Blessed

Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_1667-1670_Murillo

“The Return of the Prodigal,” 1667-1670, Bartolome Esteban Murillo.

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 17, 2019.  The scripture readings are Jeremiah 17:5-10, Psalm 1, 1 Corinthians 15:12-20, and Luke 6:17-26

Listen to the sermon HERE

There’s a famous “Far Side” cartoon by Gary Larson that shows a man approaching a booth, as though he’s shopping. In the booth is another man and a group of tall, dark antelope, standing on their feet, as many of the animals in the “Far Side” world do.  Some of the antelope are smiling and looking cherubic, and others are making faces and acting up.  By now, you might have guessed the caption.  The salesman says, “Well, I’ve got good gnus and I’ve got bad gnus.”

In today’s Gospel there is good news and bad; there are blessings and there are those things that, if not “curses,” our NRSV translation refers to as “woes.”

Our scripture contains what sounds like the well-known Beatitudes, or “blessings.”  The Beatitudes are sayings offered by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount—at least in Matthew’s Gospel. We typically read them on All Saints’ Sunday and they are generally offered as comfort, encouragement, and reminders that God intends good for us, no matter how hard life might be in the moment.

But in Luke’s version, the one we just heard, the Beatitudes are fewer.  Matthew gives eight, but Luke only gives four.  And then Luke’s version adds the four “woes:”

…Woe to you who are rich,…
Woe to you who are full now,…
Woe to you who are laughing now,…
Woe to you when all speak well of you….

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is not on a mountain, but has come down on level ground with people. It is as though Jesus really is “leveling” with his followers and with us, giving us the promises but also being honest about the pains that are sometimes all wrapped up before, during, or after the promises come true.

All week, I’ve been struggling with how to approach today’s scripture readings in a way that does them justice—that conveys the hope and goodness God offers, while not shying away from the cost of following Jesus.  And then I saw a painting.

At the end of last week, I was able to get down to Washington, DC for a couple of days and a highlight was visiting the National Gallery.  While my thoughts a long way from preaching and even farther from today’s readings, I walked around a wall, into a gallery, and was dumbstruck by a painting that spoke to my questions about today’s scriptures.  The painting is by a seventeenth-century painter named Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.  Almost 8 feet by 9 feet, the painting shows the Return of the Prodigal Son.  It was painted for the Brotherhood of Charity Chapel of the Hospital of Saint George in Seville, a hospice for the homeless and hungry.  The brotherhood cared for travelers and the sick and it buried unclaimed corpses, often the drowned or executed. The painting by Murillo and others in the chapel were meant to urge the members of the charity to do good works—to follow the words of Jesus literally by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and honoring the forgotten. And so, by doing good to others, one finds blessing.

The painting shows the prodigal son in rags, and the father, along with the servants, are about to drape the returning son with new clothes, rich-looking, colorful, plush clothes.  A happy little boy is bringing the fatted calf into the scene, and there’s even a white little puppy, jumping at the returned son.

But we know the complicated dynamics of that story of the Prodigal—it is, itself, a story of blessing and of woes.  The son initially takes his life for granted and runs away, living only for himself.  He brings the woes on himself and returns broken, empty, and in need—in need for the help of a stranger, a servant, a family member, of God—anyone.  The father might have withheld his generosity from the son. The elder brother might have continued to resent the mercy of the father and the repentance of the brother.  And the son who returned might have stayed in a place of pride and arrogance, never finding the humility to ask for help.

The woes are real, as Jesus says so clearly:

Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

But overall, the story of the prodigal, like our faith, is one of blessings.

The first reading this morning from Jeremiah also contains this language of blessing and curse.  And yet, notice the real-world aspect of the sayings:  “cursed are those who trust in mere mortals …,” but “blessed are those who trust in the Lord…”   Jeremiah is not giving advice for a rainy day, or for life in some distant future, and certainly not promising that thinks will be better in the life after this earthly life.  Instead, Jeremiah is saying NOW, cursed are those who trust in mere mortals…  RIGHT NOW, HERE AND NOW, blessed are those who trust in the Lord.

Psalm 1 also supports this way of approaching life—the blessings come as we walk in the way of the Lord… wickedness happens when we choose some other way, or become self-consumed and forget God.

Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians puts a cross-shaped exclamation point on the necessity to choose Christ here and now, in this life.  The cross is either a made-up notion that gives some a little comfort as they imagine what comes after life and death… OR, as Paul puts it, Christ has been raised for us—and the benefits, the power, the blessings of that Resurrection began for us in this life and into the next.

Because of the Resurrection, we are empowered to face down fear. We can put increasing trust in God.

Because of the Resurrection, we take the long view and know that sin and death have been defeated, once for all… and so, when we stumble here and there, we say we’re sorry, we allow the Holy Spirit to dust us off and pick us up, and we keep on going.

Because of the Resurrection, we can take our place in stories like that of the Prodigal—whether we’re the youngest child who has squandered God’s gifts, and needs to turn and return home; or whether we’re the older child who is so blinded by resentment and the desire for our fair share that we miss God’s blessings; or whether we’re called to act with the mercy and grace of the parent, who offers forgiveness and love—no matter what has happened in the past.

It can help us to step back a minute and recall that the Gospel of Luke, with Jesus’s words of blessing and woe, was addressed to someone named Theophilus…the same person or persons for whom the Acts of the Apostle was originally written.  Theophilus is thought to have had social advantage– some wealth, some standing, some education.  And so, the original intended audience for Luke was someone or some people a lot like us, in the relative scheme of things.  Though we may not think of ourselves as wealthy, in the context of our world, we are among the richest, best fed, and best educated.  The Gospel preaches to each of us today.

The “woes” come in this life (and surely in the next) when we live only for self and ignore the pain of the world.  But the blessings are overflowing. They are ours to enjoy and share when we live with humility, vulnerability, and openness to God.

May Christ help us to be honest with our need, even as we seek to help meet the needs of others. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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Caught up in Christ

fishingA sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 10, 2019. The scripture readings are Isaiah 6:1-13, Psalm 138, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, and Luke 5:1-11

Listen to the sermon HERE

The Gospel today brings us a fish tale. On the surface the story may sound familiar enough. Aspects of this particular fish tale appear also in Mark, Matthew and in John. But there are slight differences.

In Matthew, Jesus is baptized, he is tempted by the devil in the wilderness, and then he goes into Galilee. He sees Simon Peter and his brother Andrew fishing and Jesus interrupts their work. “Follow me,” he says, “and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:18-22).

