Hero or Villain?

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Sermon for February 17, 2019

Readings:

Hero or Villain?

 

A British politician was asked this week whether he considered Winston Churchill to be a hero or a villain. Now before I even mention or address the politician’s response to that question, let me just take a moment to point out that this is the Devil’s question. The question is a setup and the intention of the question is to be divisive. The question represents a world-view where everything is black or white: you are either good or evil, you are either for me or against me, you are either this party or that party and that’s it. It is an either/or choice or question and if you will allow me to be philosophical for a moment: be very careful when presented with either/or questions, because sometimes they are a trap. This question was a trap and boy did the politician jam his foot right in it.

 

He said that Winston Churchill was a villain, a judgment he came to based upon his evaluation of mistakes that Churchill made earlier in his career, before he became prime minister. Well predictably, that little comment created quite a kerfluffle, with people on both sides rushing to either defend Churchill’s legacy or to catalog his shortcomings. Now my personal feelings about Churchill are fairly well known here….after all, my dog is named Winston. I am, or course, a fan. But my respect and admiration for the man, doesn’t come from a whitewashed or sanitized view of him. My fandom has not blinded me to his shortcomings. Quite the contrary; my respect for Churchill comes from a recognition that he, like every human being was deeply flawed, and yet, despite his flaws he was still able to accomplish great things.

 

Human beings are complex creatures. They are rarely just heroes or villains; we have the capacity to be both, sometimes at the same time. We can do amazing and wonderful things, and then we can turn right around and be selfish and cruel. But we are always being challenged by the devil into categorizing people into just one column or the other. We celebrate people and build them up and cheer them, and then we find out that maybe they did something wrong once or made a mistake, then we proceed to tear them down and ridicule them. This plays out on a daily basis in social media. We want people to be either heroes or villains, because that makes life and relationships neat and tidy. We put ridiculous expectations on leaders and celebrities to be our heroes, and then when they make the inevitable misstep and disappoint us, we take a sadistic glee in tearing them apart publicly, even long after they are dead.

 

Why do we do this?

 

I think that the answer is misplaced hope. We like to put our faith, our hope, and our trust in human beings, in mortal men and women. I think deep down we want our leaders and our celebrities to save us. We want them to have the virtues we lack. We want them to be the source of all that is good in the world, and then, when they fail to live up to that impossible standard, we assume they must be villains. The devil has told us that people are either heroes or villains. If they are not a hero, then they must be a villain. But what has God revealed to us?

 

The prophet Jeremiah rarely minces words, he makes it very clear:

“cursed are those who trust in mere mortals, and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.”

 

Human beings who put their ultimate faith and trust in other human beings, have set themselves up. They are bound to be disappointed sooner or later. And Jeremiah used terrific imagery, he says they are like shrubs in the desert. They have nothing to drink from, they have no source of real nourishment, vitality or life.

 

But humans who learn to put their trust in God before their trust in their fellow man, well those are like trees planted next to living waters, whose roots run deep into the soil and draw nourishment and vitality from a well that never runs dry. When hard times come, when the sun shines hot and the land is parched, those trees can still live, those trees can bear fruit, because they are connected to living water. People who look to God as the source of what is good in the world, people who look to God as the fountain of virtue and blessings, those people will not be disappointed.

 

In church circles I have what is called a “low anthropology.” Now that is a churchy phrase, but basically what it means is that deep down I believe and am convinced that people are sinners. Us human beings, men and women, we are broken. We are capable of doing good things, but we are not capable of being consistently good without fail. So few things are as boring to me as having someone’s sins placed on public display, as if the fact that human being’s are sinners is in some way newsworthy. It is not. Every week we come together here and read scriptures that are thousands of years old, and what I walk away with every week is further proof that human nature has not changed. Our technology has changed, our instincts have not.

 

One of the great things about the bible is that the characters we find there are not one dimensional. Even the greatest heroes are depicted with their sins and flaws. King David was an adulterer. He had huge sins, he made mistakes. If you think that just because someone is mentioned in the bible or that their image has been carved in marble or set in stained glass that they are somehow free of sin, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. What inspires me though when reading the scriptures is how over and over again, God manages to do amazing things with incredibly flawed people.

