Sunday, April 17, 2022

The Cup of Freedom: Suffering, Longing, Freedom, Glory

 Sermon preached on Maundy Thursday, 2022 at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY:  Psalm 116

You can listen to the sermon here.

I lift up  the cup of freedom as I call on God’s Name.

           I want to add another short text to today’s biblical mix, four verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans.

 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (8:18-21)

           Suffering. Longing. Freedom. Glory.  These words are in the air today as we gather during this Holy Week to contemplate the last hours of Jesus’ life, and their meaning for our lives in “this present time.”

           Suffering.  Holy Week is hard work. There is so much suffering and death to go through before we get to Easter.  And it is not just the suffering and death of Jesus, although that alone is hard enough.

           We started today with the story of the first Passover, the passing over of the homes of the Israelites by the angel of death, killing every first-born person and beast in Egypt. How many first-born persons are here today?  Yes, we’d be done in this story.

           Tomorrow we will hear the story of Jesus as we heard it this past Sunday—the story of betrayal, cowardice, maliciousness, cruelty, and death.  And hanging over the story the sense that in some way God willed all this to happen.

           And even when we gather for the Easter Vigil Saturday night, and finally get to hear that first “Alleluia,” we have to go through the stories of God’s destruction of creation in the flood story, and Egyptians lying dead on the seashore after the Israelites escaped through the sea.

           Why all this suffering?  The only answer I have is that it is our real life.  Our life and the life of the whole world. There is no way to deny it.  And it is the life, as Paul says, of the whole creation, living in what seems like futility.  In our stories, and the stories of all living things, the angel of death comes.

           Longing.  In the next verse Paul uses the word “groaning.” The whole creation and we ourselves are groaning for something more, something better.  Let us know without our doubts that we indeed are the children of God, that there is something better than suffering and death.

           But where and how?  If we knew the answer to that then could our longing could stop?  Yes, we know the answer is Easter, but Easter is a promise—a good one, mind you, the best—but still a promise. From a distance—as the Letter to the Hebrews says (11:13-16)—from a distance we see and greet it, and we shout Alleluia on Easter morning and for a moment it is in our grasp, and then we re-enter this present time, and our groaning, our longing, is back.

           Freedom. I will lift up the cup of freedom, as I call on God’s Name, as I long for God’s promise.  You expected the word “salvation,” didn’t you?  The cup of salvation, that’s what we say, that’s what we call it, what we are here to celebrate. It’s part of the obligation and gift Jesus left us on that last night with his friends.

           But salvation is a church-word, freighted with centuries of confusion and abuse.  We think we know what it means, but, truth to tell, its meaning lies just beyond our reach. Our evangelical friends ask us, “Are you saved?” And we’re not entirely sure what they mean.  Am I going to heaven?  Sure. But, frankly, heaven is the least of my worries most days.  What does it mean now?

           But “the cup of freedom.”  Maybe—just maybe—there’s another way into what is going on here and out there 24/7.  Freedom is what I long for, what the creation groans for, and not some cheap big-talk, “I can do anything I want to and say anything I want.” Not the freedom that means we are a law unto ourselves.

           No, the freedom to just be—the freedom to know who I am deep , deep down, in the place where that groaning comes from. The freedom to live in the world without the anxiety and fear that I am not enough or to have to waste so much time proving my worthiness to myself, to others, to God.

           This kind of freedom may be another way of talking about, of seeing, the promise, the promise of life that is greater than death, the promise of Easter.  The promise that this whole creation means something.  It still doesn’t deliver the promise, but it is something if I can lift up the cup of freedom as I long for God, as I long for life.

           Glory.  Now there’s a word. But another church-y word.  A word of the promise, a word that is what is just the other side of what we long to be revealed to us.

           But it’s a good word, because we may not be able to describe it, but we know it when we see it. Again, not the cheap and momentary glory when we are the winners and we feel good about ourselves. I mean, thank God for those moments, but they are, in the end, just moments.

           Glory is that revealing that we are, actually going to be OK, that our lives matter no matter what, that we can still see the glimpse of life in the midst of suffering and death. It’s there in the creation, it’s there in our lives.

