Torn Apart

There are two great rips in Mark’s Gospel.  They bookend the ministry of Jesus.  The first, which we will hear about in Sunday’s lesson, occurs immediately (get used hearing that word) after Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan River.  The second comes just as Jesus breathes his last breath from the cross.  Both are significant, not just because of what is happening in the moment, but because of what they signify in Mark’s larger theological scheme.

As Jesus came up from the water, the heavens were torn apart, and the Spirit descended upon him like a dove.  Mark, who is notoriously skimpy on the details, tells us that through the heavens rent asunder, a voice came and declared “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  This is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and yet, before he does anything, we already know all we need to know about him.  Jesus is the Son of God, beloved of the Father, and his faithfulness even in coming to the moment is well pleasing.  What is even more significant in this moment is that in having the heavens torn apart, the veil between humanity and God has forever been removed.  In taking on human flesh, Jesus forever altered the landscape of humanity and divinity.  As Athanasius said it, “God became man so that man might become God.”  It is in this moment that the heavens show what God had done in the Incarnation.

As momentous as this is, another great tearing occurs at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  As he breathes his last, Mark tells us that the Temple Curtain, that which divided the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple, was torn in two from top to bottom.  While the heavens being torn open is representative of God’s willingness to become human, this tearing open symbolizes our ability to enter into the nearer presence of God.  Getting from earth to heaven is impossible on this side of the River Styx, but with the dwelling place of God on earth made accessible trough the death of Jesus, all of humanity can find themselves in the holiness of God.  This is, as anyone who has seen Raiders of the Lost Ark can attest, a dangerous thing, and yet God has made it so.

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Through the Incarnation of Jesus, God became present to humanity.  Through the death of Jesus, humanity can be made present with God.  These two great tears forever change the landscape of our relationship with God.  No longer does God seem like a far off deity, but rather, God is made fully available to humanity.  The fullness of God’s love, God’s grace, and yes, the dangerous stuff of God’s holiness, are open to us through these two rips in the fabric of creation.  Thanks be to God.

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God looks us in the eye and says, “I love you.”

Today’s sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or read here.


There is something vitally important about being looked in the eye.  We’ve all been in those conversations where it feels like the other person can’t wait to get away from you.  While they may be talking in your general direction, their eyes are scanning the room, searching for an escape route or perhaps someone more important to talk to.  It can be disheartening to be talking to someone while they look around for anything else to do.  In my pastoral care training, they shared with us that the most overlooked people in the hallways of hospitals are the patients.  Rolling around in wheelchairs and on gurneys, their eyes are well below the eyeline of others walking the halls.  While any number of people may say hello to the person pushing a patient down the hall, very rarely does the patient actually get acknowledged.

The same is true of children.  The world seems to exist above their heads, literally and figuratively, as adults discuss things three feet higher than they are.  I was reminded of this over this past week after Lainey received a pretend ice cream and hot dog stand for Christmas.  The stand has an awning at the top, that is maybe three feet off the ground, so when I approached it to order a delicious ice cream sandwich, I found myself talking to the awning rather than the eager five-year-old who was ready to take my order.  It is only when I crouch down to her level that she and I can really enjoy the experience.  Over this past week, we must have played ice-cream-hot-dog cart a hundred times, and everybody got in on the action.  I noticed the power of making eye contact especially when my sister engaged Shopkeeper Lainey.  Lisa is a special education administrator in Philadelphia.  For more than a decade now, she has been dealing with children who are often overlooked.  As Lisa crouched down to buy another Philly soft pretzel from Lainey’s Snack Stand, I could see that this was her standard posture.  While most of us looked around for something to sit on, Lisa was perfectly comfortable crouching down to look a child in the eye, making Lainey feel special, loved, and cared for.

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I can’t help but see my sister crouching down to engage a child with special needs when I read the Prologue to John’s Gospel.  The language is certainly lofty, but the story it conveys is earthy and raw.  It is the story of how the God of all Creation stooped down to look humanity in the eye and share with us that we are special, loved, and cared for.  The story begins when all that existed was God.  In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were in a perfect relationship of love with one another.  The Word was with God and the Word was God, and as God spoke, the Word went forth and created.  The Word created the sun, moon, and stars, the earth and all that walks, creeps, and crawls upon it, the ocean and all that swims therein.  Finally, from the voice of God the Word created humanity, and the Breath gave us life, and the Triune God looked upon all that Creator, Word, and Breath had made and declared it very good.