Mark’s version is similar. the fishing story is placed within the larger context of Jesus calling his disciples, assembling his team, choosing his friends and followers. Follow me, he says. And they follow.

The Gospel of John adds characteristic drama as John places the story within a resurrection account. It is the risen Christ who offers tips on fishing, so that the disciples catch so many fish they can hardly bring them in.

In Matthew and Mark, these stories tell of the charisma and power of Jesus. It’s a force that hits people in immediate way. People meet Jesus, they see that there is something different about him, and for whatever (perhaps complicated) reasons, they leave what they’re doing and they follow. In John, it is Jesus with divinity showing through, able to know the future, able to affect the weather and the natural order of things, even to reverse the effects of death.

But in Luke’s story, (the Gospel we read today) there is a different focus, and we have a close-up on Simon Peter. The formal calling of the twelve apostles comes later in chapter 6 as Jesus chooses the twelve out of a larger gathering of people who seem already to have been following him.

When we hear Luke’s version of the fishing story, it comes not with the initial “follow me.” Jesus and Simon Peter already know each other by this point. Jesus has just healed Simon’s mother-in-law. Word has spread about Jesus through the towns and the synagogues and so there is none of that initial, startling surprise at the recognition that Jesus is someone special. Instead, there’s a kind of second recognition. In today’s Gospel, Jesus is saying to Simon Peter not so much “follow me,” but more, “keep following me,” “follow me even further,” “follow me in yet a different way.”

Simon is a fisherman. He knows what he is doing and he probably knows the waters of Galilee as well as anyone. When Jesus suggests that they drop fishing nets in a specific place, Simon complains that they have already been fishing all night. Nothing is biting.

This is the Simon Peter we know from other places in the Gospels: quick to speak his mind, fast to question Jesus, so bold even to talk back to Jesus. It is Simon Peter who names Jesus as the Christ. At the transfiguration, it is Peter who wants to act, to build shelters for the visiting Elijah and Moses. When there is talk of Jesus’ dying, Simon speaks out against it. After the crucifixion, it is Peter who speaks too quickly even then, denying Jesus three times.

It is a strong personality. I would imagine Simon was as sure of his fishing as he was of anything else. But by this point he knows Jesus and he trusts Jesus. The Lord says, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon mutters, “We’ve fished all night, with nothing—but ok, if you say so.” And Jesus makes it so.

Suddenly, there are fish everywhere. They hit upon a whole school of fish. The fish are so many that the nets are breaking and they need extra help. Water is splashing, fish are flying and the boat is sinking, but Simon Peter suddenly “gets it” and he falls to his knees. He sees something new in Jesus; he sees something new in himself. “Go away from me, Lord” he says, “for I am a sinful man.” In that moment, Simon Peter recognizes his own willfulness, perhaps his pigheadedness, his need to get his own way, his need to understand everything, his lack of trust, and finally he confesses his need for someone stronger and wiser and more godly.

“Do not be afraid,” Jesus says, repeating the words of angel after angel to so many; the word of God to humanity from the beginning to the end. “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

This word that Jesus uses meaning “to catch” people, is a strange word. It includes in it the prefix we know from Greek that means life, “zoe”—as in zoo and zoology and protozoa, with animals and living things. And so the word Jesus uses, (zogron) means not that you’re going to be catching people and that’s that. But you’re going to be catching people for life, you’re going to be catching people and adding to their life, making their life more, helping them move into the fullness of life. It’s a word that is used to describe the process by which a teacher might “catch” a student, “catch him or her up” into a new way of thinking and living and being; a new and better way.

Before long Simon Peter and the other disciples would, indeed, be catching people for life, and they may not have understood until later that they would be catching people up even into eternal life.

The Gospel today speaks to us as a church and also as individuals.

As a community, as “church,” we are called to fish. If we have spent much time in church at all, we have probably heard of the “great commission,” those words in which Jesus charges his followers to go and make disciples of all the nations. Though we may interpret their urgency differently, though we may pursue different methods, most Christians agree that we are called to share our faith, to catch others up into the life of Christ, to offer baptism, to share Eucharist. But the practice of this catching, can leave us feeling tired or anxious or (looking around at empty pews) we can even feel a little desperate. Perhaps we are like Simon Peter. We’ve done the equivalent of fishing all night long. We’ve tried that program. We’ve tried reaching out in that way. Perhaps we’ve even tried offering door prizes and incentives—who knows what we might have tried, but we sometimes get to that place of resignation and frustration. Our nets are empty, we’re out of ideas and it’s getting late.

But perhaps it is at just this point that we are called to stop and listen like Simon Peter. I wonder if Jesus be pointing to the deep and saying something like, “but have you tried over there?” “Go out a little deeper and give it a try.” The church in our day spends money and energy trying to attract the young, trying to attract the rarest of things—the couple with children. We have fished and fished. But could it possibly be that Jesus might be pointing to others as well? Especially in this city, have we tried to reach the students? Have we done what we might to reach the elderly and aging? Have we tried to reach those who are working so many hours they don’t know what they’re looking for? Have we tried to reach those who don’t speak very good English? Have we tried to cast our net out there—into the deep, into the place we’ve not yet been? “Do not be afraid,” Jesus says. “Do not be afraid.”

The Gospel indeed speaks a word of encouragement to our efforts at evangelism, but it also speaks a word of encouragement to our own understanding of who Jesus is.

Simon Peter shows us that there are levels to recognizing Jesus as the Christ. There is an initial surprise, if not shock that with Jesus things can be different. I can be different. But just as Peter grows in his understanding of Jesus, we too can grow and change in our reception of Christ, in the way that we allow ourselves to be caught up into new life. The old word for this is, of course, “conversion,” a turning and turning again to Christ, so that as we turn we see a new aspect of God even as we come to understand a new aspect of ourselves.

And, on this cold day in February, I think we are called to keep fishing, to keep catching people into the life of Christ, even as we allow ourselves to be caught anew.

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

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Growing Up (with the Spirit)

Jesus preaching

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 3, 2019. The scripture readings are Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, and Luke 4:21-30

Listen to the sermon HERE.

I had a nice surprise yesterday. I came home from our Vestry planning retreat and began to get settled, when the doorbell rang. When I opened the door, I initially did not recognize the woman in front of me—until she gave me her name and reminded me that we had gone to junior high and high school together.  We see each other on social media and comment on each other’s pictures of dogs.  Through the years, she has watched me move, begin ministry here, and travel to various places. I’ve watched her go through the loss of parents and a husband, and follow the course of her adult daughter and their three dogs.  While we caught up on this and that, we also talked about what brought the two of us so far away from North Carolina. Leaving home, for me, came with schools. Leaving home for my friend was a part of making a break with the past and looking for something new.

