Rector’s Musings

November 28, 2021

Christ in Glory, c. 1200, Unknown Miniaturist. Public domain.

A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent. The scripture readings are available here.

          Even before Thanksgiving, I noticed Christmas decorations appearing, even lighted Christmas trees in front windows. The annual “holiday season” began early this year, with some saying it is needed after the trials and dislocations of the pandemic.

            There is no doubt much about this time of year that is enjoyable. The decorations lift our spirits, delighting our senses. Giving gifts allows us to express our caring for others. I do not want to disparage how the season is observed or anyone’s desire for a celebration to lighten the mood.

            But at the same time, these holiday festivities can be at odds with how we are feeling this year, or how we perceive the state of the world around us. With so much that is unsettled, with fears of new COVID variant and economic worries, it may be challenging to feel cheery this year.

            Thankfully, rather than the “holiday season,” our liturgical calendar offers us the season of Advent. Instead of one long wind-up to Christmas, calling us to be merry, Advent is a season in its own right, with its own themes and promises.

            This season offers a call to honesty, to looking at our lives and our world realistically, seeing where we stray from God’s call and intention. It is a season of seeing with open eyes, even seeing with God’s eyes, and acknowledging the pain and brokenness of our lives and our world.           

            We do so with the expectation that God is acting, God is at work in the world even now, before Jesus returns in glory at the end of the age. Advent reminds us of the promise that God enters into all that ails this world and desires to redeem it, to turn it right by the power of God’s love and justice.

            These four weeks of Advent offer a call that is at odds with the good cheer and sentimental joy of the secular holiday season. In her book, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge observes that many people don’t want to think of the unpleasant reality of our world at the holidays. It can intrude on the spirit of the season.

            Rutledge writes, “Advent contains within itself the crucial balance of the now and the not-yet that our faith requires…The disappointment, brokenness, suffering, and pain that characterize life in this present world is held in dynamic tension with the promise of future glory that is yet to come. In that Advent tension, the church lives its life.”[1]

            Rutledge continues, “We would rather build fantasy castles around ourselves, decked out with angels and candles…This is precisely the sort of illusion about spiritual health that the church, in Advent, refuses to promote. The season is not for the faint of heart.”[2]

            Advent indeed is not for the faint of heart. Advent is not neat and tidy, but is an in-between time, often lacking clarity. Advent does not deny or ignore the state of our world. Rather than comfort ourselves with warm feelings, Advent invites us to be honest about the state of things, seeing the world as it is.

            We hear this in our Gospel this morning, with its disturbing images. Jesus says, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

            Jesus tells his disciples they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud. Jesus will come in glory to judge the world. At these signs, Jesus says we are to raise our heads. We are not to cower in fear or worry, for our redemption is at hand. Jesus comes to set all things right. Injustice will be overturned. Brokenness will be healed. God’s love will transform the face of the earth. So be alert and pray at all times, Jesus implores us. Be ready to receive Jesus when he comes again.

            Each year, the First Sunday of Advent offers a call from Jesus to be ready, alert, watching. We are to be ready for the time when Jesus comes again in glory. We are warned that as the end approaches, there will be calamities: wars; divisions among people, even within families; famines, earthquakes, and fires; there will be trials and travails.

            This year it seems the images we hear in Luke’s Gospel are more real than ever. It is not hard to imagine these last things happening as we see images of destruction from wildfires in California or the earthquake in Haiti. Wars and rumors of war abound. An unrelenting plague grips the world. Our nation, even our families, are divided by the polarizing politics of hostility.

            Could the end be near? Are these signs of the end? Are we literally entering the end of the age? No one  knows but God. It is, however, unlikely the apocalyptic language of the Gospels is a literal blueprint of what will happen. But these writings are a call to lift our heads, seeing the world around us, and looking for the advent of God, the coming of God, into the mess of the world.

            As the days grow darker and colder, moving towards that longest night of the year, we dare to light one single flame on the Advent wreath. This solitary light expresses the hope within us, the hope that in the darkness of our lives and our world, the light of God, the promise of God, does indeed shine, and the darkness will never overcome it.

            Advent invites us to be strong of heart, daring to be honest, refusing to hide behind holiday cheer. Jesus invites us to watch, look, and see, not averting our eyes, but instead seeing things as they are, looking and watching for God to break in.

            These weeks are a call to live Advent lives all year long, to be faithful in following Jesus, praying constantly. We are to remain alert, even as we move through the routine of the year. We do not know when Jesus will come, so we are to be watchful and expectant, not caught off guard.

            Advent reminds us that we live in an in-between time: between the first Advent of God, when God put on human flesh in the baby of Bethlehem, entering into human history, and the second Advent of God, when Jesus will come again in glory, with the angels, to judge the living and the dead, and bring history to completion.

            In this in-between time we are to trust God is always present. God’s promise to act in times of challenge and difficulty remains firm. As we move through the challenges of this age, God is with us. God’s love and justice break into this world even now, even before the consummation of history when Jesus comes again. So we live in this time by hope, despite all the ills of the world.

            The early church theological Tertullian put it this way: “The kingdom of God, beloved brethren, is beginning to be at hand; the reward of life, and the rejoicing of eternal salvation, and the perpetual gladness and possession lately lost of paradise, are now coming, with the passing away of the world; already heavenly things are taking the place of earthly, and great things of small, and eternal things of things that fade away. What room is there here for anxiety and solicitude?”[3]

            That is why Jesus tells us, when we see the signs of the end, as surely as when we see leaves on the fig tree in summer, we are not to be afraid. Rather than cower in fear, we are to lift up our heads. Our redemption is at hand. Though the heavens and earth pass away, God’s word will not.

            God’s promise remains steadfast and true. The Son of Righteousness will rise. The faithful of God will be redeemed. Sin and death will be put to flight in a blaze of resurrection light. God is coming because God loves us and God desires to redeem us, God longs to bring all people to eternal life.

            The season of Advent is not for the faint of heart. It is not about sentimental images of holiday cheer. It is about the stark reality of a world overcome by sin, alienation, and brokenness and the deep promise of God to enter in and redeem it, setting it right. Even as the darkness seems to grow in strength, the pale dawn of God’s coming lights the eastern horizon.

            Perhaps more than in other years, this Advent can be a gift to us. Maybe we need Advent more than any other year. When so much seems out of balance, when a pandemic refuses to end, leaving so many suffering and dead, when hatred and violence seem to reign, maybe in a time like this we need the strong assurance that God’s reign is breaking in, that God is at work. We need to be reminded that no matter what befalls us, nothing will ever separate us from the love of God made known in Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.

            This Advent, may we faithfully walk with Jesus, praying without ceasing, watching and waiting expectantly for the advent of God. May we honestly see our lives and our world as they are, and lift them to God in prayer, trusting God will heal and redeem all that is broken.

            May we dare to yearn for God’s promise of healing and redemption, of the promise of a new way, trusting God’s promise that the future will be different from the present, that God’s reign does break in. Let us hold on to hope in the midst of the present reality, lifting our heads high, watching for the coming of our God, as we fervently pray, Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.


[1] Rutledge, Fleming. Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[2] Rutledge, Fleming. Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ (Kindle Locations 4811-4814). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[3] The Treatises, 7: On the Mortality in Ante-Nicene Fathers,10 vols. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1 (Advent through Transfiguration) (Kindle  Locations 895-899). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

November 21, 2021

Christ King of kings (Greece, c. 1600). Public domain.

A sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are available here (Track II).

            Today is the last Sunday of the year. In the church’s calendar the liturgical year begins with the First Sunday of Advent, which is next Sunday. The ending of the year often causes us to look back. When the secular year ends in December, the media highlights what happened in the previous twelve months.

            When the church’s year ends, however, we look not back, but forward, to the end of time, anticipating when Jesus comes again in glory. We look to the end of the age, when Jesus returns as King and God’s reign comes in its fullness with all things brought to perfection in Christ.

            Because we do not know when or how this will be accomplished, it is difficult to imagine what the end will be. Metaphor and images can help in this, since we do not have a guidebook to tell us what will happen at the consummation of history.

            Two of our lessons today contain mysterious imagery of the end times. From the prophet Daniel we hear of the Ancient One sitting on a throne, attended by thousand thousands. One like a human being comes from the clouds of heaven and is given kingship. All peoples and nations serve him, and his rule will never pass away.

            Daniel speaks God’s word two centuries before Jesus, to a people experiencing the occupation of a foreign ruler who desecrates the temple. His words offer hope, calling the people to remain steadfast in their trust of God’s power to deliver them from their tragedy.

            To us as followers of Jesus, this passage reminds us of Jesus, the Son of Man, who will return at the end of the age. We can’t help but hear in this passage something Daniel never imagined, Jesus coming again in glory.

            In our Epistle from the Book of Revelation we find more imagery of the end of the age. This mysterious last book of the Bible was written to early Christians experiencing persecution, to comfort and inspire them to remain faithful in the face of real danger. Some of the most beautiful images of this book illustrate a vision of the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, where the faithful of God are gathered at the end of the age.

            This morning’s passage has language we commonly hear in Advent. In fact, on the First Sunday of Advent we will sing a hymn that quotes the verse, “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him…”

            Revelation tells us the One who is coming is the Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. He is the both the beginning and the end. This is the One present when the world is created, at the beginning of time, and who endures after the end of time, at the end of the age.

            These passages contain metaphors and images offering us truths about Jesus, such as Jesus is God, present at the creation of the world. When he returns, he will bear the scars of his passion, those prints of love, on his body. When he comes again, he will gather all people and bring to fulfillment God’s plan for creation.

            In our Psalm and Gospel today we find the image of Jesus as King. While less mysterious than the images in Daniel and Revelation, the understanding Jesus as King can be challenging for us, precisely because we have a ready definition of kings and kingship.

            Throughout history the church has emphasized the kingship of Jesus in terms of earthly rulers, with bishops and monarchs going off to war in the Name of the King of kings. Our history raises the question, What kind of King is Jesus? Is he a King like earthly kings?

            In our Gospel today, Pilate also wrestles with what kind of king Jesus is. This passage is from the trial of Jesus before he is condemned to death and crucified. The temple authorities have sent Jesus to Pilate for questioning. Pilate is caught between the Jewish authorities who want Jesus killed and the Romans whose peace he must uphold. If Jesus is a king, he will be a threat and rival to the Roman Caesar. If Jesus is King, killing him may cause the people to rise up, threatening the peace.

            So Pilate questions Jesus to determine if he is a king and what kind of king he might be. But Pilate and Jesus speak in very different ways. Pilates want facts: is Jesus a king? Is he the King of the Jewish people? Yes or no? The Pilate can wash his hands of this difficult trial.

            Jesus answers that he is not a king in the way Pilate understands. If he were, his followers would fight to prevent Jesus being handed over to the authorities. But they do not fight. Jesus’ kingdom is not earthly. Jesus does not rule over a particular people, nation, or geographical area. Jesus’ reply does not fit with Pilate’s understanding of kingship, is not a simple answer.

            Pilate seeks the facts needed to make a decision, but Jesus testifies to the truth, telling Pilate, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

            Jesus embodies truth. Jesus came into the world to testify to the truth of God. At the beginning of John’s Gospel, in the beautiful Prologue, we read, “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.” (John 1:14) Jesus not only comes into the world to testify to the truth, but Jesus is the Truth of God incarnate in human flesh. In the 14th chapter of John, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)

            Jesus embodies the truth of God, truth that is not about believing facts, but is about relationship and how one lives. To follow Jesus is to be conformed to God’s will, embracing the reality of God, not this world. It is being in relationship with God, formed by God’s truth.

            The truth Jesus shows us is not about intellectual understanding, but is the revelation of God. This truth reveals God to us, moment by moment, as we live in relationship with God and experience the ongoing revelation of God. At the heart of truth is the reality God is God of love and grace.

            In the Collect of the Day, the prayer that opens the liturgy and summarizes the themes of the day, we hear of God’s intentions for humanity, of the truth of God’s love and grace. The Collect says it is God’s will to “restore all things in [God’s] beloved Son.”  It goes on to pray that God  “Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule.”

            God’s truth is about restoration and healing as God’s intention for humanity. All the many ways we are divided and enslaved God intends to heal.  All people are to be set free and brought together under the rule of Jesus.

Jesus calls us to something challenging, something Pilate could not, or would not, do. Jesus calls us to embrace truth, to honestly see ourselves, our attitudes and behaviors; the ways we fall short of God’s call; the ways we are divided from one another; and how we are possessed by the material things of this world. We are to trust the love of God and the gift of God’s grace to see the stark reality of our lives and of our world, and by changed by God’s truth.

            By the ongoing revelation of God, Jesus leads us into all truth, into honest relationship with him, whereby we are transformed by his love, by his most gracious rule, into people who follow him as king. We are called to be people who reject the facts of our world for the truth of God’s reign. The facts upon which the world is based lead to injustice and death. The truth of God revealed in Jesus brings justice and eternal life.

            Throughout John’s Gospel, as Jesus reveals the Truth, people encounter Jesus as One who knows them deeply, who sees who they truly are. Jesus does not embrace the world’s definition of individuals, but sees them as they are. Jesus allows those he meets to face the truth of their lives and accept his call to transformation. This journey, while challenging, brings people into relationship with Jesus as he leads them into the abundant life God desires for all of God’s people.

            The kingship of Jesus is not about military might, riches, earthly power, or the subjugation of others. The kingship of Jesus is about the cosmic power of God’s love,  love so strong it can transform and restore this world, love strong enough to defeat evil, sin, and death.     

            Those who follow Jesus find the truth of God revealed to them as they walk with Jesus, the One who on the cross draws all people to himself, lifting them high above the pain, injustice, and brokenness of this world. It is from the throne of the cross we see the loving kingship of Jesus. In his suffering and death we see the truth of the King we worship and follow.

            May we hear the call of Jesus, following where he leads us, that in him we know the One who reveals the truth of God to us. May Jesus reign as King in our hearts, as the ongoing revelation of God’s truth and conforms us to God’s love, by the gift of God’s grace.

            The truth of God sets us free to be God’s people. May Jesus to lead us into all truth, so we honestly see our lives and our world, and are transformed by his Truth, and led into abundant and unending life at the end of the age.

I close with A Poem for the Feast of Christ the King by Pamela Cranston:

See how this infant boy                                 
lifted himself down                                       
into his humble crèche                       
and laid his tender glove of skin                    
against splintered wood—

found refuge in a rack                        
of straw—home                                             
that chilly dawn,                                            
in sweetest silage,
those shriven stalks.

This outcast king lifted                                  

himself high upon his savage cross                                        

extended the regal banner      

of his bones, draping himself 

upon his throne—his battered feet,                           

his wounded hands not fastened                                           

there by nails but sewn

by the strictest thorn of love.[1]


[1] Pamela Cranston © 2019. Pamela Cranston, Searching for Nova Albion, (Wipf & Stock Publishers, Eugene, OR), 2019, p. 86. https://wipfandstock.com/searching-for-nova-albion.html as quoted on https://www.journeywithjesus.net/poemsandprayers/531-a-poem-for-the-feast-of-christ-the-king.


November 14, 2021

Second Jewish temple. Model in the Israel Museum.

A sermon for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are available here (Track II).

          By all accounts the Temple in Jerusalem was a wonder of the world. First century historians describe it as a large complex of white marble buildings, built of large stones. It was adorned with gold and reflected sunlight in a way that was dazzling, even blinding. There were colonnaded courts, covered walkways, balconies, porches, and monumental stairs. King Herod built the Temple to impress the wealthiest and most powerful rulers of his day, and by all accounts he succeeded.

            It is no surprise then,that in today’s Gospel a disciple marvels at the large stones and impressive buildings. Most people at that time would have been impressed by the Temple. Most people, that is, but not Jesus.

            Today’s passage takes place at the end of Holy Week, just before Jesus is crucified. Jesus has left the temple for the last time of his earthly life. Jesus visited the Temple with his disciples daily. He was openly critical of the religious officials’ leadership. Jesus said they were not leading the people closer to God, they were blind to God’s will. Jesus accused them of presiding over a system that enriched them, gave them honor and power, all at the expense of the poor.

            As the disciples marvel at the Temple, Jesus doesn’t share their impression. He says to them, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” This is unimaginable to the disciples. The sheer size of the Temple, with its monumental construction, make it seem indestructible and permanent.            

            The destruction of the Temple would be a cataclysmic event. More than simply a great building, the Temple was the primary place the people encountered God. There the priests made offerings to God on behalf of the people and the people prayed. The disciples must have wondered what would happen if the Temple no longer existed.

            The disciples have not fully understood Jesus’ teaching this final week in the Temple. They have not understood Jesus’ call for the leaders to be transformed. They do not understand that in Jesus, God is fully present to the people. The Temple is no longer necessary. God, in the person of Jesus, is among them, walking with them, leading them. They do cannot imagine how they will need the presence God in their midst in the coming years.

            In Mark, Jesus knows the destruction of the Temple is coming. Mark’s Gospel comes into being at the time of the Jewish Revolt. In the year 66 the Jewish people revolted against Roman rule. The Temple authorities and Roman soldiers were expelled from Jerusalem. For a few years the people ruled themselves and prepared for what they knew would be a strong Roman response. It came in the year 70 when Rome put Jerusalem under siege and eventually assaulted the city, destroying the Temple, and most of Jerusalem, and killing many.

            The followers of Jesus in Mark’s day were caught in the middle of this conflict. The Jewish people fought the Roman empire, but the followers of Jesus would not fight. They held fast to non-violence. Nor did they assist Rome in the conflict. So they were persecuted by both sides, Roman and Jewish. There was no safe place for them.

            Jesus knows these difficult days are coming. He warns the disciples not to follow just anyone, but remain faithful to following God. He warns them not to be alarmed by wars and rumors of wars, by earthquakes or famines. Jesus tells them not to worry so much about interpreting the signs of the age. Rather, they are to remain faithful disciples, trusting God and following in the way Jesus has led them, walking his path of humble, loving service.

            Jesus says this to his disciples just before his betrayal and crucifixion. In the days leading to his passion, Jesus does not worry about the signs of what is happening or the timing of what might happen. Instead, Jesus remains faithful to his mission and ministry, to his call from God given at his baptism. In letting go of his life, Jesus knows the ultimate transformation will happen: he will pass from death to eternal life; and through his death, the power of sin and death will be destroyed.

            Just as he lived his earthly life, so Jesus calls the disciples to live. They are not to worry about the signs, but to follow him. They are to be faithful disciples, living by God’s love, trusting in God’s power to deliver and save. The institutions and powers of this world will be torn down. The power of wealth, greed, military might, and violence will pass away. God’s reign of love and justice will take hold. The disciples, through lives of faithfulness, will help usher in this new age of God.

