Saturday, March 2, 2013
3 Lent 2013
7:07 pm est
3 Lent 2013
I have been a way for two weeks, and just to show you how fast the
world moves, Pope Benedict XVI resigned since I last saw you. His resignation is a remarkable event that took the world by
surprise. Benedict has served the Church his whole life, was one of the architects of Vatican II, and he has been one of the
Church’s leading theologians and scholars. I pray for the remainder of his pilgrimage and for the Roman Catholic Church
which gathers in conclave to elect the new Pope.
The event of the Pope’s resignation has garnered a lot of press, of course. I have to say I was initially
shocked by one headline that was blasted everywhere by the international press. There were different versions of the headline
that quoted Benedict as saying that at times “the Lord was sleeping.” If I had no biblical background and just saw the headline I would think that the Pope himself was saying
that God was not active in this world, not even in the Church which claims to be the Bride of Christ. I had that brief anxious
moment until I read what Benedict actually did say which is this: "There were moments," he said, "as there
were throughout the history of the church, when the seas were rough and the wind blew against us and it seemed that the Lord
secular press interpreted this comment as being metaphorical. The boat is the church that the Pope heads; the rough seas and
winds were his reference to the scandals and issues that have overtaken the Church, and apparently the Lord slept through
all of that. If you are familiar with the Gospels, however, what Benedict actually said was a profound biblical and theological
reflection on life with Christ.
you probably know, the Pope’s reference was to an event in the life of Jesus and his disciples that was first recounted
in the Gospel of Mark (4.35-41). There Jesus and his disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee in a fishing boat. Jesus has
fallen asleep on some ballast bags in the stern of the ship. Suddenly a great gale comes up, the winds whipping the small
boat, the waters rising against the boat. The crew of the boat is in fear for their lives, while Jesus sleeps calmly. The
disciples wake Jesus up, crying: “We are dying out here. Don’t you care?” Jesus looks at them calmly, surprised
they woke him up for this, and he asks: “Why are you afraid? Do you mean to tell me you STILL don’t have faith?”
Then he stood up in the boat and rebuked the wind and storm: “Peace be to you. Be still. Be quiet.” And the storm
It is at that point
that the disciples, true to form, ask an exceedingly dumb question. They look at one another in disbelief and ask, “Who
is it that can command the sea and the wind?” It’s a dumb question because the answer should have been blatantly
obvious: Only the divine can.
We believers are supposed to know this story and to be able to take a few lessons away from
it. The Psalms tell us that God alone commands the sea (Pss
42.7-8; 65. 7-8; 107. 23-32.) The Lord God, who after all is the author of creation, is just as much entitled to
rest as any created being is. Afer all, the Lord God who created heaven and earth also created the Great Sabbath (Genesis
2. 2-3). In fact, in the bible, enjoying unconcerned sleep is a quality of the divine (Prov 3.32-34; Pss 3.5; 4.8; Job 11.18-19).
Despite the tumult and anxiety that humans feel in life, there is NEVER any nanosecond in which the Lord God is not doing
his job. The relation of Jesus to the anxiety of the disciples in the boat reminds me of the sign you sometimes see in repair
shops: “A crisis on your part does not constitute a crisis on my part.”
So, when Pope Benedict XVI talks about
being at the helm of the Church by making reference to the experience of the disciples in the fishing boat in a storm, he
has chosen the exact scriptural idea to meet the situation. The Lord God, not us, is at the helm. We humans, even the most
holy of humans, can be overrun by anxiety, by crisis, by fear, but that does not constitute a crisis for God. God, like Jesus
in the stern, will rise up to his full height and do what the Lord God does, rule all creation.
So, I give thanks for Benedict’s
closing remarks on his ministry; I just wish there had been a little theological exposition of what he said to instruct believers
and secular observers alike.
The reference to the storm story and to the experience of the crises of the Church in the last
fifty years should remind us to do one thing. We are first to still ourselves, to be quiet, to calm down, to be at peace –
precisely because the Lord God is at the helm. That is the lesson that Moses learns before the burning bush as the Lord God
introduces himself to the prophet. “Be still, have no fear!” is the advice given to every prophet at their
calling. Paul in the reading from Corinthians reminds us that just as the Lord God accompanied the people of Israel wherever
they went by traveling with them in a holy cloud, so Christ will travel with us, wherever we go.
