Sunday, February 18, 2024

Lent 1-B, 2024: Living our middle

Lectionary: Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15 

En el nombre de Dios, que es Trinidad en unidad. In the name of God, who is Trinity in unity. Amén. 

As many of you already know, Lent is my favorite season in the liturgical year, partly because it’s a “breathing in” season, as I mentioned in my sermon last week. I always love a reason to breathe more God in. Another reason is that, during Lent, our goal is, as Meister Eckhart once said, to detach from all else and turn our attention to God… in order for the graciousness of God to be upon us… for the graciousness of God to be upon us…

Detachment is the root of our giving things up for Lent. We detach from anything that tempts us or distracts us off the path of right relationship with God and neighbor. That, by the way, is the true meaning of satán.

Satan (with a capital S) is a persona that has evolved over the centuries and the meaning today is radically different from the original biblical understanding. Theologian Elaine Pagels teaches us that the “word “satán” literally means “one who throws something across one’s path.”

If the path we’re on is bad, the obstruction is good, thus the satán may have been sent to us by God. (pp 39, 40) If the path we’re on is good, the “satán” needs to be resisted. Remember, Jesus, who loved Peter, but said to him, “Get behind me Satan,” don’t tempt me off this path set before me. It may look horrible now, but it is a path of love, which you will see eventually.

That’s the thing, isn’t it? As the path of God unfolds before us we can’t see where it will end. We can only see what’s in front of us. We can only take our next step, so we must continually pray and discern where, when, and how God wants us to go, trusting God completely despite our limited vision and understanding.

It’s important in Lent to remember that we are marvelously made, knit together in our mother’s wombs by our Creator. God declared us not just good, but very good in the creation story in Genesis. That’s our starting point and our ending point.

Life is what's in the middle and Lent is when we get honest about how we are living our middle. Owning the vulnerabilities we have because of our humanity isn’t the same thing as denigrating ourselves as unworthy worms. God made us and loves us just as we are.

Getting honest means trusting God enough to go deeply within and getting behind the protective barriers we put up about who we are, those things we tell ourselves about ourselves that are more about our comfort than the truth. We all have them, individually, as the church, and as a global people. We think these barriers will keep us safe but actually, they put us at risk of harm because they lead us to disconnect.

These are the barriers we must recognize and repent of because they cause ruptures in our relationships with God, neighbor, and creation, which lead to our sin. Sin isn’t what we do, but where we begin – in ruptured relationship. Our actions, then, are the outcome of our sin.

If you’ve ever looked deeply into the eyes of an infant or elderly person who is looking back at you, you can't help but notice the presence and purity of Love, which is the face of God. For some of us, the same is true looking into the eyes of our dog or cat or bird.

Then we hear about war bombs killing God’s children in their homes, schools, and hospitals. That’s who we are as a global people.

Last week the Humane Society of Missouri rescued 97 Labrador retrievers, adults and puppies, from an unlicensed breeder who kept them in cramped cages with no access to water. God’s creatures are being mistreated and overbred, treated as commodities for income. That’s who we are right here in MO. Source

At the KC Chiefs’ celebration parade this week, a young mother was killed, and 21 others were wounded, including 11 children. There were over 800 armed police on hand who acted quickly and wonderfully in response to the shooting. The idea that good people with guns can stop bad people with guns is one of those things we tell ourselves that just isn’t true.

Our country leads the world in mass shootings. That’s who we are now, and we need to repent.

If we are tempted to say, ‘But I’m not that way,’ we need to remember our connectedness to one another and to creation. You may remember the concept of Ubuntu, a Zulu concept, practiced by our bishops at a recent Lambeth gathering. Ubuntu means, “I am because we are.”

This is the truth of the universe too. In physics, there is a phenomenon called quantum entanglement where a pair of protons or electrons remain connected and responsive to one another even when separated by vast distances. The idea of separateness is another one of those things we tell ourselves that just isn’t true.

Thankfully, God knows our weaknesses, loves us anyway, and came among us in the person of Jesus to remind us that we are also connected now to heaven.

The gospel story today takes us back to Jesus’ baptism, where the barrier that separated heaven and earth was ripped open, and the voice of God, speaking only to Jesus in this gospel, proclaimed and affirmed him as Beloved.

Then the Spirit took him into the wilderness – this was Jesus’ Lent - to set him free from any barriers his humanity had built. When Jesus had finished his interior work, he returned to Galilee to begin living his middle.

Mark says Jesus returned proclaiming the good news of God, which was this: Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled,” The long-awaited, divinely appointed time for the salvation of the world is happening now“ and here’s how: Jesus said, “the kingdom of God has come near.”

The Greek word for ‘has come near’ makes clear that this isn’t something that is happening around Jesus, but rather, is something he is doing. He is bringing the kingdom of God to earth. This is the divine purpose of the Incarnate Word, isn’t it? To reconcile earth to heaven, humanity to divinity.

