Sermon: Follow Me

Mark 1:14-20

I have sojourned through many Christian denominations on my spiritual journey. Each one came along at a point in my life when I was searching for something. I stayed with some for a more extended period than I did others, but I picked up something that continues to influence my life to this day in all of those stops. But with all the differences in worship, belief, and fellowship, there was one common element, in every instance when I journeyed into a new congregation or denomination, it began with an invitation.

In this brief passage from the Gospel of St. Mark, we have a few things happening. First, we have Jesus’ proclamation that “time is fulfilled,” and second, we have Jesus calling his first Apostles. Both of these are significant events and deserve a much more complete treatment that I will be able to give, but we shall soldier on and see where we go.

Time is an interesting concept. At a point in history, someone decided that a minute would be 6 seconds and that an hour would be 60 minutes, and that a day would be 24 hours, and so forth. Some project backward to Genesis when God speaks of creation in a “six-day” period and like to put our modern time on that story. But we do not honestly know what time means for God. In the biblical age, time was not calculated as it is today; days were different lengths and dependent on the sun’s rising and setting. People did not have watches or clocks; they looked up into the sky. Today, things are different.

Jesus comes along and says, “time is fulfilled,” but time is he talking about?

Because we know the rest of the story, we know that Jesus tells those following him that he is the fulfillment of all the law and prophets, fulfillment meaning completion. Fulfillment meaning something new is coming. Jesus says I will not leave you, orphans; no, he will give us something new.

St. Mark goes out of his way to place this story after John the Baptist has been put in prison. John represents that last of what we would call the Old Testament Prophets. John comes as a competition of what was and ushers in what will be the covenant of love. John is the bridge between what was and what will be. John is the messenger, the one who has come to prepare the way, but like Moses, John will not live to see what comes next.

In Jesus, we have the completion of the former covenant and the start of a new covenant, and in this covenant, all are equally loved and forgiven by the God that created them. The “time” of preparation is over, and the “time of repentance is at hand.”

I spoke of repentance a few weeks ago. Repentance, like sin, is a word the modern Church does not like to talk about. In the days of people wanting to hear that God loves them and there is nothing required of them, we do not like to hear about the fact that there is work for us to do that Christianity is not just a spectator sport that has been given to us so we can keep others out. This time of repentance ties in very nicely with what comes next in our story.

I mentioned at the beginning that each time I discovered a new church or denomination, it began with an invitation; we see that here as well. Simon, Andrew, James, and John were all going about their business when Jesus comes by. He does not launch into some long-winded speech about how horrible their life is and that they need a change. He does not offer to send the church bus by on Sunday and pick them up. He does not even ask them to come for a meal. He simply says to them, “Follow me.”

By me and others, it has been said that 80% of people who come to a church for the first time come because someone invited them to come. How many of you watching this on Facebook right now have clicked the little share button at the bottom of this video and shared it to your own Facebook page. No need to raise your hands. I looked just before I stepped into the pulpit, only two. Clicking on the share button and saying something like “Come and join us for worship” is like saying, “Follow me.” We are not asking you to go downtown and stand on a soapbox and invite people to come and worship; we are asking you to click a button and say, “follow me.”

Way back when, when I was sojourning in the fields of the Evangelical Church, I was asked the question, are “you a Christian?” or “are you saved?” Not wanting to be left out of the club, I would always respond by saying yes. I was baptized, I was raised in the Church, so of course, I was and am a Christian. Sometimes I would be asked if I “had found Jesus,” to which I often would respond, “I did not know he was lost.”

The decision to follow Jesus is a decision that we have to make at some point and time in our lives. Even if we are brought up in the Church, there comes a time, for we Congregationalists, that time is Confirmation, when we make a public declaration, we will follow Jesus. But that is only the start of the process.

Simeon, Andrew, James, and John instantly decided to drop what they were doing and follow Jesus. They gave up everything to follow some guy they did not know anything about. In another Gospel, we are told that Andrew as a disciple of John and John, told Andrew about Jesus, but in Mark’s Gospel, we do not know that. They decided to follow Jesus, but that was only the start of their journey.

Here is where it all comes together.

To be a follower of Jesus is to take on a radically different way of life; you have heard me speak in such terms in the past. Repentance is a radical change. Repentance comes from the Greek word that literally means to “change one’s mind.” To repent is to do an about-face, a 180-degree turn. Repentance is a radical change of one’s spirit, mind, thought, and heart. It is a complete reorientation of a life centered not on but in Christ Jesus.

