The Discipline of Service

HelpingA sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2018.  The scripture readings are Jeremiah 31:31-34Psalm 51:1-13Hebrews 5:5-10, and John 12:20-33

[This week’s sermon did not record because of technical difficulties.]

Not long ago I was in a church that had a sign over the door, just as one is leaving the worship space. The sign said simply, “Worship is over, the service begins.” While I might argue that worship is never quite “over,” and that worship and service are linked, I do like that reminder that what we do “in here” leads to what we do “out there.” The prayers, the music, the scriptures, the fellowship—all of it prepares us to be the Body of Christ in the world.

In our Gospel, Jesus puts it clearly: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor,” Jesus promises. There is blessing, but also tells us that it’s going to get rough along the way. He goes on to say, “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” And he explains a simple rule of nature, that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but it if dies, it bears much fruit.”

Jesus is talking about his own sacrifice, the sacrifice for us that makes for our salvation. But he’s also talking about the little sacrifices, the perhaps even-minute sacrifices we can make, we are called to make, on behalf of one another.

There are a lot of different ways for us to serve. Many of you volunteer. You sing in the choir, usher, read, serve on vestry or other committees, help with HTNC, and do all kinds of things in other areas. And that’s just within the church. Others of you serve the community, your buildings, schools, and neighborhoods. Some serve our country.

We use that term, “service” very freely, but I think we sometimes underestimate its power. Just this week I was talking with a parishioner about the great little book, The Celebration of Discipline (first published in 1978). In it, the Quaker author Richard Foster talks about the spiritual disciplines we have either practiced or heard of: such things as give the season of Lent its substance sometimes: disciplines like fasting, prayer, meditation, and confession. But Foster also talks about service as a spiritual discipline.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually think of service in that way. I think of discipline as something to be developed, to be practiced, something that we can get better at, and grow into. But this is exactly the way Foster frames “service,” and then he goes on to name particular kinds of service.

One kind, he calls “hidden service.” It’s the kind of service toward another person in which the other person is the only other one who knows of the service—except for God, that is. If you’re someone who gives what Foster calls “hidden service,” he says that, over time, there will grow within you a quality that others will begin to sense, a quality of a deeper love, a new compassion, almost a slight aura. People will notice that you are different.

Richard Foster tells a great story about this kind of service. He remembers that he was in the final, most hectic week of finishing his doctoral dissertation. The phone rang, and it was a friend who needed a ride in order to run some errand. Foster didn’t want to do it. He couldn’t see how he might possible spare the time. But reluctantly, he agreed (inwardly worrying about the precious time he was losing by helping this friend.) The friend needed a ride to several places, it turned out, and so, while the friend was in the grocery store, Foster waited in the car, pulling out a book that he had brought along.

It turned out that the book he had was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little book, “Life Together.” Foster opened the book to where he had stopped reading before, and he read these words, “The . . . service one should perform for another in a Christian community is active helpfulness. This means, initially, simple assistance in trifling, external matters. There is a multitude of these things wherever people live together. Nobody is too good for the meanest service. [And] One who worries about the loss of time . . . is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly.”  In other words, service in small ways matters.

Foster suggests our trying other forms of service, trying them on as disciplines. Some might sound surprising. He mentions the service of “guarding the reputation of others.” This is what some have called simply “charity.” It’s what Saint Paul is talking about when he says, “speak evil of no one.” It’s what the 9th Commandment means by “not bearing false witness against one’s neighbor.” What a service that would be, if we could hold our tongues more often, if we could truly guard the reputation of others.

Another is the service of being served, of being gracious, of living out thanks. When Jesus began to wash the feet of his disciples, Peter objected. He couldn’t understand it, but Jesus invited them to be served, so that they could pass that gift on to others.

There’s the service of common courtesy. The service of hospitality. The service of listening. And finally, there’s the service illustrated by Philip and Andrew in today’s Gospel: the service of sharing the Word of Life, the love of Christ with others.

Jesus says, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but it if dies, it bears much fruit.” If we offer ourselves to one another in ordinary, mundane, and everyday ways—as well as in the more public ways, much fruit comes of it.

We can talk about service in the context of religion. That word, “religion,” comes from the Latin word, religare, which means “to tie, or to bind” If we are religious at all, we are tied to God, bound to God; but also tied to one another, bound together, connected. “Anyone who serves me, God will honor,” Jesus says. We become connected to God through service. Being a servant of someone means that there is a bond, we are tied to that person in some way. Being a servant of Christ means being tied to him.

As we continue to grow into a religious community, a community in which we share ties that bind in love, I pray that we (all of us) might deepen our own sense of service. Service to Holy Trinity, service to Yorkville, the Upper East Side, the city, and the world; service to one another, and through it all—service to God.

In the words of the prayer sometimes used after Communion, may God grant us “strength and courage to love and serve . . . with gladness and singleness of heart.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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A Tale of Three Temples

Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-27-_-_Expulsion_of_the_Money-changers_from_the_TempleA sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 4, 2018.  The scripture readings are Exodus 20:1-17Psalm 191 Corinthians 1:18-25, and John 2:13-22

Listen to the sermon HERE

Those of you who know a little history about our church know that we are sitting in what is really the third Church of the Holy Trinity.  The first parish was founded in 1864 at 42nd Street and Madison Avenue (where air rights are currently selling for zillions of millions… but never mind). The parish grew and so, a new building was built on the same spot in 1873—a huge building that supposedly could seat 2,300 congregants. Because its tile and brick patterns were so colorful, it was nicknamed “the church of the holy oil cloth” by one critic. Over time, leadership changed, demographics shifted, and the parish declined.  When Holy Trinity asked the Diocese if it could move northward a few blocks, they were told that there were already enough churches in that area—so Holy Trinity would need to look farther north.  In conversations with St. James’ Church, a plan eventually developed whereby Holy Trinity’s property would be sold to help pay the debt of St. James, the two would combine, but a new mission with a church would be established in Yorkville.  Thus, with the gift and vision of Serena Rhinelander, our current building was built (St. Christopher’s Mission House in 1897 and the larger church in 1899.)

I’m reminded of our “three churches” by our Gospel today, in which there appear three churches, or rather—three temples.

The first temple we hear about this morning is the physical temple, the one that was standing in Jerusalem, the centerpiece of religion, culture, what NT Wright has described as the “heartbeat of Jerusalem.” The temple was the place where God and people met. There the veil was thin between heaven and earth. It was the place of pilgrimage and procession, of incense and intrigue, it is in the area of this temple that Jesus enters and causes a disruption. The Gospel of John places this cleansing of the temple early in the Gospel, setting the tone for all that follows. John has the disciples recall Jesus’ prophecy: “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”

This brings us to the second temple in today’s Gospel. Jesus speaks of the temple of his body. He speaks of himself as a temple, because it is in him that God meets humanity, in Jesus that God is known and loved and worshipped, through Jesus that God makes possible sacrifice, intercession, forgiveness and life eternal. Paul extends this image to include us as well when he asks the Corinthians, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are. (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). Jesus is the prototype for this new understanding of temple. His cleansing of the temple, the physical action of overturning the tables of the moneychangers and trying to restore purity and sanctity to the physical temple foreshadows his work on the cross.

