings have walked this earth. 

This morning we hear of one of the earliest known relationship breakdowns in history: as we witness Adam throw Eve under the bus – and I mean way under the bus. 

The first two chapters of the book of Genesis recount how creation came into existence.  These chapters speak to the origins of the world in their ideal conditions: the whole created order coming together for the mutual benefit of everything that has life. 

After these first two chapters, the narrative shifts.  Beginning in the third chapter we hear of the growth of the world, what happens after the idilic creation moment begins to recede into the memory of time.  The story turns to humanity’s actual condition, and to the problems we encounter in our humanness. 

Leading up to where we enter the story today, Adam and Eve had been living in an environment of ease, a place of perfection.  In this place there is no pain or suffering, no war or poverty, no sickness no devastation, there is not a worry to be had.  This is how things are at the end of the second chapter of Genesis; and this is how the third chapter begins, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.” (3) With an introduction like that, you know things are about to turn sideways. 

The serpent encounters the woman, who will soon be named Eve, in the garden.  As we come to this lesson today it is important to let go of what we think we might know about this story.  How many of us, when we hear the story of Adam and Eve in the garden, call to mind images of an easily fooled woman, whose actions led to the downfall of humanity? 

Dr. Susan Niditch, professor at Amherst College, invites us to notice something which Augustine and Milton fail to account for.  She writes, “What if one notices that the snake does not lie to the woman but speaks the truth when it says that the consequence of eating from the forbidden tree is gaining the capacity to distinguish good from evil, a god-like power that the divinity jealously guards?” (4)

Through this lens, the woman is not some damsel in distresses easily tricked by the nefarious intent of the serpent.  Dr. Niditch goes on to write, “She is no easy prey for a seducing demon, as later tradition represents her, but a conscious actor choosing knowledge. Together with the snake, she is a bringer of culture.” (5) It is Eve, with that thirst for God-like knowledge who brings life to the world in the form of intellectual curiosity and exploration.  Eve’s choice forever changes humanity’s relationship with the world. 

So what about Adam?  What about his role in all of this? Is he just a poor victim to the deceit of a woman?  No.  

Again, I offer Dr. Niditch’s words for she sums up man’s behavior perfectly, “The man, on the other hand, is utterly passive.  The woman gives him the fruit, and he eats as if he were a baby.”  (6) Through that act of consumption everything changes.  By eating this tantalizing fruit, appetites are not satiated, rather a taste of disappointment and frustration are left in the mouth. 

This morning we join the narrative as Adam and Eve are overcome with the discovery of knowledge.  When their eyes are opened the first time they notice is that they are naked.  I find it striking that the first thought humanity has after gaining knowledge of all good and evil is one of body shaming.  A verse before where our passage begins today tells us, “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” (7) Then as God walks through the garden looking for Adam and Eve, we hear that they are hiding, afraid that God will see their nakedness.  An act of defiance and disobedience on the part of this man and woman forces humanity to confront the awkward realities of our bodies. 

In that newly discovered knowledge, humanity’s relationship with God is forever changed.  Humanity is now left with the sense that we must hide the fullness of who we are from God; left with that lingering fear from the what if God sees us, and sees all of us.  It is a fear that neglects to take into account that before we had the knowledge of shame or fear, before we were aware of our own humanness, God saw us – God saw us fully and pronounced us good.    

One of the greatest questions that emerges in response to this story is, “whose fault is it?” What the author of Genesis reveals is that Adam and Eve share responsibility for the change in relationship, for their altered status and awareness.  It is worth noting, that man’s defense for his behavior, when questions by God, is to say “well you gave her to me, and she made me eat, therefore, but he transitive property, it is your fault.” 

From this point on, due to the actions of these two people, humanity’s relationship with God is forever changed – made significantly more complicated than it ever was before.  Humanity is no longer able to dwell in that place of perfection, but are sent out to search and wander the earth.  

The man and woman are not the only ones punished as a result of this sin, so is the serpent.  God says to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals” (8) and God goes on to say, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers.” (9)  Just beyond our passage we hear that as man works the soil, he will struggle and toil never recreating the lush yield that was known in the garden.  As a result of these actions, there is a fracture in humanity’s relationship with creation.   

All actions have consequences, and the consequences for humanity’s actions forever alter the nature of our relationship with ourselves, with creation, and with God.  Things have now been reordered, shifted from they way they were intended to be when life came into being. 

Just as God created the world, God continually re-creates all that is in existence.  Ordering and reordering, allowing possibility and promise to emerge. 

In today’s Gospel reading, we witness one example of this reordering – this re-creation.  

This passage is early on in Mark’s account.  Things are just getting started.  Immediately before what we hear today, Jesus appoints the twelve.  He is just forming his community of disciples. 

After appointing the twelve, Jesus attempts to go home and a large crowd gathers there.  The gathering is so large he can not even eat. Mark then tells us that word has gotten to Jesus’ family.  They have heard about the large crowds, the miraculous healings, and his teaching.  They believe that Jesus has gone out of his mind, so they set out to get him in the hopes of getting him under control.  

It is likely that Jesus’ family is doing this out of care and concern for him.  They already know that anyone who goes around doing what Jesus was doing is at risk.  We hear in this passage that some were questioning if Jesus was of Satan.  The family’s desire to rein Jesus in was for his own protection, and had the added benefit of protecting the family reputation as well. 

When Jesus’ family finally arrives, the crowd lets him know.  What happens next is an act of reordering and re-creation.  Upon hearing that his mother and brothers are outside asking for him, Jesus says, “‘Who are my mother and my bothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  (10) 

This is a chilling rejection.  With these words Jesus has gone up against one of the two main sources of authority in this time – the familial structure.  Here, as is true throughout Jesus’ ministry, we see that Jesus does not bend to the will of societal norms.     

Jesus is re-creating the definition of family.  No longer is family defined by birth, now it is defined by relationship – in this case those who follow Jesus and do the will of God. Not only is Jesus bucking convention, he is choosing a bunch of misfits to claim as his own.  Those gathered around Jesus, the ones he points to as his family and not the morally perfect.  It is a group that represents the diverse mess of humanity, complete with moral, physical, spiritual beauty and imperfection.  Those who long with desperate aching to be near Jesus are part of the family, while those who think they known what religion and family are supposed to look like, are the ones left out. 

Redefining family in this way is a mark of tremendous healing.  The people Jesus claims as his own are the ones who do not necessarily have anywhere else to do.  Jesus is creating a chosen family, just like countless people do today.  Many marginalized and oppressed peoples, especially in the LGBTQ community, are forced to create their own families.  Refusing to be reined in, we go out to find chosen sisters, brothers, and mothers.  

To be clear, Jesus is not anti-family. There are plenty of occasions throughout Scripture where Jesus cares for his family.  Take for instance one of Jesus’ final acts on earth, when he ensures that this mother will be cared for by the beloved disciple.

A new community is being formed as Jesus sets out to preach and teach and heal.  It is a community built upon relationship, faith, and commitment to following the path of God. This reordering of family, this re-creation of community, is part of God’s work in the world to restore what human hubris has destroyed. 

This morning we recommit ourselves to following the will of God, affirming our place in this newly defined community of Jesus.  Through the waters of Baptism, which Charles Jeffrey LeBlanc will enter today, we are incorporated into the household of God.  As we emerge out of those waters, as we share in the eternal priesthood of all believers, we are thus counted amongst the glorious messy group of misfits.  In the fullness of who we are, in our beauty and imperfection, in our total humanness with all its complications, we are marked as Christ’s own forever. 

From the very beginning of human history until the very end of time, relationships are going to be complicated.  Luckily for us, no matter how many times we fall – no matter how many mistakes we make – there is always forgiveness, there is always love, there is always room for us in the family, in the whole household of God. 

Amen. 

(1) The Book of Common Prayer, p. 304
(2) Ibid., 429
(3) Genesis 3:1, NRSV.
(4) Susan Niditch, Women’s Bible Commentary, ”Genesis,” p. 31
(5) Ibid., 31.
(6) Ibid., 31.
(7) Genesis 3:7, NRSV.
(8) Genesis 3:14, NRSV.
(9) Genesis 3:15, NRSV.
(10) Mark 3:33-35, NRSV.

Sermon for The First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday (30 May 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here

Andrei Rublev, “The Trinity,” 1408-1427, Russia, Public Domain

Today requires us to think differently, for we do something unique – something that only happens on this one Sunday a year.  Today we keep a very particular commemoration: not of a saint, not of a moment in Jesus’ life, nor do we begin a preparatory season such as Advent or Lent.  Today we commemorate a theological doctrine – one rightly called a mystery.  Today is Trinity Sunday. 

While most clergy try to avoid preaching this day, for the simple reason that when it comes to Trinitarian theology there is a very fine line between orthodoxy and heresy, I am not most clergy.  Though I would guess that at this point in our relationship you have already figured that out. 

The doctrine of the Trinity is best desired in these words from The Creed of Saint Anthanasius, which can be found in the back of the Book of Common Prayer, in the Historical Documents section: 

We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.  For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost.  But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal. (1)

I am confident that those words make complete and total sense to you, and you now feel equipped to artfully and eloquently defend the truth of our Trinitarian theology from all heretical infiltration.  Or . . . maybe not.  

As much as I love this historical creed, we do ourselves no favors by focusing on the perfect articulation of orthodox theology this day.  

Trinity Sunday is not about some erudite theological exercise that invites theologians to geek out on the writings of the early church.  Today is about mystery.  Today is about relationship.  Today is about invitation. 

No matter how hard we might try no one, not even the most brilliant theological mind imaginable, can fully understand the nature of God.  For as the prophet Isaiah declares, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are you ways my ways, says the Lord.” (2) Thus God will always remain a mystery to us.  

Mystery is a fascinating word with many meanings.  It could mean a novel, play, or movie dealing with a puzzling crime, especially a murder.  While CLUE, starring Tim Curry, is one of my favorite movies, this is not the type of mystery that describes God.  The best definition, it seems to me, is the very first one listed in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.  Mystery, it says, “is a religious truth that one can know only by revelation and cannot fully understand.” 

Mystery is a religious truth we can know but never fully understand.  Or as Richard Rohr writes, “mystery isn’t something that you cannot understand – it is something that you can endlessly understand! There is no point at which you can say, ‘I’ve got it.’  Always and forever, mystery gets you! (3)

When we talk about the Holy and Undivided Trinity, when we talk about God who is three in one and one in three, we are talking about something we can know but never fully understand.  To talk about God, is to enter into a mystery of endless understanding that is revealed to us as we grow in our knowledge and love of God.  

In our quest to endlessly understand our Triune God we are invited into relationship with God.  

One of the most famous icons in all of Christianity, is an icon that was originally written by Andrei Rublev in 15th century Russia.  The icon is titled The Trinity, and in it, Rublev, depicts the Trinity as three angels – specifically the three angels that visit Abraham at the Oak of Mamre in the 18th chapter of Genesis.  This icon has been interpreted for generations as an image of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

The three beings in this icon are seated at a table.  They are sharing a meal together.  In this image it is impossible for the viewer to tell which figure represents which person of the Trinity.  

