Rector’s Musings

May 9, 2021

Christ the True Vine icon (Athens, 16th century). Public domain.

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter. The Scripture readings are available by clicking here.

          Each year, in the sixth week of Eastertide, we keep the Rogation Days on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. The word Rogation is from a Latin verb, rogare, meaning “to pray.” in Rogationtide we pray to God for the crops being planted, asking God provides the right balance of sun, rain, and moderate temperatures to produce a bountiful harvest.

          There is the ancient Rogation custom of processing along the boundaries of the geographic parish, moving among the farms and fields, offering prayers. This is the source of our annual Rogation Sunday Procession, when we process around the church yard, stopping at the four compass points offering prayers. Sadly, for the second year, it is not possible to do this because of the ongoing pandemic. I fervently hope we will be able to resume our Rogation Procession next year.

          Rogationtide reminds us we are part of creation, not apart and above the created order. God is the author of all things, birthing all that exists into being. Humanity is part of this web of creation. We are given a special role as stewards of all God has made. God calls us to care for all of creation, sharing in God’s work as co-creators.

          It is fitting in Rogationtide that Jesus continues the image we heard last Sunday: Jesus is the vine and we are the branches; God is the vine grower, who gives the growth. We are connected to Jesus, his life flowing through us. Apart from him there is no life.

          In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls us to abide in God’s love. This is a beautiful image of resting secure in God, knowing we are loved by God. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, God is always with us, dwelling within us, breathing in and through us, sustaining and nurturing us.

          God’s Spirit is present with us, giving us life, just as the life flows from the vine of a plant to its branches. Jesus assures us he loves us, and calls us to abide in him, loving as he loves. Jesus calls this his new commandment, given at the Last Supper when he washes his disciples’ feet. We are commanded by Jesus to love one another as he loves us.

          In her post on the blog Journey with Jesus, titled “It’s all about Love,” Debie Thomas, writes, “On the face of it, this is a weird commandment. Can we be ordered to love? Does love obey decrees? Most of us would say no. Shaped as we are by Hollywood films and romance novels, we usually think of love as spontaneous and free-flowing. We fall in love. Love is blind, it happens at first sight, it breaks our hearts, and its course never runs smooth.”[1]  

          Typically we understand love as an emotion. We “feel” love. We talk of “falling in love” with someone, love sweeping us up, beyond our agency and control. We understand love as reciprocal, returned in response to our love. Love is seen as the connection binding a family together. For some, love is the bond among those who are a “chosen” family, not linked by blood.

          While these experiences of love are important and meaningful for us, this is not primarily the love Jesus commands. Jesus calls us to a more demanding way, to loving as he loves, with love so great it includes laying down one’s life, as Jesus did.

          We do not earn, nor deserve, the love of Jesus. His love does not require reciprocity—he simply loves. The love of Jesus is life-giving, calling forth our full personhood, our full humanity, realizing God’s intention for us. The love of Jesus is strong, defeating the dehumanizing and death-wielding forces of this world. Jesus’ love overcomes evil and injustice, freeing all people from oppression.

          This is the love we called to live, as followers of the risen Jesus. No wonder Debie Thomas calls this “the weirdest commandment”! We rarely think we can “command” love, ordering others, or ourselves, to love. It is hard to imagine love of those who do return our love. This kind of love does not come naturally nor easily to us. It requires suspending our human impulses for getting our way, from asking what’s in it for me, away from our individualism, greed, and fear of others.

          The only way we live this command is by the power of God. Abiding in Jesus, the Source of all love, we are filled with the love flowing from the Trinity. The Trinity’s love flows outward from the three Person of the Godhead, towards humanity. God’s love fills us to overflowing with divine love, God’s love spilling from us and flowing to others.

          Abiding in the love of Jesus, just as the branch is connected to the vine, can we hope to love as Jesus loves: with a love stronger than death; with a love that defeats the evils of this world; with a love that calls forth the dignity and freedom, the full personhood, of all people.

          The love of Jesus is a choice, a moment by moment decision, embracing a way of life. It is the habitual practice of desiring the best for each person we encounter. It is the discipline of seeing in each person the abiding presence of Jesus, recognizing the Spirit of God dwells in others just as in us. It requires treating everyone as beloved children of God.

          The love of Jesus shapes, forms, and transforms us into people who love much, who work for the well-being of all people, and all of creation, laboring to overturn the unjust and evil systems of our world.

          The power of God’s love transforms the first followers of Jesus. After his death and resurrection, the disciples leave behind their locked rooms, their fear, and become the presence of the risen Jesus in the world. They do his work, the very things he did. They wrestle with the life-changing implications of the wide, inclusive love of Jesus.

          In our first lesson from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter preaches that God shows no partiality. Human divisions and boundaries fall away by God’s all-embracing love. Just before the passage we hear today, Acts tells of Cornelius, a faithful Gentile. Cornelius prays, and has a vision that tells him to send for the apostle Peter, which he does.

          At the very same moment, Peter is hungry, praying, and also has a vision. In his vision, Peter sees a sheet with unclean animals, those forbidden by the law to eat. He hears a voice telling him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” Peter replies he has never eaten anything “unclean or profane.” The voice responds, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter experiences this vision three times, a sign it is important, worthy of Peter’s attention.

          Meanwhile, the men sent by Cornelius, find Peter and bring him with them. When Peter arrives in Joppa and meets Cornelius. Today’s passage is Peter preaching in Joppa. He witnesses the Holy Spirit falling on Gentile hearers. Peter understands God is doing something new and unexpected by bestowing the Holy Spirit on Gentiles, so in response to God’s action, he baptizes the Gentiles, making them members of the community, of Christ’s body.

          This was a radical action for Peter. It causes tension within the church. Peter himself struggles with the implications of what God is doing by welcoming Gentiles. Despite the tension and struggle, the Holy Spirit does something new through Peter and Cornelius, changing the church forever, widening its welcome. God’s love breaks through, shattering a human boundary and transforming the followers of the risen Jesus.

          Jesus calls us to follow his commandment, loving one another as profoundly and deeply as he loves us. This is only possible for us by abiding in Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit, and allowing God’s love to flow into us, filling us, and overflowing from us, to all other people.

          If we cut ourselves off from Jesus, rejecting his invitation to abide in him, we are like the branch cut from the vine that withers and die. Without the life of the vine flowing through it, the branch cannot live, let alone bear fruit. If we abide in Jesus, the love of God flows freely and deeply in us, and we can’t help but love others as Jesus does.

          Abiding in God’s love bears much fruit in us, welling up even into eternal life. Living this way, the joy of Jesus will be in us, that our joy may be complete. The inclusive, boundary-breaking love of God, is stronger than the forces of this world. The love of Jesus is large enough to embrace all people. It’s so abundant it never runs out. May we always abide in God’s love, that through our witness, in word and deed, others may know God’s abundant life-changing, life-bestowing love. Amen.      


May 2, 2021

Fresco of the Seckau Apocalypse by Herbert Boeckl (1952 – 1960) in the Angel’s Chapel
at Seckau Abbey, Styria, Austria: Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. Creative Commons.

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter. The Scripture lessons are available by clicking here.

            This is a glorious time of year. As I walk through the neighborhood, I marvel at the beauty. Trees and shrubs in full bloom. Leaves starting to appear and grass growing greener. The sublime beauty of God’s creation is on full display, the rebirth of spring in full evidence.

            It is fitting that in today’s Gospel Jesus reminds us of the interconnectedness of creation. He teaches his disciples that he is the vine and his followers are the branches. God the Father is the vinegrower, giving growth to all things. We are the branches, attached to the vine, who is Jesus. We are each one of many branches, living in a great web of connection with God, one another, and all creation. The branches can live only because life flows from the vine to them. When cut off from the vine, they wither and die.

            Jesus calls this “abiding.” As he abides in the Father, so we abide in him. The very life the Father and Jesus share dwells within us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In the abiding Spirit, we are connected with God and all of humanity. In Jesus we are called into community, into relationship with God, one another, and all of creation.

           God the vinegrower prunes away branches that do not bear fruit. Long ago I learned without regular pruning, plants can become leggy, unable to support their growth. Without regular pruning, they may literally fall over under their own weight.

            The hard pruning of a plant allows it to generate strong new growth. It generates growth that is compact and sturdy. This produces not just a healthier plant, but also fosters flowering and bearing fruit, helping the plant reach its full potential.

           As with plants, so too in our lives. There are times pruning is needed. When things in our lives have grown old and stale, they need to be stripped away. Behaviors not bringing us life need to be given up. If we are not thriving it is time for adjustment. Though it can be challenging to do, these acts of pruning allow us to grow and bloom. Pruning is essential even in our spiritual lives.

            This pandemic time has been difficult and painful. There is so much loss and grief, so much illness and suffering, especially now in Latin America and India. But this time has also offered opportunity. It made obvious what is most important and what is not. In the many hours spent at home, many had time for reflection. Reflection for some clarified priorities.

            People regularly talk of how they realized the ways they spent time before the pandemic did not reflect their values. Many are asking, as we come out of pandemic living, how these realizations and lessons learned in the past year may be carried into post-pandemic life.

            There is a desire to not simply jump back into the way life was but to be intentional, shifting priorities based on what we have learned. Some in this parish have shared with me a renewed understanding of the importance of our connection as a community, of how much we value and treasure our corporate life more than ever before.

            As pandemic restrictions are relaxed, and we start to engage in activities and practices set aside for more than a year, there is an opportunity. This is time to articulate what we most value, what is meaningful, how we are connected to God and one another. This is a chance to discern where God is leading us, what practices from the past we are called to continue, and what new things God would have us do.

            Following Jesus requires we allow God to “prune” away the practices and behaviors not bearing fruit in us. We are called to let go of whatever impedes deepening our relationship with God, one another, ourselves, and creation. Just as the cross is the way to eternal life, so periodic pruning produces new stronger growth in the vineyard of our lives.

            In today’s first lesson, from the Acts of the Apostles, we have a striking example of the pruning required for the followers the risen Jesus. It describes an encounter between Philip and the unnamed Ethiopian eunuch. According to the book of Acts, Philip is one of seven chosen to care for those in need, becoming the first deacons. Several times in Acts we hear of Philip serving as an evangelist by proclaiming the risen Jesus. He does this with the Ethiopian eunuch.

            All we know of the Ethiopian eunuch is contained in today’s reading. Though he is not given a name, he is an important and trusted official in the court of Candace, the Queen of Ethiopia. In the ancient world, eunuchs often held positions of power in royal courts, serving as administrators. Because they were unable to father children, they were considered “safe” to serve  close to the ruler’s family.

            The Ethiopian eunuch has been worshipping at the temple in Jerusalem. As both a eunuch and a Gentile, he would be restricted in the where in the temple he could visit. He was considered an outsider, not a member of the people of Israel. According to Deuteronomy, because they were unable to have children, eunuchs were “cut off” from the people.[1]

            When Philip comes upon the Ethiopian eunuch, he is reading from the 53rd chapter of the prophet Isaiah. This passage we read on Good Friday, interpreting it as a prophecy of the suffering of Jesus on the cross. We see in this text Jesus, the One despised and rejected, cut off from the people. Isaiah says, “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer.”

            The eunuch wonders about whom Isaiah speaks. Philip proclaims to the eunuch Jesus crucified and raised from the dead. I wonder if the Ethiopian eunuch felt a kinship, a resonance, with Jesus, the One who is cut off and rejected by the people, just as the eunuch is cut off, just as oppressed and marginalized people have connected with Jesus and his cross through the centuries? Was hope kindled in the eunuch that in Jesus he would not always be cut off?

            In the book Our Tribe: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Bible, the Metropolitan Community Church elder, the Rev. Nancy Wilson, speculates this might be so. Wilson observes that just after the passage in Isaiah the Ethiopian eunuch and Philip discuss there is another passage offering hope. In Chapter 56 Isaiah offers an image of God’s kingdom where eunuchs will no longer be cut off, but part of God’s people. In Isaiah’s vision, eunuchs and Gentiles will be welcome. God’s house will become a “house of prayer for all people.”[2]

            After reading Isaiah and talking with Philip, the Gentile Ethiopian eunuch sees water and says, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip baptizes the eunuch then is “snatched away” by the Spirit, leaving the Ethiopian eunuch. We don’t know what happens to the eunuch after his baptism, but one tradition says he began the church in Ethiopia.

            This account of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch challenges assumptions of who is acceptable and who is not, who is welcome and who remains at the margins.This account is seen by LGBTQ Christians as a hopeful text of inclusion, challenging systems of exclusion based on identity.

            This story illustrates how the risen Jesus call his followers to prune away our limited definitions of who is welcome. The eunuch was excluded both because he was a Gentile and a eunuch. He was not the “right sort” of person. In an age when we see a dramatic rise in violence against the transgender community, especially transgender women of color, when states are passing laws that discriminate against the transgender community, this passage calls for fighting for justice for all people. It calls us to celebrate the rich and various ways people understand themselves, who they are.

            The account of the Ethiopian eunuch challenges the binaries we use to exclude others, dismantling the binaries we put in place to judge. Our world is structured by binaries like good and bad, right and wrong. We understand a person’s identity as either male or female, gay or straight. There is little room for nuance or diversity. Anyone who does not fit one side of the binary can feel excluded. They may be literally excluded.

            Life in the risen Christ challenges our exclusive binaries. As Paul writes to the Galatians, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[3] In Jesus the binaries are stripped away, all have a new identity, becoming one in Christ Jesus.

            The Ethiopian eunuch and Philip challenge us to be pruned, allowing God to cut away our reliance on restrictive binaries, on narrow definitions, instead embracing the marvelous complexity and diversity of human identity. The witness of the Ethiopian eunuch and Philip challenges us to expand our welcome to all people, embracing the particular ways each person knows themselves as the beloved child of God they are. The risen Jesus bids us be pruned, cutting away our limited vision, that we might grow into seeing as God sees, embracing God’s vision for creation, moving beyond simple binaries, to embrace the full richness and diversity of God’s wonderful creation.

            As the created world around us is clothed in new life this spring, may we remember our interconnectedness with all living things. As the Spirit of God breathes in us, may God’s life flow in and through us. We are part of a vast relational web of life. God abides in us through the Holy Spirit linking us with all of creation. Abiding in Jesus, connected as organically as the branch is to the vine, we find the fullness of resurrection life. Through our life in Christ may God’s broad inclusive love well up in us, coming to full flower and abundant fruit. Amen.

[1] Deuteronomy 23:1

[2] Our Tribe: Queer Folk, God, Jesus, and the Bible. The Rev Nancy Wilson. (HarperSanFransico, 1995), pp. 124-125.

[3] Galatians 3:27-28.

April 25, 2021

Jesus the Good Shepherd. Mausoleum of Galla Placidia at Ravenna, mosaic ca. 440. Public Domain.

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter. The Scripture readings are found by clicking here.

            This past Thursday evening the vestry had its monthly meeting. We began our meeting with Bible Study, as we often do. Looking at the first chapter of the Book of Acts, several commented on the challenges we face as followers of the risen Jesus. To follow Jesus requires we suspend our need to know exactly where we are going and what the route to get there is. We have to relinquish control. There are times we do not clearly hear or understand the call of God. We may become anxious because of the uncertainty and ambiguity. Living by the power of the Holy Spirit requires we let go and trust God.

            One person observed how Acts tells us the first followers of Jesus regularly gathered as a community to pray, reminding us it is essential we follow their example and do the same. Gathering in prayer the presence and call of the risen Jesus becomes clear to us.

            It seems there is real ambiguity and uncertainty now, in this present time. After more than a year, the end of the pandemic is coming into view. The governor has announced new levels of reopening coming in May. Nearly half our state has received the first vaccination. While the infection rate remains high, and certainly in many places, like India, the virus is raging with devastating consequences, we are also glimpsing the promise of relaxing restrictions in the coming months.

            Though we can see what is ahead, we do not know exactly when we will get there or what things will be like. We await new guidance from the diocese, state, and federal government. From that guidance we will make plans accordingly.

            Whatever the summer and fall may look like, the changes will arrive after we have been through more than a year of pandemic, confronted with a situation unlike any in our lives. Because of all we experienced, the vestry and I are developing a plan for conversation when we regather. This will involve a time of discernment, of listening and sharing, learning what we have experienced in this time apart, exploring the grief and loss we carry, and hearing how we have been changed. We will also pray together, listening for where God is calling us as community, seeking to hear God’s call in our altered reality, looking for the risen Jesus in our midst, and following wherever he is leading us.

            Our Scripture lessons today offer encouragement for this process. They remind us how deeply the risen Jesus desires to call us and lead us, how he seeks us out, hoping we will listen for his loving voice and set off following him, living in close relationship with him.

            Each year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter our lessons focus on Jesus the Good Shepherd. Jesus is the Shepherd who knows us, his flock, and calls and leads us. Most of us do not encounter sheep or see shepherds at work with their flocks. We may have a romanticized view of sheep, thinking of them as white, fluffy, cute animals. Perhaps we hold stereotypes of sheep as not very intelligent.  

            The reality is there is nothing romantic about sheep. They are farm animals, valuable for their coat that gives us wool, and valued by some as food. Sheep are not stupid, but they are creatures that look to be led. They follow and trust a leader to bring them to safe places, to gather them in pastures where they can graze. They recognize the shepherd’s voice and respond to it. They look to a shepherd to protect them from danger.

            Once they establish a relationship with a shepherd, they rely on that shepherd to lead them and protect them. They won’t go anywhere without the shepherd leading. If the shepherd steps behind the flock, the sheep will run around behind the shepherd, poised to follow where their trusted guide leads.

            Shepherds are very important for the well-being of the flock, yet in the 1st century shepherds were viewed as being not very respectable people. They literally lived on the margins of society, away from those considered reputable and upright. In this sense it is remarkable Jesus identifies himself with shepherds. Doing so reflects how Jesus identifies with all people, especially those judged, ignored, and forgotten by others.

            In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls himself the “good” shepherd. We generally understand the word “good” as meaning the opposite of “bad.” This reflects a binary of judgment, with good one end and bad at the other. In John’s Gospel, however, the Greek word translated as “good,” kalos, means much more. Rather than suggesting Jesus, as a shepherd is not bad, but is good, the Greek actually suggests Jesus the Good Shepherd is the “model” shepherd,[1] who embodies the very qualities of a shepherd in his being, in his identity.

            Jesus is the ultimate Shepherd, he illustrates in his being and identity what it is to be a shepherd. Jesus is the shepherd concerned with the well-being of each individual, as well as the entire flock. Jesus calls and gathers the flock, protecting them, even giving his life for the flock. Through his death and resurrection Jesus leads the flock from the ways of sin and death of this world to life eternal, claiming the flock forever and never letting go.  

            This relationship between Jesus the Good Shepherd and the flock of his followers is one of intimacy. Jesus knows the name of each member of the flock, and his followers know his voice and follow where he leads. The relationship Jesus has with the flock is modeled on his relationship with the Father. Just as Jesus and the Father are one, dwelling together in intimate love, so Jesus is one with the sheep in the same way.

            This loving intimacy means Jesus will do all needed for the well-being of the flock. Unlike a hired hand, who abandons the sheep at a sign of danger, Jesus is the Shepherd who lays down his life for the defense of the sheep. With his wounded hands bearing the scars of his passion, he gathers and holds us, bringing us safely through death. Through baptism we share in his death and in the promise of being raised to eternal life with him. Jesus our Shepherd leads us to eternal life, to the banquet God prepares in heaven.

            This does not mean we won’t know challenges, suffering, fear, or despair. It does not mean we won’t die, for of course all people die, but the Good Shepherd is with us always, even in death, leading us, comforting us, keeping us safe for eternity. As Psalm 23 reminds us,  “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” While we still have to go through this valley, yet the Good Shepherd safely leads us, his staff supporting us as he comforts us.

            Just as the shepherd never abandons the sheep, but leads them in every situation and through every danger, so Jesus leads us. Jesus call us each by name, the name bestowed on us when we were baptized. In the waters of baptism we are claimed by Jesus forever, the sign the cross made on our forehead, marking us as belonging to Jesus for eternity. We are literally marked as his own. Through baptism we are united to Christ, putting on his very identity, becoming his own people, his flock.

            Throughout our earthly life, Jesus calls us each by name, guiding us in the unique vocation, the particular work, he gives us to do. Calling our name, Jesus invites into the loving intimacy he shares with Father and longs to share with us. By the indwelling of the Holy Spirit bestowed in baptism, the risen Jesus is with us. The Spirit is the abiding presence of God, God-with-us, as close and as intimate as our breath.

            We are baptized into the Name of Jesus, the One whose identity we now share, the One who is as close to us as to the Father. In his Name is life and power. In our first lesson, from the Acts  of the Apostles, the authorities have arrested Peter and John for healing a lame man. They ask these two followers of Jesus, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Peter, full of the power of the Holy Spirit declares, “…let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.”

            This passage from Acts tells how the first followers of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, go into the world, leaving behind their fear, and act as Jesus in the world. They preach, teach, and heal just like Jesus. They do these things in the Name of Jesus, by the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit.

            This is the very same Name into which we are baptized. This is the very same Holy Spirit we have received. In this Name, by the Holy Spirit, is found the power we need to go to the world, sharing the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, bringing hope to those forgotten and on the margins. By the Holy Spirit, our fear is swept away, our doubts assuaged, and we are able to set out in Jesus’ Name, led by the Spirit.

            This day Jesus our Good Shepherd is calling our names, yours and mine, and extending his invitation that we be gathered by him into one flock, following him in the path he leads. May we open ourselves as a community in prayer so that we hear his call and follow in his way.

            May we claim the gifts of the Holy Spirit given us in baptism to do the work to which he invites us, the holy work that brings to fruition God’s plan of salvation. May we claim the power of his Name, into which we are baptized, that we go to the world and proclaim him in word and deed. May the Spirit empower us to be his loving, healing presence in our world, a world torn apart and divided by strife and hatred.

            Let us without fear, move into the uncertainty of this time, trusting Jesus the Good Shepherd calls and leads, gathers and protects us. Following him, let us trust he will show us the way, protect us from danger, and at the last lead us to pastures of abundant and unending life, into the community of love that is our Triune God.

            I close the text of Hymn 708 from our Hymnal 1982: “Savior, like a shepherd lead us; much we need thy tender care; let thy pleasant pastures feed us’ for our use thy folds prepare. Blessed Jesus! Thou hast bought us, thine we are. Early let us seek thy favor, early let us learn thy will; do thou, Lord, our only Savior, with thy love our bosoms fill. Blessed Jesus! Thou hast loved us: love us still.”[2] Amen.


[2] Hymn 708, Hymnal 1982. Text from Hymns for the Young, ca. 1830, alt.

April 18, 2021

Saints Peter and Paul healing the lame man.. Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665). Public domain.

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter. The Scripture readings are available by clicking here.

            For 21st century Christians, the bodily resurrection of Jesus can be challenging. We can accept, with joy, that death is not the end, that after our body dies life is changed, not ended. We consider this our Christian hope that undergirds our lives.

            It certainly seems plausible the disciples that first Easter Day experienced the risen Jesus, in some way, that Jesus remains with them after he dies. But accepting and believing that in the resurrection the physical human body of Jesus, that suffered the agony of death on the cross, is raised to life is difficult. For some it is an impediment to belief, impossible to accept.

            Yet from the beginning the church has affirmed that Jesus was raised from the dead in his human body. His human flesh and blood died and passed through the gate of death, out the other side, into eternal resurrection life.

            The first followers of Jesus also struggled with this reality. That is not surprising. It goes against human experience. It defies how we know the universe works, of what it means to be human. All humans die. 

            In today’s Gospel, however, Luke is clear resurrection means Jesus rose from the dead in the same body in which he died. In the passage, the disciples are startled and terrified when Jesus appears to them. Before his appearance several of their company heard Jesus is risen, including the women and Peter. Two see and talk with the risen Jesus as they walk on the road to Emmaus. Despite this, they do not understand Jesus is risen from the dead.

            When Jesus appears, standing among them, they worry he is a ghost, or a spirit from the dead. Jesus assures them he is very much alive, possessing a body of flesh. He invites them to touch him—you can’t touch a ghost. He shows them his wounds. This is his same body that was tortured and crucified. He eats some fish, something a spirit can’t do.

            Luke shows this is the same Jesus who died and now appears to his followers. Jesus has taken his human flesh through death into eternal life. As the Advent hymn, “Lo, he comes” reminds us, “Those dear tokens of his passion still his dazzling body bears, cause of endless exultation to his ransomed worshippers; with what rapture gaze we on those glorious scars!”[1]

            In putting on human flesh in the incarnation, God affirms the goodness of humanity. In death and resurrection, Jesus raises humanity to the divine life. Those scars of his passion are the sign of death’s defeat once for all. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God raises humanity to the divine life, setting us free from the tyranny of sin of and death. In the resurrection we are raised to new life, lifted above all that alienates and separates us from God.

            In his resurrection body, Jesus leaves his tomb of death and comes among his disciples offering them peace in their fear. Jesus gives them what they need to believe. Jesus does not chastise them for their unbelief. He does not criticize them for their terror. Instead, Jesus comes among them, giving them what they need to move out of hiding, letting go of their fear, no longer paralyzed by their terror. Jesus leads them beyond where they are in that moment into new life, to resurrection life.

            As the disciples come to believe Jesus is raised from the dead they become joyful. As they let go of their terror and fear, they are open to the new life they share with the risen Jesus. Terror and fear focus us inward, closing us off from God and others. As fear drops away, the disciples become open to the good news Jesus shares. As that happens, Jesus opens their minds to the scriptures. Jesus expands their understanding of who he is, of his mission, of the meaning of his death and resurrection. He opens them to a new vision, a new way of life.

            Jesus sets the disciples on a process of transformation and they, and the world, are forever changed. Jesus commissions his followers as his witnesses, sending them into the world to preach, teach, and heal just as Jesus did. They become Jesus’ presence, doing Jesus’ work in the world.

            Throughout Eastertide we read from the Acts of the Apostles. This book of the Bible, also written by Luke, tells the story of the disciples’ transformation, how they move from fear to being fearless witnesses who proclaim the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. By the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit, they take Jesus’ place in the world, they become his body.

            We see this new reality in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Peter and John have left behind their fear, and are no longer hiding. They are going up the temple and meet a man lame from birth. The man asks the two disciples for money. Peter replies, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” At that moment the man is able to walk. He leaps about, praising God, and the people seeing this are amazed.

            Through the power of the resurrection, the first followers of Jesus are set free to go into the world. They no longer hide in fear. It is not that they never fear again, fear is a natural human response to danger. After the resurrection they do not allow fear to prevent them from witnessing to Jesus. Nothing stops them from doing the work Jesus charged them to do. Not fear, not anything.

            After healing the lame man, the authorities are annoyed and arrest Peter and John. They order Peter and John not to preach Jesus any more. They reply they cannot “keep from speaking what [they] have seen and heard. ”

            Multiple times the Book of Acts recounts that no matter what the authorities do to the followers of Jesus, they will not stop preaching and teaching. They do the work of Jesus even to the point they are killed just as Jesus was. Being fearless, they become martyrs, a Greek word meaning “witness.” In death, as in life, they witness to Jesus.

            Today’s Scripture readings give us important teaching on the resurrection of Jesus. I offer three reflections. First, Jesus is raised in the human body in which he died. By this, Jesus brings humanity through death to eternal life. His glorified body bears the scars of his passion, offering us hope in our sufferings. Seeing the scars of his wounds reminds us Jesus knows what it is to experience pain in a human body, that Jesus is present with us in all our sufferings.

            Jesus witnesses that God will not leave us in our suffering, but will deliver us. This is good news of hope as the world reaches the grim milestone of more than three million dead in the pandemic, more than 560,000 in this nation alone.

            That Jesus’ risen body bears the scars of his passion offers hope and strength to those who are oppressed. As this nation watches too many black and brown bodies not being valued by the police, seeing the horror of black and brown men unjustly shot to death, Jesus affirms all bodies are good and beloved of God. Jesus is with all those who suffer at the hands of white supremacy.  He calls us all to be antiracists, dismantling white supremacy and racism. To all people who know physical violence, the fact Jesus walked this way offers hope and the strength to endure the horror, that by God’s grace new life will follow, life free from suffering and evil.

            Second, the resurrection of Jesus calls us to be transformed. Through his resurrection, Jesus leads us to new life, calling us to become a new creation, set free from the enslavement of sin and death. The power of the risen Jesus, made known through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, sets us free to act from love, not allowing fear, despair, and hate to rule us. Because Jesus rose from the dead, we are set free to live by love and reconciliation. The Spirit emboldens us to face the evil powers of this world by the power of God’s love, by love that is stronger than death itself.

            Third, we are a people sent forth. Like those first disciples we are charged to witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus. The risen Christ comes among us, bids us peace, and opens our hearts and minds to God’s call. We are sent by God to proclaim to the world the power of God’s love for all. The risen Jesus charges us to go to those who live at the margins of our society, to  those who are fearful and despairing, who have lost hope, who are suffering and grieving, and to those forgotten. We are called to offer the comfort and hope of God’s liberating love.

            This last is challenging for us as Episcopalians. We can be reserved, resistant to talk about our relationship with the risen Jesus. This is compounded by the pandemic as we are kept apart from one another. Yet, even we reserved, shy Anglicans are sent forth just as surely as those first followers of Jesus.

            Luke addresses the words of today’s Gospel passage as much for his first century community as for us in the 21st century. We too are called to take the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus to the ends of the earth by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are to let the love of God so fill our hearts, minds, and souls so that like Peter and John we cannot stop proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. With the Spirit burning within us, we can’t help but witness in joy to the good news of the risen Jesus.

            The reality is God is counts on us to do this. God depends on us. God’s reign is ushered in by the witness of each follower of Jesus. We are each a part of God’s plan of salvation, called to be an instrument of God. It is through our witness others hear the joyous news of the risen Jesus that they may live by hope. It is through our witness the powers of this world may be transformed by God’s inclusive, liberating love.

            The risen Jesus comes to us this day, just where we are, just how we are, offering us God’s peace, giving us just what we need to move beyond our fear, to be released from hiding, that we go forth proclaiming the power of God’s love. Filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, may we take the amazing, life-changing news of Jesus’ resurrection to the world, that all may know the life eternal God offers to all people. Amen.

[1] Charles Wesley (1707-1788), Stanza 3, Hymn 57, Hymnal 1982.

April 11, 2021

“The incredulity of Thomas” from an English manuscript, c.1504. Public domain.

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter. The Scripture readings are found by clicking here.

            Today we enter the second week of the season of Easter, also called the Great Fifty Days. It stretches from Easter Day, last Sunday, until the Day of Pentecost, this year May 23. The Easter season is so central, so important, that it is not just a day, or a week long, but stretches over seven weeks.

            It seems to me this is a good thing. The resurrection of Jesus is not only of central and defining important for us as Christians, it is also not easy to understand. Who fully comprehends what it means that Jesus was raised on the third day? What does it mean that through baptism we share in Jesus’ victory over sin and death? How do we live this resurrection life, this new life we share in the risen Jesus? These are important and not easily answered questions. They are worth intentionally reflecting upon in these weeks of Eastertide.

            On this Second Sunday of Easter we always hear the Gospel account featuring the apostle Thomas, the one often called “Doubting Thomas.” Many focus on Thomas not believing Jesus has been raised from the dead until he sees his risen Lord. Once he sees, his faith is strengthened and he professes Jesus as his Lord and his God.

            Saying Thomas and today’s Gospel are about doubt, however, is a bit too simplistic for me. Thomas asked for what the other disciples experienced. That first Easter night the apostles were together, all except Thomas, and they saw the risen Jesus appear in their midst, showing his wounds, speaking with them. They saw his resurrected body.

            Thomas does not have this opportunity and he wants to experience what the others did. Thomas wants the same invitation to see and to touch the risen Jesus. He wants the same sign of the resurrection Jesus offered to the others. He wants to speak with the risen Jesus. This seems reasonable and understandable to me. A week later Jesus gives Thomas this experience.

            Thomas can be a great example to us. In John’s Gospel he asks several important questions of Jesus, questions I suspect the other apostles also had but had not asked. Thomas expresses his doubt and states what he needs to believe. Thomas allows his questions and doubts to inform his faith, to deepen his belief, bringing him to understand and see Jesus as his Lord and his God.

            I worry that calling Thomas “Doubter,” focusing primarily on his doubt, not only minimizes Thomas, but also risks understanding doubt as something negative, something that Thomas lacked. This might lead us to think that if one doubts, one’s faith is not strong. Doubting might indicate someone is not a faithful follower of Jesus, that having doubts is at odds with faith.

            The opposite is true. Questions of doubt, the moments when we struggle to understand or believe, are precisely the times that lead to deeper faith. To wrestle with questions, even to doubt a truth or tenet of our faith, can illuminate our minds, setting our hearts aflame with love in new ways, deepening our relationship with God. Engaging these questions leads the believer to a deeper and more mature faith, to renewed trust in Jesus.

            For many the opposite of faith is assumed to be doubt. The influential 20th century theologian Paul Tillich believed otherwise, stating, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.”[1] Tillich says doubt is not at odds with believing but can be an important part of our lives of faith. It is part of the process whereby we question, wrestle, and make faith our own. It is ok if there are times we do not understand or we doubt. This is the landscape of the spiritual journey.

            The author and Episcopalian Anne Lamott builds on Tillich’s statement. She writes, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns. Faith also means reaching deeply within, for the sense one was born with, the sense, for example, to go for a walk.”[2]

            Lamott reminds us that faith is not simply something one has and if lacking, they are in doubt. Faith is more complex. It is far richer. Faith is about the fullness, and messiness, of life. It is like those apostles behind locked doors that first Easter night, certain they will be killed next. Life, however, is far from certain. We live moment to moment. As part of our lives, faith is like that too. It is not certain. Sometimes it is downright tenuous. Certainty is often far from faith. It papers over the complexity of being alive.     

            Another threat to faith is fear. If faith is trusting God, being in right relationship with God, one another, ourselves, and creation, then fear inhibits faith. Fear keeps us from trusting God. Fear draws our focus to ourselves, to our emotions and situation. Fear is inward looking, not taking account of God or others. Fear paralyzes us, leaving us unable to move or act, causing us to withdraw to protect ourselves. Fear prevents us from living the call of God given us.

            In today’s Gospel the disciples are afraid that first Eater night. They are hiding in a locked room, fearful of the authorities who killed Jesus. Into that room, behind locked doors, Jesus appears and speaks words of peace. He displays his wounds, showing this is the same Jesus killed on the cross, and he breathes on them. Jesus shows them he really lives, he has breath. He breathes on those apostles the Holy Spirit, and sends them out as witnesses, authorized to speak words of forgiveness.

            Jesus bestows on them his Spirit, the breath of the crucified and risen One. In the original Greek “breathes” is emphysao, a word used also in Genesis (2:7) when God breathes life into the human creature made from dust and in Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones (37:9) when breath enters the dry bones and they live. The risen Jesus breathes new life, his risen life, into those followers hiding in that locked room.

            Through the power of the Holy Spirit they receive from Jesus that night, the disciples are able to leave behind their fear. They come to live the new life he breathes into them, leaving behind the locked room of their fear and going into the world, witnessing to the risen Jesus.

            By the power of the Holy Spirit they are set free to witness to the resurrection of Jesus, taking this Good News into the world. They are transformed into bold followers of Jesus, going into the world to preach, teach, heal, and even raise the dead. Most of them are eventually killed for their faith, like Jesus, but after their encounter with the risen Jesus, they are not fearful any longer.

            This transformation of the disciples is seen in today’s first lesson from the Acts of the Apostles. These first followers of Jesus have left the locked room of their fear, and are living in a radically new way. They hold all possessions in common, each given what they need from what they own in common. No one owns possessions individually. They share corporately in providing for one another, and they testify to the resurrection of Jesus with great power.

            The resurrection of Jesus puts to death the fear and despair the disciples knew. After meeting the risen Jesus they no longer fear the powers of this world, but obey God’s call to witness to Jesus. They live trusting nothing can separate them from the love of God. They are set free to love as Jesus loved, not counting the cost, but giving their lives in love of others. They speak as Jesus speaks, they act as Jesus acts, and they do the work Jesus does. They no longer fear the rulers and powers of this world.

            At the heart of their mission as followers of Jesus is reconciliation. They are agents of God’s love, striving to heal the divisions of our fractured world by forgiving often and generously. Jesus calls his followers to all live by reconciliation, always practicing abundant forgiveness.

            In the Collect of the Day we prayed, that God “in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation.” Just as God has forgiven us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, so we should do. As God shows abundant mercy and compassion, so should we show others great mercy and compassion.

            Through baptism we share with the risen Jesus a new life, a new covenant, that of reconciliation. We are called to speak as Jesus would, through power of Holy Spirit, speaking words of challenge to the injustices of this world; speaking God’s peace to those who are fearful and despairing; showing mercy and forgiveness, welcoming those who are alienated; witnessing to the risen Jesus so others may come to believe and know the promise of new life found in him.

            We live in an age of great polarization, when people with differing views find it difficult to speak with one another. Those who disagree are treated as enemies. The language of hate is stronger than ever, and there is fear all around us. Into these divisions, into the hate and fear, Jesus appears offering peace and the power of the Holy Spirit, setting us free from fear to be his witnesses in the world. Jesus empowers us to speak words of hope and comfort, words of reconciliation and forgiveness.

            The risen Jesus enters our locked room, coming into the midst of our fear and doubt, to the messiness of our lives, and invites us to believe, to trust he is risen from the dead. The risen Jesus invites us to put our faith in our relationship with him. Though we do not have all the answers, we may believe Jesus is trustworthy and will never abandon us.

            Jesus enters into the most guarded parts of our lives, bidding us peace, breathing the power of the Spirit upon us, and setting us free to follow him. By the power of his Spirit, Jesus sends us out to the world to proclaim all we have seen and heard, sharing with others, the good news his love stronger than death. In Jesus all is forgiven and we are reconciled with God. With him is the promise of new life, of mercy and forgiveness, of a fierce love stronger than any power of this world, stronger even than the power of death.

            May we, with Thomas, this day see and believe. Jesus is risen from the dead. The tomb could not contain him. With Thomas let us exclaim, “My Lord and my God!” seeing Jesus as he is. Though we have not seen the risen Jesus as Thomas did, have not touched his hands or his side, may we believe the risen Jesus, putting our trust in the One who says to us, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Amen.



April 4, 2021

The Redeemer resurrection window.

A sermon for Easter Day. The Scripture readings are available by clicking here.

            In yesterday’s New York Times there was an opinion piece by Esau McCaulley titled “The Unsettling Power of Easter: The holiday is about much more than a celebration of spring.”[1] Growing up in the Black church, McCaulley describes Easter as the day to “don your best outfit” and for the church choir to sing its best music.

            One Easter he had an experience that led him to realize there are two Easters struggling alongside each other. The first is a celebration of spring and the possibility of new beginnings. The second is “the disturbing prospect that God is present with us. His power breaks out and unsettles the world.”

            Today’s Gospel account of Easter morning is unsettling. The women go to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus, seeking to provide some level of dignity after a shameful and horrific death. They go to complete the burial rites and to grieve and mourn. At the tomb, however, everything changes. The stone is rolled away and the tomb is empty, unsettling the women.

            McCaulley goes on to say, “…Easter is a frightening prospect. For the women, the only thing more terrifying than a world with Jesus dead was one in which he was alive. We know what to do with grief and despair. We have a place for it. We have rituals that surround it. I know how to look around at the anti-Black racism, the anti-Asian racism, the struggles of families at the border and feel despair. I know what it’s like to watch the body count rise after a mass shooting, only to have the country collectively shrug because we are too addicted to our guns and our violence…I put it all in the tomb that contains my dead hopes and dreams for what the church and country could be. I am left with only tears.”

            For us, like the women that first Easter morning, it can be unsettling when grief is interrupted by hope. McCaulley explains, “Hope is much harder to come by. The women did not go to the tomb looking for hope. They were searching for a place to grieve. They wanted to be left alone in despair. The terrifying prospect of Easter is that God called these women to return to the same world that crucified Jesus with a very dangerous gift: hope in the power of God, the unending reservoir of forgiveness and an abundance of love. It would make them seem like fools. Who could believe such a thing? Christians, at their best, are the fools who dare believe in God’s power to call dead things to life.”

            This morning we Christians are the “fools” daring to believe God calls what is dead to life. From the tomb of grief and despair, God brings forth hope and resurrection life. While we might sentimentalize this transformation, clothing it with spring flowers and uplifting thoughts of rebirth, the truth can be overwhelming and disorienting. It might be easier for us to grieve than for hope to be awakened. We may shrink back from living by hope and proclaiming resurrection life.

            Esau McCaulley says, “Seeing the enormous work of healing that must be done in our world…The weight of this work fills me with a terrifying fear, especially in light of all those who have done great evil in [God’s] name. Who is worthy of such a task?  Like the women, the scope of it leaves me too often with a stunned silence.”

            Easter calls us to believe the power of God can roll away the stone of our grief and sorrow, bringing forth hope from our despair. Rather than a happy celebration of spring rebirth, Easter is the unsettling truth that God brings forth life from death in the tomb. God sends us forth from the tomb of our stunned silence, commissioning us evangelists, sent to proclaim this Good News to all people.

            This is precisely the experience of the women in today’s Gospel, from Mark’s account of the first Easter morning. Mary, Mary, and Salome go to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body for burial. They set out after sunrise, and on the way wonder how they will get into the tomb. A great stone seals the opening. When they arrive, they find the stone unexpectedly moved.

            In the tomb sits a young man in white clothes who tells them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

            This is entirely unexpected by the three women. They do not know what to make of it. Mark’s Gospel tells us they fled from the tomb, seized with terror and amazement. They said nothing, told no one, of the young man’s words, because they were afraid.

            The women are afraid on Easter morning? Where are the angels singing in glory? Where is the appearance of the risen Jesus? Where is the rejoicing of the disciples? There is none of what we commonly associate with Easter morning. Instead we have terror, amazement, fear, and silence; the women flee the tomb.

            It is no wonder Mark’s Gospel has several added verses following today’s passage that try to bring this account into line with what we expect. These are all later additions to the Gospel, attempts to explain away this ending marked by fear and silence, to make it more like the story we expect.

            One commentary[2] suggests there is something important for us in Mark’s original account of the resurrection, with its terror, fear, and silence. Since the women do not go and tell the news of Jesus’ resurrection, we are left with the question of how we will respond to this account. Will we believe the young man in the tomb and go and tell the good news ourselves? Will we proclaim Jesus risen from the dead? Will we tell others the tomb could not contain him, that Love in the end was triumphant? Will we be unsettled out of our silence by this news?

            Mark’s Easter account challenges us to take up the story for ourselves, calling us to embrace discipleship, walking the way Jesus trod. We are called to journey through life looking for the risen Jesus to appear along the way, remaining alert and open to seeing the risen Jesus when is present to us.

            Today’s Gospel calls us to be witnesses to all that we have seen and heard, telling others Jesus was put to death on the cross, his only crime that he loved. He died and was buried. And on the third day God raised him to resurrection life. We are to proclaim to the world the love of God is stronger than the tomb, stronger even than the hold of  death. We are to tell all that the evil powers of this world could not defeat the love of God made known in Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.

            The victory of Jesus over the powers of sin and death, however, does not take away the challenges and suffering of this life. It does not ignore that we celebrate Easter Day apart for a second year because of the pandemic. It does not end the illness, suffering, and death many experience. It does not change the fact that, like the women that Easter morning, there are times when we are fearful, afraid; times we do not understand; even times we do not “feel” like Easter.

            Easter, however, is ultimately not a feeling; it is not about externals. Easter is not a story about spring and rebirth. It is not dependent on how we feel Easter morning, whether we are joyful. Easter is much more. Easter is more than this morning. Easter is not only for the future, after we die. Easter is a way of life. Easter is about the power of despair and hopelessness being broken. Easter challenges our fears and lack of comprehension. Easter is about the defeat of sin and death once and for all. Easter is now, this moment, this day, this life.

            The resurrection of Jesus assures us God is ever faithful. Just as God did not leave Jesus in death, so God will likewise do for us. Through the waters of baptism we have died to the life of sin and been raised to the eternal life of the resurrected Jesus.

            Though the women were terrified and kept silent that first Easter morning, we do no have to. We can look at the suffering and evil of this world squarely and not fear. Death has no hold over us. We will never be separated from the love of God made known in Jesus through the power of the resurrection.

            In Jesus being raised from the dead we have been set free to love. The power of our human impulses: greed, fear, despair, and hopelessness have no hold over us. We are called to die to those impulses and rise to the divine life of resurrection. We are set free to return love for hate, hope for despair, joy for sorrow.

            Resurrection is not a feeling, not a moment, not just this morning. It is a way of life. It is a call to conversion of spirit and heart. It is our call to be set free from the powers of this world and rise to the life eternal. It is our call as the followers of Jesus to undertake this work confident of God’s love, and in return loving all people as Christ loves us.

            This Easter morning, in place of death, we are offered new and eternal life. God has given us the unearned give of life free from the power of evil, sin, and death. Through his resurrection, Jesus sets us free to choose love above all else.

            Today’s Gospel is our story to conclude. How will it be written in our lives? Will we accept the gift of resurrection, the new life to which we are called? Will we proclaim the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, that others may come to know the life eternal, that reality we already share through the waters of baptism?

            May we like the three women and the other disciples set out for “Galilee,” along that road of discipleship to which Jesus calls us. As we travel along the way, let us look for the risen Jesus to be present to us, offering us strength and hope for the journey. Though this road may unsettle us, calling us away from the way things in the present, sending into a world that at times frightens us, let us follow Jesus, for it is the way of abundant and eternal life with God.

            This Easter may we proclaim to all the good news: “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” Thanks be to God Christ has been raised. Through his death and resurrection we are set free to live by resurrection life, walking always in the profound hope of his love. Amen.

[1] Esau McCalley, The Unsettling Power of Easter: The holiday is about much more than a celebration of spring. NY Times April 3, 2021.

[2] Ched Myers, “Say to this mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship. Location 3574, Kindle edition.

March 28, 2021

Entry of Christ into Jerusalem (1320) by Pietro Lorenzetti. Public domain.

A sermon for the Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday. The Scripture readings are available here.

          In John Irving’s book, A Prayer for Owen Meany, the narrator John Wheelright remembers how his childhood best friend, Owen Meany, said he hated Palm Sunday. Wheelright explains why this so for Owen, “the treachery of Judas, the cowardice of Peter, the weakness of Pilate. ‘IT’S BAD ENOUGH THAT THEY CRUCIFIED HIM,’ Owen said, ‘BUT THEY MADE FUN OF HIM, TOO!’”

            Years after Owen Meany said this, John Wheelright attends church as an adult on Palm Sunday and remembers Owen Meany’s words. He reflects, “I find that Holy Week is draining; no matter how many times I have lived through his crucifixion, my anxiety about his resurrection is undiminished—I am terrified that, this year, it won’t happen; that, that year, it didn’t. Anyone can be sentimental about the Nativity; any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas. But Easter is the main event…”[1]

            Those words resonate with me. Christmas offers us ready-made beautiful images: sheep and shepherds, angels singing in the night sky, a newborn baby, the cow and ox, the Three Kings from the East.

            Holy Week has no such tender images. It is difficult to sentimentalize the events of this week. It is a draining week, one that is complicated, emotional, and demanding. It has gruesome and ugly images, including hatred and violence. In addition, again this year, we enter Holy Week in the pandemic. For the second year we are unable to gather in-person for the important liturgies of this week.

            With this reality as a backdrop, today we enter the most solemn and sacred — and demanding — week of the entire year. In Holy Week we participate in those sacred mysteries by which our salvation was won for us. It is a week when time seems suspended. In these days the past, present, future are all caught up in God’s time. The boundaries of time and space are blurred. All belongs to God, every moment reveals God’s plan of salvation for humanity.

            In these holy days we walk with Jesus as he journeys to the suffering and pain of the cross. The experience of Holy Week is an anticipation of the final consummation of time itself when we will enter eternity, coming to dwell with God, seeing God face to face.

            We may ask again this year how we are to walk through this week kept apart by social distancing? Unable to gather as a community, how can we keep Holy Week? Through the past year I have pondered how do we worship God when apart? How can we remain connected as a community when we are physically isolated?

            The truth is, each year, whatever our circumstances and wherever we might find ourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually, Holy Week and Easter happen. Each year this week is different. Each year we are different. Through the ages the church has found ways to keep Holy Week, even in the midst of plague, persecution, and war. Our history challenges us to do likewise again this year.

            What is certain is that what we celebrate and commemorate in these sacred days has everything to do with the reality of our lives, with wherever we find ourselves. Holy Week and Easter are not dependent on us. We do not make these days happen. They do not arrive only if we are ready, or if we undertake certain things. How we feel, the emotions we experience, do not determine if Easter comes. Whether we feel it or not, whether we are ready or not, it is Palm Sunday today, and it will be Easter Day next Sunday.

            Ultimately, these days are not about us, but about God entering into our daily life. In the person of Jesus, God comes into the fullness of human life in all its joys and all its sorrows. God enters into the sublime and the sinful of human experience. God is with us when we are grounded and in touch with God’s presence, and when we feel kinship with Ezekiel in the valley of dry, dusty bones.

            So it is Palm Sunday even though we can’t gather in the church yard to wave palm branches and shout, “Hosanna!” Though we don’t cry out together, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” in the Passion Gospel, it is Holy Week. This year we move through these days in different ways. We worship online, gathering virtually. We find ways to mark and commemorate these important days in our homes, perhaps alone, or with those we live.

            Earlier this morning I read the traditional Passion Gospel. We do this each year, and each time I am struck by the full display of human behavior and emotions found in it. In this account we see all it is to be human.

            There are the disciples, struggling to understand what is happening to Jesus. They seek to faithfully in accompany him through these horrific moments. They promise to be with him through it all. Peter assures Jesus he will never deny him. Yet, as so often happens with our best intentions, the disciples do exactly the opposite of what they promised. The male disciples flee at the end, abandoning Jesus. Peter denies Jesus, not once, but three times.

            In the Passion Gospel we see deceit and betrayal. Judas, one of the twelve apostles, hands Jesus over to the authorities for some pieces of silver. He betrays Jesus with a kiss. This intimate gesture of close relationship is used by him for evil purposes, and must have hurt Jesus deeply. After his actions, Judas is filled with remorse and despair, and takes his own life.

            Pilate and the religious authorities are fearful of Jesus and concerned with holding on to their power. They see Jesus as a threat to their positions. They fear his call to love and humility that Jesus lives. They won’t allow compassion and mercy to overtake them, converting their hearts to the way of love seen in Jesus. Instead they try him in a mock trial and hand him over for crucifixion.

            In the Passion we also have the example of the women. They provided for Jesus and his disciples through the time of his public ministry. They are present at his cross. They follow to his tomb. And they will be the first to witness his resurrection Easter morning. These women embody faithful, loving service, service done not for their gain, but for care for Jesus.

            And there is Jesus. He behaves very differently from all others. In him is an example of hope, of rising above the fray. Throughout the Passion Gospel Jesus is largely silent. He does not respond to the taunts heaped on him. He does not lash out under the pain and agony of the whip or the cross. He loves to the end, forgiving those who hate and kill him.

            In his Palm Sunday sermon, “The Things That Make For Peace,” Frederick Buechner says this week is about hope and despair: hope for the love of God seen in Jesus and for God’s presence in difficult times, and despair for humanity’s actions, our rejection of God’s saving love. Buechner writes, “Despair and hope. They travel the road to Jerusalem together, as together they travel every road we take — despair at what in our madness we are bringing down on our own heads and hope in him who travels the road with us and for us and who is the only one of us all who is not mad. Hope in the King who approaches every human heart like a city. And it is a very great hope as hopes go and well worth all our singing and dancing and sad little palms because not even death can prevail against this King and not even the end of the world, when end it does, will be the end of him and of the mystery and majesty of his love. Blessed be he.”[2]

            Jesus invites everyone, from Pilate and the religious authorities, to the disciples and the women who follow, to you and me, and all people, to follow in his way of love, walking in hope. Jesus calls us to reject all violence and hatred, to give up our quest for power and riches, and embrace the path of humble love.

            Jesus stands ready to welcome all in the way he goes, a way where love is a power strong enough to sustain in times of great challenge, suffering, and loss. Jesus invites us into a love so strong, even the evil of sin and the hold of death are no match. Jesus is tortured, killed, and buried. But on the third day he is raised from the dead. The powers of this world, the powers of death itself, cannot hold Love in its grip. The tomb cannot imprison Love for long.

            The promise given us this Palm Sunday is whatever may be before us, whatever may befall us in this life, Jesus has already experienced it. Whatever we might suffer, Jesus has suffered. Whatever griefs we might know, Jesus has known. Whenever we feel alone and abandoned, Jesus has felt this. When we despair that God feels absent from us, Jesus has felt this too. And the death we will face, as all people do, Jesus has already endured.

            The promise given us in Holy Week is Jesus is truly and utterly Emmanuel, God-with-us, the One who enters into the fullness of human life. Jesus knows all that we experience, even in this time of illness, suffering, death, anxiety, and uncertainty.

            From the cross Jesus assures us he is with us always. He walks beside us, supporting and comforting us. And he invites us to walk his way of love — not that it is easy, not that it insulates us from difficulty and suffering — but because it is the way of true life.

            Following Jesus is the way of abundant life in God. In Jesus is the promise that no power of this world will overcome us. Just as God received Jesus when he died on the cross, bringing him through the gate of death to resurrection life, so God will do for you and me.

            I invite you on this Palm Sunday to enter into those mysteries which won for us eternal life. Though we walk through this demanding week apart from one another, may you find ways to faithfully journey through these days with Jesus. May you be inspired and led by the Holy Spirit to finds ways to worship at home each day of this important and life-changing week.

            And may you always know and trust that all of life is in God’s loving hands. Those hands will lovingly gather and redeem everyone. All are held by God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit for eternity.

[1] Irving, John. A Prayer for Owen Meany: A Novel (pp. 282-283). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[2] A Room Called Remember

March 21, 2021

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent. The Scripture readings are available by clicking here.

          We may understand our life of faith as believing the “right things” and thinking correct theological thoughts. Faith is often seen as a matter of intellectual assent and right thinking. While theology is certainly important, God does not call us to embrace a sterile belief system, nor an intellectual exercise. Rather, God calls us to a way of life, to a disposition of our heart.

          John’s Gospel affirms those who believe in Jesus will be saved. In this Gospel, belief means loving God with all our heart, mind, and soul. It is not only thoughts and intellect, but involves giving our heart and soul over to God in love, loving God with every part of our being, loving God more than anyone or anything else.

          Our Scripture lessons this week concern the content of our hearts, what we value, hold dear, and love. In the Collect of the Day we prayed, “Grant unto thy people that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise.” It is through God’s grace, by the power of Holy Spirit, that we are called to love God and what God commands, desiring God’s promises, seeking what God offers, and loving life with God.

          The Collect acknowledges it is only God who can tame our “unruly wills and affections,” overcoming the ways we seek our own will, seeking fulfillment in the things of the world, putting our desires and cravings before following God.

          The Collect holds out a promise for us: if we love God, desire God, and seek God’s ways, then “among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found.” It is only in God we find true life and abiding joy, Only in God do we find the antidote to the fear, anxiety, and despair of our age.

          This is echoed in our first lesson. The prophet Jeremiah offers the promise of a new covenant God will make with the people. The covenant began with God calling Abraham. God gives him a new name and charges him to set out for an unknown land. God promises Abraham’s descendants will inhabit this new land and be as numerous as the stars of sky.

          God goes on to affirm the covenant by giving the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, on tablets of stone to Moses. Having freed the people from slavery in Egypt, God calls them to be God’s people. God promises to be faithful to them, leading them to the land of promise.

          The people, however, aren’t always faithful to the covenant. They don’t always live according to God’s call. While journeying through the wilderness, several times they rebel against God and Moses and are disciplined by God for their actions.

          Just as the journey through the wilderness was difficult, so Jeremiah writes at a difficult and catastrophic time. Jeremiah understands his present reality as God’s punishment for the people forsaking the covenant. As punishment, Babylon has conquered the people of Israel, destroying Jerusalem, including the Temple, and taken the people to exile in Babylon.

          This destruction and exile provoke profound questions: is God is still faithful to the people, honoring the covenant? Has God abandoned the people? If the Temple is destroyed, where is God now? Is God still with the people?

          Jeremiah offers the assurance God is with the people and remains faithful to the covenant. Jeremiah offers God’s promise of a new covenant. Unlike the covenant God made through the stone tablets, this new covenant will be written on their hearts. It will reside not on stone but in their bodies. It will be a part of them. God will write the new covenant in their hearts.

          God accepts the people where they are, knowing they have struggled to remain faithful, so God grants the people help to keep the covenant. God places the covenant in the people’s hearts, giving them the capacity to keep the covenant, transforming them into the people God calls them to be. God puts the covenant within them so they internalize it and can live it. This transformation is the result of God’s love and grace, not human initiative or perfection. Only God can tame their unruly wills and affections.

          Having the law engraved on the heart is like being in love. It is less about following rules engraved on stone and more about giving one’s heart over to God. Giving themselves to God and God’s call sets their hearts free to act, to live reflecting God’s ways in their lives. If God’s loving covenant is written in the heart, one’s true character becomes loving God, honoring the promises made to God. God’s love directs one’s thoughts and actions.

          God’s desire to be in communion with us, turning our hearts to deep relationship with God, finds fulfillment in Jesus. In today’s Gospel we hear of the desire to see God revealed in Jesus. In John’s Gospel Jesus is revealed as the eternal Word, present at creation, who puts on human flesh, and becomes one with our humanity. God is now as close as our own flesh and blood, living and experiencing human existence. God is closer in Jesus than the covenant written on human hearts. Now God dwells with us in our flesh, having a human heart like ours.

          In today’s passage some Greeks want to see Jesus. To “see” in John’s Gospel means to believe, to know and follow Jesus. We don’t know if these seekers ever get to see Jesus, but their desire results in Jesus teaching that “the hour has come,” that his public ministry is ending, his death is immanent.

          The hour of Jesus’ glorification comes when he is raised on the cross. He illustrates this with a parable, saying “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Only by giving up its life as a grain can a grain of wheat bear fruit. It must give up its life to find its new, fruitful life.

          Jesus tells this parable anticipating his own death. The authorities seek to kill him. Jesus accepts this and goes willingly to his death, to his glorification on the cross, though not without anxiety and fear. In our Gospel Jesus says, “Now my soul is troubled.” Though troubled by what he faces, Jesus embraces this moment, not turning from the suffering and death that awaits him.

          Jesus’ death leads to new life. Jesus’ crucifixion defeats the rulers of this world. Jesus’ death sets humanity free from the forces of evil in this world, from the forces at odds with God’s loving intention for creation, that are estranged from God’s loving purposes. Jesus’ death sets us free from the world of evil and sin, the world of domination, of power used over people, and violence that coerces and oppresses others.

          In his book of Lenten Devotions, A Way other than Our Own: Devotions for Lent, Walter Brueggemann suggests the cross of Jesus redeems and transforms our hearts and our lives. He writes, “When that story of Jesus is present tense, we are able to sort out and identify all the empty claims where God’s holiness and God’s power for life do not reside, where God’s power for life is not embodied or enacted. Christians sort these matters out around Jesus, because we are endlessly seduced by imagining the glory is to be found in our technology, in our brightness, in our achievement, in our power, in our wealth, in our loveliness, or in our fitness. No, no, no! It is found in the face and body and life and story of the one who suffers in and with and for the world.”[1]

          Jesus draws the world to himself not through force and coercion, but through love. Jesus invites all people to turn their hearts over to God, loving God with all their being. Jesus calls us to his cross where we die to self, to our unruly wills that focus on us, not on God, so he may lift us to the life eternal, the abundant life of God, the life of unending love.

          The cross seems contradictory: hate your life, lose your life, and you will find it. The cross is beyond intellectual understanding and assent. Yet a heart inflamed with love for Jesus understands this contradiction, knows where true joys are found. A heart full of love knows these joys are found in Jesus, as he draws all humanity into his loving arms stretched wide on the cross, embracing all people in his love. Amen.

[1] Brueggemann, Walter. A Way other than Our Own: Devotions for Lent (p. 65). Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition.

March 14, 2021

Moses and the bronze serpent. Painting by William Blake. Public domain.

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent. The Scripture readings are available by clicking here.

This is a challenging Lent, coming during this pandemic time and our second Lent spent socially distanced, unable to walk through this season together, in-person. We journey through Lent caring much grief and loss caused by the pandemic. So many sick; more than 500,000 dead in this nation alone; many without jobs or having lost income; white supremacy is stronger than ever; and racial disparities and injustice are glaringly obvious.

 At the same time there are optimistic signs as more people are vaccinated, the number of infections and deaths declines, and new legislation signed into law promises significant economic help to those needing it most. Despite these hopeful signs, the pandemic is not over, and federal experts caution us to remain vigilant for two or three more months. We are nearly there, though not just yet.

It is difficult living in this in-between time. Pandemic living wears very thin after a full year of restrictions, isolation, and dislocation. We long to be together, to celebrate the Eucharist in-person in this building, to be with family and friends, hugging and feasting with one another.

In this complicated reality another Lent calls us to enter the wilderness. Many say the entire past year has been a wilderness experience. Perhaps we feel resistant to embracing Lent’s call. The wilderness is a time for growth and transformation, for resetting and intentional living, but there is no doubt the wildness is also demanding. It can be difficult. We may resist entering it after all we have been through. We may worry what will be revealed.

We are not the first generation to wonder if we want to be in the wilderness. The people of Israel, a people literally journeying through the wildness for forty years, had moments they struggled with the arduous journey. There were times they wanted to give up. Slavery in Egypt sometimes looked better than their wandering life in the barren landscape.

After God freed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, God led them in a pillar of cloud and of fire, providing water, mana, and even quails when they tired of eating the mana. God was faithful in caring for the people. These wilderness years were a time for God to form and shape the people, preparing them for settling in the promised land, a land of milk and honey, a place of rootedness and abundance.

The wilderness journey, however, was not easy for them. Old ways had to be unlearned. New ways of being had to be discovered and embraced. The people had to humble themselves and follow God’s call of transformation. It took time for them to believe God is trustworthy, giving them all they need to walk in God’s ways. They tested God to see if God was trustworthy.

At times the people outright rebelled against God and Moses. In today’s first lesson we hear of such a rebellion. The people rail against God and Moses, asking, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”

Though God faithfully provides water and mana for them, the people lose patience. They are unable to be grateful to God for all God provides them. They do not practice thanksgiving to God. They doubt God’s intentions, worrying Moses led them into the wilderness to die.

After they rebel, poisonous serpents appear. When these serpents bite people they die. The people of Israel understand this as God’s punishment for their rebellion. They say to Moses, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.”

