Wednesday, April 04, 2018

April 4, 1968


              I am six-years-old, almost seven, and I am in the first grade.  It is April 4, 1968, and The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated at 6 pm in Memphis, Tennessee.  I have a stray memory that I have always associated with this day.  I am watching television and the announcement comes on that Dr. King has been killed.  My Uncle Jimmy, my mother’s youngest brother, who is eighteen, is watching us kids.  In addition to myself is my 3-year-old sister and my 8-months-old sister.  My parents are probably out bowling, which, in those days, was almost always why they were out and we had a sitter.  I hear my Uncle Jimmy say, “They got him.”

              I do not trust this memory entirely, and I have never asked my Uncle about it because I don’t want to embarrass him.  He is a good guy and I cannot now imagine him saying such a thing, but I also don’t know what emotion was attached to those three words.  Was it just a statement of fact?  Was it bewilderment?  Was it excitement?  I don’t know.

              But I do know I was living in a racist environment.  Of that I have no doubt at all.

              My husband John was raised in North Florida, in a rural area much like the one in which I was raised in Upstate New York.  This is true beyond census numbers.  Comparing notes on growing up, we are surprised at the cultural similarities of our hometowns, and attitudes about race are at the top of the list.  Northerners like to think of themselves as more enlightened than Southerners.  We did, after all, win the Civil War.  But whatever we were fighting for, it was not the equality of black and white, or if it was, it didn’t take.  Any progress made over the hundred years since is infinitesimal.

              In my hometown in Western New York, of around 2,000 people, I remember two black families.  One lived in the village, and one lived halfway up one of the hills outside of town.  The latter may have been more than one family.  Where they lived was called “the nigger camp” by those who did not live there.  This “camp” was for permanent residents.  In the Autumn migrant workers, mostly from Florida, would come to pick potatoes.  They lived in several camps on various farms in the town.  Their children came to our school for the six or so weeks they were at work, although they had a separate classroom in the basement and I have no memories of seeing them.

              When people were being polite they called the black folk among us “darkies,” or “colored fellas.”  My great-grandmother Pearl’s house was on a street that those who lived at the permanent camp walked down if they walked into the village to one of the stores.  In reviewing the events of any given day, she would note how many “darkies” had passed by.  She was still doing this the years I lived with her during and immediately after my time as an undergraduate.

              My mother frequently comments on the smell of black people.  “I don’t care what anyone says, they smell.” I have heard this dozens of times.  It is often provoked just by seeing a black person on the street.  My father often uses the words, “jungle bunny.”  More than anything else this slur bothers me as a kid.  Why?  I’m not certain. I suspect it was so obviously demeaning.

              Today, April 4, 2018, 50 years later, I want to remember these things.  My parents don’t say those things anymore, and my journey has included being the rector of a majority African-American parish.  I voted for our first African-American President and rejoiced in his victories.  But I do not dare forget my history; it is still there in me, enough times surfacing in tiny, almost instinctual impulses, that I must remain vigilant.

              Issues of race still plague America. They still plague the communities in which I know live and have lived.  They still plague the church to which I belong.  We have come so far, but the inequality is still stunning, and so-called “white” America, including myself, just cannot get it.  We want desperately to believe in a society of equal opportunity, and the desperation placates us, makes us blind, deaf, and dumb.  We cannot see our own privilege, despite the fact that we are awash in it, like some kind of eerie reverse baptism, awash in the original sin of our society, underneath the veneer of good will still festering, bubbling up more times than we care to know, and often even when we do see it, we are quick to self-absolve.

              Today I am glad I am not living in 1968, but, fifty years later, I cannot allow myself to think we live that far away from it.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

The Living Truth Crucified & Risen

Sermon preached on Good Friday at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, New York:  The Passion according to John


Jesus says to Pilate, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

And Pilate replies, “What is truth?”

That question rings down through the ages.  It has never stopped being relevant.  It never will.  It is a question we deal with every day, although most often we do not even realize that is what we are doing.

It is not a bad question that Pilate asks, even if he asks it cynically as one in power who can do with the truth whatever he wants to.

What is truth?