Sure, repentance is about atoning for our sins, but it is more than that it has to be more than that it has to be a reorientation of our lives, how we think, how we feel, and how we act. We cannot profess to love Jesus on Sunday and then persecute people on Monday. We cannot believe and profess to follow the prince of peace while at the same time cheer on those committing acts of violence. We cannot profess to follow Jesus and not work for justice and mercy in every situation. And we cannot profess to love God with our whole heart, mind, body, and soul and hate someone just because they are different than you.

Jesus came as the fulfillment of all that came before. Jesus gave his life as the final sacrifice for the atoning of our sins. Jesus came to show us a new way to live and act, which is the way of love. Jesus calls us to be people of radical inclusion, not radical exclusion. Jesus calls us to repent to change our practices and see things through this lens of love. Jesus is hitting that share button and saying, “follow me.”

Jesus never tells us it will be easy. Jesus never tells us we will not be persecuted. Jesus never tells us to storm the halls of some government to get our way. Jesus never tells us to pass laws that force people to believe the way we do. Jesus never tells us to build big buildings that we struggle to maintain. Jesus says, follow me, and I will make you fishers of people. Follow me, and I will show you a radical way of love.

Friends, Jesus is calling us to live our lives in such a way that if the bible were to disappear tomorrow, if church buildings were to be torn down tomorrow, people would still know that God loves them. The time is at hand, the time has arrived for that 180-degree turn, and the time has come for that radical way of love.

Amen.

Prayer for the President of the United States

O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to thy merciful care, that, being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace. Grant to the President of the United States, and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Episcopal Church. (1979). The Book of common prayer and administration of the sacraments and other rites and ceremonies of the church : together with the Psalter or Psalms of David according to the use of the Episcopal Church. New York :Seabury Press,

Binding up Wounds

The last few nights, I have had trouble sleeping. My mind is racing with thoughts, and I cannot seem to quiet them. I can still see the disturbing images of the Capitol on January 6th, and I cannot seem to shake them. In some ways, we have all been traumatized by those events, and it is going to take some time for us to remove those images from our minds.

I have also been thinking a lot about Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was quoted quite a bit during the Second round of Impeachment hearings, especially his Second Inaugural Address from April of 1865. However, the problem is that passages quoted were taken out of the context of the larger speech, and like with Scripture, that can often change the meaning altogether.

The speech is short, so you might wish to read it before moving on in this essay.

The Civil War had been raging now for four years, and there truly was no end in sight. Lincoln lays out his case that some wanted war and some who did not, but when war came, it was an all or nothing proposition. Lincoln puts the cause of war squarely on the institution of slavery. There is the now-famous line, “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” Lincoln says that both sides cannot be just but that neither side’s prayers have been fully answered.

But Lincoln is not giving in and believes his cause to not only free the slaves but bring the Union back together is just and will continue to press on.

“Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said f[our] three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

The last paragraph is the portion of the speech that was quoted and misquoted during the impeachment trial. This is the paragraph where Lincoln speaks of “malice toward none” and “binding up our nation’s wounds,” which is lovely imagery but take out of context with what came before it, it means something completely different.

After tossing and turning the other night for what seemed like hours, I got out of bed and turned on the TV. I searched for something to watch and landed on the Netflix movie The Two Popes. Now, I have seen this movie before, twice actually, but I watched it again. I will not go into great detail about the film other than to say it is about the most recent two popes Benedict and Francis.

The two men are in the garden; Benedict is Pope, and Francis is a Cardinal at the time of this conversation, and they are speaking of the abuse that has gone on in the Church. Francis mentions that a few “magic words” of confession might help the person confessing, but it does not help the victim. He speaks of sin not as something to be wiped or washed away but as a wound that needs to be healed. Beautiful imagery.

The Church likes to use the imagery of sin being washed, cleansed, or wiped away. We use water as the vehicle for washing sin away in Baptism and, in Evangelical circles anyway, the “Blood of the Lamb” that will wash you clean. But this only deals with what is on the surface. I am no medical professional, but I know that sometimes the wound has to be healed from deep within itself, and sometimes making the wound larger to heal it is necessary. Sometimes the area around the wound needs to be cut away before healing can begin. This, I believe, is what Lincoln was getting at when he spoke of “binding the nation’s wounds.”

