What would Jesus want?

nativity-birth-of-jesus by Giotto
A sermon for Christmas Day 2019.  The scripture readings are Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-4,(5-12), and John 1:1-14.

(Because of Christmas exhaustion and the need to hit the road quickly after church, today’s sermon is not recorded. Merry Christmas, all! 🙂

I guess it was in the early 1990s that the four letters WWJD began appearing all over the place. It might be on a banner at a football game. Or on a wall of graffiti. But especially, you could see it on wristbands: WWJD.

It stands, of course, for “What would Jesus do?” Almost as soon as it became popular, people pointed out its shortcomings. “What would Jesus do?” — well, how would we possibly know? How could we know what a first-century Palestinian Jew with minimal formal education, who only lived 30-some years, and seems to have preached publicly for about three and half years. He didn’t write anything down, sometimes misquoted the Hebrew scriptures, and left instructions for his disciples that we a tad vague.

But I think the question, “What would Jesus do?” and the associated questions of “how would he do it, when would he do it, what would he use— all of these really do go to the heart of faith, if our faith is to be living and active. If we say we follow God, with no focus for that following, chances are that before long, we’ll be following an exaggerated image of ourselves, justifying whatever we might do or think according to some deep, “gut sense” of things.

The Gospel for Christmas Day says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” This Christmas, as I think about our world desperately lurching in any direction for hope, for purpose, for direction, I’m reflecting on those words from the Gospel, “All things came into being through him.” And later in the Gospel, this idea is repeated, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him.” Christ shows us the way to light, to the Creator, and in following Christ, we are adopted and claimed, loved and named, as God’s very own children. And so, somehow, who Christ is and what he does is a part of the design and pattern for creation. And so it becomes the essence of faith to discern WWJD, “What would Jesus do?”

Of course, the question can sound facile and arrogant, if we suppose for a second that Christ’s will is always clear and evident. But especially in Christmas, that question “What would Jesus do” sounds a lot like another question: “What would Jesus want?” And to begin to discover the answer might be a lot like the process we’ve gone through to ask that question about a friend or loved one. We’ve asked it at malls and online sites: “What would this person want? What would make them smile?” Perhaps we ask, “What do they need?” Or if you have a lot of people in your life who are fortunate and have few material needs, we ask, “What might honor or please this person?”

To answer the question, we might do at least three things. We might first look closely at the person, study him or her. And then we might try to walk in their shoes for a time, to see what the world might look like them. And finally, we might simply ask them what they want.

To approach the question, “What would Jesus do?” which is to explore today’s Gospel about the purpose, meaning, and pattern of life as it leads us into God.

We would begin by looking closely at Jesus, at his life, his teaching, the way he moved through this world. This means reading scripture, listening to scripture, noticing the images and stories that come out of music and hymnody, and looking for traces of Christ in creation.

Just like I might try to figure out what a friend might like as a gift by imagining what it’s like to walk in her shoes, I might imagine what it would be like to be with Jesus, to look at the world as he seems to have looked at it. I’m not Christ—nowhere near. But at my baptism, I was given his Holy Spirit and that Spirit will guide me to conform more to his image and likeness.

To know what Jesus might do we might study his life, we might walk in his shoes for time, but finally, when all else fails, or even alongside other ways of getting to know him, we might simply ask him. This is prayer. The Christmas prayers of the people we sometimes use are using in our worship come from the Church of England’s Common Worship, and I love them for their simplicity and directness. The refrain is, “Jesus, Savior, hear our prayer.” How much better would my day, my week, my life go if I simply said that prayer more? When I’m trying to make a decision about speaking a hard truth to someone, I can ask Christ for help, “Jesus, Savior, hear my prayer.” As I’m worried about friends and parishioners who are in the hospital or facing questions about their health, I can ask Christ to heal them and carry them, ““Jesus, Savior, hear my prayer.” When I feel like never reading the newspaper again or ever hearing the world news because it seems like people are mostly filled with hatred and violence and pettiness, I can ask Christ to intercede, “Jesus, Savior, hear my prayer.”

The question Christmas gives us is not so much “What would Jesus do?” but more, “What would John or Hal or George do?” “What would Elizabeth or Sarah or Lydia do?” “What would any of us do?”

“To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of human will,” but born of God. We are born and reborn of God. This Christmas, may the Spirit guide so that we might more nearly and clearly know the will of God in Christ Jesus our Savior.

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

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Shepherds Bedeviled but Never Overcome

El_Greco_Adoration of the Shepherds

“Adoration of the Shepherds” (1612-1614) by El Greco.

A sermon for Christmas Eve, Midnight Mass, December 24, 2019.  The scriptures are Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, and Luke 2:1-20.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Two Sundays ago, I was treated to a special Children’s Christmas pageant.  Originating from Franciscan missionaries in Mexico in the 1500’s, these particular Christmas pageants are called Pastorelas, because the pastores, or shepherds figure prominently in the story.  Some of the Franciscan missionaries sought to work around the heavy-handedness of the conquistadors and to be more creative in “wooing” people to Christianity. But not only do the pastorelas give a major role to the shepherds, they also include a character not specifically showing up in any of the Biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus.   The pastorela also includes the devil!

You see, following in the tradition of St. Francis himself, who probably created the first creche or nativity scene, the Franciscan missionaries were careful to make the Bible story fun.  What happens in the pastorela is that the devil, or the devil and his partners, do everything they can to try to prevent the shepherds from making their way to Bethlehem.  They think that by keeping the shepherds away, and really, by keeping everyone away from Bethlehem, then this so-called “birth of a savior” (to the devils) will go unnoticed and just fizzle out.