Our language can often create the illusion of a hierarchy within the Godhead – a ranking that places God the Father first, God the Son second, and God the Holy Spirit third.  But this icon corrects the false narrative our language forces us into.  There are no rankings here.  There is only equality.  There is only community.  There is only relationship. 

But do you know what the best part of this icon is?

At the front of the table there is room for one more.  This is not a closed circle.  God is not some sort of middle school clique.  This divine relationship – God understood as being in relationship with God’s self – is open for us to join as well.  

Our mysterious and awesome God draws us closer into the heart of God, continually revealing God’s self to us, showing us that there is room for us at the table – that there is room for us in the relationship of God. 

As is true with our human relationships, entering into relationship with God changes us.  In this relationship we are perfected, we are strengthened to be the people God has created us to be.  

We hear this morning from the Prophet Isaiah, a stunningly beautiful passage, which has inspired artists and composers for generations.  

The prophet tells us that “in the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty.” (4) Isaiah then goes on to describe the marvelous sight: seraphs in attendance, surrounding the throne of God, offering their shouts of praise saying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth’s full of his glory.” (5)

As Isaiah describes the majestic vision, he tells us of the transformation he undergoes in the presence of the Lord. 

In the midst of this vision, Isaiah believes that he is unworthy to receive such a blessing as to gaze upon the Lord.  Thankfully the passage does not end with Isaiah’s words of woe.  It continues with these words: “Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.  The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’” (6)

Through the mercy, grace, and love of God Isaiah is transformed, he is redeemed, he is set free from his sins, from his sense of unworthiness.  Through that transformation he is able to receive the invitation, to answer the call of God.  “Then I head the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’” (7)

Though the mystery of God, through relationship with and in God, we are transformed, we are set free of our woe, and we are able, like the prophet Isaiah, to receive the invitation, to answer the call of God saying, “Here am I; send me!” 

This is what Trinity Sunday is all about.  This day is so important that it is counted amongst the principal feast days of the Church.  

Trinity Sunday brings to an end, an intense and amazing stretch in our liturgical year.  

We have just completed our celebrations of the glorious season of Eastertide.  Those great 50 days celebrating Jesus’ resurrection: celebrating God’s victory over death.  That season came to an end last Sunday as we kept the Day of Pentecost.  The day when God fulfills God’s promise, when God sends the Advocate, God the Holy Spirit, to descend upon the disciples strengthening them and enabling them to go and preach the Good News of God to the ends of the earth.  It is a day of commissioning when we are all sent out to use whatever language we have to tell the story of our redemption – to share with the world the greatest love story that has ever and will ever be. 

After that great Pentecost moment we are able to have a new kind of relationship with God.  No longer is God distant; unable to be seen and touched.  God can now be known, and known intimately.  No longer is God out there somewhere, but God is here.  God has entered into us.  God is in our creativity, in our imaginations.  The breath of God has enlivened our spirits and souls.  

We have journeyed through the profound depths of Holy Week.  We have rejoiced in the glories of the resurrection.  We have experience that great Pentecost moment.  We have been created in the image of God.  We have been given our example and nourished by the source of our creation.  We have had our hearts set ablaze.  We have entered into this most amazing relationship of love. 

Now it is time for us to come down from this liturgical mountaintop, this intense stretch in the story of our faith.  Now we enter into the creatively titled “Season after Pentecost,” that long stretch of Sundays that will last until the First Sunday of Advent – 25 weeks from now. 

Just because we are settled into this season after, does not mean that we should seek out the mystery, relationship, and invitation of God any less intensely than we have throughout these last several weeks. 

This transition, is exactly why Trinity Sunday is so important.  This day gives us the framework to put our individuals stories together to create one story – the story of the household of God throughout the generations.  The relationship we discover today is what allows us to add our voice to the chorus of those who have gone before saying “Here am I; send me!” 

This is the one Sunday a year when we are reminded, really reminded, that theology matters.  Here is the thing, theology is not about tomes thicker than the phonebook with dense language that can only be understood by a select few.  Theology is about story – more specifically it is about the story of God and God’s people. 

The fundamental task of theology is to provide us with a big picture of God.  It gives us the grounding to explore God in our efforts to endlessly understand.  Theology gives us the starting place to live out our faith and not keep it as some armchair exercise with no meaningful impact on our lives.  It does not matter if you can explain the most complicated theological doctrines of the Church, if you cannot tell the story.

Theology mattes because it provides us with a panorama into which our own individual snapshots can be placed.  It matters because it is what allows us to be woven together in the very fabric of God. 

Standing in awe of the glorious mystery of God, having received the invitation to go out into the world in God’s name, rooted in relationship with God that connects us with all God’s beloved children, it is time for us to go forth to the tell stories of our lives and let the world know of what it is we have seen and known.  It is time to invite others to hear the story, and weave their lives into the story of the whole household of God. 

Malcolm Guite, in his book. Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year, offers a poem for Trinity Sunday.  May Guite’s words inspire us in our quest to endlessly understand the depths of God’s relationship with God’s self, and God’s relationship with us.  May these words inspire us to write the theology of our lives with the wild creativity of God. 

In the Beginning, not in time or space,
But in the quick before both space and time,
In Life, in Love, in co-inherent Grace,
In three in one and one in three, in rhyme,
In music, in the whole creation story,
In his own image, his imagination,
The Triune Poet makes us for his glory,
And makes us each the other’s inspiration.
He calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,
To improvise a music of our own,
To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,
Three notes resounding from a single tone,
To sing the End in whom we all begin;
Our God beyond, behind us, and within. (8)

Amen.

(1) The Book of Common Prayer, “The Creed of Saint Athanasius” p. 864
(2) Isaiah 55:8, NRSV.
(3) Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, (New Kensington, Whitaker House, 2016) 27.
(4) Isaiah 6:1, NRSV.
(5) Isaiah 6:3, NRSV.
(6) Isaiah 6:6-7, NRSV.
(7) Isaiah 6:8, NRSV.
(8) Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year. 

Sermon for The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday (23 May 2021).  The Scripture readings can be found here

An icon of the Christian Pentecost, in the Greek Orthodox tradition. Public Domain

One of the things I have missed the most during this pandemic is the ability to sing with other people.  While I love a good road trip sing-along, you know really belting out classic hits in the car with friends, what I really miss is congregational singing: Voices coming together in harmony and unity, professing the words of faith in song.  

As Episcopalians, as Anglicans, we have a rich tradition of hymnody.  Not only is the music glorious, but so are the words.  There is a pedagogical character to our hymns, the words teach the story of our faith as they highlight themes of our liturgical seasons, moments in Jesus’ life, passages of Scripture, and the glory of the saints who have gone before. There are even a few hymns, and this is a marvel of artistry, which capture, in just a few verses, the entirety of our faith.  

I know I am not alone in longing for the day we can sing together again.  

In the meantime, since we cannot sing just yet, I would like to share with you a poem titled “Praise the Spirit in creation” written by Michael Hewlett. 

I invite you to settle in, take a deep breath, maybe even close your eyes – just promise me you will not fall asleep – and listen to these words: 

Praise the Spirit in creation, breath of God, life’s origin:
Spirit, moving on the waters quickening worlds to life within,
source of breath to all things breathing, life in whom all lives begin. 

Praise the Spirit, close companion of our inmost thoughts and ways;
who, in showing us God’s wonders, is himself the power to gaze;
and God’s will, to those who listen, by a still small voice conveys. 

Praise the Spirit, who enlightened priests and prophets with the word;
his the truth behind the wisdoms which as yet know not our Lord;
by whose love and power, in Jesus God himself was seen and heard. 

Tell of how the ascended Jesus armed a people for his own;
how a hundred men and women turned the known world upside down,
to its dark and furthest corners by the wind of heaven blown.  

Pray we then, O Lord the Spirit, on our lives descend in might;
let your flame break out within us, fire our hearts and clear our sight,
till, white-hot in your possession, we, too set the world alight. 

Praise, O praise the Holy Spirit, praise the Father, praise the Word,
Source, and Truth, and Inspiration, Trinity in deep accord:
through your voice which speaks within us we, your creatures, call you Lord. (1) 

If these words sound familiar, it is because this poem provides the text for hymns 506 and 507.  This poem, these hymns, were written for this day.  They draw our attention to the power of the Holy Spirit.  These words are one of those marvelous texts which capture the whole of our faith .

Today we gather to celebrate the Day of Pentecost.  From the Greek word pentekostos, meaning “fiftieth,” Pentecost is the fiftieth day after Easter Day.  It marks the conclusion of Eastertide, and it is the feast where we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church in fire, wind, and word. 

The day does not happen in a vacuum.  We hear today how the Holy Spirit fills the house where the disciples were gathered like the rush of a violent wind.  This is not, however, the first time the Holy Spirit appears in the world. 

The Spirit which bursts forth today is the same spirit which brought creation into existence.  It is the very breath of God that gives life to the world.  As we gather on this Day of Pentecost let us “Praise the Spirit in creation, breath of God, life’s origin: Spirit, moving on the waters quickening worlds to life within, source of breath to all things breathing, life in whom all lives begin.” (2)

As that same Spirit brought forth life into the world humanity is created.  From the very beginning of time, the breath of God whispers to God’s beloved children calling them into relationship.  It is God the Holy Spirit who opens our eyes to see the wonders around us, to recognize God’s presence in our midst.  As we keep this Day of Pentecost let us, “Praise the Spirit, close companion of our inmost thoughts and ways; who, in showing us God’s wonders, is himself the power to gaze; and God’s will, to those who listen, by a still small voice conveys.” (3)

Over time peoples and nations are brought into existence.  Hebrew Scripture, what we often refer to as the Old Testament, is filled with the story of God’s people struggling and striving to live into the covenants that they have made with God.  Wrestling with the human impulse to mistake our identity for creator instead of the creatures we are.  To guide the people along the way, to liberate them from oppression and slavery, to help them reorient their lives back towards God, God sends the prophets.  God calls Moses and Elijah, God calls Amos and Micah, God calls Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel to preach and proclaim God’s word to the people.  As we listen for God’s word today, let us, “Praise the Spirit, who enlightened priest and prophets with the word; his the truth behind the wisdoms which as yet know not our Lord; by whose love and power, in Jesus God himself was seen and heard.” (4)   

That great prophetic tradition is connect to the new thing God is doing in the world, they are linked with what is to come through the prophet John the Baptist.  John, that voice crying out in the wilderness, the one who prepares the way, lets the people know that the baptism he brings will be changed in the one who is to come.  John makes way for Jesus to enter into the world. 

Jesus’ ministry begins as John immerses him in those sacred waters of baptism.  As Jesus emerges out of the water the heavens are opened and the voice of God declares,  “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (5) In that holy and sacred moment our baptisms are given meaning.  

From that moment on Jesus sets out, teaching and preaching, healing the sick and casting out demons.  He calls Peter, Andrew, James, and John.  He calls the rest of the twelve and they travel throughout the region.  Along the way Jesus teaches them as much as he can about the way of life to which they are called. It is not everything that they need to hear, but it is everything they can bear.  

