Saturday, January 23, 2010

Sermon for Epiphany 3, January 24, 2010

Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 24, 2010

Luke 4:14-21

Almighty God, may your Word be our light in the darkness, and may these words help to spread that light in the world. Amen.

Over the course of the last few weeks, we’ve focused on the season of Epiphany as a time of ‘revelation’ and how, during this season, Jesus is being ‘revealed’ to the world in Luke’s gospel. Luke is, of course, a consummate story teller, and in his gospel, he spins out a tale that takes us from the annunciation of Mary’s pregnancy through the birth in Bethlehem, the visit from the shepherds, the presentation of the infant at the Temple, Jesus’ lingering at the Temple as a preadolescent, his baptism, and now to this story, about the beginning of his ministry. At each point in the story, something about Jesus’ identity, his power and authority in the world, and his vocation as the messiah, the anointed one has been revealed, and this week, as Jesus preaches in the synagogue, we hear Jesus himself not only affirm that identity but also reveal his mission statement.

Luke’s narrative has Jesus’ ministry start out on a different footing that it did last week in John’s account. John places a great deal of emphasis on the ‘signs’ performed by Jesus, and he uses the story of Jesus turning the water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana, the first of these signs, as a way of revealing Jesus’ power and authority in the world. But when we find Jesus in the synagogue today, in Luke’s telling of the story, he is fresh out of the desert where the Spirit led him after his baptism. Jesus has resisted the temptations Satan placed in front of him there, and he’s preached in a few synagogues along the way with favorable reviews, but he has yet to call a disciple, he has yet to perform a miracle; he is still largely unknown among the people when he returns to his hometown of Nazareth. On the Sabbath, like any faithful Jewish man, he goes to the synagogue for prayer, and there he stands to reads Torah, selecting passages from the prophet Isaiah.

"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."

And then, returning to his seat he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”


I expect that it took a while for the full impact of what Jesus had just said to those gathered to sink in. And as we’ll hear in next week’s gospel, the reaction of the congregation was not entirely positive. But in fact, the congregation of this small synagogue in Nazareth, full of men and boys Jesus had grown up with, played with, studied and worked with, were the first to hear the proclamation of Jesus’ own mission statement.

Because that’s what it was, really. We’re accustomed to the whole notion of “mission statements” these days---every church and civic organization and corporation has one: a vision, a set of guiding principles that when well done captures the essence of what the group is about. We have a mission statement here at Trinity—it’s on our web page, and over the next year or so we will likely be revisiting it. I doubt, however, that the phrase “mission statement” was in the lexicon of Jesus or his audience. But when Jesus stood and read the prophecy from Isaiah, and then proclaimed that prophecy to be fulfilled in their hearing, he was claiming his identity and boldly staking out his mission in the world.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me.” At Jesus’ baptism, Luke tells us, the Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove. That same Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, and filled him when he returned to Galilee. And now, using the words of the prophet Isaiah, he asserts that he is full of the spirit because the Lord has anointed him.

We should not miss the import of those words. To be anointed was not such an unusual thing—kings were anointed, others in special positions were anointed—but Jesus is laying claim to a special anointing—by the Lord—an anointing that sets him aside as the chosen one, the one, the longed for hope of the Jewish people—the messiah. But it gets even better.

…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

Because we are familiar with the themes of Jesus’ preaching, we know the audiences to whom he preached, we are perhaps not as shocked by this claim as were those who first heard it. Isaiah of course wrote it in the context of the Babylonian exile, speaking of an Israelite people who had been oppressed and held captive. But when Jesus proclaims it as his mission, he is focusing on those not just politically held captive by the Roman Empire, but also on those held captive in poverty, in disease, in the oppression that comes in a social system weighted in favor of the wealthy. Jesus is foreshadowing a ministry in which he reaches out to the poor, the excluded, the outcast, and he’s foreshadowing his call to his followers to do likewise.

We’re more comfortable with the notion of “mission statement” than Jesus’ audience in the synagogue that day, but likely we we’re just as uncomfortable having those words directed to us as they were. Because when we take those words seriously, when we recognize Jesus’ mission statement as our own, it can rattle us to our very roots. We are called, as I say here almost every week, to love God, and to love our neighbor, but we often have a limited vision of who that neighbor is and what that love means. Jesus reminds us that we’re called to bring good news—the gospel with all it entails---not just to the neighbors who are like us, but also to the poor—the poor in spirit, and the poor in fact. We are called to not only bring that good news, but also to live it, to be forces of liberation in the world—liberation from poverty and disease and oppression of all sorts. And that’s a tall order.

