Sunday, February 16, 2020

Restraint vs. Aspiration

Matthew 5:21-37
Epiphany 6 / Year A

There is a sentiment out there in the Christian community holding the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament.  The thinking goes the Old Testament God is a God of war, or hate, or vengeance, or… you can fill in the blank, while the God Jesus shows us is a God of love.  I have never subscribed to this kind of thinking.  Still, I think it does pick up on something significant, only it takes it down the wrong road.  It misdirects how the Old Testament (especially the early part) and the New Testament have very different goals for moral and ethical behavior.  Let me explain.

Moses receives Ten Commandments from God and makes them known to the Hebrew people.  The first four commandments speak to our relationship with God.  The other six address our relationship with each other, i.e. morality and ethics.  Of these six, only one is stated in the positive – honor your father and mother.  The other five begin with “Thou shalt not…”: murder, adultery, stealing, lying, and coveting.  Of these five, only one refers to the interior life – coveting.  It is fair to say the commands aim to restrain behavior by defining what is out of bounds.

And make no mistake, from a sociological perspective, these restraints advance Israel’s culture far beyond that of the tribes and nomads with whom they share the land.  The Ten Commandments lay a foundation for civilized society to emerge out of regional barbarianism and chaos.  It represents a vast improvement in moral and ethical behavior; not just because it pleases God, but because it makes for a better world.

But notice the emphasis is on restraint, on controlling bad behavior.  Under this ethic, it is possible to seethe with anger, but not commit murder, to be dripping with lust, but not commit adultery, to take every possible advantage of another so long as you don’t steal, to spin the truth as long as you don’t lie.  Outward behavior is curbed, but the interior life is a boiling cauldron.  And as we all know, simmering pots have a way of blowing their top.

Then along comes Jesus with his notion of the kingdom of God.  He teaches it is something that begins inside of each of us as we seek not just to restrain bad behavior but also as we aspire to be godly; holy as God is holy.  For Jesus it is not enough to refrain from wrong actions, one must also be purged of wrong thoughts.  In their place one must cultivate a love for all people, even and especially your enemy.  One must cultivate relationships marked by fidelity and respect.  One must conduct oneself with openness and honesty, rather than hiddenness and deceit. 

This is the big difference between the Old Testament and the New.  It is not that God has changed.  God does not change.  Jesus changes the human hope for moral and ethical behavior by shifting the focus from restraining bad behavior to aspiring for interior goodness and health.

All of this may sound well and good, but nearly impossible to achieve on your own.  Jesus’ message to us is not “Try harder to be better,” rather “Let me in and let me help.”  God’s Spirit working in you is like an energy drink for the moral life.  It takes over.   The Message bible puts it this way:

Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new.  The old life is gone; a new life burgeons!  Look at it!  (2 Corinthians 5:17)

This is how it translates Paul’s counsel to the church in Rome:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering.  Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.

Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking.  Instead, fix your attention on God.  You’ll be changed from the inside out.  Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it.  Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.  (Romans 12:1-2)

This is what I began to experience years ago when I “gave my life to Christ” as a teenager.  It was a heart-felt desire to want God to live in me and reign over my life.  It is a decision I have not always lived up to, but have never regretted.

Early on in my life as an ordained priest I faced a moment when the restraint verses the aspirational approach to morality became very clear.  The contract at the first church I served as an assistant was not renewed.  Essentially I was fired by the rector.  Fortunately I was out of work only for a month and was interviewing to be an assistant in two different churches.  One presented me with an offer while the other was still deliberating, even though they knew I needed to make a decision.  I accepted the offer and withdrew from consideration in the other church.  Then, about a week later, the second church called and offered me a job.  There were things about it that made the opportunity very enticing and I was in a quandary.  I had accepted a call and the rector already had announced his hire to the congregation, but in my heart I wanted to go to the second church.  What to do?

Well, I went down to the diocesan office and talked with the priest in charge of clergy deployment.  He listened to my story and then essentially told me if I went back on my word he would make sure the decision followed me my entire career.  Wow!  Then I met with the priest who welcomed me into the Episcopal Church and told him my story.  After listening closely he said, “Keith, you need to ask yourself who you want to be.  What do you want your word to worth?  What does it look like for you to live with integrity?” 

And with this I knew exactly what I had to do.  I called the second church and declined their offer.  I served four years at the first church, had a wonderful experience with rector and parish, and never once looked back or regretted my decision.  And I never once looked at myself in a mirror and had to ask myself “How could you have done such a thing?”!

