Monday, January 23, 2012

Epiphany 3B. 22 January 2012.

For the audio version, click here and select 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany.


            I remember when I was in the third grade that my devotional life took a sudden and irreversible turn.  Until then, my prayers had been uncomplicated.  They mostly took the form of wanting something to play with or for a particular type of food. 


            About once every two weeks, Bridgewater Elementary School would make these tall, yeast bread buns—cut in half—and they came with a generous pat of salted butter and a thick slice of cheddar cheese.  And the first thing we would do when we sat down with our trays was to put that cheese and butter inside the bun and eat it.  It was heaven.  An almost sinfully addictive blending of carbs, protein, and fat that, frankly, even to this day still makes my mouth water.


            There were a lot of prayers offered for those little bread buns.  There were prayers for desserts, and toys, and prayers for help with little things.  But somewhere along the way in the third grade…I began to notice a little girl by the name of Marissa Garber.  She had blonde hair in ringlets that bounced when she walked.  She was pretty. 


            And my prayers were very simple, but very different.  I just wanted her to like me.  I wanted her to think I was funny, smart, nice.  I wanted her to like me.  And the reason I had to pray for that is because I had no idea how or why she would.


            Obviously, I had wanted to make people feel and behave in ways of my own choosing before then, but there is something about the first yearnings of wanting a girl to like you—especially when it really is just as innocent as wanting her to smile at you, or laugh at a joke, or sit down beside you. 


            And thus we awaken to one of the great unspoken areas of satisfaction and discontentment: the continuum of our ability and disability to influence people. 


            Some people make a living out of it.  Lobbyists, politicians, pundits, celebrities.  It would be easy to throw stones at them, but they're really just doing on a larger scale what we all do consciously and unconsciously—try to move people in a certain direction. 


            On our best days, we try to do it even-handedly, carefully—trying to steer someone gently in the right direction, not too invested in the outcome to be a real threat to someone's autonomy.  And on our worst days, we can be manipulative, single-minded, calculating, and even willing to skirt the truth.  Thankfully, usually, we fall somewhere in the middle.


            Don't look now…but I'm trying to influence you, right now!  A good sermon tries to bridge the divide between the Bible and life—the holy and the common.  Every good preacher is usually trying to persuade their listeners that God wants to be in relationship with us. 

            Some of my happiest moments are when a prayer or sermon or conversation that I have with someone else can help to make the aching distance between us and God seem to vanish.  Or when the Faith can be explained in a way that reveals the beauty and grandeur of our tradition.


            So, yes…I want to influence you—like the prophets of old who believed that they had seen God's holy angel descend from heaven, or who had caught sight of the new Jerusalem coming down from God out of heaven, adorned as a bride for her bridegroom.  I don't know any effective pastor or priest who hasn't wanted to convey the divine eternal Majesty such that anyone within earshot would want to fall in love with God.


            To me, the church is never just a large building with nice people: it is the gate of heaven; it is the threshold of eternity.  Wherever the Gospel is preached and the Sacraments are faithfully celebrated, the Spirit of Jesus is present—sparkling in the flicker of candles, wafting like wind among the flowers, pushing deeper into the hearts of the confused and sorrowful.


            Many's the time that I have wandered through the church in the long shadows of the afternoon, seeing the sunlight filtered through the stained-glass play on the pews, and known in my soul that terrifyingly wonderful sensation that God was in the air around me.  


            My children and I have made a pilgrimage to St. Andrew's in the late afternoon to refill the oil in the sanctuary lamp.  And as we entered this (that) holy space where the only light came from that single flame that represents the presence of Christ in the Sacrament, my children and I have knelt in the physical darkness and been surrounded by a spiritual light. 


            I watched them in absolute astonishment as they moved with ease and comfort throughout this (that) holy space.  There was almost no light, and yet they were never scared, as I once was, of a darkened church. Because they know that when you are in church, you are never… truly… alone. And because we are never alone in here, we are never alone out there.  And I can't tell you how much I wish more people knew that.


            I don't mean that to sound sanctimonious, or overly pious.  But I'm talking about wanting to influence, wanting to compel, wanting to implant the desire for more people to fall in love with God.  Like wanting Marissa Garber to smile at me for who I am, I want more people to love God for who he is. 


            "Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."  And as he passed along the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen.  And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people."  And immediately they left their nets and followed him." (Mark 1:14, etc.)


            How did he do that?  That's the question.  How did he influence them, compel them, move them in his direction?


