Archives for January 2018

Bible Study, Lent 2 (B) – February 25, 2018

[RCL] Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Although Abraham and Sarah enacted their own solution in response to Sarah being unable to conceive a child (Abram had a child, Ishmael, with Hagar, Sarai’s slave-girl), thirteen years later, God appears and reveals that Sarah will conceive a son, through whom Abraham will “be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” Sarah “will give rise to nations,” and “kings of people will come from her.” Abraham does not rationalize or make excuses for enacting his and Sarah’s solution; he prostrates himself in response to being in the presence of Almighty God.

Reviewing one’s life in the presence of God and identifying areas for correction need not cause shame and guilt; being in the presence of the Divine can evoke awe and humility, whatever one’s present state of being. While one may sense that he or she has lost the way in discerning and following the ways of God, there are repeated invitations to turn back to God. Every day we may come before God to renew our relationship and the course of our lives in response to God’s call.

  • Are there any areas of your life in which God might be inviting you to change course or start anew?

Psalm 22:23-30

The passage from this psalm reveals an invitation to praise God in thanksgiving for God’s acceptance of us. Our praise may take various forms, one of which is gathering for common worship. Gathering with our local communities, as communities of faith gather throughout the world, we are reminded of God’s loving, merciful presence to all peoples. Moreover, our worship of God transcends time and space; through God, we remain connected with those whom we love, but see no longer.

  • How might your praise and worship of God draw you into closer relationship with others?
  • As you consider the people whom you love, but see no longer, how might worshipping God be an experience of being connected with them?

Romans 4:13-25

The themes of God’s justice and righteousness are woven together throughout Paul’s letter to the Romans. Today’s reading explores the righteousness of Abraham, a righteousness bestowed through faith. Some of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries boasted in their covenantal relationship with God as a unique bond between themselves and God—a relationship to which the Gentiles did not have access. Paul, on the contrary, asserted that righteousness ultimately comes through faith. He presents Abraham as the ancestor of all the faithful, Jews and Gentiles alike. One’s righteousness through a covenantal relationship with God extends beyond ethnic identity; it is available to all people. Paul offers a message of unity in a context of division; that context of division is rooted in valuing ethnic identity above common humanity.

  • As we reflect on the relevance of this message today, what conversations are creating divisions in the Church and in the world, and how might we, like the apostle Paul, be messengers of unity?

Mark 8:31-38

This passage from Mark includes an announcement of Jesus’ passion and a statement of conditions of discipleship. The juxtaposition of these two ideas reveals the connection between self-sacrifice and being a follower of Jesus.

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Jesus addresses these challenging words to the crowd and his disciples. We, his present-day disciples, can hear these words addressed to our lives– what we wish to save or preserve, and what we are willing to give up. Being inordinately attached to aspects of one’s “life,” in terms of external attributes and circumstances, can diminish the vitality of one’s interior life, one’s soul. Jesus invites us, as we consider his life and ours, to seek the perspective of God in discerning how to nurture our souls and devote ourselves to living the Gospel in faithful service to Jesus.

  • What areas of your life might God be inviting you to let go of in order to deepen and strengthen your interior life?
  • What might it mean for you to “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus,” in the present circumstances of your life?

The Reverend Denise Muller is a transitional deacon, canonically resident in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. She will complete a Diploma of Anglican Studies at the Seminary of the Southwest in May 2018. She received a Master of Arts in Theology and Biblical Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary and a Master of Public Health from Loma Linda University. She completed a Certificate of Spiritual Direction through Christian Formation and Direction Ministries and a Certificate of Supervision of Spiritual Directors through Mercy Center. She is a spiritual director and has served as the Arizona Field Director for a national prison ministry organization. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, reading, and visiting art museums.

Download the Bible study for Lent 2 (B).

Bulletin Insert – February 4, 2018

Absalom Jones Offering

In honor of February Black History Month and Blessed Absalom Jones, the first African American priest in the Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has called for an increased understanding and commitment to the Episcopal Historically Black Colleges and University, known as HBCUs.

The Presiding Bishop invites Episcopalians “to deepen our participation in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation by dedicating offerings at observances of the Feast of Absalom Jones to support the two remaining Episcopal Historically Black Colleges and University (HBCUs): St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh, N.C., and Voorhees College in Denmark, S.C.”

The two institutes of higher education were founded in the later 19th century as an Episcopal Church missionary venture. “These schools bring educational, economic, and social opportunity to often resource-poor communities, and they offer many blessings into the life of the Episcopal Church,” he said. Donations to the HBCUs will provide much needed help to offer competitive scholarships and financial aid, attract and retain exceptional faculty, support cutting-edge faculty research, install new and upgraded technology campus-wide, and provide state-of-the-art classroom and athletic equipment.

“The Episcopal Church established and made a life-long covenant with these schools, and they are an essential part of the fabric of our shared life,” the Presiding Bishop noted. Once there were 10 HBCUs; however, St. Augustine’s and Voorhees are the only two remaining.

