Sunday, February 05, 2023

Sermon; Epiphany 5A; Isaiah 58:1-12

Epiphany is the season of manifestation and revelation, or revealing. Jesus was manifested to the Gentiles by the star and acknowledge as king by foreigners who brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Christian tradition has seen these gifts as representing his kingship and divinity (gold and frankincense), and foreshadowing his death (myrrh). Later, at his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus was revealed to be the Son of God as we were given a glimpse of the Holy Trinity. And all through this season we are admonished to let our light, and the light of Christ, so shine in the world that it scatters the darkness. That light reveals Christ to the world.

Have you ever noticed, though, that when you shine a light into dark places, not only does that light dispel the darkness, but it also shows imperfections or other scary things? And depending on what kind of light you shine, you might find something even worse. Shine a light in your basement or crawl spaces and you might find cracks in the foundation or mold growing in the corners. I tend to watch a lot of Forensic Files. Shine the right kind of light and you can detect blood on the walls.

When we shine the light of Christ onto the world, the darkness is dispelled. As John wrote, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” But that light also lets us see blood on the walls.

Isaiah saw blood on the walls when he shone the light of God on the practices of Israel. “You serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress all your workers. You fast only to quarrel, and fight, and strike with a wicked fist.”

He goes on to speak on behalf of the Lord – “Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustices, and to let the oppressed go free? Is it not to share your bread and bring the homeless into your house?”

Isaiah is prophesying against a nation filled with false pretenses. Those in positions of power and influence were outwardly pious, but on the inside committed shameful acts; acts that were committed in the dark resulting in injustice, oppression, hunger, and homelessness. These acts resulted in the abuse and possibly death of people on the margins, or people who were different. These acts were done in a way that upheld the existing power structure to such an extent that most people couldn't see how bad the system was. But God saw.

The light of God shone in dark places and brought into view cracks, mold, mildew, and blood that was normally hidden.

The Bible is not static. It was inspired by the Holy Spirit of the living God. It is more than simply a record of past events and deeds in that God still speaks to us through it. As we read and study the Bible we are looking for insight into God and to seek out contemporary relevance from those ancient texts. Sometimes that is hard work; other times it is painfully easy.

February is Black History Month. We are asked for one month out of the year to acknowledge and bring to mind people of color who have sacrificed and given to this country. We are asked, for one month out of the year, to pay attention to and learn about the accomplishments of black people in this country. For one month out of the year we are asked to name those who have for so long been nameless.

Yet there is resistance to doing this, or to acknowledging black people at all. Some states have pulled curricula that teaches about slavery, Jim Crow, and racism – both overt and covert. Florida in particular is working to block schools from having programs on diversity, equity, inclusion, and systemic racism.

Our history as a country includes blocking black veterans from accessing the GI Bill, vastly different loan rates based on skin color, redlining of neighborhoods and the creation of HOA's to keep minorities out of white neighborhoods, funneling funds to better (read “white”) school districts while ignoring funding for schools with a majority of black students, and other systems designed to privilege whites over people of color.

Today black people are killed by police at a higher rate than other ethnicities. The Tyre Nichols case from Memphis shows yet again that the lives of black people, and black men in particular, are in a much more precarious and dangerous place than others. Black Americans are incarcerated at a rate five times higher than other ethnicities. Freeways were built through black neighborhoods, doing immense damage. And the list goes on. As we begin Black History Month, these are things of which we need to be aware and pay attention to.

As we begin Black History Month, the voice of Isaiah is speaking as much to our country as it was speaking to the Israelites. As we move through this Epiphany season of manifestation and revealing, the voice of Isaiah is speaking as much to us as it was speaking to the Israelites.

You serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress your workers. You fast only to quarrel and fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Will you call this a fast day acceptable to the Lord? No, these are not acceptable to the Lord.

The fast God chooses for us is to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share our bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into our homes, and to clothe the naked.

