Unity in Diversity

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Over the last year, or maybe longer, there have been calls for unity. I recall after the tragic events of 9/11 or any number of the natural disasters that we have faced; people come together. They can put their differences aside and work together. Working together is an essential aspect of the Christian life, but this was not always the way.

Historically speaking, the idea of Christian unity meant forced conversions to Christianity. It appears once Christianity became a dominant religion, the leaders felt it gave them license to force others to become Christian, many at the point of the sword or the threat of death. The crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and all of the other dark days of Christianity.

Now I know it is not fashionable to talk about history; in fact, there is a push on to prevent the teaching of our past in some parts of our Country. But knowing the truth and understanding the past helps us not make the same mistakes in the future. Holding on to our past with both hands and saying, “this is who we were, but it is no longer who we are, and it will not influence who we are going to be” is called growth. History is not pretty, but history is essential.

But today, there is this idea that we must be united with everyone, and I am sorry, but that is just not possible. There can be no unity with people who hate others and turn to violence to see that their position is forced upon others. It was wrong when the early Christian Church was doing it, and it is wrong today. In all its forms, Extremism is a cancer upon any society and needs to be dealt with.

There is also this idea that we can agree to disagree, which is okay with some exceptions. However, there can be no agreement with taking away fundamental human rights. There can be no agreement with people who want to build walls rather than bridges. There can be no agreement with folks who wish to tell others who they can marry, what school they can go to, or what religion they must practice. Freedom for one is freedom for all or only the appearance of freedom.

In today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Church in Corinth, Paul uses the body as an image of the Church when speaking of unity. Paul writes to a disunified Church that what is essential is unity. Just as the parts of the bodywork together, the different parts of the Church must work together. We all have a role to play in that unity. An important thing to remember about unity is that unity does not mean conformity.

In many communities, including the Church on this list, the idea is my way or the highway when the Church never functioned that way. There are examples of the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles when an issue would arise in a difference of opinion. Then, the Church would come together and work toward consensus. Consensus is a general agreement on something. We may not agree 100% with all of the details, but we agree most.

The other part of Paul’s image of the Body and the Church is the idea of diversity, all the parts of the body are diverse, but for the body to function at its highest potential, all the parts have to work together for the same goal.

Perhaps you have had the experience of your mind wanting to go in one direction and your legs deciding something very different. Sure, I guess your legs can decide for themselves what they want to do, but sometimes it ends terrible, usually with you on the ground. This is because all of the parts of the body have to be in constant communication with each other. No one part of the body can “strike out on their own” and hope everyone else follows along. The body functions best with consensus about what each part is doing.

But what happens when one part of the body is sick or decides not to do what the others are doing.? We work towards healing that part, but there may come a time when that part needs to go.

I love to work around my yard. It is one of my creative outlets. Tilling the soil, planting things, caring for them, and watching them grow is a very satisfying and very spiritual activity. Caring for creation is one of the responsibilities humanity was given “in the beginning,” and I like to think of myself being a part of that.

Pruning is an integral part of caring for plants. Removing the sick or diseased part of the plant enables the remainder of that plant to become healthy again. Sometimes a radicle prune is necessary, or the entire plant will become sick and die.

Over the last couple of years, Nicky and I have been working in our backyard. There were already established planting beds and some lovely specimens, but the yard needed some work overall. It had been left unattended or minimally attended for way too long. As a result, many of the plants had become overgrown and needed to be pruned.

This past summer, our attention was focused on what I call the meditation garden. It is at the back of the property in a shady area. First, the area was cleared of debris that had accumulated over the years, and a border was established with bricks. Next, we put in a meandering path and a bench. Finally, we decided on plant material to install and set off to the nursery to pick out just the right plants.

We brought them home and spent time setting things out and moving this and that. We finally planted everything, and it looked great. It was indeed a quiet spot at the back of the garden to sit and reflect. However, we noticed one plant that was not doing so well. We tried fertilizer water, praying for it and nothing seemed to be working. We were almost at the point of pulling it and chucking it in the compost pile, but we decided to move the plant to another area of the garden in an attempt to save it. It seems fine, but we will know more later in the year.

It was a radical decision to uproot that plant, but it was necessary for the plant’s health and the health of the rest of the garden. Plants that are not doing well become susceptible to diseases, which can spread to other plants. But that one plant can also take necessary nutrients away from the others, so it had to go in the end.

As hard as it is, sometimes we have to remove parts of our lives that affect the rest and keep us from thriving.

You have heard me say this before, and no doubt you will hear me say it again, but Jesus commands us to love everyone. We have to love them, but we do not need to like them. We love and care for them because they are like we are created in God’s image and contain that divine spark. But sometimes, for the health of the body, we have to let them go, or we have to walk away. I can still love someone and not want anything to do with them.

