Monday, October 22, 2012

Proper 24B. 21 October 2012.


 

The Baptism of Josephine Mary Hoffman

 

 

            This morning (at the 11:15 liturgy) we will baptize Josephine Mary Hoffman.  This is a joyous occasion for me, and for Beckford Parish, and for the entire Church throughout the world.  Any time we are able to celebrate the great Sacrament of Holy Baptism, the Church takes another breath into the eternal relationship Christ established in his death and resurrection. 

 

            As I mentioned several weeks ago, Holy Baptism has its roots as a religious observance in some of the earliest civilizations.  Some of the first villages were built around a common bathing area, and in time those baths took a ritual significance.  Human beings have always felt the need to cleanse themselves, both physically and spiritually.

 

            Christian Baptism is not just a bath; however, it is a Sacrament.  In fact, it is what the Church calls a "dominical Sacrament," meaning that Christ told the Church to do it.  He said, "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you."  (Matthew 28:19, 20)

 

            The intention of the Sacrament, if you look at it biblically and in context, is to provide the "outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual" occurrence.  And that occurrence is a transformation of the heart and mind.

 

            Now, I'm not going to go into the theological controversies over why we baptize infants, but in a nutshell, it's because we believe that the grace conferred is unmerited.  Josephine has done nothing to deserve the temporal and eternal spiritual benefits of being made a part of Christ's body in this Sacrament.  However, from henceforth and for ever, her life will be buried in Christ, and raised to the new life of his resurrection.

 

            Her parents and godparents will have the task of teaching her, as she grows up, what this means, until the day when she is able to embrace it.  To confirm it.  And then the Bishop will lay his or her hands on her and pray that the Holy Spirit will defend her with heavenly grace that she may continue as God's own child for ever. 

 

            That is how we do it; but consider for a moment that Baptism is symbolic of change.  Of transformation.  Of the old disordered nature being put to death in order that new life may begin.  In the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, we used the old fashioned word, "regenerate."  That's really what Baptism is.  A re-generation of the human being.

 

            When John the Baptizer was out in the wilderness, around the Jordan River, he would preach to the people that the Lord was coming to redeem them.  It was a simple message offered by a simple person.  John was not preaching because he was paid to do it; he was preaching because he believed that God wanted him to do it.  And the fruits of his labor were that thousands of people came and were baptized. 

 

            Their hearts and minds were opened to believe that God really did care about them, and wanted them to be renewed, regenerate.  So down into the water they went.  And when you consider the way it looked, it makes sense.  Down into the water—down into the depths of uncertainty and death, where there is no oxygen to breathe.  No spirit, no breath.  And the Baptizer pulled them up from the water—their clothes and hair would splash and they would be unsteady, having to regain their footing, wiping their eyes, like coming up a brand new human being—learning to walk again for the first time.

 

            We do it in a much more symbolic way now, but the meaning is the same.  That God reaches into the depths of our uncertain humanity, and pulls us up into a new life of grace.  A new life of relationship with God and with each other. 

 

            But make no mistake, this Baptism isn't only for us, and Josephine.  It is meant to be for all people.  All people are invited by the resurrection of Jesus to come to water and be made new.  Holy Baptism in its fullest profundity is meant to splash out into every corner of the world.  The whole creation is new by the resurrection of Christ.  And we who are baptized—we the Church—are the missionaries of this new reality.

 

            You and I and Josephine are not just baptized to add another name to a membership roll in a particular denomination.  We are baptized to become heralds of the Gospel in our day.  To bring the Good News of Christ's hope and healing to the world, and to bring about a more just, peaceful, and moral society.  The Church carries in our bosom the vision of a new heaven and a new earth.  An existence that is deeply concerned with justice, and the quality of every human life.

 

            You see it in everything that Jesus did.  He was always bringing about wholeness.  Always feeding the hungry, healing the sick, clothing the naked.  You can look at that and say, "Well, good for him," but he didn't do it so that you and I would worship him.  He did it because he believed that that's what we are meant to do for each other.  That God wanted human beings to be happy and healthy and fulfilled.

 

            The Kingdom of God is not some eternal day off where every whim and desire is satisfied.  It's a place of radical justice: where we will be able to enjoy a perfect relationship with God and each other, and no one will be hungry or sick or lonely.

 

            That's the vision into which we baptize Josephine today.  A vision where all our lives are knit together by the Holy Spirit to live in unity with God: whole, redeemed and satisfied. 