Through the cross and resurrection, Jesus restores, purifies and makes holy. And, he is, indeed, raised up on the third day.

There is the temple that is made of stone. There is the temple of the body. But there is a third temple in today’s Gospel. It is the temple of the imagination and perhaps it is just as strong as the one made of stone.

Before the actual temple was built by Solomon, there was a dream and a desire to locate God, to have a place that was special to God, a place set aside and made not only holy, but especially holy. And so after years of waiting and praying, God allowed Solomon to build. Years later when the people of Israel were taken off to Babylonia, they remembered their temple and they wept. They remembered the songs that were sung, the worship, the glory. And this became an enormous inspiration and encouragement. By the time of Jesus, the temple was the center of a well-developed system of power and money and status and commerce.

The temple had become many things for many people. For some it was source of income—certainly the taxes sustained a lot of people. For some, to be associated with the temple meant prestige and protection. For the Romans, the temple pacified the people to a certain extent—it kept them at worship and out of trouble. As long as they couldn’t see beyond the incense, they would be blind to injustice. But to the vast majority of people, those faithful and unfaithful who simply tried to get through life–the temple must have represented a mystery—a place where prayers and sacrifices might be offered. Or perhaps they weren’t offered– you really never knew if the priest offered your sacrifice or not, did you? And who was to say whether God would listen?

This third temple, this temple of the imagination, had grown into much more than a physical place for meeting God—part symbol, part magic– for many it had replaced God. It was in the way of God. It was in-stead of God. Which brings all this talk of temples home to us.

This morning’s Gospel points to many different directions. It could easily serve as a fruitful Gospel for all of the Sundays in Lent. The cleansing of the temple points us to the death and resurrection of Jesus, the events we re-tell in Holy Week. The Gospel, set against the backdrop of the other readings, points us to the complicated relationship between law and grace, between what God expects of us and how we live our lives.

But for me on this day, the Gospel invites me to think about the temples in my life. Are there things that have become for me like temples, things that get in the way of God’s presence? Are there temples of my own making that need to be cleansed or knocked down?—are there thoughts or opinions or ideas that God would overturn this season? Have I inherited temples from others—have I learned from the church in some way particular habits or attitudes that need to be cleansed or thrown out? Or are there things—pretty things, nice things, comfortable things, things I may have worked hard for, things I saved up for and finally bought, making them mine, mine, mine—are there things that God might be trying to overturn in my world this season?

As the people of God in THIS place, let us give thanks for our several temples—or churches—the first two, and the one we’re in today—but let us be mindful of the need to cleanse, renew, tear down, and rise again, as we follow our Lord and Friend Jesus, who died and rose again, showing us the way forward.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Strength in the Wilderness

jesus and the devil iconA sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, February 18, 2018.  The scripture readings are Genesis 9:8-17Psalm 25:1-91 Peter 3:18-22, and Mark 1:9-15

Listen to the sermon HERE.

In today’s Gospel, we see St. Mark’s brevity at work:  Jesus is baptized and then goes into the wilderness.  There he is tempted by Satan, he’s with the “wild beasts,” and he’s helped by angels.  Then he seems to have been strengthened and renewed, so he goes into Galilee, even though he knows John has just been arrested.

In this Gospel, we’re not told what exactly what Jesus is tempted by, though in Matthew and Luke, we’re told that Jesus is tempted by Satan to turn stones into bread, to jump off the height of a pinnacle, and to accept the kingdoms of the world (which seem to be Satan’s to give.)

Every First Sunday in Lent we read one of the Gospel’s version of the temptation of Jesus.  I think the Church wants us to remember and hold on to the fact that Jesus, himself, was tempted, so that whenever we are tempted, we can take some heart that he has been there.  We can pray to Christ to strengthen us, to help us navigate the wild beasts, speak truth to the devil, and receive the help of holy angels.

Whatever the temptations were for Jesus, I think they were probably uniquely suited to him—that’s the way the devil works, by exploiting our weak spots, taking advantage when we’re tired, and exaggerating things when we’re feeling down or challenged.

The Church has sometimes use the language of “virtues” and “sins” as a means of gauging how we’re doing in the spiritual life.  If one could notice one’s behavior, then the devil would have less a chance of slipping in-between, of catching us off guard.

The classic virtues have been thought of as chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.

Their counterparts, the classic seven sins, are pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth.

It’s the last two that I’ve been wrestling with this week, and the devil has almost gotten me.

When we heard on Wednesday that another shooting had happened—again in a school—and this time with at least 17 people dead—the devil jumped in the middle of that story for me.  Sloth entered in—also called “accidie”—it’s a kind of spiritual boredom, a paralysis, a helplessness that forgets about faith. The sin of sloth makes me want to do what most of our politicians do: say a quick, obligatory prayer, and then try my best to forget.  But that doesn’t work, does it?  Gun violence is not going to be solved with one simple answer, as much as I (or you) might want it to be.

That’s where the sin of “wrath” comes in.  When I’m not in a place of sloth, I’m in a place of anger—blaming everyone who voted for politicians who take gun money, writing off whole groups of people as beyond my patience and God’s mercy— that’s wrath, and it’s of the devil, not of God. Ephesians 4 says, “Be angry, but do not sin.”  That’s the faithful place—to be angry, but to place that anger where it belongs and use it to work, pray, advocate, reason, implore, and convince. Wrath (anger out of control and out of bounds) is the sin.

Jesus was “tempted in the wilderness, was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.” It could be that all of those things happened at the same time, which suggests that the times we live in—while we’re tempted to play dirty, divide, attack, and fall into other sins—if we’re open, God may send angels, or his messengers, to help.

Just as God put the rainbow in the sky to promise to Noah and his family that God would always be faithful to the covenant with God’s people—God has promised us the love of Christ and the power and fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

The Season of Lent invites us to practice age-old, time-testing spiritual disciplines in order to return to God’s love, mercy, forgiveness, and even God’s presence.  In God’s presence, we’ll find answers, we’ll find direction, and we’ll find community.

We can feel like we’re in the wilderness and the wild beasts are certainly present.  But leaning into virtues like diligence, fortitude, kindness, and humility, we may just recognize the angels among us and with their help, see more of God’s kingdom among us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


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God’s Beloved

TransfigurationA sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 11, 2018. The scripture readings are 2 Kings 2:1-12Psalm 50:1-62 Corinthians 4:3-6Mark 9:2-9

Listen to the sermon HERE.

I guess there are some people who are fine with arriving at a movie theater just in time for the movie, but I like to get there early.  I like it because I want to see the trailers, the previews of other movies coming out soon.  I like to see what stories are going to be told, how they might make me think or respond, or even how one of the upcoming movies might change me.

This Sunday, this day in which we hear of the Transfiguration of Jesus, is a kind of preview.  The scriptures and prayers provide a kind of trailer for the full feature that will be the Season of Lent and Holy Week.  Today is a preview of coming attractions.

