Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Fulfilled in your hearing

Homily notes for the Third Sunday after Epiphany (1/24/2016)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

Described as his first sermon, the way Jesus chose to begin his public ministry is of interest and, while simple and straightforward, provides a beautiful starting point for what will come.

Luke's account begins with Jesus "filled with the power of the Spirit," returning to Galilee, to Nazareth where he was brought up. Luke uses the apt phrase, "filled with the power of the Spirit," to describe the transition to Jesus' inaugural preaching. Jesus' possession of the Spirit has already been stated twice, once at his baptism and then again when he is led into the dessert. We are not surprised, therefore, that Jesus is filled with the Spirit as he begins to preach and to teach in the synagogue.

Luke also notes that Jesus had become rather well known in the vicinity as "a report about him spread through all the surrounding country" and that Jesus "was praised" by everyone. Jesus, it seems, had been making the rounds, teaching and preaching in a circuit of local communities before coming to his own home town – where, we will learn, Jesus receives quite a different welcome.

A MESSAGE OF HOPE
In any event, Jesus went "to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom." Jesus was a pious Jew who would have worshiped in the synagogue regularly, an act that recurs in Luke’s Gospel (4:33, 44; 6:6; 13:10) as well as in the Acts of the Apostles (13:5, 14:1; 17:10; 18:4, 26; 19:8). As would have been custom, an attendant offered Jesus the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, part of the sequence of readings that would have followed from the Torah proper. And Jesus unrolled the scroll, the vellum on which the scriptures were written, rolled on two spindles. Jesus would have found his place by holding a spindle in each hand, one hand unrolling, the other rolling it back.
"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."
Jesus offers a mixed quote from Isaiah 61:1-2 and Isaiah 58:6. But it important to recognize that this is not a haphazard quote. Jesus didn’t just unroll the scroll to an accidental place. He opened the scroll to a particular place, knowing when and to whom Isaiah was speaking. It helps to recognize that in Isaiah 61 the prophet is speaking to a people in exile, a people who had a real chance and opportunity to forget their faith and abandon their God. You see, in 587 BCE the Babylonians conquered the land of Judah and the city of Jerusalem, taking the people into exile. In the scene from Isaiah, the Israelites are living apart from the promised land, away from Mount Zion and the holy Temple. Isaiah is speaking to a people who needed to hear a word of promise, not despair, and be given a word of hope that would serve to keep their faith in the covenant alive.

The German Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonheoffer, who defied Hitler and the unspeakable Nazi terror, once wrote that
“the essence of optimism is that it takes no account of the present, but it is a source of inspiration, of vitality and hope where others have resigned; it enables a man to hold his head high, to claim the future for himself and not to abandon it to his enemy." (Letters and Papers from Prison, SCM Press, 1967, 25).
THE BASIC TRUTH OF THE GOSPEL
Sometimes, those of us who preach the gospel and many of us who gather to be Church, we make things a bit more complicated than they need to be. We tend to use language and lots of words which cause confusion and we employ so many ideologies and systems and notions that cause enmity and diminish hope. We do this to defend our positions, usually as a way of supporting our personal preferences rather than seeking love – which is the basic truth of the Gospel.

And we have done a good job of arguing over the years. In the earliest days of Christianity, there were divisions between Greeks and Jews especially regarding the care of widows. There have been numerous heresies that have divided the Church: Gnosticism, Marcionism, Sabellianism, Donatism, Arianism, Nestorianism, Eutychism, Monophysitism, Monotheletism and Iconoclasm. In 1054, the Church split between east and west and for the last 499 years the western half of Christendom has been divided between Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and Pentecostals, among thousands of other denominations. Within Anglicanism, there are divisions now between Anglo-Catholics, High Churchmen, and Evangelicals, between conservative and progressives.

Now, I’m not saying that the discussions, debates, and the search for truth are not important. But sometimes I think that we use a lot of words and ideologies and systems that just complicate the basic truth of the gospel – words that divide rather than unite, and confuse rather than clarify. They are words and ideologies that rob us of a way of living that is intentional, that rob us of a clearly spoken message that brings good news, proclaims release and recovery, and lets the oppressed go free. They rob us of the intentional, clearly spoken, and straightforward message that proclaims "the year of the Lord’s favor."