Moses prays to God on behalf of the people. In response, God instructs Moses to make a representation of a poisonous serpent and attach it to a pole. So Moses creates one of bronze. When someone is bitten and gazes upon the bronze serpent, they live. The people are saved from death by looking on the serpent Moses’ made.

God saw the people’s rebellion and judged and disciplined them. God heard their cry,  listened to their confession and repentance. Showing loving care and mercy, God offered a way for the people to be saved from the reality of death. God did not desire their death.

This rebellion of the people of Israel reminds us the wilderness journey is difficult. Without any distractions, with external comforts stripped away, we are confronted with our own need and brokenness. We can be tempted to rebel against it and flee from it. We might want to ignore the present reality revealed to us, pretending all is fine if we just ignore it.

The people of Israel, however, did not flee. They did not ignore their reality. They expressed their doubt and anxiety, threatening to turn away from God. After being disciplined by God, they confessed their rebellion. They repented and asked Moses to pray to God for forgiveness. They turned back to God, giving up their rebellious ways. God responded by offering a way for the people to be saved from death through gazing on the bronze serpent.

The wilderness calls us to honesty, allowing the barren landscape to open us to who we truly are so we see, and admit, how much we need God. Lent is the wilderness season to confess how we stray from God, rebelling against God’s call, seeking our own way, thinking we know better than God what we need. Lent calls us to honesty about the reality of our lives, and invites us to turn to God’s ways.       

It may be uncomfortable for us that part of this journey is God disciplining us. We tend to focus on God’s forgiveness and compassion, on the love of God made in known in Jesus, that in Jesus we are redeemed and destined for eternity with God. This is all true. Through the waters of baptism, we are marked as Christ’s own forever. We are claimed as God’s children and marked for eternity. For love of us God shows us mercy and compassion.

While this is true, it is also true we do not enter resurrection life without giving our lives over to God. God asks we use the gift of free will we are given to choose life with God. We do not exercise this gift perfectly and consistently. There are times we stray from God, rejecting God’s call in our lives, choosing ways opposed to God. We justly provoke God’s displeasure with us. God disciplines us in response.

Though God disciplines us, it is not to punish us for the sake of punishment. God is not whimsical or cruel in this. God doesn’t punish to exact retribution. Rather, God seeks to refine and purify us, burning away the dross of our lives, removing all that is not holy and rebels against God’s call. In disciplining us, God offers what we need to accept God’s invitation to holy living, whatever it takes to bring our unruly wills in accord with God’s most gracious will for us.

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, and his mercy endures for ever” Psalm 107 urges us this morning. God’s mercy is great, God’s compassion never ends. God does not punish as we deserve and does not desire the death of any sinner. Our Gospel passage today assures us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

God loves us so deeply, and desires meaningful life with us so passionately, that God comes among us to lift us from our sin, raising us high above our propensity to walk in ways that alienate us from God, our neighbor, ourselves, and creation. The Gospel tells us, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Jesus comes to lift us from our rebellious ways to abundant life with God. Jesus desires to lift us above the suffering and grief of this world to the bliss of heaven. In Jesus the promise of life eternal comes upon the face of the earth. In him heaven touches earth, divinity unites with humanity. In Jesus divine Love comes to humanity and invites us to enter in, to be loved and fed by God.

May this Lenten sojourn in the wilderness lead us in the paths of holiness God intends for us, in the way that leads to eternity, to unending Easter joy. Just as the people of Israel gazed on the bronze serpent and lived, so may we gaze on Jesus lifted high upon the cross and find in him our hope and salvation, seeing in him God’s love made incarnate for us, finding in him our path to true life and wholeness, to redemption and eternal life.

LOVE (III)                             George Herbert (1593-1633)

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
            Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
    From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
            If I lack’d anything.

‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
            Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
            I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
            ‘Who made the eyes but I?’

‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
            Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
            ‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
            So I did sit and eat.[1]


March 7, 2021

The Ten Commandments, illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company. Public Domain.

A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent. The Scripture readings are available by clicking here.

As Christians we are not always sure how to relate to, or understand the Ten Commandments. Perhaps we think of them as a moral framework or an ethical system. Certainly we understand it is important to not commit murder. Yet, while we do not commit murder, we may ignore keeping the Sabbath or on occasion might take the Lord’s Name in vain. If the Ten Commandments are an ethical system, we do not give each Commandment equal weight.

The Book of Common Prayer considers the Ten Commandments important enough to include them, calling them the “Decalogue.” This suggests we consider all ten of equal weight. In non-pandemic times the Eucharist on Sundays in Lent opens with the Decalogue. This is a centuries old, venerable Anglican tradition for Lent and suggests there is something important about the Decalogue.

Using the Decalogue during Lent is an edifying practice. It offers a time to examine the ways we fall short of the holiness to which God calls us. Reflecting on the Ten Commandments helps us see where we need to repent and accept God’s forgiveness.

The Ten Commandments are not so much a list of moral imperatives, as they are a call to the life God intends for us. They offer a way to live. The Decalogue elaborates the covenant God made with the people of Israel.

We heard in last week’s Scripture readings how God made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants. God calls Abraham to leave his homeland and be led by God to another land. God promises Abraham and Sarah they will have many descendants, from them a multitude will arise.

After God frees the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, God leads them through the Red Sea to freedom and they begin their forty year journey through the wilderness. Early in their wildness time Moses goes up Mt. Sinai and receives the tablets of the Ten Commandments.

The Commandments describe how the covenant between God and the people of Israel is to be ordered. It provides a structure to their common life. In being bound to God by the covenant, they are set free to live as God’s people.

The biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says about the Ten Commandments, “These commands might be taken not as a series of rules, but as a proclamation in God’s own mouth of who God is and how God shall be ‘practiced’ by this community of liberated slaves.”[1]

The Commandments are a gift to the people, forming the community, now they are not slaves. They are a call to practice, to walking in holiness just as God is holy. They open the path to the abundant life God intends for the people.

The Ten Commandments are written by God on two stone tablets. One tablet concerns our relationship with God; the other tablet our relationship with our neighbors. The two tablets of commandments are related, they are connected. They are not a menu to choose from, but all are important for the life God calls us to live.

The command to faithfully worship God leads us to proper love of our neighbor. Through worship of God the love of God fills us and flows out from us to others.     

Having no other gods but only God alone assures we won’t replace God with  money, power, or our possessions; we won’t set up idols taking us away from our worship of God.

Keeping the Sabbath reminds us all of creation is God’s. God created everything that is. We are called to share in God’s creative work by being faithful stewards of what God has made.

Honoring our father and our mother means we do not live in isolation. It is the call to living in community, in loving relationship with others. This means our actions affect others. How we behave matters, is important for the well-being of the entire community.

The command to not bear false witness tells us the community is built up by truthful speech about our neighbors. Words have power, untruths can harm or even destroy the common good.

The call to not take the Lord’s Name in vain invites attitudes of praise and thanksgiving to God. God’s Name is holy and to be respected. In being respectful, we offer God our praise and worship as an act of thanksgiving. This is an antidote to living by anger or cynicism.

We ignore the Ten Commandments at our peril, not out of fear of God’s judgment, but because the Commandments call us to a life that is holy and abundant. They lead us into the fullness of life God intends for us. To reject the Commandments is the way of death, of separation from God. While the ways of world seem attractive, can even be seductive, their promises are fleeting, and do not lead to deeper life with God.

The Commandments challenge the ways of the world. Capitalist society rests on coveting things. Advertising preys on our desire of the things we don’t have. To not covet rejects the hold of material possessions, is the rejection of consumerism.

Keeping the Sabbath rejects our society’s pace of life, of being so busy there is little time for rest or the worship of God. One of the rare blessings in this pandemic may be the call to remain at home and the opportunity that has given many of us to reassess what is most important, what practices deepen our lives and which need to be abandoned. For some it is a reminder of what is the best use of our God-given time.

We are called to trust God who is faithful, who covenants with us and by the Ten Commandments leads us in the way to true life, to rich and abundant life with God. Lent calls us to journey in holiness, to deeper life with God, by examining the ways we are not living the life God intends for us, straying from life rooted in God, from life that has worship of God and love of our neighbor as ourselves at its center.

Life centered on love of God and our neighbor as ourselves is the life to which we are called as followers of Jesus. Jesus shows us how to love God with our whole heart, mind, and soul and our neighbors as ourselves. We see this in his life and ministry, in his suffering, death, and resurrection. Rather than choosing between following the Ten Commandments or the Gospels, in Jesus we see how the Ten Commandments are contained in the Gospels, how Jesus lives the Ten Commandments in his life and ministry.

In today’s Gospel Jesus cleanses the temple, driving out those selling animals for sacrifices, and the money changers who change Roman money bearing the image of the emperor for temple money used to pay temple tax. This tax oppressed many who were poor. Jesus comes to the temple and acts in a way that may disturb us—he appears angry, using a whip to drive out people and animals.

Jesus comes trampling the status quo, challenging how things are, rejecting the injustice of the world. While we may assume things will never change, Jesus comes to temple to institute change. Jesus’ anger is kindled by the injustice of our world.         

Jesus calls his followers to the life of holiness God intends for God’s people, calling us to the proper worship of God, as well as an end to injustice and the exploitation of vulnerable people.

Today’s Gospel invites us to ask, How is Jesus calling us to be cleansed? What needs to be driven out of our lives? How have we faithfully lived the life of holiness to which Jesus calls us? How are we being challenged by Jesus to reject things as they are, that we might turn to the abundant life God offers us? Does the injustice around us provoke us to actively oppose and dismantle it?

Lent calls us to a life focused on God, the One we are called to love with all our heart, mind, and soul. We are to love God above all else in this life. Loving God, we can’t help but to love our neighbor as ourselves. This way of love rejects the promises of the world, and affirms the promises of God are trustworthy and true. God will not forget the covenant made with God’s people.

God is always faithful, loving us and sharing with us the profound and meaningful life of God. May we say yes to this life, following Jesus in the way that leads to abundant and eternal life. Amen.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, The Book of “Exodus” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994).

February 28, 2021

 Way to Calvary, Andrea di Bartolo, c. 1400. Public domain.

A sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent. The Scripture readings are available by clicking here.

In today’s first lesson, God makes a covenant with Abram and his descendants. In this covenant, God promises Abram will be the father of many generations, a multitude of nations, a people from whom kings will come. To signify this covenant, this new and deepened relationship with God, Abram’s name is changed to Abraham. His wife Sarai’s name becomes Sarah. With the change of name they enter a new relationship with God. They will be the ancestors of a vast people who are God’s covenant people, God’s chosen people.

In making covenant, God claims Abraham and his descendants for ever. As God’s people, they are called to faithfully go where God leads, walking in God’s ways. In return God promises to watch over and care for the people, protecting them, providing them what they need to live and thrive, making them a great people of many generations.

Walking in God’s ways, following where God calls, proves difficult at times. Earlier in the account of Abraham and Sarah in the Book of Genesis, God calls Abraham, asking he set out for an unknown land. God does not say where he is going, how long the journey will take, what the route will be, or when it will end. God promises to be with them in their travels.

God also promises Abraham will be father of a great people, with descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, a people possessing the land for as far as the eye can see. God promises Abraham will be the ancestor of a great people, despite being old, as the Letter to the Hebrews bluntly says, though his body “was already as good as dead” and Sarah was of advanced age and unable to have children.

Through his journey, there are times Abraham doubts God’s promise can be fulfilled. He asks God when and how it will come to pass. Somehow in the midst of the unknown and uncertainty, even when doubting God’s promises will be realized, Abraham continues in faith. He keeps following God. As Hebrews says, “No distrust made [Abraham] waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”

Though both Abraham and Sarah laugh at the outlandish promise they will have a child, and though Abraham wonders at times if God will really do this impossible thing, they continue on in God’s ways. They remain faithful to God’s covenant. Though not always getting it right, they carry on, discerning as best they can where God is leading them. In the end, God accomplishes God’s purposes, and Sarah gives birth to a son, Isaac. Abraham and Sarah are indeed ancestors of a great people, stretching many generations. And they are the spiritual ancestors of those who follow Jesus.

It seems to me the story of Abraham and Sarah offers us much in our own challenging age. We live in a time of uncertainty, in an alien and foreign land. We have given up so much in the past year. We have experienced much illness, suffering, isolation, and death. So many have struggled financially. White supremacy and systemic racism are glaringly and violently obvious

Though there are promising signs such as increasing numbers of vaccinations and improving virus data, experts are urging we remain cautious, continuing to practice mask wearing, social distancing, and avoiding crowds, especially indoors. We are beginning to see an end to this pandemic time, but we do not know exactly when. We don’t know exactly what life will look like as we move into summer and fall.

And I think we don’t yet know how we have been changed by the experience of the past year, nor do we fully grasp where God is leading us as we move into an unclear future. Only prayer and reflection will open our understanding. Only by listening for God, listening for God’s call, will God’s will for us in this time emerge.

Times like these, when so much is known and uncertain, are challenging. Routine and certainty help us cope with the vagaries of daily life. We want to trust the experiences and practices of daily life will be consistent each day, but pandemic time is not like this. It is unpredictable, requiring flexibility and openness. It is stressful because we don’t always understand what is happening and the best response. We don’t always have a sense of God’s presence, of where God is leading. This causes us grief, leaves us longing for how things were.

The paradox is, however, it is precisely times like these, in what some call liminal times, when we stand on the threshold between one way of being and a yet-unknown new way, that God can reach us. In uncertain times we need God more than ever, and if we are intentional, we can open ourselves to God’s call. We can rest in the faithfulness of God even as the uncertainty causes stress. In these times we have to let go of the past, of how things were. We no power to do otherwise, to change the present. Letting go can open us to the new thing God is doing in and through us.

Abraham and Sarah show us how to live in these trying times. They offer the model of faithfully listening for God and trusting God will provide, even when we feel challenged by the uncertainty. God’s covenant, as Abraham and Sarah experienced, is trustworthy and true. God will not abandon us. Though we may doubt God will do what is promised, in the end God is faithful. If, like Abraham, we express to God our doubts and worries, God will listen and answer us, offering what we need to sustain us in the moment.

Abraham and Sarah remind us we called to be God’s covenant people, accepting God’s invitation to be God’s holy people, faithfully walking in God’s way wherever God’s leads. Though we may not clearly see where we are going, where God is leading us, though we may doubt we have the strength to embrace the unknown, God promises to be with us, supporting and guiding, offering us all we need to follow. At the last God will bring us to the promised land, to a place where life with God is more than we can ask for or imagine.

Getting there requires we place our whole trust in God, surrendering our lives, our wills, completely over to God. As followers of Jesus, we live according to a higher authority, by the sovereignty of God. We are called to set our hearts on things divine, not earthly.

Many of the values, morals, and practices of the world are not in line with living as disciples of Jesus. The ways of the world are tempting. They are powerful. Over time we drift from God’s call to holy living, lured by what the world offers. The season of Lent asks we take stock of where we are and reorder our priorities and practices, focusing on God.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls us to live with God at center of our lives, denying all the world has to offer and following him. His way is the way self-giving love. It is the way of the cross. Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

The paradox of the Christian life is we find true, abundant life in giving up our lives. Through letting go of what society tells us is “good living” we find the divine life of God. This path is a commitment to living focused on Jesus, walking behind him, wherever he leads.

Through the centuries this Gospel passage has been privatized and spiritualized. It has been interpreted as the personal burdens the each have to bear, our own individual crosses to carry. People at the margins (especially women, African Americans, People of Color, LGBTQ people) have been told they must sacrifice, must carry their own crosses, enduring the “way things are.” The interpretation has supported the oppressive status quo of society and church.

This is not, however, the call of Jesus. Jesus calls his disciples to surrender our entire lives and wills to God. We are called to have no allegiance greater than our love of God, our neighbor, and ourselves. Walking the way of the cross does not diminish our personhood. It is not a call to tolerate unjust or oppressive relationships. Rather, walking behind Jesus leads us to wholeness, to the fullness of life God intends for us as beloved children of God.

Giving our hearts and lives over to Jesus, walking the way of the cross, is the path where we make no peace with the unjust ways of this world. This road has no room for injustice, violence, or greed. It rejects the individualism of our age, resisting the urge to put ourselves first, at the expense of others. This way makes no peace with abusive or oppressive relationships. The cross liberates us from the death-wielding, life-denying tyrannies of the world.

Jesus comes to set us free from injustice and all that alienates and diminishes the full stature of our humanity. Through the power of the cross, all our suffering and loss is given meaning. Jesus is with us in our pain and our grief. Jesus is with those who are experience the injustice and oppression of the world. Having suffered his passion, he knows what it is to suffer pain, rejection, and death. Jesus stands in solidarity with all who suffer, sustaining them in all they experience.

Jesus calls us, his followers, to live like him, fighting injustice, caring for those in need, and comforting those who suffer and mourn. We are called to give up ourselves by serving others in God’s name. This is the way God calls us to walk. It is the way of Jesus. It is the way of love.

As beloved children of God, let us say yes to walking behind Jesus on the road that leads to the cross. His word is certain and trustworthy. While paradoxical, this road of self-denial leads to the fullness of abundant and eternal life, to life centered on God. May we set out into the unknown before us, trusting Jesus walks before us, leading and sustaining us through the power of the Holy Spirit, providing all we need for the journey.

Though we are anxious for this time of continuing sacrifice and restriction to be over, let us lean on Jesus to support us in this not-yet time. As our hopes and optimism grow, may we remain firm in our commitment to act for the common good. Let us listen for God’s call, trust God’s covenant, and place our hope in the promise that God will deliver us. May we accept the call of Lent, that through the journey of these days we come to the joy of Easter and resurrection life. Amen.

February 21, 2021

Briton Rivière – The Temptation in the Wilderness. Public domain.

A sermon for the First Sunday in Lent. The Scripture readings are available here.

Recently I read an article about how the development of the internet has changed us.[1] While interesting to read one person’s analysis of how life is different now that the virtual is so ubiquitous, what I found most interesting was the assertion that, for human beings, our attention is limited. We have only small amounts of attention available, yet there are many voices competing to gain our attention.

Online virtual life is focused on holding our attention, particularly to sell us products. Additionally, politics is increasingly less about debating policy issues and more about grabbing our attention through irresistible headlines. This is a complicated reality for us, for when we focus on one thing, we must ignore many others. This requires we are intentional about what we allow to capture our interest.

Since reading this article, I have come across multiple pieces about our limited and precious attention span and the many competing demands for it. These have reinforced for me how important it is to be intentional about what we pay attention to and how we spend our time.

This is especially true during the pandemic. Experts have found because of the stress of this period, with all the challenges and loss confronting us, many find it difficult to focus for very long. It can be challenging to deliberately focus our attention for longer than a passing moment. Right now, our attention span is even more limited than it was, and therefore more precious than ever before.

This has led me to reflect on how I spend time, on what holds my attention. Part of my discernment before entering Lent was focused on hearing what God is calling me to pay less attention to and on what God would have me focus more of my attention. How in the season of Lent is God inviting me to spend the precious and limited time God has given me as a gift?

I realized through this reflection that noticing what we pay attention to is a good Lenten practice. Lent is the season of intentional living, of getting back to basics, to what really matters, to what is important and essential. In Lent, God invites us to strip away externals and focus on the heart of what it means to follow Jesus. Rather than a season of suffering and drudgery, Lent is a time opportunity, of invitation, a season for intentionally focusing our attention on what really matters.

Lent is a season to examine how we are living and compare it with how God is calling us to live. This requires being honest about where we find ourselves as Lent begins this year and the changes God calls us to make. God invites us to focus our limited attention on examining how we faithfully live God’s call and how we do not. We are invited in this season to reorient our lives to God, repenting, literally turning to new ways, in a new direction, to a new mindset, to a path more oriented and focused toward God.

This morning’s Gospel highlights for me the importance of what we pay attention to and the great need we have for times of stripping away and quieting, of creating space for what matters most. It reminds me of our need for wilderness time.

Today’s passage tells how Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist. After his baptism, the Spirit descends on Jesus as a dove and God the Father declares Jesus the Beloved Son of God. Then Mark says the Spirit immediately drives Jesus into the wilderness. Why does the Spirit does this?  Why does Jesus need to go into the wilderness?

We don’t know exactly, but perhaps it was for a time of discernment. The forty days of fasting may be a time for Jesus to wrestle with what it means to be Beloved, to be the Son of God. The wilderness could be a time to discern how Jesus is being called to live and what his ministry will be. His period of quiet and fasting may sharpen his understanding of his identity, vocation, and the work he will do.

We don’t know much about Jesus before his baptism—in Mark’s Gospel we are told nothing about his life before this moment. Jesus first appears with John the Baptist at the River Jordan. After his forty days fasting in the wilderness, Jesus emerges ready to begin his earthly ministry of healing, preaching, and teaching with a clear sense of who he is and with an unshakable understanding of his call and ministry. Jesus emerges from the wilderness ready to do the work God has given him. After the wilderness time, Jesus is not like other men his age from Galilee—he has a different identity and vocation. He has a sharp and clear focus to how he lives.

Jesus in the wilderness evokes the journey of the people of Israel after God frees them from slavery in Egypt. For forty years they wander in wilderness. The old life they knew in Egypt is stripped away. Their attention is focused by God. They are tested in those years, often falling short of God’s desires for them. They wander in sin and rebellion, even longing for days of slavery—they remember there were leeks in Egypt!

Yet God leads them, providing manna, water, even quails to feed them. God endures their sin and their whining, eventually leading them to Promised Land. The time in the wilderness is essential to form them into God’s people. They can’t go directly from slavery in Egypt into freedom in the Promised Land without preparation and transformation.

The people of Israel need time to learn how to embrace their new freedom and live. They need time to learn about God’s covenant and what God asks of them. They need time to strip away distractions and focus on what is more important. They need time to let go and focus their precious attention on God and the call to be God’s people.

Jesus’ time in the wilderness evokes those wilderness years of the Israelites. Jesus’ experience is also very different. While Jesus is tempted by Satan, he does not given in to temptation, he does not sin. Jesus does not stumble as the people of Israel do. Jesus rejects the temptation to satisfy himself and his needs. He rejects the temptation to focus on earthly advantages, on using his power for his own sake. Jesus’s attention never wavers from God and his vocation as the Beloved of God.

There is no doubt the wilderness is a challenging place. We see this in the experience of the people of Israel and Jesus. It is a place where comforts are removed. There are few distractions, little competing for our attention. Instead, we are alone with ourselves, with our thoughts and cravings. This is the place to look honestly at one’s life. It is a an ideal setting for reflection, repentance, and intentional living. The wilderness is a place for transformation, where clarity of identity and vocation are revealed. This is the place to let go of human things, of our need for earthly comforts, our desires and compulsions, and shift our focus to God and God’s ways..

It is no accident Lent is often called a journey into the wilderness. This is the season to create space through simplifying and stripping away, letting go of routine and unexamined behaviors and practices. This is the time for setting aside space for quiet, reflection, and prayer. Lent invites us to fasting, honestly coming face-to-face with our cravings and desires and how satisfying them can separate us from reliance on God.

The wilderness is the place to let go of old identities, of unhealthy ways of being, allowing ourselves to be transformed, reshaped into faithful disciples of Jesus, into a holy people living the life to which Jesus calls us.

The wilderness journey can be difficult and frightening. In order to see ourselves honestly, we must become vulnerable. Becoming vulnerable means stripping away what we use to protect and comfort ourselves. This is demanding work. We may not feel like doing it. We may be wary or even afraid of it. Especially after almost a year of pandemic living, we may resist this hard work or giving up more. It may feel like we have been through enough already.

I urge you to accept the invitation to keep a holy Lent, even if you are not sure you want to. If we accept the season’s invitation, I am confident we will find in Lent more than we can ask or imagine. Its untold blessings will lead us to a life with God we can hardly anticipate.

These forty days offer the way of abundant life God desires for us. This way is focused on God, our attention is given to the One who loves more than we know, who promises to lead and sustain us, bringing us to a place more wonderful than we can hope for. This way is life with God placed at the center, a life not focused on ourselves, on our will and desires. This is life that does not end, its  to fleeting, but is eternal.

 This life to which we are called is not like that of the world. It is not what “everyone” else is doing, it is not a life focused on us and what we want. It is focused on God and it is a life that must be chosen moment by moment. Lent prepares us for this life. It trains us to be intentional where we focus our attention and how we spend our time. This is the season for adjusting, resetting, recommitting to this holy way of life, to the life of the beloved of God. 

Lent calls us to put God first. Lent is a holy season, a time to open ourselves to God’s love and to the invitation of Jesus to follow him, living as his disciples, as those who give away their lives for sake of the Gospel to find true life.

May we go with Jesus to the wilderness of our lives, letting go of distractions, focusing our attention on him. This will be demanding, but as our Collect today assures us, Jesus will, “Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as [he] know[s] the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find [him] mighty to save.”

Jesus offers us the strength we need to let go of what separates us from God, and to turn to God’s ways. If we dare to make the journey this year, we will be prepared for a glorious Easter celebration and we will know the joy of life in God.

This Lent may we hear the promptings of the Holy Spirit, following as the Spirit leads us into the wilderness. In this Lenten season let us focus our precious attention on the ways of God, trusting Jesus is with us in the barren landscape, giving us power to resist our temptations, and leading us in his way of love, into true and unending life with God. Amen.


February 14, 2021

The Redeemer Transfiguration Window.

A sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. The scripture readings are available by clicking here.

Times of change and transition are challenging. When life moves in a new direction but it is stressful. We may experience anxiety, fear, and sadness. We might become fearful. During the nearly year-long pandemic we are living through many of us have felt these. This is a difficult time. Even with increasing inoculations, we are not finished with the coronavirus. More difficult months are likely still ahead of us.

Throughout human history humanity has found times like these challenging. That is true  during pandemics, plagues, and famines, as well for individuals in more personal times of uncertainty. When we are confronted with dramatic change and an uncertain future, it is stressful. We may not want to face what befalls us. We may embrace denial, hoping to push the impending reality away for as long as we can.

In our first lesson from the Second Book of Kings, Elisha faces this challenge. Elisha is called to be Elijah’s heir, literally taking Elijah’s mantle from him. He has followed Elijah, learning from the more experienced prophet. Elisha is transitioning from being the follower of Elijah to taking Elijah’s place as the spiritual leader of the people.

On the cusp of this transition, Elisha follows Elijah, despite Elijah telling him not to. Along the way, Elisha meets other prophets who ask if he knows that Elijah is departing soon. Elisha says he knows, then asks they not talk about it.

Elisha wishes everyone would stop mentioning Elijah’s departure. This impending departure of his mentor and guide is too much for Elisha to take in. When, at last, Elijah leaves in the whirlwind, Elisha rends his garments—a sign of grief and mourning. This moment of transition is hard for Elisha. Everything is changing for him.

Though he experiences the amazing vision of Elijah taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire, and he inherits Elijah’s mantle and a double share of Elijah’s spirit, there is little comfort for him. Elisha’s certainty is ripped away, and it is only by surrendering to this reality that Elisha can embrace the new chapter God has in store for him. He must let go of what he has known and step out in the uncertainty of what the future holds, trusting God to lead and sustain him.

For Elisha to go where God leads him, he must surrender everything to God, letting go of the past, and accepting the time of uncertainty he is entering. He must surrender his grief and anxiety to God, trusting God will watch over and guide him through this transition.

Elisha’s experience is an important to reminder to us. We are likely most comfortable when living with certainty. We hope for those times. We construct narratives of those times. We even use denial to avoid accepting a difficult transition. When do this, we are not open to God in those moments. We are closed off. While we do not like uncertainty, and we try avoid it, times of change are a gift from God. They are times God can reach us, when we can hear God’s call in fresh ways and follow where God is leading us.

In her book How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, the pastor, spiritual director, and author Susan Beaumont calls these times a “liminal season.” “Liminal” is an English word derived from the Latin word for “threshold.” Liminal seasons are the times we stand on the edge of one way life and a new, unknown way ahead of us. Most of us do not like these times, but it is precisely these moments God uses to speak to us. We see this in Elisha’s experience. We see it throughout Scripture.

Beaumont illustrates this by quoting the Franciscan Richard Rhor, who writes of liminal seasons, “All transformation takes place here. We have to allow ourselves to be drawn out of ‘business as usual’ and remain patiently on the ‘threshold’ (limen in Latin) where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind…That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin…It’s the realm where God can best get at us because our false certitudes are finally out of the way. This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t experience liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy.”[1]

Liminal seasons are thresholds requiring we surrender the past and move into unknown future, embracing the joys of the journey, with its sorrows and losses. It requires letting go of our need for “normalcy,” letting what is going to happen unfold. Our sacred charge is to let go of what is certain and follow God into a wider world. There is no shortcut, no easy road. We can’t stop on the threshold. God calls onward into the unknown.

In today’s Gospel three of the apostles experience such a liminal moment, a threshold leading them to the way of the cross. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John, his inner circle of disciples, up a mountain. They are apart from the others and alone with Jesus. While on the mountain, Jesus becomes dazzling white. He is transfigured before them. He talks with Moses and Elijah who appear with him.

Peter, James, and John are terrified by this experience, which is not surprising. Who wouldn’t be terrified by such a sight? In his terror, Peter doesn’t know what to say, and suggests the wrong response to the moment. He wants to build three booths, or shrines, on the mountaintop.

Peter responds in a logical way. When something profound happens, we want to mark the spot, commemorating the event. There is an impulse to stay where the significant event happened, dwelling in the moment.

God, however, has other ideas. God speaks from the cloud, echoing the words spoken at the Baptism of Jesus. God’s voice tells the apostles, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” God tells the three to listen to Jesus, and, by implication, to follow him. They are to let go of their instinct to stay in the moment. They must leave the mountaintop and follow Jesus to Jerusalem, to his passion, to his suffering and death on the cross.

Peter, James, John have an experience of Jesus that disarms them. After following Jesus all this time, they think they know him, they know who he is. Yet Mark repeatedly points out they misunderstand Jesus. They don’t see as well as think they do.

In the liminal moment of the Transfiguration they are given a glimpse of Jesus as he truly is. They are given the gift of seeing his glory revealed, if only for a moment. They see what will only be fully revealed after his resurrection. On the mountain they witness the power and majesty of the One who is fully human and fully divine, who is the Son of God. They glimpse the eternal light of God on earth. In this liminal time on the mountain they experience the revelation of the true nature of Jesus and are sent from that experience into a challenging and uncertain future. While the road ahead will be arduous and demanding, the revelation on the mountaintop can sustain them in the difficult days ahead. They carry with them the promise of the glory to be revealed when Jesus is raised from the dead.

Today is the Last Sunday of the Epiphany. Lent begins this Wednesday. We are entering what is a liminal season, a season of the wilderness, where the familiar and routine is stripped away. We are entering a season of confronting our cravings and sinfulness, a time of examining the ways we resist following God. It is a time to repent of these ways, reorienting our lives toward God and God’s call.

After so many months of liminal living in the pandemic, we might resist Lent this year. We may feel we have lived one long Lent since March of last year. While this is in some ways true, certainly I feel this as well, I encourage you to embrace the gift of this holy season.

We stand on a threshold. The only way to move across it, into the abundant life God desires for us, is to open ourselves to what God is doing, seeing where God is leading us. This requires we step forward, across the threshold, into an unknown future, and away from our desire for the past, for what was once normal and routine. If we embrace the this season, I am confident our lives will be richer for it. What God has in store for us is far more than we can ask or imagine for ourselves.

Lent’s call is to embrace the wilderness in our lives, naming those parts of us that are barren and dark, those places we avoid looking too deeply into, places we hope to keep hidden, even from God. Lent calls us to let the light of God’s transfiguring love shine into those parts of our lives. Our call is to step across the threshold, allowing Jesus to lead us into a new life we have yet to glimpse.

As we move to the start of Lent, I invite us to honestly examine our lives. How have we been faithful to God in the past year? How have we lived as God calls us to live? How have we strayed from God’s ways? How have we turned away from God’s love? How have we resisted the new places God is leading us? When have we resisted crossing the threshold in front of us?

These questions may help us discern how God is calling us to keep a holy Lent this year. In the Ash Wednesday liturgy, the Book of Common Prayer invites us to keep a holy Lent by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. What disciplines and practices do we need this Lent so we can be drawn closer to God, allowing God to be at work in us, calling us deeper into relationship with God, our neighbor, ourselves, and creation?

This time of dislocation, sadness, and loss is a holy time, a liminal time. It is a time God speaks to us, calling us into a new way of life. We stand on the threshold between the past and the not yet clear future. God invites us to move into the unknown by extending a supporting hand to help us walk over the threshold, and into a land full of untold blessings and wonders.

Like Elisha, Peter, James, and John, and all who have gone before us, we are called to set out into the unknown, trusting God is with us, guiding and sustaining us. Let us embrace the moment, giving up certainty and the familiar, that we might know the glory God has in store for us. May we step across the threshold into liminality, moving bit by bit to the fullness of God’s glory which is our inheritance as beloved children of God, those baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, and destined for the glory of life eternal with God. Amen.

[1] Beaumont, Susan, How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season (New York: Rowan & Littlefield, 2019), pp. 4-5.

February 7, 2021

Healing Peter’s Mother-in-law, from a 11th century manuscript from the Abbes Hitda von Meschede. Public domain.

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany. The Scripture readings are available by clicking here.

Perhaps you have never heard of Michael Goldhaber. I hadn’t until this past week when I read a piece in Thursday’s NY Times titled, “I Talked to the Cassandra of the Internet Age: The internet rewired our brains. He predicted it would.”[1] In this article by Charlie Warzel, Goldhaber is called an “internet prophet,” someone who, in the mid-1980s, envisioned our present world.

He saw that in the future there would be “the complete dominance of the internet, increased shamelessness in politics, terrorists co-opting social media, rise of reality television, personal websites, oversharing…[and] online influencer culture.” In addition to these now ubiquitous conditions in our everyday lives, Goldhaber also envisioned “the near destruction of our ability to focus.” [2]

A former theoretical physicist, Goldhaber was obsessed with how much information was available, what he called an “information glut.” He understood there was more access to news, opinion, and entertainment than any one person could handle. He realized human attention was finite, that it is “one of the world’s most finite resources.”[3]

This information glut, vying for our limited attention, contains a danger for us. Goldhaber writes, “I kept thinking that attention is highly desirable and that those who want it tend to want as much as they can possibly get…When you have attention, you have power, and some people will try and succeed in getting huge amounts of attention, and they would not use it in equal or positive ways.”[4]

Goldhaber worried that power gained by attracting people’s attention would lead to inequity in our world. Those getting the most attention may not be the ones making our world a better, more just place. Focusing on people clamoring for our attention may draw our focus away from correcting inequities.

Every time we focus our attention on a particular action, we divert what precious little attention we have from other things. In paying attention to one action, we ignore all others. This serves as a caution for us, as a reminder that we need to be intentional on where we focus our attention and how we spend our time.

Goldhaber observes, “It’s not a question of sitting by yourself and doing nothing…But instead asking, ‘How do you allocate the attention you have in more focused, intentional ways?’”[5] He suggests this is true is in the large issues confronting us now, including income and racial inequality. It is important to deliberately focus our attention and resources on what we value. Only by doing so we can respond to the injustices of our world in positive and concrete ways. If we become distracted by all that seeks our attention, we will not make positive changes.

Understanding how online life has changed us not only explains our present reality, but also has important implications for our spiritual lives as followers of Jesus. Discipleship is about where we focus our attention, about what we value, and whom we listen to. It requires intentional, disciplined actions. To follow Jesus is to avoid succumbing to the competing attention-seeking distractions of our society.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus shows us how to be intentional in making choices. He is being sought by the crowds. Last week we heard how Jesus was in the synagogue, offering a new teaching, with authority and power. The people are amazed when he casts out an unclean spirit from a man. This act revealed the power Jesus has to heal what alienates, and to restore people to wholeness. Because of this, the crowds seek Jesus so he may heal others. Before dawn, Jesus is alone in a deserted place praying.

While Jesus prays alone, Peter searches for him. Peter is in action mode, thinking, There are crowds to be healed! Our English translation does not adequately translate the Greek. In the Greek, Peter and the others are astonished Jesus could be alone praying when people need him. There is work to be done! The Greek implies they look for Jesus to “restore him to his senses.”

Peter is questioning Jesus’ behavior. He assumes Jesus should respond to the crowds’ needs. Jesus, however, is clear that healing in this place is only one part of his ministry. He comes to preach and teach, moving from place to place, not confined to one location or only one home. So Jesus tells the disciples they are moving on to the next place, even though crowds there are hoping for healing.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus balances time for healing and teaching with time for solitude and prayer. He balances time with the crowds, time with his disciples, and time by himself, alone. Jesus intentionally focuses his attention. He does not simply react to all the demands for his attention as they are presented. He keeps his focus, not being distracted by all competing for his attention.

Jesus offers us an example of how to live in the midst of our busy lives, with so much competition for our limited precious attention. Jesus reminds us to seek balance between work and rest, between activity and times of solitude and quiet. Jesus reminds us to heed the Ten Commandments by setting aside 24 hours each week for Sabbath time, a period of prayer, rest, solitude, and for activities that feed and nurture us and our relationship with God.

Given our attention is limited, with all that tries to capture as much of our attention as possible, it is important we regularly step back and examine our lives, taking stock of how we spend our time, what activities we engage in, noticing who has our attention, how we spend our time.

A perfect opportunity for this stock taking is coming soon. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, this year on February 17. These days before Lent begins are a good time to reflect on how we focus our attention. Our reflection, examination, and prayer in these days can help us discern our Lenten disciplines and practices. It can help refine our understanding of those things we will do, or we will not do, during Lent, to restore and strengthen our relationship with God, our neighbor, ourselves, and creation.

Jesus asks that he be our focus, that we shift our attention to him. Thankfully, he also gives us the power we need to let go of distractions and follow him. We see this in the first section of today’s Gospel. This passage reminds Jesus desires to free us from whatever draws us away from the love of God, from anything that gets in the way of the abundant life God desires for us.

The account tells of the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. This is, however, about much more than a simple healing. When Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, lifting her up by the hand, he does much more than restore her to health. By healing her, Jesus reveals his power over the evil forces of this world. He shows he has the power to set humanity free from what possesses us, from what keeps us from the life God intends. Jesus can lift us above those forces that sap our attention, distracting us and preventing us from following him.

Mark tells us that once the fever leaves her, Peter’s mother-in-law begins serving those in the house. This may sound like a familiar story. An unnamed woman is healed so she can wait on the men, feeding them dinner.

Mark, however, is telling us something much more profound than may be obvious, especially in the English translation. The Greek word translated as “serve” is diakonia, from which we get our word “deacon.” This word is used in Mark’s Gospel only three times, all referring to servanthood and discipleship. Diakonia appears in today’s account of the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law; also in chapter 10, when Jesus says he comes to serve, not to be served; and in chapter 15, when the women from Galilee are mentioned as those who follow and serve Jesus, coming with him to Jerusalem, remaining with him when he is killed and buried—after the male disciples have abandoned him.

Mark begins and ends his Gospel with the faithful women who serve, who embrace the servanthood of Jesus, living as true disciples. No man in Mark is ever referred to as a servant with the Greek word diakonia, only women are. In a society where women were not valued, Mark says these women are the faithful followers of Jesus, those who are true disciples. The service of Peter’s mother-in-law is not about serving dinner, but rather about living the life to which Jesus calls her, becoming a servant in the church gathered in her home, reminiscent of the early Christians gathered in Mark’s day in house churches.

The mission of the church, Mark is telling us, is to open our hearts, welcoming those who desire to be set free from all that alienates and oppresses. We are called to be a community that offers the restoring, healing love of God to all people. Jesus comes to free us from all that prevents us from following him, liberating us from all clamoring for our attention. Jesus gives us the power to say yes to his invitation to discipleship. And Jesus sets us free to follow as his disciple, living lives of prayer and loving service, seeking not our will, but God’s will for us.

As followers of Jesus, let us strive for balance in our lives, finding a gentle rhythm of action and working for justice. Let us set aside times when we retreat into solitude and quiet, encountering God’s presence and discerning God’s call to us. Renewed and strengthen by these times of prayer and quiet, let us move from them to times of action, faithfully following Jesus as he calls us to loving servanthood—to diakonia—by loving all people, especially the least and forgotten, those with no voice to command the attention of others.

May our attention always be focused on Jesus and his way of love, that we welcome all people, and serve all people, in his Name. May we be the community liberated by Jesus to be his disciples, accepting the liberty of his abundant life. Amen.


[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

January 31, 2021

Jesus Driving out unclean spirit. Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry.
15th century. Public Domain.

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany. The Scripture lessons are found by clicking here.

Living in the 21st century, when we read the Gospels we might wonder if a story happened as described. Did miraculous events and healings “really” happen? Did Jesus actually walk on water? Did he calm the storm? Were the lepers healed by Jesus? Did the blind and deaf men experience their senses restored? Was the flow of blood the woman experienced for years really healed when she touched the hem of Jesus’ garment?

In today’s passage from the Gospel according to Mark, a man with an unclean spirit is healed by Jesus. Jesus encounters him while teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. The unclean spirit confronts Jesus, saying, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Jesus rebukes the man and says, “Be silent, and come out of him!” The spirit convulses the man, crying out with a loud voice, and leaves him. All witnessing this are amazed, marveling at how Jesus offers a new teaching with authority.

This dramatic exorcism is the first public action of Jesus in Mark. As modern people, we can approach this account asking if it happened this way? Did Jesus really heal the man? We might debate if we “believe” this story is “true.”

The community organizer and biblical scholar Ched Myers offers a different approach. He suggests debating if we “believe” a miracle story like this is misplaced. It is simply a given that in antiquity people believed it was possible to manipulate the physical world in extraordinary ways. That Jesus has power over unclean spirits and the physical world was within the belief system of people in the first century. They would not ask if such a story is real.

Myers suggest examining these Gospel stories from our modern understanding misses what Mark is teaching. Asking if a passage is believable misses the deeper meaning and point of the story being recounted. It misses why the story is told and the deeper understanding of who Jesus is and his mission.

Ched Myers, writing about today’s Gospel passage, says, “Nevertheless, the ‘miracle’ lay not in the act, but in what the act symbolized. Mark goes to great lengths to discourage us from seeing Jesus as a mere popular magician. Not only does Jesus constantly discourage people from fixating upon his acts of healing or exorcism…he actually exhorts his disciples (and the reader) to look into the deeper meaning of his actions…”[1]

Myers says this account of Jesus healing the man with the unclean spirit is a contest between the authority of Jesus and the ruling scribal establishment. Jesus has the authority of God, acting to free humanity from everything that is an impediment to abundant life with God. His actions create conflict with those in authority whose power is threatened and who think they know what is best for the people. Jesus comes to the heart of the religious authority on the Sabbath, offering teaching and healing that liberate the people, freeing them from all that alienates and divides. Jesus comes to free the hearts and minds of the people so the may follow him, and be in communion with God, their neighbor, and themselves.         

Throughout the Gospels, and especially in Mark, Jesus challenges the power structures of our world, liberating people from what oppresses and alienates. When Jesus teaches and heals, the status quo is threatened, and those with power become fearful. But to the marginalized and powerless, Jesus offers liberating hope and freedom, true Good News. Jesus comes with his Good News, freeing everyone from the demons that hold sway and prevent all from living as God intends.

While in our time we don’t think of someone experiencing seizures as needing exorcism, demons are no less real in our age. The demon of individualism reigns in our country. Liberty and individual rights can be more important than protecting the common good. We see this when recommended health protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are viewed as a threat to individual rights and liberties. Jesus gives us the power to sacrifice our personal liberty for the common good, acting for the well-being of others.

Our nation is afflicted with the demon of white supremacy and systemic racism. For more than 400 years those who are white have received privileges and rights African Americans and people of color do not. Contrary to what is argued, this demon afflicts all people, including those who are white. Jesus opens hearts and minds, setting us free to chose action for justice and equity.

We are afflicted by the demons of consumerism and wealth. The pursuit of material things is a foundation of our society. Many of us may not realize how acquiring things is ingrained in us and how it draws us away from the love of God. Likewise, acquiring wealth and protecting it for an individual’s use is taught freely. To preserve wealth, a narrative of scarcity exists, leading people to hoard the material resources they have. Jesus liberates us to give from our abundance for the well-being of others, giving us the power to live simply, owning only what we need.

We all stand in need of Jesus’ liberating love. His love allows us to turn to him, following his way of love. This way requires letting go of our self-interest, serving others in humility. It is a fierce commitment to fighting injustice, acting for justice each moment of our lives. Jesus calls us to consider the common good before acting, even calling us to give up our liberty to act if it will hurt another person.

This is exactly what Paul is calling the church in Corinth to consider in today’s Epistle. It is not every Sunday we consider whether or not to eat meat. As a vegetarian of 30 years, I don’t eat meat for ethical, environmental, and health reasons. Though I wish others did likewise, this is not what Paul is calling the Corinthians to do. Paul is not teaching vegetarianism, but is concerned with eating meat sacrificed to idols and how this practice is diving the Christian community.

In the church in Corinth there are two groups, the well-to-do, educated folks and people of more ordinary means who are less educated. The well educated, more prosperous members are influenced by Greek philosophy and for them the quest for knowledge is central. If they find something is correct and true, they feel justified in doing it. They rest in their knowledge, using it to justify their behavior.

Paul warns these Corinthians to be careful in their quest for knowledge. Knowledge can “puff up,” being used in arrogant ways that harm others. While their actions might be correct, they may not be best for the Christian community. Further, the quest for knowledge can replace the desire to know God. Knowing God leads to wisdom, to being known by God, dwelling in God’s love. God’s love does not “puff up” but “builds up” the community.

These more educated knowledge-seeking Corinthians have the means to buy meat for their households. The meat markets are associated with the temples and sell meat previously sacrificed to idols. They also attend feasts, banquets, and public celebrations where they eat meat from the temples. These Corinthians trust their knowledge. They know idols are not real, so they don’t think twice about these activities.

The second group in the Corinthian church are people less well off who can’t afford to eat meat at home. Many have recently converted from the very groups worshipping idols in the temples by sacrificing animals to their gods. The practice of eating meat from the temples makes them uncomfortable. It is too close to the lives they have recently left behind.

Paul is concerned their faith is not strong enough to endure the practice of the meat-eating members. Paul is clear that eating food has nothing to do with salvation—salvation is from God through Jesus Christ. As idols have no existence of their own, the meat offered them is just meat. Further, Christians are free from the Law in all respects, including what to eat. In Jesus, his followers have new freedom

Paul is clear, however, that Christian freedom is not license to do whatever we want. Rather, freedom in Christ is grounded in God’s love for us as revealed in Jesus. Our freedom rests in Christ who gives his life in love for all, going to the cross for all. This is our freedom, the freedom to be set free to love as God loves, free to give our lives in service to others, finding our true lives, lives rooted in the abundant self-giving love of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Paul himself says if he knew his eating meat sacrificed to idols was threatening the faith of the “weaker” members, he would stop eating meat. He reminds the Corinthian Christians they have a responsibility to the other members of their community. If their actions offend, or harm others, they should act differently. Not changing one’s behavior harms the community. It does not build it up but causes pain for others, wounding Jesus who died for all people. Paul says hurting those for whom Christ died is sin.

Paul calls the Corinthians—and us—to remember our responsibility to the body of Christ, to the community into which we are incorporated through Baptism. Baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, we become part of Christ’s body, marked as Christ’s own forever, putting on the very identity of Jesus. For the baptized, concern for the well-being of the community is primary. Though we are free, we must not do something that harms others, even though we are free to do so. Love must in all things guide us, even to sacrifice our freedom for the good of the whole, to build up the community.

Paul’s teaching is important for us who follow Jesus, built into his body, gathered as the holy household of God. We are called by God to be the literal presence of Jesus in our neighborhood, city, and world. We are a community called to exist for others, doing the holy work God has called to do, caring for the oppressed and forgotten in our midst.

Jesus comes among us setting us free to live as God intends, becoming the people we are created to be, a people free to chose love, walking always in the love of Jesus. Jesus comes to liberate us from self-serving ways, unleashing within us the liberating power of God’s self-giving love. Jesus comes among us with authority, and the power, to set us free to be God’s loving people. Amen.

[1] Say to this Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, Ched Myers. Kindle location 366.

January 24, 2021

Calling of Peter and Andrew, Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319). Public Domain.

A sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany. The Scripture readings are found by clicking here.

It is common in the church to talk about discerning and responding to God’s call. We commonly speak about this as “vocation,” from a Latin word meaning “to call.” Unfortunately, most often vocation is understood as the call to ordination, to becoming a deacon or priest. There is little talk, and not much serious teaching and discerning of the call and vocation of lay people, despite the fact God calls each of us, lay and ordained, to a particular kind of ministry and vocation.

God gives all of us gifts for the specific vocation to which we are called. Yet the church often fails to support lay people in listening for, and recognizing, God’s call. The truth is, that the lives we lead, and the vocations we undertake, are all opportunities for ministry, for making God known, and for doing the work of the reign of God.

Today’s Scripture lessons reflect this truth. They are about call and vocation. In our first lesson Jonah experiences the word of God calling him to to Nineveh where he will proclaim God’s word. When he goes and preaches to Nineveh, calling the residents to turn from their evil ways, they hear and heed Jonah’s call. They repent and fast, leading God to forgive them and not destroy their city.

Though he went to Nineveh, the Book of Jonah tells how Jonah first runs away from God. He doesn’t want to go to Nineveh. He doesn’t want to be a prophet. Yet God keeps calling him. God pursues Jonah as he runs away. When Jonah flees to a ship, that is caught in a great storm and he is thrown overboard, God saves Jonah in the belly of great fish, rescuing him from drowning. The fish spits Jonah safely onto the beach three days later, saving his life.

God does not relent, no matter how Jonah responds. God never abandons Jonah. God is patient while Jonah runs from God. God saves Jonah from drowning, so he can do God’s work. In the end, God endures Jonah’s whining after Nineveh repents. After the city is spared God’s punishment, Jonah sits on a hill watching, hoping God will yet destroy it. Jonah tells God he didn’t want to be a prophet because he knew God would do this, he knew God would forgive the city of Nineveh in the end.

The story of Jonah shows us God’s generous patience, watching and caring for us while we take time to understand God’s call. God is even patient if run away for a time. God persistently works to love us and brings us to the time and place we can say yes and accept God’s call, accomplishing God’s purposes for us. God’s call will not be frustrated, no matter long it takes for us to hear, accept, and act. God waits patiently, giving us what we need to say yes and follow in God’s ways.

We see this them in our Gospel today. Jesus is beside the Sea of Galilee and calls two pairs of brothers, Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, and the brothers James and John. They are fishermen, working in family businesses, when Jesus comes upon them. Without knowing them, and without warning, Jesus calls them to drop everything and invites them to go with him.

We might imagine call as a particular moment of profound, or even miraculous, events. We may think of call coming with a blinding light, or angels singing, or the loud voice of God calling our name. It rarely happens that way. This call story shows us how call typically happens.  Jesus comes upon the fishermen doing daily tasks, at work on an ordinary day, when they  experience a life-changing call.

The call of God most often comes to us in the ordinariness of life, while we are at work, doing the dishes, quietly praying, talking with a friend—or even with a stranger. God’s call can come to us while worshipping with our church community, or through a quiet thought or an intuition. We may recognize call in the midst of an activity as we are experiencing joy, using our God-given gifts and talents, and feeling a sense of fulfillment.

Like those brothers in our Gospel account, whenever we experience call, it changes our lives. For the four fishermen, it meant leaving their work and family behind. Not all of us will need to leave home to answer call, literally leaving behind our present lives, but following Jesus’ call certainly brings us to new ways of being. Jesus calls us outside the routine and the status quo of our daily lives. Following Jesus requires we let go of the past and embrace a new way of life.

The part of our Gospel story I find remarkable is that the four fishermen hear Jesus and drop everything to follow. They do not hesitate. They just go. This reflects the fact God calls us in ways we can recognize and respond to, giving us everything we need to say yes and follow.

Call comes with the strength and gifts we need, allowing us to let go of the past and embrace the future, trusting God gives us what we will need through the power of the Holy Spirit. Through God’s provision we can answer God’s call, and be used by God to usher in the kingdom, doing whatever small part we are given.

Ultimately, call and vocation are really about God, not us. Vocation is God at work in our lives and, through us, in the world. God calls us, and others, to be a small part of something much larger than ourselves. It can be tempting to think, in the midst of discerning call and vocation, that it is all up to me, that I have to make it happen. There may be pressure to be listening, to do the right things. We may worry about not hearing God or misunderstanding. These tendencies may lead us to forget call is primarily about God and make it about our efforts.

In her sermon on this Gospel, titled Miracle on the Beach, the Episcopal priest, academic, and author Barbara Brown Taylor says the call to the four fishermen beside the sea is about being swept up in the flow of God’s will and giving ourselves over to it. Each of us has a unique story of this experience.

Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John are called away from their nets to follow, and “fish for people.” Other people are called to different vocations. Some are called to follow while not leaving where they are. But all are called and all are given grace to answer God’s call. Following God’s call is participation in God’s plan, helping to bring about the kingdom of God. Following God’s call is about transforming the present, and upsetting the status quo of our world through the reign of God’s love.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The possibilities for following seem endless to me. Sometimes they will be big, no doubt about it, and sometimes they will be too small to mention, but it would be a mistake, I think, to focus too hard on our own parts in the miracle of discipleship. The God who called us can be counted on to create us as people who are able to follow. Whenever and however our wills spill into the will of God, time is fulfilled—immediately!—and the kingdom is at hand.”[1]

All the ways God calls us to follow, the seemingly small and the great life-changing actions, are all participation in building God’s kingdom now, here on earth. And there is urgency for us to hear God’s call and answer. God and the world need us to follow, are counting on us to follow. Love is short in supply in our world. Good news is rare. God is counting on you and me to follow, spreading the liberating and redeeming love of God to those needing it most.

All of our Scripture lessons today express this urgency. Jonah warns the people of Nineveh they have forty days until the city is destroyed, so repent! Paul tells the Corinthians the time has grown short, “the present form of this world is passing away.” And Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

The time is short. The world suffers. Many are ill and dying. White supremacy is working its deadly evil. Political opponents are hated as enemies. Families are in danger of losing their homes. Many are hungry. Hope is in short supply. Evil is strong.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to open ourselves to the ways Jesus comes to us, calling us to listen and follow. Jesus calls us into the world so we can proclaim the Good News of God in Christ through power of the Holy Spirit. We are a people sent by Jesus to embody God’s love in this world of suffering and division. We are sent forth to witness to the power of God’s love for all people. May we be open to the ways, great and small, God’s call comes to us. May the Holy Spirit plant within us the desire to hear God’s call and readily respond, following where Jesus leads us, going where he sends us. May we witness through our words and deeds to the Good News on which we stake our lives, that God may build the kingdom through us and through all who follow Jesus.

As we prayed in today’s Collect of the Day, “Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works.” Amen.

[1] Taylor, Barbara Brown. Home By Another Way (p. 41). Cowley Publications. Kindle Edition.

January 17, 2021

A radiant Samuel brings word from God to Eli.
Line engraving by A.W. Warren, 1816, after E. Bird. Public domain.

A sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany. The Scripture lessons may be found by clicking here.

Our Scripture lessons today are focused on call and vocation. As followers of Jesus, we believe God is active in our world and in our lives. God puts on human flesh and comes to dwell with humanity in the person of Jesus because God loves us so deeply and cares so profoundly for us and all humanity.

God comes to us right where we are in the person of Jesus and invites us to participate in God’s life of love. Each of us is given particular gifts and abilities that God uses in building God’s kingdom here on earth. Our task is to open our hearts and minds to God, listening for God’s call, hearing and understanding where God is leading us, doing what God would have us do

Sometimes we are tempted to think God doesn’t take interest in our individual lives. After all, I am insignificant compared to the entire cosmos. How can God be focused on me with all the need that exists, with so many clamoring for God’s attention? Yet the truth is God knows us intimately and cares for each of us personally. God knows us so intimately that God knows the number of hairs on our head, knows us better than we know ourselves. And God intends a particular vocation for each of us.

In his book, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Frederick Beuchner writes of vocation, “It comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a [person] is called to by God. There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-Interest…The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work…that you need most to do and…that the world most needs to have done…The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[1]

God calls each of us to a particular vocation, giving us gifts to use in serving God. God has a role for us in God’s plan of salvation. To know what God asks of us, it is  critical we hear God’s call. To hear God’s voice, we must make room in our lives, creating times of space and quiet, when our minds and hearts can be still. In that stillness God speaks to us.

In our first lesson today, the boy Samuel learns to be open to God’s call, hearing and responding. Samuel hears someone calling him during the night while sleeping in the temple, but it takes the guidance of the priest Levi for Samuel to understand it is God calling.

Often others can help us discern who is speaking the voice we hear. When Samuel understands it is God calling him, he accepts God’s call, saying, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” After listening to God’s call, Samuel goes on to serve as God’s prophet for the rest of his life, speaking the hard and challenging words God gives him to tell the people.

Samuel’s experience in the temple illustrates how we can miss God calling us. We can misunderstand who calls or not understand what we are being called to do. Thankfully, God keeps calling, as often as we need, until we comprehend and understand. God comes to us in the dark silence of night, calling to us, until we are able to listen and accept God’s call. God’s will for us will not be frustrated, God won’t rest until God’s purposes are accomplished in each of us.

This is because each of us is important to God and critical for God’s work. God uses us through our various vocations and ministries to build God’s reign on earth. God equips us for this work by the gifts God gives us and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Each of us has a role in God’s plan of redemption.

Listening and understanding God’s call is just the first step in living our particular vocation. Often after hearing God’s call to us, we have to overcome our opposition or assumptions that get in the way of responding. We need to imagine we can do what God asks of us. We may be hindered in following God’s call by doubt and incorrect assumptions.

We see this in our Gospel today. In this passage, Philip invites Nathanael to meet Jesus. Nathanael is skeptical. He can’t see who Jesus is. He assumes nothing good can come from Nazareth. After all, Nazareth was a small village of 200-400 people in Galilee. It is a place of little significance. Nathanael makes assumptions about who Jesus is based on his home town. He is confident he knows Jesus based on observable facts, facts pointing to an ordinary, unremarkable life. Certainly, he thinks, the Son of God won’t come from Nazareth!

Nathanael is changed by his encounter with Jesus. His eyes are opened and he sees who Jesus is. After talking with Jesus, Nathanael sees Jesus revealed as the Son of God. His opinion of Jesus from Nazareth is changed.

In response to Nathanael’s new understanding, Jesus says that Nathanael will see even greater things than the revelation that Jesus is the Son of God. He will see angels ascending and descending on the Son of God. He will see God revealed, gazing upon God’s face, as earth is united to heaven in Jesus the eternal Word incarnate. Nathanael’s experience is striking because he begins doubting, wondering how can the Messiah come from Nazareth? In his first meeting with Jesus he is changed by the greeting of Jesus: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”  

Nathanael experiences that Jesus knows him in a profound and deep way. Jesus comes to Nathanael in the just the way he needs, in the exact way he can accept. Nathanael realizes there is more to Jesus than the fact he comes from Nazareth. Because Jesus so deeply knows Nathanael, his heart and mind are opened and he follows Jesus as a disciple.

Jesus knows who we truly are, seeing beyond our assumptions, our doubts and fears, beyond any feelings of unworthiness or insignificance. Jesus sees through the things we want to keep hidden about ourselves and sees within us who God created us to be. Jesus sees our goodness as beloved children of God.

And Jesus asks us to see him as he is and be changed by that experience. We are called to see by the light of God, walking in that light, and seeing others in that light. The light of Christ removes all shadows so we see clearly. By that light we can see God at work in us, in our lives, and in the world. We can see heaven opened, the divine breaking into human existence.

At the heart of our particular vocations, of our various ministries from God, is the call to walk by the light of Christ, our eyes opened by the light, seeing by the light of God’s love. Living our call from God, our gifts and our deep gladness meet the deep need of the world. Our call as people who follow Jesus is to claim our belovedness as children of God and recognize the belovedness of others. We are called to build a community of belovedness.

This weekend our nation celebrates the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King called all people to build the Beloved Community. The life of the Beloved Community is articulated in his Six Principles of Nonviolence. These fundamental tenets of Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence are described in his first book, Stride Toward Freedom.

The Six Principles are:

PRINCIPLE ONE: Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is active nonviolent resistance to evil. It is aggressive spiritually, mentally and emotionally.

PRINCIPLE TWO: Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding. The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation. The purpose of nonviolence is the creation of the Beloved Community.                               

PRINCIPLE THREE: Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people. Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims and are not evil people. The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people.

PRINCIPLE FOUR: Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform. Nonviolence accepts suffering without retaliation. Unearned suffering is redemptive and has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.   

PRINCIPLE FIVE: Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate. Nonviolence resists violence of the spirit as well as the body. Nonviolent love is spontaneous, unmotivated, unselfish and creative. 

PRINCIPLE SIX: Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice. The nonviolent resister has deep faith that justice will eventually win. Nonviolence believes that God is a God of justice[2]    

Dr. King’s Six Principles point to our call to be the Beloved Community, a people called by God to live by love, making love known in the world through our words and actions. We are to be a  people who work for justice for all people, following Jesus by loving all people, even those who hate us. We are to pray for our enemies, turn the other cheek, and meet violence with nonviolence.

Our nation stands a difficult and critical moment. Division and hatred are rife. Violence is too common. Many of us wonder what we do in response to this challenging time. I suggest that if each of us commits to living by Dr. King’s Six Principles, striving to build the Beloved Community, love and justice will prevail. Power lies in building mutual relationships of trust and respect, developing connections with others rooted in God-given belovedness. In these relationships the power of God’s love can transform the division and hatred of our world, bringing us together in community.

If each person built meaningful relationships rooted in God’s love, the face of our nation, and the world, would be radically and forever altered: injustice would be ended; all would live in accord with God’s loving intention for humanity.

Our task as Christians is to discern God’s particular call to each of us, listening for God’s voice in the quiet of night, when God calls to us in the stillness, and speaks God’s intention for us. With the boy Samuel may we respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Hearing God’s word to us, may we emulate Nathanael in suspending our assumptions and doubts, accepting Jesus’ invitation to come and see. In this posture of openness we can then accept God’s call to us and set out on the journey God intends for us.

By the power of the Holy Spirit we can do what God has given us to do. Through the Spirit’s gifts God uses us for God’s loving purposes. Through us, and all who follow in God’s way of love, this world can and will be transformed. God’s love will renew the face of the earth. Amen.

[1] Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Frederick Buechner (Harper & Row, 1973), p. 95.


January 10, 2021

The Baptism of Jesus window at the Redeemer

A sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord. The Scripture readings may be found by clicking here.

The past few days were difficult as we watched the shocking images from Washington, DC. So many of us were horrified seeing a mob enter the US Capitol by force, leaving lawmakers barricaded in their chambers and having to flee to a safer location. Five people lost their lives in this riot. Certification of the presidential election was disrupted. The Capitol building was damaged and looted.

