The power of an image

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Sermon for Sunday, February 2nd, 2020

Readings

 

 

This is a photograph of my uncle that died last month. I got it when I was down in Florida.

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Now, on one level I can tell you that this is just a piece of paper; some photographic paper with ink on it. But, I think we all know that pictures mean so much more to us than that.

 

Pictures are more than just ink on paper. When you see an image of someone or something that is significant to you it evokes something within you. It touches something inside you.

 

I know that this little piece of paper isn’t actually my uncle, and yet I can hold it up and say “this is my uncle” and you would know exactly what I meant. When I see it, it brings a little of him back to me for a moment. It’s paper and ink, and yet with the right image on it, it becomes something else. It becomes something powerful.

 

When I was down home a couple weeks ago, I ended up sitting down and flipping through some old picture albums. It is amazing how easy it is to forget little details: like the wallpaper in the front hall of the house you grew up in, or the curtains in your grandma’s living room, or that favorite jacket you used to always wear. There are so many little things that you forget, and then you start flipping through pictures and it all comes back to you. You hadn’t completely forgotten it, it was just hiding somewhere in your mind. Then you see an old picture and it takes you right back to that time and that place;

 

in your head, for at least a couple seconds you get to go back there.

 

There is something almost magical about that.

 

There is something almost magical about how a simple image can take you on a journey. You see an old picture and you go on a journey through time. Distance and time don’t matter anymore. Looking through my old photos, I am transported to a time and a place that I can’t touch any other way. Sure, I can try and remember things, but memory fades. We forget things. Daily life pushes old memories aside. Pictures and images help to keep them alive.

 

Pictures also help me experience things that I never got to see with my own eyes. Like the way my grandfather looked as a young man; Relatives that I never got to meet; places that I never got to go. But when I flip through an old photo album, I get to go there, at least for a second. It is the closest thing to time travel that any of us will probably know, and you probably take it for granted. Pictures and images are powerful and sacred things.

 

This little piece of paper is not sacred to me, but the image it bears sure is. The image has power, even if the paper doesn’t.

 

I know that the beginning of today’s service may have seemed a bit odd for some of you; for some it may have even been uncomfortable. We began with a blessing of candles and with a procession of this statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus around the church. Why? Why would we do such a thing?

 

Do we think that Mary was feeling cramped over in the shrine and felt the need to stretch her legs a bit? Do we think that this statue of Our Lady of Walsingham has special powers?

 

Well, not exactly, no.

 

I can tell you that this is just a piece of carved wood with some paint on it. The material that was used to create this statue is in no way sacred or special, but the image that was created is special, and completely sacred. It is sacred because we all know it to be an image of our Lord and his mother. When we look on this image our thoughts are drawn to Jesus and Mary. We are transported to another time and another place. When we look at this statue we can imagine, in our minds, what it might have been like to look in the face of that child, or to witness how his mother embraced him. The image gives us a place to focus our devotion, but the devotion isn’t to the wood, the devotion is to the image that it bears and what that evokes within us.

 

You may ask, then why lift it up and carry it around? Why surround it with flowers?

 

Well, why do we put pictures in fancy frames and mount them on the wall in places of honor in our homes? Because the image they bear is important to us. When put images on display in eye-catching and beautiful frames because we want to see them, and be reminded of someone we love. We want others to know that this image is special. This image really means something to us.

 

The image is sacred because of who it draws us to. The power of this statue is not that it brings Mary and Jesus to us; we can’t control God that way. The power of this statue is that it brings us to Mary and Jesus. It takes our thoughts, or hearts and our minds to them. When we look on this image, we are the ones who are transported to another time and another place.

 

That is the irony of this service today. We took this statue on a little walk, but we are the ones that really went on a journey. We went on a journey in our minds. We were invited to imagine the story that Luke paints for us in the gopsel. We had a visual reminder of a day thousands of years ago, when a young woman carried her newborn baby into God’s holy temple to give thanks for the life of this child and to give thanks for the fact that her life had been spared too.

 

Maybe we can imagine ourselves following her through the crowded streets and up to the glorious temple. Maybe we can see in our minds her nervously handing him over to the old priest. We might even imagine Joseph handing the priest the appointed sacrifice of two turtledoves, which was all they could afford. Then maybe we can hear the old priest Simeon saying those words which Luke recorded:

 

Lord, now Lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,

According to thy word;

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,

Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;

To be a light to enlighten the gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

 

One look into that baby’s face, and old Simeon had seen all that he needed to see. All that he had hoped and longed for was now right in his hands. This child would be a light to enlighten the gentiles and would be the glory of his people Israel. What a holy and sacred moment that must have been.

 

We weren’t there; none of us were there, but for a few moments today we can see this image of Mary holding Jesus and we can imagine it. We can let this painted piece of wood take our hearts and minds to that sacred scene.

 

Maybe for some people this feels like idolatry. I get that. This may not be everyone’s preferred way to worship and that’s OK. But we should remember that idols come in many forms. Merely avoiding sacred images won’t keep you from being an idolater. Anytime we place more focus on something we have done, rather than on what God has done, we are idolators. Anytime we give something that is not God the adoration and respect that belongs to God alone, we have become idolators.

 

An idol is something that draws you farther away from the true God, not something that draws you closer to him.

 

For me at least, this statue of Our Lady and Our Lord, much like this picture of my uncle, draws me closer to someone that I can’t see with my eyes right now, and for that reason it is sacred, no matter what it is made out of.

