Ashamed?

       Cassie and I have joked over the years that we might have two of the most guilt-inducing careers in the world.  When people find out that Cass is a dental hygienist, they immediately begin with their excuses for not going to the dentist as often as they should, or they laugh uncomfortably while they explain they should probably floss more often, or they quickly turn the subject around and ask how she could possibly look inside people’s disgusting mouths all day, every day.  When they find out that I’m an Episcopal priest, they immediately begin with their excuses for not going to church as often as they should, or they laugh uncomfortably while they explain how they find God in the woods and are spiritual but not religious, or they quickly turn the subject around and ask how I could possibly listen to people’s problems all day, every day or how I could possibly think of something to preach about.  On occasion, we’ve dreamed of other answers we might give to avoid the awkwardness of it all.  In Alabama, we lived very close to a large outlet mall, and we determined that the career least likely to produce any follow up questions was assistant manager at the Corningware store.

       It isn’t that I am ashamed of what I do.  I love being a priest.  I love walking with people through moments of joy.  I even find that walking with folks through sorrow to be peaceful.  I might be ashamed of the guilt my vocation produces in so many people.  I am certainly ashamed of what others have done to make being a Christian be associated with hate or being a priest be associated with abuse, but I’m certainly not ashamed to be a follower of Jesus who is called to ordained ministry.  Still, this morning’s Gospel lesson brings me to pause.  “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  “Those who are ashamed of me and my words… of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed.”  These words make the collar feel tighter than the COVID-19 quarantine pounds ever could.

       How often does my desire to be liked belie my faith in Jesus Christ?  How often do I act as if I’m ashamed of the teachings of Jesus in the way I treat my neighbor?  How often do I lament the cross of Christ, preferring instead to put myself first?  When Jesus first spoke these words to Peter and the other disciples, it was in relation to what was to come.  There had been plenty of revolutionary faith leaders, so-called Messiahs, who had come and gone before him.  Their trajectory looked a whole like Jesus’s. They appeared in the wilderness with a new kind of teaching.  They amassed a crowd of followers.  Their popularity threatened the powers-that-be, and in some cases, their violent actions incited riots, and so they were killed, often left to die hanging on a cross for their transgressions.  Peter and the rest couldn’t stand the thought of Jesus ending up in the same predicament.  He had to be different.  They had staked their own lives on that.

       Jesus is crystal clear, however, that he too will die at the hands of the powers-that-be.  It is, quite simply, what the system of power and privilege does to those who challenge it.  Jesus goes beyond that, however, to let them know that unlike all those so-called Messiahs who had come before him, his story wouldn’t end there, and that after three days, he will rise again.  The cross that he will bear is the cross of the powerful, but it is in Christ’s willingness to become weak, that he will bring about the redemption of the world.  That, Jesus tells his disciples, is nothing to be ashamed of.

       Two thousand years later, the scandal of a crucified Messiah is long gone.  We don’t have the memory of a dozen other messianic figures hung on crosses, never to be heard from again.  Yet, as 21st century American Christians, our shame still rests in the apparent weakness of it all.  For nearly all of Christian history, the Rabbi who died on a cross because he took on the cause of the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed has been used by those in power to subjugate the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed.  The shame of the Church has been the shame of Peter, that God might deign to become weak in order to save the weak.  The Church has long preferred a strong Messiah who will align us with power, affirm our wealth, and cast down those who would challenge the status quo.

       Jesus is crystal clear, however, that if the Church is ashamed of his teaching, then he will be ashamed us.  The cross of Christ that we are asked to carry is to put God first and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  It is to care for the marginalized, to respect the dignity of every human being, and to seek fullness of life for all of God’s creation.  Whether you are a dental hygienist, the assistant manager at a Corningware outlet, or an Episcopal Priest, the call to discipleship is all the same, deny yourself, take up the cross of love, and follow in the Way of Jesus.  It may never lead to power and privilege, in fact, it probably shouldn’t, but it will lead to the Kingdom of God, a better existence here on earth, and, ultimately, thanks to the Cross of Christ, the joy of eternal life.  Amen.

