Empowered by the Cross

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

The written version of the sermon is here:  

A lot of people have their favorite cross. It might be on a wall or on a church. It might be a piece of jewelry, or a craft that someone made. It might be on a rosary. But it’s “special” not because of its expense or material. It’s special because it helps us to pray. It helps us connect with God, or perhaps re-connect with God.

We make the sign of the cross. We walk the Stations of the Cross. We wear crosses, but the scriptures today invite us to think about what part the Cross really plays in our lives.

The cross casts a shadow over today’s Gospel. Jesus gathers the multitudes with the disciples and explains that the “Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” When Jesus speaks of the “Son of Man,” his audience would have known what he meant. But they would not have thought the Son of Man would ever be someone who could suffer. In fact, the Son of Man was imagined to be just the opposite: someone who never suffered. Someone who was never rejected. And so, after Jesus explains that this Messiah-figure will have to suffer, Peter speaks up and says what is probably already on everyone else’s mind.

We don’t have Peter’s exact words, we’re just told that Peter takes Jesus aside and tries to clean up Jesus’ presentation a little bit. Peter must have wondered if there surely wasn’t a more compelling way for Jesus to motivate the crowds. Jesus couldn’t be allowed to suffer—that didn’t make any sense. After all Peter and the other disciples have invested a lot in Jesus—he can’t let them down.

The disciples have left everything—families, jobs, positions, futures, and now Jesus is asking them even to give up their ideas and hopes for Jesus and his kingship. Here, Jesus speaks of failure. He speaks of death and the cross.

If Peter was surprised at the way Jesus talked, he must have been even more surprised by the way Jesus snaps at him. Jesus says harshly, “Get behind me,” and then he calls Peter “Satan.” “Satan,” the tempter, the accuser. Last week we read how Jesus was tempted by Satan in the desert, tempted to take the easy way out, tempted to avoid difficulty, tempted to dodge suffering.

But Jesus goes further in sharing his vision of the future. He tells those gathered around him that not only will HE have to suffer, but that the suffering will be a part of their lives as well, if they follow him.

If one is faithful, there will be suffering. Suffering does not need to be looked for or sought after, it will come all on its own.

The suffering Jesus points to here is a specific kind of suffering. He points to the kind of suffering that happens whenever we live our lives dangerously, in faith. Suffering comes when we are passionate for Christ because of the way in which Jesus Christ clashes with so many of the ways of this world. Notice that Jesus doesn’t seem to suggest any kind of hierarchy of suffering. As one Buddhist author puts it, “Have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike; each has their suffering. Some suffer too much, others too little.” (Lachlan Brown)

For us to take up our cross, or as Luke’s gospel has it, “to take up our cross daily,” implies a willingness for God to move in our lives. To take up our cross, implies action—always internal, sometimes external. It carries with it intention, energy, creativity, and resourcefulness. It is a way of describing how we are called to move through life.

In order to “take up” our cross, we will probably have to put something down. For me to pick up a load of books, I have to put down whatever else I am carrying. It works that way in other areas of our lives. If I want to read more, I will have to watch less television.

If I’m going to spend 15 minutes every morning in silence or prayer, then I have to give up 15 minutes of sleep. If one pledges to spend more time with family, with a spouse or partner, one will have to come home from work on time, or perhaps even settle for a lower-paying job.

Taking up our cross means that we engage the full power of the Cross, that we turn to it, and enable it to empower us. The cross empowers in at least four ways:

The Cross of Christ connects, confronts, heals, and hopes.

Taking up our cross connects us with the suffering of others. In the Way of the Cross, the Stations of the Cross that we pray every Friday night in Lent, Jesus carries his cross. At one point Simon of Cyrene helps him, and so Simon takes up the cross in a literal way. But throughout the way of the cross, the journey of Jesus to Calvary, others carry his cross with him. The various people we meet in the way of the cross—the woman who wipes his brown, the mourners, and especially the Virgin Mary. She doesn’t help carry the cross literally, but she bears its weight in her heart. At the Crucifixion, she is connected to Jesus on the cross in a way that creates a powerful compassion that flows out of her from then and after.

Whether I suffer a little or a lot, whether I know suffering or pain that is far less or greater than yours, doesn’t mean that I can’t be present for you and with you. When I take up the cross, I face both our suffering and allow Christ to be the third among us, to bear the weight of the cross.

In addition to connecting us with the suffering of others, the cross confronts the violence and injustice of the world. Taking up our cross gives us the words to say “That is wrong. It must change.” The power of the cross helps us confront people, practices, and systems that use and oppress other people.

The cross can heal. In the movies, there’s the almost cartoonish aspect of a lifted cross casting out a demon or slowing down a vampire, but the cross has more subtle, deeper ways of healing. The writer Simon Weil writes of “The cross as a balance, as a lever. A going down, the condition of a rising up. Heaven coming down to earth raises earth to heaven.” The cross allows me to lift another into the presence and healing love of God. There’s a lowering of self as the other raises up, like a seesaw of prayer. Sometimes we see the results of healing prayers through the cross and other times that healing takes time and moves in mystery.