The pastorela I saw was comprised of the children from the Centro Infantil San Pablo a ministry of St. Paul’s Church in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.  The Center provides free pre-school education for children from very poor backgrounds. The school director played the chief devil and, with her assistant devils, lit the Advent wreath in church, and then almost stole the show after worship as the Christmas pageant played out on the church lawn.   The children representing Mary and Joseph rode across the lawn on a read donkey, so the devils tried to pull the donkey’s tale and lead it astray.  But they failed, and Mary and Joseph made their way to shelter.  When the angels tried to make their way to Mary and Joseph, again, the devils did everything they could to ground the angels. The failed.  And then the shepherds—some of the smallest children—came along. Again, the devils did everything they could (and almost succeeded with a couple of the kid-shepherds), but failed.  By the time the three kings made their way (a little early), the devils could only sit on the sidelines and make faces, furious in their defeat.

I love the way the pastorela injects the real world into the beauty of the Christmas story.  Whether we imagine the devil as a silly little red person with a tail and a pitchfork, something frightening-beyond-belief from film or literature, or just that little voice inside ourselves that would lead us astray; too often, the devil is all too real.

Like the shepherds, we want to see God. We perceive a light in the distance, maybe as clear as a star, or maybe murkier, and even thought we don’t really know where we’re headed, we go.  We go by faith, or something like faith.  But then there are roadblocks, devils that try to change our focus, raise complications, and throw us off course.

But the good news of Christmas is that God has come into the world in the form of Jesus to be like us, to show us the way, to walk beside us, and never to leave us alone.  Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has already defeated the devil, and so even when it seems like we’re being tested and taunted, the best the devil can really ever do is to sit on the sidelines and make faces—because evil and death have been defeated; once and for all.

Tomorrow’s Gospel puts this poetically, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  The Word has become flesh and lives among us, full of grace and truth.

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God Calling

Juan Diego and GuadalupeA brief reflection offered in the Christmas Eve Service of Lessons and Carols, December 24, 2019 at 7 PM.  

Listen tot he sermon HERE.

The week before last, I was in Mexico City for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, joining as estimated 9.8 million pilgrims this year. The celebration commemorates the appearance of Virgin Mary in 1531 to an indigenous Mexican named Juan Diego. As one might imagine, the Spanish bishop of Mexico was skeptical of this story, so he asked for some proof. Juan Diego went back to the hill where the image had appeared to him and there, she appeared again. When he told her his problem—that the bishop wanted proof—she told Juan to come back to the hill the next day and he would have his proof. When he returned, he found roses in full bloom, roses such as would never had grown on a dusty hill in Mexico. He gathered them in his tilma, or outer garment, and ran to show the bishop. When he unfastened the garment, roses fell out all over the place. And even more, on the tilma itself was the image of the Virgin Mary that ever since, has been recognized as The Virgin of Guadalupe. Because of her timing, the encouragement from the official church, and especially because her image blends aspects from the Spanish Virgin Mary with aspects of an indigenous Mexican girl, the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe went a long way in reconciling Aztec religious beliefs with Christian beliefs.

Many may quibble about the facts—is the Virgin of Guadalupe simply a revision of a similar image found in Extremadura, Spain, where many of the conquistadors came from? Was the image of the tilma really just painted by a first-generation Mexican convert to Christianity? Etc, etc.

Books are written about such questions, but the point I take from the story—and the point that millions of other people pick up either consciously or unconsciously—is that God (through his messenger, the Virgin Mary) spoke to a simple, ordinary man like Juan Diego. And that means that God might just speak to you and me.

But then, God has been pulling people aside and whispering in their ears since the beginning of time. It may not happen the way we expect, or by the means we might prefer, but God continues to speak.

In today’s readings and music, we’ve heard about this—how God tried again and again to get humanity’s attention—in the Garden of Eden, in the Wilderness, through rulers and priests and institutions, and means official and unofficial. And then, finally, God spoke to the Virgin Mary.

A young woman named Shannon Kubiak wrote a great little book a few years ago, in which she connects Mary’s calling from God and ours. She points out

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 called Mary. God called Juan Diego. I think God calls people like Greta Thunberg and Banksy. And God calls you and me. God calls us to continue to “make the word flesh,” to put God’s love into human form.

The wonderful Poulenc anthem we heard earlier asks of the shepherds,

Whom did you see, shepherds, say, Tell us: who has appeared on earth? . . . Say, what did you see? (“Quem vidistis, pastores, dicite?” by Francis Poulenc, 1899-1963)

After returning from Bethlehem, when people asked, I’m sure the shepherds tried to use words and gestures to explain what they had seen. Maybe they even quoted scripture. But what convinced (in their day and in ours) was whether their lives had changed because of what they had seen.

People will believe in a God of love when they see one—not in the scriptures or the skies—but in the way we act and speak and sin and forgive and continue to love. May we do our part God’s ongoing Incarnation.

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Dancing like Joseph

San_Jose_y_JesusA sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 22, 2019.  The scripture readings are Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18, Romans 1:1-7, and Matthew 1:18-25.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

For some reason, this year, I’ve been seeing Nutcrackers everywhere (the performance, not the tool). From school assemblies to Lincoln Center, they seem to be everywhere. The Yorkville Nutcracker, which played at the Kaye Theater at Hunter College, is staged in 1890 and dances the familiar story against a backdrop old New York. There’s also the abbreviated 1-Hour Nutcracker, a Hip-Hop Nutcracker, a puppet version and even the bawdy, burlesque version called the Nutcracker Rouge.