From then on, God could have stayed far away and simply watched creation like a science experiment, but God didn’t do that.  God loves creation too much to leave us to our own devices, and so, throughout history, God has intervened in the hopes of keeping us in right relationship with God and with one another.  Through Abraham, he made a covenant that God would bless the whole earth.  Through Moses, he gave the law, by which we were to live in peace with one another.  Again and again, we failed to maintain those perfect relationships.  Again and again, we fell into sin.  Again and again, we proved that we needed extra help.  Through the prophets, God called us to return, but in time, it became clear that God was speaking above our heads.  The only way God could really get our attention was by crouching down, looking humanity in the eye, and saying, beyond the shadow of a doubt, “I love you.”  And so, in the fullness of time, the Word who is the light of the world, took on flesh and lived among us.  In his translation of the Bible called The Message, Eugene Peterson puts this powerful verse like this, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”  The good news of Christmas is that God’s very self was born for us. God took on flesh to live as one of us. He entered the messiness of this world, to the point of being born in a barn and laid in a feed trough. God didn’t stand aside, watching creation uncreate itself through the screen of his divine iPad. Instead, God stooped down from heaven and moved into the neighborhood so that he could look us in the eye and affirm that we are loved beyond all measure.

Over the course of our new liturgical year, we’ll journey through Mark’s Gospel and find out what it means for the Divine to stoop down to engage humanity face-to-face; for the Word that John speaks of in such lofty language to move into the neighborhood. In his haste to bring us the Good News, Mark will make us run through the details of Jesus’ life.  He will carefully focus our attention on Jesus’ ministry of service, beginning with Jesus being baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan River and being declared as “beloved Son” by both a voice from heaven and the descending of the Spirit as a dove. Many miraculous events will follow: he will drive out evil spirits, heal the sick, give sight to the blind, make the paralyzed to stand up and walk, and even raise the dead to new life.  By way of several parables, Jesus will teach us what it means to live in the Kingdom of God.  Over the course of his active ministry, Jesus will have no place to lay his head, and yet, out of an abundance of compassion, he will feed thousands upon thousands with scarce resources. He’ll find comfort in friends, be anointed by a stranger, terrorized by enemies, and tempted by the devil. Finally, he’ll be handed over by a traitor, spit upon by his enemies, tried by a coward, and killed at the hand of Rome, only to rise again on the third day. Jesus, the Word of God who took on flesh and blood, will not stand idly by while real life goes on around him, but instead he will experience the roller coaster nature of human life, taking it all into himself, redeeming the good and bad, highs and lows, joys and sorrows.

As we heard on Christmas Eve, to us is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This is the Good News of Mega Joy of Christmas. God, who could have very easily sat back and watched as the creation he spoke into being destroy itself by selfishness and jealousy, instead came to earth and lived and died as one of us so that we might know how much God loves us.  Two thousand years later, the Incarnation still means that God is present in our joys and in our sorrows. God is present as we come to the end of 2017, whether we think back on it with fondness, or hope to forget it ever happened. God is present as we prepare for what 2018 has to offer, whether it is the joy of a child or grandchild, the promise of a new career, or the cold diagnosis of disease. God is present in the joy-filled songs at 10 o’clock and in the simple recitation of the liturgy at 8am. God is present in traffic on Scottsville Road, in the waiting room, in the shopping mall, and in school. No matter where we are or what we are feeling, the good news of Christmas is that God moved into the neighborhood in order to look humanity in the eye, to look you in the eye, and make sure you know that you are special, you are cared for, and God loves you.  Amen.

The Mega Joy of Christmas – a sermon

You can listen to the audio on the Christ Church website, or read it here.

Merry Christmas!


​        I’m not sure there is anything that Saint Luke can’t do. He might be history’s first renaissance man. He was a physician, a theologian, an evangelist, and at times, a historian. Above all else, however, Luke was a storyteller: one of the best storytellers the world has ever known, and his skill is on full display in tonight’s Gospel lesson, the greatest story ever told.

Luke begins the Christmas story the way so many great stories begin, with political intrigue.  The powers-that-be in Rome had decided that it was once again time to raise taxes beyond their already crippling rate, and so they called for a census. Now, the Romans were as ruthless as they were smart. They knew that the best way to show their might it to treat people like they were nothing, and so, they put the onus of the census on their subjects, moving them around like pawns at their whim.  Every man was required to close his business, pack up his family, and travel to his ancestral hometown.  For Joseph, this meant he and his nine-months-pregnant wife, Mary, had to embark on an 80-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  Under the best circumstances, this would have been a four-day trek.  Heaven only knows how long it would take with Mary great with child.

