The Reconciling Work of Baptism

A man was once rescued off a desert island after 20 years all alone.  As the rescuers came ashore, he ran out to meet them, so very excited to see another human being for the first time in two decades.  “Come, come!” he shouted with joy, “You must see the civilization I’ve built during my isolation.”  He brought them to a row of three buildings.  The first building, he pointed to proudly and said, “This is my home.  It isn’t much, but I built is with my own two hands.”  At the next building, he brought them inside to show them all around.  “This is my church.  In 20 years of being lost on this island, I’ve found my faith in God brought me hope when it was easy to feel hopeless.”  Finally, they stopped out front of the third building.  The man pointed over his shoulder and said, with a bit of a scoff, “This is the church I used to go to.”

On the night before he died, Jesus prayed over his disciples.  He prayed that they might be protected by the Father.  He prayed that they might be guided by the Spirit.  And, he prayed that they might be one as Jesus and the Father were one.  Despite the prayers of Jesus himself, somehow, from almost the very beginning, the Church that tries to follow the Way of Jesus has been broken.  Paul’s letters to the Corinthian Church were written to address, among other things, disputes over who was worthy to receive communion that threatened to tear it apart.  The letters of John were sent to deal with a group of Christians who claimed to be the only true believers and were willing to cast all other followers of Jesus into outer darkness.  By the early fourth century, Christians were killing one another, each claiming to understand the nature of Jesus better than everyone else.  Fast forward to the 2001 edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia and the number of different Christian denominations in the world was counted at a whopping 33,830 (thirty-three thousand eight hundred thirty).  I know of a few new Anglican denominations that were founded in the United States since then, so that number only continues to grow.  We are so very far from the dream Jesus articulated in that prayer at the Last Supper, it is lamentable.

As William Reed Huntington, my spiritual mentor from the turn of the 20th century, would ask, what kind of damage have we done to the Kingdom of God when we spend our time and energy fighting amongst ourselves over things that the world sees as frivolous like music, vestments, candles, debts versus trespasses, or the age of baptism?  How can the Church possibly be an agent of blessing in our communities when we are so caught up in being right that we are willing to walk away from those whom Christ would have us call sisters and brothers?  As we heard in the prayer Jesus prayed, our unity as Christians is meant to be a symbol for the world of just how deep and wide God’s love is for the whole creation.  Our disunity keeps the world from knowing that out of love, God sent Jesus, the very Son of God, to live and die as one of us, thereby saving us all from death in sin.  I’m pretty sure that all those who live outside of the Christian faith can see is yet another group of human beings who have totally lost the ability to live together in our differences.

Even as our disunity may feel disheartening, there are glimmers of hope on days like today.  As we welcome into the Body of Christ Turner Hawkins this morning, we do so hopeful of a future in which all Christians are able to work together toward the building up of the Kingdom of God.  [At 10 o’clock,] In just a few moments, we will act out that hope of unity by making a lifelong commitment to young Turner.  Mother Becca will ask us, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support this person in his life in Christ?”[1] In the split second between that question and the answer “We will,” I hope we can ponder for a moment about what that promise really means.  As a child in a military family, young Turner will likely know several different congregations in his lifetime.  His family may worship in an Episcopal Church in Montgomery, Alabama, but he’ll spend plenty of time at his Presbyterian pre-school.  He’ll be raised alongside children whose families are Baptists, non-denominational, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, you name it. The promise we make today is not merely on behalf of the 10 o’clock crowd who will bear witness to this joyous event, but we commit alongside godparents, alongside grandparents, Vicki and David Cole, and their usual 8am crew, alongside Episcopalians and Anglicans, and alongside Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christians around the globe who may one day be called upon to support Turner’s growth in the knowledge and love of the Lord.

I am under no illusion that this simple promise is going to fix the shredded fabric of the Body of Christ that is denominationalism.  Today’s baptism will, I hope, have a profound impact on Turner and his family, but it can’t bring all of Christianity back under one roof.  It can, however, have an impact on us as individual disciples of Jesus.  What if supporting Turner in his life in Christ means modeling behavior that can lead us back toward unity?  We can model unity by holding our identity as Episcopalians with humility.  We can change the way we talk about those who live out their Christianity differently than us.  Rather than looking down our noses at “those evangelicals” or “those Baptists” or “those Roman Catholics,” perhaps we can show Turner what it means to work toward unity.  We can seek ways to work alongside our siblings in Christ in tackling larger issues in our community like poverty, hunger, racism, addiction, and income inequality.  We can show Turner what it means to be one in Christ by loving our neighbors, striving for justice and peace, and respecting the dignity of every human being.