And that is the deeper message of Jesus' first sermon. After Jesus proclaimed the message form the prophet Isaiah, what did he do? He preached a sermon, a simple sermon: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." This is not a proclamation seeped in arrogance. Rather, it points to the enduring truth of the one we call Savior and Lord. It defines the character of Jesus and the essential shape of his ministry. Jesus will announce good news to the poor, the blind, those in captivity, and the oppressed. Luke’s narrative will shoe a messianic program carried out in the specific stories told about Jesus. While some sought a political or economic explanation through the announcement of a Jubilee year, Luke will portray Jesus’ liberating work through personal relationships, encounters of exorcism, healing, feeding, and teaching. "The radical character of Jesus’ mission is specified above all by its being offered to and accepted by those who were the outcasts of the people" (Luke Timothy Johnson, Luke, Sacra Pagina, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 81).

Now, with seeming to digress, I think that it might be valuable to recall the Gospel progression, particularly noticing the two scenes that immediately precede this one in Luke’s account. First, Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan (Luke 3:21-23a). Second, Jesus was driven into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil (Luke 4:1-13, Luke 3:23b-38 is the Lucan genealogy). Both of these events are foundation events, establishing for the reader a connection between God, Jesus, and God’s people.

BAPTISM IS A BEGINNING
First, for Jesus, baptism was a beginning, not an end. As Luke tells the story, when Jesus had been baptized "the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove" (Luke 3:22a). And then, in verse 23, we learn that "Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work." Literally, the phrase here is "Jesus, thirty years old, was beginning..." The true sense is that this baptism is the beginning of the work that Jesus will do.

Second, now full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is led into the desert where he is tempted by the devil. Luke gives a sense of deliberateness in this scene, that Jesus was led into the desert in order to be tempted. Having so clearly learned that Jesus is through the Holy Spirit God’s son, we now are given a glimpse into the quality of Jesus' sonship. The sequence that follows gives credibility to the good news. On the one hand, the passage shows the construct of the struggle between God and the powers of evil. The devil has real authority with is shadow kingdom a parody of God’s. The devil, though, is able to tempt Messiah. On the other hand, the temptation sequence is about Jesus choosing to be obedient, denying all that the devil offers and accepting all the God has called him to be. The point being that Jesus is the true son who is the true minister of the Kingdom of God.

And might not this sequence say something important about you and to me? Baptism – our baptisms – connects us to God. Baptism does not make our lives carefree nor does it promise a life of riches and ease. Our baptism, like Jesus', is a new beginning, an empowerment of God's Spirit, which descends upon us to bring grace rather than judgment, engagement rather than indifference, and forgiveness rather than revenge.

If you would rather think that you are not capable of building that kind of life, a life modeled on Jesus' own ministry beginnings – a life filled with intentional, meaningful, and purposeful Good News – then maybe you need to hear the words spoken by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
"Everybody can be great because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love."
That's right, our baptisms enable us to join in Jesus’ mission and ministry – to bring good news, to proclaim release and recovery, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. The Spirit has descended on us just as it did on Jesus.

Now note what happened to Jesus after the desert. "Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee…" (Luke 4:14). When that trial in the desert had ended, where did Jesus go? He went back to Galilee. He went home.

While the commission is to go into all the world, it is a necessary reminder that we can and must live into the Gospel where we are, in the moment where we happen to be. And it matters not whether our worlds are big or small, how many people you may know, or how important people think that you are, the way Jesus lived should cause us to proclaim the gospel, using few words (fewer is better so we keep it simple and straightforward) and lots of love….right where we are!

We don't know what Jesus may have said if he had been asked to describe people who are poor and blind, in captivity and oppressed. We do know, however, what Isaiah meant when he spoke that word, prophetically, to Israel. He was proclaiming God's intent that God's servant will pay particular attention to people who are afflicted and bound and blind.

The simple truth that stands at the heart of the gospel is that God loves everyone…not just the privileged few and not just the folks with whom we are already connected. We too often have an "us/them" response, viewing view people as right or wrong, good or bad, in or out. We become impoverished by our lack of vision and held captive by behaviors that demean and devalue others. We are blinded by attitudes that divide rather than unite. We treat folks of different color or culture or gender or sexual orientation or political persuasion as less than children of the living God. We fail to accept the Spirit of the Lord that is upon us and to live into our anointing.

