Snake on a Stick, Jesus on the Cross

March 11, 2018

A group of rowdy boys were walking down the street when they went past a Church. They noticed people going into the confessional. “Hah, what a bunch of losers, confessing their so-called sins,” one of them joked. “I bet we could say something that would really make the old priest have a heart attack.” They made up a list of the most outrageous sins they could think of that they might confess to the priest and shock him out of his gourd. “Oh yeah,” said one of the boys to the ringleader who came up with the idea, “I bet you $10 you don’t have the guts to do it.” “I’ll take that bet,” the boy said, took the list of sins and waited in line to go to confession. When he came out he came back to his friends he demanded his $10. “Did you do your penance?” the boy who bet the $10 asked. “I don’t believe in any of that mumbo jumbo,” the boy who had just come from confession said. “What did he tell you to do?” another boy asked. He just said to go kneel before the crucifix and say ten times, “all this you did for me and I don’t give a damn.” “Then no $10: no penance, no confession.” So the boy reluctantly went back into the church to do his penance. “No big deal,” he said to himself as he knelt before the crucifix. He looked up at the nails in his hands and feet, took in the crown of thorns and started to mumble, “all this you did for me and I don’t give a damn.” He thought about the agony it must have been for Jesus to die like that and mumbled again “all this you did for me and I don’t give a damn.” He noticed the look of love as the Jesus on the crucifix seemed to be looking directly at him and he mumbled again “all this you did for me and I don’t give a damn.” After waiting what seemed an eternity his friends finally came into the church looking for him and found him sobbing at the altar rail. This is the story of the conversion to faith of a man who later become the Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger, who died in 2007. (Recalled version of the story from an article years ago in ‘The Anglican Digest’, and

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life,” Jesus told Nicodemus in today’s Gospel lesson from the Gospel of John. It’s a strange reference, but luckily we have the Old Testament passage that Jesus is referring to as our Old Testament lesson for today. The Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, forced to take the long way around Edom and yet again the people grumbled. They complained about the food, the manna God gave them. They complained about the water. They complained that their feet hurt. They complained about Moses. They even complained about God. So God sent poisonous snakes among them. The people pleaded with Moses that they had sinned and asked him to pray to God to take away those snakes. God told Moses to do a very strange thing, to make a bronze replica of a poisonous snake and set it on a stick. Everyone who was bitten by a snake could gaze upon it and live.

It is a strange story and a strange symbol isn’t it? Why should gazing at a snake on a stick bring healing? But think on this. The snake represented God’s punishment for their rebellion. Gazing at the snake on a stick would remind them both of their rebellion and of God’s mercy. Look at the cross on which Jesus hung and bled in agony. It is a horrible symbol of capital punishment and cruel death. Why should such a gruesome sight be something for Christians to cherish as a sign of our faith?

I think we are too sentimental about the cross of Christ. We no longer see it as an instrument of torture and death. Retired Connecticut Suffragan Bishop Jim Curry always wears a strange large metal cross. If you look at it closely you realize that it was made from a couple welded pieces of a machine gun or assault rifle. The people of Mozambique were asked to turn in their weapons after the long and bloody civil war of the 1980’s and 90’s. Those instruments of killing were then turned into works of art by some of the nation’s artists. It’s hard to feel sentimental about an assault rifle. Rather, one is reminded of acts of war, killing and atrocity. More locally one is reminded of the killing fields of Sandy Hook Elementary School and Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The cross of Jesus is just such an offensive symbol of death and suffering.

What do we see when we see an image of Jesus on the cross? It is a symbol of death. It is a symbol of God in Jesus taking our brokenness, our suffering, our sins and bearing them. Jesus embraces our deaths, our tears, our suffering, our sins. He was lifted high upon that instrument of torture that we might gaze at it. And as Moses lifted the serpent on a stick so that the Israelites who were bitten by poisonous snakes might gaze on it and remember their rebellion and God’s mercy and be healed, so we gazing on the cross of Christ, might likewise be saved.

Everyone remembers the famous words of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” but they forget the words of John 3:14-15 that precede it about the Son of Man being lifted up like a serpent on a stick. John 3:16 – those words that evangelicals are eager to remind us of at every football game and sporting event where cameras will be focused – states God’s mercy. “God so loved the world…” And don’t get me wrong, God’s mercy is a wonderful thing! It’s a great passage that we should be reminded of. The great Reformation theologian Martin Luther called this passage “the Gospel in a nutshell.” I thank God for his mercy. I thank God that he sent his Son into the world because he loves us. It is all good news, the best of news. And yet one doesn’t need to gaze for long at an image of a crucifix with a man dying in agony hanging from two cross pieces of wood, to see more than just mercy. Like the young man doing his penance before a crucifix one is confronted with the tremendous cost of God’s mercy. “All this you did for me…”

When I look at the cross and crucifix I see a tremendous battle going on. Jesus is doing battle with death by submitting to death. Jesus is doing battle with the forces of death – with the power of death that lead to the slaughter of innocents in school massacres. He is doing battle with the power of death that lead to cruelty and destruction. He is doing battle with the power of death that pits my well being and privilege over against another’s equality and safety and well being (the power of death that leads to categorizing people’s value based on race or sex or any other category). He is doing battle with the powers of death that hold people in captivity through addiction. He is doing battle with the powers of death in the lie that promises happiness in the accumulation of things rather than in giving one’s self away.

And from appearances alone, it looks like death gets the upper hand. Jesus dies, cruelly. His critics appear to have silenced him. The authorities appear to have prevailed. One would expect Jesus’ movement to die, his followers to flee and disband. Once again the powerful and arrogant have prevailed. But God did not let death have the last word. Through embracing our death, our pain, our enslavement to the powers of death, God in Christ overturned the very power of death. Through him death, as C.S. Lewis succinctly put it, started working backwards. The great 5th century Church Father, John Chrysostom is credited with these words in an Easter sermon.

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free. He has destroyed it by enduring it. He destroyed Hell when He descended into it. He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh. Isaiah foretold this when he said, "You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below." Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with. It was in an uproar because it is mocked. It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed. It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated. It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive. Hell took a body, and discovered God. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see. O death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory? (

When the Son of Man – Jesus our Lord – was lifted high upon the cross, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, we are meant to see God’s mercy and healing love. As the Hebrews who gazed upon that bronze snake on a stick saw their own rebellion, when we gaze upon the cross we see our own enslavement to sin and death. As the Hebrews who gazed upon that bronze snake saw God’s judgment on them, we who gaze upon the cross see God’s judgment on the power of death. As the snake-bit Hebrews were healed when they gazed on that bronze snake, when we look at the cross of Jesus and believe, we are saved from the power of death.

As we move now deeper into Lent leading in two weeks to Holy Week, Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, let us for our penance look upon the cross and ask ourselves, all this Jesus did for me and I ? How are you moved by the cross of Christ? How is Jesus calling you to respond? How is Jesus freeing you to live in his victory over those powers of death? How is Jesus inviting you to invest with him in the ongoing battle against the powers of death? “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

A New Identity In Faith – February 25, 2018

February 25, 2018

What do you give a centenarian (someone who is 100 years old) for their birthday? How about a new name, a new beginning in life and a new baby? If I ever make it to 100 please don’t celebrate my birthday that way! When Abram was 99 years old that’s what God promised him when he turned 100.

                  Everyone gets a new name and a new identity in today’s scripture passages. Abram – exalted father or ancestor – becomes Abraham, which is a Hebrew play on words making him the exalted father of many nations. Sarai will give birth to the promised heir and so she also receives a new name: Sarai becomes Sarah. The meaning of the name change in Hebrew is unclear, but she takes on a new identity. Even God gets a new name. The Lord has appeared to Abram before, but this time he appears to Abram and says “I am God Almighty,” El Shaddai, God of the mountain or God on high.

