Saturday, April 3, 2021

Holy Saturday, 2021: Building strength through waiting

 This sermon was preached extemporaneously, therefore, it is in video only - there is no text available. Blessed Triduum to you all.







Friday, April 2, 2021

Maundy Thursday, 2021: Mandate for servanthood

Lectionary: Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35


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

 It is often said that Episcopalians take the Bible too seriously to take it literally. Maundy Thursday is one of those nights it is important to go deeply into the Scripture and find the eternal truth and redemptive love within it. 

Thankfully, our forebears in the faith, the Jewish people, created a ritual designed to do just that: the Passover seder meal, the origin of the Agape supper we share when we can gather in person. The seder meal traces the story of the deliverance of the people of Israel from bondage to redemption but isn’t just a story of what happened once. It’s also a story of what happens now, eternally, because of who God is and how the world is – until that final day when all people and all creation are fully and completely reconciled to God.

A great deal of focus during the seder meal is on the children who are asked this question: “What makes this night different from all other nights?” The question is meant to encourage the children to ask questions and spark their curiosity. This is how Jewish children are taught about their faith and their identity as children of God.

Held in the Spring, the seder meal signals rebirth and renewal - symbolized by the dipping of greens, usually parsley, into water that is salted to symbolize the tears of the people enslaved by the powers of the world. The story unfolds in four parts marked by four cups of wine consumed during the meal. Each of the cups represents how God has acted to save and is taken from the book of Exodus (6:6-7). These four acts are: “I will bring out, “I will deliver,” “I will redeem,” and “I will take.”

It matters that we know this because each Sunday, when we bless and share our holy food of communion, we are lifting up the third of those four cups, just as Jesus did with his disciples at his last seder supper. The third cup is the cup Jesus claimed himself to be. To understand that, we need to know the meaning and cultural context of the four cups.

The first cup is the cup of SANCTIFICATION. God says: “I will bring you out.” To sanctify is to set someone or something apart as holy. This is where the people of God learn that they are “chosen” by God. God will bring them out from their slavery so that they can serve God, not a human master.

The second cup is the cup of DELIVERANCE. God says: “I will deliver.” Only God can save. We cannot save ourselves. The temptation most of us face is spending time and energy trying to do the right thing or to live the right way, in order to earn salvation. But that isn’t possible, because, as we know, redemption is a gift from God. We can’t and don’t earn it. 

The third cup is the cup of REDEMPTION. God says, “I will redeem.” In the Jewish tradition the word redemption also means “avenger of blood” and it is, by definition, a family member. This family member acts to set their kin free from slavery, paying a ransom, or great price for that freedom. The traditional image is of a father sacrificing his firstborn son for the freedom of his entire family.

At dinner with his friends, Jesus claims himself to be this third cup. It is his blood, that is, his life that will be given for the redemption of all by the forgiveness of sin. Because he is the second person of the Trinity, fully God and fully human, Jesus is the Father who pays the price, the Son who is the price, and the family for whom that price is paid.

As Christians, we are partners with Christ in his continuing work of redemption. And Jesus made clear to us how to do our part, saying, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

The Messiah of God humbly served his community by getting on his knees before them and washing their feet. I hope we all take this very seriously and hear the symbolic language of this Bible story of servant ministry. Jesus is mandating that we do now do as he did then: get on our knees (a posture of servitude), wrap a towel around our waist (the symbol of a servant) and humbly do the “dirty work” of tenderly caring for the most unappealing realities of the human condition, bringing refreshment and dignity to the lowest of the low.

To make this crystal clear, Jesus put this new approach into the form of a commandment – a mandate (which is the root of the word ‘Maundy”): “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

As the church, the body of Christ, we are in a position to lead the way to transformed understanding of leadership in the pattern and practice of Jesus, and the pandemic has opened wide a window of opportunity for us to do that. God give us the will to put into action what we believe in our faith.

I close with a prayer I wrote for Servant Leadership. Some of us have been praying this all year in the Compline for Servant Leadership my partner, Martin, and I developed: 

Fill us, most merciful God, with the power of your Holy Spirit, and free us from any bonds that continue to restrict our freedom to fully love you, one another, and ourselves. Enter our dreams each night and show us your will for us as your church’s servant leaders in this time and place. Loosen our tongues to speak your truth. Strengthen our hearts to birth your love into reality no matter the cost; and make each of us to shine with the celestial light that is the mark of your saints in heaven and on earth; for the love of your Son, our savior, Jesus, the Christ. Amen.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

5th Lent, 2021-B: The God-seed in us

 Lectionary:Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33 


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

This beautiful season of Lent began on Ash Wednesday by remembering that the word ‘Lent’ means ‘spring’ and we committed to open the soil of our souls to receive the seeds God would plant, nourish, and cultivate in us, guided by the invitation from Pierre Teillhard de Chardin to “plunge into God.”

Today we consider what seeds God planted in us. What do they mean for our lives and journey forward in our faith? What fruit will they bear for the glory of God?

None of us wants to believe we have within us the power to be dark or destructive… but we do. Deep within each of us lie the cultural seeds of racism, elitism, able-ism, sexism… all the ~isms. When the truth of that hits us, it is painful.

It’s also painful to recognize that certain habits, ways of understanding, speaking, and acting, can be harmful and do not glorify God. We’ve all had those moments when we spoke words that we wish we could have sucked back into our mouths before anyone heard or registered what we’d said. But we couldn’t and the words hurt. They hurt the one who heard them, but also the one who uttered them.

