*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.

Resurrection power

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost – November 10, 2019 – Luke 20:27-38 – Trinity, Winchester

Throughout Luke chapter 20 Jesus has been at the Temple in Jerusalem contending with all sorts of folks. Today he’s talking with the Sadducees, who we are told do not believe in the resurrection of the dead.

They ask Jesus about resurrection using an example. “If a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.” If there were seven brothers, they ask, and each of them married the woman, but all died childless, who’s wife will she be in heaven?

The question is complicated. At its core it’s about resurrection, but it also brings up the notion of levirate marriage, the practice by which an ancient Hebrew man was compelled to marry his brother’s widow and to have children with her in his brother’s name.

This component of the Mosaic law might seem odd to us. Lest we are tempted to judge this practice based on the norms of our own day, we should recognize that the law is not without virtue.

Hebrew law provided for levirate marriage for the care and protection of widows at a time when the larger society shunned them. This law is a sign of God’s grace, protecting those who otherwise would have been left with nothing.

However, even as we recognize the law’s implicit grace, I think we can still critique it. Grace-filled though it may be, we cannot ignore the patriarchal nature of this practice.

The custom of levirate marriage assumes that men have a certain amount of ownership of women. A woman’s survival in this ancient near-eastern society required a relationship with a man and the bearing of his children.

I bring this up because even two-thousand years later, while the position of women in our society has certainly evolved, it isn’t necessarily where it needs to be.

There are several ways in which men still claim ownership of women’s bodies: unwanted sexual advances, inappropriate jokes, slanderous gossip, and even legislation. Consciously or unconsciously, there is some element of control that men in our society simply are not prepared to let women have.

In light of this, what is our response as faithful Christians? Well, I think the answer lies in the core component of the Sadducee’s question: resurrection. What do we believe about resurrection? It’s a complex question, but one that is central to our Christian faith.

Each week we proclaim, “On the third day he rose again” and “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

Today’s Gospel reminds us that resurrection has not always been a given. Even today Christians argue about what resurrection really means. Some say that an explicit belief in a real bodily resurrection is the mark of a true Christian.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some challenge the idea of the physical resurrection, seeing it more as a metaphor for our the daily rejuvenation in the world.

Others find themselves somewhere in between. (This is where you can typically find Anglicans . . . in between.) We will never have absolute proof of Jesus’ bodily resurrection, but we are committed to living our lives everyday as if it is possible, because by faith we believe it to be so.

Jesus’ death and resurrection would not have been possible without his incarnation. In the incarnation God became human so that all humankind might be redeemed.

In so doing, God showed us that flesh matters. Even we, in our human state, are worthy of God’s love. Even we, in our human state, share in Jesus’ death and resurrection. That resurrection chiefly reminds us that the way things always have been need not be the way they always will be.

And so we go about our work in the world as redeemed agents of God’s transformative love, bringing signs of life to a world filled with sin and death. It is our duty to pay attention to our present realities, such as the treatment of women, and whenever we encounter those realities as signs of death, we must work to bring about new life.

How do we do that? It starts with the way we treat one another. Remember, flesh matters. Everyone is worthy of being treated with dignity and respect.

For a specific example we need to look no further than those who walk beside us and those who have gone before us. Of course, friends, I’m thinking about Butch Janey. We lost Butch on Tuesday night, but we know he is with us still.

I hadn’t known Butch for 45 minutes when, as we sat chatting on his front porch, he mentioned the women of Blue Monarch. If you are unaware, Blue Monarch is a local organization that assists women and their children who struggle with addiction, domestic violence, and economic inequality.

Butch talked with pride and joy about the work of the organization, and especially the courage of the women there who fight so hard to overcome their struggles.

“I can’t do much,” Butch said, “But I write them letters. We go back and forth. Maybe I’ll slip a $20 bill in from time to time. Their courage gives me hope, and I just want them to know they have my support, and God’s support, too.”