In today’s scripture, Jesus has left home and then returns.  And he’s all grown up. He’s changed. And he’s begun a public ministry of teaching and healing. While Jesus had grown up mostly in a small town named Nazareth, at some point, he got out. He’d seen things, and experienced things. He’d developed his own take on the world.

Some of this we know about from the Gospels: Jesus was baptized by John, he struggled with demons in the wilderness, and he taught in synagogues. Saint Luke says that Jesus was pretty well received, that he “was glorified by all.” But then he comes home.

We heard about this last week, as Jesus came home and went into the local synagogue. There, he read from the scroll those liberating words from Isaiah. But then he added the zinger. Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” We got the first part of this story last week, but this week, it continues.

Momentum has been building around him. People speak well of him. They wonder at his wisdom, but that’s where they begin to get confused – after all, they know him, don’t they? Isn’t this just Mary’s boy? Isn’t this the stepson of Joseph, the carpenter?

Jesus hears their skepticism, and so he reminds them of the longstanding tradition of a prophet being welcome in almost every place EXCEPT for his or her home town. Jesus reminds them about the Old Testament prophet Elijah, who was sent to Zarephath. Elisha could have healed all the lepers of Israel, but instead, he healed the foreigner, Naaman the Syrian. Jesus’s suggestion that God’s mercy doesn’t always “stay local” just makes these people even madder.

Using a Super Bowl analogy, here, what should be a home advantage for Jesus quickly turns into a win for his enemies. The game almost ends as people in the synagogue try to run Jesus out of town.

Jesus has grown up. His faith has grown up, and he’s preaching a “grown up” Gospel. But people don’t want to hear it. Growing up in faith is hard to do—for Jesus, and for us.

In our first scripture reading, we hear how “growing up” or maturing in faith is hard for the Prophet Jeremiah, too—but for different reasons. We’re told of Jeremiah’s growing pains—especially in relation to his calling from God. Jeremiah had an even more complicated leave taking—he had tried to get away from home and leave the familiar but found he needed to face a few things first. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” God says, “and before you were born I consecrated you.” “I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Jeremiah tried to get out of this calling. He complained to God, “I’m too young. I’m inexperienced. I’m not trained. I’m not fit for service.” But God called him anyway. Later, when people seemed to ignore him or when they laughed at him, Jeremiah felt like he’s all alone. He moved away from almost everything that is familiar and comfortable. He ends up so far separated from those he loves, that he feels cut off from God. “O LORD, thou hast deceived me,” he says. But slowly and somehow, Jeremiah later realizes that he has, indeed, grown up into a new faith, a larger faith, a more mature faith. And God has been with him all the time.

Spiritual growth comes so often when we are willing to leave what is familiar. We grow with God often by leaving home, though “home” can be many different things. We’re sometimes called to move to a new job, with new expectations and challenges. Sometimes we’re called to move into new relationships where patterns and behaviors are different. Sometimes we’re taken to new cities or perhaps even new countries and we find ourselves needing to make new friends, to develop new social networks and to re-define family away from home.

And then, at times, the move away from home is more psychological, emotional, or spiritual.

I had a friend who died just a couple of years ago, but she had “moved” a lot spiritually, even though she rarely left her home town. She lived in a one-bedroom apartment in New Jersey, but she read, she wrote friends, she prayed, she continued to learn until last year when she died. It’s no surprise, then that Charlotte had a well-traveled soul. Like in today’s Gospel, she was often misunderstood and made fun of by her family and even her local church. They didn’t understand her need for challenge or growth, and they sometimes found it threatening. But what I knew of Charlotte’s faith was her deep relationship with a God who almost plays hide and seek, who invites us to rise to a challenge and longs to show us new and complex depths to his love and mercy.

God calls us to grow up in our faith.

First, I think we can grow as individuals by praying perhaps more often, or perhaps by praying in a different way. If you’ve always prayed with words and you’re feeling tongue-tied, perhaps pray with your body—through movement, or walking, or dancing. (This Lent, there’ll be a morning workshop on March 30 that looks at the very basics of prayer:  What is it? How does it work?) If you’ve got a question about God, chances are others have asked that question. Ask a priest, or check a library, or search the Internet and learn different answers to that question you’re carrying around.

And second, I think we may be called to grow up in our faith as a church, as a congregation. The parts of our common life that make us warm and friendly, cozy and accessible, should never change. But I wonder if we’re aren’t also being called to dust ourselves off a bit, get to know our neighbors better (the old ones and especially the new ones) and engage at a still deeper level. As our city officials wrestle with homelessness, perhaps we’re being called upon to add our voice—a voice of faith based in experience. As families move into our neighborhood, perhaps we’re being called on in new ways to help overworked parents teach children about spirituality, about music, and about mission. As more and more people walk by this church every day, I wonder if God isn’t calling us to make the welcome more explicit and offer the Living Water that we KNOWS quenches and soothes, but also enlivens and strengthens.

When personal crises come, they catch us off guard if our faith is still that of a child. When crises and challenges hit a parish, we’re caught off guard if our faith isn’t developed or is out of shape. We’re called to grow. Saint Paul reflects, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

Christ calls us to take his hand and grow. Risk offending. Risk being misunderstood. Risk being thought a little crazy. Risk loving too much, too freely, too widely, and too long.

This kind of “growing up” can seem scary. We might feel like children desperate to be close to a parent. We might feel like teenagers, unsure how the growth will show itself next, or how we’ll feel or what we’ll believe tomorrow. We might be like middle-aged adults, a little smug and tired, and wondering if God can really show us anything new. Or we might even feel like we’ve already done about as much as we can do—the good news this day and always is that God is not finished with us yet.

Wherever we are, whoever we are, we can be confident in the adventure of faith because God is with us. Just as God reminded Jeremiah that he was known in the womb before he was born, God has also consecrated us and chosen us. God knows each of us. God knows our fears and our limitations, but God also knows our potential and what we are made for.

As we learn to leave the cozy places of our faith, let us grow together— in love and mercy, in grace and forgiveness, and in joy and strength.

