Transfigured through Love

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:

We hear in today’s first reading that when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai after talking with God, the skin of his face was shining.

This morning, my face may or may not be shining, but I certainly had a recharge of energy and faith over the last few days. I attended a conference in Atlanta, with several hundred other fully vaccinated and negative-testing Episcopalians. We talked about further development of the “third spaces” in our church life– those places that are faithful expressions of our ministry, but don’t (and don’t need to) result in pledging, baptism-on-the books, Episcopal communicants in good standing. We explored existing and future economic models — not in an effort to float sinking ships but (continuing with that image) more to supply canoes and sailboats for a new kind of faithfulness– even if the waters are rough. We talked, and prayed, and explored. And Friday night was a highpoint: a service of songs and hymns, with classic sacred choral, jazz, gospel, and Latin music– led by Bishop Wright of Atlanta, with an unforgettable sermon by The Rev. Dr. (Senator) Rafael Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church and junior senator from Georgia.

All of this celebration and hopefulness was not done in a hotel convention center immune from world news. Like all of you, we followed with sadness and outrage, Russia began invading Ukraine. Our sharing of ideas for ministry and mission was done very much with the pandemic still like a cloud behind us, and still a little bit over us. And we were meeting in Atlanta, a place with a heightened sensitivity around Civil Rights– failures and success of the past, and of the present.

My face might not be shining like Moses’s but for me and, I think others, something about being together last week felt like God’s Spirit deepening our resolve to be faithful.  In the words of today’s Gospel, we deepened our faith in being transfigured into more into Christ.

When we reflect on today’s Gospel about the transfiguration of Jesus on another mountain, his face shone like light, too.  But Jesus wasn’t just transfigured in light, mystery, or a cloud of smoke. No, there’s a lot more going on.

By combining the traditions of the law and the prophets, by embodying those traditions, Jesus is showing us how to be transfigured in LOVE, and to be a part of God’s work transfiguring the world into the way of love.

Today, we add our voices to those of people all over the world praying for the people of Ukraine, for the refugees, and especially for the children. But we should not too quickly agree with the newscasters who make this sound unprecedented. There have always been crazy rulers and evil tyrants. And we continue to read reports of the United States bombs and explosives that have killed innocent people in Afghanistan, not to mention the many places around the world where our country has tried to solve systemic problems with brute force.   

As we pray, as we express outrage, as we pressure our leaders for peace, we also need to remember that we, as Christians, language of “casualties,” or “collateral damage,” is not a language we speak.  It’s not our way to enter into the debate about how best to “take out” the tyrant, eradicate the evil, or cheer for the best tactic for winning the game.  We follow the Prince of Peace and we have OUR marching orders.

Our collect of the day prays that we “may be strengthened to bear our cross” and be changed into the likeness of Jesus. In his nonviolent witness to the way of love and peace, Jesus unleased a new power in the world, to reveal the meanness and smallness of violence and to overcome evil by love.

On Thursday, a number of us from the conference visited the National Museum of Civil Rights.  Though the museum promotes an awareness of civil rights broadly and globally understood, but of course, just a few miles from where Martin Luther King, Jr. grew up, Dr. King’s faith and vision have a prominent place.  Though King learned from Gandhi about nonviolence, this was simply a directed focus to the way of Jesus Christ, a way Martin Luther King knew intimately. King followed Jesus and remembered well those words from Matthew where Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45). Martin Luther King, Jr. simply applied the words of Jesus to the real world.

In 1956, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote an article that appeared in the magazine Christian Century. In it, he lays out five points about nonviolence.

First: nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist. But it’s aggression is spiritual.
Second: nonviolent resistance does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.
Third: the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who are caught in those forces.
Fourth: nonviolent resistance is that it avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love.
And fifth: the method of nonviolence is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. “Nonviolence and Racial Justice,” 1957.