Is the Church in trouble? Is the storm
rising? Are the winds blowing and are the seas rising up to our necks? Probably. It wouldn’t be the first time in our
history, as Benedict aptly points out. Are all churches in dire need of reform? Should we fall on our faces and repent of
the multitude of ways in which we have failed to deliver the Gospel of Christ and to take up our crosses and follow Jesus?
Yes, absolutely, that’s always a great idea. Should we scream and cry in our anxiety and despair and wake God up from
a restful nap? Yes, to whom else should we turn? And the Lord God, as is his nature, will stand up, rise to his full height,
and command the universe: Peace be to you, be still, be quiet.
Saturday, February 9, 2013
Last Epiphany 2013
12:45 pm est
Last Epiphany 2013
Over this season of Epiphany
we have been getting to know Jesus, who he is, why he is different, why we call him LORD. Today, the last day of the season,
caps the message that Jesus is LORD. We get that message in today’s Gospel according to Luke in the incident of the
Transfiguration. Jesus and three disciples go up a mountain to pray, and the disciples witness Jesus as somehow transformed,
holy, divine, glorified, and they see him in conversation with the great prophets, Elijah and Moses.
a confounding event for those who experienced the Transfiguration, and for us who can only read about it. It’s so confounding
for the disciples that Peter seems to make a rather puzzling suggestion to Jesus: “Master, it is good for us to be here;
let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!” Peter comes off sounding a bit daffy –
and it doesn’t help that the Gospel comments that Peter said this, “not knowing what he said.” His suggestion
is further belittled by the real business of the day as the Lord God himself overshadows mere humans and great prophets alike.
If you read biblical commentaries through the ages about Peter’s idea to make dwellings for
the three prophets, Peter doesn’t come out looking very good. The opinion of him ranges from a nervous, overwhelmed
Peter who can’t keep his mouth shut in a holy moment, to Peter trying to ‘capture’ the holiness of the moment
and box it in, to Peter as just plain stupid.
St. Peter doesn’t need me to defend him, but
I do want to stand up for him a bit. I personally think that what he suggested – to make dwellings – was a completely
appropriate, fully observant, religious idea in keeping with his beliefs and faith. There’s nothing stupid about it.
What Peter is suggesting – to make dwellings – has a religious history. One of the
great religious festivals of the Jewish people is the festival of Sukkot. It is a fall festival that in 2012 ran from September
30-October 7. Sukkah means ‘dwelling’. During the festival observant Jewish people build temporary dwellings,
huts of wooden construction covered with branches for a roof. For the seven days and nights of the festival observant Jews
eat their meals in this temporary dwelling and consider it home.
This is the religious meaning
of the ritual. The temporary dwelling reminds the people of their 40 year exodus through the Sinai desert – the interim
period between slavery in Egypt and full freedom in the Promised Land. This was a time when they were literally homeless.
They were homeless, and yet the Lord God provided for them. According to Exodus, the Lord God protected the people of Israel
in the desert with ‘Clouds of Glory’ which followed them wherever they went. The covering of the Sukkah, the dwelling,
represents the covering of the Clouds of Glory that the Lord provided.
The festival is also a fall
harvest festival. If people work on farms, the Sukkah is set up in the field. As they sit in the dwelling, they reflect on
the great bounty that the Lord provides, from the Exodus in the desert until today.
So, I don’t
think Peter is nuts. It’s possible that the Transfiguration happened during the Festival of Sukkot. If it did, then
it would have been entirely reasonable and devout to suggest setting up a Sukkah, a dwelling, a booth, a tent.
if it didn’t happen in the time of the festival, the suggestion was still good. The cloud of the Lord God descends on
the Mount of Transfiguration, as it descended on the people of Israel in their time of Exodus. Peter makes the connection
between that historical event of the Exodus and his own situation. The Cloud of Glory has once more descended, so building
a dwelling is a fine suggestion. Peter did what we would encourage all believers to do – to make a link between the
stories of our tradition and our lives as we live them today. For these reasons I celebrate Peter and his suggestion to make
I had been thinking a lot about the Jewish festival of Sukkot before I ever read through
today’s reading. I was thinking that it is too bad that we don’t have a similar festival. I like the idea of the
temporary dwelling as a reminder that we too are pilgrims on an Exodus from a land of slavery to the Promised Land. I like
the idea of holy inconvenience – that God cares enough to send us out into the desert with snakes and bugs and sand
– to teach us about divinity.
