Joy Comes in the Morning

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Joy Comes in the Morning

The Very Rev’d Robert Willis
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Third Sunday of Easter
May 5, 2019

In this sermon guest preacher the Rev’d Robert Willis, the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, brings greetings from Canterbury and relates a heartwarming and moving story of interfaith relationship, compassion, and hope from the Cathedral. Using scripture, psalms, and stories from The Wind in the Willows and his own experience of an interaction with the Islamic community of Canterbury, the Dean invites us to reflect on the call of Jesus to us to love one another—Jesus, who loves us and goes ahead of us to prepare a place of joy and light. Take time to listen to this Eastertide message of resurrection, encouragement, and hope.

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My Lord and My God

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My Lord and My God

The Rev’d Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Second Sunday of Easter
April 28, 2019

In this, his final sermon at Christ Church, New Haven, the Curate invites us to consider Saint Thomas—his longing to experience the presence of the risen Lord Jesus—and to consider for ourselves Jesus’s longing to be present with us. How will we respond? May we, like Thomas, exclaim “My Lord and my God!”

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Christus Vincit!

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Christus Vincit!

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Easter Day
April 21, 2019

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:18)

 

Friends, we have walked once more the Way of the Cross and come again to Easter--the celebration of our Lord’s Resurrection.  On Maundy Thursday Fr Carlos invited us to experience God not merely as an idea but as the one who is, revealed in the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ--to have our feet washed, and to experience the presence of God’s all-encompassing love in the sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood.

We watched and prayed in the garden all night long with our Lord, and on Friday we mourned his crucifixion, reflecting both on the historical event itself and on the nature of sin and evil.  Mother Kathryn invited us into the experience of our Lady, Mary, the Mother of God--how she mourned her son’s death--but also understood that he would triumph over death.  The cross, Mtr Kathryn reflected, is like a black hole--a nexus of collapse--a place into which death and destruction fall--but paradoxically a place, too, where new life springs forth--a promise that Christ has conquered death and sin, even in the midst of death itself.

And last night, at the Vigil, we lit the first fire of Easter, came by candlelight into this space, were reminded of our death and resurrection in the font of our baptism, and celebrated the joy of the first mass of Easter--as time stopped and the ancient mystery of the resurrection unfolded.  Fr Patrick placed the historical event of Christ’s resurrection on a cosmic scale, inviting us to see the implications for ourselves--and for the present day--in light of Christ’s triumph over death--to see beyond what the world may call an idle tale--to the deep truth of God’s faithfulness, God’s power, and God’s desire and love for us.

And today, in the new light of day, we pray our Sunday rounds together, celebrate the resurrection, and receive again his presence in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood--we proclaim the Body of Christ.  And we hear again the story of his resurrection--today through the person of Mary Magdalene, the first to see the empty tomb.  We hear the story of how she came to recognize the risen Lord Jesus in the garden--and how she shared that good news with the world.

Each time I hear this story I’m struck by that image of how the world turns for Mary--how initially she believes Jesus is dead, and she’s looking for his body--but suddenly, when he calls her name, she recognizes him, the man whom she first thought was the gardener, but now knows as the Lord of Life, her friend and teacher, Jesus.

When I hear that story my mind fixes on her confusion.  How could she not recognize this person she loved so much--this person who loved her so much? 

And it reminds me of another time of mistaken identity--one that was quite understandable.

Before I was ordained, when I was working at a community center in Atlanta, Georgia, I bought a condo.  It was the first home I’d owned.  The price was right, so naturally renovation was required.   The condo was in a pre-war building off Piedmont Park that had seen better days.  I spent about a month working with my father and friends and family installing new hardwood floors, molding, bathroom fixtures and tile, and painting everything.  It was a wholly new space by the time we were done--and I was glad we were finished.  But one of the most interesting things I remember about the renovation was meeting my next door neighbor.  One afternoon as I was on a ladder painting he stopped by, walked in the door which had been propped open, and began to talk to me--no introductions, just talk about painting and carpentry.  Before I knew it, he was asking me if I could stop by his apartment and give him a bid for renovations.  He had assumed I was a professional painter, not just an amateur do-it-yourself sort--and when I introduced myself as his neighbor, we both laughed and were glad to have met one another.

I think of that story--that case of mistaken identity--every time I hear this story in the gospel.  Mary Magdalene doesn’t recognize the risen Jesus.  She thinks he’s the gardener.  Now, this is I suppose an understandable mistake--like my neighbor that thought I was the painter--because I was painting.  Jesus was after all not in the tomb where Mary thought he’d be; he was, in fact, in the garden.  And surely through her tears, or in her grief, or just through the shock of it all, she can’t be expected to recognize our Lord on first glance.  Except that Mary had known Jesus for three years!  She’d been with him, with the disciples, everywhere, and financially supported Jesus’s ministry .  She’d entered Jerusalem with him, maybe even been at table with him, had been by the cross at the crucifixion, had helped bury him--and she was returning to attend to his body again.  How could Mary, who knew Jesus so well, not recognize him?

I suppose it’s not so very surprising, however.  For don’t we too fail to recognize the risen Jesus in our own day?  In our own lives?  Mary knew Jesus for three years, but we’ve known Jesus for two thousand years.  How can we failing to recognize Jesus’s face today?

There is something that Mary and we share in this failure to recognize.  There’s something more going on here than mistaken identity.  There’s a fundamental problem in what we are looking for--what we are expecting.

Listen again to Mary.  She believes that Jesus’s body has been taken away--she says this to Peter and John, who then go to the tomb, look in, and seeing the grave clothes, leave--believing, we assume, that Jesus’s dead body has been taken away.  She returns to the tomb, weeping, and angels ask her, “Why are you weeping?”  And she repeats what she believes--that Jesus’s body has been taken away. Finally she says to the man she believes to be the gardener, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him.”  Three times Mary expects that Jesus is dead--and his body has been carried away.  She cannot imagine that Jesus is alive.  She expects to see death when she comes to the tomb.

This makes sense, doesn’t it.  We cannot fault Mary for having cloudy vision, or being overwhelmed with grief.  Mary is sensible--she knows the physical laws of nature, she knows she has seen the dead body of her friend, and she knows his corpse should still be there--but it is not--so surely someone has moved it.

If we move beyond the historical event of Jesus’s body in that space and time, in that place, there with Mary, if we look into our present day, would we not assume the same thing?  Would we not also believe that death has the final word?  After all, that’s certainly what it looks like to our eyes--to our consciousness.  In the midst of life we are in death, the funeral anthem we read at the Holy Saturday liturgy says, and isn’t it true? 

When I think of the tapestry of musical sounds here on Easter Day we hear sounds of great beauty--bells, organ voluntaries, plainchant with the richness of organum, anthems and psalms and hymns, all sounds that lift our senses to a place of joy and hope and peace, they seem otherworldly when compared to some of the soundscape of our city.

But part of the sound tapestry of New Haven is something different.  What we know about the world is something other than what we might experience in this place.  For woven in and amongst the shouts of joy and bubble of convivial conversations amongst her residents is also the sound of sirens wailing all day and night, emergent responses to disaster, illness, peril, and even death.  Gunshots, the sound of violence, and screams, deep wailing--these are the sounds for some in our fair city.  Across the world, today in Sri Lanka, where almost two hundred have been killed in churches and hotels this morning, the explosion of bombs shatters the stillness of the morning calm. Calling out, begging, the voices of desperation in our streets, even the sounds of addiction weave together the tapestry of need, of loneliness, and anxiety.  And the quiet desperation of those who are alone, who are without hope, that silence fills the warp and weft of the tapestry of sound.  We might be understanding of those among us -- of ourselves -- if we were to miss the voice of Jesus calling out, “Mary!”  If we were to miss, amongst the voices of death, the voice of our Lord calling out our name in love.

But Mary does not hold her expectation of death for long.  She hears Jesus’s voice calling out her name--Mary!-- and instantly she recognizes him.  Her confusion falls away, and immediately she knows it’s he--and she calls out, Teacher!  The one whom she loves, the one who loves her, calls out -- calls her name -- and suddenly the world is changed.  She didn’t expect Jesus’s resurrection--she didn’t expect to meet life there in the garden--there at the tomb--but it is real.  He is there.  And she runs to tell the others, I have seen the Lord!

It’s no surprise we, too, miss seeing the face of Jesus in the world around us, here and now, in our lives, in our city, in our present day.  Perhaps we expect to meet despair and death instead.  After all, that’s what we hear about constantly--what we witness, isn’t it.  But there he is, in the garden, standing outside the empty tomb, waiting for us to turn, waiting for us to look, waiting for us to hear as he calls each of us by name--his beloved friends. 

Why are you crying?  the angel asks Mary.  Where is my Lord?  Mary says.

And here he is.  Calling out to Mary, calling out to us, even now.

And in that very moment our lives are changed.  As Jesus calls out to us, we see him here, just now, and our world is changed.  Everything we know is different in the light of his resurrected glory.

There is a chant in the church that I love--the Christus Vincit, or Laudes Regiae--series of acclamations patterned on the acclamations given in ancient Rome to a conquering general or an emperor.  The chant itself is complicated; it’s been sung at coronations, and even at the entrance of the King of France into the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Easter.[1]  So the collusion of temporal and heavenly authority is, so to speak, complicated with this one.  But what I love about it most is the refrain--a simple, powerful chant:  Christus vincit!  Christus regnat!  Christus imperat!  Christ conquers; Christ reigns; Christ commands. 

Friends, this is the story of Easter.  Christ has conquered death.  Not even the worst that death can deal can stand against the love of God revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ.  Christ conquers.  Christ reigns.  Christ commands.

His resurrection is not merely an historical event--something that Mary Magdalene witnesses--but something that is real, here, and now--something that involves us.  As he stands at the empty tomb, conquering, victorious, we learn that everything we thought about the world is wrong.  That sin and death have no power.  That only Christ conquers.  Christ reigns. Christ commands.

Let me be clear about the truth of the resurrection:  Christ’s death and resurrection do not mean that there is no evil--that there is no suffering--that there is no death.  The fabric of what we thought was true doesn’t go away.  But there is a greater truth, a seamless garment woven in one piece, from the very love of God--the truth of Love that casts out fear and death.  In light of Christ’s resurrection, death no longer has the last word.

My friends, don’t believe the lies that the devil tells us.  Death is not the final truth.

Christ is the final truth.  Only love is truth.  Only life is.

Mary came to the tomb, expecting to find death.  And instead she found life--calling her very name.

Where are you today?  Where are we today as a community, as a city, as a nation?  Will we have the courage to expect something different? Will we have the courage to look inside the tomb, and not turn away when we find it empty, but keep looking?  To turn around, to look again, and keep looking and expecting until we see Jesus, standing by us, calling us by name? 

If you are searching, if you are looking into the empty tomb today and longing to see his Body, if you are longing to find the love and light of Christ’s truth, come to the altar today and receive him.  Let him fill you with his love.  Stay here and watch.  Look again.  Listen for his voice.  He is not in the tomb, he is risen.  And he stands just beside you, calling your name. 

If you’ve already met the risen Lord, if you are filled up with the light of his glorious resurrected presence, will you share it?  Will you turn and run to tell your friends, to tell the city, to tell the whole world what you know--that God has conquered even death, and that the world is overflowing with hope and joy?

Jesus said to her, Mary! She turned and said to him in Hebrew, Rabbouni! (which means Teacher.)

Christus vincit.  Christus regnat.  Christus imperat.

  Alleluia, Christ is Risen.

The Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia.