Finally, the cross empowers us to hope. The cross of Christ, everywhere and always, reminds us that the story doesn’t end on Good Friday. Darkness comes. The earth shakes. It seems like all is lost. But then there’s Easter. Easter’s daylight brings Resurrection—new life, new opportunity, new challenges, but new community and family in faith.

The cross can connect, confront, heal, and hope.

This Lent, I encourage you to think about a particular cross in your life. Maybe it’s one you carry with you. Or maybe it’s a cross you see everyday on your way or your way to work or school. Maybe it’s a cross already hanging on your wall, or maybe you’ll like to create a new one, or cut out a picture, or buy one to hang and keep close. Wherever your cross might be, I encourage you to look at it this week, and each day, draw on its power in some way. It might be you say a prayer for connection with the suffering and pain of others. It might be you pray for the words and actions to confront an injustice in your life or in the world. It might be you turn to the cross for its healing power for a particular person or people. Or maybe you most need hope right now. The cross will answer that prayer, too.

We conclude our prayers of Stations of the Cross with powerful words that come from the Book of Common Prayer service for Good Friday and have long been used to encourage hope in the face of death or darkness. As we endeavor to take up our own crosses, we can pray those words:

Savior of the world, by your cross and precious blood you have redeemed us:
Save us, and help us, we humbly beseech you, O Lord.

 

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Remembering Rainbows

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

The written version of the sermon is here:  

Every once in a while, when you walk into a dark church with lots of woodwork, if you look carefully, you’ll see touches of color. Especially the gothic influences in Victorian church architecture loved to edge church ceiling beams with bright red or blue or yellow. From a distance, it just highlights the wood, but closer, it almost looks like a rainbow. We have lingering influences of that practice on the vertical posts that form the altar screen for the Memorial Chapel, where you can see little red and blue stars in the dark wood. Bill Minifie used the same idea when he designed and made our lectern platform and rails a few years ago, adding the little touches of red, gold, and blue.

I think the splash of color on dark wood is probably intended as decoration, pure and simple, but I also like that it can symbolize more. Especially when it’s almost hidden, like a secret to be found or a joke to be stumbled upon.

If church ceilings are sometimes intended to remind us of an inverted ship, like the ark, like the vessel that carries us safely through this life. (The central part of the church is still called the nave, from the Latin navis, reminding us of this.) And so, if the ceiling reminds us of a ship, why can’t the splashes of color on wooden beams remind us of rainbows?

The first Sunday of Lent—and especially this year–is a good day for thinking about rainbows.

The rainbow serves as a reminder, as we hear in today’s reading from Genesis. God promises Noah and his family never again to destroy the earth with water. The bow in the sky, of light arcing through the mist of the water, only recently dried up, that trick of water and light becomes a sign and symbol of God’s word, God’s promise, and God’s covenant.

The rainbow serves as a reminder, pointing to something in the past, but it also serves as encouragement, pointing a way forward. Even if we can’t see the end, even if the end of the rainbow shifts as we move along, it still urges us to look, to dream, and to imagine what lies ahead. It encourages us to trust where God leads.

A contemporary hymn writer captures the tone of this season as he sings,

This is the day for new beginnings.
Time to remember and move on.
Time to believe what love is bringing;
laying to rest the pain that’s gone.
[This is a Day of New Beginnings, by Brian Wren]

A “time to remember and move on.” It’s the rainbow, again. Remembering and moving on. Both are central to the spiritual life and the season of Lent itself can help us to remember and to move on.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is baptized. A voice is heard from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And before the water even dries or the voice of God fades away, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Into the desert, he goes for 40 days and there he comes face to face with all kinds of temptations. Does that not sound a whole lot like the life we live? At some point, we all probably know that phenomenon of one minute, knowing we are God’s beloved (we can feel it, we don’t doubt it, everything is going right), but then in what seems like all too after, we find ourselves surrounded by temptation.

There are all kinds of temptations, but most of them are symptomatic, nagging, sorts of things. Perhaps the greatest temptation is more subtle—it has to do with forgetting. In the midst of temptation, we can forget who we are, and momentarily, we can forget who God is.

“Remembering” is so much a part of our faith tradition. Over and over, again, scripture says,

“Remember!”
Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt.
Remember the covenant I made with your ancestors.
Remember not the former things.
Remember the devotion of your youth.
Remember the law.
Remember those in prison.
Remember, I am with you always.
Remember me when you come into your kingdom.

In Mark’s version of the temptation story, we’re not told how exactly how Jesus was tempted, or really how he faced down the temptation. But we know that he survived it alongside the wild beasts, and he even felt the presence of God’s holy angels.