            I was surprised to remember, as I was working on this text, that this is the first lesson I ever preached on.  The sermon was about Simon and Andrew saying yes, even though they had no idea what they were getting themselves into.  The sermon was okay, but it seems to me that the real mystery in this text is how Jesus got them to follow him.


            Wouldn't you love to know?  Well, let me put it this way…  If you also want this beautiful faith to continue beyond just you and me and the lamppost, don't you really want to know?   (Pause.)


            I read over these stories of call—the story of Jonah from today's Old Testament lesson.  God tells Jonah to go and preach to the people of Nineveh.  Tell them that if they don't repent, something bad is going to happen.  And Jonah proceeds to run the opposite direction.  He gets on a boat for Tarshish, and by his actions he says, "Forget it, God.  I'm not doing it.  I'm not going.  You can't make me."


            And the waves kick at the boat, until the sailors believe that Jonah is causing the storm.  So they throw Jonah overboard.  Jonah is swallowed by a large fish that spewed him out on the beach.  And again God says, "Go to Nineveh."  Jonah says, "God, I'm not going to Nineveh..they are not going to listen to me."  God says, "Go to Nineveh."


            Jonah goes to Nineveh.  "God, they're not going to listen, but, whatever…"  And Jonah says to the people, "Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown."  (Pause.) 

That's all he says.  Not a word about God.  Not a word about repentance.   "Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown." 

            And bing, bang, boom.  The people proclaimed a fast. Everyone great and small put on sackcloth, as a sign of repentance.  When the news reached the King of Nineveh, the King!  Are you listening?  The King took off his robes and put on sackcloth and proclaimed a fast.  Jonah stood there dumbfounded.  How did it work? 

            It's a different story, of course.  We're talking about two very different persuasions: repentance and the call of disciples.  But they both require a move of the heart, don't they?  They both require a change.

            I would love to know the difference between the man or woman who hears the deep call of God's love and moves toward it, and the man or woman who thinks it's just a pile of nonsense.  Because it would be so great to figure out how to talk with people who have simply never experienced Christianity in all it's glory.  I think about this all the time. 


            Sometimes it seems it's not Christianity that's the problem, it's the Church.  There are so many expressions of Christianity throughout the world, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.  In every denomination you have people who are unbelievably good representatives of the mission and ministry of Christ, and in every one of them you have some clunky clergy and laity.  Weeds and wheat.  Why?  I don't know.  But Jesus said it would be that way.


            But I can't stop thinking about how nice it would be if every church in this town ran out of bulletins every Sunday.  Imagine that.  And if every Church had so many people coming that the baptismal fonts never had time to dry. 


            Imagine if the churches fed more people bread and wine than McDonald's served breakfast.  Or if every church in every town had to think about how they were going to build a large enough facility to handle the Sunday attendance.  I don't know why it isn't that way.


            Do you realize that even our own little church here could never really handle that kind of widespread devotion?  If just one new person came here every week, and stayed, there would be 52 new people a year.  That's enough to need another service to handle them—in just one year!


            Yet the Church has always been relatively small compared with the general population.  Why?  I don't know.  But I keep thinking something is going to change that.  That some wind of the Holy Spirit will come from heaven and the pews will start to fill up. 


            Jesus walks beside the Sea of Galilee and he sees these fishermen, and he says, "Follow me."  They say yes.  Jesus walked through the Town of Bridgewater, when I was a boy, and he said, "Follow me."  And I said yes. 

Jesus walked though your life and said, "Follow me."  And you said yes.

Why?  I don't know.  But we did.  And now it's our turn to fish for people.



            Can I just ask you to think about wetting a line at some point?  Sometime when you are around people who seem like they might benefit from an invitation to something more...  And then from the riches of your heart, you can begin to share that beautiful wonderful truth that is your relationship with God. 


            It's how the Church has always grown—one person passing the holy flame to the next, spreading the light and warmth and hope that is Jesus Christ.





If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving 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 9, 2012

Baptism of Our Lord.

For the audio version, click here and select Epiphany/Baptism of Our Lord.


Epiphany 1B. 8 January 2012.

The Rev. Alexander D. MacPhail



            This Sunday is the first of six Sundays in Epiphany.  You might say it is our road to Lent, which then becomes our road to Easter.  I'm going to flirt with understatement in saying that Epiphany is not well understood, even by devout Christians.  We can get our minds around Advent and Lent. 


            Christmas is very short—only 12 days, and we know how to do Christmas.  The season after Pentecost, or after Trinity Sunday, as it was in the old Prayer Book, is the easiest of all—it is Ordinary Time.  Ordinary from the word "ordinal," meaning numbered, not ordinary meaning common.  There is no color or odor to Ordinary Time—it's just time suffused God's love in which the church happily welcomes the Summer and Fall.


