Monday, January 31, 2011

Epiphany 4A. 30 January 2011.

For the audio version, click here and select the 4th Sunday after Epiphany.

          Several Sundays back we read the Beatitudes from Luke's gospel.  Today we read the Beatitudes from Matthew, which are the more famous ones.  You may recall that Luke's sound a little more harsh.  Instead of "Blessed are the poor in spirit" in Matthew, Luke writes, "Blessed are the poor."  You might remember my saying that poor in spirit is much easier to preach.  In fact, all the beatitudes from Matthew's gospel are easier to preach because they spiritualize things out a little bit.  Not poor, but poor in spirit.  Not blessed are those who are hungry, but those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. 


          Luke's gospel contains reproaches, "Woe to you who are hungry, who are rich, who have what you need."  Matthew doesn't record any of that. 


          I have heard it said that Matthew's gospel was written for a group of newly converted Jews who have been thrown out of their synagogues, and have huddled together across the street.  They are missing their friends, but they are unable to go back.


          We often forget that the gospels were written by people who were anxious to remember the story.  No one followed Jesus around with a pen and paper.  The story was told by people who knew.  They told the story again and again, and people differed on how the story was told and what was most important.  Each gospel has unique emphases. 


          Matthew's gospel has an emphasis on teaching.  And within that, an emphasis on showing that Jesus fulfilled the messianic prophecies.  Matthew's depiction of Jesus is as a rabbi, but don't let him catch you calling Jesus a rabbi.  In Matthew 23 (v.8) Jesus says, "You are not to be called Rabbi, for One is your teacher, and all of you are brothers and sisters."


          But despite the ways Matthew's Jesus strives to differentiate himself from Judaism, it is only to describe fulfillment.  Jesus has fulfilled this and this and this. You are not bound by it.  Be free.  You can hear echoes of this in Paul's theology.  "Christ has set us free" he writes (Gal. 5:1) "stand firm, and do not be bound by slavery to the law."  I hasten to add that this is not anti-Semitic—this is about reform, not abolition.


          Matthew's Jesus is very rabbinical. He uses parable, repetition, exaggeration, antithesis, repetition, reversal, judgment, pronouncement, repetition.  All the rhetorical devices are in play.  Did I mention repetition?  Repetition is one of them.  You'll remember that one, right?  Repetition, repetition, repetition.


          Matthew uses a good deal of repetition in this lesson.  Blessed, blessed, blessed.  Actually, what he's using is called poetic parallelism.  The structure is the same for each sentence, but it reads like a poem or like a psalm.  Each "blessed" frames the good attribute—poor in spirit, meek, mourn—and the following clause—for they shall be etc.—explains why they are blessed.


          This is often referred to as the prologue of the Sermon on the Mount—and because of the rhetorical structure, we are meant to understand that this is a teaching.  Everything about the scene conveys this point.  Jesus leading them up the mountain—the teacher pulling his pupils aside.  Jesus sat down.  That is what teachers do to indicate that they are about to explain. 


          So this is the beginning of the Lord's sermon, and we will be reading through it over the course of the next few weeks.  It is very likely that what Matthew has done is compiled a list of teachings or sayings of Jesus in as coherent a manner as he could.  This does not in fact read like a sermon.  I would imagine that Jesus wove together sayings and parables, and that what we actually have in the Bible is just he tip of the iceberg.  These are the teachings that people remembered and retold and finally set down in writing.  Who knows how many more parables and stories existed that have been lost, or where not corroborated by others enough to warrant inclusion in the gospels.


          What I'm trying to say is that despite the length of the Sermon on the Mount, I suspect that literally untold hundreds of sayings and stories lay on the floor in Matthew's office.  I would like to think that Jesus took up many issues—including controversial issues.  My cynical side even believes that Jesus said some things that where so groundbreaking that people just could not handle them.  In John's gospel, Jesus says, "I have more to tell you, more than you can bear now." (16:12)  I am so grateful for that verse.  So very grateful that Jesus hinted at so much more than our minds could fathom then.  I suspect that his vision is much greater than our minds can fathom now.  (Pause.)


          "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."


          I have long been fascinated with that particular beatitude.  It is often read with the generic meaning of mourning.   Grief, bereavement, sorrow.  If you or anyone else were to draw strength from that beatitude—that grief will be comforted—then thank God for that.  But I have been intrigued with another interpretation that I read about only recently.


          The new idea is that maybe Jesus could be speaking of mourning for the day when God's kingdom is fully realized.  If you are a devout person, you mourn in that way all the time.  If you spend much time with clergy—I don't recommend it…we're a strange group of people—but if you spend time with clergy you will hear a lot of mourning.  Mourning that the faith we proclaim is not embraced by more people.  Mourning that Christianity has come to signify one's political preferences.  Mourning that there is more we could do as a church, as a region, as a diocese, if everyone were giving more generously to support those ministries.


          But there is a much deeper mourning.  Mourning that too many people in the world are hungry, sick, unloved, uncared for.  Mourning that the most troubled places of the world will likely remain troubled even if they had millions more dollars to help them.




