Sunday, February 23, 2020

Sermon; Last Epiphany A; Matt. 17:1-9


Let me start by saying that I find Epiphany to be an odd season. Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter all have a particular focus. Advent is all about preparation. Christmas is celebratory. Lent is a time for introspection and reconciliation. In Easter we spend time with the risen Christ. And even the Season after Pentecost (Ordinary Time) has a discipleship focus. Epiphany, though . . .

Epiphany is both liturgical and ordinary. It begins with a liturgical focus with the arrival of the magi and Jesus' baptism where we recognize Jesus' manifestation as God's Son to the world. And then it moves to an ordinary setting with the calling of the disciples and moving through the Sermon on the Mount (this year) or other miracle stories. These all point to who Jesus is, but it's done in a rather ordinary way. And then, just as we get into the rhythm of the story, we arrive at the Last Sunday after Epiphany and the Transfiguration. The length of the season lasts anywhere from four to nine Sundays, and is a season of ordinariness punctuated by liturgical events.

I bring this up because this Last Sunday after Epiphany can seem jarring if you've been paying attention to the story being told through the rest of the season. We're just settling in to hear passages from the Sermon on the Mount when, all of a sudden, we find ourselves up on the mountain with Peter, James, and John watching Jesus be transfigured and visited by Moses and Elijah.

But if we pay attention, the stories from the sermon and the transfiguration are not all that dissimilar.

Over the past few weeks I have pointed out that, with regard to the law, Jesus came to neither abolish it nor to simply fulfill the black and white, legalistic plain text of the law. He came to transform the law in a way that only he could. The law was given to help a formerly captive people live in freedom. Jesus is transforming the law so that we see all of the law leading to life, not death.

You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world – act like it. You have heard it said, but I say to you. In these and other examples (which we didn't hear), Jesus is getting his listeners to think about the law in a different way. He's getting them to think of it not simply as a code of conduct to follow, but in a way that becomes life-giving. He is transforming not only how the law is interpreted, but how we live it. He is transforming us to live life as God intends, living beyond the words and into the heart.

In short, the written law is what God's people were originally given and how they related to God. Jesus transformed it so people could see the law behind its written covering.

In today's gospel we have this same scenario – kind of. Jesus came teaching and preaching. Like the written word was the covering of the heart of the law, the humanity of Jesus was the covering of God incarnate. And these two things – written word and human body – sometimes make it hard to see what's behind them.

For instance, the law is very clear that the sabbath is to be kept holy and no work is to be done. But as Jesus pointed out, that doesn't mean that we can't work to feed or heal people on the sabbath. Or when we look at someone who disturbs us, it's very easy to ignore the fact that they, too, are a child of God.

In today's gospel Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain. While there he is transfigured. The image of Jesus being transfigured is often seen or described as him being changed. The reality is that his full and true nature was revealed. His complete unity with God shone through. He transformed how these three disciples saw him and how they would talk about him after his resurrection.

We are at the end of the Epiphany season. Lent begins in three days. We have heard Jesus interpret the law in a transformative way such that it provides life for all people, thereby revealing its true nature. Today we hear the story of Jesus being transfigured, or transformed, before our eyes, revealing his true nature. And in three days we begin our Lenten journey where we will be asked to, hopefully, make transformative changes to ourselves as we look to live into our true nature for which we were created.

So maybe Epiphany isn't all that odd after all. It has an ordinary rhythm interrupted by a few important events, much like life itself. As we close out this season of transformation and move into Lent, maybe we could ask ourselves one questions: How are we being transformed by the living word of God?

Amen.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Sermon; Epiphany 6A; Matt. 5:21-37


Today we continue our journey through the Sermon on the Mount. You will recall that last week's section – You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world – was delivered as a corporate “you.” “Y'all are the salt of the earth. Y'all are the light of the world. And these two things, salt and light, had to do with our function, not our status.