[1] http://modernmedievalism.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-laudes-regiae-christ-conquers.html

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Why Do You Look for the Living among the Dead?

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Why Do You Look for the Living among the Dead?

The Rev’d Deacon Patrick Keyser
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Easter Vigil
April 20, 2019

‘“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”’

 

+ Alleluia. Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Happy Easter dear friends. We have come to this the greatest of all nights, the night of rejoicing, the night of celebration, the night of Christ’s victory over death. This is the night, proclaims the Exsultet, when we are delivered from the gloom of sin and restored to grace and holiness of life. This is the night when earth and heaven are joined, and we are reconciled to God. The great theologian and preacher of the early Church John Chrysostom spoke of it in this way in a Paschal Homily:

Let none bewail [their] transgressions; for the light of forgiveness has risen from the tomb. Let none fear death; for death of the Savior has set us free. He has destroyed death by undergoing death. He has despoiled hell by descending into hell. He vexed it even as it tasted of His flesh. Isaiah foretold this when he cried: Hell was filled with bitterness when it met Thee face to face below; filled with bitterness, for it was brought to nothing; filled with bitterness, for it was mocked; filled with bitterness, for it was overthrown; filled with bitterness, for it was put in chains. Hell received a body, and encountered God. It received earth, and confronted heaven. O death, where is your sting? O hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen! And you, o death, are annihilated![1]

 

This night we proclaim this good news on a cosmic level and we also hear again the unassuming story of those who were the first to witness to the reality of Christ’s resurrection. And of course those first witnesses were the faithful women: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women who, though unnamed, were dear to our Lord Jesus and followed him until the end. Despite nearly two thousand years of interpretation and commentary on the Scriptures the Church has seemed unable or unwilling to fully recognize and acknowledge the role and importance of these faithful women who stayed with Jesus through his death and burial and who then went to the tomb to attend to his body. St. Luke’s gospel tells us that following Jesus’ crucifixion, a good and righteous man named Joseph from the town of Arimathea took Jesus’ body from the cross and laid it in tomb where no one had ever been laid. The faithful women who had followed Jesus all the way to the cross, those who had stayed when no one else did to see Jesus suffer and breathe his last, they saw where his body was laid and then returned to prepare spices and ointment for his body.

They rested on the sabbath day, and on the first day of the week at early dawn they went to the tomb. They went out that early morning to visit the place of the dead. Their hearts were still broken; they were still numb and overcome with the pain and grief they felt from the loss of their Lord. When they arrived amidst the darkness of the early morning they found that the stone to the tomb was rolled away and inside the body was gone. They were confused and distressed, but then such a dazzling and bright light broke through the darkness that they knew only to bow down in fear and wonder. And then those blessed words rang out that have shaken the very foundations of the world ever since: ‘why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.’ They would not find Jesus there among the dead.

The faithful women heard these words and they believed. Then they did the only thing they knew to do: they ran away from that place and began to spread this good news, this most impossible and incredible news. They went to the eleven apostles and told them what they had witnessed. They told it to those whom Jesus had selected to follow him and minster with him, the eleven who had spent so much time with Jesus yet who had deserted him in his most desperate hour. But the eleven did not believe them and this incredible news that they brought of Jesus’ resurrection. It was, they believed, just an idle tale. The women must have been overly emotional or hysterical from the grief and the early morning. I fear some things have not changed despite the advance of time. The faithful women boldly spoke the truth they knew in their hearts and had witnessed themselves despite the unbelief of the eleven. There was something in Peter, however, that was stirred by their testimony, and something compelled him to go and see for himself. And so he did, and of course what he found confirmed what the faithful women had told. The tomb was empty save the linen cloths. Peter was amazed. Idle tale became the very news of salvation. The resting place of the dead and reminder of what seemed to be the triumph of evil became the sign and witness of Christ’s victory over death. The tomb stood empty, and the world began to rejoice.

This night we come, like the faithful women, to hear again this good news. We have walked together the journey of this week, from the washing of feet, to betrayal and desertion, to the cross and Jesus’ death, to the silence and stillness of that day when God slept in the flesh and Jesus’ body rested in the tomb. We have witnessed the very worst of this world, but tonight is our night of victory for we proclaim again the good news that death had no power over Jesus. He broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave. This is our good news, yet for so many it may still seem but an idle tale. We need not look far to be reminded of the brokenness of our world and the evil that seems to reign. It may seem like an idle tale when gun violence rages in our country and in our very city, when people are shot not 200 yards from the doors of this church. It may seem an idle tale when yet again unarmed African Americans are shot by the police; when children are ripped from their parents and subjected to unspeakable and irreversible trauma; when hate-filled gunmen murder people at prayer in their own house of worship. It can seem to be too much; it may indeed seem but an idle tale. But tonight we gather to remember and proclaim a different story, the truth of that message of Easter that rings across the ages. Death does not win; the evil, hatred, and violence we see in our world will not reign supreme. Resurrection comes; sin does not have the victory. The tomb is empty. We will not find the living among the dead. Christ has risen from the dead and beaten down death by death. And now he goes ahead of us to bring his love and healing, into the streets of New Haven, into the broken places of our country, and to the very ends of the earth, and when we seek him there we will find him. This is our message of good news. Like Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, and all those women whose names and depth of faith are known to almighty God alone, may God grant us the faith and courage to go out into the world and proclaim that good news:

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia! +


[1] http://www.orthodoxchristian.info/pages/sermon.htm

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The Cross and Mary

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The Cross and Mary

The Rev’d Kathryn Greene-McCreight
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Good Friday
April 19, 2019

A headline in The New York Times, April 10, 2019:

“Darkness Visible”:

“Astronomers at last have captured an image of the darkest entities in the cosmos, an image of a violent phenomenon that has mystified them for more than half a century. The image doesn’t show the black hole itself; black holes are black because no light can escape them.”

The cross of Good Friday is like, and yet unlike, that black hole. Both are violent phenomena. Both mystify. Both take prisoner all the light that surrounds them. Both are Darkness Visible.

Yet Good Friday’s Cross is different from the black hole: the Cross of Christ transforms all the light it imprisons, and shoots it back into the world as new light, as Easter fire.

Five days after the NYT, another headline in the NYT read: “Fire Mauls Beloved Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris”. This article included a photo of a golden cross, still shining in its place at the east end of the Cathedral, gleaming out over the charred rubble. The altar beneath it remained intact under the shelter of the cross’s wings.

Good Friday’s cross is like, and yet unlike, this cross standing watch over the altar at Notre Dame: the Cross of Christ protects through the flames. Both defy death. Both shine with the light by which we see Light.

The Cross of Good Friday is more like the cross of Notre Dame than it is like that black hole. But this is Good Friday, and the Empty Tomb is yet to come.

Good Friday marks the hinge of the three scenes of the one saving event: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. And so today our gaze is transfixed by Jesus’ Cross.

While we might want to turn quickly away to the joy of the Resurrection, the light of the Easter Fire doesn’t make the Cross any less of a black hole, any less of a Cathedral’s destruction. We have to look intently at this cross, and not avert our eyes.

In the Basilica of St Peter’s in Rome stands Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of this Darkness Visible, where Mary holds her dead son. It is a traditional scene in the history of art: the descent from the Cross. The sculpture is known by the Italian word for pity, or compassion. The Pieta.

It is a simple, traditional image, but unique in the way it presents the moment after Jesus’s body is removed from the Cross. Mary tries to hold her adult son on her lap. His body spills across hers. She holds Jesus, her left hand, palm upturned, extended slightly outward from her body, and away from his. Literally dead weight, Jesus is sliding off of her. She lets him go, releasing him.

Now consider this image: Mary, the new mother, holds Jesus the lively infant. In our own Lady Shrine is one of these traditional scenes. There Mary holds the baby Jesus close, lest he squiggle away, as babies often do. Mary cradles him in her arms and nurses him, as mothers often do. This new mother will nurture her son Jesus, rear him, and prepare him for adult life. And she prepares herself to give him up, to let him go, to let him slide off her body.

It is true of any parent, of course, that we must let go. We rear our children in order to hand them on to the world. But Mary’s task is gut-wrenchingly unique, because she raises her child for slaughter. She knows what is to come. She knows that the black hole of his cross will indeed swallow her son, the Light of the world.

How does she bear this? Mary knows in advance, as she has known all along. Mary knows the promises to God’s people, Israel. And the angel Gabriel has told her that her son yet to be born will embody and fulfill those promises. At first Mary questions how this can be, but she trusts the angel’s word: “nothing will be impossible with God.” (Lk 1:37). Mary’s response to the angel is assent: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” (Lk 1:38)

Mary knows, looking forward. But we know only looking backwards, through Mary’s song, through Scripture. We know what comes of this death only because we have seen the Easter life shining through the witness of prophets and apostles.

We see the cross, therefore, as the cross at Notre Dame’s east end. Unlike that black hole, the cross of Jesus brings resurrection, New Creation, the reconciliation of all creation to God. We know this because Mary knew, and because she let go of her son.

Without Mary’s assent, even to that black hole of the cross that captures all light, we would not know the Light of life.

Tradition has it that Mary stands at the foot of the cross. The disciple John flanks her on the other side. You can see this on our rood screen. Mary is there at the cross, with the Disciple whom Jesus loved. But notice: Mary is not among the other women who visit the tomb. This is important. The other Mary’s go to the tomb, expecting to prepare Jesus’s lifeless body for burial. Those Mary’s do not know what Mary the Mother of Jesus does know.

The mother of the Pieta does not go to the tomb, because she knows it is empty. She knows that Darkness cannot ultimately overcome Light. But this is not simply because darkness is not dark, nor the black hole not black, nor the fire not scorching.

Today on Good Friday, we must not glide over Mary’s grief. Her tears are not play-acting. She truly mourns. She is indeed the Lady of Sorrows. She knows that her son will be laid in the tomb. And she knows why.

She knows that death has yet to be conquered, and this will come only through Jesus’ entering into it and coming out the other side victorious.

And so she stands at the foot of the cross. She peers into that swirling black hole that truly does threaten to imprison all light in its abyss. She watches the ravaging flames lick up the cathedral built in her name. She witnesses the violence of the cross murdering the fruit of her own body.

She stares it down and does not flinch.

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

Comment

Who God Is

Comment

Who God Is

The Rev’d Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Maundy Thursday
April 18, 2019

Blessed be the name of the Lord, from henceforth, and forevermore. Amen.

 

In January, the newest edition of the International Journal of Systematic Theology was published. What made this issue unique was its sole dedication to the theological work of John Webster.

 

Before his death in 2016, Webster, a priest of the Church, served as the Chair of Divinity at St. Mary's College, University of St Andrews, Scotland, prior to that he served as the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford, a prestigious chair in which he was immediately preceded by Archbishop Rowan Williams.

 

In one of the journal’s essays, entitled The God-Intoxicated Theology of a Modern Theologian, written by a mentor and former professor, Katherine Sonderregger, Webster’s lifelong work is described as the labor of a man focused on who God is, not what Deity is.[1]

 

Who God is, not what Deity is.

 

Webster’s work was concerned with knowing more deeply the greatness and vastness of God. A God who cannot be grasped by human understanding or wisdom, but by divine revelation. Out of his own sovereignty God reveals himself to us as the great I Am. And this great mystery, the boundless unknown, freely takes flesh, our flesh, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The very Jesus who on this night took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples. The very Jesus who on this night tied a towel around his waist and washed the feet of his disciples. The very Jesus who on this night gave us a new commandment – “Love one another just as I have loved you.”