The other point Paul was getting at was with unity; there is great diversity, and, in that diversity, we find our true potential. The foot is as important as the hand, but they each have a job to do. Sure, we can get by without one or the other, but things operate much smoother when we all work together. Diversity is something beautiful and something to be celebrated. Diversity makes us stronger, not weaker.

Very early on in the ministry of Jesus, he sent his followers out to the cities and towns in the area. They were sent to bring healing and the message of love that Jesus came to bring. Jesus told them that if they entered a town and did not receive their message, they were to “shake the dust of that town off of their feet” and move on. As difficult as it can be, sometimes we have to walk away from relationships if they are toxic, dangerous, or unhealthy.

There was a time in my life when I would not speak up, I would not say what needed to be said, or I would pull my punches. I compromised for the sake of keeping the peace, and I tried to make everyone happy but, in the process, I made myself miserable. We are never going to make everyone happy. Every decision comes with disagreement, and sometimes it comes with walking away.

Friends, unity in the Church, and unity in the Country are essential, but unity should not cause us to compromise to such an extent that we forget who we are and what we believe. Consensus is vital in the Church and the Country, but just like unity, if it causes me to compromise so much that I forget who I am, it is not worth it. Yes, we must pray and work towards unity, but if that unity causes us to neglect the least of these, then that is a unity that is not worth fighting for.

Amen.

Sermon: Extravagant Sign

John 2:1-11

In my 17 almost 18 years of ministry, I have officiated over 100 weddings.  Weddings are usually a joy.  Sure, there is a lot of anxiety and build-up, but once the music begins and the happy couple stands before their friends and family, it is all well.  What is going to happen is going to happen.  As much as we try, we cannot control every aspect of the day.  Oh, the wedding day is not the most important day of your life, that comes the next day, and the next day, and all days after that.  The wedding starts your life together.

But sometimes, things do go wrong.  No matter how much you plan for everything, there is always something that gets left out.  But in the end, it turns out just fine.  I like to remind couples that I work with; you only know how it is supposed to be.

Today’s Gospel takes place at a wedding.  Jesus, Mary, and the newly called Apostles have been invited, so it is obviously a close friend or a relative of Jesus and Mary.  I wonder if Jesus’ invitation arrived with a plus 12.  But there they are, celebrating the ordinary, everyday activities of life.

Anyway, we have to keep in mind that wedding feats in the first century were not single-day events but rather weeklong events with food, music, and of course, wine.  It is the third day, a day that will have significance later in the Gospel, and it is past the halfway point of the feast.  They run out of wine.  For reasons we do not know, they came to Mary to tell her.  No one ever wants to run out of food and drink at a party; that would be an embarrassment.

Mary turns to Jesus, perhaps she wants him to make a packy run, and he is unsure of what all of this has to do with him.  Jesus even asks Mary what this has to do with him?  But Mary insists that he do something to save face, so she turns to the wait staff and says, “do whatever he says.”

If I were a numerologist, I would wax on about the number 6 and the amount of water needed to fill all of those jars.  Don’t get me wrong, numbers in Scripture are essential, and we need to pay attention to them, but I will save that for another time.  Suffice it to say; there was a lot of water to be placed in those stone jars.

This is the first miracle story in the Gospel of John.  It is interesting to me that John uses the backdrop of a wedding for the first miracle of Jesus.  It is not a healing or teaching; Jesus launches into public view by providing drink, good drink mind you at a party.  This points to the idea that religion should be happy and joy-filled, not long-faced and dower.

I think sometimes we forget that God loves to hear laughter and joy.  One of my favorite religious paintings is that of the laughing Jesus.  It pictures Jesus, head back in a full belly laugh.  Sure, Jesus was about some serious business, but he took time to laugh and have a good time with those around him; it was not always dull and boring.

The sign at Cana tells us that Jesus served a God who puts joy into life, who thinks it is worth a miracle to keep the party going as we celebrate people.  But it is more than that.  There were the stone jars representing the old practice of religion filled with water that will run out, just as the wine has run out.  The old faith, the old covenant, will end, but the new way, the way of love, will continue.

Along comes Jesus, the new covenant who brings living water, the water that will never run out.  The jars made of stone will one day pass away, but the water that Jesus brings will pass away, for it is the water of love.

But there is another exciting part of this Gospel.  When Mary tells Jesus that they have run out of wine, Jesus asks what this has to do with him.  Mary, who is not mentioned by name in John’s Gospel like so many other women, does not answer Jesus but instead turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you.”

This is a word not only for the servants but for us, do whatever he tells you.  Love one another, serve the poor and needs, love your enemies, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, do whatever he tells you!

The Christian pastor and author David Steele refers to this passage and the celebration as “Cana-Grace.” Cana-Grace is the knack of throwing parties that combine food, decorations, music, and laughter to create an atmosphere of welcome, well-being, and love.