These followers become witnesses to the climactic moment of salvation history.  They walk with Jesus along that road to Jerusalem.  They see him lifted up and crucified.  They witness his resurrection.  

For forty days until the feast of the Ascension they encountered Jesus in his resurrected body.  On the fortieth day Jesus bodily ascends into heaven, at which point the disciples, along with a few others, go back to that upper room and pray. 

Before Jesus ascends he promises them that he will send an Advocate to them.  Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will come upon them giving them the strength and courage to carry out the work he has given them to do.  Jesus tells them that this Advocate will continue to teach and guide them, speaking the words of God to them, in the same way that he did.  

We hear this morning from the Acts of the Apostles what happens on that great festival day: 

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (6)

God the Holy Spirit did not descend upon them like some cute little bird, gliding in like a dove, but rather she came crashing in, shattering the world as they knew it.  All of a sudden they began speaking in every language imaginable – languages they have never spoken before. 

This transformation, this descent of God, was not something to be confined to those in the house, but quickly spread throughout Jerusalem.  Acts tells us that a bewildered, amazed, and astonished crown came and gathered to figure out what was going on.  As each person heard the mighty acts of God proclaimed in their native tongues those feelings only intensified. 

Filled with the power of the Holy Spirit these followers of Jesus set out to change the world.  As we commemorate this Day of Pentecost let us, “tell of how the ascended Jesus armed a people for his own; how a hundred men and women turned the known world upside down, to its dark and furthest corners by the wind of heaven blown.” (7)

What happened that day paves the way for this crowd to experience their re-creation in God.  The Acts of the Apostles goes on to tell us that these first converts, the work they do, will ultimately lead to a mass baptism, where about three thousand people are added to the household of God.  (8)

This is the work that God has been up to from the very beginning of creation.  This is the story we are inheritors of.  This is the tradition we are grafted into by virtue of our baptism.  It is what we are called to carry forth for the generations yet to come. 

There is a great moment in the Pentecost story.  As that amazed and bewildered crowd gathers hearing this great cacophony of languages, as some are trying to discern what is going on, others mock and scoff. Some write off this holy moment, ridiculing the disciples as a bunch of drunken fools. 

Peter then steps up and begins to preach, he proclaims to the crowd what is happening: “Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.  No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel.” (9) When I stop laughing at Peter’s instance that the disciples could not be drunk because it is only nine o’clock in the morning, I cannot help but wonder more seriously, what would it take for the world to be so surprised, so astonished, so amazed by our actions that they only logical conclusion would be that we have had a little too much to drink a little too early in the day? 

What would it look like if we stepped outside our houses and proclaimed the righteousness of God in languages the world could understand?  What would it look like if we praised and worshipped God in such a way that walls came crashing down like they did in Jericho or while Paul and Silas are in prison?  What would it look like if we actually believe that “a hundred men and women turned the known world upside down,” even more to the point, what if we believe that it could happen again?  And way not?  If one hundred people could turn the known world upside down, what is to prevent us from turning Greenville upside down?  On this Day of Pentecost, “Pray we then, O Lord the Spirit, on our lives descend in might; let your flame break out within us, fire our hearts and clear our sight, till, white-hot in your possession, we, too set the world alight.” (10)

Because of all this, the Day of Pentecost is one of the main baptismal days in the life of the church: a day especially appropriate to add to the number of the household of God.

Today we will both renew our own baptismal vows, and, at the next service, we will welcome into the household of God Arlo Robert Accetture as he receives the Sacrament of Baptism.  As we recommit ourselves to the promises made at our baptism, we are reaffirming our responsibly to the story of our faith.  We are witnessing to all that God has done in the world from the very beginning of creation.  We are uniting our lives with the saints of ages past; with those past, present, and yet to come who have and will share in these sacred waters.  On this day we pledge our allegiance to God promising to move from what if to we will.

No longer do we simply wonder, what if we believed that God’s people could change the world.  Today we vow to be those agents of change in this time and place.  No longer do we wonder what the rush of languages sounded like, today we vow to proclaim the Good News of God in every language of our time both in-person and in the digital realm.  Today we are added to the crowd of 100, to the throngs of those three thousand, sent forth to set the world alight.

What language will you use to share the message? What things, no matter how big or small, will you do today to make the love of God known around you? 

Let us go forth from this place constantly living this Pentecost moment, living in such a way that the world thinks we too are drunken fools.  Remember who you are, a member of the household of God.  Let us daily lift life heavenward, let us commit to God’s purposes with renewed integrity, let us proclaim the glories of the Lord.  On this day let us, “Praise, O praise the Holy Spirit, praise the Father, praise the Word, Source, and Truth, and Inspiration, Trinity in deep accord: through your voice which speaks within us we, your creatures, call you Lord.” (11)

Amen. 

(1) Michael Hewlett, The Hymnal 1982, Hymn 506/507, “Praise the Spirit in creation.”
(2) Ibid., verse 1.
(3) Ibid., verse 2.
(4) Ibid., verse 3.
(5) Matthew 3:17, NRSV.
(6) Acts 2:41, NRSV.
(7) Hewlett, verse 4.
(8) Acts 2:41, NRSV.
(9) Acts 2:15-16, NRSV.
(10) Hewlett, verse 5.
(11) Ibid., verse 6.

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter: The Sunday after the Ascension (16 May 2021).  The Scripture readings can be found here

“The Ascension”, Johann Koerbecke, 1420-1491,  Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This past week I was struck by one of the reflections from the Society of St. John the Evangelist’s daily offering Brother, Give Us A Word.  The word on Thursday was “glory,” and here is what Br. Geoffrey Tristram had to say on this word: 

Ascension Day is a wonderful celebration of hope.  A day to lift up our hearts, to rejoice – the Lord is King.  And maybe an occasion to pledge that in the days ahead we will endeavor to be purveyors of hope – that we will so live our lives and so pray our lives, that others will know the hope to which we have been called.  That however difficult or daunting our journey may be, we will continually lift up our eyes, and look to the glory. (1)

As I moved throughout the day, Br. Geoffrey’s words stayed with me.  It was a day to rejoice, a day to make a pledge, a day to look to the glory. 

That day, as tipped off in the opening of Br. Geoffrey’s reflection, was the Feast of the Ascension: a principal feast day, making it one of the seven most important days on the Church calendar.  This festival day marks a moment of transition, it begins a new phase, a new chapter in the story of God and God’s people.  

For forty days after his resurrection, Jesus openly appeared to his disciples in his resurrected body.  Jesus appears suddenly in locked rooms offering his disciples peace, assuring them of his identity through his wounds and scars.  Jesus travels along the road with them, offering occasions for reconciliation and healing.  He even cooks breakfast for them on the beach.  

On the fortieth day, Jesus ascends bodily into heaven.  That resurrected body which had journeyed with the disciples for those days is lifted up into a cloud and taken away, thus bringing humanity, and all of creation, with him to the throne of God.  This idea is fundamental to our entire understanding of Christian theology.  I cannot stress enough how important this is. 

In the incarnation, God is born in the person of Jesus, and the incarnation cycle begins.  In the incarnation God takes on human flesh so that all of humanity might be redeemed, that we might ascend with God and be transformed into the fullness of our own creation.  As early church theologian Athanasius writes, “He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God.” (2) Or as that phrase often gets translated, the divine becomes human so that the human can become divine.  What begins in the incarnation, is completed in the Ascension.  Though the cycle, though the story, might be complete now that the Ascension has happened, it is not yet finished. 

Jesus’ Ascension is recounted in the Acts of the Apostles.  Luke, the author of Acts and the Gospel which bears his name, writes this:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When [Jesus] had said this, as [the disciples] were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’” (3)

In the Ascension, Jesus promises his disciples that the power of Holy Spirit will come upon them, equipping them to travel to the ends of the world to bring the message of God to every family, language, people, and nation.  As the disciples stand gazing, watching Jesus ascend, two men appear, reminding them that it is time to get to work, for they have been called to be purveyors of hope to the world. 

Now in case you had not noticed, today is not Thursday.  That being said, we cannot skip over or ignore the great feast of this past week.   

Today is titled the “Seventh Sunday after Easter: the Sunday after the Ascension.”  This title draws our attention to the fact that we are both in the final days of Eastertide and in the days of Ascensiontide.  We have been celebrating the glories of the Lord’s resurrection, and the church has once more told the story of that great transitional moment that left those first followers of Jesus to figure out, to discern, what it means for them to live without Jesus physically present to them, directing their every move and action.  

Our lesson from Acts today begins just a few verses after the telling of Jesus’ Ascension.  The disciples have journeyed back to Jerusalem.  They gathered once more in the upper room, together with certain woman, where they prayed together.  

After this, where we pick up the story, Peter is standing among a crowd of about 120 believers.  On this occasion he tells those gathered about the process by which the disciples selected Judas’ replacement after his death, which according to Acts, unlike Matthew’s account, was a rather graphic accident.  Peter tells those gathered how important it was that the one appointed as a witness be someone who knew the story, someone who journeyed with them through Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection.  After a time of praying to discern who God had called to this ministry, the disciple select Matthias to be added to the eleven. 

This discernment and call story for Matthias is an invitation for us all to reflect on our own discernment and call.  God has called each and every one of us to ministry, placing our vocations upon our hearts. 

The classic textbook definition of vocation is “where your heart’s deepest joys, meet the world’s greatest needs.”  Vocation is the understanding that our God given gifts, the things which bring us fulfillment and joy, align in some way, with the needs of the community.  But vocation is more than just figuring out the tasks required of us. 

Parker J. Palmer in his book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation writes this, and I quote:

Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue.  It means a calling that I hear.  Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.  I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live – but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life. (4)

Through the work of prayer we discover the vocations, the ministries, that we have been created for.  We listen to how God is calling us, forming and shaping our lives, so that through the fulfillment of our identities we can discover the vocations planted in the depths of our souls.  Vocation is about being fully who God has created us to be, far more than it is about doing something.   

To discover the calls God has placed on our hearts, we enter into a listening and wondering process.  As we continue the discernment journey we then invite others into the conversation.  We pray together, listen together, wonder together.  Through the work of the community, just as the disciples did in calling Matthias, we discover the ways which we cannot help but live. 

We are in the midst of an incredible, multilayered, time of transition.  As the seasons change, and fingers crossed Spring is finally here to stay, we watch the transitions in creation.  Flowers coming into bloom, vibrant colors dotting the landscape, the rich glowing hues that light up the evening sky. 

We are in a time of transition in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  We offer tremendous thanks to God for the positive trends in data related to this virus.  We give thanks for declining numbers of people who are sick and dying, and we give thanks for the rising number of fully vaccinated individuals.  Things continue to open, and glimpses of that which feels like normal are starting to occur with greater frequency.  

The continued emergence out of pandemic restrictions invites us to continue our process for regathering.  Ministries in the parish are discerning what the next chapter holds for them: prayerfully discerning and listening to how God is calling us in this next moment together. 

Our transition as a community also has an additional, rather unique layer.  After nearly a year together, where we have done some amazing things never to be underestimated, it feels as if we are finally beginning our shared ministry together.  Though, maybe that’s just me being a bit excited to actually see other people and not just be here by myself all the time. 