           Jesus showed us where to look for it, not in denial of our real lives but in gathering all the fragments, all the missed opportunities, all the hurts, all the hopes, and look at the bread and the cup.  Don’t look somewhere else, beyond. Look at what is, in front of you, what literally gives you life, the food given from the creation which groans along with you.

           Lift up your lives in the cup of salvation, the cup of freedom, as you call on God’s Name.  St. Augustine once said to folks who had recently been baptized, who were experiencing the bread and cup for the first time.  Look!  It is your mystery on the altar!  When you receive the bread, receive the cup you are receiving your life! When you respond Amen, you are saying Amen to your life!

          And you are saying Amen, in spite of all the crud, and in some small touch with the freedom that is inside of you and inside of your neighbor, to know the God who is not ashamed to be called your God, the God of the promise but also the God of the present.

           In reality, with no denial. With deep, deep longing.

           I will lift up the cup of freedom as I call on God’s Name.

           And when we do the glimpse we get of glory is just enough to keep us on the journey to something better, to love, to God.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

The Good Gardener

 Sermon preached on the 3rd Sunday in Lent at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY:  1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

          This time the questioners were not there with a trick question. It was not their goal to trap Jesus into an answer that would turn the political and religious authorities against him.

           They were honest people asking an honest question. I assume it was a question that the people of God had been asking as long as anyone could remember.  I know it was a question that people have been asking ever since.


           Why suffering?  And why, especially, innocent suffering, be it at the hands of a ruthless government or a random catastrophic event of “nature”?  Why?

           And their question came, as this question often does, with an assumption.  Perhaps the innocent were not so innocent.  Were they being punished for their sin? Or for their lack of faithfulness?

           Before we wrestle with Jesus’ answer, let’s contemplate how this question pops up in our own lives. Oftentimes it is a simple, “Why me?”  And the assumption is that I must have done something wrong, or, perhaps, I did not pray enough.

           Sometimes it comes up from the opposite direction.  An acquaintance of mine several months ago got some horrible news. Cancer had returned and she was given three to four months to live.  Two weeks ago, after weeks of intense treatment, a scan showed her to be cancer free.  Amazing news!  She is grateful beyond the telling.

           A mutual acquaintance called it a miracle.  She declared that clearly God isn’t done with her yet. And this is the power of prayer.

           I want so much to believe those things.  And I do not want to say that this is not a miracle.  It certainly is miraculous!  And I add my profound gratitude to hers.  But I am also left with profound questions.  Did God choose her to live and a cousin of mine—a good man—to die a gruesome death from brain cancer?

           In another approach, throughout the pandemic we are still going through, I have often heard, “When it’s my time it’s my time.”  The clear implication is that someone—God, fate, “the universe”—decides when it is my time to die. Is that what faith in God means, to succumb to a fatalism about life?  God is “in control” so whoever dies today, well, their time was up.

           And then there is St. Paul’s contribution to the question:

 No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.  God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

           Much mischief has come from these two verses.  They are often shortened to something like, “God won’t give you anything more than you can get through.”  And it gets applied to physical ailments as well as moral quandaries.

           But Paul is talking about moral temptations.  “Temptation” is really the better translation than “test.” The key is in the next verse which is unhelpfully left off. Paul says, “Therefore” (hear that connection word “Therefore!”), my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols.”

           So don’t ever let yourself apply these verses to physical ailments.  Do not use these verses to lessen the impact of the suffering of others.  That is not what Paul was talking about.

           So back to Jesus’ answer about the suffering of innocents.  He replies clearly and simply.


           “Do you think they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?  No, I tell you.”

           God was not punishing those Galileans or those upon whom the tower fell.  And I do not believe he was limiting his comment to those two situations.  The answer is “No.” No, God does not punish people because they somehow deserved it more than anyone else.

           Then, I have to say, Jesus messes with our heads a little bit, nay, a lot.  “But,” he says, “but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”  Is this a sleight of hand? Giving good news with the one hand and bad news with the other?

           No, I don’t think so.  I think it is simpler than it sounds.  All that Jesus is saying is that we are all going to die, and our death is not predictable.  Jesus has taken us back to Ash Wednesday. “Remember that your are dust and to dust you shall return.”

