Finding your superpower

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Sermon for January 15th, 2017.

Readings:

Isaiah 49:1-7
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42
Psalm 40:1-12

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

In the early 1960s, Marvel Comics introduced a new series of superheroes. They weren’t to be like other superheroes; they didn’t come from outer space, nor did they have one moment in their life that completely changed them and transformed them. Instead, these were humans, but they were special humans. They were mutants.

 

I am referring to the X-Men. X-Men, were humans, but they were mutants. For some reason they had this genetic mutation that gave each and every one of them some strange, special power. On the outside they might have looked like any other human, but as they grew up and became adolescents they discovered that they weren’t like everybody else; that they were special. Something about them was different and they could do things, or at least one thing, that nobody else could do.

 

One of them had wings like an angel that allowed him to fly; another one had claws that made him like a wolverine; another was able to control ice. You get the picture. They each had something special about them that they could do that nobody else could do quite that way. And because they were mutants, and different, the rest of society (that they didn’t fit into) very often rejected them. There was suspicion and tension between regular humans and these special mutant humans.

 

Because they felt rejected, some of these special mutant humans began to hate others that were “normal.” And they decided that since they were going to be rejected that they would find against the normal humans, and hurt them like they had been hurt.

 

Then there are the others, those who come underneath the wings of Professor X, that are taken to this School for Gifted Youngsters, (which happens to be in Westchester County, which I find amusing). At this School for Gifted Youngsters he teaches them that they can use their special powers, not to hurt humans, but to help them; to fight for them; to fight for good in the world. He teaches them that although they are not like the rest, like every other human, but still that difference has a purpose and a use.

 

The X-Men has been going on since the 60s, has had a popular following and now it has been made into several blockbuster movies. It’s not just because it makes for great special effects and great fantasy. It does do that, and it is fun to watch, but I think that part of the enduring popularity of the X-Men is because it touches on an emotion that many of us can identify with. Feeling like you don’t belong is actually a pretty common human emotion. We may not always feel that way, but at some point in our lives, I am willing to bet that most of us have felt like we didn’t fit in.

 

Maybe we didn’t fit into our community; maybe we didn’t fit into our families or our religious groups. For whatever reason, we have looked at our differences and looked at what other people have, or what they show, and we have felt left out. We all at some point deep down want to fit in to a community; we want to belong, we want to be accepted, and most of us at some point in our life have felt rejected. That is a strong theme in this comic book series: these people are rejects. These people who have these tremendous and amazing powers, still society has rejected them and not valued what they had to offer. Most of them as they are growing up, they don’t even value their own gift; it’s a burden; it’s a liability; it’s what makes them different. They see it as what excludes them, not what makes them special.

 

The problem is that if you are constantly comparing yourself to others it can be very easy to feel that you don’t fit in, or that you don’t have what it takes, or that you’re not talented enough, or not gifted enough because you don’t have what someone else has. I think most of us go through that at some point. I know that I, myself, whenever I have see someone that is very talented (a musician, or a dancer, or a preacher, whatever) I think: “If I could just have that talent.” “How great would it be if I could have more of what that person has!” Whenever you spend that much time focusing on what someone else has that you don’t, you often miss what you have that they don’t. You often overlook the special gifts that you’ve been given, that they might need, value or envy. We are all of us different for a reason. I think part of the key to happiness in life is figuring out what that reason is.

 

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus is beginning his ministry. He was baptized last week and this morning he has begun to call his disciples together. He begins with Andrew and then Peter, and then we know he will go on and continue to gather his twelve. This week somebody shared online a chart of the twelve disciples, who later became apostles (see the chart here). Not only did it have all their names, but it also had listed underneath each one how they all died, and then underneath that where their remains supposedly are today. Now I was fascinated by this and I thought wouldn’t this make a great punch-card for Anglo-Catholics like myself to tick off each one that I have gotten to go and see. So far I’ve only seen one (twice), that’s Saint James, but there are so many more and here is the list of where their bones are supposedly held. I thought wouldn’t this be great, I’m collecting them like superheroes.

 

But as I was looking at that chart I thought: gosh, these people are so different from each other. Even Andrew and Peter, who are brothers, are quite different characters. Although we don’t know a tremendous amount about some of them, those that we do know, we know that they came from different walks of life, they had different skills, and if you look at the chart you will see that they all wound up in different parts of the world. No doubt they ministered in different ways, and ministered to different people, and yet, each and every one of them was called by God to serve and to build his kingdom. Each one of those apostles was unique. They might have had some things in common, but I would venture to say that they had a lot that was not in common. They probably, at times, looked at each other and said “why am I with you people? How do I fit into this picture?” And yet we know that Christ called each and every one of them for a reason. Each and every one of them was integral to building his kingdom.

 

I think it is worthwhile to ask ourselves what our own gifts and talents are. Now, of course if you are watching superhero movies you are probably going to feel inadequate. You are probably going to think that: “I don’t control the wind, or water, or ice, and I don’t have the power to change magnetic fields or read people’s minds like Professor X.” No, maybe not, but maybe you have gifts that you don’t even realize are gifts. Maybe you have things that you might think of as limitations. Perhaps you are a rather chatty person; perhaps you are charismatic; maybe you are a good leader; perhaps you can add numbers in your head (I can’t). Whatever it is, realize that there are skills that you have and talents that you have that God can use, no matter how much they may make you feel like a mutant in this world.