The rest of his ministry is how Jesus lived his middle, but it’s important to remember that before he did anything, he went deeply within and faced his own beasts. And angels ministered to him. Since he was fasting from food and water, the angels were his companions on the journey – just as they are for us. We are never alone in this. 

During Lent, we are called to do as Jesus did and get prepared to live our middle. Lent is not a time of shame but of release! Release from the hold the barriers we built have on us, release from all that separates us from God, neighbor, self, and all of God’s very good creation.

Our repentance leads to our freedom. That is the fruit of Lent and it’s why it’s my favorite liturgical season. I pray all of us have a Lenten experience that is holy and freeing. Amen.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Epiphany Last, 2024: Trust, listen, and receive the change

Lectionary: 2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

En el nombre de Dios, que es Trinidad en unidad. In the name of God, who is Trinity in unity. Amén. 

For years, I have taught a spirituality workshop in which I discuss our spiritual growth in relationship with God and neighbor in terms of breathing. Breathing is a perfect choice for this because it is a biblical term: God breathed (inspired) life into humanity in Genesis and continues to breathe life into us now. The term ‘Spirit’ itself in Hebrew is ruach, which means wind, and in Greek is pnuema, which means breath.

As we grow in our spirituality, we must establish balance in our breathing. If we only breathe in, that is, if we focus only on drawing into ourselves knowledge and experiences of God, and don’t breathe out the grace of God into the world, we will die. Likewise, if we only breathe out, that is, if we spend our time and energy breathing God out into the world without breathing God in, we will die.

Like our physical life, our life in the spirit is dynamic and requires a balance of breathing in and breathing out; breathing God into ourselves, and breathing God out into the world.

Life is constant change, from the daily cellular changes in our bodies to the global earth and cultural changes happening all around us. We can’t “put a pin in it” as the saying goes, and stop the constant changes in life, and anyone who suggests we can or should is lying to us.

When we live a life of faith, we move into every change trusting in God. We flow with God in the living waters of life. Attempting to dam the river or pushing against the current won’t make any real difference, but it will wear us out. That’s why we must heed the gospel and listen to the Beloved.

The story of the transfiguration is a wonderful way to wrap up the season of Epiphany – the season of light, of enlightenment. During this season we have experienced the revelation of Jesus as the light that casts out the darkness of the world through amazing things like healings, exorcisms, and the voice of God authenticating him as the Son, the Beloved - twice.

Today, the focus is on how the transfiguration of Jesus happens for us. To do this, let’s look at the movements in this gospel story. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain (which is Bible-speak for the place we encounter God).

On that high mountain, the disciples do encounter God – in Jesus himself – in a way that is both physically real and impossible at the same time. Their rabbi, Jesus, is suddenly emanating a light so bright it dazzles them. The writer ensures us that this whiteness is nothing we humans can produce. This is their breathing in moment.

Then they see Moses and Elijah, Israel’s two greatest and long-dead prophets, chumming it up with Jesus. Peter, thank God for Peter, responds in a very faithful and traditional way, suggesting they build three dwelling places there and mark the spot as holy.

It was also traditional to locate God in a place. When the people were moving around, God was in a tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, which they carried around with them. When they settled in Jerusalem, they built a temple. Within that temple was a room called, the Holy of Holies, which housed the ark. Only the chief priests could enter the Holy of Holies.

Then the disciples, like Mary before them at her annunciation, were overshadowed by a cloud. From this cloud, they heard a voice say, “This is my son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

Overall, this experience was so overwhelming that Mark says the disciples were terrified. When it’s over, Jesus leads them down the mountain with a warning about not sharing this with anyone yet. Essentially, Jesus is telling them to hold their breath until after he rises from the dead.

There are three important teachings in this story we don’t want to miss. First, Jesus doesn’t build three dwellings to mark the spot as holy. Knowing the rest of this story, we know why: because God isn’t located in an ark, or a temple, or a church. Because of Jesus, God dwells in us. We are the tabernacles of God. Jesus was moving the disciples into a new way of knowing and experiencing relationship with God. He was also opening access to God to all people, not a select few.

The second is the command to listen. God is asking them and us to do more than hear what Jesus teaches. God is asking them and us to be changed by it. There is so much we hear and believe, but it doesn’t change anything for us. The disciples heard Jesus tell them they shouldn’t share this experience until after he had risen from the dead. He told them he was going to die and rise again on several occasions, yet it still came as a surprise when it actually happened.

The third is this: when the disciples were terrified and being broken open to a new understanding and experience of Jesus and God and everything they knew about spiritual life, God responded, overshadowing them in the form of a cloud, which symbolizes the immediate presence and power of God. God spoke to them and reminded them to be changed, to let go of what was and move into this new revelation.

The final movement in this story is that the disciples come down from the mountain. They left the presence of God and re-entered the world changed by their experience. What the change was and what it would mean would develop over time. The same is true for us.

The transfiguration of Jesus for us today is the revelation that happens within us, when the Jesus of Nazareth we read about in Scripture and learned about in Sunday school, becomes Jesus the Incarnate God whose own Spirit lives and dwells in us, changing us and sending us to share the love.