          But…there is a much deeper mourning than even that.  And that is of the aching distance in our relationships.  Broken relationships in families and between friends.  Relationships that remain fractured by misunderstanding, animosity, or pride. 


          And then there is the aching distance between us and God.  For all that we believe about Christ being one of us, being human, being able to walk in our shoes, he does not literally walk among us.  He lives and reigns in heaven, and is approachable in prayer—but except for his presence in bread and wine, we cannot see his smile or feel his embrace.  For the most part we accept the mystical presence of Christ—we accept that his physical absence is just part of the deal, but there is a mourning there, especially for those of us who really pray our prayers and are truly looking for the kingdom's day.


          Blessed are those who mourn.  Blessed are those who are wearied by lives of holy expectation.  Blessed are those who have prayed and worshipped and given and held on and held on and held on, lo these many years, waiting for the Savior, waiting for deeper insight, closer communion, spiritually fulfilling lives…   Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.  (Pause.)


          How shall we be comforted?  Jesus does not explain.


          I could say that the comfort is in knowing that God knows of our mourning, but there is not much comfort in that. 


          To my mind the comfort comes in an overall vision of the beatitudes—taken as a whole.  They point to the future—God's future, to a time of fulfillment.  Blessed are those who see how wonderful life will be, and mourn the time separating us from that day.  The comfort comes from the hope of God's future shining back towards us into the present.  The future is better.  Hold on to that hope.  Hold on to what shall come.  God has gone before us into that better day and shines his light, in the person of Jesus, back towards us.  This is what you will look like.     You will look like him, and be like him.  He is "the" Son of God, but we will all be sons and daughters of God. 


          We will all know a day when our relationships are healed, when there is no more injury or pain or brokenness.  We will be like Christ, who is able to embrace all people and all things without anything overcoming him.  You will be like that.  I will be like that. 


          The aching distances..the mourning… will come to an end and we will be able to know God and each other fully.  It will be wonderful.  It will be heaven.





If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Epiphany 3A. 23 January 2011.

Audio version, click here and select 3rd Sunday after Epiphany

Last Sunday, we read about John the Baptizer identifying Jesus as the Lamb of God, and this Sunday we read of the transition from John to Jesus. The story picks up with Jesus learning of John's arrest, and his withdrawal to Capernaum. Matthew could have easily made this story more dramatic by speaking of the threats that attended Jesus ever since he was born. But instead, Matthew chooses to frame the withdrawal of Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy.

He weaves into his narrative the prophecies of Isaiah—which we read in the Old Testament lesson. Matthew writes, "He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulon and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: "Land of Zebulon, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned."

The Land of Zebulon and Naphtali are interesting references. Remember that Zebulon and Naphtali were brothers in the family of Jacob. Let's just for a moment brush off our Sunday school lesson books and remember that Jacob had twelve sons, and those twelve sons became the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel. Israel is the name the angel gave Jacob after they wrestled with each other and Jacob prevailed.

So Jacob had 12 sons, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulon, Joseph, and Benjamin. (Please take notes; there will be a quiz at the end of the sermon.) The tribes or families that grew from these men made their homes in various places in the Holy Land. So when you read "the land of Israel," that would be Jacob's land. The modern day nation of Israel is not "the land of Israel" that we read in the Bible. So, you have these sorts of locales on the ancient map—like Bowman's Crossing, or Wakeman's Grove now.

So the land of Zebulon would have been the older name for the land we know as Galilee, and the land of Naphtali would have been the older name for the land just to the east, where Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee are located. By using the older names, Matthew is reminding us that Jesus is fulfilling a much older story of God's presence with the people of Israel. Do you see that?

So Matthew quotes Isaiah 9, "the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned." It is hard for me to think of these verses without thinking of Handel's Messiah—the words are sung in a very brooding bass solo. But even though the words are very familiar, somehow they attached themselves to my soul and I found myself saying them as I went about my life.

Maybe you have done the same thing with poetry or songs. Somehow a verse just attaches itself to you. Something about it resonates. It might be that it's speaking to something you are feeling, and then you can say, "Oh, I'm thinking of that because of X,Y, and Z. No big deal.

But then sometimes there are these lines that mysteriously take hold of you. Not in a threatening sort of way…just there.

I found myself living with this text a couple Saturdays ago as I was driving to Richmond for the pre-Council meeting of the Diocese. I had to get up at six and be on the road by seven. It had snowed a little bit over the night. I was tempted to stay home, but you know…duty calls. I found myself on the Interstate, alone in the car, alone on the road, slurping coffee.

I was listening to the radio and this amazing Rachmaninoff piano concerto (No. 2) was on. The whole world was covered in white, and I'm listening to Rachmaninoff—a Russian composer. I didn't need the announcer to tell me it was Rachmaninoff. You could hear the arctic, Russian winter in his music. He was one of the last great Romantic composers. The orchestra sweeps through these richly lyrical lines, and the piano undulates and dances over wind and snow swept hills.

I was nearly in tears—it was so beautiful, slurping the coffee, thinking about my family, still at home. And along with the music came the whisper of this text, "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned." It did not fit the meter of the music, of course. Rachmaninoff is not so predictable. But the bleaker sections of the concerto somehow fit the mood of the text. Light dawning in the midst of darkness. Light breaking through those dismal feelings of darkness and loss.