Lent is coming quickly and we are called to fast from things which separate us from God. We fast from excess, from ill speech, or from harmful activities, and we replace what we have stopped with things more favorable to God. We hope that this short-term change leads to a long-term change. Isaiah (and God) is calling us to fast from participating in oppression, injustice, and systems that perpetuate hunger and homelessness. We do this by working for justice and freedom, by working to help feed and clothe, and to find shelter for those in need. In doing these things, we are shining the light of God onto the world.

It's a big job, I get it; but it's a job God is calling us to do. Isaiah is calling us to change how we do things. Black History Month is calling us to recognize the legitimacy of people who for too long have been seen as illegitimate. Epiphany is calling us to make manifest and reveal the light of Christ.

When our light breaks through the darkness, healing shall spring up. When the light of justice and equality shines through the darkness of injustice, inequality, oppression, and affliction, we will then be able to clean the blood from our walls and repair the breach that has separated us from God.

It's a big job, and no one person can accomplish it all. But the journey to justice and equality begins with a single step. With all of the opportunities to shine the light of Christ on the world, where will your journey begin?


Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Sermon; Epiphany 4A; Micah 6:1-8, 1 Cor. 1:18-31, Matt. 5:1-12

Over the years we have been duped. We have fallen into a trap, a trap laced with promises of power and prestige.

In the beginning Christianity was very much counter-cultural. The twelve disciples came from lower or working class people, with a hated Roman sympathizer/tax collector thrown in for fun. Women supported the ministry of Jesus. He hung out with tax collectors, touched and healed the sick, conversed with women, and constantly butted heads with the influential religious authorities of the day.

As the movement spread it welcomed outsiders. Peter saw a vision he interpreted as giving God's love and compassion to all people. Seven deacons were chosen to minister to and feed widows. Saul, as a Pharisee, worked to imprison or kill all who followed the Way of Jesus. The Roman government also worked to eliminate this new sect through a variety of persecutions.

And then Constantine legalized Christianity. It found its way into the government where it quickly became the dominant religious and political movement. With power ow established, it forgot its roots of persecution and began persecuting others. This power also led to the approval and support of slavery, the Doctrine of Discovery, and the marginalization of women and minorities.

Add in the further rise to cultural dominance in the 1950's and '60's, the political influence it exerted in the '80's and beyond, and we have been duped into seeing Christianity as inherently and properly powerful. We have, I think, developed a mindset over the years that if we aren't the dominant religion, if we can't influence society like we used to, if we aren't as prosperous as we used to be, then the whole institution will collapse.

On top of all of this there has been a revival of muscular or manly Christianity. This movement began in 19th Century England, but has shown up here. At its root is a fear that the church is losing men. This loss of men leads to all kinds of troubles: women in leadership, effeminate clergy, and soft theologies. To deal with those issues the movement looks to make Christ more muscular so he will appeal to real men and get them back in church.

This fear of a feminized church, of focusing on past glories, and a desire to dominate the culture and world are all based on power. But take a look at all three readings today and see what they have to say about being in positions of power.

Micah tells the people of Judah that the Lord has a controversy with them. There are lots of reasons this could be so, but in today's passage God is attacking misplaced worship. Shall we come with burnt offerings that provide outward signs but no internal change? Shall we make a show of our wealth by offering thousands of rams? Shall we prove how repentant we are by sacrificing our children? All of these things are about elevating ourselves over what God desires which is, in all actuality, a form of exerting power and control over God.

As you would imagine, though, God does not want these things from us. What does God desire from us? To do justice. To love kindness. To walk humbly. These are not things that provide power and prestige. But these are things that draw us closer to God.

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul talks about the foolishness of the gospel. He mentions that not many in that house of faith were wise, powerful, or noble. In other words, they were mostly made up of the powerless and the underprivileged.

Yet Paul points out that these are the very people called by God. God chose the low, the weak, and the despised. It will be this group of people who bring the message of the gospel to the world. It will be this foolish group who upset worldly systems in favor of God's system.

The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry, and the pure in heart. Jesus is laying out a different kind of power structure. This isn't a system where the rich get richer. It's not a system where the meek are run over and taken advantage of. It's not a Machiavellian political system schemers use to increase their power and influence. This is a system where compassionate foolishness takes hold and the love of God is shown over and above all things.

