After Eight Days, Holy Name Day – January 1, 2019


[RCL]: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7 or Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21

 “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” – Luke 2:21

January 1, the Feast of the Holy Name, is a day when we encounter an interweaving of spiritual traditions: a mystical attachment to the importance of dreams, Jewish tradition and practice, the Christian emphasis on Jesus as fully human and fully divine, and themes of redemption and the power of God’s name. Not to mention the secular customs of New Year’s greeting and resolutions, a cleansing and a hopeful new start.

Let’s go back to Nazareth, to the scene of the Annunciation, where the angel reveals the name of the child Mary is to bear. “The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David” (Luke 1:30-32).

The name Jesus comes from the Greek transcription of the Hebrew name Yeshua or Yehoshuah – Joshua. It means, simply, God saves. A powerful name indeed.

In Matthew’s gospel, Joseph receives a visit from the angel of the Lord, in a passage sometimes called the Annunciation to Joseph. Joseph, learning that his young fiancée is pregnant, and being a kind man, has resolved not to expose her to public disgrace, but to “dismiss her quietly.” The angel appears to Joseph in a dream and reassures him, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21).

Clearly, this child’s name, “given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb,” is particularly important, for it names his mission on earth: to save God’s people.

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which is still the authorized version in common use in our Episcopal churches today, observes January 1 as the Feast of the Holy Name. Earlier versions of the Book of Common Prayer, up to and including the 1928 version, observed January 1 as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. In the collect for the Holy Name, we pray to God who gave “the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation.”  The collect for the Circumcision emphasizes circumcision as a sign of obedience to the law of God, in body and in spirit.

Circumcision of Jewish male babies originates in Genesis 17, as a physical sign of God’s covenant with the people of Israel. God promises the faithful, elderly, and childless Abram that he will be fruitful, and the ancestor of nations. God’s covenant is to be with Abram’s offspring down through the generations, and as a sign of the covenant, all male children are to be circumcised on the eighth day after birth. A naming occurs at the establishment of the covenant: Abram is re-named Abraham. Here is the passage from Genesis 17: 3-7:

Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

Circumcision is a tradition that links the Jewish people to Abraham and Isaac. It is a sacred act that binds Jewish families to the multitude of generations who preceded them—and the generations to follow. The eighth day circumcision ceremony, called the bris or brit milah, is also a ceremony when the child is given the blessing of a name. Thus, on the occasion of today’s feast day, Jesus is doubly marked. He is circumcised as a sign of God’s faithfulness to God’s people and of his connection to Abraham and his Jewish ancestors. He is named with a name that expresses his nature as the savior sent from God to redeem God’s people.

The circumstances of Jesus’ bris were likely to be humble. It’s possible that Joseph performed the circumcision himself. Were they still in the stable or had the family moved to more comfortable accommodations? Wherever they were on the eighth day after Jesus’ birth on December 25, the contrast with the naming of a poor baby boy and the name Paul exalts in the letter to the Philippians is as stark as the contrast between the earthiness and physicality of circumcision, and the mystical, divine nature of Jesus’ name. On this day, we are reminded that Christ is fully human and fully divine. Paul’s theology is explicit. In human form, Christ was humble and obedient to the point of death.  At the same time, God

“gave him the name
that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

Since the Holy Name stands as a complete summary of Christ’s nature and God’s mercy, it is particularly powerful as a focus for contemplative prayer. Devotion to the Holy Name began with the apostles and early disciples, as we have seen in the reading from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. By the Middle Ages, mystics such as Anselm of Canterbury and Bernard of Clairvaux encouraged adoration of the Holy Name. In the Eastern Church, the Jesus Prayer dates as far back as the fourth century C.E. It appears in the Orthodox Philokalia as “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me.” The prayer is said repeatedly, sometimes with the aid of a prayer rope. The knotted prayer rope is similar to rosary beads, and the practice of saying the rosary is similarly contemplative in its repetition. Anglicans and Episcopalians may use the Holy Name or Jesus Prayer while praying with Anglican prayer beads. We say the Jesus Prayer during the Eucharist when we pray the Agnus Dei: “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world: have mercy on us,” and the Kyrie Eleison: “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.”

The more you listen for the Holy Name, the more you notice it. Like this, from Psalm 33: 20-21:

Our soul waits for the LORD;
he is our help and our shield.
Indeed, our heart rejoices in him,
for in his holy Name we put our trust.

We pray with the Holy Name in intercessory prayer: “In Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.” All of these practices connect us with our wider Christian heritage, as Christ’s circumcision and naming on the eighth day connect us with our Jewish roots.

Let us pray:

Eternal Father, you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation. Plant in our hearts the love of Jesus, truly God and truly human, and grant that we may praise and bless your Holy Name with our whole mind, heart, body, and spirit, that we may know your boundless compassion and mercy. In Christ’s name, we pray. 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 (MIT). She teaches writing and literature to college undergraduates and writes book reviews, essays, and literary reference articles.

Download the sermon for Holy Name Day.

A Tent Among Us, Christmas 1 – December 30, 2018


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

In today’s Gospel, St. John uses a fascinating image that most of our Bible translations miss. Some of us are accustomed to hearing this majestic and abstract prologue to John’s mystical-leaning Gospel: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” But we aren’t so used to hearing this: “Jesus became flesh and pitched a tent among humanity.” The image of God dwelling among us is beautiful and a bit abstract, maybe even domesticated—but Jesus pitching a tent? Hmm…

This week, our small-town paper has been running a series of articles about the growing population of homeless people. The paper reports, “Word has gotten out beyond our kith and kin” about a local storefront ministry that serves hot breakfasts and lunches seven days a week, as well as a 90-day transitional housing program. Folk are coming here, pitching tents on vacant lots, and trying to get enough food and respect to survive another day. Predictably, town fathers and mothers, as well as non-profit donors, fear that we won’t have the resources to provide care for them. Right now, the idea of anyone pitching a tent in our town—except for scouts in the backyard—is viewed suspiciously.

Recently, I heard a friend talk about pitching a tent in a very different context when she attended a Woodstock-like music festival called Bonnaroo. She recalled pitching her tent in a sea of thousands of other tents. One day, exhausted and exasperated by the constant stimulation, she went into her tent and had a miniature breakdown: she complained (loudly) that she was tired of the noise, the humidity, and the smiling strangers everywhere she looked. When her temper-tantrum ended, and she emerged from the tent, she realized with great embarrassment that all her “neighbors” had borne witness to her discontent.

The idea of God Almighty pitching a tent among us temper-tantrum prone, smelly, needy, and shame-filled human beings is quite shocking. This earthy image is such a contrast to the more central metaphor for Jesus at the beginning of John’s gospel, the logos, translated as the Word. Logos connotes order, rationality, an “operating system” designed by a masterful creator. But St. John doesn’t allow us to indulge our de-personalizing tendency when it comes to relating to God. Instead, he brings us back down to the gritty reality of the Incarnation by juxtaposing the logos with tent-camping among humankind.

In fact, I think many of us might recoil a bit at the idea of the Christ showing up in our backyard and asking us to pitch our tent right next to his.

Why might we be reluctant to go camping with Jesus?

