Archives for December 2017

Draw Me a Sheep, Epiphany 2 (B) – January 14, 2018

[RCL] 1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20); Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic work The Little Prince, the narrator is a pilot who crash lands his plane in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Miles from civilization, the pilot assumes he will only last as long as his water supply, but one morning he is awakened by a funny little voice that says, “Draw me a sheep.” When he turns and sees an extraordinary little prince, he stares at him in disbelief. The pilot asks the boy where he came from, but the prince just says, “Please…draw me a sheep.”

The pilot complies, or at least he tries to, but the first sheep he draws looks “too sickly.” The prince asks for another. The second sheep has horns, so the prince specifies that he wants a sheep, not a ram. The pilot draws a third sheep, but that one looks too old. Finally, perhaps in some frustration, the pilot draws a box with three holes in the side and says, “The sheep you want is inside.”

To his surprise, the prince says, “That’s just the kind I wanted!” And this first, whimsical encounter with the little prince is one of many in a journey that takes the pilot—and the reader—from contentment in the familiar to joy in an adventure.

Many of the disciples have notable and even whimsical first encounters with Jesus, but none more than Nathanael. Nathanael is minding his own business when Philip runs up screaming that he has found the one whom Moses and the prophets wrote about, “And he’s from Nazareth of all places!”

“Nazareth?” Nathanael says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Philip simply invites him, “Come and see for yourself!”

So, Nathanael follows, and before he can shake hands with this stranger from the backwaters of first-century Palestine, Jesus raises his arms and exclaims, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

While some people are masters of flattery, Jesus offers no shallow compliments here—he sees Nathanael and Nathanael knows it. “How do you know me?” Nathanael asks.

Jesus responds, “I saw you under the fig tree even before Philip told you about me.”

To our surprise, Nathanael proclaims, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

In one moment, Nathanael moves from his narrow ideas and contentment in the familiar to embracing the joy that is possible in an adventure following Jesus. But what is it about this whimsical encounter that makes Nathanael change his tune so dramatically?

There was a common metaphor used for the religious institution of Jesus’ time—that of the fig tree. Fig trees produce fruit right along with leaves, and in an occurrence found in Mark and Matthew, Jesus comes upon a fig tree chockablock full of leaves. He goes to pick some fruit and finds that there is none to be picked. Whatever pollination is necessary for fruit to be produced did not happen.

The same thing seemed to be true of the religious institution Jesus critiqued—all of the bells and whistles were there, but the fruits were not.

Jesus knew that Nathanael shared this perception of those religious institutions, and Jesus knew that Nathanael was familiar with the fig tree metaphor—one that was likely as common as referring to Washington, D.C. as “the swamp.” Nathanael knew that the fig tree he was “under” needed some pruning, and in few words, Jesus seemed to promise help with such an endeavor.

Nathanael is blown away, but the excitement does not stop. Jesus asks Nathanael, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these…you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

What do you suppose that might look like? If you had to draw the scene of the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man, what might that look like? More than a fantastic image, Jesus’ image alludes to Jacob—who was called “Israel” after his wrestling match with God. Like the metaphor of the fig tree, Nathanael would have immediately understood the connection to Jacob, who is said to have dreamt of a ladder reaching to heaven with God at the top. On the ladder, there are angels ascending and descending between earth and heaven.

Knowing this story of Jacob, Nathanael would have understood Jesus to be saying that he would be the one to reestablish the joyful relationship between the people on earth and God in heaven. Jesus would not do away with anything but would fulfill everything. Jesus would make it so that no person or institution could ever get in the way of God doing what God is going to do to bring about total reconciliation throughout the world and all of the created universe.

The Church—the Body of Christ—is said to have been birthed at Pentecost. Some people claim that Easter is the birth of the Church, and many speak of Christmas as that beginning. We may also consider that the birth of the Church happens whenever someone accepts that curious invitation to “come and see” what God is up to in the world today.