            But Epiphany.  Well, Epiphany.  January, February, sometimes March.  It's a grey time of the year.  It will be time for doing taxes, and audits. January itself is filled with many meetings.  We'll have vestry and annual meetings of both Emmanuel and St. Andrew's.  We'll have the Annual Council of the Diocese, and the pre-Council meeting before that.  And all the while, we're in Epiphany, which asks us to do what?  To feel…what?  Do any of you have an answer? 


            If you look over the readings, they all have one thing in common—they are all about the manifestation of Jesus as the Son of the Living God.  Again and again, the Gospel reading will confront us with aspects of who he is: that he's a healer, a teacher, a Son, an exorcist… 


            Epiphany seems to me to be a season of confrontation.  Not in a bad way, but confrontation, nonetheless.  Something is being asserted about life, about Jesus, about life with Jesus at every turn—and it seems like the intention, then, of the season, is to convert us with the cumulative effect of these many epiphanies. 


            For the first Sunday of Epiphany we always read the story of the Baptism of the Lord.  Each year, it's right there in the readings.  You can set your watch by it.  If you get a little deeper into the Christian year, long about Easter, and you think maybe your watch is running too slow or too fast, along will come the story of Thomas on the second Sunday of Easter, and you can re-set your watch to that. 


            Almost every year, I see the Baptism of the Lord coming from across a crowded room at the Christmas party, and I wonder what he will say to me this year.  He always seems to say the same thing.  So I try to engage the Wise Men in conversation—maybe the Baptism will get some more eggnog and leave me alone.  But the Wise Men move on after January 6th, and there's the Baptism standing right there, smiling at me.


            And I say, "I know, I know."

            He says, "I know, you know!  We almost got together during Advent when you were busy talking about John the Baptist!  What happened?"


            So, we'll sit down together and the Baptism will tell me his story.  His breath smells like the Sea of Galilee.  He's got fishing nets around him, and he's all wet, and I'll listen to the first little bit of the story, but my mind will inevitably begin to wander.


            This year, my mind started wandering back to the lesson from Genesis.  Such an odd thing to see Genesis 1:1 on the front page.  I'm used to seeing her at the Great Vigil of Easter, being read so beautifully by Richard Pence.  I think Richard has read the Genesis story for the past three or four times we've had the Great Vigil—and now, whenever I think of it, I hear Richard reading it. 


"In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the wind from God swept over the face of the waters."


You all know these lines so well.  You probably hear them better in your mind—as I do—from the King James Version.  But you might hear them like I hear the Baptism story—like an old friend who can't remember that he's already told us this one. 


            So let me ask you let the words create a vision in your mind's eye of the earth as a "formless void"—it might be hard to imagine, but try.  The earth was just a formless, structure-less empty space, "and darkness covered the face of the deep."


            I'm so glad the NRSV kept that word "face," because then we come on to "a wind from God" sweeping over [that] face of the waters.  Face. 


            If the line just read "the surface"—well, surface has the word face in it, but surface is completely without personality, you see?  There is something about the waters of the deep having a face—and God's spirit passing over it.


            Years ago, I wish I could remember where, I saw a thing on television where they tried to depict the creation story—and the camera must have been mounted to a plane, as it flew low and fast over the face of dark waters.  It was amazing. 


            And I think of that when I think of the Spirit of God, hovering and gliding across the formless void, and the face of the waters.  It is a description of potential—do you feel that?  It's almost as if the writer of Genesis uses those first few lines to draw back a the rubber band of suspense.  What will happen next?


            And then, boom!, God said, "Let there be light."  And light became.  The entire story of God is told from that first moment.  When the rubber band snapped, and then the formless void and the face of the Spirit moving over the face of the waters…  Suddenly they saw each other!


            Have you ever noticed that?  Let me say it another way.  The face of the Spirit of God moved over the face of the deep—two faces, but separated by darkness.  When God said, "Light!" the two faces could look at each other! 


            God looking at the waters; the waters looking back at God, and God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness, and the story continues from there.  (Pause.)


            I looked back at Mark's version of the Baptism of Jesus.  He was just sort of talking, and I had to stop him. 


            He said, "What, what?"

            I said, "Back up."

            He said, "Which part?" 

            I said, "Start again with verse 9."

            He said, "In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan."

            "Go on," I said.

            And he continued, "And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice…"


            And that's where I stopped him.  Because I never noticed the water and the Spirit together in quite that way.  Or if I did, it didn't mean anything to me.  But I when I saw the water and the Spirit together again, it seemed to me like I could feel that rubber band being pulled back again.  As if the story is told this way, because it's like the story of God's creation of the world. 