Absalom Jones is honored in the Episcopal Church on February 13. Jones was an African-American abolitionist and clergyman and the first African American ordained a priest in The Episcopal Church. Absalom Jones was born enslaved to Abraham Wynkoop in 1746 in Delaware. Jones moved to Philadelphia after his master sold his plantation along with Absalom’s mother and six siblings. Jones bought his wife Mary’s freedom and later his master granted Absalom’s emancipation in 1784.

In 1787, with his friend Richard Allen, they founded the Free African Society, a mutual aid benevolent organization that was the first of its kind organized by and for black people. Bishop William White ordained Jones a deacon in 1795 and a priest on September 21, 1802. Jones faithfully served the people at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia, a church which remains a vibrant congregation.

“As we approach February, the remembrance of the Blessed Absalom Jones, the first African-American priest in the Episcopal Church, we have a unique opportunity to celebrate his memory and to honor the witness of two schools that continue to form new leaders,” Presiding Bishop Curry said. “In honor of Jones’ commitment to advancing the education of African Americans and promoting the development of African American leaders in all areas of life, the Episcopal Church is delighted to designate Saint Augustine’s University and Voorhees College as the beneficiaries of the 2018 Feast of Absalom Jones offerings.”

Donations are accepted at episcopalchurch.org/give. For more information, contact Tara Elgin Holley, Episcopal Church Director of Development, at tholley@episcopalchurch.org.

Download the bulletin insert as a PDF:

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Bulletin Insert – February 11, 2018

World Mission Sunday

On February 11, 2018, the Episcopal Church will celebrate World Mission Sunday.

Traditionally, World Mission Sunday falls on the last Sunday in Epiphany each year and is a time when the church comes together to focus on the global impact of our baptismal call to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 305).

The theme of World Mission Sunday this year is Building Bridges Beyond Ourselves.

The Episcopal Church is a member of the Anglican Communion, a family of churches consisting of 39 provinces with millions of members in over 165 countries. We are connected by our shared faith and tradition. Today is a day to pray for those with whom we are in relationship, and to reflect upon the global context of our Church. We are called to live in community, and our community stretches far beyond the walls of any building or the borders of any country. The Office of Global Partnerships supports and nurtures relationships between individuals, congregations, dioceses, and our brothers and sisters across the Anglican Communion.

In his sermon written for today, the Rev. David Copley, Director of Global Partnerships and Mission Personnel for the Episcopal Church, tells us, “On World Mission Sunday, we are reminded that we are all called by God to live a life of reconciliation—reconciliation with God and with one another—and there has been no more urgent a time to participate in God’s mission than today.”

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry reminds us, “World Mission Sunday is about how we, as followers of Jesus, work together with people across the globe to help to make this world something closer to God’s dream for all of God’s children.”

Resources for World Mission Sunday, including sermons and ideas for encouraging global mission, are available at episcopalchurch.org/worldmissionsunday. For more information about World Mission Sunday or the Office of Global Partnerships, please contact Jenny Grant, Officer for Global Relations and Networking, at jgrant@episcopalchurch.org.

Download the bulletin insert as a PDF:

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Bible Study, Lent 1 (B) – February 18, 2018

[RCL] Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

Genesis 9:8-17

Since the time of humanity’s disobedience in the Garden, covenants have been the means by which we re-enter into relationship with God. It’s important to note that God’s covenant extends past Noah through his descendants, to all of creation. This shows a significant point about the grace of God: it extends beyond all sense of righteousness on our part. The life of creation is by God’s grace, Noah is the righteous one that God beholds, but the payment of this righteousness is not just salvation for Noah, but the promise of life for the world. God’s faithfulness to his covenantal promises is a theme that runs throughout Scripture and unites the likes of Noah and Jesus. Bound by God’s grace, we need not simply bear the burdens of our flesh, but rather we may rejoice in that flesh which God has promised to both keep and redeem.

  • In what ways can Noah be seen as a type of Christ?
  • How do we rectify our understanding of grace with our understanding of justice (e.g., is it fair that others will benefit by God’s acknowledgement of Noah’s righteousness)?

Psalm 25:1-9

This portion of Psalm 25 expresses the contrasts between God’s way and the ways of humanity. The ways of humanity are enmity with others, scheming and treachery, shame, disappointment, and ultimately, sin. God’s ways are everlasting compassion and love, grace, faithfulness, and ultimately, salvation. The Psalmist recognizes not only the disparity between these two paths, but also the necessity that God should lead us on them – that we cannot walk in the ways of God without his grace. “Gracious and upright is the Lord; therefore he teaches sinners in his way. He guides the humble in doing right and teaches his way to the lowly.” Ultimately, our sins are overcome by his saving love.

  • In what ways may we ask God to lead us on our paths today?
  • What must we surrender to God in order to follow him?