I think this is what Matthew wants us to feel as we read this text: that Jesus' presence on earth was like the sun rising. And those people who first knew him, before he became so well known—it was like seeing the first light of a new day.

Then quickly Matthew follows this sense of light dawning with the call of Peter, Andrew, James and John. Light is dawning—the epiphany of light in the midst of darkness! And as the light intensifies, it spreads itself into other people. "Follow me."

"Follow me, Simon and Andrew. I will make you fish for people." Immediately they saw the light. Immediately they responded. How could they do otherwise? When you are used to nothing but bleak, endless night… Nets down, nets up. A little bread for lunch, a little wine, a couple figs, a lamb at Passover… Nets down, nets up. Andrew tells a little joke here and there. Just to ease the tension. "Did you hear about the florist who had two children? One is a budding genius and the other one is a blooming idiot."

C'mon Andrew, that's not funny. All right. Try this one. Why is it not a good idea to wear snow boots? I don't know, Andrew, why is it not a good idea to wear snow boots? Because they'll melt.

Darkness. Little moments of happy. A little joke. A glass of wine. A day off. A big catch of fish, but so what? The money is made and spent. The sun comes up and goes down. Just little bits of fun, but that's it—a five dollar bill on who gets more fish, a cup of coffee, a pretty girl.

Vanity of vanities says the Teacher. You remember Ecclesiastes? "The almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags himself along and desire is no longer stirred. Then man goes to his eternal home and mourners go about the streets."

Nothing to give meaning and dignity and purpose to life…darkness. Have you seen people in darkness? There is no light in their eyes. I remember hearing a preacher say that for these people there is only the Cross, no Easter ever comes to them.

I have seen people going in and out of Wal-Mart completely lost in their own shopping lists, but lost in much more than that. Lost in the weariness of work and the demands that life just naturally places on you. They seem to be carrying backpacks filled with discouragement. They are not bad people. No one should ever say that they are bad people—but if you look in their eyes—it looks like they think they are bad people.

You would be amazed to know how many people believe in God—if only to explain the bad things. God gets all of the credit for the car breaking down, the oil running low, the child getting sick. Church, for many people, is a place people go when they want to be reminded that they have made a mess of their lives. For many people, the gospel of Christ is heard as a condemnation. God is there to mop up the messes we make. And he is, he is…but for some folks, that idea is filled with shame. I messed up so bad that God had to clean it up. Thoughts of angry parents can emerge. And people stay away from the church because they fear this angry parent who more ready to shame than forgive—more ready to chasten than console.

And then, on the other hand, there are people who hear the gospel of Christ, and the light comes into their eyes, and they hear the call, "Follow me," and like Simon, Andrew, James and John, the little jokes fall away. The old wine begins to taste like vinegar. The pretty girl…ho hum… The little bet, the office party, the newest car, the latest thing…so what?

A couple weeks ago I was at the ordination of the Rev. Sara Ardrey-Graves. She was ordained a priest. I was remembering when I was ordained, and all the years of education and internships, the scrutiny, the millions of times you have to tell your story. I remember someone in seminary saying that they had their life's story down to where they could tell it in fifteen minutes, five minutes, or twenty seconds.

We place a very high premium on ordination in the Episcopal Church. We do that because we want to be very sure that the Christians who preside at the Altar and in the pulpit are formed for ministry. That they have examined all aspects of embodying the call of Jesus. It is not just the call the individual feels, but a call that comes from the Church—the people of God. The People say, "This person will remind us who Jesus is, and what Jesus teaches." And so when the Bishop lays hands on someone's head, he or she is doing that in the Name of God, but also with the consent and approval of the People. It's good that we do that. It's good that we take our time to discern, and pray. And it's good that it takes time, and scrutiny, and education. Because once you become identified with the Holy Faith, you will always be identified with it.

But all of that said… There is something our Church lacks in raising ordination to this level. It takes so much to be ordained in the historic orders of deacon, priest and bishop. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if we had a kind of ordination for people who have sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, who now feel as if light has come to them. They now see that light in Jesus Christ, and like Simon, Andrew, James, and John they are hearing the words "Follow me."

I wonder what it would be like. I'm not saying that we should do this. There are levels of complexity to what this would mean in what we believe about "church," but I wonder what it would be like if people who have these epiphanies—these moments of recognition that Christ is the light of the world… What would it be like if they came up here and I were to lay hands on them and pray that God would give them the grace and power to go back to their lives with a renewed zeal for the things of God.

What would it be like if the People were to raise up the people who believed that Christ had revealed his light in them, and that that light could shine through them into other people so that the Church would grow. That the light of Christ would spread person to person. And that this big bad boogieman of a concept we call evangelism, would seem like the most natural thing in the world.

Can I just level with you all? There is no guaranteed, sure-fire method of evangelism. It seems like churches grow because of several factors: consistent clergy, friendly environment, beauty of the worship space, clean bathrooms, good coffee.

But no matter how many factors you care to name, it really all boils down to one thing. The Church needs to be a place of transformation. It needs to be a place where people who sit in darkness and the shadow of death can see the great light that is Jesus Christ.