In just a little while we’ll recess to the parish hall for our annual meeting. The temptation is great to view this meeting as something just to get over with, a necessary but not particularly exciting piece of business to take care of. And there certainly are those aspects of it. But I invite you this year to come to this meeting not only to do the required business, not only to review the year gone by, but also to look to the year ahead. We are undertaking a new thing here, you and I, in our ministry together at Trinity. We have many challenges and many opportunities ahead of us in the months and years to come. What better place to start than with Jesus’ very own mission statement? How can we use that statement to shape our own ministry here and out in the world, where we are, in the words of St. Paul, Christ’s very own body?


Saturday, January 16, 2010

2 Epiphany January 17, 2010

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany
January 27, 2010

John 2:1-11

Almighty God, may your Word be our light in the darkness, and may these words help to spread that light in the world. Amen.

Our gospel this morning is perhaps one of the best know stories about Jesus, a story that continues with our Epiphany theme of revelation—this time the revelation of God’s power and authority working in Jesus. Sometime shortly after his baptism and after calling his first disciples, we find Jesus attending a wedding in Cana—an ordinary event, to be sure but also a joyful and celebratory one. At the wedding, the supply of wine runs alarmingly low, and although he at first seems reluctant to do so, Jesus uses the most basic of elements—water—to demonstrate the power of God working through him by turning it into wine.

Turning water into wine, in the grand scheme of things, seems almost frivolous, and yet that is the miracle that first reveals Jesus’ power. In an act that is both understated and generous, Jesus demonstrates the abundance God holds for us; in doing so Jesus foreshadows a kingdom in which there is abundance for all, an abundance of those things which sustain physical life to be sure, but more importantly an abundance of the grace and love of God that sustain us spiritually.

In light of this week’s events, however—the horrific earthquake in Haiti, the unspeakable suffering and devastation in a country already living on the margins—it is hard to see that abundance; it is hard to see God’s love for the world at all. A disaster like this can test our humanity, test our faith, can move us to cry, “Where is God in all this?”

This is of course an age old question: How can evil and suffering exist in a world viewed as good at its creation by its creator, a God thought to be all knowing, all powerful, and loving? It is a question that is voiced throughout scripture, in the laments of the psalmists, in the cries of the prophets, in the plaintive voice of Job, and even in the cry of Jesus on the cross. Where are you God, and why have you forsaken me?

Over the years there have been many attempts to explain this paradox. We probably all have our own implicit theories that guide our thinking—for better or for worse. Probably one of the most common notions is one that we heard bandied about in the news this week from a well known conservative Christian: Evil and suffering are God’s punishment for sinners—people are just getting what they deserve, and haven’t we all been warned? For those of us who believe in a God who loves creation, who promises care and protection for the innocent, this type of explanation is not only inadequate but also offensive. And in the face of it, rarely are the “most evil” the ones who suffer; far more often it is the innocent—can we look into the faces of children who cry for their lost parents and really believe that they are deserving of the wrath of God being visited on them in this way?

If suffering isn’t divine punishment, could at be, as some speculate, that suffering is necessary somehow to elicit the moral qualities of empathy, compassion, and care in humans which otherwise would not be cultivated? Suffering – at least the suffering of others – does sometimes bring out the best in us—witness the outpouring of aid flowing towards Haiti right now—we do often rise to the occasion—but what about when we don’t? What about when evil begets evil and perhaps more importantly, what about those who are afflicted, those whose lives are simply destroyed by what they must endure?

Of course, we could just avoid the question of why God allows suffering and evil altogether and focus on eschatological hopes for redemption. We could embrace suffering as something to be borne because at the end time the glory we will experience in the presence of God will more than compensate for it. This approach, however, allows us to ignore suffering in the here and now and to simply shrug off the conditions in the world that we might otherwise work to change. At its worst, this kind of thinking might actually glorify suffering.

For me, these understandings of suffering and evil make no sense. They are inconsistent with my understanding—from scripture, from prayer, from experience—of a loving and beneficent God, a God whose Son became incarnate for our redemption, whose love for us seems to know no bounds. Why would a God who loves us and who created us to delight in us allow suffering, often unmitigated, to be so prevalent in the world? At the end, it remains a mystery to me, and I am forced to consider that perhaps all my attempts to make sense of it are themselves misplaced. Perhaps we are not meant to understand evil and suffering, only to live with it.