1 Peter 3:18-22

1 Peter exposes the new covenant under which God calls the unrighteous to himself. As we saw in the reading from Genesis, God’s covenant with one righteous man, Noah, extends his grace to all; the new covenant, by which we are now being saved, extends that grace even further. The promised faithfulness of God is fully realized in the person of Jesus Christ, who now sits at the right hand of the Father. By baptism, we are initiated into Christ’s body and given a righteousness that human beings cannot attain in and of themselves. By baptism, we die to ourselves and are resurrected to a new covenant and a new relationship with God.

  • Which sins still keep you from living fully into your new spiritual life?
  • In what ways can we proclaim the good news to others who are also still imprisoned by their selfishness and sinfulness? 

Mark 1:9-15

Mark’s narratives of the baptism of Jesus, his temptation in the wilderness, and the commencement of his ministry are the sparsest of all the Synoptic Gospels. But his no-frills retelling of these three events, in short order, reveals their deepest truths. The baptism of our Lord stands as a significant transition from an early life that (according to Mark’s omissions) is essentially without note, to a life that is driven by ministry and marked by a growing intensity of purpose toward the cross. Jesus moves seamlessly from the beloved to the tempted. He is waited on by God’s messengers, so that he might be the messenger of the coming Kingdom to those who are in desperate need.

With a handful of verses, we can begin to discern what it truly means to be God’s beloved Son – to endure a baptism of repentance, which he does not need; to face the temptations that are part and parcel of human flesh, so that he may know our plight; to be waited on by those who are closest to God, in order to bring a message of good news to those who are furthest from him. To be a beloved son of God is to live a life for others, in order that they might live the life that God intended.

  • If Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of his ministry, what does that mean for our own baptisms and ministries?
  • If Jesus does not need a baptism of repentance, what might be his purpose for being baptized? 

The Reverend Andrew Cruz Lillegard is a transitional Deacon, canonically resident in the Diocese of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Currently in his senior year of the MDiv program, he lives with his wife (Theresa) and two sons (Christopher and Wyatt) on the beautiful campus of Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Nashotah, Wisconsin. He serves as a Sacristan and Chair of the Student Commons. Surrendering to a call from God in mid-life, Andrew and Theresa discerned a path that would require selling their home and settling into a life of intentional community at seminary. While Andrew is the only Wisconsin native currently attending Nashotah House, he and his family are preparing to leave their state after graduation (May 2018) to further answer God’s call. When not responding to the demands of school, Andrew is spending time with his family – particularly fishing and enjoying a wide variety of film genres.

Download the Bible study for Lent 1 (B).

Lament, Ash Wednesday – February 14, 2018

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

After the sermon ends in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, it is customary for the minister to invite us, “in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.” The Church invites us to self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting and self-denial, and reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word. Many of us recall what we have “given up” in Lents past: chocolate, wine, social media, even meat. Or maybe we remember gathering for soup and bread suppers in the fellowship hall. Or trying to decide whether we keep the ashes on our forehead all day or wipe them off.

Most of us have associations with Lent, and often they focus on ourselves. After all, the Church’s invitation to a holy Lent includes two references to the self: self-examination and self-denial. This focus on the self makes sense to some degree; there is truth in the slogan that “the only person you can change is…yourself.

But I wonder if this Lent, we might expand the focus of our Lenten discipline – nudging beyond the boundary of self, or even our church communities, toward the wider world, toward society. None of us exists in a vacuum apart from societal influences, and societies are collections of selves. If we change ourselves, we change society. And the reverse is also true: if society changes, we are changed, too.

While this understanding of porous boundaries between self and society is not especially apparent in the Church’s invitation to a holy Lent, it is evident elsewhere. The ancient baptismal liturgy is a good example; in it, we renounce evil on three different “levels,” if you will: the cosmic level, by renouncing “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God”; the social level, by renouncing “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God,” and, of course, the personal level, the level of the self, by renouncing “all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God.”

Lent provides a concentrated period of time—40 days—to do all we can, with the Holy Spirit’s help, to “get right with God.” God can do some pretty amazing things with us in 40 days’ time. And this year, one marked by excessive political rancor and a torrent of natural disasters, you are invited to expand the focus beyond the self with the traditional practices of praying, fasting, and giving alms, as presented in Matthew’s Gospel, toward a practice suggested by the prophet Joel: communal lament.

Joel writes, “Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.” Try to imagine this in your mind’s eye: instead of a somber procession with the priest following the cross expressionless, she is weeping and wailing as she goes down the center aisle! Most of us would probably want to run for the hills, or at least get her a tissue so she could get it together. Crying in public is something that most of us try to avoid…we don’t want to be accused of getting overly emotional.

But Joel encourages weeping priests – priests who can cry out, mourn, lament over the tragedy playing out in society. In the first chapter of Joel alone, either God or Joel, speaking on God’s behalf, prescribes or describes lament, mourning, crying out, or groaning no fewer than seven times. Even the animals and the soil are mourning and crying out!

