Monday, January 19, 2015

When the light bulb flickers

Epiphany 2B.  18 January 2015.

Alexander D. MacPhail


John 1.43-51


          From time to time, we notice that whatever has been working is no longer working the way it should.  Several weeks ago, I was in the little room in the hallway that we all need from time to time, and suddenly the light bulb went out.  Perhaps you know what that's like.  There is a moment of mild panic as you wonder if the electricity has completely gone out. 


          The same can happen in the spiritual life.  The heart and mind has been engaged in a particular prayer or discipline, and one morning it means nothing to us.  A moment of slight panic as we quickly seek to discern if this is a momentary flicker, or if we may need to rekindle the embers a bit.


          In the back of our minds we have the reassurance that God will never leave us or forsake us, but still, something has changed, and we may not be sure exactly what, or how to go about addressing it. 


          I usually address this problem by asking God where I am, and what's going on, and then I look through various books and articles, and see what I can find that helps.  One of the great blessings of my vocation is that I'm frequently needing to study the Bible; and doing so can be very enriching. 


          In the first century, it was common practice for the rabbis to study the Bible under fig trees.  So I would imagine that when Jesus mentions seeing Nathanael under the fig tree, it may be a reference to Nathanael's study, which of course indicates that Nathanael was already devout Jew.  


          We only meet Nathanael in John's Gospel.  And though the story we read today is very brief, there is a lot going on behind the scene.  We remember that John's Gospel is written in very mystical language.  John offers a lot of intentional symbolism. 


          St. Augustine noticed, many years ago, the similarities between the story of Nathanael and Jacob.  For instance, Nathanael is described as an Israelite without guile—meaning a very straight forward sort of person.  Jacob is described as a man of cleverness and savvy.  Jesus tells Nathanael that he will see the heavens opened and the angels ascending and descending; Jacob's vision at Bethel was of a ladder of angels ascending and descending. 


          Actually Jacob was given the name Israel, which is a name that implies that he is "the personification [or embodiment] of God's people rapturously beholding their God."[*]  And here, Nathanael rapturously beholds the living Christ, the Son of God, and calls him that! 


          There is a deep sense of fulfillment in this encounter.  That what happened for Jacob is happening again, but this time the living God is standing right there, and the angels ascending and descending are described by Jesus as ascending and descending upon himself.


          Also remember the key to understanding John's Gospel:  You remember the first verses—the Prologue—of John, that Jesus came to his own people and his own people did not recognize him, but those who did receive him received the power to become children of God."  So much of John's Gospel—so much of the point that John is making—is that some people saw Jesus for who he really was, and many did not.  Those who could only see a man were blind, but those who could see more than just a man, could see the living God.


          This encounter with Nathanael you may notice occurs in the very first chapter, in fact, right after the Baptism of Christ.  It may be intended to be a symbolic description of Jesus coming to every devout Jew in Israel.  Like coming to Israel himself, Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes.


           And if we look at it as such, it's a very poignant story, because even though symbolically, John has made it seem as if the whole of Israel is converted in this one encounter, we know that that is not the case.  We know that the prologue is still true.  Some could see Jesus through the eyes of faith—some could see him for who he really was—but many, many could not, and did not.


          And the even more bitter irony is that even those of us who believe we can see him, do not always see him for who he really is.  So often we see our own projection of him—what we want him to be.


          And perhaps that is the moment when the light bulb really goes out—when the prayers no longer work, and we begin to wonder what has happened.


          Jesus' words to Nathanael are words of surprise at his faith, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?"  (As if to say, "If that's all it takes for you to believe, what does it say about the people who will watch the lepers be healed, and the lame walk, and still not believe!?")  "Very truly, I tell you," says Jesus, "you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending..." 


          In other words… actually let me give you several paraphrases:


          "If you believe me because I said I saw you under the fig tree, then:

·       it's not going to take you any more faith to see the connection between heaven and earth in me."

·       you are about to see what happens when you live the Torah you have been studying."

·       what you are about to see me do is going to blow your mind."



          Now, I'm going to point out one more thing about this text because I think it will really bring this message home.  In John's Gospel, Jesus expresses surprise when people can see.  And so much of that seems to be because so many people saw his signs and did not believe.


          So fast forward through John's Gospel, past the teachings, the healings, the crucifixion story, and now find chapter 20, the story of Jesus and Thomas.  Remember it?  Thomas was not in the room when the risen Christ first appears to the disciples, and then a week later Thomas is there, and Jesus says, "Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt but believe." Thomas then says, "My Lord and my God!"  And Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me?" (Sound familiar?)  "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe!"


          This is the exclamation mark John places at the end of his Gospel.  It is the final, emphatic proclamation to everyone who seeks after Christ Jesus, but who, unlike Thomas, unlike Nathanael, were not physically present when Jesus walked the earth.  That those who caught sight of him and really saw him for who he really was, rapturously beheld the living God!


          And the message that comes home to us is that those who have not seen Christ physically, but have seen him spiritually—through the eyes of faith—are blessed, and are not second class citizens in the kingdom of God.



          We who see him now though trust and holy hope know him just as surely as Nathanael and Thomas.  That time and space do not separate us from the living God.  That Christ Jesus is fully present by the presence of the Holy Spirit to us now, just as he was then.