The end of the wedding story was a happy one.  The family could save face, and no one was the wiser.  The party went on as scheduled, and Jesus was now on the road to his public ministry.  Jesus brought joy into an otherwise joyless situation.  I know it does not seem like much, but this could have been a catastrophe to the family if they had run out of drink.

Today let us listen to Mary as she says to the servants and us, “Do whatever he asks.”

Amen.

After Seventeen Years It Is Time To Say Goodbye

This past week I submitted a letter stating my intention to retire as Deputy Chief – Northeast of the Massachusetts Corps of Fire Chaplains.  After 17 years in the Corps and 13 years as a deputy, I felt it was time for me to move aside to bring a new voice to the table.

I joined the Corps shortly after I was appointed the first Fire Chaplain in the Town of Dudley, Massachusetts.  I had read an article in the Boston Globe about the work and ministry of the fire chaplains.  I had never really given the fire service much thought past the “I want to be a firefighter when I grow up” talk of my childhood.  I reached out to the Corps only to learn that there was already a chaplain in Southbridge, where I was living.  After meeting with the Southbridge chaplain, a suggestion was made to reach out to the Fire Chief in the next town, Dudley.  I did, and well, the rest is history.

After joining the Corps, I was asked by Chief Fire Chaplain Larry Provenzano to become the Quartermaster and to join the Board of Directors.  In 2009, after a reorganization, I was elected as the Deputy Chief for Central Massachusetts, a position I held until I moved to Quincy in 2015.  After the move and another reorganization, I became Deputy Chief Chaplain -Northeast.  I covered all of the cities and towns from Boston North and West to the border of Worcester County.

Serving as a fire chaplain and as part of the Corps of Fire Chaplains has added a dimension to my ministry that I never thought I would have.  Standing on the fireground in the freezing cold and offering a firefighter a hot cup of coffee seems like a small thing but to that firefighter is means a lot.  In the Corps, we strive to “Serve those who Serve.” So much of our work and ministry is modeled after that of Fr. Mychal Judge, the New York City Fire Chaplain, killed on 9/11.

Deciding to step aside is never an easy decision, but it feels like this is the right time.  It has indeed been an honor to serve the firefighters of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in this role.  Oh, I remain as the chaplain in the City of Quincy, so I am not giving up chaplaincy completely.

The False Idea of Unity

This past week we commemorated the first anniversary of the storming of the United States Capitol Building in an effort to derail the peaceful transfer of government after a certified, free, and fair election. I recall the images I saw on TV as I sat in utter disbelief at what I was seeing. I know some of you may disagree with my sentiment but, that date was a shameful day in American history. Regardless of our beliefs about that day, innocent people were injured and lost their lives, and for that, there can be no justification.

Since the events of that day, there have been calls for unity, calls to put those events behind us, and calls to unify once again as a country. People are saying that we need to come together, like we did after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and I would agree. However, there can be no unity until the truth is spoken and there is reconciliation.

I am all for bringing people together and have spent the better part of my adult life trying to achieve that unity, but sometimes unity is impossible. For example, I cannot see unity with people who think that the event that happened on January 6, 2021, was noble or patriotic. Likewise, I find no unity or common ground with people who hold racist, homophobic, or white supremacist ideas and ideologies. In my mind, there simply can be no unity there.

The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu worked very hard in South Africa after the Apartheid regime fell to bring people of both sides together. He understood that healing needed to happen, but the truth had to be spoken before healing could occur, and justice had to be served. Facing the truth is not always easy, but it is necessary, and facing the truth about oneself and one’s country is always the most brutal truth to face.

One of my favorite movies is The American President starring Michael Douglas and Anette Benning. Near the end of the movie President Shepherd, played by Douglas, is holding a press conference, and he starts to speak about America and how difficult it can be. He says, “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ‘cause it’s gonna put up a fight.”

The greatness of America lies in the understanding that we have not always been perfect. We have made mistakes, big ones, and we have learned from most of them. There is nothing wrong with looking at where we have come from and saying that is not who we are anymore, it is part of our past, but it will not dictate the future.

At the end of the day, we are all in this together regardless of the side of the political spectrum we happen to fall. Unity comes at a cost, and that cost is truth, and that cost is reconciliation. Let us work toward that goal in the coming year.

This article first appeared in the January 13, 2022 edition of the Hull Times.

Affirmed in Love

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Before coming here as your pastor, I served three Churches here in New England as an interim or temporary pastor. I went into a congregation after the previous Minister retired or left to take on another Church. In the first congregation I served, I had also been the Associate Minister, and when the Minister of 35 years retired, I became the Interim. These were not always easy assignments, but they were necessary.

The Interim is the bridge between the former and the new. The job of the Interim is to tie up loose ends and prepare the people to welcome their new Minster. Part of that process is to spend time, usually a year or more, looking at themselves and doing a deep dive into how they operate as Church. What is essential and what is not. What new ministries would they like to begin, if any, and what old ones do they need to say goodbye to.