 

The prophet Isaiah, like many of the prophets, was a rather bizarre person, he did not fit in to popular society. He was not always accepted, but he was charismatic. He knew how to preach; he had visions; he could see things; he had a close relationship with God and he used that to build God’s kingdom. Isaiah didn’t always feel worthy to do this work, certainly not, but he at the same time recognized that God had been shaping him, fashioning him throughout his life like a tool. He could see himself as an arrow in God’s quiver (a quiver, if you don’t know, is the basket you put arrows in if you are into archery). That is how Isaiah saw himself: as a tool that had been fashioned by God, and whatever shape that eventually took, no matter how odd it seemed, there it was waiting to be used by God. And he wouldn’t be the last prophet to think that way.

 

John the Baptist, another person who did not fit into society, wandered the desert dressed strangely and eating strange things. And yet, he has this powerful charisma and a vision. He knows that part of his mission is to point out God’s messiah, God’s anointed, when he sees him. And when Christ comes to him to be baptized that is exactly what he does. He uses his weirdness, his differentness to serve God, to point to Christ and to point others to him.

 

There he says: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him that takes away the sins of the world.” Now that probably sounds a little bit familiar to you, because in the old tradition, after the Eucharistic prayer, the priest turned to the congregation and says “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him that taketh away the sins of the world.” That comes from here, the words of John the Baptist pointing others to Christ.

 

The response that people say comes from another part of scripture. In the episode where Jesus is going to the home of the centurion who has a sick servant. The centurion, who is not a Jew and doesn’t fit in to the community (although he is respected by them) says to Jesus: “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof, but speak the word only and my servant shall be healed.” Whenever we hear “behold the Lamb of God…” we respond: “Lord I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof, but speak the world only and my soul shall be healed.” Even though that centurion didn’t feel worthy to work for God or even have him under his house, still he was used by God as an example of faith. Christ applauded his faith; his trust in his word. Even when we don’t feel worthy; when we don’t feel like we fit in, still God can use us to build his kingdom.

 

The superheroes of our faith, the apostles and the saints, they were all very different, very unique individuals with different talents and different skills, but somehow they learned to use their difference to work for God. So remember that when you don’t fit in, or when you feel like you are not worthy or that you don’t have enough talent or that you don’t have the talent that everyone else has, remember that the thing that makes you different might be just the very thing that God needs.

Learning to Like Facebook Again: 10 ways I have resolved to change how I use social media.

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There are days when I am tempted to give up social media altogether. Sometimes it seems like such a toxic and hostile place, that I wonder if much good can come of it, but then I remember that Facebook is just a tool, and like any tool that humans have created it can be used for good or for evil and the choice is largely up to us. So here is how I have resolved to use Facebook and other social media tools for good in the coming year.

 

  1. I will take possession of my Facebook page.

 

Remember Myspace? Yeah, me neither. But the one thing Myspace had going for it before Facebook came along was its name: MY SPACE. I think we forget that our Facebook News Feed and our Facebook Profiles are ours to control. People are free to say or post what they want on their own pages, that is their right. They are not free to post whatever they want on MY page though. That is my right. Facebook can be a wonderful tool that connects me to friends and loved ones, or it can be a toxic pit of nastiness. Just because I share something publicly does not mean that I have to leave or accept every comment that is made on my page. I reserve the right to delete comments and entire posts if I choose to, because MY Facebook page is not YOUR public forum. If you want to have an argument with someone, do it on your own page.

 

  1. I will not feed trolls.

 

Internet trolls abound. They thrive on the negative attention they get by making nasty comments and criticisms. These are people who feel the need to inject themselves and their opinions into every argument or conversation. You cannot argue with trolls, because it is that very negative attention that they live for; it feeds them. If you want to make a nasty comment or a personal attack on my page I will delete it and probably block you without comment or argument. If you are looking for a fight, keep on looking.

 

  1. I will not be guilted into sharing posts

 

I bet 25 people won’t share this, or read this all the way to the end, or…. enough already! I have a huge heart and I care about many different causes, but I don’t feel the need to prove that to anyone with a Facebook post. I will not be guilted into sharing posts or pictures or status updates. Some of them are scams anyways. If you want to show the world how compassionate you are, I can think of millions of ways you can make a difference and Facebook isn’t one of them.

 

  1. I will not give free publicity to the stupid

 

One of the great things about Facebook is that it can be a powerful spotlight for bringing attention to important subjects and unsung heroes. Unfortunately that same light can also be used to give legitimacy and publicity to people that are less benign. If someone does something stupid, or says something nasty, and you share it or comment on it, it only gives them more publicity. It doesn’t matter if you share a news article about something bizarre some local person is doing and you tell others how much you dislike it; the moment you share or comment, you have helped them spread their message. You can never shout someone down on Facebook. The only way to stop people that wish to promote their dangerous or stupid ideas is by ignoring them. The more attention (even negative attention) you give them, the more free publicity they get.

 

  1. I will not get my news from Facebook.

 

Sometimes fake news is very easy to spot; sometimes it is more difficult, but a huge portion of so-called news articles that are shared via Facebook are completely fabricated. Anyone can create a website and post articles and share them on Facebook at almost no cost. Much of the time there is no penalty for this type of lying, and in fact some of these sites make big bucks off of spreading their falsehoods. I will get my news only from balanced and reputable sources outside of social media. I will also unfollow or block any false news or propaganda sites that show up in my news feed, and if you are someone that routinely shares them, there is a good chance I will unfollow you too. If you aren’t sure if something is true or not, then don’t share it.