I was asked once about what I've learned about the Gospel as priest and pastor. While it is a complex answer, the long-and-short of it is this: The Gospel really is simple and straight forward – love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself. The Gospel really is simple and straight forward but it is not easy. I say it is not easy because the love and grace of Jesus does not allow us to stay where we are but rather prompts us to value people we would sometimes rather ignore and love people we might rather not. It is not easy because it demands that the Church – our Church – must be daring and bold, stepping beyond traditional boundaries to encounter God in radically new ways.

In Revelation 7, the apostle John envisioned the reign of God,
"After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, 'Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!'"
Dare we commit ourselves fully to John's vision? Dare we choose to live into the truth which is at the very heart of the gospel? Dare we to proclaim the same truth proclaimed by Jesus when when he opened the book of the prophet Isaiah? Dare we proclaim to the world, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Monday, January 18, 2016

The God of Abundant Extravagence

Homily notes for the Second Sunday after Epiphany (1/17/2016)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

Isaiah 60:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

Anyone who has ever been to a wedding in a smaller, rural or a tight-knit, ethnic community might have a leg up on understanding what is at play in today’s gospel. I had the privilege of attending a such wedding in a small, rural mountain town. Good Catholics that they were, the bride and groom were married in the town’s church. As the Marriage Rite ended, I was expecting that my friend and I were going to drive to a reception hall. Imagine my surprise, then when the doors to the Church opened to reveal a fabulous feast set right there in the middle of the piazza fronting the Church – tables piled high with food, drink being poured, and a band striking up. The liturgical meaning of the Marriage Rite that took place inside the church was now underscored by an exuberant celebration. It was a day-long event that would turn into days-log celebration. It involved nearly everyone in the community. It was an extended family doing what they do best.

Such weddings, I imagine, could reflect conditions in Biblical times, the kind of weddings Jesus attended, including the one at Cana in Galilee. The whole village gathered, together with special guests, like Mary and her son, who would have come from neighboring villages. There would be a days-long celebration, with lots of dancing and merriment, storytelling and thanksgiving, food and all the wine you could drink – until it ran out.

So, what appears to have been an ordinary wedding at Cana will result in anything but an ordinary action. What we heard today was an account of Jesus’ earliest miracle. Saint John the Evangelist actually calls them signs not miracles which makes this a perfect lesson for the season after Epiphany. It is here, at Cana, that Jesus “manifests” or “shows forth” who God is for us. Indeed, Saint John’s very purpose in telling the story is not to make a huge deal about the act; but, instead, Saint John uses the sign to point to the reality of Jesus and who we can be in the Jesus Movement.

The story often gets simplified to a story about wine and merry-making. It is about those things butt it is also so much deeper, so much so that I couldn’t possibly approach its fullness in one sermon. I will, therefore, look at two aspects of the story – two sides of the “story coin” – as directed by Mary’s two lines of dialogue.

THEY HAVE NO WINE
Mary’s first line is the simple statement, "They have no wine."

It’s an interesting statement. Why should Jesus be bothered if the wine ran out and why would Mary be the one to inform him? On the one hand, wine running out would be a huge embarrassment to the one throwing the wedding feast. Mary was a concerned guest, trying to alleviate the shame of the host. But, as I have said, this story is about more than simply wine and merry-making so we should ask ourselves what Mary’s role is in the coming sign.

As for me, while I recognize what Mary said as a statement, I also hear in her voice a question, “They have no wine?” In Mary's voice, as she points out to her son Jesus that the wedding guests have run out of wine, I hear a question about scarcity. Abundant wine is frequently used by the prophets of the Old Testament as a symbol for the new age (Amos 8:13; Hosea 2:24; Joel 4:18; Isaiah 29:17; Jeremiah 31:5). I hear a question in Mary’s voice, “Has the wine really run out?” Jesus will answer Mary’s question-not-asked. Indeed, he will answer it at Mary’s own prompting. In the end, though, it is a question of scarcity that I hear in Mary's voice.

If I am honest, it is a question that I carry deep inside me sometimes. It’s a question familiar to many of us: Is there enough? Are we running out? Are we rich enough? …safe enough? …strong enough? …powerful enough? Will we go over the budget? (That last one was for my treasurer.)