 

A being so infinite, luminous, and powerful, comes to us in the person of Jesus. And so the question who God is, in its full revelation and perfection, is answered in the life, ministry, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Through which we come to know God more fully not by some great personal insight or technical achievement, but by God’s own revelation, God’s very actions and words.

 

On this night we find Jesus at dinner with his friends. With his betrayal looming, Jesus pours water into a basin and washes the feet of his disciples. An act which Saint Peter first rejects. The great disciple of the Church, the one whom God’s church will be built upon, rejects our Lord’s gesture. We are not told why, but we are told Jesus’ response to Saint Peter - "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Unless I am able to make you clean, you will not share with me.

 

Saint Peter’s understanding of who God is? Or better yet, what deity is? would not permit him to have Jesus, God made man, wash his feet. How could God, the great I Am, the creator of heaven and earth, the maker of all things seen and unseen, stoop down to the ground and wash the feet of a mortal man. But this is who God is.

 

In the act of lowering himself to wash the feet of his disciples, our mortal eyes are given an image of the radical nature of God in Christ. Jesus washing the feet of his disciples is but an archetype of who God is, it is but a reflection of his Incarnation, God’s ultimate revelation. In the act of washing the feet of his disciples, we are witnessing mutually a revelation and a commandment of Who God is… and who God wants us to be.

 

Jesus says “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet... Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples”

 

This commandment of love comes to us in the words and actions of Jesus. And Jesus comes to us by God’s outpouring of himself in the Incarnation. An act of divine kenosis, that is God’s self-emptying of himself into the world. In this act of self-emptying through which God becomes man, God also reveals to us a new radical notion of love. God doesn’t give what he has… he gives what he is, his very being.[2]

 

 

 

 

Therefore, the Christian notion of divine love is formed by the fact that God does not give us what he possesses or owns, but his very self. This ultimate revelation of divine love, God giving his full and unconditional self in the life, ministry, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, needs to guide our participation in the Triduum, our celebration on Easter Day, and our Christian life.

 

But how?

 

How do we live out Christ’s command, how do we proclaim, and more importantly, embody the Christian notion of love?

 

The most recent issue of the Harvard Business Review features an interview with Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. In it, he is asked, “How do you encourage people to bring love into their workplaces?” A true capitalist question about love if I’ve ever heard one.

 

The Presiding Bishop responds with these words:

 

“In the past couple years I’ve started thinking of love less as a sentiment and more as a commitment to a way of being with others. As a sentiment, love is more about what I’m getting out of it than what you’re getting out of it. But as a commitment, love means I’m seeking your self-interest as well as my own—and maybe above and beyond mine.”[3]

 

Believing and living out love not as a sentiment, but as a commitment, is how we’ll be able to follow Jesus’ commandment. It is how we can show the world God’s ultimate revelation in the person of Jesus. It is what God in Christ came to show us about himself, inviting us to follow and lower ourselves to serve those in need. And by that same token, allowing us to admit to ourselves and God, without shame or fear, that we are in need of the service and love of others. Allowing us to be ones whose feet are washed by Jesus himself.

 

This can be difficult. Our ego, pride, and even fear can get in the way. After all, the love that God offers for the world is showcased on the cross. The love that God reveals, his very being, will be rejected.

 

And yet Jesus never gives into the world’s desire to undermine his way of love. He is betrayed, he stumbles and falls, but never gives in to the world’s hunger and lust for power. True power belongs to God and therefore it belongs to Christ, and Christ belongs to us whom Christ is willing to serve and wash us again, and again, and again… but only if we let him. If we allow ourselves to be made new by the love of God in Jesus Christ there is nothing to actually fear. Love is no longer an idea to attain, but a reality.

 

Will you accept who God is?


[1] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/ijst.12342

[2] Zizek, S., & Milbank, J. (2009). The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? (C. Davis, Ed.). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

[3] https://hbr.org/2019/05/lifes-work-an-interview-with-bishop-michael-curry

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What Will You Remember?

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What Will You Remember?

The Rev’d Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
April 14, 2019

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

 

If you travel two miles outside the old city of Jerusalem, you will find yourself in the hills of the Mount of Olives. Standing in its ridges, if you but slightly look west, your eyes would gaze on the holy city of David. Jerusalem’s horizon from the Mount of Olives is nothing short of spectacular. It is simply beautiful. For ancient and modern residents and pilgrims, the prospect of Jerusalem holds an important and incomparable role in our Christian faith and history.

 Today, the Western Church once again enters into Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. To follow in the way of Jesus. To follow in the way of the cross.

 Two thousand years ago, crowds welcomed Jesus as they did King Jehu and kings of old by laying down their cloaks on the road. However, the rule of Jesus of Nazareth takes a radical turn. While Jesus enters Jerusalem with the crowds shouting: "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!"

 This joyous proclamation is shortly swallowed up by a different cry: Crucify him! Crucify him!

 The glory of Jesus’ entrance in Jerusalem, and his proclamation as blessed and king, is taken over by his arrest, interrogation, and crucifixion. This is the story we remember on this day. This is the story we contemplate and embody in our Holy Week liturgies.

 But why?

 Why do we recall the darkest and most painful moments of the life of Jesus?

 Simply put, to remember and never forget.

 To remember and never forget the tragedy of the cross. To remember and never forget the violent and brutal acts endured by our Lord, acts that are still endured by individuals in our day. To remember and never forget that amidst his passion, Jesus remains faithful to his vision for the world, even if the world tries to destroy. To remember and never forget the world’s salvation: the invitation for all of creation to be made whole through the power of God in Jesus Christ. To remember and never forget the greatness of the Resurrection – that God through and in the midst of death is able to bring forth life. Life that no human hand can take away, life that shall have no end.

 The Church invites us to follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, to remember and never forget.

 So what will be your response? How will you follow Jesus on the road?

Will you join in the sacred ritual of foot washing? Will you stay up if just for an hour and keep watch on our Lord’s Body? Will you venerate and kiss the wood of the cross? Will you come to the tomb and in the midst of death light the new fire?

What will you remember and never forget this Holy Week?

 I know I have thrown many questions at you. Please know that this is not an interrogation of how you will spend your Holy Week, by no means, rather an invitation for you to bring forth your full self – your broken and beautiful self, that which needs healing and transformation. The road that ultimately leads to the beauty that radiates on Easter Day, the beauty of life.

 But before we can enter the third day, the day of Resurrection, and before we can enter into the liturgies of Holy Week, let us for a moment place ourselves on the Mount of Olives. Picture yourself as a disciple on that mount. Proclaiming in a loud cry the kingship of Jesus as he is mounted on a colt. Not knowing at exactly what is about to take place in the days to come, but knowing that something is different this time. That the life of Jesus, our teacher and friend, will never be the same, and therefore, our own lives will never be the same.

 In the eighth century, Saint Andrew of Crete, Bishop and theologian, in a Palm Sunday sermon called his flock to the mount with these words:

 Let us go together to meet Christ on the Mount of Olives. Today he returns from Bethany and proceeds of his own free will toward his holy and blessed passion, to consummate the mystery of our salvation.

 He who came down from heaven to raise us from the depths of sin, to raise us with himself, we are told in Scripture, above every sovereignty, authority and power, and every other name that can be named, now comes of his own free will to make his journey to Jerusalem.

 He comes without pomp or ostentation. As the psalmist says: "He will not dispute or raise his voice to make it heard in the streets. He will be meek and humble, and he will make his entry in simplicity."

 Let us run to accompany him as he hastens toward his passion, and imitate those who met him then, not by covering his path with garments, olive branches or palms, but by doing all we can to prostrate ourselves before him by being humble and by trying to live as he would wish. Then we shall be able to receive the Word at his coming, and God, whom no limits can contain, will be within us.

 In his humility Christ entered the dark regions of our fallen world and he is glad that he became so humble for our sake, glad that he came and lived among us and shared in our nature in order to raise us up again to himself. And even though we are told that he has now ascended above the highest heavens – the proof, surely, of his power and godhead – his love for man will never rest until he has raised our earthbound nature from glory to glory, and made it one with his own in heaven.

 So let us spread before his feet, not garments or soulless olive branches, which delight the eye for a few hours and then wither, but ourselves, clothed in his grace, or rather, clothed completely in him. We who have been baptized into Christ must ourselves be the garments that we spread before him. Now that the crimson stains of our sins have been washed away in the saving waters of baptism and we have become white as pure wool, let us present the conqueror of death, not with mere branches of palms but with the real rewards of his victory. Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches. Amen.

 

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What a Waste

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What a Waste

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
April 7, 2019

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.  (John 12:1-3)

 

+ + +

        You will not believe the story of how I spent my Thursday evening.  I have been waiting all weekend to tell you about this—it’s crazy, and I’m still not sure what to make of it.  So last week I got a call from my friend Martha—the one in catering that lives in West Hartford.  She’s the friend whose brother was so sick—what’s his name, starts with an “L”—the doctors say he actually died…   I don’t know how he made it out of the ICU!  Anyway, he’s back up and around now.  And that’s what I was trying to tell you!  So Martha called and invited me to dinner on Thursday—all the way up to West Hartford.   And there at dinner was that brother of hers!  He looked totally normal, as if nothing had ever happened!  It was totally amazing—even slightly creepy.  He was sitting about three seats down from me—and he looked just fine!  So this dinner party was for some guy called  Josh— Martha’s sister Mary always talks about him, hangs on his every word.  You might have heard of him, the one that comes from way out somewhere near Derby—he was at their last dinner party where Martha ran around in a frenzy and Mary just sat there listening to him talk.  I think he’s some sort of a rabbi or something.   Well, there we were, having a nice dinner, and—this is the crazy part—after the soup, Mary just left the table.  No explanation.  It was particularly strange because, you know, she never helps in the kitchen.  And suddenly she bursts in with this huge bottle of perfume—I recognized the label—it’s Joy, you know, that Jean Patou fragrance—except it’s the real perfume, not the watered down stuff—and I had NEVER seen a bottle that big!  I thought for a minute maybe she’d gone down to the city to buy it--but it was such a big bottle, they must have had it specially ordered—seriously, it was a whole pint of the stuff!  I was stunned—it must have cost almost everything Martha made last year!  And the strangeness doesn’t stop there—she went over and poured all of it on that Josh guy’s feet!  She just moved everyone out of the way and actually got down on the floor and poured it all over his feet right there in the dining room—weird, right?  But wow, it smelled so good—and then, and this was even weirder—she wiped it off with her hair.  WITH HER HAIR.  Martha and that brother of hers were just watching and smiling.   I was so creeped out!  Some guy I didn’t know at the other end of the table was moaning about what a waste it was.  He was right—they could have given that money away, not just poured it out on the ground like that.  Most people just sat there staring—it was SO UNCOMFORTABLE!  I’m telling you, I just poured another glass of wine and watched it all happen.    And that Josh guy was totally cool with it—he just said, “Leave her alone.  She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”  (John 12.7-8)  How weird is that? What is he talking about, his burial?  SO creepy.  And seriously, the guy at the end of the table was right—it was a total waste. 

        Now, that conversation is clearly a work of fiction, right?  But how would people at dinner with Mary and Martha and Lazarus have understood what happened that evening?  How would they have reacted to the incredible scene the gospel writer describes for us?  It really is a strange scene, isn’t it?  Strange enough that it makes it, with very few differences, into all of the four canonical gospels.   It is a story full of emotion—a story that provokes reaction—that makes us, well, it makes me, feel something.