We may see a brilliant light with our eyes when this transfiguration of Jesus happens for us. Some have. Some still do.

More likely, we will have an interior enlightenment, an infusion of transforming energy we feel in our bodies and know deeply in our souls. We’ll experience an excitement combined with terror at what is happening and what it will mean for us.

God will speak to us too and show us how to go. We hear the voice of God when we are open to hearing it, when we are willing to let go of what we think we know and move in faith in response to God’s revelation to us.

In the end, like the disciples, we’ll walk away from our mountain-top experience carrying the seed of something that will begin to grow and develop in us. This takes time – and the season of Lent, which starts next Wednesday, is when we do this with intention.

As we live our lives of faith, individually and together as a community, we move into every change trusting in God. We flow with God in the living waters of life. We know that attempting to dam the river or push against the current will only wear us out, so instead, we relax, heed the gospel, listen to the Beloved, and receive the change within us that comes from God, change that leads us from glory to glory into the full stature of Christ.  Amen.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Epiphany 4, Annual Meeting, 2024: Discerning our path

Lectionary: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28 

The question we continually face as Christians is whether something is of God, from God, or in the will of God. How do we know if a prophet is sent to us by God? How do we know if a decision we make as a church or for ourselves is the one God wants us to make?

The answer is: discernment because discernment puts God at the center of our decisions and actions. It is up to us to know the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ and discern how God is leading us to make it manifest in our time.

Today, after this service, we will gather for our Annual Parish Meeting to review our decisions and actions from last year and deepen our bonds of friendship as we move forward as one body, one spirit in Christ into 2024.

It’s tempting for a church to rely on the gifts that serve us well in the world, and that isn’t a bad thing. Those gifts are from God who draws them into our faith community.

For a church, however, there is more to consider, the will of God, to be specific. Otherwise, we slowly and almost imperceptibly turn our church into an earthly enterprise and the guidance we end up relying on is our own.

The way to stay on our path of faithfulness is to discern continually who we are, what gifts God is bringing among us, how those gifts can be nurtured and employed in order to glorify God, serve God’s people, and be stewards of God’s creation. This is what sets us apart as church: our goals are not focused on us but on God.

I’ve been serving as a priest for almost 20 years now, and I can attest that this church is on a faithful path. When we worship together, we are truly giving thanks with our whole hearts in the assembly of the congregation, as our psalmist says. Our ministries include listening for how we can further ease the burdens of our neighbors while also working to transform the oppressive systems that continue to harm them.

We do this by sticking close to our roots: the Bible, worship that connects us to our past while pushing us into our present, and using our God-given intellect while striving to stay humble and, therefore, useful to God. (Richard Hooker meme courtesy of Episcopal Church memes) 

Finally, we allow ourselves to be continually astounded by Jesus, much like the congregation at the synagogue was in today’s gospel from Mark.

Mark has Jesus moving immediately from calling Andrew, Peter, James, and John, to Capernaum, what the Native American translation of the Bible calls the City of Comfort, from its original Hebrew name. There was only one temple in Jerusalem but there were many local synagogues.

The leader of the synagogue was likely not a rabbi but more like our Wardens who tend to the business aspects of the community. They were, therefore, always on the lookout for teachers who would lead the discussions and prayers. Rabbi Jesus did that in today’s gospel.

Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus preached, but it must have been spectacular because everyone there was astounded by his teaching. As he taught, the people discerned that Jesus’ authority came not from his credentials or his ability to cite precedent as the Scribes typically did, but from God.

And that was only the beginning. While Jesus is teaching, a man in an unclean spirit yells out to him, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”

I’m not sure why the traditional translation says “a man with an unclean spirit” rather than “in an unclean spirit” which is what it actually says because a man with an unclean spirit wouldn’t have been allowed in the synagogue in the first place.

Also, that makes it sound like the man was possessed by a spirit beyond himself, which isn’t what Mark said. More likely, he was a faithful member of that community who was astute enough to comprehend that what Jesus was teaching would upend the status quo, so he was unwilling to accept it or let go of the traditions and structures that protected and served him, even if they didn’t protect or serve others.

I say he was astute because he declares: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” That’s astounding because even Jesus’ newly called disciples wouldn’t reach that understanding for years.

Jesus rebukes him, but that isn’t what it sounds like. Jesus isn’t reprimanding or scolding him but elevating him. The word translated as rebuke means to put further honor upon, to estimate higher. Jesus recognized the accurate discernment of this man, even though the man’s fear was clearly a stumbling block for him, so with a word, Jesus healed him, removing his stumbling block in a dramatic way, setting him free from that which obstructed his path to a right relationship with God and neighbor.

The people are again amazed! Our Scripture says they ask, what new teaching is this? But what they actually ask is, ‘What new process of teaching is this?’

