Archives for January 2017

Light! Lent 4(A) – March 26, 2017

[RCL] 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

The gospels need to be approached as a sort of unfolding – the unfolding of who Jesus is and what that can mean about who we are called to be. So perhaps it helps to think of a time-lapse video of a flower opening, one petal at a time until the entire flower is open and we can see every detail down to the tiniest specks of pollen on the stamen and anthers. The difference being that the gospels begin by saying just who Jesus is.

John’s gospel begins with the most astonishing claim: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

There are all kinds of things that can be said about this story of The Man Who Was Born Blind: things about sin, about blindness both literal and metaphorical, about miracles, about how societies divide themselves, the barriers we erect for those not just like us and so on. He is an outcast. He is forced by societal norms to live on the margins of society.

Yet, the most fundamental purpose of the story as it works in John’s gospel is to illuminate, if you will, the essence of who Jesus is. The revelation comes from his own mouth: “I Am the light of the world.” John has already told us this “in the beginning.” And we need always to remind ourselves that whenever Jesus utters the words, “I Am,” we are meant to recall that sacred moment of self revelation at the Burning Bush when Moses is being given a task and asks, “Who shall I say sent me?” The voice from the bush replies, “I Am who I Am…you shall say…I Am sent me to you.”(Ex 3:14)

The very first word God utters in creation is, “Light!” Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” This story sheds light on just what that means. And what it means is justice for all people and the need to respect the dignity of every human being.

In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, the protagonist is Jean Valjean – who is forever called by his prison number, 24601. A person reduced to a number. The stage version of the story depicts prisoner 24601 as a complex character. Is he just a thief, plain and simple? Is he a victim of an unfair system of justice? Is he a compassionate businessman and mayor? A benevolent step-father? A valiant revolutionary of the Paris Uprising of 1832? A compassionate liberator of his most persistent enemy, Inspector Javert? Or, in his own words, is he “no better and no worse than any other man”?

Just as Hugo attempts to shed light on the complexities of post-Revolutionary France, so the Jesus in John seeks to shed light on all sorts and conditions of humankind – and the artificial and often arbitrary ways in which we treat others – especially others who are not at all like ourselves.

The Man Born Blind is a figure not unlike 24601. That is, like prisoner 24601, the man is cast into a lifetime of darkness – he must be a beggar on the streets. What he says carries no weight.

Even Jesus’ own disciples believe The Man is Blind because of his own or his parents’ sin. Note that the man does not seek to be healed. He is so marginalized that he does not even have a name. Jesus states that he is the light of the world, and as long as he is in the world there is work to do. After Jesus restores the man’s sight, he seeks to shed light on what real sin exists in the world.

For the man is not a victim of his own sin or that of his parents. Rather he is the victim of an entrenched system of fear that declares some people unclean. We watch and we listen as all those people and societal institutions expected to support the Man Born Blind just step away – they recoil, even though now he can see! His parents disown him. The Pharisees chastise him. The neighbors pretend he is not the same man. All those societal systems meant to be a support just collapse, until in a most astonishing moment, the Man Born Blind becomes not only his own advocate, but he defends Jesus against all criticism as now he is lecturing the Pharisees, the doctors of the law of Moses.

He whose being has had no standing whatsoever in the community when the story begins is now the one who is exhorting them, the arbiters of society and religion to “see” -to see the Light of the World – The Word that was with God and is God. Egads, he seems to say, this can be no other than the will and the work of God!

Leave it to people to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time. The miracle is not that the man can see. The scandal is not that the Sabbath has been broken. The miracle in one part is the fact that Jesus is the Light of the World that can turn the darkness of blindness and the darkness rejection and persecution of the world into light.

But more than that, this story is meant to demonstrate that we can be people of that light. We can turn darkness into light. Just as Jesus changed the life of the Samaritan woman (John 4) by giving her dignity, by giving her purpose, by giving her a new identity, by asking her to do something for him – give him a drink – so the Man Born Blind is given a new lease on life.

Anyone, the neighbors, his parents, the Pharisees, whomever, could have granted The Man Born Blind more purpose in life, made him a more integral part of the community, rather than writing him off as an outcast. Jesus is the one who says, “There is something you can do for me.” The woman becomes the first evangelist. The Man Born Blind becomes a vocal advocate for God and a defender of Jesus The Light of the World! He now dares to step beyond the barriers the others created for him.

There is something you can do for Jesus. Whatever it is, it will heal you and heal the world.

If the Samaritan Woman at the Well, The Man Born Blind and 24601 can do God’s work so effectively, what are we being called to do? What barriers are we willing to break down so that people like the woman, the man and 24601 can be granted personhood? How can we become advocates for inclusion rather than exclusion?

Looking at the world in which we live, there is not much time given to us to ask such questions. Lent means to be such a time. Once Easter arrives, though, it is time to follow the examples of The Man Born Blind and the Samaritan Woman. We too can be people of the Light, of Jesus the Light of the World.

Amen.

Written by The Rev. Kirk Kubicek, who was ordained in the Diocese of Chicago in 1983, and has served as a parish priest in the dioceses of Chicago, Connecticut and Maryland. After nearly 18 years as rector of St. Peter’s in Ellicott City, MD, Kubicek spent six years as Chaplain and teacher at St. Timothy’s School for Girls, an Episcopal and international boarding and day-school in Stevenson, MD. In the mid-1980’s he was trained to work as a Stewardship Consultant through the Office of Stewardship at the Episcopal Church Center and helped lead retreats for the Ministry of Money, a ministry of the Church of the Saviour, Washington, DC. Recently retired from full-time parish ministry, Kubicek serves as an interim and provides supply work throughout the Diocese of Maryland. He is a also a drummer in various rock and jazz bands, currently playing with On The Bus, a Grateful Dead tribute band centered in the greater DC Metro region. He plays guitar and writes music to supplement worship and preaching events. Some of these songs can be seen on youtube at www.www.youtube.com/user/SoundsDivine1. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com. Feel free to contact Kubicek at kkub@aol.com.

