Sunday, December 31, 2017

Xmas 1: Contemplating the Word

I loved celebrating as supply and preaching at St. Mary's, St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Morganton, NC. Such a great, easygoing, friendly church filled with faithful people! My sermon is below in audio and text.

Lectionary: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

(Note: if the audio player above doesn't work for you, click HERE for another audio format. You will be relocated to my website)

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

I’d like to begin today by sharing with you the wise words of an often under-employed theologian: Calvin, from the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Waterson. Calvin says, “You know what’s weird? Day by day, nothing changes, but pretty soon, everything is different.”

I doubt I’ve ever heard a better description of the journey to Christian maturity, what we like to call: lifelong Christian formation. As we enter this season of Christmas, Calvin’s wisdom urges us to step back and notice the big picture for ourselves as individuals and as a church community… taking a God’s eye view, we might say.

Thankfully our gospel reading on the first Sunday after Christmas offers us a way to do that. The language in the prologue John often sets people’s minds spinning: “The Word was with God and the word was God…” But that’s because this prologue was meant to invite us enter a mystical divine experience; but in order to do that we must step out of our comfort zones and listen anew - with open hearts, open minds, and open ears.

To facilitate this, I will share with you a prayerful translation of this Gospel which I did directly from the Greek text. Don’t worry… I’ve had it checked it for accuracy by people much better at Greek than I am, so I promise - this won’t lead you astray.

(Note: This congregation didn’t have a printed lectionary. but please feel free to look at your lectionary as I read this translation.)

1. In the first place, a living voice (a conception/an idea) happens and this living voice (this conception/idea) is God; and the living voice (the conception/idea) implies the ultimate purpose of God.

2. This existence was in the first, most dignified position with regard to God.

3. Everyone individually and all things begin to be, to appear in history on account of him and without him not even one thing begins to be or comes to pass.

4. Every living soul who begins to be and all that comes to pass through him is the absolute fullness of life and apart from him no one comes into being and not one thing comes to pass.

5. Indeed, this truth shed light on the darkness, which was due to ignorance of divine things, and the darkness (the ignorance) did not apprehend it or join itself to it.

6. A human being came into existence, sent from God, and his name was John.

7. He came to tell people about future events; and he knows these things because he was taught by divine revelation about the true and sincere light in order that those who hear him, each one individually and everyone, might be persuaded and have confidence in him.

8. He is not the true and sincere light, but he exists in order to be a witness, to implore people on account of the true and sincere light.

9. The true and sincere light is present among human beings and is the one who causes saving truth to become clear to each one, to everyone, and to all things. This true and sincere one comes into the harmonious order (the world) for human beings.

10. He is present in the harmonious order (the world), and through him the world happens but the world did not learn to know or understand him.

11. He arrives to what belongs to him, and what belongs to him does not accept him, it does not allow him to join them to himself.

12. But as for as those who take hold of his hand, who are persuaded about his true name and everything that that means, to them he gives the gift of the power of choice, the freedom to begin being children of God;

13. children who are born of his blood (his seat of life) not from human action; children who are brought over to his way of life by God.

14. And the living voice (conception/idea) began to be flesh and lived for a while among us; and we look upon him with attention, we contemplate and admire him as the unfolded fullness of God, complete and sufficient in kindness and assistance towards us and reveling everything as it really is.

15. John affirms what he knows by divine revelation and cries out in a loud voice saying, “This one exists, and his existence affirms what was said: that the one who comes after me is the one who is first in time and place and rank.”

16. Because he himself is the fulfillment, we - each one individually, and everyone as a whole- take a hold of goodwill and carry loving-kindness because of his grace.

17. While Moses supplied the law and customs which helped us live in a way approved by God, grace and a true understanding of God happened (came to pass) through Jesus Christ.

18. No one and no thing has ever seen God with their eyes and understood what they saw. It is only the presence of God, the one who partakes of the same blessedness of the founder of the family, who unfolds by teaching and reveals God. (John 1:1-18)

Our journey as Christians is a lifelong process of making the choice to live as children of God or to live in the darkness of ignorance about divine things. Our tradition is important to us in this because it grounds us, supports us, and holds us steady as the Spirit of God moves within us, leading us beyond our comfort zones into mystic union - what I call the breathing in of God; and the earthy ministries that manifest as a result of that - what I call the breathing out of God.