Lincoln was not advocating giving up; in fact, he had just said that “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword” he was saying that to “bind the nations wounds,” there has to be justice. There has to be accountability, and without that, the healing cannot begin.

Putting a band-aid on the wound is what we have been doing for the last 245 years. On the surface, the wound looks healed, while underneath, it is foul and festering. It is time to dig deep and begin the process of healing.

America is in desperate need of healing, but healing cannot begin until we, as a nation, are ready to take a long hard look at what has brought us here. There needs to be an honest acceptance of the wrongs of the past and a sincere desire to not return to that past. Healing begins with an acceptance that we are sick; it is time for all of us to accept that we need healing and not just surface healing.

At the end of his speech, Lincoln said, “let us strive on to finish the work we are in” and that we must “do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with the world. all nations.”

Yes, we need to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” but that binding needs to be justice, or the wound will not heal.

Sermon: Known and Loved

Psalm 139:1;6,13-18

I am a big fan of the Psalms. No matter what the situation, there is a psalm for that. Psalms are prayers, prayers that Jesus used. Psalms have been used as part of worship well since worship began. When the founders of this Congregation first settled here, the psalms were used as the Church’s hymns. Long before there were drum sets, flashing lights, and ministers in skinny jeans, the psalms were used and chanted during worship. The psalms are filled with rich spiritual and theological imagery that has helped formed generations and, if you give them a chance, they can form you as well.

I feel like I have been trying to sell you a used car. What do I have to do to get you into this Psalm today?

Scholars believe that the bulk of the Psalms were written by David the King, if not all of them. Some of them have a dedication to them; this one today is dedicated to the Music Directors. The Psalms are a mixture of prayer and praise and some time spent wandering in the spiritual desert. David works out much of his spiritual life writing the Psalms and has left this collection to us as an example.

Psalm 139, the subject of the lesson this morning, is a Psalm that is asking us to embark on an interior journey of sorts, but the focus is on God’s comprehensive knowledge of the human self. David addresses this prayer to the God who knows our every thought, word, and deed before they are even uttered or performed. There is an insistence that before we know or name God, God knows and names us.

In this Psalm, David is addressing and inviting us to trust the God whose sovereign grace encompasses us in ways that we can never fully understand. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.” (v.6)

What this Psalm points out is the supreme valuing of every human life. We are invited to meditate on the sanctity of life but not just as a political slogan but as an expression of the worth that God gives to the work of God’s hands. We are being invited to consider what a consistent “ethic of life” would entail.

Back in the Book of Genesis, we read the story of how God created all that we see around us. At the end of each day’s creation, God took a step back and, admiring the work that was performed, make the statement that it is good. Everything that God created was spoken into creation apart from humanity.

Genesis tells us that God fashioned humanity with God’s own hands from the very dust of the ground. The very elements of nature were used to fashion humanity. Last week, during the renewal of our baptismal promises, we spoke of water as a necessary element of life. Water gives life, but water also sustains life. Water is one of the essential elements of creation.

But God used God’s own hands to create humanity. This was unlike the creation of everything that came before it. The creation of all that surrounds us was accomplished in a rather impersonal way if you will, God spoke, and it was. It is sort of like shopping for something rather than creating it yourself.

Those of you who garden understand the pleasure you derive from getting the soil reading in the spring—planting the seed or the tender plant in the earth’s warm soil. Caring for that new life and watching it mature. It requires water, fertilizer, sun, pruning, and all the rest. Then one day, the harvest and we get to enjoy the fruits of our labor. Of course, we could short circuit the entire process and simply go to the store, or better yet, have it delivered. The result of enjoyment might be the same, but enjoying your creation requires personal involvement.

God loves all his creation, but there is a special relationship with humanity. “Let us create them in our image and our likeness,” God says in Genesis. After God stoops and fashions humankind from the very dust of the earth, God breaths his breath, his ruah, the very breath of God into the nostrils of Humanity. God does not do this with any other creature that he has created, only humanity. Humanity is filled with the very breath of God.

I often speak of the “Divine Spark” that is part of all humanity, and this is it, the very breath of God. Long before God sent Jesus to become human to show us a better way, he breathed life into each of us. For some nine months, we do not require air. Our bodies are being formed, “knit together,” if you will on the inside. But then that moment of anticipation, that first breath, and the corresponding scream. That first breath is the breath of God!