           And Jesus is saying, “Be ready.”  Don’t put off turning to God today because you think you’ve got until tomorrow, or next year. Or, as St. Paul said in Second Corinthians, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (6:2).

           One can still hear in that a potential threat, however.  Many the evangelical sermon includes the warning to get right with God because you don’t know when you’re going to die! You don’t want to get caught at judgment day without your house in order.

           But then Jesus tells a parable.  It’s simple. A person’s got a fig tree.  It should be producing figs but it’s not.  I need to get rid of it, she says to herself, because it’s just taking up space.  But her gardener says, “Let it alone.  Let me try again. Let’s re-evaluate next year. You can cut it down then if you feel you must.”

           Does this mean we only get one extra chance?  I don’t think so, and here is why not.  The gardener says, “Leave it be, wait.”  The Greek word is ’άφες.  Another translation of aphes is “forgive.”  It is, in fact the word Jesus uses from the cross, “Father, aphes, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (23:34).

           The gardener is Jesus who says aphes, forgive.  And I think that gardener says give it one more year with his fingers crossed behind his back, and that is not just wishful thinking. I also see it in the text.

           The gardener says, “If it bears fruit next year.  Again, not the only way to translate what is there.  The text does not say “next year.” That is an assumption. The text says εἰς τὀ μἑλλον, “in the future.”

           I see that difference and I ask to myself, “What happens ‘next year’ when the owner and the gardener get to this tree again and it has still borne no fruit?”  I hear the gardener say, “Aphes, forgive.” I hear Jesus say, “Aphes, forgive, in the future.”

           We’ve covered a lot of ground. A brief summary.

1. Let’s be careful of what we attribute to God and not attribute to God. We must resist the temptation to decide for ourselves for what God is or is not responsible.  If life gives us sorrow or suffering, it is enough to know that God shares that sorrow or suffering. If God gives us good things, it is enough be grateful.

·      2. We can be definite about one thing:  We cannot equate human suffering with punishment for sin.

·     3. St. Paul’s encouragement that God will not give us more than we can handle should not be applied to physical human suffering.

·      4. Jesus wants us to keep our death always in mind, not as a threat to worry about, but as a sense of urgency to be as right with God as we possibly can all the time. “Repentance” is not an act in a moment of time. It is a way of life.

·      5. Our judge is Jesus, the good and patient gardener who is aways ready to say “Aphes, forgive” and has a somewhat fuzzy sense of time, “In the future.”

          There remains an urgency to get right with God, but the urgency does not require anxiety.  For the judgment for which we prepare will be presided over not by the impatient landowner, but by the good gardener.

Friday, March 04, 2022

A Horizontal Conversion

 Sermon preached at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, New York on Ash Wednesday, March 2, 2022:  Psalm 51

Almighty and Everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made . . .

           This year during Lent our emphasis as a community of faith is to explore our place in the creation.  At first glance it may seem that this does not have anything directly to do with the traditional emphasis of Lent and its traditional devotions. Isn’t Lent a time to explore our relationship with God, using tools such as self-examination and confession, fasting, prayer, and self-denial, and reading and meditating on God’s Word in the Bible?

           What we are lifting up is that our relationship with God and our relationship with the creation are intertwined.  We are saying that one of the ways we sin against God is by sinning against creation.  We are saying that our continued abuse of the creation is a sin, and that our self-examination and repentance of this sin against creation is urgent.  We are saying we must be clear-eyed about how God relates to the creation and how God expects us to relate to the creation.  We are saying that the work of conversion has not only a vertical aspect but a horizontal one as well.

           Our spirituality must deepen its earthy aspect.  For too long we have assumed that the work of religion, of spirituality, was about getting right with God, ensuring our salvation, ending with eternal life in the presence of God. We thought of the earth as a gift, yes, but a temporary one, one given for our benefit while we live on it, to use as we need to use it, but ultimately to escape from, to leave behind.

           We cannot afford to believe this way any longer.  We need to re-examine our assumptions, to re-learn what the Bible, for instance, has to say about the creation and our relationship to it, about the future of creation and its participation in eternity.  What are the ramifications, for example, of the vision of the last two chapters of the Bible, from the Book of Revelation, a vision of eternity that involves “a new heaven and a new earth?”