I think we as believers should be more light-footed than we
are. Paul tells us to wear on our feet whatever will help us proclaim the Gospel more nimbly – and I recall that Paul’s
side job was that of tent-maker. I think we should be more nimble, more light-footed if we are to be disciples of Christ,
who reminds us that he had no place to lay his head. I think we should have a sense of urgency about our mission, if we are
to follow Christ, who was an itinerant preacher, teacher, and healer. I think we should be more concerned about passing the
faith on to the future and less concerned and restrained about our local customs and treasured habits of the past.
Our churches are great facilities beloved and cared for by their people. We here at St. Mary’s are
particularly fortunate to have such a wonderful, beautiful worship space that has been handed on from previous generations.
People yesterday at the Gun Buy Back marveled at the beauty of our church. One of the gentlemen said to me, “It’s
a real collector’s item.”
There is a theological price for such convenience, though.
It is very, very tempting and easy to worship our facility. It’s one thing to love and appreciate it: another to let
it become the focus of our attention. It’s very, very tempting and easy to become rigid and fixed, with our feet anchored
by our building, our Gospel feet tied to this address. It’s very, very tempting and easy to be fixed on our own rituals
and local customs and traditions, which makes it very, very difficult to do the light-footed work of discernment and mission
that is guided by the Holy Spirit. It’s going to be difficult to take up our cross and follow Jesus if we are anchored
in our minds and souls.
I have thought a lot about our All Hands volunteers, who for no price left
behind family and friends and homes to come here to live in our basement while they are helping Staten Islanders recover from
a devastating hurricane. In fact, if you go downstairs you will see that one of our young volunteers set up a tent, a booth,
a dwelling. His dwelling is temporary, but he is light-footed, ready to deploy at a moment’s notice to help others.
I have thought a lot about St. John’s Malankara Church, which, like us, had a church building,
a church facility that they loved and called their worship home. That home was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, a superstorm,
that leveled their home to the ground. That’s holy inconvenience. They’ve been sent back out into the desert,
out to hear the Word of the Lord, out to be protected by a Cloud of Glory.
has inconvenienced us, and as we prepare to begin our observance of Great Lent, I give thanks to God for our inconvenience.
That inconvenience means that God cares about us too, cares enough to inconvenience us, burden us, disrupt us, upset our habits
– cares enough to send us out into the desert a bit too. That’s holy inconvenience, a God disturbance.
Right after Hurricane Sandy, as we were thinking of how to respond to the disaster as a parish, I got an
email from a dear friend in California. I have the privilege of being friends with Celeste since 1992 and she is a parishioner
at St. Mary’s, my home parish in Pacific Grove, CA. She is a wonderful, thoughtful, intelligent, faithful woman, devoted
to the church and to the mission of Jesus Christ.
Celeste asked if we were okay, then she asked
a really good question – a question that I have come back to time and again in the last three months. This was her question:
“Kevin, how big is your parish?”
Now that’s a brilliant theological question.
Normally if someone asked, I’d say, well, we have about 200 on the rolls, but about 70 show up most Sundays. So, if
I based my thinking about our response to a disaster on those numbers, they would be a limiting factor. We are only 70. How
much could we possibly do? But that’s not the answer to Celeste’s question.
prompted me a bit more. “Do your parish boundaries end in your zip code? Or, could they extend to the rest of Staten
Island, to Long Island, to New Jersey?”
How big is your parish? There’s another way
of thinking about that question. I would put it this way: How big is our faith, how great is our generosity, how large is
our willingness to be inconvenienced by other people’s inconvenience?
How willing are we
to build a temporary dwelling place so that we might recall the extravagant generosity of the Lord God? How eager are we to
have a Cloud of Glory descend upon us, a cloud from which we will hear a message, a voice, saying, “In you I am well
I don’t normally like to close a sermon with a prayer or blessing, but today
is different. I want to read to you a Franciscan blessing. It is the blessing we will be using during the Season of Lent instead
of our normal blessing.
May God bless you…with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths,
and superficial relationships, so that you may live deeply within your heart.
May God bless you…with
anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of God’s people, so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless you…with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, war,
imprisonment, and violence, so that you may reach out and comfort them and turn their suffering to joy.
