We’re allowed

Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 24, 2021 – Jonah 3:1-5, 10 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

Ordinarily, our Collect of the Day appears up front in the weekly Eucharistic liturgy. These days, since we’re worshipping with a service of Morning Prayer via Zoom, it comes later, after the Lord’s Prayer and suffrages. In this case preaching on it is a preview rather than a review.

When you hear it, it will go like this, “Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

“Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ…”

Readily. That’s the tough part! Willingly, without hesitation or delay. It’s one thing to be tasked with answering God’s call to proclaim the Gospel. It’s another thing to do it readily.

I don’t know about you, but there are times I can go for days, weeks, or even months without doing anything readily. I hardly ever even get out of bed readily. Being a millennial and prolific texter, I don’t often make phone calls readily. And I’m not too keen on vacuuming or cooking dinner readily.

Turning on the TV, on the other hand? At the drop of a hat! “Doom scrolling” through Twitter? Anytime, anywhere. Using four-letter words also comes all too naturally for me, especially if you switch on any cable news channel. (I may be a priest, but I’m only human!)

But as our Collect makes clear, if there is anything that we should do readily, it is to proclaim the Gospel. But that takes effort, and in late January of our “long, dark winter,” effort doesn’t exactly seem to be coming naturally.

All too often, when it comes to something I have to do, or am supposed to do . . . well, I’m not always eager. But I try not to beat myself up about it too much. It happens to the best of us, right?

*****

I know from my childhood a sainted old United Methodist pastor. Salt of the earth. Humble. Always there. Always willing. For decades after he left the congregation you could hear people say, “Well, do you think we should call Hubert and ask him to do the funeral?”

And ninety percent of the time, the answer was yes. Still is, in fact. How on earth could one person readily answer so many calls? How could he have time to do all those funerals? I’m not talking spare time. I’m talking time. Period.

Oh, and when he preached! I suppose over the course of his career Hubert could have been one of those preachers that other preachers got jealous of. My grandmother used to laugh and say that every time Hubert left a congregation, a quarter of them went with him.

Yes, I suppose he could have been one of those preachers, except that he is Hubert. I know my grandmother was exaggerating and that Hubert would never want that at all.

The truth is, it’s hard to utter a bad word against Hubert because Hubert is the very definition of one who readily answers “the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim[s] to all people the Good News of his salvation.”

But, this morning I am rather pleased to tell you that I have his number. You see, I know his secret. 

One Sunday morning—I must have been about eleven or twelve—we were lining up for the processional. The choir crowded around the sanctuary door to sing their introit. I, a lowly acolyte, stood behind them, shoved halfway in the coat closet but ready, if necessary, to wield my candle-snuffer in order to pass through. 

Standing next to me was my mother—she was at that time the acolyte coordinator—poised to light my taper before I began to walk in. Next to her was Hubert.

Now, if you ever happen to be standing silently nearby my mother, beware. Don’t be afraid, but beware. Beware because her calm and unpretentious nature makes her a very appealing confessor for whatever happens to be at the top of your mind.

So it was with Hubert. He turned slightly toward her and in a low voice admitted, “You know, I’m really just not in the mood for this today.”  

Mom returned a look of genuine sympathy. “I suppose that’s just the way it goes sometimes. I’d say you’re allowed.”

I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes we’re just not up to readily answering any call, let alone God’s. Even those who are for us conduits of God’s grace have a little difficulty doing so 100% of the time. I bet you do, too. Maybe it’s a lack of motivation, or maybe sometimes we’re just plain tired.

Whatever the reason, I’d say we’re allowed.

*****

Our readings this morning further assure us that, if we do not answer all calls readily, we are in good company.

Look at Jonah. This morning’s reading mentions that the word of the Lord came to him “a second time.” That’s because when it came the first time, Jonah ran from it.

“Go at once to Nineveh,” God says in chapter one, but Jonah instead catches a boat going in the opposite direction. As a result, he ends up spending three days in the belly of a giant fish before it finally regurgitates him onto the shore.

It’s no surprise then that Jonah is far more willing to answer God’s call the second time around. Not only does he go to Nineveh to deliver God’s message of repentance, but he’s a success! The people listen to him, turn from their evil ways, and enter into a period of fasting by command of their King.

God’s anger toward them abates.

Even still, Jonah is not willing to accept God’s response of mercy toward the Ninevites. Even though he admits that he knows God to be “gracious . . . and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” he is furious when God forgives them.

He’s dramatic, too! “O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” In other words, “This just makes me want to die!”

Is it because the Ninevites are his enemies, symbols of his imperial oppressors? Or maybe he is ashamed to have been a part of their redemption? Or embarrassed that he didn’t anticipate God’s mercy? We’ll never know.

But we do know that even though Jonah runs away, questions God’s mercy, and appeals to God with a death wish, God does not respond with punishment or wrathful vengeance. Instead, when Jonah goes to pout in the desert, God sends agents of persuasion: a bush to grant him shade and a worm to take it away, so that he feels the sweltering heat.

“Is it right for you to be angry just because I took a little bush away from you?” asks God.

“Of course!” replies Jonah.  

Well, I’d say he’s allowed . . . as long as he considers how God must feel about those poor souls of Nineveh.

*****

Like Jonah, there will be times when we run from God’s call. And when we finally do answer it, we may grow frustrated or angry with the result. It is a bitter taste, isn’t it, the knowledge that those whom we would condemn God sees fit to save?

And, like Hubert, there will be times when we are a little unmotivated or just plain tired. Some of us might be distracted. Others of us might well be afraid.

If you’re ever tempted to beat yourself up about it, don’t. The truth is, you’re allowed. We all are.