On the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appear, representing their two great traditions, and they still have their followers, in our day. Some of these followers call themselves Christians, but these modern-day followers of Moses love insisting on the letter of the law. The idea of the law becomes more important than the teachings and life of Jesus– so it’s the law of God that takes on a life of itself, and measures all people. If you follow the law (the commandments, moral codes, accumulated tradition of authority), then you’re right with God.

Elijah has his followers, though some of them claim aspects of Jesus. They like the scene of Jesus overturning the tables in the temple, but forget that he did not resist physically in going to the cross.

Jesus complicates the role of law and prophecy when he embodies them both in love, and then goes on again, and again to show us what the love of Christ looks like in the world.

Jesus calls us to face down evil with love and there are many ways of doing this, but I think of at least three things we can do that allow for transfiguration.   Be AWARE. ASK for God’s intervention. And ACT in faith.

Be aware of whatever it is in you that rising to the surface—anger, resentment, fury, sadness, over the injustice, the evil, the meanness you see or feel.

Ask for God’s intervention, God’s help, God’s power. Pray for yourself and the transfiguration of hatred, and pray for the other person or people, that they would be released from the evil that’s got a hold on them.

Act in faith. Take some action, channel the anger, the rage, the hurt. Participate politically. Give money. Do something for someone else. Go to the gym or on a long walk to clear your head and be open to how God moves you to act. But don’t sit still in your rage, or it will turn inward and depress, deflate, and eat you up.

The Season of Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday, and we will have a lot of opportunities this season to reflect on what it means for us to “bear our cross” and to be changed into Christ’s likeness, but a big part of that involves our being people of peace, and little by little, and as Bishop Wright of Atlanta sometimes says, “loving the HELL out of the world.”

May God help us to be part of the world’s transfiguration into the love of Christ.

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Living into Mercy

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:

Our first scripture reading today is a teaser, almost, of one of the longest and best-developed stories in all the Bible. The story of Joseph begins in Genesis 37 and continues all the way to Genesis 50. If you ever saw the play or the film, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” then you know the story, as well.

Joseph is the favorite son of his father Jacob, but Joseph is also something of a spoiled brat. Because he was his father’s favorite, he was given a special garment, a coat that the King James Bible described as a “coat of many colors.” More recent versions call this a “coat with long sleeves,” but whether it was long-sleeved or many-colored, it was just one more reason for his brothers to hate him. His brothers find his dreaming and his special skills insufferable, to the point that they sell him into slavery, letting their father believe that Joseph has been killed by a wild animal.

Through a series of events, Joseph eventually ends up in Egypt, serving as an official in the court of Pharaoh. Because Joseph can predict the future, he is able to see that a famine is coming, so helps Egypt prepare and save for the famine. At the height of the famine, Joseph’s brothers (still living back in Canaan) begin to search for grain and end up begging for food in Egypt. They come to Joseph, but don’t recognize him as their brother. And even though Joseph tests them a little, (and I like to think Joseph is really trying to decide whether he can forgive them or not), Joseph eventually decides to forgive, and we have the highpoint of the story—a story of forgiveness—that we heard in today’s scripture reading. Joseph hasn’t reached this position easily, surely. But he has had time to pray and think and grow. He summarizes this near the end of chapter 50 when he remembers his brothers selling him into slavery, but says, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Gn. 50:20).

We’re not often put in that position of Joseph, in which those who have intended evil to us, end up coming before us and needing something. But if we were in that position—how would we act? Would we go for the jugular and really make it hurt, seeking vengeance, wanting to feel like a wrong is being righted, somehow trying to balance scales of an eye for an eye? Or do we remember Jesus, and remember his words?

In his Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul reminds his audience that the Resurrection reminds us of the power of the spirit. We are more than base human desires, more than animals needing to fight for turf or prestige or possessions. We are also people of the spirit, and as such, are capable of being brought by the Spirit to new heights and new ways of behaving and new levels of loving.

Be merciful, Jesus says. Don’t judge, but be merciful.

