Archives for December 2015

Joined by Jesus, Christmas 2 – 2016

[RCL] Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84 or 84:1-8; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

The Christmas season is a period in which the Church celebrates that God unites God’s self to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. At the very heart of Christmas is the birth of our divine Savior, Christ the Lord, who is the Word made flesh. As Christians, we believe that the Son of God took upon himself the fullness of our human nature and that at his conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary he received a human body of flesh and bone, a human heart to love, and a human mind to reason, think, and will. Indeed, following the teachings of the Holy Scriptures Christians affirm that Jesus is like us in all things except for sin.

Theologians call the belief that God became flesh “the Mystery of the Incarnation.” It is one of the key points of the Church’s faith as expressed by the Nicene Creed: “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate and was made man.” It is not a mystery in the sense of being any sort of secret. Rather, it is a mystery because its reality goes beyond our limited ability to understand it.

Today’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, the story of the flight into Egypt, illustrates some of the ways in which the Lord Jesus, in his humanity, identified himself with the faithful people of God in moments of both hardship and rejoicing.

First, Jesus identifies himself with the people of Israel. The passage from the second chapter of Matthew is chock-full of evocative words and names that are meant to make the reader remember the story of Israel’s sojourn in Egypt. Just as there is in the book of Genesis, here there is a Joseph who sees visions in his dreams and who leads the people to refuge in the land of Egypt. Like the story of the Exodus, here we find a Miriam, or Mary. There is even a Joshua, or Jesus, like we find in the book of Deuteronomy and in the story of the return to the Land of Promise as told in the book of Joshua. Even Herod’s wrath and seeking to kill the Holy Child echoes the pharaoh’s cruelty toward the Hebrew children. Such allusions to the story of the Old Testament are an intentional part of Matthew’s story about Jesus. By connecting Jesus to the story of the salvation of the covenant people, the Evangelist demonstrates how Jesus’ life and story are one with the life and the story of Israel. Matthew is telling us that Jesus is one with God’s covenant people because he has lived their history and their experience in his own flesh. Thus, one might say that Jesus is not simply Jewish; Jesus is the authentic embodiment of Israel.

Second, Jesus identifies himself with the promise to bring all nations, including the traditional enemies of Israel, into God’s Kingdom. The story of the flight in Egypt is a healthy reminder that God’s interest is not limited only to Israel. National borders do not limit God’s sovereign power. God looks upon the whole world and upon every nation and people. As the creator of the entire human race, the Christian God offers mercy and grace to Jews and Gentiles alike. Matthew seems to revel in the irony that the newborn Messiah was rejected by the King Herod of Judah but welcomed by Gentiles in Egypt. One might consider just how deep Jesus’ identification with the children of Egypt was. He spoke their language. He played their games and shared their friendship as children across the world do. Once again Egypt, too, has become holy ground. This was, perhaps, a first step toward the long promised reconciliation of the Gentiles to the creator. This was announced by the Hebrew prophets and was fulfilled in the eschatological vision of people from every race, language, and nation singing around the heavenly throne.

Third, with the Flight into Egypt Jesus, who later teaches, “blessed are the poor,” identifies himself with the poor and the marginalized of this world. It must never be forgotten that the Holy Family were on the run, that they were fleeing their homeland as victims of political persecution. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus lived as refugees in Egypt. They, like Abraham, Jacob, and his sons before them and like so many people in the world today, were exiles from their home and migrants in a foreign land. Christ, therefore, knows firsthand the experiences of the outcast, the foreigner, and the immigrant. He knows the trials of the refugee seeking safety and protection from the wrath and cruelty of evildoers and tyrants.

This experience of the flight into Egypt explains the force of Jesus’ teaching that whatever we do for the least of his brothers and sisters we do for him because he has made himself one with the marginalized. He has been the exile, the migrant, and the refugee. Therefore, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the exiled are things Christians rightly do to honor our Lord. Christians must identify with the poor and the exiled because Christ himself was counted among their number. We must serve the needy among us because in doing so we serve Jesus Christ who loves all people. As the Apostle James wrote in the first century, “true religion is to care for widows and orphans in their distress.”

