In the flesh

Christmas Eve – December 24, 2020 – Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

It’s a joy to be able to write occasionally for Sermons That Work, an offering for the whole denomination. This sermon was published in “Sermons for Advent and Christmas 2020.” I encourage you to take some time over the next 12 days to read the words of these other fine preachers. Merry Christmas!
https://episcopalchurch.org/sermons-advent-and-christmas

Luke’s nativity story is familiar to most of us, whether we know it or not. That famous account of Jesus’ birth that we hear, year-in and year-out, begins with those ever-so recognizable lines, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…” You know where this one’s going right from the very beginning.

Christians don’t memorize much scripture anymore. Smartphone in hand, any one of us can command verse after verse with a few swipes of our thumb. Come to think of it, nobody memorizes much of anything at all anymore. Yet even today, the children in the Christmas pageant commit themselves to those words that seem to rain down from heaven: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

The words from the letter to Titus, on the other hand, are not very well known to most of us. We are simply not as well acquainted with them as we are with Luke’s. They don’t provoke the same visceral awareness within us. They don’t transport us into the past quite as suddenly. They don’t put us in mind of singing carols or baking pies or unwrapping new pajamas.

The truth is, we often forget about the letter to Titus, and not just at Christmas time. “What’s your favorite book of the Bible?” “Oh, Titus, for sure!” (said no one, ever.)

Another sentiment never overheard: “Oh, how I love Christmas Eve services each year! The family gathered together, the church glowing with candlelight, and just before the sequence hymn… the reading from Titus!” Something about it just doesn’t sound quite right.

And yet here is Titus, enfolded neatly into our Christmas liturgy. Even at one of the most well-attended services of the year, I doubt if anyone leaves with Titus on their mind (or the sermon, for that matter). So, if you didn’t recognize the passage, you’re not alone. Titus makes a rare appearance in our common worship. In fact, Christmas is the only time the letter appears in the lectionary cycle. Because of that, and because this particular passage is so brief, it might just bear repeating.

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.”

Even though these words from Titus might not be quite as memorable as some others, they are surely just as applicable as we gather not only to observe the nativity but to celebrate the Incarnation.

You see, Christmas is just as much about giving birth to a firstborn son and wrapping him in bands of cloth and laying him in a manger as it is about the grace of God appearing, bringing salvation to all. In fact, they are two sides of the same coin, one in the very same.

At Christmas, God’s grace appears like never before: in the flesh. By coming in the flesh, God is making sure we understand how very close to us the holy presence really is. God not only wants us to see that presence, God invites us to feel it—in the flesh! And so that is precisely where grace appears. 

Sure, we may catch the occasional glimpse of grace in other places: the rainbow-sherbet sky at dusk, the music of the song thrush, or looking down on the clouds from the view of a mountaintop perch. But all such moments of grace are happenstance, fleeting, sheer coincidence. But grace appearing in flesh? That is with us always! Because the flesh in which grace appears is our flesh. Becoming one of us is God’s way of telling us that our lives matter. It is to us, in these bodies, at this time and always, that grace appears.

Through the miracle of the Incarnation, God did away with the silly notion that we are mere drones slogging our way toward some heavenly home, slowly but surely trudging through the earthly muck and mire. By becoming flesh in this world, God sanctifies our flesh, making it possible for us to be agents of God’s grace – right here on earth. In other words, eternal life starts now. You don’t have to wait to get to heaven to live in God’s kingdom.

Ever since God appeared in a flesh like ours, and lived a life like ours, humanity and divinity have been inextricably linked. I know it’s hard to believe. The paradox of this great mystery is certainly worth considering, but on this holy night, we do not come to worship in order to ponder exactly how the Incarnation is possible. We come to worship to renew our commitment to living in the world as if it is true.

“A child has been born for us, a son given to us.”

“The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”

“This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

None of this means that the world is perfect. If you weren’t already convinced, 2020 should have taken care of that. If ever any year was filled with earthly muck and mire, it was this one. So much so, in fact, that not all Christians—not even some of the most privileged Episcopalians—will be able to worship together tonight, to pass the peace, to break the bread. A year ago, we could never have imagined the number of lives that would be lost or hearts that would be broken.

Jesus doesn’t guarantee that the world will be perfect, but he does supply the grace that we need in order to live like we ought to live. The author of the letter to Titus reminds us that it is this grace that teaches us how to live a life that is self-controlled, upright, and godly. Will this be a faultless life? No. A flawless life? No. A totally unspoiled life? Absolutely not! But it will be a life in which we can respond following the example of the one who appeared to us in flesh.

Because God became flesh and dwelt among us, each and every one of us, our bodies, our lives, our selves, are conformed to God during the good times and the bad. In the manger baby, God sanctifies all that we experience, even our suffering.

Perhaps at this point, it’s best to get specific. The life that God’s grace makes possible for us is not a life in which we go around blaming gay people for hurricanes or rioters for wildfires. It is not a world in which COVID-19 can simply be chalked up to God’s wrath upon all those people who are different from us.

The life that God’s grace makes possible for us is a life in which we, as Christians, operate from a place of compassion and love. It is a life in which we recognize the turmoil and the tragedy, the trauma, and the deep grief of the world and simply ask how we can help.

“What do you need? Where can I meet you? Stay right there. I’m on the way!” The world cries out for a response rooted in the grace of God’s appearing. Not, “What did you do to deserve this?” More like, “Given these circumstances, where do we go from here? How do we walk forward together?”

That is grace in the flesh, dear friends. That is what the world needs. That is what God offers us in Jesus: the grace of gifts given, not gifts earned; grace that comes to us in our own image and inspires us to live the Christmas life.

So may it ever be.

