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. 

“Why did you doubt?”

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 9, 2020 – Matthew 14:22-33 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

This sermon, which I preached this morning, is a slightly different version of the sermon I wrote as a contribution to this week’s installment of Sermons that Work.

Today we find Jesus’ disciples terrified on the Sea of Galilee. It’s certainly not the first time. The disciples are no strangers to this lake. Even before Jesus called them to fish for people, they fished here for fish, no doubt risking life and limb for a good catch. 

A quick look back at Matthew’s chapter eight reminds us of another traumatic experience they had not so very long ago. You may recall the story. A windstorm arises, so strong that the boat is swamped and it begins to sink.

Scared to death, the disciples yell to Jesus, who is fast asleep in the back. “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” Jesus responds calmly, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he gets up, rebukes the wind, calms the sea, and the disciples are amazed.

Today, however, it’s not the weather that frightens the disciples. They can handle being tossed about by strong winds and waves. Been there, done that.

Today they are frightened by something else entirely—an eerie figure walking toward them on the surface of the sea. “It’s a ghost!” they cry. No, Jesus assures them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”

Alas, these comforting words do not quite satisfy Peter, who seeks further proof of Jesus’ identity. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Jesus agrees, “C’mon, Peter.” And Peter goes. But after just a few steps, the wind startles him and he begins to sink, crying, “Lord, save me!” Of course, Jesus does save him, but he also asks him this sobering question, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Jesus’ question is a different version of the same one he asked back in chapter eight. It’s déjà vu right here in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. Make no mistake, these questions are just as much for us as they were for those early disciples.

Why do we doubt? Jesus calmed a storm with his voice, fed five thousand people with only a few loaves of bread, and walked on water. In light of all this, why would Peter—or we—ever lack faith?

Well, right off the top of my head, I’d say: fear. Like the disciples, sometimes storms pop up in our lives and scare us half to death. That’s what storms do. It’s only natural for a dog to hide under the bed when he hears thunder; for a child to cling to her mother when she sees lightning; for the driver to pull over when he can no longer see the road. 

And it’s not just wind and rain storms that scare us. So do the metaphorical storms of our lives. Things like global pandemics, contentious election cycles, horrifying diagnoses, economic downturns, and relational discord can shake us to the core.

In the midst of difficult setbacks like these, it’s not uncommon for anyone to doubt their faith in God. That’s exactly what happened to Peter in today’s gospel, that’s exactly what the disciples did in chapter eight, and it’s exactly what can happen to us.

All Jesus does is ask why. Like any good teacher, he already knows the answer, but he wants us to learn it, too.

Simply put, I’d say it’s because we are human. Fear is, quite literally, instinctual. Humans are wired with a fight-or-flight response. We have this reflex for a reason. When our lives are in jeopardy or—more commonly for us today—when our identity is threatened, we are naturally inclined to react in fleeting ways.

When that happens, we tend to leave calm, rational thought behind, and we often need some assistance getting back to a more faithful frame of mind.

If you took Public Speaking in high school of college, you probably learned how important it is to engage the audience. Speakers have many tools for doing this, but perhaps the most important is the rhetorical question.

Rhetorical questions engage audience members by asking questions that get listeners thinking about their own answers. And as they do, they become personally connected to the subject in question.

This is to say, Jesus is not asking his rhetorical question, “Why did you doubt?” to shame Peter. Jesus is not in the shaming business. Instead, he uses the question to get a frightened Peter to focus on what’s most important. And in the realm of life’s storms, faith is more important than safety, or at least comes before it.

Faith is the foundation of human life, as important as food, water, and shelter. Only after faith is secured can safety add value to living. This is the message of the cross. This is the message of Jesus’ whole life. Faith is what Jesus wants Peter—and all of us—to focus on when storms come.

Jesus’ question prompts us to realize that faith is always within our reach. Even in the stormiest times of life, when we most doubt our ability to make it through, we can remain faithful to God.

It may not be easy. Staying faithful to God doesn’t simply mean going through the motions. It doesn’t mean saying the creed while thinking about a shopping list, or repeating Bible verses from memory. It means for us, just like Peter, refocusing on our commitment to faith itself.

We will not always be perfectly faithful. Doubts will creep in. The important thing is to return to a place of faith that is strengthened and sustained by a relationship with God and nurtured by participating in life in Christ.