During the Christmas season it is also important to recall that Jesus identified himself with the joys of our celebrations. In Matthew’s telling of the flight into Egypt, Jesus does not only suffer the hardship of exile. He also experiences the joy of coming home. The joy of returning to one’s homeland is a regular theme in the message of the Hebrew prophets that can be seen from today’s lesson from the prophet Jeremiah: “He who scattered Israel will gather him…for the Lord has ransomed Jacob from hands too strong for him. They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion…and they shall never languish again.” This is a joyous celebration that God brings God’s children home. This experience of return further signals Jesus as the one who embodies the life of Israel. It suggests something of the great expectation that God will provide a definitive return to the life of justice and peace in his divine kingdom, as Matthew suggests by his citation of the prophet Hosea: “Out of Egypt have I called my Son.”

The return from exile in Egypt reminds us that Christ also understands the human need for celebration. We rejoice in God’s blessings. We rejoice in hopes fulfilled. The desires to sing and to dance, to laugh and to rejoice are not foreign to our Lord. After all, these expressions of joy and happiness are a powerful part of what it is to be human, to be fully human as Jesus Christ was and is. In the mystery of the incarnation, God shares this human joy in all its fullness.

The incarnation of Christ therefore provides the Church with a powerful reason to celebrate. Not only is it that, “the Word become flesh and dwelt among us,” but by becoming of a human being Christ has united himself to the human race and made us members of his own family. Christ Jesus has joined the human family by virtue of his birth from the Virgin Mary, and we have joined the household of God by believing in his one and eternal Son.

Today the Church rejoices, as we hear from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, that: “We have been adopted by God the Father as children through Jesus Christ to the praise of his glorious grace and that we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.” We celebrate that we, too, have become sons and daughters of God, true brothers and sisters of Christ. We rejoice that God’s grace has been lavished upon on us and that the same love that fills Jesus’ heart has been poured into our own hearts to give us new life. We rejoice that our sins have been forgiven and that we have been redeemed by the blood of the Savior. Therefore, let every heart celebrate God’s mercy and the gift of his Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

Download the sermon for Christmas 2 C.

Written by The Reverend Dr. John J. Lynch
The Rev. Dr. John J. Lynch is the rector of Christ the King Episcopal Church in Yorktown, Virginia, having previously served in the Diocese of Honduras. He is also the Province III Chaplain to the Order of the Daughters of the King. In addition to his pastoral responsibilities, Father Lynch writes and publishes the Spanish-language blog “El Cura de Dos Mundos”.

Confusing the Sacred and the Profane, Christmas 1 – 2015

[RCL] Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. – John 1:14

When much of the world might think of this time as a great chance to get sales and deals or to catch up on sleep after relatives have left and to gear up for the New Year, this is a very different time for the Church. For the Church, this is the beginning of a short and nonetheless highly important season, the season of Christmas. This season gives us a sense of the expanse of time between Jesus’ birth and some of the other important events that happened around it. More importantly, this season also gets us in touch with the fact that the incarnation was not something that occurred just in the moment of conception or in the moments of delivery. Rather, the incarnation was something that unfolded over a great amount of time, since the beginning. It is this connection to the beginning that John, whose “account” of the incarnation we read today, was referring to. So let us return to John’s words. With God’s help, we will find ourselves more deeply immersed in the great mystery of Jesus Christ and his presence on Earth.

Most people who have grown up in the Episcopal or many other Christian churches will have heard the phrase: “and the Word became flesh and lived among us,” quite a few times. Compared to the pageant-worthy accounts in Matthew and Luke this seems quite unexciting. It is certainly lacking great imagery on the surface. Nonetheless, it becomes more interesting with a closer review of what these words mean and how significant they are. Another way to translate the phrase that gives us a closer experience to that of the original listeners is to say, “The Word became flesh and pitched a tent amidst us.” Taking into account how these words would have resonated with the present and past of the Jewish-Christian communities that gathered around these Gospel accounts will help us get a sense of how Jesus’ coming in turned ideas about what is sacred and what is mundane completely upside down.