Most of us have gotten good at sidestepping that pain by simply denying the truth of it: I didn’t mean what I just said. I’m not a racist, sexist, elitist (fill in the ~ist blank here). Or we project the pain out from ourselves, blaming someone else saying, ‘You must have misunderstood me.’ or ‘They took my words out of context.’

We are not immune to the cultural impact of the ~isms in which we were raised. We are, however, able to repent, but repenting isn’t easy either.

As hard as it is for us to acknowledge our own sin, deep down we also fear God’s acknowledgment of it and what that would mean. We stand on that unsteady bridge between guilt and shame with guilt telling us ‘I did something bad, I need to repent,’ and shame threatening us with ‘I am bad, and therefore, condemned.’

Shame is a lie, but guilt is a healthy signal to us from our conscience that we did a bad thing. While the world has become almost completely unforgiving and condemning, God isn’t, so the church can’t be either. In fact, the church must invite us to notice the guilt, recognize the wrong we did and repent of it, so that we can be reconciled back to one another and God. It’s a process that leads to new life.

This simple, life-giving truth was demonstrated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s work dismantling apartheid in S Africa through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The work they did, however, was painful.

About that pain of repentance, Teillhard says, “…when the painful comes in which I suddenly awaken to the fact I am losing hold of myself and am absolutely passive within the hands of the great, unknown forces that have formed me; in all those dark moments, O God, grant that I may understand that it is you …who are painfully parting the fibers of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me away within yourself… Teach me to treat my death as an act of communion… For you bring new life out of every form of death.”

Even Jesus struggled with death. The gospel of John doesn’t have a Garden of Gethsemane story, but offers something similar when Jesus says, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say - ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”

Like Jesus, we all have to come to grips with the reality that God has a plan for us and for the world, and it may not line up exactly with our plan - how we’d like it to work. But our plan is infected by the cultural seeds of ~isms in ways we only come to recognize over time.

This is what Jesus is talking about when he says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” ‘Love’ and ‘hate’ don’t refer to feelings. Love is that deliberate choice we make of one option over all others. Hate refers to being willing to walk away with indifference.

So then, what is our deliberate choice? Which option do we choose? God’s plan for our lives or ours? 

Only the former leads to eternal life. As Jesus teaches us in this gospel, we must not put the life we think we want ahead of the life God has planned for us, and we must be willing to walk away from life as the world presents it. Instead, Jesus says, we go deeply into our hearts, where we will find true life because there we will find God. As God said through the prophet Jeremiah, “I will put my law within them… I will write it on their hearts.”

One clarification here: the law, in Judaism, is not about rules but about relationship. The law establishes a “way of walking” together with God leading the way.  When the law sounds and works only like rules to control behavior, it is the disclosure of human bias on the relationship God is offering.

On this final Sunday in Lent, as we look at the seed or seeds planted in us by God, we realize that God in Christ is in us, gently urging us to let go of everything else – everything we thought about and planned for – and let the God-seed that is in us break its covering and reach its roots deeply into us where it will bear fruit.

Jesus knows the pain these moments can bring. In the midst of his pain, he gave us the words to pray in our pain: “Father, glorify your name.”

One final thought: while the season of Lent is coming to an end, the journey it led us to is only beginning. I pray that we keep going deeply into our hearts, continually breaking ourselves open to God, allowing God to penetrate to our very marrow. I pray that we let each new seed God plants in us to lead us to death and new life in the mystical act of communion.

By his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus demonstrated that God brings new life out of every form of death. By our faith, then, we glorify God when we die to ourselves and plunge into eternal life in him. Amen.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

4th Lent: Redirected to life

Lectionary: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21 


En el nombre del Dios que es Trinidad en unidad... In the name of God who is Trinity in Unity. Amen. 

Today is Laetare Sunday, also known as Refreshment or Mothering Sunday. The word Laetare means “rejoice.” In the tradition of Mothering Sunday, we give thanks for our mother church, that is, the church in which we were baptized, the Mother of our Lord, and the motherliness of God.

The rose color of the priest’s vestments represents a lightening up of the purple used in Lent. On this day we relax our Lenten practices and pause to rejoice.

In our time, the association of the color pink with all things female provides an unmistakable embodiment of the feminine. I can picture God smiling, knowing this was coming for us…

We talk a lot about God the Father, but not so much about God the Mother even though doing so is true to Scripture and Tradition. For example, the prophet Isaiah tells us that God desires to comfort the people of Israel “As a mother comforts her child.” (66:13) Our Wisdom literature talks about the feminine character of God using feminine names and images for God. Jesus talks about the motherliness of God in the Gospel of Matthew, saying: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem… How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…”

There are times in our lives when we need God to be motherly for us. At all times, we need to know and experience the loving nature of God, which Jesus talks about in our gospel reading today, saying: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

God so loved the world. All of the meanings of the word love come into play here. God’s love for all that is created is so far beyond our ability to grasp that we tend to place ourselves outside of it.

I’ve had conversations with people that sound like this: God isn’t concerned with the details of our lives, just the broad strokes of human history. Or… I’m so messed up, I’m not worthy of God’s love. Or… I’ve done terrible things. I’m not worthy of God’s forgiveness.

But Jesus goes on to connect this important phrase: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Whenever we rebel, when we make mistakes or act badly, how does God react? The way God always reacts: to save us from death and restore us to life.

In our Old Testament reading, Moses is leading the people out of slavery in Egypt to the promised land. On their way, they mostly whine about what isn’t right. They complain that they have no food, so God gives them manna. Then they complain about the manna.