But the Spirit isn’t confined by any law or custom or tradition. We are justified by faith, as we heard in the letter to the Galatians. So any law or custom or tradition that impedes the free movement of the Spirit, becomes a prison of darkness which shuts out the true and sincere light of truth who is Jesus the Christ.

If we are to claim our inheritance then, we must be willing to be changed by God. I say this knowing some people hate that word, “change.” But we must be willing to be changed by God, again and again so that we can be formed into bearers of goodwill, and carriers of loving-kindness to the world in Jesus’ name.

Franciscan priest and theologian Richard Rohr says, “Change can either help people to find a new meaning, or it can cause people to close down and turn bitter. The difference is determined by the quality of our inner life, …what we call ‘spirituality’ …spiritual transformation is an active process of letting go…”

That’s what the Christmas season offers us: time and support to build our spiritual lives by practicing the spiritual discipline of letting go… stepping outside our comfort zones and letting go what we think we know about God, ourselves, and our neighbor, and making room in our hearts and our lives for the Christ to reveal to us everything as it really is.

As we contemplate the Word, the Logos of God, presented so beautifully in this Gospel from John, I pray we open ourselves to hear with new ears, that we might allow the Spirit of God free movement within us, to change us, to guide us, and to motivate us to be sincere lights of the truth in our world. Then we shall be as Isaiah prophesied: a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord… a royal diadem in the hand of [our] God. (62:3)

I close with a prayer from another of my favorite theologians – so you’ve had three today: Calvin, Richard Rohr, and Bishop Steven Charleston. Bp. Steven is the retired bishop of Alaska, retired Dean of Episcopal Divinity School, and a member of the Choctaw nation. Let’s pray his prayer together: “Give your heart to love today, not to old thoughts of who you were, but to the new idea that your kindness could change another life. Give your mind to hope today, not to the usual list of impossibilities, but to a single faith that goodness is the purpose of history. Give your spirit to peace today, not to the anger of the moment, but to the welcoming road of grace that leads to the home for which you have longed. Give your hands to the work of justice today, not in resignation but in certainty, knowing that what you do will make an enormous difference.”


Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve, 2017: Participants in the living Christmas story

I had the privilege once again of supplying at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Chester, SC. My sermon is below in text and audio formats (two of them).

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

(Note: if the above player doesn't work on your device click HERE.

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

Merry Christmas Eve!

We gather together today to joyfully receive the gift of our Redeemer, to collectively behold him with sure confidence of his love for us and his purpose for our lives. Having prepared ourselves for this during Advent, we stand together now ready to be reborn with him, as daughters and sons of God.

It is truly a joyful moment - for us and for the whole world. The reason is, we are not passive observers in this Christmas story, or in the continuing plan of redemption. We are active participants.

We aren’t here today simply to recount the first chapter of the greatest story ever told. We’re here to live it again.

Each of us is alive and breathing and here in this moment because God wants it that way. God has sent us to participate in making manifest the will of God on earth so that everyone will come to know the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. Each of us has our part to play, our obedience to give, and our shame to bear as we live into our purpose.

Luke’s gospel narrative demonstrates this for us through Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. They show us how doing our part requires us to trust God’s love, to go where God sends us, and then tell the world the Good News we have to share.

Coming up pregnant prior to her marriage to Joseph, Mary could have been stoned to death for adultery. That was the law. She could have said, ‘No’ to the public shaming her pregnancy would bring her – but she didn’t. She told the angel Gabriel that she would do whatever God asked of her. By giving not only her ‘Yes,’ but her body and her life to God, Mary participated with God in bringing about the will of God on the earth.

Being a righteous man, Joseph, who was a descendant of the great King David, could have said, ‘No, I won’t go register. I won’t participate in this unfair, unholy, earthly institution which will feed the monster Roman government that occupies our land. He could have said, I won’t submit myself to the public shame Mary’s condition will bring to me.’ He could have said that, but he didn’t. Instead, he walked 90 miles to Bethlehem with his pregnant girlfriend to register as he was required to do. By doing so, Joseph publicly and legally claimed Jesus as his son, legitimating him and Mary according to earthly institutions.

Joseph’s journey also fulfilled what had been prophesied: that the Messiah would be born of the house of David in the city of Bethlehem. By going where God sent him, Joseph participated with God in bringing about the will of God on the earth.