God bless you…with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what
others claim cannot be done.
Saturday, February 2, 2013
4 Epiphany, 3 February 2013
11:50 am est
February 2, 2013
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled
in your hearing.”
I wonder, on this
Sunday, February 3, 2013, I wonder how many preachers are going to stand up in this country to give a sermon? How many do
you think? The number is in the thousands. That’s just in the US. Now think of all the preachers in every nation of
the world who will stand up today to deliver a sermon.
Every one of those preachers faces a difficult task. I want to share with you what that difficulty is, not so that
you may take pity on me, but because I believe that every Christian believer faces the same difficulty in their own faith
life. One reason preachers preach is to give an example to the people of how the individual preacher works through the knots
and twists of the faith.
Every preacher, regardless
of language or denomination, will do roughly the same thing. A passage of Scripture will be read and the preacher will comment
on the passage. Maybe they will tell us a little about how the passage came to be written, when it was written, or for whom
it was written. They, hopefully, will have been thinking about that passage for the last week, have been turning the passage
over in their minds.
So, here is the difficulty
that all preachers, and by extension all believers, face. The ‘youngest’ material in our New Testament is about
one thousand seven hundred years old. To most people that’s pretty old. If you are reading from the Hebrew Scriptures,
you can add another 750 years to the age of the passage. That piece of Scripture was written by a certain people, living in
a certain context, in a certain period of time, facing certain life complications, speaking a variety of ancient languages,
and living in a variety of cultures.
may tell you why this piece of Scripture was written and what it probably meant to the people who heard it for the very first
time. THEN, the preacher has to make an awful, tremendous leap of faith. The preacher has to suggest that those very words,
written two thousand years ago, apply just as much to you and to me today, living in New York City in the year 2013, as it
did to a shepherd living in Judea two millennia ago.
Let’s take the letters of Paul for example. In most of his letters Paul is writing to congregations that he knows,
most of which he personally helped start. He knows the characters in the congregations and sometimes names names in his letters.
The congregations usually have been ‘acting out’ in one way or another. They have not followed his instructions,
they’ve mis-interpreted what he said, they’re following practices from who knows where. So, Paul scolds them,
taunts, exhorts, admonishes, encourages, and urges them to be better at what they are doing. Then he says, God is with you.
And we say, well, that wasn’t
just written to a congregation in the Greek city of Corinth 1900 years ago. That’s written to us gathered here today.
There’s a message in that ancient text that we today should be listening to. Personally I think that’s true in
most cases, but perhaps not in all passages of Scripture. But regarding the truly important tenets of our faith, our discipline,
our worship, yes, I do believe those words apply to us today, 2000 years later. Any preacher will try to convince you of that.
That’s part of the preaching task and a great part of the difficulty of preaching and believing.
The Gospel lesson that we read today is actually part two of the Gospel lesson that began
last week, reading from the fourth chapter of Luke. I really don’t think it should be split up as it is in the Lectionary,
but the scholars who put the lectionary together think that you can’t sit still long enough to hear the whole story
read aloud. It is what it is, but I want to address both passages as one today.
The story from Luke describes the event known as Jesus’ inaugural sermon. As far as we know, this passage
describes the very first time that Jesus himself stood up to preach formally. He did that in the synagogue in his own hometown,
the village of Nazareth. He did so in front of people who had known him his whole life, including members of his own family.
And look at what Jesus did. He either chose or
was given a passage from the prophet Isaiah – a passage that in Jesus’ time was already about 700 years old. Jesus
reads the passage and according to the Gospel, Jesus says something that infuriates the congregation: “Today this scripture
has been fulfilled in your hearing.
Now let me
point out – that’s not much of a sermon. We don’t actually know what Jesus said or how he said it. We don’t
have the text of his sermon. What we do have is his main point. And look at what his main point is: This passage from a great
prophet that was written 700 years ago, not only applies to you today, but it’s very intent and purpose have been fulfilled
today as you sit here in your own synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus faced the difficulty that every preacher and every believer
must face by asking the question, “How relevant are these old words to me today?” Jesus not only says the words
are important; he says that these words are coming true right now, right this minute – these very words are forming
your life, making your life, shaping you in ways you can’t imagine, even as you sit here.