          Our inability to feel that at times does not render it untrue.  So often the light bulb goes out because we place our trust not in God, but in a sensation we associate with God.  And I think often that sense of absence breeds a kind of panic. 


          But God has not left us, even for one instant.  God is fully within us at all times, though we may or may not experience a warm fuzzy feeling that we associate with him.  But you have to be willing to let go of that expectation, or rather, you have to develop the faith that Christ is just as present with you when you don't feel him.  And that requires genuine spiritual maturity.  It requires being a person of trust.


          I remember when my spiritual director, Mark Dyer, said, "You have to keep going, Alexander.  If the white hairs on my head mean nothing else to you, let them tell you that you have to keep going.  God is faithful."  And he was right.  Sensations come and go.  Happiness can come and go. 


          The beauty of this lesson is that we are able to look through Nathanael's eyes, and to receive the same acceptance and love that Christ gave him.  "Do you believe because I said I saw you under a fig tree?  You will see greater things than these."  But "blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe."



[*] Lee Barrett in Feasting on the Word, Year B. Vol. 1, pg. 264

Monday, January 12, 2015

Who we are when the snowflakes settle

​Sermon for the First Sunday after Epiphany: please click here to listen.  

There is no manuscript; I preached from notes.​

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The faithful parents of Jesus

Christmas 2B.  4 January 2014.

Alexander D. MacPhail


Matthew 2.13-15,19-23



            The Gospel lesson I just read is found in Matthew's Gospel just after the visit of the magi.  Matthew writes that after they had left, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and says, "Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him."  So Joseph obeys the angel. 


            When Herod dies, Matthew writes, that the angel comes to Joseph suddenly, again in a dream, and says, "Get up, take the child and his mother and go home."  When Joseph gets back into the land of Israel, he learns that Archelaus had succeeded Herod.


            Now, let me just take a moment to talk about Herod and Archelaus.  Herod was an Edomite, meaning he was of Arab, not Jewish, descent.  And yet, he is responsible for rebuilding the Temple, and rebuilding much of Jerusalem.  He was the client-king for Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor.  It is well known that Herod was crazy.  He killed people for nothing more than suspicion—including members of his own family.


            Herod willed his kingdom to his son Archelaus.  Actually, it had first been willed to his brother Antipas, but Herod changed his mind before he died.  Now, to say that the Roman Empire was tolerant of cruelty is to indulge in what can only be described as a gross understatement.  Life was very cheaply regarded.  These are the people who thought nothing of the torturous method of execution known as crucifixion.  So, with the understanding that Rome was fine with cruelty, consider this.  Archelaus was a so brutal that he even offended Rome.  There is a story that is told that Archelaus slaughtered 3,000 devout Jews when they removed the symbol of the Roman Eagle from the Temple.


            The people hated Archelaus.  Somehow the people managed to get Caesar to send him into exile, and when he was gone, Antipas, his brother was installed as the local client-king.  When Jesus appears before Pilate, Pilate will refer him to Antipas—who then returned the matter to Pilate.


            Okay, so, Joseph learns that Archelaus is ruling over Judea.  Judea was where Bethlehem was.  It becomes clear that Bethlehem, Joseph's ancestral city, would not be a safe place to raise the child. 


            After all, Herod had just killed all the male first born children, and here comes Archelaus who is even more brutal than Herod.  So Joseph is warned in a dream to go north to Galilee, which would have been out of Archelaus's jurisdiction.  One wonders how things would have been different if the throne of Herod the Great had gone directly to Antipas.  Jesus might have been raised in Bethlehem, and things might have been different.


            What intrigues me about this story is that Joseph is guided by his dreams.  And of course we nod our heads to that.  Devout Christians and Jews throughout the last 2000 years have nodded their heads to Joseph dreaming dreams, just like the Joseph of the Old Testament, the son of Jacob, dreaming his dreams.  Josephs dream.  That's what Josephs do.  It shows that this Joseph is part of the saving narrative of God that started well before the incarnation of Christ, and has continued to this day.


            As I look at this text two things stand out for me.  One is that Joseph is guided by the dreams, twice, but then by his fear of Archelaus.  Notice that his last movement is guided more by fear than by a dream.  And I think Matthew is making a point by that. 


            Let me show you what I mean.  Have you ever heard of the rule of three?  It's mostly a humor principle.  Three things or jokes happening together are more interesting-funny-satisfying than twos or fours.  Some examples: Bed, Bath, and Beyond.  Stop. Drop and Roll.  I came. I saw. I conquered. 


            In humor, or in writing, it works like this: Expected thing, expected thing, and then unexpected thing.  So Joseph sees an angel in a dream a he moves the family, then he sees an angel is a dream again and he moves the family.  But then he gets frightened of Archelaus, and the dream happens again, but this time no angel.  Why?


            Well, I'll tell you.  I don't know.  It could be that it's implied.  It could be that Joseph didn't need anything explicit to tell him.  (Ah..but you know there has to be a third option, because now you know the rule of three!  See how it works!) 


            And this brings me to what I find most interesting about this Joseph.  Joseph is guided from within.  And he is engaged to a woman named Mary, who is also guided from within. 