As the plan unfolded for Mary and Joseph, it brought one degradation after another, culminating with their inability to find a decent place to lodge. We traditionally translate this problem as “no room at the inn” but a better translation, a truer translation is: “no room in the guest quarters.” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Abingdon Press, 1855.)

It may have been that there really was no room. The census would have brought lots of visitors to Bethlehem all at once. But given the shameful circumstance of Mary’s condition it was more likely that Joseph’s family simply wouldn’t admit them into their homes and the only place made available to them was the space where the animals were kept – a serious insult to the holy family.

In the big picture, however, the Word became Incarnate to reconcile the whole world to God. So even his place of birth demonstrates that truth that the poor, the judged, and those excluded from civilized treatment on earth are given a place of honor in God’s plan of salvation.

Which brings us to the shepherds, the first to hear of this world-changing event. The shepherds were as lowly as the manger that held the infant Messiah. The angel told the shepherds that the Messiah of God had been born in Bethlehem; a baby in a manger wrapped in bands of cloth. Well they thought about it, discussing it amongst themselves – it was a strange announcement, you know - then they decided to go see this baby.

The shame they bore? It was who they are: shepherds. They were dirty, smelly, not allowed to go into the place of worship, and not likely to be welcomed into the presence of, “civilized” people. That didn’t stop them, though. Despite the potential for rejection, the shepherds went to Bethlehem, found the baby, and made known what they had seen and been told – and everyone was amazed by what they said. Everyone. By speaking their truth despite the risk of rejection, the shepherds participated with God in bringing about the will of God on the earth.

But these events took place two millennia ago. What does it mean for us today? Why do we gather now to remember it?

In his book, “Jesus Today” Dominican priest, Albert Nolan, says this: “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...” (Jesus Today, Orbis Books, xvii).

Why don’t’ we? Nolan suggests that many of us believe that these are 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. Never. It isn’t supposed to be.

Following Jesus is revolutionary! And that is why we’re here today. We are the body of Christ in the world today. Our purpose is to do our part to bring about the will of God on earth.

We are all Mary, giving our “yes,” offering our bodies, our souls, and our lives to God. We are all Joseph, going where God sends us. And we are all the shepherds, proclaiming the truth we know despite the risk of rejection. We do that because the world that aches to hear it.

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” And he dwells in us.

May Christ be born in us today in a very real way. God knows, the world needs that.


Sunday, December 17, 2017

Advent 3 and 4, 2017: Be like Mary

I had the pleasure of celebrating our thanks with my beloved friends at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Chester, SC. Lectionary for the combined Advent 3 and 4: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 (Adv 3); Canticle 15 (Adv 3 and 4); Romans 16:25-27 (Adv 4); Mark 1:1-8 (Adv 3) and Luke 1:26-38 (Adv 4)

Below is my sermon: Be like Mary. The image attached is an icon I wrote called "First Communion." Permission to copy or use this copyrighted image must be obtained from me. Thank you.

Note: If this audio player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for a different audio format.

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

Today we are celebrating the third Sunday of Advent, known as Gaudete Sunday AND the fourth Sunday of Advent. (Reference to Advent wreath candles and rose colored vestments.)

The word 'gaudete' comes from the Latin and it means 'to welcome and to be filled with joy.' The word is an imperative, which compels us to remember that no matter what has us weighed down, brokenhearted, angry, frustrated or hopeless, we are to set that aside, just for a moment, and open ourselves to be filled with joy – joy that anticipates the saving action of God who comes with great might and bountiful grace to help us; joy that trusts that nothing is impossible with God.

On the 3rd and 4th Sundays in Advent, we pray together the Magnificat – Mary’s radical, powerful prayer of praise to God and her voluntary gift of herself - her body, her soul, and her life – to be God’s partner in the plan of salvation, the reconciliation of the whole world to God in Christ.

For centuries the descriptors most often used about Mary are: meek and mild. Mary was probably meek, that is submissive, in the same way her son, Jesus was, for example, at his trial. Jesus was submissive to God’s plan but not to the Roman prefect. Likewise, Mary submitted herself and her life to God and God’s plan, but she was anything but mild about it. She was downright courageous and probably a bit directive, as most good leaders are.

I think of Mary sitting at the cross as her son died – the men having high tailed it to safety… and the wedding at Cana when Mary solved the wine problem by telling everyone to do whatever her son told them, despite Jesus’ own reluctance to work that miracle just then. Like a good son, he obeyed his mother and the feast fairly overflowed with fabulous wine.