The preview begins with our Old Testament reading, as Elijah passes off the role of chief prophet to Elisha.  Elisha, the sort of prophet-in-training, seems to suspect something is about to happen, and so he’s hesitant to let the older prophet out of his sight.  The older one, Elijah, tries to move on ahead, but Elisha refuses to leave him.  Finally, Elijah makes it clear that it’s time for him to REALLY move ahead, to die to this world and to join God.  Elisha doesn’t like this—he’s not only going to lose his teacher and friend, but this also means that the full weight of the prophetic ministry is going to fall on Elisha.  But he keeps quiet and watches.

After asking Elijah for courage and strength and whatever else Elijah can impart to him (characterized as “a double share of your spirit”), Elijah suggests that if Elisha is able to watch all that is about to happen, if he’s able to take it all in, if he’s about to stand firm, and absorb God’s majesty in front of him, then that double spirit of Elijah will be his.  And that’s just what happens.

This movement of Elijah away from Elisha, the inclusion of the spirit that remains, and all of this within the work of God— this is a preview of just what is going to happen between Jesus and his disciples.  Through the days ahead, we’ll see how Jesus keeps moving in front of his disciples, almost as though he’s trying to get away from them.  But what’s really happening is that Jesus is following the call of God, and sometimes he’s just ahead of his friends.  They have to keep catching up, until the time that Jesus has to go part of the way alone.

If this really were a movie preview in a theater, as we approach the Gospel, the music would grow more suspenseful and probably use all of the latest technology to rumble and thunder to great effect.  Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain.  There on the mountain, light settles on Jesus in such a way that he seems to be especially illumined.  The light is not so much from above, or behind, or from below, but just everywhere.  He’s brighter from within somehow.  And then, along with him appear Elijah and Moses.

Elijah represents the great tradition of the prophets, and his presence anoints Jesus as his successor.  Moses, who received the Ten Commandments from God and helped the people of Israel understand the commandments as blessings, and write their message on their hearts—Moses represents the Law of God.  With Moses, Jesus inherits the full weight of the Law and the Commandments, but does just what Moses was trying to get the children of Israel to do—to write the law in their hearts, not just to quote the law of God, as our Prayer Book says, to “show forth [God’s] praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives.”

This Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain will reverberate through the whole season of Lent for us.  The power of prophecy will go with Jesus as he speaks the truth to the Devil in the wilderness, as he overturns the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, as he cuts through the duplicity of Judas, his betrayer.  The love and power of the law is embodied by Jesus as he lives out the laws of God, dealing fairly with people, caring for the poor, and sacrificing his own personal needs, wants, and desires for the sake of the others, of the community, of the whole world.

At the transfiguration, Peter’s response previews a common response of others in the days that lead up to the crucifixion in Jerusalem.  Why rush things?  Why not do some equivalent of building booths, of sitting down and staying a while.  Why not be content with things as they are?  But Jesus will not be held.

He will not be held by Peter on the mount of Transfiguration.  He’ll not be held by sin in the attempt of the religious leaders to bind him in a mock trial and crucifixion.  Jesus won’t be held by the death of the grave.  Even after the Resurrection, Jesus will not be held down by the needs or expectations of Mary Magdalene, the early believers, or even the church in our day.

Though many aspects of what we will encounter are already encountered in today’s readings, perhaps the most important has to do with words the disciples hear and we overhear in the Gospel.  It happens when a cloud overshadows them.  A voice comes out of the cloud, “This is my son, the Beloved, listen to him.”

Those words are powerful enough, but I almost imagine God adding to that, “no matter what.”  “This is my son, Jesus.  Listen to him, no matter what.”  Whether the disciples heard God say something like this, or whether they picked it up through faith, it seems like the disciples did hear something in God’s message that brought encouragement and strength.  And we’re invited to do the same.

Listen to Jesus, no matter what.  Listen to him on days like the Transfiguration.  When we’re overwhelmed by the presence of God, or by the presence of something larger than ourselves.  We feel the weight of our ancestors upon us, and the people closest to us don’t understand.  Listen to Jesus.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll journey with Jesus through the desert, through the towns, toward Jerusalem, the cross of Good Friday, and the rising of Easter Sunday.  Through it all, we’re encouraged to listen to Jesus.

When in the wilderness, surrounded by temptation and doubt, listen to Jesus who put the devil in his place and moved on in faithfulness to God.

When we’re feeling weighed down by crosses of our day, listen to him who carried his cross and triumphed over it.

When we’re facing dishonesty and corruption, listen to him who called out the moneychangers and overturned their tables.

When it seems like everything around us is about death and decay, listen to him who was raised from the dead and brings new life to us.

Listen to him.  Pray to him.  Follow him.

Today’s readings and prayers do work a little like a preview to a movie, except for a major difference—this movie is not only about Jesus.  It’s about you and me.  It’s about our life.  In the stories, traditions, and sacraments of this coming season, our lives can take on new meaning and purpose as we hear God say to us:  You are my beloved.  Follow, trust, and believe.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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Healed Through Prayer, Touch, and Love

healingA sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 4, 2018. The scripture readings are Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-12, 21c, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, and Mark 1:29-39.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Yesterday was a somewhat obscure date on the church calendar—unless you might happen to be a singer, an actor, or someone else who relies on their voice.  February 3 is the day for commemorating St. Blase, a fourth century bishop and physician in Sebastea, a part of present day Turkey.  As a doctor, Blase was known to have a particular gift of healing when it came to objects stuck in the throat, such as a chicken bone fish bone.  And so, on his day, throats are sometimes blessed, often with a special contraption made of two candles.  An opera singer used to always come to the church I served on St. Blase’s Day, and she affirms that in all her years of singing, she has never missed a performance due to a sore throat!

When we think about healing, we’re moving into complicated territory.  So many things come together when one feels healing—medicine, general condition of the body, the state of the soul, the community, the general condition of one’s surroundings, one’s emotional condition (whether one is worried, or anxious, or free of such burdens).  And then there is God—God stepping into our world in some way, making a miracle, and doing the unexpected, unearned, unmerited, unpredictable thing.

We pray for healing all the time—on Sundays and especially at our Wednesday night Eucharist.  On Wednesdays, we also invite people to come forward and ask for prayers of healing for themselves or for others.  The minister prayers with the person, lays hands on their shoulder or head, and anoints the forehead with holy oil. When we offer such prayers for healing– whether it’s a layperson or someone who is ordained, whether we anoint with oil, or offer the simplest prayers possible– what are doing is BEING the church at its most basic, most fundamental, and most essential.

What we do does not replace a medical doctor.  It doesn’t make up for eating a balanced diet, getting some exercise and generally trying to live a good life.  We do not deal in superstition and we don’t offer magic.  What we offer is sacramental—a blessed combination of prayer and touch and love.  This is what the church of Jesus Christ offers when it offers healing:  it offers prayer, touch and love.