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

 

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Spiritual Gifts

wedding-feast-at-cana-mosaicA  sermon for the Second Sunday after The Epiphany, January 20, 2019.  The scriptures are Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, and John 2:1-11.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Many of you are probably familiar with he Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts.” The first verse sings,

Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be…

And that truly is a gift, isn’t it:  to come down where we ought to be, to have that feeling of, “yes,” this place is just right, this job is just right, this relationship is just right, this prayer is just right.

“Simple gifts” does keep things simple, but sometimes it’s not so simple to recognize a gift.  Especially if we think of what St. Paul refers to as “spiritual gifts” in today’s Letter to the Corinthians—things are not always so simple.

In, and around the Church, when we think of “spiritual gifts,” a lot of us tend to think of those obvious and extreme kinds of gifts—speaking in tongues and the gift of interpretation, such as occurred on the Day of Pentecost and happens now among Pentecostal Christians.  Or, in parts of Appalachia and elsewhere, there are Christians who read a few verses of scripture, take them literally, and believe that God gives them the spiritual gift to handle live snakes while in a kind of deep prayer or trance.  Another spiritual gift that stands out is healing. And so, there are certain spiritual gifts that really stand out and we’re likely to think they belong only to a few.

But notice the long list of spiritual gifts Paul mentions in today’s reading:

the gift of wisdom,
knowledge,
faith,
healing,
working of miracles,
prophecy,
discernment,
speaking in tongues and the gift of interpreting what is spoken

Later, in the same chapter, Paul adds other gifts—in no way meaning to be exclusive in his listing, but to expand what we think of as a spiritual gift.  He adds the gifts of teaching, of administration, of offering assistance, of doing “deeds of power” (which are not necessarily miracles, but simply a good project well-conceived, followed-through, and completed, all for the glory of God.

And perhaps that’s what makes a “spiritual gift” different from another kind of quality or characteristic someone might have.  A spiritual gift comes from God and works with God to somehow enlarge and expand, a spiritual gift works somehow and some way in the unfolding of God’s kingdom.

And while spiritual gifts come from God, we often need other people of faith to see the gifts that are within us.

I bet each of us can think of a teacher, a family member, a neighbor, or a mentor who looked at us and noticed something we hadn’t quite yet noticed.  That person said, “you’re really good at this… have you ever thought of doing it more?  Sometimes it takes another person to work as a kind of spiritual mirror before we can see the gifts within ourselves.

This weekend our country remembers Martin Luther King, Jr. and reflects on his legacy.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was clearly a prophet, but that prophecy didn’t come out of nowhere. He had family and community all around him to reflect and grow and nurture that spiritual gift within him.  As he wrote, “I’m just a Baptist preacher…. this is my being and my heritage. For I am also the son of a Baptist preacher, the grandson of a Baptist preacher and the great-grandson of a Baptist preacher” (King, “The Un-Christian Christian”).  Whenever he doubted himself, King not only had God supporting him, but he also had that whole line of folks among the Communion of Saints who cheered him on and who prayed for him.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision shocked people and shocks some people still—but that’s a part of being a prophet.  In our first reading, Isaiah is shocking the people of God who have felt lost, abandoned and cut off.  Isaiah shocks them awake by saying, not only has God never forgotten you for a minute, but God loves you with a love that surpasses marriage and the greatest love affair imaginable—“You shall be called by a new name . . . .You shall be a crown of beauty . . . . You shall be called My Delight . . .”

There’s a bit of prophecy in today’s Gospel, the Gospel also includes a number of other things—the first of Jesus’s signs, the enlargement of God’s realm, the making of little into much—but it’s also about the unveiling and use of spiritual gifts.

The Virgin Mary exercises several spiritual gifts in this story.  She has the gift of discernment—of “reading a room,” and taking in a situation and seeing it not only for what it is, but also for what it can become.  She has a gift of encouragement, as she suggests doing something to Jesus.

If we think back a couple of weeks, we recall how Mary, soon after receiving the news that she would bear the Son of God, visited her relative Elizabeth.  Elizabeth seems to have worked as a kind of spiritual mirror for Mary, helping Mary see within herself the grace, the blessedness, the faith, and the strength to follow God.  Mary’s gifts of discernment and faith grow and increase.

In today’s Gospel, we see Mary a little older and Jesus a young man. When they attend the wedding, it’s Mary’s gifts that save the day.  She tells Jesus, “Do something.” And we hear his comment that sounds a little like a snarky teenager to a parent.  I think this is one of those rare windows in which we see Jesus developing as the Son of God, as he slowly realizes his own spiritual gifts.  I imagine Mary shooting Jesus one of those looks that only a mother can give—the kind of look that says, “You know what to do, now stop complaining and do it.”

And Jesus does it. He makes the miracle of water into wine—not so much for the wonder of the miracle itself but for what it shows and promises.  It says, “this is how God works.  God stirs up abilities and talents and strengths within each of us that we never might have imagined.  And miracles will occur.”

Elizabeth provides a mirror for Mary.
Mary provides a mirror for Jesus.
And Jesus, as the Risen Christ who shines through each of us, provides a mirror for us, and through us, for one another.

One of the great blessings of “being Church” is that we have a room of holy mirrors—the saints in the windows and the saints in the pews.  Let the Holy Spirit stir up spiritual gifts in you.  And let the Spirit use you to stir up, encourage, and enflame spiritual gifts in the people near you.  It’s the easy work of the world to criticize, to see what’s lacking, or to measure, quantify, or assess. But it’s the work of the Spirit of God to unveil, to encourage, to embolden, and to nurture spiritual gifts.

That great Shaker hymn I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon continues on . . .

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ‘round right.

I like the “turning, turning,” the re-turning in that hymn, because it suggests to me that, as people of faith we are always learning, growing, turning and returning to God.  As long as we live on this earth, and perhaps beyond, God’s Spirit fan and inflames spiritual gifts within us.  May we be attentive and faithful to grow.

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

 

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The Rector’s Annual Report: Baptized for Mission

Easter 2017 processionThe Annual Meeting of The Church of the Holy Trinity was held on January 13, 2019. The rector’s annual report and overview of 2018 was given in the form of the sermon. The scripture readings for The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ are Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Introduction: The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Today is our annual parish meeting and like many churches, 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 as the sermon, as I try to draw some connections between the scripture readings we have just heard and my sense of our previous year in faith and mission.

