Would That All Were Prophets – Lectionary 05/31/2020

Numbers 11:24-30

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

Acts 2:1-12

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

Sermon Text

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[1] These words of Jesus initiated his ministry in the world. The work from the Incarnation to the cross can be found in the words of this proclamation. The Spirit of the Lord, resting upon Jesus, is prepared to go into the world and bring good news to those in it.

The mission of the Church began in full at the Pentecost. When the Spirit of God was poured out on the followers of Christ, the 12 apostles, yes, but also the multitude of the believers. The Spirit manifested by giving the disciples the ability to speak in numerous languages. Whether this was through the sudden knowledge of foreign languages or through the Spirit translating the words of the Church to those who heard it, we cannot know, but God allowed for preaching to happen where none was possible before.

Greek, Aramaic, Farsi, Latin, all dialects and tongues, were suddenly being used to proclaim the spectacular story of Christ. That God had taken on human form, had died on a Roman cross, and then been risen from the dead. This same Lord was then raised into the Heavens and will one day return to establish a kingdom founded on love and righteousness, free of evil and abundant in all respects. The Son of God, the incarnate Word of God, the one named Jesus of Nazareth who is called the Christ, this is who has delivered the world through the proclamation of his Good News, his Gospel.

The Church, in receiving the Spirit, takes up the mantel of Christ’s work in the world. Like Elisha taking over for Elijah, we receive a double share – the life of Christ and the presence of the Spirit as a testament of how we ought to live. When we enter into the Church and the Spirit unites us to the body of Christ that is the people of God, then we are able to become prophets and ministers of the Gospel. We serve one another through actions of love and through our promotion of our mutual good. Yet, we often minimize our ability to do the work that is set before us.

Whether out of a misplaced sense of humility or a legitimate sense that we are insufficient to the task, we do not trust our words to be refined enough to preach the Gospel, or we consider such work to be the task of a select chosen few. Certainly, the vocation of ministry is a valid designation for a person to take on. If it was not, I certainly would not be here speaking today. However, the vocation of ministry is not all that there is to do in the Church. Pastors, Priests, Bishops, Elders, whatever name that they are given they hold administrative roles in the church. Likewise, they proclaim the word and administer the sacraments.

However, if only these ministers were called to speak for God and to proclaim the Gospel, then the work would be severely limited. There are 328 million people in the United States and only a little over 440 thousand ministers. That’s ca. 1 minister for ever thousand people in the US, two if we are being generous.[2] Even the most prolific of minister could hardly be able to serve that many people, definitely not responsibly.

The preaching of the Gospel, the administration of the Church’s service, the community of love which defines the Kingdom of God, all these are accomplished not by single leaders of communities, but by the whole body of the faithful. The gift of the Spirit at Pentecost remained with us, being passed from one generation of the faithful to the next to the next.

If we believe that every member of the Church has their own ministry, their own call to act as prophets, then the task of ministry is far less daunting. A conservative estimate of active Christians in the United States sees the potential for us to understand the ratio of ministers to those ministered to as suddenly 1:5.[3] If we can imagine having an impact upon even 5 people, then we can imagine becoming ministers to those around us.

There has forever been conflict between our understanding of ministry as the work of those in the vocation of ministry and the duty of each and every Christian. Throughout history we have placed emphasis either entirely upon the ministry of the ordained or upon the priesthood of all believers. We, like the people of God in our reading from Numbers see people doing the work of God and immediately ask for credentials. Either we, as they often did in the wilderness, question the leadership and ask who gave them the right to lead or else we question the people and ask them where they got it in their head they can do the work of ministry.

Balance between these two realities is not easy. It requires all persons in the church work together humbly and trust one another. It requires that we see value in one another, that we regard one another as a diverse but united group. There is no hierarchy that can find its home in Christianity. Creating a hierarchy of race, of ethnicity, of wealth, of state of origin, of country of origin, of anything that demarcates the body of Christ in antagonism to itself is unacceptable. The Church established from the beginning that it was not an affair for any one group of people, not something to remain in Jerusalem or Judea or the Levant, but every corner of the Earth. It shows preference only for the poor and powerless, in all things it shuns accolades for righteousness. The Church is a kingdom that reinvents itself constantly to democratize itself.

The dream of Moses is that we all would become prophets. That each and every person who is called by name to be a part of God’s kingdom would be able to take on a role like Moses and to speak to the world boldly about the Good News of God. That dream is fulfilled in the giving of the Spirit at the Pentecost. We in the Church today are each called to be like Moses, the Holy Nation of Priests that was anointed by God continues today in our work. There are always those in the Church who will be called to specific roles of leadership, but the work of God is never limited to a select group.

The individual discernment of what our individual work may be, that is a more difficult path to chase. It takes prayer, it takes fellowship with one another, it requires that we are honest in every aspect of our life. Yet, when we are willing to ask questions, when we believe that our mission which God has initiated will be provided for by the Spirit, then we can work wonders. The words of Jesus which rang out so long ago, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This is the proclamation that we in the Church now continue.

Limited to no place, no time, no single class or vocation, the word of God flows out from each person who finds the object of their love in Christ. The Spirit is able to spread from one person to another, a flame that cannot be quenched, it consumes the world in a fire that does not burn but sustains itself and the object it finds itself upon. The mission of the Church, the inheritance we receive from Christ, is passed on to us through the Spirit. The Spirit which we remember being given today, that lives within us, that unites us together as one. This is what we celebrate in the Pentecost and this is what enlivens us to take hold of the mission that we, the Church, the Body of Christ, are called to. – Amen

[1] Luke 4:18-19

[2] Statistics taken from DATA USA’s presentation of US Census Data Available at: https://datausa.io/profile/soc/212011

[3] Data taken from the Pew Research Center’s In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace. Available at: https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/

An Ascendant Mission – Lectionary 05/24/2020

Luke 24:44-53

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Acts 1:4-11

While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So, when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Sermon Text

The work of the Church is founded in the gift of the Spirit from the Father to us through the work of Christ, the Son of God. We have worked, over the past month, through how the Church has and has not found its way in the world. The work of the Church stands or falls based upon its dependence on God. We gather together and worship because God works, sometimes unseen, in our life. We prove our place in the Kingdom of God through our commitment to love for one another. We are able to love one another because we follow the example of Christ and the empowerment of the Spirit. We maintain our identity in the Spirit through Unity in the diversity of the body of Christ.

The final act of Christ on Earth was to depart to be bodily with the Father. The language used in Luke-Acts is designed to connect this exit with traditionally apocalyptic imagery. Jesus leaves swathed in clouds, a symbol of divine presence as old as the Exodus. The departure recalls the Son of Man and Ancient of Days of Daniel. This departure happens on the Mount of Olives, which Zechariah had placed as the point from which the Messiah would reenter Jerusalem. The final act of Christ on earth, the departure from Earth to Heaven and from being present among us to present with the Father, is not an ending in any sense, but a point of shift from which a definite continuation begins.

Christ leaves the disciples in a way that propels them forward. The are pushed, whether by a sheer outpouring of joy and praise or by the urging of an angelic messenger, to return to the city. The Son of God who had been killed and then raised, now is seated beside the Father. The first two definite marks of the Church’s beginning were established – the resurrection and ascension of Christ. Now the disciples only had to wait for the final sign, the arrival of the Spirit, the fulfillment of Christ’s parting promises that he would be with them always.

The arrival of the Spirit is not all that is promised to us in Luke-Acts account of Jesus’ departure. Christ implicitly gives us a strong statement about where we can find strength in our pursuit of our mission. The mission of the church is Ascendant, it aspires to climb to higher and higher heights. It is never sufficient that it should settle, even in rest it must be on the move. Upward spirals of activity follow the path of Christ’s life and work so that we who are humbled in our baptism work toward new heights of goodness and pride, not in ourselves, but in the transformation which has been worked within us.

Throughout the Gospels, and indeed the New Testament as a whole, the presence of Jesus at the right hand of God is what allows our life to be lived out as it presently is. Our prayers are heard directly by God, but also our concerns are lifted up by Christ who advocates for us. The Ascension is not the endnote of Jesus’ ministry, it is a continuation of what Jesus’ ministry has been up to this point. The descent of Christ to be among us in the incarnation established the permanent fusion of divinity and humanity. In ascending that fusion was put in a new context. Like how divinity entered humanity in a unique way in the incarnation, the ascension allowed humanity to enter into the divine realm.

