How do I find faith?

       As you might guess based on my line of work, I spend a lot of time thinking about faith.  I ponder my own faith: how it waxes and wanes; how it sometimes feels downright silly; how it sustains me in moments of distress; how it compels me to do all kinds of foolish things.  Moreso, I consider the faith of others: how it is formed; where it comes from; how it grows, deepens, and flourishes.  Faith formation is a part of the job description for being a priest, but I have my own internal motivation.  It lingers in my memory as one of my greatest failures in ministry, a giant “what if” that compels me to seek the roots of faith and how to nourish it on a regular basis.

       Back in my seminary days, a bright-eyed-not-quite-yet-post-evangelical Steve did his field education at St. James’ in Potomac, Maryland.  My big project for my first semester of field ed was to lead a seekers’ class.  Potomac, Maryland in 2008 was a rapidly growing community.  McManisons were being built faster than the zoning board could approve them, and congregations like St. James’ were eager to find ways to let new neighbors know they existed.  When I came up with a snazzy name like, “Finding God in Spite of the Church,” our people got excited.  We printed fliers and folk hung them up in the post-office, grocery stores, and even forwarded a press release to the local newspaper.  Many longtime members came to see who would show up.  Others came to the class to learn how to speak the language of a seeker.  Despite all the passive publicity we did, no one actually invited anyone, and only one seeker showed up.

       The product of a Roman Catholic mother and a Zoroastrian father, she arrived confused, frustrated, and seeking something that she had seen in the religious lives of her parents.  She came with only one question, “How do I find faith?”  Our very knowledgeable and eager group offered a straightforward and Biblical answer, “it is a free gift, you don’t need to find it, you just need to ask for it.”  We all sat back in our chairs, proud of our answer and waiting for her to experience the relationship with God in Christ that all of us simply took for granted.  “Isn’t that the arrogance of having faith?” she replied, “I have been searching for it, but faith hasn’t been offered to me as a free gift.”  We fumbled around for a better answer, but never found one.  Considering her struggle, faith seemed so easy for the rest of us, and try as we might, we couldn’t explain to her where it had come from.  She never came back, and I occasionally remember to pray for her, wondering if that question still sits heavy on her heart.

       “How do I find faith?” is a question at the center of our Gospel lesson.  We are back in the upper room that Jesus and his disciples had rented for the holiday weekend.  It had been a chaotic Sunday on the back of a wild week.  They had gone from a nice Passover dinner with the gang to Jesus being dead and buried in less than 24 hours.  Now, as John tells the story, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb before sunrise on Sunday to anoint Jesus’ body.  Instead, she found the stone rolled back and the body of Jesus gone.  She ran and told Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved what she had seen, and they sprinted to see for themselves.  John tells us the unnamed disciple saw the empty tomb and believed.  What he believed, we don’t know, John simply tells us that the disciple had pistos, faith.  There is no mention of Peter’s faith or lack thereof in that moment, just that after seeing the empty tomb, the two of them went home.

       Mary stayed behind and wept.  Wept for the death of her friend and teacher.  Wept for the loss of hope.  Wept for the heaviness that now his body was missing.  Suddenly, Jesus appeared before her, though she thought him to be the gardener.  She begged him, “if you have taken his body, tell me where it is.”  Jesus responded with one word, “Mary,” and instantly, she recognized him as her Rabbouni, her teacher, her friend, her Lord.  Jesus commissioned Mary as an apostle to the apostles and she hustled back to the upper room to proclaim her faith and say, “I have seen the Lord.”

       Our lesson this morning begins later that same day.  It seems the proclamation of Mary Magdalene and whatever it is that the unnamed disciple believed hadn’t made much of an impact on the group as they sat behind a locked door and feared for their lives.  The unspoken question that surely hung heavy in that room must have been something like, “How do we find faith enough to move?”  Amid their fear and through a locked door, Jesus entered and spoke one word, “Shalom.”  “Peace be with you.”  Apparently, faith didn’t happen in that moment because John tells us he had to show them his hands and his side before they realized what was happening.  “Peace be with you,” Jesus says to them again, as he breaths on them and offers them the Holy Spirit as advocate and guide.

       “How do I find faith?” Thomas wonders.  They all got to see Jesus’ wounds.  Thomas just wants what the rest of the disciples got because the idea that Jesus is resurrected from the dead is so far beyond his ability to comprehend.  Thomas needs proof, as did the rest, and so, a week later, again in a room that is closed off, Jesus appears, offers Shalom, allows Thomas to touch his hands and his side, and says to him, “don’t have apistos, have pistos,” “don’t be unbelieving, believe,” “do not doubt, have faith.”  And then Jesus says something that seems to be geared not toward the gathered disciples, but toward those of us who one day might hear the story, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have pistos (belief).”

       Faith is a free gift, but Jesus knows that free doesn’t mean easy.  Mary had faith because Jesus said her name.  The disciple whom Jesus loved had faith because he saw the empty tomb.  Others had faith because Jesus offered them peace, showed them his hands and his side, and gave them the Holy Spirit.  Thomas believed because Jesus gave him what he needed. You and I have faith because others have shared with us the power of God and the difference that Jesus made in their lives.  Our faith is sustained, presumably, because we continue to experience the risen Lord in our own lives, but if you find faith hard to hold onto these days, know that you are not alone.  In the face of mass shootings, impotent law makers, climate change, and a rise in authoritarianism, just to name a few of this week’s portents, it is pretty easy to begin to wonder, “How do I keep my faith?” and it’s no wonder so many these days ask, “How do I find faith?” or worse yet, “why should I find faith?”

       John’s Gospel was written so that those who read it might find pistos, and that by having faith, might find abundant life.  It seems to me that hidden in plain sight in all of this is the answer to that woman’s question so many years ago.  “How do I find faith?”  Find a community that has faith, let the life of that community wash over you, and slowly, over time, you’ll begin to experience that life for yourself.  Faith is a free gift, but it isn’t an easy one.  To build faith, it takes a community, working and praying with each other, and when you find it, Jesus is so right, it is a blessing.  May God bless us with the faith we need to sustain each other in building up the Kingdom of Heaven in a world that desperately needs it.  Amen.


Called and Equipped

One of the things I love about being an Episcopalian is the opportunity to pray prayers that have been prayed by the faithful for more than a thousand years.  Some of the words we pray go back as far as the 6th century.  Some, based in Scripture, go back to the days of St. Paul.   Of course, there are also wonderful prayers that are newer than that.  With every new edition of the Book of Common Prayer, we get new authors writing new prayers for the faithful to lift to God.  This morning’s collect is one of those prayers.  Written by the Rev. Dr. Massey H. Shepherd, JR. for the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the collect for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany is a prayer that focuses on the call to ministry for every baptized Christian.

Call is a funny thing, however.  As the world has focused more and more on specialization, the basic Christian call has been moved away from the baptismal font and toward ordination.  Those who are discerning ordained ministry are said to be “discerning a call,” and the process will invite them to repeat, ad nauseam, the story of “their call.”  This happens to the detriment of the Church, however.  The more we associate our clergy with some kind of special calling, the more we take away from the laity and their distinct calling as baptized members of the Body of Christ.

So, this morning, we pray in the words of the late, Dr. Shepherd, that God might give us the grace required to “answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ.”  This is a fine thing to pray for, but I can’t help but wonder if we understand what the call of our Savior really is?  To what is Jesus calling us?  Based on our collect and the Gospel lesson, I think there are three parts of the call every Christian receives from Jesus.

First, the call to repentance.  “Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”  This is the core message of Jesus.  However, repentance is a tremendously bad translation for what Jesus is calling us to in the Gospel.  Repent comes to us from Latin.  It is the prefix “re” which means “again” and the word “poenitire” which means “to make sorry.”  Repentance, then, means to “be sorry again,” or as we commonly think of it in modern theology, “to be grieved over past sins and to seek forgiveness.”

The Greek word that is repeatedly translated as “repent” is metanoia, which has nothing to do with “making sorry,” but rather it is all about changing your mind or to reconsider your choices.  Jesus isn’t calling us to feel sorry and to beat ourselves up for our past actions, though confessing them and being forgiven is important.  Rather, Jesus calls us to a future in which we live with changed hearts and minds.  A future in which we don’t live based on our selfish desires, but for the kingdom of heaven, where God’s will is done; where the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, and the oppressed are set free.

That’s the first call, to repent.  Secondly, Jesus calls on his disciples to follow him.  For Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, this call was literal.  Jesus invited them to drop their nets, leave their old lives behind, and to follow him around the Galilean countryside as he proclaimed the good news, healed the sick, and cast out demons.  We too are called to follow Jesus, though in a more metaphorical sense.  We follow the teachings of Jesus, or at least that is the calling we are trying to live into.  We strive to follow the beatitudes and be peacemakers, who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  We strive to follow Jesus’ parables and to look for the pearl of great price that comes from living our lives like Jesus lived his; loving our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.

First, we repent.  Second, we follow.  Finally, then, as we prayed in the collect this morning, we are called to “proclaim to all people the Good News of Salvation in Jesus Christ.”  This is, no doubt, the most difficult of the three callings.  The first two aren’t easy by any means, but they tend to be more internal work, things we might be able to do without anyone really noticing.  “Proclaiming to all people the Good News” is going to get noticed, and it might make us Episcopalians feel downright uncomfortable, but it is part of the baptismal call.  In the Baptismal Covenant, we vow that with God’s help, we will proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.  In our Catechism, it teaches the ministry of the laity is to represent Christ and the Church and to bear witness to Christ wherever they may be.  Further, it states that it is the duty of all Christians to, among other things, work for the spread of the kingdom of God.

I know what you are thinking.  “I’m not equipped to do one or more of these callings.”  I get it.  I’ve been there.  Many times.  I told this story from the pulpit back in January of 2020, but many of you weren’t members here back then, and since COVID took away our collective memories, I think I’m safe telling it again.  It happened at my first ever continuing education event way back in November of 2008.  I attended a conference put on by the United Methodist Church called “Worship in a Postmodern Accent.”  It really was a fantastic conference, filled with impactful alternative worship experiences, lectures by some of the most creative minds in worship planning, and good fellowship with people, some whom I still have contact with through social media.  For all the good that week had to offer, I also still remember the overwhelming feeling of inadequacy that threatened to swallow me whole.

In November of 2008, I had been a priest for half a minute.  I was twenty-eight years old, and still not sure what this life of ordained ministry would really look like.  There I was, mixing it up with some of most imaginative and talented people in their field, and I began to wonder, “Do I even belong?”  It all came to a head on the second day, in some non-descript hotel meeting room, at three o’clock in the afternoon.  The organizers had set up a labyrinth experience unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  A dozen or so prayer stations had transformed a room with loud carpet and foldable walls into a sanctuary.  There was a working television at one station, a sand box at another, and various light displays.  It all led to the center where they had somehow created a flowing river in this hotel ballroom.  As I took in what was happening in that space, a little voice crept into my head and said, over and over again, “You’ll never be this creative.  Give it up.  Why waste your time?”  Still, I plodded through the labyrinth.  In the middle, at the bank of the manmade river, we were supposed to write down our fears on a piece of paper, and I kid you not, fold it into an origami boat, to float down the river.  This really happened.  By that point, I knew my fear all too well.  I was afraid I wasn’t enough.  I was afraid that I would never be enough.  Not just to create some crazy alternative worship service someday, but that I’d never be enough to be a good priest.  I grabbed a pen from the cup and began to write.  A few letters in, the pen dried up.  Of course, it did.  I couldn’t even do that right.  I looked down in exasperation at the pen in my hand and noticed that it wasn’t your typical gray Bic that you can buy a dime a dozen.  It was a promotional pen, not for the United Methodist Church, but for God.  It simply said, “God doesn’t call the equipped.  God equips the called.”

We are each called by God to repent, to follow Jesus, and to proclaim the Good News, and God knows we can’t do any of it on our own.  As life unfolds, and fears of inadequacy creep up, God is always ready to equip us with what we need to once again repent, follow Jesus, and proclaim the Good News.  As we embark on another year of ministry, may God give us grace and equip us with what we need to answer readily our call as a community of disciples here at Christ Episcopal Church.  Amen.

Giving away that which is passing away

       Since 1999, the late Hugo Chavez and his disciples in the Fifth Republic Movement have been in power in Venezuela.  Their policies of cultural and political hegemony have exacerbated an already delicate situation in the South American country such that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that more than six million Venezuelans have left their home country because of a lack of reliable food, water, and electricity and the constant threat of violence.  The Venezuelan refugee crisis is the third-largest external displacement crisis in the world, behind the worn-torn countries of Syria and Ukraine.  Refugees from Venezuela are often left with only the clothes on their backs as they escape violence, oppression, and degradation.  The vast majority of them have settled in Latin and North America.  More than 50% have landed in Peru, and close to a quarter are here in the United States trying to navigate the convoluted and expensive asylum process.[1]

       Adding insult to injury, earlier this week, 48 Venezuelan asylum seekers – men, women, and a dozen elementary aged children – were put on airplanes with no indication as to where they were going.  Vulnerable, confused, and afraid, they were transported from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, a mostly rural, island community about three hours south of Boston.  Stuck in the middle of an ongoing fight between Republicans and Democrats, these 48 human beings were nothing more than pawns for politicians as they argue the merits of their own version of immigration reform.  Faced with 48 new residents who arrived unannounced and without much more than a backpack’s worth of belongings, the residents of Martha’s Vineyard had a choice to make on Wednesday afternoon.  They could throw up their hands and say, “not our problem.”  They could call on immigration officers to come handle it.  Or, as they did, they could welcome the stranger in their midst, loving their Venezuelan neighbors as themselves.

       According to the Martha’s Vineyard Times[2], at about 5 pm, less than two hours after the flights had landed, the Dukes County Sherriff addressed the asylum seekers.  “We’re going to take care of you,” he said through a translator, “Get all your personal belongings together and then we’ll move… The most important thing is we get you food and shelter and water.”  Their first stop was the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School where they were given food, water, and temporary shelter.  Ninety minutes later, school buses rolled out from the high school to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown where they spent two nights.[3]  Edgartown Pizza provided dinner.  Mocha Motts brought coffee.  Local lawyers supplied legal aid, while dentists and doctors offered medical care.  When faced with a people being used as “unrighteous mammon” for political gain, the people of Edgartown and Martha’s Vineyard showed compassion, grace, and love, and they proved themselves faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  The 150 members of St. Andrew’s were, one might argue, faithful with the little they have while ministering to human beings that others considered to be unrighteous.

       Our Gospel lesson for this morning is probably the most difficult parable Jesus ever told.  In most parables, we can easily figure out the allegorical relationships.  In the parable of the lost sheep, we realize pretty quickly that God is the shepherd and human beings are the sheep, but here, it’s not quite so simple.  God being a greedy master who violated the Torah and charged exorbitant interest on his loans doesn’t quite work.  Jesus as the unrighteous servant who cheated his boss to save his own tail isn’t quite right either.  It’s not real obvious what exactly Jesus wants us to glean from this parable as it is read in isolation this morning.  When we find its place in the larger story, however, things begin to come into focus.  The parable of the shrewd manager comes on the heels of three parables about lost things.  We heard two of them last Sunday.  The parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin.  The lectionary skipped over the parable of the prodigal or lost son, and now here we are with this strange story about debt relief.

       I can’t help but wonder if Jesus ended up telling this story because of the bad pun about the Pharisees that Mother Becca told us she grew up learning – “that’s not fair, you see.”  I wonder if the reaction to the three lost stories was the same as the reaction of the elder son to his prodigal brother’s return and his dad throwing a party in response, “it’s just not fair!”  “All this rejoicing at those who were lost, who because of their own bad choices failed and became lost, it just isn’t fair.”  It’s the same response we hear about Narcan saving the lives of those who have overdosed on fentanyl, “it’s not fair.”  It’s the same response we hear about those who are having a portion of their student loan interest forgiven, “it’s not fair.”  It’s the same response we hear about those who left everything they knew to escape poverty and violence in Venezuela and ended up in Texas searching for a better life, “it’s not fair.”  Jesus is clear in this crazy parable, life in the Kingdom of God isn’t fair.  Life in the Kingdom of God is a life in which God has written off the debt of sin that all of us carry.  None of us deserve the grace that has been given to us in Christ Jesus, and that is precisely the point.

       Our response to the illogical and unfair grace of God is what Jesus seems to be getting at in this parable.  We can choose to think that none of this is fair, to hoard grace for ourselves, and to ignore the needs of those around us, but that won’t take us very far in the ridiculous economy of God.  It might make us feel better in this highly individualized, 21st century America, but it won’t carry much weight in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Our other choice, the one I think Jesus would have us choose considering this parable, is to realize that none of this is fair and to give away as much grace and mercy as we possibly can – to take every last thing entrusted to our care and to share it with our neighbors, strangers and friends alike.

       It isn’t hard for me to imagine how Christ Church might respond to a situation like the one St. Andrew’s Edgartown found itself in on Wednesday night.  Whether it is Room in the Inn, Churches United HELP Ministry, Wednesday Community Lunch, or hosting Narcotics Anonymous meetings, there’s a lot of stuff we do around here about which some would say “it’s not fair,” but using the resources we have for the betterment of our neighbors is exactly what this congregation has shown itself to be about.  We are, and will continue to be, faithful with what we have been given so that we might be entrusted by God to be faithful with even more.  That we have so much isn’t fair. It is only right that how we use this massive physical plant and our abundant and historical finances should be wildly unfair to the glory of God.  Giving away those things that will pass away is the only way to cling tightly to that which shall endure, eternal life in the Kingdom of God.  Amen.




True Religion

Every year, at about this time, I feel compelled to preach the same sermon I’ve been preaching for fifteen years.  This prayer we pray on Proper 17 always manages to get stuck in my craw.  It is unlike anything else in our Book of Common Prayer.  Specifically, it is the petition that God of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things might increase in us “true religion.”  Every year, I wonder to myself, what exactly does that mean?  What are we praying for?

The word, religion, appears only eight times in the Prayer Book.  Two of those times are in the Rite I and Rite II versions of our Collect for today.  How is it that a word that gets so little airtime in our one-thousand-page statement of faith, can be a central request in a prayer we pray on an annual basis?  What does it mean to ask God for an increase of “true religion”?

       These questions are increasingly important, I believe, in a world that is becoming more and more secular.  According to Pew Research Center’s 2021 National Public Opinion Reference Survey on Religion, for the first time since their survey work began, more Americans said that religion had somewhat, little, or no importance in their lives than those who said religion was very important.[1]  Increasingly, religion, specifically Christian religion, carries all kinds of negative connotations.  In March, The Episcopal Church published a study that showed while most Christians see themselves as giving, compassionate, loving, and respectful, a majority of non-religious Americans see us as hypocritical, judgmental, and self-righteous.  A plurality of those in other religious traditions felt the same.[2]

       It isn’t a stretch to suggest that Christians, no matter their denomination, are failing to shine a positive light on our religion.  In 1549, when Thomas Cranmer was editing this Collect for inclusion in the first Book of Common Prayer, he had similar feelings about the religion of Roman Catholicism.  Rather than translating the original prayer, “increase in us religion,” he added in the word “true” to differentiate what he thought he and the other Reformers were creating from all that had come before.  True religion, as opposed to the impure religion of Rome, was what Cranmer hoped for the Church he would leave behind, but nearly 500 years later, it would seem we still have a long way to go.

       As we seek after true religion, the first question we have to ask is what exactly is religion?  In the year 750, when this Collect was first written, religion connoted “faith as the lived experience of love, veneration, devotion, awe, worship, transcendence, and trust; a way of life; …”[3]  The lived experience of love.  Devotion.  Trust.  A way of life.  These are terms that defined religion, or what Thomas Cranmer might call “true religion” in its earliest form.  Nearly thirteen hundred years after this prayer was first written, religion has come to mean something entirely and, I believe, quite unhelpfully different.

       The first definition when you Google religion is “the belief in a worship of a superhuman controlling power,” which bears little resemblance to “lived experience of love, devotion, and trust.”  The late Wilfred Cantwell Smith, comparative religion scholar at McGill and Harvard universities, argued that religion underwent a significant change of meaning following the Reformation.  Christian writers began using the word “religion” more frequently during the seventeenth century to signify a system of ideas or beliefs about God.  Throughout the following centuries, Smith says, “in pamphlet after pamphlet, treatise after treatise, decade after decade, the notion was driven home that religion is something that one believes or does not believe, something whose propositions are true or are not true… In modern times, religion became indistinguishable from ideas about God, religious institutions, and human beings; it categorizes, organizes, objectifies, and divides people into exclusive worlds of right versus wrong, true versus false, ‘us’ versus ‘them.’” [4]

Unfortunately, the modern understanding of religion is nowhere close to the meaning of religion that the original authors of this prayer had in mind.  If we are going to take our Collect for this week seriously, then how do we begin to reclaim some of that olde time true religion?  Conveniently, our lectionary helps us with the passage from Hebrews.  As the author of Hebrews brought this sermon series to an end, their goal was to leave the congregation with some practical and pastoral advice for living out this life of faith – that is how to be religious – and it all depends on love.  “Let mutual love continue,” the preacher writes, exhorting the congregation to care for one another as if they were members of the same family: showing philadelphia, love like a sibling, to each other by sharing resources, cooperating with each other, and showing compassion and ongoing commitment to our siblings in Christ Jesus.  True religion doesn’t stop at the doors of the church, however, nor does our call to love only include those with whom we share a community of faith. The preacher goes on to admonish the congregation, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.”  That word, translated as hospitality is philonexia or “love of stranger,” and it was a foundational tenant in the religion that developed following the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

The preacher goes on to describe true religion as that which cares for those in prison and those who are being tortured for their faith.  True religion means maintaining a faithful commitment to one’s spouse if they have one.  True religion means not letting the love of money replace the love of God, love of neighbor, love of sibling, or love of stranger that is our true calling in Christ.  The sermon wraps with these words, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

This morning, our annual ministry fair is happening out in Surface Hall.  Through those doors, you’ll have the chance to hear about much of the good that is being done in the name of Jesus inside and outside of these walls.  Christ Church does a pretty good job of living into the true religion of Hebrews 13, but the hard truth is that none of the programs we do will matter to God if we do not have love underneath it all.  What is most important, at least as far as the preacher of Hebrews and the preacher of this sermon are concerned, is that the motivation for everything we do is love.  The Diocese of Ohio has taken on a slogan that I think sums this true religion thing up quite well.  “Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Change the world.”  Increase in us true religion, O God, and teach us to love you, love our neighbors, love the stranger, and change the world.  Amen.



[3] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, quoted in Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion, p. 97

[4] Ibid.

Jesus came to bring fire

       Just after midnight on Sunday, September 2, 1666, a fire broke out at Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane, near the Thames in London’s Old City.  As was the model in early Modern Europe, neighbors worked to put out the fire while they waited for parish constables to coordinate the firefighting effort.  After about an hour, constables arrived and determined that neighboring houses needed to be demolished to provide a fire break as the Old City was infamous for overcrowded, timber-built tenement houses that crept closer and closer to one another, making a rapidly spreading fire a constant and realistic fear.  As you might imagine, the people who lived in the houses ordered to be demolished weren’t too keen on the idea.  As they protested, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, Lord Mayor of London was summoned to settle the dispute.  An inept and inexperienced politician, Bloodworth couldn’t make the necessary decisions, and fueled by wind, wood, and the occasional gunpowder stockpile, the fire spread, and spread, and spread.  By the time it was finally controlled on the morning of Wednesday, September 5th, the fire had destroyed some thirteen thousand homes, 86 parish churches, dozens of civic buildings, and the great St. Paul’s Cathedral.

       Fire is an interesting thing.  One could argue that humanity’s ability to control fire is the greatest achievement of all time.  By controlling fire, we developed the ability to cook food.  This led to great advancements in life expectancy as food borne illnesses no longer threatened human beings in the same way it had for all of human history.  By controlling fire, we were able to make light at night, forever changing how the world worked.  By controlling fire, we were able to smelt ore and create stronger tools.  By controlling fire, the internal combustion engine was created, making travel around the world possible.  Of course, uncontrolled fire is still one of the most dangerous things on the planet.  In 2019, there were approximately 1.3 million fires in the US, killing more than thirty-seven hundred people, injuring another sixteen thousand, and causing nearly fifteen billion dollars in damage.  Even controlled fire has its dangers.  Controlled fire used to light tobacco kills roughly seven million people around the globe every year.  The controlled use of uncontrolled fire by way of guns, bombs, and other weapons accounts for an unimaginably staggering level of loss as well.

When we think of fire, we tend to think of its destructive power first and foremost, which sets this morning’s Gospel lesson off on the wrong foot.  Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”  What are we supposed to do with that, Jesus?  Don’t get me wrong, the rest of this passage isn’t particularly easy to deal with, but with all the negative attributes of fire, thinking of Jesus as one who came to bring destruction is a real challenge.  With Mother Becca’s sermon image of the Leon Cathedral in mind, I couldn’t help but read this Gospel passage and immediately think of the destruction of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Great London Fire of 1666, even as it also brought to mind the apartment fire a friend of ours had nearly 20 years ago that caused her great anxiety and grief for years after.

Despite our fixation on fire’s destructive qualities, the reality is that, just like in life, fire in the Bible carries with it both good and bad connotations.  The prophet Micah compares God’s grace to a refiner’s fire, used to burn off impurities and bring forth a more perfect finished product.  In Genesis, God gets Moses’ attention by appearing to him as a bush that is burning but not consumed.  All throughout the Old Testament, fire is used to offer sacrifices to God.  There are a lot of good uses of fire in Scripture.  It is also true that fire and brimstone rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah for their abominable lack of hospitality to the stranger.  In his letter, James compares the evil power of the tongue to a fire set by hell itself.  It would seem that in the bible, fire isn’t seen as inherently good or bad, but rather it depends on how it is used.  So, when Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth” it could mean that he has come to bring judgment and destruction, or perhaps it means that he has come to bring purification and renewal.

How we see the fire Jesus came to bring is all a matter of perspective.  When we hold on too tightly to our own self-interests, our own wealth, and our own security, the fire that Jesus brings will seem destructive as it separates us from the idols that have replaced God in our lives.  These things are hard to give up, and the loss of them, while in the long run good for us, is a very painful process.  On the other hand, when we are seeking after the Kingdom of Heaven, actively searching for ways to develop a close relationship with God, the fire that Jesus brings can be seen as a gift, as it clears away that which holds us back, and helps us grow more fully into who God created us to be.  This is the good news in an otherwise difficult passage.  Jesus came to bring fire that will renew, refine, and restore us to right relationship with God and with each other, if we are able to let go of all that needs to be burned away in the process.

In the aftermath of the Great London Fire, Sir Christopher Wren showed himself to be one of the greatest architects in English history.  Wren, who had been working to renovate St. Paul’s Cathedral at the time of the Great Fire, was responsible for rebuilding 52 of the 86 churches destroyed in the fire, as well as the redesign St. Paul’s.  The old, 11th century Gothic building now destroyed, Wren designed a brand-new, Baroque style cathedral that to this day, holds one of the tallest and most magnificent dome structures in the world.  The great edifice, built of Portland Limestone, was consecrated only 31 years and 3 months after the Great Fire, an enormous undertaking for the time.  Legend has it that early in the construction process, Wren was wandering around the site on Ludgate Hill talking to the craftsman on site.  He found three stone masons working on a scaffold, and called up to the first and asked, “What are you doing?”  The first mason responded, “I’m a stone mason. I’m working hard laying stone to feed my family.”  To the second, Wren asked, “And you, what are you doing?”  “I’m a builder, I’m building a wall,” he replied.  Finally, Wren asked the third mason, “What about you, what are you doing?”  “Me?” the man answered, “I’m blessed to be doing the great work of building a magnificent cathedral to Almighty God.”

       What are you building?  Is your life’s work a series of blocks, stacked upon each other, in the name of your own self-interests?  The fire that Jesus came to bring will burn all that self-centered stuff away.  There will be no joy in it.  There will be nothing left to look upon with pride.  If, however, you are working to build a magnificent cathedral to Almighty God, then the fire will be used in productive ways, helping to build the Kingdom in and through you.  Jesus came to bring fire.  Whether it is controlled and beneficial or uncontrolled and destructive, well, that all depends on us.  Amen.

Martha/Mary Both/And

       Every occupation has its own set of terminology.  For some, like the military, it is a whole host of acronyms.  ACC isn’t a college athletics conference with a bad tv contract, but Air Combat Command.  For others, it is a series of abbreviations.  In the printing industry, a sig isn’t short for something you smoke on a 15 minute break, but rather a signature, the basic unit of binding.  Still others have to understand measurements that the average person doesn’t.  I may have spent two years working for a heavy construction company, but I still have no idea how much a yard of dirt is.  Even in ministry, we have lots of terms that are rarely used elsewhere.  Two of my favorites are Greek words that we have incorporated into English.  One is a hapax legomenon, which is a word that appears only once in the original language of the Bible.  The other, adiaphora, means “things indifferent” and is used to describe the parts of theology that we can disagree on without impacting the core of Christianity.  That Jesus is the Son of God is vital.  Whether or not we have candles on the altar is adiaphora.

Part of going to seminary was learning a wide variety of these words and phrases.  Most of ministry thereafter is breaking the habit of using them.  For those of us who went to Episcopal seminaries, there are several words and phrases that, while very popular in the classroom, we thankfully rarely use in real life ministry.  “Let me push back on that,” was a popular retort that if used in a clergy meeting today, would likely get you an audible eyeroll from the group.  The worst offender must be “It’s not really an either/or, it’s more of a both/and.”  I could feel my blood pressure rise when I heard someone say that in class.  To this day, it makes my shoulders hurt just to think about it.

And yet, here this morning, I’m going to suggest that the key to understanding the story of Martha and Mary is to embrace the both/and.  So often, this well-known story gets boiled down to a competition between two sisters with Mary as the winner.  I mean, Jesus said “Mary has chosen the better part,” clearly, she wins, but what if it wasn’t a competition.  What if we stopped pitting women against each other to keep them from standing up against the injustices of sexism in the church and admitted that neither Mary nor Martha actually did anything wrong in this story.  Or, maybe, they were both actually wrong, and that is precisely the point.  Jesus didn’t come to condemn either Mary or Martha, but to save both Martha and Mary, and you and me.

Our Gospel lesson this morning begins with Jesus and his disciples arriving in a village where they were welcomed by a woman named Martha.  Context clues tell us that this Martha and her sister, Mary, are the siblings of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead in John’s Gospel.  In this story, however, there is no mention of Lazarus.  Curiously enough, there is no mention of any man by name.  The home Jesus and his disciples enter doesn’t belong to Lazarus or to Martha’s husband, but to Martha.  This would have been highly uncommon in the first century.  It assumes that Martha is a widow and a woman of means.  As was her cultural obligation, Martha sets to work offering hospitality to her guests.  She would have drawn water so that they could wash their feet.  Next, she’d bring wine to drink while the bread began to bake.  In the kitchen, maybe she was whipping up some hummus or pitting olives as she tried to hear the lesson Jesus was sharing in the living room where her sister, Mary, was just sitting at the feet of Jesus.  Martha’s frustration grew and grew, until Luke tells us she became completely distracted by her anger at her sister.  What started out with good intentions of welcoming guests had become a burden that hampered relationship.

Mary, for her part, was violating all kinds of social norms.  Women, not just the woman of the house, would have been expected to help prepare the food and serve the men.  Only once all the work of hospitality was complete would they join the men.  Mary didn’t do any of that.  Instead, Luke tells us she sat at the feet of Jesus.  To use a phrase my mother taught me, Mary had her head so far up in the clouds, she was no earthly good.  It’s no wonder that Martha got frustrated.  Things were supposed to work a certain way, and Mary wasn’t living up to her part of the deal.  So, Martha went to Jesus and protested both her sister and her teacher.  “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?”  Jesus could see beyond the surface and knew that what Martha was feeling wasn’t simply distraction, but in fact, a storm was raging inside her soul.  “Martha, Martha,” Jesus said in what I imagine to be a soothing and compassionate tone, “you are worried and stirred up by many things.”  Jesus could see that Martha’s work of hospitality had become an obligation and a burden.  He knew what she really needed was for task not to simply be work, but a ministry in response to the love of God.  She needed to rest and recharge at the feet of Jesus.  In saying that Mary had chosen “the better part,” Jesus isn’t prioritizing study over work.  Instead, Jesus is inviting Martha into a both/and way of thinking.

We are all called to welcome guests and serve the coffee, just as we are all called to rest in God’s love and learn from Word of God.  Nearly five years ago, the Vestry of Christ Church spent a weekend at All Saint’s Camp discerning our mission.  The culmination of that weekend was the mission statement that you hear at least every Sunday, and probably see more often than that.  It’s time for another round of discernment, but I still think there is a lot for us to glean from these carefully chosen words.  Christ Episcopal Church is a community of Christ’s servants who seek to: worship God with joy and wonder; learn and grow together; and radiate God’s love to all.  Our mission is, at the very least, a both/and statement.  We take seriously the work of Mary as we find ways to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn how we are to live out this life of faith, and then, as a natural outlet of that learning, we follow the example of Martha and radiate God’s love to a world that desperately needs it.  Learn and serve.  These are not competitors in some zero-sum game of faith.  They are dance partners in this journey that help nurture and sustain us for the work to which we are called.  Learn and serve.  Mary and Martha.  Both/And.  Amen.

Spiritual Turkey Crap

       This week, my Facebook memories were full of pictures and reflections on life in the early days of COVID shutdown.  There were photos of Rick and Linda’s earliest live-stream setup right there in the crossing.  There was a post from outside Kroger, waiting with 25 others for it to open at 7am so we could buy toilet paper.  My favorite was the whiteboard in the Conference Room with a 90-day plan to reopen and blow the doors off with brass at Pentecost.  Oh, March 2020 Steve, how naïve you were.  This year, unlike last March when these memories rolled through, I found myself feeling a little bit nostalgic for how life slowed down, frustrated with how long it has taken us to get beyond COVID’s disruptions, and hopeful for what the future might hold.  That hope is built upon our ongoing work to bring this parish back to its active and full life.

       Of course, starting back from a standstill takes a while, and it requires us to use muscles that we haven’t used in a long time.  Like getting back into exercise, we are slowing building, being very careful not to hurt ourselves.  For example, the Alleluia banner that will beautifully adorn the nave on Easter Day, still isn’t fully colored in.  We haven’t been stressing about that because people are back in the building most days, and we can get some help from adults who like to color.  Monday night, I got a text from Karen Crabtree as EfM was wrapping up.  Marker had bled through the paper and onto the conference table that was just refinished last year.  I think most of us know Karen well enough to know that she was feeling a little anxious about the mess.   She had checked several times to be sure that the markers weren’t bleeding through, and yet, it happened.  My response, from the comfort of my own living room, was more joyful, “It means our church is alive.  I’ll take messy tables every day of the week,” I wrote back.  Karen, in her wisdom, quickly responded, “Life is messy.”

       Gosh if that isn’t true.  Life, in all its shapes and forms, is messy.  From birth to death and everything in between, life is messy, and while there are several different lessons we could draw from our Gospel lesson this morning, this week, my take is that Jesus knows all too well just how messy life can be.  The lesson begins with a classic question of theodicy.  Why do bad things happen?  More specifically, why do bad things happen to good people?  The Galileans whom Pilate had killed were offering their sacrifices to God.  How could God not have spared their lives?  The eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell, why them?  In our context, I can’t help but think about the 475 families whose homes saw significant damage during the December tornado.  Were they somehow deserving of the heartache and headache while two blocks away, I had internet back the next morning?  Jesus won’t even entertain the question.  Focusing on what others did or didn’t do to deserve the hardships in their lives is futile, Jesus says.  His response is simply a call to repentance lest we too should die unprepared.  If life is as fragile as it seems given the stories of the Galileans killed by Pilate and the 18 crushed by the tower of Siloam, then we would do well to get to work producing the fruit of repentance: showing signs of a life committed to the Kingdom of God rather than self-preservation.

       In typical Jesus’ fashion, he makes his point by way of a parable about something in nature.  This time, it is a fig tree that after three years of growth, has yet to produce fruit.  The landowner, growing tired with a tree that is at least two harvests behind schedule, calls on the gardener to cut it down so that it no longer wastes the good soil in which it was planted.  The gardener, the one who has been tending to this particular tree for three years, knows its potential.  The gardener can see that it needs conditions that are just a little bit better than the other trees around it, and so they ask the landowner for a stay of execution.  Give it one more year.  I’ll dig around it, give it plenty of manure, and hopefully next season it will produce fruit.  The gardener put their money on dirt, manure, and sweat to bring about fullness of life – albeit messy, messy life – to that fig tree.

       I learned a lot about this kind of messy life back in 2008.  The grass in south Alabama is not like the beautiful, lush lawns we have up here.  Zoysia and Centipede might grow in the sandy soil, but they are rough, ugly, and hard to maintain.  So, when my parents moved down there, into a brand-new house with a freshly sodded lawn, my dad wanted to everything he could to maintain it.  He asked around at the Ace Hardware and learned that the best fertilizer he could use on the garbage grass in his yard was turkey manure.  Early in the growing season, so like February in south Alabama, dad spread a few bags of turkey poop on his lawn, watered it per the instructions, and waited for it to do its work.  What the helpful folks at Ace failed to mention was that no matter the season down there, the sun is really, really hot.  Do you know what turkey manure does when it is met by the really hot sun?  It stinks.  It stinks to high heaven.  It makes you want to sell your house and move a thousand miles away; it smells so bad.  While you didn’t want anything to do with that yard through most of the spring, it was as lush and as green as a builders’ grade centipede lawn could be.

Life is messy, and the things we use to bring about abundant life are even messier.  When Jesus uses this parable of a fig tree surrounded by manure, he is affirming the messiness of life and giving us permission to live into the mess.  Like our parish restarting after COVID shutdown, each of us have, in our own lives, gone through fits and starts in our discipleship.  Sometimes, fruit is being produced with ease, but often, our own spiritual lives need to be tended to with great care.  Sometimes, with just a little advice of the helpful folks at ACE, we can make these adjustments on our own.  At other times, like the fig tree, we need someone outside of ourselves to roll up their sleeves, offer their time and talent, and be unafraid to get dirty.

That second route is, I think, what congregations are here for.  We are here to support one another.  By we, I don’t just mean the clergy.  Nor do I mean just the staff.  Nor do I just mean those who are seen as leaders.  It is the job of all of us to support one another in the messiness of life; to pray for each other; and to encourage one another.  It’s messy, this caring for each other thing, but it is the gift of community.  Sometimes, marker will leak through.  Sometimes, the turkey manure might try to stink us out of relationship, but as good gardeners in God’s Kingdom, we are committed to sticking it out in the hopes of producing fruit that endures and becoming the beloved community that Jesus came to build.  Life is messy, but thankfully, we have help in each other to carry us through.  Amen.

The Body of Christ

I am a creature of habit, and so, every morning, I follow the same routine.  I wake up, put in my air pods, and listen to two podcasts while I sip my coffee.  First, I listen to A Morning at the Office, a Daily Office podcast sponsored by Forward Movement.  My prayers said and Bible lessons heard, I then tune into the ESPN Daily podcast.  Every weekday, Pablo Torre spends about 30 minutes sharing a story from the world of sports.  Sometimes, it is a very timely story.  Every Monday, for example, they reflect on the NFL weekend that has passed.  Other times, they are deeper dives into the minutiae of sport. This was the case on Thursday when ESPN Daily spent 36 minutes and 23 seconds telling the story of one of the most overlooked specialists in all of football, the long snapper.

NFL rosters are made up of 53 players, no more, no less.  If you are even a casual sports fan, you probably know a lot about key positions like quarterback, running back, place kickers, and even line backers, but on any given roster there are probably two dozen players that few know anything about.  Most of those players are on special teams and play only a handful of downs each game.  Least thought about, but perhaps most important of all is the long snapper, and so Dave Fleming, Senior Writer for ESPN the Magazine, decided to tell their story.  To do so, he enlisted Morgan Cox, the All-Pro long snapper for the Tennessee Titans to share about how he became a long snapper, his time at the University of Tennessee, his 13-year career in the NFL, and the intricacies of his chosen vocation; from how the balls used for kicking are sanded down, to how he tries to repeat the same motion every time, allowing the snap to enter the hands of the holder in 0.7 seconds, at a velocity of 35 miles per hour, with the ball rotating exactly three and a quarter times.

What I found most interesting is the story of a January 12, 2013, playoff game between the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos.  Morgan was the long snapper for the Baltimore Ravens and played the game with the flu.  It was 13 degrees at kick-off and the game went into double overtime.  Because he was feeling so awful, Morgan spent most of the game sitting on a heated bench, next to a jet engine of a space heater, wearing a giant puffy cape.  Combine all that with a fever, and Morgan began to sweat.  When the moment of truth came, he threw off his cape only to realize the sweat on his arms was beginning to freeze.  With ice covering his arms, he bent over to snap the ball at a perfect 35 miles per hour, rotating three and one quarter times into the hands of the holder with the laces out, allowing Justin Tucker to kick a game-winning 47-yard field goal.  The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl that season, thanks, in part, to their frozen armed, flu-infected, long snapper, Morgan Cox.[1]

To crudely paraphrase Paul in First Corinthians, “Just as a football team is one and has many members, and all the members of the same team, though many, are one team, so it is with Christ Episcopal Church.  For in the one Spirit, we were all baptized into one body – Hilltoppers, Cardinals, or Wildcats; Republicans, Democrats, or others; students, employed, or retired – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”  Last Sunday, I preached on the giftedness of all of us and how those gifts are given not for individual glory, but for the building up of the Kingdom of Heaven.  This morning, as we prepare to gather for our Annual Meeting, I’m struck by the story of Morgan Cox and how every member of this community has something vital to offer.

Over the course of the last two years, being an active part of the Body of Christ has been difficult.  To overextend the football metaphor, for most of us, our time on the bench has caused our muscles to atrophy.  Once vibrant and active ministers find it hard to get back into the swing of things, and systems that picked up the slack are feeling the weight of more and more work with fewer and fewer helpers.  This isn’t to point fingers or to blame anyone, but simply to name the reality that the pandemic has fundamentally changed how we operate as the Body of Christ.  We have buried a lot of people over the last two years.  All of us are two years older, and there has been very little opportunity to integrate new members into our community.  Some have joined us, and I am beyond grateful for their presence, but in the coming months and years, a concerted effort to grow our congregation across all demographics – age, race, and family structure – must be developed.  Our evangelism, hospitality, and congregational development muscles will need some exercise to come back into shape.

Of course, not everyone is gifted in evangelism and hospitality.  Others are gifted in service, prayer, and acts of mercy.  Ministries of lay pastoral care, which have also languished in the pandemic, will require us to stretch these muscles.  Lay Eucharistic Ministers, Stephen Ministers, prayer shawls, and others will be needed to make sure those among us who are suffering remain connected to their community of faith and experience the compassionate love of God in their most difficult moments.  Outreach ministries like Room in the Inn, Churches United in Christ HELP Ministry, and Wednesday Community lunch also need gifted people in order to radiate God’s love to all.

As we look to the future of Faith Formation at Christ Church, I’m thankful to those who continue to share their gifts of teaching, wisdom, and leadership to ensure that God’s children from 3 to 103 continue to grow in faith and understanding.  We are blessed with a whole host of hungry learners and eager teachers.  There are also essential volunteers on the garden committee, working the front desk, and on the audio-visual team who use a whole host of gifts to make sure this place looks amazing, runs smoothly, and shares the Good News of God’s love far and wide.

In the story of Morgan Cox, I am reminded that no gift is insignificant.  Each of us plays an important role in the Body of Christ.  Each of us helps radiate the love of God to a world that desperately needs it.  Thank you for your willingness to share your gifts.  And get ready, because we’ll be asking you to step in all kinds of ways in 2022 and beyond.  May the Holy Spirit bless us all with gifts in abundance and the energy to share them for the common good and building up the Body of Christ.  Amen.

[1] “Longsnappers: The NFL’s Unsung Special Teams Artists” ESPN Daily Podcast, January 20, 2022

Ubuntu and the Body of Christ

       Lost amidst tornado relief and the Christmas holiday was the news that Anglicanism lost one of its brightest lights.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and architect of post-apartheid South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission died after a lengthy illness on December 26.  I had the distinct pleasure to hear Archbishop Tutu speak twice back in the mid-two thousands; once at Virginia Seminary and later when he preached the ordination of Nathan Baxter as the Bishop of Central Pennsylvania.  Desmond Tutu was not a large man, but his presence was imposing.  His voice was small.  His laughter was infectious.  And he spoke with the gravity of the very word of God.  You could sense the depth of his relationship with Jesus.  You knew you were in the presence of holiness.  

       One of the many gifts Archbishop Tutu has left the world is the proliferation of the Bantu concept of Ubuntu.  Ubutnu is the ancient African spiritual understanding that humanity was created to be one with our Creator, one another, and all of creation.[1] Roughly translated from Zulu, Ubuntu means “I am because we are.”  Archbishop Tutu believed that Ubuntu is the essence of being human.  “I can’t be a human being on my lonesome,” he once said, “I wouldn’t know how to speak as a human being; I wouldn’t know how to think as a human being; I wouldn’t know how to walk as a human being.  I have to learn from other human beings how to be human.  And so, Ubuntu says, ‘my humanity is tied up in yours.  I am only because you are.’  A person is a person only through other persons.”[2]  For Archbishop Tutu, this understanding of our interconnectedness was also essential to the Christian faith.

       I’ve carried Ubuntu with me for nearly two decades now, and while I don’t always live up to its ideal, I’m grateful for the role it plays in my own walk as a disciple of Jesus.  Even our own Book of Common Prayer unwittingly draws on Ubuntu when it describes the mission of the Church as restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.[3]  We were created to be in relationship with God and with one another, and sin happens when any relationship is broken.  Salvation comes when we live most fully into the understanding that “I am because we are” and that I am only fully human when I acknowledge the full humanity of others.

Ubuntu might run up against our modern, western, self-reliance and rugged American individualism, but it is not without scriptural merit.  One could argue that the entire text of First Corinthians is Paul helping the Church in Corinth see that following Jesus means respecting the dignity of all your neighbors, whether they are rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, wise or foolish.  In the lesson we heard read this morning, we hear Paul addressing the issue of spiritual gifts.  Context tells us that some were puffing themselves up because of the gifts they had while treating others as less than because of their gifts.  Paul is quick to remind the Corinthians that the only gift that really matters is the ability to say, “Jesus is Lord,” and even that comes not from our own ability, but from the Holy Spirit.

Beyond that, Paul says, whatever other gifts one might receive weren’t given because of some sort of merit or special blessing, but rather they are given, in all their glorious diversity, for the “common good.”  That’s how most mid-twentieth century English Bibles translate sympheron here in verse seven, but elsewhere in Scripture it is translated as “bringing together” (Acts 19:19) or “beneficial” (1 Corinthians 10:23).  The “common good” isn’t just for one congregation, diocese, or denomination.  The “common good” that all our giftedness is meant to work toward is Ubuntu, the coming together of all of humanity with God, each other, and creation.

Take, for example, the experience of Bowling Green since December 11th.  In the immediate aftermath, the gifts of a large organization like Living Hope Baptist Church were needed to coordinate the very urgent need to remove trees, pile up debris, and distribute critical supplies.  In the days the followed, needs shifted, and the gift of nationwide connections in denominations like the Disciples of Christ and the Presbyterian Church USA brought in volunteers to spell local folks who had their own grief to contend with.  Now, as FEMA trucks roll through the community from dawn ‘til dusk, our connections and the ability to raise funds from around the country are needed to help fill the gaps and lift up those who might fall through the cracks.  Each community of faith has individual members who are gifted.  Each community of faith also has its own level of giftedness.  Together, we have worked for the benefit of a community in pain and grief.

Even so, the “common good” isn’t only for one community dealing with two years of pandemic and four winter tornados in less than two weeks.  The common good to which God calls us all is for all of creation.  The common good toward which we are invited to work alongside God is ultimately the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  It is a place where relationships are no longer broken by selfish ambition.  It is a place where every human being is treated with the respect they deserve; rich and poor alike share in the abundance of God’s created order; and the earth itself is seen as a gift from God worthy of care.  The “common good” is the place where Jesus Christ is, as we prayed for in today’s Collect, “known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth,” not out of fear of some everlasting damnation, but because the radiance of Christ’s glory is seen in disciples of Jesus using their wildly diverse gifts for the building up of all of humanity.

In baptism, every Christian receives gifts from the Holy Spirit that are meant to be shared far and wide.  As Christian educator Debie Thomas wrote this week, “My ability to teach, preach, serve, love, pray, sing, hope, trust, write, nurture, or heal is not given to me for my personal [enjoyment.]  It is given solely for the common edification, growth, and blessing of the church.  To hoard a spiritual gift is to desecrate it.  To practice a Lone Ranger Christianity is to fundamentally misunderstand and distort the purpose of God’s generosity.  I receive for the sake of others.  Which is to say, God apportions spiritual gifts based on the needs of the community as a whole — not on my “personal” needs.  My gifts carry you, and your gifts carry me.  It is God’s intention that we rely on each other.  That we need each other.”[4]

Each of us is a human only because of other humans.  Each of us is a Christian only because of other Christians.  Each of us has gifts to help build up humanity and the Body of Christ only because of the richness of God’s grace and God’s deep desire to see all of creation reconciled to one another.  May God give us the ability to see in one another, the glorious diversity of our gifts.  May God give us the eyes to see in ourselves the gifts we have to share.  And may God bless us with a spirit of Ubuntu and bring us to the “common good” of all of creation through the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] “Ubuntu: A Brief Description” The Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation on YouTube –

[2] “Ubuntu: The Essence of Being Human” The Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation on YouTube –

[3] BCP, 854.

[4] “Many Gifts, One Spirit” by Debie Thomas (emphasis, original)

Lost and Listening

       Back in the 90s, when I was still a baby-faced young adult, I worked part-time as a youth minister for St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Lancaster, PA.  At that time, indoor rock climbing was just becoming a thing, and a few of my students were all about it.  We decided one Saturday to head to Reading, PA, about 45 minutes down the road, to spend the afternoon in a rock-climbing gym up there.  It being the 90s, smart phones and GPS weren’t available, so I went online and printed out directions on MapQuest.  Maybe you remember those bad old days when your directions couldn’t automatically recalculate.  They were not good times.  We proceeded to get epically lost.  After an hour of driving around Reading, which isn’t really that big of a town, we finally found ourselves back on the right road.  Looking at the numbers on the buildings, we weren’t that far from where we hoped to go, until, as we passed through an intersection, the name of road changed.

       Realizing that we were lost again and that there would be no rock climbing this day, I slammed my fists against the steering wheel and yelled, “Awwww BLEEP,” at the top of my lungs, forgetting entirely who else was in the car with me.  The bleep was another, strong word, and the kids laughed at my lack of personal censorship.  We stopped and got ice cream and had some great conversations about how our mentors and the adults in our lives are real people, who, like everybody else, fall short of the glory of God sometimes.  It turned out to be a great afternoon, and the Druce brothers still know that they can call me anytime they need support because, most likely, I’ve been right where they are.

       God shows up just when we need it, no matter where we are or what is going on around us.  That’s the lesson I learned that delightfully frustrating Saturday afternoon in Reading, PA.  I believe Luke is trying to get across that same lesson in the opening verses of chapter three that we heard this morning.  He begins by setting the scene with a list of powerful men who were the political and religious leaders over Israel.  It was the fifteenth year of the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate was the Roman Governor of Judea, and Herod, Philip, and Lysanias were figure-head tetrarchs over the land.  Annas and Caiaphas held the role of Chief Priest.  It was either 28 or 29 CE and a man named John, whose lineage was priestly on both sides of his family, had eschewed all claims he had to power and privilege and was in the wilderness, dressed in camel hair, subsiding on locusts and wild honey.

       Whether you live in first century Palestine or twenty-first century America, if I asked you where the word of God would arrive, 99 times out of 100, you would answer, “in the Temple.”  The word of God has long been associated with the religious powers-that-be.  That’s why we have them.  They hear and interpret the word of God and then bring it to the people in a way that they can understand.  That was the system in place in 28 CE.  The people went to the Temple to fulfill their religious obligations and people like Annas, Caiaphas, and John’s father, Zechariah, received their gifts, proclaimed the word of God, and offered God’s forgiveness.  The last place we would expect God’s word to show up was in the wilderness, what with all its barrenness and foreboding.  Earlier in his Gospel, Luke tells us that the wilderness was John’s home.[1]  He’d been there for years, praying, growing, and deepening his relationship with God.  After years and years in the wilderness, the word of God came to him right where he was.

       The word that came to John was the same word that had come to the prophet Isaiah during the Babylonian exile, God is going to rescue God’s people.  Not only that, but God is going to make it so that salvation is available to everyone, no matter what.  There will be no more desolate valleys, all will be filled in.  The haughtiness of the mountains will be humbled.  Every path will be made straight.  Even the rough patches will be made smooth.  No matter where you live.  No matter your socio-economic status.  No matter whether you can walk with ease, shuffle along, or require a wheelchair.  There will be no obstacles between you or me or anyone else and the kingdom of God.  That’s some pretty good news, and it kind of makes sense that it would arrive as a word to someone like John who found his home about as far away from the seats of powers in his world.  Creating obstacles is precisely what the powerful do to maintain control.  The harder life is, the further away God seems, the more difficult God’s grace is to access, the more intermediaries are required.  This word of universal ease of access to God couldn’t possibly come to the Chief Priests in the Temple.  It could, I suppose, but it would probably fall on deaf ears.

       This idea of God’s word of hope coming in the heart of the wilderness, to the least and the lost, spoke to me this week.  Not because Christ Church is the least.  We are well resourced and connected closely to the power structures in our community.  Rather, what struck me is how the whole world has spent the better part of the last 20 months living in the wilderness.  Many of us have been disconnected from the communities that sustain us.  Whether it is our community of faith, work colleagues, classmates, extended family, and friends, the vast majority of us spent quite a bit of time separated from the people who make us who we are. Some of us remain disconnected even today.  Many were isolated from the vocations that we love.  For nine weeks, millions of people weren’t allowed to go to work as barbers, dental hygienists, or personal trainers.  For much longer than that, many of us “worked from home,” kind of doing our jobs, but not really, and definitely not in a way that was fulfilling.  Everything we knew about the world we lived in changed back in March of 2020, and we’ve spent the last 20 months wandering around the metaphorical wilderness, not sure what was next.

       What if, instead of seeing these last 20 months as a burden, we spent this next phase of late-stage pandemic life listening for a word of God that comes to find us in the wilderness?  What if we spent this next season looking for the ways in which we, as the body of Christ at Christ Episcopal Church, are being called to the work of filling in some valleys, humbling some mountains, and making the salvation of God accessible to all of humanity?  What if we took being lost in wilderness as an opportunity to meet some new people, to hear their stories, and to show the world that, flawed as we all are, together, we can make a difference?  Getting lost turned out to be exactly what God needed me to be in Reading that day.  In the wilderness is precisely where John the Baptist needed to be to hear the word of God.  What if in this extended wilderness experience, God is calling us to work, to change, and to grow?  If only we would have ears to listen.  Listen, can you hear the word of God calling you?  Listen.  Amen.

[1] Luke 1:80