So where does the ‘tent’ connection really come from? Linguistically and conceptually a ‘dwelling’ for the Jewish people was a tent. To dwell with was to pitch a tent. Long before Jesus was born in Bethlehem and long before the Jews built their Temple, they were a moving people who lived in tents. As they moved they carried the Ark of the Covenant, which held the Ten Commandments, with them and they believed God was present with the Ark. Some distance from where they pitched their own tents, they erected a super-tent, called the Tabernacle, for God. This tent had rooms, walls, incense, furniture, a garden and a clear barrier around the outside. When God’s cloud was on the tent no one was allowed in there. Otherwise, only certain men, the descendants of Aaron, were allowed in there at all. Even they could only enter after they offered a sacrifice for their own sins and took a special bath, or they could die. You see, by making God’s tent so different, so far away, and so exclusive they were making it pretty clear that their lives, their ordinary selves, where they lived and what they did were mundane, even profane. Only the exclusive people, places, and things were Holy and worthy of God.

With this in mind, we can see just how Christ turned this all upside down in his coming. While the Tabernacle was a super-tent with rooms and furniture, Christ “pitched his tent” in a stable or barn. The Tabernacle was apart from where others stayed, whereas Christ stayed in an overcrowded inn in the middle of town. One could easily argue that Christ incarnated a highly undesirable and unclean space, in the opposite space from the select area the tabernacle would have been. While only certain men, ritually cleaned, could enter God’s other tent, dirty shepherds and even animals got to share Jesus’ first intimate moments. The mundane and profane people and circumstances that were excluded from the Tabernacle were the exact people and circumstances included and recognized as Holy in the presence of Christ.

As we, as the Body of Christ, seek to follow in his example in this way it is important that we realize that it isn’t about making the Holy less Holy or less valued. Rather, it’s about recognizing the holiness in the everyday and drawing that forth. We are in a world where the lines between the ordinary and the special, the profane and the sacred are heavily drawn. If we as the church are to truly be people of the incarnation, we must at the very least challenge these distinctions and at best remove them altogether. We must do so out of our deep faith and understanding that all creation is suitable, inhabitable and thus somehow inhabited by God. How do we do this?

We can approach this work in a number of ways. The places we worship and other sacred spaces offer great opportunities for this. Through prayer we make these spaces Holy and bring forth their inherent spiritual beauty. By inviting and encouraging other kinds of meetings, fellowship gatherings, mutual support functions, and even parties with dancing, we can begin to unlock and reveal just how wonderful and sacred it is to be able to share these moments with others. By doing so in our places of worship we then change the way we regard these activities wherever they may occur.

We can also accomplish this through changing the ways that we approach and consider the routine things in our lives. From the time we spend brushing our teeth to our daily carpool and other regular appointments, we can bring forth the divine aspects of time by bringing more intentionality and paying attention to the ways that God’s presence manifests. So much of this comes down to being more intentional and practicing gratitude in all that we do. In doing so, we’ll find that in a sense of holiness will pervade our lives more deeply. We’ll find ourselves more able to recognize the ways that God is incarnating within our lives.

That leads to the most central part of this work, prayer. For it is in prayer and reflection that we enable ourselves to notice God birthing around us. And so let us all take the time, through this Christmas Season and beyond if possible, to consider all that we do notice as we remind ourselves of God’s Holy Presence everywhere. In doing so, we’ll help these Holy moments last well beyond the day or even the liturgical season of Christmas. In doing so, we’ll make them part of our entire lives and beyond. Amen.

Download the sermon for Christmas 1C.

Written by The Reverend Edwin Johnson

Wrecking Church, Christmas Eve – 2015

[RCL] Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14(15-20); Psalm 96

The late bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts, The Right Rev. Thomas Shaw, posted a series of videos on YouTube called “A Monk in the Midst.” He was a brother of the Society of St. John the Evangelist as well as being an Episcopal bishop. He spoke in one of these videos about an encounter he had with a man named Fred and his six-year-old son Sam about what they were going to do on Christmas. The father explained that they would get up and open their presents on Christmas morning and then go to church. The son replied, “Church?! On Christmas? We’re going to go to church on Christmas?” Fred patiently explained, “Of course, that’s what Christmas is all about. It’s about Jesus’ birth and God coming to us.” Sam said, “I know, I know, I know! But Christmas! Church wrecks everything!” The church wrecks everything. Yes, yes it does and tonight we come here to encounter not only the church that wrecks everything, but also the child who was born to wreck everything.

It may sound a bit odd in the face of our culture’s approach to Christmas and even disquieting in an age where terrorism dominates the news cycle. But we dare not forget the scandal of both the cradle and the cross and be lulled by the culture’s attempts to sentimentalize Christmas. We all do it and to be honest, it even happens in the church.

