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.

+ + +


[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 tern 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 lakeshore. 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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Living in the Time Being

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Living in the Time Being

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Feast of the Epiphany
January 6, 2019

In this homily the Rector reflects on TS Eliot’s Journey of the Magi and WH Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. The world—all of Creation—is changed by the revelation of God’s presence in the person of Jesus Christ in the world. Our job becomes to live in the time being and proclaim the time that is coming—the kingdom of God come near—and to live within the realm of God’s love even as the whole world is coming to know it—to be transformed. The Rector asks, “How will we live differently in the face of this great revelation?” Or as Auden writes, “Love Him in the World of the Flesh; / And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.”

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The Greatest Gift

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The Greatest Gift

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The First Sunday after Christmas
December 30, 2018

When I was a child, we had a ritual on Christmas morning.  We’d wake up early and go and find that the stockings with our names on them had been filled with treats and small gifts by Saint Nick or Santa Claus during the night, and we’d open those gifts.  Then we’d move onto the tree, where we’d open the larger gifts that had mysteriously appeared during the night.  After the great unwrapping, we’d move on to breakfast, and after breakfast to a series of phone calls.  My sister and I would first call our grandmother to wish her a Merry Christmas and to detail the list of gifts we’d received—in great detail.  I remember writing down these lists just so I wouldn’t forget anything.  After we phoned my grandmother, we would phone my great-grandmother, and she would hear the same list.  The afternoon was usually spent assembling some toy or game and then visiting family, often taking one of the gifts we’d received along to play with and share with cousins or aunts and uncles.

There was something exciting about receiving those gifts; I looked forward to it—so much so that it was always hard to go to sleep on Christmas eve night—and I also looked forward to telling my family about what I’d been given—to playing with toys or wearing new clothes that were my Christmas gifts.  “What did you get for Christmas?” was the question on every relative’s lips.  I wonder if you’ve been asked that already—what did you get for Christmas?  What was your answer?  What was on your list?

It seems easy to talk about the boxes that we unwrap from beneath the tree as gifts; they’re so tangible and so much a part of the holiday season.  But the great gift, the gift of Christ’s incarnation, is perhaps not as tangible, not as easy to comprehend as something that comes in a box and wrapping paper, tied up with a bow.  And yet it is the greatest gift—the thing which we celebrate, even in our own gift giving—the thing that changes our lives.

Saint John reveals the great mystery of the Incarnation in these words:  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.” 

I want to share with you another sermon that describes the Incarnation this way; these are the words of another Saint John, Saint John Chrysostom, 4th C archbishop of Constantinople, which he preached on Christmas Day:

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants' bands. For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking our flesh, He gives us His Spirit; And so, He bestowing and we receiving, He prepares for us the treasure of Life. He takes our flesh, to sanctify us; He gives us His Spirit, that He may save us.[1]

 John Chrysostom says, “This wonder fills me with astonishment.”   This gift, this child in a manger, very God become flesh, is unwrapped!  Christ gives himself to us; God gives us his eternal Word.  When we receive a great gift, it’s an exciting moment, isn’t it?  It’s an exciting moment, a good feeling, and in that moment of excitement, we say thank you to the giver.  Take some time this Christmas to give thanks for that great gift—not only to say thank you, but really to rejoice—to delight in the wonder and astonishment of the Incarnation.  God desires you so much that he condescends to take on flesh—to live among us—and even to die a death on the cross.  What greater love is there than this?  Friends, there is no greater gift than the gift of God’s love.  If you have any doubt about who you are or how you feel today, remember that you have received—that the world has received—the greatest gift imaginable—God’s own presence with, in, and among us.  Our God is not a God who is far away or a God who is inaccessible.  Our God comes among us with power and might as a little child.  Our God rules with a rule of love.  Our God, in Christ, has a fleshly body that knows our own sufferings, our own griefs, our own hopes, and our own joys.  Even in the midst of our sinful state, God loves us and comes among us.  You are beloved, brothers and sisters.  Unwrap that gift, revel in the sheer wonder of it, give thanks, and rejoice! 

When you’ve received a gift you really love, a gift that shows the love of the giver, you want to share that joy.  That phone call to my grandmother on Christmas Day wasn’t about listmaking—it was about a genuine and authentic response to the delight of having received a gift—a genuine chance to give thanks in the telling of someone else.  And we are called to do the same—to tell the story of God’s love for us—sometimes using words.  Spend some time this Christmas reflecting on God’s love for you, delighting in it.  Really let it sink in.  Unwrap that gift and revel in it!  You won’t be able to help but share God’s love with your friends, your family, your neighbor, your coworker—just in the way that you live your life, in the way that you rejoice in being loved.  And it’s okay to use words, too—to tell yourself and others of God’s love—that they are loved.  Even if you can’t feel that inside, take some time to focus on it anyway—to pray about it.  Maybe your prayer to God becomes, “Help me to receive your love.”  And follow up with a “Thank you.”  A friend recently reminded me that the writer Anne Lamot has two great prayers:  “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”[2]  Thank you, thank you, thank you.  If you can’t feel “Thank you” today, try out “Help me give thanks.”  For that’s part of what we are here to do, isn’t it?  Every liturgy of Morning Prayer and every Eucharist begin with thanksgiving and praise.  We bless God, we sing the Gloria or a hymn of praise. We give thanks for God’s great goodness in making us and in being known to us.  John says, “This Wonder fills me with astonishment.”  We say, thank you, thank you, thank you.

That gratitude, friends, is a spiritual practice.  Like Anne Lamot says, it is a prayer, and it changes us.  “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.”  That grace changes us.  Listen again to what John Chrysostom says is going on in the incarnation:  “For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking our flesh, He gives us His Spirit; And so, He bestowing and we receiving, He prepares for us the treasure of Life. He takes our flesh, to sanctify us; He gives us His Spirit, that He may save us.”

He assumes our body that we may assume his Word.  He gives us his Spirit.  He sanctifies and saves us.  Do those seem like powerful words to you?  John seems to me to be referencing Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, only a few decades his elder, who wrote, “God became human that humans might become God.” [3]  Do those words cause you to sit upright?  They seem almost heretical at first, don’t they?  Athanasius is not suggesting that we are God—or even like God.  God is God, and we are not, and don’t we know it all too well!  But Athanasius’s claim is even more provocative than that—God is about the work of drawing us to himself—of enfolding us into the divine heart.  God is making us a part of God’s own kingdom, God’s reality, God’s own self.  We are being recreated, renewed, and restored.  “He takes our flesh to sanctify us.  He gives us his Spirit, that he may save us,” John says.  

The great gift of the incarnation, friends, is not only that God comes among us—but that God is drawing us to himself!  That we are coming to be among God!  That in the fullness of time, we will be with our Creator, who made us and loves us and desires us.  There is no greater gift than this.  The Eucharist today shows us again that great love—God’s love in coming among us through his incarnation; his self-emptying, self-offering sacrifice in his death on the cross; his triumph over sin and death in his glorious resurrection, and his present and abiding Spirit—present in the Bread and Wine, the Body and Blood that we receive, the real presence of Christ with us to feed and sustain us.  When you receive the consecrated host today, the sacrament of Holy Communion, the priest will say, “the Body of Christ.”  You, brothers and sisters, are the Body.  You are becoming enfolded into the divine will—into the very heart of God.  Receive that gift in love and gratitude, and remember Christ’s presence with us. 