I think I’ve noticed so many Nutcrackers—the creative retelling of a story of a little girl, an evil mouse-king, and a nutcracker who becomes a handsome prince—in part, because I’ve been wishing the REAL Christmas story could be portrayed, enacted, sung, or danced more fully.

I think OUR Christmas story makes for great ballet or other dance, and especially with today’s Gospel reading, I think of Joseph, the father of Jesus, as entering the story, serving his role, and then exiting with the grace and precision of a gifted dancer.

Joseph comes on stage. He plays his part fully and devotedly. And then he exits, so that others might shine.

While Mary has the leading role, with her “Yes” that reverberates throughout history and makes possible our salvation, Joseph shows up when he doesn’t have to. Scripture tells us that Mary and Joseph were betrothed, and this meant a lot more then than it does now. A betrothal was as good as a marriage, in the eyes of the law. It was just the first part of a two-step marriage agreement. Once betrothed, promises had been made, promises that Joseph could easily have thought Mary might have broken. And so, he could be forgiven for thinking about divorcing her quietly.

But he has a dream. “Do not fear,” the angel says. Do not fear, as God said to Moses; as God says to Gideon, and Ruth, and David, and Isaiah. “Do not fear,” as the angels said to Elizabeth, and eventually to Mary.

And so, Joseph shows up. He dances on stage perhaps a little reluctantly, at first. Perhaps taking his time, as he moves closer. But move closer to Mary, he does—in faith and in love.

And I imagine that Joseph takes Mary in his arms, and they dance. Not much is known about Joseph. Some suggest he was older and had been married previously, so there are step brothers and sisters for Jesus. Joseph was a woodworker, and so had a steady living. He could provide. He could shelter. He could protect. Fill with faith, Joseph was able to lead Mary to Bethlehem, then to Egypt for safety, and eventually to Nazareth. Joseph was certainly nimble on his feet.

But then, except for a few references in the scriptures in which people from Nazareth refer to Jesus as “Joseph and Mary’s son,” Joseph is not heard from again. It’s as though he enters the stage, brilliantly dances his part, and then bows out gracefully, allowing Jesus to shine. Most traditions believe that Joseph must have died before the Crucifixion, since from the Cross, Jesus places his mother Mary into the care of his friend and disciple John.

Though the Christmas story of Mary and Joseph and Jesus is told and retold in many forms, if it were a dance, perhaps we could all learn a little from Joseph’s example.

Joseph shows up when he’s asked to—without regard for fear, without worry of being ridiculed from his community, but with a faith in God’s will and God’s way. Are there tasks or responsibilities or opportunities to which God is calling you, this season or in the New Year?

Joseph provides and cares and offers and supports—careful never to make it all about himself, but to support others in their roles. How might God be calling you to continue to do the hard thing, the unpopular thing, the very thing that you know is holy but might lead to ridicule?

And finally, Joseph knows how and when to bow out gracefully, allowing others to shine and grow and flourish. Is there some area or some other thing that God might be inviting you to release or step back from, so that someone else might shine?

As wonderful as Joseph can seem—as artful a dancer—one of the things that attracts me so deeply to Joseph is his humanity.

W. H. Auden gets at this in his great poem, “For the Time Being,” often referred to as the “Christmas Oratorio.” Auden imagines how Joseph must have been tempted to divorce Mary, the leave town, to refuse to be a part of this, whether God’s plan or not. Auden imagines Joseph hearing the gossip about Mary and beginning to wonder. A chorus whispers in his ear:

Mary may be pure
But, Joseph are you sure?
How is one to tell?
Suppose, for instance… Well…

As Joseph goes off by himself to sit and ponder, he prays,

How then am I to know,
Father, that you are just?
Give me one reason.

But the Angel Gabriel tells Joseph a simple “No.” But Joseph asks again,

All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.

But Gabriel speaks for God again,

No, you must believe;
Be silent and sit still. (from W.H. Auden, “For the time being”)

And so, it ends up that Joseph’s dance is probably not perfectly smooth or overly rehearsed. It is improvised, like ours. The faithful dance of St. Joseph (and Mary the Mother of Jesus) is more like ours than not—lacking perfect choreography, less-than-optimal lighting, never enough time for rehearsal or planning—and yet, faithful to the calling of God.

May we learn to dance (and live) a little more like St. Joseph this season—discerning when to come in, how to help another, and when to step back—all the while, feeling free to improvise, to trip or be clumsy, and perhaps to fall and rise again, so that we too may know the fullness of God’s coming into the world this Christmas.

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

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Hope in the Wilderness

san_juan_bautista_greco_bellas_artes_valencia_c-jpg_1306973099A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 8, 2019.  The scriptures are Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, and Matthew 3:1-12.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

This week, there’s been a lot of Handel at Holy Trinity. On Friday night, the Manhattan Choral Ensemble presented Handel’s Messiah in its entirety, with instruments and soloists.  This afternoon, they will present the choruses and other seasonal music.  And there were various rehearsals last week.

One afternoon, I walked by Draesel Hall, and one of the soloists was practicing with the strings.  I sang along quietly, as it was one of my favorite pieces: “Comfort ye.”

It’s from Part I of Messiah as a tenor sings words from Isaiah 40, words of comfort:  “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

But then the music stops. There’s a breath, and the soloist proclaims a shift, a change, something new is about to happen: “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

For Isaiah, God’s word comes from the wilderness, and it must have come as a shock to the people of Israel, because they were in a bad place, what must have felt like a forgotten place.  Most Biblical scholars agree that by the time of Isaiah’s writing, Jerusalem had already been conquered by Assyria. Jerusalem, the city that symbolized God’s presence, the holy city of David, so long imagined impenetrable. Jerusalem, high up on a hill, was compared to a tree, a great tree, that by the time of Isaiah’s writing had been cut down to a stump. This once-great city was now a stump with no life in it, a stump used as firewood for Assyria. For Jerusalem and her inhabitants, it was as though they were in a wilderness—a wilderness of lost wealth, a wilderness of lost confidence and a wilderness of lost faith. And so, they really needed God’s word.