                  In today’s Gospel of Mark we too are offered a new identity, but it comes with a cost. Only those who are willing to lose their life, who take up their cross and follow, can hope to find a new life in Christ.

My favorite part of the whole Abraham narrative is left out of today’s Old Testament reading. As the story continues in verses 17-19:

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!And God said, “No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.

Isaac means laughter. God visits Abraham again in the next chapter and again promises that Abraham and Sarah will have a son. This time it is Sarah who overhears the conversation and laughs. The heir, on who God’s promise and Abraham’s faith rests is names “Laughter.”

                  The renowned Christian author Frederick Buechner in a short article on faith asked,

Why did the two old crocks laugh? They laughed because they knew only a fool would believe that a woman with one foot in the grave was soon going to have her other foot in the maternity ward. They laughed because God expected them to believe it anyway. They laughed because God seemed to believe it. They laughed because they half-believed it themselves. They laughed because laughing felt better than crying. They laughed because if by some crazy chance it just happened to come true they would really have something to laugh about, and in the meanwhile it helped keep them going. (Frederich Buechner, Wishful Thinking, pg. 25)

In Romans, the Apostle Paul tells us that it was Abraham’s faith that was reckoned to him as righteousness. What was most important for God was that Abraham believed and trusted in this crazy promise that he and Sarah would have a son, from whom God would make a mighty nation. This promise took them far away from their homeland in modern day Iraq to wander all their days in search both of a promised land and a promised child. They may have laughed, but they kept trusting this crazy promise. This, Paul emphasized, not Abraham’s obedience to a law that wouldn’t come into existence for hundreds of years, but his trust in a promise, is what was reckoned to him as righteousness. So, we are children of Abraham, not by virtue of having been born as his descendants, but through emulating a faith like his.

In essence Paul is telling the Romans and us, that we should trust the same crazy promise. In an odd way what Paul tells us bears resemblance to the conversation between the White Queen and Alice in Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland. The Queen had just told Alice that she was 101 years, 5 months and a day old.

"Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things." "I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Paul is inviting us to have faith in impossible things. And isn’t that what the Christian faith is about? Isn’t faith in impossible things, what taking on a new identity in Christ is all about?

                  We’re not only invited to believe in God who we cannot see, hear or touch directly with any of our senses, we’re also invited to believe that the almighty God empties himself of all divinity and is born as a tiny baby, thus revealing himself through that human life in a way we can both understand and relate to. We’re invited to believe furthermore that God’s power and strength are revealed in this human being – in Jesus – not in his victories or in his huge following or even in his miracles, but rather in his sacrificing everything and dying for us upon a cross – the shameful death of a common criminal. (Believing such an impossible thing proved too difficult for Peter in today’s Gospel story. But Jesus told Peter, the crowds and us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it.” [Mk 8:34-35])

We’re invited to believe that in Jesus’ death that God defeated death. We’re invited to believe that death could not hold Jesus and that God raised him from the dead. In this world where death still seems to rule we are invited to believe that we too will triumph over death and share in Christ’s resurrection victory. We’re invited to believe in that resurrection power not only for some day, pie in the sky by and by, but is even power for living right here, right now.

                  We are invited to follow Jesus’ claim that greatness comes not through what we accumulate or our power over others, but in emptying ourselves of our possessions and our pretensions and serving others.  

                  We are invited to eat a little bit of bread and drink a tiny sip of wine and by doing so to receive the living presence of Jesus’ body and blood. We’re invited to believe further that receiving this sacrament connects us in communion with Christ and one another and with Christians everywhere, both the living and the dead.

                  We are invited to belong to a Church, which as we proclaim in the creed, is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, but at the same time we see is fractured, divided and often at odds with Christians of differing viewpoints and practices.

                  Is there any use trying? Can we, as Alice laughingly asks the White Queen, believe impossible things? Well, consider where belief in these impossible things lead us.

  • Isn’t God, who is beyond the realm of human touch or sight or hearing, a far better ideal to believe in than all the possessions and strength and pleasures and power this material world has to offer?
  • Isn’t the good news of God’s improbable victory over death through Jesus’ death on a cross and God raising him from the dead, the best news you have ever heard?
  • Do we not find strength and spiritual sustenance in believing that this bread and wine bring us into literal Communion with Christ?
  • When we do follow Jesus by offering ourselves in love and service in acts of charity both large and small, don’t we share Christ’s love and living presence with them?
  • Isn’t Christ’s ideal of the Church that is truly one in love worth living for, even though we fall so ridiculously short of it?

The Apostle Paul insisted that it is our faith in such impossible things, not our achievements, not our obedience or proper adherence to the liturgy, not the elegance of our prayers nor the perfection of our singing, that brings us to blessedness. It is not what we do at all. For blessedness does not depend on our own efforts; it is a gift from God. Our blessedness is out of our control; it is a free and undeserved gift. Paul invites us to trust in that gift – which is Paul’s definition of faith.

Like father Abraham and mother Sarah, that is the promise we pursue through all the challenges and strange twists this life has to offer us. And as we hang on to that promise of blessedness revealed in Christ, we are Abraham and Sarah’s children. We are closely related to their long hoped for son, named laughter.

This year Ash Wednesday – when we were reminded that we are but dust and to dust we shall return – fell on Valentine’s Day. And Easter, for Christians the day of God’s great victory in Christ, falls on April Fool’s Day. Is it possible to find God’s love in humility and repentance and to find our greatest triumph in something the world finds foolish?

Doesn’t it sometimes make you want to fall on your face and laugh? We Christians believe in impossible things. And if it is all true, as I believe it is, wouldn’t that be the greatest joke of all?

The Dazzling Light of Christ – February 11, 2018

February 11, 2018

We have been following the light throughout this season of Epiphany. We joined with Magi – the wise men from the East – following the light of a distant star that took them to a humble manger. That star brought them to the place of the Incarnation, the eternal Word of God the Father made flesh, that light which is the light of every person, the light that shines in the darkness, that light which the darkness can never overcome. (John 1:1-5) We followed the light to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry starting with his baptism and call to ministry. We followed the light in Jesus’ ministry – his calling disciples to follow him, his healing, his powerful teaching, his proclamation of the good news. And today we follow the light to Jesus’ transfiguration. We have the privilege of glimpsing with Peter, James and John, Jesus as he really is. Jesus on high in glory: dazzling! Shining with a heavenly light that is brighter than we can bear.

It kind of reminds me of the time in 2009-2010 that our beautiful Tiffany window of the Transfiguration was taken out for cleaning, re-leading and repairs. The first thing we did was get rid of the Plexiglas behind it that had become hideously opaque and replace it with clear glass. With clear glass and the stained glass out on bright cloudless days the 8 am congregation was forced to sit in the chapel because the sunlight shining directly through that East facing window was just too bright to look at in the main sanctuary. On bright sunny morning it is a joy and a wonder to see how the cleaned and restored Tiffany portrayal of Jesus shines gloriously, dazzlingly bright up there on the mountain with Moses and Elijah. It must be something like how Peter, James and John glimpsed it.           

There is one more glimpse of that light we are called to follow on this last Sunday in this Epiphany season and that is the light of God within us, that shines, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, in our hearts.

For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4:6)

Paul tells us that this light of God should be evident and visible to all, but unfortunately it is veiled (hidden from view) because the god of this world has blinded the eyes of people to it. How sad that is, for Paul tells us that it is “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Cor. 4:4b) How sad that light is obscured.

Paul’s right. That’s my experience as well. We, as people in the world, are all too often blind to the light of Christ shining within peoples’ hearts. There’s like a veil covering it so we all too rarely glimpse that light. How often do I fail to see the light of Christ in others? I fail to see Christ’s light shining in their love, in their good works, in their concern for others, in their faithfulness and in their humility. I too often fail to see the light of Christ shining in the person in need who, in helping I would be helping Christ himself. I too often fail to see the light of Christ shining in the person I should be praying for. I too often fail to see the light of Christ shining in the person Christ is calling me to love. I too often fail to see the light of Christ shining in my brothers and sisters in Christ with whom Jesus calls me to live in community as his people, his Church.