We rejoice in God and receive as a gift that grace upon grace.  We can say thank you, and tell and show others that great gift of God’s love.  And in that gift—by its very giving, we are changed.  Saint John the Evangelist tells us that “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.”  That same God desires to enfold us into his own heart.

Let the light of Christ shine in your hearts.  Rejoice and give thanks.  Revel in God’s abundant love.  And be restored in him.

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

 

 

 

[1] John Chrysostom, "Christmas Morning," Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers: A Manual of Preaching, Spiritual Reading and Meditation,” Volume 1, trans. and ed. M. F. Toal (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000) 110-117, as published online at http://lectioecclesia.com/Chrysostom,-John-on-the-Incarnation,-Sermon-on-Christmas-Day.php (12/28/2012).

[2] Anne Lamot, Traveling Mercies.

[3] Athanasius, On the Incarnation

A version of this sermon was first preached at Grace Church in New York on 12/30/2012.

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The Love of God

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The Love of God

The Rev’d Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Christmas Day
December 25, 2018

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

 

Merry Christmas!

 

This morning, we hear not the story of how shepherds in a field received a message from an angel that a Savior, wrapped in bands of cloths was born in Bethlehem. That wonderful story retold in hymns and songs, depicted in art and paintings, and, of course, proclaimed on national television every year in A Charlie Brown Christmas.

 

An essential Christmas staple in my home, along with my own Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

 

No, today we hear the story of the Word made flesh, which is, in fact, one with the story we hear in Saint Luke’s Gospel. However, while Saint Luke shares with us who Jesus is and what he will do, Saint John in his prologue answers an otherwise unanswered question:

 

How did this action of God in human history take place?[1]

 

Saint John appeals for us to understand the birth of Christ not only as a scene in a manger, but as an act predestined, pre-formed, for all creation. The birth of Jesus, the Word made flesh, is rooted in God’s constant desire from the story of creation in Genesis to Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem to this the 25th day of December 2018, God’s constant desire to show us his love. To show us how great and vast a treasure is God’s love for us and for the world.

 

While Saint John dives deep into the how this day came to be, what lies at the extremity of Saint John’s question is love: God’s love.

 

A love made known to us not merely in thought or romantic idealism, but in a person, Jesus, born this day in Bethlehem of Judea. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

 

I’m not sure what time your Christmas Day began this morning, but maybe like my own, it began roughly around 7am. And maybe you too stumbled upon the Today Show this morning and their Christmas Day special featuring the Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry.

 

As always, he was asked something about the Royal Wedding and the Royal Family. However, at just the right time he shared with show’s hosts and with millions of people watching at home these words:

 

“The truth is, if love is just a sentiment then it doesn't matter. But love is a commitment and one of the passages that speaks about Christmas is John 3:16 [For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life] It speaks about the crucifixion of Jesus but it also speaks about Christmas, 'God so loved the world that he gave his only son.' It is love which is tied to giving, not taking. Giving. We give gifts as a symbolic way of reminding us that God showed us the way of love, which is to give and not to count the cost.”[2]

 

For Christians, the love of God, which is the source of all love, is not an idealism but a reality. A reality made flesh in the person of Jesus. The person we have come here to adore, the person we sing hymns for and about this Christmas season and every Sunday for the last two thousand years, the person we are invited to receive in Holy Communion.

 

In seeking to answer how this has taken place, Saint John ends his prologue with the affirmation that we and all creation have seen the glory of God which is full of grace and truth. As we celebrate this glorious day, whether with presents and great food and in prayer and song, I invite you to seek and see God’s love in and among you. Behold God’s Son, behold God’s love, it has been revealed to us and all creation this day and forevermore.

 

Glory be to God on high. May you have joyous and a very Merry Christmas!

 

Amen.


[1] Moloney, F. J. (2005). The Gospel of John (D. J. Harrington, Ed.). Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 34.

[2] CORRECTION | The quote is from CBS This Morning | https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JiX4ick26MA

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Come to the Manger

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Come to the Manger

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2018

When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

 

A very Merry Christmas to you and yours.  It’s a joy to be together and to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ two thousand years ago.  And it’s a greater joy to realize what that means for us today, for the world, for you and for me--for us together. 

I caught a glimpse of the joy of Christmas this evening when we were putting the crèche together with the children of the parish--when we told the story, simply and slowly, just as in the gospel texts, of Mary, and Joseph, and the newborn baby Jesus visited by shepherds and angels.  We almost skipped ahead to the wise sages from the east who come to visit--but you’ll have to wait until Epiphany--January 6--to hear about them!  (I’ll let you in on secret, though--they have already begun their journey to visit the baby in the manger--and if you look closely--maybe even in the Lady Chapel as you return from communion tonight--you may see them starting off together!)

The wonder of the crèche--of children’s faces carrying the holy family, the animals, the sheep, the little dog that’s a part of our scene--the wonder of it all is captivating.

It takes me back to a time from my own childhood--a story that I may have told you before of a nativity scene, a tableau, that I was a part of!  In my little town in middle Georgia, at the Methodist Church, for several years we had a living nativity.  Now this is just as exciting as it sounds.  It’s a nativity scene--a crèche--but with live people--and live animals!  Who doesn’t like a donkey and a sheep and a cow on the front lawn at Christmastide?! As an eight year old I was really excited about this.

For weeks we prepared. One of our parents found some small bales of hay to line the inside of the crèche--and to provide some concealed seating for all of us nativity actors.   A few handy carpenters built a wooden structure with boards and logs--a rustic shelter to frame the scene.  Someone else called around and got friends to volunteer livestock.  Mary and Joseph were chosen, and a few real live babies were recruited to work in shifts.  No one wanted a baby to be out in the cold December air for long.  And the cast of shepherds and angels was endless.  In bathrobes with crooks made of pipe and wired tinsel wings the shepherds and angels filled in among the live animals and around the manger itself, trading in and out for shifts, warming up with cocoa in between back in the parish hall.  There on the main street, cars slowed and stopped, driving around the block and around again to witness this living nativity, the story of our Lord’s birth played out in our town, on our block, with people we knew.  And with live animals! 

I don’t know how our parents felt, but for us children, it was great fun!  We were so excited!  We could hear the animals around us breathing and didn’t even mind the itchy scratch of the hay bales, the dust from the donkey’s coat, the really awful smell of the livestock around us.  The baby--whichever baby Jesus was on call at the moment--would squirm and cry--or snuggle and sleep--and it all felt very real and wonderful and full of joy.

Eventually the spotlights were turned off, the animals led away to their trailers and pens, and children wrangled to head home to wrap presents, or unwrap them, or wherever it was in the progression of days until Christmas.  I can’t recall what happened after.  But there was a joy, a feeling of possibility, of hope, of wonder, that left with us from that little makeshift stall there on the corner of main street in our home town.  And we held onto it through the Christmas season.