 

I would say the same thing is true of our modern day leaders, celebrities and heroes. If you think that someone must be free of sin in order for God to be using them in the world, or working through them, then you are missing the point. No human being is ever consistently good all the time. If we can accept that, then we won’t need to clutch our pearls, be overcome by the vapors or ask for the smelling salts every time we learn that someone famous might have at some point made a mistake. If we can accept that, then maybe we can stop putting ridiculous expectations on each other.

 

Life gets a lot easier when you learn to accept that people aren’t perfect. They never were and they never will be. Once you accept that, once you learn not to put all of your faith in the flesh, in mankind, in men and women, in other human beings, once you learn that God is the true source of goodness and salvation in the world, then you can really be amazed at what God is able to do with some sinful human beings.

 

The devil wants you to separate everyone in the world into heroes or villains. The devil wants you to see everyone as either perfect and lovable, or flawed and unloveable, but if having flaws makes you a villain then we are all in deep trouble. What my God has revealed to me and to countless others in the gospel that the church proclaims, is that we worship a God who loves and uses sinful, flawed people. Our God can make a hero out of a villain and ultimately only God and God alone can know which camp we really belong to.

 

I have lots of heroes; I do not expect them to be perfect. In fact, most of them are deeply flawed in some way. We don’t need to whitewash history and pretend our heroes never did anything wrong, nor do we need to catalog their faults and pretend that sin is news. I think the approach that is most reasonable is what God has revealed to us: accept that only God is the true source of goodness and salvation; place our faith and our hope in God, and then rejoice in how he uses and inspires and loves, sinful human beings.

What is the Good News?

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Sermon for February 10th, 2019

Readings:

When the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Church in Corinth, he was writing to a church that was in the midst of a lot of division. There was quarreling and fighting over a number of issues. There was disagreement about the leadership of the Church and which apostles were the greatest; there were (as there always are) arguments about sex; there were arguments about food; there were arguments about which spiritual gifts were the greatest. And one by one, Paul tries to address each one of these divisions and every time he does so he points the church back to Jesus. What does the Good News or the gospel of Jesus Christ have to say about this issue? How important is this issue in the light of the good news of Jesus? Is it worth beating each other up over? Is it worth killing over? Are these issues that you are so preoccupied with, are they more important than the central message that we have been called to proclaim? Paul has to constantly redirect them to the message.

 

And part of his message you heard last week, the most famous part, and that was Paul’s conclusion that the most important thing we can do or show as Christians is love. Love is our greatest gift, love is our strongest power. Pursue love, that is what Paul tells the church. Pursue love is his conclusion, and he argues that it is to be the Church’s overriding principle: love. Love for God and love for each other.  “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God” that is what Paul said to the church in Ephesus. Love is the conclusion that Paul comes to, it is where the gospel leads him, BUT it is not the gospel. Love is not the good news that Paul has been sent to proclaim. Love is where the good news should lead us; love is Paul’s conclusion; love should be our response to the good news, but it’s not the news. So what is the actual good news, or gospel that Paul proclaims?

 

Well fortunately Paul is not shy about reminding us:

 

I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which you are being saved….

 

are you ready for it, cause here it comes, and this is simultaneously the most simple and the most bizarre thing you will ever hear…

 

That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.

 

That, my friends, is the gospel. That is the good news. That simple, short little statement is the most important thing Paul ever has to say, because that statement is the power behind everything Paul does. It is the reason why. If love is the life-blood of Christians, then this little message is the beating heart that pushes that love out into the world. It is the force behind it. But this statement unsettles people, it can make us uncomfortable, because it is weird.

 

A man died for our sake, for our sins, because of our failures, someone died. He didn’t just get really tired or really sick. He was dead. Cold dead. They buried him. He was in the grave for days…and he came back to life again. Not in some mystical vision, not in a fantasy or hallucination, but in flesh and blood real life. And people saw him, not just a couple people, but hundreds. And when Paul was writing, some of those people were still alive. And weirder still, part of the message is that this was all in the scriptures before it happened. Meaning that this wasn’t just something that happened, but that it was a part of a divine plan.