First, I bet most of us wouldn’t want to be exposed; every conversation can be overheard, not to mention the snoring and that annoying zip-sound in the middle of the night when a fellow camper needs to relieve him or herself. Not to mention the shadows on the side of the tents revealing the silhouette of our actual lumpy, unruly flesh.

And secondly, tents are always a bit dirty, no matter how stringent you are about keeping your shoes outside.

Dirtiness and exposure. So much for putting on our Sunday best to meet Jesus! So much for the obsessive nature of reputation-management that consciously or unconsciously drives how we present ourselves on social media.

But you know, our aversion to tent-pitching God is about something more than our desire to “look good” for God. Our deeper fear is being known by Jesus, inside and out. Of, in a phrase, personal intimacy.

Intimacy is in trouble these days. A recent cover story for The Atlantic explored the steady delay and decline in intimate relationships (not just marriage) among younger people. We live in an age and culture where self-sufficiency and independence are upheld as attainable goals. If you lack a cup of sugar, don’t bother your neighbors, just run to Wal-Mart. Don’t know how to fix something? Pull up a video on YouTube on your private smartphone. And if that fails, just call a serviceman. Need a ride to the airport? Don’t ask a friend for a favor (who wants to be indebted?), just text Uber for quick service, requiring only your credit card and small-talk, not meaningful conversation.

Genuine intimacy means that we’ll be exposed, flabby flesh, anxious ruminations, perfectionist tendencies, short-tempers, and all. And more and more of us, in the United States anyway, say, “No, thank you. I’ll take care of myself.” And then, even when we can’t, many of us prefer to pay a professional to provide for our physical needs.

Later in the same verse, when St. John tells us that the Word, the logos, the Christ, Jesus, has come to pitch his tent among us, he says that we have seen Jesus’ glory—and it is full of grace and truth. Grace and truth. For most of us to even begin to entertain the idea of Jesus pitching a tent in our backyards, much less his Spirit taking up residence in our hearts, as Paul puts it in Galatians, we need the assurance of Christ’s grace—the assurance that God sees us through the lens of mercy and loving-kindness, unconditional love.

And that assurance of God’s grace, of God’s desire to be with us—no matter how much we want to avoid being exposed, being caught with metaphorical dirt under our nails, no matter how much we want to hide because of our shame, our guilt, or just the fact that we are imperfect, never measuring up to the person we’d like to be—that assurance is the greatest gift we can receive. It is the gift of the Incarnation, the gift of Emmanuel – God-with-us.

The invitation for us this Christmas is to accept the gift. And I’m not talking about some sort of formula where we “accept Jesus Christ into our hearts” and are, from thenceforth, “saved.” Accepting the gift of grace, of God-with-us, isn’t a one-time transaction. Rather, it is a lifelong process of growing more comfortable with intimacy, with showing up in the world, showing up for life, “Just as I am,” as the old hymn says. Accepting the gift of grace sometimes means letting go of the demands of the law, the cultural law, anyway, that suggests that dependence or interdependence is anathema to maturity. The law tells us we must always be engaging in some type of self-improvement project to be worthy of another’s affection. The law keeps us from intimacy with ourselves, our spouses, our families, and, of course, the Christ who wants to pitch a tent and come to know and love us as we are, rather than as we want, or even ought to be.

The Incarnation, Christmas, is about Jesus pitching his tent in the messiness of the human condition, coming to understand our struggle, our messiness, our finitude, our sin, our truth, and then redeeming it all by assuring us that we are worthy of being Jesus’ brother, or sister, of being adopted children of God. Emmanuel, God-with-us, full of grace and truth, so full, in fact, that we can’t help but receive that fullness, grace upon grace. God-with-us, so intimately, that in our quiet moments, when we tune down the law, the fear of intimacy, the running from our imperfections, we can hear Jesus’ spirit in our own hearts, crying out, “Abba!” And Abba saying to each of us, “This is my son, my daughter, with whom I am well-pleased.”

Amen.

The Rev. Joslyn Ogden Schaefer serves as the Rector of Grace Church in the Mountains, in Waynesville, NC. She has degrees from Davidson College, University of Edinburgh and Episcopal Divinity School. In this phase of life, most of her discretionary time is lovingly devoured by small children. Her two primary spiritual disciplines are child-rearing and sermon-writing, and she is regularly humbled by both.

Download the sermon for Christmas 1.

Beyond Words, Christmas Day (III) – December 25, 2018


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

Words fail.

Stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Feel the wind rising off the canyon walls. See the light dappling in the crevices of the great chasm. Then try to describe this in words. For those who have stood there for themselves, your experience will bring back their own. But tell of feelings felt so deeply on the edge of the Grand Canyon to someone who has never been outside the confines of the cornfields of Iowa and words alone will fall flat.

A mother holds her newborn baby, seeing for the first time the child that has been growing in her womb. Those perfect hands touch her own. She counts and recounts the ten tiny toes—flesh of her flesh. We only have the power to evoke the faintest shadow of the vast ocean of emotions felt by the Virgin Mary as she held Jesus. Yes, words are powerful and can be life-changing, but some moments in life are beyond the power of language to contain.

One can craft tasty sentences that amuse, arouse, or anger. Yet language falls short of the breadth of human experience. Wittgenstein studied language deeply as an important philosopher of the last century and he found that words are not up to a task so simple as describing the aroma of a cup of coffee. He noted that if we can’t describe a cup of coffee, how much more difficult is it to portray God with words.

Yet portraying God with words is the task of scripture. Inspired by God, the Bible’s authors gave us moving passages of great depth of meaning, knowing that God is still beyond words. With soaring language, John’s Gospel begins with a poetic passage placing Jesus in eternal context:

“In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.”

On this Christmas Day, John takes us back to the beginning: the “In the beginning” of the Book of Genesis. He reminds us that the story of Jesus started before the world began, when the spirit of God hovered over the waters in creation as chaos swirled into order. There before the story of humanity was Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word of God creating the world.

John uses poetry to point to the triune God beyond all language. In doing so, John uses words laden with meaning. He calls Jesus the “Logos,” a word from Greek philosophy, which meant much more than the basic unit of a sentence. Logos is the idea or concept behind the words of language. The Logos is the eternal pattern, the perfect ideal the word tries to express. So, the word “square” means a shape equal on all sides. Even if we can never draw a perfect square, the word square still refers to that perfection. Jesus is that perfect Word, that Logos.

John also tells us that this perfect Word dwelled among us using a word that literally means “pitched a tent in our midst.” For Jews, this would naturally bring to mind the idea of the tent where God’s glory dwelt with Israel during the Exodus from Egypt. This was the same glory of God that dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. The poetic words, “God pitched his tent among us,” say that in the same way that the very glory of God present to the Hebrews in the Exodus and the Jews of the first century in the Temple is present in Jesus. In dwelling among us, however, Jesus is out among the people, rather than contained within the Temple.

In this poetic way, John pointed to so much more than he said. For the Temple was the nexus—the meeting place—of God and humanity on earth. Jesus becomes that place of connection between God and humanity. In Jesus, the glory of God became visible on earth.

This prologue then sets us up for all that follows. When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well and he accepts her, showing her the loving care others did not, we see the heart of God lived out on earth. Again and again, in John’s Gospel, we see signs that point to Jesus being God among us. In his life, as well as in his teaching, Jesus reveals more about God than we could learn otherwise.