We should ask ourselves, “How much is enough?” This is a critical question as we make our way in our world and on our Christian journey. In this context, we should recognize that scarcity and abundance are economic principles, questions of quantity, demanding calculations of dollars and percentages. I suppose that the expected Christian response could be that real abundance should rather be about quality – the good life – the life of salvation that cannot be measured in mere numbers. In some ways this might be true but theologian Sallie McFague points out that if we are to be faithful followers of Jesus we need to get out our calculators and take a look at what abundance means in our world today.

In her book Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril, McFague makes the case for a different kind of good life,
"I believe Christian discipleship for 21st century North American Christians means 'cruciform living,' an alternative notion of the abundant life...For us privileged Christians a 'cross-shaped' life will not be primarily what Christ does for us, but what we can do for others. We do not need so much to accept Christ's sacrifice for our sins as we need to repent of a major sin--our silent complicity in the impoverishment of others and the degradation of the planet." (14)
Christian abundance must include sustainability, self-limitation and inclusion of all, "especially the weak and vulnerable."

DO WHATEVER HE TELLS YOU
So Mary asks about scarcity. Jesus does not appear ready to respond, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” Despite this rebuke, Mary approached the servants and said “Do whatever he tells you.”

Despite her question of scarcity, Mary also knows the answer and she directs the servants follow Jesus. Just as Mary’s first statement points to the need (perceived or real), her second points to the solution. Jesus then produces a sign – the first of his signs – demonstrating that the wine, the potent symbol of the new age, has not run out. But it’s not just that it hasn’t run out, the new age is being ushered in – the good wine coming at the end – through, with, and in Jesus.

So let’s not miss the obvious: This is story is about abundance and extravagance. The wine had run out but now we hear about an enormous amount of wine – six stone jars full each containing twenty to thirty gallons. That is way more wine that the wedding feast needs and is beyond anything we should ever expect or could ever deserve. This kind of extravagance and abundance is a message that God wants us to celebrate life in Jesus, to enjoy the company of one another as companions on the way, and to pour the wine of new life for all to drink.

A story of abundance, this is also a story of remarkable transformation and new possibilities. In John’s gospel, the wine of the wedding feast at Cana will serve also as a precursor to final sign, the cross of Christ when blood and water flowed from his side. It is a sign of Jesus, the new wine of a whole new creation. This is most poignant in the Eucharist, the central sign of our faith – the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation, Jesus poured out for us.

Recounting the story of Jesus changing water into wine was John’s way of showing that Jesus had come to do nothing less than transform the common into the holy. So it is that in Jesus we learn about the power of God to transform the incomplete into the whole, the weak into the strong, the ordinary into the precious, the despised into the beloved, and the tasteless into the joyous. Is it through Jesus that we lean of the power of God to transform what we are into what we can become.

How well this transformation takes place depends on our connectedness with God. And that connectedness depends on our connectedness with Jesus, in whom we see the human face of God. And our connectedness with Jesus depends on how much we enter into the Jesus Movement (but more on that later).

In scripture, the connection between Christ and humanity is often described with the metaphor of marriage. In today’s passage from Isaiah, for example, we heard a wedding metaphor used to describe God’s redemption of Israel.
"You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be married."
The prophet, preaching after the Israelites had returned to their own land from their exile in Babylon, foreshadows the new Jerusalem created from the one that had been destroyed.

Marriage metaphors in the New Testament exemplify the relationship of God with the people of God. We are encouraged to better understand our relationship with the unseen God by examining the nature of love between two people in marriage. We are bid to examine the best kind of love in marriage – self-giving love that is extravagant like the abundance of wine at Cana. In this way, we can better know the love that God intends for all people, a love that can produce genuine transformation from the tendency toward human selfishness into gracious, loving Christ-like-ness.

Today’s gospel story about a sign at a wedding celebration can help lead us to a renewed life in Christ. We can better learn how to share the unlimited gifts God offers us. We can better learn how to celebrate the joys of human community and the union we can have with God, one that will sustain us through our journeys of faith.

May it be our prayer today that Christ will more closely unite not only with the whole church but specifically with each congregation and each individual. In such a prayer we will seek an unbreakable connection of mutual love – love that not only will show us clearly what God is like but also will lead us to the fullness of Christ. We will seek in our hearts and souls to enter into the new, abundant life of our Lord Christ.