As we continue in these days we, like those first disciples, must be people of prayer.  Listening to how God is calling us in this moment, listening for new ideas and ministries to participate in and bring into existence, listening for invitations to the ways which we cannot help but live. 

I wonder, how is God calling you in this moment?  How is God inviting you to live?  Maybe your vocational identity is rooted in pastoral gifts.  Maybe the way of life to which you have been called is focusing on service with the wider community around us.  Maybe God is inviting you to consider a leadership position in the parish, helping to guide the discernment of our community.  Maybe there are intersections and combinations of all of the above.   

The discernment of this Ascensiontide is not just individual, it is also communal.  As the household of God at St. Thomas Church we must all listen to who God is forming us to be for this time and place.  Maybe the creative Spirit of God has filled your soul with new ideas and possibilities for us, things which seem to dance on the line between absurdity and perfection.  Now is the time for us all to make a pledge, to commit all that we have and all that we are to God’s loving service. 

God has already laid these vocations on our hearts, now we must listen and discover God’s call together.  

This discernment, this place of vulnerable listening, this venturing out into the unknown might be a bit scary and unsettling.  We might find ourselves in places we have never been, doing things we never imagined.  In the midst of the uncertainty, I truly believe we can enter into this liminal space with confidence, because we do not go alone. 

Again this week our Gospel passage places us back at the Last Supper.  Jesus is offering a prayer for his disciples.  He prays for the unity of relationship.  He asks the Father to care for those whom God had entrusted to him.  It is a prayer that God keep the disciples as they prepare to go off into an unknown world.  

This prayer offers us the assurance that we are not alone.  God is always present with us, never leaving us comfortless.  Not many days from now the disciples, just as Jesus has prayed, will be empowered by the gift of the Holy Spirit.  They will be surrounded by the very presence of God, filled with the breath of God.  The Day of Pentecost is coming, the day when they will be given the power to be God’s witnesses in the world. 

We too are recipients of that same Spirit.  We too are sent out to be witnesses to the world.  We too have the abiding presence of Jesus wherever we may go.  For we are all connected to one another, united in the majesty of the incarnation, resurrection, and the ascension.  

Today we enter into this moment of transition, uncertain of what lies ahead, reminded that God has fulfilled God’s promise in the work of Jesus in the world, the incarnation cycle is completed, and this day we are once more reminded that our story is not over yet. 

Just as was true for those disciples in that first Ascensiontide, let us remain steadfast in our faith, persistent in prayer, trusting the power of God working in and through us, listening for the voice of God calling out to each and every one of us inviting us to live the life we cannot help but live.  

Rooted in the love of God, let us share in this holy time of discernment as we await with joy the discovery of what God has in store for us next.  Let us pledge our lives to God, always endeavoring to be purveys of hope, keeping our eyes fixed on the glory that has been revealed.  

Amen. 

(1) Br Geoffrey Tristram, Brother, Give Us A Word, “Glory,” https://www.ssje.org/2021/05/13/glory-8/ 13 May 2021.
(2) St. Athanasius. On the Incarnation – Enhanced Version (p. 59). Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Kindle Edition.
(3) Acts 1:8-11, NRSV.
(4) 
Palmer J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 4-5.

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (9 May 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here

“St. Peter Preaching in Jerusalem”, Charles Poërson, Oil on Canvas, 1642 Public Domain

 

Did you know, that our state has some really weird laws?  For example, did you know that you cannot string ropes across the highway?  Or that it is considered an offense to throw pickle juice on a trolley?  Like every other state, our legal code has these odd laws on the books.  By the way, while outlawing throwing pickle juice on a trolley is up there on the list of weirdest laws, my favorite is the Alabama law which says it is illegal to walk down the street with an ice cream cone in your back pocket.  

It is not just states that have weird laws, our faith tradition does too: and I am not just talking about the 16th century English laws that made it a crime, punishable by fine, imprisonment, and, in some cases exile, for clergy to disparage the Book of Common Prayer.  

Have you ever wondered what the weirdest commandment is?  How about do not make graven images?  Or remember the Sabbath? Or avoid house envy aka coveting?  I mean that one might as well be a biblical instruction to stop watching HGTV.

What about the commandment Jesus articulates today, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  (1) 

This is the commandment, the rule, the law, that Jesus gives to his disciples shortly before he is betrayed and arrested.  While we are in the latter weeks of Eastertide, this Gospel passage brings us back to the Last Supper.  Jesus knows time is short, these are his final hours to teach his closest companions, so he is making things as clear as possible: just love one another. 

Between you and me, and everyone watching online, let us be honest for a moment.  Commanding people to love is kind of a weird thing.  Seriously, how would you respond if someone said to you, “I command you to love immediately?”

Love cannot be ordered.  Love cannot be planned.  Love does not obey our decrees and demands.  It takes work and effort.  It does not always come easily.  It is not something that happens automatically.  And yet, Jesus commands us to love.  He commands that we love, as he has loved, right here, right now.  

Notice what Jesus does not say.  “This is my commandment that you act like you love one another.”  That you grit your teeth and hug each other; pretending that you love one another.  Jesus is not playing.  He is absolutely serious.  Love as I have loved.  Nothing more.  Nothing less. 

For the last few weeks we have been hearing all about this love we are called to embody.  The love we are commanded to have.  When we hear these words about love, we have to be clear about what we are actually talking about. We have to be careful to not let our minds wander off and think about those warm fuzzy feelings of love that are something like cake, puppies, and kitchens instead of the real love on display.  

Love is a significantly overused word in our culture that has lost much of its value and intensity.  We love everything from the frivolous to the profound.  Therefore we must reevaluate what we think love means lest we establish some false equivalence between our favorite dessert or television program and God. 

God’s love is love that is unceasing, never giving up, sacrificial, willing to be betrayed, tortured, and killed kind of love.  Jesus gives this command hours before his brutal execution and murder, something he willingly endures out of love for the world. 

The love of God is the initiating force for the entire universe.  It is out of love that God breathes life into the fabric of creation, it is out of love that God takes on human flesh and is born in the person of Jesus.  It is out of that life-animating, sacrificial love that God dies a human death on the cross, that we might truly understand what it means to love and be loved.  For there is no “greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (2) This godly and holy love is not some abstract emotion or idealist theory, it is action lived concretely.  This love is a call from God that requires us to make what is arguably the most important choice we will ever make in our lives.  Do we accept the call to abide in God’s love or not. 

In today’s Gospel passage Jesus continues his teaching on the vine and the branches. After teaching the disciples about their interconnectedness with one another through the vine, which is Jesus, he goes on to describe what happens as a result of that relationship.  

He assures them that just as the life of the branches is sustained through their connection to the vine, so will their lives be sustained through their connection with him.  Jesus makes clear that if we draw our life and strength from this connection, if we follow his commandments we will abide in that relationship – we will grow in increasing rootedness with the vine – the very source of our life.  Through abiding in God’s love, allowing the divine love of God to flow around us, in us, and through us, that weirdest commandment of all becomes possible.  It becomes possible to make the choice to love as God loves. 

Every year in Eastertide we hear from Acts the story of those early followers of Jesus experiencing the beginning of post-resurrection life, discovering what life is like once Jesus’ earthly ministry was ended.  We hear the account of what is possible when disciples abide in the love of God. 

In our lesson today we hear of two divergent and at times enemy communities coming together as one through the waters of Baptism. At the outset of this passage we hear that, “the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gifts of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.” (3) Those who were insiders, who already belonged to the community, were shocked that God might dare to claim a bunch of outsiders as God’s own. 

The Holy Spirit in that moment confronts those circumcised believers with an irrepressible truth: God overcomes boundary and border.  In God there is no insider or outsider.  All are one in God. 

These stories, like the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch we heard last week, are the revelations of God to the early community of disciples that all boundaries and binaries must be destroyed.  All temptation or desire to separate us from them must be pruned from our lives to allow for a stronger development of love in our beings, just as pruning a plant allows it to grow back stronger than before.   

Though the death and resurrection of Jesus, God destroys death once and for all.  In the resurrection the gates of hell are destroyed, Christ stands triumphant over them, and all are gathered to the glories of the Kingdom of God.  Just as that eternal death is destroyed through the act of God’s love, every other source of death is destroyed as well.  Therefore, as we abide in God’s love, we are called – we are commanded – to love in the same way, sharing in the work of destroying all that is destructive, all that causes death of any kind, in our lives today. 

Our joy will be complete, when we allow the joy of God to be in us.  Joy that requires democrats to love their republican neighbors; and republicans to love their democrat neighbors.  Joy that requires us to stop stereotyping people because of group affliction or political stance.  Joy that requires us give up making disparaging remarks about people and their abilities, or lack there of, because of their nationality or some other immutable trait.  

Abiding in the love of God, following the command to love one another, means destroying every wall we have built to keep others out, every soul crushing binary that prevents beloved children of God from surviving and thriving.  It means allowing for the diversity of humanity to flourish even when we do not understand how others identify, even when someone else’s understanding of humanity shakes the very foundations of “the way it has always been.”  (4)

While it might be scary to watch the clear cut binaries and understanding of what it means to be a person in this world come tumbling down, while it can be scary to see understandings of inclusion and exclusion erased, we must hold on, trusting the strength of that abiding presence of God in our lives, for when the dust settles the kingdom of God will be revealed more fully in our midst, the vision before us will be an ever sharpening focus of the dream that God intense for us all.  

These stories of borders and boundaries collapsing in the waters of baptism; this commandment of Jesus to love as he has loved, force a head on confrontation with the fears that divide the people of this world.  Scripture tells us if we dare to claim that we love God, we must be bold enough to love those the world calls us to hate.  For love and hate cannot stand together.  Refusing to truly love, by just acting or pretending like we love, means that we have made the choice to not abide in God. 

There is nothing easy about this.  Following the command to love requires incredible amounts of work, discipline, self sacrifice, and allowing everything we ever thought we knew to be broken down and rebuilt in the image of God.  I suspect this is why G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting.  It has been found difficult and left untried.” 

As we continue to reflect on God’s command to love, we must recognize that this command extends beyond our neighbor. 

This week the Church marks Rogationtide.  The Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of this week are the annual rogation days.  The word rogation comes from the Latin word “rogare” which means, “to ask.”  During these days we ask God’s blessing upon creation as new crops are planted.  We pray that God will send favorable weather, with the right balance of sun, rain, and moderate temperatures resulting in a bountiful harvest.  At the conclusion of our liturgy today we will process out to the yard where we will give thanks for the gifts of creation, and ask God to bless this land that it might be used to the honor and glory of God. 

We might be tempted to believe that creation exists solely for our use and benefit, but these days of Rogationtide remind us of the interconnectedness of all creation – these days remind us that our very survival is link to the survival of creation.  God has entrusted us with the care of creation, we have been given the responsibility to care for the beauty of the earth.  In this way, we are called to love this fragile earth, our island home, in the same way we are called to love our neighbor.  