Now most scholars, commentators, and preachers are going to say pretty much the same
thing about this passage. They are going to say that Jesus is very special, he is the Christ. These words apply to Jesus himself,
the world has been waiting for Jesus to come along and hear these words and preach these words, and as a result the world
will never be the same again. In other words, these words from Isaiah apply to Jesus more than they apply to anyone else in
history, precisely because Jesus is the Christ.
idea of specialness is emphasized even more in the lectionary by including an Old Testament reading from the prophet Jeremiah,
which says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you
a prophet to the nations.” Now, that’s pretty special. God not only knows Jesus, he has known him always, before
he was ever shaped in the womb.
Now, I am not
trying to dispute any of that. There is only one Christ and Jesus is it. But what I want to point out is WHY Jesus is special,
not just to show that he is the Christ, but to tell you that Jesus, as preacher, is showing the way for you and for me in
our own faith life.
On that day in Galilee, nearly
2000 years ago, Jesus may have been the very first human being to hear these words from the prophet Isaiah, to understand
them, and to take them seriously enough as to believe that they could become a reality in his own time. This is what he heard:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring
good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year
of the Lord's favor.”
Yes, those words apply to Jesus and his ministry. In fact, when John the Baptist is sitting in prison, he
sends his disciples to Jesus to ask if Jesus is the one they have been waiting on, or if they should continue to wait for
another. Jesus answers the question by telling the disciples to take this message back to John: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers* are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good
news brought to them” (Matt. 11. 3-5). To put it another way, Jesus says, “Remember what I said had been
fulfilled in my first sermon in Nazareth? Well, look what’s happening now. It’s all come to life.”
the thing – what if hearing those words isn’t just for Jesus? What if, we too, as members of the Body of Christ,
have been anointed by the Holy Spirit to hear these words and bring them to life again? What if we hear these words and we
don’t just think or believe that they apply to us, but we KNOW that to be the way, the truth, and the life? WE have
been anointed to bring good news to the poor. We have been sent this very day, February Third, 2013, to proclaim release to
the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. What if we are to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim 2013 the year
of the Lord’s favor?
What if we were to pick up our Holy Scriptures and read and hear them again for the first time? What
if as we read we KNEW that the world had been waiting on us, not only to hear those words but to respond? What would our response
be to these words: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume
and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for
yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where
thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is,
there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6. 19-21). Or these words: “Do not worry about your life, what you will
eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not
life more than food, and the body more than clothing? But strive first for the kingdom of God and
his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”
(Matt 6. 25; 33).
These words ARE intended for me today – they have been fulfilled in your hearing this day. These
words ARE intended for you today. Read them, hear them, respond to them, and bring them to fulfillment today, this day, in
this Christian community, on February 3, 2013.
Saturday, January 26, 2013
3 Epiphany 13
3:01 pm est
1 Cor 12. 12-31
Luke 4. 14-21
they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation” (Nehemiah 8.8)
597 and 582 BC the Babylonian army under King Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to the city of Jerusalem, razed the great temple built
by King Solomon, destroyed the city walls and gates, and led the elite of the city, rulers and priestly class, away in chains
into captivity in Babylon. This was a military and political defeat to be sure, but it was much more than that. The entire
religious system of the Jewish people, its tradition of temple worship and system of sacrifice to the Lord God, and its indefatigable
belief that the Lord has chosen this small race to serve as priests to the entire world, collapsed in the space of fifteen
years of humiliation and defeat.
Their despair, despondency and doom is powerfully recorded
in the words of the 137th Psalm:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept,
we remembered you, O Zion.
As for our harps, we hung them up,
on the trees in the midst of that
For those who led us away captive asked of us a song.
How shall we sing the Lord's song,
a strange land?
The Babylonian Captivity forced the people of Israel, the people
chosen by YHWH, to rethink their theology, to recast their understanding of what it meant to be chosen, to learn to worship
the Lord in a strange land, and to incorporate a theology of suffering into their corporate life.
history is cruel, and in the year 538 BC, great Babylon itself was defeated at the hands of the Persian army under Cyrus.
A catastrophe for the people of Babylon, that defeat caused joy for the Jewish people. In that year Cyrus, ruler of the Persian
Empire, issued a decree allowing the Jewish slaves to return piecemeal to Jerusalem. The prayer and dream of the people had
come true – they were returning to their Holy Land.