Download the sermon for Lent 4(A).

Trust in God’s Love, Lent 3(A) – March 19, 2017

[RCL] Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

What follows is largely based on the teachings of esteemed New Testament scholar John Knox, who wrote extensively about the context of today’s Epistle.

Before examining the Romans passage, however, let us focus on the very familiar story in today’s Gospel – the encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well. How did we come to know this story since no newspaper, video recordings, or the like existed in the first century? A clue comes at the end of the passage: “Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony.”

Like these Samaritans, we know all we can know about the earthly Jesus because people like the disciples and the woman at the well told others about their face to face involvement with the one we call Christ. Those whom they told also told others who told others, and so on down the centuries until the story came to us. The passing of the Good News from one generation to another links us to the Jesus of history.

We can also understand this reality in reverse time – in the sacramental connection we all have with the early church through the laying on of hands by bishops who confirmed or received us. Those bishops became bishops when their predecessor bishops laid hands upon their heads as did every bishop’s predecessor, all the way back to the time of the earliest Christian community.

So, we are linked to Jesus and the early church through word and sacrament carried across 2,000 years of actions. But there is more to this connection with Christ – more of a fundamentally personal nature, as St. Paul illustrates. We cannot know Jesus the way the disciples and woman at the well did. We can, however, know and experience the risen Christ as Paul experienced him. He never met Jesus in the flesh, yet he is the primary teacher of the fact that we can know Christ just as certainly as the disciples, but in a non-physical way. Knowing the risen Christ through the passed-down story of Jesus is most effective if we, too, come to know Christ as alive within us and among us.

Today’s portion of the Epistle helps us understand this – as Paul begins by stating, “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Peace in this context means a lack of enmity or an absence of conflict – that is, peace is unity with God that we gain through “our Lord Jesus Christ.” The peace/unity with God that we experience in and from Christ is found in following Christ as Paul did and as must all who could not know the human Jesus.

This involves a restoring of the oneness that we, by virtue of our God-created nature, can have. It is a unity of God with us and us with all people, a unity of person and person, community and community – rightful relationships in God’s over-arching presence.

Of course, nothing is clearer than the fact that human beings consistently live out of peace, in conflict with God and one another. Though we turn from God again and again and sin against one another, still we have access to ultimate unity with God. Paul explained how this unity/peace comes about. Most importantly, he makes it clear that the process cannot be initiated by us – it begins only with God, with God loving us despite our unworthiness, despite our failure to love as God loves us, despite discord and conflict with other people. Despite all this, God forgives us and loves us unconditionally. Paul said it simply: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Enmity with God is cast aside by God’s forgiving action, which allows Christians to accept what God offers and live into what our Catechism defines as the “Mission of the Church” – which is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

For Paul and the early church, the key to understanding God’s love and forgiveness was revealed by Jesus’ death on the cross. The proof of God’s love is Christ’s complete obedience to God despite the sinful acts that led to his death. Dying on the cross, Jesus forgives his enemies. This self-less death overpowers us and leads us to accept God’s love and forgiveness. Believers see pure love in his death and cannot resist its compelling power to follow in his way. We realize that Jesus makes us the most precious of creatures, even worth dying for.

God initiates the peace and unity and asks only our trust in his love and repentance from rebelling against his love – asks only that we accept the love, turn from our sin, and reform our lives, as a result. We don’t deserve the love and forgiveness, we cannot earn God’s love and forgiveness, but accepting it, we are freed by such faith. God provides the love; we provide repentance and renewal, becoming unified with God and others.

Dr. Knox observes that Paul and other theologians have throughout the centuries struggled to explain how Christ’s death accomplished this peace and reconciliation. All attempts to do so, in fact, have proved unsuccessful or, at best, are incomplete. However, he asserts, what is much more important is that Paul and the early church knew, above all, that God’s decisive action in history lay in Jesus’ death on the cross – that this action was absolutely essential to understanding the reality of God, God’s forgiveness, and the possibility of new life through accepting God’s love.

For Christians, Jesus’ death forms the singular focus on what God was doing through his life, death, resurrection, and the birth of the church. From the earliest days, the cross came to stand for everything distinctively Christian. It symbolizes both human sin and God’s all-giving love. It symbolizes both human sinfulness and human freedom from spiritual death, reconciling us to God, reuniting us with God and one another.

We are inheritors of the primitive church’s experience of the new reality of Christ-still-alive and of new life in the Spirit that was viewed through the lens of the cross. And now in our day, we, too, can experience in the life of the church the new community of love, no less than did Paul and the first Christians.

What we call the body of Christ, a living, flesh-and-blood reality, enables us to know Christ as a personal experience and not just a handed-down story. We are the continuation of the early community of believers within which everything about Christ happened. In this “dynamic community created around a living and present Lord . . . love is revealed, the Spirit is given, and faith and hope are found.”

While it is in and through the church that the risen Christ is known, no body of Christian believers acts in the full image of the loving God, divided and conflicted as we are. And yet the church is our only link with the historic community that emerged from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is the only expression of Christ that we have, and even in its incompleteness, we, in our time, carry forward the new life of the Spirit of God.

