Search Me

1 Samuel 3:1-10, Psalm 139

In 2018, the streaming service Netflix released a movie about a preacher his community had ostracized for the radical message of inclusiveness he began to preach. Carlton Pearson, the ministry featured in the film, claimed he heard God’s voice, and that voice gave him new insight into Scripture that was so radical for those listening that they abandoned him.

Pearson was ordained in the Church of God in Christ, an evangelical/Pentecostal denomination. He was educated at Oral Roberts University and mentored by Roberts himself. After graduating from university, Pearson would become an associate evangelist in the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association.

1981, Pearson did what many thought was impossible: he started a church in Oklahoma where black and white folx worshipped together. This was revolutionary. He became so popular that his weekly worship services were broadcast on television. In the pre-pandemic world, a preacher being on TV was rare; now, everyone is a TV evangelist. In 1996, Pearson was consecrated as a bishop and continued to rise.

Pearson’s Church has a well-defined doctrine that states non-Christians are dammed to hell for all eternity. Unless you know a particular version of Jesus, are saved by that Jesus, and are washed in the blood of that Jesus, you are going to hell. So, it’s not only non-Christians but non-specific types of Christians going to hell.

Pearson made an excellent living preaching the Gospel of Exclusion; his Church rose to over 1,000 in attendance each Sunday. But soon, that was all going to change.

I don’t often preach and teach from the Hebrew Scriptures, but I make an exception on rare occasions like today. The lectionary gives us the call story of the young Samuel. Samuel is asleep and hears a voice he believes belongs to his master, Eli. Three times, Samuel rises from his slumber and rushes to see what Eli wants, only to be told Eli had not called him.

The third time Samuel comes in and wakes Eli, Eli figures out what is happening. God is calling Samuel, and Samuel needs to listen and discern what God is asking him to do. The people are in disarray and need someone to lead them and straighten out what has gone wrong. They have stopped listening to God and have been relying on themselves. They have been getting lousy intelligence from preachers who seem well-meaning but have been convicted 34 times for doing it incorrectly. This is not the end of these preachers; there are more than 80 more charges against them, but they continue their rise to power because the people refuse to see the truth. Hmmmm, this story sounds all too familiar.

I have mentioned this before: I am a theologian in the reformed tradition. That means that I believe that the Church needed to be reformed and continues to need to be reformed, but we also have been given a brain and the ability to discern. Freedom of thought was a significant point of the reformation, allowing the people to read, understand, and discern Scripture for themselves, with guidance from those trained for that purpose. No longer were we simply to follow for fear of going to hell.

However, the prophets and the mystics were caught up in the cleaning and reform. The Church threw out a very rich portion of her past and has been unable to recapture it. Today, when one speaks of hearing God’s voice, one is treated with skepticism, especially if it is a radical departure from the norm.

Samuel was not sure what he heard. Carlton Pearson was not sure what he heard. But they both knew they heard something and needed to discern where that voice was coming from. Just a bit of caution: God does not call one to maintain the status quo; the opposite is often true. God is calling us to something new, different, and a little scary.

One night, Pearson was watching a television news story about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. He felt a sense of compassion for the people caught up in what was going on to such an extent that he felt a tug or a pull on his heart in a different theological direction. Pearson began to doubt the very idea of hell as a construct of God but rather a construct of humanity. He discerned that hell was not some supernatural creation but rather a creation of humanity.

Pearson’s theology, like that of most Evangelicals, is rooted in the theology of John Calvin, who says humanity is so depraved that it needed a scapegoat to satisfy God, through the blood sacrifice of his only Son, to change its ways. In other words, humanity was born in sin and has a propensity towards sin. Put this in contrast to Wesley, who believed that humankind was basically good but had lost its way, and Jesus came to show us how to get back on track through love and God’s grace.

Changing one’s long-held beliefs about anything, whether theological or political, is difficult. We need solid ground to stand on, and when that solid ground begins to shift, it shakes us to our very core.

But we do not discern on our own; Samuel needed Eli, and Pearson needed some close associates to help him.  Samuel found an ally in Eli, but Pearson had difficulty finding someone who would listen to him. The call must be tested and tried to make sure it is God and not us.

In my almost 20 years in ministry, I have encountered several people who feel they have been called to ordained ministry. God called me, and I must listen to that call. My usual response is that God calls, but the Church tests and confirms that call. We do not and should not ordain someone just because they feel God has called them. This testing, this discernment, does take and should take years because we do not want to make the wrong decision. Does that still happen, yes, it does, but we try to see that it does not.

Pearson developed the Gospel of Inclusion and stated that Jesus came to save the whole world, not just the elect. That through God’s love, mercy, and grace, all will be redeemed, and it is our job to bring God’s kingdom here to earth and not wait for God’s kingdom on some fluffy cloud somewhere. Pearson believed that Jesus came to all and for all, not just those who believed in him. This radical departure was too much for some and led Pearson to be branded a heretic by his Church and cast into the outer darkness. I know the feeling.

In a letter from Paris in 1787 to Mr. Willilam Smith, private secretary to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.” What Jefferson was saying, I believe, is that we must never become complacent; we must always be willing to look at how things can be changed for the better. Of course, Jefferson was writing about the new Constitution but the same is true in the Church.

There is an idea that the Church undergoes what has been called a 500-year rummage sale. This is the process whereby the Church looks in all the nooks and crannies to find things to give the heave-ho or to change. But change should not happen simply for change sake but should only come after periods of discernment and testing to see if the proposed change is God’s will or not. I am not talking about what color to paint the Church’s front doors, but rather theological understanding.

The point of all of this is simple: God is continuously speaking to and through the Church. The Church needs to reclaim its prophetic voice and be that voice crying in the wilderness, not to condemn but to show just how much God loves the world. The Church needs to be the voice that helps people and does not cause harm. Author and Theologian Sarah Bessy said, “People should never be the collateral damage of your theology.”

God’s voice needs to be heard, especially in our crazy, mixed-up world that we are living in now. We are bombarded with conflicting messages every day, and we need to hone our skills of discernment. Is what we hear helping or hurting? Does what we hear promote love or hate? Is what we hear from God or ourselves.

God is still speaking to us, and God is still speaking to the Church. The question is, are we listening?

Amen.

All Consuming Presence

John 3:1-17

On the Church calendar, today is set aside to commemorate the Holy Trinity. This uniquely Christian doctrine defines the relationship between God, the creator, Jesus, the redeemer, and the Holy Spirit, the sustainer. There is one argument that states belief in the Trinity is what makes one a Christian.