In baptism, each of us given the gift of the Holy Spirit whose mission is to lead us into all truth.  On this day, as we rejoice in Turner receiving that same gift, may we strive toward unity and work to make the church that Turner inherits something closer to the dream Jesus had for it as he prayed for his disciples on that most holy night.  Lord Jesus Christ, help us to be one as you and the Father are one so that we might be models of your love in a world that desperately needs it.  Amen.

[1] Book of Common Prayer, 1979, 303.

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Unity

In November of 1905, the Rev. William Reed Huntington, Rector of Grace Church, New York and umpteen time General Convention Deputy, known affectionately as the First Presbyter of the Episcopal Church, preached a sermon on church unity at the Inter-Church Conference on Federation.  In that sermon, he lamented the fractured state of Christianity in the United States.  He laid before the audience three motivations for unity in the Church: intellectual, moral, and economic.  Intellectually, he feared that among Protestants, the question of authority that had been settled, at least to his mind, at the Reformation were being ripped open again.  The infallible title that had been removed from the Papacy in the 16th century had, over time, been placed upon the Bible, which Huntington thought, and I agree, was the source of entirely too much division.  Morally, Huntington wondered what damage the rifts among denominations would inflict upon American society.  If we are too busy arguing and being ugly toward one another, how can we have any positive influence upon the world in which we live?  Finally and reluctantly, WRH asks what kind of stewardship it is to have so much redundancy in faith communities.  Here, we find the money quote (pardon the pun) for this sermon, “The multiplication of half-filled meeting-houses and half-famished ministers in little country towns, is a sight to make the angels weep…”

More than 100 years later, not much has changed.  In fact, the rate at which disunion is expanding seems only to ever increase.  Now-a-days there are 84,000 ways to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks, and just under half as many, 33,000, denominations in the United States.  We are, it would seem, hopelessly divided, doomed to a future of angels weeping over dilapidated churches, opening their doors to four faithful souls, only on Christmas and Easter.  How is it, that we have fallen so far away from the prayer that Jesus prayed over his disciples on the night before he died, “that they may all be one”?

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Having studied the late Reverend Huntington quite extensively, I think his assessment of the situation is quote accurate, even a century later.  The question of authority and where it rests is a wound that is constantly being ripped open again and again, and it is such a fools errand to study.  Whether we place authority in the Church, the Pope, or the Bible, we have missed the point entirely.  For all authority comes from only one source, not made by human hands or intellect, but begotten of the Father, Jesus the Christ.

The question of authority will not be answered by “certain elaborate philosophies of religion, systems of theology, bodies of divinity,… or in the observance of complicated forms of worship, intricate liturgical arrangements, heavily brocaded rituals; but one through Him whom John the Baptist pointed as the Lamb of God, whom Simon Peter owned to be the Christ, whom fifty generations of believers have called Blessed.”

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, as Jesus seemingly prepares to ascend to the right hand of the Father, he says to the group gathered on the mountain in Galilee, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  God therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Jesus delegated some authority to the disciples because he wouldn’t be present in bodily form any more, but with the promise that he would be with them, and us, always, we can be certain that authority will forever rest upon his shoulders.  If, somehow, we could all agree on that, perhaps the kind of unity that Jesus prayed for would be possible.

How to choose?

Most weeks, the lesson of choice for preaching is fairly obvious.  It is my preference to preach from the Gospel on most occasions, but by the time we reach the 7th Sunday of Easter, it can become challenging to tie the lesson in with the season.  We’ve long since run out of resurrection encounters, especially when they hold fast to this “1 Synoptic + John” mindset in the three-year lectionary cycle.  We’ve been back in Holy Week, at the Last Supper, no less, for three weeks now.  It is post-Ascension in the calendar, so we could tell one of those stories, but I guess that’s not as interesting to the RCL Cartel as a run-on sentence from John 17.

As I look at the other options for this Sunday, there’s the really interesting story from Acts (a staple in Eastertide) of Paul’s temper-tantrum putting him in jail and God providing a way out.  From Revelation, we have a smattering on selected verses from the book’s final chapter.  If one had been doing a series on John’s great vision, I suppose that could be a helpful bookend.  On a short preaching week, with an Ascension Day Eucharist and wedding sermon staring at me as well, I find myself really struggling with which lesson to dive into for preaching this week.