We continue on as people who are caught between realities. We do not yet see the fullness of Heaven and Earth brought together, but the Spirit within us attests to this reality. The greatest proof of this possibility spent time among us and lived out an entire life exactly as we did. Then that proof went before God and remains there to this day. The Church now fulfills the role that Christ once fulfilled on Earth – we are the visible sign of Christ until Christ returns, the proof of Heaven and Earth combined. We are the sign of God’s presence in the world, and our presence must be an active one. The change of our hearts, the realization of those divine characteristics, if they do not produce activity then it is only a change of appearance not substance that we have experienced.

Oftentimes we internalize the mission of Christ as something that changes us and then stands still. We are saved from damnation or from our own evil and then we are content to have that be our story. If we branch out beyond this, we often do so in mild ways. We may share about our faith, ideally in the positive but often in the negative. We should speak to the wonders of God working in our life, but we are no strangers to identifying our faith through negating other worldviews. If a poll was put out to people on the street, it would likely be easier for people to name what the Church is believed to be against than what it is for. The things it traditionally abstains from stand out more than the things it seeks after.

Yet, we are people called to go out and preach the Gospel. A Gospel that saves not only in the next life, not in the World to Come alone, but in this life and this world. We are people who preach a message that dares to say that the Last are First and the First are Last. We cannot simply say what we believe but must also live it out. Though we cannot define ourselves through antagonism, but we stand in contrast to the world around us. The Church is an alternative to all systems of power and order, Jesus establishes a Kingdom which is like no other.

The implicit promise of the Ascension is established in Jesus’ words to the disciples on the Mount of Olives. They ask if Israel is to be restored, Rome deposed and the Davidic Kingship re-established, and Jesus redirects their thinking. “It is not yours to know the times or periods God has established…” We do not need to know what comes next and usually have no idea. If anyone sitting here today claimed that they knew where we would be today six months ago, they would be lying. The disciples in this moment did not understand the next step of the Church’s mission either. They had no idea what their journeys would consist of.

Jesus tells them that there will be two sure things. The Spirit will come to them and that will allow them to complete their mission – that is the first sure things. No less important is the statement that is given in Jesus’s apparent negation of their question, “It is not for you to know the time or periods God has established…” That implies that God has planned ahead what the Church should do. There is no mission we can undertake that God does not already have ideas about. The Spirit is not shocked by circumstance, the Son is not put off by our requests, because the Father has prepared works for us from before Creation.

This section uses two words for time which we translate as, “time,” and, “periods.” The first word, κρονους describes time generally, every individual moment. The second word, καιρους is a word that refers to an appointed time, something which is planned ahead of time. This second word is usually taught as being, “God’s time,” (καιρος,) however kairos just means an opportune or preplanned instance. The text allows us to read it in two ways – that we do not know what God has put before us, either in the moment to moment existence we live or in the set events of the future, but neither do we know our own plans, our own experience of time.

Plans are changed constantly. Trips planned years in advance can be canceled because of rain. Budgets are reworked because of unexpected expenditures that are nonetheless necessary. Ministries are reworked because needs or resources change. Even in smaller affairs, we do not know what will happen. If we walk into the kitchen and eat some grapes we cannot know if they will be sour or sweet. Our best predictions and models fall apart regularly. We may, through experimentation and experience, make better and better projections of things to come, but until we live in a moment it is a mystery to us.

Of all that we see in the Ascension of Christ, there are few things as reassuring as this brief statement. No matter how we choose to understand God’s sovereignty over time and space, the reality of God’s sovereignty remains. We are given freedom to act in our life. This freedom allows us to make right choices and wrong choices, to find ourselves on paths that lead to life and to decay. Yet that freedom is under observation, not so as to make our freedom into an illusion, but to see that we are never so far afield as to be completely lost.

The mission of the Church can never become completely derailed because God watches over it. Individuals within the Church, administrative systems within denominations, even entire congregations may lose track, but there is never a point of no return. God who sent them into the world initially never lost them, God who established the pillars of the Earth has authority enough to see all time, all seasons, to completion. God is not a tyrant that stands over us with an iron fist, but the established work of God is toward restoration. Even though we do not know the moment of our restoration, it is always there, prepared for us for when the time is right.

This does not mean that our life is guaranteed to be easy, living it properly means we will have our fair share of problems. It does not mean that we will always have a clear road ahead of us, obstacles will appear and twists will occur that we never could have anticipated. What it does mean is that we have the complete experience of our advocate working with us. Christ who lived out a life sufficient to know all that we may experience personally. The Spirit that inhabits us and testifies to us about Christ. The Father who sees the road ahead, every twist and turn it will take for us, and gives us grace upon grace enough to respond to it.

The mission of the Church is built off of the foundation of Christ, and like Christ its end point is the Heavens. In Christ’s incarnation Heaven came to Earth, in the Ascension Earth came to Heaven. When Christ returns Heaven and Earth will meet again, never to be separated ever again. In the meantime, we have this assurance, that even if we go astray, even if we lose the plot, God sees where we are, God can and will save us. The mission begun by God, will be finished by God. This is the nature of our faith.

A Nascent Promise – Feast of the Annunciation Observed

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Sermon Text

We come now to our Scripture. The celebration of the Annunciation is an ancient one. It was solidified in our Church calendars as being properly celebrated on the twenty-fifth of March, nine-months before December twenty-fifth and the celebration of Christ’s birth. While there is no actual date recorded in scripture for Christ’s birth, and subsequently of Christ’s conception, there is a tradition of the Church that dates back centuries. Following a Jewish belief at the time that a righteous man would die on the day he was conceived, the early tradition that Jesus was crucified on March twenty-fifth locked in place both the celebration of the Annunciation and Christmas.[1]

Today, though we have waited four days for our observance of it, we celebrate a feast day like no other. The first moment in which a person became a minister in the New Testament, the first moment that Christ was received by a person, the fist transmission of the Holy Spirit in the era of Christ’s earthy ministry. It begins in a simple moment, a conversation between two people in a small room in a small city. A private conversation with a universal impact – the moment that Mary is told of what her life is to become, and the moment that she accepts her place in God’s plan without reservation.

The Annunciation is the starting point of the Christian faith, the first obvious interaction of the entirety of the Godhead with creation. The arrival of the Word made flesh, the Anointing of Mary with the Spirit, as she received her blessing from the Father. The world was transformed as it had never been before – not by general and armies, not by Caesar or Herod, not even by priests, but by the faith of a woman that was sufficient for God to work within her.

What can come as a surprise to us, steeped in various Mariologies that either cast her as the Queen of Heaven or just some woman who happened to be in the right place at the right time for God to work through her. The Scripture does not ask us to make so much or so little of Mary. She is the only woman in the New Testament to speak prophetically. While Elizabeth blesses Mary and Anna is called a prophetess, Mary alone is given voice to shout her praise and prophecy of God. The prophecy that she gives later, the Magnificat, is one of the most powerful pronouncements in scripture – it challenges us to understand what God has done, is doing, and will do. It tells us about a God who is planning to shake up creation, to turn it on its head, to make things right at last.

However, the Magnificat is not where scripture takes us today. We see the moment, months before, in which the incidents that allow for this wonderful song of praise to be sung take place. An angel appears to Mary, tells her that she is going to have a child and that that child will be the Holy. Not only will they be Holy, but they will be called a “Son of God.” This title is used throughout scripture to mean one of two things – either that a person is an angel, as it is used in Genesis or else that they are a descendent of King David and therefore worthy of being called King.[2]

The second title Gabriel bestows upon Jesus is significantly rarer – calling him a “Holy One.” This title is given in some places to all of God’s people, elsewhere to specific anointed prophets, but most interestingly as a title for those who are directly representing God in a situation. Angels who speak for God are given this title, when it is presented in plural it refers usually to God in Godself.[3]

These two titles, one tying Jesus to being King, the other to Jesus being a prophet and envoy of God. They establish what role Jesus is to have in the world as its ruler and as its new mediator between God and God’s people. The angel speaks to Mary and assures her that her child is going to be a spectacular child.  Worthy of a lineage like King David’s, as magnificent as Moses and Elijah before him.