            Jesus calls his followers to a journey of letting go, trusting God, and being transformed. They are to journey from darkness to light; from alienation to community; from guilt to pardon; from slavery to freedom; and from fear to hope.

            In our first Lesson, the prophet Daniel proclaims God’s word to the people in equally calamitous times. These words are likely written about events two centuries before Jesus, when Antiochus IV plundered Jerusalem, desecrated the Temple, and killed many. This was a great calamity for the people and they searched for any signs of hope in the midst of this tragedy.    

            In this tragedy, Daniel offers words of hope from God: the people will be delivered; God is still in control of events, sending the great Archangel Michael to defend the people; and the dead who are righteous shall be raised.

            The Book of Daniel points to the future. Though these horrific things have happened, Daniel affirms God’s love for humanity. God will deliver and save the people. In Daniel, there is the promise of resurrection life — the only time in Hebrew Scripture resurrection is mentioned.           

            God promises the challenging times will not last forever. In the end God will triumph, the people will be delivered. Death will not have the final word, for the dead will be raised to eternal life, free forever from suffering and death.

            Daniel offers hope in the midst of the people’s struggles, allowing them to imagine a future different from the present reality. The people are to trust God to defeat the powers of this world, protecting and delivering the righteous. They are to align themselves with God who gives life, not with the death-dealing powers of this world. The righteous are to be “custodians of Spirit-driven hope.”[1]

            It is challenging to hold onto hope in difficult times. It can be hard not to worry over the signs we see around us. We can feel anxiety for what is happening and worry over what might be.

            Perhaps you feel this today. Many do. There is real anxiety and worry in our nation. We are a people polarized and divided. Hatred seems more extreme than in decades. We are unable to speak across our difference, seeing those who differ from us as enemies. In yesterday’s NY Times there was a disturbing article about violent words and threats becoming normalized in political rhetoric.[2] We can look at the signs of this age, asking where we as a people are going. In a time like this we can lose our center, our grounding, succumbing to worry, anxiety, even hopelessness.

            It certainly does not help that the pandemic seems unending. After a time of positive data, we see COVID cases rising in parts of the country, including here in RI. It is unclear what the coming weeks hold, just as we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, as it grows colder and we spend more time indoors.

            In this uncertain reality, Jesus calls us to trust in him. Though the world around us is in turmoil, we are to remain calm, focused on being faithful disciples. We are to walk with him. We have no need for despair, for in Jesus we are kept safe forever. God will deliver us. In Jesus the victory over sin and death is already won.

            We can find strength in community. We are not alone in this time. We walk this path of humble, loving service, this way of discipleship, together. In community there is strength and support to face the challenges of this life.

            In his commentary on Mark’s Gospel, Say to this Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, author Ched Myers reminds us of the power of communities of faith. He encourages us to see the pain and horror of this world, and share them in community. 

            He writes, “The pervasive habit of our culture is to take refuge in denial, to hide from the world in the ‘business as usual’ of our private lives. We close our eyes to avoid facing the reality around us by surrounding ourselves with the mind-deadening escapes of modern society. Yet the gospel calls us to look at reality and to acknowledge our feelings of sadness and despair that surface when we feel the pain of the world. From the perspective of the gospel, to experience this pain and sadness is to enter into the agony of Christ. In communities of faith these feelings can be validated and channeled. Together we name the pain of the world and lift it up to God in prayer. By finding the strength together to face the brokenness of our world we encourage each other to move through it.”[3]

            Together we can, in prayer, lift the brokenness of our world to God for redemption and healing, trusting God to deliver this world, to transform this world, by God’s love and justice. May we not lose heart, but put our whole trust and hope in God, as we await the fulfillment of God’s reign of justice and love, together, in community, as Christ’s body gathered by God in this place. Let us pray always for the world and for the final consummation of God’s most gracious and loving rule. Amen.


[1] Feasting on the Word, Year B Supplemental, Daniel 12:1-3, Homiletical.

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/12/us/politics/republican-violent-rhetoric.html

[3] Myers, Chad; Dennis, Marie; Nangle, Joseph; Moe-Lobeda, Cynthia; Taylor, Stuart. “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship (Kindle Locations 3048-3053). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

November 7, 2021

Feast of All Saints’, Fra Angelico. Public domain.

A sermon for the Sunday after All Saints’ Day. The scripture readings are available here.

            This past week we observed what, in Medieval times, was called Allhallowtide. It is also referred to as the All Saints’ Triduum—three days focused on the hallowed, “hallowed” a word meaning those who are holy.

            The three days began with All Hallow’s Eve last Sunday. In the Middle Ages it was thought the veil between the living and the dead was very thin on this night. It was believed the dead were free to roam the earth and play pranks on people they knew in life. The departed could also seek vengeance for wrongs committed against them while they lived on earth.

            The second of the days is All Saints’ Day, November 1, when we remember the heroes of the faith who have gone before us, those exemplars of holy living. These are the holy saints of God found in our calendar, whose lives and faithful witness inspire and support us in our earthly journey. These are the saints of God who suffered martyrdom, giving their lives in witness to Jesus, being washed in the blood of the Lamb by their martyrdom. All Saints’ Day is so important, it is one of a few feasts also celebrated on the Sunday following.

            The last day of Allhallowtide is All Souls’ Day, kept on November 2. It is the day we remember those who have died and are not on the church’s calendar. On All Souls’ Day we pray for those known perhaps only to us, and for those forgotten and unnamed, known only to God, who have no one to pray for them by them. In this time of continuing pandemic, we sadly remember the more than 700,000 killed by COVID-19 in this country, and the more than five 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.

            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.

            Our Epistle this morning is from the Book of Revelation. This last book of the Bible can be mysterious, with its metaphorical imagery and fantastical images, but it also offers us beautiful images of eternal life with God.

            In today’s reading we hear of a new heaven and a new earth, the heavenly Jerusalem prepared by God. In this city God dwells with God’s people. There is no distance or separation between God and humanity. In this city death has been defeated. God wipes away all tears from the eyes of God’s people. There is no more mourning or crying. All has been made new by God.

            Those who are hallowed, who are made holy by the death and resurrection of Jesus, share this promise of life eternal with God in the heavenly city. God will gather those who have died and bring them to the heavenly banquet God has prepared. As the prophet Isaiah tells us in our first lesson, God has prepared a feast for all people, “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.”

            Our destiny is joining the saints of old at the heavenly banquet prepared by God. We will join the multitude of angels and saints, in their worship of God day and night. In that eternal realm there is no hunger or thirst, no scorching heat. Jesus, the Lamb of God, shepherds the people, gathering them, leading them to the springs of the water of life. And 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 from our eyes. In that heavenly city we will have no 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 “sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.”[1] All who love God will be gathered to God for eternity with all the saints.

            Like those who have gone before us, we too are called to be saints of God, being hallowed, living lives of holiness by 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 described 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. I am an ordinary person.

            This definition reminds us saints are just like you and me. Saints are not perfect, only God alone is perfect. Like us, the saints knew temptation and sin. There were times they fell short of the glory of God. But the saints did not let this defeat them. They did not give up, thinking they had failed. The saints acknowledged their sin and failings, repented, turned back to God’s way, 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 lived lives of loving service, seeking out the forgotten and marginalized. God used them, in their giftedness and in their imperfections, in service to God, making them instruments of God who helped usher in the kingdom of God through their witness.

            This feast of All Saints’ assures us of God’s intention for humanity. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, sin and death have been destroyed. Through the waters of baptism, we share in Christ’s victory. Though we die, yet shall we live, and be gathered by God into eternal life. Because we share in the victory Jesus won over death, we have nothing to fear in this life. There is no power that can destroy us or separate us from the love of God.

            In our Gospel today, Jesus has been called to the home of his close friends, Mary and Martha who lived with their brother Lazarus. The Gospel of John tells how Jesus spends time in their home. In today’s passage, before Jesus arrived, Lazarus became ill and died. Jesus is so moved by the death of his friend Lazarus, that he cries. Jesus goes to Lazarus’ grave and calls him to come out. Lazarus, once dead, emerges from the tomb, still bound in his burial clothes. When Lazarus emerges from his tomb in his burial clothes, Jesus tells them to “Unbind him and set him free.”

            Jesus calls to us as well, calling out of the tombs that hold us, telling us to be unbound. Like Lazarus, we have nothing to fear. The power of sin, evil, and death has been defeated. Through baptism, we already share in the resurrection life of Jesus and are set free. Jesus unbinds us so we can live by love, by the expansive, all-inclusive, broad love of God. We are set free to live the life of those who are hallowed, who are made holy, by Jesus’ victory, and set apart for lives of holiness.

            In a few moments we will renew our Baptismal Covenant. This Covenant articulates the life to which we are called. It reminds us of the life the saints of old lived. It calls the baptized to a way of life that is so demanding, we cannot live it by our own will alone. Rather, we must rely on God, making our baptismal promises with the words, “I will, with God’s help.”

            The life of the baptized is nothing short of rejecting the ways of this world—with its emphasis on wealth, power exercised over other people, hatred, and violence—and living instead by Jesus’ way of love. In the waters of baptism we die to the ways of this world, and rise to the life of God. We turn from narrow self-interest, and embrace the loving, humble service of Jesus. We give up ourselves, that we might find true abundant life in the community of the Trinity.

            Our baptismal promises lead us to new life in Christ. They challenge the assumptions we hold. The promises require we renounce much, but they offer a way of life we can scarcely imagine or hope for. The life to which we are called is nothing short of eternity. The way of Jesus makes real God’s realm in this world. Through the witness of the people of God, eternity break’s into our broken world.

            This is a journey we cannot make alone, as individuals. It requires all of us walking together, as a community of faith, the household of God. This life of holiness into which we are baptized also requires the witness of the saints, of those who have gone before us. The saints show us the way. They model for us single-minded devotion to following Jesus. Their lives offer us inspiration and support. Through the communion of saints we believe the saints support us by praying for us.

            Like the saints who have gone before us, may we promise to give our whole lives to following Jesus, walking always in his path of holiness. May God be at work in our lives of ordinariness, empowering and strengthening us to do extraordinary things in God’s Name, that we are witnesses to the power of God’s love. May we allow Jesus to unbind us for what holds us back, setting us free to follow him, trusting there is nothing in this world that will ever separate us from the love of God made known in Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. 

            Let us give everything we are and have to walk in holiness as did the saints of old. Like them, may we come to wear the crown of glory, gathered by God to the supper of the Lamb, to the great heavenly banquet God prepares for God’s people, where we will sing God’s praises for eternity with all the saints. Amen.


[1] Book of Common Prayer, p. 499.

October 31, 2021

Christ the Savior (Pantokrator), 6th-century icon. Public domain.

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

            A word commonly heard in every day speech is “love.” We use the word “love” to express what we value, the things that delight us, that bring us pleasure. We love all manner of things: good food, a beautiful sunset, or a favorite brand of a product. Without much thought I regularly declare may love for things both sublime and trite. Despite my attempts to be more intentional in using the word “love,” I continue to struggle and find myself casually declaring, “I love it!” without even realizing it.

            In the church we often talk of love. We are to love God, our neighbor, the poor. Jesus calls us to love our enemies, and even love those who hate us. We talk of loving a particular liturgical season (How many love Advent best?), or a particular prayer, or a favorite hymn.

            What does this word we use all the time actually mean? What does it mean to love? What is Jesus telling us when he says in today’s Gospel, “…’you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’…‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself”?

            Often we treat love like an emotion. We know we love by how we feel. Love involves feelings we have for another person. When experiencing love, these loving feelings are typically returned by the object of one’s love. Love is something shared by two people when they fall in love. Love happens to us, mysteriously and without warning, and we experience it in non-verbal ways. We consider love as reciprocal.

            Is this what Jesus means by love? Is he calling his followers to a sense of delight in random material things? Is Jesus lifting up the romantic love shared by two people drawn together by mutual attraction and affection? Does Jesus mean the love shared by friends?

            In Greek there are three words for love. There is eros, or romantic love. There is philia, the love shared by siblings or friends. And there is agape, consider by the first followers of Jesus as the highest form of love. Agape was so important to early Christians, they celebrated a meal called an agape, literally a love feast, that involved bread, wine, and other food, to which the poor were invited.

            The Greek word for love used in today’s Gospel is agape. It is defined as “love of one’s fellow humans” and “as the reciprocal love between God and humans…made manifest in one’s unselfish love of others.”[1]

            Agape begins by responding to God’s love for us. As it says in the First Letter of John, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”[2] Love is not simply an attribute of God, a characteristic God has and shares with humanity. Love for God is much more. Love is who God is. Love is God’s identity and being. God loves because God is love. Jesus is God’s love revealed in human flesh, God’s love seen in human form that we can see and touch.

            For us Christians, God’s love is the beginning and end of all things. God is love. God creates all that exists from love. God responds to us from love. God’s love makes possible our love. God’s love comes first, before there can be human love. It is only because God first loves us that we can love in return. Our love is utterly dependent on God’s love.

            In today’s Gospel Jesus is asked a question by a scribe. Throughout this part of Mark’s Gospel Jesus has been tested by the scribes. Today’s account comes close to Holy Week, and the scribes are anxious to trap Jesus with their questions, so Jesus is leery of them and their flattery.

            One of the scribes has heard Jesus answering questions well and asks about the first commandment. Jesus replies, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’” In answering the scribe’s question, Jesus quotes the Shema, a Jewish prayer, part of which we heard in our first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy. This text teaches that loving God means the complete giving over of oneself to God, heart, soul, mind, and strength—every part of one’s being.

            Because God first loves us, we are called to respond by accepting God’s great gift of love. The way we do this is by receiving with thanksgiving all God gives us and turning our will and being over to God’s love, following God the whole of our lives. This the greatest and first commandment. This is the way of life with God.

            Then Jesus continues with a second commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This love for neighbor flows out of God’s love for us, but is different. We do not turn entire will and being over to our neighbor. This love is not given to our neighbor in response to what they do, how they treat us, or how we feel for them. This is not the love we have for a spouse or a friend.

            The love of neighbor is our response to God first loving us, without our deserving God’s love, without ever possibly earning God’s love, or being worthy of God’s love. God’s love for humanity is the model for our love of our neighbor. We are called to love others not because they love us, nor because they treat us well, nor because we hold warm feelings of affection for them. We are to love our neighbor simply because God loves us. We love our neighbor because they are also loved by God.

            The love we have for our neighbor does not depend on others. If a neighbor refuses to reciprocate our love, or refuses to accept our love, we are still called to love. In God’s kingdom, agape is the love due all people, even our enemies and those who wish us ill. We are called to love freely without thought for the cost or the response of another to our love. Our love is modeled on Jesus, who loves so deeply that he willingly goes to his passion. While dying on the cross Jesus continues to love, praying for his enemies, forgiving those who torture and kill him.

            Loving our enemies with agape, love rooted in God’s love for us, also requires we love ourselves. Some Christians will suggest self-love is prideful, self-seeking, harmful to the Christian life, or even the opposite of agape. Some suggest we are to give ourselves away in love to the point of harm. Yet, love never harms us. Love does not bring us to unhealthy or abusive situations. Rather, it is knowing how to love ourselves that we learn how to love our neighbor. In seeking our own well-being, we come to learn how to work for the well-being of our neighbor.

            In today’s Gospel, Jesus commands his followers to respond to God’s love by loving God with all their will and being, then allowing God’s love to fill us to the point God’s love overflows us and moves toward our neighbor. Jesus calls those who love him to a way of life that has an unwavering commitment to the well-being of others.

            In the webzine Journey with Jesus, Debie Thomas writes of today’s Gospel, “Biblical love is not an emotion we feel, it’s a path we travel.  As the children of God, we are called to walk in love. Think aerobic activity, not Hallmark sentiment.”[3]

            It is no accident our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has called the church to walk in Jesus’ way of love. The Episcopal Church website says of the way of love, “More than a program or curriculum, it is an intentional commitment to a set of practices. It’s a commitment to follow Jesus: Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, Rest.”[4]

            Loving God, ourselves, and our neighbor means setting out on a journey. It is the commitment to following Jesus where he leads us. This way means getting down on our knees and washing feet; it calls us to serve others at table; it requires we give up our self-will and our need for control. The way of love empowers us to see those invisible and forgotten; to fight for justice for the oppressed and voiceless; and to welcome the excluded and reviled. It means loving even when our neighbor refuses to love us.

            After Jesus answers the scribe’s question in today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the scribe he is not far from the kingdom of God. After that no one dared ask Jesus any more questions. Those seeking to entrap Jesus were at last silenced.

            Debie Thomas writes of this silence, “I’m glad that our Gospel story this week ends in stunned silence. Silence is the appropriate first response to the radical love we’re called to. We dare not speak of it glibly. We dare not cheapen it with shallow sentiment or piety. Rather, let’s ask for the grace to receive it as the wise scribe received it. In awed and grateful silence. Then, when we’re ready, let’s walk.”[5] Amen.


[1] https://www.britannica.com/topic/agape

[2] 1 John 4:8

[3] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=3196

[4] https://www.episcopalchurch.org/way-of-love/

[5] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=3196

October 24, 2021

Jesus healing blind Bartimaeus, by Johann Heinrich Stöver, 1861. Public domain.

A sermon for the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture lessons are found here (Track II).

            At the vestry meeting this past Wednesday, our Bible study prompted a discussion of how to respond when people ask us for money. At the intersections of our neighborhood it is common to encounter people, often holding handwritten signs that say “anything helps.” Several vestry members admitted struggling with how to respond.

            I often find these encounters challenging. Approaching the intersection, I hear Jesus tell his followers to give to anyone who asks. But I worry about the safety of stopping my car in the travel lane when the light is green. I am not proud of my relief if no one is standing at the intersection asking for money. Nor I am proud of the impulse I sometimes have to drive past a person seeking assistance without looking at them or acknowledging them.

            The vestry also talked about the challenge of responding with compassion and respect to the homeless folks who lived in the church yard this summer. Sometimes we are tempted to look the other way, ignoring the person in front of us, but this is harder to do when they sit on our sidewalk or lawn. One vestry member asked whether we should do more as a parish for those without food, shelter, or sanitary products in our midst. This a question we will continue to discuss and discern.

            As a society we often try to render invisible those asking for help. Laws are passed forbidding begging on a city’s streets. Bus stops are moved so homeless people are not visible in the center of a city, such as RIPTA’s plan for Kennedy Plaza downtown. Many comfortable middle class people walk by those seeking help without so much as glancing at them.