This First Sunday after the Epiphany is known as The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, asking us to notice that in his baptism, Jesus opens a way for us to new life in this world and beyond.  The scriptures point to the baptism of Jesus and invite us to remember our own baptism. In the first reading, God says through the Prophet Isaiah, “Do not fear, I have redeemed you… When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” John the Baptist brings a message of baptism for repentance of sins, but as he baptizes Jesus we see that baptism not only is about our being washed and made clean, but baptism also has something to do with our being bathed in God’s love.  Through baptism, God says to each of us, “You are my child, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And so, from the scriptures and from our own tradition, we see that Baptism empowers us to live in the fullness of God’s love and that means at least three things:  it means 1) we get wet, 2) we make a splash, and 3) we share the water.

Living Out our Baptism: Getting Wet
As I look back over our year of faith together in 2018, I can see how we have tried to live out our baptismal vows.  First, we’ve “gotten wet.”

By “getting wet,” I mean that we are baptized—either as infants, children, or sometimes as adults, but also we live into that baptism as we deepen our faith, as we question, as we learn, as we grow together.  The Church often calls this Christian Formation.  Many of us grew up talking about Christian Education, but more recently, people have come to recognize that growing in Christ is about more than our minds—it’s about our whole being, so we are “formed” increasingly in the image of Christ.

Back in the day (and still, in some parts of our country), as many people attend Christian formation classes and programs as attend a main worship service.  In New York, demographics and the pace of life work against that model, but we do our best.  In 2018, Advent and Lenten Quiet Days (mini-retreats) offered time to go a little deeper and the Sunday morning Adult Christian Education I began in 2016 continued to provide opportunities for learning and growing.  In 2019, we’ll be adding a children’s program again.

I’m grateful to Sarah Montgomery and Eunice Ng for beginning and coordinating the Young Adult gatherings, and though I had nothing to do with it, I’m especially glad for the focus they’ve chosen.  While some churches see young adult fellowships as primarily social, Eunice and Sarah invite people in their 20s and 30s to gather at the rectory for a meal and then they discuss a spiritual issue, a theological question, or a section of the Bible.

Both within and beyond our church, a number of parishioners are involved in Cursillo, a program that invites Christians into renewal and deepening, and they are always eager for new people to go on a Cursillo weekend. (Lydia Colón and Jean Blazina are especially involved.)  Susan Valdes-Dapena and I are active with the Third Order of the Society of St. Francis and in 2018 Holy Trinity enjoyed the fellowship of Third Order Franciscans on a number of occasions.

A big part of our growing in our life with Christ is simply keeping the church family together, and much of the oversight for this particular household of God comes belongs to our Vestry.  I’m grateful to the entire Vestry for a great year together, but especially want to thank the four members who complete their terms this year: Jean Geater, David Liston, Marlin Mattson, and Liz Poole.  Enormous thanks goes to Inez Lambert who has served as a Warden of Vestry for two terms: four years, and now takes a break.

A big way in which we plunged into faith in 2018 involved our participation with the program called Renewal Works.  The basis for the conversation about faith and priorities in faith began with an online survey called the “Spiritual Life Inventory.”  While some of us wrestled with the language of the survey and were frustrated that it didn’t always allow us to answer questions the way we might have preferred, it has begun a good conversation about God in our lives—what we’re experiencing and what we want to experience. We have had remarkable participation: 116 people responded to the Spiritual Life Inventory, which is 89 % of our 2017 average Sunday attendance of 131.  I’m grateful to the Renewal Works Team (Alexandra Harrington Barker, Lydia Colon, Beth Thomas Kleinbart, Joseph Lipuma, Yvonne O’Neal, Ashley Malmfeldt Shepherd, Marlin Mattson, Calvin du Toit, Patsy Weille, Barbara Whitney, and Louisa Young) most of whom attended two long dinner meetings and four workshops to pray, discuss, and imagine the spiritual life of Holy Trinity.  In 2019, the new vestry will continue working with the Renewal Works findings, and you’ll be hearing more about specific ways we want to move forward, trying to meet some of the spiritual needs of our current parish that lead to a growth of those here and those yet to join us.

The results of the Renewal Works survey are interpreted in the context of more than 200 Episcopal Churches who have taken the survey and some 1,800 churches of other denominations.  We discovered that almost half of our 116 respondents fall into the category of “Growing a life with God in Christ.” Another almost-half fall into the initial stage of “Exploring” (28%) or “Deepening” (22%).  This means that there is lots of room to explore, grow, try things, and see where the Spirit leads.

Based on the experiences and results of other churches, there are a series of “best practices” that can become a part of a church’s over the next 2 to 3 years.  These best practices include our working to “get people moving,” “embed the Bible,” “create more ownership” and “pastor the community.”  Embedding the Bible and creating more ownership are aspects of our faith that might have to do with this image of deepening, or, put in terms of our baptism, of “getting wet.”  But the other two best practices from the Renewal Works program have to do with another aspect of our living out our baptism:  making a splash.

In terms of the Renewal Works language, we’ll explore more in the future how better to “get people moving” and “pastor the community,” though in all truth—we already do this pretty well.  We can simply grow and increase our energy and faithfulness.

Living Out our Baptism: Making a Splash
Our “making a splash” begin early in 2018 as many from our parish joined others around the city and the world tried to respond to the political changes in our country and across the globe.  Many of us gathered for the January Women’s March, continuing to advocate for justice and opportunity for women.  Whether the issue has had to do with women, the economy, healthcare, or immigration, many from our parish have prayed deeply for God to show us how to live out our faith in a world that continues to celebrate meanness, selfishness, and quick fixes.

A number of our parishioners “made a splash” in our diocese, with representation on councils and committees and efforts teaming up with other churches.  Our own warden, Yvonne O’Neal, represented us at the triennial national gathering of Episcopalians called General Convention, and served on numerous other boards and task forces, reminding us that our parish is a part of a larger church that stretches through the world.

In Advent of 2018, I visited our link parish of St. Stephen’s with St. John’s in the Diocese of London, preached there, and met many of the parish and parish council.  Again in 2018, our parish and those at St. Stephen’s developed a Lenten devotional together.  Their vicar, the Rev. Graham Buckle, will be visiting us at the end of January and will be preaching here on January 27 and we will continue to think about possibilities for ministry together—learning from each other and growing in our witness to Christ in urban, diverse cities.

Holy Trinity continued to make a splash in our neighborhood, with members serving on Community Board 8, and helping to lead local historical and civic groups.  Our parish was put in a wonderful spotlight on International Women’s Day last March as our own Erlinda Brent received a Woman of Distinction Award from State Assembly member Rebecca Seawright.  Even though Dudley Stone officially retired from serving as artistic director of The Triangle Theatre, Dudley’s standards were maintained as Triangle offered readings and plays that made a theatrical splash but also created a nice sense of community among those who participate and those who attend.