Monday, January 11, 2016

New Year's Resolutions from your Rector

Addendum to homily for the Baptism of the Lord (1/10/2016)

I promised Saint David's five resolutions for the New Year that I would make regarding my work as Rector of the Church. In setting goals like these, I follow the SMART system so that the resolutions are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. I ended up coming up with six, two each in three important areas of my ministry: Personal Spiritual Discipline, Evangelism, and Building Church Ministry.

Here are my six resolutions.

TWO RESOLUTIONS FOR BUILDING SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINE
A “discipline” is not punishment or uncomfortable rigor; but, rather, it is simply being intentional about doing something that will make one better. At its heart, discipline is about practicing. Spiritual discipline is, therefore, about practicing to be a better disciple of Jesus and might include anything that helps to intentionally focus one’s awareness on God and the godly life. 

1.  I will to deepen my discipline of spiritual reading.
Spiritual reading is a discipline of prayerfully reading and studying literature that enlivens the spirit and draws the person into a deeper connection with God, the Church, and the World. Examples of spiritual reading might include: the lives and writing of the saint; commentaries on Sacred Scripture, theology, and history; works on prayer and other spiritual practices; and, pastoral letters and exhortations from bishops and other religious leaders. Spiritual reading is done not only as an exercise of information and learning but also, and perhaps more so, as an effort towards formation and living. 

I will attend to spiritual reading at least 7 hours every week (averaging 1 hour daily).

2. I will spend more time with my God in prayer and meditation.
Prayer is actively seeking time in the presence of God. While I am usually busy with the work of God, I often find myself so busy doing things for God that I don’t actually have time to connect with God.

I will attend to this discipline by intentionally scheduling at least 45 minutes daily for personal prayer and meditation. Additionally, I will engage in some form of public or communal prayer at least three times per week (not including Sunday morning worship).


TWO RESOLUTIONS FOR GROWING MY EVANGELISTIC PRESENCE

3. I will meet new people outside of the Church.
Sometimes I fall into the trap of only meeting people through or at church. I spend too little time actively in the community encountering new people and engaging with community and church leaders who I don’t already know. This, naturally, limits how successful I might be in evangelism and community building. The practice of meeting new people can broaden the scope of ministry and engage me more fully in the work of evangelism.

I will spend at least 2 hours each week engaged in the practice of meeting new people by walking the Saint David’s neighborhood, engaging local business owners, going to coffee houses, and just getting out more.

4. I will increase my online and social media presence.
The fastest growing evangelistic tools are digital and online. Saint David’s Facebook page currently has 240 “likes,” almost double our average Sunday attendance, with some of our posts reaching thousands of people. A recent study by the Episcopal Church demonstrated a direct correlation between church growth and the number of online, social media, or digital tools a church uses. In short, social media can and does work for ministry.

I will increase my activity on “Grace is everywhere,” my blog (found at robmose.blogspot.com) to an average of two posts weekly. I will also pledge to learn and use effectively one other social media tool (probably Twitter).


TWO RESOLUTIONS FOR BUILDING MINISTRY AT SAINT DAVID'S

5. I will challenge you to specific tasks of ministry.
I have a goal of 100 % participation and I think that goal is attainable. From your part, when I or another ministry leader ask for your cooperation or assistance, leadership or effort, don’t say no – say “I will, with God’s help.” For my part and on behalf of ministry leaders, I promise that the request or challenge will be specific, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.

I, or another ministry leader, will challenge each of you – each member of this parish church to a new and specific ministry this year.

6. I will bless you in your ministry.
If you are to be challenged to new ministry, it would be unfair if you weren’t blessed on your way. I promise, therefore, to equip you on your way. Part of that equipping is calling upon he Holy Spirit to alight like a dove upon us – to overshadow us that we might bear Christ. It is important to dedicate our ministries to God and name them as holy: this is the act of consecration and blessing.

I will consecrate and bless all of the ministries of this church. Among other times, such blessings will occur at least one monthly during an act of public worship.

The Dream

Homily notes for the Baptism of the Lord (1/10/2016)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

As part of today's sermon, I also presented six New Year's resolutions that I made regarding my work as Rector of Saint David's. Those resolutions are presented in a follow-up post. 