I have a friend whose work is somewhat entrepreneurial—he’s basically a deal-maker, putting together various individuals and groups for successful business ventures. He was recently put in a spot he had dreamed about. Years ago, the friends of a friend had promised to help him in business, but backed out at the last minute, leaving my friend in debt and almost in bankruptcy. Fast-forward to this year, when the same individuals approached my friend, asking for a deal that would save their business. My buddy had a decision to make: would he put into place one of the many plans for vengeance he had replayed in his imagination? Would he explain to them his dilemma? Or would he simply move forward and let the situation unfold, relying on his new partners wo help him decide whether the new deal made sense or not?

What would we do?

Most of you probably remember how, in June of 2015, a young white man joined a Bible study at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Welcomed into the room, the young man sat with the group for an hour, and then when they stood to pray, he began shooting. He killed 9 African Americans that day. One was named Myra Thompson, and her husband, Anthony B. Thompson served another church as its minister. Just 48 hours after the shootings, at the bond hearing of the young shooter, Rev. Thompson stated publicly that he forgave the shooter. Later, after the trial slowly went over detail after detail of the shooting, Rev. Thompson was asked if he still felt forgiveness for the shooter. “I have no intentions of taking that back,” he said, as he stressed that his forgiveness had been more for himself than for [the killer].

Thompson explained, “[The killer] is not a part of my life anymore. Forgiveness has freed me of that, of him completely. I’m not going to make him a lifetime partner.” [NYTimes, December 16, 2016.] Again, how might we respond? Rev. Thompson talks about what helped him come to that place of forgiveness in a book, Called to Forgive: The Charleston Church Shooting, a Victim’s Husband, and the Path to Healing and Peace (Baker Press, 2019).

Jesus says,
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Jesus is not saying, “embrace being the victim.” Instead, he’s saying, even when we’re victimized, we still have agency. We can choose what to do next. If we choose not to remain the victim, we can “turn the other cheek,” or “give shirt and pants as well as a coat,” and in so doing, we take control of the situation for good and for God’s good. We turn the energy and the power of the equation and offer blessing, forgiveness, and a way forward. We can say with Joseph, ““Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”

In just a few weeks, we begin the Season of Lent. You’ll notice that at the very beginning of our worship services, instead of saying or singing “Glory to God in the highest,” we’ll instead say or sing, “Lord have mercy upon us.” Lent is a season for asking God’s mercy—but may the Spirit enable us not only to ask for God’s mercy to be shown to you and me, but also that God would enable us show mercy to ourselves, to one another, and to the world.

Lord have mercy, and let us also have mercy.

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

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The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

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:

On Sunday, February 13, Father Ousley preached at all our services, and we used the appointed scripture readings for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany.  Please watch the videos above to see and hear Father Ousley’s fine sermon. 

But also, February 13 is a day for remembering the first African American ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. Especially on this day, as our Church remember Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, we can remember Absalom Jones, give thanks for his life, and pray that God would help the Church follow Christ more faithfully.

Absalom Jones was born a house slave in 1746 in Delaware. He taught himself to read out of the New Testament, among other books. When sixteen, he was sold to a store owner in Philadelphia. There he attended a night school for Blacks, operated by Quakers. At twenty, he married another slave, and purchased her freedom with his earnings.

Jones bought his own freedom in 1784. At St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, he served as lay minister for its Black membership. The active evangelism of Jones and that of his friend, Richard Allen, greatly increased Black membership at St. George’s. The alarmed vestry decided to segregate Blacks into an upstairs gallery, without notifying them. During a Sunday service when ushers attempted to remove them, the Blacks indignantly walked out in a body.

In 1787, Black Christians organized the Free African Society, the first organized Afro-American society, and Absalom Jones and Richard Allen were elected overseers. Members of the Society paid monthly dues for the benefit of those in need. The Society established communication with similar Black groups in other cities. In 1792, the Society began to build a church, which was dedicated on July 17, 1794.