I’ve been listening to Christmas music on the radio and at parties over the past few weeks and have been struck by two things--how relentlessly optimistic and cheerful and full of hope these songs are!  Just think about a couple of songs you’ve heard on the radio, or in shops, or that you’ve sung at Christmas parties.  What are they about?  Shopping.  Decorating.  Food and drink and mistletoe.  Peace and goodwill and love and joy and hope.  Warm fuzzy feelings that we revel in this time of year.  People are just nicer to one another at the holidays--or at least it seems so to me--and I give thanks for this little break, in the midst of the mad world, when we can with the angels declare “Peace on earth.”

The other thing that strikes me about the sort of Christmas music that I’ve been hearing outside these walls is that it is very often just generally about peace, goodwill, and good cheer.  There is little mention of the source of that peace and joy.  Much of this Christmas music--in fact most of it that I’ve heard this year--doesn’t mention God very much--or Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word, at all! 

Now, we’ve heard that there’s a war on Christmas, and I don’t buy it.  The cheerful, relentlessly optimistic good cheer that surrounds us--this benign idea of peace on earth and goodwill towards all--isn’t a war on Christmas at all.  I think it’s actually pointing towards something.  The culture around us--and we ourselves--are crying out for the reality of these good things.  We may pause culturally, whether we’re Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or whatever else, we can’t get away from Christmas music and decorations in our country--and so we wrap ourselves culturally in this warm fuzzy blanket of soft lights and decorations and gift giving and goodwill--because we are longing for those things to be true.  We are longing to know that the madness of the world will be made right.  We are longing to know that people can actually be generous towards one another.  We dare to hope that the hungry may be fed, the humble lifted up, the mighty who abuse their power brought to heel.  We are longing to know hope for the hopeless, release for the captives, good news for the poor.  We are crying out in our chains of despair to know that we are loved. 

And so we cling to the good feeling of this time together.  The warmth and joy of the Christmas season.  And by the middle of February--or maybe by next week--we may have forgotten it all together.

Friends, there is no war on Christmas.  There is a world longing for the love of God revealed in this gift of God’s own self come among us.

That’s what we’re celebrating today.  That God made us all and is there in our joys and happiness--but also sees our sufferings, our longings, our fear, our despair.  That in the madness of this world--and the world of first century Palestine was just as mad as ours today--that in this madness, God comes in the form of a baby, weak and helpless, to join us in our plight.  To walk alongside us.  To heal crowds of people.  To speak good news.  To give hope. 

That message of hope was so revolutionary, so earth shattering, that it threatened the order of civilization--that all people were loved, that all people had equal value in the eyes of God, that all were to be cared for as brother and sister--that message was so threatening that the powers of the world tried to take it down.  And the messenger, the prophet, the God-made-man, Jesus Christ, was killed by a government executioner.  But God’s own Son couldn’t stay dead--and rose again to be with his friends--eating and drinking with them--and ascended to be with us all, to fill all things, through the gift of the Holy Spirit with us even now, in his Body and Blood of the sacrament, in the fellowship and communion of this place, in the awe and wonder of this holy night, and in your hearts and lives even now.

That’s the story of Christmas.  It’s very specific. 

The hope and joy and good will we feel is real because it’s about something.  It’s about God showing us how much God loves us.  It’s about God’s love that will not let us go. 

I didn’t tell you another thing about that living nativity scene.  I failed to tell you that, as exciting as it was, it was also really cold.  My velour bathrobe was no match for the falling temperatures. And the hay was really itchy and made me sneeze.  And the animals that I was so excited about were not excited about me.  They didn’t want to be petted, and they smelled really, really bad.  Why didn’t someone think to give the donkey a bath? I wondered. 

But it was still wonderful.  Even in its cold and smell and chaos there was something wonderful and real.  Just like the world we live in.  Even as it seems to fall apart, there is God, right with us, holding onto us.  Coming in clouds with power and great glory.  Coming in the person of a little baby.  Coming again--defeating death--and never letting us go.

The shepherds ran and told everyone what they’d seen.  But Mary pondered all these things in her heart, waiting and watching as the salvation of the world unfolded.

What are you longing for tonight?  What’s underneath the soft lights, the glow of the candles, the music and the feelings and the warmth?  Or if you’re not feeling the peace and goodwill of Christmas this year, perhaps you’re feeling loss, or aloneness, or despair.  Surely some of the shepherds felt that, too.  Maybe even Mary felt fear.  And Joseph certainly was anxious.  What were they longing for?  What are you longing for?

Come to the manger.  Find in the face of the Christ Child--find in his Body and Blood of this feast of thanksgiving--find the love that you seek.  Find the hope that will not let you go. 

If you’re still looking, hold on.  You’re in the right place.  Ponder all these things in your heart like Mary.  God has come to you.

And when you’ve seen it, go and tell like the shepherds.  Tell the whole world.  That peace on earth, that goodwill, is real.  It’s the way the kingdom of God works.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise--even in February, or next week, when the glow fades.  Come again to this font and be refreshed, to this altar and be renewed--to the crèche again and be reminded that God has come and will never let you go.

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The Song of Mary:  A Revolutionary Cry

Comment

The Song of Mary: A Revolutionary Cry

The Rev’d Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 23, 2018

In this reflection on the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, the Curate invites us to consider Mary’s call for the renewal of the world—an anthem of revolution, a hymn of praise, an anthem of hope and possibility of the renewal of the world in Jesus Christ.

Comment

Rejoice

Comment

Rejoice

Mr Patrick Keyser
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Third Sunday of Advent
December 16, 2018

‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.’

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

A few years ago I led weekly chapel services at an Episcopal elementary school for an academic year. I quickly learned how challenging it is to stand in front of 100 children ranging from kindergarten to fifth grade and attempt to teach them something about God. The children asked the most pointed and difficult questions that cut to the very heart of a theological matter, and they always knew when I had oversimplified something. Thankfully, I learned as I went along, and one of the most valuable things I learned was the importance of signing. Children love to sing, but it was often difficult to find appropriate songs. The text needed to be both theologically sound and simple enough so that they could learn it without the words in front of them. It was no easy task. One of the children’s favorite songs is based on today’s reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Perhaps you are familiar with it. The words are quite simple– ‘rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice; rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice; rejoice, rejoice, and again I say rejoice.’ It was easy to sing, the words come directly from Scripture, and the kids loved it. Overall it was a solid choice, but I sort of hated it. I didn’t like the idea of repeatedly being told how I should feel. What if I don’t particularly want to rejoice? What if I’m not feeling very cheerful?

The same feelings emerged as I read today’s epistle from Philippians, which has historically been associated with this the Third Sunday of Advent, also called Gaudete Sunday. That name comes from the opening line of the Latin introit of the mass appointed for this day, which takes its text from this same passage from Philippians. Gaudete means rejoice. Our hymns have reflected this focus, and the shift in color from the typical purple of advent to rose is meant to further invoke this theme. It’s all very exciting, or is it? What exactly is the cause of this rejoicing?

