One Body

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

In today’s first reading, from the Book of Nehemiah, you can almost feel the excitement. All the people of Israel are gathered into a great square, like some huge event in Central Park when people absolutely fill the Sheep Meadow. And so all the people of Israel are waiting in anticipation for the chief scribe, the head religious leader, Ezra, to read from the sacred scroll. Ezra gets the book of the law of Moses and reads from it for several hours. The people listen. The men and the women hear and they understand what God is saying. Ezra blesses the Lord God, giving God thanks and praise, and the people all cry, “Amen, amen.” The people then worship.

But they also seem to lose heart. The scripture doesn’t go into detail about it, but it sounds like the gravity of the importance, the weight of the Word of God, all of this somehow begins to weigh the people down. Maybe they begin to realize that they have not lived up to God’s expectations. Maybe they feel like they are unworthy of the ways in which God is blessing them. Maybe they wonder even why they have been spared some of the misfortune, and disease, and calamity that has befallen other people.

However it is that the people begin to feel the burden of God’s love, Nehemiah, Ezra, and all the religious leaders tell the people an amazing thing. They say, “This day is holy to the LORD your God.” But then they go on to say what that means. Because it is a holy day, they say, “Don’t mourn. Don’t weep.” Nehemiah offers more encouragement, as he explains, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine . . . send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared.” And again, he says, “for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” The joy of the Lord is your strength.

It’s sometimes hard to hear the joy in scripture, and perhaps especially hard to hear that joy as being offered to us, or directed towards us. So many of us are predisposed to hear judgment in scripture or to come to church and always feel reminded of some way in which we’ve fallen short of the image of God. But look at how Jesus “reads, marks, and inwardly digests” the Word of God when he goes to the temple and it’s his turn to read. He reads the words, and understands them to be straight from God. Jesus hears them as words from his Father.

Of course, those words weren’t originally meant for him. They first came from Isaiah, describing one who is to come:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

And yet, as grand and glorious as that vision may sound, the vision of one who is specially chosen, anointed even, to bring good news, proclaim release, to heal, to free… Rabbis and other theologians have also understood that they do not just refer to Cyrus of Persia, who allowed exiled Israel to return home. The words do not just refer to Jesus, who heals and frees and brings good news. The words of Isaiah also refer to us.

If we thought they referred to us individually, and took them seriously, we might feel a little like those people we heard about in our first reading, the people in the Book of Nehemiah. If I thought it was all my job to all those things Isaiah mentions, and those same things that Jesus reads, I would either work myself into a pious frenzy and pretend to be pleasing God, or I would absolutely despair.

While I think we are meant to take those words personally, and to evaluate our faithfulness by them, we’re not meant to do it individually. We’re not in this alone. As someone has said, there is no such thing as an individual Christian. To be a Christian means to be in community with others who seek to follow Jesus Christ. We look for others to add to our community not so that we can fill committees, or have more people to help at the altar or coffee hour, or to help pay the bills—we look for others because the more we interact with other people, the more we see the contours and complexities in the face of God.

The scary news comes today from Nehemiah: that the Word of God can convict us and startle us. The even scarier news comes from the Gospel: that the Word of God shows us how and who we should be. The really Good News is fine-tuned in Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, in which he makes it very clear that the work of God we’re given to do does not fall to any one of us, individually. Each of us has particular gifts, and so in community, as the Church, through prayer, conversation, even a little conflict, we discern who is good at doing what, and we work together to accomplish God’s work.

Paul makes it sound funny, and it is funny when we think of the human body. A foot wouldn’t say, “just because I’m not a hand,” I don’t belong to the body. An ear doesn’t get upset and try to leave just because it’s not an eye. All work together. But that’s harder when we’re talking about people, isn’t it?

But there are times when we can behave as comically as those individual parts of the body that don’t see their connection. We might look around and it seems like everyone else is smarter, or has a better job, or lives in a nicer place… we might begin to think we don’t fit in. Or sometimes because others seem better grounded in scripture or Christianity or “Episcopal ethos,” (whatever that may be), we feel like it’s not the right place for us.

Or maybe it’s my passion to visit people in prison, and since this church doesn’t seem to have a prison ministry, I move on. Or maybe my interest is to work with a youth group, but again, since there aren’t many youth around, I give up. But there is room for everyone.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians explains how we, like Jesus, can bear to hear God’s word, understand it’s for us, and not be overwhelmed. “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it,” Paul writes. “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?”

Do all read scripture as well as Alden Prouty or Andy Achsen? Does everyone have Yvonne O’Neal’s energy, able to multitask the way she does? Can anybody else pull a crowd together for a cause like David Liston? Can anyone make a feast out of left-overs like Emma Sebbane? Do all sing like our choir? Do all welcome like our ushers? Do all crunch numbers and understand finance like Christine du Toit or Jean Geater? Our list could go on.

Especially as we elect a new vestry today, remember 2021, and continue to organize and readjust for the future, there are lots of opportunities for gifts to be uncovered, magnified, and shared. Do you walk by the church during the week—if so, perhaps you could notice if there’s any trash in the garden. Do you attend a meeting or group at the church—if so, maybe you could make sure things are picked up after the meeting, turn out lights and lock doors. Is there some ministry or focus that’s missing? Call a few people together and get it going.