At least give it a try

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 6, 2020 – Ezekiel 33:7-11; Matthew 18:15-20 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

From the Book of Ezekiel today we hear what is, at least for me, a familiar message. It’s not necessarily a message that I associate first and foremost with God the Father, but it is a message I’ve heard all of my life, mostly from Thom, my father. The message is this: at least give it a try.

God has appointed Ezekiel as a sentinel of sorts, a watchman for the exiled Israelites. He is God’s mouth piece, a trumpeter of the divine word.

God’s instructions to Ezekiel’s are clear. If God says to the wicked, “O wicked ones, you shall surely die,” then Ezekiel is to warn the wicked ones to turn from their wicked ways. If Ezekiel does not warn these wicked ones, not only will they die in their iniquity, but Ezekiel will have their blood on his hands. And it’s pretty clear that if Ezekiel finds himself in that position, the result will not be good for him.

God also says to Ezekiel, “If you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.”

In other words, “At least give it a try, Ezekiel.” 

I really do think this is a lesson that most of us begin to learn at a fairly early age.

“You may not get up from this table until you at least try those Brussels sprouts, young man. With or without vinegar—your choice.”

“You may not go outside and play until you have practiced the piano for at least a half hour, young lady.”

“I know you don’t want to go to a new school, sweetheart, but you’ve got to give it a try.”

While it’s true that we might begin learning these hard lessons during childhood, they are by no means childish lessons.

On the contrary, it is certainly a sign of maturity when we come to the realization that, while there may be plenty of things in life that we do not want to do, there are several things that we must at least try in order to continue wandering our way through the world.

Maintaining a steady income, making friends, or serving the community. These are all things that start with giving it a try.

A life spent refusing to try is a life devoid of new experiences. If everyone refused to try, we’d live in a world without Eagle Scouts, law school graduates, and award-winning pastry chefs.

The truth is, personal effort is a key ingredient in all of life’s recipes, whether they be for success or disaster or butterscotch pie. But most especially, God emphasizes the importance of our personal engagement in our relationship with him.

A life spent in covenant relationship with God is not a life of sideline spectating. It certainly wasn’t for Abraham, who packed up and moved to the land of the Canaanites. And it wasn’t for his wife Sarah, who bore a baby boy at age ninety. It wasn’t for Jacob, who wrestled with an angel down by the Jabbok.

It wasn’t for the prophets or the psalmists. It wasn’t for Peter or Paul, or, well . . . Mary.” And it isn’t for you. As Christians, each of us is called to a life of rich participation in God’s reign on earth.

It’s not always easy to participate in such a thing as great as that reign. It takes courage to attempt the unfamiliar and to risk the possibility of failure. If, like Ezekiel, you have ever been tasked with trying to change your neighbors’ hearts and minds, you know well the frustrations associated with such an arduous undertaking. 

During this pandemic-plagued moment of national anxiety, there may well be a number of things that you wish you could force others to do. But most days, I bet it would seem impossible to accomplish those things.

Lucky for us, God takes failure out of the equation. Remember, God didn’t make Ezekiel responsible for forcing his fellow Israelites to change hearts and minds. God is not concerned with our statistical rate of success.

“If you can get at least 50% of folks to turn from their wicked ways, then I won’t hold you responsible, Ezekiel.” No. No, that’s not how it works at all.

Ezekiel is responsible merely for relaying God’s message, for passing on God’s warning, for spreading God’s word. Ezekiel is responsible only for giving it a try. That’s all God asks. Give it a try.

God doesn’t pass the buck or eschew his divine responsibility. God’s Word is just that—God’s. Whether it is speaking creation into being over the vast expanse of the deep, teaching crowds along the dusty roads of the Galilean countryside, or stirring you to new thought and action by the hearing of the scriptures this very morning, God’s Word is God’s alone.

God’s Word is responsible for changing hearts and minds. God speaks it, God sends it, God sustains it. The hard part is taken care of. When it comes to sharing it, our role, just like Ezekiel’s, is, at least, to give it a try.

It may be tempting to hear in God’s conversation with Ezekiel this morning a threat. Either warn folks of what is to come, saving your life—and at least some of theirs—in the process, or don’t, and suffer the consequences along with them.

But would God really threaten the life of his prophet just because he didn’t relay one lousy warning? I don’t think so. More to the point, I don’t think we are meant to interpret God’s interaction with Ezekiel as threating at all.

Instead, I think it’s an honest portrayal of what it means to be a child of God. God is telling Ezekiel that we have a responsibility to one another. That’s important, and God’s not going to let it slide. 

Episcopalians, among other denominations, emphasize the corporate nature of Christianity. A key part of our identity is the recognition that we don’t function individually.

We are members of one body, walking toward God’s dream for us together. So, when some of us lose our way, like those wicked ones in exile—or even the folks Jesus references in today’s Gospel—our job is at least to try to call attention to signs of sin and death within the community, and to help each other turn away from them.

If instead we ignore the pockets of darkness that we encounter, if we shrug our shoulders and role our eyes and continue on as normal, then it will be as though we are already dead, rendered useless as members of Christ’s body.

Useless, not because we are unable to convince our neighbors to repent, but because we have forsaken our responsibility even to try.

In other words, we are called to play an important role in spreading the Word, not because of the benefits it gives us, but because we are convinced of what it can do for others, and because we know it strengthens us all.

It’s not easy, but it is simple. Spread the Word. Not to save your life, but because your life has already been saved. Really. Just give it a try. With or without vinegar—your choice.

Love. Your. Neighbor.

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – July 14, 2019 – Luke 10:25-37 – Trinity, Winchester

I invite you to listen to me preach this sermon here. 

You already know the story. 

It’s one of the Gospel’s most familiar. For this reason some teachers of preaching might even say, “Skip it! Focus on the Old Testament lesson. Try the epistle for a change.”

