Sermons

12
Feb

Punished by our sins

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37, Psalm 119:1-8

 

This is a Gospel lesson that strikes a chord.  These are words of Jesus, some of which we’d just as soon not talk about.

The setting of our Gospel lesson is a mountain in Galilee.  It is very early in Jesus’ ministry; in fact, this is Jesus’ inaugural address, known as “the sermon on the mount,” which has comprised our Gospel lessons for the past three weeks.  Jesus had very recently called his first disciples.  We read that crowds came from all around Galilee and as far away as Jerusalem to hear Jesus teach.  Jesus’ message was fresh and real and relevant.  We can imagine his listeners were spellbound by this fresh understanding of the foundations of their faith.

Among this crowd, the large percentage were Jewish, steeped in the Law of Moses – the Ten Commandments.  They would have been familiar with the words we read from Deuteronomy in our first lesson.  These are the last words of Moses spoken shortly before his death.  Moses affirms the reality of God’s judgment, yet these words are the expressed expectations of our loving Father – love the Lord your God, walk in his ways, observe his commandments, live and become numerous.  In this, you choose life.

Over the generations, these Commandments and the image of God had been adulterated with hundreds of specific add-ons rules and regulations that had been enacted under the directions of religious leaders.  For many gathered to hear Jesus’ message, God was a legalistic wrathful God whose demands were beyond their reach.  The bar was forever being raised; God felt inaccessible to them.

Centuries after Moses final speech, Jesus’ focus, we notice, is not so much on the legal aspects of our sinful actions, but on the anger and the brokenness that precipitate these harmful and deadly actions.  Jesus is saying that there are all sorts of laws on the books that address murder and divorce and adultery; but these laws cannot legislate the fractured human relationships that culminate in these actions, and cannot reduce the compounded damage to human relationships that results from these harmful acts.  It is toward the anger and brokenness that we should turn our attention.

Jesus was eager to redirect the people’s basic misconceptions of God, their misconceptions of God’s Law, and their misconceptions of how God’s law is intended to guide our human relationships.  And, Jesus’ words are fresh and real and relevant to us in the same way they are for his first century audience on the mountain.  In opening ourselves to God’s guidance in our human relationships, as Moses instructs in his last days, we choose life.  In choosing to foster relationship by loving God and our neighbor, we choose life.

These actions Jesus highlights in our Gospel lesson are not infractions for which we can pay a fine and move on.  I would wager that there is no one in this audience who has not been hurt directly or indirectly by divorce, and the hurt goes on for years, perhaps a lifetime.  All of us would hope for an ideal world where all marriages were happy and healthy.  All of us would agree that Jesus is right to maintain the goal for this human standard though we would agree that in far too many cases, divorce is the only answer or beyond our efforts to prevent.  Regardless, it is the brokenness we are called to address.

Jesus’ message is that it is not so much that God punishes us for our sins, but that it is our sins that punish us.  We are not punished for our sins; Jesus took that punishment for us.  But, we are punished by our sins.  We are punished by the compounded brokenness that we inflict upon our relationships.  When we hurt one another; we choose death.  Jesus is teaching us to choose life.

Jesus is eager for those in his audience and for us to understand that, yes, God’s judgment is real, but that God is, first and foremost, a God of mercy – a God of second chances – third, fourth – God is a God of mercy.

Choosing life as Moses instructs us, we choose to follow God’s commands; we choose to seek God’s guidance in mending broken relationships; we choose to transform the pain of our past and present brokenness into healthy growth toward happier healthier God-centered relationships – being merciful to ourselves and merciful to others as God is merciful to us.

Our baptism is the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace of God’s mercy; as Episcopalians, we acknowledge our one baptism for the forgiveness of our lifelong sinfulness.  As we share in the baptism of others into the Body of Christ, we experience again and again the flowing waters of God’s cleansing mercy, washing away the deep pain of our sins; choosing life.

05
Feb

Salt

Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12], 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16], Matthew 5:13-20, Psalm 112:1-9, (10)

 

Today, right about now, our sister-in-Christ Claire Hoffman is beginning worship at the Church of the Epiphany where the bishop is present for his official visitation, and where Claire along with a number of others will be confirmed by the bishop as an official adult members of The Episcopal Church

Confirmation is one of our seven sacraments that is reserved for the bishop.  And, because of the number of parishes in the Diocese of Southern Virginia, the bishop is able to visit only every 2½ years.  Claire was eager to be confirmed and we are grateful for the invitation by the people of Epiphany.  We look forward to celebrating with Claire in the coming weeks as she rejoins us for worship as an official Episcopalian and a member of our parish.

The sacrament of confirmation fulfills the definition of a sacrament as being an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  The outward sign of confirmation is the laying on of hands by the bishop; these hands continue the apostolic succession, in that as hands were laid upon the very first apostles, they have been handed down through the generations without breaking that succession.

The inward and spiritual grace present at confirmation and within all other sacraments is through the presence of the Holy Spirit.  As liturgical human beings, we appreciate the outward and visible signs – our tangible, human rituals – that assist in drawing us into the inward and spiritual grace of the Holy Spirit – drawing us into a deeper mindfulness of God’s presence in our lives – a clearer tangible view of his call to serve, which is particularly important to us at these times of rites of passage.

The prophet Isaiah, as the mouthpiece for God, is speaking to the people of Judah whose spiritual practices had become adulterated, watered down, and misdirected.  In our lesson from Isaiah’s prophecy, Isaiah speaks specifically of fasting – an important spiritual discipline; many of us will pursue some practice of fasting during the season of Lent, which begins in a few weeks.

But, those to whom Isaiah is writing were grumpy fasters; actually their fasting made them even grumpier.  There fasting was a form of showboating.  Isaiah was speaking to those for whom fasting was an outward and visible sign of their superficial commitment to worship.  Their fasting ignored the inward and spiritual grace.  Isaiah speaks to us as well, cautioning us to make our ritualistic worship and spiritual disciplines vessels for a greater sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit – cautioning us against the temptation to make our religious actions a showboat.