I could go on showing these connections, but John’s Gospel does it so well in two verses. In verse 18, which is just beyond our reading for today, John writes, “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.” Then at the end of chapter 20, John writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

While all the words in the world could not contain the Word made human in Jesus, the words John chose are written so that we might believe and have life. John knew God’s own glory had pitched his tent among us in a stable in Bethlehem. Then God gave the Holy Spirit as a first gift to those who come to believe. The Jesus who was the Word made flesh would always be present with those who heard John’s Gospel. This is why Christians have always emphasized reading scripture, as the words convey God’s own heart.

In sharing The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus Centered Life, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has offered this church patterns which have nourished Christians for centuries. Captured in the words Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, and Rest, are practices proven to move one over time toward a life more like Jesus. Learn is reflecting on Scripture each day, especially on Jesus’ life and teachings. There are many ways to live into this practice and each makes the eternal Word Jesus more present through the words of the Bible.

The same Holy Spirit who inspired John’s Gospel inspires you as you read and reflect on scripture. It is that inspiration for the reader as well as the author that makes the Bible more than words on a page.

The God whose presence dwelt in fullness in Jesus of Nazareth is also fully present in your heart and here in our worship in both Word and Sacrament. Jesus was present in our readings and as we come forward to receive the Eucharist, our triune God present in creation is here with you.

If you have never stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon, my words would fail to convey that experience. You may never be that mother first laying eyes on the child that has been forming inside her, so my words could fail to explain the depth of feeling. Words fail to convey the presence of God in your life, but God’s presence is every bit as real, and even more vital, than all those experiences in your life that are beyond words.

While words can and will fail, Jesus, the eternal Word of God, never fails. Amen.

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia and a member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church. Frank blogs on church development topics at loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Download the sermon for Christmas Day (III).

O Come All Ye Faithful, Bored and Irritated, Christmas Day (II) – December 25, 2018


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

Why are we here today?

That’s actually a more complex question than we might think. Many of us are here out of habit and/or tradition. We’re here either because we come to this church every Sunday and Christmas Day is part of the deal, or we’re here because we simply always go to church on Christmas and Easter.

We might be here because our parents made us come, or we might be here for the sake of the children or grandchildren. We might be here to sing favorite carols and see the greenery and just generally feel festive. Every one of those reasons is a fine and good reason to be in church today.

But there might just be another reason working in the background, whether we realize it or not.

Think about the people who were at the first Christmas. Mary was there because she literally had no other choice. Biology took over at that point and she was obviously present at the birth of her child. Joseph was there because he loved his fiancée and wanted to do right by her and take care of her. The sheep and camels were there because their stable had been invaded by this couple who could find no room at the inn. And the shepherds were there probably out of curiosity, to find out if their vision of the angelic host was real or just a result of being oxygen deprived in the thin air way up on the hillsides with their sheep.

And the fact that they were in Bethlehem was not on purpose either. Mary and Joseph would probably have wanted to have the baby at home in Nazareth where they had friends and family to help them. They were only in Bethlehem because they had to go there for the census ordered by the emperor. Perhaps it was an equally strange mix of seemingly meaningless circumstances that brought you here today.

The old Christmas hymn, Adeste Fideles, calls all of us to this moment. “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.” We hope to feel joyful and triumphant on Christmas. Mary likely felt joyful and triumphant after just going through labor with no family or friends to help her and successfully delivering a healthy baby boy.

But it’s okay if you’re not feeling joyful and triumphant. O come, all ye faithful, bored and irritated. O come, all ye faithful, exhausted and worried. O come, all ye faithful, cynical and angry. O come, all ye faithful, heartbroken and grieving.

Simply come, all ye faithful, no matter what you’re feeling.

No doubt Joseph and the shepherds had mixed feelings as they entered the stable. But once they gazed on the face of the Christ Child, the Baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, everything changed. Whatever reason had brought them to this moment no longer mattered, and all of their complex, self-directed emotions faded to simple awe. When they saw him, their hearts cried out to do only one thing: fall to their knees and adore him.

What does it mean to adore someone?

It’s a term that we use lightly all the time to express admiration and love for someone: “Oh, I just adore her, she’s wonderful.”

The term “adore” is actually used very sparingly in the Bible. There are a variety of words used in relationship to worship: praise, glorify, rejoice. But adoration only happens in circumstances when people feel their smallness and imperfection in the face of the greatness and perfection of God. But rather than the people feeling bad about how small and imperfect they are, they are instead completely taken outside of themselves and enraptured and lost in the love and wonder of God.

Most of us probably do an okay amount of praising God, and we sure do a whole lot of petitioning God, asking God to fulfill our wishes and plans. But how often do we adore God? How often do we let go of our own agendas completely because we can’t help it, because we are so overwhelmed by the goodness and love of God streaming over and through us? Maybe not often enough.

There’s something in us that resists adoration. With praise and petition and even rejoicing and glorifying, we’re still in control. We’re generating action toward God based on our evaluation of God’s goodness and what we want to get out of it.

But to adore God is something else. Adoration means we are brought to our knees by the grace we’re experiencing, and it’s no longer about us. For once, we have forgotten our needs and our wants, and simply bask in how very good God is.

But if we find it hard to adore God in God’s majesty and greatness, it seems even less likely that we will want to go to our knees in a dusty, dirty stable for a newborn baby in a manger. There’s nothing awe-inspiring about a helpless baby. What has a baby done to impress me? What can a baby do to answer my prayers?

But even as we’re thinking these thoughts, we suddenly do stumble to our knees. God could have come to earth in any giant, majestic, theatrical way God wanted to. God could have shown up with lights painted across the sky and trumpets and fireworks and earthquakes. But God came as a child. God sent God’s beloved and only son as the most vulnerable and fragile creature imaginable: a human baby.

And that is what strikes us dumb and finally, finally takes our focus off ourselves and our needs. The raw power and depth of love that God must have for us to send Jesus to us this way when something terrible could so easily have happened is humbling. Think about how astronomically high the rate of infant mortality was in those days. Cold, exposure, infection, injury—a thousand things could have gone wrong in the first hours, not to mention the days and weeks and months to come, days and weeks and months in which Jesus had nothing to protect him, no modern medicine, no safe shelter, nothing but love.

The courage of that love, to come to earth as a fragile human baby and risk it all for us in this obscure and humble place—suddenly there is nothing we want to do more than go to our knees at the manger and adore him. The fragile courage of this small child awakens a similar fragile courage within us, to kneel down and open ourselves completely to this love, to let go, to adore.

Jesus had no protection from the many dangers that could harm him as a human baby, and he has no protection from the coldness of our cynicism and indifference. But the love and promise that he radiates emit a light brighter than the star shining overhead, a light that can melt the cold shield of ice we have wrapped around our hearts to protect ourselves from the intensity of pain and joy that comes with loving.

So we the faithful have come as we were called. Joyful and triumphant, bored and irritated, cynical and angry, exhausted and worried, or grieving and heartbroken, we have come.