Mary hears all these things and we can imagine that like each of the encounters she has with prophets speaking to her, she contemplated them deep within herself. The reality of her coming pregnancy was now revealed to her. The complexity of her child’s future was laid out before her. The evidence of God’s power was presented in the pregnancy of her elderly relative Elizabeth. The wonders of God were all arranged now to culminate in a grand convergence that required pieces from all of time and space to act in concert – the incarnation of Christ had begun.

Mary provides us all a model for our own faith. From beginning to end of her appearance in scripture Mary is presented as a paradigm of what a faithful servant of God is to be like. She listens attentively to God, to questions God to learn more about God’s will, and she follows God when she is given a direction to go in. Throughout the rest of Luke 1 and 2 we see Mary interact with God directly. Not on a mountaintop like Moses had, not in a chariot of fire like Elijah had, not in terrifying visions. No… Mary saw none of these things when she saw God. Instead she saw God in a child, in her child, nestled up to her and dependent upon her.

God’s magnificent entry into a corporeal form was in the form of a fragile child. All the work of God in this new era of Christ was wrapped up in a child, and before it was wrapped in a child, it was wrapped in the waters of the womb. Jesus begins Jesus’ ministry prenatally. A nascent promise waiting for Advent among us.

Mary is pushed from her life in the city into the wilderness of her close relatives immediately after the angel’s proclamation. Perhaps seeking safety while her child gestates – we have to remember that her and Joseph are not yet married and that the law of the land makes this pregnancy dangerous for both of them. Mary travels to her relative Elizabeth, the one who has received her own miraculous child, and there Elizabeth sings for Joy that Mary has graced her with her presence. Elizabeth, who finally is going to have a child after years of waiting, pronounced Mary more blessed than she is. More than that, she says that Mary’s child is more blessed than any other child.

Upon reception of these words Mary sings a song which we know best as the “Magnificat,” literally meaning, “Magnifies,” from the first words of the prayer. “My soul magnifies the Lord.” This prayer lays out all the wonders of God. God’s taking down of the proud, God’s salvation of the meek and needy, God’s constancy in all conditions, the promises of God which never go unfulfilled. Mary, pushed into a place she does not know, receives support and blessing from someone else in the faith, and she is able then to fully realize what God is doing with her life.

Mary is a model for us because she is the first person to hold the promises of God within themselves. She was the first to have the Spirit transform her body into a temple of God. We are told through the letters of Paul that we too inhabit this state of being. While we are not pregnant with the physical Christ, we all contain within us the Spirit of God – the fullness of divinity wrapped in our flesh. We are not fully divine and fully human like Christ was, our nature is not one of twofold unity, but we are united to Christ’s divinity through Christ’s spirit. We all contain the fullness of Christ’s promise through the Spirit’s participation in our life.

At the beginning of our faith we all receive a word from God. “You will bear Christ into the world. You will tell others about him and show others what his love was like. You will speak against the proud and lift up the humble. You will bear the Most High because the Spirit is with you.” Still we often are unconvinced, “How can this be? I am no great orator, no speaker, no wonder worker. I have not done nearly enough to be worthy of this title – I’ll go even further and say I do not know how it is possible!”

Then comes the word from God, “I have made it possible for thousands of people for centuries. I have seen kingdoms rise and fall and yet I am present in my servants. See the wonders around you, and know that no word that comes from my mouth is impossible.” We hear this, we consent to be workers in God’s economy of grace – but can we really say that we have taken hold of the reality we are now in? Not until we come face to face with grace in action, not until the time is right for us to embrace our future. When we come into hardship and God’s grace appears to us in the kindness of another – in an Elizabeth who sees the blessing within us for what it is.

In that moment we are ready to declare what God has done and will do. “Lord! You who bring down the mighty you have chosen to work with us who are lowly. Lord! You who have kept your promises will not abandon us after saying you will protect us! Lord! You who have destroyed the thrones of power will lift up the poor and the powerless!” The promise which had up to this point been contained within is now free to go out into the world and grow. We, following Mary’s model, not only carry Christ but let Christ out into the world. The wonders that will be completed are let loose, and we in giving up our control join with Mary. In joy, in pain, in ministry, we follow the example of the first great evangelist – Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Amen

[1] Golden Legend, vol. 3, the Annunciation. C.f. De. Pascha Compututs. Pseudo-Cyprian. Latin Text available: https://scaife.perseus.org/reader/urn:cts:latinLit:stoa0104p.stoa009.opp-lat1:1-5/?highlight

[2] Psalm 2 reflects this relationship most clearly

[3] Gehman, Henry S. “‘Άγιος in the Septuagint, and Its Relation to the Hebrew Original.” Vetus Testamentum 4, no. 4 (1954): 337-48. Accessed March 23, 2020. doi:10.2307/1515813.

We are Witnesses – Feast of the Transfiguration – February 23, 2020

2 Peter 1:16-21

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.

So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Sermon Text

Repentance is the substance of the season we enter into now. Lent comes upon us and asks us to turn around, to come close to God and to recommit ourselves to God’s ways. Lent asks us to give up our selfishness, all those things we want but do not need. We do not do this so that we can look proud, we do not do this to look solemn or impressive, but to free ourselves to do the good work of Christ. The purpose of our earthly life is, after all, to chase God’s will and to truly embrace it. We are to be doers of God’s word, we are to be proclaimers of it, and we all have a responsibility to be witnesses to the goodness and power of God.

It can mean many things to call someone a witness. A witness in a trial speaks to the accuracy of a given situation – either confirming or dismissing the story of the participants in the trial. It would be hard to imagine a trial that did not call witnesses. The second use of witness is more common in Christian circles – it is to “testify,” about one’s faith. To do this is not simply to speak our doctrine, not simply displays of faith in public, but living a life worthy of our calling. This sort of testimony, called ματυρִַια in Greek, is where we get the word Martyr, those who demonstrated their faith even if, and often when, it included their torture and murder.

The sort of witnessing described in 2 Peter is something else though. The word used in this text-only occurs once in the New Testament, and only once in the Greek Old Testament – in a scenario in Esther with no Hebrew parallel. The word which is used means not to testify, not to stand in court, not even to act out faithfully in our calling to Christ. It describes Peter as an “eyewitness” literally as, “The one who looks upon.” Peter is not described here as something grandiose, he picks a rare and simple word. In choosing what to hang his hat on as an apostle of God he says quite simply, “I am an eyewitness to the Majestic Glory of Jesus.” Nothing more and nothing less.

In Peter’s context, the reason for this distinction is important. While we have no idea the particular problem facing the community addressed in 2 Peter, we know that there is a dispute between true and false teachings. Some people connect this to the work of the Judaizers we read about in Galatians, others to the Gnostic heresies which emerged in early Christianity. Reading through the text we do not have to be so specific, we do not have to cleave to either theory. There is a simplicity to this text which is rare in the New Testament. If we let it, this text gives us one of our simplest understandings of the work of the Church, but only if we do not get lost in its esoterics.

Peter is telling his congregations, in the face of a multitude of Christian witnesses that were swirling around them, how to discern good and bad teachings. The letter goes at length in its later chapters about what kind of things false prophets do and what they bring, but in this chapter, he sets up criteria that we can follow not only in identifying what is good teaching but in making sure that we speak and preach the word of God properly. Put in a few words Peter hangs his own authority on two things: the plain facts of his life and the authority of the Old Testament.

To this first point, Peter looks to the moment that defined his ministry. We, as people who have all the Gospels, Epistles, and traditions of the Church, know most of Peter’s biographical information. His call by the sea of Galilee, his walking on water, his denial, his repentance, his ministry in Rome and eventual crucifixion. Of all these moments, 2 Peter puts forward an often-overlooked moment in Peter’s life as his most formative. The Mountain of Transfiguration.