It is here that the work of contemporary theologian Wendy Farley[1] gives me some hope, in fact, saves me from despair. Farley reminds us that we live in a world that is by nature less than perfect, a world that although created by an all powerful God, operates according to natural principles. In Farley’s view, creation is inherently defective even though created by a good God; because creation is separate from God it must be less than God and thus less than perfect, and in this fact lies creation’s “fatal flaw.” In such a defective creation the very diversity and variety that contribute to its goodness also give rise to conflicts that make suffering inescapable. The natural order of the world too contributes to humanity’s suffering. Worst of all some suffering seems irredeemably unjust.

What Farley contends is that in the face of the inevitability of suffering our energies are wasted in attempting to understand it. What is more important, ultimately, is our response to that suffering—our response and God’s.

For the God who lovingly created us, the God who showers us with abundance, the God whose authority was revealed in deeds as small as changing water into wine and as large as raising Lazarus from the dead—that God, our God, suffers along with us. And in that suffering our God works through us to make God’s presence felt.

And so, we find God in the hands that wipe away the tears of those who mourn their loved ones, we see God in the survivors who, as one eyewitness report tells us, huddle on an open field singing hymns well into the night and greeting the morning with prayer. We find God in the doctors and nurses who work in unspeakably poor conditions to heal the wounded, we encounter God in the offerings of food and medicine and clothing and money that are flooding in around the world. We find God in the outpouring of prayers for the people of Haiti, in the torrent of compassion, in the unity we find in reaching out to those who suffer.

Here’s the thing though—we shouldn’t wait for tragedy to strike to see God, to do God’s work in the world. Just as Jesus first revealed his power and authority in a relatively mundane way, turning water into wine at a wedding, rather than waiting for some more dramatic occasion, so too should we look for God’s grace and act as Christ’s body in our quotidian activities.

And so when the emergency is, when the dead are buried and the wounded are healed, when the rebuilding is over and life returns to some semblance of normality, in the space before the world’s next cataclysmic event, we must not abandon our role as Christ’s body, doing Christ’s work – in Haiti, or in New Orleans, or in Palestine, or anywhere else where there is need. For where there is suffering, there too is God—calling us to be there with him, calling us to love our neighbors as ourselves, calling us to be partake of that abundant grace God holds for each of us. Amen.

[1] Farley, Wendy (1990). Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion: A Contemporary Theodicy.

Westminster/John Knox Press.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Sermon for the Baptism of our Lord January 10, 2010

The First Sunday after the Epiphany
The Baptism of our Lord

January 10, 2010

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

The great protestant reformer Martin Luther is reputed to have proclaimed passionately to his audiences, “Remember your baptism!” For those of us who were baptized as infants, that is just about impossible. But if you are like me, perhaps the gaps in your memory have been filled in by family stories. I don’t remember my baptism, but I know that it took place on a hot June Sunday, in an Episcopal Church in North Carolina, long before anyone thought of air-conditioning churches. My whole family was gathered—my parents, and my grandparents and a couple of aunts and uncles, along with some of my parents’ closest friends, and of course, the congregation. I was wearing the long white dress my older sister had worn at her baptism a few years earlier. Because I was a chubby baby, and perhaps a few months older when I wore that dress than when my sister did, the arms were too tight, and my mother tells the story of how, in the rush to get to church on time, she simply took the scissors and snipped a few threads in each sleeve to make it more comfortable for me.

More than 50 years later my little granddaughter Julianna wore that dress at her baptism, the sleeves still bearing the mark of my baptism day. Julianna likely won’t remember her baptism day either, but she’ll be able to see the pictures, and she’ll hear the stories—how it was hot in church that night, too, even though it was only April, and how the smell of the incense wafted through the congregation, and how her family gathered, church goers and non-church-goers alike in the candle light, as her Amma baptized her with water and marked her by the power of the Holy Spirit with fragrant oil, sealing her as Christ’s own forever.