 

  1. I will put rage aside.

 

Some people always seem to be angry about everything. I will not be one of them. I honestly do not have the emotional energy to be constantly outraged over everything. If I only knew the world through Facebook it would seem like a pretty awful place indeed, but thankfully I know that I live in a world where there is still love, joy and compassion. By all means have your values and stand up for what you believe, but remember that it is always possible to do so without attacking others. Use your Facebook page to make reasonable and rational arguments for your positions, but if all you can offer is constant rage I will not be listening.

 

  1. I will only share things that I think build people up.

 

It’s just this simple: before I hit “post” or “share” I will ask myself: “Does this seek to build or destroy?” Is my primary purpose in sharing something to lift people up or to tear them down? Thumper’s rule: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.

 

  1. I will treat Facebook like my living room.

 

I remember how exciting Facebook was the first few years it was on the scene. It allowed me to reconnect with so many friends and family members and to see what was going on in their lives. Every day I could sit down and catch up with people all over the country; see pictures and tell stories. It was like having a bunch of friends over in my living room. That is what I want from Facebook again: I want to know what is going on in the lives of my family and friends and to spend time with them chatting and exchanging ideas. I don’t mind a healthy and respectful exchange of ideas or debate (those have always happened in my family, especially around the dinner table), but I don’t tolerate disrespect and personal attacks in my home and I won’t tolerate them on Facebook either.

 

  1. I will use unfriend and unfollow very liberally.

 

I have been blessed to meet some wonderful people through Facebook; some people that I might even call close friends even though I have never actually met them. That is one of the beautiful things that I love about Facebook: the power to be connected to people. But I will not allow the bad Facebook habits of others turn me completely off of social media, and luckily I don’t have to. Facebook allows me to unfollow people that post obnoxious things, and if necessary I can even unfriend them. I will do this without apology, because although I cannot avoid all negative people in my life, I do not need to invite them into my home every night.

 

  1. I will turn it off and find something else to do.

 

I spend more time on Facebook now than I ever did in the past, and yet I seem to enjoy it far less. Facebook is so much more fun when it isn’t a constant drain on my time, energy and attention, so I am going to be more intentional about pushing it aside. I will spend more time doing things that enrich my own life, like reading, prayer and exercise and less time worrying about what other people are doing or saying online.

 

Sometimes the best thing to do when we see something we don’t like on Facebook is to keep scrolling past it. It’s not that I am afraid to speak up for what I believe or that I can’t take criticism or disagreement. If you think that I only want friends that agree with me or that like everything I post you would be wrong. Looking through my list of friends I can identify people of every personality, every political party, different religions, different sexual orientations and different levels of education. I am perfectly happy to debate ideas with people; I am just not convinced that Facebook is the place to do it. In fact, I am sure that it isn’t the place. There is so much meaning in what we say that is not conveyed by words on the page. Things like tone, inflection, body language and facial expressions don’t come across online and they are often crucial to understanding what another person is really trying to communicate. It is easy to forget when you are looking at a computer screen that it is actually another human that you are talking to. If you want to debate something with me, let’s go for a drink or a meal and talk person to person, because the great irony of Facebook is that the one thing you usually can’t see when chatting with someone on it, is their face.

Shepherds and Wise Men

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Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany 2017

The story of the Birth of Jesus Christ, as we all know it, and as it is depicted in movies and songs and in countless nativity scenes, is not really one story, but two that we have tied together. What we know about the birth of Jesus, we now from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, two different authors who give us different details about this miraculous birth. If you only read one gospel or the other, you miss out, because each of them contain only a piece of the whole story. While our tradition has woven these two storylines together to give us one image of the nativity, it is helpful sometimes to unravel them to see how they complement each other.

 

In the gospel of Luke, which we read on Christmas Eve, we hear of the census that was taken while Quirinious was governor of Syria. We are told that Mary and Joseph found their way to Bethlehem, where she gave birth to Jesus and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. We are also told that there were shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night, that were told by an angel that they would find the child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. There is however, no star, and no mention of the wise men in Luke’s account.

 

In the gospel of Matthew, which we read tonight on Epiphany, we hear that Jesus was born in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph, but there is no mention of a census, no mention of an inn, no manger and no shepherds. Instead, Matthew tells us this fascinating tale about these wise men following a star. It leads them to a child that was born King of the Jews, and there they offer their gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.

 

In Luke we have shepherds but not wise men; in Matthew we have wise men, but no shepherds. Now I point this out not to argue that one version is more reliable than the other, but rather to show that our understanding of the birth of Jesus comes from two different stories that focus on different details. It is not that one must be right and the other wrong; we aren’t being asked to choose between Luke and Matthew; we simply need to recognize that the image we have of Christ and his birth is a composite, made up of different stories that while probably true in the details they present, are nonetheless incomplete. Sometimes it is only by looking at the differences in the stories of the gospels that we can really appreciate what they have in common and the great truth, which they are all trying to point to.

 

On the surface it would not seem that Luke and Matthew have much in common at all: just the characters of Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the little town of Bethlehem. Afterall, what do shepherds and wise men have in common with each other? Our two birth gospels give us two very different types of people that are able to identify and adore the baby Jesus: the very wise and the very simple. The wise men travel far, are entertained by kings and priests, and are able to offer the child expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh; the shepherds, who only keep company with the sheep and the livestock, find Jesus in their own town, but have nothing to offer him but praise and adoration. One group was probably dressed in fine and exotic clothing, the other in the only homespun clothes that they owned. Of all the people that could have been found at the birth of Jesus, it would seem that few could have less in common than wise men and shepherds, and yet, those are the only ones our gospels tell us about. The only people who were able to find Jesus were the very wise and the very simple; those that knew nothing, and those that knew that they didn’t know everything.

