Archives for 2016

Think Again, Epiphany 3(A) – January 22, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 5-13; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

Today is January 22nd and we are just about three weeks into 2017. Did you make any resolutions this year? If you did, how are they holding up?

New Year’s resolutions can be big or small. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • This year, I will eat less, drink less, exercise more.
  • This year, I will put down my phone and pay attention to the people around me.
  • This year, I will find a place to volunteer and make a difference in the world.

Making a New Year’s resolution is a kind of repentance. We make New Year’s resolutions because we recognize our ongoing need for conversion to the new life of God’s Kingdom. We know that we aren’t living up to the full potential God is calling us to. We are sorry for falling short, and we promise to do better in the future.

Now that three weeks have passed, we may already have to repent for not living up to the resolutions we made. But that’s okay: God always accepts our repentance. As long as we continue to turn toward God, God will be there to welcome us.

There’s more to repentance than personal conversion, however. Being sorry and promising to be better is part of it, but it isn’t the whole picture. In fact, the “being sorry” part of repentance really isn’t going to help you change your ways until you get an idea of what that the bigger picture is.

Let’s consider the word in the Gospel that is translated “repent.” The Greek word Jesus uses is “metanoia” (met-an’-oy-ah). “Meta” is a preposition that can be translated many different ways, but usually it means “after.” “Noia” is a verb and means “to think,” “to perceive.” Put them together and you have something like, “to think after,” “to see after.”

But—after what? The interesting thing about this word—about repentance—is that the word itself implies a two-way street. Repentance isn’t just something we do to or for God. We aren’t able to do it—to repent—until after God comes to us and opens our eyes and enables our response. Only then are we able “to think after.” Perhaps the English phrase that catches the meaning best is “to think again.” God enables us to think again about our actions, to think better about them, and to change our ways going forward.

In the Gospel of Matthew today, Jesus announces the beginning of his ministry with the words, “Repent! For the Kingdom of heaven has come near.” Or as we might translate it: “Think again! God’s Kingdom is almost here.”

This declaration is the starting point for all of Jesus’ teaching. Everything that comes after grows out of his idea that God’s Kingdom is coming to displace the Kingdoms of the world that have perpetuated injustice and impoverished God’s people.

Jesus comes out of the wilderness proclaiming this message, but we aren’t really told to whom. The assumption that most people make is that repentance is primarily a personal matter: I had better repent of my own personal sin. And of course, we had better— we are all better off when we do repent. But in this passage, “repentance” is not the message Jesus brings to individuals. Individuals like Peter and Andrew and James and John (and perhaps, you and me) get a different message: “Follow me.”

So then, who is the recipient of the “repent” message? Think again—the kingdom of heaven has come near! There is a challenge in this pronouncement. Who is Jesus really telling to step aside? It isn’t the common people, like Peter and John, the people down on the ground. The coming of God’s Kingdom is good news for the poor.

The person who’s got to be worried if a new king shows up is the old king. In this case it was Caesar, the Emperor of Rome, and all of Caesar’s client kings and subordinate rulers and hangers-on who benefited from his reign. Now why would Caesar need to think again?

This is a good question, and its answer is tied to another question you may be asking: why exactly were Peter and Andrew and John and the others so eager to quit fishing for fish and start fishing for people? It seems remarkable how quickly they respond to Jesus’ invitation. “Follow me,” Jesus says, and Matthew tells us, “immediately they left their nets and followed him.” They give up their livelihoods without a second thought to follow an itinerant preacher around the Galilean countryside.

This response is remarkable, but maybe not as remarkable as it seems. For us, of course, if we think of fishing at all, we are much more likely to think of a sunny mountain stream or a lazy afternoon on a boat. But Peter and Andrew and John weren’t fishing for sport—they were fishing to survive. They were merely cogs in the economy of the Roman Empire. In fact, fishermen were so heavily taxed for the right to fish the sea of Galilee that their backbreaking labor netted them just enough to survive, but little else.

You can begin to see why Jesus was put to death by the Roman authorities as a political revolutionary: the first act of his ministry was to tell the Emperor to “think again,” and in the next moment, to liberate some of the cogs in the Emperor’s great machine.

The Roman Empire seems long ago and far away—something fantastical and unreal that we know only from television and movies. The real Roman Empire wasn’t a good place to be a peasant. By Jesus’ time it was a totalitarian domination system. Which we like to think has nothing to do with us, safe in our modern western democracy.

Nevertheless, the picture God is trying to reveal to us through these stories from long ago—part of the thing that will help us “think again” and maybe alter our course—is that concentrated wealth and power still tend to be bad news for those at the bottom of the economic system.

There are still powers and rulers in our world today, in government or in business, who abuse their position to benefit themselves and their friends, to the detriment of the vast majority of God’s people. How are we to resist these powers? Especially when most of us benefit in some way because the system is set up the way it is. Can we build a world where resources are shared and not hoarded? Where God’s love and God’s justice rule? Where Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of heaven becomes a reality?

Jesus is calling us to join in this work. His invitation today is: Follow me. It is up to us to build God’s Kingdom, and Jesus tells us that we can. When we repent. When we think again. Every time we open our hands and hearts to share God’s abundance with those in need brings God’s Kingdom closer. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask for it—your Kingdom come on earth, as in heaven.

Amen.

Written by The Rev. Jason Cox. Cox has served as associate rector at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., since 2011. Prior to working at St. Columba’s, he directed the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, a year-long service and discernment program for young adults, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Before ordination, he served as an intern in the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, working with homeless clients in a transitional housing facility on L.A.’s skid row.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 3(A).

There Goes a Lamb, Epiphany 2(A) – January 15, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

Winston Churchill once called his political opponent “a sheep in sheep’s clothing.”

At least for much of the 19th Century popular art, hymnody and poetry tended to portray Jesus as “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” Part of the problem would seem to be that we confuse love with sentimentality. Social media, for all its wonders, seems to have fueled concepts of anger and love, easily protected by a firewall of separation from physical contact. Pictures of cute little kittens fight for screen space with graphic videos of atrocities. “False news’ stimulates belief, particularly among those who haven’t received basic training on how truth should be distinguished from falsehood.

So when Jesus walked by and John announced to his followers, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! “, what were they to make of such an improbable claim? If they had the slightest familiarity of their faith and religious tradition, two words stood out. They were “lamb” and “sins.”

The edifice of first century Judaism was based on two traditions. The older, the one that placed the Temple center stage, invoked memories of their father Abraham, as he attempted to offer his wife Sarah’s only son Isaac as a human sacrifice. In the story God’s messenger instructed Abraham to substitute an available animal, a goat, for his son. The story has many nuances, but its most important is the step it makes from barbarism to a more benign concept of substitution. God was going to accept an animal, albeit one in mint condition, as a blood offering by which the person, family, tribe or nation were “atoned”, made one with their Creator. Around this system grew the Tabernacle and then the Temple cult, supervised by an hereditary priesthood descended from Moses’ brother-in-law Aaron.

