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/

Defying Traditions

This might come as a surprise to you, as we gather at a very traditional Christmas Eve service,  in a very traditional church, wearing very traditional vestments, singing very traditional carols, but I’m really not that big on traditions.  I am keenly aware that most of “the way things have always been” started in the 1950s, and I don’t really think they need to be held on to just for tradition’s sake.  For example, I’m not really a fan of singing Silent Night by candlelight, but I also like my job, so I’m not going to change it for change sake, either.  Anyway, that’s another sermon for another Christmas Eve.  I am also keenly aware that of all the days of the year, Christmas is the one that carries with it the most tradition – family, civic, cultural, and religious.  Many of you are probably here this evening, up way past your usual bedtime because it is just what you do on Christmas Eve.  I’ve been attending a “Midnight Mass” at an Episcopal Church on Christmas Eve for as long as I can remember because it was the tradition in my own family.

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I may not see the need to hold on to traditions for tradition’s sake, but I understand quite well their importance.  Traditions are important because they give us something to hold on to when the world around us seems to be shifting right before our very eyes.  The cold, dark winter days; the changing of the calendar year; children growing up; it seems that tradition is especially important around Christmas because this time of year reminds us that time marches on.  In the face of that unrelenting reality, we hold on to the past, to things that bring us comfort.  For my family growing up, the tradition we repeated every year was the annual Friday after Thanksgiving cutting of the Christmas tree.  We’d get up early and drive an hour north of town to a huge Christmas tree farm, in search of the perfect tree.  When we found a good one, my sister or I would stand by it, while rest went in search of one better.  When THE TREE was finally settled upon, my dad would take out his trusty hacksaw and fell it like a lumberjack of old.  We’d tie it to the top of the minivan and head home, excited to cover it with lights and decorations.

There was one problem with our big annual tradition, however.  My mother, my sister, and I are all very allergic to pine trees.  Wheezing, hacking, sneezing, with a headache to boot, our time spent decorating the tree was mostly a misery, yet year after year, we held on to that tradition.  One year, my mother read an article that said you could cut down the allergic effects of a real Christmas tree by running it through the car wash on your way home.  Having once again found the perfect tree, we tied it to the top of our Dodge Caravan and headed home.  On the way, dad ran through a car wash to rinse off the pine dander, and by the end of the day, we had a beautifully decorated tree with somewhat less itching or sneezing.  However, as the weeks went by, we noticed that despite regular watering, needles seemed to be falling of the tree faster this year than most. And then, on Christmas Eve morning, as if the tree knew what day it was, every last needle dropped to the floor. There we were: my mother crying while the rest of us were red-eyed and sneezing because the allergy reducing effect didn’t last, staring at a dead Fraser fir, decked in lights and ornaments and popcorn and cranberries, but lacking all of its needles. As this story has been told over the years, the amount of money the replacement tree cost has risen with inflation, but whatever the price, it was way too much to pay for a Christmas tree. Whether the blame falls on the scalding hot water, forgetting to deselect the hot wax option, or the turbo dryer at the end of the car wash, we will never know, but one thing was certain on that December the 24th, the tradition to which we had clung for so many years was finally over.  By the next Christmas, we had a lovely fake tree all ready to decorate Thanksgiving weekend.

The Gospel lesson for Christmas Eve is a story of tradition.  Each person named plays their traditional role.  Caesar Augustus plays the traditional role of the capricious political figure who used his power to move people around like pawns on a chess board.  Joseph, of the House of David, plays the traditional role of nervous father-to-be.  His job was to help Mary, a very traditional young, first-time mother along the arduous, hundred-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  The baby is born in the traditional manner, albeit in the non-traditional location of an animal pen.  The shepherds play their traditional role, doing the twenty-four hour a day, hard work of tending sheep outside of town.  Shepherds were considered unclean, and weren’t able to move about like other people.  In the midst of this traditional scene enter some very non-traditional characters.  An angel of the Lord appeared before them, joined quickly by a whole choir of angels who sang out with great joy the Good News of the birth of a Savior, the Messiah, Christ the Lord.

All of a sudden, all that is traditional goes out the window, and the whole world changes.  The shepherds run to the city to see this thing that the angels described.  Breaking tradition by entering the city at all, especially at night, once the gates had been shut, the shepherds, unclean as they are, find their way to the cave where Mary, also unclean from having given birth, Joseph, and the baby are resting, as best they can, on this most holy and different kind of night.  In the birth of Jesus, all of Creation, broken as it was and continues to be, was turned right-side up, if only for a fleeting moment, the twinkling of an eye, the flashing of a star.

