Sunday, January 17, 2021

2 Epiphany, 20201-B: Our greening

Lectionary: 1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20); Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51             

En el nombre del Dios: que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

Epiphany is the only season on our liturgical calendar where the color changes mid-stream: from white to green. As with all things liturgical in the Episcopal church, that’s intentional and the reason is: we are shifting our collective focus from the revelation of the heavenly light of Christ to its earthly implementation.

In our Collect, we pray that we may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory. Why do we want that? 

If our answer has anything to do with our own benefit, like getting to heaven or being judged a good child of God, we’ve missed the mark. The answer in our Collect isn’t very satisfying to me either because while knowing, worshiping, and obeying Jesus are wonderful outcomes, they were not his goals.

Jesus didn’t come to be served, but to serve. He said that very explicitly. (Mt 20:28) He came to connect us to God and one another in a way that would lead to new life in complete and perfect unity with God, one another, and all creation.

It may not come as a surprise to you after the last couple of weeks, that we aren’t there yet. But take heart.

Sometimes the reconciling love of God acts first to disrupt and dismantle systems and structures we have built, structures by which we have gone astray. We tend to resist this kind of divine correction, but our story from the Old Testament today, shows us that a faithful person, even one who has gone astray, can return to faithfulness and concede to rather than resist the will of God - even when that means being held personally accountable for the wrongs done and losing the honor of former days.

Let’s begin with a little context. You may remember that the boy, Samuel, is the son of Hannah, the barren woman who prayed to God for a son, the ancestor who inspired Mary’s Magnificat. In thanksgiving for her son, Samuel, Hannah dedicated him to God giving him over to the care of Eli, the chief priest, to raise in the temple.

In our story today, Samuel hears a voice calling his name in the middle of the night, so he runs to Eli assuming he called him, but Eli hasn’t called him and sends him back to bed. After a few times, Eli realizes it is God calling to Samuel and tells him to answer “Speak Lord for your servant is listening” the next time he hears the voice.

Good advice from an experienced priest.

The next time he hears the voice call his name, Samuel responds the way Eli told him to, and God imparts a terrible truth to him, one he might rather not know, and one is afraid to share with Eli. Samuel lays in bed till morning and it’s probably a safe bet that he didn’t sleep much.

How scary it must have been to hear God speak so forcefully about punishing Eli and his line for their iniquity, which, by the way, was no secret to anyone at that time. The abuses of Eli’s sons were widely known but the system that enabled them was deeply embedded in Jewish tradition and Eli’s privilege as a Judge within that system meant could have - and should have - interceded, but he didn’t.

Eli knows God has spoken to Samuel and coerces Samuel to tell him what God said. So, Samuel does, even though he will likely lose not only his home and his temple community, but also the man who was like a father to him.

Eli’s surprising response was: “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.”

Eli had to know this was coming. He was an experienced and deeply faithful priest and judge. He knew the sins being committing and that one day he would be held accountable for not intervening. As we say in our Confession, forgive us for what we have done, and what we have left undone.

So when the moment of accountability arrived, Eli didn’t justify himself or his choices, or try to weasel out, or declare an alternative truth. Instead, he acquiesced, restoring his faithfulness to God and to his role as priest and judge.

Eli continued serving God whom he loved, in the temple for many years - until the Philistines attacked the temple. As the story goes, Eli, who was 98 years old by then, was so shocked when heard the Philistines had stolen the ark of the covenant, which he was charged to guard and tend, that he fell off of his chair, broke his neck, and died. His sons were also killed in the battle. It was the end of the family and household of Eli.

Samuel then became the Judge - the last one for Israel. As such, he anointed Saul and later David as Kings of Israel. It was King David through whom God established a path to peace and prosperity for the people of God.

Jesus descended from the line of David and as the Messiah, it was hoped he would bring peace and prosperity to Israel the way his ancestor, King David, had done. But God had a different plan, a bigger plan. By coming to us in the person of Jesus, the path to new life God opened was not just for the people of Israel, but for the whole world.

This bigger plan is what Jesus is beginning to reveal in our Gospel story. In his conversation with Nathanael Jesus demonstrates a little divine knowledge and Nathanael flushes with excitement: You are the Son of God, the King of Israel! But Nathanael is speaking about the expected Davidic King.

“Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?” Just wait and you’ll see greater things, Jesus replies. Then he uses images of angels ascending and descending - such rich symbolism - calling to mind the stories of the patriarch, Jacob, and his ladder, the book of Daniel, and Jesus’ own baptism where heaven and earth were opened to each other in real-time and experience.

In each case, the systems enabling the desolations of the current age were disrupted and God established a new pathway, a divine pathway leading to new life. In each case, the new pathway took years to be established.

Tomorrow we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a prophet who radiated the true light; and who, like other biblical prophets, was imperfect and faithful. Dr. King’s message of the value and dignity of every human being threatened the status quo, so they killed him almost 53 years ago now. They may have stopped him, but God was not stopped. The pathway God established through Dr. King is still an open channel and God is still flowing through it establishing a new path of life for us.

The systems enabling the desolations in our time are being revealed to us in an undeniable way lately. Many among us who could have - and should have- stopped the abuses in our systems didn’t.

The moment of our accountability and divine correction is upon us. How will we respond?

We can begin by looking to Eli and Samuel. When the divine correction began for them, Eli and Samuel didn’t stop loving one another. They didn’t demonize or exile the other. They stayed faithful to their relationship with God and one another so that in God’s time, the new path was forged through their cooperative obedience.

This isn’t easy. How do we prepare ourselves to walk through our moment of accountability and systems disruption without demonizing or exiling the “other side”?

This is exactly what this green portion of our season of Epiphany offers us. Having been illumined by the Word and Sacraments, we now open ourselves to what Hildegard of Bingen called “viriditas” - the greening power of the Divine - an invigorating, healing power that flows from God into us and through us into the world, connecting us, and leading us to the new life God is preparing for us.

Hildegard’s principle of connectedness can be understood in this homey example: when a person eats a

healing plant or herb like chamomile for sleep, or ginger for stomach upset we are connected in a very real way to another part of God’s creation and a pathway is established for the healing power of God to flow through our connectedness. It is important then, to keep ourselves nourished in body and spirit so that our connections to God, others, and creation remain open channels for the flow of Divine love.

Nourishment of our bodies - the rich and poor bodies among us - requires that all of us have access to food that is nutrient-rich and affordable. Nourishment of our souls requires the continual practice of prayer and service: gathering online for Sunday worship and weekday Daily Offices, practicing private meditation, supporting Calvary’s Blessing Box, Loaves and Fishes, or participating in dismantling racism in our diocese - all of these are pathways of connection, channels through which the healing power of God flows.  

Whatever chaos happens as our current systems are disrupted and divinely corrected, we know that the redeeming love of God in Christ connects us and leads us to new life. Let’s keep our channels open and watch for the greater things. Amen.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

1 Epiphany, 2021-B: Struck by grace again

 Lectionary:  Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

En el nombre del Dios, que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

This is such a powerful story - the Baptism of Jesus. In Mark’s version, as Jesus comes up out of the water, he hears a voice from heaven speaking to him saying, YOU are my beloved and with you I am well pleased. Mark doesn’t tell us that anyone else heard the voice. 

In Matthew and Luke, everyone at the river heard the voice from heaven who addressed them all saying, THIS is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased, and Luke adds that the voice said, “listen to him.” 

This may cause us to wonder, which is the true account? My answer would be, they all are. Like most things human, there are various ways to experience and describe the same event. Each gospel writer faithfully described this event their way and because of their diverse perceptions, we are richer as a people in how we encounter God through the story.

In my years as a priest, I’ve had many people ask me why Jesus was baptized at all. Why would the one who was without sin need to be baptized by John who was offering a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin?

The answer is found in how we understand sin. Theologian Paul Tillich says that before sin is an act, it's a state… a state of separation from God, from self, and from others. Jesus’ choice to be baptized demonstrated the first act of reconciliation, of uniting what had been separated, and it would define his ministry of reconciling the whole world to God.

Also by his baptism Jesus, in the fullness of his humanity, overtly invited God to enter his life. He was not coerced into his ministry just as we are not coerced into ours. It is always a choice we make freely.