The second vital part of Jewish religion in the days of Jesus was the synagogue system. The Old Testament tells the story of Israel, torn apart, situated between aggressive world powers, conquered again and again. The conquering powers sought to cower the Jewish people by destroying its visible connection with God. Those Jewish people taken hostage “by the waters of Babylon” not only wept; they gathered together to hear their Scriptures read by authorized teachers. In first century Palestine Temple worship, with its substitutionary sacrifices, situated in Jerusalem, jostled together with synagogue practice, hearing and receiving the Scriptures and applying them to daily life.

Note how today’s Gospel brings together these two practices, not in a theory, but in a Person. Jesus is the sacrificial lamb, “who died that we might be forgiven, who died to make us good.” Jesus is also Rabbi, the authorized teacher, in whom God’s law is renewed and applied to the new citizens in his chosen nation.

If you are up to date with the never-ending church squabbles about how Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross is a substitute for our sins, our family sins, the Church’s sins and that “of the whole” world, the important point is that God knows how this is true.

Our minds are best focused on the Eucharist, rather than on theories of how Atonement works; on a Person rather than a theory.

In the Holy Meal, we re-member. We bring to life in the here and now, the sacrifice, once offered for the sins of the whole world. We eat and drink, ingest, the life of Jesus, the Lamb of God.

Before we reach that point in the service, we hear Jesus the Rabbi, the authorized teacher, expounding to us God’s law, the words Jews heard at the time of Jesus and the words Christians have heard since the time of Jesus. And we corporately confess our misdeeds, missteps and flirtations with evil.

We do so as God’s community of priests, as we stand between God and the human race, the nations, the Church, our families and ourselves.

Sitting in your pew this morning, look up, and with the mind of faith see the Lamb of God, the one you call Rabbi, and in your hearts pray, “ Have mercy on us. Grant us peace.”

Written by The Rev. Anthony Clavier. Clavier is Vicar of St. Thomas’ Church, Glen Carbon, with St. Bartholomew’s, Granite City, IL. He is also co-Editor of The Anglican Digest.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 2(A).

The Baptism of Our Lord, Epiphany 1(A) – January 8, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

God, our strength and our hope, grant us the courage of John the Baptist, constantly to speak the truth and boldly to rebuke injustice, with eyes open to recognize God among us.

We are in the season of Epiphany, the season of growing light, the season of the Magi and the revelation of Christ to all the nations, the season when we celebrate Christ’s baptism, and the miracle of the wedding at Cana. The season when we celebrate Christ as the light of the world. A time to reflect on mission and unity.

In today’s gospel passage from Matthew, we read the story of an encounter between John the Baptist and Jesus. Who was John the Baptist? Why was he baptizing at the Jordan River, and why was Jesus there?

John is considered a historical figure who is included in the accounts of the contemporary historian Josephus. According to Josephus, John was a popular prophet and holy man who was a contemporary of Jesus. Herod was afraid that his popularity might lead to an uprising and had him imprisoned, and later killed. John is recognized by Christians as the prophet foretold to prepare the way of the Lord. His life is closely linked with that of Jesus. The celebration of the birth of John the Baptist, six months before Christmas Eve, may be the oldest commemoration of a saint, dating back at least to 500 C.E. when the feast was celebrated much like Christmas in the early church.

Let’s start by noting that John did not invent baptism. In the book of Leviticus, God instructed the people of Israel to cleanse themselves from impurities, especially before sacrificing in the temple. Ritual cleansing before approaching God was a part of Jewish life. Special pools called mikvehs were constructed for the purpose. Immersion in a natural body of water, especially flowing water, could effect the ritual of purification. Archaeological remains of mikvehs from the time of John and Jesus have been uncovered in Israel and in other ancient Jewish communities.

The Jewish world in first century Judea was diverse. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were two sects of established temple religion, while the Essenes were a renewal movement that lived an ascetic life in the desert at Qumran, in opposition to what they saw as the corruption of Jerusalem and the temple. After centuries of oppressive rule by foreign powers, the Essenes heard the words of the prophet Isaiah, and looked for the promised Messiah. Life in the desert community protested the worldliness and corruption of Jewish worship in Jerusalem, and the oppressive, colonial rule of the Romans. The Essene rule of life placed emphasis on purity, ritual bathing, and obedience to God’s commandments, to be ready for the coming of the Messiah and God’s kingdom. The ruins at Qumran include the mikveh for ritual immersion. It has been speculated that John the Baptist was a member of the Essene community; certainly he had some beliefs and practices in common with the Essenes.

Thus John, like Jesus, was a Jewish man who led a renewal movement within Judaism. People were deeply stirred by the words, deeds, and example of the holy man, John. Picture a revival meeting, down by the river, folks wading into the water to proclaim the renewal of their faith, emerging clean and ready to encounter God. A popular movement, from the grassroots, countering what they considered to be the corruption and petrification of the religious structure of temple worship centered in Jerusalem. Jesus may have been a follower of John; certainly he would have heard of John and his message of repentance; he traveled all the way from Galilee to the Judean desert to be baptized by him. John had a genuine calling to ministry, one that Jesus recognized and sought out.

In turn, John recognizes Jesus’ ministry. Indeed John says he is not worthy to carry Jesus’ sandals, and hesitates to baptize one whom he recognizes as God’s anointed. But Jesus respects John’s ministry, and he insists: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

Jesus comes up from the waters of baptism, his faith and purpose renewed and sealed, ready to begin his public ministry. And God’s spirit descends on him like a dove, and God’s voice, echoing the prophecy of Isaiah, says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” John and Jesus have acted together in obedience to God. Encouraged by John and anointed by God, Jesus is ready to follow the straight path that has been laid for him.

God is certainly pleased that Jesus is ready to commit to a mission and ministry of justice. Perhaps he is also pleased that Jesus and John have come together. The two ministries were inter-related. Both preached a message of repentance and renewal, freedom and justice. In John 2: 35-42, we learn that Jesus’ first two disciples were drawn from the followers of John the Baptist. In John 3: 22-30, we find John and Jesus baptizing side by side. They share a common message, criticizing corruption and calling for the cleansing of public life. They urge their followers to live a life worthy of the kingdom of God.

For Christians, baptism is a public proclamation of faith and intention to live a life that pleases God. When we renew our baptismal vows, we promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, to resist evil, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.

It is no coincidence that the World Council of Churches’ Week of Prayer for Christian Unity occurs during the season of Epiphany, with its themes of mission, unity, cooperation, and ecumenism. During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, congregations and parishes all over the world exchange preachers or arrange special ecumenical celebrations and prayer services.