In today’s Gospel, Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is healed by Jesus.  He takes her by the hand, lifts her up and the fever leaves her.  Later that same day, people bring to Jesus those who are sick and those who have demons. The sick and the possessed were not allowed in the synagogue or the temple.   These were people who had run out of options.  They didn’t have anywhere else to turn, and so they turned to Jesus.  And he healed them.  Jesus then continues to heal throughout Galilee, in the towns and in the synagogues.  Praying, touching and loving.

Jesus healed people from sickness and from demons.  But he also healed them from and with their surroundings.  He healed public reaction to those who were feared because they were sick, feared because they were different, feared because society had labeled them “unclean.”  I wonder if we ever need that kind of healing, when we encounter another who is sick?  How do we respond to the sick?  What do we say to someone who is newly diagnosed?  What do we say when someone’s treatments are not going well?

So often, if we’re not careful, unconsciously we can begin to pull back, and to move away ever so slightly.  We might justify our distance by saying that we don’t want to say anything stupid, or we think our friend might just need a little space.

But the way of healing (for Jesus and for us) is to move forward.

Jesus always moves toward people—into their neighborhoods, into their homes, into their lives with prayer, touch and love.

Prayer is the first part, and it may seem like the easy part, but it’s the foundation, and we’ll lose our nerve to go any further if we are grounded in prayer.  When I pray for someone to get better or to be healed, I try really hard to be honest with God.  I know that part about “praying that God’s will would be done above all,” but I’m honest when I pray for someone and I ask God to make the person better, to take away the sickness, to make the person strong again.  One way I pray for another’s healing is simply to picture the person in the fullness of health—vibrant, happy, at ease.  That image of the person becomes my prayer as I hold that image in my mind for a minute or two and then imagine the person being that healthy and happy person in the presence of God.

We offer prayer as a part of healing, but we also offer touch.  The touch part of healing has to do with proximity.  Mindful that we live in a complicated age, I’m not for a moment suggesting that we smother one another in hugs and holds.  Touch can be as exclusive as it can be inclusive.  But there are many, many ways of showing physical presence while allowing for personal space.  Closeness has as much to do with an open posture, with eye contact, with fewer words and with more deeply hearing ears.

We pray, we touch, and with the two, if we’re about healing, then we offer love.  Love can be accepting and warm and soothing.  And sometimes it just needs to be present in calm, quiet ways.  But sometimes love is louder and tougher and more direct.  Soft love for an addict is called enabling.   Love always, always, always has to do with the truth.

But healing almost always leaves us with questions.  A few years ago, there was a wonderful movie called “Leap of Faith” that beautifully presents some of the questions around healing.  It starred Steve Martin as a traveling faith healer named Jonas Nightingale.  Jonas and his crew roll from town to town, almost like a travelling circus. With cameras that watch the crowd, with recording devices and old tricks, they manufacture and manipulate situations that appear to be acts of spontaneous healing, and then they count the money while it rolls in.  For the most part, the act gives people a good show.  Jonas and his crew are careful to keep the real sick people at the back of the room, so that only the ones they’ve planted will appear to be healed and things won’t get messy.

The act goes well enough until the group is traveling between towns and gets stuck in Rustwater, Kansas.  The town is aptly named because it’s undergoing a draught.  Crops are failing. People are on hard times.  And so the people are eager for miracles and attend the revival offered by Jonas.

But then, just as the faith-healer’s assistant is beginning to question her own involvement in the operation, a teenager who was hurt in a car accident and can’t walk without crutches and braces comes forward in the revival and asks to be healed.  Jonas ignores him and ends the show.  But the crowd is chanting, “one more, one more.”  Reluctantly, and fearfully, Jonas goes back out and tries his theatrical best to invoke some kind of power around the teenager named Boyd.  Boyd struggles to make his way toward a crucifix that is hanging, and as the movie music builds and the congregation gasps and Jonas himself isn’t sure what will happen next, Boyd’s one crutch falls away and he’s still standing.  Eventually, the other falls away and he’s able to walk a bit.  Jonas doesn’t know what to do with this.  His character doesn’t immediately believe, but he knows that his own bluff has been called.  Later, as he gets a ride out of town, a thunderstorm hits, with rain falling and blessing and answering the prayers of all the faithful.

While the story is fictitious and is embellished with all that Hollywood can throw in, it raises some good questions.  How are healing and prayer connected?  Does one’s moral character affect healing in any way?  Does the faith of the individual matter as much as the faith of the community?

These are questions we live out as we continue to pray, to touch and accept holy touch, to love and to be loved.  Jesus cast out demons and healed people with prayer and touch and love.

With the help of St. Blase and all the saints, may we be healed through Jesus the Great Physician, and may we offer this healing to the world.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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Faithful Choices: The Rector’s Annual Report

Easter 2017 procession

The following was the Rector’s Annual Report for 2017, given in the context of the sermon on the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 28, 2018.  The scripture readings are Deuteronomy 18:15-20Psalm 1111 Corinthians 8:1-13, and Mark 1:21-28

Listen to the Rector’s report HERE.

This is the day of our annual parish meeting and we like to understand our one worship service as being the first part of that parish meeting.  Accordingly, it’s my practice to offer my Annual Report for the previous year at this point, as the sermon, and try to draw some connections between the scripture readings we have just heard and reflections on another year in faith and mission at Holy Trinity.

The first reading today is about choosing God above all others.  God says, “A prophet is coming. Listen to him.” God knows there will be all kinds of people claiming to speak on behalf of God, and so God encourages the faithful to listen closely, watch, and pay attention. In our current political and social climate, we’ve learned to watch and pray differently and more carefully, and we’ve done this together.

The second reading, The Letter to the Corinthians, can sound a little strange to us at first—about offering food to false idols and such—but in some ways, Paul is talking about the problems that occur when anything becomes an idol, a rival for God. He’s cautioning about anything or person that gets in the way of God.  Paul says, “Be careful what you choose to put your energy in, your time in, and your faith in.”  In addition, he says, “Make your own choices with faith, but don’t expect everyone else to make the same choices you do,” and in fact, be respectful of the differences.

In the Gospel, the people around Capernaum are faced with choices of their own.  They witness Jesus teaching with authority, teaching and preaching and living with a kind of integrity they’re not used to seeing.  Someone with a false spirit, an unclean spirit, confronts Jesus.  This unclean, unhinged person sees Jesus clearly as being from God, and Jesus heals him of whatever is causing him to act so strangely.  People see this and while they’re amazed, they aren’t sure exactly what it means for them (or for their world) to believe in Jesus, to accept the things he’s saying and doing, and to try to live the life of love he keeps talking about.

As I’ve reflected on the previous year, I’m struck by how much our year has been marked by the choices we have made.  Hindsight can make us second guess choices (i.e., with questions such as “Should we have tried that particular program?  Should we have done more in this area or that? Should we have spent money on those things?).  But that is the nature of choices.

A big choice for us is that we’ve chosen to be together in community.  As a means of keeping our community together and letting others know about us, we’ve continued our weekly newsletter, News from 316, which becomes much of the insert for the Sunday worship leaflet.  Thanks to Alexandra Harrington Barker, we were able to transition to a new format for emailing the newsletter which means that when people sign up for it, they receive it.  And it also means that we can include photographs and links to other web sites and sources of information.

