We Wish to See Jesus


We Wish to See Jesus

Mr Patrick Keyser
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2018


‘They came to Philip… and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”’


In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last month I had the opportunity to take a weekend course at the Divinity School with the Rev. Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest and founder of Thistle Farms, an organization based in Nashville that helps women in recovery from trafficking, prostitution, drug addiction, and homelessness. Becca started this residential community, called Magdalene, in 1997 with a simple vision. She wanted to create a place where women who wanted to get off of the streets could live together for two years at no cost and begin to heal. There would no external authority figure in the house to govern the lives of the women. Much like a monastic community, the women developed their own rule of life that governed the way they lived together. The community was grounded on the belief that ‘Love Heals,’ and this simple mantra has guided the work of Thistle Farms for over 20 years. It is Becca’s deep conviction, born out of her own journey from abuse to healing, that no matter the depths of brokenness or the pain we have suffered, love has the power to heals us, because love is the most powerful force for change in the world.

A few years after establishing the first community, Becca realized that the women of Thistle Farms were still incredibly poor and needed some way to earn an income. She strongly believed that in order for the women to truly have agency and freedom they needed economic independence. A new idea was quickly born. Becca founded a social enterprise in which the women of Thistle Farms became producing all-natural candles and body products.

This enterprise has expanded rapidly and now brings in millions of dollars of revenue each year. As Becca writes, ‘there is poetic justice in producing healing and nourishing products for the body, all crafted by women whose bodies have endured years of abuse.’[1]

The story of Thistle Farms is an inspiring one. After learning from and with Becca through the weekend I left feeling really good and energized for ministry. I share the story of Thistle Farms with you, though, not simply because it is a nice and inspirational story, though I do hope you will consider reading more about the work and ministry of this place and the products the women of Thistle Farm produce. I share this story with you because it is a testament to the power of the gospel, and it illustrates what Jesus is trying to teach us today.

Today’s gospel passage moves us deep into the heart of John’s gospel. Narratively it comes just before the story of the Last Supper and the footwashing. In the sections immediately preceding it, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead in Bethany, then Mary lovingly and extravagantly washed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume and her hair. Jesus then entered the holy city of Jerusalem in great triumph with acclamations of ‘Hosanna’ from the crowd. These events all took place in anticipation of the Passover feast, which is the ‘festival’ that is mentioned. Today’s passage begins by noting that among those who had come to worship at the Passover festival were some Greeks. Presumably they had traveled a considerable distance, and we have no indication as to how they had come to know about this extraordinary person called Jesus. The passage tells us that they first come not to Jesus but to Philip and then request to see Jesus. Philip, in turn, goes not to Jesus but to Andrew. Only then do the two disciples go to Jesus, and though the two disciples tell Him about their arrival, the text never mentions a direct encounter between the Greeks and Jesus. They fade into the background, and instead Jesus uses this moment to openly announce the events that are to come.

He tells Philip and Andrew, ‘the time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’ This word ‘glorify’ appears several times in today’s passage, and the concept of ‘glory’ is an important one both in the gospel of John and in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew word is kavod, which is used to describe the majestic and awe-inspiring power of God. In the book of Exodus, God’s glory is described as a devouring fire on the top of Mount Sinai. At the end of the book, the tabernacle, the moveable place of worship that the Israelites used during their time in the desert, is completed and God’s kavod fills the tabernacle. The same term is used again in the book of Ezekiel when, toward the end of the book, the prophet sees a vision of the glory of God returning to the temple. It comes with the sound of mighty waters, and this glory makes the earth shine with radiance (Ezekiel 43:2). In the Hebrew Bible, God’s glory was something that would have almost demanded reverence. It was something to which one would have bowed down in awe and wonder.

Jesus takes this notion of glory, this idea of God’s awe-inspiring majesty, and turns it completely on its head. He begins to illustrate what he means by ‘glory’ and ‘glorify’ by using an agricultural image. He tells the disciples, ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ We can easily see how this image points to Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Like the grain of wheat, Jesus will die and be placed into the earth, in a tomb, and sealed away. From his death, though, will come abundant life. But Jesus does not use this image to describe only himself and his own death. It is also the way we as his followers must travel.

Jesus continues to instruct his disciples saying, ‘whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.’ Jesus’ path leads to death, and so too must the path of those of us who seek to follow him. To be clear, I’m not talking about physical death here, though we know that one day we will all face the death of our mortal bodies. No, I’m talking about the type of death that comes with the Christian life, the dying to self, to sin, to the ways of the world. The Christian life is not an easy one. If we truly live it out and follow Jesus we will suffer loss. We cannot ignore this reality. Yet though the way of Jesus is challenging, we also know it to be the way of life. The great promise of the gospel is that life emerges from death. And Jesus shows us how to follow this path with courage. He tells his disciples, ‘my soul is troubled,’ and what should I say- “Father, save me from this hour?” No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.’ Jesus knows what lies ahead. He knows what he must do, and moves forward with total trust in the Father.

At the end of today’s passage Jesus proclaims, ‘now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ The gospel writer adds, ‘he said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.’ This is what Jesus means when he says he will be glorified. Stripped of his clothing, beaten, spat upon, crowned with thorns, nailed to a cross, and lifted up for all to see and mock, Jesus will be glorified. And the whole world will see the glory of God, not as described in the Hebrew Bible but in the form of one who emptied himself completely and was obedient unto a humiliating death on a cross. And we who see this glory will fall down before him in awe and reverence.

In older calendars of the Church, this Fifth Sunday in Lent marked the beginning of Passiontide, a tradition we still observe here at Christ Church. Our attention and focus now turn with Jesus toward Jerusalem, toward the events of Holy Week, and ultimately to the cross. As we continue our journey with our Lord toward Golgotha, we are invited to consider what needs to die in our own lives. Jesus reminds us of the core paradox of discipleship: ‘those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’ Friends, what in your life needs to die this season? What sins cling to you and separate you from God? Whatever they may be, take them and bring them to the cross of Christ, and be assured of the promise that those things that fall into the earth and die will bring forth much fruit. That is the message of the gospel. We see it in our own lives, and we can see it in the ministries of places like Thistle Farms. We see it in the lives of women like Regina, who was one of the first women to join the Magdalene community. Like so many of the women who come through Thistle Farms, she had suffered severe trauma in her childhood and had been stuck in a life of addiction, prostitution, and trafficking. One night soon after Regina had joined the Magdalene community, Becca tells how she stopped by the home to check on Regina and found her dancing all by herself. She was dancing from sheer joy. It was an embodied prayer of profound gratitude to God, for she who had once been ensnared by the worldly powers of death and destruction, addiction and exploitation, was now experiencing new life. Now twenty-one years later, Regina is an employee of Thistle Farms and has helped over 200 hundred women get off the streets.[2]

Friends, as we move through this Passiontide toward the cross, may we, like the Greeks at the Passover festival, seek Jesus. If we make that our prayer we are assured that we will indeed behold our Lord in his glory, not as radiant light or fire on the mountain but as one lifted high upon the cross drawing all the world to himself. We will glory in his cross. We will come and adore. And we will see Jesus.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] The Rev. Becca Stevens, Love Heals (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2017) 2.

[2] Stevens, Love Heals, 61-62.


Lift High the Cross


Lift High the Cross

The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 11, 2018

I grew up for the first six years of my life in a house in the country that backed up on a pine thicket.  The trees there were longleaf pine, probably at the time only about 10 years old--not towering trees, but tall enough to a small boy of four or five.  Throughout the year and especially in the fall these trees drop some of their needles, layering on the floor of the forest a bed of pinestraw that builds over time.  My dog at the time liked to roam through the thicket, chasing rabbits and squirrels, and I’d follow him across the soft, quiet pine straw floor of the thicket.

  During the heat of the day the pine trees were cooling, filtering the light of the sun onto the forest floor, but by dusk they provided cover of darkness for forest creatures to come out, and the thicket came alive with the sound of crickets, cicadas, and frogs from the nearby pond.  Dusk and dark were the times that, even as the thicket found its night-time voice, that another sound appeared, as well.  I didn’t like to walk into the thicket at night, for fear of stepping on the small brown hognosed snakes that lived there, silently slithering across the pine needle bed, hunting for food, for, when they were disturbed, they’d puff up a bit and hiss.  We called them spreading adders.  They were harmless, not aggressive, not poisonous, but that hiss was enough to strike fear in the heart of a small child.  And while as an adult I’m sure it was the wind in the pine trees that made its own sound, as a child I was sure there was a chorus of spreading adders out in the forest, singing a song, warning me to stay away, quietly hissing through the night.

And that’s how my discomfort with snakes was born.

Maybe you like snakes, but I don’t.  And so this story of Moses and the serpents is an uncomfortable one for me! 

You remember the story:  the Israelites have been freed from bondage in Egypt but are in sojourn in the wilderness, wandering for forty years (that is to say, a long time) until they enter the land promised them.  And they’ve grown weary--impatient, the story tells us, and they’re complaining.  “Why’d you bring us up here to die?  There is no food, there is no water, the food is terrible.”  (Num 21.5)  And it gets worse.  There’s no food, the food is terrible--and also there are snakes.  Poisonous serpents, our translation says; firey serpents, the Authorized translation says.  And they bite--and people die. 

And when the people acknowledge their sin in speaking against God--in this complaining, this being caught up in the bad so much that they miss the good--they pray to God to remove the snakes.  And so God tells Moses to make a staff with a bronze snake on it--and when the Israelites are bitten, they can look upon the staff with the snake--and live.

Now, there are lots of questions that come up for me in this story.  What are the snakes about?  When I was a child I was pretty sure these snakes were the spreading adders in the pine thicket!  But the language isn’t so clear about them.  One of the Hebrew words used is generally translated as serpent or snake--the same word used about the serpent in the garden of Eden, the wily one that convinces Adam and Eve that they can be like God.  Another word used is seraphim, which gets translated fiery serpent, or poisonous snake.  It’s the same word as the seraphim in Isaiah that touch the hot coal to Isaiah’s lips, blotting out his sin, as scripture says, and Isaiah replies to God’s call, “Here I am, send me.”  (Is 6.1-9) 

Are these seraphim, these snakes, literally desert vipers that bite and kill?  Are they seraphic messengers from God, as Isaiah’s visitors were, calling God’s people back to right relationship with God?  Are they a holdover from an ancient Babylonian god, a signpost on the road to monotheism for the people of Israel? 

Whatever the serpents are, when one of them is lifted up, the people that look upon it, even though they are bitten, do not die.  And what is that miracle about? Is this some sort of ancient medicine, that gazing upon the agent of the poison somehow renders it ineffective?  One might reasonably wonder if the serpent and staff that Moses raises up is connected somehow to our modern day medical symbols, the staff and serpent in the Yale School of Medicine crest, for example.  (That symbol is actually the Rod of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, whose temple feasts we heard about in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians just a few Sundays ago.)[1] 

I can’t offer an explanation about exactly what the snakes are, or why the bronze snake on a pole makes their bite less deadly.  But this instance was so important for the people of Israel in their journey that the staff with the snake on it was apparently kept and, when the temple at Jerusalem was built centuries later, the staff was raised in the temple, only to be destroyed along with the hill altars and sacred poles in King Hezekiah’s reformations three centuries later.

The problem, the sin, of the people of Israel was not that they were complaining.  It wasn’t even the snakes, though they were a whole other problem all to themselves!  The problem was that they had forgotten God’s mercy.  Here they had just been freed from bondage to Pharaoh--set free from slavery--and they were complaining about the food they had in the wilderness!  They’re complaining so much that they’re exaggerating. “We have no food, and the food we have is terrible!” they say. They have lost sight of the main thing.  They’ve lost sight of God’s mercy.

Perhaps the image of the serpent on the pole helped them remember God’s mercy--that they were spared from slavery, that they were spared from death.  Whatever it was, or however it worked, that ultimately was the message--that, through God’s mercy, God’s people were saved.

And isn’t that the message we hear today?

Today, Laetare Sunday, when the introit invites us to rejoice, we begin to make a turn--in the lectionary readings and in our hearts--from a self-examination of our sins, a focus on those things which  separate us from God and creation, and towards the joy of God’s saving works.  We turn our gaze to the marvelous mercy of God, the ways in which God reaches out to us, even when we try to separate ourselves from God, drawing us back to God’s own self.

The gospel of John proclaims that “… God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (Jn 3.16)  That the entire point of Jesus, God’s son, coming into the world was to draw the world, us, all of creation, closer to God--back into relationship.  That the world, through Him, might be saved. (Jn 3.17) 

That God wants to be with us so much that God comes among us, even amongst our sinfulness, our willfulness, our neglect--our disregard for God; that God comes amongst us even as we complain and moan about how bad our lives are and forget for the moment how very good God is; even in the midst of our blindness, God comes in the person of Jesus Christ, to live and die, to be among us, all for the sole purpose of drawing us closer to God.

The Israelites looked upon the bronze serpent on the staff, we look upon the crucified body of our Lord, raised on the cross, raised as a standard, showing whom we follow, whom we believe in.  This is a God of mercy, a God of love, who comes among us, empties himself, and triumphs over death.  And we rejoice indeed at this great love--this love that has first loved us--that invites us to love one another, in God’s name.

We know that love.  We know that sacrifice.  We know that triumph over death.  We celebrate it each week, here, as we walk under and through the roodscreen, as we receive the Body of Christ in the Sacrament, and as we bear that love out into the streets of New Haven and beyond.

There’s something about lifting up that banner--about lifting up that cross--that’s important.  It’s only when the Israelites gaze upon the bronze serpent that they are healed.  It’s when Jesus is lifted up that the world is given life.  And next week in the gospel reading we’ll hear a reprise of Jesus’s insistence that he must be lifted up:  “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (Jn 12.32). 

That’s the verse on the reverse of the rood screen here--on the back of the beam that holds the cross, just there where we enter the choir each week to go up to the altar to receive communion.  When you receive communion today and rise from the rail, you can turn around and see it there, carved into the wood.

And when you turn around and look, you’ll notice something else, something that Father Bob Fix, who served as a seminarian here at Christ Church in the early 80’s, has pointed out.  When we enter under the cross, under the rood beam, we can see the figure of Jesus suspended, crucified.  When we kneel at the altar rail, we receive the Body of Christ in the sacrament.  And when we turn around from the rail, after we’ve received the Body of Christ, the rood itself--the cross--is empty.  And it’s so.  The back side of that cross is completely plain; there’s no corpus, no body on it.

Fr Ficks points out that, in our communions, the Body of Christ is now present in us.  Through the gift of the Incarnation, God has come among us.  Christ, through the grace bestowed in the Sacraments, now inhabits us.  And we go back out into the nave, back out into the streets of New Haven, back out into our daily lives, carrying Christ with us.  Bearing him forth.  Carrying that banner, that staff, that cross, lifted up, out into the world.

When  you find something so good, don’t you want to tell people about it?  I can’t tell you the number of folks who want to tell me about their fitness regimen, or a new restaurant they’ve found, a book they’ve read or movie they’ve watched, a trip they’ve taken--something that’s caught their imaginations for just a second.  Something worthy of their attention, something they think is worth sharing.

We have received the greatest love imaginable; God has come among us.  Christ has given his life in love and service to all of creation.  And the good news is that he has triumphed over death--and that he invites us into that new, everlasting life.  That’s good news.  How can we NOT share it?

Now, let’s be clear, I’m not telling you that we should go out and argue with folks, convince them to follow Jesus, coerce them even.  The work of conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit.  All I am suggesting is that we are called to lift the standard, to lift up Jesus.  To claim Him in our lives, in our work, in our very being.  “I volunteer at the Soup Kitchen because it’s what Jesus teaches.”  “I believe this because of my Christian faith.”  “I chose this line of work because it’s a way that I can share the love that God has shared with me, that I meet in Jesus.”