But even though we’re allowed, we’re not off the hook. Our lack of motivation, our weariness, our anger, our ignorance—they are not excuses. They are merely realities. It’s helpful to be honest about them, and that’s exactly what we do in today’s Collect.

We pray for the help of God’s grace in assisting us in answering God’s call because we know good and darn well that we need it. We can’t do it alone. And we know that no matter how unmotivated or tired or frustrated or angry or confused we are, God will be good to us. God is always good to us. One might even say God is, “merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

One of the ways that we know God is all of those things is because God continually, freely, and abundantly gives us grace—no matter what.

And do you know why? Because in God’s eyes, we’re allowed. 

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – November 15, 2020 – Matthew 25:14-30 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

I love game shows. Lately I’ve been watching a lot of Family Feud. I find it especially funny when an eager contestant slaps the buzzer before the host, Steve Harvey, has finished reading the clue.

“Name something a 90-year-old man might get rid of…”

“His car, Steve!”

Sounds reasonable, until you hear the rest of the clue. “Name something a 90-year-old man might get rid of, if he found the fountain of youth.”

It changes things completely.

If a contestant is this eager, Steve normally makes fun of them mercilessly. They have one job—just wait until he finishes reading the question! But their rush to respond is understandable. They’re nervous, jumpy, competitive.

Plus, we’re all tempted to rely on our assumptions from time to time. I think this can be especially true in church. We have a liturgical cycle, a definite seasonal rhythm for things like the hymns we sing and the readings we hear.

For example, a lot of us have probably heard today’s parable—and sermons on it—multiple times before. Even if you don’t remember exactly what was said, it’s easy to assume you know where it’s going and to stop listening very closely. But as the contestants on Family Feud remind us, it’s important to wait—even if it’s only to the end of the sentence—to hear what’s really being said.

When it comes to scripture, this might mean taking some time to sit with the text and ask ourselves important questions about it. What doesn’t quite make sense? Which words or phrases stand out? Which words or phrases might change the whole meaning of that text?

These practices can help us suspend our preconceived notions. Only if we do that can we begin to “read, mark, learn, inwardly digest” the living word of God (which is especially important with parables).

For instance, how many times have you heard a preacher liken the talents in today’s parable to your God-given abilities, urging you to put your natural gifts to work for the church? “Don’t hide your talents! Demonstrate the gifts that God has given you to further the Kingdom of God!”

While there are certainly worse things to preach, there’s really no direct basis for such an interpretation in the text itself. Here, talents refer to units of monetary value, not piano playing skills. That one word—talents—changes the whole meaning of the parable.

Today, let’s simply enter the parable, suspending our preconceived notions as best we can.

A man is leaving town. He gathers his slaves, and asks each of them to look after a large sum of his money.

After he’s gone, the one to whom he gave five talents trades with them and ends up doubling his money. The one with two talents does the same. But the one with only one talent, well, he buries it in the backyard.

When the master returns and settles the accounts, the first two report their earnings. “Well done,” the master says, “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

But that third slave? Not so much. He says to his master, “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”

The master responds, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest . . . As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Whenever we hear a parable with a master in it, we tend to assume that that character represents God. But, try as I might, I’m just not getting the sense that this master is someone to look up to. His slave fears him because he is intimidating and unethical, because he reaps where he did not sow and gathers where he did not scatter seed. In other words, because he profits by taking advantage of other people.  

We don’t just have to take the slave’s word for it. The master himself says, “If you knew that about me, why didn’t you at least put the money in the bank to earn me a little interest? You’re worthless!”

To review: an extraordinarily wealthy master, with an unethical reputation, gives one of his slaves a pile of money (with no instructions on how to handle it, by the way). The slave, in turn, stores the money in a safe place and then returns it to his master. Then, the master punishes the slave. 

It just doesn’t make sense!

Unless of course, the master’s only goal is to make money. It says earlier in the parable that he gave the talents to each of the slaves according to their ability. It’s almost as if he was hedging his bets, giving the most money to the ones he thought could make him the most money. Call me suspicious, but it’s as if he expected the third slave to fail.

And, even though that slave didn’t gamble the money away, skip town with it, or skim any off the top, in the master’s eyes, he did fail. He failed because he didn’t add to it, not even with a piddly little bit of interest. That’s what his master can’t abide. He is not looking for an honest, cautious investor who plays it safe. He’s looking for a greedy, ruthless money-maker willing to risk it all for a huge payday. 

That’s exactly what he found in the first two slaves. And so he says to them, “Enter into the joy of your master.” But don’t be fooled. The master’s joy is a joy that comes from making as much money as he can, even if it’s at the expense of the wellbeing of those around him. That’s no joy at all! If it were, would the master be so harsh? So immoral? So greedy?

And the outer darkness into which the master casts the one who has failed him? It only seems like darkness to the master because he can’t imagine what life would be like there, without massive profit margins or huge dividends, without the rush you get when a big risk pays off.

But the truth is, the third slave took a risk, too. Not the risk associated with investing large sums of money, but the risk associated with asking hard ethical questions. Am I going to continue working for someone who profits at the expense of others? Am I going to do my best to make money for a guy who demands, at the very least, interest, a practice that the Levitical law forbids? How angry will the master be if I lose the money? What is one to do in the face of such enormous pressure—such bullying?

These are the kinds of questions that trouble the mind of the third slave. I bet Jesus brings them up because he knew his followers would be faced with similar questions. As he’s said before, “No one can serve two masters. You cannot serve God and money.”

These ethical challenges are by no means easy. But Jesus didn’t come to talk about the easy stuff. Jesus came to teach his followers to think about the tough situations that accompany their faith. If we have to choose between God and money, is it worth it?

Whatever you decide, these are the kinds of questions that Christian discipleship demands. As followers of Jesus, you and I should be constantly challenged by the ethical questions of our day. Without regard to money, political party or even denominational affiliation, none of which can be the source of true joy, we must constantly ask ourselves whether or not the decisions we make are in accordance with God’s will.