           In one of his first public pronouncements after becoming Pope, Francis wrote,

 Everything is related, and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each . . . and which also unites us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river and mother earth. (Laudato Si, 2015)

           Lent has always been about the cultivation of the virtue of humility.  Humility—that word that itself comes from the humus, the Latin word for “earth.”  To hold up humility is why on Ash Wednesday we take a good long look at our mortality.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  To some this seems like a bizarre act. Why come to church to be reminded that you are going to die? To seemingly embrace, if not celebrate, that grim truth?

           We do it because without the remembrance that we will one day die, we forget how much a part of creation that we are.  And this amnesia leads us not to humility but to arrogance. We forget that we are not God. We forget that we are responsible and accountable. We forget that our human dignity is part of a web not only of humanity, past present and yet to come, but a web of creation.  We forget . . . forget . . .forget . . . and the world around us pays the price.  And the last thing we forget is that when others—including the creation—pays the price, eventually the price comes back upon our own heads.

           We are not saying do not bother with your relationship with God during this Lent.  Quite the opposite.  Do work on your relationship with God this Lent. Do the work of conversion. But, pay attention to the horizontal work of conversion. Examine your relationship with God through your relationship with God's good creation.  Examine the ways you participate in human sin against the creation.  Find new ways to participate in the renewal of the earth and its creatures.  Embrace the humility without which the creation around us will continue its precipitous slip into crisis.

           Have the creation and your place in it at the front of your mind and spirit when you say with Psalm 51, “Create in me a new heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

Monday, January 24, 2022

A Faithful Jew Proclaims a New World

Sermon preached on the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, January 23, 2022, at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21. 

You can listen to the sermon here.

          Let me try a summary statement of the story we just heard.

 A faithful Jew asserts his right not only to interpret the Scriptures but to fulfill them in a new world where old divisions and prejudices are overturned.

           The Gospel writer Luke places this story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. This placement gives it critical importance. The story proclaims who Jesus is and what the good news is that he proclaims and lives.  It has three critical elements. Each one of these elements is just as important for us today as they were in the gospel writer’s day.

Jesus the Jew

          First of all, this story continues a theme begun in the birth story.  Jesus is a faithful Jew.  He was circumcised eight days after his birth, presented in the Temple on the fortieth day, attended the Temple for Passover as a boy, and now we find him returning to his hometown synagogue to begin his ministry.

          Jesus is a faithful Jew.  Christians through the ages, including in our own day, frequently suffer from amnesia about this fact.  And this amnesia has resulted in nearly two thousand years of antisemitism and anti- Judaism.  This continues to rear its ugly head.  In fact, it is on the rise in our day.

          So let us refresh our memory.  Jesus was born a Jew. He was raised a Jew. He lived as a Jew. He died a Jew. He was raised a Jew.  He is eternally a Jew.

          Was he critical of the religious authorities of his day? Absolutely.  Did he seek reformation of his religion? Yes.  Did he wish to expand his understanding of God’s chosen people to Gentiles?  It is clear that he did.

          Did he mean to start an entirely new religion that rejected the religious tradition of his people?  No, emphatically not.

          Antisemitism and anti-Judaism are sins,   full stop.  They are perhaps the original sin of the church. They began to appear among the followers of Jesus in the New Testament itself, and echo through the centuries with the cry of Jewish innocents who have been murdered in the name of Jesus.

Jesus our Interpreter of the Scriptures

          Second, Jesus the faithful Jew nevertheless does assert himself as the interpreter of Scripture for us.  Luke takes great pains to emphasize this truth.

          This fundamental understanding that Jesus is the interpreter of Scripture for us began back in that boy in the Temple story, where Jesus is found teaching the religious teachers.  It continues in our passage this morning, and several other passages in Luke, culminating in the great post-resurrection story of the road to Emmaus, when the disciples realized that their hearts had burned as the stranger—who turns out to be Jesus—opens the Scriptures for them.

          Again, we don’t remember this very well when we hear other Christians talking about the authority of the Bible, and perhaps even as us the question, “Does your church believe in the Bible?”

          The answer to that question is, “No.”  We believe in God; we believe in Jesus; we believe in the Holy Spirit.  We learn about this faith primarily through the Bible, yes.  But it is not the Bible that is central to us. It is Jesus.