The siege at the Capitol on Wednesday was an act of white supremacy. A gallows with a noose was found on the Capitol grounds evoking memories of lynching, a heinous act of racial intimidation used to maintain white-only rule. The Confederate battle flag, a symbol of white supremacy and chattel slavery, was carried in the Capitol, which never happened during the Civil War. In fact historians never recall this happening in our nation’s history—until this past week.

When the siege was ended and the Capitol secured, Congress reconvened to continue counting the Electoral College votes. During this routine and largely symbolic action, a significant number of lawmakers opposed the results from several states that decided the November presidential election.

It is important to note the contested votes are from urban areas with large numbers of voters who are African American and people of color. Despite the rhetoric about election integrity, this was a blatant attempt to disenfranchise Black and brown voters. It is no different from the disenfranchisement campaigns begun after the Civil War, such as voter intimidation, Jim Crow laws, lynching, and the removal by force of duly elected African American officials from office. It is part of a contemporary disenfranchisement movement directed against Black and brown voters.

Equally concerning is the surging pandemic which was the backdrop to the riot and siege. There is concern the event at the Capitol will be a super-spreader event, with many becoming infected and possibly ill.

Here in Rhode Island, after a brief time of the infection rate dropping, coronavirus cases are again rising. They likely will continue to do so after some celebrated Christmas outside their households. And we know the pandemic disproportionally affects Black and brown communities in our nation, including here in this state.

The state of our nation and our world could not be more at odds with God’s intention for us. There is so much important work to be done. The more than 400 year legacy of slavery and white supremacy has yet to be named, understood, and dismantled. There is much we, the church, are being called to do.

We see clearly in our lessons today God’s vision for humanity. This week we keep the First Sunday after the Epiphany. This season after the Epiphany reveals to us the nature and identity of Jesus. Having just celebrated Christmas, in the weeks after the Epiphany we learn who this One born the Son of Mary is. More than  just a teacher, a good man whose moral example we should emulate, Jesus is revealed as the incarnate Son of God, Savior of the world.

In Jesus God puts on human flesh. In him gaze upon God. God lives among us. God comes into human existence to show us how much we are loved by God and to lift us to the divine life of God.

Our first lesson, from the Book of Genesis (1:1-5) reminds us God spoke into being all of creation. A wind of God, the Spirit of God, sweeps over the waters of chaos birthing creation. Jesus, the eternal Word of God, is present at the creation of all that is, the Word through whom all things are made. Genesis tells us that as each part of creation is made, God pronounces it good. Humanity is to remember the goodness of all creatures pronounced by God and act as faithful stewards who care for the created order.The goodness of creation is affirmed in our Gospel today. When Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, the Spirit of God, that same Spirit present at the creation,  descends upon Jesus. God the Father speaks the word, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” affirming the belovedness of the Son, Jesus.

 Jesus is the Beloved of God. He is God’s love incarnate in the world and affirms each person as beloved of God. All people are good, created in love by God, and held in love as God’s beloved children.

 Through the waters of baptism we claim our high calling as the beloved of God. In baptism we are incorporated into the very Name of Jesus, into the identity of Jesus, becoming part of his body. Just as we are claimed by Jesus for eternity, so we are invited to claim our changed identity as beloved children of God.

 If this were not a pandemic, we would gather this morning here in the church to renew our Baptismal Covenant. Though we are unable to do so because of the pandemic, we can still reflect on what it means to be baptized as beloved children of God, reminding ourselves of the holy calling and charge given us in Baptism.

The promises made in baptism are nothing short of reorienting our lives to Jesus, directing our hearts and our will to following him. In the Baptismal Covenant we promise to turn way from evil and turn to God. We promise to proclaim the good news of Christ, witnessing through our lives, by our actions and our words. We promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. And we promise to strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being.

These promise are how we live the life of the beloved of God. They require seeing ourselves, and every other person, as loved by God, made in God’s image and likeness, and redeemed by Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. Through baptism we are clothed with the identity of Jesus as the beloved children of God and promise to see in all others the belovedness bestowed on them by God’s love.

It is challenging for us to live knowing we are loved by God, that we are the beloved of God. Our society offers us many negative messages, may ways we are told we are not who we should be, or we do not have value just as we are. We live in an age when everything is reduced to its economic value, a world where some people have great worth, and others little value —some are even considered expendable. We are given many reasons to view ourselves negatively, to feel very far from being beloved — beloved of God or, frankly, of anyone else.

Henri Nouwen, the author, academic, and priest wrote that our difficulty in claiming our calling as beloved of God is a great detriment to our spiritual lives and health. In his book Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, he observes, “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.”[1]

Being beloved is who we are, it is the core truth of our identity in Christ. We are created by God in love, a lavish love poured out on us simply because of who we are. We do not need to earn this love, in fact we can’t earn it. We are beloved simply because God loves us. It is a great gift — one we have not earned but we are freely given. And we are created by God to be people who love in return, because God first loved us, called to live in relationship with God and one another.

If we live this reality, our lives are forever changed. Living as the beloved, we come to know God’s call for us, the vocation and life to which God calls us. Just as Jesus moves from his baptism to a time of discernment and testing in the wilderness for forty days, emerging at the end of that period with a clear sense of his mission and ministry, the same is true for us.

Henri Nouwen writes, “From the moment we claim the truth of being the Beloved, we are faced with the call to become who we are. Becoming the Beloved is the great spiritual journey we have to make. Augustine’s words: ‘My soul is restless until it rests in you, O God,’ capture well this journey.”[2]

Making this journey into the life of the beloved changes us in other ways, too. If we know ourselves to be beloved, we can’t help but see other people as beloved as well. We can’t help but seek to honor the fullness of their identity as beloved of God. We can’t help but seek to be a blessing and comfort to all we meet, seeking to be for them a reminder of the love God has for them, for all of God’s children. And we can’t help but work tirelessly to opposed the evil and injustice of our world.

Journeying though the waters of baptism we are grasped by God, claimed as Christ’s forever, marked forever and named beloved of God. In those waters we are lifted to the divine life of God, to the holy life of love of the Trinity.

The age in which we live is a difficult and challenging one. Thanks be to God we follow Jesus, God incarnate in our midst, the King of all creation. All things are in his hand. The forces of evil and hate will not prevail. Our hope rests in the One strong enough to defeat even the power of death, who has already won for us the victory. Through Baptism we already share his resurrection life.

Our holy call and charge is to embrace our belovedness, walking in the light of God’s love. In our witness, and the witness of all who follow Jesus as Savior, is the power needed in this time. It is only the light of God’s love that can transform the evil and division of this world. Our only hope is in the Child born of Mary who comes to humanity to lift us above the sin and evil of this world into the divine life of love that is life with God. Amen.

[1] Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, Henri J.M. Nouwen. Crossroad, 2001, p. 28.

[2] ibid, p. 37.

January 6, 2021

The Three Kings, the Nativity Window at the Redeemer

A sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany. The Scripture readings may be found by clicking here.

Like other feast days in the past ten months, we cannot keep the Feast of the Epiphany as we have in years past. Sadly there is no Epiphany Pageant today, with parishioners of all ages creating tableaus of the nativity story, beginning with Adam and Eve and culminating in the arrival of the Three Kings. The Angel of the Lord won’t toss glitter around the church, leaving shiny bits behind to be discovered through the year. We won’t gather tonight for a delicious potluck meal and cut the Kings’ Cake to reveal who will be the Kings at next year’s pageant. 

As with other recent feasts, I offer this meditation by video, recording it in an otherwise empty church. As a community, we keep the Epiphany in our homes today, in new ways, which is not in itself a bad thing. 

While we experience sadness and loss today, there is also opportunity in this reality. Just like Christmas, the Epiphany has come and illuminates our present moment. Perhaps celebrating this feast during the pandemic allows us to understand the blessing of this day in new ways.

The Epiphany comes after the celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas and closes out Christmastide. This feast is named with a Greek word meaning manifestation, showing forth. In the Epiphany, Jesus is revealed as God incarnate, the only Son of God, given to all humanity. 

A star shines announcing the birth of this Child born King of all the world. Wise Men in the East, likely star gazing astrologers, see the sign in the heavens and set out into the unknown, following the star wherever it goes. It leads them to Bethlehem where they offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The Wise Men kneel before the Child of Mary, adoring and worshipping him as King.

The Wise Men are the first Gentiles to seek out and worship Jesus, recognizing in him God revealed in human flesh. Their worship of the Baby shows Jesus is born for all people, not only the people of Israel. God comes among us in the Child of Bethlehem to lead all people to the divine life of God. 

It is interesting that the central figures of the Christmas story are not the people of world power and might. King Herod pretends to seek the Child to worship him, but really wants to destroy the Christ Child to protect his throne. In his insecurity, he kills the baby boys of Bethlehem, hoping to stamp out this newborn King. 

The birth of Jesus comes about through Mary’s willingness to give her life over to God. An unmarried young woman, who is poor and of little earthly standing, she finds favor with God and gives birth to the Son of God. The Child’s birth is announced to the lowly and forgotten of the earth, to shepherds living at the margins of society.

The star is revealed to mysterious Wise Men from the East, men without authority and standing in Israel, whose witness reveals Jesus is born for all people, of all nations, to lead all people to new life in God. 

The Epiphany story offers us important truths about God and the life to which we are called, perhaps especially in this pandemic time. Several come to mind this year as I contemplate this feast and its meaning for us.

First, God does not act as we expect and calls us out of the status quo of our lives. The Wise Men are a wonderful example of this. They see the star announcing the birth of a King, a King whose identity they do not know, born they do not know where. Their response is to seek this Child. They set out on a journey not knowing where it will take them or how long it will last. Their sole purpose is to find the Child, bring him gifts, and worship him.

Like the Wise Men, our call is to seek Jesus and follow wherever he leads. We are to bring the gifts of our lives, turning our wills over to him, seeking to follow and worship him, loving him with all our hearts, minds, and wills, with all our strength. We do not know where following him will take us, either literally or metaphorically. Yet, we are to set out into the unknown like the Wise Men before us.

The only certainty is God leads us into new and unknown territory. The journey of following Jesus leads out of the status quo of our lives to a land more abundant than we can imagine. These past ten months we have been on a journey through this time of pandemic. We have been changed by this time, but in ways I don’t think we can yet recognize or fully understand. 

God is inviting us to open our hearts and minds to the ways God is at work even in this time, with all its suffering, death, disruption, and dislocation. The Epiphany call is to go where God is bringing us, taking time to discern where we have been, reflecting on what we have experienced, seeking to understand how we have been changed, and setting out for the new places God is taking us.

Like those Wisen Men, there is much we don’t know, much we don’t understand. What is certain is God is with us as we journey, that we follow Jesus in his way of love and God gives us all we need to set out into the unknown. And when we arrive at the final destination, we will worship God. 

As the Collect of the Day reminds asks, “lead us, who know you by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face.” At our final arrival we will come to a place that is more glorious than we can ask or imagine. We will come to dwell with God, seeing God face to face. To get there, we must take that first step into the unknown. If we stay behind, clinging to what we know, to what is comfortable, we will never come to the fullness of God, to that abundant life God has in store for us.

Another reflection I offer this Epiphany is the importance of light. Back on the First Sunday after Christmas Day we read from the beginning of John’s Gospel. That beautiful passage tells us that in the incarnation, the Light of Christ has come into the world. This Light of God’s love is so strong, the darkness will not overwhelm it. 

In today’s Epiphany Gospel the light of the star is central. The star announces the birth of Jesus to the entire world. It leads those who see it, and dare to set out, to the Christ Child. 

The light of God’s love also shines in our world so full of suffering, death, and injustice. God’s light shines to the darkest, remotest corners of our world, and of our lives, offering the good news the Savior is born. To all people comes the promise God is present in the darkness. God’s light shines the hope and promise of God’s healing love to all places of brokenness.

In this pandemic time, a light has also been shown on all that ails the world. The injustices so long hidden in plain view to us of privilege have been laid starkly obvious. The economic injustice that leaves many living without adequate health care and pay check to pay check can’t be hidden any longer. The disparities caused by white supremacy and systemic racism have been illuminated, leaving those of privilege unable to turn away or ignore them. 

The light of God’s love offers hope to those despairing in this time, to those weighed down by injustice and oppression. Following Jesus, we are called to follow this light. Where the light reveals suffering and inequity, we are called to go and offer the healing balm of God’s loving justice. Where the light reveals the need for food and shelter, we are to follow the light, sharing from our abundance that others have what they need to live.

Like the Wise Men following the star to the Child, the One who is the hope of the forgotten and oppressed, so we are to follow the light to those places where we can be the presence of Jesus to those in need. We are to walk in the light of God’s love by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving water to the thirsting, visiting those imprisoned and sick. We are to seek Jesus in the face of those who suffer, bringing the compassionate gaze of God’s healing love to those who most need it.

We follow the Child born King of all the world, God incarnate in our midst, born for all people. Let us turn our hearts and lives over to him, always walking in the light of his love, as we seek out the forgotten and excluded in his Name. 

Following the light of Christ, let us set out into the unknown, trusting Jesus leads us, walks beside us, supports us in this journey. In all things, let us seek his will, and faithfully love, worship, and adore him. At the last may our journey end with us gathered at his heavenly throne, seeing God face to face, worshipping the Holy Trinity for eternity, as we sing the angel’s song. 

Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Luc Olivier Merson (1846-1920). Public Domain.

January 3, 2021

A sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day. The Scripture lessons are found by clicking here.

This Christmastide is unlike any other of our lives. With the pandemic surging everywhere, we keep these Twelve Days of Christmas very differently this year. For the first time in my entire life, I was alone on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. There were no festival liturgies in a full church, no delicious meals shared with family and friends, no travel to visit out of state relatives. This was disorienting and strange for me. This time of celebration is not how we would like it. 

Yet, while some suggested Christmas was cancelled this year by the pandemic, I do not think this. Christmas has come, as it does every year. It arrives not because of us, what we have done or how we are feeling. It arrives not because of our efforts, but because of what God does. Christmas is the great gift God gives us in taking on human flesh and dwelling among us in the person of Jesus. 

Jesus is born the Child of Bethlehem not because all is right and perfect with the world, but precisely because all is not how it ought to be, is not how God desires things to be. In the incarnation, God comes to us in a Baby named Jesus, a name that means “God saves,” because God desires to save us from all the alienates us from God, our neighbor, ourselves, and creation.

In this year of great suffering, when the coronavirus has laid bare the ills and injustices of our world, we are more aware than ever how we need God to enter in and save us. As illness, suffering, and death grip the planet and economic uncertainty and injustice leave many people hungry and on the cusp of losing their homes, we need God to save us. As people of color continue to experience the legacy of slavery through the evil of white supremacy and systemic racism, we need God to save us.

Keeping these days of Christmas has been especially poignant this year. The day after Christmas is the Feast of St. Stephen, deacon and first martyr. He is stoned for preaching Jesus. As he dies, he has a vision of Jesus seated at the right hand of God. Jesus is born to lift humanity to the throne of God. As he is dying, Stephen sees the place Jesus desires to bring him—and us.

Then on December 28 we kept the Feast of the Holy Innocents, those infants killed by King Herod the insecure ruler sitting nervously on his throne. When Herod hears a King is born, he perceives this Baby as a threat. To preserve his rule he orders all male babies under the age of two in Bethlehem be killed. 

These are two gruesome accounts of martyrdom, of feasts kept immediately after Christmas Day. They show some of the worst human actions and impulses, though impulses we all display in varying degrees. These feasts remind us all was not perfect and right with the world when Jesus was born. Christmas assure us that, though all is not right with the world now, that is precisely why God enters in and saves us. 

Today’s Gospel continues the theme of Christmas, that God enters into what is not perfect and right with our world and our lives, redeeming and setting things right, in accord with God’s loving intentions. This passage is taken from the Gospel according to Matthew and tells how Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus are caught in the political realities of their time, in the wrath of King Herod, and become refugees to save the Child’s life.

Matthew reminds us Jesus was born into a world not unlike our own. He explains the politics causing the Holy Family to flee into Egypt. Like many rulers, King Herod was very insecure on his throne. His power required a delicate balancing act between Roman rulers, Jewish Temple officials, and the Jewish people. Herod would literally do anything to maintain his power, even killing one of his wives and sons.

When the Wise Men come to Herod seeking the newborn King, Herod pretends he wants to go worship the child too. He asks these mysterious strangers from the East to bring him news of where the Child is born. Herod’s motives are not virtuous. He wants to find this newborn King and kill him. 

The Wise Men find Jesus in the manger in Bethlehem. They present their gifts and worship the Child. They are warned in a dream, however, not to trust Herod, so they return to their country without bringing news to Herod. Once the King realizes the Wise Men have deceived him, he becomes enraged and has every boy under the age of two living in Bethlehem killed—what we call the massacre of the Holy Innocents.

Before Herod’s barbarous murder of innocent children, Joseph is warned in a dream to take the Child and his mother and flee to Egypt avoiding Herod’s wrath. Thus Joseph, Mary, and Jesus become refugees, fleeing an insecure, violent ruler.

Christmas promises that God comes into human existence to redeem all sin, evil, violence, and oppression. These will not have the last word. Nothing will defeat the promise of God-with-us, Emmanuel. God’s love made known in Jesus is stronger than any power of this world, even that death itself. 

Our lesson this morning, from the prophet Jeremiah, highlights the power of God to enter into seemingly hopeless situations and offer redemption to the people. It is from a section of Jeremiah known as the Book of Consolation. It deals with the time the people of Israel experienced military defeat and are brought into exile by the Assyrians. They are displaced from their homeland, becoming political refugees. 

In the midst of this tragedy, Jeremiah dares to proclaim the restoration of the people to their homeland. He proclaims the promise God will gather the remnant of Israel from the farthest corners of the earth. They will walk by brooks of water, their path will be easy, they will not stumble. God will be like a shepherd of the flock. Their mourning will be turned to joy, gladness will replace their sorrow.

While we can be tempted to reduce Christmas to nice feelings of joy, to shallow sentiments of holiday cheer, Christmas is so much more. Christmas gives us strength to be honest about the ills of our world. Christmas comes to the world as things are now, with all injustice and brutality. The promise of Christmas is that God enters into this world, to redeem all, to set all right. So we can dare to hope for God to enter in. We can trust God is at work and acting, even in the most hopeless and desperate of situations. God hears our cry. God saves us.

God does not let Herod kill Jesus as a child, but keeps him safe in Egypt. As an adult, Jesus confronts the very powers of this world who tried to kill him as a baby. He proclaims God’s love and justice. For doing this, he experiences terrible suffering when he is tortured and killed on the cross. 

When this happens, God does not abandon him, but instead raises him on the third day. And through baptism, we share in his promise of resurrection life, in the promise that in Jesus God comes among us to save us. Our hope rests in the promise God is with us in our trials and sorrows, redeeming, setting all things right. 

Our Gospel today offers comfort, just as those words of Jeremiah did so many centuries ago. Matthew reminds us God comes among us at Christmas because we need saving. Jesus is born in the midst of suffering and injustice to heal all things through the power of God’s love. God does not abandon Jesus, but sustains him. God will not abandon us, but will save us. 

So in this Christmastide, let us like Joseph listen to our dreams, to the hopes and longings planted deep within us. May we be attentive to the ways God’s call comes to us, following wherever God leads us, even when this requires we do the unexpected, or change plans, or set out into the unknown.

Wherever we are called to go, and whatever we are called by God to do, may we trust God cares for us and protects us, even in the face of suffering and challenge. God will not abandon us, we are Christ’s own forever.

And like the Wise Men, may we search for the presence of God, for the divine presence in all people, seeing everyone as beloved children of God. May we never forget to receive those who are immigrants and refuges, offering them friendship and welcome, sharing our financial resources for their well-being. May we oppose policies of exclusion and hatred, and protect the vulnerable and powerless.

Let us give thanks to God for coming among us to raise us to the divine life, accepting the abundant life God shares with us. Let us trust God is acting, even now, even as the world is full of illness, suffering, death, violence, and brutality. Let our hope rest on God entering in to transform and redeem all things by the power of God’s love. Amen.

The Star of Bethlehem in the Redeemer churchyard on Christmas Eve. Photo by the author.

December 27, 2020

A sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas Day. The Scripture lessons are found by clicking here.

We have begun our celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas. This season of Christmastide began on Christmas Eve and continues through the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Throughout this season our Scripture readings focus on the first advent of Jesus in the Baby of Bethlehem.

On Christmas Eve we heard the familiar Christmas story from the Gospel according to Luke. It is a story that has seeped into popular images of Christmas, with its shepherds in a field at night watching their sheep; a chorus of angels who appear in the night sky, proclaiming the  birth of the Savior; Mary, Joseph, and the Holy Child in a stable, with the animals gathered around them.

This account contains what is commonly understood as the Christmas story. It is seen on Christmas cards and social media. For many of us, it evokes strong memories and emotions. Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus can perhaps be so familiar, we may struggle to see it with fresh eyes or grasp a new understanding of its meaning.

So it may be a gift that this morning we read the Prologue to the Gospel according to John. These words offer another reflection on the birth of Jesus. Perhaps this passage offers us a deeper and more profound understanding of the mystery of the incarnation.

Scholars tell us this Prologue may be an early Christian hymn. Its language is certainly lofty and beautiful. These words open John’s Gospel and articulate where the longed-for Messiah comes from, his history and his origin. It is, in effect, John’s Christmas story — though it could not be more different from Luke’s. It is short on strong images that grab our imagination, and full of theology informed by Greek philosophy. The soaring language of the Prologue’s words lift our hearts and minds to things eternal, to the deeper meaning of God coming among us in the Baby of Bethlehem.

John tells us that in the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God from before time. In fact, the Word is God. Everything that exists came into being through the Word. These words echo the first creation account in the Book of Genesis. In Genesis, God speaks the creation into being, afterward pronouncing that everything God made is good.

John offers a new creation account, an account of a creation recreated, a creation made, loved, and restored by God. In the incarnation, God comes to dwell with humanity in the person of Jesus, entering into human flesh and existence. The creator of the universe becomes a little baby, the most helpless and vulnerable of creatures. God does this to bring humanity, and all of creation, to a new life. In the incarnation, God transforms creation into a new creation, one redeemed and set right, in accord with God’s loving purposes.

God stoops to put on human flesh so that humanity may be lifted to the divine life. God puts on humanity, that humanity might put on divinity. God comes to us in the Baby of Bethlehem, that we might be lifted above the evil and sin of this world to the heart of God. God even lifts us above death itself, setting us free for the divine life of the Trinity for eternity.

In the Gospel today, St. John the Evangelist tells us God enters the world as the Light. This Light is life, a light the darkness cannot overcome, cannot dim or extinguish. This Light is stronger than the forces of evil and wickedness of this world, stronger than the powers of death.

For us in the Northern Hemisphere, the celebration of Christmas comes in the winter, at darkest and coldest time of the year. Light is scarce and the days are short. We celebrate Christmas just after the Winter Solstice, as the days imperceptibly, yet surely, begin to lengthen. Each day there is a little more daylight than the day before. As the light begins to grow, we celebrate the coming of the Light of God into the darkness of our world.

For us at the Redeemer, each Christmastide we hang the lighted Star of Bethlehem in our yard. It is a wonderful symbol of this season. For the 12 days of Christmas it reminds all who see it of the hope and promise of the Light of God come into the world. In this time dark time of pandemic we need the promise of this hope more than ever.

This star reminds us of the beacon that is God’s light, a light that enters the fullness of human existence, coming into the heart of all it means to be human, the joys as well as the sorrows, providing meaning, comfort, and the presence of God in all of life. Our lighted star is a reminder to the neighborhood of the light come to us in this holy season.

John’s Prologue tells us that the Light shines in the darkness of our world, signaling that God ushers in a new age, an age in which the old order is done away with. In this age, the status quo ends. Suffering and alienation are ended; the power of money and military might fades; injustice is overturned; the poor, hungry, and oppressed find hope in the promise of God’s reign; the rich are freed from slavery to their wealth and material goods.

This light come into the world is the Word become incarnate, and we walk by this light. This light illumines our path, shining to all places of violence, hatred, and division, offering the love, compassion, and healing of God. We are invited by the Child to walk in this light always, reflecting the light by our words and deeds. This world needs the light of Christ. Our world is full of so much suffering, illness, death. There is so much hatred, brokenness, and estrangement. The light of God’s love is sorely needed now.

William Law was a priest in the Church of England who lived from 1686 to 1761. In his book The Spirit of Prayer he focuses on the profound love of God as a way of inviting his readers to live holy lives. In speaking of the birth of Jesus, he observes that Jesus is born to raise us from the darkness of sin and death into the light of life.

He writes, “For this Holy Jesus that is to be formed in you, that is to be the Savior and new life of your soul, that is, to raise you out of the darkness of death into the light of life, and give you power to become a child of God, is already within you living, stirring, calling, knocking at the door of your heart and wanting nothing but your own faith and good will, to have as real a birth and form in you as he had in the Virgin Mary.”[1]

Jesus comes to us desiring to be born in our hearts and lives, just as he was born of Mary, bringing the eternal Light that leads us from the darkness of death into the divine light of God. Law assures us God is already within us and at work. We simply need to open ourselves to God, seeking Jesus to be born in us, allowing ourselves to live by the divine light and life already within us as beloved children of God created in God’s image.

Law says, “Poor sinner, consider the treasure you have within yourself: the Savior of the world, the eternal Word of God lies hidden in you, as a spark of the divine nature which is to overcome sin and death and hell within you, and generate the life of heaven again in your soul. Turn to your heart, and your heart will find its Savior, its God within itself…Seek for God in your heart, and you will never seek in vain.”[2]

When the eternal Word becomes incarnate in the Baby of Bethlehem humanity is forever changed. By his birth the world is forever changed. In this Child humanity is lifted to the fullness of life God desires for us. We are invited to share life with God, with the One who comes to us in love, seeking to be born in us, to dwell with us, to be in close relationship with us, that we might live with God for eternity.

In our first lesson today, the prophet Isaiah offers an image of our new life in God through the incarnation. Isaiah tells us God clothes the people with the garments of salvation, covering us with the robe of righteousness. God’s people become “a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,” and “a royal diadem in the hand of [our] God.”

Through the incarnation the creation is made new, the earth brings forth shoots, and a garden springs up. When God comes among us, all things are made new, becoming a new creation, a creation renewed and restored. New life bursts forth and flourishes. God comes among us in the person of Jesus to lead us into new life, into the divine life of God. In this divine life all of creation is pronounced “good” and all people beloved of God.

Let us claim our high calling, always walking by the light of God, reflecting the light of God’s love to all people by living as the beloved children of God we are created to be. May we always reflect the light of God by loving others just as God loves us.             Amen.

[1] Christopher L. Webber. Love Came Down: Anglican Readings for Advent and Christmas (Kindle Locations 647-649). Kindle Edition.

[2] Christopher L. Webber. Love Came Down: Anglican Readings for Advent and Christmas (Kindle Locations 662-666). Kindle Edition.

December 20, 2020

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. The scripture readings are found by clicking here.

These are the final days the Advent season, and it will soon be Christmastide. Despite the pandemic keeping us apart this year, leaving us unable to celebrate with family and friends, nonetheless we are finding ways to still give gifts to those we love. Many of us feel gratitude this year for online shopping. 

One cause of stress at this time of year is selecting the right gift for someone we care for. This requires doing our best to imagine what they would enjoy. It is not always easy. I have found that, because I am spending less time with people this year, there was less chance for casual conversation, times when I might hear something that leads me to the perfect gift.

Reflecting the challenges of gift giving, there was an opinion piece in the NY Times last week titled, “How to Use Science to Give Good Gifts.” Written by Daniel T. Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, it offers five points for gift giving. These include ignoring the price of an item, focusing instead on whether the recipient will use the gift; giving what people ask for, even it is inexpensive, honoring their wishes and showing you have listened to them; giving experiences, not possessions, is a good idea, remembering that recipients are able to wait for a meaningful gift—very good news in a pandemic!—and that special experiences can bring people together, forming lasting memories much more than most possessions will.

After these suggestions, the article ends with a caution to givers: beware the dramatic, expensive, surprising gift, even if we give it to see the delight of the recipient. These dramatic gifts may not be the best choice for someone on our list. While these gifts may elicit a reaction of delight when given, they may not leave the lasting impression or memory a less expensive gift someone really wants or a shared experience might.

Willingham concludes his piece saying, “But after all, it is the season to set aside our own desires and try our best to anticipate theirs. That may bring longer-lasting joy.” Gift giving is an act of caring and ultimately is about the recipient and what brings them joy. It requires altruism on the part of the gift-giver, who must suspend their own personal wants and needs, while focussing on the person they are honoring.

This opinion piece struck me as interesting and possibly useful in this season. I also found it timely, as it relates to our first lesson today from the Second Letter of Samuel. In this passage King David seeks to honor God with a gift. Now, I have to say, it can be challenging enough giving our family and friends a Christmas present, but it is far more complicated imagining an appropriate gift for God. Perhaps not surprisingly, David does not get it quite right, and doesn’t accurately discern what God wants.

The background to today’s lesson is that David has become king after he is victorious over his enemies. He has captured the city of Jerusalem and made it his capitol. He has built himself a house. 

Accomplishing these things, David desires Jerusalem become the center of religious and political power. So David seeks to build a house for God. After all, David says, he lives in a house, why shouldn’t God, too? It is unclear if David desires this to honor God, building a house for God’s glory, or if he desires this for his own glory, to be forever remembered as the king who built God’s dwelling.

Before undertaking the building of a house for God, David consults the prophet Nathan, who at first agrees to David’s plan, but then the word of the Lord comes to Nathan. This word says God does not agree with David’s plan. 

From the time God delivered the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, God has had no dwelling, but been on the move with the people, traveling with them through the wilderness. The  presence of God, the Ark of the Covenant containing the tablets of the law, journeyed with the people. God has never had a permanent dwelling and doesn’t desire a house now. God will not be contained in one place, inside a structure. 

God reminds David that it is God who took David from the pasture where he was a shepherd of sheep. It was God who made him king, subduing his enemies, and giving him a great name. It is God who will build a house, not David.  This house God builds will not be made of wood and stone, but instead a house of people. God will create a royal dynasty, David’s house, a line that will reign for ever.

King David learns that God is not interested in a house specially built for God. Rather, God wants to be with the people, on the move with them, present where they are. God is not bound to one place or one time. God is not far removed from the people but right where the people are. David’s line will continue, not in a building, but in the house God guilds for God’s people.

This promise of God is fulfilled in Jesus, the ancestor of David who sits on his throne for eternity. Today’s Gospel reading tells of the fulfillment of God promise in the encounter between the Angel Gabriel and Mary. Gabriel tells Mary she has found favor with God and will bear the Son of the Most High. God will give her Son the throne of David for ever. 

The people of Mary’s time have longed for God to act, for the Messiah to come. They have hoped for God’s reign to be ushered in, but they expected the Messiah to reign as an earthly king, like King David. The Messiah they expected would overthrow the Roman occupiers, freeing the people, defeating their enemies, and creating a renewed dynastic line that would never end.

But just as in David’s time, so in Mary’s time, God does not act as the people expect. The Angel Gabriel comes to an unwed mother in Nazareth of Galilee, not to a powerful person in Jerusalem, nor to an important religious leader. 

Women, who have little status and power in first century life, are central to God’s plan. God uses those with less power and status to bring about salvation. The poor young woman Mary has found favor with God, and will play a central role in the salvation and redemption of the world. Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, is six months pregnant. She was thought unable to have children, and is now past child bearing years, yet she carries John the Baptist in her womb. John will prepare the way of the coming Messiah.

God comes to those most needing hope, those most in need of deliverance from oppression, those whose deepest longing is for the reign of God to overturn the injustices of our world. To accomplish this, God uses the least expected and powerful as instruments of God’s salvation.

In Gabriel coming to Mary the hope and promise of the prophets is fulfilled. God is coming among humanity to set us free from the madness of our injustice and hatred. God comes among us to set everyone free, freeing the poor from their poverty, and liberating the rich from their enslavement to wealth. 

God surprises us. God does not come as we expect. God does not act as we think God will act. God comes in unexpected and surprising ways, in ways the world considers folly. God chooses the least powerful and least influential to usher in God’s reign. God chooses a poor unmarried woman as an instrument of salvation, coming among us as a helpless baby who grows into a man who serves the marginalized and excluded, bringing hope to the hopeless. This Son of Mary walks the way of love and is killed on a cross for always loving.

Mary offers us the example of how we are called to live and respond to God. When the Angel Gabriel comes to her, she expresses surprise and admits she is “perplexed” by Gabriel’s words. Mary is present to the moment and honest. She is not afraid to express her doubts or to question Gabriel. Mary is not meek in the angel’s presence. She asks how what the angel tells her is possible. Then she accepts that with God all things are possible, even the unexpected or the difficult to imagine.

Mary responds to Gabriel’s message by accepting God’s call and giving her life over to God for God’s purposes. She does this knowing it could have grave consequences for her, including rejection from Joseph her betrothed, her family, and from society. Despite this, Mary says yes to God.

Mary risked everything in saying yes to God’s call, giving her life completely over God. For nine months her body was the dwelling of God. Through her faithfulness God centers into human history in the person of her Son Jesus. Like Mary, we are called to say yes to God too, allowing God to enter into our hearts and be born in our lives. 

Our God is not remote and distant, but inhabits our very humanity, our flesh and blood. God is right where we are. Just as Mary bore Jesus, so God desires to come to us, to you and me. God wants to be born in us this Christmas.

This Christmas God does not ask of us a gift of great expense. God does not want anything elaborate from us. God asks something quite ordinary and simple from us, though something that is life-changing. God seeks a home in our hearts, dwelling close to us. 

Today’s Collect of the Day expresses this, asking Almighty God “to purify our conscience…by [God’s] daily visitation…that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.” May it be so. May we use these final days of Advent to prepare for God’s coming, setting aside time for quiet and prayer. May we remove the clutter of our hearts, making space for God to enter in and be born in us. 

I close with a text by Christina Rossetti. It captures well our desire to give God a gift and the simplicity of what is asked of us. It is the final stanza of the hymn “In the bleak midwinter.” 

What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him, give my heart. (Christina Rossetti (1850-1894), Hymn 112, The Hymnal 1982).


St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness, José Leonardo (Spain, 1601-before 1653). Public Domain.

December 13, 2020

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent. The Scripture readings re found by clicking here.

We reached a grim milestone this week here in Rhode Island. More than 1500 people have died in this state from COVID-19. This is cause for deep sadness, calling forth from us prayers and compassion for all those who mourn the loss of someone they love. 

This Advent is indeed a sad time as the virus surges around the world. So many are ill, too many have died. In this, the wealthiest nation on earth, many people struggle economically after losing employment. Families have difficulty paying their rent and feeding their children in this land of abundant resources and plenty.

It is no wonder experts are calling this winter the most difficult part of the pandemic, despite vaccines being shipped this morning that will be administered this week. This is great news and cause for rejoicing, but it does not diminish the difficulty of this time. It is no wonder politicians, scientists, and physicians are preparing us for what they call a “dark winter.” 

For those of us living in the Northern hemisphere, this is certainly the coldest and darkest time of the year. As we approach the winter solstice, daylight is in short supply. The nights are long and increasingly cold. Because of this, it can be a challenging time of year. But this year the metaphorical darkness of the pandemic compounds the challenge of the season.

In the depths of this darkness, our lessons on this Third Sunday of Advent call us to rejoice, to live with joy. This is not, however, the superficial and sentimental joy of the “holiday season,” a joy difficult to sustain this year. Rather, it is the deep joy rooted in the promise God is with us even in the darkness. 

In these most difficult times, God promises to sustain and deliver us. Our hope is rooted in this promise, causing us joy. We might how we can possibly do this? It is important to remember this joy is not to be confused with happiness. Joy is something stronger than happiness, and is not defined by emotions. Unlike happiness, we can experience joy even in the hardest times. Christian joy rests on the promise that God’s love will transform this world, that we are not alone in our trials because God is with us, supporting us. God is faithful and trustworthy, sustaining us in the darkness of our trials.

In the depths of darkest night comes John the Baptist testifying to the light of Christ. In today’s reading from the Gospel according to John, we are told John is sent from God and comes to testify to the light, “the true light, which enlightens everyone” that is coming into the world. 

Just the verse before our reading this morning we hear, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The light to which John testifies, the light of Christ entering the world, shines in the darkness of sin and death. The darkest forces of this world are not strong enough to overcome the strong love of God. No force on earth can extinguish the light of Christ. Though it is dark, the light of Christ prevails.

John proclaims One is coming who was present with God at the creation of the world. The Messiah is the Word of God become flesh in the person of Jesus. John witnesses to the eternal Word that enters human history, living in human flesh among us. John prepares for the coming of One who shows us how to love God and our neighbor, the One who teaches us how our relationships can embody the love of God, incarnating God’s love in human existence.

The light of Christ is come into the world, bringing healing to our deepest hurts and divisions. The light shines the love of God to places of suffering and alienation. We who follow Jesus are called to gaze upon the world through this light which is the beacon of God’s love. By this light we can see as God sees, beholding all creation as loved by God, seeing each person as a beloved child of God. The light shines into our very being, causing fear and despair to depart, warming and guiding us in even in the deepest darkness of the soul.

Just as John is sent by God to prepare for the Messiah to come among humanity, so we are sent by God. We who are marked as Christ’s own through the water of baptism, who in baptism received the light of Christ, the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, are sent to proclaim the coming of the Savior, the Light of the world.

Like John, we are to witness to the light of Christ as a voice crying in the wilderness of our world of illness, suffering, death, and alienation. Like John, we are to witness to the light that is life. We are to walk in the strength of this light, reflecting this light to our broken world. Just as John testified to the light of Christ, so are we to do, that the light reveals Christ anew in this age. We are called to reflect the light of God’s love to the world through our lives, by our deeds and actions. All we do in our lives is to  proclaim the light of God’s love come into the world in Jesus.

Our Epistle today, from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, offers instruction in how our lives can embody God’s love, reflecting the light of Christ to the world. This letter was written not long after the death and resurrection of Jesus, likely in the year 50 or 51. The followers of Jesus in that generation expected Jesus would returned soon, bringing all things to completion. As his return increasingly seems delayed, they struggled to live with urgency, watching for the return of Jesus in glory. A further challenge was the church at Thessalonika was a newly formed community, in need of instruction, so Paul in this letter teaches them about their calling in Christ.

Paul offers the Thessalonians words of encouragement, articulating the Christian life to which they are called. The followers of Jesus are called to lives wholly devoted to God. Paul calls the community to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Paul reminds the Thessalonians to “not quench the Spirit.” This means being open to what the Holy Spirit is doing in the moment, seeing the spontaneity and surprise of God’s activity, even when it feels disruptive or calls the community to unexpected things. Through the Spirit, God calls to newness and recreation, not the status quo, which requires openness and flexibility among God’s people.

Paul teaches Christians should at all times follow the example of Jesus in living lives of self-giving love. This love is demonstrated by nurturing and caring for one another and witnessing to the world God’s love. This love is not about emotion, feeling kindly toward another who loves in return, but is an act of will, a decision to care for another regardless of emotion or any response. This is love freely given, without counting the cost. 

This love is modeled on the self-giving love seen in Jesus coming among us. It is the emptying love of God who enters the creation, accepting the limitations of living in human flesh, knowing the joy and trials of human life. It is the generous love of Jesus who goes willingly to the suffering and horror of death on the cross for love of us.

Like the Christian’s of Paul’s age, we are called to embrace the complexity of this in-between time. Like the first Christians, we live between the first advent of God in the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem and the second advent of Jesus at the end of time. We live in the tension of understanding how God wants humanity to live and the reality of how our lives fall short. We live knowing this world is not yet conformed to God’s love. We live the tension of the end of the pandemic at last coming into view, yet facing several months of great challenge and suffering before us.

In this in-between time we are to be rooted in the love of God, embracing the tension of how God desires things to be and how reality falls short of that divine call. We are to remember God’s intention for creation, embracing our call as instruments of God’s love in this world by caring for the sick, the lonely, the dying, the forgotten, the despised; those who are anxious, despairing, and hopeless. 

Perhaps more than any other Advent, we are called to be rooted in the joy of God’s promise that the darkest forces of this world, even the powers of evil, greed, illness, and death will never overcome of the light of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Though the night is dark, the promise is God’s love will triumph, we will be delivered, we are safe in God for eternity.

The world needs the hope we live by more than ever. Just as John the Baptist faithfully witnessed to the light come into the world, giving his entire life to following Jesus, let us do likewise. May we commit ourselves to proclaiming the love of God by our words and our deeds. Through us may others come to know the hope and promise of God’s love.

As we gaze upon the world through the light of God’s love, being led on our journey along the path of this light, may we reflect the light of Christ to others. By our witness, and the witness of all followers of Jesus, may this darkest of Advents offer the hope that God is at work even now and will deliver us at the last. May the light of God’s love shine from us to all places of despair, that the hope and promise of God-with-us in the person of Jesus may come to all people. Amen.

Brooklyn Museum – Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Saint Jean-Baptiste et les pharisiens) – James Tissot. Public Domain.

December 6, 2020

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent. The scripture readings are found by clicking here.

Two days before the season of Advent began, the brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA sent an email reflection titled “What in your life could use a fresh start?” It suggested the beginning of a new liturgical year may be an ideal time to examine our lives, asking what is working well and what needs changing, what do we need to let go of, and what new practices, new ways of being we might adopt? The start of a new year, be it the liturgical year or January 1, offers the hope of fresh beginnings, a time for setting out in new directions.

Over time the way we live and the practices we embrace can become stale or routine. They can outlive their usefulness. When this happens, we can feel uninspired, like we are just going through the motions. We may sense we have lost our edge, our creativity. Our energy may be lower than we would like. Examining where we are at this point in our lives, taking stock of how we are living, asking if we are living intentionally, can be a helpful exercise in those times. 

Those of us who are healthy and blessed with regular income may find this pandemic time offers a chance to examine our lives. For many months our routine habits have been upended. For many of us a renewed sense of what is truly important is emerging. What we most value is being highlighted and clarified.

As we hear the wonderful news there are several promising vaccines, some weeks away from being administered, we are thankful this time of illness, suffering, death, and social distancing will one day in the future end. 

Before rejoicing and plunging headlong into the life we lived before mid-March, it is worth asking ourselves a few questions: What have I learned in this time about what matters most? What are the practices and habits that are most important to have in place now and when the pandemic ends? How am I being called by God to live? What will living intentionally look like after the experience of these months? How am I being changed?

These questions are echoed in our Gospel this morning. In this passage the people are coming in great numbers to see John the Baptist. He is visited by people from the countryside and from Jerusalem.

That they come from Jerusalem is striking, as the city is seen as the center of the universe. The Temple in the city is the dwelling place of God, where the people encounter God’s presence. They must really have a compelling reason to travel from such an important location into the wilderness, the middle of nowhere, to listen to a strangely dressed prophet.

I wonder if those coming to John had been asking questions about the state of their lives? Perhaps they sensed something was lacking in how they lived. Maybe they were searching for something more than they experienced in the present moment. 

This seems likely, given they made a significant effort to reach John in the wilderness, and they accepted his invitation to repentance, confessing their sins, being baptized, and starting a new chapter in their lives. 

How often, I wonder, do we consider the invitation to repent of our sins as a desirable practice, as something called “good news”? Our Gospel today certainly does. It opens with the word “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” This account of the good news begins with John preaching repentance in the wilderness and baptizing the people for the forgiveness of their sins. 

Mark tells us John the Baptist comes to prepare for the arrival of One more powerful than he is, One whose sandal John isn’t worthy to untie. John is a voice crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. He calls the people to get ready by repentance, turning toward God. While John baptizes with water, the One who is to come, whose way John prepares, will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

John the Baptist is a new Elijah. It was said the prophet Elijah would return before the Messiah comes, and Mark is clear John the Baptist is filling this role. John invites the people to prepare for the Messiah’s coming by putting their lives in order to receive the Messiah.

The preparation John calls the people to undertake involves taking stock of one’s life. The people are invited to confess their sins and repent. Repentance involves honestly seeing where in their lives they have strayed. It involves confessing how they allowed distractions to get in the way of their relationship with God, one another, and themselves. They are invited to confess these fractures and turn away from them, returning to wholeness through repentance. 

The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, andliterally means turning in a new direction, to a new way. It can also mean putting on new mindset. Metanoia is the call to admit honestly the ways the present isn’t working, confessing what is not right in one’s life, and  making changes.

John the Baptist calls the people to embrace a new way of living by taking stock of the past and the present without nostalgia but with honesty, so they may accept a new future from the advent of God, from the Messiah who enters into human life and history. Following John’s call allows the people to make space in their lives to receive the Savior who comes to dwell among them. It reorients them toward God, focuses them on the approaching Savior.

It strikes me the wilderness where John preaches and baptizes is the perfect place for  this. It is away from the powerful and privileged people, those with power over others. It is away from the bustle and noice of the city with all its distractions. 

The wilderness is a place rich in meaning for the people of Israel. They sojourned there for forty years, journeying from slavery in Egypt to the promised land. During their long journey in the wilderness, God cares for them in their need, providing mana for them to eat, water when they are thirsty, and quails when they grow tired of mana. 

In the wilderness they wrestle with Moses and rebel against God. Through this wilderness journey the people are formed into God’s people, coming to trust God, promising to live in covenant with God as God’s holy people. 

In the wilderness everything is stripped away, leaving reality starkly obvious. The result is being able to see ourselves as we are. We can be honest about the state of our relationships and our lives. In that barren landscape, without distraction or comforts, we come to understand our need for God, how we are reliant on God and need God to enter in. In the wilderness we see clearly God’s will and call, discerning the new path, the new direction, the new way of life to which God is calling.

In today’s first Lesson we see the abundant life found by accepting the invitation to confession, repentance, and turning to God. In this lesson, the prophet Isaiah offers words of comfort to a people desperately needing relief. 

The people of Israel have been taken into exile and Jerusalem is destroyed. In the midst of this tragic devastation, God offers the hope of comfort, the end of the time of suffering. Isaiah promises a highway will be prepared to bring the people home from exile. This road is easy to walk on because it is absolutely level, all valleys are raised up, and the mountains brought down, making it level.

Isaiah assures the people God is coming with the might of a shepherd, of One who gathers and carries the lambs, who feeds and cares for the flock. In the midst of their devastation and suffering, God comes among the people, offering a way out of exile, into a life full of God’s care and love. 

Advent offers us four weeks to experience the wilderness of our lives, honestly examining if we are living as God calls us to live. Advent is a time to admit our need for God and to trust God’s promises. Advent’s call challenges the status quo, not letting us rest in our contentedness, simply accepting things as they are. Advent calls us out of our complacency, asking us to leave where we are, turning to God, being transformed by God.

Advent offers words of comfort from our God. “Comfort, O comfort my people says [our] God.” In the midst of illness, suffering, and horrific death, God comforts us. As so many people suffer want of food and shelter because of economic injustice, God comforts us. As people of color suffer the evil of white supremacy, losing their lives to systemic racism, God comforts us.

God comes among us, bringing comfort into the pain and brokenness of human existence. God comes to us in love, as a faithful shepherd of the flock, the One who lovingly feeds us, gathers us, carries us, and gently leading us. 

God comes among us to assure us that things won’t always be as they now are. What happened in the past does not determine the future. This present moment will lead to a new way, to God’s way of love and justice. This is indeed the good news of Jesus. It is the call to repentance, to metanoia, turning to a new way, returning to God, being transformed by God.

The Advent cry of the prophets is heard. God is coming among us. Prepare the way. Get ready to receive the Messiah, the One who comes to comfort us in our despair and release us from our fears. God comes among us to set us free from the past and present so we can live the future God envisions for us and for all of creation.

The Messiah comes to gather us, feed us, and lead us to new pastures where the alienation of the past is healed and we can become the people God calls us to be, living the abundant life God comes to offers us, and all people, for eternity. Amen.

Greek icon of Second Coming, c. 1700. Public Domain.

November 29, 2020

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent. The scripture readings may be found by clicking here.

Today we begin a new liturgical year with the start of Advent. Advent is a season easily missed. It can be overwhelmed by the celebration of Christmas around us. While we won’t celebrate Christmas until December 24—celebrating for 12 days—the world’s Christmas season began the day after Thanksgiving and lasts until New Year’s Day. With all happening around us, it can be easy to miss Advent entirely or see it as a generic preparation for Christmas.

While Christmas has come, complete with decorated lighted Christmas trees, Advent begins much more humbly and simply. This season begins with a single candle lit in the darkness. This First Sunday of Advent one small flame burns on the Advent wreath. Through the four weeks the light will increase, until there are four candles burning.

These candles are a statement of radical hope in the face of the reality of our world. The light kindled in the darkness offers an assurance that the words of the prophets in ages past will become reality. This light promises God hears our cry, God knows the pain of this world, and God will ultimately dismantle the oppressive powers of injustice that rule the earth. 

A central them of Advent is “Watch!” We are called to patiently and actively watch for God to visit us, breaking into this age with the promise that things will change. What we experience now is not all there is. God’s reign will one day be ushered in with its promise of new and abundant life. 

I wonder if we may need Advent this year more than in any other time in our lives. So much is wrong with our world as we enter this holy season. The coronavirus pandemic ravages the entire world, seemingly unchecked. Once again, we are unable to worship in-person. Too many people are sick and dying. Hospitals are overwhelmed, medical staff are exhausted, supplies growing short. Here in Rhode Island the Cranston field hospital may be opened soon as local hospitals reach capacity.

The pandemic causes economic woes for many people. Businesses have failed leading to unemployment. People who were economically challenged before the pandemic suffer greatly now. Politicians are unable, or unwilling, to offer economic relief to the most vulnerable. People suffer food insecurity, many can’t pay rent or mortgages.

The pandemic has revealed, in terms too stark to ignore, the injustice of our society. This Advent we cannot pretend all is well with the world. It is clear we need God more than ever. We cry out with the prophet Isaiah for God to “tear open the heavens and come down.”

While waiting, watching, and hoping for God’s deliverance, we can wonder why God doesn’t come down and act now? Why doesn’t God step in and fix things in this world? Why doesn’t God end sickness, poverty, economic exploitation, and injustice? We may wonder where is God? Has God forgotten us?

These questions have been asked by the people of God for millennia. In today’s first lesson, the prophet Isaiah tells how the people want God to act as in the past by vanquishing their enemies. They hope God will act dramatically, as when delivering the people from Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea. Instead they experience God as hidden and distant. The people struggle to understand why God, who once acted so powerfully, appears to do nothing in the present.

Though the people fear God is not listening and acting, maybe that they are abandoned by God, Isaiah says they must trust that God is still listening and present, though not acting as they hope and want. God is the same God who always hears the cry of the people. God has not abandoned them, and will finally redeem all, creating a new heaven and a new earth. God, however, does not do what they want, when they want it.

The lesson ends with beautiful images of God as a father and a potter. These are very personal images, reflecting the strong, intimate connection between God and the people. They are images of God caring for the people, forming and shaping them into the people God calls them to be, just as a potter shapes a mound of wet clay into a vessel. 

Advent’s call is to remember that God hears our cry, that God is acting, entering into the present, though not always in ways we see or understand. God may not act as decisively and dramatically as we desire. God may not do exactly what we want or ask. Advent calls us to remember we do not fully know or grasp the ways of God. We often forget God does not use coercion. Rather, God comes to us in humility and love, inviting all into relationship with God. God is known in suffering and vulnerability, rather than in domination and force. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who opposed the Nazis, offers insight into the ways of God. Writing from a German concentration camp shortly before he is killed in 1944, he writes about the hiddenness of God: “God would have us know that we must live as [people] who manage our lives without [God]. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15.34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. [God] is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which [God] is with us and helps us.” [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Macmillan, 1971), 360. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (Kindle Locations 1033-1035). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.]

For Bonhoeffer this realization is not a denial of faith but is a retrieval of faith in God of the cross. God’s power is seen in suffering. God’s omnipotence is seen in vulnerability. God does not coerce, allowing humanity to forget and reject God, living as though God is not needed. God enters the world in humility, acting as a servant, willingly going to the cross for love of humanity. In this seemingly powerless act is found the redemption of all creation. Through the cross a new heaven and a new earth are ushered in. On the cross sin and death are destroyed.

The Gospel today seems to contradict this image of God’s omnipotence in vulnerability. In this passage, Jesus teaches the Son of Man will come with power and glory, with his angels, gathering the elect from the ends of the earth. It is an image of glory, power, and of strength. But the glory and power of Jesus, when he returns at the end of time, are not how the world understands strength. When Jesus returns, his body still bears the scars of his passion, those marks of his crucifixion in his hands, feet, and side. 

This Gospel image of Jesus returning in glory sounds remarkably like the resurrection, when new life comes from the death of the tomb. The community organizer and biblical scholar Ched Myers, in his commentary on Mark’s Gospel, Say to this Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, suggests that in this passage, Jesus is reassuring his disciples in uncertain times. Jesus offer solace to his followers that through the resurrection God has dominion over the evil forces of this world—even over death itself. This image of the crucified and resurrected Jesus returning in glory is the call to give up fear and despair, to not shrink back from the work at hand. The oppressive powers and forces of this world will eventually be defeated by God. Things will not always remain as they now are.

These words of Jesus are to reassure early Christians in dangerous times. The Jewish Revolt against Rome, a war between Jewish nationalists and the Roman empire are the backdrop to this passage. Mark’s community is committed to non-violence and would not fight in the revolt—on either side. This meant they were persecuted by both Jewish nationalists and the Roman officials. Forces of death are all around them. 

Today’s Gospel reminds those following Jesus must live by the way of love Jesus followed. The power of the cross is the means by which the forces of oppression are overthrown. Earthly powers and principalities will all pass away. They are no match for the fierce love of God—a love so strong, it defeats the power of sin and death.

Jesus reminds his followers to keep awake through this dark night and watch for God to enter into human history, living by the hope that God can transform this time for God’s purposes. This hope assures us God is present with us in our challenges, giving meaning to our suffering through power of the cross. God is active and present in this time and God invites us to be like clay in God’s hands, allowing God to shape us into the people God intends us to be. Having shaped and formed us, God may then use us as instruments of God’s work in this broken and suffering world.

Advent bids us to trust the longings and hopes of the prophets of old, believing that God does indeed hear the cries of God’s people. God will transform this world. God is not hidden from us, but is revealed in the loving humility of the cross, in the vulnerability of love stronger than death, in God coming among us a helpless baby in Bethlehem.

Advent calls us to see this world as it is—not ignoring it or retreating from it—but seeing it honestly. We must feel the pain, sadness, and despair present in world now, understanding this as an experience of the cross, of the suffering of Jesus. 

God invites us to lift this pain in prayer, that God may transform and redeem it, and strengthen us to face this world. As we experience the world’s brokenness, may we allow God to use us as God’s instruments of transformation, changing this world through our loving witness, that others know the powerful love of God. Amen.

The Redeemer East Window. Matthew 25:31-46.

November 22, 2020

A sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost. The scriptures lessons are found by clicking here.

Today is the Last Sunday after Pentecost, the final Sunday of the liturgical year. Next week we begin a new liturgical year with the First Sunday of Advent. The Scripture readings for this last Sunday highlight the Kingship of Jesus. 

In the Epistle, from the Letter to the Ephesians, we hear, “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” 

Focusing on the Kingship of Jesus, as we do today, it is important we remember what kind of King Jesus is. Jesus calls us to give our lives completely over to him. Through the waters of baptism, he claims us as his own for eternity. We are his people. Unlike an earthly king, however, Jesus lays hold on us not by force but by abundant love. Jesus doesn’t coerce us into obedience, forcing our loyalty, but instead loves us, seeks us, invites us, and welcomes us. 

Jesus is a King unlike like any other, unlike any early monarch. Jesus humbles himself by putting on our human flesh. The Ruler of creation, present at the creation of all that exists, becomes a creature within in the creation, humbling himself for a season. 

Jesus is the King who walks in humble, loving service, willingly dying on the cross for us, becoming subject to the hatred and evil of humanity. On the third day God raises him from the dead, destroying once and for all the power of death. Through Baptism we share in a death like his and promised we will also share in his victory over death. Between now and our deaths, we are called to follow him, living as he did in this earthly life by loving all.

Jesus our King is the great Shepherd of the people. He calls each sheep by name, gathering them in safe pastures overflowing with abundant food and water. He is the shepherd who seeks out the lost, leaving the ninety-nine of the flock to find the one sheep who strayed. Jesus is the Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, giving up his life that the sheep may have eternal life. 

As people claimed by Christ our King, we are to follow his example. Today’s Gospel tells us how we live as people who belong to Jesus our Shepherd. It is the only account of final judgment we have in the New Testament. 

In this passage, Jesus, as judge, separates the sheep from the goats. The sheep are welcomed into the heavenly kingdom with the words, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 

The sheep are surprised by this. They ask when did they serve Jesus? Jesus assures them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

The goats, meanwhile, are cast out for they did not serve Jesus by serving the least. They committed sins of omission, neglecting those in need around them. They are judged for their neglect of others. For their lack of action, they are excluded from eternal life.

This Gospel reminds us how we are to live until Jesus comes again in glory. We are to remain awake, preparing for his return. We are to wait for Jesus by caring for those in need. When we do so, we serve Jesus. 

All people are beloved children of God, created in the image and likeness of God. When we look into the face of someone who is hungry, thirsty, sick, or imprisoned we are looking at Jesus. When we fail to see such a person as beloved of God, not seeing Jesus in them, we ignore Jesus. 

This scripture passage says those failing to care for others are judged by Jesus. It is important to understand how Jesus judges us. Jesus returns as judge not looking for reasons to condemn humanity, but instead comes to redeem. Jesus comes to us in love, the Shepherd of the people, seeking to lead us into God’s pasture, to welcome us to the heavenly banquet. Jesus desires everyone enters eternal life.

Jesus returns as the crucified One, his body bearing the scars of his passion. Though he is God, he lived among us in human flesh. He knows our trials, the challenges of being human. He understands our faithfulness as well as our failings. He was tempted as we are. Like any shepherd, he will do all it takes to redeem everyone, doing what is necessary to lead all into the fullness of his kingdom.

Though Jesus comes in love, we can be frightened of God’s judgment. Thinking about Jesus returning in glory to judge us can be unsettling. It is important to remember Jesus is the Shepherd who gave his life on the cross for the sheep, setting his cross between us and our salvation. He seeks us in love and compassion. When he judges us, he does so in love, looking on us with more understanding than we have of ourselves. He seeks to purify us, removing all that separates us from God, one another, and ourselves. We have nothing to fear when Jesus returns, we need not shrink bank from his merciful and compassionate judgment.

As Jesus treats us with mercy, we are called to do likewise. Just as Jesus gazes upon us with eyes of loving compassion, so we are to do with others. We are to live the way Jesus shows us. Throughout his earthly life and ministry, Jesus sought the lost and forgotten. He welcomed the outcast, sharing meals with them. Jesus himself was counted with the marginalized, having no home, owning no property, no possessions; at the end he was abandoned, rejected, tortured, and killed. 

This Jesus who comes again as judge, lived among us as the least and forgotten of this world.  Though he will come as our judge, he returns as One who knows what it is to be poor, alone, rejected. He understands first hand human suffering. He calls his followers to serve those at the margins because he himself knows what it is to live at edge, forgotten and alone. 

Jesus calls us away from our self-centeredness, drawing us out of ourselves, focusing our gaze on the face of others. Our salvation comes not because we achieve it through our actions, by anything we do. Rather, we discover salvation, perhaps when we least expect it. Salvation is something we live. The sheep in today’s Gospel passage don’t set out on set course of action to win eternal life. Rather, they know salvation because they discover it, unexpectedly, when they see the face of God in the stranger. In their loving actions they see God. They didn’t expect this. They are surprised to learn they cared for the King of creation when they acted with the loving compassion of Jesus. 

As await for Jesus to return, we are called to watch for God to enter in. Jesus asks we  open our hearts and our eyes, seeing God is present. Rather than focus solely on ourselves, on our own challenges and struggles, we are called to watch for Jesus by seeing others, looking into the face of the stranger. Living this way, we may be surprised by encountering Jesus in a loving act toward another.

There are many opportunities for us to act in love at this time. In this year of pandemic, many are suffering, despairing, ill, and dying. Being socially distant from one another, many are lonely and feeling isolated. There is an invitation for us to open ourselves, reaching out to others in love and caring. A card, email, or phone call can connect someone us with someone who is lonely. Doing so, we may find Jesus present.

As the evil hold of white supremacy shows no signs of abating, leaving people of color literally fighting for their lives, those of us who are white have opportunities to act. We can learn about our history. This week in particular, we can discover the untruths we learned about the first Thanksgiving. We can support black-led organizations though financial donations, letter writing, and political activism. We can open our hearts and ears, listening to the experience of people of color who everyday experience the systemic racism of our society. In these actions we might  discover Jesus is present.

In this time of great national division, when we struggle to speak respectfully across our differences, we have many opportunities to act from love and compassion. We can commit to speaking with respect in all our interactions especially with those who disagree with us, including in our social media posts and comments. We can look for the face of Jesus in the face of those at odds with us. We might be surprised to discover Jesus present in these encounters with others.

Today’s Gospel calls us to always do the right thing by faithfully caring for those in need as we wait for Jesus to return. In doing so, we care for Jesus, even if we do not realize it. Living this way keeps our faith strong, our love of God alive, and moves us towards the authentic, abundant life God desires to share with us. Today’s Gospel reminds us salvation is a gift, something we discover and experience, when we least expect it.

Following Jesus, we are called to live as Jesus does, loving those for whom he gave his life: those forgotten, not valued, who live at the margins, and those in need. This way of life is a primary expression of our love of God and a way we experience God’s love for us.

Living this way, we follow Jesus, the King of Love, in the way he walks. His way of love is the path to the eternal banquet the Great Shepherd of the sheep prepares for his people. It is the way to the heavenly feast prepared for us who are the sheep of his pasture. Amen.

Agnus Dei in Stained glass, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 204 N Ohio St, Wanatah, IN. Public domain.

November 15, 2020

A sermon for the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are found by clicking here (Track II).

Each Sunday we pray the Collect of the Day. It is a prayer that sums up the themes of the day and includes a petition, something we ask of God when we pray it. The Collect of the Day also give shape to the weekdays that follow as we pray it each day at Morning and Evening Prayer. Though only a few lines long, these prayers are gems, full of beautiful language and profound theology.

Today’s Collect of the Day is one of the most loved in the Book of Common Prayer. It is regularly quoted and referenced. It is common to hear Anglicans say we are to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest,” especially referring to Scripture.

This Collect opens by stating, “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning.” This asserts God was at work in forming the writings we now hold as scripture, that the Holy Spirit was active, inspiring human writers to articulate divine truths.

The Collect goes on to ask that we be deeply shaped and formed by scripture, coming to inwardly digest it. This suggests taking scripture into our being, chewing on, making it part of us, allowing it to nourish and strengthen us. It echoes the gospel call to live not by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. 

The Collect reminds us scripture is important for us as Anglicans it and calls us to daily immerse ourselves in scripture, being deeply shaped and formed by it. We are called take the words of scripture into our very being, being fed and transformed by God’s holy word.