Do our choices reflect our identity in Christ? Do our actions work to bring about the coming kingdom? Are we living up to the responsibility of stewardship that God has entrusted with us for creation? However you want to put it—Are you living your life following Jesus’ example?

This is not to say that you will always be able to make the decision you’d like to make. Even if you choose not to divest from some morally dubious stock in your retirement portfolio, or even if you don’t leave a corrupt employer because you just don’t think you can put your family’s future at stake right now, that’s okay. Sometimes, as Martin Luther said, we may be faced with situations in which there are no sinless options.

Luckily, unlike your success on Family Feud, God’s love for you is not dependent on a right answer, or even a quick one. God will remain loyal to you no matter what. Even so, a life of faith is a life spent navigating tough questions. The good news is that God is in those questions. Just by asking them, you can—and you will—glimpse the joy of his heavenly kingdom.

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.

In which we think about scriptural interpretation

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 11A – July 19, 2020 – Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again. “Want to make God laugh? Make a plan!” John Lennon put it this way: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Trained first as a journalist, and much later as a homilist, I cringe in the face of clichés such as these. However, they do contain their truths.

One such truth is this: we cannot control the future. We might crave—and even indulge—the illusion that we can. But it is undeniably just that—an illusion. The best we can do is faithfully adapt to what comes our way. (Although even that is easier said than done.)

The first portion of this morning’s gospel parable captures this truth well.

Jesus begins, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.”

Listen closely to get a sense of the whole arc of this brief story. When the plants begin to grow, the householder recognizes the weeds as the work of the enemy and then decides how best to respond.

“Shall we go and gather the weeds?”

“No. Gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat, too. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.”

The landowner’s decision is prudent. He cannot afford to sacrifice the wheat. Trying to get the weeds up now would do more harm than good.

Although he is responsible for managing the property, this man couldn’t control the wicked nature of the enemy, but what he could do was adapt to this new set of circumstances.

Perhaps his response gives us a little glimpse of the Kingdom. Think about it. Jesus does not compare the Kingdom to someone with absolute control of the future, or the ability to magically erase the events of the past. He compares it to a person with control only over how calmly and faithfully he responds to present circumstances.

At least, that’s one way to look at it. Matthew gives us another interpretation in the second portion of today’s reading.

“Explain it to us,” the disciples say to Jesus. “We need some help here. What does it mean? Lay it out for us.”

“Oh, yeah, well sure, that’s easy . . . the one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one; the enemy is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are burned up, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels; they will collect the sinful ones and throw them into the fire, but the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

Makes sense, right? It’s all very straight forward.  

But what if I told you that this second portion of today’s text does not stem directly from the words of Jesus, as does the parable, but is rather the author’s attempt to make sense of Jesus’s words for a particular audience facing a particular set of circumstances?

The interpretation is attributed to Jesus for legitimacy’s sake. But if, as scholars tells us, this attribution is merely a rhetorical technique, then what are we to make of it? Is the interpretation legitimate? Of course! I’m not here to argue with Holy Scripture.

I will, however, suggest that it is not the only legitimate interpretation of the parable. Matthew’s interpretation casts a particular view of the future. Because this particular interpretation is linked to Jesus, it is tempting to hear it as the only sure and certain way to understand this parable, but to do so would be an attempt to control something that we cannot control: the word of God.

Remember, one who embodies Kingdom principles is not one who can control what comes next, but rather one who calmly and faithfully responds to what does come.

As humans, we desire sureness and certainty. We want to have a say in future events. We want to understand exactly what things mean. Certainty brings a sense of security and completeness. Once we have it, we can move on to the next thing. You can’t blame Matthew for writing a neat and tidy explanation of this parable so the reader can learn the lesson and move on.

But to identify a specific interpretation of any passage of scripture as the correct one is to miss the point. We can’t even do that with human knowledge. A poet friend of mine recently wrote of the med school professor who tells his students on the first day of class, “Half of what we teach you here will be wrong. The only trouble is, we don’t know which half.”

Think of human forays into understanding DNA, the effects of DDT, or the mysteries of the human brain. Think of our attempts at space flight, witch trials, or religious inquisition. Eventually we learn that some theories are wrong, or at the very least, that there are others. An expectation of certainty is futile.

Just as sure as we cannot control the future, we cannot control the meaning of God’s word or God’s will, and it’s okay to admit that to ourselves. The point of scriptural interpretation is not to be “certain” of what God wants from us or expects of us. We can’t be.Why else would we pray, as we will this morning, “mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask”?

It is not the duty of the faithful Christian to define the word of God. It is the privilege of the faithful Christian to experience it, respond to it, and return to it time and time again. We read and interpret scripture in order to nurture our relationship with Jesus and to strengthen our ongoing commitment to the faith so that we can expand the Kingdom.

It is not my intent to question the legitimacy of Scripture, or of Jesus. I am merely proposing that there is no single, rock-solid-set-in-stone interpretation for any biblical parable, story, or teaching.

Surely there is an arrogance in the mind of any reader who believes themselves to have a monopoly on the truth. Our perspectives are colored by experiences we’ve had, and none of us has had every experience under heaven.

Nevertheless, we can take comfort in the fact that, while we may not have the capacity for absolute certainty, the steadfast love of God persists. God is always with us, even if we cannot always anticipate, and certainly never predict, how we will experience God.

If we read the Bible over and over and over again, it should not be because we take comfort in knowing precisely what it all means, or exactly how each story ends. It should be because we are continually humbled to participate in the covenant of God’s loyalty.