We can easily imagine a pulpit exchange between Jesus and John. Perhaps we can envision ourselves joining in that special ecumenical prayer service and celebration of common baptismal vows of faith, respect, justice, and peace.

Together we might promise to renew our commitment to our covenant as God’s people, to repent of our blindness, to rejoice that God sent Jesus to be the light of the nations, to show us the way of justice for all.

Together we might go forth, delighting God, delighted by God, strengthened in our own ministry and mission to live and work in hope, unity, and peace.

Let us close with the lyrical language of Isaiah 42: Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

Gracious God, we thank you for your anointing in the waters of baptism, for your powerful voice, for your strength, and for your blessing of peace and unity.

(To the people): Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

(Response): I WILL, WITH GOD’S HELP.

Amen.

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.  

Download the sermon for Epiphany 1(A).

Fearless Following, Epiphany (A) – January 6, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Dr. Margee Kerr is a sociologist who studies fear. She and other experts who write about how to keep New Year’s resolutions say that the secret to keeping resolutions is not to follow most people’s usual approach. Most people’s usual approach is to think about how we’re deficient, inadequate, unsuccessful, and try really, really hard to be different this year.

Instead, Kerr says we need to confront the fears that keep us from achieving our goals—confront them, figure out if the fear is rational, and then take steps to overcome the fear.[i] Overcoming fear gets us on the path to meaningful change.

Whether or not we’ve made new year’s resolutions this year, whether or not confronting our fears can help us keep them, when we hear today’s Gospel lesson, we get to see fearlessness in action. We get to see how fearlessness in seeking the holy leads to freedom and joy.

First a little background on these fearless worshippers from afar. Contrary to the familiar hymn,[ii] in Matthew’s gospel, they aren’t kings, and Matthew doesn’t tell us how many there are. The idea that there were three of them probably comes from the three gifts they bring. What we know about magi before the Christian tradition is that as early as about six hundred years before Matthew writes his gospel, magi are known as a group of religious experts in Persia.[iii] Classical sources show them advising kings, performing religious rituals, watching the stars, and interpreting dreams.[iv]

They are called kings starting about four or five hundred years after Matthew’s Gospel.[v] This description fit nicely for Christians as a fulfillment to passages in the Old Testament, like in our Psalm for today: “The kings of Arabia and Saba will offer gifts; all kings will bow down before him” (Psalm 72:10-11) and our lesson from Isaiah: “Nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isaiah 60:3).

By the sixth century, the wise men had been given names and descriptions, often seen in artistic representations. One is named Caspar, meaning “Treasurer,” and is imagined as a beardless young man. Melchior means “King of Light,” or “King of the City,” and is portrayed as a bearded old man. Balthasar means “God protect the king,” and is portrayed as a black man.[vi] By the eighth century, the three magi represent three continents—Asia, Africa, and Europe—what was then the whole known world, coming to worship Jesus. [vii] This global depiction fits well with Matthew’s story of the first Gentiles, the first non-Jews, coming to worship Jesus, the one in whom all humanity can know the grace, mercy, joy, and perfect love that casts out fear that comes from God.

So, in what ways are the magi fearless?

We just have to start with this one: the wise men are not afraid to stop and ask for directions. If you prefer, they are not afraid to ask for help, get more information. They may have special abilities, like noticing and tracking an unusual star, but they don’t neglect the use of basic common sense. Looking for a king? Go to the king’s house. Ask for help there. “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” they ask when Herod’s butler answers the palace door. “We observed his star, and here we are, ready to do him homage.”

When Herod hears about this, he is terrified. King of the Jews? I’m the King of the Jews! Herod thinks. The position is filled. There is a young pretender to my throne out there somewhere. Herod is scared, but he knows where to go for more information. He knows scripture will have the details he and the wise men need.

This is important. The wise men know something of God’s grace through nature. Through the appearance of the star, they know that the Christ has been born, but their knowledge from nature alone is incomplete. They need scripture to tell them where. By the star’s guiding, they’ve gotten close—they’re about nine miles away from Bethlehem—but experiencing God through nature isn’t enough. They don’t know enough to get to the full manifestation of God. They don’t know enough to be able to truly worship.

On the other hand, Herod can get a room full of Bible scholars together and still not truly worship. One can memorize verses from the Bible, but miss the Gospel, the Good news of God’s redeeming love for all people in Jesus Christ.

Notice Herod doesn’t question the authenticity of the star. He doesn’t question the authenticity of the scripture. But he is so certain of his own importance that he won’t even go with the magi to see the child for himself. He is so worried about safe-guarding his own power, that he won’t even go and see the one who may be the long-awaited Messiah. He would rather stay in Jerusalem, send others to do his bidding, turn his magi guests into servants—go, do this and that, and then come back and tell me. He would rather have second-hand hearsay than risk losing his place, his power, his resting as the still point of his own universe around which everything else must turn. He isn’t seeking God’s truth, so he spends his time and energy scheming and deceiving.

The wise men, not afraid to ask for help, direction, guidance, and not afraid to trust the witness of scripture, continue on their way, filled with great joy.

They follow the star and the guidance of the scripture to Bethlehem where they find the Christ child. They worship and offer their gifts – gold, for a king; frankincense, to honor his divinity; myrrh, because this divine king will die and myrrh is used to anoint the body of a king. The wise men achieved their goal: worshipping the true king of the Jews.

Then, they show fearlessness in two more ways.

First, during the night, they receive word in a dream not to return to Herod. And they obey. They don’t second-guess the divine. The wise men are not intimidated by worldly power, and they’re not drawn by it either. They aren’t afraid that Herod told them to come back and they’re not obeying him. They don’t get caught up in Herod’s intrigues or see if maybe there could be something in it for them if they go to Herod, or if maybe they can change Herod.

Second, they return home by another way. They are not afraid to incorporate new information when it’s given to them, even if it changes their plans.

With their departure by another way, the wise men exit the story.

But they don’t have to exit our lives as witnesses and examples. Afterall, they were the first of all the people, through the generations and throughout the world, who worship Jesus Christ and find that perfect love casts out all fear.

The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter serves as Rector of St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis, MD. She holds a PhD in New Testament from Marquette University and is the author of Enoch and the Gospel of Matthew. With her husband, the Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano, she is co-author of Love in Flesh and Bone: Exploring the Christmas Mystery, and A Man, A Woman, a Word of Love.

Download the sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany (A).