 

Now, if a painted piece of wood can help us see Jesus, if an inanimate object can draw us closer to Christ, what could real flesh and blood do? Sure, people can get a glimpse of Jesus and Mary when they look at this statue, but can they also see Mary or Jesus when they look at you? Does your life draw people closer to God? When people look at you do they see a glimpse of divine light burning in a dark world, or do they see something far more wooden?

 

Ground Zero

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Sermon for January 26th, 2020

Readings

 

It’s hard to imagine, but a couple thousand years from now people may read news stories or letters from the distant past and wonder: “what is this place Ground Zero which these people keep referring to?”

 

When we hear that name though, we know exactly what it is. And I say “what it is,” rather than “where it is,” because when we hear that name we think of more than just a geographical location, for us it is so much more than a dot on a map.

 

When we hear Ground Zero we don’t just think of the World Trade Center or a city block in lower Manhattan. We hear the name and are instantly reminded of something that happened there. We are reminded of death and destruction and horror. The images come flooding back, even some of the sensations. That horrible smell that filled the air; the missing person signs that papered the city; that sense of fear, of wondering “what’s next?” All of that comes rushing back to me when I hear the name “Ground Zero.”

 

There are some places in our world that see such horror that just saying their name conjures up painful emotions and images, even if we didn’t witness the horror personally. If I say the name “Auschwitz” or “Treblinka” or “Daccau” you don’t just think of places in Europe…dots on the map. You think of all of the horrors that we know happened there. Death, defeat, captivity, starvation, cruelty. There are other places whose names conjure up similar emotions: Pearl Harbor, Dunkirk, Verdun. Sadly, that list of names grows longer everyday:

 

Columbine, Newtown, The Pulse Nightclub.

 

So many place names become synonymous with the horrors witnessed in those places, that to say them out loud is a risky thing because you are evoking powerful, terrible emotions and memories in people. These names mean so much to us and evoke so much within us, that it is hard to imagine a day when someone might hear them and have no concept of what those places represent. But sadly, that day often comes. Our memory of history fades, and the horrors that our history contains fade away with it, until place names, just become place names again. If I went up to the average person on the street and mentioned Andersonville or Culloden or Carthage, how many would have any idea what I was talking about?

 

When you heard the first reading just a few moments ago, and heard Isaiah talk about the land of Zubulun and the land of Naphtali…did it stir up anything within you? Did you feel a surge of emotion when you heard Matthew repeat Isaiah’s words in the gospel reading?

 

No?

 

Well neither did I at first. They are just funny place names in the bible. I don’t have any emotional connection to them at all. So when I hear that Jesus is going to start his ministry in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali my first thought is: ok, whatever, who cares? Just one of those meaningless, tedious details that the Bible is full of right?

 

But then again, there is always the chance that I am missing something, so I dug a little deeper.

 

Who were Zebulun and Naphtali?

 

Well if you think way back to the book of Genesis, or if you try and remember the songs to the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, you may recall that there was Abraham, then Isaac and then Jacob (Jacob and Sons!), there was Jacob who had twelve sons.

 

Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin.

 

Naphtali and Zebulun were two of Jacob’s sons and with their brothers they were founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. Well when the Children of Israel (or the descendants of Jacob) returned to the Promised Land after their exile in Egypt, each of these tribes settled in their own little territories, sort of like our counties. The Zebulun and Naphtali tribes settled in the North by the Sea of Galilee. Thus was established the Land of Zebulun and the Land of Naphtali.

 

Ancient history so why would Matthew care that Jesus started his ministry there?

 

Because in around 740 BC during the time of the prophet Isaiah, the Assyrian army, living to the North of the Kingdom of Israel invaded. There was war and destruction and death. The tribes that lived there, if they weren’t killed in battle, they were hauled off into captivity and lost. They disappeared. The Babylonian Captivity or Exile of the Jews is still pretty well know and talked about, but that was of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Assyrian Captivity of the Northern Kingdom has largely been forgotten, because no one came back. The people had just disappeared.

 

And Ground Zero for the Assyrian Captivity was the Land of Zebulun and the Land of Naphtali. That is where the Assyrian army invaded first. Those were the people whose lives were first destroyed by this terrible event. And those are the people that Isaiah is talking about when he talks about people walking in deep darkness. These were current events for Isaiah. And yet he had the faith and vision to say that those people walking in darkness, who are living under the rod of the oppressor, someday they are gonna see a light. And there will be no gloom for them anymore. This land that has been destroyed, someday it will be made glorious. That is what God is going to do for his people.

 

That is why Matthew thinks it’s significant that Jesus is starting his ministry there. This is the region and shadow of death. This is where death and destruction first reared its ugly head for the Kingdom of David, so this is the first place that this son of David is going to go to establish his new kingdom. Jesus isn’t going to Galilee because it’s a nice place to go fishing; Jesus is going to Galilee because the Land of Zebulun and the Land of Naphtali had been a hell on earth. The names Zebulun and Naphtali had become infamous symbols of suffering and death. When you said Zebulun and Naphtali, people thought of more than just a place on the map.

 

That is where God sends his son to teach, heal and proclaim the good news that God’s kingdom is a lot closer to them than they imagined.

 

It was in this land, a symbol in itself of how broken human kingdoms and human society can be, it was in this land whose name was a reminder of just how cruel and inhumane we humans can be to one another, it was in this land of pain, anguish and darkness, it was in this land that the light of the world walks up to a couple fishermen trying to mend their broken nets and says:

 

Hey, aren’t you tired of this yet? Aren’t you tired of living in a land of fear and death and darkness? Aren’t you tired of trying to mend a world that won’t seem to stay mended for long?

 

Wouldn’t you like to follow me and live differently and invite others to live as a part of this new Kingdom that God is building?