I agree with this but add that it is not what we believe that makes us something but whether we live by the words we believe. One can believe all the right things and say all the right words, but one’s actions will deny everything one says and believes. So, being a Christian requires more than just the correct belief.

There is no direct biblical evidence for the belief in the Trinity, but there are shadows of the Trinity in all parts of Scripture. Written into the creation story is the image of the Trinity, “let us make them in our image.” During the creation event, the Spirit hovers over the water and controls the chaos that can be found there.

Later in Scripture is the story of three guests who come to visit Abraham. This story is known as the “Hospitality of Abraham,” and the three guests represent the three persons of the Trinity. There is another meaning to this story: we are to treat all guests as special, as we never know if we are hosting angels.

Then we turn to John’s Gospel and the most poignant example of Trinitarian theology. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In the written text, the Word is capitalized to indicate a proper name. The Word of God is not Scripture; the Word of God is Jesus. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

Jesus speaks of the relationship of the three Divine Persons but in a veiled way. The study of theology would have been much simpler if Jesus just said what he meant, but that is not the case. Jesus speaks of this relationship between himself and God and, towards the end of his ministry on earth, mentions that the “advocate” will soon come to be with them. He mentions the Holy Spirit as the Advocate, which we celebrated last week at Pentecost.

As with all doctrines, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity took years to define, redefine, and refine. I will also add that this is one of the most incomprehensible doctrines of the Church. However, it is still an important doctrine, for we learn a bit about human relationships by understanding the relationship between the three persons.

So, what is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity? Sit back, relax, close your eyes, and prepare to be dazzled by my theological brilliance.

“The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is the central doctrine concerning the nature of God, which defines one God existing in three coequal, coeternal, consubstantial divine persons: God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ) and God the Holy Spirit, three distinct persons (hypostases) sharing one essence/substance/nature (homoousion). As the Fourth Lateran Council declared, it is the Father who begets, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds.”

Did you get that?

I won’t spend much time trying to unpack all that since I do not truly understand it. It is also an attempt to explain the unexplainable. I am not sure we are supposed to understand God, and trying to put human emotions and words on God only limits a limitless being.

Like most things theological, we come to this definition in reverse. The question began if Jesus was divine, and therefore God, how could God be killed on the Cross? So, theologians got together and backed into this definition. The critical thing to remember is that there are not three gods, only one. Think of it in the same way marriage changes a couple. Joined together, they are one, but they do not cease to be separate people.

Let me emphasize something I said earlier: it is not belief in doctrine that makes us Christian. How we live and what we are taught makes us a Christian. I believe that doctrine is vital as it gives us a basis for our beliefs. The creeds and other statements have been hammered out over time and are the basic beliefs, not the totality. Do you have to understand it all? No. Do you have to believe it all? No.

I am more of a Red Letter Christian than a doctrinal Christian. If you recall older versions of Scripture, the words of Jesus were printed in Red. Red Letter Christians focus more on what Jesus actually said rather than what others say he says. Go right to the source rather than secondary writings.

With all of that said, let’s look at John’s Gospel, which we heard this morning.

Nicodemus comes to see Jesus. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a leader of the people who must be very careful in coming to see Jesus. At this point, Jesus is starting to get the leaders’ attention. This meeting takes place just after Jesus flipped the tables in the Temple, an event designed to get the attention of the authorities.

Nicodemus comes at night. He is lurking in the shadows so as not to be seen by anyone. He acknowledges that Jesus is what he says he is: God’s son. This could not have been easy for him. Nicodemus wants to learn more and understand what Jesus is all about. But he is confused by what Jesus is telling or attempting to tell him. He ends up leaving more confused than when he arrived. He must have had some understanding or at least enough that piqued his curiosity. We see Nicodemus again after Jesus’ crucifixion. Nicodemus brings the spices that are necessary for the burial rite to take place. Not only is this a significant expense for him, but he is also doing it very publicly, which shows that he believes that Jesus is what he says he is.

But the end of this passage is the most important to grasp.

We hear the famous line, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” As important as I believe this verse to be, it is the next one that sets the pace.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Let’s sit with this for a moment. God did not send Jesus to condemn. Out of love, God sent Jesus not to condemn Creation but to point the way towards salvation. God could have destroyed all of Creation but chose a different path, the path of love. If Jesus did not come to condemn the world, why do we humans feel it is our Job?

I will also point out that the 3:16 line says, “But may have eternal life.” Some translations say, “Shall have eternal life.” I point this out to show that Jesus did not come to force anyone to do anything but instead pointed the way and left the rest to us. The choice is ours.

Earlier, I mentioned that Trinity is an example of how we relate to one another. The Trinity is an excellent example of what Methodists call contextualism, the idea that we are connected.

Although each of the three persons is separate, they share the same essence and mission, if you will. What joins them together and what keeps them together is love. Augustine developed this idea of the Trinity as love in the 5th century, and it is the backbone of the idea that we are to relate to one another through love.

God loved Creation so much that Jesus came, through love, to show us a different way. Because God did not want to abandon Creation after Jesus’ ascension, God sent the Spirit, who continues the work of Jesus, helps point the way, and gives us the strength to live in love as Jesus taught.

The Trinity is not about hypostasis, homousion, or all the significant theological terms. The Trinity is about love, relationships, mission, and how we are all connected to each other and all of Creation. Salvation is not an individual act, but rather, it is a corporate act. Salvation does not end when we “give our life to Christ, “find Jesus,” or “get washed in the blood,” whatever any of that means. Salvation begins and ends with how we treat and relate to one another. We are to love one another. And care for each other and Creation. The Trinity exists to show us this way, this way of relationship. God needed the other for Creation to happen. Jesus needed the others to complete his mission. The Holy Spirit continues to need the energy of others to walk with us and guide us as we live and love others.

The verse says, “God loved the world.” It does not say, “God loved individuals,” it does not even say God loved humanity, and it certainly does not say that God loved the United States of America. The verse says God loves the world, all of it.

Our “salvation,” whatever that means, is directly tied to the salvation of others because it is dependent upon how we treat the other. Believe in the doctrine of the Trinity or don’t believe in the doctrine of the Trinity; that’s not important. Living out the relational aspect of the Trinity is what’s important.

Jesus said, “love God love neighbor. On these two hang all the law and the prophets.” This was not a suggestion; it was a command.