If scripture is the divinely inspired word of God, to feed and transform us, how do we approach passages that make us uncomfortable? What do we do with those passages of scripture that are difficult for us?

Rather than dismissing a difficult passage, I suggest we sit with, wrestling with it, praying God reveal the truth expressed in it. We can be patient with this process, not rushing or worrying if it takes a long time. As we wrestle and grapple with the difficult words, our we can pray that God illumine our hearts and minds, revealing God’s truth contained in these words to us. We can also engage the work of scholars, consulting bible commentaries, reading what insights those who study scripture can offer us. 

There is also wisdom in engaging scripture in community. One the deep sadnesses of this pandemic is the loss of our Sunday morning Discussion Group. Regularly the conversations of that group deepened my understanding of scripture, stretching me and deepening my faith.

Today’s first reading from the prophet Zephaniah is one of those challenging passages that benefits from study and discussion. The passage seems to offer little hope. It is about God’s judgment. Coming in this time of pandemic, as the coronavirus surges unchecked throughout our nation and world, hearing God threaten to destroy humankind can be unsettling. 

The prophet Zephaniah frames the predicament of people in harsh terms: all have sinned and fallen short; as punishment, God will destroy humanity.  Zephaniah declares God is all powerful, can create and destroy, though the people believe God has no power, either for good or to do harm. They think God is powerless and ineffectual. So the people of Zephaniah’s age worship idols, putting their trust in false gods made of silver and gold. Because the people reject God, they will be punished.

Zephaniah speaks frightening words from God. These words are intended to shake the people from their complacency. The passage opens, “Be silent before the Lord God!” God is calling the people to be quiet and hear God’s judgment. They are called to listen to God’s word and repent, returning to God.

At the very end of the book, Zephaniah prophesies that God will preserve a faithful remnant of the people. God will be present in the midst of the people, they will repent, return to God, and live in joy with God. For that to happen they must listen. They must take God seriously. They must give up their  self-centered ways, casting off their complacency and self-indulgence, and faithfully worshipping.

This passage asks something very demanding. It calls the people to hard work. It is the same for us today. God asks much of us. God asks us to choose whom we will serve. God calls us to choose faithfulness and obedience to God as our way of life. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus likewise asks each person to give everything to follow him. This reading is the Parable of the Talents, a parable of judgment. It tells of a property owner who is going away. He entrusts large sums of money to his servants. Just one talent equals 20 years’ wages for a day laborer. One servant receives five talents, a staggering sum of money. 

The owner doesn’t give his servants any instructions about what they should do with the money he gives them, but the first, given five talents, trades with them, doubling their value. The second servant, given two talents, does the same. Both use this capital to make more money for the owner. Upon his return, the owner is pleased, telling these two, “Well done, good and trustworthy servant.” As a reward for their shrewd work, the owner puts these two in charge of more. 

The third servant is different from the other two. He is afraid of the owner, finding him harsh. Knowing the owner is good at turning a profit, “reaping where [he] did not sow,” he is fearful and buries his one talent. He is afraid of losing what he is given, earning the wrath of the owner. He doesn’t even take the safe path of earning interest at the bank. 

When the owner learns what the third servant did with the talent, he is displeased and casts him out. The owner judges the servant was unfaithful with the talent entrusted to him. Because he is unfaithful, he will not enter into joy with his master. 

For the third servant, this large sum of money terrified him. Not only was he afraid, the owner calls him lazy for not putting the money in the bank. He did not work like other two. This servant shows he is most interested in himself, in his security, not in faithfully serving the owner, doing the work entrusted to him.

This parable is a call for us, as followers of Jesus, to be faithful in the work entrusted to us by God. It is the call to use whatever gifts, talents, and material resources God entrusts to us in service of God’s kingdom. 

We must not be afraid of the responsibility given to us, burying what we have in fear, hiding what God entrusts to us. We must hoard what God gives us, hoping for security in the future. We must not shrink from the work before us, trying to protect ourselves, thinking only of our security and well-being.

Rather, we are to make full use of what God has entrusted to us, offering all our talents, resources, and time in service of God. We are to use all God gives us following Jesus in loving service to our neighbor.

It is hard to cast off fear, especially when fear is all around us as it is this age. During this pandemic, we fear we, or someone we love, will become ill. The divisions of hate in our nation cause us fear. People of Color fear for their lives because of white supremacy’s power. Many fear for their economic well-being as jobs are lost, medical bills mount, and the threat of another lock down looms.

Fear is real. The result of fear, however, is paralysis. Fear shuts us down, causing us to seek shelter and protection. Fear focuses us inward, on our security and the security of those we love. Fear doesn’t draw us closer in community, where we find support and strengthen, but instead drives us apart, isolating us from one another.

Jesus gives us the strength to give up fear, anxiety, and despair. Jesus calls us to put our trust in the word of God, in the One who creates all things and has awesome power. Jesus calls us away from our worship of the things of this world, to the worship of the One who loves us, who redeems us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and who abides with us through the power of the Holy Spirit, forming and shaping us into a holy people. 

As God’s holy people, we are all given gifts to be used in God’s service. No gift is too small, too insignificant, to be used by God. Each gift is given by God for a reason and purpose. God wants to use all our gifts to build the kingdom on earth. Let us say yes to God, giving abundantly from all we have been given, sharing our time, talent, and treasure without counting the cost, giving generously from all God lovingly gives us. 

Living as generous workers in the kingdom, working tirelessly for God, brings us joy. As we build the beloved community, walking in the way of love, we offer a beacon of hope to our world plunged into darkness, fear, suffering, and death.

Today’s Collect of the Day, after calling us to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest scripture, asks God, “that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.” 

We are called by Jesus to live by hope, by the strong hope rooted in God that drives out all fear. We are to live by deep trust in the promises of God, staking our lives on the power of God—a power that is stronger than any earthly power. 

We are to trust the One who defeats the hold of sin and evil so they have no hold over us even now, in this life. The hope of everlasting life is ours now, in this age. It is real, true, and trustworthy in this life of travail, as we make our earthly pilgrimage.

Let us give ourselves over completely to hope in God, accepting the invitation to the life of joy God prepares for us. God has claimed us, marking us as Christ’s own forever. We are held by God in this life and in the next. God calls us to live faithfully in this life that we might enter into the joy of the heavenly kingdom, hearing at the last God’s loving words to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Master.” Amen.

The Wise and Foolish VirginsWilliam Blake, 1826, Matthew 25:1-6. Public domain.

November 8, 2020

A sermon for the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings may be found by clicking here (Track II).

Waiting is a common experience for all of us. Sometimes waiting is easy. In this pandemic, more people are buying things online instead of going to the store. This requires waiting for delivery, which is typically easy to do.

Other types of waiting are more challenging. I think of those waiting for the results of a medical test, who patiently wait, hoping and praying for good news. Or all who wait for an end to this terrible pandemic, watching the coronavirus ravage the world with record numbers of infections and deaths, praying for a vaccine to arrive soon, that the suffering and death may end.

For the past several days our nation has been occupied in waiting for the results of the presidential election. After record turnout, with more balloting by mail than in previous elections, tabulating results was time consuming. We learned a new kind of patience waiting for the results of a close election in a divided nation. Now we wait to see if the results will be accepted by all and a peaceful transfer of power will take place.

It is not easy to wait when the stakes are high or the outcome is consequential or uncertain. This past week there were moments when I didn’t quite know what to do as I waited. I felt unsettled. I experienced anxiety. In such times it is important to remember God is the ruler of all creation. All rests in God’s hands. God is with us, even if God seems distant. Through the victory won by the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are claimed as God’s beloved for eternity. God will never let go of us.

In times of waiting it can be helpful to remember God’s abiding love and presence. It is useful to set aside time to turn off the news and push notifications, detaching and entering into silence in God’s presence. Coming before God in silence and prayer reminds us God is God, we are not. It allows us to turn our cares and concerns over to God, casting our burdens on God.

I experienced this myself on election night. It was difficult not having clear returns. As I sat before the screen feeling unsettled and restless, something prompted me to login to the election night prayer vigil offered by the brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE) in Cambridge, MA. Virtually sitting in silence with the community then chanting a psalm and praying a litany, I was reminded of what is truly important in this time. In prayer with the brothers I was enfolded in the calm embrace of our loving God. This experience settled and comforted me.

Waiting can feel passive, like a period of inaction, of time suspended, sitting until something happens. As followers of Jesus we are called to a different kind of waiting, to active waiting. Rather than watching the minutes tick stressfully by, we are called to actively wait with God, discerning where God is at work, listening for the ways God is calling us to be and act. 

Today’s Gospel offers a parable about active waiting. Jesus introduces this parable by saying, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this.” The parable offers insight into the ways of God and God’s reign. It is the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids and is a call to actively wait for Jesus to come again at the end of time.

The first followers of Jesus expected Jesus to return soon after his death, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus would come again in glory and God’s reign would be ushered in. This world would pass away. When that didn’t happen, the church wrestled with how to wait for Jesus’ return, actively watching and preparing for his return at any moment.

The parable of wise and foolish bridesmaids teaches we need to live with urgency. We need to be prepared, watching, ready for the moment Jesus comes again. The foolish bridesmaids didn’t do their work. They didn’t have enough oil. Their lamps weren’t prepared. When the bridegroom arrives, they leave to get oil and return too late. The door is closed to them and they miss the wedding feast. 

Matthew reminds us that Jesus’ seeming delay in coming again requires we live expectantly, watching and actively waiting. This is challenging to do. It is difficult to live with urgency for two millennia. Yet the parable starkly illustrates the cost of being unprepared. We  will miss the return of Jesus and find ourselves outside the eternal feast. Because we were unprepared, we will not be ready to enter the banquet with Jesus.

So how do we live in anticipation, actively watching and waiting? Throughout the Gospel Matthew tells us what to do. We are to be a blessing to all people, living by blessedness. We are to love God with our whole heart, mind, and soul and love our neighbor as ourselves. The fruits of this love include abstaining from bad behavior, showing love for our enemies, forgiving others, and faithfully following Jesus. Living this way is our call in this life and prepares us for life in the age to come.

Today’s first lesson from the prophet Amos offers a similar message. The passage opens with frightening images. It says the day of the Lord is one of darkness and gloom, not light; it is like fleeing from a bear and coming upon a lion. Amos tells the people God does not appreciate their worship, that God hates their festivals and their offerings. God finds the music of their worship to be noise. This certainly is not comforting. The day of the Lord does not sound like what the people imagined it will be

That is because Amos calls the people to change their ways, pronouncing God’s judgment against them. While the people of Israel worship God in the proscribed ways, with elaborate ritual and music, they also oppress the poor, forgetting to care for the needs of others. God rejects their worship because of this. Amos reminds the people that God requires of them justice and righteousness. In beautiful language Amos says, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” 

Ritual without action in the world is meaningless. The worship of God means offering rituals and beautiful music to God and requires working for justice, for what is right and accords with God’s will and intention. It is the call to righteousness, to living in right relationship with God, our neighbor, ourselves, and creation. It is receiving the justice and righteousness flowing from God as a stream, letting it wash over us, flowing to those we encounter.

As we wait for Jesus to return and for all things to be brought to their fulfillment and completion, we are called to actively wait by worshiping God and making justice in the world. We must not fritter the time away like the foolish bridesmaids, hoping we can act at the last moment, slipping into the wedding feast as the door is closing. Rather, we are to live as the wise bridesmaids who used the time of waiting to buy their oil and prepare their lamps while keeping watch for the bridegroom’s approach.

In these tumultuous times there are two particular ways of living that seem especially important as we wait for Jesus to return. The first involves the pandemic. As the number of people infected with the coronavirus rises around the world, including here in Rhode Island, with more people being hospitalized and dying, we are called to make loving choices. 

This week our governor asked us to limit time spent with people outside our household to slow the spread of the virus. Doing so requires making difficult decisions and sacrifices. On Friday the parish Reopening Task Force met to discuss the governor’s new guidelines.The group made the very difficult decision to cancel our Sunday outdoor Morning Prayer, offering only virtual worship. Thus far no one has become infected by our outdoor service that we know. We carefully follow every safety protocol, including mask wearing and distancing. We could have continued to gather. But the Task Force thought it important to cancel for a time.

This was difficult to do. It was an emotional conversation. We all long to be together, worshipping God in person as a gathered community. But there are risks in doing that now. The more we are with others in groups, the greater chance of spreading the virus. The Task Force made this sacrifice to encourage our parish community to stay home for two weeks, limiting opportunities for the virus to spread. This sacrifice is an act of love we make for the common good. Our sacrifice is for the good of others. I am grateful to the Reopening Task Force for their courage and compassion in making this decision. I am grateful to all in this parish for accepting this decision that is rooted in love for one another.

The second way we can live in this time of waiting is by committing ourselves to be agents of God’s love, healing, and reconciliation. Our nation is dangerously polarized and divided. The election heightened these tensions. While half the country rejoices, half knows loss. Now that the presidential race is decided, we have the opportunity to come together, remembering what unites is more important than what divides us. Following Jesus, we can remember all are beloved children of God and act accordingly. We can remember the common humanity we all share.

Yesterday morning a parishioner called me to share good news they had heard. In Philadelphia both Democrats and Republicans are counting the votes cast in the election. As they worked together in this arduous task all week, they found themselves becoming friends. The political divisions are being put aside and a sense of common humanity is emerging. Political posturing is falling away. This news gives me great hope. If we are intentional, we can build relationships across the political divides of our country, healing our divisions. 

Following Jesus, we are charged to seek unity not division, to love our neighbor not hate. Let us commit ourselves to this way of love by loving all, especially those who disagree with us, always seeing in them the presence of God, and finding ways to heal what divides and separates us.

As we journey through this life, with all its challenges and times of waiting, may we faithfully worship God and actively work for justice. Loving God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and loving our neighbors as ourselves, is our call in this life. Living this way opens our hearts, preparing us to accept the invitation of Jesus to join the eternal banquet God has prepared for us at the end of the age. Amen.

All Saints, France Angelico. Public Domain.

November 1, 2020

A sermon for All Saints’ Day. The scripture readings for the day may be found here.

Today we are in the middle day of the fall Triduum. Triduum is a Latin word meaning “three days.” These three days are also known as Allhallowtide, hallow a word meaning “holy.” This is a period that begins with All Hallow’s Eve, continues through All Saints’ Day, and ends on All Souls’ Day. Uniting these three days is a focus on those who have died and our connection with them.

Since ancient times, the veil between the living and the dead, between this world and eternity, has seemed especially thin at this time of year. These three days reflect that reality. It was believed that on All Hallow’s Eve those who had died during the previous year played tricks on the living. Those departed who were wronged in this life had one last night to seek vengeance for how they were mistreated. Our celebration of Hallowe’en is rooted in this ancient belief and is the source of Hallowe’en tricks.

All Saints’ Day, which we celebrate today, was understood as the day when those who had died during the year entered into eternal life, leaving this earthly life behind. On All Saints’ Day we celebrate the saints who have gone before us, those exemplars of the faith who faithfully followed Jesus, running with endurance this earthy life, some giving their lives as martyrs. Their names are known to us through the church’s calendar. They are the holy, the hallowed, of God.

The last day of Allhallowtide is All Souls’ Day, which we keep tomorrow. It is the day we remember those who have died who are not on the church’s calendar. On All Souls’ Day we pray for those known perhaps only to us and for those unnamed, known only to God, with no one to pray for them. In this time of pandemic, we sadly remember the nearly 230,000 killed by the coronavirus in this country, and the more than one million dead throughout the world. 

During this triduum we remember those we love and see no more, those who worship God on a distant shore having been separated from this life by death. These three days remind us that we are connected with the departed across the chasm of death. The love we share with our beloved dead does not end. We remain in relationship with them. We pray for them as they journey into the fullness of God. We are connected to the saints on the church’s calendar, those who lived lives of faithfulness and holiness, inspiring us by their witness. We trust the saints pray for us as we continue this earthly journey.

For the veil between the living and the dead is indeed thin. Through the communion of saints, we are connected with those who have gone before us. Nothing, not even death, can separate us from those we love. The power of God is greater than all the forces of this world, even the power of death itself. At the last, God will gather all people around the heavenly throne.

In our Epistle today from the Revelation to John is an image of a great multitude gathered before throne of the Lamb, worshipping and praising God, their robes washed white by blood of Lamb. All Saints’ Day assures us we will one day join them worshipping at God’s throne. 

Through the waters of baptism we put on Christ, sharing in a death like his that we might share in his resurrection. Like the martyrs, our robes are washed clean, made brilliant white, through the blood of the Lamb in the waters of baptism. 

Our destiny is joining the saints of old at the heavenly banquet prepared by God. We will join the multitude of angels and saints, and worship God day and night. In that eternal realm there is no hunger or thirst, no scoring heat. Jesus, the Lamb of God, shepherds the people, gathering them, leading them to the springs of the water of life. God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. 

This is such a comforting image, especially in this time of great suffering and sorrow. Though we shed tears of grief in this life, in the world to come God will wipe the tears away from our eyes. We will have reason for tears because death is no more in God’s reign. Death is defeated through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In God’s eternal realm there is no sorrow, pain, or crying. All who love God will be gathered to God for eternity with all the saints.

We are called to be the saints of God, living lives of holiness, giving ourselves over completely to following Jesus. Like the saints of old we are called to witness through our lives, by our words and deeds, to the love of God.

Several years ago I heard a saint defined as “an ordinary person called to do extraordinary things.” This reassures me. I know I am not perfect, I sin regularly, I fall short of the glory of God. 

This definition reminds us saints are just like you and me. Saints are not perfect, only God is perfect. Like us, they knew temptation and sin. There were times they fell short of the glory of God. But the saints did not let this defeat them. The saints acknowledged their sin and failings, repented, and kept going. They were not distracted from following Jesus. They put following God above all else.

For the saints, God was more important than anything in this life. The saints did not pursue riches or earthly power. They sought the kingdom of God with single-minded devotion. They strived to live lives of loving service, seeking out the forgotten and marginalized. God used them, in their giftedness and their imperfections and failings, in service to God, making them instruments ushering in the kingdom of God in this world through their witness.

In today’s Gospel Jesus explains how to live as a saint of God. He goes up the mountain to teach the people through the Beatitudes. This scene echoes Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive the Law from God. Jesus does not, however, give a new law. Instead, he offers the ultimate interpretation of the law God gave Moses. Jesus teaches a new understanding of the law. He makes clear believing in Jesus means doing what he says, accepting his call to a particular way of life.

This is the call to live in a state of blessedness, of joy derived from being in right relationship with God. It is living so we are a blessing to other people, especially to the marginalized, the least, the forgotten, and the excluded.

The Beatitudes describe God’s kingdom, that heavenly place where all are beloved of God. The Beatitudes are also a statement of God’s intention for this world, here and now, in this time and place. The Beatitudes are a call to live in a state of blessedness, living in right relationship with God and our neighbor, being a blessing to all.

Through the Beatitudes, Jesus teaches the way of humble dependence on God’s grace, relying on God’s strength. Blessedness requires praying ceaselessly for the kingdom, that God’s reign breaks into this troubled world. It asks we mourn for the economic injustice of our world, for the indifference of the rich and privileged. 

Jesus calls us to be people who are gentle, humble of spirit, practicing non-violence; who thirst for God’s saving righteousness and God’s deliverance from injustice; who imitate God in being merciful, showing compassion to others; people called to devote ourselves to the hard work of reconciliation, being reconcilers and healers in our deeply divided world, working for the shalom of God — for a peace that is not only the absence of strife and conflict, but is a peace that seeks the well being and welfare of all people. 

Living this way may lead us to conflict with others, especially with those who value the ways of world. This certainly happened to the saints of old who were ridiculed, ignored, rejected, and even killed for their faith. Jesus tells us to rejoice when this happens and know that God is with us in taking a stand for God’s love and justice, for blessedness. 

All Saints’ Day is a time to renew our commitment to walking the path of blessedness, to being an agent of God’s love in the world. In years past we have gathered on this baptismal day at the font to renew our Baptismal Covenant and be sprinkled with the living water of baptism. Because of the pandemic this year is different. We cannot gather at the font, we can’t be sprinkled with blessed water to remind us of our baptismal promises. 

Though this year is different, we are still called to remember those promises we make in baptism. We are called to put on Christ, clothing ourselves with his love. In baptism we promise to live the faith of the saints, following Jesus in his way of blessedness by renouncing the powers of Satan and the evil of this world and promising to love all people as Jesus does, living by loving service and working to fight injustice and oppression.

Let us give thanks for witness of the saints, those holy and hallowed of God who have gone before us. May we follow their example in all virtuous living, trusting God will use our gifts and imperfections to bring about God’s kingdom. Through the power of the Holy Spirit may we be ordinary people who accomplish extraordinary things in the name of God, doing more than we can ask or imagine, always being a blessing to this world. Through our witness, and that of all the saints, may God’s kingdom indeed come soon. Amen.

Love Your Neighbor as Yourself. Immigration rally February 4, 2017. Public Domain.

October 25, 2020

A sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings may be found here (Track II).

Throughout the week I use the word “love” regularly in my speech. I find myself saying, “I love it” when seeing a beautiful sunset, eating delicious food, or hearing a witty remark. For the past several years I have attempted to be more intentional in how I use this word, wanting to avoid its casual use. Truthfully, it is so ingrained in me, and reinforced by others I hear, that I have not done well in this challenge. 

This is not unique to me. In our age “love” is a word used often, likely with little thought. The casual use of the word “love” by us undermines the profound biblical implications of the meaning of love. Our casual use of this word reduces it to a common expression of favor or delight, detached from its profound theological meaning. This leaves us disadvantaged when seeking meaning in a Gospel reading like today’s. 

Today’s passage is the concluding section of Matthew’s Gospel we have heard the past four weeks. It began with the religious leaders asking Jesus by what authority he taught and healed. Was his authority from God, Satan, or himself? Jesus did not answer directly, but instead told several parables.

The religious leaders asked Jesus this question not because they were curious and hoping to learn who Jesus is. They asked only to entrap him, hoping to use his own words against him so they could arrest and kill him.

Today’s reading is their final attempt to trap Jesus. They ask him what is the greatest commandment. Jesus replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Jesus refuses to name only one commandment as “great,” meaning the most important. Instead, he links the command to love God found in Deuteronomy 6:5 with the command to love one’s neighbor found in Leviticus 19:18, which we heard as our first reading today. 

Jesus says the second commandment is “like” the first, meaning they are interrelated, are of similar importance. Jesus teaches the two must go together because they summarize what it means to faithfully follow God. Together these two commandments articulate the life of holiness to which God calls us.

To understand this call, we need to understand what Jesus means by love. This is where we 21st century Christians are at a disadvantage. The love Jesus references is not like our love of ice cream, a beautiful sunset, or a new car. This is the love by which the universe is created and on which it rests. This love is not merely an attribute of God, on characteristic among many, but is, in fact, the very identity of God. 

Scripture tells us God is love. Love is God’s identity. The three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are a community of love, three persons, one God, bound together in  love. Love binds the three Persons of the Trinity in communion, flowing outward from the Triune Godhead to all of creation.

This love defines the nature of God and God’s intention for the whole of creation. This is love that intends the wholeness and well-being of each creature so all become who God creates them to be. This love has as its object humanity and the whole of creation, providing each creature what it needs to be who God calls it to be.

This love is not casual or about warm feelings. It is not predicated on reciprocity, needing to be returned by a loving response. This love is a commitment. It is a choice, choosing to love, not based on how we feel, or how others respond to us, but simply because God loves us. This love is our response to the great gift of God’s love for us. Because God loves us without question or reserve, we respond by loving God. Loving God then impels us to love our neighbor.

The First Letter of John makes this connection clear when it says, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4:20-21). 

Living this kind of love is not dependent on what we feel. While we may have warm feelings of gratitude when we contemplate all God has done for us, at other times we may not experience such emotion. The love Jesus calls for is not one of emotion, but of action. It is the commitment to love God and our neighbor because God loves us and cares for us. In loving our neighbor we imitate God.

This love, not predicated on affection and reciprocity, is based on commitment. It is love that takes no account of another’s worthiness or deserving. It does not insist on being shared or returned. It is love freely given because God loved us first. The faithful person’s response to being loved by God is to love one’s neighbor.

This command to love God and our neighbor is demanding. Jesus teaches that his way of love means loving those who dislike us, disagree with us, or wish us harm. Jesus commands we love our enemies as ourselves, that we love those who hates us. This way of love is a total commitment to God’s ways, giving the whole of being over to the love of God, so that God’s love fills us to overflowing, and spills from us to those around us. 

This is love so demanding and challenging, we can only hope to live this way because of God’s power. This way of love goes against our nature and how we are taught to live. We will not love perfectly as God loves. When we fail, we are called to repent and return to God, and resume giving ourselves over to love, trusting God will strengthen and lead us in this demanding way.

Loving God and our neighbor is especially demanding for those of us living in this nation. We live in a society that values the individual and the individual’s rights. Our society is focused on amassing material things for oneself and one’s family. We forget the importance of the communal, of acting for the greater good of society. Our national life has become so fractured that our differences become declarations of war, with opponents considered enemies who must be annihilated any way possible. 

As followers of Jesus, we are called to reject the ways of our world. Ours is a heavenly call, the invitation to walk the way of love revealed in Jesus. This way requires we love those who disagree with us, treating them with the respect they deserve as beloved children of God. It demands we love our enemies, praying for them, remembering they are created and loved by God. 

Love calls us to sacrifice for the well-being of others. In this time of pandemic we can do that by wearing masks and practicing social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus — even doing so now, when we are weary of the pandemic, of living with restrictions. We are called to act from love, remembering the virus is surging and many are becoming ill. Love bids us sacrifice our desires for the wellness of our neighbors.

As the pandemic leaves many unemployed and underemployed, with more families going hungry each week, we are called to love by caring for those in need. I am thankful that Camp Street Ministries will prepare and distribute 400 Thanksgiving baskets this year. Let us generously support them in love, donating food and money that our neighbors have a meal on Thanksgiving Day.

Loving God and our neighbor calls those of us who are white to learn the history of our nation and our church. Love calls us to set aside our preconceived notions and lower our defenses, accepting our painful history of white supremacy. Love calls us to repent of structural racism and actively work to be anti-racists by committing ourselves to dismantling racism and building a just and equitable society. 

Loving God with all our heart, mind, and soul and our neighbor as ourselves is no small task. It requires we turn our entire being over to God. It asks of us a daily commitment to love, repenting when we fail to love, and trying again. It asks a humility of us, that we admit our powerlessness and trust the Holy Spirit to empower and lead us in the way of God’s love.

Our Gospel today ends with Jesus asking the Pharisees a question. At last Jesus answers the religious leaders’ question that opens this section of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus finally tells the leaders where his authority comes from. While perhaps cryptic, Jesus quotes Psalm 110 to answer their question. Through this quote, Jesus tell them he is the Son of God, the One sent by the Father to reveal God to humanity. Jesus is God revealed in human flesh who comes to lead humanity to God’s divine life of love.

Jesus’ answer silences his opponents once and for all. His answer does not fit their agenda of entrapment and arrest and they do not respond. For us, however, the answer Jesus gives is cause of our hope and joy. Jesus is the visible incarnation of God’s love for us. Jesus stoops to put on human flesh to show us what love looks like and how to live by love. This way of love that Jesus reveals is a demanding call. Ultimately it leads Jesus to the horror of death on the cross.

The good news is the cross is not the last word, for Jesus reveals divine love that is more powerful than any force in this world. This love is stronger than death. This love cannot be contained  by the tomb. This love overcomes all the forces of evil, setting creation right as God intends.

Let us accept Jesus’ daily invitation to walk his way of love, not because it is easy, or it comes naturally to us, but because it is the only path to the fullness of life God intends for us and all humanity. Giving ourselves over to God’s love, loving God and our neighbors, is the way to the fullness of God’s reign. This is the way of the fierce love of God that claims us and holds us, promising never to let us go. Amen.

October 18, 2020

A sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings may be found here (Track II).

For the past three weeks we have heard parables from the Gospel according to Matthew that Jesus tells in Holy Week, just after entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to shouts of “Hosanna!” and people waving branches in welcome. Once in the city, Jesus goes to the temple where he challenges the religious leaders, judging them for rejecting his teaching and authority, just as they did with John the Baptist before him. 

Though these leaders ask Jesus questions, it is not to better understand him. They are interested in entrapping him, hoping to find a reason to kill him. They want to use his own words to condemn him. Jesus, however, knows what they are up to and finds ways to show how they fail to see the new thing God is doing in their midst.

In today’s Gospel these leaders try a different approach. They flatter Jesus saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” After praising Jesus, they ask him a question: is it lawful to pay taxes? Jesus asks for the coin used to pay taxes and inquiries whose head is portrayed on the coin. They answer it is the emperor’s image. Jesus tells them to give to the emperor what is his, and give to God what is God’s.

While the emperor is entitled to the payment of taxes using the coin bearing his likeness, Jesus points to a larger and more significant truth. By saying give to God the things that are God’s, Jesus is teaching everything belongs to God. All that a person has is a gift of God. Their very life and breath is a gift given by God. At his trial later in the week, Jesus even tells the authorities the power they exercise as political leaders is theirs because God allows it (John 19:11). And when it is God’s will and time, they will lose their power. Everything belongs to God.

Jesus reminds us everything that is exists because God created it. All of creation belongs to God. We are created by God and belong to God. Despite what the rulers of this earth might think, it is God alone who is all powerful and is the author and ruler of creation. All of creation, including all earthly powers and rulers, are subject to God’s will. None will endure for ever. Only God is eternal.

Today’s reading has, at times, been used to justify two discrete realms, the sacred and the secular. This understanding puts a divide between matters that are political and earthly and those that are sacred and heavenly. It suggests one realm is humanity’s, the other God’s. 

Jesus instead offers a different teaching. He affirms that all things are God’s, everything is part of God’s realm. Nothing is outside God’s power and judgment. The coins of nations and kingdoms may bear the image of rulers who think they are in charge, possessing great power. They require citizens pay taxes using this currency, but ultimately all things are God’s alone. Everything is  created by God, belongs to God, and is subject to God’s sovereignty.

The Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA offers a reflection on today’s Gospel highlighting this reality. Called “Identity,” it says, “Jesus gave us a gift when he told us to give to God the things that are God’s. He reminded us that we belong to God and in God we live and move and have our being. It is there where we find our true identity as persons loved and made by God.” (SSJE, Brother Give us a Word, October 20, 2017).

To follow Jesus means committing all of ourselves to God’s reign. It requires we give over our entire selves to God, trusting God to love and care for us. Following Jesus is giving our hearts, minds, and wills to God at all times. To accepting this teaching of Jesus requires giving ourselves over wholly to his way of love, to living as his disciples. 

This way of Jesus has profound implications for how we are to live. Walking with Jesus is a way of life. Today I want to highlight three implications of this way.

The first is living by gratitude. Because God creates all that is, providing from the bounty of creation all that every creature needs to live and thrive, we are called to be thankful. Each day we are to remember all that God lovingly gives to us, all that God provides for us. With gratitude to God, we are to be faithful stewards of all we are given, sharing from our abundance with those who do not have enough. 

The norm for followers of Jesus is giving away ten percent of all we are given. In gratitude we share our time, talent, and treasure as a thank offering to God who provides for us. Just as God is generous to us, so we are to share generously with others. We are to give of ourselves: our abilities and talents; the time God has given us in this life; and the financial and material resources entrusted to our care. We are to give wholly of ourselves in gratitude for all God gives us. If all people lived generous lives, no one in our world would ever be hungry or homeless. God’s bounty would be shared by all people.

The second implication of giving to God all that belongs to God is remembering we are made in the image and likeness of God. Just as the coin given to Jesus has an image of the Roman emperor, we are like that coin. We are not minted of precious metal, but of much more precious flesh and blood created by God. We are not made in the likeness of an earthly political figure, but in the likeness of the eternal God of creation, who creates us in love. 

This understanding is from the ancient church. The early Christian theological Tertullian, writing from Carthage in Roman Africa said, “Render to Caesar Caesar’s image, which is on the coin, and to God God’s image, which is on [humanity]” (On Idolatry 15)

This reality has profound implications for how we live. If God’s image is on humanity, then we must respect the dignity of every human being. Each person is created in God’s image, bears the likeness of God, and is worthy of being respected as God’s child. 

Living in an age of unbridled hatred and disrespect of those who disagree with us or are different us, Jesus reminds us such behavior is not an option or his followers. Each person we encounter is to be treated with love and respect, befitting their identity as a beloved child of God. 

We must love those who disagree with us, those who are our enemies, or who wish us harm. We are to remember each person bears the likeness of God in their being. Just imagine how different our nation would be if all who profess Jesus lived this way!

The third implication of giving to God all the belongs to God is maintaining hope in the face of overwhelming challenges. We live in a time of great anxiety and stress. The pandemic rages throughout the world, newly surging in Europe and many states in our country. Here in Rhode Island the number of new infections and hospitalizations has risen dramatically. 

As we move closer to the presidential election in November, there are grave concerns for what will happen in the coming weeks. Political norms are shattered. There is fear for the integrity of the electoral process and the peaceful transfer of power. Many worry our democratic norms and values have been irreparably damaged. 

These realities can cause despair, fear, and anxiety. The 24 hour news cycle makes it difficult, if not impossible, to put distance between ourselves and the relentless reporting of bad news. There are times, especially in the past month, this is all feels overwhelming. 

Today’s Gospel reminds us to keep things in perspective. While we live in very demanding times, in which solutions to what ails us seem illusive, Jesus tells us all things are in God’s hands. The powers and principalities of this world will not hold sway forever. The power of sin and evil will not prevail. The pandemic will one day end. Only God is eternal and true and God will deliver us from this time. 

Through baptism we are marked as Christ’s own forever. We will share in a death like his, so that we will also share in his resurrection. The injustices and worries of this age will not have the last word. God’s all powerful and just love will. 

Our first lesson from the prophet Isaiah reminds us of this promise. It offers a great surprise for the people of Israel. It tells how God will bring the people’s exile in Babylon to an end. They will return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. God will forgive them for turning away from God and will restore them to their homeland. The great surprise is who accomplishes this restoration. 

Isaiah tells us that God uses King Cyrus of Persia to carry out God’s will. In 539 BCE Cyrus conquers Babylon, the power that brought the people of Israel into exile. Cyrus was a tolerant and understanding ruler who allowed conquered peoples to maintain their ways, worshipping as they are accustomed. Cyrus allows a group to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple to worship God.

The interesting thing about King Cyrus is that he does not know God. He does not worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Though he doesn’t know God, God can still use Cyrus for God’s work. Isaiah tells us there is no other God besides God; God creates light and dark; makes weal and woe; is God of all things. With the power God possesses, God is able to use one who does not know God to save God’s people. God can accomplish the seemingly impossible.

Though we live in difficult and challenging times, we are called to remember that all things rest in God’s hands. We must not lose heart, but instead put our hope in God. The promise is God’s love will not be defeated. The powers of this world will not endure forever. We will not always be tried as we are now in this time. 

For God is with us now and always, and asks us to commit ourselves to walking in God’s way, following Jesus in the way of love. Jesus bids us give all we have, and all we are, to God. Doing so, we will live by hope stronger than despair, by love more powerful than hate, by life stronger than death. The power of God will deliver us, defeating the powers of sin, evil, and death, and bringing us to fullness of God’s loving reign for eternity. Amen. 

Parable of the Great Banquet by Brunswick Monogrammist (circa 1525), location: National Museum, Warsaw. Public domain.

October 11, 2020

A sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture lessons may be found by clicking here (Track II).

During this pandemic it is a challenge remaining distant from one another. It goes against who we are as humans and as the church. We are people of relationship, community, and gathering. Social distancing causes grief. We mourn the loss of gathering with others for meals that are at the heart of our lives. Those of us who live alone have lost times of conviviality and community shared over meals, mostly eating alone. I am thinking how to keep Thanksgiving, a celebration with a meal at its center. With my family scattered over several states, I wonder how we can keep this feast.

We have also been fasting from the Eucharist since mid-March. This is not easy. Since I was seven years old, I have received the bread of life several times a week. Never before have I experienced months without the Eucharist. How I long to receive again the Body and Blood of Jesus! Though I know we do this for love and care of another, like so many of you, I experience the grief and loss of this fast. While I believe God still feeds us though we are not celebrating the Eucharist, I fervently hope for the day we can safely gather for the supper of the Lamb.

Given the centrality of meals and feasting in our lives, today’s scripture readings are especially poignant. They offer the image of banquets, an image found commonly in scripture. This may highlight our grief and loss in this time, reminding us what we have given up. The theme of feasting together, and in particular sharing in the heavenly feast prepared by God, may stir in us a deep longing, kindling a deep desire in us for the heavenly banquet. It might inspire us to intentionally prepare for what God has in store for us and desires to share with us at the end of the age.

In today’s lesson, the prophet Isaiah describes a great banquet of rich food and well-aged wine. This banquet is for all people, all are invited to this feast, not only the house of Israel. 

Psalm 23 echoes this theme of Isaiah. It says of God, “You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.”

It is not surprising that both the passage from Isaiah and Psalm 23 are among those suggested for a funeral. They describe God gathering God’s people for the great eternal feast. This feast God prepares for God’s people, and God invites all people to attend. These readings express our hope for full union with God after death and anticipate God’s promise that death is not the end. 

Isaiah encourages us by reminding us God will destroy death itself, wiping away the tears of grief from our faces. God will deliver us from the power of death itself and gather us to this great banquet. Death will not bind us, God will free us to feast for eternity at God’s table. This is cause for the great hope in us: though we will die, that is not the end, we will know life with God for eternity.

For those living at the time of Isaiah, Chapter 25 offered great hope. It begins with the statement, “O Lord, you are my God,” a statement of relationship with God that leads the people to praise God. It is from the time after the people experienced exile in Babylon. Some have returned home, to Jerusalem with more soon to follow. The exile is understood as God’s punishment for abandoning the covenant, for not faithfully worshipping God and living as God asks. For the people’s failings, they believe God has destroyed their homeland and sent them into exile. 

Though God judged and punished the people, Isaiah reminds them God is always faithful. God allows the people to return home, a reality more than they could hope for or imagine. Not only are the people returning, God also prepares the great feast, defeats death and wiping away tears, enemies are reconciled, and all people are invited to the banquet. This banquet celebrates the end of all pain, alienation, exile, and death. Though God punishes, God also restores the people. 

God sets everyone free to be who God intends, offering everyone the hope that in times of despair God is present and will deliver the people. The judgment of God is not the final word. God does not judge solely to punish the people. Rather, God disciplines the people to remove resistance to union with God, removing all impediments that alienate the people from God. God desires the people turn back to God and live, offering them all they need to come to God.

Today’s Gospel is also about judgment. It is the third of three judgment parables in this section of Matthew. The past two Sundays we heard the previous two. Today we read the last. Jesus tells these parables in the temple on Monday of Holy Week. They are in response to questioning by the religious leaders, who are not looking to know and understand Jesus, but trying to entrap him so they can kill him.

In this third parable, Jesus tells of a king who invites guests to a wedding feast for his son. The invited guests don’t arrive. The king sends his slaves bring them, assuring them fine food is prepared and ready, but they don’t bother to attend. So the king invites everyone in the street. All are asked to attend, the “good and the bad.” The hall is filled with ordinary people from the street. Just as in Isaiah lesson, the banquet is broadened to include everyone, without distinction.

The parable takes an unexpected turn when the king sees someone not wearing a wedding garment. Now, we might wonder why would he be? He was invited off the street. He didn’t know he would be invited to a wedding. Why would he wearing a wedding garment?

Scholars tell us that Matthew adds the man without his wedding garments to remind those following Jesus, that judgment is not only for those religious leaders of Jesus’ day. It can be tempting to smugly think the leaders judging Jesus are foolish. We may wonder why they don’t understand Jesus, seeing what he is doing, believing he is of God. Yet we need to be careful in thinking this. We know more than they did, we know Jesus as our Savior, we have a perspective they did not have. 

It is also a reminder that like the first century religious leaders, we too can miss what God is doing. We can become blind to the new thing God is doing in our midst, what God is doing in our lives and in our world. We can be deaf to what God is calling us to do in this time, in this place. We can find ourselves without our wedding garment, not wearing our robe of righteousness. We can be without our garment of love and justice, the garment Jesus calls us to clothe ourselves with by following him.

In baptism, we are called to put on Jesus, literally being clothed with him, being his presence in the world. Like Jesus we are to welcome the forgotten and outcast. Our meals are to be like those he shared with tax collectors and sinners, eating with those judged unworthy by society. Our lives are to mirror his warm embrace of those most despised and rejected. Living as Jesus is to put on our wedding garment, wearing our robe of righteousness, our garment of salvation. Living this way, walking the way of love with Jesus, prepares us for entrance to the eternal feast of God, for joining the heavenly banquet of God.

Today’s Gospel ends with the familiar words, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” Matthew doesn’t include these words to scare us. They don’t mean we don’t stand a chance because so few will come to the heavenly banquet. 

Rather, they serve to remind us the way before is challenging, it is demanding and difficult. It is the way of the cross, of giving up ourselves in loving service. Along the way we will stray, falling short, sometimes even failing. But Matthew urges us to continue in the way, following Jesus in the path not many will go, trusting that when we falter, God is present with us to comfort us and pick us up. God is always ready to show us love, mercy, and compassion, giving us the strength we need to meet the challenges before us. 

This parable reminds us the stakes are high. It is in answering God’s call, God’s invitation, that we set out to follow Jesus. Living his way of love is the path to the wedding banquet. To be ready to enter this banquet, we need to follow him, allowing God to transform our lives that we are wearing our wedding garment, our robes of love and justice. In doing so, we will be ready for the great feast God has prepared and longs to share with us, and all people.

As we hear in the lesson from Isaiah, God desires nothing more than to be in relationship with us, feeding us, with choicest food and wine. Though God judges us when needed, God also offers us all we need to follow, transforming us into the people we are created to be—a people focused on God, walking the way of Jesus, living by humble, loving service. 

God desires to love us more extravagantly than we can ask, certainly more than we can imagine, and this is the hope we stake our lives on—a hope stronger than the power of sin, evil, and death. God wants us to accept God’s invitation to the heavenly banquet, and longs for our arrival. As it says in the Book of Revelation, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:7). Amen. 

Deutsch: Codex Aureus Epternacensis, Szene: Die Getöteten Winzer, Folio 77 recto (Mitte). Public Domain.

October 4, 2020

A sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The lessons may be found by clicking here (Track II).

Each time we pray Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer, we say the Apostles’ Creed. The creed includes the words, “[Jesus] will come again to judge the living and the dead.” When we celebrate the Eucharist, we say the Nicene Creed, which contains similar language.

Though we say these words often, what do we mean by them? What does it mean Jesus will judge us all? Thinking about being judged by God can be uncomfortable. We more often speak of how God loves us, showing mercy and compassion to us. How does God’s judgment fit in with God’s love? What does God’s judgment look like? 

Previous generations understood plague, pestilence, and famine as occasions of God’s judgment. These calamities befalling humanity were seen as God’s call to repent and return to God’s ways. They were earthly punishment for the sins of humanity.

In the Middles Ages there was fear of God’s judgment at death. If someone dies and is in a state of sin, falling short of God’s commands, it was believed they are sent to Purgatory for preparation for heaven or they went to hell for eternal punishment. Medieval art depicted, sometimes in gruesome detail, the punishment experienced in hell. These scenes were a warning to the living, so they did not die unprepared.

Is this what we mean by God judging us? Does God judge us at our death and our fate is sealed? Is it an all or nothing proposition? If condemned by God at death, is redemption never possible? Where is God’s love and compassion in this understanding? Is there room for repentance and forgiveness? Today’s scripture lessons help answer these questions and offer something more nuanced and hopeful than the all or nothing view of judgment sometimes held.

Today’s Gospel is a parable of judgment, known as the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. It tells of the consequences of wicked actions. It is one of three parables of judgment in this section of Mathew’s Gospel. These parables are in answer to the religious leader’s questioning Jesus about his authority. They ask Jesus is his teaching from God, Satan, or himself? 

Jesus answers this question indirectly in these three parables. We heard the first last week. This week we hear the second parable and next week the third. These three stories answer the question the leaders ask Jesus. They illustrate his authority is of God but the religious leaders don’t understand this. They do not see the new work God is doing in their midst. 

This is illustrated in today’s parable. A landowner has a vineyard. He cares for this vineyard, doing what is needed to produce excellent grapes. At harvest time he tries to collect his produce but the tenants refuse to give him his due. They mistreat his representatives, refusing to hand over what is owed the vineyard owner. 

Finally, the landowner sends his son, thinking they will not mistreat his son and will at last hand over what is due. Instead, the wicked tenants, realizing the son is the heir, kill him, hoping they can seize the vineyard. Jesus asks the religious leaders what the vineyard owner will do. They answer he will put the wicked tenants to a wretched death and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give the harvest to the vineyard owner. 

Jesus makes clear that by rejecting him, the religious leaders are the behaving just as the wicked tenants did. Quoting Psalm 118, Jesus tells them, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” Though these leaders reject Jesus, by him God lays a foundation for the redemption of humanity.

By rejecting Jesus, and John the Baptist before him, the religious authorities are rejecting the kingdom of God. They are missing the new work God is doing. They are supposed to lead the people in faithfully following God, yet they are blind to what God is doing and lead the people in their own way, not in God’s. 

This parable reminds us Jesus asks us to see what God is doing in and through him. He calls us to a new way of life, to see with fresh eyes, embracing a new mindset. Those who refuse to see and follow, who can’t hear God’s call and act, cut themselves off from God. They choose to not be part of the kingdom of God. They incriminate themselves by rejecting God’s kingdom and find themselves outside the vineyard, not sharing in life with God.

The theme of the vineyard is found in our Lesson from the prophet Isaiah. It tells of a vineyard planted by God. The passage is a love song sung by God to God’s beloved, the vineyard. God carefully plants this vineyard. God builds a tower and a vat for trampling grapes to make wine. 

Yet, despite the love and care for the vineyard, it produces wild grapes with a bitter taste. These wild grapes are fit only for birds. So God despairs over God’s beloved, the vineyard, and asks why it has chosen to produce wild grapes after all the careful care? In grief God allows the vineyard to be trampled and withholds rain. God allows the vineyard to become a waste.

Isaiah explains the vineyard is the people of Israel and they have turned from God. God is angry with them and grieved, for God loves the people. Though angry, God promises to remain faithful though the people haven’t been faithful.

In Hebrew scripture prophets often use images of marriage and love to describe the relationship between God and God’s people.The vineyard story describes the relationship God desires with God’s people. It is a relationship of love. God longs for the people when they turn away, waiting in patience for their return. God is in love with God’s people and desires to be in close relationship with them. God is grieved when they are distant.

God allows the people to turn away, respecting their free will, and doesn’t coerce them into obedience. God waits patiently, ready to welcome them back. While they are distant, God laments and pines for God’s beloved, longing for them, hoping they will return to intimate relationship with God.

This love song of God for the people teaches us God is a God of relationship. Though we may think if we commit a particular sin we are punished for a certain time, in a particular way, as though God had a checklist of sins and punishments, this is not how God acts. God does not desire the death of any sinner. God waits for our return, giving us what we need to turn to God that our for relationship with God can be restored.

Today’s lessons offer an image of God practicing gentle cultivation, just as one does with a vineyard, or a garden, or a relationship; tending it, caring for it, loving it. Rather than standing ready to consign us to the fires of eternal punishment, God longs for our return. God love us completely, nurturing relationship with us, disciplining us when needed, doing what is needed to deepen our relationship with God.

Today’s lessons teach us God does judge us for how we love God and our neighbor or how we fail to do so. They remind us God’s judgment is that of a lover for the beloved, always tempered by mercy and compassion, seen through the reality of God’s profound love for us. God mourns when we are distant, pinning for us, yet respecting our free will in leaving, and waiting and watching for us to return, welcoming us back with rejoicing when we do. When God judges and disciplines us, it is to remove the impurity of our sin, to refine and purify us just as gold is purified by fire.

God calls us into the vineyard of the kingdom, a vineyard planted by God with love. Everything we need is found in this vineyard. There is enough for everyone in this vineyard. God nurtures and cares for us there, bringing forth in us fruit worthy of God: love, righteousness, compassion, humility, and justice—all expressed in our love of God, our neighbor, and ourself.

We live in uncertain and challenging times. Much of our world has turned its back on God, abandoning the vineyard, deaf to God’s call. The coronavirus pandemic shows no sign of ending, now infecting our president and many government officials. There is anxiety and worry over the approaching election. More than 400 years of white supremacy and systemic racism continue to afflict our nation as people of color fight for their rights and their lives. Increasing numbers of people are in need of food and employment while the wealthiest grow ever richer. 

Our world needs the witness of God’s love and mercy more than ever. Let us turn to God and dwell in God’s vineyard where we are loved and cared for by God that the fruits of God’s love are visible in us and in our lives. Through us may others come to know the power of God’s love. May we allow God to love us and cultivate in us that love, so we bear fruit of love and justice, that God’s loving kingdom transforms this world. Amen. 

James Tissot – The Pharisees Question Jesus (Les pharisiens questionnent Jésus) – Brooklyn Museum Public Domain.

September 27, 2020

A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are found here (Track II).

Repentance may not be a word commonly used in everyday conversation. It is, however, a “churchy” word, one we especially hear in the season of Lent. It brings to mind confessing our sins, admitting and turning from the ways we stray from God, from how God would have us live.

The call to repent is not just for the season of Lent. It is, in fact, a way of life for followers of Jesus. It is not restricted to 40 days a year. Repentance is not about feeling unworthy. Rather, repentance is a process of acknowledging there is no perfection this side of heaven. Only God alone is perfect. It is being honest about the human condition. Even with our best intentions, we stumble and stray, drifting away from God and God’s ways. We sin, becoming estranged from God, one another, ourselves, and creation. 

Mature Christian faith calls us to be honest with God, and ourselves, about the times we are faithful, and the times we are not. And when we sin, we are to confess our wrong doing to God, repenting, making amends, and returning to relationship with God.

The Greek word for repentance is metanoia. As with many Greek words, our English translation doesn’t contain the layers and depth of meaning in the Greek. Metanoia means turning to a new way, turning around, going in a different direction. It can also mean putting on a new mindset, adopting new ways of thinking.

Metanoia is about reorienting ourselves to God. Through it, God to draw us deeper in relationship, into holy intimacy with God. Metanoia prevents us becoming complacent in our spiritual lives. It is the antidote to thinking we are all set because we go to church, we pray, we care for others by sharing our time, talent, and treasure. Repentance prevents us resting in our set ways. Metanoia moves us out of our established ways of thinking into fresh ways of experiencing God at work in our lives and our world. 

In today’s Gospel Jesus address complacency and resistance to understanding the new work God is doing. Jesus has a conversation with the chief priests and elders. The day before this conversation, Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, proclaimed as king by the people, making the religious and political leaders nervous. After entering the city, Jesus goes to the temple and overturns the money changer’s tables, rejecting their unjust practices that prey on the poor. 

The conversation in today’s Gospel takes place the next day, on Monday of Holy Week. Jesus is teaching in the temple when the authorities try to entrap him so they can kill him. They do this by asking him a question, hoping he will say something that will justify arresting him.

They ask Jesus where his authority comes from? They want to know if his teaching and healing power come from God, from Satan, or from himself? If Jesus says his authority is from God, they will arrest him for making himself equal to God.

Jesus knows what they are doing and answers them indirectly. Jesus replies by asking them where John the Baptist’s authority was from? Was John’s authority from heaven or of human origin?

The religious leaders are trapped and see no way to answer without getting themselves into trouble. If they say John’s authority was from God, they will appear as hypocrites for not listening to him. If they say his authority was human, the people will be angry because they believe John was a prophet. So they answer they don’t know. Jesus says then he will not answer their question. But he indirectly answers their question by telling a parable about two sons.

In the parable, a father asks his first son to go work in vineyard. He answers no, he won’t, but later he goes. The second son is asked by his father to go work, and he says he will go but he doesn’t. Jesus asks which son did the will of the father? They correctly answer the first, the one who said no at first then later went to work. 

Jesus tells them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

Jesus teaches that being faithful to God is not about what we say alone, but also about our actions. It can be easy to say the right things so we appear faithful and righteous. Our words, however, must bear fruit in our actions, our words must inform how we live and what we do. 

The religious authorities are certain they are righteous, doing the will of God and teaching the people how to be faithful. Yet, Jesus reminds them, they do not see the new work God is doing. They rejected John the Baptist and they will soon reject Jesus, hanging him on the cross. They did not see or understand what God was doing through John the Baptist, nor will they see Jesus doing God’s work.

Unlike these religious leaders, those who are forgotten by society, the tax collectors and sinners, see and understand what God is doing. They accept the authority of John the Baptist and of Jesus. They understand the new thing God is doing in Jesus. They accept Jesus’ invitation to follow and repent of their sin, turning to a new way of life, to a new relationship with God. Following Jesus, they become righteous and they will enter the kingdom of heaven before the religious leaders will.

The call to repent, turning to God, is echoed in today’s lesson from the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel calls the people to turn to God, away from their wickedness and sin, so they live. Ezekiel is prophet the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem take the people into exile. This catastrophe is understood as God’s punishment for previous generation’s wickedness. In this passage the people ask why God is punishing them for the sins of previous generations?

Through Ezekiel, God, tells the people stop saying this. God does not do this. Instead, God judges each person for their righteousness or their wickedness. Each person is free to act apart from their ancestors. Ezekiel calls the people to turn to God, receiving a new heart and a new spirit. God does not desire the death of anyone, so turn to God,  be recreated, and live. 

God calls the people to stop blaming God for punishing them, to stop blaming past generations for their sins. The people are free and responsible for their own actions. They are free to create a new reality in the present and for the future. Doing so requires honestly knowing one’s history and working for change in the present, so the future will be different.

The Rev. Cláudio Carvalhaes is a theologian and seminary professor. In an essay on this Ezekiel passage he writes, “Sometimes we are very good at blaming somebody else for the errors and mistakes committed in the past, from which we would like to detach ourselves. It would be much easier if we could say: I have nothing to do with the death of Jewish people during Nazism, or with slavery in the Americas. This text is a reminder that we must resist this temptation and must take the past into account, so that we can create a better life in the present and for the future. (Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ). Kindle Locations 3633-3636. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation.)

Rather than blaming our ancestors for the past, making excuses for the present, we need to be honest. We are called to repent of the ways we have fallen short of God, practicing metanoia by turning to a new direction, to a new way of life, embracing new ways of thinking and acting. We are called to see the new things God is doing right now, in this time and place. We are called to build a present that leads to a future not bound to the past, but instead is a future that rights the wrongs and injustices of the past

This is especially true for our nation regarding the sin of white supremacy and systemic racism. This pandemic provides opportunities to turn to a new mindset, reestablishing our priorities, seeking what matters most. This is a time to ask what God calls us to do in this changed world. This pandemic has laid bare the systemic racial oppression that is the legacy of 400 years of chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws, the war on crime and mass incarceration of people of color, providing an opportunity for us to make long overdue systemic changes.

This week we reached the grim milestone of more than 200,000 dead and over 7 million infected with the coronavirus in this country alone. Almost one million people have died worldwide. We are confronted with the horrific reality that people of color disproportionately become infected and die from this virus. People of color disproportionately have lost their jobs or do paid work that puts them in greater danger of infection. 

And this week there was palpable anger after the Louisville, KY police officers who killed Breonna Taylor in her own apartment faced no criminal charges related to her murder. This anger spilled into the streets of cities across the country, including here in Providence, as many protested this injustice, calling for sweeping systemic change. 

God calls us to choose life by turning to God and living. In this strange and challenging time, God invites us to see the new work God is doing, hearing God’s call in new ways, embracing new opportunities, new ways of thinking and being. 

God calls us to the difficult work of honestly examining our history, learning about our past, and learning from our past, that God can open our hearts to honest examination, turning us from our sins and failings through repentance, leading us to make amends, and working to build a community that is reconciled and recreated.

May God create in us a new heart and a new spirit. Repentance, metanoia, and conversion of heart are a way of life for the Christian day by day. Living this high calling, we will find a life more abundant than we can ever ask or imagine. Amen.

Helena of Constantinople with the True Cross: this image is of a panel now in the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC, United States). Public Domain.

September 20, 2020

Sermon for the Sunday after Holy Cross Day. The scripture readings may be found here.

From the beginning, the followers of Jesus handed on from one generation to the next the locations in Jerusalem associated with Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. Tradition identified the sites where Jesus was crucified, buried, and raised from the dead. 

In the year 313 the Roman Emperor Constantine won a decisive military victory he attributed to God’s favor and intervention. In thanksgiving to God, the emperor stopped persecuting Christians and allowed them to build public buildings for worship. No longer did the church have to hide in fear of the Roman authorities.

In thanksgiving for his victory, the Emperor Constantine started a building project, constructing churches on these traditional sites in Jerusalem. Back in the year 70, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem after a revolt of the Jewish people. Golgotha, the hill outside the city walls where Jesus was crucified and buried, was covered in tons of soil. Before Constantine’s building project could begin, excavation of this fill was undertaken. During the excavation, Constantine’s mother Helena is said to have found the true cross of Jesus.

A great church, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, was built on this site. The remains of the cross of Jesus were placed in this church. On September 14, 335 the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was dedicated. That day has been celebrated since then as the feast of Holy Cross Day. It is that feast we celebrate today, so many centuries later.

There are two days in the calendar dedicated to the cross: Good Friday and Holy Cross Day. While both commemorate the cross, they are different. On Good Friday the focus is on the passion of Jesus: his terrible suffering and death on the cross for us, and the evils humanity perpetrates that placed him on the cross. 

On Holy Cross Day we focus less on the passion of Jesus, and more on the cross itself. Our focus is on the victory of the cross, how awful instrument of capital punishment used by the Roman Empire to punish insurrectionists becomes the instrument of our salvation. We focus on the victory Jesus won on the cross for us; how the cross is the means we are set free from the power of sin and evil; how the cross sets us free from the power of death itself.

Following Jesus our Redeemer, the cross is central for us. The Collect for Holy Cross Day prays, “Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him.”

As the  Collect makes clear, to follow Jesus is to take up our cross. This journey is costly. It requires we relinquish our will to God’s will. It calls us to offer ourselves in loving service, caring for the least and marginalized. Through the cross, Jesus promises to draw us to himself, lifting us above the sin and brokenness of this world, gathering us to himself, so we share in the victory of his cross. The cross gives meaning to all who suffer and know pain, assuring us Jesus walks with us in our trials.

As a parish dedicated to Jesus our Redeemer, we celebrate Holy Cross Day as our Feast of Title. This is the equivalent of a parish dedicated to a saint celebrating that saint’s day. Our celebration is affectionately known as “Redeemer Day.” It is a time for us to celebrate the many blessings God has generously bestowed on this parish. A day to give thanks for our mission and ministry. And a time to ask what God will call us to undertake in the future.

This is also a day to remember our past, to tell the stories of our founding and history. It is a time to give thanks for the faithfulness, courage, and vision of those who have gone before us in this parish, remembering with grateful hearts our ancestors in the faith at the Redeemer. 

There are two primary themes I see in our parish’s history and story: daring to follow God’s call, even when there is great risk; and a strong commitment to the inclusion of all people that is at the heart of this parish’s identity. 

When this parish was founded in 1859, it was committed to welcoming all people. In that era churches supported themselves by charging rent for pews. Those without financial means were unable to attend because they could not pay pew rent. The Redeemer was the first church in the state, of any denomination, to abolish pew rent so all could attend, regardless of financial means. The parish relied exclusively on donations for financial support, something that was a new practice in the mid 19th century.

This commitment to welcome all is seen throughout our history. This parish has been committed to the full inclusion and participation of women and members of the LBGTQ community in the Episcopal Church’s leadership and clergy. 

More recently, we have committed ourselves to anti-racist work, actively seeking to dismantling systemic racial oppression and white supremacy. Over the summer a book group read How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. This study ended last week and participants created a set of action steps to be taken in the coming weeks and months — you will hear more about this exciting work as it unfolds. The group’s recommendations follow the Vestry naming anti-racist work a parish priority more than a year ago.

These efforts are all rooted in God’s call to welcome all people as Jesus did in his earthly life and ministry. They are rooted in the truth that all people are beloved children of God and our called to love as God loves us, welcoming others as we would welcome Jesus. They rest on the call to be agents of God’s love and justice.

Our parish history also reminds us of the bold actions taken to respond to God’s call. One of the most dramatic is the move here to Hope Street. In 1909 the parish heard God’s call and decided to sell the first church on North Main Street. It built the new church on Hope Street, moving here in 1917. This action was bold and risky. But because it was God’s call, the parish thrived in its new location. We know this because we are here today, more than a century later.

On Redeemer Day in years past my prime focus has been on this parish’s commitment to inclusion and bold risk taking rooted in prayer and discernment. But this year my attention has shifted more to something the parish history is silent about: the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. 

Early in the coronavirus pandemic we are living through, there were several Sunday mornings I stood in the empty church after recording Morning Prayer alone and wondered what this experience 100 years ago was like for the parish. Coming a year after building the new church and moving to Hope Street, it must have challenged the parish. I can only wonder how.

Reading yesterday’s NY Times, I saw an opinion piece titled, “What the Fall and Winter of the Pandemic Will Look Like.” The author, Jeneen Interlandi recounts how the Spanish flu, after a quiet summer, came roaring back in the fall of 1918, claiming almost 200,00 lives in this country that October alone. This was the worst of three waves to hit the United States between 1918 and 1919.

We don’t know the impact this pandemic had on this parish or how it responded to the challenges of that time. But knowing they lived through it comforts me. They endured the heartache and hardship and carried on with God’s work. I am confident our ancestors in the faith discerned God’s call to them and undertook the hard work they were given to do. This comforts me and gives me hope for us, as we embrace the hard work of being church in our own time of pandemic.

This is a Redeemer Day like none other in my time as your rector. Today we worship far apart, masks on our faces. We don’t share a meal. But we are here, we worship together, online and in person. And we seek ways to be faithful followers of Jesus in this time, just as those who went before us did a century ago. We are learning to be church in new ways, embracing God’s call to us in this challenging time. 

God calls us to holy work now, just as God did those in this parish a century ago. Like them, may we be attentive through prayer and deep listening, that we hear God’s call to us. Standing upon the strong foundation laid by our ancestors in this parish, let us risk all for the Gospel and never waver from our commitment to welcoming all people, especially those forgotten and excluded. May we never shrink back from the holy risks God asks of us, remembering God promises to support us as we undertake them and offers all we need to do what God asks of us.

As Jesus urges us in the Gospel today, let us always walk in the light of Christ. Jesus is the light the darkness will never overcome. The light of Christ will never be extinguished by virus or injustice. Even the forces of sin and death are no match for the power of God’s love. By the light of Christ may we gaze upon our neighbors with compassion, generosity, and love. May we boldly proclaim Jesus as our Redeemer and act in his Name.