At the Transfiguration, God was fully revealed in the person of Jesus. Christ appeared fully radiant, was declared beloved once again by God the Father, and spoke to the prophets, Moses and Elijah. Here Peter saw his worlds collide. The teacher he knew and befriended was confirmed as the God who created him. The prophets he studied and whose God he worshipped stood in obvious communion with Christ. The mountain, hereto unknown and nondescript, now transformed for him into a “Holy Mountain.” This moment was what secured the faith of Peter and made it clear to him he was right in following Christ.

Still, his vision was not complete. Like when we stare at a bright light and find ourselves blinded for a moment, Peter was not able to understand fully what all this would mean. He wanted to build Jesus and the prophets a dwelling place, but they already had one above. He wanted to stay on the mountain and dwell in the glory of God like Moses had before him, but he needed to return into the world. He saw Jesus as God, yet when the time came would still deny him to save himself. The burning flame of revelation, pure and undiluted, was something he was not ready to fully take in.

The second defining aspect of Peter’s life was his leaning of the scripture of God. One of the first things that the Church tried to do once it became largely Greek was to remove itself from its Jewish siblings. Judaism was often considered a threat to the authorities of the Roman Empire, but it was incredibly popular among its citizenry. Christians, therefore, found it necessary to distance themselves from Judaism to avoid attracting fair weather converts who might betray them. Alternatively, and just as often, Greek Christians found the Jews to be uncouth, not as civilized as they were. Plain racism was often a part in motivating the anti-Semitism that came to define the Early Church.

However, leaders in the Early Church tried to prevent this. Here Peter is calling upon his congregations to stay beside rather than abandon Judaism’s contributions to the faith. Why is this? Because they were people through whom God spoke. The words of the prophets throughout history were from God, unquestionably and without room for discussion. This does not mean that people would not react differently or interpret them differently, but that in terms of interpreting the source the Hebrew Scripture the plain truth was that it was not born, “of human will, but [of] men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”

While these two concepts seem at times remote to us they should not be. No one is alive today who saw the transfiguration, no one is alive who saw Christ in his earthly ministry. Likewise, we seldom have to argue over whether or not we will include the Old Testament in our canon of Scripture, although such things do happen from time to time. No, we cannot put ourselves directly in the place of Peter’s congregation, but we are allowed for a moment to see how we can testify to Christ here and now. We are not eyewitnesses to the Transfiguration, but we are eyewitnesses to Christ all the same.

We have stories in our lives of God acting on our behalf. Moments that do not make sense unless someone guided them to happen. We have transformation in our character, habits and hates that we abandoned because of God. God breaking in, chasing us down, working within our hearts. These moments do not have to be grandiose. Most of them aren’t. We all wish we could have moments like the Transfiguration when God in all of God’s glory stands before us. We all wish we could look Jesus in the eye, ask him questions, yell at him when he doesn’t make sense, eat with him, laugh with him. Despite this wish, God usually works more quietly within our hearts. The subtle push in one direction or another. The voice from nowhere that makes us second guess the word we are about to say or the thing we are about to do.

God is not often appearing in flame on a Holy Mountain. God is appearing in those who teach us to be better. In the person we cannot stand who we have learned to love. In the moments of pain and darkness where the candle of our hope just won’t go out. Peter’s message to us is not that we need to have seen “Majestic Glory,” to speak of our faith. Peter is instead saying that when we speak to others we do not need long elaborate stories to tell, because the only ones that will matter are the real ones that have happened to us. The eyewitness testimony of our day to day is what brings the Kingdom of God into the world.

It was common following Jesus’ ascension for fables to be written that told fantastical stories about Jesus. Jesus as a child repelling dragon, Jesus as a teenager helping his father build houses through miracles, a talking cross coming out and telling the disciples Jesus is now in heaven. These were all circulating at the time this letter is written. To all this Peter makes it clear, stories may help us see truth, but they are only stories. He says, “I come to you not with stories of dragons and talking crosses, but with the plain truth that I saw Jesus do wonders. Not only did I see the wonders of Jesus, but I threw them all out. I abandoned Jesus the first second I got, and you know what, he still took me back. I, Peter, the rock of Christ’s Church, am a screwup, I am a hardheaded idiot, but I am beloved of God and an Apostle of the Church.”

Not one person in this room has a story that is not worth telling. Not one act of God in your life is too small to not bring the full power of the Gospel to light. The irony of the transfiguration is that each and every one of us, through the work of Christ, are now vessels of the Holy Spirit. Within us is God, the full glory of God, the Morning Star which rises in our Hearts. The Spirit within, that Majestic Glory that Peter saw, it will make us shine in our due time. When we speak the truth about what God has done for us, with no exaggeration or downplaying, we speak not of human will, but as people moved to speak by God’s Spirit. So, we must follow the Spirit, we must be transformed, but above all, we must speak the story, our story, that the Spirit has given us. – Amen

Light in the Darkness – Presentation of our Lord 2020

Luke 2:22-40

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles  and for glory to your people Israel.”

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Sermon Text

    Light is one of the primary symbols of the Church. It is also one that we have let be stolen away from us. We surround ourselves with light. Florescent bulbs fill our work places, our houses are covered in screens and bulbs, lamps and appliances that all blink or shine out. We are wrapped in photons, we do not know what it is to be lost in the dark. Whenever we are left in the dark, we find ourselves unable to cope. We keep candles and flashlights in emergency drawers to make sure that we never find ourselves without light.

    In making light commonplace we have created two tendencies of our mind. Firstly, we create a place in our life where we cannot function outside of the brightness we surround ourselves with. Even for those of us who like to sit in the dark sometimes, our enjoyment of the dark is usually dependent on our ability to end it at any time. The power we have over the dark removes its sting. Secondly, by surrounding ourselves always with light we have made it so that we cannot understand what light has meant to people historically. When we read metaphors that describe God as a light at our feet, or as the light in the darkness of the world, we have no concept of true darkness.

    The destruction of light symbolically carries beyond our literal usage of light in worship or our homes. In our spiritual lives we have wrapped ourselves us in truism and comforting feelings to the point that when we enter into a place of distress, we have no idea what to do. We have understood our Christianity as a thing that makes life easy, that removes anxiety from our life, that means we will always feel the presence of God beside us. We have lit so many lights around ourselves – lights of comforting words without substance – that when they go out we have no idea how to make our way in the dark. Yet, for many of us, the dark encroaches more often than we would like.

    For the faithful person the light of Christ is not always obvious. For the faithful person the light of Christ may seem far off and impossible to grasp. For the faithful person, assurance is not always just a bible citation away. Our faith is not made up of peaks of celebration, it is not an endless song of praise, it is oftentimes a place of pain and confusion, misunderstandings and questions. Like any relationship, it is defined by the hurt as much as the help we feel in our life. 

    Our scripture today tells us the story of two people who sat in a place of darkness. Each one a person of faith, but at the same time each one acutely aware of their position. One is given a voice, the other is kept silent – two responses we all face in those moments where we wait for Christ to come shine light into our life. Christ appears to both the silent and the loud, to man and woman, and as Simeon reveals, to foreigner and national. 

    Simeon is the first to speak, and the person who receives the most discussion from scholars. We know that his entire life has been waiting for God to end the Roman occupation of his people. He has waited for a Messiah to redeem him and his people. God promised him that redemption was his, and all he had to do was wait. As long as he waited he could depend on the eventuality of the Messiah. And he waited, and he waited, and he waited.

    The Song of Simeon which we receive in verse 29 is Simeon responding to Christ after years without him. Knowing in his heart that God had not forgotten him, feeling the Spirit working in him, but nonetheless unable to see the deliverance of God. Simeon is only seen in scripture shouting his peace, “Lord, now you are releasing your servant in peace!” But the words of that prayer are telling… Now Lord, in this instant, at long last, I can depart in peace. Simeon lived a life full of service to God, of love of God, but only now was able to see God. A light in the darkness, a light of revelation for all nations.

    Anna likewise tells us a silent story of waiting for God. We are told that she was a servant of God, a prophet who inhabited the Holy city. The scripture uses a convoluted formulation to tell us how long she had waited, fully dependent on God. While our translation read today says she was a widow of 37 years, and that she was now 84, a better reading of the text is as follows. “She had been 37 when he was widowed, and for 84 years she lived as a widow.” In other words, Anna was about 105 years old at the time she met Jesus.