Then snakes begin to attack them and many of them died. The people cry out, “Save us from the snakes!” and how does God react? God gives Moses a way to redirect their attention from death to life.

Put a snake on a stick, God says, and lift it up so they can see it. Anyone who is bitten shall look at it and live. While this may sound a bit superstitious at first, what it really is, is a concrete way to move the people from dysregulation to wellbeing.

Fearing death, when they look at the serpent on the stick, they remember God’s presence with them and God’s authority over all life. When we fear death, we look at the cross of Christ and remember God’s victory over the power of death.

God always meets us where we are and leads us to where we need to go.

Back when I ran a shelter, we had a woman come in who took emotional power over the other families by concocting curses, claiming herself a witch. Being in the deep South, most of the women we served were Bible-belt Christians, yet they came to believe that this woman had the power to curse them.

The woman would leave a thin line of ashes (a symbol of death) across the doorway of the person or family she was “cursing.” When they awoke and saw that they had been “cursed,” they panicked. In about a week’s time, this woman had almost complete control of the way the women and children in that shelter behaved toward her. They did her chores, gave her control of the TV, and no one crossed her.

It’s no surprise that this woman’s need for control was self-protective. It was also imaginative and quite effective. She didn’t trust the others, so she controlled them. They feared her, so they complied.

My staff was working hard in individual and group meetings to speak rationally about this, but their assurances went unheard, and the fear and anxiety continued to ratchet up. So, one day, at a house meeting, I confessed my Puerto Rican heritage and my great-grandmother’s claim of being a bruja (a witch). I told them that she had taught me some things and that I knew how to undo the curse magic. (I didn't.)

I walked into the kitchen where we had bread dough rising, took a handful of it, and went over to the doorway where the ashes had been spread. I scooped the ashes into a pile and plopped the bread dough on top of it. I covered it with a towel and spoke a prayer over it, using familiar words: light, love, life’s victory over death.

When the ritual was over, I lifted the cloth, picked up the bread dough, and the ashes were gone. They had been absorbed into the sticky dough. The relief in the room erupted into joy. Like the Israelites in exile, the women in my shelter had to be met where they were and their attention had to be redirected from death to life.

Even the woman who claimed to be a witch stopped cursing people and began to trust the other women and establish friendships. Peace was restored to our shelter household.

Bread is life. It is Eucharistic and powerfully symbolic to us. Back then, I let the chaplains at the shelter connect the dots for the women. Now it’s my turn.

Jesus is the “true bread which gives life to the world.” When we trust that, when we rely on it, we have eternal life, that is, “he lives in us and we in him.”

The word love used throughout this gospel refers to a deliberate exercise of judgment, a decided preference for one out of many options. It isn’t about feelings. It’s a decision by God to choose us, to choose life for us.

The last thing Jesus says in this gospel story is that God has already decided our final judgment: “And this is the judgment [he said], that the light has come into the world…” If we choose to trust and rely on that light, which is Christ, then everything we do will be done in God.

This doesn’t mean we won’t mess up. God knows we will. It’s part of being human.

So how does God react when we mess up? The way God always does - leading us from death to life. God comforts us like a mother comforts her children and protects us like a hen gathering her chicks under her wing to keep them safe.

Knowing this, trusting it, we give thanks to God who, as our psalmist says, is good, whose mercy endures forever, who gathers us from all directions, delivering us, healing us, doing wonders for us from age to age demonstrating over and over again God’s choice to redeem not condemn us.

Relying on this truth, we know, as the writer of Ephesians verifies, that we are saved by grace through faith, not by our own doing. Our final judgment is life in the light of Christ.

I can’t think of a better reason to rejoice. Laetare!

Sunday, March 7, 2021

3rd Lent, 2021: Remover of obstacles

Lectionary: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22 

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

Over the years I’ve learned that if you want to know someone’s true character, notice what flares up their anger. Who are they angry at and why?

In my years working with and advocating for persons subjected to violence and abuse, I witnessed toddler-like tantrums from plenty of adults who simply didn’t get their way and resorted to intimidation to enforce their will - and I’m not just talking about the abusers here, but also law enforcement, lawyers, and judges. Self-interest, power, and control are deeply rooted temptations for us humans, and the more we think we have power, the more we think we deserve it, and the less willing we are to let it go.

I’ve also seen my share of actual toddlers melting down as they learn the hard lessons that they aren’t the center of the universe and the world isn’t going to serve their every whim. At least that’s apposite for the toddlers. Can’t say the same for the adults…

In today’s gospel, Jesus pitches the only angry fit recorded in the gospels. This was no toddler-fit. It was righteous anger. Who was Jesus angry at and why?

A little background might help. The setting is the temple in Jerusalem, which was a huge complex, and the time is the feast of the Passover in spring. Thousands of worshippers have traveled to Jerusalem on spiritual pilgrimage to offer their sacrifice at the temple. The deluge of pilgrims strained local resources that had to house, feed, and clean up after them.

In order to make their temple sacrifice, people first had to exchange their Roman money for Jewish money – and the exchanges weren’t always done fairly. In addition, most of the sacrificial animals, even the cheaper birds, were too expensive for regular folk, but the religious leadership had convinced them that unless they bought and offered an animal for sacrifice, they couldn’t participate in worship and their prayers would go unheard by God.

