Rector’s Musings

January 29, 2023

Micah, the Prophet, James Tissot.
Public domain.

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany. The scripture readings are found here.

Throughout Hebrew Scripture, the Old Testament, the prophets call the people to faithfully follow God, often with powerful language. The prophets call the people to repent, turning back toward God, returning to the ways of God. The prophets afflict the people with challenging and hard words when they have rebelled against God, pronouncing God’s displeasure and judgment. The prophets also comfort the people when they are distressed, reminding the people of God’s steady, unfailing faithfulness, and lead the people to once again faithfully follow God’s call. 

In today’s lesson, the prophet Micah holds the people to account, speaking God’s judgment. God judges them unfaithful. Micah proclaims, “Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.”

The Lord’s controversy with the people is that, while God has been faithful, delivering the people from slavery in Egypt, leading them across the Jordan River to the Land of Promise, the people have turned away from God: the rich oppress the poor; the powerful do not care for the vulnerable, neglecting to care for the poor, orphans, and widows. Though the people offer praise and sacrifices to God, these are not only what God wants. Worship of God is the first act, the beginning place. Worship of God should then lead to action, to caring for the vulnerable and those in need.

The people ask if God will be pleased with an offering of abundant sacrifices. “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil.” Then they offer even more, unbelievably saying, “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 

Micah declares God is not pleased with their sacrifices, no matter how large or costly they are, not thousands of rams, ten thousand rivers of oil, nor their firstborn. If the people fail to live by justice, God will not be pleased. God expects the people to worship and praise God and to care for their neighbor. 

The people are to live loving relationships with God and all of God’s beloved children. Micah expresses this at the end of the passage, when he declares “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Worshiping God should lead God’s people to action: to doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with our God. Love of God should flow seamlessly to loving our neighbor. If we love God, offering to God our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, we also must give God our hearts to be formed and shaped by God’s love, so we love and praise God and we love and care for those in need. This is the offering God asks of God’s people. 

Just as Micah declared God’s call and desire many centuries ago, so it remains our call as God’s people today. Each time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, to God, making our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. At the altar we present our gifts of bread, wine, money, and ourselves to be changed in the Eucharistic feast, becoming a holy offering to God. In the Eucharist the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Jesus, and we are changed, formed and conformed, as the body Christ and then sent forth to love and serve the Lord in the world, loving all people as God loves us.

In this parish, we have discerned God leading us in several particular ways of action in the world. For many years, we have faithfully supported Camp Ministries Food Pantry which feeds those in our neighborhood without enough to eat. Both through weekly food donations and parishioners volunteering in the Food Pantry, we have shown our commitment to our neighbors who are food insecure.

In the past several years, more people struggle to feed themselves and their families. As food prices rise, more find their budgets stretched or inadequate. Knowing this highlights my own economic privilege. When I shop at the grocery store, I see how much prices have increased, but my privilege allows me to continue buying what I want, I just pay more for it. Because of my privilege, I do not have to sacrifice, buying only a portion of what I need, eliminating expensive items. I can buy my usual groceries and still meet my other financial obligations. Many people do not have this privilege, despite working multiple jobs. God calls us to remember the plight of those suffering in this economic climate and give from our abundance to those who have less. Camp Street Ministries Food Pantry is one of the ways we as a parish commit to do this each week.

As a parish, we have also discerned God calling us to work to dismantle white supremacy. Since 2014, when Michael Brown was tragically and brutally shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, we have intentionally committed to anti-racist and racial reconciliation work. We have undertaken study, learning the honest history of our nation and of our city. In the past, we have participated in neighborhood work and with the Center for Reconciliation. 

While there have been significant developments in anti-racist work in our country these recent years, we still have far to go. On Friday, a disturbing video was released of the horrible beating of Tyre Nichols at the hands of five Memphis police officers. It showed yet another Black man beaten and later dying at the hands of police. This is a far too familiar tragic story that must end.

Next Saturday, our Vestry will gather for a working retreat. One of the items we will discuss is where God is leading us now in our anti-racist work. Much has changed in our nation and parish since we began. There remains much work to do, with life and death stakes for Black and Brown people. Please hold the Vestry in your prayers as we discern God’s call for this next chapter of our work. Please pray for your discernment in how God calls you to be agents of God’s justice and reconciliation in our world.

As God’s people in this place, we are called to heed the prophets and live as witnesses to the love of Jesus. This call is summarized in the Gospel today. The familiar words of the Beatitudes, Jesus’ statements of “blessedness,” express God’s intention for the world. The church has sometimes taught the Beatitudes are about the time after we die, when the fullness of God’s kingdom will come. In reality, the Beatitudes are the path to building the kingdom here and now, in the present. They were practiced and lived by Jesus in his earthly life and ministry. They are our call and charge today as followers of Jesus.

The Beatitudes call us to care for those in need, especially the vulnerable, because they are loved by God. They call us to be merciful, showing mercy and compassion to all people just as God show us abundant mercy. They call us to be pure of heart, living by the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit within us. They call us to be peacemakers, opposing violence at every turn, working to reconcile all people. 

The Beatitudes tell us to expect times of persecution, suffering, and ridicule, embracing them as a holy reality, comforted by the saints who have gone before us who also knew persecution. This reminds us the prophets of old, were killed for their witness to God. God promises to be with us in our trials and never to abandon us in our difficulties. The Beatitudes call us to live by the kingdom of God, walking in Jesus’ way of love, each moment of every day, for the whole of our lives.

In this age when hatred, violence, division, and injustice are strong and very evident, when many hunger and have no place to live, may we live the Beatitudes that God’s kingdom is ushered in now, in this time, that the poor and excluded may know the inclusive, just love of God. May we always live the mission God gives us as agents of God’s reconciliation. 

God calls us from this Eucharistic banquet to go into the world and serve all people in Jesus’ Name, loving God and our neighbor, trusting God gives us the will and strength we need to meet the challenges ahead. As we are sent forth from this altar at the end of today’s liturgy, may we commit ourselves to live by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God. Amen.

January 22, 2023

Calling the Apostles Peter and Andrew, Duccio di Buoninsegna. Public domain.

A sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany. The scripture readings are found here.

Light is one of the central symbols of the season after the Epiphany. Our lessons this morning contain beautiful light imagery. Both the Prophet Isaiah and the Gospel declare, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” Today’s Psalm proclaims, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?”

In scripture, Jesus is revealed as the Light of the world, a Light so strong, the darkness cannot overcome it. The light of God can shine gently, allowing us to see in dark places. Its gentle light can lead us by focusing on the path God would have us follow. But this light can also blaze with God’s glory, blinding us, stopping us in our tracks, giving us pause to reevaluate our lives. The light of God, in its power, can refocus us and leave our lives radically changed.

In today’s Gospel, Peter, Andrew, James, and John all have their own experience of the Light come among them and upending their lives. The Evangelist Matthew tells how these four men, all fishermen, set out for work one day and their lives are radically changed. As they are fishing, Jesus comes upon them and says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they drop their nets and follow him.

Whenever I hear this passage it amazes me. These four men have no warning Jesus will call them that day. They presumably have not spoken with him before. Yet, when Jesus calls, they drop everything—the work they are doing, their business as fishermen, their families, their possessions—and they go with Jesus. I wonder what it was about Jesus that allowed them to do this radical act? What in that moment did they experience, that they would so dramatically change their lives, giving up all they know, everything that was familiar, and set off into an unknown future?

Clearly there was something in Jesus’ call they could not resist. In their interaction with him, something touched them profoundly, deeply, so they set off with him. When Jesus invites them to follow, they go without hesitation. The call of Jesus is so compelling, so irresistible, they immediately go with him.

It may be tempting to see this passage as an interesting Gospel story, written long ago, about people different from us, and hold it at arm’s length, assuming it has little to do with us. But even these many centuries later, Jesus still calls followers. Jesus calls us. We are gathered this morning, in this church, celebrating this Eucharist, because Jesus called each one of us to be here. We are here because we heard and responded to his call, finding our way to this worshiping community. 

Each of us is called to walk in the Light of Jesus, following the light as it leads us in God’s ways. Each of us is called to a particular path, a unique journey, to a vocation given us by God and used by God to build God’s kingdom in this time and place.

While it is unlikely—though not impossible—that God will call us to a journey as life-changing as Peter, Andrew, James, or John, yet God does call us. Most of us will not be called to leave our professions, families, and possessions to follow Jesus, but all of us are called to leave behind this world and enter the new world into which Jesus invites us.

The call of Jesus leads to a new life, to new ways of being. It is the call out of the ways of this world. Jesus calls us away from a world that values status and power, and has hierarchies of worth. Jesus calls us to leave behind a world where some people are more important, have more value, while others are dispensable, of little worth. Jesus leads us away from a world of consumerism, where buying and collecting possessions is thought to bring happiness, fulfillment, and purpose. Jesus calls us away from a world that views creation as at our disposal, to be exploited as we wish, for those living without regard for the unfolding climate crisis caused by this lifestyle.

This new world into which Jesus invites us is one where we give over our heart, mind, and will to be disciples. We allow Jesus to shape and form us into the people we are created to be. We give our all, the whole of our being, in following Jesus and proclaiming the Good News through our deeds and words.

The call of Jesus leads us away from these paths, and into his life of loving service, to giving generously of ourselves without counting the cost. This is the life of welcoming the stranger and forgotten, of fighting injustice and oppression, of reflecting the light of God’s love world to the world. Jesus comes to us and invites us to a this deeper life, one we can scarcely hope for or imagine.

While this call may come with binding light and stop us in our tracks, often it is less dramatic. In today’s Gospel, the call of Jesus comes while four men fish. They are at work. It is a day like many others before, and they may expect like many days to follow. Then Jesus comes to them, calls them, invites them to be fishers of people. Jesus meets them where there are, coming into their everyday routine, calling them in language they understand.

Jesus comes to each of us in the ordinariness of daily life, using language we understand, to call us. Jesus is not remote and aloof from us. Jesus does not use obscure language to call us. If we are attentive, open to the possibility of God entering into our lives, we will hear Jesus’ call, we will understand his words. If our hearts and minds are open, we will sense God’s call for us. We will be completely overcome by the love Jesus has for us and be able to readily answer his call, following where he leads us.

Jesus chooses us, you and me, calling us to respond by following him. Jesus calls us to give over our heart, mind, and will to love of him. Like the first followers, we are to give ourselves wholly to him, responding to his invitation with obedience, following wherever he leads us. 

We are called to love him, trusting he will faithfully care for us. Jesus promises to supply all we need to answer his call, giving us everything we need to say yes to his invitation. Even when we don’t feel up to God’s call, or we worry we lack what we need to follow, we are inadequate, we can trust God. Through the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit, we have all we need say yes to go where Jesus leads us. We are given everything we need to do what we are called to do.

The vocation and work to which Jesus calls us, the places he calls us to go, are important in God’s work in this world. We don’t fully know the mind or purposes of God, but we can trust what God has us do is part of God’s plan. Through our small efforts, and those of many others, God’s kingdom is built, bit by bit, in this age.

In our Collect of the Day today we prayed, “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.” The Collect reminds us the call of Jesus is the opportunity to proclaim the Good News of his salvation to all people, that the whole world perceives the glory of his marvelous acts. 

Our lives are to be a witness to the love of God, to the power God has to transform this world. We are called to witness to the power of God’s light to shine to all places of sin and despair. In this age of division and hatred, our lives are to witness to our unity in Christ, helping overcome estrangement and alienation, building reconciliation.

The life to which Jesus calls us is to be beacons of God’s love, reflecting the light of God to the world. Our call is to invite others to know Jesus, to come and see who Jesus is. It is our task to share our own experience of life with Jesus. Through our witness others will be unable to resist the invitation of Jesus.

            Like those first disciples, may our hearts burn within us with love for Jesus. Full of his love, may we give the whole of our lives to him, following without hesitation or delay, going where he leads us. May our faith be so vibrant, it is contagious, so others are irresistibly drawn to come and see who Jesus is and experience the life to which he calls. May the light of Christ shine within us for all to see, that all know the love of God made known in Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

January 8, 2023

The Baptism of Christ, 13th century Italian. Public domain.

A sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The scripture readings are found here.

Today we begin the season after the Epiphany. Epiphany is a Greek word meaning “manifestation” or “revelation.” The coming weeks reveal who the Baby of Bethlehem is, showing his nature. There are three revelations of Jesus traditionally part of the Feast of the Epiphany. Today they are remembered on different days in the calendar, but in the early church they were all part of the feast on January 6, offering a rich picture of the nature of Jesus.

The first revelation is the arrival of the Wise Men from the East. These star gazing astrologers observe a new star announcing the Messiah’s birth. They set off into the unknown and follow it. Their long journey leads them to Bethlehem, to the Child born of Mary. They kneel before him, offering their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and they worship the Baby Jesus. The Wise Men are the first Gentiles to come to Jesus in adoration, revealing Jesus as the Savior of all the world, of all people. 

The second manifestation of the Epiphany is the wedding at Cana in Galilee. This is the first miracle of Jesus, recounted in John’s Gospel. During the wedding feast the wine runs out and Jesus turns jars of water used for ritual washing into an abundance of the finest wine. This miracle reveals the divinity of Jesus, and shows his desire for all people to know the abundant life of God. We hear this account just every third year on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany.

The third manifestation of Jesus is today’s Gospel: his baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. This account is in all four Gospels in some form. It is rare a story appears in all Gospels suggesting it is importance.

While an important account, the Baptism of Jesus raises questions. Especially, why is Jesus is baptized? The early church wrestled with why the One born without sin, who has no need of baptism, comes to the waters to be baptized? 

Matthew’s account, that we hear today, reflects this tension in the early church. Matthew tells how John the Baptist objects to baptizing Jesus and tries to prevent it from happening. Jesus tells John this is how it needs to be for now, and John relents and baptizes Jesus.

Martin Smith, in his collection of Lenten meditations, A Season for the Spirit, wrestles with this question. He suggests that Jesus did not need forgiveness, there is no reason for him to turn to a new way of life like the multitudes coming to John, but it was crucial for Jesus to be baptized. Rather than being removed from those needing repentance and forgiveness, Jesus goes right into the water with them, joining all of humanity fully. 

Smith puts it this way, “[Jesus] could have kept his distance, an innocent young man conscious of unbroken faithfulness to God, looking with pity on the thousands of ordinary people who were overwhelmed by the realization of their own moral inadequacy. But instead of looking down on them from afar secure in his own guiltlessness, Jesus plunged into the waters with them and lost himself in the crowd. He threw away his innocence and separateness to take on the identity of struggling men and women who were reaching out en masse for the lifeline of forgiveness.” 1

Jesus is not sinful, yet plunges into the waters with sinful humanity, revealing how deeply God seeks full communion with God’s people. God comes among us in the person of Jesus, putting on human flesh and accepting all the limitations that come with this self-emptying, in order to share fully in human life. Jesus is baptized to enter fully and completely into our human experience.

In Jesus, God comes among us to live our lies completely, so God may lift human life to the divine life, raising us above the sin and brokenness of this world to the eternal love of God. Jesus has no need of baptism for the forgiveness of sins: he has no sin. But it is important that God, in Jesus, shares in the fullness of our life, that we might share in the fullness of the life of the Trinity. 

When Jesus enters into the fullness of our humanity, we are changed by his act. The words spoken by God the Father to God the Son are also spoken to us. Just as God says to Jesus, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased,” so God says to us: “This is my Beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”

Through the waters of baptism we are invited to 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.

This morning we renew our Baptismal Vows. The promises made in baptism are nothing short of reorienting our lives to Jesus, directing our heart 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 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 about living the life of the beloved of God. At their heart 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 we promise to see in all people the belovedness bestowed on them by God’s love.

It can be challenging to live believing we are loved by God, that we are the beloved of God. Our society offers many negative messages, telling us we are not good enough as we are. We live in an age when everything is reduced to its economic value, where some people have great worth, others little value—some are even considered as expendable. We are given many reasons to view ourselves negatively, to feel very far from being beloved — beloved of God or 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.”2

Being beloved is who we are, it is the core truth of our lives. We are created by God in love. God pours lavish love on us simply because we are loved. We are created by God to be people who love in return, created to be in loving relationship with God. We do not need to earn this love, in fact we can’t. We are beloved simply because God loves us. It is a great gift — one we are freely given.

If we can 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 the wilderness for forty days, emerging at the end of that time with a clear sense of his mission and ministry, the same is true for us. 

Nouwen writes, “From the moment we claim the truth of being the Beloved, we are faced with the call to become who we are. Becoming the Beloved is the great spiritual journey we have to make. Augustine’s words: ‘My soul is restless until it rests in you, O God,’ capture well this journey.”3

Making this journey into belovedness changes us in other ways. If we know ourselves to be beloved, we can’t help but see other people as beloved as well. We are compelled to honor the fullness of their identity as beloved of God. We will be a blessing and comfort to all we meet, reminding them of the love God has for all God’s children.

In a few moments we will gather at the font, at the waters of baptism, to renew our Baptismal Covenant. In those waters all of life is changed. There we die to the old life, to the lies and deceits of this world, and we rise to the glorious life of God to which we are called. 

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

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, may God plant within all of us the desire to claim and live this holy calling, that we are transformed into the people God creates us to be. Living this new life in Christ, may God use us to build the kingdom on earth, that all people know they are beloved of God. Amen.

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1 A Season for the Spirit, Martin l. Smith. Cowely Publications, 1991, p. 9.

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

3 ibid.

January 1, 2023

The circumcision and naming of Christ, Preobrazhenski monastry, Bulgaria. Public domain.

A sermon for the Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. The scripture readings are found here.

Frederick Buechner was an American author, Presbyterian minister, preacher, theologian, and author of 39 published books. He died in August, at the age of 96. His book Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, was published January 1, 1973, and is a lexicon of theological terms and ideas. In it, there is an entry for “Name,” which tells the reader to see the entry for “Buechner,” his last name. 

It says, “Buechner is my name. It is pronounced Beek-ner. If somebody mispronounces it in some foolish way, I have the feeling that what’s foolish is me. If somebody forgets it, I feel that it’s I who am forgotten. There’s something about it that embarrasses me in just the same way that there’s something about me that embarrasses me. I can’t imagine myself with any other name Held, say, or Merrill, or Hlavacek. If my name were different, I would be different. When I tell you my name, I have given you a hold over me that you didn’t have before. If you call it out, I stop, look, and listen whether I want to or not. In the book of Exodus, God tells Moses that his name is Yahweh, and God hasn’t had a peaceful moment since.”1

Buechner observes that knowing someone’s name is to know something about them, even to “have a hold over them.” If we call a person’s name, they will look towards us, whether they want to or not. Knowing someone’s name is having a kind of power over them.

Knowing someone’s name also suggests relationship and connection. The first thing we do when meeting someone is learn their name. It is important we can “name them.” It is awkward if there aren’t introductions or if we forget someone’s name. 

 In Hebrew Scripture, Moses was called by God in burning bush. God says, “Moses, Moses,” and when he has his attention, tells Moses to go to Pharaoh. Moses asks, “Who sends me? What is your name?” Moses knows he can’t go to Egypt and say some unnamed God sent me to demand the freedom of the people of Israel. In reply, God answers, “I am who I am” or, in another translation, “I am who I am becoming.” God is known by variants of the verb “to be.”

  In the ancient world there was concern a deity’s name might be used for evil spells and incantations. So the Israelites show great care and respect with the name of God. God’s name is considered so holy, it was used only by certain people, such as by the High Priest, and only on particular days. The Ten Commandments forbid taking God’s name in vain, for this name is holy. God’s named is abbreviated and never written fully in scripture. God’s name is never spoken, instead substituting “Lord,” which is familiar to us from the Torah, prophets, and psalms. 

God’s name is not spoken by ordinary people and is never written fully. God could not  be seen by humans. If they saw God, they would die because we are not able in our humanity to grasp the fullness of God’s divinity. We are not capable of this encounter, of the finite creature meeting the eternal Creator. Moses comes closest on Mt Sinai when he sees God’s back as God passes by.

Everything changes in the Incarnation, when God comes among us in the person of Jesus. At Christmas, God puts on humanity, takes on human flesh. In Jesus God is seen, God has a human face, a body of flesh. God can be touched. Through the incarnation, we know God’s name is Jesus. 

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, when we celebrate and give thanks for the Name of Jesus. Rarely do you have this privilege on a Sunday. In today’s Gospel, Luke recounts that eight days after his birth, Jesus is circumcised and named, in accordance with Jewish Law. Luke records the Baby of Bethlehem is given the name the angel told Mary before he was born. Matthew’s Gospel, which we heard on Advent 4, reports the angel tells Joseph in a dream to name the child to be born of Mary, Jesus, a name that means “God saves.”

 Jesus is born into this earthly life, completely sharing our humanity, dwelling in human flesh among us. In this Child, God is no longer distant and remote. Now God’s face can be looked at. God can be touched. God’s name is known. In the Child of Bethlehem, God stoops to put on human flesh, becoming like us in every way, living the fullness of human life. Like us, Jesus experiences joy and hope, sorrow and loss, disappointment and pain, even death. 

God comes to us in Jesus to show us how much God loves us. Jesus shows us how to live God’s love: by tearing down divisions of our world; opening our hearts to all people, especially the forgotten, those at margins; caring for the weak and vulnerable. God comes among us as a Baby, One who is helpless and vulnerable, who must be protected and cared for, reminding us of our call to love and nurture all people, especially the vulnerable.

God comes among us showing the power of love to transform us and life itself. In Jesus, death no long holds us hostage, we can love fully, knowing the power of God’s love brings us through any difficulty, saving us even from death itself, lifting us to the abundant life God desires for us.   

God comes among us in Jesus, bringing divine Love to humanity, that we might be lifted to the divine life of the Trinity. Through Baptism, Jesus lays claim on us, marking us as Christ’s own forever, claiming us for eternity. Baptism calls us to put on the identity of Jesus, becoming the presence of Jesus in the world. 

Our Epistle, from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, explains our incorporation into the life of God through Baptism. Paul says through Jesus, we become children of God. The Holy Spirit in our hearts cries out to God, “Abba! Father!” Not only does God have a Name in Jesus, but the Spirit within us cries out to God with endearment and familial intimacy. God dwells within us and allows us cry out to God in a name of loving relationship and intimacy. 

The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus reminds us of the great gift we receive in the incarnation. In the holy Child of Bethlehem, God comes among us to be seen and known, showing us how to love. God seeks us out by coming to us in human flesh and loving us. God’s Spirit allows us to know God in loving intimacy, to God-who-saves-us through the Holy Name of Jesus.  

May we call on the Name of Jesus, God-with-us, the One who saves us from all that enslaves us and separates us from the love of God, of our neighbor, ourselves, and creation. May we always hold dear and sacred the Name of Jesus, using his Name carefully, reverently, and intentionally. May our eyes be opened to see in Jesus God revealed to us in human flesh, the One who draws us to God’s divine life, whose Name is holy and sweet in a sinner’s ear. May the Name of Jesus be our comfort and support, the Name in which we place all trust. 

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1 Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Frederick Beuchner. Harper San Francisco; 1973, p. 12.

December 25, 2022

The Nativity. Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319). Public domain.

A sermon for Christmas Day. The scripture readings are found here.

On Christmas Eve we read Luke’s account of birth of Jesus, as we do every year. It is very familiar. Luke includes many of the characters represented by the figures in our creche: the shepherds keeping watch over their sheep; the heavenly host of angels who proclaim “Glory to God in the highest”; Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus in a manger with the animals. Luke’s account of the nativity of Jesus largely informs our understanding of the Christmas story, creating a script for many a Christmas pageant.

On Christmas morning we do not read the familiar account from Luke, but instead we hear the Prologue from the Gospel according to John. It functions in John’s Gospel as a Christmas narrative though very different from Luke. 

The familiar actors are not present. Instead there are lofty words, rich with theological meaning and informed by Greek philosophy. These words may be an early Christian hymn that was incorporated into the text. It is composed of beautiful, soaring language. This Prologue opens John’s Gospel and is used to articulate the origins of the longed-for Messiah.

John’s prologue tells us that in the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God from before time. The Word in fact is God. All that exists came into being through the Word, present at the creation of the world.

These words bring to mind the opening of Genesis where God speaks creation into being. The eternal Word brings to birth all that is, pronouncing them good. This is John’s creation account, but unlike Genesis, it is an account of the new creation that comes about through the incarnation, when God enters into human flesh in the person of Jesus. 

The image of creation renewed and restored, of a world recreated, is heard in our lesson from the prophet Isaiah. The prophet proclaims God’s salvation. Because of God’s victory, the ruins lift their voice. All the ends of the earth see the salvation of our God. And the psalm asserts the whole creation sings a new song in joy for the marvelous things God has done. There is singing; the playing of instruments; the rivers, and hills sing out in joy, there is clapping. 

The Word comes to redeem and make all creation new. In the incarnation of God, all creation is pronounced good, all people are called the beloved of God. All are loved by God and worthy of love by others. God coming among us shows the deep love God has for humanity.

In Jesus, the eternal Word stoops to put on human flesh, the Creator of all things accepting the limitations of human existence. The Creator comes to dwell with the creation. God puts on human flesh that human flesh might be lifted to the divine life. The Word entering human existence is the Light of God come to the world. And that Light that is life. It is a powerful Light, one the darkness cannot extinguish.

John’s Prologue reminds us that, in being born the Child of Bethlehem, God ushers in a new age, one in which the old order passes away, and the status quo will be overturned. Money and military might not triumph. Injustice will end. The poor, hungry, oppressed, and forgotten will experience the hope and promise of God’s reign in their lives. The rich will be set free from slavery to their wealth and possessions.

This is the Light that comes into the world when the Word becomes incarnate. This is the Light by which we walk, a light that illumines our path, that shines to places of violence, hatred, and division, offering love, compassion, and healing. It is the Light of God’s love through which we are called to see one another and all of creation.

John assures us the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and in the Word we have seen God. No longer is God remote and far from us. Now God is with us in human flesh. God has a face we can see. God is near, coming right to where we are, dwelling among us.

The Greek word for “dwelt” literally means “pitched his tent.” In the incarnation, God camps out with us, wherever we are, and moves with us wherever we go. This recalls the people of Israel in the wilderness, the Ark of the Covenant, the presence of God, traveling with them, and placed in a tent when they rested.

God is with us wherever we are. God comes to the heart of human existence to seek us out and set things right, ushering in a transformation of the entire creation, leading humanity to the promised land, to the very throne of God in eternity.

At Christmas God comes among in the person of Jesus to lift us above the sin and suffering of this world. God accepts the limitations of being human in order to lift humanity the divine life, to life in the very heart of the Trinity. Just as God comes to us in the incarnation, so we are lifted by God to the divine life.

During Advent and Christmastide, I am reading a collection of writings by Anglican writers. Last week a passage from The Spirit of Prayer, by William Law was offered. Law reflects on the immeasurable gift God gifts us in coming among in the Baby of Bethlehem and lifting us the divine life of God. 

He writes, “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. You see, hear, and feel nothing of God because you seek for God abroad with your outward eyes, you seek for God in hooks, in controversies, in the church and outward exercises, but there you will not find God till you have first found God in your heart. Seek for God in your heart, and you will never seek in vain.”1  

Many centuries ago Jesus was born a Baby in Bethlehem. This morning Jesus is born in us, in you and me. Jesus is within us, bringing divine light to us, lifting our hearts to the throne of God. God is no longer remote and distant, but dwells with us, right here, right now, right where we are. 

Jesus also comes to us each time we celebrate the Eucharist, becoming present to us in signs of bread and wine. As we receive the bread of the Eucharist this morning, may we remember we hold in the palm of hand the creator of the universe, the eternal Word of God, the One who comes among us to transform us and lead us to the fullness of the divine life of the Trinity, into the divine life of light and love. 

May we claim our high calling, walking always in the Light of God and reflecting the Light of God to the world by our words and deeds. Let us live as the beloved children of God we are, loving all people as God loves us, seeing each person as the beloved child of God they are. 

And let us rejoice with great joy this morning, singing with the whole of creation, in thanksgiving for the great gift we are given. God comes among us in the holy Child of Bethlehem and we, with all people, and the whole of creation, are redeemed. For this we give great thanks and shout with joy. 

I close with Christmastide by the 19th century poet Christina Rossetti. This poem is also one of my favorite Christmas hymns in our hymnal. 

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine;
Love was born at Christmas,

Star and Angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.2

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

2 Source: The Poetical Works of Christina Georgina Rossetti, with a Memoir and Notes by William Michael Rossetti (1904), page 159. https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Poetry/christmastide_poems_of_christina.htm#Christmas

December 24, 2022

The Church of the Redeemer, Christmas Eve, 2021. Photo by the author.

A sermon for Christmas Eve. The scripture readings are found here.

Frederick Beuchner was an American author, Presbyterian minister, preacher, theologian, and author of 39 published books. He died in August, at the age of 96. In his 1988 book “Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized” he has an entry for “Christmas.” He observes that, in spite of the Christmas music playing for weeks, in spite of the emphasis on buy, buy, buy, often for people who do not need more things, we’ve never managed to take the meaning from Christmas. That is part of the miracle of this night. 

He goes on to describe a particular Christmas Eve in the life of a young clergyman and his wife, how they had much to do like everyone else. There were church responsibilities and home responsibilities. On Christmas Eve there were lights and ornaments to hang on the tree. Stockings to be hung with their young children. After the children are tucked into bed, there are preparations for the next morning. 

Just as the couple is ready to fall exhausted into bed, the man remembers his neighbor is away and asked him to feed his sheep. He nearly forgot. So he pulls on his coat and boots and trudges through knee-deep snow to the barn. He gathers two bales of hay and carries them to the shed. He turns on a forty-watt bulb hanging by a chord. The sheep are huddled in a corner, watching, as he unbales the hay. The sheep come over to eat.

 Beuchner says, “He is reaching to turn off the bulb and leave when suddenly he realizes where he is. The winter darkness. The glimmer of light. The smell of hay and the sound of the animals eating. Where he is, of course, is the manger. He only just saw it. He whose business it is above everything else to have an eye for such things is all but blind in that eye. He who on his best days believes that everything that is most precious anywhere comes from that manger might easily have gone home to bed never knowing that he had himself just been in the manger. The world is the manger. It is only by grace that he happens to see this other part of the miracle.”1

Beuchner observes Christmas is possible only “by grace.” That is why it has survived, why we have not “ruined it.” He says we have tried to tame it, making it what he calls “habitable,” something we can feel comfortable with and “at home” in. Beuchner cautions, however, that Christmas is not about comfort, it cannot be controlled by us, we cannot contain it. It is far beyond us. It is about God coming among us.

He writes, “The Word became flesh… Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not touching. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is untenable darkness riven with unbearable light. Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space, time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God…who for us and for our salvation,’ as the Nicene Creed puts it, ‘came down from heaven.’”2

We gather this Christmas Eve to celebrate and proclaim what, in many ways, is a beautiful ordinary human event: a baby being born. It would be easy to miss the importance and meaning of this night. We might try to tame and domesticate it, explaining in ordinary ways.

  But this night we celebrate a birth that is extraordinary. It is nothing less than God coming to inhabit humanity. This birth tears apart any notion we have of time and space. It upends our understanding of order, of how the world operates. It causes terror. It taxes human imagination to comprehend. This night we proclaim God in our midst as a vulnerable, helpless newborn baby.

We celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary and Joseph, two poor parents away from home, welcoming their newborn son in the feeding trough of animals. The world takes little notice. The powerful and elite are not gathered to greet this birth, but for those who can see, it is miraculous. 

  Tonight’s Gospel tells us there are some who take notice. There are shepherds, living literally at the margins of society, keeping their sheep in the fields. An angel comes to them. The glory of the Lord shines around them. They are terrified. They know firsthand the terror of what is happening, as angels tear open the night sky, shattering the quiet, God breaking into earthly time and history. 

“Do not be afraid,” the angel says, “for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

  The One promised of old, by the ancient prophets, has come. God delivers the people, lifts up the poor and lowly, comforts those that mourn, sets free those captive and enslaved. This astounding and incomprehensible message of God’s Good News is entrusted to the lowly shepherds. They go to the manger to see the scene told by the angels. They leave glorifying and praising God. They tell others what they have seen and heard.

The Good News they experience is nothing short of God upending human history. God breaking into human existence, coming among us as a baby, showing us the face of God, the face of Love, in a helpless and vulnerable newborn. The light of God’s love, present in this holy Child, pierces the deep darkness of a world wrapped in fear and sin.

  In our Lesson the prophet Isaiah proclaims, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” Isaiah prophesies a King who will come and lift the yoke of burden from people’s shoulders; the One on whom authority rests; the One who will end war; whose kingdom will be marked by peace.

Despite the light coming long ago, it has not overcome darkness. The world is not at peace, wars rage around the globe. Many are hungry, poor, oppressed. Our nation has growing numbers of people without adequate income. Gun violence takes far too many innocent lives—especially children. We remain divided by race and class, white supremacy and racism are strong. Many have lost beloved family members to the unending pandemic. 

  Despite the stark reality of our world this Christmas Eve, the light has come into the world. The people who knew darkness and deep gloom now walk by the light of Christ. For those who see the Baby born this night, this light is the beacon of God’s love.

Jesus is born to love, and invites us to love as he does. Jesus comes to defeat the powers of this world: violence, greed, self-centeredness, and hatred. Jesus is the Light that shines into our suffering and despair, healing and transforming them.

The One born this night as a helpless baby in Bethlehem comes among us as the Love that is stronger than the evil powers of this world, stronger than death. This Baby born the Prince of Peace loves at all costs, giving up his life on the hard wood of the cross for his profound love of all people. Through his love he draw us to himself, lifting us high above this world. 

Though the powers of darkness hold sway, the light of Christ shines in our world. The darkness will never overcame this divine light. God’s love and justice will prevail. Because God enters human life and history in the Child of Bethlehem, the trajectory of humanity is forever changed, we are lifted from the darkness of this world to the divine life of God. We are lifted above the ways of this world, with its life-denying ways, into the unimaginable, unexpected life-bestowing ways of God.

  This night God comes among us, desiring to be born in our hearts, casting out all fear. Jesus beckons us to open our hearts to him, allowing him to dwell with us, transforming us into his people of love. 

  May we respond to the great gift given this night as the shepherds did. May we not be afraid, but embrace with gratitude the gift of God-with-us, praising and glorify God, telling others what we have seen and heard. May we hear the angels’ greeting, their Good News of great joy. And with Mary, may we ponder all these things in our heart. Amen.

______________________________________________________________________

1 Buchner, Frederick, Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized; Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1988, pp. 27-28.

2 ibid.

December 18, 2022

The first dream of Joseph, fresco, 1360. Public domain.

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

The first weeks of Advent are focused on the second coming of Jesus at the end of the age, when he will appear in glory with the angels to judge the living and dead. His second advent will bring the consummation of history, an end to this age, and the ushering in God’s reign in completeness.

The past two Sunday’s we heard John the Baptist, the prophet in the wilderness, calling to prepare ourselves by repentance and turning to God. John proclaimed the Messiah is at hand, salvation is nearer then when we first believed, so be ready, prepare your hearts for Jesus to enter in.

Each year on the Fourth Sunday of Advent our focus shifts to the first coming of Jesus as the Child of Bethlehem. In two of the three years of our lectionary cycle, we hear from Mary’s experience in the Gospel according to Luke.

This year is different. We read Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus which is very different from Luke’s. Luke has much of what we consider the Christmas story: the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary with the news she will bear a  Son by the Holy Spirit; the shepherds watching their flocks by night in the field; the heavenly host of angels appearing to the shepherds singing God’s praises; Mary, the mother of the new-born Child, treasuring all things in her heart; the shepherds returning after visiting the Child praising and glorifying God for what they had seen.

Rather than these familiar images, to which many of us have an emotional and sentimental attachment, Matthew records the story of Joseph. Joseph is engaged to a woman named Mary. Before they are married, Joseph discovers Mary is pregnant. This means Joseph has to divorce Mary. Matthew tells us he is a righteous man, and being righteous means Joseph follows the law, living by the commands of God. 

No matter how much Joseph loves Mary and might want to forgive her and marry her, he cannot. He is required to annul the marriage contract because she is guilty of fornication. According to the law, he could not marry her if she was carrying another man’s child. As a righteous man he must love God more than Mary.

So Joseph decides he will divorce Mary, but will show her mercy by quietly divorcing her. According to the Book of Deuteronomy (22:23-24), Mary could be stoned for being pregnant before marriage. Seeking to avoid this, or any other disgrace that might befall her, Joseph decides to protect Mary from public ridicule.

All of Joseph’s plans are changed while he sleeps. An angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream, telling him not to divorce Mary. The Child she carries is of God, not another man. She has not committed fornication. The angel tells Joseph he shall name the baby Jesus, for “he will save his people from their sins.”

Because Joseph is righteous, following God’s commands, he trusts the message of the angel and marries Mary. Contrary to the law, going against his own understanding of what it means to be faithful, Joseph follows the angel’s message. Joseph takes an action at odds with his religious practice and the conventions of his times. In doing so, he helps bring about God’s plan of salvation. Through Joseph’s bold risk, God comes among God’s people to save them. 

Thinking about Joseph, I wonder how much of a challenge it was for him to do something so contrary to his understanding of a righteous life? Did he wonder if God would actually call him to such a surprising action as marrying a woman already pregnant? Or did he have the quiet trust of knowing the message he was given was from God and to be followed? 

It is fascinating that this dream is one of three in which Joseph receives messages from God. He also learns in a dream that God wants him to flee to Egypt with Mary and the Baby because King Herod wants to kill the Child. In the third dream Joseph is told Herod is dead and it is safe to return from Egypt, so he takes the Holy Family to Nazareth where Jesus grows up.

Joseph listens to his dreams and trusts what God tells him. It seems Joseph knows dreams are important, that God can speak to us in them. Our dreams can hold a vision of what is possible, of the hope things will not always be as they are. Dreams can express the longing, the deep desire, of the ancient prophets who proclaimed the trustworthy promise of God that sustained a people in exile with the dream of God’s restoration, of return to their homeland, of the earth once again producing an abundance of crops. 

This is the dream of those through the ages who have seen clearly the world is not as God desires, and have dared to dream for the fulfillment of God’s promises, longing for God to enter in and restore all things by God’s love and justice.

As followers of Jesus are called to be such dreamers. The season of Advent is a time for dreaming. This is the season for dreaming of how a world governed by hatred, greed, and violence will be transformed. It is the season to express our deepest longings and hopes, the ways we desire things be different. 