More True Religion

       A new Vicar began her ministry in a small, rural parish on bright Sunday morning.  The hymns were glorious, and she preached a wonderful sermon.  During communion, there were so many people that they almost ran out of bread and wine, but the Lord provides, and all were fed from the bounties of Christ’s grace.  She went home exhausted, but excited for what the future held.  The next morning, she headed to the office where she was met by an older parishioner who was clearly troubled.  “What’s the matter?” the Vicar asked.  “Well, I’m afraid you didn’t do communion right yesterday,” the parishioner responded, “It just didn’t feel like church.”  “Oh?” she replied, “It wasn’t right?  How so?”  “Well, before each pass down the altar rail, our old Vicar would always stop and pray for every person kneeling at the rail to receive.  It was so good to know our priest cared for us and prayed for us each by name.  It just felt like you rushed through it, like you didn’t care.”  An accusation like this would shake any good priest to their core, and the young Vicar took it quite seriously.  She decided to call her predecessor to see what she could learn about his habit of prayer for the congregation.  He was an older gentleman, whose mobility issues had finally caused him to retire.  She explained the situation to him, and he laughed as he replied, “I wasn’t praying.  I stopped each time to touch the radiator.  I had to discharge static electricity, so I didn’t shock the daylights out of the first person at the rail.”

       This anecdote, or one like it, has been shared in seminary liturgy classes for decades.  It is an important reminder that human beings, especially those of us who take our faith seriously, make meaning out of all kinds of things, even things that maybe weren’t intended to have meaning.  This story comes to mind every summer when Proper 17 rolls around.  In the Collect of the Day we pray that God might increase in us “true religion.”  I’m reminded that religion is a powerful word, filled with all kinds of meaning, and that even though all of us might call ourselves Episcopalians, each of us has our own understanding of what our religion truly is.  Every one of us has developed our own system of religious actions, those things that are important to our life of faith.  For some, church isn’t church without music.  For others, they can’t imagine church without communion.  There are even a few of you who wish we used incense every Sunday.  I know you’re out there.  The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us all to rethink our religious habits and to adapt them based on what we think is and isn’t safe.  Beyond the intensity of the last 17 months, the reality is that all of us are constantly updating our understanding of our own religion based on the circumstances of our lives, whether it is raising children, a job that requires work on Sunday, or our taste in music.  Heck, even the word religion itself has changed meaning considerably over the years.

       Its use in this week’s Collect is emblematic of that shift.  The first written edition of this prayer is found the Gelasian Sacramentary, a prayer book compiled around the year 750.  Some form of this prayer has been in use for almost thirteen hundred years!  When it was first written, the prayer simply asked that God might increase religion in us, but during the English Reformation, Thomas Cranmer, the author of the first Book of Common Prayer, decided that he needed to be clearer about what kind of religion we were praying for.  Rather than the bad religious practices of the Roman Church, Cranmer thought we ought to pray for the true religion that he was in the process of creating.  This change can be seen as an early step in a long evolution for the word religion away from what it had meant in 750, which religious scholar William Cantwell Smith defines as “faith as the lived experience of love, veneration, devotion, awe, worship, transcendence, and trust; a way of life; … or… a particular way of seeing and feeling the world.”[1]  Since the Reformation and the rise of modernity, religion has become a more cerebral exercise.  At its most extreme, religious practice has the danger of becoming nothing more than seeking some kind of pure theological ideology.  Today, when we pray for an increase in true religion, it can feel more like we’re praying for our particular set of ideas to be better than those of the Baptists or Presbyterians, when, in truth, when this prayer was written, it was a prayer asking God to increase in each of us an awe for creation, wonderous and joyful worship, and trust in the God who calls us to see and feel the world in a particular way.