Even after all of that, God stepped back, looked at what was just created, and says, it is Good. All life, all of creation is good—all of it, not just some of it.

Last week, I spoke of the political situation here in the United States and reminded us that we all have a part to play not only in how we got here but also how we will get out of it. In my opinion, one of the biggest problems we have is that we do not value human life. This is not going to be another pro-life rant but rather an “ethic of life” and one that needs to be consistent.

Humans need to justify their actions for themselves. I am not sure many of you have seen the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie “True Lies.” He stars opposite Jamie Lee Curtis, and Arnold is a secret agent, although Curtis does not know this. Hence the secret. Anyway, Curtis finds out about Arnold’s day job, and through a series of events, they end up on an island in the Florida Keys. While they are hiding from the bad guys, Curtis asks if he has ever killed anyone. He responds by saying, “yes, but they were all bad.”

Of course, the line was designed to get you to laugh, and maybe you did when I said, it’s much funnier with Arnold’s accent, of course, but what Arnold was doing was justifying why it was okay to take another life. “They were all bad,” and therefore, it is okay.

Making the other “less human” is how humanity justifies the way it treats other humans. White people justified slavery because, well, they were equal to only 3/5th of a white man and therefore not entirely human. We justify wars because the enemy is inferior to us. If you don’t believe me read some of the literature.

We demonize poor people and call them lazy. Politicians make us afraid of the immigrant calling them rapists and saying they are coming for our jobs. The right demonizes the left by calling them socialists, and the left demonizing the right with terms like right-wing extremists. When we fail to see the divine spark in another human being, we have reduced them to less than they truly are, and that is how we justify the treatment of others.

Psalm 139 invites us to look at others not in the things we say about ourselves or the labels we put on others, but in the One who knows us more profoundly and more lovingly than we could ever know ourselves.

I have said this before, and I will continue to say that God loves each of us more than we can imagine. Human life’s value does not come from what is achieved or possessed or what others might think of us. The value of human life comes from the God who knows and names us, from whose steadfast love noting in all of creation can ever separate us from.

Each life has value, and each human needs to be treated with the dignity that life has had since creation because that life is God.

Amen

Forgiveness Requires Repentance

“Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end, it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.” Desmond Tutu

I posted the above quote to my Facebook feed recently. When it comes to forgiveness and reconciliation, I like to pay attention to people the Desmond Tutu, who lived through some rather horrible stuff in his life but could still chart a course towards forgiveness and reconciliation.

Since the insurrection of January 6, 2021, there have been calls from some quarters for unity and forgiveness.  That is great, and I applaud those efforts. However, if there is to be any unity and if there is to be any reconciliation, those responsible for not only committing the acts of violence but those who incited it.

In my sermon this past Sunday, I quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer concerning what he calls “Cheap Grace.” As part of the definition, Bonhoeffer says that Cheap Grace is “The preaching of forgiveness without repentance.” Yes, God indeed forgives us but, in my understanding of things, there has to be a sense of what you have done is wrong and a sincere desire to take corrective action, in other words, not to do it again.

Thus far, there has not been any true repentance or even any suggestion of owning up to what was done. Almost immediately after the events of that day happened, those on the right, without any evidence, mind you, began saying it was Antifa that had done this. The President of the United States refuses to take any responsibility for his role in all of this and continues to spout the lie that the election was stolen from him.

Yes, it is true that holding people accountable and exposing the awfulness of what happened on January 6 may, for a time, make things worse. But as Tutu says in the above quote, “only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing.” If we do not hold those responsible accountable and if we do not seek to find the answers to the root of the problem, then all we do is kick the can further down the road to the next generation.

Seeking forgiveness and reconciliation is dirty but necessary work, but it is holy and sacred work. However, that work cannot even begin to start until all those involved have been held accountable.

Sermon: Defining Moments

Mark 1:4-11

I am having a hard time trying to make sense of what has happened these last few days. I have written and rewritten these words in my mind and on paper many times, and still, it is hard to make sense of it all.

There have been several times in my years in ministry when I have had to stand in similar places and try to help people make sense of something that I cannot make sense of. Whether we like it or not, clergy are community leaders, and people look to us for answers, but I just do not have any.

I am grateful for one thing that there have been four days between the events of January 6th and today. I am not sure I could trust myself to speak on January 6th.