Mark tells us that when Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were torn apart, and in the midst of that violent rupture the Spirit descended on Jesus softly, gently - the way a dove would. When the voice of the Spirit says to Jesus "You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased" Mark is using language that echoes what is written about the Messiah, the Suffering Servant, in the prophet, Isaiah where God says: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” (42:1)

Jesus and his cohorts knew full well that there would be suffering in Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation. So do we – when we let ourselves. 

The baptism of Jesus and his reception of the divine Spirit into his human body, changed not only the direction of his life, but the direction of all life. That's what being baptized in the Holy Spirit does, and that’s why we don’t take it lightly. We, like Jesus, have been transformed by our baptism into beloved daughters and sons of God - for a purpose - God’s purpose. 

For Episcopalians, the sacrament of baptism is an outward sign, just as Jesus’ baptism was an outward sign, of the inward and spiritual grace of our union with God in Christ. (BCP, 858) We don't understand Baptism as a form of ecclesiastical fire insurance, that is, as a go-straight-to-heaven card for when we die.

In fact, it isn’t about what happens after our death at all. It’s about how we live.

When we baptize, we are intentionally entering into the death of Jesus Christ so that we might live in the power of his resurrection. (BCP, 306) That’s why we renew our baptismal vows several times each liturgical year, so whether we were baptized as a baby by our parents’ choice or later by our own choice, we make the choice to live according to our baptismal covenant every day for the rest of our lives.

For us, the sacrament of Baptism also marks the moment of our full initiation into Christ’s body, the church. It’s why Episcopalians don’t do private baptisms. Instead, we baptize as part of our Sunday worship, in the presence of all our parish kin, then we parade the newest member of our family up and down the center isle while everyone cheers and welcomes them.

The ministry Jesus claimed at his baptism was characterized by humility. hospitality, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Jesus broke bread with Gentiles and sinners, women, and others who were outcast in his culture. Boldly proclaiming a new revelation of God’s mercy and forgiveness, Jesus freed people from the bondage of their sins, or from the bondage of those who sinned against them, and expanded the boundaries of God’s kingdom to include the least and the lost, the outcast and disrespected, and the outsider.

Jesus’ baptism in Mark is the first of those moments Tillich describes as being "struck by grace," that moment when we realize that God loves us with an incomprehensible love and suddenly "…a light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice were saying: 'You are accepted… accepted by that which is greater than you' …After such an experience [Tillich says]… everything is transformed."

Many of us were baptized as babies, so we don’t remember it. When we renew our Baptismal vows as we will today, we invite God into our bodies as Jesus did so that we can be struck by grace once again, further empowering us for our ministries.

Baptism transforms our relationships with God, with each other, and even with ourselves. Each time we renew our baptismal vows, we accept the call to be the suffering servants in our world today who commit to respect the dignity of every human being - even those we fear or despise, even those who desire to harm us or disrupt our peace.

We can count on being confronted by other “religious” people who will ridicule and condemn us for standing firm in the way of love while violence happens around us, calling us weak or apostate. They said the same about Jesus at his trial, and his faithfulness turned out to be anything but weak. Even as the violence directed at Jesus seemed to win, to destroy him, God redeemed it in a way no one could have seen coming.

The process is the same for us today. We stand firm in Jesus’ way of love, committed to living our baptismal vows every day, making space for the redeeming love of God to transform disaster, death, and despair into peace, new life, and hope.

I give thanks that, after the violent events in our nation’s capitol this week, our liturgical calendar offers us the baptism of Jesus to collect and occupy our thoughts. I’m also grateful that on this date, we typically renew our baptismal vows, which we will do right now as the part of the body of Christ known as Calvary Episcopal Church, in Columbia, MO.

Our hearts and bodies need what these words offer us. Let us pause, take a breath, and open ourselves to be struck by grace again today as we renew our Baptismal Covenant together.

Note: The Baptismal Covenant is found in the Book of Common Prayer on page 299. Choose "Holy Baptism" from the left-side menu.

Quotes above are taken from: Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations (Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1948), 154, 160, 161, 162.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Epiphany 2021-B: The cooperative reality of light and dark


Lectionary: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12 

En el nombre del Dios: que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

Happy Epiphany! There’s something hopeful about celebrating a season of revelation after being neck-deep in the darkness of COVID this past year. The recent development of a vaccine gives us hope of an eventual reinstatement of hugs, parties, dinners out, and in-person worship.

