In the flesh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So may it ever be.

Third Sunday of Easter

Third Sunday of Lent – April 26, 2020 – Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17; Luke 24:13-35 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer (via Zoom)

In today’s gospel, we hear a familiar story once again. Jesus is made known to his disciples in the breaking of the bread. Some of you may already be thinking about the fact that we can’t do that today. 

But look at verse 27. Jesus also opens the scriptures to them. We can do that. But rather than stick with the gospel, I think we should look more closely at the psalm. 

It’s fitting to turn to the psalm, I think, because it’s the only piece of scripture that we read this morning that was around back then, when these travelers walked the Emmaus road. Remember, the scriptures referred to here are those of the Hebrew Bible, which we call the “Old Testament” today.

Last Tuesday, at our weekly Bible study, we discussed Psalm 116 with Dr. Becky Wright, of School of Theology fame. 

The psalm certainly has an air of Easter sweetness. It is, of course, not ours alone to claim as Christians. As Becky pointed out, it is one of the “Hallel” psalms. “Hallel” refers to a certain set of praise psalms typically recited by Jewish people on holy days, such as the Passover. 

If we listen closely, we’ll hear why: salvation is at work!  

“I love the Lord, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called upon him. The cords of death entangled me; the grip of the grave took hold of me; I came to grief and sorrow. Then I called upon the Name of the Lord: “O Lord, I pray you, save my life.”

To get a sense of all that this psalm has to offer, we can, and must, go beneath the surface of our Prayer Book’s translation. As Becky shared with us, the phrase “I love the Lord” in the first verse may be better translated as “I am loyal to the Lord.” The concept of loyalty points beyond mere emotion to a deeper truth: God’s steadfast fidelity to us, his people.  

At a time when “cords of death entangled” him, the psalmist not only prays—he also experiences God’s response to his prayer. God’s response is especially evident in verses four through six, which are among those that the lectionary has us omit this morning. 

“Gracious is the Lord and righteous; our God is full of compassion. The Lord watches over the innocent; I was brought very low, and he helped me. Turn again to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has treated you well.”

This psalm is the song of one who has experienced God’s steadfast faithfulness. It makes me think of another song, “Great is thy faithfulness.” 

“Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; all I have needed thy hand hath provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!”

I feel a special kinship with this hymn because its familiar tune was written by William Runyan in Baldwin City, KS, where I attended Baker University. 

But it’s more than a familiar tune. My college chaplain once pointed out that he likes this hymn particularly because it assigns the responsibility of faithfulness exactly where it belongs—to God. 

As Christians, we consider ourselves people of faith, and we often measure ourselves based on our ability to keep the faith. But in this hymn, it is God’s faithfulness of which we sing, not our own. 

It is, as we said more commonly in generations past, “meet and right so to do.” God’s faithfulness makes our faithfulness possible. God has told us from the very beginning, “I will do what I promise.” 

We called to mind some of those promises just a few weeks ago when, during the Easter Vigil, we listened to the stories of God’s saving deeds throughout history as we sat by the soft light of our candles. The story of God’s relationship with humanity is the story of God’s faithfulness to us. 

It is God who created the universe. It is God who set his bow in the clouds as a sign of his everlasting covenant with his people. It is God who renewed that same covenant with Abraham. It is God who led Israel to freedom from bondage through the Red Sea. 

It is God whose breath restored a valley of dry bones. It is God who calls prophets to forecast his new vision for the world. And it is God whose saving work is revealed in the resurrection of his son Jesus Christ.

Each year at the Vigil, we recount the stories of God’s saving acts throughout history as a means of recalling God’s loyalty—God’s faithfulness—to us, as we prepare to revel in our Easter joy. 

And revel in it we do—even today. Yes, we are physically distant, so we cannot break bread. But we gather anyway, to hear what the Spirit is saying to us through the Acts of the Apostles, the First Letter of Peter, the Gospel according to Luke, and, yes, even the words of Psalm 116. 

As I mentioned, it is somewhat ironic that the Easter spirit is particularly evident in the verses that the lectionary leaves out. Listen to verses seven and eight. “For you have rescued my life from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling. I will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living.” 