What the first returnees found when they
arrived in Jerusalem was a shock. The Temple was rubble, the great stone walls torn down, the great gates burned for firewood.
In four stages between 538 and 445 BC the Jewish people, first under Ezra then Nehemiah, returned and rebuilt the city and
the walls. As herculean a task as that construction project was, they had an even more serious form of reconstruction ahead
of them. The common people who had remained in Israel had forgotten the biblical language, had forgotten the teaching of the
religion, had forgotten the covenant with the Lord God established with Moses and the people of Israel. Ironically, the faith
had been retained by those in captivity in a far-away foreign land, while those who had remained behind in the Holy Land had
The truly herculean task that Ezra-Nehemiah faced was that of re-teaching the Torah
and the Covenant to the people who were never supposed to have forgotten it. The leaders gathered all the people together
in the great city and for days they read the Holy Scriptures of their people. The people, some no doubt for the first time,
heard the story of the Call of Abraham, the Story of Isaac and Jacob, and the Saga of Joseph. Most importantly they heard
the story of the true center of their faith, the story that made sense of their experience as a people – the captivity
in Egypt and the story of their liberation. They heard how the Lord God called Moses to lead the people, how he confronted
the great Pharaoh, how he led them out of slavery, pursued by the Pharaoh’s army. And they heard how the people crossed
the Reed Sea on dry land, while the armies of the emperor drowned in its waters. They heard how, after many years of wandering
in the desert, the great Joshua led them at last into the Promised Land, into the land of milk and honey, into the paradise
of the Lord’s making.
And they learned about what had gone wrong since then. The Israelites
forgot the miracles of God, forgot how he had acted with power and might, forgot the words of the Lord’s covenant with
them and promises to them. They learned that they had a history of being a stiff-necked people, a rigid people with rigid
backs. They learned that they fell into sin as a nation by forgetting their very own history, being amnesic about their own
identity before the Lord.
So Ezra and Nehemiah read and preached and taught, read and preached
and taught, day by day. “So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation.” They learned that
words alone do not suffice. Someone has to keep the sense of the words, has to interpret for them. They learned of the great
promises of the Lord God. And they learned the irony of their present existence: the great people whose great Lord had freed
them from captivity in Egypt and led them into a Promised Land, had forgotten its own identity and had once more become slaves
– slaves in need of liberation. And Nehemiah tells the people, because of our sins of forgetting, because of our pride
in ourselves, because of our myth of being self-made, “Here we are again, slaves to this day. Slaves in the land that
the Lord God gave to our ancestors to enjoy its fruit and its gifts” (Neh. 9.36).
are again, slaves to this day. Most of us don’t think of ourselves as slaves. We pride ourselves on living in a land
of liberty, the land of the free and the home of the brave. We talk a whole lot about freedom. We mouth the words with no
conception of the price of that freedom. We talk about our natural rights, forgetting that there is nothing at all natural
in this world about having rights as humans. We pride ourselves on our own pride. We foolishly believe that whatever we have
we have gotten by brawn and brains – our brawn and brains. We pat ourselves on the back, thinking how lucky we are.
And yet, we are most decidedly slaves:
slaves to our possessions,
slaves to the idolatries
of our own making,
slaves to our so-called leisure time,
slaves to our own myths,
to our work,
slaves to our prejudices and half-truths,
slaves to violence,
Here is our great irony – we, who are freely granted liberty in the sacrifice of
Christ Jesus, have forgotten the very promises of our faith and half-wittedly sold ourselves into the slavery of this world.
We American Christians have sold the God-sized vision of Freedom in Christ, for a pot of lentils and a Civil Religion. We,
who have the audacity to call ourselves disciples of Christ, have forgotten the very discipline to which we avowedly are disciples.
We, like the people gathered before Ezra and Nehemiah, don’t know the story of our own liberation. In a time when the
printed Scripture has never been so readily available in so many languages, many modern-day Christians remain strangers to
And even having the words of Scripture in our hands is not enough. As with Nehemiah,
we have to read from the book with interpretation. And the Christian tradition has a 2000-year-old history of interpretation
that begins with the Lord’s own instruction. As many a Biblical scholar will tell you, we have to know what the Bible
says before we can know what it means. We have to know the structure of the bible, its wording, its history, its story. But
the second step is even greater. Having learned the structure of the Bible, we have to study what it means. What it meant
to St. Paul, what it meant to Clement, Gregory, Basil, Irenaeus, Augustine, what it meant Francis, and Claire, and Ignatius,
and Teresa. We have to know what it meant to Martin Luther and understand why people went to war over its interpretation.