Jesus, too, is speaking of showboaters.  Last week we began our journey with Jesus as his ministry begins with his premier Sermon on the Mount.  This week’s Gospel lesson continues that sermon as Jesus begins his warnings to his disciples about the pitfalls that they will encounter – the pitfalls that so many of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day had fallen into.

Jesus says to his disciples and to us, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, … It is no longer good for anything.”

The imagery of salt is one with which Jesus’ audience could relate.  Salt is essential to life.  It was particularly essential for food preservation in the centuries before refrigeration became common.  There is historical evidence of the recognition of the importance of salt for over 8000 years.  Wars have been fought, tax rates have been determined, and communities have developed over the availability of salt.  In ancient times, roads were built for the specific purpose of transporting salt from seaports to inland areas.  Salt was bartered and has frequently been used as currency.  Roman legions, were paid in salt; thus, the word “salary” from the original Latin translation of the word “salt.”

In the negative, salt was sprinkled throughout the properties by the victors of defeated nations to prevent plant growth for years to come – rubbing salt on the wound, we might say.

And, from early times, salt has been an important element in religious practices.

Jesus’ reference to salt losing its taste is uncertain; surely, he knew that salt cannot lose its saltiness.  Salt can be adulterated by contamination; it can be watered down by the tiniest amount of moisture; it can be misdirected in ways that actually cause damage, but it cannot lose its taste.

Perhaps Jesus was emphasizing that his followers could not lose their faithfulness in the same way that salt cannot lose its taste.  Salt cannot lose its taste; we cannot lose our faith.  Jesus was directing his words at the religious leaders who had exploited their power to the point of alienating and persecuting those whose spirituality they were charged to protect.

Jesus is warning these leaders and warning us that our faith becomes adulterated when our outward and visible religious rituals lack the inward and spiritual grace of the Holy Spirit.  When our worship becomes complacent and misdirected, our faith feels watered down.  And, worst of all, when we use our religious practices and political opinions to alienate others, we inflict permanent damage on the faith journeys of others who are looking to us outward and visible Christians for guidance toward inward and spiritual grace.

As followers of Christ, we are the salt of the earth.  Our worship and our sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.  The outward and visible signs lack meaning without the inward and spiritual grace.

We are the salt of the earth.  As faithful Christians, we have the capability to bring richness to the spiritual journeys of those we encounter in our daily lives.  Conversely, we have the capacity to misdirect and alienate.

It will not be the hands of our bishop that invoke the Holy Spirit upon Claire this morning.  God will do that.  But, the bishop’s hands will symbolize for Claire, for all those being confirmed, that we brothers and sisters in Christ are present with her this morning through the inward and spiritual grace of the Holy Spirit – salt that cannot lose its saltiness, faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.

29
Jan

Beatitudes

Micah 6:1-8, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12, Psalm 15

O mortal, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?  [Micah 6:8]

These words from the eighth chapter of Micah’s prophecy are titled the “Golden Text of the Old Testament.”  They bring to mind the concluding lines of our Confession of Sin that we make as one body whenever we come together to worship.  We express these thoughts in a variety of ways:

For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,

have mercy on us and forgive us;

that we might delight in your will,

and walk in your ways,

to the glory of your Name.

In the Rite I Confession, we ask our “most merciful Father” to forgive us and “grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please thee in newness of life.”  And, in the Rite I Morning Prayer Confession, we ask for mercy and restoration that we might “live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of [God’s] holy Name.

How are we to walk humbly with God as the prophet Micah suggests?  How are we to delight in God’s will and walk in God’s ways?  What is it to live in newness of life – a godly, righteous, and sober life?

There is no better source for this answer to how we are to walk humbly with our God than the Beatitudes – the beginning words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that we read today as our Gospel lesson.  Here we find nine indications of what it is to delight in God’s will and walk in God’s ways.

We read last week of Jesus receiving the news of the arrest of John the Baptist and of Jesus’ calling of the first of his disciples.  He has moved from is childhood home of Nazareth to Capernaum, a town northeast of Nazareth, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee where his ministry has now begun in earnest.  We are to understand that the “new age” is introduced as Jesus begins his teaching; Matthew writes that Jesus sat down, as is the traditional teaching position of a Jewish rabbi.

Jesus speaks of “newness of life” – Jesus has not come to abolish the law; Jesus has come to guide us in our clarified interpretation of God’s law.  As Jesus took his place upon the mountain and began to teach, Jesus took his place as the new Moses on a new Mount Sinai bringing a new revelation of God’s law – the epiphany of the Word made flesh.

God’s law and justice are real; as humans we require strict laws and the demands of justice.  We require strict laws and the demands of justice as our guidance in the ways of living in relationship with one another.

The Beatitudes are about relationship.  Otherwise, the Beatitudes make little sense to us; we cannot keep the Beatitudes to ourselves – the blessings about which the Beatitudes speak come in our relationships with one another.  The Beatitudes do not express demands; rather they suggest characteristics that indicate one’s humble walk with God.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Those who recognize their poverty of spirit acknowledge total dependence on God’s presence – a sense of patience and calm as we place ourselves in the delight of God’s will.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Those in Matthew’s audience were mourning for the repeated destruction of Jerusalem and the persecution of God’s people.  These words echo those of the prophet Isaiah who speaks of his purpose as bringing comfort to those who mourn for the state of God’s people in exile.  We are blessed by God when we mourn with empathy for our neighbors who are grieving and broken by the ways of the world, when we recognize and mourn for injustice.  God will console us – will strengthen us – so that we might bring comfort to others who suffer.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  The literal meaning of the term used for the word “meek” is equivalent to “poor in spirit.”  What better way to understand God’s desire for meekness than that meekness expressed by the newborn babe laid in the manger – the epitome of meekness who was, at the same time, God incarnate.  Through our willingness to open our hearts and minds in all meekness to God’s powerful gifts, recognizing our powerlessness, we shall inherit the abundant prosperity of God’s blessing.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  God’s justice is real; as we hunger and thirst for God’s justice, we find guidance and nurturance in our human behavior in our relationships with one another.  We love without fear; we seek justice for our neighbor.  The psalmist speaks of those wandering in desert wastelands until they cried to the Lord and were led to an “inhabited town” by the steadfast love of the Lord.  Here, in relationship, we find God’s wonderful works to humankind, as God satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.  [Psalm107:4-9]