Jesus desires to gather all people to himself, lifted high above this world, drawn into the very heart of God’s divine light and love. May we always be beacons of this light, that God’s love shines over the face of the earth. Amen.

Joseph Forgives His Brothers, as in Genesis 45:1-15 and 50:15-21, illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company. Public Domain.

September 13, 2020

A sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings may be found here (Track II).

Our scripture lessons this morning remind us of our need for forgiveness. Because of human frailty, we hurt one another, we sin, fracturing our relationships with one another and with God. This requires we daily seek forgiveness, confessing our sins and failings, as well as forgiving those who hurt us. 

Only God is perfect, always loving and generously forgiving. Our call is to strive after God’s ways, seeking to live like God, practicing abundant love and forgiveness. The Dutch priest and author Henri Nouwen, writes, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly, and so we need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. Forgiveness is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.” 

In our first lesson today, from the Book of Genesis, we have in Joseph an example of someone overcoming human weakness, responding to God’s abundant and generous mercy. Perhaps you know the story of Joseph. He is one of the sons of Jacob, who is also called Israel. Joseph is born when Jacob is old and he is a favorite of his father. His father gives him a distinctive coat with long sleeves. 

Because Joseph is favored by his father, his brothers are jealous of him. This jealousy is intensified when Joseph dreams he will some day reign over his brothers. When Joseph shares his dreams with his brothers, they hate Joseph even more. 

One day the brothers plot against Joseph. They sell him to a passing caravan. Joseph is taken to Egypt and made a slave. In Egypt, Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams comes to Pharaoh’s attention. Joseph interprets that Pharaoh’s dreams foretelling a coming famine. Pharaoh heeds Joseph’s warning, and puts Joseph in charge of storing grain for the famine years. Joseph becomes powerful in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh.

During the famine, Joseph’s father and brothers are suffering. They hear there is food in Egypt. They go to Egypt seeking help. Joseph provides food his father and brothers, and pasture for their flocks.

In todays passage, Jacob has just died in Egypt. The brothers worry Joseph bears a grudge against them because of their terrible actions. So again the brothers scheme. They tell Joseph his father Jacob, on his death bed, asked he forgive his brothers the awful things they did to him.

I find Joseph’s response remarkable. He doesn’t tell the brothers he is done with them because of their hateful treatment. Instead, Joseph asks, “Am I in the place of God?” Joseph is saying it is God’s responsibility to judge, not his. Then Joseph tells his brothers God brought good from their wicked actions, allowing Joseph to feed many people in a famine. Rather than seek revenge, Joseph promises to care for his brothers and their children.

Joseph models for us the amazing, abundant mercy of God. Rather than seeking revenge, hoping to hurt his brothers as they hurt him, Joseph forgives and promises his care of them. Joseph is able to see how God used his pain and misfortune for God’s work. Joseph rejects the human desire to get even with his brothers, and leaves judgment to God.

In our Gospel today, Jesus likewise presents forgiveness as the way for his followers. He calls on his disciples to renounce the human impulse to get even, exacting revenge on those who hurt us. Jesus teaches the way of the kingdom of heaven is forgiveness.

To illustrate the ways of heaven, Jesus tells a parable about a Gentile king who conducts an audit of his kingdom’s finances. He discovers an administrator of a wealthy province has embezzled an immense amount of tax revenue — equal to a day’s wages of 100 million laborers. There is no way for this man to ever make restitution, so the king decides to sell the man, his wife, and his children for his debts. 

The man pleads for time to repay his debt. While repayment of such a large sum is impossible, the king hears his plea with pity and frees the man, forgiving his debt. The corrupt administrator, having just been forgiven, then comes upon someone owing him a small sum, worth about a 100 day’s labor. The debtor reasonably asks for an extension, but the administrator refuses and throws the debtor into prison.

When the others hear about this action, they petition the king. The king summons the corrupt administrator, asking, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” In anger, the king hands him over to torture. Because this man did not forgive as he was forgiven, he is punished.

Jesus tells this poignant and somewhat startling parable to teach about the ways of God’s reign. But we must approach any conclusions cautiously. The king is not like God in selling someone into slavery or condemning to a lifetime of torture. 

God does not ask anyone remain in a dangerous or abusive situation, forgiving repeatedly and remaining in harm’s way. Repeated forgiveness does not help in these abusive situations. Sins such as abuse, violence, or exploitation should not be tolerated nor too quickly forgiven. Serious offenses are to be confronted with a spirit of gentleness and compassion, and those at risk finding safety. And forgiveness does not mean forgetting. We may never forget how someone seriously hurt us, nor should we, but we can still forgive them, letting go of any need we have for revenge.

What the parable does teach us is we must not be vindictive, seeking revenge on those who hurt us. Being human, when we are injured by someone, an immediate impulse may be to lash out and respond in kind. We may desire to hurt the one who has hurt us. We may want revenge on the one who hurt us.

Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel this is not the way of God’s kingdom. Like the ancient example of Joseph, and like the king in the parable, we are called to be like God in extending mercy and forgiveness. 

We can never be perfect as God is perfect, always loving everyone at all times. We will never perfectly forgive, showing mercy and compassion always, to everyone. Instead, we must admit we are completely dependent on God. We can only hope to live by love, forgiving others, because of God’s grace and strength.

The Collect of the Day makes this clear, when we pray, “O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts.” We can do nothing pleasing to God without the grace and love of God. It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit we are able to overcome our human impulses, living by the pattern of God’s love, by the way of love revealed in Jesus. Only by God’s help can we resist the human temptation to get even with those who hurt us. 

Today Jesus calls us to pray fervently for the strength to turn our hearts and wills from human ways to the divine ways of the kingdom of heaven. By God’s grace alone can we reflect the abundant, unending, underserved, generous forgiveness of God.

We are called to forgive others not because we feel like it, or because it comes to us naturally or easily. Rather, we are to forgive others because we have been forgiven by God, shown mercy as many times as needed. We are imperfect, our love is weak, yet God’s love is perfect and we are loved without reserve, in embarrassing abundance, by the One whose love brings all things to completion and fullness. 

In this age of anxiety and upheaval, we see around us the harm inflicted by seeking revenge on others. We see the fracture caused by people lashing out in hate against those who disagree with them. We see, in the most extreme situations, the violence and death inflicted by living this way. Revenge is sought in ways small and large: in hurtful words uttered in anger, in hateful social media posts, in violence at peaceful protests, and in war waged against a foreign enemy.

The promise this day is God provides the strength for us to live by a different way, walking in the way of love. If we accept God’s call, relying on God’s grace to forgive others as many times as needed, imagine how profoundly the face of the earth will be transformed by God’s love. Amen.

Christus Pantocrator – Artistic representation of Jesus Christ God, the second divine Person of the Most Holy Trinity (Cathedral of Cefalù, c. 1130.) Public Domain.

September 6, 2020

A sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings may be found here (Track II).

It is simply part of the human condition that sometimes we hurt one another. Only God is perfect, we are not, and despite our best intentions, at one time or another each of us says or does something that hurts someone. We all have times we make choices that are hurtful to others, times we inadvertently do something that causes another person pain.

The Marriage Rite in the Book of Common Prayer makes this clear. Following the exchange of vows, and just before the blessing, prayers are offered for the couple. Included is one that prays, “Give them grace, when they hurt each other, to recognize and acknowledge their fault, and to seek each other’s forgiveness” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 429). 

The prayer assumes every couple at times will hurt one another. Even in the joy of their wedding day, the liturgy is clear there will be challenging times. The important thing in any relationship is how these times are handled. The wedding prayer offers guidance. When we hurt someone, it is important to recognize one’s fault and to seek forgiveness. 

In doing this, there is the possibility of reconciliation and the restoration of the relationship. This process of honest acknowledgment, confession, repentance, and reconciliation can strengthen and deepen a relationship; trust can be developed by this process. Likewise, when someone hurts us, we are called to work towards forgiving them, that reconciliation takes place, the relationship is restored, if possible.

This is true in a marriage, as well as in other relationships. When there is fracture of some kind, if it is dealt with honestly, with humility and striving towards reconciliation, the relationship can be restored and strengthened. This call to reconciliation is at the heart of following Jesus and is the church’s mission. The Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer says, “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 855).

As the church, Christ’s body in the world, we are a community set apart by the call to holiness. We are to be holy as God is holy. We are a consecrated and priestly people. God lovingly gives us all we have. In response, we offer everything we have received back to God in thanksgiving. Our lives are to be an offering of thanksgiving, humility, and loving service. Our call is to be conformed to the ways of God, not the ways of the world, following Jesus in his way of love. Our charge is to be the beloved community on earth, a community that is an icon of God’s love, a window revealing the divine life of love.

This way of love is demanding and does not come naturally to us. It is contrary to how we are taught to live in the world. It requires we overcome our personal impulses and desires for the sake of the community, the sake of others. Living as Jesus asks means we must unlearn the ways of the world, and learn the ways of God’s reign. Living as the beloved community requires we give up violence, consumerism, greed, individualism, and white supremacy. It demands we live in service to others, not for ourselves alone. It involves repenting of our misdoings and making amends; it requires we forgive others as God forgives us.

This way of holy living is expressed in ordinary daily interactions. Following Jesus, we live differently from the ways of the world around us. Our actions are rooted in values at odds with the world. 

In our Gospel this week, Matthew offers concrete teaching on how we are to live. In this passage, Jesus addresses how to handle conflict in the church. He tells us when a member sins against us, we are to quietly address the matter with the individual. By doing so, repentance and reconciliation may come about.

What Jesus does not say is if someone hurts us, we should publicly shame them. Our response to being hurt should not be taking to our social media accounts and telling everyone how we are affected by someone’s behavior towards us. Unlike what we see every day, we must not call the person out publicly. Nor should we complain to others behind the person’s back. Instead, we are called to the hard work of speaking directly to the one who offended us. In humility we are to come to them, speaking with honesty and respect. This is done privately, in an effort to come to reconciliation.

If that is not successful, Jesus says we are to ask one or two others to join the conversation. They are present to assist in this process, making sure the conversation is rooted in truth and respect. Their role is to facilitate conversation, listening and helping move the two parties to restoration, if at all possible. They are present to see that truth is spoken in love.

If that fails, Jesus says the matter is taken to the community, with the hope that together reconciliation can happen. If that is not successful, the individual will be removed from the community. This sounds harsh, even extreme, to us. We understand church as a voluntary group where all may join and typically we are reluctant to ask anyone to leave the community.

But in the first century, the Christian community was understood primarily as a corporate body. Unlike our society, first century society was not structured around individualism. People were seen as part of the whole. Individuals joined the community, but if one person’s behavior hurt the body, threatening the well-being of the entire community, and they refused to repent and be reconciled, they were asked to leave. The body was so valuable, so important for God’s mission in the world, it must reflect the divine way of love. If one person threatened this, they must leave for the sake of the whole, for the common good. 

Removing someone from the community would only be for the most egregious behaviors that seriously affected the well-being of the community. Once asked to leave the community, those removed became exiles from the Christian church. Matthew says, “…if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

This sounds like extreme behavior and contrary to how we understand Jesus and his call. But it is important to remember how Jesus relates to Gentiles and tax collectors: he doesn’t reject and ignore them; rather, he seeks them out, talking with them, sharing meals with them, inviting them to follow him. Matthew is calling the church to never give up on any who are exiled. He reminds us that perhaps in time, through prayer and invitation, the ostracized person can come to repentance and be restored to the community, that reconciliation can be achieved.

Matthew’s text reminds us of the high calling we have received. As the beloved community, we are witnesses to God’s love, mercy, and compassion. In this way of love, no person is expendable, all are beloved children of God. Everyone must be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve as children of God. Even when we disagree with someone, or are hurt by another person, we must not forget our unity in Christ. We must treat them as Jesus would.

Our Gospel reminds us, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” In all we do, we are gathered by Jesus into the community of his body. As his body, the risen Jesus is always with us, present in our midst, as we undertake the demanding work of living as the beloved community.

When two followers of Jesus who are alienated and at odds work towards reconciliation, despite any anger and hurt they carry, Jesus is in their midst, strengthening them in the hard work they undertake. Through the power of Jesus, present with us each moment of every day, we can cast off the ways of this world and incarnate the ways of God’s kingdom on earth. This is holy work God has given us to do.

Today’s Gospel offers a sharp contrast with the ways of our world. For years we as a nation have been polarized, unable to speak across our difference. It seems this division is growing stronger with each passing month. This is evident on social media. Increasingly I can only view my social media accounts in small doses. Too many use their posts to rush to judgment and condemn those they disagree with. Name calling and shaming are freely used. I find it painful to endure. It leaves me feeling sad and demoralized.

Many in our nation do not discus their opinions and positions with respect, seeking to understand those who differ from them, searching for common ground. Instead, lines are drawn and insults are hurled across the divide. There is more shouting at one another than speaking with the hope of understanding and unity.

This is a time when the world desperately needs our witness to Jesus’ way of love. As followers of Jesus, our call is to live as Jesus, loving all, no matter what. We must reject violence and trust the power of God’s love to overcome hatred and evil. We are to remember those who disagree with us, those who are our enemies, are beloved children of God. Our call is to build a community in which all are valued as beloved of God, committing ourselves to the demanding work of reconciliation. In all we do, Jesus stands with us, leading us, guiding us, strengthening us, and renewing us.

In this time when respect of others is in short supply and reconciliation seems a long way off, may we commit ourselves to building the beloved community here on earth. Through our witness, and the witness of all followers of Jesus, may God’s love spread across the face of the earth transforming hatred and division. May all be reconciled by the power of God’s wide-embracing love. Amen. 

Public Domain

August 30, 2020

A sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings may be found here (Track II).

The events of the past week illustrate what a challenging and difficult time we are in. The pandemic continues with no sign of abating; this week we reached the grim milestone of 180,000 deaths in this country. Yet, at the same time, some political leaders spoke of the virus in the past tense, as if the worst is over. Others are bracing for a possible surge or even a second wave as schools, colleges, and universities around the nation reopen and people seek “normalcy in their daily lives.

Not only is the pandemic continuing, at the same time wildfires ravage California and hurricane Laura visited destruction and death upon the Gulf Coast. More Black men were shot, either wounded or killed, at the hands of police. Peaceful protests continued, including a March on Washington, demanding sweeping systemic change by the overthrow of white supremacy. Tragically, there has also been destruction and death at some protests. And the recent political conventions clearly showed how divided we are as a nation and the difficulty we have bridging our differences to work together — at a time when there is nothing more urgently needed to address what ails us. What a difficult time we live in!

Perhaps this leaves you anxious, maybe even despairing. Perhaps you wonder where is God in the midst of all this tragedy, suffering, pain, injustice, and death? That question is an ancient one. Many before us have despaired that God allows terrible things to happen. Some have even doubted God’s existence in the face of suffering. After all, why would a loving, merciful God not deliver us from fire, flood, and pestilence? Why doesn’t God put a stop to all this suffering?

That question is found in our first lesson from the prophet Jeremiah. It is a lament by Jeremiah. He is struggling with all he sees around him and cries out in pain to God. He wonders where is God in his struggle? He asks why isn’t God doing something? Why isn’t God acting?

Jeremiah decries the injustice of his day: the oppression of the poor, corrupt civl leaders, religious leaders who are dishonest and lead astray God’s people. He rails against the false prophets of his day who cry, “Peace, peace” assuring the people all is fine, offering a message the people want to hear. 

Jeremiah doesn’t do this. The word of God that has come to him calls the people to repent and return to God. He doesn’t say all is fine. Because of this, Jeremiah is not popular. His family rejects him. He is seen as a nuisance, a threat to the stats quo. His message is considered dangerous enough, some seek to kill him. 

So Jeremiah cries out his lament to God. In his lament, Jeremiah tells God life is hard but he is righteous, he has been faithful to God’s call. He asks God to punish those who persecute him. He wants God to do something. 

Jeremiah goes as far as saying God is like a deceitful brook, a brook that has dried up and is unreliable. He accuses God of leaving him in his pain with no satisfaction by not dealing with his opponents. 

Rather than comfort Jeremiah, God rebukes him. God rejects Jeremiah’s self-pity as selfishness; God sees his self-righteousness as self-congratulation. God finds Jeremiah’s attitude as no better than his opponents. In his anguish and self-pity, Jeremiah has not understood God. God challenges Jeremiah’s understanding of his situation.

But God also assures Jeremiah he can return to God, and God will take him back. He is in relationship with God and, though Jeremiah has misunderstood the situation and accused God, God remains faithful. In turning back to God, God promises to make Jeremiah as a “fortified wall of bronze.” His opponents will not prevail over him because God is with him, ready to save him and deliver him. God calls Jeremiah to stop focusing on his woes and instead renew his focus on God, on what God is doing, and on the mission God calls him to undertake.

The call to focus on God’s call, on the mission given by God, is a theme in today’s Gospel. This passage is a continuation of last week’s account in which Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. In response, Jesus calls Peter “Rock,” and declares he will build his church on him. 

Today we hear Jesus tell the disciples he must go to Jerusalem where he will suffer, be killed, and rise on the third day. Peter is startled by this and replies, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Jesus responds to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

In just a few verses, Peter moves from being the “Rock” to being a stumbling block. Peter is no longer a rock that is the foundation, holding up the structure, but instead has become a rock in the way, one Jesus stumbles over in the road, getting in the way of Jesus’ journey.

Peter responds in this way because the disciples are startled by Jesus’ words. They hoped the Messiah would mobilize his followers to overthrow their Roman occupiers and sit on the throne of David, ruling by God’s might and justice. If the Messiah is killed, how will this be possible?  How can the Messiah suffer and die, they wonder, and be the Messiah?

Their understanding of Messiah conflicts with who Jesus is and what he is called to do. Peter and the disciples don’t understand a suffering Messiah. They are not comforted by the promise of resurrection on the third day. It all makes little sense until they actually experience it. So the disciples are left startled and without understanding of who Jesus is.

Jesus is not the Messiah they expect. His reign is not like an earthly reign. Jesus calls them to set their minds on divine things, not human. They need to think like God to understand him. All who follow Jesus are called to think like Jesus and live like him, taking up their own cross. They are to follow Jesus, giving their lives in loving service, witnessing to God’s love, turning from the ways of the world, perhaps facing ridicule or even martyrdom.

Jesus calls his followers to a lifetime of following him, placing the cross at center of their lives. This means denying our own desires to follow him. It requires subordinating our wills to God’s will, saying yes to the way of life for which we are created. 

Confessing Jesus as Messiah is only the first step. We must understand who he is, then decide to follow him by walking the way of the cross daily. To confess Jesus as Messiah requires we live as he lives, we give ourselves in love as he does—each moment of every day.

Today’s epistle, from the Letter to the Romans, offers a vision of how to live this way. It opens with call to “Let love be genuine.” This passage articulates the love we are to live. Genuine love rejects the ways of this world. It is love that rejects hatred, violence, and evil and instead embraces peace, compassion, and welcome and care of all. 

This genuine love requires we give up our own will, letting go of how we might want to act. Instead we are to act as Jesus calls us: we are to bless those who persecute us, not curse them; we are to live in harmony with all; to associate with the lowly; not repay evil for evil; to live peaceably with all; and never avenge ourselves.

In Romans, Paul calls us to give up our natural impulses, rejecting how the world teaches us to live. He exhorts there is no room for pride, pursuit of money, punishing those who wrong us, or even seeking vengeance on our enemies. This call to walk the way of the cross is indeed a demanding call. It requires loving all, no matter what; forgiving as God forgives us; caring for the thirsty and hungry; and giving our lives in service as Jesus does in going to the cross.

In this way of love there is hope for a new creation, for a world recreated and built on love, where evil is overcome by love, and suffering and death lead to unending life. Through the way of the cross, we are set free from evil, sin, and death, and are set free to love as God in Christ loves us through the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Our lessons today call us to lift our gaze to God’s kingdom and not be overcome by our suffering and challenges. We follow Jesus who suffered greatly for love of us, and walks beside us in our trials, even when we feel alone and abandoned by God. Jesus promises to sustain and deliver us. Through the power of the cross is found redemption for the ills and injustices of this world.

So let us not despair. May we not doubt God’s presence, but instead listen for God’s call, trusting God hears our every cry and petition, our every lament. In this time of suffering, let us ask, Where is God in these difficult times? How is God calling us to respond in this time? How would God have us act? Where is Jesus leading us as the church, his body in the world? What is our mission, the work God gives us to do now?

May we follow Jesus by taking up our cross and walking with him, that the powerful love of God reigns in this world. May our witness embody the love of God made known in Jesus. By the Holy Spirit may we be transformed into Christ’s body in the world, a community of welcome to all and a beacon of love and justice to a world mired in sin, suffering, and despair. And may we trust God is with us always, in all things, and promises to save and deliver us. Amen.

Public Domain

July 19, 2020

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are found here (Track II).

For many of us, thinking about God’s judgment is uncomfortable. We prefer to focus on God’s mercy and compassion, that through the death and resurrection of Jesus we are made worthy to stand before God. We find solace in the assurance that through baptism we are marked as Christ’s own forever, incorporated into the body of Christ. 

Yet scripture talks regularly of God’s judgment. Our Gospel today includes an image of  the end of the age when the angels are sent by the Son of Man to collect “all causes of sin and all evildoers” and “throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 

This description of judgment is startling to us. It sounds frightening. We might feel it goes against our experience and understanding of God. What about God’s compassion and mercy? Or God’s forgiveness?

Context is important in a passage like this. Scholars tell us today’s reading has two parts from two different periods. The first part is the parable Jesus tells about the sower of wheat and the weeds sown by an enemy. The second part, composed later, contains the judgment of the righteous and the evil, and is an interpretation of the parable. This interpretation was added by the community that produced Matthew’s Gospel.

Matthew’s community was concerned about people who enthusiastically called themselves followers of Jesus, proclaiming Jesus as “Lord,” yet did not follow his teaching, were not living how Matthew’s community believed Jesus called his disciples to live. Matthew’s patience was tried by them and he wanted God to judge them. But it is important to note this interpretation was not originally part of the parable Jesus told.

Though this interpretation was added after the time of Jesus, we shouldn’t dismiss it. It is just one of multiple examples of God’s judgment found in the Gospels and throughout scripture. In scripture God sometimes judges the people, calling them to repent. At times God relents from punishing, but other times God afflicts the people by destroying towns, using a foreign army to defeat the people, or allowing the people of Israel to be sent into exile. 

Scripture tells us God uses plagues to convince Pharaoh to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. After slavery, the people of Israel journey forty years through the wilderness, and when they rebel against God, God disciplines them with a pestilence of serpents.

These are not comfortable passages for us. But we must not ignore them, or explain them away. Instead there is merit in seriously wrestling with them. Recently I have been doing just that. In this time of pandemic I have thought often of God’s judgment found in scripture. I have reflected on Christians in ages past who interpreted plague and pestilence as a sign of God’s judgment visited upon the people. In the past people saw in their calamitous times the affliction and punishment of God at work.

Living in the 21st century, we do not understand illness and pandemic as people in ancient times did. We know today’s pandemic is caused by a virus spread from person to person. We have sequenced its genome. We know how it is transmitted. Most of us do not believe God sent this modern pandemic upon us to judge us, or that we are being punished for our sins by the coronavirus.

Yet we should not assume the pandemic has nothing to do with God. We mustn’t dismiss the possibility the coronavirus pandemic is being used by God. Our call is to seek God in the midst of our affliction, asking where and how God is present, how God is at work in this calamitous time. For God is at work even now, in this time of great suffering, illness, death, and anxiety. God is not only at work now, but maybe God’s call — even God’s judgment — is being revealed by the pandemic.

Through these months of suffering, the coronavirus has made obvious the injustice in our society. The white supremacy upon which our country was founded, and which remains a dominant oppressive force today, is revealed clearly by the pandemic. People of color have been disproportionately affected by the virus, suffering higher infection and death rates, as well as greater economic distress, than whites. 

Since the killing of George Floyd by police in May, the systemic racial oppression of our country has become so clear, those of us who are white can’t ignore or dismiss it. Many are talking about this moment being unlike any other, using expressions like “scales falling from our eyes.” Protests have been sustained for weeks. Systemic changes unimaginable before May 25 are being talked about. 

Could this be God at work in this time? Could the virus reveal God’s judgment against the injustice of our society? Is the pandemic an opportunity for us to hear God’s cry for justice and act? Perhaps from the horror of this moment, God stands ready to bring about something new, something we desperately need. Maybe the dismantling of white supremacy is God’s call in this time of pain and loss, is the new life to which God calls us in the midst of suffering and injustice. 

Reading today’s Gospel, I sympathize with Matthew’s community as they hope the lax song them will be punished. Who hasn’t imagined judgment falling on those we deem deserve it? Who hasn’t wished punishment upon someone we dislike or disagree with, on a person we think is not doing what is right? 

But it is important for us to remember there is grave danger in this. The desires of our hearts are not as noble as we might think. We do not understand ourselves or others as much as we think. We ourselves are not perfect and in a position to judge others. It is important to remember God does not view others as we do. God does not judge as we do.

In the first section of today’s Gospel, Jesus tells a parable. This parable teaches about the kingdom of heaven, about the ways of God’s reign. A farmer plants wheat. While everyone is sleeping, an enemy sows weeds among the wheat. Those working the farm suggest the weeds be removed. But the farmer worries the wheat will be damaged in doing so. He decides to wait until the harvest. At harvest time the wheat will be gathered in the barn, and the weeds will be burned. 

The striking thing about this parable is the patience of the farmer. He is willing to watch and wait. Rather than reacting quickly to spare the wheat, he trusts it will be fine growing with the weeds. He patiently waits until the harvest to sort the plants out, to separate the wheat from the weeds. 

In this parable Jesus teaches us about God. God is patient like that farmer. God waits to see what grows. God watches us as we make the decisions we do, making some decisions for God’s ways, some not. Rather than rushing to judge us, God gives us time to learn and grow, ample opportunities to change and be transformed. God is patient, desiring all people choose life with God, loving God and their neighbor. God hopes all will allow the love of God to grow and blossom in their lives. And God waits patiently while humanity sorts things out.

This parable calls us to live with the patience of God. It cautions us to be slow to judge as God is slow to judge. We are to be patient and understanding with ourselves. We are also to be patient with others. We are to think the best of people. We are to act with the abundant generosity of God, leaving judgment to God’s loving and discerning eye. We are to be patient, generous, loving, and understanding with ourselves and with others.

Though we can easily forget it, we are not God. We are created in the image and likeness of God, but we are not God. We do not fully know or understand God’s ways. We do not see as God sees. We do not love as God loves. We cannot comprehend the immensity of the mind of God. 

This is expressed in our first lesson. The prophet Isaiah says of God, “Who is like me? Let them proclaim it, let them declare and set it forth before me. Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be.” Isaiah reminds us only God is God, only God is able to know what will yet be. 

Isaiah goes on to tells us not to fear, do not be afraid, because God is our rock. In God we are safe and can always trust God to support and uphold us. We have nothing to fear in God, not even God’s judgment. God does not punish us from whimsy or for revenge. God does not desire the death of any sinner, but that all be saved and dwell with God. God longs for everyone to be safely gathered into God’s kingdom like the parable’s wheat is gathered into the farmer’s barn at harvest.

So we need not fear God’s judgment, whenever and however it comes. As today’s psalm declares, God is gracious and full of compassion, and slow to anger against us. God is full of kindness and truth in all things, including when judging us.

God desires not to condemn us, but to refine and purify us, making us righteous. God seeks to remove from us all that does not accord with God’s will, just as the weeds are separated  from the wheat. God is not vindictive, but loving, showing us great mercy and compassion. The judgement of God is like the refiner’s fire, used to remove impurities, and prepare us for the fulness of God’s presence.

We do not fully understand the ways of God. But we can trust God is love and God will use all things for good, even this pandemic. God is our rock, our strength in times of struggle. God is trustworthy and true. God brings life from the most horrific and hopeless of situations, bringing resurrection life even from death laid in the tomb. 

Trusting God, let us seek God’s call in this challenging and difficult time, allowing God to shape and form us. May we live with patience, generosity, and compassion. May God’s love be revealed in and through us, God’s justice brought to birth through us. Being refined and purified, may God use us for the recreation of this world, in anticipation of the age to come. May we shine like the sun in God’s kingdom with all the righteous. Amen.

July 12, 2020

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture lessons may be found here (Track II).

This is a beautiful time of year. As I walk around the neighborhood, I marvel at the colors on display. Everywhere I look there are blooming plants and shrubs. The trees display the deep green of summer growth, and set against the bright blue sky, offer a beautiful display. Given the beauty of creation in this season, it is fitting our Gospel today is about a sower and the growth of seedlings into an abundant harvest.

In today’s passage Jesus is surrounded by a great crowd. They fill the beach so he gets into a boat to teach them. He tells them a parable about a sower. This sower scatters seeds everywhere, letting the seeds land where they will. This ancient method of sowing can be effective with some crops, but because it is random, seed falls where it will, including places not hospitable for growth.

The parable illustrates the randomness of this sowing method. Jesus says some of the seed lands on the path where it remains exposed and the birds eat it. Some seed falls on rocky ground, and though it sprouts there, there is little soil for its roots, so these plants wither in the hot sun. Other seed falls among thorns and the thorns choke out the new seedlings.

But some of the seed falls in the ideal place, where it sprouts, establishes roots, and grows. This seed, landing in good soil, has all it needs to thrive, and is able to grow abundantly. It does so well, it yields a bountiful harvest, as much as 30 fold. This is certainly an abundant harvest, but Jesus says the bounty could be more — as much as 100 fold. This is beyond imagination. It would provide plenty of grain for food, as well as seed for future plantings. 

Though the sower scatters seeds in a random fashion, seeds landing where they will, some find a place to grown and thrive. These produce a very bountiful harvest.

Jesus explains the parable teaches us about the ways of God, about how things are in God’s reign. This parable illustrates what it means to follow as his disciple. The word of God is spread abundantly and freely, offered to all people everywhere. Jesus is with the great crowd of people teaching, healing, and proclaiming the good news of God’s love — a love freely and abundantly poured out upon all. His word is freely given to all.

Each person responds in their own way to God’s abundance and the teaching of Jesus. Some are like the seed that falls on the path; they hear the word but do not understand it. It cannot find a place to sprout and take root.

Others are like the seed that falls on rocky ground. They hear the word and receive it with joy. But it does not take root in them. They endure for a while, but when troubles arises because of following Jesus, that person falls away. The word is not deeply enough rooted to be sustained during difficult times.

Some people are like the seed sown among thorns. They hear the word but can’t follow Jesus. The cares of the world and the lure of wealth draw them away from the love of God. Rather than the seed of God’s love taking root in their lives, the things of the world draw their attention, and their loyalty, away from God.

Then there are those who hear the word and understand it. They respond to Jesus’ teaching by allowing the love of God to sprout in them, taking root in their hearts, giving their lives over to following Jesus. In them is an abundant harvest. God’s love is manifest through them. They show compassion and mercy to others. Through their actions and their words, they proclaim the good news of Jesus, touching others, spreading God’s liberating love.

Jesus teaches that discipleship requires a response from us. Jesus invites us to receive his word, grow in understanding of it, and respond by following him. This parable warns us there are temptations in everyday life that threaten the word of Jesus taking root in us, preventing it from sprouting and growing in us.

This parable is, I think, one of the most straight forward and clear of all that Jesus uses. Its message to us is obvious, not mysterious and hidden. In this parable, Jesus warns the challenges we face each day can be impediments to following him. The cares and worries of daily life can become the focus of our lives, consuming space in our hearts, effectively closing Jesus out. Our worry can become the central consuming focus of our lives.

Reflecting on today’s Gospel, I am struck by all the cares of the world that occupy us now. I am reminded of my own worries and anxiety, and how pronounced they seem right now. With the coronavirus surging in our nation, we all have many concerns. This is a difficult time. Many of us are experiencing anxiety and uncertainty. Remaining socially apart, distanced from one another, we are feeling isolated and it is wearing thin. What we are feeling and experiencing is real, we carry a weighty burden. 

Today’s parable reminds us to not to consumed by our worries, allowing them to become our prime focus. Instead, Jesus invites us to turn them over to him, allowing him to help carry our burden. Our hearts are to remain open to him, letting him enter in, as he desires to do, that he may walk with us in this trying time, that he is be our focus even now.

Our call is to make room for Jesus to enter in. We make space in our hearts and lives through times of silence in God’s presence; by reading and contemplating God’s Word revealed in scripture; through prayer, study, and conversation with others. Doing these things provides Jesus fertile soil to plant his word within in us. Because of these practices, he will find a hospitable place for his love to take root and grow within us.  Then God will be able to bring forth a rich harvest of love in and through us.

While these practices have been from ancient times central in Christian life, there is a danger this parable becomes too much about us, about our efforts. We can focus so much on what we must do, on our fears we aren’t doing enough, that our attention is focused on ourselves. We can worry so much about being fertile soil for Jesus that we are not open to him taking root in to our lives.

It is important to remember today’s parable is primarily about God. Jesus tells this parable to teach us about God’s reign and to illustrate the ways of God. It shows us how God acts toward humanity and reveals who God is.

The parable shows us God is indiscriminate, showering God’s love on all people, and on all creation. The love, mercy, and compassion of God are not measured and rationed. God does not give them only to those who are worthy, who have prepared the ideal conditions to receive God’s grace. God is not reserved nor stingy. Quite the opposite. God showers everyone with God’s love, a love given abundantly and indiscriminately. The word goes freely from God to all.

Our first lesson from the prophet Isaiah illustrates this beautifully. Isaiah writes, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” 

God’s word is scattered everywhere, falling where it will. This seemingly inefficient and risky method of sowing accomplishes God’s purposes, bringing forth what God intends. There is great joy in this. Isaiah tells us the mountains and hills burst into song. The trees clap their hands. The people go out in joy and are led in peace. The whole creation rejoices at the abundant generosity of God.

And this may be the central message of this passage. This parable teaches us about God’s ways — and calls us be more like God. We are called to be like to sower in the parable, and to be like God in the passage from Isaiah.  We are called to freely love all, not worrying about whether a person is worthy or deserving. We are to abundantly show mercy and compassion, freely welcoming all, especially the marginalized and overlooked. We are to act for justice, without reserve or counting the cost, laboring tirelessly to break the yoke of oppression, setting the prisoners free.

Being the church, the body of Christ, we are to be generous in all things, lavish in our love and care for others. We are to give without countering the cost, love abundantly without reserve, welcome all with warm hospitality. 

Living this way is considered folly by the the world, with its focus on scarcity and worthiness. But God calls us to reject the death-wielding ways of this world, and to be like God, giving away freely and lavishly what we have been given. We are called to treat to others as God  does us. 

I wonder if this is what Jesus ultimately is teaching us. Rather than the parable of the sower being about us, about our efforts to respond to Jesus, to create the ideal conditions for Jesus, perhaps the parable is actually a call to live like God. Rather than focusing on ourselves, on which type of soil we are like, we instead are called to focus on God. We are to be like God.

If we love as God does, without reserve or limit, if we shower all people with welcome, compassion, and mercy, if we have a deep thirst for God’s justice, we will be like the seeds that fall in fertile soil. Living like God, giving all we have recklessly and with abandon, our hearts can’t help but be open. We will create space for Jesus to plant his word.

We will have space, light, and water for the word of God’s love to sprout, establish deep  roots, and grow within us into an abundant harvest. We will be so focused outward, to other people, that our worries and concerns will not consume us. We will have room for the word freely given by God to take root in us, transforming us, and bringing forth in us a rich harvest of God’s love. And when this happens, it is indeed cause for much rejoicing. Amen.

Jesus and his disciples. Rembrandt. Public Domain.

July 5, 2020

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture lessons are found here (Track II).

I can’t hear today’s first lesson from the prophet Zechariah without thinking of Palm Sunday. Zechariah writes, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 

For followers of Jesus, these words have a strong association with his triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem. We typically hear this passage as we begin Holy Week, the most sacred and important week of the year.

As Christians, we understand this reading as a prophecy of Jesus, the humble king entering Jerusalem in peace, riding on a donkey. We imagine people spreading cloaks and branches on the road before him. We see palm branches being waved and hear shouts of, “Hosanna!”

But these words were not written with Jesus in mind. Zechariah was prophet as the Babylonian exile ended in the 6th century BCE. He encourages the people who have returned from exile and are rebuilding Jerusalem after it was destroyed by the Babylonians.

His words are meant to encourage people who have suffered much. They have wondered if God was still present with them or had abandoned them. They endured the destruction of their homeland and the dislocation of exile. They are rebuilding their devastated homeland.

Zechariah calls a suffering people to trust God will supply what they need. God will give them sound leaders. Peace and prosperity will be restored. Zechariah calls them to rejoice in the midst of their difficulty because God will send a king  who is different from those in the past.

This king comes riding on a donkey, an animal used for farming and transport. He is not riding in a chariot pulled by a war horse because he comes in peace. He will rule in righteousness and justice. He is humble and gentle, not proud and boastful. The oppressed can place their hope in him. He rules by God’s help, not relying on his own strength. His arrival signals the end of war and violence and the beginning of peace. The people will be healed when prisoners are freed and the city is restored. Zechariah’s prophecy has a dramatic final promise: the restoration of double of what was lost. 

Though written many centuries ago to a suffering people, these words of Zechariah offer encouragement to us in this moment, so many centuries later. We also need hopeful words.We, too, are suffering. We are in need of restoration. 

On this Fourth of July weekend, we are as a nation are a people challenged and dispirited. In a NY Times opinion piece, columnist David Brooks wrote, “We Americans enter the July 4 weekend of 2020 humiliated as almost never before.” Brooks explains that the frightening data on the nation’s coronavirus outbreak is devastating. We have not been able to contain the virus. In 39 states cases are now increasing. In several states hospitals are approaching capacity, with intensive care units struggling to find beds. Only in Rhode Island and New Hampshire are cases decreasing. With so many sick and dying, and the virus readily spreading, this holiday weekend is a terribly sad and bleak time. It is also a frightening time. There is grave concern for the coming days and weeks.

This Fourth of July also seems different from others in another significant way. In the past this was a day of celebration, a time for remembering the brave risks taken by the original thirteen colonies in declaring their independence from the world power Great Britain. 

Their noble aspirations are enshrined in the grand words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Hearing these words this year is different. They ring less true against the backdrop of George Floyd’s death on Memorial Day. Too many other people of color, whose names are known by us and many more unknown, have been killed at the hands of the police. The words are judged by the disproportionate number of African American and Latinx people infected and killed by COVID-19, and by the number many people of color left unemployed by the pandemic.

On this Fourth of July, those of us who are white see a reality that had been too easy for us to overlook. The pandemic has revealed this stark reality in such a way that we can’t turn away, explain it away, or ignore it. 

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass was asked by the Rochester, NY Anti-Slavery Society to give a speech about the Fourth of July. Yesterday I reread his word, and was again struck by his use of pronouns. Douglass said, “It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom.” 

Douglass makes clear that as a formerly enslaved person of African descent, he does not share in this freedom. Nor, Douglass says, do all the people enslaved in this country. He, and they, do not share in this country’s promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Douglass goes on to ask, “Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?…This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

Sadly, 168 years later Douglass’ words ring true. There remains much that cause us to mourn. On this Fourth of July it is all too clear many are excluded from the rights and freedoms enshrined in our nation’s founding documents. 

There is much work left to do. Those of us who are white have important decisions to make. We can allow ourselves to be paralyzed by guilt, or retreat behind our privilege, and avert our eyes. Or we can dare to see, and understand, the realities that exist and pledge to engage in the hard work of tearing down white supremacy and building a just society.

The promise of the prophet Zechariah is sorely need today. We long for the peace and restoration he promised. We long for a leader who humbly leads us. Thanks be to God, Jesus is the promised  king we hope for. He is the One to restore us. All our hope rests in him.

In our Gospel today, Jesus judges his society for failing to understand and respond. They are a generation who don’t know when to dance with joy or when to mourn in sadness. From them the blessings of God are hidden because they are not receptive to them. Being closed off, they ignore John the Baptist’s call to repent and return to God. They reject Jesus and his wide, inclusive love for all people and ignore his invitation to follow.

After saying the things, Jesus prays. He prays for those humble enough to listen and hear, those who open their hearts and minds and understand. To them he and the Father are revealed.

Jesus invites them to follow him. He calls them to do hard work. Though they will work hard, Jesus promises them an “easy yoke.” Though the work is hard, it doesn’t leave them weary or soul-sick. It is work that is meaningful, not futile. It is a yoke of love, not fear. It is not a burden, but work they rest in. 

Jesus demands everything of those who follow him and summons from them the best they can possibly give. Jesus invites us to come to him, learn from him, and follow him. 

The work entrusted to us is nothing less than the work of God. It is the vocation of working toward the time when God’s hope and dream for humanity is realized here on earth, a time when God’s love and justice will prevail.

We live in a difficult, challenging, and very demanding time. There is pain and sorrow. May we not lose heart and shrink back from this moment. Let us commit to the work Jesus calls us to do. May we rest in the knowledge Jesus is with us now, entering into all that weighs us down, helping us to carry our burdens.

The road we walk with him is challenging, and demands hard work of us. But Jesus promises this work will gladden our hearts and bring joy to our souls. In this work we are at rest. By this work, God’s love is made known and will transform the face of the earth. Amen. 

June 28, 2020

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are found here (Track II).

Our first lesson today from the Book of Jeremiah offers a dramatic story of two prophets preaching radically different messages. One commentary I consulted described today’s story as a “prophetic showdown” [Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3, Proper 8] between the prophets Hananiah and Jeremiah.

They are preaching radically different words to the people. Hananiah offers a message that is positive and appealing to most people. Jeremiah has more difficult words for the people, and because of this, his proclamation is not popular.

This prophetic showdown takes place in July and August 594 BCE. The Babylonians have violently captured Jerusalem and taken many leaders into exile in Babylon. A remnant of the people is left in Jerusalem and gathers regularly in the temple. 

The two prophets represent two sides of an important question. Should the people rise up in revolt against the Babylonians? Envoys from neighboring monarchies also captured by the Babylonians have come to Jerusalem to debate this question. Some have perceived a weakness in Babylonian power after a revolt of King Nebuchadnezzar’s army. Maybe this is the time they could overthrow Babylon’s occupation.

The Prophet Hananiah believes God is calling the people to rise up against the Babylonians. He is convinced their rule is almost finished, their yoke will be broken. He prophesies the vessels of the temple carted off by the Babylonians will be returned soon. Within two years, Hananiah says, the exiles will return home. 

After making this optimistic prophecy, Hananiah removes the yoke Jeremiah wears around his neck, smashing it on the temple floor. This gesture dramatically illustrates the yoke of the Babylonians over the people of Judah being broken.

The yoke Hananiah smashes was made of wood by Jeremiah and he wore it around his neck. Jeremiah was instructed by God to make this yoke and to wear it symbolizing the power of Babylon over the people. God tells Jeremiah that God has given all these lands into the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar. This is God’s will and part of God’s purposes. If any will not submit to the Babylonian’s yoke, then God will punish them. God tells Jeremiah to ignore those prophets saying the people should revolt and cast off Babylon. This is a lie. God has not sent them. They will not be successful. God calls the people to submit to Babylon until God ends the captivity.

Listening faithfully to God and proclaiming the word of God that comes to him, Jeremiah wears his yoke and tells the people not to listen to Hananiah. Though the message of Hananiah is exactly what the people want to hear, it is not of God. God is not ready for the hold of the Babylonians over the people to end. It will end one day, but not now. Jeremiah assures the people history will show him correct, that his word is from God and Hananiah’s is not.

Jeremiah understood that God is faithful and cares for the people, but that care doesn’t mean terrible things never happen. Though God is faithful, disasters still happen. God never stopped loving the people, even when they were overrun by the Babylonians and taken away to captivity. Though God loved them and cared for them, these awful things still happened. 

Jeremiah urges the people not be seduced by easy answers, nor follow the lure of a positive and appealing message — one they prefer to hear, they find easy to accept. Instead, Jeremiah calls the people to repent, to turn back to God in all they do. They are to faithfully follow and worship God. They are to accept the Babylonian occupation and captivity for as long as it lasts. Jeremiah calls the people to accept the true word of God, though it is less appealing and more difficult. 

Jeremiah speaks hard and challenging words to the people. It was not a popular message that they must accept the disheartening situation there were in. No one wanted to hear the Babylonian captivity was an opportunity for the people to be transformed, to return to God with their whole hearts. They struggled to understand that God wanted to plant within them a new heart, one that loved and served God. 

Jeremiah was unpopular because of his difficult message. It was a proclamation the people didn’t want to hear, let alone accept. Most wouldn’t listen to him. Some tried to kill him so he would be silent. But Jeremiah was always faithful, doing the hard work God entrusted to him. Jeremiah called the people to reject easy and simple answers and to center themselves on God and God’s call.

This ancient story of diametrically opposed prophets resonates in our day. We too are tempted to accept easy answers — especially if they confirm what we believe or want to hear. We don’t like being told the difficult time we experience will continue and we should accept it. Who wouldn’t prefer Hananiah’s upbeat and positive message? 

But that is not how things work. It is not how God works. God doesn’t necessarily call us to things that are easy and pleasant. Though God loves us deeply, terrible things do happen to us. And God promises to be with us in these times. This is very clear to us on this last Sunday of June. Around the world the pandemic continues. More than 125,000 people in this country have died from COVID-19.

Here in Rhode Island the coronavirus news is positive. The infection rate is low, the number of those hospitalized is dropping. We are close to entering Phase III of reopening. As a parish, we are developing a plan for in-person outdoor worship in the future. 

But in 29 states virus cases are rising and some hospitals at capacity. The dangers of ignoring safety protocols are clear from what we see in other places. That is why this parish’s leadership seeks to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit, dwelling in the challenge and complexity of this moment,  seeking God’s call to us as we strive to keep everyone safe in this dangerous time.

Living this way is hard. It can be overwhelming. It can result in anxiety and stress. As your rector, I feel the weight of the decisions before us, of balancing safety with what we want and desire. After so many months of being apart, we long to gather in-person. Staying home is wearing very thin for us. Regularly I hear people longing to return to “normal.”

But “normal” is not safe now. The life we knew before March 15 is not possible now. Like the people of Jeremiah’s day, we are called to accept where we find ourselves, trusting God is present and at work in the challenge and frustration of this time. We are called to embrace the hard reality we find ourselves living in.

Jeremiah proclaims we are to rest in God’s faithfulness, to trust God is always with us. Though life is not how we wish it were, God has not abandoned us. Jeremiah reminds us to trust God will deliver us at the appointed time. Until then, we are called to remain focused on God, centered on God’s will for us, finding the ways God calls us to live now, in this moment, how we are to respond to the present situation.

Though his word may be hard to hear, Jeremiah invites us to be honest about our present reality and ask where is God found in it? Where is God at work even in this pandemic? How is God present to us now? What is the work to which God is calling us? How are we to follow Jesus in this new and strange landscape? How are we called to be the church, the household of God, in this time?

Our Gospel this morning offers the concluding verses from the account begun two weeks ago. Stretching over these three Sundays, this story shows Jesus gazing on the crowd following him with compassion, seeing them as helpless and harassed, sheep without a shepherd to lead, guide, and protect them. So Jesus sends out the twelve apostles, giving them authority to teach and heal in his name, to be his compassionate and loving presence with the people.

Last week, in preparation for the twelve going out, Jesus warned not everyone would welcome them. Some would oppose them. Some reject them. Others even persecute and kill them. But Jesus assured them God would be with them, the Holy Spirit guiding them, giving them the words to speak. They would not be alone. God would not abandon them. Though terrible things may happen, they are safe in God for ever. 

Today we hear the three concluding verses of this section of Matthew’s Gospel. It affirms Jesus is with his followers at all times. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” Jesus tells them. When they are welcomed by someone, Jesus is with them being welcomed too. And when Jesus is welcomed, the One who sent him is welcomed as well. Those sent out by Jesus, are sent out in the name of God. When they are welcomed, God is welcomed. God is present with them when they go out in Jesus’ name to love and care for others. When they are welcomed, Jesus is welcomed, God is welcomed. 

Like those first twelve apostles, we too are sent out by Jesus. When we do the work Jesus gives us to do, he is with us. When we are welcomed, he is welcomed as well. The life we live is not solitary. It is lived in community with one another and with God. Welcome in the name and love of God is at the heart of this life.

Jesus goes on to say, “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.” These words, while meant to comfort, also include a warning. We see in Jeremiah how a prophet is not always welcomed, but opposed and persecuted. This doesn’t seem like much of a reward. But the prophets reward is found in their relationship with God, how they live connected to God’s word, discerning and responding to God’s call. Though this way of life can be challenging, the reward is living a life abundant with God’s love. 

As in Jeremiah’s time, we live in an age that is challenging and difficult. Like the first followers of Jesus, we are called to walk the way of the cross, following Jesus in humble loving service, welcoming all in his name. 

May we not shrink back from our call, but go where God is sending us. In this time when so much has changed, so much is unsettled and difficult, may we faithfully discern where God is sending us now. Let us discern how God calls us to be the church in new ways, offering us new possibilities for ministry. May we respond to the world as it is now, not as we wish it were, hope it will be, nor how we remember it.

In all we do, may we always trust God is faithful, believe God is present with us in the joys and especially in the challenges of this life. May we reject the easy answers, those words that confirm what we want to hear, and instead look for the hard truth of God’s call, faithfully living as Jesus’ disciples.

Whatever we experience, whatever difficulties we know, God is always with us, and God promises we will be rewarded. Our reward is nothing short of life eternal with God in the fullness of God’s reign, where we will surround the throne of Lamb, singing God’s praises, with all the saints, for eternity. Amen.

Synaxis of the Twelve Apostles by Constantinople master (early 14th c., Pushkin museum. Public Domain.

June 21, 2020

A sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture lessons may be found here (Track 2).

Several decades ago I had the pleasure of meeting a retired American Baptist minister. We met through a summer job I had in my college years. He was one of several retired folks who worked year round and I was part of a group of college students hired for the summer months.

Working with him for several summers, I had the opportunity to talk with him and get to know him. Our conversations were always interesting. I valued these moments, enjoying them whenever they happened. I discovered he was a learned man —  he wrote his sermons in Greek, something I could never do. 

I well remember the day he shared sad news with me. He told me he was having health issues and recent tests revealed he had cancer. The illness was advanced and there was little to be done for him. This news was devastating to me. I was concerned for him and what he would experience as the illness progressed. I was also sad that our time working together would end.

After sharing this news, he patiently listened to my halting words of condolence and sadness. When I was finished, he patiently looked at me and said he would be alright. God is faithful, he reminded me. He told me God had such love and care for all creatures that the sparrow doesn’t fall without God knowing. After a pause he added, “But the sparrow still falls.”

I marveled at his deep faith and words of comfort to me, the way he was at peace with his approaching death. He reminded me of God’s care and faithfulness, how God knows every creature. But that every creature has an appointed time, a season to live, and a time to die.

The words this wise and faithful minister said to me are from the Gospel passage we hear today. Every time I hear these words, I can’t help but think of him, of his deep statement of trust in God. Because of his witness in the face a terminal illness, I find hope in these words of Jesus, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Do not be afraid. The hairs of your head are all counted by God. So do not be afraid. You are of more value than many sparrows. Do not fear those who can kill the body. They cannot kill the soul. You are safe in God.

Jesus tells us today we have nothing to fear. This is not an empty promise, a denial of reality, but instead a trustworthy promise. His words do not deny the reality that terrible things happen. He is not denying the difficult state of the world: 121,000 people are known to have died from COVID-19; 30 million people in this country have sought unemployment benefits because of the pandemic; countless unarmed people of color face violence at the hands of police; access to education, employment, and financial security in this nation are denied people of color. 

These terrible facts are true. They describe the harsh reality of our world. But they do not reflect God’s desire for humanity, they are not God’s will for us. Though many are abandoned by our society, no one is ever forgotten by God. No one falls without God knowing. God makes no peace with oppression and injustice. And neither should we. All who follow Jesus as disciples are called to reject the unjust ways of this world, and to make real the heavenly city of God even now, here on earth.

Today’s Gospel is a continuation of last Sunday’s. In the passage we heard last week,  Jesus gathered his 12 disciples, gave them authority to heal and preach, and sent them out to all the “lost sheep,” to those who are alone, helpless, without someone to lead them. Jesus commissioned the disciples to share in his work, to be his healing and compassionate presence in the world, sending them to the lost and forgotten.

The passage we hear today continues Jesus’ teaching before the disciples go out. It is a collection of sayings found in Matthew’s Gospel. These sayings include some familiar words. They also include some very challenging words.

Jesus is preparing his disciples for what they will face in the world. Some people they encounter will hear their preaching and be receptive. They will welcome the disciples, inviting them into their homes, listening to their teaching, being receptive to healing.

Others will be hostile, rejecting their preaching and healing. Some may be violent and persecute them. Even the disciples’ own families may reject them, hating what they are doing in following Jesus. 

Often in a Gospel passage like this one, there are layers of meaning to be found. There is the most obvious level, that of Jesus teaching those with him in the first century. We may think of a passage like a newspaper account of what happened. 

But scripture is more complicated than a first hand newspaper account. Often in Gospel stories there is a more hidden level, reflecting the time the Gospel comes into being. This layer shows the concerns and realities facing the community in which the Gospel is composed and dwells alongside the story of Jesus and his words. This deeper level is a veiled window into the time after the earthly life and ministry of Jesus, to the early decades of the Christian church.

In this deeper layer, Matthew offers a glimpse of the early Christian community’s struggles. They were a group facing persecution by the religious authorities and their own families because they left the synagogue and followed Jesus. They are being persecuted for their discipleship. Because they followed Jesus, some met them with hostility and violence.

The words of Jesus reflect both the reality for the twelve disciples and for the later community with Matthew. Jesus offers words of hope and strength to both groups. His teaching does not deny or diminish the challenges his followers face. Jesus does not pretend being his disciple is easy or without a cost. 

To follow Jesus is to walk the way of the cross. The road is difficult, the cost is great. It requires giving up self-will and living by loving service to others. It challenges the assumptions and practices of our world, our families, even our own lives. 

The Gospel rejects the values and practices of this world. Because it challenges commonly held assumptions and values, taking up one’s cross leads to tension with others. It may even result in outright persecution, as has happened throughout history, as happens in parts of the world today.

The cross is a threat to the ways of the world because it challenges evil powers. It rejects hatred and violence. It condemns the inequities and injustices of our world. The cross asserts all have value, all are beloved of God. To embrace the cross is to find meaning and purpose not in money, possessions, or power over others, but in humble loving service.

The promise of the cross is no matter what the followers of Jesus might face, no matter the pains and difficulties they may endure, God is always present. The power of God’s love will defeat the evil powers of this world. God conquers sin and death. Jesus promises God will deliver us and bring us to resurrection life, following him in the way he has gone.

Our Epistle today, from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, is among my favorite. We read it at the Great Vigil of Easter, just after gathering at the font for the renewal of baptismal vows by candlelight. This reading comes just after the resurrection is proclaimed with the words, “Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.” 

This reading reminds us how baptism into Jesus is share in his death and his resurrection. Through baptism, we are transformed for eternity. Through the waters of baptism we die to the old life, we die to sin, and are given a share in Christ’s resurrection. Paul writes, “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Through baptism, we are incorporated into Jesus. We put on his identity, we become his body. In the waters of baptism we die, drowning to the ways of this world in those life-renewing waters, leaving behind the life of self-will, alienation, and fear. In the font we rise to the divine life of God, to a life as beloved children of God, and heirs of eternal life. Whatever pains and sorrows befall us, whatever trials and sufferings we experience, baptism assures us we will be delivered, that we are safe in God. God’s promise endures, we will be delivered into eternal life with God.

Because of this promise, we can let go of fear and we are able to face the present reality. We are able to endure and persevere in the call given us. In the power of the cross, resting in the promise we share in Christ’s resurrection life, we can faithfully follow where Jesus leads the way, embracing with all our heart and will the paradox that in losing our life we find life — true life, life abundant, life eternal with God.

To be a disciple is not easy. There is a great cost. It requires obedience to Jesus. It asks we be transformed. It is a journey into greater faithfulness. It is listening closely to the teachings of Jesus, learning from him, being formed by him, changed by him, and going forth in his Name, responding to the needs of the world.

May we rest secure in the knowledge that we are known by God. We are safe in God forever. Though we live in challenging and disorienting times, we will not be abandoned by God. We find our meaning and purpose, our vocation, in Christ. We are claimed as Christ’s own forever. 

Resting in the power of the cross, sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, may we discern our call in this time and place. Let us say yes to Jesus, to being sent out by him in compassion and love, claiming the authority he has given us to be agents of healing and reconciliation. Let us in all things live and proclaim to all people the good news entrusted to us. Amen. 

Jesus teaching his disciples, 1684. Public Domain.

June 14, 2020

At every baptism, just after the candidate is baptized with water and the sign of the cross is made on their forehead with chrism, oil blessed by the bishop, the celebrant says to the congregation, “Let us welcome the newly baptized.” The people respond, “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 308).

This statement of welcome and incorporation names the foundation of Christian identity. Through baptism we become part of God’s household, a community identified by the death and resurrection of Jesus. In baptism we are made a new creation, marked as Christ’s own, formed into the presence of Jesus in the world. Our relationship with God and one another is changed. We are incorporated into a new identity, a new way of being and living, into a community of faith.

It is common to talk of the church as a family. This is an image of the idealized family, of familial belonging rooted in close, meaningful relationships. Sadly, in reality, many families fall short of this ideal. Especially for LGBTQ Christians, families are not always safe communities.

As a queer Christian myself, I prefer the image of God’s household to the church as family. The image of the church as God’s household is not new, but is an ancient understanding of the church. It is stated in baptism and in scripture. We hear it in today’s Collect of the Day, in which we prayed God would keep God’s “household the Church in [God’s] steadfast faith and love.”

To be the household of God means our citizenship is in heaven. We do not live by the ways of this world. Our world is beset by sin and evil. Many human relationships are not mutual but embody unequal power. This world is afflicted by hierarchies of worth and value. Some people have more worth than others, some are more important than others. All are not equal. All do not share equitably in the resources and opportunities of our society.

The Church, however, is called to a higher standard. Through baptism we are incorporated into the divine life of the Trinity, a life marked by freely shared abundant love. This love is defined by self-giving service. This is love freely given away, without counting the cost. It is love given not for personal gain or benefit, but for the well-being of others. As Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans this morning, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”

In our Lesson this morning, God tells Moses if the people enter into covenant with God, they will be God’s people, becoming God’s “treasured possessions.”  They will be for God a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. To be a priestly people is to be rooted in prayer for the world, lifting the needs, burdens, and sorrows of this age to God. It is to offer to God our gratitude and thanksgiving. To live as priests is to find God’s presence in daily life, seeing God at work in the ordinary moments of each day. It is to reach out in compassion to those who are hurting, hungry, or oppressed, standing with them in solidarity, healing their hurts and pain, working to dismantle the injustice afflicting them.

To be a holy people is to be holy as God is holy. It is to be sanctified, set apart for a particular life in God. Being holy means we find our identity and purpose in God. We are faithful in worship and prayer of God, asking God to transform our hearts and minds that we walk in the paths of holiness and righteousness all our days. To be holy is to turn our wills over to God, that God may use us in God’s holy work. Being holy means our words and deeds, our very being itself, witness to God, pointing to God’s love and compassion.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus looks at the crowds and has compassion on them. Seeing them, Jesus is observes a people who are harassed and helpless. They have no one to lead them, like a sheep without a shepherd to lead and care for it. So Jesus summons his twelve apostles and sends them out to the lost sheep.

The charge he gives them is to do what he is doing. It is the call to be a priestly and holy people, set apart for loving service as the household of God. They are to be his presence among the people. Jesus charges them to make love known by ministering to those who are sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead. Jesus gives them the authority they need to do these things. 

Sending them out, he tells them to proclaim the good news of the kingdom. They are to tell those they meet how God loves them and invites into a new community of love and mutuality. They are to travel simply, without money or clothes or supplies. They will rely on the kindness of others. If anyone does not welcome them, they are to move on to a new place. There will be difficulties. Families will betray family members, there will be persecutions, but they should not worry. The Holy Spirit will direct them, giving them the words to say. 

Each time I hear this passage, its simplicity strikes me. Jesus doesn’t undertake a feasibility study before beginning the work. There is no fund raising. Supplies are not gathered. The disciples simply set out, meeting people where they are, telling them the story of their own encounter with God, their experience of the liberating good news of God revealed in Jesus. They rely on the hospitality of others and go where they are welcomed, where people are receptive to their message. They set out rooted in the power of God, knowing the Holy Spirit guides them, inspires their work, and even puts in their mouths the words to speak.

There is something poignant hearing about Jesus send out his followers when we remain in this time of pandemic. While the data on the coronavirus in Rhode Island is encouraging and more businesses are reopening, we still live with the danger of serious illness and death. We must remain prudent, taking precautions such as avoiding crowds, maintaining social distancing, and wearing masks when away from home. How can be go into the world to do the work of Jesus when we live in this reality? 

While we live with many restrictions and life is not how it was in early March, there remain opportunities for us to live as the household of God in the world. One is, in fact, wearing masks and practicing social distancing as an act of love in this pandemic. 

Another is being kind to those whose work puts them at risk for illness, such as grocery store and medical personnel. When we meet them, we can speak words of gratitude and support to them, thanking them for all they are doing, the risks they take for the well being of others. 

If we have the means, we can give financially to agencies and organizations helping those in need, such as food pantries. Their clientele has dramatically increased and funds are needed to feed all who are hungry. Through our Diocese, Charities NOW offers financial support for these ministries.

In the past two weeks we have seen people throughout our nation take to the streets protesting police brutality against people of color — doing so even with the risk of the virus. In more than 700 communities across the country, in cities, towns, and rural areas, people have demanded change. 

The focus has initially been police brutality, but there is a growing cry to dismantle systemic white supremacy and racism. After 401 years, it is time for us to undertake the painful and costly work of talking honestly about our nation’s history of systemic racial oppression. For those of us who are white, there is the call to repent of these systems, make restitution, working to build a more just and equitable society.

As the church, our call is clear. Being the household of God, a people set apart by God to be a priestly and holy people, baptized into the identity of Christ, we are to undertake this hard work in love. As the church we have a unique role in this work, a role other institutions cannot undertake.

In his book, The End of White Christian America, the author William P. Jones writes that the church has a unique and important role in this work. Jones says, “Today’s upswing in racial tensions makes the emergence of churches that can serve as bridging institutions more important than ever. The data show that white attitudes on race mostly change when they rub shoulders and build close relationships with nonwhites. With few institution poised to play this crucial role, America’s churches could be a place where national, substantive conversation about race finally begins. This dialogue has a much better chance of success if white Christians approach it with a chastened course of repentance rather than a position of entrenched power that too quickly insists on programs of integration under predominately white leadership or models focused prematurely on reconciliation” (p. 236).