Even if we don’t remember our own baptisms, chances are that we all know the story of Jesus’ baptism. It’s told in all four gospels, and we hear it each year on this Sunday, the first Sunday after the Epiphany. It is, I think, no accident that this story is told in the season of Epiphany. “Epiphany” means a revelation, a showing, and in Jesus’ baptism and the actions that followed it, Jesus’ identity, his true identity, is revealed—not for the first time, certainly, for as we’ve heard over the last few weeks, the angel Gabriel revealed Jesus’ identity to Mary at the annunciation, and again to the shepherds on the night of his birth. The infant John leapt in the womb, revealing this identity to Elizabeth when Mary went to visit, and Simeon and Anna caught glimpses of it when he was presented at the Temple. And in last week’s gospel, when Jesus lingered in the Temple and told his parents that he was in “his father’s house” he seemed to have had some inkling of who he was.

The revelation in today’s gospel, however—when the heavens opened up and a dove descended, and a voice proclaimed, “You are my son…” – did more than just signify Jesus’ identity. These words marked the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the world; they set him on the journey that would culminate with the cross, and the empty tomb. When Jesus was baptized and received the Holy Spirit, he received not only an affirmation of who he was, he also received a vocation.

That sense of vocation is something I fear we sometimes miss in our practice of baptizing infants and young children. Don’t get me wrong—as you may be able to tell from my story about Julianna’s baptism, and from last week’s baptism of little Jacob, I love baptizing babies. When it is time to mark the sign of the cross on their foreheads with the holy oil, and to utter the words, “You are marked by the Holy Spirit and sealed as Christ’s own forever,” I get a chill. Something very real, very powerful happens when we pour that water over an infant’s head, when we Chrismate with that oil—and it’s not something I’d want to give up.

But—and there is a very real but coming—but when we fail to take the promises we make for the child being baptized seriously, when we fail to take those vows to heart for ourselves, when we fail to recognize that each and every one of us is given a vocation at baptism, then I fear that we miss the point of what we are doing. For baptism is more than a social occasion, it is more than a moving liturgy. We consider baptism to be a sacrament—an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace—because baptism is transformative. It is life changing. And it is through baptism that we are called to live as Christ’s own forever, with all that entails.

We may not remember our baptisms, and we may not always recognize the impact baptism has on our lives. But lucky for us, we are given the opportunity to refresh our memories as it were and to revisit what baptism means for us whenever we witness a baptism, and whenever we celebrate a “baptismal occasion” as we do today as we celebrate the baptism of our Lord. In just a few minutes we will stand and we will renew our baptismal covenant—those promises that were made for us by our parents and godparents, or perhaps that we made for ourselves if we were older. And in an act meant to fully reconnect us to the power of that moment in time, we’ll be sprinkled again with the holy waters of baptism.

This may seem like so much show, but I invite you to enter fully into this moment. Think about the promises you are making, and what they mean for your lives—as individuals and corporately as members of this parish, as members of this community, as members of the body of Christ. Pay attention to what you are promising—not only that you believe, but also that you will “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, “ that you will “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself,” and that you will “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” And if these promises seem daunting, pay attention to the responses we make to each one, “I will with God’s help.”

I will with God’s help. And that brings us full circle. In baptism we receive our vocation as Christians, but we are not left to do it all on our own. Instead we are given God’s grace and we are empowered by the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus was empowered by the spirit on the day of his baptism. We are empowered by the spirit and we are called into the community of the church to do the work of Christ in the world. And if we take this seriously, then our baptisms will be transformative not only for us, but for the whole world. Think about what that could mean.

And now, let us stand and reaffirm the promises of our baptism…

Saturday, January 2, 2010

DRAFT~~2 Christmas 2010

The Second Sunday of Christmas
January 3, 2010

Luke 2:41-52

Almighty God, may your Word be our light in the darkness, and may these words help to spread that light in the world. Amen.

When I was a kid I spent a great deal of time in the public library. As a very young child, I haunted the children’s room of our local library, which was located in an old house, conveniently within walking distance of my own. In the first couple of years after I learned to read, I read through that children’s room, bottom to top. One of my favorite parts was a collection of biographies written for children. The characters were familiar—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Dolly Madison, Molly Pitcher, Florence Nightingale, George Washington Carver, and many more. I think my love of American history might have been born in reading those stories. But what I loved most about them is that they didn’t start with adult characters—they focused on the childhoods of these famous figures. Of course, looking back I can recognize that much of what they contained must have been fiction; enough historical accuracy to be credible, but made-up stories to fill in the gaps. Nonetheless I treasure those books for what they taught me and for the way that they made historical figures real.