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  It is from our merciful God that we beg forgiveness of our sins.  Mercy is God’s attribute; in knowing God, we obtain his mercy and attain that mercy for others as we are expected to be merciful in the same way to others.  Our hope is founded on the mercy of God at the final judgment.  We are assured of this mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  In total sincerity, the vision of the pure in heart is not obscured by the ways of the world.  God’s uprighteousness extends to our inmost being and is expressed in our every action.  Shortly, as we offer thanks for the spiritual food in the Sacrament of our Lord’s Body and Blood, we will ask to be sent forth into the world with gladness and singleness of heart – purity of heart that we might be ever mindful of God’s everliving presence with us and through us.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. The Hebrew word for peace is shalom.  Shalom expresses the ultimate fullness of God’s gifts – peace that only God can provide.  We are children of God when we work for this peace in our earthly lives; yet, we know that it will only be accomplished in total in the perfection of God’s kingdom.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  Just as the Hebrews were and continue to be persecuted by non-believers; just as Jesus’ fellow Jews who sat at his feet listening to his words were being persecuted by their political and religious leaders; just as the early Christians to whom Matthew is writing were persecuted and martyred; so we, too, will be ostracized by the world for standing up for our beliefs in God’s righteousness.  We will be ostracized for loving without fear.

Christians are murdered for their faith daily in many areas of the world.  Yet, Jesus says we are to rejoice and be glad, for our reward is great in heaven.  We live in the hope and expectation of God’s kingdom that is now and is to come.  In God’s kingdom, his power and his righteous judgment will prevail and be acknowledged by all creation – made manifest for all creation.  There, by the grace of our salvation through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we will walk humbly with our God.

22
Jan

Vessels

Isaiah 9:1-4  1 Corinthians 1:10-18  Matthew 4:12-23  Psalm 27:1, 5-13

 

Three years ago, as a monthly mission here at the Church of the Advent, our parish collected school supplies for children in Honduras.  These were kindergarteners who had been attending class in a sparsely supplied tiny firetrap of a room attached to the rear of a home in the little mountain village of San Antonio, Cortes, Honduras.  Our Friends of Honduras USA foundation had recently completed the construction of a spacious building that was to be their school as well as a community-gathering place.

That January, my husband, daughter, and I travelled to Honduras to deliver the school supplies you had contributed and to be a part of the community celebration of the opening of the school.  We spent our first few days there doing the final cleaning and painting the interior and exterior walls, and setting up the desks and chairs.

On Sunday, we returned to the school with the generous boxes of supplies from the people of the Church of the Advent – ordinary supplies that our children enjoy daily – storybooks, crayons, drawing tablets, activity books, glue sticks, flash cards.  We laid the supplies on each table, hung some colorful displays of ABC’s and numbers on the walls, and waited for the children to arrive.

They arrived in their Sunday best, polished and groomed, not a hair out of place.  And, we were taken aback by their reaction.  We expected them to charge into the room and grab the colorful supplies.  Instead, they crept in just barely beyond the entrance door; eyeing the bright and cheerful environment, their big dark eyes growing wider and wider, amazed at the thought that these gifts could be for them, hesitant to consider the thought.  We essentially had to beg them to come in, sit at the tables, and begin enjoying the crayons and coloring books.  Clearly, they had rarely seen such a sight.  Their pure innocent amazement and gratitude was overflowing.

These children had no idea that their gift to us had a greater impact than our gifts to them.  In that moment, those ordinary crayons and coloring books became sacred – a vessel of love from thousands of miles away – from you to them.  It was a holy moment.  In holy moments, God breaks into our lives unexpectedly; the ordinary earthly things of our lives become sacred.  Your simple gifts had touched these lives in profound unforgettable ways.

In our Gospel lesson ordinary, fishermen become followers of Jesus Christ – ordinary unsuspecting men become saints whose names and legacies will be handed down through centuries of Christendom.  Ordinary earthlings made sacred.

It is an ordinary day in the lives of Peter, Andrew, James, and John as described for us in Matthew’s Gospel.  What did Jesus see in these four fishermen?  Typically, fishermen have rough gnarled hands and muscular sunburned arms.  They are covered in fishy slime from head to toe.  Their hair is crusty with salt spray; often their manners and language can be just as crusty.  Fishermen are tough and weather-beaten; they challenge nature; they weather rough cold seas and the brutal heat of the mid-day sun as they haul in their priceless nets filled with bountiful catch.  Without doubt, these fishermen in our Gospel lesson matched this description of typical fishermen on this ordinary day as they were going about their daily livelihood.  We might have wanted to turn away from them, but Jesus didn’t.  What did Jesus see in them?

And, what was in the natures of these four fishermen that made them so readily drop the nets they were right then, at that moment, casting into the sea?  The literal translation of the phrase describing their action indicates a direct response – almost involuntary response.  What was it that transformed these men and this ordinary day into a day most sacred in their lives – and ours?

“Immediately,” Matthew writes, “they left their nets and followed Jesus.”  They left all that was familiar and secure – the sea, their nets, their livelihoods, their families – and followed Jesus into the unknown and the sacred – so sacred that 2,000 years later, lives continue to be affected profoundly by their discipleship – the sacred gift of the inbreaking of God into the otherwise ordinary daily lives of four rough unrefined fishermen who could not resist Jesus’ call.