God’s word is not ours to define for all people in all places. It is not ours to specify or to stipulate. Its meaning is not stagnant or idle. To define it once and for all would be to kill it, to render it impotent in an ever-evolving world. And that’s impossible, because the word of God is alive, sustaining us always with the grace we need to get by.  

Pentecost 2020

Pentecost – May 31, 2020 – Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer (via Zoom)

You can watch/listen to me preach this sermon here.

As most of you know, I’ve been out for the past couple of weeks recuperating from a tonsillectomy. It was not pleasant, but it was necessary. I’m happy now to be restored to health, and to join the land of the living, such as it is.

Thank you for your well-wishes, your prayers, cards, and text messages. While post-operative pain is most unwelcome, your caring words served as constant reminders of this generous and thoughtful community, of which I am lucky to be a part.

While I was recovering, I had occasion to do lots of things.

First, of course, I had occasion to do some heavy sleeping, some painful swallowing, and some pretty serious scowling every time I was awakened to take my medication.

I also had the occasion to watch several episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, to play games on the iPad, to read an old mystery novel or two, and, yes, to say my prayers.

But, finally, I had the chance to do some thinking.

It wasn’t necessarily the kind of deep thinking intended to result in profound insights. It was rather the sort of meandering thought process that stems from a casual observation here, an unexpected noticing there.

This is the kind of train of thought that you don’t even know you’ve had until you arrive somewhere. It’s the mental equivalent to getting lost in a random internet rabbit hole.

Have you ever Googled something and ended up somewhere completely different? If you’re anything like me, after searching for, say, the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” you inevitably end up on Judy Garland’s Wikipedia page.

Before you know it, somehow, you’re reading about Mickey Rooney, Ethel Kennedy and the 1968 presidential election, having traversed some internet maze that could never be replicated. I digress.

As I said, circuitous though it may have been, I had the chance to do some thinking.

Most of it occurred as I sat at home on a loveseat by a large picture window. It was there that a pair of cardinals would visit me each day. They would land on the air-conditioning unit just outside.

The male would walk along the unit’s surface, chewing up small leaves and chirping at the ground below. Not long after he arrived, a female would join him, singing her own unique version of their song.

As I watched them, I remembered learning that cardinals mate for life, and so I couldn’t help but think of them as husband and wife, even though I know that no such categories exist in the animal kingdom.

Nevertheless, I began to wonder more about them. How do cardinals meet anyway? Where exactly is their nest? Perhaps their daily jaunts to my air conditioner are the equivalent of the daily walks that so many of us are taking as we shelter at home.

Needless to say, I grew accustomed to their stopping by. It was by no means like clockwork, but it did happen with stunning regularity.

These cardinals weren’t the only things I thought about. As it happens, when you sit for hours on end, sometimes anxieties creep into your mind, both personal and societal.

My lease, for instance, which the landlord has failed to renew—or terminate—is now three months past the deadline. I sure hope I have a place to live!

I also thought about the University of the South, at which I teach, in this season of transition and uncertainty. What will new leadership bring? Will my students be able to return in person? Will life as I know it be virtual until the end of the year?

I thought about my sister, Leslie, who has been mandated to return to work along with a host of other employees. Will she be able to stay safe?

I thought about my sister, Erika, who is not mandated to return to work, and remains at home all day long, with a full-time job, a toddler, and—perhaps scariest of all—a husband.

Once my renewal notice came, and after I’d had some conversations with friends and family, I began to worry about other things. Some might even call them more important things.

Has the racism so long accepted in this country finally reached a tipping point? How many more of God’s children must die in order to secure equality, not simply under the law, but in our hearts of minds?

It’s amazing how anxieties seem never to be in short supply, especially when the mind is left to wander.

But, what’s even more amazing, I would venture to say, even amidst life’s anxieties, is the calming effect of those visiting cardinals.

A funny thing happened as a sat by the window, hour after hour, greeting the cardinals when they came. I realized that their presence was not only their own, but it was, in fact, the very presence of God.

Here is God, I trained myself to think, as the cardinals came by each day. Here is God, checking in, showing himself, reminding me, as I soothe my throat and hug my stomach, that I am not alone.

I already knew that, of course. I have a loving spouse, several dear friends, and, as I mentioned before, all of you.

But there is something about the presence of God that charms our fears, our earthly anxieties, like nothing else can. And somedays there is nothing like a couple of brilliant red birds to give you a sense of just what that presence means.

You see, life is more than the thoughts in your head. Life is, in fact, more than you.

Life is the Word that was in the beginning, before the beginning. Life is the Father, who ordained the sun to rule the day. Life is the Holy Spirit, given to us on this day, on Pentecost, so that we might be agents of God’s grace in the world.

And Life is a cardinal, singing its sweet song on a dormant air conditioner.

There are many other things that might call to mind God’s Spirit among us. Perhaps you have seen it in the flames rising from Minneapolis or Nashville. Perhaps you have glimpsed it in the tear gas wafting over Kansas City and Philadelphia.

Perhaps you have heard it on the tongues of those who mourn the dead. Perhaps you have glimpsed it in the fiery tail of the rocket ship as it takes to flight.

But so long as we’re speaking of birds, it’s worth mentioning that the dove is the bird we ordinarily think of as a sign of the Spirit, and for good reason. It is a dove that descends on Jesus after his baptism in the Jordan river, and a dove brings an olive branch to Noah after the Flood.

But today, Pentecost 2020, perhaps a cardinal will do. After all, its wings are indeed like flames, tongues of fire all their own, alighting in the fullness of spring.

Yes, I think we would all do well to notice the cardinals. And when we do, to sit with them a little while. They just might bring us news that will change our lives forever.

God is here. His Spirit is with us. And it will never, ever go away.

Feast of the Presentation

Feast of the Presentation – February 2, 2020 – Luke 2:22-40 – Epiphany, Sherwood

Today we interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple.