You can return to faith by reading scripture, praying, attending worship. Each Sunday when we confess our sins, we admit that we don’t always get everything right, but we repent and recommit ourselves to walking in God’s ways once again.

Repent and recommit. This is the nature of the Christian life.

Peter is a prime example of what it means to live a life of holy imperfection. He has misunderstood before, and he will misunderstand—and even deny—again. But today we see him refocusing on faith (with a little help from Jesus, of course).

Watching Peter’s journey reminds us of our journey, a journey on which we can—and should—choose faithfulness. And a journey on which we, just like Peter, repent, recommit, and focus on a faithfulness that comes from the knowledge and love of Jesus, through whom we experience the grace of God time and time again.

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.  

*Some* good

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 9, 2020 – Matthew 5:13-20 – Trinity, Winchester

The Church is, in the ever so descriptive words of the famous preacher Tom Long, “a colony of the kingdom of heaven placed in the midst of an alien culture.” [1]

The kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, is not only a far-off eternal vision, but a salient, earthly reality of which you and I are blessed to be a part.

As members of the Church, Christ’s body on earth, we are called to be agents of God’s reign. Christians are, in a sense, heavenly emissaries, kingdom citizens instilled with God’s divine essence so that we may be bearers of that essence right here, right now.

Nowhere is our calling more apparent than in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. God became flesh, revealing that flesh is not simply material made for simple pleasures and sinful desires, but for the real, honest-to-goodness purposes of the kingdom.

In a world that ignores the needs of many, we Church folk are the few who turn our attention to the lost, the lonely, the suffering, the weak. 

Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that we—the Church, members of the body of Christ—are salt. Like salt, Christians add a divine flavor to the world by witnessing to God’s unconditional love and mirroring that love in our own lives.

The fact of the matter is, the Church is not as large as it once was. In fact, sometimes it seems that the only thing that the Church increases in from year to year is cultural irrelevance.

What good is the body of Christ in a world where leaders still lie to distract us from their ineptitude? What good is the body of Christ in a world where children still die because prescriptions cost too much money? What good is the body of Christ in a world where practices like predatory payday lending still persist in lining the pockets of the already-wealthy and further impoverishing the poor?

What good, really, is the Church to a society that so consistently rejects its offer of grace and love and reconciliation in favor of those old standbys, fear and doubt and divisiveness? 

Well, the answer is: some. The church is some good.

That might sound worrying, but take heart. Some good accounts for a whole lot of lives altered, perspectives changed, and fences mended. Just like some salt flavors the entire stew, some good done in Jesus’ name flavors the entire world with the grace of God. It has always been this way—a wicked world flavored by flecks of God’s grace.

A couple of cans of shredded chicken in the food pantry for a single mother whose kids need protein. A few dollars to pay down her electric bill so she doesn’t have to give the baby a bath by candle light again tonight. A winter coat to protect the oldest from the spine-stiffening wind that awaits her at the bus stop each morning.

Some good really is worth it. I’m not saying that the most good wouldn’t be better. For a time, the Salvation Army used the slogan “Doing the most good.” I wasn’t aware that it was a competition, but I take the point.

The “most good” does seem like the best kind of good, and it is a great goal. But some good is important, too. It’s real. It’s here. It’s now.

Jesus calls—and empowers—each of us to bring the kingdom of heaven ever closer to earth, and to do so with all that we have, with all that we are, in all the ways that we can. I believe that.

However, from time to time, the good news of God’s kingdom may get lost in the bad news you read on Facebook just like the sugar overshadows the salt in the birthday cake. But the truth is that the salt, like the good, is still there doing the work it needs to do just as steadfastly as ever.

Just because you don’t taste the salt, doesn’t mean it’s not there. Any recipe worth its salt has a small amount of salt proportional to the rest of the ingredients. That small amount is all it takes to make a huge difference. For the result to be good, there must be salt.

We’ve got to remember that if God’s people on earth ever are discouraged or distracted from living the kingdom life, then, as Jesus says, the Church will no longer be good for anything. It might as well be trampled underfoot.

For instance, if our mission becomes reinforcing the cultural status quo, then the Church is doomed. Like salt that does not, that cannot enhance the taste even of itself—throw it out! Like a flashlight without batteries. It doesn’t matter whether you hide it under the bed or put it on the nightstand—it’s useless! (Like a Eucharist without a sermon—what’s the point, right?) Jesus is clear about this, not to trouble us, but to keep us mindful of why we are here. 