The Church needs holy people. Clergy need to be holy, but the People need to be holy, too. Not holier-than-thou, not sanctimonious or self-righteous. I mean, people who have been genuinely transformed and continue to be transformed by Christ. People who love, who are loved, who have open hearts to receive those people who need love.

We are Episcopalians. We believe that the eternal Word of God, became flesh in Jesus Christ, and that he is the Way to wholeness in this life and in the life to come.

God has chosen to reveal his light in you. He has done it through his Holy Spirit in the people in your life who have formed you as a Christian. I urge you to continue to be people of transformation. People of the Light that is Jesus Christ. And I urge you to embody it with all you do and all you are, so that others may see the light and follow Christ.


If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.

The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Epiphany 2A. 16 January 2011.

Epiphany 2A.  16 January 2011.

The Rev. Alexander D. MacPhail



          The relationship between John the Baptizer and Jesus…  I have been trying to think of a word to describe it.  A word to describe it would help us understand both of them.  After all, it is by relationships that we are known.  I am Karin's husband.  Ralph's and Alice's son.  Your Rector.  Those relationships clarify all sorts of things.


          The word we usually give to John the Baptizer in relation to Jesus is forerunner, or herald.  John did not think of himself that way.  When he was asked who he was, he just said, "I am the voice."  "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, `Prepare the way of the Lord.'" 


          To my record, Jesus doesn't really speak of John with any sort of relational language.  It's strange.  We know that Mary and Elizabeth, the mothers of both men, were related.  John and Jesus, therefore, must have been related.  There is a painting in the National Gallery of John and Jesus playing as children.  I would imagine that they did.  I can easily imagine them knowing each other—at least from a distance—during their early and teenage years, but there is nothing in the Bible about that.





          It's odd.  We don't call them cousins.  We have no theological or family words to describe their relationship.  What makes it so complicated is that they knew each other; they were both men of God; both engaged in the same general mission of God in different ways; but we don't read of them having dinner together, or walking side by side.  When John is arrested, Jesus does not run after him.  We talked about that a couple weeks ago.  It is likely that Jesus would have also been arrested if he had visited John in prison.  But still.  Some sort of twinge of friendship must have come over him. 


          It would be nice to have a word to describe their relationship.  Acquaintance?  Contact?  Friend?  Associate?  Nothing sounds right.  They are either too distant or too close. 


          Colleague?  Collaborator?  After all, they were both trying to bring about the Kingdom of God.  But they weren't really doing the same things.  So they didn't really work together in the sense of collaboration.  You see the difficulty?  I think this is a difficulty that the early church had as well. 


          And you can see it in this lesson from John's gospel (1:29-42)  In the space of three verses—verses 31-33—John the Baptizer is recorded as saying twice, "I myself did not know him."


          Let me just read these verses,


John saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, `After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.' I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel." And John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, `He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' 


          I think part of the problem is that we are talking about two different ways of knowing.  John probably knew Jesus for a very long time.  But in this lesson, it seems like John wants us to understand that it was revealed to John that Jesus was the Messiah.   That's probably why the lectionary gives us this reading in Epiphany, because this was an epiphany for John the Baptizer.


          What interests me to no end is verse 33.  John says, "..the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, `He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.'"


          You will notice that we are in St. John's gospel.  John's gospel is so laden with cosmic symbolism and imagery.  When John the Baptizer speaks of "the Spirit descending like a dove" we cannot help but imagine that if we had been there, we would have seen it, too.  If you read John as a devout Christian you will feel yourself swept into a world where heaven and earth are in constant contact with each other.  Each moment is a revelation, each turn of phrase contains multiple dimensions of tradition and symbolism. 


          We casually read John saying "the one who sent him" and we translate that very quickly in our minds to God, and we are meant to, but John's gospel doesn't bottom line it for us like that.  The text breathes deeply with the pregnancy of the phrase, "the one who sent me to baptize."  Yes, that's God, but wow! 


          John is giving us the story of his call to ministry.  "The one who sent me to baptize said to me, `He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.'"  Already, in these first verses of John's gospel we are beginning to see the mission and mystery of God beginning to unfurl.  We are beginning to see that this new revelation is one where the Spirit of God will be intimately involved with humanity.  God is coming in spirit, to descend.  Yes, the Spirit will descend upon many. 


          The Spirit will descend upon the shepherd, the Pharisee, the tax collector, the blacksmith, the carpenter.  Yes, the Spirit will descend upon them when they are baptized.  But!  There is one who is coming upon whom the Spirit will not only descend, but remain. 


          That person will be different.  Heaven will not just collide with humanity in that person.  The Spirit will not simply come and go.  When the Spirit comes upon the shepherd, he cries, he repents, he turns his heart and his mind toward God, and he begins a new life.  And the Spirit leaves.  It was there to help him along.  It was a kindly relative who came for a few weeks to hang the curtains and fix the door and make sure everything was ready. 

          It was a woman across the street who brought food after the baby was born, and who called us up to say that we had left the lights on in the car.  It was the sweet young man at the grocery store who helped us get out to the car with our groceries and then made sure we got in the car safely before heading back inside. 