Today, however, Jesus redirects his comments from the corporate body to us individuals. The “you” Jesus uses really is you personally. Not only should you not murder, but you shouldn't be angry with a brother or sister, nor should you insult them. Work toward reconciliation. Not only should you not commit adultery, but you shouldn't even look at another with lust. Don't swear oaths on the name of God. Jesus here is laying out guidelines for our individual behavior. But this section is more than just a list of behavioral dos and don'ts.

If you remember from last week, I said that Jesus was working on transforming the law. Remember, the law was given to a people who had no idea how to live in freedom, their only experiences was that of living in slavery, so the law helped form them as a people. Jesus came not to abolish the law, because by abolishing it those early Jewish disciples of his would have no foundation. Nor did he come simply to fulfill the letter of the law, because that would allow and require us to execute those who worked on the sabbath (among other things.) Instead, he came to transform the law. He came to show that living under a law given to help the Israelites live should be lived in such a way that leads to life, not death.

Jesus continues his work of transformation in this section of his sermon. He is not only transforming it, but also showing that, by the authority vested in him, he is authorized to make this transforming interpretation. We see this in the style he uses when talking to the crowed – “You have heard it said, but I say to you . . .”

You have heard it said, “You shall not murder.” But I say to you that if you are angry with your brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment. And if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire.

Obviously we shouldn't kill or murder. One reason is that life is sacred and all people . . . ALL people . . . are created in the image of God. Killing/murder does damage to God's creation. Killing/murder is the ultimate act of damage we can invoke on another human being and on God as well.

In saying, “But I say to you,” Jesus goes beyond the written law to its heart, and it is there where transformation begins. Killing is very rarely a totally random act. It may seem like it at times, but very few people decide willy nilly to go kill someone. Anger plays a part in why people kill other people. Insulting them and calling them “fool” also plays a part. We may hear that and not take it seriously (I've called people fools many times), but put it in today's context of bullying. Whether in real life or electronically via cyberbullying, abuse of all kinds – physical, mental, emotional – often pushes people to violent extremes. These are things which also devalue and damage other human beings. By acting this way, never mind actually killing someone, we pave the way to seeing them easily disposed of. Or we create such anger in them that it is then taken out on others.

Jesus immediately moves to the topic of reconciliation. If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, go and first be reconciled to them. Anger, insults, and taunts will condemn you to hell, says Jesus, but forgiveness and reconciliation is possible and returns both individuals and the corporate body to a state of grace. If we don't first apologize to one we've hurt to pave the way for reconciliation, we will allow anger to fester. If we don't pursue reconciliation, how long will we let our anger burn inside us? How long will we continue to damage another person? This is another way Jesus is transforming the letter of the law into something that provides life for all. We cannot allow ourselves to continue to live in anger. This has implications for the corporate body as well, for how can we be the light of the world if we keep trying to burn each other up?

From here Jesus moves onto adultery and divorce – everyone's favorite topic. You've heard it said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you, if you even look at another woman with lust . . .

This section isn't as much about sex as it is about doing damage to another. As much as murder and hateful words do damage to individuals, the community, and God, so to does misplaced sexual behavior. Adultery damages all involved and breaks relationships. Like saying, “You fool,” lusting after another is a step down the wrong path. Among other things, it destroys trust. And once trust is destroyed, how do we get it back? Or how do we ever fully trust one who has broken our trust? Damaging relationships has consequences, and this is something Jesus is taking seriously.

The final example I want to look at is the swearing of oaths. You have heard it said, “Carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say, do not swear at all. When we talk about swearing oaths, it might be similar to us saying, “I swear on a stack of Bibles,” or, “On my mother's grave,” or, “As God as my witness.” The issue isn't promising or vowing to do something, the issue once again goes back to doing damage to another.

God is a mystery. The throne of God is surrounded in mystery – see Isaiah and Revelation. When we worship, we partake in these holy mysteries. God is beyond our understanding.

What Jesus is getting at here is that when we swear an oath in God's name, or by God's name, we have taken away the mystery. We have taken away God's power because we now claim to control God. We may even claim that by using God's name this way, God will help ensure the oath gets fulfilled. Like murder, insults, adultery, and lust demean other people, using God's name this way demeans God. It makes God no more than a household idol. In using God's name this way, we do damage to the true nature of God.

