More Than Fixing, Lent 2 – February 25, 2018

Lent sermon Episcopal

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

Blessed Saint Peter: author of Scripture, first Pope, chief Apostle, teacher and defender of the faith, pillar of the Early Church, purported benefactor of the Gospel of Mark, and martyr. It is little wonder that Saint Peter gets so much good press amongst Christians!

But there is one thing missing from this list. One thing, in fact, that is among the blessed Apostle’s greatest gifts: Peter had the unique ability to find precisely the wrong moment to say the wrong thing! Or, to put it another way, Peter was an expert at opening his mouth and inserting his foot!

Listen to it again:

“Then [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all of this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him…”

Now at first, we might be tempted to think that Peter simply forgot himself a bit—that he got so caught up in the thought of Jesus’ death that he spoke out of turn. But if we were to back up just two verses before the beginning of today’s Gospel reading to verse 29, we would hear Peter answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” with certainty and affirmation: “You are the Messiah!”

And so, seemingly without giving it a second thought, Peter professes that Jesus is the Messiah one minute and scolds him like an irresponsible teenager the next. One might imagine that the other disciples watched this scene unfold anxiously, as children watching their brother or sister arguing with their parents at the dinner table.

But it’s what happens after all of this that is truly shocking.

Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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.”

That’s the moment that Peter and the disciples realized that the God they wanted was not the God made known in Jesus Christ! The disciples wanted a God who would be a savvy political and military leader, leading the charge to put the Romans in their place once and for all. They wanted someone who would raise them up to a position of power and importance. And they wanted someone so radical that their enemies would cower and flee. They were convinced that the keys to a good life were strength and power.

Instead, they got a guy who taught about loving others, feeding the hungry, and foretold his own impending death at the hands of the very same powers he was supposed to overcome.

This was not what they had signed up for!

With this in mind, it’s a bit easier to understand why Peter was so upset; if we had been standing where he and the other disciples were standing, we might have been upset, too!

But then again, who among us hasn’t wanted a God who just swoops down at the first sign of trouble and sets things right?

We ask God for a good parking spot; we pray for winning lottery numbers; we long for the phone call with the news of a better job or the approval from the bank for the new car or the bigger house, because in one way or another, we believe that if we can just get a little bit ahead and become just a little more successful, or if we could amass just a little clout or influence, our lives would be much better.

The disciples weren’t the only ones who believed that the keys to a good life were strength and power. More often than not, we believe it too.

But this attitude about God also shows up in places that aren’t so self-serving. When tragedy strikes, we pray and pray and pray for a different outcome, and yet God seems far away from us. Those of us who have been at the bedside of a friend or family member who died much too soon often find ourselves staring into the cold, dark silence of death, feeling abandoned by God. Coming to grips with the end of a long relationship with a lover or a friend causes us to wonder about this God we worship.

“Why doesn’t God just fix all of this?” we wonder. If God loves us, why do we suffer so terribly?

But as Mark’s Gospel reminds us, if we are to confess Jesus as Messiah, we must do so by standing at the foot of the cross as he is crucified. The God we worship is about more than fixing our lives. The God we worship is about laying down his life for the sake of our own.

And the moment we allow this truth to penetrate deep into our souls is the same moment we realize that the suffering we see around us—in the hospital bed, in the prison, on the street, in the mirror—is none other than the crucified Christ laying down his life again and again in the midst of our suffering.

“If any want to become my followers,” Jesus said, “Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Taking up our cross means recognizing Christ crucified in the suffering world around us, and then recalling that true discipleship is paved by the way of our own cross.

But walking the way of the cross and proclaiming Christ crucified isn’t the end of the story. No, it’s just the beginning! The story continues on, through the resurrection of Easter, and even to this day, at this very moment!

But we cannot know the fullness of Christ’s resurrection unless we are willing to know Christ crucified. The Great Fifty Days of Easter find their meaning only after the solemn forty days of Lent. Easter morning finds its consummation only through Good Friday.

And so, as we continue our journey through this holy season of Lent, may we walk alongside one another, bearing our crosses and proclaiming the faith of Christ crucified—the faith of militant love. Of subversive grace. And of radical mercy. And may our hearts be filled with the sure and certain hope of the resurrection!

Amen.

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He is the editor of ModernMetanoia.org—a lectionary-based preaching resource authored exclusively by Millennial clergy, lay leaders, and teachers. Marshall is also an amateur runner, a voracious reader, and a budding chef, all while completing a doctorate at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Most important and life-giving of all, he’s Elizabeth’s husband.