 

That is a weird story. It makes people uncomfortable. We are twenty-first century people, we know that dead bodies don’t come back to life. You might be able to resuscitate someone with the right equipment, under the right circumstances, but once they are really dead, there is no bringing them back. It’s crazy. We don’t want people to think we are crazy, or foolish. So we try to focus on other things. Jesus was a great teacher, so we will talk about his lessons, or his ethics, or his morals and we will try and steer clear of this weird stuff.

 

And you get people that argue, that maybe we should cut some of this weird stuff in our scriptures out: Let’s cut out the bizarre miracle stories, and this stuff about a dead body coming back to life, and all these supernatural visions. Let’s just focus on the practical advice that Jesus gave and his role as a teacher, and not worry so much about what did or didn’t happen in the grave a couple thousand years ago. Well guess what, that is not a new argument. People have always found the story of Jesus being raised from the dead to be unsettling. People in the church in Corinth were making that exact same argument and Paul’s words to them was this:

 

If Christ has not been raised from the dead, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

 

Those are some tough words right there, but hear what Paul is saying: the message that Jesus died and rose again is THE message. That’s the good news, the gospel, the proclamation. That is the force behind everything we do, say or think. That is our power and without that this faith of ours is futile and we are to be pitied.

 

What does it mean when a dead man comes back to life in a world where that does not happen? That is the question that Christians are always forced to struggle with. If Jesus of Nazareth actually died and came back to life, as Paul and so many others say he did, if this story is true, then what does that mean for me, and how I live my life and the hope that I have for the future?

 

Well the conclusion that Paul came to, was that death, which seems to have the final say in this world, which seems to have the power to separate us from God and from each other, actually doesn’t. Paul’s conclusion is that God’s love for his creation is stronger than the power of death.

 

Death has been swallowed up in victory, he says. Where O death, is your victory? Where O death, is your sting?

 

If the son of God was crucified and died and rose again to give us victory over death, then what does that say about how we are to live as Christians and followers of this man Jesus? That I think is the question that Paul continually puts to the churches he is writing to and it is a question we must continually ask ourselves. It is a deep question. It is a difficult question. It is a question that pushes us to ponder the meaning of our existence. As followers of Jesus, we are called to view everything in this world in the light of the resurrection. If we can do that, then we might just see that the things we argue about and invest huge amounts of energy in, those divisions really don’t matter that much…in fact nothing matters more than the love that God has shown us by giving us a life that death can not conquer.

 

 

Make no mistake, Jesus can and will meet you where you are. God can burst into your life at any time and in any place. You may encounter him as you go about your daily business, and he has some important things to say about how you live in this world. Listen to him, but also know that when he calls you to follow him, he is likely to call you to places away from the shore where you feel safe and secure. Don’t be afraid to go there. If you really want to be a follower of Christ, you can’t be afraid of fishing in deep waters.

Know your story

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Sermon for January 27th, 2019

Readings:

My ancestors came from England, and Scotland, and Germany. I don’t know all their names. Somehow, something brought them to the shores of this country. Most of them made a new life for themselves in the colony of Georgia and in other parts of the South. Their lives and their culture was shaped by the land and the people around them. There were slaves from Africa, Native American tribes, different peoples from the Caribbean and various parts of Europe: England, Scotland, France, Germany, Spain. Each with their own language, customs, religion and food culture. Some of my people may have had slaves, most of them didn’t.

 

My grandparents grew up as poor sharecroppers in the red dirt of South Georgia. On both sides, both my mother and my father, my grandparents decided that they wanted a better, or different life for themselves and their children, so they moved further South to Florida. Florida has its own unique, and strange, blend of peoples and cultures: southern and northern, rich and poor, North American, Caribbean and South American. There my parents met, and there I was born and raised. But the story doesn’t end there…

 

I found my way down to Miami, a city with another intense blend of cultures. That was ultimately where I was called to join Christ’s church through baptism, and my love of food and food traditions and culture eventually led me into the ministry, a calling which itself has dragged me to Connecticut, New York, back to Florida, up to New Jersey, then to New York again. This is all a part of my story. It isn’t really important that you know it, and I don’t expect all that to be very interesting to you, but what is important is that I know it.

 

I need to know my story. I need to know who I am, and where I come from. I need to know where I have been. I need to remember the places in my life where I encountered God. I need to know where I have experienced great joy and I need to remember the times and the places of great sorrow. I need to remember my victories and it probably won’t hurt for me to remember some of my failures as well. I need to know my story and you need to know yours. Knowing your story isn’t just about knowing your history, it’s about knowing who you are now.