 

            Consider your baptism.  Consider it as symbolic of what the church does and stands for.  We stand for renewal, transformation, a more just and wholesome world—and we welcome people into the Church by it.  We do it because we want more of "us."  We want more people to be in relationship with God.  If you have been transformed by the spiritual renewal of Holy Baptism—either your own, or by seeing it—find a way of sharing that with someone else. 

 

            I know it's hard to say, "I believe."  They might think you are crazy.  But, you know, everyone is crazy about something.  Why not be crazy about this?

 

 

 

 

           

 

Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said,

"It is more blessed to give than to receive."  Acts 20.35

 

 


 

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            If you choose to become a tither, you are silently joining a very special group of people.  There are no members' jackets or lapel pins or meetings (thanks be to God!)  There are no secret handshakes.  In fact, no one else will know.  It won't entitle you to extra Communion, or extra attention.  It won't mean that your prayers are answered faster, or that bad things won't happen to you. 

 

            But what you do get is a very deep and lasting satisfaction.  It is the satisfaction of being radically faithful to the Gospel of Christ and the Kingdom of God.  It is the sastisfaction of being part of a sacred tradition of generosity that is enshrined in the Bible and in canons of the Episcopal Church, and honored in every denomination of the Christian Faith. 

 

            Like parenthood, like working hard for something you believe in, like anything else that is really meaningful, it isn't always easy.  But if it was easy, it wouldn't be really meaningful. X   

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Remember the words



Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said,
“It is more blessed to give than to receive.”  Acts 20.35


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                If you choose to become a tither, you are silently joining a very special group of people.  There are no members’ jackets or lapel pins or meetings (thanks be to God!)  There are no secret handshakes.  In fact, no one else will know.  It won’t entitle you to extra Communion, or extra attention.  It won’t mean that your prayers are answered faster, or that bad things won’t happen to you. 

            But what you do get is a very deep and lasting satisfaction.  It is the satisfaction of being radically faithful to the Gospel of Christ and the Kingdom of God.  It is the sastisfaction of being part of a sacred tradition of generosity that is enshrined in the Bible and in canons of the Episcopal Church, and honored in every denomination of the Christian Faith. 

            Like parenthood, like working hard for something you believe in, like anything else that is really meaningful, it isn’t always easy.  But if it was easy, it wouldn’t be really meaningful. X   


           
Copyright © 2012 Alexander D. MacPhail

Monday, October 8, 2012

Proper 22B. 7 October 2012.


To listen, click here.


 

Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

 

            In our Confirmation class we spent a session talking about who we—as the Church—believe Jesus to be, which was a matter of some controversy during the first five hundred years of our existence.  It wasn't until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 that we finally agreed on the wording.  We believe that Jesus is fully human and fully God, or divine.  The reason why we say "fully" is because we want to be as generous in our estimation of those two natures as possible. 

 

            Let me spell out why there was some controversy about that.  On one side of the debate you had the church in Antioch.  Antioch is in northwestern Palestine, near Jesus' home of Nazareth.  The Antioch church believed that Jesus was more human than divine, and you can understand why.  He was a local.

 

            And then you had the church in Alexandria, which is in Egypt.  Egypt is many many miles removed from Palestine, and it had a more spiritual culture.  Remember this is the land of the pharaohs and pyramids and beliefs about an afterlife.  They believed Jesus was more divine than human. 

 

            So you had these two extreme views within the Church and varieties of belief on that continuum.  It was important to settle the matter—or at least find a way of talking about Jesus that made sense to everyone so that the Church could stop fighting and get on with the business of the Gospel. 

 

            This was so important, obviously, because the Christian Faith centers around Jesus.  What we say about him, as a Church, affects the nature of the community.  This would be a very different sort of community if we all believed that Jesus was just a good moral teacher who lived an extraordinary life in first century Palestine and died and that was it.  Or if we believed that he was like a ghost who said amazing things and then slipped away into heaven.  Or if we believed that Jesus was everything the Bible says, but you know…there are a lot of religions in the world and Jesus was special, but so was so was the Buddha and Muhammad and… 

 

            Do you see how important it is for the Church to take some kind of stand on the identity and primacy of Jesus?  That's why the Council of Chalcedon was so important.  It took a stand, and said Jesus is fully human and fully divine.  In Jesus, God and humanity are in equal measure, without confusion, without one obscuring or nullifying the other.  He is fully both, and through that wonderful and distinct person, called Jesus of Nazareth, God reconciles humanity through his saving death and resurrection, though which we have forgiveness of sins, unity with God, temporal and eternal salvation…you get the picture.