Maybe the fact that Jesus goes to the Land of Zebulun and the Land of Naphtali isn’t such an insignificant detail after all, because if I lived in the Land of Zebulun and Naphtali next to those fishermen Peter and Andrew and James and John, and someone made that offer to me, well…I almost might be persuaded to follow him.

 

Always there

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A reflection on my uncle,

Fred Sellers Ridley

September 30, 1958 – December 27, 2019

I can remember as a young child having to figure out what my relationship was to Freddy. I can remember learning that he was my uncle.

 

Uncle Hal and Uncle Tom both had “Uncle” in their names, so I knew what they were, but what was Fred?

 

Since he always lived at home with Grandma and Granddaddy, and since I was in their house almost as much as I was in my own, Freddy was just always there, so I think it’s understandable that I was a little confused if he was my uncle, an older brother, a cousin or some other relation.

I just knew that Freddy was Freddy. And Freddy was always there.

He was there whenever we spent the night at Grandma’s house. He was in his chair or in his room watching the “A” Team, or Dukes of Hazzard, or Hunter, or watching the Braves game or a Georgia Bulldogs game.

He was there the next morning too, taking us to Mr. Donut, or going to breakfast with the family at local diners like Fred and Ethel’s, where he knew the waitress.

Actually it didn’t matter what diner we went to, Fred always knew the waitress.

He was there on every family trip to Georgia. Fred adored his Georgia family, and was always ready to make a road trip to Georgia, even on the spur of the moment, and it didn’t bother him one bit to drive up turn around and come right back. Growing up, I remember that Fred had that black Chevy Blazer with the CB radio. And if you had the good fortune to get to ride with him on one of those road trips, you were in for a good time. First of all, he would crank the air way up to see if he could freeze you out, cause Fred always wanted his car nice and cold. And you knew that for Freddy, a handpainted sign on the side of the road that said “boiled peanuts” was just as good as a stop sign. And Fred wasn’t so polite as to not tell the person stirring the pot that their product was no good if they happened to be boiling the wrong type of peanuts.

Freddy was there to take you out into the woods or the backroads to teach you how to drive. He’d even let you drive on one of those Georgia trips, giving you pointers along the way.

He was there when you wanted to go out to the camp to go hunting or fishing.

He was there when you got stuck in the mud or the sugar sand; he probably helped you get stuck, but Freddy always had a friend that could come and get you unstuck. That’s how Freddy was: he was the sort of person that could get you into trouble and out of it at the same time. Fred wouldn’t get into your business, but if you needed help he was there. He might not know what to do or how to help you; he might give you good advice, he might give you bad advice, but he was there.

Freddy was there to take us to Disney or Universal, or the county fair or bowling or wherever just to have fun and cut up. Fred was a constant cut-up. He was always ready to have fun. Fred didn’t have kids of his own so all of us cousins got to be his kids. And we were blessed. We had an uncle that would teach us, love us, and antagonize us all at the same time. If you are a friend of this family looking in, I will let you in on a little secret: we tease and play jokes on each other relentlessly. It runs in our blood and it is one of the ways we show affection. And Fred was often the ringleader or the instigator in one of these jokes. If you are familiar with the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn, then you have basically met every uncle I have, but especially Freddy, because he showed affection by taking you under his wing and involving you in his mischievous plan to prank Grandma (or whoever, but it was often Grandma).

Us cousins weren’t the only kids Fred had though. Let’s not forget his two amazing, farting bulldogs, both named Annie, and later on his cat Bubba. Fred was a lot like those bulldogs though: happy to play, happy to eat, happy to sit around and do nothing, and happy to torture you with the occasional bodily function. Fred was not someone that was easily embarrassed about such things. Everyone has gas, but not everyone knows how to laugh about it. Fred knew how to laugh about it. Fred was always there with a laugh or a joke.

And Fred was always there in his community. To ride around town in the car with Fred was a lesson in humanity and public relations. First of all, Fred knew everybody. It could be frustrating to go anywhere with him, because he knew everybody and had to stop and talk to everybody. Everybody mattered to Fred. And the things that the world tends to care about, things like money and formal education, didn’t impress Fred at all. He would talk to the richest man in town the same way he would talk to the poor man on the corner. That stuff didn’t matter to Fred. Fred was not ambitious and he didn’t need to impress you. He just wanted to love you. He wanted to love everybody. That’s who he was.

Freddy was not always in church; he was not a regular churchgoer, but I know he had faith, and it was a faith that he lived more than talked about. Fred’s Sunday morning worship was driving around town checking on everyone he loved, doing whatever he could for them; It’s not my idea of Church, but I think it was Fred’s. I think that Fred took the commandment to love seriously, but I also think that for whatever reason, God gave Freddy the grace to be, in his nature, a loving, selfless person.

Maybe it was so that we would know, in our lives, in this world, what simple, basic goodness looks like. And that’s what Fred was: simple, basic goodness.

You know, I know we all need Jesus for salvation and eternal life, and I know that on the last day, only Jesus can be our judge, but I also know that when it comes to day to day living, some of us seem to need him more than others. And I’ll speak for myself here, I need and pray for help everyday with things like forgiveness, or showing love, or thinking the best of people. When it comes to loving my neighbor as myself, I need a lot of help, but for Freddy that seemed to come so naturally. I envy that. He made it look effortless.

Grandma always referred to Fred as her miracle baby, because he almost died when he was a child, but the real miracle in Fred’s life is gathered in this room today. Look around. There are a lot of different people here today. Different backgrounds, different politics, different churches, but Fred was able to love us all. I think there is something miraculous in being able to be that loving. And there is something miraculous in Fred’s ability to be utterly selfless. Until I get to heaven and see Jesus face to face, I doubt that I will ever know in this world a more selfless person than Fred Ridley. I doubt any of you will either.