We carry forward, too, the earliest expression of love based on Christ’s death in the communal meal that we call the Eucharist. From the earliest days of the church, the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, have marked our central act of worship and given substance as a way to keep Christ alive in the midst of the worshipping community. We continue to gather at a common rail, drink from a shared cup, and commune in the deepest relationship of love with Christ and one another. This has always been for Christians THE occasion of re-calling Jesus to our presence and empowering us to unite with him and one another. Through the church and through this sacrament, we continue to express the reality that Christ was and is alive and will continue to be alive among his followers.

Dr. Knox summarizes it well. “We remember him whom we know. We know him whom we remember.” And so, we can join St. Paul in saying, “We even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

Amen.

—————————

The following books by John Knox (1900-1990) are especially significant in dealing with the themes approached in this sermon: Life in Christ Jesus: reflections on Romans 5-8; Chapters in a Life of Paul; Jesus: Lord and Christ; and The Church and the Reality of Christ.

Written by The Rev. Ken Kesselus. Kesselus is a retired priest living with his wife Toni in his native home of Bastrop, Texas, where he serves as the mayor and writes history book and a column in the local newspaper. He is a former member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church and author John E. Hines:Granite on Fire.

Download the sermon for Lent 3(A).

Digging Into Our Certainty, Lent 2(A) – March 12, 2017

[RCL] Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Martin Luther called John 3:16 “the Gospel in a nutshell.”

Without a doubt, this is the most famous verse in the New Testament. And yet, as most preachers know all too well, the more popular a Biblical text is, the harder it is to preach! Such is the case here.

The popularity of John 3:16 has, in a sense, robbed it of its power. Far from the “heart of the Gospel,” it now seems like nothing more than Christianity’s catchphrase—the logo of the Christian brand.

John 3:16 pops up on tee shirts, on bumper stickers, on billboards, on Facebook, and (most annoying of all) on those little pamphlets that get wedged into the screen door on Saturday mornings! It’s the equivalent of the community choir singing Handel’s “Messiah” at Christmas: much-appreciated, well-loved, but just a bit taxing to hear recited over and over and over again in exactly the same way time after time after time.

But there’s another, more dangerous side to John 3:16 that cannot be overlooked.

Regardless of what we make of this text’s familiarity, the truth of the matter is that John 3:16 has been used time and time again in Christian history to hurt, divide, and demean people. For some, the requirement that we “be born again” is code for “you have to look, sound, and act like us.”

The Gospel becomes a prooftext by which we determine if other people’s salvation is as certain as ours is. From this vantage point, the text loses its transformative power altogether and becomes a weapon to re-enforce a particular worldview.

As is the case with the whole of Scripture, when we read John 3:16 apart from its larger context, we run the risk of missing the point. John 3:16 isn’t a theological maxim in and of itself; rather, it is part of a much richer conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus.

Nicodemus, says John’s Gospel, was a leader among the Jews. In public, Nicodemus’s loyalties were clearly devoted to the Jewish establishment. But in private, Nicodemus had his doubts. And so, he visits Jesus under the cover of nightfall.

“Rabbi,” Nicodemus says, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

To put it another way, Nicodemus saw that Jesus was clearly mediating the presence of God, and Nicodemus wanted that kind of experience, too.

Then, as Jesus so often does, he says something that utterly astounds everyone: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.”

In other words, glimpsing the Kingdom of God isn’t a matter of praying a certain way or believing a certain way or following a certain set of liturgical customs; it’s about a complete rebirth of our entire existence!

On hearing this, Nicodemus asks an honest albeit naïve question that sounds funny to our 21st century ears: “How can an old man like me go back into my mother’s womb and be born again?”

Nicodemus makes what is perhaps the most common mistake when it comes to reading and interpreting Scripture: confusing something meant as metaphor with something meant to be literally true.

Like all of us, Nicodemus had already been born once into both a physical and a spiritual context: He was born into a Pharisaic Jewish home, with all the customs and traditions of the day.

But this second birth that Jesus is talking about comes not from below—with all the physical and visceral mechanisms of childbirth—but from above.

So how do we do that?

More than saying the right prayers or professing the right statement of faith, being born from above is about a way of life. It’s about living so that those around you will see you and know about Jesus.

For Nicodemus, being born from above happened slowly. The Gospel of John tells us that he came to Jesus under the cover of nightfall. He wasn’t quite sure he believed just yet. He didn’t want anyone to recognize him.

Then, after he leaves Jesus, he returns to his position among the Jewish establishment. His conversion doesn’t happen with a bolt of lightning or sudden blindness; it doesn’t draw the same kind of attention that the Apostle Paul’s conversion does; and there’s no incredible dream that converts or upends Nicodemus’s life like the dreams of Saint Peter or Saint John the Divine.

But deep down, and ever so slightly, something begins to turn.

Nicodemus’s rebirth happens over the course of a long journey, which began under the cover of darkness when he took a chance on Jesus. He was an uncertain, fly-by-night, wanna-be disciple.

And the truth is, with the exception of one brief mention in John chapter 7, we never hear from Nicodemus again—that is, until the end of John’s Gospel. And it is here that Nicodemus’s birth from above is laid bare.

As Jesus hangs crucified, after all of the other disciples had fled for fear of persecution, there stands Nicodemus at the foot of the cross, armed with myrrh and aloes and the other provisions for Jewish burial, ready to bear the broken and lifeless body of the crucified Lord to its grave.

Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

We can never fully know what Nicodemus was thinking as he departed Jesus’ company after hearing these words. But we can be sure that something within him began to turn. And then, little by little, his heart was broken open and he was born anew, finding his way through darkness and doubt, to the cross.

In his poem, “From the Place Where We Are Right,” the great German-born Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai put it this way:

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.

The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.

But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.[1]

In the midst of this Lenten journey, may we allow our doubts and questions to dig into our certainty. May we be broken open by a love that evades even our wildest imagining until, at last, we come to the foot of the cross.

Amen.