Restraint verses aspiration.  “I’ll make sure your decision follows you for the rest of your life.”  Thou shalt not…!  “Who do you want to be and what do you want your word to be worth?”  To what do you aspire?  It clarified for me not only this particular quandry, but how I wanted to live my life.  I don’t always hit the mark and the General Confession is still a necessary and important part of my spiritual life, but at least I have decided what my target is to be.  I am aiming to be like Jesus.  I feel very deeply the words Moses speaks in today’s first reading:

“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”

What is your aim?  To what do you aspire?  Is it merely not to do the wrong thing, or do you have a vision more grand for your life?  Jesus calls you to something higher.  How are you going to respond?

Monday, February 10, 2020

Salt & Light

Matthew 5:13-20
Epiphany 5 / Year A

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.”  In 2020 we think of salt as something abundant and to be avoided.  You can purchase a 25-pound bag of Morton’s Table Salt at Amazon for $21 and pretty much be set for life.  Light is available with the flick of a switch or a simple voice command to Alexa.  In our day and age, you have to work hard to lower your salt intake and travel great distances to be in total darkness.

However, at the time Jesus said you are salt and light, each image conveyed something very different than it does today.  Salt was a rare and precious commodity.  Extensive trade routes were set up to import it and traders made fortunes for their efforts.  It was even used as a currency.  Roman soldiers were paid with salt, a practice from which we derive our word ‘salary’.  In Jesus’ day, salt was as prized as gold.

It was primarily used to season and preserve foods and the Law of Moses required Temple meat and grain offerings to be salted.  It had literally thousands of other uses from creating chemical reactions in fires to treating wounds (on which you would rub salt!).  But once salt lost is properties, like oyster shells today, it was thrown into the streets and used for little more than creating a path. 

Over time salt came to be associated with friendship, hospitality, and good fortune.  Spilling salt accidently was thought to bring bad luck while sprinkling it on the floor of a new home was said to ward off evil spirits.  There is a little-known detail in Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper.  If you look closely, you will notice Judas has knocked over a cellar of salt; a sign of his eminent broken bond with Jesus and sinister intention.

Houses in Jesus day were lit with oil lamps.  Most often made of clay pottery, they typically had an open end in which one would pour olive oil and smaller opening at the other end to hold a wick made of flax or cotton.  A typical lamp gave off about as much light as a 20-watt bulb.  There were no matches at the time so the wick was lit either by rubbing sticks or striking stones to create a spark.  Because olive oil was plentiful and inexpensive, most homes kept a lamp burning at all times. 

When Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth” he does not dwell on what it is good for but moves immediately to what happens if it becomes good for nothing.  The Greek word translated here as “lost its taste” or “tasteless” is moraino, which literally means “foolish”, “dull”, “flat”, or “deficient”.  Jesus tells his followers, “You are the salt of the earth, but if, as a disciple, you become foolish, dull, flat, deficient, or tasteless, than you have nothing to offer to the world.”

It is tragic when a person throws away his or her life by making foolish decisions – sometimes just one act is all it takes.  But more insipid and less noticeable is the process that makes a person dull or flat.  If Jesus was sitting at table with John Rector enjoying one of his grilling masterpieces, he might say, “Never become a knife so dull you cannot carve meat!  How then would you be useful?” 

Life has a way of wearing us down and wearing us out and according to Jesus we must be on guard against losing our edge, our focus, our hope, our sense of possibility and the role we can play in nurturing it to fruition.  Kierkegaard held boredom is the root of all evil.  He said it is the result of the “despairing refusal to be oneself.”  The cure for boredom, according to the American poet Dorothy Parker, is curiosity.  Somewhere in this is wisdom about how to avoid losing your saltiness which, in Jesus’ mind, is a primary pursuit in the spiritual life.

If Jesus uses salt to illustrate what happens to a person who becomes good for nothing, than he uses the image of light as a way of exhorting his followers to be good for something.  When you set a lamp on a table it provides light for the entire room.  Don’t hide who you are!  That little 20-watt light bulb that is you… let it shine!  You can light up a room!

As Jesus teaches this beside the Sea of Galilee, perhaps he directs the audience’s attention toward the northwest where the city of Safed is located.  It sits on top of a high hill and functions as a signaling station.  From its prominent location it sights the new moon well before those at lower elevations can see it.  But they can all see the city of Safed.  Once the people of Safed see the new moon, they light a large fire visible to everyone living in the region.  This light alerts people to prepare for the ritual requirements of this time of the month.  Safed literally is a city that cannot be hid.  Let your life be like Safed, Jesus says.  Live your life in a way everyone can see who you are and the good you do and know this is what God intends for every person to be like.

While both salt and light are abundant today, it is getting more and more challenging to be salty and bright.  Over the centuries our country has faced many great challenges, some external, some internal.  We have fought great wars against great evil and we have fought one horrific war against ourselves.  We stared down the soulless state that is the Soviet Union while confronting the hypocrisy of McCarthyism in our own society.  We expressed our worst in Jim Crow and aspired to our best through the Civil Rights Movement.  Maybe there were darker times than our time right now, I can’t say. 