For six years this parish has engaged in racial reconciliation work. It is a stated parish priority this year. While the pandemic temporality suspended our work, we are looking for ways to reengage in it, using virtual online gatherings. The stakes are high and the moment is now. The urgency is real. Too many lives hang in the balance. It is important we continue the work God has called us to do. 

Like first disciples we are sent out in the power of the Holy Spirit to do work of Jesus as the household of God. We are charged to the demanding work of dismantling racial oppression. It requires standing with our neighbor when they experience violence or tragedy, present with them in their pain, just as Jesus was with those harassed and helpless. It requires holding elected officials to account, that they act for the common good, especially for those with the least political power and influence. For those of us who are white, it requires learning the history of white supremacy in our nation and repenting of the evil done, and building a just society.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, may we be built into the household of God, strengthened to be a people who live by holiness, and sent forth to the world in compassionate love. In all we do, may we always be agents of reconciliation, healing, and God’s compassionate, liberating love. Amen.

Rublev’s famous icon showing the three Angels being hosted by Abraham at Mamre.
Public Domain. Wiki Commons.

June 7, 2020

A sermon for the First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday. The scripture lessons are found here.

In the Name of God, the holy and undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

This is an unusual Sunday in our liturgical calendar. This Sunday is not dedicated to an event in the life of Jesus, but rather, to a doctrine, the doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine we rightly call a mystery beyond our comprehension: that God is one God in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

While Trinity Sunday may seem an erudite exercise in obscure theological thought and debate, it actually expresses a reality central to our faith and our lives. The articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity is rooted in the debates of the Early Church about the nature of Jesus. 

There were several questions at the heart of this debate. In the incarnation is Jesus fully divine, fully human, or fully human and at the same time fully divine? What is the relationship between God the Father and the Son? Between the Father and the Holy Spirit? Is the Holy Spirit God?

These debates led to articulating the doctrine we celebrate this Sunday. Namely, that God is one God revealed in three Persons, all fully God. God is not created, but exists from before time and is the author of all that is. The Son is not created, but begotten of the Father.  The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son.

The doctrine of the Trinity isn’t the work of a group of theologians who sat together and attempted to explain God and the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Instead, it began with the Early Church’s engagement of scripture and the language of worship. 

In reading and studying scripture and in gathering as a community to worship God, it was clear God was revealed in three Persons. In the Gospels and New testament Epistles, God is seen as the Father, and also the Son, as well as the Holy Spirit. From the earliest days the church asserted God was a unity of three Persons—one God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three Persons yet one God.

We see God revealed as the Trinity clearly in today’s Epistle from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. Paul concludes his letter with language common to him, writing, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” 

In our lesson from the first chapter of Genesis there is not obvious Trinitarian language like in Paul. But we see the activity of God the Creator, God speaking creation into being through the Word, and the Spirit of God hovering over the waters of creation.

This passage tells us important truths about God that inform our understanding of the Trinity. Central is the opening phrase, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” God is present at the beginning of creation and active. There is no creation before God acts. Nothing in the created world acts before God does.

The opening of Genesis tells us God is God of all creation. God creates the world. God creates all creatures. God creates humanity. God does not create only one nation, tribe, or family of people. God creates all people. No group is favored over another. All are created and loved by God.

Genesis tells us God has a special love for all humankind, creating us in the image and likeness of God. No other creature is made in God’s image. Only humanity is given dominion over what God made. This is sometimes confused with domination—with exercising power over, abusing the authority given by God by exploiting creation for humanity’s greed. Instead, God calls us to be caretakers and stewards of creation, co-creators with God, responsibly managing and watching over the world, caring for it as God does. Loving all creatures like God. We share in the creative work of God.

Sharing in God’s work reminds us that creation is made by God in love, to be in relationship with God. Nothing that is made is made for itself alone. All things created contribute to the whole of creation. All things are connected and interrelated. And all are cared for by God.

Genesis teaches us that just as God is a community of love in the Trinity, so God creates all creatures to be interconnected and in relationship. God makes us to be in relationship with God, sharing in the Trinity’s divine life and activity. God creates us to also be in relationship with all people and with all of creation. As the 16th century Anglican priest and theologian, Richard Hooker, said, no part of creation can say to another, “I need thee not.”

In our Gospel the relationality of the Trinity is expressed in the baptismal language used by Matthew. This gospel is created two centuries before the church began articulating what is under-stood by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But already in the liturgy of the church—in the baptismal rite—we find the familiar articulation of the Trinity. 

This passage is the very end of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus has been raised from the dead and brings his followers to a mountain in Galilee. There he teaches them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Jesus reassures his disciples he is with them always, for all time. He sends them out to do the work he has done, calling on them to make disciples of all people, teaching them and baptizing them into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Since the earliest days of the church baptism is administered into the name of the Trinity. Through the waters of baptism, we are brought into the life of the Trinity, incorporated into the community of love that is God. We are brought into the household of God, into a relationship of belonging and incorporation with God that will not end, not even at death. Through baptism we belong to God for ever. 

The call we receive in baptism is to a very particular way of life, to a life rooted in the divine life of the Trinity. It is a life of sharing in God’s work of creating and caring for all creatures; it is a life of serving others as Jesus serves; it is a life following the call of God’s Spirit, using the gifts given by the Spirit for the work of ministry.

Incorporated into the divine life of God we are rooted in the divine love flowing from the Trinity. This divine love fills us to overflowing, welling up within us, spilling out from us into the world through our words and deeds. Living by God’s love, we are compelled to act for the common good of all creatures. 

There are several important ways we as a parish community participate in the divine life of love of the Trinity. Since March 15 we have remained physically distant so the coronavirus is not spread. We gave up gathering in person, using technology to worship virtually. We are fasting from celebrating and receiving the Eucharist until it is safe for all people to do so. Love bids us stay apart for this time.

God’s love is a love rooted in justice, and leads us to raise our heartsick voices in lament and outrage at white supremacy and four hundred years of systemic racial oppression and violence. For the past six years we have educated ourselves about white privilege, our nation’s history of white supremacy and systemic racial oppression. We have partnered with others in the neighborhood to build mutual relationships across society’s divide of race and class. Though our work was suspended by the pandemic, the Vestry is exploring actively reengaging in this work through virtual technology, responding with urgency to recent protests on the streets of more than 700 cities and towns in our country, including 10,000 in Providence on Friday.

This past Thursday love led several of us from the Redeemer to risk being in a crowd by attending a Prayer Vigil and Lament at the State House. Organized by the RI Council of Churches and the Ministers’ Alliance, the vigil was in response to the death of George Floyd, and too many other unarmed black and brown people, at the hands of the police. Several hundred of us lamented, crying our grief to heaven, and speaking the names of those killed by police. We recommitted ourselves to the work of dismantling racial oppression.

These actions are all rooted in the divine love of God expressed by the doctrine of the Trinity. In our one God revealed in three Persons is found our life and salvation, our identity and belonging. In the Trinity is rooted our unity with all people and all of creation.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to make known the love of God revealed in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the love into which, through the waters of baptism, we share. Trinity Sunday calls us to stake our very lives on the power of God to overcome the powers of sin, evil, and death of this world.

Trinity Sunday can seem a dry theological exercise. But it is an attempt to articulate the nature of our God who is so far beyond our knowledge and understanding. We are creatures of the Creator, finite beings, using limited human language to express the eternal majesty of the ineffable God. Our language will never adequately or fully describe God.

So the most fitting response to Trinity Sunday is to find ourselves where the articulation of this doctrine began: in scripture and worship. Our language can never adequately express the reality of God, but we can come before the throne of grace in loving adoration.

We worship our God who created us in love, entering into our human life in the person of Jesus, suffering death upon the cross for our redemption, and setting us free through his resurrection from sin and death. We worship the God who comes us to us as a mighty wind and a still small voice, who is as close as our breath, giving us the words to say and the way to follow. We worship the God who sends out to the world in love, bringing the mercy, compassion, and justice of God to those the world rejects and forgets.

May we always begin, end, and in all things worship our God who is a community of love, revealed in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God now and for ever. Amen.

Hank Willis Thomas (b. 1976). Rise Up, 2016. Bronze.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, AL

May 31, 2020

The past week has been difficult. This morning (May 29) the news left me heartsick. After the horror of George Floyd killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, MN the city erupted with protests. Militarized police used rubber bullets and tear gas against protesters. Some vandalized and looted businesses and set fire to a police station. Prosecutors have not said if charges will be filed against the officers. This follows several news accounts of people of color being killed or harassed while engaged in innocent everyday activities.

The pandemic is a backdrop for it all. Horrific statistics show communities of color bear the brunt of suffering and death from the virus. Communities of color are more likely to work in service industries while those with privilege work in safety from home.

At the Vestry meeting this past Wednesday night we reaffirmed our commitment to racial reconciliation work. While put on hold with the suspension of in-person worship and gatherings, we are praying and talking about how we can continue our work even while distanced. As it says in the Catechism, “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 855).

Not only is the work of reconciliation a mandate from Jesus, but events in our nation continue to show the need. It is time for white church to learn its history of white supremacy and actively work to dismantle this nation’s systemic racial injustice.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to build the beloved community, a community that makes no peace with oppression and actively works for justice. Our call is live the way of love. This is the way of Jesus, a way where no one exercises power over another, no person is expendable, all people are valued and loved, and humble loving service is practiced. In this community all are welcome in the fullness of their identity and personhood. All people are valued for who they are.

One year ago I visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Created by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in downtown Montgomery, AL, its six acres are a memorial to the more than 4,000 people who experienced racial terror lynchings between 1877 and 1950 in the US.

On the grounds of the Memorial are several haunting sculptures. One, by Hank Willis Thomas called Rise Up (2016) has these words at its base: “Black and brown people in the United States often are presumed dangerous and guilty when they have done nothing wrong. Our history of racial inequality has created conscious and unconscious bias that has resulted in racial discrimination against people of color by law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Police shootings of unarmed men, women, and children, racially biased and excessive sentencing of people convicted of crimes, and abusive police conditions make mass incarceration a dominant issue for the poor and people of color.”

As we celebrate the festival of Pentecost on Sunday, may we implore the Holy Spirit to open our hearts, minds, and wills to God’s call to be agents of reconciliation in our neighborhood, nation, and church. May the Spirit plant within us a restlessness and thirst for the dismantling of systemic oppression and the creation of a just society. By the Spirit’s power this can be a nation where all are safe, valued, and thrive. Like those first 120 followers of Jesus on the Day of Pentecost, may we be lit afire by the Spirit’s passion that we turn the known world upside down, setting it right by God’s loving justice.

 Meister des Rabula-Evangeliums, 6th century. Public Domain.

May 24, 2020

A sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter: The Sunday after Ascension Day. The scripture lessons are found here.

When reading a passage of scripture, it can be helpful to pay attention to a word or phrase that gets your attention. Noticing and reflecting on this word can be fruitful. Doing so with today’s passage from the Gospel according to John, one word in particular caught my attention. The word “glory” is used several times. It is also found in the Collect of the Day and our Epistle today. 

“Glory” is a word we use a lot in the church. In the Daily Office, which includes the services of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, we conclude the recitation or chanting of the Psalms with, “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit…” In the Eucharist we sing the Gloria, that text based on the song of the angels to the shepherds in Bethlehem, “Glory to God in the highest.”  Some of our prayers ascribe glory to God and seek to glorify God’s holy Name.

Glory is a word also used in non-church settings, too. Glory is the praise and honor bestowed by people on an individual. One can attain glory through an achievement others recognize and celebrate. This kind of glory is understood as deserved by the person on whom it is bestowed. It is something they earned through their achievements. Often this glory grants them honorifics, such as special treatment, financial gain, or media attention. This earthly glory is typically focused on the individual and feeds their ego.

In the Gospel according to John the word “glory” means something quite different. Jesus is glorified because he is worthy of praise and worship. He has achieved great things for us and should be praised and honored. On this Sunday after Ascension Day, we celebrate Jesus taking our human flesh into heaven, to reign at the right hand of the Father. As our Savior, Jesus is worthy of our praise, he is worthy of being glorified.

Though glorified, Jesus does not use his glory for his own gain, to feed his ego. He does not embrace glory for his own sake. He rejects the pride and vanity that is so often at the heart of human glory. The glory of Jesus reflects the glory of the Father and is shared with his followers. It is not his alone, but is rooted in relationship.

Our Gospel today is from the last part of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse at the Last Supper. This discourse concludes with a prayer Jesus makes to the Father. What we hear today is a part of his prayer, and is sometimes called his High Priestly prayer. 

In it we have the privilege of hearing Jesus use words that express his intimacy with the Father. In his prayer, Jesus makes intercession to the Father for humanity. Praying just hours before he is betrayed, arrested, and crucified, his prayer expresses his strong hope for his disciples after he leaves them. 

The glory of Jesus points not to himself, but to the glory of the Father. He and the Father are one. Jesus does not act on his own, for himself alone. What he has done in his earthly life and ministry is the work the Father gave him to do.

Jesus asks to be glorified with “the glory [he] had before the world existed.”  At the beginning of John’s Gospel, in the beautiful words of the Prologue, we are told the “Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Jesus is the Word, present at the creation of the world, dwelling as a human creature within the creation. After his resurrection Jesus takes his human flesh with him, ascending bodily into heaven, and returning to the glory that is his as the second Person of the Trinity.

Jesus prays we know God. Knowing God is not only about intellectual knowledge. It is about being in relationship, knowing God because we spend time with God in prayer and worship. Knowing God is having an experience of God, it is trusting God because we have a relationship with God. And ultimately knowing God is about love. 

As he washes his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, Jesus gives them a new commandment. He commands them to love one another as he loves them. His own glory is found in this love. His is a love defined by humble service and is seen most clearly in his cross. 

The glory of Jesus is expressed in loving without reserve and without counting the cost. On the cross Jesus loves so deeply, he does not resist those who kill him. He doesn’t run from his suffering. He doesn’t fight his persecutors. Even while he is dying, he continues to love, forgiving those who crucify him.

To know the Father and the Son is to know the truth, the truth that God is love. Love is not just an attribute of God, but is the very identity of God. Through baptism we are incorporated into the identity of God, literally putting on Christ as our own identity. Doing so, we participate in the divine love of God. We are defined and identified by the love of God that forms, shapes, and holds us.

The glory of Jesus, the glory that he shares with the Father, he also shares with us. It is the glory of living by love. This love does not seek its own gain, it does not consider one person to be more important than another, it excludes no one. This is love not predicated on emotion, on how we feel toward another person. It does require reciprocity to be given. This love is given to all, not only to those who return it.

It is love given simply because all people are children of God. It is love freely given because God freely bestows it on us. This is love that regards ourselves and others through the selfless, emptying divine love of God made visible in Jesus.

Though Jesus ascends into heaven, and is not physically present with us, his love continues to abide with us. By the indwelling of the Holy Spirit Jesus is with each of us. The Holy Spirit brings us into all truth, keeping alive the message and call of Jesus in our hearts. The Spirit leads us in the way of love, showing us how we are live the love of Jesus, how we are to make him known in our world through our words and deeds.

Through the Spirit, we are one with Jesus, we are connected to him. By the Spirit we enter into the divine life of the Trinity. In this divine life we share, even now, in eternal life. Though living here on earth, eternal life is a present reality for those who are one with Jesus. His followers are called to make the love of eternity real now.

In our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles we heard the account of Jesus ascending into heaven. After Jesus is taken from the disciples, suddenly two men in white robes appear and ask them why they stand looking up into heaven. After being asked this, they return to the city and devote themselves to prayer until the descent of the Holy Spirit ten days later.

We too must not stand still, looking up into heaven. We are called to turn our gaze outward. In looking around we can see the need in our world. We can observe the places we are called to go in the name of God’s love. We are sent by Jesus to make heaven real here now, in this place. We follow the Spirit to witness to God’s love. The Spirit shows us those whom we are called to serve in love, and give us the gifts needed to do the acts of love God calls us to undertake.

There has been much talk this week about churches in Rhode Island reopening. The Governor made the surprise announcement churches may reopen May 30. This is at least a month earlier than in her original plan. While we are all anxious to return to Sunday worship in person, gathered physically as a community, I believe we need to be cautious and intentional in how we proceed. Opening too soon will mean sickness and possibly death for others or ourselves. 

Whether in person or virtually online, God will be worshipped by us each week. God’s name will be praised and glorified by us. It is important to wisely evaluate how soon we can safely gather physically. It is also important to examine our motives in a hasty reopening. We must be certain we act for the common good and the well being of all people. We must always act from love.

The glory of Jesus that he shares with us, rests on the love he has for us. The depths of his love are shown in his offering on the cross. On the cross, Jesus puts aside his well-being and allows himself to be killed. He sacrifices his life for love. We too, are called to live by love, a love shown in offering ourselves in service to others. Since March 15 our love has been lived by staying apart, sacrificing much for the well-being of all.

We live in a challenging time. We long to leave our homes and experience the joy of community. We desire to celebrate the Eucharist together in this building, receiving the precious Body and Blood of Jesus in the sacrament of the altar.

Though our challenges are real and our longings deep, may we remain cautious and be intentional, acting always from love for our neighbor. May all decisions we make be based on our love of others and in service of the common good.

In our Epistle today, we are urged to “Cast all [our] anxiety on [God], because he cares for you.” In all we experience, all the burdens we carry, God remains with us. God loves us and cares for us. Though we are a community kept apart in this time, the Spirit of God flows between us, uniting us even now. God will sustain us in all we find difficult now, and in the weeks to come. May we know God is with us, Jesus has not abandoned us, but abides with us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Through the Spirit we are one with Jesus, marked as his own for eternity. As his body in the world, may all we do be rooted in the love of God. May the glory of Jesus, revealed in our humble loving service, shine through our lives and bring glory to God. Through loving one another we are witnesses to all of the power of God’s love. In this God is glorified. Amen.

Raphael, St Paul Preaching in Athens (1515). Public Domain. Wiki Commons.

May 17, 2020

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter. the scripture lessons are found by click here.

The French mathematician, physicist, and theologian Blais Pascal wrote that all people seek happiness, and do so in various ways. But Pascal believed there was only one path that led to true happiness, one way to satiate the deep hunger and longing within humanity, and that was the path to God. Nothing else in all creation will do so. As Pascal said, “But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God…” [Pensee 425,]

We, like the whole of creation, are created by God. God plants within us a deep desire for relationship with God. We are incomplete without God. Without deep connection with God we wander, looking for what will complete us. But as St. Augustine said in his Confessions, “for You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” [] There is no rest for the human soul apart from God. We only understand who we are in relation to God.

In our Lesson today from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul has traveled to Athens and finds a people who are hungry and searching. Acts tells us the Athenians spend all their time in “telling or hearing something new.” They are restless. When Paul preaches Jesus crucified and raised from the dead, they find something new and some want to hear more. 

This is Paul’s first time in Athens. It is a university town, the seat of learning and philosophy. The people are also very religious. Paul sees many shrines to idols in the city. He, of course, rejects these idols as human creations, made by human hands, not real gods. 

Rather than criticizing the Athenians for their idols, Paul listens to them. In conversation with them he hears how curious they are in their search for truth. He hears how they are seeking and searching for God. Paul doesn’t judge them, but looks for a way to preach Jesus to them, in a way they can hear.

Paul finds this in the very thing that most concerns him: the many shrines to idols. For among them, Paul sees one dedicated to “an unknown God.” This is Paul’s opening. This altar is his way to meet them where they are. Paul tells those listening he sees how religious they are, how they are searching for the truth. In their quest, they even have an altar to a god they may not know, either through ignorance or because they overlooked this god.

Paul explains that he knows this unknown God. Paul boldy suggests that it is Jesus they search for. In Jesus their deepest longings will be satisfied. Paul knows the people of Athens have failed to find what they long for, so he proclaims the risen Jesus as the answer to their restlessness. 

Paul preaches that God is not like their idols, because God is not made with human hands. Rather, God created everything that is, including humanity. Using one of their own sayings from Greek thought, Paul tells them that God is not far away, but is close, in fact so close, God is the One in whom they “live and move and have our being” — a phrase that we still use today. Paul tells the Athenians we are God’s offspring and in Jesus, who was raised from the dead, will we be judged righteous. 

After much groping and searching, Jesus is the One for whom the Athenians seek and search. Paul assures them that in Jesus their deepest longings are met. In him their restlessness will be quieted. Not all are persuaded by Paul’s preaching. But Acts tells us some became believers because of Paul’s witness, including a man named Dionysius and a woman named Damaris.

What Paul found true of the Athenians, is true of our own age. Like the Athenians we too have within us a longing, the “infinite abyss” of Pascal, the restlessness experienced by St. Augustine. In our time this deep longing can lead a person to pursue wealth, or to follow consumerism — filling the empty space in life with money and possessions. Food and drink are also used to satiate us.  

But these will never ultimately fill us. They will not satisfy. They leave us wanting more, still restless and searching. It is only in Jesus we find our deepest longings met, where our deep places of emptiness are filled. In Jesus the barren places of our lives bloom with verdant growth. Those places where we are parched and dry, Jesus brings streams of living water. It is only in union with the One who made us, with God alone, that we find ourselves complete.

In today’s Gospel the disciples are concerned they will lose their connection with Jesus. They fear all he has brought to their lives will be lost, that they will be left desolate and alone. 

This passage is from John’s account of the Last Supper, known as the Farewell Discourse. At that meal, the disciples hear Jesus will die and be taken from them. They will betray and deny him. They will abandon him. This is not the serene and holy final meal we might like to imagine. No wonder Jesus tells them, as we heard last week, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Their hearts are likely very troubled by this time.

Jesus reassures them, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” Though he will be taken from them soon, they will not be without him. If they love him and keep his commandments, he is with them. His commandment, given earlier at the Last Supper when Jesus washed their feet, is to love one another as he loves them. In loving others, Jesus is present with them. He who is Love, is present with them when they love others.

Jesus also assures them he is the answer to their deep longings. In him they will find their fulfillment, they will be complete. Just as the Father and Jesus are one, so they will be one with him. Just as the Father abides in Jesus, so will Jesus abide in them, and they will be one with the Father. They are one with him. In him they are complete, finding the fullness of life God intends.

After Jesus is gone and not physically with them, they will receive the Holy Spirit sent by God. Just as Jesus is sent by God to them, so God sends the Holy Spirit upon them. The Spirit is the Spirit of Truth. It is the abiding presence of Jesus with them. While no longer physically with them, Jesus is with them in a personal and intimate way, dwelling within each of them, leading them into all truth, filling all their barren and empty places with love.

It is fitting we read this Gospel today. On Thursday we celebrate Ascension Day. Appearing to his disciples for forty days after his resurrection, Jesus then ascends into heaven. Jesus takes our humanity to dwell with God. Jesus goes the way we will one day follow.

But in leaving, Jesus does not abandon us. The Holy Spirit is poured upon us. The abiding presence of God with us, the Spirit draws us into the divine life of God. The Spirit connects us with Jesus though he is not physically with us. Through the Spirit, he dwells within us of each, and is at work in us, connecting us to the divine life of God.

I find the promise of the abiding presence of Jesus a great comfort in these days. It is a reminder that the Spirit is at work in us. Though we try to fill our restlessness and longing for God with things, not God, the Holy Spirit is at work in us. The Spirit leads us into all truth, gently — or even not so gently — by nudging us on the path we should walk, guiding us to the path that leads to God.

It is also comforting that though Jesus has ascended far above the earth, sitting at the right hand of God, yet he remains as close as our breath. Through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is with us. Though we might feel alone, abandoned or orphaned by him, Jesus never leaves us — whether we sense his presence or not.

And, perhaps most comforting in these days of pandemic, the Holy Spirit abides not only with each of us, but also unites us to one another. The Spirit flows between us, bridging the distance of our physical separation, uniting us as one body. The Spirit continues to build us into the body of Christ in this time and place, until the day we can gather together physically in this place.

God created us with the deep need and longing for relationship with God. God also gave us the gift of free will, allowing us to pursue many paths in assuaging that longing. Thankfully, God gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, who abides with us, and leads us into communion with God.

Jesus promises he will never abandon us. If we love him, he abides in us and we in him. In loving others, we know the One “in whom we live and move and have our being.” Even in this time of challenge and separation, Jesus remains with us. His abiding presence in the Holy Spirit will lead us into the fullness of life he intends for us. Through baptism we share in his death and also share in the promise of resurrection to life eternal. In Jesus is found the fullness of life God intends for us. Amen.

Stoning of Saint Stephen, altarpiece of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, by Jacopo & Domenico Tintoretto. Public Domain.

May 10, 2020

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter. The scripture readings may be found here.

Each Sunday in Eastertide the scripture lessons tell how the first followers of Jesus lived after his resurrection. Early in the season they are about their first experiences of Jesus raised from the dead and their reaction to this life-changing reality. Common in these stories is confusion, fear, and bewilderment, all mixed with joy. 

In the later weeks of Eastertide the mood shifts, and we see how things change after the Day of Pentecost. Filled with the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit, the followers of Jesus are no longer confused. They show great strength and courage. They live, and die, like Jesus. They are witnesses to his life and to his death, and live rooted in the power of his resurrection. 

This week our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles tells about the death of Stephen. The first martyr (from a Greek word meaning “witness”), Stephen is killed for his faithful witness of Jesus. His story takes up all of chapters six and seven of Acts. 

Today we hear just the very end of his story. The background to today’s passage is that  Stephen is one of seven men of good standing, full of the Holy Spirit, who are appointed to care for those in need. They are the first deacons. Stephen is described as “full of grace and power,” one who “did great wonders and signs among the people.”

Preaching Jesus crucified and risen from the dead without ceasing gets Stephen into trouble with the authorities. They tell lies about Stephen and turn the people against him. When the High Priest questions Stephen, he delivers a beautiful and impassioned sermon — stretching over 51 verses. His preaching so enrages the authorities, they “grind their teeth at him.” They are so angry, they kill him.

Stephen is filled with the Holy Spirit, and while he is stoned has a vision of the risen Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Before he dies, he asks Jesus to receive his spirit. He does not despair. He doesn’t curse those who kill him. Instead, he sees the risen Jesus and asks Jesus to receive him when he dies.

Stephen also forgives those who kill him. He asks, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” While recognizing they commit sin by murdering him, he does not condemn them, but instead prays for them. Like Jesus on the cross, he has compassion and mercy toward his persecutors.

Stephen’s martyrdom begins a severe persecution of the Jerusalem church. The followers of Jesus scatter for safety, leaving the city. But they do not hide. They don’t shrink from the work God has given them to do. Like Stephen, they continue to preach and teach, bringing the good news of Jesus to new locations, to people who have never heard of Jesus.

Stephen, and the first followers of Jesus, experience a strong connection between the death and resurrection of Jesus and their lives. They understand just as Jesus is brought from death to resurrection life, so are they. No power on earth is a match for God’s love. Though their bodies may be harmed, even killed, they are safe in God for eternity. The resurrection of Jesus sets them free to boldly witness to the power of God’s love, without fear, without counting the cost, even able to give their lives in witness, as martyrs. They live absolutely trusting the Easter victory of Jesus over the powers of sin and death will be theirs. 

This allows the first disciples to remain faithful in difficult times. They are open to God at work in them, so even in times of struggle God can use them to accomplish God’s purposes. Stephen, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, sees the risen Jesus standing at the right hand of God and is sustained to witness to God’s love while he suffers and dies. Focusing on Jesus in his time of trial, he is able to love without reserve, praying for those who kill him, asking they be forgiven. He trusts Jesus is at his side, ready to receive his spirit when he dies.

As follows of Jesus many centuries later, we too are called to be filled by the Holy Spirit. Opening ourselves to the gifts of the Spirit, we are to see the risen Jesus in our midst. And we too are called to be witnesses, to tell what we see of Jesus, what we experience of our risen Lord, witnessing to his love. Through our witness others may know the power of God’s love in the resurrection of Jesus. Through our witness others may be sustained in their struggles.

This week I read that our greatest growth often comes during times of great challenge and struggle. While not specifically written about a time of pandemic, it made me think of the present. This certainly is a challenging time. Perhaps this is the greatest challenge of our lives. I find it comforting it may also be the time of greatest growth for us, that there is opportunity in this time.

There certainly is great suffering all over the world. Many people are ill, so many have died. We live with uncertainty and fear, worrying for our well-being and that of others. Many people have lost employment and suffer economic loss. Food banks have greater demand than before. Health care professionals risk their lives, as do other “essential workers” such those working in grocery stores. 

The pandemic has exposed in starkly obvious ways the great inequity and institutionalized oppression of our society. Health care and economic opportunities are not enjoyed by all. One’s race determines the likelihood of being able to work at home. People of color in our nation are disproportionally affected by the virus. 

Seeing such disparities in such an obvious way is an opportunity for important and necessary systemic changes needed in our nation — changes many have ignored for a long time.

Even for those of us who are healthy, this is a time of challenge and anxiety. It is challenging working or learning from home. We know grief because we can’t gather in this church to worship God, and are unable to receive the Eucharist when we most desire it.

Yet in this time of great challenge there is the opportunity for growth. Unable to worship together in person, we are learning how to pray and worship at home more intentionally. Several of you have told me you are discovering new parts of our Book of Common Prayer, finding inside it a wealth of prayers and services.

Our online worship is viewed by more people than would attend on Sunday in person. Churches around the country are reaching many more people, sharing the good news of the risen Jesus in a time it is most needed. 

This week I have heard several stories of people having conversations with their neighbors—something that has not happened previously—even meeting their neighbors for the first time. Neighborhoods are becoming places of relationship and connection as our physical world becomes smaller.

The group of parishioners who called everyone in the Redeemer community spoke of the blessing in hearing the voices of parishioners they can’t see right now. These calls made real the grief of separation, but also highlighted our connection as a community, and just how blessed we are to be with one another in this parish.

I find myself moved in profound ways by the wonder of creation, as spring comes into glorious flower. Being home so much, I have appreciated watching a robin build a nest above a neighbor’s door, and I marvel at how she patiently sits on her eggs.

And this is a time we are discovering what is truly important in life; how necessary and holy are the relationships we have with one another. With the gift of time and detachment we are discerning the truly important priorities in life, and asking how will we be more intentional as we live day by day.

Though this is a time of anxiety, hardship, and grief, it is also an opportunity for growth. It is a time to trust in God, to be open to the promptings of the Spirit, even for doing God’s work now, witnessing to what we see and experience of the risen Jesus. It is time to care for a world in need.

In our Gospel today Jesus tells the disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” He says this at the Last Supper, in what is known as his Farewell Discourse. Jesus is preparing his disciples for his departure. He is about to be killed and after his resurrection he will not be with them as he has been. He assures them they will be okay, because he does not leave them entirely.

Jesus will send them the Holy Spirit. His abiding presence will be with them. Though physically apart from them, Jesus will be with them in the Spirit, abiding and dwelling within them. Their relationship with Jesus will change, but it will not end. And one day Jesus promises they will be together again.

Jesus reassures his followers he is going to prepare a place for them with plenty of rooms. Jesus will bring them to dwell with him for eternity. Though he leaves them, he does not abandon them. And they will be with him at the last — for eternity.

This day Jesus also says to us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Do not be worried or anxious. Jesus is with us still. The same Holy Spirit bestowed on his first followers rests on us. Jesus is with us still, abiding with each of us. 

The same Spirit that filled Stephen at his martyrdom, fills us, allowing us to gaze on the risen Jesus in our midst, fixing our sight on him, not taking our eyes off him, following him in the way he leads.

The same Spirit that empowered the first followers to witness to the risen Jesus is with us, giving us strength to tell the good news of Jesus through our words and our deeds, loving and forgiving, caring for those in need.

And the Holy Spirit is with us in this time of challenge, bringing from the uncertainty and grief, new opportunity and new life. The Spirt abides with us, giving us hope, and showing us new ways to be God’s people in this challenging time and in this place.

As the Collect of the Day reminds us today, truly knowing Almighty God is eternal life, it is union with the divine life of the Trinity. May God grant us to “perfectly know” Jesus to be “the way, the truth, and the life” that we steadfastly follow him in the way he leads. For he is the way to life with God for ever.

Jesus as the Good Shepherd from the early Christian catacomb of Domitilla/Domatilla (Crypt of Lucina, 200-300 CE). Public Domain. Wiki Commons.

May 3, 2020

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 3, 2020. The scripture lessons may be found here.

What a difference a few weeks makes! The past Sundays we have seen the disciples of Jesus struggle to understand his resurrection. The first Easter morning they fail to understand what has happened. The afternoon of that first Easter two walk on the road, full of grief, discussing the terrible things done to Jesus, things they witnessed. The first Easter night they are hiding behind locked doors, afraid they will be killed like Jesus.

Though in all these stories the risen Jesus comes among his followers, showing the wounds of his passion, talking with his disciples, bestowing his peace and the Holy Spirit on them, they do not know what to make of Jesus risen from the dead.

Jesus appears to his followers for forty days. During those days Jesus instructs and teaches them. After he leaves them, the Holy Spirit comes among his disciples on the first Pentecost and they are forever changed.

By the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit they leave behind their fear, doubts, and confusion. Filled with the Spirit, they journey to the ends of the earth, proclaiming Jesus crucified and risen. They do the works of Jesus, caring for those in need, healing the sick, even raising the dead. These first followers of Jesus are hardly recognized as the same people seen that first Easter.

We see evidence of their transformation in our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles. This New Testament book, really a continuation of Luke’s Gospel, tells what happens to the disciples of Jesus after his ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Today’s passage tells us, “Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” They are conformed to the teaching of Jesus as handed down by Peter and the other apostles. Their lives are conformed to the teaching of Jesus and they become his witness, living as Jesus did in his earthly life and ministry. 

They are faithful in celebrating the Eucharist, the “breaking of the bread and the prayers.”  Like Jesus, they own nothing, instead selling all their possessions and goods, and pooling their resources. The funds raised by selling their property are held in common by the community, and as any has need, they are cared for.

These first followers of Jesus “ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” They are thankful for what they have been given by God, and in response, they praise God with thankful hearts and have goodwill toward all people, caring for others in their need.

After the resurrection of Jesus and receiving the power of the Holy Spirit, the followers of Jesus are dramatically changed and transformed. They leave behind the ways of the world, giving up their possession, and live in community with other Christians. They reject the ways of greed and violence by which the world is governed. They do not despair, but offer the good news of profound hope and deep joy found in the power of Jesus’ resurrection.

I regularly save articles and quotes I come across, thinking they may be useful in a sermon one day. Periodically I have to sort through and organize what I have saved. This week I was sorting through a stack of articles and came across one I saved in 2015 that connected to today’s sermon. It is called, “Why We Need Resurrection” and was posted on the Patheos website.

The author, Ellen Painter Dollar, comments on the power of Jesus’ resurrection to transform his followers, writing, “Something clearly happened that transformed a bunch of bumbling, dejected disciples into people of steady conviction willing to travel the world preaching good news, and die for it if necessary. I don’t need to know exactly what happened, or understand exactly how it happened, to allow myself to be transformed by the resurrection. We don’t have to understand exactly how something works for it to have power and meaning.”

She goes on to compare this to how other things in her life change her. Dollar writes, “I don’t understand how my dog’s goofy presence makes me feel better after a lousy day, why I consider a particular piece of music beautiful, or how my gut feelings usually steer me in the right direction when it comes to big decisions—but all of those experiences are very real. I don’t have to understand how the human-canine bond, music, or intuition work to know that these phenomena have real power to transform.”

Dollar observes that, while we can’t explain how, the power of Jesus’ resurrection changes us. For we follow the One death could not hold, the grave unable to contain his love. Though the forces of sin, hatred, and evil tried their best to kill the Lord of Love, hanging him on the tree, the power of God’s love was no match. Jesus is raised on the third day, overcoming death and the grave, and we are set free from sin, hatred, despair, and fear.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd of the people. Psalm 23 reminds us today the Shepherd leads to green pastures and still waters, reviving our weary soul. Though we come face to face with death itself, walking “through the valley of the shadow of death” we have nothing to fear. The Good Shepherd is with us, leading and guiding us to the table he has spread for us, to the cup that is running over. He is the Shepherd who is the guardian, the protector, of our souls.

In our Gospel today, John tells us Jesus is the Shepherd of the sheep. He calls each by name, the sheep know his voice and follow him. He protects the sheep from all danger and harm, even giving his life for the sheep — something a hireling would never do.

The Gospel also tells us Jesus is the sheep gate. The sheep gate was the opening in the sheep fold, an enclosure often made of stone, where the sheep were safe at night. Jesus is the gate of this sheep fold, preventing danger from entering, keeping the sheep safe inside, preventing them from wandering away. Jesus the shepherd leads his sheep to the fold for safety, and those who follow him safely come to fine pasture.

This is not to say because we follow Jesus, the Shepherd of our souls, no danger will befall us. There will be challenging times, difficulties will beset us, and at the last we, like all creatures we will die. But in whatever we experience Jesus promises to be with us, like the faithful Shepherd, calling us by name, leading us through all trials. Jesus comes that we “may have life, and have it abundantly.” He promises to faithfully lead us to fullness of abundant life.

This, I think, is key to understanding — as much as we are able — the power of resurrection to transform and change us. In the resurrection of Jesus all powers and forces of this world are destroyed, their power forever disarmed. Following Jesus, we are set free from the evil forces of this world, and set free to be rooted in the divine life of God. 

We are set free to live by gratitude and generosity, knowing our possessions ultimately will not save us. We are set free to live by love, as Jesus loves, caring for the least and forgotten. 

We are set free from the individualism of our age, with its reliance on self and focus on individual needs, and instead build a mutual community of just love and compassion. 

However it happens, however little we understand, the reality is the risen Jesus frees us from the powers and hold of this world, allowing us to live by the ways of God’s reign.

The quest for every age is discerning God’s call in the present. Each generation of Christians is charged with living by resurrection life, listening to God, following where Jesus our Shepherd leads. This may be even more true in this time of pandemic and physical separation from one another. It is a time in which what we have known and done must change.

Though this is a challenging and frightening time in which we live, it is also a time of great opportunity. It is time to look for the blessings and moments of grace, for they continue to happen, even while we stay at home. 

It is a time to open ourselves to the risen Jesus when he comes in our midst, receptive to those times we experience his presence and know he is near.

And it is a time to open ourselves to Holy Spirit that we continue to be the church, the body of the risen Christ, even now. It is time to open our hearts and our lives to the visitation of the Spirit, claiming the gifts the Spirit gives, doing the work of ministry even now.

And this is a time to trust the power of Jesus’ resurrection to defeat all the forces of this world. God’s love remains steadfast. Jesus our Good Shepherd continues to walk beside us, calling us each by name, leading us into the pasture of abundant life, into the sheep fold of eternal life.

Let us listen, moment by moment, for his call, that we recognize his voice, and follow him wherever he leads us. Amen.

Jesus and the two disciples On the Road to Emmaus, by Duccio, 1308–1311, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Sienna. Public Domain.

April 26, 2020

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter. The scripture readings are found here.

Today’s Gospel seems to me a very human story, one it is not hard to find myself part of. It is the story of two people walking on the road, traveling the seven miles from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus. Just as when I take a walk with friends, these two talk with each other along the way.

As they walk, they reflect on the events of recent days. Their hearts are sad, for these are followers of Jesus and have just witness his arrest, torture, crucifixion, and burial. They feel grief at the death of their teacher. They try to make sense of what happened to him and what their future may hold.

As these two talk, the risen Jesus appears. As often happens in resurrection accounts in the Gospels, they do not recognize him. They consider him a stranger they meet along the road.

This stranger joins the pair and walks with them, asking what they were talking about. They are surprised their companion has not heard what they have been through. For them it is an important, life-defining time, yet, surprisingly, he knows nothing about it.

They tell him what happened to Jesus. They explain that morning the women found the tomb empty and angels telling them Jesus is alive. But no one has seem him yet. The stranger on the road says, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” He explains to them what scripture says about the Messiah. He breaks open scripture for them, helping them see what they had not seen before.

As they come near Emmaus, their destination, the traveler makes like he is going on. But they strongly urge him to stay with them, for the day is almost over. So he joins the two in a meal. During the meal, “he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”

That first Easter afternoon, these two disciples of Jesus, in their sadness, experience the risen Jesus in their midst. They encounter Jesus in the Word, as he opened scripture to their understanding. They recognized him in the Sacrament, in the breaking of the bread.

In the past I have understood this rich passage as being about the Eucharist. Each Sunday when we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we read three lessons from scripture and a psalm. There is a sermon that offers reflection and teaching on the Word. After the Peace, we gather at the altar for the bread and wine that are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus, that abiding presence of the risen Jesus with us always.

Always, that is, except this year. Because of the pandemic we cannot gather. Because we cannot gather, we cannot celebrate the Eucharist. This past month has been the longest period in my life not receiving communion.  It is strange and disorienting. It can leave us feeling unmoored, deprived of the primary way we encounter the risen Jesus, the important way he with us always.

How do we live as the body of Christ when we can’t receive the body of Christ, when we are deprived of that heavenly food that forms us into Christ’s body, into the people God creates us to be?

Earlier this week, when I first read this Gospel, I was sad. It seemed poignant, if not painful, to contemplate this story when we are in the midst of a fast from the Eucharist — a fast we did not choose and without a certain ending.

But thanks be to God for scripture and for God’s revelation. It amazes and surprises me how a passage I have read all my life takes on new meaning in a particular time. How a story in the Gospels I have understood in a particular way can be seen in a new light when context changes. It is an assurance of God’s active presence in our world, of how scripture is the living Word of God, speaking anew to each age, being understood freshly each year.

While I still understand this story of the road to Emmaus being about the risen Jesus present to us in the Eucharist, this year I have greater appreciation for the Word of God. We are a people centered in the Eucharist. It is what we typically do on Sunday. This is a good and fitting thing, and has been true for followers of Jesus since the Early Church.

But with the emphasis on the Eucharist, we can forget the importance of the Word, of how the Eucharist is both Word and Sacrament. And how the Word speaks to us in fresh ways. This year, reflecting on this Gospel in this time of COVID-19 and social distancing, several things in particular strike me as speaking to our present context.

The first is the risen Jesus comes upon the two walking on the road just as they are. We do not know why they are on this journey, but it is an ordinary experience to walk with a friend to a destination. As they walk they talk about their traumatic experience. They express their grief and sadness, their concerns for the future.

Into their very human experience the risen Jesus appears. He meets them just where they are, just as they are. This is important for us in this time. We cannot celebrate Easter as in past years. We are unable to gather as a community. It does not quite feel like Eastertide. There is even a temptation to put off Easter until it has some sense of normalcy, it meets our expectations of how it should be.

But it is already Easter. It has come, whether we are ready or not. And reading the Gospels, we see that first Easter was not entirely unlike our Easter this year. The resurrection stories are full of anxiety and uncertainty. There is fear. There is doubt. There is grief mixed with joy.

The risen Jesus appears to his followers just where they are, giving them what they need to see him and believe he is risen from the dead. He accepts all they feel and experience, then leads them in their first steps into resurrection life.

Jesus does the same with us. He comes to us even now, in our homes where we shelter. He appears when we know Easter joy, and when we doubt, worry, or are afraid. He comes to us when we are well, and when we are sick. He is with us when we grieve. The risen Jesus comes to us as surely as those walking that dusty road the first Easter afternoon.

The challenge for us, as it was for those first followers of Jesus, is to recognize our risen Lord. We can miss his presence, not see and when Jesus comes to us. It takes the eyes of faith to understand Jesus is raised and is with us. Jesus wants us to see him when he comes to us. Our charge is to expect he will appear to us, praying for the gift of sight, of eyes that discern his presence with us, asking the Holy Spirit to open us so we see him in our midst, present with us.

And for those us who are healthy and still employed, these days offer opportunities. The disruption of our normal routine brings with it the chance for new ways of living and being. As Christians, we are called to lives of gratitude. I encourage you to look for the blessings, for the gifts and new opportunities presented to us. To give thanks for God at work even now.

A blessing I see for us, as a church, is recovering the importance of the Word of God. The risen Jesus is revealed to us, present with us, in both Word and Sacrament. In this time without the Eucharist, we still have the gift of scripture. Reading and meditating on God’s holy Word can edify and enrich our lives; it can strengthen and uphold us; it can comfort and support us. It is how we can encounter the risen Jesus.

As Anglicans we are specially blessed. We have the gift of the Daily Office, especially Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. The structure of these Offices is built around reading scripture — almost all of it over two years — and the recitation of all 150 psalms every seven weeks.

Reading scripture regularly God is present with us. In scripture we find God’s plan for salvation unfolding. Day by day, week by week, we are formed and shaped by our encounter with God’s living Word. In scripture we find what we need in this time, in this moment, to support us on our journey of faith. Especially in the psalms we find every human emotion on display, anything we might experience is echoed by the psalmist.

In the regular reading of scripture we can exclaim with the travelers on the road that first Easter afternoon, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” Our hearts can also burn within us, the warming presence of the Holy Spirit filling us and leading us into all truth. In scripture we experience the risen Christ present, standing in our midst, illuminating our minds, filling our hearts with his love.

On this Third Sunday of Easter let us expect the risen Jesus to appear to us, looking for his presence in the ordinariness of our lives. May we pay attention to those moments are hearts burn within us with God’s love, when we sense the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. And may we not lose heart, but allow God to open our eyes of faith, that we see Jesus revealed to us even now in “all his redeeming work,” trusting the power of his resurrection to sustain us in this time, and at the last to deliver us from the power of suffering and death into the fullness of his resurrection. Amen.

The Maesta Altarpiece. The Incredulity of St.Thomas. Duccio. Public Domain.

April 19, 2020

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter. The scripture readings are found here.

Several times this week I have read of some Episcopal clergy calling for Easter Day to be celebrated whenever we are able to gather in person. One cathedral dean suggested the first Sunday we again gather in our buildings we use the scripture readings, music, vestments —  even an Easter egg hunt — that we would have used on Easter day.

I completely understand this sentiment. It is the Second Sunday of Easter and we remain apart, distancing ourselves for the safety of all and to prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed. We have fasted for a month from celebrating and receiving the Eucharist — being deprived of that sacrament that is a loving gift from God and the abiding presence of the risen Jesus.

It is simply true that this year Easter comes in this disorienting and challenging time. On Easter Day we gave up many of the ways we typically celebrate this feast. While watching the broadcast of the Eucharist from Washington Cathedral last Sunday morning, I felt the grief and loss I carry not gathering with all of you in this beautiful church, singing the beloved hymns and carols of Easter.

But it is still Eastertide. And in this time of sacrifice and loss there is, I believe, an opportunity for us to really be in touch with the deep reality of Easter. Without so many externals of this feast, we are left with the strong, life-changing truth of what the resurrection means in the face of suffering and loss.

Our passage from John’s Gospel today reminds us of the reality of that first Easter night. The apostles are behind locked doors. They are fearful, worried the authorities will next come for them, arresting and killing them as they did Jesus. I can imagine they gather in their fear, wondering with trepidation, what might befall them. Maybe they rehearse various scenarios of what their fate will be.

Through the locked door of their fear and worry, the risen Jesus appears. He shows them the wounds of his passion. This is the same Jesus who was tortured, crucified, and buried. He has been raised from the dead to resurrection life. He is not a ghost, but their risen Lord.

Just as that first Easter night, the risen Jesus enters our locked homes, coming into the midst of our fear and worry. There is no place the risen Jesus cannot go, and no place he will not go. And when he enters our homes in the midst of this pandemic, he comes to relieve our fear and anxiety. Just as he does that first Easter, so he does this Easter: he bids us peace. 

Twice Jesus tells the apostles, “Peace be with you.” Jesus says to us, “Peace be with you.” This greeting is not simply offering us calm in the face of disease and death. It is not only the hope we live without conflict and strife. 

Rather, Jesus offers something greater and more profound. He gives us the peace of God, the desire of God that all people live in the fullness of life God intends. God’s wish that every person has, from the abundance of creation, all they need to live and thrive. The peace Jesus offers is the way of life that allows all creatures to grow and thrive in God’s love, becoming the creatures God has made them to be.

After extending peace to the apostles, Jesus breathes on them, giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit fills them, and the Spirit fills us, too. Closer than our breath, the Holy Spirit breathes in us, filling us with God’s loving presence. The Spirit gives us the gifts we need to face this moment, to be God’s people in a time of anxiety. 

The Spirit gives us the strength to leave behind our fear and fearlessly follow the risen Jesus where he leads. Through his resurrection we have nothing to fear. No power of this world is any match for God’s love — not even a deadly virus. 

Just as terrible things happened to Jesus, so they happen to us. But through his death and resurrection there is no need for fear. We are safe in Christ for eternity. We will be delivered from the trials of this wold into the joy of eternity. Through the Holy Spirit we have all we need in this moment and in this life.

A central figure in today’s Gospel is Thomas. Commonly he is known as “Doubting Thomas.” But I worry this diminishes the importance of Thomas’ witness. I suggest he is a model for Christian discipleship. In John’s Gospel, Thomas asks questions and speaks his mind. I suspect he is the person who says what others are thinking but are not willing to ask themselves.

Thomas is not with the others when the risen Jesus first appears. Hearing of their experience, he tells them he will not believe unless he sees Jesus and touches his wounds. Thomas is asking for what the others experienced. It is not easy to wrap our minds around Jesus raised from the dead. Thomas dares to say what he needs in that moment in order to believe.

Jesus hears Thomas, and a week later appears to the apostles. This time Thomas is present. He receives what he asked and he believes. Not only does he believe, but he understands in a profound way who Jesus is. He exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” 

In asking for what he needs to believe, Thomas receives the understanding of the Holy Spirit, proclaiming Jesus as Lord, the Son of God in their midst. The witness of Thomas reminds us we can ask God for what we need, we can ask God what questions we have, bring our doubts to God, and God will take them seriously. Through asking questions and expressing doubts, our faith may be deepened, we may see more profoundly the nature of God.

We often think the resurrection of Jesus changes only Jesus, when his human flesh is brought through death to eternal life. But in the resurrection we too are changed. Through the waters of baptism we share in the resurrection of Jesus and are brought into new life. We are made a new creation. Life is changed for us, too.

John tells us in today’s Gospel that after imparting the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus says to his apostles, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 

Our Collect of the Day reminds us, “in the Paschal mystery [God] established the new covenant of reconciliation.” This is the new life into which we are reborn through baptism. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we are called to be lavish in forgiving. We are to forgive as readily as God forgives us. We are baptized into a covanental relationship with God, whereby God promises to forgive us as often as we repent and return to God, and we promise to do the same for others.

As it says in the Outline of the Faith, commonly called the Catechism, “What is the mission of the church? The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 855) As followers of Jesus, as the body of Christ in the world, it is our mission and vocation to be agents of God’s forgiveness. 

We are to work tirelessly for reconciliation, building relationships of love and mutuality, so all estrangement is overcome and unity in Christ is achieved. This tall order is only possible by the gifts and the power of the Holy Spirit.

As many of you know, I enjoy watching documentaries online. Recently I watched a suggested video called, The Meaning of a Cathedral. It depicted life on Christmas Day 2005 at Canterbury Cathedral. The Archbishop of Canterbury at the time was Rowan Williams. He was interviewed as part of the program, and asked why he is a Christian. He replied because he was born into a Christian household. 

But he went on to say the real question is why is he still a Christian. He spoke of the clergy, and other faithful Christians, who nurtured him as he grew to adulthood. The Archbishop spoke of the uniqueness of Christianity reflected in God coming among us, entering into human existence, and the call of God to forgive. 

Rowan Williams said the call to forgiveness is not sentimental, it does not mean forgiving then forgetting, acting as though nothing happened. Rather, it is hard work to forgive. It is done through our hurt, pain, and tears. Forgiveness is holding together, at the same time, a person’s hurt and suffering alongside the forgiveness of the one who wounded them. 

Walking with Jesus allows a person to forgive. Williams says forgiveness remains one the great, miraculous things about Christianity. He cites as an example the 2005 story of a mother in Liverpool, Jean Walker, whose son Antony was murdered. Through her tears of grief, she forgave the killers of her son. She held within her both the terrible grief of losing her son, as well as the challenging God-given call to forgive. Forgiveness did not make her loss easier, but she knew she had to forgive. It was the only response for her to make.

This is the call given to all who follow Jesus, it is the covenant into which we are baptized. We follow Jesus who prayed for the forgiveness of those crucifying him, and he calls us to do the same. It is only through the presence and help of the Holy Spirit we are ever able to do so.

Our Gospel this morning reminds us of the profound power of Jesus’ resurrection — power which is already ours, in which we already share. In Easter we are given the profound gift of resurrection life. The risen Jesus comes through the locked doors of our homes, and of our hearts. The walls of fear, anxiety, and isolation are no match for him. He enters into the very heart of our lives and bids us peace. 

Jesus imparts to us the gifts of the Holy Spirit, gifts which make us into a new creation, that transform us into a people who live by hope over despair, and unity over estrangement. We are a people forgiven, who in thanksgiving for God’s loving mercy shown to us, forgive others willingly and often. 

Like Thomas may we bring before Jesus all we hold in our hearts this day, especially any fear, anxiety, or doubt. In doing so, expect Jesus to enter in, speaking words of peace, and leading us into the abundance of resurrection life. Amen.

April 12, 2020, Easter Day

A sermon for Easter Day.

When I was a child, I enjoyed watching the clay-animated children’s television series “Davey and Goliath” on Sunday morning. Davey is a boy who lives with his parents and sister Sally. Davey’s dog, Goliath, never leaves his side, and can talk (though only Davey can hear Goliath speak). Produced by the Lutheran Church, each episode opened with the hymn “A mighty fortress is our God,” and showed the characters learning the love of God through every day events, coming to trust God in the various situations they find themselves.

I honestly have not thought about this television program in years. But last week, for some reason, I had a sudden memory of a particular episode that made an impact on me — so much of an impact, that I remember it clearly decades later.

This episode is called “Happy Easter,” and opens with Davey spending an afternoon at his grandmother’s house. It is a few days before Easter, and she is frosting an Easter cake. Davey and his grandmother talk about the Easter egg hunt she is preparing for him and his sister. After knitting him a sweater with the initial of his baseball team, she promises to be at his baseball game the next day, cheering him on. 

But things don’t turn out as planned. A few hours after his visit, Davey returns home from baseball practice to find his family somber and his sister crying. While he was at practice, the family learned Davey’s grandmother had died unexpectedly. Davey is devastated by her death. 

Reluctantly, and with the encouragement of his teammates, Davey plays his baseball game. But he is distracted and misses several catches. He leaves dejectedly in the middle of the game, and walks to his grandmother’s house. There he remembers their afternoon together, replying in his mind the various things they would do to keep Easter.

Davey leaves her house goes to the cemetery. At her grave he cries, saying how much he misses her. Davey’s father arrives, expecting to find Davey there. His father tells Davey to follow him. “Where are we going?” Davey asks. His father tells him, “You’ll see.”

They arrive at the site of the annual Easter play. It is performed on Easter morning at sunrise, and tells the story of Jesus’ trial, death, and resurrection. Davey is sad because the family was going to attend the play with his grandmother. She loved Easter, calling it a “lovely, joyous time.”

At the site of the outdoor play, Davey’s father reminds him of the story of Jesus’ passion, death, and burial. Davey remarks, “I don’t see why Grandma thought Easter was happy.” After he says this, characters appear for the play dress rehearsal. They rehearse the women coming to the tomb and the risen Jesus appearing to them. 

Davey begins to sees how death is painful, the separation with those we love causes grief. Yet just as Jesus is raised from the dead, so Jesus promises to raise his grandmother — and his father adds Davey too. Davey comes to see the Easter promise of resurrection in the midst of his grief and loss. He realizes death is not the end of the story, or of human experience. The episode ends with the hymn, “Jesus Christ is risen today.”

I clearly remember watching this program so many years ago. I, too, loved Easter even then. Being close to both my grandmothers, who lived in the same small town I did, I saw them often. Thinking of them dying filled me with grief. To imagine them dying on Easter was impossible to conceive. Easter, I was sure, was a day of great joy. How could I know joy if grieving for someone I loved deeply? How could it be Easter in the midst of death?

Easter is a wonderful feast. We have cherished traditions we enact each year. We have expectations for how the day is kept. Easter conjures images of glorious music — maybe with a trumpet or two; beautiful flowers; grand festival liturgies; wearing special clothes; the Easter Bunny and Easter egg hunts; as well as gathering with family and friends for a delicious meal.

But the reality is this is an Easter Day unlike any we have known. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is gripped by illness and death. People everywhere live with anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. We worry over our health and that of those we love. We are anguished by all the suffering around the world. Those who live alone are isolated from their communities. Those who live with family are challenged by working and schooling at home. Some have lost their jobs. Others are on the front lines of caring for the ill and dying.

As a parish community were unable to gather for the central liturgies of Holy Week and Easter Day. I lead you in worship this day from an empty church. Rather than the throngs of people celebrating our Lords resurrection with great joy, I am here alone in this empty building.

As a parish we are disconnected from one another. It has been disorienting to me not walking through this week with each of you, in person, gathered in this church. Moving through this week together is so important for my understanding of who we are. While we have kept these days, I have been saddened it is at a distance, through virtual liturgies.

But it strikes me that in all these challenges there is an opportunity for us as followers of Jesus. So many of the familiar ways we keep Easter are taken from us this year. Perhaps this reality allows us to focus on what is at the heart of this Queen of Feasts. This may be a time for celebrating what is most important about Easter, to be reminded what it means for us that Jesus is raised from the dead.

 As I contemplate our Gospel passage through the reality of the coronavirus, there are two words that keep jumping out at me: fear and afraid.

In the passage, there is an earthquake and an angel of the Lord descends from heaven and rolls away the stone from the tomb. The angel, looking like lightening and in white clothes, sits on the stone. Not surprisingly, the guards at the tomb are afraid. Matthew tells us they “shook and became like dead men” in their fright.

The angel tells the Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” 

The women leave the tomb with “fear and great joy.” On the way, Jesus appears to them, saying, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

There is much fear in this account. We don’t find trumpets blaring from heaven the news of the resurrection or throngs of angels singing God’s praises. There are no mounds of Easter lilies. We don’t find the disciples rejoicing at the tomb. Instead, they are in hiding, fearing for their lives, afraid they will be killed like Jesus. 

What we see in this scene are the guards doing their assigned work when a terrifying scene plays out around them. There are the women, those faithful followers of Jesus who do not flee, who become the first witnesses to the resurrection, coming to the tomb to finish the burial rites for Jesus. They come in sadness at the death of their beloved Lord, expecting all will be as they last saw it.

But things are not as expected. Things do not remain as they had been left. Into these ordinary tasks, into the midst of sadness of loss and grief, as faithful duties are carried out by those who love and grieve their crucified Lord, God sends an angel, a dazzling divine messenger, entrusted with the injunction to not be afraid. 

The risen Jesus appears with the same charge, showing the women he is raised from the dead and promising to be with them in Galilee. Seeing him, there is no longer any need to be afraid. By his appearance, by the fact of his resurrection, fear can be abandoned. 

Perhaps this year the promise of Easter matters more than it ever has. The call to not be afraid may be more urgent his Easter than on any other I remember. This may be the day we most need to make sense of the unexpected happening, of Easter not going as we hoped or planned, yet seeing in this time the promise of Easter and holding onto the profound hope of this feast — a hope so strong, that it casts out all fear and despair. This Easter hope is the bedrock and foundation of our Christian faith.

This day Jesus comes into our midst with the news he is risen. He appears to us and bids us let go of our fear. His body bears the wounds of his passion. The print of the nails, the mark of the spear in his side are visible in his flesh. Jesus has endured the worst that can befall a person. Yet he lives. 

The promise of this day is, through him, we too shall be raised. Jesus will sustain us through all the unexpected events of life. Jesus will be with us in our challenges and sufferings. Jesus is with though it may not feel like Easter. And Jesus will be with us at the last, when we experience death as he did. By his resurrection, he promises to carry us through death into eternal life, bringing us to that place he has prepared for us.

The promise of this day, the hope of the resurrection, is that Jesus is with us in the fullness of our human existence. Jesus enters into all places of sin, brokenness, and despair. On the cross Jesus puts to death the worst of the human condition — hatred, envy, greed, and the thirst for violence. Jesus comes to us when we weep, mourn, and despair. Jesus knows the power of evil and death. Jesus knows what it is to suffer in body and spirit. Jesus looks on us with loving compassion in the midst of our trials. And Jesus gives us the strength to face these realities without fear. 

In his earthly life, Jesus experienced everything we do. He was denied and rejected by those closest to him. He was falsely accused and condemned. He was tortured and crucified. He died a terrible death and was buried in a tomb. And on the third day God raised him from the dead. Death could not hold him for long, God’s love could not be contained by the grave. And by his resurrection, the power of sin and death are broken leaving us nothing to fear.

This Easter we have so few of those beloved practices and traditions that are usually part of this feast. But we have what matters most. We have exactly what we need most in this time of pandemic.

We follow our risen Savior. Through the waters of baptism we share in a death like his so we might share in his resurrection. In baptism we are marked as Christ’s own for eternity. Whatever may befall us, Jesus is with us. He promises to bring us through the trials of this life, and into the unending joy of resurrection life.

This day the words of the angel are said to us: “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.” 

These words of hope and life-changing promise give us all we need on this most different of Easter Days. They are what we most need in this time of isolation, suffering, and death. They are what we need to sustain us now. 

The risen Jesus comes before us, bearing the wounds of his passion, and inviting us to cast our fear on him. He is risen from the dead and promises we shall be too. Thanks be to God for this Easter promise.

Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia! Amen.

Resurrection of Christ and Harrowing of Hell. 16th c. Russian Icon. Public Domain.

April 11, 2020, Holy Saturday

Each year on Holy Saturday I struggle to wrap my mind around this day. This is a day of uncomfortable quiet, of an unsettled stillness. Jesus is dead. His earthly body is in the tomb. All of creation seems to hold its breath. I am holding my breath.

This is even more true this year. Seeing the numbers of ill in Rhode Island climb, with increasing numbers of dead, perhaps we are all holding our breath. While some places in the world are seeing things improve, we are moving into the most challenging time of this pandemic.

How do we begin to understand Jesus dead and buried, his body laid in a borrowed tomb? How do we make sense of an unseen virus that ravages the world, leaving us worrying about what the future holds? As we hold our breath in the silence, where is God? What is God doing?

The Apostles’ Creed tells us after his death, Jesus descended to the dead. When his body is in the tomb, Jesus descends to those who have already died. In the silence, while the creation holds its breath, God is work. In death, Jesus goes to that most forgotten place, to where the dead dwell.

Jesus goes to the depths of death itself. He visit that place where there is no hope, only a shadow of life, in order to release those held in death’s grip. Jesus descends to the dead to bring those imprisoned there to freedom.  When he is raised from the tomb he will bring the righteous dead with him.

There is an icon that gives me hope each Holy Saturday. As you may know, icons are windows into the divine life. They are holy paintings that allow us to glimpse eternity even now, with our earthly eyes. Icons let us see a holy reality through the divine light of God.