            They are going to be a very good couple, you see?  They are going to be very effective parents to the Christ child, because they will be able to show him how the devout life, how all of life, can be lived.


            Joseph is a reflective man.  A dreamer, but a realist—as evidenced by his understandable fear of a brutal dictator.  Mary is a reflective woman, a woman with reverence and internal strength, and together they will be raising Jesus to be guided both by tangible and intangible things.


            Jesus will learn from them how to navigate life.  How to think before he speaks.  How to handle conflict.  How to pray and believe.  These are crucial elements of the spiritual life, and though he is most surely the Son of God, he is also a human being who will need to be raised by loving and thoughtful parents.


            So here in this lesson we get a little more information about Joseph.  We already knew he was a righteous and devout man who did not want to put Mary to shame by dismissing her.  But here we learn that Joseph is a spiritual man, a righteous man who knows he needs to be guided both by what his heart and his mind are telling him.


            And the proof is in the pudding.  You'll find the story in the alternate Gospel reading for today, Luke 2.41-52:

Now the parents of Jesus went to Jerusalem every year for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day's journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety." He said to them, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"


            Where do you think Jesus learned to think and talk like that? 

            I think I know! 





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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Christmas Eve/Day 2014

Christmas 2014.



            As we gather to celebrate Christmas, I think of the wonderful hymn, Adeste fidelis, "O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem."


          Those brief words describe the Church, and her desire to be connected with the sacred story of Christ's birth.  They make us spiritually present at the birth of Christ.  The Church is not bound to the strict ticking of the clock at moments such as these.  Whatever year it happens to be is immaterial.  And we call that sense of timeless observance anamnesis.  If I teach you this word you can use it to impress your friends. 


          Anamnesis is remembering something in a way that makes you a participant in the original events.  For instance, whenever the Holy Eucharist is celebrated we are brought into the upper room with Christ and his disciples.  It is not just a memory.  To have it as a memory would be to describe it, but then move on.  But instead, we re-enact it.  The priest, on behalf of the Baptized, recites the story, speaks Christ's words of institution, "This is my body…Do this in remembrance…"  And then we literally do it.  We receive the Bread and Wine as Body and Blood, and time collapses.  It is as if all Christians throughout the world, and throughout time are taking and eating in remembrance.  Anamnesis.



          In the same way we recite the story of Christ's birth, and like the shepherds, we have come to Church—spiritually to Bethlehem—to worship and adore.  Time further collapses as we recall in the Holy Eucharist that the Christ Child is also the one who became our Lord, who suffered and died "for us, and for our salvation." 




          The hymn calls us "faithful, joyful, and triumphant," which also collapses time to the very end of time, when the Church is gathered together in heaven.  So in a sense, all of time is fully present in this liturgy.  What is now, is also then, and is also at the very beginning.


          You will likely experience something like this in your own family celebrations.  There are traditions and decorations that will link you through memory to your childhood, and every year since.  But if it is only looking backward, then it isn't anamnesis.  It's nostalgia.


          Nostalgia is looking back with emotion.  Nostalgia is like eggnog—a little bit is okay, but too much can make you sick.  Nostalgia says that the good old days were better, and that it will never be as good as it was.  It can be tempting to succumb to those thoughts, especially when there are people we miss, whom we wish to see again.




          But the Church does not celebrate Christmas with nostalgia, as if life was fine then, when Christ walked the earth, but then it's been downhill from there.  We celebrate with anamnesis—giving thanks for then, celebrating now, and looking forward with holy hope to the promise of Christ—the promise of the fulfillment of time, the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. 


          And because of that, we can celebrate as the hymn calls us, "faithful, joyful and triumphant."  Not as poor wretches missing better days, but as the Baptized, holding our heads and hearts toward the future, trusting that God will accomplish his promises.


          We read that in the lesson from Isaiah, "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in the land of deep darkness—on them light has shined." 


          The light that shines on you at Christmas emanated from the night sky in Bethlehem when "suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, `Glory to God in the highest heaven.'" 


          It is the light that emanates from Christ's own being lying in a manager, a newborn promise who is at once fulfilled, fulfilling, and yet to be fulfilled even more.



          You may not feel yourself to be "faithful, joyful, or triumphant," but you are.  Being that has almost nothing to do with your own efforts.  Christ came to seek and save the lost, not the already found.  The great gift lying in the manger is the Incarnate Love of the living God, who sees us as we are.  Who sees our brokenness, our frailty, our sinfulness, and is still deeply and devotedly in love with us. 


          Through anamnesis—though our enacted, hope-filled memory—we are given the experience of being present in all time, past, present and future, and of knowing that we are loved and accepted by God in our past, present, and future. 


          So come all ye faithful, joyful, and triumphant, come ye, o come ye, to Bethlehem!  Come and behold him, born the King of angels!  O come let us adore him—for this time, and for all time!






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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


Monday, December 15, 2014

The One who calls you is faithful.

Advent 3B.  14 December 2014.