In all of this, Jesus is fulfilling the law – don't murder, don't commit adultery, don't swear falsely. But Jesus is also transforming the law to get us to see it more deeply. Don't harm people by your actions and words. Don't do damage to God. The law was given to set boundaries and help the Israelites move from slavery to freedom, from death to life. Jesus is transforming the law in such a way that we move beyond the black and white edicts toward fulfilling the heart of the law so that we begin to recognize when we might be doing damage and harm to others and God.

In this sermon we have Jesus addressing both the corporate “you” and individual “you.” As we move forward, let us read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest how we function both corporately and individually to provide light, blessings, kindness, and healing to those around us. Because it will be through these acts that we will be transformative.

Amen.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Sermon; Epiphany 5A; Matt. 5:13-20


Last week was Epiphany 4 and the gospel for the day was the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. In Year A we get readings from this famous sermon beginning on Epiphany 4 and running through the second-to-last Sunday of the season. But the reason you don't remember hearing the Beatitudes, or a sermon on them, is because last week we had the privilege of celebrating the Feast of the Presentation and Candlemas.

So . . . enough intro and back to our regularly scheduled program.

Today we have the second section from the Sermon on the Mount. Most of Jesus' sermon has to do with individual behavior, ethics, and faith. But today's section, although filled with several “You” statements, is more about corporate behaviors, ethics, and faith, rather than the individual. Today there are three areas I've been thinking about: being the salt of the earth, being a light to the world, and abolishing the law and prophets.

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.” When we use this statement about another person it carries a certain meaning. If, for instance, I'm talking about Bob to someone else, and I say, “Yeah, that Bob, he's a real salt-of-the-earth fellow.” It means he's honest, trustworthy, hard working, and a straight shooter. Using that term is a way of bestowing a particular person with a type of status. When I say Bob is salt-of-the-earth, you know that he's not a career politician.

But in the reading today this term is not related to status, but to function. The function of salt is to add flavor to an otherwise bland food. If salt is not salty, then all it does is add more blandness. You/we are the salt of the earth. Our function is to add flavor to an otherwise bland world.

Look around. People are rundown. They are tired. Feelings of lost hope are everywhere. It is our function to add flavor by offering a place to recharge and renew, as well as offering a place and message of hope. But people won't know that, or they won't know anything about us or Christ, if we act like we've lost our saltiness.

Likewise with Jesus' comment about being the light of the world. Being a light doesn't make us special. But because we are people who follow Christ, because we try to live our lives based in Christ's love, we function as lights in a darkened world. When I pray Evening Prayer during the late fall/early winter months, I hope that someone will see the lights of the church shining through the darkness and venture in. Like any light that draws things from the dark unto itself, our function is to shine the light of Christ into a darkened world and offer a place for people to come and experience God.

My final thoughts about this passage, and what I've given most attention to, have to do with Jesus' comments about abolishing the law and the prophets. He says he hasn't come to abolish but to fulfill. And then he says something . . . intriguing: “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”

As Christians we view Jesus as the embodiment of the God-human relationship. In Christ, God has become attainable. Through Christ we have an example of what it means to live fully in relationship with God. For the early Christians, who had deep Jewish roots, and even for us today, the question then becomes, “Did Jesus come to fulfill the law, or did Jesus come to abolish the law?”

If Christ came to fulfill, then the law remains in full effect. If Jesus came to abolish, then we have no need of the law and can ignore all that came before. But Jesus gives us a third way – neither simply fulfilling nor easily abolishing, but a way that is transforming.

Take the Sabbath, for instance. In multiple places, the law decrees that the Sabbath is to be kept holy and no work is to be done on that day. We are all familiar with that particular law. But were you aware that in at least two places the law prescribes death as the punishment for breaking that particular law?

Jesus, on several occasions, broke this particular law. This is one reason the Pharisees were upset with him. That and because he was, by his example, teaching others to also break the law.

But we need to look at the bigger picture. Why was the law given? The law was given to set boundaries for a people newly freed from slavery. When the Israelites escaped from Egypt, they moved from slavery to freedom, from death to life. The law was given to help them live. It was, in effect, life-giving. So the law could not be abolished or those early Jewish Christians would have no foundation on which to work.