This theme of rejoicing may seem to sit a little uneasily with the message of John the Baptist we hear in today’s gospel passage. John’s message from the wilderness sounds particularly harsh. He calls the crowd a brood of vipers, warns of the wrath to come, and tells how those trees that aren’t bearing fruit will be cut down and burned. John is inviting, exhorting the people to repentance. Now repentance is a word that can be a bit of a stumbling block, I think. In the Southern Baptist context of my childhood, repentance was what you did when you did something bad. Say you’re sorry and then don’t do it again. This narrow and rather unhelpful view of repentance is not what John is describing. There is no doubt that the call to repentance requires acknowledging and accounting for our own sins and shortcomings, but it is much more than that. Repentance is a complete and fundamental shift in orientation. It is a turning away from one thing and toward another.

The crowds were not offended by John’s message. They were deeply curious. ‘What then should we do?’ they ask. They want to know what they are to do in face of the coming reality. They want to know what repentance requires. John’s message is simple: share what you have. If you have an extra coat, share it with those who have none. If you have extra food, share it with those who are hungry. He gives the same advice to the tax collectors who come to him asking what they should do. Tax collectors often made money by charging folks more than they owed and then kept the extra for themselves. John tells them not to do so. ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also came to him, and John told them the same thing. ‘Be satisfied with your wages.’ Don’t extort others. The repentance John preaches requires a fundamental shift in the way in which relationships work. We cannot live for ourselves alone. Selfish ambition must give way to deep acknowledgment of our interconnectedness.

John’s message excited the crowds and filled them with expectation. They knew he was a unique figure. He had a powerful presence. He offered a vision of a new reality of how life could be. Quite naturally the people began to wonder and ask John if he might just be the Messiah, the chosen one for whom the people of Israel had long waited. Here John displays what might be his most remarkable feature of all, more amazing than his clothing or his strange diet or his biting exhortations. John knew exactly who he was, and he tried to be nothing more and nothing less. He had been called to speak in the wilderness and prepare the way for another. He came not for his sake but for the sake of one much greater than him, and he knew that. In response to the crowds he tells them, ‘one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the throng of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire’ (Luke 3:16). John points beyond himself to the one who is to come, the one whose very presence causes us to fall down in reverence.

John tells the crowd that Jesus, the whom they are truly seeking and longing for, will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. What might that mean? Fire is complex and associated with a variety of things. Perhaps you associate fire with warmth and comfort, with a cozy fire on a cold winter night or with the comfort of companions gathered around a campfire. Fire can be comforting, but it can also be incredibly destructive. Many of my family members are firefighters. My brother is a professional firefighter in a city near where I grew up, and my father and grandfather are loyal and dedicated volunteer firefighters in the sleepy town where I grew up and my family continues to live. It has been a part of my life since before I can even remember.

My brother, who is three and half years older than me, has wanted to be a firefighter since he was about three years old. My mother has childhood videos of my brother forcing me to play pretend firefighter when I was no older than two. He was very enthusiastic; I was at best a disinterested participant. The sounds of blaring radios throughout my home summoning my father, and later my brother, to respond to a fire were a fixture of my childhood. I learned to associate fire with danger. As the very name of the profession suggests, fire is often something to be fought. Those who are committed to that work put their lives at risk whenever they undertake their work. Fire destroys and kills. The recent devastating wildfires in California have reminded us of the destructive and often uncontrollable power of fire. And so it is that John’s words about the coming of Jesus can sound quite terrifying. To be baptized with fire sounds like it leads to death and destruction. It sounds like something to be greatly feared.

Fire, however, is not only something that can comfort and destroy. It also purifies. Many metals, for example, are purified and refined through extreme heating. Another example is the paradoxical idea that a wildfire actually produces some beneficial results for ecosystems. It rejuvenates soil, and some plants have adapted themselves to release seeds in the face of such heat. The world of mythology offers the example of the phoenix, which bursts into flames only to emerge with new life from its ashes.

The fire of Jesus’ baptism that John references is a purifying fire. John tells the crowds that Jesus’ ‘winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire’ (Luke 3:17). Jesus comes with his winnowing fork to clear away the chaff from our heart, to take away those sins, fears, and anxieties that enslave us and cling to us so closely. He comes with his purifying fire to cleanse our hearts, until those sins are turned to dust and ashes in its heat consuming. That’s what it means to be set free. That still might sound a little terrifying. The process of purification and preparation is rarely comfortable, but it does set us free to live as God created us to live. We repent, we reorient ourselves to live differently in this world, to live not only for ourselves but for Christ and for the world he came to redeem. And that it is the good news John proclaimed to the people. Our joy and expectation in Advent is inextricably tied to our need for repentance in the face of Christ’s coming.

Rejoicing is fundamentally about joy, which is not so much a temporary feeling as it is something that settles deep within us and gives us that peace that St. Paul speaks of, the type of peace that far exceeds human understanding. Today we rejoice as we expect and long for the coming of Jesus, who comes with a purifying fire to cleanse our hearts and free us from our sins. We rejoice at the call to repent, to reorient ourselves toward God and toward a restoration of the life God intends for us. We rejoice at John’s proclamation of this good news. The advent of our Savior sets us free. That is indeed reason to rejoice.

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

Comment

Judgment & Redemption

Comment

Judgment & Redemption

The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Second Sunday of Advent
December 9, 2018

A friend of mine has a saying, when I am telling her tales of woe…  She’ll stop me as I’m telling her my problems and ask, “Now, do you want me to just listen?  Or are you asking me to do something about it?” 

Usually it’s just that I want her to listen. To know that someone hears. That someone else is there in the mists of uncertainty, the pathways of anxiety, the valleys of the shadow of death.  And she’s good at that.

But last week, as I heard the lessons again at our Advent Procession with Carols at 5pm on Sunday, I was moved by the prophecies and grieved by the plight of our common lives together.  This season of Advent, of expectation, was turning out to be less a joyous anticipation of the birth of a sweet baby in a manger--and more a time of impending dread at the unmasking of the evil of the fallen world around us.  I wanted someone not just to listen but to do something about it!

Looking back over just the last week, I’ve been astonished at the revelations coming out of the court filings surrounding Michael Cohen, the President’s personal attorney.   I’ve been grieved to hear of the violence surrounding the yellow vest protests in Paris, where police deployed teargas against French citizens--and the deployment of tear gas on our southern borders against people ostensibly seeking asylum.   I’ve heard stories of loss from parishioners--loss of life, loss of health, loss of relationship--and known that there was nothing I could do about any of it except listen.  I’ve worried about potential loss of our resources in this place as the market has swung wildly back and forth over the last few days, fueled by news of trade wars and interest rate shifts.

I’m sure your list is even longer--for there is much to worry about.  There is much that is wrong.

We might not be wrong to think that things are falling apart.

That line--“things fall apart”--do you remember it?  “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…”

It’s from a poem “The Second Coming” of WB Yeats, a line that apparently in 2016 was quoted more times than any of the thirty previous years[1]--that claim from a book review in the Times of Richard Haass’s discouragingly titled work, A World in Disarray:  American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order.

Things fall apart.  The centre cannot hold.

Yeats wrote the poem in the aftermath of the first World War and the beginnings of the Irish War of Independence--another time the world might have seemed to be falling apart. 