We ARE the body of Christ. It is for us to live and reach and embrace and share as a body that is complicated but uniquely gifted by God.

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

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Living towards Glory

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous last speech, he ended it by saying he wasn’t worried.  He was happy, he wasn’t afraid of anybody.  “Mine eyes have seen the glory,” he said.  “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

He was quoting a hymn, of course, the hymn some of us know as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  But he was doing more than simply quoting a hymn, since its tune and its words had strong, powerful associations with them.  The tune was a folk tune, from an old spiritual especially loved and sung by African American soldiers in the Union Army during the Civil War.  There were a number of different words to the song, and the soldiers would change them, depending on the context and the audience.  Whichever words were used, no matter the context, when other African Americans and people yearning for freedom heard the tune, they recognized it as a freedom song, and heard notes for a new day.

But the tune of that hymn not only meant something to African Americans. Julia Ward Howe, the poet, author, and social activist, knew the meaning of that tune. Maybe she was humming it to herself as she met with Abraham Lincoln in 1861.  Whatever the case, based on that trip and on her own passion for peace, abolition, and women’s suffrage, Howe wrote new words to the tune, making the hymn that is familiar to many today.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

… Glory, glory, hallelujah….

Glory becomes its own prayer.  There’s an urgency to it, like a fight song for a victory you can almost taste, because you want it so bad.  But in that same cry for glory there’s also a sense of already having tasted a bit of what is to come.  As Dr. King said, he’d been to the mountaintop and looked over.  His faith told him what was possible.  His faith helped him see what was inevitable, and the idea of “glory” helped get him there.

But what is the “glory” of God?  What do we mean?  What are we singing about?

Today’s Gospel gives us a hint. There, in the midst of a crowd, in the midst of a huge party, a wedding with lots of in-laws, and probably a few out-laws and wedding-crashers, there is Jesus.  Jesus and his mother, Mary.  A minor crisis occurs when it looks like they’ve run out of wine. So Mary urges Jesus to do something.  Though he seems almost to talk back to her (the interchange sounds more abrupt in English than intended) Jesus does it.  He acts.  He goes through with what John the Evangelist describes as the first of his “signs.”

And then John, the Gospel we hear today, puts all of this into context.  He explains that Jesus’s repurposing the jars that were set aside for Jewish purification rites, turning water into wine, putting marriage in the context of a communal relation— all of this works together as a sign “that reveals his glory.” It reveals not only Christ’s glory, but the glory of God.

Glory lives just beyond our normal expectations.   The glory of God shimmers at the edges of perception. At first glance, looking dead-on at a situation, things seem to be one way.  In the Gospel, the problem is clear: there’s no more wine.  But the Virgin Mary can see that just at the edge of things, a little to the side, something is ready to break in, and that something is not of this world—it’s beyond the ordinary, beyond our hoping, beyond our imagining.  It’s something that comes from a place of faith in “what can be.”  What ought to be.  What might be.

It’s Mary who first points to glory.  She sees it in Jesus, but it’s that same glimmer she must have seen when Gabriel first hovered overhead.  She saw it in the humble love of Joseph, who believed not only the angel, but also believed Mary.  She saw glory shine in the faces of Anna and Simeon as they held the Christ.   Mary saw glory at Cana, and she would see it again on Calvary: the glory of God to become more than we might otherwise.  The glory of God that enables us to become more loving, more giving, more believing.

Isaiah, John the Evangelist, Mary the Mother of God, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are all saying a similar thing:  They’re saying, “don’t get stuck looking down.  Don’t get stuck looking at yourself.  Don’t get stuck counting the cards you’ve been dealt.  There’s more…. Look for the glory and live into it.”

In today’s Gospel, the Virgin Mary says very clearly how we live into God’s glory. “Look to Jesus,” she says. She says it to the servants, the waiters, the stewards…“Do whatever he tells you.”  And she says the same thing to us: Look to Jesus and follow him, wherever that takes you.  Do what he did. Love like he loved. Unsettle, unnerve, and upset like Jesus did, all for God’s glory.

Where is glory pulling us? What do we see just at the edge of our current situation?

For the person in their work, glory might lurk right at that point of refusing to settle for the same old way of doing things, for the given answer and the obvious solution—and so ask Jesus to point you forward look for God’s glory to help.

For the businessperson, glory leads to risk—not the kind of risk to make more simply for the sake of more, but the risk of an entrepreneur, a start-up, an investment that stands a chance of overflowing into social good—so you ask Jesus for help, make your move, say a prayer, and allow God’s glory to do its work.

For the teacher or volunteer, maybe you’ve been trying to reach a particular student. You’re out of energy and out of tricks. Through prayer, put that child’s hand in the hand of Jesus, and see where God’s glory might lead.

Wherever you may be stuck—whether in a relationship, a habit, an outlook ,… whether you’re looking for a job or stuck in the one you have, we can all of us follow the Virgin Mary’s lead—look to Christ and follow him.  Do what he tells us.  Do the next right thing in faith, and let God’s glory move and make, love and live.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said his eyes had seen the glory of the Lord.  But it was more than that—he saw, and pointed to, and lived into God’s glory with his whole being. 