As a matter of fact, the only thing critical that I can really say of Fred, was that he could take care of everyone but himself. He just couldn’t take care of himself.

I think these last few years, since Grandma died, Fred has been a bit lost without having someone that needed him everyday. We all struggled with losing her, but for Fred it was particularly hard, because he was always there. The rest of us came and went, but Fred was always there.

Coming back this week, the thing that has been the most difficult for me, is that every time I turn around, I keep expecting him to be there. I know why I am here, but every time the door opens, I expect to hear his voice. I expect to look up and see him sitting at the table. I expect to walk into his house and see him sitting in his chair. I keep expecting Fred to be there because Fred was always there. I keep waiting to hear his laugh again. It’s Christmas time, and at Christmas growing up, Fred was always there and his laugh was always in the background. The morning that Freddy died the first thing that hit me like a knife in the heart, was the fleeting thought for a second, that I wouldn’t get to hear him laugh again. I want so much to hear that laugh again. I don’t just want to remember his laughter from Christmases past, I want to hear it again. I want him back.

And then I remembered that the reason any of those Christmases ever happened, the very thing that we were celebrating that brought us all together, was the birth of a child who gives me the hope of hearing Freddy’s laugh again. The joy of Christmas for me this year is knowing that because of the birth of this child named Jesus, I don’t have to talk about Freddy in the past tense. On days like today you realize that that is the best Christmas present you will ever get.

The last few days, my mind keeps going back to the last couple verses of one of my favorite Christmas Hymns, called “Once in Royal David’s City.” The last two lines go like this:

And our eyes at last shall see Him,

Through His own redeeming love;

For that child so dear and gentle,

Is our Lord in heaven above,

And He leads His children on,

To the place where He is gone.

 

Not in that poor lowly stable,

With the oxen standing by,

We shall see Him, but in heaven,

Set at God’s right hand on high;

When like stars

His children crowned,

All in white shall wait around.

 

That’s where Freddy is now. And now, Freddy is always there.

 

Merry Christmas Fred.

 

Hear the Angels Sing

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Sermon for Christmas Eve 2019

Readings

 

Before I being my sermon in earnest, first a little Sunday School lesson, or catechism:

 

Angels are a special order of God’s creation. They are spiritual beings that have no physical bodies, and that most of the time, are invisible to us.

 

They are not your deceased relatives. That is a popular misconception, but it’s not biblical or traditional.

 

Now your dead aunt Ethel may have been a wonderful person, she might have even been a saint, she may even have a front row seat before the throne of God, but that doesn’t make her an angel. We humans can become saints, and our souls may enter into heaven, but we don’t become angels. Angels were created differently than we humans were.

Angels are spiritual creatures that were created to serve God in heaven and on earth. They do this primarily in two ways: they either protect us or they deliver important messages to us.

 

I’m telling you this so that if and when you ever encounter an angel in your life, you will know what it is and what it’s up to. Because we do encounter them.

Thus endeth the lesson.

 

Tonight’s story, the entire Christmas story really, is filled with humans encountering angels.

 

In Luke’s gospel, before Jesus was born, the old priest Zechariah saw an angel in the temple of the Lord, that told him that his wife, who was barren, would give birth to a son that would be the prophet John the Baptist, the forerunner of the messiah.

 

And then a little later that same angel, Gabriel, was sent to a young girl in the city of Nazareth named Mary, and that angel told her that even though she had never been with a man, that she would bear a son by the Holy Spirit, and his name would be Jesus.

 

That girl’s intended husband, Joseph, understandably found her story hard to believe, he was going to quietly break off the wedding. Quietly, because he didn’t want Mary to be shamed or killed. But an angel came to Joseph in a dream and confirmed that Mary’s story was true.

 

And then, on the night that Mary’s child was born, an angel appeared to shepherd’s in the fields to announce this glorious birth and to point them to where it was happening: a simple stable. A cave right outside of town that was being used to shelter animals.

 

And then that angel was joined by other angels, the whole host of heaven, and they began singing this glorious song of praise: Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men. Gloria in excelsis deo.

 

You know those words. You have probably sung them countless times over these past few weeks. Those words are found in so many of our Christmas Hymns.  Angels we have heard on high, while shepherds watched their flocks by night, O come all ye faithful, so many of our Christmas Hymns allude to that angel song: Gloria in excelsis deo. Glory be to God on High.

 

You know those words that the angels are singing. Outside of the penitential church seasons of Lent and Advent, just about every mass begins with that song: Gloria in excelsis deo. When we come together for mass, to celebrate the life of Christ and all that that means, we usually begin with the angels’ song that announced his birth: Glory be to God on high. The joy of Christmas meets us all over again whenever we gather at this altar. Week in and week out we are reminded of an encounter some poor humans had with angels, and of the glorious news that they were given. God, your God, the messiah, the son of David, the king you have been waiting for, has been born among you.

 

The God of all creation has done the most miraculous thing: he has been born among you. He is here to save you from slavery to sin and death.

 

The angels’ song was about rejoicing in what God has done. The angels were fulfilling their role as God’s messengers. They were leading us to find God in our midst and teaching us how to rejoice in the amazing thing that God has done. The good news of Christmas is a message of hope about what God has done and is doing. It is not about what humans can do.

 

The angels weren’t singing about the glories of mankind. The message of Christmas was not: hey y’all just be nice to one another. And the angels definitely weren’t saying “if you just be good, God will give you a present.” The angels weren’t telling us how to save ourselves, they were singing a song about how God has saved us from ourselves.