Advent is when we dare to dream for the seemingly impossible: that God will enter in to to save us, coming into the brokenness and suffering of our world. That God will save us from our reliance on ourselves and our selfish, violent ways. That God will save us from narrow thinking and judgment, expanding our minds and imaginations. That God will redeem and save us so we embody more perfectly God’s love in the world.

This Advent we are called to believe what seems impossible: a young woman can be pregnant with the Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit; a helpless Baby born to unmarried parents in a humble animal stall can save us; a vulnerable Child is the fulfillment of the prophets’ longings and God’s ancient promises; the Child Jesus is God putting on human flesh, living among us, showing us Love, by his very being and life; the gruesome death of this Child as a young man sets us free from the power of sin, showing us Love is stronger than death.

Like Joseph we are called to dream, dreaming of a world restored and made new by God. We are to hope for the impossible to happen. Then, like Joseph, we are called to say yes to God’s will. Doing so, we do our part to bring the kingdom of God to reality in this world.

But we must be clear what we are asked to do. Like Joseph, saying yes to God will call us into places that challenge us. God will lead us outside our comfort zone, beyond what we know. Faithfully following Jesus leads to actions others do not understand or may ridicule. We will be called to a life that is surprising and unexpected, a life at odds with the values and ways of this world. It is challenging to say yes to this way of life, but this is the path to richer and more abundant life than any other we can know.

Jesus is the One who comes to us how to live this life, walking in his way of love, by giving up his life for us in love. Jesus is the longed for God-with-us, Emmanuel, who enters into our lives, bringing the promise of life abundant, of love stronger than death.

In our collect today we prayed, “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.”

Jesus stands ready to come to us daily, visiting us in our joy and sorrows, setting us free to love without counting the cost. Like Joseph, we only have to say “yes” for Jesus to enter in and cast out our fear and anxiety, bringing us to places we scarcely can dream of, to a way of life rich in love and mercy.

In this final week of Advent, may we prepare our hearts through times of quiet and prayer, watching with expectation for God to enter in. May Jesus find in us a dwelling place—even a large and spacious mansion—prepared for him so he is born is us and his love fills our hearts to overflowing, pouring from us into the world. Amen.

December 11, 2022

St. John the Baptist in Prison Visited by Two Disciples,
Giovanni di Paolo (1403-1482). Public domain.

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent. The scripture readings are found here.

We all live with expectations. We have them about matters small and great. It is common to approach a situation or event wondering how things might unfold. When we have to make important decisions or do difficult things, we imagine how things will go, and have expectations of what will happen. We can also be blinded by our expectations. Expecting things to happen in a certain way, we may miss what actually does happen. We can be blind-sided when the unexpected happens.

This is certainly true for how we understand the ways of God. None of us can fully know the mind of God. God is much larger than we are. God’s ways are largely mysterious to us. Anticipating how God will act, predicting what God will do, is difficult—maybe even impossible for us. God continually acts in surprising ways. God does new and unexpected things. God even brings about the impossible. Our call is to stay alert, vigilant, watching for what God does. 

In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist struggles with his expectations of how the Messiah will act. Last week we heard from the third chapter of Matthew than John proclaimed the coming Messiah, whose “sandals [he] was not worthy to carry.” John prepares the people for the Messiah’s coming through the call to repentance. When he baptizes Jesus in the River Jordan, John is certain Jesus is the One promised long ago, the One to deliver the people, the One long expected.

A few chapters later and everything has changed. In today’s passage from the eleventh chapter of Matthew, John is in prison. Like the prophets before him, John spoke truth to the powers of this world, and those in power were threatened by his words. For his truth-telling, Herod arrests John, imprisons him, and eventually kills him.

From prison John wonders about Jesus, who he is. John asks if Jesus is actually the Messiah. Perhaps prison has changed John’s perspective. Maybe John is worried because Jesus isn’t doing what John expected.

It is possible John’s expectation of the Messiah, don’t match what John sees in Jesus. In John’s time it was commonly understood the Messiah would check the powers of this world. The Messiah would be more powerful than earthly political rulers and would bring about God’s justice through force. John sees this is not happening. John sits in prison. Herod’s power is not checked or diminished by Jesus. This leaves John wondering if Jesus is the One the people wait for, the Messiah whose coming John foretold. 

So John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the promised Messiah. As often happens, Jesus does not answer directly, but replies, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

We hear these same words in in our Lesson today from the prophet Isaiah. God tells the people of Israel their exile will come to end. The terrible things they experience after being conquered by a foreign empire and taken into exile are not the end of the story. God’s justice will prevail. The people will be restored. 

This promise is articulated in beautiful language: the desert will bloom and rejoice; the fearful have no reason to fear any longer; God will come and save the people; the blind will see; the deaf will hear; the lame will leap; the speechless will sing; the people will return home, singing.

Jesus uses the image of a restored Israel to explain what he is doing. Jesus is bringing new life, restored wholeness from death and brokenness. In Jesus the restoration of God is seen. In him is healing for the nations. Through him God’s reign and justice are transforming the earth. By him those who are hurting are healed and restored. There are signs of new life in everything Jesus does. He does forcefully overthrow earthly powers, but he is transforming the face of the earth by God’s love and justice.

Jesus tells John’s disciples to go tell what they see. They are to observe what Jesus is doing and tell it to John. They are to suspend their assumptions about who the Messiah is and what the Messiah will do, and see what Jesus is actually doing. They are to watch and tell the story of their experience.

Jesus does not offer an answer that will easily satisfy anyone needing certainty and proof, but for those who can suspend their exceptions, their ideas of how things should be, who can see with open eyes, it is clear who Jesus is. Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s words. Jesus brings about the kingdom dreamt of by the people in exile. Through Jesus the ancient promise of God becomes real. The kingdom of God has come near in Jesus.

Jesus does not answer directly answer the question of who he is—not for John, and not for you and me. Instead, Jesus asks us who we think he is? He asks what do we see in him? He asks what we expect to see? Jesus ask the crowds what they went out to see in the wilderness? Likewise, Jesus asks us as well, What did we expect to see?

Jesus leaves John, and you and me, to decide if Jesus is the One hoped for. We are left to decide for ourselves. We are to watch and see what Jesus is doing and move beyond our rigid expectations and actually see what God is doing. Then we have to decide if Jesus is the Messiah we await. If he is, then we are invited to follow him.

If we decide to follow, we are to tell others about our experience. Through our witness, others will experience the promise of God revealed in Jesus. By telling the story of our experience, others can know new life and wholeness in Jesus for themselves.

  In this Advent season we are called to be attentive, watching, listening, and seeing what God is doing. This is a time for stories, for listening to how people experience God at work in their lives. This is the time to tell our stories of what we see and hear, of how God is at work in our lives and the life of this parish. This is a season for us to expect God present in our lives, and a time to be attentive to what God is doing. 

We can only see these things of God by letting go of our expectations and assumptions, asking the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and minds to the new and unexpected thing God is doing. The only certainly is God will surprise us. God will do things we cannot ask or imagine. God will do the impossible. 

Who could ever anticipate a poor, young, unmarried woman giving birth to a Son who is God with us, God incarnate in human flesh? Who could imagine God coming among us in the person of Jesus, giving up all power to live as a creature within the creation? Who could imagine Mary’s Son going to a gruesome death on the cross, and through his offering of his life, destroying forever the power of sin and death, gaining for us the promise of eternal life? We could never have guessed such things. We could never have predicted such things. And we will miss other miraculous acts of God if we are bound by our expectations, by our notion of how things will be, how they should be.

After nearly three years of pandemic, when every aspect of life has been affected, when so much has changed and is not as it was, when we as individuals and a parish are very different from how we were, Advent invites us to pray the Holy Spirit enlightens us, expanding our hearts and minds that we see God at work now and we love as never before. Now is the time to let go of nostalgia and desire for what was and instead boldly move through our reticence and anxiety, entering fully into the unfolding present and future God has in store for us.

Advent calls us to see God at work in the ordinariness of daily life, expecting God to enter into our lives, offering us hope stronger than death. The promises of old will come to pass. The powers of this world will not hold sway for ever. God will redeem all creation. God will bring us through this time into the fullness of God’s reign of love. This is cause for deep and authentic joy—joy that transforms us, joy that casts out all fear and anxiety. 

Jesus says to us today, as he did long ago to John the Baptist’s disciples, “Go and tell…what you hear and see.” What do you hear? What do you see? What will you tell others? Amen.

December 4, 2022

St. John the Baptist, 14th century. Public domain.

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

During the season of Advent, the Church focuses on what is essential and of deeper meaning. Advent is about the promises of God. These four weeks can be a gift, a time of watching for what God is doing, waiting for God to enter into our lives and the world. This is a season to live by the hope God will transform us and the world.

One of the central figures of Advent is John the Baptist. John is a singular character. He appears like a prophet of old. Living in the wilderness, he wears camel’s hair and eats locusts and wild honey. He lives at the margins of the world, away from the power of politics and empire. Yet people in great numbers flock from all around to his desolate location. They are hungry for something, searching for meaning, looking for a better way of living.

When they arrive at John’s barren home, the crowds hear his message. Matthew tells us John proclaims, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He preaches the longed-for Messiah is coming, his arrival is at hand. John calls the people to prepare for the Messiah by stripping away the non-essentials, focusing on the things that matter most, and setting their lives in order.

John invites the people the people to do this through metanoia, a Greek word much richer in meaning than its English translation “repentance.” Metanoia is turning to a new direction, reorienting oneself; it also means putting on a new mindset, embracing a new way of thinking. 

Metanoia is a call to change and transformation. It is a call to turn to God by turning away from everything that distracts us from following Jesus. It is letting go of whatever turns us away from God—any material goods, desires, practices, habits, mindsets, or ideas that draw us away from God.

The repentance John calls for is not about moral worthiness as much as it is about God’s desire to change us. This repentance is a call to allow God to realign us so we live according to Jesus’ way of love. Repentance is not feeling guilty but about our sins, but is about God’s desire to transform us into Christ’s image. Jesus comes to baptize with the power of the Holy Spirit, claiming us as his own forever. Through baptism we are buried with Christ in a death like his, and raised to his resurrection life.

The call to repentance is difficult to hear, let alone act on, in the midst of the routine of daily life. This may be even more true in December, with all its activities. This may be why John the Baptist invites us to the wilderness. Away from all the noise and bustle of town and city, the desolate landscape is a place where externals are stripped away. It is a place where we are confronted with our vulnerability, with our need for God. 

In scripture the wilderness is the place the people of Israel wrestled with God for 40 years. As they wandered towards the Promised Land, they feared God was not trustworthy and brought them into the wilderness to die. In nostalgia they longed for the leeks and cucumbers of Egypt—forgetting the harsh conditions of slavery. In the wilderness they sinned and rebelled against God. And it is in the wilderness they learned to trust and obey God, where God formed them into God’s people.

Advent calls us likewise to journey to the wilderness, away from the demands and distractions of the world, to a place we can acknowledge our own resistance to what God desires to do in and through us. The wilderness is the place to remember God’s promise to be with us and sustain us, to lead us into the fullness of God’s promises.

The wilderness can be a frightening and terrifying place. Stripping away externals can cause anxiety. The call to repent can bring up feelings of guilt and unworthiness from our past. We may fear God’s judgment. We may wonder if we can expect God’s mercy rather than God’s wrath.

Some of us grew up in religious traditions that used the threat of judgement in harmful ways. In my own childhood I was taught sin is a violation of God’s rules. My sins, I was told, tainted my soul. If there was enough sin, my soul would not recover, and I was going to hell. Confession was the only way to wipe my soul clean. But as a queer child, I understood my identity was being judged. I, as a person, was unworthy because of who I am, because of my sexual orientation. There was, for me, no escaping the judgment of scripture and Church.

What John proclaims is not that kind of judgment. Jesus comes not to condemn the world, but to love the world. He judges with eyes of love and desires to draw all people to himself, in loving relationship. 

Sin is not about violating a list of divine rules that must be followed. Rather, sin is any action or thought that inhibits our relationship with God, creation, others, and ourselves. Sin puts us at the center of our lives, replacing God. Sin is alienation and estrangement. It is whatever holds us back from becoming the full creatures God intends. Sin is living by apathy and complacency instead of creativity and abundance. Sin is rejecting relationship with God. It is the way of death, not life.

Austin Farrer (1904-1968), a 20th century priest in the Church of England priest, was an educator, philosopher, biblical scholar, and eloquent preacher. In his book, The Crown of the Year, he wrote “Our judge meets us at every step of our way, with forgiveness on his lips and succor in his hands. He offers us those things while there is yet time.”1

He assures us the Messiah’s judgment is that of love, compassion, and mercy. It strips away what is not essential, everything that prevents our deep communion with God, just as the chaff is burned by fire. Jesus seeks to burn away all impurities so we bear good fruit, and are ready for the divine life of God. Jesus will do whatever is necessary to bring us to the abundant life God prepares for us.

Austin Farrer asserts that what judges us and what redeems us is the same: the love of God. He writes, “Advent brings Christmas, judgement runs out into mercy. For the God who saves us and the God who judges us is one God…what judges us is what redeems us, the love of God. What is it that will break our hearts on judgement day? Is it not the vision, suddenly unrolled, of how [God] has loved the friends we have neglected, of how [God] has loved us, and we have not loved him in return; how, when we came before his altar, he gave us himself, and we gave him half-penitences or resolutions too weak to commit our wills? But while love thus judges us by being what it is, the same love redeems us by effecting what it does. Love shares flesh and blood with us in this present world, that the eyes which look us through at last may find in us a better substance than our vanity. Advent is a coming, not our coming to God, but [God] to us. We cannot come to God, he is beyond our reach; but he can come to us, for we are not beneath his mercy.”2

The Messiah is entering in. The reign of God is close at hand. Jesus comes to purify us, that we are a fit dwelling for God. Advent’s call is to create space, to have time in silence, to withdraw from the frenzy, that we can assess our lives, repent of how we stray from God, and allow God to transform us, drawing us closer to the loving heart of God.

The promise of Advent is that God is at work transforming us and the world, entering into each moment. Are we open to seeing God at work? Are we ready to receive God’s visitation? Will we allow God to change and transform us into the people God creates us to be?

Come, Lord Jesus, enter in and make all things new. Amen.

___________________________________________________________

  1. Christopher L. Webber. Love Came Down: Anglican Readings for Advent and Christmas (Kindle Locations 59-66). Kindle Edition. 
  2. Ibid.

November 27, 2022

Second Coming of Jesus, Russian icon, 1700. Public domain.

A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent. The scripture lessons are found here.

Since the pandemic began, it seems Christmas decorations appear earlier than before. Before Thanksgiving, sparkling lights, wreaths, and Christmas trees were displayed in some neighborhood homes. As we approach the beginning of December, the annual “holiday season” has begun.

Things are a different here in the church. Rather than the “holiday season,” our liturgical calendar offers the season of Advent. Instead of one long wind-up to Christmas, Advent is a season in its own right, with its own themes and promises. Advent provides four weeks to prepare for celebrating Christmas.

Advent calls us to honesty, to looking at our lives and our world realistically, seeing how we stray from God’s call and intention. It is a season for open eyes, for seeing with God’s eyes, acknowledging the pain and brokenness of our lives and our world. 

We do so with the expectation that God is acting, that 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, how God desires to turn things right through the power of God’s love and justice.

These four weeks of Advent are at odds with the good cheer and sentimental joy of the secular holiday season. In a sermon entitled “Advent Begins in the Dark,” the Episcopal priest and author 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, “That is understandable. 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.”1 Advent is indeed not for the faint of heart. Advent is not for those who want to deny or ignore the state of our world, but for those who want to honestly see. 

As the natural world is plunged into darkness and cold, we are called to watch for daybreak. In our Epistle this morning Paul tells the Christians in Rome that the night is far spent, the day is near. Our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. We know what time it is: time for us to wake from sleep.

In our Gospel Jesus calls his followers to stay awake, to watch. Only the Father knows when the Son will return in glory to judge the living and the dead. So be ready. Jesus warns not to live as they did in the time of Noah, oblivious to the flood about to befall them. People were living as though asleep and did not see what God was doing. They were caught by surprise when the flood waters rose and they perished. Jesus calls us to stay awake, so we see his coming.

Jesus compares himself to a thief coming in the night. If the homeowner knew when the intruder would arrive, he would have stayed awake to protect his possessions. We are to stay awake like the vigilant home owner, watching for Jesus to return. 

It seems odd Jesus uses the image of a thief for his return at the end of the age. Jesus does to catch our attention, shaking us out of our complacency, so what occupies our attention doesn’t blind us to what God is doing. Jesus calls us to be ready, alert, and watching. We are to cast off what blinds us, taking our attention from what is truly important, so we are alert and ready.

We are to be ready for the day Jesus returns as our judge. Talk of judgement is not something we like to think about. We prefer to focus on Jesus being loving and forgiving, the One who welcomes, not condemns. But the Gospels are clear, as we hear this morning, that Jesus will return at the end of time, in glory with the angels, his dazzling body bearing the scars of his passion, to judge the living and the dead. This is the scene depicted in our East Window above the High Altar. In it we see Jesus returning in glory with the angels and separating the sheep from the goats, dividing the righteous from the unrighteous.

The good news is that Jesus sets his cross between us and the judgment of our souls. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus we are made worthy. Jesus desires to bring everyone into the fullness of God’s kingdom. When Jesus judges, he will gaze upon us with eyes of mercy and compassion—understanding us better than we do ourselves, loving us more than we can imagine or love ourselves.

While Advent is not for the faint of heart, and judgment may leave us feeling uneasy, this is a season of promise and hope. In Advent we proclaim God’s power will triumph over the sin and evil of this world. We hold onto the image of swords beaten into plough shares and spears turned to pruning hooks, of instruments of war turned into implements for growing food; of war learned no more, so that God’s peace may reign. This is a season for hoping that what seems impossible can actually happen through the power of God: war will cease, people will kill one another no more, death will not be the end but lead to life.

As the days grow darker and colder, moving toward that longest night of the year, we assert this hope by lighting a 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, shines. The night is far spent, the dawn of God’s reign is on the horizon.

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.

In this in-between time we trust God is present. As we move through the challenges of this age, Advent asserts God is with us. God’s love and justice break into this world even now, before the consummation of history when Jesus comes again. So we live in this time by hope.

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?”

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 redeems us, bringing all people into eternal life.

The season of Advent is not for the faint of heart. It does not offer easy answers or simple fixes. It is not about sentiment or holiday cheer. Rather, Advent is about the stark reality of a world afflicted 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 dawn of God’s coming lights the eastern horizon.

May Jesus enter in and wake us from sleep, casting off our complacency, shaking us from our routine. May we allow Jesus to open our eyes so we see the signs, watching and waiting expectantly for the advent of God. Let us yearn for God’s promise of healing and redemption, trusting God’s promise that the future will be different from the present, that God’s reign will break in, that the seemingly impossible is, in fact, possible with God. May we hold on to this hope in the midst of the present reality, as we watch for the coming of our God. Amen.

November 20, 2022

Icon of Crucifixion. Hermitage, St.Petersburg, 17th century. Public domain.

As some of you know, I enjoy watching documentaries. I am interested in history and especially archeology. From these videos, I learn how archeology reveals ancient politics and power struggles, such as how the Romans built forts to control unruly local populations and high status villas to show off their power; how Medieval and Renaissance cardinals built large homes worthy of entertaining kings as statements of their power; and that monasteries amassed large tracts of land, reaping the produce and industry of the peasant population. 

These documentaries taught me how Kings built castles in strategic locations to control the local population, repel foreign invasion, and as a base to conquer more territory. Monarchs benefitted from the toil and hard work of the peasant class, using their wealth to build lavish palaces befitting their noble station and status. 

As these historical realities become more obvious to me, I grow increasingly uneasy using royal language when referring to Jesus. I wonder what we mean, what exactly are we saying, when we call Jesus “King.” What do we mean by “king”?

Today is the Last Sunday after Pentecost, the final Sunday of the liturgical year. It is common in the Episcopal Church to call this day “Christ the King.” This title comes originally from the Roman Catholic calendar. The Book of Common Prayer simply calls today the Last Sunday after Pentecost.

It is easy to see why we might import this title. The Collect of the Day names Jesus “the King of kings and Lord of lords.” In the first lesson Jeremiah writes, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king…” As followers of Jesus we interpret this passage as an ancient prophecy of Jesus who, as a descendant of David, reigns as our King for eternity.

From the earliest centuries of the church, Jesus was proclaimed the King of the universe, the ruler of all time and space. Cyril of Jerusalem, a fourth century bishop said, “Christ has dominion over all creatures…by essence and by nature…[T]he Word of God, as consubstantial with the Father, has all things in common with him, and therefore has necessarily supreme and absolute dominion over all things created.”

We hear Cyril’s words echoed in our Epistle today. Writing to the Colossians, Paul reminds us that Jesus has rescued us from danger, and through baptism brought us to share in the inheritance of the saints. Jesus is the invisible God made visible in human flesh. Jesus is the head of all, for he is the creator of all. Jesus is before all things, and holds all things together. In him “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”

What Cyril and Paul say does not sound at all like the monarchs of our world. Their words do not refer to earthly monarchs who built large palaces or waged wars to control more territory. So we must exercise caution when using kingly language for Jesus, being deliberate about what we are saying—and what we are not saying. It can be tempting to apply the imagery and ways of earthly monarchs to our Lord and Savior, Jesus our King. 

In truth, Jesus is not like earthly rulers. Jesus does not amass vast wealth on the backs of the poor who cry out for food. Jesus does not undertake military campaigns to conquer lands and gain influence. Jesus does not gather accolades and honorifics to himself. Jesus has no grand palace, nor a grand throne from which to reign, nor a golden crown on his head.

Yesterday, the daily Word from the Society of St. John the Evangelist was titled, “King.” It said, “The world has never seen, except once, the kind of king we mean when we speak of Christ the King. Instead of a throne, our king reigns from a cross and rules on his knees. His crown is thorns. His orb and sceptre, a basin and towel. His law is love. We are here to tell the tale of lives transformed by loving service, for this king has set an example for us all.”

Jesus is a King unlike any earthly monarch. The reign of Jesus is one of self-emptying. Jesus serves the least in humble service. Jesus is the King who invites his friends to a last meal the night before he is killed and kneels on the floor washing their feet—washing even the feet of the one who will betray him. Jesus goes willingly to his death on the cross, not returning violence in response to what he suffers.

It is fitting our Gospel today is Luke’s account of Jesus on the cross. In this passage we clearly see the type of king Jesus is. His throne is the hard wood of the cross. From this throne Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” While dying an agonizing death, Jesus forgives those who kill him. He silently endures the mocking of the soldiers. He promises the repentant thief on a cross next to him a place in Paradise.

It is tempting for us to proclaim Jesus as a King modeled on earthly royalty, one who has great power and glory. It is more challenging to celebrate Jesus hanging on the cross. I typically find on Palm Sunday I want to stay in the opening procession, waving palm branches and proclaiming, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” rather than shouting a few minutes later, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Glory is easier than the cross, it is more desirable, more palatable, more readily understood and celebrated. 

But glory does not bestow abundant life. The powers of this world that revel in the glory of earthly rulers are passing away. Only the offering of Jesus on the cross defeats, once and for all, the powers of evil and death. Only through the passion of Jesus do we pass from death to eternal life with God and all the saints.

The reign of  Christ calls us to die to the ways of this world. Through baptism, we are made citizens of heaven, living rooted in eternity, even now in this present age. In the waters of the font we put on the identity of Jesus, being conformed to his likeness, becoming his presence in the world.

The Kingship of Jesus calls us to live as he does in three particular ways. The first is to renounce the vanities of this world. We are to reject materialism and consumerism, living simply, without hurting other people and the creation. This is especially challenging in the holiday shopping season. In this season of buying goods, Jesus calls us to reject the commodification of this world, where everything and everyone has a price. We are called to remember all people are beloved children of God. We are to live simply, not allowing our possessions to take hold of our heart. We are to give a portion of our material abundance away that others may have what they need to live. We follow a King who had no palace and no material possessions.

Second, the reign of Jesus gives meaning and value to our pain and suffering. On the cross Jesus knew great suffering, he experienced the horrific pain of torture. His passion reminds us God knows the pain of our human experience. God is with us when we know sadness. God is beside us, comforting us when we hurt. On the cross Jesus feels abandoned, crying, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”. Though feeling alone, God hears his cry with compassion,  receiving his spirit when he dies. God does the same for us. God is besides us when we feel alone. God is present with us when we may not sense God near us.

Finally, the Kingship of Jesus is the way of love, not the path of might. Jesus is the second Person of the Trinity, God-with-us in human flesh, the One who gives up all power to come among us. In his earthly life and ministry Jesus seeks not his honor, but instead welcomes the least, the marginalized, the forgotten. Jesus uses his power for justice, setting the injustice of this world on its head. Jesus exercises his Kingship by giving up his power and the glory that is his right. As King, Jesus gives up his very life in love for humanity who kills him.

Just as Jesus forgives those who crucify him, so he calls us to be people who forgive. Like Jesus, we are to pray for those who harm us. Just as Jesus does, we are to love our enemies. Like him, we are called to be reconcilers, working to bring people together, not apart. Because everyone is a beloved child of God, we are to find our unity in Jesus. Like him we are to seek out and welcome the least, serving them, and seeing in them the face of Jesus himself.

Being incorporated into Christ’s body, we are called to live by his most gracious rule, rejecting the ways of earthly rulers. Following Jesus is the way of life, life richer and more abundant that any earthly ruler can offer. In Jesus is life without end. Through him we share in the fullness of his reign for eternity, in that glorious kingdom without end. Amen.

November 13, 2022

The Prophecy of the Destruction of the Temple, James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum. Public domain.

A sermon for the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are found 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, reflecting sunlight in a dazzling, even blinding, way. 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 the disciples comment on the beautiful stones of these impressive buildings. Most people at that time would have been impressed by the Temple. 

Today’s passage takes place in Holy Week, just before Jesus is crucified. Jesus and the disciples have visited the Temple daily. He has been openly critical of the religious officials’ leadership. Jesus says they are not leading the people closer to God, but instead blind to God’s will. Jesus accuses them of presiding over a system that enriches themselves, giving them honor and power, at the expense of the poor.

As the disciples marvel at the Temple, Jesus doesn’t share their impression. He says to them, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left 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. 

When the Temple is destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, it is a cataclysmic event. Not only a great, enduring building, the Temple was also 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.

Jesus knows 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 leads them, walking in 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 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 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 called to journey from darkness to light; from alienation to community; from guilt to pardon; from slavery to freedom; and from fear to hope.

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 in this age. There is real anxiety and worry in our nation. We are a people polarized and divided. Hatred seems more extreme than in recent decades. We are unable, or unwilling, to speak across our difference, too willing to see those who differ from us as enemies.

There is also anxiety about the state of the church, including our own parish. After almost of three years of pandemic, there are stresses on church communities. Even before the pandemic, churches faced many challenges. These are now greater.

Like many congregations, we give thanks for weathering this very difficult time and the manifold ways God has watched over and sustained us. And we are aware of the challenges before us. We are grateful to at last worship again in-person, in the church, yet we are diminished. Beloved parishioners have died, moved away, or not returned. We keenly feel grief over their loss. We wonder what the future holds for us, how we will move through this time.

It is important we acknowledge and honor these emotions, not ignoring or burying the grief, loss, worry, even anxiety we feel. It is equally important we keep these things in perspective. The church, including this parish, has faced significant challenges before. Always God was present, leading the people, guiding their faithful effort to usher in God’s reign of love. 

I think of the disciples in today’s Gospel, simply marveling at the architecture of an impressive building, something I do regularly, only to have Jesus utter words of warning and impending doom, of calamities, destruction, death, division, and persecutions. It must have been difficult for them to hear what Jesus says.

Then, just a few days after saying these words, Jesus is arrested and the disciples scatter in fear. They go into hiding, worried they too will be arrested and killed. That first Easter Day, the male apostles are afraid and disbelieving, unable to comprehend Jesus is raised from the dead.

At the Day of Pentecost, everything changes for them. Filled with the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit, they are able to courageously face the challenges before them. Never again do they shrink in fear, hiding behind locked doors. In every action and word, they proclaim Jesus crucified and risen. They are so full of the Spirit’s power, they cannot help themselves from proclaiming Jesus and his way of love.

By the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, those first followers of Jesus are able to hear and understand the last part of today’s Gospel, when Jesus tells them, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict…not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

The first followers of Jesus come to understand they are safe for eternity in God. No matter what challenges face them, the Holy Spirit is with them, giving them the gifts they need, the words to say, the strength to persevere. Moving from fear and anxiety, they experience the liberating power of God and know the joy of living by the Spirit. Though the world around them is full of division and hatred, injustice and violence, they live by love. Through them, many others come to know the joy of following Jesus, and the abundant life of love in God.

There is no question we live in challenging times. It is understandable we feel anxiety and worry. It is also important to remember God is at work even now. Our most important task in this time may be to pray, to come before God in silence and contemplation, listening for God to speak words of hope and encouragement to us, seeking to discern God’s call to us as individuals and a parish community. In prayer we can also lift to God our concerns and worries, offering to God the hurt and brokenness of our world so it can be healed by God’s love.

We also sent by Jesus, with a mission to our world. We are called to live the hope and promise of God, witnessing to the world that we are safe for eternity; that in Christ we are made one, all divisions are torn down; in Christ what divides us is less important than what unites us. Our mission as the church is to speak words of healing and compassion, to bind up wounds, and work for reconciliation and healing. By our words and deeds, we are to proclaim Jesus crucified and risen, offering words of hope for this anxious age by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Today Jesus invites us to not be afraid, trusting not one hair of our head will perish, that in his way of love we regain our souls, and there is healing in his wings. Amen.

November 6, 2022

Far Angelico (c. 1395-1455). Public domain.

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

One of the highlights of my week is Tuesday morning when the Knitters gather in the Angell Room. Scattered around them are beautiful balls of different colored yarn. In an act of pure magic, they gather the strands, and with the click of needles, they create gorgeous hats, scarves, mittens, all lovingly made to keep warm people living on the streets of our city. I am in awe of their skill and ability.

Each year I think of the Knitters on All Saints’ Day when we pray the Collect of the Day:“Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord.” These words image God as a divine knitter, not of garments, but of community, fellowship, a body. God knits together disparate people, across time and space, even across the divide of death, into the elect of God. Through God all become an eternal body, one great mystical fellowship. 

All Saints’ Day asserts death does not defeat love. Death does not separate us from those who gone before us. Death will never sever us from God. We are safe in God’s hands even when we die. The love we share continues even after death, across the chasm of the grave.

We are connected with those who have gone before us, living in union with them through the communion of saints. They inspire us by their witness, and offer encouragement and prayers for us as we run this earthly race. Having lived this life, they know the joys and the challenges of this journey. 

In our Epistle we hear words of encouragement: “with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”

The hope that is in us is nothing less than the promise of resurrection. The glorious inheritance of the saints is eternal life with God. The great power of God defeated sin and death once for all. Though Jesus was crucified, dying on the cross for love of us, that was not the end. On the third day God raised Jesus from the dead, destroying death and making the whole creation new. 

Our hope lies in the promise that through the waters of baptism we share in Christ’s death so that we might share also in his resurrection. Just as Jesus died and was raised on third day, so shall we be raised. In the waters of baptism we die to the old life and rise to the new. We cast off the death-wielding ways of this world and put on the power of resurrection life. 

We are baptized into Christ’s body, knit together in one communion, marked as God’s children forever. Through baptism we become the presence of Jesus in the world, living resurrection life while still in this world of sin and death. In the waters of baptism, we become the body of Christ, the presence of Jesus in this world: the hands, feet, eyes, ears, and voice of Jesus.

In baptism, we promise to turn away from the sin and evil of this world, and turn to Jesus. We promise to reject the powers of evil and sin that rebel against God and corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. We turn our back on the sinful desires that lead us away from God.

In baptism we promise to turn to Jesus, bathed in his resurrection light, walking by that light, seeing the world through that light. We promise to put our whole trust in his grace and love, following and obeying him as our Lord and Savior.

In our Gospel today we hear the familiar words of the Beatitudes, those statements of blessedness: blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep, those who are ridiculed and rejected because they follow Jesus. God hears them. God cares for them. They will be rewarded. God’s justice will right the wrongs of this world.

In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes these statements of blessedness are followed by several statements of woe. Woe to those who are rich, woe to those who are full, those who are laughing, and those spoken well of. Having enough now, being comfortable now, there is little need for God. Living comfortable lives, there can be little room for concern of those in need. One can forget God. Woe to those who rest in their comfort and satisfaction, for they have their reward.

Some interpret these words of Jesus as being about the age to come, what happens when we die, how God will judge if we were the blessed or people of woe. But Jesus is actually talking about the present, about this life, now. God hears the cries of those in need. God listens to those wronged in this life, to those who are persecuted. God calls those who love God to act now to put things right by caring for those in need.

Those of us who have enough in this life, who live comfortably now, are called to open our hearts to the cry of those in need. We must not become complacent because of what we have, causing us to neglect or ignore the vulnerable in our midst. 

We are called by Jesus to live lives of blessedness, in which we are a blessing to others. We are to give abundantly and generously from what God has entrusted to us that others might have what they need. We called to live by the ways of God even now, in this life, making real the eternity to which we aspire and which the all the saints of God already enjoy.

In a moment we will renew our Baptismal Covenant, reaffirming the promises made at Baptism. These promises articulate the life of blessedness to which we are called. We promise to continue in the apostle’s teaching, gathering for the Eucharist, and being faithful in prayer. We promise to persevere in resisting evil, repenting when we sin, and returning to the Lord. We promise to proclaim through our words and deeds the Good News of God in Christ. We promise to love our neighbor as ourselves, seeking and serving all people. And we promise to work for justice and peace, for reconciliation, respecting the dignity of every person.

What we promise is impossible for us to faithfully do on our own. We will stray and sin, falling short of God’s call. We can only make these promises by God’s grace and with God’s help. We can only live them in community, relying on one another for support in this Christian life and faith. 

In making these promises, the saints stand ready to cheer us on with the stories of their lives, their struggles, and their faith. They offer their witness to inspire and support us. They offer their prayers for us as we lift our hearts in thanksgiving for their faith and witness. They support us as we run this earthly race.

The saints of God were ordinary people, living ordinary lives just as we do. Yet these ordinary people did extraordinary things. They were compelling witness to the love of God made know in Jesus through the Holy Spirit. They could do so because of their faith, the support of others who walked with them, and above all the power of God dwelling richly in them. 

May we aspire to do the same, living as the blessed of God in this life, being a blessing to others. Through our lives, may the love of God be known in this world. May we always trust the power of God to support and deliver us, now in this life, and at the end, when we are gathered with all the saints in light, knit together in a mystical and eternal body, and take our place at the throne of God to sing God’s praises for eternity. Amen.

October 30, 2022

Zacchaeus, Niels Larsen Stevns. Public domain.

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

When I was a child, there was a tall spruce tree in our yard. Though I have a strong fear of heights, I would climb this tree with my siblings. Because the branches grew tight together, I felt relatively secure, though not like my sisters who were fearless, and would climb much higher than I dared.

From this tree a new vista was revealed. There was a view into the neighbors yards. We could see over the rooves of houses and glimpse a our neighborhood from a new perspective. Despite my fear, there was real joy climbing that majestic tree. I felt free and saw new things.

  In today’s Gospel, Zacchaeus climbs a sycamore tree and his life is forever changed. I see this story as full of joy, new-found freedom, and changed perspective. Zacchaeus is the  chief tax collector and wealthy. He desires to see Jesus. We are not told his motivation, whether he is curious to see Jesus as he passes by or if he hopes to meet Jesus. Because he is “short of stature,” he  can’t see over crowd, so he climbs a tree and waits for Jesus pass by. Not only does Jesus see him in the tree, but Jesus calls to him. Zacchaeus hurries down from the tree, and is happy Jesus comes to his house.

  In first century life, it may seem Zacchaeus’ life is going well. He is the chief tax collector, a position of importance and responsibility. This position has made him wealthy, and given him power. But tax collectors are considered sinners in 1st century Israel. They work for the occupying Romans and are collaborators with the foreign occupying power. They are given no salary by the Romans, so to make money they charge fees above the taxes they collect. This oppresses the poor and enriches the tax collector. Because of this, they are considered traitors to Israel and unjust in their practices. 

  In today’s lesson, the prophet Isaiah warns of oppressing the poor, saying God will not accept the sacrifices, or even the prayers, of those who oppress others. They are called to repent and be transformed. Isaiah charges them to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and widow. Doing this, their sins will be washed clean, turning from scarlet to white as snow or wool.

   In calling for repentance and justice, for care of the poor and the vulnerable, Isaiah cites the example of Sodom and Gomorrah. These ancient cities have been used by preachers through the ages to condemn LGBTQ people. Some hold the view that the sin of these cities was sexual immorality, and just as they were condemned by God, so should LBGTQ people. 

         Scholars, however, are clear the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was refusing hospitality to visitors. These visitors are two angels that Lot welcomes, but the men in city do not show them hospitality. For their sins, Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed by God. 

  Isaiah mentions these cities to highlight God’s call to generosity, love, justice, and hospitality. Isaiah’s words show how the chief tax collector’s life falls short of God’s commands. Zacchaeus became rich on the backs of others, especially the vulnerable poor. He is not generous, but takes from others for his own gain, including from those least able to pay taxes. 

When Zacchaeus encounters Jesus, something important happens. He welcomes Jesus into his home and he is changed. He tells Jesus he will give away half of his possessions. He will repay those defrauded, giving four times more than what he extorted. For this, Jesus declares Zacchaeus and his household are saved. Zacchaeus responds to Jesus by accepting his call to a new life, a new relationship with God. Zacchaeus accepts the kingdom of God. 

In meeting Jesus, Zaccaheus sees his life in a new way, from a new perspective. He is honest about mistakes he has made and sets out to change them. He acknowledges the way he hurt others, benefiting by defrauding them, and he promises to make restitution. He acknowledges his sins, intends to make them right, and repents, setting out in a new direction, a new way of life. 

  In this passage, Luke teaches that believing in Jesus only goes so far. One’s life must reflect the reality of following Jesus. Responding to God’s call refashions us, changes us by God’s grace. It causes us to turn to new ways of life.

Our response to God’s extravagant love is to be equally extravagant in return. This extravagance produces joy and generosity. As Zacchaeus had a profound experience of God’s call to him when he met Jesus, changing his life in significant ways, so Jesus calls us and asks us to respond likewise. 