 

Do not underestimate how important that knowledge is. Because if you don’t know who you are, there are plenty of forces in the world that are ready to tell you. If you don’t have an identity of your own, the world will give you one, but you may not like it.

 

The forces of the world are many and various and go by many different names, but I am going to simplify them for this sermon. Let’s just agree for this sermon to refer to the evil forces of the world by a proper name. We will call them Satan. The evil forces of the world, or Satan, have an identity for you if you don’t already have one of your own. Satan will tell you that you are a number. Satan will tell you that you are a victim of….whatever. Satan will tell you that you are a disease or a disability. Satan will tell you that you are just a consumer of goods and services. Satan will tell you that your life has value…if you are useful and if you have the right education, the right income, and the right opinions. Satan will tell you that your life and everything in it, is just a cosmic accident, with no meaning or purpose or direction; just one unrelated experience after another. Worst of all, Satan will tell you that you are on your own…disconnected from anyone and anything else in this world. I think that is the most dangerous lie that Satan tells us…that we are alone. Make no mistake…Satan has an identity ready and waiting for you, if you don’t already have one of your own.

 

Knowing your story is so important. But knowing your story is not just about knowing your individual history; it’s about knowing how your story connects to a larger story. It’s about knowing how the single strand of your life is woven into a much larger and more glorious tapestry. Part of our mission, as people of faith, is simply telling people the big story, showing them the glorious tapestry, and explaining to them how their little story is connected to that big story. We need to help God’s children know who they are; they need to know who they are in the world and in their families and most importantly who they are in Christ; who they are in God’s kingdom. Because if we don’t tell the children of God who they are….someone else will.

 

And who do you want telling your children their story? Who do you want shaping your identity? Do you want it to be the ad-man? A politician? A pharmaceutical salesman? Do you want the haters in the world to tell your child or even yourselves what your life means?

 

I suspect that you don’t. I suspect that you don’t, because week after week, day after day, I see so many of you here, in church listening to another story. Making the connection between your story and a much larger one. That is what we are doing here. Every week we gather, we open ancient scriptures, and tell ancient stories and in doing so we learn about our own stories. We learn about who we really are, not in the eyes of Satan and the forces of this world…those stories we reject when we come in those doors. No, here we learn who we are in the eyes of God.

 

Here we remember where we have been as a people. We remember the places where we have met God. We remember joy, and we remember pain. We remember victory and we remember failure. We come here every week to remind ourselves who we really are. We are children of God. We are sinners that have been redeemed. We are people with a past and a future. Our lives have meaning and we are not alone. That is a powerful story. Never underestimate the power of that story, and don’t take it for granted, because there have been times when God’s children have forgotten it.

 

In our Old Testament passage this morning, Nehemiah tells about a time when God’s children forgot who they were…didn’t know their story. It had been forgotten; swept away as if it were just meaningless history. But Ezra he finds this book laying in the dust of the temple, and he opens it and is amazed. He can’t keep the story to himself. He proclaims it in public and the people are just overcome. They had forgotten their story. They had forgotten who and what God had created them to be. They needed to hear their story again. Their story shouldn’t be rolled up, rotting and dusty on an unused shelf, forgotten…it should be celebrated, read publicly with song and spectacle. Their story should be celebrated and children should be raised to know it.

 

And so it was, and has been ever since. And one day a young Jewish man was worshipping in his local synagogue, and he read the scriptures aloud; he read the story of his people, and when he was finished, he set the scriptures down and said to those gathered there: this story…this story is about me.

 

That young man was Jesus of Nazareth. We come here every week to tell his story, and to remember that our stories, as Christians, are a part of his story. Each and every one of us…we are all different, we are all unique and have stories of our own, but through the waters of baptism, our stories will always be connected to his story. And that is a better story than anything the forces of the world will tell you.

You belong to God.