Just as bad all too often I fail to see the light of Christ shining in my heart. I forget that Jesus lives, that he is present within me. I fail to act in accordance with that holiness and love that lives within me. All too often I deny the goodness and love that dwells within me and speak despairingly of myself, the very person God the Father has called “his beloved child.” All too often I obscure that light and act out of darkness instead of light. I act in anger or frustration or impatience. I act selfishly instead of generously.

I don’t believe that I’m alone in doing this. For most people I know in the church and outside of it that light is veiled. Most people I know act all too often as if that sacred light shining in our hearts wasn’t there. As if that holy life within them didn’t matter.

In a quote often attributed to Nelson Mandela, but actually written by Marianne Williamson in a Christian self-help book entitled A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles, we read that:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. (Harper Collins, 1992. From Chapter 7, Section 3, Pg. 190-191).

We often deny or obscure that light of Christ within us. Maybe as Marianne Williamson reflects we are afraid of that light, afraid of living within the compassion, joy and hope that light reveals, afraid of living large, afraid to let our light shine?

Paul wrote to the Corinthians about his and his companion’s ministry. “We proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves (or servants) for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Cor. 4:5b) Maybe it is the failure to put ourselves in that perspective as servants, when we put ourselves and all our desires first that the light of Christ is obscured within us. Maybe the proper way to lift the veil and let that light shine is to put ourselves on our knees as slaves, as servants, to others.

The interesting thing to me in the story of the Transfiguration is that, even though for the first time the veil lifted from their understanding, and Peter, James and John really see Jesus as he is – the Son of the living God – they can’t take it in. The light of Christ is too dazzlingly bright. They don’t know what to do. They don’t understand. They don’t know what to say. Here, Jesus has just appeared to them in all his glory and Peter babbles about making memorial plaques for Moses, Elijah and Jesus to honor the event. The living God has to speak from the cloud telling them to shut-up and listen to Jesus. Jesus tells them to say nothing about this to anyone, until the Son of Man has risen from the dead. Well, they didn’t understand that either.

As we come to the conclusion of Epiphany, this season of following the light, we also are going to be told to be quiet, to learn, to reflect, to be still, to remember that we are but dust and to dust we shall return. We are told this in order that we might learn and practice new spiritual disciplines, so we can come to Jesus’ passion and death in Holy Week and comprehend with new joy the gift of his death and resurrection at Easter. Ash Wednesday is that cloud overshadowing us, telling us to hush up; to listen and learn from Jesus.

Like Peter, James and John we have followed the light of Christ this Epiphany season. With them we get a glimpse of that dazzling light in the face of Jesus Christ upon the mountain peak. That same dazzling light of God’s glory shines in your heart. Jesus lives and shines in you. Only, it’s more that we can take in. It’s more love that we trust ourselves to handle. We are afraid to really be servants of that light in ourselves and others. Therefore, like the disciples we need to learn the way of the cross in order that Christ’s light might shine more brightly in us.

I invite you beginning with Ash Wednesday this week to continue to follow that light we have pursued this whole Epiphany season. Take on the disciplines of Lent, follow in the way of the cross in order that the veil might be lifted and the glory of Christ’s love might shine dazzlingly bright within you. Amen.

God Strengthens Us To…Soar In The Spirit, Endure The Trial and Be Sustained For The Long Journey – February 4, 2018

February 4, 2018

Would you like a spiritual guide on how to soar triumphantly, how to endure as you move forward in life’s challenges and how to be sustained for the long journey ahead? We find it today in the 40th chapter of Isaiah. The prophet starts with a word-picture of God’s vastness and might.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in… (Is. 40:21-22)

Remember who God is! Remember what you’ve learned about God. God is Lord of all. From the heavens the inhabitants of earth are no more significant than tiny grasshoppers. All the heavens are no more than a temporary tent for the infinite and almighty God.

            Now you have to realize something about the situation of the Hebrew people at the time these words were proclaimed. Their world was shattered when the King of Babylon overran Jerusalem and exiled all the people to slavery in Babylon. 70 years, almost 2 generations, they had lived in exile looking always to their homeland. The balance of world power had suddenly shifted. Persia was becoming the dominant new power and was sweeping over the former Babylonian empire. The Hebrew people were but puny pawns in a vast conflict of empires.          

But listen to what God has to say about these powerful tyrants and emperors…Who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. (Is. 40:23-24) 

God is greater than the most terrifying and powerful ruler before whom the Israelites trembled and on whom their fate seemed to depend. The great rulers might think they are in control but God is ultimately in charge. In God’s eternity they are no more significant than chaff – than dust in the wind.

What are some of the powers before whom we quiver and quake today? If you were brought to this country at a young age without the benefit of citizenship, educated and thoroughly acculturated as an American, you might tremble at the very real possibility of being deported to a supposed homeland that you never knew and a language you barely speak, a place your family fled from in fear for their lives. You may tremble because forces beyond your control are determining your future fate. You may tremble at what is happening to your beloved nation and the proliferation of fear and cruelty, intolerance and injustice in this nation and the world.

The Rev. Michael Coffey has a wonderful little poem reflecting on this passage called The Grasshopper:

What a relief and what a cause

of humility right down to my exoskeleton.

The shaping of the earth

and the timing of the rains

the rising of the sun

and the spreading of the stars on the sky fabric

the making and crowning of kings

and the dethroning of prideful powers

does not depend on me

a grasshopper in the field of the world.

But the world does depend on me

to hop and nibble on the grass

and stop and take notice with my compound eyes

of the sun, the sky, the muscle and immodesty of kings

and with my mandibles in full song

let praise and protest rise up above me.

We may not only feel like a tiny grasshopper powerless against vast forces. Sometimes it is a relief to realize that many things are beyond our control. But each of us can observe, find our voice and speak. As dreadful as the powers of this world can often be, God is vaster still. The God, who brings princes to naught, who makes the rulers of the earth as nothing, is our God.          

“To whom will you compare me?” God asks, 

or who is my equal? Says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see; who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. (Is. 40:25-26)

We spend hundreds of millions of dollars to look up at the sky and the heavens. We put telescopes on high mountains and send satellites, such as the Hubble to peer into outer space. We see the vastness of galaxies, the mysteries of black holes, novas and supernovas. The universe is so vast we can scarcely comprehend it. And yet it is ordered by discernable laws and properties.

Look through the most powerful electronic microscope. We can see molecules and DNA particles. But cannot even see the infinitely small – atoms, nor the quarks and electrons, the nucleus and the protons that make up the atom.  

Who ordered and put together the tiniest pieces – the building blocks of creation? What power is behind the laws of physics? Who is the creator and sustainer of the infinite universe? Who was present before the big bang banged? Is God not the powerful, the almighty source behind all of creation?

God accused Israel of whining. The whined that God had forgotten them; that God didn’t care: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God?” (Is. 40:27) Do you ever find yourself whining? I hurt. I’m sad. I’m lonely. I’m failing. It’s too hard. I’m afraid. I’m mad. I’m so tired of all this political partisanship. I hate what is happening in my country. I’m afraid for the future of the world. The Bible is full of whiners. Probably more than half the Psalms are of people whining about something to God. Here the Hebrews are whining. But it’s O.K. The Bible gives ample justification for stating your complaint.

So, what’s your whine? What do you complain to God about? That God doesn’t fix things and make them better? That the bad guys not only get away with it, they seem to prosper in the bargain? That for an infinite, almighty, eternal God who wills for a perfect world, a glorious Kingdom to come – He sure is taking the slow road to getting there? 