As participants in a faith community, we too have opportunities to join God in what God is doing. Often those opportunities lead us down unfamiliar paths. Sometimes those opportunities require that we take a good, hard look at ourselves and correct our path. Sometimes we simply need to find our spirits nourished and our energies renewed. More often than not, we can find ourselves somewhere in a cycle that moves us from contentment in the familiar ways of our world into a whimsical curiosity, in an adventure that promises us joyful results.

Jesus invited Nathanael on a journey that would take him all around the region and eventually right up to Jerusalem to encounter the powers of the day. There was no hour-by-hour itinerary, but there was a promise of joy and hope in helping to usher in a world that could be—God’s kingdom come.

Jesus does not offer us as much information about what following him will look like. Not unlike Saint-Exupéry’s pilot depicting a sheep by drawing a box with holes in the side, Jesus promises us an adventure and a chance to imagine together what following Jesus might look like. We will define what turns our journeys take, but we can only do that once we accept that curious, whimsical invitation: the invitation to “come and see.”

The Rev’d Curtis Farr serves with the good people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fairfield, Connecticut as their rector. In his spare time, he chases his dog Eleanor Roosevelt (Elly) around the house as she attempts to make off with one of his Batman comics.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 2 (B).

Christ’s Own for Ever, Epiphany 1 (B) – January 7, 2018

Epiphany 3 sermon

[RCL] Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

Today, we commemorate the baptism of Jesus by his cousin John in the River Jordan. Now, John’s that guy we’ve been hearing a lot about lately (since the beginning of Advent), and after today, he will drop into the background.

You see, we no longer need that voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” For the Lord is here, born on earth to save us. And we no longer have any confusion about who is the Messiah, for the one more powerful than John has come.

Now that babe is born. Incarnate and among us.

John’s role as prophet, foretelling the great story of salvation as known in the person of Jesus Christ: well, that role is fulfilled with Jesus’ baptism today.

John is sometimes seen as the last of the old order: the last prophet in the line of Isaiah and Jeremiah, the last to baptize with water only and not also the Holy Spirit, and the last to demand repentance before the immanent coming of the kingdom of God.

For Jesus proclaims over and over again that the kingdom of God has drawn near us; it is here, and now. No longer coming, or far off, or even just the other side of a thin divide—but here, very near us.

Among the very first documented acts of his earthly ministry, the twelve-year-old Jesus picks up a scroll and reads from an earlier prophecy of Isaiah: that the spirit of the Lord has anointed him, and that he has been sent to announce good news to the poor—and that this prophecy has been fulfilled. “Today, in your very hearing this text has come true,” he says.

So, too, of this baptism of Jesus: it seems to have effected a radical transformation in him. Luke’s gospel tells us of his birth, and then nary a word until now—thirty years later. And from this moment—the moment of a simple ritual of living water—Jesus is changed. No longer just the carpenter’s son, no longer a refugee in Egypt, no longer just another human being to walk the face of the earth.

He moves on from here to teach in synagogues and have all people sing his praises. He will heal the sick, and make the dead live again. He will preach, and manifest miracles. He will astound people with his teaching, and confound us even today by submitting to a shameful death on a cross.

And he will appear again over forty days until he ascends into heaven, prophesying of his return in glory to judge the earth—a second coming we still anticipate, two millennia later.

One day people know him as that clever boy, Joseph’s son. And the next he’s revealed as the Christ, the Messiah, the chosen one—God’s son, the beloved, with whom God is well pleased.

In his baptism, Jesus seems to have become an entirely different person.

It’s as if the waters of his baptism have washed away what was hiding the true Jesus. The running water of a river has somehow changed him, made him manifest as who he truly is, and given him the power and inspiration to begin a mission and ministry that will forever change the world.

So, too, with our baptism:

  • Oh, none of us is the Christ, but each and every one of us is the beloved, with whom God is well pleased.
  • And each and every one of us was forever changed and transformed in our baptism.
  • And each and every one of us continues to be changed and transformed—in ways big and small—throughout our earthly ministry.