Whatever word or phrase we put on it, lift high the cross of Christ in our work, in our lives, each and every day.  Share Jesus’s love with the world, because he has first loved us.  Let us this Lent turn our eyes to the cross.  Let us show people Jesus.


[1] See “Going Vegetarian for Jesus,” a sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany at christchurchnh.org/sermons, and Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.


Can Anger be Righteous?


Can Anger be Righteous?

The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Third Sunday in Lent
March 4, 2018

When I was a child I had a small leather bound bible in the Authorized translation, a “red letter” bible, the ones that had the words of Jesus printed in red while the rest of the typeface was in black.  I don’t recall if this bible was a gift or one that I purloined from my parents’ bookshelf, but however it came to pass, the red-letter King James edition of the bible made its way to my bookshelf in my room.  I remember how tissue-thin the pages were, how hard they were to separate sometimes, and how bold and exciting that red typeface was against the black and white of the page.  And I remember that, throughout the book, there were stitched in a several sets of pages printed in color, on thicker stock--illustrations of the stories and scenes described in the biblical text itself.  Necessarily, because of the printing technology, they were grouped together and would sometimes be distant from the texts they depicted.  And so you could get a very brief synopsis of the highlights of the biblical narrative by just flipping through these sections, these illustrations, which I did.

There were images of the plagues in Egypt, of Sampson and Delilah, of Noah’s ark, and the tower of Babel.  But the only image I recall from the gospels is the one depicted in today’s reading, Jesus casting the moneychangers out of the temple.  Or, as it’s sometimes called, the cleansing of the temple. 

There was Jesus, very white with long flowing brown hair, in a clean white spotless flowing robe, sandals on his feet, and a whip of cords over his head, looking rather fierce, charging the tables of the money changers, throwing them over with one hand, while whipping the air with the cords in the other.  Animals were scattering, people were running, and the whip was going to town.  Jesus looked quite mad.   (If you don’t believe me, go and check out the picture by El Greco in the National Gallery.  In this 16th C rendering, Jesus is actually whipping the people around him, and in this case he looks quite calm about it.[1]

This image of Jesus as angry and attacking was a bit troubling to my young mind; my grandmother was the one in our family that got angry, and you didn’t want to be the object of her anger!  The rest of us tried to be nice. Anger surely wasn’t a good thing.  But the exegetical work of the adults around me assured me that Jesus was just exhibiting “righteous anger,” an anger directed towards an injustice or a wrong, which made it all okay to be angry.  The moneychangers were cheating people by charging an unfair exchange rate.  They had taken the focus away from God in the temple by focusing on the mechanisms, the things that needed to be bought, in order to offer right worship to God.  So Jesus was rightly angry.  He was wiping away the corruption that had seized the temple and putting things right again.  His anger was righteous.  It was holy.

Now, most of these things are probably true.  Whenever you get a bunch of folks selling something, at least some of them are going to do it dishonestly.  Indeed, in the synoptic gospels, Jesus calls the temple a “den of robbers.”  (Matt 21.13, Mk 11.18, Lk 19.46)  And when we put the way we pray, the method and mechanics of our prayer, above our relationship with God, we’ve gotten things backwards, rather than letting these things be tools we use to relate to God.  So these may be reasonable explanations of why Jesus is concerned about the selling of animals and the money changers in the temple and so on.  But what about this righteous anger?  I still wasn’t so sure about angry Jesus.

But righteous anger could be a seductive sort of thought right now, especially when our society is so fraught with anger.  We can’t seem to actually hear one another.  Our political and social discourse is peppered with ad hominem attacks.  Everything is black and white, either-or; there’s no middle ground or, it seems, even a middle way forward.  And it’s no wonder our emotional levels are at a fever pitch, that our civility is strained.  For the issues we are facing as a society--poverty, racism, sexual violence, gun violence--all of these are life and death issues, and we are not wrong to turn our full attention towards them, to take note of these ways in which great evil is moving in our land, in our relationships, in our lives.  More than once I’ve heard rallying cries for righteous anger:  if you’re not angry, you’re not listening.  If you care about xyz issue, you should be outraged.  Our anger is a performative requirement for showing that we are engaged, we are aware, we care about those around us.  To be engaged in the issues of our day is to be angry.  Or so the conventional wisdom seems to say.

And here, in this passage, we have a model for righteous anger, don’t we?

Or do we?

I want to suggest that, at least in the gospel of John, I’m not sure that “righteous anger” is really the focus.  Perhaps more controversially, I’m not even sure “righteous anger” is a thing in John.

Let’s look at the text for a few clues that, for me, unravel this concept.

It’s true that, in the synoptic gospels, Jesus drives out everyone that’s selling something in the Temple.  John is the only gospel, however, where Jesus takes the time to make a whip of cords.  Artistic representations aside, he’s not acting in a fit of rage; it must have taken a few minutes to knot and tie all the ropes together.  And John is pretty clear, El Greco’s picture not withstanding, that the whip is to move all the animals out, the sheep and the cows.  If you’ve ever been around livestock, you’ll realize that the sheep each weigh more than you do, and the cows are just tremendous, over half a ton in weight.  These aren’t pet livestock or even breeding stock that have been handled; they’re the livestock that’s been raised specifically for sacrifice, for slaughter, so they’re not particularly disposed to go where you want them to.  They can hold their own; they may need a little tap to get their attention, to get them moving, to get them out of the temple.  But nowhere in John does Jesus use the whip against the people doing the selling.  Just the sheep and the cattle.

We read in Matthew and Mark as well as John that Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers; in Matthew and Mark he even overturns the seats of those who are selling doves for sacrifice.  But in John he just tells the dove merchants to pack up and get out:  “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”  (John 2.16)

And that seems to be the point--the disruption of the focus of religious activity, of the object of worship--a refocusing on God God’s own self--on the kingdom of God--on right relationship with God, which, after all, was the entire point of the Temple sacrifice.  We hear in Mark (11.16) that, after Jesus has driven all the merchants out of the Temple, that no one is able to carry anything through it.  Instead, Jesus disrupts the Temple economy--the entire way that people were praying--and instead enters into a teaching relationship with them. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus has been teaching, giving good news, hope, healing--imparting the wisdom of the Kingdom of God to the people he encounters.  Now he engages questions of authority--by whose authority he teaches and heals.  In John, towards the end of our passage, the scribes and Pharisees ask for a sign, and Jesus gives them himself as a sign:  “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (Jn 2.19)

Saint Paul writes to the Corinthians that “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (Cor 1, 1.22-24)  Jesus becomes both the sign and the wisdom that the Jewish and Greek traditions seek, and yet the message of the cross is disruptive to our conventional wisdom; it’s foolish, even, as Saint Paul says.  We’d not be wrong to expect a warrior king to use his power and set things right, to mow down injustice and oppression.  This is the sort of Messiah we might seek.  But our Messiah dies, crucified on the cross.  We might seek an ethical teacher that wows us with his philosophical discourse, that shows us how to be our best selves, to live our best lives, to engage life to the fullest and live for ourselves.  But instead we encounter a human being, fully divine, who shows us how to love others, who pours himself out and dies.  Who invites us to pour ourselves out in love for him and for one another.

The angry, powerful Jesus that turns over the tables in the temple, that wields his whip, is an attractive idea.  The idea of our own agency, our own righteous anger, righting the wrongs of the world, is a tempting corollary. But that’s not really the Jesus we meet in John.   Ultimately the Jesus we meet loves the world around him.  Loves all the people around him.  Loves them so much that he submits to an execution and death.  And he rises again to be with them--with us--forever. 

That’s our sign and our wisdom.  That’s who Jesus is.  And that’s the life he invites us into--that self-offering love, that self-offering life that can stand in the face of any suffering and death the world deals, that life, that love, that ultimately prevails.

So what does that mean about our own anger at the evil that surrounds us, the evil that we endure, the evil that we visit on others? Can our anger be righteous?  Or asked another way, is it wrong to be angry?

As best I can figure, anger is morally neutral.  It’s a part of our lives.  It’s a human response.  We certainly see anger in Jesus, after all.  He is at the very least annoyed with these dove-and-sheep-and-cattle-sellers, with the Thomas Cooke agents, the merchants there in the Temple.  There are other instances when Jesus could be angry; he seems annoyed by the Syrophoenician woman who just wants healing for her daughter.  He seems annoyed--or at least startled--by the woman with a hemorrhage who grabs his garment in the crowd.  But he heals them.  The kingdom of God has come near.

Should we be angry?  I’m not sure “should” is the right word.  Perhaps the question might be, “Am I angry,” and “Why am I angry?”  Perhaps we could be attentive to what our anger is about, and what it’s doing.  Does it motivate us to do something, to have an awareness, to take action, against the injustice that surrounds us?  Then perhaps it’s righteous--that is to say, perhaps it’s helping us be in right relationship with God and with one another.  Or is it debilitating?  Does it fill us with fear, paralyze us, keep us from action?  Does it separate us from God? Does it separate us from one another? Then perhaps it is not helpful.  Perhaps it’s damaging.  And perhaps, and in truth, we have less control than we’d like over our emotions, and instead we could focus on our actions.  If we are angry, what do we do about it?  And when we find ourselves overwhelmed by evil, overcome by anger, can’t we take that anger and lay it at the foot of the cross?

It’s no accident that, when Jesus is asked to point out the most important part of the law, he summarizes it by saying to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Everything else, all the ways we are to be in the world, come from this way of loving.  When we can stop to love God, love others, love ourselves, then our whole way of being is changed.  When we recognize how we ourselves have been loved, everything is changed.

As we examine our lives this Lent, as we examine our sins--as we attend to those things that separate us from God--let’s also be attentive to how we are separated from one another.  Does anger separate us--even when rooted in a sense of injustice?  Can we turn towards love, even in the midst of working for justice?

The image of running in with a whip, righting wrongs, turning over tables, is a seductive one.  But ultimately the Jesus we meet is the Jesus that tells Peter to put his sword away.  He isn’t turning over tables in the Temple to punish folks, or to right some liturgical wrongs.  He’s doing these things to dramatically change the narrative.  In Luke, just after driving out the money changers, Jesus teaches.  In Matthew he invites people into the temple and heals them.  He behaves as though the values of the kingdom of God were already ruling the world, for, when Jesus comes near, they are.

And that’s what we’re invited to do.  In the face of great injustice, to love like Jesus.  To teach his foolish wisdom.  To join in his healing ministry to the world.  For it is only the love of Christ that can heal the world.  It’s only the love of Christ that can right wrongs, heal injustice, and heal broken hearts.  It’s not the anger of the whip or the power of the sword, but the vulnerability of love that upends the whole system.

As we walk this way of Lent, I invite us all to examine how we deal with our own anger.  To strive in all things to love God and God’s creation first.  For everything else will follow.




Our Unity with the Cross


Our Unity with the Cross

The Rev'd Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Second Sunday in Lent
February 25, 2018

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I am going to start by sharing with you a somewhat embarrassing story about me. When I was in high school, I failed Chemistry. I didn’t just struggle through chemistry class or simply perform poorly on my exams. I failed, I got a big ole F on my report card.

So I’m always cautious to borrow chemistry terms when speaking on any matter. However, in reading today’s Gospel passage a chemistry term, that I’ve somehow managed to remember after all these years, came to mind -- synthesis reaction .

In a synthesis reaction, two or more simple substances combine to form a more complex substance.

Saint Mark’s gospel calls us to look inwardly at our own synthesis, at our new substance, not merely as human beings, but as disciples of Jesus and as members of the Body of Christ.

Please humor me as I tap into my failed inner chemist -- What today’s passage calls us to examine is how we humans, substance A, combine with the cross of Christ, substance B. In other words, what does it mean for us to be merged with the cross, following in the footsteps of Jesus. The Evangelist invites us to look at ourselves as a new substance, formed not only by our human reality but by the reality of the cross.

And in order to take up our cross and follow Jesus, we are first to deny ourselves. So what does it mean for us to deny ourselves?

Our Lord’s call for our own self denial does not mean that we need to relinquish the enjoyment of certain things, as though doing without them or enduring suffering will make us holy or a more faithful disciple of Jesus.[1]

Professor Eugene Boring comments, that the word translated as “deny” in today’s gospel is found elsewhere in Saint Mark’s gospel only in reference to Saint Peter's denial of Jesus. “Deny” is the opposite of “confess” or to “acknowledge”; the hearers of this message are called to deny themselves rather than deny Jesus, that is, no longer to make oneself the top priority and the center of one’s own universe.[2]

To deny ourselves is to confess and acknowledge Christ above all things. It means heeding the words of Jesus, and not being ashamed of him or his teachings. Not being shy to follow in the ways of Jesus, and more importantly, not being scared to stumble as followers of Christ or wrestle with certain aspects of the Christian life and our own personal life along the way.

To confess and acknowledge Christ is to affirm that our God is not ashamed to be our God. It is to affirm that even when we stray away we are constantly invited to return to God. God is not afraid to embrace our humanness, our imperfections, our sins, and shortcoming. Even if we deny Jesus, just as Saint Peter did on the night of our Lord’s capture, we are invited, again and again, to return to God.

The call to deny ourselves demands of us to elevate Jesus above all things, above all rulers, and all other powers of this world. It demands of us to elevate the love of God above all human systems that seek to destroy human life. It demands of us to elevate the working, and to grow in our trust, of the Spirit to guide our lives. As Christians, as disciples of Jesus, we are no longer mere mortals, through the waters of Baptism we have become members of the Body of Christ.

In becoming members of Body of Christ, we have been united with all Christians in a most powerful and universal way. You and I have at least one thing in common with 30% of the world’s population, 2.2 billion people.

So what does it mean to up our cross and follow Jesus?

Let’s be clear, “taking up once cross does not refer to the inconveniences, or even the suffering, that are a part of human life. Our pain and suffering are not “just the cross I have to bear.” Jesus is not commanding endurance of the pains of life, but the voluntary taking up of the cross, and sharing the suffering involved that is being a follower, a disciple of Jesus.”[3]

As a members of the Body of Christ, as disciples of Jesus, we are to look at our lives through the cross of Christ. To pick up our cross and follow Jesus is to follow in the path of Jesus -- the path to Calvary . And this path is not an easy one. The way of the cross admits that human suffering, and our human capacity to bring about suffering and pain to others, is a reality in our world. And the way of cross also admits to us that at the end of the road ahead there is not death but life, there is resurrection.

Our unity with the cross, our membership in the Body of Christ, our denial of self and our confession of Jesus above all things, gives us the language to interpret and speak about the world around us. The cross can and should become the symbol in which we look at our daily lives, and even the conflicts of this nation and the world. Dare I say, it gives us the authority to call out places where evil and death dwell, and it allows us to affirm and pray for resurrection to take place.

In denying ourselves and taking up our cross, we are affirming and confessing in the one holy and living God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] Eugene Boring. Mark: A Commentary (The New Testament Library). Westminster John Knox Press, 2006. P 244.

[2]  Eugene Boring. Mark: A Commentary (The New Testament Library). Westminster John Knox Press, 2006. P 244.

[3]  Eugene Boring. Mark: A Commentary (The New Testament Library). Westminster John Knox Press, 2006. P 244.


Where is our hope?


Where is our hope?

The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
First Sunday in Lent
February 18, 2018

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  (Mark 1.15)

Most Sunday mornings before Morning Prayer, while Patrick and Zak are lighting the candles and opening up the church, I walk around the building, down Elm Street and up Broadway, picking up the trash from the night before.  There are usually a few bottles, a can maybe, a takeout container, and always a few Styrofoam cups.  Always Styrofoam.  I drop the handfuls of trash in the trashcan on Broadway near the Morgan memorial, and I walk into the church to the sacristy to wash my hands. 