 

If you are a smart person you know things; if you are a wise person, you realize just how much you do not know. It can be dangerous to just be smart. You can have a little too much confidence in your own intelligence. You can put too much faith in your own version of reality and fail to see that others may see things very differently than you. A smart person may be able to memorize every word of the gospel of Matthew; a wise person will recognize that his account is only one part of the story.

 

A wise person recognizes the limits of their own understanding. Wise people realize that no matter how much truth they possess, or how much they think they know, that God and his truth will always be infinitely greater. The late archbishop Fulton Sheen commented in one of his Christmas broadcasts that there were “only two classes of people that heard the cry that night in Bethlehem: shepherds and wise men. Shepherds: those who know they know nothing; Wise Men: those who know they do not know everything. The very simple and the very learned. Never the man with one book! Never the man who thinks that he knows.”

 

What do the wise men have in common with the shepherds? Humility. They both understand that here is a mystery that is being revealed to them: this is not something that they figured out under their own power. None of them found the baby Jesus under the power of their own intellect; they were each in their own way guided to him. For the shepherds it was an angel, for the wise men it was a star, but each had to recognize that they did not already have all the answers, all knowledge or all truth. They had to have the humility to put their faith before their understanding, not ignoring what they knew, but always remembering that they did not know all.

 

When you look at a nativity scene, you will discover that actually all types and sorts of people were able to find Christ in the manger: Jews and Gentiles, Rich and Poor, Learned and simple; different races and different classes. What they all had in common was humility. Each one of them understood that they only had a piece of the whole story.

Taking pride in the badge that we wear

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Sermon for  The Feast of the Holy Name 2017

In the Name of God: Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Names have tremendous power. If you don’t believe me, just say the name Mickey Mouse to almost any young child and see what response you get. I was reminded of just how powerful that name is a couple days ago when I was on vacation with Father Keith. We ended up one morning at a character breakfast in Epcot Center. Now if you are among the uninitiated let me clarify what a character breakfast is: while you are dining several Disney characters will come over to your table to say hello, sign autographs, and take pictures. It wasn’t the sort of dining experience that we were particularly looking for, but none of the takeaway places looked particularly appealing, and it was the only place where I could get a Mickey waffle (don’t judge me, they are delicious and harder to find than you might imagine).

 

At one point during breakfast, Mickey was signing autographs at the table behind me, when a little child that had heard that Mickey was close by walked up behind him. After patiently, but eagerly waiting his turn, the first second that he had the opportunity, the child jumped forward into Mickey’s arms and gave him the biggest hug you could imagine. It was one of those endearing moments that kind of caught me off guard and I immediately began to get a bit choked up. I got choked up at watching the pure and unfiltered joy of this little boy greeting his hero. It was a moment that probably happens thousands of times everyday at the park, but I was particularly grateful that we got to witness it, because it felt like a holy moment; this is what hope, and joy and love look like, at least to children.

 

Since then I have not been able to get the image of that child embracing Mickey out of my head and I keep thinking to myself: wouldn’t it be amazing if we could get our children to respond to the name of Jesus in the same way? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could respond to him that way?

 

That child’s response to meeting Mickey was no accident. It is a response that has been decades in the making. You see, Walt Disney understood the power of a name. He understood that a good name is not something that you either have or don’t have; it isn’t something that you can buy; a good name is something that you create through constant vigilance and toil. It is something that comes through consistency over time, not momentary success. He knew that his characters were going to look a certain way and act a certain way, and do so consistently. The same was true for any of his employees. His parks needed to present people with the absolute best experience possible, each and every time. Nothing was more important than his good name and the reputation that it had and that philosophy continues to guide the Disney company down to the present day. They do everything they can to ensure that even the symbol of their mascot Mickey is one that is universally associated with happiness, hope, magic and joy. Every employee, from the bus driver to the cashier is taught what it means to wear the badge of Disney and there are standards that they are expected to uphold. Disney has at times been criticized for this and occasionally it has had to make decisions that were unpopular in the short term, but their long-term success is indisputable. One of the reasons that we, as adults, so enjoy going there is that we know what we are going to get each and every time, and that the experience is going to be well thought out and executed, even down to the temperature of the water in the hotel pool. You know what to expect when someone says the name Disney.

Now, what comes to mind when you hear someone call themselves a Christian? or Anglican or Episcopalian for that matter? For me at least, the image is rather unclear. I have to admit that always have a bit of trepidation when walking into any unknown church, even churches of our own denomination, because I am never quite sure what I am going to get or what my experience is going to be. Will the worship be sloppy or rigid? Will the service be familiar or unrecognizable? Will the image of Jesus be consistent with the scriptures or will he be a mascot fashioned to the politics of the congregation or priest? Will the sermon be based upon our collected experience and wisdom, or will it be the latest heresy? One never knows. And if it is that way with parishes, it is even worse with individuals. When someone calls themselves a Christian, the fact is you really never know what you are going to get or what to expect from that individual, because the term is used so often and so loosely.