And glory upon glory. In a few minutes, as I prepare altar for Communion, the choir will sing an anthem by the British composer Richard Alain. If you listen, it’s a perfect singing of the way glory works—note on note, chord on chord, dissonance here and there, but blending and building, working into the whole. A crescendo of God’s presence, and then a falling away. Quiet, but still present, and we are changed and empowered by love.

On this weekend of celebrations—and still, with the New Year’s beginnings—may we allow God to use everything we’ve got– our eyes, our mouths, our hearts and hands—everything we are, have been, and may be—to perceive and point to God’s ever-unfolding glory, glory that moves us over the mountaintop, that frees, and that saves into eternal life.

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

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Getting wet, making a splash, and sharing the water

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

When my former boss and colleague, Fr. Gerth, retired as rector of St. Mary the Virgin a few weeks ago, he was presented with what might seem like a strange gift. He was given a lobster pot—a great big, probably 20- quart pot or larger. Granted, it’s fancy: hammered copper and it gleams.

They gave him a lobster pot not to acknowledge his New England roots or his love of cooking and entertaining. But because of his great belief in the power of baptism. You see, for over twenty years, Stephen has been preaching and administering baptism with tons of water. He goal, he said, was to drench the person being baptized and to get everyone else wet, as well.

In baptism we are invited to get wet. Baptism is a change, it is a moving forward, a leaving behind. The first reading today from Isaiah speaks of God’s choosing. God has chosen a servant people, called them by name, held them by the hand, and has given power to be like a light, to open eyes, to show mercy, and to show compassion. This servant is the whole people of Israel. This servant is uniquely and fully embodied in Christ. But this is a servanthood into which we (each of us) are called, in our baptism.
We’re called to get wet, to get involved, and to allow the power of God to have its effect upon us. Saint Paul understands baptism as dying and rising again. He says, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6). We will not go from life to death and to new life without some effect, and at the very least, we will be getting wet.

In baptism we are also called to make a splash. Like a stone that’s thrown into water and makes a ripple effect, the effect of our baptism will ripple throughout our lives and into the lives of others. It will naturally spill over. If you ever watch a group of kids at a swimming pool, you’ll notice that as soon as an adult looks away, the action becomes about who can make the biggest splash, the most dramatic jump into the water. Who can displace the most water? It’s all about being seen, about making one’s mark, about standing out.

As Christians, we could use a little more of this childish instinct. Being baptized marks us as belonging to Christ—it makes us different, different in the way we make decisions, in the way we spend money, in the way we treat other people. As the children in the swimming pool know, there’s a big difference between splashing water in someone else’s face and in simply making a big splash oneself. We also know that difference and as Christians are called to be respectful to those of other faith or no faith, but it is a part of our baptism to make a splash.

And finally, our baptism carries with it the command as well as the courtesy of offering water to others. At Holy Trinity we literally offer water at the Saturday dinners, and during normal times, at the Tuesday older adults luncheon and the nightly shelter. During the pandemic, we’ve had to offer a kind of “virtual water,” going online, calling and writing, and visiting when possible, sending money and resources to people in need.

And we also offer water spiritually, whenever and wherever we introduce others to Christ. We offer water when we simply help people learn that there IS a source of water, that there is a God of love, and that there is a God of forgiveness and compassion.

When John sees Jesus, he says that something greater is coming. John baptizes with water, “but he who is mightier is coming, . . . he will baptize . . . with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” The Holy Spirit and fire refer to sanctification, the process of becoming holy, of moving inch by inch, day by day, failure through failure through repentance, into holiness.

How, exactly this happens, begins with our baptism. People sometimes wonder why we should be baptized, what different baptism makes, but it is because it is through baptism that this whole process, this whole movement this whole life into God, begins. Baptism is many things for us, but it at least involves our getting wet, our making a splash and our offering water to others.

On this feast we give thank for the baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, for his becoming like us that we might become more like him. And we give thanks for our own baptism, even as we look for more opportunities to get wet, to make a splash and to share water with others.

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

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Magnified with Mary

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

Most of you know the big Christmas Tree in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The tree itself is not that remarkable, but it’s decorated with Baroque creche figures made in Naples, Italy.  Last year, because of the pandemic and logistical challenges, they had the tree in another section of the building and it just wasn’t the same. Early in December, this year, I went over to check out the tree, and was happy to see it back in its old space– right in the middle of the Medieval Sculpture Court, in front of the Spanish altar screen, just where I’m used to seeing it as a part of Christmas in New York.

While the figures of the creche are in different positions every year, and there are other small differences, I realized this year, that I hadn’t really noticed the other sculptures around in the medieval court. On one side of the tree, quietly against a column is a 15th century German “Mary and Child” that originally was on the facade of a home in Nuremberg. It was saved and relocated during WWII.

Not far from the Christmas tree on the other side is a beautiful, mysterious Virgin Mary, with almost a shawl or veil almost covering her face.  It’s called the Mourning Virgin, and Mary appears to be grieving.