The African Church applied for membership in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania on the following conditions: 1, that they be received as an organized body; 2, that they have control over their local affairs; 3, that Absalom Jones be licensed as layreader, and, if qualified, be ordained as minister. In October 1794 it was admitted as St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. Bishop White ordained Jones as deacon in 1795 and as priest on September 21, 1802.

Jones was an earnest preacher. He denounced slavery, and warned the oppressors to “clean their hands of slaves.” To him, God was the Father, who always acted on “behalf of the oppressed and distressed.” But it was his constant visiting and mild manner that made him beloved by his own flock and by the community. St. Thomas Church grew to over 500 members during its first year. Known as “the Black Bishop of the Episcopal Church,” Jones was an example of persistent faith in God and in the Church as God’s instrument. 

Set us free, heavenly Father, from every bond of prejudice and fear; that, honoring the steadfast courage of your servant Absalom Jones, we may show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God, which you have given us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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Fishing in the Deep (Without Drowning)

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:

The Gospel today brings us a fish tale. On the surface the story may sound familiar enough. Aspects of story appear the other Gospels, but there are some slight differences. It’s as though Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all went fishing, but then varied a little bit in telling and retelling the story.

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

Mark’s version is similar. the fishing story is placed within the larger context of Jesus calling his disciples, assembling his team, choosing his friends and followers. Follow me, he says. And they follow. The Gospel of John adds characteristic drama as John places the story within a resurrection account. It is the risen Christ who offers tips on fishing, so that the disciples catch so many fish they can hardly bring them in.

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

But in Luke’s story, (the Gospel we read today) there is a different focus, and we have a close-up on Simon Peter.

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

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is saying to Simon Peter not so much “follow me,” but more, “keep following me,” “follow me even further,” “follow me in yet a different way.”
Simon is a fisherman. He knows what he is doing, and he probably knows the waters of Galilee as well as anyone. But by this point he also knows and trusts Jesus. The Lord says, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon mutters, “We’ve fished all night, with nothing—but ok, if you say so.” And Jesus makes it so.

Suddenly, there are fish everywhere. They hit upon a whole school of fish. The fish are so many that the nets are breaking and they need extra help. Water is splashing, fish are flying and the boat is sinking, but Simon Peter suddenly “gets it” and he falls to his knees. “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” It seems like both parts of what Jesus says to Simon Peter are important for most of us to hear.

As for the first part, it’s hard for us not to be afraid– at this point in the pandemic, wondering what is coming next, how should we be faithful going forward… a million different versions of those questions.

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

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

But perhaps it is at just this point that we are called to stop and listen like Simon Peter. I wonder if Jesus be pointing to the deep and saying something like, “but have you tried over there?” “Go out a little deeper and give it a try.”

Yesterday, our vestry gathered for a time of reflection and planning. A part of what we talked about had to do with our vision as a community on the Upper East Side, in 2022 and beyond. What makes us unique? What can we strengthen? What are our priorities and how do we follow Christ with some focus, with some dedication and direction?

We looked at some of the conversation in the Church of England around vision, and noted its 3-part vision: that the Church in the next decade be simper, humbler, and bolder.

This is straight out of today’s Gospel: It’s usually simpler than Peter makes it. He needs to follow Christ and fish. He needs to do it with humility. But he needs to be bold.

And so do we.

But that’s the same for us as individuals, too, isn’t it? In our work, in our families, in our fun—to follow Jesus Christ in simple, humble, but bold ways.

Have we tried to cast our net out there—into the deep, into the place we’ve not yet been? “Do not be afraid,” Jesus says. “Do not be afraid.”

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

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

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Growing with God

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:

A while back, I went to dinner with a priest from another church. We had been meaning to do something, and our schedules finally caught up. When I got to the restaurant, I realized that the priest had also brought his organist and the organist’s wife.  Though I my colleague a little and had met the musician, his wife and I seemed to hit it off best of all. What we had in common was something that the other two did not share with us– this young woman had grown up in Kansas, valued her upbringing and deeply loves her family, but had also fallen in love with NYC and was making her home here.  She and I had a lot in common in terms of “leaving home,” and how that journey of leave-taking continues in some ways, as we grow and change, yet hold on to much of what makes us who we are. 