What Jesus did was manifest his divine power instead of talking about it. Jesus came to bring salvation, to free us from the power of sin and death, and he demonstrates this undeniably in this story from Mark, freeing a man from that which impeded his spiritual growth – with a word! The Word of God!

It continues to surprise us how deeply Jesus knows us, cares for us, and continues to free us from whatever hinders the growth and deepening of our relationship with God and neighbor. That’s why we must constantly discern, making space for God’s love to guide us in God’s way, beyond our own understanding and habits, setting us free from whatever hinders us.

Let us pray: Come dear Jesus, into our hearts and make us one with you, one in you. Give us courage to discern your path for us, strengthen our friendships to carry us forward, and grant us your wisdom as we use the gifts you’ve given us to serve in your holy name, for that will truly glorify you. Amen.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

2 Epiphany, 2024: Bearers of the light of Christ today

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 de Dios que es nuestra fuente, nuestra luz y nuestro sustento. Amén. In the name of God who is our source, our light, and our sustenance. Amen. 

Have you ever been in the kind of darkness where you literally can’t see your hand in front of your face? What did you think or experience in that moment? 

Darkness is scary, isn’t it? In darkness, we feel alone, vulnerable, and unsafe. We can’t see so we’re afraid to take a step even though we want desperately to escape. And the longer we’re in darkness, the harder it is to keep hope alive.

But the moment a light appears, we have a felt sense of relief and our hope is restored. We know we are not alone and that we will be saved.

In my former work with trauma victims, we would ask the question: When did you know you were safe? The answer almost always included when they knew they were not alone, that someone cared about them and would help them.

That someone for us is Jesus. In the language of the Epiphany season, Jesus is the light that enters every darkness in the world. We are never alone. We are loved and cared for by the one who created us, redeemed us, and values us beyond our ability to comprehend.

When we treat Jesus like an idea, however, like a thing outside of ourselves, we steal from ourselves the comfort and hope he gives us. Jesus is God who became human, thereby lifting all humanity into the divine life. All humanity. He did this in his life, death, and resurrection, and he did it once for all. So, the question for us isn’t the popular what would Jesus do… Jesus who is out there somewhere in some far-off celestial place, but what is Jesus doing… in me, in us, in this moment, in this place, in this circumstance?

The only way for us to know the answer to that question is to be in relationship with Jesus – the real Jesus who lives and moves in us, the church, and ourselves as individual members of it. It’s a relationship that happens over time and in community, each member offering an important perspective and experience that benefits the whole.

Growing in this life in Christ means practicing living the John the Baptist way – he must increase so I must decrease. We must actively diminish our thoughts, ways, judgments, and limited understanding to make way for God’s plan of love to take priority in our lives and guide our every decision.

God’s plan always was and always will be too wonderful for us and we cannot attain to it, as the psalmist says. We rarely see it coming and it is always beyond anything we can expect or imagine, as the story from Samuel and Eli demonstrates for us.

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, a new path was forged through their cooperative obedience. It turns out, Jesus was right about that great command, wasn’t he?

It turns out we really do need to love God with all our hearts, minds, strength, and souls, and our neighbors as ourselves. Everything else proceeds from that.

When I was in college, I participated in some psychological experiments in which we were placed in isolation tanks meant to remove all stimuli from our sensory experience. We were basically floating in salted water in a closed capsule. There was no sound, no light, and our bodies touched nothing being buoyed by the water. The experiment was to measure the changes in our brain waves the longer we stayed in the tanks.

Some couldn’t do it. The sensory deprivation created panic and they had to be released almost immediately. A handful of others lasted longer, but only a few of us stayed the whole time.

I loved the experience. I knew I was safe and being observed, so I was able to enter the dark emptiness and just be there in it. I could feel my body transition from mild anxiety – what is going to happen? – to relaxation, to complete surrender to the nothingness, needing nothing, seeking nothing, just being.\

Not only did this experience cure me of any fear of the dark, I also found truth there. I was not a practicing Christian at the time, but I experienced God in that tank. That experience was nothing like I was taught in Sunday school. It was a much bigger experience of love, of oneness, than I could ever have anticipated or imagined. (Note: Painting by Manuela Rivera Mulvey, my mother. She called it, "God")

I entered the experiment expecting to learn something about human biology, but I ended up learning something so much bigger than that. A light was lit in me, and it took years before I understood it. It was my Nathaniel moment.

In our gospel today, Nathaniel is brought by Philip to meet Jesus, whom he believes is the long-awaited Messiah. Nathaniel’s short conversation with Jesus is transforming for him in a way that will take years for him to fully understand. When Jesus explains that he saw Nathaniel under the fig tree, Nathaniel knows this is knowledge that is beyond human, and you can almost feel the startle in his body. This is for real!

Nathaniel’s response reveals his limited understanding, however, the one he got in Sunday school: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, …the King of Israel.” Nathaniel is taking this large, unitive experience and placing it in a box he can understand and manage: you are the honored teacher, the expected Messiah, the King like David who has come to save us from this terrible moment.