From political intrigue, Luke transitions to family drama.  As Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, word of Mary’s… condition… had preceded them.  Joseph’s kinfolk had done the math.  Mary is way too pregnant for how long they’ve been married.  One door after another is shut in Joseph’s face.  “Sorry, there is no room for you here.”  It was late, and Mary was beginning to feel the impending reality.  The baby is coming, and family dynamics or not, Mary needed a place to lie down so that she could have the baby in safety, and she needed to find it quickly.  Desperate, Joseph tried one last place, the inn on the edge of town.  This too was a non-starter, but out back, there was a barn.  It wasn’t much, but it would protect the young mother and her child from the elements.

Wisely, Luke skips over the details of the birth, but soon enough, we are witnesses to the child that Gabriel promised would be called the Son of the Most High who will reign over the house of Jacob forever.  Suddenly, the scene shifts, and we find ourselves well out of town with some shepherds gathered around an evening fire.  We might have quaint images of children in shepherd costumes tending their flocks by night, but Luke certainly did not.  In the first century, shepherds were universally despised; a necessary evil in a world that was still transitioning away from nomadic farming.  They were hired hands, sent off into the wilderness to tend the sheep of rich cattle owners.  They didn’t count as people, so they didn’t have to make the journey to their ancestral homes to be counted in the census.  Out for months at a time, doing who-knows-what in who-knows-where, shepherds were considered so unclean that most towns had laws forbidding them from entering the city gates.  It was a well-established belief that shepherds were dishonest cheats.  Way out there, nobody could know how many lambs were born each spring, and so, maybe they sold a few lambs each season to line their own pockets.[1]  Shepherds were considered so deceitful that they were not allowed to testify in court.

It is way out there, with the smelly, untrustworthy, not-even-qualified-to-be-called-a-person shepherds, that the Good News of Jesus’ birth is first made known.  Now, if you had been told your whole adult life that you were of no value and that God couldn’t even love you, when the darkness of the night was suddenly torn open with heavenly glory and an angel looked you square in the eyes, the proper response would certainly be one of fear.  Some might say terrified, but I prefer the King James Translation.  “They were sore afraid.”  This fear was something beyond what you might experience on the Tower of Terror ride at Hollywood Studios or the fear some might feel walking around the Nave all alone, late at night.  In the Greek, Luke, the great storyteller, writes that the shepherds “epho-batha-san phobon megan,” they “feared a mega fear.”

The angel, knowing as angels always do that a human’s initial reaction to them will be fear, quickly tries to calm the situation.  “Fear not!” the angel says, “for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”  Again, turning to the Greek, we see the beauty of Luke’s storytelling skills, the angels tells the shepherds “euanggelion umin caran megalen,” literally, “I bring you good news of mega joy!”  God steps into the depths of mega fear, appearing to a crowd of shepherds who had been convinced they were worthless liars, and shares with them the good news of mega joy that on this night, in the city of David is born a Savior who is Christ the Lord.  It is to those who were never to be trusted that God entrusted the Good News.

Like I said, Luke is a phenomenal storyteller, but his greatest gift is including each of us in the story.  The good news of mega joy is given to the shepherds, but it is intended to be shared with all people, which, in case you were unsure, definitely includes you and me.  The unbelievable witnesses will tell the unbelievable story of God’s unbelievable love for all of humanity.  There is something comforting about all that disbelief.  It makes me feel like maybe, just maybe, I might be qualified to tell the story.  It makes me sure that you too have what it takes to spread the Good News of great joy for all the people.  And so, tonight, despite whatever else we might have going on in our lives: no matter how mega the fear might be, how profound the sadness, how stressful the situation, we join with two thousand years of Christians in hearing the words of the angel, “Fear Not!”  And maybe, even just for a moment, we allow the mega joy to take hold, and join our voices to the heavenly chorus, shepherds, apostles, prophets, and martyrs in singing, “Glory to God in the highest!”  We join with two thousand years of Christians who have given thanks for the good news of mega joy that Jesus was born to give us hope and courage in the face of fear and sadness.

Luke’s ability to include us in this amazing story is what keeps Christmas relevant in a world that is increasingly suspicious of the religion that follows Jesus.  Seeking out hope in the midst of fear is something we can all understand, something we all desire. There is something universal about trying to set aside the frustrations of everyday life in order to have 24 hours of uninterrupted joy.  Christmas is the one time each year where everybody gets the chance to smile in the face of a thousand things that would cause you to frown.  To quote my favorite Christmas movie, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”  Not gifts or lights or food or family, but the good news of mega joy that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son into a world full of mega fear to save it.