          Yes, the Spirit came and helped.  The Spirit has always been coming and going.  The Spirit was upon the face of the waters in the beginning of Creation.  God breathed into the nostrils of Adam the breath of life, and Adam lived.  And the Spirit returned to God. 


          The Spirit came upon Abraham and said, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great so that you will be a blessing."  And Abraham went, and the Spirit descended from time to time and whispered in his ear.  "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield and your great reward."


          Abram answered, "What will you give me, for I continue childless…You have given me no children."  And Spirit took him outside of his tent, and said, "Look up there.  Do you see those stars?  Billions and billions of stars, Abram.  Can you count how many stars there are up there?  (Pause.)  So shall your descendents be."




          The Spirit came down upon Moses.  "Put your sandals off your feet, Moses.  The ground on which you are standing is holy."  And the Spirit said, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.  I have heard the cry of my people, and I'm going to set them free from the Egyptians who have mistreated them."


          The Spirit has always descended.  Always.  Heaven and earth have been colliding constantly, since the very beginning—but it had always been here and there.  The Spirit came down, helped out, and went away.  Where did it go?  I don't know.  To the next person?  Back to heaven?  Vacation?  I don't know.


          But John said, "He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who is more than just a penitent, more than just a prophet, a healer, a teacher…  Yes, he'll be able to do all those things, but he'll be more than that.  He will be "the Lamb of God."


          And don't confuse lamb with weakness.  No, no.  For him to be God's lamb, he must have the strength to bear the mission of God on earth and in heaven.  Do not think for one instant that "lamb" is about being tender and shy and retiring.  His strength is not in muscles.  His power is not in coercion.  His power comes from the Spirit of God having remained upon him.  ..the Spirit coming down and staying upon him and giving him the ability to do all things from within himself.



          It is from the indwelling of the Spirit in Jesus, that he is then able to "baptize in the Spirit."  And I think we can take it from the rest of John's gospel that baptism in the Holy Spirit is not a literal baptism, but an ability to somehow convey to others the power of God.  Jesus will do this through healings, teachings…in everything he does he is conveying to others God's presence.  This is what it means to be the Anointed One—or in Hebrew—Messiah.  …to have upon you the Spirit which empowers you to convey God. 


          Which rather brings me back to my dilemma over John and Jesus…how to describe their relationship?  See, this text marks the transition from one to the other.  It is through John's identification of Jesus as "the one we've been waiting for" that brings an end to John's ministry.  His epiphany is also John's pink slip.  And the gospel notes this when it says that the disciples who were following John left him to follow Jesus. 


          There seems to be a very clear break between John the Baptizer's era and Jesus'.  And there should be, because the emergence of Christ is the inauguration of the Kingdom of God.  The Spirit has come and remained in Christ, therefore, humanity is now the bearer of God.  John was of a time before the Spirit came and remained.   But now, in Christ, and since Christ, the world has never been at a loss for the presence of God.


          Did you know that?  The Spirit doesn't come and go anymore.  Oh, it may seem to, of course.  If you equate the presence of the Holy Spirit with feeling good, then the Spirit seems to come and go all the time.  But it doesn't.  The Spirit is always present. 

          You can't imagine a world without it anymore than you can remember a world before electricity.  The Holy Spirit has been in humanity since Mary conceived in her womb, and Jesus walked the earth, and breathed on his disciples.  Except this time, when God breathed upon his disciples, we weren't just made alive—like Adam.  We were reborn to a new reality.  The light came on, and stayed on.  And now the Holy Spirit lives and breathes and remains. 


          And if I ever need to find it, I know just where it is.  It's in you. 





If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Epiphany 1A. 9 January 2010.


          Each year, the Church celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles in the season known as Epiphany.  Epiphany means a sudden recognition.  A moment when something mysterious or strange becomes obvious.  The first of these epiphanies is the visit of the Wise Men.  Because they are part of Matthew's story of Jesus's birth, you will find most crèches have the Wise Men already in attendance.  I am proud that at Emmanuel we keep the figurines of the Wise Men in the windows, as if they are on their way, and they arrive at the crèche, by tradition, on January 6th—the Feast of the Epiphany.  In this way we recognize the birth of Jesus as a discrete celebration from the visit of the magi. 


          Now, you might say, so what?  Well.  All right.  So what.  But the season of Epiphany is a time for the Church to recall the sudden recognitions that Christ is truly one of us and at the same time the Son of the living God.  The visit of the Magi is a sudden recognition that even as a child, Jesus's presence on earth was relevant to the whole world.  As Mary and Joseph saw these exotic men and the gifts they brought him, their minds must have been spinning with what the future must hold.  If these are his first birthday presents…well…what's next year going to bring?!




          So here we come to the first Sunday after the Epiphany and we are given—each year on this Sunday—the story of the Baptism of Jesus.   In fact, the lectionary writers have us dwell with this event for two Sundays.  This Sunday we read Matthew's account, and next Sunday we read part of John's version.   All four gospels contain an account of the Baptism of Jesus—yet it is likely that the early church was not altogether comfortable with it.