        I wonder how you react to this story?  What would you say if someone came into your dining room and did something like this to a friend?  How would you feel if you were the person that this happened to—someone washing your feet with costly perfumed oil?  How would you feel if you were the person making this gift, this offering?  Where do you find yourself in the story?  What’s going on here?  Just what is happening?

        I must confess to you, as you can probably tell from the earlier narrative, that I am not entirely comfortable with this story.  It’s too intimate—too close for comfort.  Don’t touch my feet, I’d want to say if this happened to me.  Stop it, get away!  The very action of anointing in and of itself draws attention—both to the recipient but also to the one who offers—to Jesus and also to Mary.  I find myself, like Judas, annoyed—annoyed at the sheer audacity of the action, the inconvenience to the other dinner guests, the presumed intimacy of the whole thing, and the wastefulness of it all. 

        I wonder, am I the only one who feels this way?  Surely not.  After all, Judas points out that they could have sold the perfumed oil for 300 denari.  Now if a denarius is maybe a day’s wage for a common laborer, then the sum is significant—almost a whole year’s pay for some people.  The perfumed oil is nard—a fragrance extracted from the spikenard plant, which would have been imported at great cost from the foothills of the Himalayas.[1]   This was an extravagant gesture to be sure—an incredible waste of money, Judas says.  And he’s not wrong, is he?  That gift could have been sold to give money to the poor! 

        John is quick to point out that Judas isn’t actually concerned with where the money goes; he keeps the group’s pooled money—he’s the treasurer—and he’s apparently skimming from it.  We will later learn that this is the same Judas that for thirty pieces of silver—just a tenth—a mere fraction of the value of this perfume—for those thirty pieces of silver Judas gives Jesus up to be arrested, tried, and crucified.  So Judas’s motives are suspect, aren’t they.  Nevertheless, even if Judas weren’t a thief, why wouldn’t we be concerned about this great waste of money?  That’s only rational, right?  Only appropriate. 

        But that’s not what Jesus says, is it?  He says “Leave her alone…  You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”  What’s this about, Jesus?  Wouldn’t Jesus be thrifty?  Wouldn’t he want the poor to have this money?

        What is it about Mary’s gesture that we are to learn from?  What is it that Jesus recognizes in her action, in this extravagant gesture?

        Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities, in his commentary on John[2] points out that Mary is responding out of gratitude—her action is a response to Jesus’s love for her and her family.  After all, Jesus is friends with them—he has dined at their table; he has wept at his friend Lazarus’s death; he has raised Lazarus back to life from death.  Mary has experienced Jesus’s love, and it has transformed her.  She responds out of this love, from a place of gratitude. 

        What’s more, Varnier points out, Mary probably realizes that Jesus is in danger—that in that act of raising Lazarus has crossed the line.  The religious and political leadership hear of this resurrection of Lazarus, and that’s it.  They call for Jesus’s arrest.  And indeed, Mary’s action is like an anointing of king—but it is also like an embalming.  The contrast with the stench of the dead Lazarus and the beautiful fragrance of this perfume is striking—but the foreshadowing is not lost on us nor likely on the crowd.  Jesus himself says, “you do not always have me.”  The triumphal entry into Jerusalem that we celebrate next Sunday, Palm Sunday, comes just the day after this dinner party, and just as soon as we’ve heard those shouts of praise, we will hear the gospel of the Passion—the story of what comes next—the trial and execution of Jesus.   Mary knows that, in raising Lazarus, Jesus has poured out his very self—he has offered his own life.   She knows he will die.

        And Mary responds to this great love that Jesus has shown her and her family; she is changed by it.  She responds in gratitude—and suddenly keeping that costly gift, even for Jesus’ burial, seems foolish.  She pours it out immediately, then and there at dinner, not worried about how uncomfortable or strange it seems or about the cost to her and her family—she pours it out as an offering.  She pours out herself—her love—in wasteful joyful abandon.  She showers the very feet of Jesus with this beautiful fragrance, with this anointing of her own gratitude and love, in an act of worship and praise and adoration. 

        Because she knows Jesus’ love, Mary learns how to love.  Everything she can offer in that moment she gives—not holding back, not holding on, not protecting herself or making excuses or avoiding, but rather embracing Jesus in that moment—giving him all she can offer, pouring out herself, her own love, as a fragrant offering of thanksgiving.

        Friends, this is what we are building to this Lent—this wasteful abandonment of self, this loving union with God.  Every story we have heard, every moment of Lent—the story of Jesus’ own temptation, the image of Jesus gathering the people of Jerusalem to himself as a hen gathers a brood under her wings, the parable of the fig tree, the parable of the man who had two sons—the story of the prodigal father, as the Rector calls it—all of these stories are about our relationship with God.  All of them are about a God who draws us to himself again and again in love.  In this season of self-examination, a season of repentance, we take time to figure out what it is that is separating us from God, to look honestly at the things that impair our relationship with God—and to change them—to enter into relationship more fully with God—to turn our hearts to God and to love him. 

        But that’s too much, Judas says.  It’s a waste!  Nothing is ever wasted when poured out for God.  For brothers and sisters, if we give our whole selves, the entirety of our time, our skill, our prayers, our focus, and yes, our money, and our love—if we give it all to Jesus, don’t you think that the poor will be fed?  That the naked will be clothed?  That those in prison will be visited with justice and mercy?  If we give God the tools, if we give God ourselves, God can use them—God can use us—to heal relationships in this world—and to build relationships in the next. 

        But we have to take that step—to enter into this strange and wondrous story of God’s love.  For just like Mary, we are loved by Jesus.  He has chosen us.  And now it’s our turn to run in joyful abandon to his feet—to really get up close and personal—to tell him of our love—and to live that love in the world. 

+ + +


[1] I am grateful to Angus Trumble, formerly Senior Curator of Paintings and Sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art, for the analysis of the significance and value of nard.

 

[2] Jean Varnier, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John, London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2004.


A version of this sermon was preached previously in 2013 at Grace Church in New York.

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The Prodigal's Return

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The Prodigal's Return

The Rev’d Deacon Patrick Keyser
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 31, 2019

‘Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”’

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

Many of you know that I grew up in a very small town in rural Virginia. Located as we were far away from any major urban area and all the resources and opportunities that come with that, life was, in many ways, quite simple. As a child free time was spent mostly outside playing in the fields and woods around my home, playing baseball, fishing, and boating and spending time on the water. Though I knew how to tie a boat to a dock and catch crabs with just a piece of string and a chicken leg, I knew virtually nothing about the worlds of art and music. The only museum within miles of my home was a small fisherman’s museum that told the history of a nearby fishing village. So when I left my hometown for college and was exposed for the first time to the riches of art and music I was struck all the more powerfully by the ways these and other expressions of beauty can captivate us and connect us with the divine. I will never forget first seeing Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica. It is a work of haunting beauty: Mary lovingly holds the corpse of her son Jesus, who has been taken down from the cross. In beholding this masterpiece, Mary’s grief and Christ’s crucifixion became more real and more profound to me. Art can move us beyond ourselves and beyond the work itself to reveal to us deeper truths.

I hope that many of you have been graced with the experience of seeing a work of art or some part of creation of such beauty that you were left humbled and awed by the splendor of God. Art has long held an important place in Christian spirituality, and given the prominent role of Christianity in Western history, many of the most famous works of art reflect a Christian focus. Today I would like for us to approach the parable we just heard by attending to one particular piece of art that draws on this story– ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ by Rembrandt, the 17th century Dutch master. It is an absolute masterpiece that has captivated and inspired people for centuries, perhaps most notably in the case of Henri Nouwen, the Dutch Roman Catholic priest and former professor at Yale Divinity School, who wrote an entire book bearing the same name as the painting that describes his encounter with this piece. A copy of this painting was included in this week’s E-pistle from the parish office to accompany Angela Shelley’s lovely reflection, and I hope many of you saw it. I hope this gives you an incentive to read the E-pistle each week! If you didn’t see it I hope you will take a look later. I would like us to revisit this most beautiful and inexhaustible parable of Jesus by focusing especially on the scene of the prodigal’s return and Rembrandt’s depiction of it.

The title ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ reminds us that there was first a leave taking, and that is where Jesus begins his parable. A man had two sons, one of whom came to his father and said, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ We must not miss the outlandish nature of this request. This son was asking for the inheritance that he would gain upon his father’s death while his father was still living. His request is effectively a wish that his father were dead. The father does not reject this insulting request but instead does as his son asked. The son takes his share of the inheritance and departs for a distant country, leaving behind his family and everything he had ever known. His new life of luxury and wealth is short-lived. Before long he had lost everything. With no money and absolutely desperate for food, he finally finds a job feeding pigs. It was a messy and demeaning job. It isn’t difficult to imagine how horrible and disgusting it must have been to work and spend so much among the slop and filth of those pigs. But one day in the midst of all of this mess, he ‘came to himself.’ He suddenly remembered, ‘it doesn’t have to be this way. This has not always been my life. Maybe I can go back. Maybe I can return to my father, and though I am no longer worthy to be called his son, maybe he will treat me like one of his hired hands.’

So he sets out, retracing the steps of his original journey, returning to a place he surely never planned to see again. He must have been filled with fear and anxiety. He had rejected his family and squandered the entirety of his inheritance. Now he returned home, hoping beyond hope that he might be given just one more thing– a place as one of his father’s hired hands. Even this modest request felt like too much. He makes the long journey home filled with this fear, but while he was still far off, his father sees him. It’s almost as if the father had been waiting for him, looking out across the horizon, still after all this time hoping see his son once again. When he sees his son far off, the father is so filled with compassion that he runs out to him, wraps his arms around him, and kisses him. It is a tender yet shocking moment. It is, I think, the defining moment of the entire story and in many ways summary of the gospel in one image. Perhaps that is why Rembrandt chose to depict it. It deserves our attention.

In Rembrandt’s ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son,’ the focus is undoubtedly this embrace of father and son. The younger son kneels with his back to the viewer. His appearance is so striking as to invite pity. His hair is thin and nearly all missing. His clothes are tattered and dirty from overuse and lack of cleaning. His shoes are worn down, the heel missing on one of them. Here is a person of utter desperation and brokenness. Here is someone who has experienced misery and hardship. But then there is the father. He is bent over his poor son, with both hands on his shoulders. His hands grip his son firmly yet tenderly. His eyes radiate compassion and love. His loving embrace of his worn-down son says, ‘it doesn’t matter what you did wrong; it doesn’t matter that left us and lost everything; the only thing that matters is that you came back; you were dead but alive again.’ This embracing father orders that new clothes be brought to his poor son. He orders the best robe, a ring, and sandals be brought to him. Then a celebration must begin. The fatted calf must be killed because this celebration demands the best food. The embrace of father and son is an absolutely ridiculous scene. Here is incomprehensible forgiveness. Here is grace.

This image can frighten us. It defies our expectations. Something about it seems unfair. We expect consequences for our bad actions. We expect punishment when we do wrong. The prodigal son should face consequences for his poor decisions. Even he believes he should be punished; he comes asking to be treated like a hired hand. But Jesus turns our expectations on their head. God does not seek to punish us when we go astray. God is longing and waiting to meet us and embrace us when we turn back, and God comes to meet us when we are still far off. I wonder what difference it might make to our Lenten disciplines if we consider them not as means of punishment but as a way of returning ourselves to our God who waits to embrace us. An important example is found in the sacrament of confession, which many find an especially important practice in the season of Lent. Though it has sadly been so wildly misunderstood and distorted through historical practice and popular depiction in film, confession is not about feeling guilty in the face of an angry God who wants to punish us. No, confession is about turning again toward God, naming our sins, and receiving the grace of the sacrament and the divine embrace of our God who runs out to us when we turn back home. It’s about meeting God, not punishment.