Jesus, probably sighing, says to all those gathered there, It’s so much more than that. Just wait. You’ll see greater things than these… you’ll see heaven and earth in a relationship it has never known before.

And that’s the crux of it all, isn’t it? In Jesus, heaven and earth became unified in the one who is fully divine and fully human. It had never happened before, and it never needs to happen again because it is an everlasting reality. It is our reality.

As St. Paul says, Jesus made us temples of the Holy Spirit. We are where heaven and earth, divine and human, are one. What we do, therefore, matters.

In response to some pretty dark behaviors that had found acceptance in Corinth, Paul narrows in on fornication in his epistle. His point is: what we do reflects who we are and our relationship with one another and with God. So, honor your body. Honor your neighbor’s body. By doing so, you honor God, who marvelously knit us all together in our mother’s wombs.

What I appreciate about Paul’s letter is that it reminds us to live in the truth we know - that the Holy Spirit of God dwells in us. Think about the reality of that - God dwells in us.

The light who came into the world on Christmas Day, who illumines us now through Word and Sacrament… the light that dispels the darkness of the world now radiates from us, and that light is Jesus Christ himself. As the current bearers of this light, we can, and we must enter any darkness, any nightmare of the world, and bring this truth to it.

Tomorrow, we celebrate one saint who did that well: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a prophet who radiated the light of Christ, and who, like other biblical prophets, was both imperfect and faithful. Dr. King’s message of the value and dignity of every human being threatened the status quo, so it killed him, 56 years ago now.

In our OT story, 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 he could have - and should have - interceded, but he didn’t.

The systems enabling the desolations in our time are being revealed to us in undeniable ways. Many among us who can - and should - stop the abuses in our systems haven’t done so. The moment of our accountability and divine correction is upon us. How will we respond?

It is my prayer that we will hear and respond to God’s call to us to be partners with Christ in the reconciliation of the whole world to God. While that may seem too large, too wonderful a concept for us to comprehend or accomplish, it is, nevertheless, our divine purpose and we don’t do it alone. The Spirit of God who dwells in us works through us, the church, and us as individual members of it… and nothing shall be impossible with God. Amen.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Christmas, 2023: The eternally happening birth of the Christ

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

En el nombre de Aquel que es Padre y Madre, Salvador y Espíritu Sagrado: el Uno y el Tres. In the name of the One who is Father and Mother, Savior and Sacred Spirit: the One and the Three. Amen.

Christmas blessings to you all!

Each year, as we read this story from Luke, a video plays in our minds and it goes something like this: Joseph and Mary set out on a long journey - 90 miles - to Bethlehem so that Joseph can register in the census according to his family lineage – being from the house of David. They need to find a place to stay quickly because the very pregnant Mary is about ready to deliver her baby.

In the Latin American tradition of Las Posadas, which means, “the inns,” Mary and Joseph knock on door after door seeking safe shelter for the birth of Jesus, but no one admits them. As a result, they end up in a stable, where the Messiah is born.

The video continues with the baby Jesus, wrapped in bands of cloth, lying in a manger on top of hay, with Mary and Joseph kneeling beside him, an angel behind or above them, and above the angel is a huge star shining in the dark night pointing to the place where the newborn Savior rests.

Shepherds show up and join the animals who are quietly present, and all gaze with awe upon the Holy Family before them. In some of these mental videos, a little boy plays a drum – which is the subject of many hilarious memes on social media.

The videos we play in our minds reflect the traditions from many nations that we’ve learned and incorporated into our spiritual experiences. They aren’t literally true, in fact, much of Luke’s gospel story of Jesus’ birth isn’t literally true, but they aren’t meant to be. They are meant to teach us important lessons about this momentous event in human history and what it means for us today.

For example, in the first part of this mental video, Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem for the census. There is “no record of a general census of the Roman Empire under [Caesar] Augustus, nor… any record of a census of Judea at the time of Jesus' birth, and Quirinius wasn’t even governor until years later, and Roman registration did not generally require people to return to their place of birth.” (Dick Donovan) Yet our story includes these things. Why?

Stories teach us important truths and one truth this story offers us is that our journey to life with Jesus involves living in the real world and doing our duty within it. It also involves a willingness on our part to go from where we are to where God is calling us to be, as tempting as it is to stay put, believing what we already hold to be true.

The story also affirms for us that as we journey, we may not be welcomed by others who don’t want to know the transforming truth being born in us. They may judge us and close their doors to us because of our life circumstances, our sexuality, our gender, or the color of our skin.

We may reach the point of feeling desperate and unfairly treated, but our faith assures us that God will provide us a place for our new birth. It may be humble, but humility is an important lesson for us all as we journey into life in Jesus, who is the icon of humility.

Another lesson is the affirmation that we don’t do this journey into life in Jesus alone. The family unit of Joseph and Mary was part of a larger family whom they went to connect with as part of their preparation. Their lineage was part of their journey.

We too are part of a larger family: the church, which is part of the Judeo-Christian tradition that is our foundation. Every step we take in this journey continues the steps our ancestors took first. We carry them in our hearts and they continue to guide us as part of the communion of saints.