       That particular way of seeing and feeling the world is summed up nicely in all three of our lessons this morning.  In Deuteronomy, the whole premise of the book is that wandering Hebrews were nearing the Promised Land as Moses was nearing the end of his life.  Before they entered the land, Moses had one last chance to impart all the wisdom he had received from God.  He’ll spend the next twenty-six chapters reminding them of how God hoped they’d live their lives, but before he started, his advice was simple.  Remember.  Remember that the Lord calls you to a particular way of living in this world.  Remember that you didn’t get here all on your own, but that the Lord has brought you to this place.  Remember to teach this to your children, lest they forget.  As disciples of Jesus, we may not be called to live by the full law of Deuteronomy, but in the exchange between Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus reminds us that no matter how we live out our religion, we’re called to do it not so that our actions might be seen by others, not to puff ourselves up, and not to burden those around us, but rather, everything we do should be a response to the love that God has shown us.

       It can be hard to know how we should live out our faith; hard to know exactly how it is that God would like us to see and feel the world around us, but thankfully, we have James.  The Letter of James never minces words.  It is a series of admonitions to disciples and church leaders alike on how the life of faith might be lived out day to day.  The Bible is rarely as clear as it is in James 1:27, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”  Our primary call as disciples of Jesus is to care for the needs of the world and to keep ourselves away from sin.  In the long run, it doesn’t really matter if you genuflect or not, if you like Bach or not, if you watch church in your pajamas or dress in your finest and get here by 8.  No, the true religion to which we are all called is, once again, summed up in this way – show your love of God by putting God’s will first, and show your love of neighbor by caring for their needs.  That’s a true religion I think we can all get behind, and one that I will gladly pray for more and more of.  Increase in us true religion, o Lord, for the honor of your name.  Amen.


[1] Quoted in Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion, p. 97

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.

Reacting to Jesus

As unremarkable as the miracle that Jesus performed in the Synagogue might have been, the focus of Sunday’s Gospel really seems fixated on the various reactions that people and spirits had to Jesus. Less than halfway through the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has already engendered several strong reactions. At his baptism, the heavens reacted to Jesus by being torn apart and a voice saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The [Holy] Spirit responded by whisking Jesus into the wilderness, where Satan tempted him for 40 days. Simon and Andrew reacted to Jesus invitation by dropping their nets and following him. James and John, sons of Zebedee, did the same.

Our story follows, with Jesus in the Synagogue at Capernaum. He taught with a particular kind of authority, and the congregations reaction was, in the Greek, ekplesso, which literally means, they were blown away; not by what he taught, but how. Immediately, the scene cuts to a man with an unclean spirit. Just like it was with Satan in the wilderness, the unclean spirit knew something was up and their reaction is telling, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy one of God.” It seems the spirit could see beyond the flesh, and knew the heart of Jesus. The spirit was afraid of what Jesus might do, but we should be careful reading too much into the title that the spirit calls Jesus.

While most of us reading this passage would assume that the spirit knew that Jesus was the Messiah, The Jewish Annotated New Testament (p. 61) notes that this phrase, “Holy One of God” mirrors a title given to Elisha in 2 Kings 4:9. Rather than a messianic title, it is a comparative title over and against the evil spirit. Instead, it makes clear that unlike the spirit, which belonged to the evil one, Jesus belonged to God. What follows is an example of how the power of God’s holiness is stronger than the power of evil, as Jesus casts out the spirit, leaving it disembodied and unable to act in the world.

The final reaction, then, is the crowd’s response to what they just saw. They were thambeo, astounded. Mark seems to use ekplesso and thambeo interchangeably, as both variously refer to the reaction people have to Jesus teaching and to witnessing miracles. Still, it is worth noting that even though the spirit saw Jesus as holy, the crowd is struck particularly by his authority. Their response isn’t worship, at least not yet. Instead, they are awestruck, flabbergasted, and astonished. It would behoove us, I think, to pay attention to how we respond to Jesus in our own experience. Are we amazed by the wisdom of his teaching? Are we astonished by his holiness of life? Are we fearful of his call upon our lives? How do you react to Jesus?