We don’t have many stories about the boy Jesus. In fact, today we hear the only story in our canonical gospels that deals with Jesus between his birth and his baptism, marking the beginning of his ministry some 30 years later. There are, of course, apocryphal stories about Jesus as a child to be found in writings not included in our canon of scripture. The best known of these is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a collection of tales that has Jesus creating birds out of clay, bringing dead things back to life, and yes, even using his superhuman powers in ways that aren’t entirely nice—perhaps one reason they are excluded from our canon!

Although it is not meant to be a biography, as we understand them, Luke’s gospel, has the fullest account of Jesus’ early years that we are afforded in our four gospels. Luke begins his story with the visit of the angel to Mary, announcing her impending pregnancy. He recounts the birth in Bethlehem, the homage paid to the infant by the humble shepherds, and the trip to Jerusalem to the Temple for the presentation of the infant Jesus, a trip during which Simeon and Anna recognize the infant for who he is. And then we pick up with today’s gospel. Jesus is 12—not quite yet a man, but certainly no longer a small child. The family has traveled to Jerusalem, as most faithful Jewish families did, to be at the Temple for the holy days of Passover. In many ways, these annual trips must have been like a big family reunion, and it’s easy to imagine Mary feeling comfortable with Jesus mingling in the crowds. It’s only when they are on the way home that she becomes alarmed when she can’t find him. I can imagine her growing feelings of fear and panic as she searched for him, and her mixture of exasperation and relief when Jesus turns up safe and sound in the Temple. And I can hear her saying, “What were you thinking? Didn’t you know we’d be worried?”

Like most preadolescents, Jesus has a ready answer “Why would you worry? Don’t you know I belong in my father’s house?” And as she had earlier, Mary pondered this in her heart.

I love this story. I love it as a mother because it is so very real. Jesus, like any other preadolescent, is wrapped up in himself—what he needs, what he wants, with little regard for his parents’ feelings. It’s not mean, it’s not malicious; it’s just preadolescent. He’s on that developmental quest to figure out what it means to grow up, to figure out just who he is and what he is about.

And I love this story because Jesus is so very human. We can relate, can’t we? As a child or as a parent, we’ve been there, done that. Like Jesus, we have to figure out who we are and what we are called to be in this world. We have to break away from the comfort of our parent’s care and learn to stand on our own. And sometimes in doing so we hurt the ones we love, or we frighten them or cause them worry. It’s unintentional but it’s real.

When Jesus stays behind at the Temple, worrying his parents, doing what HE needs to do, he is revealing a very human side—Jesus is incarnate, enfleshed; he’s human like the rest of us. And yet, what Jesus says and does at the Temple reveals something else to us—his divinity. For even as he seeks validation as a preadolescent, he reveals the wisdom and foresight that mark his divinity. Jesus may be figuring out what he is about but he knows in a very real way WHOSE he is. He’s very clear when he says to Mary, “I was in my father’s house.” For Jesus, knowing that, knowing who his father is, is the key to all the rest. WHOSE he is determines WHO he is; it shapes his ministry and sets him on a journey that will end at the empty tomb. For Jesus, knowing WHOSE he is is everything.

As a developmental psychologist by training, I could give you a good lecture on how important it is for adolescents to figure out WHO they are; about how they must question all the values and beliefs their parents have worked so hard to instill in them, how they must question them and make them their own, and figure out who they will be in this world. And while I know that to be a crucial part of development, I also know that it leaves something out—it leaves out what Jesus shows us in today’s gospel. We don’t need just to know who we are—we need to know WHOSE we are. Jesus was, is, the Son of God, but we are God’s children, created in God’s image, beloved of God. And knowing that grounds us, roots us, gives us the foundation we need to figure out all the rest, to be the people we were made to be, to live the way Jesus calls us to live. Knowing WHOSE we are is just as important for us as it was for the 12-year-old Jesus.

This morning we will baptize baby Jacob Marc, incorporating him fully into the body of Christ, the church. At the end of that ritual we will sign his forehead with oil, sealing him as Christ’s own forever. What better way to remind ourselves WHOSE we are. We are God’s beloved children, we are sealed as Christ’s own, we are infinitely precious, each and every one of us, to the One who made us. And that is the most important thing for us to know.