It occurred to me, how appropriate those depictions of Mary are, so close to the Christmas Tree. That’s so often the way of Mary– appearing a little off-center, still a part of the action, but quiet, directing attention to Jesus. That’s what Mary does at the Wedding of Cana, Jesus’s first miracle. And it’s what she does at the Cross, as Jesus gives her to John, and John to her, thereby creating a blueprint of the Church– those who come together in the presence of Christ for support, for strength, for hope in life after death.

The famous experiences of Mary in the lives of ordinary people (Guadalupe, Fatima, Medjugorje) as well as the quiet, personal experiences—happen whenever we are vulnerable, when we are humble, when we most need God.

Mary sings from this place of humility and neediness in her song, Magnificat, the Latin shorthand for the beginning of, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” She begins by singing, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” but really, the Lord has magnified Mary. This is a theme that runs through today’s scripture lessons—this idea that God takes what’s small, insignificant, or weak, and God magnifies it—enlarging and creating more than was ever imagined.

In the first reading the Prophet Micah singles out Bethlehem, tiny Bethlehem. “From you shall come forth the ruler in Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.”

The second reading is from the Letter to the Hebrews, a kind of poetic argument about the ways in which Jesus is both high priest and perfect sacrifice, who accomplishes salvation for us in a way that nothing else can. Hebrews argues that no amount of offering from us, no amount of sacrifice or work or good deeds or perfect living will ever accomplish what was accomplished by the simplicity and purity of Christ’s faithfulness to God. God is more pleased by the simple act of faithfulness than the complicated scheme of temple sacrifices and offerings.

Far beyond the scriptures we read today, the Bible recounts over and over again how God favors the small and insignificant. Israel was not the mightiest of the nations. Moses was not the most likely to lead the people of Israel out of bondage. David was not the most likely to be king. Sarah was not the most likely to be the matriarch of an entire people. Great things were not expected from Jonah the prophet, Ruth the Moabite, Ezekiel or Esther, and many others.

Mary’s song in today’s Gospel sings with eloquence the song of God’s reversals, of God’s ability to turn everything upside-down and inside-out. The lowly and ignored are seen and appreciated. The mighty are put down and the left out are lifted up. The hungry are fed and those who are full are sent away. God remembers. God shows mercy. God magnifies.

I wonder in what ways we are being called to be like Mary and to magnify the Lord even as we are aware of the way that God magnifies our efforts and prayers? What can we do to lift up the lowly, to help feed the hungry, to offer healing to those who hurt? The scriptures today invite us to do at least two things: First, we can extend the love of God to those who might feel small or insignificant.   And second, we can remind ourselves of God’s ongoing work of lifting up, no matter how far down we might feel sometimes.

Shannon Kubiak is a youth leader and writer who wrote a great little book a few years ago called “God Called a Girl.”  She writes

Mary was a nobody, yet she found favor and blessing with God.  How many times do we look in the mirror and find a nobody staring back at us?  We often limit what God can do with our lives because we think our upbringing, our appearance, or our life is not a sufficient tool for the hands of God to use….[But] if Mary really was a nobody, all  it took for God to make her “somebody” was one miracle on a lonely day when she was just going about her daily business… God called a girl. And that girl changed the world.  The same God is calling again, and this time He’s calling you.” (God Called a Girl, p. 14-19, passim)

God calls us—to be more like Mary who says her version of YES and shows the way ahead.

As we try to discern and pray our way through another spike in COVID-19le infections and uncertainty all around, perhaps those images of Mary in the Metropolitan Museum are especially relevant. On one hand, she mourns and grieves—for the lives that are lost, for the sick and suffering, for those who bear the economic brunt of the pandemic, for those who live where violence and other social problems are inflamed.  But also, that image of a joyful, optimistic, strong mother, who looks ahead—knowing that pain will come, but knowing just as much that we are in God’s care and love, no matter what. And so, like she drew people to her son on Christmas, like she pointed people to him at Cana, like she witnessed to his love and sacrifice, and like she lived into the reality of his resurrection. 

This Christmas, may we notice a little more the Virgin Mary’s role in the story of our faith, and through her, may we be reminded of God’s reversals, of God’s surprises, and of God’s magnifying love, that we may do our part to magnify the Lord.

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

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Advent Expectations

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Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

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God’s Attitude towards Sin

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

Today’s scriptures ask us to prepare ourselves for the coming of God. They invite us to make ready, to “take off sorrow and affliction,” and to “put on righteousness.” We are invited to a way of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” “Repent so that sins are forgiven.” Those are words that sound familiar for church, but what do they mean, really?

At some level, it’s all clear enough, probably. Just like when we were children, if we took something that didn’t belong to us, or hit a sibling or playmate, or acted out in some way, our parents taught us what it is like to say we’re sorry. The saying of “sorry” opened up a door to forgiveness, and restoring the relationship. We could play again with our friend, we could feel again the closeness and warmth of the love of the parent. But as we grow older, sin becomes a little more confusing sometimes.

How do we repent when we’re not even sure if we have sinned? How do we know if something is our fault, or the fault of someone or something beyond us? How do we know God is listening, when we say we’re sorry? What does forgiveness feel like?