Somehow that Sunday morning ritual has helped me become more aware of the trash that we throw away--of our cultural willingness to just toss things aside, in the bin, or on the street.  In the Rectory, probably like at your house, all my trash goes in a bin with a lid.  Every few days I pull the trash bag out of the bin, tie it up, and toss it in the dumpster.  It’s neat, out of site, practically hermetically sealed.  Then a waste disposal company comes twice a week and hauls the whole thing away.  I never have to think about it again. 

Our culture is addicted to throwing things away.  Coffee cups, take-out containers, old printers and laptops, clothes we’ve outgrown, tools that are broken.  Toss it in the bin.  And because someone else hauls it away, it’s out of sight, out of mind.  At least until the bill comes.

Do you know we pay almost seven thousand dollars a year to have the trash from our campus hauled away?  And that’s just here, at Broadway and Elm.  Think about what the hospital must spend--or Yale--or the City of New Haven!  Throwing things away is big business. 

It wasn’t always this way, was it?  I seem to remember a time when we valued things, repaired things, held onto them for longer.  And that’s still the case with objects of great value, of course.  When an inexpensive, mass-produced dish breaks, I am quick to toss that out in the garbage.  I can buy another.  But if a fine piece of porcelain breaks, conservators will repair it carefully.  And paradoxically, the greater the value of the piece, the less it’s diminished by the repair.  Take, for example, the Japanese practice called kintsugi (ken SU gi), a method of repairing broken pottery using a mixture of lacquer and gold dust.  By joining the pieces back together with the lacquer and gold dust, the piece is mended, but the crack is not only visible but actually enhanced.  You can see the gold shining where the mend was made.  The method values the nature of the piece itself and, while not obscuring the original crack, makes a repair that has its own beauty.  Indeed, pieces repaired by the kintsugi method have a beauty all their own, and as the method developed, it’s possible that some collectors intentionally broke pieces just to have them repaired in this beautiful manner.[1]  The piece mended by kintsugi has special beauty because it is not merely repaired; it is transformed into something new.

When something breaks, what do we do with it?  Do we keep it or toss it out?  Do we mend it or throw it away?  In the first lesson today we hear God’s promise to a broken creation—that story of God’s covenant with Noah and his descendants and even the animals that God will never again destroy the earth with a flood.   Do you remember the story—how things got to the point that there was a flood to begin with?  Earlier in Genesis we read that “the LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.  And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.  So the LORD said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’”  “And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.’”  (Gen 6.11, 13) 

This is a far cry from the creation story, when God creates and calls all of Creation good.  Now that same creation grieves God’s heart.  It is torn apart by violence.  Evil and corruption have seized the day.  And you know the story.  The earth is flooded, and everything except Noah, his family, and the animals they save on the ark is destroyed.  God makes a new start—a new beginning—with a new earth, to be inhabited only by these righteous eight persons and all their accompanying animals saved on the ark.   

And immediately that new beginning is compromised.

The next thing we read in Genesis is about a breakdown in relationships in Noah’s family--an affair of sorts--more violence, and Noah curses his grandson in despair and anger.  A wholly renewed creation, and humanity manages to mess things up within the first generation.  Does that sound familiar?  It should—it’s the story of the fall, of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden, of Cain and the murder of Abel.

Not even a flood can wipe away the sinfulness of humanity.  Throwing it all away doesn’t work.  So what are we to do?  Where is our hope?

What hope is there for us?

Our hope is in God, who, after the story of the flood promises that “never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  (Gen 9.11a)  God sets the rainbow in the sky as a reminder of this covenant, this promise. 

Our hope is in God in Christ, Christ Jesus who dies and rises, who doesn’t merely come on the scene to fix things but rather conquers sin and death. 

And so we learn, in the story about Noah, that God chooses us—that God covenants with us—and like those Japanese pots he doesn’t throw us out but puts us back together when he breaks.  We learn in the Markan gospel that Jesus isn’t some magical Teflon figure impervious to temptation; he is really tempted just as we are—perhaps more than we are—and yet is victorious.  Satan, like a prosecuting attorney, just wants to reveal the truth—that Jesus conquers evil, sin, and death—that even the wild beasts come to a place of peacefulness, not violence, in his reign.  And we learn in 1st Peter that our baptism saves us, incorporates us into the reign of Christ, into that victory of Christ over sin and death.  We, too, have hope of forgiveness, of freedom from our sins, of freedom from the control of evil and violence, because in our baptism we are made a part of Christ’s own victory. 

God has made a covenant with us.  He has chosen us.

And this is good news.  This is gospel.

When Jesus comes near, the kingdom of God is at hand.  Suddenly the world can be different.  Our relationships can be different.  Jesus says in the passage we read today, “Repent, and believe in the good news.”  That word “Repent” we can often think of as feeling sorry for something, apologizing.  But it really means change.  The Greek is metanoia, which means to change our minds. 

You may be wondering this week as we are reminded by yet another school shooting of the deep evil in the world.  You may wonder why God doesn’t wash it all away and start over.  You may wonder if we can change.  If things can be different.  You wouldn’t be wrong to ask that question.

A few years ago I preached at a nearby church; as best I can remember, the gospel had something to do with repentance, much like today.  And after mass a woman came up to me, very earnestly, and asked, “Father, do you think that people really can change?  That they really can be different?  Or do we just keep doing the same old things over and over again?”  Her question took me aback, and I stammered that of course I believed that we can change.  But I’ve really thought about her question over the years.  And I wish I could say to her what I will say to  you now:  Yes, I believe that people can change, through the grace of God, through the transforming death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I believe that we can change--that people, systems, institutions and nations can be changed, because I’ve seen it happen.  Here are some examples.

Every Saturday evening an AA group meets in the parish hall.  It’s a big group, maybe sixty or seventy people.  Late in the evening, when the group lets out, folks exit through the west hallway into the drive by Bank of America.  It’s Saturday night, so many of them hang around together, talking, laughing, smoking, sharing stories, before heading off for ice cream or pizza or wherever else their Saturday evening takes them.  When the group first started meeting here, a couple of parishioners mentioned to me with some concern that they’d noticed a group of drunken young people partying in the driveway by the kitchen on Saturday evening!  I was glad to clear things up; what they’d actually seen was just a bunch of young, funloving, sober folk, partying it up in the drive.  Through the grace of God, and through the support of one another, these beloved people of God have found, at least for today, sobriety.  They’ve broken free of the grip of addiction and reclaimed their lives.  Their joy shines through the cracks, mended with sponsors and meetings and changed behaviors, a wholly new and beautiful life from the shards of an old one.

We meet moments of healing and grace all the time.  Jesus heals the man possessed by a demon.  Another person gets the psychiatric help he needs to live a life of dignity and purpose.  Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law.  A woman suffering from cancer undergoes a course of chemotherapy and enjoys a longer life with her family.  Jesus looks upon the rich young ruler and loves him.  And a man with a home and family volunteering in the Soup Kitchen hears for the first time the life stories of another man who sleeps on the streets of New Haven and recognizes their shared humanity. 

These are dramatic moments.  Moments when lives are changed.  Not repaired, but transformed into something new.  The old is still there--but something new is born in the putting back together.  A new life, something whole, something transformed.

Trying to wipe away the sinfulness of humanity doesn’t work.  The flood didn’t work.  Handpicking the best people didn’t work.  They turned around and did it all again.  And so as the story goes God hung up his bow in the sky and kept reaching out, even to the sinful, fallen descendants of Adam and Eve, even the folks that disembarked the ark and started the process of death and decay all over again.

The kingdom of God is near.  Repent and believe the gospel. 

Let’s repent.  Change the way we are thinking.  Believe that there is hope, good news, in Jesus Christ. 

And rather than throwing all that out, God came to be among it.  To be among us.  To show us how much God loves us so that, in that moment of realizing that great love, we may be transformed.  Made into something new.  So that even when there are cracks, the light that shines from them shows the very glory of God. 



Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany


Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany

The Rt Rev'd Ian T. Douglas
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Last Sunday after the Epiphany
February 11, 2018

In the name of the One Holy and Triune God. Amen.

In 1997 the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, our church-wide governing body, designated the Last Sunday of Epiphany as “World Mission Sunday” calling on the church at every level, parish, diocese, and General Church to increase awareness of and participation in God’s global mission.  The last Sunday of Epiphany, which we celebrate here today, was chosen as World Mission Sunday because in Epiphany, the season of light, the Church recalls that the Magi, those wise men from the East, were the first gentiles to see and understand that Jesus is the Messiah, the light of the world.  It is a good and right thing that we are celebrating World Mission Sunday today here at Christ Church in New Haven. (And I have to confess, I was the author of the General Convention resolution back in 1997 – so I never neglect to note God’s global mission on this the last Sunday of Epiphany.)

And on the Last Sunday of Epiphany the Gospel is always the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop.  Depending on which year we are in in the lectionary cycle we hear either Matthew’s, Mark’s, or Luke’s version of the story - and they are all very similar.  This year we have Mark’s version.  So the question might be asked: Why would the General Convention choose this Sunday, when we always hear the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus as our Gospel, to focus on world mission?  What does the Transfiguration have to do with mission, with God’s mission?

You probably are not surprised to hear that I think the Transfiguration of Jesus has a lot to say about God’s mission, specifically: 1) that Jesus embodies and extends God’s saving mission in the world begun in the covenants God made with the people of Israel and affirmed in the words and witness of the prophets.  2) that we followers of Jesus, (disciples) upon discovering and experiencing what God is up to in Jesus the Christ,  too often want to institutionalize, or fossilize, the radical good news of the Jesus movement.  3) Yet Jesus invites us, urges us, to go down from our mountain top epiphanies and join God as apostles of God’s mission of restoration and reconciliation.

Recall the story.  Jesus goes up on the mountaintop with Peter, James and John to pray.  And there Jesus is transfigured in the glory of God and his cloths become dazzling white.  And appearing with Jesus are Moses and Elijah.  Moses - the one who received the law and led the people of Israel out of bondage in fulfillment of God’s covenants with God’s treasured people; and Elijah the prophet, the one who called the people of Israel back into right relationship with God.  The appearance of Moses and Elijah underscores that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.  And if there is any question about who Jesus is and what his mission is, a voice from the cloud makes this unambiguously clear:  “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.”  Jesus is indeed the son of God, the Messiah, fully human and fully divine.  The one who has come to restore all people to unity with God and each other as the Christ.

And what do Peter, James and John do when they see and experience the truth of Jesus revealed on the mountaintop?  Do they immediately go as apostles, sent to witness to the Transfiguration?  They do not.  Instead they say: “Let us make three dwellings, one for you (Jesus), one for Moses and one for Elijah.”  They seem to want to capture and domesticate the mission of God as revealed in the law and the prophets, and in Jesus the Son of God.  Their inclination is to set apart the good news, to institutionalize and enshrine it.  It is almost as if they want to hide the light of God’s mission in Jesus in the baskets of the dwellings they seek to construct.  Companions in Christ, how often does the church do the same today?

But is that what God wants?  Does God want us to remain safe and secure in the dwellings of our own construction?  - to rest inside even the most beautiful of our church structures?  God does not.  For God sends us out as apostles (literally those sent) to be about God’s saving and healing work in the world.  That’s why in all three Gospel versions of the Transfiguration, (Mathew, Mark, and Luke) the story is followed immediately by Jesus’ healing of a boy with a demon – from Transfiguration to healing, from mountaintop to mission.

And the good news is each and every one of is likewise sent as apostles to comedown from our mountaintops and join Jesus in God’s mission of healing and  wholeness.  By virtue of our baptism, we are commissioned, co-missioned in God’s mission to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.  In baptism we are sent forth to be agents of God’s restoration and reconciliation in the world. 

In a few minutes, Brett Alan Judson and Chaou Li will come forward to be confirmed promising to follow Jesus as his/their Savior and Lord.  Before he/they are confirmed all of us with will be given the chance to affirm our own baptismal vows using the words of the Baptismal Covenant.

In the first three questions of the Baptismal Covenant we will be asked to profess our belief in the Triune God.  Responding with the words of the Apostles Creed, we identify as disciples of the Transfigured Messiah seeking to follow God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Then in the last five questions of the Baptismal Covenant we promise to come down from our mountaintop experiences of Jesus and participate in God’s mission of healing and wholeness in the world.  With God’s help we commit to being apostles of God’s restoration and reconciliation in the world living lives of: worship (Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers?) forgiveness  (Will you persevere in resisting evil and when you sin repent and return to the Lord?) evangelism (Will you proclaim in word and deed the good news of God in Christ?) service (Will you seek and serve Christ loving your neighbor as yourself?) and justice (Will you strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being?) 

So there we have it.  On this the last Sunday of Epiphany, on this World Mission Sunday, each and every one of us, is invited to own again our mountaintop experiences as disciples of the living God in Jesus; and then commit our lives anew as apostles of God’s mission in the world.  May we be those disciples and apostles of the Transfigured Jesus that God wants us and needs us to be. Happy Epiphany!


Searching for Jesus


Searching for Jesus

The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 4, 2018

This week we celebrated the eve of Candlemas with a wonderful solemn high mass, a procession with blessing of candles, a potluck that was an embarrassment of riches, and a burning of the greens that was, despite the drizzling rain, dramatic to say the least.  The flames were higher than the roof of the parish house.  It was a great time to be together.  And the very next day, due to the strangeness of the American calendar, Groundhog Day coincided with Candlemas itself.  Just before Morning Prayer in the lady chapel, Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog, emerged from his den and saw his shadow, predicting six months’ more of winter.  But take heart, Staten Island Chuck, a rival rodent, did not see his shadow.  So maybe spring is just around the corner.

While I wish that Chuck were right, I suspect that Phil is the more accurate predictor, if groundhogs have anything at all to do with the weather, which they don’t.  I wouldn’t be sad to see winter wind up early, though, primarily because it’s flu season, and I’m concerned about the prevalence of the flu we’ve seen this year. 

This year the flu season is particularly bad; I’ve read about how the flu vaccine doesn’t contain all the right strains this year, and I keep hearing from many of you how you’ve gotten the flu--and how bad it is.  But there is one bright spot in flu season this year.  Doctors have at their disposal an anti-viral medication called Tamiflu that is reducing the severity and the duration of the flu.  I’ve heard great anecdotal stories about people that, as soon as they got the flu, immediately started a regimen of Tamiflu, and have gotten back up and back to work in days rather than weeks. 

It’s truly a modern miracle.  This antiviral medication is reducing suffering and pain and getting people back on their feet.   If we must have six more weeks of winter, at least we’ve got Tamiflu.

In our gospel today we hear the miraculous story of Jesus healing the sick, particularly the story of Jesus healing Peter’s mother in law.  The mother in law isn’t named; Peter’s wife isn’t named.  The important thing for the gospel writer to convey is the healing.

Think of it:  the apostles didn’t have Tamiflu.  Peter’s mother in law (let’s call her Jane for purposes of this story) has gotten sick.  Jane is a force to be reckoned with; even Peter is a little afraid of her.  But he’s married her daughter, and Jane has made the best of it.  She loves her daughter and her son-in-law, and part of her mission in life right now is to take care of them and her other son Andrew.  She knows how Andrew and Peter are captivated by this teacher Joshua that they’ve met, and so, when Peter asks if they can have him over, she dutifully sets to work planning a meal.  But about that time she catches the flu.  She was so careful, using her Purell hand sanitizer and trying not to touch doorknobs or stair rails or anything that, and now she’s down with the flu.  Bedridden.  Can’t get up.