Rembrandt’s great painting is not just a depiction of the prodigal son and his father. Another figure features prominently–the older son of the parable. Where his brother had been reckless and disobedient, he was steady and steadfastly loyal. While his brother fled away to a distant land, he had stayed home and followed everything his father had every done. In Rembrandt’s painting, the older brother stands watching the embrace of his father and brother. He stands at the edge of the painting, away from father and brother. He stands tall, supported by a walking stick. His expression is cold and distant. His resentment and dissatisfaction is apparent. He is devoid of joy. It isn’t fair. His brother does not deserve such forgiveness. He had wronged his father. He had lived a reckless life and lost everything. Now he should pay the consequences.

I think it is much easier for us to accept the dissatisfaction of older brother than it is for us to accept the embrace of the father. In the face of such radical forgiveness, in the face of pure and unconditional love, we struggle to accept it. How often do we speak the words of the older brother to ourselves: ‘you do not deserve this love; you do not deserve this forgiveness; it is too much.’ But Jesus tells us something different. Jesus tells us that no matter how far we stray or how many things we do wrong, God is always waiting to run and embrace us when we turn back. Can we remember that tender embrace of father and son? Can we see, can we believe that God is longing to do the same for us? Come let us return to our God, who longs to embrace us and welcome us home.

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

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Take Two:  Judgment and Grace

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Take Two: Judgment and Grace

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Third Sunday in Lent
March 24, 2019

Have you ever had a conversation with someone that went something along these lines?  “I want to tell you something I did--but don’t judge me!” And then the person goes on to reveal some sort of thing that, of course, they have already judged themselves for.  Usually this is a silly sort of thing, right?  “I wore two different shoes today.  Don’t judge!”  To the truly tragic, “I may have texted my ex  last night and asked to get back together.  Don’t judge!”  You get the idea.

These are silly examples, but there is some truth to the way that phrase works in our culture…  Don’t judge.  Don’t judge me.  Don’t disapprove of what I have chosen.  Don’t tell me I am wrong.  And outside this silly sort of communication that is tweeted, texted, or otherwise thrown into the electronic milieu that is social media, that craving for acceptance, that avoidance of judgment or criticism or anything like disapproval, comes through into our larger lives—into our real world relationships.

There is something about judgment that awakens that small child within, isn’t there?  It’s as though we’ve been sent to the headmaster’s office for a scolding—and we know that detention is surely in the future for us.  It’s as though someone is going to call our parents and boy, then will we be in trouble!  It seems childish, doesn’t it?  But I see this sort of response again and again in myself—and in people with whom I interact as a priest, as a person.  Our relationships can be overshadowed by this fear of judgment.

Sometimes we locate that judgment, though, in our relationship with God.  Sometimes we get stuck in a view of God as a parent—after all, we talk about God as Father, of Christ as the begotten Son—and if we get stuck on thinking of that as the limit of our relationship with God, well, we end up thinking of God as just that, a parent who tells us right and wrong, who tells us what to do, maybe even a parent who scolds.  It’s a child’s perspective of God, isn’t it—and some adults—well, most adults I’d venture to say—hold onto that idea well into adulthood!

If we really dig down and look honestly at what we’ve done wrong, we may be afraid of judgment…  And we make the leap quickly from judgment to punishment, just as the people in today’s gospel lesson do.  In today’s gospel reading Jesus is teaching, probably in the midst of a large crowd, and someone asks about a tragedy—something that would have been on the minds of the crowd—a story ripped from the headlines, as it were.  Remember that time, Jesus, when the Galileans were making sacrifices and they were killed?  What are we to make of that?  Was God punishing them because they were sinners?  You can almost hear the question.  And Jesus replies, Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?  And what about those people that were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them?  Were they worse than all the other people in Jerusalem? 

No, Jesus says.  Of course not.   Despite the fact that insurance carriers insist on calling natural disasters “acts of God,” Jesus tells us that, of course these sorts of things aren’t the result of God’s judgment.  When confronted with these sorts of tragedies, our rational minds can help us understand that of course these tragedies are the result of crowd behavior, of bad engineering, of bad choices made by tyrannical rulers even—but not acts of God.  Jesus tells us that disasters aren’t sent by God as punishment for particular people. 

These people who suffered at the hands of violence, who died at the hands of tragedy, were no worse sinners than anyone else.  And yet, Jesus says, unless we repent, we too shall perish.  Unless we change, amend our lives, we too experience a kind of death.

There is judgment.  There is consequence to our sin.  But maybe we’re not understanding how God judges.  Maybe we’re not understanding how God responds to our sinfulness.  Maybe we’ve forgotten, in our anxiety and fear, about God’s grace.

Jesus gives us an illustration about the nature of God’s grace.  He tells a story.  The vineyard owner plants a fig tree that bears no fruit—for three years he waits and watches, and there is nothing.  And finally he wants to cut the tree down.  But the gardener says, wait—leave it one more year, let me work with it.  And if it bears fruit next year, that’s great—and if not, you can cut it down.

One more year.  Wait for it to bear fruit.  Yes, if it never bears fruit, the fig tree will be cut down.  But wait—give it more time.  The story isn’t over yet.

It turns out that it takes a few years for a fig tree to bear fruit.  And the gardener knows this.  He keeps tending the tree patiently, faithfully, waiting for it to bear figs.  Waiting for it to become  the thing that it is designed to be. 

Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us that sin is more than merely wrong actions—that sin is anything that separates us from God, anything that makes us less than the goodness that we are created to be.  We are made for goodness, and sin is that thing that deforms us, that makes us less than the thing God has made us to be.  There is sin—there is wrong action, wrong doing, wrong being—because we have options, we have choice—we truly can choose to ignore God, to separate ourselves from him, to refuse to accept his love, to refuse to be in right relationship with God and with our neighbor.

We can fail to show fruit of that good relationship—of that only relationship—that relationship with God.  And if we fail to bear fruit, if we fail to be—to thrive—to live in that relationship, well, then we have already cut ourselves off at the root. 

We are all guilty of sin, of separating ourselves from God, in different ways to be sure, for none of us are exempt.  But God doesn’t abandon us.  Jesus continues to till the soil, to give us his love again and again.  The story isn’t over yet.  We can turn, change, repent, refocus our lives, our attention towards God, our love for God and neighbor.  We can fall in love with God again and again, because God first loves us.

Basil, Cardinal Hume, the Archbishop of Westminster (UK), told a story –a parable really—that illustrates the nature of God’s grace.  When he was a small boy, Basil says, he sneaked into the pantry of a neighbor’s kitchen and found there a bushel of apples.  They were so ripe, so fragrant, so beautiful--and there were so many in that great big bushel basket--no one would miss just one apple, Basil reckoned.  So he took just one.  No one would know. 

Of course his neighbor did indeed catch him and made him put the apple back.  Hume says that at the time he felt scolded and guilty—what he had done was indeed wrong—and he carried that sense of shame into his adulthood as a way that he thought about God.  God was there, pointing a finger, saying, Basil, put the apple back!  Later, however, Hume came to a different understanding of God.  He came to believe that, while the neighbor scolded him and told him to put the apple back, God might have said to him, Basil, I see you have an apple there.  They are beautiful, aren’t they--so ripe, so fragrant.  Here, why don’t you take another apple as well! Go on, take two!  Take two.[1]

And that is what God does, isn’t it?  Even in the face of our disobedience—even as we worship the golden calves of our lives, even as we fail to bear good fruit, even as we fail to love God with our whole being—all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind--God is still there loving us, giving himself for us.  Christ pours himself out on the cross for us even as he forgives the thief that hangs by him.  For you see, God is in a covenant relationship with us.   Even in the face of our disobedience, even when we grab as many apples as we may with no thought for God or neighbor, God says, take more.  Here I am. 

What if we moved from seeing God as that finger-pointing guard in the pantry, that judge that knocks buildings down on people and strikes them dead in judgment, to seeing God as the generous giver of the apple story—that generous giver in Creation, in our stories of deliverance, and in our stories of salvation?  There is sin, there is judgment—Jesus says unless we change we will all perish—but God continues to love us and draw us closer, to change us, to redeem us.  Even the thief he forgives.  Even us he forgives. 

Jesus the judge is also the gardner who is tending us still, waiting for us to bear good fruit.  God who has made us for goodness is the same God that delivered the Israelites out of bondage in Egytp, that still delivers us from bondage to sin and death, that stands there in the face of our sinfulness and loves us and gives himself for us in the body of his dear Son.  Here I am, take two.  My brothers and sisters, in the face of that great love, how can we be afraid.  I pray for us all this Lent that we may have the courage to accept God’s great love.  The courage to examine our lives, to repent.  And the courage to become the very goodness that God has made us to be.  Beloveds in Christ, I pray for us all a Holy Lent.

 

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Portions of this sermon previously preached at Grace Church in New York and Saint Philip’s Episcopal Church, Coral Gables.


[1] Basil Hume: Ten Years On, ed. William Charles.  London: Continuum, 2009, p 101.

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Go and Tell that Fox

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Go and Tell that Fox

The Rev’d Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Second Sunday in Lent
March 17, 2019

On this second Sunday in Lent, Jesus is warned by a group of Pharisees of Herod's desire to kill him. Instead of confronting this evil desire with anger or fighting back, Jesus tells those who brought him this message to "Go and tell that fox [Herod] for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work." In the face of evil, Jesus offers us a different way to be. While not denying Herod's evil wishes, Jesus is busy doing the work of the kingdom -- work that in itself will destroy sin, evil, and death on the cross. With the rise of evil embodied in forms of racism and white supremacy, most recently captured in the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, we are invited to once again recommit ourselves to following Jesus—to face the very evil Jesus faced 2,000 years ago in Herod's violent fear and desire for murder, and join our savior, Jesus Christ, this day and always in casting out demons and curing those in need of healing in our day—thereby sharing the Good News that Jesus has come to show us the way to salvation: a way of life that can overcome and defeat the evil and sin we encounter in our world. 

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What is Sin?

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What is Sin?

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The First Sunday in Lent
March 10, 2019

“[The devil said to Jesus,] If you…will worship me, [the kingdoms of the world] will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"  Luke 4:7-8

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

Last week Angela Shelley, the children’s formation coordinator, and I were talking about the Sunday School lesson and the children’s preparations for Lent--their conversation about what Lent is--and what sin is.  In particular, we talked about how a couple of the children hadn’t yet learned the word “sin,” and how Ms Angela explained what that means to them.

She told the children that “sin is any attitude or behavior that separates us from God or from one another.”  That made pretty good sense to me.  Sin is what separates us--what blocks us from loving God--or keeps us from recognizing God’s love for us.  Sin is whatever keeps us from loving one another--or receiving love from one another.  Separation.  That’s it.  Anything at all that separates us from God.

Angela said that, since she grew up as a Southern Baptist, she felt like she’d heard enough about sin that maybe she could teach Episcopalians about it!  And we both laughed; that’s an old trope I hear sometimes--that Episcopalians don’t talk about sin.  That we’re Catholic light. All of the ritual, none of the guilt.  And it’s fun to laugh and feel comfortable that as Episcopalians we’re never going to be the hellfire and brimstone folks on the street corner shouting and waving signs at folks telling them they’re going to hell.  

