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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The Power of Words

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

The written version of the sermon is here: 

In mid-January, our Adult Education Classes will begin a study and discussion of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Re-reading Eliot made me pick up other Eliot, and I reread one of my favorite Eliot works, the play, “Murder in the Cathedral.”

As many know, “Murder in the Cathedral” retells the story of the power struggle between the 12th century King of England, Henry II, and his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. Becket’s feast day is this Tuesday, December 29, the anniversary of the day in which he was killed in Canterbury Cathedral. In the various historical and legendary accounts, it seems as though Thomas dies because of a word. A word misplaced by the king. A word mis-spoken. A word mis-heard. Though tensions between Thomas and Henry had been brewing, the story is that a word (or a few words) said in frustration by the king were interpreted by the king’s men as a desire to have Thomas killed. A “word” killed Thomas Becket.

Words matter. They 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. I remember well the morning of my ordination to the priesthood. There were seven of us to be ordained. Our families, friends, and parishes had all gathered at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. We were already nervous when the Canon for Liturgy asked all of us seven to meet the bishop in a side chapel. We immediately wondered if someone’s paperwork had not come through, or if there were some scandal brewing that no one knew about. Every conceivable problem went through our minds. And then the bishop came into the chapel.

Taking a deep breath, he prefaced his remarks as you might imagine—commenting on the gravity of the day, the ontological change about to take place in our souls, the life for which we would be responsible for living in the future, and then he said, “So, I have something to say to you that I hope you’ll remember. Be nice.” Just a couple of words—well- chosen words that I complete fail at remembering or living out—but words I aim for.

It is no coincidence that our Biblical account of creation happens by a word. “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.

May God be in our head, and in our understanding;
God be in our eyes, and in our looking;
God be in our mouth, and in our speaking;
God be in our heart, and in our thinking;
God be at our end, and at our departing.

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

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God’s Search for a Home

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: 

In the year 1061, in Walsingham, in the East of England, a woman named Richeldis had a dream. In this dream, the Virgin Mary appeared and showed Richeldis the Holy House of Nazareth, the home where Mary lived with her parents, Joachim and Anna. This is where the Angel Gabriel came to greet her at the Annunciation. This is the place where first Jesus entered our world and became incarnate before being born in Bethlehem.

In the dream, Mary asked Richeldis to build a replica of the house there in Walsingham. A medieval poem (the Pynson Ballad) explains Mary’s reasoning: “All who are in any way distressed, or in need, let them seek me there in that little house you have made at Walsingham.  To all that seek me there shall be given succor.  And there at Walsingham in this little house shall be held in remembrance the great joy of my salutation when St Gabriel told me I should through humility become the mother of God’s Son.”

Walsingham became one of the great pilgrimage sites in the Middle Ages, along with Jerusalem and Compostela in Spain. I’m partial to Walsingham because part of my family is distantly from that area. But even as I talk about Our Lady of Walsingham, that particular appearance of the Virgin Mary, I can almost hear my various ancestors arguing about her.  The Beddingfields who were priests and monks and nuns would be defending her. But the Methodist Floyds would perhaps be less enthusiastic. 

If you want to see an image of Our Lady of Walsingham, you can go to St. Thomas Church or the Church of the Resurrection.  But in some ways, the fact that Holy Trinity has no particular stature or shrine or chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary actually makes the point of today’s scriptures.  God wants to make a home with us—and that’s what the Virgin Mary points to again and again.  

In our first lesson (2 Samuel 7:1-1,16) there’s a lot of restlessness. King David is in his new house and he wants the same for his God. David wants to build a temple for God. “Here I am living in a great house of cedar, but the Lord God, Creator of the Universe, Ruler of Heaven and Earth, has to camp out in a tent.” And indeed, this is the way God has been moving around. Symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant (the chest containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments) has moved around with the people of God with great care.

But God doesn’t want a house—not yet, anyway. God’s not ready. God says, “No David, I’ve got something else in mind.” “I’ve not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.” I will make YOU a house, a dwelling to last forever.”

The word translated as tabernacle can mean several different things. It means “dwelling” and “residence.” Later, when Solomon does build a house for God, a temple, the tabernacle is a special part of that temple, in the sanctuary.