          Perhaps you are uncomfortable with the Baptism of Jesus.  John's baptism is a baptism of repentance.  We believe—the early church believed—that Jesus was without sin.  So what's he doing in the water?  What does this really mean?


          I have preached on this many times over the course of the last eight years, and I'm sure that if God lets me, I will preach on it for another thirty odd years—yet each time I do, it's like learning to ride a bicycle again.  What does Jesus' Baptism really mean?


          Well, there are several aspects to it.  The most obvious is that it elevates Baptism to being more than just a washing, symbolic of repentance, to a Sacrament of new life in the kingdom of God.  Jesus inaugurates his ministry by being immersed—a common experience of wanting to be cleansed and renewed.  His public life begins in the water.  Childhood is over.  Adulthood begins.



          This is a rite of passage.  And as with all rites of passage there is more to it than meets the eye.  The voice from heaven—understood to be God, of course—confirms that Jesus is the Incarnate Son of God with whom God is well-pleased.  This is the One.  This is the One human being who is fully pleasing to God, and the One through whom—by his life, death, and resurrection—all people will become fully pleasing to God.


          Jesus does not need to be baptized for his own sake.  He does this for us.  He does this to share with us the moment when we turn from our own ways and offer "our selves, our souls and bodies" to God.


          But there is more to it than that, because when we are talking about Jesus, there is always more to it.  This is a mystery.  You have heard me use the word mystery many times.  And because the word is used so often in our common language to indicate something sinister or dark, let me just take a moment to describe the classical meaning of the word mystery


          Mystery comes from the Greek, μυστήριον and if you look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, you will see that its first definitions speak of a truth that is revealed by God.  The original concept—which I think we have lost in our modern language—is that a mystery is not able to be explained or even understood by us.  We are given glimpses of its fuller meaning by God, who alone knows its full meaning.




          Now, let me just pause to let that idea sink a little further in.  A mystery, in the classical sense of the original Greek, is a great truth that is only known fully by God, but is revealed in little bits by God to those who seek after it.


          Did you know that there are many, many people who think that Christianity is reducible to heaven and hell?  Sin and salvation.  And I can understand why, because it's part of the religious DNA of the United States of America.  If you watch the PBS documentary "God in America" you will see how this country has been shaped by the religious contours of Christianity, and by the belief that America—as a whole—has a unique relationship with God from all other countries.  From the pilgrims forward, there has always been a religious presence in America of those who said: You are either in or out.  You are either part of us, or you are not.


          A couple months ago I heard about a priest friend of mine who was in a fast food restaurant and overheard a couple talking about Judaism and Christianity.  I don't remember all of the story, but one of them said, "Aren't Christianity and Judaism the same thing?"  And the other person responded, "I don't think so, but I think they hate the same people."  See that?  That's Christianity to a lot of people—who you hate and who you don't hate. 


          That's not the Christianity I know.  I'm sure it's not yours, either.  My Christianity—what I believe is the Church's Christianity—is about trying to understand the mystery of Christ—and God revealing him in little bits, until one day, when we stand before him, we'll know who he really is. 

          There is more to him than meets the eye.  And I cannot think of a life better spent than seeking after all things pertaining to who he is and what he means.


          There is more to the Baptism than just a theological explanation of why we believe he goes into the water, and what he is accomplishing.  You can feel that.  You know that that is true, because you know what it is to bump up against "the mystery"—the unknown, but powerfully relevant and meaningful.


          I remember in one of the first years I was ordained, I was celebrating the Great Vigil of Easter.  It is traditional that all the reserved Sacrament be consumed on Good Friday so that Christ's presence in the Sacrament is gone completely during Holy Saturday.  On Holy Saturday, we believe Christ laid in the tomb and his soul descended into hell. 


          At the Great Vigil of Easter, when the Holy Eucharist is celebrated, the Sacrament is newly reserved in the tabernacle.  It was my great honor at that time to relight the Sanctuary Lamp, signifying that Christ's presence in the elements of Bread and Wine had returned to the Church.  As I lit the Sanctuary Lamp that night, the church was in complete and utter silence.  All eyes were fixed on that lamp.  And when the lamp began to flicker again, I did not know this, but one of the parishioners who was known for being argumentative and difficult, began to weep. 



          He came up to me later and asked what the Sanctuary Lamp meant.  I told him:  Christ is risen; his presence in the Sacrament has returned to the Church; this is a mystery; we honor this belief with the lamp.  He said, "Yes, but there's more to it than that."  I said, "No…that's what it means."  He said, "No…I don't accept that.  There is more to it than that…"  (Pause.)  I couldn't argue with him.  He was right.  (Pause.)


          When my little boy was born, the hospital let me spend the nights Karin was recovering and we began the process of bonding with Peter.  I slept in the bed next to Karin, and I remember being half awake when a nurse came into the room to change one of Karin's bandages.  She was just changing a bandage.  The old bandage comes off, the new bandage goes on.  That's all there is to it, right? 


          No.  There is more to it than that.  He was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.  When Lazarus came out of the tomb, he was covered in bandages.  Jesus told them, "Release him, and let him go."  Joseph of Arimethea wrapped Jesus in a linen cloth and laid him a new tomb.  Those cloths where found on Easter morning, empty and folded up.  Bandages are not just bandages.  (Pause.)