The joke has a grain of truth in it, though, because we know the damage that so much religiosity has caused and can cause to people.  How some have used the idea of sin and evil to attack others, to tear them down.  And so I understand our reticence to talk about sin.  And I want to be careful with it.  But I also believe it’s important to know what we’re talking about--to be able to counter the perceived narrative of moralism--of listing actions that make us bad people--as well as the counternarrative of moral therapeutic deism--that, as long as we’re good people, that’s enough, and God--and sin, or separation from God--doesn’t need to enter the picture.  So what do we mean when we talk about sin?

Just the morning after talking with Angela I ran across an opinion piece from the New York Times website--an older piece from January--written by an author called Julia Sheeres, titled “Raising Children Without the Concept of Sin.”[1]  The title caught my attention.

Sheeres relates that a few years ago she and her daughter were at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair in San Francisco, perusing menus of Victorian foods and contemplating what to order, when a group of Victorian temperance marchers--actors--came by with placards reading “Gin is sin!”  Her 9 year old daughter looked up at her and asked, perplexed, “Mama, what is sin?”

Sheeres has had a complicated relationship with religion and the Church.  She was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household, sent away to reform school, and generally given a world view where anything fun, even watching television, was, well, sinful.  Sheeres writes, “God was a megaphone bleating in my head  ‘You’re bad, you’re bad, you’re bad!”  Maybe you know that narrative.

But when she realized her daughter didn’t know what the word “sin” meant, she worried:  was she raising a child with no moral compass?

Reflecting on her child’s life to date, Sheeres realized that she was in fact raising her daughters with a moral world view.  “We started taking our kids to marches when the younger one, Davia, was an infant perched on our shoulders and 3-year-old Tessa danced between the lines of protesters as if it were a block party. We’ve marched for racial justice and for women’s rights. Our church is the street, our congregation our fellow crusaders…

“It’s sinking in. My daughters make me proud by taking their own actions to confront injustice where they see it — by insisting we keep a box of protein bars in the car to hand out to homeless people at stoplights, by participating in school walkouts against gun violence, by intervening when they see kids bullied on the playground, by always questioning the world around them.”

In that moment, as Sheeres pondered her child’s moral landscape, she says she looked down into her “upturned face and felt a rush of love and happiness. I had raised her without sin.[2]  Here was a kid who’d recently joked that the Christmas standard ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” should be changed to “I’m Dreaming of a Diverse Christmas.’ She did have a moral code — one she followed not from obligation, but from her own desire to make the world a better place. A group of carolers strolled by, and she turned to watch them with a delighted smile, her question already forgotten. I leaned down and put my arms around her, watching the world from her perspective. An explanation of sin could wait.”

I thought several things as I read this piece.  The first was that Sheeres is a loving mother who cares very much for the wellbeing of her children and family--and who cares very much for the world around them--loving neighbor as herself, as our Lord tells us to do.  I also recognized that she’d thrown off, quite rightly, the toxic mess of theological heresy that had infected and afflicted her understanding of God as a child--and that I have no way of knowing what God is up to in her life as an adult. 

But what concerned me was the notion that it was possible to raise a child without knowing what sin is.  That it is possible to raise a child “without sin,” as she writes.

I wondered how she will deal with moments when her children actually end up doing something morally wrong. What if one, in a moment of pressure, cheats on a test?  What if she steals something?  What if she lies?  Maybe none of those things will ever happen--but I doubt it.  “No one is good but God alone,” our Lord says (Mark 10:18b).  If something goes wrong, if somehow, just for a moment, one of her daughters is unable to live up to the moral code of goodness established in childhood, how will she understand that she is still loved?  That her worth and value as a person are not based on her actions--but on whose she is--on the One in whose image she is made?  How can one know love without knowing the Source of all Love, the Ground of all Being?  It all hangs together--until it doesn’t.

I also wondered how, as an adult, one of her daughters might encounter sin that’s directed towards her--or sin that harms her in some way.  If sin is not merely about people doing “bad things”--if sin is anything that separates us from God or from loving one another--then sin, perpetrated by someone else, can have an impact on us.  We might call that sort of sin “evil”--or, personified, “the devil.” 

Earlier this week in a diocesan leadership meeting a big group of us were discussing the Rev’d Kelly Brown Douglas’s book Stand Your Ground:  Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Orbis, 2015). Douglas, an Episcopal priest, is the Dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Seminary and theologian in residence at the Cathedral Church of Saints Peter and Paul in the Diocese of Washington, DC.  She makes a compelling theological and historical argument that the narrative of white excellence, translated into a narrative of American exceptionalism, has been mapped onto the Protestant Christian foundational myth of our national identity, resulting in a civic religion that celebrates whiteness and vilifies blackness.  It’s a compelling argument, and I commend her book to you.[3]

In her book Douglas describes a landscape in which the sin of racism has grown far beyond the personal and individual into the corporate and cultural.  In a cultural narrative based on the value of whiteness, how can black bodies and bodies of color be valued?  As a colleague of color put it, “This is just the soup we swim in.”

Ethical and philosophical arguments about equality can perhaps help us move beyond a culture of racism--a sin that is both done by some of us and done to others of us--I’d argue done to all of us--but the only way I know to find hope in the face of the great evils that surround us is the hope of the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.  The only way I know to counter the seemingly insurmountable onslaught of evil that racism, antisemitism, graft, greed, lust, hatred, violence, addiction, and murder seem to throw across our way in the streets of our cities every day--the only hope I find for dismantling the power of the enemy and the only hope I know for victims to make meaning even in the face of despair--is the revealed love of God in Jesus Christ, the sinless victim who, even in the face of death, forgave those who tortured and killed him; who, even in death, brought souls up from the dead into new life; who, rising from the tomb, ascended to fill all Creation, reconciling and making all things new, bringing all things into relationship with that first source of Love, God God’s own self. 

The resurrection shows us that even the greatest evils have no power over the love of God--and, by extension, cannot ultimately conquer us, who are joined by the Holy Spirit to Christ in his death and resurrection.

But sin is still there, a part of the soup that we swim in.

After Jesus has faced his temptations, the devil departs “from him until an opportune time.”  Evil just won’t let up.  But we can learn that, in the face of the great goodness of God, even the lies of the devil can be exposed and brought to nought.  For the victory has already been won in Christ’s love, his life, his death, and his resurrection.

“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him,” Jesus quotes from the law. We talk about sin not as a blame game--not to tally up our wickedness and rejoice that God still loves us, though that’s certainly true.  We examine our sinfulness--individual and corporate--and we name the sin that’s visited upon us--the sufferings that we endure--not as a cosmic score card but as a way of understanding the way the world is--and the hope that we have in God’s promises, in God’s love.

We examine our sin in Lent--and always--to see what it is that’s separating us from God--and from one another--so that we may, through God’s grace, live differently.  So that we may worship God with our whole lives--not just here, in this place, in a service of prayer and sacrament, but outside these walls.  We come in to glimpse a foretaste of the great goodness of God---so that we may take that love out into the world that doesn’t yet know it.

I invite you this Lent together to broaden our theological imagination--to enlarge our sense of what God is and what God is doing in the world.  To dare to hope and to dream even bigger than we’ve ever done before. To really believe, once again or maybe for the first time, that God is saving the world.  And to examine, honestly, how we are keeping ourselves from believing and living out that truth, that dream, in the world.  How others are keeping us from it.  And to rebuke the sin, repent, and return to that theological imagination that is God’s great love.

Friends, we are raised with sin. It’s just a part of our life story.  But we can name it, repent, and be forgiven--changed--in that knowledge, drawn ever more closely into the sacred heart of God.

I pray for us all a holy Lent.

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

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[1] Julia Sheeres, “Raising Children Without the Concept of Sin.”  The New York Times, 25 January 2019, online at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/25/well/family/raising-children-without-the-concept-of-sin.html (last accessed 3/9/2019).

[2] Emphasis is Sheeres’.

[3] And if you have any doubts about the existence of an American civic religion, I remind you that the President of the United States, on his trip to survey tornado damage in Alabama last week, apparently autographed some bibles while he was there.  See “Trump Surveys Tornado Damage in Alabama, and Signs Some Bibles Too.”  Alan Blinder and Elizabeth Dias, The New York Times, March 8, 2019, online at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/08/us/trump-alabama.html (accessed 3/9/2019).

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What Do You See?

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What Do You See?

The Rev’d Rachel Field
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
February 24, 2019

“Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,

nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”  1 Corinthians 15:50

 

In one of my all time favorite books, The Last Unicorn, the mythical protagonist goes searching to find the other unicorns after learning that they were driven to the ocean by a great red bull. As she leaves her forest for the first time, she passes a local farm.  To her surprise the farmer starts trying to catch her with a spare bit of rope – and calls her “Bessie.”

She has been mistaken for a white horse.

So she asks to herself, “If men no longer know what they are looking at, I wonder what it is they see when they look at each other.”

Later on in the book one of her companions, a failed magician, makes a similar remark.  He says, “It is a rare man who is taken for what he truly is.”

This theme of seeing comes up again and again.

When you look at your spouse, or your children, or your closest friend, what do you see – memories? Wrinkles that weren’t there before?

When you look around this church at the people in the pews what do you see? BBQ’s? Acolytes, readers, someone who visited you when you were in the hospital?

When you walk around New Haven what do you see? Yale-ies on their phones? Businesspeople looking down? Men and women asking for money?

CS Lewis said “Next to the blessed sacrament, your neighbor is the holiest thing you will see.”

The person that you see next to you is luminous:  the holiest thing that you can encounter, apart from the sacrament, is your neighbor.

That sculpture of dust is being grown, tended, and pulled into “the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor 15:49).

The barriers which we in our modern sensibility have created to separate the divine from our daily experience are simply that, figments of our imagination.

It is a rare person who is taken for what they truly are.

Every day we walk among sacredness beyond our wildest imagining. We meet Christ, again and again,  we are buffeted by the powers of the Evil One, we are from earth, bearing the fingerprints of God in our clay, and we are being changed, to become bearers of the image of heaven.

How do we move through the world? If we listen to Paul’s words, and seriously believe that what is sown in a physical body is raised in glory, then I do believe that we might operate in this world as Jesus commands in Luke 6. It does not seem to me that we can begin to fully grasp this Way of Love that Jesus talks about without considering the implications of this knowledge of ourselves as both creatures of dust and creatures of heaven as Paul says in Corinthians.

Without this understanding, we can move through the world doing nice things, and having nice feelings, and generally being nice people. And we will have missed the point entirely.

But because we are “both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies” as Paul describes, we must move through the world with an awareness that what we do--or what we choose not to do--we are doing or not doing to creatures of infinity--as creatures of either glory as great as the Angels in their splendor, or as sinister as the devils in their malice.

What we can no longer do is pretend that ordinary things, and ordinary people are of little consequence.

This means that we cannot have the politeness of a moderate Christianity, we do not have the luxury of being a little bit Christian, or only Christian between 9 and noon on Sundays.

It means we love those who hate us, bless those who curse, pray for those who abuse, offer to those who would take, give to every person who begs from you – every moment of every day.

At this point the preacher invited the congregants to stand and turn to someone beside them and say to one another, “You are God’s beloved, and I love you.”  After this exercise, she continued:

It. is hard to be faced with the intimacy that comes with the glory of the Divine. And I do believe that is exactly what has just taken place in this space.  By taking a moment to truly look at those around us, we have participated in a moment of the breaking in of the spirit – pulled back a corner of the matter that appears “ordinary” to reveal the luminous.

It also could’ve just been an awkward moment. Let’s be honest. And I think that’s okay too.

Because this practice, and it is a practice, of learning to see clearly, is not one that comes easily or naturally to us.

