Born again (and again and again)

nicodemus-visiting-jesus_henry-ossawa-tannerA sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, March 8, 2020.  The scripture readings are Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, and John 3:1-17.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

One of my favorite passages of scripture is read at the Easter Vigil, the service that happens on the night before Easter. Though the service is called a “vigil,” that simply means that it’s the “night before,” not that it’s especially long and drawn out—at least not the way our church celebrates the service. Whether the service includes lots of biblical readings or just a few (like ours), it often includes a reading from the Book of Ezekiel. Yes, I like the “Valley of the Dry Bones” reading, but the scripture I like is from a different section.). God says to his people who have been exiled, cut off, and felt forgotten:

I will . . . bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your impurities . . . A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you . . . . 36:24-28

A new heart and a new spirit. This promise comes when people are worn out. They’re tired. They’re beaten. They’ve almost given up. But God gives hope and God makes a promise. Easter, itself, with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, brings the ultimate in a new creation, and the whole season of Easter is a prolonged celebration and meditation on what it means for us, that we have the hope of eternal life.

But we get a sample of that today. In today’s scripture, we get a foretaste of God’s life-giving Spirit. We see a bit of it in the first reading, and we get a close-up view in the Gospel.

The Reading from Genesis reminds us of the stories about Abraham and Sarah. God tells them to “get up and go.” God has a plan, and everything is going to be different. So Abram and Sarai follow God into a new land, and over and over again, their faith is put to the test.

They must have thought life would be one way, but it turns out very differently. Just when they get their head around a new challenge, there seems like an even greater challenge around the corner. This reaches a highpoint when God reveals to Abram and Sarai that in their old age, they are going to have a child. After all they’ve been through, you’d think they would be used to God’s surprises. But this one beats all. In fact, when Sarah hears that she’s going to be a mother, she laughs out loud. (Which is how they come up with the name of her son, “Isaac.” Isaac means “laughter, or she laughs.”)
We’d laugh too, if we really knew what God had in store for us when we follow in faith. We’d laugh out of disbelief, out of wonder, or out of nervousness.

In our Gospel lesson, I can almost hear Nicodemus laughing, as Jesus tells him he can be born again. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, one of the spiritual elite, a man of social standing and respect and probably known by many of the other religious leaders. He knows the scriptures. He is educated. He can carry a conversation with the most sophisticated people around and he is nobody’s fool.

And just when Nicodemus is expecting some nugget of wisdom or great advice from Jesus, he hears what sounds like nonsense; like a joke, even. Jesus tells him that if he wants to see the kingdom of God, he has to be born anew. Born of water and spirit. Born again. Born from above. Born with new belief that God loves the world so very much, that God has come into the world to save it through Jesus. God offers new life, but it sometimes brings disruption along with it.

We might like to think of the spiritual life as predictable and linear. We can be tempted to think of the Season of Lent as parallel to the season of spring, with spiritual growth just happening naturally. But the kind of spiritual rebirth experienced by Nicodemus is anything but natural. It comes out of nowhere. It doesn’t follow the normal order of things. It involves his being “born again,” or to translate the phrase differently, Nicodemus is “born from above.”

Though we hope the spiritual life can be predictable and linear—when we think about it, the spiritual life is just that—a life, and life is often filled with disruptions and surprises. A diagnosis from the doctor can change everything. A changing economy or downsizing can change everything.

A disaster can change the life we thought we were living. A death of someone we love can disorient us and seem to change everything. A virus or the threat of a virus can threaten in all kinds of ways.

At those times, we are likely to feel like we’re in a lost place, or a wilderness, unable to see or hear God’s promise yet. We’re like Nicodemus stumbling in the dark, unable to make our way just yet, not seeing that there’s any light.

In such times, words often fail. But we do have one another. When someone near us is struggling, it’s not always the most helpful thing to recommend books, or plot strategy, or offer words of encouragement- though all of these things (of course) have their place. The most powerful reminder of hope in God is to offer ourselves.

If there is some part of us that has known God’s rebirth in our lives, if there is some part of us that has felt the rekindling of God’s spirit even when we had been down… if there is some part of us that can live as a witness to God’s power of new life, of new birth, then our presence itself can be a sign of hope for the person who is lost. Abraham and Sarah became spiritual leaders because they had been through the wilderness and survived. Nicodemus became helpful to others because he had gone through his own “dark night of the soul” and had been found by Light again, so he could witness to the light.

When I think of Nicodemus, I sometimes think of a former parishioner. This was a wonderful woman who had been eased out of her job in Washington through political changes. With the loss of her job, she felt like her reputation was taken away and much of her ability to continue getting work in her specialty. She lost her income, her health insurance, her sense of stability, but she also felt like she had lost her identity, since her job was so much a part of her own self-understanding. But, as she puts it, after a while, she realized that she needed to believe in her own journey again. Though she had always thought she had life planned and plotted out, clearly, something else was going to happen. Life wasn’t over, just changed. She had lost one identity, but life was inviting her to find a new one. She had to regain belief in her own journey, that even though the pathway might be through the fog, with the help of others, and with the help of God, she would make it. Eventually, she teamed up with another woman and they opened their own firm, both, enjoying their work well into the age that many people retire.

What we can offer the person or the people who are suffering is our own strength, witness, and support. If we can convey in some way that we, ourselves have known what it is to be lost in the wilderness and then born from above, this is the hope we can share.

Just the week before last, we observed Ash Wednesday. The liturgy and prayers of that day invite us to re-locate ourselves in the drama of life, and death, and new life. We acknowledge the places that are broken and begin to clear away the wreckage. And we allow God to begin again with us. To re-frame the words of Psalm 51,

God helps us to hear of joy and gladness, that the body that was broken might rejoice. God creates a new heart, and a right spirit within us. God gives us the joy of his saving help again, and sustains us with his bountiful spirit. We are delivered from death, and given new lives for praise.

Jesus says that we can be born again. We can be born from above. This happens again and again and again. With God’s Spirit, we ARE (even now) being born from above.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Temptation

jesustempted
A sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, March 1, 2020.  The scriptures are Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5:12-19, and Matthew 4:1-11.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Evelyn Underhill has suggested that “No Christian escapes a taste of the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land.” (Fruits of the Spirit). No Christian escapes a “taste of the wilderness,” not even, it seems, Christ himself.

We all get a taste of the wilderness, I think, because, we make our way to the Promised Land, not as saints, not as perfect beings like angels or superheroes. But we all get a taste of the wilderness because we make our way to the Promised Land as ourselves—our broken but trying-our-best selves. And along the way, in the wilderness, we face temptations that are personal. We are tempted by things that are within our reach. The things that most tempt me most are not only things that I might want, but also, they’re usually things that, with the right shift of resources and energy, I can have.

What made the temptations alluring for Jesus was precisely that they fell within the range of what he could have done and could have had.