We have to know what it has meant to all slaves everywhere, foreign and domestic, to hear the story of the great Exodus of
the people of Israel. We have to know what it meant to Cesar Chavez, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr, - all before we can
even begin to know what it means to us.
For the last couple of decades I have heard my American
friends lament the decline of the influence of the Church and the Christian faith. I have listened patiently as people nostalgically
recall the ‘good old days’ of the church in America. I have heard the lamentations regarding the breakdown of
civil society, of respect, of communication, of relationship. I have observed the increase of social and economic injustice,
the increase of violence and murder, the fondness for war. And I have watched in horror as we slide back into slavery, back
to Egypt, back to Babylon, ignorant of our glorious tradition, amnesic about our Christian liberty won by the blood of our
Lord and of the martyrs.
Enough. The time has come to rebuild. Like Ezra and Nehemiah and
the people of Israel, we have to rebuild our faith, teach our scriptures, our tradition, our history. We have to repent before
God that we were foolish enough to prefer happy slavery to Christian liberty. We have to confess that the faith is our very
life blood; or, we have to confess that it is not. We have to hear again the story of the Great Exodus – of a great
God who leads his people from slavery to freedom. We have to hear the words of Ezra and Nehemiah, who urge and cajole and
demand that the people come together, one people under one God.
We have to unroll the scrolls
of Scripture to discover what they reveal for us, today, a people standing before dilapidated walls and broken gates. We have
to read from Scripture and understand that those words spoken so many years ago are spoken anew, afresh, to us today. And
recalling the teaching of our Lord, let us say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Sunday, January 6, 2013
The Feast of the Epiphany
12:55 pm est
The Feast of
the Epiphany, 2013
I’m not usually inspired by bumper stickers, lawn signs, or Christmas cards. As I drive around the neighborhood
I have, however, seen a sign I like. The sign reads simply, “Wise men still seek him.” Technically speaking that’s
not a Christmas message. It is, though, the message of the Season of Epiphany which we begin today.
The gospel story is very
familiar. Wise men from the east follow a star to the place of the birth of an infant king, the infant we know as Jesus. Who
they are exactly, where they come from, and how they know that the king of the Jews has been born, we do not know. We do know
from the Gospel that they observed a star and followed it to Bethlehem. They were not Jewish, so how they know of the Jewish
prophecy of the birth of a king, we also do not know.
What we do know is that they came from the east, the land of the Gentiles,
the land of people who are not Jewish. They travel a long way to pay homage to the newborn king of a people they do not know,
to honor the biblical tradition which they do not live by, and that when they reach the infant they rejoice.
wise men, in other words, do what many of Jesus’ own people will never do in his lifetime - they honor him as King of
the Jews. This incident in which Gentiles honor Christ as King of the Jews at Jesus’ birth is echoed at the crucifixion.
As you know, Jesus is condemned by his own people because he makes the blasphemous claim of being King of the Jews, while
even a Roman centurion stands at the foot of the cross and exclaims in awe: “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
(Matt 27. 54).
This incident, recounted in Matthew, of the visit of the wise men to honor the Christ child
will become the very pattern of the future of the Christian faith. St. Paul fought and fought fiercely for the privilege of
carrying the Good News of Jesus Christ not only to the Jewish folk, but to the people of all nations of the world. The Good
News, he would say, is for everyone. Matthew itself will close his Gospel with these words, known to us as the Great Commission:
and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching
them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt 28. 19).
The Church, of course, has taken that Commission
very seriously. Starting from Jerusalem where Jesus is dead, buried, and resurrected, the Good News of salvation will indeed
spread to all the peoples of all the nations. If that were not so, we would not be sitting in a church on Staten Island two
thousand years later.
So, the wise men still inspire us and modern-day wise women and men still seek Christ.
On the subject of seeking, our church makes this statement in our Eucharistic Prayer D in Rite Two: “In your mercy you
came to our help, so that in seeking you.............we might find you.” One part of the Lord God’s graciousness
and mercy is that we are allowed to seek, and allowed to find by seeking. Our Lord Jesus says this: “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will
find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matt 7.7 and parallels).