The aumbry, the little cupboard in the wall of our sanctuary is our tabernacle—it’s the place where the Holy Sacrament is reserved when we are not celebrating Holy Communion.  It’s where the sanctuary light burns to show that the Reserved Sacrament is inside.  It’s one dwelling place for God, but it’s not the only one. Even when a physical temple is built, the sense that God pitches a tent with his people is never lost.

We can see from God’s conversation with King David that God has a special place in mind. People thought then and (sometimes) now that God meant a physical place—a building, or a city, or country. But God means a person. God has a special place for Mary as a tabernacle, a dwelling place, a home from which other homes will also be born.

Karl Barth, one of the greatest Reformed theologians of the twentieth century wrote about Mary as “the moment” in our history when we were cleared of our sin, made holy by grace, and made ready to receive God’s presence, God’s Incarnation.  He wrote of Mary as that moment when God brought all these things together, for us.

And that moment is extended and reflected upon in today’s Gospel.

God chooses Mary as the new temple, the place to be born, to live and grow. This happens not so that Jesus can be a good guy, touch people for a few years, and then die a criminal’s death on the cross. Instead, God moves through the cross and brings Jesus to new life, continuing the story of salvation through the power of the cross. The cross redeems Adam and Eve. The cross raises Jesus, and redeems Mary the New Eve, and in so doing the cross creates a way for us.

Though we may cringe at the old phrase of “accepting Jesus in our heart”—it can remind us of evangelical coercion and religious bigotry—“accepting Jesus in our heart” is really what Christianity is all about. It’s about allowing God to be born in each one of us. Becoming a Christian involves allowing God to make a home in our heart, to dwell with us, to camp with us.

Not only is there a way is made for us to live eternally, but also here, in this life, we are made more. By allowing God to live in us, our hearts grow larger and more generous. As fear falls away, we grow in faith. We grow in forgiveness and acceptance and mercy. We grow in God.

The Good News of this day and this season is that God had a place for Mary. (From the beginning, through the Wisdom literature, with the prophets, in exile and in deliverance, in the Gospel, even on Calvary, and also on Easter Day.)

But the Good News is that God wants a place with us, as well.  We are not accidents. We did not “just happen.” Since the beginning of time, God has imagined you, and desired you, and loved you. God wants to be born anew in you and me and all the world, that the angels may have even more to sing about.

St. Ambrose, the 5th century bishop of Milan, in a commentary on the Gospel of Luke, urges us to

Let Mary’s soul be in each of you to proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Let her spirit be in each to rejoice in the Lord. Christ has only one mother in the flesh, but we all bring forth Christ in faith. Every soul receives the Word of God . . . [Our soul] proclaims the greatness of the Lord, just as Mary’s soul magnified the Lord and her spirit rejoiced in God her Savior.

Christians the world over sometimes refer to Mary as “full of grace.”  But the Blessed Virgin Mary is full of grace so that we might be too. Mary is blessed so that we might be too. Mary is made holy so that we might be holy too.

In this strange year of Christmas during Covid, most us will be celebrating a much more “homey” Christmas.  Though we will miss the caroling, the parties, the big gatherings, the packed church services—in some ways, this year invites us to be a little closer to that first Christmas.  Mary and Joseph had no real home. They didn’t know what the future would bring. They lived as refugees for a time, dependent on others, totally dependent on God.

On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, may we welcome God into our lives to fill the homes of our hearts, so that Christ will be born in new ways in US.

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

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Joy breaking in

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

Though Rev. Ousley offered the sermon today (you can see the full version in the videos of 11AM or 6PM, Father Beddingfield’s thoughts follow here: 

It’s the Third Sunday of Advent and Joy is a theme that runs throughout the worship, prayers, and music of the church. 

In today’s first scripture reading, from Isaiah 61, the prophet brings joy to a people in exile who are longing to go home. “He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,” Isaiah says. “To bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; . . . to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” A joyful message, indeed.