Download the sermon for Lent 2 (B).

Wilderness, Lent 1 – February 18, 2018

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

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

John was good at his job. John was very good at his job. If you needed someone to be a messenger and prepare a people to turn their hearts, repent, and get right with God, John was the one to call. The voice crying out in the wilderness, the messenger, the baptizer. No matter what you called John, he was the one to go to for a fresh start. Crowds gathered. Scribes were curious. Pharisees plotted. “Prepare the way of the Lord” was the cry of the ancient prophet Isaiah. John embodied that cry. Repent! Be baptized and your sins will be forgiven. The people came from all across the Judean countryside and Jerusalem just to get a glimpse of the would-be messenger in camel hair and leather.

They weren’t coming for the locust and honey diet, they were coming to confess. They came into the wilderness to see, to seek repentance. Who doesn’t long for forgiveness? Who doesn’t want to leave the burdens of the past, the failures, the disappointments, the hurts, and start anew? So, to the wilderness and to the water they came to find John the Baptizer, looking to leave the past behind. A prophet? Maybe Elijah? The Messiah? They had not seen a prophet in a long time. Thus, they tried to label him, to name him, to categorize him. But John knew who he was and whose he was. He was a messenger, a baptizer, and he was good at his job.

“‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’” – Mark 1:7-8

John was not the “One”.

And yet people came. They came to the water and to the wilderness. Longing. Hoping. Expecting. Seeking. Preparing for the “One”. Then he appeared. Jesus of Nazareth. Can anything good come from Nazareth? From nowhere? The whispers started as John saw him coming, along with the recognition that today was the day the messenger would greet the message. Into the water Jesus came. No words were needed because he was the Word. Into the water. Under.

Dripping wet he came up from the water and in the silence, the promised Holy Spirit descended like a dove. Then the voice, like thunder and snowfall, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Still wet, still dripping, he is driven into the wilderness. Jesus the One, the Word, doesn’t even get to bask in being beloved. The silence is broken by the urgency of the wilderness. No polite invitation, but rather an urgent driving, almost violent force, compels him into the wilderness.  The Tempter was waiting.

“Prove yourself,” is the temptation. The Tempter knows that things happen in the wilderness. The wilderness is the mirror, the temptation is to look away. Jesus looks, with the voice of creation still ringing in his ear. “You are my Son, the Beloved.” The days turn to night. Night turns to day. Longing, hoping, praying. Forty days. And then the flutter of wings. The wilderness behind, the work ahead.

If we are honest with ourselves, we try our best to avoid the wilderness. Things happen in the wilderness and we would rather not have things change. The wilderness is where we are forced to see ourselves as we are, without filter or finery. It is there we wander and wait to encounter the holy. Like Jesus, we are sometimes driven against our will, by the Holy Spirit, to the wild places we would rather not go. But the wilderness is where we as individuals and as community must go, because out of the wild comes new life.

During this Lenten season of fasting and focus, of praying and preparing, we are tempted to simply go through the motions. We are tempted to skirt the wilderness, to turn away from encountering the wild places in our lives and in our world. We are tempted to turn away from the mirror of the Tempter. But if we are to follow Jesus, if we are to be renewed for new possibilities and prepared to hope once more, we must face the wild.

Throughout the history of God, we see our spiritual ancestors spending their time wrestling with the barren places. From the call of Abraham and Sarah to the wandering of the people of Israel for forty years, the wilderness has become a place of refining and self-discovery.

But our forbearers never faced the desert alone. For forty years, God journeyed with Israel. For forty days, God watched over Noah. For forty days, God stood with Jesus. And for our time, God will stand with us.

If we are honest with ourselves, we know deep down inside that we need the wilderness. We know in our bones and deep within our souls that the desert calls, cajoles, and compels us even when we resist. Our church, our community, our world—now more than ever—needs the wilderness. We need to spend the time looking at ourselves in order to find new life, new ministry, and new ways of being the people of God.

We long for things to stay the same, for things to be frozen in time. We long for the way things were in the past, but God is calling us, like the people of Israel, to a new future. We cannot get to God’s future if we are not able to let go of the past.

God has work for us to do and that work begins, like it did with Jesus, when we are driven to the wild places of discovery.

We go to the wilderness to discover anew the joy of being beloved.

We go to learn once more what it means to be and live as beloved.

We go to listen for the voice of God calling us again.

We go to see Christ more clearly in the world around us.

We go because that is where we encounter God.