One with authority

I’ve spent this weekend on Zoom. Not like all weekend, but several hours, each day, from Friday through a meeting scheduled in about 15 minutes, on Zoom as a member of the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church. Lots of words get spoken over the course of some 12 hours of online meetings, and not all of them are worth hearing, let alone repeating. Occasionally, however, you hear something through glitchy internet and bad audio that you want to remember. That happened to me on Saturday morning, during the presentation on the relationship between the Church Pension Fund and The Episcopal Church. Bishop Mark Hollingsworth, 11th Bishop of Ohio, noted that this purpose of our conversation was to clear up lines of authority, not for the purpose of one party holding authority over another, but rather, to clearly articulate responsibility for.

As I read about the response to Jesus teaching in the Synagogue, I can’t help but wonder if the astonishment that the people experienced upon hearing Jesus was because his teaching was based in “authority over” but “responsibility for.” That is, 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, 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 real accustomed to that kind of authority. It is no wonder the people who heard Jesus teach were astounded.

You think you know a guy

il_340x270-1290039490_8ory

Last week’s parable about the 10 bridesmaids had lots of people becoming members of the Jesus Seminar ready to cast a pocket full of black beads that Jesus didn’t actually say these things.  It is really hard to believe that Jesus would a) lift up the selfishness of the wise bridesmaids, b) call anyone foolish, c) declare that even his close followers who maybe didn’t quite get it would find themselves outside of his grace, and d) compare all of this to the kingdom of heaven.  We think we know Jesus and how the grace of God works, and because this story doesn’t compute, we want to throw it away as an editorial decision on the part of Matthew or some later redactor.

As I began to read the Gospel lesson for this Sunday, I began to wonder if Jesus knew that this would be the reaction to his eschatological teachings, and so he told this parable to prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that what we think we know about Jesus isn’t all there is to know.  The third slave, you know, the one who dug a hole and buried his single talent because he was afraid of a master who “was a harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, and gathering where he did not scatter seed,” thought he knew his master, but as with everyone whom we meet, there is always more to learn.

Remember that these parables are all coming late on Tuesday in Holy Week.  It is not unreasonable to think that the Disciples are absolutely clueless as to what Thursday evening through Sunday will bring.  They can sense things getting tense between Jesus and the religious authorities, but they’ve experienced that before.  Whole crowds have had stones in hand, and yet Jesus walked away, unscathed.  They think they know how this will end.  They think they know what the Messiah will do.  They think they know Jesus, but there is still much to learn.

One of the harder lessons they will learn will come when, like in the parable, Jesus departs from them.  How will they respond?  Will they be about the work he had given them authority to do?  Will they continue to expand his ministry?  Or, will they live in fear, unable to do anything but bury the ministry to which they were called?  After his resurrection and ascension, the same questions will arise as they stand, slack-jawed, staring into heaven.  Will they use the gifts they’ve been given to spread the Good News, or will they return, in fear, to the lives they once knew?

We think we know Jesus.  We think we know what he is about.  We think, but there are always surprises.

Jesus was Tired

It is hard for me to believe, but it has been more than two years since the candidates for the 4th Bishop of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast took part in the walkabout portion of the discernment process.  Over the course of several days, the candidates traveled around the diocese attending a series of large gatherings in which they were invited to answer questions, many canned, so that we might be able to get to know them a little better.   The folks from St. Paul’s in Foley attended the event in Daphne, which was the fifth and final event in a rugged week for these candidates.  I remember being glad that I was able to attend this final walkabout meeting because I wanted to see how my future bishop might behave at the end of a long week.  “I need a bishop who can take my call at 5pm on a Friday when I’ve just learned the treasurer has been embezzling money,” I told one person.  It was a bit of an exaggeration, but the truth is that the ministry of a bishop means long hours, lots of personal interaction, and the ability to be “on” at the drop of a hat.  All four candidates seemed to handle the situation pretty well, and I left feeling like we would be in good hands with any of them at the helm.