Maybe we expected to drift off into daydreams during church, or ask God for something special in our stockings, or simply relax and have a good time with friends and family, and all of those things are fine to do. Maybe we came here worrying that we would have to hide the fact that we are afraid that we are the only ones that sometimes can neither see nor feel the magic of Christmas.

But as we approach the manger and see that God has had the courage to risk it all for us, out of the sheer depth and passion of God’s love for us, let us answer that courage with a courage of our own. Let us answer with the courage to let go of our agendas and our needs, kneeling at the manger and gazing into the face of love, fragile in form but stronger than steel in intent.

O come, all ye faithful. O come, let us adore him. 

The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest, recently named an Evangelism Catalyst for the Diocese of Indianapolis, who currently serves at St. Francis In-The-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana. She is a graduate of 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. She has contributed to Lectionary Homiletics, the Young Clergy Women’s Project journal Fidelia’s Sisters, and other publications. She is a researcher and community ministry grant consultant for the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, and a founding partner in the newly-forming women’s spirituality collective The Hive (www.thehiveapiary.com). Find more of her work at her website Roof Crashers & Hem Grabbers (www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com).

Download the sermon for Christmas Day (II).

Servants of Christ the King, Christ the King Sunday (B) – November 25, 2018

Proper 29


[RCL]: 2 Samuel 23:1-7; Psalm 132:1-13 (14-19); Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

This sermon is being written the day after the massacre of eleven congregants of the Jewish temple in Pittsburgh. As we approach the end of our Christian year and focus on the reign of Christ the King, we ponder this event and many other events of violence and terror, the mayhem and madness that stalk our land and the people of the world: the destruction and death in Syria and the prospect of famine in Yemen are but two examples.

The collect for today prays that, “the people of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule.” We cannot escape the awareness that this collect reminds us, that we are divided and enslaved by sin. None of us are exempt from our own complicit responsibility for the world we live in. None of us can honestly claim we bear no responsibility for the sad divisions in our nation. Our dishonesty in pointing the finger at others is graphically described by someone who said, “if you point your finger at someone else, there are three pointed toward you.”

So, how do we move forward with the banner of Christ as our King in a world that still seems to shout: “We have no king but the Emperor”?

The Gospel provides us with some direction. The dialogue between Jesus and Pilate, terse though it may be, illustrates the clashing of worldly and spiritual kingship. One is the threat of raw and absolute power with which we are all too familiar and to which we are often subjected. It is the power that has called us to war as a legitimate, but seldom necessary, solution. The other is a power that comes from disavowing the power of strength and might and turning to the power of love and redemption. The two are not compatible. We have to decide which we uphold.

Another topic in the Gospel is one very much at the center of our politics and culture today, and that is truth. Jesus tells us he came into the world to testify to the truth. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” There is no lie here; there is no shading or twisting of fact. The truth is that God loves the world, all of it, and gave his only Son to redeem it from sin and death.

The Nazis firebombed the industrial city of Coventry in England during World War II. The ancient cathedral was destroyed when the fire melted the lead on the roof and caused the building to collapse. After the war, a modern cathedral was rebuilt on the site, but visitors to Coventry know that adjacent to it are the ruins of an apse in which an altar stands with a charred cross, and behind it on the wall are the words “Father, forgive.” This place is a stark experience of the two opposing powers and the hope of redemption in the new cathedral where Christ in Glory is depicted above the high altar.

Images like this can help us in a time of discomfort and dread about what is happening. And the words of Christ himself remind us that to belong to the truth means listening to his voice, which may mean tuning out the voices of others claiming to have the truth.

So, how do we live in this time as citizens of the Kingdom of Christ?

We live as people of the truth, meaning we offer ourselves as ambassadors of the Good News to everyone. This does not happen by a sheer act of will. It happens by cultivating our attitudes and behavior through regular worship, the reading and study of Scripture, and our prayers. The more we feed from these sources, the more truthful our lives become, and less vulnerable to falsehood.

We live as servants of Christ the King. That means we find ways to serve him by serving others both within and without our faith community. If we think we can’t do that because of our limitations or fears, then we need to ask Jesus to show us what we can do. These actions replenish our depleted resolve and strengthen us for living in a chaotic world.

We live as a people who see opportunity in the community of others. This includes embracing the stranger, the refugee and the homeless, those who have no helper. Just singling out one person in these categories and finding ways to help them are ways to honor Christ the King.

We live as a people who hope in the life of the world to come. That doesn’t mean we discount this world altogether. It is God’s creation, given to us for our joy and benefit. But we know it is not where we are destined. Our hearts are restless as we await what is to come. Next Sunday, we begin a new church year and the season of Advent. As we sing, “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” we are challenged to bring that coming closer with our hearts and minds and strength.

The people of Coventry saw their cathedral rise out of the ashes. They began a ministry of reconciliation, the Cross of Nails, now known around the world, as a vibrant mission of reconciliation and redemption. That vision calls us today to be people of hope and reconciliation, to pray and work for civil discourse and grace towards our neighbors, and especially those who differ from us.

Here is a story that you may have heard. It is a legend from the Cherokee people that has been quoted recently by many:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

As we honor Christ the King today, remember that Jesus is relying on us to be partners with him in bringing the truth to a world that tries to shut it out, but desperately needs to hear it and embrace it. Amen.

Ben Helmer is a retired Episcopal priest who served small congregations in Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Arkansas. He was officer for rural and small community ministries for the Episcopal Church from 1999-2005. Helmer currently lives in Holiday Island, Arkansas with his wife.

Download the sermon for Christ the King Sunday (B).

Journey Through Grief, Pentecost 26 (B) – November 18, 2018

Proper 28


[RCL]: 1 Samuel 1:4-20; 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25; Mark 13:1-8

In a church much like this one, a woman stays behind in the pews after the service. She is sitting at the back, off to the side, so no one notices her as they are tidying things up. Eventually, the priest comes back into the sanctuary to retrieve something and hears her crying. When the priest asks what’s wrong, the woman tells her story: she and her husband have been trying to have a child for over a decade. They have been through every fertility treatment, including intrauterine insemination and in vitro fertilization, as well as complementary alternative therapies like acupuncture and yoga for fertility. Nothing has worked. This week, the woman’s specialist told her that she is entering perimenopause. The couple also had to take out loans from family to pay for the treatments and she is utterly depleted—financially, emotionally, and physically.

Quietly, her husband joins them and puts his arm around his wife. He says to the priest that they have prayed faithfully to God for the blessing of a child. They have attended church, have tithed, have volunteered in their community, and have even bargained with God that they would dedicate their child to a rigorous Christian upbringing, sending him or her to an expensive, private Christian school, no matter what the cost. In essence, they felt like they had done everything in their power as faithful people and they felt as if in some way, God was punishing them. Their desire to become parents had ended up causing them more pain and isolation than they ever could imagine.

The priest listening to this couple’s story felt deep compassion for them. Immediately, the priest thought of the parallels they had to Hannah’s story, except for this couple there has been no happy ending, so how would sharing that be comforting? The priest’s mind then turned to some continuing education they received regarding perinatal grief and loss, remembering the statistics from the U.S. Center for Disease Control’s Reproductive Health report that 12% of women aged 15-44 had impaired fertility; 7.3 million women have used infertility services; in 35% of couples with infertility, a male factor is identified along with a female factor; and about 30% of the cause of infertility cannot be explained. How could the priest or anyone else bring comfort to this type of suffering?