We are in the midst of a global climate crisis that has been fueled by the mismanagement and destruction of the world.  Humanity, particularly nations like our own, have used and abused the created order with little care or concern for the well being of the earth.  As a result of our actions the plant is literally burning before our eyes.  Storms have become more powerful.  Temperatures and seasonal conditions are now unreliable.  This crisis poses a major threat to peace and stability throughout the world.  We are already seeing climate refugees, and the predictions of what is to come are terrifying as access to arable land and potable water diminishes.   

While time is running out, there is still hope.  Early on in the pandemic, when virtually everything was on lockdown, we saw air pollution levels plummet, we watched vegetation – trees and plants – grow more vibrantly, we witnessed the return of wildlife to our towns and cities.  For the first time I saw a rafter of turkeys walking through my Providence neighborhood.  What we do next, how each and everyone of us lives in this world, will determine the fate of the whole created order.  Every action has an impact: the cars we drive, where we shop, what we eat, how we travel, and so much more.  

These actions, these choices, are what loving creation as God loves creation looks like.  Our failure to act, our failure to choose new ways of being over the way we have always done it comes with grave consequences – literally a matter of life and death.  If we dare to chose to love, if we dare to abide in God as God abides in us, the choice we must make is clear. 

This morning we are given a really weird law from Jesus. But this weird thing, is the only thing that will change the world and save us from a sure and certain death, because it is the only that that already has. 

So people of God, let’s get weird.  Let us be so rooted in Jesus that the love of God overflows our lives.  Let us abide in God’s Love.  Let us dare to love as God loves. 

Amen.  

(1) John 15:12, NRSV.
(2) John 15:13, NRSV.
(3) Acts 10:45, NRSV.
(4)G.K. Chesterton, “The Unfinished Temple,” in What’s Wrong with the World, Collected Works (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 4:61.

 

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (2 May 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here

Illustration from the Menologion of Basil II of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, Public Domain

 

For nearly three months a group of us have gathered week by week to read the latest book written by our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, titled Love is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times.  Through this study Bishop Curry has guided us to think more deeply about the way of love.  His words have pushed and challenged our assumptions about what it means to love, how we are called to be in relationship with one another, and why we must hold on to this most magnificent force pulsing through the universe. 

At the heart of Bishop Curry’s book, and in fact at the heart of his entire ministry, is the phrase, “If it’s not about love, then it’s not about God.”   

This phrase is more than a catchy tagline, it is a deep theological position on the very nature of God.  In this phrase, Bishop Curry translates the words we hear this morning in our epistle, into something that the modern ear can comprehend.  Set free from the sometimes tongue tying nature of the First Letter of John, this phrase grounds us in the way, the truth, and the life revealed in Jesus. 

John writes, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1)  Why is Bishop Curry’s phrase so true?  Why can he profess, “if it’s not about love, then it’s not about God?”  He can do so, because God is love. 

In writing this letter, John might have said, instead of “God is love,” that God is power, or God is order, or even God is goodness.  All of these things sound good, there is something appealing about them.  

Through our insecurity and longing for protection, it is natural to yearn for a God who can control nature and prevent sickness; who, with the snap of a finger, can make all the pain and suffering of life disappear.  How many of us have cried out, “How long, O Lord? How long,” as we fervently wish and pray for God to magically fix the problems that face our communities, the violence erupting around the country, the plague of the coronavirus which still wreaks havoc around the globe.  

In a world of moral confusion, we might find ourselves wishing for a God who lays down the law with complete clarity and holds everyone accountable, catching the deceitful and rewarding the faithful.   

In our hunger to possess, we might imagine a God of prosperity, one who promises to make us rich if we follow and obey a few rules: A God who acts like a genie, granting our every wish.   

No matter what we might desire, John does not write that God is power, order, goodness, or anything else.  John is clear, “God is love.”  And as such, all things begin in love, flow from love, are perfected through love, and return to love.  This is true for the entire created order, for everything, including humanity, that God has brought into existence. 

Love is not a concept known abstractly, it is an action lived concretely.  John tells us that human love is always derivative of God’s love, for “we love because [God] first loved us.” (2)  In this relationship of abiding and steadfast love we are called to love others the way God has loved us.  Modeling the way we love on how God loves.  

We discover this way, this truth, by looking to Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, through whom and in whom authentic life and genuine love for God and others becomes possible.  We know how to live this way of life by following the way Jesus lived his earthly life. 

As we witness Jesus’ ministry we learn that love means feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison, standing in solidarity with those who are oppressed, speaking up for the forgotten and voiceless, searching out for those tossed aside and relegated to the margins.  Love is the guiding principle behind the promises made at our Baptism.  

By modeling our lives on Jesus’ we learn that there is no place in the Kingdom of God for those who nurse grudges, seek revenge, assume intellectual superiority, or are careless with the feelings of others.  Scripture makes clear that only the merciful are sure of mercy, only the forgiving are sure of forgiveness, only the loving heart lives in the love of God.  As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “Abide in me as I abide in you.  Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” (3)  It is only by abiding in Jesus that we can accomplish these things.  It is only by abiding in Jesus that we can truly love.

The vineyard imagery of our Gospel passage emphasizes the relational nature of the way of love.  

Each part of the vineyard is integral to the whole.  This parable reminds us that no one part is greater than any other.  We, the branches, cannot exist without being connected to the vine.  In other words, no one can go it alone.  

This passage also reminds us of our proper place and role in the community.  When Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches,” he is telling us that we are not the focus, we are not the initiators of the community, we are not the sources of life and growth.

If you have ever watched a vine grow, then you know there is nothing neat or orderly about it.  The branches intertwine. It becomes nearly impossible to separate out one branch from another.  It becomes nearly impossible to remove one branch without causing harm to another.  This is what it means to be part of a community.  We are the glorious, imperfect, messy, tangle of branches that lean on one another, grow with one another, are intertwined together, relying on one another for our very survival.  

The vine anchoring our community is love.  The vine which is the source of our very existence is God.  

The permeating message of that great and new commandment to love one another as God has loved us, is that which prevents the Church from being an inward-turned, self-focused social club, and keeps us grounded in the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus of Nazareth.  It is that love which we abide in that roots us in community, relationship, and action as we participate in the ongoing work of God in the world. 

If we allow ourselves to be the full recipients of God’s love, to be the people God has created us to be, then the power of that love will eradicate all the fear we have of everything and everyone in the world around us.  When we allow this perfect love to cast out our fear, we witness the Kingdom of God breaking in.  This is exactly what happens in the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. 

Philip has experienced the transformative power of God’s love and has responded by dedicating his life to sharing and spreading that love to the ends of the world.  Philip is so filled with the love of God that he has no reason to fear, and every reason to trust. 

So when God says to Philip, “Get up and go,” (4) get up and go to unexpected and maybe even unwelcome places, Philip gets going. 

This journey, this wilderness road, Philip is setting out on will take him to a place he never intended to go, and will require him to enter into relationship with someone he would never have met otherwise. In this story we witness the power of God’s love lived out in action; we see someone experience the full, unfiltered love of God for the first time. 

There is a second character who is just as important as Philip in this story.  For someone who is unnamed, we actually know a lot about this Ethiopian Eunuch.  He was a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians.  He was in charge of her entire treasury.  He was on his way home from worshipping in Jerusalem, riding in his chariot, whilst reading the prophet Isaiah. 

The fact that this man was an Ethiopian, tells us that he was a foreigner; a person of color different from those around him.  The fact that this man is a eunuch, tells us that he is considered a sexual outcast and minority.  It tells us that following the Deuteronomic laws, the laws contained in the Book of Deuteronomy, he would not have been allowed to be a full member of the worshiping community in Jerusalem or elsewhere.  The fact that he is a eunuch and a court official, tells us that he is the perfect servant because he does not present a threat to the purity of the royal bloodline.  It tells us that his body can be used to move through gendered spaces in a way that others cannot.  As a royal official and a person with enough means to have his own copy of the prophet Isaiah, we know that he would have been accused of having the wrong type of job; having allegiance to the wrong master.  

Literally every detail about the Ethiopian Eunuch tells us that the dominant culture of his day, the institutions of secular and sacred authority, labeled him as other – as a person on the margins.  Not worthy of full inclusion.  Not worthy of his full personhood.  Not worthy of the full measure of God’s love.   

When Philip arrives on that wilderness road, God’s love is being made incarnate through his actions.  God, through Philip, is chasing after the Ethiopian, desiring to enter into a relationship of love. 

When the Ethiopian Eunuch invites Philip to get into his chariot and explain the prophecies of Isaiah to him a small crack is opened in the cultural wall that divides these two men.  What we see in this story, is the same thing we see time and time again in Scripture, all God needs to work miracles is just a small crack to break through. 

The pivotal moment in this encounter is when the Ethiopian Eunuch musters up enough courage to ask Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (5)  The language of this question is not to be overlooked.  The Ethiopian does not say, “Can you baptize me?” Or “Will you baptize me?”  He says, “What is to prevent me.”  

This person, because of every marker of his identity has been cast aside and left out. He has lived a life where his personhood, his identity, has prevented him from everything.  He wants to know what will it be this time that prevents him from joining the community.  

Thanks be to God that in that moment Philip listened not to the shouts of the world, but to the whisperings of the Spirit. 

Nothing.  Absolutely nothing is to prevent this man from being baptized. The Scriptural account leaves Philip speechless, but his actions speak volumes.  The chariot stops.  They go to the water.  Philip baptizes the Ethiopian.  Philip is snatched away by the Holy Spirit, and the Ethiopian goes home rejoicing that he is finally and fully claimed as the beloved child of God that he is. 

That, my friends, is what love, godly and holy love, looks like in action. 

When we allow the power of God’s love to transform us, to bring us to places we do not wish to go, to direct us into relationships with people we may not wish to encounter, love becomes incarnate.  In concrete actions of witness, inclusion, and blessing, love becomes incarnate.  In God’s unfailing grasp on each and every person, as the barriers of fear that divide us come crashing down, love becomes incarnate.  

French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once wrote about how the world was changed when humanity discovered and harnessed the power of fire.  He writes about all the amazing things that became possible by harnessing that power.  He goes on to write, “someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.” (6)

When Philip harnessed the power love, the Ethiopian Eunuch discovered fire.  We are called to share in the work of God’s faithful people in harnessing the power of love.  For when we do, when we claim the love of God, when we abide in that love, we too will discover fire, and the world will be changed once more.

Amen.

(1) 1 John 4:7-8, NRSV.
(2) 1 John 4:19, NRSV.
(3) John 15:4, NRSV.
(4) Acts 8:26, NRSV.
(5) Acts 8:36, NRSV.
(6) Pierre Teilhard de Chardin Quotes. BrainyQuote.com, BrainyMedia Inc, 2021. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/pierre_teilhard_de_chardi_114239, accessed April 30, 2021.

 

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (25 April 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here

“The Good Shepherd” Moasic, Mausoleum of Galla, Placidia, Ravenna, Italy, ca 425.  Public Domain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today is affectionately known as Good Shepherd Sunday.  A title that sparks the imagination in a way that the Fourth Sunday of Easter might not be able to.  As the name suggests, on this Sunday, every year, the Gospel passage draws our attention to the image of Jesus as our good shepherd.  Though, for what it is worth, in our three year lectionary cycle, this is the only year when we actually hear Jesus say, “I am the good shepherd.” 