The wilderness is unruly. It is where the demons live. It is a place of chaos and disorder. The wilderness is to be feared. The people of Israel wander for 40 years in the wilderness. Jesus is tempted in the wilderness.

But while the wilderness can be scary and strange, God’s word comes from the wilderness. Isaiah’s message is that new life is ahead, renewal, growth, life with God. Sorrow and affliction will be turned into beauty and glory.

In a similar way, the word of God comes to John the Baptist in the wilderness, and John seems to keep one foot in that wilderness experience even as he preached to the villages and cities. He never forgets where he came from, or from where he originally heard God. John’s is the voice of one “crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.”

It’s in the wild place that John gains strength. He finds clarity and purpose there. He finds God there, in the wild.

That can be a helpful thing to remember when we find ourselves in some kind of wilderness. It can be mean survival—certainly spiritual survival—sometimes simply to remember that God comes to us in those places that seem wild, uncharted, and dangerous.

Especially this time of year, we can encounter the wilderness. It can take many forms. We might be caught in a place of loneliness that feels every bit as desolate as a desert. Or, here at the end of the year, we might feel lost in bills, hitting a goal at work or reaching a quota; or maybe it’s the seemingly endless Christmas list, or the maze of other people’s expectations.  Maybe we find ourselves at one of those holiday gatherings where it seems like everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves, but to us the room just looks barren. Perhaps health makes you feel like you’re in the wilderness—your own or someone else’s.

Who knows what it is that puts us in the wilderness, that makes us feel like we’ve been sent into exile—the death of a friend or loved one, problems at work, problems in a relationship, family dynamics, or just the stress of this time of year—whatever it might be, the wilderness can seem real, remote and removed.

But especially when in the wilderness, the word of God is there—maybe whispering, maybe faint, but faithful, nonetheless.  Recall that the music of Handel begins with “Prepare. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” But the music continues, “prepare because” — “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, the crooked, straight; the rough, smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” All flesh, all people, every one of us—will see the salvation, the saving strength, the saving love, the saving mercy and redemption of God.

Light is coming. Love is coming. God is coming into our world and into our lives in new ways. So get ready. Make some room. Company is coming, and we’ll never be quite the same again.  It is the company of God’s presence in Christ.

The holidays can be difficult… but if we listen carefully, we can always hear the hope.

Advent is a season of hope. It’s a time when we hear again God’s promise and plan for saving the world, and for saving each one of us. Whether we find ourselves in the wilderness only briefly, or for a longer time, may we know a glimmer of God’s grace this season. May we prepare our hearts through turning and turning again toward God—so that we might know God, and know his love for us and for the world.

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

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Faith like Noah

Noah by LMA sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, December 1, 2019.  The scripture readings are Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, and Matthew 24:36-44.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

On the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum, there’s a gallery of Italian paintings that has a portrait of Noah. It’s one of four Old Testament figures painted in the fifteenth century by an early Gothic/late Renaissance painter named Lorenzo Monaco (c. 1370 – c. 1425). What I like about the four portraits is that each one shows a patriarch, holding an image that gives a clue of his identity. Moses holds the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments—easy enough to identify. Abraham’s symbol makes sense, as it is his son Isaac. King David, who tradition says wrote some of the Psalms and was a musician, is shown holding a harp or zither.

But then, there’s Noah. You might think Noah would be pictures with animals, or at least a dove. Maybe a rainbow, or surely, the Ark.  But instead, Noah is holding a simple building with a door and window.  It’s meant to represent the Church: the ark as church.

In the scriptures, Peter explicitly links Noah’s ark with the Church, noting that just as Noah’s wooden ark saved people by bringing them through water into new life; the Church saves people by the wood of Christ’s Cross and the water of baptism, bringing us to new life. The early Church built on this imagery and many see in architecture such as our own, a ceiling that looks a lot like an inverted ship. In fact, this long section to the church that stretches from the sanctuary (proper) to the back of the church, or narthex, is called the “nave,” from the Latin “navis,” or ship and was meant to portray the reality that the Church is a ship, protecting those inside it from the waves and buffets of the world. Some have even suggested the flying buttresses on a building like Notre Dame, or even the two buttresses at Holy Trinity represent oars, continuing the ship symbolism.

All of this—this talk of Noah, and arks, and ships, and us—is to draw our attention to the Gospel, in which Jesus says points to Noah as an example of someone who had faith. Be like Noah, Jesus suggests: waiting in faith.

Now, I doubt that many people in Jesus’ day really thought much about whether Noah was an actual person, or whether he literally built and ark and filled it with animals. But I bet a lot of people could relate to Noah—those who heard the Hebrew scriptures, those who listened to Jesus, and us. We can relate to Noah as someone who gets a vague that God is nudging him to action. Once Noah comes to terms with this, he gets busy: even in the face of others who might think he’s crazy, preparations are made, things are put into place, and then it’s time to wait. It’s time to wait for God to act, to move, to make things happen, to point to the next step.

I bet a lot of us have been at that place—we weren’t being asked to build an ark, but it might have felt just as insane. Go to that city. Pursue a relationship with that person. Stop working in this field and go in this new direction. If we’ve ever felt God’s “holy nudge,” then there’s been that sense of presence at the beginning, and then it’s time to wait. For Noah, it meant wondering whether the rains would really come. Would there really be floods? Would his preparation and faithfulness really pay off? And then what would life be like after all the drama, when the waters are dried up and the animals are set free?