For people struggling with fertility to hear the story of Hannah, on the surface, it sounds like a story about them: a person desperate for a child feels shamed by others and looks to God for succor and hopefully a miracle. They often conclude that if they would just pray hard enough, suffer long enough, and do the right things (whatever those are), God will perform a miracle and give them their longed-for child. The same goes for anyone who is challenged with chronic illness, pain, unemployment, abuse, and really any situation in which a person is not in control and wishes God, looking like Dumbledore from the Harry Potter books and movies, will wave a magic wand and give us our heart’s desire. But God doesn’t work in such a transactional or magical way, so we must look more deeply into what this story is about.

This story is about Hannah, but it is also about Israel and its monarchy. Hannah and her plight root us in what it meant to be a woman in a society that valued fecundity and male offspring. A society that itself was in barrenness, despairing of a leader, and in need of hope. Hannah represents a faithful servant who believes she means something to God in the midst of a social construct that tells her she is only worth the children she bears. If God cares about a marginalized woman, how could God not also care for the plight of Israel—an entire people?

Hannah’s journey through grief is emotional and spiritual, in which her connection and trust in pouring her heart out to God assist her in moving forward. And it is from this marginalized woman that Samuel, who will become a great prophet and anointer of kings, a new hope for the people called Israel, is born.

In response to God’s faithfulness, Hannah prays what is called “Hannah’s Song” in I Samuel, chapter 2, adding her voice to that of Miriam—Moses’ sister, and Mary of Nazareth—mother of Jesus. These women praise God who has created extraordinary circumstances so that the people of Israel may be delivered from distress in ways they could not imagine. The same goes for us as well. God cares about you and me in the midst of joy and pain. When we bring our whole selves to God in prayer and with faithfulness of life, we can become transformed. God is no longer seen as a shopkeeper who should hand over the goods when we believe we’ve paid our price. Nor is God a magical being who grants wishes based on whimsy if we’re on God’s good side that day. Instead, God becomes a constant and faithful companion on the journey, and this relationship bears witness to both who we are in each moment and who we are becoming.

This relationship was vital in the time when Mark’s Gospel was written. There are other prophetic figures going around predicting a variety of apocalyptic events that must happen in order for God to create a clean slate and establish a new creation. Jesus’ concept of prophecy is different. It is not something that predicts the future but instead is used to hasten repentance and reform. Therefore, the relationship that the disciples have with Jesus helps them discern what is true and what is false. When one does not heed a prophet, only then does destruction occur.

In the midst of chaos and swirling rumors of destruction, Jesus tells the disciples not to engage in the apocalyptic zeal going on around them. This speaks to us as followers of Jesus even now. As Christians, we have one charge, and that is to share the Gospel with others – especially in the midst of life and world events. Like Jesus, we have both opportunity and a mission to be with others. Instead of getting drawn into a mob mentality—blindly following others and being affected by their hysteria—we can focus on what is right in front of us and show others how our transformational relationship with God gives us strength and hope in uncertain times.

Jesus has reminded us about what God taught Hannah: that each of us matters, no matter how insignificant we may be in our society and in the world. Like the couple struggling with fertility, we do not know what the ultimate outcome will be. However, the priest at that moment had the opportunity to be the hands, feet, and listening ear of Jesus, as do each of us when in the midst of another’s turmoil. Our faith in God and faithfulness to each other saves us from destruction. This is the Good News, indeed! Amen.

The Rev. Danae M. Ashley, M.Div., MA, LMFTA is an Episcopal priest and Marriage and Family Therapist who has ministered with parishes in North Carolina, New York, and Minnesota, and is now serving part-time as the Associate Rector at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Seattle. She is also a therapist at Soul Spa Seattle, LLC. An advocate for spirituality and fertility issues, Danae has written articles and a chapter in the book Still a Mother: Journeys through Perinatal Bereavement, been a guest on podcasts, and collaborated on and produced Amanda Aikman’s verbatim play Naming the Un-Named: Stories of Fertility Struggle. She was recently featured in the documentary Don’t Talk About the Baby, which can be found on Vimeo.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 26 (B).

Giving, Pentecost 25 (B) – November 11, 2018

Proper 27


[RCL]: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

She was a woman. She was poor. These are two facts anyone could tell that day in the Court of the Women in the Temple in Jerusalem.

She was also a widow who was down to her last two coins. These are facts that Jesus also knew about her.

She was a woman of great faith. She became a living sermon. She remains an icon of faith as she put her whole trust in God, not holding anything back.

This unnamed woman is known now by her marital status and her coins rather than her name, for the story is “The Widow’s Mite” and she is “The Widow.” Yet we should be careful to note that it is the story of the widow’s mites as the woman had two small coins. Each of her coins were worth one four-hundredth of a shekel or what we might think of as an eighth of a penny each. Too small to bear a legible imprint, they were the grubbiest of coins in the empire of Rome.

Mark sets the scene for us sparingly. Jesus has been teaching in the temple courts. Now, on his way out, he pauses over and against the treasury to watch as offerings are made. Each person would walk up to one of the thirteen trumpet-shaped receptacles, which were lined along the wall of the Court of the Women. As they tossed in their offering, the person was expected to say aloud the amount and purpose of the gift in order to be heard by the priest overseeing the collections.

It would have been an impressive sight to see people in fine clothes tossing in large sums, calling out to all how much they gave. And in such a group, who would notice the widow tossing the two smallest coins in the realm into the offering? Yet, in a move that is so like him, Jesus notices and calls attention to this act of faith.

Jesus calls his disciples together and says, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Jesus knows that these are not any two coins, but the woman’s last two coins. The text says, “All she had to live on,” but the Greek is starker still. What is really said is that she put in her bios. It’s the word from which we get “biology,” the study of life. For Jesus tells us that the widow put her “life” into the temple treasury that day.

This is not a sermon about tithing, for the woman did not give ten percent of her income. These were her last two coins to rub together, and rather than keep one back, she tossed both into the temple treasury’s coffers. The widow gave 100 percent of her money. The widow is down to two practically worthless little coins, and she trusts it all to God. If this were a gamble, then the widow would be laying all her money on God. But this is not a gamble, for the widow does not bet her money; she trusts her life to God.

It would be nice if Mark filled in more details for us. Was Jesus’ arm around the woman as he said, “This poor widow has put in more …” or was the woman blending back into the crowd, never to be seen again? Or perhaps Jesus asked his own keeper of the purse, Judas Iscariot, to give something to this woman so that she would not go hungry that evening. Or better still, did the widow come to be a Christ follower? Did she join with the other women who journeyed with Jesus from Galilee to the cross and beyond?

The Gospel never answers these questions. The nameless widow who gave two small coins fades into the background. We may want to know her name in order to name churches, schools, and hospitals in her honor. We may want to give her a place of honor in Jesus’ stories alongside disciples whose names we know, though their trust in God wasn’t always so exemplary.