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. (Is. 40:28) 

The answer to Israel’s whining is that God is as omnipotent as ever. God hasn’t grown weak! God is still God. And God’s ways, God’s will, God’s yearning, is beyond our comprehension.

We learn a great deal about God’s will – God’s yearning – for the world in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is God incarnate, God in the flesh. Jesus shows us what God is like. What does Jesus show us about God in today’s Gospel lesson? Look how many people Jesus touches and heals – Simon’s mother in law, all the sick from the city of Capernium – hundreds of them – gathered outside the door. Jesus heals them. He doesn’t turn anyone away. I learn from this that God yearns for us to be whole and well. God yearns to proclaim the good news to everybody.

God’s yearning – God’s will to reconcile all things to God’s self – does not mean that God will fix everything that is broken. God’s usual way of addressing the brokenness of the world is not to change the conditions of the world, but rather to strengthen and help His people. We, God’s people – proclaiming God’s Word, serving those in need and doing what God calls us to do – are very often the instrument of God’s action in the world.

The final and marvelous point where all this passage is leading to is that God strengthens His people.

He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Is. 40:29-31)

Those who wait upon the Lord draw on God’s strength. Even the energy of the young will eventually fail. Even Jesus needed to go out before dawn and pray to renew his strength. Do you think we need to do anything less?

Three remarkable things are promised here for God’s people. 1) They will be able to soar on eagle’s wings. 2) They will be able to run and not grow weary. And 3), they will walk and not grow faint.

The eagle is a magnificent bird. An eagle doesn’t fly like lesser birds, flapping its wings. It soars! It rides the wind currents. Can you believe it? God means for us to soar! And here we are so often grounded with a fear of heights! The unseen air or wind that the eagle rides upon is the same word as Spirit. God intends for us to be eagles with wings to soar on the unseen power of God’s Holy Spirit.

Next God promises that those who wait upon the Lord and renew their strength shall run and not be weary. As a long distance runner I know something abut that. You gain endurance in running through discipline, through working at it, through running a little farther, or pushing yourself to run faster. You not only need to put in the miles and preparation you also have to hydrate and feed your body by drinking enough fluids and taking in enough carbohydrates to fuel your run. That builds your endurance to run and run and not grow weary.

Those who wait for the Lord… that’s the key phrase here. It is in renewing our strength in God through spiritual disciplines and nourishment (daily prayer, weekly worship, regularly receiving Holy Communion, study of God’s Word, fellowship with other Christians), and other such spiritual disciplines that helps us build the endurance to run and not grow weary. That’s how Jesus did it. We saw him in our Gospel lesson this morning, going off by himself to pray. As we wait for the Lord He will build the strength to endure the trials and struggles, the challenges that come our way. We are enabled through Him to run the race with endurance.

Last it is promised that we shall walk and not grow faint. It seems like a downward progression doesn’t it? From soaring to running to walking? But really it’s just the opposite. We are given eagles’ wings to experience joy and worship and wonder, to soar on the unseen currents of the Spirit. But even more importantly as we wait for the Lord to renew our strength we are given endurance to face trials, life’s crises and challenges. And most important of all He renews our strength for the long haul, to continue forward daily in our pilgrimage, to walk and not faint.  

Jesus soared on the wings of eagles as he healed everyone who was sick in Capernaum. He ran with endurance as he taught and confronted the powers of his day and showed his followers how to live. At the end he was only able to walk to Golgatha with the help of Simon of Cyrene, who helped to carry his cross. Waiting on the Lord also means that we cannot go it alone. We need the help of others.

Isaiah 40 gives us marvelous words of faith and trust in God. It’s a wonderful passage to turn to in times of trouble. Have you not known? Have you not heard? Have you not understood from the beginning of the world? Our God is infinite and all-powerful. He loves us. He has chosen us to be His own. He yearns for the best for us. And as we wait upon Him he renews our strength inviting us to soar like eagles, to run like the Kenyans, and walk as pilgrims into His Promised Land. Amen.

For God Alone My Soul In Silence Waits – January 21, 2018

January 21, 2018

“For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly my hope is in him.” That is one of my favorite lines in all of Holy Scriptures. It’s so good that Psalm 62 repeats it twice. The lectionary reading in our scripture insert is shortened and skips verses 1-5. The first verse, like the 6th starts with the refrain. Here are verses 1-5:

For God alone my soul in silence waits;
     from him comes my salvation.

He alone is my rock and my salvation,
     my stronghold, so that I shall not be greatly shaken.

How long will you assail me to crush me, all of you together,
     as if you were a leaning fence, a toppling wall?

They seek only to bring me down from my place of honor;
     lies are their chief delight.

They bless with their lips,
     but in their hearts they curse.

The Psalmist begins with his profound statement of faith, then states the challenge he is experiencing. People are untrue. He’s being persecuted, hounded. People are gossiping about him. What can he do about his position of anxiety and fear? All he can do is to trust God, for God is his refuge. Anything else he might put his trust in is illusory. Prestige, power, wealth, influence, pride – although they are the very things that people generally desire – will ultimately prove false. God and God’s undying steadfast love are our ultimate hope. These will not prove false, these will not run dry. These alone will always prove true. For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly my hope is in him.

The great Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo said something similar in his Confessions when he declared in his opening paragraph that humans are made for God and, therefore, “our hearts are restless until we find our rest in thee.” To put our trust, our hope, our longing, to place our bet on anything else will ultimately prove false. Only God will unlock that door to our hearts that can begin to make us whole.

Looking at today’s disparate scripture lessons it strikes me that Psalm 62 is the glue that holds them together. Jonah, the wayward prophet who needs a whale to swallow him whole and spit him up on the shore God called him to go but from which he fled, (Jonah) finally prophecies to the city of Nineveh as God had called him to do in the first place. And while Jonah prophecies, he certainly doesn’t preach a very positive message. He only declares God’s judgment on the city: “40 Days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!” he keeps yelling one block of Nineveh after another. He fails to mention God, nor does he invite them to repent. But Nineveh’s King and people hear God’s message almost in spite of Jonah and they repent. They, in the Psalmist’s words, put their trust in God and do not trust to anything else to save them. Jonah, as the story goes on, really doesn’t want the Ninevites to be saved. But God reaches out in love for the people of that ancient city who turn from their sins and put their trust in God. God is steadfast in his love.

In chapter 7 of 1st Corinthians Paul has been answering the Christian community of Corinth’s questions about marriage and societal status. He weighs that status in relationship to our ultimate hope in God. Paul trusts that all forms and status of society – marriage, rank, prestige, property, slave or free, citizen or alien, etc. – were ultimately unessential. The only thing that really matters is God in Christ. That is the joy we should hang on to. Everything else is passing away. Paul’s timing may be off – Christ didn’t return as Paul expected in his lifetime – but his hope in Christ is not misplaced.

In the Gospel of Mark today we see the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He goes all around the towns and villages of Galilee proclaiming that the time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God has come near and people should repent and believe in the good news. Jesus himself embodies that Good news. Jesus – his message and ministry – are one and the same with the good news of God. Next, Jesus invites some fisherman to follow him. Andrew and Simon Peter, James and John, discover in Jesus’ call for them to leave everything and follow, that he is the hope that their hearts most desire. They leave everything and they follow Jesus as his first disciples. He is the foundation stone, the rock in whom they put their trust.

What about us? When Jesus proclaims the good news that the Kingdom of God comes near in him, do we recognize that in Jesus’ love, in Jesus’ power to heal, in his words, in his call to follow him into a life of service, and in the very nearness, God’s Kingdom flows from him like an ever flowing stream? What in Jesus’ life and message do we need to embrace anew? What, in Jesus’ message of repentance do we need to turn away from? Ask yourself, “What am I clinging to that looks and feels important but ultimately is undependable, is as insubstantial as a mirage? How can God and God’s steadfast love in Jesus be my rock? How can God’s call to me to follow in Jesus’ way as his disciple be my true life, my true goal, my true heart’s desire?