There is a clear difference between how the world thinks we should operate and how God thinks we should operate. There is a clear difference between how certain churches and leaders operate, and how disciples operate.

Last week was the annual meeting. There was some concern about the budget. There was some concern about the need for new members. Those concerns are valid. But we must not elevate those concerns into our reason for being. That is: we need new members to shore up the budget; or we need new members so we can once again look like we did in 1957.

Don't fall into the trap of trying to reclaim past glory and prestige.

Instead, I think we should be foolishly living into the future message of the gospel. We should be looking forward to how we can become better disciples and to what God might be doing with us. The world sees justice, kindness, and humility as weak and foolish. God sees these as primary to our being. The world sees the message of the cross as foolishness. God sees the message of the cross as life-giving. The world sees the message of the Beatitudes as unsustainable. Jesus sees the message of the Beatitudes as life-shaping.

Let us not be duped into following a worldly path for Christianity. Let us not fall into the trap of thinking worldly power and prestige is what God desires for us. These are things which Satan offered Jesus in the wilderness. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now.

Instead, let us foolishly follow the message of the cross and gospel. Let us foolishly care more for those in need than we are advised to. Let us foolishly work to feed the hungry instead of placing limits on what they deserve. Let us foolishly reach out in love to our neighbors. And let us be less concerned with those who revile us and utter false accusations, and be more concerned with revealing the glory of God to the world.

Happy Epiphany.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Sermon; Annual Meeting Sunday; Epiphany 3A

Welcome to annual meeting Sunday. We are not quite in the middle of Epiphany season, but we have certainly started Epiphany season. The Season of Epiphany is about manifestation and revelation.

Epiphany began with the star that the wise men from the east followed for what some say two years where it eventually rested over the house of the holy family in Bethlehem. There they presented their gifts of gold, frankincense, & myrrh to Jesus and Mary; and, I'm assuming Joseph who wasn't there at the time – maybe he was down at the shop. Our tradition tells us that those men were the first to recognize Jesus as the new king and something special. We recognize this event as the feast day of Epiphany, the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.

The first Sunday after the Epiphany saw Christ's baptism in the river Jordan. After he was baptized the heavens opened up and a dove descend upon him and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son with whom I am well pleased.” In that moment we had what we call a theophany: a time where we see the physical presence of God. For us Christians we see a manifestation of the Holy Trinity – God the Father speaking about his Son, the Holy Spirit (the dove) descending upon Jesus, and Jesus the Son of God.

On the second Sunday after the Epiphany we heard the call of the disciples, but in a different way. In the gospel of John we are told that John the Baptist was gathered with his disciples and he saw Jesus walking along. John pointed out Jesus and said, “Look! There is the Son of God. On him I saw the spirit descend.” The two disciples who had been following John, and had been waiting expectantly for the coming of the Messiah heard that, left John, and followed Jesus. They asked him, “Where are you staying?” Jesus said, “Come and see.”

One of those first two disciples was Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter. After he had spent some time with Jesus went to his brother saying, “We have found him of whom the scriptures have foretold,” and he brought Simon Peter into the fold.

This morning we heard a more familiar call story. Jesus is walking along the shores of the Sea of Galilee and comes across two fishermen, Simon and Andrew, in their boats. He calls to them, “Come, follow me.” Immediately they get out of their boats and begin following Jesus. Walking a little further down the shore he sees two other fishermen, James and John, and calls them to follow him. They also leave their boats, and their dad, and begin to follow Jesus.

If we are paying attention, all through this Epiphany season we will see and hear places where Jesus is being pointed out, where he is being manifested and revealed to us as the Son of God.

I think 2023 is our Season of Epiphany. The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light. We all know we have spent the last few years with the darkness of COVID, with shutdowns and quarantines. Some of us have been infected with that virus. Some of us may know people who have died from that disease. I don't want to say we are post-COVID, because we aren't. It is still with us. So make sure to take care of yourselves. Wear your masks when you feel appropriate or when you are in a large group of people. Make sure you are up to date on your vaccinations.

But in that darkness of COVID, the light of Christ can shine through the people of Saint John's. It shines and manifests itself when we welcome people into our midst. Over the past few months we have seen more people and visitors come through our doors as things begin to open up.