There is an ancient icon expressing the hope of this day. It depicts Jesus standing on the broken remnants of his cross, with Satan trampled under it. The doors of hell are smashed open, and Jesus is pulling Adam and Eve by the wrists out of the grave. With them are Abraham, King David, John the Baptist, and other faithful people from ages past.

Though Jesus died and was buried, God was at work in the midst of death and silence. In death Jesus goes to where the dead are imprisoned. They are not beyond his loving reach. Jesus goes to them in order to take them by the arm and lift them out of death into eternal life.

God is at work even now, when death seems to reign, when there is an uncomfortable silence. Though we can’t see or sense it, God is at work at all times. Even when we think there is no possibility of life, God is able to bring new life from the grave. God is able to reach the dead and redeem them.

Holy Saturday reminds of how little we understand the power of God to act. In the most forgotten and seemingly hopeless of places, God is present. When Jesus descends to the dead, we are given a profound promise: no place is beyond God’s reach. Even in death, even in the darkness of the tomb, Jesus is at work bringing new life.

There is no place God is not present. There is no place cannot go. There is nothing God cannot do. There is no place God will not go to rescue us. God will stop at nothing to bring us to new life.

Holy Saturday assures us that when we feel beyond God’s reach, Jesus comes to us. When we feel cut off and alone, Jesus is with us. In the depths of life, in those places that seem dead, Jesus reaches out to us. Those parts of ourselves where we feel shame and silence, Jesus enters in with loving compassion.

As we live in these uncertain and challenging days, we can rely on God’s promise to be with us always. There is no place God cannot go to find us. There is no place God will not go to save us. There is no place beyond God’s reach or God’s power to save. Jesus descends to the dead that the dead might live.

And this day Jesus desires to grab you and me by the hand and lead us to the abundance of life with him. May we open our hearts, letting Jesus enter into the depths of our being, letting him lead us to fullness of life with God for eternity.

Polyptych of the Misericordia: Crucifixion, Piero della Francesca. Public Domain. Wiki Commons.

April 10, 2020, Good Friday

A sermon for Good Friday. The scripture readings my be found here.

Our journey through these Three Holy Days, this sacred Triduum, brings us to the stark reality of the cross, that instrument of torture and death used by first century Romans to punish political insurrectionists. On it the Lord of Love is crucified.

At the beginning of the Gospel bearing his name, John sets forth in soaring language his theology that the Word becomes flesh, God stoops to put on humanity in the person of Jesus. The eternal Word present at the creation of the world becomes a finite creature to show the depth of God’s love.

At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus, the eternal Word, Love incarnate, hangs from the cross, suffers, and dies. The starkness of this reality brings us face-to-face with the fullness of our human nature. Though created in God’s image, made for relationship with God, our unruly wills reject the One who is Love.

In his death on the cross we see the depth of that love Jesus has for us. The Innocent One, guilty only of loving, is punished. His love threatens the world, it indicts those in power, so they kill him.

This day we are confronted with the harsh reality of our human nature: our rejection of God; our desire to act for ourselves; our thirst to hoard material possessions for ourselves; our quest for power, no matter who suffers as a consequence of our pursuit; our need to live by violence, answering every insult in kind.

How I wish I could say the forces that killed Jesus some 2000 years ago no longer exist. Sadly they do. They are in full force and evidence in our world.

The Passion Gospel we heard has incited violent acts against the Jewish community through the ages. It matters not that Jesus, his disciples, and most of the authorities in this account are Jewish.

It is no accident that throughout history, violence against the Jewish community increased during Holy Week. It is no accident the Holocaust happened, with millions who were Jewish displaced, tortured, and killed by people professing to be Christian.

The cross itself has been used as a symbol of intimidation and oppression. In the hands of the Klu Klux Klan, a cross set on fire strikes fear and terror in the hearts of the African American community. 

Just as with lynchings, the cross was used by the Romans as a deterrent, a symbol to those challenging the powers of Roman occupation. If they dared to incite insurrection, the cross would be their fate. This was especially true at the time of the Passover, when the desire for a state free of Roman oppression was strong, and fears of an uprising preoccupied the political rulers.

Jesus is hung on the cross to preserve the status quo, so those with power can maintain their grip on power. These rulers were certain if they killed Jesus they could preserve things as they were. They could not have been more mistaken.

The cross of Jesus is not the end. The death of Jesus is not simply the death of a man. Good Friday is “good” precisely because it is the beginning, the promise of a new way of living, the dawn of a new age.

The cross offers hope to those who are oppressed. The cross offers promise to those living in fear and terror. The cross offers refuge for those who despair. The cross offers healing for those burdened by sins and failings. In this time of pandemic the cross offers us hope and the promise of deliverance.

While this day offers the difficult vision of Jesus hanging on a tree, nailed there by human sinfulness and hate, Jesus bids us come to the foot of the cross, there to gaze at the worst humanity can do, to see the work of our sinfulness. To see “God’s blood upon the spearhead, God’s love refused again” (Richard Wilbur, Hymn 104, Hymnal 1982).

We come to the cross not out of guilt, nor to punish ourselves. Rather, we come in hope. For the cross puts to death, once and for all, the worst humanity can perpetuate. Through the power of the cross, sin and death are defeated once and for all. In that defeat there is joy and the promise of life eternal. In the death of Jesus is great hope for us. This day we are invited to bring ourselves before the cross of Jesus, to gaze upon the sorrow and horror, and also glimpse the glory and promise of eternity. 

Through the ages many have asked why God allows suffering. Some have found it an impediment to faith that God does not step into the mess of this world and deliver humanity from all evil, pain, and suffering. Perhaps you are asking this question now.

There is no easy or simple answer to this question. It is largely a mystery. Perhaps part of the answer lies in God’s hope we will act, we will work to alleviate suffering and fight injustice in this world.

Whatever the reason, suffering exists in our world. On this day many suffer, many are ill, many have died. An invisible virus ravages the world. While this is the present reality, God is not dispassionate to our plight. God is not unmoved by our suffering. God is present with us now.

Jesus experiences the horror of torture, crucifixion, and death. Jesus knows what it is to be rejected and abandoned. Jesus enters into humanity’s sin, violence, and pain, and through the power of the cross breaks their tyranny and power once and for ever. Jesus is present with us whenever we suffer, experience pain, or know rejection. Jesus offers us the promise that he journeys through suffering with us, walking with us in difficult times.

This day Jesus enters fully into humanity’s pain, suffering, and brokenness. Jesus takes all human failings, all evils committed, to the cross in himself. In his death, all sin and evil, and even death itself, are destroyed. In being lifted high upon the cross, Jesus puts to death everything that separates us from God, our neighbor, ourselves, creation, gathering all humanity in the wide, loving embrace of his outstretched arms.

Jesus dies on the cross because of human sinfulness and failing. But nothing is lost in God’s economy. Through the power of God, all that separates us from the love of God made known in Jesus is put to death. The very power of sin and death die on that tree on the first Good Friday. In the end, resurrection is stronger than any evil, is stronger than any power of this world, is stronger even than death itself.

Let us come before the cross this day, leaving before it all our sins and failings. Let us go forth from the cross set free to love. The death of Jesus frees us to choose love over the forces of sin and evil. The power of the Holy Spirit enables us to deny the sinful impulses within us: greed, hatred, fear, and violence. The death of Jesus sets us free from the evils of this world, freeing us to walk in love as Christ loved us. Amen.

Duccio di Buoninsegna: Washing of the Feet. Public Domain. Wiki Commons.

April 9, 2020, Maundy Thursday

A sermon for Maundy Thursday. You may find the day’s scripture readings here.

Today is a Maundy Thursday unlike any we have every known. On the day we remember the first Eucharist Jesus celebrated with his disciples that night before he was crucified, we are fasting from celebrating and receiving the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. This is not a fast we chose. It is a fast borne of necessity to keep ourselves and one another safe from the coronavirus ravaging the world.

It is poignant on this day is focused on a meal shared by Jesus and his friends when we cannot gather. On the day we give thanks and rejoice that Jesus left us the gift of the Eucharist, his presence in signs of bread and wine, we sadly cannot come together as a community and receive communion.

This does not mean Jesus is not present with us in this time. Though we are unable to receive his Body and Blood in the Eucharist, Jesus still comes to us and nourishes us. Jesus continues to be present with us, forming us into his body on earth, into his presence in the world.

How does Jesus do this? That is not an easy question to answer. Just as we can’t explain exactly how the bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Eucharist, so we can’t explain exactly how Jesus continues to feed us in this Eucharistic fast. But he does.

For we have the assurance that he is with us always. His Spirit dwells within us, breathing in us, closer than our own breath. At that Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus promises to be with them always, even though he is about to physically leave them. He assures them that where he is going they will follow one day, that he goes to prepare a dwelling place for them. Jesus assures us of the same.

Jesus is with us in every trial and all suffering. In our first lesson from the Book of Exodus, we heard the story of the first Passover, when the Angel of Death passed over the homes of the Israelites. Their homes were marked with blood of the Passover Lamb. This is the last of the plagues visited on the people of Egypt before Pharaoh freed the people of Israel from slavery. 

In years past I have not thought much about this lesson on Maundy Thursday. This year is different. In the midst of our own plague, this time of COVID-19, the words from Exodus are reassuring. The Lord says, “The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.”

No plague shall destroy us, either. Though we may become ill, we will not be destroyed. We are safe in Christ for ever. Whatever happens to the body, we are claimed as Christ’s own for eternity. God is present with us in our suffering in this life, and will bring us in safety to eternal life in the next. No plague shall destroy us. Nothing will separate us from God. Jesus promises to be with us always.

Jesus is also present to us when we love others. In our Gospel reading Jesus tells us, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Jesus calls us to live by love. This love is not a matter of emotion or sentiment. It is not a love reserved for those who love us in return. It is not a love only for those it is easy to love. Rather, this is love for all, even those we find it difficult to love. It is love for those who do not love us in return. It is love even for those who wish us harm. 

This is love that asks nothing in return. It is love of others simply because they are beloved children of God. It is love rooted in the very nature of God, who is love. Love is not just an attribute of God. God is love. The Trinity is a community, one God in three Persons, bound together by love. God is made known, is present, in any loving act.

Jesus doesn’t just tell us to love, he shows us how to love. At that last meal with his disciples, he gets down on his knees and washes their feet. In a world of dusty dirt roads, it was customary to wash the feet of guests. But in the hierarchical world of the first century, feet were washed by the person of lowest status. Servants washed feet. The teacher would not wash the feet of his followers.

Yet that is what Jesus does. John tells us, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” Jesus shows his love by taking the part of a servant, doing the most menial of tasks for his disciples.

This upsets Peter. He refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet. Perhaps this makes us uncomfortable, too. Jesus on his knees with a towel and basin, moving across the floor from person to person, is hard to reconcile with Jesus being the eternal Word present at the creation of all things. God the creator of all, incarnate in human flesh, washing dirty, grimy feet can seem too much for us. It may leave us wondering if this how God should act?

Yet that is just what Jesus does. He humbles himself, taking the role of servant, just as he will on Good Friday when he gives up his life on the cross. In his humility, Jesus loves everyone, always. 

Jesus even loves those we might think don’t deserve his love. It is startling to think that among the feet Jesus washed at the Last Supper were those of Judas Iscariot. Shortly after Jesus dries Judas’ feet, those same feet carry him into the night to meet the authorities who will arrest Jesus.

Jesus loves all, always, without reserve. Jesus loves you and me, always, without our deserving his love or having earned his love. Jesus loves us without condition.

And Jesus commands us to do likewise. On this Maundy Thursday I think one of the most important ways we love one another is by not gathering to celebrate the liturgy. It is a loving act to sacrifice coming together in this church, hearing God’s Word; washing one another’s feet; receiving the Eucharist on this most solemn night; carrying the Sacrament to the Altar of Repose; and stripping the altar. Sacrificing how we typically keep Maundy Thursday that others might be safe.

This sacrifice is rooted in love. We follow the One who loves humanity lavishly and without reserve. May we do likewise. May we love others as Jesus loves us. Let us undertake acts of love on this Maundy Thursday. 

May we pray for those who ill, anxious, and frightened; for the many who have died and all who mourn; for those who have lost income or their jobs; for first responders and medical personnel who sacrifice so much in love for others; for our political leaders that they serve the common good and make wise decisions for all people; for those searching for treatments and a vaccine; for an end to this terrible pandemic. 

Perhaps you might show our love for one another by reaching out to someone who may be alone by giving them a call, sending a card or an email. 

Or, if you have the means, undertake an act of love by making a donation to an agency or group caring for those in need; or participate in a Go Fund Me campaign for the favorite restaurant you can’t patronize now.

And remember to love yourself, being gentle with yourself, taking time to detach from world events, to be quiet, and pray. Look for the blessings and joys found even in this time of being isolated at home.

Today we enter those three holy days of the Triduum, the most sacred time of the year. Though we must refrain from how we typically keep these days, let us find new ways to keep them. Regardless of where we are and our circumstances this year, let us walk with Jesus through the final days of his earthly life and ministry. The way he walks is nothing less than the path of our salvation. Through his mighty acts he wins for us eternal salvation, bringing us from the brokenness of this world into his reign of love.

Jesus is with us always, even in this time of pandemic. He is present to us in whatever befalls us, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. And Jesus loves us always, now and forever.

In response to his great love shown us, let us one another as he loves us. By this others will know we are his disciples. May it be said of us, as it was said of the first Christians, “See how they love one another.” Amen.

Jesus enters Jerusalem and the crowds welcome him, by Pietro Lorenzetti, 1320. Public Domain.

April 5, 2020

A sermon for April 5, 2020, Palm Sunday. The scripture readings may be found here.

Today is Palm Sunday, when we enter the most solemn and sacred week of the entire year. In Holy Week we participate in those sacred mysteries by which our salvation was won for us. It is a week when time seems suspended. In these days the past, present, future are all caught up in God’s time. The boundaries of time and space are blurred. All belongs to God, every moment reveals God’s plan of salvation for humanity.

In these holy days we walk with Jesus as he journeys to the suffering and pain of the cross. The experience of Holy Week is an anticipation of the final consummation of time itself when we will enter eternity, coming to dwell with God, seeing God face to face.

But we may well ask how we walk through this week in a time of pandemic and social distancing. Unable to gather as a community, how can we keep Holy Week? This is an important question, one I have pondered since we suspended all liturgies and gatherings on March 15. How do we worship God when apart? How can we be a community, when we are physically isolated?

The answer to this question rests on a certain truth. Each year, whatever our circumstances and wherever we might find ourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually, Holy Week and Easter happen. Each year this week is different. Each year we are different. This year this may be especially true for us. Through the ages the church has found ways to keep Holy Week, even in the midst of plague and persecution. We are challenged to do likewise this year.

What is certain is what we celebrate and commemorate in these sacred days has everything to do with the reality of our lives, with wherever we find ourselves. Holy Week and Easter are not dependent on us. We do not make these days happen. They do not arrive only if we are ready, or if we undertake certain things. How we feel, the emotions we experience, do not determine if Easter comes. Whether we feel it or not, whether we are ready or not, it is Palm Sunday today, and it will be Easter next Sunday.

Ultimately, these days are not about us, but about God entering into our daily life. In the person of Jesus, God comes into the fullness of human life in all its joys and all its sorrows. God enters into the sublime and the sinful of human experience. God is with us when we are grounded and in touch with God’s presence, and when we feel kinship with Ezekiel in the valley of dry, dusty bones.

So it is Palm Sunday even though we can’t gather in the church yard to wave palm branches and shout, “Hosanna!” Though we don’t cry out together, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” in the Passion Gospel, it is Holy Week. This year we move through these days in different ways. We worship online, gathering virtually. We find ways to mark and commemorate these important days in our homes, perhaps alone, or with those we live.

Earlier I read the traditional Passion Gospel. We do this each year. In reading Matthew’s account I am struck, as I am every year, of the full display of human behavior and emotions found in it.

There are the disciples, struggling to understand what is happening to Jesus. They seek to be faithful in accompanying him through these horrific moments. They promise to be with him, to not abandon him. Peter assures Jesus he will never deny him. Yet, as so often happens with our best intentions, the disciples do exactly what they promised not to. They flee at the end, at least the men do. Peter denies Jesus, not once but three times.

In the Passion Gospel we see deceit and betrayal. Judas, one of the twelve apostles, hands Jesus over to the authorities for some pieces of silver. He betrays Jesus with a kiss. This intimate gesture of close relationship is used by him for evil purposes, and must have hurt Jesus deeply. After his actions Judas is filled with remorse and despair, and takes his own life.

Pilate and the religious authorities are fearful of Jesus and concerned with holding on to their authority and power. They see Jesus as a threat to their positions. They fear the call to love and humility that Jesus lives. They won’t allow compassion and mercy from overtaking them, converting their hearts to the way of love seen in Jesus. So they try him in a mock trial and hand over for crucifixion.

But in the Passion we also have the example of the women. They have provided for Jesus and his disciples through the time of his public ministry. They are present at his cross. They follow to his tomb. And they will be the first to witness his resurrection. These women embody faithful, loving service, service done not for their gain, but for care for Jesus.

And we have Jesus. He behaves very differently from all others. In him is an example of hope, of rising above the fray and behaving a different way. In his Palm Sunday sermon, “The Things That Make For Peace,” Frederick Buechner says this week is about hope and despair: hope for the love of God seen in Jesus and for God’s presence in difficult times, and despair for humanity’s actions, our rejection of God’s saving love.

Buechner writes, “Despair and hope. They travel the road to Jerusalem together, as together they travel every road we take — despair at what in our madness we are bringing down on our own heads and hope in him who travels the road with us and for us and who is the only one of us all who is not mad. Hope in the King who approaches every human heart like a city. And it is a very great hope as hopes go and well worth all our singing and dancing and sad little palms because not even death can prevail against this King and not even the end of the world, when end it does, will be the end of him and of the mystery and majesty of his love. Blessed be he.” [A Room Called Remember]

Throughout the Passion Gospel Jesus is largely silent. He does not respond to the taunts heaped on him. He does not lash out under the pain and agony of the whip or the cross. He loves and he forgives those who hate and kill him.

One of the few things Jesus says in Matthews account are his final words from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Through the ages some have worried over these words. Had Jesus given up hope that God was with him in his suffering? Had God abandoned him on the cross? I think these words are actually a profound statement of trust in the moment of his terrible suffering. Jesus may have felt desolation in his passion, but he trusted God was present to hear his cry. He trust God would be with him in his agony, though he felt alone.

One commentary goes further, suggesting Jesus cries out not only for himself, but for all who suffer, especially those whose cry is never heard, those who feel utterly forsaken and alone, abandoned by God and by other people. This cry of Jesus is intended to move us, to touch us in the core of our being. We are to hear the cry of Jesus and in turn hear those around us who cry out for comfort.

Jesus invites everyone, from Pilate and the religious authorities, to the disciples and the women who follow, to you and me and all people, to hear his cry and follow in his way of love. Jesus calls us to reject all violence and hatred, to give up our quest for power and riches, and embrace the path of humble love.

Jesus stands ready to welcome all into the way he goes, a way where love is a power strong enough to sustain in times of great challenge, suffering, and loss. Jesus invites us into a love so strong, even the evil of sin and the hold of death are no match. Jesus is tortured, killed, and buried. But on the third day he is raised from the dead. The powers of this world, the powers of death itself, could not hold Love in its grip. The tomb could hold for long God’s love.

The promise given us this Palm Sunday is whatever may be before us, whatever may befall us in this life, Jesus has already experienced it. Whatever we might suffer, Jesus has suffered. Whatever griefs we might know, Jesus has known. Whenever we feel alone and abandoned, Jesus has felt this. When we might despair that God feels absent from us, Jesus has felt this too. And the death we will face, as all people will, Jesus has already endured.

The promise given us in Holy Week is Jesus is truly and utterly God-with-us, Emmanuel, the One who enters into the fullness of human life. Jesus knows all that experience, even in this time of illness, suffering, death, anxiety, and uncertainty.

From the cross Jesus assures us he is with us always. He understands what we experience. He walks beside us, supporting and comforting us. And he invites us to walk his way of love — not that it is easy, not that it insulates us from difficulty and suffering — but precisely because it is the way of true life.

Following Jesus is the way of abundant life in God. In Jesus is the promise that no powers of this world will overcome us. Just as God received Jesus when he died on the cross and brought him to resurrection life, so God will do for you and me.

I invite you on this Palm Sunday to enter into those mysteries which won for us eternal life. This time of staying at home, so that others might be healthy, is also a time of opportunity for us. May you find ways to faithfully journey through these days with Jesus. May you inspired and led by the Holy Spirit to finds ways to worship at home each day of this important and life-changing week.

And may you always know and trust that all of life is in God’s loving hands. Those hands will lovingly gather and redeem everyone. All are held by God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit for eternity. Amen.

Duccio di Buoninsegna – The Raising of Lazarus. Public Domain. Wiki Commons.

March 29, 2020

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent. The scripture lessons for that day may be found here.

Reading the same passages of scripture over the years, I am struck how each time the stories and words of the Bible are fresh and new. A passage read years ago looks different when read today. It is a clear sign that scripture is the living Word of God, speaking to us in fresh ways whenever we read it, under whatever circumstances.

This is true for me as I reflect on today’s readings. The lessons this morning are those assigned in the lectionary for the Sunday Eucharist on the Fifth Sunday in Lent. For decades I have heard these lessons. Yet today I understand them differently, see them as if chosen for this precise moment in our lives and the life of the world.

Psalm 130 seems written for this moment. The psalmist cries, “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice; let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.” How many of us have lifted our voices in prayer this week with words and emotions echoing this psalm?

In this time of pandemic we lift our voices to God, perhaps from what feels like the depths, asking that God hear us and deliver us. We pray for God to “consider well the voice of [our] supplication.” We pray that God hear our heartfelt intercessions for those who are ill, those who provide medical care, those who are anxious and fearful, those who have died, and those who mourn. We lift our voices to God for an end to this pandemic. We pray to God for ourselves and those we love.

But the psalmist doesn’t stop at crying out to God from the depths, hoping God hears that cry. Psalm 130 goes on to offer words of hope and trust in God. It says, “My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy; with him there is plenteous redemption…”

We are reminded to wait for God to respond, to expect God to answer our supplication. Psalm 130 assures us that with God there is mercy, there is abundant redemption. All that afflicts and ails us, that causes us worry and anxiety in the middle of the night, will end. God will deliver us. God will bring us safely through the challenges and trials of this life. There is no place God is not present, from which God cannot deliver us.

We hear in the Book of Ezekiel, a vision the prophet has. It is of a valley filled with dry, dusty bones. This seems the last place there could be life. It seems a place forgotten, far from God. It is image of defeat and desolation.

The Lord asks Ezekiel if these bones can live. It seems to me the obvious answer is, no, of course they can’t live. There is no life in these bones. Ezekiel does not directly answer the question, but replies God knows the answer. God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, that God’s spirit will enter them. Breath will enter them, sinews and flesh will be attached to the bones. They will live again.

So Ezekiel prophesies to the bones, and they begin rattling, bone coming to bone. Sinews, then flesh, then skin cover the bones. Finally, breath enters them, they stand on their feet, a great multitude.

God tells Ezekiel that in the despair of exile from their homeland, the people of Israel displaced and cut off, God can bring life to them. Though the people say in their great loss, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely,” yet God can redeem them.

God tells Ezekiel, “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves.” God will do the seemingly impossible, and restore the people to their homeland. The time of disruption and dislocation will come to end. God will be faithful in keeping this promise. There will be new life for the people.

The promise of Ezekiel’s vision extends to us as well. God is with us, even when we feel the dryness of anxiety and worry. At times that feel dusty and lifeless, far from God’s presence, yet God is with us. From the seemingly hopeless times, God will bring forth life and renewal. And there is the promise that at the last God will not abandon us to the grave, but bring us to fullness of life for eternity.

The promise God will not abandon us to the grave, will not leave us in death, is found in our Gospel today. It is the account of Lazarus, a friend of Jesus, who has died. Before his death, the sisters of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, send word to Jesus that their brother is ill. Before Jesus arrives, Lazarus dies and is buried in a tomb.

On coming to the tomb, Jesus is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” The crowd witnessing this sees how much Jesus loved his friend. Jesus weeps at the tomb of Lazarus. This is one of the most touching and emotionally profound moments in the Gospels. It shows clearly the humanity of Jesus. The friend he loved has died, and Jesus is moved to emotion, to crying at his grave.

God is not oblivious to our pain and grief. God is not remote and far removed from us. In Jesus, God is present where we are, in our flesh and blood lives. Jesus is with us in our pain and sorrows, in our suffering and grief. Jesus knows what it is to suffer loss. Jesus rejoices when we rejoice, and weeps beside us when we weep. Jesus is with us to support and comfort us in all we experience.

After Jesus weeps, he calls for the stone of the tomb to be removed. Jesus prays to God, then calls in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” Miraculously, Lazarus comes out of the tomb, bound in his burial clothes.

Jesus has power even over death. There is no power in this world stronger than the love of God made known in Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. Just as the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision were not beyond God’s power to bring life to the people, so the power of death and the grave is not beyond God’s reach.

The promise is that through the waters of baptism we die with Christ that we might also rise with him and share in his eternal life. As we heard in today’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

After Lazarus comes out of the tomb, Jesus tells those around him, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Jesus comes to each of us this day to unbind us, to release us from what restricts and hinders us. Jesus desires fullness of life for us. Jesus comes that we are released from whatever holds us back from the life he intends for each of us, for every beloved child of God.

I invite you to reflect on what you might need release from this day? What is holding you back, keeping you from the fullness of life Jesus is inviting you to share? How is God present to you now, even in this challenging time of disruption and illness? Where is God leading you? Is there something preventing you from following? Something that is holding you back, causing you to hesitate?

Bring before God in prayer this day those attitudes, practices, and beliefs that keep you from the fullness of life God desires for you. Cast on Jesus all your burdens, worries, and doubts, trusting God can deliver you from them, will give you strength to move through them, and will redeem them.

Look for the times of joy and blessing in these days, for those moments of grace that break into each day, and offer them to God in prayers of gratitude and thanksgiving.

Though we must gather to worship on this Lord’s Day from a distance, though there is illness, suffering, and anxiety, I invite you to remember the promise we find in today’s scripture readings. God is with us, even in those places and times we feel are far from God’s reach. There is no place God’s love can’t go and can’t transform. God is with us in all the cares and occupations of our life, present with us, supporting us, and promising to deliver and defend us.

God is with us now and always, whatever befalls us, wherever we find ourselves. God will not abandon us, not even to the power of the grave. God desires to lead us into the richness of abundant life, to the fullness of life that is eternal.

May we accept this invitation, following Jesus where he leads. As Jesus assures Mary, Lazarus’ sister, in today’s Gospel, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

So Jesus promises you and me, this day, and always. Amen.

Sermon March 22, 2020

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 22, 2020. The scripture readings for this day are found by clicking here.

Let me begin this morning by welcoming all of you and thanking you for being part of this service of Morning Prayer. It is wonderful to gather virtually in this time of social distancing.

As followers of Jesus, we are a community, the body of Christ, who gather each Sunday. It is what we do and who we are. This morning I have renewed gratitude for the technology of social media that allow us to gather in community to worship God on the Lord’s Day. Though we are physically apart, the Holy Spirit flows among us, connecting us even now, wherever we are.

At the beginning of Lent, I suggested this holy season of preparation could be a wilderness time. A period of forty days and nights when the familiar practices and routine are stripped away so we can take stock of lives, repent, and return to God. Doing so reorients our lives toward God and prepares us to celebrate Holy Week and Easter.

Never could I imagine then the wilderness we would enter. As the COVID-19 pandemic brings the world to a standstill, our lives have dramatically changed. We are at home, learning new ways to do our work. We are learning how to be a virtual teacher or student. Hourly and service workers have lost hours or their jobs as restaurants and businesses have closed. Each day more people are sick and more have died. Health care workers are stretched thin and facing a shortage of supplies.

Like churches around the world, we can’t gather physically as a community. That means we are fasting from the Eucharist, the heavenly food that is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, the bread of life and the cup of salvation. This is a fast we did not choose, but is required of us.

It was starkly striking to pray today’s Collect of the Day. It says, “Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him.” How we long for this bread in this time. Though Jesus continues to be present to us, we miss the particular way he feeds us in the Eucharist. It will be bliss to again receive the sacrament of our salvation one day.

Fasting from the Eucharist is just one way we are called to sacrifice. We are asked to remain home as much as possible. Certainly this is a sacrifice and challenging. We are asked to do this for the common good. Though we might be healthy, the less we interact with others, the greater the possibility the cycle of viral transmission is broken. Our sacrifice can literally save the life of a neighbor or family member or even ourselves.

This is a time of heightened anxiety and worry. We do not know what tomorrow holds, let alone next month. We are experiencing disruption and social dislocation. We worry for ourselves and those we love, as well for countless unnamed people suffering near and far.

How do we respond to these times? How do we move through each hour and day, for as long as this health crisis lasts? How are we the church when we cannot gather? What does it mean for us in this pandemic that we follow Jesus?

Several answers come to mind. The first is we must not lose heart. Despair is not the answer, not the way for us. This is not a naïve or sentimental posture on my part. It does not deny we are frightened, that we worry. It is not a denial that those we love, or we ourselves, may become ill.

Rather, it is an assertion that at all times we walk in the light of Christ. As we heard in our lesson from the Letter to the Ephesians, we are children of the light. We walk with the light of Christ illuminating our path. For millennia the followers of Jesus have persevered in the face of plague, pestilence, and persecution. They have held fast to the light of Jesus, especially in times that are bleak. We are called to do the same.

For we live by hope and we walk by faith, trusting in the power of God in the face of all adversity. That does not mean everything is fine. It is not to deny the challenge of the present reality. But the hope that is within us sustains us, allowing us to be faithfully grounded in Jesus. We believe his promise that he is with us always. He knows the suffering and trials of this world firsthand and is present with us in ours.

As it says in the Psalm appointed for today, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over. Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”

We trust that when we are fearful and worried, God is present in what we experience. When we are lonely, sad, or despairing, God is with us. God’s loving compassion for us is boundless, beyond our knowing. God is always with us. God will not abandon us—ever, no matter what.

Times like these call us to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. We follow Jesus, walking the way of the cross with him. Sacrifice and loving service are the way he leads us, the way of love, the way of true life, the way of eternal life.

As the body of Christ we understand the call to sacrifice for the well being of others. We hear the call to care for all. That others may be healthy, we stay home. We buy only what we need—resisting the temptation to hoard groceries and supplies, depriving others of what they need. We reach out to others in compassion, especially those who are isolated, ill, or afraid.

In times when terrible things happen, when pandemic ravages the entire world, we may wonder where is God? Why doesn’t God stop this, now? This is a timeless question countless generations have asked. We do not fully know the mind of God. There are no easy or satisfying answers to this question. Our world is full of suffering and evil. Injustice abounds. Terrible things happen—even to good people. We wonder why. We look for a cause, an explanation.

In our Gospel today, Jesus heals a man blind from birth. His disciples ask him whose sin caused the man’s blindness, his or his parents. It was common in the first century to assume a condition like blindness was caused by someone’s sin. The disciples want an explanation, to know who caused the man’s blindness.

Often we search for meaning by assigning blame. Knowing a cause, having someone to blame, helps us cope with a situation. But Jesus rejects this understanding. He says no one’s sin caused the man’s blindness. Rather, his blindness is an occasion for the works of God to be revealed. Through the sign of Jesus healing the man, Jesus is revealed as the Son of God. Jesus is does God’s work, the presence of God dwells in him. Through this sign, the man born blind comes to believe and worships Jesus.

This pandemic is a time for us to ask how is God being revealed now? How is God present to us in this moment? Where do we see the work of God? Where is God at work in our lives? How can we be instruments of God, revealing God to others, doing the work of God even now, in this challenging time.

Our call is to walk in the light of Christ, following Jesus, the One who makes God known in his words and his deeds. He is the light of the world. We are called to see the world through his light, gazing on all people through his light, with eyes of love, mercy, compassion, and generosity.

The Pharisees in today’s Gospel are blind to the work of God in the healing of the blind man. They are sure Jesus is a sinner, not of God. They are certain the healing is not of God. Jesus threatens their understanding of God and their religious practices and authority. They are “blind” to who Jesus is and the sign he does.

Seeing Jesus can be challenging. He calls us out of our assumptions, away from what we may be sure we know about the world and about God. Jesus invites into a new way of seeing, a new reality of being. This new way of seeing is not how the world sees. For Jesus calls us away from the world and into the divine life of God, where we are bathed in light of God’s love. By that light of love, everything looks very different. Everyone looks very different.

Jesus came into the world that we might see, understanding who he is through the signs he does. He comes to open our eyes, that we see God present and at work even now, in the midst of so much disruption, anxiety, and illness. As it says in the beloved hymn: “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see…and grace my fears relieved.” Jesus assures us he is with us always, in whatever we experience. He will not leave us. He will not let us go. At the last he will gather us into the fullness of his reign, to the heavenly banquet he prepares for us.

May we reflect the light of God’s love to others, that they may see God present and at work in this moment, and give glory to God. Let us cast on God all our cares and our burdens, rejoicing in God’s promise to be with us always, even to the end of the age. And let us ask how God would have us be the church, and how we are being called to witness to Christ’s love in this time of trial. Amen.

Healing of the blind man. A.N. Mironov
Public Domain, Wiki Commons.

March 22, 2020

At the beginning of Lent I suggested this holy season of preparation before celebrating the mysteries of our salvation at Holy Week and Easter could be a wilderness time. This could be a period of forty days and nights when familiar externals and routine are stripped away so we can take stock of lives, repent, and return to God.

Never did I imagine we would enter a wilderness time as we have. As the COVID-19 pandemic brings the world to a standstill, our lives have dramatically changed. Many of us are at home, learning new ways to do our work or be a teacher or student. Hourly and service workers have lost jobs as restaurants and businesses have closed. Each day more people are sick and more have died.

As a parish, like churches around the world, we can’t gather physically as a community. We are fasting from the Eucharist, the heavenly food that is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, the bread of life and cup of salvation. This is a fast we did not choose, but is required of us.

We are asked to remain home as much as possible. Certainly this is a sacrifice and challenging. We are asked to do this for the common good. Though we might be healthy, the less we interact with others, the greater the possibility the cycle of viral transmission is broken. Our sacrifice can literally save the life of a neighbor.

This is a time many, if not all of us, know heightened anxiety and worry. We do not know what next month holds, let alone tomorrow. We are experiencing disruption and social dislocation. We worry for ourselves and those we love, as well as countless unnamed people suffering near and far.

How do we respond to these times? How do we move through each hour and day, for as long as this healthy crisis lasts? How are we the church when we cannot gather? What does it mean in this pandemic that we follow Jesus?

Several answers come to mind. The first is we must not lose heart. Despair is not the answer. This is not a naïve or sentimental posture. It does not mean we are not sometimes frightened, that we do not worry. It does not mean we or those we love will not become ill.

Rather, it is to assert that at all times we walk in the light of Christ. We are children of the light, baptized into the body of Christ. For centuries the followers of Jesus have persevered in the face of plague, pestilence, and persecution.

We live by hope. That does not mean all is fine. We do not deny the present reality. But the hope that is within us sustains us so we remain faithfully grounded in Jesus. We believe his promise that he is with all us through all ages. That he knows the suffering and trials of this world firsthand and present with us in ours.

We live trusting that when we are fearful and worried, God is present in what we experience. God’s loving compassion for us is boundless, beyond our knowing. Though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, yet God is with us. God will not abandon us—ever, no matter what.

Times like these call us proclaim the good news of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. We follow Jesus, walking the way of the cross with him. Sacrifice and loving service are the way of love, the way to true life, even the way to eternal life.

In these challenging times, I offer these suggestions of how we, as the body of Christ, might respond to this moment. There are likely others. Please share your thoughts with me.

  • Pray without ceasing. A great need we have now is for fervent prayer. Pray for those who are ill; for those who have died and those who grieve; for first responders and medical perssonel; for those who are anxious and frightened; for our elected officials that they will act for the common good; for a vaccine; for an end to this pandemic. If you feel lonely, fearful, worried, or anxious, lift these to God in prayer, asking for comfort and a sense of God’s presence. If you are thankful, experience a moment of grace, or even joy, express this in prayer to God. Grace and joy still abound in this trying time.
  • Connect with others by email, text, phone, or social media. If you feel isolated or lonely, reach to out to someone. My guess is you both will be blessed by the connection. If you are interested and willing to help check on other parishioners, please let me know. I will compile a list of folks willing to check regularly on others in our community.
  • Are you healthy and not at heightened risk (under 60 without underlying health conditions)? Perhaps you would run errands (groceries, pharmacy, deliver food, etc.) for people at home? As more people become ill, this will be a greater need. If you can help in this way, please let me know.
  • People have lost jobs and regular income. If you are able, please consider making financial contributions. You may donate to the Rector’s Discretionary Fund, used to help people in need. You may send a donation to Camp Street Ministries whose food donations from churches have stopped.
  • Take Sabbath time. Set aside a day for quiet, reflection, restorative activities. If you live with others, commit to time together. Consider limiting time spent consuming news, giving yourself a respite. Talk a walk or bike in a quiet place (maintaining social distancing).

This is a Lent like no other in our lifetime. This is a health crisis like none of us have seen. With the challenge comes the opportunity for us to live in new ways and be the church within the realities of this time.

May we ask where God is leading us, discerning how we are called to be the church now. May we not lose heart, but trust God is with us. We have been marked as Christ’s own forever. That promise is trustworthy and true. God will not abandon us, now or ever. Let us walk in the light of Christ, proclaiming the hope that is within us.

I pray for you all fervently each day. Please keep me in your prayers. If you are in need, please reach out to me by email, text, or call. I am available, as always, except for Sunday afternoon through Monday night when I take my Sabbath time. And of course in an emergency I am always available.

May God be with all us now and always. May you know the loving presence of God always.

The Woman of Samaria at the Well – James Tissot. Public Domain. Wiki Commons.

March 15, 2020

Below is the text of a sermon I intended to preach on Sunday, March 15, 2020, the Third Sunday in Lent (Year A) before the Governor asked churches cancel Sunday liturgies in response to the COVID-19 virus pandemic.

I begin this morning by reading a Pastoral Letter from Bishop Knisely, who asked it be read today from the pulpits of all churches in our Diocese.

Dear People of God; 

It has been many years since we have been confronted with a situation like we are this weekend due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Yet the people who came before us managed this sort of thing and came through it. We will too. We are supported by prayer, by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst and by our love of one another.  

We are in a state-declared medical emergency. We are also people who, through our baptism, have put our faith and hope in Jesus and the powerful love of God. We are called to live fearless lives – and not to be careless of others. Please be attentive and follow the directions of the Health Department and other authorities.  

I am writing to let you know that I have been in communication with the clergy of this diocese and directed them to make some changes in our regular worship, and I have made it clear that I support the decisions they make along with you in how best to respond to this emergency. Some of our communities have decided it is best to close their building for a few weeks. Some are going to continue to hold services, though with modifications.  

In an effort to keep people safe – both our neighbors and ourselves – I am directing that Holy Communion be distributed as bread only for the duration of the emergency. I have told the clergy that if they are not feeling well, they are not to serve at the altar. I’ve also made some recommendations about keeping our distance from each other at the peace, not passing the offering plates, and about coffee hour.  

I ask that you, too, be careful if you are not feeling well. Please let us know so that we can provide pastoral support and care as best we can and pray for you.  

Please be in touch with your neighbors. Please reach out to those who are alone. A phone call and a listening heart can do wonders to help.  

In our congregations there may be people who need to stay home right now because they are at risk. Please think about how we can help them. If we don’t have contact information, it would be good to gather and share that now.  

I believe in the power of prayer, especially when people of faith join their united voices and lift their concerns to God. I ask you to join me in prayer that this moment will pass quickly, that the vulnerable and those in danger will be protected and that we may be a sign of hope to our communities.  

We have posted resources for prayer and worship at home on the diocesan website ( Prayers for the sick may be found on pages 458-460 in The Book of Common Prayer.  

I commend this prayer, adapted from one written by Bishop Thomas Brown of Maine:  

Jesus Christ, you traveled through towns and villages “curing every disease and illness.” At your command, the sick were made well. Come to our aid now, in the midst of the global spread of the coronavirus. Heal those who are sick with the virus; may they regain their strength and health through quality medical care. Heal us from our fear, which prevents nations from working together and neighbors from helping one another. Be present with those in authority who are making hard decisions. Support the medical professionals, emergency responders and our caregivers. In your name Jesus we pray. Amen.  

May the God who is Love itself, the one in whom we put our trust, and who is the ground of our hope, be with you today and always.  


I want to begin this morning by offering my gratitude to Bishop Knisely for his leadership during this pandemic. He has offered clear and helpful guidelines and has been a support to parish clergy.

I am also extremely grateful for the leadership of this parish. The Vestry and Building Use Committee have taken seriously the threat before us and followed the suggested practices of state and federal agencies, as well as the Bishop’s Office. They have been a great help and support to me. The situation before us is greater than my wisdom alone. Our faithful parish leaders have offered sound counsel and advice, and together we are striving to make the best decisions for the well being of the parish and all citizens of our state.

Thankfully, we continue to gather for worship of God. In times like these, gathering as a community for prayer is important and a comfort. It is time when we come together to support one another. But we do so with changes, such as keeping six feet of distance from one another, not shaking hands or hugging, not drinking from the common cup at communion, receiving communion standing in the center aisle rather than using the altar rail where we are in close proximity.

My hope is we may continue to gather in person for worship through this time. We shall see what the coming weeks hold. Whether we are present in this space, or worshiping God from a distance, I believe we have important work to do as we negotiate this outbreak of the COVID-19 virus.

Around us people are experiencing fear and anxiety. Maybe all of us are. Friday afternoon, before the Stations of the Cross began, a young woman stopped her car on Hope Street, approached me and asked if everything was ok. I assured it was and that I was outside greeting people before Stations. She immediately exhaled and looked more relaxed. Then she asked if I would pray with her for calm in the face anxiety. 

I feel we all are holding our breath now. It is uncertain what we will face in this coronavirus outbreak. The most extreme scenarios are beyond frightening. But as followers of Jesus we are called to not lose heart. We are called to resist falling into despair. We are to trust in God, believing whatever happens to the body we are safe with God. God will not abandon us. The power and hold of death is broken through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and with it the power of despair and hopelessness. We can hold onto the certainty of that hope in this time.

As we celebrate this Eucharist, I invite you to lay before God your cares, concerns, and worries. Offer prayers for those who are ill and those who have died. Pray that God will bring this health crisis to an end. Pray that all people act with compassion and caring for their neighbor. Cast on God your fears and anxieties, letting Jesus help carry your burdens and be a balm to your worried spirit.

As followers of Jesus, our call is to bring the calming presence of God to a world torn upside down by anxiety. We are to care for our neighbors, in this parish and in the neighborhoods where we live. Those of us who are well have an obligation to have concern for those in need. Perhaps we can help by bringing them needed supplies, groceries, or food. A phone call, text message, or email to one who is isolated can be a great comfort and a connection to a community lost in illness. It can mean the world to anyone feeling alone and isolated.

We can also be a witness to compassion and caring. I have been horrified by  people hoarding food and supplies. I have read news accounts of people buying all available hand sanitizer and selling it at inflated prices. These actions prevent those in need from having basic necessities. Especially those without disposable incomes are unable to purchase in bulk and now have difficulty buying the basics they need. We follow Jesus, the one who owned nothing and served all, especially the least, the forgotten, the outcast, and the vulnerable. We are called to do likewise.

In our Gospel today (John 4:5-42) Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well. It is noon, the heat of the day. She has come to gather water. The hour suggests she is avoiding other people. She undertakes the arduous labor of lugging heavy water at the hottest part of the day, the time others will not be at the well. She carries shame that isolates her from the community.

Though forbidden by religious practice and custom to interact with the unnamed woman, Jesus speaks with her. He acknowledges her, he sees the one who is a social outcast. He engages her in conversation. He rejects the divisive practices of his day.

Jesus knows the woman before she speaks. He knows who she is. Though she has had five husbands, and is now with a man not her husband, he does not condemn her. Instead Jesus offers her living water, water that quenches one’s deepest thirst.

She asks Jesus to give her this water and in the conversation recognizes him as the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed of God. She tells other people in the city about Jesus, and they come to see him and believe in him. 

Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows our story and what we carry this day. He knows what burdens we bear. Jesus comes offering us living water, the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, dwelling within us.

In Jesus, the woman at well finds acceptance and welcome. She is understood, her life story is known and not judged by Jesus. She is able to let go of her shame and believe in him. In Jesus she finds compassion. Jesus invites her to see and understand who he is that she might worship God in spirit and truth.

Jesus extends the same invitation to us. Jesus comes to us in welcome and acceptance, offering us the water of the Spirit that assuages our deepest thirst. Then Jesus bids us go into the fields that are ripe for harvest, sharing the good news of God’s love, acceptance, and compassion to a world that is thirsting for the good news of God.

In this time of fear and anxiety, may we not lose heart, but instead bring all our cares and worries to Jesus. May we drink from the deep well of his love, that his abiding presence sustain us in our trials. And may we always be people of love and compassion, serving others in this time of trial. Through our words and deeds may we faithfully proclaim the loving kindness of God to those most needing to hear this good news.

This day Jesus bids us to not be afraid. He will not leave us comfortless. He is with us always, even to the end of the age. Amen.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Nicodemus coming to Christ. Public Domain. Wiki Commons.

March 8, 2020

Sunday we hear the story Abraham’s call (Genesis 12:1-4a). God calls him to set out on a journey without telling him where he is going. He is asked to simply follow. This journey takes Abraham from all that is familiar, including his home and the land of his ancestors. God promises to bring him to a land where he will prosper and his descendants will be many. All who come into contact with Abraham will be blessed by him, just as God blesses him. The lesson ends, “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.”

I find it astounding Abraham uproots his entire life, setting out on a journey knowing so few details. Yet, in faithfully accepting God’s call, much is accomplished through Abraham and his descendants do indeed become a mighty nation. He comes to see that God is trustworthy, keeping the covenant made with Abraham, and through him, with his descendants.

Lent is often described as a journey. It begins with the invitation of God to keep a holy Lent, returning to God through repentance. This call is expressed in Greek by metanoia, meaning to literally turn to a new direction or put on a new mindset.

This season offers us the chance to break out of our routine, even the monotony, of our lives. We are called to turn in a new direction, putting on a new mindset, travelling to new spiritual territory.

Repetition of daily patterns can lead to stagnation. We can stop growing and changing in the land of the familiar. We can become indifferent to the landscape. Like Abraham, setting out to a new place brings fresh perspective. Journeying in an unknown land allows our awareness to be awakened. W.H. Auden, in his For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, writes, “He is the Way. Follow him through the Land of Unlikenss; you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures” (Hymn 463/64).

During Lent we may travel through a wilderness that can be frightening, disorienting, and full of “wild beasts.” Like the forty days and nights Jesus spent in the wilderness, it can be time that clarifies our priorities. The wilderness journey gives us a time to strip away past behaviors and reorient our lives, focusing anew on God’s call to us.

On Ash Wednesday we heard the invitation to observe a holy Lent from the Book of Common Prayer (p. 264). It offers several practices for this season. They include self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

Several Lenten services are offered, such as daily weekday Morning Prayer at 9 am and Stations of the Cross Fridays at 6 pm. There is the Lenten Program, at which we discuss the book The Death of Race by Brian Bantum. These may be helpful Lenten practices that offer new perspectives and open us to God in fresh ways.

As we enter the second week in Lent, may we accept God’s call to set out on this journey. Through our Lenten disciplines and practices may we open ourselves to the new landscape of the soul. God desires to bring us to a new place, one where we are drawn closer to the heart of God. In this land is abundant life with God. It is a place where we are blessed and we can be a blessing to others.

The Temptation in the Wilderness, Briton Riviere. Public Domain.

March 1, 2020

 Our Lenten journey began this past week with Ash Wednesday. That day ashes made from last year’s palm branches were used to make a cross on our foreheads. This was a symbol of penitence and our mortality. We confessed our sins, rejoiced in God’s forgiveness. And we acknowledged our need for God, who through Baptism marks and claims us as Christ’s own for eternity.

 Sunday we hear of Jesus being led into the wilderness where he fasts for 40 days and 40 nights (Matthew 4:1-11). Before his time in the wilderness, Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. After his baptism the Spirit descends on Jesus in bodily form. The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness.

While fasting in the wilderness, Jesus faces the fullness of his humanity, expressed in temptations. Jesus eats nothing for 40 days and is famished. The devil comes to him, tempting him to make bread for himself from the stones. Jesus does not, however, yield to this, or any of the temptations Satan offered.

We begin the first full week of our Lenten journey focused on Jesus and his fast. In our land of abundance food is readily available for those who are middle class. We can eat what we want, when we want it, even if it is out of season. Rarely, if ever, are we short on food or go without what we might want to eat. In this abundance, our temptations and impulses may go unrecognized.

The call to fast as Jesus did is an opportunity to engage in what may be a new practice. In doing something new, something different, our awareness can be heightened. Deciding not to eat something for a day, or the entire season of Lent, can help us see our cravings and their power in our life. This knowledge may help us to become more disciplined and open us up to deeper relationship with God.

For many of us Lent carries memories of a difficult season focused on our sinfulness and unworthiness. Lent is not a time to feel guilty or unworthy. Its goal is not to punish us or make us miserable. Rather, this season calls us to become vulnerable, honestly examining our lives, and embracing practices and disciplines that will turn us anew to God. The goal of this season is bringing freshness to our spiritual lives, so we are drawn deeper into the loving relationship God desires

Traditionally this is done in Lent by prayer, fasting and self-denial, giving alms, and reading and meditating on God’s Word. Making time for God through new practices, our perspective changes. We can see ourselves through fresh eyes and be newly aware of God’s presence in our lives and the world.

This journey is demanding and challenging. But Jesus walks with us. Though he was without sin, he knew the power of temptation and human desires. Resting in him we have the power to feel and acknowledge our temptations without giving into them. When cravings come, we can assert our need for God, turning anew to God, asking for God’s strength.

During this season of Lent may we you find ways to break the routine of life, entering into new practices that open our eyes and hearts to our need for God. May our Lenten practices and disciplines give us a renewed awareness of God’s love and mercy. This season offers us a deeper relationship with God, our neighbor, ourselves, and creation, which is the foretaste of eternal life with God that is to come.

 Portable icon with the Transfiguration of Christ, Byzantine artwork.
Public Domain. Wiki Commons.

February 23, 2020

Manifest on mountain height, shining in resplendent light, where disciples filled with awe thy transfigured glory saw, when from there thou leddest them steadfast to Jerusalem, cross and Easter Day attest God in man made manifest.    [Hymn 135, words by F. Bland Tucker (1895-1984)]

Sunday is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. This season of Sundays is counted from the Feast of the Epiphany, and its length determined by the date of Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. This year Lent begins next Wednesday, February 26.

The Epiphany, a feast celebrated on January 6, reveals Jesus to the Gentiles. In the early days of this season we commemorated the arrival of those mysterious Magi from the East, the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, and the wedding feast at Cana where Jesus turns water into wine.

This Sunday we hear the account of Jesus being transfigured (Matthew 17:1-9). Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. His appearance is transfigured, becoming glowing white. Moses and Elijah appear, talking with him. God’s voice is heard, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

This final revelation of the season gives the three disciples a glimpse of the glory that is Jesus’ resurrected nature. From this mountain top experience, Jesus turns toward Jerusalem where he is handed over, crucified, and buried. On the third day God raises Jesus from the dead. The three disciples on the mountain glimpse that glory, seeing the fullness of Jesus’ nature, if only briefly.

Each year on the Sunday before Lent we close out this season of manifestation, of the showing forth Jesus’ divine nature, with this story of transfiguration. In our calendar we are moving from the part of the year focused on Christmas, the incarnation, to the time centered on the yearly festival of Easter, on redemption and resurrection.

Before we arrive at the glory of the resurrection, however, we have a season of preparation. Just as the disciples journeyed with Jesus to Jerusalem, being taught along the way, preparing for what was ahead, so we have forty days to prepare.

Lent is the time to honestly look at our lives and assess how we are living. How is our relationship with God? Are we faithful in worship? Do we pray daily? Are we open to God’s desire for relationship, opening our hearts to God’s love? Are we caring for ourselves, treating well our bodies that are temples of God’s Spirit, made in God’s image? Do we love our neighbor? Are generously caring for those in need? Do we welcome those forgotten and at the margins? Are we faithful stewards of all God has given us, sharing generously what we has been entrusted to our care?

On Ash Wednesday we hear words from the Book of Common Prayer (p. 264) inviting us to keep a holy Lent. The BCP tells us this season is marked by self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and reading and meditating on God’s Word. None of this is done to punish us. Nor are these things done for self-improvement alone.

Rather, we are called to something more profound and holy: namely to examine our lives, repent of our failings and sinfulness, and do those things that open us to deeper, more faithful relationship with God. These days of Lent are a time to be honest with ourselves about the state of our lives and take on practices that will reorient us to God. This is the season to cast off, to give up, those things which are impediments to the holy life we are called to live as followers of Jesus.

In these final days before Lent, I invite you to take time to examine your life, to pray for discernment of God’s call this Lent.

Some questions to focus our discernment include: What are the practices God is calling us to undertake this Lent? What are the things we need to let go off? What practices and habits impede our relationship with God now?

Lent provides the opportunity to be intentional in how we live. In doing so we are promised a share in the resurrection life God desires for us. Though we only catch glimpses of resurrection life now, walking with Jesus we will know it fully in the age to come. Lent offers the time to open ourselves more deeply to the life God desires for us even now, in this age.

Cosimo Rosselli: Sermon on the Mount. Sistine Chapel. Public Domain. Wiki Commons.

February 20, 2020

Increasingly I find myself disturbed by the level of discourse and rhetoric found in our nation’s political discourse. What were once the taunts of children on the playground are becoming the norm in public interaction. Name calling, bullying, and disrespectful words are used by elected political leaders on both sides of the aisle.

This concerns me because we are better, as a people, than this behavior. Mean spirited rhetoric does little to foster the kind of mutual respect and cooperation we need to work through our differences and address the substantial challenges facing this nation. Retreating into warring camps that view others as the enemy will not accomplish much beyond dividing us.

In our Gospel Sunday (Matthew 5:21-37) Jesus calls us to live in a different way. Chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel opens with the Beatitudes. These statements of blessedness are a call to God’s people. Just as God blesses us, so we are to be a blessing to others. The Beatitudes are both a statement of God’s reality that will be fully known at the end of the age and a call to action in the present.

Jesus calls us to make real God’s priorities now, here on earth. Like God we are to love all, showing others mercy and compassion. We are to reflect the light of God’s love to all people, seeing everyone as a beloved child of God. Seeing other people as beloved, even those who differ with us, has implications for our behavior.

In the passage we hear Sunday Jesus calls us to a high standard of behavior. It is one that requires we do not act from our impulses and inclinations. While we may become angry and seek revenge for a wrong someone has committed against us, Jesus calls us to check our impulse and act from love.

Jesus presents a new teaching. His statements begin with the words, “You have heard it was said from ancient times.” Jesus offers the received teaching of the Ten Commandments and expands and deepens it. His teaching is introduced with, “But I say to you.”

Jesus teaches, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council.”

In forbidding murder, God intends we do not harm another person. Murder is an extreme example of harm. While seemingly less serious, Jesus says anger is dangerous. Unchecked it can lead to physical violence and even murder. It can lead to mistreatment of others, verbally or physically.  Anger hurts the person holding it. It takes hold of one’s heart. Jesus cautions against even calling someone “fool.” Doing so is cause for judgment. Words have power and can hurt. Hurtful words tear apart the community and cause division.

Jesus is not saying we should accept any behavior of others or make peace with injustice and oppression. In his earthly life Jesus regularly calls for justice and names the behaviors that should change. But he always does so respecting the dignity of each person. He speaks with love for the other. He does not bully, demean, or belittle. When a person won’t change their behavior he is sad and looks on them with compassion.

Jesus reminds us we are called to a high standard of behavior. It requires we check our impulses and first responses, and not act from emotion. We are to speak with love, showing respect even to our adversaries. While we fight injustice we are to be respectful of others and work to build up the body through love.

If we as a community faithfully live this call from Jesus, I believe we can be a real beacon to the world. Having as a core practice the respect of others as we build up the body through love, we offer a strong witness to the world. The light of God’s love will indeed shine through us and the kingdom of heaven will touch earth. We will blessed by God and a blessing to all we meet.

Meeting of the Lord, Russian Icon, 15th century. Wiki Commons.

February 2, 2020

February 2 is the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple. It is one of a small number of feasts that are celebrated on Sunday. It is forty days after Christmas and commemorates Mary and Joseph presenting the baby Jesus in the temple as required for all first born sons according to the law.

Known also as Candlemas, this feast brings to a close the incarnation cycle of the liturgical year and is the last feast whose date is fixed in relation to Christmas. On Ash Wednesday we begin the part of the calendar where dates are determined by the date of Easter (which, unlike Christmas, moves from year to year). In France, this feast is the day to take down the manger scene, putting the crèche in storage until next year.

The Presentation is one of the oldest feasts in the calendar. In the fourth century, a nun named Egeria made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Likely from Spain, she walked to Palestine and spent several years there. In her diary she recorded details of the liturgies she attended.

Egeria writes that the Presentation in fourth century Jerusalem was “observed with special magnificence. On this day they assemble in the Anastasis [site of the crucifixion and tomb of Jesus]. Everyone gathers, and things are done with the same solemnity as at the feast of Easter. All the presbyters preach first, then the bishop, and they interpret the passage form the Gospel about Joseph and Mary taking the Lord to the Temple, and about Simeon and the prophetess Anna, daughter of Phanuel, seeing the Lord and what they said to him, and about the sacrifice offered by the parents. When all the rest has been done in the usual way, they celebrate the sacrament and have their dismissal” [Egeria’s Travels, Wilkinson, Third Edition, 1999, pp. 147-8].

Egeria’s description sounds similar to how we will celebrate on Sunday. We too will hear the account of this event in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 2:22-40). It describes Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the temple where they make the sacrifice required. Being poor, they purchase two pigeons, not able to afford a lamb. In the temple they encounter the prophet Simeon. The Holy Spirit told him he would see the Messiah come to the Temple, and the Spirit leads him to find the Child that day.

In response to meeting Jesus, Simeon says the words we call the Nunc dimittis, the Song of Simeon [BCP p 66, p. 120]. In his canticle, he proclaims Jesus “A Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.” Because of his words, there is the tradition of beginning the Eucharist on this day with a procession while carrying lighted candles, which we will do on Sunday.

The Collect of the Day for the Presentation asks God, “that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Jesus is revealed in this feast as the Light of the world. He is the One who redeems us, purifying us and making us worthy through his death and resurrection.

May we always walk in his Light, allowing him to illumine our path, leading us into all righteousness. At the last may he bring us to the fullness of his reign, where he presents us to God, and where we will dwell with him for eternity.

Duccio di BuoninsegnaThe Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew Wiki Commons

January 26, 2020

This Sunday we read the account from the Gospel according to Matthew of Jesus calling his first disciples (Matthew 4:12-23). It is a striking passage. As Jesus walks along the sea of Galilee he sees two brothers, Peter and Andrew, casting their nets. They are fishermen busy at work. Jesus says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they leaves their nets and follow Jesus. Jesus does the same with James and John, the sons of Zebedee. They immediately leave their boat and their father and follow Jesus.

Each year when we read the account of Jesus calling his first disciples I am amazed by the story. These men go to work and in the course of the day their lives are upended. They leave behind their work, their families, and all their possessions to follow Jesus. 

What was it about Jesus that made this possible? What was so compelling in his invitation to these men? When I imagine the scene I see these fishermen overtaken by Jesus’ invitation. There is something about him, they way he interacts with them, that they cannot resist. They must see in him something so compelling as to overtake them, allowing them to give up so much to follow.

The experience of Peter, Andrew, James, and John is the Christian experience. Though we all must, at some point decide to respond and follow Jesus, it all begins with Jesus choosing us. Like these first disciples, we have been called by Jesus into the community of his body. We have been called by hime into this parish community.

The call to which we respond may be different from these men who left everything and everyone they knew to follow. Most of us are not called to leave our professions and possessions behind in order to follow Jesus. But we are all called to leave behind the world we know and enter the new world into which Jesus calls us.

This new world into which Jesus invites us is one in which we give over our heart, mind, and will to be disciples. We allow Jesus to shape and form us into the people we are created to be. We give our all in following Jesus and proclaiming the Good News through our deeds and words.

In saying yes to following Jesus, we become evangelists. Our call is to invite others to know Jesus, to come and see who Jesus is. It is our task to share our experience of life with Jesus with those we meet.

Like those first disciples, may our hearts burn within us with love for Jesus. May we let the light of Christ shine within us for all to see. May we share a faith that is so vibrant and exciting as to be contagious, drawing others to come and see what we experience. 

Public Domain, Creative Commons

January 19, 2020

The Sundays after the Epiphany illustrate what it means that God comes among us in the person of Jesus. In the incarnation God stoops to humanity, the eternal Word present at creation puts on flesh, and is born a vulnerable baby. Our call, as followers of Jesus, is to understand as best we can what God has done, and is doing, in the incarnation, and then respond to God’s loving initiative.

A starting place is asking who is Jesus? Why has he come among us? What does it mean for us and the world that God has put on human flesh, walking among us in the person Jesus? Epiphany is a Greek word meaning “to be manifest” or “revealed.” In this week’s Gospel John the Baptist reveals to us who Jesus is.

In Sunday’s passage (John 1:29-42) John sees Jesus and says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” The image of Jesus as the Lamb is found throughout the New Testament. It is also our logo, as a parish dedicated to Jesus the Redeemer. At one level it is an odd choice, given a lamb is a vulnerable creature, not especially strong or fierce.

Yet the Lamb of God shows who Jesus is: the one who lays done his life. Jesus, the Lamb of God, is like the lambs slaughtered at the Passover. He gives completely of himself, accepting even death. Through his offering the very power of sin and death is destroyed and we are set free to love.

The Lamb comes taking away the sins of the world, setting us free from sin, from all that keeps us from loving abundantly as God loves. Like Jesus, we are to give away our lives to find the true life God offers. Through the Lamb of God we have the strength to do so.

John’s witness to Jesus as the Lamb of God causes two of John’s disciples to follow Jesus. Everything about John points to Jesus. His mission is not about himself, but witnesses to the coming of Jesus. John prepares the way for all Jesus does.

 When Jesus sees these two disciples, who turn out to be Andrew and Simon (whom Jesus renames Peter), he asks them, “What are you looking for?” Perhaps they are uncertain how to answer, for they reply with a question, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Jesus tells them, “Come and see.”

 Rather than explaining what Jesus is doing or hopes to accomplish through his ministry and how precisely the disciples might fit into this, he offers the invitation to experience. They are invited to be with Jesus, entering into relationship with him, learning who he is.