Also, in an effort to help others see our community and what binds us together, we’ve finally moved to a new website, again with great help from Alexandra.  The new site works well on mobile devices, so when someone walks by the church and looks us up on their smartphone, the richness of our community can be seen in a matter of seconds. The new website also tries to use direct and clear language about our church, so that newcomers and inquirers might find answers and be attracted to us.

In thinking about how to present ourselves to the neighborhood, the city, and the world, we’ve made specific choices, and these inform the way we articulate our mission.  We try to show photographs that involve people, and especially the diversity of people one encounters at Holy Trinity.  And we’ve tried to present our approach to faith as one in which we are all struggling and learning, growing and searching—no one of us has all the answers, and so we try to invite others to our parish with excitement and pride, but also with humility.

With Pat Voehl’s help and the help of others, we’ve begun to spruce up our signs and printed materials and will continue to do all we can to invite and inform. We’ll continue to try to be creative in getting the word out (and getting more people in.)

In the scriptures today, there’s a common theme of people being invited to choose between God and other gods, between reality and pretense.  We’ve done a lot of work in 2017 to confront our own realities and address problems that have not been addressed so directly in the past.  Later, at the Annual Meeting, you’ll hear more about our efforts to get our financial house in order—but this is hard and slow work.  We began by working with Maria Wainwright, a bookkeeping specialist who has worked with a number of churches in the past and is consulting with our diocese.  Maria got a lot of things in shape and brought us to a point of health where we could look for a new part-time bookkeeper to maintain the flow of information.  We gained some momentum with a new bookkeeper, but at end of the year, found a need to make another change and go with the resources of a bookkeeping firm, MBS Accounting Services.  With the new firm, we’ll pay more per hour, but will require less hours, because of their professionalism and the new level of order in our systems.

Last year, I pointed out in this address that The Church of the Holy Trinity had not had a full financial audit since 2010.  Gus Christensen got us started with an auditing firm, and our new treasurer, Christine du Toit, has helped get to the point where we now have completed audits for 2015, 2016 and the auditors are already working on our 2017 numbers.  This is HUGE, but it also brings up some mistakes in reporting that have led to inaccurate estimates around our Diocesan Apportionment expectation.  We plan to approach the Adjustment Board of the Diocese in 2018 and be able to pay our fair share, but also to pay the appropriate percentage—around 15% of our Normal Operating Income.

In confronting reality, again, this year, we have spent money, time, and energy on St. Christopher’s Mission House.  We have made progress in areas of building violations, with new elevator inspections, new emergency lighting, and other requirements, but there is much more to do.  We filed with the Department of Buildings for Certificates of Public Assembly (something the Fire Department cites us for not having), but the DOB wants more work and is requiring a Certificate of Occupancy, first.  We continue to talk with others, ask our government leaders and politicians for help, and will do what we can, moving forward.

Thanks to some volunteers and our sextons, we had two clean-up days this summer in which we emptied the third-floor gymnasium. The first container was 5 tons of garbage and the second container was between 5 and 6 tons.  But this simply cleans the room out.  It doesn’t bring it up to code, fix the plumbing, repair the leaky and crumbling plaster, or get it ready for use—by us or by someone else.  But this is another huge area of potential mission—one in which we will need to have income (at least enough to keep the building open) but want the use to be in keeping with our parish mission.  In 2017, we had informal discussions with a number of potential consultants and friends, and in 2018, we will do more to determine how we can best partner with existing tenants and others in order to use St. Christopher’s House more to its intended purposes of mission and to the glory of God.

If you’ve followed our newsletters, you’ll know that some of my time and energy this year, along with much help from Franny Eberhart and others, has been spent in meetings with our new next door neighbor, with attorneys, and with the various boards and committees in the city.  The Rhinelander Building at 350 East 88th Street, has been purchased by Mr. Arun Alagappan and his company Advantage Testing, Inc.

Because the Rhinelander Building is zoned for non-profit use, Advantage Testing has asked The Church of the Holy Trinity’s cooperation in obtaining a special permit that will allow Advantage’s for-profit tutoring business and foundation to operate next door. Advantage has applied for the special permit under Section 74-711 of the NYC Zoning Resolution, which allows the Rectory’s lot to be merged with the lot at 350 East 88th Street for zoning purposes only. Because our church buildings (316 East 88th) and rectory (332 East 88th) are zoned as separate lots, the rectory is the only building that can benefit from this opportunity for preservation work. The project has gained the approval of the Landmarks Preservation Committee of Community Board 8, the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, the NYC City Planning Commission, the Manhattan Borough President’s Office, and unanimous approval by the NY City Planning Commission.  Our City Council Member Ben Kallos has called the matter before a subcommittee of the City Council, and we met with Council Member Kallos last week to talk about some of the details.  Things continue to look encouraging, and there will be additional meetings in the next few weeks that should decide the matter.

Today’s scriptures talk about choosing God above all else, and just as I have to do this with the way I spend the time in each day, as a parish, we choose to take time out of worrying about buildings, and budgets, and the work of the world, in order to spend time on the work of God, the “opus Dei.”

Worship is at the heart of what we do and who we are at Holy Trinity.  Monday through Thursday of each week, we have continued to offer Morning Prayer and have built a small and faithful community.  The same goes for Evening Prayer on Wednesdays, followed by a Eucharist with particular prayers for healing.  Last Lent, we had fifteen parishioners attend a retreat at Holy Cross Monastery up the Hudson River, and we’ll be offering a retreat at Holy Cross again in March. Summer Adult Christian Formation, as well as Sunday morning formation have been well-attended.

I’m enormously blessed to work with Cleveland Kersh and Calvyn du Toit, our choir, volunteers and volunteer musicians.  Our music program at 11 and 6 is one of the joys of my work and life here, and still is one of the best-kept secrets in New York.  Our worship is made possible by several small teams of people—ushers, altar guild members, lectors, and acolytes.  Enormous thanks goes to the heads of each of those groups and all the people who share their time with us.  This year, we’ve had the added blessing of a volunteer deacon, the Rev. Geoffrey Smith.  On most of the Sundays that Geof is here, he stands at the sidewalk and greets people before services.  A handful of visitors have come into church and worshipped with us because Geof first greeting them on the walk.

Choices… they’re in today’s scriptures and they’re in our lives.  If I had a million dollars added to the church budget, I’d hire at least three people.  One would be a building manager, so I could worry less about permits and violations and repairs and more about the care of souls.  Second, would be a person to work with young adults. (Notice every Sunday we have a number of young visitors. Some come regularly, but some visit and don’t return.  Wouldn’t it be great to have someone to notice them, be in touch, and begin to develop community around these young adults?)  And the third person I would hire would work with children’s and family ministry.  Currently, we have neither parents who have time and energy for this ministry, nor adults who might not have children of their own who have the drive and the energy to make create programs, generate excitement, and sustain community among those interested.