          Jesus always gets the last word for us.  We cannot interpret or use any passage of Scripture, Old or New Testament, without asking, “What does Jesus say?  What does Jesus do?”  I use the present tense quite deliberately.  It is one of the reasons it is so important that we keep Jesus as the center of things.  The Bible is bound in time. Jesus is not.  Jesus continues to speak to us though the Holy Spirit, who is Jesus’ own first gift for those who believe (Book of Common Prayer, p. 374).

Jesus Who Calls Us to Live in a New World

          Third, the primary thing that Jesus does is to call us to live in a New World.  He called it the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven.  But because the language of “kings” doesn’t resonate with us, I like the term, a New World.  And what is sure and certain about this New World?  It is the Great Reversal.

          The Great Reversal.  Jesus finds it in the prophet Isaiah today: the poor and outcast get good news for once; captives get freedom, the blind get sight; the oppressed get the yoke of their oppression cast off; and human beings are called to live in the Lord’s favor. Not earn it—live in it.

          This is also a significant theme of Luke’s Gospel.  Jesus’ mother sang of it before his birth:  the hungry fed, the mighty moved off their throne, the proud hoisted on their own petard, mercy promised by the Judge of all.

          So many of the parables exclusive to Luke are about this Great Reversal: a Samaritan called good, a son who rejected and squandered his inheritance welcomed home not to judgment but a grand party, the rich man and poor Lazarus get their places switched in heaven.

          And in Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, the first Christians get the reputation of “those people who turn the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

          The New World, an upside-down world.  It begins right here, when we gather, as Paul says, in one body, with a diversity of members who cannot say, “I have no need of you,” no matter how different they are, how “respectable” they are, how deserving by the old world’s standards they are.

          I love how a friend of mine, Sam Portaro, puts it:  The Table we gather around each Sunday is an “intentional violation of the customary boundaries that separate us.”[1]

          Perhaps we should post a warning at the door:  “Caution! An upside-down world awaits you within.”  Would that it be that we should have such a reputation.

          So, in this story of Jesus reading Scripture in the Nazareth synagogue, we have three take-aways that speak to us clearly across the centuries:

v Jesus was a faithful Jew, and antisemitism and anti-Judaism have no place among Christian people.

v Jesus is the interpreter of Scripture, it is he who is the Word of God through whom all things are understood, including the Bible.

v Jesus calls us to live in a New World and we should always look for ways to help it be formed among us, expecting that it will most often turn our old world upside down.

A faithful Jew asserts his right not only to interpret the Scriptures but to fulfill them in a new world where old divisions and prejudices are overturned.

[1] Sam Portaro, Crossing the Jordan: Meditations on Vocation (Boston, Cowley Publications, 1999), p 68.

Monday, January 10, 2022

But Now . . .

 Sermon preached on the First Sunday after the Epiphany (The Baptism of Jesus) at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, New York:  Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

You can listen to this sermon here.

But now thus says the Lord, the One who created you, who formed you: Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

           “But now.”

           I wrestled with this sermon far more than usual this week, and one of the main reasons was that I could not get beyond those first two words of the Isaiah reading and couldn’t figure out why.

           I’ll tell you what I figured out:  they are the Gospel, the Good News God has for us.

           Now let me tell you how I got there.

           But now.  The words suggest there is a connection to what has gone before, presumably in chapter 42.  The second half of Chapter 42 is a rebuke, a reminder of Israel’s past, what had got them into trouble and resulted in their near destruction as a people, the laying waste of Jerusalem and the taking of most of the people into exile in Babylon.

           The chapter includes a devastating image of the people’s rejection of God:

 O deaf ones, hear.

          O blind ones, look and see!

Who is as blind as my servant,

          or deaf as my messenger whom I send?

Who is as blind as my dedicated one,

          as deaf as the servant of the Lord?

You have seen much but do not watch,

          opened your ears but do not hear.

[Isaiah 42:18-20, Robert Alter translation]

           The words drip with sarcasm.  They offer nothing but helplessness and hopelessness for the People of God.  The chapter ends with these decisive words:

 Is it not the Lord whom they have offended

          and did not want to walk in his ways

          and did not heed his teachings?