What I can say is February 9, 2020 feels like the darkest and most dire time in our country during my lifetime.  In these days foolishness abounds and is often praised.  Policies once inconceivable are enacted with cavalier nonchalance.  Words and gestures I never thought I would see from American leaders, sadly, is the new norm.  How bad is it?  When the Speaker of the House of Representatives is so fed up she rips apart her copy of the President’s State of the Union speech, well that says to me we are close to tearing ourselves apart.  I want to be optimistic, I try to be hopeful, but whoever first coined the proverb about the silver lining must never have been through a storm like we had last Thursday or lived in a political environment such as ours. 

As a follower of Jesus Christ, I aspire for our civic life to reflect justice, exhibit mercy, and be marked by civility.  This, according to Micah 6:8, is the baseline for what God’s dream of a “Christian” society looks like.  Disturbingly, our nation is turning more and more from this dream and pursuing a nightmare.  Please do not think I am pointing a finger at one person or political party.  We are in this together and if we move forward or if we move backward, we all share in some aspect of the praise or the blame.

If Jesus stood in our midst this morning, this is the sad context in which he would say to us, “You are the salt of the earth.  You are the light of the world.”  In a world as dark as ours, we must live our lives radiant with Christ’s love.  God’s light, lived out by God’s faithful people, is the only way to vanquish the darkness of our time.  As salt, this is no time to be dull because we are worn down and worn out.  Now is the time for Jesus’ followers to be sharp and on point.  The stakes are too serious for us to be foolish.  We must live with intention – the intention of allowing God to use us in a way similar to how salt prevents decay.

Ultimately we hope all people will find salvation by living rightly in this world and being worthy of it in the next.  It humbles me, but sharpens me, to think how I live my life might just point the way for others to live.  It gladdens me to think my single light can banish a significant amount of darkness.  And then I think about our collective life, what we have here at St. Paul’s as each of us lives as salt and light.  We are a precious, Godly presence in our community, a Safed-like place upon which all can look and join in order to get a sense of God’s dream for this world.

Monday, February 3, 2020

The Presentation of Our Lord

Luke 2:22-40
The Presentation of our Lord

A few days ago, the leaders of St. Paul’s exceptional Altar Guild were flummoxed.  “What is the Presentation?  We don’t have a card with that on it for the hymn board!  What do we do?” 

What is the Presentation?  Well, a liturgical answer involves the Church Calendar.  If you look at page 17 and following in the Book of Common Prayer you will see there are seven Principle Feasts during the Church Year.  The dates for four follow after first full moon after March 21: Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday.  The other three fall on a set dates every year: All Saints (Nov. 1), Christmas (Dec. 25), and The Epiphany (Jan. 6).  Should any of these Feasts fall on a Sunday, they take precedence over the Sunday assigned by the Lectionary.  Then there are seven days known as Feasts of our Lord.  Of these, there are three that, if they fall on a Sunday, take precedence over the assigned day.  The Presentation is one of them.  Thus, this year, last week was the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, today is the Presentation of our Lord, and next week will be the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany.  

What is the Presentation?  Here is a Scriptural answer.  The Law of Moses stipulates the first born male of each family belongs to the Lord.  It harkens back to the Passover when God spares the first-born male in every Hebrew family.  Forty days after the birth of the first male, the parents are required to present him in the Temple to the Lord.  In essence, they give their son to God.  Moses’ law allows the parents to redeem their child via a sacrifice.  Those with means are required to offer a spotless lamb.  The law makes a provision for the destitute, allowing them to make an offering of two small birds. 

The Gospel of Luke tells us forty days after Jesus’ birth his parents present him in the Temple and redeem him by offering two pigeons.  The Lord then presents Joseph and Mary with their son, entrusting them to raise him to be holy and good. 

On any typical day the Temple is filled with people.  Some come to make an offering, others to worship and pray.  There are two particular people in the Temple on the day Joseph and Mary enter with their infant child.  Seeing the family, they begin to praise God.  Simeon is an elderly man who has received a promise from God he will not die until he sees the one who will bring God’s salvation.  He takes the baby Jesus into his arms and praises God.  “My eyes have seen the light to the Gentiles and the salvation of Israel.”  He tells Mary her son is destined for the rising and falling of many and a sword will pierce his soul as well as hers – words picked up in the liturgy for the Stations of the Cross.  Another person, Anna, an elderly prophetess, sees Jesus and commences to praise God for the promise of Jerusalem’s redemption. 

All of this makes no small impression on Jesus’ parents, who, in Luke’s account, have already encountered the Angel Gabriel and welcomed shepherds who have been visited by an angelic messenger and chorus.  They leave the Temple after fulfilling everything required by Moses’ law and return to Galilee where they raise their son in Nazareth. 