 

If our children seem somewhat reluctant at times to embrace our faith and the name of Jesus, it might just be because we haven’t done a terribly good job of consistently presenting to them who he really is. We haven’t taught them through our actions and through our lives the transformative power of the name of Christ. We haven’t lived up to the example that he gave us. We have not been regular in teaching his word; we have not been vigilant in showing his love. If a child is eager to throw himself into the arms of Mickey, it is because he knows that from him he has nothing to expect but love, and joy and acceptance; I would venture to say that many children are less sure about what they may find in the arms of Jesus or someone bearing his name. That is a problem. It is a problem because one of those individuals is a made-up cartoon character representing an American business and the other is the Lord of life. One of them is fiction and the other is truth.

 

Now I am not suggesting here that there must be an either/or, or that we must choose between the two, God forbid. I love Mickey and in no way am I prepared to give up my pastime of searching for Mickey waffles and I love Jesus and my life has been dedicated to serving his church. I don’t in any way resent the success of Walt and Mickey. I celebrate it. I don’t think that we as the church need to be in competition with them. Our missions are different. Their mission is to entertain and ours is to worship. I do, however, think that there is a great deal we as the church could learn from them.

 

It begins by learning to take pride in the badge that we wear, realizing that the name of Jesus will only be holy to the world if it is holy to us. It will only mean something to others if it means something to us. If we want children to find magic, inspiration, love, joy, meaning and purpose in bearing the name of Christ, then we who already bear it need to show that to them. We need to be more consistent in our actions and our deeds, so that the world will know that the people who call themselves by the name of Christ actually are changed, transformed and have a hope that the rest of the world cannot give. We need to realize that is not just the role of the clergy to teach children about the importance of Christ; it is the role of each and every one of us.We are all of us ambassadors for Christ, to each and everyone we meet.

 

Disney employees are taught that the moment they step out in the park they are on stage. It doesn’t matter if they are sweeping up garbage or playing the role of Mickey himself, each and every one of them are responsible for the image they portray and of upholding the good name that they have been entrusted with. It’s really not so different for those of us who bear the name of Christ. People are watching. Children are watching. So what will our lives and our actions teach them about this man that God named Jesus, and whose name of Christ we also bear? Can we find the same hope, joy, and love in Jesus that others find in a cartoon mouse? Can we show God the same enthusiasm?

This is of course New Year’s Day. Another year is passing by, and today is a day when many of us will make resolutions for the New Year. If you are one of those people who likes to make resolutions allow me to make one suggestion:

 

Resolve to become a kid again. Resolve to be a child again. Resolve to remember what it was like to be filled with hope and expectation at going someplace new. Resolve to relive the excitement you used to feel when meeting one of your heroes. Remember what the world was like when magic was real and joy was unrestrained. All of you who bear the name of Jesus Christ, that is the hope that you have been given. That is the promise of new life: to be born again. Jesus tells us that if we are to truly be his followers that we must be born again; he tells us that we must come to his as little children, and he warns us never to scandalize that faith that they have. Resolve that no matter how old you are, or how much your bones may be aching, or how many mistakes you have made in life, resolve that by the power of this man’s name you can and will start over. That is the great privilege that we have all been given by bearing the name of Jesus Christ. That is what we need to show the world, and we need to show it with childlike joy and love.

 

So as we leave this room and step out onto the world’s stage, let us live our lives in such a way that people will want to know who this Jesus is, and the hope and the love he has given us. Let us be so consistent in honoring his name, that when our children hear it, they won’t hesitate for a second to jump into his arms too.

 

 

 

 

 

Pull back the Ivy: Sermon for Christmas Eve 2016

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Sermon preached at The Church of The Ascension, Rockville Centre, NY on December 24th, 2016.

A few decades ago a team of archaeologists descended upon the little town of Clones, Ireland, which is in County Monaghan, right on the border of Northern Ireland, in search of the remains of an old castle.

 

They knew that there had been a castle there at some point. It was referred to in some historic documents and it was featured on one 18th century map, but the visible remains had long since disappeared, or so they thought. The team brought their shovels and buckets and after doing their best research they began digging where they thought the castle should be, but despite their best efforts they came up empty handed. They assumed that the castle must simply have been destroyed, so they packed up their gear and went home. Case closed.

 

This past spring an amateur historian, decided that she would take a look around Clones, and she met an elderly local man who pointed her in the direction of a pile of rubble that he had always thought was significant, but that had always been dismissed by others as unimportant. After they managed to clear away some of the underbrush and pull back the ivy, lo and behold, there were the remains of a 16th century castle.

 

But here is the really fun part of this story: the remains of this so-called lost castle were sitting in plain sight. They weren’t buried underground. And furthermore, they weren’t off in the distant countryside, they were right near the center of town…on castle street…right behind a building called castle house…in a place that children used to pretend was a castle. Whoops.

 

The experts were so confident in their own research and so convinced that the castle must lie somewhere underground, deep and hidden, that they overlooked all the signs that pointed right to it. They were so determined that it must be hard to find, that they completely missed that it was starring them right in the face.

 

My point here is not really to make fun of the researchers, and it is certainly not to make fun of the Irish. The discovery of Clones castle is a perfect example of something we are all capable of: missing what is right in front of you.

 

A few years ago I was at dinner with a group of Ascension parishioners, and one parishioner, who shall remain nameless, simply could not find her keys at the end of the meal, despite only having one glass of wine. After several minutes of searching she found them…in her hand. You all may laugh but you know that it is the sort of thing that you have probably done yourself: searching for your glasses when they are on your head; looking for your cell phone when you are talking on it. We lose things in plain sight all the time, it isn’t a sign of senility, it is a sign of humanity. We even have phrases that refer to this phenomenon: to miss the forest for the trees, or we refer to something as “being plain as the nose on your face” it’s right in front of you, obvious to everyone else and yet, you can’t see it. You literally over-look it.