There’s a sense of relief, of excitement, and expectation in the season of Epiphany. The language in this season is all about light and darkness. Darkness, for most of us, is where monsters hide under our beds; where danger lurks in the shadows; where evil lies in wait, and where we are most vulnerable.

This concept of light as good and dark as bad, when applied to people, however, affirms all kinds of un-Christian behavior, and we’ve been doing it long enough now to call it tradition, rather than what it is: racism. With the revelations about the truth of our structural and institutional racism this last year, there’s been talk on church social media about not using the language of light and dark this season, but I think that would be a mistake.

Perhaps instead, we can recover and apply the inherent goodness and beauty of darkness. Then the startling, transforming truth of the light has a proper context.

In the first chapter of Genesis, the creation story says, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…Then God spoke and there was light. And God separated the light from the darkness…and called the light Day and the darkness Night.” (Gen 1: 2-5) And you’ll remember later in that story, God called all that had been created not just good, but very good. That includes the darkness and the night.

It is by the design of God that a seed breaks its shell in the deep darkness of the soil and sprouts new life. It was in the darkness of the tomb that Jesus broke the power of death and gave us new life in him.

Darkness is the womb of God and in it, new life is created. It isn’t bad and we needn’t fear or avoid or judge it.

We need the darkness. We need to sleep, to rest and restore our bodies, and allow our minds to process the events of our lives in our dreams – where we also just might hear the voice of God if we open to the possibility.

So much of our culture: our music, literature, movies, even our churches, promote a binary perspective: rich-poor, black-white, good guy-bad-guy, saved-condemned. It’s a natural way for us to approach things. There’s a whole part of our brain whose function it is to do just that - to split everything into two categories. It helps us organize our world - what is safe and what isn’t, what is right and what is wrong, what is worthy of our attention and what isn’t.

The problem comes in when we judge - which Jesus said over and over again that we shouldn’t do when it comes to people. As believers, we also have a problem when rely on ourselves and our own judgment rather than on God’s.

Just for the fun of it, what if we could take sides in a light vs dark contest? What if we could put assign some to be on the light side, and others on the dark side? Then what if we judged those on the light side as good, and those on the dark side as bad? Literature and movies do this for us all the time, affirming the misguided habit of judging both by human measure.

It’s an easy step then, to justify killing all of those on the dark side because they are bad, right? Most religious wars, including our own Crusades, apply this faulty thinking.

So, what would happen if one side were to completely win? We all would be destroyed - literally and figuratively.

If the good light were to “win” and vanquish the bad darkness completely, our earth would overheat and burn. The unrelenting brightness would eventually blind us, and we’d lose our natural rhythms of sleep and wakefulness, which can lead to insanity and death. We need darkness, and we need to remember and embody how to love it and receive its treasure.

Thankfully, as we heard last week, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. (Jn 1:5) The light is not the enemy of the dark. The two work together to reveal the glory of God, for it is in the darkness that the light shines.

In our time, we rarely experience true darkness anymore. Nightlights softly illumine our hallways, bathrooms, and nurseries. They make it easy for us to get to the bathroom at night without stubbing our toes, but, as Barbara Brown Taylor says, they steal from us the “treasure of the night.” That treasure, she says, is God. (Source: Learning to Walk in the Dark, by Barbara Brown Taylor)

Like the people Isaiah was writing about, we too have been through a period of great trial and difficulty. And like the people of Israel, we have been delivered, but our deliverance has placed new obstacles before us, obstacles we have to work together to overcome.

Epiphany reminds us of the importance of the cooperative reality of light and dark, each being beautiful and important to life. It also reminds us that God can and does lead us to the middle of nowhere, just as the star-gazers were led to the child Jesus, so that new life can be revealed.

Life glorifies God. New life is always the work of God and God reveals it to those of us willing to travel into the darkness to find it.

As a church we can lead the way - fearlessly, expectantly - into any darkness because we know “the boundless riches of Christ,” and we can be the means by which others come to know that too. We can lead the way because we know that entering the darkness is entering the womb of God, where new life is being formed.