Should we fulfill the letter of the law and sentence to death anyone who works on the Sabbath? No. Should we abolish the law and do what each person feels to be right? No.

Instead we have Jesus who transforms the law. He ate on the Sabbath because food gives life nourishment and sustains the body. He healed on the Sabbath because a healed body is life-giving and life-sustaining. The law was also life-giving and life-sustaining. Jesus is fulfilling the law by transforming it.

The law was given by a God who is just and merciful (“What does the Lord require? To do justice and love mercy”). The law is based on a God that desires his people be free, nourished, and restored. What Jesus does is to go beyond the simple, plain text reading of the law to a place where the law embodies the love and intention of God. The words of the law are abolished while the heart of the law is fulfilled. The law is transformed.

If we miss that, we miss everything Jesus is working for. If we only focus on the simple words, and teach others to do the same, then we will have missed the heart of the law and we will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. We will be like the person in the banquet story who sits at a place of honor because he thought that's where he belonged, only to be told to move down in rank because he was the least of those attending.

So let us go from here remembering that being salty doesn't make us special, but it is our function to salt the earth with the love of God. Let us remember that our function isn't to shine a light on ourselves, but to shine in the dark allowing other people to find their way. And let us be less concerned with obeying the words of Scripture and more concerned with how the law, prophets, and all of Scripture calls us to a life of mercy, justice, and love. In other words, let us work to transform the world as Jesus transformed the law.

Amen.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sermon; Epiphany 3; 1 Cor. 1:10-18; Matt. 4:12-23


Today is our annual meeting. This is the day we do the business of the church – electing new Vestry members, looking at various numbers and the budget, perusing the reports, and talking about where we've been and where we might be going. And, in case you were wondering, let me say now that things are never as bleak or as rosy as we might imagine, but they are oftentimes a mixture of the two.

I sometimes wonder if annual meetings, like diocesan conventions, are times given over to the airing of grievances. I have been to more than one annual meeting and/or convention where those present attack the priest/bishop for failing in some respect. Or the budget is nit-picked line item by line item, pointing out its deficiencies and where it could be improved, all for the sake of the good of the parish or diocese, dontcha know. Or where vestry elections are seen as a popularity contest, or have been stacked with the Rector's chosen ones.

Thankfully these things have not really been an issue here at Saint John's. That's not to say we haven't had our disagreements and differences of opinions, but we understand that we are driven not by our differences but by our mission to Worship, Welcome, Serve, and Encourage.

Around the Episcopal church many congregations are holding annual meetings today. Some held them last week, and some will hold them next week. But today is probably the most popular date, especially out west, because (and I'm being honest here) today falls between the conference championships and the Super Bowl. But I wonder how many of those annual meetings will be affected or informed by today's readings from Paul and Matthew?

As I said, annual meetings can be dicey events, and today's readings are perfect for addressing things that might be happening in those respective churches. In Corinthians, Paul is addressing a split in the church.

“I appeal to you . . . that there be no divisions among you . . . that you be united in the same mind and purpose.”

That wasn't the case in Corinth at this time. Paul was hearing reports that splits and factions were developing. Various groups of people in the church were claiming that they belonged to Paul. Some claimed to belong to Apollos. Another group followed Cephas. And, like many divisions in the Church, there were those who claimed that they were more special because THEY followed Christ. This almost sounds like annual meeting campaigning.

For whatever reason, the people of Corinth weren't united, nor were they of the same mind. They had fallen into factions based on who-knows-what. Maybe it was budgets. Maybe it was preaching. Maybe it was education. Maybe it was charisma. But whatever it was, it was beginning to fracture the church.

Can you imagine what this would look like here? I follow Todd. I follow Mark. I follow Betty. I follow Lou. I follow Christ. These factions would tear us apart. This is what Paul was fighting against. And I'm thankful that this is something for which I don't have do deal with. For while we may have an affinity for one person over another, or while we may tend to avoid certain people over others (and this happens in large groups), we all understand that we are united in a mission to Worship, Welcome, Serve, and Encourage. Our strength lies in our ability to boil everything down to one question: How is what I'm doing reflected in, or supportive of, our mission?