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In one of my preaching courses, Dr. Brosend taught us to ask the homiletical question, “What does the Holy Spirit want the people of God to hear from these texts on this occasion?”  When the preaching process is easy.  When the Gospel lesson is narrative.  When the application is obvious.  This question is fairly easy to answer, but on weeks like Easter 7C, when the lectionary seems to be conspiring against the preacher, the process takes a lot more time.  I can’t just pull resources from my trusted sites on textweek.com and begin the percolating process.  Instead, this week, amidst of the busyness of the many other demands that come with a stipend and full-time employment in the priestly vocation, I’ll be listening more carefully for what the Spirit wants the people of God to hear.

Dear reader, how do you choose?  When the text isn’t obvious and the message isn’t clear, how do you discern what to preach?  I’ll be praying for you as you do your homework.  I invite you to pray for me as well.

The God of liminal places – a sermon

You can listen to today’s sermon here, or read on.


“The only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper.”  This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, though I’m pretty sure he never actually said it.  Twain and his wife Olivia had four children, and even if in his day men didn’t change diapers, there is no way that Twain wasn’t aware that not even a baby with a wet diaper likes the activity of change, even if they might like the results.[1]  Both of my girls were skilled in the alligator death roll to avoid a diaper change.  This is to be expected, I suppose, because they are my children, and despite almost nine years of experimenting with new things in this congregation, I’m not really a fan of change either.  Nobody is.  In fact, I’m pretty sure we are hardwired against change.

In a 2011[2] study, scientists proved the existence of something that we have all experienced in our lives: the Doorway Effect.  This happens to me all the time, maybe it does you too.  I’ll be sitting in my office when I notice that I’m using the last page of my notepad.  I know that the notepads are stored downstairs, so I get up, walk through the doorway of my office, down the stairs, and promptly have no idea why I left my desk in the first place.  Even if I have the almost empty notepad in my hand, I can’t seem to remember why I’m carrying it around.  Of course, once I return to my desk, I remember.  Our brains are so adverse to change, that the very act of crossing through a doorway is enough for us to forget what we were doing.  Social scientists might call it the Doorway Effect, but fancy seminary folk like to use fancy Latin words.  Liminal is Latin for threshold, and during my time at VTS I must have heard the word a thousand times.  In fact, I was so sick of that word that I vowed never to use it again, but sometimes the right word is the right word, and the Seventh Sunday of Easter is all about the stress that comes with living in liminal places.  Everywhere we look, somebody is standing at the threshold of change.

As has been the case for a few weeks now, our Gospel lesson has us back in the upper room with Jesus on the night before he died.  For four chapters in John’s Gospel, Jesus offers his disciples a farewell speech like none other.  The disciples don’t know it yet, but they are standing at the threshold of the Kingdom of God.  In less than 24 hours, Jesus will be gone.  He will be hanged on a cross.  He will die an excruciating death.  He will be buried in a tomb, and locked behind a large stone door.  Jesus knows all these things, and he stands at the threshold with his disciples, offering them advice on how to live in this changed reality.  He washed their feet, and encouraged them to take on lives of service to others.  He gave them a new commandment, that they love one another.  He told them that he is the way, the truth, and life; that no one comes to the Father but by him.  He assured them that the Holy Spirit would come as their advocate, guide, and comforter to be with them.  He promised peace in the midst of immense turmoil; peace that only the Father can give.

And then, as our lesson opens up this morning, Jesus prayed for his disciples.  He prayed that they might have eternal life through faith in him.  He prayed that God would protect them when he went away.  He prayed that they might be sanctified in the truth; that they might be made holy, set apart for God’s honor and glory.  Jesus prayed for his disciples as they stood at the threshold of his death and resurrection, but Jesus didn’t stop there.  He went on to pray for all “those who will believe in him through their word.”  There, on the night before his death, Jesus prayed for Paul, for Constantine, for Augustine, for Thomas Cranmer, for Martin Luther King, Jr., and for you and for me.  He prayed for all of us who live in liminal places.

Easter 7 is all about liminal places.  For the disciples, it was the threshold between Jesus’ death and resurrection, but our Collect for today invites us to think of another threshold moment: the long ten days between Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.  Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension, the day, forty days after Easter, when the resurrected Jesus left the earth, rising on a cloud to be seated at the right hand of the Father.  Next Sunday, we will celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, the day, fifty days after Easter and ten days after the Ascension, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the 120 with power and might, propelling them out into the world to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Easter 7 falls right in between those two Feast days, in that liminal place between Jesus leaving the earth and the coming of the promised Holy Spirit, and so we pray, like Jesus did, for all who live standing at the threshold; that God might not leave us comfortless.