This light of Christ is manifested through us and revealed through us in our worship. We are unashamedly Episcopalian. We do things a certain way, with all things being done decently and in order. We don't do the big movie screen – except for when Dave Calendine comes to play the organ for silent movies. We don't have the little bouncing ball to show you where the lyrics are. We do things a particular way. We have incense on occasion. We have a form to our liturgy. This is how we worship: with the Word and Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ.

We aren't for all people, and that's okay. But we offer a form of Christianity that is fulfilling, that is challenging, and that offers learning. Our worship reflects that.

In our Epiphany season of 2023 we are beginning again to serve in a variety of ways. Service and Outreach is becoming more active. Fabric and Grounds is becoming more active. We are doing more and more things. And in a parish like this, there are a lot of things that need to be done. Evvie Williams and the Altar Guild work hard to ensure that everything is prepared ahead of time so Sunday worship goes off without a hitch. There are plenty of other opportunities for people to step up and serve in a variety of ways and in a variety of Commissions. In a season of Epiphany when Christ is manifested and revealed to the world, this is the time I challenge you all to stand up and serve.

In this 2023 Epiphany season of ours, we also encourage people. We will look for people to find ways to use their skills and talents, and to help educate people both in our Episcopal tradition and other things. Years ago I was asked by my bishop to serve on a committee in which I had no interest in doing. But when your bishop calls to ask if you will do something, the answer is most often yes. I learned a lot by serving on that committee. So don't be fearful of trying something new, or of encouraging people to step into new roles and new directions.

Epiphany is also a season of change. Jesus changed how we see and relate to God. Jesus changed how we see and relate to others. Over the past few years, especially with COVID, we have changed and adjusted to certain ways of doing things. Now that we are opening up in a variety of ways, with gatherings and with singing and with worship, and with everything else that is going on in the world around us, how will we help change the lives of people around us by shining the light of Christ? How can we change how we relate to others? Not only among people inside this parish, but with the people outside our walls? How might we change how we relate to the people who sleep on our steps every now and then? Or those who need food and shelter?

COVID changed how we did things. We are continuing to learn how to do things with COVID, making minor changes here and there. I won't say we are getting back to “normal,” but we are learning to adjust in this season of change.

As I mentioned earlier, we have seen the arrival of new people. We've seen the return of long-time parishioners who have become more comfortable with moving around in the world. Mark King is retiring. January 29 is his last Sunday and there will be a celebration after the 10:15 service. I encourage you all to attend that special event. Katherine Foreman has stepped down as treasurer. We are in the midst of finding replacements for those positions – not to replace and forget, but because we continue to need to have a music program and we continue to need to have someone watching over our finances. But it does throw a monkey wrench into things. And despite what I have told Mark for years – that he was not allowed to leave until after I retired – he went ahead and did it anyway. But these are changes we have to deal with because people come and people go.

There are other areas in church that garner more interest in others, or attract different interests or different passions. Change will always be there. It just so happens that at this particular time we are faced with a major time of change in the parish.

I think, on this annual meeting Sunday, that this is why Saint Paul wrote what he did to the Corinthians. Because I have a sneaking suspicion that his letter was written to the Corinthians on the occasion of their annual meeting. “I appeal to you by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that you all be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.”

That is not to say that we all have to conform, because conformity is one thing; but unity is something else. There can be differences within unity, but as long as we remind ourselves that we are united in Christ, that we are united in sharing his love to the world, that we are united in reflecting the love of God to those around us, everything else will fall into place.

It is never the time, but especially now with all of these changes going on, to say, “I belong to Paul,” or, “I belong to Cephas,” or, “I belong to Mark,” or, “I belong to Todd.” We all belong to this parish, and we all belong to Christ. Change happens. In the midst of change, let us all be grounded in Christ.

Epiphany season is a season of manifestation and revelation. Wise men saw the star and followed to Bethlehem. Jesus was acknowledged as the son of God and seen as part of the Holy Trinity. John pointed out Jesus to his disciples and they left him to follow Christ. Jesus called four fishermen, and others, to follow him and they did.