Perhaps there is a lesson for us here, in what is left out. 

We are, after all, a people forced to do without these days. Without hugs and kisses from our grandchildren. Without stopping to chat with a neighbor in the grocery store. Without commencement exercises. Without birthday parties. Without weddings and funerals. 

Without friends popping in for morning coffee, or evening refreshment. Without dinner parties. Without Tea on the Mountain. Without first-Sunday potlucks. Without the breaking of the bread at all. 

Perhaps we should take a moment right now, or this afternoon, or in the coming week, to think about the things that are left out. If we do, I wonder if we might experience what they mean to us in a whole new way. I wonder if we might realize that the grace of God that was present with us then is present with us still. 

I wonder if, when we think on these things, we might, like those early disciples, find our hearts burning within us. If we do, we just might realize that Christ is alive, proof positive that we will never, ever have to go without the faithfulness of God.

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.

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.

Always be . . .

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 20, 2019 – Luke 18:1-8 – Trinity, Winchester

There is a series of internet memes that begin, “Always be yourself…” Maybe you’ve seen them. Perhaps the most popular is “Always be yourself. Unless you can be Batman. Then always be Batman.”

It’s not without warrant. Batman is really, really cool. His car is epic, his house is massive, and his butler Alfred cooks all his meals.

We love this meme because it represents innocent, child-like fantasy. Can’t you just picture a kid saying, “I’m Batman!”?

Children have an uncanny ability to imagine that they are someone else. They pretend. They make believe. They take on the role and insert themselves into a story. All it takes is a blanket fashioned as cape and ¡voila! Batman.

Kids don’t just dress up for Halloween, they become whoever they dress up as–sometimes for weeks on end! I’m not going as an astronaut, I am an astronaut. I’m not going as a princess, I am a princess. I’m not going as a pirate, I am a pirate.

We adults can’t get away with that. Perhaps that’s why the meme is so compelling. We long for those care-free days when we had the time and imagination to be somebody else. All we can do now is be our boring ol’ selves.

We must, however, have retained some of this child-like ability because use it whenever we interpret a parable.

We’ll read a parable and stick ourselves right into it. We’ll read a parable and say that we are the prodigal son whenever we wander into sin. We’ll say that we are the sheep, hapless and hopeless on life’s journey. We’ll say we are servants, needful of wise counsel and tough love. And then we’ll say that the talents are our God-given gifts, which we must not hoard but invest boldly in God’s economy. 

We do this for good reason. Parables have layers of meaning. When we encounter something complex, our instinct is often to make it simpler. However, parables are not reducible to simple, easy-to-understand analogies. 

Parables are complex because our lives are complex. Their complexity is a virtue. It is just as impossible to derive a single moral lesson from a parable as it is to apply such a moral to any given life circumstance.

We do not have to be the widow in today’s parable. Nor does her relationship with the judge have to represent our relationship with God.

In fact, it shouldn’t. The judge is unjust. He has little regard for others. But we know God is not unjust. God does not relent to our prayers out of exasperation. God does not grant our desires just to get us off his back.

Likewise, what the widow is requesting of God—justice against an opponent—is not always what we request of God. Our prayers are not merely demands for justice. They certainly might be (and perhaps they sometimes should be) but prayer is more than that.

Prayer can also be a time for giving thanks, asking for guidance, or listening quietly for what God has to say. In just a few minutes we’ll pray, as we do every week, for the mission of the church, the welfare of the world, and the sick, the dying, and the dead.

Many of us have been studying the Bible a long time. We think we know how biblical interpretation works, but sometimes we get so focused on plugging ourselves—and God—into the parables that we forget to listen for what else the Spirit might be calling our attention to.

Taking ourselves out of the story can be helpful because it forces us to ask the more complex questions. If God is not the judge, and I am not the widow, then where is God in this story? And where am I?

I hate to break it to you, but God is not a character in the parable. And neither are you. But that’s okay, because God’s the one telling the parable. And you’re the one who’s listening. We don’t have to insert ourselves—or God—in the story to find meaning in it. We can simply be ourselves and listen with a little help from the Spirit.