In the same Farewell Discourse, the Holy Spirit is promised to his disciples by Jesus. He calls the Holy Spirit the Advocate, Counselor, Helper, or, as the King James Version says it, the Comforter.[3]  After Jesus left the earth, the disciples spent ten days praying, listening for God to give them direction.  For ten days, their anxiety grew and grew as they heard nothing in response.  I suspect most of us can understand how the disciples felt in those ten days because we too live in a liminal place.  Between Jesus’ death and his resurrection, the disciples spent three days standing at the threshold.  Between Jesus’ ascension and the Holy Spirit’s arrival on the Day of Pentecost, they spent ten days standing at the threshold.  Since then, the Church has spent nearly 2,000 years standing at the threshold, living in the liminal place between his ascension and his coming again.

When Jesus prayed for all those who would come to faith through the testimony of his disciples, he was praying for all of us who will spend our lives trying to figure out how to follow him even though he longer walks the earth.  He prayed for all of us who will, from time to time, wonder if this life on the threshold is worth it.  He prayed for all those who will find the comfort of the Spirit hard to hold onto; all of us who will feel like God is absent from our lives; all of us who pray even though we sometimes wonder if our prayers aren’t just bouncing off the ceiling and hitting the floor.

Easter 7 is a chance to take a deep breath and remember that God is with us in every liminal place.  Every doorway we walk through, God is there.  Every change that happens in a world where the only constant is change, God is there.  Now that I think about it, maybe we are hardwired to resist change so that every liminal place can remind us of our dependence on God alone.  Every liminal moment, every threshold we cross, every change that comes our way is a chance to invite God, through the Holy Spirit, to walk with us, to guide us, and to comfort us.   Come Holy Spirit.  Do not leave us comfortless.  Come with power and might.  Be our comforter and guide as we stand here at the very threshold of the Kingdom of God.  Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Twain#Marriage_and_children

[2] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-walking-through-doorway-makes-you-forget/

[3] John 14:16

They will know we are Christians by our…

One of Jesus’ more famous sayings comes early in his Farewell Discourse to his disciples on the night before he died.  After washing their feet, he gives them the new commandment that we heard two weeks ago: Love another.  “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  In my context, as an Episcopalian in the Central Gulf Coast, John 13.35 has become larger than life as it is a key song in the Cursillo Community, a strong voice for renewal in my diocese.  While there is quite a bit about Peter Scholtes’ song that is left to be desired, it is a solid reminder that our call as disciples is to love one another.

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Of course, this isn’t the only thing Jesus says his disciples should be know for.  In fact, in the very same speech, some four chapters later, which we will hear on Sunday, Jesus says that the world will come to know the Father through those who are in Christ, just as Christ is in the Father and the Father is in Christ Jesus.  What it means to be “in Christ” is a little ambiguous in the NRSV, but several older translations (King James and Young’s Literal) spell out what it means to be in Christ.

“… as Thou Father art in me, and I in Thee; that they also in us may be one, that the world may believe that Thou didst send me.”

The world will know that we are disciples of Jesus, who was the one sent by God to save the world, by our unity.  If this really is a criteria for God’s successful evangelization of the world, then we are doing a pretty poor job of living up to it.  American Christianity, in particular, seems to have as many flavors as there are ways to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks.  How, then, can we live into the ideal that Jesus set for us in his Farewell Discourse?  The key seems to be that we go back to the first test of discipleship: that we have love for one another.

Unity comes from love.  It comes from respecting differences of opinion while honoring the core values we share.  Unity can be found between Southern Baptists, Congregationalists, Orthodox, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians in our shared love for Jesus Christ and for one another.  We may disagree on governance, on scriptural interpretation, on the relationship of science and faith, on same-sex marriage, on liturgy, on an educated pastorate, on musical style, and even on the date of Easter, but in the end, our unity can be found in Christ, just as Christ is in the Father.  Would that we could show the world that unity instead of the messiness of our differences that they might come to believe in the one whom God has sent.