What is the Presentation?  From a historical perspective, it is one of the most ancient feasts in Christendom, dating back at least to 3rd century, and falling forty days after the celebration of Jesus’ birth.  Inspired by Simeon’s words “a light to the Gentiles”, a tradition emerges of blessing candles on this day, thus it also has become known as Candlemas.  In some places it is customary to leave out until this day nativity displays and other non-perishable items associated with the celebration of our Lord’s birth. 

The Presentation also shares roots with another tradition held on this day.  There is a saying popular in the United Kingdom that goes:

If Candlemas Day is clear and bright,
winter will have another bite.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
winter is gone and will not come again.

What is the Presentation?  Thinking spiritually, it is a day with which every parent – especially young parents – can identify.  When we look into the eyes of our children we are filled with a sense of thanksgiving, blessing, wonder, and obligation.  Who will this child become?  What will he or she do in life?  Inside the heart of every parent there is a question: Am I up to this task?  Can I meet this responsibility?  What if I am not good enough?  And every parent, sensing an infant’s vulnerability, harbors quietly a fear of what might be: Oh God, what if something unthinkable happens?  It would be like a sword piercing my own soul. 

As parents we do as Mary and Joseph do.  We hold our fears close and make a home for our children. We give thanks for how one day gives way to another and then becomes a year and then another and in the process, somehow, by the grace of God, we make what becomes a life.  Through it all we sense God is good and God is faithful and we are adequate, at least, and when we are not, we come to realize we can be forgiven. 

This is the Presentation.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Light in Unexpected Places

Matthew 4:12-23
Epiphany 3 / Year A

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
  on the road by the sea, across the Jordan,
  Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
  have seen a great light,
and for those who sat
in the region and shadow of death
  light has dawned.”

Scientists call it bioluminescence.  It is the ability some creatures have to produce light.  A firefly, for instance, mixes three internal chemicals with oxygen in a special cavity of its abdomen and the reaction generates a light shining through its body to enchant children of all ages on warm, summer nights.  Creatures and organisms capable of bioluminescence are found in such diverse environments as ocean depths, damp caves, and forest floors.  Some use their ability to attract either mates or prey, others use it as a defense mechanism, and still others purely for illumination. 

Unlike natural light, which has its source from the sun, bioluminescent light is often found in unexpected places.   In this regard, it is more like spiritual light, which also manifests itself often in unexpected ways.  Writing in the 8th Century B.C., when the prophet Isaiah proclaims the people of Zebulun and Naphtali will see a great light, he is speaking of spiritual light.  And its manifestation in the land is surely unexpected by the people who live there.

Zebulun and Naphtali are two of Jacob’s twelve sons.  Their descendant tribes settle in the northern region of Israel around the Sea of Galilee.   In Isaiah’s day Israel is threaten by the Assyrians and the people of this area are the first to be taken captive.  Isaiah’s is a hopeful message: God will cause this great darkness to pass and God’s light will shine on them once again.

In Jesus’ day the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali are under Roman occupation and, again, a darkness shrouds the region.  Matthew proclaims Jesus is God’s Light come to set the people free; to help the people to see and sense God’s never-failing presence and love.

It must have struck Matthew’s initial readers as odd that God’s Light shines first in Zebulun and Naphtali, rather than Jerusalem.  Why would God’s Son go first to outliers and outcast?  Why not appear first to those with means, the well-educated, and the highly positioned?  As an example, if you wanted to change our Commonwealth, it would seem wise to start in Richmond, or maybe Suffolk, but not in Wise, VA.  It seems we often find God’s light in unexpected places.  I have seen this bear out time and again over the course of my ministry.

Elizabeth was a sweet elderly lady who lived with her daughter Sarah.  Sarah managed her own successful and demanding business and needed someone to stay with her mother during the day.  Enter Velna, another sweet, wonderful retiree from the church who, although up in years, was still able to drive and get around on her own.  She began to stay with Elizabeth while Sarah worked.  And even though the two attended the same church, they never really knew each other all that well.  But now, in their old age, the two became fast friends.

I visited them each month to take communion to Elizabeth.  They were always talking and laughing as Velna tended to some tatting and Elizabeth worked a cross-word puzzle.  They were simply a joy to be with.  One time, on my birthday, I decided to stop by for my regular visit because I knew being with them would be the most special part of my special day… and it was.  It warmed my heart to see God’s light shine through a new friendship established at the sunset of two people’s days.

In time, Elizabeth passed and Velna aged.  She had to stop driving and I began to visit her each month.  I remember one visit on a cold winter day.  It was late in the afternoon and Velna (like many elderly people) kept her house warm.  We sat on her couch as she did her tatting.  The conversation was soft and slow and I began to feel the heaviness of my eyelids.  Then I succumbed.  Perhaps it was five minutes, maybe it was twenty.  When I opened my eyes Velna was sitting quietly tatting away.  I apologized, but she waved it off.  “You must have needed to rest,” she said.  There was something in her voice hinting she believed she had given me a wonderful gift – a few moments of peaceful rest – and being able to do this meant the world to her.    