We humans are not the only
ones who seek. The Gospel of John tells us that even our Lord God seeks: “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will
worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him” (John 4.23). The process of seeking is a time-honored religious tradition.
in the early 1990s a book came out that captured my attention. The book was titled “A Generation of Seekers” and
was an analysis of my generation - roughly the Baby Boomers, those, anyway, who survived the 1960s. It was the first of a
series of books that came out to take up the task of analyzing Americans generationally. Now we are familiar with the Greatest
Generation, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millenials, Gen Y and so on.
I was drawn to the book because of its title. Being
a religious person the book seemed to acknowledge the religious trait of seeking. But I actually found the analysis
disturbing. The book spoke of my generation’s tendency to valorize the process of seeking, whether anything was actually
found or not. I’m not against seeking - I would at that time have called myself a seeker, but I think committing one’s
life to the process of seeking without ever actually finding anything is pretty much a definition of madness.
if you recall the time of the 1960s there was generally a reaction against the traditional, the already-found. Instead there
was playfulness with other people’s traditions, a rediscovery of various forms of prayer, and a celebration of alternatives.
So-called ‘spirituality’ could be found in a lot of forms: in eastern religions, in mysticism, in contemplation,
but also in psychedelic drugs, sex, and new music.
And, that is the legacy we inherited. Many of our friends seek without
any commitment to find. “Organized” religion, the already-found, is anathema, while a sort of life-long commitment
to seeking something called ‘spirituality’ is championed.
I recall a decade or so ago there was a liturgical
fad in the Episcopal Church called the U2-charist. It was an alternative service of Holy Eucharist geared toward younger people
that featured the music and attitude and popularity of the Irish rock band U2. I like some of their music too, and I have
respect for their lead singer, who has been a great champion for international issues. I also recall one of their songs that
has the rather plaintive refrain, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”
It’s okay to look,
to search, to explore to seek; but, the Christian message is that in seeking, by the help of God, you will find. Life isn’t
intended for a ‘spiritual journey’ to nowhere. The Lord God in his mercy will help us find what we are seeking.
in regards to seeking I will make an “I” statement: I have found what I was looking for. I sought,
and by the grace of God, I found. What I was seeking was right at the tip of my nose the whole time. I, like so many millions
before me, found the Good News of Jesus Christ. I’m not opposed to regaining seeker status at some point in the future,
but what I seek will always be found in our great tradition, in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Having said that, I would
refine my statement even more. It occurs to me that it is incredibly arrogant to say that “I”, this lonesome little
soul before the vastness of the universe, sought God, and by my own misadventures, stubbornness, and talent discovered God,
who must have been hiding from me that whole time. Rubbish.
Rather, God sought me, seeks you, seeks all of us.
The Lord God searches us out, candle in hand, looking under the bed, in bars, in closets, in all our hidey places until he
finds us. The Lord God is persistent, steadfast in love, abounding in mercy and grace. And having sought, he finds.
can make our souls open to the seeking of God, or we can slam the door shut, screen out our vision, muffle our hearing, numb
our senses. We can ignore the great, one, awesome God who seeks us so that he might find us.
Like the wise men of the
east, we can be seekers. But remember that the wise men had some vague idea what they were seeking. They weren’t completely
nuts, and they set their sights toward Bethlehem, not north, south, or east of their homes. Remember that they journeyed,
but they did so with the explicit purpose of arriving. They sought in order to find. And what they found was an infant king,
a child in a manger, the Christ child, Jesus.
We all can find the same thing. The Lord God in mercy and compassion
will lead us home. But, remember that once we arrive, we haven’t finished our journey. We have work to do. We turn around
and leave home, we get back out on the road to help others find their way to the great mansion of our Lord.
“Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for
|Roan Mountain, Tennessee
5:30 pm - Come as you are! Holy Eucharist and Service of Healing
08:00 Spoken Service of Holy Eucharist (I)
10:00 Choral Service of Holy Eucharist (I)
Fridays 9:30 Morning
Prayer with Holy Communion, followed by Bible Study
Daily Office: Weekdays
St.Mary's Episcopal Church (Castleton)
347 Davis Ave (Corner of Davis and Castleton)
Staten Island, NY