Matthew and Luke both give us more details about Jesus’ temptations. In response to the Devil’s temptations, each time, Jesus responds with scripture. Jesus remembers scripture, and memory protects him from temptation.

But he also remembers more than scripture. Jesus remembers who he is, he remembers his baptism and that he is a child of God. He remembers whose he is, that God is watching, is waiting and is even now, aware and present and offering his love.

Martin Luther wrote that he sometimes fought off the devil by shouting at him, “I am baptized.” That’s what we do when we make the sign of the cross, and when we dip our finger in holy water and place a little on our foreheads: we are reminding ourselves that we are baptized, that we are loved, and that God is in charge.

In the same way, when we see a rainbow–or unexpected colors that can remind us of rainbows– we can recall the covenant God has made, that God will always take care of us and that God is with us. We have not only the old covenant (God’s promises to the people of Israel), but we also have the New Covenant, God’s promise in Jesus Christ sealed and shared with us in the sacrament of bread and wine.

Memory keeps these signs and sacraments close by us. Even though we can’t always see the color in the world, even though we may forget about it, the colors are there.
Baptism, Holy Communion, symbols of faith help us to remember. But God also gives us other “memory helps.” Spiritual disciplines like prayer, meditative reading, fasting, keeping a journal, studying, hospitality, almost any activity that is given over to God, and that allows us to give ourselves over to God can be a spiritual discipline. Practiced– that is, done over and over again– spiritual disciplines remind us of God. They remind us of our reliance on God, of our need for God, of our connection with God.

In the days ahead, as we practice spiritual disciplines, as we notice the symbols of the season, perhaps giving some things up and taking on other things, may God sharpen our memory and make us alert and awake to temptation, that we might remember the covenant God has made with us. May God strengthen us in the face of every temptation.

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

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Beloved and Never Left Alone

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

The written version of the sermon is here:  

As I’ve talked and listened to people over the last week or so, I’ve heard similar words from friends, from parishioners, from family, and even from a person I met in the snow, as we were walking our dogs. Folks are getting tired.

We’re tired of the pandemic, tired of not being able to be with people, tired of having to keep our distance, tired of stores and restaurants and services closing. We’re tired of politics and bickering and we’re tired of leaders who don’t lead. We’re tired of people getting sick and we’re tired of people dying of Covid–or of anything else, for that matter. We’re tired of having to invent new ways of doing just about everything. We’re just tired. And a little bored. And a little cranky.

But here we are, on this Last Sunday after the Epiphany, about to begin a new Season of Lent, which will lead us into our second Holy Week and Easter during the pandemic. Rather than dive under the covers or put ourselves into a chocolate coma (it is Valentine’s Day, after all), we’re here. We’ve come to church—physically for some, through the internet for others—but we’re here together, listening for God’s Word. There’s hope even in our hope.

Both of the scripture readings we have heard today have full, fantastic, dramatic stories in them. And sometimes I hear them for their theological weight: In the first reading, the spirit of the great prophet Elijah is passed on to the junior prophet Elisha. In a similar way, in the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus, we hear how the spirit of Elijah AND the power and authority of Moses are passed on to Jesus. And so, theologically, the Transfiguration works like an exclamation point that answers the yearnings and prayers for God’s presence that weave their way through the history of faith, right into the life of Jesus. And so, moving with the flow of scripture, tradition, and reason, we also are kind of brought to a mountain with Jesus, an overlook, almost, that allows us to see across the next 40 or so days of Lent. We can see the rough outline of where we’re headed. All this history of prophecy and law culminates in the life of Jesus. It will seem to go dark in the crucifixion. But it will explode in light with the Resurrection.

That’s all true for this Last Sunday after the Epiphany, but how does that meet us where we are today? Tired, confused, and not real sure where we’re going to get the energy or the faith for all that follows?

Well, I think these scriptures are ESPECIALLY relevant for us today, this year. These stories promise us that just as God gave Elisha what he needed to carry on—yes, the mantle of Elijah, but also a lot of interior and exterior gifts that Elisha wasn’t even yet aware of—God will give us what we need, as well. It might be a memory that sustains us. It might be the felt presence of a mentor who we haven’t thought of in a long time. It might be that call out of the blue. The unexpected note. The interruption that reminds us we are not on our own.

A similar thing happens in the Gospel: perhaps the disciples don’t even realize it at the time: they think the Transfiguration is about Jesus, even as the voice of God thunders out of the cloud, “This is my son, the Beloved, listen to him.”

But these words are not for Jesus, but for the disciples and for us. They come with additional words of God—perhaps not spoken out loud, but spoken through the lives of all the saints who have gone before us. The words of God remind us, “Jesus is the beloved, and we should listen to him,” but the Spirit of God adds three more little words, I think. The Spirit adds, “no matter what.”

“This is my son, Jesus. Listen to him, no matter what.”

The disciples hear some version of this, as they find encouragement and strength. And even after the Crucifixion and Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, they keep on going.

Listen to Jesus, no matter what.