            The face of the waters and the Spirit of God coming down to be there.  And up from the water comes the man who would come to be called "the Light of the world."  The true light.  Do you remember how we say it in the Nicene Creed?  "God from God, Light from Light"? 


            The Spirit descending like a dove on him, and a voice came from heaven, "This.. is.. my.. Son!"  "Let.. there.. be.. light!"


            And so creation was new—and there was a new creation.  The eternal Son, enfleshed in the man named Jesus, was baptized, and came out from the womb of the waters and the Spirit, and there was Light.   "The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world"—as John would say. (1:9)


            This then, of course, as all things pertaining to Jesus do, extends to you and me.  When we emerge from the waters, the Spirit descends, and we are new.  A new creation looking back at a new creation.  Because there is Light to see it!  (Pause.)


            Today I want to do something that may be a little new to some of you.  We don't re-baptize people in the Episcopal Church, because we believe that it's a sacrament that does not need repetition.  But it can be a very meaningful experience to come back to the font—as it were.  Many of us were baptized at such a tender age that we have no memory of it.  But even when there is a memory, there is still something about coming back to the Jordan.


            If we had a baptism today, I would encourage you to dip your hand into the font as you come up for Communion—but since we don't, the Church still permits "The Setting Apart of Lustral Water."  Lustral water is what is commonly called Holy Water—it is intended to be kept at the back of the church in a small dish.  We have one at Emmanuel that we fill with Lustral Water (actually Peter and Maggie like to fill it every Sunday!) so parishioners may dip their fingers into the water and remember their  Baptism.


            Today, I would like to publicly set apart some Lustral Water, and invite you to reflect on your Baptisms.  The prayer that I will pray—just like the prayer during Holy Baptism—recalls the place of water in the Genesis story, the story of the Exodus, and the Baptism of Jesus. 


            When you come forward today to receive the Holy Communion—it's up to you what to do.  You don't have to do anything.  You can just look into it.  You can dip your fingers or hand into it.  You can touch it to your forehead where this water came pouring over you when you were baptized.  It really is up to you.


            But when you do, think of it!  Think of this primal experience that—in a very real way—takes us back to the dawn of time.  Water, Spirit, and Light. 


            You may not notice it when you wake up in the morning.  You may not smile at yourself when you're brushing your teeth or shaving or combing your hair—but let God flip the switch.  You are a new creation looking into a new creation, because Jesus has given you the Light to see it.






If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving 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 3, 2012

The Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 January 2012.

For the audio version, click here and select The Holy Name.


          Today is a combination of two holidays: one secular, and one ecclesiastical.  It's the first day of the calendar year; and it is also—what used to be called in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer—the Circumcision of Christ.  The Book of Common Prayer 1979 changed the title to the more commonly held, "Feast of the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ." 


          I have a friend from seminary who used to say that he wanted to be ordained on January 1 so that the ordination invitations could read, "Feast of the Circumcision and Ordination of Raymond Dale Custer."  You have to understand, seminarians find these sorts of thoughts more amusing.


           Jesus's name was given by the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation to Mary, but, he did not receive this name until he was circumcised eight days later.  The Roman Missal, which is used in some parts of the Episcopal Church, and in several parts of the Anglican Communion, actually breaks this feast into two separate observances: January 1st The Circumcision, and January 2nd, The Holy Name. 


          In the Episcopal Church we have Principal Feasts, like Christmas, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, All Saints'.  And then we have major feasts of our Lord, which, if they should fall on a Sunday, supersede the standard calendar.  Today would ordinarily be the First Sunday after Christmas Day.


          I will admit to you that I've been scratching my head about what to tell you today.  The Holy Name, as an observance, seems, on the face of it, kind of like the delicate china in the cabinet.  You know it's there, and you use it from time to time, but it seems outdated.  The style is of another time, and it's meaningfulness is tied to those who came before us. 


          Circumcision is no longer a liturgical event—at least, for Christians it isn't.  This was a major issue for the early Church, because it was felt, by many Christians who were of Jewish birth, that you couldn't become a Christian without becoming a Jew first.  If the Messiah came to redeem Israel, to fulfill the Torah and the prophets, then you have to join the company to get the benefits.  And to join the company, if you were male—you had to be circumcised.  No use accepting a Messiah, if you were never looking for one. 


          So at first Christianity might have become just another sect of Judaism, but then the Church decided to understand circumcision metaphorically—that it symbolized a permanent mark of cleanliness—which is how we came to understand Holy Baptism. 