Like you, I watched in horror as armed thugs, intending to overthrow the government of the United States, stormed the Capitol building on Wednesday. I watched as terrorists, and let’s be clear, that is precisely what they are, terrorists lowered an American flag and raised the flag of their leader. If you doubt me, google it; there is plenty of evidence.

I watched in horror as a Capitol police officer, running for his life as the mob closed in around him, the same mob that chants that blue lives matter. I was also saddened to learn of the murder of another officer at the hands of these terrorists.

Ephesians 4:15 says, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”

So, let’s preach some truth.

Democracy is ugly, and there are winners, and there are losers; that is how it works. For the last 245 years and with the 44 men before him, the power has peacefully transferred from one President to the next, not always to the same party and usually after a bitter fight, but power transfers without incident.

In November, we held a Presidential election. All 50 states certified the results, most of them controlled by Republican governors. The Governors and Secretaries of State of those states, again most of them Republican, signed their names to documents attesting that the election results were valid.

Sixty plus lawsuits, which is the right of both sides, were filed and all but one defeated, claiming election fraud on a monumental scale. The Supreme Court was asked on three separate occasions to rule, and they refused, sighting a lack of evidence. The Justice Department, all appointed by the sitting President, ruled that there was no evidence of voter fraud on a massive scale, enough to overturn the results.

The winner of the election won the popular vote by over 7 million votes, the largest number in modern presidential history, and by 74 electoral college votes.

The electors of the several states gathered to perform their constitutional duty and cast their votes. Those votes were sealed and delivered to the Congress of the United States of America as directed by the Constitution. By all accounts, the election should have been finished, but, as we know, even with all of this evidence, some were not happy.

Some called election officials and tried to get them to reverse the decision and send in “corrected” versions of the count. “All I need is 11,000 more votes.” Some tried, as is their right to fight the results on the floor of Congress. And then the unthinkable happened; the rhetoric turned to violence.

I want to be very clear here, what happened on Wednesday was not only an attempted coup, but it was an attempt to take by force what could not have been achieved at the ballot box, and the effort to say the election as rigged is just plain nonsense.

One of the most bitter Presidential elections was between Adams and Jefferson in 1800. The election was decided in the House of Representatives after, I believe, 37 ballots. And even after all of that, no one stormed the Capitol seeking retribution.

In the 2000 Presidential election between George Bush and Al Gore, no one tried to take by force that was not done at the ballot box. It was nasty, but, in the end, power transferred without incident.

But through all of that, and this might sound trite in the face of the murder of a federal police officer, there were two disturbing things that I witnessed, the flag of the Confederacy in the Capitol building and the weaving of the message of the Gospel with insurrection.

But this is not just one-sided, for we all have a part to play in this. Many, many people sat by and watched and said nothing. Many, many people, even after repeated warnings about how bad this was going to get, chose to see and hear what they wanted and felt if it does not affect me, so be it. Many thought that he said it like it is; well, we see where that has gotten us.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a Gospel of Revolution, but it is a revolution of Peace. A few shorts weeks ago, we celebrated the birth of the King of kings and the Prince of Peace. How can the Gospel that requires us to love everyone lead people to do what was done on Wednesday? I fear that the witness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been damaged to the point of no return.

Since the mid 80’s we have seen religion and partisan politics becoming very close, so much so that to be an Evangelical Christian means you have to be a member of the Republican Party. We have seen the ugly side of why religion and partisan politics should never become one. The founders of this nation felt so strong about this they enshrined it in our founding documents.

However, there is a role for religion in politics, and I distinguish between partisan or one-sided politics and politics. The definition of politics is “what is best for the people,” all the people. Religion, all religions can and should be the nation’s moral compass and fight for what is right for all its citizens. To be the voice for those on the margin, the hungry, the homeless, the immigrant, etc.

Many people do not like to hear this, but Jesus was very political; in fact, Jesus was killed for political purposes. He made the religious and political leaders of his day very nervous with his revolutionary ideas about love.

I have had several conversations with people who talk about forgiveness and turning of cheeks, and yes, we are called and even commanded to do just that, but all of that comes with confession, repentance, and penance. Along with love, we are called to bring justice into the world. Forgiveness, like love, is a central part of my ministry and my preaching. Forgiveness is essential, but forgiveness comes with specific responsibilities.