But perhaps namelessness is appropriate for this living parable. And maybe it is best, too, that we don’t find out how her story ends. The nameless woman whose ultimate fate we never know is perhaps an even better icon of trust, for her story was a precarious one. She went to the temple that day not knowing if she would ever have two little coins to call her own again. It could have been her path to a life of begging or even a station on the road to starvation.

But in facing an uncertain future, the widow reached out to God. She trusted that if she gave everything she had to God, even the little she gave would be honored. And whether she was repaid handsomely by Jesus himself, or God cared for her in some other way, we, too, have to trust. We trust that the widow’s story turned out all right. We trust that whether she lived or died, she was God’s.

And by her example, Jesus shows that what we withhold may matter more than what we offer. The widow was a woman of great faith, who held nothing back. She knew what Jesus’ disciples were just learning: we are to give, knowing that everything we have is God’s already. We can’t give God anything. But we can offer our very selves to the Kingdom of God, holding nothing back.

She was a woman. She was poor. She was a widow down to her last two coins. She was a child of God who placed her whole life back in her loving creator’s hands.

This sermon, written by the Rev. Canon Frank Logue, originally ran November 12, 2006.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 25 (B).

The Surprise of the Resurrection, All Saints’ Day (B) – November 4, 2018


[RCL]: Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9 or Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

Winston Churchill, arguably one of the greatest political and military leaders of the 20th century, planned every detail of his funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He worked clandestinely with cathedral staff, under the code name “Operation-Hope-Not.” (That code name reveals a lot about humanity’s attitude toward death, doesn’t it?) One aspect of his funeral seems absolutely inspired: a bugler played The Last Post, which is like the equivalent of Taps in the United States, from the west end of the cathedral. When the somber notes of that solo bugle echoed through the cathedral, I can imagine the stiff upper lips of many Brits quivered, as they were no longer able to hold back tears.

Then a full minute of silence passed.

And then, surely a surprise to all those mourners who crowded into St. Paul’s that day, another bugler, this one positioned in the east, rose to play Reveille, the happy morning bugle call that gives soldiers and scouts the “get up and go” they need to kick-start their day. Perhaps after the tears, a few suppressed chuckles slipped out. Always a commanding presence – even from the dead – Churchill relayed two important messages.

First, he offered a testimony to the shock, joy, and surprise of the Resurrection. At the last day, we’ll all rise to the sound of the Lord playing a heavenly version of Reveille and waking us up to the new life, new earth, new Jerusalem. It wasn’t random that the Reveille came from the east, where the sun rises, the direction the altar faces in many churches, the direction from which we expect Christ to return again.

Secondly, Churchill bid them to press on, to attend to the day at hand, and the life ahead, here and now.

But let’s go back in our imagination to that minute of silence because that is where we can locate this great feast day we’ve gathered to celebrate: All Saints’ Day.

That minute of silence is where we find ourselves wondering:

  • Is this really it?
  • What comes next?
  • Do we have enough tears to cry?
  • Is there enough patience to persevere?

Somewhere in the uncomfortable silence, having heard Taps and waiting for Reveille.

Somewhere in the waiting, for God to descend among us and wipe every tear from our eyes.

Somewhere in the hoping, that Jesus’ words are trustworthy and true.

Somewhere in the trusting, that God is preparing, for all peoples – my favorite saints and yours, those dearly departed in this community and abroad, folk we miss dearly and folk we never knew – that God is preparing a feast of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

Somewhere in the discomfiting silence, where we wait for God to swallow up death forever, even as it abides with us here and now.

And in this quiet and disquieting moment, when we wait, hope, trust on our best days and fight despair on our worst – that is the moment where we meet the Lord.

Today’s liturgy, feast, and Gospel reading all encourage us to feel the grief and sorrow, maybe even impatience at having to wait that long minute before we hear Reveille, or anger at how death takes away, at least in physical form, the people we love. We are given the courage we need to wait for Reveille – together, nourished around this table, hearing God’s story in our stories, and pleading, like Mary did, for Jesus to come and take death away.

Today’s Gospel story is remarkable. In John’s Gospel, the raising of Lazarus is the event that provokes the necessity of Jesus’ death in the eyes of his day’s elite. After Lazarus was raised, the religious and political leaders were focused on eliminating him. There was something so threatening in Jesus’ disruption of the world on the world’s terms. Jesus is distraught: weeping, disturbed, maybe even angry, and certainly grief-stricken. And yet Jesus is fully in-charge, not operating on our preferred timetable, but on his own with a larger purpose in mind, that of engendering trust or belief in the crowd that had gathered.

Mary articulates what many of us feel when someone close to us dies: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus doesn’t directly respond to this. Instead, he begins to take charge, first finding out where the body is and then issuing a series of short commands:

Take away the stone.
Lazarus, come out!
Unbind him, and let him go.

What would it be like to prayerfully wonder how the Holy Spirit might be telling us in the words of Jesus:

“Take away the stone.” What stones in your life need to be removed so that Jesus can get to you? Ask for the grace to take away the stone.

“Lazarus, come out.” Jesus knows us each by name and calls us o’er the tumult. Even death can’t deafen our ear to Jesus’ call. “Lazarus, come out.”

“Unbind him, and let him go.” Sometimes each one of us needs help becoming free, loosing ourselves from the chains that bind us to death-dealing ways. To whom in your life can Jesus say, “Go, unbind your friend. The abundant life is available for him, for her, for you, here and now, even in your grief, even in your tears, even in your longing to be reunited with your beloved who is now part of that great cloud of witnesses.”

Each of these commands offers good material for our own prayer life. When we pray, just like when we receive the sacraments, we are closer to the saints because we are placing our hearts and minds in the nearer presence of God.

Jesus is very explicit about why he raised his friend Lazarus. He did this so that the crowd back then, and you and me today, might believe, might trust in the God who sent Jesus to raise Lazarus, in the Father who raised the Son on the third day, in the Lord who will swallow up death forever. This story inspires us in our waiting, in our hoping, in our trusting, in that long silence between Taps and Reveille.

And, maybe, just maybe, in heaven, the equivalent of Reveille goes like this:

Holy, Holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts…

And maybe, just maybe, every Sunday, we come back here to hear that tune, to wake up to it, maybe even to join in – with the angels, archangels and all the company of heaven – including those saints we remember and grieve and are grateful for and celebrate this day.

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts: Heaven and earth are full of thy Glory. Hosanna in the highest.

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 All Saints’ Day (B).

Let Me See, Pentecost 23 (B) – October 28, 2018

Proper 25


[RCL]: Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22); Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52

The ancients used to call sight, “The Queen of the Senses.” I suspect this enthronement of the sense of sight is still understandable to us. After all, what is lovelier than seeing the orange fire of the sky at sunrise? What is more beautiful than the burning leaves of autumn? What touches our hearts more deeply than seeing a smile on our beloved’s face? You can imagine your own feast for the eyes: sights that delight or enchant, sights that you want to linger over and savor. There are so many sights around me that I want to remember, but, I suppose, the sights I want to remember most are the faces of those I love. I want always to remember the sight of my brother’s face as he held his newborn baby. I want always to remember the wonder in my niece’s eyes as she pointed to geese flying overhead. I want always to remember the smiling, laughing eyes of my grandfather at family gatherings. I can understand why the ancients called sight “The Queen of the Senses.”