And Peter and Andrew have the nerve to bring his friend Joshua over to the house, along with James and John.

What could have been a disaster, the burden of all these guests arriving, turns instead into our gospel story of healing, however, as Jesus, Peter’s friend Joshua, takes the hand of Jane, the mother in law, and lifts her up.  She’s healed, restored to strength and wholeness.  They don’t have Tamiflu.  It’s only the power of God, working in creation, the very presence of God in Jesus Christ, which heals Peter’s mother in law.  And the news spreads.  The demons are cast out and the ill are restored to wholeness; the fever lifted, and Peter’s mother in law is restored to health.  And by that evening everyone who was sick in the surrounding area turned up at Peter’s house.  The whole city gathers around the door, the gospel writer tells us, as people come to seek healing.  (Mark 1.33) 

I realize that these stories of healing in the gospel are included to show us a visible, tangible revelation of God’s healing power, God’s restoring power, God’s renewing power as revealed in Jesus Christ.  I give thanks for these miracles and find strength and hope in them!  But I also get anxious about the people that didn’t make it to the door that evening to be healed.  What about people in other towns?  What about the folks in other places?  What are they to do?  Peter’s mother in law is healed—but what about everyone else in need of healing?  What are we to make of them?

After all, we hear that, after that evening of healing, the next morning,

“while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.  And Simon and his companions hunted for him.  When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’  He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’”  (Mark 1.35-38)

The healing of sickness and casting out of demons are amazing things, to be sure.  Just the idea of cure, of relief from fever, that Paul’s mother in law experiences is a miraculous thing.  When you think about it, it’s a miracle our bodies work at all—anytime we recover from the flu it’s a miracle!  In our postmodern culture, with the benefit of medical science, we tend to pathologize things that make us “sick”—things that make us less than our normally performing selves, the state of self which we consider normative [1]—and as our understanding of mental health has developed, we’ve lost a sense of “possession” of the demonic sort, generally leaving that sort of thing up to horror movies and sensationalist television shows.  Healing the sick mother in law and casting out demons are things for modern medicine, and Jesus’s actions may seem like foreign, unfamiliar ideas to us—and may seem quite different categorically from one another, too. 

But they begin to seem more familiar—and to look quite similar—when we consider the outcome of these healings and exorcisms.  Bruce Malina and Roger Rohrbaugh have argued that there is a difference in disease and illness:  that disease is a biological process, but that illness is the way we relate—or stop relating, in the face of biological breakdown—to our culture, to our communities.  Using that model, we realize that Paul’s mother in law, healed from her disease, her fever, is able to return to the work she wants to perform—healed from her illness she is able to rejoin her role in community as a leader in the house—so that she is once more able to be a hospitable caregiver, welcomer, mother, and friend to these followers of Jesus.  She serves them—the Greek diékonei implies even a kind of table service—that she might have risen from her sick bed and fed all her guests.  Freed from her illness, she is free to serve—to cook, to welcome, to entertain, to celebrate. [2]  Similarly, those who are possessed by demons, whatever the sort they may be, are freed to be themselves—to rejoin community—to live lives of purpose and meaning no longer held back by outside possession; free from the control of an outside force; freed to be the people that God had made them to be.

Everyone is searching for you, Jesus! Everyone is hunting for Jesus, looking to have their diseases cured, but underneath the process of curing disease, they’re really seeking healing of illness--wholeness, restoration of relationship, and new life.

So to use this model of disease vs illness, Tamiflu can shorten the length and severity of the disease process of the flu virus.  But only Jesus heals their illness.

And so it begins to make sense that Jesus says, “Let us go on…so that I may proclaim the message there…; for that is what I came out to do.”

We can get caught up in the healing of disease in this story, and why wouldn’t we!  The usefulness of the medical arts in our society, in our world, is so important.  It’s a ministry of healing; it’s joining in the work of God’s restorative acts in creation, and so it’s no wonder the whole town turns out at Peter’s door.  There’s such longing for healing in our world.  And thanks be to God for those of you who have given your lives to the healing arts--to those of you who develop curative measures like Tamiflu, or penicillin, or any sort of healing protocols that help our bodies work as God made them to. 

But let’s not miss the deeper implications of this story.  Let’s not show up only for the physical healing but for the spiritual healing as well. 

For now, we know the brokenness of things—that illness is real, that possession—however we name that demon, be it schizophrenia, addiction, lust, or greed—is a real thing—that sin binds us—we know that we are not fully the beings that God has created us to be, not fully occupying the shape of us that is being made in the image of God.

Jesus comes to give us that message of healing, of freedom, of restoration—the promise of healing for even illness—the promise of freedom even from possession—the promise of restoration in, with, and through God.  The main thing—the most important thing—that Jesus is about is not only curing Peter’s mother in law, though that’s an awfully good thing.  The most important thing is that he is telling people about God.  About the transforming power of God’s love for them.  The freeing, healing, restoring power of God’s love.  That freedom, that love, that everyone is searching for.

The collect this morning reminds us that we are turning the corner from the revelation of the Incarnation, from the epiphany moments of the wise men, the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, the wedding at Cana in Galilee, even the wonder of the Transfiguration which we will read about next week—we are shifting from a focus on the recognition of God’s incarnate Word breaking into the world—to Lent--to a realization of the world’s brokenness, our own brokenness, that ultimately results in the death of our Lord—and is transformed and redeemed by his resurrection. 

And that’s what we’re longing for, that transformation.  That’s why people are hunting after Jesus.  They want to be restored to wholeness--to right relationship with God, with creation, with one another.  And that kind of spiritual healing, that freeing from illness in our model, comes only through Jesus.

That kind of healing is about relationship.  About being seen--and known--by someone who truly loves you, by God who truly knows and loves you. 

And so Jesus goes out to tell the message of hope, of good news, casting out demons along the way.  To know people, and to be known by them.  To love them.  To give them hope.

You’re invited to share that kind of healing with the world.  To show people Jesus’s love.  To show people Jesus.

We prayed today:

Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ

As we move towards Lent, I invite us to keep praying for that freedom from brokenness, from sin—even for transformation in the brokenness of the world that we cannot control, knowing that in the fullness of time the kingdom of God will fully come.  Rather than being bound by the things that seek to control us, I invite us to be wrapped in the love and grace of God.

I invite us to share that love of Jesus--to be people of mercy, hope, and love.  I invite us to show people Jesus--through small, simple acts of lovingkindness and gratitude.  Through forgiving.  Through inviting.  Through being with the other.

The healing miracles of Jesus prefigure the kingdom of God--not merely in that disease is wiped away, but in that relationship is restored.  That we know and love one another, that we know and love God, as God knows and loves us.  That’s the message Jesus is carrying out. 

Hunt for him in your Lenten lives, each and every day.  He has already found you.  Let your freedom, your hope, your joy be found in him.


[1] Malina & Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p 210, as quoted by Brian Stoffregen at http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark1x29.htm (last accessed 2/8/15). 

[2] Ibid.  The distinction of disease vs illness is theirs.


Going Vegetarian for Jesus


Going Vegetarian for Jesus

The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
January 28, 2018

One of the things that I love to do is cook for people.  I’m not saying I’m good at it--only that I enjoy  doing it.  Just last week a colleague and I were discussing a menu for a luncheon and, as we thought about who was coming to the meal, it became more and more complicated to hone in on just one dish that everyone could enjoy.  The vegetarians didn’t want meat, and the paleo folks didn’t want any starches.  The dairy-free diners couldn’t have butter, along with the vegans, who wouldn’t eat eggs.  Finally we settled on a fish with a salad, confident that everyone could eat at least one of the two things on offer.

There are good and important reasons--ethics and health requirements at the top of the list--that the diners coming to lunch had for their dietary requirements, and I wanted to be sure to provide for all of those needs.  Outside of dietary requirements, there’s even the whole realm of personal choice.  It’s fine to eat what you like!  I remember as a child not liking eggs, and I’m pretty sure that, until about the fourth grade, I told everyone that tried to give me eggs that I was allergic to them.  That probably wasn’t the best choice; I should have just said, “No, thank you,” when the eggs were passed around!  And that would have been fine, too.

You might be tempted to think that Paul’s advice to the Corinthians is something along the lines of, “Therefore, if carbs are a cause of their failings, then I will always eat paleo, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.” 

The letter to the Corinthians isn’t about all eating the same way so that dinner planning is easier.  It’s not about health, or even about the ethics of eating animals.  It’s not about dietary principles.  It’s about Christian witness.

Remember that Corinth is a trading city, a cosmopolitan port on the isthmus that connects the northern part of Greece with the southern.  Ships would be dragged across on logs from one side to the other of that little land strip.  There were people of all religions, nations, backgrounds--wealthy merchants and poor laborers, slaves and free, and goods from everywhere.  Corinth was a crossroads.  And in that place was a new and growing Christian community, a community of probably mostly Greeks that had likely followed other gods before; people that had heard the good news of Jesus and wanted to follow him but were still learning.

They had friends that made sacrifices to Apollos; the wealthy ones among them might even be invited to dinners in the local pagan temples, dinners where meat which had been sacrificed to pagan gods would be served. What were they to do?  Should they eat the meat or not?

And so they wrote to Paul and asked. 

Now, Paul, they might have said, we know that there is only one God, revealed in Jesus Christ, and we know that all things belong to God, and so surely it can’t hurt if we eat this meat.  It’ll just go to waste otherwise!  And besides, won’t it look like we’re superstitious if we avoid the meat? 

There must have been lots of arguments about why rational people could just go ahead and eat the meat. 

But Paul reframes the question entirely. 

For Paul it wasn’t about whether you could, or whether you even should, eat the meat.

It was all about what that action said to other people. How it affected the community.

For Paul this was not a choice made in a vacuum, made only for one’s own self. The freedom of the individual was tied to the wellbeing of the whole community.

What would happen, Paul reasoned, if someone saw you eating at that banquet in Asclepius’s temple, the god of medicine?  Would they think you were a follower of Asclepius, not of Jesus?  What sort of a witness would you be providing?

A decade or more ago, before people were maybe as careful about ethics surrounding drug company sales representatives, my friends who were doctors and single would invite me along occasionally to dinner with drug reps.  The meals were extraordinary; we’d end up at the most expensive steak house in town, with lots of great wine and well-aged filets.  These were delicious dinners.  And while I’m not sure it ever made a difference in what my friends prescribed, I did feel better about things when ethics rules got a little tighter at the hospital, and the expensive meals fell by the wayside.  But we enjoyed it while it lasted.

That’s the kind of meal you might have expected in the Temple of Asclepius.  It would have been lavish.  The best people, the wealthiest, would have been there.

To give that up was something indeed. 

And what Paul is saying is that he’d turn down that steak dinner every time.  Give up meat entirely.  Shun the free meal, the lavish banquet, all of it--if in any way it might seem to someone that he was straying from his devotion to Jesus Christ as Lord.

The only thing that mattered to Paul was following Jesus.  And showing other people how to follow Him.


Friends, we live in an age of rampant individualism.  Our President has campaigned on a slogan of “America First.”  And yet here is Paul, admonishing the bright young things of Corinth to put aside their own culinary desires, their own status, their own wants--to consider the other.  The person who is new in the faith.  The person who hasn’t yet heard about Jesus--but is looking to them to see how they act. 

I want to be clear that I don’t think Paul is saying that we are responsible for someone else’s actions.  We know we can’t control the actions of others.  But Paul is saying that we are responsible for our own actions.  And that our actions are not just for us alone, but for our brothers and sisters.  That we are responsible to others and to God for what we do.  That how we use our lives is a witness--a witness for the gospel.  That it says something about what we believe about Jesus, and about whom we follow.

This is Cain’s first retort to God; when Cain kills Abel and God comes looking for him, God asks, “Where is your brother?”  And Cain replies, “I don’t know.  Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The answer is yes.  Yes, we are responsible for one another.  We are one another’s keepers.

And what Paul is concerned about, what Paul is aiming for, is that each new Christian in Corinth lives such a life that it’s clear whom they love.  That it’s clear that they are following Jesus. 

And that, in that light, in that love, other Corinthians too may be drawn to God.

Their lives are vessels--to show people Jesus.

So yes, in this context, it matters how and what they eat.  It matters how they treat one another.  And it matters what they say.

Today is our annual meeting, and one of the themes we’ve talked about is how well things are going here.  How here at Christ Church we’re a part of a discipleship movement.  We pray, we learn about the faith, we support one another in Christian community, we reach out in love and service to our neighbors.  We are following Jesus.

But what are people seeing from the outside?  Are we living like the Corinthians, who want to go to the banquet in Asclepius’s temple because the food is so good?  Are we doing what we want? Or are we living in such a way--are we talking about our faith in such a way--that the people around us can’t help but see Jesus?  Are we living out our faith, are we talking about it, in such a way that folks in New Haven are learning that Jesus loves them?  That they want to come to the banquet here at this table?  That they want to see Jesus?

If this all seems too much, remember who it is that we serve. We serve the risen Lord Jesus, who heals the sick, raises the dead, and casts out demons.  He teaches like one with authority, not like the scribes and Pharisees, not like the powers of this world.  It is his own abiding presence, the Holy Spirit, that will do the work of sharing God’s love.  All we have to do is open the door.

Take a chance this week, this month, this year.  Tell people something about what you believe.  Invite them to come and see. 

This year, let’s help show people Jesus.


Glorify God in your Body


Glorify God in your Body

The Rev'd Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
January 14, 2018

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Have you ever thought to yourself, after hearing the words of Saint Paul read by the subdeacon at mass: What in the world is going on, Paul?

One of the gifts of being part of a lectionary based tradition is that we’re exposed to most of Scripture through worship, either in the context of daily or Sunday worship, even if in small fragments.

At best, we hear small bite size pieces of scripture, beautifully portioned for our liturgical purposes. I’m thinking of those passages from the letters of Saint Paul that often appear at funerals, baptisms, and weddings. It’s not too much longer in his letter to the Corinthians that Saint Paul will write -- “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Sound familiar?

On the flip side, at worst, when we hear only a small portion of scripture, specifically from Saint Paul’s letters, we can find ourselves saying: What in the world is going on, Paul?

In today’s Epistle, we find Saint Paul writing about what is lawful for us as human beings. Paul seems to be deeply concerned with our bodies and what they consume. From the food we take in, to the true ownership of our bodies belonging to Christ, and to our sexual conduct and ethics.

If we were to flip through the rest of Saint Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we would realize that Corinth was a wild place. If you were to simply read the bold headings that appear in your bible, you would realize that something is off in Corinth to say the least.

From the opening rhetorical statements by Saint Paul in this passage, we can assume that the Corinthians favorite slogan must have been - “ I am free to do anything.”[1] After hearing the Good News of Jesus, of God’s unconditional grace, love, and forgiveness, many in Corinth have taken this to believe that it does not matter what you do with our bodies because we have been given freedom in Christ. And this is exactly where Saint Paul stops them.

Yes, while all things might be lawful for you, not all things are beneficial. Not all things are beneficial because not all things bring us into unity with God and creation. Even those things which by their nature are good, if misused and corrupted, can be detrimental to our souls and bodies.

The major problem for Christians in Corinth was not that they could not see this but they didn’t seem to care. They didn’t seem to care if what they did with their bodies brought about pain and suffering to their families and community.

To break them away from their toxic patterns, Saint Paul turns their attention to our Lord’s Resurrection. Saint Paul reminds those in Corinth, and us today, of the centrality of our Lord’s Resurrection for both our physical bodies and our daily living.

