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, 2021-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.