Luke’s great story continues, with the shepherds running off to find the baby, and when they saw him, just as the angels had told them, they returned to the fields, with hearts full of joy, praising and glorifying God as they went.  Let’s follow in their example.  Christmas is here, my friends.  Thanks be to God!  Now, let’s get to celebrating the good news of mega joy for all people: Jesus Christ is born!  Amen.

[1] Thanks Frank Logue http://aplm2013.blogspot.ca/2013/12/preachers-study-christmas-2013.html

Merry Christmas

With Advent 4 and Christmas Eve falling on the same day this year, there isn’t much time to switch gears.  This is true in the life of the parish.  The greenery is already hung, candles are in the windows, and the remote control for the battery powered pillars has been located.  It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but only beginning.  The poinsettias and magnolia won’t show up until after the morning services are complete.  The Christ candle, lit twice this season in celebration of the Resurrection of the Dead, won’t get lit until Sunday night.  The decorations have only begun, but we know there won’t be much time to make the transition.  The same it true for preachers.  I’m grateful for the blessing of a staff.  This means that unlike many of my colleagues, I won’t be preaching Advent IV in the morning, Christmas Eve that night, and Christmas Day early the next morning.  While this blog has been focused on Advent IV, my exegetical life has been already focused on Christmas Eve.  This also means there isn’t much time to make the switch here either.  So, with apologies to the Advent Police, today, with the O Antiphons still on our lips, I take a moment to consider the joy that comes on Christmas.

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It seems that every Christmas, my interest is drawn to the same place.  Having twice been in a labor and delivery room, I’m not real interested in hanging out with Mary and her midwife for the delivery of the Christ child.  Instead, since it isn’t my child, I’ll act like a 1950s dad and hang out on the greens.  I’m always glad for the shepherds in the Christmas story.  I’m grateful that it is to them that the Good News of Great Joy is first delivered.  There, out on the margins, is where the heavenly hosts arrive to sing praise to the God of our salvation.

Nobody liked shepherds.  They were a necessary evil in a world still transitioning from nomadic farming.  They were smelly and suspect in character.  They were not to be trusted, and yet, it is to them that the Good News has been entrusted.  The unbelievable witnesses will tell the unbelievable story of God’s unbelievable love for all of humanity.  There is something comforting about all that disbelief.  It makes me feel like maybe, just maybe, I too might be qualified to tell the story.  It makes me sure that you, dear reader, have what it takes to spread the Good News of Great Joy for all the people.

As you make the quick transition from Advent to Christmas this year, my prayers are with you.  May God bless you with the words necessary to share the unbelievable joy that comes in a manger on the outskirts of Bethlehem.  Merry Christmas, dear reader, I will see you in the new year.

The importance of proclamation

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I wish there was a YouTube video I could share with you, but as of yet, there is not.  You’ll have to just trust me that the Betty Carr Pulkingham setting of the Mary’s Magnificat is legit and that if your congregation isn’t singing Mary’s Song this week, your worship will be sorely lacking.  If you have a hymnal handy, you should pull it out and open it to S247.  If you do, you’ll not that Pulkingham uses the opening verse of Mary’s famous hymn of joyful hope as an antiphon, which is just a fancy church word for a refrain.  It is set as a canon in two parts.  The way the setting is written, there is a certain highlight on the opening words of Mary in the ICET translation of the original Greek text.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

The focus of Pulkingham’s antiphon is on Mary’s proclamation, which is interesting, given that the title Magnificat is Latin for the Greek word that Luke’s gives Mary’s Song, that is better translated at “magnify.”  I haven’t been able to locate the ICET’s working documents on the Magnificat translation, so I cannot be sure why they made the switch from magnify to proclaim, but I’m certain they didn’t do it without careful consideration.

While I take great delight in the old version, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” there seems to be something important about this newer version’s attention to proclamation.  Mary’s intent, it seems, isn’t simply to shine a light on the greatness of God so that she and Elizabeth can experience it, but rather, her ministry as the God bearer is to show forth the greatness of God for all the world to see.  By proclaiming that God has looked with favor on an unwed mother and that God is already in the process of turning the world upside down: casting down the mighty, scattering the proud, lifting up the lowly, and filling the hungry with good things; Mary is shouting from the rooftops the Good News that will come to completion in the life, death, and resurrection of her Son.