If I had a second million, I’d repair plaster, preserve the organ, get the bells in the bell tower working, and have the church open 9 to 5 weekdays.  With a third million, we’d do a proper ramp, a handicap-accessible bathroom, greener lighting.

You can see I have hopes and a vision for what we can do.  We can’t do it yet. But I’m praying for all these things—for volunteers, for newcomers whose own vision might match some of what I’ve just talked about, and I pray for God’s Spirit to move as she wills.

The question of whether to choose GOD in Christ above all other gods is a real one for each of us.  It asks us to put God first in our time, with our money, with our energy, with our loves.  We need every person to be invested in some aspect of our ministry.  Do you feel called to help Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center?  Great, we’ll sign you up.  Would you be up for helping around the altar as an acolyte, or reader, or intercessor, or altar guild person?  Great!  We’ll sign you up.  Can you help lead prayers on weekdays, can you pray for others on Sunday mornings, can you lead a book discussion, or teach a class, or invite someone from your building, or your family, or your work?  Great!  We need all the help we can get.

In the financial part of our Annual Meeting, you’ll hear about a financial deficit in our budget.  This is not the end of the world, but it’s also not sustainable for the long run.  We need a few more members to help grow ministries and multiply what we do.  We need a few more dollars to get things safe and attractive around here, not to mention accessible.  And we need creative partnerships with our neighbors, tenants, organizations, and civic bodies.  We have so much love and so much faith in this place—the rest will come in God’s own good time.

It has been my great honor and privilege to be your rector in 2017.  There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t meet the Risen Christ in this place, in you, and like those who met Jesus in Capernaum, I’m amazed and ask myself, “What is this, this new way God is moving among us?!”

May God bless us to make faithful choices in 2018, that we might have the faith of Paul with the Corinthians, that “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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Decisions of Faith

Agnes martyr

Agnes of Rome, Martyred in 304 AD

A sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 21, 2018.  The scripture readings are Jonah 3:1-5, 10Psalm 62:6-141 Corinthians 7:29-31, and Mark 1:14-20

Listen to the sermon HERE

It seems like much of December and January, I’ve been in conversations with people making some big decisions—about colleges to apply to, about jobs to leave or begin, about relationships, about changing the focus of one’s energy or the programs one’s group offers.  It’s been interesting to walk along side people and notice the different ways people decide.

Some make decisions quickly.  Bringing God into it, they feel like God has given them what they need, equipped them with a good mind/heart/soul and so they decide and go forward.

Today’s scriptures offer us a number of situations in which people approach what could be called “decision time.” By listening in on their decisions, perhaps we can learn how to deepen our own deciding.

In the reading from the Book of Jonah, it is definitely “decision time” for the people of Ninevah. It has already been decision time for Jonah, the reluctant prophet.  If you know the story, you know that God calls Jonah, and Jonah runs away.  He runs in the completely opposite direction of Ninevah, he jumps on a ship, a great storm comes up and the crew on the ship figures out that God must be angry at someone—and they guess that it’s Jonah. They throw Jonah into the sea, the great fish swallows Jonah, he is eventually thrown up on the ground, and he finally decides to do what God is asking, and prophesy to the Ninevites.  But he still doesn’t really want to.

He doesn’t really want to do what God is asking of him. He knows how a prophet is received.  He knows what it is like to be the bearer of bad news, but eventually, he realizes that there’s no getting away from God.  And so he prophesies to the people of Ninevah.

He tells them that it is decision time for them. This is their stop.  They need to get off the train, to sort out their lives and live decently, with justice and goodness, and mercy toward one another.  This is the time, or else….   And the Ninevites listen.  They understand and they realize that this is, indeed decision time.  They decide. They choose a new way.  They choose to repent, to turn, to change, and to move toward God.

The people of Ninevah repent, put on sackcloth and put ashes on their heads—historic forms of mourning.  They beg God’s forgiveness.  And God forgives them.  The people of Ninevah understood that at the rate they were going, God might stop their clock any day.  They understood the idea of decision time.

The story of Jonah is a great poem about repentance, about following God, and about knowing when it is time to make a decision (and deciding well.)  We relate to Jonah because we sometimes are like Jonah.  Carl Sandberg once wrote, “If I should pass the tomb of Jonah I would stop there and sit for a while; Because I was swallowed one time deep in the dark.  And came out alive after all.”  (Sandberg, “Losers”).  But Jonah and the people of Ninevah are not the only ones to make big decisions in today’s scriptures.

When Jesus calls the disciples, it is Decision Time in a big way.  They leave families.  They leave communities.  They leave possessions.  They leave their jobs and livelihoods.  They leave their expectations of God.  They’re called to travel lightly so that they can respond quickly whenever there is a need.

When Jesus calls us, it’s also Decision Time.  Sometimes, we’re like those in Ninevah and we’re asked to turn away from our normal way and face God, we’re called to repent. God might call us to talk to someone and say, “I’m sorry, I may have been wrong.”

Or the decision for us may less be about repentance and more about action. God might call me to write a note, or write a check, or pick up the phone and call some one. We might be called to give up a few hours and volunteer.  God might call us to prepare a meal and take it to someone.  God might call us to explore a new spiritual discipline, like praying more, or fasting, or meditating, or reading scripture.

I don’t know exactly how God is calling each one of you. (Though for several of you, I have some ideas.) What I know for sure, is that God calls.  God calls each one of us, and it becomes decision time.  The faithful response is like that of the first words from Jonah, “get up, and go!”

In that today is January 21, and it occurs during a weekend of marches by women and on behalf of women’s’ rights, I would be remiss if I did not mention a saint who is remembered on this day.  Agnes of Rome was a young woman of 12 or 13 years, who was martyrs for being a Christian in the year 304.  But her Christianity was only part of the story.  It seems that Agnes was beautiful, and men wanted their way with her. Some wanted to marry her, but she refused all of them.  She had the temerity to DECIDE for herself and to make that decision known.  Some of the men reported her as a Christian, and she was abused, persecuted, and killed.  It is important to remember that in many places of the world today, girls of 12 or 13 still have no voice.  In some places, women of any age lack a voice in civic affairs, religious affairs, or even family affairs.  As we think about the decisions we make and the decisions we are permitted to make, let us never forget those whose power is restricted, especially the girls and women whose voices need to be heard.

Each day, each moment, there are opportunities for us to respond to others out of faith. May God give us the gift of the Holy Spirit, that when Decision Time comes upon us, we will have the faith to do what is right, and to follow wherever Christ leads.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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Being Ready for God

roadA sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 14, 2018.  The scripture readings are 1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20)Psalm 139:1-5, 12-171 Corinthians 6:12-20, and John 1:43-51.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

We are in the season of Sundays after the Epiphany.  The Epiphany refers to the visit of the magi to meet Jesus and the meaning behind that visit:  that in the birth of Christ, God comes into the world for all people—of every nation and kind, every state or status—everyone.  During this season after the Epiphany, the scripture readings help us explore the extent of God’s birth, God’s revelation, God’s showing forth.

