The Presentation

There are only a small handful of Feasts that take precedence over a regular Sunday celebration.  A couple of them – Easter, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday – regularly fall on a Sunday.  One, Ascension Day, can never be a Sunday as forty days after Easter Day will always add up to Thursday.  All Saints’ Day can be celebrated twice, but it is only Christmas, Epiphany, Holy Name (January 1), the Presentation (February 2), and the Transfiguration (August 6), will bump a regularly scheduled Sunday.  This week, we have a rare double Feast as the secular festival of Super Bowl LIV happens to fall on the Sunday of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple – a name that just rolls off the tongue.

The Feast of the Presentation, while not often celebrated on the Lord’s Day is still a pretty popular story in the minds of many Episcopalians.  Anyone who grew up going to an Episcopal Church Camp could probably still recite the Song of Simeon from Compline by heart.  Simeon’s song sums up not only the hope of an old man who longed desperately for the redemption of Israel, but it strikes deep chords within all of us who are looking forward to and working toward the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is through the light to the Gentiles and the glory of God’s people that we as Christians have come to know not just our salvation, but the redemption of the world.

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What gets less play, because her words were not recorded, is the prophet Anna who, Luke tells us was also waiting for the restoration of her beloved Jerusalem.  Upon seeing the babe, she too couldn’t help but express joy, praise God, and tell anyone who would listen what the birth of this particular child would mean for the whole world.

While the focus in the name of this Feast is the ritual act of presenting Jesus at the Temple for purification, what really stands out to me this morning is the faithfulness of Simeon and Anna, and their willingness to share the hope that was within them.  Too often in our worship, Episcopalians focus on the ritual acts, forgetting that the Eucharist is meant to nourish us spiritually that we might go forth to share the love of God and the Good News of salvation in Christ with everyone we meet.

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.

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/

Paul’s Logic

If you thought yesterday’s Proper Math was challenging, then you must not have read the New Testament lesson appointed for Epiphany 6C.  Anyone who has done any reading of Paul’s letters can attest to the fact that he could really spin a yarn.  A former Pharisee and a Greek citizen trained in rhetoric, Paul loved to dive into the weeds of logic, and only occasionally came out the other side with something that made any sense.  I even saw recently that someone on Facebook had nominated him at the Patron Saint of dependent clauses.

Paul’s penchant for circular arguments is made all the more difficult when the situation which he is addressing is a complicated one, and boy howdy was the church in Corinth a complicated situation.  Having dealt with arguments over class and privilege, over apostleship and gift, now Paul finds himself face-to-face with a group of Jesus followers who came from a tradition that didn’t believe in the resurrection from the dead.  It is likely that among them were some former Sadducees, a sect within Judaism that didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead.

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What makes Paul’s argument so convoluted is the problem that occurs in most religious arguments – they always begin at a point of presumed certainty, which then requires some kind of mental acrobatics to fit within the logic structure of the other.  The gospel that Paul proclaims is based on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  The basic premise of his interlocutors is that there is no resurrection of the dead.  In the world of Venn Diagrams, these are mutually exclusive sets.  How then can Paul prove that Jesus’ resurrection is a real thing to someone who doesn’t believe that resurrection is possible?  Well, you can read Paul’s attempt and see that it ain’t easy.

What I learn from Paul’s mind experiment is that religious discussion must always begin from a place of vulnerability and humility.  Logic is not the way to win a conversation with someone who believes differently than you do.  Winning shouldn’t even be the goal.  Rather, the goal of any encounter with an “other” is to learn and grow yourself.  Conversion is not our main end, that’s God’s work.  Ours is only to tell the story of the Gospel as we have experienced it.

Paul may never convince these former Sadducees that the resurrection is real, but he can certainly share with them the power of his own experience of the resurrected Jesus, from the road to Damascus all the way to imprisonment in Rome.  That’s the crux of evangelism.  Not well crafted apologetics, but a true accounting of the hope in which we, as followers of Jesus Christ, live our lives.