Written by The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly. Jolly is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He studied at Transylvania University (BA, American Studies) and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (MDiv & Certificate in Anglican Studies). His published work includes essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching, appearing most recently in the Journal of Appalachian Studies and the Anglican Theological Review. He is the editor of Modern Metanoia, a preaching resource authored by Millennials, and enjoys exploring the nearby Appalachian foothills with his wife Elizabeth.

[1] Yehuda Amichai, “The Place Where We Are Right” in The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, edited & translated from Hebrew by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell (University of California Press, 1996).

Download the sermon for Lent 2(A).

Engaging Lent, Lent 1(A) – March 5, 2017

[RCL] Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

 As Lent means Spring in Old English it for sure favors the later Lent timeline of this year; it is always strange when the season begins during the heart of winter.

For well over a millennium Lent has traditionally been a time of fasting. Communities would fast in various ways, abstaining from food or certain kinds of food, abstaining from various kinds of recreation and utterances. People would dress differently, engage differently and find many other ways to make their lives more austere. All of this resulted in a fast that aided in spiritual preparation and also made the great Feast of Easter so much more exciting.

While Lenten practice is often less vigorous than it was centuries ago the spirit of this fast remains, this is a time when many churches forgo cake at coffee hour, where some do not have coffee hour at all and many individuals take time to abstain from treats, to abstain from social media, to abstain from television or from other kinds of entertainment, to abstain from anything that can feel like a guilty pleasure.

This is not limited to the Christian community either, the movie 40 days and 40 nights and other pieces of pop culture capture people engaging in Lenten fasts who are not Christian and throughout social media it’s easy to see just how many are hopping on the fasting bandwagon. It’s great. It is an example of our Christian tradition enriching lives well beyond our churches and yet, if this is the only depth to which people and communities of faith engage with it, there is a major opportunity lost.

The first lesson for today features an invitation to abstinence. Adam and is given very clear instructions not to eat of the fruit of good and evil. All is well until the Devil tempts them and they eat of the fruit and suffer the consequences. While frolicking in paradise, presumably enjoying immortality, enjoying the felt physical presence of God and getting to eat from an abundance of delicious fruits may not seem like a fast, it really was.

In the midst of abundance the sense that there was something that was not for them was too difficult for them to bear. The rule around the tree of good and evil was an opportunity for Adam and Eve to deny their desire so that they could remain in right relationship with God. When they didn’t, they suffered the consequences. This lesson makes sense on the first Sunday of Lent as we are reminded of just how blessed we are and how discipline in some things can increase our joy in all things and keep us closer to God. Adam and Eve offer a cautionary tale for us as temptation creeps in.

The Gospel passage for today affirms this message and adds to it in important ways. Jesus, coined the ‘second Adam’ in years to come by the Apostle Paul, is lead by the Spirit into a time of extreme fasting and temptation. While Adam and Eve had to avoid one delicious fruit in the midst of paradise, Jesus braved an austere wilderness and consumed nothing. It is here that Jesus is offered three distinct temptations. In the first, Jesus is tempted to assuage his hunger by using his power to turn the stones into bread. The mere mention of bread was probably difficult for him to handle given how hungry he was. Jesus says no, citing that it is not by bread alone that one lives, but by the word of God.

In the second temptation Jesus is taken to the pinnacle of the Temple and invited to throw himself down in order that the angels may save him. Now this might seem like an easier one to resist at first until it is taken into account just how isolated Jesus must have felt from everyone and especially his heavenly company after an eternity with them. Just how wonderful it would have felt to experience their embrace and a reminder of his place in the midst of this difficult time for him. Jesus again says no, refusing to put God to the test.

Finally, Jesus is shown all the kingdoms of the world, which are offered to him in exchange for worship. Jesus, on the precipice of embarking on his ministry and building his movement could have much more easily taught and influenced the world from this place but instead said no again, affirming the need to worship God and only God.

Unlike Adam, Jesus resists temptation, passes the test, and goes onto live a ministry that changed the world and brings life to many. The message, in contrast to Adam, is clear: spiritual discipline is good, so is abstinence, may Lent be a time to practice both and be right with God.

That is true, and yet, if we pay closer attention we can learn so much more about how we might live a Holy Lent and for what reasons.

Looking again at the first temptation we see Jesus deny a desire of the flesh, but for what reason? Jesus does this to strengthen his focus on God. While avoiding cookies might be good for physical health it is not the path to everyone strengthening their focus on God. As we consider what we might give up let us think about what may actually give us the opportunity to focus more on God. Perhaps the offering is time in prayer.

In the second one Jesus denied the opportunity to be reminded just how much he mattered. Jesus was in the midst of horrible isolation and often times, isolation can lead people to manipulation of those around them in order to feel reminded of their connection and importance in community. How often do we find ways to test and manipulate those we love to fill the need for connection and mattering?  To put it another way, what are the things that we do when we aren’t feeling appreciated, or connected, or valued? It would be good to consider these things and consider how we can embrace community and seek connection in healthier ways.

Finally, Jesus denied personal power so he could continue to embrace power with God. While power with God does not offer the same pride benefit and certainly made Jesus’ life and ministry more difficult it ultimately saved our world. In this we come to understand how embracing power with, as opposed to power over, can ultimately enrich our lives and ministries.

And so, given all this, our call is to live a Holy Lent, beyond fasting and abstinence, to embracing the truths that will set ourselves and our churches free to live out the fullness of God’s mission.

May we all seek to find the abstinences that will strengthen our focus on God and find ways to meet the hunger needs of others.

May we all seek community this Lent and give of our time to give community to those who are particularly isolated.

Finally, let us all consider how we might empower each other and have power and influence together in order to create positive outcomes for the world.