Today’s scriptures get us started in the season by asking us if we would recognize God, should God visit us.  Would we notice? Would we pay attention?  Or, would we be distracted or blinded by our expectations, and miss God’s arrival?

In our first reading, the boy Samuel is sleeping in the hallway of the temple. He’s an apprentice there, so he must have been familiar with the sounds of the place at night.  And so when he hears a voice, he assumes it’s the voice of Eli, the old priest whose service he is in.  Samuel is probably 11 or 12 years old and, as an apprentice at the temple knows about God, even if scripture says “he did not yet know the Lord.”  He must have known all the great stories of the faith, something of the prophets and priests and characters.  But he did not yet know God well enough to recognize God’s voice when he heard it.  Or, even at a young age, Samuel might not have seen or heard God coming.  Samuel might have expected God to come from a different direction, with a different voice, in some different guise.  He would have had certain impressions and ideas about who God might be, and how God might work—he doesn’t seem to have been ready for God to rouse people out of bed in the middle of the night. Samuel’s expectations, at first, don’t allow him to hear God.  But old Eli helps Samuel to realize God in the vision.  He helps Samuel realize God in the nighttime, in a vision, in prayer, and in the silence.

Before we look at our second reading, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, I think we need first to admit that Paul, himself, had problems recognizing God.  Before his vision of Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul persecuted Christians.  He did his best to wipe them out.  Even after his conversion, even within his preaching and writing, Paul struggles with inner and outer demons that do their best to obscure his vision, to cloud his understanding and limit his perception of all God would do.  Paul understands God through reason and rhetoric.  And like a lot of us, his own thinking sometimes gets him into trouble.  But Paul is wired that way.  He has to think things out and talk them out.  Paul embodies those words of Walt Whitman:  “Do I contradict myself?  Very well then, I contradict myself.”  (Song of Myself)  Paul is large.  Paul contains multitudes.

And so, Paul is probably the perfect person to preach to the church in Corinth—a worldly, sophisticated congregation.  The Corinthians liked to enjoy life, and didn’t always know where to draw the line, and so they were constantly getting distracted by things that would take the place of God for them.  But Paul encourages them to look no further than their own two feet. Start with your own body, Paul says.   Give thanks for the body—even as it ages, get creaky and worn, stops working correctly and often misbehaves.  He says, Stop looking elsewhere for joy or gratification or affirmation—give thanks for the miracle that is each one of us.  God has raised and blessed and hallowed the Body.  Therefore respect it, give thanks for it, take care of it. Look at your hand in front of your eyes and realize God even in the body.

In our Gospel, it’s Nathanael who almost misses God because he’s expecting God to come from a different direction—to look and sound different from this country boy, Jesus.  But here, right in front of him, is the One.  Christ doesn’t come from Rome, or any of the other great cities.  He hasn’t traveled the world.  He doesn’t come from some far away, exotic, rich and wonderful place.  Instead he’s from Nazareth.

If you go to Nazareth today, it’s not a whole lot different from when Jesus was there, except there’s probably a lot more plastic. We can almost feel and join in Nathanael’s disappointment.
But Jesus senses this.  Slowly, in that Christly charming way he has, Jesus begins to talk to him. Jesus talks through him, almost.  Jesus lets himself be known by Nathanael.  And Nathanael sees something in Jesus, and wants to follow.  “Rabbi!” is his simple statement of faith and trust.  “You are the Son of the God, the King of Israel.”  To which Jesus simply smiles and says, “you haven’t seen anything yet.”


The scriptures ask us today, “Do we see God when God comes?  Do we notice?
Or are we busy preparing in the wrong place.  Is it like when we’re expecting a delivery at church, and so we’ve unlocked doors, moved things around, turned on lights, and are ready— only to realize that the person making the delivery is standing patiently on the other side of the building, in a place that is better for them to enter?   Do we ever do this kind of thing spiritually?

God might meet us in church or in a vision or in silent prayer, like it was for Samuel.  Or God might occur to us in our thinking and or in our conversation, like with Paul.  God might even come through a friend who point us in the way, who says “Come and see,” and so we go and see, and we meet the Risen Christ.

But God also might come in a hospital waiting room, in a fast food restaurant, in a board meeting or an AA meeting, in a family gathering or on a first date.  God enters our world not so much when and where we think we’re most ready.  But rather, God comes where God wills.  “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.”

This weekend offers a number of opportunities to remember the work and words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He had his own version of “come and see,” as he brought people together to work for Civil Rights.  God came to him in through suffering and heartache, through human frailty and his own human nature, but God eventually came in a dream that could be named and offered to others—the dream that

“ . . . little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” A dream that, with Isaiah, “one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” [“I have a dream,” delivered August 28, 1963]

And so, in concrete, particular, everyday ways, God has come and keeps coming as we live into the dream for civil rights, for human rights, and for all of God’s dreams to be realized.
The Good News of our scriptures today and the Good News of the faith that is in us is that God comes.  God visits.  God surprises.  God startles.  God sweeps us off our feet.  God picks us up and draws us close.  God comes—not always when we’re most prepared, but God comes always when we are most in need.

Thanks be to God for the power of his visitation, the power to knock down doors and fill our lives with love and with hope.  May we realize God’s presence and share God’s power.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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Baptized for New Life

divingA sermon for January 7, 2018: The First Sunday after the Epiphany, also known as The Baptism of the Lord.  The scriptures are Genesis 1:1-5Psalm 29Acts 19:1-7, and Mark 1:4-11

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Earlier this week, I saw a flyer advertising swimming lessons for infants and toddlers, from four months and up.  It reminded me of years ago when I used to go to the McBurney YMCA and from the space where the exercise equipment was kept, one could watch the babies learning to swim in the swimming pool.

They could have charged admission and it would have been a hit, the babies were so funny to watch.  Watching those tiny little kids, who really looked like jerky little tadpoles, always made me laugh.  As painful or scary as it might have been for the child, for the onlooker, it was a joyful thing.  The whole scene was filled with hope and promise, with tenacity and persistence.  It really was a great drama, there in the shallow end of the pool.  And whenever I watched them, I was reminded of baptism.

The water, the tears, the babies, the parents trying to be helpful but coming to terms with the limits to their care and protection—all of that being played out over and around water.

And today, as I think about baptism—the baptism of Jesus and the baptism of us all—I think of some similarities between those swimming classes for babies and the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.

Often on days such as these, the church encourages us to “remember your baptism.”  But what, exactly does that mean?  Especially for those who were baptized when they were infants, what does it mean “to remember”?  Well, I think it’s a little like those swimming classes.

Few, if any, of those children will remember the actual class in which they learned to swim.  But the fact will remain:  they learned to swim.  They can swim.  Come high water, they will know what to do.

It’s a similar thing with a Christian.  The memory may have faded.  The details may be fuzzy.  But the fact of baptism remains.  We were taught to swim, spiritually, and nothing can change that, come hell or high water.