So, go forth and love. Love God. Love all of humanity. And love all of Creation.

Amen.

Not all Catholics are Roman

In the summer of 2023, I was elected bishop by the Holy Synod of the Ancient Apostolic Church of Alexandria (AACA). My consecration was to have taken place in October of 2023, but due to my accident, surgery, and subsequent complications, it has been postponed until May of 2024.

Bishops are teachers of the faith, and vow to “guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church.” This can sometimes be challenging in this ever-changing world we live in; we need guideposts along the way. Guarding “the faith” does not mean sticking to things that do not work or language one can no longer understand. God is continuing to reveal God’s self to humanity, and as such, we need to be willing to reinterpret what we thought we understood, considering our age.

The AACA is a micro-denomination consisting of very few clergy and an even lesser number of lay people. The AACA is an inheritor of the Old Catholic and Liberal Catholic traditions, which I will explore further in this essay and the following.

Having a solid foundation is essential in any discussion, especially a theological discussion, so to that end, a common understanding of terms is essential.

In his book, “A Catechism for the Liberal Catholic Church,” Bishop Wynn Wagner defines the term “liberal” not in its most common form, political, but from a theological understanding. “The word ‘Liberal’ comes from the Latin word for ‘free.’ We strive to be free and generous in our thinking and our actions. We try to let you be as free as you are, so we try to avoid bigotry and divisive dogma.”

With this definition in mind, the AACA has set for the following vision:

“The vision of the Ancient Apostolic Church of Alexandria is to honor the past while embracing the present. We seek to respectfully engage creedal theology while dialoging deeply the esoteric and mystical themes that have been always present in the church, but which have at times been suppressed and ignored. Ours is a vision of contemplation and service. We walk a pilgrim path seeking ever to enjoin fellow spiritual sojourners in the way of wisdom and Transfiguration.”

The other problematic word in a discussion such as this is the word “catholic.” The title of this essay is “Not all Catholics are Roman.” When one uses the term “catholic,” one immediately thinks of Rome, and that is all well and good, but the definition is much broader than that.

Again, turning to bishop Wagner, “The word ‘catholic’ is often translated as ‘universal’ and that is a fairly good definition. It actually comes from the Greek word that means ‘whole.’” Bishop Wagner continues, “If you are universal, you can be many things at the same time… The word universal is a way of saying something is a generic fit for everything. If something is whole, it is a healthy fit, a fundamental fit. A universal church can divide believers from non-believers, while a whole church sees God’s hand at work everywhere.”

Although I will explore the history of the Liberal Catholic Church in another essay, the LCC was founded in 1916 by Bishop James Ingall Wedgwood and further built upon by Bishop Charles Webster Leadbeater. The LCC combines the sacramental practice of the “catholic church” with freedom of belief. In essence, the LCC is catholic but reformed. The AACA seeks to deconstruct the Liberal Catholic Church tradition holding three qualities in tension: tradition, innovation, and culture.

Quoting from the website of the AACA

“The three qualities we hold in tension guide us in our continued reconstruction of the Liberal Catholic Church tradition in that we value and honor the rich theological heritage of sacramental Christianity seen in the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches, and within Anglicanism, and with the Liberal Catholic Church tradition evolved in the past hundred plus years. We are not stuck in tradition, holding onto it like a golden calf; instead, we endeavor to seek liturgical and theological innovation that honors the past, respects the present, while looking reverently to the future.”

Wagner, W. (2008). A Catechism of the Liberal Catholic Church (3rd ed.). CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Website of the Ancient Apostolic Church of Alexandria: aacofa.org

Good Friday: Hail, King of the Jews

Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung on the tree,
The King of the angels is decked with a crown of thorns.
He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.
He who freed Adam in the Jordan is slapped on the face.
The Bridegroom of the Church is affixed to the Cross with nails.
The Son of the virgin is pierced by a spear.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
Show us also Thy glorious resurrection.”

These are the words from the 15th antiphon of the service of Matins of Good Friday and remind us of what has happened. The creator of all that we see has been murdered by the very people who should have been rejoicing at his coming. So filled with greed and hatred and fearful of a loss of power, they became traitors and killed the very God worship because they were too blind to him.

I think we underestimate what has taken place. We focus so much on the dying for our sins business that we miss the beauty of the whole thing. We get so caught up in ourselves and what was done for us that we overlook what was done and by whom.

It hit me last night. I was alone in church tidying up a bit when I started thinking about the foot-washing portion of last night’s service. The Maundy Thursday service is my favorite of all the Holy Week services. So much is happening, and the symbolism is vibrant if you are looking for it.

We have the scene in the Upper Room with Jesus and his friends. As an act of humility and a lesson on how we are to serve one another, Jesus kneels and washes their feet. Washing a person’s feet is usually the job of the lowest member of the household; it is not a pleasant task, but it must be done. The roads of 1st century Palestine were dirty and dusty, so one’s feet would be a mess when entering a house. In smaller homes, a basin with water would be stationed near the door; in larger houses, an attendant would wash your feet.

But in this scene, God the creator, in the person of Jesus the Son, kneels before creation itself and washes its feet. The King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the creator and sustainer of the universe, has taken on the role of a servant, lower than a servant, as an example of how we are to be of service. It gives me chills to even think about it.

This is why the bloody sacrifice theology does not make sense to me. A God willing to go to such an extent to show humanity a better way is not the God that desires a blood sacrifice for some debt that that same humanity owes back to God. It simply makes no sense.

I have no idea why Jesus had to die, but he did.

But at this moment, let us focus on this cross in the middle of the sanctuary. The cross is a symbol. For us, it is a symbol of hope and love. But for folx in the 1st century, the cross symbolized oppression and death. But the wood that fashioned the cross did not start this way.

There is no doubt in my mind that Jesus learned the carpenter’s trade at the knee of his stepfather, Joseph. It would have been unusual for a son not to learn the father’s trade. I have no idea, nor does tradition tell us what Joseph made. Did he build chairs, tables, or houses? Did he fix broken stuff? We don’t know anything other than that he was a carpenter and worked with his hands.

Wood is part of creation that begins its life as a tiny seed that, if conditions are right, will grow thousands of times its size and can be used for many purposes. Trees provide oxygen, shade, and, sometimes, food. When cut down, that same tree will keep us warm and help us cook our food. We can build useful things with wood, like tables and chairs, and altars for sacrifice and celebration.