———————-

[i] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/why-we-scream/201512/forget-new-years-resolutions. Accessed 11/29/16.
[ii] Robert J. Morgan writes that “We Three Kings” was composed by John Henry Hopkins for a Christmas pageant at the General Theological Seminary in 1857. Morgan, Come Let Us Adore Him: Stories Behind the Most cherished Christmas Hymns (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 81.
[iii] John Hull, Hellenistic Magic and the Synoptic Gospels (London, UK: SCM-Canterbury, 1974), 126.
[iv] Amy Richter, Enoch and the Gospel of Matthew (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012), 172–9.
[v] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1–7 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2007), 111.
[vi] Ibid., 116.
[vii] Ibid., 108.

Nothing Changes Except Everything, Christmas Day (I)

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

Nothing Changes Except Everything

Nothing changed. God had broken into our world with sound and beauty. Light and hope pierced the dark of gloom and nothing changed.

The prophets of old had spoken of it; “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” The people who sat in darkness waited and hoped and prayed and longed for Light to dawn.

But nothing changed.

A new mother, unprepared and scared, fleeing with her intended, had said “yes”, it seemed so long ago, without knowing the full responsibility, not knowing her voice would echo through eternity. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” Longing for deliverance, for a chance to recognize that her life matters in a world dominated by privilege, power and might.  In a backwater town, an afterthought on the best of days, in the middle of nowhere, amid the screaming birth pangs, animal breath and a bewildered carpenter, an unwed refugee teenager brought our salvation, Jesus the Messiah into the numb and noisy world. Into humanity’s quarreling and bickering and warring came forth God’s shimmering light. A whisper, a word so fragile to utter it could destroy it. Hope. God had done the improbable.

And yet…nothing changed.

Angels, winged messengers of fierce gentleness, clothed in light and overflowing with song, heralded the birth of the Word into the world, but the beauty of their song, the fierceness of their countenance, the light of eternity was lost on certain poor shepherds keeping their flocks by night. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  Message sent. Song ended. Even the angels turned back to their heavenly duties.

Nothing changed.

Living on the borders, the edges, the margins, the unwanted outcasts who tended the sheep, the hired hands who were counted as two steps above nothing, to these the angels imparted their celestial song. The shepherds filled with fear and awe at the message of the angels, came and saw and stood for a time gazing at the world’s redemption. All of God’s self, wrapped the beauty of a baby, the Messiah, the Lord. But no matter how bright the angels, no matter how beatific the song, the sheep needed tending and life does not stop for a screaming, squirming baby named Jesus.

Nothing changed.

Dull peace sprawled boringly over the earth, filling the holy night with scent of ordinary. Not even the Romans, the purveyors of power paid any attention. It was a night like any other, unremarkable in its blatant ordinariness.

Nothing changed. Except…everything changed.

God, the Great I AM, the sculptor of the mountains, the crafter of the universe, the voice of creation, entered into our world and changed EVERYTHING!

We, unaccustomed to courage, exiles from delight, live coiled in shells of loneliness, until love leaves its high holy temple and comes into our sight, to liberate us into life. [1]

On Christmas nothing changes, yet everything changes. Our world continues along its path, as God breaks into our humanity like a stealthy thief in the small hours of the night, leaving traces of hope and drops of courage along a weary path. We often oblivious travelers seeking the lingering presence of the divine miss the signs of God being born again and again and again in to our world.

We the followers of this helpless child, this Jesus, we are the ones challenged and called to change everything. We who would prefer a God who crashes into the world with power and authority and great might are called to the daily work of Christmas. Nothing changes because we are the ones called to be the change. God coming into our world has no meaning unless we continue the work of Christmas.

God comes into our lives, not with blazing glory but in the quiet of a stable.
God enters our world not with sound and fury but in the whimpering of a new born child;
Not with power and authority but in the helplessness of a baby; not with class or privilege but as a displaced refugee with no nation of his own.
The work of Christmas is our work. God enters and changes everything.

The work of changing and transforming our humanity is ours to fulfill. The work of welcoming the outcast living on the edges and margins; the work of bringing good news of great joy to all the world, proclaiming the transformative power of love in action is now our angelic message.

We are the ones who must love our enemies, turn the other cheek, bless those who curse us, and love without boundaries. We are the ones who must visit the prisoners, feed the homeless, and welcome the stranger. Nothing changes, except everything changes with us. God’s work of redemption is done through the work of our hands. We are the ones who must seek the traces of hope and drops of courage in a world weary by division and strife.

Now more than ever does our world need Christmas, not the pristine angels or the idyllic shepherds of movies and Christmas cards, but the real, messy, unsure and often fearful carriers of the Christmas message. Now more than ever our world needs the followers of Jesus to step out of our places of comfort and our communities of refuge to proclaim, not in words but in action God’s favor, God’s hope, God’s love.

Our world needs Christmas not just today but every day.

God has work to do in this world; it is not enough that we be just, that we be righteous, and walk with God in holiness; it is not enough that we gather and say good things about Jesus in our beautiful places of worship. God needs us. We who are worried and wearied and terrified, the broken messengers with a living message. We must go out, like the shepherds to tell of the Good News in the messy, dirty and uninviting places of this world. We must go out to serve the ones forgotten and counted as nothing, because in them we serve Christ.

God breaks into our world and nothing happens without us.

“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.”[2]

At Christmas nothing changes except everything.

Amen.

Written by The Rev. Deon Johnson. Rev. Johnson serves as Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brighton, MI. A Liturgical Consultant, Deon specializes in helping communities revision their worship spaces to better reflect both their needs and the theology of welcome found in the Eucharist. In his spare time Deon enjoys working on websites and is an avid photographer.  

[1] Touched by an Angel by Maya Angelou

[2] “Now the work of Christmas begins” by Howard Thurman, African-American theologian, educator, & civil rights leader.

Download the sermon for Christmas Day (I).

The Name Given by an Angel, Feast of the Holy Name (A) – January 1, 2017

[RCL] Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:15-21

 This day that our society celebrates as the beginning of a new year has not always been so. Although the Gregorian calendar established January 1 as new year’s day as far back as 1582, in England it was not until 1752 that it replaced March 25 as the beginning of the new year. March 25, of course, is when the church celebrates the feast of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would bear the Christ child.

And today has long been celebrated as another principal feast day of our Lord: what today we call the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In ancient Jewish tradition, a child was circumcised and named on the eighth day of life. This ritual was—and is—considered a sign of the covenant between God and his people, dating back to the time of the patriarch Abraham, about 1800 years before Christ—as documented in the seventeenth chapter of Genesis.

And vestiges of this naming ritual were retained in Christendom. In our historical baptismal liturgy, the priest would ask the parents and godparents to “name this child” before the water bath. It may seem odd to us, but—at least as far as religious institutions were concerned—children had no name at all before this official ritual naming.

Nowadays, of course, parents often choose names for their children even before birth. And there’s nothing wrong with that. For names are important to us—culturally, religiously, and individually.