 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.…[2]

 

Yeats, who was certainly acculturated to Christian theology, was himself an occultist with a highly developed personal philosophy, had a particular world view centered on interlocking, or stacked, gyres--conical shapes that represented the flow of world events, of history.  In Yeats’s philosophy, as one age came to an end, the point of the cone, another began to emerge.  The collapse of the world order was giving rise to something new.  What rough beast, indeed, was on the move and about to be born?

I love Yeats’s imagery. I love this poem.  I love the idea and even the optimism that it espouses--as one thing dies, another is born--and we can watch the mystery unfold.

So much of ancient and even modern thought is based on this premise--that in collapse and chaos something new rises. 

The Christian story is different, however.  For us, there is not a mere cycle of death and new birth, decay and recreation, going on as though perpetually propelled by some mysterious life cycle, in the Christian story.  There is only a story of creation--and a story of salvation.  And here’s why that difference matters.

There is a tradition in Advent of preaching what is called the “Four Last Things”--Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell--on the four Sundays of Advent.  If last Sunday was Death, today is Judgment, friends.  That’s a word that we shudder at.  Don’t judge me! we say to one another. 

We are so afraid of judgment.  But what if that’s what the world needs?  What if we NEED a divine judge to help us see where we have fallen short of the goodness of God’s creation?  What if we need someone to come among us and say, Look!  There is something better! 

What if we need to know in our hearts, in our souls, in our very bones, in the flesh of this world, that the broken things, the sadness, the destruction we see is in fact not how things are supposed to be--that there is hope for something better--and that, in the fullness of time, all things will be restored to the fullness of God’s good creation--restored in right relationship, righteousness, with that which is the ground of all being, that which is love, that which is the very action of creation--God God’s own self.

That’s what John the Baptist is coming to announce.  John the Baptizer comes, rough clad and loud and strange, into our lives in this time of preparation to cry out, “Repent!” Turn, change, be baptized, be aware of the things that aren’t in alignment with the kingdom of God.  Repent, and prepare for the one who is coming--the one who ushers in the kingdom of God.

Look into the cracks of our social fabric and see the people who’ve been left behind by health care, by housing, by basic plumbing.  Look at the places where people have lied or cheated or stolen to accumulate power or wealth for themselves.  Look at the places where people have been discarded, or exploited, or abused, or marginalized.  Look at the places where creation has been devalued, harmed, or pillaged as a commodity to be burned up or sold for profit. 

Look at the wasteland we have created.

And repent.

Walk into the waters of baptism.  Wash your participation in systems of evil and oppression away.  Wash away the evil that has been done to you.  Walk out from the river, from the font, into a new alignment with the right-wise-ness, the righteousness, of the kingdom of God--and know what it is that you were created to be--and live into that fullness, the wholeness, the goodness of the thing that God has made you.

Wash it away.

And prepare the way of the Lord. 

Prepare the way of the ruler that will conquer--not with a sword, but with love.  Not with violence, but with a new way of being.  Prepare to join in that new revolution of hope and love and wholeness that is the kingdom of God come near.  That is the kingdom of God that is coming.

And the thing that gives us hope, the way we know that the kingdom of God is near, is that Jesus, as a child in a manger, comes to us, the Word of God made flesh, God God’s own self incarnate and among us as one of us, into the mess of the world.  Loving it--and loving us--for God is the maker of all things and will not let us go.

That’s the difference.  Jesus the judge doesn’t stand afar off and wag a finger.  Jesus the judge of all creation, the ruler of all things, comes among us--to be with us--to love us and all things--even in the midst of the falling apart.

And in his light our lies and deception fall away.  We see where we have failed.  And we can change, and turn, and live anew in his glorious presence.

There is no mystical gyre of destruction and renewal.  There is nothing Creation itself can do to save itself.  There is nothing we ourselves can do to save ourselves from the mess we are in.

There is only Jesus, who comes into our fallen world.  Jesus, who shows us what we can be.  Jesus, who heals us and invites us into wholeness, into full relationship with the one who has created all things.  Jesus, who saves.

That’s the judgment of this Advent.  And it’s terrifying.  And it’s full of hope.

What we are waiting for, friends, is not the chance to hear again the sweet story of a baby born in a manger.  That’s already happened. 

What we are waiting for is Christ’s coming again in power and great glory. 

That’s what we are preparing for. 

That’s what we wait for. 

That’s what we expect.  That all things shall be healed.  That all things shall be made whole.  That all things shall be brought to perfection in him through whom all things were made.

And that is our hope.

Now, as good Catholic Anglicans we might be a bit worried about waiting for the Messiah who will save--for his second coming. After all, don’t we leave most masses hearing the words, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”?  Aren’t we to be doing the work of the kingdom here and now?  Why are we waiting for Jesus to come?  He’s not here yet!  Hadn’t we better get busy?

Yes, of course!  Why wouldn’t we always be about the work of the kingdom?

To be sure, all the things we do are mere band-aids on the wounds of the world.  We won’t solve the problems of creation.  But they are vital.  These works are lifegiving.  They are salvific in that Christ uses them. 

As a colleague likes to say, when the kingdom of God comes, it ought to look familiar.

That is to say, we are about the work of the kingdom here and now because we are people of repentance.  We are people of Advent. We are people who live differently in the world, who expect things to look differently, because we have seen what they can be and what they are.

We won’t save the world. But we may help to show, here and there, how the kingdom of God has come near.  We may help to show the love of Jesus as we have come to know it.  And Jesus’s love will save.

So friends, pay attention.  Be alert this Advent season.  Listen to John calling out the evil in the world around you--and let’s together rebuke it!  Let’s live differently, through the grace of God.  Let’s show people that the kingdom of God has come near.

And even as we wait for the story of the coming of that sweet baby in a manger, let’s also await with hope and expectation the judgment of the world in the second coming of our savior, Jesus Christ.

With confidence, let us work. Let us wait.  And let us hope in the sure and certain knowledge that Jesus Christ has and is redeeming the world.


[1] This according to Michiko Kakutani’s review “’A World in Disarray’ Is a Calm Look at a Chaotic Global Order,” NY Times, Feb 13, 2017, accessed online 12/8/2018 at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/13/books/a-world-in-disarray-richard-haass.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Farts.

[2] WB Yeats, “The Second Coming,” as printed in The Collected Poems of WB Yeats, ed Richard Finneran.  New York:  Collier/McMillan, 1989, p 187. 

Comment

The Beginning is Near

Comment

The Beginning is Near

The Rev’d Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The First Sunday of Advent
December 2, 2018

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

Earlier this week, during one of my daily Facebook scrolls where zoom down the great litany of Facebook posts, I ran into an image that caught my attention. The picture was that of a young man in gray pants and a white shirt, wearing a black bow tie and black-rimmed glasses holding a sign that read, “The Beginning is near.” The beginning is near.

And the photograph seemed to be replicating an image of a picketer holding a protest sign or warning message. Virtually mimicking that of an angry and fanatic Christian demonstrator holding a sign that might read “the end is near” or “repent for your sins, the end is at hand” or something along those lines.
 