That was maybe twenty years ago now, but I still remember it like yesterday.  Why?  Why is something so seemingly insignificant so memorable?  Because Elizabeth and Velna’s friendship was infused with God’s light as was Velna’s graciousness during our visits.  And we often find God’s light in unexpected places.

Matthew tells his readers God’s light is manifested through a person you would not suspect in a place you would expect – through Jesus in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali.  But he reminds us this is how God always seems to work, going all the way back to the prophet Isaiah. 

There is a part of me that would love to end this sermon by asking each of you to pair up with someone near you and have each of you share a time you found God’s light in an unexpected place or moment.  I suppose this is neither practical nor Episcopal.  But here is what I want you to do.  Do not let go of today’s sermon until you can finish this statement with a story:

One time, when I did not expect it, God’s light shined on me when…

Finish this statement with one of your own stories and then share it with another person.  One of the great privileges of being a preacher is I get to tell my stories to you all the time and you have to listen.  It is a real gift because each week I have to identify how the day’s readings have been manifested in my experience or I will have nothing of value to say.  Let me invite you to turn the table.  Why don’t you come up with your own story and tell it to me.  Then I will be the one who listens and learns.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Disciples & Pilgrims

John 1:29-42
The Second Sunday after the Epiphany / Year A

Most churches do all in their power to hold on to the members they have.  This morning we learn John the Baptist has a different priority.  He implores his followers to leave him and follow Jesus: “There is the guy you need to know.  He has a lot more to offer than I do.”  Can you imagine if St. Paul’s adopted the slogan: “There are much better churches in town than ours!” 

Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathaniel are disciples of John who take his prompt to meet and then follow Jesus… and I mean follow.  They walk with Jesus from where they had been with John on the Jordon River (near the Dead Sea) to the Sea of Galilee, some 100 miles to the north.  Given that the four seem to hail from this region, it is a sort of homecoming for them.  Still, they left here seeking something or else they would not have traveled down the Jordon to meet John.  They went seeking someone who could teach and lead them.  In short, they want to be discipled.

The other day I noticed a sign in front of one our neighboring churches stating its mission is to make disciples who can make disciples in our community and around the world.  I suspect many of us associate discipleship with knowing all the answers.  I imagine each of has at least one friend, family member, or co-worker who can take a person on a chapter and verse whirlwind tour of the bible, stitching together all its answers to questions you may or may not be asking.  We tend to describe these people as folks who “take their faith seriously”, while describing ourselves in comparison as not being as good as them or not having as much faith as them. 

Is this what discipleship is all about?  Is this what Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathaniel are seeking – someone who can indoctrinate them into a system of thinking that makes sense of the world; that answers all of their questions about life by being able to explain in cogent detail God’s exquisite yet explainable plan?

Eugene Peterson, the minister and author of numerous books including The Message, holds there are two main metaphors helpful for people of faith to understand who we are and what we are called to do: disciple and pilgrim. 

Far from being about certainty and knowing the all the answers, Peterson says disciples are people who ask questions.  Disciples are learners – life-long learners.  He contends discipleship is closely related to apprenticeship.  It is like learning the trade of life from a skilled practitioner and then being able to pass on it on to others, most often merely by doing what you do.

I realize over the years I have learned a lot about the priesthood by being around other priests, initially when I was in seminary, then serving as an assistant, and today being in collegial relationships with other ministers.  Some of what I learned I was taught – this is how you fill out the Parish Register of Services.  Some I picked up by repetition – The Rite One Eucharist begins on page 323 of the prayer book.  Some I observed – this is what it looks like to sit with a family when a loved one is dying.  I have been a disciple/apprentice of what it means to be a priest for a long time, but I am still learning.  I can practice my trade and I can show others how to do it simply by letting them walk with me.  If they have questions, I can try to explain why I do what I do.  This is a window into what it means to be a disciple.   

Here is another.  Being from the North I was not raised as a Southerner.  A person does not become a “True Southern Gentleman” or a “Fine Southern Lady” simply by reading a book and then passing a test.  You learn it from grandparents and parents.  You learn it by being immersed in a culture where it is practiced.  You learn what it means by doing it.  It consists of a whole host of skills that work together to become a lifestyle.  This, according to Peterson, is what discipleship looks like. 

We are learners not seeking information, but the skills of the faith.  As disciples, we are not experts who stand above others with all the answers they need, but don’t have.  We are searching practitioners filled with a sense of curiosity, wonder, and awe.  Simply put, we as disciples are people learning to embody the faith – its rituals, its language, its stories, it meanings, its morals, its lessons, its practices.