Journeying into life with Jesus requires community. We don’t do this alone. One of the most destructive beliefs of the modern era, imho, is that Jesus is my personal savior, but our Scripture and tradition tell us that salvation is for the whole world.

Isaiah talks about people who have seen a great light, it's a kingdom of God being established, and in a later chapter, God speaks through the prophet saying, “It is too small a thing for you to… restore the tribes of Jacob and… Israel... I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

Today’s psalm instructs us to declare God’s “glory among the nations and his wonders among all peoples… In the letter to Titus, Paul says God is bringing salvation to all the world. In Luke’s gospel, when the shepherds see and experience the infant Messiah in the manger as the angels told them they would, they rush out to share broadly this good news of great joy and all who heard them were amazed.

The lesson is simply this, as said by N.T. Wright, former Bp. of Durham in England, “There are no individual Christians.”* Christians are, by definition, a body – the body of Christ in the world. Salvation is for all of us.

As the mental video continues, we see the typical creche scene with Jesus in the manger, Mary and Joseph at his side, animals peacefully present with shepherds nearby holding their crooks – all gazing in awe at the baby before them. What is the lesson of this part of the story?

When we open our eyes to see Jesus we will recognize his divine presence and be overcome with a peace that makes no sense in the world but is real in our bodies and spirits.

As for the drummer boy, really, the memes are hilarious. My favorite one says, “Mary, exhausted, having just gotten Jesus to sleep, is approached by a young man who thinks to himself: what this girl needs is a drum solo.”

For many indigenous cultures, however, the drum is an important spiritual tool that manifests the divine heartbeat in all of creation for those who learn how to listen. There are also the more traditional lessons that we give from the gifts God has given us, gifts don’t have to be expensive, and giving of ourselves makes every gift we offer a gift of great value.

The shepherds teach us that God chooses those whom society wouldn’t: the poor, dirty, uneducated, and unimportant. Without any theological education, these first evangelists, the shepherds, witnessed with great effect, therefore, so can we all... so can you.

As Episcopalians, we don’t read the Bible literally. We open ourselves to the truths it offers by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, eternal truths that guide us in the 21st century as effectively as they guided the believers in the first century BCE.

And the truth of Christmas is this: today we celebrate the birth of new life - the Christ. This new life has been conceived by God, is God, and has been made manifest in the world. 

It starts small, this new life. It’s as delicate and vulnerable as it is beautiful. The people given to care for this new life know they’re going to have to tend to it for a long time before it comes into its fullness. This means they have to commit long-term to doing the little things, the every day, inglorious things, so that, when it comes to its fullness, this new life, conceived by God, will have its effect.

For Mary and Joseph, that meant breastfeeding a crying baby Jesus, changing his dirty diapers, schlepping back and forth between Bethlehem, Egypt, and Nazareth to keep him from being destroyed by insane, earthly power, teaching him to be a carpenter, and taking him to church to learn his faith.

For us, it means doing the everyday, inglorious spiritual and worldly work that feeds and nurtures the new life of Christ God is giving us. Practicing the disciplines of daily prayer, attending weekly corporate worship, caring for our bodies as the dwelling places of the Holy Spirit of God, and being patient, loving, and hope-filled even as tensions rise and compassion disappears in the world around us. As Marianne Williams says in her poem, "Our Greatest Fear." "We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us."

One of the reasons the Christmas story never gets old, I think, is because it is so deeply within us, because Christ is so deeply in us. This isn’t just the sacred story of the birth of Jesus to Mary and Joseph, it’s the sacred story of the eternally happening birth of the Christ; the continuing birth of new life in all humankind, redeeming life conceived by God, and made manifest in us, who share this good news of great joy with the effect that one day the whole world will be reconciled to God.

May the blessings of Christmas be lavished upon us all and through us, the world. Amen.

* Wright, N.T., What St. Paul Really Said, Was Paul of Tarsus the real founder of Christianity? (Wm B Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI, 1997), 158.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Advent 3-B, 2023: Our reason to rejoice

Lectionary: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8,19-28 

En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

Happy Gaudete Sunday! The Latin word 'gaudete' means ‘to be filled with joy.' The form of the word is the imperative. It’s critical – a matter of life and death.

The mandate of Gaudete reminds us that, no matter what has us weighed down, brokenhearted, angry, or hopeless, God is with us. Christ’s spirit is in us, and so, the joy that anticipates the saving action of God who will come with great might and bountiful grace to help us; the joy that trusts that nothing is impossible with God is already ours. We need only claim it.

Joy is different from happiness and one of the best resources I’ve found about this is in the collaborative book by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (God rest his soul) and the His Holiness, the Dali Lama, called, “The Book of Joy.” There they discuss 8 Pillars of Joy. I’ve linked a webpage to this sermon that summarizes these well. 