There is another similarity.  The babies at the Y did not decide to learn to swim.  Their parents did not encourage them to grow up, read and research whether one might best navigate water with paddle or motor or the physical means of swimming.  Instead, parents made the decision that this would be good for the child.  Later, as the child grew, she might learn other strokes, other styles, and develop her own unique way of swimming.  But she had been given the basics, given a great gift that would serve her well in the future.

Baptism is not a magic spell cast over a newborn to protect him from an evil eye.  Instead, baptism is a beginning.  It’s a free gift.  It is a sacrament.

The Catechism in the back of our Prayer Books reminds us that a sacrament is an “outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.”  Going further, the Catechism says: “Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.”

Notice who’s doing the action here.  Not the child or person being baptized.  Not the parent or the grandparent, the aunt or the uncle.  But God.  Baptism is God’s initiative, God’s decision, and God’s action.  It’s the sacrament by which GOD adopts us as children and GOD makes us members of Christ’s Body.

At Christmas we celebrated the birth of a baby, the child of God who is God-in-the-flesh, Emmanuel, God-among-us and God with-us.  On Epiphany we proclaimed that this God of life is not only God-for-us, but God-for-all.  And today, we remember how Jesus was baptized by John, not so much because Jesus needed to be made holy through baptism, but because, through baptism, Jesus is able to make us holy.  He makes us holy through water, water that is animated by the Holy Spirit.

In baptism we are changed.  We are challenged.  And we are compelled.
Baptism changes us.  From dry to wet, we are moved forward, leaving an old life behind.  This is a symbol that we can return to as long as we live. At his baptism, God says, “You are my child, my Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”  God says the same thing to each one of us at our baptism.  It’s our inauguration, our commissioning, our call to action on behalf of Christ.

We are also challenged in baptism.  The cold of the water, the strangeness of it.  People looking on, the odd priest scooping us out of our parents’ arms—all of it is a challenge.  But just as a stone that’s thrown into water disturbs the water and makes a ripple effect, the effect of our baptism will continue to disturb our lives and the lives of those around us as it ripples through time.  If others get close to us, they’ll get wet, as well.  Our baptism will naturally spill over. Being baptized challenges us in the way we make decisions, in the way we spend money, in the way we treat other people.

And finally, our baptism compels us to share the gift.  Offer water to others.  Teach another to swim.  We offer baptismal hope when we bring someone to church, when we volunteer in the spirit of Christ, when we extend a hand, or when we share a kind word with someone who needs it.  We do this physically through ministries and mission, but we also do it spiritually, as simply as when we help others hear that there is a source of water, there is a God of love, and there is a God who will never let us sink.

Tilden Edwards is an Episcopal priest who helped found the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation often speaks of “leaning back” into the presence of God. If you ever saw Tilden in a room, you can see him almost doing this physically, as he actually does sort of lean back, or settle in as a part of his prayer, as a part of being open to God, as a part of “remembering his baptism.”  It’s a little like resting in the water, trusting the water to buoy us and hold us. Trusting our baptism that we have learned how to stay afloat and that there is a multitude of saints standing guard around us and ready to extend a hand, should we need it.

On this day we give thank for the baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, for his becoming like us that we might become more like him. And we give thanks for our own baptism, especially as the memory of our baptism continues to claim us, to challenge us, and to compel us outwards.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Outside In

Creche 2016A sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas Day, December 31, 2017.  The scripture readings are Isaiah 61:10-62:3Psalm 147 or 147:13-21Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7, and John 1:1-18.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

It’s good to be indoors today.  Whether the heat is working or not (and thank goodness, it’s working today), with temperatures in the teens, we duck inside at every opportunity.

With Christmas itself, I’ve been thinking about what’s inside and what’s outside.  If you think about it, we do a strange thing to our houses, apartments and churches at this time of the year. We bring inside things that usually belong outside: trees and wreaths, pine cones and branches.

In addition to the greens, our crèche, our nativity scene, brings in even more of the outdoors. We have a camel and a few sheep. There is of course an ox and a donkey. The shepherds are there, and the wise men have made a slightly early arrival (if we insist they arrived on the Epiphany, January 6.)

Bringing things from the outside in is really at the heart of Christmas, because that’s exactly what God has been doing since the beginning of time.

Remember Adam and Eve began as the ultimate insiders. They were inside the garden of Eden, paradise, a magical place and state of being. But their curiosity got the best of them and before they knew it, they had stepped outside the garden. It’s as though they lost their way, they forgot who they were, they forgot where they lived. And so, God began a plan to bring them, and us their children, back inside. This movement of outside-in would take place through the directional sense of the second Eve’s “yes.” It would take place through the cry of the second Adam—first as a baby, then as a man, and finally as God-returning-to-God, as God-in-Trinity.

In the early days of Advent we heard the words of the Prophet Isaiah assuring people that their outdoor days were numbered. One day they would be welcomed back in, back into Jerusalem. In today’s reading, Isaiah celebrates not only the return, but even the herald who brings good news of return. God has returned to Jerusalem and now his people are returning, too. The Lord has brought comfort, the Lord has brought redemption, he has brought healing. The Lord God has brought his beloved people home.

In John’s Gospel the homecoming is bathed in light. Even when Adam and Eve first stepped into darkness, the light was there (John tells us), already shining, but they couldn’t quite make it out yet. The light has been growing. The darkness has never overcome it, not in the suburbs of Eden, not in the slavery of Egypt, not in the desert, not in a succession of faithless kings and clueless priests. The darkness has not overcome the light, even though the prophets were silent for a time, even though Jerusalem killed its prophets and stoned those who were sent. Even though sin, even though the cross, even though unimaginable separation and death, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome.”

In order to bring the outside in, God himself went outside. Jesus was born outside the conventions of an ordinary family. He was born outside the warmth of home or security or extended family. Soon after his birth, Mary and Joseph took him out even further. Before long, King Herod would begin his effort to kill the outsider, to try to keep out the light, to try to keep out the life of God in the world. In Jesus, God brought the outside in.

He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.

Jesus knew what it was to be an outsider. His own family seems to have had trouble from time to time understanding him. The disciples didn’t always catch on. The religious authorities found him threatening and were in the middle of the scheme to have him killed. Jesus even died outside the city limits of Jerusalem. But he rose again, he stepped out of death and back into life and in so doing, folded creation in upon itself, outside in. The normal course of things is reversed, barriers are broken and walls knocked down. God has come to us and so we don’t get to God by moving along a straight line.

We don’t reach God through good deeds or good works or even good living. We can’t buy our way to God, we can’t sleep our way to God, and we can’t drink our way to God. We cannot think our way to God.

We can only receive. We can apprehend. We can accept. We can allow God to be born anew in each one of us. “[T]he Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”

Ephrem the Syrian, a 4th century theologian, suggests that we decorate not just our churches, but that we also decorate our hearts. “On this feast,” he sings, “let everyone garland the door of [their] heart. May the Holy Spirit desire to enter in its door to dwell and sanctify. For behold, She moves about to all the doors to see where She may dwell.” (Hymn 5)

May our hearts be so decked as to woo the Holy Spirit, that we may allow God in even as God bring us more closely into his light, into his laughter and into his life everlasting.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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