“The truth” is a big deal in John’s Gospel.  It first appears in the very first chapter: The Word made flesh is “full of grace and truth.”

In chapter eight, the religious leaders are obsessing about Jesus’ messing with their well-worn traditions.  Jesus tells them, in essence, you would not know the truth if it was full in front of your eyes.  Which it is, and he says, and if you would see it, “you will know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

In chapter 11, amidst the story of the raising of Lazarus Jesus goes so far as to say, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

Then in chapter 14, another character enters the picture, the “Spirit of Truth,” who will not only keep us in the truth after Jesus has left us, she will continue to lead us into truth.

So, I ask again, what is truth?

For followers of Jesus, the truth is a living thing, not a static one.  It is Jesus himself who is the truth, Jesus crucified and risen from the dead, who has gifted us all with his Spirit, who continues to lead us into the truth.

This means the truth is not a definition.  It is not the set words of a creed or some particular piece of Scripture, or the pronouncement of the church or of any one person or collection of persons. The truth is not something we have found, it is something we seek, and it is always, always, always, something we seek together.  And ultimately, we do not find the truth, it finds us.

How would I know this truth if I met it walking down the street?  How do I know I am seeking the truth?  How do I know when the truth finds me?

Three things the Gospel of John gives us.

First of all, the truth always come paired with grace. There should be no such thing as an ungracious truth.  That does not mean that the truth cannot challenge us, but in challenging us it never seeks to take away our dignity.

Second of all, the truth makes us free.  The truth does not bind us or seek in any way to enslave us.  Again, this does not mean that the truth cannot challenge us, but in challenging us it never seeks to take away our ability to make choices.

Third of all, the truth is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and so, like the Holy Spirit, it always leads us into a greater community of love.  The truth may challenge us, but it will never tear us apart or inject hate into our relationships in any way.

The truth can be recognized by these things which are its companions:  grace and freedom and love.

And all these things we see in Jesus.  We see them in who he is, but more importantly we see them in what he does:  offer his life, to share in our suffering and death, absorbing all the suffering and sin of the world in his body, and enacting our redemption in his defeat of death.

Jesus does the truth and we know it by grace that is generous, freedom that is hospitable and love that is sacrificial.

           We do not live in easy times for the truth.* Let this Good Friday remind us of how we seek the truth among us and how we live that truth to the glory of God and the dignity of all God’s people.


*I was tempted to go on (and on) about how this is so, but I thought it was best to set it on the table and let it be.  But I would have said at least this:  We have the spectacle of a political leader who frequently says things that he knows very well are not the truth and religious leaders who make excuses for him and sometimes continue the lie for him.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Easter Day Year B Readings & Commentaries


This joyful Eastertide, away with sin and sorrow! My love, the crucified, has sprung to life this morrow. If Christ that once was slain, ne'er burst his three day prison, our faith had been in vain. But now is Christ arisen!

1st Reading:  Isaiah 25:6-9
Most people in the ancient Near East would have eaten sparingly and with little dietary variation. A great and lavish feast was an obvious symbol of God’s restoration of shalom on earth, a symbol that carries into the New Testament.  This vision is also important because of its inclusion of “all nations.” Israel and its rival neighbors will live in peace.  It is such a joyous and monumental vision, that even death is overcome.

25:6 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. 7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; 8 he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. 9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

OR THIS

1st Reading:  Acts of the Apostles 10:34-43
This short passage is part of a long story (Acts 10:1—11:18) about how the Gentiles came to be understood as having the same relationship with Jesus as his fellow Jews. The apostle Peter and the gentile Cornelius have both had visions causing them to seek each other out. When Peter meets Cornelius in the latter’s own house (a line observant Jews were not to cross), he experiences the Pentecostal Spirit at work among them just as he and his fellow disciples had experienced it. This leads to the following declaration. It is a testimony to the power of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection.

10:34 Peter began to speak to Cornelius and the other Gentiles: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced:  38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Psalm 118 is a song of thanksgiving rooted in Israel’s worship of a faithful God. It has long been associated with Holy Week and Easter because the first part of the psalm acknowledges distress, and the second half pivots to gratitude for deliverance. The stone which the builder’s rejected has become the chief cornerstone is used by Matthew, Mark, and Luke (in Acts) to describe what God has done in Jesus Christ.