Our names may not be so famous, or even known at all, by the lives we touch as we become vessels of the inbreaking of God.  Here, at the Church of the Advent, victims of alcohol addiction know our building as a place to come to gather in comfort and receive support from others experiencing the same challenges.  Hundreds of children and adults are fed by the food distributed through our food pantry each week and their souls are fed through the ministry of our compassionate volunteers and prayer partners.  Our clothes closet patrons not only receive much needed clothing, but respect and fashion advice; they go away with a boost to their appearance and their spirits.

Our Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts are becoming an integral part of our parish.  Though most are members of other churches, these young people and their leaders will remember the welcoming spirit of our parish that provides a familiar, safe, and comfortable space for their meetings.  Many of you have come to know and respect Dr. May who comes here weekly to provide psychological counseling for a growing number of clients.  Through our monthly missions, we address needs of worthy charitable causes such as the Barry Robinson Center, the SPCA, Boys’ Home, and others; our spring and fall fundraisers provide financial contributions to numerous efforts.

On an average of seven times a year, we reach out to families who have lost loved ones, providing the comforts of Christian burial and emotional support to parishioners and extended family.  Sunday after Sunday, guest worshipers of all descriptions know they are welcome to join us for worship.

Through this parish, you are ministers to all of these.  Your ordinary lives become sacred as you become vessels of the inbreaking of God for all of these who come with these wide-ranging needs.  And, each discovers the inbreaking of God, the ordinary made sacred in each of their lives in ways that only God can measure.

It is this inbreaking of God that we come to celebrate today as we gather for our annual parish meeting.  Perhaps we think our parish membership is small and our financial resources inadequate, and certainly we can use some expansion in these numbers, but we cannot measure and we cannot underestimate the impact that our ministries make on the lives of those who come into our midst.

Each of you is an unexpected vessel for the inbreaking of God into the life of an ordinary person in need of experiencing the sacred.  Jesus sees that in each of us and Jesus says, “Follow me.”

14
Jan

Father’s love

Revelation 21:2-7  Psalm 46  John 5:24-27

What you want to hear is why.  Our God is Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer; our God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving.  Why does a child of God – so kind and giving, so loved, so needed – why did this child of God suffer so terribly and die so young leaving this precious family?  We just don’t understand, and I don’t have that answer.

But, Joel understands all of this now; and, one day we too, like Joel, will understand, fully, we will understand all that is God.  This is the true source of our peace, even when our hearts are so very broken.  There is peace in the acceptance that one day we will understand.

Certainly, Joel’s earthly presence is absent; but, mostly, Joel’s earthly absence is so present.  That absence will be so very present for so very long.

Some will say, “It is God’s will.”  Others will say, “All things happen for a reason.”  True, perhaps, but those thoughts are not always very helpful in grief.  Many of us will say less than helpful things in our desperate attempt to bring comfort.  Better, I believe, to acknowledge that God’s Good reigns over all – that there is no tragedy or evil – no hardship or grief that is not overcome by the power of God’s healing grace – no sadness that is not assuaged by the goodness of God, which is love.  In every human condition, there is love; there is good.

Kelly, Sierra, and Gage, Sharon and Bob, in this, your deepest grief, you are lifted and carried by the goodness of God expressed in the loving community that surrounds you.  Total strangers weep with you – This is the Goodness of God’s love that, in God’s time, overcomes all grief.  This is the goodness that will bring strength at the times you struggle to breathe.  This is the Good News – the reality – the peace that allows us to celebrate Joel’s life and legacy, even though our hearts are heavy.

Our message is the Resurrection message; our host who makes this celebration possible is Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The ultimate Goodness of God came to earth in the human person of Jesus Christ who was born as Joel was born, who loved and lived on earth as Joel loved and lived on earth, who suffered as Joel suffered, who died much too young as Joel died much too young.  Our Lord came to earth to live and die as one of us; our Lord willingly took our sins into himself; our Lord patiently and willingly died and descended to hell infested by our sins.  There, our Lord destroyed sin and death forever and rose victorious from the grave – all for us, each one of us, with no partiality.  Jesus Christ rose victorious from the grave that we might not die but have everlasting life.

Our greatest fear is our earthly death, and even more so, the earthly death of those we love.  Yet, our Lord assures us we need not fear death; our Lord is victorious over death.  Joel now resides in that everlasting victory over death; Joel runs free of suffering where “mourning and crying and pain are no more,” [Revelation 21:4] as revealed to us in the Revelation to John, which we heard earlier.  Joel would want us to hear this Resurrection message on this occasion and carry with us this message of resurrection as we grieve the presence of his absence.  He would affirm the words of Jesus, as recorded for us in John’s Gospel, “anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.”  [John 5:24]  The key, Jesus says, is simply to believe.

Joel was patient and gracious in his earthly suffering.  I did not know Joel before he had become critically ill and was recovering from his radical surgery.  Yet, I remember being impressed on that first visit in the hospital by the palpable presence of the Holy Spirit.  I knew on that day that whether Joel lived or died he would live out his earthly life in the awareness of God’s healing grace, which he so readily embraced.

Do not go from here believing that Joel was not healed.  True, his physical body – the temporary vessel of his soul – was not healed of its infirmity; but all was and all is well with his soul.  Joel knew he was healed by the Holy Spirit; In baptism, he was sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.  Joel knew this.  I believe he knew that we are not promised physical healing, but we are promised spiritual healing if only we will embrace the healing power of God’s love.  If only we believe.  Joel embraced this healing power.  Joel was healed unconditionally.

Ideally, God’s unconditional love is never more visible and realistic to us than in the unconditional love of our earthly fathers.  Fathers bear an enormous responsibility – a responsibility that is very difficult for anyone else to fill.