 

The people in the village of Clones, Ireland had been looking at that pile of rubble for so long that they had ceased to appreciate what it was. The experts that came looking for it paid no heed to the signs that had been left to them; and the words of little children and old men were dismissed as being mere fantasy or irrelevant. And all the while, the very thing that people were looking for was right in front of them.

 

I would venture to say that most of you here tonight think that you know the Christmas story. You have seen Christmas pageants, heard the scriptures, sung the carols, and watched the movies. Christmas, and all of it’s traditions and trappings, is familiar to you, and there is much to be said for familiarity. Things that are familiar are comforting; they make us feel secure; they help create stability in an unstable world and in unstable minds. Our traditions are living links with our ancestors and they should absolutely be honored and respected. But, there is one great danger to tradition that we must always be aware of: sometimes when things become such a regular part of our lives we forget that they are even there, or we stop appreciating what they really mean to us.

 

It is as simple as leaving your sunglasses on your head…after a while you get so used to the feeling that you stop feeling them altogether. I think that sometimes that is how many of us experience Christmas as we get older: something that becomes more familiar, and yet somehow we feel less. Maybe that is how many people experience their faith as well: they think they know what Christianity is all about, but no longer appreciate its true meaning or power.

 

Has the Christmas story, or the story of Christianity itself, become too familiar to you? Has it become like that castle in Ireland, something that we completely overlook because we are so used to seeing it? Have we allowed the weeds and ivy of daily life to cover and mask it?

 

There are a lot of people in this world that are searching: searching for answers, searching for truth, searching for meaning and faith. You might be one of those people. You may look at the church as an overgrown pile of rubble on the side of the road, its purpose long forgotten, a place for the fantasies of children or the dismissed ideas of old-men, but before you move on, stop for a moment, pull back the ivy and look deeper. What you are searching for may not be so hard to find afterall.

 

Look at the manger tonight with fresh eyes; try to hear the hymns the same way you might have first heard them as a child. Listen to the Christmas story as if you have never heard it before. Remember that this story is full of wonder and magic.

 

Children are born into the world every day, under all different sorts of circumstances, but this wasn’t just any birth. Prophets and preachers have walked the earth from the beginning of time, but this wasn’t just any prophet. The story we are telling here tonight is a supernatural story. God, the source of all life and the creator of the universe, looks at sinful, quarrelsome human beings and decides that despite their failings, he loves them anyways; loves them so much that he chooses to be born among them, as one of them. In Jesus Christ we are able to see the face of God in a way that we never could before; In him we are invited into a living relationship with the author of all creation; here we can finally take hold of that outstretched hand that seeks to save us from ourselves. What a powerful gift. That is what this night is all about.

 

Tonight we remember that our experience as humans is one that God shares. Everything from our first breath to our last, from birth to death, hunger, fear, joy, laughter, pain…our God has experienced it all and he made that choice to be born into this world, out of love for you and me. This child is born into the world because God wants to have a relationship with you. That is an amazing story.

 

That story is why we are here tonight, that story is why this building is here; people have died to tell that story. Our scriptures, our hymns, our church itself these, are all signs and symbols that have been left to us from generations past to point us in the right direction, to guide us to the manger and to say to us across time that this is a place where we have found God, and you can find him here too. As we gather together tonight, as Christians have gathered for over 2000 years, let us not take for granted this truth that we proclaim, not for a second. Do not let the fact that this story is familiar to you, blind you to the amazing news that is being shared.

 

Do not dismiss the carols as being the fantasies of children or the scriptures as being the outdated thoughts of old men, but see them as holy and sacred signs directing you in your search for God, if you can only see them with fresh eyes. The discovery of Clones Castle can teach us an important lesson, not only about looking for objects that have been lost, but about looking for God as well: always remember that that which you are seeking may not be as hard to find as you first imagine: the answer may be right in front of you.

Reconciliation: Not What You Think It Means

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In “The Princess Bride” the character Inigo Montoya, played brilliantly by Mandy Patinkin, famously criticizes the character Vizzini for misusing the word ‘inconceivable.’ Inigo says: “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.

 

It is one of those movie lines that has become a part of the popular culture and anytime I hear someone using (or misusing) a large word repeatedly, my mind instantly goes to Inigo Montoya.

 

The word “reconciliation” has been a hot (and overused) word in the Episcopal world for a while now. A couple years ago, I heard one seminary professor comment that he likes to use the word “reconciliation” in all his book titles because they are more likely to get published and will have better sales. For me, the word “reconciliation” ranks right up there with “missional” in terms of pure obnoxiousness due to overuse. Normally I try to just ignore such words and dismiss them as a desperate attempt to appear relevant (another word that nauseates), but maybe sometimes it is worthwhile to say with Inigo: “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.

 

This week, amidst many people calling for the church to seek to be reconcilers after the difficult and divisive U.S. election, an article was published by the President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church, questioning whether or not the church is necessarily called to the work or reconciliation, or whether we might be called to the work of resistance. My problem with the letter is not its intent, which seems to be a call to not overlook or excuse the very sinful realities of hatred that this campaign has brought to the surface, but rather my problem is with the very limited view of reconciliation that is offered.