This feast is always on February 2nd, which means that it isn’t always on a Sunday. However, our tradition considers it such an important moment in Jesus’ life that, when it does fall on a Sunday, we are sure to observe it, eschewing the ordinary lectionary readings.

And so this morning we hear the familiar story of Mary and Joseph bringing their 40-day-old infant to Jerusalem and carrying him into the temple. They do this, not just for the fun of it, but because they are firmly rooted in the tradition of their ancestors. This is what faithful Jewish people do: offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving for the first fruits of their union.

Mary and Joseph can’t afford to sacrifice much, just a couple of birds. There is perhaps no greater evidence of the ordinary-ness of these average, workaday folks. Mary—young, innocent, curious. Joseph—aging, gangly, protective (and a bit awkward because of it). Their boy, Jesus—unusually smiley, yet somehow fussy all the same—is, most of all, just along for the ride.

That’s most infants, isn’t it? Just along for the ride. Carried wherever mother goes: bedroom, laundry room . . . ancient near-eastern Temple. Scoped up by dad, no choice but to tag along to the kitchen sink for a bath, the bassinet for a nap . . . Egypt to hide from Herod’s men.

As the youngest member of my family, I didn’t have much experience around babies until my nephew was born last year. I always thought of babies as very resistant to being taken from the loving and familiar arms of their parents.

To a certain extent that’s true, but there is something special about the earliest months of a child’s life before they are able to express their displeasure at being taken away from mom or dad.

During this time they are perfect examples of innocence and trust. They are, for the most part, content to go along for the ride, with aunt, uncle, grandma, grandpa, friend, neighbor, perfect stranger.

Once when I was watching my nephew I began to talk to him about some of the things that interest me. I explained the theological conundrums faced by homiletical scholars in the 21st century who attempted bring incarnational validity to bear on both their audience analysis and exegetical research.

He was riveted, right there with me the whole time, along for the ride down the path of a former—and perhaps still wanna-be—seminarian.

When I paused, he looked at me, dried formula on his bib, and even if only with his eyes seemed to respond, “Go on.”

This is the developmental stage that Jesus is in now. He’s a baby. He doesn’t understand what anyone is saying although he may be comforted by the tone with which it’s said. Before too long he will begin to recognize the ones who care for him most often, but for now, he’s content just to be along for the ride.

And so he goes not only to the temple, but into the arms of Simeon and Anna. These two have seen it all, and yet they never could have expected the unbounded joy they would feel upon experiencing God’s salvation for the very first time.

We’ve all been along for the ride. Not only as infants, but in our Christian journeys as well. Those of us who were baptized as infants, not yet fully understanding the implications of our joining the Church, were carried along by others who made promises on our behalf and committed to nurture and love us as we grew into them.

Those of us who were baptized as adults may not have been taken along for the ride quite as literally, but we were still carried to the font by the prayers, support, and love of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The people who took us in their arms, whether those arms be physical or spiritual, must be kin to Simeon and Anna. No, they didn’t proclaim the salvation or redemption that we offered to them; they proclaimed the salvation and redemption that Jesus offers to the entire world—including us.

They were able to do this because they experienced Jesus, but unlike Simeon and Anna, they didn’t have to wait until their old age. Instead, they experienced the promise—and the reality—of God’s salvation when they were younger. Perhaps as children, teens, young adults, newlyweds.

Nor do we have to wait until the end of our lives to experience Jesus. Because others brought us along for the ride, we have experienced God’s grace and peace and love along the way.

The remembrance and celebration of Jesus’ presentation in the Temple offers us an opportunity to reflect on those who brought us into the Church. None of us got here without going along for the ride. Some us might have gone willingly, or unknowingly. Others of us were perhaps resistant, even kicking and screaming. The question is, who carried you?

A parent? A child? Your grandmother or priest or teacher? A husband or wife or a friend you didn’t deserve? Were they just ordinary, average, workaday folks?

Maybe you were enveloped and sustained on this journey chiefly by a source that you could never seem to name. Maybe you were brought along by someone who is in this room right now, or someone who used to sit here Sunday after Sunday. Maybe you don’t know who brought you to this place in your life. Maybe they are unseen, but nonetheless real, communicating with you heart-to-heart.

Whether that person lives down the street or dwells in realms on high, they are still a part of you. They are a part of you because they played a role, however great or small, in taking you along on the ride of a lifetime, a journey on which you would discover the marvelous grace of God.

Because you were carried down this path, you are prepared to bring others along with you. Is there any greater gift than being grafted into the rich heritage of those who carry each other toward Jesus?

Is there any greater gift than taking hold of the gangly and green, or the tender and mild, or the fussy and frustrating, or the foul-mouthed and fiery, or the humble and holy and introducing them, as you once were, to God’s unconditional love?

Is there anything greater than that? Could there be anything greater than that?

Second Sunday after Christmas

Mary (1).jpegSecond Sunday after Christmas – January 5, 2020 – Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23 – Trinity, Winchester

Paraphrasing Charles Dickens’s famous first line, it is fitting to say, “The wise men had left, to begin with.” Today’s Gospel tells us of the events following the departure of the Magi.

This might seem odd seeing as how tomorrow is the Feast of the Epiphany. That’s when we celebrate the coming of the Magi, “the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles,” as it were. But today, on the Second Sunday after Christmas, we have chosen—one of three options—to read Matthew’s account of what happens after they depart.

Sometimes we get a bit out of order; that’s fine. The underlying—and everlasting—truth remains the same. And so Matthew tells it: an angel appears to Joseph saying, “Get up, take the child and Mary, and flee to Egypt. Remain there until further notice. King Herod is searching for the child so that he can kill him.”