In some ways, this is what John the Baptist came to do. John the Baptist came to call the people to repentance, or an awareness that their lives were off the track, and prepare the way for the one who would come after him, Jesus. So in a way, John represents the end of the prophetic period of history; he is the last of the prophets sent by God to prepare the people. John then becomes the bridge between the old covenantal relationship of the people with God and Jesus, the new covenant.

We have heard about John before; he is central to Advent. John is the cousin of Jesus, born to Elizabeth and Zachariah. Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary were related, and Mary visited Elizabeth shortly before John was born. Elizabeth tells Mary that when the babe in her womb heard Mary’s voice, he leaped for joy.

John was a true prophet and told it like it was. He did not pull any punches, which inevitably led to his death. John was calling people away from their sins and toward a new life, not a new life that he would give them but the new life that God was about to give them through his only son Jesus.

The passage we heard this morning from Luke is a rather interesting take on the meeting between Jesus and John. Luke is rather eloquent in his telling of the story of the birth of both Jesus and John, but when it comes to this meeting, he simply states that when the people were baptized, Jesus was also baptized. In the other Gospels, there is a conversation between Jesus and John. Jesus asking to be baptized, and John refused to baptize Jesus. In the end, John submits to the authority of Jesus and does what is being asked of him.

But in Luke’s account, Jesus gets in line with the rest of the people and is baptized. No fanfare, no conversation, just another person in line. In the other Gospels, Jesus wades through the line of people and presents himself to John in a very ceremonious way, but for Luke, the humility of Jesus shows forth. Jesus comes from the poorest of the poor to serve all, so he waits in line with the sinners and the cast-offs. This is an act of solidarity, the solidarity that Jesus has with the poor and the needy, the poor in spirit, and those needy of salvation.

I was ordained in the Orthodox Christian tradition, as most of you know. The priest in the Orthodox tradition is almost, but not quite put up on a pedestal and is always given preferential treatment. For example, after worship at the coffee hour, the people would always insist that I went through the line first. Perhaps it was to make sure the food was safe to eat; I am still not sure. But the idea was that I was the priest, so I had to go first. So I insisted that I go last, not out of some great act of humility but rather from the idea that I wanted them to take what they wanted, and I would be happy to have what was left. The older I got in my priesthood, the more this idea of preferential treatment bothered me. Now, there were always those that kept me grounded and often reminded me of who I was, and I am grateful for those folks, but far too often, clergy get caught up in the trappings of their office and forget what it is all about.

The Church can also fall victim to this mentality. When we care too much for the institution and lose sight of those, we are supposed to serve when we get comfortable rather than uncomfortable; when we say the right things rather than stir the pot when we stop speaking for those without a voice because it might draw unwanted attention to ourselves, then we are failing to live up to our calling as Church. The Church is called to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

Just like the way Jesus was born, through this act of waiting in line, Jesus is identifying with the damaged and broken people who are in need of God. God could have changed the story so that Jesus was born to a royal family in a princely palace. But God chose the birthplace of his son to be the lowest of the low. We, as Church, are not to seek power and privilege and walk the halls of power sidling up to those who hold positions of power in society. No, we are to be like John the Baptist and hold the powerful to account for the decisions that they make. We are not to serve at the throne of power but at the humble seat of the poor.

Luke goes on to describe what happens next. After Jesus is baptized, he goes off to pray. One of the examples that Jesus left for us is this idea of daily prayer in our lives, especially when we feel tempted and weak. Jesus is about to start his public ministry, but he goes off and prays to God for assistance before he does. Luke tells us that the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, came and rested upon Jesus. God never sends us on mission alone, God through the power of the Holy Spirit, will always be with us.

Everything that we do, be it as individuals or as a church community, should be done in a spirit of prayer and in the knowledge that God will always be with us and help us. When we start to go off on our own, we get into trouble, when we lose sight of the mission, when we take our eyes off God and trust ourselves more than God.

One of my favorite stories is the story of Jesus walking on the water. You know the story. The Apostles are on a boat, and they see a figure off in the distance coming towards them, walking on water. When they realize it is Jesus Peter, asks Jesus to allow him to walk on water so he can go and meet him. Jesus says, okay, come on. Peter steps of the edge and walks on the water towards Jesus. Then he takes his eyes off Jesus and realizes what he is doing, sees the waves, gets nervous, and starts to sink. He cries out, and Jesus helps him up. Peter took his eyes off Jesus, and he began to sink. As long as Peter’s focus was where it needed to be, he was fine. The moment he looked away and stopped trusting, he sank.

Here comes what I think is the most crucial part of this entire story this week. You have heard me say this before, but it bears repeating. We have already heard that after Jesus was baptized and he went off to pray, the sky opened, and the Holy Spirit came upon him. Yet, at the same time, there was a voice from heaven that said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you, I am well pleased.”