I really do know a guy who used to pretend to be Batman. Now that he’s an adult, he no longer runs around with a blanket around his neck. But he can still listen to what Batman’s story has to tell him.

“It might sound silly,” he admitted recently, “But Batman is my biggest role model. He overcame intense childhood trauma, he manages a super successful company, he’s extremely philanthropic, and he puts himself in harm’s way to pursue justice totally anonymously. Plus, he still finds time to work out.” 

Likewise, you can be yourself and listen to what the widow’s story has to tell you. Today that story might inspire you to pursue justice. Or it might inspire you to persist in prayer. Or it might inspire you hire a good lawyer.

This morning I wonder if it also might inspire you to persist in listening for fresh meaning in scripture. 

The Book of Common Prayer tells us that scripture contains all things necessary for salvation. I actually believe that. But there is no one way to interpret what that salvation means. Our approach to it can and should be varied and open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

That’s why we pledge in baptism to commit ourselves to continually reading and studying scripture. Because we can’t get it all the first time. Scripture always has something new to tell us, even if we’re reading a story for what feels like the millionth time.

I’m not ignorant to the fact that many of you come to Bible Study on Tuesday afternoons. Keep it up. Neither am I ignorant to the fact that many of you cannot come to Bible Study on Tuesday afternoons. This is not a guilt trip. 

It’s a reminder. There is a reason that we call Jesus the Word of God. If we listen, we can find him in the words of scripture. Whether it be in the favor of a judge who rarely does the right thing, the persistence of a widow who has nothing to lose, or the deep, deep commitment of the reader, whose faith already dwells secure. 

Feeding on the grace of God

Saturday in Proper 17C – September 7, 2019 – Luke 6:1-5 – St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee

One sabbath while Jesus was going through the cornfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. But some of the Pharisees said, ‘Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ Jesus answered, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?’ Then he said to them, ‘The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’


The problem is not that the disciples are stealing the grain. (Travelers were allowed to take a bit for nourishment.) The problem is that they are harvesting it and threshing it, that is, plucking it and rubbing the chaff away in their hands.

That’s work, and according to God’s law, work is not allowed on the sabbath. It’s no wonder the Pharisees raise concerns. Resting on the sabbath defines Jewish identity. Along with table customs, it is part of the sacred piety of the Jews.

In response to their question, Jesus cites a biblical example of human need being considered before the law. Then he says, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

I must admit, hearing such a strong Christological statement at first made me nervous. It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with an authoritative Jesus. I’m just all too conscious that some confused preachers have corrupted his words in order to discount Jewish identity.

We are followers of Jesus. We should never be ashamed of that. We should rejoice in Christ and share him with the world, but not at the expense of the dignity of others.

Interpreting this passage to mean that all of God’s teachings before Jesus’ time are somehow irrelevant is nonsensical and problematic. We don’t simply want to say, “That’s all a bunch of baloney!” And I don’t think Jesus means for us to. On the contrary, God’s laws are important. To this day they shape Christian—and Jewish—culture.

Consider the context in which Luke wrote. The “Jesus movement” was in its infancy. Folks were still trying to make sense of it all, and many Jewish followers of Jesus weren’t sure whether or not to continue keeping Jewish customs.

Perhaps the Gospel writer is offering a response to such question. Following the law is not necessary to be a follower of Jesus. It can be done, but it’s not the primary identity marker of a Christian. The primary identity marker of a Christian is life in Christ. That means following Jesus and living like Jesus, who took on our human nature, lived a human life, and died a painful human death.

God loves us so much that he shares our journey with us—each of us—in the flesh. Jesus walks beside us along the way, just as he did his earliest disciples. And he wants what’s best for us, even if it does, from time to time, mean doing a little work on the sabbath. 

After all, we do need to eat. That’s why we’re here, isn’t it? Even on a Saturday morning, at the outset of the sabbath day, we gather to do the work of God’s people, to pluck a bit of living grain, not from the field but from the altar, and to feed on the grace of God. 

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – August 4, 2019 – Luke 12:13-21 – Christ Church, Alto

I’ve always thought this was one of Jesus’ more straightforward parables. 