Especially in our culture, I think we’ve inherited a combination of attitudes around sin. Some would simply dismiss any talk of “sin” as something outdated and leftover from a time when the church used superstition and power to rule over the lives of the faithful. While most people probably wouldn’t articulate it quite that way, it’s part of how they feel. And so, not much time would be given to thinking about sin, or about doing anything about it.

But for people who are at some level involved with God, people who seek to be in relationship with God, people who want to follow the way of Jesus Christ, one of two attitudes toward sin often prevails. The first attitude toward sin is one that is intensely personal. The belief is that God has shown us what God expects of us, through the 10 Commandments and other laws, through the life of Jesus Christ, through the preaching of the apostles, and through the teaching of the Church. So, when we break a rule, it’s our fault, it’s the fault of the individual. It’s that person, (my responsibility, then) to approach God and ask for forgiveness.

This can happen through silent confession (me and God), or might happen through the church’s sacrament of reconciliation (whether using an old fashioned confessional, or sitting aside a priest in the chapel). Much has been made in our country, especially, about personal religion, personal faith, personal responsibility.

And yet, some have pointed out that there is no such thing as an individual Christian. To be a Christian is to be a person of faith in community, and so everything about the living out of our faith involves other people.

An extreme approach to this is in a second attitude toward sin, and that’s to view sin as primarily communal or social. When we see a tragedy on the news of a person who goes on a shooting rampage, there’s much of our culture that pushes us to begin to think about the societal forces that might have moved the person to do such an awful thing. We don’t say “that person has a demon,” but rather, “that person must have grown up in a bad family, or not had good options, or must have been driven to do such evil.”

When we begin to think about sin, and about repenting from sin, and turning toward God, how do we balance these two dynamics, the personal and the communal? John the Baptist quoted Isaiah by saying, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'” Sin is, indeed, personal, but it has communal effects. In the name way, when I repent and am restored to new fellowship with God, that also brings with it a restoration to right relationship with other people. It makes the way not only for justice, but it also makes the way for peace.

One of the best images for dealing with sin, for me, comes from the 14th century holy woman, Julian of Norwich (1342-1416). When she was 30 years old, Julian almost died from a fever or some other ailment, and while she was sick, she received a vision from God. She wrote down her vision, but continued to pray to God for more insight. Twenty years later, she wrote down an extended version of the vision.

In her vision of the Lord and Servant Julian sees a great Lord who has a devoted servant. The Lord sends the servant off on some errand, and the servant is excited to do it. But then the servant falls into a ditch. And the servant “is greatly injured” as Julian writes.

[The servant] groans and moans and tosses about and writhes, but cannot rise to help himself in any way . . . And all this time his loving lord looks on him most tenderly . . .with great compassion and joy.” She explains that the servant “was diverted from looking on his lord, but his will was preserved in God’s sight. I saw the lord commend and approve him for his will, but he himself was blinded and hindered from knowing this will. And this is a great sorrow and a cruel suffering to him, for he neither sees clearly his loving lord, who is so meek and mild to him, nor does he truly see what he himself is in the sight of his loving lord.

Sin can be painful. When we’ve fallen into the ditch and we can’t see out, and we feel cut off and alone, it can feel like death… but if we remember that God is watching, God is smiling at us, encouraging us to get out of the ditch. Sometimes we need a boost, and we ask for others to help us. Sometimes, we simply need to do some climbing, get dirty, use our spiritual and physical muscles and simply get up and out. It is the work of spiritual discernment for us to learn to know what is needed to get out of the ditch. God gives us the church for help, the Bible for help, the saints and tradition, and God gives us one another.

The Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent has us ask God that we might be given the grace to heed the warnings of the prophets “and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.”

May that be our prayer this season and always.

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

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Christ’s Coming Among Us

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

Today we begin the season of Advent, a season of waiting and watching. The symbols are all around us. The purple reminds us that this season is special. It is different. The Early Church used it as a time of preparation for baptism, and it also foreshadows royalty, as we await the coming of a King. The Advent wreath is another symbol of our waiting, as each Sunday, another candle is lit. Those who keep Advent Calendars open one window or door each day– a practice of focused waiting and watching. The lessons that the Church gives us for this morning and the next few Sundays are all about waiting and watching and preparing. But for WHAT are we waiting? For WHAT are we on the watch?

It is traditional during Advent to talk about the two aspects of waiting and watching for the Lord. It is, we are told, a sort of two-track season, and we travel both tracks at he same time. One aspect has to do with our re-telling the story of the coming of a Messiah, the one who was born in the manger, Jesus of Nazareth. The other aspect of our waiting and watching has to do with the Second and Final coming of Jesus, as is hinted in the prophetic scriptures and especially in the Revelation to John. 

But I wonder if the season isn’t more about a third way that Jesus asks us to watch and be ready. Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of such a way, but it’s also something Jesus point to whenever he talks about the kingdom of God. Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God. You are not far from the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is very near you. 

And finally, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, “Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you!” Jesus invited apostles, disciples, strangers, friends and enemies, to see the kingdom of God that was already around them. And that’s his invitation to us. 

Learn from the fig tree, Jesus says. “From the fig tree learn the lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer in near. So also, Jesus says, when you see these things taken place you know that the Son of Man is near.” 