"The important question to ask is not, ‘What do you believe?’ but ‘What difference does it make that you believe?’ Does the world come nearer to the dream of God because of what you believe?”
(Verna Dozier, The Dream of God, 79).

In the early 1970's, the first bishop of Nevada, Wesey Frensdorff, was a visionary of the same dream that Verna Dozier had. Through something called “Total Ministry,” Bishop Frensdorff and others would create a new movement in Episcopal ministry, a style which empowers laity and clergy (bishops, priests, and deacons) to work in concert, equal and essential partners in the building of the kingdom. At the heart of “Total Ministry” is the understanding that through baptism all Christian people are gifted for mission and ministry within and for the Church. “There is one ministry in Christ,” writes Bishop Frensdorff, “and all baptized people – lay and ordained – participate in it according to the gifts given them.”

At its core, the ideas formulated in the concept of “Total Ministry” can push the limits of how we minister as a church. They challenge us to a new dream (using the language of Verna Dozier) in how we carry out our baptismal promise in the world.

Baptismal promise…that Covenant we make together at every baptism. Those promises that call us to...
  • “continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers…”
  • “persevere in resisting evil” and “repent and return to the Lord…”
  • “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ…”
  • “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself…”
  • “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being…”

A CHURCH THAT RADIATES GOD'S LOVE
Just a few years before his tragic death in 1988, in a plane crash on the rim of the Grand Canyon, Bishop Frensdorff wrote a poem called The Dream. The poem begins:
Let us dream of a church in which all members know surely and simply God’s great love, and each is certain that in the divine heart we are all known by name.
In which Jesus is very Word, our window into the Father’s heart; the sign of God’s hope and his design for all humankind.
In which the Spirit is not a party symbol, but wind and fire in everyone; gracing the church with a kaleidoscope of gifts and constant renewal for all.
Martin Luther once asked, “Can a rock that has been in the sunlight all day not fail to give off warmth and heat at night?”

When I was young, every other year or so our family would head north for Christmas to visit relatives in Cleveland. As a young boy from Florida, I was fascinated by the metal contraptions that hung on the walls of Grandparents house. When you touched them, they were warm. I, of course, had no experience with a radiator but my Grandpa Alex brought me to the basement, showing me the boiler and how the steam travelled through the pipes all of the house to those “metal contraptions,” radiating its heat all the way.

Using Martin Luther’s metaphor we must ask ourselves, “Can we, when we have lived in the warmth of God’s love, not fail to give off the same warmth ourselves?”

The answer, of course, is that of course we cannot. But first we have to connect to the boiler. We can’t, in other words, radiate God’s love until we’ve opened our hearts and let it in. We must live in the sunlight of God’s love. We need to bask in the sunlight of God’s compassion. We need to absorb God’s light and let it shine in the darkest corners within. Once we allow God’s love in, we can then begin to give off that love.

Let us dream of a church that radiates God’s love.

A CHURCH THAT FLOWERS WITH ABANDON
Frensdorff dreamed of a church “…unafraid of change, able to recognise God’s hand in the revolutions, affirming the beauty of diversity, abhorring the imprisonment of uniformity…”

We are probably no less afraid of change in our church then Frensdorff’s church was thirty years ag. Perhaps we are more afraid. In a world that is changing so fast, a changeless church is a refuge in uncertainty. We cling in comfort, but maybe we cling too tightly to what was that new growth is restricted.

When my friend’s aunt moved into a new home, she wanted to cut back the vines that grew up the front of the house. The vines on the house grew with abandon, flowering prolifically. She wanted to shape the vines, directing them and controlling their growth. She bought some electric shearers, later describing the purchase as “a big mistake.” She cut that vine…and cut…and cut….and cut until not much remained. She was ready to begin forming the vine but that vine hasn’t flowered since.

It’s not dead. It is sort of alive with a brownish stalk that only sends out a few green bloomless tentacles each year. Later, she learned that this particular vine would only produce flowers from new growth added the previous year. The green shoots coming out now just don’t have enough nutrients to bring forth flowers.
Let us dream of a church vital and alive, growing and flowering with abandon.