In addition to being disciples, Peterson states we are also pilgrims.  It is an image hinting we are travelers in life who are headed somewhere, not people who have already arrived.  My own experience of pilgrimage suggests several elements about it helpful in understanding what the life of faith is like. 

First, it involves a willingness to leave where you are and set out for a holy destination. 
Next, what happens on the way to this destination has a way of transforming who you are.  There is something about the people you are with, the people you meet, the experiences you have, and the new environment you touch that works on you; that God works through to work on you.  If you are open, God uses the pilgrimage to mold and to shape who you are and who you are becoming.
Learning to trust is absolutely essential.  You will find food to eat, shelter from the storm, a place to rest your head.  You will get lost on the way more than once, but eventually make your way back to where you need to be.
A pilgrimage, like life, is marked by moments of incredible beauty, deep blessing, and a profound sense of God’s presence.
Along the way pilgrims get tired, sore, and/or hurt.  We are not always at our best.  The support and encouragement we receive from others on the way is absolutely essential.  It inspires us to be more supportive and encouraging of those we encounter on the way.
Finally, I will always remember the words of John, the person I was walking with as we entered Santiago de Compostela, our destination on my pilgrimage in Spain.  He said, “I am not ready for this to be over.”  In life, there is no point getting to where you are going as fast as you can if you do not pay attention to what is happening along the way; if you do not sense the holiness of each and every moment in each and every day.

The end of a pilgrimage signals the end of an incredible pursuit while inviting a new perspective on how one moves through life.  Most days now I do not journey very far into terms of miles and often my main daily destination is no holier than Wal-Mart.  Still, I try to live like a spiritual pilgrim; believing I am on a journey and that the people I am with matter and holy things are happening all around me and God is using all of it to shape and form me, which is discipleship.

The opposite image of a pilgrimage is a crusade and I suppose it is no accident both developed in Christendom around the same time.  People on a crusade intend to change the people they meet and the places they go; reshaping all into their image of what it should be.  I suspect each of us knows at least one person who lives out their faith as if God ordained them to conquer everything in their path.  Eugene Peterson reminds us pilgrimage is an image of ‘participation’ not ‘persuasion’.  It is certainly the model Jesus offers when he invites Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathaniel to “come and see.”  Jesus invited them and us to walk with him, to observe, to ask questions, to be open to a new and better way of being them. 

So, even though we are Episcopalians, we are disciples and we are pilgrims.  We seek to learn the faith and to practice it well.  We pass it on by welcoming others to be with us and by inviting them to learn with us as we go.  We know we are not yet where one day we will be, but as pilgrims we realize we are on a journey to a better place.  We know that as we go God goes with us.  And we trust all along the way we are deeply loved, deeply claimed, and deeply cared for.  As disciples of Jesus we believe life is an adventure; a lifelong journey to a place of becoming who we are supposed to be – children of God, singers of a ceaseless song of praise, faithful followers responding to Jesus’ invitation – “Come and see.”

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Baptismal Awareness

The First Sunday after Epiphany / Year A
Matthew 3:13-17

Prince George of Cambridge was born on July 22, 2013, the first child of Prince William and Duchess Catherine.  At the moment of his birth he instantly became third in line of succession to the British throne.  One day, most likely, he will become the King of England.  Of course he knew nothing of this on the day he was born.  How could he?  No human brain at birth is capable of processing such knowledge.  Today, at age 6, Prince George surely knows something of his destiny.  Still, his awareness of what this means and requires will continue to develop, even long after he wears the crown at first.

When does Jesus become fully aware of who he is and what he is meant to do?  While he is born as God’s Son, as a human infant Jesus does not possess the faculties to know and understand this.  It is an awareness that grows in him over time, just as our own sense of self grows in us. 

Each of the four Gospels details the events surrounding Jesus’ baptism in the Jordon River.  They attest the Holy Spirit descends, alighting on him in the form of a dove.  They report there is also a voice from heaven proclaiming, “This is my beloved Son.  In him I am well pleased.” 

How does Jesus receive all of this?  Does it confirm what he already knows about himself?  Or, does it help him to make sense of something he senses, but never completely understands until now?  Or, does it come as a complete surprise, initiating something he never suspects about himself?  And how does Jesus receive what the Voice says to him?  Is he excited?  Humbled?  Shocked?  Terrified? 

Most of us don’t remember our baptism.  Like Prince George, who was christened three months and day after his birth, we were too young to take in the experience.  But at every baptism we attend and (like today) every time we renew our Baptismal Covenant we are given a window into what transpired in that moment.

When you were baptized you experienced a symbolic death.  Your old self was drown in the waters of baptism and you rose to your new life in Christ.  In that moment God adopted as a child and you became an heir to all the riches of grace and love God bestows on all God’s children, beginning with the Son.  The Holy Spirit fell upon you, as it did on Jesus, and you were marked as Christ’s own forever. 