 

Can you hear them singing?

Can you hear their message about the glorious thing our God has done?

 

It isn’t always easy.

 

One of our hymns later in this service is “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” It is an old and familiar hymn, but the problem with familiar hymns sometimes is that you may sing them without paying much attention to the words you are singing. Pay attention to it tonight. Pay attention to the image that hymn paints of the angels singing their song. Pay attention to the middle verses…the ones you may not hear on the radio, the ones you may not know so well.

 

Still through the cloven skies they come with peaceful wings unfurled,

And still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world;

Above its sad and lowly plains they bend on hovering wing,

And ever o’er its Babel-sounds the blessed angels sing.

 

Still through the cloven skies.

Still their heavenly music floats.

Ever O’er its Babel-sounds.

The blessed angels sing.

 

The angels that sang to those shepherds that night…they are still singing. They might have passed out of our sight, but their music still fills the air. The bible never says they stopped singing. They are still singing about the glorious thing God has done. They are still astonished at this miraculous birth.

 

Can you hear them singing?

Many people can’t.

 

Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;

Beneath the heavenly strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong;

And man at war with man hears not the tidings which they bring;

O hush the noise ye men of strife and hear the angels sing.

 

The angels are still singing. We’ve just stopped listening. We care more about our petty grievances and concerns than we do with the glorious thing that God has done. This isn’t something new. We have been ignoring the angels for two thousand years.

 

No sooner had the baby Jesus been born, then an angel had to warn Joseph that King Herod wanted him killed. Hatred and sin are not news in this world. But the glorious thing that God has done in the birth of this child, well that is news. Good news. It is something worth singing about. God is still sending his angels to bring you that news.

 

If you want to hear the angels, you must first learn to be silent. You must learn to hush the noise both on the inside and on the outside so that you may hear and receive the message that these heavenly creatures are proclaiming. Hear the message first; receive it. And then, maybe you will learn to sing along with them. We don’t become angels, but we can learn to sing with them.

 

For lo! The days are hastening on, by prophets seen of old,

When with the ever-circling years shall come the time foretold,

When peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,

And all the world give back the song which now the angels sing.

 

The angels are still singing.

Can you hear them singing?

Can you join your voices with theirs?

 

The Little Miracles

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Sermon for Sunday, December 15th, 2019

Readings

 

Some of John the Baptist’s disciples came to Jesus and asked him:

 

Who are you?

Are you the one?

Are you the messiah that we have been waiting for?

 

It wasn’t the first time Jesus had been asked this question. It wouldn’t be the last either. As a matter of fact, this is the question that Jesus is always being asked.

 

Who are you?

Are you the messiah?

 

In some form or another people throughout the gospels are asking Jesus this question. Everyone from Peter to Pilate. Everyone wants to know who this man really is. It is the most important question they ask Jesus in the scriptures. It is the most important question any of us ask Jesus. In fact, it is probably the most important question any of us will ever ask in our lives:

 

Who is this man?

Who are you Jesus?

Are you the messiah?

 

Jesus answers this question in many different ways in the scriptures. This time, Jesus tells John’s disciples to go and tell John what they see.

 

Tell him that the blind, see.

Tell him that the lame, walk.

Tell him that lepers are cleansed.

Tell him that the deaf hear, that the dead are raised.

And tell him that the poor, have hope.

 

Tell John what you hear and see. Jesus is telling these people that the evidence for who I am is right in front of your eyes. Elsewhere in scripture Jesus says: “If you don’t believe me, then believe my works. My works testify to who I am.” The miracles are right there, only, for some reason people can’t see them, can’t believe them. Some people can’t take them in. Why can’t they take them in? All these little miracles are pointing to the big miracle right in front of their faces. When John’s disciples ask Jesus who he is, he points to the little miracles. Maybe Jesus suspects or knows, that if people can’t accept little miracles, they’ll never accept the big one. If they can’t accept people being healed, they won’t accept the promise of eternal life either.

 

You know I typically don’t like either/or categories and I don’t like separating people into being either this or that, but this is one occasion where I feel compelled to. It seems to me that there are people that believe in miracles and people that don’t. Either you believe that God has sovereign power and is active and alive in the world, or you believe that the universe is essentially a machine, with every mysterious phenomenon possessing a logical explanation. If you believe in miracles, then even the tiniest, most insignificant thing can be proof to you of the presence and the love of God. If you don’t, well then even a dead body coming back to life isn’t likely to impress you. You will find a way to dismiss it. If you can’t accept the little miracles, you aren’t likely to accept the big one. It should come as no surprise then, that the people that like to dismiss the little miracles Jesus performs, are also typically the ones that end up denying Jesus’s resurrection. If you can’t accept the little miracles, you aren’t likely to accept the big one either.

 

But when they asked Jesus who he was, he pointed them first to the little miracles. Pay attention to the little miracles, and then you will begin to see the big one. Sometimes I wonder if that’s how God’s grace works. Maybe God uses little miracles to crack that crusty exterior of ours so that his big miracle and get through. The little drops of grace, the little miracles are the most important ones to absorb, because they are what prepare us for the big miracle.

 

As I was reading the passage from Isaiah this week about the desert blossoming and water being upon the dry land and the highway in the desert, I was reminded of our pilgrimage to the Holy Land a few years ago. Not our most recent pilgrimage, but the one a few years before that.