The Romans used wood to oppress the conquered people. The wood of the cross became a symbol of fear and death and an end rather than a beginning. The Romans undoubtedly felt wood was useful, but little did they know just how useful it would be.

“Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung on the tree.”

Many of the faithful do not like to meditate on the events of God Friday; they prefer the happy resurrected Jesus rather than the bloody Jesus of this day. But we cannot have Easter if we do not have Good Friday. We cannot have life, everlasting life if we do not first have death.

I turn again to Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury.

“Good Friday invites us into a place of utter desolation. It reminds us of everything that is not good in the world: gross injustice, abuses of power, scapegoating of the vulnerable and those who are different, betrayal, abandonment, and the horrendous violence that human beings always seem willing to inflict upon one another. All that is ugly, shameful, and sinful about humanity is brought into focus on Good Friday, as Jesus is nailed upon a cross.

And yet, it is Good, not because of what takes place but because, within the worst of circumstances, Jesus demonstrates God’s self-giving for a broken world with profound and ultimate goodness. Jesus demonstrates the cost of goodness in the world—through his self-sacrifice to pay the price of all sin—and does not shrink from it, despite the tears and fears of Gethsemane.”

The Archbishop speaks of Jesus’ payment of the “price of all sin.” Notice he did not say in payment of a debt due to sin. Yes, Jesus was murdered because of sin. Jesus was murdered because of the very ugliness of humanity, that very humanity that God loves so much. Jesus was murdered because he spoke of love, acceptance, and service to all and for all.

The religious leaders wanted Jesus put to death because he was calling them out for the shenanigans. They were so drunk with power that they could not see another way, so they convinced the Romans to do their dirty work for them, and the Romans, who could have cared less, obliged them.

But that wood of death, oppression, and fear turned into the wood that brought new life and hope in a world gone crazy. There was nothing special about the wood chosen; it was just ordinary wood. But God used ordinary things for extraordinary purposes.

Hanging on that wood, Jesus showed just how much love he had for humanity. Below him were those who had just nailed him there. They were mocking him and casting lots for his clothes. Looking down through blood and sweat, Jesus forgave those who had just killed him. It might not have meant anything to those gathered there at that time, but for us, it shows the extent of his love, God’s love for all of humanity.

“Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung on the tree,
The King of the angels is decked with a crown of thorns.
He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.
He who freed Adam in the Jordan is slapped on the face.
The Bridegroom of the Church is affixed to the Cross with nails.
The Son of the virgin is pierced by a spear.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
Show us also Thy glorious resurrection.”

Maundy Thursday: By this everyone will know

John 13:1-17

It should come as no surprise that I believe the central message of the Gospel, the good news of the Gospel, is love. God loves the world so much that the events of the next three days were allowed to unfold. God loved creation to such an extent that God was willing to come and be part of it and show us a new way to live, to love, and to serve.

The name Maundy comes from the Latin mandatum and refers to the last line of the Gospel passage we read this evening. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” A new commandment, not a new suggestion, a commandment, a mandate, a mandatum.

Tonight, we commemorate the institution of the Sacrament of the very body and blood of Jesus. Through the act, Christ gave himself and continues to give himself to the Church and the world. This was a gift of sacrificial giving and is the only thing that can be given. The selfless outpouring for others is the essence of love—no greater love than to lay down one’s life for others.

But let us back up a bit in the story.

Jesus is gathered with his friends for their last Passover together. They are together, in borrowed space, unsure of what is coming. They are all there is a hopeful expectation that this is the night that the plans are announced. Indeed, plans have been announced that will revolutionize how we interact. But these are not the plans they were expecting.

The revolution was not physical but spiritual. They will all know this…

Several times during the evening, Jesus refers to this: do this, remember this, know this. What is this?

When the supper was ended, Jesus took bread, “and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.'” We heard these words of Paul in his letter to the Church in Corinth. These are called the “Words of Institution” and are said each time we celebrate the Eucharist.

Jesus takes the bread and the cup and offers them to those seated with him, offering himself to the world through this. This is sacrificial love in action. But it goes deeper than that. This is not some mere symbol; in a spiritual way, Jesus comes to us through this Sacrament.

There is also a reconciling element to communion. It has become the fashion to use the Sacrament as a weapon to divide God’s people further. Some places of worship restrict who can come to the table for many reasons, none of which I believe are valid.

At that first celebration of communion, all of Jesus’ Apostles were present, all of them. Except for John, all those sitting around that table would abandon Jesus in his hour of need. They would think of themselves and their safety rather than be with their friend and teacher in his final hours. Peter was there, the one who would three times deny that he knew Jesus. And Judas, the one who betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver was there and was given the bread and cup of reconciliation and love.

It is important to remember that although Jesus knew what would happen and what those around that table would do, he still provided the bread of life and the cup of salvation. He reconciled them, forgave them, and provided the grace of the Sacrament. How can we do any less?

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had this to say, specifically about foot-washing but along the same lines as the reconciling element of communion.

“Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. Every disciple. Jesus also predicts his death and the betrayal of Judas. Yet he washes Judas’ feet. Jesus knew what Judas would do, but still, he breaks bread with him. Jesus extends love and the possibility of change and redemption all the way to the end. He never treats Judas as ‘the enemy’, as worthless, as someone whose dignity and humanity can just be erased or disregarded. Even in betrayal and pain, Jesus attends to the humanity of the one who hurts him.”

Love, forgiveness, and service will be the themes for the coming days. Jesus shows us through his actions how and why we are to love and serve all and work to bring reconciliation wherever we can. This is the Gospel in action and is an imperative.

We show love by our actions, and one of those actions is not setting up artificial obstructions to God’s grace. God made it rather simple; we have made it difficult. It is a very weak God that needs humanity to defend it. Why would we spend so much time and energy building higher walls when God wants us to build larger tables.

If we truly love our neighbor, then it is our responsibility to work to dismantle all those things that separate all of those policies that keep people out when we should be letting them in. God is not the God for just a few, but rather God, my God anyway, is the God that loves all equally and without hesitation.

By this, everyone will know.

By this love, by this outpouring of love, by this sacrificial love that Jesus taught us and that we are commanded to show to others is how they, the world, will know that we are his followers.

Amen

Palm Sunday: Blessed is the one

Mark 11:1-11

Today is a day of contrasts in the story leading up to the coming week’s events. We begin the story with everyone shouting Hosanna to the Son of David. Jesus is triumphantly entering the Holy City to the acclamation of the people, but in a few short days, shouts of joy and praise will be turned to the bloodthirsty cries of crucify him.