On the other hand, others urge the kind of strong exegetical work that leads to a cutting-edge interpretation. Such a familiar story deserves more critical attention, they say. Easier said than done. 

Either way, you already know the story. 

You’ve probably even heard a preacher say something like, “The priest and the Levite ignore the suffering man because they don’t want to be made unclean.”

Another likely brought to your attention the arrogance of the lawyer who seeks to test Jesus and justify himself.

One preacher no doubt wowed you by approximating the value of two denarii in today’s day and age. Still another stressed the animosity between Samaritans and Jews in order to emphasis just how unbelievable this radical act of mercy is. 

One of my seminary professors impressed me when he likened the robbers in the story to terrorists. They strip the man, beat him, and leave him half dead. These are no ordinary pick-pockets. These are much worse than the people who wave handguns at convenience store clerks. 

New exegetical interpretations might help you see something you hadn’t before. Different homiletical tactics may bring you into the story from a different angle. Still, you already know the story. 

No matter now many times you poke and prod it searching for new insight, the fundamental message remains: Love. Your. Neighbor. It really is as simple as that.  

All our lives—from the fables we heard in Kindergarten to the parables we learned in Sunday School—we have encountered this valuable lesson over and over and over again: Love your neighbor.

Just like the lawyer in the story, we already know what is written in the book. If asked we can probably quote it, too. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

There’s a shorter version, too. Matthew wrote it down this way: “Treat others as you want to be treated.” The Golden Rule. You know it well. 

But here’s the thing, friends. Jesus is not simply concerned with whether you know this important truth; Jesus is concerned with whether or not you practice it in your everyday life. 

It’s right here in black and white. Jesus tells the lawyer, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” It’s not just about knowing, it’s about doing. You know it; now go and act like you know it.

After Jesus tells this familiar story he asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer answers, “The one who showed him mercy.” 

Good! Another correct answer. More right belief. More good knowledge. But what is Jesus’ response? “Go and do likewise.” Do likewise. You already know it; now you have to do it. We all have to do it. We have to love our neighbor. 

Before we continue: a caveat. All this talk about doing stuff is bound to make good protestants nervous. 

I know that we’ve caught Dr. Luther’s attention and from the Communion of Saints he strains his ear even as we speak to make sure we get this right. So let’s be clear. You can’t earn your salvation by doing things. You can’t get into heaven by right action. 

We do not go about the business of loving our neighbor in order to earn something or to gain access to someplace. We do it to make the world the place that God wants the world to be. 

We do not do it for ourselves. We do it out of love for one another, out of a desire to see each other grow and learn and flourish and succeed. Most of all, we do it out of gratitude for the love, the saving grace that God has shown to each of us.

So just do it—love your neighbor. Not just in thought, but it in word and deed. The world needs your example. 

This community needs your example. 

The day after Governor Lee declared Nathan Bedford Forest Day, the great state of Tennessee needs Christians like you to stand up and say, “This is absolutely wrong.” 

So do it! Not because you don’t care about history. Not because you want to erase the past. Not because you prefer a sanitized version of an idealized nation. 

No. Do it out of love for those who live in the still-too-threatening shadow of the Klan. Do it because you stand shoulder to shoulder with Jesus beside the oppressed and victimized. Do it because you follow God who really does desire “liberty and justice for all,” not just for some. 

The Anglican Church of Canada needs your example. 

After a heart-breaking vote at their General Synod this week the Canadian church has once again denied marriage equality to its members. The bishops could not reach the two thirds vote threshold they needed to expand the marriage rite to include same-sex couples. 

It’s up to you to show the world that it’s possible to love your neighbor. 

The United States needs your example. 

As long as innocent children are separated from their families, as long as refugees remain trapped in unsanitary cages without adequate nourishment, Christians have work to do.

We have to show the world that it really is possible to love our neighbor. 

No matter who occupies the White House, no matter who wields the Speaker’s gavel, no matter who sits in the Leader’s chair, we are called to respond as bearers of the light and life of Christ.

This is not work we do to earn more jewels in our crown or a better seat at the heavenly banquet table. This is love that we share in response to a God who loved us so much that he deigned to walk among us as a human being, showing us that our flesh matters. 

Jesus led by example. He taught us that even in our frail, feeble, fleshy state we can put God’s love into action because that’s what we were created to do. 

Now, here’s the really hard part. I don’t want to scare you, but I feel I have an obligation to share this with you: every single one of your neighbors deserves the love of God. All of them. Full stop. 

That’s not only the people who you are called to stand up for, but those who you are called to stand up to. Even the men and women in the halls of power, even a few Canadian bishops, even Governor Lee. 

I must admit, I’m not exactly sure how we’re supposed to manage this all the time. I’m supposed to be a professional Christian of sorts, and I don’t always get it right. That doesn’t mean we can’t give it our best shot. 

We can take care not to vilify others before we take their perspective. We can do more to recognize how the thoughts in our heads and words on our tongues turn to hate in our hearts. We can remind ourselves—and each other—that we’re much better off with love, even when others don’t love us back. 

Most of all, we can practice being grateful to God who saves us. As has been said before, “I never knew a person to be mean who was first and foremost grateful.” Be grateful. 

Beyond that, I’m not really sure what more to say. We’ll just have to continue to do the work together. The good news is, we can. With God’s help and by God’s grace we can love anyone, everyone. It’ll be hard work, but then again, most things in life that are worth it are hard, and nobody ever said love was easy.

No, nobody ever said love was easy.

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday – June 16, 2019 – Trinity, Winchester

Today is Trinity Sunday, a principal feast of the church and the titular feast of Trinity Episcopal Church in Winchester. It is a deep joy to be a part of a congregation so steadfast in faithful witness to God’s work in the world. 