    Anna lived for 84 years as a widow. Though we cannot understand this today, widows in the ancient world had nothing to keep them safe. If they had children then they were obligated to care for her, but many widows were also childless. Her position as prophetess suggests she is one such widow. She lived with little to no income, she lived with only the Temple to protect her, she lived with the Spirit of God speaking through her, but only as much providence as could get her to the next day. Never more food than was set before her, never more security than the little bit the courts of the Temple would provide. 

    Anna is given no word of dialogue. She is said to have been worshipping God day and night. She fasted and prayed. Despite her seeming lack of words she had a faith few could match. Though she is silent, she is presented as more openly faithful. While Simeon gives us a prayer to pray, his life was one of weariness – Christ appearing to him was the relief he needed to finally come to rest. While Anna was silent, her life was one of outward focuses worship – Christ appearing was to her the moment she could rejoice most fully, the fulfillment of a life lived loudly.

    The darkness of our life is not created so that we can see the light. The bad in life does not exist so we can acknowledge the good. However, if we are honest we will see the darkness around us. We try hard to live lives removed from pain or doubt or worry, but it is still there. The reality of darkness is not a tool to teach us to love the light better, but when we acknowledge it we will love light nonetheless. Consider how, when we leave the lights of even our rural existence, when we go deep into the mountains and see the stars spread out across the skies. The best I ever heard the night sky described is by Joseph Fink, “We understand the lights… We understand the lights But the sky behind those lights, mostly void, partially stars, that sky reminds us: We don’t understand even more.” That Christ shines into the darkness of our life means that there is one thing we can understand – warmth and love, Eternity and the Present, body and blood. Even as we find ourselves awash in trouble, in a world we cannot understand, we have peace and potentiality.

    Today as we gather to celebrate the Eucharist we come to see Christ. The bread and juice consecrated and broken is for us the presence of God among us. Can we, in our confession and our prayer in this moment, remove the artificial light we have surrounded ourselves with? Can we cast aside fluorescent platitudes and incandescent truism and let ourselves admit that, for some of us, we currently stand in darkness? For some of us the wait has been long, and for some of us we have just now found ourselves in the void. Wherever we are, in dark or in light, let us come close to Christ and look to his light. A light for revelation to all people, and consolation for the beloved of God. 

To Fulfill All Righteousness – Baptism of our Lord 2020

Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Sermon Text

Baptism is that act which brings a Christian into the full communion with the Church. When we are washed in the waters, whether that be by a full dip into a river or by effusion of water over our heads, we join with Christ in the reality of a new Kingdom. The waters leave us dead to the world, alive in Christ. We are killed, after-all Baptism means “drowning,” as much as it does “dipping”. But we are also reborn. The waters of the font becoming the waters of a new womb, a birth into a life removed from our previous sins.

As a sign of God’s grace, no one is barred from receiving baptism. Any adult who earnestly pursues a repentant life is ready to be washed. Any infant who is born is immediately prepared for baptism, God’s grace cannot be denied to someone because of age. From the cradle to the grave, all can be washed. A final declaration of the death of our former selves and the start of a new life. In our washing there is a simultaneous proclamation of God’s work and our acceptance there-of. God moving like the waters around us, God taking away sin as water washes away dirt.

The church has practiced baptism uninterrupted for two thousand years. Occasionally sects emerge to try and minimize the practice. Other groups, many which are popular today, will try and explain to people how, “You know, you say you were baptized, but that’s not true.” This latter camp insists that full immersion is required, or that infant baptism is not really baptism, or that baptism outside of a single denomination is false. These all place the wrong sort of emphasis, they all make human beings the primary actors in baptism. The only thing needed for a baptism is a person, a minister, some water, and the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” all other acts and words are secondary.

As with anything in human life we do not go into this alone. The sacrament of baptism is a participation in God’s grace which we see modeled for us in the life of Christ. Jesus does not tell us to be baptized from on high without showing us the significance of it. The Baptism of Jesus is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry on Earth. It is the example of our own pursuit of baptism. It is also one of the most debated facts of Jesus’ life.

Why would Jesus, the Incarnate God, the Divine Logos, the Sinless sacrifice, need to be washed in a baptism of repentance? Baptism is for sinful humans, not the sinless Messiah. What is Jesus up to by being baptized by John in the Jordan? The various answers given by this have led to controversies and heresies galore. Whenever we look to the life of Christ, we see a way made for us to walk. Whether or not we all agree what the way is not always clear. To quote a mentor of mine, “Wherever two or three are gathered, there will be four or five opinions.”

The washing of Jesus in the Jordan, like most things in our understandings of God, must be defined by what it is not before we can understand what it is. We know that it cannot be that Jesus needed to repent of Sin, after all we believe that Jesus, “who knew no sin, became sin, that we might become the righteousness of God.” This cannot be, as some say, the first time that Jesus experiences the Holy Spirit either, because we believe that Jesus was, “conceived of the Holy Spirit,” and more importantly Jesus being God could not cut himself off from himself. Finally, we know that Jesus is not saying that John is the authority in this situation, not only because of John’s own words, but because we baptize today in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – not in the name of John the Baptizer.

In these three ways Jesus’ baptism does not reflect our baptism. Unlike Jesus our baptism is a sign of sin being washed away, it is a sign of our reception of God’s spirit, and it is fully given in the name of the Trinity. Jesus was not baptized so that Christ could be made Holy, but that we through imitation of Christ’s baptism could become Holy. As with so many things, our ability to enjoy the presence of God, the work of God, all comes from Jesus first taking the journey for us, paving a way through the wilderness of our sin.

Jesus the sinless son of God was washed in the Jordan. An act which, some of the early church said, was enough to make all water Holy. Jesus established baptism as the first step of entering into the church, only pursuing his ministry after his own baptism. The waters that pour over Jesus’ head, the immersion that he experiences, is not just a precedent but it is the very form of baptism. In Jesus’ baptism all people can be baptized, in Jesus’ proclamation of God’s work we all proclaim God’s work.

When we are baptized we die to our life and are reborn. We are not reborn as an individual, but into community. We cease to be motivated by our own wants and our own appetites and care only for what Christ would have us participate in. Our baptism is a one time event, a single moment in which a new life begins. However, like so much in our life as Christians – that single moment is a fulcrum on which our life can turn round itself. The washing we once received, the promises we make in dying to ourselves. When we feel lost or lose track of the way ahead of us. We can look to Christ as our example, and there is no better place to start than the beginning. With some water, with some words, with the Spirit declaring us, “Children of God.” – Amen

One God, Three Loves – Trinity Sunday 2019

Romans 5:1-5
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

John 16:12-15
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason, I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

Sermon Text

Today we as the Church universal celebrate the Holy Trinity. The mysterious unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three persons in one being, one being made of one substance, true God of true God from eternity to eternity. The Trinity is something which is not often directly spoken about from the pulpit – except to say that it exists and that it is important. It is too easy a thing to get wrong, and oftentimes those of us standing behind the pulpit are afraid that in our hubris we will mislead rather than enlighten our congregations.

Believing in the triune God as we do, I hope that our time today will enlighten us all, and we will learn a little bit more about the God we love. That the Spirit is present among us in such a way that even when our discussion inevitably falls short in describing the way that God lives, works, and loves – it still will bear good fruit. Let us trust together, that this work of the Spirit will be evident in our time together.

Our discussion of the Trinity begins in the Gospel of John, the wordiest and most confusing of the gospels. Whenever John described Jesus, he was not afraid to do so as if the person reading fully understood what he meant. He throws around complex formulas of how God is one with Christ is one with the Spirit are all present with us and far away, as if it was so obvious that a child could understand what he meant.

In particular our passage for today tackles the way in which God relates through Jesus, and by extension, how we relate to God. God the Father, the capital L-O-R-D of the Old Testament is unknowable to us. The invisible Spirit described earlier in John, invisible to our eyes and worshipped without idols or images. That we know God at all is only through God’s mercy, through the giving of God’s Spirit to the prophets in the Old Testament, and to all of us now.