1 Thessalonians 5:16-24


               The Epistle lesson this morning is almost the very end of the first letter to the Thessalonians, the church in Thessalonika.  Each of the Epistle lessons in Advent contain a sense of urgency, and a call to a more devout life.  The urgency in these words is hard for us to internalize in the same way that the letter's original recipients internalized them.  They believed—and we are also meant to believe—that Christ's return is imminent. 

            Therefore the injunctions to rejoice and give thanks, and test, and not to quench, and to abstain, and so forth, are tersely given—like the last words of someone leaving someone else in charge.  "Remember to feed the cat, and water the plants, and the trash goes out on Wednesday."  Paul is drawing the letter to a close, and he's doing so with these reminders.

            And the last words—at least of this lesson—contain a short benedictory prayer with an important promise.  Paul writes, "May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." 

            The prayer is that the church be sanctified—that God would hold them and keep them apart from the world around them with its corrupting influences—and that their spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless.

            It's an important prayer, especially for the early church.  Remember that they have no roots in history to draw from.  The cemetery does not contain the remains of generations of Christians before them.  This is a brand new faith.

            In addition to that, Thessalonika is not in the Holy Land, which would provided, at the very least, a cultural Jewish tradition to draw from.  Thessalonika is in Macedonia, which is northern Greece.  So here they are, a little church in a Greco-Roman city.  They have converted to a new faith that has deep roots in Judaism—itself a foreign religion—and is based very much on this belief that Christ Jesus is due back at any moment.

            For them to be "sanctified entirely" means that they would be held together in mutual love, and in the disciplines that Paul has taught them for worship, for maintaining the Christian faith.  Paul addresses them as their spiritual father.  He wants them to be safe, and to not let go of what he has taught them.

            And so, after this prayer comes a promise.  Paul writes, "The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this." That God who has welcomed them into this faith is going to be actively with them, and within them.  Let me suggest that that is very profound; and something we can blithely ignore when times are good, but draw strength from when evil days come.  "The one who calls you is faithful."

            You may or may not consider yourself called, but you are.  The Church must never allow our understanding of "call" to become domesticated, or hostage to the traditional orders of bishop, priest, and deacon—as if they represent some sort of post-graduate diploma to one's Christian identity.  To use one of St. Paul's favorite expressions:  μὴ γένοιτο "May it never be." 

            Sacred orders are important, but they are only meaningful if they serve to help the whole church discover the deeper call, and that is the call within you.  Within all of us.  It is a call to know God, and to be known by God.

            God is deeply and devotedly in love with you.  You might just allow yourself to sit with that thought at some point.  Maybe in your devotional life, you could put aside your prayer list, and even your books—and let yourself sit with the single idea that God is deeply and devotedly in love with you. 

            Our heads get so filled with other messages, don't they?  And even if you have a regular form of private prayer, it's so easy to sit down to it and not have your mind on it.  It becomes this thing to do

            I have learned after many years that stillness must precede prayer.  It's like listening for the dial tone.  And then, when we can finally rest in oratory of our souls, and a sense of connection is nurtured—we discover God within us—then finally a prayer may be said.

            There are so many occasions when prayer is expected to be on our schedule.  The prayer before a meal, or the prayer before a meeting, or something, and I invariably feel this internal awkwardness about it, because the food is getting cold, or people are impatient.  I remember one time I had someone come into my office for help—she wasn't a parishioner, she was in need of assistance with something financial, and she said, "I really need you to pray for me."  It was like, if I didn't start saying words right now that something bad was going to happen.

            So I tried to calm her a bit by saying, "Let's just bow our heads and take a minute first."  But after about five seconds she said, somewhat angrily, "Are you going to pray for me or not?" 

            Why do we pray if it isn't to find the giver of the gift, as well as the gift?  Everything about Christ, and the story of his life, death, and resurrection is meant to communicate the very simple fact that God is deeply and devotedly in love with us.  And within that love there is a constant call to deeper relationship, too deeper trust in the one who loves you most.

            What is so powerfully profound about the promise is that the one who calls us is faithful.  We all know what it is to experience unfaithful love.  We all know what it is to be enticed by a feeling or a thought only to be disappointed.

            This is a frequent theme in ordination sermons.  Young men and women brightly arrayed in their albs with red stoles standing by.  They fidget in their band-new clerical collars, and the sermon is often along these lines, "The one who calls you is faithful."  It's a sermon the ordinands need to hear and can already preach, because if you manage to make it through seminary, internships, hospital chaplaincies, the General Ordination Exams, and the Commission on Ministry, by goodness, you have learned that God is faithful.

            But again, this isn't, and shouldn't be, just about the ordained.  Everyone needs to hear that following God's voice will not be in vain.  That we aren't being teased, or led out on some fragile branch that cannot bear our weight.  But it can be a real struggle sometimes, especially if the road ahead is uncertain, and if we are already planning certain outcomes. 

            Anxiety does that.  Anxiety is a pick-pocket thief of emotions.   Anxiety talks to you about wisely planning for contingencies, and all the while it has its hand in your pocket taking away all your faith, and all your happiness.

            Anxiety is a fortune-teller, a palm reader.  Give him your peace of mind, and he'll give you nightmare scenarios that will likely never happen.  No one can see into the future.  No one can account for every little thing that adds up in your life to influence you or the immediate world around you. 