I know for myself, as much as I would love to believe otherwise, I would be chasing a white horse with a belt loop – not composing ballads to a unicorn.

It is uncomfortable, awkward, and excruciating to recognize that the world around us is dripping with the glory of the infinite Divine. We cannot yet contain it. But we can be assured that God is working in us, through our discomfort, through our restlessness, through our neighbors, God is working in us to fashion us each into vessels strong enough to hold all of God’s glory.

God is sowing seeds of resurrection in every corner of creation, and we will all become truly living beings.

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Say Yes to God

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Say Yes to God

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 17, 2019

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

On Friday the President of the United States declared a national emergency at our southern border with Mexico, ostensibly freeing up more funds than were allocated by the Congress for building a wall along the border with Mexico.  Some Americans are delighted with this step and believe it will make for a safer country for all of us.  Others are outdone, believing that this is a constitutional crisis, an overreach by the Executive Office, and that the wall itself is emblematic of an immigration policy that is a moral outrage.  As polarized as our country is, I suspect those are the two extremes--and that most of us are somewhere at those edges.

We seem disagree fundamentally on how to make the country a better place--how to make the world a better place for all people. Or to be more honest, I’m not sure we even disagree about how to make the world a better place; it’s more likely that we disagree about world view entirely. 

We disagree about what the world should look like--and about what the common good entails.  Not merely about the mechanisms for achieving the common good, but about the very end goals.  This is a hard place to be, and it’s hard to see a way forward. 

We hear in the gospel message this morning that the poor, the hungry, and the forlorn are blessed--that they will inherit the kingdom of God, be filled, and laugh with joy.  That seems antithetical to the conventional wisdom of the world--and yet, as a Christian, it seems clear to me that our calling is to love one another--the entirety of all creation--not just the friends and family in our own backyards.  That these tropes of Jesus’s sermon should indeed be true.  And I grow weary that what seem to me to be basic tenants of the Christian faith--to love God and love one another-- are being called into question in our national discourse.  And as a privileged person in a nation of discord, I can stand and observe the discourse and vote and advocate and weep.  But I wonder how those whose lives are directly affected by our national choices--people of other nationalities and origins, refugees and immigrants--I wonder how their lives are made more difficult, how the kingdom of God is obscured for them, by the actions of our government.

Agencies like IRIS, Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, right here in New Haven give me hope for another voice in the discourse--another witness to a way of being in the world.  IRIS welcomes refugees and helps them build new lives in their new country.  And we’ll hear at the 10:00am hour, the Sunday forum, from Will Kneerim, Director of Employment & Education Services at IRIS.  You’ll know from the prayers each Sunday that IRIS is a partner with Saint Hilda’s House, hosting a corps member or two each year. We are grateful for the work IRIS does and the chance to join in their mission, and we’re grateful for the partnership with Saint Hilda’s House. 

The work that Will and his colleagues--including our Hildans--engage in is important.  To welcome the stranger, the one in distress, is good and holy work.  

The gospel, Jesus’s great sermon, known in Matthew as the sermon on the mount but here in Luke as the sermon on the plain, for “Jesus came down with the twelve apostles and stood on a level place” surrounded by a great crowd, with every one pressing in. And the gospel writer makes it clear to us that everyone was healed--those with diseases, those troubled by mental illness--everyone in that place was healed.  And Jesus teaches his disciples, sharing an alternative vision of the world--something different than the world those suffering from afflictions that came for healing knew in their own lives--a vision of a world in which all are whole, and all are valued, and all are loved.

The word that we translate as blessed is makarios--happy, blessed, even to be envied.  The contrast in the states of being, in the use of this word “happy, blessed, enviable”--is astounding.  The rhetorical effect wouldn’t have been lost on Jesus’s followers--the sheer audacity of the reversal is powerful:  Happy are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.  If you’re hungry now, count it an enviable position, because you will have everything you need to be filled.  Happy are they who weep, for they will laugh with inestimable joy.

I’d like to think that the work that IRIS and other agencies like it do makes the world a little more like the world of the beatitudes--that these agencies of justice and mercy--and our participation with them--help to give people some happiness, some stability, some comfort here and now.  And certainly that’s part of the story.  That’s a good thing indeed. But why ultimately do we engage in these good works? 

Perhaps a progressive world view might say that we are trying to make the world a better place.  Perhaps we might even theologize around our good works and say that we are joining God’s work, even co-creating with God.  That we are building the kingdom here and now on earth.

All of these well meaning tropes might point at the truth.  But ultimately I’d like to suggest that they’re wrong.

They put us in the place of doing.  They put us in the place of reconciling.

And ultimately that work is only God’s.

Jeremiah, railing against the southern kingdom of Judah in a time of political intrigue, alliances gone wrong, complex geopolitical forces, proclaimed the warning of God to God’s people--that turning away from God’s commands had led God’s people astray.  And whether you locate the fall of the temple within a theological or political or social problem, the temple did fall--and God’s people were exiled in Babylon.

These hard words of Jeremiah warn against trusting in the power of humans or even of governments but call on God’s people to trust only in God.  “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD; Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is in the LORD.”  (Jer 17:5,7)

If we cannot trust ourselves, if we cannot trust our government, to do the work of welcoming, of lifting up, of serving, then where is our trust?

I want to share with you a story of good works.  Well, it starts with good works but moves to something very different.  Over a year ago a group of parishioners joined together in a practice known initially as Living Local, Joining God.  They met monthly and read and reflected together on a passage of scripture.  They met with other parishioners and got to know one another by sharing stories about Christ Church and their time here.  They walked the neighborhood and got to know it better--seeing and hearing from people that live nearby.  And finally they tried on an experiment; our group decided to serve in the Community Soup Kitchen.  They started by working on the food line, serving lunches--itself an act of charity. But after a few times serving, they moved to the other side of the line and sat down at tables with diners, joining them for a meal and conversation.  And crossing that line made all the difference.  From serving to being, our parishioners found themselves no longer offering charity but standing in solidarity.  They were, at least for a moment, in real relationship.

One of the participants told me that at first he was uncomfortable; that he wasn’t sure he could bear the stories of despair that he was hearing, the stories of people who were beaten down by unemployment, addiction, abuse, or other hardships.  But what he found was joy.  That even in the midst of difficulties, there was laughter.  There was happiness.  There was real and present joy in relationship--in a community of people that come together, six days a week, for a meal.  Not explicitly the meal that we share here of Christ’s own body and blood--but not unlike it, either, for in that sacred moment, in that loud and chaotic space, amongst spaghetti and goulash and shepherd’s pie and Kentucky Fried Chicken on Thursdays, the grace of God was made known in the love that people shared, if just for a moment, in relationship.  In story.

Happy are you who weep, for you will laugh with joy. Happy are you who are hungry, for you will be filled.  Happy are you who are poor, for you will inherit the kingdom of God.

Friends, what if the beatitudes aren’t directives about how to act. What if they’re not about good works.  What if instead they’re an icon of reality-- a picture of the ultimate reality.  What if they’re showing us the kingdom of God.

And if the kingdom of God looks like everyone being fed, everyone having enough, everyone filled with joy, everyone being loved--if this is the icon of the kingdom of God--then aren’t the beatitudes also an indictment of sin?  Of the things that don’t measure up in our world?

And if that is true, then isn’t anything that doesn’t look like the kingdom of God not a given reality--not a truth--not the way that things are or should be--but rather an indictment of sin, the thing that’s separated us from God’s reality in this time and place?  Isn’t the good work of every agency of justice and mercy an indicator of what’s failed, what’s wrong, what’s separated us from the kingdom of God?  Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD.  (Jer 17.5)

The reason we as Christians engage in good works is not that we will save the world, or save ourselves, and not even that we may make a difference in someone’s life, though that certainly may happen, and that’s a good thing.  We don’t engage in good works because we ourselves are good.  No one is good but God alone, Jesus reminds us.  We exercise charity, we engage in so called good works, because of who we are as a result of our baptism.  We live in this way because we belong to God--and we know what the kingdom of God looks like, because we have met it in Jesus Christ.

When you’ve seen the kingdom of God come near, you begin to recognize it--and you have to live into it.  To live as though it’s come, because it’s the only reality that we know.  The only truth.  The only way.  The only life.

With the icon of the sermon on the plain before us, of Jesus’s own teaching, we can live differently in the world, we love one another in the world, we say yes to God’s call--to the image of the kingdom of God shown to us by Jesus Christ.  And so we feed the hungry and comfort the forlorn and provide for the poor not as good works--but because we cannot imagine a brother or sister in Christ that is not cared for.  We cannot imagine a part of God’s creation that is not beloved.

We are not changing the world.  God is, and we are saying yes to God.

That’s what we do in this place each Sunday, each day really.  In the liturgy, in the sacraments, in the word of God made flesh.  We practice what the kingdom of God looks like so that we know it.  We share a meal with someone so that we can practice.  We share the load of someone who’s burdened so that we can recognize the kingdom coming near. 

Come across and hear what IRIS is doing so that others might know what welcome feels like.  And let’s pray together about how it is that we are saying yes to God.  How it is that we are practicing the kingdom of God come near.  How we are joining in that reality--throwing down the assumptions, the falsehoods, the lies that the devil tells us about how the world is--and gazing deep into the very heart of God.

The kingdom of God has come near.  Thanks be to God, who moves and works in our yes to God’s call for justice and mercy. Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory, through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen.

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Do Not Be Afraid

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Do Not Be Afraid

Mr Patrick Keyser
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 10, 2019

‘Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid.”’

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

As some of you know, I am in the middle of my final semester of seminary. One of the best parts of being at the end of a degree program is that, having completed the numerous degree requirements in previous semesters, all of my remaining courses are ones that I selected based on my interests. One of the courses I’m taking this term is in Christian spirituality. I was especially interested in this course because while my seminary experience has been rich in theological training, I have been surprised to find how infrequently my courses have discussed the basics of spirituality, spiritual practices, and discipleship. Our professor is a Roman Catholic religious who has a wisdom and grounding that only comes from decades of life in the faith. In a recent session she looked at us intently and spoke with a candor and sincerity that rarely emerges in everyday conversation: ‘we all long for connection,’ she told us. ‘We long to be connected to God and to each other. From there emerges true happiness.’ Consider the impact simply smiling at someone can have, she told us. Something as simple as a smile immediately invites connection between people. The class discussed how rare it was for people to actually look at each other when passing on the street or on public transportation. In my experience, people are much more likely to be looking at their phones than they are to be looking at other people. I know I am guilty. My phone serves as an easy cover if I feel nervous or don’t want to interact with anyone in a particular social setting.

Encouraged by the advice of our instructor, I decided to give this practice a try as I moved around the divinity school in the days after that class session. It is a small school, and I

know the vast majority of people there, even if only tangentially. As I passed people in the halls, I resisted the temptation to look down or at my phone and instead actually looked at people and greeted them if I knew them, and I smiled even if I only knew them tangentially. Now, I can say from personal experience that this sort of behavior is perfectly acceptable, even normal, in the South, but in New England people will just think something is wrong with you. Two and a half years in Connecticut has changed me. It may sound hokey, but it actually made a difference. I actually did feel happier, even in the simplest act of acknowledging another person. We are not isolated beings who just happen to be inhabiting the same earth. We do a disservice to ourselves when we do not seek the connections we are wired to seek. As humans, we long to be recognized and seen.