It is said that our image of God creates us.  As children, the adults in our lives are earthly gods to us, especially our fathers.  Whether good or bad, our image of our heavenly Father is formed by the image of our earthly fathers, and our image of God, our heavenly Father, creates us.

Joel leaves these precious children much too young, much too soon, but he leaves them with the incredible gift of the understanding of a father’s unconditional love – he leaves them with the image of God’s unconditional love for his children, and this image of God will shape their lives in incredible ways.  Joel left much too soon, but he left this incredible gift.

Fathers, mothers, parents, teachers, all adults, as you celebrate Joel’s life, as you grieve his absence, carry this image of God’s unconditional love; carry the awareness that we form the image of God in the eyes of our children.

Sierra and Gage, your father could not have loved you more and, truthfully, there is nothing you could have done that would have caused him to love you any less.  That is the gift of our heavenly Father sent down to us by our Lord Jesus Christ, and passed on to you by your earthly father.  Your father lives forever in this gift of unconditional love.

St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Chesapeake, VA

08
Jan

No Partiality

Isaiah 42:1-9  Acts 10:34-43  Matthew 3:13-17  Psalm 29

There is a lot of activity at the bird feeder and berry-bearing bushes these days.  Birds need a lot of feed when the weather is so cold; and when the ground is frozen and snow-covered, there is little chance of finding sustenance in the usual locations.  So, the birds come, each type with the distinctive markings of classification:  cardinal, chickadee, finch, tufted titmouse, sparrow, robin, warbler, blue jay, red-winged black bird – all coming to be fed.  Each bird classification is distinguished by coloring and size, beak and facial shape, but there is no partiality in their need for food for survival.  And, there is no partiality in the food’s availability – it is available to any who come to receive the food provided.

In our lesson from Acts, Peter is speaking of God’s acceptance of all who believe; God shows no partiality.  ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him,’ Peter says in verse 34.

This impartiality of God for all people is an epiphany for Peter.  Peter had struggled with the acceptance of non-Jews as God’s people – as legitimate followers of Jesus Christ.  Up until the time of Jesus’ ministry on earth, anything non-Jewish – whether food, livelihood, or people – was considered profane, unclean.  Simply visiting the home of a Gentile, sharing a meal, rendered one unclean.  This was the context of Peter’s strict Jewish upbringing.

In today’s lesson, Peter is speaking to the household of Cornelius, a Roman centurion; it is understood that all in the home of Cornelius are Gentiles.  Cornelius was a God-fearing man who, himself, had had an epiphany.  In the previous verses of the 10th chapter of Acts, we read that, as Cornelius was praying, he was instructed through a visit from an angel of God to send for Peter to come to him and speak the word of God.  Peter, simultaneously, had a vision in which a voice from heaven instructed him of God’s acceptance of all, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’  [Acts 10:15]  Thus, when summoned by Cornelius, Peter knew that he was to answer this call to ministry.

These visions by Cornelius and Peter are interlinked and greatly significant.  In concert, these epiphanies institute great changes in the lives of both men; our reflection on these events brings about our own epiphanies in our understanding of God’s unconditional impartial love for us and in our need to receive all others as God’s children – as God receives us.  Cornelius and his household would hear the words of God through Peter, and Peter would come to accept and receive all people – all “made clean” by God.

Chapter 10 of Acts continues with the account of Peter’s visit to the household of Cornelius at which time Peter spoke the words we read today.  Acts 10:44 tells us that the Holy Spirit descended upon all who heard the words of God preached by Peter that day; all were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

It is our baptism by the Holy Spirit and in the name of Jesus Christ that unites us as one in the Body of Christ.  All four Gospels place Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of his ministry; we know nothing of Jesus’ ministry before his baptism.  For Matthew and Luke, the baptism serves as the reentry of Jesus, now an adult, into the Gospel narratives as his ministry begins.

Jesus, himself, came to be baptized by John in the Jordan.  Was Jesus, too, seeking forgiveness of sin?  We know Jesus to be without sin.  So, why was Jesus baptized and why is it so important that we are baptized?

Our events of celebration of the Incarnation, The Epiphany, and the Baptism of our Lord – which we celebrate each year on this first Sunday after The Epiphany, are not randomly placed events.  The events represent the evolution of our own epiphanies, and it is important that we see the interconnectedness.

From the Incarnation, we come to understand that it is okay to be human – that our humanness is to be celebrated – that God himself chose to come to earth as a human in the human nature of Jesus, the Word made flesh.  Looking to the human Jesus, we affirm that our bodies are not just containers.  Certainly, our bodies are limited, at times quite frail, but our bodies allow us to carry out our ministries within the Body of Christ as Jesus’ earthly body allowed him to carry out his ministry on earth.  It’s okay to be human, and we are called to celebrate that humanness in our understanding and belief in the Incarnation, and, similarly, in our celebration of the Baptism of our Lord – the earthly baptism of the human Jesus who came to live as we live.

Because we are human, we have a need for outward, visible, tangible signs of life’s transformational experiences – in this case the water in which we are baptized.  Similarly, the wedding ring is an outward and visible sign of the sacrament of our marriage.  But, it is the inward and spiritual grace of the Holy Spirit that seals our commitment to our marriage vows.  And, it is the inward and spiritual grace of the Holy Spirit that brings about the transformation of our baptism – the cleansing and renewal – our humanness made sacred as we are commended into Christian service.

As affirmed in our Gospel account of Jesus’ baptism, it is the presence of the Holy Spirit in which Jesus is baptized and in which all are baptized – prince or pauper, rich or poor, young or old, healthy or frail – all are baptized by the same Holy Spirit.  Cornelius and his household were baptized by the same Holy Spirit.

Through the work of the Holy Spirit, we are transformed.  There is no partiality; all who come are fed.  Through baptism by water and the Holy Spirit, the humanness of each of us is transformed into the sacred Body of Christ.

Our ministry begins.