 

As tourists are wont to do, one day while we were there we took a drive (took a highway through the desert actually) to visit the Dead Sea and to see a mountain fortress that King Herod build called Masada. If you ever get the chance to visit Masada, it is really spectacular. It sits on top of a giant rock next to the Dead Sea. And you can either hike up a trail to the top or you can take a cable car. Well just as our group got off the cable car on top of that mountain, something spectacular happened: it started to rain. It started to rain hard actually. It wasn’t the slow, misty, drizzly rain like we have had here all week. It was a driving rain. Well we had to scramble to find some protection from the elements while we waited for the next cable car back down the mountain. Unfortunately, that year that group didn’t get to see much of Masada, because it’s just not safe to visit it in the rain. So, we loaded ourselves back onto the bus and got back on the highway headed back to Jerusalem.

 

Our tour guide commented as we got back on the bus, that it usually only rains one day a year in that part of the desert. One day a year and as luck would have it that was the day we tried to visit. Now you might think that the parched and dry land of the desert would suck up and moisture like a sponge, but that’s not what happens. It’s funny, but dirt that isn’t used to water, doesn’t know what to do with it. Water is so foreign to the dry land of the desert, rain is so uncommon, that when it does rain, when there is water, the land has no idea what to do with it. The desert soil doesn’t absorb the water; the water runs right off it.

 

If you have ever had a houseplant that you have let almost die from neglect and not watering it, and then decided to try and save it by pouring water onto it, then you may know what I am talking about. Once the soil has turned dry and hard, if you just pour water on it, most of the water is just going to pour straight through the pot or overflow onto your counter. Dry soil doesn’t know what to do with water, so the water just runs off.

 

Well on the one day a year when it rains in the desert, the water doesn’t soak into the soil; not much at least. It mostly runs off and creates rivers and streams and waterfalls and flash floods. That highway in the desert that we were traveling on, headed back to Jerusalem, was quickly flooding and becoming almost impassable in places. We made it back obviously, but it was a little slow-going at times.

 

Dry land is so unused to water that when it comes, it kind of shrugs it off, as if to say, “what is this stuff?” “I don’t recognize this stuff. Better dismiss it.” The ground becomes so hardened that it can’t absorb what it needs the most even when it is right there. Little drops of daily rain water the ground much better than an annual flash flood. Maybe it is the same way with us and God’s miracles and little graces. If we aren’t used to seeing little graces, little miracles in our daily lives, then we aren’t likely to recognize big ones. Our souls become dry and hardened by not seeing God alive and at work on a daily basis, so when the big miracles come along, the grace just runs off us; it doesn’t seep in because we haven’t learned to let it in. Just like the desert soil doesn’t know what to do with water when it comes.

 

If you want to know who Jesus is, and as I said, there is no more important question, then maybe start with the little miracles, not just those he performs in the scriptures, but start trying to see the little daily miracles in your life. Don’t write them off; don’t dismiss them or try to explain them away, but choose to believe that God is active and alive in the world, even in small and almost imperceptible ways. Believe that God has power to do little things, and then maybe your crust will start to crack, your eyes and ears will be opened and then maybe you will be able to receive the big miracles when they come along.

 

The One Thing We Have in Common

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Sermon for December 8th, 2019

Readings

 

The prophet Isaiah declared that “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” 

Paul also quotes Isaiah when he says “the root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the gentiles; in him the gentiles shall hope.”

Well you will be forgiven if you are sitting here listening to the readings and wondering: who was Jesse and what does he have to do with a tree stump?

Jesse isn’t necessarily a biblical character that I would expect you to know much about. There isn’t a lot written about him. 

You know it must say something about the power of association, but when I hear the name Jesse, I think of Uncle Jesse from the Dukes of Hazzard. I grew up watching that show, and in that show the old, wise and loveable patriarch of the family is named uncle Jesse. So when I hear Jesse, my mind thinks old, wise patriarch, Uncle Jesse. Well, you know that isn’t too far off from what people in biblical times would have thought of when they heard the name Jesse. He was a sort of patriarchal figure. 

Jesse was the father of King David. He is the grandson of Ruth, from the Book of Ruth and he is the father of David. His role in scripture is extremely minor. His grandmother gets a whole book, Jesse gets just a few lines. But because Jesse’s son would go on to become Israel’s greatest king, his name would be forever associated with the monarchy. Just like Abraham would be the father of the Hebrews, Jesse would be the father of the monarchy. So when people in biblical times heard the name Jesse they would have thought old, wise patriarch. They would have thought founder of our monarchy. They would have thought of King David. He was the one that the Kings all traced their lineage to.

So the name Jesse meant something to the people in Jerusalem that Isaiah was addressing. And Isaiah had just got done telling the people that there are bad times just around the corner. Isaiah said to his people: look, you have fallen so far away from the ways of God, that there is a reckoning coming. Isaiah said to Ahaz, the then king of Judah, he said you, who think you are high and mighty, you are going to be cut down. The Assyrians and going to invade your kingdom, just like they invaded the northern kingdom and they are going to burn it all down to the ground. And then the Babylonians are going to attach the Assyrians and there will be war and destruction and exile. This is what happens when we put our trust in faithless rulers. This is what happens when we let corruption go unchecked. This is what happens when we turn away from God and pay no attention to his commandments. We have not put our faith and our hope in God, Isaiah says, and the result of that is the painful times that are ahead. Our glorious kingdom will be brought low and our mighty king, the descendant of the great king David, he will be brought low with it. He will be cut down. Felled like a mighty tree. 

But…

But, Isaiah says, that is not the end of the story. Because God, well God is going to bring new life out of that tree stump. The mighty tree may be cut down, but there is a new shoot that is going to come out of that root. That root of Jesse, the monarchy that has been cut down, well Isaiah says that there is a new king coming, and this new king is going to lead us back to God. 