Typically, the money changers, sacrificial animals, and merchandisers would have been 13 miles away in the Kidron Valley, but in our story, they are in the temple precincts, most likely in the Court of the Gentiles. It is believed that Caiaphas, the high priest, had permitted his supporters to move their stalls to the temple as a way of garnering their support while asserting power over his rivals in the Sanhedrin.

It’s a good bet that a lot of people were offended by the presence of the animals and merchants in the temple. Imagine trying to worship in the presence of the smell and sounds of the animals, while merchants are barking out their deals – not to mention the money changers fleecing hapless believers within earshot – all in the habitation of the Holy. (Source: Dick Donovan commentary)

Observing all of this, Jesus is moved to act. He fashions a whip to get everything and everyone out of “his father’s house.” The gospel says Jesus “drove” them out, using the same word for those times Jesus expelled demons. It’s a spiritually weighty word.

The exploitation of the poor and their cruel exclusion from communal worship unless they lined the pockets of the rich was so far off the path of righteousness that Jesus fairly exploded with anger at the self-serving exploiters, who also happened to be the religious leadership.

Why was he mad? Because they were throwing obstacles on the path for God’s people. Remembering what we said last week, that the literal meaning of “the satan” is “one who throws an obstacle across one’s path,” Jesus is making clear that the religious leadership were “satan” in that moment. Their eyes were on earthly, not divine things and it led them to insolence in the house of God and maltreatment of God’s people.

By his tantrum, Jesus reveals to us his true character and ours. Jesus is a fierce protector of the vulnerable people of God who was consumed by a zeal for the house of God. He also showed us, by contrast, that even when we are trying to be faithful, we can slip into self-serving behaviors or become complicit in the self-serving behaviors of others that harm many while serving only a few.

The merchants in our gospel story, for example, were only trying to make a living in hard times, and besides, a portion of the money they raised went to serve the church – so it’s all good, right? Wrong. These merchants were complicit in a system that was harming the many while serving an elite few. Their choice to manipulate their own reward from that exploitative system was their presumptuous sin.

The systems in our world that create and perpetuate harm to the many while serving the few are no secret to God, and no matter how we justify them or our participation in them, they are our presumptuous sins. Sins like racism, classism, sexism, and the other ~isms we’ve been discussing all year Once these sinful systems are put in place, they become accepted, then habit, then tradition. In the end, however, they are simply “the satan” and our response must be to remove those obstacles from the path of God – even if the obstacle is us.

Lent is the season we take the risk of allowing ourselves to see our own presumptuous sins individually and collectively, then respond to them. They are there, of course they are, because we aren’t perfected yet, but God isn’t finished with us either, and God continually chooses us to be removers of the obstacles on the path of the love of God.

Living out our baptismal vows is serious business and can feel arduous or unfair at times, especially in a world where leisure seems like the treasured reward – and people who don’t work for it seem to have the most of it! But we have a different goal. Our goal isn’t to live an easy life or a leisurely life. Our goal is to live a faithful life. That may look like foolishness to someone who is not on God’s path of love, but we’re in good company.

Mother Theresa of Calcutta and the sisters of the order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity, spent their lives and all of their resources serving the most despised, wretchedly poor, and outcast in India. The sisters successfully dispelled the darkness of those they served, enabling them to die knowing they were treasured by God and by the sisters.

So faithful was their approach that they became icons of loving service to the world. This tiny woman, and her band of faithful sisters in Christ, worked some powerful love into the world. Their story illustrates for us that when we let the strength of divinity perfect - that is complete - our humanity, we are transformed and we become instruments of transformation in the world.

As we enter our third week in Lent, I pray we wait through the discomfort of looking courageously at our presumptuous sins and commit ourselves fully to our loving God who is already working to perfect us, prepare us, and transform us so that we can transform the world in God’s holy name. Amen.


Mother Theresa Photo credit.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

2 Lent, 2021: New life - Guaranteed

 

Lectionary: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38 



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

Our Scriptures today hold up for us the concept of righteousness. So, what is righteousness?

The dictionary defines righteousness as something that is morally right or justifiable. It says a righteous person is virtuous, having high moral standards.

By comparison, our Judeo-Christian tradition takes a radically different approach. For us, righteousness is right relationship – with God, one another, and all creation. The temporal fruit of righteousness is wholeness, harmony, peace, joy, and love. The eternal fruit of righteousness is life – on earth and for eternity – as we can see in our story from Genesis.

In this story, God invites Abram into relationship by inviting him into a covenant, that is, a formal agreement saying, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful…” By this time Abram is 99 years old and Sarai is in her 80s, and they have no son, yet God promises to make a multitude of nations from them.

Then God changes their names to Abraham and Sarah, which in Jewish tradition connects them to their redemption and signifies the new life God is bringing them. Abraham means “father of multitudes” and Sarah means “joy and delight.”

Their part in the covenant was to make a choice: to accept God’s blessing and abide in the covenant, despite what earthly barriers seemed to be in the way – or not. They chose to trust God and live as if the promises of God were true. That is what righteousness is.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus is preparing his disciples for the path of righteousness. Jesus tells them that he is about to undergo great suffering, be rejected by the religious leadership, and be killed, after which he will rise again.

Peter pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him privately. His love for Jesus, his respect and admiration for him, and his wisdom about Jesus’ identity as the Messiah are barriers for Peter, who is unable to look beyond the earthly circumstances to the fulfillment of God’s plan in Jesus – even in the devastating circumstances by which Jesus says that plan will be fulfilled.

Jesus makes his response to Peter publicly - indicating that this is an important lesson for all of his followers. Looking at the disciples, Jesus says these biting words: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” Jesus calls Peter “Satan.” How are we to understand this?