Scripture tells us that Jesus, being full of the Holy Spirit, is led into the wilderness for forty days. He fasts, and because he is human as well as full of God, he gets hungry. The devil appears to him and says “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” The devil has good insight: surely if Jesus is of the God who parted the seas, who made manna fall in the desert and who enabled Jesus to be born to begin with, then a little magic trick with rocks into bread should be no problem.

Next the devil takes Jesus to the highest pinnacle of the temple and taunts him with the psalm that promises the safety of angels’ wings. Again, it must have been tempting, but again, Jesus quotes scripture to the devil.

Finally, the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain and promises him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor—but there’s one little detail: Jesus just needs to bow down and worship the devil. I can imagine the devil saying, “It’s just pro forma, really, just to fulfill the contract, a show of allegiance, a symbolic act—it doesn’t really mean anything. Don’t overthink this.” And again, for Jesus, it must have been tempting. Perhaps it even could have sounded like it might fit within God’s will. Especially with the disciples constantly suggesting to Jesus that his could be a worldly kingdom, Jesus must have wondered. But again, Jesus quotes scripture back at the devil, and the devil goes away. For now, at least.

The orthodox Christian understanding of Jesus is that has two natures: one divine and one human, and somehow through the miracle of God, both natures are full and complete. Jesus is fully human, and I love that, because that’s the part I can relate to so easily. I think Jesus must have been tempted a lot. At least, as I read the scriptures and imagine my human response to some of the situations he encountered, I certainly would have been tempted. When he was confronted by the Pharisees in their tedious arguments over the jot and tittle of the law—don’t you think Jesus might have been tempted to really let them have it—to level them with an argument so astounding that it would make them cry, or simply to have the building fall on them and be done with them? When the people were always wanting quick miracles, easy answers and immediate healings, don’t you think Jesus, at some point, was tempted to respond with impatience or exhaustion or in some other all-too-human way?

And yet, in the face of each temptation, Jesus made a choice. And he chose for God.
Temptation is like that for us, as well—it always asks us to choose.

D.T. Niles was a twentieth century Sri Lankan theologian who suggests that temptation really comes down to our making a choice between God (with a big “G”) and every other god (with a little “g”). He writes, “The choice between God and every other god is a real choice. Both make promises, both demand loyalty. It is possible to live by both. If there were no real alternative to God, then all humanity would choose God.”

Against the devil’s temptations of the immediate, the present and readily available, Jesus remains calm and speaks out of his own faith and experience in God. Jesus knows that God will provide bread in its time. He knows that God’s promise of the angels’ care is not meant as an instant solution to a random moment of whim. And Jesus knows that God is using his abilities and talents in a way that is appropriate to God’s will.

We should not think for a minute that the devil isn’t still around today. But instead of looking for a little red guy with a tail, often we should pay attention to what appears as light—but light that misleads or distracts. A key to dealing with temptation is to remember that one of the most powerful names of the devil is Lucifer, a word that comes from the Latin for “light.” It is the great trick of the devil to play on our humanity, so that when we are most vulnerable or most afraid of the dark, light presents itself. It’s natural for us to be drawn to the light—for brightness, for the good, the happy, the comfortable, all that enriches and assures and enlivens. But look around the edges of the light. What is its source? What is its intention? There is the possibility that what first appears to be light is only a flash that will lead us into deeper darkness. Temptation presents us always and everywhere with the choice between God and gods, sometimes experienced as the choice between true light and the false light made of bright, shiny things that are really just reflections or distortions of light.

The season of lent invites us to think about the choices we make. It invites us to work on our skills in discerning the difference between God and gods, between light and shiny things.

Spiritual disciplines help us to do this. The church reminds us of classic spiritual disciplines such as spiritual reading or meditating on scripture, praying in a new way, saving money for a particular project or cause and giving it, fasting (whether that means giving up a particular food or drink, or fasting in a more creative way—avoiding waste, or limiting the use of water or plastic or gasoline.)

Other things might easily become spiritual disciplines to clarify and steady: a daily walk, a time of reading or sitting still or writing in a journal. All of these, almost anything, really, if given over to God, if done with intention and mindfulness and a willingness to be used by God, can become spiritual disciplines to sharpen us and help us know when we’re being tempted. They help us focus. They bring clarity.

As we move through these forty days together, let Lenten disciplines inform us, shape us, clean us and put us at peace.

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

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Falling in Order to Rise

Alexandr_Ivanov_Transifiguration

Transfiguration by Alexandr Ivanov, 1824

A sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 23, 2020.  The lectionary readings are Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 2, 2 Peter 1:16-21, and Matthew 17:1-9.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

“They fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.”  That’s how St. Matthew describes the disciples who are with Jesus on the mountain.  Peter and James and John have seen a lot already, but they couldn’t have possibly been ready for what they see in this vision, this vision we call the Transfiguration.

Jesus leads them up the mountain and when they get to the top, something happens:  Jesus begins to shine— brightly, like a light.  Then the disciples see others, figures they come to recognize as Moses and Elijah.  In the midst of this great clash of epochs and meanings, as Jesus is blessed by the tradition of the prophets (embodied in Elijah) and the tradition of the law (symbolized by Moses), there’s more light, and sound, and God is there.  Peter and James and John fall down.  They’re done.  They’ve had it.  This completely takes them out.

The more literal translations of this verse say that the disciples didn’t just fall down.  They “fell down on their faces.”  It sounds a little odd to us and is mostly just the way the phrase was constructed, but if we pause for a minute to think of how much time and energy we put into “saving face,” or putting on a “good face,” then to “fall on one’s face,” really does say something. It suggests a place of humility, of abandon, of being reduced to just about nothing, a place of being stripped bare.

If we think about it, people fall down all through scripture.  And sometimes they “fall on their faces.”  St. Paul hit the ground hard.  The Acts of the Apostles tells us “as [Saul] was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.  He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’” (Acts 9:3).

Jacob doesn’t so much fall to the ground, as he is pushed or wrestled to the ground. (Genesis 32).  Jacob is taken down by a stranger who wrestles with him all through the night and leaves him limping.

Often in the scriptures, when people have some kind of significant religious experience, it throws them off balance, and they fall down.  But sometimes it’s not a religious experience.  Sometimes it’s just life—life’s harshness, life’s unfairness, life’s injustice—that simply knocks a person off her feet.  Sarah, Hannah, Judith, the woman accused of adultery, Mary Magdalene…. They all knew what it was to be pushed aside, thrown down, and left to lie alone on the ground.

Think of Joseph, Joseph who was sold into slavery by his brothers and thrown into a pit. Job, too, fell down, as he was robbed of his family, his possessions, and even his health, so that he was reduced to sitting in ashes on the street, using broken pieces of pottery to pick at his sores.