So Joseph takes his family to Egypt by night, and there they wait until the angel again appears to Joseph saying, “Get up and take the child and his mother to the land of Israel. Those who were seeking to kill the child are dead.”

So Joseph takes Jesus and Mary toward Israel, but he is frightened to learn that Herod’s son is ruling there, so they go instead, at the Lord’s instruction, to Nazareth in Galilee.

By his own admission, Matthew includes this information in his Gospel account to validate the biblical prophecy that calls both for the Messiah to come “out of Egypt” and to be “a Nazorean.”

It does far more than that for us today. This morning we are arrested by the story’s striking violence. (Violence which the lectionary people have edited out.) A king is killing children in order to find the one child about whom it has been said, “He has been born King of the Jews.” This tale of violent human desperation seems to undermine the divine message of Christmas.

Today’s collect tells us that God became human in order to wonderfully restore the dignity of the human race he created. By virtue of the miraculous incarnation we share in the divine life. As we said on Christmas Eve, such a heavenly gift can seem to be at odds with the human wickedness apparent in Herod’s response.

On the one hand, we are emboldened by God’s grace. We share in his divine life by virtue of the fact that he sent his only Son to become one of us. On the other, we are saddened by depraved human response. A black-hearted despot seeks to take the life of the One who gives us that promise.

There is indeed a tension, a peculiarity, a confusion about all of this. However, it’s not that surprising that we should end up feeling some uncertainty about the events surrounding God’s drawing near.

How else are we to experience it? With perfect clarity? I dare say it would make even less sense if it all made perfect sense! We do not—we cannot—all of the sudden understand the miraculous ways of God.

Matthew’s account of these events reveals this good news: even in the dark, violent reality of the human story—a reality in which rulers do all that they can to cling to power—God chooses to become one of us, to give us all a glimpse of true salvation.

What’s more, God will never let us go. In the miracle of the incarnation God became human so that even in our humanity we may be made like God, at least, insofar as we can be in this life.

The Apostle Paul says it this way in his letter to the Ephesians: “[God] destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”

God has adopted us all by grace in Jesus Christ. That has been made clear in the incarnation. Good Christian friends, rejoice! There is no greater gift. You didn’t have to do anything to earn it. In fact, there is nothing that you could do to earn it, but God gives you this gift anyway.

Alas, even in our joy we must admit that there is perhaps one problem with the gift. Not God’s problem, but ours. This adoption that God has designed for us through Jesus is not ours alone, but everyone’s. That, too, can be hard to reconcile.

That means Jews, but it also means Gentiles. Those who keep the law, and those who don’t. That means the free, but it also means the slaves. Those who can do what they want, and those who can only do what they have to do. And that means you, but it also means Herod. Those who gather in the promise of grace and love, and those who summon violence and brutality out of fear.

How do we deal with the fact that the gift of grace is available to all? I think the answer to that has a lot to do with understanding the true nature of being human, which God understood completely through the incarnation.

Imagine that you have been as evil as Herod. You’ve not killed innocent children, but perhaps you’ve misbehaved in other ways, even metaphorically, in your heart or mind.

The scandalous message of the incarnation is that God loves all of us, even the worst of us. Could there be anyone worse than Herod? It’s hard to imagine that. Could there be any just as bad? Yes. Indeed, human history is littered with them.

Even though we may want revenge on such dastardly people, God does not. Instead of revenge, God desires redemption, the redemption of everyone. No matter what, God will always love you.

The Herods of this world continue to break God’s heart just as they have for millennia, but each time they infect this earth with their evil, God finds a new antidote for redemption. Even in the worst of times, God still triumphs.

Up until this point I’ve been making my case using Matthew’s gospel account, but to sum it up I want to turn to Luke. In chapter six verse 35 Jesus tells us something especially fitting in light of today’s lesson. “[God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Even though such a divine trait may be beyond our human understanding, it makes perfect sense to the God that feels nothing but love for those created in the divine image.

All you need to know is this: No matter how awful, hateful, or terrible his children turn out to be, God is the kind of parent who loves them, seeks them out, bids them return to the fold, and throws a big ol’ party to celebrate when they finally come home.

For that we can only say, “Thanks be to God” . . . and perhaps, “Merry Christmas!”

 

Photo: Nativity Window, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri. 

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve – December 24, 2019 – Luke 2:1-20 – Trinity, Winchester

Tonight, from the Gospel according to Luke, we hear the same familiar story that we hear each year on this night: the story of Jesus’ birth.

The story of the Word made flesh is the story of God infiltrating humanity. The creator unites with the created in a miraculous new way. Heaven and earth come together. God and humankind are made one.

Throughout Luke’s narrative we see humanity and divinity converging in surprising ways.

To begin with, it’s census time. Mary and Joseph are headed to Bethlehem, the City of David, to be counted. As obedient subjects of the empire, they have set out to do what their emperor has asked them to do.

All along the rough and rocky road from Galilee to Judea the flesh of God kicks, and squirms, and fidgets, and turns in the womb of the young bride-to-be of a poor stone cutter from Nazareth.

Luke sets the scene very carefully. Upon their arrival in the hometown of the much-storied Israelite king, David, Mary prepares to give birth to a long-prophesied heavenly king, Jesus.

By portraying Jesus as the Son of David (through Joseph’s lineage), and the Son of God (through the Holy Spirit’s intervention and Mary’s faithful willingness), Luke cements the union of kings mortal and immortal.

Royal though the baby may be, God has chosen for him a modest passage into the world, by way of an unassuming teenage girl. God comes to earth for the first time not “robed in dreadful majesty” but swaddled in strips of cloth.

It’s not at all what we might expect. Not only does God deign to become human, but he identifies with the underprivileged in the process. These two realities are at odds. The everlasting father of the creation meets transient children of the empire. The Prince of Peace meets poor Palestinian travelers.