Before the liturgical reform in the 1960s, Passion and Palm Sunday were two separate days, but now, we conflate and commemorate them together. In one single service, we move from joy to sadness.

As an interesting aside, tomorrow, March 25th, is the day when the Annunciation is commemorated. This is traditionally celebrated as the day the angel visited Mary and told her that she was to have a baby and that his name would be Jesus. This year, just as we begin the slow walk to the cross, we have a glimpse of the Manger. The two stories come together and pass by one another. Such is the way of all things; as we commemorate a death, life is just around the corner. Another reminder that the death of Jesus was not the end of the story; it was just the beginning.

In previous years, we began our service outside, holding palm branches. As we did this morning, we would bless the palm and then hear the Gospel that was just read. We would then process into the church, reenacting that procession in Jerusalem. Toward the end of the service, we would hear another Gospel read, this time the Passion Gospel, the Gospel of Jesus’s crucifixion. We hear the same Gospel on Good Friday.

This year, however, my focus is going in a different direction.

Holy Week is a special time for me. It is the time of year when I become hyper-aware of my sense of spirituality, and it gives me a laser focus for my reflection and meditation. I usually choose one book to read this week, but this year, I did not pick a book. Amid home renovations and moving, Holy Week snuck up on me. We are rather lucky we have Palms this morning.

I have a focus, something I have never really paid much attention to in the past.

It’s easy to focus on spiritual things this time of year, and the Gospel basically preaches itself. However, we can become complacent with the story. How many times have we heard this story? We all know how it’s going to end, and there really is not much spin I can put on it.

A few weeks ago, during my preparation time, I read the various stories we would hear in the coming days. They are all familiar stories we have listened to hundreds of times. I was flipping through some commentaries and notes I had taken previously when a thought sprouted in my mind. During this Holy Week, I will focus on those people in the shadows of the story, the ones we don’t hear much about.

The obvious players in this drama are Jesus, the 12, the High Priest, Herod, Pilate, and so on. But what of the others?

Tomorrow’s Gospel takes us to Bethany, the home of Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. On Tuesday, we hear another familiar story. I say it is familiar because we just heard it a few weeks ago when the Greeks came to see Jesus. Wednesday takes us to the Last Supper and those who are just off stage waiting at the table. And so on through the week.

Today, we have an interesting person, the colt’s owner, who Jesus will use to ride into Jerusalem.

We know nothing of this man and never hear from him again. We actually never meet the man himself, only his colt. He lives just outside of Jerusalem, on the main road, so there are always people traveling by. I wonder if the man knew what part he was about to play in the story.

So, Jesus sends two of his Apostles—we don’t know which two as they are not named—into the city to get this colt. Mark is not very specific in his description, but a colt can either be a horse or a donkey. Either way, it is a young beast, under four years of age, that has never been ridden.

He tells them to go and get it, and if anyone questions you, tell them, “The Lord needs it.” Scripture tells us that some bystanders questioned them as they were untying the colt. They knew who this colt belonged to and were concerned that it was being stolen. The Apostles did as they were instructed, and they were off.

I have questions. Not questions of great theological importance to which the answers will change the way I think about the events about to unfold but, questions. Did the bystanders know the Apostles that were sent? Had they heard of Jesus before? Did they follow them and join in the singing? Were these same “bystanders” “bystanders” later in the week as part of the throng calling for Jesus’ crucifixion?

Again, none of the answers will change how I think about events; I like to let my mind wander a bit.

But whatever happened to them, they had a role to play in the story, as did the owner of the colt, whom we had never met.

Tradition tells us that Jesus’ earthly ministry lasted only for three years. He never traveled more than 20 miles in any one direction from his home in Nazareth. Along this path, he encountered many people, most of whom we hear about in the Gospels. We are about those Jesus came in direct contact with and those he healed with a touch, a word, or a prayer. We have no idea how many people were affected by Jesus in those three years.

Somewhere in the crowds of people was someone who was struggling with something that only they knew about. Maybe, just maybe they heard a word or saw something that changed their perspective on things. Maybe, just maybe they were sick and just being able to see Jesus changed their life. We never truly know the impact of the words we say or the deeds we do and the ripple effect that takes place.

If we look at those in the background, they all have one thing in common: They served, and by their service, other things were able to happen. In today’s story, the man provided a colt, a simple beast of burden that enabled Jesus to ride into Jerusalem. If it were not for that man and his sacrificial act, the story might have been different or not have happened at all.

The point is that we all serve in one way or another. Some prepare, getting things ready so other things can happen. There are those who pray to give strength to others. Some give their time, talent, and treasure to make the rest possible.

A few months ago, Nicky and I took Oonagh to see a stage production of Cinderella at the Company Theater. Oonagh loves the story and music and enjoyed the play. It was a great production. Most of the attention is given to those out front, the ones who sing and perform. But none of what they do would be possible if it were not for the ones in the black who move stuff and set stuff up. They are the ones whose names scroll by quickly as we exit the theater, but their job is vital to the performance.

We all have a role to play in the story; some will be out front, and others, most of us will be in the shadows, diligently doing what we always do to make sure things happen when they are supposed to happen.

The world changed because the man allowed the Apostles to take the colt.

Let us strive to be like those in the shadows and keep doing what we are doing.

Amen

Loving the Light

John 3:14-21

Several years ago, I helped to chaperone a ski trip for the youth group at one of the Churches I was serving. I am not a skier, nor do I really like anything about being out in the snow and the cold, but it’s part of the job, so I went.

We stayed in this large lodge with a central gathering area where we spent most of the time when we were not out on the slopes. This is where I made camp. It was a big room with a lovely fireplace, and for the most part, it was quiet as everyone else was out.

This was the room where we had our meals. More often than not, they were pick-up meals, you know, you grab something on the way by. But the dinner meal was special. A large table was in the middle of the room, and everyone gathered round. There was enough room for everyone, and no one was left out.

The conversation around the table was centered around the activities of the day. How this one skied this slope and that one fell a few times. However, towards the end of the meal, someone would ask me a religious question. They had a tradition of “Stump the Minister,” where they would ask questions to stump me. I have mastered the skill of not answering the question being asked by answering another question but making them think I responded to their question.

The trip was over a long weekend, and on Sunday night, we held a simple service, and I preached something, I cannot remember what. But whatever it was, it sparked a conversation between and another person that lasted long into the small hours of the night. Like that sermon, I cannot remember what we talked about, but we moved from one topic to another, sometimes religious and sometimes political. Deep questions that usually are only asked in certain situations.