The Greeks call Mary “Theotokos” which means “God-bearer.” Mary opened herself to ridicule, exile, even death, so that the Savior could grow within her unmarried body. Then she birthed him into manifest reality. Hers was, therefore, the first communion – she literally gave the body of Christ to the world… making her the first sacramental priest of the Christian universe.

I think it was medieval priest and mystic Meister Eckhart who said we are all called to be ‘theotokos.’ We are all called to grow Christ within us - in our bodies, our souls, and our lives – and give him to the world. This is the ministry of all the baptized (not just the ordained) as a royal priesthood.

Be like Mary: submissive to God’s will, courageous, directive, willing to grow the Christ within you, then give him to the world.

Our church calendar offers us a rhythm of penitential-preparatory seasons followed by the celebratory seasons… Advent to Christmas and Lent to Easter… then time to rest and grow. Advent is one of the penitential-preparatory seasons. It’s a time when we, like Mary, offer to God our whole selves – our bodies, souls, and lives – as God’s partners in the continuing work of reconciliation.

It’s penitential because during Advent we summon up the courage to notice where sin exists in us and how it is manifested in our lives. For example, wherever a relationship is disrupted, there is sin. Whether that relationship is with God, another person, or our treatment of creation, sin disrupts relationship. We repent when we change ourselves and what we do in order to restore right relationship, or as the Bible calls it: righteousness.

We are the bearers of the Spirit of God in Christ in the world today. This identity is given to us in our Baptism, therefore, we like Mary, are partners with God in the reconciling work of salvation. Are we willing to be like Mary: submissive to God’s will, courageous, directive, willing to grow the Christ within us, then give him to the world?

Mary’s Magnificat was her manifesto – her public proclamation of her theology, grounded in her tradition. Think about that, this woman raised Jesus, and this is the theology he learned from her:
• that God is great, merciful, strong, and protective
• that God brings down the mighty from their places of power and lifts up the lowly
• that God feeds those who hunger and sends the self-satisfied away empty
• that God helps God’s people
• that God keeps God’s promises which are handed down through the tradition of the prophets in Scripture

This is our manifesto too. Do we have the courage to proclaim it? …to live it?

Some of us do. Look at what’s happening right now with the #MeToo movement. Women are proclaiming with courage and men in every arena of our common life are finding themselves brought down from their places of power. Women are finally being heard and acknowledged in their demand for respect, dignity, and justice.

I give thanks for this uncomfortable moment in our cultural narrative. I give thanks that racism is being called out – again; that sexism is being called out – again. Courageous people are proclaiming their Magnificat and God is acting to make all things right again, and this time, we are given the grace to see it beginning to happen.

It’s cataclysmic. Transformation always is.

By God’s great power and bountiful grace and promised mercy, everyone and everything that is out of step with God’s will, is already being transformed; and justice and peace are already being restored in our hearts, in our relationships, and in our world.

So then, we aren’t the only ones who are waiting during Advent, are we? God is waiting too. God is waiting for us to be like Mary and welcome the transformation God is already working in us.

It will be cataclysmic, but as St. Paul says, God will strengthen us until we, like Mary, can say: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Let us pray…

Stir up your power and with great might come among us now, O Lord. We welcome you. We trust you. We love you. We know we put up roadblocks. Let your bountiful grace and mercy… help us to take them down – to take down all barriers between us and you, and between us and one another. Deliver us from all our barriers to Love, so that we may be like Mary: submissive to your will, courageous, directive, and welcome the continuing growth of the Christ within us, that we might give him to the world in an eternal holy communion. Amen.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Advent 1-B, 2017: Journey into Unknowing

I ws blessed to have celebrated and preacehd for a second week at Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, NC, where the people are lovely, joyful, faithful, and welcoming. Below is my sermon.

Note: If the audio player won't work on your device, click HERE for a different audio format.

Lectionary: Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

Welcome to the season of Advent. There’s nothing like a little apocalyptic terror to get the season started, right?

I confess, I love the power of the apocalyptic language in our Scripture today. Let’s hear again from Isaiah: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down… to make your name known to [those who oppose you], so that the nations might tremble at your presence…” Then in the gospel of Mark, Jesus said, “Then they will see the ‘Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.”