And he poured out upon them his fury,

          his wrath and the fierceness of battle

          and it seared them all round

                   but they knew not,

          it burned them—

                   they did not take it to heart.

[Isaiah 42:24b-25, Alter Translation]

           This is ugly stuff.  God is not happy.  Again, the offer is helplessness and hopelessness.  It is the opposite of what Jesus hears at his baptism.  No, this is the angry parent who says: I am more than not pleased with you. You are no longer my child.

           But now.

           If you read the prophets—not just Isaiah, but any of them, you will read a lot of what sounds like chapter 42, maybe even the majority of it.  They all have, however, some form of

           But now.

           Israel’s God—who is our God—loves his people so much that he cannot ultimately let go.  Israel—we—forget God and reject God’s ways in what often appears to be a total abandonment of God.  And God’s anger burns so hot that his judgment is harsh and his abandonment total.

           But now.

           But now, God says, I cannot forget that I made you.

           But, God says, now I cannot reverse the fact that I have redeemed you.

           But now, God says, I remember, I gave you your name, you are mine.

           And the reverse of anger and judgment is total in truly beautiful words from the end of today’s passage

 Do not fear, for I am with you;

I will bring your offspring from the east,

          and from the west I will gather you;

I will say to the north, “Give them up,”

          and to the south, “Do not withhold;

          bring my sons from far away

          and my daughters

                   from the ends of the earth—

          everyone who is called by my name,

                   whom I created for my glory,

                   whom I formed and made.”

           What a reversal!  I have judged you and found you wanting. I willed that I might never set my eyes on you again.  But now.  But now, I remember you are mine and I will gather what I have scattered.  I will re-form what I have made.

           Many people want nothing to do with the church because they think we talk about sin and judgment too much, that we are obsessed with it.  And there is, we must admit, some truth to that, especially when we have given the label “sinner” to certain groups of people just because of who they are.

           But we cannot stop talking about sin, because sin is real, and anybody who does not think so is just not paying attention.  There is wholesale rejection of the ways of God—the ways of truth, justice, and peace, of compassion, of a radical commitment to helpfulness and hopefulness.

           We must tell the truth about sin and evil in our world.

           But now.

           But now we must also tell the truth because it is by telling the truth that God sets us free.

           But now we must tell the truth about love and compassion, which is the only way love works in the world.

           But now we must tell the truth about the hope we are given, because life is not worth living without it.

           But now we must tell the truth about community because all of these things—love and compassion, freedom and faith, hope and life—all require that we understand that we are one people, across any difference we can imagine or create.

           On January 6, our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, spoke to the nation from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  He reminded us of the motto of our country found on the Great Seal of the United States of America:  a banner above the eagle says, E pluribus unum, “Out of many one.”

           He went on to tell us where those words come from, and this was something if I ever knew I had forgotten.  They come from words of the ancient Roman orator Cicero, who said,

 When each person loves the other as much as him or herself, it makes one out of many.

           As a country we are in danger of our divisions becoming so strong that we are in for a long age of living in what amounts to armed encampments.  Nothing could be further from the best dreams of our forebears. Nothing could be further from God’s dream for us.

           As individuals we are tempted by these divisions, and by so many other things that want to be more important to us than the love of our neighbor.  If the heavens above us would open we would not wish to be told we are God’s beloved, we would wish to have won the lottery, or given some thing that our heart desires.

           I cannot imagine that God is not angry with us, and if he spoke out loud to us, we might hear some of those harsh words from chapter 42 of Isaiah.  And we would deserve it.

           But now.

           But now what God wants for us is more than we can ask, desire, or pray for.

           But now God wants to tell us we are beloved, pleasing to the One who made us.

           But now God would send us on the same mission as he sent Jesus.

           But now God says:  Go and tell the world some good news.

           But now God says: Go and be for the world some good news.

           But now God says:  Love your neighbors as yourself.

           But now God says:  Strive for justice and peace among all people.

           But now, God says:  Respect the God-given dignity of every human person.

           But now, God says:  Let me love you so that you may love others.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Beautiful Feet Announcing the Great Belonging

 Sermon preached on Christmas Day at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, New York:  Isaiah 52:7-10; John 1:1-14.

You can listen to this sermon here.