2023, I believe, is our Epiphany season. So let us be intentional about manifesting God's presence here in this place. Let us be intentional about revealing the presence of Christ to others. And let us be intentional about inviting others to follow Christ. If we do those things, with Christ as the leader and the head and the light, things will be good. Not perfect, but good. For even at the end of creation God never said it was perfect – but he did say it was very good.

May we work to make the light of Christ shine within us. May we work to invite others to be part of this community. And may we work to be unified in Christ, so that all we do may be very good in this 2023 Epiphany season.


Sunday, January 08, 2023

Sermon; Baptism of Christ; Matthew 3:13-17

On this Feast of the Baptism of Christ we remember and commemorate that event by renewing our own baptismal vows. We are also coming out of a rare Christmas season where the Feast of the Holy Name took precedence over the usual First Sunday after Christmas. These two events, Holy Name and the Baptism of Our Lord, pair together really well, I think.

The Collect for Holy Name reads in part, “you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation.”

The name Jesus isn't holy in and of itself, as it was the same name as Joshua, and means “God shall save.” It's not the name that saves, but the person behind the name that saves and makes the name holy. The name of Jesus is holy because it is the sign of our salvation. The name of Jesus is holy because of how he lived his life. The name of Jesus is holy because he lived in perfect harmony and unity with God's will. It is because he lived in accordance with God's will, it is because he knew God as love, it is because he submitted to the will of God (even to the point of death on a cross), that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.

In the baptism of Christ we see some of this holiness. There are multiple moving parts to this event which people have discussed, debated, and wrote about for centuries. There is the obvious confirmation of the Trinity with Jesus, the descending dove/Spirit, and the voice from heaven proclaiming Jesus as the beloved Son.

In Christ's baptism we have Jesus participating in the human condition. That is, while he himself was sinless, he was baptized in solidarity with all other humans who are baptized to be cleansed from sin. Jesus never shied away from being in contact with those people whom society labeled sinners, and this baptismal act reinforces his solidarity with all of us.

The baptism of Christ is certainly a special event. But in looking at this event, we must be careful not to see it as the moment when God adopted a man named Jesus as his son and conferred special divine powers upon him. Instead this should be seen as an Epiphany event. Like on January 6 when we not only commemorate the wise men arriving at the Holy Family's house in Bethlehem to offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and we alternatively call that feast day “The Manifestation of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the Gentiles,” but we commemorate that these men were the first gentiles to recognize Jesus as king of the Jews. The Epiphany event here is that Jesus is proclaimed as Christ to the world.

These two events over the last two Sundays, Holy Name and the Baptism of Christ, remind us of why the name of Jesus is holy and they make known to us the revelation of Jesus as God's beloved Son with whom he is well-pleased.

Last week, and in my Soundings article, I reiterated why the name of Jesus is holy. As I said earlier, it is holy because of all Jesus stood for and accomplished. Today, with his baptism, we renew our vows to live as he lived. Will you continue in the life of the Church? Will you resist evil and repent? Will you proclaim by word and example the good news? Will you love your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice?

These are not simply things we say in a Sunday liturgy, parroting words on a page. These are things we should strive to do in our lives each and every day. These are things we do that reflect the life of Christ. These are things we do that make holy the name of Jesus. If we promise to do these things and then don't – and I don't mean a slip up now and then, but actively not doing them after promising to do them – then it is by those non-actions, or contrary actions, that we defile the name of Jesus. It is by acting contrary to how Christ acted that we take his holy name in vain. And it is by acting contrary to how Christ acted that we ourselves become anti-Christ.

But this is not only about us. This is not only about our personal sins, our personal repentance, or our personal relationship with Jesus. This is also about corporate and systemic sins with which we live and with which we participate.

In the gospel of Luke, John's “Brood of Vipers” comment is directed to the crowd. “What then should we do?” they ask him. His response is telling.

If you have two coats, share with anyone who has none, and do likewise with food. Tax collectors are not to collect more than the prescribed amount. Soldiers are instructed to not extort money by threats or false accusations. Being baptized means that part of what we do is to work for justice, to level the playing field, and to treat all people with dignity and respect.