Culturally, names can establish a kind of social location or ethnic heritage. Think of Seamus (“Shay-mus”), which stems from the ancient Celts, or Ashanti, which has African origins. One can be named for an iconic figure, or for a beloved elderly relative. Our names provide one clue to the time and place of our birth in the great narrative of humanity.

Religiously, names provide a means of identifying us before God—and identifying us as equal in the sight of God. Liturgically, in our prayers, at baptism, at a funeral, and even when addressing a bishop, we use our first name—what used to be called our “Christian name.” And this indicates that God knows us intimately, calls us each by name, and loves us all the same—which is to say beyond measure.

And individually, names differentiate us from others. They provide a means for us to be identified in a crowd, a way for us to refer to each other, and a means by which one can establish oneself as unique—by “making a name” for ourselves, as the expression goes.

But what difference does it make? As Shakespeare wrote, “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”[1]

The irony in Juliet’s speech, of course, serves to justify why the play Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy and not a romantic comedy. Were the lovers not named Capulet and Montague, the end result might have been quite different. Their names mattered.

And so, too, with Jesus.

The name Jesus, of course, is the Latin form of the Greek Iesous (“yeh-soos”), which in turn is the transliteration of the Hebrew Joshua, meaning roughly “God is salvation.”

This Jesus, good above all other, was not simply named to establish his cultural heritage as a dark-skinned Palestinian Jew. He was not named primarily to identify him to God—since he came from God, and he was God. And he was not named only to differentiate him from others.

He was named Jesus to provide us with a beacon to follow, a leader to emulate, and a way for us to move ever closer to divine goodness, grace, and mercy.

The way, the truth, and the life: Jesus, the name for which every knee should bow—here on earth, up in heaven, and under the earth in the bowels of hell.[2]

In this world so afflicted by hostility, in this age so plagued by divisiveness, in this time so overwhelmed by name-calling, the name of Jesus provides an antidote to hatred, a cure for violence, and a balm for pain.

For Jesus is the salvation of the world. And we minister in his name to the world around us. In our baptism we were claimed, adopted, forgiven, renewed, strengthened, and made members of the priestly Body of Christ, the church.

And we are now empowered to be the sign of God’s love for others. In other words, the name of Jesus is forever sealed upon our hearts. That name of Jesus within us compels us to work for justice, peace, and love for all. And the name of Jesus gives us the will and the strength to persevere in this most daunting ministry of reconciliation.

All of this we do in the name of Jesus—our maker, defender, redeemer, and friend.

He was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. He is called Jesus, meaning God is salvation. And he will for ever be called Jesus, the king of glory and king of peace.

Written by The Rev. Dr. Barrie Bates. Rev. Bates has served Episcopal and Lutheran congregations in California, New York, and New Jersey over the past two decades. He is currently on short-term disability, recuperating from both Lyme Disease and a double-knee replacement, so he welcomes your e-mail conversation at revdocbates@gmail.com.

[1] Juliet in Romeo and Juliet II.ii

[2] Philippians 2:10

Download the sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name (A).

What We Need From Christmas, Christmas Day (II)

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

For churches across the country, the month of December is devoted to preparation—not only the kind of spiritual preparation that Advent invites; but rather, practical planning: where (and when) to hang the decorations, how to assemble the Christmas liturgies, when to organize the Christmas parties and festivities, and so on. Altar guilds and worship committees across the country are in high gear at this time of year!

And yet, beyond Christmas pageants and church bazaars (that’s daring enough for most of us!), there is a church in just about every community across the country that takes things to the next level and puts on a live Nativity scene!

You know the kind: a makeshift stable is assembled with live animals—a few sheep, a donkey or two, and maybe a camel if the committee started preparing well in advance. Someone dresses as an angel and stands on the rooftop of the makeshift stable, others dress as shepherds or wise men—which we’ll assume arrived a few weeks early. And of course, there are the central figures: Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus—usually portrayed by the youngest child in the parish. For a few nights in the lead-up to Christmas, everyone plays their part, standing as still as possible under the glare of a spotlight.

Most of us have driven by such a scene, and a few of us may have even participated in them. It’s a lovely image because it captures the scene we’ve grown up imagining and brings it to life before our very eyes. It puts us in mind of the Holy Family gathered with the shepherds on that first Christmas, rejoicing in the awesome power of God made flesh in this tiny little child. All is silent as the whole world stops to behold the birth of this child—the birth of God made flesh!

But if you pay careful attention to these scenes, you’ll notice that they are rarely as peaceful and serene as they first appear! For starters, livestock will be livestock: sheep are ornery, donkeys are stubborn, cows are lazy, and camels have a temper! The wind seldom cooperates, costumes fall apart, people fidget, and babies cry!

Despite all of our creative imaginings to the contrary, this unintentional chaos is more similar to the way things actually happened on that first Christmas than the peaceful and serene still-life that we so often imagine.

After all, if you’ve ever visited or worked on a farm, you can imagine the stench that must have accompanied Jesus’ birth; and if you’ve ever been anywhere near a hospital delivery room, you know that there’s no “meek and mild” about the miracle of childbirth! The truth is that the birth of Jesus was anything but silent or peaceful or calm. Mary was a teenager made to grow up way too quickly, Joseph was in way over his head, and the conditions in which Jesus was birthed were less than ideal, even by first-century standards.

And so, why do we dismiss what we know about Christmas: that it was surely a scene of chaos and surprise, in favor of what we imagine about Christmas: that it was a peaceful and serene ode to Jesus meek and mild?

Perhaps the answer has something to do with what we need from Christmas.

In 2016 alone, more than 13,000 Americans have died because of gun violence. Nearly 3,500 of them were children under age 18. There have been more than 300 mass shootings this year, and nearly 300 police officers have been shot and killed.[1]

We have faced the most vitriolic, negative, hate-filled, not to mention expensive, election in modern history. We’re busier than ever, we’re working harder and making less, and the cost of living just keeps going up.

And so, we imagine a peaceful and serene Christmas because that is precisely what we need. We need peace and serenity and beauty; we need a place to worship something pure—something warm and peaceful; something inspiring. We need a Christmas that brings peace and delight, rather than chaos and disorder.

But that’s the paradox of Christmas! On the one hand, we desperately want to believe that Jesus’ birth was a serene, orderly, peaceful moment in which the whole world stood still; but on the other hand, the Gospel stares us in the face and proclaims just the opposite: disruption, disorder, and chaos.

The Christmas of the Gospels reminds us that God in Christ hasn’t come into our lives to make things a little more peaceful or to inspire us to be a little more cheerful. No, God in Christ has come to change everything we thought we knew!