I’m not sure that a sermon is the best place to expound upon complicated doctrinal teaching, even on Trinity Sunday. In-depth exploration of the doctrine of the Trinity is probably best suited for adult formation, Bible study, and late-night conversations with nerdy friends. 

We can’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Trinity in next 10 minutes. The Trinity was yesterday, is today, and will remain tomorrow a great mystery. 

Even scholars who devote their lives to studying Christian theology will never quite grasp it. This is not to say that we shouldn’t ask questions about it, study it, or discuss it. In fact, we should!

Labeling this core component of our faith a “mystery” should not be an excuse not to think about it, wrestle with it, or intelligently argue about it. Quite the contrary, our beliefs are strongest when they are joined with knowledge. Learning and holiness must be linked. Prayer and study. Faith and reason. 

But look who I’m telling… You know what it means to critically engage your faith. During the program year we meet weekly for both Sunday School and Bible study. A couple of weeks ago, when Amy and I suggested taking a summer hiatus, you told us you didn’t want to.

You said you wanted to keep meeting each Tuesday afternoon to talk about God and explore your faith. What’s more, you chose to forgo our typical lectionary-based Bible study in favor of a more challenging course that involved reading a scholarly book about biblical narrative. 

Trinity Sunday may be the only day on the liturgical calendar that focuses on a complex theological doctrine, but at Trinity Church in Winchester we have challenging, mind-bending, faith-fueled conversations all year long. 

When you think about it, it’s fitting that we are called “Trinity.” To be named for this inexplicable doctrinal mystery says something about us. It says that we are ready and willing to have challenging conversations.

This is not new to Trinity. Some of you remember that more than a decade ago you had one of the hardest conversations of all. When some members of the parish walked away to start a new venture outside of the Episcopal Church you made sure that Trinity parish remained steadfast in faithful witness. You remained committed to one another and committed to exploring your faith. 

Today is about more than making sense of a complicated theological doctrine. Today is about remembering who we are together and why you—as members of Trinity Episcopal Church— are in relationship with one another. 

The Trinity—one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is in itself a divine model for relationship. God is three, constantly relating to each other, in one. We are constantly reminded of this divine relationship in our liturgy, from “Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” all the way to “The blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

The Trinity reminds us that Christianity, before it is anything else, is a relationship. Before it is faith, or belief, or creed, or doctrine, or catechism, or morality, it is first and foremost a relationship with God who knew us and loved us before time and who knows and loves us still. 

Christianity is a relationship with God who came as the Son in flesh to sanctify our human nature and who lives among us still. Christianity is a relationship with God who as the Spirit fell in tongues of fire on the disciples and who sustains the church still.  

Christianity is a relationship with God who teaches us what it’s like to be in a relationship with each other, and the rest of creation. Without God we couldn’t live this life together. We couldn’t tolerate each other’s quirks or deal with each others’ personalities. 

Without God we couldn’t have kept this little ship afloat. Without God we wouldn’t be greeting new faces at the door or welcoming back old friends. Without God we wouldn’t be able to gather in the Parish Hall for heady conversations and faith exploration. 

No, without God we would not have this wonderful parish. 

And without God we would not be equipped for the ministry of the future. We would not be equipped for our growing food pantry, or our renewed commitment to evangelism, or our close relationships with our fellow STEM congregations. 

Without God we would scarcely have the courage to walk into each new day, calling this community’s attention to the signs of God all around. 

I guess it’s a good thing we have God, then—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—because I, for one, would hate to miss this. 

Show yourself to be alive

Fourth Sunday of Easter – May 12, 2019 – Acts 9:36-43 – Trinity, Winchester

During the Easter season we hear quite a bit from the book of Acts. Acts chronicles the early days of the Church, the first communities of faithful disciples, and the early apostles, like Peter and Paul, who led them. 

Speaking of, you may remember that the official name for Acts is “The Acts of the Apostles.”

An apostle is one who is “sent out.” Just as the first apostles were sent out to proclaim the resurrection, Christians continue that work today. That’s what it means to believe in “one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” which we confess each Sunday in the words of the Nicene Creed. 

Our Church is apostolic because its members are sent out into the world to bear witness to the power of resurrection and to the glory of the Risen One.

In our tradition bishops are said to be apostles of the Church. As Episcopalians, our bishops (men and women, black and white, gay and straight) are living, breathing reminders of the apostolic faith.

They represent the corporate nature of our faith. Administratively, liturgically, and pastorally, they remind us that the church is bigger than our parish. Most of all, they are the chief witnesses of Jesus Christ in our communities. 

You also share in the apostolic faith because you are a witness to the living Christ, the Christ who not only was raised, but the Christ who is risen, this Jesus who is among us now.

In today’s passage we encounter a model for our Christian witness in the Apostle Peter. Yes, Peter was eventually Bishop of Rome, but before that he was just an ordinary believer, called by an itinerant Rabbi who once bid him, “Follow me.”

Tabitha, the only woman referred to as a disciple in the entire New Testament, is dead. In the wake of the tragedy, the other disciples send for Peter. He comes quickly, finds the widows of Joppa in mourning, clears the room, and kneels in prayer. After summoning Tabitha to “get up,” he “shows her to be alive.” 

The disciples send for Peter in their time of grief because he is a comfort to them, and he represents a link to Jesus. But while the disciples may view Peter as a link to Jesus, Peter doesn’t come to Joppa to bring Jesus with him. In fact, when Peter arrives, he finds the Spirit of Christ already there. 

In the fragrant oils used to wash the body; in the bitter tears the mourners shed; in the very clothes the widows wear, symbols of the love and life of their dear friend Tabitha, the Risen One is already present. 