This will be important as we all find our way through the darkness of the -isms that were revealed about us in 2020 to the new life being formed for us by God in 2021.

Let us pray… God of all, let our church become your womb; a place of rest and spiritual refreshment for all souls; a place where new life is created in us and through us into your world; a place where we love and serve in your name. Renew us and make us whole; that we may arise, shine, and live in the glory of the light of your love. In Jesus’ holy name we pray. Amen.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Christmas Day, 2020: Christmas joy!

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

En el nombre del Dios, que en Trinidad en Unidad. Amen.

It’s a strange thing to be in our church yet proclaiming our Good News online. My body wants to sing great Christmas carols, share hugs, laugh and eat with friends, enjoy a chaotic peace where we have to be called back to worship. You see, Christmas is something that happens in us, in our bodies as well as our lives, and this year, in the midst of this pandemic, we ache to feel it.

That’s a good thing - because we are not passive observers in the story of Christmas. We are active participants. We aren’t here tonight simply to recount the first chapter of the greatest story ever told. We’re here to live it - right now.

What Luke’s gospel shows us is that doing our part requires us to trust God’s love, God’s promises, and God’s plan of salvation knowing that God is redeeming all things, all people, all the time. 

Joseph had to trust God who asked him to care for Mary and her baby. By taking his pregnant girlfriend 90 miles to Bethlehem to register as a family, Joseph publicly and legally claimed Mary as his wife and Jesus as his son.

Mary had to trust God that she would live to carry and birth the Messiah of God into the world. In her time, coming up pregnant prior to her marriage to Joseph, Mary could have been stoned to death for adultery - but she wasn’t because God had a plan.

Mary and Joseph knew they would not be celebrated but shamed, yet they kept taking the next step anyway, trusting God and each other. When we read that there was “no room for them in the inn,” we should remember, this wasn’t a hotel that was full. It was the guest quarters at Joseph’s family’s home. Their own family closed their doors to them because of Mary’s shameful condition and offered them nothing more than a space where the animals were kept.

Even the shepherds, the first to hear of the birth, were as lowly as the manger that held the infant Messiah. Shepherds were dirty, smelly people from whom “good people” would turn away. That didn’t stop them, though. They took their next step and made known what they had seen and been told – and everyone was amazed by what they said.

But these events took place 2,000 years ago. What does it mean for us today?

I think of what Dominican priest, Albert Nolan, once said: “On the whole, we don’t take Jesus very seriously… by and large we don’t love our enemies, we don’t turn the other cheek, we don’t forgive seventy times seven times, we don’t bless those who curse us, we don’t share what we have with the poor, and we don’t put all our hope and trust in God.” (Jesus Today, Orbis Books, xvii). 

Why? Nolan suggests that many of us believe these to be great ideals, but that actually doing them “isn’t very practical in this day and age.” Well, I think Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds might have said the same thing in their day.

Following Jesus has never been practical. It isn’t supposed to be. Following Jesus is revolutionary!

The love of God made manifest that first Christmas changed everything forever. The spirit of Christ now lives in us as we live in our world. We are the players in the Christmas story we live today, right here, right now. 

So then, about what do we need to trust God? Maybe we need to trust that God, who loves us beyond anything we can comprehend, has a plan and is redeeming all things, all people, all the time.

The pandemic isn’t the whole story of our lives right now. Our relationships can survive at-home isolation for a time, and so can our church. In the meantime, people all around us are suffering losses of every kind and need - more than ever - to be able to show up and ask for room in our hearts and our lives, without shame or fear of being turned away. 

Y’all, Christmas is happening in us today - in our bodies, our lives, and in our world, so let’s live this truth in the way we can do it now as we worship together by video. 

Get up, put your coffee down, and raise your hands in prayer. Let's let our bodies and our voices sing: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King! Let every heart prepare him room. and heaven and nature sing…. and heaven and nature sing…. and heaven and nature sing….” Amen.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Christmas Eve 2020: It's happening still!

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

En el nombre del Dios, que en Trinidad en Unidad. Amen. 