Why all of this lamentation, this mourning, this crying?

Well, we don’t know exactly what prompted Joel’s prophecy. We do know it was a time of tremendous crisis: the land, literally the soil, the foundation supporting all life, was being destroyed either by locusts or a foreign army. Joel sounds the air raid siren: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain. Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble” (Joel 2:1a).

Perhaps lament is the first step toward repentance, at least on the social level. And maybe the weeping priest models for all of us how to lament. We lament as we approach the holiest place in our lives: the altar.

The place where we remember Christ’s death, proclaim his resurrection, and wait for his coming again.

The place where we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection to new life.

The place where we receive a foretaste of the heavenly banquet where there will be crying no more, and nothing, personally or socially or cosmically, to weep about.

Of course, lament is not something we do easily in our culture. In fact, it is almost anathema to us. One of our favorite ways to avoid lament is to play the blame game. Recently an editorial cartoon came out, poking fun at both the political left and right. It showed a man complaining about President Obama and a woman complaining about President Trump, and at the bottom their complaints were identical: “And because of him the nation is divided.” Instead of looking at the growing partisan divide and feeling the pain of it, we often prefer to blame “the other side” for it and stoke our anger.

Another popular way to avoid lament is to deny that there is any pain. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to think about ways we deny our pain – substance abuse comes to mind first. And not just street drugs or the opioid crisis, but the significant increase in alcohol consumption we see across the board and especially among women, minorities, seniors, those with less formal education, and lower incomes. Instead of feeling the pain and offering a lament to God, many of us choose, consciously or not, to become numb.

But what happens to us and for us when we lament, instead of denying our pain or blaming something or someone for it? And what, might we imagine, happens to God?

When we lament, we recognize the limits of our ability to control the world around us. We are at our wit’s end, as the Psalmist put it, and out of desperation cry out to a power greater than ourselves; we cry out to the Lord. We allow ourselves to feel the pain of social problems and injustices that result from systems that are too complicated, too entrenched, too big, for any one of us to fix. We air our complaints, we tell the truth of our suffering, we question God’s love, we confess our despair, we cry our tears. And we beg. We beg, and we plead for God to intervene, to act, to have mercy on us, to help us “turn and be healed” as the Prophet Isaiah has put it.

And for God’s part? Well, the testimony of Scripture shows us that God has responded in many and various ways to lamentations. In the Book of Lamentations, God is silent. More often, however, God’s response is one in which both judgment and salvation seem to happen simultaneously. And sometimes, God intervenes and saves us in ways we hope for. That’s what happens in the prophecy of Joel. In the midst of the great social crisis, the people lament, not about their personal sins, but about what has happened to their society.

Together they fast. They pray. They beg. They return to God.

And they discover, again, in their own time and place that God is “slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love,” a God who is eager to leave a blessing behind.

So today, we hear the Church’s invitation to observe a holy Lent – to pray, to fast, to read God’s Word. Let’s remember Joel’s invitation to us to lament. To cry aloud, to mourn, to weep, to feel and express the pain of the world. What is that pain for you, in your place? Is it violence? The political divide? Addiction? Is it generational poverty that we can’t seem to legislate our way beyond? What does your community lament? And how might your community cry out together to God about it?

“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning…Who knows whether [the Lord] will not turn and relent and leave a blessing behind…?” (Joel 2:12, 14). 

The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer serves in the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina as Rector of Grace Church in Waynesville.

Download the sermon for Ash Wednesday.

Bible Study, Last Sunday after Epiphany (B) – February 11, 2018

[RCL] 2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

2 Kings 2:1-12

“I will not leave you.”

Elisha repeats these words to his teacher three times before the Lord takes Elijah away in a whirlwind ascension to heaven. The scene is dramatic and majestic; Elijah parts a sea like Moses and becomes part of a tableau of fiery angelic figures, somewhat like Jesus in the Transfiguration centuries later. We might feel tempted to focus on the theater of this story, but the narrative itself illuminates some of the most grounded elements of human experience—life, death, companionship, loyalty, legacy.

“I will not leave you,” Elisha says to his master. When given the opportunity to stay behind or peel off, Elisha is resolute; he is making this journey toward death with his teacher, no matter what. In the final scene, Elijah expresses gratitude for Elisha’s loyalty by asking what can he do for Elisha before he dies. Elisha responds in a cryptic, but completely understandable way: “Leave me a double share of your spirit,” he asks. In other words, leave me part of yourself; allow me to carry on your legacy. Elijah agrees but warns him that it will not be easy.

  • Have you ever lost a loved one or been with someone toward the end of life?
  • What are some of the ways that you strive or struggle to carry on the legacies of those you admire and respect?