Even the Blessed Virgin Mary falls.  Mary the Mother of Jesus knew what it meant to be called a “fallen woman,” when it became known that she was pregnant.  Even though Joseph married her, there must have been talk.  And then there was the exile, living as a refugee, until finally, she could raise her son in Nazareth.  But Mary never forgot what it felt like to be knocked to the ground.  That’s why she could include in her song a particular message from God for the lowly, the hungry, the poor, and those who most need mercy.  That’s probably why one of the most popular and loving images of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the pieta: Mary sitting, or kneeling, or crouching, as she bears on her lap the weight of her dead Son, who also has fallen.

Beginning next week, as we walk the Stations of the Cross, we will remember Jesus falling three times.  Though this a stylized and symbolic falling, it puts into words and prayer a theological falling.  But as Christ falls, he rises.  Each time he falls, rises again.  And he rises stronger.  We can see him practicing this falling and rising again on the night before he is arrested, as he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane.

There in Gethsemane Jesus falls to his knees.  There on his knees he is reduced, broken, and totally given over to the will of his father:  “Not my will, God, but thine.”  And there in his brokenness, he finds strength—not his own, but God’s strength.

That’s what happens with Peter and James and John on the Mount of the Transfiguration.  They fall down, but are given new strength.  Not their own. It’s not as though they think of some new plan, or combine their energy to stand.  It’s Christ who picks them up. It’s God who reaches down to give them a hand and raise them up.  “They fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.” But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

Richard Rohr suggests that this is the real secret to life: that “the way up is the way down.”  Growth, maturity, meaning—anything worth having, only happens through sacrifice, a “going down,” or a “being taken down.”  We go up by going down.  We gain by losing.  As Rohr says, “We gain spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.” (This is an important thing to remember as we approach the Season of Lent, with the various spiritual disciplines we may try out.)  Rohr points out that this is the “little Way” of St. Therese de Lisieux, the Way of Poverty of St. Francis, and the way of powerlessness in the first step of twelve-step recovery programs.  This is what Paul means when he tells the Corinthians, “It is when I am weak that I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10)  [Falling Upward, p. xxiv]

Rainer Maria Rilke reflects on this in Book of Hours:

How surely gravity’s law,
strong as an ocean current,
takes hold of even the smallest thing
and pulls it toward the heart of the world….
This is what the things can teach us:
to fall,
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.”
[Book of Hours, “Book of Pilgrimage,” II, 15-16, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy]

Rohr reflects further, “God knows that all of us will fall somehow.   Those events that lead us to “catastrophize” out of all proportion must be business as usual for God—at least six billion times a day.  … God must say after each [falling or] failure of ours, “Oh, here is a great opportunity! Let’s see how we can work with this!”  [Falling Upward, p 158.]

This Wednesday begins the season of Lent.  I don’t know where you are or will be as Lent begins.  It might be that you’re already on your knees, or feel like you’ve been hit by a truck.  Maybe you’re standing tall and will accept the invitation of Lent to “bend the knee of your heart” [As in the Prayer of Manassah], bend the knees of your body, or bend the knees of your activity in service to others.  Or perhaps you’re at an in-between place, on your way up from being down, or feeling as though you’re falling very slowly.

Wherever you may be on the edge of this season, Christ extends a hand—a hand to hold while we’re down, and a hand eventually to help us up again.  May the season ahead of us fill us with faith so that with Christ we may rise in glory.

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

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Choosing Life

choose lifeA sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 16, 2020. The scripture readings are Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, and Matthew 5:21-37.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

In our first scripture reading from Deuteronomy, Moses is giving Israel an enormous pep-talk. After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, of wondering if God is still directing them and leading them, of worrying about what might come next, Israel is on the edge of moving into the Promised Land. I don’t know the geographic setting for the speech, but from its imagery and majesty, I wonder if it wasn’t on a hill somewhere, overlooking a great expanse of land down below, and far away. Moses speaks to the occasion in grand terms, “I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous…[You will be blessed.] But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, [then] I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in [that] land….” Life and death, blessings and curses. “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord you God, obeying him and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days.” Choose life.

Choosing life can be every bit as dramatic as Moses makes it sound. We choose life when we move into a new relationship. We choose life when we plan for a child. We choose life when we make a new and better decision about the direction in which we’re headed.

But choosing life also involves smaller decisions. Choosing which conversation to be a part of, choosing what to eat or drink, and even choosing how we move or exercise—all can mean choosing for life over death (in the long run).

In the Gospel today, Jesus gets down to the nitty gritty, as he points to some of the guidelines for our choosing.

Jesus is talking about our living with what is sometimes simply called “the Law,” meaning the Law of Moses—the Ten Commandments, but also, with the wisdom associated with the law and its interpretation. This Gospel can sound like a real “laying down of the law.” It can sound like a faith that leaves out people. In fact, if we were to miss the fine points of the Gospel, most of us would probably find ourselves left out.
Jesus is re-interpreting the old law, saying, “it’s not enough just to keep the law. That probably won’t work very well, anyway. The key to living faithfully is to try to understand the things that move under the surface, the motivations and moods, the fears and fantasies that lead us off-track.”

Jesus repeats the commandment, “You shall not murder.” But then he goes further by uncovering some of the things that lead to murder. We might hear the talk of murder as extreme, until we begin to think of the anger, the frustration, the road-rage, the minor annoyances that can all too easily escalate. We might begin by harboring a grudge or nursing a resentment, and if we’re not careful, we can end up in court.

Instead, Jesus says we should work at reconciliation. He speaks of going to the temple in Jerusalem for worship, but if you remember your neighbor has something against you—stop your worship and go work things out with your neighbor beforehand. Notice how Jesus puts this—he doesn’t even say, if “YOU” have something against your neighbor, but rather, if your brother or sister has something against YOU. That changes the responsibility for reconciliation, doesn’t it?

Our tendency is to ignore the problems. Especially at church, or in any organization, we think that if we just avoid “such and such” or act a certain way or say a certain thing, then future conflicts can be avoided. But when we come to the altar, we feel the break in community and it haunts us. Here, Jesus is exaggerating his point.

If one left the temple in Jerusalem to go and be reconciled to a neighbor, it might take hours or days. You wouldn’t just leave the goat or turtledove or whatever you sacrifice might be sitting there on the temple steps. And yet, his point is made, isn’t it? Until we at least begin to pray for the person who has a problem with us, or with whom we have a problem, whatever we offer at the altar will be less than what it might be. And we won’t be free.

Prayers of confession are a beginning. A note, or phone call, or email, or conversation with another person is a beginning. A prayer for one’s enemy or one’s hard-to-get-along-with brother or sister, is a beginning, and that opens the heart to God’s grace. If we took Jesus’ words literally, we would have a whole lot of unused communion wafers every Sunday. But instead, what we do is we confess that we are broken people on the mend, and we ask for God’s grace to restore us and help us restore broken relationships.

As we move further into today’s Gospel, Jesus leads us into messy territory. “You shall not commit adultery,” he reminds us. But then goes on to warn about lust and about all the urges and senses that, if given energy and encouragement, lead to adultery. His answer is to watch the emotions, watch the heart.