Concerning Paul’s reminder of the resurrection and its role in our bodies, biblical scholar and former Dean at Duke Divinity School, Richard Hays, writes:

“ The body belongs to the Lord, and God has confirmed his concern for the body by raising the Lord Jesus; this act of power declares God’s ultimate promise to raise us also... The body is not simply a husk to be cast off in the next life; the gospel of Jesus Christ proclaims that we are to be redeemed body, soul, and spirit. Salvation can never be understood as escape from the physical world or as the flight of the soul to heaven. Rather, the resurrection of the body is an integral element of the Christian story. Those who live within that story, then, should understand what they do with their bodies in the present time is a matter of urgent concern.” [2]

In the last few months, I have been reminded of the importance of our bodies and of our human capacity to exploit our God giving freedom when corrupted by power and a history of privilege. While it’s easy to point to those Christians in Corinth and their carelessness and exploitation of the body many centuries, we can also easily point to the now countless number of cases in Hollywood where people have been sexually and violently exploited. Let’s not be naive and think this is only happening in Hollywood because it happens here in New Haven and across our country. We have seen in our day, and continue to see, an evil spirit in which some among us believe that they are free to do anything they want. That the desires of their bodies are above the Resurrection which call us to view our bodies not as our own but God’s. So when someone is sexually harmed and abused it is harming both to the individual and God.

“Our bodies are not our own property which we may use according to our own autonomous designs.... [Saint] Paul insists that we have been placed under the ownership of the Lord. By his death, Jesus has paid the terrible price to ransom us from bondage to the powers of sin and death; consequently, we all belong to him and not ourselves, “for you were bought with a price.”[3]

When a person decides to violently take the body of another person, they are rejecting the truth of God in Christ. They are rejecting our Lord’s Incarnation and Resurrection when our mandate is to glorify God with our bodies. In this the age of Christ, our bodies belong to God. Redeemed and made whole by his glorious resurrection. Our duty to is reject all things that seek to destroy our human bodies or that allow us to exploit the bodies of others because all bodies are part of God’s Body. And we’re called to do this so that we can do the only thing we were meant to with our bodies -- show glory to God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] Richard Hays. First Corinthians. 102

[2] Ibid, 104. 

[3] Ibid, 106.


Sermon for the Baptism of Christ

1 Comment

Sermon for the Baptism of Christ

The Rev'd Matthew Larsen
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Sunday after the Epiphany: Baptism of Our Lord
January 7, 2018

So I am afraid I’m going to preach two sermons. And I know that sounds bad, but I actually wrote three, so consider yourself lucky. Two sermons kind of works, given precisely where we are in the church calendar. Yesterday was Epiphany. In Epiphany we commemorate the moment when the Three Wise Men brought to baby Jesus the three worst baby shower gifts in all of human history. I mean, I have been to baby showers and I have seen some do-sies, but these really take the cake.

“Oh, thank you, Gaspar, our little baby Yeshua is gonna love this … frankincense! What a thoughtful gift. Look, honey, did you see what Gaspar brought? Frankincense. Yeah, I know. Well, you are just so thoughtful—infants love incense! It should really freshen up the barn we are currently living in. Although Joseph and I had made the decision already not to let babies play with fire.”

“Wow, Melchior, what a clever idea—to give an infant myrrh! That’s perfect: just born and already ready for his funeral. Just put it right over there, yeah, next to the gold and frankincense.”

Of course, this was not really a baby shower. And the gifts don’t point us to Christ’s birth but to his life and death. That’s why the called the Epiphany, because it points to Christ’s glory bursting forth. They point to his status as king, as priest, and as sacrifice. They point to God’s gift in Christ being given freely to the entire world, without distinction or preference. A child born to save, born to rule, born to die.

Happy Epiphany!

Now for sermon number two. And really it builds off the first sermon. Today is the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, the first Sunday after Epiphany. And the time God makes his glory known at Jesus’s baptism in the River Jordan. Gospel tradition points to this as the critical moment in which Jesus’s ministry really gets going. He seems to realize something that awakes him to a new view of himself and his calling.

Nowadays baptisms usually happen either on the Easter Vigil, Pentecost, All Saints, or—today—the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord. There are different and good reasons for a baptism on all of those days, but doing a baptism on this Feast is especially helpful for us to think about.

When we are baptized into the body of Christ, several life changing things happen. We make a covenant. We promise to serve and worship God, to resist evil, to proclaim the good news, to seek Christ in all persons, and to strive for justice. We receive the Holy Spirit, which empowers us to keep our promises.

We also get to claim as our own the very same words that Jesus hears from God in heaven. “You are my beloved son, in you am I well pleased.” Incorporated into Christ’s body, we hear for ourselves God say to us, “You are my beloved daughter, my beloved son, and in you am I well pleased.” In a way that we would never be able otherwise, those words become true for us and in us.

Martin Luther used to say (and I realize I have shared this before, but just think of me as a grandparent saying the same favorite stories over and over again), “Remember your baptism!” Now he was not speaking as a visiting preacher at a Baptist church or Church of Christ congregation, where everyone was baptized as an adult and actually had any cognitive memory of their baptism whatsoever. They had NO memory of their baptism.

So how do you remember your baptism? What does that mean? It doesn’t mean remember the physical, embodied moment in which you were baptized in water. It means remember who your baptism says you are.

I want you to imagine God, who made all things, who holds all things together by his mighty power, sits with you, looks directly into your eyes, and says, “I am proud of you. I see you for all that you are, for all that you have, for all that you’ve done, and for all that you ever will do. I’m so glad you’re my child. And I am proud of you.”

You know, as far as I can tell, I don’t know that you can ever get much past that. No matter what happens with you relationships, your work; no matter how many mistakes you’ve made, how much you done that you aren’t proud of, how much you wish you could change.

No matter how many books you write, how many deals you close, how many things you have, how much influence you exert, I don’t know that you can improve too much, when it is all said and done, on the very idea that there is a God and in baptism you get to know that God is proud of you.

God says in baptism. God repeats it every time we come to the altar. God never changes God’s mind. “You—you!—are my beloved daughter, you are my beloved son, and in you am I well pleased!”

In some ways, we are all looking for the blessing. As a parent, I want to give my kids the blessing. And the way I do that is, every night as I tuck them into bed, I look them in the eyes, and with all the earnestness and sincerity I can muster, I say their full name and I remind them, “You are my beloved daughter, beloved son, and in you I am well-pleased.” It is the blessing God the Father gave to Jesus Christ, and it is the blessing that God gives to each baptized Christian.

Jesus’s baptism also marked the beginning of his ministry. And our baptism is also an ordination of sorts. We make vows to serve God and God’s world with love and justice. Do you know what happens after Jesus’s baptism? It’s the verses immediately after our gospel reading. The Holy Spirit chunked (it’s the same word used elsewhere to describe casting out a demon) Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Our vocation as baptized Christians won’t be easy either. As we seek to establish God’s justice and peace on earth, we will battle the demons of hatred, racism, sexism, ignorance, oppression, all of which seem to gathering more steam every time we open our newspapers. But Jesus has been out there before, with the wild beasts. The angels were there, too, ministering to him. And we won’t be alone either, as we go to the wilderness to fight for God’s righteousness.

So I wonder what would happen if we all started remembering our baptism. Maybe if the words, “You are my beloved child, and in you am I well pleased,” took hold, we would find the self-love to love God for God’s sake and love our neighbor as ourselves. Maybe then the glory of the Lord would shine forth. Maybe God’s justice would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. Maybe then we would see Epiphany.



1 Comment

Who Does Christ Want to Be for You?


Who Does Christ Want to Be for You?

The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Christmas Day
December 25, 2017

When I was a kid we had a great Christmas album that I loved to play.  It was vinyl, warm, and only a little scratchy and poppy with the years of wear--no wonder, since I’d often just set it on repeat so that I could hear Bing Crosby, over and over again, singing Christmas favorites like “I’ll be home for Christmas,” “White Christmas,” “O come all ye faithful,” and, of course, with the Hammond organ and a choir of backup singers crooning behind him, “Silent night.” 

I loved that album--maybe you do, too--it’s been around since 1945, so lots of people have heard Crosby’s take on these holiday favorites. 

Somehow between “White Christmas” and “I’ll be home for Christmas” my young mind internalized the idea that, indeed, Christmas was a time that you were supposed to be at home--wherever or whatever home might mean for you--and for me, that meant being with my parents, at their house.  I couldn’t imagine ever being anywhere else.

Many decades later, I realize “I’ll be home for Christmas” was about American GI’s longing to be home--home from war, home for Christmas--just back home.  But as a child it was pretty much a directive for me, an early imprinting.  I’ll be home for Christmas! Of course I will!  And I can pretty much guarantee that, at some point in my young adulthood, my mother said, “It doesn’t matter where you live, as long as you come home for Christmas.”  

I’ll bet that lots of you here today have come home for Christmas--or wish you could be home--however you understand home.  You’ve come here with parents and grandparents because that’s what you do at Christmas--you spend time at home with your family; you go to church; you’re home for Christmas because you love one another.

Or maybe you wish you could be home; perhaps you mourn loved ones who are gone, or you long for a place that is home, or loved ones to go home to.  Our experiences of love, of place, of home, may be different.

But for me, the message I internalized from those songs--a message of obligation--thou shalt be home for Christmas--has, as I’ve gotten older, turned into something more like a message of invitation.  I’ve realized that what Bing Crosby was crooning about was a longing, a desire, to be with people--to be with the people we love.  That my mother’s insistence, “It doesn’t matter where you live, as long as you come home for Christmas”--that expression was just a desire to be together--a longing to spend time, to be with one another, to share the love that parents bear for their children--the love that children feel for their parents.

We’re made for community; we long to be together.  And, often, that’s made even clearer around the holidays--a time when we slow down, when we focus on community, on peace, goodwill.

No wonder.  After all, the whole message of the birth of Jesus, the whole message of the incarnation, is that God has come to dwell among us, as one of us.

We know that, right?  We say it every Sunday as part of the creed. We’ll say it again today.  “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”

We heard it in the gospel lesson, the same reading from Saint John that we’ve heard at the end of mass each Sunday in Advent:  “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

But are we hearing it?

Are we hearing in this doctrinal truth, in this scripture, in this Word, the enfleshed reality of our lives?  That God wants to be with us?  Not only at Christmas but always?

Here’s a story that helps me gauge how willing I am to receive the gift of the Incarnation.

It’s a story told by Father Martin Smith, former monastic and now secular clergy.  Fr Martin leads lots of retreats and has had many folks in spiritual direction, and this is a story about a retreat he led.

During the retreat a cleric asked to meet with Fr Martin for spiritual direction, and Martin gave him an exercise.  He said to the priest, I want you to go away and pray--spend the day thinking and praying on this one question:  Who does Christ want to be for you, just now?[1] 

The priest dutifully went away and meditated and prayed  and read scripture and walked in the woods.  We’re a task-oriented bunch of folks, the clergy.  He did the thing he’d been told to do!  And later that evening he came back to Fr Martin to check in.

So, what did you learn? What did you hear?  Martin asked.  The priest had conscientiously made a list--things he could work on.  Well, Father, the priest began, I think Jesus wants me to work on being a better husband.  Taking my day off, spending time with my family.  I think he wants me to take my retreat days, to read more, to spend more time in study of scripture and sermon preparation.  I think I can visit the sick more often, spend more time with those in need… And it was about that time that Martin interrupted the earnest man. 

Stop, just stop! he said.  You misheard the question.  I didn’t ask what you can do for Jesus.  I didn’t ask who Christ wants you to be.  I asked you who Christ wants to be, for you.  Who do you want Jesus to be for you, just right here, right now?

Martin says that he asks those questions all the time now.  And that people really struggle to answer.  They default--I’d default--to what they can do.  It’s hard for them to think about what Jesus wants to do. What they want Jesus to do.  Who they want Jesus to be for them.  Who Jesus wants to be for them in that very moment.  In their very lives.

It’s hard for us, in our great struggle to be competent, to be successful, to be effective, or just even to be relatively good at something--or even good to one another--it’s hard for us, in our striving, to just stop, to stand still, and to realize that God has already done the thing that God wants.  God has already done the thing that we long for.  That God just wants to be with us, full stop.  No explanations.  No machinations.  Only acceptance.

We are already home for Christmas, home in the presence of Christ in the sacraments.  Home in the presence of Christ in this, his Body, the Church.  Home in the hope, in the joy, in the love of God’s own self-offering.

Will we receive that gift?  Will we recognize God’s love in it?  God’s longing--God’s own longing for us?  Will we receive God’s longing for us, without strings, without trying to earn it, or deserve it, or do anything to merit it?

For when we truly recognize the love that God has for us, that’s when we’re changed.  That’s when we’re freed to respond with love--love for God and neighbor, love for all Creation.

But it begins here.  In the Incarnation. In receiving that great gift.

Who does Christ want to be for you? 

He wants to be with you.  Right here, right now.  And always.

The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

O come, let us adore Him.



That's What Christmas is All About, Charlie Brown


That's What Christmas is All About, Charlie Brown

The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Christmas Eve - Solemn High Mass
December 24, 2017, 10:00 p.m.

Tonight on Christmas Eve we hear again the story of the angels, the angels who announce the birth of Jesus ,the Christ Child, in the manger at Bethlehem.

At 4:30 this afternoon the children helped us build the crèche which you see behind you, the visual representation of our collective memory, helped out by Saint Francis and early writings, of what things might have looked like when Jesus was born to Mary, right there in the manger.  We’ve laid the figure of the infant in the crèche this very evening, in procession, and we’ve prayed.  And I hope you have in your mind’s eye a picture of the reality of this event, the Word made flesh, Jesus come as a baby, into the world.  I love this part of Christmas--the crèche, the angels, the story.

But I confess to you that every time I hear that story read aloud, especially in the Authorized version, another image I have, a complementary image, is the one from the Charlie Brown Christmas Special from 1965. 

Do you know this television special?  It’s run, pretty much every Christmas, since it premiered in 1965.  The thirty-minute animated special, based on characters created by Charles Schulz, was a bold experiment for the CBS network and for the Coca-Cola Company and its ad agency, McCann-Erickson.  The network executives were nervous when they first saw the show: there was no laugh track; children’s voices exclusively voiced the characters and sang the music; a jazz soundtrack by the Vince Guaraldi trio accompanied what Charles Schulz himself called badly-drawn characters.  The sound was bad (by modern standards), the animation barely matched the dialogue.  It was rough and clunky.  And, to top it all off, the highlight of the entire show was Linus, the anxious blanket-wielding character of the comic strip, reading the passage we hear in tonight’s gospel, the angels announcing the birth of Christ.  [1]

The network executives were nervous.  McCann-Erickson were nervous.  But the time slot had already been reserved, and the quickly-drawn show was televised in what executives were sure would be a flop.  “This isn’t very good,” the ad man at McCann said when he saw the screening.[2]  With no way out, the network went ahead and aired.  And everyone was astonished when they realized that fully one half of all American households with television sets had tuned in that night.  The show was a huge success.  And it’s run every year since, without the corporate sponsorship.

If you remember the story line you might have some ideas about why the show was and is such an iconic hit.  Blockhead Charlie Brown, in his yellow shirt with zig-zag stripes, always gets everything wrong.  He’s down, massively depressed, about the commercialization of Christmas.  Everyone is making fun of him.  And yet, in the midst of this depression, he’s asked to direct the school Christmas play.

There’s music, there are costumes, and there’s a cast--there’s little for Charlie Brown to do but follow the script and tell the shepherds and angels where to go.  But there’s one little detail; he must get the Christmas tree for the set.  And, as usual, Charlie Brown can’t get it quite right.  He selects the smallest, the thinnest, the puniest little tree--one so small it can’t even hold itself upright when an ornament is hung on in. And so once again Charlie Brown is jeered; he can’t get anything right.  “What kind of a tree is that?” “Boy, are you stupid, Charlie Brown.”  “You’re hopeless, Charlie Brown.” “Everything I do turns into a disaster.  I guess I really don’t know what Christmas is all about.” And in his frustration and despair he cries out, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

And Linus comes forward to the center of the stage and says, “Sure, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.”