          We do not have anywhere recorded that Jesus talked about needing to be circumcised, but he did talk about Baptism, so Baptism has supplanted it.  Why then do we celebrate the Circumcision of Jesus?




          Well, we don't, really.  We now celebrate it as the Holy Name—and we do that because the Gospels and Letters of Paul indicate a very high reverence for the Name of Jesus.  Jesus himself said, "If you ask anything in my name, it will be given to you." 


          It has been a constant formulary since the beginning of the Church—to end a Christian prayer "in the Name of Jesus."  Regardless of denomination, country, or culture, Christians have some way of praying "in the Name of Jesus." –in a way that almost leads one to believe that there is something inherently powerful in the name.


          In fact, I well remember a very good clergy friend of mine interviewing at a church, and they asked her about her relationship with Christ.  The word choice was quite deliberate.  "Christ."  And my friend did not pick up on how intentionally they were using the title Christ, instead of Jesus.  So she started talking about Jesus, and there were sudden looks of shock and horror on the faces of the committee.  People were shaking their heads. When she had finished her answer, the committee chair informed her that "We do not use his first name in this church."


          That's actually a very old custom—especially among Roman Catholics—to not use the Name of Jesus, unless it is said in prayer.  I called up one of my mentors, who was a Benedictine monk, to ask him about that tradition: if it was an official rule, or simply a custom, and his response was that it likely came from the Celtic tradition, not to use the name, unless in prayer. 

          Still to this day many Roman Catholic clergy, and even Episcopal clergy will not use the name in a sermon, but will say, instead, "Our Lord," or "Our Blessed Lord," or "Our Savior."


          I don't have a problem using the name Jesus, but I will tell you  that there are very few things that make me as angry as hearing the Name of Jesus said without respect.  When it is said casually, or as an expression of surprise, or frustration…  When it is used as a swear word—that really bothers me. 


          The Name of Jesus is holy.  First, because it is the name the Father gave the Son; and second, because the man who bears that name is the only one who deserves the full weight of its meaning.  The name is a common form of the name Joshua, which means "God delivers."  The Word made flesh, Jesus, is the only one who fully embodies the deliverance of God. 


          So when a prayer is offered, in faith to almighty God, it is ended in the Name of Jesus.  And we usually add some theological emphasis by recalling that we believe he is alive and reigns with God in the unity of the Holy Spirit—One God—for ever and ever. 


          This formula for ending a prayer is not some kind of magical incantation—it is a recitation of the Faith—that Jesus is the one anointed by God to be our Savior and Lord, and that his saving death and resurrection are central to who believe him to be.  Does that make sense?


          We do not merely honor the Name in saying it—we honor the man who bears the Name, and who will always bear the Name. 


          When we are baptized, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit…and marked as Christ's own forever.  That marking—like the circumcision literally once was—confers the power of Jesus' name on our souls.  Not that God renders our own names meaningless, but that Jesus' Name is enacted, or re-presented, in us.


          It sounds so much more complicated to say, but when we gather together around the baptismal font we feel it on a visceral, heart level.  It isn't just water and towels, candles and vestments, it's the sacred story of our hope.  The water in the font is part of the endless Jordan river, which washes over the person, and gathers them into eternity.


          I like how Bishop Gulick once put it—"that the same arms of the Holy Spirit that found Jesus dead in the tomb find us, and pull us out of the water of Baptism."  I'll say that again.  (Repeat.)  Beautiful.


          I have no idea what happens to the soul in death.  No one really does.  But I'd like to think that when a baptized Christian dies that the Holy Name of Jesus reverberates—spiritually—into the world. 





          I can't tell you how many times someone dear to me has died and I have felt as if they were more present with me than ever.  And something in those experiences has always conveyed to me, more deeply, the presence of Christ.  –that the Church is smaller, but the Body of Christ, Resurrected, is bigger, because one more soul has come to fullness of heaven.  And that something in that has expanded the Name of Jesus.


          Trying to explain this is like trying to explain prayer.  It's not spiritualism—it's not that I think I'm in contact with those who have died—but that, through the mystery of Jesus, I am somehow closer to them and to our Lord.  Theologically, that's as far as I can go without straying into heresy! 


          So today, as we gather in the Holy Name of Jesus, and receive the Sacrament of his Body and Blood, let me suggest that we re-consecrate his Name in our minds and in our hearts.   Let's not allow ourselves to become calloused to hearing it or saying it.  Or to become permissive of it being used without reverence.


          St. Paul wrote that the name of Jesus is above every other name, and that "at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:10-11)


          And that there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)




If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving 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.