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

           Ah! Those beautiful feet!  They make all the difference.  Really, they do.

           The sentinels have been watching, perhaps for a very, very long time.  Watching and waiting for some good news.  Perhaps they had heard a rumor that the reign of Babylon was coming to an end. But, of course, rumors can be wrong.

           Then thy spy what they have longed for: those beautiful feet:  feet that are running to share the news, with a gait that can only mean this news is good.

           And it is that:  News of peace, news that is good, news of salvation (“liberation” might be the better word here), news that what has been in doubt has now been displaced.  God is not lost. Gad has not abandoned. God reigns.

           But what does that mean?  What does God’s reign of peace and liberation mean?  Let’s search for clues in John’s magnificent poem about the incarnation.

 In the beginning was the Word . . .

           John uses his words carefully here, pun intended.  “The Word” is meant to appeal to Jew and the Gentiles of the Greco-Roman world alike.

           For Jews “in the beginning” is an echo of Genesis chapter one, which begins in the same way.  This is a beginning.  And the use of “the Word” would remind a faithful Jew of Psalm 33:6, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made.”  Even more importantly, “Word” would have reminded them of the commandments at the heart of who they were:  The Ten Commandments, which, in Hebrew are literally “The Ten Words.”

           For the Graeco-Roman world, the Word in Greek was logos, long used in Greek philosophy to speak of the universal principle at the heart life, that which gave order to the world.

           So ,in the first six words of this poem, John has reached out to both Jew and Gentile and brought them together.  This is the essence of peace:  to bring together disparate parts, disparate peoples.  In a divided world, John wishes to announce a starting over.

           And this gets carried out in the rest of his poem.  “In [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of all people.”  All people.  This had been a dream of the Jewish prophets, especially Isaiah.  “You will be a light to the nations,” he had said.  “Let all nations gather together.”  It had not been a popular message. The notion of God as the God of Israel alone had persisted.  But John says in his poem now is the time.

           John then speaks of “the true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world.” And he comes with power as a gift to become children of God, with the one caveat:  you do have to say “yes” to this vision.  It can be refused and, human beings being, well, human, John knows it will be refused. There will be men and women who chose the darkness instead of the light.

           But they will have to work hard at it, because the light is not going anywhere.  The darkness cannot defeat it.  The darkness cannot even understand the light, a notion that is present in the Greek verb here.

           And finally, this Word was made flesh and lived among us. Again, the words are carefully chosen.  “Made flesh,” not “took on” flesh like putting on a costume.  This was a matter of actual creation, real flesh.  And he not just “lived” among us (a poor translation):  he “pitched a tent” among us.  He became our neighbor.

           John’s vision is of a great drawing together, a great belonging, a transformation of people and nations into a new humanity that lives by neighborliness, that lives knowing that all people are more alike than they are different, because they have all been given the power to be children of God:  as the Book of Revelation says, “From every tribe, and language, and people, and nation.”

           Now you do not have to think hard, or even be a pessimist or a cynic, to know that this is not the world we live in.  Oh, we all get glimpses of this great belonging from time to time, and thanks be to God for that.  But division is too often the order of the day.

           And we are living at a time when the vision of the Great Division is threatening the vision of the Great Belonging.  And there are powers at work—those evil powers we renounce at our baptism—who are calling the darkness light and the light darkness, who call division good news and belonging bad news.

           And among these people are may who claim to follow Jesus, who see him as the great divider between good and evil, only their personal understanding of good and evil.

           This may not seem like much of a Christmas sermon, but it is the vision of Christmas, that night we say that heaven and earth were joined in that cowshed in Bethlehem.

           Christmas does not just comfort us, bring us momentary joy. Christmas calls us to make a difference in the world, as we to are called to be the light that shines in the darkness and the Word made flesh, carriers of the Holy Spirit, the gift of our baptism.

           We have hard work to do to bring good news to the world. News of peace. News that is singularly good. News of liberation and salvation. News that there is a God who reigns, whose very name is Love.

           I’ll close with a poem from Howard Thurman, one of the great preachers of the 20th century, who describes the message our beautiful feet are to carry as we announce the Great Belonging:

 When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among brothers [and sisters],

To make music in the heart.[1]

[1]In Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas (Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 1985), p. 23.