Beloved (God’s Point of View, part 1 of 8)

Sermon for Sunday, January 8, 2017 || Epiphany 1A || Matthew 3:13-17

Two years ago I did a sermon series during the season after Epiphany, and I enjoyed writing it so much that I thought I’d give it another shot this year. When I was putting together the materials for our pledge drive last fall, I wrote a paragraph that really energized and focused my share in our collective ministry. The words appeared on the back of the stewardship brochure, and they read: “At St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, we see, name, and celebrate the presence of God in our lives, our church, and our neighborhoods.” The paragraph continued on in a missional vein, but that first sentence, especially the verbs “see, name, and celebrate,” really sparked for me.

See. Name. Celebrate. Wonderful verbs at first glance, but then I started living with them. I don’t know about you, but my eyes don’t work very well, even when I’m wearing my corrective lenses. So seeing is hard. Naming involves gaining intimate awareness of something, and who has time for that? Finally, celebrating often feels like betrayal – with some much wrong in the world, how could we possibly find cause for celebration? Continue reading “Beloved (God’s Point of View, part 1 of 8)”

God’s Dazzling Truth

Sermon for Sunday, January 10, 2016 || Epiphany 1C || Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Godsdazzlingtruth“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Whenever I read this beautiful verse of Scripture, my lungs expand with more air than normal. I take a deep, cleansing breath, and I remember the truth of these words, and I lament how easy it is to forget them.

“You are my daughter, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God’s truth embedded in this verse expands out from Jesus and touches each precious life. Jesus did not hoard God’s love and pleasure; no, he gave himself freely so that we might share God’s love and pleasure.

“You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Can you feel power and the promise in these words? Drink them in now. Close your eyes and whisper them to yourselves. Feel the weight of their truth. Feel the freedom they bring. You are my child. I love you. You are my joy, my delight. In all my acts of creating, over billions of years, across countless galaxies, I had never created you until now, and I am well pleased.

As you let these words sink in, I guarantee you will start to feel a conflict forming inside yourself. The conflict pits God’s dazzling truth against our natural wariness to believe anything that seems to have no strings attached, that seems too good to be true. Our suspicion arms itself with several arguments, so let’s take them in turn.

The first argument coming to the plate is swinging the bat of literalism: “God was talking to Jesus. Of course, God would say all that about the person who is literally God’s own Son. Let’s not get delusions of grandeur now. We’re taking too great a leap to include ourselves in the conversation.”

Well, we are taking a great leap: a leap of faith. We have faith that Paul’s words written to the church in Rome are true: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (8:14-17). We are children of God. Thus, God’s words, spoken from heaven as the dove descends, are for us, too.

“But wait,” says our suspicion, which now comes to bat with a little more nuance: “Maybe the first bit is for everyone because you are God’s children, but the second half has got to be for Jesus alone. Of course God would be well pleased in him. He’s Jesus. Look at everything he did!”

Well, that is true. And if this beautiful verse were spoken at the end of the Gospel rather than at the beginning, I might be swayed by that argument. But within Luke’s narrative, Jesus hasn’t done anything yet. He hasn’t said anything yet. He has completed no healings, spoken no parables, gathered no disciples, performed no miracles. All he has done is take a swim with his cousin John in the River Jordan. Therefore, God’s love and pleasure are not predicated on what Jesus does, but on who he is. And he is God’s child, just like us.

But now the heavy hitters are coming to the plate, the guys who swing for the fences. “What’s so beautiful about these words about being God’s children? Your own parents never lived up to your expectations. What makes you think God will?”

Yes, this is the sticking point. How could we believe God’s promise of love and pleasure when promises around us are routinely broken? (And not usually with malicious intent, but because things just fall apart sometimes.) There’s a whole other sermon waiting right here, so I’ll try not to get too diverted. Basically, one of the biggest challenges in our life of faith is resisting the urge to remake God in our own image. We are made in the image and likeness of God, not the other way around. The moment we start comparing God to our own parents or our own meager ability to be parents, we are no longer talking about God. God is the One who keeps promises, who tells the truth, whose steadfast love lasts forever. If our natural urge to compare God to ourselves or our parents ever waters down these fundamental stanchions of God’s own self, then we are no longer contemplated God for who God truly is.

The trouble is, it’s really hard to contemplate perfection using our own imperfect hardware. But the closer we get to believing that God really is who God claims to be, then the beauty of God’s words to Jesus at the River Jordan gain even more dazzling vibrancy. “You are my child, the Beloved; in you I am well pleased.”

But now the cleanup hitter comes up to bat, and our suspicion hits the ball right into our guts: “What have you ever done to deserve such love?”

You might think we covered this one when I mentioned that fact that Jesus’ ministry hadn’t even started yet. But no, our pernicious feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness will not let us off the hook that easily. Perhaps you lived in fear of your parents finding out you made a “C” on your report card. Perhaps you grew up with an alcoholic father and everything had to be just so, or else. Perhaps you have convinced yourself that you’d be more popular or more successful if you just had…something…more.

Whatever the case, it’s all a lie, a smokescreen. We have never, ever done anything to deserve such love. And we never will. The love of God is a pure gift. No strings attached. It’s too be good to be true, and yet it is true.

And so the conflict rages within us, our natural wariness pitted against God’s dazzling truth. Our arguments scream and howl and stamp and claw, but God only whispers again and again the same words, because the truth needs no bluster. Close your eyes again and listen for God whispering these words in the depths of your being. You are my child. I love you. You are my joy, my delight. In all my acts of creating, over billions of years, across countless galaxies, I had never created you until now, and I am well pleased.