Holy Trinity “made a splash” around possible preservation work on the rectory for the last two years, as we navigated the process of city government, but thanks to the work of Franny Eberhart and others, and the guidance of good real estate attorneys and the encouragement of local officials, the scaffolding is up and work has begun.

You’ll recall that the exterior rectory work has to do with the purchase of the Rhinelander Building 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.  To summarize, the arrangement means that Advantage Testing covers up to $25,000 of our consulting fees, $100,000 of our legal fees in the course of the work, and will pay $10,000 for the first annual inspection, required by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.  Advantage will pay for $1 million in preservation work on the rectory.  Should the cost go above that, the church agrees to be responsible for up to $300,000, and should the costs go above that, Advantage will cover another $300,000.  In no instance will the work go above $1.6 million. Though they are still waiting on additional permits for work, little by little, the work has begun.

And finally (and perhaps obviously, to many) we’ve been making a splash on Sunday evenings with our building’s frequent appearance in the new CBS series, “God Friended Me.”  Even though the intrusion of filming crews and their associated support systems can cause a lot of upheaval, overall, our parish has greatly benefitted from the experience.  The filming will slow down, but we are grateful for the income and the energy and recognition that has come through the series.

Living Out our Baptism: Sharing the Water
Because of our baptism, we are called to get wet, and to make a splash, but we’re also called to share the water with a thirsty world. We are fortunate with our location and the beauty of our building that we attract visitors to all our worship services.  With lay leaders and my musical colleagues Cleve Kersh and Calvyn du Toit, we aim to maintain what the Prayer Book calls “the beauty of holiness” while being welcoming, inviting, and evangelical in the best sense of that word.  We kept our regular worship schedule with the 8 AM service being small and friendly.  The 11 AM service continued with a bit more pageantry but (we hope)  never took itself too seriously.  We moved our 6 PM service into the church from Draesel Hall, and that service continued to be a bit more relaxed and informal.  You may notice we’ve changed the name of our 6 PM service from “Contemporary Eucharist (which makes it sound experimental, or like something it’s not) to “Community Eucharist,” which seems to describe the makeup of our worshipping community that is probably the most porous regarding labels of denomination or religious practice.

We’ve tried to share the water (and some of the wonder that is Holy Trinity) through increased participations in the Sacred Sites Open House Weekend which last year coincided with our May Fair.  With organ demonstrations and tours of the building, we invited people to come inside, to look closely, and to hear a little about this community.  Building on that weekend, Catherine Henihan and Barbara Whitney coordinated a team of tour guides who began offering tours of the church every Sunday after the 11 AM worship service.

Perhaps the busiest and most active way that we shared water with others in 2018—spiritually and literally—was through the programs of Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center (known as HTNC).  Through the leadership of our president David Liston, and an amazing Board, we continued to coordinate amazing ministry on very little overhead. Emma Sebanne lead the kitchen team on Tuesdays to provide a good meal for seniors. Four different teams and our HTNC Board cooked the Saturday evening dinners, and we staffed a shelter for up to 14 homeless men five nights a week, entirely through volunteers who spent the night.  Again, coordinating our volunteer schedule was former Holy Trinity member Melanie Hill, who, even though she lives upstate, she coordinates volunteers remotely.  Our neighbor Mark Roshkind continued to offer supervision and oversight of the shelter volunteers and provided our primary liaison with the Main Chance Drop-in Center.  Huge thanks to all.

Conclusion
We live out our baptism by getting wet, making a splash, and sharing the water, and that’s the great gift of our parish life together.  Baptism also provides a paradigm of life itself—as one dies to sin and rises to new life through baptism, the sacrament foreshadows the moment when we die to this world and rise again to new life.  In 2018 we mourned the deaths of Jackie Albert, and in the larger Holy Trinity family, Sylvia Appenzellar Norell, and Fred Burrell.  Many of you also lost family members and friends, and we included them in our prayers.  We miss them, but we also feel their presence in the whole Company of Saints, who pray for us, wish us well, and offer us strength.

I’m grateful to our parish staff: to Erlinda Brent, who does more than any one job title might ever describe; to Arold Dorsinvil, Ozel Ryant, our sextons, and José Cornier, who joined us this year—they keep things going and always appear at just the right time.  Cleveland Kersh and Calvyn du Toit continue to teach me as they lead us to worship and know God through sound and the silence between the notes. And finally, thanks to all of you who make Holy Trinity your church home.

I was talking to an Episcopal monk at Holy Cross Monastery one day when he asked me about Holy Trinity. I explained that in many ways we are rebuilding: with our congregation, with our understanding of mission, and little by little—with our facilities.  He smiled and said, “In this day, if a church is alive at all, it’s working at rebuilding.” Given the distractions and the challenges of our culture, I think that monk is right. The Holy Spirit is remaking us, reshaping us, and rebuilding us. In 2018, we were blessed to see more people attending, more people participating, donations and outside income on the rise, and little signs that things are improving (a front gate that opens and closes without dragging, major preservation work courtesy of a new neighbor, a new cleaning regimen through HTNC for the basement level of St. Christopher’s House, and other small improvements.)

May God bless us in 2019 and show us new ways to live out our baptism: continuing to get wet, make a big splash, and always and everywhere offer to share the water with others.

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

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Following the Light– No matter what

magi squaredA sermon for the Epiphany, January 6, 2019. The scripture readings are Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7,10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, and Matthew 2:1-12

Listen to the sermon HERE.

In my first year of college I had to pick an elective in science and mathematics. I saw the listing for astronomy and thought that it sounded wonderfully romantic: to read the sky, like sailors and farmers, like the shepherds and the wise men. It would be great, I thought, to learn more about the stars, to spend hours in the university planetarium, to understand more about the cosmos and the Big Bang, and all the other questions.

I could not have been more surprised. Astronomy was much more about math and physics and endless calculations. What I found was that–in my class at least–there was very little romance and lots and lots of reality.

Life can be like that: we look for the stars, we try to follow the stars (our dreams, the direction in which it seems God is leading) but along the way we are stopped from stargazing and wrenched into reality. Stars seem to fall.

We try to hold on to the Light of the World received at Christmas, but we live in a world of refugees and unemployment, a world in which our environment is changing to the point that an eleven-year-old can die from an allergy to the fish his aunt is cooking. We have our own stories of tragedy and challenge—friends or family members to die too young or too quickly, loved ones who slowly drift into a place of dementia, and then there are those people for whom live itself is just really, really difficult.  Following stars becomes difficult when you’re simply trying to survive.