It is this kind of Lent that will truly live into the Spirit of Spring; regardless of what the weather might be doing. It is this kind of Lent that will take us towards an Easter Season full of resurrection and new life. May all the church, with God’s help, engage in Lent this way.

Amen. 

Written by The Rev. Edwin Johnson, a self-described “smiling, dancing, fitness-obsessed Jesus-Freak who is taken by the way that God continues to manifest in the world.” Johnson serves as the Priest-In-Charge of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Dorchester, MA. In addition to a fulfilling ministry and family life Johnson also teaches and performs latin dance and trains for competitive weightlifting.

Download the sermon for Lent 1(A)

Give Alms! Ash Wednesday – March 1, 2017

[RCL] Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 or Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 103 or 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

On this day, may we consider together just what sort of gift we ask for when we pray in the Collect for “new and contrite hearts.” Just what sort of hearts does God want us to have? In the name of this God: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The poet Robert Bridges was experiencing difficulties in matters of faith. He read many books of theology. He spent hours in reflection. Yet he found himself unable to believe in God. Bridges wrote to another poet, his friend Gerald Manley Hopkins, asking for advice. Hopkins wrote back this terse reply: “Give alms.”

Give alms. In other words, Robert Bridges, don’t sit there alone with your doubts and your theology books. Reach into your pocket, pull out your wallet, and give away your money, your precious money, so that the hungry can be fed and the homeless housed, so that the ignorant can learn and the sick be helped back to health. If you have trouble believing in God, then don’t stew in your own thoughts, but act as though you already believe. Give alms, and the little you lose will be far exceeded by what you gain.

Gerald Manley Hopkins’ advice to his friend must have done some good. Bridges became ardent in his faith.

The advice was on target, not only for Robert Bridges, but also for us. The call to give alms is rooted in the Gospel, in the gospel for Ash Wednesday that we heard moments ago. There Jesus speaks about three of the central religious practices familiar to those around him: prayer, fasting, and the giving of alms. He wants these practices to be done in the right spirit, but there is never any question whether they should be done. Jesus does not say: “If you give alms.” What he says is: “When you give alms.”

Gathered here in worship on the opening day of Lent, we may wonder about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, as well as other practices appropriate to this season. What good are they? They point to the insistent need we have to put our faith to work, and not let it be a head trip or an emotional indulgence.

Almsgiving is of undeniable importance in this regard. Which we do we love more: God or money? Are we making our own the priorities of the kingdom, or are we bending to some other standard? Through the alms we give, we pay homage to Christ present where he told us he would be: in the person of the poor, the hungry, the sick.

Yet something else also happens. No matter how generous our giving, we soon recognize that the need far outreaches our resources. Our giving does not make wants disappear. Instead, as we give we recognize how serious and indeed inexhaustible are the needs that our alms address.

So then, alms release us from a poisonous focus on ourselves, and they do so in two ways. We come to recognize the need of our sisters and brothers, people made in God’s image, people for whom Christ died. At the same time, we are humbled because we realize that what we can do is but little.

When alms are given in the right spirit, we do not believe we gain any merit with God. Instead, we recognize how, in the face of human need, we are poor yet privileged. Poor, because we are equipped to do only a little. Privileged, because though it’s little, we can do something.

The importance of almsgiving is emphasized in early Christian literature. Listen to John Chrysostom, a pre-eminent preacher of the ancient Church. In his “Homily 50 on Matthew” he declares:

“Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table. Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water? What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs? What profit is there in that?

“Tell me: if you were to see Christ lacking the necessary food but were to leave him in that state and merely surround his table with gold, would he be grateful to you or would he not be angry? What if you were to see people clad in worn-out rags and stiff with cold, and were to forget about clothing them and instead were to set up golden columns for them, saying that you were doing it in their honor? Would they not think they were being mocked and greatly insulted?”

In a single phrase this great father of the Church sums up his message: “God does not want golden vessels but golden hearts.”

Here and now our temptation is not what tempted Chrysostom’s congregation. We are not likely to go overboard in adorning altars and churches. Our characteristic mistake may be spending on our luxuries what might otherwise be given so that others can survive.

But the point remains the same: God wants golden hearts, hearts willing to give alms, to show faith in action, to give not only of their wealth, but of their talent and their time so that others may have a life worthy of the name.

My friends, this Lent and every Lent, the saints of past centuries and indeed our Lord Jesus himself call us to the practice of giving alms. In this we demonstrate our family resemblance to God our father and Jesus our brother, for what is revealed in Lent and Holy Week and Easter, but the self-emptying of God so that we may have life? The cross is the divine almsgiving so that we, poor in our sins and our mortality, may enjoy abundant life. We, in our turn, can also give generously.

This year, during this opportunity that will never return, may we all live a holy Lent marked by generous almsgiving. The point is not to gain God’s favor. Instead, we are to act on our faith, or even act on our desire to have faith. We are to give generously so that others may live. We are to give freely so that, through our poor efforts, they may experience something of God’s immense love.

I have spoken these words to you in the name of the God who knows we are dust, yet still believes we can have hearts of gold, hearts like God’s own: the One known to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is rector of St. Paul’s Parish, Baden, Maryland. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications). Many of his sermons appear on sermonwriter.com. Email: charleshoffacker8@gmail.com.

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Bulletin Insert – February 12, 2017

The Feast of Absalom Jones

Portrait of Absalom Jones by Raphaelle Peale, 1810

On February 13, the church celebrates the Rev. Absalom Jones, the first African American ordained priest in the Episcopal Church.

Jones was born into slavery in Delaware in 1746. While still a slave, he married Mary King, who was also a slave, in 1770. He worked for eight years to buy his wife’s freedom so that their children would be free, and seven years later, he was able to purchase his own freedom.