That other day will come, when the Son of Man parts the clouds and the angels gather up the elect. But Jesus tells us, “don’t spend your time looking for signs or clues. Instead, look at what’s right before you.” Jesus invites us to watch for the kingdom of God’s presence all around us. Not just in the re-telling of the Bible stories. Not just in the waiting for the final coming of Jesus. But right now, right here, in these in-between times.

The kingdom of God is in the midst of you, Jesus says. It is for us to notice. To watch. To look, to see, to taste, to smell and to feel. 

How do we spot the kingdom of God? There are several clues. The kingdom of God is among us when we see acts of mercy. Our world talks a lot about justice, but when we’re on the receiving end, which of us really wants justice? But when we are shown a kindness that we did nothing to deserve, when we are given a gift that we did not earn or expect, when the hungry are filled with good things and the lowly have been looked upon with favor. The kingdom of God is in our midst.

The kingdom of God is among us when we see acts of forgiveness. Forgetting may be impossible, but through the love of Jesus Christ, there is such a possibility as forgiveness. Even when we can’t bring ourselves to forgive, we can pray that Christ might forgive on our behalf and move us toward the day when we, too, can forgive even as we have been forgiven. When we say we’re sorry, and someone else looks at us with a convincing smile and says, “It’s ok,” the kingdom of God is in our midst.

And the kingdom of God is among us when we see acts of love. There are still those people in the world who put others ahead of themselves. Sometimes they are parents. Sometimes they are children. Sometimes they are friends. Love happens when we throw out all of the planning, the percentage-based giving, the calculating, the expecting a return— and we simply love for loves’ sake. When we love like God loves— God’s kingdom is in our midst. 

Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, 

“We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. In the first coming he was seen on earth . . .  In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God, … The intermediate coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved. In his first coming our Lord came in our flesh and in our weakness; in this middle coming he comes in spirit and in power; . . . Because this coming lies between the other two, it is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last. In the first, Christ was our redemption; in the last, he will appear as our life; in this middle coming, he is our rest and consolation. . . . Keep God’s word in this way. Let it enter into your very being, let it take possession of your desires and your whole way of life. Feed on goodness, and your soul will delight in its richness. Remember to eat your bread, or your heart will wither away. Fill your soul with richness and strength.

Today at the 11 Holy Eucharist, the choir sings one of my favorite anthems. “E’en so, Lord Jesus,” based on Revelation 22. I remember the first time I heard it: I was in seminary and it was my first semester. I had signed up for too many classes and had gotten involved in too many other things and was completely overwhelmed. Relationships seemed to be falling apart. I had no idea whether I should be aiming for ordination or not. I wanted Jesus to come, alright, and I wanted him to come quickly. I wanted that semester to end. I wanted my depression and confusion to end. I wanted change of some kind and in some ways, I wished the world I was experiencing might end and a new world begin. And about this time of the year, I heard that anthem. A recurring part of the hymn sings, “E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come, and night shall be no more; They need no light nor lamp nor sun, For Christ will be their All!”  After hearing that anthem, after praying those words, it was as though something had shifted.  There was a new sense that, one day, somehow, Christ would be “my all,” and that would be enough.  It was enough now to hope for.  It would one day be enough to experience.  
That Christ might “be our all” is what Jesus asks, invites and promises.

May Jesus quickly come, and may Christ become our All. 

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

 

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Living with Faith that All Shall be Well

To watch a video of the Evensong, click the photograph below:

In mid-March of 2020, the Bishop of New York asked us to close our churches. We did so, and remained closed for public worship until July, when we opened as fast as we were able. Especially during those first few months of the lockdown, when NYC was filled with the sound of ambulances, we checked in on each other.

I asked my friend if she needed anything, and she explained how she and her neighbors were managing and doing all right. After a few seconds of silence, she said, “But all shall be well.”

Coming from another person, that phrase might have sounded trite or artificial. But I knew that my friend meant it and believed it. I also knew that my friend was footnoting an Anglican saint, Julian of Norwich.

That little phrase, “All shall be well” (especially in Episcopal and other Anglican churches) is a kind of hyperlink to the life, faith, and words of a medieval holy woman named Julian of Norwich. Scholars think that Julian probably lost her son and her husband in a plague, and so she committed her life to service in the Church of St. Julian in Norwich. She began a life of prayer and before long, people began to come to her for advice and wisdom. She became a kind of spiritual guide.
She received a vision from God and she wrote down two versions of that vision—a vision a little like our scriptures today—a vision in which God assures Julian that love prevails. Love wins. Love is never defeated.

Julian of Norwich takes to God her deepest question: Why is there sin? And more specifically, why has there been sin in my life? Why did I do that, say that, think that, go down that road, etc, etc, etc. Julian writes about this and says,


… Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ These words were said most tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any who shall be saved. (Showings, Long Text, Chp. 27)

Through her prayers, by taking to God her deepest questions and worries, Julian didn’t necessarily find the answers to her questions, but she found a loving presence who could sit with her in her questioning.