 

When I hear people using the word “reconciliation,” I imagine that what they have in mind is the creation of peace: people putting aside their past differences, holding hands and being generally friendly again. While that may be how the word “reconciliation” is popularly used, I fear that for Christians it is far too narrow a definition for a word that has direct bearing on the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

 

Our epistle for this coming Sunday, which is the Feast of Christ the King, addresses the reconciling work of Christ:

 

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers– all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

-Colossians 1:  11-20

 

As a Christian, my supreme reconciler will always be Jesus Christ, and the supreme moment of reconciliation will always be the cross. That is the moment when our incarnate God looks at those who falsely accused him; looks at those who nailed him to a tree and says “Father forgive them.” He looks at the thief and says: “today, you will be with me in paradise.” I can’t imagine that there was much love and peace to be found during the world’s ultimate moment of reconciliation. I don’t see much unity at the foot of the cross. And yet, we believe that in that moment his blood was shed for both the sinner and the saint. Jesus didn’t die just to save the nice people. If we believe that reconciliation is about getting people to be nice to each other again, then the cross makes no sense. Jesus in his earthly life, never promises his followers peace in this world, and in fact he predicts quite the opposite: division.

 

If we think that reconciliation is about getting people to be nice to each other then we are doomed to failure. Jesus didn’t even accomplish that amongst his own followers. Instead, he showed us the power of reaching out in love to people that are still broken. He offers himself as a sacrifice to God; an offering on behalf of all sinful humanity. If the root of “reconciliation” means “to come back together,” then Christ reconciles us to God by bringing all of humanity together in one point in history and redeeming our sinful, broken nature through his death and resurrection. St. Paul goes on to write in Colossians:

 

And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him— provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.

-Colossians 1:21-23

Paul also writes in the letter to the Romans:

For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.

-Romans  5:10

The ministry of reconciliation began while we were still enemies of the cross. That is the model that Christ has given us and that is the ministry that he has given us:

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

-2 Corinthians 5:18-21

I believe that as a Christian I am called to be someone who’s life is not only transformed by the reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but who also actively seeks to live according to his teachings, so yes I am called to actively resist evil in this world in whatever form I find it: hatred, sexism, racism, homophobia. To be someone that seeks reconciliation does not mean that I have any intention of accepting or normalizing those behaviours. What it does mean is that I must always strive to see in every hater or sexist or racist or homophobe someone that Christ was satisfied to die for. That is the gospel that we are called to be servants of. Reconciliation isn’t about settling every dispute in the world, it is about realizing that in Christ God has offered us something bigger than all of our divisions.

The only reconciliation that will ever really matter already happened on the cross. My job, as someone given the ministry of reconciliation, is to keep pointing to that, because the moment that I begin to think that I have nothing in common with people that think differently than I do, look differently that I do, or vote differently than I do, I am reminded that the man on the cross begs to differ. Resist evil we can and must, but God forbid we should ever resist reconciliation.

We Need Temples

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Stewardship Sermon given on Sunday, November 13th, 2016 at Christ Church in Garden City, NY

Readings:

Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

 

Herod the great was one helluva king. Now we all know him from our nativity plays at Christmas time, and from what we read in the Gospel of Matthew, or what we remember from watching King of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Jesus of Nazareth, or whatever your favorite Jesus movie is, but if you only know Herod from what you have read or what you have seen on TV, then you only know one side of Herod.

 

Yes, it is true that he was a puppet of a foreign government. He was a petty dictator, a tyrant, and a religious phony, and yes, maybe he slaughtered 20 or 30 kids in Bethlehem one year…but he also built things. He built big things. He built cities and roads. He built a fortress on top of a mountain (with a penthouse palace for himself of course), a city by the sea, monuments, mines, and most famously of all: the temple itself. So maybe he was a horrible person in almost every way imaginable, but we have to admit that he got stuff done.

 

Now I should say that he didn’t actually build the temple; it was already there. Herod just made some improvements. He made it bigger and taller and threw gold leaf on anything that would stand still, and they were just putting the finishing touches on this magnificent building when this country prophet named Jesus comes to town.

 

Now the people are standing around marveling at this great building and all of its adornment and Jesus walks up to them and says: “someday, this will all be gone.”

 

Now the people are both terrified and indignant at the same time: what? who? how? This building is made of the biggest, heaviest stones anyone has ever seen. What do you mean thrown down? Who is planning to do this? How can we stop them? How can we prepare? And Jesus says to them: “there are many people that will come along and promise you security in this world. Don’t go chasing after them.”

 

Now Jesus loved the temple very much. He had been worshiping there his entire life. When he saw people desecrating it, it made him angry. He prayed there and he taught there. He travelled on foot for many miles just to worship God in that place. Jesus by no means is dismissing the temple as being unimportant. He isn’t saying that this place of worship doesn’t matter. Quite the contrary, Jesus understands the true importance of the temple. He knows why it truly matters.

 

That temple is there as an outpost of heaven. As an embassy of God’s Kingdom. It is there to call people to worship and prayer. It is there to remind people that the powers of the world are not the final authority. It is there to teach humility. It is there to foster hope. It is there as a symbol of God’s abiding presence with his children. Jesus didn’t come to that place to worship Herod. He doesn’t walk away from the temple self-satisfied and impressed with what men can build, rather he is reminded of just how much more glorious the Kingdom of God is than anything mankind can conceive or accomplish.