On this Annual Meeting Sunday, the story of Zaccahaeus can help us reflect on the past and look forward to the future. We have been through several very challenging years. Since March 2020 we have responded to many challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic. We have worshipped virtually, outdoors, and in the Assembly Room. We have become proficient with gathering virtually on Zoom. Thanks be to God in September we returned to worshipping in the church and resumed some in-person gatherings. 

During the pandemic several beloved parishioners have died. For some we could not gather as community for their funeral because of Covid protocols. Far too many people have died in our state, nation, and world in this time. Some parishioners who once gathered with us each Sunday have not returned to in-person worship, and their absence is keenly felt by us. These realities cause grief and a sense of loss. They also cause us to wonder what the future holds, where is God leading us? 

One response to these challenges is to shrink in fear and worry, trying to protect ourselves as best we can, and keep the difficulties at bay. Or we can ignore the challenges of this present time and act as though all is fine, carrying on, seeking some place of normalcy, of stasis, trying to recreate life as it was before the pandemic.

Or we can embrace this challenging liminal time. Today’s Gospel calls us to honesty, to acknowledging the great challenges we face and respond to them with openness and generosity. Like Zacchaeus, we can climb that tree with joy, acknowledging it can be scary to climb so high, but do so trusting we will see Jesus calling us as we widen our perspective.

Like Zaccaheus, we can listen for Jesus to call us to him, and when he does, respond with joy, without hesitation, and run to meet him. We can welcome him into our lives, and be fed and nourished by him. We can follow his call to let go and be reshaped into the people and the community he calls us to be. We can respond to his love for us, by loving in return, conforming our lives to his way of extravagant, abundant love. 

This is indeed a challenging and uncertain time. We do not know what the future holds. What is certain is God is ever faithful, Jesus will never leave us, and the Holy Spirit continues to breathe in us and guide us in the way we go.

My hope and prayer for us is we do not shrink back from this time, but boldly go where Jesus leads us, just as generations past in this parish have done. Like our ancestors in the faith, may we faithfully open our lives and our hearts to hear God’s call, and go where we are led. 

Like Zachhaeus, may we look for Jesus, and respond with joy when he calls us, following where he leads. May we respond to God’s generous love by living lives of joy and generosity. May we be transformed and changed by God’s generous love of us.

Today Jesus comes to us and says, “hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” May we welcome him into our hearts, and our lives, now and always. Amen. 

October 23, 2022

The Pharisee and the Publican, after Sir John Everett Millais. Public domain.

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

Each fall Episcopal parishes around the country conduct the annual pledge drive. It is an invitation for parishioners to prayerfully consider how they will support the parish by sharing their time, talent, treasure in the coming year. 

Our pledge campaign sermon will begin in November, but our first lesson from Book of Sirach, also called Ecclesiasticus, offers a rector’s dream of a text for such a sermon. In the part of the 35th chapter we hear today are the words, “Give to the Most High as he has given to you, and as generously as you can afford.” 

Omitted today are verses 6-8: “Do not appear before the Lord empty-handed, for all that you offer is in fulfillment of the commandment. The offering of the righteous enriches the altar, and its pleasing odor rises before the Most High.”

The author of this text is not talking about parish budgets, but is concerned with the relationship between God’s generosity and our response to it. The passage calls the faithful to make generous offerings to God in response to the great generosity God shows them. 

This book is written to the Jewish community living in Gentile areas outside Israel. It offers the teaching and wisdom they need to remain faithful to God while living among non-believers. In Sirach’s society, as in ours, everything had a price. Some people spent their lives amassing wealth, ignoring the pleas of the poor and the vulnerable. Sirach calls the faithful to remember all they have been given is a generous gift of God. All money, possessions, talents and abilities, even time itself, are a divine gift. 

Those who love God are called to respond with their own generosity. Just as God gives us all we have, so we are to generously share what we have been given with the vulnerable in our midst. We are to give as much as we can afford, cheerfully and gladly. We are to be good stewards of what God has entrusted to us, remembering all is God’s and not ours alone.

The lesson says how we make our offering to God matters. The attitudes we hold, the content of our hearts, matter. Giving back to God, so God will reward us, is called a “bribe” and God cannot be bribed. To practice deceit in our daily lives while making an offering to God is to bribe God for our benefit. To give back to God while exploiting the powerless and vulnerable is not pleasing to God.

But the offering of those whose hearts are filled with the love of God, and are in charity with their neighbor, are always pleasing and acceptable to God. Just as God always hears the cries of the orphan and widow, so should we. Just as God showers the unearned gifts of generosity and mercy on us, so should we show generosity and mercy to others.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus warns about trusting our own righteousness while viewing others with contempt. He tells a parable about the importance of what we think and believe while worshipping God. It is the story of two pious men who come to the temple to pray.

The first is a Pharisee. As a religious leader, the Pharisee would be considered an upright and virtuous member of society. Others likely consider him a “good person.” As teachers of the people, Pharisees instruct people in how to live faithfully, following the commands of God. They want the observance of the Law to be accessible to all people.

In his prayer, the Pharisee reminds God how righteous he is: he fasts twice a week (more than required); he tithes his income, giving away 10% of everything. He thanks God he is not like other people, the implication is he is better than others. He suggests God is fortunate to have such a righteous follower as himself. 

The Pharisee may do all required in observing the Law, but he forgets there is more to being righteous. While impressed by his own holy actions, he looks down on others, viewing them with contempt. He believes he has earned favor with God through his own actions and observances, making him more righteous than others.

The second man could not be more different. He is a tax collector, part of a group despised by the people in Jesus’ day. They were considered unscrupulous and dishonest. They collected taxes for the occupying Romans, and were viewed as collaborators with the oppressor. Not given a salary by the Romans, their income came from adding fees to the taxes collected. This practice especially hurt the poor. Tax collectors make themselves rich by exploiting the economically vulnerable. 

When the tax collector prays in the temple, he can’t even look to heaven. He stands apart from others. He beats his breast in contrition. He prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” This man knows he has sinned. In honesty he comes before God confessing this. He understands mercy and compassion are a gift of God, and humbly asks God to show him, a sinner, mercy.

Jesus concludes the parable by saying, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” The tax collector did not exalt himself like the Pharisee sure of his own righteousness. Instead, he humbled himself. He was honest before God. He acknowledges he has sinned. He asked for God’s mercy in response to his sin.

The prayer of the tax collector reminds us that are made righteous only through God’s loving initiative. We neither deserve, nor can earn, God’s love or mercy. The good news is we do not have to. Through the merits and mediation of Jesus, we are made worthy to stand before God. By God’s great gift to us, we are incorporated into the body of Christ through the restoring waters of baptism. Not through our efforts, but through Jesus, are we made righteous and resorted to holiness.

Like the tax collector, we are called to humbly confess our sins, repenting of them, making restitution, and accepting God’s loving forgiveness. We do this not to beat ourselves up or to experience self-loathing. Rather, it is a call to honesty: though we are beloved children of God, we all sin and need to honestly confess to God. God always stands ready to forgive us, as many times as we sin. Each time we repent and return to God, there is great rejoining in heaven.

Our lessons today make clear all we have is a gift of God. God gives us life, the bounty of creation, and all the material resources we have. God loves us, showing us compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. God desires union with us, adopting us as God’s children through the offering of Jesus on the cross.

This day Jesus cautions us about what we think and what we believe in our hearts. Like the Pharisee, we might think we are righteous in God’s eyes because of the good we do. After all, we come to church, we pray, we give money for the care of those in need, we do volunteer work. While these are all good things in themselves, they do not make us worthy. They do not make us better than others in God’s eyes. 

We must resist having contempt of others by thinking ourselves more holy. For God alone is holy. God loves all, the just and the unjust, simply because God is love. We are invited to respond generously to God’s great generosity to us. We are called to respond to God’s love of us by loving others. As God shows concern and care for the vulnerable, so we are to do so as well. These are all a pleasing and worthy thank offering to God. They are the visible and tangible manifestation of our love and worship of God. Amen.

October 16, 2022

Jacob wrestling with the Angel. Public domain.

A sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are found here.

Persistence is an overarching theme of our lessons today. This led me to wonder just what is persistence? A quick Google search offered some clues. I found a website that observed, “Talent, genius, and education mean very little when persistence is lacking,” and listed the seven habits of persistent people. These include “all-consuming vision,” “burning desire,” and “inner confidence.”

This website describes a persistent person, “Persistent people have a goal or vision in mind that motivates and drives them. They are often dreamers and visionaries who see their lives as having a higher purpose than simply earning a living. Their vision is deeply ingrained, and they focus on it constantly and with great emotion and energy.”

Persistent people have a vision and stick with it. Examples of persistent people include athletes who spend hours a day learning and honing their skills. Also musicians who spend countless hours practicing their technique and developing their musicianship.

Being a musician, this definition makes sense to me. Being a musician requires discipline, committing regular time to one’s art. This is demanding, but also highly rewarding, and rests on a vision of what the musician hopes to achieve.

How often we think of our lives of faith as requiring persistence? Yet, the apostle Paul compares following Jesus to running a marathon, an act that certainly requires great persistence. 

The theme of persistence is also woven through all lessons today. In Genesis, Jacob wrestles with a man all night. Despite the long match, there is no winner of the struggle. It is a draw until Jacob’s opponent hits his hip socket out of joint, leaving him with a limp for the rest of his life. 

At daybreak his opponent tells Jacob to let him go, but Jacob won’t do so until the man blesses him. The opponent blesses Jacob, and says to him, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 

Jacob realizes he was wrestling all night with God. Jacob is blessed by God and given a new name, a sign of a new, and deepened, relationship with God. Through his persistence, Jacob encounters God and is blessed. So Jacob names the place of this wrestling “Peniel,” which literally means, “the face of God,” for at Peniel Jacob saw the face of God and lived.

In Psalm 121 we hear that God is persistent and always faithful. The psalmist tells us God will watch over us, without sleeping. God will preserve us from all evil, keeping us safe, day and night, watching over our going out and our coming in. God is utterly persistent in watching over and caring for God’s children.

            In the Epistle we hear, “I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.” The author warns the time is coming when people will have “itching ears,” finding teachers to suit their own views and needs. The followers of Jesus should remain persistent in the faith, not being distracted from their call, not straying from faithfully following Jesus.

            In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples “a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” This parable is about the persistence of a widow. This widow does not lose heart in dealing with an unjust judge who neither fears God nor respects other people. This judge is concerned only with himself.

            The widow comes before the unjust judge seeking justice against an opponent. At first the judge refuses, but he comes to realize this widow will keep coming until he grants her justice. To prevent her from bothering him, wearing him out over time with her persistence, he grants her request. He does this not for justice, not for concern for the widow, but to spare himself. He knows the woman will not relent until justice is served.

            Jesus concludes the parable by saying, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.” 

Jesus teaches that if the unjust judge hears the widow and does what she asks, how much more will God listen to the prayers of God’s people and act. There is a great difference between God and the unjust judge. God cares for God’s people, for their well-being. God also cares about justice bering served. Unlike the unjust judge, God listens and hears our prayers because loves us and cares for us. 

God listens to us because God is persistent in caring for us. God desires justice and compassion overtake the earth. God longs for all of God’s children to know the liberating power of God’s love. God, watches over us and cares for us, and always stands ready to hear us. God is always more ready to hear than we to pray. 

This parable reminds us it is our vocation to pray regularly. Jesus’ words are encouragement to not lose heart, never give up. Like the athlete or musician, our life’s purpose is spending time in prayer to God. Living with the discipline of a runner preparing for a marathon, or a musician preparing for a concert, we are to dedicate ourselves to daily prayer.

If you are like me, there are times when prayer is easy, when it is no effort to set aside time each day to enter into God’s presence. And if you are like me, there are other times, those seasons when it is a struggle to sit and pray. In those fallow and dry times it takes effort to pray. It requires discipline. Sometimes the only pray we can manage is asking God to rekindle within us the desire to pray. 

Ask any athlete or musician and they will say this is their experience as well. Sometimes it is easy to be disciplined, it is energizing and grounding. Other times just showing up is a struggle. Being persistent means carrying on through the difficult time. Often that struggle, that wrestling with God through the night, leads us to a deeper and more profound place just like Jacob. By wrestling and persistently pushing through, we come into a renewed and deeper relationship with God. We are blessed by the persistent struggle.

Jesus tells this parable because he knows prayer can be hard. Jesus understands it can be difficult in our frenetic world, with its non-stop pace, to find time to be still and rest in God’s presence. Jesus looks on us with compassion when the call to faithfully pray seems a duty and a burden, or maybe is even impossible to do. Jesus knows we can forget the power of prayer to change to us and the world, or we worry that prayer is too little for the world’s great needs.

But Jesus keenly knows prayer is important for us. He himself regularly set aside time in his earthly life and ministry to go apart alone and pray. Jesus reminds us that prayer is essential to us as God’s people. Prayer is the foundation and undergirding of our lives. Prayer is transformative and powerful. God plants within us the desire for union with God and even the urge to pray. God gives us all we need for prayer.

Though it is mysterious to us, somehow prayer changes the one praying. In praying to God for ourselves and for those seeking God’s justice, we are transformed. Our identity in Christ becomes clear and our vision is focused on the world through the lens of God’s love, compassion, and justice.

By praying, we are changed, our horizons are expanded. We are lifted outside ourselves and brought into union with God and others. In praying for those in need, we are connected to them and God’s intentions for them. Through prayer, we are united with the mystical body of Christ. We are brought into community with all God’s people, living and dead, across time and space.

Jesus encourages us not to lose heart if it seems our prayers are not answered. God does answer prayer, though not always when or how we expect. Sometimes we may not see or understand the answer to our prayer. Other times God does not grant what we ask, and we may never understand God’s wisdom or purpose. But we can trust God hears us, and God stands ready to answer us, accomplishing God’s purposes for us and all of creation.

Reflecting on today’s readings on the blog, Journey with Jesus, Debbie Thomas suggests that wrestling is a positive image for our persistence as followers of Jesus. She writes: “What all of these readings suggest to me is that God delights in those who dare to strive with him. To contend with him. To wrestle with him. Wrestling, as it turns out, is not a bad or even a scary thing, because it’s the opposite of apathy, the opposite of resignation. It’s even the opposite of loneliness. To fight with God — to show up day after day in prayer, to wrestle with our resistance in the darkest hours of the night — is to stay close, to keep our arms wrapped tight around the one who alone can bless us. Fighting means we haven’t walked away. Fighting means we still have skin in the game.  

“When the Son of Man comes, Jesus asks at the end of the parable, will he find faith on the earth? Faith that persists, faith that contends, faith that wrestles? This is the question that matters. Will he find such faith in us?”  

This, I think, is a question well worth pondering. May we not lose heart, but be persistent in our prayers for ourselves, for others, and for the world. May we persistently run this earthly race until we come to see God face to face and live for eternity with God. Amen.

October 9, 2022

Cleansing of the Ten Lepers. Unknown author – Codex Aureus Epternacensis. Public domain.

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

Our lessons today offer two stories of healing of leprosy. In the ancient world any number of skin diseases were called leprosy. They were not easily treated and considered contagious. People with leprosy were isolated, prevented from interacting with family and community. According to the Jewish law, those with leprosy were considered unclean.

If leprosy was healed, it was a significant event in a person’s life, not just being healed of a serious medical condition, but they would be restored to life in the community. Anyone healed would no longer be feared, looked down upon, or kept isolated from others. 

While this is certainly true for those healed in today’s readings, there is also something deeper in these stories. They offer important truths about how we, as followers of Jesus, are called to live.

The first account, from the Second Book of Kings, concerns Naaman. He is an important commander in the army of the king of Aram. Aram was the region we call Syria today. Through Naaman, the Arameans won important military victories. On one of their raids, a girl from Israel is captured and becomes a servant of Naaman’s wife.

When Naaman develops leprosy, this servant girl says there is a prophet in Israel who could heal Naaman. Naaman tells the king of Aram, who writes a letter to Joram, the king of Israel. Naaman takes the king’s letter, along with gifts for the king, to Israel. When the king, Joram of Israel, reads the letter, he tears his clothes, exclaiming he is not God and can’t heal a man of leprosy. He worries the king of Aram is picking a quarrel with him.

Elisha the prophet hears of this and invites Naaman to visit him. When Naaman arrives at Elisha’s house, Elisha does not come out to meet him, but sends a messenger who tells Naaman to wash seven times in the Jordan River and he will be healed. 

Naaman becomes angry. He feels Elisha could at least meet him and speak with him, that Elisha could publicly call on his God, wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy. Naaman looks for a public display from Elisha. He believes he deserves a certain amount of attention. This healing should be seen, be dramatic. He says he could have washed in the rivers back home, with the added insult that the rivers of his homeland Aram are superior to the Jordan. Naaman leaves Elisha’s home in a rage.

The cooler heads of Naaman’s servants prevail. They suggest if something difficult had been asked of Naaman, he would have done it. So why doesn’t he do this simple thing Elisha asked? Naaman hears their reasonable question, and washes in the Jordan seven times. He is cleansed and healed of leprosy. His flesh is restored so it is like that of a young boy.

Naaman is moved by this experience, and goes back to Elisha, and speaks with the prophet. He attempts to give Elisha gifts he brought from Aram. Elisha refuses the gifts, despite Naaman’s urging. Naaman tells Elisha he now believes in Elisha’s God, and he will only worship the God of Israel. 

The story of Naaman reminds us of the importance of humility and doing things which may seem so ordinary and simple as to be worthless. Rather than asked to do something challenging and dramatic, Naaman is given a simple task. There was no public display, no challenge befitting Naaman’s importance. Just a humble ritual washing that healed him.

We can forget that God is present and working through the ordinary circumstances of life. As Christians, we are called to encounter God each day through simple activities: reading of scripture, praying to God, coming before God in silence, listening for God’s call. In these ordinary activities, we find our relationship with God nurtured and deepened. 

In regularly attending the Eucharist, where we offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, to God as a thank offering, we worship God and are nourished by God’s presence in God’s Word and the bread and wine of the Eucharist. We receive the presence of Jesus in this sacrament, and become what we receive, formed by the sacrament into the body of Christ. 

There is nothing surprising in living this way. What is asked of us is not challenging or dramatic. It is not difficult to do. Yet it is what forms us into God’s people. It is a way of life that deepens our relationship with God. 

Our Gospel today also offers clues to living the Christian life. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, journeying to his passion and death on the cross. He travels in the region between Samaria and Galilee. In this marginal place, between two worlds, Jesus encounters ten lepers. They keep their distance from Jesus, calling out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Jesus tells them to go show themselves to the priests. This was required by the law if a person is healed of leprosy. The priests would attest to the healing and make sure the appropriate sacrifice is offered. As the ten make their way to the priest, they are healed of leprosy.

One of them, a Samaritan, turns back praising God and comes to Jesus. He prostrates himself at the feet of Jesus and thanks him. He is the only one of the ten to praise God, to thank and worship Jesus. Jesus tells this man to get up, go on his way, his faith has made him well.

This account of the ten lepers offers two important reminders for us as followers of Jesus. First, as followers of Jesus, we are called to be people who give thanks. This call is more than  expressing gratitude when something positive happens. Rather, Jesus invites us into something deeper, into living lives of gratitude. 

Our central act of worship as followers of Jesus is the Eucharist. Its very name is a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” At the center of every Eucharist is thanksgiving to God for God’s profound love and care of us. In the liturgy we give thanks for all God creates; for God’s love, mercy, and compassion; for God’s great generosity and forgiveness; for God coming among us in the person of Jesus; for the love Jesus has for us; for his death, resurrection, and ascension by which we are lifted to the divine life. In response to the loving initiative of God, we are invited in turn to respond with our offering of love and gratitude.

At the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer, we hear, “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth” [BCP p. 361]. These words invite us to live giving thanks to God — not just in the moment of worshiping God, but always, everywhere, at all times, and in all places. 

Our very lives should be lived as an act of thanksgiving. Gratitude, if allowed, will well up in us and fill us. It will overflow our being and our lives, expressed in generosity towards God and others. The more we practice living by gratitude, the more we are grateful, the more our lives become an offering of worship and thanksgiving to God. Like the leper healed, we are called to let our love and gratitude to God overflow until we cannot remain silent, we cannot help but shout our praise and worship of God. 

We are also called to turn to Jesus and give our whole lives to him as an offering. After being made clean, one leper turns back to Jesus. Responding to God’s action, the man is unable to hold back his joy. Praising God, he returns to Jesus, falling at his feet. 

In scripture, turning back is not simply about the direction of travel. It has deep theological meaning. To turn back is to embrace a new direction in one’s life. It marks a time of conversion, of reorienting one’s life to God. In turning back to Jesus, the healed man is orienting his life to following Jesus.

It is important to notice this man who turns back to Jesus in praise and thanksgiving is a Samaritan. He was excluded from society because he was a leper and because he was a foreigner.  When he comes to Jesus, embracing a new direction, orienting his life to God, Jesus welcomes him. Jesus heals him from the disease that afflicts him and gives him a place in the community. No longer is he an excluded foreigner, living in a marginal place between two worlds. Through Jesus, he is restored to health and full participation in community. Now he is welcomed and belongs.

Jesus calls us to turn towards him, allowing him to welcome us into a new community, into the household of God, into Christ’s body. In this community all are welcome, all are valued, and all have a place by virtue of being created and loved by God. In the household of God all are healed of anything that afflicts and alienates.

Like the mean healed of leprosy, we are called to be attentive to God’s action in our lives. In response to God, we are invited to turn towards God, with praise and thanksgiving. Living lives of gratitude, our joy will not be contained. And through our witness, others will see the power of God’s love, experiencing the power of God’s healing and restoration to wholeness. Living this way, we will be people of love and thanksgiving, witnesses to God’s love, welcome, mercy, and compassion. Amen.

September 25, 2022

The rich man and Lazarus. Meister des Codex Aureus Epternacensis, c. 1035-1040. Public domain.

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

Our Gospel today is one of the most vivid parables Jesus tells. It has strong images that are easy to picture. That may be the reason many artists through the centuries have depicted this story and why several composers have set it to music. 

In college I sang with the university choral group. One fall we sang the Requiem by Gabriel Faure. One performance was in the chapel at the Pomfret School in Pomfret, CT. This chapel is a beautiful Gothic revival building of dark stone with gorgeous stained glass. It has a beautiful rose window in the west wall. During the late afternoon rehearsal, the sun was shining through this window, illuminating the chapel is vibrant colors. 

As we sung the In Paradisum, near the end of the Requiem, I had a transcendent experience. The choir seemed to sing with one voice. The beauty of the chapel transported me as we were bathed in vibrant colors from the rose window. The text came alive as we sang the In Paradisum. In English translation, “May the angels lead you into paradise; may the martyrs receive you at your arrival and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem. May choirs of angels receive you and with Lazarus, once [a] poor [man], may you have eternal rest.”

In that moment, singing that text, I felt I glimpsed eternity, gazing into heaven. I expected to see the heavenly host of angels and archangels praising God around the heavenly throne. I would not have been surprised if I could Lazarus, once poor, now resting in Abraham’s arms.

The Lazarus mentioned in the Latin Requiem text is the same Lazarus in today’s parable. This parable of Jesus has clear, strong images. It is easy to understand. It involves a significant reversal of fortune, a common theme of Luke’s Gospel.

This parable tells of two very different worlds that are separated by a strong boundary. It is the story of two men. One is a rich man dressed in purple and linen, who eats scrumptious meals, and has a wall with a gate around his house. This rich man lacks no earthly comfort. In the account he is not given a name.

            The other man is named Lazarus. He is poor and sits at the gate of the rich man’s home, dreaming of the crumbs from the rich man’s well-supplied table. He has poor nutrition, so it is no surprise Lazarus has health issues, including sores that dogs lick.

            The rich man never sees Lazarus. He walks past him without considering his great need. He shows him no compassion. In his satiation and comfort, he is oblivious to the suffering of Lazarus right in front of him. The rich man is not to be wicked. He does not treat Lazarus poorly, driving him from the man’s gate. He doesn’t organize his neighbors to remove the poor and homeless from their neighborhood. He simply is oblivious and complacent, walking by Lazarus with unseeing indifference to his plight.

            When the two men die, the rich man is buried and goes to Hades, where the dead are tormented. He is in agony in the flames of Hades. In contrast, Lazarus dies and is not buried. Instead, he is carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. With Abraham he is no longer hungry. There he is comforted. Unlike when he was alive on earth, now Lazarus is seen and valued. He rests safely in Abraham’s arms.

            The rich man is tormented by his plight and asks Abraham to send Lazarus to him with cool water. Even after death and experiencing the fire of Hades, the rich man does not see Lazarus as a person. He speaks of Lazarus in the third person, still viewing him as someone to serve the formerly rich man. He has changed since his death.

            Abraham does not grant the rich man’s request. Abraham explains a great chasm is placed between the two worlds and no one may cross. The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers who are still living. Maybe if they are warned about the fate that awaits them they will live differently. Abraham refuses, saying they have Moses and the prophets to listen to. That should be sufficient for them. Besides, Abraham says, even if someone rose from the dead the brothers would not believe.

            This parable is a dramatic story that is easy to understand, yet often falls on deaf ears. It is a story challenging to us who are middle class. While not rich by the standards of our nation, we certainly are richer than most of the world. Most of us live in a comfortable home with enough food to eat. We live in relative comfort and do not worry about our basic needs. 

The parable is a call to those who have enough, who are comfortable, to shake off our blindness and indifference. It is a warning that if we are not attentive, our comfortable life will dull our awareness of those suffering around us. We will become unseeing and uncaring.

            Who are the people we encounter daily who suffer from a lack of food? Certainly, as I drive through the neighborhood, especially along North Main Street, I regularly see people asking for money at the stop lights. Often there is someone on each corner. Sometimes they hold signs saying they are homeless and hungry.

There are times I stop and offer them some cash. But I am less proud of the other times I hope the light will remain green so I can drive by them, pretending to not see. Approaching the intersection, I am thinking, If the light does not turn red, I won’t have to stop. I can drive right by. When I do this, I wonder if I am any different from the unseeing rich man who ignores Lazarus at his gate? Are these the people I am called to see and care for?

            God has given us all we need to live the abundant life of loving service to which we are called. Like the rich man, we have Moses and the call of the prophets. We have John the Baptist calling us to repent and share one of our two coats with those without a coat (Luke 3:10-11). 

           And we have Jesus, God come among us to lift us to the divine life. Jesus taught and ministered to those in need, loving all to the end. He gives us grace so we can die to a life focused on ourselves and rise with him to a new life of loving service. Jesus comes to move us from the blindness of our comfort and complacency so we serve all in his Name. Jesus tells us that when we care for a person who is suffering and in need, we serve Jesus himself (Matthew 25:34).

In the Gospels Jesus speaks about money and wealth more than anything else. We hear about the dangers of wealth in our lesson from the prophet Amos. The First Letter to Timothy warns, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”. Jesus, and much of scripture, say we cannot serve God and wealth. 

Wealth has a seductive power, it takes hold of our heart, leaving little room for love of God. The pursuit of wealth becomes all encompassing. It closes our hearts, leaving us unable to have compassion for others. It blinds our eyes so we do not see those in front of us who are in need.

We are called by God to be good stewards of all God entrusts to our care. We are given time, talents, money, health, and relationships. God provides the bounty of creation, the fruits of the earth, giving all we need to live. When we see others in need and fail to share with them from our bounty, we violate God’s intention for us. We do not live as God intends, as Jesus shows us. We deny ourselves the joy of sharing and giving to others. We fail to embrace our full humanity God gives us. We refuse to be a blessing to others as God blesses us.

How we live has bearing on how others live on our planet. Our choices can afflict others. How the clothes we buy are made, and by whom, matters. The way the animals that become our meat live, matters. The impact our diets, vehicles, and electronic devices have on the planet, matters. 

Our economic system affects the lives of others throughout the world. It is easy to be blind to their suffering, for their lives are hidden from us. We can be blind to the environmental impact our choices have. But increasingly the implications of how we in the west live are becoming gravely obvious as climate disasters afflict the entire world.

Jesus tells this parable of the rich man and Lazarus to make clear God’s intentions and priorities. God calls us to see with eyes of compassion and love. Jesus wants to set us free from our blindness and complacency. Though the ills of the world can feel overwhelming, there are things we can do. Though we cannot help everyone in need, we can help someone. We can do something worthwhile, something that makes a difference in one person’s life.

The nineteenth-century author and Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909) said, “I am only one, but I am still one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.” [These words are engraved on the statue of Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909) in the Boston Public Garden and come from his book Ten Times One Is Ten (1870). Quoted in Feasting on the World, Supplemental Readings, Amos, Proper 21 C.] Amen.

September 18, 2022

Helena of Constantinople by Cima da Conegliano, 1495. Public domain.

A sermon for the Sunday after Holy Cross Day. The scripture readings are found here.

Today we celebrate the Sunday after Holy Cross Day, a day we affectionately call “Redeemer Day.” It is a day to give thanks to God for calling us together in community in this place, rejoicing in our mission and ministry in the world. It is a time to give thanks for our forebears in this parish and to look forward to where God leads in the future.

This year I give great thanks that today also marks our return to the church. Since March 2020 we have not gathered here. After many months and an arduous process of carpet removal and mold remediation, at last we are again gathered here, in the church.

This is very fitting for Redeemer Day. The Feast of the Holy Cross highlights the importance of buildings for the church to gather as a community and as a visible and tangible presence in the wider neighborhood. 

The history of this feast begins in the fourth century when there was great interest in Holy Land sites associated with events in the life of Jesus. Information about these sites had been passed down through the years, handed on from one generation to the next by the followers of Jesus.

In the year 313 the Roman Emperor Constantine won a decisive military victory he attributed to the Christian God. With thanks to God, the emperor stopped persecuting Christians and allowed the church to build public buildings for worship. No longer did the church have to hide in fear of being killed by the Roman authorities.

Emperor Constantine started a building project on the traditional sites in Jerusalem. In the year 70 the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem in retaliation for 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 at the site was required. During excavation, Constantine’s mother Helena is credited with finding the true cross of Jesus.

After the excavation of Golgotha, a great church, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, was built. The remains of the cross of Jesus were placed in the church. On September 14, 335 the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was dedicated. That day became the Feast of Holy Cross Day, and was added to the church’s calendar. It is the day we celebrate today, so many centuries later.

The focus on Holy Cross Day is the cross itself, how an awful instrument of capital punishment used by the Roman Empire to punish insurrectionists becomes the instrument of our salvation. This feast focuses on the victory Jesus won on the cross; how it is the means by which we are set free from the power of sin and evil, and from the power of death itself.

As followers of Jesus our Redeemer, the cross is central for us. The Collect for Holy Cross Day prays, “Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him.”

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 especially 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 with him, so we share in the victory of the cross. \

As a church dedicated to Jesus our Redeemer, we celebrate Holy Cross Day as our Feast of Title. It is a time for us to celebrate the many blessings God has generously bestowed on this parish. 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. 

Our story begins with St John’s Church, later the Cathedral of the Diocese. This church was overcrowded. People wondered if a new parish was needed for this part of the city.

Early in 1859, two or three ladies gathered for prayer every week. They asked if God was calling for a new church in northern Providence. After praying through the year, they believed God was calling for a new church to be established.

So the Church of the Redeemer was founded in 1859 and a new church building built on North Main Street where University Heights is now. It is striking this parish was founded without pew rent. In the 19th century churches were supported by the yearly rental of pews. If you wanted a seat, you had to pay rent. The Redeemer was the first church in this state, of any denomination, to abolish pew rent. It shows a deep commitment for all to attend and be welcomed, regardless of financial resources.

The parish flourished and grew. The Sunday School thrived. A Parish House was built, and it was full of activity. But the neighborhood was changing. North Main Street was becoming more commercial. Parishioners were moving up the hill to the new neighborhood on Hope Street.

In 1909, at the 50th Anniversary Service, the Rt. Rev. William McVicar, Bishop of the Diocese of Rhode Island, said in his address, “The Church of the Redeemer must be moved.” He continued, “If the Rector and the members of this Parish decide to move, I promise to raise the first thousand dollars toward the expense of such action; and I promise furthermore to raise that amount within a week.”

The large congregation applauded, showing there was unanimous approval of the Bishop’s proposal. And Bishop McVicar’s support was significant. His pledge of $1000 would be about $26,000 today. He displayed a keen vision and understanding of the present context and how the city was changing. He provided strong leadership, encouraging the parish to take a bold risk and embrace a new reality. 

On May 1, 1917 ground was broken for the new church on Hope Street. The cornerstone was laid July 1 that year and on Easter Day 1918, first service in new church was celebrated. The Baptistry is dedicated to Bishop McVicar for his leadership, vision, and support. We sit in that same church more than 100 years later.

Reflecting on our history this year, I am struck by two themes. The first is prayer. This parish began with a few women regularly and faithfully praying. They entered into discernment. In prayer, they asked to know God’s will. And they received an answer. We sit here today as the beneficiaries of the faith, their trust in God, and their faithful discernment.

The witness of these two or three unnamed women reminds us of the importance of prayer, discernment, and listening for God’s call. The moment we are in now is a time we too would benefit from regular faithful prayer and attentive listening to God’s call. With every facet of our world in flux and change, now is a season to ask where God leads us, what God calls us to do now. May we faithfully engage in prayer and discernment as a community.

The other theme in our history that is important this year is risk taking. Beginning a new parish is a bold act. After fifty years, a parish moving to new location and building a new church is a great risk. Giving up pew rent so all are welcome is an act of trust in God’s providence. Moving through their own pandemic one hundred years ago required fortitude and faithfulness.

In all these situations, this parish followed God who sustained and delivered them. Repeatedly God has richly blessed this community of followers of Jesus. God will continue to do so in this unsettled time.

God calls us to holy work now, just as God did those who went before us. 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 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 11, 2022

Brooklyn Museum – The Lost Drachma (La drachme perdue) – James Tissot. Public domain.

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

This is a challenging time for the church, both for our parish and for the wider church. Even before the pandemic, the church faced an increasingly secular world in which fewer people belonged to a particular faith community. There is a strong emphasis in our country on the individual which is at odds with joining a church community. The quest for possessions and wealth draws humanity away from God.

After more than two-and-a-half years of pandemic, those difficulties have intensified. As we experience each Sunday, not everyone has returned to in-person worship. Beloved parishioners have died. There are increasing economic concerns. Our society is more polarized and divided, with opposing groups unwilling or unable to speak with one another.

The church in every age is called to faithfully follow God, responding to the specific context it is part of and to the particular things God is doing. God calls the church in every age to discern what practices to continue and those ministries and activities that are no longer prove fruitful. 

In his book, My Church is NOT Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century, author Greg Garrett suggests that we as Anglicans have a distinctive spirituality well suited to this time. At the heart of our tradition is community. Garret writes, “The importance of community—that we are saved by and for each other, not by and for ourselves—is an ancient idea…That lesson is…two thousand years old, and many American Christians still have not learned it. But for those of us who descend from the Church of England, reminders appear daily in our liturgy, in our diversity, and in our commitment to common prayer” (Garret, Greg. My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. (Church Publishing, 2015), p. 22.).

In seminary, I had the great privilege of studying with the late John Booty, the esteemed professor, author, and Episcopal priest. In a class he taught on Anglicanism, he shared a moving image of Anglican spirituality. He observed that in the  first Book of Common Prayer (1549), there is an image of the great English commonwealth. Everyone worships God according the Prayer Book. All stations of people, from the monarch to the most humble person, kneel before God, confess their sins, and accept God’s forgiveness pronounced in the absolution. The distinctions of humanity fall away when worshipping with the Prayer Book.

This image was moving to me and reinforced the strong Anglican sensibility that we are all in this together. Our tradition calls us into community, living together as the church, the body of Christ. This is especially poignant in our country, with the inescapable emphasis on the individual and the way many of this nation’s Christians focus on their own personal salvation.

As Anglicans, our focus in on the whole body, the community, not the individual. Our liturgy is full of beautiful language about being gathered in community, incorporated into the body of Christ. We are God’s people, gathered and called into community to worship God. The liturgy invites us to confess our sins and failings and receive God’s forgiveness. We are fed with the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Eucharist, called to become what we receive. Nourished by the bread and wine of the sacrament, we are sent forth to be the body of Christ. The liturgy sends us out a people forgiven and renewed for work in the world.

Talk of community inevitably leads to questions of who is part of the body and who is not. Who is welcome and who is not?  How does one become part of the body? What does it mean to be part of the community? Our Anglican answer is all who are present at the table are the community. All are invited and welcome. We know who we are as a community by who gathers at the table. Through history we have lived that ideal out with varying degrees of faithfulness.

In today’s Gospel, “all the tax collectors sinners coming near to listen to Jesus” and he welcomes them. Though considered by some to be sinners, they hear Jesus and accept his teaching. They are welcomed by Jesus into the community and he eats with them, welcoming them to table fellowship. Jesus intentionally seeks out those at the margins and invites them in. 

The Pharisees and scribes grumble about this. They consider the tax collectors sinners outside the community. They judge they are not worthy to be welcomed. The Pharisees and scribes set boundaries, determining who is worthy of welcome. Jesus challenges their practice and their understanding of God, and of God’s mercy. 

To make his point, Jesus tells two parables about God’s mercy. In the first, a shepherd leaves the 99 sheep to search for the one lost sheep. That one sheep is important enough to leave the flock to search for it. In the second parable, a woman tears her house apart looking for a lost coin. She expends great effort to find the lost coin. 

In both parables, when what is lost is found, there is great rejoicing. Family and neighbors are brought together to celebrate finding what was lost. The entire community is affected, diminished by what is lost. Great energy is expended finding it. When found, there is great rejoicing and the community celebrates.

In these parables, Jesus teaches us about God. They illustrate who is welcome in the household of God. When anyone, any individual, is missing, lost, or excluded, the entire body, the whole community, is diminished.

Jesus teaches that God searches out the lost one, because God always loves each person. So the lost are sought by God until they are found. And when the one who was lost is found and restored to the community, there is rejoicing, both in the earthly community, and in the heavenly, in that great fellowship that extends beyond time and space.

Jesus teaches that God’s embrace is wide and no one is excluded from God’s community of love. God welcomes all and calls us to do the same. Those who are lost, who have strayed from the community, are equally valuable to God and God searches for them, longing for their return. Those who remain in the community are called to celebration and joy when the lost are found and restored to the body. 