Now filled with the Holy Spirit, we—like Jesus—are commissioned and sent forth to proclaim the good news of God’s favor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim that the time of God’s favor is here.

That’s our job: to live baptismally.

And, living baptismally: what is that all about?

  • It’s about knowing that we have been forever changed by the acknowledgment of God’s working in our life;
  • that our true and holy self has been revealed by the washing away of all stain of sin;
  • that we are grafted into the body of Christ’s Church;
  • that we have been given an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.

We are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.

Baptism is an amazing gift. By the waters of baptism, we are lead from death to life, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life. In it, we are buried with Christ in his death. By it, we share in his resurrection. Through it, we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.[1]

And baptism is also an awesome responsibility. We are also no longer simply to live as ordinary people in the world:

  • We are to boldly confess Jesus as Lord and Savior;
  • to strive for justice and peace among all people;
  • and to seek and serve the Christ in everyone we meet.

Those of us who profess and call ourselves Christians are called to live a different kind of life, a life set apart from the world around us and yet somehow also very much in its midst.

A life of grateful thanksgiving in the face of victory—and defeat.

A life of difficult forgiveness—in the face of bitter betrayal.

A life of ongoing repentance—in the face of our chronic mistakes.

A life forever changed—and forever changing—proceeding from strength to strength, from goodness to perfection, from death to life.

This wet, earthly act, involving people in relation to one another, bodies acting and touching one another, hands, clothing, oil, and light: This emotion-filled rite we call “baptism” is the means by which we declare:

  • our separation from an old identity,
  • our transition from being no longer one of the old order to not yet being fully one of the new, and
  • our incorporation into the full life of the community we know and proclaim as Christ’s holy church.[2]

It is now for us—the baptized, those grafted into the life of Christ, those sealed and set apart—to share in an eternal priesthood, to rejoice at our adoption as children of God, and to give thanks for the ineffable mystery of our salvation.

Through baptism, we are forgiven, loved, and free to become more fully who God has created us to be: living members of Christ’s body, incarnate examples of divine love, manifestations of God’s glory here on earth.

By baptism, the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled—in Jesus, and in each one of us. God looks at us—the beloved, with whom God is well pleased—and says, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of God has risen upon you.” Amen.

[1] From the Thanksgiving over the Water in The Book of Common Prayer [1979].

[2] Daniel V. Stevick, Baptismal Moments; Baptismal Meanings (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1987), 116.’ 

The Rev. Barrie Bates has served Anglican and Lutheran congregations in California, New York, and New Jersey over the past 20+ years. He holds a Ph.D. in liturgical studies, and memberships in the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation, the Sons of the American Revolution, and the Screen Actors’ Guild. Other than ordained ministry, his interests include opera, fine dining, and boating.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 1 (B).

God Is the Seeker, Feast of the Epiphany – January 6, 2018

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

We celebrate today the great “Aha” moment when the Magi who journeyed from the east discover at the end of their quest not a prince born in a palace, but the infant Jesus born in a cave that had been used as a stable. The Magi are astrologers, who watch the heavens for signs of momentous earthly events. These are not astronomers who study the stars and planets for scientific data alone, but astrologers, not unlike people who create horoscopes today. Astrology was a forbidden means of divination for the Jews.

What the Magi reveal is that there was an air of expectation so palpable that anyone with eyes could see something momentous was about to happen. Let’s step aside from the Bible for a moment and see what else was being written around the time of Jesus’ birth. In the year 37 BCE, the poet Virgil wrote his Fourth Eclogue, a beautifully written poem about the immanent expectation of a man sent down from heaven whose birth would inaugurate a new age. Two Roman historians, Tacitus and Suetonius, wrote of the expectation of a world leader to arise out of Judea [Tacitus Ann. 5.13 and Suetonius Bell. 3.399-408; 6:310-15].