That’s how it often is, isn’t it? In times of sorrow, when we gather at the bedside of an ailing family member or at the funeral of a loved one, God is already there. 

The vicar may come to anoint a sick parishioner, but she does not bring Christ with her, she comes to show us that Christ is already there.

The bishop may come to preside at the funeral, but he does not bring Christ with him, he comes to point to Christ where Christ always is. 

The mourners may come in droves from all around to give their condolences, but they do so not because they alone can bestow Christ. They do so because Christ calls them to where he already is. They do so to continue the work of resurrection.

Likewise, by raising Tabitha, Peter continues the work of resurrection. Peter shows us that Jesus is with us. Resurrection was not a one-time event; it is a continuing reality available to us all, even today.

As sweet as that sounds, there is always more work to be done. Just because we know that Jesus is always present, doesn’t mean everybody does. In fact, a lot of people don’t, so you need to tell them.

You are sent out to proclaim Christ. It’s your job, not to bring Jesus with you wherever you go, but to call attention to Jesus where he already is. 

That’s hard work, primarily because there are people in the world who think the Church is dead, who think God is dead. They look around and see a world torn apart by school shootings, capitalist greed, and rumors of war. They say things like, “If God is good, then God must not be around anymore.” 

I’ll admit, it seems those people have a point. Some days even the most hopeful among us are assaulted by this world’s convincing ubiquity of despair. As long as we stay silent, that’s exactly where folks are going to stay. We must not stay silent. We must not stay silent because we are Christians sent out to continue the work of resurrection.

Even in the freezing cold winter of the soul it is our duty to turn over every rock and leaf looking for life and saying “Show yourself to be alive!”

There are even those in this very community who accuse this very church—Trinity Episcopal Church—of being dead. For whatever reason some folks have it in their head that we have gone astray. 

They say that we are not real Christians. They say that we don’t believe in the Bible. They say that we associate with sinners. They say that we are trying to spread certain “agendas.” They say that we don’t care about Jesus as much as we care about politics. They say that no one even shows up here on Sunday morning. 

We know that none of that is true, but their words make it clear that we have more work to do. The good news is, we have the eternal power of the resurrection to help us do it.

Just like those early days of the church when Peter raised Tabitha from the dead, these are crucial times for our parish, and our Church, and indeed Christianity itself. It’s going to take each one of us, sharing the Good News of the resurrection, to show this town, this nation, and this world, that we go on living in spite of it all. 

Maybe that’s why God raised Tabitha from the dead. God knew that there was so much to be done that he wasn’t quite ready to spare another disciple just yet. Maybe that’s why he sent Peter to say, “Get up.” 

Maybe that’s why he sent Jesus here today to say, “Get up, and show yourself to be alive.” 

The Great Vigil of Easter 2019

The Great Vigil of Easter – April 20, 2019 – Luke 24:1-12 – Trinity, Winchester

Maybe you noticed, there are no shortage of readings to preach from this evening. And we only read five of the nine suggested readings and responses. Some Christians go all night long, praying, reading, and fasting until the sun comes up. We won’t be here that long tonight, but there is something to be said for that tradition. 

After all, the longer one sits in the darkness of the vigil the sweeter the triumphant “Alleluias” sound when they finally do arrive. 

Darkness is a powerful thing. 

Christian metaphors of light and darkness often give us the sense that darkness is bad. It often represents the absence of God, but the truth is, darkness was always part of God’s plan. 

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…Then God said, “Let there be light.’” And there was. God separated the light from the dark, and it was good. 

Yes, darkness was always part of God’s plan.

In Abraham’s darkest hour, as he bound his son and raised his knife, God sent an angel to bless him with the light of his countenance. Because you have obeyed my voice “I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.”

In their darkest days in the wilderness God sent a pillar of fire to light up the night and protect the Israelites from the Egyptian army. He even parted the dark waters, so that they might pass through to the light of their salvation.  

In the darkness of exile God sent the prophet Ezekiel to tell his chosen people that he would bring them up from their graves and give them the light of new life. 

Surely darkness was always part of God’s plan. 

From Thursday night when we stripped the altar, through Friday evening when we venerated the cross, there has been within these walls and within our hearts a shroud of darkness. 

Still covered in darkness, many of us returned this morning to do the things people do when confronted by death. We busied ourselves by sprucing up the church, as for a funeral, making sure everything was just right. 

Even tonight began in darkness. Our celebration of Jesus’ glorious resurrection from the dead begins in the quiet shadows of the evening.

Yes, darkness was always part of God’s plan, you see, because if it weren’t for the darkness, we wouldn’t be able to see the light.

Sitting in the darkness tonight we could see signs of light all around us: the glorious splendor of the new fire; the radiant light of the paschal candle, that marvelous and holy flame that focuses our attention on the Risen One; even the Exsultet is a light to our ears, a love song from Mother Church to the triumphant Christ. 

The salvation history narratives, ancient stories of our faith, enlighten our memories, and the faint whiff of fresh lilies enlightens our senses. 

It is in the darkness we see the fullest expression of resurrection light. Nowhere is this more prevalent than through the sacrament of Holy Baptism. Tonight as we gathered around the font to renew our baptismal promises, we were sprinkled with the water of abundant life.

Our reading from Romans reminds us that we were baptized into Christ’s death so that we might rise with him to new life. In other words, in order to see the light of resurrection, we have to know the darkness of the death of Jesus. 

From the very beginning God has been telling us, teaching us, showing us that darkness is part of God’s plan. At the dawn of creation. In the wilderness. By the Red Sea. In the valley of dry bones. Even at our baptism. 

As people of faith, we need to recognize that darkness is a part of our journey, but we must never mistake it for our destination. 

That’s reserved for resurrection light. 