01
Jan

Name

Numbers 6:22-27  Philippians 2:5-11  Luke 2:15-21  Psalm 8

Today, on the eighth day of Christmas, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name.

NAMES are important.

When we are baptized into the Body of Christ we are named before the Lord, marked as his own forever as we are presented for His service.

The names we give to our children will impact them for their lifetimes.

When someone important to us forgets our name, it hurts; and, more positively, when someone remembers our name when we had not expected that particular person to remember our name, our self-esteem is lifted.

Politicians seek to develop particular skills in remembering names of potential supporters.  Clergy and schoolteachers recognize the power of calling parishioners and students by name.

Tennis shoes were just tennis shoes until Nike launched the Air Jordan in 1984.  Carrying the name of Michael Jordan, Nike has introduced a new version of the ever popular shoe yearly, keeping the adoring public in expectation of the newly introduced collectors’ item for over 30 years.  We are now up to Air Jordan XXXI “Chicago”; get your pair from Nike for $185.00.

Names are a “control thing.”  Naming rights signify control.  Super Bowl 2017 will be held in NRG Energy Stadium in Houston, Texas on Sunday February 5.  NRG Energy, Inc. is a large US-based energy company with corporate offices in Houston.  The stadium is part of the enormous NRG Energy Park sports complex, which received its name in the year 2000 as the result of a 32-year naming rights contract at a cost of $300 million.  Throughout Super Bowl evening, we’ll learn more about NRG and we can expect the half-time show, the instant replays, and the scoreboard to boast names of other significant corporate contributors willing and able to purchase mere moments – dollars per second – of the limelight of our attention, hoping that their names will be seeded in our memory.

Names are a “control thing.”  We can trace the history of naming rights to the creation of the world and throughout our biblical history.

Today, the eighth day of Christmas, we celebrate the Holy Name – the name that is above every name.  In verse 21 of the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel we learn that eight days following Jesus’ birth, the time had come for him to be circumcised and named.  This second chapter of Luke, from which our Gospel lesson comes, recounts the only and very minimal information in the entire Bible of Jesus’ childhood and youth.

These ritual acts associated with Jesus’ birth and naming that are described for us in our lesson from Luke are in keeping with the traditional Jewish laws of Moses.  Jesus and his parents were faithful Jews loyal to the Jewish traditions of their heritage.

Yet, Jesus’ name was not the typical family heritage generated name.  At the Annunciation, Mary had been instructed by the angel to name her child JesusThe Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion states, “proper names in ancient times had a significance to which no parallel exists to the present day.  The name was taken as representing the essence of the bearer.”  We note in Biblical history that when a significant change in mode occurred in a person’s life, the name was changed to represent the point of change of being.  A name was changed to signify a person’s newly accepted covenant with God.

So, we see that from the beginning of time until today, name holds great significance.  In our story of the nativity, when the angel appears to the shepherds, he announces the birth of a Savior, Messiah, Lord.  The Greek translation of Lord is KyriosKyrios is the very same term as that used for God’s holy and personal name throughout the Greek translation of the Old Testament.  In today’s lesson, Mary, as instructed by the angel, names the child Jesus – the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, which translates “The Lord has saved.”  Thus, the name Jesus means “the Lord has saved,” – Lord being the same term used as God’s holy and personal name throughout the history of God’s people and until the birth of Jesus.  Jesus’ name affirms him as Lord – God eternal, true God from true God.

This significance of the name “Jesus” is emphasized in today’s excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Here, Paul meticulously points our attention to the reality of the humanity and the reality of the divinity of Jesus Christ; the reality of these two natures of humanity and divinity is expressed through the name Lord.

For Paul, the name of Lord carries with it its secular historical meanings of master and owner, later evolving politically into an official title for Roman emperors and, then religiously, as a title for Greek and Roman gods.  For Paul, the name Lord encompassed all these historical, political, and religious meanings.  Jesus as Lord is Master and Owner of all life, King of all Kings.[1]

These familiar verses that we read from the second chapter of Philippians have come to be regarded as the Christ Hymn.  “Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  [NRSV Philippians 2:9-11]

Jesus, the name that speaks the essence of the bearerthe Lord has saved.

The prophet Jeremiah says, “You, O Lord, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name.”  [NRSV Jeremiah 14:9b]  Let us not forget, we are the Lord’s covenant people, called by His name.

Our Christian sacrament of baptism has replaced the Jewish tradition of circumcision and naming on the eighth day.  Whether we are baptized as infants or teenagers or mature adults, as we are baptized, we are named, and presented to the Lord for service as Christians in the Body of Christ serving the world.

There is no $300 million contract necessary in order to be called by the Holy Name; you will not need the newest pair of Air Jordan’s; the price is paid.  Jesus, true to the essence of his name; Jesus the Lord has saved.



[1] Willam Barclay, “The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians,” in The New Daily Study Bible (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 2003) 41-46.

25
Dec

Reflection of the light

Isaiah 52:7-10  Hebrews 1:1-4,(5-12)  John 1:1-14  Psalm 98

 

Our emergency EXIT lights that hang above nearly every doorway throughout the church building are a big issue around here.  Our wardens Bill Menheer and Ray Camden will confirm that these lights require constant attention – keeping the bulbs replaced or the entire fixture replaced is an ever-present hassle.  If Church Insurance or the fire marshal shows up and finds one of these lights not working, we are cited for this critical safety violation.

We scoff and shake our heads at this bother.  And, yet, when we find ourselves in the dark, particularly in a crisis, our first goal is to get light restored.  We keep a flashlight where we know we can find it in the dark when our power goes out at home; airlines assure us that if the cabin lights fail during flight, the aisles will be lighted for our safety; our Christmas trees are not very festive without lights; when we head down an otherwise dark hall here in this building, our path is lighted by the ever-present emergency exit light, which is to our advantage.  We want to know that if we are plunged into darkness, light will soon be available.  When, we are in the darkness, we just can’t think of much else until we have light.