So while Paul had to admonish his people at Corinth to quit bickering and focus on a unified mission, I am thankful I only have to encourage you to remember our mission and strive to keep it in view.

This unity in mind and purpose can also be seen in today's gospel passage. Today we hear the familiar story of Jesus calling the first of his disciples – Peter & Andrew and James & John. This is one of the Jesus stories that seems to have grown to mythic proportions.

Jesus is walking alongside the Sea of Galilee when he comes upon two brothers, Peter and Andrew. “Follow me,” he says, “and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they leave their nets and follow him. A little farther on he comes across two more fishing brothers, James and John. He tells them to follow him and they also immediately leave their nets to do so.

Who does this? Who drops everything and leaves all they have behind to follow some itinerant preacher they've never met? This would be like any of us asking someone to come to church and they immediately ask to be baptized and confirmed. For that reason alone, this story has mythical qualities. Part of the reason that it has achieved this mythic quality, I think, is that we project our own view of these men being so captivated by Jesus that they laid down their nets to live a harmonious life in the kingdom of God as presented by Jesus.

But let me throw a kink into that assumption.

Luke refers to these four fishermen as partners. But in Matthew, and Mark as well, this is not so. In Matthew they are simply two sets of brothers who happen to be in the same business.

Have you ever seen “Deadliest Catch” on the Discovery Channel? It's a reality show about crab fishing in the Bearing Sea. It has drama (whether real or made for TV) and plenty of competition between the fishermen. And, if the internet can be trusted, the behind-the-scenes shenanigans are also filled with drama and competition. In short, these fishermen are in it for themselves.

I have a feeling that, at least in Matthew and Mark, today's four fishermen were a lot like those commercial fishermen up in Alaska – independent, tough, and willing to fight anyone who encroached on their territory. And then here comes Jesus calling them to follow him, which they do.

And in the blink of an eye, these four independent men who compete with each other for fish and fight for their territory, have left everything behind to follow Jesus. These four competitors are now partners in whatever mission Jesus has yet to develop.

How many times did Jesus have to play peacemaker? How many times did Jesus have to remind them of their mission? How many times did Jesus have to remind them to be united in mind and purpose? We will never know in this lifetime, but I'm betting it happened more than a few times.

Part of Jesus' mission was to heal, feed, and teach people. This was all done in the context of living into the kingdom of God in the here and now. But another part of his mission was to get a group of disparate, sometimes antagonistic men together to become focused on the mission of God. Part of his mission was to teach these men to live in unity despite their difference. And competing fishermen certainly have their differences.

So here we are on the Sunday of our annual meeting. We are certainly not in competition with each other, but we do have different thoughts and ideas about how certain things should be done and or accomplished. We do have different interests and energies. We do have our preferred group of people and those whom we support. And all of that is fine and natural, it's simply how people interact.

But let us never be so focused on those differences that we begin to divide into factions. Let us never be so focused on our divisions that they take priority over our mission to restore all people to unity with God, our mission to live into our baptismal covenant, and our mission to Worship, Welcome, Serve, and Encourage.

Paul worked hard to end the conflicted divisions in Corinth. I'm sure Jesus worked hard to keep his twelve disciples focused and unified. I am thankful that we, despite our differences, remain united.

As we move into our annual meeting and beyond, let us remember to focus not on what divides us, nor on trying to catch more fish than others that are in the fishing business, but on staying focused on our mission to Worship, Welcome, Serve, and Encourage. Because it will be our unity which will allow us to represent the kingdom of God here on earth. And it will be our unity that will be a beacon of hope to those living in a divided and fractious world.

Amen.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Sermon; Epiphany 2; John 1:29-41


I have a friend who sent me a book entitled, Jesus was an Episcopalian (and you can be one, too). In short, this is a book about the Episcopal church and how our particular branch of the Jesus Movement relates to worship, history, politics, the world, and much more. She uses this book for her inquirer's class – working especially with newcomers and people who want to take a fresh look at their faith.