God in Christ hasn’t come to rehabilitate our old lives or to make them a bit more bearable; God in Christ has called us to a new life of redemption and resurrection!

God in Christ comes to us, not in the center of town or in an ornate palace, but in the place where we least expect him: in a tiny little town on the margins of society.

He is born, not in the presence of kings and princes and rulers, but in the presence of dirty shepherds and their even dirtier sheep. He is born, not of a princess or a queen, but of a poor, terrified, teenaged mother who did not ask for this!

This is the true story of Christmas!

And if we listen closely, we can hear God whispering something to us that, deep down we’ve always known but have been afraid to admit: The life we’ve so carefully crafted for ourselves; this world that we work so hard to manage and control, cannot satisfy our souls.

But the promise of God that was born on that first Christmas speaks to us still: God in Christ has come to us, not to give us more of the life we know, but to give us new life! Christmas is not the celebration of what once was a long time ago, it is the celebration of the One who was and is and is to come! It is the inauguration of God’s redemption of the world in Jesus Christ—it is the beginning of our salvation!

And that, dear friends, brings joy to the world indeed!

Merry Christmas!

Written by The Rev. Marshall Jolly (@MarshallJolly). Jolly is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He earned a BA in American studies from Transylvania University and a Master of Divinity and Certificate in Anglican Studies from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. His published work includes essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching. He is the editor of Modern Metanoia, an ecumenical, international lectionary-based preaching commentary authored exclusively by Millennials. He spends every moment he can exploring the nearby Appalachian foothills with his wife Elizabeth.  

[1] Gun Violence Archive, http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/.

Download the Sermon for Christmas Day (II).

Here’s How Much I Love You, Christmas Day (III)

[RCL] Isaiah 52:7-10; Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12); John 1:1-14; Psalm 98

In the movie “Cool Hand Luke,” Paul Newman plays Luke, a prisoner in a Florida prison camp, who refuses to conform to prison life. In a famous scene, Luke tries to escape, but he is caught and dragged back in shackles and brought to the captain of the prison. In order to make a lesson of him, the captain berates him in front of the other prisoners. When Luke makes a wise remark, the captain lashes out at him and utters the famous line: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.

It’s a great line. It’s also what makes the stuff of both great comedy and tragedy. Remember the comedy routine by Abbott and Costello called “Who’s on First?” Abbott is trying to help Costello out by telling him the names of the players on a mythical baseball team. The lineup is: “who’s on first, what’s on second, I don’t know is on third.” It’s all very funny, and it’s all based on a failure to communicate.

It is also the stuff of great tragedy. Remember the end of Romeo and Juliet? They both end up taking their own lives. And why does this happen? You’ve got it. A failure to communicate. If only Juliet could have texted Romeo rather than relying on a messenger to let him know the plan about taking the potion that made her only appear to be dead, then everything would have worked out. But, alas, it was not so, and never was there a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo. And it was all because there was a failure to communicate.

In our own lives, we know all too well the reality and pain of failing to communicate. One of the leading causes of marriages falling apart is lack of communication. People say, we just drifted apart. We don’t talk anymore. We are leading separate lives. You’ve all probably heard of “the silent treatment.” It’s one of the cruelest things human beings can do to each other. Failure to communicate can cause chasms to open up between us or it can intentionally wound others in the cruelest of ways.

In our collective lives, we also know the pain of failing to communicate. I’ve heard people say that a crowded city is paradoxically one of the loneliest places to live. People don’t know the next door neighbors. People don’t talk to each other on elevators. The difference between being part of a crowd and part of a community is the ability or the failure to communicate. If you communicate with your neighbor, you belong to a community. If you fail to communicate with your neighbor, your just part of a crowd, a lonely crowd.

On the other hand, we all know what a blessing it can be when we really communicate with someone. When we really connect with people we say things like, we had a heart-to-heart talk.

In a Reader’s Digest story, Maureen Macay gives a lovely example of a grace she experienced while traveling in China. She writes, “Traveling by train in China, my son and I shared a sleeping compartment with a Chinese couple. They spoke no English and we knew few Chinese words, so conversation was impossible — until an hour into the trip, when the man called someone on his cell phone. After a few moments, he passed the phone to his wife who also spoke into it. Then, to my surprise, she handed me the phone. Feeling rather foolish, I said, ‘Hello’ into it. The person at the other end was the couple’s daughter, who spoke perfect English. I told her about us and our trip, and she relayed the information to her parents. How delightful that a simple phone call could teach us such a lesson about Chinese graciousness.” And the ability to communicate.

God knows about the struggle to communicate. Our Bible is the story of God’s struggle to get God’s message of love across to humanity. God tried over and over again, to reach us, but we kept turning deaf ears to God’s message of love. We ignored commandments, prophets, and sages, invitations, threats, and promises.

What is the opposite of a failure to communicate? Saying exactly the right thing.

The message of Christmas is this: God found a new way to say exactly the right thing. The letter to the Hebrews says, “Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by a Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2).

A baby. The Son of God, the Word, co-eternal with God from before all time, became incarnate, took on flesh, real flesh, a baby’s flesh. God became one of us, and like us, came into the world as a baby. The one at whose “command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets, in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home”[1] became for us an inarticulate infant.

In the words of today’s psalm, God “sends out his commands to the earth, and his word runs very swiftly.” At Christmas, God chose to let his Word have to learn to crawl first. The one whose “Let there be light,” rang throughout the darkness and set off the spark of creation, became for us a speechless baby, limited to communicating through cooing and crying.

The one used to the praise of countless throngs of angels, singing their unending hymn, “Holy, holy, holy,” surrounded himself with new music: a mother’s “hush, sweet baby, hush,” the ahhing and oohing of shepherds leaning over a manger making baby talk to the baby, cattle lowing, the rustling of straw. God found a whole new way to communicate, a whole new way to say exactly the right thing. The Word took on a whole new language, and it turned out to be—baby talk.

What does a baby say? Actually, not much. Without the power of speech, they are, in fact, rather limited. But they do say two very important things: Here I am, and, I need you.

And God, in God’s love, as the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us as a baby, says this as well: I am here. I need you.

Shocking, isn’t it? The Word becomes flesh, a vulnerable, inarticulate baby. And we don’t say, the message is this: someday, the child will grow, which is true, and become an adult, which is true, and will walk and talk and love and live and say things and do things that will show us just how much God loves us—all of which is true. But even here, even in these days of the Christmas season, what we celebrate is not the potential for communication that a baby has—that someday God will speak through incarnate life. What we celebrate is that this baby, the Word made flesh, was already a completely formed message of love, full of grace and truth toward us. Here I am. I am with you. I am for you. I am trusting myself to you. I need you.