We go to the wilderness because we can no longer be as we have always been.

Till all the jails are empty and all the bellies filled;
till no one hurts or steals or lies, and no more blood is spilled;
till age and race and gender no longer separate;
till pulpit, press, and politics are free of greed and hate:
God has work for us to do.[1]

God’s work begins with a pesky Holy Spirit sometimes dragging, driving, and drawing us out into the wilderness. Jesus has been there. The angels are there. His footsteps can still be found. Out in the wilderness, we are faced with many temptations. But the biggest temptation is to not enter the wilderness at all.

The wilderness is calling. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Amen.

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

[1] Carl P. Daw, Jr.  Words © 1996 Hope Publishing Company

Download the sermon for Lent 1 (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).

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).

Arrested, Epiphany 3 (B) – January 21, 2018

Epiphany Sermon3

[RCL] Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:6-14; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

“After John was arrested.”

This line should arrest us where we stand. John’s arrest happens just moments after John the Baptizer baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River and Jesus is driven into the wilderness to be tested by the Devil.

And then John is arrested. Arrested. He’s stopped in his tracks. That’s what the word “arrest” means—to be stopped.

An arrest on the side of the highway gets our attention. Cars slow down and sometimes stop to see who it is being arrested. An arrest makes the news if it’s a high-profile person. Everyone stops to see who’s been nabbed. An arrest not only stops the person arrested, it stops everyone.

After John was arrested.

We were arrested.

We were stopped, arrested by this news. An order was issued from Herod to his soldiers to go arrest John the Baptist. The movement John started in the desert—a movement of confession, repentance, and renewal by baptism came to a sudden stop.

After John was arrested, we were devastated.

John had been preaching repentance for all, from the least to the greatest. Messages of repentance in our day are often a call to join a new church or religion, but John was not calling them to join a new church or religion. He was calling his people to return to the covenant of Justice and Mercy. He was inviting them to come home.

And we heard this message in Advent, too—this invitation to come home to God. Did we? Did we respond? Did we renew our trust in God’s faithfulness? Did we start that journey toward home?

And now, after John was arrested, we don’t know where home is.

But then we remembered John’s message. We remembered how he told us the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth was coming—is coming.

And Jesus is here.

After John was arrested, “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.”

John’s arrest was a huge blow to his followers and disciples. They lost so much when John was arrested by an insecure and vindictive tyrant, Herod. But there, in this gaping hole, steps Jesus, proclaiming the good news of God.

And this is the good news for us today. The good news is found in the gaping holes of life, in the disappointments, in the blows and losses, in the sadness and grief. The good news is always found in these moments, at the eleventh hour, when all hope is lost. This is when we are ready to receive good news.

This is when Jesus comes to us, proclaiming the good news of God.

Jesus’ life, as recorded in the Gospel of Mark, follows this pattern of life, death, and resurrection. After John was arrested, we died a little, and then Jesus came with good news. This pattern will play out when Jesus goes to the cross at the end of Mark’s Gospel, too.

And this pattern will play out in your life, and our life together.

After John was arrested, we heard the good news. After our dreams had died, we heard about new life, new dreams.

Jesus is very clear in his message, that we are to repent and believe. We are to come home to the God who loves us and announces a kingdom of love and peace. But this kingdom only comes after John is arrested, after our dreams die.

And Jesus, who comes to us after John is arrested, comes to us in our fishing boats.

Jesus walks along the Sea of Galilee and sees Simon and Andrew, James and John fishing, so he calls them to follow him.

And they do follow him.

In this account, it never says why these disciples leave their fishing boats and their fishing nets and follow Jesus. Why would these young men leave their family businesses and follow this wandering rabbi, who is just getting started himself?

Mark doesn’t tell us. He leaves that as a mystery.

After John was arrested, we followed Jesus.

The juxtaposition in the text of John’s arrest and these disciples following Jesus is not a mere coincidence. It is the very heart of the good news—the gospel Jesus is preaching. It is in the midst of loss and heartache that we find hope and purpose in Jesus.

And maybe we aren’t quite sure why we are here today, to gather as followers of Jesus; we are not always sure of our motives for doing anything. But like those disciples in their fishing boats, something about Jesus’ call to us made sense—it resonated with us. Like many formative events in life, it’s a bit of a mystery. We don’t fully know how or why a relationship started. All we know is that it did indeed start, that it continues, and that it gives us hope for the future.

So, come and follow Jesus. Come and fish for people with the good news.

 

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 3 (B).

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.

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).