Theologian and religious historian, Elaine Pagels, teaches that the Hebrew term “the satan” describes an adversarial role, not a particular character. “Along about the 6th century Hebrew commentary introduced the idea of the supernatural nature of “the satan.” The word “satan” literally means “one who throws something across one’s path.” If the path is bad, the obstruction is good, thus “the satan” may have been sent by the Lord to protect a person from worse harm. If the path is righteous, however, “the satan” is blocking the path of the will of God. (The Origin of Satan, Vintage, 1996, pp 39, 40) This is what Peter was doing.

According to our early tradition, then, Satan is not a red demon guy with a tail and pitchfork who is nearly equal in power to God and spends his time trying to trick believers away from God. Besides, we don’t need Satan to trick us out of our right relationship with God. We’re perfectly capable of going astray ourselves.

When we go astray, which we all will at times, we also know that we have been baptized and marked as Christ’s own forever. Therefore, we can always choose to repent – to return to right relationship with God who is always faithful, steadfast in mercy, and waiting to forgive and be reconciled with us once more.

God does not give up on us but continually gives us the time, support, and resources we need to grow into our divine purpose. So, when Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan” he was teaching Peter, the other disciples, and us this important lesson: ‘You can’t be my follower if you are in front of me telling me how it ought to go. Get behind me and follow me. I will lead. Remember, you can only see from an earthly perspective. I see with divine sight. Trust me. Get behind me and follow me.”

As our Lenten journey continues to bring us deeper into that wilderness where the wild beasts of temptation lead us to dare to tell God how to proceed according to our plan, Jesus reminds us to follow him. Sometimes the lesson stings at first, but the mercy of God is always there for us Рguaranteed - and the love of God is ready to heal whatever wounds our naivet̩ causes in us, in others, and in the world.

The covenant in which we now choose to abide is the New Covenant: redemption in Jesus Christ. In this covenant, God promises new life to us – resurrection life – through Jesus. Our part in this covenant is to choose to live as if that promise is true. Notice I said “live” because the promise of God in the New Covenant isn’t fulfilled after we die but as we live, now, in the eternal presence of the God of love.

As we mature in our faith and righteousness, we will die little deaths like Peter did in today’s gospel - the death of an expectation, idea, habit, or prejudice - and God will lead us to new life after each of those deaths.

Our life as baptized Christians is one great ongoing resurrection reality because new life always follows death in the kingdom of God. Guaranteed. Amen.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Ash Wednesday, 2021: Choosing Lent

 

Lectionary: Joel 2:1-2,12-17;  Psalm 103 or 103:8-14;  2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10Matthew 6:1-6,16-21





En el nombre del Dios, que es Trinidad en unidad – In the name of God who is Trintiy in unity. Amen. 

Ash Wednesday marks the first day of Lent – my favorite liturgical season. On this day, no matter how terrible the present times may seem, we ring the church bells (as it were) and call everyone together to pray and listen for God’s call to us to return with all our hearts.

We mark the sign of the cross of Christ on our foreheads with the dust of ashes – the traditional symbol of repentance and humility before God. This is the first act of sanctifying ourselves, the outward sign that says we are ready to step out of the center of our own attention and mindfully, voluntarily, and humbly turn our attention to God.

Lent is not a time for us to wallow in the misery of our wretchedness as hopeless sinners and we don’t fast in order to suffer, or as punishment for sin. We fast to allow ourselves to experience emptiness. In the deep, dark center of ourselves, we willingly choose to make space for something new, something nourishing and life-giving that God will supply. That is what our Lenten journey is about.

The gift of practicing a holy Lent is that when we stop and make time to get honest about God we remember that God is full of compassion, slow to anger, forgives us, and cares for us deeply, intimately, with a love that knows no bounds. Our creator knows our frailties and knows we’ll sin, yet God remains steadfast in redeeming us from death, even crowning us with mercy and loving-kindness.

The hard part of Lent, the part that gets most of the attention, is the part where we make time to get honest about ourselves. Every one of us will find ourselves, at times, lacking the will to be compassionate especially when it involves some amount of sacrifice on our part. There are (or will be) times in our lives when our anger erupts quickly, while forgiveness comes slowly – if at all. And we can be, at times, so preoccupied with ourselves that we become blind to the fact that all around us, our family, friends, and neighbors, known and unknown to us, are suffering.

Sometimes, our preoccupation with ourselves takes the form of addiction – and we can be addicted to many things. Some addictions are familiar: food, alcohol, or drugs. Others are more insidious, like addiction to being in control, being the center of attention, self-criticism, or pessimism.

The word “Lent” actually means spring. Lent is a time when new life is being formed, and the one forming that new life is the same one who forms all life: God.

The temptation we face is thinking that we need to choose what to do or stop doing for Lent. This would be that addiction to control I mentioned. So, rather than deciding what we need to give up or add in, maybe we can approach Lent humbly and let Lent happen in us.

Pierre Teillhard deChardin, a French philosopher and Jesuit priest who died in 1955, once said: “Let us leave the surface and without leaving the world, plunge into God.” This approach fits our gospel reading which cautions us against practicing our piety for others to see. Without leaving the world, we can practice a holy Lent by immersing ourselves fully into God.

That doesn’t mean we do nothing. In fact, the hard work of Lent is emptying ourselves of all that already fills us, including the need to be full and satisfied. But emptiness scares us – the nothingness of it feels kind of like death, so we tend to avoid it.