These parables are about God’s mercy, love, and forgiveness. They focus on the call of those already part of the community to extend welcome to the those who are outside, inviting and welcoming the excluded and forgotten. All should celebrate and rejoice when one who was lost returns or when a new person enters the community. Jesus is calling us, the community, his body, to extend hospitality to all, to open our doors to everyone, and to rejoice when people enter this gathering.

Today marks the 21st anniversary of the attacks of 9/11. This event shocked our nation with such large scale terror attacks on our soil and the great loss of innocent life.  The aftermath of those events included waging a long, deadly war and the rise of hate crimes against those who are Muslims, or suspected of being from Islamic countries. 

In our time, with growing polarization and anxiety, hatred is rampant. Hate crimes have increased. The vitriol of white supremacy is embraced more openly, including by some politicians. This is a dangerous time, when divisions result in violence. 

Today’s Gospel challenges us, as the church, the body of Christ, to live in a radically different way. We are to widen our embrace, not close it. We are called to resist the temptation to fear. Jesus exhorts us to exclude no one, to practice hospitality that is broad and inclusive, always reflecting God’s welcome, the welcome that has no bounds. We are to show mercy to others just as God is merciful to us.

We are called to open our hearts and our lives to all—especially those considered unworthy, unlovable by society—welcoming all whom God seeks out, searching for those who are lost or excluded, and seeing, as God does, that the community is not whole until all are welcome and present. In welcoming all as God welcomes us, we are to celebrate and rejoice, knowing the saints and angels of heaven rejoice with us. Amen.

St Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus. Medieval.
Public domain.

A sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are found here (Track II). Please note all Dietrich Bonhoeffer quotes are from Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship (SCM Classics). Kindle edition.

In April 1945, as the Third Reich of Nazi Germany was coming to an end, the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was killed in a concentration camp. His crime was participation in an attempt to assassinate Adolph Hitler. 

Bonhoeffer was a fierce opponent of Hitler and the Nazis. As a German pastor, theologian, and seminary professor he refused to participate in the official Nazi church, a church supporting the policies of Hitler, policies that included removing Hebrew Scripture from the Bible and reading it in church services.

Bonhoeffer was one of a small minority of Lutheran pastors who founded the Confessing Church. which affirmed the traditional beliefs and practices of Christianity, including the Bible contains both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures; Jesus is head of the Church, not the state; and the Jewish people are God’s chosen people and not to be persecuted.

Though he was a pacifist, Bonhoeffer came to believe, through prayer and discernment, that the only way to free Germany of its unjust rulers was to assassinate Hitler. He worked secretly in collaboration with a small group. They successfully detonated a device that exploded close to Hitler during a meeting, but it did not kill him. For this act, Bonhoeffer, and others, were arrested and sent to a concentration camp.

Bonhoeffer’s actions were rooted in his deep and steadfast faith. He understood being a disciple of Jesus was not a casual decision. Following Jesus changed the path of one’s life. Discipleship came with a cost, sometimes a very high cost.

Bonhoeffer articulated this in his 1937 book, The Cost of Discipleship, writing that discipleship is about living a life of grace. He suggests there are two kinds of grace: cheap and costly. Cheap grace asks little of the follower. God is cast in the model of this world. Living by cheap grace looks much like the way any person lives. No one is changed by cheap grace. Bonhoeffer writes, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Costly grace, however, is living by the call of Jesus. It requires much and has a high cost. It is rooted in the way of the cross, and transforms the individual and the world. The life of costly  grace is possible because of God’s gift of grace, freely given and unearned. It is only by God’s grace the Christian can answer the demanding call of Jesus.

Bonhoeffer writes, “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches the large crowd following him about costly grace. He cautions them not to set out without first counting the cost. Before starting a building project, Jesus says, one sits down and estimates the cost. Building is not begun without the funds to complete the project. An unfinished building project risks the ridicule of others. Likewise, war is not waged without taking stock of the opposing army. Without a stronger force and the certainty of winning, terms of peace are asked for instead. 

Jesus says to be his disciple requires following him by taking up the cross. Doing so requires nothing hold us back from following: not family, not wealth, not our possessions. All these must be renounced to focus entirely on following Jesus. Walking with Jesus there is true freedom: freedom from this world, from the power of material things, even freedom from the fear of sin and death.

The Apostle Paul knew about costly discipleship. After his conversion on the road to Damascus, he gave up the privilege he had and traveled the world for Jesus, evangelizing the Gentiles. As an apostle, he faced ridicule, imprisonment, flogging, and eventually martyrdom.

In today’s Epistle, Paul is writing from prison. This letter is his most personal. It is addressed to an individual, Philemon. From the letter, we know Philemon is the leader of a church in Colossae that meets in his home.

Paul expresses affection and gratitude for Philemon and his ministry, and recounts that Philemon became a Christian through Paul’s ministry. Paul highlights the relationship the two men have as co-workers, partners in the Gospel, and brothers in Christ.

Then Paul asks Philemon a huge favor, something Philemon would likely find difficult. Paul writes about Onesimus who was Philemon’s slave. Onesimus apparently ran away from Philemon and is now with Paul in prison. While with Paul, Onesimus has become a Christian through Paul’s ministry. Even while imprisoned, Paul continues to evangelize in Jesus’ name and around him peoples’ lives are changed.

Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon and asks he be received not as a slave but a brother, as an equal. Paul wants Philemon to free Onesimus and Paul offers to cover the expense of anything Onesimus owes Philemon—implying Onesimus may had stolen from Philemon.

Paul does this because now that Onesimus has been baptized, he is an equal in Christ. Through baptism the divisions of this world are torn down. As Paul writes in his Letter to the Galatians, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ” (3: 27-8).

Through baptism all are adopted as sons and daughters of God. In baptism all put on the identity of Jesus, all become one in Christ. The worldly divisions of inequity, injustice, and power are torn down. Belonging to Christ, no one is to exercise power over another, but instead live as one in the household of faith.

What Paul asks of Philemon is demanding. In the first century slavery was legal in the Roman Empire. It was expected slaves be punished if they ran away, including put to death. Cultural norms expected Philemon would punish Onesimus. Freeing Onesimus would bring shame on Philemon in the eyes of others. There would financial loss to Philemon if Onesimus is freed, and from that loss would come more shame. What Paul asks challenges Philemon socially and economically.

Paul does not make this request lightly. Throughout his letters, he calls the followers of Jesus to costly discipleship. For Paul, following Jesus is not a casual affair. There is a cost, sometimes a very great cost. Paul knows this himself from his own experience as a disciple.

Paul’s Letter to Philemon reminds us following Jesus requires commitment. Discipleship is challenging and ask much of us. We are called to give up the ways of this world and put on Christ, living by sacrificial love just as Jesus does.

Through baptism we become a new creation in Christ, becoming the household of God. We are to put away the old ways, the ways of the world. We are to turn to Jesus, and live by his call. We are to exercise great love for one another, tearing down the unjust boundaries of the world. Rather than exercising power over one another, we are to honor and love all people as equals in Christ, just as Jesus does.

In giving up everything to follow Jesus, we are incorporated into a new community, into a new household. In this household we are set free to love. In this community of love all are welcome, all are honored, every person valued because they are Christ’s own, knit into the body of our Redeemer. Our call is to make real this community in this place. We are to choose, through the power and gifts of the Holy Spirt, to live by costly grace, creating the heavenly city on earth.

As Bonhoeffer says about the fruits of living by costly grace: “Happy are they who have reached the end of the road we seek to tread, who are astonished to discover the by no means self-evident truth that grace is costly just because it is the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Happy are the simple followers of Jesus Christ who have been overcome by his grace, and are able to sing the praises of the all-sufficient grace of Christ with humbleness of heart. Happy are they who, knowing that grace, can live in the world without being of it, who, by following Jesus Christ, are so assured of their heavenly citizenship that they are truly free to live their lives in this world. Happy are they who know that discipleship simply means the life which springs from grace, and that grace simply means discipleship. Happy are they who have become Christians in this sense of the word. For them the word of grace has proved a fount of mercy.” Amen.

August 28, 2022

James Tissot (French, 1836-1902). The Meal in the House of the Pharisee, 1886-1896. Public domain.

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

Recently a video appeared in my social media feed. It was a sermon by a Roman Catholic priest called “What is Pride Month?” Against my better judgment, I watched sections of the video. It began fine enough, with the priest preaching pride is an impediment to our relationship with God because it focuses our thoughts and actions on ourselves. He explained pride is one of the deadly sins. 

Then he decried LGBTQ Pride Celebrations as the height of narcism and sin. He affirmed marriage is ordained by God only between a man and a woman. Of course, I strongly disagreed and stopped watching the video, deleting it from my social media feed.

While I found this sermon misguided, offensive, and potentially dangerous for LGBTQ people, especially youth as they wrestle with their identity, discerning who God creates them to be, despite the potential harm, I realized it raises an important question: what is pride?

Our first lesson today from Book of Ecclesiasticus, also called Sirach, warns, “For the beginning of pride is sin.” If pride is so dangerous as to be called sin, if it is included among the Seven Deadly Sins, it is important to understand what it is — and what it is not. I suggest there is healthy pride and there is the pride that separates us from God, ourselves, our neighbor, and creation.

Healthy pride is fully knowing oneself, one’s identity, who God creates a person to be and how God calls them to live in the world. This is the sense intended by annual Pride Celebrations. This is pride defined by self-acceptance, self-assurance, healthy self-esteem, and personal confidence. This is the hard fought pride of LGBTQ persons who have arduously cast off negative teaching and judgment heaped on us by parents, society, and most sadly, the church. 

This healthy pride comes only with incredibly hard work and requires a life-time of vigilance and effort. While I came out as queer in 1988, I still battle the forces of society and church that tell me I should not be proud, I should not claim my full personhood and identity, that I am unworthy.

In contrast, the pride our lesson warns about is something different and unhealthy. This type of pride is sinful because it is departing from following God, forsaking God’s call to righteousness. Living from this pride orients our lives to ourselves, not God. It pulls us away from other people. This pride structures the universe around the individual, the self. We are warned in today’s passage that focusing life around an individual’s interests rather than God brings calamity.

This may seem a dramatic statement. How serious can living a self-absorbed life be? I think very serious. We have only to look at our nation. Increasingly, a very small percentage of people control the majority of wealth. The result is more and more people struggle to afford the basics they need to live. Even middle class fully employed people are struggling to afford housing.

We have only to look at the climate disaster unfolding before us, affecting the entire planet. While a small number of industrialized nations emit the bulk of greenhouse gasses, a majority of the world suffers the consequences of flooding, drought, deadly heat, and food insecurity. The greed of some, leads to calamity and disaster for many. This is the calamity of pride.

In our Gospel today, Jesus, too, is thinking about pride, about the temptation to put oneself ahead of others and the common good. He is invited to a meal in the home of a leader of the Pharisees. As we heard the past few weeks, the Pharisees often criticize Jesus for his actions. They especially object to his healing on the Sabbath. So Jesus can rightly expect there will be criticism of him at this meal. In our own deeply divided and polarized nation, how many of us would share a meal with those who strongly disagree with us? Yet Jesus accepts the invitation and attends.

Given the Pharisees’ objections to what Jesus does and teaches, it is not surprising that all the Pharisees are watching Jesus closely to see what he will do. As expected, Jesus does something that gets their attention. 

Jesus watches the people taking seats in the Pharisee’s home. He notices how people claim the seats of honor for themselves. Jesus responds by saying one should choose a seat of lower honor, not higher. That way, if someone of higher status arrives, the guest is not asked to move to a more humble seat. And there is always the possibility the host will ask a guest to move up to a seat of greater honor.

Jesus offers sound, practical advice. If followed, it helps a guest avoid being disgraced. Jesus quotes the Book of Proverbs ( 25:6-7), “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told ‘come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”  This text offers advice on how to behave in the Jewish royal court. Jesus applies it to a banquet.

Jesus concludes his teaching with the words, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” This statement shifts what Jesus is saying from practical advice on how to avoid being disgraced at a meal, to a prominent theme of Luke’s Gospel, God’s reversal: the lowly are exalted and the mighty cast down; the rich are sent away empty and the hungry are fed. 

Jesus himself embodies this reality. He is God incarnate, the Creator of all that is, who lowers himself by putting on human flesh, stooping to become a creature in the creation. Jesus humbles himself by serving others as an ordinary servant. Jesus gives his life on the cross for humanity’s redemption, the ultimate act of humility and self-emptying servant love. Jesus by his life and example, shows how God intends humanity to live. 

In case it is not clear, Jesus tells his host that when he gives a luncheon or dinner, he should create the guest list in a different way. Rather than inviting friends, relatives, or those of status, he should invite those who cannot repay him, who cannot give him anything in return. 

Jesus rejects the way this world is structured. In God’s kingdom wealth, status, power, and prestige are not recognized. In God hospitality is not transactional, strategically based on those who can help the host. In God’s reign all people are beloved children of God. To follow Jesus is to reject the hierarchies humanity uses to rank and divide people: wealth, power, gender, sexual identity, class, race, ethnicity, being able-bodied. 

We are to embody, just as Jesus does, God’s great reversal in how we live. We are called by Jesus to invite those the powerful overlook, those scorned by society. Rather than strategically inviting those we will receive something from in return, we are to invite those who can give us nothing. Doing so, we will find our reward.

Throughout scripture meals, feasts, and banquets are images of God’s kingdom. God prepares a banquet of rich food and fine wine and all people are invited, without exclusion. The Lord spreads a table before us and our cup is running over. God’s reign is ushered in at the end of time with the marriage supper of the Lamb who was slain.

For us, as followers of Jesus, the Eucharist is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet God prepares for God’s people. The Eucharist reminds us of Jesus’ call to serve others, not seeking our own honor. Our gathering at this table should mirror how things are in heaven. When we gather for the Eucharist, we glimpse eternity, seeing earth and heaven united at this table. Earthly things become heavenly, we ourselves become what we receive, the body of Christ.

At this table where earth and heaven are united, we are called to welcome all with no regard for earthly status. Each person at this table is valued for who they are, finding strength and nourishment to claim and live their full God-given personhood. Every child of God is welcome at this feast and this table should always mirror the reality of God’s heavenly banquet.

As we hear in our Epistle today, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.” May it be so for us whenever we gather at this table. May we invite all to this heavenly meal, especially those overlooked, forgotten, and despised by society. May our gathering always reject the hierarchies of our society, and mirror the heavenly feast. May we humbly welcome all with the love and honor deserved of every beloved child of God. Amen.

August 21, 2022

Christ healing an infirm woman on the Sabbath, James Tissot (1836-1902). Public domain.

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

We live in an age focused on the the individual. We are encouraged to express who we are as an individual through the choices we make. The more choices we have, the better. Our society chafes at anything that gets in the way of our individual choice. Self-denial and sacrifice are not considered virtues but rather burdens that limit us. 

So it is not surprising that for many Sunday morning is seen as a time of choice. Sunday is a day to sleep in; to relax; to take a walk or bike; have brunch with family and friends; a time for youth sports games. For many people, Sunday is a chance to break free of any schedule and express one’s individuality through the choice of how to spend this time. If God, and the worship of God, are thought of at all, it is as one choice for the day among many.

In our lesson today from the prophet Isaiah, we hear God calling the people to keep the Sabbath. For the people of Israel in Isaiah’s time, the Sabbath was a distinctive way of how they expressed their special relationship with God. It was the to worship of God and rest from work, remembering how God hallowed the act of creation by resting on the seventh day. The Sabbath was a day strikingly different from the other six. It was not focused on an individual’s daily life, but rather on God and the community.

Keeping the Sabbath was rooted in the Law given by God to Moses at Mt. Sinai after God freed the people from slavery in Egypt. The Sabbath evoked for the people of Israel God’s liberation of them from slavery, when the people were set free to worship God and live as the people God created them to be.

But in Isaiah’s day the people are losing sense of the Sabbath, of what it is for and what it means. They may follow the rules of keeping the Sabbath, but they neglect to care for those who are oppressed. They follow religious practice, but Isaiah cautions that God calls them to more than following rules. God calls them to righteousness. Though they may faithfully follow the Sabbath rules, they neglect God’s call to righteousness.

Isaiah tells the people they neglect God and righteousness by pointing fingers at others, speaking evil of them. The people don’t take responsibility for their actions, but blame and judge others. Speaking evil of others hurts the community and may lead some to do evil actions. This is destructive behavior. Words matter and affect the well-being of others. The people are called to reject this behavior.

The people are called to honor God by “removing the yoke from among” them—they must not treat other people like yoked animals, who must do work, against their will. They must not exploit others economically, using people created in God’s image for economic gain. Instead, they are to feed the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the oppressed. 

If they do this, they will prosper, their lives will have meaning, and their society will be rebuilt. They will repair the holes in the foundation of their world by caring for others and fighting injustice. The community will be restored to health and well-being. They will share in God’s work in the world.

Isaiah calls the people to keep and honor the Sabbath, not pursuing their personal gain and self-interest, but instead following God. The Sabbath is for taking care of other people. The Lord’s Day is honored by pursuing God’s justice. It is a day for setting aside one’s own cares, the pursuit of individual desires, and instead let God’s priorities lead. The Sabbath is a mark of giving one’s lives over to God entirely, participating in God’s plan of healing for the world.

In our Gospel today, Jesus shows God’s plan for the world by healing a woman. This unnamed woman has been crippled by a spirit for 18 years. She cannot stand upright. She comes to the synagogue where Jesus is teaching. The woman does not ask Jesus for healing, but Jesus calls to her and tells her she is set free from her ailment. He lays hands on her and she stands upright. She responds by praising God. Jesus calls her a daughter of Abraham, signifying her restoration to the community, becoming once again a full member of the people. The crowd watching this healing rejoices for all Jesus does.

At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry proclaiming the Spirit of the Lord is upon him. He is anointed to bring good news to the poor, proclaim the release of captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free (Luke 4:18). In healing the woman on the Sabbath, Jesus demonstrates God’s desire that all people be set free, liberated from what oppresses and afflicts them.

The leader of the synagogue is not joyful, but indignant. He considers this healing to violate the Sabbath, seeing healing as work. He asks why Jesus doesn’t heal her one of the six days of the week it is permissible to do work. It can be easy for us to judge the synagogue leader. The account seems so clear and obvious to us. We see the healing of a woman as more important than an oral tradition of rules governing Sabbath observance. 

Yet, I have sympathy for the synagogue leader as the leader of this community’s liturgy and worship. Like him, the rules I follow as an Episcopal priest are not meant as end in themselves, but to enable us to faithfully worship and be led in paths of holiness and righteousness. This is the same for the synagogue leader. He seeks to responsibly lead Sabbath observance, leading the people to holiness and righteousness, and the actions of Jesus did not fit his understanding of Sabbath practice. He  misses the connection between the woman’s healing and God’s liberating justice.

It can be difficult when how we understand faithful living is questioned. An action outside our normative practice can challenge us deeply. We might reject it as unacceptable. Yet our call as followers of Jesus is to be open to the new and unexpected things God is doing in our midst. In Jesus, God enters into human history and experience, acting in ways that challenge our understanding of this world and how we are called to live.

Our lessons today call us to openness, allowing ourselves to see with fresh eyes the new things God is doing in our midst. This call is vital in our time, when all is in flux and a state of constant change. This tumult presents us with opportunity and choice. 

We can try to hold fast, clinging to the way things were, hoping one day we return to “normalcy.” Or we can dare to let go, embracing the uncertain present and future. We can open our eyes so we see where God leads us. We can trust God is with us always, seeking our well-being. We can listen for the promptings of the Holy Spirit, going where the Spirit leads, embracing the new life and new ways of being God offers us, knowing that, if the calls is from the Spirit, then we are being led in paths of liberation and wholeness, to the rich and abundant life God desires for us. 

So I wonder how God is acting in our lives now, in new and surprising ways outside what we expect? How is God calling us to lay aside our assumptions of how things must be? What burdens keep us bent over, not able to see around us?  What weighs us down, occupying our time and thoughts, and preventing us from being open to God? Where is God offering us liberation, setting us free to work for the kingdom? How will God use us as instruments of God’s reign as we care for the forgotten and neglected, the poor and marginalized?  

In this time of great change, I wonder what practices and behaviors, that once were important, now limit us and are a burden to us, keeping us from God’s liberating work? In what surprising ways, individually and as a parish, are we being called to walk in this time of change and transformation? How are we called to care for those around us?  And who are the people God calls us to serve in this community?

  God desires liberation and wholeness for all people. Set free by God’s love, may we let go of what weighs us down and holds us back. Let us pray for the grace to accept the restorative, liberating love Jesus offers. Let us dare to move into the promise of eternity God holds before us. 

The promise of Isaiah from long ago holds true for us now. If we hear and follow God’s call to righteousness, caring for the least in their need, going in the new ways God leads us, then we will be a light in and for the world. We will be like a watered garden, a newly built city, a people who repair what is broken and destroyed. Then all will rejoice at the wonderful things God is doing. Amen.

August 14, 2022

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

It is the middle of August, the time for going to the beach, enjoying lazy days, and making our way through our summer reading list. For many of us this is a time to relax and recharge before the coming activity of the academic year. So perhaps you came to church this morning in this summer mindset, looking for a peaceful and restorative time. 

Then you heard today’s scripture readings. There is nothing gentle about these lessons. There is little peace and comfort. The words are unsettling and challenging. These are not casual readings for a lazy summer day.

Perhaps we come to church seeking peace. In world so polarized and divided, with such anger and hatred in the public arena, we may long for a place where we can rest in community and the abiding peace of God’s presence. 

Perhaps when we think of Jesus, we remember the gentle teacher, welcoming the children; the Messiah who heals the sick and welcomes the outcast; Jesus who comes to reconcile all things in himself. We hear a different side of Jesus today. Jesus talks about bringing division. What happened to Jesus bringing peace to the world?

It is important to ask how we understand peace and what is God’s peace? Often by peace we mean the absence of conflict and strife. Peace can also mean remaining silent, not challenging how things are, in order to “keep the peace.” Peace may require accepting things as they are, not rocking the boat, living within the status quo.

But this is not God’s peace. Jesus does not come among us to support the way things are in this world. Jesus does not call us to complacency or inaction. Rather, Jesus comes proclaiming the peace of God, a peace that rests on God’s justice. It is a peace that insists on the well-being and dignity of all people. It is a peace that speaks up to the oppressive forces of the status quo. It requires we not make peace with oppression and injustice. It is speaking out, not being complicit in injustice through our silence.

Today’s Gospel is a call to discipleship, to giving our lives over completely to following Jesus. Living this way challenges the ways of this world, potentially creating division and strife in our families and households. 

When Jesus says he has come to bring fire, it is the purifying fire that burns off the dross of our sins. It is the fire that refines us a metal is refined and strengthened. It is fire that melts the coldness of our complacency and inertia. When Jesus says he brings division, it is not because he wants to divide us, but rather he describes the consequences for taking his call seriously and walking with him.

Jesus is resolutely set to walk to Jerusalem, where he will be tortured, killed, and buried. Jesus has taken on himself the anguish of the baptism with which he will be baptized, going to the cross, willingly taking on himself the sins and evil of humanity. To follow Jesus is to walk with him, taking up the cross of self-denial. It is giving up our lives to find the fullness of life in God. Discipleship has a great cost. It means giving up our will, even giving up our lives, for the sake of Jesus.

How do we answer this high calling? How do we faithfully follow Jesus in living lives full of God’s peace and justice? What does it mean to follow Jesus in the way of the cross?

Today’s lesson from the prophet Jeremiah may be helpful in our discernment of the call of Jesus. In this passage, we are warned about following false prophets. God warns that false prophets speak lies in God’s name, offering their dreams as God’s call. They seek to make God’s people forget God through their misleading words.

The false prophets preach that God is “nearby,” that God confirms what these prophets already believe. They say God agrees with them, that God’s word and their preaching are the same. They fail to preach God’s judgment that calls the people to return to God. They assure the people that all is fine, God does not call the people to change their lives. The false prophets affirm the complacency of the people, they support the status quo, of keeping things the way they are.

Jeremiah, the true prophet, however, preaches God as “far off.” Jeremiah understands God is not perfectly aligned with us, that God is not in complete agreement with us. He understands that, while we know God and experience God’s word, our knowledge is incomplete because God is vast, so much beyond our understanding. God is inscrutable to us, ultimately unspeakable. God’s will is not always how we live. We do not always understand God and perfectly do what God asks. So God calls us to change, to be transformed. Jeremiahs hears God challenging the status quo, calling us to new ways of living and being.

Jeremiah proclaims that God’s word is like fire and a hammer. The false prophets preach a word that warms us, a gentle, comforting fire. True prophets proclaim God’s word that is a blazing inferno, burning away impurities and purifying us for life with God, just as gold is tried in the furnace.

The true prophet preaches God’s word like the hammer that shatters the status quo of our lives, so we are broken open and recreated, becoming something new. The hammer opens us so we hear the compelling call of God. The hammer shatters the myth that the power of wealth and military might bring life. It destroys the delusion that our human divisions are compatible with God’s call to inclusion. It breaks the walls of hatred that divide the peoples of this nation so we might live by the sacrificial love of Jesus.

Like Jeremiah’s understanding of God’s word, Jesus does not enshrine how the world exists now, but call us to be purified and refined as the people of God.  Just like the people of Israel in the wilderness, we are lead by the pillar of fire into a new way of life, to life rooted in the kingdom of God, not the ways of this world. 

Our Gospel ends with Jesus saying we know how to interpret the signs of the weather but we do not know how to interpret present time. We are called to see the signs of God’s kingdom around us through the power of the Holy Spirit, allowing God’s call to shape and form us, empowering us to live as God’s children, built into a new body, the body of Christ, a body not built on family ties, but on the call of God and our response to it. 

We are called to see the ways the status quo does not reflect God’s desire for us and through the strength of the Holy Spirit, as the body of Christ, work for change, for the transformation of this world. In this time of upheaval and uncertainty, we are to listen for God’s call leading us in the new way we should walk, forming us into the people God forms us to be.

Jesus asks much of us today. There is great cost in following him, requiring commitment and denying ourselves. But this way of life is meaningful and abundant. It is living as the people God creates us to be, a people who live by God’s love and justice. Jesus calls us into a new way of being, to new life through baptism into his body, so we put on his very identity, living with the sense of purpose he did

We all likely long for the peace of God. This peace is not the absence of conflict, always living in harmony.  Rather, the peace of God is living as a people transformed, as people who are a new creation, who build and nurture relationships of love and mutuality.

So let us fearlessly run this race, following Jesus where leads. By the power of the Holy Spirit may we discern how God calls us to live, being changed and conformed to God’s will. Though Jesus’ way of love is challenging, we are safe forever in Jesus. We are supported by a great cloud of witnesses urging us on and awaiting our arrival in the heavenly city at the great banquet feast of the Lamb. Amen.

August 7, 2022

Hubble Space Telescope Image. Public domain.

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

In our lesson from Genesis this morning, God affirms the covenant with Abraham. The passage opens, “The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.” In this vision, Abraham has an experience of God, and his life is forever changed. 

God calls Abraham from his home in Haran, to a journey without knowing the destination or arrival date. God calls Abram to something nearly impossible for someone in his era. Leaving his home, breaking family bonds was unthinkable then. 

In a culture defined by a person’s responsibility and obligation to family, God asks Abraham to give up his identity, how he understands who he is. Abraham and his wife Sarah, with their nephew Lot, set out into the vast unknown, trusting God will lead them, and God’s promise will one day come to fulfillment. 

I wonder what Abraham experienced? Does a vision like his happen only in the past but not in our day? Does God speak directly to us now? How do we come to know and understand God’s will? Or is God silent, and we live hoping to find our way through our own efforts?

We don’t know exactly what Abraham experienced. Certainly Jewish and Christian tradition suggests he literally heard God’s voice. It is also possible Abraham’s experience not so literal, but more spiritual, an awareness of God and God’s will. What we do know is something profound happened to Abraham because he gave up all he knew, all that defined him. He left his family behind to set out into the unknown, following God’s call. 

Can we experience God in as profound a way as Abraham did? I believe we can. I know from my own life God calls, even now, in ways very clear and profoundly life-changing, and in ways more subtle and only discovered over time.

The author and educator Parker Palmer articulates God’s call as vocation. For him vocation is all about listening. Listening to God, listening to others, and listening to ourselves. Palmer understands vocation as knowing who we are, listening to ourselves to discover our authentic self. 

Vocation is about uncovering who God uniquely created us to be. Each person with gifts given by God for service in God’s kingdom. Each called by God to a particular vocation. Each listening to understand their unique gifts and vocation.

Palmer quotes the minister and author Frederick Buechner in defining vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” Vocation is not ours alone, but is rooted in relationship with God, the world, our neighbors, creation, and with ourselves. Unlike what our culture tells us, we are not an island unto ourselves. Vocation is to be discovered by us and lived out in community with other people. 

https://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/working-for-life/now-i-become-myselfVocation is not ours alone, but is rooted in relationship with God, the world, our neighbors, creation, and with ourselves. Unlike what our culture tells us, we are not an island unto ourselves. Vocation is to be discovered by us and lived out in community with other people. 

God’s call comes to us in many ways. We can experience God in silence, in times of being still, dwelling in the presence of God. In quieting our mind and our will, we can better hear God’s will for us.

We can understand God’s word in being attentive to our joy and gladness, to our deep longings, noting those activities which use the gifts we have been given by God, and bring us joy, fulfillment, and meaning. 

God speaks to us through other people, in how they understand our gifts. Another person may ask if we have consider a particular vocation, or way to use our gifts. Someone might tells us we did something well, and it touches others, having an impact on their lives.

Vocation can radically change one’s life.  This is Abraham’s story. Whatever he experienced, it caused him to turn away from all he knew, and set out on a journey. Through his trust in God he was able to do the impossible and trust the promise of God, that would lead him and would give him descendants as numerous as the stars. He believed the promise he would be blessed and he would be a blessing to others.

Abraham puts his life in God’s hands, believing what God has told him. Even for faithful Abraham this is not easy to do. In today’s lesson, God tells him, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”  Abraham expresses doubt the promise God has made will be realized. He says to God, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless?”

Abraham is able to be honest with God, expressing his worry over God’s promise. He doubts it will come to pass. And God listens. God does not judge. God hears him when he is honest and has concerns about God’s promise.

Abraham learns that covenant happens on God’s time, not ours. He comes to trust God is faithful and will do what God promises. God’s call will not be frustrated, though only God’s knows when the promise will be fulfilled.

Abraham reminds us we are called into relationship with God, a relationship built not on theological assertions, or statements of belief, but on living day by day in communion with God. Vocation is about trusting God. It is about asking questions of God, it is even about doubting God. For doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt in fact strengthens faith. It is through questioning and doubting we come to deeper and more mature faith, to more profound belief and trust in God.

In our Epistle from the Letter to the Hebrews, we are told, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is not thinking holy thoughts, or believing the correct theological ideas, as much as it putting out trust in God, placing our hope in God’s promises. Faith is believing the seemingly impossible will be brought about by God, in God’s time and in God’s way.

Debie Thomas, writing about the experience of Abraham says, “…the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is complacency, apathy, resignation, and cynicism. The opposite of faith is falling asleep. It’s pie-in-the-sky, a disengaged acceptance of the status quo, a refusal to embrace holy restlessness as an incentive to work for a more just and loving world here and now. The opposite of faith is accepting anything less than the kingdom God wishes to give us. It’s hanging back and holding still when the call of God on our lives is to move.” 

In our Gospel today, Jesus urges us to not be fearful and to be on the move. We are to be dressed for action, ready to move, waiting and watching for the Lord to enter in. We are to expect God to be at work in our lives and in the world. In God’s reign there is no room for complacency or inaction. Jesus instructs us to let nothing distract us from our call and vocation, to let nothing hold back our heart, mind, or will from following him.

God is speaking to us and calling us, in this age, this day. When every part of our society and our lives feels in flux, including in the church, with change seemingly the only constant, God affirms the covenant with us. God promises to be with us always, loving us, speaking to us, guiding and protecting us. 

May we open our hearts and lives to God’s will for us, setting out on the journey before us, following Jesus where he leads. We do not know where we are going, or when we will arrive, but we can be certain God is faithful and will use our authentic selves, and our unique gifts, to usher in God’s reign of love and justice. In this we will be richly blessed and we will be a blessing to others. Amen.

June 26, 2022

Elijah throwing his mantle on Elisha, 1873. Public domain.

A sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost. the scripture readings are found here.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to hear God’s call, and discern where God leads us. This requires being attentive moment by moment. Doing so is demanding. It sometimes requires difficult choices. Daily life, with its many activities and pressures, can so occupy our attention that we miss hearing God.

Listening to God may be more difficult in this era of change and uncertainty. As the past we knew is reshaped by the unending pandemic and other societal forces, we may cling to how things were, resisting the new reality. With so much in flux, we may not have a clear sense of what God calls us to do, where God leads us. 

In our lesson today the prophet Elijah struggles to discern God’s call for him. Today’s passage is the end of longer account. In the opening of chapter 19 in the First Book of Kings, Elijah is on the run, fearing for his life. After he killed the prophets of Baal, King Ahab wants to kill him. 

So Elijah flees to the wilderness, sits under a broom tree, and asks God to let him die. He feels he is a failure. Instead, God provides food for him and sets him on a journey of 40 days and 40 nights. Elijah comes to Mt Horeb and there he experiences God’s presence in a still small voice.

God transforms Elijah’s running into a holy encounter. Through this encounter, Elijah’s  vocation is renewed. God calls Elisha to be Elijah’s successor and carry on his prophetic vocation. In the uncertainty, God prepares for the future, raising up Elisha. Elisha responds to his call by leaving his familiar life, saying goodbye to his family, and going into an unknown and uncertain future with Elijah.

In our Gospel Jesus “sets his face to go to Jerusalem.” He too is on a journey, traveling to the cross. Jesus is resolute and single-minded; nothing will distract his journey, keeping him from Jerusalem. Jesus teaches his disciples what it means to walk with him, how to travel this road. The journey will include rejection and persecution; it requires great commitment; it asks walking the road without regard for the outcome. 

Today’s Gospel passage opens with Jesus sending messengers to a Samaritan village. The village, for unknown reasons, won’t receive Jesus. The apostles James and John want to call down fire on the village and destroy it. Jesus rejects their call for vindictive punishment, resisting the temptation to practice violence. Instead, he follows his own teaching by “shaking the dust from their sandals” and moving on.

Luke then describes how several people are called to follow Jesus, but are unable to do so. Though Jesus calls them, they have things to do first. They are not ready to drop everything and go as the disciples did at the beginning of the Gospel. They see following Jesus as one choice among many. They put other things ahead of responding to the call to follow Jesus. 

They reasons they give may resonate with us. First burying one’s father then following makes sense. Or saying farewell at home before following seems appropriate. Our commitment to family is important. We should care for loved ones, including at death. Yet Jesus offers a hard teaching. Jesus tells his disciples, and us, that following in his way of love may conflict with family and cultural norms and behaviors. What society and family tell us is important may be upended by Jesus. To follow Jesus is to turn ourselves entirely and completely to him. We are called to abandon ourselves to the loving purposes of God, even with this is in conflict with the ways of the world.

The backdrop to today’s Gospel is Jesus setting his face to Jerusalem, his resolute journey to the city that kills the prophets. He is focused on going where he will suffer death on the cross, and be raised from the dead, setting us free from the powers of sin and death, opening eternity to us. 

We may not think about the cross much outside of Lent and Holy Week, but the cross is at the center of Jesus’ life and ministry. And through the waters of baptism we share in his death and the promise of his resurrection. It is the cross that provides the purpose and meaning of our lives. Today’s Gospel illustrates what the cross means for us. 

Journeying to the cross is the call to reject violence. Jesus prevents John and James from calling down fire on the Samaritan village. The cross itself is an instrument of shameful death, and through it Jesus brings forgiveness and reconciliation. The cross calls us to live by peace, forgiving our enemies, not return violence for violence. Through the cross we die to our impulses for revenge and reject returning violence with violence.

Through the cross we are to be people of reconciliation. From the cross Jesus prays for the forgiveness of those killing him. Like Jesus, we are to pray for those who hurt us or harm us. We are called to be agents of God’s reconciling love, seeking to bridge differences and live by reconciliation. As the Book of Common Prayers charges us, “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP, p. 855).

Through the cross we are called to die to the ways of this world. In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Foxes have holes, and birds have of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus taught disciples to rely on the kindness of strangers. When Jesus sent them out on a missionary journey, they did not carry many supplies. Instead, they relied on a village to provide food and shelter. 

Like Jesus himself, his disciples were not weighed down with possessions. They did not own property tying them to one place. They could go anywhere. As followers of Jesus, we are called to live in the same way. 

We are to be single minded in following Jesus, and not held back by our material possessions. We must not love the things we have, what we own, so possessions keep us from following. Nothing must distract or weigh us down. We must be free to follow Jesus when and where he calls. Through the cross, we must die to our desire for wealth and possessions because they hold us back from walking with Jesus. Material things take hold of our hearts and leave little room for Jesus.

Jesus also teaches the cross can lead to rejection and persecution. Jesus prepares his disciples that this reality may be theirs. Just as the authorities put Jesus to death, most of his first followers will be martyred. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, they are able to give their lives wholly over to Jesus. They trust that though their bodies are injured, or killed, they are safe forever. Jesus will never abandon them. The One who gave his life on the cross will be with them as they suffer. 

Like those first followers, Jesus is with us when we suffer. He sustains us, comforts us, and gives meaning to our trials. In Jesus we have a Savior who knows the depths of suffering humanity experiences. He suffered the agony of a horrific death on the cross. The cross means we do not suffer in vain, but in suffering and death we meet God and are held safe forever by God. Through Jesus, we are brought from the valley of the shadow of death into the promise of resurrection life.

The road Jesus calls us to walk is not easy, but it is the way of giving up ourselves to find true and abundant life. The way of love Jesus invites us to walk with him leads to the cross, to the paradox that in losing our lives we find greater life than we can ask for or even imagine.

In this time of uncertainty and rapid change, of painful polarization and division, may we not lose heart. We have no reason to fear, for Jesus is with us always. In absolute confidence and trust may we faithfully follow him in all things, surrendering our lives to the power of his love. 

When Jesus calls us, may we resolutely set out, daring to risk all for the sake of the Gospel. May we let go of all attachments that hold us back, and following him, not turning to look back, but steadfastly set out on the road he walks. Following Jesus, may we come to the joys he has prepared for those who love him. Amen. 