            When I stop and speak with someone standing on a street corner, or sleeping in our yard, I often hear expressions of gratitude that I saw the individual, acknowledged them, and took time to talk with them. With so many in need rendered invisible by others, there is gratitude for being seen and acknowledged as a person.

            We likely cannot address all the challenges confronting those in economic need or living without a home, but we can acknowledge their presence, treat them as a person, and look at them with eyes of compassion. Like Jesus, we are called to see all people as God’s beloved children. Jesus is ready to open our eyes, healing our blindness caused by privilege. In addition to seeing those in need, we can also share from our abundance, helping them with the many resources God entrusts to us, giving from our abundance to those with less than we have.

            Not seeing people in need is not new. In today’s Gospel, we have the ageless story of a poor man rendered invisible by others. Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, who is blind, sits by the roadside. The world passes by him while he begs for alms. To many he is invisible, of no concern. How many walk by him, ignoring him, or wishing he would disappear?

            When Bartimaeus hears Jesus is approaching, he shouts, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The crowds sternly tell him to be quiet. They don’t want him drawing attention to himself, making a scene. He shouldn’t bother Jesus. They want him to sit on the margins invisible. Even the disciples of Jesus, who just heard Jesus’ teaching to welcome the least and the marginalized, do not speak up in his defense. But the more the crowd tries to silence Bartimaeus, the louder he cries out.

            Unlike the crowd, Bartimaeus is not ignored by Jesus. Jesus listens to the cries of Bartimaeus and calls for him. Bartimaeus springs up with enthusiasm and goes to Jesus. Bartimaeus has strong faith, believing Jesus will have mercy on him, and can restore him to health and belonging in the community. Coming to Jesus, Bartimaeus casts off his cloak. This is his only possession, essential for keeping warm as he sits by the side of the road. Bartimaeus gives up everything he has. to come to Jesus.

            Jesus asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” This seems an odd question to ask. Jesus can see Bartimaeus is blind. Jesus knows he is begging for alms. Why doesn’t Jesus simply heal his blindness and give him food?

            Jesus offers Bartimaeus something important by asking this question. Jesus recognizes the full humanity and personhood of Bartimaeus. To Jesus this man is not a beggar, he is not simply a man who cannot see, nor is he invisible. To Jesus Bartimaeus is a person.

            Jesus sees Bartimaeus as fully human and invites him to express his heart’s desire. Jesus respects Bartimaeus by listening to him. In answer to Jesus’ question, Bartimaeus replies he wants his sight restored. Jesus heals him, saying, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately Bartimaeus is healed, but instead of going on his way, he follows Jesus. Bartimaeus is the only person in the Gospel who, after being healed, follows Jesus. Others Jesus heals go on their way.

            At first glance, this passage is a healing story, about the restoration of physical sight. A blind man comes to Jesus, asking to see again, and Jesus heals him. But there is more to this story. This section of Mark’s Gospel is framed by the healing of two people who are blind. It opens with an account of a blind man being healed and it ends with this story of Bartimaeus. In between these two healing miracles, Jesus predicts his death and resurrection in Jerusalem, and the disciples fail to understand. They fail to see who Jesus is and understand his mission. In their blindness, the disciples don’t see who Jesus is.

            When Jesus predicts his impending passion the first time, Peter says, “Lord, forbid it!” When Jesus predicts his passion the third and final time, James and John ask if they can have seats at his right and left in glory. When Jesus teaches that following him means welcoming the least, the disciples want to stop people bringing children to Jesus to bless. When Jesus says that in his kingdom the first will be last and the last first, and the greatest of all will be the servant of all, Bartimaeus is told to keep quiet and kept from Jesus.

            The disciples, who have physical sight, fail to see who Jesus is. They do not understand his mission, they fail to grasp his call to discipleship. Though Bartimaeus does not have physical sight, he is the one who “sees” who Jesus is. Baritmaeus understands what Jesus is doing, he has faith in the power Jesus has to restore all things according to God’s love and justice.

            Because Bartimaeus, the man literally blind, is able to see who Jesus is and the promise he brings, through him we glimpse God’s intention for creation. Through a man shunned and silenced by the crowd, the power of God’s love to restore and heal is revealed.

            This image of restoration of all creation, of the promise of God’s love in the midst of despair and hopelessness, is echoed in our first lesson from the prophet Jeremiah. To the people in exile, Jeremiah offers words of consolation and hope. Jeremiah proclaims, “Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations.” 

            Jeremiah tells the people God will gather them from all places of exile and bring them home, restoring the people. He says, “See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here.”

            In their return journey, they will travel by brooks of water and their path will straight and easy to walk. Their weeping will be consoled by God. As today’s Psalm says, “Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.” All exiles will be restored, all people brought to wholeness.

            Through Baritmaeus’ faith, God’s promise of wholeness and restoration is revealed and God’s intention for creation is expressed. A man invisible to those around him is important in the revelation of God’s promise. A man unable to see the world around him, sees the truth of God’s reign manifest in Jesus and his ministry.

            Like the disciples, Jesus invites us to allow him to open our eyes, so we see the world with God’s vision, glimpsing God’s promise of a world restored, a world where no one is invisible, no one is silenced, a world where all are welcome, valued, and loved.

            Jesus calls us to him, asking us what we want him to do for us. May we respond by springing up, using every fiber of our energy and our will to come to him. May we ask him to open our eyes and our hearts, that we see as he sees, that we love as he loves. May we see every person, and all creation, through the eyes of God’s love.

            After Jesus is raised from the dead, his disciples at last see him as he is. Through the power of the Holy Spirit poured out on the Day of Pentecost, they go into the world proclaiming the risen Jesus, doing the work he did, giving all of their lives to following him. Like Jesus, they healed the sick, preached hope to the despairing and marginalized, and raised the dead. Many were martyred for their witness.

            Through the power of the same Spirit, may we see with resurrection eyes. May the privilege that blinds our sight fall from our eyes. May we follow Jesus with the strength of God’s Spirit poured out on Pentecost. May we give our lives over to following Jesus, standing in solidarity with those who are silenced, invisible, voiceless, and marginalized. Through our witness to God’s love, may God’s justice reign, that all people are welcomed, loved, and valued.

            Today Jesus calls us to himself, calling you and me. He looks into our eyes with love and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” How will you answer? Amen.

October 17, 2021

The Calling of the Sons of Zebedee, Arnould de Vuez (1644-1720). Public Domain.

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

            Two of the first disciples called by Jesus are the brothers James and John. Jesus meets them on the shore of the Sea of Galilee when they are fishing with their father Zebedee. They are prosperous fishermen, having resources to hire men to work with them. Jesus calls the brothers and immediately they leave behind their father and their nets and follow him.

            James and John, along with Peter, form an inner circle with Jesus. They are a trusted group, present with Jesus at important moments in Jesus’ life and ministry. They witness his transfiguration on the mountain top; they are with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he dies.

            The sons of Zebedee are with Jesus from the time Jesus calls them while fishing, through his death and resurrection. They are enthusiastic followers of Jesus. They are strong willed. Jesus nicknames them “Boangese,” which translates as the “Sons of Thunder.”

            In today’s Gospel, James and John attempt to use their close association with Jesus to their advantage. They come Jesus and say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” without telling Jesus any details. Jesus does not answer if he will agree to their request, but instead asks what they want him to do. They answer, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

            We don’t know exactly why they ask Jesus this, nor why they ask at this moment. Maybe they feel that, being the inner circle of disciples, they have a right to these places of honor. Perhaps they sense things are going to change, since soon they will be in Jerusalem. Maybe they feel pressure to secure their future now, reserving their exalted places, before they arrive in the city.

            The two verses before today’s passage give us a clue. In them, Jesus predicts his passion for the third — and final — time in Mark’s Gospel. These verses begin, “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.” Those traveling with Jesus are amazed and afraid. We are not told of what they are afraid. Perhaps they sense things will change for the worse when they reach Jerusalem.

            Perhaps out of fear James and John hope to secure their places for the future. If Jesus agrees to it, there may be safe when things get difficult. When fearing the future, one may have a prime focus on security. This may be true for James and John. They may see a promise from Jesus as their path to a secure future.

            Mark goes on to explain why the disciples are afraid and amazed. Jesus takes the twelve aside and tells them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”

            Throughout Mark, the disciples do not understand his predictions of his suffering and death. In these verses Jesus uses the clearest terms to describe what awaits them in the city. Hearing this, the disciples begin to understand enough to be fearful of the future.

            This passion prediction of Jesus is followed immediately with today’s Gospel in which James and John ask for places with Jesus in glory, one at his right, the other at his left. Their request is reasonable by the ways of the world. Those who are closest to leadership and power benefit the most. Knowing people in positions of authority can be helpful, especially in times of uncertainty and upheaval. Knowing the “right people” can help in times of need. But Jesus makes clear that his ways are not like the ways of the world.

            Jesus asks James and John if they are ready to go the way he is going? Are they ready to experience what he will experience? Jesus refers to his suffering, torture, and death. Jesus asks if these brothers are prepared to experience what he will experience? They say they are. Jesus tells the brothers they will experience a death like his — and they both do in the future, after Jesus’ resurrection — but who sits at his right hand and his left is not his to give.

            James and John do not know that a short time after this conversation, there will be two men with Jesus, one at his right and one at his left. But they will not be the brothers James and John seated with Jesus in glory. Instead it will be the two bandits crucified with Jesus. In Mark’s account, the bandits mock and taunt Jesus from their own crosses. These are the two men on either side of Jesus when he reigns in glory from the cross.

            Jesus teaches his disciples what it means to follow him. Jesus calls his followers to living in ways at odds with the world. Following Jesus does not bring the accolades, privilege, riches, and power of the world. Glory is not found in places of honor. This way of Jesus doesn’t secure the best seats and positions of prestige. Rather, following Jesus is a call to servanthood.

            Jesus tells his disciples, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

            Jesus calls his followers to reject and overturn the practices of the world. To follow Jesus is to welcome the “little ones,” the least, the forgotten, and the powerless. Following Jesus overturns the unjust structures of our world. In Jesus’ way of love the last become first and the first last. The mighty are cast down and the lowly exalted.

            Following Jesus is the call to loving servanthood, to complete solidarity with the least. Following Jesus is rejecting power exercised over others; refusing to control and exploit others; it refuses to see everything, material objects as well as people, as a commodity with economic value.                

            As followers of Jesus, we are called to resist all hierarchies of domination and subordination, and instead building communities of love and mutuality. To follow Jesus means treating all people as God’s beloved children, rejecting the world’s practice of seeing some as insiders and others as outsiders, some as worthy and others as unworthy.

            One commentary on today’s lessons offers this reflection: “God’s people are called to be a unique, peculiar, alternative society, displaying a ‘revolutionary subordination’ by embracing behaviors typically perceived as weak or foolish — like turning the other cheek, going the second mile, giving up your coat, washing feet, sharing wealth, welcoming strangers, and loving enemies.”[1]  

            Jesus calls his followers to the servanthood he lived in his earthly ministry. This life is nothing short of the way of the cross. Walking the way of the cross requires all our energy, all our enthusiasm, and all our will. To go this way, all of our being must be given over to Jesus, dedicated to following him.

            Doing so requires giving our entire hearts over to the power of God’s love, to the love that names us beloved and has power to transform us, leading us away from our fear and self-interest, to being a people who give their lives away serving others. Living this way leads Jesus’ followers to find their deepest joy, meaning, and purpose, even to experience true abundant life.

            Our Gospel today reminds us to follow Jesus is to walk his way of the cross, just as it was for his disciples on that road to Jerusalem. In Jesus’ way of love the cross is not primarily about individual forgiveness, Jesus dying for my sins, so I can enter heaven. Nor is taking up our cross the call to shoulder the burdens of this world. It is not only a call to self-denial or an acceptance of the sufferings we experience in our lives.

             The cross is a way of life, a profound call to be a holy people, a community that is a blessing to one another and the world. Walking the way of the cross is a journey we make together, as the body of Christ in this place. Our call, as a community, is to live by God’s love, embracing the humble, loving service of Jesus.

            Doing so, we become a community that lives an alternative to the domination of our world. We live trusting the power of God’s love to transform our hearts and our world. Following the way of the cross, we offer to the forgotten a place of belonging. For those who are suffering and hurting, we can be a community of healing, sharing the promise of God’s love. Following Jesus, we can be a community that does not live by fear, seeking our own security and safety, but instead lives by giving everything away for love, trusting this is the path to true, abundant, and eternal life.

            I close with the Prayer of St. Francis. It is my earnest prayer and hope for us, and for all who follow Jesus. Let us pray.

            Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is

            hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where

            there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where

            there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where

            there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to

            be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand;

            to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is

            in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we

            are born to eternal life. Amen.[2]


[1] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Batch 3. Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 173.

[2] A Prayer Attributed to St. Francis, Book of Common Prayer, p. 833.

October 10, 2021

Heinrich Hofmann, “Christ and the Rich Young Ruler”, 1889. Public domain.

A sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture lessons are available here (Track II).

            Last week we again held the Blessing of the Animals. We had to cancel this event last year because of the pandemic. It was wonderful to once again gather on our lawn, parishioners and people from the community, along with several dogs and even two intrepid cats.

            The Animal Blessing takes place each year on the Saturday closest to the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. Francis is known for having a special relationship with animals and is said to have preached to the birds. Our statue of St. Francis in the Memorial Garden shows a bird sitting on his shoulder as if listening to him.

            While known for his love of creation, other parts of Francis’ story are less well known, in particular his life of intentional poverty. Francis was born into a wealthy family, the son of a prosperous merchant. As a young man, his encounters with those who were poor begging for alms moved his conscience.

            Much to his father’s unhappiness, Francis renounced all material possessions and devoted himself to serving the poor. He no longer owned any material goods, wore simple clothing, and ate what was given to him. His radical commitment to poverty and serving the poor gained him followers, but most found it difficult to live as he did. The official Episcopal Church biography of Francis says, “Of all the saints, Francis is the most popular and admired, but probably the least imitated; few have attained to this total identification with the poverty and suffering of Christ.”

            Among the most challenging teachings of Jesus are those about wealth. Jesus says more about giving away wealth and serving the poor, than he does anything else. Yet, his followers through the centuries have struggled to follow his way. Much of what Jesus says about the dangers of wealth are overlooked or explained away.

            In today’s Gospel Jesus teaches about the dangers of wealth. A rich man runs up to Jesus, kneels before him, and says, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” In Mark’s telling of this story, there seems an urgency about the man. He likely sees himself as important, moving quickly through his day, doing many important things. The rich man addresses Jesus with flattery, calling him good. It sounds like the beginning of a business conversation. Jesus, however, is not impressed, and reminds the man only alone God is good. Flattery does not work with Jesus.

            The man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to follow the commandments, citing six of the ten commandments. The rich man says he has kept these from his youth. Jesus  says to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man goes away sad, for he has many possessions. He cannot give away what he has, so he does not follow Jesus.

            In this passage Jesus sees this man just as he is. Jesus sees into his heart, knowing wealth is important to him. Jesus knows the man must give up his wealth to free his heart. Jesus looks at the man and loves him, has compassion for him, but Jesus knows the difficult work the man must do. Jesus speaks to him with love, but also with truth.

            Jesus explains to his disciples it is hard for those with wealth to enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus compares it to a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Through the centuries many have debated what Jesus means by this. One Medieval explanation was that Jesus referred to a gate in Jerusalem where, if a camel knelt, it could just squeeze itself through the gate.               

            Because Jesus’ words are so difficult, many have tried to explain them away. But scholars today believe Jesus meant exactly what he said. He offers the largest animal known at that time, the camel, and the smallest known opening of his day, the eye of a needle, to illustrate the difficulty of the rich entering the kingdom of heaven. Like a camel going through the eye of a needle, it is simply impossible.

            Jesus knows how riches have power to take hold of the human heart. He understands the rich man is “possessed by his possessions.”[1] Jesus also knows the man misunderstands the nature of God’s reign and the call to discipleship. The rich man views eternal life as something he can possess, that can be inherited, like other property. The man wants Jesus to tell him the concrete things he must do to acquire it, just as he acquired his property.

            Jesus knows the realities of first century life, how rich men grow rich because of the land they owned. This land was often taken from the poor for indebtedness. It was handed down from one generation to another, building wealth over time. We see Jesus understands this by the list of commandments he cites. Jesus replaces the commandment “You shall not covet” with “You shall not defraud.” This is because the man has benefited from defrauding the poor.

            Jesus knows this man’s wealth comes to him on the backs of the poor. Jesus calls the man to free himself by selling what he owns and making restitution by giving the proceeds to the poor. This would free the man’s heart from the hold of his possessions by righting a wrong, helping those he defrauded. By making reparations, the man would be free to follow Jesus as his disciple. Sadly, the rich man can’t bring himself to do so. His wealth has a very tight grip on his heart.

            This story reminds us Jesus calls for all injustice to be overturned. To follow Jesus as his disciple is to reject the unjust practices of this world. Disciples must not engage in practices of oppression or exploitation. These practices must be repented of, and restitution made, in order to follow Jesus.

             Jesus calls for economic justice. How often when we hear his call do we think this is impossible, that the systems of our world are structured as they are, and some will always be rich and others poor? Certainly Jesus’ vision seems as elusive and impossible today as it was for the rich man who knelt before him so long ago.

            This is a long holiday weekend. Some celebrate Columbus Day, remembering Italian American culture. Locally this includes the festival on Federal Hill. Others keep Indigenous Peoples’ Day, recalling how the arrival of Columbus began a genocide of Native People and theft of their lands, including here in RI.

            Land theft and racial segregation are historically part of life here in Providence. In the Colonial period free African Americans lived in neighborhoods with lower rents that attracted a mix of free blacks, new immigrants, and poor whites. Diverse peoples lived together amicably in the same neighborhoods.

            In the 19th century tensions grew in these neighborhoods, erupting in two race riots, one in 1824, the other in 1831. Both happened not far from here. The first was in a neighborhood known as Hardscrabble, located where University Heights is today. The other in Snow Town, site of the Marriott Hotel today. In both of these riots, innocent African Americans were attacked and their homes burned by whites. Many homes were destroyed. Many African American families were displaced, losing their property, and Providence neighborhoods became more segregated, divided by race.

            What began with these local race riots, continues to the present. Discriminatory housing policies favoring whites were enacted, ensuring segregated neighborhoods. The effects continue to be felt today. Because of gentrification, fewer African Americans own homes in Mt Hope now than in 2000. More families find it difficult to afford their homes. More properties are purchased by out of state developers as an investment. Those benefitting from this unjust system pass their economic wealth on through inheritance, building wealth through generations.