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’ll be 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 we just don’t know where the energy or the resources or the stamina will come from… 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.

The Good News of the Transfiguration is not so much about Elijah, and Elisha, and James, and John, or even 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.

May the Transfiguration work its power of us to remind us that we are God’s beloved and that we are never left alone.

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

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Faithful Paradox

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

Father Ousley preached on February 7 and his sermon can be watched in the Facebook Live videos above.  Father Beddingfield’s remarks on the day follow here:  

One dictionary defines Paradox as “a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true.”

If we say that “Less is more,” we’re speaking in paradoxical language.

In some contexts, faith itself can seem paradoxical. We speak of dying in order to rise; of doubt or despair leading to faith and hope.

Paradox, as a concept, in some ways, ran throughout the day at Holy Trinity on Sunday, February 7.

Father Ousley’s sermon primarily focused on the Epistle from 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, in which St. Paul speaks of the paradox of making himself a servant or slave, in order that he might be free. This is key to understanding Paul—so many of the aspects of his thinking or theology that seem counter cultural to liberal 21st century America were actually meant to allow people to live more freely in their 1st century context.

Some in our day might look at those of us to seek to follow Christ—the certain things we do and don’t do—and not understand that through Christian discipline, we experience freedom – freedom from having to keep up with our neighbor, freedom from having to own or do the latest thing, and freedom from bondage to whatever is the current slogan, mood, political or religious trend.

The word “religion” comes from the Latin, religare, meaning to tie—and so by tying ourselves to Christ, we’re free to love and live fully in God’s image.

In the Adult Education hour today, we began discussing the book Reaching Out by Henri Nouwen. Nouwen talks about the paradox of how coming to grips with the deep loneliness that is a part of the human experience can be transformed into what he calls solitude. And by embracing an inner solitude, we’re then better able to be in relationship with another person, with our families, and in community with all kinds of people.

Not everyone appreciates the paradoxes of our faith—some people need things to be black or white, one way or the other. But as Christ himself navigated the seemingly contradictory in his day, with his presence, we too, will have faith to move through darkness into light, through disappointment into hope, and even through death into eternal life.

Let us pray: Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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Healed and Healing

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

Read the full text of the sermon here: 

In the first reading, we hear how God promises to put his own words in the mouths of prophets, and we know from scripture that there have been such people. There have been, and still are a few men and women who speak with the authority, with piercing truth, and the love that is beyond what an ordinary human being might be capable of. Their words come from God.

In Jesus, we see that Word of God and the words of God in their most concentrated form. Those words have power and in today’s readings we see how they especially have the power to heal.

Jesus sees a man from Capernaum, but right here, at the very beginning of the interaction, I think the healing begins. Jesus SEES the man. How often to we look at a person without really seeing? How often do we move among others, longing to be seen?

A few years ago, there was a independent film called “Time Out of Mind,” about a man dealing with being homeless and the various challenges he encounters. The film stars Richard Gere, and I remember Gere talking about preparing for the role. In addition to being a long time volunteer with NYC’s Coalition for the Homeless, Gere sat outside in old clothes in popular public places and was totally ignored. He was dodged and avoided. He would notice people notice him, and then walk a farther way away.

It may be that we do this a little more often these days, as we hear in the news about people with mental illness pushing others off subway platforms. But even when we avoid others, we should still notice it as an aberration, something that should not be.

Jesus SEES the man from Capernaum. Jesus sees everyone he encounters. He takes time, he notices, and I have to think that part of the healing begins to happen just in his gaze, in his noticing, in his ability to be present and connect. It’s something we should pray for, even as we give thanks that we’re always in the gaze of Christ.

After Jesus sees the man in today’s Gospel, he commands silence. Jesus sees the confusion, noise, and chaos that the man is living in. Jesus says to the demons that are buzzing around him, “Be silent.”

Sometimes there is healing just in the silence. Life is noisy in our world, and sometimes when we begin to get lonely, when we begin to get bored, when we begin to get restless…we add to the noise. Even in quarantine, it can get noisy—with news, with worries, with long, unending lists of “shoulds.” Jesus calls for silence, and there is healing in silence.

I remember years ago when I was busy, busy, busy in New York and went for a weekend retreat up at Holy Cross Monastery. Though I took the train up, I think I took the city with me. As soon as I got there, I was writing in my journal, making lists, praying that God would help me arrange all the various questions I thought I needed to sort out. But I had been there only an afternoon, when the quiet of the place, the silence all around me was almost deafening. All that night, I was distracted by the silence, afraid of the silence, threatened by the silence. Though I’d planned to stay the whole weekend, I gave up Saturday morning and came back into the city, realizing that at that time, I simply could not be still or quiet.

In the early Church, especially around the Fourth Century, there were those who found the cities too loud. And so, they moved into the desert, in search of silence and in search of God. But guess what they found? Like me at the monastery that weekend, these early desert mothers and fathers found demons, even there.