I was hungry, and you fed me

As is the case most mornings, as I got ready for work today, I turned the TV to SportsCenter on ESPN.  Amidst the coverage of the MLB trade deadline and the Mets getting totally blown out by the Nats (baseball has a serious problem) was the story of Lebron James, through is foundation, opening a new public school in Akron, OH.  In the interview with Rachel Nichols, who is one of the best in the game, she noted that one of things that caught her attention was the ways in which this new school was working to change the lives of kids.

RN: As I look around here, one thing that caught my eye just beyond all the academic stuff is that kids will go here for a longer school year and also longer school days. They’re here until 5 o’clock, partly just so they’re in this supported system and not out in the world as much. The other thing was food. That if a kid is hungry, it’s hard to learn, so you guys are giving these kids breakfast, lunch and a snack. How important is that?

LJ: I think first of all, fueling the body keeps the mind sharp. I remember when I was a kid, my attention span — I mean, you can have me for a little bit, but you have to keep me engaged. I think obviously fueling these kids and giving them food and breakfast and lunch and a snack — but just keeping them here under our support, keeping them here under our guidance, giving them objectives and criteria that they can match and not feel stressed and feel like they’re family. That’s what we want to create. We want to create an environment of family and not like a workplace. Sometimes you can get tired. If you look at it like work, you kind of get tired of it. We want to create an environment of family, where you want to always be around your family no matter the good and the bad, you always want to be around that support system. So that’s what we’re creating here.

As I listened to Lebron talk and thought about my own experiences at Foley Elementary and now Dishman McGinnis Elementary, the words of Jesus to the crowd that he had fed with five loaves and two fish came to life.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we hear Jesus speak frankly about the human condition. “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

First and foremost, people came to Jesus because they were hungry or hurting or in need of something they thought he could give, but the reason they stayed wasn’t because of a few pieces of bread and salted cod, but because of what else he had to offer.  Lebron James is making sure hungry kids are fed, not simply because feeding them is the right thing to do, but because it is the right thing to do, but because by filling their stomachs, the possibilities for learning open up.  In the same way, we reach out into the community not simply to make ourselves feel good or to have photo opps with our homeless neighbors, but because through sharing the love of God in action, we have the opportunity to share the love of God in word as well.

Every Wednesday at 11am, Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green opens its doors to feed 80-100 folks a free lunch.  Our volunteers don’t stand safely on one side of a service counter, however.  Instead, they are sitting at tables, hearing stories, learning about our neighbors, and, generally, just treating the stranger as a human being.  Our ministry at Dishman McGinnis, in which we might do as little as simply have lunch with a kid, means that for those 30 minutes, an adult who would otherwise have nothing to do with them, cares, and that act of caring can make all the difference in the world.  It isn’t an either/or proposition.  We don’t just feed someone’s body without also feeding their soul with the bread of eternal life, and in return, we too are fed.

Jesus Prays for Evangelists

I’ll spare you a long rant about the RCL and its oddball usage of John’s Gospel, and simply note that on Sunday, like every Seventh Sunday After Easter (see A and C) we will hear a portion of Jesus’ final prayer for his disciples, ripped from its context and nonsensically placed on the final Sunday of Eastertide.  As such, we hear Jesus using pronouns for which there is no direct antecedent.  As the preacher, I’m privy to the larger story, as I should be, but since we, like many Episcopal congregations, have no Bibles in the pews, those who show up on Sunday, will only get a small glimpse into Jesus’ prayer, and will likely be left wondering what Jesus is talking about when he says:

“I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.”

Asking what, exactly?  The pericope appointed for Year B skips what Jesus is asking for.  As we look back to the opening verses of John 17, we note that despite the section heading that has been inserted into the text, “Jesus prays for his disciples,” what Jesus is really praying for in this moment is that the Father might “glorify the son, so that the Son my glorify you.”  In John, this language of glorification is a clear reference to the crucifixion.  In being lifted up on the cross, Jesus is raised upon his throng as king.  Paradoxically, through his brutal and embarrassing death, Jesus is glorified as the Savior of the World and the King of the Jews.