Thinking only of himself and his future, a rich man stores up treasures on earth. Then, when he dies suddenly, God calls him a fool and asks, “The things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

The parable does not provide an answer to the question. Perhaps the question is rhetorical, or perhaps the author means for us to answer it. 

Let’s do! Who’s will those things be? No one’s, right? At the very least, it’s not clear—and that’s a problem! No one wants to die, leaving all their possessions in limbo. 

Perhaps his servants will go through his things, taking what they want. Maybe folks will come from all around to forage through his belongings before his next of kin have a chance to take an inventory. It reminds me of the scene in A Christmas Carol when the looters comb through Scrooge’s house before his body is even in the ground.

While whose this man’s possessions will be is not clear, one thing is: he can’t take them with him! What’s more, he’s made no provision to pass them on—to anyone! 

You and I are encouraged to make provisions for our material possessions. On page 445 of the Book of Common Prayer we are reminded to plan for the disposal of our temporal goods. It’s part of providing for our families, the church, and those on the margins of society. That’s precisely what this guy didn’t do! 

It’s not that he was inherently evil. It’s not that he was inherently hard-hearted or mean-spirited. It’s just that he was, well, exactly what God called him: foolish! He was foolish because he thought only of himself. He provided only for his own future. He planned on living a long time, being content and well-provided for. 

To a certain degree, that’s what we all want—health and happiness, especially in retirement. We want to enjoy our lives free from anxiety about money. There are financial advisors—yes, even ethical ones!—whose business it is to help us do just that. 

It’s not a bad thing to plan for your future, but it can be a foolish thing if you think only of yourself, making no provision for others.

The rich man was, as some might say, “#blessed.” He was privileged, made rich by the land, the seed, the rain, and likely the work of many servants. Yet he saw no need to “pay it forward,” to pass his blessings on to others less fortunate. 

The primary lesson of the parable is simple: think of others—particularly those in need. Think of those who are experiencing homelessness, poverty, sickness, hunger, mental illness, and addiction. Then, serve them!

At first blush we might think that this parable applies only to the richest among us. We are tempted to think that, because we don’t have large store houses of food, massive bank accounts, or well-diversified stock portfolios, we don’t have as big of a role to play in helping others. That’s simply not so. 

It’s true, Jesus told this parable in a certain context, to a man chiefly concerned with his inheritance. While most of God’s children don’t get an inheritance at all—at least not a monetary one—we can all still do our part to help those less fortunate than us. 

Far too many people on this earth, in this country, and even in this county, go to bed hungry. (And some don’t even have a bed.) Jesus calls all of us to help them, no matter how much money we make. 

It’s no secret that in the United States a relatively small number of God’s children control most of the country’s wealth. Their access to wealth gives them extraordinary power, and yes, they should set an example by helping the less fortunate, but that doesn’t mean it’s not our job, too. 

Sometimes our instinct is to ridicule and revile people of wealth, but I don’t think that’s what God has in mind. Notice in the parable that God’s judgement is not damnation. God doesn’t cast the rich man into the fires of hell. There is no mention of a place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

God calls the rich man a fool, but that’s not the same as condemnation. God’s just being honest, and in so doing God gives the man an education. That’s surely a sign that even the most foolish among us are capable of learning this lesson. Let’s go teach it!

We’ve all got to do our part. You may not be able to stroke a six-figure check to endow a food bank or eliminate medical debt or cover tuition expenses, but you can do something to support people in need.

You can volunteer our time. You can donate money, food, clothes, and household items. And you can always follow God’s example of being loving and compassionate, even to those who you don’t think deserve it. 

Has a person ever asked you for money while you’re walking down the street, or while you’re pumping gas, or as you’re hurrying across the parking lot? It’s very possible that you did not have any to give them. That’s okay. In the future the important thing is to ask yourself what you can do to help them.

Treat them like a human being. Look them in the eye. Pray with them. Point them in the direction of someone or someplace that has the resources they need. Wish them well (and mean it when you do). 

But be forewarned: these things may become a habit!