I love a good TV commercial. One of my all-time favorite commercials was called “Frogs (Boys night in).” It came out almost a decade ago but the tag line still echoes in my thoughts today, especially today. (Tells the story of the commercial)

A voice-over says, “There was a time when poker night was what you looked forward to all week. So who’d have ever thought boys night out wouldn’t hold a candle to boys night in? Having a baby changes everything.”

Another commercial in that series, asks: “…who’d have ever thought the biggest thing to ever happen to you would be the smallest? Having a baby changes everything.”

The biggest thing to ever happen in the history of human experience came to us in the form of the least: a baby, born to a poor, young peasant woman, in a barn in a remote village in the Middle East. 

This baby changed everything.

Sometimes, the Christmas story is so familiar, so sanitized that we forget the harsh reality of it. Mary and Joseph traveled 90 miles to register as a family in Bethlehem according to the law. 

She was 9 months pregnant… On a donkey… for 90 miles….

When they finally get to Bethlehem Joseph’s people turned them away claiming there was no room in their guest quarters. The truth is, Mary was pregnant before she and Joseph had married and that brought shame on them all.

So they sent them to the barn and Mary’s baby had to be born there among the animals. Nothing was sterilized. No one came to help, to comfort or assure them or feed them, or clean up for them. It must have been so scary for them.

But then… there he was. The baby conceived by the overshadowing of God was born. He was so tiny so they swaddled him which made him feel safe. They talked to him so he didn’t feel alone. They fed him so he could be content and sleep.

And they reveled in him knowing this baby has changed everything.

The first to hear of this birth were some shepherds in the fields. Now for most of us, the image of shepherds brings to our minds peaceful, pastoral images…but back then, things were different. “Shepherding was a despised occupation…they were scorned as shiftless, dishonest people who grazed their flocks on other [people’s] lands.” (Footnote 1)

Shepherds didn’t bathe much so they didn’t smell good and people avoided them. And these particular shepherds were the lowest of the low… working the grave-yard shift.

But God, who sees differently than the world does, chose these lowly shepherds to be the first humans to hear the good news that the Messiah of the world had been born and could be found in Bethlehem. The shepherds went to Bethlehem to find this child, then ran home to tell everyone they knew about it “…and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” They must have radiated their good news in such a way that everyone who saw them noticed them, listened to them, and were amazed by what they heard.

Mother Theresa of Calcutta once said, “If you know how much God is in love with you, you can’t help but live your life radiating that love.” What if we lived our lives like that? What if we radiated the Good News of our salvation in the child born this night?

The thing is, the good news of Christmas is a present reality, not just an ancient story we remember together. Christ is being born in us today… now. 

The radical truth of Christmas is that the extravagant love of God, was made real for all of us to know, see, and experience in Jesus. “It’s one of the most radical things” Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said.“… All belong… All are meant to be held in this incredible embrace that will not let us go… Black, white, yellow, rich, poor, clever, not so clever, beautiful, not so beautiful…gay, lesbian, …straight. All.” (Footnote 2)

Yet even in this joyous moment people all around us are suffering losses of so many kinds in this pandemic. What if we wrapped them in our love to make them feel safe, or talked to them so they didn’t feel alone, or fed them so they could be content and sleep?

On that first Christmas, God took the form of the smallest and the least - a baby who changed everything. What happened once in Royal David’s city, is happening still. God’s love is being born in each of us, in all of us.

So tonight, together with the shepherds and the angels, and with all the saints in heaven and on earth, we sing out our praise: Glory to God and joy to the world! A child is born this night who is Christ the Lord.

Footnote 1: New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (NIB), CD-Rom, Vol. IX, 65

Footnote 2: From the Article, Archbishop Tutu Calls for Anglican Unity and Inclusion, Ruach, A Publication of the Episcopal Women’s Caucus, Christmas 2005, Vol. 26:1, 11. 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

4th Sunday in Advent, 2020=B: Unafraid

Lectionary: Micah 5: 2-5a; Canticle 15; Hebrews 10: 5-10; Luke 1:39-55 

 En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen. 

In our Collect today we prayed: “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation…” What if God actually visited us the way God visited Mary in today’s gospel? You realize we just asked for that.right? And that God hears and answers our prayers. Just sayin’…

So often we listen to this story of the Annunciation and assume that Mary is afraid because heaven just broke through into earth and an angel is standing there in front of her. Legend describes him as having wings as white as snow and eyes like flames.