            And at the same time, neither do you really understand the full power you have.  The significance of your being.  You have the ability in any given situation to influence it for the better or worse.  We so often think of the problems and people in our lives as inflexible or insurmountable obstacles.  And we think we could never do anything to make it better.

            There is a church I know of that had a major situation that had built itself around a central issue, namely that Mrs. SoandSo would never be okay if we did X.  It was taken for Gospel that she would be deeply offended, and no one wanted to do that.  It was subject of whispers and worries for weeks on end.

            So one day, the priest got tired of it, and explained the situation to Mrs. SoandSo, line by line, what had brought us from this to this, and what finally has led us to wanting to do (GULP)….this-thing-that-we-just-knew-she-hated.  And she said, "Oh, well, when you put it like that, it's fine.  Go ahead."  And when she said that, a whole tangled mess of anxiety, strained relationships, weird little attending problems, all of them resolved almost overnight.  We forget that people are always in transition from one thought to the next, and from one feeling to the next, and what is "no" now, may be "yes" tomorrow.

            The word confidence is from the Latin confidere, which brings together con, meaning with, and fides, meaning faith.  To have confidence, to be with faith, or with trust.  And so to have confidence in God is to believe that the one who calls you is faithful.  That you will not be left without comfort, or without love.

            As you have come to church today it is likely that you bring with you an assortment of feelings about this time of the year.  It's cold and grey.  There are people we miss.  There may be strange sadnesses that come upon us that we do not even know how to explain. 

            We need to hear that below it all, or perhaps above it all, the one who has called us into relationship through his own beloved son, is faithful.  You are not alone.  You have not been teased, or led out on a branch that cannot bear your weight, God is faithful.



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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


Monday, December 8, 2014

Who was John the Baptizer?

Advent 2B.  7 December 2014.[1]

Alexander D. MacPhail


            If you really want to know someone you almost have to know their family and how they grew up.  I want to tell you about two very devout people named Zechariah and Elizabeth.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were from similar backgrounds.  They were both born into priestly families in the Jewish tradition.  Zechariah was born of the order of Abijah and Elizabeth of the tribe of Aaron.  Aaron, you may recall, was Moses's helper, and from his family, a tribe was formed.


            When I say they were of priestly families in the Jewish tradition, you must understand that the priests were the men who served in the Temple—and the Temple, you will recall, stood in Jerusalem.  It was this massive stone structure with inner courtyards and outer courtyards and places and buildings for everything.  I spoke about it last week.


            There is no way to describe how large and how meaningful that place was for the Hebrew people.  There were many synagogues in which the faithful would worship and learn the sacred story; but, there was only one Temple.  The Temple was the place.  The Temple was where the physical presence of God abided in the stones that Moses had inscribed with the Torah—the Law.  The stone tablets were kept inside a gold encrusted box, called the Arc of the Covenant.  The Arc was kept inside the Holy of Holies, which was the most special room in the Temple.  Only the Temple priests could enter the Holy of Holies, and even then, only one day of the year, which is known as Yom Kippur—the day of atonement.


            The Temple had a system of hierarchy that was just as intricate and political as, for instance, Washington DC.  You have your insiders and your outsiders.  You have honest and dishonest.  Inside the system, you know exactly who you are, and who everyone else is.  If you were born to a Temple priest, then you were at the top of the social ladder—you are a Sadducee.   You could not join the priests—you were born one.  You knew who your father's father's father was.  You knew that you would always, always have a place in the system—because the Temple was too large and too important to fail or be destroyed.  We will always have a Temple; we will always need the priests to care for it—guaranteed job security and social status. 


            The Pharisees were a different group—highly devout, very political—but for the most part these were the middle class.   We almost can't see them clearly anymore because Jesus spends so much time fussing with them, and sermons that mention the Pharisees almost never really paint a full picture. 


            I don't mean this to sound offensive—truly—but the modern day equivalent would likely be us.  I'm not saying that we're hypocrites.  Not all Pharisees were hypocrites.  But it's this group of people were the rabbis, the people who went to synagogue regularly and gave to support the widows and orphans.  Yes, some of their folks were corrupt—and yes some of them got in trouble with Jesus. 



            Most of what Jesus did not like was their lack of care for the less fortunate, and their inflexible social structure.  Jesus did not like that they often taught one thing and did something else—but they were not without merit.  In one place, Jesus says, "Your righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees."  Meaning that they were a decent group—but not as righteous as the followers of Jesus should be.


            But now, as with the Sadducees, if you were born a Pharisee, you were a Pharisee.  You may have become a rabbi, or a cantor, or some other official in the synagogue, but you could not be a Temple priest.


            Zechariah and Elizabeth were advanced in years, and had no children, though they had prayed and prayed for a child.  Zechariah was a priest of the Temple, and one of his duties was to offer incense in the sanctuary—which was the enclosure just before the Holy of Holies.  People would come to pray outside the sanctuary, and the priests would take turns offering incense in the sanctuary.


            One day, while Zechariah was offering incense the angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him that his prayers had been heard, and the God was allowing Elizabeth to have a son.  Gabriel said, "You will name him John and he will make you very happy, because the Holy Spirit will be upon him.  He will turn the hearts of many of the Israelites toward their God." 