It was also a common expectation of the day that a sign from the heavens would accompany such a momentous event. There were plenty of impressive portents from which to choose. Jesus was likely born in what we would now call 4 BCE. Seven years before Jesus’ birth, Halley’s Comet made its circuit through our skies. Three years before Jesus’ birth, Jupiter and Saturn were in alignment three times. The planet Jupiter signified a king while Saturn was routinely associated with the Jews. This would have fueled Herod’s insecurity and local political and religious speculation. Finally, a year before Jesus’ birth, Chinese astronomers recorded sighting a supernova, a bright light suddenly appearing in the night sky.

What all of this tells us is that, independent of the Bible, we can read of a relatively common expectation at the turn of the era that momentous change was coming. Furthermore, that change was expected to be noted with signs in the heavens.

The Judeo-Christian tradition has always taught that God can be known through creation. This revelation through the creation is no simplistic natural theology, but the knowledge we gain of God through the creation alone is incomplete and sometimes confusing in and of itself. We come to see that though one can reliably come to know of God through the creation, we do not come to know God in fullness through the creation alone.

In theological terms, what we are discussing is revelation. Unless God chose to reveal God’s own self to us, we would know nothing of God. But, because God decided to be made known, we can and do learn of God through the general revelation of creation and other forms of specific revelation. Just as you may discern something of the artist through her painting or his sculpture, one can learn of God through the creation. The theoretical physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne put it this way in his book Science and Creation,

“We are so familiar with the fact that we can understand the world that most of the time we take it for granted. It is what makes science possible. Yet it could have been otherwise. The universe might have been a disorderly chaos rather than an orderly cosmos. Or it might have had rationality which was inaccessible to us.”

The universe was created with an order that humans can study and somewhat comprehend. We were created with the ability to understand and a common component of human self-understanding through the ages and around the world has been a belief in God. This belief in something greater than ourselves is such a universal human experience that many find that awareness of God alone to be proof of God’s existence. Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that this universal human idea of God could be nothing more than a universal projection of our minds to fill a need in our lives. This is the Marxist worldview, that religion is the opium of the masses. We just delude ourselves into belief.

Yet, this idea of revelation comes circling back around to tap on our shoulders. We do not know of God simply because we want there to be a God. We know of God because God reveals God’s own self to us. In addition to the general revelation of God through creation, there is specific revelation. The general revelation of God through creation spoils any possible excuse we may have in saying that we never knew there is such a thing as God. Specific revelation is more direct.

Specific revelation includes dreams and visions God uses to get people’s attention. Dreams like the ones which told Joseph of Jesus’ birth. Dreams like the one which warned the Magi to return home without stopping to pay a courtesy call on Herod and the one that warned Joseph and Mary to flee to Egypt. Specific revelation also includes scripture. God’s revelation is available to us through the word of God. We get a fuller picture of God through scripture that complements rather than contradicts the image of God we attain through the creation.

An important form of specific revelation comes through our own lives. We know God best through the ways in which God acts in our lives and the other ways in which God has acted in human history. As God is revealed in the way God acts in history, the Christian concept of revelation reaches its fullest expression in the person of Jesus. We get our best and clearest image of who God is and how God acts through Jesus’ life and ministry, his death, and resurrection.

As the Apostle Paul wrote, “For it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of the darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Whether they understood it at the outset of their journey or not, the Magi traveled to see the light of the Glory of God revealed in the face of the infant Jesus.

The Magi were seekers and even though their methods were unbiblical and perhaps anti-biblical, God honored their quest. God called out to the Magi from the heavens or they would have never found Jesus. God, not the Magi, initiated the Magi’s quest. God guided them to their destination though the Magi never knew where exactly where their journey would take them. Yet, the Magi played their part as they did not simply stay home admiring the star in the sky. They hit the road, enduring all the troubles of travel including having to go against the local king, Herod, when they neared their destination. Yet all of their actions came second. God initiated the journey.

We may think that we are spiritual seekers, we are the ones on a quest for God’s presence. But that’s not the way scripture presents the story. Scripture tells us that God is the seeker. God is revealing God’s own self to you in the creation, in scripture, in your very life experience. We are asked only to open our eyes, to see, and then respond as the Magi did in coming to adore the one who made us and then entered human history to redeem us.