For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly my hope is in him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken. Sometimes life and life’s circumstances are like a tempest that blows so strongly and buffets our life, that we need a refuge, a shelter, a place of stillness from the storm. The steadfast love of God for you and me in Jesus is that refuge. He is our rock, our salvation, our stronghold, so that we shall not be shaken. At the heart of the Psalm is a call to place one’s trust in “God alone, to whom alone we must cleave, whom alone we must serve, whom alone we must worship, and in whom alone we put our trust.” Nothing else can secure our lives without enslaving us to our would-be-liberators. (Homiletics, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, “Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Pastoral Perspective,” Allen C. McSween, Jr., pg. 275)

The Church as a community is subject to many of the same temptations as we are as individuals. We’re tempted to trust in successes, in a strong balance sheet, in 275 years of history, in our in the next new program, in our numbers, or simply trying to survive as an institution, all as cheap substitutes for life in Christ. Our life in Christ is the main thing. Do we trust God above all else? How can we realize as a community that God alone is worthy of our trust? What change might that prompt in us? As we head into our Annual Meeting today let us focus on what it means to live the love of God with hearts open to all – in our worship, in our fellowship, in sharing and learning together how to live out our mission, in our outreach to those in need, in our love for one another, in our organizational structure, and in all that we do. Trusting fully in God might take us out of our comfort zone, might bring us to take more risks, to venture something greater than just trying to “do church well.” In God alone our souls in silence wait, for all our hope is from him. He alone is our rock and our salvation, our fortress so we shall not be shaken. Amen.

The Dream – January 14, 2018

January 14, 2018

for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

“The Word of the Lord was rare in those days.” Old Eli, the priest who resided in the Tent of meeting at Shiloh, had grown old. He either didn’t see or refused to look at the way his own sons were perverting justice in the very presence of the Ark of the Temple. He no longer judged the nation with vigor or saw the many ways that Israel was failing.

The word of the Lord was rare in those days – 1963. Jim Crow laws, formally dividing the races and legally enshrining inequality, were the law of the South and had been for over 60 years. Lack of economic opportunity and segregation made things in northern cities not much better. As Martin Luther King, Jr. observed in his most famous speech.

100 years after emancipation from slavery “the life of the Negro is still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”

In each of these cases a dream helped lead to new vision and new possibility. The boy Samuel lay down to sleep in the Tent of meeting and heard someone speaking to him in a dream. He didn’t realize that he was hearing God speaking to him. And so he ran to the old Priest and said, “here I am, for you called me.” Three times this repeated until the third time old Eli, still a priest who was able to recognize something of what God was up to, was able to advise the boy, “Go lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” The boy lay down and this time when God spoke he listened to what God was saying. It was a harsh word of prophecy and God did indeed punish the house of old Eli and his wicked sons. But at the same time the boy Samuel grew as someone who heard the Word of the Lord. In time Samuel came to lead Israel. He anointed Saul and then later David as King to lead Israel to become a great nation.

In 1963 the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, but people who were well off and not hurting themselves didn’t want to hear it, didn’t feel the need to change or rock the boat. On the 100-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation the leaders of the Civil Rights movement planned a massive protest march on the nation’s capital to demand equality of rights. President John F. Kennedy tried to persuade Martin Luther King, Jr. to be patient, to wait, because the time wasn’t right. But King and the leaders of the movement wouldn’t agree. The time was never convenient. A quarter of a million people marched to the Lincoln Memorial. There were many speeches that day, but it was the last speech by Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. that was most influential and is still remembered to this day, I have a dream!

When King got up to speak he still wasn’t sure exactly what he was going to say. He had asked his advisors for advice on the address and had gone through multiple edits. As King got up to speak the beloved gospel singer Mahalia Jackson said, “Tell them about the dream Martin!” She had heard him speak about his dream to students at a High School in North Carolina, but there was nothing about a dream in the manuscript he held in his hands. His most famous lines from his most famous speech were improvised.

(Mid-way through the speech, he said:)

Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…

I have a dream today…I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made a plain and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope.

In the waning days of the 20th century, a poll of more than 100 scholars of public addresses ranked Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech the most significant speech of that century. In 2013 Jon Meacham wrote in Time magazine: “With a single phrase, Martin Luther King, Jr. joined Jefferson and Lincoln in the ranks of men who’ve shaped modern America. (Homiletics magazine, January, 2018, pg. 25)

When you listen to King’s words and read them you realize that his speech was infused with the idealism of this country and the passion of his Christian faith. The preacher proclaims God’s Word in declaring all people equal in sharing a dream that is as old as the Old Testament prophets and as relevant today 54 years later as we still desperately need Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream to be realized.

It seems to me that the Word of the Lord is rare in these days too. Evangelicals in Alabama nod approval of former Judge Ray Moore, turning a blind eye to his infidelities and hate speech. In a meeting at the White House this past week the President of the United States was heard to utter racist words disparaging people from African and Caribbean Nations as inferior to those from Nordic nations. Tax cuts favor the rich over the poor. Health care to the nation’s most vulnerable citizens is under constant threat of repeal and dilution. Conservatives and liberals, blue states and red states, Democrats and Republicans have difficulty talking to one another. The idea of different sides cooperating or compromising to reach common goals is taboo. State voting districts are gerrymandered into strange configurations on a map that make no sense at all other than the one purpose of keeping the party on power on top. In every agency where laws protect the poor, the weak, the vulnerable and average citizens, new regulations are being written to the benefit of corporate interests by the representatives of those same corporations.

The Word of the Lord may be rare in these days, but for those of us who have those Words and still read them in the Bible, they are alive and powerful. We, as Christians, we as church people, we as citizens, need to say anew, “speak Lord for your people are listening.”

For, as Paul told us in 2 Corinthians

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,* not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17-20a.)

God in Christ is not dividing or belittling, but reconciling the world and all its peoples with all their differences and all their hurts. And he has given you and me the ministry of reconciliation.

As Jesus stood up and quoted Isaiah 61:1-3 in his inaugural sermon at his home town Synagogue in Nazareth of Galilee, we who wear “what would Jesus do?” bracelets should likewise proclaim:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’ (Luke 4:18-19)

As the Psalmist prayed,

O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek; you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed, so that those from earth may strike terror no more. (Psalm 10:17-18)

We should look for what God is up to in the work of advocacy for those same orphaned and oppressed today. What about the dreamers, those young people who have been in this country since they were little children, but as young adults know no other country or any other life than this one, who are threatened with deportation?

John the Divine pictures the ultimate goal of God’s Kingdom to be the healing of the nations. He gives us this beautiful word picture in the very last chapter in the Bible:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit in each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1-2)

The Word of the Lord is there for us to mark and read and inwardly digest and, more importantly, to live. “Speak Lord, for your servants are listening.” The Bible of justice, of love, of integrity, of reconciliation, where the weak are raised up and the hope of the poor is not to be extinguished, still speaks today, even if his Word seems rare. We need to read it and dream it and live it. “Speak Lord, for your servants are listening.”

The Presentation of Jesus In The Temple – December 31, 2017

December 31, 2017

You heard me read a different Gospel            than the one in your scripture insert. With the Revised Common Lectionary the wider Church reads the passage you just heard, Luke 2:22-40. That’s how the Gospel of Luke continues the story beyond Jesus’ birth. In the Episcopal Lectionary this Gospel is read on the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple on February 2. Since that feast day is on a Friday I thought this would be a good chance for all of us to hear it and join with the wider Church.