That’s why Lent is different. Knowing that by our baptism we have entered into Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have no fear of death, not even the little ones - like the death of a habit, or the death of an idea we hold about God, ourselves, our neighbors, or even (gasp) our church.

Teillhard says that death is about communion with God. He says, “…when the painful comes in which I suddenly awaken to the fact I am losing hold of myself and am absolutely passive within the hands of the great, unknown forces that have formed me; in all those dark moments, O God, grant that I may understand that it is you …who are painfully parting the fibers of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me away within yourself… Teach me to treat my death as an act of communion… For you bring new life out of every form of death.”

The traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are tested and reliable ways to enter humbly into this season. Prayer brings us into the presence of God where, if we’re quiet, we will hear God speak to us, guiding us to new ideas, new habits, new life. Fasting reminds us of our mortality and human limitations. When we remember how real and compelling hunger is, we are moved to do something to relieve it –even if it means making a bit of a sacrifice. Alsmgiving is one way we can do something to relieve suffering – offering a special financial gift toward the ministries of our church.


One final word about this: if you are diabetic, on medication, or for some other reason you can’t fast from food – don’t. There are so many other things we can fast from like self-focus, resentment, or estrangement.

Our Lenten practices aren’t about success or failure. We don’t score points for praying, fasting, or giving alms, and we don’t get demerits for not doing those things.

Remember, we don’t do Lent, we choose it. We choose to plunge into God who is waiting to form new life in us. God bless us all as we practice a holy Lent. Amen.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Epiphany Last, 21-B: Strengthened and changed

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


 En el nombre del Dios, que es Trinidad en unidad. Int he name of God, who is Trinity in unity. Amen. 

As Christians we are, I hope, dedicated to a life-long journey of formation to strengthen our spiritual muscles, as it were, to continually grow and mature in our faith. Most of us have spent a lifetime already learning and saying prayers, hearing the stories in our Scriptures, and wrestling with what they mean for us today. 

 The skill we use for that is what I call “listening behind the words.” There are the words in our prayers, and the greater truth behind those words given to us by “the Spirit [who] intercedes with sighs too deep for words. (Ro 8:26) There are the stories in our Scriptures and the eternal truth behind those stories that enable us to connect the divine intention to our lives today.

In Mark’s version of the Transfiguration story, Jesus leads his Executive Committee - Peter, James, and John - away from the others. They go up to a high mountain – Bible-speak for a place where God is encountered.

Suddenly, Jesus begins to shine with a light so bright his clothes dazzle and there was a brilliant aura emanating from him. These are traditional symbols for transcendence - the greatness of God, that surpasses all things created. Mark is telling us that what happened on that mountain was an experience that goes beyond the limits of all possible knowledge and experience - an eternal truth about God.

Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appear and they are chatting with Jesus. The two most powerful prophets in Jewish history, Biblical heroes who were long dead and gone, are suddenly not dead or gone. They're right here and Peter, James, and John watch as their ancient heroes chat with their beloved rabbi. In this is revealed the eternal truth that death is not the end for us, but the gateway to eternal life.

Then Peter, God bless Peter, offers to build a shrine to mark this amazing moment. Peter takes some grief for his suggestion, but it wasn’t so out there. People make shrines all the time to leave a visual marker of an important event - like the crosses we see on roadsides that mark where someone died in a car accident, or grottos to Mother Mary in places like Lourdes, Guadalupe, and Fatima. It helps some people to go to a place where heaven met earth and pray there.

Then, Mark tells us, they are overshadowed by a cloud. A cloud is Bible-speak for the Spirit of God, as when Moses was given the stone tablets on Mt. Sinai. And these disciples were overshadowed by the Spirit of God just as Mary was when she conceived the Son of God in her womb, but what they conceive is a transforming truth – one that will take a little time to come to maturity in them. Seeing Jesus glow in that unearthly light and hearing the voice from heaven claim him as Son and Beloved, the disciples now were beginning to understand what they hadn't understood before. They were becoming aware that all of their preconceived notions about Jesus, including their grand expectations of him as Messiah, suddenly seemed so limited, so small, so untrue.

Then, in an instant, the world around them returns to the one they knew and could comprehend. Jesus wasn't glowing anymore. Moses and Elijah were gone. The cloud of God's powerful presence has vanished, and it’s just them again on the mountain, alone.

As they begin their journey down the mountain, the disciples are still in that groggy state of mind that happens when your brain is trying to make sense of something it can't. We can almost hear their unspoken thoughts: What just happened? Was it a dream? It couldn't have been a dream… can you even have a group dream? Wait till we tell the others! As if he can hear their thoughts, Jesus warns his Executive Committee to tell no one until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Did they connect the dots that Jesus, who dazzled only moments ago, is actually the Messiah of God, and said that he will die and rise again? Did we?

The three disciples' journey down the mountain marks the beginning of their journey to new lives as the truth conceived in them begins to take root and grow. The remainder of Mark’s gospel shows us how their new understanding is nourished and expanded by their teacher, Jesus, with lessons on forgiveness, the kingdom of heaven and who belongs to it, healing as a sign of the generosity and accessibility of God's grace, and their call to become servant leaders of this new way of being in the world.

It's a long journey for them. They constantly come up against the limits of their habits and thinking, and Jesus patiently guides them beyond those limits again and again.

On this the last Sunday after the Epiphany, we begin our liturgical journey down the mountain and into the wilderness of Lent. There we set aside time to discover and confront the limits of our habits and thinking and invite Jesus to guide us beyond those limits into a new way of being in the world.