The one about Mary & Martha

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 21, 2019 – Luke 10:38-42 – Christ Church, Tracy City

This week I was reminded of what the preaching professor at The School of Theology always told us: when you preach, he said, you do so to a particular audience in a particular context. 

Broad-sweeping generalizations will never do. Each preaching event is unique. You can’t just take a sermon out of your files (not that my files are very extensive yet!) and give it to any ol’ congregation. 

This advice is good, but it’s not original. In fact, we first learned it from Jesus. Each time Jesus preached, he was aware of the specific needs of his particular hearers. When he taught, he did so conscious of his immediate context.

Luke chapter 10 provides us with a couple of examples of such instances. Last week we heard Jesus tell the parable of the “Good Samaritan.” 

A lawyer, well-schooled in Hebrew law, asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. The lawyer already new the answer. In fact, he quoted the commandment perfectly. 

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 

But Jesus took it one step further. Jesus taught the lawyer that simply knowing that he must love his neighbor, wasn’t enough. Jesus said, “You must go and do.” He taught the lawyer to put his love into action. 

Today we hear another familiar story. Martha is busy with her many tasks. She is distracted with all that she has to do. Jesus’ teaches Martha the value of stopping to listen. 

This is quite different from what the lawyer needed to hear. The lawyer needed to hear less about knowing and more about doing. He spent his whole life listening, learning, and acquiring knowledge. On the other hand, Martha, spending most of her time in active service, needed to be reminded to slow down and listen to the Word of God. 

Jesus understands that different people in different circumstances need to hear different messages, so his teaching is not always the same. It responds to the unique needs of individuals and audiences. 

To the lawyer, Jesus gave the example of a Samaritan who practices his love for his neighbor by an act of great mercy. To Martha, Jesus offers the example of her own sister, Mary. 

The example of Mary and Martha has taken on a life of its own. Some folks get caught up in who they imagine Mary and Martha to be. These imaginary characteristics tend to be analogous to their own personalities. 

I have heard some folks say, “I’m a Martha.” What they mean is, they are doers. They are the ones who see to the details. Plan. Prepare. Cook. Serve. Clean. 

Others say, “I’m a Mary.” They are totally at ease when they have company. They aren’t concerned about all the planning and organizing. They just want to sit back and soak it all in.

It’s completely fine to relate to biblical characters this way, but if you do, be careful not to cast yourself—or them—in too narrow a role. No one is entirely Mary or Martha. Each sister represents a part of your personality.

Living life like either Mary or Martha is not sufficient for a meaningful life. It takes both listening and doing, learning and service, knowledge and action.

When Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing” it’s easy to hear that as an absolute. “Forever and for all time there is need of only one thing: stop with your work and listen.” 

If we took this as a Christian absolute nobody in the church would ever get anything done. We would all the time be making up excuses and saying to each other, “Sorry, can’t cut the grass today, have to listen to Jesus.” 

“Help you paint the community building? Afraid not, have to read my Bible.” 

“Sorry, I’d love to go serve a hot meal down at the tent city, but I’m afraid I’m too busy sitting here basking in God’s creation.” 

No, it’s not like that at all. Slowing down and letting some of the details go was necessary for Martha on this specific occasion. On another occasion it might have been different. It’s not, “There is need of only one thing for all time.” It’s, “There is need of only one thing right now.” 

The one thing you are in need of now might be different from the one thing your neighbor is in need of. And your one thing might change from week to week, day to day, hour to hour. 

Today you might need to be spurred to action in your community. Or you might need to be encouraged to take a break and listen quietly for what God is calling you to do next. You might need to be comforted. You might need to be stretched outside of your comfort zone. 

Thank God—literally—that God sent Jesus guide us, to walk with us in our humanity, and to help us through our struggles, whatever they may be.

Whatever you need, Jesus is here for you in the hearing of the word, the saying of the prayers, and the breaking of bread. The best part is, you can take him into your heart, as both Mary and Martha did, carrying him with you wherever you go!

Love. Your. Neighbor.

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

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

You already know the story. 

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

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

Either way, you already know the story. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This community needs your example. 

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

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

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

The Anglican Church of Canada needs your example. 

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

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

The United States needs your example. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, nobody ever said love was easy.