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Sermon for the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Sunday, January 13th, 2019

Readings:

Abraham and Sarah were not born Jewish you know. Abraham is considered the father of the Hebrews, the Jewish people, and from Abraham come the world’s three great mono-theistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. So often in our scriptures, our God is referred to as the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob. All Jews look to Abraham as the father of their nation and of their faith, but Abraham wasn’t born Jewish. Abraham did not inherit his relationship with God. Abraham converted. Abraham was called. Abraham was invited by God to live in a special relationship with his creator. Sure, God was responsible for giving life to all the peoples of the earth, but we know that not all of them chose to listen to him, honor him, or live in relationship with him. We don’t know how many people God may have called before Abraham. What we do know is that Abraham was willing to accept the invitation.

 

But accepting this invitation and following God’s call came at a price for Abraham. Conversion wasn’t necessarily easy. He had to leave behind his family. He had to leave behind the land he knew. His name and his wife Sarah’s name were changed; they used to be Abram and Sarai, but now they were Abraham and Sarah. Abraham had to make a sign of this covenant, this relationship he had with God; he had to sacrifice a bit of his flesh, in token acknowledgement that all of his flesh belonged to God now. And then Abraham was called to make the greatest sacrifice: he had to recognize that his child, his son Isaac, the creature he loved most in the world, he had to recognize that he belonged to God too. Living in relationship with God, belonging to God, and accepting the invitation to live as a member of a people set apart with a special calling to be a blessing to the world that God created…that came at a cost for Abraham and it has come at a cost for his descendants too.

 

Maybe it has to come at a cost.  Maybe Abraham had to die to everything else in his life to really know how much he belonged to God now. He was accepting a divine invitation to live in relationship with the creator of the entire universe. So nothing in that universe could mean more to him than the fact that he belonged to God. Not his family, not his nationality or race, not his political party, not even his own name. This was not some social club that Abraham was becoming a member of, he wasn’t committing himself to a portion of his income and a couple hours on the weekend. And hear this: Abraham did not worship God to give him thanks for his life; Abraham’s worship was giving his entire life to God. That is worth saying again: Abraham did not just give thanks to God for his life; Abraham gave God his life. His life belonged to God now. When your life belongs to God, it is not yours anymore. That changes your identity and that should change how you live. When you belong to God, nothing in this world should ever mean more to you than that relationship.

 

And that’s easier said than done. The world has a habit of creeping in and trying to take back what belongs to God. I won’t say it’s a habit…it is the mission of the forces of this world to draw your loyalty and your identity away from God. Just flip through some of the prophets in the Bible and you will see just how hard it has been for God’s children to remember whom they belong to. It is easy to say I belong to God, but it isn’t always easy to truly recognize that your life belongs to him. It’s not yours anymore.

Prophets are always calling God’s children to remember to whom they belong. Some of Abraham’s children went down to the river Jordan to hear a charismatic prophet preach a hard sermon. The preacher had some hard words for them indeed. He said to them: “don’t just say Abraham is our ancestor and then dust your hands and going on serving the powers of this world. If you want to belong to God the way that Abraham did, then you need to be giving your life to God the way that Abraham did. The things that belong to this world they are passing away, but God is collecting what belongs to him.”

 

Who do I belong to? That is the question those children of Abraham had to ask themselves as they waded into the water to meet this prophet. Do I belong to all the forces and powers of this world? Is my identity defined by my nationality or my last name? Was God only active in the lives of the patriarchs and prophets, or is it possible that he is calling me too? What does it mean to belong to God?

 

And as these people were being dipped beneath the waters, rededicating their lives to God, something strange happened. A man walked up to the preacher and for a moment it seemed like the preacher didn’t want to baptize him, but eventually the preacher did. And after he was baptized they saw this dove, the same sort of dove that the poorest person would sacrifice in the temple, this dove landed on him. And then a voice. This is my beloved son. When this man came out of the water, people knew who he belonged too.

 

Baptism is so many things: it is a thanksgiving for new and renewed life, it is a confession and repentance of sin, it is a rejection of the forces of this world, and it is an acceptance of God’s call to live in relationship with him and to follow him into the promised land, but more than anything else, baptism is about knowing whom you belong to.

 

We belong to God. We belong to Christ. We have been marked as Christ’s own forever. That is what we say when we anoint a newly baptized person with holy chrism, the sacred oil. You are marked as Christ’s own forever. Christ has a call on your life that comes before anything else in this world. You belong to God…now, don’t take it for granted.