Friends, I have said it before, and I will continue to say it, we are all children of God, and we are beloved. God loves us for who we are and for what we are, and don’t let anyone ever tell you any different.

Jesus could have taken on a position of power and a position of privilege, yet he chose just the opposite. He decided to be born poor and to stand in line with the poor. He took on and challenged the establishment. He not only turned the tables, but he also flipped them over to make room for a new way, the way of love.

I am not sure if you have ever read anything written by or listened to anything Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, has said, but he has a saying that resonates with me, and I think it is an excellent way to end today. Bishop Curry says that “the way of Jesus is the way of love, and the way of love will change the world.”

Let us love one another, and let us change the world.

Amen.

Sermon: The Word Became Flesh

John 1:1-14

The scene has been set, although we cannot tell if it is day or night, winter, or spring but none of that matters. A couple has been walking for days and has finally reached their destination. They have come for the count, ordered by the state. When they arrive, they find there is no room. Perhaps they are staying with family, and more of them arrived than previously thought. Maybe they know no one, so they are knocking on doors looking for a place to stay. The time is coming close, and the woman is about to give birth.

They happen upon a humble cave, or so the story goes, when in actuality, we do not know, nor does it matter. What matters is they found a place and have settled in; it won’t be long now. The baby is born, it is her first, and they wrapped him in bands of cloth and placed him in the only space available, the place where the animals eat their food.

The origins of this little one are strange, to say the least, and they are about to get stranger as shepherds and others start to arrive to see this newborn baby. They come from far and near with the most amazing stories of how they heard about the arrival of this little one. They bring what they have, but most of them just bring themselves. They kneel and pray and thank God for this miracle, for as St. John has put it in his Gospel that we heard this morning, the Word has become flesh and now dwells among us.

This is the heart and essence of the Christmas story; God poured God’s own self into human form. The eternal Word of God – God’s proactive agent in all of creation, even life itself, in a paradoxical condescension took form as a baby of the humblest origins.

But there are questions many questions.

The answers lie back at the very start of creation itself, for, in the beginning, the Word was with God. The Word was present at the moment of the creation of all and is now physically present at the new creation. The Word is the eternal Son of God; the fact that John wrote that the Word WAS with God indicates that the Word has no beginning and is not created. But John says that the Word was WITH God. The Word is a distinct person from the Creator, but they are in eternal Communion together.

But there is more to the story.

Back “in the beginning,” when everything was being created, the Creator took the dust from the ground and, with the Creator’s own hands, fashioned humanity in the very image and likeness of the Creator. God then breathed the breath of life into this new creation’s nostrils and animated humanity. Of all other living beings, humanity is the only one fashioned by the hands of the Creator and animated with the Creator’s breath.

We read on to see that the Creator then places humanity in a garden, paradise where humanity has everything it will need. However, the Creator also gives this creation something else, free will. Humanity has the freedom to choose, and humanity exercises that freedom which places it outside of paradise and separated from the Creator. Humanity mourns the loss of this intimate relationship with its Creator and longs for the days when they will be reunited.

As Christians, we emphasize the resurrection story, and rightly so. There is much to be celebrated for Jesus once and for all overcomes death. No longer are we just to die, but we will have life everlasting with the Creator and all of those we love. But the resurrection of Jesus was not the incident that repaired the relationship. God did not send Jesus, the Eternal Word of God, to be sacrificed on the cross, the symbol of the state’s power. No, God sent Jesus to walk with creation again and provide the way of eternal life. The strained relationship between God and humanity was not repaired by some horrific, bloody sacrifice but by the birth of a tiny baby, born of the humblest of means to an unwed mother in the poorest of the poorest land. God chose that moment and that place to restore the relationship.

Sometimes it is hard to grasp this concept that God loved creation to such an extent that God willingly took on the form of creation to come and show humanity the new way, the way of love. This was a revolutionary idea, so revolutionary was this idea of love and equality, that humanity rebelled again and killed the Creator. So revolutionary was this idea of love that humanity was willing to kill, kill the very essence of that love.

Jesus was not crucified to fulfill some long-ago debit meted out by a vengeful blood-thirsty God; no Jesus was killed by an establishment that was so afraid of losing its power and influence that it had to resort to violence and coercion to stay in power and relevance.

God charted a much different course for humanity and came to show us this new way. We are to love and care for all of humanity. In the birth of this baby, we are reminded that all of humanity is created in the image and likeness of God and that divine spark is the reason for this love and care that we are to show to one another.

The miracle of the birth of Jesus is that it transcends and race or nationality, and no one group can claim ownership of the Creator, for the Creator of all belongs to all regardless of the station of their birth. The Good News of the love of God is now available to all irrespective of the ability of one to pay for it.