Yet, I am known to creep around in the dark.  When I go out at night to walk the dogs, I refuse to turn on the floodlights; I want to see the moon and the stars and the bright planets that are visible.  I can always be depended upon to tell you the moon’s progress – waxing or waning.  There is great satisfaction in strolling under the bright moonlight.

However, if we know our earth science, we know that the moon has no light except that reflected by the sun; though we refer to the quarter moon and half moon – the waxing and the waning, the moon doesn’t change; the light of the moon is dependent upon the ever present light of the sun and the position of the earth; the moon has no light of its own; it simply sends back to us on earth the reflection of the light of the sun, which is always shining somewhere in the world.

Light is an important theme for the writer of John’s Gospel.  The Word (capital W) that has come into the world is the true light.  We affirm that, and will reaffirm that in just a few moments when we stand together to recite the Nicene Creed:  “God from God, Light from light, true God from true God.”  Jesus the Son is the true light; his light is the light of God.

Our lesson emphasizes that John the Baptist was not the light, but that he had come to testify to the true light that was coming into the world.  John the Baptist was a reflection of the true light, which is Jesus Christ.

Just as for John, the true light does not radiate from us; it is the reflected light of Christ; it is reflected upon us into the darkness of the world.  Being the reflection of the light of the world requires our remaining close to Christ.  It is the light of Christ reflected in us that comes into the chaos of the world.

I pray this Christmas is a renewal of your joy, perhaps a time to understand more clearly the awesome impact of the Incarnation – the true light of the Word made flesh coming to live among us.   Do not let the glory of this season go unnoticed – the grace and truth of the Word made flesh.

There is no evil that is not overcome by the goodness of God; the vast darkness of the night sky only serves to accentuate the brightness of the sun’s reflection on the moon.

As you carry with you a renewed sense of joy of the Word made flesh, remember that you are the reflection of the light of Christ – the light of grace and truth that shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

24
Dec

Awe

Isaiah 9:2-7  Titus 2:11-14  Luke 2:1-14(15-20)  Psalm 96

Wow!  It is Christmas again!  I think we all agree that Christmas comes quicker and quicker every year.  As children, we waited in awesome wonder, seemingly endlessly waiting for Christmas to come.

My brother and I would beg my mother to drag out the decorations earlier and earlier each year.  We had a favorite tree ornament that, I’m sure, came in a flimsy carton of ordinary ornaments from WT Grant’s in Great Bridge.  But, my brother and I thought this particular ornament was the most beautiful ornament ever.  It is a small round ball of clear glass; it has alternating bands of white snow-like glitter and transparent green.  We had never seen an ornament so unique, and we would take turns being the one to hang it on the tree year after year, standing in awe of its beauty.  To anyone else it is non-descript and 1960’s out-of date, but I treasure it still because of these memories, and it now hangs on my tree every year.

Why is it that that sense of awe wanes as we grow older?  The faithful simplicity and freedom from inhibitions that allowed us to be present there next to the manger, waiting endlessly for the babe’s arrival, gets diminished and distracted by the cares of adulthood – perhaps diminished to the point that we come to worship on this eve of the Nativity wondering what happened to the awe, maybe wondering why we are even here.

We don’t stand on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay wondering what happened to the awe.  Whether the mountainous waves are crashing on shore as a terrific storm approaches or mere tiny ripples are lapping gently peacefully onto the sand, the constancy of the sea reminds us of God’s power.  The sea is awesome.  We never outgrow that sense of awe; the sea is a constant reminder of the omnipotent omnipresence of our Creator God.

Neither should we allow ourselves to outgrow the sense of awe that we come to celebrate and relive on this night.  Just as the sea is constant, so also, is our all-powerful, ever present, all knowing Creator constant in his love for us.

This love is so powerful and so constant that God the Father sent God the Son to be born of human flesh – God the Son, to live and die as one of us, to take the sin of all creation upon himself, rising victorious above evil and death so that we and all creation might be redeemed of the sin we brought into the world.  God came among us in the meek, seemingly powerless human nature of Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph of Nazareth, born in a stable in Bethlehem; God is forever constant with us in the all powerful divine nature of Christ –the Messiah, Emmanuel – God with us.  How can we ever allow the awe of this truth to wane?

God’s love for us is so awesome that he came to be born as one of us, to suffer and die as one of us.  God’s pure love comes with no expectations, except to be love.

In love, God the Son being born of human flesh assures us it is okay to be human.  Jesus Christ was born of human flesh to help us understand that it is not God who punishes us for our sins, but our human sins themselves that punish us.  Jesus came to show us how to live as redeemed humans in relationship with all God’s creation.  How can we not remain in awe of this love that transforms our painful sins into God’s guidance for how we are to live in relationship with one another?

Jesus doesn’t wait for us to become saints before he calls us to follow him.  Remember his motley crew made up of fishermen, a tax collector, a carpenter, a hotheaded zealot, and other virtual unknowns.  Two of them were so arrogant as to request that they be seated on the left and right of Jesus’ heavenly throne.  Even after three years of such a close relationship, Jesus’ very human disciples denied him, doubted, and betrayed him at the end of his earthly life.  But, they were redeemed by the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and they were transformed into amazing apostles, spreading the awe of the Good News of the Christian message to all the world.

The disciples were human like us – as Jesus was human; they were redeemed as we are redeemed because of Jesus’ humanity; they followed as we are called to follow – all through the awesome power of God’s love come down to us in the Incarnation that we are gathered here to celebrate, the awe of the Incarnation into which we are to live each day.

So, we are here on this night because of the constancy of God’s love – love so powerfully awesome that God the Father sent God the Son to be born of human flesh, to live among us that we might know how we are to live.