When I think of Good Shepherd Sunday, when I recall the images I saw and the stories I heard growing up in the church, I find myself drifting to those soft and sweet images of a storybook shepherd walking through a lush field, tending to those cuddly, cloud-like sheep roaming the hillside on a quiet, sunny afternoon. 

Without any effort, as my thoughts continue to drift, I am transported back to my time visiting the Irish and Scottish countryside where I saw nothing but sheep for miles.  By the way, sheep are not the most generous audience for a brunch of high school students playing Danny Boy, but that is another story for another time. 

I wonder if you have any of these, or similar images in mind as you think about Good Shepherd Sunday.  

When we imagine this day in such a fashion, when we place this passage in the context of our reminiscing, we might be led to believe that as long as we follow Jesus, we can enjoy a lovely afternoon, eat our fill, and not worry about any of the cares or occupations of this life.  

As much as that makes for wonderful cartoons, storybooks, and other delights for our imaginations, I am sorry to say that I do not think that is really what this day is all about.  The Scripture readings appointed for today contain a call to action, a declaration of our identity, a reminder of the life of discipleship, and a warning about what lies ahead when we take this call, this declaration, this reminder seriously. 

While I know there is a bit more wildlife here in the Northwest corner of the state, we are not likely to encounter large flocks of sheep accompanied by their shepherd in our daily lives.  The closest I have been to discovering the realities of sheep-herding is watching the BBC historical farm series on YouTube.  While many of us have encountered a few sheep here and there in our lives, I imagine the concept of being a sheepherder is a foreign one to most of us.  

The life of a shepherd was anything but picturesque.  It was dangerous, risky, marginal outcast work.  Shepherds were rough around the edges.  They were not welcome in “polite society.”  

For Jesus to say, “I am the good shepherd,” would have been an affront to the religious elite and the well educated of his day.  It was a scandalous thing to claim.  It would be like Jesus saying today, “:I am the good undocumented migrant worker.”  

John’s audience understands this.  They know exactly what a shepherd is, and what everyone thought and believed about them.  They understood immediately that Jesus was aligning himself with dangerous work carried out by those seen as outcast at best, and those relegated to sub-human status at worst. 

As we think about the fullness of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, this is exactly how we should describe him. Jesus hung out on the margins, associated with people that could do nothing for him, befriended those ignored by society, all while breaking the rules and customs of his day to do it.  Jesus’ ministry, like the world of a shepherd, was dangerous, risky, marginal, outcast kind of work.  

In the first three weeks of Eastertide, we spent time lingering with the disciples, locked away in that upper room.  We saw them gripped with fear, we watched their terror turn to joy when they gazed upon the sacred wounds of Jesus’ resurrected body, we heard Jesus open the words of Scripture to them so they could understand the fullness of God’s promise, and we shared in the commission as witnesses to all that has been seen. 

We are called, just like the disciples, to be witnesses to what we have seen.  We are called to unite our ministries, our lives, with that of the disciples – with the adventures and amazing deeds recounted in the Acts of the Apostles.  We are called to claim our identity as followers of Jesus, to make incarnate the dangerous, risky, marginal, outcast kind of ministry in this time and place, to embody that love in whatever vocations God has placed on our hearts.  

The Good Shepherd seeks out the lost, those in need of being rescued, those who are forgotten, those who are in need of restoration and healing.  The question is, are we willing to step beyond whatever comforts we have grown accustomed to, to go and do likewise? 

Building on Jesus’ articulation of his identity as the Good Shepherd, in all that that identity means, we are offered a glimpse of the larger implication of the Good News of God as told by John the Evangelist. 

Our Epistle today comes from the First Letter of John.  It is likely that this letter was written after the Gospel, by the same author, for a community that knew and loved the Gospel.  In many ways this letter reads like an elaboration of the Gospel for those who desired to understand its significance for new times and circumstances.

Take for example the penultimate verse we hear today, “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” (1) This verse is a stunningly succinct summary of the two great themes of John’s Gospel: that we should believe in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that we should love on another as he has loved us.  This verse is John’s Gospel translated for the NRTV – the New Revised Twitter Version. 

That is what we are witnesses to, this is what discipleship is all about: believing in the power of the name of Jesus, and through the power of that name loving each and every person as the beloved child of God that they are.  It is about bringing that love to the world, and witnessing to the life-giving, liberation power of God. 

If we needed any further reminder so soon after Holy Week, today’s Epistle and Gospel make it abundantly clear that the foundation for that great and new commandment to love rests in Jesus’ own decision to love even unto death.  For “the good sheep lays down his life for the sheep.” (2)  For “we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” (3) This is the heart, the very crux of our call as disciples.  It is this radical love that empowers the dangerous, risky, marginal, outcast way of life every follower of Jesus is called to: love so strong that we are willing to lay down our lives for our neighbors, just as Jesus laid down his life for us. 

It is unlikely that any of us will be called to literally lay down our lives for others and become martyrs for our faith.  Therefore we must discern what it means for us to lay down our lives.  I wonder what it means for you, wherever you are on your journey of faith, to give up your life out of love. 

When we risk our own personal image, when we risk our power and privilege to stand in solidarity with those suffering from hatred, violence, injustice, and oppression we lay down our lives.  When we stand in solidarity with those being crushed and killed by the sin of white supremacy we lay down our lives.  When we stand against Anti-Asian and Pacific Islander violence and scapegoating of one peoples for the plague and pestilence of the coronavirus pandemic we lay down our lives.  When we stand up for those being gunned down in our streets, in our houses of worship, in our places of employment and entertainment, we lay down our lives.

When we prioritize the collective good over individual freedom, when we give up the completely normal human impulse to live for ourselves and allow God to reorient our desires, we lay down our lives.  When we give to others, sharing what we have with those who go without, we lay down our lives.

Each and every day, in ways great and small, in our actions and in our decisions we have the opportunity to claim our high calling, to give of ourselves, to let go of old ways so that new life might emerge.  In other words, each and every day, we have the opportunity to live our our baptismal vows.  

We follow the Good Shepherd all the way to that hill of Calvary that we might be fed by the cruciform light of love that radiates from the cross. 

If Jesus is the Good Shepherd, then that makes us the sheep.  On this Sunday we are invited to reflect on the question: who is it that we follow?  Do we follow the shepherd of power, greed, and consumerism?  Or do we follow the shepherd of compassion and humble loving service? 

If you are anything like me, the honest answer to that question is both/and. 

The gift offered to us in God’s grace is that no matter where we are, no matter how far we have been scatted by the wolf that comes by day or by night, God always comes searching for us.  God always calls out to us.  For God is not some hired hand that goes running at the first sign of trouble.  God is the shepherd of our souls who will never leave us comfortless or abandon us to the powers of the grave. 

The Fourth Sunday of Easter shifts our attention from those post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to God’s work in the world, and our relationship with Christ.  Through the story of the Good Shepherd, the evangelist makes clear to us what the work of God is to be. 

This is a powerful image for us who hunger for connection and community in a society that often looks out for number one.  In this time of pandemic, as we have struggled through moments of loneliness, isolation, alienation, and hopelessness, the Good Shepherd responds to our deepest yearning, offering an alternative to our fears. 

As we emerge into the new life offered before us, both in the resurrection and in whatever post-pandemic normal is to be, we have the opportunity once more to open our hearts and our lives to the transformative power of God’s love.  To be communities and peoples empowered to witness to the love and grace of God in our midst.  To make incarnate the love and grace we have witnessed to a broken and hurting world. 

For those of you on vestry or who have been attending our School for Discipleship classes, you might have noticed that I have repeatedly used one particular prayer to begin our gatherings.  In truth, it is one of my goals, that by the time my ministry here comes to an end, everyone will have internalized my all-time favorite prayer from the Book of Common Prayer.  It is that collect which ends the Solemn Collects on Good Friday, which concludes the Litany for Ordinations, and is the collect for the reading from Zephaniah, the gathering of God’s people, during the Liturgy of the Word for the Great Vigil of Easter.  It is the prayer that goes like this: 

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (4)

If you ask me, though I might be a bit biased, this prayer captures well the work of Jesus the Good Shepherd.  This prayer captures what happens when we believe in the dangerous, risky, marginal, outcast work of God.  This is what happens when we believe in the power of the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.  This is what happens when we love one another as God has commanded us; when w abide in God, and God abides in us through that same Spirit which moved over the very waters of creation. 

Beloved of God, always remember, that through all the length of days God’s goodness faileth never.  May we always sing God’s praise as we follow wherever the Good Shepherd leads. 

Amen.

(1) 1 John 3:23, NRSV.
(2) John 10:11, NRSV.
(3) 1 John 3:16, NRSV.
(4) The Book of Common Prayer, p. 280, 291, 515, 528, 540.

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter (18 April 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here

Duccio di Buoninsegna, “Appearance While the Apostles are at Table”, (1308-1311), Public Domain

As we journey through these early days of Eastertide, not surprisingly, our attention focuses on the resurrection appearances of Jesus.  After journeying through the season of Lent, after walking intentionally through the final days of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, we linger over these resurrection accounts, savoring the glory of the risen Lord.  We dig in to the post-resurrection experience in such a way that three weeks in and we are still telling the story of that first Easter. 

Today, we hear Luke’s account of the post-resurrection appearance we heard last week from John’s Gospel.  Sadly, however, there is no mention of our patron blessed Thomas.  Once more we hear that Jesus appears among the disciples and says, “Peace be with you.”  Once more we hear of the disciples terror at the sudden appearance of Jesus.  

The disciples do not yet comprehend.  Lost in grief and fear they try to make sense of what they see.  The only logical conclusion or explanation they can come up with is that Jesus must be a ghost.  

The disciples reaction is understandable.  Who amongst us would not be overcome by fear?  The disciples are gathered together, immersed in chaos and confusion.  Fear, frustration, guilt, grief, doubt, anxiety, suspicion, distrust, restlessness, despondency, and terror swirl around them.  Then, in the midst of their escalating alarm, out of nowhere, Jesus appears.  I am pretty sure in the sitcom version of this story, at least one person is so overwhelm that they pass out.  

None of this comes as a surprise to Jesus.  Jesus knows his disciples, he understands human reactions and the inability of humanity to comprehend the divine power of God.  The resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples, offers them peace, and says, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” (1)  Jesus effectively says to his friends, “Relax, take a breath, why are you freaking out?”  

In this moment, Jesus meets the disciples exactly where they are.  Once again Jesus offers them exactly what is needed in that moment.  By inviting them to touch and see his hands and his feet, his wounds and scars; by asking for food, and eating some fish, he encourages them to move beyond where they are in that moment, to where God intends for them to go next. 

There is something wonderful about Jesus revealing the nature of his resurrected self to the disciples by asking for a snack.  If I did not know better, I would think that Jesus is Italian.  