And he reads the passage from Luke that we heard tonight:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (Luke 2:8-14)

“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” Linus says.[3]

Charlie Brown goes home, determined not to let his Christmas be spoiled by commercialism, but he’s still thwarted by the little tree.  Discouraged, he abandons it, but his friends come behind and decorate it.  And suddenly there is peace and goodwill; everyone admires the tree, and the cast of characters bursts into a rendition of “Hark, the herald angels sing.” 

It’s good that Charlie Brown escapes the commercialism of Christmas to find its true meaning.  And believe me, the irony is not lost on me that, ultimately, the first airing of A Charlie Brown Christmas was, in effect, a big commercial--sponsored by a multinational corporation at the direction of its ad agency.  Maybe it’s Vince Guaraldi’s score, but every time I watch it I come away with a warm, fuzzy feeling--that there can be peace on earth, and goodwill among all people--even the underdogs like Charlie Brown.

And that’s okay, I guess.  But it’s a little thin.  Like a commercial that makes me feel good about something--that might create positive associations with a product or brand.  Everything’s okay, I could walk away feeling after watching Charlie Brown.

But we know things aren’t okay.  Things weren’t okay in 1965.  Kennedy had been assassinated.  Vietnam was getting bigger.  The march from Selma to Montgomery for the Voting Rights Act, the Pettus Bridge Crossing, was in the minds of Americans and had been in the scenes of the media.  Things weren’t okay in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’s birth.  Mary and Joseph were called there for a census, to be taxed, as part of the government of an occupied land.  If we believe Josephus, there was violent fighting among different factions within Judea.  And Matthew tells us that the Herodian government, pawns of the Roman empire, were so nervous about their tenuous hold on the crown that Herod would call for the execution of all infant males under the age of two when he found out that people were talking about this Jesus as a king.

Where is peace on earth, and goodwill among all people?  Good grief, Charlie Brown!

I mean to suggest that there is something more than a fuzzy, feel-good association with Charlie Brown, with Linus reading this story of the angels, with the story of Jesus in the manger, with all of it.  The passage that Linus reads is the bit about the angels announcing to the shepherds what’s happened.  The pith, the core, of the whole story.  Told by God’s own messengers--told by Linus--to the shepherds.

Why is the story told to the shepherds?  Think about them.  They are always outside, in the cold, with the sheep; they’re functionally homeless, at least for part of the time.  They don’t necessarily own the sheep; they’re likely watching them for someone else. They don’t control the means of capital production.  They’re laborers.  They’re sleeping rough.  They and the sheep entrusted to them are at the mercy of wild beasts and bandits.  They probably haven’t showered for days.  For weeks even.  They’re pretty unsavory.

And they’re vulnerable. 

And that’s who the angel appears to.  The very next humans to learn of the birth of Jesus, right after Mary and Joseph, are the shepherds.  Don’t be afraid, shepherds!  There’s good news!  There’s a new king!  A new anointed one!  A messiah!  He’s in Bethlehem, in a manger!  Hurry and go there!  And they did.  In their hope, in their expectation, they ran to Bethlehem and found the child.  It was true!  And then they went out and told everyone they met.

What would you think if a homeless person came and told you that the Saviour of the World had appeared to her, down on the New Haven Green?  Whatever you’re thinking, that’s probably about what folks thought when they heard the shepherds’ stories. 

And yet those were the messengers the Angel chose.  Those were the folks that God entrusted with the first news of God’s own Son, born into the world.  The angel didn’t go to the king or even to the emperor.  The angel didn’t go to the bankers or the analysts or even to the sages and academicians.  The message wasn’t sent to the beautiful, the wealthy, the lovely, the powerful.  The birth of Christ was announced to the shepherds first.  They were the first ones told of this good news.

Friends, there are a whole lot of people on the margins of our empire right now.  A whole lot of folks that, well, maybe feel a little like Charlie Brown.  There are lots of shepherds.  And the good news of this new king, of Emanuel, God with us, is for all of us--and especially for them.  For in the reign of the Kingdom of God, the reign of the Prince of Peace, everyone is beloved.  God has come among us--and the first to hear it are the shepherds.  If you’re feeling like King Herod, if you’re feeling like a shepherd, if you’re feeling like Schroder the pianist, on top of your game, or if you’re feeling like Charlie Brown, God has come to show God’s love for you.  Even in the midst of suffering or fear or anxiety, God has been born in a manger for you.

But God doesn’t show up only for you, for me.  God shows up for all of us.  Christian, Jewish, Muslim, even atheist; rich, poor, housed, homeless; powerful, weak, showered and street-worn.  God shows up for all of us.  But first he tells the good news to the shepherds, because they need to hear it most.

The good feeling, that warm fuzzy feeling I get watching A Charlie Brown Christmas is, at its core, a feeling of hope that even I could be loved.  The hope--the knowledge--that God who sees even our unloveliness loves us fully.  Loves us so much that God comes to be among us.  As one of us.  That God won’t let us go.

Charlie Brown’s world is changed when his friends decorate the Christmas tree he’s bought; when they show him just a little kindness.  What are we doing to love the shepherds among us?  How are we loving one another?  How is our government, our public policy, manifesting the values of love?  How is peace and goodwill, that little reflection of the kingdom of God, being exercised--and what’s our part in it?

You already know the story.  You’ve heard it tonight, you see it in the crèche, we’ll sing it in the carols and hymns, and we’ll receive it in the sacrament of Christ’s own Body and Blood.  God God’s very self has come among us.  How are we going to help tell that good news to the shepherds?  To you, and to me?

Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  (Luke 2:10, 11)

That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

I pray for you--I pray for us--a merry Christmas.


[1] For analysis of its contemporary reception, see Carrie Hagan’s article “The ‘Charlie Brown Christmas’ Special was the Flop that Wasn’t,” Smithsonian Magazine, December 9, 2015, accessed online at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/charlie-brown-christmas-special-history-television-classic-cbs-180957490/ (last retrieved 12/23/2017)

[2] ibid.

[3] You can view the entirety of A Charlie Brown Christmas at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXsAzBCaCPs (accessed 12/22/2017).  


What Was Really Present?


What Was Really Present?

The Rev'd Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Christmas Eve - Blessing of the Crèche & Sung Mass
December 24, 2017, 4:30 p.m

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Were animals really present at the Nativity? (And does it matter?)

This is the title of an article I read earlier this month written by Father John Alexander, Rector at Saint Stephen’s, Providence. Fr Alexander asks this question after surveying depictions of our Lord’s Nativity. From crèches to Christmas cards to Christmas carols and classic pieces of art, so many of these include animals as part of their Nativity story. However, in Luke’s Nativity passage, we don’t hear any mention of animals present at the birth of Jesus. No sheep, ox, or donkeys. Yes, we’re told that the angels rushed to visit the newborn child but no mention of their animals coming along with them.

So, where there animals present at the Nativity?

I don’t know, I wasn’t there... but I hope there were. I hope there were sheep, oxen, and donkeys. I hope there were camels, birds, and even dogs. Why not?

If you were to visit my parent’s apartment, you would notice that my mother’s Nativity scene includes dogs, llamas, and alpacas. What can I say, we’re from the Peru — the original breeding ground for llamas and alpacas.

I hope there were all kinds of animals and people, more than just the shepherds. I hope all of creation was made aware of ours Lord’s Nativity and present if at all possible, animals and humans alike, all present to see the glorious act we celebrate today — God became human.

If we really wanted to, we could go down a long list of the “what ifs” and various possible details of our Lord’s Nativity and explore their historical reality and presence. However, the reason for the season of Christmas, the reason for this day, regardless of who was present or not, is that God was and is present. In Bethlehem and here in New Haven. God became human and took on flesh.

Mary became the mother of God. Joseph became the guardian of the incarnate word. What was present at the Nativity was God’s very self. God’s very love made flesh in the person of Jesus.

Through the mystery of the Incarnation, God does not take on the form of a human or adopt some poor person’s body for a while, but takes on flesh becoming fully human just like us. Born from a woman, God enters the world as a newborn infant — fragile and vulnerable. In the Incarnation, God joins our humanity not merely the creator but as a participant in everyday life. Through the Incarnation, God shares in our joys and pains. In the blessings and challenges of this life. In moment of joy with friends and tearful moments of loss and pain.

In the Incarnation, God takes on flesh reminding us of the beauty in all of creation, yes, from animals to humans. Regardless whether they were really present at the Nativity.

As we celebrate this glorious day, whether with presents and great food or in prayer and song, let us remember the glorious act of God’s love. God took on flesh to redeem all of creation. Glory be to God on high. May you have joyous and merry Christmas!



Embodying the Birth


Embodying the Birth

The Rev'd A.K.M. Adam
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 24, 2017

But Mary was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— Amen.

This time of year can be hard on lecturers in New Testament studies. Chestnuts are roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose, Advent Prose being sung by the choir, and nobody really wants to hear about how there were either shepherds or magi at the Nativity, but not both, or about the number of magi there were, or about the lexicography of the Greek and Hebrew words for ‘virgin’. This season welcomes warm fireplaces, candlelight services, and a shared sense that everyone knows the story that begins this morning, and unfolds tonight at Midnight Mass. Even many otherwise-grouchy secularists succumb to the glamour of Nativitytide, and in many respects it is a good thing that these days offer the world a sense that this annunciation, this birth belong to the common knowledge of so many of the people around us: the common knowledge that the birth of Jesus, for which we wait with eager longing, was described in advance by prophets, and that this specific birth occurred among us in such detailed congruence with those prophecies that any semiliterate observer could tell that ALL THIS WAS ABOUT JESUS THEREFORE YOU MUST BELIEVE. Such a reading of Luke’s story — not even a ‘reading’ so much as a general perception — makes it more difficult to read how baffling the Annunciation’s message was to Mary, and more difficult to grasp her response of faith to Gabriel’s greeting.

We can easily enough imagine a Common Knowledge Mary responding to the archangel as if she had won the theological equivalent of the National Lottery. ‘Oh my goodness,’ she might say with a scrupulously minced oath, ‘can it be that I’m the one about whom Isaiah prophesied?’ ‘It’s about time to crush that ancient serpent’s head!’ She might pull from the folds of her robe a printed tract with a checklist of anticipatory signs, the better to know What To Expect When You’re Expecting The Messiah.

Luke doesn’t tell us that story. Mary, in our readings this morning,. doesn’t already know what Gabriel is talking about. Later tonight, she won’t say ‘Well, of course there are choirs of angels and a crowd of reverential agricultural labourers, duh!’ She won’t in a few years, scold Joseph, saying ‘Why were you searching for him? Did you not know that he must be in his Father’s house? Our Lady, recipient of an angelic revelation and explanation, treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart remains almost as uncertain as all the other characters who populate Luke’s Gospel.

In other words, in Luke’s words, ‘she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.’ And we, and the world, could enter more fully into Luke’s gospel were we to allow ourselves a higher degree of puzzlement as we observe more closely the unfolding of God’s ways walking through these closing hours of Advent with Mary.

For instance, if we were a little more perplexed by Gabriel’s message, we might show more patience to our Jewish neighbours and colleagues, to Abraham and his descendants forever, and to most of the rest of the world, who see no convincing reason to suppose that this bleak midwinter night differs from any other evening you picked out of a hat. Our Lady’s perplexity testifies to us that the meaning of Jesus’s advent is not simply transparent, to be read directly off the pages of familiar prophecies. With a greater appreciation for perplexity, we might be readier to recognise in tonight’s holy goings-on more of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages, to which the Apostle refers in our Epistle reading. Made more aware of our own proclivity to self-deception and misapprehension, we might be slower to scold sceptics and swifter to show sympathy to neighbours who find our devotion to Jesus as bewildering as Mary found the greeting from Gabriel.

Even more, though, we might find in perplexity an entryway, a permission to let our faith STEEP IN WONDER without jumping prematurely to dogmatic conclusions. In this morning’s reading from II Kings, Nathan receives God’s promise to David that David’s name will be made great, that he will be made the eponymous head of an everlasting dynasty — and the church affirms that these promises have been realised in Jesus. But God also promises David that Israel would be disturbed no more, that no evildoers would afflict them, that they would at long last have rest from their enemies — promises that sound more distant today than they might have even a few decades ago, and that look no closer to fulfilment now than in David’s own day.

And a short while ago we sang ‘Tell Out, My Soul’, Mary’s hymn of thanksgiving that she had been uniquely blessed by this extraordinary conception, that God had wrought a great wonder with her, and that generation after generation would remember her with reverent devotion. At the same time, though, she saw the proud scattered, the mighty dethroned, and the rich deprived; and she saw the humble and meek in power, the hungry amply fed. The daily news, though, suggests that wealth and privilege and surfeit have only been amplified, often at direct cost to the health and well-being of the muscles that build, the backs that bend, the bones that break, the bodies that burn out in burden-bearing. We misread Luke’s Gospel if we see in this morning’s lessons a message of prophecies gloriously fulfilled, without at the same time sharing Mary’s bewilderment when we see promises unfulfilled, dreams deferred so long that we need prophets to remind us that the promise of Jesus’s incarnation came along with promises of righteousness, healing, and nourishment.

This, too, we may hear from today’s lessons, for when Mary rejoiced at the greatness of the LORD, she did not simply congratulate herself for having been chosen as Miss Theotokos of 4 BCE; she did not tick off one from her pocket florilegium of messianic proof-texts. Mary’s response to Gabriel — her explicitly stated consent, her faith — expressed itself bodily, incarnationally, in LIVED TRUST that God would support her through the challenges to come.

Now, I’m a great one for words. I write with them; I exchange them with Margaret; I compose them into lectures and sermons. And the way that words help us navigate a complex world with exactitude can tempt us to think that if something doesn’t have words attached to it, then maybe it doesn’t count as much, and to think that maybe strictly verbal formulations of events and circumstances matter most of all, standing in pure ideal abstraction, purged of the messy details of intoxicating feelings, of awkward contingencies, fallible flesh. And yes indeed, Mary said, ‘Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.’ Yet had she offered only abstract agreement to Gabriel without actually, you know, bearing this holy child in her womb, something essential would have been missing from the Incarnation — something such as ‘incarnation’ itself.

In a similar way, the promise that righteousness pour down from the heavens, that the mighty be relegated to the margins and the humble raised to authority depends not solely on our approval, saying ‘Yes, God, good policy decision there,’ but also on our living that way, bearing in our flesh the beginnings of a new way in the world without any certainty that we control what will happen next, that we will enjoy seeing how the story comes out, that we can shape our lives to sing Magnificat truthfully without it costing us anything. One of the consequences of Mary’s Yes, after all, was the sword that pierced her heart at the crucifixion; the promise to Mary comes to its fulfilment in ways that perplex us, that escape our expectations, that serve a purpose higher and holier than the devices and desires of our own hearts.

If that gospel lesson were common knowledge, if we said Yes bodily to the angels who call us daily to join in their adoration and obedience, we might sooner show the world a fulfilment of Mary’s vision in cleaer, more radiant light. We can bear in our flesh — indistinctly at first, haltingly, uncertainly — we can embody the birth an uncommon knowledge, holier and more glorious ways in life, offering to God our selves, our souls and bodies, fulfilling faith with our own words:

‘Here are we, the servants of the Lord; let it be with us according to your word.’