            Little has changed since the time of Jesus. The world is still structured unjustly, with predatory economic systems in place. In this unjust reality Jesus proclaims God’s intention that justice reign. In the kingdom of God there will be no rich and poor. In God’s reign all will have enough. None will hoard more than they need, depriving others.      

            Reflecting on the realities in our neighborhood, I wonder what Jesus is saying to us in this parish? How are we called to respond to racially unjust housing practices in our era? How are we called to renounce the ways of this world, following Jesus in opposing economic exploitation and oppression? How much do we need to live and how much should we give away for the well-being of others? What is the place of reparations for Native Americans and African Americans in our nation, state, and our diocese? What grips our hearts, needing release, for us to follow Jesus’ invitation and call?

            Jesus calls us to a difficult journey. Jesus does so knowing exactly what we need to open our hearts to him. Jesus calls us with his abundant compassion and love, looking into our eyes, beckoning us to follow him. He promises if we do, we will know life far richer than anything our possessions offer. We will be free to live by love and generosity. We will be part of a new community, a people who work to transform this world by God’s justice. This demanding call of Jesus may seem impossible, but Jesus reminds us that with God all things are possible. Amen.


[1] Ched Myers, Say to this Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, Kindle location 2283.

October 3, 2021

Adam and Eve, Russian Lubock woodcut, 1792. Public domain.

A sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are available here (Track II).

            As Episcopalians, our Anglican tradition dates to the 16th century and is an expression of a “middle way” between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. We have strands of both traditions, uniquely combined in what we call Anglicanism. From our Protestant roots we inherited the importance and centrality of scripture.

            Scripture is so important for us as Anglicans, that at every ordination the ordinand states, “I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation” (BCP p. 526). The one being ordained then signs this declaration in front of the bishop and all present.

            Scripture “contains all things necessary to salvation,” but we need to be discerning in understanding what scripture says to us. We have a particular way of engaging and interesting scripture. We do not proof text, using particular verses to justify our practices. Rather, we look at the sweep of the entire scriptural record, seeking the larger truths it reveals to us. We look to the whole of scripture to tell us about the nature of God and our identity as God’s creatures.

            Sometimes we have to search deeply to find the truth being revealed in a particular passage. Some passages can be difficult for us reconcile with what we know of God and how Jesus reveals God to us. Especially for people at the margins, there are passages of scripture that are quite difficult, and cause pain.

            Today’s scripture lessons include two passages that many people wrestle with, struggling to find the revelation of God’s truth within them. The lesson from Genesis is difficult for LGBTQ people. In declaring God created humanity male and female, so that a man leaves his father and clings to his wife, those in same gender relationships find themselves excluded from this text. We have heard these words used to argue against marriage equality, narrowly understanding marriage as only between a man and woman.

            Those who are transgender likewise find this passage from Genesis difficult. Because it embraces a gender binary, declaring humanity either male or female, there is little room for those who do not identify with this binary either-or, but experience a diversity of gender expression. This text has been used to argue against transgender people naming for themselves their own gender identity.

            Likewise for women, this part of Genesis has been used to justify men wielding power over women in abusive ways. The argument goes that because the first woman was made by removing a rib from the first man, women are thus inferior to men, even subservient to men. This passage is used to suggest men are the superior creature.

            And our Gospel today causes many to wrestle with the words of Jesus. It seems in this passage he is condemning divorce, judging anyone who has divorced and married again. I know from experience that every three years when we read this passage, it raises questions.

            So what are we to do with passages like these two? Where is the good news for those of us who are LGBTQ, who do not fit within a gender binary, for women? What is Jesus saying to those who are divorced? Is there good news to be found in these texts?

            The context of scripture matters. While inspired by God, those who compiled and edited scripture lived within a particular time and context. Parts of scripture are several thousand years old. The Gospel of Mark is likely from the latter part of the first century. It is important we understand the world that produced these texts. These passages may offer us surprising words of hope and liberation if we sit with them, pray about them. Knowing what scholars say about them can be helpful as well.

            Our first lesson today is the second creation account in Genesis. The first, in chapter one, is the familiar account of the six days of creation. God speaks creation into being from the watery chaos and creates all creatures. After each day of creation, God pronounces what is made “good.”           

            By contrast, this second creation account, from chapter two, opens with God saying, “it is not good.” It is not good that the man is alone. God has created the man from the dust of the earth. God is in relationship with the man. God created the animals to be in relationship with the man. Despite these relationships, the man is still alone.

            God sees the man is lonely, not what God desires for him. God realizes it is not good for the man to be the only human. He needs a creature of his own kind. So God creates the first woman from one of the man’s ribs. We can hear joy in the man’s words, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” in response to this work of God.

            In the woman, the man now has a partner, one like him, one he knows and understands. Together they are joined as one flesh, as a completeness of creation. They are in a relationship of mutuality and equality, sharing a life together. Together they are in relationship with one another, with God, and with the whole of creation.

            This account teaches us about God’s intention for the marital relationship. It also tells us what God desires for all other human relationships. We are called to mutuality, to sharing life. Our relationships should bring us joy by their mutuality, embodying an awareness we are all created of the same matter by God. We are to rejoice in our similarity and how we compliment one another. There is no room for power exercised over another.

            Phyllis Trible, feminist biblical scholar, in a 1973 article debunked the notion of man’s superiority and affirmed the mutuality God intends. Trible wrote of this passage from Genesis, “Man has no part in making woman. He exercises no control over her existence: He is neither participant nor spectator nor consultant at her birth. Like man, woman owes her life solely to God. To claim that rib means inferiority or subordination is to assign the man qualities over the woman which are not in the narrative itself. Superiority, strength, agressiveness, dominance, and power do not characterize man in Genesis [Chapter] 2.”[1]

            In today’s Gospel Jesus refers to this passage from Genesis Chapter 2. He mentions it in response to the Pharisees who hope to trap Jesus in a debate about divorce. They are interested only in the legal aspect—what is allowed under the law—not any question of morality. In the first century, rabbis had different interpretations of the law regarding divorce. The Pharisees hope to draw Jesus into this debate, getting him to choose a side, trapping him in a position that will discredit him.

            Jesus knows what the Pharisees are up to and he does not fall for their trap. He ignores the legal question of divorce under the law. Instead, Jesus offers a call to justice and equality. Under the law, a man is allowed to divorce his wife, with cause, or without any reason at all. Once divorced, a woman had little way of supporting herself and her children. She would most likely become a social outcast, destitute and living in poverty.

            Jesus points to the Genesis passage to highlight God’s intention that marriage be a relationship of mutuality and equality that does not end. In marriage, two people are joined as one flesh, and they should not be separated. Their life should mirror the unending and faithful love God has for humanity and all of creation.

            Jesus points to Genesis, calling men to take seriously their marriage. Men should not divorce their wives for frivolous reasons. Men have a responsibility to respect, value, and care for their wives, not casually divorcing them, sending them into a life of poverty and shame. Jesus also offers a radical new teaching: that women can divorce their husbands, something not taught by the rabbis. Jesus implies that women are equals of men, not objects for the use of men.

            In this Gospel reading Jesus is not condemning all divorce. He is not condemning what we understand as divorce. In our day, people marry with good intentions, entering the covenant of marriage making promises to be in relationship for life. But over time things happen, relationships change, and they end. This is a cause for sadness, but not for God’s judgment. Jesus condemns the abuse of power when men treat women not as their equal but as a possession. Jesus calls us to live by mutuality, lovingly sharing power, and caring for those who are vulnerable.

            Our lessons today, while difficult for many of us, do ultimately hold a truth: they remind us of God’s intention for humanity. God creates us for relationship, to live in communion with God, with one another, and with all of creation. We are to practice mutuality in all our relationships, never using power against another. We are called to see all people embody a shared humanity, understanding others are bone of our bones, all humans created by God.

            We are called by Jesus to receive the least and vulnerable, especially little children and those forgotten and excluded, welcoming them, protecting them. We are to work for justice, keeping safe those who are at risk, those who are exploited, and those who are abused. We are called by Jesus to open our hardened hearts by walking in God’s love. We are to live by God’s great dream for creation, a dream that all beings live in the joy of mutuality and shared responsibility. God’s dream may seem impossible or at least unrealistic, but it is our call. Through the power of the Holy Spirit we can live this holy calling moment by moment.

            May we allow the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts and our wills, that we walk in the way Jesus walks, in his path of humble, loving service. May all our relationships embody God’s intention, so we become icons of God’s love, windows through which others glimpse God’s love, that we offer a witness of loving hope to the world. Amen.


[1] https://summerstudy.yale.edu/sites/default/files/02trible_genesis.pdf

September 26, 2021

Moses Pleading with Israel, illustration from a Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company. Public domain.

A sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are available here (Track II).

            As people attending church regularly, we experience God as active within the church. We encounter God through scripture, sacraments, and in gathered community. We listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, keeping open hearts and minds, so God’s call may move us moment by moment by promptings of the Sprit.

            We may, however, unintentionally try to limit or domesticate God. This happens when we see the church as the primary, or even the only, locus for God’s activity. When we do that, we fail to see that God is much broader and more immense than our limited experience and knowledge.

            While God is at work in our lives and in the life of this parish, and the wider church throughout the world, God is also at work in the world at large. God’s kingdom is ushered in through the actions of those outside the church as well. Some people outside the church may intentionally discern the Spirit’s work and call. Others may be indifferent to God, or not know Jesus, and yet God works in and through them, using them as agents building up God’s reign.

            The church must be cautious it doesn’t become a closed group, preoccupied solely with its own identity and work. While this work may be good and holy, and in accord with God’s will, we must not attempt to possess God, understanding God as “ours” alone, or thinking we best know the mind of God.

            In his book, The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church, Reggie McNeal, challenges the church to broader thinking. He warns the church can act like a closed group with a club mentality, expecting people will seek it out, adopting the culture and lifestyle of the church, leaving the church unchanged. Likewise, the church often assumes its members know what’s best for people outside the church. Those already part of the church may expect unchurched people to come and live as the church does, receiving what is offered, and conforming to the church’s identity.

            McNeal offers a challenge to the church. He writes, “The church that wants to partner with God on [God’s] redemptive mission in the world has a very different target: the community.”[1] McNeal suggest just as Jesus went to where people were gathered, getting to know people where they were, learning their stories, hearing their deep longings and needs, so the church must do the same. The church is called to understand that the world around us is hungry to encounter God and God is already present and at work in the world outside the walls of the church’s buildings.

            Living this reality requires church members to meet people outside its membership. The followers of Jesus are called go to where people are, hear their stories, listen attentively to their longings, hopes, and desires. This requires we relinquish control over the conversation and anything that might come from it. We are called to be open to change and transformation in this process. This can be challenging to do.

            We see how challenging living this way can be in our first lesson from the Book of Numbers. Moses is dealing with the grumblings of the people of Israel. There are journeying through the wilderness and they are hungry. They complain that in Egypt they had meat — and fish, cucumbers, leeks, onions, and garlic! The people complain to Moses and Moses complains to God about the people. Moses tells God he can’t carry them alone, it is too much for him.

            The people are experiencing an in-between time. God has freed them from slavery in Egypt and is leading them through the wilderness to the Promised Land. At this moment they are no longer in Egypt but they are not yet in the land God promised them—it will take forty years to get there. Now they are in the uncertainty of a liminal period.

            As they seek meaning in their present dislocation and anxiety, they fall into nostalgia, remembering only the good things of Egypt while forgetting they were enslaved there. They forget God has liberated them and feeds them daily with manna. They lose sight of God’s promise to one day bring them to an abundant land.

            Though they have forget some important things, God hears the people and God listens to Moses. God has compassion on them, telling Moses to select seventy elders and bring them to the tent of meeting. God pours out on the seventy a portion of the same spirit God gave Moses. This spirit allows them to help Moses lead the people so Moses alone does not carry this responsibility.

            For some unknown reason, Eldad and Medad remain in the camp and don’t go to the tent of meeting with the people. Despite this, God’s spirit rests on them and they prophesy. Learning they prophesy, Joshua tells Moses to stop them, but Moses is not concerned with Eldad and Medad. He is not worried they didn’t follow the rules.

            Moses sees the larger picture. He understands Eldad and Medad have received God’s spirit and are prophesying. Moses accepts this and does not control them, but replies, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” Moses sees God at work and imagines what it would be if all people were filled with God’s spirit and acted by God’s will. Moses let’s go of any control and accepts what God is doing in the present.

            There is a similar situation in today’s Gospel. John, one of the disciples closest to Jesus, is concerned by a man he saw casting out a demon in Jesus’ name. This man is not one of Jesus’ followers, so the disciples try to stop him. Jesus, however, is not concerned by this. If one is casting out demons in his name, they are doing good. While not part of the group around Jesus, this man acts in accord with Jesus’ work—healing those afflicted, restoring them to wholeness. What is there to worry about in this?

            Jesus is confident there is power in his name that transforms the one tormented by a demon, and also changes the one pronouncing Jesus’ name for healing. Jesus says, “…no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” Through Jesus’ name transformation happens for all involved. Everyone is changed and brought to wholeness.

            Jesus warns his disciples about getting in the way of God’s work, becoming a stumbling block to a “little one.” Little one can mean someone new in the faith who has just come into the community and is  not strong but vulnerable. Little one can also mean a child. Throughout this part of Mark, Jesus points to children to illustrate his call to embrace a life of humble, loving service. His followers are to be like children, living as those who have the least status and power, are most vulnerable, who are often overlooked or abused.

            Those already part of the community are to do all in their power to support, protect, and nurture the most vulnerable, watching over those not yet strong in their faith. Nothing they do should in any way harm the vulnerable nor impede their growing into mature faith and relationship with the community.

            To illustrate how important this is, Jesus uses strong, even harsh, language. Putting a stumbling block in the way of another, of a little one, is so egregious, Jesus says, “it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” It is so serious a matter, one given such importance by Jesus, it would be better to face utter destruction than be guilty of such an offense.

            Jesus illustrates this point by telling his disciples it is better to cut off a hand, or foot, or to pluck out an eye if it causes one to offend. It is better to enter the kingdom maimed than to be thrown into “unquenchable fire.”  In this dramatic, and gruesome image, Jesus clearly states how serious this matter is.

            Jesus uses an image common in his day. It is also used by Paul in 1 Corinthians and in Romans. The community of Jesus’ followers is seen as a body. The members of the body have various gifts for ministry, each called to particular work and vocation. No part of the body can say another it is not needed. It needs all its parts to live and thrive.

            If a member is becoming a stumbling block, getting in the way of a little one, this must be dealt with. Acting as a stumbling block to another’s faith threatens the well-being of the entire community. It is so serious, the offending member should be removed from the body—cut off from the whole—for the sake of the health of the entire community. Jesus’ call to protect those who are vulnerable is more important that losing one member who threatens anyone’s wholeness and maturity.

            Jesus challenges his followers to embrace a life of humble, loving service, putting the well being of the community before all else, even themselves. He especially concerned with those who have less power and status, who are most at risk of being poorly treated. The community of his followers is not a place to use power over others, especially in an abusive way.

            As followers of Jesus we are called to build communities of justice where power is used in loving service. We are called by Jesus to humble ourselves, becoming the servant of all. We are called by Jesus to do all in our power to create communities where the most vulnerable, those with least status, are welcomed, valued, and protected.

            God’s love is greater than we can fully imagine. The power of God’s love is beyond our comprehension and knowledge. God’s love is work now in this community, and through the church throughout the world. God’s love is also at work and active outside the church, in those who do not gather with this or any faith community.

            May the immense love of God fill us and empower us to fight the injustice of this world. May we be so empowered by the Holy Spirit, that we do all in our power to keep safe all beloved children of God, most especially the least and powerless. May our limited view of God be expanded, that we see God at work in the world around us, in the lives of all people. May the call of Jesus propel us out into the world, seeing what God is up to there. And may we share the good news of God’s liberating and healing love with all we meet. Amen.


[1] The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church, Reggie McNeal (Jossey-Boss, 2003), page 32.


September 19, 2021

The Redeemer High Altar at a Taizé liturgy.

A sermon for the Sunday after Holy Cross Day. The scripture readings are available 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. No longer did the church have to hide in private homes for fear of the Roman authorities, but could build public buildings for worship.         

            In thanksgiving for his military victory, the Emperor Constantine himself undertook a building project in Jerusalem, on the sites tradition associated with Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection on Golgotha. During excavation work, 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 ever since 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. Good Friday focuses on the passion of Jesus, his terrible suffering and death on the cross, and the evils humanity perpetrates that place him on the cross.

            On Holy Cross Day we focus less on the passion of Jesus, and more on the cross itself, on the victory of the cross, how an awful instrument of capital punishment, used by the Roman Empire to punish insurrectionists, becomes the instrument of our salvation. On Holy Cross Day we commemorate the victory Jesus won on the cross for us; how the cross is the means we are set free from the power of sin, evil, and even death.

            Following Jesus the 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 by 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, to share in the victory of his cross. The cross gives meaning to all suffering and pain, assuring us Jesus walks with us in these trials.

            As a parish dedicated to Jesus the 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” and is a time to give thanks for the many blessings God has generously bestowed on this parish. This is a day to give thanks for the mission and ministry God entrusts to us. And it is a time to ask what God calls us to undertake, discerning where God leads us.

            This is a day not only to look to the future, but also to remember our past, telling 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 renting pews. Those without the financial means to pay pew rent, could not attend church. The Redeemer was the first church in the state, of any denomination, to abolish pew rent so all could attend, regardless of financial ability. 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 dismantle systemic racial oppression and white supremacy. The Vestry named anti-racist work a parish priority, one we continue to actively engage.

            These efforts are 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, that we are called to love as God loves us, welcoming others as we would welcome Jesus, that we are 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 sold the first church on North Main Street. The new church on Hope Street was built and the parish moved 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 read it on our history, and we know it because we are here today, more than a century later.

            This is not to say life on Hope Street has always been easy. Without pew rent, new funding streams were necessary. Throughout our history rectors have warned of the need for financial support.

            While our history is silent about it, the parish also faced the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. I regularly wonder what this experience 100 years ago was like. Coming just a year after building the new church and moving to Hope Street, it must have challenged the parish. I can only wonder how.

            We may not know the impact of that pandemic on this parish, 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 continued to discern God’s call to them and undertook the hard work they were given to do.