          There is something about Jesus going into the water to be baptized that is a mystery.  It fulfills all righteousness, as Jesus said.  What does that mean?  I don't know.  Or perhaps I should say, I can't tell you all that means, because I know that there is something happening there that is beyond description—beyond theology.  It is perhaps symbolic of God himself that we cannot fully explain it.

          Think for a moment about our liturgy of Baptism.  A little baby, not old enough to do anything, make any decisions, commit any sins...  As an act of love and a belief that unity with God is a free and unmerited gift, we baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  The water is poured; the candle is lit; the baby is anointed; the parents smile; the church weeps with joy; the communion of saints is enlarged.  Is that all?  Is that all?  Is that all?  No! 


          Something profoundly wonderful is going on.  Somehow that little baby, or that grown up, or whoever is being baptized is joining this river of life that bubbles and sings and rejoices.  You can't get to the bottom of it, any more than you can describe the beauty of a rose, or a spring sunset in the Shenandoah Valley.  (Pause.)


          When I was in my first year in seminary I had a class on the Sacraments, and my last paper was also my final exam.  It was a take home, open book exam.  And there was only one task.  We were asked to write a letter to a Christian who wanted to know what the Holy Eucharist means, and how we believe that Christ is really present in the bread and wine, without altering the bread and wine.   In other words, how is the Sacrament able to be bread and wine and still be the Body and Blood of Jesus.


          For some reason, I elected to skip church and write my exam on a Sunday morning.  I thought it would inspire me to work on it then, and that at the end of the exam I would feel as if I had spent the morning receiving the Holy Communion.  Well, I wrote and wrote, and revised and revised.  And I got to the bottom of it.  I had—to my mind—written the definitive work on what the Holy Communion is and is not. 


          I made a mental note to contact the seminary library to have them burn all the books on the subject, because my answer would be superceding them.  Once this document had been fully absorbed by the faculty, I would be unanimously approved to graduate and be ordained early with a life ahead of either bishop or professor of theology.  It was only a matter of time.  I had done the theological equivalent of placing a square peg in a round hole.


          But, I hadn't been to church!  And I was beginning to think that it would be a victory lap if I could just go to a little 5 o'clock service of Holy Eucharist at a church I knew just down the road from the seminary.  I arrived in time, enjoyed a little sermon on some parable or something, and then prepared my heart and mind to receive the Holy Communion—something that I had completely and utterly figured out.  It is this, and this and this, but it is not that, or that, or that.


          I stretched out my hands and received the Host, and then the chalice, walked back to my pew and knelt down.  And the little voice of God in my heart said, "`This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.'  Not only is he this and this and this…he is also that and that and that."  (Pause.)


          Christ is a living mystery.  What he does, who he is, how he works, how he loves…you will never get to the bottom.  You will never be able to say that this is all there is to him.  There will always be more.




If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Christmas 2A. 2 January 2011.


          There is so much information and symbolism and spirituality to the gospel lesson from Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23.  As I read it, perhaps you were also intrigued.  There is something about St. Joseph and his dreams. 


          I started living with this text before Christmas Eve—actually two weeks before Christmas Eve.  The lectionary gives three options for the gospel lesson.  I had to choose one, but somehow the text chose me.  You might remember that we talked about Joseph on the fourth Sunday of Advent, when we read the story of the angel informing him that Mary's pregnancy was an act of the Holy Spirit and that he should not be afraid to take her as his wife.


          This lesson comes 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 pause for 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.


          And that's precisely why this text interests me.  You see, we get descriptions of three dreams, but there is one dream here that is not like the others.  In the first two dreams Matthew offers us the words of the angel.  The last dream is different.


          Let me spell this out very clearly.  The first dream comes seemingly out of nowhere.  "Get up take the child and his mother and flea."  The second dream comes suddenly—seemingly out of nowhere—"Get up take the child and his mother and return."  But now look at the third one.


          Matthew writes, "But when [Joseph] heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea…he was afraid to go there."  Now.  The text swiftly moves to the dream that directs Joseph to Galilee, but notice that there is no quotation from the angel, and notice, please, that the presenting issue is Joseph's fear.



          I believe this is significant.  I might be wrong.  But I'm going to tell you why I think it is, and I'll let you decide if I'm crazy, or if I might be on to something here.  (Of course I could be crazy and also on to something.)


          The way this story is normally preached is that Joseph's dreams are proof-positive that God is in control.  God is guarding the Holy Family, and therefore, the take-away message is that the important aspects of life are mapped out.  Christianity is about embracing—perhaps even mindlessly embracing—the uncertainties of life, believing that our Blessed Lord will steer us straight.


          Well, okay.  Here is where we begin to talk about destiny versus free will.  Are we free to do as we please, or is God firmly in control of all things, including our decisions?  My guess is that that is not something most of us spend much time considering, because it is one of the great mysteries of life, and we cannot ultimately know.  But just because we cannot ultimately know doesn't mean that it's not worth our consideration.  See, if you believe that everything is mapped out—and you follow that line of thinking to its obvious conclusion, it will take away your motivation to make good decisions. 