Now that I’m grown and have my own children, we’ve created our own traditions.  In our family, we don’t have a real Christmas tree, but we do watch some of our favorite Christmas movies.  Home Alone 1 and 2, the Santa Clause 1, 2, and 3, and of course, A Charlie Brown Christmas.  I defy you not to get goose bumps when Linus steps out onto that stage and recites Luke’s Christmas Gospel.  It was pointed out to me for the first time this year that while Linus says those same traditional words from the King James Version that Deacon Kellie just read, as he comes to the place where the angel appears before the shepherd and says, “Fear not,” Linus lets go of his blankie.  A traditional symbol of that to which we cling, Linus is able to let go even as the shepherds are able to resist social norms in order to rush into the city of Bethlehem to see the newborn King.

Linus has me wondering this year what I need to let go of.  What kind of things am I holding on to that are keeping me from embracing the love of God that was fully made known in the birth of Jesus Christ?  For some, tradition holds them back.  Sometimes, it is that the tradition has become the object of worship.  For others, the tradition has lost its power and simply feels like a rote expectation placed upon them.  I think for most of us, the thing that we cling to that keeps us from fully embracing the gift of the Messiah is fear.  That’s why Linus carried that blanket, isn’t it?  To keep the fear at bay?  Fear made Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem in the first place.  Fear kept the shepherds out in the fields at night.  Fear tells us that we are not enough or that there isn’t enough to go around.  Fear grips us and holds us back, even as we cling to it because at times, it seems to be the only thing we know for sure.

But all traditions were broken and fear lost its power when, in a field outside Bethlehem, an angel appeared and said, “Fear not.”  Let go of your fear.  Join with the shepherds, set aside traditions and fear this Christmas Eve, and rush toward the Messiah, so that you too might leave this place glorifying God in your heart with praise on your lips, for unto you, and me, and the whole world is born this night, in the City of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  Amen.

Righteousness Redefined

Righteousness, properly defined by Thayer, is about adherence to the rules of God as well as rules of human origin.  The concept of “powers ordained by God” has deep roots, well beyond even Judeo-Christian history.  Within our own Scriptural narrative, we have evidence of all kinds of leaders who were believed to be “ordained by God.”  Chief Priests, Judges, Kings, throughout history, those who believe in God have trusted the Spirit to put leaders in charge who would seek the will of God and what is best for the people.  (I’ll let the reader decide if we still believe this.) The result of such belief is this understanding that the laws made by human beings should be followed because they are inherently just.  Martin Luther King, Jr., among many others, have taught us that this isn’t always the case.

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we get a very early example of one who can be considered righteous even though they do not fully adhere to the laws of the land.  Joseph, having heard that Mary was pregnant even though they had not yet known each other, is described by Matthew as “righteous,” but this title brings with it goods in conflict.  As a righteous man, Joseph was well within his rights to divorce her very publicly, ruining her life and the life of her child for ever.  He could even have her executed for bringing such disgrace upon him and his family.  Either of these options would have been considered righteous, yet, for Joseph, they weren’t right.  Rather, he planned to release her from her betrothal quietly.  She’d still be considered damaged goods and would likely never find a husband to take care of her and her child, but at least, maybe, she could return to her own family.

Joseph the righteous one, who was willing to choose what he thought was the best possible outcome for Mary, was in tune, it would seem, with the will of God.  The dream that he has invites him to ignore the laws of the land and to risk everything to take Mary as his wife.  His righteousness wasn’t defined by dual allegiance to the laws of God and the laws of humans, but solely on the will of God.  His calling was higher than the expectations of human government.  His was to welcome the reign of God on earth.  As such, Joseph redefines righteousness.  While we might not have to make the same exact decision Joseph did, our calling is also to welcome the kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.  This means, sometimes, maybe even most times, we are called to seek the will of God – to love our neighbors, care for the poor, feed the hungry, and proclaim release to the captives – over the expectations of social convention or even the law of the land might have us do.

A Brood of Vipers

I say this often, but I’m constantly amazed at how Biblical texts that are so familiar can be seen in new and different ways.  I mean, we hear the story of JBap at least three Sundays out of the year – that’s nearly 6% of all Sundays – and yet, this morning, as I read, once again, Matthew’s telling of the John the Baptist story, I realized something new.

Because it is so familiar, it is easy to read this story quickly and to let your mind fill in the blanks.  In my head, this is the story of all of Judea and Jerusalem coming to hear John preach and to be baptized by him for the forgiveness of their sins.  Maybe I’m conflating the story from Matthew 11, when Jesus asks the disciples of JBap what they were looking for when they decided to follow John, but I’ve always heard John’s strong rebuke, “You brood of vipers” as being directed at everyone who came out to the Jordan to see him.  I’ve read this to be John’s call to repentance for all who came, but especially toward those who came for the circus; to see John’s wild clothes and to do what everybody else was doing.