Our kings have led us astray. Our kings have divided us. After David’s son Solomon died, the kingdom split in two. Corruption and division and division and corruption. Our kings have not united us; have not protected us, and have not led us to righteousness. Our kings have led us away from God. Even mighty and glorious king David, was a sinful man. Our kings have led us astray, but Isaiah says, there is a new king coming. 

This King will be like new life coming out of that dead stump. He will be a descendant of Jesse, from the line of King David, but this King won’t look like the kings we have had recently, Isaiah says. No, this king will have a spirit of wisdom and understanding. This king will delight in being obedient to God. This king will not judge by appearances or what is on the surface. This king will judge with righteousness. This king will be faithful and righteous. 

And this king will bring enemies together. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the calf and the lion, the cow and the bear, a nursing child and a poisonous snake. In this king’s kingdom, enemies will come together. This king will be a symbol that will bring people together. 

Isaiah says that there are hard times coming, because we have faithless leaders, and we have turned away from God, but he says, we have hope because there is also a new king coming. There is a king coming that will unite us, that will judge us righteously, and that will lead us back to God. There is a new shoot that is going to grow out of that dead stump of Jesse. 

There is a new king coming. There is a new anointed one (one of the symbols of kingship is being anointed. King David was anointed by the prophet Samuel). There is a new anointed one coming. In Hebrew anointed one is translated as meshiach, messiah. In Greek that word is Christos, Christ.

In the days of John the Baptist, people were still looking for that coming King, the messiah that would unite them and lead them back to faithfully following God. As he stood in the Jordan river, telling people to repent and return to following God, John noticed both Pharisees and Sadducees coming out together to be baptized. Well Pharisees and Sadducees might both be groups of Jews they might have common ancestry, but they don’t get along. They don’t like each other. And yet, something is drawing them together. It isn’t their past that is drawing them together. It is their future. It is the coming king. It is the approaching messiah that is bringing them together despite their differences. 

Like Isaiah, John is preaching and warning of a coming judgement, but he is also offering the hope of a coming king that will judge with righteousness. That isn’t condemnation, that is hope. This new king will do what other kings couldn’t. He will unite people and bring enemies together. The new king will bring together people that have no other reason to get along, that otherwise would never like each other or associate with each other. And here in the middle of the Jordan river John is watching enemies come together to prepare for their new king. Maybe they don’t agree on much, but they do agree that they want to be a part of his kingdom. That’s something. And that desire to be a part of his kingdom is more powerful than you might imagine.

I want you to take a minute and look around this church. Look at the people that are gathered here. Think about all the members of this church. Some of these people are your friends. But some of them are not. Admit it, there are people in this church that you don’t like. There are people in this church that if we didn’t come together once a week for worship, you probably would never cross paths with. There’s no shame in admitting that, because some of us have nothing in common. We don’t all share a common ancestry or history. We don’t all share the same likes and dislikes. Think about the makeup of this church for a minute. There are some people that were raised Episcopalian, but even more that were raised something else. There are people here whose ancestors were slaves; there are people here whose ancestors were slave owners. There are people here that were born in the Unites States; there are people here that were born in other countries. There are married people. There are single people. There are straight people. There are gay people. There are people with children. There are people without children. White, black, Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, there are people that I know live very comfortably and there are people that I know are really struggling to make ends meet. Now if this church didn’t exist, there are some of us that might still be friends and hang out on the weekends, but there are some of us that would never cross paths with each other. And yet, each and every week here we are, gathered together, because there is one thing we do agree upon. There is one thing we have in common.

Him.

We want to be a part of his kingdom. We want this new branch from the root of Jesse to be our king, our leader. If we are going to be judged, we want to be judged by him. If we are going to be led, we want to be led by him. We may not agree on anything else, but we agree that Jesus is the way. We agree that he is the future. And that means more than anything else that may divide us.

You know, people like to make a big deal about the divisions that exist within the church. People like to point out all the splits and schisms in the church in history and they like to point out that even within our own denominations, sometimes within our own parishes it doesn’t seem like people like each other that much. If you read the scriptures you will see that there has been division among Jesus’s followers from the very beginning. But if you are focusing on the squabbles and divisions among Jesus’s followers then you might be missing the miracle that is right in front of your face. These fractious, squabbling, disagreeable people are all following the same man. That is the power of Jesus, is that he is bringing together people that otherwise would have nothing to do with each other.

The church didn’t invent disagreement and division. That is a part of humanity. That is the world. The miracle of the church is that all these people that never had any reason to agree, to like each other, or to even inhabit the same space, now have something vital in common: Jesus. They may not share a common ancestry, but they have a common future. That is a miracle and it is a miracle that happens here every single week and we may never notice it. There are people here that you would have never met or encountered were it not for one thing. Him. Jesus. He draws together this rag-tag group of followers, people that outside those doors would be natural enemies, would have nothing to do with one another, and yet in here we are side by side, under the same roof, learning to get alone, and I dare say along the way, learning to actually love each other. The fact that Jesus’s followers are disagreeable and don’t always get along, well that is a testimony to his power.

When you look at all of the different people that look to Jesus as their messiah; that see him as the way to God; all the divided people that are somehow united by the water of baptism; all those people that seek to follow him side by side with people they have nothing in common with, no matter how imperfectly they do it, then you realize that maybe John was right. Maybe God could even turn stones into children of Abraham.

 

Misusing the word

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Sermon for Sunday, November 24th, 2019

Readings:

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

 

There is a great line from the movie The Princess Bride, where the character Inigo Montoya, played by Mandy Patinkin, responds to another character’s constant misuse of the word “inconceivable” by saying: “You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.”