If this sounds familiar, think about the words of the Magnificat, or the words of Isaiah when he wrote, “Prepare the way of the Lord. Every valley shall be filled, every mountain made low.” Jesus himself said he came to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and to let the oppressed go free.

Today this might look like providing adequate housing and healthcare to those on the margins. It might be to ensure justice for minorities by addressing racial profiling and policies of systemic racism. It might mean we work to end predatory loan practices and release people from the captivity of excessive debt.

As an example: we grocery shop at Martin's, like I'm sure a lot of you do. They have a program where you can round up your purchase and the extra change goes to school lunch programs or the Maryland Food Bank or other such programs. How many of you do this? It's an easy way to help out, an extra 87 cents won't break me, and it keeps my check book tidy. But every time I do that, I wonder why we as a society are battling hunger with extra change from our grocery bill instead of finding a way to budget for proper nutrition for all people in the US. We, as a country, will spend hundreds of millions of dollars, or billions of dollars, on police and military budgets, but next to nothing to help feed, clothe, and shelter people.

Being baptized in the name of Jesus is not only about dealing with our personal sins; it's also about how we as a body will address systemic issues that actively work to elevate a certain segment of our population while continually keeping others downtrodden.

“Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven” is a prayer that won't be answered until we ourselves begin to follow where the Holy Name of Jesus trod and live into the baptismal promises and vows we make. May we who celebrate these two Feast Days be worthy of proclaiming the Holy Name of Jesus and live lives that reflect the promises and vows of our baptism.


Sunday, December 25, 2022

Sermon; Christmas Day 2022

Last night we celebrated the birth of Jesus. We heard the story of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem where he was born. We heard the angels sing and the shepherds making known what had been told them, and then glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Last night was all about the newborn babe lying in a manger. And although it wasn't explicitly stated in last night's story, we know that story is part of a larger story of the incarnation. In that overall story we recalled the Advent “already” of the first appearing of the Son of God as a newborn baby.

So while last night was all about baby Jesus, today we go deeper.

If we believe that Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, if we believe that her child was holy, if we believe the child is the Son of God, then this leads us to the conclusion that this incarnational event was the very essence of God taking the form of a human being.

This was not a man who was infused or taken over by the Spirit of God at some defined point in his life, such as his baptism. This was not God donning an Edgar suit to pass as a human. This was the very substance of God uniting with the very substance of a human being in such a way that neither substance was diminished, but both substances existed in unity of person, fully human and fully divine. This is the mystery of the incarnation.

If we hold to the truth of that incarnational mystery, fully human and fully divine, we are led to the position that Jesus, as having fully divine substance, is the Second Person of the Trinity; that he is indeed God from God. That person speaks not only on behalf of God, but as God. He is the Word, and that Word was, is, and ever shall be, God.

Christmas Day allows us to reflect on the event – or events – of Christmas Eve. I would argue that Christmas Day is to Christmas Eve what the Second Sunday of Easter is to the Easter Vigil.

The Easter Vigil is one of the most liturgically complex services we have, culminating in the celebration of the resurrection of Christ. Christmas Eve is also liturgically complex and revolves around the birth of Jesus. Then Easter 2 comes around, attendance drops, and we ALWAYS hear the story of Thomas and the proclamation, “My Lord and my God.” Likewise, Christmas Day comes around, attendance drops, and we ALWAYS hear, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Easter 2 moves Thomas from a disciple of Jesus to a follower of Christ. Christmas Day moves us from celebrating the birth of Jesus to proclaiming the eternal substance of Christ. As the resurrected Christ allowed the disciples to move to a new understanding of who he was, the eternal Son proclaimed in John's prologue allows us to move to a new or deeper understanding of who Christ is.

In the darkness, chaos, and lack of life that was in the beginning, God spoke. The Word that was with God, and was God, poured out into the nothingness that was and spoke all things into being. The darkness which was, was no more as the light of life burst forth.