In asking for something so basic, something so essential to life, Jesus shows the disciples what resurrection is all about.  In the resurrection, Jesus is not a ghost as the disciples first thought; nor is he some reanimated corpse.  In case there is any confusion, Jesus is not a zombie.  Neither is Jesus like Lazarus – a corpse brought back to life.  After being called out of the tomb by Jesus, after being raised from the dead, Lazarus lives once more, and he will die again.  

In the resurrection, Jesus’ human body is raised to a new life.  Jesus will never die again.  Jesus has gone through death and come out the other side into that life of eternal glory.  In this new life, Jesus’ mortal body is changed.  So much so that in both John and Luke’s account of this post-resurrection experience, the disciples are not able to recognize their beloved teacher and friend; they are not able to recognize their Messiah.  

The only thing that allows them to see, the only thing that allows them to move from terror to joy, are the wounds of Jesus.  By gazing upon Jesus’ hands and feet, by being invited to touch and see, the disciples are transformed.  

Lingering over the events of that first Easter Day as we do each year invites us to contemplate the most important element of our life of faith: Christ crucified and raised from the dead.  This articulation of Jesus’ identity, the naming of God’s saving work, is the very core of who we are.  While there is an abundance of opportunities to share in this proclamation in our liturgies and prayer, we can never let these words lose even a modicum of power and profundity.

In the resurrection, Jesus does not lose the marks of his suffering and death. His body bears the tokens of his passion for all eternity.  Abiding in the presence of our wounded and risen Lord, proclaiming Christ crucified and raised from the dead, is a reminder to us that it is through suffering and death that we come to resurrected life.  It is only by following the way of Jesus that we arrive at the glorious promise of God; only by knowing that Good Friday and Easter Day are a unified gift of God’s saving grace. 

There is no person who captures better the importance of Christ retaining his wounds, and the implications of those scars for us, then Gregory of Nazianzus.  Gregory was a 4th century Archbishop of Constantinople and theologian of the Early Church.  Gregory is also known as one of the Cappadocian Fathers, for those of you looking to tuck random bits of information away that might help in playing Jeopardy or doing a crossword puzzle.  Gregory’s writings are foundational to our theology today, particularly our theology of the Trinity.  

In one of Gregory’s letters he writes, “For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.” (2)  That which is not assumed is not healed, is not redeemed.  What Gregory is saying, is that all that Jesus endured, all that he bears, those wounds and scars, are necessary for our salvation.  For in Jesus’ wounds, in Jesus’ scars, our wounds and scars are healed.  The pain which we bear is united to the triune Godhead and redeemed.  

It is this promise that allows us to journey forward amidst the chaos and confusion, amidst the pain, suffering, and death, trusting that death is not the end.  This is our hope, this is the very promise of God.  The way of the cross is the way of abundant life – it is the way to new and eternal life.    

Once the disciples come to realize who it is that is standing in their midst, Jesus begins to open their minds to understand in a new way all that Jesus taught them.  They are now in a place where they can understand the Scriptures more fully, they can put together the pieces of prophecy having witnessed them fulfilled.  Having their eyes open, being able to see the new life of God, Jesus commissions them as witnesses.  Locked away in that upper room, seeds are planted, new ministries are instituted, that will come to fruition on Pentecost. 

On that first Easter Day the disciples are set free from their fear, released from the bondage of death, enlighten to the Word of God, and set out to tell the world of all that they have seen and experienced.  They are to share the love of God with the world, offering hope to those they meet, bringing healing to those in need, preaching and teaching along the way.  Their journey as witnesses is captured in what we know as the Acts of the Apostles. 

We get a glimpse of this witness in today’s lesson from Acts as we hear a sermon from Peter.  

Peter and John were going to the temple to pray.  As they were walking they encounter a man who has been lame since birth.  Every day this man would be carried in and laid at the gate of the Temple known as the Beautiful Gate where he would ask for alms. When Peter and John encounter this man, Peter looks at him and says, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” (3)  The man gets up and starts walking, and leaping, and praising God.   

As the formerly lame man is offering his joyous praise, a crowd starts to gather.  They are utterly astonished.  It is at this moment that we enter the story today, at this point, Peter starts preaching. 

Sadly this sermon is one of the texts that has all too often been misappropriated to malign, persecute, and kill millions of Jewish people.  Peter was not being anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic.  In fact all anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic thought is contrary to Scripture.  

In this moment, Peter is not a Christian missionary seeking the conversion of others.  Peter is speaking to his own community.  Peter is offering a reflection to his fellow Jews, using their traditions, using their Scriptures, using what they know and believe to reveal how God is at work in their midst.  Peter is witnessing just as Jesus commanded in that upper room on that first Easter night. 

As we continue our journey through Eastertide we will continue to watch the disciples declare what they have seen to the world.  They will witness to the power of Jesus’ name and lives will be changed.  Just as Jesus did for the disciples on that night, we too will revisit the words of Scripture, trusting that God will open our minds that we might understand – that we might hear the Word of God in ways we have been unable to before. 

But before we get to that witness, before we are sent out to tell the world of what we have seen, we return once more to that upper room.  

Today we take the first step into a new life for this community as we resume in-person worship.  Not including our service at ECC last fall, this is the first time the household of God has gathered at St. Thomas Church to pray together in 13 months.  It has been a long and difficult journey, one in which we have known pain, suffering, and even death.  Things now are not as they once were.  As many far wiser than I have said, we can never go back to what was.  But we can step forward into the new day that is dawning. 

Where we find ourselves now, is not unlike where the disciples found themselves on that Easter night.  That night they discovered joy and the proclamation that new life was possible, nay new life was promised.  They also had no idea what was about to happen.  They were in a transitional moment waiting to discover what their new normal would be.  They entered that time filled with joy, released from their fear, trusting that God would be with them every step of the way.  Trusting that God never asks us to go where God has not gone before.  

We are currently holding together two realities.  On the one hand the pandemic is not over.  Cases are on the rise her in Rhode Island and across the country.  We still need to careful and take all necessary precautions like wearing masks and social distancing, especially in group setting such as this.  Even those of us who are vaccinated still need to take precautions as a way to show love and care for those awaiting their turn.  On the other hand we are also beginning to emerge from pandemic life.  With each week more people are becoming eligible for vaccination.  Slowly things are starting to open up again.  New life is unfolding before our eyes, even if it was momentarily cover by some lovely New England springtime snow. 

We join the disciples in this transitional moment, seeking the hope and healing offered to us as Jesus meets us where we are be that here in the parish hall, at home, or anywhere else.  Jesus comes to us offering peace, opening our hearts and minds to the Word of God, commissioning us to be witnessed to what we have seen.  

No matter where we are in this moment, no matter the emotions we experience this day, may we find our healing, our hope, and our joy as we gaze upon our wounded and risen Lord.  May we be witnesses to the power of God, that others might come to know the wonders we have been privileged to see.

Amen.

(1) Luke 24:38, NRSV.
(2) http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3103a.htm
(3) Acts 3:6, NRSV.

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter (11 April 2021). The Scripture readings can be found here

“The Incredulity of St. Thomas” from The Maestra Altarpiece, Duccio, (1308-13011), Public Domain

The Maesta Altarpiece-The Incredulity of st.Thomas. Duccio.

The doors of the house were locked for they were afraid.  

As we gather on this Second Sunday of Easter, our Gospel passage takes us back to that first Easter.  We return to the evening of that first day of the week.  We return to the fear, uncertainty, and grief of those first post-resurrection hours.  We return to discover the disciples on the cusp of beginning the next phase of their journey.  

We have before us the emotions and experiences of the disciples.  We hear the same Gospel passage this day that we hear every Second Sunday of Easter.  But this year, as was also true last year, these words may connect with us in a different way.  Maybe that Scriptural meditation practice of imagining yourself in the story is easier now than you ever remember it being.  After all, we have spent much of this past year locked away in rooms of our own, wrestling with fear, uncertainty, and grief. 

But the thing is, we are not the disciples of two millennia ago.  Unlike them, we know the end of the story.  We know what they are about to experience.  We know that Easter happened.  We know the truth of the resurrected glory of God. 

While we have the privilege of hindsight, that does not mean everything is perfect or clear to us now.  In many ways the raw emotions of those first disciples are real to us all these years later.  There is a way our present reality allows us to tap into the depths of the Easter story in a way beyond our grasp in pre-pandemic days.  

Last week we heard about the women going to the tomb while it was still dark.  Scripture tells us they were afraid.  They were wracked with grief, going to carry about burial rituals and customs.  There was a heaviness to those early hours of the first day of the week. 

Where we enter the story today, the evening of that first day, the same emotional weight remains.  It is just hours after the women arrived at the tomb.  It was not long ago that Mary Magdalene rushed to tell them the body of Jesus was missing.  It was not long ago that Peter and the other disciple raced to see the empty tomb for themselves.

As night descends where we do find the disciples?  Not out to dinner, not out celebrating.  They are locked in a room for they were afraid.  Thankfully for them, and for us, they do not linger in that place for long. 

Half way into the first sentence of this passage, things being to change.  John tells us, “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” (1) Just as Mary Magdalene saw the risen Lord that morning, now it is the disciples’ turn.  But there is a difference in what allows the disciples to see.  Jesus does not call them by name, as he did for Mary.  Jesus offers them something else to behold.  

Did you notice what led the disciples to rejoice?  It was not the majestic rays of sunlight.  It was not the sound of the trumpet.  It was not Jesus doing his best Beyoncé impression as she struts onto the stage her hair blowing gloriously behind her.  What brought them comfort.  What allowed them to rejoice, was Jesus’ wounds: the marks in his hands and his side. 

We, the Church, are a people who follow a wounded and risen Lord.  We are a people who have the resurrected Jesus to comfort and guide us, who reminds us of the eternal promise of God that we will survive no matter what.  We will survive because death has been destroyed.  We will survive because Christ rose victorious from the dead, shattering the very gates of hell.  We will survive because God has redeemed us as set us free.  Just as the disciples did on that Easter night, we too rejoice. 

This last year has brought significant suffering.  We have known death in this time as millions of people around the world have died as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, in addition to all our beloved who have died for other reasons.  We have watched cases surge, hospitals reach capacity, and have worried about the health and safety of our neighbors, friends, family, and ourselves.  We have experienced loss of employment, economic distress, lack of access to basic human needs.  We have endured the further political polarization of our nation, and have had our eyes opened to the violence of systemic oppression, white supremacy, and racism.  We have lived through this long separation from each other and what we have always known.    

In the midst of this suffering and pain there is hope and comfort in the image of our wounded and risen Lord.  God knows intimately the pain and burden and struggle of this life.  The resurrection does not erase that.  As Jesus bears those sacred scars it is an image of love for those who suffer.  For it is a physical, ever-present reminder that God is in the midst of our suffering.  While there are no easy answers, while there is no snap of the fingers to make it all magically better, there is hope in the persistent and constant love of God even in the darkest moments of life.  I know I take comfort in the image of the wounded and risen Lord because I see my scars in his. 