A CHURCH THAT IS SALTY 
Frensdorff dreamed of a church “…so salty and yeasty that it really would be missed if no longer around…”

We should be “serving” and “seeking” and “striving” and “respecting” so that our church would be missed if we were not here. I envision a bold church, existing beyond our eight walls, fearlessly speaking out against unjust structures in society, against violence of any kind, and against exclusion for any reason. I envision a church that doesn’t always choose the safest way but chooses instead to “prepare the way of the Lord…” (Matthew 3:3). I envision a church that remains relevant and responsive to our rapidly changing social context.

The church cannot be satisfied with being fed and feeding pablum, but instead must hear the Word, takes risks, speak out, and act against those things that are not of God.

Let us dream of a salty church.

A CHURCH THAT IS ABOUT JESUS 
Frensdorff dreamed of a church “in which each congregation is in mission and each Christian, gifted for ministry; a crew on a freighter, not passengers on a luxury liner.”

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry speaks in terms of the Jesus Movement,
"Now is our time to go. To go into the world to share the good news of God and Jesus Christ. To go into the world and help to be agents and instruments of God’s reconciliation. To go into the world, let the world know that there is a God who loves us, a God who will not let us go, and that that love can set us all free.

"This is the Jesus Movement, and we are The Episcopal Church, the Episcopal branch of Jesus’ movement in this world."
The Church should be about the Jesus Movement, carrying on the mission Jesus with each member, regardless of ordination status, a part of this mission – a member of the crew, working for the same end.

Let us dream of a church where each member goes into the world to share the good news of Jesus Christ and to be agents of God’s reconciliation.

A CHURCH ABOUT THE ABSURDITY OF LOVE
Frensdorff dreamed of a church that recognizes “the absurdities in ourselves and in one another, including the absurdity that is LOVE, serious about the call and the mission but not, very much, about ourselves.”

May we be a playful church who dances, sings, laughs, and cries in the company of our “Clown Redeemer.” And maybe we can be a church that doesn’t take ourselves too seriously. We are a church, after all, that falls short. But we are also a church we are blessed with hearts that forgive, and a sense of humor. We are also a church blessed with a God who forgives, and who, we pray, also has a sense of humor.

Let us dream of a church that is serious about God’s love, and just maybe, not so serious about itself.

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord and, by association, the feast of all our baptisms. We celebrate the beginning of Jesus public ministry just as we celebrate baptism as the beginning of our ministry. Let us ask ourselves,

What kind of a church are to be?

Will it be the kind of church that we dream it to be?

Will it be the kind of church Jesus dreams it to be?

All of us have a part in shaping the answer.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

In the beginning was the Word

Homily notes for the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas Morning, 12/25/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-12, John 1:1-18 

THE INCARNATION IN THE FOURTH GOSPEL
I love Christmas and I especially love the way John tells the Christmas story. Perhaps rather than saying this is John’s “Christmas” story it makes more sense to say that this is John’s story of the Incarnation. It bears little resemblance to the Christmas that we know. There are no angels and no shepherds. There is no Bethlehem, no inn, and no manger. There are no stars and no wisemen. For all of it, there is not even a Joseph nor a Mary. No, indeed, John follows the rhythm of Rogers and Hammerstein, starting “…at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”

John transports us all the way back to the beginning of time…actually, to before the beginning of time. Before anything at all was created, before the world began, the Word – the Logos – the Christ was with God. No, the Logos was God.

The Logos was God. In the beginning, the Word was God. How astonishing! And we are indeed meant to be astonished. We are meant to be hushed, to be brought to silence in the holiness. All of our fumbling theologizing about Christmas and the Incarnation is silenced as we push the story to the very beginning of all things.

That is right: all things. In the very next strophe (John 1:3), we are told is that “all things were made through him.” There really is no mistaking John’s meaning here. Through the Incarnate Logos who is God from before the beginning of all things was the One through all things were created - all things, everything and everyone. I don’t know about you, but that is simply breathtaking and astonishing.

And it would explain a lot about who we are as a Christian people baptized in the Episcopal tradition. You see, we are those people who have promised, and continually promise over and over again, “to seek and serve Christ in all persons.” Not some people, not even most people, but all persons.