When we accept Christ into our life, we receive the Holy Spirit. Even the most unworthy among us is transformed in an instant into a temple of God. The work of Christ on the cross is more than enough to make us worthy of this reception, not because of anything we have done – but because of God’s intense love for us. The prophets of Old would have the spirit come upon them and leave them, but we are assured that while there may be times the Spirit leads us more directly, we always have the Holy Spirit working within us.

This Spirit was how Christ, incarnate in a limited human body, was able to commune with his Father in heaven. Praying in the desert, calling on the power of his triune existence to work wonders, all this was done in the power of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that the Holy Spirit is only a divine telephone, but that the Spirit is a person who bridges gaps. When Christ was on Earth, he was still near to God, because the Spirit inhabited him, the Spirit conceived him, the Spirit never left him until his work was completed on Golgotha.

God works completely together with Godself. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit never take turns out of step from one another. When the Spirit visited Mary, it did so with Christ and the Father. When Christ healed the sick, it was done with the Father and in the Spirit. When the Father declared, “This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him.” Christ was not surprised, and the Spirit endorsed the messaged whole heartedly.

This is what is meant in today’s Scripture. Christ sends the Spirit to the disciples through the Pentecost event. The Spirit dwells in the Church, telling them all the instructions which originate from the Father and the Son. Christ is glorified through the Spirits revelation; The Father is glorified in the revelation of Christ and the teachings of the Spirit. The mutual relationship, the sharing of glory, all these things originate not only because one member of the Trinity supports the other, but because all three work for the mutual benefit of the other. God is three persons, but they are never divided.

Paul, in our other scripture, put things a bit more clearly – something which he was surprisingly good at. Paul describes we of the Church as having received Peace with the Father because of our faith in Christ. Whatever kept us away from, or at odds with, the Father is erased by the work of the Son. The Son, in suffering and dying, acted in solidarity with us, this transformed our suffering from a mindless thing we are put through, to something that potentially could unite us to God – not by design, but because God was willing to suffer beside us. Finally, all this was made possible because the Holy Spirit poured out love into our hearts. We would not know the work of God, we would not respond to the Gospel of Christ, if the Spirit did not first open up our hearts to that message.

The Spirit initiates our contact with God, because the Son died for our sins, to reconcile us to the Father. Are we confused enough? It is perfectly ok if we are. We are dealing with the infinite, the indescribable, and the utterly worshipped God of creation. We do not believe in a God that neatly fits into a box, or three boxes, or one triangular box with three spaces in it. We believe in a God that is bigger, more wonderful, and more magnificent than we can imagine.

Now, at this point the question necessarily arises. We have talked about theology, we have talked about how God works together at all times which, by the way, is called the communicatio idiomatum by those who like to make simple concepts a bit more complicated with Latin. Having established that such a thing exists though, we can now begin to translate the work of God into our lives with one another.

What stands out in how God interacts with each member of the Trinity is the way that they work together for the good of one another. The Father glorifies the Son glorifies the Spirit. The Father loves the Son loves the Spirit. We in the Church must too model this way of living together. Do we act together to benefit one another? Do we try to unite, not necessarily in opinion or in preference, but in mission and in love? That is what the Trinity, in its simplest understanding means for us – that we are to work together in love to love one another.

There is no fighting for supremacy in the Godhead. There is no arguing over who could do what job the best, but there is humility and there is a willingness to listen. The Spirit listens to the Father, the Son listens to the Spirit, the Father answers the Son, and so on and so on. When we work together, imagine if rather than fighting to be the hero of the mission, or to have work done our way, we listened and learned and loved.

There are two metaphors which, while not perfect, capture what the Divine work can look like in the Church. The first is that of a dance. I, when I was much smaller and a bit more energetic, was a dancer. The key to any piece was knowing that you were only as important as the role you were given. Among dancers of equal status, it did not matter if you took a back seat in one movement, because you would later become the centerpiece of another. The day for every dancer came in which they were under the spotlight, but each member was necessary to complete the dance.

The second imagery is perhaps more suitable for today, and that is one of a family. Specifically, a family in which the child is an adult and therefore on a fairly equal playing field with their parents. The Child defers to the experience and authority of the parent, the parent respects the autonomy of the child, but ideally the two work together – not one fighting to control the other, but so that the two are both happy in community with one another.

We of the church are given a difficult job. We are not only to love those who are easy to love – our family, our friends – but the most difficult people – coworkers, unpleasant neighbors, even the people we don’t like in the pew across the church. The family of the faithful is not the perfect unity of the trinity, even on its best day – but it is supposed to aspire toward it. The work of God in our life is the only thing that allows for it.

Christ sent the Spirit to dwell among us, we are filled with the Love of God. We can produce among one another the same Love that God has felt from before creation. The love that eternally begets the Son and sends forth the Spirit. The Love that was willing to die on Calvary and the Love that brought our savior back three days later. Do we love our neighbors? Do we love the poor? Do we love the sick? Do we love those who are different than us politically and culturally? Do we love those of other races and nationalities?

That God exists in community, not as three copies of the same person, but three distinct persons in one, means that we must love the distinct people around us. Especially those that are in the body of Christ which we call the Church. If we believe that we are literally subsumed somehow into Christ, then we cannot live in discord or in hate of one another. If we hate other Christians, if we let ourselves get caught up in worldly conflicts without substance, then we are not imitators of God, and we glorify only ourselves.

What we must aspire to, and what our discussion ends on today, is the love which God shows every day. Every day you wake up, regard it as the Son giving us life on Easter. Every time you pray, as the Spirit being poured upon you at Pentecost, and every time you show another person love, as the Father opening his arms the same way he did when you first believed. Only if we can resemble the community which God innately is, can we truly become a Church rooted in the work and the love of Christ. – Amen.

The Witnesses of the Ascension – Lectionary 06/02/2019

Luke 24:44-49

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you–that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Acts 1:1-11

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Sermon Text

Are we standing on a road looking up? When Jesus talked to the disciples outside of Bethany, he promised them the Spirit, he gave them a charge to be witnesses of the Gospel in al the world, and the moment he ascended… They stood there, looking up. How long would they have stood there? How long would they have waited for Christ to come back down and “restore the Kingdom.”?

There is a popular saying in the church today that we often become,“ So heavenly minded that we can do no earthly good.” The church has always had to balance the now and the later, the Kingdom of God that is and the Kingdom of God that will be. However, in saying that we are standing on the road outside of Bethany , I do not want us to be left for a moment thinking it is bad to be waiting for Christ. If we are honest with ourselves, we can see that in the same way we can be so heavenly minded we cease to do earthly good, we also can become so worldly in our understanding that we lose the power of the ascension.

When the angels at the end of our scripture speak to the disciples, the disciples are caught up in a moment of adoration, not in idleness. They have seen Jesus miraculously taken up to be with the Father, something so holy and mysterious has just happened so that they must praise God. Luke tells this story in such a way that the ascension is directly tied to worship, “They were continuously in the temple blessing God.”

No one will say that it is sinful to worship God, and I fear that we often in our discussion of what is worship of God what is work for the Kingdom of God create an unnecessary dichotomy. When we gather together in a church and praise God, then we are not doing any less a work of the kingdom than when we feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Ranking the work of the church so that one act is better than another is not helpful. However, again, we must acknowledge that we are called to serve others, not simply to sing hymns in churches locked off to the rest of the world.

The work of the church is not just in one act, nor is one act of the church above another. What we must understand is that the church is not called to simply, “work” we are called to “witness.” To witness is the biblical sense is not just to see something, or even to report that you have seen it, but to take that information and do something with it. A biblical witness says, “This is what God has done in my life, and this is what I have done in response to that work of God.

To be a witness is not to take the work out of God’s hands, but to continue on in participating with God in God’s work in your life. It is not a testimony to a single work of God, but the eternal ongoing work of the risen Christ. To bring it directly to the scripture, it is not just watching Christ ascend, but it is worshiping the same Christ in the temple. Not just worshipping the Christ who is present at the supper, but in waiting for the Spirit to come on Pentecost.