We witness a scene of great intimacy and connection in today’s gospel passage from Luke’s gospel. Before we get there, we need to contextualize today’s passage. In this season after the Epiphany we are reading sequentially through Luke’s gospel. In the last two weeks we heard the story of Jesus’ visit to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth where he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and after an exchange in the synagogue was violently rejected by a crowd who tried to hurl him off the cliff on which their town was built. Luke’s gospel tells us that Jesus passed through this violent crowd and continued on to Capernaum, where he healed a man possessed with a demon in the synagogue. He then proceeded to Simon Peter’s home, where he cured Peter’s mother-in-law. By then word had spread of Jesus’ healing, and many came to him and he healed them. After all of these accounts of healing, today’s passage begins with Jesus standing by the lake shore. Once again a crowd of people thronged to him. Some probably sought healing, but the Scripture tells us that the crowd had come to ‘hear the word of God.’ They wanted to hear Jesus’ teaching, for they knew he was no ordinary person. The crowd was so great and the people were pressing so close to Jesus. Perhaps you know that terrible feeling of being in such a dense crowd of people that you can’t even physically move. Jesus spotted two boats by the shore and decided to get in one of them to teach the people. In what might seem like a bit of a presumptuous move, Jesus just got into the boat belonging to Simon Peter and asked him to push a little way off the shore. Once he was off the shore a bit, Jesus began to teach the great multitude who had come to hear him. He did not dismiss those who came seeking him; he offered them what they sought. But then Jesus turned his attention from the crowd to an individual, to Peter who was in the boat with him. Now, it would seem that Jesus’ request to use Peter’s boat for his teaching interrupted Peter’s work as a fisherman, but in truth it actually didn’t really matter very much. Peter had been at work for hours and hours and had caught nothing. Discouragement had likely set in. If any of you have ever been fishing, you may know this discouragement. Fishing sometimes requires long periods of waiting for very little return. For Peter, of course, fishing was not a hobby; it was his occupation. His livelihood depended on a successful catch. So on this day his discouragement might have bordered on desperation as he had no food to provide for himself and his household.

Jesus had come to Peter in the midst of his discouragement after a long and unsuccessful night of work. Peter welcomed him on to his boat so that Jesus could teach, and when he was finished teaching, Jesus turned to Peter and said, ‘put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ Can you imagine how infuriating it must have been for Peter to hear this from Jesus? He had been hard at work for hours with no success, and then this person comes along and has the nerve to try to tell him, the fisherman, how to fish. Peter tells Jesus ‘we have worked all night and caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ Sometimes, when I am

frustrated and admittedly not at my best, I will agree to do something just to prove that whoever told me to do it is wrong. Perhaps Peter was feeling that way, or perhaps he had some belief that this person in his boat might actually be able to help. Whatever he was feeling, Peter followed Jesus’ instructions and let down his nets. And then something amazing happened. When he let down the nets, he caught so many fish that the nets were so heavy and sagging with weight they began to break. There were so many that he couldn’t get them into the boat. Peter called for his friends to come and help, and when they pulled up the fish they filled both boats so full that they began to sink. It made no sense. They had worked all night and caught absolutely nothing and now they suddenly found themselves with an abundance so great that their equipment couldn’t handle it. It was an abundance they could never have imagine.

Whatever frustration or confusion Peter may have felt quickly melted away. When he reached the shore he came to Jesus, fell down at his knees and worshiped. ‘Go away from me, Lord,’ Peter says, ‘for I am a sinful man.’ He didn’t need to question how this great catch was possible. He knew that it was the working of God. Peter was so overwhelmed by Jesus’ presence that he proclaimed his unworthiness to stand before him. But then Jesus came and spoke those words that we hear so much in Scripture: ‘do not be afraid.’ Do not be afraid, Jesus tells Peter; ‘from now on you will be catching people.’ Peter need not fear because Jesus had seen him and invited him to journey with him and become part of the very core of his followers. Along with his friends James and John, Peter brings his boat to the shore and then drops everything, his life, his possessions, his occupation, he drops it all and follows Jesus.

In the midst of the bustle and confusion of a great crowd, Jesus chooses to come to one person, to Peter, and meets him in the particularities and the struggles of his life. Jesus meets his followers as they are going about their daily routine, as they work and go through the everyday

things of their lives. He does this same for us, meeting us in the ordinary and transforming it completely. Jesus sees us. There is, I think, a temptation of some danger in our tradition to hold God at arm’s length. We worship God in the beauty of holiness and dwell in the great mystery and transcendence of God, who is beyond all knowing. We can experience God in incredibly moving and powerful ways through our liturgy. Yet, if we are not careful, an exclusive focus on God’s transcendence can obscure the fact that God also loves us so much and comes to us in a very personal way.

Just as on that day beside the lake of Gennesaret, Jesus still comes to us. Jesus meets us in our wearied states, in the midst of our struggles and sorrows, in our work and in the things of our lives that seem so ordinary. Jesus meets us when, like Peter, we have been working for so long and nothing seems to come of it. Jesus comes to us in these very moments and opens to us an abundance we could never have dreamed of. Jesus comes to us and tells us those words we long to hear, ‘do not be afraid.’ I am here; I am with you. Bring me your burdens and your fears. Come with me, and I will give you life. Perhaps we may feel like Peter, completely overwhelmed by the radical personal connection God seeks to have with us. Perhaps we might wish, like Peter, to say, ‘go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinner.’ But God sees us, reaches out to us, and longs to be in relationship with us. Do not be afraid, Jesus tells us. May we hear Jesus’ words of comfort, even if just for today, and open ourselves to our God who waits to embrace us.

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

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Hope for the World

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Hope for the World

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Eve of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple: Eve of Candlemas
February 1, 2019

In this sermon the Rector reflects on the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple: the hope that an infant brings; the hope that Simeon and Anna see; the hope Mary and Joseph must have felt; the hope that God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ gives us and the whole world. Poetry of Herrick and Underhill combined with Holy Scripture and the light of the candles of the Procession come together to give a sense of hope—of the light of Christ spreading across Creation in our own day.

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The Power of God's Word

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The Power of God's Word

The Rt Rev’d Andrew St John
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 27, 2019

In 1997 I had the privilege of attending the Bar mitzvah of my great nephew, Boaz, in a conservative, Shephardic synagogue in Beersheba in Israel. As a man I was given a prayer shawl and yamulka and sat in the front row along with my nephew Richard and his son. His mother, my sisters, the other grandmother, aunts, and other women were in the balcony screened by a lattice which was closed during prayers below. But what I shall never forget was the procession of the Torah scroll from the ark to the bema or lectern from which my great nephew would chant the required verses in Hebrew. His non-Jewish father, my nephew, was given the privilege of carrying the scroll with its elaborate silver cover. As it was processed down the synagogue the women ululated above and showered down candies to celebrate the sweetness of God’s Word. It was quite a moment and reminded me in part of the solemnity with which we process the Gospel at High Mass.

Today we hear of two liturgical readings of God’s Word, one from the prophet Nehemiah and the other from St Luke’s Gospel. Ezra’s reading of the book of the law, the Torah, was done with the greatest solemnity: “The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered Amen, Amen, lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” In the Gospel reading Luke notes carefully the ritual surrounding the reading that Jesus gave from Isaiah: “And Jesus stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written.” And when he had finished, “he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. There is an interesting precision here which highlights the importance of the reading of God’s holy word. Both readings remind us of the centrality of God’s written word in Judaism, in Christianity and also in Islam. They are the three religions of the book whose holy words contain the revelation of God to humankind. As Christians the Holy Bible is normative to our apprehension and understanding of God; of God’s work of Creation, Redemption and Sanctification. We are a people of the Word. One of my Bible teachers used to remind us that it is through the words of scripture that we encounter the Word. In Christian history it took a Martin Luther to remind the church of the importance of “Sola Scriptura”. That is not to discount the other two parts of Hooker’s famous three legged stool of Scripture, Tradition and Reason. But without Holy Scripture there is no foundation for God’s Revelation to humankind in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Today’s psalm celebrates the place of scripture: “The law of the Lord is perfect reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear enlightening the eyes.”

The reason Ezra’s reading was so important was because it was part of the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem in the fifth century before the common era. It was a recognition of the place of the written word in the religious life of the nation. So in like fashion, Jesus, the Jewish teacher, at the commencement of his ministry in Luke “began to teach in their synagogues”. And “when he came to Nazareth where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.”

Jesus the observant Jew, did what good Jews do on the Sabbath: he attended synagogue and took his turn in reading from the Scriptures.

As we have done this morning and do every time we meet for Eucharist or office. Don’t let anyone tell you that the Episcopal Church is not a biblical church. We are as much a people of the Bible as any other Christian tradition. But that is not to say we cannot do better. I have just finished several months working part-time at St Thomas, Fifth Avenue, in Manhattan. As part of my duties I conducted a weekly Bible study for an adult group. What a privilege it was to share God’s Word with these people. But it reminded me that I have not always been regular in leading Bible Study. It really ought to be high on our priorities in our Christian practice. I observe that some of you subscribe to Forward Day by Day Bible Study notes and maybe participate in Bible Study. But I encourage us all to take God’s Word to heart in our reading, study and meditation and preparation.

But the second thing to note in the Nehemiah and Luke readings is that the readings were not stand alone events. In Nehemiah we are told: “So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” In other words there was some commentary or if you like some preaching going on to elucidate what was being read. Jesus when he sat down after the reading then went on to say: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” If that is all he said it was a pretty short sermon. But he had more to say which will form the gospel for next Sunday. But the point I wish to make is that this matter of interpretation (and the Tradition of which we speak is largely to do with the interpretative tradition) is the vital work of preaching and Bible study. Whatever the preacher does or does not do; and no matter how good or otherwise their rhetorical skills; the important work of interpretation, the engagement of the Word with its context and setting, must go on. For the Word is God’s Word; but that Word is also the Living Word.

But that is not the end of the story by any means. We are told the people of Israel who witnessed Ezra’s reading of the Torah long ago, “wept when they heard the words of the law.” Their response to it was not all that obvious. Perhaps they were remembering all the years they had strayed from God’s law; or they wept at the restoration of religious practice in Jerusalem after many barren years. But the reading of the Torah was a powerful event which affected its hearers. As Hebrews (4:12) reminds us: “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” In fact Nehemiah and Ezra told the people not to weep and mourn but rather to celebrate for it was a holy day; a day for eating and drinking and sharing their celebration with those who had little or nothing.

Next Sunday we will hear of the reaction of the attendees at the synagogue of Nazareth to Jesus’ commentary on the famous Isaiah reading and his subsequent remarks. At first we are told that “all spoke well of him” but that soon turned to hostility as the hearers realized that Jesus’ words applied to them so much so that Jesus’ life was in danger. There is power in the Word of God: power to inspire, to uplift, to comfort, to challenge, to unsettle, to judge, and power to demand our response to work for unity, justice, peace, truth and love. May God’s holy word be central to our lives and worship, and may it bear much fruit in us. Amen

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My Hour Has Not Yet Come

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My Hour Has Not Yet Come

The Rev’d Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Second Sunday after the Epiphany
January 20, 2019

In this reflection on Our Lord’s first miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, the Curate connects the revelation of Jesus’s glory with the glory that is to come in his passion, death, and resurrection—the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ that renews, restores, and reconciles the world.

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Made New in Christ

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Made New in Christ

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The First Sunday after Epiphany, Baptism of Our Lord
January 13, 2019

In this sermon the Rector reflects on the Baptism of Our Lord, connecting that event with our own baptisms. What does it mean to be baptized? How, as baptized Christians, do we live differently in the world? By virtue of our baptism we are joined with Christ in his death and resurrection, empowered to work and spread God’s love in the world. In Christ we have nothing to fear.

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