In reality, the rebuke isn’t directed at the crowd generally, but specifically at the Pharisees and Sadducees who came from Jerusalem.  Now, this can get dicey if one reads this text with the lens of 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism, but even there, we miss the point.  It isn’t John decrying the Jewish establishment, as if the Christian version of institutional religion is somehow more pure, but rather, John’s words are directed at real people, specific people, who have corollaries in contemporary society.  John pointedly and directly called the religious leaders of his day “a brood of vipers.”  He accused them of making following God’s commandments comfortable for themselves, but rigorous for their adherents.  He dared to suggest that their way of leading God’s people wasn’t producing real fruit.

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As a minister of the Gospel, it’d be easy for me to brush this harsh critique of religious leadership as directed toward folks like Joel Osteen or TD Jakes, but when Matthew says that many Pharisees and Sadducees came to see JBap, he undermines my ability to make this a niche market rebuke.  Rather, it seems that John’s words were directed at all who would dare take on the mantel of religious leadership in a community.  Dare I say, these words are directed toward me; toward you, dear reader; and toward anyone, lay or ordained, or steps out in faith to lead the people of God toward a deeper relationship with God.

Our titles and degrees will not save us and our ministries.  Rather, those who dare to lead will be judged based on the kind of fruit their leadership produces.  Rather than seducing people in with easy, cultural, moral therapeutic Christianity, John’s rebuke invites Christian leaders to do the hard work of naming sin for what it is, calling people to repentance and amendment of life, and motivating them to be about the good works of building the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

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Telling people what they want to hear is a whole lot easier (and more lucrative), but it’s not the work to which ministers of the Gospel are truly called.  No, we are called to help folks do the hard work of sorting the wheat from the chaff in their own lives so that when the Lord Jesus returns, he might be met with joy rather than fear and sorrow.

Unity, Constancy, and Peace

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I’d imagine that any priest you asked could tell you their favorite parts of the Eucharistic Canon.  Some might have a favorite Eucharistic Prayer.  For others, it might be a paragraph, a sentence, or even a few words.  I have two favorites – one in Rite I and one in Rite II.  I think it is important to pay attention to these parts, the pieces of the liturgy that hit deep in your soul, because, quite frankly, when you are standing up in front of a crowd of people saying the same words over and over again, it can quickly become a rote recitation rather than a prayerful activity.  For me, I find it helpful to feel the prayers in my body, to experience where my heart flutters a bit, where my breath quickens, or where my soul aches.  Favorites change.  Sometimes, it’s about the hurt that Jesus came to assuage.  Sometimes, it’s about the joy that salvation brings.  Most often, for me, it is about the mission to which we are called.  Which is why, more often than not, if you asked me what my favorite part of the Eucharist is, I’d have to say this phrase from Rite II, Prayer A, “Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace…”

These words came to mind this morning as I read Paul’s admonition to the Church in Rome.  His thesis is clearly one of unity and peace for the sake of a consistent application of the Gospel.  It seems as though Jewish and Gentile Christians were at odds with one another. Why else would he feel the need to prooftext four different Old Testament passages?  That Jewish and Gentile Christians didn’t always get along isn’t an unknown concept.  The reason we have Deacons as an order in the Church is because Roman Christian widows weren’t being treated the same as Jewish Christian widows.  And so, the prayer of Paul for the Christians in Rome is that God might grant these two communities harmon with one another so that they can glorify God with a united voice.

Unity, Constancy, and Peace.

Given the deep divides in our common life as Christians in 21st Century America, it might behoove us to all be praying for the God of steadfastness and encouragement to grant us to live in harmony with one another in accordance with Jesus Christ.    We ought to welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us.  Not throwing the other away for their theology which we have determined to be anathema.  Not doubling down on our own rightness as if our beliefs could somehow save the faith, but rather, by listening with open ears and open hearts to the hopes and fears of the other so that we might move toward unity, constancy, and peace.

This is difficult work.  For progressive Christians, it means giving ear to a theology that seems to be dehumanizing to our LGBT+ siblings in Christ.  For conservative Christians, it means creating space for a theology that seems to discredit some of the foundational understandings of Scripture.  Without the ability to even listen to one another, however, we dehumanize the other and throw out the Gospel of grace.  Without an ability to hear the fear of the other, we cut short the work of welcoming the stranger and make impossible the hope of unity for the sake of the Gospel.  Without grace and a willingness to let God do the hard work of deepening faith and relationship, Christians do nothing more than mimic the poisonous culture of politics, echo chambers, and fear.

For 2,000 years, the Church has struggled, perhaps most of all, to make space for the other who also calls on the name of Christ Jesus.  May Paul’s prayer for the Romans be our prayer for this day so that we might come a bit closer to living in harmony with one another, with God, and with the whole world.