Good Friday 2019

Good Friday – April 19, 2019 – Trinity, Winchester

Pontius Pilate entered his headquarters and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” John 19:9-11

*****

Pilate asks Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus remains silent. 

This utterly baffles Pilate. “Don’t you know that I have the power to either release or crucify you?” Jesus replies, somewhat calmly as I imagine it, “You have no power over me unless it was given to you from above.”

“You have no power.” 

Jesus is right. Pilate has no power. It is easy to see why Pilate thinks he has power over Jesus. In his mind, he can either have Jesus killed or he can set him free, but in reality, it’s not so simple. Nor does Pilate have power over the angry mob outside. He has no control over the hate welling up in their hearts and spewing from their lips.

Something far greater than human power is at work in the events of Jesus’ arrest and trial. Evil forces conspire to create divisions that Pilate and the angry crowd are completely unaware of. Only Jesus recognizes them as the work of Satan plotting to get exactly what he wants. 

Jesus sees Satan at work in the mob mentality. Tensions arise and instead of trying to discover their underlying causes, the group casts all the blame on one person: Jesus. They identify him as a scapegoat. He has been putting some crazy ideas in the minds of the poor, the widowed, and the sick. They consider him the source of their problems. If they can only kill Jesus, then all of their problems will go away.

Satan still works like this in the world. Truth be told, I get nervous throwing around words like “Satan.” Some of you might wonder, “What in the world is he talking about?”

I’m talking about systematic evil in the world. All around us the devil’s scandals run riot. Some develop quickly, others over long periods of time. They carry us unknowingly along with them, and all the while we are complicit in evils of which we are often unaware. [1]

This was the story of the United States during the Civil Rights Movement. “If only that black family would move back to their side of town! People would walk around the neighborhood again. Parents would let their children play in the yard. We could leave our doors unlocked.”

It’s still the case today. “If only we could keep the immigrants on that side of the border! Our jobs would be safe, our economy would be thriving, and our streets would be free of crime.”

That’s not the only example of our modern tendency to scapegoat. Think about the human impact on climate change or the societal acceptance of school shootings. Even as we cry out for solutions, systemic forces of evil keep us from working together to find them. 

We would much rather attack each other than work together to solve the problem. “If we got rid of Trump, everything would be so much better!” “If Nancy Pelosi disappeared, we wouldn’t have these problems anymore!”

As toxic partisanship takes over the political landscape it’s nearly impossible to have civil dialogue. Fear has become our only motivator. When we respond out of fear, we vilify people who are different from us. We lose sight of the real issues and instead mistake each other for the problem. We begin to think that if we can suppress our rivals, then all of our problems will be solved. [2]

As long as that’s our attitude, then the devil has us right where he wants us. As long as Satan keeps us afraid of each other, then we’ll forget about God. As long as Satan keeps us focused on destroying each other, then we won’t notice Jesus hanging over there on that tree. And as long as the devil keeps us at each other’s throats, then we can ignore the fact that we hung him there. 

Three years ago, during Holy Week of 2016, the House of Bishops issued a statement to the church reminding us to reject hatred and fear. They wrote, “We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others.” [3]

Their sentiment is, unfortunately, still relevant. Even in a country that stands in the shadow of the lynching tree, we continue to turn against our neighbors. As long as we seek safety and security at the expense of others, and as long as we engage in dialogue only with those who agree with us, then we have not learned our lesson. 

It’s as if we have forgotten about Good Friday. It’s as if we’ve forgotten that today is a crucial part of our Christian story. Today Jesus teaches us one of his most important lessons: fear has no power. 

Today Jesus refuses to play by the devil’s rules. Today Jesus refuses to lower himself to cheap scare tactics and manipulation. Instead, he does the one thing that Satan never expected. He gets up on the cross and he dies. 

He dies. 

Not because he’s weak. Not because he’s stupid. Not even because his Father willed it. No, Jesus does not die out of guilt or necessity or coercion. 

Jesus dies out of love. Jesus dies to show us what it looks like when you refuse to fight fear with fear. 

By dying Jesus upends our worldly expectations. By dying he teaches us that what we consider to be power is not power at all. By dying he teaches us that no matter how afraid we are, we cannot solve our problems by eliminating our neighbors; by dying he teaches us that fear never gets the last word; by dying he teaches us that love triumphs over death. By dying Jesus teaches us that we have no power to save ourselves. 

No matter who we persecute, no matter who we lock up, no matter who we expel, we can’t save ourselves. 

Only God can do that. 

 

[1] Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 41.

[2] Ibid., 38-41.

[3] The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church, A Word to the Church (Holy Week 2016).

Resurrection

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 17, 2019 – 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 – Trinity, Winchester

Listen to this sermon here

Passages like the one we heard this morning from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians get right to the heart of the Christian faith: resurrection.

Paul assures us in the words of our triumphant Easter anthem: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

Paul reminds us that Easter is the cornerstone of the Christian faith, the feast of feasts. The day of resurrection defines who we are as a community of believers. “Easter people, raise your voices!”

Each and every Sunday is the day of resurrection. Each and every time we gather, we gather in light of the resurrection. Whenever we celebrate the Eucharist as a community of the faithful we proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection.

Paul’s words may get right to the joyous heart of our faith, but they can also cause us to doubt. If there was no resurrection, then what are we doing here? It’s a scary question.

If Christ was not raised from the dead, then our faith is in vain. If Christ does not live, then we remain controlled by sin with no chance of escape. If there was no resurrection, then all those who thought they died in the hope of the resurrection actually had no hope at all. They simply perished.

How can we be sure that Christ was raised from the dead?

We live in a world that demands proof. We are a people greatly influenced by enlightenment principles, humanistic values, and scientific advancement. We like certainty.