These pillars include: 

  • PERSPECTIVE – a God’s-eye perspective that enables empathy. 
  •  HUMILITY which opens us to right relationships where everyone matters. 
  •  HUMOR which diffuses pain and connects us in our common humanity. 
  •  ACCEPTANCE which frees us from the illusion of our control. 
  •  FORGIVENESS which enables us to take our power and our life back from those who have harmed us and frees us to seek true justice. 
  •  GRATITUDE which opens our hearts to all that connects us, shifting our focus from what we lack to what we have. 
  •  COMPASSION - the unifying force that recognizes we are all one and enables us to love one another and ourselves in all our imperfection. 
  •  GENEROSITY which connects us to abundance - returning more to the one who gives, rather than depleting resources.

The bottom line is this: joy is not attached to circumstances. It is an inner state of being that persists in every circumstance.

One sure sign of joy is in the freedom from jubilee: the ancient Jewish practice of the forgiveness of debts, freedom from slavery, and resetting of access to resources. In the reading from the prophet Isaiah, we are called to proclaim both the year of the Lord’s favor, that is, the time of jubilee, and also the day of vengeance of our God.

The word translated here as “vengeance” also translates as “to be reassigned.” Isaiah is describing a process of divine jubilee by which God restores shalom: the wholeness and completeness of creation as intended by God from the beginning. As God restores shalom, it will be liberating for the oppressed, the brokenhearted, and the captive, but for those who hold and hoard power, privilege, or wealth, it will feel like loss and punishment – at least at first. Once right relationships are restored in the shalom of God, however, it will be clear how cherished all are to God, and that there is enough for everyone in the abundance of God, and there will be rejoicing in that truth.

Rejoice, St. Paul says, … for this is the will of God, in every circumstance.

When we rejoice, we relax in our bodies and souls. We anticipate being cared for by God whose power is love, whose gift is grace, and whose mercy is like arms outstretched drawing us into a divine hug. We are safe and at peace. In that state, we can listen because our minds are finally at rest, and we can take in the message being given to us.

This is the message of today’s gospel story about John the Baptist. John came to testify to the light, who is Jesus. The specifics of the reassigning God is doing in this story are kind of fun, so we’ll look at a few of them.

The Jewish people had been anticipating the saving action of God through the arrival of the Messiah who would deliver them from their oppression, brokenheartedness, and captivity, in this case to the Romans. John shows up preaching repentance instead, exhorting people to go a new way, and baptizing them with water – a practice usually reserved for Gentiles who were converting to Judaism. The people are eating up his message and following him in droves.

This, of course, makes the religious leadership nervous. John isn’t doing anything technically against their law, but he is becoming a powerful voice in their community – which is starting to feel threatening to them. They also worry about the Roman response to John – which as you know, ended up being a legitimate concern. More importantly, however, was that the people were conflating the hope they heard in John’s message with John himself, and rumors were beginning to foment that he, John, was the awaited Messiah.

John makes explicitly clear that he is NOT the light, he is not the prophet, he is not the Messiah. “Who are you then?” they ask.

I am a voice, he says, crying out in the wilderness, which in this case, refers to a place of political disfavor, an inhospitable region, which Jerusalem was. “Make straight the way of the Lord!” which was a quote from Isaiah, chapter 40, which begins: “Comfort, comfort ye my people, says your God.”

In that time, the Israelites were being held captive in Babylon. It was an inhospitable place of political disfavor for them, but God was promising them the restoration of shalom where everyone would be brought to a level playing field, where they would find peace and safety in the bosom of God, and the glory of God would be revealed to them.

Make straight the way of the Lord, John says. God is acting now to restore shalom. Focus your vision. Open your ears to hear the voice of God leading you. Trust in your heart and keep moving through this moment and into the shalom of God. You will find peace and safety in the care of God and the glory of God will be revealed to you.

John also proclaims in this gospel, that he is not worthy to untie the thong of the sandal of the one who is coming after him – which is a task no self-respecting Jew would have done back then. It was relegated to Gentile slaves, in other words, to the lowest of the low.

John says he himself is even lower than that. This is a colorful exaggeration to illustrate how far God will reach to raise us up, to lift us into divine glory. What was so attractive about John’s message, I think, was that he was proclaiming that there was already one among them, whom they do not know yet, who was about to do just that. It was imminent.

As we continue our Advent waiting in this cycle of our renewal, we also must wait and see, focusing our vision, opening our ears to hear the voice of God leading us, and trusting in our hearts. We must keep moving through the current circumstances in our lives and into the shalom of God. For it is there we find peace and safety in the care of God and joy that surpasses all understanding.

For us, the glory of God, the fullness of the revelation of God is found in Jesus. He is the place of our peace and safety. He is the voice that leads us, the light that shines in every darkness, and the love that fills us – body and soul – in every circumstance. That is the promise and our reason to rejoice. Amen.

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Advent 1-B: Our hope is in Jesus

Lectionary: Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37 

As Christians our hope is in Jesus - that Jesus is always coming, always redeeming, always reconciling us back to God. This is the hope we pause to ponder on this first Sunday in Advent.