The psalm of the day can be replaced with the Song of Mary, Magnificat, which is what we have done at Holy Trinity. Mary is very much in mind as the church has just celebrated the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary on December 8, and then on December 12, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mary’s particular revelation to the Americas. The Song of Mary, Magnificat, sings of God’s promise and power to do justice, to make things right, to lift up the poor and lowly, and the fill the hungry with good things.

The Gospel continues the theme of joy, but here, the joy goes further and is transformed into light. John the Baptist explains that his job is a little like Mary’s: to magnify, to point to the light, to testify to the light, and to bear witness.

And so, today, with the prophets, with Mary, and with John the Baptist, we too are invited to bear witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ, and to share the joy of his good news.  But that’s not always easy, is it?

In Sunday’s sermon, the Rev. Doug Ousley, honorary assistant at Holy Trinity, talked about how it’s hard to find joy or comfort when we’re grieving, or when we’re mourning loss. But he suggested a tactic which he calls Constructive Mourning–it’s not a magic cure, but it can be, at times, a way forward, a way out of feeling stuck.

The first step is to acknowledge the loss, be honest about the grief. Don’t just brush it off, but really name it and sit with it.

The second step is to ask yourself where it fits in order of importance in your world. Is it something that you’ve lost, but are ready to leave behind, or is it something larger, that in beyond you.

Third, is to take some sort of action. You might do a particular ritual, or engage in new behavior, like getting into social media, calling someone, or writing a letter. Or you might pray, which is active, and it’s free.

Fourth, is to allow God to take over. Prayer begins this process, but it can also happen through memory, as we re-member, bring into the presence what has happened in the past, God can take the memory and make something of it. The Holy Eucharist is a memorial, a re-membering, in which God brings forward what was long ago, but transforms the past through memory into a blessing for today.

Even if the joy feels a little faint, breaking into our world this season, there is hope. There is life ahead. And there is even more joy to come.

Let us pray:

Lord Jesus, light of the world, John the Baptist told the people to prepare, for you were very near. As Christmas grows closer day by day, help us to be ready to welcome you now. Amen.

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Something’s coming!

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

Read a version of the sermon here:

The Collect of the Day (the prayer we prayed at the very beginning of our worship ) names two major themes for this Second Sunday of Advent: repentance and preparation. But if we think about it within the context of how things really work in life, one of those themes actually includes the other. Preparation usually includes and involves repentance.

Repentance, we know, is not just about saying “I’m sorry.” It’s not just apologizing or feeling regretful about something. It’s about change. Repentance is about turning from one thing to another. It’s about movement, reversal, and return. Repentance is often about cleaning up and throwing out.

And so, repentance is a part of preparation. When a person prepares to sell an apartment or a house, the person cleans it up and sometimes makes some changes. It might be painted. Repairs might be made. Furniture may be removed as a part of the preparation. Someone expecting a child prepares by giving up space and time. Space is made ready. A room might be taken over. Some things might be gotten rid of, changes are made—and then there’s the clearing of the schedule, of work or commitments—all a part of the preparation.

In our first scripture reading, Isaiah speaks of preparation. God will send a prophet, Isaiah says, who will sing a song of comfort and mercy. Prepare a place for God, he says. The mountains and valleys will be cleared, the rough places smoothed out. Things are going to get cleaned up and thrown out. It may not always be pretty. It may take a while. But in the end, fear itself will be banished, making room for God and the Word of God. Isaiah’s word begins and ends with “Comfort. Comfort, my people.”

That prophet “who is to come” DOES come in today’s Gospel. He comes in the form of John the Baptist. This strange looking and sounding John comes as a voice (a little bit like Isaiah’s voice) crying in the wilderness: repent, get ready, something good is coming. He is preaching repentance, but notice that he’s asking, pleading, hoping for people to repent not for the sake of holiness, but in order to prepare. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he says. “Clear way,” “make room,” do what you need to do, but prepare.”

Though I love all the great hymns of Advent, and am always grateful for how Cleve Kersh choses the music we sing and enjoy, I also think of a secular song that would match the mood of this Second Sunday of Advent.  It’s Tony’s song from West Side Story:

Something’s coming, something good, If I can wait!
Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is, But it is gonna be great! ….
It’s only just out of reach, Down the block, on a beach, Maybe tonight . . .