We have proof that vaccines immunize us against disease, so we inoculate our children. We have experienced how caffeine increases stamina and alertness, so we drink coffee to wake up in the morning. We trust that gravity will keep us anchored to the earth, so we go about our lives free from the worry that we’ll suddenly float off into space.

It doesn’t quite work that way with resurrection though. Resurrection is hard to believe. We haven’t seen it. Of course there are stories of people technically dying on the operating table and coming back to life thanks to modern medical technology. But being executed, buried for three days, and then coming back to life? That’s preposterous. That is simply not plausible!

However, I’m not entirely sure it needs to be. At least, not in any historically or scientifically conceivable way. Our Christian belief in the resurrection does not depend on physical proof of Jesus walking out of a tomb on Easter morning. We’ll never have proof like that.

I don’t know that Christ was raised because I saw live footage last night at 11:00. I don’t know that Christ was raised because I saw a photo in the Tennessean. I don’t know that Christ was raised because I heard a first-hand account from one of the women who didn’t find the body.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m willing to believe it. In fact, I do. It’s just that we can’t prove that Christ was raised by studying a history book or scientific journal. Our proof is not provided by the kinds of sources that you might cite in a term paper.

Our proof is the Risen Christ himself who dwells among us. I know that Christ was raised because Christ is risen. Here. Now. And I know Christ is risen because I have seen resurrection all my life. I bet you have, too.

I’m not talking about tulips springing from amidst the dead leaves. I’m not talking about the return of the robin. I’m not talking about the first spring dew on the kitchen windowsill or a butterfly emerging from its cocoon.

As lovely as those images are, they pale in comparison to the woman who approaches you on the street. She takes a chance and asks, “Are you a Christian? I thought you might be. I work at the diner around corner and when I saw you I thought maybe we could talk. I’m really depressed, and I’m having suicidal thoughts. I’ve already broken two appointments with my therapist. I wonder if you would you pray with me. It’s all I can think of to do.”

You know resurrection exists because at the funeral of a loved one Jesus walks up beside you and puts his arm around you as you sing, “I know that my Redeemer lives.” In the space of a few moments you are reminded that life is changed, not ended.

You know resurrection exists because you love a man who struggled for years with addiction. Who lost a marriage, a child, a house, a job. Who went from six-figures a year to hanging out late at the soup kitchen hoping they might be able to spare some leftovers. One day after attending a church service he decided to stay for the 12-step meeting. Now he’s a counselor who devotes his life to helping people find successful paths to recovery just like he did.

You know resurrection exists because everywhere you look there are signs of resurrection, glimpses of the fact that the Risen One just passed by.

I remember that several weeks ago in this very space a woman arrived about 15 minutes into the service. She walked halfway down the aisle and found a seat on the west side. She wasn’t here long, maybe about five minutes. Before she left she looked up and smiled the warm and comfortable smile of someone who knows the love of God, as if she wandered in just to make sure it was still here.

That’s how you know. There are signs of it all around. Signs of the risen Christ.

In today’s passage Paul tells us that if Christ is not risen, then our faith is in vain. But we know Christ is risen. So, what if we flipped Paul’s argument around? In other words, since you know Christ is risen, then why do you lack faith? Every day that we walk around in the world we seem to forget that Christ walks among us.

We treat other people as a means to an end. We value money above relationships. We let a person’s political views determine whether or not we love them. We make little to no effort to care for the earth or sustain its resources. Any joy we have we keep bottled up inside instead of sharing it with the world.

You see, I think what’s truly preposterous is not that we believe in resurrection. I think what’s truly preposterous is that we believe in resurrection, yet we go on living like the risen Christ doesn’t exist.

Our job is to proclaim that he does. In thought and word and deed. Our job is to be living, breathing agents of the the good news. I assure you, it can be done.

You’re not responsible for resurrection. That’s God’s job. Rest assured, God does it over and over and over again. Your job is to look for it and when you see it to be grateful and let that gratitude spill out of you.

If you do that, someone just might notice.

Fulfilled in your hearing

Third Sunday after the Epiphany – January 27, 2019 – Luke 4:14-21 – Epiphany, Sherwood

Today we encounter Luke’s description of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. After he is born, baptized, and tempted in the desert, Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, travels through Galilee.

Reports of his presence begin to spread throughout the region, and while he is in his hometown of Nazareth on the sabbath day, he goes to the synagogue.

There he participates in the days “lectionary” reading, taking up the scroll of Isaiah and reading the appointed lesson. This happens to be a very important lesson. I know you just heard it, but I don’t think we can ever get too much of the Bible, so I’m going to read it once more.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The phrase “the year of the Lord’s favor” refers to the Year of Jubilee, an Ancient Israelite practice occurring every fifty years. According to the book of Leviticus, every fiftieth year all debts would be forgiven and financial slates wiped clean. Property would revert to its original owner and slaves would regain their liberty. 

Leviticus 25 says, “You shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.”

In addition to financial freedom, the Jubilee Year was observed as a “sabbatical” year. There was to be no working of the land. Instead, the Israelites were to live off of the overabundance of crops that God provided during the previous year.

“You shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces.”

The Jubilee Year was a year of rest, both for the people and for the land. It was a time for the Israelites to give thanks to God. It was a time to remember that they were first and foremost members of God’s kingdom and brothers and sisters to one another. 

It sounds like an admirable tradition, but it also sounds like an impractical tradition. You might be wondering, “Did they really do that?” If you are, you’re not alone. 

God’s law might have laid out a plan for Jubilee, but as we well know, the Israelites were not always the best at following God’s instructions. They did, from time to time, turn away from him, cast idols, and fight amongst themselves.