Many years ago I heard a fascinating dream related by a woman seminarian. It was a dream she’d had many years before and had told the story as part of a witness talk on renewal weekends. She dreamed that she was inside the heavenly temple. God was high up on the throne. Everything was golden. A bright light flowed from the throne at the center of the temple. There were clouds of incense and thousands and thousands of saints and angels worshipping. The sound of their praise was like the sound of thunder. She found herself inside the temple, feeling as out of place as a fish out of water, trembling with terror and shame. In her dream she ran and hid behind a pillar in the remotest corner of the vast heavenly temple. She was aware that Jesus had come down from the heavenly throne. He walked to the remote corner of the temple where she was hiding, came around the pillar, took her hands and lifted her to her feet. “But I’m so unworthy!” she protested. Taking her by the hand he walked her down the length of the vast temple and up to the heavenly throne. There Jesus embraced her. Tears were streaming down her face as Jesus presented her to the Father and said to her, “I have made you worthy.”

Today we heard the lesson and remember the presentation of Jesus, a tiny baby just 40 days old, in the Temple in Jerusalem. I’ve also shared a small print of a Greek Icon of the Presentation.

If you look at it you will see Mary having offered Jesus to the ancient prophet Simeon who is lifting him up. Joseph is the figure in the back holding two turtle doves. The Prophet Anna, is between them.

There are many layers of meaning and a rich symbolism in Jesus’ presentation in the temple. It is a meeting filled with irony and paradox. The Law prescribed that 40 days after childbirth a mother was to be presented to the Temple for ritual cleansing. The first-born son was at the same time to be “redeemed” through an offering on his behalf. A ram for those who could afford one, but a turtledove for the poor. With the offering of the poor Mary and Joseph fulfill the commandments of the Law. There were no doubt hundreds of other parents at the Temple making offerings for purification and redemption, presenting their sons and daughters in the temple. Joseph, Mary and Jesus wouldn’t have looked much different from the rest, but the eyes of faith see a much richer story.

Ancient Simeon and Anna represent the Old Covenant. Simeon represents the ancient prophecies and hopes of Israel. He has long waited for this day. Now that with his own eyes he has seen the promised fulfillment of Israel, he takes Jesus in his arms and proclaims: “Lord, you know have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised; for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see: a Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.” Anna represents the prayers and devotion to God of the faithful in Israel through the ages.

Jesus is the New Covenant meeting the Old. He is the fulfillment of all those Old Testament hopes and prophesies. He is the living Word of the Father. Jesus is God’s gift of Himself to the world. He is God’s own Son, God’s incarnation – His “enfleshment,” God revealing Himself in the life and person of Jesus.

The Eastern Orthodox Church sees in this story the fulfillment of the vision of Isaiah in the Temple.

 Isaiah 6:1-6: In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

the whole earth is full of his glory.”

4 The pivots † on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph † touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

Mary is seen as the tongs carried by the Seraphim. Jesus is the burning coal from the altar of God who will burn away our guilt and sin and shame.

The Jerusalem Temple is the place where the Meeting occurs, and where the various elements of the holy converge. There is the earthly site where the place and the people that are temples of God come together.  

Jesus will one day replace the Temple. Jesus represents God’s living presence in the world. He will be the sacrifice offered once and for all for the sins of the world. There will be no need for continuing sacrifice after the cross. One of the accusations against Jesus before the Sanhedrin was that he had said, “tear down this temple and I will build it again in 3 days.” The moment Jesus died the Gospel of Matthew records that the curtain shrouding the holy of holies in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. God’s holiest presence would no longer be shrouded behind thick curtains at the inner sanctum of the Temple but shared as new life in Christ for all the world to see and know.

As the Temple cradled the holy place of God, the Ark of the Covenant shrouded within the very center of the holy of holies, so too the Virgin Mary carried the holy life of God within her. She carried that life in her womb and gave birth, bringing forth the life of God’s own Son into the world. The baby she held in her arms was the living presence of God that the Temple only pointed to.         

We too are God’s temple. In 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 Paul wrote: 

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

We – both as individuals and together as Christ’s Church – are the Temple of God. His very life abides in us.

The presentation of Jesus in the Temple also emphasizes offering. Mary offers herself to be purified in fulfillment of the commandments. The Virgin whose openness to God allowed her to receive the gift of God’s Son offered herself and a dove for the rites of purification.

Mary and Joseph offer their son, making an offering and presenting him to God in the temple. They offer their son who is at the same time the offering of God’s Son for the life of the world. Simeon prophesies how the cost of this gift will pierce their souls with sorrow.

Simeon and Anna offer their years of waiting and yearning for God’s promise to take on life and form. They offer their faithfulness and the faithfulness of the Old Covenant.

Do you remember the dream of the seminarian of being presented by Jesus before the throne of God? “But I’m so unworthy,” she protested. “I have made you worthy,” Jesus told her. Today is New Year’s Eve, the cusp of a New Year. What would it mean for you to present your life to God in this Temple, in this Sanctuary built in Christ’s honor, as we start a New Year? What might you offer? How do you imagine God would receive you?

We are invited to offer our gifts and present ourselves as a living sacrifice on God’s altar. So we present to God our selves, our love, our worship, our prayers, our devotion. We present not only the positive but also the negative. We present our sins and failings, confessing them and asking forgiveness and healing. We present Jesus our willing hands and feet, our mouths to be instruments of God’s purpose. We present our tithes and offerings. We present our willingness to serve on Christ’s behalf. We present our resolutions and our hopes and dreams for the New Year to come.

Next to the offering of Jesus himself the two little turtledoves Joseph carried into the Temple seem so insignificant, but they are enough. So too the offerings we have to present seem so small in comparison with God’s gift of His Son. We are so unworthy and yet his love, his offering of his self on that cross, makes us worthy.

We meet in the Temple. Jesus is presented not only as Mary and Joseph’s son, but also God’s Son given for the life of the world. We meet the hope and promise of O.T. prophecy fulfilled. We meet the life of God’s Son given to us. We meet Christ in the offering of ourselves and our gifts. And in the Temple we meet God as Jesus presents us before the Father.

God’s Life in our Hands – Christmas 2017

December 24, 2017

For those of you who are parents, do you remember the scary feeling of the first time you held your new-born baby in your arms? To tenderly hold that precious little bundle of life, to look at that scrunched up face, to carefully cradle that head so it doesn’t flop, to feel the beating of that tiny heart, is a momentous event for a new mom or dad. I remember the terror of taking our oldest daughter home from the hospital. The nurses and hospital staff were letting us take this little child home with us? They were entrusting us with her? Did they have any idea how little we knew, how inadequate we felt? None of the Lamaze classes or books we read or directions we received from the nurses adequately prepared me for the terror of this responsibility. This tiny life was in our hands. We were responsible. We could hardly figure out how to properly strap her into the car seat. Holding her, bathing her for the first time, feeding her, changing her diaper, calming her when she cried: being a parent was a momentous responsibility. It was exciting and joyous and terrifying all at once. Of course, like all parents, we slowly figured it out and grew into the role. Imagine how inadequate to the task Mary and Joseph felt, not only to care for their new-born baby boy, but to be responsible for the very life of God born into this world.

In a field near Bethlehem, bathed in radiant, heavenly light, still ringing with the glory of the angels song, shepherds were given a sign. You will find a new-born baby boy, wrapped in rags and lying in the soft straw of an animal’s feeding trough. The sign was as common as the shepherds themselves. The sign was human. It was humble. It was poor, small, not grand or in any way pretentious. Notice Luke’s reversal: earth is not looking to heaven for a sign, but heaven looks to earth. The extraordinary – angels, bursting forth in supernatural glory in the night sky – points to the ordinary, the earthly, the poor and humble and says, “see God is among you.”