June 19, 2022

Medieval Illumination of Jesus exorcizing the Gerasene demoniac from the Ottheinrich Folio, 15th c. Public domain.

The only constant in our world right now seems to be change. Our society and institutions are in flux. The ways of the past do not continue. Things are changing, though it is not clear yet where we are heading.

This is true in the church as well. After more than two years of pandemic, things are certainly different from the past. Our life as a community is limited. Only a fraction of parishioners worship in-person. Unstructured time for informal interaction is rare.

Change can be difficult for us. We may need to do things differently, embracing new ways, but the old and familiar can have hold on us. We can cling to how things were. The familiar can feel safer and more certain than entering a new reality. Sometimes we even choose unhealthy situations because the future is hard to imagine or may seem too elusive.

Times of flux can cause anxiety. While we can live in uncertainty for a short time, ultimately we long for structure, stability, and a sense of what to expect. Living in a time of extended change is often unpleasant for us, yet the rupture in the status quo can be a holy time. When we are settled into a routine, we can be complacent, closed to the new things God is doing in our lives and the world.

Changeable times like these can be liminal periods for us, when we are unsettled enough to be open to what God is doing. We may hear God’s call afresh. If, in the uncertainty and change, we faithfully ask God to lead us, we will come to new places, new ways of being, where we experience God more deeply. Following God into the unknown, we can move into the rich and abundant life God desires for us. If we can let go of our of fear, we can embrace new realities we scarcely could hope for.

In today’s Gospel, Luke tells a dramatic story of transformation, healing, and liberation. Those who witness it are left afraid, struggling to embrace the new reality. The account of the Gerasenes demoniac is dramatic. It is the account of a man possessed by many demons, named “Legion.” The man is naked, living among the tombs, near pigs. He is kept under guard, bound with chains, and at times he casts off his chains and flees to the wilderness. 

Jesus commands the demons possessing the man to enter a large herd of swine. They leave the man, enter the swine, who rush down the steep bank and are drowned in the lake. Not surprisingly, the swineherds are not pleased; the death of their herd has great economic consequences for them. Because of this, they are not able to celebrate the man restored to health and wholeness. As they tell others the news, it spreads and people come to see what happened. They are seized with fear and ask Jesus to leave their region.

Those witnessing this healing cannot give thanks for the man now clothed and restored to wholeness. They want Jesus to leave as soon as possible. They are unable to see the great work accomplished by Jesus and his power over the oppressive demons. They miss how this healing brings the man wholeness in body, mind, and spirit. They can’t witness God’s salvific act in this man’s life. Instead, they hope Jesus we will them just as they were before this miracle.

The healed man, whose life has been dramatically changed, asks to follow Jesus. This one of the rare times Jesus says no, telling the man to return home and “declare how much God has done for you.” The man becomes the first missionary, sent forth to proclaim the action of God he experienced firsthand. He is charged to tell all how he has been transformed by Jesus. He is the first Gentile missionary in Luke’s Gospel.

Today’s Gospel account has elements that may seem strange to 21st century people. Perhaps puzzling to us is sending the demons into a herd of swine. Ched Myers, community organizer and biblical scholar, offers helpful insights and interpretation. [Myers, Chad; Dennis, Marie; Nangle, Joseph; Moe-Lobeda, Cynthia; Taylor, Stuart. “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship . Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.] This miracle happens in the Decapolis, center of Roman power on eastern edge of the Roman empire. Many army veterans live there, on land they received as payment for military service 

The man is a refugee from the Roman city, alienated from society. He is profoundly unclean according to Jewish law: he is naked, living among the dead, with pigs. The demons possessing him are named Legion, a Latin term for a division of Roman soldiers in the region whose mascot was a boar, a pig. 

The man is alienated by the Roman occupation of the region. This occupation destroyed his heart, mind, and body. Jesus liberates him from all that oppresses him, bringing him to freedom, wholeness of body, mind, and spirit. Those witnessing these events can’t accept God’s liberation. The loss of what they know, even though oppressive, is too much for them. God’s liberation has costs they cannot accept.  

In today’s Epistle, from the Letter of Paul to the Galatians, Paul calls us to accept the life God has in store for us, even when it radically changes our lives. He reminds us that through baptism we are clothed with Christ, putting on Christ’s identity, living as Christ in the world. 

Through baptism the boundaries of oppression are torn down. In Christ, all are one. Paul says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female.” The divisions of who is one of us and who is a foreigner; who is slave and free; who has power or has no power; even the divisions of male and female, how we understand gender and identity, are torn down in Jesus. In him all are welcome, all are invited to life restored, to wholeness through the love of God. All are set free to embrace the identity God bestows. Living the life of Jesus requires we challenge the assumptions and order of our society.

Liberation and acceptance are not always met with rejoicing. Some fear the change that comes with new life, with dismantling oppressive structures. Our nation needs people of faith to live lives rooted in the baptismal call of Paul, embodying and proclaiming all boundaries of hate and oppression be torn down. To proclaim freedom through God’s liberating love to all forced to live among the tombs in chains. 

Today is Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in this country. While today is a day for joy and celebration, it is kept against the backdrop of violent resistance to justice. White supremacy resists efforts to dismantle racism. Just a few weeks ago yet another mass shooting took place, this time in Buffalo, targeting a Black neighborhood, killing people as they shopped. 

In this parish we continuing to prioritize opposing racism and dismantling white supremacy as our call from God, yet not all agree with us. There is a loud and violent backlash of people who see the liberation of God to build a just society as a threat. They oppose the liberation and restoration Jesus offers. 

This weekend is also the annual Pride celebration. After being suspended by the pandemic, Pride celebrations take place this year, including here in Providence. The backdrop to this year’s celebration is a marked rise in violence against the LGBTQ community, which is especially deadly for Trans women of color. There is also concern that legal protections will come under threat in the coming months and years. 

Even in the church there is little agreement on how to follow Jesus. In today’s NY Times there is an article about a predominantly Black Roman Catholic middle school in Worcester where the student body asked the Black Lives Matter and Pride flags be flown. More than a year after school did so, the Bishop of Worcester says the flags are against Catholic teaching and must be removed. The Jesuit-run school refuses. 

In this messy, changeable reality, we are called, like the man healed in today’s Gospel, to accept the liberating healing of Jesus ourselves and go forth and tell all that God has done for us. This may at time be difficult. It requires we challenge the accepted wisdom of our age by opposing boundaries of hate and exclusion; rejecting violence at every turn; forgiving our enemies and those who would harm us; and striving to end oppressive structures and practices.

Through the power of God’s love, the strong love that liberates the oppressed, this world can be transformed. May we open ourselves to the new thing God is doing in this time of change and upheaval, that we continue to be a community of love and welcome, a community that stands up to oppression, and witnesses to the powerful love of God that sets all people free and brings wholeness of mind, body, and spirit to all people.

This day Jesus says to us, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” Amen. 

June 12, 2022

Icon of the Trinity, Andrei Rublev (15th c.). Public domain.

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

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

Each year on Trinity Sunday preachers throughout the church approach today’s sermon with caution. Parishioners wonder how we talk about and comprehend one God revealed in three Persons. 

Speaking of the Trinity strikes fear and worry into the heart of the strongest Christian. How can we speak of a mystery? Who can understand the ineffable, eternal, and all powerful God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God in three persons, dwelling in unity of being as one Godhead?

This is the only Sunday in our liturgical calendar dedicated to a doctrine, and it can be tempting to think of the doctrine of the Trinity as a dry theological exercise. The Trinity is a mystery beyond our creaturely understanding. What can we possibly understand or know about God? How can we speak of the Trinity, when all our language is but metaphor for what is a much greater Reality beyond our knowledge?

Yet, on the First Sunday after Pentecost we celebrate this mystery of God. Each year preachers wrestle with how to speak of the Trinity’s immensity and transcendence. Perhaps those listening to sermons wonder why engage in this exercise? The church’s history is a helpful starting place in answering that question, and may serve as an entry into our contemplating and worshipping God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The ancient church did not set out to write theology about the nature of God formulating the doctrine of the Trinity. Rather, the early church began with experience and sought to teach the faith handed them from Jesus through the apostles. They desired to prepare candidates for Baptism by teaching them this tradition. 

They also desired a deeper understanding of God as revealed in scripture. They noticed that in scripture, God is revealed as the creator of all that exists. Genesis recounts that from a void, God created all that is, pronouncing everything, including humanity, “good.” [Genesis 18:1-8]

Our first lesson, from the Book of Proverbs, explains before anything was created, God created Wisdom. Wisdom is present at each stage of creation. Through Wisdom, God is known to humanity and life is found. Wisdom is beside God through the act of creation, delighting in what is made by God. Wisdom rejoices in the inhabited world and delights in the human race.

In scripture God’s first act is to create. God makes all there is to be in relationship with God. God creates humanity in God’s image, for relationship with God. God delights in, and rejoices over humanity, and everything that God creates.

In the New Testament, God who created Wisdom and all creation, puts on human flesh in the person of Jesus. The prologue to John’s Gospel tells how the eternal Word, present at creation, puts on humanity and dwells with us. In Jesus, humanity sees God made flesh. God who created everything becomes one of us, walking among us.

In today’s reading from the Gospel according to John, Jesus teaches that he and the Father are one. All the Father has is his; if you have seen Jesus, you have seen the Father. When Jesus leaves his disciples, the Holy Spirit will come upon his followers. The Spirit is the abiding presence of God, dwelling with God’s people, filling them, guiding them, teaching them and leading them into all truth, even praying through them. The Holy Spirit draws us closer to God.

Through reading and studying scripture, the church came to understand that God, who is One, is known to God’s people as the Father, who with the Son creates all there is; and God is known as the Son in whom God becomes human and through whose death and resurrection humanity is redeemed, lifting us to the divine life; and God is revealed as the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father and the Son, who abides with us.

Ultimately the statement of Trinitarian doctrine expresses how we as humans experience God and how God is revealed to us. The full comprehension of God is beyond us, but we do know God revealed in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is not a dry, lifeless theological statement, but the reality in which we live. It is the life into we are baptized, incorporated into the life of the Trinity through the waters of baptism. When a Christian is baptized, it is administered in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This has been from the earliest days.

Ultimately, the Trinity is about relationship: God creating us to be in relationship; God saving us from all the separates us from the love of God; God dwelling within us, leading us deeper into the heart of God. God is a community of Love: One God in three persons bound together in Love, desiring to share this divine life with us, bringing us to dwell in the dynamic, creating, loving life of the Trinity.

There is a well-known icon of the Trinity expressing this dynamic, loving relationship. It was created by Andrei Rublev sometime in the 15th century. This icon shows three figures seated at a table, reflecting the story of Abraham entertaining three angelic visitors found in the Book of Genesis. 

While based on the story of Abraham offering hospitality to three angelic visitors, the icon is understood as representing the Trinity. The three persons of the Trinity sit together at a table, united in divine love, sharing a meal. There is an open place at the table, closest to the viewer. This is the seat the viewer is invited to take at the table with the Trinity.

On Friday, the Daily Word from the Society of St. John the Evangelist expressed the room for us within the divine life of the Trinity. Called, Belonging, it encouraged us to imagine ourselves entering the Trinity’s community of love. The post said, “Imagine God as Trinity, and then go one step further. Try imagining a fourth person. We are the fourth person in the circle, a circle of belonging and love. That is how much God loves us. That is how much we all belong, we who have been created in the very image and likeness of God.” [https://www.ssje.org/2020/06/07/these-desperate-and-opportune-times-br-curtis-almquist/?]

The doctrine of the Trinity is not simply a dry theological concept, but is an attempt to express the dynamic relationship of love the three persons of the Trinity share. We are created by God to say yes to the invitation of the Trinity, an invitation to enter the divine life of Love shared by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is an invitation to imagine ourselves seated at the Trinity’s divine table of love. To claim our place in the Trinity’s divine dance and circle of love. God, the Holy Trinity, invites us into the divine community of love. We have only to say yes to this holy invitation. 

Can we fully understand the nature of God? No. Can we comprehend how we are incorporated into the love of God? Not fully. We can, however, understand, perhaps feebly and incompletely, that God desires to welcome us into the community of Love shared by the three Persons of the Trinity. The response we are called to make is to worship the Trinity. 

In our collect today we pray that, through grace, God gives us the confession of a true faith whereby we “acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of [God’s] divine Majesty to worship the Unity.”

We are called to joyfully receive the faith we have been given and, in response to worship the Unity of the Trinity. We acknowledge the mystery of God, while worshipping God who loves us, creating us for relationship with God. We worship God who loves us so much, God becomes One with us in Jesus, suffering upon the cross, dying, and being raised on the third day. We worship God who abide with us in the Holy Spirit, breathing in us, leading us into all truth, binding us together in one community, and even praying for us.

God the Holy Trinity, is at once transcendent and beyond us, and God who walked among us in our human flesh, and God who dwells within us, as close as our breath.

Through the waters of baptism we are united with God the Trinity, incorporated into the divine Love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. May we remain faithful in our worship of the Trinity. Through our faithful devotion, may we come ever more into communion with God, drawn deeper into the heart of God, until we take our place in the heavenly banquet, worshipping the Trinity for eternity.

And now to God be all worship and praise. For yours is the majesty, O Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory, now and for ever. Amen. [Book of Common Prayer, p. 391]

June 5, 2022

Pentecost descent of the Holy Ghost as a dove, c. 1503-4. Public domain.

A sermon for the Day of Pentecost. The scripture readings are found here.

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

I am thankful we spend this Day of Pentecost in person. The past two years were difficult being apart on this festival day. Through the more than two years of the pandemic there has been much difficulty for so many.

For us a community the pandemic greatly affected our liturgical life. We lived through a long time of not gathering in-person. We worshipped out doors on the lawn. Now we are here in the hall. We long to return to our beautiful church.

While these times have been disorienting, there has also been a gift in them. We have learned we can worship God and gather as a community for liturgy anywhere. Wherever we gather, God is present and worshipped. In fact, I think dislocation and disruption may allow God to speak to us in new and fresh ways. Breaking out of routine and the expected, can provide an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to open us and speak to us in new and fresh ways. 

Several of you have shared moments when God has been present and touched you in these times of dislocation. I know I have experienced God present wherever we have worshipped, even when I recorded videos alone in the church during lockdown. 

I am reminded of when I was fortunate to go on retreat in France. In 2006 I spent a week with the Taize community, arriving on the Seventh Sunday of Easter and staying through the Day of Pentecost. 

The first days were relatively quiet with only a few hundred people there. As the week progressed, things began to change. By the Day of Pentecost there were several thousand people in the church. It was no longer quiet. There were people everywhere. It was challenging to find the contemplative silence of the previous days. As the Pentecost Eucharist began, I found myself unsettled. Where was the profound quiet I had found so meaningful? 

As I feel unsettled, longing for the quiet of earlier days, we began to sing the chant, Veni, Sancte Spiritus, “Come, Holy Spirit.” Over the simple chant verses in different languages we sung. They asked the Holy 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 us.

This simple chant transformed my experience. This was the perfect Pentecost experience. It was a gift worshipping on Pentecost morning with several thousand people from all over the world, all praising God in multiple languages at the same time. 

It was noisy. It was unruly. It was chaotic. And it may have been like that first Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came as a noisy, violent wind and 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 hear 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.”

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

There are other times when the Holy Spirit comes in power and might, with great sound and activity, upsetting things as they are, leaving nothing as it was. The Holy Spirit recreates us, so we become a new creation, called 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 followers of Jesus to be transformed. These disciples leave behind their fear, no longer hiding behind locked doors, worried they will be killed like Jesus was. Filled with the Holy Spirit, they leave behind locked doors, and take the good news of Jesus to the ends of the world. 

Empowered by the Holy Spirit, they become the presence of Jesus in the world. They no longer wait for Jesus to appear and lead them. Now God abides within them through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. God is now as close as their breath, their hearts, their minds. 

Through the Spirit, 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 becoming witnesses to the love of God.

That first Pentecost the Holy Spirit is poured out all people. Human boundaries, those 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, so all are one just as Jesus prayed at the Last Supper, one just as Jesus and the Father are one.

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 listening hear the disciples’ preach in their native languages. God is not distant and remote, speaking only to a few, select people. Now God the Spirit speaks in language understood by all. God’s call, God’s invitation to the divine life is for all people.

Pentecost is one of the days set aside for baptism in the Book of Common Prayer. In a few moments we will renew our Baptismal Vows. In these vows we reject Satan and all evil, affirming we believe in God. We promise to be faithful in loving God with all our heart, mind, and soul, loving 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. It is 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 that Jesus would leave them. At his Ascension they stood looking up into heaven after him. Once the Holy Spirit descends on them, they no longer look up. Instead they look ahead to where God leads them. They listen for the promptings of the Spirit calling them to do the work Jesus gives them. They leave behind their anxiety and fear, trusting the power of God to keep them safe for eternity, no matter what happens to them in this age.

The Holy Spirit that dramatically transformed the first followers of Jesus, empowering them to do extraordinary things in Jesus’ Name, is the very same Spirit we have received. The Holy Spirit descending that first Pentecost with great power, 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, now 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.

May we ask the Spirit to enlighten our hearts and minds, that we hear the promptings of the Holy Spirit. When God calls from sheer silence in a quiet voice, and when God rushes in in dramatic and life-changing ways, may we claim the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit, empowered for the work of ministry in the world.

Through our witness, and that of all who follow Christ, may God renew the face of the earth, as the Holy Spirit draws all people to unity, calling each person in language they understand. Through the unity of the Spirit, may all be one, sharing the divine life of God, now in this world, and in the age to come. Amen.

May 29, 2022

Ascension of Jesus, Rabula Gospels (Mesopotamia, 6th century). Public domain.

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

This morning I want to tell you a story. It is an ancient Ascension parable told long ago by the Desert Father Abba Sayah, who was an early Christian mystic. He told how, on Ascension Day, the disciples were very sad Jesus was leaving them. 

In fact, as Jesus began to rise into the air, John just couldn’t bear it. He reached up into the cloud and grabbed a hold of Jesus’ right leg, refusing to let go! When Mary saw John do this, she, too, jumped up, grabbing hold of Jesus’ other leg. His glorious exit ruined, Jesus looked up into heaven and called out, “Okay, Father…now what?”

A voice came out of the clouds, deep and loud like the rumbling of thunder in the distance. “Ascend!” the voice said. So Jesus continued to rise through the air, dangling John and Mary behind him. Of course, the other disciples couldn’t bear to be left behind either, so they too jumped on board, and within moments there was this pyramid of people hanging in mid-air. 

Then, before anyone really knew what to do next, all kinds of people were appearing out of nowhere — friends and neighbors from around Galilee, people who’d heard Jesus’ stories, people he had healed. They, too, refused to be left behind, so they grabbed for the last pair of ankles they could see and hung on for dear life. Above all of this scuffling and scrambling the voice of God is calling out, “Ascend!”

Then suddenly, from the bottom of the pyramid, there came the piping voice of a small child. “Wait!” he shrilled, “I’ve lost my dog! Wait for me.” But Jesus couldn’t wait. The little boy wasn’t going to be left behind, and he was determined his dog was coming with him. So, still holding on with one hand, he grabbed hold of a tree with the other, and held on with all his might. For a moment, the whole pyramid stopped dead in the air, but Jesus couldn’t stop. The ascension had begun, and God was pulling him back up to heaven.

It looked as if the tree would uproot itself, but then the tree held on, and it started to pull the ground up with it, and the soil itself started moving up into the sky. Hundreds of miles away, where the soil met the oceans, the oceans held on. And where the oceans met the shores, the shores held on. All of it held on, like there was no tomorrow. 

Jesus ascended to heaven. He went back to living permanently in the presence of God’s endless love and care and wholeness and laughter. But as Abba Sayah tells it, he pulled all of creation — everything that ever was or is or ever will be — he pulled it all up into heaven with him.  [https://www.edwardhays.com/the-ladder.html]

Today is the Sunday after Ascension Day. After Jesus is raised from the dead he openly appears to his disciples for forty days. On the fortieth day after Easter Day, Jesus ascends bodily into heaven, taking his wounded human flesh to the throne of God. 

The Ascension of Jesus assumes an ancient cosmology in which heaven is literally above the earth and sky. Yet, we have all seen the photos from outer space and know universe is not made like that. For this reason, this feast can be a challenge for us as 21st century people. Some people outright reject the Ascension as a fanciful and outdated story. But if we can move past the outdated understanding of the physical world, I think the Ascension has much to say to us, as the story of the Desert Father Abba Sayah vividly illustrates. 

That parable shows how the Ascension completes what is begun in the Incarnation. At Christmas we celebrate how, in the Incarnation, God puts on humanity. The Creator of the universe, maker of all that exists, stops to put on human flesh. The eternal, ineffable God accepts the limits of living as a creature, within the creation.

God does this in the person of Jesus, seeking unity with humanity by becoming human. In the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, God lifts humanity to the divine life, taking human flesh to dwell with God. When Jesus ascends into heaven, he goes where he promises to bring us one day. In his ascension human flesh is lifted to the divine life, to the throne of God.

The fourth century bishop and theologian Athanasius of Alexandria said, “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”  Athanasius also said, “Just as the Lord, putting on the body, became a man, so also we [humans] are both deified through his flesh, and henceforth inherit everlasting life.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divinization_(Christian)]

God so deeply desires to be one with us that God comes among us, dwelling with humanity, in the person of Jesus. Jesus literally shows us how to be human: how to love as God loves us; how to serve one another in humility; how to work for justice, welcoming the forgotten and excluded. In Jesus, God not only loves us, but shows us by example how to be fully human and love as God intends.

In the Ascension, Jesus brings us where he has gone, taking human flesh to the throne of God in heaven. Jesus desires to share the divine life with us, to lift us to God, to the divine love of the Trinity. God wants to incorporate us into the very heart of God. God comes among us in Jesus to lift us to the divine life of God.

We see this in today’s Gospel. Jesus is praying for his disciples at the Last Supper, the night before his arrest and crucifixion. That last night with his friends, Jesus teaches that he and the Father are one. Jesus desires that his followers become one with him, just as he is one with the Father. Jesus prays that all may be one in him just as he is one with the Father.

Jesus desires to share with his followers everything he shares with the Father, including his resurrected and glorified life. In the Gospel Jesus prays, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

The divine and glorified life that Jesus knows in the resurrection and ascension, Jesus wants to share with us, and with all humanity. We are called to live in this world full of the glory of the kingdom of God. We are called to live in this life full of Christ’s glory, living a life filled with the love of God, the glory of God, the light of Christ. 

We are called to share the life-changing presence of God with all we encounter. We are to live as citizens of the kingdom of God, residents even now of the heavenly city where Jesus has gone before us and where he promises one day to bring us.

Living in the glory and love of the ascended and resurrected Jesus means being changed, so we become like Jesus, and are the presence of Jesus in the world. We are called to be his body on earth, radiating love and healing to all. 

The ascension of Jesus teaches us that creation is good, that we are created in God’s image and loved by God, that Jesus desires to share all with us, even the glory of eternal life. Following him, we are to make real the love and glory of Jesus in this world, that through us all may give glory and thanks to God. 

If we live rooted in the glory of the ascended Christ, how can we help but love others as Jesus loves us? If we accept the gift of the divine life of God, how we help but see others as beloved people of God bound for the glory of God’s kingdom? If we live by the divine life of God, how can we not see the whole of creation as loved by God, and resist caring for all creatures, lovingly stewarding all of creation entrusted by God to our care?

May we put on the resurrected ascended Jesus, living in the love and glory Jesus shares with us, lifted by him to the divine life of God, so that we are a people who bring love, healing, and hope to this broken world. 

May the light of the ascended Jesus shine in and through us, transforming the face of the earth. Amen.

May 22, 2022

The angel showing John the New Jerusalem, with the Lamb of God at its center. Public domain.

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter. The scripture readings are available here.

This is a beautiful time of year. It is a joy seeing the natural world turn green with new growth, watching flowers, trees, and shrubs burst into flower.  It is fitting in the midst of this growth and beauty we keep Rogation. We do so each year on the Sixth Sunday of Easter with a Rogation Procession at end of 10 am Eucharist. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday this week are the annual Rogation Days.

Rogation is from the Latin word rogare, meaning “to pray” and traditionally was the time to pray for the newly planted crops. Rogation proclaims God’s activity in the world, how all of creation is made and sustained by God. Rogation reminds us God sends the sun and rain needed for newly planted crops to produce a bountiful harvest.

Rogation reminds us we are not responsible for what we have, that everything is a gift of God. Through God’s generous bounty, creation produces what is needed to sustain life on our planet. We are called to be thankful for the abundance of the earth, for all that God provides. And we are called to be good stewards of all creation, of all entrusted to our care. 

Being good stewards requires sharing with others from our bounty. The Biblical call is to give away ten percent of what we have for the care of others. Those of us who are middle class can overlook the abundance we are given. We can be negligent in being thankful to God that have enough, or even more than enough, to live our lives.

Being faithful stewards also requires we lovingly caring for the natural order, living in a responsible and sustainable way. This is more important in our time than ever before. We stand at the precipice of an ecological disaster, facing an earth increasingly inhospitable to life. 

In recent months the United Nations has warned we fast approach the point of no return, to the time we cannot reverse the rising temperatures on earth. Rogation calls us, each one of us individually and corporately, to make sound decisions in how we live, making choices for the well-being of all people, and all creatures of the earth. 

Not only are we to care for creation, but it is through the created order that we encounter God. In the incarnation God comes among us in the person of Jesus, entering into the creation God made. In the sacraments matter of the created world, substances such as water, oil, bread, and wine are transformed by the Holy Spirit so they impart God’s grace, healing, and forgiveness. God uses the stuff of creation to reveal God’s love to us.

Despite this, sometimes it can be hard for us to see God at work in creation, present and active in the world around us. Centuries ago the world was seen as an enchanted place, full of mystery and even magic. There was much people did not understand about the world, not having the scientific knowledge we have. For Christians, God was seen at work in the created order, blessing or curse possible at any moment. 

We see this in Scripture, with its many examples of people having dreams and visions. We have heard several in these weeks of Eastertide. Today we hear another in the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles. Paul has a vision of a man in Macedonia and is called to go help him. Paul listens to this vision and ends up in Philipi in Greece, his first visit to Europe. 

On the sabbath, Paul and his companions go the  river because they thought it was a place of prayer. They meet a woman named Lydia there. We do not know much about her beyond she was a Gentile worshipper of God, and a dealer in purple cloth. Purple cloth was expensive and only the wealthy could afford to purchase it. It appears Lydia is an independent business person, something unusual for a woman, though not impossible. 

Acts tells us God opens Lydia’s heart, so she eagerly hears Paul’s preaching, believes, and she and her household are baptized. After her baptism, Lydia invites Paul to stay with her while he does missionary work in Philippi. 

This lesson shows how Paul follows a vision to Philippi and meets Lydia, how Lydia comes to river that day and God opens her heart to hear Paul and believe. In this account there are many small decisions and actions that lead to this meeting, and lives are changed by it. Throughout, God is at work guiding Paul and Lydia and they are listening to God and following God’s call.

This story of Paul and Lydia reminds us how God desires to dwell with us, to be in relationship with us. Sometimes  we may think our spiritual lives are all up to us, that we have to make things happen, find our own way. This lesson reminds that God is work, that God calls and guides us. God offers visions of where we should go, sometimes through an urge, a feeling, or a desire we have to do something. God prompts us to draw closer by planting within us a deep longing for relationship with God, just as God does with Lydia. 

God desires to be close to us so God seeks us out, searching for us, calling us, drawing near to us. In today’s Gospel Jesus promises never to leave his followers. This passage takes place at the Last Supper. Jesus soon will leave his disciples and tells them not to be afraid, not to let their hearts be troubled. Jesus promises the Holy Spirit will teach and guide them. The Spirit will be the abiding presence of Jesus with them. The Holy Spirit will draw his followers to God.

God calls us to be open to God’s activity in our lives, to respond to the deep longing we have for God in our hearts, allowing the Holy Spirit to draw us close to God in this earthly life, so we might dwell with God in eternity, knowing the fullness of life God has in store for all who love God and abide with God. The Holy Spirit draws us into life with God, and will show us how God is at work in our lives and our world. Through the Spirit, we will see the ways of God.

The Epistle today is from the Revelation to John. This last book of the Bible contains the vision of John of Patmos, a vision granted him by the Holy Spirit. In today’s reading is one of the great visions of eternity found in Revelation. In it, John sees the new Jerusalem. 

In this heavenly city there is no temple — God and the Lamb are the temple. There is no sun or moon, the glory of the Lord is the city’s light and the nations walk in this light. In this New Jerusalem the river of the water of life flows from the throne of God and the tree of life, with fruit and leaves for healing, grows in the city. There the people see God face to face and God’s name is written on their foreheads, they are marked as God’s own forever. God is their light, there is no night in this city, neither is there sorrow, pain, or death. 

This reading from Revelation shows that God leads us through the Holy Spirit towards God. God protects us for eternity, no matter what befalls us in this life. And God will bring us to the New Jerusalem where we will see God face to face and worship God for eternity. 

Our scripture readings today tell how deeply God desires to dwell with us, both in this world and the next. They remind us that God is revealed to us in and through the beauty and wonder of creation, and is at work in the natural world in ways we cannot always grasps or understand. 

We are called to open our hearts to the desire for God planted deep within us, hearing God beckons us, inviting us to draw closer to God. Through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, may we be open to the visions and dreams that reveal God and God’s call to us. 

Guided and led by God’s Spirit, may we walk on the path of love we are called to take, following Jesus who goes before us. Though we may not understand where we are heading, may we follow as Jesus leads us, knowing we will be changed by this journey, becoming the people God creates us to be. And may we glimpse eternity in the midst of life in this world, seeing God at work around us, until we come to those good things God prepares for us in eternity. Amen. 

May 15, 2022

Peter’s vision of sheet with animals, Domenico Fetti. 17th century. Public domain.

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter. The scripture lessons are found here.

Eastertide is a season lasting 50 days when we celebrate the glorious resurrection of Jesus

from the dead. We give thanks to God for this act and embrace the joy of Jesus’ victory over sin and death. Being baptized into his death and resurrection, we also share in his victory.

What does it mean for us that Jesus is raised from the dead now, in this time and place? How are we called to live in the power of Jesus’ resurrection? How are we to be an Easter people?

There are clues for us in scripture. Throughout Eastertide, we read from the Acts of Apostles. This book is the story of the first followers of Jesus after his death, resurrection, and ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. 

Acts tells how, through the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit, the first followers of Jesus are transformed. They leave behind their places of fear and hiding. They find new courage and authority. They go to ends of earth, doing what Jesus did in his earthly life and ministry. They preach and teach, heal the sick, and raise the dead. 

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, they see the world differently, they understand themselves differently, and they experience God differently. They become a new creation, a people reborn, transformed, and dramatically changed.

In today’s lesson from Acts, Peter explains to the church leaders in Jerusalem his action when he ate with Gentiles. This was forbidden by Jewish law and the first Christians, being Jewish, continued the practice. The leaders want to know why he did this.

Peter explains how, as he prayed, he had a vision of a sheet with “unclean” animals lowered from heaven. These were animals the law said one must not eat. Peter then hears a voice telling him to kill and eat. Peter refuses, explaining these animals are unclean. The voice from heaven replies, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter experiences this three times, then sheet is pulled up into heaven.

At that very moment three men come to Peter from Caesarea. The Holy Spirit has told them to go to Peter who will have a message from them. Peter goes with them to the home of the Gentile Cornelius. There Peter preaches and the Holy Spirit is given to Cornelius and his household. Peter asks, “Who was I that I could hinder God?” Then Peter shares food with them at their table. 

Peter remembers how Jesus told the apostles, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If God pours out the Holy Spirit on Gentiles, just as God did on Peter and the other apostles, who is Peter to question what God is doing?

The leaders in Jerusalem listen to Peter and are persuaded by his experience. They agree Gentiles can be included in the church without following the law, without circumcision. This opens the way for Gentile converts to Christianity.

Through the power of the risen Jesus and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Peter and the leaders of the church in Jerusalem are transformed. They see the radically new thing God is doing in their midst. Through prayer and listening, they discern God’s activity and change their practices. They expand and broaden their sense of who is welcome, who is called by God into the community of Christ’s body. 

This is a radical change for Peter. It requires he let go of a lifetime of belief and practice. He has faithfully followed the Jewish dietary law his entire life. Allowing Gentiles into the Christian community challenges his understanding of how things are. Rather than allowing his life experience to prevent a new group from being welcomed, Peter changes, he sees with new eyes. The leaders in Jerusalem also allow the Holy Spirit to speak to them through Peter and his story. They listen, discern, and are changed.

As people living by the power of the resurrection, we too are called to allow the Holy Spirit to speak to us, revealing the new things God is doing in our midst. We are called to see with fresh eyes, with the eyes of Jesus.

The Spirit prompts us to include all people, resisting the ways of our world that exclude and divide people. Like the leaders in Jerusalem we called to respectfully listen to one another, hearing how God is active in each of our lives, open to the promptings of the Spirit, allowing ourselves to be changed. We are to be open to new realities, even when difficult to accept. Through the Holy Spirit we are called to listen, discern the Spirit’s call, and do what the Spirit asks.

Discerning what God is doing in our lives individually, in the life of this faith community, and in the wider world is especially important in this time. For more than two years the pandemic has profoundly shaped and changed our lives. It has deeply affected this parish. While we again gather for in-person worship, not all who once gathered with us have returned. Others are missed, having moved away or died. 

Like many, I carry grief for those we no longer see, and for what we have lost in this time. There is deep grief in our culture as we sadly mark the death of million people because of the pandemic. Throughout the world at least 6 million have died, though likely many more. As many people understandably seek to move on and live as though the pandemic is over, many people mourn those lost and are unable to return to normalcy.

It is understandable we desire to recover from the way we have lived during the pandemic, that seek a return to activities and practices we have missed. There is a danger, however, in reflexively resuming our pre-pandemic lives. In this time of transition there is opportunity for us. Rather than returning to life as it was two-and-a-half years ago without examination, we have a time to intentionally discern where God calls us now.

This is a liminal time, an in-between time, a period when we are learning to live with the virus, but when the pandemic is not over. Liminal times are often uncomfortable and unsettling. We may want them to end. Transitions like this can leave us longing for stability and certainty. 

Yet, it is precisely in liminal times that God is at work, that God can break into our lives in ways we can hear. It is in times like these God is at work bringing forth new life and growth from loss and death.

The coming months, as we continue our gradual re-opening, resuming more of our in-person parish life, we have a great gift. This can be a time for us to be intentional in prayer, for listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. This is a time to discern where and how God is at work in our lives individually and in our parish community. 

This liminal time invites open-ended reflection question such as: Where is God leading us? What new thing does God call us to undertake? What new ideas and ways of being are we being offered? What practices and activities from before the pandemic are we called to resume? Does God call us to give up anything we used to do? Who are the people God calls us to greet, welcome, even seek out? Who is God calling to become part of this community? How will we welcome them? Where in our neighborhood and in the world is God is calling us to act?

The death and resurrection of Jesus shows God’s promise of new life brought forth from suffering and loss. Easter reveals how the past does not determine the present and future, how from utter loss a new creation is born.

In Eastertide we are called to be formed and shaped by the resurrection of Jesus, becoming a new creation, an Easter people who see with new and fresh eyes, imagining a new reality, acting as agents of God’s love, compassion, and justice. Through the Spirit, our eyes can be opened to the new things God is doing around us.

Like Peter and the leaders in Jerusalem, we called to see the new thing God is doing and to welcome those who have been excluded. Through the gifts of the Spirit we are to proclaim the loving compassion of God to those who sorrow and mourn. We are to be a people who proclaim the promise that God’s love is stronger than death. Amen.

May 8, 2022

Good Shepherd, 3rd century.
Public domain.

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter. The scripture lessons are found here.

Today is called “Good Shepherd Sunday,” when we remember Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Sheep need a shepherd to lead them, keep them safe, someone to bring them to grazing places and fresh water. The shepherd protects the sheep from danger, driving away predators. Over time the sheep learn the shepherd’s voice and respond to the shepherd’s call.

In scripture there are examples of faithful shepherds who lead God’s people. King David was a shepherd before he was anointed king. David shepherded the people as king. There are also shepherds who do not faithfully lead the people. The Prophet Ezekiel judges the shepherds of the people unfaithful, declaring the Lord will care for and lead God’s people. 

And Jesus is called the Good Shepherd who gives his life for the sheep. We hear this in today’s Gospel passage. It takes place when Jesus is in the temple at feast of Dedication, also known as Hanukkah, which commemorates the rededication of the temple in 164 BCE after its desecration by the Selucid King Antiochus IV. 

In today’s passage, the people ask Jesus if he is the Messiah. They want him to answer plainly. Jesus replies he has told them, but they do not believe because they are not his sheep. Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.” 

Debbie Thomas, on the blog “Journey with Jesus,” says of this passage, “Sheep know their shepherd because they are his; they walk, graze, feed and sleep in his shadow, beneath his rod and staff, within constant earshot of his voice. They believe because they have surrendered to his care, his authority, his leadership, and his guidance.  There is no belonging from the outside; Christianity is not a spectator sport.  Belong, Jesus says.  Consent to belong.  Belief will follow.” [https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2201-tell-us-plainly]

Jesus, our Shepherd, calls us by name, gathering us into his flock. It is through relationship with him we are able to recognize his voice and follow where he leads. As the faithful Shepherd of God’s people, Jesus seeks to lead us to places of verdant pasture and abundant living, away from the death and decay of this world.

And Jesus promises the sheep are safe in his hands, no one will snatch them away. Through Jesus, they are given eternal life with God. The Father and Jesus are one, united by words and deeds. Jesus says what the Father says; he does what the Father does. It is through Jesus we know the Father. In Jesus Father is revealed. Just as Jesus and the Father are one, so the followers of Jesus are one with him. His followers speak his words, they do his deeds. 

This reality is seen throughout the Acts of the Apostles, including in today’s first lesson. Peter is transformed from the one who denies knowing Jesus after the Last Supper, and from the one in last week’s Gospel who is asked three times if he loves Jesus, into the one who speaks the words of Jesus and does the work of Jesus. 

The lesson from Acts tells how Tabitha (in Greek called “Dorcas”) has died. She was a widow who sowed tunics and clothing, and was “devoted to good works and acts of charity.” Dorcas is called a disciple, the only woman in the New Testament for whom that Greek word is used. At her death the other widows mourn her. She is beloved, and she is an important leader of the community, who supported and cared for others in need. 