And then, Jesus talks about divorce. This is one of those topics (like abortion, like homosexuality, like many issues) that really warrants an entire series of looking closely at what scripture says, at how the culture of the time influenced the scriptures, at how faithful people through the ages have understood the movement of the Holy Spirit. As people of faith, we continue to believe that “All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3: 16-17) but just as much (if not sometimes, more) we believe that the Holy Spirit helps us interpret scripture for our own day and our own lives.

There are times when a divorce is an unfaithful decision, made out of selfishness or spiritual immaturity. But there are also times when divorce is the ONLY faithful decision, and then one really needs all one’s faith to continue choosing life even in the midst of dark days. Choosing life in that case means reconciling as much as possible. Choosing life means praying for the other people involved, it means working on one’s issues, and choosing life after divorce or the ending of any relationship means being open to a new relationship or re-marriage when God opens that possibility.

We choose life with the attitude we adopt when we wake up in the morning. We choose life in our thoughts, in our conversations, in our willingness to apologize, in our ability to forgive, in our faith to move on in the Spirit of God, and in our thinking about what will follow us in the future.

Choosing life is not as easy as simply memorizing and repeating commandments and trying to harness every bit of energy we have in order to live by them. There’s no joy of Christ in that sort of life. There’s a moral slavery—exactly the kind of bondage from which Christ has come to liberate us.

Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, sometimes sounds a lot like Jesus as she points to the limits of phrases and platitudes. Some of her words from an interview a few years ago resurfacing on social media. She cautions against using phrases and words to without following them out to their conclusion. In the interview, she specifically talks about so many of her brothers and sisters who would define themselves as “pro-life.”

She says, “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.” Notice she’s not disagreeing with the people she mentions, necessarily, but she’s pushing all of us to get beyond the sound bite, the talking point, or the rallying cry.

Whether you agree with Sister Chittister, or not, notice that she is raising the same point Jesus raises. “Choosing life” can’t be about picking and choosing which life to choose, or which aspect of life to choose. Instead, we are either moving towards life, or we are moving towards death.

Before us is set “life and prosperity, death and adversity.” If we obey the commandments of the Lord our God, walking in his ways… then we shall live, and we shall live in such a way that our life is outlived by the one who is Love Himself.

Redeemed by Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, let us choose life this day and for ever. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Centering on Christ

labyrinth2A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 9, 2020. The scripture readings are Isaiah 58:1-12], Psalm 112:1-9, (10), 1 Corinthians 2:1-16, and Matthew 5:13-20.

Listen to the sermon HERE

This morning’s first scripture reading is from the Prophet Isaiah.  At first hearing, it can sound like a rousing encouragement to join in the noise of the day, to jump into the argument, launch a new Twitter account, and let loose—all in the name of God.  Using the images from today’s scriptures, we might be tempted to throw salt into the eyes of the evil ones, and then blind them with the light of truth!

“Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to [everyone, everywhere] their sins. Yet day after day they seek me . . .  as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God …”  Those are preaching words. Prophetic words.  Words that easily find their target in our day.

It’s tempting to yell and scream and raise our voices to match the volume of those yelling around us.  And the temptations are going to grow stronger in this year of a presidential election (though I’m not sure there has been much break in the angry volume of words in the last three years.) And so, as people of faith, what do we do? Do we join the fight, Bibles in hand?  Do we go to the other extreme and check out completely?  The Biblical vision is one that integrates—justice with mercy, freedom with responsibility.

Isaiah’s encouragement is as much for looking inward as it is for looking outward.  He’s reminding people that if they claim to follow God, that faithfulness needs to be evident in the nitty-gritty, the everyday, the right-here, and right-now of life. Religious practice is done to show off and be seen, but it’s hollow on the inside.  In words that we will do well to remember when the Season of Lent begins in a few weeks, Isaiah reminds us that we’re all called to practice fasting—but not to show off our religious practice; not as a means of self-improvement, but the fast God desires is one of humility, humility in action.

To lower oneself so that one can see those who have been thrown down—and then to work with them to alleviate injustice, to free the imprisoned, to feed the hungry, and house the homeless.

Isaiah says that if we try to live like God’s people, then light will break forth like the dawn and healing will take place all around.  Isaiah is trying to get people to understand the mind of God, the Spirit of God, which God has planted in each one of us.

In the second scripture reading, St. Paul describes this Spirit of God—the Spirit being that part of God’s movement and energy in the world that appears when words fail.  And he says that if begin to forget what God is like, we simply have to look to Jesus, to seek the “mind of Christ.”

In that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully human, his mind was filled with God and the things of God. And so, to be like Jesus Christ is to set our mind on the things he values and teaches and lives out.  To be like Jesus is to allow our mind to be filled with God and God’s Spirit.

Filled with the Spirit, we discover a funny thing: all of a sudden, we are acting and thinking and living like the people Jesus has described in the Gospel. With the Spirit of God pouring through us, we shine like light for others—not in a self-conscious or self-aggrandizing way, but in a way that comes from God. And we become salty, as well—not in a way that overpowers or offends, but in a way that is distinctive and delights.

If you cook at all, you know that too much salt overwhelms a food and so you taste nothing but the salt. But just enough, and the salt encourages other flavors, and the whole dish is made better.

It’s that way in the world, as well. Empowered by the Spirit of God, we add our own Christian perspective and find that it adds to, rather than obliterates; it promotes rather than dominates.  Salt is strong enough to stand on its own, and that’s just the way our faith ought to be.

If we are centered on the Spirit, allow God to make us light and salt, then that second part of the Gospel really sort of takes care of itself.  The second part talks about the commandments of God remaining firm, and how, if we should break a commandment or teach others to do so we will be “least in the kingdom of God.” If we keep the commandments and teach others to do so, the Gospel says, we will be “great in the kingdom of God.”  All of this takes care of itself. Enlivened by the Spirit of God, we realize it when we fall, or fail, or break a commandment. And so we say we’re sorry. We might go to confession. We stop and re-evaluate and pray for the grace to carry on. Keeping the commandments is not the focus of our faith, but it becomes a natural by-product of living faithfully.

And so, how do we get this mind of Christ? How do we get the Spirit of God?

It begins at baptism.  There and then, the Holy Spirit is given to us. But we spend our lives living into the Spirit of God, through the process the church sometimes calls sanctification—a way of being made holy.

Another way of allowing the Spirit room in our lives is through prayer.

Some of you are familiar with the type of prayer known as Centering Prayer.  There are other forms very similar—Christian meditation, Buddhist and non-religious meditation, and others.  Centering Prayer works very simply.  One sits still in a chair or on a prayer stool or a mat, and one simply opens oneself to the Origin of all that exists. When a thought shows up, simply let it pass on through. Just return to the silence, the space, the place where you are inviting God to be. Sometimes a “centering word” is helpful.  It’s a little different from a mantra, which would be repeated over and over.  In Centering Prayer, the silence is welcome and the “centering word” is simply used to bring one back to center.