How do we do that given the pretty terrifying Scriptures assigned for today? It isn’t that hard, but it does take faith.

For example, in the reading from Isaiah, we see the acknowledgment of a God so awesome that the mountains (that is, all creation) and nations (all created people) quake in Their presence. This awesome God moves from astounding in our eyes to formidable, even frightening, as we recognize our guilt and the shame that causes us. We know what is wrong and when we do wrong, we anticipate being punished for it; and when we are wronged, we get mad, and most often, we get even, or at least we try to.

Road rage is a perfect example. I witnessed a car dual just the other day as I drove to work. I was the third car back at a stop light. The first car delayed moving when the left turn light came on. The second car laid down on their horn and didn’t let up, even after the first car started moving. Then I watched the second car speed around the first car and cut in front of them, forcing them across the double-yellow line into oncoming traffic, which had to swerve to avoid a collision. All of us behind them slowed down too – just in case. Both cars turned off at the next light so I don’t know how the story ended, but based on how it started, I can’t think it ended well. So many lives put at risk, and for what? There’s a reason God admonished us to leave our need for revenge in God’s hands. And seriously, over a few seconds delay at a traffic light? What has happened to our collective maturity?

It’s common to project our responses onto God, as happens in today’s reading from Isaiah, and while the sentiments in this passage are an honest expression of human experience, they are not how God works. God, who formed us marvelously in our mother’s wombs, who led us out of slavery into freedom, who gave his life for our redemption, is not petty or retributive, but just – and God’s justice is always, always bound together with God’s mercy in service to God’s plan of salvation for the whole world.

Our life is sustained by the very breath of God our Creator, therefore, while we live, God chooses life for us. While we live, we are beloved of the one who formed us and promised to be with us in every circumstance in the world around us.

And that is where we find the darkness – in the world around us – and the more we encounter this darkness, the more it enters us, wears down our hope, and displaces our inner divine light. We need only flick on the news to see the devastation war wreaks on the lives of God’s created. We feel our bodies respond by clenching our stomachs, raising our blood pressure, or shutting down our thoughts. In moments like these the ancient words of today’s psalm ring out in our hearts: “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance and we will be saved.” 

…which is the point of Jesus’ teaching today. When darkness steals our hope, we are to awaken to the truth that God is already with us, in us, redeeming and reconciling us – all of us – from the four corners of the earth.

It’s important to note that Jesus was talking to Jewish people using language and concepts familiar to them. Apocalyptic language was a common device used in ancient Jewish religion. The word apocalypse actually means unveiling or revelation, so the apocalyptic teachings were meant to provide hope to the suffering by unveiling the assurance that God will redeem all things in the end.

Jesus was also speaking in this gospel about something very specific to his listeners in their time: the coming destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish people understood the temple to be where the presence of God was found. The hope Jesus was giving them was that their sense of desolation from the absence of their temple would be filled by the light of the truth that Jesus himself, is the temple. In him is the presence of God. The hope Jesus gave them was that what the prophet Daniel had said would be fulfilled: that after the destruction of their temple, God would gather the chosen people, which is what the Jewish people called themselves, from everywhere they had been scattered, and restore them to unity.

That was for them. What about us? What can we understand now in our time as Christian listeners?

We can hear the same truth when we listen with the ears of our faith. Our hope is in Jesus, who gave us his own spirit at Pentecost. Being temples of his spirit, we have been made partners with Jesus in his continuing ministry of the reconciliation of the whole world to God.

In the verses ahead of today’s gospel Jesus describes the human experience of trauma and tragedy reminding us that horrible things will happen: wars, earthquakes, false prophets, betrayal by family, profaning the temple, which happened later, btw, when the Roman guards sacrificed pigs on their temple altars. When unthinkable horrors happen, Jesus says, you will wonder how the stars can shine or the sun can rise the next day as if nothing happened.

But the stars do shine, and the sunrise brings another day – not because of anything we do, but because of what God does. God breathes life into us, and so we have life. And not just life, but abundant life, full of joy as Jesus promised. That is our hope. He is our hope.

When horrible things happen in our lives or in the life of our community, Jesus reminds us to keep alert; to watch for him to show up as light in our darkness. We aren’t good at this. Jesus’ own disciples fell asleep when he asked them to keep watch while he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. When they awoke, they were startled and afraid as they watched the Roman soldiers arrest Jesus and take him away to his trial and inevitable execution.

Like the disciples, we can get lost in the despair that swirls around us when horrible things happen. We tend to ask questions like, “Where is God? Why doesn’t God stop this? What am I supposed to do?”

Jesus teaches us to wait and keep watch. He is coming. He is always coming redeeming and reconciling us back into God. We can’t know when these things may happen, so we must always allow Jesus to wake us up so we can see him and be active partners with him in his plan of salvation.

I close with a short prayer from John Donne: Keep us, Lord, so awake in the duties of our calling that we may sleep in thy peace and wake in thy glory. Amen.