A Liminal Place

Liminal is one of those great seminary buzzwords that a good priest will never utter in their congregation.  I like to think of myself as a decent priest, so I try not to say the word liminal out loud, but I feel like I can type it here on my blog.  Liminal is a fancy Latin transliteration that means “at the threshold.”  Basically, it means transitional, which, as we all know, means lots and lots of stress.  Heck, even changing rooms is enough to make our brains reset.

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This Sunday, the 7th Sunday of Easter, is a liminal place, even though most people won’t recognize it as such.  Thursday marks the Feast of the Ascension: the day, 40 days after Jesus’ resurrection (according to Acts), when Jesus left his disciples staring slackjawed, as he rose to heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father.  May 15th, then, will mark the Feast of Pentecost, 10 days after the ascension, and 50 days after Easter, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the upper room in power and might.  The 7th Sunday of Easter, then, sits smack in the middle – a liminal place in which Jesus is no longer on earth, but the Spirit has not arrived to kick start the spread of the Gospel.

There isn’t much in the lessons appointed for Easter 7c to clue you into this fact, but the Collect lifts of the theme quite nicely:

O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

The Holy Spirit, promised to his disciples by Jesus, is called the Advocate, Counselor, Helper or in the King James Version, the Comforter (John 14.16).  For ten days, the disciples prayed, listening for God to give them direction.  For ten days, their anxiety no doubt grew and grew as they heard nothing in response.  For ten days, their comfort level decreased as they wondered once again if Jesus’ promise really would come true.

I suspect most of us can understand how the disciples felt in those 10 days.  Maybe Easter 7 is a good time to ponder those liminal places when it feels like God is far away; when the comforting Spirit of God seems absent; when stress and worry compound until it feels like our prayers are doing nothing more than hitting the ceiling and bouncing back to earth.  Maybe Easter 7 is a chance to take a deep breath and remember that the prayers we pray matter, that we really do believe that God will not leave us comfortless, and that even in the dark times, the Advocate, Spirit, Comforter is here to strengthen us for the road ahead.

The Challenge of Unity

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On the average Sunday at Saint Paul’s, there will be 150(+/-) people gathering in the same space to worship God, to hear the word read and proclaimed, and to receive nourishment in  Christ’s body and blood.  And while we all come to the same place, we are far from the vision of unity that is often lifted up as the hoped for fruit of Jesus’ high priestly prayer.  We are 7:30 and 10 o’clock.  We are young and old and somewhere in between.  We are deeply committed to our faith and not quite sure what it is all about.  We are apostles, disciples, seekers, and skeptics.  We are worship and doubt; joy and anxiety; intellect and feelz – some of us all at the same time.  Each person arrives on Sunday in need of something different.  Expand that out to include all 1.8m Episcopalians, the roughly 226m Christians in the US, and the maybe 2.2b Christians world wide, and it seems like we are falling woefully short of Jesus’ prayer that we all might be one.

Unity is a challenge because each of us comes to our faith through the lens of our own life experiences.  Some have been deeply rooted in the practices of Christianity since a young age.  They are deeply devoted to a life of prayer, corporate worship, and Bible study.  They listen for the Spirit at work in their lives.  And they come up with any number of different ways to live, vote, shop, and work for the Kingdom of God.  Others are relatively new to the faith.  They are learning the practices of Christianity maybe in fits and starts.  They are striving to hear the voice of God amid the cacophony of other voices.  And they come up with any number of different ways to live, vote, shop, and work for the Kingdom of God.  In America, in 2016, in the midst of one of the worst election seasons on record, with three of the four top candidates professing the Christian faith, it is clear that unity is still a long way off.  However, as disciples of Jesus, it seems foolish for us to not strive after the fulfillment of Jesus final words before his arrest.

How do we find unity amid such diversity?

Just as his prayer comes to an end, Jesus speaks a deep truth that we ought not miss in all the unity language.  “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”  Even as we struggle to find unity with those in the pews around us; those who work in our offices; those who live in our neighborhoods; those who vote in our precincts; it is important to remember that the source of the unity for which Jesus prays is the love of God in us.  In order to acknowledge God’s love for me, I have to also be willing to acknowledge God’s love for my neighbor who votes the wrong way, drives the wrong vehicles, owns the wrong number of guns, and worships in the wrong church.  Across all the things of this world that would pull us toward disunity, the love of God serves as the great unifying force.  God’s love for each and every individual he has created is the underlying factor in every push toward unity in the church.  To recognize the love of God in another is to recognize their inherent dignity which serves as the starting point of unity.