It could not have been easy for Julian, she was living through times of plague, times of religious unrest—opponents of the ruling religious party were being burned at the stake, and that would have been just down the street from Julian’s window in Norwich. She, herself, faced problems of being misunderstood, doubted, or slandered. But she kept her faith and continued being of counsel to anyone who came to her window to speak.
Ann Lewin is a British writer and poet who reflects on those words of Julian,

“All shall be well….”
She must have said that
sometimes through gritted teeth.
Surely she knew the moments
when fear gnaws at trust,
the future loses shape,
The courage that says
all shall be well
doesn’t mean feeling no fear,
but facing it, trusting
God will not let go.
All shall be well
doesn’t deny present experience
but roots it deep
in the faithfulness of God,
whose will and gift is life”.

Many of the questions and heartaches of the past year go unanswered for us and for too many.

But we have a loving God who invites our questions, our fears, our worries, our anger, our rejoicing, our hopes.

The vision from the Revelation to John reminds us of God’s movement towards us:

To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

Even as we express outrage, sadness, anger, grief… whatever emotions we may feel today, let us be still and allow God’s loving presence to come close, to hold us, and whisper in our ears, “All shall be well.”

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Restored in Christ

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

In today’s Gospel, we have the famous conversation between Pontius Pilate, just before Jesus is handed on through a set-up process that will lead to his crucifixion.  It might seem more appropriate to Holy Week, but we hear it today because this Sunday is referred to as Christ the King Sunday. The language and imagery of kingship and royalty run through the prayers and readings today, and they invite us to think about how we understand Jesus as the authoritative force in our lives.

If you or I have a problem with the idea of “kingship,” in relation to Jesus, we can see in today’s scriptures that our confusion is nothing new. We might take issue with the term or idea for different reasons, but it’s important to notice that people questioned the image a long time ago.

“Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king…”

And so, we’re left with that same question, really: Is Jesus a king or not?  Or if so, what KIND of king might he be?

Our first reading today, from Daniel, imagines kingship with fairly traditional images and dynamics.  Daniel imagines a wise, white-bearded figure, taking his throne. Another comes to the Ancient One and is given power and dominion.  But if we stay with these images, not only are we stuck historically, but we’re stuck theologically and spiritually, as well.   

Though the scriptures for Christ the King Sunday are strong and each one could have its own sermon, our first prayer today, known as the Collect of the Day, seems to focus our readings and prayers in a particular way.

The Collect, of course, is written or chosen to pull together the scriptures into an overall theme or idea, to “collect” the themes of scripture, with the day in church year, with our own intentions and needs. 

In the classic form of the Collect, the second phrase usually describes God in some way, and today’s prayer says of Almighty God, “whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords…”  Since this last Sunday after Pentecost, just before Advent begins is nicknamed Christ the King Sunday, I’ve always skipped over part of that phrase in the prayer, racing to the part that highlights Jesus in royal images.  But what’s shimmering for me, inviting me to pray more deeply, is the idea of God’s “restoring all things in Christ.”

When we think of “restoration,” we probably think of something being put back into its original condition, or earlier state. The Restoration in English history refers to the return of King Charles II and various institutions of church and state returning to the way they had been before the commonwealth period of Oliver Cromwell.  Restoration on buildings (especially ours that are landmarked) usually needs to use original materials, doing things as much like they were done, as possible.

This is what Pontius Pilate gets confused about.  If God is going to “restore” a Jewish king on the throne, in the sense that he’s hearing from the gossip and the ones who have turned Jesus over to him, then Pilate and the whole Roman Empire have a tangible, human opponent to deal with.  It’s like King Herod, when Jesus was an infant, thinking that by killing all the male babies, he could get rid of a potential king.  But that’s not the kind of restoration God has in mind.

Restoration can mean simply putting something back in its place.  But often, it means much more.

Hugh Whelchel directs the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, and points out that when he restores an old car, the finished product is not just as it used to be. It’s better.   He explains,

“The paint is better, the interior is better, it’s even mechanically superior to the original factory specs. Yes, it is the same car as it was when it was new—just better.

That is God’s goal for restoring this broken world. In place of what we see now will be a new heaven and a new earth, and it will be better than the original. Why is God going to do this? Because he loves his creation.”  (https://tifwe.org/better-than-new-gods-grand-restoration-plan/)

In Christ, God is doing something entirely new. And it’s just going to keep getting “newer.”

The Epistle Reading today is from the Revelation to John, which can be confusing to people. It speaks at two levels:  On one level, it’s offering courage to persecuted Christians in the First Century, but it’s also giving a framework, a paradigm (almost) of how to look for God in to come in the future.  Notice that John writes in symbol and poetry. He speaks of God in images that go beyond images, as if to say, the whens, wheres, and how’s of God’s coming again in fulness will be so different, so creatively new, that there’s not way to really even express it.  God in Christ is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, and everything in-between.

NT Wright (Surpised by Hope) writes,

You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are—strange as it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself—accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.

And this brings us to today, and ourselves. We pray for restoration, but are we praying theologically or historically?

I know that I spent the bulk of the last year and a half hoping and praying for the restoration of life as we understood it.

I’m slowly beginning to understand that the kind of restoration we are witnessing is different.

Christ lives and directs our hearts in ways that keep growing and renewing and changing.  

Acts 3:20-21
God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.”