  

            Now, I know what you are thinking.  I'm sure that on more than one occasion you've been out at Food Lion talking about these things with friends and wondering why in the world we needed an ecumenical council to settle the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures of Jesus.   After all, the letter to the Hebrews speaks so eloquently about who Jesus is.  And it does.  Let's take another look at it.

 

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.  He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.  Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere, "What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them? You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor, subjecting all things under their feet." Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

 

 

            This first part of the letter to the Hebrews is trying to help the Church understand that whereas God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets, Jesus is much much more than a prophet.  Jesus is God's Son, whom God has appointed the heir of all things.  Jesus is the exact imprint of God's very being—what an amazing concept! 

 

            But then the author carefully explains that while Jesus is the Son, the imprint of God, he is not only divine—as some kind of ghost or angel.  He reminds us of the psalm, "What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them? You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor, subjecting all things under their feet."  That Jesus through his suffering death accomplishes what we could not do in our mere humanity.  Put simply, we could not redeem ourselves.  We needed someone who was both fully God and fully human. 

 

            But, of course, redemption is not the only goal of the Christian life.  A lot of people think it is, because there are denominations of the Church that seem to reduce Christianity to that.  Anglicanism never has.  Anglicanism has always stressed the relationship that Jesus created.  If it's all just salvation, then the Faith is reduced to fear.  Fear of death, and Jesus as a means of escaping hell. 

 

            But the beauty of Christianity is that salvation is just one byproduct of the eternal relationship that God wishes to have with us.  The beauty of this Faith is that God became human, and in so doing, embraced humanity entirely. 

 

            The psalmist wrote, "What are human beings that you are mindful of them?"  What are we that God would seek us out?  And yet, God does indeed seek us out through the humanity of his Son.  The gaping emotional hole that is within all of us—the desire to connect with what is eternal and holy—is met by the desire of the eternal and holy God to connect with us. 

 

            We have come to church today, hopefully, desiring to connect with God, and my role is to remind us that God also desires, very much, to connect with us, too.  It's not just one sided; it's a relationship.

 

            Everything we do in the timeless liturgy of the Holy Eucharist and in all the other forms of worship is intended to connect us.  Our corporate, common prayer, and our private individual prayer is the means by which we are trying to dial the right number.

 

            What I want to celebrate and remind us of today is the Good News, that you and I are not alone.  We are never alone, because the Word became flesh.  God came and revealed himself in humanity, and through a deepening relationship with our Lord, God breathes his life and love into us.

 

            You have come here to connect with God, and God has come to connect with you.  If you think about it long enough and open your heart to the beauty of it, your life will be changed for the better.  Your mind and soul can finally settle into a level of comfort and security that we call the peace "which passes all understanding."

 

            The Holy Eucharist makes so much more sense when we understand it as God's desire to be fully present with us—to make known his love and forgiveness and to say, "Oh, by the way…this is for ever.  This doesn't end when we die.  This relationship continues."

 

            So understood in this way, the Christian life lived to its fullest is a life of intimacy with God—having the desire for a relationship with the eternal and holy fulfilled—so that when our lives on earth have ended, the life we are resurrected to enjoy doesn't seem so different.  We've been living with God the whole time.  Heaven will just be a continuation of the relationship we've had through Jesus for years.

 

            Evangelism, then, is an outgrowth of this discovery and transformation.  It is our attempt to share this beautiful relationship with others, such that others will benefit from it.  So if you have experienced God as a beautiful relationship, and have felt yourself more settled and confident and happy in life, then you can become the most authentic form of evangelist there is.  Someone who has come to know the deep peace of Christ, who wants to share that with someone else.            

 

 

 

-o0o-



Freely you have received.  Freely give.


Please support the work of the Gospel.









Wednesday, October 3, 2012

I have just returned

from Virginia Theological Seminary from our Alumni Convocation where I worshiped beside many young seminarians.  The average age at VTS right now (2012) is 28.  Younger people are coming forward to be ordained.  It's a prayer fulfilled and dream come true.  But what kind of church will they encounter in the next twenty years?

I want more people in the church.  

There.  I said it.

Evangelism remains difficult for the most obvious reason: you have to say, "I believe this."  And they may think you are crazy, but everyone is crazy about something.  Why not be crazy about God loving everyone? 

If you can "dance like no one is watching," why not tell someone that you believe Jesus to have the words of eternal life?  If you can tell your Facebook friends that you can't wait to have a glass of wine at 5pm, why can't you tell them that you can't wait to have a sip of wine at 11:15am Sunday morning?