But light can be a funny thing. We get used to the dark. Our eyes adjust to the dark and we think we can see perfectly fine, even though we sometimes stumble. We are comfortable with it because we can hide things we don't want others to see. But when the light comes on unexpectedly, we cover our eyes, or shout, “Turn it off!” Sometimes we would rather stay in the dark.

The light of God, the light of Christ, shines in the dark, removing our hiding places, shining in places we don't want seen, sometimes blinding us and causing us to ask for it to be taken away.

This light that shines in the darkness, this light of Christ, is given to us to illumine our path. The darkness will not overcome the light – but we can choose to hide from it or work to lessen it. When we choose worldly power over godly power, we block the light just a little. When we choose selfish desires over holy longings, we block the light just a little. The light will never go out, we are just doing our best to put up curtains in an attempt to block it out.

When we choose to pursue the light, when we choose to let the light overtake us, then we begin to live into his will. It will take some adjusting as we move from dark to light. We might be blinded occasionally, but in the end we will be filled with grace and truth.

This is where Christmas Day takes us: from the birth of Jesus to Mary and lying in a manger, to the understanding and proclamation that this newborn babe is the Word of God, eternal and everlasting, from before the worlds began until the ending, evermore and evermore.

Today reminds us that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. Let us not lose one for the other, but proclaim him both son of Mary and My Lord and My God. And may we never shy away from the light in his glory.

Amen and Merry Christmas

Sermon; Christmas Eve II; 11 pm; 2022

Merry Christmas!

We are gathered here, first and foremost, to worship God. We are also gathered here to celebrate the birth of Jesus. This is the mystery of the Word made flesh. This is the incarnational event when the Second Person of the Godhead, the Son, became a human being. In and through this event God became man, taking on human flesh without losing his divine nature. Tonight is all about the birth of that fully human and fully God baby to lowly Mary. Tonight is when we remember that baby being laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.

As we think about this Christmas story and all that goes with it, there's something we may have overlooked. Just to recap the story: The Emperor calls for a census, which is what takes Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. It's also what brings many other people to Bethlehem, causing a shortage of rooms. The baby is born. An angel appears to shepherds announcing the news of the birth. An angelic host appears singing, “Glory to God in the highest.” The shepherds go to town, find the family, and make known what they had heard. The shepherds then depart, praising and glorifying God for all they had heard and seen.

What we may have missed is how little is said about the actual birth of Jesus. For as much as Luke writes about the annunciations of John and Jesus, Mary's visit to Elizabeth and the Magnificat, the birth of John and the Benedictus, for as vitally important as the birth of Jesus is, Luke only gives us two verses, almost as if in passing. There is more said about the reason Joseph took Mary to Bethlehem and the encounter with the shepherds than about the birth. For all of our celebrations, for all of our liturgical splendor, the event we celebrate is almost written as an afterthought.

That said, note where those two verses about the birth of Jesus fall: almost in the exact middle of the story. The birth of Jesus takes place in the middle of a royal decree that brought Mary & Joseph to Bethlehem and an angelic announcement that brought shepherds into town. The birth of Jesus, placed where it is, and despite the seemingly lack of focus, becomes the focal point of the story.

In the first part of the story, Mary & Joseph are drawn to Bethlehem by outside forces. It is the royal decree of a census that gets them into town. That decree gets them into the City of David, thereby cementing Jesus' connection to ancient Israel. That decree gets them to Bethlehem, which means “House of Bread” in Hebrew, thereby deepening the ties to when Jesus will say, “I am the bread of life.”

In the second part of the story, angels appear to shepherds announcing the birth and singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven.” The shepherds are drawn into Bethlehem to see that of which the angels proclaimed, and then they make known to others what they had been told. This “making known to others what they had been told,” makes them the first evangelists.

On this night we are drawn to this place as surely as Mary & Joseph and the shepherds were drawn to Bethlehem. And just as in the gospel story with people on either side of the birth, there are people tonight who are also on either side of this event.

Some of you may be compelled to come to this place due to outside forces. Some of you are here because of family traditions, or a friend brought you, or grandma/grandpa said you were coming. That's okay. Like Mary didn't want to travel at nine months pregnant but was finally glad to be in a safe, stable place, you also may not have wanted to make this trip; but we are glad you are here. We are glad you are able to share this holy night with us.