The story of Christmas, the real story of Christmas, is about love, for all of humanity and for all of creation.

Christmastide has now entered the 9th day. Many of us have probably taken the decorations down and packed them away for another year, and stores have moved on the next holiday on the list. But the Spirit and message of Christmas cannot be contained to only 12 days, the Spirit and message of Christmas transcend time, and it is up to us to make sure that message of love continues.

In a few moments, we will metaphorically gather around this table where Jesus will become present to us in the gifts of bread and wine. We will ask the Holy Spirit to come upon these gifts and all of us to sanctify and make them and us Holy. We will share from the common loaf and common cup this union of Creator and creation. We do not determine who is worthy to come, for none of us are worthy of our own doing but only by the grace of God poured out can we become worthy.

We do not use this Sacrament of love as a means of separation or reward but as a balm that heals the soul and brings us closer together. If we take nothing else away from this Christmas season, take away the knowledge, the true knowledge that God loves each of us just the way we are and wants us to make sure others know that they are loved just the way they are.

The heart and essence of Christmas is love, the heart and essence of the Gospel is love, the heart and essence of our spiritual life is love, love of God, and love of everyone.

Amen.

Moving with Mary’s Song

Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)

I am a lover of Christmas Carols, as long as they are played during the Christmas Season. Of course, I like a carol that tells a story, but I genuinely appreciate theologically correct carols. I mean, who can forget that theological masterpiece, Dominic the Christmas Donkey. Or that old-time favorite that pulls at the theological imagination, Grandma got run over by a reindeer. Then, of course, there are also those carols that folks want to imagine that have theological significance to them, but it turns out it is just a good sing like the 12 days of Christmas.

But today, we stumble up the answer to the age-old theological conundrum; Mary, did you know?

We have to back up a few months to put it all in context. We have to go back to a small room in an equally small house in Nazareth to where a young girl, probably no more than 13 or 14, is living with her parents. Tradition tells us that her parents, Joachim, and Anna, were childless and constantly prayed that God would bless them with a child. God did, in fact, bless them in their old age, and they had a daughter and named her Mary.

Continuing with tradition, Mary was a unique child and grew up in the Temple hearing the prophets being read and hearing the many stories of the coming Messiah. When it came time for her to be married, she was betrothed to a man named Joseph.

Scripture does not have much to say about Joseph, but tradition tells us he was much older than Mary, a widower, and had children from that previous marriage. Joseph agreed to marry Mary, and a date had not yet been announced for their wedding.

Mary was in that small room one night, and an angel appeared to her. The Angel told her that she had found favor with God and that God had chosen her to be the mother of God’s Son. As one would expect, Mary had some questions, but all she wanted to know was how after all, she was still a maid and was not married yet. That was the only question. Mary agreed.

We must pause here for a moment to take in the gravity of what just happened. The first striking thing that has happened, apart from the Angel and whatnot, is that this young girl decided for herself. Understand how counter-cultural this is. A young girl, such as Mary, would not make any decisions for herself, let alone one that would change her life. Her father and then her husband would make those decisions.

But the other part of this is what is most amazing to me; Mary agreed to become pregnant, without an explanation that she could share, knowing that the penalty for such a crime would, at a minimum, be banishment from the community and at the maximum, she would have been stoned until she was dead. Mary would have known this, yet she placed herself in this danger.

When Joseph found out about this, he was a little concerned, as one can imagine. The story she was telling was utter nonsense. How could this happen? He wanted to end the engagement and send her off someplace, quietly, to have her child. Although he was upset, Joseph also did not want any harm to come to Mary. Joseph shows great compassion for Mary.

That night, the same Angel comes and visits Joseph and tells him that it will all be okay. This will not be the last time this Angel comes and tell Joseph all will be well. But Joseph trusts God, and this messenger is sent from God and takes Mary as his wife.

Now we come to today’s story. After some time, Mary goes off to see he kinswoman Elizabeth. We do not know the actual relationship, but Mary and Elizabeth are related, as best we can figure, Elizabeth is Mary’s aunt. There is joy when they meet; they are both expecting and both because of God’s promise. Elizabeth greets Mary and tells her that the baby in her womb leaped for joy when the baby heard Mary’s voice. Elizabeth questions her kinswoman about the visit and calls Mary, the mother of her Lord. This is the first acknowledgment of what is happening.

Elizabeth continues and tells Mary that she and her child are blessed. Then we find out what Mary knew.

Mary says that she is blessed by God, and she is humbled that she has been chosen for this honor. She says that all generations will remember her, which is true since here we are some 2,000 years later still talking about her.

Then Mary starts to preach, God’s mercy extends to all who believe from generation to generation. God will exalt the humble and scatter the mighty. God will fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty. God will care for all and love all.