Today’s Gospel from John starts in the middle of a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a Pharisee and part of the ruling class. He came to see Jesus at night, so no one saw him. A Pharisee cannot be seen asking questions; a Pharisee is the one who has all the answers.

To put these verses, which we heard today, into context, we need to back up to the start of this chapter. Nicodemus says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Nicodemus acknowledges who and what Jesus is. Nicodemus is wise enough to know that only someone sent by God could do the things Jesus has been doing. This is only the third chapter of John, and yet Jesus is already sparking conversations. In chapter 2, Jesus turns water into wine, and, as we heard last week, Jesus flips over the tables in the Temple and goes on a rampage against turning God’s house into a house of thieves. This has come to the attention of the ruling class.

The Gospels record very few private, intimate conversations. Jesus usually preaches to large numbers or teaches his followers, but here we have Jesus sitting with Nicodemus alone at night, having a deep discussion about the nature of faith and what Jesus is here to do.

Jesus answers Nicodemus with this curious phrase about being born again. Naturally, Nicodemus wants to know how this can happen and how someone can be born again.

I believe this one of those phrases has caused more harm than good over the years. Ask an Evangelical Christian, not the crazy ones building walls and restricting women’s rights. Still, the average, everyday Evangelical what it means to be “born again,” and you will hear about the anointing of the Holy Spirit, turning your life over to Jesus, public declarations of salvation, backsliding, and all the rest.

I am not saying that is wrong. It’s not how I see it in context with the rest of Scripture.

You have heard me say that Jesus came to bring change, a change in our relationship with God, and a change in our relationship with others. I interpret this passage as “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they change.”

Jesus speaks of being born of the water and the Spirit as an apparent reference to baptism and the necessity of one being baptized. Part of our theological understanding of baptism is that we die with Christ and rise again. Baptism is not a cleansing from some long-ago sin supposedly committed in some garden. Baptism is a realignment of ourselves with that of God.

But what about those of us who were baptized as infants and did not choose to be baptized but rather someone else chose it for us? This is where confirmation comes in. As reformed Christians, we do not hold confirmation to the same level as baptism and communion; they are not sacraments in the same sense but rather sacramental acts. The rite of confirmation is an opportunity to publicly declare that Jesus is Lord and that you will walk according to his teaching about love to the best of your ability.

I want to stress again that this is a private conversation that Jesus is having. They are probably sitting around a fire; they might be leaning close to each other so others do not hear. Jesus’ friends are probably sleeping nearby, and Nicodemus does not want anyone to listen to him asking these questions.

With this backdrop in mind, here comes one of Jesus’ most famous lines, and he says it in private, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” As crucial as that line and its theological understanding, what comes next in verse 17 is more important.

 “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

Let’s think about this briefly: Jesus did not come to condemn. This was not only a seismic shift in the first century but also a seismic shift today. If Jesus did not come to condemn the world, then how is it possible that I am supposed to condemn the world? Keep in mind that when we speak of “the world,” we are speaking of all of creation, all of it.

Now, unlike many people today, my theological education can come from a school and not the seminary of Facebook. I have read more than one book about theology and understand that there is so much more I need to learn and understand. However, sometimes, social media proves to be a worthy advocate. I mean, a broken clock is right twice a day.

The other day, I came across this little saying, which has stuck with me in preparation for these words today. “After close study, I have concluded that Jesus believed there are two kinds of people: your neighbors, whom you are supposed to love, and your enemies, whom you are supposed to love.”

In the entirety of what Jesus said, not what others said he said but the actual words handed down to us, Jesus does not condemn anyone. Sure, he has some pretty harsh words for the religious leaders of his day, but he does not condemn them. Hanging on the cross, he forgives those who have just done this to time. He forgives the thief and tells him he will join him in paradise. No words of condemnation ever!

How did we take such a simple message, love everyone, and make it so complicated? This message is so simple that Jesus chose to say it not on some big mountain but as part of an intimate conversation between two people. Our faith is about relationships, our relationship with God, and our relationship with each other.

Now, I call it a simple message, which certainly is, but loving is the most challenging thing we can do. Condemnation is easy; hate is easy, but love, love costs us something. Love requires a dying to self and our natural sense of whatever is best for me. Love requires us to listen even to the stuff we do not want to hear. Love requires us to change our vocabulary from “I” to “we” and from “me” to “us.” Love my friends is not easy but it is required.

But God knows this. A God that loves the created world so much that this all-powerful being is willing to lower oneself, to leave the throne, so to speak, and walk with the little people is not going to require something impossible. What sort of all-loving, benevolent God would that be?

God knows that we will fail, but there is no condemnation, there is no; sorry, but you cannot come in. God has shown us a way of love and that way makes room for all sorts of trips and falls, mistakes, and wrong turns. All God asks of us is that we try, we try to love our neighbor and we try and love our enemies.

This is the good news of Jesus Christ, not that he died to remove some sin, but that Jesus came to show us a new way of living and a new way of loving. Humanity had lost its way and was more interested in condemnation. But that little verse after the one at football games tells the real story. Knowing that God sent Jesus to us how much the creator cares for creation is essential, but the idea that there is no condemnation in that is of the utmost.

The good news, the message we need to preach, is that the love that God has for us is unconditional and complete love; there is no condemnation, not now, not ever.

The way of Jesus is the way of love. And the way of love will change the world.

Amen.

First Sunday in Lent

Mark 1:9-15

I know some superstitious people. If we don’t want it to rain, you throw salt out the back door of your house. I know folks who won’t step on cracks in the sidewalk; I am not sure why. They will cross to the other side rather than step on a crack. It has been said that baseball players are some of the most superstitious people and will often go weeks, maybe months, doing things a certain way rather than breaking the streak. People believe in all sorts of strange things that have no explanation.

I am not a big believer in demons and all those other evil things we hear about in Scripture and from Evangelicals trying to get your money. Is there evil in the world? Yes. Is there a prime mover of that evil? I am not so sure. However, if there is a prime mover, the best candidate would be religion itself and its ability to frighten people with fantasy stories. We often make excuses like the devil made me do it rather than face reality.

Today, there is a much better understanding of mental illness than there ever was before, and what previously seemed like a possession of a spiritual nature turned out to be a mental illness of one kind or another. So no, I don’t believe in demonic possession and all that other rubbish. I don’t find that sort of talk helpful; I find it harmful.