Jesus points to this waiting place as a kind of “holy waiting room.” It’s that time in-between, after one has felt God’s presence at the beginning, but before one has begun to feel God’s presence moving into the next step. It is a scary place and a vulnerable place. Jesus knows that whether we’re talking about Noah or us, or perhaps even himself, it’s difficult to wait, to watch and to listen for God. But we can practice at it. And we can learn to wait in faith.

Today, we begin the season of Advent, when the Church invites us to practice these spiritual disciplines of waiting, watching and listening. Advent helps us live with the in-between. The Church remembers and retells the story of the coming of a Messiah, the one who was born in the manger, Jesus of Nazareth. But the other aspect of our waiting and watching has to do with the Second and Final coming of Jesus, as is hinted in the prophetic scriptures and especially in the Revelation to John.

The liturgy helps us to recall the first coming of Christ.
Our prayers also help us to stretch forward for the second coming.
But over and over again, Jesus tells us not to live in the past or the future, but in the “holy now.”

Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God as among us. He says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And elsewhere, “The kingdom of God is very near you.” He gets very specific in Luke’s Gospel, saying, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, “Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you!” Jesus invited apostles, disciples, strangers, friends and enemies, to see the kingdom of God that was already around them. And that’s his invitation to us.

In today’s Gospel Jesus cautions that we should be ready, but it’s not for most of us to go up on a hill and wait for God to come. In describing how we are to wait, Jesus describes some in the field (from which one is taken to be with God.) Others are grinding meal or making bread, and again, one is taken to be with God. We could continue the list—one will be teaching, while one is taken away. Another will be in a meeting, one at a store, another watching the children, and another working outside. In short, since we do not know when or how or where, it is for us to do the work God has appointed for us to do, and to carry on with faith, with love and with charity.

Noah carried people and animals to safety in God’s good grace and time. The Blessed Virgin Mary, like an ark, carried Jesus for nine months and delivered him safely. And Jesus, through the church, carries us through the waters of baptism, through desert dry places, through enemy territory, and even through long, slow periods of intense waiting—but Christ carries us through this life and into the next.

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

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Christ the (unusual) King

christ-the-kingA sermon for November 24, 2019, celebrated as The Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King.  The scriptures are Jeremiah 23:1-6, Psalm 46, Colossians 1:11-20, and Luke 23:33-43

Listen to the sermon HERE

In the United States, paying attention to the Royal Family in Great Britain can be a little like watching a train wreck or an accident. We have mixed feelings about staring, but find it hard to look away. Just as Harry and Meghan begin to get points for trying to break the mold and do some good things, Prince Andrew comes along and confirms our worst suspicions about inherited privilege.

Royal language can be provocative. For some, it brings a knee-jerk reaction—organize the rebellion, reject all authority. But for others, thinking of royals, conjures up a kind of teary yearning for a realm of someone like King Arthur, or the realm of a Disney princess, full of romance and chivalry, religious sentiment, and niceness.

All the more problematic, then, when we read scripture and celebrate liturgies that speak of God as King, or that speak of Jesus as king.

A little like some reactions to current monarchies, some theologians and preachers rebel against this language. Instead of the “kingdom” of God, they might speak of the “kin-dom” of God, or the commonwealth of God. But to avoid calling Christ “King” is to miss a major point in today’s Gospel. It is to miss a major point in Christian theology.

The image of a king is important because Jesus does so much to deconstruct that image. He turns it inside-out. He re-defines it. As people bring to the idea of “king” their own images and desires, Jesus holds a mirror up so that we might inspect those images more closely, and try to see the one behind the mirror—both our true self, as well as Jesus the Son of God.

At the cross, the soldiers mock Jesus and make fun of him, calling him, “king.” “The king of the Jews,” they name him. “If you’re such a great king, then do something. Show off. Save yourself.” And Jesus is silent. But then one of the thieves who is also on a cross next to Jesus understand something of his kingship and asks for favor. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The thief can’t really have any idea what he’s asking, or what kind of a king Jesus is, or what kind of a kingdom his may be—but he sees something in Jesus and his way, in his love that forgives, and receives, and leads to the love of God. And so, the thief wants “in.” He asks for entrance, and Jesus gives it.
In this Gospel we see the kind of king Jesus is—that even from the cross, he extends his kingdom and invites everybody in.

The reign of Christ the King is like that—ever unfolding, ever extending, ever including each one of us.

It is a kingdom of reversals. As the Virgin Mary sings, “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things; and the rich He has sent empty away.” To live with Christ as King is to live with an awareness of this reversal.

His is a kingdom of outcasts. When we read the Gospels, it is a wild array of people who come to hear Jesus, who follow him, and who make him their Lord. Some are prostitutes, some are tax collectors, some widows, some soldiers; some are very rich, some are very poor, but they are unlikely to meet except for their meeting in the presence of Christ. To live with Christ as King is to live in continual welcome of the outcasts, of those who have nowhere else to go.

And finally, his is a kingdom of possibilities. To live with Christ as King is to live in expectation, to live in hope, and to live in faith. It is a kingdom of second chances, and third chances and fourth and fifth and sixth chances.

Even as we might wrestle with our perception of the kings and queens of our day, living in our world, on this Sunday, we can give thanks for Christ the King. We can give thanks he continues to reinterpret the meaning of power, of rule, of authority, as he continually empties himself of those things so that we might be full. And being full, we empty ourselves so that others may be lifted up.