          But now, see, if you think nothing is mapped out and everything is open to your whims and desires…well…there can seem like there's a sort of meaninglessness to life.  God becomes merely the Creator, the watch-maker, the ultimate mechanic of the universe.  God designs the creation and then steps back from it, only intervening when absolutely necessary.  Or if you're totally agnostic, God does not intervene at all. 

          The problem with both extremes is that they dissolve all meaning and value to human decisions.  If there is no destiny—so what?  If there is only destiny—so what? 


          Another problem with believing that we have a totally free will is that it doesn't account for the fact that no one has literally unlimited choices to make.  It might seem like we can choose to do anything, but we can't.  We were born to particular parents, raised by them or others who have shaped the way we look at life.  Our social and economic backgrounds, our values, our teachers and mentors, our religion, all of these things have directed us and continue to direct us down certain paths.  To abandon them is literally impossible, because they go together to make up our sense of identity—our sense of who we are.


          But we love, love, love the illusion that we can choose anything.  Let me give an absurd example.  The next time you go to the grocery store, notice that you have a choice between at least two products for almost everything you wish to buy.  Not just name brand versus generic.  Notice the variety.  You have to choose, but you want to have to choose. 


          The shampoos just tickle me.  Well, the word "shampoo" is funny, but look at the variety!  The choices you make at the store are—in some sense—symbolic of our American identity as "the land of the free."  We are free to choose.  If we weren't offered choices, we would wonder what happened.



          But you did not have a free choice of parents, elementary school.  Your first car was probably not a free choice.  Your teachers, clergy—maybe even some of your first friends weren't really people you picked out to play with.  You got lumped together into classes and baseball line-ups.


          When you begin to look at the options you were given, the illusion of complete freedom begins to dissolve.  And that can be a great comfort, because no one can choose from unlimited options.  It will make you crazy.


          The earnestly devout person however is acutely aware of the many paths one can take, and is always trying to navigate the course that seems most in line with God's will.  But my experience has been that people who try so hard to conform to an impossible standard drive themselves nuts—and in fact, perhaps commit the sin of pride in believing that they can somehow conform to the divine will.


          Life is notorious for throwing curve balls—things that happen that cannot be traced to the malice of others…just, you know…life!  And I have watched many a devout person agonize over their troubles, and will often try to make sense of it by saying that God is testing them, or the devil is at their elbow, and they don't know whether to lash out at evil or just continue to say their prayers. 


          Part of their lamentation is the belief that the earnest religious impulses will shield you from bad things happening.  And we come by this belief understandably.  Does not the Lord's Prayer read, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil"?


          But there are many verses one can cling to.  St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son." (8:27-29)


          Pre-destination.  We could pick ourselves up and walk over to the Presbyterian Church and listen to a little John Calvin.  It's very biblical.  In fact, it's also very Anglican—if you go back to the infancy of our Anglican theology.


          Flip back to page 871 in The Book of Common Prayer to the Articles of Religion, which served, at one time, to broadly explain the essence of Anglican Faith, you will read of the influence of John Calvin on the English Church.  Article XVII reads,


Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honor. Wherefore, they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God, be called according to God's purpose by his Spirit working in due season: they through Grace obey the calling: they be justified freely: they be made sons of God by adoption: they be made like the image of his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ: they walk religiously in good works, and at length, by God's mercy, they attain to everlasting felicity.


          You see?  God decides who gets in and who stays out.  According to this line of thinking, God is so firmly in control of matters both great and small, that it places a very low actual value on the decisions you make.


          So, here's the question, and I'm coming back to Joseph and the Holy Family:  In the first two dreams, God is directing Joseph.  But the third dream comes after Joseph is scared of Archelaus.  I wonder if you could understand from this text that Matthew saw Joseph's movements as both the direction from God and the wisdom of Joseph.  What I'm trying to say is that I wonder if part of this lesson's meaning is that God's direction is not so heavy as to take away Joseph's free will.


          I rather hope so, because I think few of us would feel comfortable with God being too much or too little involved in the living of life.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons Jesus changed the language with which we relate to God.  For the devout Jew, God's name is too holy even to be said out loud, or written down.  But Jesus taught us to pray "Our Father." 


          Parents know that raising children is a process of slowly, carefully relinquishing control—without relinquishing affection.  You go from making all their decisions, to fewer and fewer, until you make none of them. 


          You go from shielding them from as much unpleasantness as possible, to letting them scrape their knees, to letting them get their hearts broken.  The hardest thing is to let go, but it has to be done. 


          Yet, if children are wise, they will still consult their parents.


          I don't know if God has a "perfect will."  I have heard a lot of devout people agonize over that possibility, and feel as if they will never attain to it.  I don't think God wants us to fret about things on that level.  I think God's mind can encompass far more variables, and still keep things going in the general trajectory he has in mind. 


          I do believe that God is intimately involved in our decision making, but I think it's more of a fatherly involvement: wanting what will make us more whole, what will bring us life and joy and peace, but still letting the decisions be ours. 


          I think that is part of the mystery of this text.  But I'll practice what I preach, and let you decide!




If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.