Open your eyes to how God is showing up in your life. God is seeking after you and me. Come let us adore him. Amen.

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He is also a member of the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church and serves on the Advisory Group on Church Planting. Frank blogs on mostly church development related topics at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Download the sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany.

Names, Feast of the Holy Name – January 1, 2018

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

Names can tell us a lot about people’s characters and the roles they play in a story.

One of the pleasures of reading literature is discovering the meaning of characters’ names. Authors will often give their characters names that tell us something important about who they are and about what they will do in the story. The great master of giving characters names is Charles Dickens. He gives us the policemen, Sharpeye and Quickear; the family physician, Dr. Pilkens; and the surgeon, Dr. Slasher. The Bigwig Family are the stateliest people in town, Mr. Bounderby is a self-made man and social climber, and the Reverend Mechisedech Howler is a preacher of the Ranting Persuasion.

One of the things that children seem to like about the Harry Potter stories is the names of the characters. They have fun sounds, and their meanings are none too subtle. Severus is a Latin word for “severe” or “strict,” and Professor Severus Snape is a strict teacher if ever there was one. “Malfoy” sounds like the French for “bad faith,” mal foi; and draco means “snake” or “dragon” in Latin. Put them together and you get Draco Malfoy, a real bad apple. And the headmaster Dumbledore’s first name is Albus, which means “white,” so we may suppose he is the leader of those on the side of light.

Today in our church calendar we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus. In the New Testament, we are told that God is the one who gives Jesus his name. And in giving Jesus his name, God is telling us something important about Jesus’ character and the role he will play in the story of God’s love for the world.

In our gospel lesson for today, we hear that “after eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” It was apparently the custom in Jesus’ day to name a male child at the time of circumcision, which was the act by which he was made a member of the people of God. That Jesus’ parents had him circumcised and named on the eighth day after his birth demonstrates their piety and fidelity to the Law of Moses. The beginning of the story of Jesus is part of the larger, ongoing story of God’s love for God’s people. Jesus’ name tells us about his place in this story.

Earlier in the Gospel of Luke, through the angel Gabriel, God tells Mary that she will conceive and bear a son and that she is to “call him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High.” In naming Jesus, God is telling us something about who he is. The name “Jesus” is a Greek form of the Hebrew name “Joshua,” which means “the Lord helps” or “the Lord saves.” When we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus, we are celebrating the one through whom and in whom the Lord helps or saves his people.

This is a rather audacious name to give to a baby. Since many of us know the end of the story, it may seem less so, but we should not overlook what an extraordinary thing the naming of Jesus is. Before his teaching and preaching, before his healings and miracles, before his death and resurrection, Jesus is already identified by God as the one through whom He will save his people. An 8-day-old baby named Jesus. “He will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High.” In the naming of a tiny child, we already catch a glimpse God’s audacious plan to save the world through the gift of a vulnerable human being.

It may surprise many of us to learn that we have also been given an audacious name. The Catechism in older versions of the Book of Common Prayer used to begin with this question: “What is your Name?” After saying your name, you were then asked, “Who gave you this Name?” The answer to this question was to be the following: “My Sponsors in Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.” When we were given our names in baptism, we were made a member of Christ, a child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.

Our names, given in baptism, tell us something important about our characters and the roles we are to play in the story of God’s love for the world. Who are we? Most fundamentally, most deeply, we are beloved children of God, members of Christ, and through him heirs of the promised kingdom. How are we to live? We have our roles to play in God’s story of salvation by turning away from evil and wrongdoing, but putting our faith and trust in Christ, by believing in the articles of faith, and by keeping God’s commandments.

Names can tell us a lot about people’s characters and the roles they play in a story. Yes, we are vulnerable human beings with ordinary names like Harry and Sally and Sue. But we have also been given names in baptism that identify us as extraordinary participants in the story of God’s love for the world.