We will be strolling through Mark’s Gospel for much of this liturgical year. Mark is the second of the four Gospels and is part of the synoptic tradition, meaning that much of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are shared and believed to have come from a common source. Mark follows the story of Jesus from His baptism by John, which we heard this morning, to his death, burial, and the discovery of the empty tomb.

Mark portrays Jesus as a teacher, healer, and miracle worker, although no mention of a miraculous birth or Jesus’ existence before time began. Mark refers to Jesus as the “Son of Man” and the “Son of God” but keeps the talk of Jesus being the Messiah a secret and even portrays the Apostles as not understanding the true nature of Jesus. Mark is just about the facts with very few embellishments.

Most scholars believe the Gospel was written by John Mark, a companion of Peter, and was written to a predominantly Gentile audience. Mark was written from Rome around 70 CE. It is held that Mark is the teaching and theology of Jesus as seen through the eyes of Peter, so in essence, this is Peter’s theological understanding.

Interestingly, the Gospels were not intended to be evangelical tools used to convert people to the faith. By and large, the intended audience of the Gospels was those who were already believers and were meant to strengthen their faith. The Gospels were considered too advanced for newbies who needed to start slowly and work up to the Gospels. The four Gospels, along with the others that did not make the cut, were written to different groups of people.

Mark’s Gospel is just about the facts with very few embellishments, and we see that clearly in the two stories we heard this morning.

We begin in the middle of things, “In those days,” what days? If we go back to the verses we skipped, we find an answer: Mark links John to the Prophets and their announcement of a messenger soon to come. Again, sticking just with the facts, we hear what John was wearing and what he ate, but we skip over the bit that he is related to Jesus. Maybe Mark did not know. Maybe Mark knew that Luke included it, so he did not have to. Maybe Mark did not know. Or perhaps he just did not care.

There is also no dialogue between Jesus and John. We read that Jesus came from Nazareth to be baptized by John, and that is it. No explanation as to why, just that he did. John’s words are not recorded, but we know that Jesus went under the water because Mark notes, “immediately, coming up from the water…” Again, just the facts.

But then Mark says the heaven parted, and the Spirit descends on Jesus as a dove. Hold on, what Spirit? Where did this Spirit come from? What is this Spirit deal? Mark assumes that those hearing this would already understand the Spirit and the Spirit’s role in all of this.

And here is the connection: today’s first reading from Genesis and my all-time favorite fairytale, Noah and his Ark. I am rather hard on ole Noah, and today’s bit of the story is an important one for this is the bit about covenant and the relationship between God and creation and God’s promise not to wipe out creation again no matter how many liberals are in a particular place when the hurricane comes.

Although God is cheesed off at humanity and decides to wipe it all away and start again, God promises never to do this again. Covenant is essential. At our baptism, specific promises were made by those bringing us and the community. Baptism is more than a ceremony we have so we can have a party. Baptism is an act of the community, so the community needs to be present.

The parents, or God’s parents, depending on the tradition, promise to bring the child up in the knowledge and love of God. We do not specify what that knowledge is, but it is assumed to be communal. Baptism is the sign of the covenant relationship and the public declaration that this child belongs to God. It is not a washing away of anything but rather an entrance into the community. As such, baptism can only be performed once, and any baptism using the words father, son, and Holy Spirit is considered valid. Baptism is one of two sacraments practiced by the churches in the reformed tradition.

In the Noah story, the dove is sent out to find land and eventually returns with an olive branch, a symbol of peace. At creation itself, the Spirit hovers over the water to bring calm to a place usually associated with death, but now, through baptism, brings new life in Christ. The Spirit is the third person of our Trinitarian theology and plays a significant, albeit quiet, role in everything. The Spirit is the most talked about and least understood part of Christian theology.

But the story does not end there.

Mark writes that after the Spirit descends, a voice is heard; we assume it is God because it says, “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” There is an important comparison to be made here. Last Sunday, we read Mark’s rendition of Transfiguration. After Jesus’ garments became sparkling clean, Mark writes that a voice came from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son….” At the baptism, God was speaking directly to Jesus and for only Jesus to hear, “You are…” But at the Transfiguration, God directs his pronouncement to everyone, “This is…” It’s almost as if God is giving Jesus a little bit of encouragement before he starts his ministry.

But wait, there’s more!

Mark jammed a lot into a few verses, and we shifted from the scene of the Baptism to Jesus’ exile in the desert for 40 days. In contrast to the other Gospel writers, Mark says that the Spirit “immediately drove him into the desert.” The word “immediately appears more than 40 times in Mark’s Gospel, nearly all before Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Mark has a sense of urgency in his Gospel in the push toward Jerusalem and his mission to redeem the world.

Mark has very few facts about Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Mark mentions the number of days he was there, who tempted him, Satan, that he was with the wild beats, and that the Angels ministered to him. There is nothing about stones into bread or Satan giving Jesus the whole world. Jesus briefly mentions Satan and then moves on.

So, let’s back up a little. “The Spirit drove him…” I think this is a bad translation that has led to much misunderstanding. Rather than “driving” Jesus to the wilderness, I prefer “compelled.” There is the same sense of urgency, but it portrays the Spirit as a gentle shepherd rather than an ogre forcing Jesus to do things.

God does not force us to do anything. God gave us the freedom to choose the direction we wish to go. Is there a divine plan, yes but only in broad strokes and not in detail, God let us fill in the detail. God calls us, but it is up to us to listen, and the Spirit helps guide us toward that decision.

When the Angel visited Mary to tell her that she was to be the mother of Jesus, Mary had a choice. God did not force the decision upon her; God asked. When Jesus called his Apostles, he did not force them. He called them and asked them to follow him. When Jesus sent them out, he told them to present the message, but if they did not listen, they should walk away. It was only when missionaries were sent to indigenous populations that Christians forced people to convert.

The other point is that God does NOT put temptations in our way. One of the worst translations is found in the Lord’s Prayer and the words, “lead us not into temptation…” A better understanding would be “protect us in the time of trial.” God does NOT “lead us into temptation.” God is always with us, including those times we find ourselves put to the test. Mark says that the Angels “ministered to him” during his time in the wilderness; the angels walked with Jesus just as God walks with us.

So, what is Satan, simply put us. We wrestle with our demons, whatever those might be. Some of those demons are external, and some are internal, but they are ours. Perhaps we inherited them through genetics; maybe they are caused by the environment, but they are ours to deal with. We deal with them with God’s help, but sometimes, we need help from others. Remember, the angels ministered to Jesus; Jesus did not go it alone, and neither did you.