            This is our second Redeemer Day in our own pandemic time. Life has been very different since March 2020. We have been changed. The parish has been changed. I doubt we understand exactly how yet. What is certain is God is faithful. God sustains us through this time of suffering, death, economic challenge, and dislocation. As a parish we have sought to hear God’s call to us, embracing new ways of being church, using technologies not available to our ancestors. This Redeemer Day, as we gather outdoors, there are untold numbers watching the livestream of this liturgy on social media, keeping Redeemer Day with us virtually.

            Recently I was reminded of how richly blessed this parish is. At its last meeting, the Liminal Group listed the many ways we continue to be church even now, when so much is different. This exercise was humbling, it was moving, it made me proud to serve such a vibrant parish as the Redeemer. In the coming weeks the Liminal Group will share their reflections with you. I hope they move and inspire you as well, reminding us God is at work even now, in the pandemic.

            God calls us to holy work now, just as God did our ancestors a century ago. Like them, may we be attentive to God through prayer and deep listening. Standing upon the strong foundation laid by our ancestors in this parish, let us risk everything for the Gospel, never wavering from our commitment to welcome all people. May we never shrink back from the holy risks God asks of us, remembering God gives us all we need to do answer God’s call.

            As Jesus urges in the Gospel today, let us walk in the light of Christ. Jesus is the Light the darkness will never overcome. The light of Christ will never be extinguished. 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 always act in his Name. Amen.

September 12, 2021

“Get behind me, Satan,” James Tissot (1836-1902). Public domain.

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

            Perhaps you have heard someone say, “We all have our cross to bear.” Maybe you have described a difficult situation as your “cross to bear.” Some describe a difficult situation this way. This implies it is a situation one must face and endure. This saying can provide meaning. It hearkens back to Jesus taking up his cross and going willingly to his passion.

            But too often in history the marginalized, especially those with less power, such as women, LGBTQ people, and Black and other people of color, are told to accept their plight as their rightful place in this life, by taking up their cross. That through their suffering, they will come to the fullness of heaven. This teaching enshrines systems of injustice and abuse, rather than dismantling them.

            Too often Christians have personalized and limited the reality of the cross. We have defined too narrowly the path to which Jesus calls us. We misunderstand who Jesus is and try to limit the costly discipleship, the full commitment, to which he calls us. Taking up our cross never involves negating our personhood, experience, or human rights. The cross never calls for sacrificing oneself, one’s personhood, to maintain an unjust system. The cross never supports injustice or abusive situations.

            Following Jesus means walking his way of love. It is loving God, and our neighbor as ourself. We are never called to deny our God-given personhood or accept abusive or oppressive situations. Jesus calls us to love ourselves, becoming who God makes us to be.

            Describing a personal trial or injustice in these ways makes the cross about us as individuals, comparing our afflictions with the suffering of Jesus in his passion. It suggests that if we press on, we can get through this challenge just as Jesus endured his. All suffering finds meaning and redemption in the suffering of Jesus, in his death and resurrection. But the cross is far more than enduring a trial, whether large or small, personal or systemic. The cross is about something much greater than an individual. The cross is of cosmic import. Walking the way of the cross is life changing, transformative. It reorders this world. It is the path of true life in God.

            In today’s Gospel, Peter finds his vision is too narrow. His understanding of Jesus is too limited. Peter doesn’t understand what Jesus is about. The passage opens with Jesus asking the disciples who people say Jesus is. They report what they have likely heard: some think Jesus is John the Baptist, others Elijah, or one of the prophets.

            Then Jesus asks the disciples this question: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” This seems like a good answer, even the correct answer. It might be how any one of us would answer the question if Jesus asked us. In Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus praises Peter’s answer, saying it is from God, divinely inspired.

            In Mark, however, Jesus offers no such praise for Peter. Instead, Jesus immediately follows Peter’s reply by predicting his passion, teaching he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected…and be killed, and after three days rise again.” This teaching does not sit well with Peter. Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Peter rejects the notion of the Messiah being handed over to suffering and death.

            Jesus’ response to Peter is startling. He rebukes Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” What happened here? How did Peter quickly move from being so right to being so wrong? What did Peter misunderstand?

            As Jesus says, Peter has his mind on “earthly things” not “heavenly.” His thinking is framed by the ways of the world, not the ways of God. In first century Palestine, the Messiah was understood as a royal figure, of the line of King David, who would one day overturn the occupation of Imperial Roman and restore the people of Israel. Oppression by this foreign power would be ended.

            In Peter’s understanding of Messiah, there is no room for betrayal, suffering, and death. If the Messiah is handed over and killed, the people will not be freed from foreign control and occupation. Peter believes that the righteous Messiah, following God’s will, will prevail over the people’s enemies. Through power and violence the enemy can be overthrown and God’s purposes accomplished. This idea is not Peter’s alone, or exclusive to his time, but is seen throughout history as nations invoke God to destroy their enemies in war or crusades.

            Peter gets into trouble because Jesus rejects this understanding of Messiah. He has not come to lead an armed uprising against the power of Rome. As Messiah, Jesus will not use violence to resist his persecutors. He will not accomplish God’s purposes with military might.

            Jesus practices non-violence. Jesus teaches to forgive our enemies; to turn the other cheek; to love those who hate and persecute us; to forgive those who wrong us. When Jesus is arrested, he resists Peter’s use of the sword to save him. Jesus goes willingly to his death, loving those who harm him. For Jesus, the enemy is not Rome, but is violence itself. Jesus rejects the human impulse to lash out at those who hurt us. Jesus does not pursue the human desire for revenge. He never uses violent means for a greater good.

            Jesus is the Messiah who loves so deeply as to go willingly to his death. He gives up his life for love. Jesus rejects all oppressive systems that exercise power over others. Jesus refuses to live by the world’s forces of greed and violence.

            Jesus is not the conquering Messiah, but the Suffering Servant laying down his life for the people in love. Jesus takes up his cross because he will not abandon love. Through his way of love God’s reign is ushered in. Through his way of love even the power of sin and death are defeated forever.

            Jesus calls his followers to make a commitment to his way of love. to the way of the cross. Those who follow Jesus are to give themselves over to love, to the total and complete love of God, neighbor, and self. The way of the cross rejects all violence, forgives all who wrong, refuses to seek revenge. Jesus’ way of love is stronger than all evil and the power of death.

            The way of the cross leads to Jesus’ passion and death because the powers of this world are threatened by the love of Jesus. They recognize it has the potential to overturn everything they believe in and benefit from. Jesus is killed by the political authorities because his way of love threatened the way the world operates.

            Jesus knows if his followers love as he does, living the way he does, they too will be at odds with the powerful of this world. It is no accident the prophets who preached God’s love were killed. Most of the disciples were martyred. To follow Jesus is to reject the ways of this world by rejecting all systems of oppression and injustice. Following Jesus requires we seek to transform the evil of our world, building news systems of justice rooted in God’s love.  This way of Jesus is a total commitment to his way of love. It is the way to true life, to resurrection life, to eternity. Rejecting his call leads only to death.

            The cross is far more than striving to endure when things get tough. It is a total commitment to following Jesus, putting him at the center of our lives. It is the call to love at all costs, even when doing so puts us at odds with the ways of this world by challenging the power structures of our society.

            I have found it challenging reflecting on this Gospel call to take up the cross while our nation observes the 20th anniversary of 9/11. We experienced profound loss and grief in the attacks of that day. Too many innocent people died that Tuesday. Too many people grieve and mourn twenty years later. In response to the attacks of 9/11, this country responded with the War on Terror, invading Afghanistan and Iraq. Many more people died, both military and civilian, have died in this campaign.

            Contemplating the past twenty years leaves me uneasy. How do we, who follow Jesus, interpret these events? Called to walk the way of the cross, is it ever acceptable to pursue military might to punish or avenge? If seriously committed to walking with Jesus the path of non-violence, how do we respond to attacks like those of 9/11?

            I find these difficult and uncomfortable questions. Yet, I can’t help but ask them in light of today’s Gospel, as a follower of Jesus called to walk his way of love. If discipleship is total commitment to following Jesus, that means in all aspects of life. How do we do this in all situations? This Gospel leaves me with more questions than answers, as I wonder about the cost of discipleship, of following Jesus by taking up the cross.

            In the book, Say to this Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, Ched Myers offers more important questions for us to wrestle with: How does Jesus call us to take up the cross and follow him? Where are we called to resist the culture of violence, consumerism, and injustice? What are the possible consequences for following this path? What do we most fear in setting out on this way? And the large question, Who is Jesus for us? How do we answer this question?[1]

            Rather than only words to comfort us when suffering, the charge to take up the cross is very demanding, requiring a complete and total commitment by turning our lives over to Jesus. This way puts us, like Peter before us, at odds with the assumptions and practices of this world. Yet it is the path of true and abundant life. It is the only way to resurrection life.

            Thanks be to God we do not walk this journey alone, but in company with one another in this community and with all who have gone before us. There is strength and wisdom in community. And there is the promise that on this demanding way, we will know the all-embracing, powerful, and self-giving love of God. Filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, we can dare to set out on this path, the road leading to fullness of life with Jesus forever. Amen.


[1] Say to this Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, Ched Myers. (Orbis, 1996). Kindle location 1927.

September 5, 2021

Exorcism of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, Michael Angelo Immanraet. Public domain.

A sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are available here.

            As followers of Jesus, the Gospels are central to us. In the four Gospels we encounter Jesus, the eternal Word. At the Sunday Eucharist (at least in non-pandemic times) the Gospel is proclaimed with ritual and ceremony. The Gospel Book is carried in procession, lifted high by the deacon or priest for all to see; candles accompany the book, representing Jesus who is the Light of the world.

            If you do a close reading and comparison of the four Gospels, it becomes clear each is different. They were formed in four different communities, with different ways of relating the story of Jesus. Each of the communities had its particular emphasis. If one looks at how Jesus is portrayed in each Gospel, these differences emerge.

            Mark’s Gospel shows more of Jesus’ humanity. Mark’s Jesus does not know beforehand what will occur. There is immediacy: the Holy Spirit driving Mark’s Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism so he can contemplate what just happened to him. In the wilderness Jesus wrestles with the meaning of being called “Beloved.” In the barren landscape he comes to understand what this reality means for him. Jesus emerges from the 40 days in the wilderness with an urgent mission to proclaim God’s kingdom. In Mark, Jesus insistently goes about this mission, doing everything “immediately,” urgently single-minded in his focus.

            We regularly talk of the humanity of Jesus, how the Word puts on human flesh in the person of Jesus. We contemplate the horrors and agony Jesus experienced, in his body, when he is tortured and nailed to a cross. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is central to the faith we have received and live. At the Eucharist we gather to receive the body and blood of Jesus, taking into ourselves the abiding presence of God in signs of bread and wine.

            There are, however, some aspects of Jesus’ humanity we do not readily talk about. We sometimes over emphasize his divinity, denying Jesus his full humanity. Perhaps we do so because these aspects make us uncomfortable about our own humanity.

            In today’s Gospel we have such a moment. Just before today’s account, Jesus has been busy teaching, healing, casting out demons, and feeding the multitudes from a few loaves of bread and fish. Mark tells us he travels to Gentile territory, to Tyre and Sidon, in modern day Lebanon. Jesus enters a house and doesn’t want anyone to know he is there. It seems his disciples are not with him. He likely wants to get away from the crushing crowds and get some rest.

            But Jesus cannot escape notice. People clamor to be in his presence, to experience his healing. A Gentile woman learns where Jesus is, and enters the house. She bows down at his feet and asks a favor. She tells Jesus her daughter has a demon and she begs him to heal her.

            Not living in the first century, the scandal of this encounter is lost on us. By the norms of the first century, there is nothing acceptable in the woman’s behavior. According to the practices of that time, an unrelated woman was forbidden to approach a Jewish man in the privacy of a home. Being a Gentile woman makes her behavior even more scandalous. According to the practices of her culture, she should not speak to Jesus. Asking for a favor was certainly out of the question. Yet, this unnamed woman does.

            The response Jesus offers the Gentile woman may be uncomfortable for us to hear. His words may be hard to reconcile with the Jesus we know and follow. Replying to the woman’s request, Jesus insults her, saying, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus makes clear his mission is to those who are Jewish, not to the Gentiles. He does not engage the woman about this question. He dismisses her  with an insult.

            But the unnamed woman does not give up. Rather than go away after Jesus’ insult, she replies, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  The woman has faith that Jesus can help her daughter. She believes he has power over illness. The woman challenges the conventions of her day, acting outside what was considered respectful and proper, when she challenges Jesus. She challenges the definition of who is an insider and who an outsider, insisting Gentiles be included at the table.

            In this exchange something happens to Jesus. He reconsiders, saying to the woman, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” When the woman returns home, Mark tells us she finds her daughter healed.

            This is the only time in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus is not in control of a conversation. The Gentile woman is the only person who wins a verbal exchange with Jesus. The woman takes Jesus’ words and turns them back on him. And this exchanges serves an important purpose in Mark’s Gospel.

            Just before this passage, Jesus called the Pharisees to broaden their definition of clean and holy, expanding who was welcome at the table. Jesus challenged their narrow definitions of exclusion and welcome. After challenging the narrowness of the Pharisees, now the Gentile woman challenges Jesus to broaden his welcome to include Gentiles at the table, not just to gather the crumbs.

            This encounter with the Gentile woman shows Jesus as a man of his time and context. He speaks from the biases and prejudices of the first century. But the woman’s challenge immediately moves Jesus to a different place. Because of his conversation, Jesus moves from the social norms of his day to embrace a broader view of inclusion. Jesus allows the Gentile woman to challenge his privilege—as a man who is Jewish—for the sake of greater inclusion.

            The story of the Gentile woman is followed by the healing of a man who is deaf and has a speech impediment. Unlike the Gentile woman’s daughter, Jesus has no hesitation healing the Gentile man. Doing so, Jesus disregards the purity code of the Pharisees—challenging their cleanliness teaching—by spitting on his finger and touching the man’s tongue and ears. Then Jesus looks up to heaven, sighs, and says, “Ephphatha,” which means, “Be opened.” Immediately the man is healed, able to hear and speak.

            Mark contrasts the healed man with the Pharisees. The Pharisees are stuck in what they believe is right, in their understanding of how to follow God. Jesus finds them deaf to God’s call and unable to speak God’s truth. In contrast, the Gentile man, who is an outsider, hears God’s call and can speak God’s word. This account calls those who follow Jesus to be opened like the man, letting their ears be unstopped and their tongues loosed. The followers of Jesus are called to hear Jesus and proclaim his good news.

            Because of the Gentile woman’s persistence, Jesus is moved to a place of broader inclusion. We are called to do the same. Jesus calls us beyond the rigid boundaries of our day so we embrace the wide, encompassing love of God. Jesus heals us of our assumptions, of the narrow ways we view other people. Jesus liberates us from the exclusionary views our society teaches us. Jesus challenges us to identify and name our places of privilege, relinquishing our privilege for the sake of those with less privilege and power.

            Those of us who are white are called to the hard work of learning our nation’s history, including here in Rhode Island, and how we benefit from being white, wrestling with the legacy of more than 400 years of chattel slavery and its impact on our society, even today. Knowing this history, we are called to intentionally use our privilege and its power to dismantle the evil of white supremacy. We are to suspend what we think we know and respectfully listen to the stories and experiences of people of color.

            Those of us who are male must see the ways being male gives us privilege in this society, and challenge that privilege. Those of us who are straight are called to see the privilege we possess, privilege not shared by those who are LGBTQ. Those of us who are middle class are to see our economic privilege, how our prosperity comes at the expense of those less well off.

            In today’s Gospel, Jesus shows us how to respond when we are blinded by our privilege. When certain of our position and we misread a situation, Jesus shows us how to proceed. Jesus shows us how to see and hear a person who is different from us.

            Like Jesus, we can allow these moments to change us, learning from them, becoming more. Jesus shows us how to be open to a new way, a way that transforms us into the people God would have us be. Jesus shows us how to embrace the wide love of God so all are welcome at the table. Jesus shows us how to encounter people, seeing and hearing them as they are, embracing their true identity, and allowing ourselves to be changed through the encounter.

            Following Jesus, our witness can be leaven for a nation plunged into partisan divide. When those who disagree vilify one another, and those different from us are seen as a threat to our safety or economic well-being, living by God’s generous love can heal our broken world. When so many people around the world suffer from the unending pandemic, hurricanes and storms, wildfires, war, and the collapse of nation states, the compassionate love of God lived by the followers of Jesus can be a healing balm in a harsh and brutal world.

            The blog Journey with Jesus offers weekly reflections on the Sunday lessons. Reflecting on today’s Gospel, author Debie Thomas challenges us to be open to the fullness of God’s inclusion. She writes, “What would it be like to follow in the footsteps of a Jesus who listens to the urgent challenge of the Other? Who humbles himself long enough to learn what only a vulnerable outsider can teach? What would it be like to stop limiting who we will be for other people, and who we will let them be for us? What would it be like to insist on good news for people who don’t look, speak, behave, or worship like we do?”[1]

            Like Jesus, may we be open to the fullness of God’s inclusive love. May we raise our voices, proclaiming this good news of Jesus for all to hear. May we seek, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to live love’s call, a call extended to all people, and allow ourselves to be changed by God’s broad, all encompassing love. Amen.


[1] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1907-be-opened

August 29, 2021

The Pharisees Question Jesus, James Tissot. Public domain.

A sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are available here (Track II).

            Organizations such as governments, civic groups, and the church, typically are structured by formal rules. Rules articulate how one becomes a member and outline the responsibilities and duties of members. The responsibility of leaders is defined. Rules provide structure, and help create a sense of belonging, of community, with members pledging to live together in a particular way.

            These rules and norms of groups can be positive. Expectations and responsibilities are stated. Transparent processes for the group’s corporate life outlined. Rules may express clear limits on the authority of leaders and include protections for the most vulnerable members, especially those with less power.

            Rules can also can define who is “in” and who is “out”, who is welcome in a group and who is an outsider. Rules can be exclusionary. They may have few safeguards for those who are vulnerable. Rules may enshrine power exercised at the expense of the powerless.

            Rules that exclude and hurt the vulnerable can be enacted deliberately. A group of people can aim to exclude certain kinds of people. The group can decide some people deserve special rights and privileges and others do not because of who they are. 

            Likewise, there are times when a community has rules that unintentionally harm other people. The group does intend to be exclusionary, but there can be unintended consequences imposed by their rules. This may be true despite the group’s best intentions of welcome and inclusion. Rules can become an end in themselves.