In her own way, Mary lays out the Good News that her Son will one day preach that God loves everyone and cares for everyone. God is sending this child to change the way we think and act towards each other and show us a new way of love. Mary knew that this tiny baby was the Son of God and the Messiah; Mary knew it all!

But while we focus on the greatness of the Child that Mary is carrying, we forget what happened in that small room in her house before this. We lose focus of that yes of Mary. God chose Mary, but Mary still had to consent to the plan. Yet, Mary’s courage, trust, and yes, changed the world!

This story is about trust, the trust that we need to have in God. Mary took a risk with the understanding that God would not abandon her. Mary risked her life trusting God, and God did not leave her. It is the same with us. We are being called to trust God with the assurance that God will never abandon us.

Let us pray that we might have the same trust that Mary had, and when God asks us to do something, we simply say yes.

Amen.

Rejoice in the Lord Always

Philippians 4:4-9

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”

We have come to the third Sunday in our Advent journey. On this day we are reminded to rejoice always in the Lord.

The Third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday, which comes from the Latin Introit for the Service on this Sunday.

“Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete. Modestia vestra nota sit omnibus hominibus: Dominus enim prope est. Nihil solliciti sitis: sed in omni oratione et obsecratione cum gratiarum actione petitiones vestræ innotescant apud Deum. Benedixisti Domine terram tuam: avertisti captivitatem Jacob.”

The introit is translated:

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. Lord, you have blessed your land; you have turned away the captivity of Jacob.” Philippians 4:4–6; Psalm 85

Advent began as a 40 day fast in preparation for Christmas and Gaudete Sunday as a break from the harshness of the fast for one day of feasting. Laetare Sunday is the counterpart of Gaudete Sunday that falls on the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

The appointed readings for this Sunday focus on this idea of rejoicing always and the continuing mission of John the Baptist.

Renowned theologian Henri Nouwen describes the difference between joy and happiness. Nouwen says that happiness depends on external conditions. At the same time, joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away.”

As a reminder of that joy, we light the one rose candle in the Advent Wreath as a sign of that joy.

Rejoice in the Lord always; Again, I say, rejoice!

Shepherd of Souls: The Season of Light

This past Sunday, Christians around the world celebrated the First Sunday of Advent. Advent is the season of expectation, preparation, and waiting for the birth of the Christ child. The First Sunday of Advent is also the beginning of the new Church Year, and so we turn the page on a new year with expectations and hope for the coming year.

Traditionally, candles are lit during each of the Sundays of Advent. Each Sunday has a theme; hope, love, peace, and joy, all of which lead up to Christmas Eve, when the Christmas Season begins. In the past, Advent was a penitential season, much like the days of Lent are leading up to Easter. Time would be spent in prayer and meditation to prepare ourselves spiritually for the arrival of Jesus in the Manger.

But Advent is also the season of Light. As Christians, we are called to bring the light of Christ into the darkened world. The candles we light each Sunday represent, in an authentic way, that light. Each week more light is brought into the world to lighten the darkness. Each week, the darkness diminishes just a little until finally, light has overcome the darkness at Christmas. But this requires us to be that light in the world.

This year we are bringing even more light into the world as our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate Hanukkah. Hanukkah is also the season of light, and each night, a candle is lit to dispel the darkness for eight nights. The Festival of Hanukkah celebrates the recovery of Jerusalem and the rededication of the Temple in the 2nd century BCE, and the miracle that took place during the rededication.

The Miracle of Hanukkah was that the single pot of oil supposed to last one day lasted eight. Therefore, candles are lit on the nights of Hanukkah not to illuminate the house from within but to illuminate the home from without so that those passing by will remember and celebrate this miracle.

It is fitting that this year, Jews and Christians celebrate this festival and season of light together. If there was ever a time to bring light into the world, this is the year. Our world so desperately needs the light of hope, the light of love, the light of peace, and the light of joy. This year, we can join forces and bring that light to the world.

But this light is not static, remaining in only one place. We have to bring that light and be that light in our world that has grown so dark. The lighting of the Advent Candles and the Hanukkah candles is the symbol. It is our job to take that light and let it shine bright in the world. We can accomplish this by adopting the themes of the season in our lives, and then it will naturally spread out from there into the world.

Blessed Advent and Happy Hanukkah!

This article originally appeared in the Hull Times December 2, 2021

Sermon: Make Ready

Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

Many, many years ago, my father was teaching me how to paint. Of course, I wanted to get right to it and start to slap the paint on the wall but, he told me about preparation. First, we had to clear out the room. Then, put down drop cloths to catch any paint that might get spilled. Next, remove the hardware from the doors and all receptacles and switch plates.

Next, we had to remove all of the nails or anything else that might be sticking out from the wall. After all of that, the holes were filled with putty. That was it for the first day. The next day, we sanded everything and then ran our hands over the wall and sanded any rough spots that we might find. The next step was to wipe everything down to remove any dust from the walls and baseboards to be painted. That was the end of the second day.