The surprises don’t end there.

Next we hear of “shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” Going about their evening routine they find themselves suddenly surrounded by God’s glory, face to face with an angel of the Lord.

“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.” Once again polar opposites collide. Filthy, uneducated shepherds meet radiant, holy messengers who traffic in the very countenance of God.

The contrast between heavenly prophesy and earthly reality sharpens as angels relay the birth announcement of a pauper’s child. “You will find [him] wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

If God scandalizes us by becoming human, then he astounds us by becoming poverty-stricken in the process. Luke depicts God’s union with humanity by showing us that divine identification reaches to the lowest rung of the societal ladder.

This is clear: the revelatory new work that God is doing in Jesus happens even in the midst of the mundane and unflattering circumstances of human life. Jesus’ birth is proof positive that God wields his power for good in the places we least expect.

By offering such a vivid account of God’s impoverished entrance into the world, Luke enjoins us to fulfill our own role in bringing the redemptive love of Jesus to those who need it most.

God became one of us to redeem all of us. By virtue of that redemption, you are empowered to be an agent of God’s reconciliation; a participant in God’s unification of heaven and earth; a coworker in closing the gap between sin and grace.

The work of uniting humanity and divinity might sound intimidating, so it’s good to be clear. It’s not your job to bring heaven and earth together. God has already done that. But Christmas is your renewed opportunity to join in Jesus’ continuing ministry of reconciliation.

Christmas in your renewed opportunity to join God in uniting heavenly affection with human concern by calling on the ill and the grieving. Christmas in your renewed opportunity to join God in uniting holy food with hungry souls by feeding a stranger.

Christmas in your renewed opportunity to join God in uniting human action with heavenly righteousness by righting a wrong or correcting an injustice. Christmas in your renewed opportunity to join God in transforming fear into peace, doubt into hope, loneliness into relationship by lighting a candle in the darkness.

This is the joy of Christmas: to have the chance to join in God’s redeeming work. Our Advent anticipation is over. Christmas is here. The Lord has come. All you have left to do is to receive the joy.

So receive it, dear ones, and then get to work, not to earn your way into heaven, but to show your gratitude for the place that God has already prepared for you there.

By God’s grace

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 13, 2019 – Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 – Trinity, Winchester

Let’s look at today’s collect again.

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works…

“That we may continually be given to good works.” That’s a good thing to pray for. We should do good work—God’s work—in the world.

But lest we get too caught up in the idea that our works might be the source of our salvation, this prayer first calls our attention to the source of our good works: God’s grace. We pray for God’s grace to precede and follow us because grace is precisely what makes our good works possible.

The order is very important. God’s grace comes first. Our works follow. When you look at it that way, it makes life seem so much more manageable, doesn’t it?

In our Sunday School series on evangelism last spring we said that the mission of the Church is God’s mission. The work of reconciliation in the world is God’s work. The ministry of this parish is God’s ministry. We are able to share in it because God empowers us with his grace.

God was here before us, and God will be here long after we go. We are God’s coworkers on earth for a time, but God’s grace lasts forever.

We heard this morning a portion of Jeremiah’s letter to the exiled Israelites in Babylon.

“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.”

In other words, Jeremiah encourages them to put down roots, as if to say, “You are in this for the long haul.”

Last week we got a sense of just how devastated the Israelites were to find themselves in captivity. I can’t imagine that “put down roots” is what they wanted to hear. But prophets aren’t in the business of telling people what they want to hear. Prophets are in the business of telling the truth.

People want to hear things like, “Everything’s coming up roses!” But we don’t need the prophet to tell us, “Everything’s coming up roses!” When everything’s coming up roses we are pleased to go on listening to CNN and the local Top 40 station.

What we need to hear are things like, “Brace yourself, folks. Things are going to get tough for a while.” That’s why God sends a prophet. To be honest, to “get real” with us when we need it most.

God sends a prophet to the woman whose husband comes out to her after eight years of marriage. God sends a prophet to the man whose job transfers him away from friends and family. God sends a prophet to the teenager whose father is sentenced to 10-12 years.

It doesn’t do any good avoiding the truth. Things are going to get tough for a while. Your marriage is ending. You may spend Christmas alone. Dad’s not going to be around for a while. 

You don’t have to like it, but in order to have the slightest hope of getting through it, you do eventually have to accept it. That’s why you need a prophet like Jeremiah to tell it like it is. 

Jeremiah tells the Israelites to go on living their lives. Lay a foundation, put up some walls, plant some food, get married, have babies. In short, do the work God has given you to do. It’s not ideal, but it’s the first step toward accepting their new normal. 

Let’s get really clear about one thing. Their daily life and work is not meant to be a distraction from their troubles. “Well, this will take your mind off of things for a while… Have a hot bath, take a walk in the woods, get one of those adult coloring books.”

No. The work isn’t a diversion. The work is their key to reconnecting with God. As they resume their routine they will reminded of God’s presence among them.

Build the house. Who fashioned the stones from chaos? God. 

Plant the garden. Who sends the rain form the heavens? God.

Get married. Who created us, one for another? God. 

Be fruitful and multiply. Who blessed all of Abraham’s righteous offspring? God. 

The work is meant to return them to the steady rhythm of life so that they might realize once again that God’s grace is what makes their lives possible, even in Babylon.

Life isn’t always easy. Even though we may not like it, we have to summon up the courage to accept it. Sometimes we need to be reminded that getting out of bed in the morning and going on with our lives is the best thing we can do. Because it’s in living those lives that we find the grace of God. 

I know a little church in a small Tennessee town. Maybe you know it, too. It has been through some pretty rough times. One day nearly the entire congregation walked out. They thought they’d set up a new parish down the road. 