 

It is such a great line and Patinkin’s character is so memorable, that whenever I hear someone overusing or misusing a word or phrase, Inigo Montoya jumps into my head saying: “you keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.”

 

Words can mean different things to different people. The power of language is that it can transfer meanings and idea and thoughts from one person to another, but we must recognize that the weakness of language is that there is always some translation and interpretation going on. If you have studied another language, or if you speak another language, then you probably know that there are some words that simply do not easily translate from one language to another; there just is not an equivalent word, so you have to use several English words to try to convey the same idea. For instance, the French words terroir or milieu, both somewhat complex ideas that don’t have an equivalent English word.

 

But even within the same language, sometimes we have a hard time communicating because what a word means to me, may not be the same thing as it means to you. And I’m not just talking about regional dialect differences here. I’m willing to bet that most of you know that the word “Yankee” has very different connotations if you grow up South of the Mason-Dixon Line, than if you grow up in the Northeast. But there are other words that have different meanings and connotations for each of us based upon our own lives and our own history and our own baggage. There are two such words in our gospel today.

 

The first of these words is the first word our Lord utters from the cross. The first thing that Jesus says after his hands of been nailed to the cross is a powerful word that has powerful meanings for each one of us: “Father.” “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” That is the first thing that Jesus says from the cross. Father. It is such a powerful, meaningful word. If you are looking at someone’s genealogy or family tree, then you know that father means “male biological parent.” But you know and I know that the word means so much more than that.

 

Those of us who have had the good fortune to have good and loving fathers will probably find the word comforting and reassuring. For us, father, means someone that is nurturing, loving, protecting. But we live in a world of broken human beings, and not everyone has had that kind of a father. Some people may hear the word father and think abuse. Some may think absence. What you think of when you hear the word father, may not be what I think of. What you think it means, may not be what I think it means.

 

So when Jesus consistently uses the word father, to talk about God, as he does throughout the gospels in his teachings, as he did when he taught us to pray saying “Our Father,” and as he does today, pleading from the cross, we need to pay attention to the kind of father he is talking about. What does this word “father” mean to Jesus when he says it? We need to look over our own baggage for a minute; put aside whatever your own relationship with your father is, if indeed you even have one and pay attention to the relationship that Jesus has with the one he calls father. What does that word mean to Jesus?

 

The other word that we get in the gospel today is a word that was written in three different languages on a sign nailed over Jesus’s head. King. It was meant as a cruel joke. Kings are supposed to have power and glory and strength. A great king was a symbol of a great kingdom. To shame and bring down a king was to shame and bring down his people. And that’s what Pilate wanted to do. Pilate wanted to humiliate the Jews by putting a sign over a beaten, dying man that said: “this is their king.”

 

Kings should be strong. Kings should be able to save themselves and their people. What could this man do? That is why the people kept taunting him. “Save yourself if you are the Messiah” the leaders of the temple jeered. “Save yourself if you are the King” the soldiers yelled between their perverse fits of laughter. Even one of the thieves crucified next to him drew a painful, dying breath to add his voice to those mocking Jesus: “Are you not the messiah? Save yourself and us!”

 

This was no king like the kings of the earth. The only crown he ever wore was the crown of thorns. There was no precious ermine collared cloak. No diamonds, no gold. No vast estate, no treasure chests, no earthly glory at all. The world would never use the word “king” to describe this man. That’s why it was a joke. Only maybe the joke was on us.

 

Maybe we were the ones who got the meaning of the word wrong. Maybe the things that we associate with kings: power and glory, riches and excess, maybe these things have very little to do with what it really means to be a king. Just like it may be possible for us to misunderstand the word “Father,” so too maybe we are likely to misunderstand the word “king.” Maybe the word doesn’t mean what we think it means.

 

One person recognized that on Calvary’s hill on that first Good Friday. The thief that was able to admit that he had done wrong, was also the one who was able to recognize that he had been wrong. He was the first to see that the word king might mean something different to God than it does to humans. That word “king” that was hanging over Jesus’s head, well it wasn’t a joke to this man. The thief saw a blameless man that was willing to suffer for others, willing to forgive, willing to love the most unlovable people and he had a moment of conversion, he thought: “yes, that is what a king really is.” I want to know this father that this man keeps calling out to; I want to see the world the way he sees it. This is what a king really is and if that is true then I really want to be a part of his kingdom. The thief is the only one there that actually believes that Jesus has a kingdom, and he is the one that Jesus promises will join him there.

 

Those that mocked Jesus got no reply. But the one that humbly asked to be a part of his kingdom, well to that one paradise was promised.

 

Today is the Feast of Christ the King. We celebrate and proclaim Christ as our Lord and King above all others today. It is good that we should do so. Being a part of his kingdom should mean more to us than being a citizen of any earthly kingdom or nation. We should celebrate it. But in doing so let us be mindful that this kingdom doesn’t look like the kingdoms of this world and this king doesn’t look or act like most kings on earth. The word king means something different to him than it does to us.

Some people would like for us to stop using these tricky words like “Father” and “King” because they want to avoid misunderstanding who and what God is. I disagree. In the first place, they are words that Jesus uses, and I have to think that he probably used them for a reason. In the second, well maybe the fact that these words have such baggage and various meanings, means that I am always having to readjust my own understanding of them; I am always having to remind myself that the way Jesus sees the world is not necessarily the way that I see it.

 

I think it might be better to let Jesus define what a father is and what a king is, and then adjust my understanding accordingly. Maybe I am the one misusing the word.