This is a lot to take in as an infant!  Heck, it is a lot to take in as an adult!  So, just as George is developing his understanding of what it means to be a monarch, we are working on what it means to be a Christian.  Our Baptismal Covenant reminds us it has something to do with renouncing the works of evil, the corrupting nature of the world, and the sinister intentions lurking in our own heart.  It reminds us of the centrality of turning to Jesus as our Savior, our Lord, and our Guide.  Our Covenant reminds us of the importance of being in a faith community, of our on-going need to repent when we fail, of our call to proclaim Christ’s love in all we say and through all we do, of the importance of loving our neighbor, and of the necessity to treat all people with respect and dignity.

When the crown is placed on George’s head he will become the King of England and though he be well prepared for this moment, of this I am certain: his understanding of kingship and what it requires will continue to grow and develop long after he possesses the throne.  So too, you can come to the baptismal waters even as an adult very much aware of what it signifies and what it asks of you, but your knowledge of the Christian faith and life, as well as your practice of it, will continue to grow and develop long after the baptismal waters have dried off your forehead and clothing.

This morning we read about Jesus’ baptism.  He is empowered by God’s indwelling Spirit and informed by God’s very word.  Surely, this is a formative (if not transformative) moment in his life.  The same elements are here this morning.  God’s Spirit fills this space and touches each one of us.  We are empowered to be the people God has created us to be.  We are empowered to do the things God has called us to do.  And perhaps if you listen closely and with an open heart, you will hear a Voice say, “You are my child, my beloved.  With you I am well pleased”.


So, I am working on the history of our stained glass windows as a part of our celebration this year of the 125th Anniversary of our first worship service in this space.  And as I learn about the windows I am sometimes able to learn something about the person in whose memory the window is given.  The September 1909 Vestry minutes record a Mrs. Col. Philips inquires if she can put in a memorial window dedicated to her husband to reside in the large space on the southern side of our building.  Her donation will depict the Apostles Peter and John peering into the Empty Tomb on the morning of the Resurrection as three angels in the panels below look on.  Woven on banners throughout these lower panels are the words of the Te Deum (an ancient hymn of praise dating back to the 4th century). 

James Jasper Phillips is a native of Chuckatuck who graduates from the Virginia Military Institute in 1853.  He teaches at V.M.I. before returning to our area to form the Chuckatuck Military Academy.  He closes the school after secession and organizes the Chuckatuck Light Infantry, being elected its captain.  Eventually he comes to serve in the 9th Virginia Regiment of Infantry, Armistead’s Brigade, and soon is promoted to Lieutenant Colonel as the unit is assigned to General George Pickett’s Division.  He is promoted to Colonel after the Battle at Gettysburg, where he is wounded in the famed Pickett’s Charge, in which he displays gallantry under fire.  Phillips later declines promotion to Brigadier General because others in line are senior to him.

After the war James Phillips returns to our area to engage in farming.  Eventually he moves to New York City where he builds a successful business in the trade of wholesale fruit and produce.  During this era of his life he organizes a professional association to establish and uphold standards in the industry.  He lives in New York until his death.  On February 14, 1908, Col. Phillips in buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery. 

A trade journal obituary states, “He was a man who always stood for honor and uprightness and was a forceful character, who made his influence felt in every circle in which he moved.”  In New York City he was “respected and loved by his keenest competitors in business, because his methods were always those of the true southern gentleman.”  The journal obituary goes on to say, “All the older members of the trade knew and loved and honored him, the younger respected him for his achievements and sterling qualities.”  A record in Confederate Veteran states, “Colonel Phillips as a man and soldier was possessed of great personal magnetism, so that all who came in contact with him learned to respect and love him.  Ever ready to uphold and maintain the just cause, with nothing to apologize for, ever liberal in his views and his help especially to old Confederates.” (Confederate Veteran, Vol. XVI, p. 650)

I like knowing when I come into this place to hear the words and witness of Scripture and to ponder what it is the Lord asks of me that I gather with all of you, faithful people seeking the same insights I seek and the same strength I need in order to do what we believe God intends for us to do.  I also like that we gather in a place graced with the memory of those who have come here over the years for the same reason we come today.  Their gifts bless us.  There witness inspires us.

So many have been here before us to whom God said, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  Listen carefully and I trust you will hear the Voice: “You are my child.  I love you.  With you I am well pleased.”

Sunday, January 5, 2020

They Made a Home in Nazareth

Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
The Second Sunday after Christmas / Year A

Matthew concludes his story of Jesus’ birth saga with these words: “They made their home in a town called Nazareth.”