The invitation to experience and relationship is where Jesus starts in calling his first followers. It remains an important piece of the Christian life. Those who study church growth observe that the most effective way to build a community is through invitation of those we know. Inviting those with whom we have a relationship to come and experience our community is the best way to grow the parish.  Just as Andrew goes to Simon Peter and invites him to meet Jesus, so we are called to invite others to come and see. Those invited by someone they know are more likely to join the community.

All of us are seeking. Jesus asks us what we seek, and offers the invitation to come and see what life with him means. We will only know if we set out and follow. There is no other way. The promise is that because he is the Lamb of God, he sets us free from everything that alienates us, allowing us to love abundantly.

Like the John the Baptist, may all we do point to Jesus, that through our witness God is revealed in Jesus, and others come to know his promise. Who can you invite to come and see all we experience in this parish community?

January 12, 2020

On Monday we entered the season after the Epiphany. Epiphany is a Greek word meaning “revelation” or “manifestation.” In these weeks after the Epiphany, we discover the true nature of the Child of Bethlehem.

On January 6 we remembered the Wise Men from the East, those astrologers who bring gifts to the Child and worship him. Their visit reveals Jesus as the Savior of the entire world, including Gentiles. These astrologers are the first Gentiles to worship Jesus.

This week we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the River Jordan (Matthew 3:13-17). This event in the life of Jesus has, from the early days of the church, been part of the Epiphany. It reveals Jesus as the Son of God. After he is baptized, the Holy Spirit is poured out on him in bodily form as a dove. A voice from heaven is heard, declaring, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The Child born of Mary is fully human, and is also the fully divine Son of God. The scene of Jesus’ baptism tells us who he is and why he comes among us. In Jesus God puts on human flesh to lift humanity to the fullness of the divine life of the Trinity.

At the heart of the divine life is being beloved of God. At baptism we are baptized into the Name of God. We put on the identity of Jesus, being incorporated into his body. We are empowered to be his presence in the world. And we become children of God, the beloved of God.

On Sunday Kate, daughter of Rebecca and Daniel Coleman, will enter the household of God through the waters of baptism. She will be baptized into the Name of the Trinity, putting on Christ as her own identity. Her parents, Godparents, and the entire congregation will promise to support her in her new life, as she grows into the full stature of Christ, the life of a beloved child of God.

God’s call to live as God’s beloved child is demanding. It can be challenging for us to live the life of “belovedness.” Our society gives us many messages of how we are not as we should be. The world is predicated on some people having more value, having more worth, than others. People are viewed as commodities, part of an economic system. The intrinsic value and inherent worth of each person is commonly overlooked or ignored.

In his book, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (Crossroad, 2001), Henri J.M. Nouwen writes of the struggle many people have in claiming their belovedness. There are so many negative messages that it is challenging for most people not to define one’s identity by them.

Nouwen believes this has a negative impact on our spiritual lives. He writes, “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.”

If we are able to claim our identity as beloved of God, this leads us to become who God calls us to be. Just after his baptism, Jesus leaves the Jordan River and spends forty days in the wilderness. There he confronts several temptations to deny his nature and identity. When he emerges from the wilderness he has clarity about his identity, mission, and ministry.

The same is true for us. When we live secure in the knowledge we are beloved of God, we can discern who God has created us to be. We learn the particular call God has extended to us. Nouwen writes, “From the moment we claim the truth of being the Beloved, we are faced with the call to become who we are. Becoming the Beloved is the great spiritual journey we have to make. Augustine’s words: ‘My soul is restless until it rests in you, O God,’ capture well this journey.”

Jesus invites us to claim our high calling as the beloved of God. God loves us, created us, and knows us better then we know ourselves. God has a vocation and call for each one of us, using us to build the reign of God. This holy journey begins, through the power of the Holy Spirit, by claiming the truth into which God invites us, namely, that we are the beloved of God and in us God is pleased.

Luc-Olivier Merson: Rest on the Flight into Egypt  

January 5, 2020

We continue our celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas, this Sunday being the Second Sunday after Christmas Day. The world around has concluded its celebration. But we continue to rejoice, giving thanks for God’s great love in coming among us in the Child of Bethlehem.

Sunday’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus was born into a world not unlike our own. Matthew’s account of the Flight into Egypt tells of the Holy Family becoming refugees (Matthew 2:13-15,19-23). As rulers often are, King Herod was insecure on his throne. His power required a delicate balancing act between Roman rulers, Jewish Temple officials, and the Jewish people. When the Wise Men come to Herod seeking the newborn King, Herod pretends he wants to go worship the child too. He asks these mysterious strangers from the East to bring him news of where the Child is born.

The Wise Men find the baby Jesus in the manger in Bethlehem. They are warned in a dream, however, not trust Herod, so they return to their country without bringing news to Herod. Once the King realizes the Wise Men have deceived him, he becomes enraged and has every boy under the age of two living in Bethlehem killed.

Before Herod’s barbarous murder of innocent children, Joseph is warned in a dream to take the Child and his mother and flee to Egypt avoiding Herod’s wrath. Thus Joseph, Mary, and Jesus become refugees, fleeing an insecure, violent ruler.

This Christmastide many in our world are refugees, fleeing violence and poverty. Many people fled their homelands and traveled to Europe seeking a new life. Too many died along the journey. Others have encountered nations that don’t welcome them or hostility and violence at the hands of local residents.

Episcopal Migration Ministries offers these sobering facts on their website: “Across the globe there are 68.5 million refugees, asylum seekers & internally displaced people all over the globe; 25.4 million refugees who have fled into another country, into conditions that are often not much better than the horrors they escaped; 3.5 million asylum-seekers.”

In our own nation there is great debate whether to welcome refugees, especially from Latin America, to our shores. Some political leaders are trying to close our nation’s borders to them. Others suggest we should not welcome Muslims for fear of terrorism.

The Biblical record is clear, however, that we are to welcome the stranger in our midst. Throughout Hebrew Scripture there is the call to welcome strangers as the people of Israel were once strangers in a foreign land.

In the 25th chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses commands the people, before they enter the Promised Land after 40 years wandering in the wilderness, to remember their past, how they were a people enslaved and without a homeland. God delivered them, bringing them to their own land. Thus must never forget what God has done for them.

In the New Testament Jesus goes so far as to say when a person welcomes a stranger, they welcome Christ himself. In Matthew 25:40 Jesus, in the parable of the sheep and the goats says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

All people are God’s beloved children. The Incarnation shows in a profound way the depth of God’s love for humanity. God desires relationship with us so deeply as to put on human flesh. The Divine becomes human, so God might lift humanity to the divine life.

Rejoicing in God’s love for us, may we love one another as God loves us. May we always welcome the outcast, the stranger, the sojourner, and the refugee.

If you would like to help in a tangible, financial way, donations are welcome by Episcopal Migration Ministries On their site you can learn about this agency of the Episcopal Church and its efforts to assist people displaced by war, poverty, and violence around the globe.

The Star of Bethlehem in the church yard.

December 29, 2019

This Sunday we hear the Prologue to the Gospel according to John (John 1:1-18). These beautiful words remind us of the magnitude of God’s initiative in the incarnation. John tells us, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

The Word that becomes flesh was present at the beginning, before time, before the creation of the world. John’s lofty words declare, “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. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

The eternal, all powerful God who created all that is, in the incarnation stoops to put on human flesh. God comes among us as the most helpless and vulnerable: a baby. God loves humanity so deeply as to come to live as one of us. God does so in the person of Jesus to lead us into the light, into all truth, to lift us to the divine life of God. God comes to dwell with us in the Baby of Bethlehem in order to lift us to the divine life of love of the Trinity.

We are not worthy of the advent of God. We did not earn nor merit God’s love. The love of God is a gift, freely given to us. And God’s love incarnate changes everything. Through the eternal Word made human, Jesus who is fully God and fully human, we are invited to share in divinity. Jesus, through his death and resurrection, sets us free from all sin, evil, and even death, raising us to eternal life with God.

The only response we can make to God’s unfathomable love is to love God in return. We respond by opening our hearts that God might be born in us, dwelling in us, filling us with God’s love.

One of my favorite Christmas texts is by the poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) and is set to music in the hymnal at Hymn 84. She writes,

Love came down at Christmas,/ Love all lovely, love divine; / love was born at Christmas: / star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead, / love incarnate, love divine; / worship we our Jesus, / but wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token; / love be yours and love be mine, / love to God and neighbor, / love for plea and gift and sign.

In this Christmastide may you know the abiding presence of God’s love, giving thanks for God coming among us in the Child born of Mary. May we strive always to love in return, loving God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves.

This comes with all my affection and best wishes for a joyous and blessed Christmastide for you and all you love.

Dream of Saint Joseph – Cathédrale Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Castor – Nîmes, Wiki Commons

December 22, 2019

Each year on the Forth Sunday of Advent the lessons shift away from the Second Coming of Jesus in glory as our judge to the first advent of Jesus in the Child of Bethlehem. Most years we read from Luke’s Gospel and hear from the perspective of Mary, mother of Jesus.

But in this liturgical year we read from Matthew’s Gospel and his focus is Joseph. Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s perspective. Joseph is shown as a faithful and righteous servant of God. Beyond this section of Matthew, we know little of Joseph. The Gospel record is silent and Joseph disappears to history.

Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 1:18–25) opens with the matter-of-fact statement, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” In Matthew’s account there are no shepherds or heavenly host of angels as in Luke. There are no poetic and soaring words as in John’s Prologue. Rather, Matthew tells us Mary is engaged to Joseph and is with child. Being righteous, Joseph decides he will quietly divorce Mary, trying to shield her from public shame and ridicule.

In a dream an angel of the Lord comes to Joseph, telling him “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Joseph does as the angel says, taking Mary to be his wife and naming the baby Jesus.

To be a “dreamer” is not always considered a positive attribute. But I wonder if dreams are at the heart of faithfully following God. While living only in our dreams can be a form of denial, dreams can also express hope for the seemingly impossible.

During this Advent we are called to expect God to act in our lives and in the world. We dream of a world where God’s justice reigns, where the poor and hungry are cared for, and the captive set free. It is easy for us to think small, to believe the world can’t change. Through our dreams our mind’s horizon is expanded. Our deepest longings are given voice.

Advent calls us to expect what seems impossible. We are to expect surprising and new things from God, such as God putting on human flesh in the baby Jesus. We are to dream that our deepest longings for love and justice in this world can be realized.

This Child born with the animals, far from the palace of King Herod, saves and redeems the world by his death and resurrection. To accept that death is defeated by One born a small helpless baby seems the utmost in useless dreaming. Yet we claim this as our central reality as followers of the crucified and risen One.

In these final days of Advent may we dare to dream of a world where love triumphs over hatred and violence. May we expect God to enter into our world, lifting up the lowly and poor. May we long for that Child born so long ago, yet coming to us anew. May we prepare a place in our hearts for him to be born this year.

Let us always follow our dreams, finding God present in our deepest hopes and longings. Like Joseph, may we faithfully answer the call of God given to us. Through our faithful work may God’s kingdom, a kingdom that makes the impossible real, be accomplished.

Giovanni di Paolo – Saint John the Baptist in Prison Visited by Two Disciples –
Google Art Project.jpg

December 15, 2019

The scripture readings Sunday urge us to be a people who rejoice. Several times the words rejoice, joy, and gladness are used. The Third Sunday of Advent is sometimes known as Gaudete Sunday, from a Latin word meaning “rejoice.” When Advent was understood as a more penitential season, a short Lent before Christmas, this Sunday reminded the church that, while undertaking penitential acts, do not forgot the joy found in the Christian life.

The first lesson from the Prophet Isaiah (35:1-10) offers beautiful imagery of the wilderness and dry land being glad, rejoicing, and blossoming. The faithful of the Lord sing with everlasting joy and with gladness. All will be made whole and sound: the blind will see, the deaf hear, the lame will leap, the speechless will sing with joy, the leper healed, and the poor have good news preached to them.

Joy is a word used often in our culture. This is especially true during the holiday season. There is an emphasis on having a joyful celebration. For those weighed down by fear and grief, it is difficult to enter into this season marked by cheer.

We might think of joy as a feeling, a sentiment, as something we either have or do not have. When life is challenging, when difficult things happen, this feeling can be in short supply. It is hard to make merry when life seems a burden.

In our Gospel this week we again hear about John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-11). Last week John was in the wilderness baptizing those who repented at the River Jordan. He proclaimed the kingdom of God is near, the Messiah is coming. Prepare! Get ready. John, the prophet, preached the coming of God and the arrival of God’s kingdom. That kingdom comes the promise that all will be set free from what enslaves and oppresses.

This week we learn things have not turned out as John might have hoped. He is in prison. His preaching against the oppressive powers of his age landed him in trouble with the authorities. Speaking truth to the powers of this world will cost John his life, as so often happens to prophets.

 From his prison cell John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John may be wondering if he was mistaken in identifying Jesus as the Messiah, for the powers of the world seem in complete charge. Their tyranny has not been overthrown, as John’s imprisonment testifies.

Jesus answered, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

It is for John, each of us, to decide if Jesus is the One sent to save the people. But before deciding, Jesus urges we look at the evidence. Jesus quotes Isaiah’s promise of a renewed creation, of a desert in full bloom, and a people healed and whole. A new order marked by joy and gladness is found in the life and ministry of Jesus.

We do not know if John was comforted by Jesus’ answer. But this week’s readings offer words of hope. The promise of Advent is not that life will always go well for us. We will not escape trial and tribulation, or suffering and sadness. Rather, the promise is when these difficulties happen, God is present with us, providing meaning and comfort to our troubled spirits.

The joy of this season, the call to rejoice, is not a feeling or a sentiment we try to find and worry if we do not have it. It is a deep hope dwelling within us that casts out fear and anxiety. It is the audacity of hope in the face of the trials of this age.

In this Advent we hold onto the vision of Isaiah. God comes among us in the person of Jesus. God enters human history, into our very lives. Jesus knows the joys and challenges of being human. Jesus leads us through this life to eternal joy, to that place where there is no pain or sorrow, but life eternal with the Trinity.

For the promise of this gift let us rejoice!

December 8, 2019

The holiday season is in full swing. The national Christmas tree in Washington was lit this week. Around the neighborhood houses are decorated with wreaths, greens, and lights. The shopping season is well underway. My inbox is full of shopping offers too good for me to pass up.

This secular season focuses on decorating, gift giving, and gathering with family and friends. This month can have a frenetic pace. Additionally, many feel pressure to create the perfect holiday atmosphere. There is pressure to catch the “holiday spirit” and be merry. In December I often hear people talk about the pressure of these expectations and relief when the holidays are over. It is easy to become lost in the pressures of the season.

In contrast, the season of Advent offers a time to focus on what is essential and has deeper meaning. We have the gift of this season of preparation. It is a time to watch for what God is doing, living by the hope that God enters into our lives and the world. This is a season of honesty and stripping away.

One of the central figures of Advent is John the Baptist. John is a singular character. Living in the wilderness he wears camel’s hair and eats locusts and wild honey. His message is repentance. In Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 3:1-12) he proclaims, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He preaches the longed-for Messiah is coming. John calls the people to prepare for his arrival by stripping away the non-essentials and setting their lives in order.

John invites the people to metanoia, a Greek word richer in meaning than the English “repentance.” Metanoia is turning in a new direction, or putting on a new mindset. It is a call to turn to God, turning away from things that distract us from following Jesus. It is letting go of whatever turns us from God.

John warns the people to be ready, because the Messiah is coming. He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, gathering the wheat and burning the chaff in unquenchable fire. John’s preaching is very different from what we hear in the world around us. It is not a call to activities and buying things, but to embrace God’s priorities. John invites us to live by what really matters.

Part of John’s message is judgment. The first weeks of Advent focus on Jesus coming at the end of the age to judge the living and the dead. We are to watch, wait, and be prepared for we do not know when Jesus will come again.

Hearing about judgment can be difficult. Many of us left religious traditions that used the threat of judgement in harmful ways. In my own childhood I was taught sin is a violation of God’s rules. God kept track of my offenses. My sins, I was told, turned my soul black. If it became all black, I was going to hell. As a gay child, I understood my identity was being judged and I, as a person, was found sinful.

The judgment John proclaims could not be more different. Jesus comes not to condemn the world, but to love the world. His judgment is with eyes of love and the desire to draw all people into loving relationship with God. Sin is not violating a list of divine rules that must be followed. Rather, sin is any action or thought that prevents our relationship with God, the creation, others, and ourselves. Sin makes us gods, replacing God’s place in our lives. Sin is alienation and estrangement. It is whatever holds us back from becoming the full creatures God intends. It is living by apathy and complacency instead of creativity and abundance. It is the way of death, not life.

Jesus comes with the fire of the Holy Spirit to burn away what keeps us from living the rich and abundant life of God. The call of John the Baptist to reorient our lives away from the trappings of our world, turning instead to the meaningful life God desires for us. It is the call to journey to the barren wilderness where we know clearly our reliance upon God. In the bareness we are invited to turn with our whole being toward his most gracious rule. In that desolate landscape we encounter the One who gathers us with abundant love and compassion.

December 1, 2019

Sunday, December 1 we begin a new liturgical year with the First Sunday of Advent. As the natural world moves towards winter, with daylight growing shorter and temperatures colder, we light candles on the Advent wreath and watch and wait. In the gathering darkness, we trust God’s promise that Jesus, the Light of the world, is coming and no earthly power can extinguish his light.

Advent, from a Latin word meaning “coming,” has the themes of joyful expectation, watching, and preparing. The first week we are called to be ready for the coming of Jesus at the end of the age, when history will be fulfilled and all creation redeemed. We do not know when this will happen, so we are reminded to be expectant.       

When Jesus returns all powers of this world will come to an end. There is comfort in this promise, when so much in our world seems so wrong. Jesus promises the love of God will defeat the injustices of the present time. God’s kingdom will come and love will triumph over hatred and evil. Even death will have no power. In this we place our hope. In this hope we watch and wait.

The second and third weeks of Advent offer John the Baptist as the central figure. John comes preparing the way for our Savior, calling the people to repent. This call of John is about conversion, in Greek metanoia, literally turning to a new direction or mindset. This new life John proclaims is about living the kingdom of God, caring for those in need, putting right our relationship with God and our neighbor.

On the last Sunday of Advent we turn our attention to the first advent of Jesus at Christmas. This liturgical year (Year A in the three year cycle) we read from the Gospel according to Matthew. Matthew’s focus is on Joseph. Joseph is troubled by Mary’s pregnancy because they are not yet married. Joseph intends to quietly divorce Mary. Being attentive to God, Joseph listens to God’s word as it comes in his dreams. This message changes Joseph’s mind and accepts his vocation as husband to Mary and earthly father to Jesus.

These weeks of Advent are a time of preparation for the festival of Christmas. Just as we have Lent to prepare for Easter, so we have these four weeks. Unlike Lent, however, it can be difficult keeping Advent as a distinct season. In the world around us Christmas is in full swing. Advent can be lost in the noise of many demands on our time.             

During the season there several special events that offer a time of deliberate preparation. On Sunday, December 8 is the annual Festival of Lesson and Carols at 5 pm. This service includes scripture readings for Advent with beloved Advent hymns and choir anthems. It can help us focus on preparing as well as the hope we hold on to

The Advent Retreat Day is on Saturday, December 14. It begins with Morning Prayer at 10:00 am in the church. The day includes time for prayer, reflection, and conversation, and ends with the Eucharist. With all the demands of the season, this day can help prepare our hearts, giving us some time of peaceful quiet.

Other resources for the season include prayers for lighting the Advent Wreath before dinner. This devotion can be shared by the entire family and help to focus us on the season. Copies of the devotion are available at the entrance to the church. There is also an Advent calendar available there with scripture verses and activities for Advent.

May we find times of silence in the midst of the busyness around us. May this season be a rich time of preparation for us, leading to a blessed and joyous Christmastide. May intentionally preparing now open our hearts to receive the gift of the Christ Child who desires to be born in us at Christmas. May we be ready to receive this most precious and life changing gift.

Crucifixion Strasbourg Unterlinden, Public Domain,
Wiki Commons

November 24, 2019

This is the Last Sunday after Pentecost, the final Sunday of the liturgical year. It is common in the Episcopal Church these days to call this day “Christ the King.” This title is from the Lutheran and Roman Catholic calendars, though the Book of Common Prayer does not use it.

It is easy to see why we might import this practice. The Collect of the Day names Jesus “the King of kings and Lord of lords.” In the first lesson (Jeremiah 23:1-6) the prophet writes, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” As followers of Jesus we interpret this passage as an ancient prophecy of Jesus who, as a descendant of David, reigns as the just King for eternity.

There is, however, an inherent danger in casting Jesus as King. It is tempting to apply the imagery and politics of earthly monarchs to our Lord and Savior. Yet Jesus is not at all like earthly rulers. Jesus does not amass vast wealth on the backs of the poor who cry out for food. He does not undertake military campaigns to conquer lands and gain influence. He does not gather accolades and honorifics to himself.

Ours is a King unlike any other. The reign of Jesus is one of self-emptying. Jesus lives by humble loving service, seeking not honor for himself, but instead serving the least. Jesus is the King who invites his friends to a last meal and kneels on the floor washing their feet—even of the one who will betray him.

It is fitting our Gospel reading Sunday (Luke 23:33-43) is Luke’s account of Jesus hanging on the cross. This is his throne. Jesus reigns from the tree. From this throne Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” While dying an agonizing death, he forgives those who kill him. He silently endures the mocking of the soldiers watching him die.

In this account we find the core of who we worship as our King. Ours is not a king who amasses wealth, wages war, or seeks his own glory. Rather, our King lives by humble loving service, giving away everything, even his very life. He is raised to resurrection life, destroying the very powers the rulers of this world live by.

For we are citizens of God’s reign. We worship and obey the King who reigns from the cross. In Jesus we have a King who knows the challenge of suffering and pain, who is present to us in our travails. In him we can trust that death is the gateway to eternal life.

We are called to live like him. Our call is to reject wealth and possessions, having only what we need to live. We are to give from our abundance that others may have what they need. We are called to forgive, showing mercy and compassion to those who hurt us, loving our enemies as God loves us. We are to live by peace, not raising the sword against another, but being agents of peace and reconciliation. And we are called to loving service, getting on our knees to wash others’ feet.

We worship the One who is indeed King of kings and Lord of lords. Baptized into his body, taking to ourselves his very identity, we are his presence in the world. May we witness to his love through our words and deeds. Rejecting the corrupt powers of this world, may we be conformed to his most gracious rule.

Crown him the Son of God before the worlds began, and ye, who tread where he hath trod, crown him the Son of man; who every grief hath known that wrings the human breast, and takes and bears them for his own, that all in him may rest.

Crown him the Lord of life, who triumphed o’er the grave, and rose victorious in the strife for those he came to save; his glories now we sing who died, and rose on high, who died, eternal life to bring, and lives that death may die. Words: Matthew Bridges (1800-1894), Hymn 494, Hymnal 1982

Image from Wiki Commons

November 17, 2019

Q. What is the ministry of a bishop?

A. The ministry of a bishop is to represent Christ and his Church, particularly as apostle, chief priest, and pastor of a diocese; to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the whole Church; to proclaim the Word of God; to act in Christ’s name for the reconciliation of the world and the building up of the Church; and to ordain others to continue Christ’s ministry.

Book of Common Prayer p. 855

Sunday we welcome the Rt. Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely, XIII Bishop of Rhode Island, to the Redeemer for his visitation. The visit of our bishop is a cause for celebration. We welcome him as he celebrates and preaches at both liturgies. You are invited to a Bishop’s Forum at 9 am when the Bishop will discuss the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion, and the upcoming Lambeth Conference of bishops. At the 10 am Eucharist he will Confirm Hailan Whelan. There is a reception in the Assembly Room following this liturgy.

The visitation of the bishop is an important occasion in our life as a parish and connecting us to the ministry of the wider church. An Outline of the Faith, also called the Catechism, provides an explanation of our faith in question and answer format. It teaches that the ministry of a bishop is “to represent Christ and his Church, particularly as apostle, chief priest, and pastor of a diocese.”

While we so often are focused at the parish level, the reality is the basic unit of the Episcopal Church is the diocese. The bishop is our chief priest and pastor. Each priest serves a parish or mission as the bishop’s representative. With more than 50 churches, he can’t be in every parish each week. When the bishop visits we see in a tangible way, through his presence, office, and ministry our connection to the diocese and to all Episcopalians in the state of Rhode Island.

The Catechism also teaches the bishop’s ministry is “to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the whole church.” A bishop is not just head of a diocese, but also has a role in the wider church and is a symbol of the unity of the church. In The Episcopal Church bishops take their place in the House of Bishops, one of the bodies that makes up General Convention (the other is the House of Deputies). When General Convention is not meeting, the House of Bishops continues to meet, praying and working together. Through our bishop we have a connection and relationship with other Episcopalians.

Bishops also are connected through the world-wide Anglican Communion. Approximately every ten years the Archbishop of Canterbury gathers bishops from around the world for a time of prayer, study, and conversation at Lambeth, England. The next gathering is in 2020. Apart from the Lambeth Conference, bishops from the Anglican Communion work together in various ways.

The visit of Bishop Knisely connects us with the church in this state and around the world. Bishops ordained in the Episcopal Church stand in an unbroken line stretching back to the first apostles. Each bishop is ordained by a bishop in this succession. In our bishop we are connected with the church across time, from the earliest followers of Jesus to the present and the future.

This Sunday let us welcome with joy Bishop Knisely, giving thanks for his presence and ministry. In him may we glimpse our connection to Christians around the world and from every age. Together with him may we faithfully make known the reconciling love of God, proclaiming the good news of Jesus, and building up the Church.

The Redeemer Resurrection Window

November 10, 2019

Asking questions can be useful. It is one of the best ways to get to know someone. In listening to someone talk about their life and experiences, we show ourselves curious and interested. We can learn who they are. Broad, open ended questions can help a person share the story of their life.

Another way questions are used is in court or Congressional hearings.  In these settings questions are posed to clarify someone’s actions or knowledge. Questions can be posed in such way to push the one testifying into a corner, trapping them in an inconsistency.

In our Gospel this week (Luke 20:27-38) the Sadducees use a question in this way. Not believing in the resurrection of the dead, and using scripture to justify their beliefs, they create an outlandish scenario to entrap Jesus. They pose a hypothetical story. A woman’s husband dies and they have no children. According to the law the widow’s brother would marry her. In their story, this man also dies. This happens with seven brothers. The Sadducees ask Jesus whose husband she will be in the resurrection.

Not believing in the resurrection, the Sadducees are trying to trap Jesus. But as often happens, Jesus does not accept their challenge. Instead, he tells them they do not understand what happens after death. Resurrection life is not like earthly life. The ways and rules on earth do not apply in heaven. People are not given and taken in marriage.

Jesus catches the Sadducees by surprise. He offers them mysteries they have never considered. They asked their question to trap Jesus in a falsehood. Instead, Jesus observes that they limit God with their thinking. Their ideas are not expansive enough to accurately reflect the reality of resurrection life.

Jesus teaches that God does not follow our ways and customs. In the age to come life is changed. In resurrection the dead become new creations. Jesus says, “They are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.” In resurrection a new life is found. While it is the continuation of this life, it is different. In resurrection all are changed, raised to a new life, a new reality.

This is not to say the love we share now with others will end. It will not. But we should not assume what we know on earth will be replicated in the next life. We do not know what awaits us after death. But Jesus offers the promise that in him we will know life abundant and eternal with God and those who have gone before us.

Jesus concludes his exchange with the Sadducees by saying God is God of the living, not the dead. God calls us to life, not death. The power of the resurrection not only changes us after we die, it is power in this life too. Resurrection promises the death wielding ways of this world will not triumph over the children of God.

Resurrection life is the way God makes all new, bringing death from life. It is the power that allows us to face the evil of this world and boldly proclaim Jesus crucified and resurrected. It is the hope within us that all that is unjust in this world will be righted by God’s love. Resurrection life gives us the strength to let go of fear that holds us back. It calls us to venture from the safety of nostalgia into the unknown future, trusting the power of God to protect and guide us.

Resurrection brings us out of isolation and shame, reconciling us with others and God. Through resurrection we are brought into community. We are raised from sin to forgiveness, from death to new life.

God is God of the living. God calls us to life in the midst of death. What are the ways God is calling us to expand our thinking? How is the Holy Spirit moving us to broaden our understanding of God? What places of death, stagnation, and complacency is God calling us to leave behind? What is the new life God desires for us today?

Fra Angelico, Public Domain

November 3, 2019

As I walked on Hope Street the past several days, especially after dark, I was struck by the number and complexity of Hallowe’en decorations I saw. Some houses sport elaborate displays of cobwebs, spiders, ghouls, and orange lights. These decorations are far more than the carved pumpkins of my youth.

While anecdotal, it seems to me Hallowe’en has grown in popularity over recent years. The observance is not just for children as more adults celebrate. My Facebook feed offers numerous Hallowe’en treat recipes, decoration and costume ideas, and announcements of parties.

Some Christians are uncomfortable with Hallowe’en and its emphasis on ghouls, goblins, and zombies. Some worry demonic influences are at work in the celebration of this day. Historically, however, Hallowe’en is linked with the feast of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day that follow it. These three days are sometimes called the fall Triduum (Latin for “three days”) also called Allhallowtide.

Hallowe’en is a contraction of All Hallows’ Eve. The hallowed are the saints remembered on November 1, All Saints’ Day. It was believed those who had recently died wandered the earth until All Saints’ Day. On All Hallows’ Eve it was the final chance for them to wreak vengeance on those still living. The recently dead, it was believed, wore costumes disguising their identity.

At the heart of Allhallowtide is the belief that over these days the divide between the living and the dead is thin. Even across the veil of death the living and the dead remain connected.

All Saints’ Day, November 1, is the day we remember the hallowed, the saints who faithfully served God through lives of Christian service. They are exemplars of the faith and an inspiration to us as followers of Jesus in this life.

On November 2 we pray for those we love who have died. While their names are not recorded on the calendar of the church, they are known to us. In the All Souls’ liturgy we pray for our beloved dead in confidence that though we are separated by death, the love we share does not end. We support those who have died with our prayers as they move from strength to strength into the fullness of God’s presence. And we trust they pray for us as we run this earthly race.

On All Souls’ Day Eve, Friday, November 1, we celebrate a Requiem Eucharist at 7 pm. Prayers are offered for those from the parish who have died in the past year. When you attend the Requiem Eucharist you are invited to bring pictures of your departed loved ones. They will be placed near the Font where the final prayers of the Eucharist are offered.

Our celebration of Allhallowtide culminates in a Festival Eucharist on Sunday, November 3 at 10 am. On All Saints’ Sunday we will renew our Baptismal Vows, celebrating that we share in the inheritance of the saints, the promise of life eternal with God.

Our Christian hope asserts death is not the end. The living and the dead are bound together in the communion of the saints. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God made known in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. For this promise we give thanks to God.

The Pharisee and the Publican (The Parables of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ), 1864
Public Domain, Wiki Commons

October 27, 2019

A great truth for us as Christians is the unfailing love God has for us. We are created to be in relationship with God, one another, and all of creation. God loves us simply because we are, not because we merit God’s love. Because God loves us, we are always shown compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. When we sin, if we turn from our sin, repent, and put things right, God forgiveness us. This is true, no matter how many times we sin and repent.

Living in an age that so highly values the hard work and grit of the individual, we sometimes forget our need for God. We may fall into the delusion all we have and everything we have done is accomplished by ourselves alone. By focusing on ourselves, we forget God.

Our scripture readings this Sunday remind us we can do or accomplish little without God. In the Epistle, the author of the Second Letter of Paul to Timothy (2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18) says, “…the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it.” Because God stood by Paul, protecting him, he was able to do the work God entrusted to him. Through God’s invitation and guidance, Paul proclaimed the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles. All Paul did was accomplished through God.

In the Gospel (Luke 18:9-14) Jesus tells a parable warning about the danger of trusting alone in one’s own merit and effort. It is a story of two men who go the temple pray. They pray very different prayers.

The first is a Pharisee. Pharisees were religious leaders of the people who taught others how to live lives of holiness. In his prayer to God, this Pharisee forgets all humility and gratitude to God, and indulges in the sin of arrogance and pride. He thanks God he is better than other people, including the tax collector also praying in the temple. He tells God how holy he is because he tithes and fasts twice a week. He is certain his acts of piety make him righteous in God’s eyes.

While the Pharisee prays, so does the tax collector. Unlike Pharisees, tax collectors were not considered model citizens. They collaborated with the Roman occupiers, collecting Roman taxes. They had no salary, making a profit by gouging the poor. They were part of a system that preyed upon the poor and made tax collectors rich. They were considered unscrupulous and dishonest.

The tax collector has no delusions about his sin. He stands far off, unable to look up to heaven and beats his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” This man is humiliated before God and others. He knows his sins, acknowledging his sinfulness and need for God’s mercy.

Both these men are pious, going to the temple to pray. But only one comes honestly before God, admitting his sin. Reflecting Luke’s theme of reversal, the man who is most honest is the one least respected by society.

This parable offers a reminder that God loves us and shows us mercy not through our efforts. God does not love us as a reward for anything we have done, even good things, but because God is love and cannot help but love us and look on us with compassion.

The example of the Pharisee reminds us of the danger of thinking ourselves better or more holy than others. The tax collector calls us to follow him in being honest before God, acknowledging we have fallen short of the glory of God. We are assured that in confession and repentance we are lovingly forgiven by God and in heaven there is rejoicing for the one who has returned to God.

Widow and Judge, Public Domain,

October 20, 2019

A theme woven through all the lessons this Sunday is persistence. We hear how Jacob wrestles with a man all night (Genesis 32:22-31). This match is a draw until Jacob’s opponent hits his hip socket out of joint, leaving him with a limp for the rest of his life. At daybreak his opponent tells Jacob to let him go, but Jacob won’t until the man blesses him. The man blesses Jacob, and says, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Jacob realizes he wrestled all night with God. He is blessed by God and given a new name, a sign of a new relationship with God. Through his persistence, Jacob encounters God and is blessed.

The Epistle this week is a passage from Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:14-4:5).  It opens, “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.” The author warns the time is coming when people will have “itching ears,” finding teachers to suit their own views and needs. Followers of Jesus should remain persistent in the faith.

In the Gospel (Luke 18:1-8), Jesus tells his disciples “a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” It is the story of an unjust judge who neither loves God nor respects other people. This is the type of judge we never want to stand before.

 In the same city as the judge, there is a widow seeking justice against an opponent. At first the judge refuses, but he realizes this widow will keep coming until he grants her justice. To prevent her bothering him, wearing him out, he grants her request. He does this not for justice, but to spare himself. He knows she will be persistent until justice is served.

Jesus concludes the parable saying, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.” If the unjust judge hears the widow and does what she asks, how much more will God listen to prayer and act?

 Jesus tells this parable so his followers remain persistent in praying. God does not need pestering like the unjust judge. God does not consider our prayer a bother. God listens to our prayers because God loves us and desires justice for all God’s people. God stands ready to hear our prayers more than we desire to pray.

 The widow can be an inspiration to us in her devotion. She knows what she needs and asks for it. She knows who can do what she needs done. She goes to the judge and asks for what she needs. She does not retreat or give up when her request is not granted.

Like her, Jesus calls us to be persistent in our prayer, knowing God always hears us. We are invited to ask God for those things that are best for us, others, and the world. We are not to lose heart if we do not immediately receive an answer or understand how God is answering our prayer. We can trust God will answer, though it may not be when and how we expect.

Jesus invites us to not grow complacent or give up on prayer. We are to lift all the injustices of this world to God in prayer. So many in our world are in deep need. So many live with great injustice. In addition to using the political process, signing petitions, and attending marches and rallies, we are also called to pray. We should never underestimate the power of prayer nor doubt God will answer our heartfelt prayers.

When we offer prayers for ourselves and others, we are lifted outside ourselves. In prayer our vision is expanded. We can see as God does, seeing ourselves and others as God’s beloved children. When we lift the injustices of the world to God in prayer, we enter into a holy and sacred space. In this place we are changed, formed into the people of love and compassion God calls us to be.

May we never lose heart, but persist always, being a people of regular and heartfelt prayer. Let us lift the needs and concerns of the world to God, trusting God will listen and respond.

File:CodexAureus Cleansing of the ten lepers.jpg
Created: c. 1035-1040
Public Domain, Wiki Commons

October 13, 2019

As followers of Jesus, we are called to be people who give thanks. This call is broader than experiencing moments when we know and express gratitude. Rather, Jesus invites us to live lives of gratitude. As people who are loved by God, more than we can know or imagine, we have much to be thankful for. From the goodness of creation God provides all we need to live. In response we are called to be faithful stewards of creation. Our response of gratitude is to return to God a portion of what we have been given (the Biblical norm is the 10% tithe) as a thank offering.

It is no surprise that our central act of worship is the Eucharist. Its very name is a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” At the center of every Eucharist is thanksgiving to God for God’s profound love and care of us. In the liturgy we give thanks for all God creates; for God’s love, mercy, and compassion; for God coming among us in the person of Jesus; for the love Jesus has for us; for his death, resurrection, and ascension by which we are lifted to the divine life. In response to the broad loving initiative of God, we are invited to respond with our love and gratitude.

At the beginning of each Eucharistic Prayer, the celebrant says, “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth” [BCP p. 361]. These words invite us to live giving thanks to God — not just in this moment of worshipping God, but always, everywhere, at all times, and in all places. Our very lives should be lived as an act of thanksgiving.

Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 17:11-19) offers the account of ten lepers. Jesus, traveling towards Jerusalem, hears them call out from a distance, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” They don’t want to get too close to Jesus because of the disease afflicting them. Jesus has mercy on them, healing them. He tells them to go show themselves to the priests.

Upon noticing they are healed, one of the ten runs back, praises God, and prostrates himself at Jesus’ feet. On seeing his gratitude, Jesus tells the healed man, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Responding to God’s action in being healed, the man is unable to hold back his joy. Praising God, he returns to Jesus, falling at his feet. In telling us the man “turned back” after being healed, Luke is telling us something important happened in this man’s life.

In scripture, turning back is not only a description of direction of travel. It has deep theological meaning. To turn back is to embrace a new direction in one’s life. It can mark a time of conversion, of reorienting one’s life to God.

Like the mean healed of leprosy, we are called to be attentive to God’s action in our lives and the world around us. In response to God, we are invited to turn towards God. Like the man healed, we are to let our love and gratitude to God overflow until we cannot remain silent, but praise and worship God.

In living lives of thanksgiving, our joy will not be contained. Through our witness, others will see the power of God’s healing and restoration to wholeness. Living this way we will be people of love, compassion, and mercy in a world full of hurt, anxiety, and division.

Mustard Seeds, Wiki Commons

October 6, 2019

Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 17:5-10) includes the familiar image of the mustard seed. This smallest of seeds grows into a shrub large enough for birds to nest in. In the Gospels according to Luke and Matthew (17:21) Jesus tells the apostles if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they would be able to accomplish great things.

When the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith, he replies, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” We can hear Jesus’ words as a criticism of us. We can feel inadequate. If faith that small can do great things, we might worry our faith is woefully insufficient           

This can be difficult to hear, given we often talk in the church about being created in the image and likeness of God and called to live into the fullness of the person we are created to be. We talk of being made worthy through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Now we hear Jesus say something that sounds critical of our faith. This can be especially challenging for those at the margins who have been excluded and judged negatively by the church.

What if Jesus does not intend to judge the apostles, or us, for a lack of faith? Perhaps Jesus is offering kind words of encouragement. The passage we hear on Sunday begins at verse 5. The preceding verses of Chapter 17 offer a hard saying on forgiveness. Jesus tells his followers they must forgive always, no matter how many times. If one sins and repents, we must forgive them, Jesus says, even if this happens “seven times a day.”

Hearing these challenging words is what prompts the disciples to ask for their faith to be increased. They may be thinking this is too hard to do without more faith. How can one possibly forgive so readily and often?  In response Jesus offers them kind words. They need only faith the size of a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds. That is sufficient for what he asks.

This Gospel reading offers commentary on living the Christian life. Followers of Jesus are to forgive those who repent, as many times as needed. This is difficult to do and likely goes against what we might think or feel. It can only be done by faith and trust in God. It is only possible with God’s abundant grace.

God gives us the faith sufficient to follow Jesus. Rather than a commodity that can be increased or saved up, faith is a gift from God. It is a call to a way of life. Even a little faith, small like the mustard seed, is enough to live as Jesus calls. Jesus is telling his apostles, and us, to relax and trust God. Let go of the fear we don’t have enough. God calls and God provides what we need to follow.

Our Collect of the Day this week echoes this important theme. In it we pray, “Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

God always stands ready to bestow on us more than we desire or even deserve. God forgives us and bestows abundant life on us. God sets us free from our fears and gives us more than are worthy to receive. God does more than we can ever ask of even imagine.

Through Jesus we are made worthy and set free from fear and scarcity to serve our God of abundance. Let us ask God what great things we might accomplish in Jesus’ Name with the faith we have? What might God do in and through us by the power of God’s love, compassion, and grace?

Meister des Codex Aureus Epternacensis 001
Public Domain, Wiki Commons

September 29, 2019

Sunday’s Gospel is one of the most vivid parables Jesus tells (Luke 16:19-31). It is the story of two worlds that are very different, separated by a strong boundary. It is the story of two men. A rich man dressed in purple and linen, who eats scrumptious meals, and is rich enough to have a wall and gate around his house. This man lacks no comfort.

The second man is named Lazarus. He is so poor he sits at the gate of the rich man’s home, dreaming of the crumbs from his well-supplied table. Not having good nutrition, unsurprisingly the man has health issues, including sores that dogs lick.

The rich man never sees Lazarus. He walks past him without considering his great need. He shows him no compassion. In his world of satiation and comfort, he is oblivious to the suffering of others around him. The parable does not show him to be wicked. He does not treat Lazarus poorly, driving him from the man’s gate. Nor does the rich man organize his neighbors to drive the poor and homeless from their neighborhood. Rather, he simply seems oblivious and complacent, able to walk by Lazarus with unseeing indifference.

The two men die. Lazarus is buried and goes to Hades, where the dead are tormented (see 2 Esdras 7:36). He is in agony in the flames of Hades, longing for cool water. In contrast, Lazarus dies and is not buried. He is carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. There he no longer is hungry, but is comforted. He is seen and valued. He is safe in Abraham’s arms.

The rich man, in his torment, calls out to Abraham to send Lazarus to give him cool water. Even after death and consignment to the fires of Hades, the man does not see Lazarus. He speaks of Lazarus in the third person, looking at him as someone to serve the rich man.

Abraham does not grant the rich man’s request. He tells him a great chasm has been placed between the two worlds and no one may cross. The rich man then asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his living brothers, warning them what they will face if they do not live differently. Abraham refuses, saying they have Moses and the prophets to listen to. That should be sufficient for them. Besides, even if someone rose from the dead the brothers would not believe.

This parable contains a rich and dramatic story that is easy to understand, yet is potentially frightening to us who are middle class. While not rich by the standards of our nation, we certainly are richer than most of the world. Most of us live in a comfortable home and enough food of good quality and variety to eat. The parable calls us who have enough to shake off our blindness and indifference. It is a reminder to not let our comfortable life dull our awareness of the suffering around us.

Who are the people we see daily who suffer lack of food and have great needs? Certainly as I drive through the neighborhood, especially along North Main Street, I regularly see people asking for money at the stop lights. Often there is someone on each corner. Sometimes I willingly stop and offer some cash. But I am not proud of the times I hope the light will remain green so I can drive by those at the corner, pretending to not see them. When I do so, am I any different from the unseeing rich man ignoring Lazarus at his gate?

God has given us all we need to live the abundant life of loving service to which we are called. Like the rich man, we have Moses and the call of the prophets. We have John the Baptist calling us to repent and share one of our two coats with those without a coat (Luke 3:10-11).

And we have Jesus, God come among us to lift us to the divine life. Jesus taught and ministered to those in need, loving all to the end. He was crucified, buried, and raised on the third day. He gives us the grace to die to a life focused on ourselves and rise to the new life of loving service. Jesus comes to move us from the blindness of our comfort and complacency to serving all in his Name. For when we care for a person who is suffering and in need we serve Jesus (Matthew 25:34).

September 15, 2019

In the fourth century there was great interest in Holy Land sites associated with life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE, Golgotha, the hill outside the city walls where Jesus was crucified, was covered in tons of soil.

Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, oversaw excavation at the site tradition held was where Jesus was crucified and buried. A great church, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, was built and became an immediate site of pilgrimage. On September 14, 335 the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was dedicated. That day became the feast of Holy Cross Day.

In 2016 work was completed on a restoration of the structure, called the Edicule, built over the traditional site of the tomb of Jesus. The last restoration was in 1810 after a fire endangered the structure. In the 1940s metal bands were attached to the exterior to hold the walls upright. During the recent work, layers of marble slabs from the Middle Ages and the fourth century were removed. Below them was rock from the first century that may be the surface the body of Jesus rested upon.

As a church dedicated to Jesus our Redeemer, we celebrate Holy Cross Day as our Feast of Title. This is the equivalent of a parish dedicated to a saint celebrating their patronal festival. Our celebration is affectionately known as “Redeemer Day.” It is a time for us to celebrate the many blessings God has generously bestowed on this parish. We give thanks for the generations who have gone before us. We give thanks we have been called to this community. And we look with anticipation to the important work and ministry God is calling us to undertake in the future.

As followers of Jesus our Redeemer, the cross is central for us. The Collect for Holy Cross Day prays, “Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him.”

To follow Jesus is to take up our cross. This journey is costly. It requires us to relinquish our will to God’s. It calls us to offer ourselves in loving service, caring especially for the least and marginalized. In so living, Jesus promises to draw us to himself, lifting us with him through the victory of the cross. Through the cross we are lifted from this world to the divine life of the Trinity. This victory won for us sets us free from the dominion of sin and death, bringing us to an abundant life we cannot even imagine.

The life to which we are called is nothing short of walking in the light of Christ. John’s Gospel tells us Jesus is the eternal word come into the world, the Light that, “shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). This light, stronger than the powers of evil and death, transforms our lives and our world. By this light we see as God sees, we gaze upon the whole creation bathed in God’s love.

As the Baptized people of God, we promise always to walk in this light. The path is expressed in our Baptismal Covenant. We promise to be faithful in the teaching of the apostles and worship of God; to persevere in resisting evil, repenting when we sin; proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves; and striving for justice and peace among all people (BCP pp. 304-5).

The life to which we are called we share with Jesus who was lifted high on the cross. Not counting the cost, he gave his life in love, drawing all to him. He calls us to follow, walking this way of sacrificial love, losing our life to find it. As a parish dedicated to Jesus our Redeemer, may we always walk by the light of his love.

September 8, 2019

Typically on Sunday the Epistle appointed for the day is a passage from a New Testament letter, often written by Paul to a church community. It only happens on one Sunday in our three year lectionary we read an entire letter of Paul (minus the final two verses).

This happens Sunday when we read Letter of Paul to Philemon. It is not clear when Paul wrote the letter, though he says he writes from prison. Most scholars think it was not written during his final imprisonment in Rome (60-62) but an earlier time, perhaps in the mid-50s.

The letter is the most personal written by Paul, addressed to an individual, Philemon. From the letter, we know Philemon was the leader, along with his wife Apphia, of a church in Colossae that met in his home. In the first decades of the church, the worshipping community gathered in homes large enough to accommodate them. Public buildings as we know today come about in the 4th century.

In his letter Paul expresses affection and gratitude for Philemon and his ministry. We learn that Philemon became a Christian through Paul’s ministry. Paul highlights the relationship the two men have as co-workers, partners in the Gospel, and brothers in Christ.

Paul writes this letter to ask Philemon a huge favor, something Philemon would likely find difficult. While the exact details are unknown, Paul writes about Onesimus who was enslaved by Philemon. Onesimus apparently ran away from Philemon and is now with Paul in prison. Onesimus may have stolen something from Philemon. While with Paul, Onesimus has become a Christian through Paul’s ministry. Even while imprisoned Paul ministers in Jesus’ name and peoples’ lives are changed.

Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon and asks he be received not as a slave but a brother, an equal. Paul wants Philemon to free Onesimus. Paul offers to make restitution for anything owed Philemon.

Paul does this because now that Onesimus has been baptized, he is an equal in Christ. Through baptism the divisions of this world are torn down. As Paul writes to the Galatians, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ” (3: 27-8).

Through baptism all are adopted as sons and daughters of God and put on the identity of Jesus. All are one in Christ. All the boundaries of inequity and injustice are torn down. In Christ no one should exercise power over another.

What Paul asks of Philemon is challenging. In the first century slavery was legal in the Roman Empire. Slaves were to be punished if they ran away, even being put to death. Philemon was expected by his culture to punish Onesimus. If he freed Onesimus, this would bring shame on Philemon in the eyes of others. Additionally, there would be shame in the financial loss if Onesimus is freed. What Paul asks challenges Philemon socially and economically.

Paul does not make this request lightly. Throughout his letters, he calls the followers of Jesus to costly discipleship. Following Jesus is not a casual affair. There is a cost. Paul knows this as well as any disciple. He gave his life over to Jesus, experiencing ridicule, flogging, and imprisonment. At Rome he is killed for his faith.

Paul’s Letter to Philemon reminds us following Jesus requires a real commitment. Discipleship is challenging and has a cost. We are called to give up the ways of this world and put on Christ, living by sacrificial love.

Through baptism we become a new creation in Christ, becoming the household of God. In this community we are to exercise great love for one another, tearing down the unjust ways of the world. Rather than exercising power over one another, we are to honor and love as Jesus does.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit may we live as the community God calls us to be. Putting on Christ, may we be the presence of Christ to one another and the world. Through our witness may God’s love transform the face of the earth.

Jan van Eyck The Ghent Altarpiece – Adoration of the Lamb.jpg
from Wikimedia Commons

September 1, 2019

            Often when a wedding is planned much attention is focused on the meal. A venue must be found, a menu chosen, the cake selected, flowers and decorations planned. One of the most challenging tasks can be the seating plan. How many guests fit in the hall? Who sits at which table? Attention is paid to the relationships guests have to the couple and others attending. People are typically grouped with others they know. Usually there is little about the seating left to chance.

            In Jesus’ day wedding feasts were also carefully structured. Attention was paid to the status of each guest. Those with wealth, power, and prestige were given the best seats. The rest sat in relation to those of highest status. If a guest of high status arrived late, a guest of lesser status would be asked to surrender their seat and move to a place of lower status.

            The Gospel this Sunday (Luke 14:1, 7-14) has Jesus attending a meal on the Sabbath in the home of a Pharisee. Luke tells us all attending are watching Jesus. The Pharisees, as we have heard the past weeks, watch to see when Jesus does something they find questionable or wrong. In particular, they are critical of Jesus healing on the Sabbath.

            Jesus watches guests taking the seats of honor. In response, Jesus tells a parable about a wedding banquet, offering the advice one should choose a seat of lower honor. That way, if someone of higher status arrives, the guest is not asked to move to a more humble seat. And there is the possibility the host invites a guest to move up to a seat of greater honor.

            Jesus’ teaching is sound practical advice. If followed, it helps a guest avoid being disgraced. In his parable, Jesus quotes Proverbs 25:6-7, “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told ‘come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” Jesus summarizes what he is saying with the words, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

            This final statement shifts what Jesus is saying from practical advice on how to avoid being disgraced to an important theological statement. A prominent them of Luke’s Gospel is God’s reversal in which the lowly are exalted and the mighty cast down. Jesus himself embodies this reality. He is God incarnate, humbling himself to put on human flesh. Jesus humbles himself in serving others and giving his life on the cross for humanity’s redemption. And God highly exalts him in the resurrection and ascension.

            Sunday’s passage concludes with Jesus telling us when we host a luncheon or dinner, we should not invite those who can repay us. Rather, we should invite those who can give us nothing: the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. They will not reward us, but we will be rewarded in God’s realm.

            For us as Christians meals are a foretaste of the heavenly banquet God prepares for God’s people. The Eucharist is a foretaste of this heavenly meal. Jesus reminds us of the call to serve others, not seeking our own honor. When we gather for the Eucharist, we should glimpse eternity. At this table earth and heaven are united and we are called to welcome all with no regard for earthly status. Every child of God is welcome and the altar should mirror the reality of the heavenly banquet.

            May we put away all earthly pretense when we come to the table to receive the body and blood of Jesus. Let us invite one and all, especially the least, forgotten, and marginalized to the Eucharistic banquet. May all be welcomed and given a place of honor in our assembly, as it is in the heavenly banquet, the wedding feast of the Lamb.

August 25, 2019

Sunday is the 400th anniversary of the beginning of chattel slavery in the United States. On August 25, 1619 twenty captured Africans arrived in the Virginia colony at Port Comfort. They had been seized by English pirates off the coast of Mexico from a Portuguese slave ship. The Africans were sold to English colonists in Virginia for labor.

This anniversary offers us the opportunity to highlight two important themes in our history as a nation. The first is the significant contribution enslaved Africans made to our country. Through their labor as slaves the economy of this nation was built, particularly because of cotton production. Without the unpaid labor of enslaved people this would not have been possible. Despite the myths that persist, the economy of the entire nation, North and South, was built upon the contribution of African people working in slave labor. After the end of slavery, African Americans continued to contribute significantly to this country, up to the present day. Their contributions have largely been overlooked, especially by white Americans.

Secondly, this commemoration is a chance for us as a nation to mourn our actions in kidnapping Africans and enslaving them in this country. It invites us to learn our history as a people, seeing clearly the system of white supremacy that was put in place to justify and support slavery (including theology articulated by the church). This racist system continues in our nation today.

The National Park Service will mark this anniversary with events throughout the weekend at Fort Monroe. They have invited people across the country to join them in marking this anniversary by tolling bells. The National Park Service asks for bells to be rung for 1 minute, beginning at 3 p.m., as part of a Healing Day at Fort Monroe in Virginia to commemorate the landing of the first slave ship. For information visit Fort Monroe’s website by clicking here.

Our Presiding Bishop, the Most Reverend Michael Curry, has asked Episcopal parishes to toll their bells. You can view his invitation to the church extended through video by clicking here.

Our own Center for Reconciliation issued this statement to parishes of our Diocese:

August 25th, 2019 marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of “20 and odd” captive Africans at Port Comfort, near Jamestown, Virginia, thus marking what is considered to be the official beginning of racial slavery in English North America. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, the Diocese of Virginia, UNESCO, the National Park Service, the national Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project and the Center for Reconciliation invite all people of faith to participate in the commemoration of this anniversary today at 3:00 pm by ringing a bell.

Historian Catherine Zipf, PhD reminds us that, “bells have great symbolic meaning to many societies. This national bell ringing celebrates the value, persistence, strength, and courage of these ancestors and will enable all Americans to participate in this historic moment in the spirit of peace, freedom, and unity wherever they are and to share stories about the role played by Africans and their descendants in the history of the nation.

The landing of enslaved Africans at Point Comfort and the various Middle Passage locations was a link in a chain of profound events that shaped the United States. Commemorating that history honors the lives of these African people and their descendants, acknowledges their sacrifices, determination, and contributions, and encourages a re-shaping of the history with a more honest and inclusive telling of the story that will continue to unfold and inform.”

On Sunday I have been asked to offer prayers at the CFR gathering at our Cathedral of St. John on North Main Street. You are invited and welcome to attend.

August 18, 2019

            It is mid-August, the season of lazy days, summer vacations, and summer reading. Perhaps when we come to church in this season we expect a similar mood. But be forewarned, the scripture readings this Sunday are anything but serene and restful.

            From the prophet Jeremiah (23:23-29) we hear, “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” In our Epistle from the Letter to the Hebrews we hear of our heroes of the faith. But unlike earthly heroes they suffered terrible things, such as stoning, mocking, flogging, chains, imprisonment, and being put to death for their faith.

            In our Gospel (Luke 12:49-56) Jesus is not taking a vacation, resting on a beach somewhere. Rather, the passage opens with Jesus saying, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” Jesus goes on to say he has not come to bring peace, but rather division.

            What are we to make of these words? How are to understand Jesus’ words? Isn’t he the Prince of Peace, the One Luke’s Gospel proclaims is born to usher in goodwill among people? What is Jesus saying to us?

            The peace of God is not the same as human peace. Human peace is typically understood as the absence of conflict. God’s peace is the peace of shalom. Shalom is working for the full personhood of every person. Shalom affords all people their dignity as those created in the image and likeness of God, of those beloved of God.

            Living by God’s peace, proclaiming shalom in one’s life, is at odds with the ways of this world. Doing so will inevitably bring division and strife. While Jesus does not come to sow division, taking discipleship seriously means living in opposition to the values of this world. This may cause division.

            We saw this on Wednesday night when Never Again Action, a Jewish activist group was protesting immigration policy at the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls and a correctional officer allegedly drove his truck through the protest, striking several people. The protesters say the Central Falls police did nothing in response. (For the story, click here).

            These protesters believe their faith calls them to respond to the immigration practices of the federal government which they find unjust. There action threatens the status quo and prompted a response from the officer based on a different set of values and assumptions.

            As followers of Jesus we are called to live by a higher calling than the ways of this world. If we do so, however, we will be judged by others who do not share our calling. Division and strife may result, even within our own household, among members of our own family.

            Our epistle assures us, however, we are not alone. We “are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” These heroes of the faith gave their lives in witness to Jesus, even enduring the agony of death for his sake. Just as Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem, willingly enduring his cross, passion, and death, so they gave their lives for Jesus’ sake. They are an inspiration and support to us as we likewise walk with Jesus. We share with them citizenship in the household of God, in the community of those washed in the blood of Jesus. With them we already share in Jesus’ resurrection.

            We are assured that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, in which we share through baptism, we are set free. Walking with Jesus in resurrection life we are free to love extravagantly, witnessing to God’s love and living by God’s shalom. We are assured no power of this world, even evil and death, are stronger then God’s love. Through the witness of all the followers of God, the power of God’s love made known in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit can transform the face of the earth.

August 11, 2019

This year is being observed as the 400th anniversary of the beginning of slavery in what would become the United States. On August 25, 1619 20 captured Africans arrived in what is now Virginia. They had been seized by English pirates off the coast of Mexico, from a Portuguese slave ship. The Africans were sold to English colonists in Virginia for labor. For an article about this anniversary, click here.

This anniversary was not a motivator for my recent sabbatical examining race and white supremacy. My work was largely the outgrowth of initiatives in the Mt. Hope neighborhood and my response to the racial tensions in our nation. This terrible milestone this month makes clear the timeliness of my experience.

This week I want to share more of my sabbatical experience with you, focusing on the Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, both undertakings of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, AL.

The Legacy Museum teaches about the legacy of slavery, and its continuation through Jim Crow and mass incarceration, in the oppression and dehumanization of people of color. One of the first things I saw upon entering the museum was text tracing the history of the land the museum now occupies. Located on Commerce Street in the heart of downtown Montgomery, the land originally belonged to the Crete Indians and was taken from them by white settlers.

The part of Commerce Street occupied by the museum, as well as businesses and hotels, was the site of warehouses and slaves pens. Slaves were held in the pens from their arrival in the city until sold at public auction. Slaves were transported by boat on the Alabama River and on a railroad built by slave labor.

In connecting the legacy of slavery with Jim Crow laws and mass incarceration, I learned several things. As during the days of slavery, certain assumptions about African Americans are perpetuated into the present, including the presumption of guilt, not innocence. The Civil Rights movement, while having an impact on US society, changed little in the criminal justice system. The US has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s incarcerated. The rate of imprisoned women in this country has increased 646% in the past 25 years.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, AL

After visiting the museum, I traveled across the city to The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. This site is called a sacred place to remember and memorialize the more than 4000 people known by name to have been lynched. Artists have created haunting sculptures found on the six acre site. 800 steel monuments, one for each county in the country where a racial lynching took place, list the names and death date for each person lynched.

Some of the 800 monuments to the more than 4,000 people lynched in the US.

This is one of the most difficult places I have ever visited. It was emotional seeing the horror of lynching represented in the 800 monuments carrying far too many names. I spent time sitting in the heart of the Memorial feeling grief. The only appropriate response seemed prayer. I prayed the Great Litany and prayers for the dead from the Book of Common Prayer. I asked God to move the hearts of the white church, including my own, to confront this history and work to dismantle white supremacy.

At the Legacy Museum are several panels as visitors leave the exhibit space. They ask visitors what they will do about all they have learned and seen in the museum. One was addressed to the white church and I think it is worth reflection:

“Throughout most of the 20th century, many white churches openly supported racial segregation and refused to permit black people to worship with them. The role of the church in supporting slavery, being silent about lynching and terrorism, and justifying racial segregation has never been acknowledge. Do churches and people of faith have a special obligation to address the history of racial inequality?”

August 4, 2019

It is a great joy to return to the Redeemer after three months of sabbatical. My time away was fruitful and restful. It was also educational and challenging. I think it will take time for me to process what I have experienced and how to share it with you. I come back to the parish filled with gratitude for the opportunity you graciously gave me.

This week I want to share an overview of what the past months have been for me. The beginning of May was a time for rest and detaching. I spent some time visiting family. I began reading the volumes on my reading list. Three days were spent on retreat at the Society of St. John the Evangelist, an Episcopal monastery in Cambridge. These days of silence and prayer in community set a tone for the following weeks.

Originally I thought during sabbatical I would make a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral in England. While this would have been meaningful, I felt it did not relate to my sabbatical work on race and white supremacy directly. At any time I could travel there. Instead, I increasingly felt called to journey to Montgomery, Alabama.

In mid-June I spent a week in Montgomery. This city, the capitol of Alabama, was central in the Southern slave trade. Its location on the Alabama River near an important railroad line from Atlanta to New Orleans (built with slave labor) was a vital link in the selling of slaves from the upper South the newly developing cotton plantations in the Southwest.

In the mid-twentieth century, Montgomery was an important center in the Civil Rights movement, most notably in the bus boycott of 1955-56 that began with Rosa Parks and was led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery.

Today Montgomery is home to Equal Justice Initiative. As it says on their website, “The Equal Justice Initiative is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”

The EJI is very present in Montgomery through the Legacy Museum where the history of slavery, lynching, and mass incarnation are highlighted and connected, as well as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice where the more than 4,000 people lynched in this country are remembered by name. I also visited the Rosa Parks Museum and the Freedom Rides Museum located in the city.

The remainder of my time I spent locally, and visited several sites, including the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, MA, a surviving 18th century home with its slave quarters extant, and the Robbins House, home of a free African American family in Concord, MA. I went on the African American Heritage walking tour of Beacon Hill, Boston offered by the US National Parks Service.

In addition to time spent reading, there was time for recreation and refreshment, including a week spent in Vermont, visiting art museums, and time with family. On Sundays I attended the 9 am Eucharist at SSJE, being wonderfully fed by their liturgy, music, and fine preaching. In all it was a rich and rewarding experience.