Sermon for Advent III


Sermon for Advent III

The Rev'd Matthew Larsen
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Third Sunday in Advent
December 17, 2017

Asterius of Amasea was a bishop in the late 4th/early 5th century. He gave a sermon on January 1st, A.D. 400 against the New Year’s festival. He says we should celebrate Christmas, Stephen’s and all the rest, Epiphany, Easter, but not the festival of the Kalendae. Here’s why:

1.      This festival is not a feast at all

2.      There is no real friendship behind the presents.

3.      Everyone wants to receive presents. Those who give them are ill-tempered; those who received them, pass them onto more prominent people

4.      This festival brings about debts and personal grief

5.      Children become money-grubbers.

6.      City officials waste money on the festival and use it to acquire personal gain.[1]

Bah humbug. Sounds like he need the Ghost of Christmas Future to haunt his dreams for a bit to put him in the Christmas spirit.

No place where the Christian and secular calendars misalign more than the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The readings often grind against what counts as good holiday cheer.

Today’s readings are no exception. Our Old Testament reading, Isaiah 61, assumes a very specific type of readership and frankly only makes sense if you are oppressed, brokenhearted, imprisoned, and disabled. If you are one of those people, God’s word is indeed good tidings to you. God will heal your fractured hearts, set you free from your incarceration, restore your sight. If you are not, God’s retribution awaits, for God loves justice and hating people grabbing things that aren’t theirs.

John 3 contains one of the more haunting lines in scripture. Everyone comes out from Jerusalem to ask John, “Who are you?” He says “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you then?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.

Then he tells them the words that I find so troubling: There stands among you one whom you do not know. The Messiah is here, rubbing shoulders with you, in the crowd, and you fail to sense his presence. You don’t see him, because you don’t know what to look for.

Luke 4 shows this to be true: Jesus is in his hometown. To everyone there, he is just regular old Joshua from the block (that’s how we would translate Jesus). Then he stands up to read and the attendant hands his a scroll of Isaiah. He reads Isaiah 61, just like our reader did today. Except at the end, he sits down and says, “Today this reading has been fulfilled in your ears.” (I am glad you didn’t do that, [name of reader])

Jesus was there, standing in the crowd, walking in the streets, asking for spare change, walking into our places of worship, before our eyes and we did not know it. When he appears, it surprised us.

It reminds me of Matthew 25, which is almost an advent reading, a pre-advent reading: There is a revelation about how ready we were to see Christ.

when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or naked and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

But to the rest, he send them away, saying …

For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. 43 I was a stranger and you did not receive me as a guest, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  Just as you did not do it for one of the least of these, you did not do it for me.’


There stands among you one who do not recognize: Jesus Christ.


The work of Advent is preparing our hearts to discern Christ’s body. St. Paul tells us we are not to come to the Lord’s table, to Communion without discerning Christ’s body in the bread and wine. The Isaiah reading and John the Baptist’s words in the Gospel of John reminds us we are not to come to the Christ mass without preparing our hearts to discerning Christ’s body in the sick, the foreigner, refugee, the naked, and the imprisoned. In those whose vote is systemically oppressed, whose live lives in the threat of violence from those sworn to protect them.


Christ stands among us and, please God, give us eyes to see her, to see him.


We get ready to receive Christ we must learn to see Christ in the dispossessed, the disinherited. Not just to reach out a helping hand, but to identify with them. Which brings us back to the Isaiah reading: in order to hear the good news as good news, one must identify with the oppressed. James Cone put it this way: “By becoming poor and entrusting divine revelation to a carpenter from Nazareth, God makes clear where one has to be in order to hear the divine word and experience divine presence.” Preparing for Christmas in the end is not all about buying all the gifts, it “means that” (to use the language of Cone again) “your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are.”

Let us prepare to meet the Christ child by aligning our hearts with the incarcerated, the paralyzed, the foreigner, the unloved. Because once we learn to see God’s presence in them, to see their presence among us as a gift to us, then we will be ready to meet God’s Word incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.


[1] Summary adopted from C. Datema, Asterius of Amasea, Homilies I–XIV: Text, Introduction, and Notes (Leiden: Brill, 1970), 36.


Counting Time like Counting Stars


Counting Time like Counting Stars

The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Advent Sunday
December 3, 2017

Yesterday a merry band of parishioners, under the good leadership of the altar guild, the flower guild, and the subsacristan, spent the morning preparing the church for Advent.  We hung wreaths and arranged greenery in the windows and on the altars; the advent wreath was set out; silver was washed and altar frontals changed; some woodwork was repaired, and everything got a good sweeping.  (Every year at the greening of the church I am reminded how hard it is to sweep fir needles.)  Musicians have practiced and planned; service leaflets have been printed; acolytes have rehearsed; flower envelopes have been counted and recorded.  All week we’ve been preparing, planning, making ready for today--preparing for Advent, this season of preparation.  Of anticipation. 

We’re putting out the Advent wreath.  We’ll put out the crèche in only three weeks!  (It’s a short Advent this year.)  We’ll celebrate with carols services and parties and gift giving.  And all to prepare for, to celebrate, the birth of an infant--of the very Son of God--in Bethlehem, in a manger. 

Isn’t that what we’re preparing for?

And so you’ve come here this morning, expecting the smell of fresh greens, the cheer of preparation, maybe even some readings about John the Baptist, or Mary, or an angel…  And instead we hear this passage from Mark:

‘But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  (Mark 13.24-25)

We hear omens of destruction and devastation, desolation even.  And we’re told to watch.  To keep awake.

While our downtown neighbors are putting up holiday decorations, even projecting a laser show of Santa Claus dancing on the tower of Christ Church so large you can see him down Broadway—while the world around us is celebrating--celebrating something, even if it’s not clear what--Christians are reading a passage about cataclysmic destruction at mass on Advent Sunday.  What’s going on, a reasonable person might ask.

The passages we read today from Isaiah and from Mark fall within the genre of apocalyptic--a body of literature that has in mind an epic upheaval and restructuring of the world.  It’s not limited to Judeo Christian thought, of course, but there is apocalyptic in our scriptures. Think of Noah’s flood, for example, an archetypal story of apocalypse.  The Revelation to Saint John the Divine exhibits aspects of apocalyptic.  The structure is something like this:  The world has become corrupt and evil, damaged and distorted.  There’s anxiety and suffering and the poor and dispossessed are calling out to be saved.  An outside divine force judges the world to be enters and, through destructive force, wipes away the powers of evil and reestablishes a new world order--a re-creation--where justice is restored.

Now the problem with apocalypse is that it’s violent, right?  We focus on the destruction.  We focus on the judgment. 

And we should be worried, shouldn’t we.  After all, we’ve seen what happens when humans take the idea of apocalypse into their own hands.  Consider the young Xhosa woman in the middle 19th C who, inspired by visions of her ancestors, prophesied that if the Xhosa people would only destroy their cattle that the spirits of the dead would rise up and drive the colonial British settlers into the sea, and that their cattle and crops would be restored--a destruction, and a restoration of justice.  Many of the Xhosa did indeed kill their cattle, and, in a sad twist, this crippling of their economy probably made it easier in the long run for colonists to settle and take over their lands.  The promised restoration never came, and the Xhosa cattle killings stand as a hard reminder of what apocalyptic vision looks like when humans take things into our own hands--when we try to manage, alone, the re-ordering of the world.

The utopian community known as Jonestown that Jim Jones and his followers built in Guyana was modeled on principles of justice and equality, but Jones’s own  untreated mental illness and heavy drug abuse fueled his paranoia.  He held residents there against their will, abused them, murdered legislators investigating his management of the community, and ultimately instigated a pre-emptive murder-suicide event that took the lives of almost a thousand people.  He staged his own apocalypse.  And innocent people were murdered.

It’s no wonder that we hear these promises of apocalypse and are nervous. 

But I’d submit to you that even in these apocalyptic visions there is hope.  For what we are celebrating in Advent, what we’re looking forward to, what we’re anticipating, what we’re preparing for this Advent Sunday, is not simply the coming of a baby--not merely the first coming of Jesus, born to Mary somewhere in Bethlehem.  That birth has already happened.  That child has been born.  That messiah has come, and by his very presence he has given hope to the world.

But the hope doesn’t stop there.  What we’re celebrating is not merely an historical event, a baby born two thousand years ago--but the promise that that Jesus, born as an infant, crucified as a man, raised, ascended, will always be with us.  That in fact, as we say each week in the creed, he will come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.

That’s what the prophet is calling for, the breaking in of the divine: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence” (Isaiah 64.1) or, in the old Authorized version, “Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence, as when the melting fire burneth, the fire causeth the waters to boil, to make thy name known to thine adversaries, that the nations may tremble at thy presence!” (64.1-2)

Rend the heavens, O God!  Shake up this mess that we’ve made of things.  For some of it is our fault, Lord.  And some if it has been visited on us--some of it we cannot control.  But we know we can’t fix it alone.  We can’t fix this ourselves.  Rend the heavens and come down.

And we hear that promise in the gospel of Mark, in the good news, that in the midst of this moment, as the sun and moon darken and stars fall and heaven shakes, that “they will see ‘the Son fo Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect fro the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” (Mark 13.26-27)

The prophet isn’t calling for destruction of creation, only a wiping away of the great evil that has set it off course.  This apocalyptic language in Mark doesn’t promise destruction wrought against God’s people, but rather a salvation--a coming with power and glory--to re-order all things, to make all things new.  After the destruction, after the suffering, after the world has done the very best it can, that evil seems to have gained a stronghold, that the very foundations of the world have shaken, that we can expect that even the heavens will shake, and tear open, and God will make all things new once more.

That Christ coming isn’t merely a one-off, a one-time event, but is the event that changes everything.

Because we know that what we’re preparing for is not just the joy of the birth of a baby.  That’s a wonderful thing, and we will celebrate that.  We’ll build the crèche.  We’ll sing the carols.  We’ll revel in the joy and delight that is the promise of the Christ Child come among us. 

But right now, today, as we watch and wait, we know that there is evil, that there is suffering, that there is power that stands against the goodness that is God’s creation in the world.  We know the powers of greed, of racism, of sexism, of violence, of addiction, of lust--we know how firmly sin has gripped our lives and the lives of people around us.  How sin has battered and bewildered our society, our city, and our world.  And we stand here, in the earliest hours of Advent, and cry out, “Oh that thou wouldst rend the heavens, that thou wouldst come down..., that the nations wouldst tremble at thy presence.”

And we stand there, in that crying out, and we look, and we watch, and we wait, knowing the assurance of that very babe in the manger, of that very Word incarnate, of the very Son of God--that he has come, that he is, and that he will ever be.  We stand and wait and watch and know that he is coming again to judge both the quick and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.  We stand and wait and watch because we have hope.  Because we know that the evil of the world has no hope, no place to turn, no place to go.  Because we know that God is faithful.   We know that Jesus saves.

Even in the midst of darkness there is hope. A sure and certain hope.  A hope in Jesus.

In San Pedro Sula, Honduras, a city that’s gained the moniker “murder capital of the world” for the high per capita rate of violence and homicide, there’s an orphanage called “Our Little Roses.”  It’s not actually an orphanage; many of the girls have families.  But they’ve been sent there, placed there, in a group home so that they may have a better life.  So that they may be safe.  So that they may grow up to have a chance to become a beautician, a college student, a teacher--anything other than another statistic in the world of poverty, drugs, and violence that surrounds them.  A few years ago poet and Episcopal priest Spencer Reece spent some time there on a Fulbright scholarship.  He went to learn Spanish, but he returned to write poetry--not his own, but to help the girls learn to write their own--to find their own voices.  A documentary film has been made about Our Little Roses and Spencer’s time there with the girls; it’s called Voices Beyond The Wall: Twelve Love Poems From the Murder Capital of the World. I watched a screening of it last Tuesday.  But there’s also a book, Counting Time like People Count Stars[1], of the girls’ own poetry, their voices in their own words. 

One of the poems both the brokenness of the world--and the hope that we can find in God’s work of reconciliation.  The hope that we can find in Advent.

This is a part of a poem “Counting,” by a girl called Aylin, who’s 15.

Every week, every day, every hour, every minute, every second that I pass without my family it feels like a knife trying to get inside a rock.  I am the knife and the rock is my life.  So this is me, Aylin, and this is my difficult life without my family.  Some people think that living in a home for girls like Our Little Roses is a big blessing.  Yes, I say to those people, it is a great blessing but at the same time it is a curse.  Every night I start thinking and talking to God in my prayers: “Why, God, why did my family leave me alone?” There is no answer…Really all of us think the same thing that no one ever says: One day, will our mother come to visit us? …But God, listen to this:  I am counting the time like people count the stars and I will keep counting until my mother comes… When I graduate from college and when I am finally somebody in this world, God, I will go straight to Mexico where my mother lives and I will stare at her like I stare at the stars and with a voice that cracks like thunder I will say:  I FORGIVE YOU!  But for now, God, I am here, in Our Little Roses, counting.

Even as the very earth shakes, as we witness evil, and destruction, and anxiety, and fear, we stand here counting time like people count the stars, praying, O that you would rend the heavens, and come down.  And God answers, in the person of Jesus Christ--not once, not that one time in Bethlehem, but always. 

Friends, even in the midst of despair, there is hope.  In the voice of a young girl that cries out, “I forgive you,” there is hope.  In the presence of a babe in a manger there is hope.  In the one who comes on clouds with power and great glory, there is hope. 

I pray for you, I pray for us, hope this Advent.  Hope in the one who makes all things new.  Hope in the one who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


[1] Spencer Reese, ed., Counting Time like People Count Stars: Poems by the Girls of Our Little Roses, San Pedro Sula, Honduras. San Fernando, CA:  Tia Chula Press, 2017 (dist. Northwestern University Press), p 103-104.


The Least of These


The Least of These

Mr Patrick Keyser
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Last Sunday after Pentecost: Feast of Christ the King
November 26, 2017

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

It is an incredible gift and privilege to serve as one of your seminarians here at Christ Church this year. One aspect of this position that I am still getting used to is wearing a seminarian’s collar and the fact that wearing one immediately identifies me as a person linked with the Church, with religion, and with God. I’ve already had some interesting encounters, one of which happened a few weeks ago as I was preparing to go on a pastoral visit to the Saint Raphael Campus of Yale New Haven Hospital. The hospital is not too far from here, so I decided to park at Christ Church and walk the short distance to the hospital. It was a lovely fall afternoon, and as I tend to do when I am walking, I allowed my mind to wander as I began to think about tasks I needed to complete that evening and the following day. I was walking along Chapel Street in my own world until I was brought back to reality by a loud voice calling out, ‘Excuse me. Are you a pastor?’

Fear quickly set in. Not even knowing where this voice came from, I immediately thought, ‘I wonder what this person wants from me.’ In my hasty judgement I had quickly erected barriers that limited the possibility for any type of meaningful encounter. I had already pinned this person as someone who ‘needed’ something from me. I turned to find a woman approaching me. I took a deep breath and responded, ‘I’m studying to be one, yes.’ ‘That’s great’ she said. ‘Would you like to support the homeless of New Haven and buy a copy of the Elm City Echo? It has stories written by homeless members of the New Haven community, and the money goes to support the homeless.’

I immediately relaxed. I had passed individuals around New Haven several times who had asked the same question. Perhaps you have encountered them as well. I always intended to actually get a copy, but of course being a millennial who depends on paying for everything with a card, I never had cash. This day, for reasons unknown to me, I actually did have some cash. Remembering from earlier encounters that the suggested donation was $2, I pulled out my wallet and found a $1 bill and a $10 bill. Without even thinking I said, ‘Well I only have one $1 bill.’ Without missing a beat she asked me, ‘Well what about that $10?’ Feeling a bit embarrassed and caught in my own attempt to be deceptive, I decided I was perhaps clinging too closely to my money and handed over both bills. ‘I’ll even give you an extra copy to share with a friend,’ she told me. ‘Have a great day pastor!’ My new friend moved on, and I stood for a few moments on that street corner feeling certain that God was trying to teach me something. After a few moments standing on that street corner, I continued my journey to the hospital, now with two copies of the Elm City Echo in hand that I planned to explore later.