In the part of Matthew’s Gospel that immediately follows what we’ve read today, the Star in the East begins to fade as an angel appears to Mary and Joseph and warns them about King Herod, and so instead of returning home to Nazareth, they go to Egypt. They become refugees, looking for safety until it’s safe to return home.

Following so quickly after the joy of Christmas, just twelve days later, by Epiphany we are met with all the complications of faith—of having to make decisions, of having to leave the familiar, of being urged by God to leave comfort and calm, and to move ahead—sometimes with people we don’t even know very well, sometimes with little to go on in the way of provisions or supplies.

We all have our own version of star-gazing that turns into something else. 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, 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, in order to find God, in order to see 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 Gospel 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, can be 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. May we who know God now by faith, be led into God’s presence, where we may his glory face to face; in the name of God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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New Year, New Name

nameA sermon for January 1, 2019, known as the feast of The Holy Name of Jesus. The scripture readings are Numbers 6:22-27, Psalm 8, Galatians 4:4-7, and Luke 2:15-21.

Listen to the sermon HERE

There’s been a lot of discussion of names in our family recently.  There’s the cousin who is interested in genealogy, the one who has just married into our family and is changing her name, and the ideas, thoughts, and opinions about what the name might be for my much-anticipated great nephew when he is born in a few months.

Today in our church is known as the feast day of The Holy Name of Jesus. Our Roman Catholic friends use today as a special day for the Blessed Virgin Mary, but even there is a focus on the name. The official title of the day is the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God. Theotokos, the Greek name that means “Mother of God” is quite a name. It is a name given by the Church, a name argued about, a name prayed to.  The Orthodox Churches focus on the circumcision of Jesus, that very specific way in which we was named, “flesh and blood,” “human,” and given the name, Jesus.

Eight days after the birth, Jesus is taken to the temple as was customary for the circumcision of the Jewish baby boys. Luke’s Gospel shows us that Mary and Joseph were faithful to the Jewish Law and that Jesus followed their example. According to the law, Jesus was brought to the temple on the eighth day. At the temple, his parents brought offerings and Jesus was blessed by Simeon, with the words we say every day at Evening Prayer.

Jesus was circumcised and dedicated. His mother was blessed and purified. The Holy Family went to Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover. Luke shows us the grown up Jesus who worships in the synagogue, and who fulfills the Law of Moses, the Law of God. He fulfills even as he transforms.

Jesus is given the name that the angel Gabriel had said, the name that is a form of the name Joshua and means, “salvation is from God,” or “salvation is from the Lord.” Salvation is in his name and his saving power continues to work for us.

The life of Jesus saves us from a life lived only to the self. The words of Jesus save us from anything or anyone who would demean us or suggest that we are anything other than a child of God. The healing of Jesus saves us as we pray for wholeness and try to extend his healing to others. The laughter of Jesus saves us from despair. The welcome of Jesus saves us in from the cold. The death of Jesus saves us from the fear of the grave and from dying without a purpose. The resurrection of Jesus saves us from the power of sin to keep us down, the resurrection saves us sin, it saves us— many times—from ourselves.

Jesus saved not only from, but he also saves us for. He saves us for his father, so that God might delight in us his children. Jesus saves us for the kingdom of God, that way of believing and living with one another here-and-now as well as in the future, that way of lifting up one another, encouraging one another and loving one another. Jesus saves us for life—so that in any situation, in any misfortune, in any crisis or calamity we can look through the death to life and to life everlasting.

On this day we celebrate the name that saves and we also celebrate the fact that we share his name. At our baptism, we are given a new name, of sorts, and from that day onward, we live into that Christian name. At our baptism we begin to live into a name that means salvation for each one of us, together but also for each in our own way.

We are together on this first day of a new civil year, perhaps a little sleepy, glad for friends, for celebrations, and for sleep. As we think about a new year and think about those things we might like to do differently, there is the opportunity for us to take on a new name or reclaim an old one. Perhaps that name describes how you’d like to be in the new year. Perhaps a new name marks a transition or a turning point for you. Perhaps it is simply a growing more deeply into a name you have already being growing into.

I leave you with a question like those that appear on the registration forms—by what name would you like to be called this year? By what name is God calling you?

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

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The Power of a Word

Logos (word)

A sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas Day, December 30, 2018. The scripture readings are Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 147, Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7, and John 1:1-18

Listen to the sermon HERE.

We all probably know the rhyme,“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I was taught that saying as a child. But I’m not sure I always believed it then and I don’t really believe it now. Words can hurt. We know it from experience. We see it in the news.  And we know it from history.

Yesterday the Church commemorated Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered on December 29, 1170. Though tensions between Thomas and King Henry II had been brewing, supposedly it was word (or a few words) said in frustration by the king that was then interpreted by the king’s men as a desire to have Thomas killed. And so, in some ways, “a word” killed Thomas Becket.

Words can and do hurt. A little girl thinks she is ugly, does so only because someone has called her ugly. A little boy thinks he’s dumb, not because he is, but because someone has called him dumb. Words shape us. If we were to look back over our lives, I’m sure we could recall times when a word has stuck us as a weapon almost, and it has hurt. Perhaps just as painfully, in a spirit of confession, I bet most of us could recall a time when we’ve used words as weapons and hurt others.

Words can hurt, but words just as surely can heal. A well-chosen and well-placed word can offer encouragement, hope and life.

It is no coincidence that our Biblical account of creation happens by a word. In Genesis we read, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. God said, Let there be this, and let there be that, and after each thing was created, God spoke a single word again: “Good,” God said, “It’s all very, very good.” The Word was busy, shaping and making and proclaiming and blessing.

The Gospel of John picks up on this power of a word to create.

“In the beginning was the Word,” John says, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it….And the Word became flesh.”

When John speaks of the “Word,” the Greek term he uses is Logos, and Logos meant more than just a word, more even than all words put together. Way back in Greek philosophy, in the 3rd century BC, Heraclitus said that the Logos “governs all things.” And yet, the Logos is also present in the everyday. Later, the Stoics took up the idea of the Logos and used it to mean “the principle that orders the universe.” So when John uses Logos, or Word, he’s using a term that would have worked as a kind of hyperlink, culturally. To say that the Word was with God and the Word was God, and then to say that this Word, this ordering principle of the universe is completely summed up in Jesus of Nazareth, John was pulling together a lot of different ways of understanding the world. He was describing in his context, what it meant for God to be born in the world. John used a word to bring together different worlds.