We don’t know that - or if the angel just suddenly appeared, walked or flew through the window or door to Mary’s room, or if he found her outside - the gospel doesn’t tell us. All we know is that the angel Gabriel came to Mary and greeted her by calling her “favored one.”

Given that Mary’s response to Gabriel’s greeting was to ponder it, it doesn’t appear that his presence made her afraid. If you heard the strength of her faith proclaimed in the Magnificat last week, it’s clear that while Mary may be humble, she is anything but faint-hearted.

I think when Gabriel tells Mary not to be afraid he’s referring to what he’s about to say - that God has chosen her to bear the long-awaited Messiah into the world. Still clearly unafraid, Mary responds with a very practical question - how? To which Gabriel replies, the “Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High God will overshadow you…”

There are several times this word, “overshadowed” appears in Scripture. Adam was overshadowed by God in Genesis. (2:21) Moses was overshadowed by God in Exodus. (33:21-23). The disciples were overshadowed by God on the Mount of the Transfiguration in Luke. (9:34) Each time God was affirming for these faithful servants the power, presence, and protection of God, not just in general, but specifically for them, as they set out to accomplish what God was giving them to do.

When Gabriel told Mary that God would overshadow her, she would have known the stories in Genesis and Exodus, and what being overshadowed would mean for her. Her proclamation in the Magnificat that all generations would call her blessed can then be understood not as a departure from humility, but as an acknowledgment of her destiny.

I’m sure Mary had lots more questions swirling around in her mind as she pondered the reality of what was being asked of her. Like most of us, and like the prophets before her, Mary had to wonder, ‘Can I really do this?’ Do I have what it takes?

As if hearing those questions in her mind, the angel Gabriel assures Mary (and us) that God is already making this happen. Her cousin Elizabeth, who was barren and too old to have a child, is pregnant. Mary now has a companion for her journey, and as we will see later, so do their sons. 

“For nothing will be impossible with God.”

One word that does describe Mary, as this gospel makes very clear, is purity. Mary was pure – not in the patriarchal, puritanical sense, but in the spiritual sense. To be pure is to be undistracted, to be completely in line with God and God’s will.

Mary’s response to what she was being asked to do was purity personified: “let it be done with me” as you have said. It is an affirmation of her faith that the God of love is with her and will accomplish through her the part of the plan of salvation designed just for her to do. As we said when we lit the fourth candle today - there is no power greater than love. Mary knew that, trusted it, and so could respond faithfully to God’s call to her.

Mary has been an important part of my spiritual life since I was a little child - a constant presence, strength, and inspiration for me as I have grown in age and spirit. She has truly been for me, Theotokos, the God-bearer, bringing Christ into my life and experience in very real ways.

These experiences taught me that I, too, am a God-bearer. We all are. The Spirit of Christ dwells in each of us, sanctifies us, and calls us to bear that into the world – each in our own way, in very real ways, according to God’s plan. 

As this season of Advent draws to a close, I pray we, like Mary, welcome the love of God into our lives and our bodies as God continues to work for the salvation of the whole world. I pray we, like Mary, truly believe that God is with us, in us, and will accomplish through us the part of the plan of salvation designed specifically for us - as individuals and as the body of Christ, the church. 

 Let us pray… Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation that we may know your presence, and be bearers of your love, mercy, and justice into the world. By your presence in us and with us we know that anything is possible, any risk worth taking, any price worth paying. Because you have asked it, we will give ourselves to it - fully, faithfully, as our Mother Mary did. Amen.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

2nd Advent, 2020-B: Set free by forgiveness


Lectionary: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8 

En el nombre del Dios que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

So, I have a serious question for you… is God Three in One or One in Three? A Trinity who lives in Unity or a Unity who lives as a Trinity? 

While the answer to this seems obvious to us - both are true - this actually broke the Christian world apart years ago. 

The first Christian churches, whom we now refer to as the Eastern Orthodox Church, began with God as one who lives as three - a unity of three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. The Western Roman Christians began with God as three who live as one - a Trinity that lives in dynamic unity.