Salvation is like a bucket of chicken

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Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany 2018

Readings:

If you saddle up your camel or hitch up sleigh and head over to the rectory tonight around 5pm, I will be having my annual Epiphany party.

 

I cannot promise you a star to guide your way, nor can I promise that you will find the baby Jesus when you arrive, but there is something wonderful that I can promise you: fried chicken. And while fried chicken may not give you everlasting life, I think we can agree that when it is good, it is something of an epiphany in its own right, a taste of heaven. And the fried chicken that I am offering you is the best kind of fried chicken, because not only is it crispy and juicy, but you don’t have to cook it and you don’t have to pay for it. It’s going to be there as a gift. You just have to decide if you want to show up to the party. And you have to decide if you’re going to reach out and take hold of that chicken leg and savor it, or just pass it by.

 

Now, I am telling you that it’s a gift, so if you show up to the party, and encounter someone bragging about the chicken; telling you how proud they are of it, how it turned out so good, and how they found the recipe, killed, plucked, cut, seasoned and soaked, floured and fried the bird, then you will know that that person is either lying or crazy. And don’t let anyone tell you how much they paid for it, or worse yet, try and sell you a piece. No, the table will be set before anyone else shows up and the feast is being offered as a gift to those that accept the invitation.

 

I know it may seem silly to some to compare God’s salvation to a bucket of chicken, but on more than one occasion Jesus compared the kingdom of God to a banquet or a feast, so it’s not that far off. And in those parables that Jesus told, the guests were never invited to the feast and then told upon arrival that they had to cook the dinner. No, the feast was a gift. The guests were just expected to respond to what was being offered. That’s it. In Luke’s gospel, when Jesus is telling the story, the host of the great dinner says that “those who were invited [but didn’t show up] will never taste my dinner.” In other words, the host isn’t going to shove the chicken down anyone’s throat, but he does want his house full, and anyone that wants to come can come.

 

We humans, we so desperately want to be proud of ourselves that we like to give ourselves credit for what God has done. We want to turn the spotlight back onto ourselves. We like to focus on what we have done for God, but that is not what the gospel is about. The gospel is about what God has done for us. The gospel is an invitation to the banquet; it is not the recipe for how to make the chicken. We need to be careful about approaching the bible as if it is an instruction manual or a recipe book; we need to see it as revelation. Revelation about what God has done, is doing and will do in the future.

 

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles. Do you remember the story where after Jesus is born his parents present him in the temple and the old priest Simeon holds him up and says to God “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” A light for revelation to the gentiles. When we see Jesus we see God’s salvation. God is revealing himself to us. It is through Jesus that us gentiles finally got a glimpse of what God was up to. He is the one who hands us the invitation to God’s banquet and he is the one who has prepared the feast. We Christians, we like to celebrate when we saw the light or when we found Jesus, but what we really need to be celebrating is that God showed us the light. We need to celebrate that God found us. There is a big difference, because when we talk about seeing the light or finding Jesus, we somehow manage to put the focus back on ourselves and what we are doing, but when we talk about God showing us the light or revealing himself to us, then we aren’t trying to take credit for something God did.

 

Those three wise men, they didn’t find Jesus through their own skill or intellect, or even faithfulness. They found Jesus because God revealed himself to them. He reveled himself through the star, through angels and wonders and signs, but he also revealed himself through scripture and prophecy and tradition. Incidentally, if you think this story is hard to believe, I would argue that the only truly unbelievable part is that three men stopped to ask for directions, but I do believe in miracles so I will take it on faith. But even with stopping to ask directions, they would never have found him if God didn’t want to be found. And their gifts, their gold and frankincense and myrrh, they are really just a token acknowledgement of the gifts that this child was giving them: a kingdom more precious than gold, a living relationship with God, and victory over sickness and death.

I love the story of the wisemen, but I think it is worth remembering that they just showed up to the party. They were the first gentiles to accept God’s invitation. If they were wise, it is because they knew that they needed this child, more than he needed them. Their wisdom was really just in knowing how to respond to what God had done.

That’s a lesson we all need to learn. Our role in salvation is just to reach out and take ahold of what God has already prepared for us. Our role is to respond.