 

Jesus was right about those stones. A few decades after he died the Romans marched in, fed up with this quarrelsome little country, and torn down the temple stone by stone. They plundered it’s riches, killed its priests, destroyed the holy of holies and burned anything left standing. When they marched away then only thing they left was the four retaining walls from the foundation of the temple mount. And the Romans were confident that they had finished the job. They tore down Herod’s magnificent building, and I am sure they thought after doing so that “there is nothing more to see here so our work is done.” But then the Romans didn’t understand the true power of the temple and its true purpose.

 

I have been to Israel twice on pilgrimage now and both times I have been utterly blown away by the power of the Western Wall. It is simply the scrap of a foundation wall that the Romans left behind because they didn’t think anyone could ever care about it, but oh how wrong the Romans were. Today, almost two thousand years after they destroyed it, it still remains one of the holiest sites in the world. Day in and day out people flock there to pray, to mourn, to celebrate, to remember, to dream. It is a place of laughter and of tears. Each time I go am amazed by the fact that this ugly ruin, just a few old stones sitting on top of each other, can be one of the most beautiful things in the world. Yes, if you want to see human sinfulness it is all over too: it is a place of division and fighting and pain and brokenness, but if you can look beyond that you will also see that it is a gateway into another world. The temple still has its power because it still directs people to God, and that was its true purpose all along.

 

We live in a world of uncertainties. Wars and fighting, famines and disease, these things have been more or less constant throughout history. And throughout that same history there have always been individuals going around saying: “I am he.” I am the one that can save you from all of this. Believe in me and I will protect you from all of that uncertainty. Follow me and honor me and I will give you the riches of the world. That is the world we live in and that is a world that desperately needs temples.

 

We need temples to remind us that nothing we can build on this earth can outshine or outlast the glory of God. We need temples to remind us that we humans are not the ultimate and final authority in this universe. We need temples to remind us that God still dwells with us. We need temples to give us hope, guidance, courage, humility, faith and perseverance. We need temples to remind us that although we live in this world and in this country and place, that we are also called to be citizens of another kingdom. We need temples because our hearts will always need to be directed to worship something other than ourselves.

 

What do you see when you look at this church?

 

Do you see pretty stones and woodwork? Do you see gilding here and there? Memorials from ages past?

 

Do you see an aging structure in need of ongoing repair? Do you see light bills and water bills? Do you see an office with a fussy copy machine? Do you see a social hall? A school with a chapel attached? A community services organization?

 

Or do you see a temple?

 

Because that is, in truth, what every church is. This is a temple. This is first and foremost a place where God is to be worshiped. This place stands as a symbol to the community that God still lives here among his children. It is a window into another world; an outpost or embassy of another kingdom. It is a place where we proclaim that in the midst of this tempestuous and uncertain world there is still a rock that we can stand on; that there is still shelter for the broken and the weary and the downtrodden. It is a place where we remember that God is the source of all that is holy, not Herod. It is a place of comfort, of humility, of hope and of prayer. This is a place where people come to meet God, and nothing you do, no ministry, no service is more important than that. If you have any doubt about that just look to Jerusalem. Herod is long dead and the pretty buildings are long gone, but people still flock there because they still find God in the ruins.

 

If this place is a temple where God is worshipped, which I believe it is, then it must also be a place where sacrifice is made. Now the supreme sacrifice of the church always has been and always will be the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. That is the sacrifice that only he can offer and it is that same sacrifice that we remember each and every time we celebrate the holy mysteries at the altar, but we are called to make sacrifices too.

This temple should be a reminder to us that this world, and all of its pleasures and pains is not the end of the story for us; it is not our ultimate destination. So if we are people of faith, then we need to look at everything we have, our lives, our finances, our time and we need to recognize that without God we wouldn’t have any of it. And without God we wouldn’t have the hope that we have for the future. We have the immense privilege to be citizen of the Kingdom of God, and heirs of salvation. Our lives should reflect the importance of God and when we gather in his temple we are called, I believe, to look at all that God has given to us, and to offer something back. Not as repayment, for we could never do that, nor as pay for play, nor as an attempt to buy our way into the kingdom, but as a sincere gesture and statement of the importance of God in our life. That is what sacrifice has always been: offering God something that is precious to us, recognizing that he has already given us so much more.

 

Now you may be wondering, and should be asking yourselves, how much God is calling me to give this year. That is ultimately a question that only you can answer. I can tell you that the biblical standard in the scriptures and throughout most of Christian history has been 10%. Some of you may be gripping your seat at this point. This is one of those moments when it is great to just be a guest preacher. I can say the difficult things knowing that if you don’t like it I am wearing shoes I can run in. Of course, all clergy recognize that for some people that may be a stretch, and for others it could just be a starting point, but how ever much you give, let it be significant to you. Let it represent an actual sacrifice and not just something you can spare.

 

I’ll be honest with you. I have wasted a lot of money in my life. Bought things I shouldn’t have. Invested in things that I shouldn’t have. I am amazed at how much can be spent on totally meaningless things. I regret those wastes, but I can tell you I don’t regret giving any of the money I have ever given to God or his church. Because I know that this is a temple, and that at the end of the day that money isn’t just about balancing budgets and paying bills, it is about building the kingdom of God.

The kingdoms of this world, they come and go. Our rulers come and go and our fancy buildings come and go. Herod is dead and everything he built lies in ruins, but Jesus is alive and his kingdom is still going strong. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right. Let us not go following after every worldly leader that promises us security in an insecure world. Rather, let us see each struggle as an opportunity to testify to our faith in the only King that truly saves us.