Psalm 50:1-6

The first part of Psalm 50 is a gathering call. God is preparing to judge the people and is calling all of heaven and earth to be witnesses. The word “judgment” always has an ominous tone, but these verses do not hint at how destructive (or glorious) God’s judgment will be; instead, the focus is on the power and reach of God’s voice. “The Lord…has spoken.” “Our God…will not keep silent.”He calls the heavens and the earth.” We often think of prophets and teachers doing the work of ingathering, or preparing the way for God’s glory to be revealed, but the psalmist here imagines God in that role. God’s voice resounds across creation, inviting those who will bear witness as well as those who will be judged to come together.

  • In what ways do you hear God speaking in your life?
  • How do you hear the voice of God in the world today?

2 Corinthians 4:3-6

The season of Epiphany invites us to celebrate the in-breaking of God’s light in a dark world. This passage in 2 Corinthians reminds us that seeking the light of Christ is a continual journey. While the powers-that-be of this world strive to “veil” or “blind” us from the good news, we are called to receive the light of Christ in our hearts and reflect that light back to creation. As Epiphany comes to a close and we prepare to enter the season of Lent, our focus shifts from a celebration of light to a reckoning with darkness. Still, the gift of God’s light in our heart does not go away with the change of liturgical seasons; even as we begin this season of reflection and repentance, we carry God’s light with us and rely upon it for hope and strength.

  • When has it been hard to receive the light of Christ? When has it been easy?

Mark 9:2-9

In what ways do you see the light of Christ stifled or dimmed by the “god of this world”? How do you help shine the light of Christ on those experiencing dark or troubled times?

This passage in Mark (and similar passages in Matthew and Luke) tell the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. As readers, we are drawn into a scene that is actually quite intimate—Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to a remote location where they alone witness a dazzling theophany and hear a definitive claim to Jesus’ authority and status as the Son of God. If any of us had been present in that moment, we might have reacted like Peter, “terrified” and fumbling for something to say or do. Whether or not we have ever had our own vision of God, the story of the Transfiguration invites us to imagine what it is like to be in the fullness of God’s presence. What would we do? What would we say? James and John are silent, but we can imagine that they are not indifferent; perhaps awe has left them speechless. The Transfiguration, while intimate, reveals a Jesus unlike the gentle, human teacher we have come to know in earlier passages. The Jesus of the Transfiguration may feel distant or fantastical to some, while others may be captured by the majesty, mystery, and beauty of God shown in this way.

  • How do you experience God most fully?
  • What images of Jesus draw you into the mystery and beauty of God? 

Anne Marie Witchger is a candidate for ordination in the Episcopal Church. She received a B.A. in Religion from Earlham College, a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary, and will complete a Master of Arts in Ministry from General Theological Seminary in 2018. Anne Marie currently works as the Outreach Coordinator and Chief of Staff at the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Manhattan. In her free time, Anne Marie loves to bake, write, ride her bike, and brew kombucha with her husband, Joshua.

Download the Bible study for the Last Sunday after Epiphany (B).

Behind the Veil, Last Sunday after Epiphany (B) – February 11, 2018

Epiphany Sermon Episcopal

[RCL] 2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

Come, Holy Spirit, let us go up to the mountain. Open our ears to hear God’s voice in the clouds. Open our eyes to see God’s glory shine through the veil. Open our hearts to trust that God is always with us on the journey, so that when we come down from the mountain, we will not be afraid. In Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.

Today is the last Sunday of Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday. The readings from Second Kings and the Gospel of Mark are just dazzling, two of the most beautiful stories in scripture: Elijah’s ascent to heaven and Jesus’ transfiguration. These are mystical, magical stories where heaven and earth meet in an extraordinary human being. These are stories of miracles and the eternal; at the same time, these stories are profoundly human, speaking of love, loss, grief, and transformation.

The Transfiguration describes a theophany, an experience of God’s ever-near eternal presence. Mark tells the story with a clear simplicity. Jesus goes to a mountain to pray, accompanied by his dear friends, the disciples Peter, James, and John. And there they see him transfigured, dazzling white, shining with the glory of God, and talking with the great prophets Moses and Elijah. The scene is reminiscent of Moses’ transfiguration in Exodus 34, when he came down from Mt. Sinai with the tablets of the covenant, his face shining so brightly from his encounter with God that his people were afraid and he had to cover it with a veil. In each story, the mountain is a thin place, a bridge between heaven and earth.

The Transfiguration describes a mystical moment on the mountain, a visible manifestation of the union of human and divine in Jesus. Like Moses’ people, Jesus’ friends are terrified by what they have seen. Terrified—and in awe of that glimpse of God’s eternal glory, and Jesus’ unity with that Glory, and indeed the unity of all humankind forever and ever, world without end, in God and Jesus.

In the climax of the scene, Jesus is called by God, who confirms his identity as the Son of God. “This is my Son the Beloved; listen to him!” This experience is a turning point for Jesus as well as his disciples. Jesus, reminded of his unity with God, turns toward the inevitable end of his human story. The Transfiguration is a bridge between Jesus’ public ministry as a traveling teacher and healer in Galilee, and the road to his passion, death, and resurrection in Jerusalem. Transfiguration Sunday is a bridge from Epiphany, when we celebrate the miracles and works of Jesus’ life, to Lent, when we focus on Jesus’ journey to the cross.