Today we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus. It was given to him when he was eight days old, when he was circumcised and made a member of the people of God. The angel Gabriel told his human parents to name him “Jesus,” which means “the Lord helps” or “the Lord saves.” It tells us that Jesus is the one through whom God’s love will embrace the whole world. This is an extraordinary and audacious name to give to a tiny baby. It is also an extraordinary and audacious plan to save the world through a vulnerable, flesh-and-blood human being. The audacity of God’s plan continues in our own names given in baptism. Those names identify us with Jesus and his story. In his Holy Name, we claim our true identities as children of God and inheritors of the kingdom of heaven.

Names can tell us a lot about people’s characters and the roles they play in a story.

This sermon, written by the Rev. Dr. Joseph Pagano, originally ran for the Feast of the Holy Name on January 1, 2011.

Download the Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name.

In the Beginning…, Christmas 1 – December 31, 2017

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

The first eighteen verses of the Gospel of John are certainly well-known—“In the beginning was the Word.” But this passage can seem too floaty, too esoteric, too obscure, abstract, and idealized. It’s poetry, yes, but it’s not particularly helpful poetry, and when we read the Bible, most of us like to gather some sort of concrete idea of what to do in our lives on an everyday basis.

But if John thought poetry was the best way to introduce Jesus and encourage us to encounter Jesus, why was that?

This text reveals that we need to think differently about who we are. It’s very easy as we go about our daily lives making our daily mistakes to get very down on ourselves, to believe we are constantly disappointing God and everyone else. And while it’s important to never lose sight of our feet of clay, the fact is that God created us but a little lower than the angels, and sometimes we need to rise into the stratosphere with John and live into that a bit.

Being a disciple of Jesus Christ means being changed. We are born blessed by God, created in the image of God, but salvation makes us a new creation in Christ. Listen to how Isaiah talks about how God has changed him in our lesson today: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels…You shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.”

Our trust and faith in God that we struggle so doggedly to maintain and renew makes us, who are already cherished by God, into souls who shine with new potential and the beauty of life immersed in God. This is true even when we are sinning because the underlying reality of our desire and hunger for God will always drive us to stand up again when we’ve fallen, to reach out again when we’ve lost contact with God, to open up again when we’ve hardened our hearts.

What can we learn about what Jesus wants us to be from what we learn about who Jesus is in John’s prologue? John says, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” You were part of a process much greater than your parents creating a biological exchange. Jesus Christ himself, the great and eternal Word, was the vehicle of your creation, was the medium and the messenger that spoke a unique word into the universe that never was before and never will be again. That’s you.

You might not believe little old you could be that special or important. But John says it himself: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” You are a child of God born of the will of God.

In fact, we were so important to God that Jesus chose to leave all his heavenly glory, emptying himself and taking on the form of a slave, as Philippians says. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory,” John goes on. That’s what we’re celebrating today, on this first Sunday of Christmas. God chose to humble Godself to the level of a poor, limited, human creature. And more than that—notice that John adds, “And we have seen his glory.” Jesus didn’t just become human for a minute or an hour or a day and then go right back to heaven. He lived among us for thirty-three years, enduring the messiness, the heartbreak, the inconvenience, the joy, and the pain of human life.

And he never walked out on that pain. He could have used his power at so many moments to ease his way. It would never have affected his healing or his teaching. There was no reason for him to suffer the pain he went through, from getting sick to getting in arguments to having clueless disciples, to having friends die, all the way up to the excruciating suffering he experienced on the cross. But he did it because he loves us, and he would never abandon us to suffer alone.

He entered the pain willingly because he wanted to go to the darkest depths of human suffering, because that is where all of us end up at some point in our lives, some of us more than once. That is what John means when he says “and we have seen his glory.” Not his glory in the sense of being powerful or mighty or wearing a robe that shines like the sun and ascending to heaven on a cloud. We have seen his glory as he dwelt among us because there never has been and there never will be any place of pain, lostness, suffering, or addiction that we can go and not find him there with us, bearing it with us and for us.