Jones became an active member of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, serving as lay preacher for the black members of the congregation. A gifted orator, Jones increased black membership in the church at such a rapid rate that white parishioners began trying to segregate the congregation; black parishioners were told by church officials that they would have to sit in the balcony. After a Sunday service in November 1786, when ushers tried to force all black parishioners, including Jones, to the balcony, Jones and his followers left St. George’s.

St. Thomas’ African Episcopal Church, 1829. Founded in 1794, St. Thomas’ remains an active parish today.

Jones and Richard Allen, who had been a fellow member of St. George’s, founded the Free African Society in 1787, a nondenominational mutual aid society designed to assist freed slaves.

By 1791, the African Society had evolved into the African Church, which was received into the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania in 1794. The diocese renamed the church St. Thomas’ African Episcopal Church, and it became the first black Episcopal parish in the United States. In 1804 Jones became the first ordained priest of African descent in the Episcopal Church.

Jones died at his home in Philadelphia in 1818, and first appeared on the Episcopal calendar of saints in the Book of Common Prayer in 1979.

Collect for Absalom Jones

Set us free, heavenly Father, from every bond of prejudice and fear; that, honoring the steadfast courage of your servant Absalom Jones, we may show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God, which you have given us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen (“Holy Women, Holy Men,” p. 221).

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Bulletin Insert – Epiphany 5(A)

Feast of the Presentation

“Christ in St. Simeon’s Arms,” detail from stained glass in Old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Edinburgh, Scotland (Photo by Lawrence Lew)

Each year on February 2, the church celebrates the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, also known as the Feast of the Purification, and Candlemas.

This feast commemorates the 40th day after Jesus’ birth, when he was presented in the Jerusalem Temple and Mary was purified in accordance with Jewish Law.

The Book of Leviticus mandates that, after childbirth, a woman must go to the temple to offer “two turtle-doves or two pigeons, one for a burnt-offering and the other for a sin-offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean” (Leviticus 12:8).

The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple is chronicled in the Gospel of Luke, when St. Simeon the Righteous saw Jesus in the temple and “took him in his arms and praised God,” saying, “My eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:30).

This blessing by Simeon is the basis for the canticle Nunc dimittis or “The Song of Simeon”:

Lord, you now have set your servant free
to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of your people Israel.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen

(Luke 2:29-32; Book of Common Prayer, p. 120).

“An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church” (Church Publishing, 2000) edited by Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, explains that when the celebration of the Presentation was first introduced in Rome in the seventh century, it included a procession with candles and the singing of the Nunc dimittis, which is why this feast also became known as “Candlemas.”

Collect for the Presentation

Almighty and everliving God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen (Book of Common Prayer, p. 239).

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Transformation, Last Sunday after Epiphany (A) – February 26, 2017

[RCL] Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2 or 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

It had been a long, multi-year mission with not much to show for it except threats from the rulers of occupied Israel and the religious authorities. Despite countless healings of the sick, large crowds coming out to hear him, miracles of feeding the hungry, they were still a small band of disciples. They surely wondered if the only reason people came out to hear him was for a diversion, and entertainment, a distraction from everyday drudgery. And maybe a good debate between the synagogue gurus and Jesus, just for fun.

And all that time they had wondered, seldom daring to ask, ‘Who are you?’

Now it seems like the threats and hatred are building to a crescendo, and Jesus wants to go up to Jerusalem. Surely he understands the danger to himself and to his small band of loyal followers?

But they keep following him, nevertheless. Pondering, bickering amongst themselves about who should be the greatest among them, and who should sit next to him in this kingdom he keeps talking about.

When Jesus invites three of his closest friends to come with him up on a mountain to pray, they willingly go, unprepared for what is to happen next.

Seeing Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus in a visionary experience, and then hearing a voice saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” is astonishing, in fact overwhelming. They fall to the ground in fear.

The experience of the Transfiguration is not possible to overstate. It comes to us full of meaning, as assurance of God’s affirmation of Jesus and our humanity. There is no need to explain it further. It is a singular experience given to all who seek to know who Jesus is, and what lies ahead for people of faith. Jesus radically recalls our humanity and affirms our nature with his divinity. The Kingdom of God has entered the world in human form, and we are called to witness to that Good News.

The reading from Second Peter describes the situation well: “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 16).

The Transfiguration and empowering Resurrection give the disciples the will to persevere, something bestowed on all of us in our Baptism (see page 308 in The Book of Common Prayer). The same God who presides at the Transfiguration of Jesus and promises us that one day we will be transformed into his likeness, baptizes us into the faith that promises the transformation of people.

While that is glorious and reassuring, it does not give us permission to close the doors of our hearts and minds while we sit around and wait for the return of Christ. Rather, it empowers us to live like people of conviction and redemption in a world badly in need of both.

If we are to participate in Lent as an exercise of self-examination and repentance, let that be acted out with kindness and grace. If we are to mark the coming period with fasting and prayer, let it also be a time when we set aside personal pleasures and work for the relief of suffering of others. If Lent is to be a journey to the Cross, let it be a journey where we allow ourselves to be taken to places and people as God needs us, for that will pattern our lives after Peter, James and John and the other disciples.

A woman from a small southern town recently visited her daughter in a major U.S. city. While there she participated in one of the women’s marches that took place across the world that weekend in January. She said she participated because she thought it would help her express her concerns about her own political beliefs. After the march she said she realized the experience transformed her. She now no longer feels anger and frustration, but hope and opportunity, knowing there are millions of people who share her hopes and dreams and are concerned about the welfare of others and the future of God’s world.

Will there be days of frustration and doubt? Yes. But the mission to proclaim God’s kingdom and to witness it however we are called to do so remains unchanged.