To be a witness we must be in the temple praising God, we must be in the places we live and work testifying what God has done, but we must also follow the lead of God’s spirit beyond our words. It is fine to preach, and it good to pray, but a love that does not follow forward in righteous action will naturally burn away. In much the same way that a friend who you only ever talk about doing something with will become less and less close of a friend, a God who you only ever talk about doing work with will become a part of your life only in the past tense.

We can praise God for what God has done, we can pray that God will act in the future, but what are we doing in the now? Are we looking up to heaven expecting Christ to come back this moment – ignoring the instructions we were left with, or are we staring at the dirt thinking about what “we” have to do so that “we” can save the world? There is danger in both, and the challenge of the Christian life is to find a way to open ourselves to worshipping and praising God for what God has, is, and will be doing as well as participating in that work through our witnessing of Christ in the world. To witness Christ, we must first see Christ.

The acts of Christ are the visible works of the invisible God. When we see Christ praying in the desert, we see God’s ability to communicate and bless Godself. When we see Jesus reading the gospel in the temple, we see God’s self-revelation to us. In Christ’s ministry to the least of these, we see God’s work constantly opening the doors of the Church to more and more people.

We are meant to become more like Christ, and more like God Therefore, when we witness God, we must follow through and act in the same way. We must go and pray to God, not only when people can see, but as a personal show of love and faith to God. We must proclaim God’s work in our lives in our congregations and out into the world. We must go into the world, we must reach out to people we never thought to before and proclaim God’s work – not as people who are trying to defend God or strong arm people into faith – but as witnesses of a risen God who has done wonders in our life.

What comes out of authentic witness? We can look to any number of the Saints that have gone before us, but today let us think on the life of Stephen, the first person to witness to the coming of Christ’s kingdom through their death. It is because of people like Stephen that we today have the word, “martyr” itself a word taken directly from the Greek for “witness,” (ματυς)

Stephen came into the Church sometime after Pentecost. He was a Greek-speaking Christian, likely a Hellenistic Jew before his conversion. Stephen enters into the Biblical narrative during a dispute between the Greek and Hebrew widows. The Hebrew widows, whether by accident or design, were being overlooked in the distribution of food. The disciples were called in to weigh in on the matter, and their final decision was to appoint several workers to make sure that food was given to who it was owed without any preference to one race or another.

The Disciples understood something better than we ever could, namely that Christ’s work cannot be completed across diverse peoples unless diverse people are involved. The leaders of the church were made aware of the problems with Greek and Hebrew Christians and the ways that Greek women were being denied basic supplies, and they immediately got Greek Christians involved in the distribution of goods. Seldom can you properly do ministry for people well, but you will rarely do ministry with people poorly.

Stephen worked in the distribution of food for a time, preaching and doing wonders while he did so. We are told of Stephen’s work in preaching and miracles after we are told about his work in food ministry. Moreover, we are told that it was the sharing of goods which caused the church to grow, not the preaching or miracles alone, although the two are not easily separated.

Stephen’s preaching is what finally got him placed before the Sanhedrin. Working miracles among the people made him unpopular with the ruling class. When miracles are made the property of all people, and not just the religious elite – there will be those who push back against it. However, like any person who truly does good work in the Kingdom, when Stephen was put before the Sanhedrin, they could not find any legitimate claim against him. He is, after all, described as having, “A face like an angel.”

Stephen would later be killed for his works. The world rejects the work of God, especially when it crosses social boundaries. His death was the death of an innocent, someone who only did what the lord required. However, it was a life that showed us what it was to be a witness of Christ to the end. He did the work of the church, testified the truth of God, worshipped God in all fullness, and stood his ground even to the point of death. He witnessed Christ in resembling Christ directly from beginning to end.

The work of the church is the work of witnessing. We as a gathered people must go forward and do the complete work of our witness. Ministering to the least of these, proclaiming Christ fully alive and arisen, and testifying to the work of Christ within our lives. God is, at every step, the author of our lives, we are only the willing characters walking along that path. When we take a step, we must be confident God will catch are foot when it comes back down. We will not slip if we stay to that path, whether we suffer or face all manner of hardships, we can prevail.

Are we looking up, standing on the roads outside of Bethany? We are not. Are we counting pebbles that will erode away to nothing? We are not doing this either. We are a church testifying the work of God in the world. We are that work given motion. Let us keep our heart in heaven, our eyes toward our neighbor, and our hands constantly to the work which God has given us. – Amen.

 

A God of Scandal – The Feast of the Annunciation 2019

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom, there will be no end.”

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be since I am a virgin?”

The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Sermon Text

Did you know the feast of the Annunciation was during Lent? I did not.  Where else would you put it though, except nine months before Christmas? This is also, according to some traditions, the original date of good Friday. The idea being that a good man could only die on the date he was conceived, which is one of many contributing factors to Christmas being on the twenty-fifth.

I start with this aside to the timing of the Annunciation because we often place the story of the Annunciation in a similar category to Christmas, that is to call it an offshoot of older pagan myths that Christians adopted, so the argument goes, to integrate into wider pagan society. What if though, they were not just leitmotifs? What if the Annunciation was not a copy paste edit job, but a unique event in history? I’m speaking of a God who is willing to enter into history and subvert our expectations of what God will do.

God calls upon a poor girl, likely a teenager, and tells her that she is to give birth to a king. God, unlike the Zeus or Poseidon, does not achieve this through sexual violence but by a work of the Spirit. God, rather than conceiving within Mary a king who will conquer gives her a king who will die. God came down in the Annunciation and worked compassion and opened the Godhead to human suffering. Nothing about this was an imitation game, but at every turn was a sign of a God who loved us, a God who was willing to upset the status quo for the inauguration of the Kingdom.

That Mary responds to this, a terrifying but astounding mission with such willingness is daunting. This, by all accounts, little girl stands up to a community that would have her stoned as an adulteress. She has to face her fiancée and tell him that she is pregnant, but don’t worry it’s God’s kid no one else’s. She has to face doubt, she has to give herself to years and years of venomous looks and conspiratorial neighbors whispering every time she crosses the yard. She does not know there will be a flight to Egypt, for all she knows she will raise this child with everyone looking to her as a slut and her child as a bastard.

These terms stand out to us because of their evil. To call Mary a slut or Jesus a bastard makes us flinch, we’ve cleaned up the story so that we do not have to think about how all this looked. Yet, when we look out at mother’s raising children alone, no husband, how quick are we to throw these and much more disgusting language around. The single mother is irresponsible, the child is seen as an object of pity or a scarlet let, and no one takes a moment to extend love to either. Or, if someone is willing to love them, do they do so halfheartedly and with a holy pretention to them?

God chose to come into this world in scandal, and the lesson to us was that no matter what the circumstances of someone’s birth – their mother and themselves ought to be seen as blessed. The face of Christ is seen in the faces of the least of these, every one of the least of these.

Rather than looking upon this uncertain and terrifying future with dread, Mary shows us why she will be called, “Blessed among women,” she praises God that she takes part in this scandal of incarnation. Oh, Mary, did you know? Sure seems like she did…

Mary counts this child and all the struggles that will come with it, as a joy. God, she says, “has looked in favor on his humble servant… Has done great things for me.” She recalls all the gifts of God with this new one, the gift of becoming the mother of God. Mary, in proclaiming this work of God then begins to elaborate on how God has and continues to work throughout history. As usual, the presentation of God is not exactly what we might think at first.

God is first described as merciful to all covenant people. We need only look in the Psalms to see the way that God has showered mercy again and again, with every struggle we ever face God is willing to stand beside us in grief and lift us up in exalted healing. Now, with the birth of Christ, there is a new beginning, one in which mercy will spread out across all the world, and God will be able to reconcile all things to Godself.

She calls God strong and describes God as using this strength to dethrone kings and crush the proud. Pharaoh’s army was scattered, Nebuchadnezzar lived like a beast, David and Solomon even faced God’s wrath for their abuses of power. We do not always see how God tears down Babel from day to day, and we need to look no further than our world today to see a great many in power are committing a great number of evils. The promise of God being born lowly is that God knows what it is to suffer under oppression, and God will not forget on judgment day what evils have been committed by the powerful.