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known,” John says. This can help us see the Incarnation and the Christmas season in a whole different way. If Jesus had not been born, that first sentence, “No one has ever seen God,” would still be true. Mary and Joseph and Peter and John would not have seen God, and we would not have seen God. But because God made the choice to share Godself with us in human form, we have seen God in Jesus Christ, and it is amazing.

And that second sentence, “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” This shows us once again what Jesus gave up and sacrificed to come to us, a completely different sacrifice from the giving of his life on the cross. He was close to the Father’s heart. That was where he lived, in the perfect Trinity of love. And he left that peaceful, radiant and loving place, the place close to the Father’s heart, for us. And why? To stay with us forever? Yes, but more than that. To bring us to that place. To bring us close to the Father’s heart. He told us so himself: “I go to prepare a place for you.” He doesn’t even take his special place back for himself. He gives it up for us. And this is the fundamental reordering of the universe that happened on Christmas that we celebrate today.

It’s worth living in the poetry sometimes. We can get frustrated when we don’t get concrete direction from a Bible passage. But the poetry is what explains the why of all the literal actions of discipleship we’re trying to do. What takes tithing and studying and praying and worshipping and serving from being rote, mechanical duties to being our offering of our very selves to the living God, is the cosmic story of God and humanity of which John sings. The beauty of the words, and underneath that, the beauty of the truth that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”—that poetry is what makes our souls catch fire for God and all God asks of us.

This is why scripture matters so much. Because when real life comes crashing in, when the divorce papers are served, when the job loss happens, when the cancer or Alzheimer’s diagnosis comes through, we have to have somewhere to anchor our souls. And we do, in a few simple words a man named John wrote a very long time ago. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The hard knocks of life plus the poetry of scripture give us the chance to build our lives so that we become a word of poetry ourselves, one little phrase expressed by the great Word that is God.

The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Indianapolis and currently the Associate Rector the St. Francis-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana. A native of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, she comes to ordained ministry by way of the University of Kansas and Yale Divinity School, where she won the Yale University Charles S. Mersick Prize for Public Address and Preaching and the Yale University E. William Muehl Award for Excellence in Preaching. See more of her work at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.

Download the sermon for Christmas 1 (B).

The Work of Christmas, Christmas Day (III) – December 25, 2017

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

Note: There are three approved lectionary readings for Christmas Day. Find sermons based on other readings here.

This is John’s Christmas. This is incarnation. No shepherds, no angels, no crèche, no Magi. John’s story is so utterly unlike the familiar crèche or pageant. How on earth could one make this, John’s story of the incarnation, into a pageant? It begins before time itself!

Note the opening words: “In the beginning…” The first to hear or read John’s Gospel had heard these words before. We all have. The entire Bible begins with these words, “In the beginning, God created…” Jesus’ origins are cosmic – at the very root of the universe, “all that is, seen and unseen.” And we now know that fully 95% of the created universe is unseen: dark matter and dark energy. Only 5% is anything at all like us, and animals and rocks and trees and stars and planets. God’s creation is mostly unseen.

John puts Jesus, the Word, the logos, present before anything was made. Before God said the word, “Light!” and there was light! God speaks and things come into being. Before God speaks, however, there was the “Word.” In Greek that is logos – word.

But for Jews and Gentiles alike in the first century, this word logos meant more than what we think when we say “word.” For at least six centuries before Christ came into the world, logos had currency among philosophers, and meant something like the principle of reason that rules the universe. Logos could also describe the Hebrew idea of wisdom – hokma in Hebrew, sophia in Greek. According to the rabbis, wisdom was responsible for creation. So universal is this Word, this logos, that it is in everything that has been created. There is nothing “made that was made” that is not made through this Word. This is why we promise in our Baptism to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.” Christ as logos is in all persons and in all things. Thus, our need to care for the Earth and everyone and everything therein.