1  Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; *
           his mercy endures for ever.
2  Let Israel now proclaim, *
           “His mercy endures for ever.”
14  The Lord is my strength and my song, *
           and he has become my salvation.
15  There is a sound of exultation and victory *
           in the tents of the righteous:
16  “The right hand of the Lord has triumphed! *
           the right hand of the Lord is exalted!
           the right hand of the Lord has triumphed!”
17  I shall not die, but live, *
           and declare the works of the Lord.
18  The Lord has punished me sorely, *
           but he did not hand me over to death.
19  Open for me the gates of righteousness; *
           I will enter them; I will offer thanks to the Lord.
20  “This is the gate of the Lord; *
           he who is righteous may enter.”
21  I will give thanks to you, for you answered me *
           and have become my salvation.
22  The same stone which the builders rejected *
           has become the chief cornerstone.
23  This is the Lord’s doing, *
           and it is marvelous in our eyes.
24  On this day the Lord has acted; *
           we will rejoice and be glad in it.

2nd Reading:  Acts of the Apostles 10:34-43
See above

OR THIS

2nd Reading:  1 Corinthians 15:1-11
In these verses, Paul rehearses the tradition of the resurrection that has been handed down to him. It includes, in verses 3b-5, the beginnings of a Christian creed. Paul also cites historical evidence of which he is aware: the appearance to Peter (Cephas), to the twelve, to a large number of believers (a story that has been lost), and then to Paul himself on the road to Damascus. He doesn’t know the tradition of women being the first witnesses or chooses to ignore it.

15:1 Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2 through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. 3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

Gospel Reading:  Mark 16:1-8
Mark’s account of the resurrection is, like his Gospel, short. It does, however, pack in many details. The women who come to the tomb are the same as those mentioned in the previous chapter as having witnessed Jesus’ death. The young man in the tomb neatly summarizes what the Gospel is as Mark understands it.  Jesus is the forever crucified and risen One.  The women are sent forth (as apostles?).  They are ecstatic (a better translation than “amazement” and filled with “awe” (a reasonable alternative translation to “afraid.”).  Most scholars believe Mark originally ended his Gospel here.

16:1 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

OR THIS

Gospel Reading:  John 20:1-18
The Gospel-writer John’s witness to the empty tomb and the initial experiences of the risen Jesus centers on Mary Magdalene, who, on account of this story in particular, is sometimes known as “the Apostle of the Resurrection.” Mary is the first to tell the other disciples, who themselves come to the tomb, but do not remain. Mary, in her grief, does not leave and so has the first encounter with the risen Jesus. Why she does not recognize him is a matter of much speculation, as well as Jesus’ admonition to her not to hold on to him. Whatever the meaning, Mary again becomes the first witness, “I have seen the Lord.”

20:1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes. 11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

The Scripture quotations (except for the psalm) are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission.  All rights reserved.  The Psalm translation is from The Book of Common Prayer.  Commentaries are copyright © 2018, Epiphany ESources, 67 E. Main St., Hornell, NY  14843, www.epiphanyesources.com. All rights reserved.  Permission is granted to copy for congregational use, including the copyright statement.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Love is the Goal

Homily on Ash Wednesday at St. Thomas' Church, Bath.


           Lent begins with these words [from the Collect of the Day]:  “You hate nothing you have made.”

           Why not say, “You love everything you have made”?

           I think it is because love is something we must always grow into.  That God hates nothing he has made is a bottom-line belief.  It is a starting point.

           Love is the goal, and love is the journey toward the goal.  Lent is a time to renew ourselves in this journey.  Anything we do during this season—be it giving something up or taking something on—must serve this purpose:  to deepen our experience of the love of God for us.

           Today we begin this journey by reminding ourselves of the obstacles in the road.  It all sounds very negative, but we are simply acknowledging the realities of our journey.

           In the words of the Collect, we “acknowledge our wretchedness.”  That sounds harsh, perhaps unnecessarily so.  I like to think of it simply as our capacity to mess things up.