Some churches get lots of people because of their programs, but that's not why they stay.  They stay because they have an authentic experience of God that makes them feel included among others who also believe.  They stay because that gut level, heart level faith motivates them to do the work of healing, feeding, and transformation that Jesus did.

When the VTS Chapel burned, I have to admit I worried about the symbolism.  The place that "stood" for mission and evangelism in the Episcopal Church had burned and fallen.  The words "Go Ye Into All The World and Preach the Gospel" had burned in our hearts; we never thought they'd literally burn in a fire.  It is hard not to take the loss of those words in the architecture as symbolic of their loss in our Church and in the world.

We need more conversion of the heart--a more authentic desire for God, and for the kingdom God showed us in Jesus Christ.  We need people--not just clergy--who are willing to say, "I believe this."

I want more of us.  God help those of us who really believe.  We can't do this on our own.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom


 

Sermon for Morning Prayer.  30 September 2012.[1]

The Rev. Alexander D. MacPhail

 

            This is an interesting time of the year, isn't it?  It's a bittersweet time.  One day it's just a nice Summer day, the next day you're reaching back into the closet for a long-sleeved shirt.  Without any fanfare at all, without any real thought of movement or change, the sweaters and jackets are back on the pegs in the hallway.  It seems like it would be nice to light those candles on the mantle.  So pretty to see the light of the flames against the wall and the shadows spread out on the floor. 

 

            I guess I'm a sentimental sort of guy, but I find myself getting kind of sappy.  I go over to the shelf and start pulling down old poetry books.  I want meaningful words richly poured over my life.  I want my emotions to mellow and deepen like the leaves on the trees.

 

            The words from James Whitcomb Riley bounce around in me this time of year: 

 

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock,

And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin' turkey-cock,

And the clackin' of the guineys, and the cluckin' of the hens,

And the rooster's hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;

O, it's then the time a feller is a-feelin' at his best,

With the risin' sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,

As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock…

 

Then your apples all is gethered, and the ones a feller keeps

Is poured around the celler-floor in red and yeller heaps;

And your cider-makin' 's over, and your wimmern-folks is through

With their mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and saussage, too! ...

I don't know how to tell it--but ef sich a thing could be

As the Angels wantin' boardin', and they'd call around on me—

I'd want to 'commodate 'em--all the whole-indurin' flock—

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock!

 

            I first heard those words in the third grade.  Mrs. Rupert's class.  We had a different poem every month.  We didn't have to memorize it, but if we did we got extra credit.  I never memorized this one, but when I go out in the morning, and look at the frosted grass I can't help but say just a few lines under my breath.

 

            Peter has a beautiful book of poetry.  It's for children much older than he is now, but it has some of the great poems written out beside sumptuous illustrations.  I couldn't help reading parts of it to him one night before bed.  It wasn't fair to him, of course, he couldn't understand it.  He just toyed with his little car, while I read:

 

            In the other gardens / And all up the vale, / From the autumn bonfires / See the smoke trail! / Pleasant summer over/ And all the summer flowers, / The red fire blazes, / The grey smoke towers. / Sing a song of seasons! / Something bright in all! / Flowers in the summer, / Fires in the fall![2]

 

            Whose woods these are I think I know. / His house is in the village though; / He will not see me stopping here / To watch his woods fill up with snow. / My little horse must think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near / Between the woods and frozen lake / The darkest evening of the year.[3]

 

            One of my favourite pieces of fall poetry is Psalm 90.  Would you like to look at it with me?  Page 717 of The Book of Common Prayer:

 

            Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another.  Before the mountains were brought forth, or the land and the earth were born, from age to age you are God. You turn us back to the dust and say, "Go back, O child of earth."  For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past and like a watch in the night. You sweep us away like a dream; we fade away suddenly like the grass. In the morning it is green and flourishes; in the evening it is dried up and withered.  For we consume away in your displeasure, we are afraid because of your wrathful indignation.  Our iniquities you have set before you, and our secret sins in the light of your countenance.  When you are angry, all our days are gone; we bring our years to an end like a sigh.  The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty; yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone…So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom."

 

            Of course, it's not really a fall poem—it's for anytime, but the words always seem to match the crispness of the season.       It's a grown-up Psalm.  No soaring tunes of praise.  No majestic Temple hymns.  These are the words of a man who is looking back with a mixture of nostalgia and regret.  The man is not King David.  It's Moses.  He is looking into the Promised Land from Mt. Pisgah, not able to get there himself.  He is facing death.[4]

 

            I was officiating a graveside service a few years ago.  I got there early.  I almost always get to places early when I can.  I was there so early that there were family members who had yet to arrive.  I was talking with the hospice chaplain, who turned out to be a friend from seminary.  We were looking out at the various memorial markers and stones. 