            Zechariah was thrilled, but doubted.  "How can this be?" he asked, "Elizabeth and I are too old to have children."  Gabriel responded, "I'm not the pizza boy, Zechariah.  I stand in the presence of God, and I'm telling you, you're going to have a son.  But because you have not believed, you will be mute, and unable to talk until these things have happened."


            So Zechariah was unable to talk, and Elizabeth did, indeed, become pregnant.  And after she gave birth to a boy, and it was time to circumcise him, they asked for the boy's name—although it was a foregone conclusion what the child's name should be.  Zechariah.  His dad's name.  Temple priest, born to Temple priest, Order of Abijah.  Zechariah was the son of Zechariah, who was the son of Zechariah.  Plain as the nose on your face.


            Elizabeth said, "No; he is to be called John."  "Excuse me, did you say, uhm…John?"  "Yes, John."  Well, now wait a minute.  We need to ask the father.  The family line comes through the mother, but he's a boy, and his father is entitled to pass along the name.  Zechariah is mute.  Unable to speak.  But they ask him just the same, and he said, "His name is John."  And everyone was in shock, because he had been unable to speak until then.    


            And Zechariah praised God and fear came upon everyone—they said to one another "We're going to have to keep our eyes on this child.  He's going to be something special—the hand of the Lord is upon him.  (Pause.)


            The Bible does not tell us anything about John's childhood or puberty, but look at his background.  He was born into the class and culture of the Temple priests.  He was surrounded by a community that prayed and worshipped regularly, and frequently.  He learned the Torah from the best scholars, he learned the intricate choreography of Temple worship, its hierarchy, its privileges.  I am sure that he learned the under belly—he saw the corruption, the pettiness. 


            I would imagine that he played with other little boys, born to Temple priests, and knew the families who were jockeying for position and power.  He would have been tested and graded and scrutinized and altogether expected to become a Temple priest.  Even though his name is different, even though the story of his birth is a little different than the others—his life is mapped out.


            What happened to him?  What happened to make him leave all that behind and become a prophet in the wilderness?  What made him trade the fine clothing—long cassocks and embroidered capes—for camel's hair and a leather belt.


            I think I know.  I think John grew up learning the Torah so well that he looked around at the Temple system and said, "There is very little in the way we do things here that corresponds with God's Law to care for the widows and the orphans and the strangers." 


            "I don't see how we can expect the poor to come and pay the fees we are telling them they need to pay to offer sacrifices in the Temple.  They come and empty their pockets to sacrifice pigeons and sheep, and what happens?  We slaughter them, and then we have to clean them up, and if we don't burn the carcass, who get's the meat?  The people who paid?  No.  We do.  We're eating and drinking at their expense—and here, we're supposed to be helping them


            "And what about the sacrifices?  David said in the Psalms, "For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.  Psalm 51:16,17. 


            "I think we have a problem here.  I think we have some systems that have very little to do with God, and an awful lot to do with keeping the poor down and the rich rich.  And what really turns my stomach about it is that we're doing that in the name of God." (Pause.)


            John knew the Torah.  He started at a very early age and probably knew it better than Zechariah.  He knew about the prophet Elijah, who was supposed to come and herald, or announce, the end of the age—the coming of the Messiah.  John knew that Elijah was described as a hairy man who wore a leather belt.  He knew the prophecy of Isaiah, "The voice of one who cries in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord."


            So John packs up his things, shakes the dust of the Temple off of his sandals.  Shakes off the traditions and the culture and the hierarchy, and he makes his way to the region around the Jordan river.  He puts on the clothes of the prophets of a bygone era.  No one wore camel's hair and a big leather belt.  These were the vestments of Elijah.  To see him out there in the wilderness was to see the Torah come to life.  The Word was becoming flesh in John.  The Word of God, written in the book, leapt off the page and there he was.  Is he….Elijah? 


            John was rooted in an incredibly devout background.  The son of a son of a son of a Temple priest, and with all the learning of his aristocratic background, he shed every vestige to bring the Gospel to the average, poor, lonely people of Israel.  He came to the lost sheep.  And his message was simple, "Repent, prepare…there is someone coming who is more learned and powerful than I am.  I am baptizing you to clean you from your sins, but there is a man coming who is going to clean you with the Spirit of the Living God.  You might think I'm something, but I am not worthy to shine his shoes." (Pause.)


            John's message has become the Church's message in Advent.  A call to repentance, a call to prepare the way for the Messiah.  Like John himself, this time is deeply rooted in tradition, but always new and relevant. 


            It is time to wake up, shake the dust of worthless endeavors off our sandals, and reclaim the true teaching of the Torah—to care for the poor and the helpless, to prepare for the coming of the Messiah.


            John's background made it possible for him to carry the best teachings of the Torah out to the countryside, and made space for the Holy Spirit to move anew.  We all have this ability.  We have all been groomed in the Church with the wisdom of the Torah.  We have feasted at the table of plenty.  Now, the wilderness is calling.  The mission field awaits.  So, in the spirit of Advent, go, and prepare the way.  The King is coming.




[1] Adapted from a sermon preached on 4 December 2011.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

​​A​​ Sermon on Christian Spirituality. 9 November 2014.