After Dorcas’ death, the widows send for Peter. He enters the room, kneels, prays, and raises Dorcas from the dead. The Spirit of God who raised Jesus is with Peter. Peter is doing the work of Jesus, he is Jesus’ hands in the world. Peter has power to heal because of his close communion with the risen Jesus. Peter is a witness to Jesus. Through this miracle many come to believe in the risen Jesus. 

Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Peter and the first followers of Jesus are transformed into people who do the work of Jesus in the world. The Spirit of God dwells in them, and brings hope and new life to the world. The God who raised Jesus from the dead is active in the world, bringing hope from despair, and new life from death. 

After the resurrection of Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, the followers of Jesus are themselves transformed and through their witness the world is transformed. This is possible because they know the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. They recognize his voice, hear his call, and follow where he leads them. As sheep of the Good Shepherd, they do his work in the world, they are his presence in the world.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the One who lays down his life for the sheep. With his wounded hands he gathers the sheep, keeping them safe for eternity. Through baptism, we share in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In baptism, we die to sin and death with him and share in his promise to raise us to eternal life. Jesus will lead us to the banquet of heaven, to eternal life with God. 

This does not mean there will not be challenges in this life, that we will not suffer, or know challenge and grief. We will. And we will of course all die. But the Good Shepherd is always faithful, ever with us, leading us, comforting us, and keeping us safe for eternity. 

In Psalm 23 we hear, “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.” We will all go through the valley of the shadow of death, all will die, but the Good Shepherd is with us, leading us through the valley, supporting us with his staff, comforting us in our grief. 

And as Jesus does for us, so we can do for others. Hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd and following him leads us to be a healing, comforting presence to others. Like Peter, through the power of the risen Jesus, we are called to comfort those who mourn, to bring the promise of God’s comfort and strength to those who are sorrowing. Like the faithful disciple Dorcas, we are to care for those in need, sharing freely what we have been given. 

Jesus the Good Shepherd calls us and we recognize his voice by abiding with him, becoming one with him, as he and the Father are one. It is through relationship with Jesus that we may respond to his invitation to follow. Abiding in Jesus is possible through a life of daily prayer, of encountering God in scripture, being faithful in worship with the community of God’s people, and practicing loving service to those in need. 

The way of love to which Jesus calls us leads to life eternal, to fullness of life with God and all the saints forever. In today’s Epistle, from the Revelation to John, there is a beautiful image of eternity with God. A great multitude from all peoples, languages, nations, and tribes are washed in the blood of the Lamb. They stand before the throne and the Lamb, worshipping day and night. In eternity they hunger and thirst no more and the Shepherd will lead them to the springs of the waters of life. And God wipes away every tear from their eyes.

Jesus the Good Shepherd calls us each by name. He beckons us to hear his voice and follow him. With his wounded hands, bearing the marks of his passion, he gathers God’s people, protecting and keep them safe for eternity. 

May we hear his voice, know him who calls us, and follow where he leads. Walking the path he has walked, may we lovingly serve all in his name. May Jesus the Good Shepherd lead us to the banquet he prepares for us, to life eternal worshipping at the throne of the Lamb. Amen.

May 1, 2022

Once more Jesus showeth himself to Peter and others by the Sea of Galilee,
William Hole (1846-1917). Public domain.

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter. The scripture readings are available here.

I suspect we have all had to do something we found difficult, something we would rather not do. Perhaps it involved talking with someone about something difficult. Maybe you believed you knew exactly how the person would react, convinced they would react badly, and the conversation would be difficult. 

I know I have had such experiences. Thankfully, sometimes my prediction has been wrong. I dreaded having the conversation for no reason. When we talk, the other person does not react as I expected. In fact, the conversation goes much better than I anticipated, surprising me.

This happens in our first lesson, from the Acts of the Apostles when Ananias has a vision. He is called by God to go to Saul, the persecutor of the Way, of those who follow Jesus. Ananias responds to this call, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here has has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.”

In response, God tells Ananias the most remarkable thing. God has chosen Saul, the great persecutor of the church, to be the apostle to the Gentiles. God has chosen Saul, who will be renamed Paul, to follow the risen Jesus and bring the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection to the Gentiles. God has called Saul to leave behind his life as persecutor and become a follower, an apostle. 

Trusting God, Ananias goes to Paul. I wonder what he was thinking as he made his way? What did he expect would happen with Saul? Do he really believe Saul had changed? Did he fear for his own well-being? Whatever he may have worried about, Ananias follows God’s call. When he arrives, he lays hands on Saul and Saul’s eyes are opened. Saul is baptized in the Way and goes on to spread the gospel to the Gentiles.

Just as Paul was a zealous persecutor of the followers of Jesus, he applies the same zeal to preaching the good news to the Gentiles. Seeing the risen Lord on the road to Damascus, Saul is utterly changed, transformed from persecutor into an apostle, a witness, a martyr. This is a remarkable transformation.

Throughout Eastertide, we read accounts of the risen Jesus appearing not only to Saul, but to many of his followers. Today our Gospel is the third resurrection appearance of the risen Jesus in the Gospel according to John. 

After the death of Jesus, according to John, the disciples return to their ordinary lives. Several have returned to fishing. While they are fishing, the risen Jesus appears to them. These disciples have fished all night and caught nothing. When Jesus appears to them, they do not recognize him. He feeds them breakfast on the beach and during the meal they recognize the risen Jesus. 

Then Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves Jesus. Peter answers he does love Jesus, that Jesus knows he does. Jesus tells Peter to feed his lambs, feed his sheep. Many see in this three fold questioning Peter being reconciled to Jesus. After the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, Peter denies Jesus three times while warming himself over a charcoal fire. 

At this charcoal fire on the beach, after Jesus serves him breakfast, Peter is forgiven for his denial. Jesus charges Peter to love and serve the followers of Jesus, becoming a shepherd, a pastor, to Jesus’ flock. Jesus also warns Peter the cost of doing so will be great. Peter will eventually give his life for following Jesus. He will be martyred. 

The stories of both Peter and Paul, the first leaders of the church, are accounts of transformation. They show how the resurrection changes everything. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the power of sin and death are broken. The followers of Jesus are called to become the presence of the risen Jesus in the world, set free from the past, leaving behind old ways, old lives, any fears or assumptions, and they become a new creation. In the resurrection, the followers of Jesus are called to do things they didn’t know they could. They are called to become people they never dreamed of being. 

Like them, through the resurrection of Jesus, we are called to see with new eyes, seeing God’s work in the world, seeing the presence of the risen Christ in our daily lives. Like Peter and Paul, we are called to leave behind fear, blindness, old ways of being. We are called by God to become people we may never dreamt of becoming.

The risen Jesus calls us into abundant new life, if we can hear and see him. This new life sometimes calls to little changes, like telling disciples to fish on other side of the boat. Other times we are called to let go of assumptions and fear, such as Ananias trusting Paul will become an instrument of God. 

Sometimes we are called to big changes, to the transformation of our lives, such as Paul letting go of his life as persecutor to embrace his new life of apostle, a witness to the risen Jesus. 

Or like Peter called to let go of the shame denying of Jesus, accepting forgiveness, and being reconciled with the risen Lord. Then going on to faithfully serve the followers of Jesus, embracing loving service just as Jesus did, and giving his life in martyrdom.

Today’s lessons offer insight into how we are called to live as people of the resurrection, how we are to be an Easter people. First, we are to expect the risen Jesus to be present in everyday life. We see this in the disciples at work, doing the mundane and ordinary, when the risen Jesus appears to them. This also happens to Saul as he travels on the road to Damascus to persecute the followers of Jesus. 

The appearance of the risen Jesus requires eyes to see and recognize Jesus. Like Peter and Paul, the risen Jesus is always with us as well. We are called to believe this, to expect Jesus among us each day. We are to look for him with the eyes of faith, encountering him in daily life.

Second, Jesus calls us, like Peter and Paul, to love and serve others. Through Baptism we put on Christ, we are Christ’s beloved forever. We are commissioned as the risen Christ’s presence in the world, commissioned to live by love, serving others, no matter the cost. Jesus gives us all we need to answer this call. Jesus shows the disciples how to be fruitful, where to cast their nets for an abundant catch. They have to listen and respond. So do we. We must discern and follow our call from the risen Jesus, where Jesus is calling us to go and be fruitful.

Third, just as Jesus feeds the disciples breakfast on the beach, so Jesus comes to us in our hunger, feeding us in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Jesus is present with us in this heavenly food given for our earthly journey. Jesus feeds us with the food that anticipates the heavenly banquet, the only food that satisfies our hunger. The Eucharist is the bread of life that forms us into Christ’s body, empowering us for his work in the world.

At the beginning of John’s Gospel, in the Prologue, John sets forth in poetic language the mystery of the incarnation, how the eternal Word, present at the creation, puts on human flesh, dwelling among us, how God puts on humanity that we might be lifted to divinity. 

The Word of God incarnate in human flesh is expressed as Light. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The Light shining in the darkness is the Light of the resurrected Jesus. It is the Light that overcomes sin and death, that gives those who walk by this Light hope that overcomes fear and despair. 

This Light proclaims Easter is not simply a moment some 2000 years ago. It is not only a day we celebrated two weeks ago. Easter is our reality, it is our present and our future. The risen Jesus is the Light the darkness of this world cannot, and will not, ever overcome. 

The Light of Christ defeats the darkness of our hunger, feeding us with the Bread of Life. The Light of Christ overcomes the dimness of our sight when we fail to recognize Jesus in our midst. The Light of Christ overcomes the times we deny the presence of Jesus. The Light of Christ overcomes all estrangement and unites all people in the risen Christ. 

Let us always walk in this Light. May we be bearers of this Light. Bathed in this Light of resurrection, we may be changed into the people the risen Jesus calls us to be. By this Light may the world be forever be transformed. Amen.

April 17, 2022

Resurrection of Christ and the Harrowing of Hell, Russian Icon, early 16th c. Public domain.

A sermon for Easter Day. The scripture readings are available here.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

This past week we have been on a pilgrimage, setting out last Sunday with cries of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!” Those cries quickly turned to bloodthirsty shouts of “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

Thursday night we gathered in the quiet intimacy of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, during which he washed their feet. Through this act, reserved for slaves and servants, Jesus shows the depth of loving service. And he commands his followers to do likewise. At this meal he gives the gift of himself, his body and blood, in the Eucharist. The holy meal that forms us into his body in the world.

Good Friday we went to the foot of the cross, seeing the worst humanity can do. On the cross hung the Lord of Life, the One whose only crime was loving always. He loved with a love so strong, the powers of this world feared his love, so they hung him on the tree. Doing so, they thought they would kill his love. 

Saturday morning we gathered in the Sabbath quiet. Jesus, the eternal Word of God was dead and in the tomb. The creation itself held its breath. Jesus descended to the dead, freeing those imprisoned there. In the silence of that day God was at work, bringing life to places forgotten, to places some considered beyond God’s reach.

This morning we go to the tomb with the women. They go to finish is required of them, intending to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. But when they arrive, things are not as expected. The stone is rolled away. The tomb is empty. Two men appear—they are dazzling. The men ask, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you he would be handed over, killed, and rise on the third day.”

Typically, we associate joy and happiness with Easter morning. But these women, seeing these surprises at the tomb, do not rejoice. Instead, they are terrified. They bow their faces to the ground. They go and tell the eleven disciples this news, but the men find these words of the women an “idle tale.” 

The original Greek is stronger than the English translation “idle tale.” The literal Greek translation is “the ranting of a person suffering from delirium.” The men not only doubt what the women tell them, but they think the women are ranting, perhaps out of touch with reality. The news the women bring is beyond their comprehension. Peter goes to see for himself, and finding it as the women said, he is “amazed at what happened.”

This isn’t the exuberant joy we expect on finding the tomb empty. There is no rejoice for  Jesus set free from the bonds of death and raised to new life. Perhaps it is difficult to know how to celebrate the resurrection, how to respond to this amazing news. 

This can be the reality for us today. Maybe this Easter we don’t feel as joyful as we might. We may carry difficulties and sadnesses in our lives. Certainly the world is full of much sadness. There is war, violence, illness, suffering, death, hatred, and injustice. How do we experience Easter joy when we watch the news?

Fortunately, Easter is more than feelings and emotions. It more profound than the externals, the flowers, music, and candy, nice as those things are. Easter is more than this morning, or this day. Easter is not only for the future, a promise after we die. 

Easter is about now, about a way of life. Easter is about the power of despair and hopelessness being broken. Easter is the defeat of sin and death once and for all. Easter is now, this moment, this day, this life.

When we set out our own pilgrimage through this week, I promised we would be changed. Walking with Jesus these days, we have experienced the power of God’s love to transform us, to makes us a new creation, how God’s love sets us free to love as God loves. 

The resurrection of Jesus assures us God is ever faithful. Just as God did not leave Jesus in the tomb, so God will 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. As Paul reminds us in today’s Epistle, “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” Thankfully, we share in his victory.

Though the women were terrified and bowed their heads to the ground that first Easter morning, we do no have to. We can look at the evils of this world squarely and not fear. Death no longer has hold of us. We will never be separated from the love of God made known in Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus being raised from the dead sets us free to love. The power of our human impulses: greed, fear of the those different from us, despair, and hopelessness have no hold over us. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, we 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, nor a moment. It is not just this morning, but is a way of life. It is the call to conversion of spirit and heart. It is our invitation to be set free from the powers of this world so we rise to the life eternal.

The two dazzling men in the tomb tell the women to remember, to recall to the present what Jesus said to them in Galilee. They tell the women, “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 

Through remembering, the women are empowered to go and tell the eleven apostles that Jesus is risen from the dead. Like the women, let us recall into our present this reality: that Jesus died and was raised on the third day. Remembering these words, recalling this act, changes everything. It allows us to face evil and the difficulties of this world and not be defeated. It impels us to go forth as the women did, sharing this good news as we serve all in Christ’s name, and bit by bit changing the face of the earth.

So we do not search for the living among the dead. For Jesus has risen, the tomb no longer holds him, and with him we too are raised to the divine life. Let us go forth, set free by the love God has shown us, a love stronger than any power in this world. God’s love is so strong, it is able to defeat even death itself. 

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” Alleluia, and Thanks be to God. Amen.

April 10, 2022

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

A sermon for 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 best friend in childhood, Owen Meany, told him he hated Palm Sunday. Owen said, “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, as an adult, attends church on Palm Sunday and remembers Owen Meany’s words. Wheelwright 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…” [Irving, John. A Prayer for Owen Meany: A Novel (p. 283). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.]

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 few 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 terrible hatred and violence.

With this gruesome reality, 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.

Earlier we read the traditional Passion Gospel according to Luke. Each year I am struck by the full display of human behavior and emotions found in the Passion account. There are the disciples, struggling to understand what is happening to Jesus. They seek to be faithful in accompanying him through these horrific moments. They promise to be with him through his experience. Peter assures Jesus he will never deny him. Yet, as so often happens with our best intentions, the disciples do exactly what they promised not to. Peter denies Jesus, not once but three times. The men abandon Jesus.

In the Passion Gospel there is 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.

Pilate and the religious authorities are fearful of Jesus, concerned with holding their authority and power. They view Jesus as a threat to their positions. They fear the call to love and humility that Jesus lives. They won’t allow compassion and mercy to convert their hearts to Jesus’ way of love. So they try Jesus in a mock trial and hand him over for crucifixion.

In the Passion there is the example of the women. They provide for Jesus and his disciples through the time of his public ministry. They are present at his cross. They follow to his tomb. They will be the first to witness his resurrection. These women embody faithful, loving service, service done not for their gain, but for love of Jesus.

And there is Jesus. He behaves differently from the others. He embodies hope, of rising above the fray, of living in a different way. In his Palm Sunday sermon, “The Things That Make For Peace,” Frederick Buechner says this week is about hope and despair: hope for the love of God seen in Jesus and for God’s presence in difficult times, and despair for humanity’s actions, our rejection of God’s saving love.

Buechner writes, “Despair and hope. They travel the road to Jerusalem together, as together they travel every road we take — despair at what in our madness we are bringing down on our own heads and hope in him who travels the road with us and for us and who is the only one of us all who is not mad. Hope in the King who approaches every human heart like a city. And it is a very great hope as hopes go and well worth all our singing and dancing and sad little palms because not even death can prevail against this King and not even the end of the world, when end it does, will be the end of him and of the mystery and majesty of his love. Blessed be he.” [A Room Called Remember https://www.frederickbuechner.com/blog/2016/4/7/the-things-that-make-for-peace]

Throughout the Passion Gospel Jesus is largely silent. He does not respond to the taunts heaped on him. He does not lash out under the pain and agony of the whip or the cross. He loves and he forgives those who hate and kill him. In his love, he invites all, those present with him, and all of us many centuries later, to follow in his way of love.

Jesus welcomes all in the way he goes, where love is strong enough to sustain in times of great challenge, suffering, and loss. Jesus invites us into love so strong, even the evil of sin and the hold of death are no match. The powers of this world, the powers of death itself, cannot hold Love in its grip. The tomb cannot hold for long God’s strong love.

The promise of Palm Sunday is whatever may be before us, whatever may befall us in this life, Jesus has 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. The death we will face, as all people do, Jesus has already endured.

The promise of Holy Week is that Jesus is truly and utterly God-with-us, Emmanuel, the One who enters into the fullness of human life. Jesus knows all the trials and difficulties that we experience in this life.

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 — a way that is not easy, a way that does not insulate us from difficulty and suffering, but a way that is the path of true life. 

May we journey this week in company with ages past, and with those who will come after us, walking in the present with Jesus the journey of this week, walking his way of love. May we open our hearts to Jesus, who desires to enter our lives just as he entered Jerusalem this day 2,000 years ago. May we enthrone Jesus in our hearts as our King of Love and our Hope in despair.

April 3, 2022

Mary Anoints Jesus’ Feet, from a 1684 Arabic manuscript of the Gospels, Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib. Public domain.

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent. The scripture readings are found here.

Our scripture readings today point us to Holy Week, the solemn week we journey with Jesus through his passion, death, and resurrection. In the Epistle, Paul writes to the Philippians that he has much to boast about: he is a faithful member of the house of Israel, circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee, a zealous persecutor of the church, and blameless under the law. 

Yet he counts all this for nothing. Paul says knowing Jesus is far more important. He suffers loss that he might share in the death of Jesus and so be raised to eternal life with him. Paul writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

Paul reminds of us of our call to follow Jesus by giving up our lives. In doing so, we know the life Jesus desires to share with us. In sacrificing all, we know the abundance of life with God for eternity. Through baptism comes the promise we will share in a death like Jesus did, that we might be raised to resurrection life with him. Paul urges us to follow him in giving up everything to know life in Christ.

Our Gospel today is from the Gospel according to John. It opens the twelfth chapter of John and is that Gospel’s introduction to the passion of Jesus. It takes place the day before Palm Sunday, when Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph before his death. It describes a domestic scene, a meal in the home of Jesus’ friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. 

This meal comes just after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus had been dead four days when Jesus arrived at his home. Jesus orders the stone to the tomb be removed and calls Lazarus to come out. The dead man comes out of the tomb still wrapped in his grave clothes. Jesus tells them to unbind Lazarus and set him free.

Not surprisingly, the raising of Lazarus draws much attention. People come out to see Lazarus. They are curious about the one Jesus brought back to life. The authorities also notice what Jesus has done, and seek to kill him because he raised Lazarus.

It is likely the dinner hosted by Mary, Martha, and Lazarus was to thank Jesus and to celebrate Lazarus being alive. While they are at table, Mary takes a pound of costly nard, a fragrant perfume, and anoints Jesus’ feet. She wipes his feet with her hair. The house is filled with the fragrance.

Mary’s actions are highly unusual for a woman of the time. Women would not typically show such physical intimacy with a man not their husband. This account appears in all four Gospels, and in each version those witnessing it are uncomfortable. Jesus, however, is not uncomfortable by this anointing, and defends the action. He accepts the extravagant and personal gift Mary gives him.

John uses this account to anticipate Jesus’ death. It evokes the anointing of a body done before a burial. In a few days time, Jesus will himself be dead and laid in the tomb, and there will be no time for this ritual anointing. Mary offers this caring gift while Jesus is still alive. 

Mary wiping Jesus’ feet also anticipates the Washing of Feet at the Last Supper. At that final meal, Jesus tells his disciples they are to serve others as he has done to them. A disciple is the one who takes the role of servant, caring for others. When Mary anoints and wipes Jesus’ feet, she shows she is a faithful disciple.

The nard Mary uses for this anointing is very expensive. Scholars tell us it was equivalent to almost a year’s wages for a laborer at that time. Mary spares no expense in making this offering to Jesus, an offering made in gratitude and worship of her Lord.

Mary is a faithful woman who understands who Jesus is. She knows Jesus the Lord, the resurrection and the life. She anoints Jesus without any words yet this action shows the depth of her faithful discipleship and devotion to Jesus.

Mary reminds us of our call to follow Jesus in loving service, serving others as he served. We are to wash one another’s feet. We are to love without counting the cost. We are to give extravagantly in caring for one others. And we are to give sacrificially in thanksgiving for God’s generosity.

The minister David Bartlett, in writing about today’s passage, offers an experience he had. He writes, “I will never forget the furor sparked at a stewardship conference at which an ecumenical group of pastors gathered to discuss generosity. One presenter spoke about offering a gift directly to God, and the clergy began to yawn. Then he pulled a $100 bill from his wallet, set it on fire in an ashtray, and prayed, ‘Lord, I offer this gift to you, and you alone.’ 

“The reaction was electric. Clergy began to fidget in their chairs, watching that greenback go up in smoke as if it were perfume. One whispered it was illegal to burn currency. Another was heard to murmur, ‘If he is giving money away, perhaps he has a few more.’ There was nervous laughter around the room. ‘Do you not understand?’ asked the speaker. ‘I am offering it to God, and that means it is going to cease to be useful for the rest of us.’ It was an anxious moment.” [Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Kindle Locations 5087-5094). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.]

Mary offers an extravagant gift in gratitude to Jesus for what he has done. In thanksgiving for raising Lazarus from the dead, she spends extravagantly to thank him, and worship him. She makes an offering that is sacrificial, giving away something that is costly.

We are called to do the same. In thanksgiving for the generosity, love, and compassion of God, we are to make our sacrificial offering to God in gratitude. We are to lovingly give back to God from what God has generously given us.

God shows the depths of God’s great love for us. In the person of Jesus, God comes among us showing us how to love. Jesus loves always, leading him to death on the cross. Through his death, he defeats the power of sin and death once, for all. Through baptism we share in his victory, in the promise that where he has gone, we will follow.

In gratitude we are called to live with extravagant love and lavish generosity. We are to love others as Jesus does. We are to care lovingly for those in need as Jesus does. We are to worship God, as Mary does by anointing Jesus.

Throughout the Gospels, wherever Jesus is present, there is amazing abundance. At the wedding in Cana Jesus makes 180 gallons of the finest wine; in Galilee 5000 people are fed on the lakeshore, with 12 baskets left over; Simon Peter, after a night of catching no fish, catches so many at Jesus’ direction, the nets strain; and Jesus offers himself on the cross, drawing all people, and all creation, to himself, lifting us to the divine life. The generosity of God should call forth generous love in us.

Each Sunday the Eucharist we celebrate is all about thanksgiving and sacrifice. The word “Eucharist” is from the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” Celebrating the Eucharist is itself an act of thanksgiving. In this liturgy, we are express gratitude to God for all God has done for us: creating all that is; giving us the gift of life; coming among us in the person of Jesus; drawing us to himself on the cross; and raising us to eternal life.

In the Eucharist we offer to God, with thanksgiving, bread and wine from God’s own creation, as a sacrificial offering. Honestly, this may not seem like much of an offering, given they are not costly things. But in the Eucharist we also offer our treasure, our money, giving back to God a percentage of what we are given. We are called not to give a small amount left over, what we can spare, but an intentional, generous offering to God. The Biblical standard for our giving is a minimum of ten percent. This level of giving is more sacrificial. 

And in the Eucharist we also offer “ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee” (BCP, p. 336). This is a costly offering indeed. We offer to God our lives, which themselves are a gift of God. We offer our bodies, temples of the Holy Spirit and God’s dwelling place, for we are made in the image and likeness of God. We offer all we are, which God bought with a great price in the loving offering of Jesus on the cross.

John offers us Mary as an example of faithful discipleship, calling us to do likewise. Like Mary we are to know and follow Jesus, trusting his promise of life abundant in him. We are to love and worship him, giving extravagantly, sacrificially, of ourselves in praise and adoration of him. 

We are to love all people in his name, humbling ourselves by serving all as he does. We are to give of our time, talent, and treasure as our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, an act of loving adoration of God. As followers of Jesus, we are called to live lives of generosity and thanksgiving, practicing acts of adoration and gratitude to God, the One who lovingly invites us, and all people, into abundant and eternal life. Amen.

March 27, 2022

The Prodigal Son, Salvator Rosa (1615-1673). Public domain.

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent. The scripture readings are available here.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus regularly tells parables. Jesus does this to teach about God and the kingdom of God. The meaning of some parables may be obscure, leaving us wondering what Jesus is telling us. But today’s Gospel is one parable I suspect we understand, and might relate to in some way. 

It is a story of a father and two sons. One son makes questionable choices. The other son resents his brother’s behavior. The father shows mercy and forgiveness. This passage is from a section of Luke that illustrates God’s response to a sinner who repents and returns to God. 

It begins with the Pharisees and scribes criticizing Jesus for welcoming and eating with sinners. Jesus says he cannot help but welcome the lost and outcast. It is God’s nature to seek the forgotten and excluded. 

To illustrate this, Jesus tells three parables in this chapter of Luke. The first is the parable of the Lost Sheep. There are one hundred sheep, one is lost, and the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to search for that one, just as God searches for the lost sinner.

The second parable is the Lost Coin. A widow has ten silver coins and looses one. She lights a lamp and sweeps the house until she finds it. When she does, she invites her friends to join her in rejoicing. The story ends, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” [Luke 15:10 Attridge, Harold W.. HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised & Updated . HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.] 

The parable we hear today, the Prodigal Son, is the third of these stories Jesus tells. It is the most human of the three and perhaps the one we most relate to. It shows us how God reacts when a sinner repents and returns. 

The father in this parable has two sons. The younger wants to leave his family and set out on his own. He asks his father for his inheritance, before the father has died. This request would have been deeply offensive to those hearing this story. Asking for his inheritance early is a gross insult of his father according to first century behavior. 

The son sells the land he is given, using the cash to fund his dissolute lifestyle. In the time of Jesus, most people were farmers, so land was essential for a family’s well-being. Selling it might jeopardize the family’s economic security. The land was also understood as a gift given by God and selling it would betray God’s generosity. According to the practices of his time, the father should be insulted by the younger son’s request, but he is not. He gives him his inheritance and lets the son make his own choices.

While the younger son is in a foreign land, there is a famine. The son is in need and finds work as a swineherd. His downfall is complete. He has squandered his inheritance and is working for a Gentile, tending animals considered unclean. The son realizes his father’s hired hands are better off than he is. He “comes to himself,” and realizes he is lost. So he sets off for home, rehearsing a speech of repentance he will say to his father.

Before he arrives home, and can utter his speech, his watching father sees him approaching and runs to meet him. His father was waiting for his return, and has excitement and joy in his son being home.

In many ways the father does not act as his culture requires. For this patriarch of a first century family, running to meet his son was not appropriate behavior. After what the son has done, the ways he insulted his father, the father should punish his son at his return. 

Instead, the father celebrates by kissing his son, clothing him in the best robe and a ring, and throwing a banquet. The father rejoices, not offering punishment or seeking restitution. He does not act as a father who has been humiliated and shamed by his son.

In telling this parable, Jesus offers the story of a son who is selfish and insults his father, passing time in self-indulgent behavior while squandering his family’s resources. The son turns his back on his religious tradition and practices. He is the kind of son a father might be ashamed of. 

But the father does not act as a father of his time was expected to act. He is not insulted by his son. He does not seek what he is owed. Instead he welcomes his son home, without question, and with extravagant rejoicing and abundance. 

At the heart of this parable is an extravagant grace, even a scandalous grace, that defies earthly conventions and rules. It is a love that surprises us, because it so different from what we see in this world. This grace wells up into joy, a joy so great it is expressed in abundance.

Jesus teaches in this parable that when a sinner repents and returns, God rejoices with a deep and abundant joy. God welcomes the sinner home, to the feast of rejoicing and abundant food. God stands watching, waiting, and expecting the sinner’s return, even running out to embrace and kiss the one returning. God offers the returned sinner mercy and forgiveness.

This section of Luke’s Gospel shows that God searches for the lost like the shepherd with one lost sheep and the woman who loses one of her silver coins. God rejoices when the lost is found. God runs out to meet us in Jesus, who enters human existence to find the lost and lead them home.

This extravagant love and grace of God is good news for us, who are sinners. Yet it can be difficult to accept, especially when someone commits great atrocities and evil deeds. Our sense of earthly justice tell us there should be punishment. People need to pay for the wrongs they commit. We may think ourselves more righteous than others, not as great a sinner, and hope the guilty person gets what they deserve.

The older son in today’s parable experiences this. He remains at home, faithfully doing what his father asks. He toils, but does not feel appreciated by his father. He resents the reception his father gives his younger brother, a brother he judges irresponsible. So he stays outside the feast the father throws for his younger brother.

The parable does not tell us if the older son lets go of his anger and resentment, joining the banquet and celebrating with his father and younger brother. One commentary suggests Jesus intentionally leaves us with the question: “will the Pharisees and scribes join Jesus in welcoming and eating with sinners?” [Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Kindle Locations 4350-4351). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.] We are also asked if we will join Jesus in welcoming the least, the forgotten, the excluded?

This parable teaches us much about God. The father does not act from hurt or a sense of earthly justice, but forgives his younger son and welcomes him home with an extravagant feast. The father pleads with older son to forgive his brother, asking him to trust that his father loves and appreciates him, and asks the son to let go of his resentment and enter the banquet hall to celebrate his brother’s return. 

This parable teaches that in Jesus, God seeks us out, searching for us, hoping for our return, and rejoicing greatly when we turn back to God. This is the good news of our Lenten journey, and in fact, of our lives. God calls us to conversion of heart and will, that we turn back to God, as God welcomes our return with mercy, compassion, love, and great rejoicing. 

Jesus reminds us all are invited to enter the banquet where there is much feasting and great rejoicing over the lost one who is now found, the one who was dead and now lives. Let us rejoice in this good news. And let us always welcome the forgotten and excluded in Jesus’ name, just as he welcomes us. Amen.

March 20, 2022

Fig tree. Public domain.

A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent. The scripture readings are available here.

An age-old question, often asked when there is a catastrophe or natural disaster, is, Why do bad things happen to people? This question tries to make sense of what has occurred by searching for a cause. Perhaps if we know the cause, understanding why something happened, we will find comfort. 

Some of us may be asking this question today in light of the horrific war in Ukraine. It is heartbreaking seeing images of innocent civilians, including women, children, and the elderly displaced from their homes, injured, and killed. We may ask why this happening and how it can be stopped. 

In the face of these horrors we may tempted to ask why God allows these catastrophes to occur? Why do bad things happen to innocent people? Is God punishing humanity? Is the wrath of God being visited on people for some sin they committed?

In today’s Gospel this question is raised with Jesus. Jesus is told about an atrocity committed by Pilate. The only information about this event is in Luke’s Gospel—there is no mention in any histories of the time. From what Jesus is told, it appears Pilate killed some people who traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem. They were killed in the Temple precincts and their blood was mingled with the lambs slaughtered for the sacrifice. 

In response, Jesus asks if those killed were worse sinners than other Galileans? Jesus answers his own question by saying they were not. Then Jesus asks if the eighteen killed when a tower fell were worse sinners. Again, Jesus answers his own question, no, they were not. 

There was a common assumption in the time of Jesus that those experiencing pain or suffering were being punished by God for their sins or the sins of their ancestors. Throughout the Gospels Jesus is clear one does not suffer because of a sin that was committed. 

In this passage Jesus does not say that directly, but moves the conversation. Jesus shifts his listeners’ attention away from complex questions with no easy answers. Jesus does not entertain the unanswerable question of why people suffer. He rejects easy and quick explanations for such a deep and complex question.

Instead, Jesus moves the question onto the behavior and lives of his hearers. Jesus brings the attention to them, in the present. Jesus calls them to repent, for unless they do, they will perish as those who died at the hands of Pilate and in the tower accident. 

Jesus is not interested in speculating on God’s judgment for sin. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel Jesus cautions those who are ready to judge others to remove the log in their own eye before seeing the speck in their neighbor’s eye (Luke 6:37). 

The question of how others are judged by God is not ours to ask. That is up to God. Behind such questions about others is often a buried assumption that the one asking the question sins less, is a “better” person. We must resist the self-righteous practice of assuming others commit worse sins than we do, for we all sin, we all fall short of the glory of God.

It is tempting for us to feel righteous in the face of so much evil in our world. There are so many examples of people committing terrible atrocities against innocent and vulnerable people and we may be tempted to feel smug in our righteousness.

It can seem common sense that we are not as guilty as those who have done truly terrible things. Surely someone like Hitler, or maybe Vladimir Putin, is guilty of a greater sin than I am? Jesus cautions against being so self assured. We all are sinners. We are all in need of repentance and God’s merciful forgiveness. Each of us needs to come before God in repentance, asking God’s forgiveness.

One commentary on today’s Gospel observes, “Frankly, if God was in the business of meting out judgment and curses in relation to our sins, there probably would not be anyone left on the planet.” [Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Kindle Locations 3542-3543). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.]  No one is without sin, except Jesus. Speculating on the greater sin is useless when all of us sin.

Sin is part of our human condition. We all reject God’s love at one time or another. We all turn away from God, becoming alienating from God. Each of us does things we ought not to do, and neglects things we should do. We all share times of silence in the face of injustice and complicity in sinful things done in our name. We all sin against God, our neighbor, ourselves, and creation. All are deserving of God’s judgment.

Jesus warns us against asking a complex question beyond explanation while neglecting our relationship with God because we are self-assured and confident in our own righteousness. Jesus calls those listening to him in the first century, as well as us, to attend to their own lives, to give up our assumptions. Repent of your sins, and return to God before it is too late, Jesus tells them.

Jesus calls his followers to a conversion of heart, will, and mind. Jesus calls us to be transformed, reorienting our lives to God. This call is the beacon of Lent. It is the invitation to metanoia, meaning to literally turning in a new direction, or to put on a new mindset, a new way of being. Metanoia is the call to turn away from our sin and back to God. It is the point and reason for our Lenten journey. It is why we practice self examination, repentance, self-denial, and the other disciplines of this season. 

While Jesus offers a strong warning in today’s Gospel, there is also extraordinary good news. After calling the people to repent and be reconciled with God, Jesus tells the parable of the fig tree. 

This fig tree has been tended by the gardener for three years but does not produce any fruit. It is planted in a vineyard with a gardener, suggesting the tree is owned by a wealthy man who profits from the fruit of his trees and vines. If one does not produce, it must be removed and replaced by another that will be profitable. The landowner tells the gardener to cut down the unproductive fig tree. Why should a fruitless tree be wasting the ground it is planted in? Another should replace it. This is good business practice.

But the gardener advocates for the tree, suggesting for one year the ground around it be cultivated and fertilizer be applied. If, at the end of the year, it does not bear fruit, then it will be removed. The landowner agrees. Time will tell if this approach works, if the tree eventually bears fruit. 

The parable of the fig tree suggests God can judge us for our sinfulness, for the ways we do not bear fruit. But Jesus reminds us of the good news of God’s gracious mercy toward all people. 

God’s judgment is tempered by God’s loving mercy. God shows extravagant mercy to humanity, practicing divine forbearance towards us. God stands ready to welcome us back, forgiving us—always, as often as needed. God desires to restore us to relationship with God. This restoration happens by our repentance, when we turn back towards God. Then we are like a fig tree that bears fruit.

Standing between God’s judgment and our souls is Jesus, who comes that we might bear abundant fruit. Jesus cautions against indifference and apathy to his call. Those who neglect to respond are like the fig tree that bears no fruit. But those who hear and follow Jesus in the way he leads will know the fruitful and abundant life God desires to share with us.

Like the gardener in the parable, Jesus is our advocate, showing us what we need, caring for us, guiding us. Jesus loves us and shows us by his example how we are to live. Through the Holy Spirit, we are given the gifts we need, the fertilizer with which we grow and blossom, so we bear abundant fruit. The Spirit plants within us the desire to hear God’s call and to respond with repentance and conversion of life, accepting God’s mercy and love. 

God gives us the strength we need to walk in the paths of holiness. God desires not the death of any sinner, but that all turn to God and accept the abundant life of God. This invitation is for us to embrace life in this world that wells up into eternity spent in the presence of God.

In this season may we keep a holy Lent, embracing those practices and disciplines that turn our hearts, minds, and wills to God. When we turn back to God, God stands ready to welcome us home. God rejoices when one sinner repents and returns. Amen.

March 13, 2022

Part of the starry sky near Brandenburg an der Havel (Germany), close to midnight. Public domain.

A sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent. The scripture readings are available here.

Abraham is a central figure in scripture and our faith. His trust in God never fails to move me. God calls him to leave his home and set out on a journey, not knowing where he is going or how long he will travel. His faith in God and God’s promise seems unshakable.

Yet even Abraham had times of wondering how and when God’s promises would be fulfilled. He is an excellent model to us in these times questioning, because he tells God what he is thinking and feeling. He directly asks God how the promises will take place. He does not shy away from sharing with God exactly where is in the moment, as we heard in our first lesson from the Book of Genesis.

Abram, his name before God calls him Abraham, is concerned he will die with no offspring, without an heir. In response, God promises Abram descendants as numerous as the stars. This promise is striking because of how many stars Abram must have seen before light pollution. Looking at all the stars, God promises a great, uncountable number of descendants. But gazing at the stars, and hearing God’s words, perplexes Abram because he and his wife Sarai have no children and now they are old. Abram is convinced the head of his household, his servant Eliezer, will be his heir, not a son of his own.

God, however, is insistent that Abram will have many descendants and makes a covenant with Abram. The covenant is marked with a ritual action. God instructs Abram to bring a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon. The larger animals are cut in half and the parts are laid out facing each other. 