The Transfiguration is a miracle, a revelation of Christ’s glory, a glimpse behind the veil between heaven and earth, a hint of the end-time. Miracles need to be experienced. Perhaps this is a clue to Jesus’ instruction to his friends to tell no one what they had seen. Miracles, like an experience of God, cannot be adequately described or explained.

The story of Elijah’s ascent to heaven is another such meeting of heaven and earth, an experience of God that is dazzling and miraculous. We know from the opening line of the passage that God is about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elijah knows where he is going; the company of prophets know where he is going; his student and protégé Elisha knows where he is going. In an echo of Jesus’ instruction to tell no one, Elisha insists: keep silent. He knows, but he is not ready. It is touching and profoundly human that Elisha will not leave his master. He stays with him as long as he can, accompanying him on the journey to eternal union with God. Elisha tries to hold on to all that his friend is to him: human mentor, divinely-inspired prophet and healer, holy man who is intimately connected with God. “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit,” he begs in his distress.

Embedded within these stories of transfiguration—these revelations of God’s glory—are stories of human grief. Elisha accompanies his beloved mentor as far as he can, until he can no longer see him, then tears his clothes in lamentation. Peter, James, and John too are reluctant to let go of the marvelous, concrete, human manifestation of God’s eternal light. They suggest that they might make dwellings for the prophets, keep them here with them. They do not want their beloved to leave them behind.

Today we’ve heard two stories of thresholds, moments of crossing over, journeying toward the threshold of life and death, the temporal and eternal, with a loved teacher. How like a scene from hospice care! Family and friends are gathered to hold vigil at the threshold of life and death, to accompany their loved one as far along the journey as they can. There may be a glimpse of the shining light toward which the traveler has already turned his or her face. “Please stay, I’ll build you a house,” you might plead. Or, simply, since you must go, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”

Both stories are encounters with the divine, encounters at the threshold. They are reminders that God walks with us on our journey to unity with the infinite, mystical, unknowable, and untellable. In the intimacy and heightened intensity of a bedside death vigil, as at the transfiguration or the ascent to heaven, may we be open to the moments when we can catch a glimpse, a fleeting experience, of God’s eternal glory. Feeling God’s presence in the transfigured faces at a hospice bedside, or as sunlight pours through the stained glass of a chapel window, transfiguring the face of Christ, the miracle and blessing of grief is the spiritual deepening that can result. May we live in hope and die in the certainty of unity with God and all the saints. In the stories of Jesus’ transfiguration and Elijah’s ascent to heaven, the dead are not lost nor the living left behind. Grief and suffering are transformed by the mystical knowledge that we shall be together in God’s love again, as we always have been and always shall be.

The closing words are from the collect of the day. Let us pray: O God, grant that we, beholding by faith the light of Christ’s countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Susan Butterworth, M.A., M.Div, is a writer, teacher, singer, and lay minister. She leads Song & Stillness: Taizé @ MIT, a weekly ecumenical service of contemplative Taizé prayer at the interfaith chapel at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She sings with Threshold Singers, a group that sings at hospice bedside. She teaches writing and literature to college undergraduates, and writes essays and literary reference articles.

Download the sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany (B).

Bulletin Insert – January 28, 2018

The Good Book Club

Episcopalians around the world will read the Gospel according to Luke during Lent and the Book of Acts during Eastertide in 2018.

Join us as we explore the entire story of Jesus’ life as told by Saint Luke and to read about the earliest Christians, their encounters with the Holy Spirit, and their passion for sharing the Good News of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Follow the reading list on the back of this page beginning February 11, 2018.

The Good Book Club has brought together organizations from around the Episcopal Church, all producing helpful and engaging resources to help you get the most out of reading Luke and Acts.

Resources include printable bible studies, podcasts, blogs, reflections and daily meditations, suggestions for children and youth engagement, a video series, and more.

Visit www.GoodBookClub.org to learn more about these resources and activities.

Please note: these bulletin inserts reference and include a set of readings for the Lenten and Easter seasons. The PDFs below include those readings.

Download the bulletin insert as a PDF:

full page, one-sided

half page, double-sided

Touch, Epiphany 5 (B) – February 4, 2018

Epiphany Episcopal Sermon

[RCL] Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, 21c; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

In the 1st Century world of Jesus, sick people only had a few options. The first thing they could do was try a folk remedy. These varied from sensible potions and poultices to downright dangerous “fixes.” Many folk remedies are still practiced today in the industrialized world and most are completely ineffective, especially with serious diseases and injuries.