But not only Mary and Joseph were responsible for this child. We also are responsible for Jesus’ earthly life. Tonight we celebrate the birth of our Lord, Emmanuel. The very name means ‘God with us’. God is born into our world. God places his precious life in our hands. It was an awesome responsibility for Mary and Joseph. It is no less an awesome responsibility for you and me.

We take God’s life in our hands when we reach out to receive a bit of bread and a dip or a sip of wine. We take God’s life in our hands when we open the Bible and read it. We take God’s life in our hands when we pray. We take God’s life in our hands when we reach out to help another person. We take God’s life in our hands when we share his love. We take God’s life in our hands when we repent and turn away from our sins and turn towards God’s directions. We take God’s life in our hands when we sing God’s praises in worship. We take God’s life in our hands when we ask him to live in our hearts. We take God’s life in our hands when we attempt to do his work. Taking God’s life in our hands is an awesome responsibility. What if we get it wrong? What if we fail? What if we’re inadequate to the task? Like taking care of a newborn baby we will grow in the responsibility. We will gain in confidence. It’s OK to ask for help. It’s OK if we fail.

The thing is, while God places his life in our hands, his life is bigger than we are. At the same time we take his life in our hands we should also be praying for him to take our lives into his keeping. We won’t be able to achieve anything with his life until we entrust ourselves to his love. I’m sure that God loves it when we ask his help and direction. The thing God is always willing for his life, is for that life to be made human, to be made concrete and real. The heavenly Spirit fills, motivates and guides us in God’s desired outcome of making his love and presence felt in human endeavor and human life.

We tend to look to heaven for help and hope. We ask God for protection, for healing, for strength. We ask God to defeat our enemies, to solve our most inscrutable problems, to help those we love, to act in the midst of this turbulent world. And so we lob our prayers up to heaven. On Christmas, with the birth of Jesus, God lobs his prayer back to us. Take my Son, take my life in human form, and be responsible for it. Nurture it. Feed it. Give it life and strength and hope. Hold it tenderly in your hands. Let it grow in wisdom and power. Let it grow in favor with men and women everywhere. Let it influence you and let it influence your world. God’s prayer to us – to the world – is to let his life move us and change us and transform the world.                       

We tend to want and expect God’s life to be super-human, to be all powerful, all knowing, invincible. We expect God’s life to be glorious, otherworldly, transcendent. We tend to picture that life in images of kingly splendor and power and might. But Jesus preaches a kingdom that has nothing to do with power or wealth or military might, but has everything to do with servanthood, sacrifice and suffering. Indeed he acted as though that kingdom was already becoming an earthly reality. He spent his time eating and associating with people on the margins of society – the sick, the poor, the outcast, the prostitute, the tax collector – while rebuking the religious, the elite, the insiders. He challenged the powers of sin and death by taking them on directly, all the way to the cross. He lived a very powerful life, but still a very human life and died a fully human and agonizing death. He did not show us a superhero who would solve the problems of the world or battle the forces of evil with superhuman might. He showed us in human form what God’s life looks like. He revealed that life. He embodied it.

What God did in Jesus was to show us God’s life in human form. And he gave that life to us. He entrusted that life – the life of God’s Kingdom – to us. Like a parent we are invited to nurture his life and let it grow. Like a child we’re invited to explore that life and grow in it ourselves. As a disciple of Jesus we’re invited to follow the way he led and live in it. His life does not take us out of this world into some spiritual plane. His life takes us more deeply into this world in love and service especially to those most in need. His life doesn’t make us invulnerable or imbue us with superpowers; it makes us human, fully human, as Jesus showed us true humanity.

In the last verse of the Christmas Carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem we pray, “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.” As Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph, so we pray that his life will be born anew in us. That life will impose many challenges in us. It will demand our care and nurture. It will invite our love. It will fill us with joy and sorrow. It is both a burden and a wonderful gift. Like Mary and Joseph, let us love and nurture that embodied life of God. We don’t need to feel ready or adequate to the awesome responsibility of caring for the human life of God. We simply need to love it as our own.

Merry Christmas!


Something About Mary – December 24, 2017

December 24, 2017

The Blessed Virgin Mary often makes the headlines. She appears in the oddest places, making visitations in weeping statues, at an underpass in Chicago, on a tree in Dallas, on walls, in the sky. Perhaps the strangest visitation of all made the headlines and newspapers about a dozen a years ago. The BVM had made an appearance on a grilled cheese sandwich. The owner of the sandwich only noticed Mary after she had already taken a bite out of it. After having been preserved in a plastic container with mothballs and kept by her bedside for a number of years the owner of Our Lady of the Toasted Cheese sold it on E-Bay. That’s how the story was picked up in the news. The cheese sandwich ended up selling for $28,000, to Golden Palace, an Internet casino.

What do we make of the BVM? Protestant Churches tend to downplay Mary. She’s remembered and honored at this time of year for being the mother of Jesus and her response of acceptance and obedience to the Angel Gabriel’s proclamation. But in Protestant churches Mary is not honored more highly than any other New Testament Saint such as Peter, Paul or even Mary Magdalene. Much of the Protestant hesitancy in honoring Mary is in reaction to the extremes that many go to in devotion to her.

In Roman Catholicism the BVM is highly honored indeed. Devotion to Mary is second only to devotion to God and sometimes I might add a pretty close second. Mary is honored as the Queen of Heaven. There are all kinds of statues, rosaries, art, prayers, churches and shrines all dedicated to Mary’s honor. Mary is regularly asked to intercede on believers’ behalf, but the line between asking her to intercede for us and praying to her directly, as if she herself were a goddess, is pretty blurry.

As one who grew up firmly in the Protestant tradition I must admit that I find the fervent devotion to Mariology more than a little disturbing. But those who grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition tell me that they feel more comfortable speaking to Mary than directly to God because they feel closer to her. It strikes me that the contrasting way that Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches look at Mary might be the widest divide between us.

More and more I have been drawn to the way Eastern Orthodox Churches look at the Blessed Mother. There is a great deal of devotion to the Mary in the Orthodox Church. But unlike in Roman Catholic devotions there is not a cult to Mary.

In the Orthodox Church Mary is never pictured by herself alone. She’s always pictured in relationship to Jesus. There’s the image of the Annunciation of Gabriel announcing to Mary that God has chosen her to bear His Son. There are many variations of icons of Mary holding Jesus. Another prominent image is called Our Lady of the Sign. In this image Jesus is pictured either within Mary’s Womb or as on a medallion on her cloak. The Lord Emmanuel (God with us) whom she carries in her womb is made visible. Finally, Mary can also be pictured in the Deisis – an icon that means prayer. In this icon Mary is inclining her head and bowed in prayer at the front of a long line of saints and angels praying to Jesus upon the throne. On the other side John the Baptist is first in a similar long line of saints and angels at prayer before Christ’s throne.

In Orthodox tradition the Blessed Mother is referred to as the Theotokas, which means “God bearer.” Mary is the one who bears the life of Christ on behalf of all of humanity. She brings him into the world and is responsible for his life and well-being. And in Eastern Orthodox devotional images of her Mary often invites those who view her to receive her son as their Savior and Lord.

There’s a deeper dimension still. In her role as the Theotokas, the God bearer, Mary represents the Church. For, like the Blessed Mother, the Church of Christ is the God bearer to the present day world.

We, the Church, bear the life of Christ within us. The life of Christ is revealed within us in worship as we sing and pray and pour our love back to God who loved us first. The life of Christ is revealed within us in the Blessed Sacrament in bread and wine. The life of Christ is revealed within us in the Holy Scriptures. The life of Christ is revealed within us in our love and fellowship for one another. The life of Christ is revealed within us as we reach out to serve the poor and needy. The life of Christ is revealed within us as we offer his life to those who have not yet experienced him. Of course sometimes – frankly all too often – the life of Christ remains hidden within us, not experienced, not lived out, not shared, and only partially revealed.