Saint Anthony, who many revered for his courage and faithfulness and wisdom, found demons, too. In his Life of St. Anthony, Athanasius describes Anthony’s war with demons:

To serve God more perfectly, Anthony confined himself in a ruin, building up the door so that none could enter. Here demons assaulted him furiously, appearing as various monsters, and even wounding him severely; but his courage never failed, and he overcame them all by confidence in God and by the sign of the cross.

The demons were not external. They weren’t in other people or institutions or powers or principalities. They were inside Anthony, deep down. A classic saying from the Desert Fathers has a seeker who wanders from a city into the desert in search of wisdom, and the seeker finds Abba Moses. He says to the old man, “Abba, Father, give me a word.” And the old man looks at him and says, “Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” But Jesus comes to Anthony. Jesus comes to the person from Capernaum. Jesus comes to all of those who are in silent places, even to those noisy places and he says to the demons, “come out.”

Jesus sees. Jesus makes silence, and then Jesus calls the demon out. He names it, or them.

The Good News is not only that we can receive this healing from God in Christ. But also, there is good news in that we are (all of us) are invited into Christ’s ministry of healing. We can cooperate in our own healing and we can support in the healing of others.

I should say a word about what I mean by “healing.” Often, we think of healing as the same thing as a cure, and that can be the case. But sometimes healing involves accepting one’s limitations, especially as one grows older and the body changes. Healing might mean aging with a certain amount of grace, rather than living in a world of regrets or memories of times past. Healing might mean the hard work of ongoing progress—the kind that might feel like two steps forward, three steps backward. Healing can take time. And then, of course, sometimes healing comes in the form of what St. Francis called Sister Death—after a long illness, after suffering, Sister Death can be a welcome friend, leading us home to God.

In all these ways, we can be healed and we can participate in the healing process.
When it’s safe, when we can, we can offer that give of recognition—of really seeing another person for who she is, for who he is. Not who we wish they were. Not who they might be, but who they really are. Trying to really see means that we resist judging; that we don’t diagnose the other person’s problem, that we don’t prescribe before we really have all the information.

Then, we can enter the silence: sometimes by keeping silence, and other times by gently suggesting that other voices and distractions be turned down. Being with another person in silence means that we enter a place of prayer with another person—sometimes with that person, and sometimes at great distance from the person. But in the silence, we offer our friend to God, for God’s love, for God’s presence, and for God’s healing.

And then, perhaps (PERHAPS) we may be nudged by the Holy Spirit to speak a word. The word we speak may be to encourage our friend to talk with a therapist, a counselor, a minister, a doctor… to get help by someone who is trained to help. But sometimes we also may be called to speak a word that becomes a word of healing. Jesus called the evil spirits out—“Come out of him,” Jesus said. And in a similar way, sometimes we call a person into life again, into a new perspective, into relationship, into community, into the love of God.

In the formal healing rite of the Church we are reminded,

the Almighty Lord, who is a strong tower to all who put their trust in him, to whom all things in heaven, on earth, and under the earth bow and obey:[Becomes] now and evermore [our] defense, and makes [us] know and feel that the only Name under heaven given for health and salvation is the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Thanks be to God that we can see and be seen. We can be silence and be in silence. We can heal and be healed. May the Holy Spirit move mightily within us, in spite of us, and around us into a needy world. Amen.

 

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The Hope of Jonah & Jesus

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

Read the full text of the sermon here: 

Since last Sunday, many of us have gone from fear and worry, to fireworks and relief.  After the violent storming of the US Capitol a few weeks ago, we weren’t sure what might happen on the day of the Inauguration of a new president. But it was peaceful, joyful, and reassuringly normal.  As if that were not enough, we’ve also been riding an emotional rollercoaster around the COVID-19 pandemic. Though rates are increasing in many areas, right here, people are being careful and it seems to show in the infection rates.  We all got excited as people we know and love have been getting vaccinated or getting appointments, and now, it seems the excitement was a little premature, and the process is slower.

We notice good news and try to hold on to it. But no sooner do we process it, that someone tells us of something they have heard, or something they have read, or something that “everyone” knows.

Those first followers of Jesus must have felt like they were on an emotional rollercoaster. John the Baptist had been arrested, and it would not be long before he would be executed. People knew the risk of doing or saying anything that might cause the Jewish establishment or the Roman occupation to get nervous.  A wise person would lay low for a while, or maybe just play it safe. But here Jesus is, continuing where John left off.  Jesus preaches a message of repentance, like John’s, but Jesus goes on to fill in the rest of the promise and he preaches, teachers, heals, and embodies what he calls Good News. 

Good News is an almost literal translation of the Greek word, evangelium.  That Greek work is formed of two words:  one meaning “good,” or “well,” and the other like angel, meaning “messenger.” A literal but clunky translation might have Jesus say, “Believe in the Well-Message.” Believe in the Good News. 