During the night a deep sleep and terrifying darkness overtake Abram and God makes a covenant with him, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” The covenant is marked by fire, a symbol of God moving between the animal parts. In the covenant God makes with Abram, God promises to bring forth many descendants of Abram and his descendants will inherit the land.

God comes to Abram in his questioning. God listens to what Abram tells him, accepting where is, what he is feeling. Then God reassures Abram and promises to be faithful and bring to pass what God has promised. God keeps his promises to Abram, which reminds us that God honors the promises made to us, that God cares for us in our moments of worry and doubt.

Our Gospel reading today expands how God keeps the promises of the covenant, as Jesus continues the promises God made to Abram. In the passage, Jesus is warned by the Pharisees that Herod wants to kill him. Jesus says, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.’” 

Jesus will not be intimidated by threats, he will not be restrained by fear. Jesus goes about doing the work of God, bringing people to wholeness. Though Herod wants to kill him, Jesus will not abandon his mission of proclaiming God’s love in order to save himself. 

After refusing to worry about Herod, Jesus laments over Jerusalem, saying, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

There is pain and disappointment in this lament of Jesus. He stands ready to gather God’s people under the safety of his wing, yet they are not willing. They ignore his invitation. They do not turn to him and allow him to gather them to safety. Instead they will kill him as they did the prophets before him.

Perhaps we think of God’s judgment as a list, a kind of balance sheet of when we are faithful and when we have sinned. We may forget about God’s deep, passionate love of us, of God’s desire and longing for us, how God seeks to be close to us. Do we think of Jesus lamenting because we have turned away? 

This lament of Jesus shows the depths of his love for us and how strongly he desires we turn again, accepting his love and protection. Jesus illustrates his longing for us by comparing himself to a mother hen protecting her brood. This is an especially poignant image after Jesus calls Herod a fox, a predator of the vulnerable hen.

In comparing himself to a mother hen, Jesus compares himself to a creature that is not particularly powerful or strong. Jesus also compares himself to a mother, who will do whatever it takes to protect her young, even giving her body to save her vulnerable offspring. A mother hen will give her life when the fox attacks so the life of her brood is spared.

This image of Jesus as a mother hen is especially poignant for me today. For over two weeks we have watched in horror as the invasion of Ukraine causes horrific suffering for innocent civilians, especially women and children. We have seen disturbing images, videos, and news accounts of the terrible disruption and suffering.

This past week I saw a video of a mother holding her child, fleeing Ukraine. She said she was leaving the country she loves to protect her child. When the bombs fell, she used her body to shield her daughter, saying they would have to literally kill her to get to her child. She would use her own body to save her child.

This chilling and disturbing image is like the fierce protection of a mother hen as she gathers her brood under her wing in time of danger, putting her body between her offspring and her attacker. And it is like Jesus who extends his arms of love to protect his people, literally giving his life for humanity.

Today’s Gospel comes from Luke’s Gospel as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem, the city that will crucify him. Jesus shows no fear as he journeys there. He continues his work of teaching and healing, while moving ever closer to his death.

Like a mother hen, the death of Jesus shows vulnerability and care for others. Jesus does not resist those who kill him. He goes willingly to his passion. He dies to save God’s people, setting them free from the dominion of sin and death, from the tyranny of hate, allowing God’s people to love with abandon.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus promises, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (john 12:32). On his cross Jesus gathers all people to his body. Like a hen sheltering her brood, hiding them from an attacking fox, so Jesus shelters God’s children, delivering them in safety from the evil powers of this world, freeing humanity even from the power of death. Through the waters of baptism we are incorporated into his body, becoming part of him. By his death and resurrection we are delivered to the freedom of eternal life.

One of the collects from Morning Prayer reminds us how like a mother hen Jesus’ offering on the cross is, when it says, “Lord Jesus Christ, who didst stretch out thine arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of thy saving embrace…” (BCP, p. 58).

Jesus stands ready to receive and welcome us home, desiring to gather us in his saving, loving arms. When we turn away from him, separating ourselves from his love, Jesus laments over us, longing for us to be gathered by him and lifted to the divine life.

As we journey through these days of Lent, may we faithfully keep this season by self-examination, prayer, fasting, study, self-denial, and alms-giving. Examining our lives and honestly seeing how we have been faithful to God, and the ways we have strayed away from God, may we repent of our sins and failings and receive God’s mercy and forgiveness. 

God always stands ready to welcome us back. As we prayed in today’s Collect of the Day, it is God’s glory to always have mercy. God always rejoices when a sinner repents and returns, when one who is lost is found. Until each one turns and clings to Jesus in safety, there is lament in heaven as God longs for the return of each person, desiring relationship with each and every one of us. Amen.

March 6, 2022

The Temptation in the Wilderness, Briton Rivière (1840-1920). Public domain.

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

The wilderness is a common image for our Lenten journey. These forty days are called “going into the wilderness.” There is good reason for this. The wilderness is a landscape of wild and barren terrain, where unexpected things can happen. It is a harsh place, not a place where we live, but where we go just for a time. With little to distract us, masking our feelings and thoughts, we are confronted with who we are in the wilderness. Our full identity, our temptations and cravings, are on full display.

Thinking of Lent as a wilderness time can be fruitful. It suggests a time outside ordinary time, when our schedules are altered, the monotony is broken. Without the usual daily comforts and distractions, we learn about ourselves and God. The wilderness offers space we can discern anew God’s call to us.

But make no mistake about it, the wilderness is a wild place—even our metaphorical Lenten wilderness. It presents us with a challenging time. In the wilderness we can feel lonely; we may wonder where is God? We may not like what we see of ourselves in this landscape as the outer veneer of our identity is stripped away. But time spent in the wilderness can be renewing and restoring, even while challenging.

Without experiencing the wilderness, we can grow complacent, becoming set in our ways. We can believe that the way things are right now is how they must be, will always be. We can drift away from God, bit-by-bit, almost imperceptibly, forgetting we are beloved of God, that we part of God’s people. We can forget God.

Christopher Webber edited a collection of Lenten meditations titled, A Time to Turn: Anglican Readings for Lent and Easter. These readings for each day of Lent and Easter Week are excepts from sermons and writings by Anglican writers through the past five hundred years. 

In the introduction to the collection, Weber writes about our call in this season. He says, “Lent is above all a time of turning. Lent provides us with a time in which we can break away from the old, familiar, and deadly patterns we so easily fall into and open ourselves to the possibility of something new. Lent is a time to turn. When we turn away from the compulsions and distractions of our daily lives and seek a new direction, we may discover— to our surprise— that our world has also begun to move toward patterns of life that have much in common with the ancient disciplines of the Christian Church. The Church has recommended prayer, fasting, and charity. The need for these is evident now on every side…” [Webber, Christopher L.. A Time to Turn: Anglican Readings for Lent and Easter Week. Church Publishing Inc.. Kindle Edition.] 

In our lesson today from the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is preparing the people to enter promised land after forty years wandering in the wilderness. During this long journey they were tested and disciplined by God. In times of want and need, God provided food and water. God remained faithful to the covenant while the people were being formed as God’s people.

The land they are about to enter they have longed for. It has taken a long time to arrive there. This land has an abundance of resources. It will be easy for this abundance to dull their attention to God, eroding their trust and worship of God. 

So the people are called to remember their past, to remember who they are. They must never forget they are a people in covenant with God. They must remember they were a refugee people, wandering in the wilderness. They are to welcome the refugee and sojourner in their midst in remembrance of their past and in thanksgiving for God’s deliverance.

And when enter the land, they are to offer the first fruits of the harvest to God, giving back to God from the bounty of the earth. This act is a reminder that all they have is given to them by God. God gives them the fruits of the harvest, produced by the land God gave them. 

Because God led them out of bondage in Egypt, bringing them to this land, they are no longer wanderers. They are to remember it is God who delivered them. It is God who brought them to this land rich with milk and honey. As an act of thanksgiving and remembrance, they offer the first fruits of the harvest to God.

Just as the people of Israel come to know who they are through the wilderness experience, so does Jesus. In today’s Gospel, Luke tells us Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit leads him into the wilderness. At his baptism, the voice of God declared him God’s Beloved, God’s chosen Son. In the wilderness Jesus wrestles with his call as the Beloved, and comes to understand his vocation and ministry, what it means to be God’s chosen Son. 

In the wilderness Jesus fasts for forty days and forty nights, and not surprisingly he is famished. The devil greets Jesus saying, “If you are the Son of God.” It seems a taunt, a challenge to Jesus’ vocation and identity. 

The temptations involve Jesus shirking his time of fasting. The devil tempts Jesus to use his power to act outside God’s purposes, and outside God’s intention for creation, turning stones into bread. All the temptations put Jesus, his cravings and his ego, ahead of his identity and vocation as the Son of God. 

In the face of these temptations, Jesus remains faithful to his call, relying on the Holy Spirit, and resisting the devil. Jesus’ fast is the model for our Lenten journey. We are called into the wilderness to wrestle with our identity and our impulses. Lent is a time for self-examination. Who are we called to be? How are responding to God’s love? What is the state of our spiritual lives now? A central question of this season is, How can we faithfully live in response to God’s love?

One of the Lenten practices we are called to is fasting, denying ourselves something for a short time or for the entire season. This is not easy. Fasting in our middle class world, where food is plentiful, is not common. Yet fasting is an ancient practice of the church, especially in Lent.

The minister and author, Brian McLaren, writes about fasting in his book Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices. He writes that years ago he decided to fast, when he knew little about the practice. He describes running errands and without thinking stopping for a glazed donut. Rarely did he spontaneously buy a donut, but this fast day his impulses took over. As he took a bite, he thought, “Shoot! I was supposed to be fasting today!”

He goes on to say, “The proverbial red devil with his pitchfork and arrow tail was predictably perched in whispering distance to my ear, and you can guess what he said: Well, you’ve already blown it! Might as well eat the whole thing. While you’re at it, those bear claws look pretty good, and you haven’t had a jelly-filled sugar doughnut in years, and I think your blood levels for chocolate are kind of low, so you probably need a chocolate filled, too. Meanwhile, in the other ear came the sound of my better angel’s howling laughter. Instead of feeling mad at myself, or guilty, I was totally amused. Even though I didn’t have the foggiest notion of exactly how fasting was supposed to work, somehow that moment of laughing at myself told me that even though I was failing at fasting, the practice of fasting was succeeding.” [McLaren, Brian D.. Finding Our Way Again (Ancient Practices Series) (p. 84). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.]

Through fasting, though he seemed to fail, McLaren sees his weakness in the face of impulses and cravings. He learns that when he fasted, he practiced impulse control. He understood the importance of something greater than impulse gratification, namely a desire for spiritual growth. Fasting allowed him to admit his spiritual poverty, his spiritual need.

He concludes by describing an incident some time later when a colleague criticized his work on a website. Reading the criticism, he felt a visceral response in his body. He started thinking about ways to get back at his attacker, what he could write proving who was the better man. He describes it as a hunger for revenge, a desire to win the argument and hurt his attacker.

Instead he decided to let it go and not respond. He didn’t give in to his craving. He resisted his impulse. Reflecting on this, he wondered if what he learned about fasting was connected with letting go of his desire, his hunger, for revenge. 

Jesus calls us into the wilderness this Lent to learn about ourselves, to go to new, wild places, shaking off the complacency of routine. Jesus knows the power of our temptations—he experienced them too. Jesus knows resisting temptation goes against what we feel and desire. He knows we can respond to our impulses without thinking about it. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus resisted temptation, and so may we. Jesus offers us the strength to face our temptations and to learn from being tempted. 

If we enter the wilderness with Jesus in these forty days of Lent, our lives will be changed. We will understand ourselves better, and realize our need for God more fully. May this season help us reorient our lives, turning to God, so we know the deep joy of Easter this year, that foretaste of the eternal life God desires to share with us, and all people, for eternity. Amen.

March 2, 2022

A sermon for Ash Wednesday. The scripture readings are available here.

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them, for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

This is a night of contradiction. As we put ashes on our foreheads, ashes everyone can see, Jesus warns us not to practice our piety before others, in order to be seen by them. If we do, Jesus warns us our reward is in being seen, in being seen as pious.

Jesus tells us that intentions matter, our motivations are important. If we undertake acts of piety, if we put ashes on our head tonight so others can see how holy we are, then we receive the entirety of our reward in being seen, in being accounted a pious, holy person.

If instead we receive ashes on our forehead as a sign of making a right beginning of a holy Lent, of deepening our relationship with God, our neighbors, ourselves, and creation, then our reward will be far more profound, far deeper. Our reward will be transformative and life-changing.

Ashes are an ancient symbol, found in Hebrew Scripture. They symbolize mourning for sins, grief, and repentance. In that spirit, this night is a time for us to mourn our sinfulness, confessing and repenting of our sins. Tonight we acknowledge that we are not perfect, that we fall short of the glory of God. We sin, doing things that alienate us from God, our neighbors, ourselves, and creation. We turn our back on God’s love. Our relationships become damaged, even fractured. 

This night we are invited to come before God with penitent hearts, confessing the ways we have strayed since last Ash Wednesday. We are invited to honestly and humbly examine our lives, being open with ourselves and God. We are invited to confess and repent, accepting God’s forgiveness lovingly offered us through God’s generous mercy.

It brings God great joy when one who has sinned, confesses and repents. God rejoices when one who was lost is found, when one returns after wandering. God’s arms are open wide to receive the penitent sinner, to welcome the one who repents, who returns to the fullness of relationship God desires to share with us.

Trusting in God’s loving forgiveness, we confess and repent this night, not to feel shame or unworthiness. We do not confess our sins to punish ourselves. Rather, we do so to turn again to God, returning to the path of holiness God calls us to walk. The ashes are a symbol of our penitence and our desire to move into a restored and deepened relationship with God.

In a sermon preached on Ash Wednesday, 1619, the Anglican bishop and theologian Lancelot Andrewes observed how this day falls as the natural world is turning. Darkness is turning to light. The death and dormancy of winter is turning to the rebirth and new life of springtime. We too are called to turn to God in this season. 

Andrewes preached,  “Then, because this day is known as the first day of Lent, it fits well as a welcome into this time, a time lent us, as it were, by God, set us by the Church, in which to make our turning. Repentance itself is nothing else but a kind of circling: to turn to the One by repentance from whom, by sin, we have turned away.” [WebberChristopher L.. A Time to Turn: Anglican Readings for Lent and Easter Week. Church Publishing Inc.. Kindle Edition.]

Turning to God in the season of Lent begins by acknowledging our mortality, our complete and total reliance on God. The ashes, a symbol of our mortality, are imposed with the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We come before God, the One who is eternal, and remember that we are mortal. We are creatures of God, made in God’s image, but we are not God. We will not live forever. We all will die. We come from dust and return to dust.

Often on this night I observe how our culture avoids honesty about our mortality. But it it is different this year. The signs of human frailty are plainly obvious. As we enter the third year of the pandemic, we are well aware of our vulnerability. With six million dead from COVID-19 worldwide, it is difficult to ignore how precious and short life is.

As Europe descends into war, something that was unimaginable a short time ago, we are reminded how precarious life and security can be, how the unthinkable and horrific can come to pass. As we watch in horror the death of innocent civilians and a million refugees fleeing an advancing army set on destruction, it is impossible to ignore the precarious frailty of human life.

So it is different this year when, as followers of Jesus, we are marked with ashes and called to remember our mortality. It touches a newly awakened vulnerability, a new awareness of our mortality. It is an urgent call to remember that we are not God, that we profoundly need God. 

Through Baptism we are marked as Christ’s own forever, baptized into his death and into his resurrection. Through Christ we are set free from sin and death, from the temptations and lies of the world around us. Though we will one day die, yet we are safe in God for eternity.

This night we begin our Lenten journey by asserting our need for God. We are mortal, we have strayed. It is time to turn back to God. Tonight we are offered the gift of this season, a time to heed God’s call to return, reorienting ourselves, putting our relationship with God as the priority, the center of our lives.

This is a tall order. How do we do this? Only by God’s grace, with the Holy Spirit sustaining us. But there are practices we can undertake in this process, and three are mentioned in our Gospel. These three practices are central to our Lenten journey, as well as the Christian life.

The first is giving alms, caring for those who do not have enough, by sharing what we have. The heart of alms-giving is caring for our neighbor. It is rooted in the reality that all we have is a gift of God. From what we have been given by God, we are to give a portion away in thanksgiving. Not only does this practice help transform the injustices of our world, it changes us. In giving away what we have, we trust God to provide what we need. Giving alms is the antithesis of hoarding, of keeping a tight hold on what we are given, of fearing there won’t be enough.

We are also to pray. Just as Jesus did, we are to be faithful in daily prayer, setting aside time to come into God’s presence. We do this with words, our own or composed prayers such as found in the Book of Common Prayer. We also do so in silence, listening for God’s word to us, dwelling, simply and quietly, in God’s presence. 

Part of this call to prayer is to read and study God’s Word, Holy Scripture. Prayer and study of scripture provides a solid foundation for our Lenten journey, and the whole of our lives as followers of Jesus.

Jesus also mentions fasting. This may be the most challenging for us. Those of us who are middle class have an abundance of food available to us, in and out of season. Fasting in this land of plenty is not very popular—nor is it easy. Yet to give up what we want, resisting our desires and cravings for a season, shows us the power these desires have over us. It highlights how easily we can give in to our impulses. Fasting for a time may transform how we live. Fasting my stir in us a deeper trust and reliance on God, an awareness of our frailty and our need for God.

Jesus calls us to do the practices privately, not for show, not to seek the approval and affirmation of others. These practices are not about being praised by others, but the transformation of our lives, the deepening of our relationship with God. They are the path to transform our hearts by acknowledging our need for God and our need for conversion, for turning in a new direction. These disciplines are about choosing what matters, making what leads us closer to God a priority. As Jesus tells us, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

This night I invite you to keep a holy Lent, accepting the ashes on your forehead as a symbol of your repentance and penitence, as a symbol of your mortality and need for God. May they be an outward mark of an inner turning to God, a statement of trust in God’s loving mercy and compassion, in God’s desire to forgive us, and God’s rejoicing when we return.

This night may we make a good beginning of Lent. Walking the way of these forty days, may we come to a joyous Easter, to the foretaste and promise of life eternal God desires to share with us. Through our Lenten journey may we be drawn deeper into the heart of God, into the divine life of the Trinity. Amen.

February 27, 2022

The Redeemer Transfiguration window

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

Through these weeks after the Epiphany, our scripture readings focused on the revelation of Jesus, showing the nature of the One born the Child of Mary at Christmas. Throughout the season, the divinity of Jesus has been revealed.

These revelations began with the visit of the Wise Men, the gift-bearing astrologers from the East, who are the first Gentiles to worship the Baby. Then followed the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by John the Baptist; the One without sin going to the waters with the multitude of humanity seeking to turn their lives around, to reorient themselves to God; at his baptism God proclaims Jesus “the Beloved.” 

The third manifestation of the season was the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, when the wine runs out, and Jesus performs his first miracle. This miracle is one of astounding abundance, just like God’s love for us, and the life to which Jesus invites everyone. 

Two weeks ago we heard that Jesus spent the night in prayer before calling his apostles. Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, taught the people, attracting large crowds, and healing them of their diseases and infirmities. The Spirit is so strong in Jesus, it flows out of him, so those who simply touch his clothes are healed. Jesus went on to teach those who are forgotten and marginalized in this world are blessed of God, and he warns woe to those who are full now, for they have their reward now.

Today, on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, we hear an account of the final manifestation of Jesus in this season. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain. While Jesus prays there, his appearance changes, his clothes become dazzling white. Jesus talks with Moses, who received the Law and led God’s people to liberation, and with Elijah, the prophet of God’s people. A voice, the voice of God the Father, declares Jesus God’s Son, God’s Chosen, telling the disciples to listen to him. 

Throughout scripture mountaintops are places where God is encountered. Both Moses and Elijah have experiences of God’s presence on mountains. In our day we speak of mountaintop experiences when something profound and significant happens—often an encounter with the holy, when we experience God’s presence. 

When I was a teenager I had such an experience. Our parish youth group spent a Saturday on retreat. We climbed a mountain in Central Massachusetts—really a high hill—and spent the day in prayer, conversation, and times of quiet. We celebrated the Eucharist. At the end of the day, I didn’t want to leave. It had been a profound and holy experience for me. I wanted it to continue. But we had to descend, returning to our daily lives.

Peter expresses this in today’s account. He tells Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter had the impulse to enshrine this moment, to mark the location. 

The Gospel adds Peter said this, “not knowing what to say.” It is not surprising Peter didn’t know what to say. How could he begin to understand what he was experiencing? What would we make of seeing Jesus dazzling white, talking with Moses and Elijah, hearing the voice from heaven? It is only after the death and resurrection of Jesus this mountaintop experience begins to make sense to Peter and the others.

The three apostles that day experience Jesus as he truly is. They are given the gift of really seeing Jesus. They glimpse his glory as the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity. They see Jesus in dazzling resurrection light. They see Jesus is the fullness of his divinity. They see the glory of Jesus’ nature. 

But they see just a glimpse, just enough to set their hope on, as they move through the difficult times ahead. Because they must go down that mountain and head to Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and will kill Jesus. Jesus must set his face to Jerusalem and the cross, and the disciples go with him on this difficult road.

They are heading to the time Jesus will be betrayed, handed over to sinners, tortured, and crucified. Jesus will die on a cross, not for any crime or sin, but for refusing to give up love. And on the third day Jesus will be raised from the dead, to the glory that is his. Jesus is raised to the glory he came to bestow on humanity, changing us from “glory into glory,” as the Collect of the Day reminds us, lifting us to the divine life of God. But like Jesus, we only come to the fullness of God’s glory by bearing our cross.

Like the disciples, we must walk to Jerusalem. We must follow Jesus in the way, trusting it is the path of true and abundant life. We must follow Jesus through the waters of baptism where we die to sin and where we rise to the life of glory that Jesus shares with us.

Each year we read an account of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the Sunday before Lent begins. It is a reminder of where we are heading as we follow Jesus. It also reminds us we have not arrived yet. There is a challenging road ahead of us, a road we do not always want to walk, a road we do not always faithfully travel.

To help us recommit to following Jesus on this journey, the church gives us the season of Lent, forty days to reorient our lives to God. When I was younger, I did not look forward to Lent. It seemed a dreary season with too much focus on our sinfulness and on how unworthy I am. But as I grow older, I have a new appreciation for this season, coming to see Lent as a rich experience, even a gift.

The season of Lent is not a time for us to feel bad or unworthy. It is not a time to punish ourselves. Rather, it is a time to be honest about where we are in relation to God, our neighbor, ourselves, and creation. It is a time renew our commitment to follow Jesus where he leads. It is a season to adjust our vision, to be sure our eyes are fixed on him, that we are behind him, focused on him, walking in the light of his glory. 

Lent is a time to examine our hearts and our lives, asking God where we are being led, how we are being called to change and grow. It is a time to ask how God would transform and transfigure us, that we walk in paths of holiness.

This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. During the liturgy that day, we will be invited to keep a holy Lent. The Book of Common Prayer invites us to keep this season by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. 

As we move towards Lent, I invite you to take time to ask how God is calling you to keep a holy Lent this year. What are we being called to do to deepen our relationship with God? What practices and activities distract us from following Jesus now?  What are we being called to give up for forty days to be open to God in new ways? How is God calling us to deepen our relationship with God, our neighbor, ourself, and creation? 

Jesus desires to share his divine life with us, till we glow with the radiance of his glory, just like Moses after being in the presence of God’s glory on the mountaintop. When Moses come down from the mountain, he is filled with the divine light of God. Like Moses, we are to be filled with the light of Christ, reflecting the light of Jesus in all we do. We are to orient our lives to God that all may see God’s glory in us.

The miraculous event we hear in today’s Gospel is called the Transfiguration. It refers to Jesus as the One transfigured while the apostles watch. But I wonder if the apostles are also transfigured by this experience? Jesus doesn’t change on that mountain so much as reveal himself fully to his disciples. They are granted a vision of what is to come. They are allowed, if only briefly, to see who Jesus really is. 

Through this experience the apostles are changed. They are transformed, even transfigured. They leave the mountain and walk with Jesus to Jerusalem—not perfectly, not always understanding what is happening, but they journey with him. Most of the men drift away in the hour of Jesus’ suffering, but they return. 

And after Jesus is killed and raised from the dead, they come to understand what they saw that day on the mountaintop. Then they are truly transformed. Filled with the light of Jesus, they go into the world by the power of the Holy Spirit, doing the very acts Jesus did: they teach and preach; they heal; they even raise the dead.

The transformation they experienced we are called to experience. The life they lived is the life to which we are called. We follow the same Jesus. We are filled with the same Holy Spirit. We are bathed in the same divine light. 

Jesus invites us to share his divine life, the same life Peter, James, John, and all the other followers of Jesus who have gone before us shared. Jesus is calling us to deep and intimate relationship with him, so that we glow with his radiance, so we are transformed into the people God creates us to be.

May we answer this call by setting out on the journey before us, following Jesus on the way of love, wherever he leads us. May we use the gift of the coming season of Lent to strip away distractions so we hear his call clearly. May we always follow Jesus, accepting the glory of the divine life he desires to share with us. Amen.

February 20, 2022

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.

A sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany. The scripture readings are available here.

It can be difficult to forgive someone who has wronged or hurt us. In the pain and grief of being treated badly, we may want revenge, we might desire to hurt the one who hurt us. If the person who wronged us doesn’t confess their wrong doing, showing remorse, it can be difficult to forgive what they have done.

            In 2015, when a white supremacist gunman shot and killed nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, many were surprised when, shortly after the attack, the congregation publicly expressed their forgiveness of the gunman. Many were stunned by their action.

            Some asked if their forgiveness could be genuine? How could the congregation forgive a man who killed people they loved—who even killed members of their families? Is such an action humanly possible? Others observed that they surely couldn’t feel like forgiving such a heinous act. How can a person possibly forgive a man who killed innocent people while they studied the Bible?

            These questions are relevant in thinking about innocent people gunned down in the 21st century. They are relevant as we consider the atrocities committed in centuries past. They are certainly relevant in the present, as we fight white supremacy and wrestle with the horrific aftermath of slavery that still plagues our nation. These questions are relevant as yet again Europe stands on the brink of war. How do we respond to those who wrong and hate us, whom we may consider an enemy? These questions are central in interpreting our lesson today from the Book of Genesis.

            Today’s reading is the last portion of the Joseph story. Joseph was one of the twelve sons of Jacob, who is renamed Israel by God. Of all Jacob’s sons, Joseph is favored. He has a multi-colored coat, a sign of his father’s favor. Joseph is also a dreamer. In one dream he sees himself having authority over his brothers, and shares this dream with them. As you might imagine, his brothers are not pleased with Joseph’s dream, so they sell him into slavery.

            As a slave, Joseph is taken to Egypt. His early days in Egypt are not easy and Joseph suffers much. At one point he finds himself in prison where Jospeh’s ability to interpret dreams saves him when Joseph is asked to interpret a dream for Pharaoh.       

            This dream, Joseph tells Pharaoh, predicts years of plenty and years of famine. Pharaoh is impressed and takes Joseph’s interpretation seriously. He puts Joseph in charge of preparing for the famine. Joseph stores up food against the coming difficult years. In the process, Joseph becomes a powerful man in Egypt, trusted by Pharaoh.

            In today’s passage, all but one of Jospeh’s brothers have come to Egypt for food during the famine. Joseph recognizes them, but they do not recognize him as their brother. It is ironic the dream that Joseph had about having authority over his brothers has literally come true: they need food and Joseph has the power to feed them.

            Today’s lesson recounts the tearful reunion when Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers. This moving scene is only possible because Joseph forgives his brothers for the terrible things they did to him. Joseph lets go of the past. He does not seek revenge. He doesn’t punish his brothers. Instead, he chooses to be reconciled with them.

            This was not easy for Joseph. It did not happen all at once. When Joseph first meets his brothers, he hides his identity and uses his power to to deceive them and toy with them, scaring and shaming them. Over time Joseph moves to forgiving them by letting go of the past, and beginning to build a new future with his family.

            To be clear, Joseph forgiving his brothers in no way shows approval of their actions. Nor does it suggest Joseph has forgotten the horrors he knew because of them. But Joseph chooses to not let the past define him. He is able to understand what happened, learn from it, and see his past differently in the present.

            Joseph moves from any hurt and anger he held towards his brothers and comes to understand the past in a new way, seeing how God was at work in his life. Though God did not cause his brothers to sell him into slavery, God was with Joseph in the experience. God did not will these horrors to befall Joseph, but God redeemed his experience, bringing good from it. This good done by God even benefits Joseph’s brothers.

            Joseph tells his brothers, “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” Because Joseph, with his particular gifts and abilities, finds himself in Egypt, many are spared death in the famine. Through Jospeh’s vision and his careful planning for the future, the people have food to eat when they most need it.

            Rather than seeing judgment and love as mutually exclusive, Joseph comes to see what God has done, how God has used Joseph for good after the evil actions of his brothers. Joseph comes to see how God has taken a terrible situation in his life and brought wholeness and blessing from it. Through this new insight and understanding, Joseph is able to forgive those who wronged him. Joseph can let go, no longer bound by the horrors perpetrated against him. This allows him to move into a new way of life, a new present not defined by the past.

            In an essay on today’s readings, Debie Thomas observes, “…I think forgiveness is choosing to foreground love instead of resentment. If I’m consumed with my own pain, if I’ve made injury my identity, if I insist on weaponizing my well-deserved anger in every interaction I have with people who hurt me, then I’m drinking poison, and the poison will kill me long before it does anything to my abusers. To choose forgiveness is to release myself from the tyranny of bitterness. To give up my frenzied longing to be understood and vindicated by anyone other than God. To cast my hunger for justice deep into Christ’s heart, because justice belongs to him, and he’s the only one powerful enough to secure it.”

            These words are echoed in our Gospel today. Jesus teaches his disciples to ground their lives on forgiveness and generosity in Christ. To follow Jesus means loving one’s enemies, blessing those who curse you, praying for those who abuse you. Jesus tells his followers to give to everyone who asks—especially those who can never repay. Those who follow Jesus are called to love their enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, giving away with abandon. In all things, they are to be a blessing to others.

            Jesus’ call to his followers does not align with the world’s values. His ways do not necessarily align with our feelings and impulses. What Jesus asks of us may not be anything we feel like doing, we want to do. Jesus calls us to a high calling, to seeing with new eyes, living as blessed of God. Because God lavishly loves us, so we should love. Because God repeatedly forgives us, so we should do the same. Because God sustains us, providing all we need, so we should share what we have with others, expecting nothing in return. We live this way because we are already, even in this life, sharing in God’s blessings. Right now, just where we are, we are loved and forgiven. It is by God’s grace we can live this demanding high calling from Jesus.

            Jesus calls us to a life of extravagant and unbridled generosity modeled on God. It is rooted in the abundant life God shares with us, so we in turn share the riches of God with everyone we meet—including those who have wronged us, hurt us, wish us ill, hate us, or ask for our money and possessions.

            If we live as Jesus teaches, the injustice of this world will be broken. The cycle of revenge and retribution will be ended. By not participating in society’s system of retribution, but loving, forgiving, and giving extravagantly, the world’s values of inequity will be shattered. If all disciples of Jesus gave without counting the cost to all in need, loving and forgiving with the extravagance of God, the face of the world would be transformed. And all will be set free to know the abundant life of God now, in this age.

            Of course, living as Jesus calls us makes no sense to the world. The world teaches love is in short supply, resources are finite, and not all people are worthy of a share. The world teaches those who can’t reciprocate, don’t deserve the world’s riches.

            Jesus upends these assumptions. Jesus offers us a challenge. Jesus asks us to live believing there is enough for all: enough love, enough forgiveness, enough compassion, enough money and food.

            Jesus shows us God’s love is infinite and freely given. God’s forgiveness and mercy are assured and unearned. In response, we can love, forgive, and give to others with wild abandon, trusting the promise that we will not run out.

            Jesus assures us in the Gospel reading, “A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” God loves us without reserve, forgives us as many times as we need, and provides for us in abundance. In thanksgiving for all we are given, we are called to do the same with others. In this we will be abundantly blessed, just as we are a blessing to others. Amen.

February 13, 2022

Tree planted by streams of water. Creative Commons.

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany. The scripture readings are available here.

            We live in a noisy, active world. So much competes for our attention. So many things stand ready to distract us. Many of us feel there are too many things to do, an overwhelming list of items needing our attention. Compounding this, in the pandemic people talk about their attention spans shortening, it can be difficult to focus. Most of us have not felt at our best for the past two years.

            Friday’s NY Times podcast, The Ezra Klein Show, is called It’s Not Your Fault You Can’t  Pay Attention. Here’s Why. It explores the complex reasons we find our attention pulled in many directions and our ability to focus and concentrate difficult. In a conversation with Johann Hari about his new book, Stolen Focus, Ezra Klein explores how, “Attention is the most precious resource we have — it’s the window through which we experience our lives. And for many of us, that window is fogging.”

            Klein goes on, “The knee-jerk response is to blame ourselves. If our attention is waning, it’s because we’re too distractible. But if there’s a single thesis of [the book] Stolen Focus, it’s that we have a lot less control over our attention than we like to believe — and not just because the apps on our smartphones are cunningly designed.”[1]

            In the podcast conversation, Ezra Klein and Johann Hari discuss all that competes for our attention. While not only social media, certainly the apps on our smartphones are an important player in this. Social media is designed to grab our attention and keep us engaged as long as possible. Algorithms target what we see in sophisticated ways, all designed to capture and hold our attention, to put advertising before us and sell us items.

            So much of our consumerist culture, beyond social media alone, is designed to grab our attention, hold our gaze, and stir within us the need for consumer goods. This touches deep desires within us, promotes an image of a type of life we desire, and tempts us goods that will create this lifestyle for us.

            To be clear, I am not decrying social media. During this pandemic it has been an important tool for remaining connected. During lock down two years ago, social media allowed us to remain connected as a parish, providing a platform for worshipping together when we could not gather in-person. Even this morning, our live-streamed liturgy allows those unable to be here to gather remotely with us. Over the past two years people from around the world have worshipped virtually with us.

            There is, however, a danger in social media culture. It can grab us and hold our attention without our realizing it. It can stir deep longings within us, desires we may not be consciously aware of. It can offer images and products, lifestyle choices and products, to satisfy our deep-seated longing. These often involve spending money to acquire more material goods.

            All this can hide the actual genesis of our longings: our deep desire for relationship with God, planted within us by God. God creates us, and all people, with a longing for communion with God. As St. Augustine in his Confessions says, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”[2]

            Alongside our desire for God, God also gives us the gift of free will so we may freely choose relationship with God. The shadow side of our God-given free will is the ability to turn away from God and choose other means to to satiate what stirs within us. We can seek other means, apart from God, to feel satisfied and complete.

            In this noisy world, with so many voices competing for our attention, we are called to intentionally create space for God to speak, listening for God’s invitation to deep communion and life-giving relationship. In our first lesson Jeremiah reminds us living apart from God is like “a shrub planted in a desert” trying to thrive in “the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.”

            Jeremiah adds, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord…They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.”  As Psalm 1 says, those is relationship with God “are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.” God alone is able satiate our thirst.

            God calls us into relationship, so we look to God alone to satisfy the longings deep within us. We must resist the offers of the world, for they ultimately are fleeting, they will not lead us in the path on which we will thrive.

            Living this way is not easy. The voices that clamor for our attention are strong and they are seductive. In subtle ways they captivate us, holding our attention. Thanks be to God we are not alone in this. Jesus, who was tempted in every way as we are in this life, shows us how to live this demanding calling. He shows us the way of true life.

            In our Gospel today Jesus has spent the night praying on a mountain before calling his twelve apostles. Jesus regularly has time for prayer and quiet. When Jesus comes down the mountain with his apostles, there is a great crowd of people waiting on the plain. They hunger for the words Jesus offers. Some are ill or troubled by unclean spirits and seek healing. There is such power in Jesus, just by touching him people are healed. So the crowd clamors to be close to him.

            Having come down to where the people are, to the plain, Jesus is present with them in all their hunger and need. Jesus looks at his disciples and preaches. The words Jesus offers are the Beatitudes, those statements that begin, “Blessed are.” Jesus says blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep, and those who are hated and reviled.

            What Jesus teaches reflects how God sees humanity, understanding us as we really are. God looks on those who are poor and lack resources in this life as blessed of God. Those who weep, who know grief and despair, are blessed of God. Those who are reviled for living the Gospel, like the prophets before them, are blessed of God.

             In the original Greek, the word for “blessed” has the sense of divine bliss, of true happiness; being blessed is living as God intended, as God created humanity to live. Being blessed is finding our true selves. Blessed is living trusting in God alone. Blessedness turns the values of the world turned upside down.

            The blessedness found in God comes in having complete and total reliance on God. In the Beatitudes those who are blessed are those who have little to rely on in this world. They have no material wealth, no communities of support. They have only God. It is in their complete reliance upon God that they are blessed.

            Jesus calls those with him in the first century to discipleship that is defined by complete and total reliance on God. It requires giving up everything to follow Jesus. This is the same call given to us, many centuries later. To make his point clear, Jesus adds four statements of woe to the Beatitudes. Woe to those who are rich, those who are full now, those who are laughing, and those who are spoken well of, for they are satisfied now.

            Jesus says this not to instill guilt or anxiety, but to simply state reality. Jesus tells it like it is. Those who are satisfied now do not rely on God. They have no reason to do so. Our wealth and possessions can seem to so completely satisfy us, we have no need for God. Wanting nothing, we can be blinded to our hunger for God. We can forget about God. We can become lax in worship of God. There is no urgency for God to fill what is empty, to save and deliver us, if we are comfortable and full, if our pursuit of material things occupies us and seems to fill us.

            It has been observed that as wealth and material comfort grow in western countries, religious practice and church attendance decline. Some have observed that poor Christians in the global south have a vibrant faith, even while living with great poverty; perhaps their faith in God is so strong precisely because they are poor and rely so strongly on God.

            For those of us who live in the west and are middle class, these “Woes” can be hard to hear. These words may seem poignant, perhaps directed at us. But they are a reminder of God’s priorities and our call to follow Jesus. They call us to give the whole of our selves, and all of our lives, in following Jesus. They challenge the assumptions and values of the world.

            The Beatitudes remind us that being blessed of God is not about material things; they satisfy only in the short term. To be blessed of God is to rely completely and totally on God, allowing nothing to distract us, nothing to replace our deep need for God. It means loving God with our entire heart, mind, and soul. It is being rooted in God like the tree planted by a stream of flowing water.      