 

            My eyes landed on a stone that had the names of three people on it.  There was the family name in big letters, and underneath, three names in separate spaces, the dates of their birth for all three, and the date of death for only one.  It was easy to tell from the names and dates that the one who died was the son of the other two. 

 

            It surprised me however that the son's name wasn't in the middle, where you might think it would go.  The son's place was off beside the father's.  There's a story there that you and I will probably never know.  How did the son die?  Why is he buried next to his father, instead of his mother, or instead of between them, or instead off in his own spot? Perhaps he was the son of the dad from a previous marriage.  I don't know.


            We talked about that for a little while, but even more fascinating to me is the way we indicate time on those stones.  The date of birth.  The date of death.  And a dash between them. Whether you lived for one day or a hundred years that dash is all you get. 

 

            Everything happens in that dash.   "Like the grass in the morning, it is green and flourishes; in the evening it is dried up and withered…All our days are gone; we bring our years to an end like a sigh.  The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty; yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone."

 

            I am drawn to these words.  They comfort me, and I don't know why.  St. Benedict wrote, "Day by day, remind yourself that you are going to die.  Hour by hour remember that God's gaze is upon you, wherever you may be."[5]  Why did he write that? 

 

            These things are so stark, so morbid, but something in them breathes deeply in my soul.  I don't know why.  I thought at first it was the candor of them, or maybe it's the odd sort of pleasure in pathos. 

 

            And granted, reading this as a young man might not be the same as reading it after many years.  "For the sword outwears its sheath, / And the soul wears out the breast, / And the heart must pause for breath, / And love itself have rest."[6]

 

            I love the ability of the poets to pull us out of the banal rhythms of sleeping, waking, working, buying, eating, and watching TV.  I like the fact that the careless summer mornings melt into bleak, pensive afternoons—cups of coffee, the smell of a wood fire or pipe tobacco, seeing old friends at high school and college reunions.  How long have we known them?  Has it been that long?  My how the years roll on!  It seems like only yesterday…

 

            "Teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.  Satisfy us with your loving-kindness in the morning; so shall we rejoice and be glad all the days our life.  May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us; prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork."

 

            God help us not to run from this thing to that.  Help us not to be so focused on "things temporal," that we lose the "things eternal."[7]  Help us not to be a people who "hoard and sleep and feed," who stride powerfully, but mindlessly though youth, not caring and not considering the presence of God until our days come to an end.[8]  (Pause.)

 

            Sometimes, I worry that my generation, and the generation to follow, will become deaf to the poets and the prophets.  My generation places a high value on information and knowledge, and a lesser value on wisdom.  But it's wisdom that nourishes.  It's wisdom that perceives the movement of the Holy Spirit, and reflects on the interconnectedness of life and relationships. 

           

            I worry that the ever-quickening movement of our culture will keep us from forming a depth of root that will nourish us in the noonday sun.  That life will be—to my generation and the generation to come—nothing but dash between two dates.  And in that dash is nothing but a selfish grasp for the illusions of wealth and fame.

 

            I worry about that.  I worry about whether or not there will be genuine Christians to break bread with my son and daughter when they're older, who will remember the poetry of the psalms and prophets.  Who will remember the story of our faith, and the depth of life that that story can give them.

 

            I know the church will continue in one form or another.  There is no question about that.  But I do worry that it will become so linked in the general public's mind with intolerance and anti-intellectualism that no one will want to be associated with it.  That Christianity will lose its salt and light…  And what will really be lost is the relationship of the creation to the Creator.

           

            I know I shouldn't worry.  It's the work of the God to anoint and inspire, and to carry the Gospel forward.  It will happen; I believe that.  But still I pray and work toward the vision that more and more people may come to know the glory of this eternal bond between earth and heaven, whom we believe to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

 

 

-o0o-

 

 

Remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ

who said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive."



[1] Adapted from Proper 25A.  26 October 2008.

 

[2] Robert Lewis Stevenson.  "In the other gardens"

[3] Robert Frost. "Stopping by woods on a snowy evening"

[4] Hayes, John H. from Preaching Through the Christian Year A. Page 487.

[5] The Rule of St. Benedict 4:47-49 paraphrased.

[6] Lord Byron, from "So we'll go no more a roving"

[7] The Book of Common Prayer, 1979.  Collect for Proper 12.  Pg. 231.

[8] Tennyson.  "Ulysses."