I guess this is why the language of sight and seeing has come to mean so much more than simple sense perception. In our everyday talk, we use the language of seeing as a metaphor for understanding. When someone tries to explain something to us, they say, “I want you to see what I am trying to tell you.” And when we finally get it, we say, “Now I see it!” “It was right before my eyes all along.” “It was staring me right in the face.” In our religious speech, we also use the language of sight as a metaphor for faith. We talk about those things that are visible only to “the eyes of faith.” In the Nunc Dimittis, we sing, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people.” Classical theology spoke of our ultimate destiny as the “Beatific Vision”: a time when we shall behold God face to face. Now we see through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face.

But sometimes learning to see can be hard work. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard describes studies done on people who recovered their sight after years of blindness. These people were enabled to see after doctors had discovered how to perform safe cataract operations. Dillard writes, “In general the newly sighted see the world as a dazzle of color-patches… [they] learn quickly to name the colors, but the rest of seeing is tormentingly difficult.” These people have no idea of space or distance and so they walk around bumping into the sharp edges of the color patches and only then realize that they are part of something substantial. Some people find their new sense of sight so difficult and frustrating that they refuse to use their new vision, and lapse into their old ways of perceiving things. A doctor reported of one twenty-one year old woman who had regained her sight: “Her unfortunate father, who had hoped for so much from this operation, wrote that his daughter carefully shuts her eyes whenever she wishes to go about the house, especially when she comes to a staircase, and she is never happier or more at ease than when, by closing her eyelids, she relapses into her former state of total blindness.” Another patient, so upset by the difficulty he has in learning to translate what he sees into something he can understand, says that he can’t stand it anymore and that he wants to tear his eyes out. Dillard also notes that for some, regaining a sense of sight is accompanied by a sense of shame. She writes, “A blind man who learns to see is ashamed of his old habits. He dresses up, grooms himself, and tries to make a good impression.”

Sometimes, learning to see can be tormentingly difficult. This seems to be true not only of physical sight, but also of learning to see the truth in the world around us, and, indeed, of learning to see the truth about ourselves. The pain and sorrow of this world so often make us want to avert our eyes from the truth. Turn on the nightly news and see the latest reports of violence in our communities, and we may feel like closing our eyes and relapsing into total blindness. Look with the prophet Isaiah at the massive injustices in our world, the grinding poverty, the degradation of human dignity, the prejudice, and we may feel like tearing our eyes out. Look at ourselves in the mirror and see the hurts and the wounds we have inflicted on others and on ourselves, and we may feel ashamed. Learning to see can be tormentingly difficult.

In our Gospel lesson for this morning, we have the story of the healing of blind Bartimaeus. When we look at Bartimaeus, we see that he was not only blind, but also that he was a beggar sitting beside the road. The truth about Bartimaeus is that because of his blindness, he had lost his freedom. Because of his blindness, Bartimaeus had become dependent on strangers. In particular, Bartimaeus had become dependent on folks who would travel the busy road between the major cities Jericho and Jerusalem. We see a blind beggar who had to rely on the handouts of passers-by, whose best bet was to position himself along the pathway of people who might toss him a coin or two.

When Jesus and his disciples walked by, Bartimaeus must have heard them, because he cries out for mercy. And what response do you think this blind beggar gets to his request for mercy? Mark tells us that “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet.” That’s a polite way of saying they told him to shut up. This poor man, this blind man, this man who is reduced to begging for his subsistence from passersby, cries out for mercy, and many people in the crowd tell him to shut his mouth.

But thanks be to God, Bartimaeus does not keep quiet. He cries out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And despite the attempts of the crowd to shut him up, Jesus hears him, hears his cry for mercy, and calls him to come near. When Bartimaeus learns that his request has been heard, he springs to his feet and runs to Jesus. And what does Jesus do first? He asks him a question: “What do you want me to do for you?” There is such an outpouring of compassion and love in this simple question. This blind beggar who was treated by so many people like a piece of trash along the side of the road, who was told to keep quiet, is now brought to Jesus who treats him like a human being. Notice, Jesus does not presume to know what Bartimaeus wants. Rather, Jesus raises this man up onto his own two feet, he takes him from a position of subservience and raises him up as human being, and asks him genuinely, lovingly, compassionately: What do you want?

And Bartimaeus says to Jesus, “My teacher, let me see again.” The depths of longing in that request are almost too much to bear. My teacher, let me see again, and let me no longer have to beg by the side of the road. My teacher, let me see again, and let me no longer be dependent on strangers. Let me see again, and let me no longer be looked at with pity and scorn by passersby. My teacher, let me see again, and let me go free.

And Jesus says, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately, Bartimaeus regains his sight. He leaves his begging cloak behind. And he follows Jesus on the way.

Learning to see can be tormentingly difficult. But if we are willing to undergo the painful process, learning to see can also transform our lives. Learning to see can lift us up onto our own two feet. Learning to see can free us to love and serve our neighbors. Learning to see can free us to love and follow the Lord.

Annie Dillard also writes about the amazing gifts of learning to see again. She writes of a little girl who visits a garden. “She is greatly astonished, and can scarcely be persuaded to answer. She stands speechless in front of a tree, which she only names on taking hold of it, and then as ‘the tree with the lights in it.’” Another woman was so dazzled by the world’s brightness that she kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize any objects, but the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly explained: “Oh God! How beautiful!”

Oh God! How beautiful! Learning to see can be a painfully difficult process. There is so much about our world and about ourselves that may make us want to look away. In so many ways, we are all imprisoned by our own types of blindness. But the good news is that we do not have to remain in bondage to our blindness. We can learn to see. We can learn to look at our neighbors with compassion. We can learn to unmask the self-serving rhetoric of peoples and companies and governments that tell people to keep quiet while they are subjected to grinding poverty and violence. We can learn to look at our own frailties and failings and ask for help. We can ask people what they need and help them get onto their own feet again. And we can learn to look anew at this amazing, awesome, blooming, buzzing, glorious creation and all the creatures in it, including our own blind and beggarly human race and exclaim, “Oh God! How beautiful! Oh God! How beautiful!”

Let us pray. O Lord our God, hear our cries for mercy. Raise us up from our places alongside the way of life. Heal us from our blindness. Set us free to look with compassion upon those whom you place in our paths. Free us to follow you on the way of self-giving love. And at the last day, bring us with all your saints into that heavenly city where all tears will be wiped away and where we shall behold you face to face. Amen.

The Rev. Joe Pagano is an Appointed Missionary for the Episcopal Church, with Episcopal Volunteers in Mission. He and Amy Richter, his wife, will teach at the College of Transfiguration in Grahamstown, South Africa and visit several Provinces in Africa to work with our partners in the Galatians 6:2 (“Bear one another’s burdens”) project on theological education. He and Amy have a new book coming out in 2019 from Cascade Publishers, a collection of reflections by theologians, writers, and musicians on their experiences of worship in the Episcopal Church.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 23 (B).