Now open your eyes again and look around. God speaks this same truth not just to you alone, not just to us sitting here this morning, not just to people who look like us or think like us or believe like us, not just to people in the same type of family unit or the same income bracket. Everyone you meet and everyone you avoid meeting has this same truth stitched on their hearts. Treat them as beloved children of God, with no arguments or reservations. Treat all people as beloved children of God, and we will change the world.

God-Tinted Lenses

Sermon for Sunday, November 1, 2015 || All Saints’ Day Year B || John 11:32-44

godtintedlensesToday’s sermon is about practicality and belief. I don’t have time for a fancy intro about when I was in fourth grade or about how something my children did reminded me of the Gospel. We’ve got too much to do in this All Saints’ Day service for that – most importantly, getting to the baptism, which is up next. Since today’s sermon is in part about practicality, I thought I’d be practical in my time-management and just skip the intro. So to reiterate, today’s sermon is about practicality and belief.

We’ll start with Martha and Lazarus, then move on to the saints, and then mention baptism near the end. The Gospel lesson picks up after Martha and Jesus have their famous conversation, in which Jesus says among other things, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He asks Martha if she believes and she answers, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

But when they arrive at the tomb of her brother Lazarus, the oppressive reality of death threatens to overwhelm her belief. To keep from being overwhelmed, Martha’s practical side asserts itself. (In another story about Martha in Luke’s account of the Gospel, this practical side keeps her bustling around the house being the consummate hostess while her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet.) But in our story today, this practical side asserts itself when she mentions that Lazarus’s body must smell really bad. The translation I just read makes Martha sound something like a member of the British House of Lords: “Lord, already there is a stench.” I prefer to translate these words with an earthier, more colloquial quality – say, like a West Texas ranch hand: “He’s been in there four days; he stinks!”

Whatever way we translate Martha’s statement, the olfactory reality of death is on her mind: the practical notion that the most likely scenario is that Lazarus’s smell, and not Lazarus himself, will come out of the tomb. That’s when Jesus reminds her of her belief. “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Now I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again, but here we have another example of Jesus turning everything around. The popular axiom says, “Seeing is believing.” But Jesus, like he so often does, flips it: “If you believed, you would see…” For Jesus, believing is seeing.

In other words, our belief in the God made known in Jesus Christ gives us a particular lens through which to view our lives, our relationships, our gifts and callings, not to mention the whole of creation. In last week’s sermon, I called this lens the “eyes of faith.” Our belief enlivens these eyes of faith and activates our special God-tinted lenses. We look back through our lives and see God’s movement stitching together the defining moments and relationships that make us the people we are. We look out and see God’s presence in those whom God calls us to serve. We look beyond and discover the fullness of new life in God with all the saints.

However, our God-tinted lenses get cloudy and scratched all the time. Often, this happens when practicality overrides belief. You look back through your life and see a series of coincidences and happenstances that led you to where you are. You look out and see the need, but perhaps not the people who are in need. You look beyond and see emptiness or maybe a vague notion of the hereafter or maybe a flicker of hope staving off the dread of death. “I don’t want to get caught up in ‘pie-in-the-sky’ thinking,” we might say, “so I’ll just be practical. Who could honestly believe all that anyway?”

The answer: I do. Not perfectly, not by a long shot. Not everyday, not even a majority of the time, to be honest. But I think seeing with God-tinted lenses is like hitting a baseball: even the very best baseball players only get a hit about a third of the time.

Here’s the tricky part. Here’s why the interaction between practicality and belief is so hard to navigate: We need our practical sides in order to live the kind of life our belief in God catalyzes. Without practicality, we would never translate our belief into action. We would never actually follow through on the callings we hear from God. We might notice God’s movement in creation, we might even generate a vague notion to respond to such movement, but we’d never make a plan. We’d never figure out how many drivers we need to deliver Thanksgiving meals or what books are most appropriate for the students at our partner school in Haiti. Without our practical sides, we’d be hard-pressed to act, and our follow through would be anemic at best.

So instead of seeing practicality and belief as opposing forces, we can see them as unlikely allies. While practicality can undermine belief, practicality can also give belief legs when used to further the missions we believe God has given us. The saints we celebrate today turned their belief into action, and I’m sure they used a heavy dose of practicality to do it. Mother Teresa, for example, believed with all her heart that God had called her to the sick and dying of Calcutta – and she was also an uncannily good fundraiser.

When we baptize _____ in a few minutes, we’ll see once again the interaction between practicality and belief. We will pour water into this basin and thank God for it. We will remember that water is sacred and life-giving. Then we will give _____ a bath. I know, I know, it won’t be a very thorough bath – just go with me on this imagery here. What could be more practical, more mundane than washing? And yet, we who wear these God-tinted lenses see something so much greater than a simple bath taking place. We see a welcome into God’s household. We see the power of sin washed away. We see the gifts of the Holy Spirit awakening. We see Christ making us his own forever.

And with the washing done, the words of the Baptismal Covenant, which we are about to say, echo again the practical, boots-on-the-ground facet of our belief. The Covenant begins with the affirmation of belief and continues with the practical ways we live out our mission, with God’s help. And so our unlikely allies, practicality and belief, animate our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. We need both, and we’d be diminished if one were absent. After all, when Lazarus comes out of the tomb, I doubt he smelled like a bed of roses. I’m sure Martha’s practical prediction about his stench was confirmed. But Lazarus came out of the tomb, just the same.