We need healing in the country, more so now than ever before, but healing can only begin once justice has been accomplished. Those who stormed the Capitol, those who spread their feces and urinated in hallways, those who smashed windows and ransacked offices, and those who murdered a federal police office all need to be held accountable. Yes, those who instigated it also need to be held responsible.

There is grace in accountability. There is grace in confession. There is grace in repentance. There is grace in penance. And there is grace in unity. But if we do not have accountability, confession, repentance, and penance, what do we have? Cheap grace.

The great activist and German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was murdered attempting to do something about Hitler, had this to say about Cheap Grace: Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ living, and incarnate.”

On many occasions, I have said that words have power, and we saw, on live television, just how powerful words can be.

In a few moments, we will renew the promises we either made or were made for us the day of our baptism. We will virtually and symbolically wash away the old and welcome the new. Let us resolve that with this action; we will wash off the stink of the last few days and come together to chart a path that builds bridges rather than walls, that radically includes rather than excludes. That brings us together to march and rally against poverty, lack of affordable health care, lack of affordable education, and all the rest. While others bloviate about not being able to Tweet, thousands are dying each and every day from a horrible pandemic. Three thousand eight hundred ninety-five people died just yesterday.

Friends, the election is over, and a winner has been declared. An attempted coup has been defeated, and the work of the United States needs to continue. Justice needs to take place, and those responsible need to be held to account.

The work of Christmas is about radical transformation. The work of Christmas is about radical love. But none of this is possible if we do not let the work of Christmas begin within ourselves and in our own lives. Let the work of Christmas, the hard work of Christmas, start at this moment and in this place. And then, it can begin to flow from us to others.

Amen.

The Oath I Swore

First Day of Enlistment

On September 6, 1984, I was standing in the Barnes Building in Boston. I was with some 100 others who had just signed contracts to enlist in the United States Army. The room was festooned with the flag of our country and the flags of the various branches of service. At the front of the room was a podium where, in a few moments, a uniformed officer would stand and ask us to raise our right hands. We were asked, the last time we would be asked to do anything, to form lines and put our bags and whatnot on the floor. I was scared.

The officer came in a greeted us, and, as I previously mentioned, asked us to raise our right hands. He then proceeded to administer the oath of enlistment.

I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

With those words I became a soldier in the United States Army.

Three years later, I left active duty and enlisted in the Massachusetts Army National Guard. Once again, I raised my right hand and swore that same oath with the additional words to obey the Governor of Massachusetts and support and defend the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’s Constitution. That was 1987, and I served off and on until 2004.

On September 22, 2010 I once again raised my right hand a swore an oath:

I ___, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

After my Officer’s Commission

I was being commissioned into the Organized Militia of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As with my enlistment in the Guard several years before, the words about the Governor and the Constitution of the Commonwealth were added.

It has now been almost 37 years since I raised my right hand on that September afternoon, but I still take that first oath’s obligation as a sacred responsibility. Just because someone is no longer serving in uniform, that oath remains sacred.

January 6, 2021, was a dark day in the history of the United States of America. Without trying to make sense of it all, I will admit that I was shocked and horrified as I watched people storm and occupy the Capitol of the United States. I am saddened by the loss of the Capitol Police Officer’s life as well as all of those who died. None of it had to happen.

But what has saddened me more since that day is to learn that veterans of the military of the United States of America and, it is reported, present members of the military were part of what happened. All of them swore the same oath I did, and their actions have disrespected the hundreds of thousands of veterans who have served their country honorably over the last 200 years plus of this country’s existence. All of them should have known better.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Everyone is entitled to make speeches and attend rallies. That is why I served, to protect that right for all people, not just the ones I agree with, but actions have consequences, and the moment you breached the capitol, you became an enemy of the United States of America!

That oath is a sacred responsibility that does not end when we hang up our uniform for the last time. That oath stays with us for our entire life. I guess that oath they swore meant nothing to them, and that is what makes me sad.

An Epiphany

Today, the Feast of the Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas Season. If your tree and other Christmas decorations are still up, today is the day you can take them down. But today is an important theological day as well as we see the manifestation of Christ in three distinct ways.

The obvious and the one the Gospel appointed for this day point to is the arrival of the Wise Men “from the East.” Songs have been written about these visitors that bring gifts to the child Jesus. After the Shepherds, they are the first to recognize Jesus as a King but their visit sets of a chain of events that I am sure they did not expect.