            It has been on my mind and heart for awhile to speak about Christian spirituality, because what I know I want, and what I believe most Christians want, is a genuine experience of their faith, and genuine sense of connection with God.  Every liturgy and every sermon is meant to lead us to that; however, I have found it helpful—through spiritual reading, prayer, and listening to other clergy—to get right down to the most basic elements.


            I want to begin with God.  The Rev. Ed Kryder, one of my seminary professors, used to say, "One should always begin with God, because that is where everything starts anyway."


            The Church believes that God is Father, Son, and Spirit, but in some sense the mystery and doctrine of the Trinity is a hindrance for Christians—and certainly non-Christians—in attempting to relate to God in prayer.  Questions emerge, such as "Am I praying to one, or to all three?"  And what often happens is that these questions form a brick wall inside of us with a sign that says, "You're not doing it right."  Prayer ceases to be an activity of the heart, and becomes a sort of intellectual puzzle.   


            The other problem is that some of our Church's language conceptually hinders us from intimacy.  God is construed in many hymns and stories in the Bible as being outside of us. 


            In fact, even the Lord's Prayer reinforces this sense of distance when it reads, "Our Father, in heaven," as if to say, not here with us, but far, far removed from us. So that it can feel like a long distance phone call from the days when long distance sounded like long distance! 


            Yes, our Lord taught us to pray "Our Father in heaven," but if you take the whole of his teaching, Jesus never promoted the idea that God was distant from us.  If anything he preached the opposite, like when he said, "The kingdom of heaven is within you."[1]  Or when Jesus breathes on his disciples and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit."[2]  Christ Jesus conceptually changed the theology of God's remoteness, as expressed often in the Hebrew scriptures with atoning sacrifices, and God appearing to Moses covered in smoke and fire. 


            Jesus said, at first "My Father," and then he opened it out to "Our Father."  The "who art in heaven" part is there to say that the Father is not constrained to a physical presence, which would be to say "on earth," but that the intimacy of the relationship is not constrained.  Let me put it this way, "Our Father who is within you, and within all of us."  "Our Father, who is within Christ, and is now also within you, as well." 


            How, then, did God come into us?  Well, first we believe God is within all of his creation, fundamentally.  It's like the joke of the man who comes to God and says, "We don't need you anymore as the Creator.  We can heal most diseases, and we can clone people, and we can make almost anything we need."  So God says, "All right, let's have a contest.  You make the form of a human being and I'll make one, too."  The man says, "Okay," and reaches down for a clump of clay.  And God says, "No…you're going to have to get your own clay."


            Every fiber of our being is part of God's creation, so his presence is here at the most fundamental, sub-atomic level.  But as a Church we have a symbol of God's entry into us.  We plunge people into God.[3]  The Church has often construed that Sacrament as an act of cleaning someone, but a fuller understanding is that a person goes down into the water in the name of God, and is raised up from the water as a new creation.  It is a rehearsal of the Resurrection of Christ—a proclamation that God has acted to redeem us, and to fully claim us, and infuse us with his presence.


            So, God is within.  Searching for God is in some sense an absurd idea.  God is inside us.  We have never known the absence of God, really.  We have been born in his presence, plunged into his love, and reborn by his Spirit.  So when we say we are searching for God, what we are really saying is that we are searching for a feeling, or an experience, or a sensation that confirms in our emotions that God wishes to be present with us.  But God is already fully within us, and within all of the universe.


            In fact, every sensation, every emotion, every spiritual experience is already within you.  Think about this for a moment.  Imagine someone in your life who annoys you.  Close your eyes and think about them for a moment.  See them doing or saying the things that upset you.  Notice that those feelings are beginning to rise.  What do we say?  "That person makes me feel…angry."  Well, it's not that person who is feeling angry.  It's you who feels angry.  The feeling of annoyance was already in you, it's just that that person has a special way of putting you in touch with those feelings. 


            You can do this with any other feeling: a person who makes you feel love, a person who arouses you sexually, a person who makes you laugh, a person who makes you feel angry.  Jesus taught us to pray for the people in our lives with whom we have trouble, because he wanted us to learn to convert those feelings from hatred to love.  The problem you and I have with the other person is not their problem, but ours. 


            And when we have people in our lives who are hard to love, it becomes even harder to love God, because those two feelings within us are at odds with each other.  God wants us to feel love toward him, and toward others, because God wishes us all to be bound together in love.  To live by the sword is to die by the sword.[4]  To live at peace is to be at peace.


            We mourn when someone we love dies, because each person has a unique way of making us feel love.  But that feeling is still within us, even when the person we love dies, and some of the feeling can be rekindled through memory.  One day, in the Resurrection, we can all be together again, and "be known fully as we are fully known," as St. Paul wrote.[5]  But the feeling of God is already within you.  So how do we get in touch with it?


            This then leads me to talk about the soul.  And when I use the word "soul," I mean our truest self, our most authentic, "who-I-am" self.  A lot of Christians and people of other religious traditions want to feel God's presence, and don't quite know how to go about it.  And as I said, part of that is a conceptual problem of believing that God is somehow remote, distant, aloof, and that we must seek him in the dark, empty room of our mind.  At least, that's how it can seem to us sometimes.