It can be anything like “grace,” or “blessing,” or Jesus’ word for God, “abba” or perhaps “amma.” The word isn’t the focus, it just reminds you to come back to center and simply “be.”

Centering prayer usually happens for about 20 minutes or more. It takes practice.  It’s counter-cultural because in such prayer, we’re not struggling to keep up with emails, with news, with tasks, with people, with expectations, with hopes. We’re not improving or producing or creating.  We’ve not even paying attention to our own faith, or beliefs, or prayers. It’s a time for being quiet, for practicing the quiet. As Cynthia Bourgeault describes it,

What goes on in those silent depths during the time of Centering Prayer is no one’s business, not even your own; it is between your innermost being and God; that place where, as St. Augustine once said, ‘God is closer to your soul than you are yourself.’ (Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, p. 6)

Whether it’s Centering Prayer, meditation, a good cup of tea and quiet few minutes, or a particular walk in the park—I encourage you to find something that centers you, that calls you again to the Spirit of God within you.  Each us is called to be salty, bright, freed and forgiven people, living in the Spirit of God and sharing God’s love with any who will have it.

Especially when we get caught up in the news of the day or simply get overwhelmed with our own lives, we can pause and seek the mind of Christ.  We can slow down, breathe, notice, and give thanks for the integrating, healing, renewing, and loving Spirit within us.   And then, we allow God to use us to change the world.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Present for God

PresentationA sermon for February 2, 2020, called The Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, or “Candlemas.” The scriptures are Malachi 3:1-4, Psalm 84, Hebrews 2:14-18, and Luke 2:22-40.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Yesterday, I was at an event down at the Church of Calvary-St. George’s. At lunchtime, I sat next to a woman who seemed familiar with the place, and so I asked her if she was a part of that parish. “No,” she said. “I used to be, but I’ve moved to Brooklyn.” She went on to say how she occasionally goes to her neighborhood church, but “it doesn’t offer much.” And so she visits around. As she talked about the churches she frequents, it soon became clear that everyone seems to fall short. She spoke of a church that’s famous for its music, but said it can seem cold. I suggested that maybe whenever I’m there, I hear God so strongly in the music, that it makes everything else ok. “Yes,” she said, “but sometimes it’s just a performance.” I suggested she check out a church closer to her that has a new rector. “I hear really good things about him,” I offered. “Oh no,” said the women, “I’m not liberal enough to go to that church. You know, it’s like scripture says, ‘They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.’” (Amos 8:12) In a rare moment of recall, I was able to suggest, “Yes, but scripture also says, ‘the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deuteronomy 30:14). We then talked about the sandwiches.

The poor woman I met yesterday struck me almost as a character in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce (which we’re reading this month and discussing at 10 am.). She’s not very happy in this life, and chances are that she’ll have a hard time being happy in the next.

That lunchtime conversation (and today’s scriptures) reminded me of an interview by Bill Moyers with the legendary world religion historian, Huston Smith. Smith had spent much of his life travelling the world, learning other languages, studying with gurus and spiritual teachers, and praying in just about every way imaginable. When Moyers heard that Smith attends his local United Methodist church when he was at home, Moyers asked how that could be. Smith quoted an Indian teacher who said simply, “If one wants to find water, one does better to dig one very deep hole than to dig many shallow ones.”

Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not suggested that you should never visit other churches or other religious traditions. Far from it. Visit them and learn from them, and then bring back things we can learn from, things we can do better. But also, come back and give thanks the many ways in which we experience God right here.

In today’s Gospel, Anna and Simeon recognized Jesus as the Messiah, God’s unique expression in our world, partly because they are THERE. Through habits of showing up, of being open to God’s changing and saving grace, and being open for the ongoing revelation of God, they saw the new light in Jesus.

On this Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, the Gospel doesn’t pay so much attention to the building. It focuses on the people. Jesus, the flesh and blood baby, now forty days old, is brought to the temple for a blessing. His mother Mary comes also for her traditional blessing. And then, the bulk of the Gospel involves the reaction and response of Holy Simeon and the Prophetess Anna.

Simeon has waited at the temple. He has received a vision that he will see the Messiah before he dies, and so he waits. He sees Jesus, he holds him, and then Simeon gives thanks to God for bringing such life and light into the world. Because of this little baby, because of the coming of the Messiah, there will be peace and glory and salvation, salvation for all.

Anna, too, is in the temple, night and day, fasting and praying. With her trained spiritual eye she too sees Jesus and recognizes him. She too gives thanks to God and tells others that Jesus is the way to salvation.

Simeon and Anna are people whose faith outshines the temple itself. They know to look for God in the flesh, and because of this, they recognize Christ when he comes among them.

By showing up, by being open to God’s changing and saving grace, and by being open for the ongoing revelation of God.

They show up.
In what way might God be asking you to commit more deeply to the place that nurtures you spiritually? What might that look like?

Anna and Simeon fast and repent, which is to say, they admit they don’t have all the answers and that, left on their own, they will only fall into increasing despair at the condition of the world around them. But by fasting and penitence, by being open to God’s changing grace, they age but grow younger. They become wise, but more open to new thoughts. They slowly move beyond annoying sins and habits that threaten to do them in. What is God calling you to turn over or let go of?

And finally, Anna and Simeon know what to look for in God’s ongoing revelation. Do you need to sharpen your spiritual vision in some way? By reading, by studying, by developing new habits of prayer? How might God be calling you to see more clearly so that you’ll notice God’s presence, when he’s in front of you?

The epistle reading today, from the Letter to the Hebrews, reminds us “[Christ] did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.” Jesus was made human in every respect, so that he might offer all of his humanity to the service of God, clearing the way for us to reach God. The lesson concludes with those beautiful words of hope, “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

Without faith in the light, we’re doomed to live in darkness, to be overwhelmed by the political currents of our country and many countries, to be confounded by changes in climate and natural disasters, and to be terrified of every new, strange threat to our health. Faith in Jesus Christ offers us a way into the light.

In presenting his own body in the temple, Jesus leads us to present our bodies as well. We present all that we are to God, that he might consecrate us and purify us and help us to live more faithfully. In the Presentation, we are also reminded of that choice that comes for us every time we enter the temple: do we look for God with the angels, or do we look for God in the broken-but-healing lives all around us? And finally, the candles we light on this day remind us that here is the source of our light, that even on the darkest of days, God comes to us in this place, in sacrament, in prayer and in the outstretched hand of Christian community.

On this Candlemas, may the light of Christ be rekindled in our hearts that we may shine forth with his love in the world. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Catching People: The Rector’s 2019 Annual Report

John ChristmasAs is his custom, the rector gave his annual report as the sermon at the worship service on the Sunday of the Annual Meeting of the Parish, January 26, 2020.  The scripture readings are Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 5-13, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, and Matthew 4:12-23.

Listen to the report HERE

At the very beginning of today’s Gospel, we hear news that John the Baptist has been arrested. Jesus and his disciples must sense that these are dangerous times. Events are moving quickly and each day brings new challenges.