When preaching on Sunday’s Gospel lesson, most preachers will focus on the narrative of Jesus and the woman at the well – with good reason – but this morning, still fighting through the haze of last night’s nighttime cold medicine caplet,  I’m struck by the context that John spells out for his readers.  “Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.”  Jesus was tired out by his journey.  Not only does this detail do the hard work of humanizing Jesus, a noble task in John’s lofty and cosmic Gospel, but it also gives us a lens through which we see the rest of the story.  When Jesus rather curtly demands a drink from the woman at the well, we are more apt, I think, to brush it off because he was tired.  And maybe we read the story of this deep encounter between Jesus and the woman with more awe because of how spot on Jesus seems to be, even in the midst of his exhaustion.

starbucks-jesus

Just as I needed a bishop who could do the hard work of ministry when s/he was tired, so too I appreciate the Messiah who, though worn out by the journey, is still ready to show love and compassion.  It is dangerous to moralize Jesus’ behavior since we can never actually be like Jesus, but I think this detail is a helpful reminder to all of us who represent Christ in the world that even when we feel like we need to hide away for a while, even when we are tired and ready for a break, even when we would rather do anything else but be around God’s beloved and hurting people, we are called to love, to show compassion, and to share the Good News of Jesus Christ both by our words and through our actions.

The Power of Baptism

John the Baptist, as has been well document, is a popular character in the Revised Common Lectionary.  So popular, in fact, that in Year A, we get to hear the same story about his encounter with Jesus two weeks in a row.  Last Sunday, the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, gave us Matthew’s version.  This week, we get John the Evangelist’s take on the events.  Usually, I would begrudge this situation, and that will likely come as the week wears on and a sermon feels out of reach, but this morning, I’m still basking in the glow of the power of a baptism.

See, a funny thing happened on my way to my first service at Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  As these things happen, the Senior Warden and I negotiated a start date that allowed me some time to move and settle, while not crushing either my savings account or the church’s willingness to wait for me.  The Feast of the Baptism of our Lord seemed appropriate, given that it too marked the beginning of something new.  Immediately, I decided that we would follow the rubric on 312 of the Book of Common Prayer and substitute the Renewal of Baptismal Vows for the Nicene Creed at both services.  Ah, but wait, there was a young child whose parents were desirous of baptism, and so it was scheduled at the 8 am service.  But wait again, the godparents were unavailable on the 8th, so we would wait.

At about 7:45 on Sunday morning, a godparent arrived, gift bag in hand, certain that the baptism was happening.  Roughly 5 minutes later, mom, dad, and baby arrived.  Grandparents were there too, but none of us really thought a baptism was happening.  It had been postponed.  Then, at 7:57, as the altar party gathered for prayer, one of the chalice bearers, who was facing the family, spoke up.  “They are putting a baptismal gown on that baby,” she said.  So guess what?  We baptized a baby at 8am.  Thanks to a great team of altar guild members, an awesome deacon, and others who were willing to simply go with the flow, we pulled off baptismal prep in 3 minutes.

As we reached the point in the service when the baptism happens, I took baby Ryder into my arms, and something powerful happened.  There wasn’t a dove descending from heaven.  No voice spoke from above.  Instead, as I held that unfamiliar child in the middle of an unfamiliar space, I saw the face of Jesus.  Just like John the Baptist in our Gospel lesson for Sunday, I realized that God shows up in unexpected places and at unexpected times.  It was, as I told friends later, glorious and hectic and maddening and all the stuff the church is supposed to be, and it was so because God arrived, in the person of a little baby, and invited us to show him hospitality.  Thanks be to God for a wonderful start, even if it was a little harried, and for the opportunity to see Christ in the face of one of his most precious children.

Named as saints – a sermon

My final sermon at Saint Paul’s is available on the website, or you can read it here.