May we rejoice in this kingdom of reversals. May we open our doors to a kingdom of outcasts. And may we open our hearts to a kingdom of possibilities.

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

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A Spiritual Survival Kit

Emergency KitA sermon for November 17, 2019, the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost. The scriptures are Malachi 4:1-2a, Psalm 98, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, and Luke 21:5-19

Listen to the sermon HERE.

In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks about living in an age of anxiety. He talks about the difficulty of living in that place between obsessing on the future, and ignoring it. Jesus says that even there in Jerusalem, the centerpiece of Israel’s worship, the symbol of God’s presence among his people—the temple, Jesus says, will soon be no more. The day will come, he says “when not one stone will be left upon another; [and] all will be thrown down.” The disciples hear this and they become alarmed—whether they think Jesus is going to storm the temple and help bring it down, or whether some calamity is on its way—the disciples ask him, “Teacher, when will this be?” And, how will we know when it will be about to happen?

Sensing their anxiety, Jesus slows them down. He begins to warn them about those who will come and take advantage of their sense of the final days. Some will make the most out of a sense of impending calamity, and some will do what they can to exploit fear. Some will say, “the time is near,” Jesus cautions. Others will say “wars and insurrections are coming.” But again, Jesus says, “Do not be terrified,” because certain things will happen along the way. In classic language of the end times, language that might have been from Isaiah or Daniel or Enoch or John the Baptist, or John the Divine, Jesus says, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom… famines, earthquakes, plagues…” And then Jesus seems to warn them that as his followers, the religious leaders are going to question them and perhaps punish them and perhaps even persecute them.

But in the face of all of this, Jesus counsels that they should remain calm. Don’t even plan beforehand what you might say. Trust in God and trust in Jesus. He says, “not a hair of your head will perish,” which is not quite true given that soon after, Stephen is persecuted, John is killed, and many, many others will die for their faith. But Jesus is talking about something beyond what may happen to the body in this world.

Scholars tells us that in the first century, with rumblings in the Roman Empire and potential uprisings in every corner, a sense of the apocalyptic, of the end of time, was in the air. But beyond being a history lesson or a window into the life of Jesus, what does this say to us? Most of us do not risk being persecuted for our faith. Much of our culture regards Christian faith as superstition. It’s an emotional or psychological crutch. It’s thought to be quaint; just a nice, old-fashioned cultural affectation.

For some in the church, perhaps that is an accurate characterization. Some may hold on to an almost pagan faith that if they’re good, they’ll be protected by God. But if something bad happens, God must be angry. But in this Gospel and others, Jesus encourages us to look at life head-on and also to hold on. Hold on to Christ, and his presence will save. Something about the presence of Jesus in our lives—this Jesus who was born, lived a life like ours, was crucified, and raised from the dead—this Jesus still lives through us and gives us the strength, the courage and the tenacity to live in with faith for final days—whatever shape that “finality” may take, whether (in the words of one preacher, Fred Craddock) “we go to Christ or Christ comes to us.”

At the end of today’s Gospel there is an important word. Jesus promises, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” By enduring—that is, simply living out our faith—getting up in the morning, saying our prayers (when we remember), loving our families (if we live with them) and going through the activities of the day, with as much faith and trust in Jesus Christ as possible. This is our preparation. This is our practice. This is how we become prepared for whatever may come.

Though Jesus counsels we shouldn’t over-plan our response to the future, he also models the kind of life that can take on anything. As we live in tumultuous times, we should probably do more about a survival kit, an emergency plan. But I think we also need a spiritual emergency plan, based on practices that will sustain us.

If we are not connected with Christ, if we’re not grounded in God, then storms, crises, problems, all can overtake us. A spiritual emergency kit might include at least four things: 1) a prayer, 2) a practice, 3) a place, and 4) a person or two.

A Prayer is a good thing to have at hand. Whether you make the Lord’s Prayer your own, memorize a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, or just come up with your own—a prayer can save the day. It gives you your breath back. It gives you a pause. It reframes and re-focuses. You might choose something traditional like the classic “Jesus Prayer” (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.) Or, the Ave Maria from the Rosary. Or maybe just the simple, “I am here, you are here, thank you.” —it’s good to know a prayer so that whenever you need it, it’s right there with you, inside of you.

A spiritual emergency kit would also include a practice of some kind—a practice you can do without thinking about it, something calming and routine that puts you back in your own spiritual zone. It might be yoga, or meditation, or prayer using the Daily Office. It would be riding a bike, or walking for twenty minutes. Or, you could do like a friend of mine who simply gets a massage. No matter what crisis comes, she responds first by scheduling a massage. After that, she can worry, plan, recover, and deal with whatever problem has come alone.

A place that is holy and grounding can be a life-saver. When you feel like the world is spinning out of control, you simply go to your place and be still. A holy place might be this church or another. It might be a chapel at the cathedral, a garden, a special stretch of the city, or just a special chair. But it’s a place to return to, a place to center and hit a spiritual “re-set” button.

Finally, a spiritual emergency kit would include the phone number of a person, or a way of reaching a friend. That friend might be a religious person, or it might not be, but it should be someone who you can tell the truth to, someone who will listen but not judge, absorb what you’re saying and not give advice. Such a friend will help get you through the roughest of rough places.