Action Verbs

Sermon for Sunday, August 30, 2015 || Proper 17 || James 1:17-27

actionverbsMy tenth grade English teacher, Mrs. Lewis, disliked linking verbs – passionately disliked linking verbs. She disliked linking verbs so much that she would count the number of times we students used the words “is” and “was” (and all the others) in our papers and deduct points if we exceeded more than one or two per paragraph. She nursed a particular vendetta against the word “become,” if memory serves. Do you know how hard it is to write a paper with next to no linking verbs? (I just used one in the last sentence, and you probably didn’t even notice.) Now we students grumbled about this strict grading procedure every time we wrote an essay, but Mrs. Lewis stuck to her guns. And God love her for it, because I count Mrs. Lewis as one of the teachers that made me the writer I am today. (Dang! I just used another linking verb.)

By forcing us to use action verbs, Mrs. Lewis taught us to make our essays hum with energy and movement. I remember editing my papers to ferret out every last linking verb and trying to shove as much action as I could into them. The sentence “The Lord of the Flies is a book about the aftermath of a plane crash” changed to “In The Lord of Flies, boys survive a plane crash, but not each other.” Sounds like a movie trailer right? That’s what Mrs. Lewis was pushing for – pulsing, active writing from a group of tenth graders who didn’t really care that much.

I think Mrs. Lewis had a little bit of the Apostle James in her, judging by his letter tucked away near the back of the New Testament, a portion of which we just read. “Be doers of the word,” says James, “and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” Be doers of the word. Use action verbs in your life. The Word of God is not just words on the pages of a dusty book on the shelf. The Word of God rushes up off those pages and implants in our hearts. The Word of God propels us to get ourselves off the couch and do something. Be doers of the word.

Throughout his somewhat labyrinthine prose, James hammers on this point again and again. At the end of today’s passage, James offers a rare moment of succinct clarity: true religion, he says, “is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James uses action verbs: care for the marginalized, and keep yourself clean, unsullied by the misplaced priorities of the world.

In a few moments, we will stand up and say a host of action verbs, as well. We will affirm our Baptismal Covenant, standing with the soon-to-be-baptized and renewing the actions that our baptismal life compels us to do. I know many of you were baptized long before the Baptismal Covenant was even written, but I hope since its publishing in 1979 you have come to adopt it as your own. The Baptismal Covenant is the Episcopal Church’s own rare moment of succinct clarity, like James’s caring for orphans and widows. The Covenant begins with belief – an adapted version of the Apostles’ Creed – and then moves on to five promises that this belief stirs us to act upon.

Mrs. Lewis would like these five promises. There’s not a linking verb to be found. Every verb in these five promises propels us to act.

“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” The verb “continue” assumes these actions of learning, sharing, and praying have always been ongoing. These actions have persisted since the time of the apostles, and we are stepping into the ever-flowing stream of their legacy. This first promise invites us to join a movement already in progress and lend it our hands and voice and heart.

The second promise: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” The verb “persevere” speaks to the weariness that creeps in while we resist evil. Evil wears us down, preferring not to strike all at once, but rather to gnaw on us while we’re not looking, until we do look one day and find there’s nothing left. But we promise to persevere and to repent and return to God when we do fall into sin. Notice we don’t say “if” we fall into sin. We say “when,” which is why God always leaves open to us the actions of repenting and returning.

The third promise: “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” The verb “proclaim” urges much more than mere speaking. We’re talking about shouting from the rooftops here; we’re talking about putting your whole self forward, staking a claim, taking a stand, making your words line up with your actions. That’s proclamation. And what are we proclaiming? The Good News of God in Christ – I can’t think of anything worthier of such a strong verb as “proclaim.”

The fourth promise: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” Seek, serve, love – this is the heart of our duty and our joy as followers of Jesus Christ. If you take this promise seriously, you soon realize just how hard it is to embody. But Jesus never said being his follower would be easy. He said it would bring life – abundant life to each follower and each person his followers touch.

The fifth promise: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” The verb “strive” is like the verb “persevere.” It reminds us that we will never be done working for justice and peace. There is no happily-ever-after this side of heaven. But perhaps in the daily working for justice, we move an inch closer than we were before: a quarter teaspoon more fairness stirs into the mix, a splash more peace, and that’s all we can do for today. And it all starts simply by respecting everyone’s dignity, looking each person in the eye and saying, “We’re all in this together.”

In response to each promise, we say, “I will, with God’s help.” We acknowledge that we can take none of these actions without God’s patient urging and steadfast partnership. Our baptism is not just a symbolic act of washing and welcome. Our baptism catalyzes a life of action. With God’s help, we continue in learning, sharing, and praying. We persevere in resisting evil. We repent and return to the Lord. We proclaim the Good News. We seek, serve, and love Christ in others. We strive for justice and peace. We respect all people.

I wonder which of these actions captures you today? I wonder which action compels you to leave this church today on fire to do it? I wonder what rare moment of succinct clarity you hear from God this day? Each of us is a doer of the word. So go with God: learn, share, pray, persevere, repent, proclaim, seek, serve, love, strive, respect. Each of us is a doer of the word. So go with God. Do.

Behold How Good

Sermon for Sunday, April 12, 2015 || Easter 2B; Psalm 133

BeholdHowGoodEcce Quam Bonum! I first heard these three Latin words in the fall of the year 2000 when I was a senior in high school. I stepped out of the car and stared in awe at the soaring Gothic architecture of the buildings arranged around the quad of a little college tucked away in the mountains of Tennessee. Ecce Quam Bonum! As a prospective student, those words were words of welcome to me: “Behold how good!” they proclaimed. These are the opening words of our psalm today, Psalm 133: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!” Walking towards the beautiful sandstone chapel on that visit, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I wanted to experience living together in unity at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennesee. The next fall I matriculated, and the four years I spent at Sewanee were years of friendship, formation, discernment of call, and lots and lots of singing.