            The woes remind us of how easy it is for an abundance of material things to mask our need for God, replacing God at the center of our lives. Our society’s materialism and consumerism can overtake us, seducing us with empty promises, displacing God in our lives.

            Jesus offers the Beatitudes and the Woes as a statement of what God sees when looking at humanity. These words make clear God’s priorities. Jesus offers his words to us with the assurance that things will not always remain as they are. One day, God’s realm will be ushered in fully and there will be no poor, all will have what they need. One day the rich will be set free from the burden of their wealth and possessions. Until then we are called to look to Jesus and follow.

            Jesus calls us to give up everything to follow his way of love. Putting God first in our lives brings us untold joy and true happiness, an abundance of life we can scarcely imagine. Living as faithful disciples, our deepest longings will be filled, and we can be agents of God’s justice even now, at this moment, in this place. It all begins by saying yes to God’s invitation, and setting out on the road with Jesus, following him on his way of love. Amen.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/11/opinion/ezra-klein-podcast-johann-hari.html?smid=url-share

[2] https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/110101.htm

February 6, 2022

Luke 5:4-7, William Hole(1846-1917). Public domain.

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany. The scripture readings are available here.

The Sundays after the Epiphany focus on how God is revealed and made known to us. We discover who Jesus is, his nature and mission, in the appointed scripture readings. Today’s first lesson offers a vision Isaiah has of God and in the Gospel Peter glimpses who Jesus is.

            Isaiah has a vision in which he sees “the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.” Heavenly beings attend God. The seraphs proclaim, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” These ancient words are the same we proclaim at every Eucharist in the Sanctus, the central hymn of the liturgy, just before God is present among us in the bread and wine of the sacrament, the body and blood of Jesus.

            When Isaiah hears the seraphs proclaim these words it is a frightening business. The thresholds of the temple shake. The temple fills with smoke. Isaiah is filled with dread and fear, saying “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

            In response to seeing God and the worship of the heavenly host, Isaiah is filled with a sense of his unworthiness and the unworthiness of his people. He is aware he is not holy as is the Lord seated on the throne, high and lofty.

            I share Isaiah’s sentiment. Like many priests, this lesson was read at my ordination. I remember feeling unworthy in the awesome presence of God and inadequate to live this vocation to which God was calling me. In my prayer that day, I expressed hope God knew what God was doing in calling me to be a priest, the fallible creature I am.

            What happens after Isaiah expresses his fear and unworthiness is important to notice. While this vision shows the immensity and transcendence of God, it also shows God’s loving attention to humanity. God offers us what we need when experiencing the glory of God.

            In response to Isaiah, God sends a seraph who touches Isaiah’s lips with a hot coal from the altar. The seraph declares, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Through this action, Isaiah is purified and healed; his guilt is removed.                       

            This transformation is so complete, that Isaiah is able to move from his woe to answering God’s call to be God’s prophet, saying, “Here am I; send me!”. Isaiah is sent forth to proclaim God’s word, calling the people back to God. Many ears will be deaf to Isaiah’s proclamation, but he is faithful in making it, speaking God’s word to the people.

            This passage reveals God as inspiring awe, worthy of adoration, full of glory, and beyond our comprehension. It also shows God in relationship with humanity, aware of our needs, and willing to meet us where are. God offers what we need to accept the call and vocation God has in store for us. Though we are not perfect nor always faithful, not as holy as we ought to be, yet God uses us, in our frailty, for God’s work.

            In the Collect of the Day we prayed, “Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ.” These words are a fine summary of God’s intention for us. God wants to set us free from what separates us from God, our neighbor, and ourselves, so we find freedom in the abundant life God offers. God calls us away from our doubts and reservations, our unworthiness and sinfulness, into the life God prepares for us.

            In our Gospel today Peter also has an experience of God’s revelation and experiences his own sense of unworthiness. In this early part of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus, full of the spirit, proclaims God’s word through his words and actions. In today’s passage, the crowds are pressing in on Jesus to hear his words. He gets in Simon Peter’s boat and teaches from the shore.

            After teaching, Jesus asks Peter to take his boat into deep water and put down the fishing nets. Peter tells Jesus they worked all night and caught nothing. I can almost hear the weariness and resignation in his voice after a fruitless night of hard work, perhaps his reluctance to try agin. Despite this, Peter does as Jesus says.

            This time, there are so many fish the nets are straining and the boat is sinking. There is an abundance of fish unlike the night before. Peter understands something profound and miraculous has happened. This catch was more than luck.

            Like Isaiah before him, his response is to express his unworthiness. He tells Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Peter glimpses who Jesus is. In the divine presence of Jesus, Peter feels the weight of his sin and failings.

            Jesus, however, does not condemn Peter, but reassures him, saying, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” Jesus is able to see Peter in his full personhood and  does not judge Peter, but invites him be transformed, to live in a way he never has before. And Jesus does so with an image Peter can relate to: fishing for people.

            This ordinary encounter with the fishermen Peter, James, and John changes their lives. They glimpse a revelation of who Jesus is. They experience the miraculous promise that the hopeless and fruitless can be transformed into promise and abundance. Their experience of Jesus is so profound, they leave behind everyone and everything, even the great abundance of fish they just caught, to follow Jesus.

            Peter gives the rest of his life to being a disciple. He does not do this perfectly. At times he has great failings, but he commits, and he follows Jesus. He gives his entire life to Jesus, and like Jesus, is crucified, suffering a martyr’s death. Through all of Peter’s labors and witness many have come to know the promise of abundant life in Jesus.

            Both Peter and Isaiah experience a vision, a revelation of God, that changes their lives. They both feel keenly the ways they are not worthy of their call. They know fear. But they trust God, accepting the healing presence of God’s love, and give the rest of their lives in following, living as best they can the vocation God has given them.

            Like them, God is revealed to us: in scripture, in the sacraments, and in community. God is present when we least expect, in the very ordinary moments of life. Like Peter, we may be at work one day, feeling frustration that what we do is fruitless, when God comes among us with love, acceptance, and abundance.

            In response to God’s presence, we are invited to respond by following. The call to discipleship is not easy. It has a great cost. It requires hearts that hear and obey God’s call. It asks we repent of the ways we fall short of God’s love. It calls us to be persistent and fearless, risking everything by pulling out into the deep waters—the place where growth and transformation can happen. Answering the invitation requires we give up everything to follow Jesus.

            This complete surrender of our heart and will comes with the promise of a life we can scarcely hope for or imagine. Today’s Gospel miracle of the abundant fish has, from the earliest time of the church, been understood as evoking the Eucharist. Fish, of course, are caught for food. Peter’s nets hold more fish the one could hope for. This is a lavish feast, offering more than enough for all people. God’s loving generosity provides food for everyone. The fish are a powerful image of how God satisfies our hunger.

            God comes among us in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, filling us with the loving presence of God. This heavenly food is freely given, not earned by us. It is God’s generous and lavish gift to us that satisfies our deepest needs. All the ways we are unfulfilled, empty, and know longing find satisfaction in Jesus present in the Eucharist.

            I find this Gospel passage and its promise comforting during this continuing pandemic time. It has been a long, challenging 23 months. Many have known much grief and loss. We reached a grim milestone this past Friday with 900,000 dead in this country.

            In our own parish we have known the pain of loss. After a long period of virtual worship, we at last gather in-person, but not yet in the church. We wait, sometimes patiently, sometimes not so patiently, for changes to come. We long and pray for an end to this pandemic and a return to practices we treasure. We also know we have been changed by this experience and some things will never be the same.          

            In this in-between time there is hope for us to hold onto. Jesus promises to be with us in the barren times, when things feel fruitless, when hope is waning. He stands ready to call us into the deep waters of our anxiety and fear, standing beside us as we cast our nets. With Jesus there is hope for an unknown abundance, of life newly full and rich, like the fishermen’s nets.

            Jesus invites us to follow him into the deep waters of our lives, trusting he leads us on the path to liberty in God’s love. May we faithfully follow, allowing God to use us for God’s purposes in building the kingdom. May we say yes to this invitation and follow Jesus wherever he leads us, accepting his words of comfort and hope, embracing the promise of the abundant life to which we are called. Amen.

January 30, 2022

Jeremiah, Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo Buonarroti. Public domain.

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany. The scripture readings are available here.

            We regularly talk of discernment and call, of having a vocation. For far too long this talk has largely referred only to discerning Holy Orders, the call to ordained ministry, despite the reality that all Christians are called by God to a particular vocation and ministry, and given gifts to answer and live their call.  

            Living God’s call is often not easy—for the ordained as well as laity. We likely all know times of fear, anxiety, resistance, feelings of inadequacy, even resentment at what God asks of us. I find comfort in our first Lesson this morning, because all these responses are expressed in the story of Jeremiah’s call.

            I have fondness for this passage. A little more then ten years ago I chose it as the lesson at my ordination to the diaconate. It echoes my own feelings of being called by God, wondering why God has called me, how I will ever faithfully live the vows I make before God and the church. In the decade since, I have thankfully come to see God’s promise to Jeremiah, the ways God has also given me the words to say when I most needed them, how the Spirit has guided and used me in ways I myself could not imagine or do on my own.

            Today’s lesson is the opening section of Book of Jeremiah, when Jeremiah is called by God to go to the nations and proclaim God’s word and judgment. Jeremiah protests he is not able to do this. After all, he is young, he won’t know what to say. God assures Jeremiah he was called by God before he was born. God knew him in the womb and consecrated him for this vocation, so he has nothing to fear. Then God touches his mouth, saying, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.”

            Throughout his life and ministry as a prophet, Jeremiah struggled with his call. He didn’t feel worthy of this calling, he didn’t feel he was effective. He was ignored, oppressed, his life threatened, he was thrown down a well. Despite this, the lesson makes clear God’s call comes to Jeremiah regardless of anything he has done, his worthiness, or his abilities. God calls Jeremiah and gives him all he needs to answer that calling.

            So it us with us. God gives us all we need to faithfully live out the vocation to which we are called,. Though may feel unprepared, anxious, even unworthy, God assures us we are able to do what God asks of us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

            It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that Jesus undertakes his mission and ministry. In his gospel, Luke makes clear Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit and everything he does is by the power of the Spirit.

            Today’s Gospel is the continuation of what we heard last week, when Jesus went to the synagogue in Nazareth, his hometown. There, on the Sabbath, he read from Chapter 61 of the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus ends the reading by adding, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

            Jesus tells those in the synagogue that the Spirit of God is upon him and he is doing the new work God has given him. He is called to fulfill the ancient prophecy of Isaiah, to be the Messiah on whom the hope of generations past is made real. Jesus is the very incarnation of Isaiah’s promise.

            At first everyone marvels at what he says. They likely have known him all his life. He is “Joseph’s son,” they one they knew as a boy.  The mood changes when Jesus says he cannot do there the works he has done elsewhere. They are not able to receive them. They still see him as the local boy, not the one fulfilling Isaiah’s promise.

            Jesus mentions the widow at Zarephath, who feeds Elijah when she is almost out of food. God blesses her, providing food for her and her son. When her son dies, Elijah raises him from the dead. Jesus also mentions Naaman, the Syrian army official whom Elisha heals of leprosy.

            Both the widow of Zarephath and Naaman are Gentiles, outsiders. Jesus warns those in the Nazareth synagogue that God acts in and through unexpected people, using those outside the community, who are not part of the established group.

            Those in the synagogue consider themselves God’s people, but they are not open to the new things God is doing in Jesus. They feel certain in their knowledge of God and are closed to what Jesus. Hearing Jesus say this, the people become angry and try to throw Jesus off a cliff. He slips through the crowd and escapes.

            Peter Gomes, the late Harvard professor, theologian, and pastor of Harvard’s Memorial Church, writes in his book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good about the Good News, “The people take offense not so much with what Jesus claims about himself, as with the claims that he makes about a God who is more than their own tribal deity.”[1] 

            Jesus makes clear in the synagogue he has come to do something new. God in Jesus through the Holy Spirit is working in and through all people, not just the “in” crowd of the established religious community. God’s call is extended far more broadly than to one’s own group or community. God is not defined or controlled by any group.

            This is an important reminder for us, too. Jesus makes clear God is at work in all lives, acting through all people, including those who are not part of the church, to accomplish God’s purposes. God is also present and active in those at the margins of our society, those forgotten or dismissed.

            Jesus does a radical thing, calling all people to be agents of God’s love and justice, even those who might surprise or scandalize us. Jesus warns us to cast off our complacency, as he challenges what we think we know of God. Jesus calls us be open to God’s call in the present, to the fresh ways God is acting, to the new places God calls us to go.

            As is always true with call and vocation, we have choice in how we respond. One choir is for us to be certain we know God and God’s call to us, and miss where God acts now, blind to the new things God is doing. Or we can be like the people in the synagogue in Nazareth and get angry at what God calls us to do and try to drive out what makes us uncomfortable. Maybe, like Jeremiah, we sometimes feel unworthy, not up to our calling, and decide to not follow where Jesus calls us.

            Or we can be open and hear God’s call, answering it by trusting God will guide and sustain us, knowing there will be challenges, and God gives us all we need for the vocation to which God calls us.

            Ultimately, the foundation of our calling, as followers of Jesus, is God’s love. In today’s epistle from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians we hear about the importance of love for us as Christians. This passage is often used at weddings and I think this would surprise Paul. His words are not about romantic love but the love of the Christian community.

            Paul writes to the church in Corinth, a community in which some feel superior because of their spiritual gifts. Paul reminds them love is the greatest gift, greater even than hope and faith. Love is of God, in fact, love is God’s identity, because God is love. God loves because the very nature of God is love. God loves us not because of our worthiness, or because we have earned God’s love. God simply loves us because we are beloved creatures of God and it is God’s nature to love.

            The love of God is a state of being and has less to do with feelings and emotions. We are called to love others as God loves us, without counting the cost, without expecting love will be returned. We love as a response to God’s gracious love of us.

            This love is expressed in patience, kindness, rejoicing in truth, believing, hoping, and enduring all things. If our call and vocation embody these, then it is of God, for we are called to be agents of God’s love in the world. Through our lives, with God’s love shining through us, the world can be transformed.

            Though our love is imperfect now, in the fullness of God’s reign it will be perfected. Though we see dimly now, as in a mirror, bound to God in love, we will one day see God face to face. If we live by love in this life, will come to the fullness of love in eternal life.

            May the Holy Spirit to give us wise discernment that we hear God’s call to us. May we trust God in all things, following Jesus where he leads, knowing he will provide what we need for the journey. May the Spirit plant within us an openness to what God is doing, the ability to see the new places God invites us. Let us walk with Jesus in his way of love, the path that leads to the fullness of abundant life with God for eternity. Amen.


[1] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 1 (Advent through Transfiguration) (Kindle Locations 10935-10937). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

January 23, 2022

Ezra Reads the Law ; Synagogue interior wood panel, Dura-Europos, Syria. Public domain.

A sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany. The scripture lessons are available here.

            This morning there is something rare in two of the appointed scripture readings. We hear descriptions of liturgy, of the people of God gathered to worship as a community. Scripture commends gathering weekly to worship God, but not often do we read a description of liturgy. These two accounts, found in the lesson from the prophet Nehemiah, and in the Gospel passage from Luke, are important for us now, in our day.

            Gathering for liturgy, coming together as a community to offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God, is the central act for us as Christians. As others have observed, one cannot be a Christian alone. The very life of those who follow Jesus begins and ends in gathering as a body each Lord’s Day to worship our Triune God, the One who lovingly gives us life and sustains us.

            The passage from Nehemiah offers important details for us, who worship so many centuries later. It recounts the people of Israel returning from exile in Babylon. This is a tenuous time in their life as a people. They are divided as to how they are to live and how to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. There are debates as to who is in and who is out, who is welcome and who is not. Outside enemies continue to threaten them. The future is uncertain.

            In this uncertainty, the priest Ezra stands before the gathered people and reads from the book of the Law of Moses, the Torah, the first five books of Hebrew scripture. Ezra calls the people to return to worshipping God, living by God’s Word.

            All people are gathered, men, women, and children, in the square before the Water Gate. This location is large enough to accommodate everyone, no one is excluded. Ezra blesses God and the people prostate themselves before God in worship — they know they are in God’s presence. The law is interpreted for the people, and they are deeply moved. Then Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites tell the people this day is holy and send them away to celebrate with food and drink, remembering to give a portion to those in need.

            From this account we see elements of worship familiar to us in our day. The people gather together, all of them, including children. The words “all” and “unity” pervade this passage. The people know they have entered the presence of the transcendent God. In God’s Word they encounter God  present with them, in the midst of the body. In response, the people worship God, physically, by bowing and prostrating themselves.  And worship transforms the people, uniting them as one body, transforming them into the people God calls them to be. When they come into God’s presence, encountering God’s Word in scripture, and offering themselves over to God, the people are changed. They leave a different people than they arrived. Through God’s presence encountered in worship, they are able to cast off their divisions and live for the common good.

            So it is for us today. In liturgy we encounter God revealed in Word, though scripture, and in Sacrament, the Eucharist. Eucharist can only be celebrated together, in community, never privately with just one person. It is by definition a corporate act. In liturgy we encounter God and respond by worshipping, using our bodies — our voices, sight, smell, taste, and physical posture in worship of God. In the Eucharist we are transformed, just as the bread and wine are transformed into the presence of Christ, becoming his body and blood. In the Eucharist we too are transformed into Christ’s body, united in the sacrament and sent forth to be Christ’s presence in the world.

            All we do and all we are begins and ends with worship each Sunday. Everything flows from the Eucharistic gathering. Just as we feed on the bread of heaven in the Eucharist, nourished with the bread of life, so by receiving it we changed into the people God calls us to be. Nourished by Word and Sacrament, we are formed over time into Christ’s body and equipped by the gifts of the Holy Spirit for ministry in the world.

            St. Augustine says of the Eucharist, “Now when you receive communion, you receive the mystery of your own communion in love. Being many, you are one body. Many grapes hang on the vine, but the juice of grapes is mingled into oneness. Therefore, be what you see, and receive what you are.”[1] In the Eucharist we who are many, just as many grapes and many grains of wheat, become one body, a holy community united by the Spirit in Christ. Augustine invites us to become what we receive, receiving the body of Christ that we become the body of Christ.

            Today’s Epistle offers details of our calling, of how we are to live in Eucharistic community. Writing to the church at Corinth, Paul sets a high standard. The Corinthians were a divided community. Some in the community were wealthy and well educated and had been Christians for some time. They sometimes acted in ways that disturbed those in the church who were not wealthy, were less educated, and were newer converts to the faith.

            Paul reminds the Corinthians that the followers of Jesus are to live by a higher calling than the ways of the world around them. They are part of one body, though many members. They are not discreet individuals. They are baptized into one body, by the one Spirit. Through baptism the old divisions and hierarchies are dismantled. The ways the world marks status do not apply in the Christian community.

            Paul asserts every member of the body is essential and important. No one can say to another, “I have no need of you.” Each has a particular calling, each is given particular gifts by the Holy Spirit for the work of ministry. Just as the human body needs all its parts, so the body of Christ needs each and every one of its members.

            Thus the church must show caring and respect to each member. If one is honored, all rejoice. If one suffers, all in the body suffer. Through the one Spirit, the body is one, and all are connected one to another. This means there are times when an individual member puts away his or her own will and desire, and instead puts others first. The individual sacrifices personal desire for the good of others, for the sake of the whole.

            Paul reminds us that in all things we are to live by the love of God made known in Jesus. Like Jesus, we are always to act with respect and mutuality. In his ministry Jesus respects all, welcoming the forgotten, overlooked, and marginalized. While Jesus says demanding things, he never resorts to disrespect. When someone like the rich man can’t give up his wealth and follow as Jesus asks, Jesus loves him and has compassion on him. We are called to do the same.

            Jesus lives by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that builds up the body and brings all to unity in Christ. In our Gospel today we find an other description of God’s people at worship. Jesus is in the synagogue. Luke tells us it was his custom to attend the synagogue on the sabbath. Luke also tells us Jesus is filled with Holy Spirit. This is the Spirit poured out on Jesus at his baptism; this is the Spirit who drives him into the wilderness where he is tempted; and this is the same Spirit at the center of his ministry.

            Jesus explains his life in the Spirit by quoting the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

            Jesus fulfills this ancient prophecy by the witness of his life and ministry. Jesus not only reads from the Word of God in the prophet Isaiah, but Jesus is the eternal Word incarnate in human flesh, the One in whom scripture is fulfilled and living, at work in the creation. Jesus comes in the Spirit to make real and visible God’s Word, tearing down all the divisions of our world,  dismantling  all the ways status is used to make some more valuable than others. Jesus comes to usher in God’s reign in which all are valued, all have inherent worth and dignity, and all are loved.

            May we seek always to live by the power of the Spirit, being a community of welcome and respect. May we follow the call of the Holy Spirit, even when what is asked is daunting, frightening, or of great risk. Through the power of the Spirit may be knit together in one communion, a people transformed by Word and Sacrament, united as the body of Christ at work in the world. May we truly become what we receive in the Eucharist.

            As followers of Jesus, we are called to risk all for the sake of the Gospel, giving every fibre of being in living lives of faithful discipleship. This is a demanding way we walk. It is also a life we can scarcely hope for or imagine. It is nothing short of the journey that leads to eternal life, where we see God face to face, worshipping with all the saints at the throne of God for eternity. Amen.


[1] https://augustinianspirituality.org/augustinequotes/

January 16, 2021

Greek Orthodox Church of the Marriage Feast, Cana, Israel. Public domain.

A joy of this life is sharing a meal family and friends. Countless times I have experienced the delight of such occasions, seeing in them a foretaste of the heavenly banquet itself. One of the losses in this pandemic time is not gathering regularly with others to share a meal.

Scripture tells of God prepare lavish feasts for God’s people with great abundance and generosity. The prophet Isaiah says God will make a feast for all peoples with rich food and well-aged wines (Isaiah 25:6). In the Gospels Jesus performs miracles feeding the crowd from meager amounts. All eat their fill and there are several baskets left over. God is generous, lavishing abundant love on us, giving us all we need.

In Sunday’s Gospel we hear of the third manifestation (epiphany) of Jesus associated with the Feast of the Epiphany. It is early in John’s Gospel (2:1-11) and the first sign of that Gospel showing Jesus to be the eternal Word incarnate.

Jesus, his mother, and his disciples attend a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. During the feast the host runs out of wine. This is a serious problem. The mother of Jesus (she is never named in John’s Gospel) tells the steward of the feast to do what Jesus tells him. Nearby there are six empty jars, each large enough to hold 20-30 gallons, for ritual purification. Jesus instructs the steward to fill them with water. When drawn out, the water has become wine—the best wine of the feast.

This miracle of Jesus shows not only who Jesus is, but how much God loves us. Jesus could have made a few gallons of average wine for the feast, saving the host embarrassment. Rather, Jesus creates an abundance of the finest wine.

God desires for us a life of abundance and extravagance. We see this in God coming among us in the person of Jesus, the eternal God putting on the limitations of human flesh and existence. We see this is the generous mercy and love of God shown us in the life and ministry of Jesus. And we see this most clearly in Jesus willingly accepting death on the cross and God raising him on the third day. Jesus is raised to resurrection life not for himself alone, but for us who share in his victory through the waters of baptism.

The miracle at the wedding in Cana promises Jesus comes into the very fabric of our human lives with generous love. Jesus comes to the empty places of our lives, filling them with more than we could ever ask for or imagine. Jesus calls us to do the same for others.

The world lives by scarcity and fear. Regularly we hear there is not enough for everyone, so be sure you have enough for yourself and your family. We are warned to hold onto our money and our time, to make sure we have enough comfort in our own lives. Even during the pandemic, politicians, in this richest of nations, fret about how much the country can afford to support its citizens in need.

Jesus, however, calls us to a life of abundant generosity and unbridled love. As Jesus comes to us in overflowing love, so we are to allow the love of God fill us to overflowing. God’s love flowing from us is to be shared extravagantly, not counting the cost, with all we encounter.

As the body of Christ nourished weekly at the heavenly banquet of the Eucharist, that meal that anticipates the heavenly feast, where we are fed with the very Body and Blood of Jesus, may we become what we eat. May we be a people who love extravagantly and always rejoice in the abundance and generosity of God.

January 9, 2022

Redeemer Baptism of Jesus window.

This Sunday we begin the season after the Epiphany. Epiphany is a Greek word meaning “revelation” or “manifestation.” In these weeks we see who the Baby of Bethlehem is. Rather than simply an ordinary baby, Jesus is fully human and fully divine. The ancient feast of the Epiphany makes this reality clear.

On January 6 we remembered the Wise Men from the East who bring gifts to the Child and worship him. Their visit reveals Jesus as the Savior of the entire world, including Gentiles. These astrologers are the first Gentiles to worship Jesus.

Sunday we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the River Jordan (Luke 3:15-17, 21-22). This event in the life of Jesus has, from the early days of the church, been part of the Epiphany. It reveals Jesus as the Son of God. After he is baptized, the Holy Spirit is poured out on him in bodily form as a dove. A voice from heaven is heard, declaring, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The Child born of Mary is fully human, and is also the fully divine Son of God. The scene of Jesus’ baptism tells us who he is and why he comes among us. In Jesus God puts on human flesh to lift humanity to the fullness of the divine life of the Trinity.

At the heart of the divine life is being beloved of God. At baptism we are baptized into the Name of God, putting on the identity of Jesus, and incorporated into his body. We are empowered to be his presence in the world through the Holy Spirit. In baptism we become children of God, the beloved of God.

It can be challenging for us to claim the life of belovedness. Our society gives us many messages of how we not as we should be. The world is predicated on some people having more value, more worth, than others. People are viewed as commodities, part of an economic system. The intrinsic value and inherent worth of each person is commonly overlooked or ignored.

In his book, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (Crossroad, 2001), Henri J.M. Nouwen writes of the struggle many people have in claiming their belovedness. There are so many negative messages that most people define their identity by them.

Nouwen believes this has a negative impact on our spiritual lives. He writes, “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.”

If we are able to claim our identity as beloved of God, we become who God calls us to be. Just after his baptism, Jesus leaves the Jordan River and spends forty days in the wilderness. There he confronts temptations to deny his nature and identity. When he emerges from the wilderness he has clarity about his identity, mission, and ministry.

The same is true for us. When we live secure in the knowledge we are beloved of God, we can discern who God has created us to be. We learn the particular call God has extended to us. Nouwen writes, “From the moment we claim the truth of being the Beloved, we are faced with the call to become who we are. Becoming the Beloved is the great spiritual journey we have to make. Augustine’s words: ‘My soul is restless until it rests in you, O God,’ capture well this journey.”

Jesus invites us to claim our high calling as the beloved of God. God loves us, created us, and know us better then we know ourselves. God has a vocation and call for each one of us, using us to build the reign of God. This holy journey begins, through the power of the Holy Spirit, by claiming the truth into which God invites us, namely, that we are the beloved of God and in us God is well pleased.

January 2, 2022

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

We continue our celebration of the Twelve Days of Christmas, this Sunday being the Second Sunday after Christmas Day. The world around has concluded its celebration, but we continue to rejoice, giving thanks for God’s great love in coming among us in the Child of Bethlehem.

Sunday’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus was born into a world not unlike our own. Matthew’s account of the Flight into Egypt tells of the Holy Family becoming refugees (Matthew 2:13-15,19-23). As rulers often are, King Herod was insecure on his throne. His power required a delicate balancing act between Roman rulers, Jewish Temple officials, and the Jewish people. When the Wise Men come to Herod seeking the newborn King, Herod pretends he wants to go worship the child too. He asks these mysterious strangers from the East to bring him news of where the Child is born.

The Wise Men find the baby Jesus in the manger in Bethlehem. They are warned in a dream, however, not trust Herod, so they return to their country without brining news to Herod. Once the King realizes the Wise Men have deceived him, he becomes enraged and has every boy under the age of two living in Bethlehem killed.

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

This Christmastide many in our world are refugees, fleeing violence and poverty. Many people fled their homelands and traveled to Europe seeking a new life. Too many died along the journey. Others have encountered nations that don’t welcome them or hostility and violence at the hands of local residents.

Episcopal Migration Ministries offers these sobering facts on their website: “The deteriorating situation in Afghanistan is a humanitarian crisis that has left upwards of 550,000 Afghans internally displaced in the country since the beginning of the year, in addition to 2.9 million Afghans already internally displaced at the end of 2020. Episcopal Migration Ministries, the refugee resettlement and migration ministry of The Episcopal Church, is currently working in partnership with the U.S. government to assist our Afghan allies with resettlement and direct services through a network of 11 affiliates across the U.S..”

The Biblical record is clear that we are to welcome the stranger in our midst. Throughout Hebrew Scripture there is the call to welcome strangers just as the people of Israel were once strangers in a foreign land.

In the 25th chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses commands the people, before they enter the Promised Land after 40 years wandering in the wilderness, to remember their past, how they were a people enslaved and without a homeland. God delivered them, bringing them to their own land. They must never forget what God has done for them.

In the New Testament Jesus goes so far as to say when a person welcomes a stranger, they welcome Christ himself. In Matthew 25:40 Jesus, in the parable of the sheep and the goats says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

All people are God’s beloved children. The Incarnation shows in a profound way the depth of God’s love for humanity. God desires relationship with us so deeply as to put on human flesh. The Divine becomes human, so God might lift humanity to the divine life.

Rejoicing in God’s love for us, may we love one another as God loves us. May we always welcome the outcast, the stranger, the sojourner, and the refugee.

If you would like to help in a tangible, financial way, donations are welcome by Episcopal Migration Ministries http://www.episcopalmigrationministries.org/ On their site you can learn about this agency of the Episcopal Church and its efforts to assist people displaced by war, poverty, and violence around the globe. Locally Dorcas International is resettling Afghan refugees in Rhode Island. More information is available on their website, https://diiri.org/.

December 19, 2021

Leipzig, Museum of Fine Arts, Rogier van der Weyden, Visitation (c. 1445). Public domain.

It is fitting Advent comes to the Northern Hemisphere when the days are shortest, darkest, and coldest. This is a season we long for light and warmth. This is literally true as in the natural world, and can also be true in our lives. This is a season we may feel the need for God, when we long for God to act, hope for God to set things right in our world, perhaps especially this year with an unending pandemic.

Advent promises God is at work in our lives and in the world. We are called to wait, watch, expect. Our hope is God will come among us bringing God’s love and justice. Ours is to watch in hopeful expectation, ready to receive God daily.

Our Collect of the Day this Sunday calls us to beseech God to purify our conscience by God’s “daily visitation” so “that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.” We are called to prepare our hearts and our lives to receive God daily. We are called to prepare a mansion, a dwelling of significant space, for God to enter in.

We do so by slowing down, taking time to be quiet, listening to God. We do so by creating space so our hearts and imaginations can dream of what we desire, what we long for. We do so by confessing and repenting of all that fills our lives, taking space from God.

In Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 1:39-55) we hear of two women who make space for God. After several weeks focused on the second coming of Jesus in glory, our attention shifts to the first advent. Just after the Angel Gabriel comes to Mary with news she has found favor with God and will deliver a son, Jesus, Mary goes with haste to her relative Elizabeth.

Earlier in Luke’s Gospel we read Elizabeth is married to Zechariah, a priest. Gabriel appears to Zechariah telling him his wife Elizabeth will bear a son, John the Baptist. Zechariah struggles to believe this news as his wife is thought too old to have children. For doubting Gabriel’s message, Zechariah is unable to speak until after John is born.

This story is unusual in scripture because the characters are women. Joseph is entirely missing from the account and Zechariah is silent. We know the names of these women, which is not always true in Bible stories. Mary and Elizabeth are also surprising choices for such important roles.

Mary is likely only a teenager. Presumably poor, she is engage to Joseph but not yet married. When the Angel Gabriel visits her, she is surprised and wonders how she can be pregnant. Responding to the angel she accepts God’s call for this important work, even with its risks. A pregnancy before marriage could expose her to shame or even death for adultery. Joseph could decide to not marry her. Yet Mary trusts God and says yes to God’s call.

Elizabeth is married to a man of some importance, but she herself would have known disappointment and shame. Unable to bear children can be difficult in any era, but in her day she likely experienced the negative judgment of those around her. Having reached an age when she probably accepted she would not have children, Elizabeth welcomes the pregnancy of her son John.

Mary and Elizabeth remind us God acts outside our expectations. God chooses unlikely people for the important work of salvation. God calls Mary and Elizabeth, not the “important” religious leaders or political figures. These women have faith strong enough to say yes to God’s call, accepting the difficulties that will surely come.

As we keep these final days of Advent, we are reminded God enters into our lives in surprising and unanticipated ways. God’s call may lead us to accept risk, assured of God’s presence when we need it most. Mary and Elizabeth remind us God uses ordinary people in extraordinary ways to usher in God’s plan of salvation.

May we make space large enough for God to enter in and fill our hearts. God love us so much to come to dwell with us, being born in us. May we be ready to receive and welcome God each day. Doing so, life will never be the same, but will be far more abundant and meaningful than we can scarcely imagine or hope.

December 12, 2021

Coptic Icon of John the Baptist. Public domain.

The season of Advent invites us to prepare. God is coming. We are exhorted to be alert, to watch, wait, expect, and hope for the coming of God. We are to prepare a place for God to enter in, creating space in our lives to receive the visitation of our Savior.

Sometimes we may think of God’s visitation as apart from our daily lives. The call to holiness, to living attuned to our spiritual life and practice, can seem far from the reality of daily life. Advent’s invitation may seem to have little to do with challenges and joys of ordinary life, or it may seem a luxury we don’t have time for.

Yet both Advent and Christmas remind us God enters into human history, into the fullness of human experience. God becomes one with us, putting on human flesh in the person of Jesus. In doing so, God enters into our life, sharing all it means to be human. No longer is God remote and distant, but now God is with humanity.

On Sunday we hear about John the Baptist (Luke 3:7-18). John is a distinctive prophet, living in the wilderness, eating locusts and wild honey, wearing camel skin. He calls the people to prepare for the Messiah who is coming. His message is the call to repent and be baptized. John urges those who hear him to repent of their sins, to literally turn to a new path oriented towards God.

One might think John’s preaching would not be popular. After all, in this week’s passage John calls the people a “brood of vipers.” John urges the people to prepare for what will happen so they are ready for God’s judgment. Yet, even with this challenging message, Luke tells us many make the journey to the barren wilderness to experience John’s preaching.

This suggests the people know something is not working in their lives. They must know, in the depth of their beings, the course they are on is not the right one. Otherwise why would they expend all the effort getting to John and accept his hard preaching?

In the passage we read on Sunday, the people ask John, “What then should we do?” John’s answer may be surprising. He doesn’t call the people to join him in the wilderness. Rather, John calls the people to allow God into their ordinary daily lives. They are to return to their homes, families, occupations and live differently. They prepare for God’s advent and judgement by living with integrity, honesty, and generosity.

John tells the people not to hoard their possessions. If a person has two coats, give one to someone without a coat. They are to do the same with their food. They are to trust God provides enough for everyone and open their hearts to others’ need. Tax collectors are to take only what they are owed and not steal to enrich themselves. Soldiers are to be content with their wages, not extorting money from the people in their greed.

John’s preaching is a reminder that God’s invitation comes to us where we are. The work of this season is in many ways ordinary. It is a call to prepare by living intentionally. Certainly there is merit in times of retreat, going to a quiet place apart just as the people did in going to John. But those times lead us back to our daily routine. In the daily ordinariness we find our vocation to prepare by living as Jesus lives. We are to consider how Jesus calls us to treat those round us, as well as ourselves and the entire created order.

God is coming and we are called by John to prepare for God’s advent. This preparation has everything to do with the choices we make through the moments of each day. Into our daily lives God comes, sharing all it means to live this life. God’s Spirit has already been poured upon us, dwelling within us, leading us each day.

May we respond to the Spirit’s call by repenting of all that alienates us from God, one another, and ourselves, and turning to God. May we be transformed by God into people who live by John the Baptist’s call that God can usher in the kingdom through us and our lives.

December 5, 2021

St. John the Baptist icon (1600). Public domain.

This Sunday John the Baptist appears in the wilderness (Luke 3:1-6). John does not exactly bring holiday cheer. This prophet lives away from everything, in the barren landscape of the wilderness. He wears camel skin and eats locust and wild honey. Rather than offering greetings of the season, John calls us to “repent.” And the people flock to him, repenting and being baptized in the River Jordan.

As the holiday season unfolds around us, I am struck by the contrast of Advent’s call. In the world holiday lights, wreaths and bows, and Christmas trees announce it is “the holidays.” Inside the church the vestments and hangings are blue, signifying hope and expectation. Each week another candle on the Advent Wreath is lighted, asserting the light of Christ shines in the darkness of our lives and the world.

People come to John knowing something is not right about their lives. Perhaps they search for deeper meaning and intention. Maybe they are burdened by fear and worry. Some may see in John the hope of a fresh start.

The wilderness is an important location in scripture. Through it the people of Israel journey from slavery to freedom and are tested by hardships, wrestling with worry and doubt. Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness, tempted by Satan and ministered to by the wild beasts. He emerges from this time with a clear and urgent sense of his mission and ministry.

In the wilderness externals are stripped away. The things that hold our attention, distracting from following Jesus are not there. In the barrenness there is little to keep one from honestly seeing how one lives. In the emptiness our reliance on God and one another is obvious.

Into this landscape John appears offering hope. His call to repentance is from a Greek word, metanoia. Its original meaning is much richer in Greek than in English. It is a call to turn to a new direction or mindset, to turn to a new path or way.

The invitation to repent is not an opportunity to judge ourselves harshly or engage in self-loathing. Rather, it is a time to confess our sin, the ways we have allowed ourselves to drift away from God. Assured of God’s mercy and grace, in the wilderness we can be honest about the ways we are alienated from God, our neighbor, ourselves, and creation. In confessing this, we are forgiven by God and freed to set out on a new path.

Advent bids us be honest. These weeks of preparation are an invitation to follow John into the wilderness. Free from all that holds our attention in the world, there we can discern the ways we need to reorient our lives to God. We can create space for God to enter in so we can glimpse the promised salvation of God. In this space, God can lead us over the smooth ground into the abundant life God desires for all.

Though Jesus has not yet come again in glory, even now God is at work in our lives and in the world. God’s salvation is breaking in. As followers of Jesus our hope rests in this reality. What we see in this world will pass away, will be transformed, and God’s reign will come in fullness.

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

Wheat. Public domain.

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 Jesu