Some of you may not know this about me, while some of you have experienced it firsthand.  I am terrible with names.  So bad, in fact, that there is a voice inside my head that actively encourages me to steer clear of them whenever possible.  As I’m shaking your hand, giving a hug, or just making eye contact, I can hear it start.  “You think her name is Sue, but you aren’t sure.  You should know her name, but you’ll mess it up and hurt her feelings.  Just don’t do it; just say, ‘Hello dear,’ or something equally pathetically innocuous.”  Being bad at names is really a poor quality in a priest.  Names are powerful.  We feel known when someone calls us by name.  We feel equally unknown when we are called “buddy,” “darling,” or “dude.”  More than that, our names carry meaning in them.  Some carry generations of family history.  For example, after my grandmother died, we found in her genealogy records that my dad, John Pankey, carries the same Americanized name that our ancestor Jean Pantier took when he emigrated from France in the early 18th century.  How cool is that!?!  Other names carry the weight of even more history, names that are imbued with meaning from deep in the past.

In fact, names have carried meaning for thousands of years.  The Old Testament is rife with names with deep meaning.  Even in the very beginning, we get the name Adam for the first man from the Hebrew word which means both “man” and the “dust” from which humankind was created.  His wife, Eve, is named the Hebrew word for “life” because she is the mother of all humanity.  Place names were important as well.  After wrestling all night with God near the Jabbok, which means “emptying,” Jacob (trickster) gets a new name, Israel (God prevails) and he named the place Peniel, which means “the face of God.”  All throughout the Old Testament names do more than simply name people and places, but they fill them with meaning.  Nowhere is this more true than in our lesson from Isaiah this morning.  Here we find ourselves in the middle of the story of King Ahaz who is fearful as he is about to come under attack from the Assyrians.  Isaiah, God’s prophet and mouthpiece, promises that if Ahaz remains faithful to God, he will prevail.  The sign of the promise will be the birth of a baby to a young woman who will be called Immanuel, or God with us.  Ahaz is ultimately unsuccessful; he just can’t keep the faith, and the promised birth of Emmanuel doesn’t happen.

More than seven hundred years later, Matthew interprets the circumstances of the birth of Jesus to his young mother, a virgin named Mary, as the fulfillment of that ancient promise.  The child’s given name is Jesus, which means “God saves;” a name given to both of his parents by an angel of the Lord, but there is no doubt in Matthew’s mind that Jesus is the child promised to Ahaz as the assurance of the final victory of Israel, when God moved into the neighborhood for good.  Emmanuel, God with us, was born to Mary, whose name means both “bitter” and “beloved;” she will experience both in her life, and her betrothed Joseph, whose name means “may God increase.”  What is amazing about this story, seven hundred years after it was supposed to take place, is that once Emmanuel came to be God with us, God never left.  God was with us, God is with us, and God will forever be with us, thanks to the life-giving sacrifice of sending God’s only Son to be born of a virgin and to live and die as one of us.

For roughly two thousand years now, Jesus hasn’t been on earth, and yet, God continues to be with us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit keeps Emmanuel in the present, always here to show us the way to the Father, the how-tos of the Kingdom of God.  The Spirit, a lifetime of God with us, is a gift given to every one of us in our baptism.  With deference to the power of names in the Old Testament, the Church has long tied baptism and the gift of Emmanuel with naming.  For hundreds of years, a child was formally named at their baptismal ceremony.  Those who were baptized later in life often changed their name at baptism, giving up the pagan names of their youth for Christian names of discipleship.  Some of you may have a second middle name from a long ago Roman Catholic baptism for the very same reason.  This morning [at 10 o’clock], we welcome Hadley Caroline Wing into the Body of Christ.  I’ve not had a chance to talk with her parents as to why they chose Hadley Caroline, but even if they just thought it was pretty, it still comes with great meaning.  Hadley is an Old English word for a field covered in heather, a gorgeous purple flower.  Caroline is a feminine form of the name Charles which means strong.  May she be a perfect balance of splendor and strength.  She is born to her parents Andrew and Kacey.  Andrew means manly and Kacey is the Gaelic word for watchful or vigilant.  Hadley Caroline, under the care of strong and careful parents, today receives a new name, one that all of us who are baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ share: saint.