           And we are also asked to stare our own death in the face:  to dust we shall return.  This is not a pleasant thing to do, but we cannot deny it.  It is a reality of this journey of ours.

           The wonder of life with God is that although both of these things are true—our capacity to mess up and the inevitability of our death—it is the love of God that we can put our trust in, and seek to live ever more deeply into it.

           It is not easy. There is so much going on around us and within us to distract us from living in this love, and even from believing it could be possible.  If it were easy we would not need this season.

           Remember the song, “Searching for love in all the wrong places”?  This is our task from now to Easter, to search for love in all the right places, so that when Easter comes, we may celebrate the resurrection, grounded a little more deeply in the amazement—the wonder—that we are loved in spite of everything.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Being Beloved in a Beloved Community

Sermon preached on the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 14, 2018 at St. Thomas' Church, Bath:  John 1:43-51


Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” (John 1:45-46)

           In invitations to come to church, these are the only essential words, “Come and see.”  But we need to know, those of us who are doing the inviting, Come and see what?

           First a slight recap from last week’s sermon, since this one follows directly on that.

           I mentioned last week that in Mark’s Gospel Jesus literally comes out of “nowhere,” and this is echoed her in John’s Gospel.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Nathanael is not being critical, he’s just telling it how it is:  no one expected anything earth-chattering to come out of Nazareth.

           So I said Jesus came out of nowhere. Then, like many other people, he was attracted to John’s baptizing and was baptized himself.  All perfectly normal, except for the Holy Spirit coming down like a dove and a voice pronouncing him God’s Beloved.

           John says that Jesus will baptize us with a baptism of the Holy Spirit, and that is how we are baptized, into Jesus baptism, in which we are named God’s Beloved in a bond that is a promise for ever.

           The life of faith for each one of us is a living as if that state of Belovedness is the truest thing about us.

           As I said last week, that is a piece of astoundingly good news.

           Today we go one step further, and remind ourselves that a very big part of living into our Belovedness is learning to live with and encourage the Belovedness of those around us.  Living into our Belovedness includes living into a Community of Belovedness, or Beloved Community.

           And that is what we should be inviting people to “come and see.”  Not come and see our beautiful building.  Not come and hear our stunning music.  Not come and experience our wonderful liturgy.  Not come and hear outstanding sermons.  None of that.  Come and see our beloved community.

           It is a good and joyful thing for us to talk about beloved community today because tomorrow is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and beloved community was Martin’s vision.

           In 1956, at the First Annual Institute on Non-violence and Social Change held in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King said:

We have before us the glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of our civilization. There is still a voice crying out in terms that echo across the generations, saying: Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you, that you may be children of your Father which is in Heaven. This love might well be the salvation of our civilization. This is why I am so impressed with our motto for the week, “Freedom and Justice through Love.” Not through violence; not through hate; no, not even through boycotts; but through love. It is true that as we struggle for freedom in America we will have to boycott at times. But we must remember as we boycott that a boycott is not an end within itself; … the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding good will that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.

           The miracle of Beloved Community.  The gift from God of Beloved Community, where opposers are transformed into friends, where the pledge to love one another is greater than any difference between us.

           Those words were spoken sixty-two years ago.  The road to beloved community has seen forward movement and backward movement.  In 2018, they are as fresh as they were before I was born.  They are certainly as urgent as they were then, and maybe even more so when the reality is the divisions among us are deep and wide, and there is no Dr. King to point a way forward, and even if there were we would now be filtering him or her through the membrane of any bubble we live in.

           It would be difficult to heart words like these because we have succumbed to “spin” as “news.”  We increasingly allow others to do our listening and thinking and interpreting for us. We simply soak up whatever we are told.  We have given incredible power to idealogues on all sides of the political and social spectrum, and the one thing idealogues can never lead us into is beloved community.

           Simply being beloved as an individual is hard. Living in beloved community is even harder, and the biggest reason it is harder is because beloved individuals don’t stop being beloved individuals.  Living in beloved community is not living as if race or creed or social outlook or sexual orientation or gender or anything else that makes us individuals does not matter.