The second thing a sick person could do was to pay for a physician to see them. This was costly and was not much more effective than the folk remedies. Most Greek physicians in the 1st century followed the teachings of Hippocrates, who is best known for his famous oath. Hippocrates codified the principles of Humorism, a belief that human health is defined as the perfect balance of four fluids, or humors. It was holistic, in that it saw the need for balance between the mental and physical, but the interventions by physicians often involved bleeding and draining of fluids, which would regularly result in a worsening condition. Treatment was expensive, and therefore only accessible to the privileged.

Another option for sick people in Jesus’ world was one or many religious healing practices. Every ancient religion had extensive teachings on healing, and most of it cost money. With these limited and ineffective options, sickness in the ancient world changed a person’s identity.

Sick people would stand out in a village. They were often visibly scarred or marked. Lepers were required to announce their coming by shouting or ringing bells. Most sick people became beggars, or wholly dependent on their family members for food and shelter. Being labeled a sick person led to very low status in society.

The identity of a sick person in Jesus’ day also carried with it the stigma of God’s judgment. In this society, most illnesses were linked to some sin or indiscretion, rather than a scientific cause. In Jesus’ ministry, he confronted some of these beliefs, showing how widespread they were.

The sick person in our Gospel reading is Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. She has a fever and is so weak that she cannot get out of her sickbed. Her condition is of concern to the disciples, and so Jesus is ushered in to see her. Perhaps a fever would not warrant such concern in our day, but it certainly did in Jesus’ day.

Jesus touches her hand with his hand. There is that touch that we see in Jesus’ ministry over and over again. She rises up at once and the fever leaves her. It is not a very dramatic scene; there isn’t any music or fanfare. There aren’t any spells or incantations. There is only a hand touching another hand. There is only Jesus reaching out to this sick woman.

And then we are told that she starts to serve them. She now has the strength to offer the customary hospitality to her guests. Her identity is no longer a bedridden, fevered person, but a gracious host to a visiting teacher and his disciples.

And then the zombies attack. Well, not real zombies, but a horde of sick, demonized, and injured people swarm Jesus, begging for healing. What we saw happen to Simon’s mother-in-law, we see happen to a multitude in the village.

Jesus reached out his hand to a sick woman. Now he reaches out his hand to the multitude just as he reaches out his hand to us. Jesus is here to heal you. Jesus is here to restore you to the community you lost. Jesus is here to restore you to a place of service to your community, so you can find dignity and purpose again. This is what Jesus does: he brings people back to wholeness and health. Jesus can bring you back to wholeness and health.

But all this healing takes a toll on Jesus; he disappears in the dark of night to pray. On these occasions of nighttime prayer, we are seldom told the content of Jesus’ prayers. They seem to be a conversation between the beloved son and his father, an intimate dialogue that may seem incomprehensible to the disciples or us.

The only time we know the content of Jesus’ private, nighttime prayer is in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night he was betrayed. On that night, he strained and writhed under the weight of what he was called to do as the Son of God. He pleaded for the cup to pass from him, even as he accepts God’s will for his life. This glimpse of Jesus’ prayer life may not be identical to all those other nights he prayed for hours in the dark, but we can be sure it was intense. Jesus’ sense of mission empowered him to do the work God had called him to do. When he is exhausted, he goes off and prays in the night, and he comes back renewed.

Perhaps we do not so much need rest as a renewed sense of our mission and calling by God. Perhaps more people would experience wholeness and healing if we spent more time in the dark with God. It was how Jesus found strength, and many Christian saints through the ages found time alone with God to be renewing and refreshing.

Jesus is reaching out his hand to us today, calling us to a life filled with service and community. Jesus is praying for us so we might have the strength to go into the dark with God and wrestle with our calling and mission. Jesus is with us, going before us, into the world God loves so much.

David W. Peters is the author of two books, Death Letter (Tactical 16 Press) and Post-Traumatic God (Morehouse, 2016). He is the founder of the Episcopal Veterans Fellowship and serves as the Associate Rector at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Austin, Tex.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 5(B).

What’s the Question?, Epiphany 4 (B) – January 28, 2018

Epiphany Sermon Episcopal

[RCL] Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

“If this is the answer, then what is the question?” Have you ever wondered that about something?

Jesus often asks questions without providing answers: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” “Who do you say I am?” “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”

Anytime we read Paul’s letters, though, it’s the reverse. We have answers, but not questions. We need to ask, “If this is the answer, then what is the question?” for we only have Paul’s response to a letter or a circumstance. We do not have any of the original context which prompts his response.

It’s sort of like playing the TV game Jeopardy. The answer is given; what is the question? And this is the pattern we encounter this morning in our reading from 1 Corinthians.

The question this morning seems to be whether one may eat meat sacrificed to idols. And Paul responds. Paul also addresses this topic in his Letter to the Romans, so we know that the eating of meat sacrificed to idols was a wide-ranging concern within the early Christian community.