As a rule, we Episcopalians don't evangelize very well. We aren't good at talking to people about our faith, church, or denomination. And again, I'm generalizing here. But one of the ways we view our faith is through the saying, “Lex orandi, lex credendi.” That is, “The rule of prayer shapes the rule of belief.” Put another way, “How we pray is what we believe.”

I bring this up because, in my experience, when people have asked about the Episcopal church there has been a lot of himming and hawing. Descriptions such as, “Catholic-lite,” “via media,” “A little bit Catholic, a little bit Protestant,” “We're not told what to think,” “We don't have to check our brains at the door,” “It's complicated,” and others, come up in an attempt to explain the Episcopal church and/or Saint John's. And then, frustrated that we can't offer a simple description, we say something like, “Come and see.”

Has anyone else had this experience, or is it just me?

So we offer a “come and see” invitation which is supposed to answer all of their questions, as well as get us off the hook for trying to explain our faith and church. Or maybe we think we can pass this new person off onto the Rector who CAN answer all questions. But the reality is that this whole thing is complicated. Our faith is complicated. Our church can be complicated. And I'll tell you that one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do is to sit down with a non-practicing Buddhist exchange student from South Korea who would sit with an open BCP on Sunday and say, “Explain this to me.”

It's complicated, so come and see.

Come and see how we pray. Come and see how we reach out to the wider community. Come and see how we feed the hungry. Come and see how we offer a quiet, safe place to be with God. Come and see how we teach our faith. Come and see how we live our faith.

That invitation to come and see isn't a way to get people in the door so we can hit them over the head with the Constitution and Canons, or with a list of approved doctrines and disciplines. The invitation to come and see is just that, an invitation to come and see if this is where you want to be.

“Rabbi, where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.”

Jesus didn't tell them what they were doing wrong. He didn't make them sign an oath of faith. He didn't quote the Constitution and Canons. Instead he said, “Come and see.”

When we say, “Come and see,” we don't expect to have all the answers in our first meeting. I don't think Jesus did either. But this is the first step to understanding what we are all about. It was the first step to seeing what Jesus was all about.

Wouldn't you love to know what was said at that first meeting? John doesn't say anything about it other than that those first two disciples stayed with him the rest of that day, and that it was about 4 o'clock. Here's what I think happened.

John the Baptist points out Jesus as the Lamb of God. The two disciples go to Jesus and ask where he's staying. Jesus says, “Come and see.” They follow him and Jesus begins to lay out the plans for his ministry.

Come and see good news given to the poor. Come and see captives released. Come and see the blind regaining sight. Come and see the oppressed go free. Come and see the scattering of the proud. Come and see the powerful lowered and the lowly raised up. Come and see the hungry fed. Come and see the kingdom of God being proclaimed to the people.

I think that when Jesus answered the question of, “Where are you staying?” he didn't say, “Come and see” to show them the cute little B&B in Bethany that he had booked for the weekend. Instead, Jesus had a much broader, longer view of the question.

“Where are you staying?”

Come and see me stay with the poor. Come and see me stay with the captives. Come and see me stay with the oppressed. Come and see me stay with the hungry. Come and see me live in the kingdom of God in the here and now.

Our annual meeting is next week. We will have a budget to look at, numbers to review, and reports to read as we do the business of the church. But the business of the church only tells a part of the story.

Come and see where we've been. Come and see where we might be headed. Come and see how we minister to people both inside and outside our congregation. Come and see how we live into our mission.

Jesus' answer of, “Come and see,” wasn't a cop out, but a way to begin to explain to a few disciples the complicated depth of his mission. Our answer to people about our church of, “Come and see” isn't a cop out of trying to avoid giving an answer, but an invitation to see how we experience God and live into our mission today.

Faith and discipleship are difficult and complicated things to explain to people. When we have those conversations, don't be discouraged that you don't have all the answers. Just follow the example of the very first Episcopalian and invite them to come and see.