           Beloved community is not all of our differences melted down so that we are all the same.  Beloved community is like participating in a choir, where every individual voice matters and the individual voices together make a unique sound.

           Beloved community is not a community where our differences are set aside, but where they are celebrated, as well as challenged, formed and re-formed.  Beloved community cannot exist where people are unwilling to listen and from time to time change.

           I hope you do not take what I have said as a scolding, but as a challenge and a vision, to be the People of God together that we are called to be, in the hard work of loving each other with that same “forever promise” as God loves each one of us.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Being Beloved: A Promise Forever

Sermon preached at St. Thomas', Bath, NY on the First Sunday after Epiphany:  Mark 1:4-11

           The Gospel writer Mark tells us that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, talking not about himself but about one who was “more powerful than I who is coming after me.”  “I have baptized you with water,” he says, “but [the one who is to come] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

           And sure enough, Mark tells us, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”

           Which is to say that Jesus came out of nowhere.  Nazareth was the kind of town that most people of Jesus’ day would have never heard of.  It wasn’t on anybody’s list of top ten places in the Middle East that you would like to see before you die.  There’s no mention of it in the Old Testament, so there wasn’t any expectation that a future messiah would come from there, or anywhere else in the district called Galilee.

           The Gospel writers Matthew and Luke at least have the good sense to tell birth stories about Jesus, about how he was born in Bethlehem, a place in the right part of the region, that everybody would have heard of, and about which there were plenty of expectations about a future ruler coming from there just like King David had come from Bethlehem centuries before.

           But not Mark.  It almost seems important to Mark that Jesus comes out of nowhere.

           So the story is that this guy comes out of nowhere.  Like many others, he gets attracted to John’s exotic preaching and baptizing at the river Jordan, and he himself, again, like many others, presents himself to John for baptism.  But when he is baptized he has this amazing experience. As Mark describes it:

As he was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

           Then, by the way, Mark tells us that he was immediately driven into the wilderness to face temptation.

           Now isn’t that sort of backwards?  Doesn’t it make more sense for Jesus to have gotten this great affirmation from God after he passed the test of the temptations?  But that isn’t how the story goes.

           The story is that this guy came out of nowhere, decides to get baptized by an obscure prophet, and God called him his beloved.

Now you may want to conjecture that he must have grown up being pretty much perfect for God to say he was well pleased with him.  But that doesn’t seem to be important one way or the other for Mark.  He doesn’t tell any stories about Jesus’ perfection, or anything else he has done to deserve God’s favor.

           He just says that this guy came out of nowhere and God called him “beloved.”

           Now that’s important for you and me.  Why?  Because John the Baptist tells us that Jesus will baptize people with the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that pronounces Jesus beloved to God.  Jesus’ baptism is a baptism into God’s belovedness by the Holy Spirit.

We are baptized into Jesus’ baptism.  That means that we receive the same Spirit as Jesus did.  And this is true whether we come from somewhere or from nowhere.  And it is true whether we have successfully met our temptations or not.  The Spirit of God is the Spirit of belovedness.

           We don’t have a baptism this morning, but let’s think about our own baptisms.  Most of us were baptized as babies or very young children.  I am always struck by the things we say about a child who has been baptized.  In the introductory words about baptism in The Book of Common Prayer we are told that we believe the bond established by God in baptism is indissoluble, cannot be broken.  And there is no asterisk at the end of that sentence that gives the “fine print:”  Cannot be broken unless you do one of the following awful things.

           And immediately after we baptize someone we anoint them with oil of chrism and say what I think are the most amazing liturgical words we ever say:  “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”

           When we baptize a baby it is easy to believe these words because the child before us is all innocence.  But if we are honest with ourselves, we know this will not always be the case.  Babies become “terrible two’s” and eventually they grow up to be teenagers, and then they become adults like us.

           It seems easy to say when a baby is baptized that she is a fit receptacle for God’s own Spirit, and as a recipient of God’s Spirit she is being pronounced “beloved.”  She’s so cute, who wouldn’t want to call her beloved?

           But we are not just saying it for this moment.  What is happening, we say, is forever.  And they are not words of wishful thinking; we say them because we believe them to be true.