Why should we expect the Jubilee Year to be any different? Could they really have forgiven all the money owed them or ceded their property to its heredity owner? Well, perhaps not, but that’s really not the point. 

How successful the Israelites were in their efforts to keep the Jubilee Year is immaterial. What’s more important is that God’s plan for the year of jubilee existed in the first place. God’s vision of Jubilee illustrates his desire for his people to live virtuous lives, regardless of how successful they were at following through. 

The same is true today. God desires healthy, productive, sinless lives for each of us, but that doesn’t mean that we are always going to meet the mark. God’s puts forth the goal, but we fall short. That’s a given. We fail. That’s the way life goes. Even so, God loves us, and God forgives us.  

God does not bestow his grace on you based on how well you follow the rules. God’s gives grace freely. I promise, there’s not a thing you can do about it! The fact that God gives his chosen people instructions for holy living proves that God’s grace is abundant. God has always been on our side, and God will aways be on our side. 

Proof of God’s support for us lies in the final sentences of today’s Gospel, “And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. That day, though most in attendance would not believe it, the scripture was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. 

Jesus, God incarnate, is the physical manifestation of God’s plan for all people. God came in the person of Jesus to give us the knowledge and love of God in a more intimate way that we had ever experienced it before. Jesus came to tell us that God is on our side and that God will always be on our side, so much so that he took on our frail human nature. 

Jesus still comes to call us back into community with one anther and to proclaim the “year of the Lord’s favor.” We are divided by love of money, power, and status, but Jesus tells us that what unites us is stronger than what divides us. We are children of God. Our bond in Jesus Christ is worth more than what the materials of the present age could ever offer us. 

Our duty is to live into our identity as children of God, following Jesus’ example. Our duty is to share God’s love with one another and to live like the siblings in Christ that we are. Our duty is to live peaceably with one another, even when we disagree. Our duty is to forgive one another. Our duty is to respect one another because each of us is made in God’s image. 

God wants all good things for you. He’s here today to offer them to you in the breaking of the bread and the proclamation of his Word. A Word that, even as we speak, is fulfilled in your hearing.

How far is it to Bethlehem?

The Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord  – December 24, 2018 – Luke 2:1-20 – Trinity Church, Winchester

Last year a group from my home parish journeyed to the Holy Land to see many of the storied sites of the Bible: Jerusalem, Galilee, Nazareth, Jericho, and of course, Bethlehem. 

Bethlehem is one of the most famous cities in the region because of its place in the gospel story we just heard. The Church of the Nativity there boasts the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. I remember the day we took the short bus ride from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. My friend Collin shouted from the back of the bus, “How far is it to Bethlehem?”

I’ve been thinking about that question a lot lately. “How far is it to Bethlehem?” Collin was surely not the first person to ask this question. Think about the biblical Christmas narratives. 

It’s census time. Caesar has spoken and Joseph has to get Bethlehem. Imagine a very pregnant Mary turning to him to ask with weary eyes, “How far is it to Bethlehem?” 

While watching their sheep on a Judean hillside, a group of shepherds hear a heavenly noise. It’s like nothing they have ever experienced before. The angel tells them good news of great joy. “Go to Bethlehem and see.” After the angels depart, imagine a group of startled shepherds looking at each other and asking, “How far is it to Bethlehem?”

The magi observe a star in the east and make their way to Jerusalem asking, “Where is the child who has been born?” “In Bethlehem of Judea,” the prophets have written. Imagine the three tired travelers meeting eyes and simultaneously asking, “How far is it to Bethlehem? 

It’s a question older than even the birth narratives.

The Book of Ruth tells us that Naomi moves with her family from Bethlehem to Moab. Soon tragedy befalls her. Her husband and sons die, and she prepares to move back to her hometown with her daughters-in-law. Imagine her gathering what’s left of her life and trying to remember, “How far is it to Bethlehem?”

The question is still alive and well in the present age. 

Frances Chesterton wrote a poem entitled, “How far is it to Bethlehem?” It became a well-known English carol, set to various musical arrangements. You can hear both St. Patrick’s Cathedral Choir in Dublin and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing it on YouTube. 

“How far is it to Bethlehem? / Not very far. / Shall we find the stable-room / Lit by a star?”

Others have phrased the question slightly differently. There is a children’s book with the title, “How Many Miles to Bethlehem?” (There’s also a sing-along song and a stage play with the same name.)

The question has been on the minds of those past and present. It’s no surprise then that tonight we still come wondering, “How far is it to Bethlehem?”

As Christians of the twenty-first century we are well-versed in the Christmas story. We ask, “How far is it to Bethlehem?” knowing well what we will find there—Jesus Christ. God made man. 

At Christmas we celebrate the incarnation. God made flesh. The incarnation tells us that God came to dwell with God’s people as one of them. Once and for all God became flesh to tell us that flesh matters. People matter. You matter. 

Through Advent we heard tell of the one who is coming. Now he is here. Jesus breaks into a world of fear, of uncertainty, and of division and offers us saving grace. It’s a good thing, too, because we need him now more than ever. 

This world needs Jesus. What else can we count on? The government? No, it’s shut down. Our political parties? All they do is argue. The stock market? I wouldn’t bet on it. 

We need the one who promises to deliver us from this unpredictable and divisive world. We need Jesus. The good news is, Jesus is here. In our brokenness, grief, sadness, stress, anxiety, loneliness, and anger God is with us. Emmanuel. 

Wherever you are in your humanity, the incarnation promises you that Jesus is right there with you. Bethlehem is right here among us and in us: holy people, fed with holy food, made in God’s holy image. 

So, how far is it to Bethlehem? 

Last year my friend Collin asked a simple question on a bus in Palestine, but what I remember better now is the reply yelled back from the front. “Not very far!”  

No, it’s not very far at all.