The Wise Men were astrologers, more than likely Zoroastrians who noticed the bright star in the sky that they recognized as a star that would accompany a King’s birth. They followed it, naturally to Jerusalem but discovered that the child was not there. Some say they came some two years after Jesus was born, and the word used in the Gospel is house and not stable as is used to describe the place where Jesus was born.

They stop and ask King Herod if he knows where they are. He replies that he does not but askes them to return and tell him where the child is, so he too might worship him. But Herod has other ideas. He orders the slaughter of all the children in Bethlehem two years of age and under. But Jesus escapes, and the Wise Men return home another way.

The Second manifestation of Jesus is at the Wedding at Cana. This takes place at the start of Jesus’ public ministry. It launches it. Jesus and his mother are at a wedding, and they run out of wine. The Steward comes to Mary and tells her; I am not sure why; it might have been a family wedding. Mary turns to Jesus to ask him, well tell him to intervene, and he tells her that “my time has not yet come.” Paying him no attention, Mary turns to the Steward and tells him, “Do whatever he tells you.” Jesus then performs his first miracle in the changing of the water into wine.

The third manifestation, which we commemorate on Sunday, is the Baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan. This is an exceedingly tricky event to understand with our current view of Baptism. However, Jesus consented to be baptized by John, even insisting that John Baptize him as a way of emptying himself and taking on our humanity. There is an interplay here between the authority and humility of Jesus. John declares that Jesus has the power to baptize with the Holy Spirit, and later we see Jesus acting on this authority. In this act of submission to John, Jesus embodies his own humility.

Jesus’ authority and humility are not two different things. Jesus’ authority is the authority of the humble one, and Jesus’ humility is the true humility of the to whom all authority belongs.

Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Collect for the Baptism of Our Lord

Sermon: God With Us

John 1:1-9

The motto of the United Church of Christ is, “God is still speaking.” This is an affirmation that God is still revealing himself to the world, and that prophecy is not dead. Revelation is happening all around us and not the apocalyptic sort of Revelation the TV/Evangelical preachers would have you believe. All through the Advent Season, we heard prophecy after prophecy proclaiming the coming of the Messiah, and in the Gospel of Matthew, we read; “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). (Matthew 1:23) Matthew is quoting the great prophet Isaiah with his proclamation of the birth of Jesus. (Isaiah 7:14)

This morning we heard the words from the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word.” John transports us back to the very moment of creation, that moment when God spoke the universe into being, and we learn that God was not alone. “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was God.”

John continues to reveal that “He (the Word of God) was with God in the beginning. Through him, all things were made; without him, nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all humanity.” The universe was created through the Word, and without the Word, nothing was made. If you have your bibles with you, you will notice that “Word” is capitalized as if it were a name because the Word of God is a name, Jesus.

Back in the creation story, we read of humanities fall from grace. We read that there was a time when God walked in, and with his creation, God physically walked with humanity. But God did not control humanity, for God gave humanity free will. Humanity fell from grace, and a consequence of that fall was that God would no longer walk with his creation. A separation was thus created by humanity itself between the creator and creation.

This is an important point; the rift between God and humanity was created by humanity itself. Humanity chose to create this rift; it was not the doing of God. Humanity was and is in control of its destiny because of the free will that God has given us. Although we like to think of it this way, God is not in control, for if God were in control, then God would not only be in control when the good stuff happens, but God would also be in control of the bad stuff.

Believing, for example, that God is in control of the pandemic, and therefore I do not need to get vaccinated is to say that God is in control and simply sits back, and hundreds of thousands of the very creation God loves is killed. This sort of belief makes God out to be some sort of sadistic mad man who has the power to stop death and destruction but sits on the sidelines and watches and does nothing. No, my friends, God is not in control; humanity is in control and is not doing a very good job of it.

God sent messengers to creation in an attempt to reconcile, but those attempts failed. If we can put human emotions on to God, we would say that God was filled with grief at this separation that humanity had created, and God needed a way to make it better.

In the 3rd chapter of this same Gospel, we read about God’s solution, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) This very verse harkens back to what John says at the very start of his Gospel, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14) The Word of God, who was present “in the beginning,” has become flesh and dwells among us. The baby that we celebrate being born in Bethlehem is the very Word of God.

Think about the magnitude of what we have just said. God loved his creation so much that God took on our humanity; scripture tells us that God lowered himself to take on our humanity; the creator becomes his creation to show us the way, the path to new life. Yet, we still have the free will to choose. God does not force anyone, nor should we, to believe or to follow this new way. Through the person of Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God, God presents this way, and we have to decide if we will follow or not.