We as individual Christians – just as the Church as a whole – are God bearers. We became God bearers in our baptisms when we first received Christ and were received into the life of Christ. But for most of us that was a long time ago and hard to recall, so thankfully that wonderful gift of the life of God’s Son that we bear within us is renewed at many points in our journey. The life of Christ is renewed in all the ways that we live the faith. We, like the Blessed Mother, the Theotokas, are God bearers. Oh, but how imperfectly we bear and share the blessed life of God’s Son with the world!

Mary is our example. And that is why we ought to revere the Blessed Virgin Mary so highly. She not only is the God-bearer who brings God’s Son into the world. She shows us how to do it. The story of the Annunciation can be our guide.

There are many how-to books written for people in business about getting to yes, about getting people to buy your product, or agree with your point of view or support your position. The Angel Gabriel’s method is probably about the worst ever tried. For who could possibly expect anyone to receive, let alone welcome, news such as Gabriel brought to Mary?! He brought the most terrifying news she could ever hope to receive – that she would bear God’s Son and he had the audacity to tell her “not to be afraid?” If Mary had any plans she could kiss them goodbye. That nice wedding with Joseph? They didn’t make pregnancy wedding gowns back then. And who knew if Joseph would even have her after this? This challenge would consume her whole life as well as put her in pretty terrifying circumstances. Gabriel didn’t do much sugar coating and precious little sales.

But Mary’s YES is our great example. Her yes was a no to so many of her own plans and dreams. But it was an acceptance of God’s will for her life. It was an amazing obedience.

Mary also shows us fierce joy in God’s choice of her. The Magnificat exults, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant!” Mary identifies with the poor, the broken, the hungry, and the dispossessed. As God has chosen her so he has also chosen them. He has lifted up the lowly.

Mary is also an example to us in her simplicity. It was not her greatness that God exalted but her humility. Mary’s greatness is a result of God’s greatness not something she earned or deserved. So it is with us who bear the life of God’s Son.

Mary is also an example to us of prayer. Eastern Orthodox icons often picture Mary at prayer. My favorite is of Mary – Our Lady of the Sign – with Christ pictured within her, at prayer. Mary is standing with her hands held in prayer as Christ within her is also praying for her and for the world.

We don’t need Mary to appear to us on a cheese sandwich, but if she does I recommend you take it to E-bay before it gets moldy! But we do need Mary’s witness and example as the original and far more perfect God bearer. Let Mary’s yes and her faithfulness in offering her Son to the world despite how the world would reject him, be an example to us who bear his life within us and within his Church today.

Our Lady of Tenderness



Our Lady of the Sign

Advent Lessons and Carols – December 17, 2017

December 17, 2017

Threads of hope are woven throughout the Bible. In one of the biblical moments of great personal despair Abraham was commanded by God to take his son, his only son – the son long promised and long awaited – and sacrifice him as an offering to God on the mountain. So Abraham takes Isaac, brings wood and flint for the fire and tells him that they are going to offer to God a sacrifice on the mountain. After a day or more of travel Isaac finally screws up the courage to ask his father, “uh Dad, where is the animal to be sacrificed?” Abraham simply tells him “God will provide, my son.” (There’s a world of difference for Isaac whether or not there’s a comma after “provide.”) Finally, after everything is prepared Abraham binds Isaac to the wood for the pyre. He takes his knife to sacrifice Isaac by slitting his throat when the Angel of the Lord stays his hand. He sees a ram caught in the thicket and the ram is sacrificed instead of Isaac. Well, no question it is a strange kind of faith that’s embodied by a father being tested in such a horrible way. And yet Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac is a powerful foreshadowing of God’s making that offering of his Son Jesus upon the cross. The greatest gift we could ever hope to receive.

The Bible is full of the history of kings and wars and conquests. It is full of pageantry and awe. It contains legal codes, admonitions and prohibitions. It is full of warnings as well as promises. And it is full of stories of heroes and villains. God is in the midst of it all, creating, commanding, speaking, enticing, sometimes appearing and more often hiding behind a veil as an unseen mystery.

One of the great threads of promise in the Old Testament is the hope that God will one day rule directly. God will one day inhabit the earth as he inhabits heaven. This hope became focused on the renewal of the ancient Davidic line of kings. As we read today in Isaiah 11:1, “a branch shall grow out of the root (of Jesse).” The Messiah(s), the anointed one or ones shall be a new line of kings, who will usher in a new day of peace and hope and prosperity. This hope – this promise – was for something far greater than a human kingdom. Under this king’s rule the wolf shall lie down with the lamb and no one shall hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain. The commandments of God will be written not just on parchment, but literally inscribed in the human heart. The brokenness of sin and estrangement between God and his flawed human creatures will be healed. This promise will be fulfilled in the least of the tribes – Judah – and from its smallest, least significant village, Bethlehem. This new rule will be nothing short of a new creation. It will be a time of joy. The kingdom will be not only for Israel but for the whole world.

There are many pieces of scripture in the O.T. telling of the future hope of the coming Messiah. Today we’ve read 6 of them, leading up to the telling of Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her that this great promise is about to come literally true in her. God’s promises will dwell in her young body as she bears a son who will be that Savior for God’s people. Mary’s response is to recite a fierce poem of God’s ability to overturn the powerful and mighty and raise up the lowly, the Magnificat.

Lauren Winner in her 2002 memoir, Girl Meets God (2002, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, NY, NY), writes that:

People think Judaism and Christianity are radically different from one another, and that the difference is straightforward. But [on Ascension Day], I am struck by the deep similarity that lies just underneath. Both Jews and Christians live in a world that is not yet redeemed, and both of us await ultimate redemption. Some of us wait for a messiah to come once and forever; others of us wait for Him to come back. But we are both stuck living in a world where redemption is not complete, where we have redemptive work to do, where we cannot always see God as clearly as we would like, because He is up in Heaven. We are both waiting. (

Dr. Winner is a professor of American Church history at Duke Divinity School with a special focus on Jewish Christian relationships. Her mother was Southern Baptist and her father Jewish. As a girl she chose to leave her mother’s faith and devote herself to Judaism. She became a devout student of Torah. Somehow though the more she studied the Law the more she was struck with the person of Jesus and the way Jesus seemed to embody God’s love and justice. As she put it in her memoir, she fell in love with Jesus and converted back to Christianity. I love what she says about the God of the Bible having a human face and hands.

All through the Torah, God is pictured as having hands, a face. The rabbis say, Of course God doesn’t really have hands, but the Torah uses the language of faces and hands and eyes so that we will have an easier time wrapping our minds around this infinite, handless God. That is what you say if you are a rabbi. But if you are a good novelist, you actually give Him hands and eyes by the end of the book, and that is what the Bible does. It says, in Deuteronomy, that God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; and then it gives Him an arm in the Gospel of Matthew

Through the readings of these six Advent lessons from the Old Testament this morning and through the singing of these songs of hope we are living today into the promise of that thread of hope running throughout the Old Testament. God will save not only his people Israel, but God himself will come into our world, to all the world, to all people and God will bring life and hope and peace and joy. That’s the thread of the promise that we’ve followed today through these lessons and carols that lead us to a tiny baby in a manger.

Today as we pull that thread of hope in the Old Testament leading to the birth of Jesus, we also remember this Advent Season that our hope in God is still incomplete. In Jesus God has come among us to show us the way, to show us his life, to abide with us in love. And yet the world is still broken and full of sin. The promised day of peace seems as far off or further away than ever. So, we come with longing for Jesus to be born anew in our hearts. And we come today with longing in our hearts for God’s redemption for God’s Kingdom still to come in our world.

Come thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee.

Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art: dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.

Born thy people to deliver, born a child, and yet a king, born to reign in us for ever, now thy gracious kingdom bring. AMEN