If we are to be “strengthened to bear our cross, and… changed into [Jesus’] likeness from glory to glory, then we must invite Jesus to guide us, to change us and how we live in the world as it is right now… a world where millions of people have insufficient access to safe food, water, housing, and medical care… a world where people are disenfranchised or killed because of the color of their skin or their gender or gender-fluidity… a world where people can get fired from their jobs because they are gay or trans… a world where the “haves” can ignore the needs of the “have-nots” and enforce laws and practices to maintain the status quo they have carefully engineered to keep them on top.

Thankfully, our liturgical calendar offers us the perfect opportunity to be guided in just this way. We call it Lent.
On Ash Wednesday this week, we will embody our awareness of “the shortness and uncertainty of human life” by marking our foreheads with ash in the shape of the cross of Christ, and we’ll begin an intentional journey toward truth and transformation in holiness and righteousness, boldness and compassion, in the manner of Jesus, whom we proclaim as Lord. 

May it be so for each of us and for all of us. Amen.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

5 Epiphany, 2021-B: All things to all people

 Lectionary: Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, 21c; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39 

En el nombre del Dios, que es Trinidad en unidad. (In the name of God who is Trinity in Unity) Amen.

Long ago and far away, I spent a year as a hospital chaplain on the oncology-hematology unit of a regional hospital deep in the heart of the Bible belt in south GA. All of my cancer patients died and my sickle cell patients returned regularly with painful recurrences of their disease. 

These people needed God to be bigger and more powerful than the diseases destroying their bodies. They needed the God described in Isaiah who is “great in strength [and] mighty in power.” As insignificant and undeserving as they often said they felt, they needed to believe that God cared about them and would, as Isaiah said, “give power to the faint and strengthen the powerless.”

During a typical hospital visit, I would spend a great deal of time listening. I often heard them say they feared God - not because God was so great but because they were upset with God for not caring enough to cure them. Then they felt guilty, which made them afraid that God might be mad at them for being angry. It’s a terrible spiral.

As their chaplain, I had to trust that my prayer would unite us to God, as Julian of Norwich said it would. It also meant putting aside my way of being a child of God and entering their way. For example, when family or friends were present, I would listen as they talked or prayed together.

I made note of the words and phrases they used – especially the ones they repeated. I would listen for the song of their prayers, that is, the way they used their voices. I learned the cadence and language of their prayers so that when I spoke the good news to them they could hear and understand it. I also noticed their posture so I could mirror it.

For the Pentecostal patients, I learned to pray as a Pentecostal: “Thank you, Jesus. We just thank you Jesus that we can come to you right now and give you praise. We call upon you, Lord, in the name of Jesus to lift the burdens of our hearts. Here is your child, Father God. Take him home now – home to glory-land. Thank you, Jesus. Glory halleluiah!”

For the Jewish patients, I prayed like a Jew: “Hear, O Adonai, and answer the prayers of your faithful servants. Look upon the suffering of this your righteous one and be merciful to her. Protect her with the strength of your right arm, for you are steadfast in love and mighty in power, and to you we give thanks and sing our praise forever.”

To the wounded Christians, I prayed as one also wounded: “Holy God, you are gracious and full of compassion. Hear our prayers for this beloved child of yours. Hold him close in the warm embrace of your healing love. Smile upon him and comfort him in body, mind, and spirit.”

Praying like this was meaningful for them and didn’t feel the least bit hypocritical to me. Was it hypocritical of God to become Incarnate – to become like us – so that we could understand and believe? By seeking to serve in this way, I came to realize that there is within me the free and fiery heart of a Pentecostal, the deep and faithful heart of a Jew, and the cautious but hopeful heart of the wounded ones.

My purpose, as a witness of Christ’s love, was not to analyze their theology or teach them mine. All I had to do was let God show me the connection between them and me, then be willing to be connected. Religious laws and theological perspectives become so beside the point in the face of the Love that connects us - especially in times of suffering or at death.

When Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, he violated religious law. Jewish men were not to touch women who were not their family, and worse yet, this healing happened on the Sabbath. But for Jesus, compassion overruled the law – and it was the first of many times he would model such behavior.

Jesus proclaimed the good news to all regardless of the divisions imposed by culture – divisions like class or race or gender or nationality. We who carry on the ministry of proclaiming the good news must be willing, as Jesus was, to go to the people who need to hear the message of salvation, and like St. Paul teaches, give it to them in ways they can understand so that they can receive it.

Elizabethan English, which is found in the King James Bible and in the Rite I services in our Prayer Book, is the language of a past world, and it isn’t very useful when talking to “yutes” in ‘the hood.’ It is, however, the deep spiritual language of many over the age of 50 and a growing number of Millenials, so it continues to have value.

Then there is the “The Hip Hop Prayer Book” a translation of our Prayer Book by my good friend and colleague The Rev. Timothy Holder, or “Poppa T” as he is known. I admit - I was not always a fan of rap or hip hop and I had lots of valid reasons for putting up a wall against that kind of music - but that was my sin. God had a connection to make and I was refusing to be connected.

Now, one of my favorite artists is Tupac Shakur, a rapper who died at the young age of 25. I commend to you his video, Ghetto Gospel. Here’s a bit of Tupac’s message. St. Paul couldn’t have said it better: 

there's no need for you to fear me 
if you take the time to hear me, 
maybe you can learn to cheer me 
it aint about black or white, cuz we're human 
I hope we see the light before its ruined 
my ghetto gospel                                         (Source: Tupac Shakur, Ghetto Gospel.)