Jesus comes to the disciples, he comes to us, in these moments of fear and uncertainty and speaks those words of greeting, “Peace be with you.”(2)  As we gather this day let us hear this greeting.  Let us see the marks on Christ’s body, and rejoice knowing that we too have seen the Lord.  We have seen the Lord who breaks down barriers, who comes to us offering hope in the midst of despair. 

To say the least, things, in this moment, are less than ideal for the disciples.  They must be wondering what happens next.    

There is a witness in today’s Gospel passage who shows us the way of discipleship for times such as these.  It is not Peter.  It is not the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loves.  It is none other than our beloved patron, blessed Thomas.  It is wonderful, courageous, Thomas who teaches us what it means to be the Church no matter what situation we find ourselves in. 

You have heard me say this before, and I will say this every chance I get, labeling our patron as “doubting Thomas” is not only an inaccurate portrayal of who he was, it diminishes the profound power of his voice. 

While all the Gospels mention Thomas, it is only John who records his words.  Three times Thomas speaks, and they all lead to this moment. 

First comes Thomas’ declaration in the story of the raising of Lazarus. 

In that story, Jesus receives word that his dear friend Lazarus has died.  Jesus wants to go back to Judea to see Lazarus, but the disciples beg him not to go.  They plead, saying the religious authorities there were just trying to kill you. After Jesus tells them why they must go, it is Thomas who speaks up.  It is Thomas who says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (3)

This declaration from Thomas are words of devotion and dedication. They are words every disciple must claim as their own.  In this moment, Thomas is the one who steps up to say the difficult thing.

Next comes Thomas’ question about the promises of God. 

During the Last Supper, on what we now call Maundy Thursday, after washing his disciples’ feet, after instituting the Eucharist, after giving the disciples a new commandment to love one another, Jesus tries to reassure them – offering them comfort in the promises of God.  On that night Jesus says, “Do not let you hearts be trouble.  Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? . . . and you know the way to the place where I am going.” (4)

I have to imagine, in that moment, all of the disciples were confused. They had to have been wondering what in the world Jesus was talking about.  I wonder if any of them thought, “I have no idea what Jesus is saying, but I do not want to look foolish.  I do not want to admit I lack some knowledge or insight.”  In the midst of the silence, Thomas speaks. 

Thomas is brave and bold and courageous enough to admit that he does not have the answer.  It is Thomas who paves the way for Jesus to utter one of the most, if not the most, profound statements about himself.  Thomas asks, “‘Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know they way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life.’” (5)

Thomas gives us a witness that it is okay to ask questions.  Thomas gives us a witness to speak up and risk being seen as foolish.  It is okay to not have all the answers.  For when we dare to claim the voice inside us, our own questions might just lead to divine revelations.

In a declaration and in a question, Thomas demonstrates the need for disciples to commit themselves fully to the way of God, to be willing to give of their lives for the sake of the Gospel, and the need to always seek after God, desiring to grow in the knowledge and love of God. 

Before we enter that upper room, we are invited to claim Thomas’ words as our own.  We are invited to do what might seem foolish to the world to learn something more about God.  

Finally, we hear Thomas’ profession of longing and desire. 

You can almost hear the emotion, the pain and agony in his words.  Thomas arrives back in that room to encounter his friends, no longer afraid but rejoicing.  Imagine the frenetic energy in that room; the wave of emotions that hit Thomas when he walks through the door.  Imagine what it must have been like to hear your companions say, “We have seen the Lord,” and know you have missed out.  Talk about FOMO! 

It is easy to image that Thomas must have wondered if he missed his one chance to see the glories of the risen Lord. 

But then, a week later, Jesus appears again.  

Thomas does not need to say a word.  God knows Thomas’ deepest longings.  Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds; to know God though the intimacy of touch. 

All Thomas needs is the invitation.  According to the Scriptural record, Thomas never actually touches Jesus.  Upon receiving the invitation Thomas declares, “May Lord and my God!” (6)

I wonder if Thomas had tears in his eyes.  I wonder if his voice shook as he said the five most powerful words he will utter in his life.  I wonder if he felt that self-emptying sigh leave his body only to be filled again by the very Spirit and breath of God. 

As we come to this day we hear Jesus say, “peace be with you.”  As we come to this day we receive the invitation to a more intimate relationship with God.  As we come to this day God meets us just where we are, offering whatever necessary so that we might believe.  

These are our words.  This is our story.  This is how we be the Church in this, and every moment. 

We commit our lives to the way of discipleship, gladly accepting the privilege of being able to sacrifice for the good of the world.  We dare to dwell a place of unknowing.  We persist in asking questions, especially when they might make us look foolish.  We allow our desire and longing to be in relationship with God to overtake every fiber of our being.  We refuse to give in, to stop searching and seeking until we receive the divine invitation.  We boldly profess my Lord and my God.  We set out to embody the witness of our patron. 

Just as was true for the disciples in today’s Gospel passage, we are on the cusp of the next phase of our journey. God willing, and no surge or new plague befalling us, today will be our last Sunday of only having virtual worship.  Next Sunday, April 18, in-person worship will resume.  This step is awash with a plethora of emotions: excitement, grief, wondering, longing, and maybe even a bit of fear and anxiety too.  It is safe to say what we will do next Sunday is less than ideal.  I know it falls short of the expression of worship we crave.  

Just as Jesus appears to the disciples in their less than ideal circumstances, Jesus will be present to us in our time as well. God comes to us, exactly where we are, offering us the exact invitation we need, just like God did for blessed Thomas. 

The wounded and risen Lord comes to us even now, lifting all of our experiences, all of our scars, raising them from the dead in the fullness of resurrection glory.  As we take the next step on our journey, with the eyes of our hearts open, we will have the opportunity to meet Jesus in the rooms we find ourselves in.  We will be able to rejoice with Mary Magdalene, the disciples, and Thomas, for we too will see the Lord. 

Amen. 

(1) John 20:19-20, NRSV.
(2) John 20:19, NRSV.
(3)John 11:16, NRSV.
(4) John 14:1-2,4, NRSV.
(5)John 14:5-6, NRSV.
(6) John 20:28, NRSV.

Sermon for Easter Day (4 April 2021).  The Scripture readings can be found here

 

Easter Day is a day of great expectations.  Filled with preconceived notions and the desires of our imaginations, it is a time unlike any other. 

We wear our Easter best, maybe even something new and special for the first time.  We expect it to be a gloriously, picturesque, sunny morning.  There are the hopes and demands for the perfect Easter portrait.  We expect a packed church, glorious hymns, the fragrance of fresh flowers filling the air – hopefully not sending our allergies into overdrive.  After church we go off for the traditional Easter brunch, or dinner, or egg hunt all with their own set of expectations, pressures, and ideals. 

We put so much pressure on this day, that there are moments when I wonder, do we set ourselves up for disappointment when all does not go perfectly.  Those times when we are so rushed getting ready that we are left feeling frustrated when we do not look as we think we should.  Those times when the weather is cold, or cloudy, or raining, or, because we are in New England, when it snows.  Those times when the pictures are a disaster.  Not to mention all that can go wrong with meals, or the seemingly inevitable tears that come during the egg hunt.  I wonder if you have ever had things go so wrong that you felt that Easter was ruined. 

Then came Easter 2020, the first pandemic Easter; and now this year our second separated from one another.  Once more we are prevented from keeping this day in the fullness we desire.  Stripped of our expectations, the fullness of our rituals and traditions, we are left with the story.  And maybe, just maybe, with the forced centrality of Scripture, we might discover this royal feast of feasts has a power far surpassing anything we have come to expect. 

Easter begins in the dark.

Matthew’s resurrection account tells us, “the first day of the week was dawning.”  Mark tells us that it was “very early.”  Luke’s account begins, “at early dawn.”  And today John tells us, “early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark.” (1)  That first Easter morn was filled with darkness and the hushed glow of the dawning light. 

Easter beings as a funeral procession.  When the women, in this case Mary Magdalene, arrive at the tomb it was to carry out the rituals of burial. No shouts of alleluia were made, no triumphant proclamations of the glories of the resurrection; only sadness, grief, the raw emotions that come as a result of death. Easter begins with the closest of Jesus’ companions wrapped with fear, believing that the Messiah was dead. 

Easter beings with shock.  

Mary Magdalene arrives in the garden, she approaches Jesus’ tomb, and she sees that the massive stone has been rolled away.  Shock, horror, disbelief consume her.  Upon seeing this sight she rushes back.  She runs to where Peter and the disciples are to tell them the terrible news that someone has taken the body of Jesus.  

Peter and the other disciple, the beloved disciple whom Jesus loved, do not believe what Mary has said – they could not believe it.  So they race to the tomb.  This is a perfectly Peter moment, that most impulsive of all disciples, running to the tomb to see for himself what has happened.  We are told that the other disciple, beats Peter to the tomb, but while the other disciple hesitates to go in, bending down to look first, Peter, when he arrives, goes directly into the tomb. 

The details contained in John’s Gospel about this scene are fascinating.  Peter and the other disciple carry out their explorations in silence: they act but the do not speak.  They hear Mary’s words, and they run to see.  They arrive and look around, but say nothing of is found.  It seems that they come to believe that Jesus’ body has indeed been stolen.  John tells us, “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went it, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” (2) After reaching this conclusion, what do these two men do?  They go home.  They remain silent. 

Mary Magdalene is the only disciple who speaks that morning.  She tells the others what has happened.  As the two men return home, John tells us that Mary was outside the tomb weeping.  The visceral emotions overtaking her.  It is Mary who sees, not just the empty tomb, not just the burial cloths lying where the body once was, she sees angles sitting there and she speaks to them.

Then she turns around and sees Jesus, but she does not recognize him.  The tears obscure her view, her certainty as to what has happens blocks her from truly seeing.  Jesus asks her why she is weeping, she begs him who she thinks is a gardener, to tell her where the body of her beloved Lord is.  This supposed worker calls out her name, “Mary!”  Her eyes are opened, she can now see.  “Rabbouni,” she responds.  She recognizes her teacher, her Lord.  

In the light of the new dawn Mary sees, and the passage ends with her back with the other disciples making a second announcement.  It is Mary who makes the first proclamation of Easter when she says, “I have seen the Lord.”

Easter begins with the proclamation of a woman: someone seen by society as not to be believed, someone suspect, someone on the margins. 

Easter begins with shattered expectations, defying what was possible, changing the entire cosmos from what has ever been known before.  

As that first Easter morning unfolds things are not magically resolved. Mary Magdalene’s second announcement is not met with the disciples saying, “Alright, cool. Jesus has been resurrected.  Life is good.”  We hear the response next Sunday, but I will give you a preview, the disciples are locked in a room filled with fear and terror.  They do not yet believe.  They have not yet know.  They have not yet seen. 

Easter begins in the dark, and it does not magically fix everything to be instantaneously idilic.  

The revelation of Easter happens slowly.  We will hear the power of the resurrection as we journey through the great 50 days of Eastertide.  Over the course of these next weeks the power of the resurrection will be unveiled. 

On Friday, Esau McCaulley published an opinion piece in The New York Times titled, “The Unsettling Power of Easter.”  He shared what Easter was like for him as a child.  When describing a particular experience he said: