Make the Reason Love

       Can I admit something to you?  Just between us?  I’ve never really liked the phrase “everything happens for a reason.”  Maybe it’s just me, but whenever I hear someone say that it feels like the assumption is that the reason is always good.  In reality, as the old meme says, sometimes the reason things happen is “you’re stupid and make bad decisions.”  More often than not, sometimes things happen because addictions are powerful, mental health is fragile, power corrupts, and evil is real.  This is precisely what happens in today’s Gospel lesson.  A really bad thing happens to a pretty good person because sin is all too real.

       You might recall that last week’s Gospel lesson ended with Jesus and his disciples travelling all around the Galilean countryside preaching repentance and performing miracles.  When it was just one roaming Rabbi, nobody in power paid too much attention, but as the crowds around Jesus began to grow, and as his disciples began to branch out, word spread rapidly.  The Good News of God’s plan of salvation was beginning to gain a foothold and it was seen as a real threat to the powers-that-be in both the religious and political realms.  All around Israel, people were wondering who this Jesus character might be – Elijah, Moses, or another prophet – but Herod Antipas, the puppet King of Galilee, had no doubt, he was John the Baptist, risen from the grave.

       Herod had good reason to be wary of Jesus and to wonder if he was, in fact, some sort of Zombie John the Baptist back to threaten his power and privilege.  Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great who ruled Judea during the time of Jesus’ birth.  The Herodian family tree is a bit hard to unravel, what with multiple wives and various sons with similar names, but after Herod the Great died or was killed, depending on which story you believe, three of his sons: Herod Archelaus, Philip the Tetrarch, and Herod Antipas, took rule over his kingdom.  Our Herod, Antipas, ruled the region of Galilee in northern Israel from about 4 BCE until his death in 39 CE.  After divorcing his first wife, Herod Antipas essentially stole his second wife, Herodias, from his brother, Herod II.  Herod II had been removed from the line of succession because his mother knew about, but did nothing to stop, a plot by another brother, by a different brother, Herod Antipater II, to poison their father, Herod the Great.  Confused yet?  I know I am.

       Anyway, according to the historian Josephus, Herodias “took upon her to confound the laws of [Israel], and divorced herself from her husband while he was still alive, and was married to Herod Antipas.”[1]  As you might imagine, a prophet like John the Baptist, who was deeply concerned with the sinful dealings of all of Israel, would have strong opinions about this, and he wasn’t afraid to share them quite publicly.  Eventually, Herodias became fed up with John’s complaints and convinced her husband, Herod Antipas, to have him arrested.  Interestingly, Mark tells us that Antipas refused to let John be killed for speaking out against their marriage, but instead kept him in protective custody where he enjoyed listening to his perplexing words.  Herodias waited and watched for her opportunity, which finally came during the celebration of Antipas’ birthday.  The powerful gathered, the wine flowed, and after watching his young stepdaughter delight the crowd with her dancing, Antipas blurted out, “Whatever you want, even up to half of my kingdom, it is yours.”  Salome ran to her mother with excitement.  “What should I ask for?” she wondered, but Herodias had no doubt, “The head of John the Baptist.”  Salome returned to her stepfather, and the girl of probably only twelve, asked not just for the head of John, but that it be served to her on a platter.  Fearful of losing face in front of his guests, Antipas had no choice but to oblige.

       I’m guessing that the disciples who came to retrieve John’s body weren’t thinking, “everything happens for a reason.”  There seems to be little, if any, redemption in this story.  John the Baptist’s gruesome death happened because power and privilege combined with anger and violence.  This deadly combination is all too common, even in 2021.  Moreover, as theologian Debie Thomas points out, John the Baptist’s head ended up on a platter because Herod Antipas loved to listen to, but never really heard, the words of the prophet John.[2]  No matter how much he might have enjoyed his time with John, when push came to shove, Antipas had learned nothing about repentance, forgiveness, and grace.  Rather, in that moment, he forgot everything he had heard, and impulsively reacted, choosing to save every last ounce of his overwhelming level of privilege over the life of a man he had come to respect.

       As Christians, we have similar choices to make every day.  It isn’t likely that we’ll ever have the power to order someone’s head be brought on a silver platter, thanks be to God, but there are plenty of moments in our lives when the choice between saving face and hurting another child of God is all too real. Borrowing again from Debie Thomas, personally, the death of John the Baptist invites us to ask ourselves questions like, “Am I so bent on conflict avoidance that I harm other with my passivity.” Or “Do I prefer stability and safety more than transformation?”  Corporately, as a church and a society, we must consider, “When we choose silence for the sake of convenience, whose life becomes expendable?” And “When we decide that justice is too messy, chaotic, or costly to pursue, who suffers in the long term?”[3]

       I guess maybe it is true that everything happens for a reason, but often that reason is the result of sin and has nothing to do with God.  Whether it is individual sins like pride, envy, greed, and bigotry, or corporate sins like white supremacy, heteronormativity, or xenophobia, the power of evil in this world is quite real.  As not merely followers of Jesus, but disciples, we are called not to just hear stories like the death of John the Baptist and forget about them, but to learn from and be changed by them.  The more we dig into these stories, looking for how evil is at work in the world around us and how Jesus calls us to lives of grace and love, the more we will be equipped, when push comes to shove in our own lives, to choose right over wrong, compassion over indifference, and love over hate.  We may not have the capacity to beat down evil in our lifetimes, but every time we choose love, the Kingdom of God moves just a little bit closer.  If everything does happen for a reason, may the reason we do anything be out of love of God and love of neighbor, to the glory of Almighty God.  Amen.


[1] https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2848/2848-h/2848-h.htm

[2] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/3065-greatly-perplexed

[3] ibid.

God’s Heart

       Author, Elizabeth Stone, tech pioneer, Steve Jobs, and my mother are all quoted as saying, “Having a child is like choosing to let your heart walk outside your body for the rest of your life.”  It seems Blessed Mary knew this reality all too well.  It began on the night of Jesus’ birth as shepherds came rushing into the cattle stall where the holy family was attempting to rest, bursting with the good news they had received from angels who appeared in their fields with trumpet and song.  Forty days later, Mary took the baby Jesus to the Temple for her ritual purification and to dedicate her first born son to the Lord God, when a man whom she had never met, took the child into his arms and declared him to be “the salvation of all people, a light to the Gentiles, and the glory of Israel,” even as he promised to Mary that a sword would pierce her soul as well.  Less than two years after that, three wise men – magicians and priests from the East – came to visit Jesus armed with gifts of gold, suitable for a king, and frankincense and myrrh, symbols of death.  Meanwhile, her husband, Joseph, had a dream in which he was told to flee his homeland and take his family to Egypt to protect them. After a while bouncing around the Egyptian countryside, and almost as quickly as they were told to leave, Mary, Joseph, and young Jesus were once again told to pack up everything and return to Israel.  Instead of settling back in their old home in Judea, they made their way to Nazareth in order to protect their son from the powers-that-be who feared him and wanted him out of their lives.  Later, at age twelve, Jesus scared Mary to death, having stayed behind in the Temple while the family caravanned back to Nazareth.

       By the time we get to today’s Gospel lesson, Mary has already experienced a lifetime of worry over her son, whom she knew would be different since before he was even conceived.  This morning, we encounter a now thirty-year-old Jesus who has been quite busy collecting disciples, preaching, teaching, healing, and casting out demons.  Our lesson tells the story of Jesus’ first trip back home.  Between the crowd that was following him around the Galilean countryside and the crowd of interested locals, so many people came out to see Jesus that he couldn’t even move his arms to stuff some hummus in his face.  They were pressing in upon him so intensely that Mary began to fear for his life.  Our translation, the New Revised Standard Version says that his family “went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” which is actually a pretty bad translation.  What the Greek actually connotes is that his family came to grab him, and they told the crowds, “He has lost his mind.”  One could write a whole book on Mark 3:21. There is double entendre aplenty in here.  The word that the NRSV translates as “restrain” also means “to keep careful hold of.”  The word often translated as “lost his mind” also means “amazed.”  His family said that he was crazy, but did they really believe it?  I can’t help but wonder if Mary saw all that was happening to her son and ran out to do whatever she could to save him.

       There is no question in the text, on the other hand, about what the Scribes were up to.  They had no intention of trying to protect Jesus from the masses.  Instead, it seems they were dead set on stirring the crowd up into a frenzy.  When you have the truth on your side, pound the facts.  When you don’t, you pound the table and call people names.  The Scribes didn’t ease their way into name calling either, but when straight for the jugular by calling him Satan.  “He’s Beezebul! He’s able to cast out demons because he is the chief among them!”  These are not the words of someone who came to engage in peaceful discussion.  It is clear that what the Scribes were hoping would happen was that someone or some mob would rid them of this meddling rabbi, but Jesus knew his time had not yet come and was having none of this.

       At its core, Jesus rejects the premise of the Scribes.  A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand, how can Satan cast out Satan?  It just doesn’t work.  By way of a parable, Jesus does show that he believes that the powers of evil are strong, and that he sees his calling as the one who was sent to defeat Satan once and for all.  The Father sent his only begotten son to tie up the powerful forces of Satan and to plunder the houses of evil – in empire, in business, in religion, and in families.  Jesus is clear that the fight that had already begun between him and the forces of evil, a fight that started when he was only a child, will continue, but he already knows that he will win, and in so doing, he will redeem almost all people back into right relationship with God.

Almost all, and here’s where things get particularly tricky, because of this unforgivable sin business.  “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness but is guilty of an eternal sin.”  I don’t know about you, but anytime I hear this warning from Jesus, I find myself checking my receipts.  Have I ever blasphemed the Holy Spirit?  There was that one time in seminary, when we were all sharing at a class retreat, and I said, “sometimes I hate the Holy Spirit because I get called to do things that aren’t easy.”  Is that unforgivable?  I really hope not.  Is Jesus talking to his family and the Scribes alike in this cryptic message?  I don’t think so.  Rather, I think the eternal sin that Jesus warns the crowd about is the sin of assuming you are right; the sin of an intractable spirit; the sin of arrogance.  The Scribes, like so many who have come from positions of power and privilege over the centuries, simply assume that they are right, and Jesus is wrong.  There is no willingness to listen, learn, or grow.  Having been invited to receive the Holy Spirit as advocate and guide to God, they have said, “no thank you, we don’t need it.”  There is no saving those who don’t think they need to be saved.  Or, as Jesus says elsewhere, it is easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich (powerful, privileged) person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Those who approach the Kingdom of God with humility, who embrace the invitation to follow Jesus, no matter what sins or blasphemies they might stumble into, can find forgiveness because they seek it.  Jesus’ family might not fully understand what he is up to, and they might let their worry overcome them from time to time, but they aren’t beyond redemption, and neither are you or me.  All who are willing to lay down their pride and be challenged by following Jesus can have access to the Kingdom of God, and can even help, from time to time, plunder the houses of evil.  Which is why we pray this morning that the God from whom all good proceeds, might grant us an open spirit to think what is right, and the Holy Spirit’s guidance to do so.  It isn’t always easy to know what is right, but with a spirit of humility and a willingness to follow the leading of the Spirit, we can avoid becoming so sure of ourselves that there is no longer room for God in our own little kingdoms.  When we are willing to allow the Spirit to help us think and do those things that are right, we are able to more fully follow the will of God, and, as promised by Jesus himself, have entrance into the family of Christ.  In Creation, God chose to let God’s heart walk the earth for all of eternity.  As children of God and members of the family of Christ, we are God’s heart in the world.  We must be careful not to allow our hearts to become hard, but rather, to be open to the ways in which God’s love for the whole world will be poured out through each of us.  Amen.

We Wish to See Jesus

       Over the past year, I’ve fielded quite a few phone calls, text messages, and emails asking, wondering, and sometimes even pleading for in-person church to restart.  I’ve felt each one of those encounters.  I’ve carried them with me every day since this pandemic began because I know these requests weren’t being made out of selfishness or the thought that this virus isn’t a real threat.  To a person, each one who reached out, and I’m sure all of you who didn’t, wanted to be back in church because, like the Greeks in our Gospel lesson this morning, you want to see Jesus.  We want to see Jesus.  We want to see Jesus in the face of our friends.  We want to see Jesus in the beauty of our sacred space.  We want to see Jesus in the Eucharist.  Part of what has made this year so difficult for all of us has been how disconnected we’ve felt, not just from one another, but at times, even from Christ Jesus.

       Our Gospel lesson this morning is the story of Jesus’ last public teaching before his death.  It is the Passover Feast, and pilgrims from all over have come to Jerusalem.  Faithful Jews from across the Diaspora came to offer sacrifices, say prayers, and give thanks for God’s salvation from slavery in Egypt.  Jewish converts came as well, eager to say their prayers and to engage in the rituals of their newfound faith.  Of course, there were tourists in town too; interested onlookers who wondered what it was all about.  We don’t know if these Greeks were converts or tourists, but nevertheless, they wanted to see Jesus.  They’d no doubt heard about him.  Whether it was because he had raised Lazarus from the dead a week earlier or some other miracle, it seems news of the faith-healing Rabbi had spread far and wide.

       As Jesus is wont to do, he doesn’t seem to directly give anybody what they want.  Instead of heading over to take a selfie with the Greeks who came to see him, Jesus took the opportunity to teach his disciples, the Greeks, and anyone who would listen that his death was imminent and that his death would be the first seed of many that would produce the fruit of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus took the chance to remind those who would seek to follow him that discipleship means a life of sacrificial love.  As Deacon Kellie told us last week, in John’s Gospel, Jesus being lifted up wasn’t high on a throne of glory, but upon a cross, where his death would be the beginning of eternal life for the whole world.  If we are to follow Jesus, we must learn to see him in his fullness – in his ministry of teaching and healing, in his being lifted up on the cross, in his rising again at the Resurrection, and in his ascending into heaven.  In this final public discourse and in the private farewell discourse that was just for his disciples; Jesus sought to prepare all who would follow him for what life would look like when he was gone; when, one day, it would be impossible to see Jesus, face to face.

Not being able to come to church has us all longing to see Jesus, but on the other side of that coin, I think, are the many ways we’ve seen the face of Christ in the world around us.  In our Baptismal Covenant, we affirm that, with God’s help, we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.  And so, over the last year, we’ve seen Jesus in the many sacrifices we’ve made to keep our neighbors safe.  I see Christ in every pair of smiling eyes peeking over a mask covered face at the grocery store.  I see Jesus in the phone calls, text messages, and emails of encouragement and support.  I’ve seen Jesus in teachers caring for their students, students navigating NTI snow days, and on every one of the hundreds of Zoom meetings I’ve attended this year.

In teaching those Greeks that discipleship means sacrifice, Jesus affirms for all of us that what we’ve done over the last year is important.  In every sacrifice we’ve made in the name of the greater good, we’ve placed another piece of beautifully dyed thread into the gorgeous tapestry God is weaving into the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.  As we think about how we will begin to return to some of the familiar practices of past, we would do well to remember that call to sacrificial love.  Holy Week and Easter aren’t going to be anywhere near normal.  Even as we come back into the Nave for Sunday worship, you might not be able to sit in “your pew.”  The space will look, feel, and sound different.  The season of sacrifice isn’t over just because we’ve announced a return to Church in the Pews beginning on April 11.  Instead, as I think we’re all experiencing, each time I do something I used to do pre-pandemic, I’m keenly aware of how different it is.  Going to a restaurant, waiting in my car for a table, seeing half the place empty, and my server wearing a mask is different.  Getting my temperature taken at the door of my doctor’s office and trying to fill out paperwork through fogged up glasses is different.  Helping Lainey find her mask before we head out to school each morning is different.  For me, the starkness of our year-long sacrifice is more apparent in the way things are different now than in the things that still aren’t happening.  As excited as I am to see folks back in these pews, I know that it’ll hurt to not give hugs and handshakes, to see you behind masks, and to not share a blueberry donut after the 10 o’clock service.  Those things will come, in time, I’m sure, but it’ll be helpful to remember that Jesus is present in every physically distanced wave, every masked smile, and, yes, even in every donut not eaten.

We want to see Jesus, but the truth of the matter is that, even in our disconnection, Jesus has still been present among us.  The key is to look.  With God’s help, we can have our eyes opened to see God’s hand at work in the world about us.  With God’s help, we can fix our hearts on true joy in a world of swift and varied changes.  With God’s help, the sacrifices we have made and will continue to make over the coming months will be the opportunity to shine the light of Christ into the world so that others might come to see Jesus for themselves.  To see Christ, we must follow Christ in a life of sacrificial love.  To see Christ, we must serve Christ in everyone we meet.  To see Christ, we must love our neighbors as ourselves.  We wish to see Jesus, O God, open our eyes that we might see.  Amen.

Experiencing Jesus

       The process of discerning a call to ordained ministry is messy.  Every diocese has different requirements, timelines, and processes.  Every person has a different life story, a different calling, and a different spiritual life.  Meshing these together can be difficult, especially for those pursuing a call to the priesthood and studying in a residential seminary environment.  At VTS back in the mid-aughts, it seemed the only thing that all of us had in common was the requirement to do one unit of CPE, Clinical Pastoral Education.  I spent the summer between my first and second years as a chaplaincy intern at Goodwin House in Alexandria.  Goodwin House is a tiered care retirement facility owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.  At the time, it had two locations, both of which offered independent living apartments, assisted living, skilled care, and memory units.  I got all kinds of experience.  Our CPE Supervisor was a retired Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel turned Episcopal priest named Ruth Walsh.  I’ve thought a lot about Ruth over the past week or so as she died of COVID-19 complications on January 21st.

       As you might imagine, given her resume, Ruth was a no-nonsense kind of person.  As a CPE supervisor, she was kind, but direct.  She said what needed to be said.  I remember one time, she asked me flat out, “Steve, do you think you’re better than the rest of your colleagues?”  I learned to check my attitude that day.  Ruth was also deeply spiritual, and wanted the same for us.  Once a week, she would lead us through an hour-long guided meditation.  I’ve always struggled to drown out the monkey chatter in my mind while meditating, but there is one session I still remember quite vividly.  We were on the roof-top patio one warm, summer afternoon, gathered as a group on the outdoor couches, Ruth asked us to close our eyes, become aware of our breath, and find a happy place.  I found myself beside a lake, watching the water ripple along the shoreline, when she invited us to imagine Jesus standing right in front of us.  I’m not sure why, but the Jesus I saw was just his face, kind of like the image imprinted on the Shroud of Turin.  I think the strangeness of Jesus’ appearance is part of why I remember this meditation so vividly.  Anyway, from there, Ruth invited us to spend forty-five minutes talking with Jesus, sharing our hopes and our fears, listening, as we were able, to words of encouragement, grace, and love.  It was one of the deepest experiences of prayer I’ve ever had.  As our time ended, I felt refreshed and empowered to finish that difficult summer in CPE.

       I think about that experience often.  How wonderful it was to have a sit down with Jesus.  I think about how much easier life would be if Jesus were here among us to teach us, by his example, how to live into the way of love.  In fact, this week, in particular, I found myself getting jealous of the congregation gathered at the Synagogue in Capernaum who got to see and hear for themselves the Good News of God’s salvation live and in the flesh.  They certainly didn’t show up that Saturday expecting to meet the Holy One of God, but they sure picked a good day to go to services.

       A small fishing village of about fifteen hundred residents, Capernaum will play a prominent role as the center of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, and it all started right here, as Jesus, Andrew, Peter, James, and John entered the Synagogue one Saturday.  It wouldn’t be uncommon for a visiting rabbi to be invited to speak.  Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus taught, but in other Gospels we hear about him proclaiming freedom to captives, sight to the blind, and the year of the Lord’s favor.  We know he often called on his listeners to repent and believe the Good News that the Kingdom of God had come near.  It wasn’t the content of his teaching, however, that got the congregation’s attention this day.  Instead, they were enamored by how he taught, as one with authority, unlike the scribes.

       Jesus taught of God’s love, not as one who had studied it, but one who lived it.  Jesus didn’t teach as a smug, know it all, who told people how to live their lives the right way. Instead, Jesus taught as one who cared deeply about the people who heard him. He taught as one who felt a responsibility for helping others to understand God’s love for them, and to help them see that that love was meant to be shared. His authority was based in compassion, not power; in grace, not judgment; in love, not strength.  Human beings aren’t accustomed to that kind of authority, so it is no wonder the congregation was astounded.

       In the Greek, Mark says that the crowd was ekplesso, a compound word, that literally means “to be blown away.”  That’s where my jealously sets in, and maybe yours does as well.  We are blessed with some pretty good preachers here at Christ Church, but none of us is Jesus.  We can share from our experience of God’s grace and love, but none of us is the human embodiment of it.  You might be blown away by my rhetorical skill and humility, but it is impossible for anyone to teach with the same kind of authority as Jesus.  Gosh it would be nice if Jesus were here, right now, so that we too might be able to be blown away by his authoritative teaching on God’s love, but of course, he isn’t here, and we, like generations of disciples who have come before us, have to find ways to experience that grace and love for ourselves so that we too might be able to share it, with some level of authority, with those around us.

       This is, I think, the fundamental task of discipleship, seeking ways to experience God’s love so that others can experience it for themselves.  How we do that, when we aren’t the Son of God incarnate, requires effort.  In the seemingly never-ending days of COVID-tide, it probably even requires extra effort.  The Season of Epiphany, however, is the time we set aside to specifically look for the ways God is at work in the world in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.  In our Eucharistic Prayer C, would that we could pray it, we would ask to have our eyes open that we might see God’s hand at work in the world around us.

       Allow me, then, if you will, to invite you to close your eyes for just a moment.  Notice your breath.  Be aware as you breathe in deeply… And out… In… and out…

Think back over the course of this week.

Look around where you’ve been.

Listen again to the words you’ve heard.

Where did you see God?

Did you have the opportunity to be blown away by God’ love?

Did you take the chance to share God’s love with someone?

In… and out… In… and out…

Amen.

The Way of Love

       One of the things I’ve noticed as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, is that human beings seem to carry a six or seven month emotional and spiritual reservoir.  Most of us can go for quite a while with things being really out of whack, but at some point, all of us will run dry.  As a pastor who is connected with many people in all kinds of life situations – single adults, families with young children, empty nesters, widowers, you name it – I’ve watched, with sadness, as folks of all sorts have found their reserves completely run dry.

       All of us are tired, and this loooong week certainly didn’t help, but as I prayed through the challenging parable of the bridesmaids, I began to focus my attention on the things we can do to refill our flasks with oil.  Staying awake, in the metaphor of our parable, means that we are ready for the long haul – lamps trimmed and lit and with plenty of oil in reserve.  In the metaphor of our times, it means keeping our emotional and spiritual reservoirs from drying up, so that we are able to face the long and challenging days that continue to come our way.

       So, how do we replenish our oil?  How do we keep our lamps lit?  How do we keep something in reserve?  I think it all boils down to finding a rule of life: establishing patterns that feed us and deepen our relationship with God.  Some of you have heard me talk about this before, but I am increasingly aware that without intentional actions to stay in relationship with God and our neighbors, COVID and our divided political climate have the real possibility of sowing estrangement and damaging relationships over the long term. In response to that reality, I’ve been so happy over the past eight weeks, as about a dozen of us have gathered on Zoom to talk through Scott Gunn’s latest book, The Way of Love – A Practical Guide to Following Jesus.  This book builds on the Way of Love framework first set forth by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry at General Convention in 2015[1].  Rather than another curriculum or program, the Way of Love is an invitation to find a way of living out your faith in Jesus Christ through seven ancient practices of discipleship – Turn, Learn, Worship, Pray, Bless, Go, and Rest.  It is by way of some combination of these seven practices that I truly believe each of us can find oil to keep our lamps lit through the dark days of the COVID Winter.

       The first practice in the Way of Love is Turn.  Turning means to “pause, listen, and choose to follow Jesus,” and it might be the most important thing we can do these days.  There have never been more voices clamoring for our attention than there are right now.  There have never been more options on how to spend your time than there are right now.  It might even be true that there have never been more people or organizations trying to capitalize on your fears than there are right now.  To turn away from all of those things and intentionally choose to develop a deeper relationship with God and deeper love of neighbor by treating every person with respect, by smiling at a stranger, even if they can’t see it behind your mask, and to engage in kindness rather than contempt is imperative to refilling your spiritual reserves.

       The second practice in the Way of Love is Learn.  To learn means to reflect on scripture each day, and to focus especially on the life and teachings of Jesus.  This may be the easiest practice to maintain during the pandemic.  Here at Christ Church you can learn by joining the Conversations with Scripture class on Zoom or engaging in one of our ongoing racial healing book groups.  Daily Meditations can arrive in your inbox from Forward Movement or give us a call and we’ll happily send you a copy of Forward Day by Day.  Mother Becca, Deacon Kellie, and I are always eager to offer book suggestions, if you’d like, or, better yet, pull out your Bible, open it up to Matthew’s Gospel, and just start reading. Opportunities to learn are everywhere.

       Third is the practice of prayer – intentionally dwelling with God each day.  If learning is getting to know more about God, prayer is the practice of getting to know God as a Father or a friend.  Again, resources on prayer abound.  The nave remains available as a Good Place to Say your Prayers.  The Book of Common Prayer has several different formal prayer services you can say in the comfort of your own home.  Practices like Centering Prayer help quiet our hearts and minds so that there is space to listen for the still, small voice of God.  You don’t have to pray for hours at a time.  Start by setting aside 5 minutes, three times a day, then grow it to ten or fifteen.  As Mother Becca is wont to say, “prayer is never wasted.”

       The fourth practice in the Way of Love is the most difficult these days.  Worship, the act of gathering in community weekly to thank, praise, and dwell with God looks very different in 2020.  Unlike church closures during the 1918 flu epidemic or the polio outbreaks of the 1940s, we still have the ability to gather, around screens rather than in-person, to offer God thanks and praise.  Thanks to the herculean efforts of Linda and Rick Mitchell, the faithful service of Ken and Deb Stein and Brittany Whitlow, and the imaginative faithfulness of Deacon Kellie and Mother Becca, corporate worship remains a possibility, even when gathering as a community isn’t.  It certainly isn’t perfect, and we all long for the days when we will be able to come together in these pews once again, but I continue to be encouraged by how many of you are choosing to fill your spiritual wells by worshiping God from home.

       The fifth practice is Bless.  Blessing is the act of sharing one’s faith and unselfishly giving and serving our neighbors.  While the practice of blessing has also been hamstrung by the Coronavirus pandemic, it is by no means impossible.  We continue to bless and be blessed by our community by reaching out in loving service through City Shapers, MEALS INC, Churches United in Christ HELP Ministry, a modified Wednesday Community Lunch, and soon our annual Blessing Tree.  Christ Church is able to continue to bless the world by sharing the love of God through your financial gifts as well.  Without your generous blessing, we wouldn’t be able to provide resources to worship, learn, or bless.

       The sixth practice to fill your flask and keep your candle lit is to Go – to cross boundaries, listen deeply, and live like Jesus.  Being a follower means you can’t stay where you are.  Being a follower of Jesus, means that even in midst of a pandemic and in a deeply divided nation, we are called to take his ministry of healing into the world by being the face of kindness and encouragement.  To go in these times might mean to not share yet another article or meme that stokes division, but rather to reach out with a phone call, an email, or even a handwritten note to let someone know you’ve been thinking about them and praying for them.  You don’t have to physically go anywhere to reach out with the love of God.

       Finally, the seventh practice in the Way of Love is to rest.  Resting isn’t just not doing anything, but the intentional way in which we receive the gift of God’s grace, peace, and restoration. Rest is rejuvenating work that allows us to set aside the busyness that so often drains our spiritual reservoirs in order to be refilled by living water that never runs dry.  Eight months into this thing, rest may not seem that important, but I suspect most of us haven’t truly rested, even if we haven’t done much of anything.  Rest, like the six other practices, requires intention in order to be beneficial.

       Seven practices may feel overwhelming.  Instead of biting off more than you can chew, pick a couple and try them out for 30 days.  As you do so, pay careful attention to your flask of oil.  Is it beginning to fill back up?  Is your candle burning stronger than it was before?  Do you have enough to share with your family and friends?  These seven practices will keep you in the Way of Love even as we wait for what feels like forever for the bridegroom to return.  Remember, no matter how draining 2020 might be, the Way of Love will sustain you. Love never fails. Love always wins. Amen.


[1] For more on the Way of Love, check out episcopalchurch.org/way-of-love. Definitions of each practice are from this site.

How to spot a saint

       One of the more interesting things I learned in seminary is that I’m terrible at poker.  I’m not a good liar, and I have way too many tells.  It didn’t matter how I tried to adjust, my playing partners would quickly figure me out and take me for my five dollar buy-in.  I rarely play poker anymore, but when I do, I have at least gotten better at reading the tells of others around the table.  Whether it is popping their gum, slow playing a bet, or sipping their drink, usually, I can start to discern whether someone actually has a good hand or if they are just bluffing.  In my decade and half of preaching, I’ve started to notice the tells that our biblical authors have as well.

       Take, for example, the Gospel lesson appointed for All Saints’ Day.  It starts with Matthew telling us that Jesus was drawing a pretty good crowd.  This detail tells us exactly what is going to happen next: Jesus is going to offer some really difficult teaching about what it means to be a disciple.  The crowd following Jesus would always swell after a series of miraculous healings.  People would come from all over to seek healing for themselves, their family, and their friends.  Afterwards, they’d continue to follow him, excited to see what was going to happen next, but Jesus didn’t want to be popular.  His goal, believe it or not, wasn’t to seek as many followers as possible.  Instead, he came to develop disciples who would repent of their self-centered sinfulness, and follow in his footsteps by loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, loving their neighbor as themselves, and, with God’s help, even going so far as to love their enemies.

       Matthew telling us that Jesus had developed a significant following tells me that what Jesus is going to say next will be meant to thin the masses and to determine who really wants to follow the Way of Love.  The Beatitudes do exactly that.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted, and the reviled.  Jesus doesn’t promise God’s blessing in a way that means we’ll never suffer another painful hangnail, difficult relationship, or global pandemic.  Instead, God’s blessing is promised to those whom the world most often sees as weak, marginalized, or particularly troubled, which makes this the perfect Gospel lesson for All Saints’.

       Too often, we think of the saints of God only in terms of the spiritual all stars like Mother Teresa or Martin Luther, but sainthood isn’t about becoming famous for your good works.  The only criteria that needs to be met to become a saint is to be a follower of Jesus.  The saints of God number in the millions, and include the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek and merciful.  The saints of God hunger and thirst for righteousness, seek peace, and often find themselves at odds with the prevailing culture of power and privilege.  The saints of God are, more often than not, quiet, faithful followers of Jesus who do the little things that slowly but surely build the kingdom of God here on earth.  These saints aren’t always obvious, but like me at the poker table, they too have their tells: living lives exemplified by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

       Jesus wanted the crowds to know that following him wouldn’t be easy, but on this All Saints’ Day, I think it is important for us to remember that the saints of God are just folk like you and me, and even in these most challenging days, we can live lives of blessed sainthood by following the example of Jesus, by loving God, and loving our all of our neighbors.  I’m grateful for each of you, and for the ways you make God’s love known to the world around you.  Happy All Saints’ Day, my blessed friends!  God love you.  God bless you.  Keep the faith.  Amen.

Day of Midian?

I can’t say with 100% certainty, but I’m like hand sanitizer and 99.9% certain that no preacher wants to tackle Isaiah 9 on Christmas.  We’re so focused on the birth of the Messiah and the conflation of the Synoptic stories to worry at all about what boarders on a supercessionist shoe-horning of Isaiah’s oracle for Hezekiah’s reign into a prophecy of the birth of Jesus.  The odds are pretty good that one the congregation hears “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” on Christmas Eve, their imaginations are already in the shepherd’s fields waiting the heavenly chorus.  Knowing this, the RCL didn’t let us off the hook by simply hiding Isaiah 9 on the Feast of the Nativity.  Instead, it makes a triumphant reappearance here on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany in Year A.

While the common reading of this text as a precursor to the coming of the Messiah seems so easy and feels pretty good, I couldn’t help but get caught up on this image of the yoke of oppression being broken “as on the day of Midian.”  I’ve heard these words for 40 years, but have never given any real thought as to what that that reference was about.  Until today.  Today, for whatever reason, the day of Midian grabbed my attention.  Funny how scripture does that.

According to my HarperCollins Study Bible, Isaiah was references a story recounted in the Book of Judges.  Before we get there, however, it behooves us to learn who Midian was.  The son of Abraham by Keturah, Midian and his brothers have a story similar to Ishmael.  As the children of a wife/concubine, Midian and his siblings were left very little when Abraham died.  His family was left to wander as nomads, left without a home.  Over time, the descendants of Midian grew in number and eventually became a great tribe, and when the Lord God needed to punish Israel for their worship of false gods, the Lord used the Midianites to oppress the people of Israel.   Judges 6-8 tells the story of the Midianite oppression and Gideon’s army’s conquest and Gideon’s almost instant return to idolatry.

It’s an odd reference, given that the relationship between God and Israel was only good for about half a minute, but when Isaiah uses this image of the rod of oppression being broken as on the day of Midian, it helps remind me that this salvation thing is ongoing work.  My salvation, as well as the salvation of the whole world, is being worked out day by day, as the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth, deeper relationship, and the work of justice and peace.  The great light isn’t something we come to see in fullness in a moment, but is revealed to, epiphany after epiphany, through the course of our lives as disciples.

Praying Shapes Believing

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Praying Shapes Believing is one of the standard texts for anyone who is discerning a call to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church.  It has been for at least two decades, even if the Eucharistic Prayer chapter based on what is now thought to be some pretty outdated scholarship (that’s another post).  My own discernment process in Central Pennsylvania was pretty well based on the structure of this text, so its core concepts are engrained in me, and I am a firm believer that the things we pray for eventually become the things we believe and the things we believe shape the way we act.

Thus, I read with great excitement the Collect for Epiphany 3, which at Christ Church is also Annual Meeting Sunday.

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Would that we really wanted this prayer to be answered.  Would that all of us were ready, by God’s grace, to answer the call of Jesus to share the Good News of salvation with all people.  Would that we weren’t, and I’m not saying anything about “we” that I don’t also mean for “me,” weren’t so afraid of what others have done in the name of Jesus that sometimes, we hide our own faith under a bushel basket.

I’ve written extensively on the Episcopal Church’s discomfort with evangelism as anything more than doing good deeds.  I’d be happy to send you my doctoral thesis, if you need help falling asleep at night.  Alas, we’ve taken to heart this made up anachronistic supposed saying of Saint Francis, “Preach the Gospel at all times.  When necessary, use words.” to the detriment of the Gospel and the lament of our churches.  As followers of Jesus, who experience the Gospel as a Way of Love rather than a way of fear, judgement, or condemnation, we should be the one’s out there, shouting from the rooftops the Good News of God in Christ.

We might not be there, yet, but thanks be to God for this prayer, which I hope will lead to belief in the importance of evangelism, which I hope will then lead us outside of these walls with the Good News of Christ Jesus in our hearts and on our lips.

More than enough

One of the great gifts of ordained ministry is the opportunity to engage in continuing education.  In my almost 12 years as a priest, I’ve had the privilege of traveling around the country, learning from some of the leading voices in practical theology and liturgy.  Of course, as many of you probably know from experience, continuing education opportunities can be intimidating at times, especially early in one’s career.  I still remember vividly my first continuing education event way back in November of 2008.  I had come across a conference put on by the United Methodist Church called “Worship in a Postmodern Accent” that just sounded really cool.  I booked a flight to Oklahoma City, everyone’s favorite vacation spot, for a few days at some non-descript, airport-adjacent hotel.  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 through social media.  For all the good that weekend had to offer, I also still vividly 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?  Not just here in Oklahoma, but in the priesthood.”  It all came to a head on the second day, in one of the lower level meeting rooms, at three o’clock in the afternoon.  Jonny Baker, then-head of the Fresh Expressions Office in the Church of England, 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 Jonny 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 because I had signed up for it and I’m a One on the Enneagram.  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 bucket 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 Saint Swithin’s by the Sea or the United Methodist Church, but it said, “God doesn’t call the equipped.  God equips the called.”  I thanked God for the moment of reassurance, tucked that dried up pen in my pocket, and have been mostly able to trust God to sustain my ministry ever since.

That experience came to mind this week as I read the story of Jesus’ baptism by John at the Jordan River.  Last we heard, Jesus was a twelve-year-old boy who had stayed behind at the Temple in Jerusalem while his parents made their way back to Nazareth after the Passover Feast.  Last we heard, Mother Becca was inviting us to think about how, during those three long days, Mary must have struggled with her own inadequacy in the call to be the Mother of God.[1]  Today, we’ve fast-forwarded 18 years. Jesus is now about thirty and at the Jordan River asking John for baptism.  John knows he’s not adequate for the task at hand. He couldn’t even tie the thong of Jesus’ sandal.  John shouldn’t baptize Jesus, Jesus should baptize John, but Jesus is resolute.  John is more than enough for the job because this is the way to “fulfill all righteousness.”  My friend Evan Garner spent a lot of time thinking about that phrase this week.  It’s an odd turn of phrase in Greek and it is very difficult to capture the idiom in English translations.  Righteousness is one of those fifty-cent church words that gets used a lot, but I’m not sure any of us really knows what it means.  Joseph was described as righteous when he decided to dismiss Mary quietly after she was found to be pregnant out of wedlock.  He was a rule follower, but more than that, he was compassionate.  Righteousness was found in the delicate balance of doing what was allowable under God’s law, while also doing what was best for Mary; not taking it to the extreme.  Having Mary stoned to death was also allowable under the law, but it would seem that was not the righteous or just option for Joseph.  The Contemporary English Version, an authorized Biblical translation for use in the Episcopal Church translates the whole sentence as “For now this is how it should be, because we must do all that God wants us to do.”  Evan argues, and I agree, that what Jesus is saying to John isn’t that this moment of baptism is the capstone in God’s work of redemption for the world, but rather, it was, in that moment, the right next step in God’s ongoing unveiling of the Kingdom on earth.[2]  That’s what the season of Epiphany is all about, glimpses into God’s plan for salvation, spotlights on the still ongoing work of restoring creation to wholeness.

As Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were torn in two, the Spirit descended like a dove, and a voice from heaven spoke, maybe only to Jesus, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Here too, the Greek is hard to bring into English.  Well pleased isn’t a bad translation, but another possible rendering is “whom I have gladly chosen.”  Jesus, the human manifestation of God the Son, had been chosen from before time and forever.  We won’t hear the Temptation story for a couple of months, but in all three Synoptic Gospels, we are told that immediately following his baptism, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan.  As a kind of pre-emptive encouragement, God affirms Jesus’ calling, names him as beloved, and reminds him that he has all he needs for what lies ahead.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember any voices from heaven at my baptism.  Still, whether you were baptized at 6 months or 60 years, I firmly believe that in that moment, as water ran down your brow, God named you as a gladly chosen member of Body of Christ, heir to the Kingdom of Heaven, and co-worker in the ongoing work of fulfilling all righteousness.  Through the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit and the specific spiritual gifts imparted upon each of us in baptism every one of us has been equipped for ministry. With God’s help, none of us is inadequate for the task at hand, whether that task is building chairs for a new Sunday school classroom, leading a book study, packing sack lunches, or sharing the Good News of God’s work in your life.  God is still at work in the world, fulfilling all righteousness, and invites each of us to take our part in it.  When you feel overwhelmed.  When you feel like you aren’t enough.  Just remember, you, like Jesus, are loved by God, you were gladly chosen for the task at hand, and you are specifically equipped for ministry by the power of the Holy Spirit.  God doesn’t call the equipped.  God equips the called for the salvation of the whole world.  Amen.

[1] https://beccakello.wordpress.com/2020/01/05/three-days-time/

[2] https://evandgarner.blogspot.com/2020/01/fulfill-all-righteousness.html

Testify to the Light

Long before I took any sort of flying lessons, I spent many hours in the right seat of my father-in-law’s single engine airplane.  Around the hangar, I learned that one of the pithy sayings in the flying community is that “every take-off is optional, but every landing is mandatory.”  The primary goal of a pilot is to bring the aircraft to a safe landing at its destination.  This requires all sorts of training as well as reliance upon many safety mechanisms both inside and out of the cockpit.  Travelling down Scottsville Road near Rafferty’s on a gloomy evening or foggy morning, you might notice a light occasionally streaking across the sky from south to north.  This light, which shines brightly out into the night sky is the Bowling Green-Warren County Regional Airport Beacon.  One of the first things a student pilot is trained to look for in lowlight conditions is this beacon.  No matter where you might be above the earth, you should be able to see at least one white and green light calling you home.  From the air, these lights are visible from many miles away, which can help a pilot flying under Visual Flight Rules locate an airport and begin the approach process.  These beacons can be particularly helpful in an emergency, when finding an airport quickly can mean the difference between life and death, but on a less dramatic level, the reality is that if you can’t see the beacon at an airport, you can’t legally land there under VFR.

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One of my jobs as co-pilot for my father-in-law was to find the beacon.  While he was busy getting the plane ready to land, communicating with air traffic control, and going through his check-lists, my eyes were fixed in the general vicinity of the airport, looking for that familiar light to flash across the windshield.  “Got it,” was my usual response when the airport beacon was in sight.  These two words were enough for Doug to know that the mandatory landing ahead of us would be as standard as a visual landing can be.  As the co-pilot, I am the one responsible to testify to the light.

John the Gospel writer is very careful to remind his readers that John the Baptist was not the light, but one who had been sent as a witness, to testify to the light that was coming into the world.  Both the noun “witness” and the verb “to testify” are translated from the same Greek root, martyr.  John the Baptist would die a martyr’s death because he lived a martyr’s life, as a witness to the light of Christ and testifying to anyone who would listen about the light that darkness could never overcome.  To stretch the flying metaphor a bit, John the Baptist was given the ability to see the beacon of God’s work in Christ long before the rest of the world could see it.  He was called to get on the radio to tell anyone with who would listen where to find the light; calling everyone back to their home field.  John’s role was to invite everyone within earshot to open their eyes and see the light shining in the darkness.

This morning, as we gather on the First Sunday after Christmas Day and hear the familiar, yet lofty words of the prologue to John’s Gospel, we are also welcoming two new members into the Body of Christ.  Through the gift of the Holy Spirit that Maya and Alex will receive today, they will join with us as inheritors of the primary vocation of John the Baptist and every disciple in every generation as witnesses of the light.  In just a couple of minutes, we will all make a pledge to support these two young people in their life in Christ by living our lives as examples of what it means to testify to the light of Christ that shines in the darkness.  It isn’t hard to notice that the world is in a constant state of low light conditions, but filled with the light of Christ, Christians of all ages are called to shine in the darkness,  With God’s help, we are called to show Alex and Maya what it looks like to share the Good News of Jesus, and 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.

A little more than two years ago, when we baptized Jocelyn, Maya and Alex’s big sister, I asked you to consider how you might live into the commitment you made.  “As you renew these promises, are you doing all in your power to grow in the knowledge and love of God?  Are you reading the Bible?  Are you praying?  Are you giving? Are you serving?  Are you sharing the Good News and the hope that is within you?  Are you giving back to God everything that is God’s?”[1]  Today, I wonder how those same practices of discipleship are helping you shine the light of Christ in a world filled with darkness?  How is God inviting you to testify to the light?  As followers of Jesus, we are to carry Christ’s 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.  No matter how dark it might seem, the beacon of Christ’s hope is always shining, always visible, and always calling us home.  Amen.

[1] https://draughtingtheology.wordpress.com/2017/10/22/giving-our-lives-to-god-a-sermon/