Maybe this morning or this afternoon. So get ready.

John the Baptist is very clear about his job.  He understands his role is to make the announcement, to try to get people ready, to warm up the crowd. He prepares, but he’s very clear that another will come, Jesus, who will actually accomplish the work of God.

This is a crucial piece to Christian discipleship, I think—understanding what we’re called to do, and what we’re NOT called to do.

The task for us, as Christian disciples, is to follow in the work of John, to prepare the way for God’s coming, but to also understand the scope of our calling. While we do our part, it’s God’s job to finish things. The work is ours, but the results belong to God. The outcome belongs to God.

As people who try to live and function in what we call the “real world,” this is hard because we like results. We like to achieve, to prove, to finish. We set goals and we like to realize them.

But the spiritual world moves in a different way. God is in charge of the way things turn out. We work. We pray. We hope. We do our part, but then we come to a point of having to let go, of waiting in faith and watching as God continues to work, and God’s will unfolds.

We’ve all probably heard the phrase, “Let go and let God.” And if you’re at all like me, you’ve probably rolled your eyes at it once or twice.  It can sound a little simplistic or naïve. It can sound like someone is avoiding responsibility and passively waiting out all of life’s storms.  But the phrase really assumes another piece:  that we’ve prepared.

We can prepare our children for the world, but we can’t control the way they turn out.
We can prepare our bodies for aging and for stress, but there’s a point where we have to trust in doctors and science, and pray for God’s healing.  We’ve all seen this past year, we can plan and prepare, but especially when a pandemic shows up, everything is changed.

John the Baptist preaches PREPARATION, but he also assures us that we won’t be alone. “One who is more powerful (than me) is coming …. And he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” We have that Holy Spirit—with us, in us, guiding, shaping, comforting, reconstructing, and always burning with faith and hope.  

This Advent can invite us to prepare in at least three different ways. Some of us might be called to prepare through repentance—by turning from old habits, practices, or thought patterns in order to create some space for God to do a new thing.  Repentance can call us to let go of resentments or grudges and leave them in the wilderness as God’s Spirit calls us forward.

A second way Advent invites us is to prepare through HOPE.  As the whole world prepares to make way for a Covid-19 vaccine and its distribution, we’re hopeful.  Things are going to get better, and if we can just hold on for a little while longer, we’ll get there.

But a third way the season invites us is through FAITH—by trusting and letting God be in charge of the results.  The pandemic has changed our world and some things will be different on the other side. We can prepare ourselves—our relationships, our work and vocations, our exercise and health habits, our spiritual life—but God will surely surprise us.

Thomas Merton wrote that “The Advent mystery in our own lives, is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.”   (Seasons of Celebration, p. 95)

May we prepare this season with repentance, with hope, and with faith.

Amen.

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God’s not finished with us (or creation) yet!

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

Read a version of the sermon here:

For the past few years, I’ve developed a routine for the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend—a routine of cleaning.  Usually, I’m full of pre-Advent anticipation, as I try to get the rectory read for the holiday receptions, gatherings, parties, and dinners to come. This year, sadly, I am cleaning for no guests, but cleaning, anyway.  As I try to dust the bookcases in the living room, I try to clean up the books, but even more, I dust my face jugs.

Many of you have seen them – these pottery jugs with faces on them that I’ve collected since college.  Most of mine come from the Piedmont and Mountain areas of North Carolina. Some say the practice of making jugs with faces on them came from African slaves and had to do with burial rites or memorial practices. Another tradition suggests that the ugliest face jugs were made to keep moonshine, and they were made ugly so they’d scare children away.

I like them because they come from the earth near where my people are from and they make me laugh.

And sometimes, they make me think. I wonder about the faces. Was the potter thinking about a particular person? When the face is especially ugly or contorted, was the potter using the clay as a kind of exercise in aggression– making a version of someone in particular’s face, and then making it look really ugly? Or was the potter somehow conveying something the potter felt deep inside?

If anyone has ever worked with clay, you know that the object made really does come from the potter. It is shaped by the potter’s hands. Its image comes from the potter’s mind. The potter’s time and talent are expressed in the object. And sometimes, given the ingredients of the glaze or paint that might be used (especially in the old days of using lead glazes); the potter actually risks his or her personal health in crafting the object.