While Jesus was born once in the event we celebrate at Christmas, he is also born again and again in our own lives and in our world wherever we make his love known. One way we can bring Christ into our world in through our words.

Just as we know words can hurt, so, through the love of Christ, our words can take on additional power to heal, to love, and to lift up. Guided by the Holy Spirit, our words can do much more than simply offer kindness—though in our world—that is no small thing. But even more, informed and influenced by the Spirit, our words can offer life and love to those who may have forgotten how such words even sound.

As we look toward a new year, I’m hoping to watch my words very carefully. I’m going to be praying that my words might help and heal rather than criticize or tear down. I invite you also to think about your words, pray about your words, and may God guide us all to speak truth, to speak for justice and to speak in love.

Remembering Psalm 19, “May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our heart be acceptable in sight of the Lord, our strength and our redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14)

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

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The Secret Word of Christmas

grace

A sermon for Christmas Day, December 25, 2018. The scriptures are Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-4,(5-12), and John 1:1-14.

In the late 1980s there was a very silly television program called “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.”  It was intended for children, but it was also entertaining to my friends in college and seminary.  One aspect of the show that found its way into popular culture was Pee Wee’s “secret word.”  At the beginning of each show, the live audience and the viewer would be shown a “secret word.”  Then, Pee Wee would try to get various residents of the wacky playhouse and neighborhood to say the secret word.  When a person said the word, all madness would break out:  lights would go off and on, people would scream and laugh, furniture would move around, and the house itself would shake.

Our liturgy for Christmas Day doesn’t have a “secret word” as such, but if it did, that would might be the simple-yet-complicated word, “Grace.” In an opinion piece for the New York Times on Sunday, Peter Wehner wrote about grace. He recalled the story in which a number of religious authorities were gathered and were discussing what, if anything, made Christianity different from other religions.  The story goes that C.S. Lewis was asked for his opinion and said, “Oh, that’s easy.  It’s grace.”

I don’t mean the kind of grace that has to do with fluidity and ease, with flow or even kindness.  I mean the other kind of grace— the pure free gift that comes when we least deserve it.  Someone forgives us when they have no real reason to do so:  that’s grace.  We’re freed from a burden that’s weighed us down too long, and we aren’t even sure of how that freedom came—that’s grace.  God comes to Mary with Grace.  God comes into our world as grace.  And through the mystery of the cross—the death and resurrection of Jesus—it is grace that frees us from the power of sin, the trap of evil, and even from death itself.

In the back of our Book of Common Prayer there is a catechism.  One of the questions asks simply, “What is grace?”  And the answer is that “Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.”  That’s some power little word.

In Peter Wehner’s article, he points out the counter-intuitiveness of grace. He quotes Bono of U2, who says, “Grace defies reason and logic,” as Bono, the lead singer of U2, put it. “Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions.”

If grace were a secret word like on Pee Wee Herman’s show, lights would go off and on, the room would shake, all creation would be animated, and we be shouting for joy.  If we remembered that grace IS God’s word, and God’s action, and God’s movement, and God’s love in the world and in our lives—perhaps we’d accept that grace a little more, and perhaps even we’d become better at extending a little grace to others.

The writer Frederick Buechner puts it this way:

The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.

There’s only one catch. [Buechner adds]. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only i8f you’ll reach out and take it.  (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, p. 34).

Thanks be to God for the gift of himself through Jesus Christ—who shows us how to live, but also who dies to sin and death in such a way that gives us eternal life, eternal love, and eternal grace.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Remembering how God comes into the World

abstract nativityA sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2018.  The scriptures are Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, and Luke 2:1-20

Listen to the sermon HERE.

I began this Christmas Eve the way I’ve begun for years—organizing my morning around the 10 AM live broadcast of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge. Even though I listen to that service every year and I often listen to Choral Evensong on BBC 3 online, there is a part of me that still bristles—or if not, “bristle,” as least I notice—when we pray for the Queen. Of course, we pray for the President in our services and for our other leaders, but something about praying for the Queen sends a little shock through my American heart.

I think a part of my attention to prayers for royalty has to do with my ambivalence around authority, in general. Deep down, I’m a rebel and I question all authority. But there’s another part of me that longs for a leader—I want political leaders to be smart, savvy, broadminded, and honest. I want religious leaders to be holy, and moral, and good, and humble. I want academic leaders to be honest and brilliant. I want business leaders to be creative and ethical and entrepreneurial— all at the same time.

With all my expectations of other people, it will not surprise you that I’m often disappointed. As a wise friend of mine cautions me to remember, “Expectations lead to resentments.”

What startles me in the Christmas story this year is so basic and fundamental, it’s embarrassing to say out loud. But I need reminding—yearly, weekly in church, daily in my prayers.

At the Incarnation, the moment of God’s disclosure we name as Christmas, God did not come to the powerful. God did not come to the wealthy, the well-respected, the morally upright, the religious officials, the rulers, emperors, kings and queens. Some of them would come to God—eventually, though it would be difficult, as difficult (using Jesus’s words) as a camel walking through the eye of a needle—yet (also, as Jesus points out) all things are possible with God. (Matthew 19:24-25).

God comes to Mary, a poor, young, Jewish woman living on the outskirts of Nazareth.
God comes to Joseph, an older tradesman, a carpenter.
God comes to the shepherds, the field hands, the roving workers, the ones who live among the animals, close to the ground.
The Magi or Wise men or Kings come later, but they make it through that proverbial “eye of the needle” by risking everything in order to follow the newborn messiah. They put their reputations on the line; the put their lives on the line, and in so doing, their material riches are transformed into the riches of a spiritual poverty.

Saint Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of San Salvador, spoke honestly about this in a Christmas Eve sermon in 1978. He said,

No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God—for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God., Emmanuel, God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God. The Violence of Love: The Pastoral Wisdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero, Harper & Row, 1988.

My conflicted relationship with authority continues. I will keep on trying to hold bishops, business leaders, and politicians accountable. But I’m going to try to remember the Christmas Story and the Gospel, that the way God comes into the world—FIRST—always and everywhere, is to the poor, the needy, the forgotten, and the friendless. Whenever I make myself poor—by giving up, by simplifying, by sharing, and by serving—I will experience new life in God.

Christ was born in Bethlehem. But Christ is also born in our world and wants to be born anew in each of us.

May this Christmas bring us a renewed sense of Christ’s life in us and around us and may we have new faith in the Light of the World.

Amen.

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