The beauty of our Episcopal tradition is that we can pray in Elizabethan English, preach about a rapper, and chant our Gloria – all in the same service. We are and we can be, as St. Paul says, all things to all people, as we proclaim the good news that the all-mighty God who is great in power, who stretches out the heavens, is also a tender, compassionate God who notices the suffering, lifts up the lowly, and renews their strength - because we all matter to God. 

 Like Tupac, “I [too] hope we see the light…” and speak it out there to all who need to hear it. Amen.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

4 Epiphany 21-B: Prophets among us

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


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


I once had a bishop who said that we all are prophets - and he wasn’t talking just to the clergy. I’ve pondered that for many years and I agree with him. I think we all will have a prophetic word to share at some point, even if it isn’t our life-long vocation.

In our Old Testament reading today, we heard Moses say that we should heed the prophet God will raise up from among our own people. But how do we know a true prophet from a false prophet?

We know it when we hear it. The truth of God reaches beyond our heads into our very souls; and we heed it because God’s Word is life-giving, because that Word, Jesus, lives in us… speaks through us… disrupts through us… heals through us… and loves through us.

In our Gospel reading, when the divine speaks through a faithful human vessel it is astounding, authoritative, and scary. Jesus’ teaching at the synagogue offers the congregation a fuller, deeper understanding of their Scripture that connects their hearts to their heads in a powerful unity.

They recognize the Truth (with a capital T), and it rattles them. They weren’t expecting it. They were expecting the same old, same old. But upon hearing Jesus, a man in the congregation voices a familiar fear: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?

I need to mention here that I don’t think this man was mentally ill, or demon possessed the way so many discuss this story. I say that partly because, according to their law, if the man been demon possessed he’d have been deemed ritually unclean and barred from entry into the synagogue.

It’s a real possibility that he didn’t know he was demon possessed until he heard the divine voice of Jesus. Or he knew but was able to fit in with the community without being noticed because they had bought in to the lies the demon represented: like racism, classism, or sexism.

Given what the Greek actually says there, that he was a man “in” an unclean spirit, not a man “with” an unclean spirit, I think he was probably a faithful member of that community who was astute enough to comprehend that what Jesus was teaching would upend his familiar world…so he was unwilling to accept it and closed himself to Jesus and his teaching.

I think his astute comprehension, together with his unwillingness to let go traditions and structures that served him - even if they didn’t serve others - was the unclean spirit in him which feared that his community would be destroyed.

And he was right - they would be.

If everyone is going to be brought to equality of respect, dignity, and opportunity, the structures that privilege some over others must be dismantled and reimagined. There’s a bit of good news in that for us though - reimagining is something we’ve gotten good at over the last year, amIright?

As we set about reimagining in our time, we’re wise to remember God’s penchant for choosing the unlikeliest human vessels through whom to speak prophetically, like the 22-year old “skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother,” Amanda Gorman, who knocked us all over with the feather of her prophetic words at the inauguration last week.

When Ms. Gorman said, “And the norms and notions of what just is Isn’t always justice” we recognized the Truth in her words and it rattled us too. Change is upon us. Some of what we love, structures that comfort us (but not others) will be dismantled. It feels like death, and in a way, it is - the death of injustice. 

As Christians, we know that death is the gateway to new life, so unlike the man in the synagogue, we don’t fear or resist the truth we hear from the prophetic voices among us. Society does but we don’t, which is why we need to lead the way.

The pandemic has shaken us loose from clinging to certain familiar structures we never would have thought we could survive without… like worshipping without our Prayer Books or Hymnals, or in our buildings! But we have survived and we will survive whatever else comes.

Like the man in the synagogue, we are astute enough to notice that our familiar world is being upended by the truth spoken by the holy ones of God. This upending has a purpose. When God acts it is always to redeem - which is especially important to remember when it’s our favorite structures being dismantled, because 

 “…the norms and notions of what just is Isn’t always justice.” 

 So we let them go, our favorite, comforting structures, trusting that the becoming - the new life God is creating - is one of justice for all, not just for some.

We have seen the face of hate and heard its voice in ways we cannot deny or dismiss lately, and it’s ugly. But we are beautiful. All creation is beautiful because God made all of it, and all of us, and declared it all very good.
We are made in the image of the God of love who, as Dame Julian of Norwich once said prophetically, “did not say 'You shall not be tempest-tossed, you shall not be work-weary, you shall not be discomforted'. But… did say, 'You shall not be overcome.' God wants us to heed these words [Julian said] so that we shall always be strong in trust, both in sorrow and in joy.”

We may not all be brilliant poets, but we all are vessels of God’s spirit and speakers of God’s prophetic words. To be strong in trust and faithful prophets, we must be willing to surrender to God - utterly and completely, to move ourselves out of the way and give God’s Spirit free, unrestrained movement within and through us, practicing what I call the John the Baptist method: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn 3:30)

Later this afternoon we will gather for Calvary’s Annual Parish Meeting. Every one of us, of every age, race, rank, and station is a human vessel of the Divine, a prophetic voice through whom God lives, speaks, disrupts, heals, and loves our community and our world.

So, come and celebrate as we enjoy time in community - the best way we can right now - on Zoom. Come and listen because God will speak.

There are prophets among our own people at Calvary, Columbia - and they are us. See y’all at 1:00!

*The icon of Julian of Norwich was written by Ann Davidson of Michigan.

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.