She says that God feeds the poor and starves the hungry. We know when God is active in a community because of how much scarcity there is in the area. Where money is hoarded among elites or even wrapped up in the consumer practices of the middle class while people starve, God is not working God’s fullest work. God would have us all give up our pet comforts to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, but we have made God out to be a friend of the rich. Luke, from which this prayer comes, makes it clear to any reader that God has no interest in propping the rich up, but has ever interest in clearing them out.

She then closes with a final appeal to the covenant. That from Abraham to today God has been working for the good of God’s people. The Annunciation and Jesus’ ministry is not new work, but a continuation of what God has been doing all along. Jesus’ entry into life was among the poor, among the oppressed, and among the people of Israel. God has always been working among the poor, the oppressed, among God’s people. What makes the incarnation amazing is that God not only enters into human suffering but that God redefines God’s people in the incarnation.

Now, the promises which were forever a part of Israel are all our inheritances. Those who hold onto faith are gifted as Mary was gifted, as Miriam was gifted, as Sarah, and Hagar and Rebekah were gifted. The glory of God is not for the rich, not for the powerful, not for people born in proper circumstances, but for all people and especially for the oppressed. God makes clear throughout scripture, but especially in this moment, that those who side with power will ultimately fail. The Magnificat glorifies God as a savior, and as Jesus as the ultimate sign of this salvation. Let us make sure at all times that we side with God in all matters, that when the kingdom comes we are not among those who will be scattered. – amen.

Repent for Lent – Ash Wednesday 2019

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near- a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?  Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?'”

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”

Sermon Text

Christianity must contain eschatology. That is to say, Christianity is a religion that is meaningful because it has an ending. The resurrection of the Christ allows us to see forward to our eventual resurrection. The purification of our souls through Christ’s redeeming blood is our salvation, and the sign and seal of that salvation is Christ’s resurrection from the dead. We cannot simply live in the peace of Christ dying for our sins, without the challenge and promise of his resurrection.

We do not enter into a season of happiness now. We enter into a season of quiet, a season of contemplation. Now is the time where the Church all over the world should commit itself to setting things right. Lent, the preparation for Easter, is a long stay in the tomb with the crucified Christ. Here we look inward at the reality of our brokenness, the sin-sick souls that we have no hope of healing on our own. Now is the time of weeping, now is the time of deep and penitential  prayer, now is the time to make ourselves aware of our bonds so that when Easter finally comes, we can leave them in the grace – folded up, set at the foot of the slab where we had laid ourselves down in our sin.

Christianity is given meaning in its ending, a time where we know Christ will return and right all wrongs. This the promise that we will be vindicated, that God will wipe all tears away, and that all will be as it was meant to. However, it is also a time when we must own up to all the wrongs we did. If we believe in Christ then we are indeed saved from our sin, but that does not mean that there is no recounting of them. The redeemed, though they stand free from damnation are nonetheless put to judgment, no one is spared the walk up to the Master, to be told to go either to the left or to the right.

We all have done wrong, otherwise, the cross was in vain. We all sin, or else we are lying to ourselves. If we decide that we, being washed in the blood, now have no need to repent – to change our ways, then we are mistaken. While I have no doubt that Christ is sufficient to save anyone who believes in him, I also believe that Paul is correct in saying that this can be a salvation, “But from the flames.” In which, all that we have built up in this life is burnt away and we enter heaven empty-handed. Yes, we inherit the fullness of God, but there is something in the teachings of Christ and of Paul which suggests that the Kingdom does have levels of benefit for certain peoples.

Does this mean that heaven is a meritocracy in which only the holiest find joy? Of course not! However, it does mean that we can enjoy the full benefits of heaven in the now and the hereafter if we are only willing to, “build up our treasures in heaven.” This is not a statement to make the poor feel like their poverty is a blessing, that they should grin and bear the here and now, but instead a strong statement against those who hoard wealth. Those of us who have too much, who benefit from the ability to be at rest, who surround ourselves with trinkets and gadgets, constantly upgrading them and wasting money on our stomachs rather than on our neighbors.

Jesus goes further in today’s scripture that there is something wasteful about the way in which we usually go about doing good. That’s right, there is wastefulness even in the way that we do good. The examples presented are not meant to strike at the hearts of the elite only, although if we are honest Jesus had the most problems with those at the top of the proverbial latter. No, these were trespasses that anyone could commit, not just the rich and powerful. The sins of the heart which are common to all people are here laid out for us.

Do you give to the poor? Not just to the church, though tithing is important, do you give to the poor? The people who are by the side of the road, panhandlers and window washers. Do you see them and have pity on them, do you see them and give good things to them? I would hope so, but the reality is that many of us do not. Still more, when we do give to the poor, we find ourselves telling others about it as soon as possible. It is not satisfactory enough that we have completed Christ’s command, “give to whoever asks of you what they ask of you,” but we must also have glory for it. How many posts do we make about “paying it forward” on Facebook, or how many stories do we share in which someone tells of the good they’ve done for someone.

There is an entire culture around what some call, “Inspiration Porn.” While this may seem like a strong title I think that it is fitting, it takes the good actions of humanity and commodifies it. We are able to take in good feelings just by reading someone recounting what they did to help someone else. This is not to say all sharing is bad, and certainly elevating others who do good is a noble pursuit. What I am saying is that we should not be wrapped up in our own self-promotion, or encourage others who want to show the world how holy they are. You can share the article that was written about you, you can tell people the organization you work with and what they do, but be careful that you do no chase after feeling good for being good.

In the same way, praying should not be something we do for show. Jesus is not, as some have interpreted, saying that all public prayer is wrong. What he is saying is that, much like with giving, if you go out of your way to pray in such a way that people will see you and think, “Dang… That’s one holy person.” Then you are in the wrong.

How many times do we, because we don’t want to look bad, raise our hands during a worship song? How many times do we look extra contrite during a sermon lest someone look at us and thinks we’re not engaged? Jesus wants your prayer to be authentic, you worship to be really about you, God, and the community you’re in. He goes so far to say that if you are gonna be caught up in the pressure of public prayer, you would do better to pray alone. We all can get pressured into religious expressions we are not feeling, but Jesus is telling us to be authentic.

Not feeling like singing a praise song? Stand up, join in with the community, but do not feel bad if you frown your way through “Marching to Zion.” If a sermon is not touching you, do not nod your head or shout amen just to look engaged. Worship is communal, so yes we should strive to be on the same page as much as possible, but if have to choose between being authentic and looking like you have it all together – then pick authenticity.

The final point Jesus makes, and what I will use as the launching point for our Lenten sermons going ahead, is that when we fast we should not do it in a way that’s obvious to the public. Not only this, but Jesus says that you should look better when you fast than when you’re eating. Take that extra step to look presentable, not just because it helps keeps your piety private, but because you are doing a good thing. You are taking steps toward God. By willfully holding off from food, you are allowing God to speak to you in new ways. If I’m going to be seeing an old friend, I try to look a little more presentable, and I’m usually happy about that meeting. So, do not look sad when you fast or you’ve given something up for God, be happy. It means you get to meet God in new ways.

We are entering into Lent. We are facing up to what we have done wrong. We should not engage these forty days with pomp and circumstance. No, today begins a period of time when we inhabit our death. “Dust we are, and to dust we shall return.” What is born from that dust, what is born out like a phoenix shaking off the ashes of its parent, that is for God to work within us. We should be contrite, we should not broadcast our contrition to the world. We should seek to repair relationships, we should not tell that to people so that they congratulate us. We should pray more, but not so that people think better of us. We should review what we have, and give more, but not so that we seem like more generous people.

We should repent for Lent. Forget what you will, “give up” in terms of chocolate or sugar or whatever it may be. Still do this to train yourself in discipline, but focus more on your soul. “Rend your heart, not your clothes.” Be kinder, own up to what you have down wrong, ask forgiveness and give it freely. Lent is a season of prayer, of fasting, and above all else of returning to God. As we sit in the ashes of our sin, the garden that we have burned, we look toward the restoration of all things Christ has promised us. So let us commit ourselves to the works of God, not so that others will know we are good, but that we may turn to God and find blessings where once there was desolation. That in all our conduct we make it obvious, that God is good. – Amen