            The first step is to stop thinking of God as out there, and begin to think of God as in here.  Do whatever it takes to convert yourself to this.  Put up a note on the mirror in the bathroom.  Tie a string around you finger.  Whatever it takes.  When Moses asked for God's name, God said, "I am who I am."  God is pure holy being, and is deeply within you.  You have been plunged into God; you are never absent from him.  He is your Father within you.  He is the Son within you.  He is the Spirit within you.  God with us.  God in us. 


            The second step is to understand that God is embracing your soul in total, unconditional, self-giving tenderness.  Tender love.  The kind of love that you really want and need.  And the only thing holding you back from getting in touch with it is the surface level self you are operating your life from.  It can be called the ego.  It can be called the personality, although that is somewhat misleading. 



            But what I mean is that your soul is back behind your surface level judgments about what's good and bad, happy and sad, all those limitations of thought that you are just a physical body going through life…eating and sleeping, and hating work, and loving play.  And when you stop looking so critically at every facet of what's in front of you, you will see the Creation, and the people around you with new eyes.  Jesus called it being "born from above" or "born again."[6] You will see the world with your truest self, your soul, which is being held tenderly by God.  You are a beloved child of God.  That is who you really are.


            Jesus said, "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it produces no fruit."[7]  The grain of wheat can be understood as the transient, capricious, very-limited appraisal of whatever comes and goes in your life. 


            We meet someone and think, "I like them," or "I don't like them."  We don't know more than a couple seconds of their life, and we've made a decision about them.  Yet, they were born, like us.  Loved by someone who cared enough to make sure that they lived, like us.  They need to eat and drink and sleep, like us.  And most importantly, they want and need to be loved, just like us. 


            You are just like them, and they are just like you; it's just that we've formed an opinion from our most shallow self that keeps our soul from identifying them as a beloved child of God, just like we are. 


            So sin, you see, is operating more from this surface self, and not from your soul, which is always held in a divine embrace.  You and I sin because we cannot perfectly remain true to our God-infused soul.  But through the work of Christ on the Cross, and through God's grace, we spend our lives training to renounce that surface self.  To let it die. 


            The less you give in to going through your life making these little judgments about good and bad, happy and sad, angry, aroused, repelled, and the more you let yourself see everyone and everything as created and loved by God, then you will become more like Christ, and the Kingdom of God will come. 


            Consider the Sacraments.  Plunged into God, and then through the reception of his body and blood more and more of us becomes like Christ, who wishes to be known within us, within our bodies, within our deepest give us his tender love.  It is a shared meal, because our kinship in Christ demands that we do this together—that we RE-member Christ.  That he is for and within all of us.


            So, when you pray…what does Jesus teach us?  He said, "When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father."[8] In other words, go within.  Go backstage, as it were, into your heart, and pray that you can live from that place of God's tender love.  


            Look at how life progresses!  You begin as child liking this, and hating that.  At first everything is good or bad, black or white, happy or sad.  And all of our young life is about our appetite for experiences that make us feel certain ways.  Wanting to feel, feel, feel…  And life over many years slowly grinds away those appetites, and we become less and less attached to particular things.  People sometimes say, "I used to think this was so important, but now, I've softened in my old age."  Yes!  Exactly!  But you don't have to grow old to let that happen!  You can start early!


            You let go of what isn't important, which is the fleeting pleasures and pains of what you have judged to be good or bad, happy or sad.  And instead, you accept life as it comes—like when Blessed Mary said, "Let it be with me according to your word," or when our Lord Jesus said, "Father, not my will, but yours."[9]


            You let life come, realizing that sometimes you're going to feel happy and sometimes sad; sometimes aroused, and sometimes repelled, but behind it all—within your soul—God is holding you, loving you as a beloved child, until your soul finally turns completely to God.  And when your soul turns completely to God you will no longer need a physical body. 


            It all started and ended back at the Jordan when we were "plunged into God."  And over a lifetime of eating and drinking God, and learning about God, we let go more and more of the appetites and attachments that try to pull us away, until we yield fully to the embrace that has always held us. 


            The same God and Father who said of Jesus, "This is my beloved Son," says the same words to you at every moment of every day in quiet sanctity of your soul.  The French Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote, "We are not physical beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a physical experience."[10]


            I hope this helps you a little.  None of these thoughts are originally mine, and I am a very imperfect example of the ultimate renunciation that Christ calls us to.  But part of the beauty and pathos of Christian spirituality is that "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."[11] 


            While we are still at times trapped by our surface level selves, God still "holds our souls in life."[12] God still tenderly gives us the love, the forgiveness, and the healing we need on the path that leads to eternal life.


            In the Name of God, who is within us, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.






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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


[1] Luke 17.21

[2] John 20.22

[3] The Rev. Martin Smith, Bishop's Fall Retreat at Shrine Mont 2014.

[4] Paraphrase of Matthew 26.52

[5] 1 Corinthians 13.12

[6] John 3.3

[7] John  12.24

[8] Matthew 6.6

[9] Luke 1.28 & Luke 22.42

[10] The Phenomenon of Man, 1955.

[11] Romans 5.8

[12] Psalm 66.9