Think for a moment about how our own hymnody conspires to tame this feast day into something more palatable and … dare we even say … nice. Consider the opening of the beloved carol O Little Town of Bethlehem, “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.” Lovely words from Phillips Brooks but if we think about the tumultuous history of the Middle East, imaging Bethlehem as peaceful more expresses a longing than an historical reality. And what about Away In A Manger telling us, “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes?” No crying? Any nurse or doctor would call that a zero on the Apgar score and would start resuscitation attempts immediately. Seriously, these images may just be conspiring to sentimentalize the scandal of Christmas.

What about those emotional expectations of the holidays? You know, those happy family get-togethers that often don’t turn out so great or the longing for an estranged relationship to magically get better and be resolved in some kind of Christmas miracle. Of course, there’s the cultural pressure to over consume. Whether it’s going overboard with buying presents and dreading the credit card bill in January or over-eating and drinking and dreading what the scale will tell you in January. Between sentimentality, emotional burdens, and unrealistic cultural expectations, perhaps we need this child of God to wreck what we’ve made of Christmas.

The reality is we come together this night to pay honor to the one who came to wreck all of that, the one who came to wreck everything! This child’s birth was the plan of a subversive God who snuck into the back door of history on a mission to wreck everything. Coming as one of us – vulnerable, poor, and powerless – he came to upend the world as we have constructed it.

He came to wreck our selfishness and narcissism, so that we might be able to love God and others and to receive that love in return. He came to wreck our fear of death, so that we might be able to live more fully and freely in this life. He came to wreck the political systems which choose who is in and who is out, so that all of God’s children would be included in the kingdom. He came to break down our tendency of tribalism pitting one group against another. Oh yes, we still organize ourselves into tribes; we just call them political parties, ethnic groups, or faith traditions now. He came to break down our economy of values to build a different one based on valuing the eternal rather than things that pass away. He came to break down our ideas of family to embrace a wider vision of God’s family, which includes all people, not just the ones like us. Yes, he came to wreck every structure we try to build which puts us first at the expense of everyone else. As he would later tell his followers, he came not to be served but to serve. And he calls us to follow in his path.

This is no small thing. For 2000 plus years, people have come together to mark the birth of Christ as God’s subversive way of dwelling among us and wrecking everything for the sake of bringing about something greater than we could ask for or imagine. To mark a vision of the kingdom of God unfolding right here in our midst regardless of our fears or of the conflict we may be experiencing. May this holy child, this holy one man wrecking crew, disrupt your life this season so that he might plant the grace of God in your heart and you may come to know Christ’s love. 

Download the sermon for Christmas Eve C.

Written by The Reverend Anjel Scarborough
The Reverend Anjel Scarborough is the rector of Grace Church, Brunswick MD. She is wife, mother, iconographer, writer and retreat leader.

People of the Incarnation, Christmas Day – 2015

[RCL] Isaiah 62:6-12; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20; Psalm 97

 Light has sprung up for the righteous, and joyful gladness for those who are truehearted! Rejoice in the Lord, you righteous, and give thanks to God’s holy name! (Psalm 97)

Christmas Day in our churches has a different kind of light than Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is all stars and brightness, angels and adoration and Glory to God in the Highest! Christmas Day is quieter. In the December morning light, we’re left with the holy family after the angels and shepherds have departed. We’re left with Mary, to treasure all that has occurred and ponder in our hearts. Everything has changed. Quite literally, the incarnation of Jesus Christ has changed everything.

In the encounter of the angels and the shepherds, we’ve witnessed a coming together of heaven and earth, joining Joseph and Mary to witness a miracle. This miracle is more than an encounter between human and divine, such as Mary experienced in the Annunciation or the shepherds experienced in the appearance of the angel. In the infant Jesus, the boundaries between heaven and earth have dissolved. By Christ’s incarnation – his life as a human being among other human beings – the divine crossed into the human realm.

Over and over again in the gospels, in the witness of the life and words of Jesus Christ, we encounter this intersection of human and divine, until his death and resurrection when the man Jesus crosses into the divine realm. Birth and death are threshold events for us as mortal beings, crossing between earthly and eternal life. But in Jesus, it’s not a question of crossing back and forth. It’s a question of being both at once, a unity of the human and the divine for all eternity. A very big idea: eternity. Yet made concrete in a newborn child. This is the miracle that we ponder with Mary on this Christmas Day.