Friends, that’s resurrection. Butch knew it then. Now, he knows it even better. And by God’s grace, so will you.

Amidst the ordinary

Last Sunday after the Epiphany – March 3, 2019 – Luke 9:28-43a – Trinity, Winchester

Listen to this week’s sermon here.

As we leave the season after the Epiphany and head into Lent, it’s good to be reminded that not every experience of the divine is one of sudden revelation. Jesus is always with us, even in the ordinary and mundane circumstances of our lives. Be attentive, and you just might notice him!

How far is it to Bethlehem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, how far is it to Bethlehem? 

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

No, it’s not very far at all.

Came. Coming. Here.

First Sunday of Advent  – December 2, 2018 – Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36 – Trinity Church, Winchester

Today we begin again. We begin a new liturgical year by waiting with patience and expectation for the One who is promised to us. We begin by waiting for Jesus.

We wait, not only for his coming in flesh, but also his coming in glory. Because we focus on both the incarnation and the “parousia,”Advent is an interesting time of the church year to say the least. It both completes and renews our annual liturgical cycle. It renews our year with the longing for Jesus’ birth and concludes it with the expectancy of his second coming. 

For this reason we might say that Advent is “a season under stress.” This stress makes for a season of some conflicting interpretations and practices. We see evidence of this conflict in today’s scriptures. One calls us to joyful longing and one to judgment and dread. [1]

“The days are surely coming,” we hear from Jeremiah, “when [the Lord] will fulfill the promise [he] made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah . . . I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

As Christians we understand Jeremiah’s interpretation of the coming Messiah to be fulfilled in the birth of Jesus Christ. This is a text of promise. It communicates our Christian hope of redemption and deliverance at the hand of the Messiah who comes, even as a baby. 

From Luke, on the other hand, we hear Jesus himself, at the end of his public ministry. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations . . . People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” It sounds a lot like, “Lo, he comes with clouds descending.” 

Like today’s reading from Jeremiah, we can hear this passage from Luke as a text of promise. One day the Lord will come in glory to redeem us from the sin and destruction of this world. There’s hope!

However, the passage is scary and a little unsettling. We hear in it the dread that accompanies judgement. It is in this sense a text of terror. There will be distress on the earth. “People will faint from fear.” Watch out, Jesus warns, so that you are not caught off guard, as if in a trap.

Hearing eschatological, even apocalyptic, texts like this one, the Church seems to interpret them as either texts of promise or texts of terror. [2] But the two are not mutually exclusive. Advent reminds us to see them as both. The conflicting nature of these texts is not a bad thing; it is something to be cherished. 

Today’s texts remind us of Advent’s complexity, but they are not our only liturgical reminders of the ambiguous nature of the season. Throughout its history the Church has emphasized both penitential and anticipatory aspects of Advent. 

Some might silence the Gloria in favor of the Trisagion, as we have done, to emphasize a penitential component of the season. Some sacred ministers will wear deep purple—or even black—to orient worshippers toward a mindset of repentance in preparation for impending judgment. 

On the other hand, others prefer to emphasize the joyful expectancy of the incarnation by adding a bit of greenery to liven things up. My childhood parish used to decorate for Christmas before Advent 1. If you were to visit different parishes over the next three weeks you would see varied interpretations across our denomination. You will certainly see pieces of each in this parish.

The nature of this season beckons us to sit in tension for a while. Adopting either of these approaches wholesale—whether donning the metaphorical sackcloth of repentance or decorating the tree and singing carols—is not advised. The point of Advent is to live into its ambiguity. 

We don’t know much about the origin of Advent. If you’re interested, I can recommend some books on the subject like Waiting for the Coming by J. Neil Alexander. In it he tells us that one thing is clear from examining Advent’s somewhat fuzzy past: the church is not willing to settle for one story or another. Advent is not only about the judgement, hope, and expectation of the second coming or joyful longing and preparation for the incarnation. Advent is about participating in both of these realities. [3]

These two themes are inextricably intertwined for a very good reason–they remind us that our beginning is linked to our end. The Jesus who came is promised to come again. Our celebration and remembrance of the past and the hope and expectation of the future  meet in our present reality. 