The Transfiguration is our mountain top experience. While we might like to remain there, we return to the world to assist in God’s project, which is nothing less than the redemption of the world through our Lord, Jesus Christ.

May this Lent be a time of renewal and grace for us all, and may it be filled with finding new ways and opportunities to witness to God who found in Jesus, his Son, all that is pleasing in the lives of men and women. That same God gives us the Transfiguration that becomes our sign of being changed into his likeness. Amen

Written by Ben Helmer. Helmer is a retired Episcopal priest who served small congregations in Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Arkansas. He was officer for rural and small community ministries for the Episcopal Church from 1999-2005.

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Flawless, Epiphany 7(A) – February 19, 2017

[RCL] Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48; Psalm 119:33-40

Most people are not as lucky as Beyoncé. Instead of waking up feeling “flawless,” most rise from bed a few minutes late, somewhat dehydrated, and in great need of a tissue. Certainly no one removes a sleep apnea mask to declare, “I woke up like this.” So why is it that we are willing to suspend reality for Queen Bey persona of perfection but find Jesus’ high expectations so impossible to grasp?

“Be perfect.”

While perfection might be achieved before breakfast for Beyoncé, it is a far cry from normal human capability. Jesus himself pushes against what we imagined perfection to be when he upsets the social order and religious customs. He touches those he shouldn’t, heals when he’s not supposed to, and dies without leading the violent takeover that many of his followers might have preferred. Jesus, in many ways, did not live up to expectations, but in his imperfect life and violent death he shows us a better meaning of perfection.

There is a temptation to characterize Jesus as one who completely dismissed the Jewish pursuit of piety, but as Sheldon W. Sorge points out in Feasting on the Word, “The Leviticus account of the moral law strikingly shapes the teaching of Jesus.” Rather than throwing out the law or the prophets, Jesus insists that he comes to fulfill them (Mt. 5:17). He does this not by following every rule but by calling his audience deeper into understanding the heart of the law.

When Jesus reads the commandment against murder, he sees beyond the rule and finds encouragement for people to work through their conflict in ways that respect each other’s life. Anger is, for Jesus (Mt. 5:22) and the author of Leviticus (19:17), an emotion that misguides us and causes us to act out violently instead of constructively. When Jesus reads Leviticus, he interprets God’s commandments to love as being all-inclusive. Jesus does not turn the law upside down at all. Instead, he persuasively argues that the law has always been there to turn us upside down.

When our personal finances and professional integrity rely on making profit from a good harvest, God says to gather the portion that will assist those who cannot afford to play in the economy on the same level (Lev. 19:9). When we want to define who is “in” and who is “out” of our local communities, God says to treat the alien as a citizen (Lev. 19:34). God tells us to live in a way that does not reinforce the gods of achievement, control, and popularity. God invites us to live in perfect, loving, unity.

And not only does God instruct that we should live in a different way than the world expects, God insists that someday we shall. We shall not have hate in our hearts or take vengeance and bear grudges (Lev. 19:17-18). We shall live together in perfect unity—this is God’s promise for our future.

If we reevaluate how we read the “you shalls” of Leviticus in this way, we might begin to imagine a future when God’s people refuse to steal, lie, or act unjustly just because they want to love one another fully. This is a future when our desire for equity surpasses our love of larger profit margins. This is a future when our unquenchable yearning to achieve is replaced by our deeper desire to be known by one another as children of God.

The holiness codes of Leviticus are not about setting God’s people up on a pedestal, out of reach of everyone else. Rather, God calls on her children to be set apart in their recognition that the world’s habit of turning people into commodities is no way to operate.

In the age of social media, treating each other as commodities is as easy as hitting “like” or swiping right (or left). Kevan Lee, a contributor for Buffer, writes that, “You’re a brand. I’m a brand. We’re all brands, whether we aim to be or not.” As soon as we decide to fill in your “about me” sections on Twitter, Instagram, Tinder, etc., we decide how we want the digital world to see us—we brand ourselves. With every picture, article, or video posting, we put out a product that we hope will be accepted by our audience. We participate in self-commodification, which, while not exclusive to social media, is made much easier in this era perhaps than ever before.

When we fall into the trap of online self-commodification, we might look in on the profiles of former lovers and feel jealousy for their “perfect” lives, “perfect” new beloveds, and their “perfect” children and puppies and kittens. It can be tempting, even for the most well-adjusted among us, to compete with others to enhance our sense of self-worth. In sensing a lack of self-worth, we might try to improve ourselves, striving for a misguided notion of perfection. In doing so, we separate ourselves from one another in some not-so-healthy ways.

These divisions lead to exclusion, to intolerance, and to the anger God in Jesus Christ calls us to replace with compassion. God calls us back together. God calls us to live in our diversity, seeking unity under the umbrella truth that each one of us is a beloved child of God.

As Jesus toured around from town to town, he embodied God’s call to come together. He reminded the people that holiness is not about achieving a standard of perfection but about all kinds of people embracing a perfect, unified love.

The meek, the hungry, the poor and oppressed—Jesus calls them “blessed.” He even calls on them to love their enemies. He practices what he preaches, and because Jesus is an effective teacher and the incarnate revelation of God, people still respond as only people do when they recognize Truth.

Jesus helps us realize that God’s kingdom is not an exclusive perfect people club with a privacy gate and a bouncer at the door; the kingdom of God is what we live when we choose to see each other as beloved children of God instead of as commodities to be bought, sold, judged, and discarded. Living in God’s kingdom is like awakening from what Thomas Merton called a “dream of separateness,” which is much more nightmare than dream.