Some of you may be drawn to this place because you can hear the angels singing, “Gloria in excelis Deo,” or you want to follow their instructions to worship by singing, “Venite adoremus Dominum.” Or maybe you are drawn to this place by the promise of a Silent Night.

To you also, we are glad you are here to welcome and worship the newborn king.

Regardless of why you are here, whether compelled or drawn, the birth of Christ is the focal point of the night. As the story is divided in two parts, so is our service. We hear the lessons and sing the songs proclaiming Christ's birth as a baby boy. We also participate in that holy meal with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven while we sing praise to the Lamb on the throne. As the birth is the mid-point in the story, we are gathered at the mid-point of what was and what will be. As the birth is the focal point of the story, our worship is the focal point of where we are right now – at that point between the already and the not yet.

At the first service this afternoon we had our No Rehearsal Christmas Pageant. I love this version because of its simplicity. A narrator reads the gospel story that we just heard while calling people up at certain times to play the parts of the various characters. No muss, no fuss, and always entertaining.

Even though we don't have a pageant at this late service, like the characters in the gospel and the people in the pageant, we all have a part to play in the story simply by virtue of our being here. Like the characters in the gospel, we too have been drawn to this moment in time. The question for us is, “Which character will we be?”

Will we take on the role of the Emperor and expect people around us to obey our every whim? Will we play the role of the residents of Bethlehem who were so full of other obligations that they relegated Mary & Joseph to a back room, out of sight and out of mind? Or will we be like the shepherds?

My prayer for all of us tonight is that we take on the role of the shepherds. I pray that we hear and heed the angelic announcement to seek out the one born of a woman and who will save the world. I pray that we will make known what we have seen and heard tonight – God is with us. And I pray that we will leave this place glorifying and praising God for what we have heard and seen, becoming evangelists in our own right.

At the end of the day the focal point of our story isn't what was or what will be, but it is God with us right now, in the middle of our story where we live every day.

May we never overlook that fact in the middle of our story God is with us, and may we, like the shepherds, not keep silent about what we have seen and heard.

Amen and Merry Christmas

Sermon; Christmas Eve I 2022

We have just witnessed a version of the Christmas story. On this night in churches around the world the Christmas story is being told with Mary and Joseph, shepherds and angels, maybe an animal or two, maybe some Wise Men, and a baby Jesus (either real or manufactured). Some of those stories are massively elaborate, some are simple; some have been rehearsed for weeks ahead of time, and some, like ours, are put together on the spot. But no matter the style, the story gets told.

And what is that story we hear?

It's the story of Mary and Joseph listening to an angel of God and choosing to not be afraid. It's the story of a poor couple traveling a great distance because of an imperial edict while she is close to giving birth. It's the story of the birth of Jesus. It's the story of angels telling shepherds of a holy birth and those shepherds going into town to see of what was spoken. It's the story of faith and belief.

On this day we celebrate and remember the birth of Jesus. On this day we witness what we have been waiting for all Advent – the arrival of the eternal God who was and is and will be choosing to be physically manifest and present in a vulnerable, fragile, new born baby boy. On this day we are made glad by the yearly festival of the birth of Christ.

But amid the celebration and amid the story, I want you to notice something that you may not have noticed before: that the birth of Jesus, while vitally important, is relegated to one, maybe two verses in the whole story. The rest of the story is filled with the reason Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem in the first place, why it was so crowded, angels, shepherds, and Mary pondering. More is said about the people and events surrounding the birth than the birth itself.

I think this is important for this reason: by their sheer existence, babies have a way of becoming the center of everything. We have a natural tendency to be drawn to babies and little children. This newborn infant, this God incarnate, drew people to him simply by being.

As we worship the Lord here in the beauty of holiness, let us remember this night. Let us remember that we were drawn here into the presence of God. We were drawn into the story through our participation in the pageant. We are drawn into God's loving embrace. And then let us each shine the light of this night onto a darkened world so that we ourselves may draw others into God's holy presence.

May your Christmas season be joyful and your New Year be blessed.