The complications of leaving home run throughout today’s scriptures.

In today’s Gospel we see the tension caused by Jesus’ willingness to leave home and then try to return again. Jesus grew up partly in Nazareth, but he traveled. He was baptized by John. He struggled with demons in the wilderness. He taught in synagogues and Luke tells us that Jesus “was glorified by all.” But then he came back to Nazareth, his home town. He read liberating words from Isaiah in the synagogue and then he added his own, saying that “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Away from home, momentum had been building around Jesus. People spoke well of him. They wondered at his wisdom, but back in Nazareth, they were confused – after all, they knew him, or at least they thought they knew him. Was this not, after all, just Joseph’s son?

In today’s first reading, also, we see the complications of growing, of deepening, of figuring out who one is—and that is a deeply spiritual exercise.  In Jeremiah’s case, he wrestles with a sense of his own calling from God. God makes it clear to Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you;” and, “I appointed you a prophet to the nations,” Jeremiah tries to wiggle out. “But I’m too young,” he says. “I’m inexperienced. I’m not trained. I’m not fit for service.” But God calls him anyway.

And yet, Jeremiah’s worries seem to come true when later, he’s ignored, laughed at, and rejected. He feels a long way from home and away from almost everything that is familiar and comfortable. He also feels cut off from God. “O LORD, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived; thou art stronger than I, and thou hast prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; every one mocks me.” (Jer. 20)

But slowly and somehow, Jeremiah later realizes that he has, indeed, grown up. The scenery has changed, HE has changed, but God has been with him the whole time.

Spiritual growth comes so often when we are willing to leave what is familiar. We grow with God often by leaving home, though home can be many different things. We’re sometimes called to move to a new job, with new expectations and challenges. We’re sometimes called to move into new relationships where patterns and behaviors are different. We’re sometimes taken to new cities or perhaps even new countries, and we find ourselves needing to make new friends, to develop new social networks and to re-define family away from home. The move away from home is not always physical.

I had a friend of our parish in New Jersey who had never lived more than ten miles away from where she was born. She traveled out of the United States twice, but she grew in place. She read and remained interested in people, and even in her 80s, she was the most popular teacher in the youth confirmation class. The young people recognized in her a kindred spirit that was always willing to grow, to learn, to change, and to be surprised, to be hurt (even), and to continue on in the way God leads.

In the lovely words from Paul that we hear in today’s Epistle, we often focus on the poetry and hold on to the reminder that “faith, hope, and love” abide. But Paul assures us of their abiding because he knows we will experience our own growing pangs, if we are alive to God’s Spirit.

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” It’s because spiritual growth can be disorienting and unsettling that Paul assures us of the abiding of faith, hope, and love– the greatest, being love.

Especially when times are confusing, it’s tempting to reach backward and hold on to a familiar image of God, an old way of being with God.  But these are often just the times when God is stirring things up around us and inviting us to grow in some new way.  For us to accept the challenge, we just need to remember that God is with us and God is also in the way forward.

For me, W.H. Auden captures this sense of God’s movement and how we are invited to follow. It’s from Auden’s “For the Time Being” (A Christmas Oratorio). Auden, I think, understood this leaving the familiar and venturing out into unknown places—the whole adventure of faith. He helps us locate God in change, writing:

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety.
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

We can be confident in the adventure of faith because we know that God is with us. God never left Jeremiah. God never left Sarah, or Hannah, or Jesus, or Paul, or Mary Magdalene, or Mary his Mother. As with Jeremiah and all the rest, God knew us the womb, before we were born, God has consecrated US, and chosen US. God knows our fears and our limitations, but God also knows our potential and all that we are made for.

As we learn to grow in the faith and courage to leave the familiar, may we always grow in God and God’s love.

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

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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

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

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