Let’s do some historical work this morning by attempting to weave together what the Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell us about Jesus’s birth and early years.  It requires some conjecture because their accounts don’t always sync up and neither writer sets out to create a “straight history” or timeline of events.  Still, here is something like what seems to have actually happened:

· Somewhere around 7-4 BC, Joseph and Mary are betrothed (a legal arrangement typically lasting about 12 months) in Nazareth.

· Soon thereafter the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, who most likely is in her early teens, and asks if she will bear God’s Son.  She consents.

· Not long after, Mary leaves Bethlehem to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is six weeks pregnant.  Elizabeth lives in a town only identified as being in the Judean hills, which places it around a week’s walking journey away.

· Mary returns to Nazareth after three months.  She is now visibly pregnant and Joseph, startled to be sure, determines to end the betrothal discretely.

· After an angel speaks to him in a dream, Joseph decides to stay betrothed.  Mary moves into his home, but they do not yet become husband and wife and have no relations.

· A census is ordered, requiring Joseph to travel to Bethlehem.  Mary goes with him.

· They arrive in Bethlehem and the time comes for Mary to deliver.  Accommodations are limited (perhaps due to the number of people travelling for the census) and the couple is forced to stay in an animal shed (or perhaps a cave where animals are kept).  It is here Mary gives birth to her baby.

· Shepherds from nearby fields visit the Holy Family after receiving direction from angels.  They worship the baby and tell their fantastic story to the parents.

· Jesus is circumcised eight days after his birth.

· Mary makes the appropriate offerings for the Rite of Purification forty days after giving birth.

· Mary and Joseph take the baby Jesus to the Jerusalem Temple where they present him and make an appropriate offering.  Here they encounter the prophet Simeon and the prophetess Anna.  Both praise and bless their infant son.

· The family settles in Bethlehem. 

· Sometime within the next year or so a group of Magi, having been guided by ancient prophecies and a star, approach Herod (the local king) to inquire where the new king of the Jews is to be born.  Scholars direct them to Bethlehem.

· The Magi go to Bethlehem and find Mary and the child living in a house.  They present the child with symbolic gifts and then determine not to report back to Herod.

· Herod orders the killing of all boys two years and younger in the Bethlehem region.

· In a dream, an angel warns Joseph of the danger and the family flees through the Sinai Desert to Egypt.

· The Coptic Church now identifies 26 different places (most located along the Nile River) where the family stops or stays over a three-and-a-half-year period.  Joseph keeps his family on the move to avoid detection by Herod’s spies.

· Upon learning of the king’s death, the family sets out to return to Bethlehem but then decides to settle in Nazareth to avoid living in a region under the rule of Herod’s son.

· The family makes a home in Nazareth. Joseph works as a carpenter and he and Mary have as many as six children together, along with Jesus.

By most any standard, Jesus’s first five years are incredibly stressful.  

When I was born my parents were in the process of transitioning from Pittsburgh to Ohio.  A few months later my mother’s father passed away.  I remember none of this, but my sister does.   Three years old at the time, she remembers living with grandparents while my parents dealt with the complexities of newborn twins and relocating.  It was a stressful time and my sister’s memories mirror this, but they are jumbled images because a childhood mind is not fully capable of understanding all that is happening.  Surely Jesus’ earliest memories attempt to make sense of the traumatic and a transient life-style marking his first years.

Then the Holy Family settles in Nazareth where, measured against their beginning, they make a remarkably steady and unremarkable household.  As the Scripture attests, they make a home. 

What is home?  My favorite definition is “a safe place,” a place where one is free from attack, a place where one experiences secure relationships and affirmation.  It’s a place where people share and understand each other.  Its relationships are nurturing.  The people in it do not need to be perfect; instead, they need to be honest, loving, supportive, recognizing a common humanity that makes all of us vulnerable.

I hope this rings true with your experience of home.  It may not, and if so I hurt deeply for you.  Still, it is something for which we long.  So Maya Angelou reminds us when she observes, “The ache for home lives in all of us: The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

St. Luke gives us the last words in the biblical record about Jesus’ childhood: “He increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and people.”  We are told the child Jesus advances cognitively and physically while developing morally and socially.  Jesus grows into his teens to be smart, strong, good, and well liked.   Surely, having a home factors into all of this.

Given today’s lesson, you might ponder the facts of your early years.  What was happening in your family of origin when you where born?  What blessings did it afford you?  What challenges did it present?  How are you the product of each?  What has been your experience of home?  Does it represent safety?  Stability?  Affirmation?  How do you bring the story of your beginning before God and give thanks or vent anger or simply accept the past for the past while being open to the grace and blessings of the future?  How have your origins played out in the lives of those in your life today?  How might you describe to them the legacies you want to pass on?  What mistakes have you inherited and need to claim, asking for forgiveness?

This much we know… Jesus’ earliest years must have marked him, but they did not define him or limit him.