Even though I didn’t know how to sing at the time, I still loved to do it, so I joined the University Choir my first month of college. That choir became my family for four years. The intensity of being in the choir at Sewanee matched that of playing a varsity sport. We did everything together. Several times a week, I got to sing with that special community. It was a gift to be able to add my voice to that group. The fellowship of the choir at Sewanee made real for me those three Latin words: Ecce Quam Bonum, Behold how good!

The words of Psalm 133, which we sang a few minutes ago speak of the desire for joyful, harmonious fellowship with our brothers and sisters. Three other readings join this psalm, and each speaks about community and fellowship. In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke paints a happily-ever-after picture of the apostles and their companions, in which the “whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (4:32). In the First Letter of John, the writer says, “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1:3). In the Gospel, the Risen Christ appears to the disciples as a group, grants them peace, and breathes the Holy Spirit upon them. Thomas is not with the disciples at the time, so as a group they seek him out and tell him the good news. A week later, when Thomas has returned to their fellowship, Jesus once again appears, and Thomas believes.

In just a few minutes we are baptizing two eight-month-old babies (two wonderful, beautiful babies, if I say so myself), and I can’t think of better lessons to accompany such a joyous occasion. The sacrament of Baptism celebrates the inward movement of God in a person’s life by outwardly welcoming that person into God’s family the Church. We baptize infants because we believe God is moving in all people, regardless of their ability to recognize or verbalize such movement. We baptize infants so that their earliest memories will be ones of being loved and cherished by a community of faith.

The “outward sign of inward grace” definition of a sacrament is tried and true, but it is also well worn, so let’s expand our understanding of what’s going on in baptism with a less academic and more musical metaphor.

The music of God plays in each one of our hearts. You’ve heard the expression, “tugging on my heartstrings” to describe something that evokes compassion and sympathy. Well, God tuned those heartstrings to resonate with God’s music; that is, God’s desires, yearnings, hopes, and dreams for God’s creation. That’s why we feel a tug on our hearts when we see someone in need – because God is directing us to notice and help that person.

Within our hearts, sometimes the music of God is soft, a half-whispered lullaby, barely discernible over the din of the world. Sometimes the notes crescendo to a deafening fortissimo that knocks us, weeping, to our knees. Most often, the music sounds as the percussive TUB-thp of our hearts — a rhythm that, if you listen closely, beats in time with the rest of the performing forces of creation. I’m not a theoretical physicist, but what I’m describing might be considered a poetic version of some of the more modern theories of how the universe works – it’s all about vibration, right? That’s really all music is – collections of well-defined vibrations. We identify the source of that vibration – that resonance – as God.

Each one of us has the music of God resounding within, but the choir is incomplete until we have found each other, until we have joined together in fellowship as the chorus of God, so to speak. In Greek, this fellowship is called koinonia, but I’ve always thought that “fellowship” is a rather limp translation. For the sake of our metaphor, let’s translate koinonia as “harmony,” which lands much closer to the descriptive intent of the Greek word. Musical harmony is the collection of notes that add structure, color, tone, depth, and meaning to the main tune. This tune, called the “melody” is the music of God within us. The combination of our own unique passions and hardships; our successes and failures; our gifts and shortcomings; our hopes, our dreams, and our joys creates the harmony of the music of God.

In the sacrament of Holy Baptism, we welcome another soprano, alto, tenor, or bass into the choir. We await eagerly the subtle changes in timbre that these new lives will bring. Together, we sing the koinonia, the harmony, of the music of God to a world so accustomed only to noise and clatter. The sound of our anthems resonate with the movement of God in this world. This is the sacrament of Holy Baptism: new sound, new harmony, new resonance in the chorus of the music of God.

One of my favorite songs is called “One Voice,” by the band The Wailin’ Jennys. With each verse, another voice is added to the mix. By the third verse, each member of the band is weaving her voice with the other two. They sing:

This is the sound of voices three
Singing together in harmony
Surrendering to the mystery
This is the sound of voices three
 
This is the sound of all of us
Singing with love and the will to trust
Leave the rest behind it will turn to dust
This is the sound of all of us

So Ecce Quam Bonum! Behold how good it is when we all sing together in harmony and surrender to the mystery of God’s movement in our lives. Behold how good it is when we welcome new life into God’s family and embrace the new life the resurrection brings. Behold how good it is when we invite others to join us as we add our harmonies to the melody of the music of God.

The Waters of Baptism

Sermon for the Easter Vigil, Saturday, April 4, 2015


2015eastervigilIt’s great to have a baptism scheduled for the Easter Vigil, but we didn’t this year at St. Mark’s. I still wanted to bless the water of baptism before we renewed our baptismal covenant, so my father suggested I build the blessing into my sermon. At the vigil, you can preach before or after the transition from darkness to light, and this year I chose before.

Tonight, we began with fire. We kindled a new flame and processed the Light of Christ into the church. We gave “this marvelous and holy flame” to God during the chanting of the Exsultet, saying: “Holy Father, accept our evening sacrifice, the offering of this candle in your honor. May it shine continually to drive away all darkness. May Christ, the Morning Star who knows no setting, find it ever burning––he who gives his light to all creation.”

Then we heard the first words ever spoken in that creation; indeed, the Word spoken to call creation forth: “Let there be light!” Creation erupted from this Word and God flung wide the fiery fusion of the stars and billions of years later, here we sit. (I skipped a little bit of the story there.) Our worship this night returns to such primal origins to make sure we know the infinite and eternal reach of the event we are about to celebrate. As I said, tonight, we began with fire.