           You are God’s beloved forever, we say, knowing full well that, like the rest of us, he is going to do things in the future that will make it dubious that he is deserving of that title.

           And it doesn’t matter, we are saying.  Because it is not about deserving or not deserving anything.  It is not about whether we’ve been good enough to deserve God liking us or not.

           It is about being beloved.

           It is not true, at least with God, that you get what you deserve.  Quite, in fact, the opposite.  It is news so good that it is just about unbelievable, and I would be the first to admit that the church doesn’t always talk that way.  We’re afraid that we might go out of business if we didn’t have to keep telling people to behave themselves so that they can go to heaven.

           But we should not be primarily in the business of teaching people to be good.  We should be, we are, in the business of telling people that they are beloved, and encouraging one another to act in the world as if that were true.

           The church is not in the business of helping make people good enough that God will love them.  We are in the business of announcing that people are already beloved by God, and helping to make and keep them so confident in that reality, that they seek to do good.


           I hope you can hear how amazing that news is, and how counter it is to most of our natural inclinations to think about life, much less church.  And I’m here to tell you today that it gets better than that.  Because even after those moments when I do not seek to do good, when sometimes I do precisely the opposite, when I betray my belovedness, I always get another chance.  All I have to do is make the slightest turn towards God and say, “I’m not doing so well, but I want to do better.”  That is the simple meaning of repentance.  And God says, OK.  You’ll never stop being my beloved; that is my promise to you for ever.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Let Us Ask for Wonder

Homily preached on Christmas Eve at the early service at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY.

And Mary pondered all these things in her heart…

Mary was full of wonder.  She had been, ever since Gabriel’s visit to her, when she has asked, “How can these things be?”

She had said, “Yes.”  But that doesn’t mean she had everything all figured out.  What she signed up for was a mystery, about which only wondering was possible.

In Godly Play, the curriculum we use in our Sunday School here, “wonder” is  our most important word.  We tell the stories of the Bible, and we ask the children to wonder about them.  We do not teach them what they mean.  The stories do that as we tell them time and again, and as we wonder about them a little more deeply every time.

           Just what is wonder?  It often helps me to understand a word like this by thinking about its absence.

What is the opposite of wonder?  It may be certainty.  This might be a clue to why the church is less and less attractive to people.  People think we deal in certainties , certainties that they cannot be certain about.  The truth is we only deal with mystery and wonder.

I think the ultimate opposite to wonder is judgment.  Again, people think that judgment is the church’s primary business, because it is God’s ultimate business.  We have not done a lot to prove otherwise, but it is the greatest of ironies, because we follow one who taught, “Do not judge, or you will be judged.” (Luke 6:37) and “You judge by human standards; I judge no one.” (John 8:15)

Judgment is an infection.  It is as easy to catch as the common cold.  It is the need to be certain and to apply that certainty to others in order to determine whether they are right or wrong, true or false, patriotic or not patriotic.  As a people we are soaked in judgment, and more than that, we are drowning in it.  The common cold of judgment has turned into full-blown pneumonia.

What would it look like to trade judgment for wonder? Just one thig really, one simple but difficult, sometimes painfully difficult thing to do. We would need to approach one another with questions rather than statements of fact.

Perhaps, I need to say that, first of all, we would need to approach one another, because what keeps us divided is the bubbles that we allow ourselves to live in. We tend to associate only with those who agree with us, are like us, who don’t upset our view of the world.

I came across a helpful quote the other day,

Fundamentalists live their life with an exclamation point.
I prefer to livre my life with a question mark.

Living life with a question mark, living life in wonder, does not mean that we do not believe in something, or hold certain values, or hold some very precious things that are true for us.

But it is to live an open life, ready to listen, ready to learn, ready to ask why someone else believes the way they do, and ready to change our minds about something at least occasionally.  It is to live in this basic attitude:  I am more like you than I am different from you.

For this Christmas, among the other things for which we ask, let each one of us ask for the gift of wonder, and allow mystery we celebrate this night to re-enter our lives.  We don’t need to have everything figured out.  The truth is that we cannot have everything figured out.


The us embrace the gift of mystery. Let us ask for the gift of wonder.