This is a question about food, particularly meat. In a variety of ways, food was associated with pagan ritual, either in the course of a social or public event in the temple or the home, or later, for sale in the market. Apparently, there was some concern within the Christian community about eating what had been sacrificed to pagan gods. Some, either secure in their faith or “puffed up” with knowledge, as Paul puts it, readily ate the meat available, whatever its pedigree. Still others had difficulty separating their faith in Christ Jesus from the pagan sacrifices of their culture, and were confused in their understanding.

Paul tells the Christians in Corinth to sit up! Pay attention! Take a closer look! Paul tells those Christians that they’re focused on the wrong thing. To eat – or not to eat – that is not the question!

So we’re back to questions and answers again.

We have an answer in Paul’s writing. What is the question?

The truth is, there is no single question formulated in a neat and tidy package, but whatever the Corinthians were troubled about, eating meat was just the presenting issue. The real concern had more to do with freedom, and responsibility, and rights. The real question wasn’t so much about eating meat, as about principles and people. At its heart, it was a question about love.

There is a difference between doing what we imagine is good and right and doing what we imagine we have a right to do.

Do you remember Jonah of big whale fame? Just like in the story of Jonah, Paul is talking to the Christians at Corinth of the conflict between principles and people.

“I can eat meat sacrificed to idols because I know that the idols aren’t real.” “I have a right to eat the meat if I want to and it doesn’t do any harm.”

Have you heard this kind of language about rights and wiggle room? Some of those in Corinth took these positions, and certainly from a legal standpoint—even a standpoint of religious right and wrong—they were correct in their thinking.

Paul agrees: “We know that ‘all of us possess knowledge’ that ‘no idol in the world really exists’ and …we are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do…” Paul argues against any kind of legalism that puts the rule first—for the sake of the rule itself—and people and consequences second.

But there is more than one way of forgetting God in one’s religious zeal. The Corinthians were a headstrong lot in a very diverse community and they were apparently quite determined to hold to their rights as Christians and as free citizens. Trouble is, in doing so, they put principles before people, substituting rules for responsibility.

Rules can be important in establishing a community’s identity. One example of how biblical rules get lived out is in the dress codes of Orthodox Jews. Have you ever observed Orthodox Jews in an airport? The men are quite noticeable with their giant black hats and long black coats. Orthodox Jews are faithful in living out the rules of their religious beliefs, and this includes the way they dress.

We tend to take a more flexible, relaxed approach to some biblical rules. As Episcopalians, we’ve thrown out some rules, or been selective in choosing ones to support our positions. Few among us practice Levirate marriage, for example, where a woman, upon her husband’s death, marries his brother. We don’t go break a neighbor’s window if ours is accidentally broken. And we don’t pluck out our eye when we see something offensive.

Since we are sometimes not very good with rules, we’re also often confused about responsibility. Maybe we’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater!

One of the earliest lessons of the Old Testament, what God has been trying to get across to generations of willful people and what the “show and tell” of God in Christ came finally to demonstrate is found in the story of Cain and Abel. Remember that in the 4th chapter of Genesis, Cain kills Abel. God knows this and asks Cain: “Where is your brother?” Cain replies, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

The point is made quite clearly that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We share responsibility for each other in Christ Jesus and in Christian community. Paul and his opponents in Corinth differ not simply about meat and who should eat what under which circumstances. Paul, in writing to the Christian community in Corinth, addresses the issue of meat, yes. But more deeply, and more to the point, he talks about the meaning of freedom. Of Christian freedom. And Paul frames this in the context of Christian community.

Christian freedom isn’t so much of rights as responsibilities.

Christian freedom isn’t so much of principles as people.

Paul says food will not commend us to God. Knowledge puffs us up. It is love that builds us up, and in love, Paul counsels the Corinthians to take care lest their understanding of liberty become a stumbling block to the weak.

The God who is our source and goal, and Jesus Christ who lived among us and prepares a place for us, are more interested in our sisters and our brothers than in legalistic principles. The message of Paul underscores Jesus’ message of love: our relationships are more important than our rules. Freedom is not a matter of our rights, but of our neighbor’s needs.

When Jesus casts out an unclean spirit in today’s gospel lesson, he casts out that which separates a person from God, that which emphasizes knowledge and principle. Be sure to notice how painful it is when the unclean spirit comes out of him!

Rules are easy. We know what they are and can dress accordingly, act accordingly, eat accordingly. Freedom, the freedom that Christ brings, the liberty born of God’s love for us, is a harder thing to live.

So, back to the beginning. Without knowing the question, we can read Paul’s answer to the Corinthian community. People matter. Responsibilities bind us.

Still, there are some critical questions that come out of this, questions for each of us to ask ourselves and to hold in mind:

Am I not an apostle?

Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?

Am I not free?

The Rev. Machrina Blasdell teaches religious studies courses online for Park University, with her greatest interest following the development and idiosyncrasies of religion in today’s world. She enjoys time with her family, a number of cats and many roses, and delights in working with dark chocolate.

Download the sermon for Epiphany 4(B).