But, what’s the Good News?  And how do we believe in it when there’s so much bad news all around?

Well, the Good News is that God loves us so much that God came into the world in the form of Jesus—to be like us, to be beside us, and offer healing and love and show us how to be more deeply connected to God.  What’s more, the Good News keeps getting better as we watch Jesus be put to death, but then brought back to life, and so the Great News is that his Way of Love can carry us through death and into new life.  And that means death with a big “D” as well as all the smaller worries, and trials, and problems that feel like little deaths to our spirit.

In Matthew’s Gospel, some of the religious folks of the day ask Jesus to give them some sign that he is, in fact, from God.  Jesus tells them, “The only sign you’ll be given is the sign of Jonah.”  Most people assume that Jesus is pointing to the story around our first scripture reading that involves Jonah spending three days in the belly of a whale before being spit out for a new lease on life, and surely, that’s a part of what Jesus is referring to.  But if you read the entire book of Jonah (which is short), there are some other ways that Jesus embodies the sign of Jonah. 

And for me, the Sign of Jonah, has to do with God’s love for God’s people.  It ends up being a sign “for” Jonah, a sign “to” Jonah, and a sign almost in spite of Jonah.

God tells the Prophet Jonah to go to Ninevah and prophesy. Jonah doesn’t want to go. He thinks the Ninevites are wicked and deserve God’s wrath, and that they won’t listen to him anyway, so he grumbles.  Then he runs from God, and it’s during his attempted getaway that he’s thrown off a ship and swallowed by a big fish. After being spit up, he finally goes to Ninevah, and prophesies.  And guess what?

The people of Ninevah repent.  They tell God they’re sorry and that they’ll change their ways, and they seem to make an honest start of doing just that.  And so, we get those amazing words from scripture that too many people overlook when they disparage the Old Testament:  ‘When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.” (Jonah 3:10).

The Sign of Jonah, for me, has to do with God’s love for us.  God is on our side:  against sin, against evil, against anything that would take us away from ourselves, from the ones we love, and from God who is the source of all love.   The Sign of Jonah is God’s hope for US, God’s hope IN us. That really is Good News.

Jesus embodies that Good News as he continues to preach and teach about love, and justice, and people being fed, the weak gaining strength, and the sick made well.  All of those are aspects of God’s movement in our world that we can continue to believe in, look for, and hope for.

We all know that we are still in a pandemic and we’re told that some aspects will get worse before they get better.  Political leaders, even if they’re good and mean well, will disappoint us. Programs, policies, and efforts will sometimes fail and sometimes succeed.  But through it all, we have God’s hope in us.  We have Christ’s presence among us—moving and loving and praying and serving one another.  And we have the Holy Spirit’s renewing life to help us stand again after we fall, to strengthen us when we’re tired, and even when we’re doubtful, to fill us with hope again.

May the Sign of Jonah and the love of Christ be with us all, this day and always. Amen.


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Awake for God’s Surprises

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

Read the full text of the sermon here: 

This week, I’ve been thinking and praying for Washington, D.C. During and after the capital riots two weeks ago, I’ve worried about former parishioners and friends who work in or near the capital and those who are trying to navigate the anxiety of living in Washington. We continue to keep Washington and our nation in our prayers.

With thoughts drifting to Washington this week, I guess it’s no surprise that the scriptures today reminded me of a story I heard. My church in DC was very close to the National Cathedral and the Diocesan offices, and so we had volunteers from the parish who helped at the Diocesan offices.

One morning, the volunteer was at the reception desk and the door to the offices opened. In came a cyclist—the bicycle poked in first, and then a person in a biking helmet, riding tights, and sunglasses. Assuming this was an aggressive delivery person, just barging in, the desk volunteer began to say, “Excuse me, you can’t….”

And just then, the biker took her helmet off, smiled, and introduced herself to the volunteer as the new bishop elect of Washington.

How often are we surprised by a person when we read their name, and then meet the person? Maybe they’re a different gender, or (try as we might) we still sometimes stereoptype by race, and so we’re surprised when the person is a different race or ethnicity than we imagined. On and on it goes, as we don’t seem to learn—resist pre-judging. Resist imagining too much. Resist forming expectations.

As much as people can surprise us, God does even more.

In our first reading, God moves among the young a unsuspecting. 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.

In our Gospel, God arrives from an unexpected direction and it’s Nathanael who almost misses God because he’s expecting God to show up in a different way. The last thinkg Nathanael imagines is that God might look and sound like this Galilean, 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 might show up on Zoom, or Facebook, or somewhere else. 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 Spirit. Amen.

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Renouncing Evil and Turning Again to Christ

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

Read the full text of the sermon here: 

Probably like many of you, as I watched the mob of angry white people stormed the US Capitol on Wednesday, I was furious. I was saddened. And I was sickened. But unlike some, I was not shocked.