Come, little children.  Come into the warmth and light of the stable.  Kneel beside the manger; be present in faithful childlike simplicity, uninhibited by the world.  Kneel there so close that you can feel the calm breath of the Christ Child; kneel there where you can gaze into the new baby’s big dark eyes; kneel there, suspended in awesome wonder, as the babe turns to look at you.  Kneel there where you can see so clearly your own reflection in the eyes of the tiny Christ Child – your own reflection in the eyes of the Mighty God, the Prince of Peace, God Incarnate.

11
Dec

Sleeping Lions

Isaiah 35:1-10 Canticle 15 James 5:7-10  Matthew 11:2-11

 

A highlight of our recent trip to Africa was a safely distant encounter with 5 lions at the Chobe National Park in Botswana.  These quite docile kitties were snuggled together for their 20-hour daily nap, snoozing in the shade, sheltered from the brutal heat of mid-afternoon African sun.  There was an occasional bored acknowledgment of our paparazzi presence.  I’m confident, however, that any one of the five could have devoured this entire pulpit with one swat and gulp.

I don’t even like to wake our dogs from a nap; I assure you I was not eager to disturb these enormous and ferocious beasts.  We had been cautioned not to wave our hands outside the jeep, and of course not to exit the jeep – though I don’t recall it being necessary, actually, for the guides to give us such instruction.

The concept is that as one large composite unit we did not represent a threat to the lions; separated from the group however, one would become a suspicious nuisance attracting investigation and, perhaps, consumption.

Later, as our group travelled up the path a bit, we came upon a young man whose Subaru was stuck in the deep sand; our guides offered an unsuccessful tow, but in the end, after calling alternative help, we had to leave him behind.  He was eventually rescued, I’m sure, but driving away from him, I felt a sense of aloneness for him, abandonment by us even for one so seemingly foolish as to set out alone and ill-equipped in such treacherous terrain.

In our Old Testament lesson this morning, the prophet Isiah is speaking to the people of God who have felt the abandonment of exile in Babylon.  Judah had fallen in the 6th century BC; the Great Temple of Jerusalem destroyed and her people scattered and held captive by the empires to the east of Israel.  Today’s words of prophecy from Isaiah bring hope to God’s people – whether feeling separated and abandoned in ancient Babylon or in 21st century America.

These words appear at an odd place in the book of Isaiah.  Nearly 2/3 of the earlier chapters of Isaiah are filled with words of warning and woe about the judgment that was to come for the people of God, still residing at home in Judah, complacent in their faith.

But, here amidst the doom and gloomy prophecy are the beautiful words of hope and joy that we read this morning.  Condemned to exile, in this state of abandonment and hopelessness, fraught with fear, the people of God sense this inbreaking of God expressed through Isaiah.  Unexpectedly, inexplicably amongst the woe, God’s words voiced by Isaiah inspire patience in suffering.

James, too, is writing to the people of God who are experiencing spiritual exile.  The first century Jewish Christians to whom James writes were scattered by decades of political and religious persecution that had driven God’s people from their homeland to various areas of the known world.  James exhorts them and any one of us feeling abandoned to be patient as we wait for the coming of the Lord.

Ah, we are not abandoned; God has always and is forever gathering us into his Kingdom.  We are never separate from God; we are one composite unit in God’s presence.  Remaining one composite unit, we are insulated, resistant to evil.  The message of James and Isaiah would have been interpreted with great joy by the exiled people of God willing to listen – exiles in foreign lands, persecuted for their faith in the one God.  Sensing this inbreaking of the Spirit, they were assured that God was present, hope restored.

In this morning’s Gospel lesson, even in the gloom and doom of a 1st century Roman prison, John the Baptist is assured of the inbreaking of God in the person of Jesus Christ.  In the eleventh chapter, Matthew reports that John the Baptist had been imprisoned by Herod Antipas.  It was this John to whom Jesus himself had come for baptism.  From what we have read of John, we know that he would have been the type to wave his arms outside the Jeep, fearlessly awakening the ire of the sleeping lions – the Pharisees and Sadducees and Herod Antipas specifically.

Yet, held in a dark and dank Roman prison, John is assured that he is not abandoned; Jesus, whom he knew, is the Messiah.  As the result of Jesus’ life and ministry, the blind see, the lame walk, the leper is cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor receive good news.  In the dark dank Roman prison, John leapt for joy, just as he had leapt for joy in his mother’s womb upon encountering the expectant Mary, just as he experienced the joyful ecstasy of the presence of the Father and the Holy Spirit at the baptism of the Son in the Jordan River.  The awakened lions could not take away John’s joy even as they threatened earthly death.

The joy of the people of Judah in exile, the joy of the early Christians under persecution, the joy of John the Baptist in the brutal Roman prison is inexplicable, except by God – all this joy is the inbreaking of God – the clear sense that God had not abandoned them, even in their dire earthly situations.

God continues to break into our earthly lives, bringing us that same sense of joy, even on difficult days when we might tend to think God has deserted us.  God, suddenly, unexpectedly breaks through the gloom of our grief and sorry and chaos like the sun suddenly, unexpectedly breaks through the clouds on a rainy day.

This joy is the specific focus for today – the third Sunday of Advent.  Today is Gaudete (gou-day-tay) Sunday.  The name is the Latin word for “Rejoice.”  In today’s lessons, as on every 3rd Sunday of Advent, we hear prophecy of hope and promise – from Isaiah: we are assured of the days to come when the desert shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.

Gaudete Sunday is the day we take a break from our penitential focus of the season of Advent to celebrate our joy – symbolized in the rose colored candle we light today.  Whatever our gloom, God breaks through to assure us we are not abandoned.

“O come, O come, Emmanuel; ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.”  Come, Emmanuel, break into our hearts with the joy of the Incarnation – the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ that assures us we are never abandoned – alone and stuck in the deep deep sand, within nose-range of sleeping lions, we are not abandoned.  God is present, the joy of Christ breaks into our earthly lives.  Gaudete!