And so, even heaven is temporary, awaiting the time when God restores all in all.

This means we live in repentance.
We live in hope.
We live in evermore deepening reliance and trust in God.

 

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Living into Priesthood (of All Believers)

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:


At yesterday’s Diocesan convention, several hundred of us were gathered in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. We were excited to be back in that beautiful space together, joined by others online in our first Diocesan hybrid convention. We all did our best to celebrate faith and enjoy the day. Parts of the worship, prayer, and program were glorious. 

But there were parts that were sad, and hard, and worrisome. As we move into November, all our churches are nervous about the coming year’s budget and programs and possibilities. Will families move back to the city? Will people who have drifted come back to church? Will groups that lease space return again? Will we stay healthy and faithful and creative enough to make it through?

If we pay attention to the news, we might feel like some of today’s scripture readings from Daniel or Mark are coming true in our times. With climate changes, famines, and storms, the pandemic continuing to flare up here and there, and wars and rumors of wars, we know the uncertainty of the times.

We might be tempted to do what Jesus warns against—look for a quick fix, a guru, a temporary authority, or another messiah. Maybe we’re tempted to pray in a magical way to be delivered without our having to do anything—perhaps to call on the Archangel Michael to rise, and fight, and protect us.

But the middle scripture reading today—the Letter to the Hebrews, offers us something else. In what can at first sound like real criticism of Judaism and the temple priesthood, I think the Letter to the Hebrews actually magnifies another theme of scripture and theology that we sometimes overlook.

As I was reminded yesterday, that beautiful prayer asking God to “let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new” is not only used on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, but also in the ordination of bishops, priests, and deacons. But it’s a prayer that involves all of us.

The Letter to the Hebrews draws a sharp contrast between the temple priests and another priest—the High Priest, the Super Priest, the Priest-to-end-all-priests: Jesus Christ. The temple priests are always standing, day by day. But Jesus sits. He sits because his work is done. Christ has undone the whole sacrificial system by offering himself, a blameless victim. 

Throughout the scriptures, except for the Jewish temple priest, the word “priest” is not really used for a religious leader in charge of a congregation. That has come later, through theology and practice.  

Where scriptures DO talk about priests, however, the scriptures are talking about ALL OF US. Though others had raised the issue, it was Martin Luther who wrote and preached that YOU are priests. Luther wrote, “this word ‘priest’ should become as common as the word Christian because all Christians are priests” (Martin Luther, The Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude: Preached and Explained (New York, NY, Anson D.F. Randolph, 1859), 106).

Luther remembered in Exodus where God says, “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Ex. 19:6), and Isaiah’s word, “You shall be called the priests of the Lord, they shall speak to you as the ministers of our God” (Is 61:6). God’s talking about everybody here. And finally, Luther points to the First Letter of Peter, “you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” The passage goes on to say, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession that you may proclaim the excellences of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2).

When it feels like we live in apocalyptic times, when it feels like the world is collapsing, perhaps it’s an especially good time to reclaim this doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.” It’s not just a Lutheran “thing.” It’s not just a “Protestant thing.”

But in Lumen Gentium, one of the principal documents out of Vatican II, the Roman Church says,

The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated as a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, in order that through all those works which are those of the Christian man they may offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the power of Him who has called them out of darkness into His marvelous light. Therefore all the disciples of Christ, persevering in prayer and praising God, (103) should present themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Everywhere on earth they must bear witness to Christ and give an answer to those who seek an account of that hope of eternal life which is in them.

Art Lindsley is a Reformed theologian who writes about the priesthood of all believers and suggests at least four implications for us—for all of us. [“The Priesthood of All Believers,” Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics.]

First, we all have direct access to God. It’s not like the old days when only the priest when into the temple once a year to talk with God. It’s not only the one who prays beautifully, or lives a holy life. But each of us—fallen, sinful, tired—in our own blessed way, who can and should speak to God and listen to God. Prayer is our direct line.

Second, even though we don’t offer bulls and turtledoves as sacrifices, as priests, all of us offer spiritual sacrifices. The New Testament is clear that we are to offer but sacrifices such as prayer, praise, thanksgiving, repentance, justice, kindness, and love. This empties our hearts for God and turns us more deeply towards God.

The third implication of our all being priests is that we each have a prophetic role to play. When we see injustice, we’re to speak out. When we see despair, we’re to offer hope. When we see people or institutions or governments heading in the direction of evil, we speak out.

And fourth and finally, because we’re all priests, we are to work for reconciliation. Even when it’s hard. Even when it goes against the culture. Even in the face of violence, warfare, and terror. Christ works through us so that we can work for peace. It is the Peace of Christ that we share, after all— not our peace.

As priests, we are a busy people. We have a lot to do, but we all share in this vocation of priesthood— to pray, to sacrifice, to prophecy, and to reconcile.

The Gospel today ends with Jesus predicting dangerous, unruly times. “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs,” he says. Another version translates this, as “But these things are nothing compared to what’s coming” (The Message, Mark 13:8).  Somethings about to happen. It’s scary and might be dangerous right now. But there’s room for something new to be born.

With Christ as our guide and friend, may we be midwives and helpers as the Holy Spirit creates a new world.

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

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