The Word, says John, is life. And this life is light – the light of the world. This light is a beacon that shines and cuts through all darkness – and darkness does not overcome this light. That is, there is evil, not just in people but in all the created order. Our redemption in and by the Word – the logos – is a vital part of a larger project – the redemption of the entire universe of God’s creation.

Yet, we who come from this Word, this logos, do not readily recognize him. He comes to those of us who claim his name as our own – Christian – and yet we know him not. This continues to be a problem. Just look around us. Two thousand years of claiming his name as our own, and just how brilliantly does the world around us reflect this life-giving light? In a world of ongoing brutalities – torture, killings, mass shootings, capital murder as retribution, bombings, not to mention hunger, loneliness, hatred, bigotry, poverty, and rejection of strangers. We are promised that all who do receive him, accept him, follow him, are given power – power to become “children of God.” We say we receive, accept, and follow Jesus the Word, but is this at all reflected in all that we do or say? Or, in all that is done or said on our behalf by others who claim to know, receive, accept, and follow this Word?

It makes it all the more remarkable that this Word becomes flesh and blood and moves into the neighborhood. The text literally says he “tabernacled among us.” That is, he pitched his tent; this Word, this logos, set up shop right in our midst despite our not knowing him. We are meant, of course, to recall that other time in our tradition’s past when God tabernacled among us in the tent of meeting in the wilderness – that place where “the glory of the Lord filled the tent.” Again, we behold his glory!

For John, this is Christmas. The Word of God comes and pitches his tent to sojourn with us, giving us another chance to know, accept, and follow him. We behold his glory. He adopts us as his own.

A story is told about some Navy SEALs sent to free a group of hostages in one of the corners of the world. As they storm into the hiding place, they find the hostages huddled on the floor in a corner of the room. The SEALs tell them they are there to take them home. Get up and follow us. No one moves. They are so damaged by the experience of their captivity that they do not believe these are really people sent to set them free. So, one of these SEALs does something: he takes off his helmet, puts down his gun, gets down on the floor, softens his face, and huddles up next to the captives, putting his arms around a few of them. No guards would do this. He whispers, “We are like you. We are here to be with you and to rescue you. Let us take you home. Will you follow us?” One by one, the prisoners get up and are eventually taken to safety on an aircraft carrier and brought home.

Lots of rhetoric and ink have been spilled to explain the miracle of the incarnation – how it is God becomes one of us to take us home – to redeem us as a step in redeeming a broken world and broken universe. God sees us captive to many things, unwilling to simply step away from those things that keep us in prison – often prisons of our own making. In Jesus, God takes off all his glory, gets down on the floor with us, huddles up with us – tabernacles among us, pitches his tent among us – and whispers, “It is OK. I am with you. I am one of you now. Come with me, follow me, and I will take you home.”

John tells us that the essence of Christmas does not need a crèche, does not need shepherds, does not need angels, or greens, or red bows, or piles of gifts, or carols, or turkeys and roast beefs with all the trimmings. All Christmas needs is for us to know the Word. To accept the Word. To get up and follow the Word. There is no way we can ever know all there is to know about God – but in Christ, the Word, we can see his light and the logos. He will lead us home. This is incarnation. This is Christmas. It is time now, writes Howard Thurman, for the work of Christmas to begin.

The Work of Christmas

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.

Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations 

Written by the Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek. Ordained in the Diocese of Chicago in 1983, I 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, I 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 I was trained to work as a Stewardship Consultant through the Office of Stewardship at the Episcopal Church Center. I also helped to lead retreats for the Ministry of Money, a ministry of the Church of the Saviour, Washington, DC. Recently retired from full-time parish ministry, I do Interim and Supply work throughout the Diocese of Maryland. I also continue a lifetime as 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. I also use guitar and write music to supplement worship and the preaching event. Some of these songs can be seen on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/user/SoundsDivine1. My sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com, and I have been writing for Sermons that Work for as long as I can remember! Feel free to contact me at kkub@aol.com.

Download the sermon for Christmas Day.