As I continued to scroll through Facebook day after day for the rest of the week, and as I began to read and dwell on today’s Gospel passage – the words on the man’s warning sign echoed over and over again in my head. The beginning is near.

The message on the sign – The beginning is near – continually rang as I read in Saint Luke’s Gospel a whole other set of signs prophesied by Jesus – That there will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. [And] people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. [And] then people will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory.”

These vivid signs prophesied by Jesus can be simply terrifying and discomforting. Especially if we simply recount our human history, and remember both natural and human-made disasters. From the great wars that pinned nation against nation, sibling against sibling, to those battles and wars that continue to be waged as we gather in this place to pray for peace and justice in this world. To the wildfires, tsunamis, and earthquakes that pillage the earth. Often destroying the lives of those already in great need.

The signs in Jesus’ prophecy is not implausible or unthinkable, but our reality. Two thousand years after the earthly life of Jesus came to an end, Jesus’ prophecy of this world still ring true, but so does our great hope that amidst the chaos of this world, the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory will bring the earth to a halt and redeem creation.

Up to this point in Saint Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ opponents have asked for a sign from heaven, even his disciples have asked for a sign of things to come.[1] I’m sure we can all join Jesus’ opponents and his early disciples in the overcrowded club of people who have once or twice uttered, “Lord, just give me sign.” Give me a sign of what I must do, of how I should deal with this difficult situation, or better yet, this difficult person. Lord give me a sign of how I might be able to deal with the evil and hatred that roam around in our neighborhoods and the world. Lord, just give me a sign.
           
Today, Jesus gives us a sign. And the sign Jesus gives us today acknowledges our human reality and our human capacity for sin, that is our capacity to be out of right relationship with God and our neighbor. It also acknowledges our fragility as a people. It acknowledges that they very things we need to bring forth life in our world can also endanger us. Water and fire two essential elements needed for childbirth, can be the very elements of human destruction. A destruction we cannot seem to control.

In his commentary on Saint Luke’s Gospel, Professor Luke Timothy Johnson of Candler School of Theology at Emory University points out that is Jesus’ prophecy there is no temporal reference or timetable.[2] I’m reminded of Harold Camping and all of his end of the world calculation and how they were all wrong. The irony, one of many, is that Jesus himself does not bother with specific calculations because Jesus is not warning us of a destruction that’s to take place at a specific time or location. No, he is alerting us that the beginning is near.

While signs may appear in moon, sun, and stars, and chaos may continually arise on earth, the Son of Man will appear and bring forth his judgment, his mercy and redemption. And this will be as obvious to us as a fig tree or any other tree for that matter sprouting leaves as the summer season approaches.

This season of Advent reminds us that all of creation from the worms of the earth to birds of the air will one day return to God the creator of heaven and earth. That we God’s beloved children will one day return to our maker, and until that day comes we can trust that God is at work in the world. That God is at work in our lives. That the beginning is near.

Our lives up to this point, even our human history as flawed as it’s been, are simply the opening chapters of God’s great cosmic reorientation. And we and the world are not far from God’s judgment, God’s mercy, and God’s redemption.

Whenever we speak of God’s mercy and redemption, we cannot do so without speaking of God’s judgment. The Season of Advent, its prayers, its scripture, and hymns remind us of that. We can choose to ignore it, but that’s on us.

From scripture, it is clear that there will be a day, a moment, of judgement. A day in which all creation will face God and give an account, one which will already be known to God himself. And from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we know that this account will always be received with love, mercy, and redemption. Because this is who God is. True faith is believing that God will judge all of creation, and bring forth mercy and redemption, justice and restoration, equity and wholeness. True faith is believing that this work is at hand here on earth, and that we can join in this work, even as earth shakes with uncertainty and fear, and signs appear in the sun, moon, and stars. It is believing that beginning is near.

 

Jesus ends his prophecy with these words: Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man. Those of us who endure, who bear witness, who remain alert in prayer, have nothing to fear from the coming of the Son of Man. There is no distress or confusion or dread.We can, therefore, stand up straight, hold our heads high in happy in anticipation before the Son of Man.[3]


This is what Saint Paul is referring to when he speaks of freedom in Christ. This very commitment towards God’s justice and mercy compels Saint Paul to write, “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us... We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves” (Romans 8:19, 22).

The Christian life, after all is said and done, is not one of speculation or of observation but of behavior and relationship.[4]The promise of eternal life is our radical religious view that this life we live on the earth is not the end of the journey. It’s as if death itself is a stop on the road to eternal life. Jesus himself does not avoid death, he doesn’t kind of die. Jesus dies. And then he is resurrected. There is no resurrection without death. Death is merely a marker on the road to eternal life.

And likewise God’s true justice and mercy can not be made be manifest without judgement. We need God’s judgement, we need God’s redemption.

 

Thanks be to God who give us the Victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.


[1] Johnson, L. T .(2006). The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 327.

[2] Johnson, L. T. (2006). The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 329.

[3] Johnson, L. T.  (2006). The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 330.

[4] Craddock, F. B. (1990). Luke. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press. 248.

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Christ the King

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Christ the King

Mr Patrick Keyser
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King
November 25, 2018

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world.”’

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

American political scientist Harold Lasswell once defined politics as ‘who gets what, when, and how.’ This definition is helpful, I think, because it highlights the fact that power is fundamental to politics, and as another political thinker, Lord Acton, famously noted, ‘power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ We recognize truth in this statement, and I also suspect it is this reality of politics that makes it a topic that is greeted with great enthusiasm and fascination by some and with equal dread and contempt by others. Perhaps this dynamic played itself out over your Thanksgiving table this week. Those who approach the topic with dread might well be wondering why I am beginning this sermon by talking about politics. ‘Don’t we already hear enough about it on the news?’ one may reasonably ask. Some may also believe it best to keep politics and religion separate. I am unconvinced that such a separation is desirable or even possible. And given that politics infuses all of our lives, it seems all the more important for us, as people of faith, to speak about it.

As an undergraduate I studied political science. I loved the intellectual exercise of studying political behavior, history, and political principles, but at the same time I had a general distaste for the lived reality of politics. I had little patience for the antics of politicians in Washington, most of whom seemed to prefer political posturing to a genuine desire to govern the country for the good of the people whom they had been elected to serve. Of course, these actions were situated within the well-documented and undeniable trend in the politics of our country away from consensus and compromise toward greater division, animosity, and demonization. Disagreement on issues has become grounds for hatred. Compromise across party lines has become a sign of weakness or betrayal of one’s party allegiance. The consequences of this toxic way of operating, which, it’s worth noting, is followed by politicians of all ideologies and parties, have become all too obvious for us.

As an undergraduate student, I told myself that I could be an engaged student of politics while simultaneously staying out of the realities of political life. I wanted to simply be an observer and act like a scientist in the lab, observing and gathering data. The issue with a social science like politics is, of course, that these experiments take place not in the controlled environment of a laboratory but in real life. The results cannot be carefully controlled. Peoples’ lives are changed by the actions and decisions of our government. No matter how disinterested or disengaged you are from the political process, it is a reality that we all are constantly affected by it.

Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. In the church’s system of keeping time it is also the last Sunday of the year as we look ahead to the start of the new liturgical year next week on the First Sunday of Advent. As we begin to turn toward that season and its call to consider Christ’s coming in great power and triumph, this day invites us to consider a similar theme, the kingship of Christ. Today an important question is set before us, one that Christians have grappled with since the emergence of Christianity in the midst of empire– how are we as faithful followers of Christ to interact with the politics and powers of this world? Despite the perennial nature of this question, the origins of this particular feast day are actually quite modern. Pope Pius XI introduced the observance of Christ the King in 1925 in the midst of a complicated world political environment. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and subsequent developments in Russia had led to the establishment of the communist regime of the Soviet Union. Fascism first emerged in Western Europe with Benito Mussolini seizing power in Italy in 1922. As we know all too well the trend toward authoritarian and violently repressive regimes only accelerated in subsequent years. It was in this environment that Pius XI introduced this day of remembering the kingship of Christ. Some might say the circumstances we currently face are quite similar, with so much uncertainty and concern pervading the political environment of our world. Perhaps we especially need the reminder this day offers.

What does it mean, then, to celebrate the kingship of Christ? And what sort of king is he? Today’s gospel passage is a scene from the passion narrative of St. John’s gospel. We hear this story every Good Friday when we remember Jesus’ betrayal, trial, journey to Calvary, crucifixion, and finally his death. It is an intense and sweeping story. Today we find ourselves placed within one brief but important scene between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea. Prior to this moment, Jesus had been arrested and brought before the high priest, who had questioned Jesus and then ordered him to be sent to Pilate, who alone could authorize Jesus’ death. Pilate enters the praetorium and asks Jesus the question that goes directly to the heart of the matter– ‘are you the King of the Jews?’ It is a political, not explicitly religious, question. Pilate’s sarcastic statement, ‘I am not a Jew, am I?’ reveal his utter disinterest in the inner workings of Jewish religious life. He does not care if Jesus claims to be the Messiah, the anointed one of God. He does, however, care if Jesus is claiming to be a king who may rival the power of Rome and thus threaten Pilate’s position.

Pilate continues and asks Jesus, ‘What have you done?’ Jesus response tells all– ‘my kingdom is not from this world.’ Pilate’s initial fear are misguided. Jesus is not seeking to take power from the Roman authorities using the traditional means of politics, much to the disappointment of many of his followers. We hear throughout the gospels how many of the disciples expected Jesus to be a figure who would fight to overthrow the Roman authorities and restore the kingdom of Israel. They are repeatedly disappointed, for Jesus is not this sort of king. His kingdom is not from this world.

Pilate then asks Jesus, ‘so you are a king?’ Jesus gives what might seem to be a frustratingly indirect response– ‘you say that I am a king.’ Jesus does not deny his kingship, but neither does he cling to his title as a source of power and prestige. He came ‘to testify to the truth’ (John 18:37), which he does not through clever argumentation but through his actions. We know how this story continues beyond this encounter between Pilate and Jesus. He was beaten and then clothed with a purple robe, a color associated with royalty, and crowned with a crown of thorns. He was mocked and forced to carry his own cross to the place where he was brutally put to death. And then he was nailed to that cross and lifted high to be mocked further still, as Pilate made a sign and affixed it to the cross with the words, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews’ (John 19:19). Here is our king at his moment of coronation. Humiliated, mocked, beaten, yet crowned in glory for all the world to see, Jesus is a king unlike any other king. Here is one whose kingdom is not from this world.

In the midst of our broken political environment, here is a reminder of our king, the one who demands our ultimate allegiance. Jesus is a king who chooses the way of self-emptying, of humble submission to the Father, and of loving self-offering for others. It seems hardly necessary to note the difference between the example of Jesus and the realities we experience in our political world. Does that mean we can disassociate ourselves from this world and wait with expectancy for the world to come? Throughout Christian history there have been various groups who have chosen to isolate themselves from the structures and political systems of this world and have refused to participate in politics. As Anglicans, however, and particularly as people rooted in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, we assert the fundamental importance of the incarnation. God loved us and this world so much that God came to dwell among us. Creation has been hallowed, and as such we believe ourselves called to be deeply invested in this world. We are not asked to ignore the realities of this life as we wait for the bliss of the promised life to come. No, we must be faithful followers of our Lord now, in this time and this place.

But what might that mean, and what might faithful witness to our Lord look like? As people whose ultimate allegiance is bound to the King of kings and Lord of lords, we are invited to be people who are always cautious of identifying too closely with any particular personality or ideology. We know too well the failures and brokenness of humans and our political systems. Our identity as Christians invites us to be people who are always showing the powers of this world a different way of being– a way that does not seek to accumulate power but instead offers ourselves joyfully in service to God. We can be people who seek to hold up the way of self-emptying love as a different way of being, one that does not corrupt but leads to life. This, it seems, is a glimpse of what it might look like to be faithful witnesses to Christ in the midst of the hostile political environment in which we find ourselves. For no matter how much trust we place in any one person or one party, and no matter how convinced we are of the validity of one particular ideology, we know they will not save us. We are citizens of another kingdom not of this world. Our salvation comes from our true king, Jesus Christ.

The psalmist tells us, ‘put not your trust in rulers, nor any child of the earth, for there is no help in them… happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! whose hope is in the LORD their God’ (Psalm 146:2,4). History and our own experience teach us that the rulers and kingdoms of this world, no matter how benevolent and beloved or evil and despotic, will all pass away. Christ our king and his reign, however, will never pass away. And there we can find our deep and abiding hope. The LORD is King, let the earth rejoice! (Psalm 97:1).

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

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Try to Remember...  and Follow

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Try to Remember... and Follow

The Rev’d Bonita Grubbs
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Feast of Saint Hilda
November 18, 2018

The Rev’d Bonita Grubbs, Executive Director of Christian Community Action in New Haven, Connecticut, celebrates the Feast of Saint Hilda with the House and Christ Church. Rev’d Grubbs uses the lyrics of a song from the musical “The Fantasticks” as an entry into the gospel passage; reflecting on the life of Saint Hilda of Whitby, Rev’d Grubbs invites us in our own day to follow our Lord Jesus Christ—to remember his life and calling—and to follow ourselves.

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The Burden of Miracles

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The Burden of Miracles

Mr Will Dickinson
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
November 11, 2018

It seems to me many days that the God who worked the miracles of Elijah has gone missing.  It seems hard to believe in a God who comes down to light a bonfire out of nowhere, bring rain to a Kingdom at a word, let alone a God who personally sends down a flaming chariot to escort a prophet straight to heaven.  No wonder God doesn’t do that anymore, as if He’d be able to find parking in downtown New Haven!

     No, no.  It seems that God has become more subtle of late.  But I confess I miss that God we see in Elijah, the one who sends down rain in droughts, who lights massive bonfires in the blink of an eye, who parts even the rivers of the Jordan.  I start to wonder…is that God gone forever?  Will I ever get to see a miracle like that?  I wonder if you grapple with these questions too, if you stare into the dark corners of your bedroom at night and ask in a quiet voice, “Lord, is my suffering insufficient?  Am I not worthy of a miracle?  Need I be like the widow in the Gospel, giving everything I have to be worthy?  And what if I have nothing left to give?  Where is that worker of wonders, maker of miracles?  When will I too be saved?”  Where do we go with these questions?  To whom do we run?