What I love is that God is so powerful in these passages! All of heaven and earth quake and tremble in the presence of the Almighty God. For some this may sound ominous, even threatening; and it is, but only to those who oppose God, that is, those who believe in their own power and privilege, and who lord that over others, for surely they will quake and tremble in the presence of the true and divine power of God.

We can be comforted by the words in today’s Scriptures, and here’s why: no matter how dark and difficult our experience of the world is, no matter how much we think we may have messed things up, Scripture assures us that the Son of Man is coming with great power and glory! Scripture assures us that God has the power and the desire to come and set things right.

We can be comforted knowing that God’s love for us is beyond anything we can imagine and for some reason, God desires relationship with us just as we are, in all our sin, our shame, and our weakness. St. Teresa of Avila describes this beautifully in her poem entitled, “He desired me so I came close.” Here is that poem:

“He desired me so I came close.

No one can near God unless He has
prepared a bed for you.

A thousand souls hear His call every second,
but most every one then looks into their life’s mirror and
says, ‘I am not worthy to leave this

When I first heard his courting song, I too
looked at all I had done in my life
and said,

‘How can I gaze into his omnipresent eyes?’
I spoke those words with all my heart,

but then He sang again, a song even sweeter,
and when I tried to shame myself once more from His presence
God showed me His compassion and spoke a divine truth,

‘I made you, dear, and all I made is perfect.
Please come close, for I

And that is what compels our Advent journey - God desires us to come close, to make room in our hearts and our lives for the light that is coming to us again at Christmas: Emmanuel - God with us. In order to do that we have to break fresh ground in the soil of our souls; and journey into the “unknowing” that state of receptive, open-heartedness to God who is beyond our understanding, our concepts, and even our imagining.

It’s called “unknowing” because, as the author of the book, “The Cloud of Unknowing” says, “since the human senses and intellect are incapable of attaining to God, they must be ‘emptied’… purified in order that God may pour his light into them… When the faculties are emptied of all human knowledge there reigns in the soul a ‘mystic silence’ leading it to the climax that is union with God…” (p 26, 27)

Our Advent journey, then, isn’t learning more about God, but less, emptying ourselves so that God may fill us. Then our unknowing strengthens and enriches our knowing and we are awakened to an awareness that Jesus is with us at all times.

It is important for us to develop the prayer discipline of unknowing because the redeeming work of Christ continues to this day, and as his disciples, we are his partners in that work. As Jesus’ disciples, we choose to step into the darkness of people’s lives bearing the light of Christ that is within us that God might transform their nightmare into God’s dream as our Presiding Bishop, ++Michael Curry often says.

As Jesus’ disciples, we choose to confront evil in the systems of the world – those systems that oppress and exploit the poor, the powerless, and the helpless, the ill, the elderly, women, children, immigrants - just as Jesus did in his time - knowing the consequences we might face and trusting the redeeming love of God for us and for the world.

This is why we must keep awake. If we are not being oppressed or exploited, it’s easy to fall asleep at the wheel and not notice that our neighbor is.

And this is the message Jesus is giving his disciples in today’s Gospel: They will see the Son of Man coming. This word, ‘coming’ literally translates as: I am come. I am here.

Before you all die, Jesus said, all these things will have taken place and you will know that ‘I am come. I am here.’ Heaven and earth may pass away but God’s word will never pass away because… He is come. He is here.

Jesus repeats his caution to his disciples: Beware. Be alert. Keep awake. Watch for what God is doing and each of you do your part in that work. The means by which God will act to redeem will surprise you. So, keep awake!

I mean, really, who could have anticipated that the redeeming plan of God would be accomplished by the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus? Certainly no one using human senses and intellect, for these, as we know, are “incapable of attaining to God.”

That’s why practicing unknowing matters. We can’t anticipate how God will redeem now any more than the disciples could then. What we can do is unite our hearts to God’s heart and surrender our wills God’s will and choose to trust in God’s power and desire to redeem the whole world.

I close today with another favorite prayer – this one from St. Brendan. I pray it will be of assistance in the Advent journey before us.

“Lord, I will trust You.
Help me to journey beyond the familiar
and into the unknown.
Give me the faith to leave old ways
and break fresh ground with You.
Christ of the mysteries, I trust You
to be stronger than each storm within me.
I will trust in the darkness and know
that my times, even now, are in Your hand.
Tune my spirit to the music of heaven,
and somehow, make my obedience count for You.”