I’ve never been part of a church when something like that happens so I can only imagine the lament. I can only imagine how hard it must have been to walk into a nearly-empty nave the following Sunday. 

I don’t know exactly what the faithful remanent heard the prophet say. Probably not “build houses” or “plant gardens.” I imagine it was something like “say your prayers, answer the phone, pay the bills. Do the work God had given you to do.” 

I know another little congregation at a small rural crossroads not far from here. It struggled with membership for years. Members died, members moved away, members stopped coming. There were some disagreements, some harsh words, some apologies, a lot of mixed emotions. 

They also heard the words of the prophet. “Things are going to be tough for a while. You might have to make some hard decisions. Do the work God has given you to do.” 

By God’s grace the people of these congregations did just that. They prayed, they worshipped, they studied the Bible, they took care of the sick, they fed the hungry, they clothed the naked. In fact, they still do. And by God’s grace they always will. 

The work God has given you to do

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – August 11, 2019 – Isaiah 1:1,10-20 – Trinity, Winchester

As Christians, we say that the Bible is the inspired word of God, but it’s not always clear exactly what that means.

There are many answers. For instance, scripture is a record of God’s interaction with God’s people over time. Through scripture we come to know God and who we are in relationship with God. Not only do we believe that its human authors were inspired by God to write what they wrote when they wrote it, we also believe that God inspires our hearing of it today. 

One of the specific reasons that I’m convinced scripture is inspired is because of its lasting relevance. Across time and culture, God’s word continues to inform our life together. For example, hear God’s words to us this morning from the mouth of the prophet Isaiah. (And, yes, I’m paraphrasing here…) 

“I’m tired of your sacrifices. I have had enough of your burnt offerings. I do not delight in the blood of your bulls. Your incense is an abomination. Your solemn assemblies make me sick. 

“I find your festivals burdensome. From now on when you pray I’m not even going to listen. Your hands are full of blood! Wash yourselves! Start doing some good for a change.” 

In other words, God says, “I’ve had it *up to here!* Get yourselves under control!”

These words are hard to hear. For that reason we might be tempted to write them off as water under the bridge, a travelogue of an ancient people dealing with ancient problems. 

However, Isaiah’s prophecy is as relevant today as it ever was. Our hands are still full of blood. Not the blood of bulls but the blood of school children and innocent bystanders. 

We’ve tried to wash them, but rather than searching for the cleansing rivers of God’s grace, we opted for the tears of blameless immigrant children. 

Much like the ancient Israelites, our nation is at a breaking point. The question is, what are we as Christians going to do about it? As Isaiah says, the answer is much more than simply, “Go to Church.” We must also speak out—and act—in the name of God.

Mainline Protestants and Catholics in America often shy away from claiming the authority of God. We are nervous about the prophetic role of our faith. Our reticence to don a prophet’s mantel is not without reason.

Some people who call themselves Christians spend so much time damning people to hell that the rest of us have become conditioned to think that claiming God’s authority is a bad thing. In an attempt to seem relevant, the Church has forfeited its prophetic witness to fear-mongers and imposters. 

Perhaps the reason that many contemporary Christians are uneasy about claiming God’s authority is because they perceive themselves to be inadequate. They don’t want to presume to know the mind of God, only to find out they’ve confused their own desires with God’s will. 

This instinct is admirable—no one should mistake themself for God! However, you must remember that God created you, God called you good, and God entrusted you as a steward of his creation and his word. 

So, while you don’t have to call yourself a prophet, you at least ought to act like you’ve read them, and you must share their message with the world. 

Today that message is this: God is fed up with our sacrifices, our empty thoughts and prayers, our vapid rituals and festivals. Before you go preaching and teaching this message, understand that God does not criticize liturgical practices because they are bad in and of themselves. God criticizes them when they are unaccompanied by acts of justice and mercy. 

Valuing liturgics is fine, but valuing liturgics over people is not. 

Praying is a wonderful tactic for change, as long as you understand that true prayer is a way of life, one that informs the way you act in the world. 

By all means, please, come back next week to participate in the prayer book rites that so richly inform our faith, but remember: while keeping the liturgical calendar is important, it is not more important than how we treat the least of God’s people. Our participation in these liturgies rings hollow unless we also “rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow.”

Today is not about bad-mouthing liturgy. It’s about realizing that, no matter how we worship, when we ignore the urgent needs of those around us, we sin, plain and simple. The good news is that God offers us forgiveness anyway. Although our sins are like scarlet now, they will become like snow. 

“If you are willing and obedient,” God says, “you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword.” 

We are tempted to hear this as though our own actions will determine whether or not we are forgiven by God. Such is not the case. We can never do anything to earn or to forfeit the marvelous grace of God. 

In these words God is not giving us an ultimatum, i.e. “Do this or else be damned for all time.” Rather, in these words God is assuring us that with a little help from the almighty, we do indeed have the power to make things better. 

Through Isaiah, God offers us a clear, honest, warning. If you do what I recommend, then your communities will flourish. Everyone will have the food, water, shelter, and love that they deserve as children of God.

If you do not live like I recommend, then your dire situation will persist. You will continue to live with the evil of inequality, fear, and guilt.

Today, and everyday, God invites you to repent and to commit ourself to what is good and just and merciful. You have the power to do what is right, not on your own accord, but because God works in and through you. 

I know that you already know this. You know it because you know Jesus. In Jesus, God showed us that our humanity matters. God makes divine use of even our frail flesh. What a blessed thing. 

I’m not exactly sure what I can urge you to do without risking tax-exempt status, so for now let’s just make it simple. What I’m saying is this: hear what God’s prophets are saying to God’s people, take advantage of God’s grace, and for God’s sake, do the work God has given you to do.