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With that context in mind, we return to the appointed lesson for Sunday.  When Jesus says that he is asking for his glorification, it isn’t so that world, which in John’s Gospel is synonymous with sin, will see it and be changed, but rather, that those who already believe might be further empowered.  As the disciples will soon look upon the glorification of Jesus, it is his hope that they might be encouraged, rather than dejected.  In verse 18, Jesus makes hope this overt, when he prays to the Father, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have them them into the world.”

If those words sound familiar, it is because they appear almost verbatim in the much more popular John 20:21, which we hear every Easter 2 and on the Day of Pentecost in Year A.  There, the now resurrected Jesus enters a locked room where his disciples were gathered, clearly dejected and afraid, having failed to live into his prayer from a few days before.  He breathes upon them, and essentially answers this prayer for them in saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

In praying for his glorification, on behalf of his disciples and not the world, Jesus prays that the Father might encourage future evangelists.  His prayer is that those who have experienced relationship with God through Christ might have the ability and desire to share that Good News with a world that is evil and fallen.  In praying for the disciples to be empowered through his death, he prays for us as well, that we too might be sent, as the Father sent his only Son, into the world, empowered by the Spirit, to tell the story of God’s saving love.

Spiritual Work

As many of you know, I am part of a group of disciples who are working to proclaim resurrection in the Episcopal Church.  Our mission, as articulated in the founding blog posts of the movement, finds is roots in the eighth chapter of Acts.  This is a turning point in the life of the fledgling Church.  Stephen has just been martyred, while Saul looked on approvingly, and the first significant persecution is underway.  Because of the faithfulness of those early Christians, who fled Jerusalem but not their faith in Christ, the Christian faith is still around today.  It is a story of hope, of evangelism, and of perseverance.  It is a story that has motivated the Acts 8 Movement to continue to call Episcopalians to share the good news of God in Christ with a world that desperately needs it.

As one who has spent a lot of time immersed in Acts 8, it is always exciting to me when it rolls around in the lectionary cycle.  This is especially true on Easter 5B, as we hear the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.  I could probably write a book on this passage, but blogs are supposed to be short form, so I’ll spare you the long diatribe and jump right in to the word that leaped off the screen at me this morning.  Philip, having been brought to the wilderness road by the Holy Spirit, overhears the Eunuch reading from Isaiah.  In a manner that is quite forward, Philip approaches the Eunuch and asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?”  He responded, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

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This word, “guide,” caught my attention this morning.  Digging into it a bit, I found that the Greek word, hodegeo, is used only four other places in the New Testament.  Twice, in Luke and Matthew, it is used in variations of the idiom “the blind leading the blind.”  In Revelation, it is used to describe what the lamb at the center of throne will do for the rest of us sheep, “guiding us to the springs of the water of life.”  Of most interest, however, is how it gets used by John in the Gospel.  Late in Jesus’ ministry, as part of his farewell discourse, Jesus promises his disciples another advocate, the Spirit, who will guide (hodegeo) them into all truth.

Of further interest, is the etymology of hodegeo, which, according to Robertson, comes from hodos meaning way and hegeomai meaning to lead.  Beyond simply guiding, what the Spirit is sent to do, and what the Spirit does through Philip for the Eunuch, is to lead him in the Way.  The Spiritual work, then, for all of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus, is to lead others in the Way of Jesus.  This assumes that we will, ourselves, be disciples, having been lead in the Way by others.  It assumes that we will all be growing in our faith and in our understanding of the Gospel and of God, in order to teach others.  It assumes, more than anything else, that we will be in tune with the Spirit, who will guide us, as was the case for Philip, into all truth and into opportunities to guide others.