I was not shocked because the words that inspired that mob were not very different from words used over the past four years and before. Jesus often said, “Let those who have ears hear.” And those of us whose ears that have been open have heard that same kind of ignorant and arrogant language that divides, belittles, twists, and falsifies … words that come from the kind of person scripture describes as the Prince of Lies.

But it’s important to remember that hate (and for that matter, evil) do not begin and end with particular people. People turn or are turned from light to darkness. It’s as old as the oldest stories in our scriptures. It’s as current as the liars and twisters who are yacking away on the Sunday talk shows and filling up the internet with their dangerous nonsense.

I had a good conversation with a parishioner this week as we shared our outrage, our worry and our fear. He asked me if I would be “speaking out” in a decisive way today. We talked about that for a little while.

What’s the role of a parish priest? The church’s nonprofit status notwithstanding, what ought to be the role of a pastor around issues of prophecy and social justice? I explained what most of you know—my own style tends to be subtle and I admit that I base my leadership of our prayers and worship on certain assumptions—your intelligence, your (like me) being overwhelmed by information, and your basic orientation towards good will.

And also, personally, I don’t like it when religious officials (or anyone else, for that matter) tell me what I ought to think or feel. And so, I resist doing that with you.

I also resist saying much on social media—not because I’m afraid of hurting your feelings or losing members— that’s all way beyond my power, anyway. But I resist getting all busy with social media because it makes me feel bad after I post something that reduces me to some new level of nastiness. And I also know that nothing I post on Facebook or twitter or anywhere else is going to change the mind of my crazy cousins, my in-laws, or anyone else who refuses to think for themselves, to risk listening, or to be serious about the hard work of following Jesus.

Please understand: If you’re someone who vents your rage or other strong feelings online, I’m not judging you here. I’m just explaining why that doesn’t work for me. For me, it doesn’t help. And at this point of my life, I continue to learn and be aware of the problems of our day, and there are plenty of people and resources to help us understand problems more deeply. But I want to put my energy into solutions.

And as Christians, there are important ways we can be part of the solution.

One is prayer. We pray daily at Holy Trinity, through Zoom and in person on Wednesdays. Many of you participate in your own disciplines of prayer—both contemplative and active. For the next two weeks, the National Cathedral in Washington is praying online especially for our country every day at 5PM until the Inauguration. We pray individually and as a community. We pray not to try to control events—but something mystical happens when our prayers mix with the parts and particles of the universe and it all somehow goes into the will and way of God. And prayer changes us—with openness, with wisdom, with love.

We should be politically active. Voting is a Christian responsibility, but so is writing, calling, emailing, and nagging our representatives. We should lend our time, talent, and treasure to God, but also toward political change. Change happens. The new senators from Georgia are an African American and a Jew. Change happens. The Vice President elect is a African American and South Asian. And my marriage certificate to another man is issued, it says, by authority of the United States Congress (because we were married in Washington, DC.) Don’t tell me change is not possible.

And then, there’s our Christian life, the day-to-day, nitty gritty, falling and getting back up again, repenting and renewing, that we do every day, between Sundays and including our formal times of worship. Today, we remind ourselves of what it means to follow Christ as we reaffirm our baptismal vows.

Too often the Baptismal Covenant is muttered over crying babies and filming relatives as we celebrate a Baptism. But these are words of commitment and purpose.

In the early Church, the person to be baptized would face the West, the darkness and be asked to renounce evil. Sometimes a person was encouraged to add gestures, as though renouncing the devil himself. But then, for the affirmative questions, the person would be invited to turn East, toward the light, the direction from which the sun rises.

We pledge to turn from evil at baptisms, but through our faithful living, we aim to do, and say things that continue to turn us from darkness to light, from evil to goodness.

Bishop Dietsche, our own Bishop of New York has also written, reminding us of the work ahead. In his letter on Friday he wrote

 

As Christians, we are people for whom reconciliation is not simply another virtue, but is the foundation of our life and who we are. “I came,” Jesus said, “that all may be one, as the Father and I are one.” We must have a part in this work of unification and reconciliation, in our nation, indeed, but it begins in our own communities and parishes. But reconciliation is deeper and richer than simply “making up” or agreeing to disagree. It also requires of us the amendment of our own lives, the striving for justice, the naming of evil in our midst, the forgiveness of sin, true humility, and the tireless effort of calling our friends and adversaries into the work of peace. (Letter of January 9, 2021).

Reaffirming our Baptismal Vows does not solve all the world’s problems, but it reminds us of an important place to begin again—with our own side of the street, our own lives, our own souls.

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Following the Light into the New Year

On Christmas Day, I gave a short homily reflecting on a Christmas Blessing from the Church of England’s Common Worship resources:

May the joy of the angels,
the eagerness of the shepherds,
the perseverance of the wise men,
the obedience of Joseph and Mary,
and the peace of the Christ-child
be yours this Christmas.