            Throughout the Gospels we see this happen. The Pharisees have regular conflict with Jesus about their rules as they discern how to best live the law. It can be tempting for us in the 21st century to see the Pharisees as rigid and blind to what we see as obvious. We may wonder why can’t they understand what Jesus is teaching and doing? Despite the good intentions the Pharisees may have, they do not understand why Jesus disagrees with them. After all, they seek to live faithful lives of holiness, and call the people to do likewise. But as they seek to make sense of the law, their rules lead to exclusionary practices—even to practices that oppress ordinary people.

            In our Gospel reading today, the Pharisees are concerned that Jesus’ disciples do not practice the purity rituals they teach. They criticize the disciples for not washing before eating. The Pharisees wash their hands before each meal. They also wash food from the market, cups, pots, and kettles. They don’t do this for cleanliness, but for ritual purity. This cleansing is, for them, an expression of holiness.

            Jesus responds to their criticism of his disciples by quoting the prophet Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines” (Isaiah 29:13). Jesus concludes with the rebuke, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

            In quoting Isaiah, Jesus is not saying all religious rules are created by humans and therefore not of God and can be ignored. Rather, Jesus is asking the Pharisees something more nuanced: that they consider why they do what they do, and are mindful of the consequences of their teaching. Jesus asks them to consider how God is worshipped by following the purity code, and how the people are edified and strengthened to live lives of holiness through these practices?

            Jesus recognizes the authority of the Torah, the teaching handed down through the ages. Containing the commands God gave through Moses, these teachings were important to Jesus, and he does not dispense with them. Jesus makes clear has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Rather than doing away with the law, Jesus offers a new teaching, one that makes the law more comprehensible. Jesus summarizes the law as loving God with all one’s heart, mind, and soul and one’s neighbor as oneself. Love of God, self, and neighbor with all one’s being is the basis of the entire law. Everything a person does must be rooted in love. All practices must be examined by how they reveal God’s love and bring people closer in relationship with God and one another.

            The purity code of the Pharisees was a teaching, handed down orally, and not part of the Torah. Jesus does not recognize the authority of this teaching, and challenges the Pharisees by calling the purity code “human teaching.” Jesus is concerned this teaching excludes, rather than includes; that it divides people.

            The Pharisee’s purity practices do not build up the people, but place undue burdens on ordinary people. The Pharisees were a kind of “middleman” in the marketplace, overseeing the growing, harvest, and preparation of food, making demands on Galilean peasants. Their insistence on purity rituals, such as washing before eating, excluded Gentiles from their table fellowship. Only those who followed the practice of ritual washing, could eat together. Any who did not were not welcome.

            While this first century debate between Jesus and the Pharisees may seem far removed from us, raising concerns we do not share, I suggest it actually raises important issues for us many centuries later. Like the Pharisees, it is important that we ask why live as we do, why we engage in the practices we do. We are called to be vigilant so our piety, the ways we seek to faithfully live God’s call, does not become an end in itself.

            Living as the body of Christ in the world, we are called to remember what defiles us is not from outside the body. The only defilement comes from within us, from our hearts.  As Jesus says at the conclusion of the Gospel passage, “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

            Jesus calls us to bring our hearts into line with our actions, so all of our being is consumed with, and focused on, the love of God. All we do is to be rooted in God’s love, done for deepening our relationship with God, ourselves, and one another. Our practices ought to build up the body, building a community of love as we worship God and live lives of holiness.

            This call of Jesus is echoed in our Epistle this morning from the Letter of James. This letter emphasizes the Christian life as walking in wholeness and integrity, being single-minded in devotion to God.

            Throughout the letter, which we will read over the next few weeks, James stresses one cannot follow Jesus and live by the standards of the world. Followers of Jesus are called to a different way of life from the ways of the world. Christians are called to a much higher standard. We are called to live as God’s holy people, willing to embrace the tensions this will cause with the society around us.

            James exhorts us to be doers of the word, not just hearers. It is not enough only to listen to the words. We must take them to heart and translate them into action. James tells us we do this by being quick to listen, and slow to speak. James understands the power of words, either to build up a community or to be destructive. In our world today so many are quick to speak, without taking time to listen to others. We are a polarized society, with limited desire to speak across our divisions. May will not listen to those holding differing opinions.

            James reminds those who follow Jesus do not have this luxury. We are called by Jesus to be a community that lives as he lives. We must not let differences divide us. We must not shout across divides. We are to be generous in all things, as God is generous to us, even in how we interact with one another, always generous in respecting and forgiving one another. We are called to listen more than speak, to really hear what others say. We are always to speak from love.

            Called to always act from love, James cautions us about anger. Many people are angry these days. Social media is full of angry comments. Many are quick to shout in anger at those with differing views.              

            Anger certainly has its place, especially as a response to injustice and evil. Anger in the face of evil can motivate a person, or an entire community, to act, not making peace with oppression. This action can lead to change and reform.

            But anger has the potential divide and destroy a community when directed at individuals. As James says, “your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” Lashing out at others in anger divides and alienates; it hurts communities by fracturing relationships. As followers of Jesus, we must be slow to anger, not speaking from anger. We are called to find loving ways to express ourselves, working constructively for the righting of wrongs and the healing of divisions. We are to remember what unites us, namely our identity in Jesus as part of his body, is stronger than any disagreement that divides us.

            James, like Jesus, reminds us we are to live by a higher calling. We are to live by the love of God. This is very demanding. God’s love has no limits, God’s love knows no bounds. God’s love is generously poured out on all, without having been earned or deserved. God’s love builds up and God’s love brings together. God’s love never divides.

            This our holy calling as Christians. As James exhorts us today, we are to live “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God,” religion that wells up into love and care for others, especially the most vulnerable in our midst.

            Through our actions, through the lives we live, through the witness of this community, God’s love can break into this broken and divided world and transform it. Through the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit, we are called to open our hearts, minds, and wills, that God may form us into a loving community, into the body of Christ in this place, witnessing to the world the power of God’s transforming love. Amen.

August 22, 2021

The Redeemer paten with host.

A sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The Scripture readings may be found here (Track II).

I regularly set aside time to be outdoors, enjoying nature. This may be a walk in a city park, or hiking in a state park, a bike ride along the Blackstone River, or visiting a spot near the ocean. When I do these things, I see creatures in their contexts, being themselves, doing what God has created them to do. I have enjoyed watching all manner of birds, rabbits, frogs, sea creatures, and beautiful blooming plants in their glory. I marvel how each creature does what God intends. Each part of creation praises God by being itself as ordered by God.

We also praise God by being who God creates us to be. We are creatures in relationship with God the Trinity—a triune community of love—called to live in relationship with God and one another. We praise God by loving as God loves us, loving God, ourselves, our neighbor, and all of creation. We praise God by being faithful and good stewards of the created order, lovingly caring for all God has made.

I do wonder if things may be more complicated for us than for other creatures. Blessed by God with intellect and free will, it is not always simple for us to just be, praising God by living as God intends. We constantly have choices to make. Moment by moment we must decide how we will act, what we will do, whom we will follow.

Several years ago the Daily Word from the Society of St. John the Evangelist, a community of Episcopal monks in Cambridge, MA expressed exactly this. I often remember its words. Called, “Freedom” it said, “God created us in his image with the capacity to love, and love requires freedom. And with our freedom, we have the capacity to do great evil as well as great good. God took a tremendous risk in making us.”

God indeed took a great risk in creating us! God created us with the capacity to love, and gave us freedom. We have choice. We can choose good or evil. We can choose or reject God. God does not coerce us. God frees us to make choices. God invites us, God comes to us in Jesus, and God waits patiently for us. But God does not force us. God desires we incline our hearts to God by our own free will, offering our love to God freely.

In our lesson today from the Book of Joshua, the people have a choice to make. God appointed Joshua to lead the people of Israel after Moses died. For forty years they have wandered in the wilderness, tested by the harsh conditions. God, through Moses, and later through Joshua, faithfully led the people and cared for them. Through Joshua’s leadership they have defeated other nations so they can take possession of the land God gives them. Their wandering in the wilderness is about to cease as they enter the land.

Before they enter this land, Joshua gathers all the people of Israel at Shechem. Joshua reminds the people of all the Lord God has done for them: calling Abraham and Sarah, creating a great nation from their descendants, though they were unable to have children; delivering the people from slavery in Egypt; leading them through the wilderness for forty years, feeding and sustaining them; defeating their enemies and giving them the land they are about to enter.

At the edge of the Promised Land, Joshua asks the people to chose whom they will serve: the gods of Egypt, the gods of the peoples whose land they will enter, or the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Joshua declares for himself and his household he will serve the Lord God. The people declare they will do the same, serving the Lord God who has delivered them. They promise to walk in the covenant God made with them through Moses on Mt. Sinai. They will turn their hearts, minds, and wills, over to serving God.

What follows the passage we hear today is a description of a liturgy marking the people’s promise at Shechem. Joshua has the people publicly declare their loyalty to God, affirming the covenant, by writing the words of this promise in the book of the law of God. A large stone of witness is set under the oak in the sanctuary of God—the site of God’s presence with the people. This liturgy affirms and ritualizes the promise the people make.

While we have not set a stone of witness to ritualize our choosing to follow and worship God, we do liturgically enact our commitment to God. We do so each time we celebrate the Eucharist. The Eucharist is at the heart of who are as God’s people, as Christ’s body in the world,  a people called, gathered, and formed by the Holy Spirit. 

I have to be honest that preaching on the Eucharist feels odd today. Because of the rain and wind of the hurricane Henri, this week’s outdoor Eucharist is cancelled. I say these words to you during Morning Prayer, not the Eucharist. If there is one thing this pandemic time has taught us, however, is the need for flexibility and creativity. For how many months did we fast from receiving the Eucharist? Even now, though we gather each Sunday the weather allows for the Eucharist in the yard, not all the community is physically present. Many participate virtually.

The past two weeks our scripture readings have been about the Eucharist. I do not want ignore our readings and hope you understand as I preach about the Eucharist on a Sunday we cannot gather and celebrate this feast together. Given how important the Eucharist is for us, it seems important to do this. My hope and prayer is we will gather for the Eucharist next Sunday.

When we are blessed to gather for the Eucharist, we liturgically mark our choice to follow God. Like the people of Joshua’s day we are called to choose whom we will serve. Will we follow the path of our society, treating our spiritual lives as a personal choice, an individual practice? Will we place our trust in material possessions and wealth, seeing all we have as the fruits of our individual effort and labor? Will we place our faith in military power and might, trusting violence and domination will bring about right? Or will we choose God, the creator of all, who loves us so profoundly as to come among us in Jesus? Will we choose to follow Jesus who loves us so deeply as to give his life for us, setting us free from the powers of evil and death through his death and resurrection?

We make Eucharist as a community who promises to follow Jesus. The liturgical rite we enact each week declares our choice for God, forming and strengthening us to live this choice. The ritual liturgical action of the Eucharist affirms we are created by God and dependent on God for everything. We gather as a community called by God to live by thanksgiving, offering our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God.

In the Eucharist we are fed by God in scripture, hearing the Good News of God fulfilled in Christ through the Holy Spirit. We affirm we believe in God by saying the Nicene Creed, proclaiming our faith and trust in God. We offer our prayers to God: for the world, the church, those in need, and ourselves. We confess our sins, acknowledging we are not perfect, that we fall short of God’s call and need God’s mercy and forgiveness. We exchange the Peace, the sign of reconciliation that affirms nothing divides us before we come to the altar, where we receive the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the sign of our unity in Christ.

In the Eucharistic Prayer, the Great Thanksgiving, we offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, as well as bread and wine from God’s creation. We give them in thanksgiving to God for all of God’s gifts lovingly given us. The gifts we offer are transformed by God. The bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus, the presence of Jesus we take into our bodies. The heavenly food of the Eucharist strengthens us to choose, moment by moment, to follow Jesus, opening our hearts and wills to living by his love, becoming the people God creates us to be.

In the Eucharist we are transformed, formed into a people united in Christ, one body called to be Christ’s presence in the world. In our Gospel today Jesus promises us, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” In the Eucharist we are united with Christ. In this sacrament Jesus abides in us. We become what we receive. Like the bread and wine changed into his body, we ourselves become the body of Christ.

The Eucharist is our prime offering of praise and worship to God. In it we proclaim our love of God and our need of God’s care, mercy, and forgiveness. Our liturgical action is rooted in thanksgiving for all God’s blessings given us. In the Eucharist we come together to be formed as God’s people. At the end of the liturgy we are sent out strengthened and renewed to love and serve God in all people we encounter, until we come again to the Eucharist and enact this liturgy that is the foundation of our lives.

In the Gospel reading today many find Jesus’ teaching difficult. Many stop following him. Jesus asks his disciples if they will also go away. Peter answers, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Like the people of Joshua’s day and like the disciples of Jesus, we have a choice. Will we choose God? Will we go away from Jesus? Or will we choose abundant life rooted in relationship with the Trinity? 

What Jesus asks of us can be difficult. It is in conflict with how the world tells us to live. It may contradict what we feel like doing in a given moment. But choosing to follow Jesus is the way to life abundant. Jesus alone has the words of eternal life. Through the power of the Holy Spirit we have strength to say yes, to choose the path of true life, following this way for the entirety of our earthly journey, until at he last we come to fullness of joy in the heavenly banquet. Amen.

August 15, 2021

Adoration of the Lamb, Ghent Altar, Jan van Eyck (c. 1366-1426). Public domain.

A sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost. The Scripture readings may be found by clicking here (Track II).

            This summer has not gone as we all hoped. Back in the spring, with vaccination rates rising, we looked forward to the pandemic receding and returning to activities we gave up. Unfortunately, the Delta variant now afflicts the world, including here in Rhode Island, and has frustrated our hopes. It has forced another season of worry and uncertainty, of mask wearing and distancing. Sadly, transmission and community spread are rising and more people are being hospitalized.

            The Delta variant is surging especially in regions with low rates of vaccination. This has prompted a debate about an individual’s personal freedom versus responsibility for the well-being of the community. Do we exist as individuals or are we a collection of individuals with responsibility of the well-being of others?

            It is not surprising we, as a nation, are engaged in this debate. Our society has always valued personal rights. The individual is important. Personal freedom is important. Capitalism defines each person by how they contribute to the economy and views each as a consumer of goods. All people, just as material goods, are viewed as commodities.

            In an opinion piece in Friday’s NY Times, Jamelle Bouie wades into the debate, writing he believes each person has responsibility for others. He suggests we should act for the common good and not see vaccinations as a personal right. He also says we should not be surprised some feel acting for the well-being of the whole community is an infringement on personal rights.

            Mr. Bouie concludes his piece by saying, “When you structure a society so that every person must be an island, you cannot then blame people when inevitably they act as if they are. If we want a country that takes solidarity seriously, we will actually have to build one.”[1] Our society isolates us into disconnected individuals. In this reality, we should be surprised people live this out.

            The reference to “being an island” remind me of a counter assertion by the Anglican priest and poet, John Donne, who wrote “No man is an island.” As a Christian, Donne understood all are connected, part of the commonwealth of humanity, connected to all creation. Donne asserts, “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”[2]

            What happens to one person has bearing on others and the actions of a single person affect the whole of society. As our nation struggles with how to respond to the challenges before us, the church has an important role is witnessing to Jesus’ call to unity, to becoming one in the Holy Spirit, caring for one another with compassion. Echoing John Donne, we are called to live not as an island, but connected to all of humanity.

            In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us we are connected one to another. He says “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Throughout John’s Gospel Jesus speaks of abiding in him, resting and dwelling in him, united and connected to him, and to each other, just as he is to the Father, as he and the Father are one. At the last supper with his disciples, Jesus in John’s Gospel prays that his followers be one, as he and the Father are one. In Jesus, we are called to be one community, acting for common good, not ourselves alone.

            Though desiring the unity of his followers, this morning’s Gospel passage causes division among his hearers when Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” We are likely not scandalized by these words. They are probably familiar, perhaps even comforting to us. For those who regularly receive the body of Jesus in the sacrament of the Eucharist the radical sense of these words may be lost on us.

           Those hearing Jesus say these words, however, express their shock by responding, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” After all, they know who he is. They know his parents, his family. How can this local guy they know give them his flesh to eat?

            Jesus further scandalizes his listeners by offering his blood to drink. Even for us this can be a repulsive suggestion. Jesus listeners also knew drinking blood is expressly forbidden by scripture in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The leaves some disagreeing with what Jesus teaches, even finding offense in his words. Some of his own followers find these words too difficult and stop going about with him.

           These words of Jesus point to a challenging paradox, not easily understood.The eternal Word of God, present at the creation of all things, comes down in human flesh, giving himself for the world’s life. The Word empties himself by becoming human in the incarnation. The Word empties himself by death on the cross. And the Word empties himself in the Eucharist, present in the signs of bread and wine, and feeding humanity with heavenly food. The Word in Jesus gives himself for us, even in eternal food and drink.

           In the Eucharist the eternal breaks into our time. When we celebrate the Eucharist we not only engage in a ritual action Jesus first did at the Last Supper 2000 years ago. We do not only remember and reenact a long-ago event. When we gather for the Eucharist all time is united. The past of the Last Supper, the present of when we gather, and the eternal of heaven all come together in the sacrament. Time as we know it is broadened. Past, present, and future come together.

            In receiving the body of Christ all time comes together in one as we remember the past and recall it into the present; as we receive the bread of the Eucharist in the present moment; and as we receive the foretaste and promise of the heavenly banquet the saints already share, the anticipation of when we gather with them at the heavenly table for eternity.

            This sense of time coming together in the Eucharist is reflected in the words of Eucharistic Prayer just before we say the great hymn, the Sanctus, the Holy, holy, holy. In that moment the celebrant says, “Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name” (BCP, p. 362). I find these words vivid and evocative. As I hear them, I imagine all of the created order, heaven and earth, the living and the departed, the whole of creation, crying out together in one voice in praise of God.

           In eating the flesh of Jesus, not only is time united, but we also are united with him, joined to him in his death, resurrection, and ascension. We are united to his promise that we will dwell with him for eternity in the mansion he prepares for us.

           In Baptism we are united to him in his death and in his resurrection. In the Eucharist we are fed by him with heavenly food to sustain us in our earthly journey. We belong to Christ and become one with him. We take into ourselves the food he gives, being formed by him into his body on earth, strengthened to live the self-giving, compassionate love he implants within our being.

            This happens through no effort of ours. It is not based on our achievements or accomplishments. We cannot earn, nor fully deserve, this gift. It is the initiative of Jesus, and is a loving gift freely given by him for the life of the world.