In Graham Greene’s novel, The Heart of the Matter, the character Scobie describes the incarnation, and the amazing risk God took in becoming human in such a vulnerable way, a pattern of openness that would continue throughout Jesus’ life and in the sacraments, as well. The narrator says, “It seemed to him for a moment cruelly unfair of God to have exposed himself in this way, a man, a wafer of bread, first in the Palestinian villages and now here in the hot port, there, everywhere, allowing man to have his will of Him. Christ had told the rich young man to sell all and follow Him, but that was an easy rational step compared with this that God had taken, to put himself at the mercy of men who hardly knew the meaning of the word. How desperately God must love, he thought with shame.”[2]

How desperately God must love. Desperately enough to find a new way to say exactly the right thing, which, even in the cries and coos of an infant, turns out to be: “Here’s how much I love you.”

Written by The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano. Pagano is associate rector at St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis, MD. His ministry at St. Anne’s is focused on Adult Christian Formation, Outreach, and Pastoral Care. He received a Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics from Marquette University. His research interests focus on theology and contemporary society, science and religion, religious pluralism, and the theology and ethics of H. Richard Niebuhr. He holds an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. He previously served parishes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Baltimore, Maryland. He also served as Assistant Professor of Theology at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and currently serves as an Affiliate Faculty Member in the Theology Department at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Pagano is married to the Rev. Dr. Amy Richter and is delighted to serve with her at St. Anne’s. They have co-authored two books, A Man, A Woman, A Word of Love, and Love in Flesh and Bone.  

[1] Eucharistic Prayer C, Book of Common Prayer, 370.

[2] Greene, The Heart of the Matter.

Download the Sermon for Christmas Day (III).

God is With Us! Advent 4(A)

[RCL] Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80: 1-7, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25

Fourth Sunday in Advent, and one wonders: What remains to be said about the season?

Year after year, preachers and priests must wonder: How can one tell the story of Jesus’ birth without falling into historical and cultural clichés, without being accused of mythologizing? Or: Without being accused of not following the Scriptures word for word? How can we make the familiar exciting again?

It is so difficult to preach on the birth narratives that most pastors and priests find it easier to let the story be told by the children, in their Christmas pageants—something beloved by almost all parishes. Presenting the story of Jesus’ birth dramatically, rather than in a sermon from the pulpit, may be the better solution. Why try to retell the most beautiful story ever told when it is already written so simply and perfectly by Matthew and so masterfully by Luke?

The simple beauty of the story as found in the two gospels cannot be improved upon. Only great artists have found another way – through their works of art – to help us see with new eyes. Centuries later people still flock to the world’s great museums to see depictions of the Birth story by the finest of painters. A few well known artists come to mind: da Vinci, Caravaggio, El Greco and so many others not as well known. Their creations tell the stunning story of God entering the human realm. Nothing proclaims the Christmas news as movingly as some of these works. And it is not only visual artists who accomplish this.

The most evocative poetry has been written about that one night in Bethlehem, while the great composers continue to lift us to a heavenly realm when as they sing of this unique birth. Please, pause for a minute and try to think if any song as exquisite to your ears as the melody and words of “Lo, how a rose e’re blooming on tender stem hath sprung . . .” And now recall the words of Christina Rosetti’s poem, “In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood still as iron, water like a stone . . .” Each word is a jewel.

Now sing it to the melody by Holst and let you heart melt within you. Isn’t that the ultimate Christmas feeling? This is a deliberate question. At Christmas time we want to feel, not to think. This is why children are so happy at Christmas; they allow themselves to feel anticipation and joy without worrying about practical details that ultimately don’t matter.

When we grow up and reach maturity, we tend to examine the words we say and sing. We ask questions about their meaning, questions that in all probability cannot be answered. “If the birth of Jesus really happened as the gospel writers tell us, what happened to the promises of peace on earth, good will toward all human beings?” After we look at the world around us and despair of the answers we do receive, many of us turn to books and theology, and that too is helpful. It is good to examine the questions, but let us admit it: these are at best intellectual exercises.

Let us instead throw ourselves into the music and drama of the story and perhaps then we shall find peace and even joy. It is undeniable that visual art, music, poetry, and drama take us out of ourselves as they communicate the gospel story in ways that bring us peace and even joy. The story of Jesus from his birth to his death and resurrection is the perfect drama.

The great Dorothy L Sayers in her masterpiece, The Man Born to Be King, writes that for the dramatist the theology in the story of Jesus “locks the whole structure into a massive intellectual coherence.” She continues: “It is scarcely possible to build up anything lopsided, trivial, or unsound on that steely and gigantic framework.” And she fulfilled this conviction by writing, in 1943, her twelve radio plays on “The Man Born to Be King.” Very few had attempted a dramatic presentation of the life of Jesus before her. Only medieval plays and the depiction in Oberammergau had done so. Yet, the ancient Greeks worshiped by going to the theater; seeing the great tragedies of their myths was a religious experience. Theater started as a religious expression.

We also, citizens of this already troubled twenty-first century, enjoy the emotional appreciation of the nativity story fully when we see it acted out. But it doesn’t mean much in the long run unless we make the effort to move from the enjoyment and emotion to this “massive intellectual coherence” which is so effective as drama. We cannot remain starry-eyed in the worship of an infant; we must move forward to the ministry of the man Jesus without losing the mystery of the divine drama. How can we possibly tell in ordinary words this stunning, startling event of God’s breaking through in what has been called “the scandal of particularity,” of the Timeless entering Time?

It so troubling to many of us in this season to talk to Christians who speak of the coming of Jesus without trembling at the thought of the Incarnation, of God deliberately taking on flesh! This fearful, truly awesome reality has become so ordinary for us that we mention it without really taking it in. It is such an unprecedented event, this unique event in history, that Matthew and Luke tell it in the simplest terms but with heavenly imagery.

And therein lies the drama. A very pregnant virgin and her husband travel over difficult terrain from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Both the virgin and her future husband are visited by angels. Angels break through and sing of glory after the baby is born, while animals and the poorest of the poor gather around a little baby to sing of peace and good will. How else can something so dramatic be told in order to shake us out of complacency?

St. Paul gives it a try in the opening greeting of his letter to the Romans, the passage we read today, and ends up trying to contain the immense drama in 102 Greek words that form one long sentence. He speaks of “. . . his Son, who descended from David according to the flesh and was declared Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead,” and the sentence is still not finished.

He trips over his words in speaking of this astounding event. But when writing to the Philippians he succeeds fully in utter and profound simplicity: “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,” he says of the eternal, the cosmic Christ. This is what Matthew means when he writes that the angel said to Joseph: “. . . for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” We imagine Joseph hiding his face and thinking, “I don’t understand any of it, but I will do as you say.”