So the Good News that John is proclaiming at the outset of the fourth gospel may not be so great after all. It can be somewhat unfortunate news because very often we do not want to recognize the Word in all persons. It can be disconcerting news because too often we do not want to seek the Christ in everyone. Honestly, you don’t mean everything, do you?

So perhaps we wish that John had started his Gospel with something a little less, with something maybe not at the very beginning. The beginning, it turns out, might not a very good place to start after all. It is hugely inconvenient to start there because it leads to all this seeking and serving of persons, quite frankly, we just would rather not seek and serve.

Christmas is so much easier if you just stick to the nativity scene and think about Mary and Joseph, some cuddly sheep, and a cow in the background. Christmas is easier if you stick to the shepherds falling all over themselves with excitement like so many children under the Christmas tree, which, just as inconveniently, does not seem to be a part of the story either. John is making it all just a little inconvenient.

That is, until you get to the part about light. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).


THE LIGHT & THE WORD
Legend holds that Martin Luther lit the first Christmas tree with candles so as to make it look like the stars in the sky! When we light candles, we access ancient energy - a cyclical life-giving energy. The bio-chemistry of it is unmistakable: Energy produced in photosynthesis by a plant’s absorption of the sun’s energy is passed up the food chain to grazing cattle to produce tallow or on to bees to produce beeswax. The candle then produced will light even the gloomiest of nights with a cryptic sunlight, returning the complex fat or wax molecules to the form in which the plants found it in the first place – water and carbon dioxide that can be incorporated into living things all over again.

The Word, the Logos, the Christ that was at the beginning and through whom all things came into being is in all of that. The Logos is in the photosynthesis. The Logos is in the tallow and the beeswax. The Logos is the cryptic sunlight. “Without him not one thing came into being.” Or, as the old Authorized Version says, “without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3b). Oh, my!. That is simply astonishing.

This is more complicated than Christmas ought to be or, rather, it is probably more complicated that we want Christmas to be. But here it is, in black and white, Christmas through the eyes of the Fourth Gospel:

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth…And of his fullness have all we received, and grace for grace. (John 1:14, 16)

“Dwelt” means something like “pitched his tent” among us. When we pick up our tent stakes and move on, the Word pulls up and travels with us. But not just a part of the Word, it is the fullness we have received. Simply astonishing! The fullness of the Word from which all life, all things, all light doth proceed, is shared with us all. As in “all.” Not some, not a lot, but like creation itself, all persons and all things receive this grace. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.”


THE WITNESS TO THE LIGHT
So it started on the one hand with the Word, the Logos, the Christ and all that he has done since before time, in time, and beyond time. And then on the other hand is John the Baptist, the man “sent from God” (John 1:6a) who “came as a witness to testify to the light” (John 1:7a). “He himself was not the light, but came to testify to the light” (John 1:8)

So I was thinking, maybe we could do that, too. Maybe we could bear witness to the light that comes from the Word who was with God, who was God in the beginning.

Maybe we could be like John so that others might believe through us and the light, which enlightens everyone, might shine forth on everyone. Maybe we can be little “John the Baptists” – or, better, we can be Mary the Baptists, George the Baptists, and Ellen the Baptists. You see, it is all together that we are the body of Christ. Alone, none of us can get the job done, fully exposing the light to the world; but, together the world can be lit, the world can be changed through us.

So I was thinking that this is exactly what we are called to be and to do We are called to bear witness to the light, just like John. And we are asked to do all in our power to help others do so as well. This is what is meant by seeking and serving Christ, the Word, the Logos, in all persons, everywhere, at all times.

Now, none of us can be Christ unto ourselves for the whole world. Yet, we each carries Christ for a particular piece of the whole. We each carry light to an essential part. We are, in other words, each essential light-bearers that make up the Church and without each part the Church would not be whole and could not bear the fullness of the light. That is why, when we baptize new members of the Body of Christ, the whole body is changed and made new. That is why it is so important to take the promises we make seriously. Especially the promise to do all in our power to support one another in our lives in Christ. Together, through Christ, we are the fullness of the light. Together, in Christ, we bear grace and truth. Together we can seek and serve Christ in all persons. Together we can strive for justice and peace for all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. We are the body of Christ.

Together we make up the mosaic that is the Word, the Logos, the Christ, for the world. Merry Christmas! God bless us every one. Amen.