For us, living so many years later, we hear news that makes us anxious. Whether we devour every word of the latest news or try to avoid it or filter it—there’s no getting around a certain sense of anxiety, of trouble brewing, perhaps of a world out of control.

And so, in the context of what scripture calls “wars and rumors of wars,” we find ourselves a part of a church—of this church. And like the people described in today’s Gospel, rather than despair because of bad news (John the Baptist has been arrested), or give up, we’re called to follow Jesus and go fishing—to be a part of the whole sharing of Good News which “catches people.” News about Jesus—his life, his way, his freedom—can catch some off guard, it might catch others who feel like they’re in the middle of a freefall, and it might even catch our breath as we realize anew the depth of God’s love for us and our world.

This spirit of helping others get caught up in the love and life of Christ, of “sharing what we’ve got,” and not holding on to it too tightly for ourselves, is a good spirit in which to celebrate the Annual Meeting of the Church of the Holy Trinity.

As most of you know, on this Annual Meeting Sunday every January, it’s my practice to make my annual report in the context of the sermon. I will make it slightly shorter than in the past because so much of our review of 2019 is told by other people in the hard copy Annual Report you’ll receive after our worship service. Though a lot of my energy is spent managing our building, you can read about that in the Buildings & Grounds report. I will thank some people by name in this report, but please know how grateful I am to each person here for all that you have done in the past year to make Holy Trinity such a special place.

And so, with regard to “catching people,” in 2019, more people got caught up in our worship. Attendance has been slowly increasing, which helped us begin to really feel like we are forming communities around the Sunday 8 AM service, the Sunday night 6 PM service, and the Wednesday night service. We regularly have four to seven people for Morning Prayer at 8:30 AM, Mondays through Thursdays. Especially in 2019, whenever I needed to be away for a meeting, an appointment, or vacation, volunteers from the community stepped up to lead Morning Prayer or lead Wednesday Evening Prayer. This is as it should be, as the community takes leadership for the worship and is less dependent on a clergy person to always be the leader.

In 2019, we began the complicated and laborious work of migrating from an older database system to a new, cloud-based, secure, and versatile information management system. Some of you have created logins and given online or updated your own information, and we are grateful. Already, the new system helps us to be better stewards of our financial resources, but even more important, it helps us keep track of people—to know who is part of the church family and who has moved elsewhere, to be able to know a person’s spouse, whether that person may be of another faith or no faith, and to be able to establish groups and ways of helping people get more involved, as they wish. The new database, called Realm, makes for better fishing—it allows us to catch and minister with the people God sends our way.

Again, in 2019, a lot of people got caught up in the work of God through Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center. David Liston, our president, and the entire HTNC Board guide the programs with humor, persistence, and competence. As you’ll hear in the Church Treasurer’s report, in 2019, we began more careful accounting with costs incurred by HTNC. Last year, HTNC actually had no fundraisers, but will do more fundraising for program costs in 2020 and later in 2020, we may even have a plan for an updated kitchen, and can move toward more serious fundraising around that issue.

The programs of Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center were blessed with volunteers. The Tuesday senior lunch community continued to be robust and well-fed, thanks to the cooking of Emma Sebbane and her team. Even though the various cooking teams for the Saturday neighborhood supper began to change their configuration and perhaps will need some new volunteers in 2020, last year was a great success. The Thanksgiving Dinner program again fed almost 300 people, thanks to efforts coordinated by Suzanne Julig, Lydia Colón, and volunteers from St. Joseph’s Church. The HTNC homeless shelter struggled with some of the practical aspects of our serving as a respite site for the Main Chance Drop-in Center (getting linens on time, not getting as many referrals as we thought we should), but our volunteers were amazing and we continued to be one of the only religious respite sites that continued year-long. This is largely because of the oversight by our neighbor Mark Roshkind, and our amazing volunteer coordinator, Melanie Hill. In 2019, our shelter was still closed on Wednesday and Thursday nights, but if we had more volunteers, we might be able to be open seven nights a week.

Though we took a year off from MayFair (given street and rectory construction and the very late date of Easter), we were especially “evangelical” during the last week of June, as we did our part to be the church while New York City welcomed millions of people for World Pride. LGBTQ people from all over the world read about us on the World Pride website and in publications that targeted the occasion. On Tuesday night of that week, we offered an opportunity for people to meet our own assistant bishop in New York, the Rt. Rev. Mary Glasspool, the first openly lesbian bishop in the Anglican Communion. That night, we had a full church, with people from all over the country, many of whom named our event as the highlight of their plans for World Pride Week. On Wednesday night of that week, we showed the film, “Saint of 9/11” about the life of Father Mychal Judge. On Sunday, we offered special music during worship, had a pre-parade party in the social hall, and then joined the Diocese of New York for the Pride March. For months afterwards, I received thank you emails and notes from people who were grateful that our parish was so publicly offering the love and welcome of Christ to all people.

My own skills as a fisherman for Christ are sharpened as I learn from the community and from colleagues. Last year, I continued to celebrate a monthly Eucharist at Carnegie East House for Senior Living, served on the Advisory Board of Health Advocates for Older People, the board of the St. Hilda and St. Hugh School on the West Side, and as the Community Pastor to the Community of St. John Baptist, an Episcopal order of nuns in New Jersey. My own spirit was nurtured and sustained by my involvement with the Third Order Society of St. Francis, and Holy Trinity was blessed to host the Society of St. Francis (the Episcopal Franciscan friars) for their service of the Transitus of St. Francis in October and for a Day of Reflection they offered here on All Souls’ Day. In the Diocese of New York, I served on the Global Mission Commission, and continued participating in the midtown clericus and the Manhattan Rector’s group.

Sigo aprendiendo y practicando español, aunque hablo mal. Estudio porque desafía mi cerebro, me ayuda a ser más útil en el ministerio y porque ayuda a nuestra iglesia a dar la bienvenida a los vecinos cercanos y lejanos. Para aquellos hablantes nativos de español: gracias por su paciencia.

(I continue learning and practicing Spanish, even though I speak badly. I study in order to challenge my brain, to be more helpful in ministry, and because it helps our church welcome neighbors from close by and far away.)

Speaking of engaging the wider world, last week, we again enjoyed a visit from Father Graham Buckle, the vicar of St. Stephen’s Church, our sister parish in the London-NY Link program. Graham visited in January of 2019, I visited and preached in London in March, and members of both parishes have visited throughout the year. Some of you participated in our Sunday morning education hour in April, as we used the Internet technology of “Facetime” to join the people of St. Stephen’s for a session of art and spirituality.

Jesus says we should be catching people, and I’ve lamented that sometimes the Episcopal Church works more like a lobster trap. We open one hidden door and hope people will wander in. And while Holy Trinity is not yet able to be open during the daytime (there are too many unsafe dark corners and hidden places for mischief-makers) visitors and friends move through this space almost every day of the week. Thanks to Liz Poole, and her dedication to teaching Wednesday night yoga, some people who ordinarily would never come inside are able to experience the presence of God here. Again, in 2019, we welcomed the Taiko Japanese Drumming group, and in September, we celebrated a Michaelmas Evensong with our neighbors from St. Joseph’s (Roman Catholic) Church. And almost every week, there are choral groups, or recovery groups, or community meetings that use our space.