And now we move from one primal element to another – from fire to water.

(I pour the water into the baptismal font.)

“We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.” (These are the first words of our baptismal rite’s blessing of the water. The rest are contained throughout this sermon.) The fiery fusion of the stars is there a moment after the beginning, a moment after the blazing creativity of the Holy Spirit dances over the face of the deep. When we give thanks to God for the gift of water, we show our gratitude for one of the fundamental things that makes life possible. We might not normally thank God for water, especially where we live and in this day and age, because water is so plentiful and constant. But tonight we acknowledge the gift of this building block of life, which helps us focus on those things that sustain life.

“Through [water] you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise.” We heard this story a few minutes ago, too. Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and all the people of Israel stand at the edge of the sea with their enemies bearing down on them. The sea could be a barrier, but God causes it to be their protector and rearguard. They arrive on the other side, but the sea swallows up the Egyptians and all their trappings of war. As the water delivered the people from slavery in a foreign land, for us the water symbolizes freedom from all that enslaves us.

“In [water] your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.” Jesus’ baptism began his public ministry of healing and bringing people closer to God. You might wonder why Jesus himself was baptized since John’s baptism was a path to repentance. What would Jesus need to repent if he knew no sin? With his baptism, Jesus foreshadows his death on the cross. He did not need to be baptized, not for the reasons the others coming out to the Jordan River did. But he chose baptism in order to wash in the same muddy water and to be in solidarity with his people. In the same way, he chose the cross, not because of his own guilt, but because of ours. In the river, Jesus swims in the sin of the people. And on the cross, the same sin hangs there with him.

“We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism.” We show our gratitude again, this time for specific water, the special water of Baptism. This water is like any other, except that we set it apart with prayer and blessing and ask the Holy Spirit to make it holy.

“In [the water of Baptism] we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” We borrow these words from the Apostle Paul, who wrote the church in Rome: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). A baptism is so much more than a ritual washing away of sin, says Paul. Indeed, in baptism we recognize that we have died and risen with Christ. Paul continues, just to make sure we understand his point: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).

“Therefore in joyful obedience to your Son, we bring into his fellowship those who come to him in faith, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” How could we not invite others into Christ’s fellowship after we have known the supreme gift of the Risen Christ being alive in us? But just in case we think that this new life is too precious to share, but must be hoarded like other precious things, Jesus himself commanded us to “Go… and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

“Now sanctify this water, we pray you, by the power of your Holy Spirit, that those who here are cleansed from sin and born again may continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior.” We ask the Holy Spirit to infuse this ordinary water with the presence of God just like we will do later with ordinary bread and wine. We set the rite of baptism at this point in our service because it serves as the perfect hinge between death in the gloom of Friday and new life at dawn on Sunday. When you feel this water touch your skin in a few minutes after we renew our baptismal covenant, remember that you have died and risen with Christ. You belong not to the old things that are passing away. You belong to the new creation.

“To [Christ], to you (Lord), and to the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.”

Art: Detail from “Creation of the World” by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1864

The First Word: Affirmation

(Or The Fundamental Goodness of Creation)

Sermon for Sunday, January 11, 2015 || Epiphany 1B || Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11

Word1AffirmationYou may recall during a sermon last spring, I challenged you to choose six words to proclaim your faith. I remembered the “Six-Word Witness” challenge as I began to prepare for this new season after Epiphany, as there happen to be six Sundays between now and Lent. If you read my article in the recent issue of The Lion’s Tale, you got a sneak peak at a particular six-word witness, one that describes the trajectory of the next six weeks as we hear the story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. My plan during this season after Epiphany is to connect this sermon with the next five to tell a much larger story of our lives as followers of Jesus Christ.

Yes, you heard that right. Today’s sermon is the beginning of a six-part series. That means if you have plans to go skiing in a couple of weeks, I’m afraid you’re going to have to cancel.

We begin today with the first word: Affirmation. And we begin today, appropriately, at the beginning. What we find when we enter the story as early as we possibly can is the affirmation of goodness. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.”

Right away, in the first verses of the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, God has already affirmed something as good. This pattern continues throughout the rest of the creation story. Each day God creates, and that which God creates God affirms as good. Thus the fundamental goodness of creation is built into the very fabric of creation. From the sweeping array of celestial bodies to the lowliest tadpole dwelling in the muck to us troublesome and ungainly humans, God affirms everything God makes with the seal of goodness.

(As an aside, God calls us humans “very” good while the rest of creation is merely good, but I think that has more to do with the fact that we humans we were the ones who wrote it all down.)

The reality that goodness entered creation on the ground floor is of utmost importance for the rest of the ongoing story. There have been folks in the past, notably in the early centuries of Christianity, who taught that the physical creation God made — the matter, the flesh, the stuff we can see and touch — was, in fact, inherently evil. They taught that only the spiritual realm held any goodness, and so they sought to divorce themselves from the flesh entirely. Of course, to make this heretical mental leap, they had to ignore the bulk of the Biblical witness, which they did with no qualms at all. Their path led to disengagement from the world; the founding of secretive, insular societies; and what I imagine was quite a lot of struggle against instincts that are totally normal, but which they decided were base and evil. Thankfully, the majority of Christians were not led astray by this faulty understanding of creation. And so we still have the witness of Genesis reminding us of God’s affirmation of the fundamental goodness of creation.