I later sat down and took the time to read through the entirety of the magazine, lingering over each story. I was immediately immersed in a world that I knew was foreign to me. Addiction, violence, sexual abuse, abandonment, and mental illness filled the pages. Each offering was a sacred gift, though. Each offering was the unique story of its author, and too many of these stories had never before been heard. One anonymous author shared some of the immense pain that had marked her life. Growing up in a dangerous neighborhood and having to deal with the separation of her parents at an early age, she writes ‘my life was drugs and violence. My life has been horrific.’ She continued by describing the tragic and senseless murder of her young son, which led her to a relapse into a life of drugs that lasted for two years. She then entered a rehab program and got clean. She wrote, ‘What caused me to leave the drug life was that I was simply sick and tired of being sick and tired. I was tired of being hungry and homeless.’[1] Another author shared his story in one short paragraph. ‘I would like to tell you a little bit about myself,’ he wrote. ‘I was born in New Haven…and have been through alot in my life- drugs, alcohol, and many other things…I had started using drugs when I was 23 years old. I became homeless and now I’m here trying to get housing again. I have given my life over to God. He has been good to me. Please pray for me.’[2]

Each story was a gift and a chance for someone to be seen and known who rarely had the opportunity to be either of those things. Each story was an invitation for me to see God moving in the world in mysterious ways. As I read, I was reminded how much I had shielded myself from so much of the world from my position of comfort and isolation within a Yale institution perched on Prospect Hill. Yet, even as I read these stories and realized how far removed I felt from this world, I was also overcome by the sense that we were all caught up together in a way I didn’t fully understand and certainly couldn’t deny. I don’t know personally the pain of addiction or violence, but I experience my own sense of isolation and pain. I began to see that I was not as far removed from this world as I first thought.

Each one of us is a sacred mystery. We all carry a story, many stories in fact. Look around you. I mean it. Really take a moment and look at those sitting around you. Each one of us carries joys, sorrows, pain, loss, grief. We live in an atomized world. Though we have access to technology that can connect us in ways never before possible, many of us feel more isolated than ever. We can easily connect and communicate with friends who live on the other side of the world, yet at the same time many of us don’t know the people who live and work alongside us each and every day. We have somehow lost sight of the fact that we are all interconnected and bound together in a mysterious but real way.

Today’s gospel passage has both a message of good news and a warning for us in this regard. ‘Good news in this passage?’ you might ask at first. The reality of judgement makes many of us uncomfortable, and today’s gospel speaks directly to this reality. We proclaim it every week when we join in the Nicene Creed and say, ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.’ Yet, the topic of judgement brings to mind negative feelings, often guilt and shame, for many of us. Today I would like to offer a different view and suggest that this gospel message is actually an invitation into joy.

Today’s passage from Matthew’s gospel describes this moment of judgement. Jesus, the Son of Man, will come in his glory with all the angels and will take his place on his throne of glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the peoples as a shepherd separates sheep and goats. The criterion for this judgement is very simple. Those who feed the hungry, gave a drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited prisoners will inherit the kingdom, and those who failed to do these things will be led to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. It is both simple and frightening. There is no other factor upon which the judgment is based besides the completion of these acts of mercy. I could stand before you today and simply exhort you to do these very things: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger. These are indeed good and right things to do, and we as

Christians must be serious about doing acts of mercy and justice in this world. But it would be far too easy for me to leave it at that, because this passage invites us to much more.

While this story may at first seem to be quite simple, there is another layer that rests just beneath the surface. Though it’s easy to miss at first, this story is in many ways a profoundly sad one. When the king tells the sheep at his right to come and inherit the kingdom, they ask only one question: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food?” They had missed the point entirely. They had been serving the king all along, but they did not even know it. Likewise those to the king’s left ask only one question when he bids them to depart into the eternal fire: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty and did not care for you?” The question hangs in the air: When, Lord?

Jesus continues and in one of the most remarkable claims of the entire story he proclaims, ‘truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ In a mystical and mysterious way, Jesus tells us that acts of mercy and justice done to those who in need are actually works of mercy and justice done to Jesus himself. Both the sheep and the goats had missed the opportunity to serve Jesus, and in the process they missed the opportunity to experience the great joy that comes from serving God. How often do we find ourselves asking the same question: ‘When, Lord?’

Today I believe we are called to pay attention to this missed opportunity. The Christian life is fundamentally one marked by an abiding sense of joy. We are called into relationship with a God who loves us and wants us to know that love, and that is something to celebrate. That is indeed good news. Today’s gospel tells us that we can see Jesus all around us, if we only open our eyes to that possibility. We are promised that the world is dripping with opportunity to encounter the divine. This invitation calls us out of our atomized worlds in which we live as if we didn’t need others. It invites us to attend to the sacredness of each person we meet and each story we are given the gift of receiving, for each offers us the opportunity to meet our Lord.

Today we celebrate the coming of Christ’s reign as king. This king and this kingdom do not look like any we know in our world. The kingdoms of this world seek power and control, often through tyranny and repression. Our king is one who was mocked and spit upon and who died a humiliating death on a cross. This king is the one who overcame death and the grave, destroying death and opening for us the way to everlasting life. This king will come again in his glory to judge the nations. He comes to us in ways that are both familiar and comfortable and foreign and afflicting. This king comes to meet us in bread and wine day after day, and he also reveals himself through those who look and seem so different from us: the stranger, the convict, and the homeless drug addict. We meet this king in the holy sacrament of the altar and on the street corner. As we met Christ this day in the sacrament of his body and blood, I pray that we might be empowered to go forth from this holy place prepared to find him in the most unexpected places and in the most unexpected people. As we do that, I pray that we might experience the true joy that comes from serving God, and at the last that we might hear the voice of our God calling out, ‘‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] “The Hood,” Elm City Echo, Issue 13

[2] “My Name is Maychris,” Elm City Echo, Issue 13





The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
November 19, 2017

When I was a kid I had a summer job cutting grass for our neighbors.  I was used to mowing our lawn on our riding lawnmower--frankly, I enjoyed it--and so I was surprised to realize that other people who didn’t  like moving the lawn would actually pay me money to do it for them.  It was a great realization.  And suddenly I had a little cash as a result.

My parents took me down to our bank to open a passbook savings account.  If you’re older than about half of you here, if you’re my age, you’ll remember these accounts--at least at the George D. Warthen Bank of Washington County, a savings account had an actual passbook--a little book that you’d write deposits and withdrawals in--and you’d bring it in every time you visited the bank to make a deposit or withdrawal.  I was introduced to the miracle of compound interest--interest rates were much higher then--and I loved going to the bank.  It had cool air conditioning, and beautiful and clean terrazzo floors, and everything smelled like money--the metallic smell of pennies and the ink from dollar bills.  The tellers were patient and kind and I loved it when they stamped my passbook savings folio.  And they always gave me gum.  Chicklets.  The bank was a magical place back for a child back in the heady days of profitable retail banking.  I still love a good old-fashioned bank lobby, though much has changed for banking.

But what’s not changed is the sense that I learned, in those little ritual actions around that savings account, that saving money is a virtue--an important thing to do.  And so I get really concerned when I read the parable of the talents--when I hear that the person who’s taken the most conservative strategy, the third servant who just wants to protect the master’s wealth by burying it in the ground, is cast “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 25.30)  His portion is taken away and given to the one who earned the most.  “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will haven an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”  (25.29)

I don’t like the way this story turns out.  Shouldn’t the cautious, careful, saving servant be honored?  And if he now has less than the other two, shouldn’t he be given more?  Why should his portion be taken away? 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this story this week, especially as it might involve us, in this time and place.  And if you’ll bear with me I’d like to re-tell it, updated for our time and place.  This is NOT the gospel text, and I’ve taken lots of liberties with it, but sometimes seeing a story from another perspective can help us learn something.  Here’s a contemporary re-telling of the parable of the talents:

The kingdom of heaven is like this.  A very wealthy man is taking a trip around the world--it’s been a dream of his for years, and he’s finally doing it, but there are places that will be remote, and out of touch, places he won’t have cell phone and data service, and so his risk management advisers have told him that, to be safe, he really needs to divide up at least part of his wealth--to diversify its management--while he is away.  And so he calls in his closest in-house financial advisors--his money manager, his accountant, and his lawyer, and asks them to steward some of his wealth while he’s away.  The man thinks his manager is really clever, so he gives him 3 million to invest, all at the manager’s discretion, while he’s away.  He knows his accountant is very trustworthy but a bit more conservative, but she’s got some good ideas, and so he decides to give her 1.2 million to manage.  His lawyer is so honest, and he trusts him, but, the man thinks, he knows the law--not the financial markets--and so he gives him just over half a million to manage for him.  That’s almost five million dollars in today’s money--or, in the measure of the ancient near east, eight “talents” or 48,000 denarii, or days’ wages, to be managed by the three trusted employees. 

The man heads off on his journey, satisfied that, no matter what happens to the rest of his property, at least this part of his wealth will be well managed, available for him when he returns.

After many months, about a year, he returns to his home and calls in his employees, asking for an accounting of his five million.  The money manager is thrilled to tell him that he’s done a really exciting deal.  He’s funded a research trial for a new cancer therapy at Alexion in exchange for a guaranteed portion of the future earnings of the new medication.  The FDA has approved the therapy for use, and wouldn’t you know it, he’s doubled his investment.  The future returns on the investment for the new year are conservatively estimated at six million.  The manager has effectively doubled the value of his cash--and helped bring a new therapy to market that will save lives. The man was delighted at this innovative--and lucrative--use of his money. 

The accountant presents her portfolio.  She’s bought a small retail property, a set of storefronts that have been derelict and empty; she’s invested just a portion of the money in renovations, and she’s spent several months signing multi-year leases for tenants that are neighborhood-friendly:  a deli, a clothing store, and a daycare.  The appraisers have valued the building that she bought, with its new leases, at 2.5 million.  She’s doubled the value of the cash the man left her to manage, and by renovating and bringing in new businesses into an old eyesore of a building, she’s built up the neighborhood in the process.  The wealthy man was overjoyed and what his accountant had accomplished--not only for his balance sheet but also for the neighborhood.

But the lawyer--the lawyer was very careful.  He knew he had a fiduciary responsibility to preserve his employer’s wealth.  And so he socked the half million away in various savings accounts; that way it would be protected by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and would be immediately accessible in the event that someone else’s investment went south.  It was a prudent measure, safe, conservative.  And the money would earn the prevailing interest rate of .01%.  When he was called to account for the funds he’d been given, he presented his employer with a bank draft of five hundred thousand dollars--plus fifty dollars in interest that had been earned for the year. 

The wealthy man was furious.  Furious at his lawyer.  He took the bank draft, handed it over to the money manager to invest, and fired the lawyer on the spot.

When I think of the story in this way, in this retelling, I realize a few things.  The risk that the manager and the accountant took was calculated--but it was exactly what the man wanted them to do. They used his wealth as a tool, to give back to him, and to give back to the community. It was only through taking the risk that something new happened, something good--a new development, a new treatment. 

The man expected them, we learn, to do something with the money--not merely to hold onto it.  To gain a return on his investment.  Stewardship in this story involves actively using the gifts that have been given, not just holding onto them.  That’s why the lawyer fails at the exercise.  You or I might be perfectly happy getting back what we had given, with no loss; that’s certainly safe, after all.  But the man in our story is entrepreneurial.  He expects more.  He expects the employees to do something with it.  And the amount of the return doesn’t even matter.  Three million, one and a half million, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that the first two employees took the chance, that something happened. They attempted to generate a return of some sort. 

And, in fact, the third employee misses the mark in another way.  Not only does he fail to try something new, to generate a return, to do something good with the tools he’s been given, but he fails to realize the scope of the project.  He has been given something that does not even belong to him.  And he is afraid--so afraid of the wealthy man, so afraid of the risk, so afraid of failure, that he just holds onto it.  In returning what he’s been given, the same value, he’s actually devalued the wealth.  The wealthy man expected a return.  He expected an increase in value.  And here he is, getting back the same amount. It’s a lost opportunity, there’s less value than there could have been.  And all because the third employee was afraid.

Isn’t it like that in our own lives?  God has given us gifts, all different, in different amounts and sorts.  But our money, our talent, our ability, our skill, even our very lives--these come from God, and they belong to God.  And God expects us, invites us, to use those gifts for the kingdom of God.  There is an expectation that we will take a risk!  That we will do something radical and holy for the kingdom of God!  That we will give God a chance to take what we offer, giving back to God from God’s own bounteous goodness, and bless and return those gifts for the reconciliation and healing of the whole of creation.

That’s what we’re doing today when we drop our pledge cards in the alms basin.  When we make your offering today.  When you pledge and pay online or write a check or serve on the altar guild or as an usher or teach a Forum class or bring a dish to a potluck or say a prayer for a fellow parishioner or even ourselves.  We are taking a chance, trusting God, taking a risk, knowing that God will be faithful.  We are offering to God a little bit of what God has given us, trusting that it will be enough, that God will use it for the work of God’s kingdom.  That our gifts can be used by God to heal and restore the world.

And we know that God is faithful, we know that this is all possible, because we have seen God’s own gift, the gift of God’s love in Jesus Christ, Jesus’s own self-offering that triumphs over sin and death and rises and ascends and fills all the world with God’s love. 

I want to tell you a story that I learned this week at a celebration I attended.  This year is the 40th anniversary of the Community Soup Kitchen, and most of those years have been spent in the parish hall here at Christ Church.  This Thursday we gathered in the Hall to celebrate the anniversary of the Community Soup Kitchen, and the CSK board honored Christ Church for its years of partnership in ministry.  As part of the celebration, Diane Welborn, the founding director of CSK, told a story about how the program was founded, in the basement of the Salvation Army just a few blocks away from here.  Wanting a larger, above-ground space, Diane put together a dinner, hosted by Father Rowan Greer, to ask David Boulton, the ninth rector, if it might be possible for the Soup Kitchen to move to Christ Church.  There was anxiety in the vestry, there was worry in the neighborhood. What would it mean to welcome these guests?  Was there enough capacity?  Could the building--could the neighborhood--handle this influx of folks day after day for a meal?  But you said yes.  You took a risk.  And what was then a program feeding maybe 30 hungry people each day now feeds ten times that.  People who come to Community Soup Kitchen aren’t guests of ours; they are becoming a part of our community.  We are joining at tables together, anticipating that heavenly banquet where there is enough for everyone, all are fed, and all are whole through God’s creating and redeeming love.

And all of this happened because God took what you offered, blessed it, and gave it back for the building of the kingdom of God.  All of this happened because you said yes to God.  Because someone asked, and you took a risk.  Because you gave.

Today, when you make your pledge, say yes to God.  Take a risk in joining in God’s reconciling work.  Know that, whatever you can give, God will bless it so that there is enough for the work of the kingdom of God.

After all, all that we have is of God’s own bounty, given to us.  It already belongs to God.  Take a chance. See what God is working to accomplish here in us, using us, here at Elm and Broadway.  How will God multiply our talents today?  How will we join in the abundance of God’s kingdom?  How will we trust in the hope and promise that is the kingdom of God?

I give thanks for God’s goodness, and thanks for your stewardship of God’s good gifts.