The rift between God and humanity was repaired when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

A few moments ago, I mentioned the motto, “God is still speaking,” and I believe that to be true. God reveals himself continuously, and our job is to look for that revelation. And how do we know if this revelation is true or not? We can refer to the way that his son left us.

Jesus, the Word of God, showed us the path to new life. That path includes not only loving God the creator but also loving all of God’s creation. We are to care for one another and be concerned for one another. We are to love one another as family, as we would want to be loved. We are to care for one another as we would want to be cared for. We are not to use people or creation for our own ends and means but to help each other live to our fullest potential. God emptied himself and took on our humanity, not for his own self, but so we, God’s creation, could become a better version of ourselves.

The logo or symbol that goes along with that motto is the comma. In writing, the writer uses the comma to separate ideas and indicates a pause as if to say, hold on, I am not quite finished with my thought yet. God uses the comma because God is not finished with us yet, revelation has not been completed, and there is more to come.

In a few moments, we will gather, albeit virtually, around this table of communion. Rev. Wendy and I will repeat the words that have been spoken by ministers before us for generations. These are not magic words, but they still have power, power to transform through the Holy Spirit, and God once again becomes present with us in a very real way. We will virtually approach this table and once again walk with God, but it is a choice that we have to make.

None of us are perfect. We all have doubts, and we have all fallen short. But none of that matters because this morning, God is inviting us to once again walk with him in a very real way. God loves us, all of us, so much that he was willing to come here and show us the way, not just 2,000 years ago but right here, right now.

In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him, all things were made; without him, nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all humanity. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us!

Amen.

What’s in a Name?

“After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” Luke 2:21

Today, January 1st, is the Octave of Christmas. It has been eight days since we celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, and we come to the biblical account of Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus in the Temple according to the Law. It is on this day that Jesus is circumcised, and he is given the name Jesus.

I think Mary and Joseph got off relatively easy because choosing a name for your baby is one of the hardest things I have ever done but, for Mary and Joseph, the Angel took care of the naming part for them.

My wife and I agonized over names. We made lists, checked out the meaning of names, looked to see if her initials would spell anything, and finally decided on a name. Again, this was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. We had the responsibility of giving this new life the name that she would carry with her for her entire life. That is an overwhelming responsibility.

There is also a religious significance to naming your child.

The Jewish Law required Mary and Joseph to present their son in the Temple on the eight-day. It was on this day that, for the first time, his name would be mentioned. In the Christian Baptism ceremony, there is a question asked of the parents are the very start of the ritual, “By what name will you call this child?” This harkens back to this requirement of the Law.

In the Orthodox Christian tradition, this is a separate ceremony that I officiated on several occasions. On the eighth day after the child is born, the priest comes to the family’s home. The priest makes the sign of the Cross on the child’s forehead, mouth, and chest and says the following prayer:

O Lord our God, we pray to you and beseech you let the light of your countenance shine upon your servant (here the name is mentioned for the first time) and let the cross of your only begotten Son be seal in his/her heart and in his/her thoughts, so as to escape the vanity of the world and every evil plot of the enemy and follow your commandments. And grant, O Lord, that your holy name shall remain indelible upon him/her, so that at the proper time he/she will be attached to your church and be perfected by the awesome mysteries of your Christ; so that having live in accordance with your commandments, and having kept the seal inviolate, he/she may achieve the blessedness of your chosen ones in your kingdom.

Through the grace and love for humanity of your only begotten Son with whom you are blessed, together with your all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.

Priest’s Service Book

It’s a very simple yet beautiful ceremony that acknowledges the name of the child for the first time and asks God’s blessing upon them.

There is a much older Celtic ritual for naming a child where the child is carried around the gathering and introduced, by name to the four directions. The ancestors of the child, those who have passed from this life to the next are called upon to bless the child especially the ancestor for whom the child is named for, if there is one.

Another simple yet beautiful ceremony.

Mary and Joseph fulfilled the law by bringing Jesus to Temple and giving him the name that the Angel had told them. The name is the name above all other names and given to the King of King’s. As we continue to celebrate this season of Christmas, like Mary let us ponder in our hearts all of the events of these days.

Eternal Father, you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Collect for the Holy Name of Our Lord

error: Content is protected !!