As we read and/or sing the Song of Mary this Sunday, mere hours before we light the Christ candle and rejoice in the birth of our Lord and King, it might be worthwhile to spend a few moments pondering the importance of proclamation, both in Mary’s Magnificat and in our own lives as disciples of the soon-to-be newborn King.

A comfort in perplexity

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The Annunciation by Liviu Dumitrescu

Among the many prayers that are said during The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage in the Episcopal tradition, this one came to mind as I read the familiar story of the Annunciation: “Give them wisdom and devotion in the ordering of their common life, that each may be to the other a strength in need, a counselor in perplexity, a comfort in sorrow, and a companion in joy.”  The word “perplex” is not one that gets a lot of use these days, and it is a word for which very few of us have a working definition.  It means something deeper than confusion.  To be perplexed is to be totally knocked off kilter by something; to be completely baffled, mystified, and thrown off balance.

In the marriage rite, this word makes sense because life will inevitably throw us off balance.  When entering into a covenant to share life with another human being, it must be assumed that there will be moments when one or the other or both of you will find yourself in a state of perplexity, needing desperately someone to come alongside and help you find your footing.  It might come in the doctor’s office, the boardroom, or by way of a phone call in the middle of the night, but it seems likely that for everyone, a moment of perplexity will come.  So, we pray that the couple might serve the other in those moments as a counselor, one who will offer wisdom beyond the immediate circumstances of life, in order to rebuild the foundations that are crumbling.

While I think that role of counselor is important, and I get that the author of this prayer needed comfort for the antithesis of sorrow, I really think the best role any of us can take on during someone else’s perplexing time is that of comforter, and I think the angel Gabriel is the archetype of a comforter in perplexity.  The Greek word translated as “perplexed” carries within it even deeper meanings of fear and upset.  Mary wasn’t just confused by the reality of an angel standing in her room telling her that she is favored and that the Lord is with her, but she is downright scared, anxious, confused, and totally taken aback.

Rather than working to counsel Mary by offering her suggestions as to how she might overcome her state of perplexity, Gabriel takes on the mantel of comforter with the words that angels always bring to those to whom they are made manifest, “Don’t be afraid.”  He then calls her by name, an uncommon occurrence for women in the Scriptures.  There is something reassuring about hearing one’s name be said aloud.  In calling her Mary, Gabriel assures this young bride-to-be that she is seen and valued.  Even as she feels the ground crumbling around her, Gabriel assured Mary that her core identity is secure.  She is, and will always be, even as she will soon become the Theotokos.  Gabriel then reiterates her state of blessedness, being favored by God. Literally, Gabriel says that she has been found in the grace of God.

Life can be perplexing at times.  It is good to have close companions who can serve as a source of God’s comfort in those moments, and it is a holy assignment to be asked to be a comforter in perplexity.

Testify to the Light

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When approaching an airport in low light conditions, a pilot is trained to look for the airport’s beacon.  You’ve surely seen them as well.  They are particularly noticeable near a smaller airfield where roads often pass by in close proximity.  Often when there are some low level clouds lingering about, you’ll see the white and green beams streaking across the sky.  From the air, these lights are visible from many miles away, helping a pilot flying under Visual Flight Rules get their bearings and begin the approach process.  If you can’t see the beacon at the airport, you can’t legally land there under VFR.

The beacon image came to mind this morning as I was reading John’s version of the John the Baptist story.  The lectionary assigns selected verses from John 1 (6-8, 19-28), including three from the familiar and beloved prologue.  With its dual themes of Word and light, the prologue sets up for the reader the theological foundation of John’s Gospel.  The preexistent Word was sent into the world to shine the light of God for all people.  In our text for Sunday, John is careful to note that John the Baptist is not the light, but rather “he came as a witness to testify to the light.”

Both the noun “witness” and the verb “to testify” are translated from the same Greek root, martyr.  John was the witness of the light who was to witness about the light.  To stretch the flying metaphor above, JBap had been given the ability to see the beacon of God’s work in Christ, and was called to get on the radio to tell anyone with who would listen where to find the light.  He was calling everyone back to their home field.  He was inviting them all to see the light shining in the darkness of the world.

As disciples of Jesus in the 21st century, we are inheritors of this primary vocation.  We are called to share the Good News of Jesus; to help our family, friends, and neighbors to see the beacon that is so often obscured by the fog of fear, anger, hurt, and regret.  As followers of Jesus, we are to carry that light out into the world to help people see that in the light of Christ there is life, and that life is abundant with joy, compassion, grace, hope, and love.  The world is in a constant state of low light conditions, but with the light of Christ, Christians are called to shine in the darkness, for as we hear in the prologue, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.