In firing up a kiln, in overseeing the process, sometimes the potter bears marks or wounds that result directly from the process of making pottery. For all of these reasons, it makes sense that Isaiah would use the image of the potter and the clay to express an aspect of our creation and existence from God.

In today’s reading Isaiah begins by lamenting the condition of the world. “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence . . . to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” Isaiah is tired of people ignoring God and God’s ways, and so he’s asking God a question that comes up again and again in the scriptures, and maybe comes up in our own prayers—“Get ‘em, God. Make them pay. Why do you let the wicked prosper? Why don’t you do more for the poor and the oppressed?” Isaiah goes on for a bit, ranting and railing at God. But then, in the midst of his prayer, Isaiah begins to reconsider. Like a little child who throws a tantrum and then finally, exhausted, falls into the arms of her mother, Isaiah falls back into the arms of God. “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father.” And then, the line I like so much, “we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

Isaiah begins in a vengeful, angry place and eventually moves to one of compassion. We might expect that in a prophet from the Hebrew Scriptures, but we may be surprised when we encounter language of wrath and vengeance from Jesus. But that’s what it sounds like in today’s Gospel.

Jesus speaks out of a tradition of Jewish apocalyptic literature, an old tradition in which people of faith looked to God to come and save them, especially when things in this world looked bad. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Ezekiel, and especially Daniel, all contain sections thought of as apocalyptic literature—literature that looks for the end of the world as we know it, as God ushers in a new reality for those who have kept the faith. The New Testament also has apocalyptic literature, most famously in the Book of Revelation, sometimes called simply, “The Apocalypse.” But there are also “little apocalypses,” Mark 13, (Matthew 24, and Luke 21). Biblical scholars debate which parts of this chapter might be original to Mark the Evangelist, and even which portions might accurately be attributed to Jesus. But in the general tone of his words, and in the context of our reading and hearing this Gospel on the First Sunday of Advent, I think Jesus is, indeed, speaking.

Christ tells us that everything has a process. Baking a loaf of bread has a preparation time, a time in which changes can be made and the actual bread formed and set, and then a time when the bread is baked and either must be eaten, given away, or will go bad. Everything has a process. People are born, grow mature, and eventually die. The world itself is created, groans and grows through maturity, and will one day come to an end. Jesus is saying simply this: God is not finished with us yet. The end is not quite here. It may be tomorrow. Or it may be hundreds or thousands of years away. We don’t know, and it doesn’t accomplish much to muse on it. It will come when it will come. The point is—we’re in the middle now. There is still time.

It’s as though we’re a jug being fashioned into something by a potter. The clay has been dug, we’re being shaped and formed and molded. Once we’re put into the kiln and glazed, it’s too late. Like those face jugs I have—their faces, whether they sneer, or laugh, or have an evil grin, or gracious smile—once they’re fired and glazed, they’re stuck. We’re like those jugs, except that we’re still on the potter’s wheel. We are still in God’s hands, able to be shaped and changed, and formed for good, formed for love.

Today we begin the season of Advent, a season of waiting and watching, a season of God making and remaking things new. The symbols are all around us. The purpose reminds us of he way in which Christ as King of Kings reinterprets power through love, and shows leadership through service. The Advent wreath is another symbol of our waiting for increasing light, as each Sunday, another candle is lit. Those who keep Advent Calendars wait actively, as they open one window or door each day– a reminder that every new day brings a surprise from God.

The lessons we’ve heard today are not meant to scare us into right living or to make us so preoccupied with the Christ’s coming that we miss the holy right before us. Just the opposite. The intention is that we treasure each day, live it as best we can, and rejoice in the fact that we are all in process. 

The world may seem beyond repair, but the good news is that God isn’t finished with it yet. Our families may seem broken, but God isn’t finished yet. Our relationships may seem completely out of shape, our own lives might seem like a badly formed clump of clay, but the good news—the really great news, is that God the Potter is not finished with us yet.

May this season bring us increasing light, increasing joy, and increasing love.

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

 

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