You know, given the time and the grease, we all could probably fry a chicken, but we could never find God on our own. There’s no recipe for that. That’s what makes this Epiphany so much better than a bucket of chicken on your dining room table; because we could never make it happen. No, God’s saving grace is not the same thing as fried chicken, but in both cases you encounter a thing of joy; the work has been done, the price has been paid, and all that is left for you is to decide what you are going to do about it.

And his name was Jesus

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Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name

Preached at the Church of St. Alban the Martyr

December 31st, 2018

Readings:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

 

 

Thus begins the gospel according to Saint Luke. Luke is my favorite gospel, and it is the gospel that you are going to hear most Sundays for the coming year. It is the gospel that is read on Christmas Eve and it is the gospel we just heard tonight. Now there are many reasons why I am fond of Luke, but one of the things that most attracts me to him, also happens to be the thing that turns others off. It’s this: Luke is a detailed historian, and Luke likes to be very specific about names and places.

 

So Luke will say things like: In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah….or In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary….or In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria…or In the fifteenth year of the reign of emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

 

Names, names and more names, Luke has all these names of people that you can’t pronounce, and names of places that you don’t know where they are. I’m willing to bet that you know where Bethlehem is, but Ituraea? And I’m sure when he mentions Abilene that he’s not talking about Texas. So where is that? I get that it is easy to get bogged down in all these names and historic details. You may find yourself wishing that Luke would just get to the story and skip all of these meaningless names.

 

Sometimes it reminds me of listening to my grandfather talk about the war. No detail was too trivial to be left out. He didn’t just cook for the troops in the war. No, the way he told the story he used the kitchen of a restaurant that was owned by a lady named Frau Schaener, which had tables that were precisely this wide and this long, and he kept track of the number of meals served by counting the plates he put out, and his commanding officer was so-and-so, and he was in this part of Germany at this time of the year.

 

Some of those names and places I remember, and I am sad to say that some I don’t. At the time he told me those stories I was just a kid, and I can remember that by the time he was done telling one particular story I had turned myself around until I was laying upside down in the chair, just so that I could see the room from a different angle, I was so bored. And I can remember thinking: just get to the point Grandaddy. I don’t need to know the name of the lady that owned the restaurant, I don’t need to know how big the tables were in her kitchen. Why do those details even matter? Oh, but what I would give today to have all those details written down.

 

You see, I wanted his stories to be either enlightening or entertaining. They should have a point, and if the details in the story didn’t contribute to the point, then they didn’t matter, they should be left out. But what I didn’t appreciate at the time was that he wasn’t just trying to tell me a story, he was sharing a memory. The details mattered to him, because they actually happened to him. The size of the table in the restaurant where he worked was important to him, because it was a real table that he actually worked on and touched and used; it wasn’t something he made up in his imagination. And Frau Schaener, the lady who owned the restaurant the troops were using, her name mattered, because she was a real person, he knew her. She was not some generic background character; she was a real individual. Including her name in the story mattered to him, because that was her name. I wanted his stories to have a point or a purpose. But his point or purpose in telling the story, was that he wanted me to know what actually happened. He was an eyewitness to one of the most dramatic events in world history, the second world war, and his memory of that event wasn’t shaped by the grand thoughts of historians and philosophers, it was shaped by the real people and the real places that actually touched his life.

 

I think about those stories a lot now. I think it is because we are saying goodbye to so many of those of the greatest generation. Our living connection to that time is slipping away. And I find myself wanting to hold on tighter to everything they knew and saw and did. I want the details I want the names and maybe that is because I am beginning to realize that these aren’t just stories. These are real lives, and real memories and real people that we really loved. They have given us so much. They have given us everything. Their names and the names of the people that they remember they need to be recorded, if not in our history books, then at least in our hearts. Because real life is not a simple story with a point or a punchline, it is something that you live. Names are not just names, they are lives, real lives.