In just a few minutes, during the Offertory, the choir will sing Beatus Vir by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). Though Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” plays in bathrooms and lobbies throughout the year, and Vivaldi’s “Gloria” will no doubt sing us through Christmas, the composer Vivaldi is not much talked about. His father was a violinist, and he grew up learning to play instruments, but early on, because of some kind of asthma, couldn’t sustain enough breath to play a wind instrument. Vivaldi trained for the priesthood and was ordained, but had to be excused from celebrating Mass—again, because of his ill health. In the middle of conversation or teaching, he would gasp for breath and sometimes get dizzy. For almost 38 years, he taught and composed at the Devout Hospital of Mercy in Venice (Ospedale della Pietà ). Though he was wildly successful for some years, with patronage from royalty and the Church, when younger composers came along, Vivaldi fell out of favor. He never married, and died in poverty. It was only later, that his music was dusted off and made popular again.

But through his asthma, through the long years of working with children in an orphanage, through the rough times with not attention and no income, Vivaldi endured. His spiritual survival kit certainly included music, but it also contained a steady faith in the God who takes us through life, through death, and into eternal life.

May we gather the tools we need to endure in faith. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Staying Centered

labyrinth2A sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, November 10, 2019. The scriptures are Job 19:23-27a, Psalm 17:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, and Luke 20:27-38

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Some of you are familiar with the practice of Centering Prayer. In past, we’ve had a small group of people who would meet for Centering Prayer, and a number of us continue that kind of prayer or a similar kind alone. In Centering Prayer, one returns to a word or image. Distractions come in prayer—always, but after noticing the distraction, one returns to the word.

It’s good to have some kind of practice to go to when we’re thrown off center. A few years ago, I used a washing machine that would occasionally get off-center, out of kilter. It would just stop. \ That happens with machines, but it can also happen in life. Something throws us off, and we freeze, not quite knowing how to re-set.

In the Gospel we just heard, a group of religious leaders are trying to do their best to throw Jesus off center, to bog things down, and throw him off his mission. Jesus has come into Jerusalem. The procession we recall on Palm Sunday has already happened. Jesus has overturned the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple and he has gotten some attention.

The Sadducees were a powerful group in Jerusalem, and in today’s reading, Jesus comes up against them. Their beliefs were based on the first five books of scripture only, and they believe that these had been authored by Moses. If it wasn’t contained in those books, then there was no reason to believe it.

But Jesus talks about things not contained in the books of Moses. And Jesus talks about eternal life. But the Sadducees don’t believe in eternal life, not for a minute. So when they ask Jesus a question about it, he suspects that they’re trying to trick him.

Both Jesus and the Sadducees know the longstanding Jewish practice that if a man dies and he has no children to continue his family, his brother should marry the widow to provide for the brother’s family to come. And so, the Sadducees ask Jesus a hypothetical: what if each of the seven brothers dies, but at each point along the way, a remaining brother marries the widow. At the resurrection, whose wife will she be? Jesus sees the attempt to throw him off center but refuses to let it happen. He tells them that if they were really so concerned about the resurrection and believed in it, then they would be more concerned about getting their own lives in order, not obsessing about marriage. Marriage is for those of “this age,” Jesus says—those who need to provide for a family or provide for the wellbeing of others.

The typical marriage in First Century Palestine, like much of the first millennium, was more about property and possessions. It was about taking care of folks and making sure life could continue. But whenever Jesus talks about marriage, he talks about it as something that always points beyond itself. Marriage doesn’t exists as an end in itself. It doesn’t exist simply for the two partners, or even the nuclear family. Marriage is a preparation for something to come, a training ground for love, a hint of something even more incredible to follow, something that will be even better than the closes of human relationships, at the resurrection.

In talking with the Sadducees, Jesus is not thrown off by talking about marriage or the treatment of widows or even of the justification of the Sadducees as a religious group.
Instead, Jesus keeps his focus. And he keeps moving toward the cross.

He tries to wake up this crowd when he says, “Ours is not a God of the dead, but of the living, for to God all of them are alive.” Anything that is not a part of that life—the life of God—is less than it can be, and anything that tries to turn us away from that life is a distraction.

Last weekend, we observed All Saints’ and All Souls’. We gave thanks for the famous saints and their example to us, and we also gave special thanks for those saints (those ordinary believers) who we have known and loved, and who have died. Though we feel death—its pain, its shock, its disruption, we also know that death can throw us off center. Sometimes for weeks—or months, or years. But faith in Jesus who died on the cross, who battled down death in the grave, and who rose again—faith in Jesus and his resurrection centers us again.

The other readings for today, in their own way, also attest to this power of God to dispel distractions and to bring us gently back to center again. In the Old Testament reading we see Job, who even in the very midst of death—the death of his family, the death of his career, his health, even his future (it seems)—he clings to the life of God. Job refuses to be done in by the distractions around him, especially when his friends try to create complicated theological justifications for what he is experiencing. Instead, Job goes to what he knows deep down in his heart. He cries out for life: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth.”

Likewise, to the people at Thessalonica, Paul says, “the Lord is faithful. He will strengthen you and guard you from the evil one.” These are appropriate words as we approach Veterans Day tomorrow, when our country remembers those who have often strengthened and guarded us.

We still get thrown off center. We may not have Sadducees coming up to us and trying to trick us with questions about the resurrection, but we do have plenty of people who will try to trick us with religious arguments, with scripture taken out of context, with confused theology, with simplistic thinking.

Whether it is the campaigns political or the campaigns theological that attempt to sidetrack us; whether it is the attack from the right or from the left, from the friend or from the stranger; or just our bodies growing old and rebelling against us—there are always things and people who can make us feel like those children’s toys that lean this way and that, and almost fall down.

The cross of Jesus Christ calls us to re-center.

We center on the cross in prayer. Prayer helps. Meditation lessens the distractions; contemplation keeps us clear. In the midst of whatever comes—sickness, through any challenge, through any test—even through death into eternal life. The cross of Christ is a reminder of where we’re headed, and that there is life and resurrection on the other side.