The disagreement was so fierce that in 1054 the church experienced The Great Schism when the Eastern and Western Christian churches broke apart. To be fair, there were lots of things they disagreed about like the date of Easter and papal primacy in Rome, but this issue of how to understand God was at the heart of them all and it led to a disagreement that is still being argued today: the procession of the Holy Spirit.

As The Episcopal Church enters a new phase of revising our Book of Common Prayer, you should know that this disagreement is part of the discussion - again. In the Nicene Creed, we say “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” That’s the sticking point and it’s called the filioque clause.

The Eastern Christians totally disagree with the filioque clause because in their worldview, the Spirit can’t proceed from Father and the Son since God is One. The Western Christians, who begin with God as Three, would argue that the Son proceeds from the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.

Who’s correct? It all depends on your worldview.

So how do we find a way to live together with such different worldviews that lead to very different experiences and practices in life and worship? The answer to that matters because it will either lead us toward unity or further division.

Another discussion in the revision of our prayer book is about making the language about God more expansive, that is, less male-gendered, except in the sacrament of Baptism where the person will still be baptized in the name of the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This decision was made to promote reconciliation between the divergent views on what to call God and to prevent further breakdown of ecumenical relationships among members of the global Christian family.

For some God is only Father. For others, God is also Mother and it’s been that way throughout our history according to the writings of many church fathers and mothers. Both ways of describing God are present in our Testaments, Old and New, but the male-gendered names took priority in our habit, probably due to the patriarchal nature of Jewish and early Christian societies.

Three in One or One in Three. God as only Father or God also as Mother.

What’s all this got to do with our lessons today? In our gospel, John is preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. So, the question is: how do we understand sin, repentance, and what a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin means?

In this century, we have such a habit of viewing sin as individual choices for bad or wrong behavior. Repentance then is to stop doing that bad or wrong thing. A baptism of repentance then becomes a transaction: if you stop, you will be forgiven. Then you will be saved.

There is some truth in that. If we stop whatever bad or wrong behavior we’re doing, life will be restored. Ask any alcoholic or addict. But that isn’t the whole of it because it completely overlooks our collective sins like racism, sexism, heterosexism, able-ism, classism, and individualism.

It also has the process backwards. Forgiveness is not a reward for our repentance, but the means by which we are able to choose to repent.

John preached that by forgiveness, we are set free from sin but it requires that we change our minds, change how we think. The Greek word for repentance, μετάνοια (metanoia), means a change of mind affecting the whole life.

When we choose to change our minds in a way that affects all life, ours and everyone else’s, then we will be set free from sin, which can be understood as anything that disrupts the shalom of God - the way things ought to be according to God’s plan of redemption.

Theologian Paul Tillich* describes sin as a three-fold separation: from God, from each other, and from ourselves. This separation is caused by seeking our own will rather than the will of God, and it distorts all our relationships. For Tillich, sin is individual and collective, and it is only by God’s grace and our willingness to repent that our relationships are restored and we are returned to right relationship with God, one another, and ourselves.

This is the kind of repentance John the Baptist is calling the people to in today’s gospel. John is proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven is coming near and people need to change their minds in a way that affects all life so that they can recognize and receive the grace that is coming in the one who would come after him, the one who is more powerful than he is, the one who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire.

And the people were flocking to John to hear his teaching - even the religious authorities were coming - because everyone wanted what he was offering: new life in the shalom of God.

In every age, restoration to life in the shalom of God, in the light of Christ, requires us to choose to repent, to choose to change how we think in a way that affects all life, to choose a new way of being in relationship with God and each other.

As long as any of God’s creation suffers lack, degradation, harm, or disrespect, we are all living in sin and God’s shalom is in a state of disruption. But the grace of God breathed upon us continually and patiently offers us forgiveness that will set us all free to repent and be restored to life in the shalom of God.

Let us pray. Eternal Reality, Breather of Peace and Justice, give us grace to change our minds in a way that affects all life, that your shalom may be restored and all of your children will be transformed by your love, live in your light, and know the peace that comes from your justice. Amen. 

* Tillich, Paul, “The Shaking of the Foundations” (Wipf and Stock Pub, Eugene, OR, 1948).