Today’s collect helps us understand. Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light now—in this mortal life in which your Son came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he comes again in glorious majesty, we may rise to the life immortal.

Right here, right now, we know that the same Jesus who came, and is coming, is among us and working in us. You may have heard it before. It’s sounds a lot like…

“Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

“We remember his death, we proclaim his resurrection, we await his coming in glory.” 

That’s past, present, and future. Jesus walked among us. Christ will come in judgement of us. The Risen Lord is with us now. Came. Coming. Here.

If you dwell in Advent’s ambiguity and wait patiently, you will learn the most valuable lesson of all. Jesus is with you now, even while you wait for him. You have a whole lot to look forward to in the future. You have a whole lot to celebrate about the past. But you also have a whole lot of living to do right now. The good news is that Jesus is with you, and he guides you along the way.

Remember him, as a vulnerable infant, Expect him, like a valiant figure in the clouds. But most of all, experience him in the flesh like his disciples always have, in the breaking of the bread and the prayers. 

 

[1] J. Neil Alexander, Waiting for the Coming: The Liturgical Meaning of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany (Washington: The Pastoral Press, 1993), 23-24.

[2] Ibid., 20.

[3] Ibid., 24-26.

Sacred

Feast of William Temple – November 6, 2017 – Exodus 22:21-27; John 1:9-18

Today I preached at the noon Eucharist for the Feast of William Temple in The Chapel of the Apostles. This sermon originally began as a poem, which I briefly considered reading during the liturgy, but as I adapted it I knew its essence had changed to a more traditional sermon. The preaching event you’ll see in the video is slightly different than the words on the page below. Watching or listening to a sermon is, in my opinion, always preferable to reading it because it keeps you closer to the spirit of the sermon as an event in time and not an object in space. If you chose to do that in this case, you might experience a *slightly* different piece of work.

You can watch me preach the sermon here. 

God took on flesh and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus Christ.

According to William Temple, because of the incarnation, “the personality of every man and woman is sacred.”

I beg to differ.

He obviously never went to diocesan convention. Or to a shopping mall on Black Friday. I guess he never walked down the halls of a seminary during midterms.

But he lived through World War, colonial expansion, and social tension. And surely crazed gunmen existed in his day.

So why didn’t he, like me, see that some of God’s people are barely tolerable?

I know people who check their phones while you’re in the middle of a conversation with them. I know people who commit and then don’t follow through. I know people who come to class unprepared.

As an arrogant, know-it-all seminarian, I’m sure that Temple would agree with me if he were here now. I wish that I could ask him about it.

I know just how it would go: I’d ask,“What annoys you most about other people?” And he’d answer, “They exist.” And I say, “Aha! Then what’s all this stuff about everyone having a sacred personality?”

And he’d reply, “Well, the truth is our common life together can be…exasperating.” And because that’s a word that I used last week to describe a crowded room of clergy, I’d feel really proud.

But then he’d say, “Sure, people are exasperating, but that doesn’t mean they’re not sacred.”

No one has ever seen God—it is God the only son—who has made him known. The Son was known in human form. Because of that our humanity is sacred. Our very beings and those of others are means by which God reveals himself to us. Even though they do things that are quirky, irritating, disagreeable, infuriating, and yes, even evil.

At this point in our conversation, I’d read the first chapter of John again, and realize what Temple is trying to tell me. And what he’s trying to tell you: Focus on Jesus.

But know this: You. Can’t. Live. Up. To. That. Because you’re not God.

But the good news is: You’re still sacred. Sacred doesn’t mean perfect. And sacred doesn’t mean best. Sacred doesn’t even mean good.

But Sacred does mean redeemed.