Though names are also important in the New Testament, what with Simon (listener) becoming Peter (rock) and Saul (inquired of God) becomes Paul (humble), what seems to be even more important is our common relationship in Jesus Christ.  Throughout the New Testament, all the disciples of Jesus are referred to again and again as saints.  In Greek, saint is hagios which means “set apart by God, holy one, or consecrated.”  To be saints, then, is first and foremost to acknowledge our total dependence upon God.  Every good work, every possession, even our very breath comes from God.  We are invited into sainthood, it is not earned.  The very act of becoming a saint is the grace-filled gift of God, which is why in the Episcopal Church we baptize infants.  This is the sign for us that none of us are able to work our way into God’s love, but rather it is the gift of a God whose very nature is love and relationship.

In response to the gift of God’s love, and with the help of the Holy Spirit who is always with us, we engage in the work of holiness, which is summed up in the Baptismal Covenant that we will all reaffirm in just a few minutes.  By the power of the Spirit, God with us at work in our lives calls us to live lives worthy of the Gospel; lives of faithful service to God and to each other; lives committed to the restoration of right relationship with God, with one another, and with all of Creation.  Today, on a day that the Scripture lessons are all about names, we welcome Hadley Caroline into the family of saints, and make our vow to labor alongside her in building up the Kingdom of God.

I would be remiss to not mention that today also happens to be my last sermon here at Saint Paul’s.  On a day that is also about sainthood, I give thanks for the saints of this congregation.  You have loved me and allowed me to love you in return.  You have raised me from a baby priest.  You have cared for my family, loved on my children, and supported us in good times and in bad.  I will be forever grateful for our time together as we have sought to learn what it means to be disciples of Jesus and saints of God.  May God bless Hadley Caroline.  May God bless her family.  And may God bless the Saint Paul’s family as you continue working with the Spirit to discern the power of Emmanuel, God in your midst, from this day forth and forever more.  Amen.

Jesus’ other name

Yesterday, I spent some time pondering the implication of Jesus’ fulfillment of the prophecy to Ahaz, specifically what it meant that Jesus was Immanuel, God with us.  We know, of course, that when push came to shove, and despite Matthew’s attempt to shove a round theological peg into the square hole of reality, Mary and Joseph did not name the child born in Bethlehem “God with us.”  No, they named him the name that was given to Joseph in a dream in this week’s appointed lesson from Matthew’s Gospel, the same name given to Mary by the Angel Gabriel in Luke’s version of the Nativity story.

de8c609babda669339c6293f7267dedf

“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

The angel that appeared to Joseph in his dream gives us insight into the meaning of Jesus’ given name.  Yeshua, the Hebrew original that gets bastardized into Jesus, means “to save” or “to deliver.”  According to that great theological resource, Wikipedia, it is a late Hebrew rendition of Yehoshua, which carries a stronger tie to God, as in “God saves” or “God delivers,” which is precisely the ministry of Jesus.

The promise of God’s deliverance of his people is not new in the person of Jesus.  By the turn of the Common Era, God had repeatedly stepped into salvation history to save and deliver his people.  From the time of Noah, God shows a track record of being unwilling to let humanity destroy itself in sinfulness and self-gratification.  On the ark, God saved a faithful remnant.  In Abraham, God chose a nation through which he would bring all nations into his saving embrace.  Through Moses, God delivered the Israelites from the bondage that came from Joseph’s brother’s unfair dealings and subsequent self-serving Pharaohs.  The prophets, Isaiah certainly included, again and again called the people of Israel to forsake their sins and be saved.  When it seemed clear that was not going to happen, God promised both punishment and redemption to his people.

There is never a point at which God is willing to give up on his hopes of restoring humanity to right relationship, which brings God ultimately to the person of Jesus, Yeshua, Yehoshua, God saves.