Yesterday, as people arrived to remember the life of Connie George, beloved Board Member of Triangle Theatre, many went first to Draesel Hall because that’s the space they know, from attending Triangle Theatre events. When they figured out the service was in the church, and they saw the church—many for the first time—they were gob smacked. Many were even more surprised when they saw how Holy Trinity welcomed with a light touch, in no way compromising the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but being open to other traditions and experiences of the Holy. The productions, the teaching, and the fun of Triangle Theatre touch a lot of lives, and I’m confident it will continue to do so in the future.

As every child knows, the church is not building or the steeple, but you have to open the door for all the people. Again in 2019, I was blessed with volunteers and staff. I’m always grateful for the support and help from the Rev. Richard Smith, who is in some ways retired from active ministry, but in other ways, busy almost every Sunday. I continue to work towards our possibly having a deacon at Holy Trinity, and things look good for later this year.

Rarely, is there a week that someone does not compliment me on some member of our church staff. Often, it’s to say how amazing the music is, and to express gratitude for Cleveland Kersh, our director of music and organist. Yesterday was another example of his kindness, his versatility, and his selfless service to the occasion, as he helped others hear and experience “the beauty of holiness.” Calvin du Toit, our Sunday night musician, does the same thing each week, as he sings and plays and teaches us music that truly allows us to “pray twice.” I’m grateful to our sextons, Arold Dorsinvil, Ozel Ryant, and José Cornier. They work and work and work.

Erlinda Brent identifies herself as the “church secretary,” but we all know she’s much more than that—helping to coordinate sextons, building use, calendars, special events, those who rent our space for programs, and for holding and filming. It’s because of Erlinda that we benefited again in 2019 from the CBS television series “God Friended Me,” and we were used for filming by the series, “Evil,” and several other shorter segments for television and film. A Latin America superstar named Romeo Santos filmed one of his music videos here last year, and that song (“El beso que no le di,” “The kiss I didn’t give her,”) has remained on the Billboard charts ever since.

Though few churches function with committees the way they might have 20 years ago, we have several strong boards and committees that help us be faithful and keep us on track. The Investment Committee and the Budget and Finance Committee continued to help us keep track of our resources, but also to be better stewards and to put into place systems that protect us and guide us for the future. Jean Geater and Christine du Toit have been hugely helpful with this. As you’ll see at our meeting to follow this worship service, Christine’s service as our volunteer Treasurer is invaluable and continues to strengthen us for long years of service and mission in the future.

I want to thank Jim Synk for his coordination of our 2019 Stewardship Campaign, which he has done for some 13 years. Jim will probably join me in being enormously thankful that we went beyond our goal for 2020, while also pointing out that a few small number of people give very generously. We can all grow in how we support the mission and ministry of Holy Trinity.

The Vestry meets monthly for most of the year, and is filled with people who serve in just about every aspect of our church life. Alden Prouty and Yvonne O’Neal again led us with grace and energy. We thank Bea Tompkins and Leona Fredericks, who both complete their terms on Vestry this year and are taking a rest. But we won’t let them rest too much—we need their wisdom and input. We are slowly getting over our denial that Alexandra Barker has indeed gone to Scotland for law school, but we were grateful for all her service on Vestry in 2019.

Our Gospel today begins with news of the arrest of John the Baptist. But even in the midst of a complicated and challenging world, the disciples and Jesus kept telling people about the Good News of the Kingdom and their love and life in the Spirit brough healing and renewal.

May God help us to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ in this new year.

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Washed and Renewed

baptism-of-jesusA sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, January 12, 2020.  The scripture readings are Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, and Matthew 3:13-17.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Today we remember the baptism of Jesus and we recall our own baptisms, when we underwent the sacrament and symbol of new birth. Especially today, the scriptures invite us to ask what part of our lives God may be trying to expand or enlarge; to break down or build up? What part needs to be washed clean and made new? Are there places in our lives where we continue to hold prejudice or harbor assumptions? Are there places where we continue to show partiality and exclusion to any of God’s children?

Before we think about the Gospel, I’d like us to look at the second scripture reading, from the Acts of the Apostles. Unfortunately, it begins in the middle of a story. It’s a story about Simon Peter and Peter’s conversion to openness. The story begins earlier in Acts, chapter 10 with the introduction of a character named Cornelius. Cornelius is a Roman soldier. He’s not a Jew; he’s a Gentile. But God begins working on Cornelius, preparing him to meet Peter.

Meanwhile, God begins to work on Peter. Peter, like Jesus himself at the beginning of his ministry, and like many of the early Jewish followers of Jesus, was hesitant to embrace non-Jews. It was unclear how the election of the people Israel might be expanded to include others. But in a vision to Peter, God makes it very clear that all are welcome, all are included, there should be no partiality.

Peter goes to sleep and has a dream. In the vision he’s hungry, and then he sees a sheet lowered down from heaven, a sheet filled with animals and reptiles and birds. And Peter hears a voice that tells him to stand up, kill, and eat. Peter responds to the voice, explaining that he’s religious, he never eats anything that is common or unclean, according to Jewish law. But the voice says to him, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.” And then Peter wakes up.

It’s only later, when God brings Peter and Cornelius together, that Peter connects the dream about clean and unclean food, with his prior understanding of people—the false separations between clean and unclean, between those included and those excluded, between those whom God loves, and those who (for whatever reason) are thought not to be loved so much by God.

And so, in today’s reading from Acts, we hear a wiser and enlightened Peter—“I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

Peter’s new understanding that God does not play favorites, that God shows no partiality, that God chooses whoever and whenever God desires—all of these ideas related directly to the understanding of holy baptism, which we celebrate on this day, The Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Catechism in the back of our Prayer Books reminds us that “Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.” The birth child and the adopted child are indistinguishable, since in God’s sight, we are all adopted as children in our baptism. The water makes us one, and as though we were looking at the world through water, when we look out through the perspective of baptism, any distinctions we might have seen before, are blurred; edges are smoothed; difficulties go out of focus. Or at least, that’s the potential offered to us by baptism. Like regular water, it washes us. Though we are baptized only once, we partially re-live our baptism whenever another is baptized; whenever we affirm our own baptismal vows; whenever we touch holy water or are blessed by it being hurled through the air at us.

God gave Saint Peter a vision that helped him to move beyond the confines of his upbringing, his experience and his religion. Even Jesus was shaken out of his own ethnic assumptions by the Samaritan woman, the Canaanite, the Syro-Phoenician, the tax collector and many others.