The third day began with getting all of the supplies we might need, paint, brushes, rollers, poles, stirring sticks, rags, etc. Now it was finally time to put the paint on the wall. So it was day three, and we finally got to the task at hand, slapping the paint on the wall.

My father explained that putting the paint on the wall was only a tiny part of the job. If you wanted the job to look right and last, you had to prepare. Preparation, he said, was 90% of the job.

Preparation is what Advent is all about, and that is precisely what we hear from the lips of John the Baptist this morning in the Gospel reading, prepare the way of the Lord.

John was the cousin of Jesus. It is unclear if they knew each other, but my guess is they did. Jesus’ family and the family of John did not live far from each other. Mary, the mother of Jesus, visits Elizabeth, the mother of John, in a story that we will hear in a few weeks. John’s job was to prepare the way for Jesus. He called the world to repentance in preparation for what would happen next.

Repentance is one of those strange things. No one likes to admit when we have done something wrong, but acknowledging our wrongdoings is an essential part of our spiritual life. Of course, we do not want to talk about sin; sin is one of those words that is not polite; however, it applies to all of us. 

Now, I do not believe there are any murders among us this morning, but there are other ways of sinning, not just big ones. Sin is simply missing the mark. The goal of the spiritual life is to be more Christlike and, if you are anything like me, we fail at it daily. That is what sinning is, striving for the goal and not quite making it.

However, we know that God forgives us in those times of failing. The system was set up that way. God says, “I’m going to give you an example to follow, and I know none of you will be able to follow that example completely so, I have made provision for that, it’s called forgiveness.” This is great, but it comes with a bit of a caveat.

For forgiveness to be complete, there needs to be an acknowledgment of our incompleteness. Therefore, in the Lord’s pray we pray, “forgive us our trespasses,” that is, acknowledging our need for forgiveness before God. This is not to say that if we do not ask for it, God will not forgive us, certainly not. But we acknowledge that we need forgiveness for ourselves, for it helps us not to make the same mistakes.

The other part of repentance is the promise to try not to do whatever it is again and to strive to be a little better tomorrow than we were today. This is where growth in the spiritual life comes in, the daily task of being better than we were yesterday.

So, what is the mark we are trying to achieve?

Jesus left us with two simple commandments. First, he summarized all of the law and the previous teaching when he said, Love God with your whole heart, your whole mind, and your whole soul and love your neighbor. So, we love God with all that we have and love and care for those around us. It is that simple. Love God, love everyone.

In effect, Jesus wiped away all of the liturgical sacrifice and other such things that had been imposed on the people. There was no longer a need for sacrifice for forgiveness; we had direct access to God to seek forgiveness. The sacrifice is us and our desire to put God first in our lives and to care for those around us.

We need to strive to put God first in our lives. Study God’s word and spend time in prayer each day. These might seem like easy tasks, but I think we can all agree that it is not as easy as it sounds.

Caring for others has to go past the idea of taking care of their material wants and needs. Of course, there is nothing wrong with feeding, clothing, and housing folks; Jesus talks about that as well. But how do we feel about others in our hearts?

Who are we to love? Close your eyes for a moment. Think about the one person you know or know of that makes your blood boil to be around. The person that if they were on fire, you would put it out by banging on them with a stick. That is the person you are called to love. It’s easy to love those who love us back, but we are not called to take the easy road.

A moment ago, I mentioned the Lord’s Prayer and our asking for our trespasses to be forgiven. I purposefully left off the second part of that line, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Forgive us as we forgive. Forgiveness of others is essential in our lives for spiritual and psychological reasons.

If someone has done us wrong, and we withhold forgiveness, we give them power over a bit of piece of our lives. When we forgive, we take that power back. We can forgive the other even if they do not acknowledge that they have wronged us; forgiveness is for you, not for the other person. Let me say that again; when we offer forgiveness, it is for us, not for the other person.

And forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Just because we have forgiven someone does not mean we need to forget what they did or did not do. We are not called to take everything thrown at us, and we are not called to be doormats that are taken advantage of. Seeking justice is part of forgiveness, so we can forgive the person or persons but still wish to see justice done.

In a few moments, we will partake in the Sacrament of Communion. We will be asking Jesus to dwell in each of us in a very tangible and physical way. We need to make ready; we need to prepare; therefore, on Sunday’s when communion is served, we recite a prayer of confession. We acknowledge that we have missed the mark, ask for the forgiveness of God and others, and hear an assurance that we have been forgiven.

Friends, the act of acknowledging that we have done wrong is not designed to make you feel bad; it is simply an awareness that we can and will do better, and we seek God’s help in doing just that, being better.

John came to call us to repentance to make the crocked place straight and the rough places smooth. Let us strive to do just that and to use this time of Advent to prepare for the coming of the Christ Child.

Amen.

error: Content is protected !!