The excellent American folklorist, John Jacob Niles, heard three words sung in the Appalachian town of Murphy, North Carolina and went on to compose the heart-breaking, simple melody and words of “I wonder as I wander right under the sky how Jesus the Savior did come for to die. . .” We must never stop wondering.

To move from drama and simplicity to the greatness and baroque richness of Bach and Handel, is to experience fully the reality that God dwells also in the beauty of sound. The whole drama of the biblical story of the Christ, from the Fall to the song of the angels and beyond, is found in Handel’s masterpiece Messiah. Those of us who have sung this oratorio through many years have memorized, together with the music, the words of the great prophets. Thanks to Handel and his brilliant lyricist, Charles Jennens, who poured over the Authorized Version, countless folks who have never read the Bible have memorized the most beautiful and comforting words of Scripture!

“Comfort ye my people.”

“Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked, straight. . .”

“He shall feed his flock like a shepherd and carry them in his bosom.”

And from today’s lesson: “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel, God with us.”

God with us! What a wondrous promise. What a loving reality. Hold on to that. Hold on to the drama of the Eternal entering Time, of the Invisible becoming Visible in the face of Jesus, a baby in human form who grew up to show us the heart of God. And enter into the season of Christmas with the feelings of a child and the meditations of wise Christians. Immanuel: the mystery and glory of the Incarnation.

Katerina Whitley lives and writes in Boone, NC. She has used drama in her five books published by Morehouse and also in her novel of the first century, A New Love, published by Material Media. For more on her retreats and dramatic presentations visit her website. www.katerinawhitley.net.

Download the sermon for Advent 4(A).

Can You See and Hear God’s Presence in Your Life? Advent 3(A)

[RCL] Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11; Psalm 146:4-9 or Canticle 15

We are well into the third week of the Advent season. Advent is a season of waiting, expectation, and preparation for the coming of the Messiah.

But who is this Messiah? Do we have any preconceived idea how we would like this Messiah to be?

John the Baptist seems to have certain ideas.

In today’s Gospel, after hearing what Jesus did, John sends his question to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

It seems John may have doubts about the identity of Jesus.

But in the Gospel of Luke, we know that John the Baptist jumped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb before both he and Jesus were born when the two mothers met. (Luke 1:41) In last week’s Gospel, John introduces Jesus as, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matt 3:11)

John the Baptist knows perfectly well who Jesus is. So, why is he questioning?

Well, remember, John is in prison! Has his imprisonment has caused him to doubt Jesus?

The Messiah is not saving John from prison, and the one who is supposed to take away the sin from the world is not taking away the sin away from Herod. Would you blame John the Baptist or anybody to doubt in such situation?

After hearing the question, as usual, Jesus does not answer directly but tells John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matthew 11:4-6)

We see that the doubt of John the Baptist gets his disciples to be mindful of what Jesus does. The doubt of John the Baptist is pointing people to pay attention to see and hear Jesus.

Uncertain, scary, and helpless times can shake one up and cause doubts in one’s faith. Today’s Gospel is a good reflection of our spiritual journey. We can be like John the Baptist. When we are moved by the Holy Spirit, we vow to follow God. It is very clear and true. Or when we receive blessings, we are sure Jesus is our Savior.

When we face adversity and disasters, we question if Jesus really is the Savior. We question why bad things happen, why God is not there for us, and doubt even if God really exists. We tend to think God only exists when we are in good times. That is our preconceived idea of our Savior and why we are in doubt when things do not go our way. We are wrapped up in our own world and cannot hear or see God’s presence.

Nevertheless, being in doubt may get us closer to God. John the Baptist may be in doubt but his questioning points people to question God also. Then people pay attention to hear and see, find God’s grace and bring back the good news of Jesus to the doubter.

Doubting is part of our spiritual journey. However, the process may seem unbearable. We need to point each other to hear and see God’s grace to keep our faith. Sometimes we do have to wait in uncertain, and anxious moments before the truth comes out.

Advent is a season of waiting, expectation, and preparation for the coming of the Messiah. We are blessed that we know the certainty of the birth of Jesus. Yet, we are still waiting for the second coming of the Messiah. This time of waiting can be anxious and fearful time.

There is chaos in different parts of the world. We have our fair share of chaos causing disappointment, anxiety, fear, and anger in our own country right now. Enough people question the presence of God.

Will we be able to not be distracted by our own self-centeredness, and anxiety or our own pre-conception about God but look for God, and go and tell people what we see and hear about the presence of God?

As Christians, during Advent we are to slow down, reflect, and pray while waiting for the coming or our Lord. We need to reflect on what it means to be followers of Jesus our Lord, and our seeing and hearing of our Lord.

In a sense, we all have experienced what Jesus said:

The blind receive their sight.

The lame walk.

The lepers are cleansed.

The deaf hear.

The dead are raised.

The poor have good news brought to them.

If we are baptized, aren’t haven’t we experienced these things?

Through baptism, weren’t we once blind and deaf, but now can see and hear God’s good news?

Weren’t we once crooked but now could stand straight?

Weren’t we once uncleaned, but now cleansed by God’s Holy Spirit?

Didn’t we die to our previous life and now live a new life?

Didn’t we, the once poor in spirit, receive good news?

Truly, if we keep our eyes and ears open, we will hear and see plenty of God’s mighty work literally and metaphorically even in bad times. We will be able to go and tell.

It is time for us to share the good news and hope with others especially with those who are in doubt.

Br. Curtis Almquist of Society of Saint John the Evangelist writes in one of his daily meditations that:

“All of that stuff that isn’t right yet in us and in those whom we love will be satisfied and healed, but most likely it won’t all happen in this life. And in the meantime, sometimes a very mean time, we continue to come back to Jesus to be reminded of his real presence with us, and his provision to meet our immediate and ongoing needs.”

We are waiting in uncertainty but we are waiting in hope because of Emmanuel – God’s presence with us.

In the last few weeks, we have been reading from the Prophet Isaiah. He has been bringing the good news of Emmanuel to us.

Today Isaiah says:

“They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’ … And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

Yes, the Lord shall return.

Traditionally the third week of Advent is joy. When we can see and hear God’s presence – Emmanuel, in good times and bad times, and know God is coming again, isn’t that joyful? Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Ada Wong Nagata is Priest in Charge and Director of Jubilee Community Center at Church of Our Savior, Manhattan, a bilingual congregation with English and Cantonese in Chinatown New York. Ada served seven years as Convener of Chinese Convocation of Episcopal Asiamerican Ministries (EAM), recently finished her term. She is a board member of Li Tim-Oi Center, an Asian Ministry Center of The Episcopal Church. Ada earned her Doctor of Ministry from Episcopal Divinity School in 2015. Ada loves hiking and often goes on meditative walks.  

Download the Sermon for Advent 3(A).