 

I think one of the reasons why I love Luke so much is that I sympathize with him. He’s a historian, but he isn’t really interested in talking about movements, or big ideas; he wants to talk about people; real people with real names that lived real lives. Luke had the great fortune to know, or he had access to the stories of, people that were eyewitnesses to THE most dramatic event in human history. And maybe as he was witnessing that generation slip away, he realized that no detail is too trivial, no name is superfluous, because Luke isn’t trying to entertain you or to persuade you; he wants you to know about something that really happened, to people that really lived. Luke is talking about events that have been fulfilled. He isn’t in talking about what God COULD do; he’s talking about what God DID do. And on nights like tonight when we gather to witness the passage of time, I find myself less interested in the big ideas and the speculations of theologians and philosophers and detached historians, and more drawn to the stories of real people, in real places, with real lives and real names.

 

The most dramatic event in the history of the world didn’t just happen once upon a time to the generic human child of a generic family, with no particular race in no particular place.

 

It was when Augustus was emperor of Rome, Herod was king of Judea, and Quirinius was governor of Syria. In the town of Bethlehem a baby boy, the Son of God, was born to a virgin girl named Mary. And eight days later, like all Jewish boys, he was circumcised. And his name was Jesus.

What is grace?

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Sermon for December 30th, 2018

Readings:

 

 

I am so grateful that in this part of the world the holidays are usually followed by a couple months of sweater weather or winter coat weather.

 

A nice sweater or a good coat can cover a multitude of sins and over-indulgences. I am sure that I am not the only one coming to this sixth day of Christmas feeling as if my clothes have shrunk a bit. It’s times like this that I am thankful for sweaters and coats: not only do they help keep you warm and protect you from the elements…they are also useful for covering things that you would rather not show the world. What a mercy that is.

 

From our Old Testament passage this morning:

 

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with baggy sweatpants and covered me with the robe of double-thick terrycloth

…so said the prophet Isaiah, or something to that effect.

 

Well not quite, but that is what went through my head when I was reading that Old Testament passage earlier this week. I thought: what a grace it is that God has given us something to cover up all these imperfections. What a grace that I don’t have to wait for the bathroom scale to show me the number I want to see before I go on with my life. What a grace that I don’t need to be constantly focused on my flaws and what a grace that I don’t have to constantly look at everyone else’s either.

 

That is grace.

 

I have been thinking a lot about grace this week. In our gospel passage this morning, the evangelist says that: “from his fullness we have received grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” We talk a lot about grace, but what is it? When we say “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore” …what do we mean by that? What is grace like?

 

Well my mind kept going back to that image in the prophet Isaiah of God clothing his people with garments of salvation and robes of righteousness. There is so much of that imagery in scripture, the imagery of God clothing his people, and I thought, yes, that is what grace is: grace is God covering us. That is what God does. God covers us.

 

He covers us when we are naked and afraid. He covers us when our frail souls are exposed to the evils of this world; but he also covers us when our inner sinful nature is showing too.

 

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he says that: “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” We have been clothed with Christ. God has covered us with the divine life of his son. In Jesus God has given us a new outer garment. It is like that winter coat or that fuzzy sweater, that not only protects us from the elements outside, and keeps us warm, comforts us, it also covers our own imperfections. It covers our sins.

 

Paul also talks about the difference between living under the law, and living under faith, or living with grace. Well, if the Law is the bathroom scale, telling us how far we went wrong, then grace is the fuzzy sweater, letting us get on with our lives and forgiving us when we go a bit astray. That is what grace is; it is God’s way of dressing us for the great feast he has prepared, covering our sins with a perfection we could never attain on our own. And faith is choosing to see the outer garment that God has placed over us, rather than obsessing about the numbers on the scale, or what lies underneath the robe.

 

Grace is something we receive, it is a mercy, but it is also something we can share with others. I have always admired people that exhibit grace under pressure. I have wondered, what does it mean to be a gracious person? It isn’t just about saying please and thank you. That is being grateful. I am talking about being gracious. And here is what I think it means.

 

A gracious person is someone that when they encounter another person’s flaws exposed, decides to cover them, rather than to draw attention to them or focus on them. A gracious person is not blind to the truth, but realizes a deeper truth. They realize that their sins are always visible to God, and yet God has chosen to look on something else. He looks on the new outer garment that he has provided through his son. A gracious person is not perfect; they just know the comfort of having their defects covered, so they live their lives trying to make others feel as if their faults are unseen as well.

 

What is grace? Well, it is many things, but most importantly grace is knowing that God’s love is stronger than our imperfections. Grace is knowing that God has us covered.