We also center on the cross in the Eucharist. At the altar, we meet and receive Christ crucified. We meet and receive Christ broken, transformed, and shared for us, calling us back to the center of what matters most.

Our worship itself can center us. Whether it’s the prayers of morning or evening prayer, the prayers we may say alone or with our family, or the weekly return to this community of prayer. We spin and run and tilt all week long, but when we return, there’s a calm and a centering that can happen in this place, with God’s people.

Whether we picture the cross in our prayers, hold onto it, or reach for it, may the cross of Jesus Christ lift us in this life, and life us again into life eternal.

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With All the Saints

Fra_Angelico, Forerunners for Christ from the Fiesole Altarpiece, c. 1423-24
A sermon for November 3, 2019, celebrated as All Saints’ Sunday. The scripture readings are Daniel 7:1-3,15-18, Psalm 149, Ephesians 1:11-23, and Luke 6:20-31

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Not too long ago, I met someone at a gathering who goes to a Baptist Church. Her church wanted to do something for the children around Halloween, but a number of their church members were uncomfortable with the idea of encouraging kids to dress up as devils or vampires… or perhaps even worse as popstars a little too sexy for their age. And so, my friend asked about the tradition of All Saints’ Day. If her church were to encourage children to dress as their favorite saint, where should they look for the official listing of saints?

I hesitated. Should I point her to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops site, for the official listing of Roman Catholic saints? (Even there, there’s a problem, since the official saints vary from country to country.) Should I send her the Book of Common Prayer listing of saints, or the latest official listing called, “Holy Women, Holy Men”? Or, does she just want the Biblical saints, or the famous saints from over time? [I ended up suggested a book of general saints that includes lots of pictures, thinking maybe the kids could look at a picture and choose something that attracted their eye, and then hear about the particular saint and dress like them.]

Our own tradition is mixed regarding saints. We name churches St. Mary’s, St. Botolph’s, St. James’, or even All Saints’—but then, sometimes we’re not really sure what we should do with these saints. Do we put them in stained-glass windows and keep them two-dimensional? Do we think of the saints as lucky charms, good for the naming of a child or the excuse of dessert on a saint’s day? Or are the saints simply a religious affectation, the romantic indulgence of an Anglophile, or the superstition of Catholic grandmothers?

The idea of communicating with the saints—especially our familiar ones—has gained new popularity with the 2017 movie, “Coco,” which has to do with the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. In parts of Mexico (and increasingly, in much of Mexico and parts of the United States) home altars are made that include photographs of loved ones who have died, some of their favorite foods or drinks, and marigold flowers, which (from Aztec times onward) have helped guide the souls of the ancestors to return.

While the Mexican Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, emphases the close communion of the saints around the 2nd of November, the Christian hope in eternal life assures us that we are close to those who have died every day—not just around the Celebration of All Saints’ and All Souls’.

We can look to the New Testament for some help, as we notice that writers use the word “saint” somewhat loosely. In many places all the faithful are referred to as saints. Paul addresses his Letter to the Romans, “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.” In helping the Corinthian church sort out its squabbles, Paul suggests that the aggrieved parties not go to secular courts, but go “before the saints,” the local gathering of Christians. In Revelation, John shows us various pictures of the saints in light, ordinary believers—some who have died for their faith, others who have died natural deaths—but ordinary believers made extraordinary by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

One thing for sure is that saints are marked people. They are marked by God with the word, Sanctus, or Holy. Some teach and lead, moving us closer to God. Some antagonize and agitate, all for the glory of God. Some offer mercy and show justice for the glory of God. And some really do exude a kind of holiness. They live transparent lives through which one sees the love of Christ. Saints are marked people.

But we too are marked. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit at baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. We carry the mark of holiness and while the best of us might reveal a bit of the holy here and there, for the most part Sanctus is a name and a way that we are growing into.

In Revelation, John has a vision of what heaven must look like when people have fully grown into their sainthood.

. . . [A] great multitude which no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Revelation shows us the future but it also helps us understand the past. Those everyday saints who struggled to be faithful in this world, who prayed to God and prayed for each other have been raised to new life into heaven. There they do what they did in this life—they show forth God’s love, they sing God’s praises, and they pray. They pray for one another and they pray for us.

I know that when various of my ancestors were alive, they prayed for me. I know that my Sunday school teachers prayed for me. I often feel the prayers of a certain former senior warden. Friends and perhaps those I didn’t even know prayed for me.

Though they have died, faith tells me that they have been raised to new life in Christ. They are with God and they are changed, but they are still praying for me and for all the world to be consumed in God’s love. Like love itself, love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” prayer, too, never ends. And so the saints, the great ones, the ordinary ones, and those who are still improving—they pray for us.
That the saints surround us and help us and pray for us, gives us what we need to live into those various blessings we hear today in the words of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount can sound like an impossible invitation to holiness.

But we have holy help. We have help in those who have gone before us who wrestled with these words of Jesus. Some might have failed miserably in those qualities Jesus talks about. But others struggled, prayed, and gradually got better. Others became so closely identified with the blessings, that they themselves became blessings in the lives of others.
The saints remind us to stay on track, and they help to show us the way.

As the great children’s hymn reminds us

They lived not only in ages past;
there are hundreds of thousands still.
The world is bright with the joyous saints
who love to do Jesus’ will.

You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
in church, or in trains or in shops, or at tea,
for the saints of God are just folk like me,
and I mean to be one too.

May the saints inspire us. When we are tired, may they strengthen us. When we are lazy, may they shame us. When we are alone, may they surround us. And may they fill our lives with increasing love until the day that we join them before God in everlasting praise.

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

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