That blessing works just as well as a prayer for each of us—not only during Christmas but throughout the year. January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, when the church remembers how the three wise kings followed the light of the star to seek out Jesus. But that’s not all we can learn from the wise ones.

Because they knew that King Herod wanted to gather information about Jesus, and to destroy any possible rival to the throne, the three wise kings avoided Herod, went home by a different route, and refused to be part of the king’s designs. The integrity of the magi reminds us that character and integrity do not just show up at the eleventh hour or at the end of a corrupt regime, but much earlier—with each decision we make.

Cheating on a spouse or partner does not just happen in a culminating physical act but begins earlier with flirting and dishonesty. Financial crimes of theft or embezzlement do not just happen with the final exchange of money but with earlier grievances and resentments. We make daily decisions, some small and some large, whether to conspire with evil or to turn from evil.

The Wise Men might have returned to the King, told him half-truths, and then gone on to deny any culpability. Instead, they followed the way of love. Whatever they learned about Jesus in Bethlehem, they seem to have gained a sense of God’s new grace flowing into the world, and the Magi made the conscious decision to be a part of God’s loving purpose.

We will continue to pray for ourselves, our country, our world, and even our enemies. We will pray for our leaders—the ones we eagerly support and the ones for whom we may pray a change of heart, mind, and spirit. Many of us will continue to be politically active, as our situations allow. But all of us can pray the Christmas blessing into the new year, that God might bless us with joy, eagerness, perseverance, obedience, and peace.

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Following Stars

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Though Rev. Ousley offered the sermon today (you can see the full version in the videos of 11AM above), Father Beddingfield’s thoughts follow here: 

Though January 6 is the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ, at Holy Trinity, we celebrated the Epiphany on January 3. Father Ousley preached a great sermon that can be heard in the link included in this email.

At one point in his sermon, Doug mentioned the power of a star—that great Star in the East which guided the wise men. 

I recently drove by the city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where a giant star shines over a hill.  But depending on the twists and turns of the highway, the star becomes invisible. That’s the way stars seem to be for me, and perhaps for most of us—at times, there’s a sign from God that seems sure and bright. But then, before we know it, there’s just darkness and we’re tempted to think we’re left on our own.

The Epiphany message can remind us that, like the wise men who followed a bright star to Bethlehem, but then it seemed to fade soon thereafter, We have our own version of faithful star-gazing which can dissolve into fear and darkness. But among the messages of today’s Gospel is the word that, no matter what, God is with us. God is still with us, giving signs to show the way, and watching over us.

In today’s Gospel from Matthew 2, wise men from the East see a star and try to interpret its meaning. But almost immediately they run into trouble. This is not going to be an easy star to follow. King Herod also has also seen this star, and he’s frightened. He’s threatened, and he determines to get rid of the potential competition. Herod tries to get the wise men to work for him, to go and see the star and the Messiah born under it, and to help Herod confirm the threat he felt so strongly. (These wise men have become popular in legend. Tradition has even given them the names of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, but no one really knows.) And yet, the wise men are not called “wise men” for nothing.

The wise men get a sense of where they need to go, in order to be faithful to God. And in going, they take risks: they risk professionally in that if they don’t find the Messiah, they could look foolish. They risk spiritually, since finding a Messiah might mean adjustments in their values, in their priorities, in their relationships. And finally, in following the star, they risk physically, since King Herod does not hesitate to kill those who cross him. But they make their way, with persistence and with faith.

In Matthew’s telling, the three wise men bring Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh. While some commentators have suggested that these are simply gifts that wealthy folks might bring, others have suggested that each of these gifts has a prophetic overlay. The gold looks forward to the kingship of Christ, to Jesus as king of the Jews, as king of our hearts. Frankincense, like incense, is the stuff that priests use to make things holy and call down visual and physical prayers upon things, and so the frankincense looks forward to the priesthood of Christ. And myrrh, myrrh which was used as an anointment at death, foreshadows the suffering and death of Christ.

T.S. Eliot, in Journey of the Magi, captures this dual journey of the wise men—this sense of excitement at having found life—the life of God, no less. But also a sense that along the way, they will encounter death. Eliot imagines the wise men making this journey, “and such a long journey: The ways deep and the weather sharp….” They have times of trial and times of regret; hard times. But being led to the place, under the star, a wise man wonders. Eliot imagines one of the wise men pondering:

This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death?
There was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt.
I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different;
this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

The Epiphany is about revelation, the revelation that even though life in this world can be confusing, mixed with life and death and death and life; the Epiphany reminds us that Jesus Christ has come as the light of the world, not just as the awaited Messiah for the Jews, not just the charismatic leader of those who knew him when he was on earth, but also for any and all who would seek to know God more deeply; for any and all who may be looking.

A star appeared to the wise men in the East. Stars appear for us, as well. Sometimes we need one another in order to see them clearly. Sometimes we need practice in order to spot them. And sometimes we simply need to stand still, to breathe deeply and look, listen and wait.

Let us pray: O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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