      This summer, as many seminarians do, I worked as a hospital chaplain.  I happened to be serving the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, and the population of the hospital mainly pulled from the surrounding very rural, very Christian counties.  There are a lot of one-line mainstays in a hospital, and one of them I always struggled to hear, was “we’re praying for a miracle.”  It meant that there was nothing left to do, it meant a kind of resignation to the inevitable, and yet for some it seemed to mean something deeper.  I met many patients and families for whom faith healing was a central part of their belief in God.  For those of you unfamiliar, this is the Christian practice that if one is sick, then one can be healed through prayer by the faith of those praying.  There is a direct line between the fervency of belief and the power of Jesus to heal.  Put simply, if you truly believe, your faith will make you well.

     It’s tempting to dismiss this belief as superstition or shallow: “surely God doesn’t work this way – how could it be that simple?” And the complexities of evil in our world would seem to throw a wrench in any one-to-one equation between faith and miracles.  Yet our God is a God of healing, Jesus made his deity known through healings, and I am certainly not in the business of telling people not to pray.  There was something so beautiful and compelling about watching and participating in prayer vigils for dying patients.  It reminded me of Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, which is almost entirely words of praise to God.

     Of course, this theology of prayer has its problems.  If God’s healing is based on the faith of those praying, then the failure of God to heal becomes their fault.  This is surely not the will of God.  But at its best…at its best, this kind of prayer displays an utter conviction in the Goodness and Faithfulness of God, even if the miracle given doesn’t look like resurrection or healing or like Elijah’s miracle today.  And how could you not pray for a miracle?  How do you tell someone suffering that the miracle has already happened, that the Promise of God has already been fulfilled? 

     I think this is something like the Christian life – living in the knowledge of salvation and the suffering of Earth, tasting the bread of heaven and then walking back into a world of fallen justice and brokenness.  The Body of Christ does not always sate the hunger in our bellies, nor the Blood of Christ our thirst for love and acceptance.  We pray for miracles even and especially because we know they are in no way guaranteed, even to those of the most ardent faith.

     We must grapple with the fact that our God is not a God who saves all from death, that our God did not send Elijah to the door of every starving widow, that our God did not meet each Nicodemus in a fateful midnight lesson.  I must grapple with the fact that my oil only rarely self-replenishes, my bread acquires mold more quickly than it does more mass. And yet we give this God praise, we name Him Savior of the world, we name Her Messiah, we praise the glory of God’s Name. 

Though God has not seen fit to save us from the brokenness of our bodies, God has endowed me with Her memory, with the sacrality of Her presence.  Though God did not see fit to stop the momentum of bullets a fortnight ago, God was known to those inside that synagogue, through a miracle.  Though God has not yet revived those who died, God still appears in our Torah, on our altars, our streets, our very thoughts.  This is a miracle.  That we are here is a miracle.  That this church still stands is a miracle.  That she does her work is a miracle. That is enough.  That must be enough.

Emily Dickinson writes that

There’s a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons –

That oppresses

 

 

‘Tis the seal Despair –

An imperial affliction

Sent us of the air –

 

When it comes, the Landscape listens –

Shadows – hold their breath –

When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance

On the look of Death –

     I wonder if this miracle is such a Slant of light.  The widow eats, and we catch a terrifying, unruly glimpse of the power of God, of God’s hope for we brief and distractible humans.  But this light oppresses as well – in its gift we are given the curse of knowing God’s power – and we despair at God’s seeming unwillingness to prove Himself in miracles, to save all from suffering.  Yet should we dismiss these miracles, should we say begone with you, you are more trouble than you’re worth, what would be left but the look of Death?  What would we be left with at all? 

     These miracles point us to something, point us to the bending of the world toward our Lord.  These miracles are not told that we might expect to experience them, nor that we might believe in God on their dramatic merits, nor that God might be characterized by them.  They are told to remind us that Slants of light appear to us still, in traveling men and women, flitting into and out of our lives just as quickly as the Winter sun.

     Many of you know that I’m a native Virginian, so you might imagine that New England winters are a bit of a trial for me.  But if I’ve learned anything about how to survive them, it’s that one must remember the Spring.  Even on those dark days, there are signs of Spring: when I spot the beginnings of the daffodils’ long march upwards, or an unexpected warm day, or a mug of cocoa waiting for me at a friend’s house, those are slants of light, and they point to a day when the Sun will shine bright and hot and I won’t have to walk like a penguin over icy patches!  Yet even in the bitter cold, even when it chills to the bone, the warmth ahead is promised.  Even in the death of Winter, there is the promise of resurrection.  Even in the desolation of Good Friday, we never quite lose sight of our God’s return.

      So it is with these miracles.  They are not promises, exact foretellings of God will do for us if we but have the faith.  They are reminders of what has already been done for us, glimpses of the Savior we adore, and the same as the invitation that this blessed Church extends us week after week, all these long years at the corner of Broadway and Elm.  That this church still stands as a beacon of welcome is by God’s grace and this community’s faith.  Here is a miracle.  That we are here is a miracle. 

     Like how in the dead of Winter we must remember the Spring, when we see our oil and grain depleted, when we see prayers seemingly unanswered, we return here.  We must look up the slants of light into the blinding white Sun that is our God and remember who we are.  We are not of this world.  This life is not our end.  The widow was given a few cakes of meal and we are given salvation, eternal life, the entirety of Creation.  God sent down flames to light Elijah’s bonfire, and for us God came down to Earth to enlighten our hearts to Him.  God sent down rain to end the drought and in Christ God submerged the works of the devil and refreshed us into eternal life.  We must remember our destinies, beloved.  We must remember that this world shall end, that hunger and poverty and famine are not forever but the love of God is.  And until such a time comes, we too must be slants of light, showing up, feeding others, proclaiming that Good News, as this Church has always done. 

     For we are heirs to that everlasting kingdom where there is neither weeping nor sighing nor hunger nor injustice but instead praise and praise and praise and praise.  This is the true miracle to which all others point.  This is the truth of the Sun in the dead of Winter: that this world is not the end, brothers and sisters, this world is not the end.  Come up those stairs to that altar and see the real thing.  Walk past the slants of these windows, the clouds of incense, the memories of miracles long ago, and taste that for which you were created.  Commune with Your God and remember who you were born to be.

     There is a burden to these stories, to these rememberings of miracles.  There is a burden to knowing what God could do and does not.  But beloved, I pray you know it is a gift.  It is a gift to know our God has overcome the world, that God has redeemed us all, that this world shall burn and be reborn, just as have we.  And for now we watch with sharp eyes for Elijah in our streets and our dreams, we witness what we have seen, and we plead with the world to remember itself.  O worker of wonders, O maker of miracles, O Slant of light, You have been with us always. Remain with us forever.

AMEN.

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