           Through the grace of the Eucharist we become one with Christ and one with each other. The Eucharist overcomes all divisions and brings us unity in him. It calls forth in his followers a loving concern for one another that is manifest by tearing down the boundaries of injustice. It instills in us the desire to act for the common good, for the welfare of all, of the entire cosmos. Jesus, in the sacrament of the Eucharist, commissions us to give up our personal desires and instead act for well-being of all, even sacrificing our desires for the common good.

           In this time of great division and strife, the world hungers for the gift Jesus gives in his body. His body is food indeed. It alone can satisfy our deep hunger and longing. This bread alone imparts the grace need to overcome estrangement and self-centeredness.

            In Jesus’ gift is found the grace and the strength we need to compassionately live for the well-being of others. In him our identity is defined not by our economic power, or our value in our exploitative economy, not even by our good works on behalf of others. Rather, our identity rests in him who is the head of all, who empties himself in coming among us in the person of Jesus, the One who loves us more than we can ask or imagine, who is lifted high on the cross to draw all people to himself, lifting all above the division and suffering of this world.

           Jesus invites us to his table where eternity stoops to touch our world. He offers the gift of his very self, giving us the bread that draws us to him for eternity. Let us humbly draw near, receiving the great gift Jesus offers. May his grace transform us into the people he calls us to be, so we live as his loving body on earth even while we await the fullness of the eternal banquet.

            As it says in the Book of Revelation, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9). Amen.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/13/opinion/covid-vaccine-freedom.html?smid=url-share

[2] https://web.cs.dal.ca/~johnston/poetry/island.html

August 8, 2021

An Angel Awakens the Prophet Elijah, Juan Antonio de Frías y Escalante (1633-1669). Public domain.

A sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings may be found here, Track II.

          We all have moments in life when things feel difficult. Times we are not accomplishing what we want; when things are going poorly. At these times, we may feel all is futile. We may want to throw up our hands in despair and cry, “I can’t go on like this!” With yet another surge of the COVID-19 pandemic caused by the Delta variant, we may feel like this now.

            In the reading today from First Book of Kings we hear of such a low moment for the prophet Elijah. He feels an utter failure. He fears for his life, certain he will be killed. He thinks he is the last surviving prophet of God and that he has failed in calling the people of God away from their worship of false gods to worshiping the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

            The chapter just before today’s reading explains what causes Elijah’s despair. A drought has afflicted the land. The word of the Lord comes to Elijah telling him God intends to end the drought. But who the people will credit with this good news? Will they believe God sent the rain or will they give credit to the false god Baal?

            King Ahab and Queen Jezebel are the rulers of the people of Israel. Queen Jezebel in particular supports Baal. Elijah’s mission from God is calling the people back to worshipping the Lord God. So Elijah gathers the people, and asks them, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; if Baal, then follow him. The people did not answer him with a word” (I Kings 18:21). Elijah decides he will help the people choose the Lord God.

            So Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to slaughter a bull, put it on wood, and call on Baal to kindle a fire to burn the wood and the bull, thereby accepting the sacrifice. Elijah will do the same, but he will call on the Lord God. No matter how long the false prophets call, Baal does not bring fire, does not accept the sacrifice. Baal does not listen, does not do what they ask, because Baal is an idol.

            In a show of complete confidence, Elijah meanwhile pours water over the wood under his bull, soaking it and making it difficult to burn. Then he calls on the Lord, asking the hearts of the people be turned. The Lord God sends fire on the drenched wood, consuming the sacrifice. Seeing this, the people believe and return to God. Elijah seizes the prophets of Baal and kills them.

            Queen Jezebel is furious with Elijah for doing this and threatens to kill him. Today’s reading picks up after Elijah flees to the wilderness in fear of the Queen’s threats. He sits under a solitary broom tree and asks God to take his life. He wants to die. Though God has just done a miraculous act through him, bringing the people back to worshipping God, Elijah feels he is a failure.

            Elijah experiences a crisis of vocation. He is sure he has failed as God’s prophet. Elijah believes Queen Jezebel has killed all the other prophets of God, leaving him all alone. Elijah feels he is fit only to die. In his despair he flees from his work and gives up.

            Elijah falls asleep under a broom tree. An angel of the Lord comes to him, bakes a cake on a hot stone and provides a jar of water. The angel wakes Elijah, saying to him, “Get up and eat.” Elijah eats and falls asleep again. The angel wakes him a second time, telling him to eat, for a long journey is ahead of him.

            On the strength of this food Elijah travels forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb where he encounters God. This encounter Elijah has with God is the familiar story where he does not experience God in the wind, or earthquake, or fire, but instead in the quiet of sheer silence. After this encounter, God sends Elijah back to his mission as God’s prophet, and Elijah goes forth renewed.

            Elijah came to the wilderness overwhelmed and depleted. He felt he could not go on, that he could do no more. He only had the energy to run from his persecutors, sit under a bush, and go to sleep—hoping God would end his life.  

             God does not kill Elijah. God lets Elijah sleep. With great tenderness, God sends an angel to provide for Elijah, baking for him, giving him water. God accepts where Elijah is. God is not angry. God does not chastise Elijah for feeling like a failure, for wanting to give up. Instead, God provides food and drink for Elijah after he has rested.

          This food allows Elijah to make a long journey, fortifying him to walk forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God. In his mountaintop encounter with God, Elijah is restored and once again goes out to serve God in his vocation as a prophet.

            This account remind us of God’s love and protection. Though we know fear, great challenges, or want to give up, God is present with us. God meets us where we are, giving us just what we need in the moment. God comes to us in the wilderness of our lives in exactly the way we need, restoring us so we may continue the work God calls us to do.

            This morning this promise of God is echoed in our Gospel. We hear from John’s Gospel that Jesus is the bread of life. Jesus teaches, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Jesus offers us the bread of life, his very body. This bread originates in heaven, it is the bread of angels, drawing us to the divine life of God. Jesus’ body is present to us in the sign of bread, the most basic staple of life that has supported human existence for millennia.

            In the bread Jesus offers, we encounter God-with-us, and are invited to eat, to take God into our bodies, into the depths of our being. We are filled with the bread that satisfies all our hunger and quenches all our thirst. This bread is an encounter with eternity, the bread that gives us abundant and eternal life in God. This bread transforms us into the people God calls us to be. As St. Augustine exhorted in a sermon he preached on the Eucharist, “Behold what you are. Become what you receive.”[1]

            Through God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit we are called to become the body of Christ. Receiving the body of Christ in the Eucharist, we are to become what we receive. In the Eucharistic feast we are called and gathered, united as one body, the body of Christ. We are commissioned as Jesus’ presence in the world, and conformed to his will. Becoming the body of Christ when we receive the bread of the Eucharist, we live in the world but not following the world’s ways. We follow the ways of God.

            In today’s epistle, from the Letter to the Ephesians, we are reminded of our holy calling. The passage says we are to put away falsehood and speak truth to our neighbors; we are not to let the sun go down on our anger; no evil talk should come out of our mouths; we are to put away all bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander, and malice; we are to be kind to one another, tender hearted, and as forgiving as God in Christ who forgives us; we are to be imitators of Christ in all things.

            We are invited this morning to receive the Bread of Life, the very presence of God. Jesus invites us to come to this table as we are: with our joys and sorrows; our hopes and fears. Jesus bids us come with our hunger and thirst, looking to him to fill us and make us whole, to restore and renew us, to send us out in his name.

            Just as Elijah was ministered to by the angel and encountered God on the mountain, so we come to be ministered to by God and to encounter God in the Eucharist, when Jesus comes to us with exactly what we need. In this bread our hunger is satisfied, our fears assuaged, and we are strengthened to go forth to meet the challenges ahead, living as Christ’s body in the world. Amen.


[1] https://earlychurchtexts.com/public/augustine_sermon_272_eucharist.htm

May 30, 2021

Ruiblev’s icon of the Trinity, 15th century. Public domain.

A sermon for the First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday. The Scripture readings are available by clicking here.

In the Name of God, the holy and undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

            Today we begin a new season in our liturgical year: the Season after Pentecost. It is really more a system of numbering Sundays than a distinct season like Advent or Eastertide. But the Season after Pentecost does have a broad, general theme. Stretching from today until the beginning of Advent in November, this season reflects on how to live as followers of Jesus. These weeks call us to live as disciples of Jesus, doing God’s work building the kingdom of God, making God’s reign a reality here on earth, now, in this place.

            This season always begins with the celebration of Trinity Sunday. It is an unusual Sunday in our calendar. It is not dedicated to an event in the life of Jesus. Rather, it is a day dedicated to a doctrine, a doctrine we rightly call a mystery beyond our comprehension, namely that God is one God in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

            While Trinity Sunday may seem like an erudite exercise in obscure theological thought, 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 as to the nature of Jesus. These debates focused on several important questions. Is Jesus divine or human, or fully human and fully divine? What is the relationship between the Father and the Son? Is the Holy Spirit God?

               Wrestling with these questions led to the articulation of the doctrine we celebrate today. The church came to affirm God is one God revealed in three Persons, all fully God. God is not created but creative, the author of all that is, maker of the entire creation. The Son is not created, but begotten of the Father, of the same substance as the Father. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son.

            The articulation of this doctrine has its roots in the revelation of God in scripture. The early church sought to understand the nature of God by interpreting the Bible. In passages such as the baptism of Jesus, God is revealed as the Father, represented by the voice from heaven, as the Son revealed in Jesus, the Beloved One in human flesh, and as the Holy Spirit, revealed in the dove descending upon the Son.

            Throughout Scripture the Trinity is evident. Our lessons this morning reveal God to us as Father, as Son, and as Holy Spirit. The Epistle, from the Letter of Paul to the Romans, expresses God as Trinity when Paul writes, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” Paul writes of the revelation of the Trinity, three Persons in on Godhead.

            We read today from the Gospel according to John. In John’s Gospel Jesus is revealed as the eternal Word of God present at the creation of all things, the One who puts on human flesh and dwells among us. Throughout this Gospel, Jesus teaches he and the Father are one, that he has come from the Father and returns to the Father; he knows the Father and reveals the mind and teaching of the Father. Jesus teaches the Holy Spirit is sent to the followers of Jesus to lead and teach them, bringing them to all truth; the Spirit is the presence of Jesus with them after he leaves them.

            In today’s passage from John’s Gospel, Jesus teaches Nicodemus the importance of being born of water and the Holy Spirit. “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.”

            Today’s Gospel reminds us it is through baptism we share in the very life and nature of the Trinity. Since the earliest days of the church, baptism is administered in the name of the Trinity. We are baptized into the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 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 with God that will not end, not even at death. Through baptism we belong to God for ever.

            The baptismal call is to a way of 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 in which we serve others as Jesus did—not for personal gain, but for self-giving love; it is a life following the call of God breathing within us, of using the gifts given by the Spirit of God for the work of ministry we each are given to do.

            We are called to be disciples who invite others to the life of discipleship. We are sent into the world with the power and love of the Trinity, called to bind the Trinity to ourselves, to our being, allowing God to lay claim on us, trusting God is with us in all things to the end of the age.

            As disciples we are to make known the love of God revealed in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the love into which, through baptism, we are invited to share. Trinity Sunday calls us to stake our very lives on the power of God to overcome the sin, evil, and death of this world. We are called to deep relationship with God, participating in the community of love that is the Trinity.

            God is revealed in the Trinity as a community of love. Love binds the Persons of the Trinity, uniting them, overflowing them and filling us. God’s very nature is love, for love is more than simply an attribute of God. God is love. God is the One who loves; God is the Beloved, the One who is loved; and God is Love poured out upon all creation.

            The love of God is not static, but flows outward from the community of the Trinity. Humanity, created in the likeness and image of God, is the object of God’s love. The love of God flows from the Trinity towards humanity, inviting us to participate in the life of the Trinity.

             A 15th century icon by Andrei Rublev depicts the Trinity as three angels, evoking the visit of the three divine strangers to Abraham (Genesis 18:1-8). These three come to Abraham and share a meal with him. In the icon the three are seated at a table on which is placed food. There is a space at the front of the scene where the viewer finds room to join the divine meal. The community of love that is the Trinity is open, inviting our participation as beloved creatures of our Triune God. God the Holy Trinity keeps a place at the holy table of divine love for each of us.

            Trinity Sunday reminds us God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a community of love who loves all of creation. Made in the image and likeness of God, we too are created to love. The Trinity embraces us in God’s love, inviting us into God’s community of love, so we may participate fully in the divine life of God the Trinity by loving all in God’s name.

            Trinity Sunday can seem a dry theological exercise. The Trinity is indeed a mystery beyond our comprehension. Our attempts to articulate the doctrine of one God in three Persons only goes so far. We are creatures of the Creator, finite beings, possessing limited human language to express the eternal majesty of the ineffable God. Our words cannot adequately or fully describe God, and are, at best, metaphor. With our limited comprehension and expression, the ultimate call of this Sunday is to embrace the inexorable mystery of the Trinity by worshiping God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

            In our lesson the prophet Isaiah is granted a vision of God sitting on a throne, high and lofty, so immense, the hem of the Lord’s robe fills the temple. God is attended by Seraphs who say, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” These are words familiar to us. We recited them this morning in the canticle the Te Deum. They are the same words we say or sing at every Eucharist as we come into the presence of God revealed in signs of bread and wine, God present with us on the altar at every Eucharist.

            In his vision, Isaiah experiences a profound and frightening moment: the house shakes, it fills with smoke, and Isaiah worries if he will live having seen God. Yet Isaiah in his human frailty is allowed this vision of God, and does indeed live. A Seraph takes a hot, burning coal from the altar and touches Isaiah’s lips, telling him now his guilt and sin have departed. His lips have been purified. After being made clean, God asks, “Whom shall I send?” And Isaiah answers, “Here am I; send me!” From this revelation of God, Isaiah is commissioned as God’s prophet, the messenger who speaks the word of God to God’s people.

            Like Isaiah, God is revealed to us, making us worthy, inviting us to share God’s life of love, and sending us forth to do God’s work in the world. Through baptism, we die to our old life of sin and death, and rise to new life through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Through baptism we too are made worthy to stand before God, able to behold God’s glorious majesty. God creates us, God redeems us, and God empowers us for the divine life we are meant to share with the Trinity.

            Our most fitting response on this Trinity Sunday is to find ourselves exactly where the doctrine of the Trinity first began: in scripture and in worship. While God is revealed in the word of holy Scripture, human language can never adequately express the reality of God, but in response we can come before the throne of grace in loving adoration, worshipping our God who creates and sustains us in love; worshipping our God who put on human flesh in the person of Jesus, suffering death upon the cross for our redemption and through his resurrection setting us free from the bondage of sin and death’ worshipping our God who comes among us in the Holy Spirit, a mighty wind and a still small voice, close as our breath, giving us the words to pray and showing us the way to follow.

            Let us always confess the true faith, acknowledging the eternal glory of the Trinity, and worshipping the divine Unity and Majesty of God. May God the Holy Trinity keep us steadfast in this faith, until we come at last to worship at God’s throne in glory with all the saints and angels. May we in all things, at all times, and in all places, worship God who is a community of love, revealed in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever, without end. Amen.

May 23, 2021

Pentecost (Kirillo-Belozersk). Public domain.

A sermon for the Day of Pentecost. The Scripture readings are available by clicking here.

          “Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire, and lighten with celestial fire. Thou the anointing Spirit art, who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart.”

          Before the pandemic we regularly sang music by the Taizé Community in France. Some of you have visited Taizé. Founded in the 1940s as a monastic community of Protestant men, its mission became working for reconciliation in post World War II France. A significant part of Taizé’s work was caring for children orphaned by the war. During the 1960s increasing numbers of young people visited the Taizé community. As monastics, hospitality in welcoming strangers is at the center of the community’s life.

          To be welcoming, the community changed to accommodate the numbers of guests, increasing the size of the church and constructing more dormitories. The brothers changed their music to be more responsive to those visiting, developing a style of chant that was more accessible. 

          In 2009 I was blessed to spend a week in retreat with the Taizé community, arriving there the afternoon of the Seventh Sunday of Easter and staying through the Day of Pentecost. The first days were relatively quiet—only a few hundred people were there.

          This was a meaningful time of retreat for me, spent attending daily services and Bible study by one of the brothers. Each afternoon I met with a small, multi-lingual group for reflection. Like others, I had an assigned job. There was the balance of prayer, study, and work, with time to think, pray, and write on the beautiful grounds.

          As the week progressed, however, things began to changes. More people arrived. By Thursday, more of the church was used at each service. The quiet was giving way to a more active, energized congregation. Expectancy was literally in the air.

          On the day of Pentecost there were several thousand people in the church. It was no longer quiet. People were everywhere. It was challenging to find the contemplative space of the previous days. As the Eucharist began on the Day of Pentecost, I found myself unsettled. This was not the way I wanted to end my retreat. Where was the profound quiet I had found so meaningful, so holy?

          I was on the verge of becoming grumpy about all these people who had intruded upon the end of my retreat. Then we began to sing the Taizé chant, Veni, Sancte Spiritus, “Come, Holy Spirit.” This simple chant—it has only three words and two chords of music—transformed the experience for me.

          As the congregation chanted the simple music, the Taizé brothers sang verses in different languages. These invoked the Holy Spirit, asking the Spirit to shine forth from heaven, for the breath of God to come from the four winds, dispersing the shadows over us, renewing and strengthening.

          While not what I hoped for, I realized this was the perfect Pentecost experience. Several thousand people from all over the world were worshipping God on Pentecost morning in a community committed to reconciliation, praising God in multiple languages at the same time.

          It was noisy. It was unruly. It was very extroverted. It was a bit chaotic. And it was a gift. It  sounds a lot like that first Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came as a noisy, violent wind over the first 120 followers of Jesus. When tongues of flame appeared over each disciple. When the crowd heard multiple languages spoken by the Galilean disciples as they witnessed to the power of God in languages not their own.

          That first Day of Pentecost, as we heard in the lesson from the Book of Acts, is not a contemplative, quiet experience. The wind of the Spirit rushes in violently, with a loud noise. A crowd gathers. The followers of Jesus receive the Holy Spirit, and their lives are forever changed. Nothing, for them or the world, was ever the same. As Hymn 507 puts it, “Tell of how the ascended Jesus armed a people for his own; how a hundred men and women turned the known world upside down, to its dark and furthest corners by the wind of heaven blown.”[1]

          The Holy Spirit can come to us in times of quiet contemplation, when we are praying alone, walking in creation, or being quiet on retreat. Certainly Elijah experiences this on Mount Horeb when God is present not in wind, earthquake, or fire, but in the sheer silence.