Change Your Question – Change Your Life, Pentecost 22 (B) – October 21, 2018

Proper 24


[RCL]: Job 38:1-7, (34-41); Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45 

Here they come: the Zebedee boys. In fact, you can see them coming. They’ve been shopping at Men’s Wearhouse, and they like how they look. They flash whitened smiles, they’ve got just enough grey around the temples to look experienced but not tired; enough tan to look sporty, not like they have to earn a living out of doors. They sidle up to Jesus. “Hey Jesus, can we speak with you in private, just for a moment?” They want to get him alone, out of earshot of the rest of the disciples, because they want something and they’re smart enough to know the others might not appreciate the deal they want to cut with the Lord.

“We’re close, right? Friends?” we can hear them saying. “We’ve had some special times together, you and us, right?” They don’t beat around the bush as they jockey for favor from the Lord. They come right to the point. They are ambitious for the top spots. The Zebedee Brothers want to be co-CEOs of the new Church. They want the cushy corner office with the great view. Toss in a country club membership or, better still for two former fishermen, a mooring at the Galilee Yacht Club. They want the top cabinet posts in Jesus’ administration. They want to give orders, not take them; ask the questions, not answer them.

If this caricature seems a bit caustic, then it captures the tone of the Gospel reading for today. But before we distance ourselves from the Zebedee boys too quickly, it’s worth considering that the reason the church saved this little story of big embarrassment for the disciples is that Jesus knows we all have a little Zebedee in us.

Maybe we don’t aim as high as they in wanting to be at Christ’s right and left hand in his glory, but maybe we do share something of their approach to life.

There has been a lot written about mission statements as a way to guide us as we go through life, about how as groups or as individuals, we can use mission statements to help us set priorities, to keep focus on what really matters most to us.

I think there is also such a thing as a mission question—a mission question that sums up our approach to life. And just like a mission statement, a mission question can guide, for better or worse, how we live our lives. When looking at James and John, we can surmise the question that guides their lives, that leads them into this embarrassing muscling-in on Jesus to ask for special status. Their mission question is, “What’s in it for me?”

Today’s scene is not just embarrassing, it’s heartbreaking, because we’ve seen how James and John left their fishing business and their father to follow Jesus. We’ve seen that they have sacrificed a lot to continue with Jesus down this road of discipleship. But today we see that ugly question, rearing its self-centered head: what’s in it for me?

Now James and John are on the right track in that they do have faith in Jesus’ victory. Even though Jesus has been saying all these strange things, like “the first shall be last and the last first,” and “become like a child,” and “those who are great must be servants,” they have faith that Jesus is actually a good leader, a man with great potential for power. Even though, like the rest of the disciples, they often don’t get what he’s saying, they think he’s the one to back, he’s the candidate who is going to come out on top. They think, even though some of his teachings are pretty upside-down and idealistic, Jesus will be glorified, and they want to be there when it happens, on his right and on his left. They’re willing to follow Jesus because they want to back a winner. And if Jesus is a winner, then maybe some of his prestige and power will trickle down to them. They’re approaching discipleship from this angle: what’s in it for me?

The sons of Zebedee don’t realize Jesus’ talk about service as a way of life, of the abundance that comes from being emptied out, of the security that comes from loosening your grasp on things and power and allowing yourself instead to be grasped by God, is not merely a means to an end. They don’t realize the irony, that if you can give up that question – what’s in it for me? – and instead serve, you will have an abundant, worthwhile, meaningful life. By giving up the question, what’s in it for me?, you’ll get more than you ever dreamed.

Jesus teaches and serves and lives and dies and is raised again for this truth: serving others is powerful. Giving up yourself for another, being emptied out in love is abundant life. But to find your way to these rewards, you have to stop asking the question, What’s in it for me?

What’s in it for me? It’s the question that turns friendships sour when you realize that someone seems only to take and never to give. It’s the question that reveals itself when in the midst of a project the going gets rough, the rewards seem far away, and the thanks even farther, and people originally onboard drift away. When the answer to the question, what’s in it for me?, seems to be less and less clear, so does their commitment. It’s the question that reveals itself when people come to any church as consumers, not worshippers, not servants, looking only for what we can get out of it, not what we might put in, not what God might get out of it through our efforts to be attentive and present in prayer and praise, for just a little while once a week. What’s in it for me? It’s a human question, one that we all ask at some time or another.

Even in our Gospel lesson, the sons of Zebedee are not alone. When the other disciples hear that James and John have put themselves above their peers, they run up to Jesus too. They’re angry. They’re mad. And not because they see that James and John have misunderstood. They’re mad because they didn’t think of it first. They’re angry because they think of power the way the world thinks of power – as something that’s yours if you take it, if you’re the strongest, swiftest, most politically savvy, most well-connected. They think there’s only so much to go around, and those sneaky little Zebedee brothers have gone ahead and grabbed the power first.

But Jesus doesn’t give up on his disciples. Jesus sees beyond all of this. Maybe he could see them as they would become, filled with the Holy Spirit after Pentecost, transformed into courageous witnesses whose dreams of greatness, whose what’s in it for me? attitude had been replaced by the humble goal of serving the Lord they love. Perhaps he could see that someday they would stop asking, what’s in it for me? and start asking the other question in today’s Gospel, Jesus’ question: What is it you want me to do for you?

At first glance, we may imagine Jesus asking this question in frustration. He asks it, after all, just after the Zebedee boys have come up to him and demanded that he say yes, even before they tell him what their demand is: “What is it you want me to do for you?” But this is the question Jesus always asks. Not to step on the toes of next week’s sermon, but we’ll hear Jesus ask it again in next week’s gospel when he’ll ask a blind beggar, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And the man will ask for healing. This is Jesus’ question for all who come to him. This is Jesus’ open, vulnerable mission question – a question that guides his life of service, of his willingness to meet us where we are, to allow us the freedom to tell him what we really want. This means sometimes that Jesus hears requests like James’ and John’s – requests that sound more like a child’s immature grasping – gimme, gimme, gimme. And sometimes, Jesus hears the honest response of those who know that Jesus is our only hope: requests for healing, forgiveness, a second or third or fourth chance, a chance to try again, a chance to come before Jesus empty-handed and say, “Lord have mercy, Lord, let me know your grace and love.”

A task for those who would follow Jesus is to allow Jesus to transform our questions so that we are people who ask not, “What’s in it for me?” but, “Jesus, what is it you want me to do for you?” And be brave enough to listen for Jesus’ answer and open to receive its rewards.

When your question is, “What can I do for you?”, when you concentrate mainly on what you can put into church in the way of personal work and prayer and participation, you feel that you receive even more than you give. You find that service can be challenging, but it also brings deep joy. Service can be demanding, but it also brings pleasure and contentment and hope.

Jesus comes to us and asks, “What is it you want me to do for you?” May Jesus heal and transform us so that we might ask the same of him and be brave enough to listen to the answer.  Amen.

The Rev. Amy Richter, Ph.D., is an Appointed Missionary for the Episcopal Church, with Episcopal Volunteers in Mission. She and Joseph Pagano, her husband, teach at the College of Transfiguration in Grahamstown, South Africa and visit several Provinces in Africa to work with our partners in the Galatians 6:2 (“Bear one another’s burdens”) project on theological education. She and Joe have a new book coming out in 2019 from Cascade Publishers, a collection of reflections by theologians, writers, and musicians on their experiences of worship in the Episcopal Church.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 22 (B).