But now comes our own mental leap. Or call it a leap of faith. We move from one beginning to another, from the beginning of creation to the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. At the outset of Mark’s account of the Gospel, Jesus comes up out of the water of the River Jordan during his own baptism. He sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And he hears a voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Notice the placement of this piece of the Gospel. Before Jesus has a chance to do anything of consequence; before his ministry gets off the ground; before any miracles or teachings or healings or his death or resurrection, God showers upon Jesus God’s love and pleasure. Just like God affirms creation as good right from the start, God affirms Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved Son before he has a chance to earn the right to such a name.

Now, you might be thinking: “Of course God affirms Jesus as God’s beloved Son — that’s who he is! What about me?!” Yes, what about the rest of us troublesome, ungainly, and yet “very” good humans? Well, to make our leap of faith, we need a little help from our friend the Apostle Paul. He writes to the church in Rome: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (8:14-17).

If the writers of Genesis were presumptuous to call us “very” good, then Paul must be doubly so to claim that we are joint heirs with Christ. Or is he? Perhaps, instead, Paul has seen into the truth of the matter, seen Jesus’ plan all along, a plan to show us what we have always been and to reaffirm our inherent goodness, our lovableness.

And here’s where our own version of the heresy I spoke of earlier comes to into play. While those folks taught the matter of creation was inherently evil, there is an overriding voice in our modern American society telling us that we aren’t exactly evil, but we sure are deficient. I’m of course referring to my favorite homiletical punching bag, the ubiquitous marketing department. Marketing campaigns work like this: they tell us ways we are defective, and then they try to sell us products designed to improve those defects. Truck commercials tell men they aren’t manly unless their vehicles can haul a couple tons of dirt. Toy commercials tell kids they won’t be happy unless they receive the hot new toy for Christmas. And don’t get me started on commercials aimed at women. Judging by the ads, women in this country have hair that isn’t shiny enough; bodies that aren’t the right shape; the wrong handbags, clothes, shoes, and earrings; too many wrinkles; and not enough diamonds.

All this must be true, right? I mean, we’re bombarded with our supposed deficiencies everywhere we turn. Then we repeat them over and over again until they seem like truth. And pretty soon, it’s not just the marketers, but everyone getting in on the fun. And that’s when the boy feels deficient because he hasn’t played the video game all his friends are talking about. That’s when the girl feels defective because she doesn’t quite fit the clothes her friends have started to buy. That’s when the parents feel substandard because they can’t afford the tuition at the “best” college. That’s when we forget our inherent goodness, the goodness God affirmed in the first rushing breath of creation.

Here our leap of faith continues, because the marketing department has convinced us of our utter worthlessness. And so we might not want to believe that Jesus has invited us — yes, even you and me — to be joint heirs with him of the love and pleasure of God. Jesus received this affirmation of his belovedness before his ministry even started. Likewise, you and I who are joint-heirs with Christ have never done anything in our lives, nor will we do anything in our lives, to earn God’s love and pleasure. They are ours intrinsically. They are ours because we are God’s. And because we cannot earn God’s love and pleasure, we cannot do anything to lose them either. They are part of what makes us who we are – the best part of what makes us who we are. God’s love and pleasure are nestled at the very core of our beings, nestled right next to the affirmation of goodness, which God breathes into all creation.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu summed this up in one dazzling sentence. He once said, “God does not love us because we are lovable; we are lovable because God loves us.” This love is the core of our identity, not something we earn, not something that can be dislodged due to our own presumed deficiencies. When we choose to believe this fundamental truth, we will be ready to listen — really listen — for God’s invitations in our lives. It is to these invitations we turn next week as our six-part series continues. But for today, feel this truth in your bones. Feel God say this to you: “You are my Son. You are my daughter, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

The Second Word: Invitation >>

Affirmation and Celebration

Sermon for Sunday, November 2, 2014 || All Saints Year A

affirmationandcelebrationThe feast of All Saints, which we celebrate today, is about family, namely the family of God. Each saint has a special day commemorating his or her life of devotion and service, but on this day we celebrate all of them. We celebrate them collectively: not as a group of individuals who walked the way of discipleship alone, but as the glistening threads of God’s tapestry woven together to tell the story of God’s presence in creation since the time of Jesus. However, this tapestry is vast, so much bigger than the threads of particular saints could fashion, and so God weaves other threads into the warp and weft in order to complete the story. I have a thread. You have a thread. And Reggie, the beautiful six-month old collection of smiles and joy we’ll be baptizing in a few minutes, has a thread. The tapestry God continues to weave is the story of God’s family from the dawn of time. It is the story of the people of Israel. It is the story of the Gospel. And it is our story because we are all members of God’s great family. Today, we celebrate God weaving us together with all the saints into the story of this great family. And today, we celebrate bringing another person into that story, into this great family, when we baptize Reggie.

So what’s really going on in baptism? The traditional understanding tells us that baptism serves as the initiatory rite of the church and marks the cleansing of our sins. Now neither of these definitions is wrong (let me be clear), but I think if we stop there we will be prone to misunderstanding. We need to dig a little deeper. Here’s one thing to remember about baptism, and this will be on the test (there’s no test): the sacrament of baptism affirms and celebrates a state of being that already exists. The action of baptizing doesn’t create anything new; rather, the sacrament marks our participation in something God is already doing.

Here’s what I mean. At the end of the baptism service, we will welcome Reggie saying: “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” However, by virtue of Reggie being born in the image and likeness of God, he is already a member of God’s family. He is already part of God’s household. He already has a thread in God’s tapestry. Thus, his baptism is an affirmation and celebration of a state of being he already possesses. Today we will celebrate his membership in God’s family so that we can see the deep truth of God’s reality: that we are all members of that family.