          There are other times, however, when the Holy Spirit comes in power and might, with great sound and activity, upsetting things as they are, disrupting, overturning, leaving nothing as it was. The Holy Spirit leads us to be recreated, to become a new creation, calling us from the way things have been into new places and new ways of being. The Spirit turns things upside down, transforming us and the world. As it says in today’s Psalm, “You send forth your Spirit…and so you renew the face of the earth.”

          On the first Pentecost the Holy Spirit rushes in with great power, calling the 120 first followers of Jesus to transformation. They leave behind their fear, coming out of hiding behind locked doors. Filled with the Holy Spirit, they take the good news of Jesus to the ends of the world. They become the presence of Jesus in the world. They no longer wait for Jesus to lead and direct them, for now God abides within them, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, God as close as their breath.

          Now they have power to preach and teach, witnessing to the death and resurrection of Jesus. They boldly proclaim through word and deed the love of God made known in Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. Most of them give their lives as martyrs—literally witnesses to the love of God.

          In the account of the first Pentecost we see the will of God made known through the fruits of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is poured out all people: young and old, male and female, slave and free. Human boundaries, the divisions regulating who is in and who is out, who is worthy and who is not, are torn down. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, all are one, all are beloved children of God. The Spirit calls the disciples to lives of unity, where injustice is overturned and there are no outcasts, all are one just as Jesus prayed at the Last Supper, just as Jesus and the Father are one through the Holy Spirit.

          The Holy Spirit is given that all know the saving power of God. That first Pentecost the disciples preach the power of God, witnessing to God’s acts of love made known in Jesus, in languages not their own. Those gathered in Jerusalem hear the disciples’ preaching in their native languages. All comprehend. God is not distant and remote, speaking only to a few, select people. Now God the Spirit is present in language understood by all. God’s invitation to the divine life is for all people, not just a small, select group.

          Pentecost reminds us of the unity found in the Holy Spirit, so is baptismal day in the Book of Common Prayer. In a few moments we will renew our own Baptismal Vows. In these vows we reject Satan and evil, and affirm we believe in God. We promise to faithfully love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and love our neighbor as ourself. We promise to work for justice, caring for those in need. And we promise to proclaim by word and deed the good news of Jesus.

          None of this we can undertake by ourselves alone. It is no accident we respond to each vow with the words, “I will, with God’s help.” It is only through the power of the Holy Spirit we can live as God calls. It is only through the Holy Spirit we are able to pray, even as the Spirit prays on our behalf when we are unable to do so ourselves. Only through the Holy Spirit we can overcome the sin and evil of this world, resisting the human impulses that draw us away from the love of God. We can do nothing except through the grace of God’s Spirit abiding with us.

          Those first followers were sad hearing Jesus would leave them. At his Ascension they stood looking up into heaven after him. Once the Holy Spirit descends on them, however, they no longer look up, looking for Jesus. Instead they look out, they look ahead, to where God leads them. They listen for the prompting of the Spirit calling them to the work Jesus gives. They are released from their anxiety and fear, trusting the power of God will keep them safe for eternity, no matter what happens in this age.

          The Holy Spirit that transformed the first followers of Jesus, allowing them to do extraordinary things in Jesus’ Name, is the very same Spirit we have received. The Holy Spirit descending with great power that first Day of Pentecost is the same Spirit poured on us in baptism.

          Pentecost brings the great gift of God to humanity: God the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, dwells within us. God is always present with us. God breathes in and through us. God is not remote and far, but is within us, sanctifying us, setting us apart, for holy work as God’s people, the body of Christ in the world.

          Let us ask the Spirit enlightens our hearts and minds, that we hear the promptings of the Holy Spirit. When God calls from sheer silence, and when God rushes in in dramatic and life-changing ways, overturning things, doing unexpected things, may we be transformed. May we clearly hear the call of God, claiming the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit, empowered for our work of ministry in the world.

          Through our witness, may God renew the face of the earth, as the Holy Spirit draws all people to unity, calling each person in language they understand. In this time of swift change and reordering of our lives, may we be open to the new work the Spirit is doing in and through us. May we respond to the Spirit, going to the new places God leads us. Through the unity of the Spirit, may all be one, allowing the Spirit to heal the divisions of our lives and our world. Through the Spirit, may we share in the divine life of God, now in this world, and in the age to come. Amen.


[1] Hymn 507, The Hymnal 1982, Michael Hewlett (b. 1916), alt.

May 16, 2021

St. Matthias, c.1317-1319. Public Domain.

A sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter: The Sunday after Ascension Day. The Scripture readings are available by clicking here.

            This past Thursday was Ascension Day, the feast commemorating Jesus ascending into heaven. For forty days after his resurrection, Jesus openly appeared to his disciples. On the fortieth day he gathers them, offers final teaching, blesses them, and goes bodily into heaven where he is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

          This feast assumes a cosmology that divides the world into three parts: hell below, heaven above, and earth between them. This is not our cosmology. We have seen photos from outer space, showing the earth a beautiful blue globe surrounded by other planets and stars.

          Because of this, some struggle with the feast of the Ascension. It seems to contradict science. While I don’t dispute our understanding of the universe, I suggest we can affirm the Ascension without knowing exactly what happened.

          We believe in the incarnation, the act of God putting on human flesh and dwelling with humanity. We proclaim Jesus resurrected from the dead and appearing to his disciples. We trust through his death and resurrection the power of sin and hell are defeated and we are redeemed. Yet do we understand how these actually happened? Can we explain them? Yet, through faith, we believe them.

          While difficult to explain, the Ascension is essential to our faith and our redemption. It completes what is begun in the incarnation. God becomes human that humanity might be lifted to the divine life. God puts on human flesh in the person of Jesus, seeking union with humanity. Becoming one with us, God leads us to the fullness of life, to sharing in the divine life of the Trinity.

          The Ascension completes what is begun in God putting on flesh. Jesus ascends with his human flesh to throne of grace, lifting humanity forever to God. In the Ascension of Jesus, we are lifted to God’s presence and empowered to live the divine life through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.

          For this truth to become reality, however, Jesus needed to leave his followers. As long as he was on earth, the first disciples would continue looking to Jesus to lead and direct them. Rather than undertaking his mission of their own initiative, they would wait to follow him.

          These ten days between Ascension Day and the Day of Pentecost are a kind of in-between time, a liminal period. The disciples stand on a threshold. Jesus has left them, promising they will not be desolate, but comforted by the gift of the Holy Spirit, but the Spirit has not yet descended on them.

          Our scripture readings today reflect this in-between time. They are about transition, moving from one way of being to another. Transitions can be complicated, full of many thoughts and emotions at once. There may be excitement and anticipation of what will come to be, alongside sadness at what is left behind, what is ending. Transitions require intentional planning and careful action. They are time for deliberately laying the groundwork for what will be.

          In our first lesson today, from the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is doing this important work. This chapter opens with the Ascension of Jesus. Immediately following this, Peter thinks about the leadership needed to take over the mission of Jesus now that he has left them.

          Peter observes that Jesus appointed twelve apostles, and Judas is no longer with them, having killed himself after betraying Jesus. Peter recommends selecting someone to replace Judas so there are again twelve apostles.

          Peter does not, however, make this appointment himself. Instead, he offers criteria for selecting a new apostle. It must be someone who knew Jesus, who was with Jesus from the time of his baptism to the ascension. This person must have known Jesus, been taught by Jesus, experiencing his death and resurrection, in order to be a witness of Jesus.

          Two men are offered, Joseph called Barsabbas, also known as Justus, and Matthias. Peter prays to God, asking they will discern whom God is calling to replace Judas. They cast lots and Matthias is selected. Casting lots may seem an odd thing to do. But it was used in Biblical times to render a divine decision. It was considered impartial, expressing God’s will, and could not be challenged.

          This account of the selection of Matthias holds special importance for us in this parish. Inspired by this story, the Nominating Committee creates a slate for parish leadership in the coming year using a similar practice. We read this passage from Acts. We enter into silence. We pray, asking we discern God’s will, whom God is calling to leadership in the coming year. We pray through the parish directory, saying each parishioner’s name, followed by silence, offering prayers for each.

          When we finish praying for the entire parish, we write down the names that stood out to us in prayer. The Nominating Committee asks these people to discern in prayer if God is calling them to serve. Each year I am struck that when asked, people regularly respond they feel called to serve the parish in a more intentional way. God is indeed calling people to leadership even in our age.

          At the heart of this process is, of course, prayer. We enter into the presence of God through the Holy Spirit.We pray to discern God’s will for us. As the church, prayer is at the center of our individual and corporate life. We seek God’s will. We hope to live by the power and direction of the Holy Spirit heard in prayer.

          Prayer is at the heart of our Gospel today. This passage is sometimes called the “High Priestly Prayer” of Jesus. It comes at the Last Supper, as Jesus is preparing his disciples for his departure. He prays for them, stressing the close relationship he has with them and he has with the Father. Just as Jesus and the Father are one, so are his followers one with him.

          Being God incarnate, Jesus knows the heart and mind of God, and has taught them what he knows. Jesus asks God to protect his followers as they undertake their new ministry in the world. While they are not of the world, they are sent to the world, to share the good news of God by witnessing to God’s love.

          In his prayer Jesus asks that the disciples be sanctified, made holy for the particular work God is calling them. When water is made holy water, it does not stop being water, with all the properties of ordinary water. Rather, it is set apart for a special purpose, a holy purpose, namely to bless and to call to mind our baptismal identity and life.

          In being sanctified, the disciples do not stop being who they are. They still sometimes sin and need God’s forgiveness. At times they understand God’s call and sometimes they fail to know God’s desires. But they are claimed by God and set part for holy work, just as they are. They no longer live the life of this age, but live the divine life of the risen and ascended Jesus, set apart for holy work.

          The prayer Jesus offers for his disciples on the night before he died, he prays for us. We, like the first disciples, are one with Jesus. We share in his death and resurrection through the waters of baptism, raised to new life, to the divine life of God.

          The Holy Spirit has been poured on us, as it was on the 120 followers that first Pentecost. We are given gifts for the work God has given us to do now, in this age. As were Peter and the others, we too are sent into the world by Jesus to do his work. We are to be his presence in the world, living as his body, and witnessing to his love.

          When God birthed creation into being, God pronounced all that was made good. In coming among us in human flesh, God affirms creation as good and the object of God’s love. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God defeats the powers that alienate us from the divine life of God. In the Ascension of Jesus, God brings human flesh to God’s throne to dwell forever, showing the life God intends for all humanity. In the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, God gives us the power we need to live this redeemed and divine life even now.

          This life is nothing less the the affirmation that humanity is made in God’s image and likeness, beloved of God, and destined to full life with God for eternity. Jesus calls us to live this reality now in this world, believing in every fiber of our being we have nothing to fear. God is with us, protecting us, leading us to the fullness of eternal life, no matter what happens to us in this age.

          We are called to embody this reality ourselves, by seeing every person as beloved of God, sharing in the divine life of love of the Trinity. The implications of this call are profound: how we can tolerate injustice when all people are full of God’s divine life? How can we rest when even one person is denied their full personhood, not allowed to be the beloved child God creates them to be?

          May we pray always, being rooted in God, knowing God’s call to us through the Holy Spirit. In this liminal, in-between time, as pandemic restrictions are lifted and we begin to live in new ways, may we pray to discern God’s call to us. May we, like Peter and the 120 followers of Jesus, seek to follow wherever Jesus leads, that we do his work in this world, living even now the divine life of God, as a people set apart, Christ’s sanctified body on earth. Amen.

May 13, 2021

Christ Ascension icon Michurin Bulgaria16th century. Public domain.

A sermon for Ascension Day. The scripture readings are available by clicking here.

          Each year we celebrate Ascension Day forty days after Easter. Scripture tells us that after his resurrection, Jesus openly appeared to his disciples. In these appearances he instructed his followers and prepared them for his departure. He promised after he left, they would receive the power of God through the descent of the Holy Spirit.

          In our lesson today from the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus offers his disciples final instructions, telling them to remain in Jerusalem until they are baptized with the Holy Spirit. In the power of the Spirit they will be his witnesses to the entire world. While they watch, Jesus is carried into heaven, leaving them gazing into the sky.

          This is a dramatic story. The risen Jesus is bodily taken into heaven, lifted far above the earth, while his followers watch. It is an account that can be challenging for us as 21st century people. We do not believe, as first century people did, that above the earth is a dome, containing the sky, and above that heaven where God dwells. We have seen pictures of the earth from the moon and from outer space, and understand the world differently.

          While the Ascension does not fit our modern cosmology, and leaves us wondering what to make of this event, it is theologically rich for us. Whatever happened to Jesus on the fortieth day after his resurrection, wherever he went, his Ascension has profound implications for us, his followers. Though we struggle to make sense of exactly what happened that day, its importance for us is clear. I want to offer three ways the Ascension of Jesus is important for us as followers of Jesus.

          The first is the Ascension completes the incarnation. In the incarnation God comes among us in the person of Jesus. God created humanity to be in relationship with God, planting within us a deep desire and longing for God. God gave humanity the gift of free will. God does not coerce us into relationship, but instead invites us.

          Through the prophets of old God called the people to return to God. Yet the people ignored them, even killing them. In the fullness of time God comes among us, putting on human flesh. This is a radical act. The Creator of all things, the all powerful, ineffable God enters the limits and bounds of creation.

          This radical action speaks to God’s deep desire for us. God will stop at nothing to draw us into communion with God, even going as far as taking on human flesh. In doing this, God comes among us to show us how to live, how to love, how to be in relationship with God, with one another, ourselves, and with the creation. God enters human existence to bring divinity to humanity, bringing us into the divine life of the Trinity.

          In the Ascension, God completes the initiative begun in the incarnation. Having come into human existence to be one with us, brining divinity right where we dwell, God lifts humanity to God in the Ascension.

          When Jesus ascends, he does not leave behind his human body. Rather, he lifts human flesh, still bearing the wounds of his passion, to the throne of God. Jesus lifts us to the divine life of God. In Jesus we sit with God in heaven. Jesus takes our humanity heavenward, going where we will one day follow, to that place Jesus will bring us when we die. Jesus enters into human existence to lift humanity to the divine life of God.

          The implications of this reality are profound. It affirms what God declared at the creation of all things, namely that all God made is good. The Ascension shows God’s deep love for us. If God has such love for us as to come among us, suffer death on the cross, sharing his resurrection with us, then we too should treat one another with the same love, the same compassion, and the same mercy as God.

          If God loves us and values us so much, we should do the same. This time of pandemic has revealed in stark terms the ways we fall short of living this way. The gross inequities and injustices of our world are laid bare in this time of the coronavirus. Economic privilege is glaring. Inequity in access to health care has never been so obvious. The great injustice of who is most likely to become ill and die is starkly visible. As vaccinations increase in this country, the virus is devastating much of the rest of the world, especially in India and Latin America.

          God’s love for humanity revealed in the incarnation and the ascension calls us to a different way of life. It is imperative we affirm the dignity of every human being and work for the well-being and justice of all people. We are called to care for those burdened by the inequities of our society.

          Secondly, Jesus promises to be with us always, to the end of the age. Though he ascends into heaven, we are not left orphans, abandoned by him. After he departs, the Holy Spirit is bestowed upon humanity. The Spirit is the abiding presence of Jesus with us, dwelling within us, as close to us as God can be. The Holy Spirit gives us gifts and power to be the presence of Jesus, the body of Christ, in the world.

          Through the Spirit poured out on us, we are called to be Christ’s body in the world. Our vocation is to make Jesus known, living like him, doing the things he did. He is no longer physically here, so we become his body now. The 17th century Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila expressed this when she wrote:

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

compassion on this world.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.[1]

          Those words of Teresa lead directly to my final reflection. We must stop gazing heavenward and look outward. In the Acts of the Apostles, after Jesus ascends into heaven, the disciples stand looking after him. Suddenly two men in white robes appear, asking why they stand looking into heaven. Now that Jesus is gone, they have work to do. They can’t stand in one place forever, looking up to where Jesus has gone. They must leave that place and go do the work Jesus has given them.

          As long as they stand in one place, looking up, they can’t see around them. They are unaware of the opportunities God provides for their witness in word and deed. Looking heavenward, they don’t see the people in need of the good news they are sent to proclaim.

          Like those first disciples, we must not stand in one place, looking up. For too long the church taught acceptance of the way things are in this world because we will come to the reward of heaven after death. While we long for that time when we dwell with God for eternity, until then we have work to do now, in this world, in this time and place.

          We may gaze heavenward for inspiration, to glimpse a vision of the world we are called to build on earth, but we must then turn our gaze earthly. We need to see with open eyes what is before us. Filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, we must go forth to do the work Jesus calls us to do.

          This world is full of need, perhaps more than we ever new. Hope is in short supply. Many are frightened and lonely. We are sometimes lonely and frightened. But Jesus has not left us, he will not leave us comfortless. The Holy Spirit gives us strength to witness to the power of God’s love, proclaiming the good news of Jesus. Through the Spirit we can discern where we are being sent, the work we are called to do, and where we are to offer the love, mercy, and compassion of Jesus. The Spirit gives us the privilege of welcoming the forgotten, the stranger, and the marginalized.

          In the Ascension Jesus brings all things to completion. Humanity is lifted to the very throne of God, entering the divine life of God. In response, we are called to make heaven on earth a reality for all people, living by the love of God now.

          Though Jesus Ascends on high, he remains with us through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. Let us not despair, but like those first disciples, rejoice with great joy, worshipping God, and blessing God’s holy Name for the great love God has shown us in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

          Let us pray.

          Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


[1] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/PoemsAndPrayers/Teresa_Of_Avila_Christ_Has_No_Body.shtml

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.      


[1] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=3003

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.


[1] https://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/kalos.html

[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.


[1] https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/paul_tillich_383200

[2] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/7611227-the-opposite-of-faith-is-not-doubt-but-certainty-certainty

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. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/02/opinion/easter-celebration.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage

[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 https://www.frederickbuechner.com/blog/2016/4/7/the-things-that-make-for-peace

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]


[1] https://englishverse.com/poems/love

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.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/04/opinion/michael-goldhaber-internet.html?referrer=masthead

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.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/04/opinion/michael-goldhaber-internet.html?referrer=masthead

[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.

[2] https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/sites/mlk/files/lesson-activities/six_principles_of_nonviolence.pdf

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).

Amen.

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. 

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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.

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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, http://www.leaderu.com/cyber/books/pensees/pensees-SECTION-7.html]

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.” [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/110101.html] 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 wa