We follow Jesus not only because he appeared to be an exceptional human, but because of his truly divine ability to birth the kingdom of God in every given moment. And we can participate in this kingdom, here and now.

When we wake up in the morning, we might say our prayers or just pause for a moment to watch the sun creep above the horizon. Whatever our spiritual practice might be, it ought to include God’s timeless affirmation that we are beloved.

We were born like this.

We woke up like this.

Written by The Reverend Curtis Farr. Farr is the Associate Rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church in West Hartford, Connecticut. Match strikes flint for Farr in the pulpit, where he approaches scripture playfully seeking to inspire greater participation in God’s mission of reconciliation. Farr is from the Pacific Northwest and loves hiking in the woods or kayaking on a secluded river. He can often be found impersonating Neil Diamond at your local karaoke bar.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 7A.

The Gift of Reconciliation, Epiphany 6A – February 12, 2017

[RCL] Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

Immediately after His Baptism and following the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus, according to the Gospel of Matthew, presents a discourse of moral teachings we have come to know as “The Sermon on the Mount.”

It is a portion of these instructions that we experience in today’s Gospel. Jesus eloquently presents a series of specific and shared understandings or interpretations of the law of Moses and contrasts them with a renewed way of looking at these matters. He begins these statements with, “You have heard that it was said” and by concluding, saying, “but I say to you”; thus, presenting the true intent of the law through the lens of Jesus’s message.

St. Augustine of Hippo stated in his book “Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount” that “if anyone, will piously and soberly consider the sermon which our Lord Jesus Christ spoke on the mount, as we read it in the Gospel according to Matthew, I think that he will find it, so far as regards the highest morals, a perfect standard of the Christian Life”

One of those standards highlighted in today’s Gospel is reconciliation. Jesus, through specific examples, shares with His disciples the negative impact of unresolved and conflictive human interactions, offering at the same time a mechanism for accountability and a path towards mending broken relationships.

For real reconciliation to occur, we must not only meditate and identify the offense, but also value the relationship that may be jeopardized by such offense. It requires openness of heart to engage in dialogue and to seek the restoration of that particular relationship. God desires for us to live in relationship with one another. When our relationships are broken, other areas of our lives may become off-balance to the extent that, at times, it may impact our ability to function.

Broken relationships separate us from one another and, in some ways, from God. At times, we are oblivious to the impact of our actions in the life of others. Our intent may be genuine or without malice, and the impact in others may be devastating. Pride may also play a significant role, impeding us from reconciling with those whom we love and love us, and from those who differ from us. As Christians, we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are called to build bridges, not walls.

In the current state of affairs in our nation, a difference of opinions at the political and ethical level has caused a visible divide among families, friends, and communities. It is practically a common occurrence to hear friends “de-friending” each other’s pages in social media as a result of political debates or opposing points of views about relevant and challenging topics.

How may we find common ground in the midst of our differences? How may we, even during challenging and uncertain times, create spaces for dialogue and reconciliation?

Jesus came to this world to reconcile us with God. It is that ministry of reconciliation that encourages us to create spaces for healthy and productive dialogue. It is that ministry of reconciliation that urges us to remain faithful to our vocation of love where we reject sin while embracing the sinner.

Author and researcher, Brené Brown, shared a cartoon about “Empathy versus Sympathy” at a RSA talk in 2013. Brown shares that “Empathy feels connection while sympathy drives disconnection”. She describes empathy as the ability to take on the perspective of another person while staying out of judgment, recognizing the emotions in other people and communicating that. Brené accurately states that “Empathy is a choice and it is a vulnerable choice.”

Having empathy for those with whom we differ may provide us an opportunity to listen attentively to their perspectives, creating spaces for holy conversations that may lead to reconciliation or even positive changes in the midst of profound and basic disagreement of ideology.

We can choose to nurture our divides and remain in a state of tension and dissension, or, we may decide to be open to the movement of the Spirit and focus on that which unite us, God’s love for humanity, and work together through our disagreements.

There is a story of a married couple who argue frequently. They have been married for 38 years. Both of them were known to have strong characteristics s and were quick to temper. One evening they engaged in yet another heated and emotionally charged conversation. The wife, reaching a point of no return, decided to pack a few things and walk away. While packing, she noticed that her husband placed another suitcase next to her and started packing as well. With a huff, she asked him, “Where in the world are you going?” Her husband responded, in an angry tone, “I don’t know. I am going wherever it is that you are going!”.

Similar to the case of this married couple, our disagreements, political or not, are not sufficient ground to separate us. We are bonded by something greater.

Avoidance of contact is a defense mechanism we may use to evade our responsibility to foster reconciliation and unity. Reconciliation is hard work. It is holy work.

Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, preached in Guatemala in August of 2011. In his sermon, he shared, “The gift of the church to the world is reconciliation. We have been given it as a gift for ourselves so that we may know God, and we have been given it to learn.”

As a church, we have a unique opportunity to become bridge-builders during this historic time in America. We have a chance to exercise our prophetic voices in powerful and unique ways, at the same time that we spread and teach the gift of reconciliation in our nation.

Jesus, our model, faced confrontations with determination and compassion. It is a healthy and necessary balance to mend and maintain challenging relationships.

Jesus’s determination ensured that the dignity of every human being was respected. His compassion showed God’s love to those who were difficult to love.

May we find holy balance in these challenging times to maintain a reconciliatory tone while challenging the injustices against God’s children in a way that foster dialogue and build bridges. Not an easy task, but a necessary one. Amen.

The Very Rev. Miguelina Howell is Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Hartford. She serves as Chaplain to the House of Bishops, CREDO Faculty and is a member of the Latino Missioner of The Episcopal Church. Miguelina serves on the General Convention Task Force for Sustainability and Development of Latino Congregations.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 6A.