We might ponder the reason for the miracle. Why? What is the purpose of this miracle of incarnation?

Prophets and theologians have pondered this for millennia. In today’s readings, both Isaiah and Paul speak of salvation. Isaiah proclaims, “See, your salvation comes.” Paul writes in the letter to Titus, “When the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us.”

What is salvation exactly? Salvation can be defined as deliverance from sin and sin’s consequences. For the ancient Hebrews, salvation was deliverance from exile in Egypt, and later from Babylon into the Promised Land. For Christians through the millennia, salvation has been embodied in Jesus Christ who brought the kingdom of God to earth and who will ultimately, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and God’s kingdom will have no end.”

Anglican theologians have pondered the incarnation too, of course. For William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War, the incarnation was significant because God left heaven and entered the course of human history to be an example for human life. Temple’s social ethics and his entire worldview follow from this theological understanding of the incarnation. Temple believed and expected that because of the incarnation, social transformation is both needed and possible. That it is the church’s right and duty to call for social change and that the church must play a role in public life. The incarnation impacts our lives. Because of the incarnation we are called to build the kingdom of God on earth. We are called to love and serve those in need. Salvation here and now – salvation in history – is achieved by faith and our actions. The church has a role to play in attaining salvation. Temple wrote, “The Church must announce Christian principles and point out where the existing social order at any time is in conflict with them. It must then pass on to Christian citizens acting in their civic capacity, the task of re-shaping the existing order in closer conformity to the principles.”

Twentieth-century Anglican laywoman and mystic Evelyn Underhill was also deeply committed to the theology of the incarnation. She writes about “continuing incarnation,” offering our lives as a means for achieving the kingdom, God’s work on earth, by weaving together our inner and outer lives through prayer and action.

So, what then are the implications of the incarnation for the mission of the church here and now? Let us ponder with Mary on the morning of Christ’s birth. The incarnate Christ was both God and human. As we human beings seek to become united with God through prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, let us also seek to become united with our fellow human beings through community and action in community. Salvation is achieved through faith and our actions. We are called to remember the poor and the oppressed, the weak, the weary, the prisoners, the homeless, and the displaced.

We can’t all do everything, but at least each one of us can do something about one particular agony in the world. We can take one step outside of the circle of the familiar towards knowledge and reconciliation with the unfamiliar. We can love God in Christ Jesus by loving our neighbors, crossing the street and meeting a stranger. Even better, you can take the hand of someone in your church community and cross the street together. And then join in community and offer openhearted hospitality to a stranger’s community.

As individuals and as the Church – the body of Christ – we are called to build the kingdom of Heaven on earth. The apostle Paul tells us that the kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The prophet Micah tells us that all God requires of us is to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. We are called to pray, to faithfully reflect on our responsibility to God and our neighbor, and to act for justice and reconciliation. We are called to participate in Christ’s rescuing mission in the world. Let us commit to being people of the incarnation. Let us go forth into the world to love and serve with gladness and singleness of heart, looking for the opportunity to do the work of God on earth. As we leave church on this Christmas morning, let us accept the invitation to ponder a step toward bringing the kingdom of God to earth. What one particular agony in your world, community, neighborhood, or family can you do something about today?

Let us pray. Gracious God, grant that we may be travelers like Joseph and Mary, searching for a place for God to rest in love. Grant that we may be messengers like the angel of the Lord, bringing good news of great joy to all the people. Grant that we may be worshippers like the heavenly host, praising God and saying glory to God in the highest heaven. Grant that we may be believers like the shepherds, hastening to witness a miracle. Grant that we may be contemplative as Mary, pondering the meaning of the incarnation in our hearts. Grant that we may have the temerity to risk offering our lives as a means to do God’s work on earth, as it is in heaven. Amen.

Download the sermon for Christmas Day C.

Written by Susan Butterworth
Susan Butterworth is a Master of Divinity candidate at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her area of special competency is Anglican, Global, Ecumenical and Interfaith Studies. She is currently an intern with the Lutheran Episcopal Ministry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is in the process of writing a thesis and planned book on the anti-apartheid work of the Anglican dean of Johannesburg Cathedral, Gonville ffrench-Beytagh.