Participating in this deep truth is what makes baptism one of the sacraments of the faith. If you’ve taken a confirmation class or CCD in the Roman Catholic Church, then you might remember the classic definition of a sacrament: An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Another way to put this is that sacraments are windows through which God gives us the gift of viewing the true and eternal reality of God’s movement in creation. Sacraments take ordinary, everyday things – water and bread, for example – and use them to reveal extraordinary holiness hidden in plain sight.

When we baptize Reggie, the hidden will be revealed for a moment, and we will see the unconditional love of God embracing a soul who has never done a thing to earn that love. And we will learn once again that we can do nothing to earn it either. We can only respond to God’s unconditional love in our lives.

If Reggie has done nothing to earn God’s love, then neither has he done anything to reject it, so you might be wondering why we baptize to cleanse sins, which you’ll recall was the second part of our traditional understanding of baptism. Once again, we are affirming and celebrating a state of being that already exists.

The word “baptism” sounds all fancy until you dig down to its roots. “Baptism” simply means “to wash.” When we bathe, we scrub away all the dirt and sweat and grime that accumulates during our day-to-day lives. We have to bathe regularly because we get dirty regularly. But we baptize only once because baptism is a celebration that our sins are forgiven – not just the ones we already committed but all of our sins past and future, everything that has, does, or will separate us from God. When we wash in the waters of baptism, we join God’s reality in progress, a reality in which nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love. The sacrament of baptism allows us to mark the beginning of our participation in this reality.

So if baptism is an affirmation and celebration of a state of being that already exists, you might be wondering if it asks anything of us at all. If we’re just jumping into a river that’s already flowing, what is our responsibility in all of this?

Well, the action of baptism takes place in a few seconds at the font behind me. We’ll pour a few ounces of blessed water on Reggie’s forehead, say the words, and that will be that. But the baptismal life continues from that moment on. The baptismal life is a sacramental life, a life in which each baptized person becomes one of those windows into the true and eternal reality of God’s movement in creation. Thus baptism invites us into deeper commitment as followers of Jesus Christ, deeper relationship with God, and deeper resonance with the Holy Spirit’s presence.

When we reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant in a moment, we will promise with God’s help to commit ourselves once again to serve God in this world. We will remember that nothing separates us from God’s love, that we are all members of God’s great family, that we all have threads woven into God’s tapestry. And we will celebrate that God invites us to live baptismal lives, committed to bearing witness to the true and deep reality of God’s presence in creation.

Baptism 101

Sermon for Sunday, January 12, 2014 || Epiphany 1A || Matthew 3:13-17

Before I get into the meat of this sermon, I hope you will indulge me with a moment of personal privilege. This is my final sermon at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. We’ll still be together next Sunday morning, but I won’t be standing in front of you following the Gospel reading like I am now – on the record, as it were. From the bottom of my heart, please allow me to express my deepest gratitude to you for the last four years. They have been the best four years of my life, in no small part because of your welcome of Leah and me into your midst, your love and partnership, and your fervent desire to serve God here and beyond those doors. May you continue to shine with the light of God’s love, to bear witness to God’s healing power, and to welcome every soul who walks across that threshold. With every fiber of my being, I say, “Thank you.”

baptismglassSince this is my last sermon, it seems only fitting that today I’ll be talking about a beginning. In a few minutes, we will reorient our worship to the south side of the church. We will stand around that behemoth stone basin over there. (As an aside, I have no idea how our font didn’t sink the ship that carried if here from England all those centuries ago.) Anyway, we will stand around the stone basin, say prayers over the water, and baptize little Kaylee. But before we do, let’s have a quick session of Christianity 101: An Introduction to Baptism. It seems only fitting to do this on a day when we will witness a baptism and when we’ve just read about Jesus’ own baptism by John in the River Jordan.

So what’s really going on in baptism? The traditional understanding tells us that baptism serves as the initiatory rite of the church and marks the cleansing of our sins. Now neither of these definitions is wrong (let me be clear), but I think if we stop there we will be prone to misunderstanding. We need to dig a little deeper. Here’s one thing to remember about baptism, and this will be on the test (there’s no test): the sacrament of baptism affirms and celebrates a state of being that already exists. The action of baptizing doesn’t create anything new; rather, the sacrament marks our participation in something God is already doing.

Here’s what I mean. At the end of the baptism service, we will welcome Kaylee saying: “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” However, by virtue of Kaylee being born in the image and likeness of God, she is already a member of God’s family. She is already part of God’s household. Thus, her baptism is an affirmation and celebration of a state of being she already possesses. Today we will celebrate her membership in God’s family so that we can see the deep truth of God’s reality: that we are all members of that family.

Participating in this deep truth is what makes baptism one of the sacraments of the faith. If you’ve taken a confirmation class or CCD in the Roman Catholic Church, then you might remember the classic definition of a sacrament: An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Another way to put this is that sacraments are windows through which God gives us the gift of viewing the true and eternal reality of God’s movement in creation. Sacraments take ordinary, everyday things – water and bread, for example – and use them to reveal extraordinary holiness hidden in plain sight.

When we baptize Kaylee, the hidden will be revealed for a moment, and we will see the unconditional love of God embracing a soul who has never done a thing to earn that love. And we will learn once again that we can do nothing to earn it either. We can only respond to God’s unconditional love in our lives.

If Kaylee has done nothing to earn God’s love, then neither has she done anything to reject it, so you might be wondering why we baptize to cleanse sins, which you’ll recall was the second part of our traditional understanding of baptism. Once again, we are affirming and celebrating a state of being that already exists.