The great southern writer Flannery O’Connor often includes characters who stumble upon this issue of where they should be in the great “pecking order” of life. In her story, “Revelation,” a lady named Mrs. Turpin has a vision like St. Peter, but for Mrs. Turpin, it may have come too late. When she’s in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, we get a sense of how she notices people. O’Connor writes,

Without appearing to, Mrs. Turpin always noticed people’s feet. The well-dressed lady had on red and grey suede shoes to match her dress. Mrs. Turpin had on her good black patent leather pumps. The ugly girl had on Girl Scout shoes and heavy socks. The old woman had on tennis shoes and the white-trashy mother had on what appeared to be bedroom slippers, black straw with gold braid threaded through them—exactly what you would have expected her to have on.

The story continues as Mrs. Turpin decides that one person in the room is suitable for conversation, and so the two talk in front of the others as they basically agree on the ways of the world as they see them. At one point, there’s a dramatic altercation with the girl Mrs. Turpin thinks is unattractive. It’s as though all the rage and anger of everyone and everything Mrs. Turpin has ever criticized or looked down on rises up and takes its vengeance.

An ambulance came, the “crazy girl” was taken off and order was restored to Mrs. Turpin’s world…. almost. As she tries to take in all that’s happened, Mrs. Turpin steps outside and looks across the yard. There she has a vision.

A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black[s] . . . in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was.

For Mrs. Turpin, the vision comes late—perhaps too late. For St. Peter, the vision of God’s love for everyone comes just in time, in time to change his life and help him to be a force for change in the church and the world.

May God fill us with visions and dreams and a right reckoning of who we are and who’s we are. May we be washed and forgiven. May we be renewed, may God grant us visions that help us to extend the kingdom of God to ever corner and to every person. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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What will you bring?

magi squaredA sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, observed on January 5, 2020. The scripture readings are Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7,10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, and Matthew 2:1-12.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Today we basically complete this year’s celebration of Christmas on this 12th Day of Christmas. This is the day for twelve drummers drumming, (as well as eleven pipers piping, and all the rest, if you follow the old carol.) Most of us know that Christmas is more than a day, that it’s a full 12 days and officially ends with tomorrow’s celebration of The Epiphany. Epiphany is about “the showing forth” of Christ, the Day of the Three Kings, or Tres Reyes Magos.

Enjoying Christmas as a season (more than a day) can be a great gift, a gift that reminds us that no matter what, God is among us. No matter how we may observe the days of Christmas ourselves—whether quiet or loud, whether alone or with lots of people—Christmas is a liturgical and spiritual reality, observed and celebrated in churches throughout the world, running like a great undercurrent of living water beneath busy lives.

Christmastide (these Twelve Days of Christmas) is a rollercoaster of spirituality if we let ourselves hang on for the ride. On Christmas Eve, God is here, close and breathing, offering the possibility of peace on earth, and goodwill among all. But no sooner than we are reminded of God’s Incarnation, we are confronted with the results of having faith in such a God. The last few days of December show us the cost of faith, as they are martyr’s days: St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, remembers a deacon in the early church who became the first Christian martyr. The 27th is St. John’s Day, and even though John the apostle and evangelist is thought to have lived to a very old age, he suffered for his faith, and was beaten and imprisoned. On the 28th, the Feast of the Holy Innocents reminds us of the lengths to which King Herod was willing to go in order to protect his own grasp of power, as he sought to have all the male babies killed, to wipe out any future competition. The 29th is well-known to Anglophiles and those who know T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral”—it’s the day to remember Thomas Beckett, the medieval archbishop of Canterbury who was killed by the king’s thugs.

Faith in the Christ-child is put to the test very early.

Some of you were here on Wednesday, New Year’s Day, as we observed the Feast of the Holy Name. We recalled how that special name, that holy name, the name of Jesus, means “savior,” and that day reminds us that in the name of Jesus—in the name of all that flows out of it, all that it invokes and gathers– there is saving power, there is the way for our salvation.

All of this brings us to this day, the eve of the Epiphany, the manifestation, or the showing forth, of Jesus as God with us, the revelation of Jesus as King of our hearts—but not only ours, but also the hearts of all the world that would follow him. We celebrate God’s love for all people, all languages, all colors and shades, all backgrounds and diversities, everyone and anyone is included.

And we pray that we might be like the Wise Men who were led by a star. We pray that we might have the strength and the faith and the tenacity of those three, to follow wherever God leads us, whether it’s through a star, an angel, the word of a loved one, or a God-informed feeling of the gut.

In our Gospel we read that King Herod has heard from his astrologers that a special child has been born. He has probably also heard from his political advisers that the people are getting restless and wanting change. And so he is suspicious. But the Wise Men follow the star, even at great risk to themselves. They move forward, following where they feel God is pointing.

In the part of Matthew’s Gospel that immediately follows what we’ve read today, an angel appears to Mary and Joseph and warns them about King Herod, and so instead of going home to Nazareth, they go to Egypt. They become resident aliens, refugees, until it’s safe to return home.

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

The Star doesn’t hang in the sky the same way for us as it did for the Wise Men. And the angels may not have given us our travel plans the way they did Mary and Joseph. But we, too, are filled with God and empowered to move forward. And we can follow like they did.

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

Through the days of Christmas, we have given and received gifts. We have received in Christ the gift of life, of eternal life. And so today might be a good day to take a cue from the wise men and imagine what we might bring Christ? What will we give more to God in this new year?

There’s a wonderful Epiphany hymn (“Bring we the Frankincense of our Love,” H. Kenn Carmichael, 1976) that encourages us with the words

Bring we the frankincense of our love
To the feet of the holy Child,
Ever remembering God’s great gift
Of a love that is undefiled.

Bring we the myrrh of humility
To the throne of the Son of God,
Ever recalling the purity
Of His life when the earth He trod.

Bring we the gold of our faithfulness
To the King who is Lord of all.

What do you bring, this new season?

Listening closely to God, holding on tightly to one another, and moving ahead with strength and confidence, we step into a new year. May the joy of Christmas strengthen us through the reality of the season after the Epiphany, so that Christ’s joy might resound throughout the New Year.

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

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Outside In

christmas-tree-store
A sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas Day, December 29, 2019. The scripture readings are Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 147, Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7, and John 1:1-18.

Listen to the sermon HERE

If you think about it, we do a strange thing to our houses, apartments and churches at this time of the year. We bring inside things that usually belong outside: trees and wreaths, pine cones and branches.

In addition to the greens, the typical crèche, or nativity scene brings in even more of the outdoors. There are often a few sheep. There is of course an ox and a donkey. The shepherds are there, and the wise men usually ride in on a camel or even an elephant—all inside the church or home where a crèche is placed.

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

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

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

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

In order to bring the outside in, God himself went outside. Jesus was born outside the conventions of an ordinary family. He was born outside the warmth of home or security or extended family. Soon after his birth, Mary and Joseph took him out even further.

Before long, King Herod would begin his effort to kill the outsider, to try to keep out the light, to try to keep out the life of God in the world. In Jesus, God brought the outside in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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