Amen.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Sermon; 1 Epiphany; Matthew 3:13-17


Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany, the day we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. It is one of the five days appropriate for baptisms and/or renewal of baptismal vows. The main reason I insist on renewing vows on these days is because it is easy to get so caught up in our daily lives that we need to be reminded of how we promised to live as Christians.

In just a bit we will renew our baptismal vows (at 8), and have a baptism (at 10:15), reminding us of how we choose to live. But what about Jesus? In today's gospel he is baptized by John. Did he need to be cleansed from sin and made new? Of course not. But that doesn't mean there hasn't been a lot of discussion over the years about this event.

One view is that this is an act of solidarity with sinners. We don't get this in today's gospel reading, but Matthew records that the people of Jerusalem and Judea were coming to John to confess their sins and repent. This baptism was marking a new beginning for those being baptized.

Now Jesus certainly wasn't coming to confess and repent of sins. But he was showing himself to be in solidarity with those being baptized. In a very real and practical way, Jesus is living into the meaning of his name from this gospel – Emmanuel, “God is with us.”

This baptism of Jesus was also a new beginning. In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) Jesus goes into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil immediately after his baptism. After which his public ministry begins. So in a very real sense, Jesus' baptism leads to a new beginning for him just as it leads to a new beginning for all those who are baptized.

Through our baptism and renewal we are reminded that God is with us. Through our baptism and renewal we are given the chance to make a new beginning.

Today I have the honor of baptizing Emma Marie.  Today we who are present have the honor of welcoming her into the household of God. Today she will join us in our mission to proclaim the love of God to the world.

Through this act of baptism, Emma will join with Christ and be joined to Christ. God will be with her. But that solidarity is not only with Christ – it is also with us. Through Emma's baptism, she is joined with us. Through her baptism, we will be joined with her.

This baptism is also a new beginning of sorts. Emma is obviously too young to make a new beginning, so for her it's more symbolic than actual. But for us this is very much a new beginning.

It's a new beginning because we will have welcomed a new person into the household of God. When we welcome people into our midst, it's a new beginning. Dynamics change. Plans change. Expectations change. Adding someone new produces change.

In Emma's case, this may be a very small change, but change and new beginnings are/will be present. Among other things, everyone here will promise to support this person in her life in Christ. That also means supporting her family.

Will we, for instance, ensure our nursery is staffed so she can have a safe place to stay while offering her parents a time to worship peacefully? Will we, as a community, provide support if and when they reach out for assistance? I could go on, but you get the idea – we are all now joined together through our baptism in a community of faith.

The final thing I want to look at are those words from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Note that, up until this point, and from our point of view, Jesus hasn't done anything. From our view, and from the view of all four gospels, Jesus hasn't done anything remarkable up to his encounter with John – except for maybe that incident in the temple when he was twelve. It stands to reason then, that God the Father is well pleased with his Son even though he hasn't done anything.

Emma, likewise, hasn't done anything remarkable yet. She's not walking or talking. She hasn't composed a sonata or played a musical instrument. She hasn't calculated the value of Pi to seventeen digits. She is a rather unremarkable little girl. But even so, her parents look down on her, just as most every parent looks down upon their child, and says, “With you I am well pleased.”

God is pleased with each and every one of us just as we are. So as we continue in community and relationship with each other in this wing of the household of God, let us learn to be pleased with each other just as God is pleased with us.

Today we are reminded that we have been cleansed from sin and begin anew.
Today we are reminded of the promises and vows we made in living into the Christian faith.
Today we are reminded that God is with us, and we are with God.
Today we welcome Emma into the household of God.
Today we are reminded that we are bound together through the waters of baptism.


Today let us go forth in the power of the Spirit, rejoicing in new beginnings and living into the promises we made, supporting others in that journey, bound together, and well pleased.

Amen.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Sermon; Christmas II; Matthew 2:1-12


Today is the 12th Day of Christmas. Tonight we conclude our Christmas festivities with the 12th Night party (potluck & gift exchange) in Trimble Hall at 5. Bring a dish to share and, if you so choose, a gift to exchange and/or steal ($25 suggested limit). It's a fun way to celebrate the end of the Christmas season. And then tomorrow is the Feast of the Epiphany, the day we celebrate the arrival of the wise men.