The point is simply this: do not be discouraged when what you have to offer doesn’t seem like enough. Holy Mother Church, the Body of Christ—you included—is doing good. 

The temptation will always be to second guess, to doubt, to trouble our minds needlessly with daunting questions about our worth. Is this enough? Is that enough? Am I enough?

When that time comes, remember, the answer is: yes. You are the salt. You are enough because God made you enough and the presence of God in you gives the world the flavor of grace.

[1] See Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 51-52.

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.

Advent, take three

Third Sunday of Advent – December 15, 2019 – Matthew 11:2-11 – Trinity, Winchester

John clearly has his doubts about Jesus. Even from prison he sends his disciples to ask, “Are you the Messiah, or should we wait for another?” In other words, “Tell us, Jesus, is there someone else coming whose sandals you are not fit to untie?” 

The question is, where does John’s doubt come from? [1] Wasn’t he the one who told us that Jesus was the real deal in the first place? 

Wasn’t he the one who told the crowds, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Wasn’t he the one who said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Surely this is the same John. Why does he doubt now?

Perhaps his doubts arise from present circumstance. He who was once a prisoner of hope, is now a prisoner of Herod. Time spent locked away may have taken a toll on his prophetic spirit. 

Or perhaps his doubts are caused, ironically, by his knowledge of Bible. John knows well that the prophets say that the Messiah will bring a fiery brand of judgement and uproot disobedient nations. 

John doesn’t see Jesus of Nazareth living up to those expectations. [2] Jesus is not destroying delinquent nations. Instead, Jesus is walking around preaching to poor people. What a letdown, right? Maybe he’s not the one after all.

John’s doubts reveal that he doesn’t quite understand the scandalous nature of Jesus’ ministry. At least, not yet. Fortunately, Jesus clears things up. He says to John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

These words not only describe Jesus’ ministry, they point us to the very nature of God. [3] God is not a God of wrath and judgement in the conventional sense.

God’s judgement is mediated through loving acts of grace. These people don’t have enough food. Feed them. These people can’t stay warm. Clothe them. These people are sick. Heal them. These people wander in darkness. Tell them the Gospel Truth.

Talk about uprooting the nations and exercising judgment! Jesus’ ministry embodies a radical opposition to the status quo. The difference is, it doesn’t demand our attention in the way we are accustomed to.

We like shiny objects and elaborate productions, but that’s not the way Jesus works. If you ask me, John takes all that stuff about fire and destruction too literally. Sure, God is a destroyer, but not because he lays waste to erring nations. God is a destroyer because he destroys death and brings about life.

Jesus embodies the role of the Messiah because he heals the sick, restores the weak, and saves the lost. The fire he kindles is not the fire of fury, but the Spirit of God, which burns away the remnants of sin and death.

We hear echos of this Messianic role in today’s Collect. “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us . . . let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.”

This is not a prayer to a God who punishes brutally. This is a prayer to a God who saves mightily. That divine might may not always look like we expect to, but nevertheless it is present in the One who tells us to turn the other cheek instead of hitting back.

Proof that the Kingdom of God has arrived does not come in the grandiose actions of a savior du jour, but in the constant presence of the savior of eternity.

That said, it’s hard to recognize God’s presence in the world, and that makes it easy to doubt God’s power. We have heard the voices of God’s prophets drowned out by gunfire. We have known patriarchs to edit our history books before they go to print. We have tasted the bitterness of hasty words that rinse the flavor of grace from our mouths.

We have even willingly chosen to ignore God’s work in the world, patting our pockets and saying, “I’m sorry, Sir, I don’t have any cash on me today.”

Whether we overlook it, or whether we refuse to see it, Jesus is among us, quietly embodying salvation. Jesus is among us, reciting the names of the dead as they are welcomed into heaven. Jesus is among us, recording the history of the oppressed in permanent ink. Jesus is among, forgiving our trespasses and helping us muster up the courage to forgive those who trespass against us.

For the most part this is quiet, behind-the-scenes work. We so crave attention-grabbing theatrics that we tend to ignore the real nation-uprooting, judgment-exercising, status-quo-challenging work of God happening all around us. When we don’t see it, we assume it isn’t there. Like John, we begin to wonder who we’re really waiting for, all the while forgetting that Jesus has already come, not with trumpet fanfare, but with an infant’s cry in the still, dark silence of the night. 



[1] Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion (WJK: Louisville, 1997), 125.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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.