The word “baptism” sounds all fancy until you dig down to its roots. “Baptism” simply means “to wash.” If you were off to take a shower (and you happened to be a speaker of ancient Greek) you might use the verb from which we get the word “baptism.” When we bathe, we scrub away all the dirt and sweat and grime that accumulates during our day-to-day lives. We have to bathe regularly because we get dirty regularly. But we baptize only once because baptism is a celebration that our sins are forgiven – not just the ones we already committed but all of our sins past and future, everything that has, does, or will separate us from God. When we wash in the waters of baptism, we join God’s reality in progress, a reality in which nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love. The sacrament of baptism allows us to mark the beginning of our participation in this reality.

So if baptism is an affirmation and celebration of a state of being that already exists, you might be wondering if it asks anything of us at all. If we’re just jumping into a river that’s already flowing, what is our responsibility in all of this?

Well, the action of baptism takes place in a few seconds at the behemoth stone basin over there. We’ll pour a few ounces of blessed water on Kaylee’s forehead, say the words, and that will be that. But the baptismal life continues from that moment on. The baptismal life is a sacramental life, a life in which each baptized person becomes one of those windows into the true and eternal reality of God’s movement in creation. Thus baptism invites us into deeper commitment as followers of Jesus Christ, deeper relationship with God, and deeper resonance with the Holy Spirit’s presence.

When we reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant in a moment, we will promise with God’s help to commit ourselves once again to serve God in this world. We will remember that nothing separates us from God’s love, that we are all members of God’s great family, and that God invites us to live baptismal lives, committed to bearing witness to the true and deep reality of God’s presence in creation.

The Peace We Promise

(Sermon for Sunday, August 18, 2013 || Proper 15C || Luke 12:49-56)

These are the promises we will reaffirm before our baptism in a few minutes:

“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

We will answer each of these with, “I will, with God’s help.” This acknowledges that we can’t fulfill the promises without God. We will also answer them as a group, which acknowledges that we can’t fulfill them without each other. I wonder, however, if you are experiencing a bit of cognitive dissonance trying to reconcile that last promise with Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading. I know I am. We promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people,” while Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”

It probably didn’t escape your notice that Jesus is in a less friendly mood than he was in last week’s passage. When Jesus speaks from a place of stress or exhaustion, as he does in today’s reading, he often slides to the strident, confrontational end of the spectrum. Sounds particularly human, doesn’t it? Sounds like me if I’m having a low blood sugar day or if I’m about to board an airplane. We can use Jesus’ stress to explain away his difficult words (“He didn’t really mean that stuff about peace and division; he was just really stressed out”). Or we can acknowledge that in his stressed state, Jesus speaks some unvarnished truth, perhaps not as nuanced as he would have liked to speak it, but truth nonetheless.

RomanRoadTo get to this unvarnished truth, we first have to understand how people in Jesus’ time would have heard the word “peace.” One version of the word was a simple greeting: “Shalom.” Another use was for the cessation of upheaval: “Peace, be still.” But a third use was more sinister – peace as propaganda. You’ve heard of the “Pax Romana,” the “Peace of Rome.” This was the glorious gift of Rome to the peoples fortunate enough to come under the Roman banner and Roman “protection.” Well, that’s how the Romans would have sold it. The Pax Romana really spread by the edge of the sword, and conquered peoples lived in fear and distrust of their occupiers.

I think it is to this third kind of “peace” that Jesus is referring: “peace” as the absence of conflict, yes, but also the absence of justice, of freedom. The kind of peace the Pax Romana brought was really just a thin veneer spread over a roiling mass of suppressed cultures and traditions and hopes and dreams. The thin veneer of “peace” hid the brokenness, the divisions that lay beneath.

With his words in today’s lesson, Jesus seeks to rip the cover off this false kind of peace and to expose the brokenness of society beneath, and in exposing that brokenness begin to heal it. Jesus knows human nature all too well – without exposing the brokenness, the divisions in society, we are content just to go along with the status quo, willingly ignorant to the steep costs of so-called “peace.” Indeed, Jesus’ words today could have spilled from the lips of any leader of the Civil Rights movement. How many decades did this country live in so-called “peace” before Rosa Parks took her seat on the bus in 1955?

Jesus’ words also speak unvarnished truth when we move from the societal to the personal. Each of us has a individual Pax Romana within us — a set of assumptions about our security and wellbeing that promises peace at long last. Despite the lack of evidence, we believe these promises until we realize they come from the marketing department, whose goal is for us to consume, not to find peace. When Jesus rips the cover off this false kind of peace, we find our broken selves, which have fragmented because we let ourselves be seduced by so many things. With the false peace gone, we confront the broken, divided people we really are.

But we aren’t alone. Jesus may have come to expose the divisions hidden under the myriad Pax Romanas of society and of our souls. But this is only half the mission. He also came to put the pieces back together again. He came to show us what real peace is: peace accompanied by justice, mercy, and love; peace that nurtures the dignity of all peoples rather than suppressing it; peace that passes all understanding.

This is the kind of peace we strive for when we affirm our baptismal promises. We strive for the peace of the broken bone that grows back stronger than before. We strive for the peace of the generous heart that no longer fears scarcity as it once did. We strive for the peace of Christ that shatters the veneer of tranquility, exposes the divisions beneath, and weaves the disparate threads of division into peace that is true, deep, and abiding.

The peace we promise to strive for in our baptismal promises is this true, deep, and abiding peace of Christ. We participate in the hard work of accomplishing this peace when, with God’s help, we see past the thin veneer of so-called peace in society and in ourselves. When, with God’s help, we follow Jesus Christ to the brokenness beneath, the brokenness of the cross and the world. And when, with God’s help, we don’t stop there, but press on to the new wholeness of the empty tomb and the power of the resurrection.