The gospel passage we heard today is one of three options, the other two being the Holy Family's flight to Egypt and Jesus being left behind in Jerusalem as a pre-teen. Today's gospel is also appointed for tomorrow's Feast of Epiphany. But since Epiphany doesn't fall on a Sunday that often, I opt to have it read on this Sunday as a wrap up to the season.

On Christmas Eve we hear the traditional story of the birth in Bethlehem, shepherds, and angels. Today we hear the other great Christmas story – that of wise men from the east bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There has been a lot written about these men who followed yonder star, and there has been a lot written about the star itself and trying to assign a date to this event. I recently read an article that posited the “star” wasn't a star at all but a conjunction of Jupiter and one or two other planets, and that their retrograde orbit gave the appearance of it stopping over Bethlehem. That, however, is more effort than I want to put into this story.

What I want to look at today is the reaction the wise men got when they showed up in Jerusalem.

“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.

For some 32 years Herod ruled his territory with an iron fist. He was a contemporary of Marc Antony and Cleopatra. He had multiple wives and executed anyone, including family, he saw as a threat to his rule. During his reign there was a time of relative national “peace,” and he instituted many building projects, including the Temple. But that “peace” was more a result of “My way or the highway” empirical domination than of anything else.

Besides King Herod, there were others who participated in and enabled this system to flourish – think tax collectors and religious leaders. They had a good system – if you followed the rules, didn't cause trouble, and supported the empire, you were fine.

And now, into this system that benefited the rich, powerful, and well-connected while stepping on the poor, weak, and outcast come a group of outsiders looking for a new king. And new kings, like new coaches or new priests, tend to do things in a new way. So this new king was a threat to the established system, certainly to the existence of Herod, and to all who benefited from the status quo. It's no wonder these people were frightened.

Change can be a scary, frightening thing. If the fear of change is greater than the fear of doing nothing, or of continuing on the same path, then nothing will happen and the status quo, as bad as it is, will remain intact.
I'm reminded of the formula I presented a few months ago where:

Change = Dissatisfaction x Vision x First Steps > Resistance

This event of the new king produced a great vision: we saw his star rising. But the resistance (and they were afraid) was too much to overcome.

I know you're not supposed to conflate gospels, but this sense of fear by Herod and others falls in line with the Magnificat, that great anti-establishment song of Mary: “He has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”

These are words that should make the proud and mighty, and those complicit in the systems that benefit them, very afraid. This resistance to change, this desire to maintain control, is what drove Herod to act as he did in order to maintain his power structure. It's also what drives us to act in certain ways to maintain our preferred power structures.

Herod never intended to pay homage to the new king. This was made abundantly clear when he sent troops into Bethlehem to kill every child under two. This was true when a white man feigned interest in a bible study at a black church and killed everyone present. This was true when an anti-Semite believed Jews were taking over the world and attacked several people at a Hanukkah party. This is true when we quote Canon 40/41: We've never done it that way/We've always done it this way.

Christmas is, in my opinion, the biggest miracle we have in scripture. It is the story of the immortal, invisible, omnipotent God humbling himself to become a mortal, visible, lowly human being. It is the story of light breaking through the darkness. It is the story of God with us.

But the Christmas story reminds us that not everything was a time of rejoicing. Not everything was a silent night. Not everything was gloria in excelsius. There are powers and dominions who would be very happy if this never happened or if it were kept from being made known.

We may not actively advocate or assist in enforcing a status quo that benefits the powerful and persecutes the poor and weak. But we all certainly have behaviors and habits that are resistant to change.

On this Second Sunday after Christmas we are reminded of the birth of a new king. We are reminded that God became human to show us a new way of being. We are reminded that God is with us. And it just might be that this other great story of Christmas, the story of wise men from the east and their gifts, also has another important message for us: don't be like Herod and act on our fears, but face our fears with the knowledge and confidence that God is doing a new thing.

For unto us a child is born, Messiah and king. What are we afraid of?

Amen.