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.