Lent is a spiritual time in the wilderness. Jesus went to the wilderness to prepare himself for what was coming. Jesus knew the result, but I am not sure he knew the nitty gritty details of each day; things unfolded as they unfolded, and only the end was inevitable.

Lent is a time of spiritual preparation. We know the end of the story, but we still need to prepare. It is my hope that we spend more time in prayer and meditating on Scripture. Use this time to discern the big questions in your own life, or maybe you could be an angel that ministers to another who is wrestling with their demons. Whatever it is, take some time to slow down and just be, be still, and know God.

Amen.

Ash Wednesday

Remember thou art dust….

Today, we begin our journey with Jesus with the reminder that we are created out of nothing. Genesis tells us that God stooped down after the world’s creation, took the dust of creation, and formed humanity. All the other aspects of creation were spoken into existence by God, but the very hands of creation created humanity. After society was formed, God breathed the breath of life into humanity’s lungs, giving humanity life.

Traditionally, Ash Wednesday is a day to contemplate how we can spiritually improve our lives. Although today is a day to focus on what we have done and what we have left undone, it should not be a day we beat ourselves up. Repentance is not about what is in the past but rather the future and how we can live better for ourselves and others.

Smudging, or placing ashes on people’s heads, dates back to the 11th century. The ashes are from burning the left-over palm branches from the previous Palm Sunday. This is a reminder of the cycle of death and resurrection and connects us spiritually to what has come before. Being covered in ashes was a sign of repentance, and smudging our foreheads reminds us of the need for repentance.

This idea of forgiveness has always been a part of the Season of Lent. In the Orthodox Christian Tradition, Lent begins with the Sunday of Forgiveness. A pilgrimage always begins with asking for forgiveness, and so at the start of Lent, Christians ask forgiveness not only from God but from each other, and the journey can begin with a clean slate, so to speak. There is something beautiful in participating in this forgiveness, standing before another, and asking for and granting forgiveness. It is a very healing process.

But we should not linger too long with this idea of dust, death, and repentance. We should constantly focus on the knowledge that God loves us and that our job is to bring that love into the world.

Lent is a perfect time for us to work on our spiritual lives, and we are reminded of this in the words from the service of the day, “I invite you to observe a holy Lent by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word.” Lent is the perfect time to start or restart the daily practice of reading Scripture and spend some time in prayer, even a few moments.

I know it can be hard to be joyful when you hear that you are dust and that we will, one day, return to dust. Dust gets a bad rap, and changing how we perceive what is being said can become positive rather than negative.

Deon Johnson is the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Missouri. Each day, Bishop Johnson posts some inspirational quotes on his Facebook Page. Today, he posted about dust but not in the “remember you are going to die” sense of dust but in the Joni Mitchell “we are all stardust” sense. 

Here is what Bishop Johnson has to say:

Remember you are dust,
the substance of the stars, animated with the breath of life.
Uniquely formed in the image and likeness of Divine Love.
Authored in hope, forged in joy,
very good of very good,
no accident we,
this beloved quickened dust,
knit to love and be loved.
Remember you are dust.
Amen.

And there was Morning

Genesis 1:1-5, Mark 1:4-11

During a preaching class in seminary, the professor mentioned that we should use examples from everyday life in writing sermons. This way, those listening will understand and be able to apply the message to their lives. We have been hearing about the snowstorm bearing down on us for the last week. One person joked on Facebook that we would be getting somewhere between 0 and 85″ and that it would start between now and Monday. However, we may never get it.

Now I know that weather prediction is a complex science; that is why it is called a prediction and not a certainty. As one who has responded to disasters in the past, I appreciate advanced warnings and the ability to prepare, but I miss the days of Don Kent and not knowing what was going to happen until just before.

So, this week, I retrieved the snowblower from the shed, started it up, and ensured it would run. I dug out the snow shovels and the ice melt. We did go to the grocery store, but not just for milk and bread; we also needed other stuff. I went to bed last night, not knowing if we would have church this morning, but knowing we were ready, and then there was morning. No, this is not why I have given this message that title.

You may have noticed I added another scripture passage to the lineup this morning. The Lectionary provides four readings for each Sunday. An Old Testament selection, a Psalm, a reading from one of the letters, and the Gospel. The intent is to try and show that there is a connection between what has passed and what is coming. Sometimes, that connection is obvious, and other times, not so much.

In the past, I have limited the scripture selection to three, but, new year, new idea. I want us to spend our time together taking a deep dive into what Scripture says and how we can apply that to our lives and look at how what we believe has been influenced over the years.

I believe in doctrine and that we must have a basis for our belief; there must be a common frame of reference, or, to put it another way, we need a starting point. With that said, I appreciate that for some, doctrine, creeds, and all the rest can be troublesome, but again, we need a starting point that grounds us and a place we can grow from and towards. Yes, faith is a journey, and what we learned in Sunday school may not always be what we should believe as adults.

This morning’s first reading takes us back to “in the beginning.” This is one of two creation stories in Scripture. In this one, humanity is created last. Every culture has some story about how it all began. One of the problems we face in our Western mind is that we need an explanation for everything. Faith allows us to dream; faith permits us not to figure it all out. It does not matter how it began; we know it has. The point is, what lesson can we learn from it?

We heard the “earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” We see God, the Creator, separating the light from the darkness. We also heard that a wind from God “swept over the water.” Living here in Hull, we are no strangers to the wind coming off the water, so we should have a clear picture.

“In the beginning God.” That is the whole story. Then comes the verb: “created.” Then comes the object of that verb: “the heavens and the earth.” The first thing that happens in the story is the spirit of God moves upon the face of the waters.

We pause the creation story and jump to Mark’s Gospel and the day of Jesus’ baptism. Now, I will not argue about the necessity of Jesus’ baptism; I will leave that to others. I will, however, point to the fact that Jesus has a connection back to the deep waters of creation. Jesus goes from being without form to being someone with form. Jesus goes back to the original. Jesus has a heaven-opening event. Jesus does what God does in the beginning: He reopens the world.

We can have a long discussion about the fall of humanity, its root cause, and the penalty. It would be a fascinating conversation taking thousands of years of theological understanding. However, it does not matter. Something happened in the relationship between the Creator and creation, and things changed.

The creation story tells of a time when humanity walked with the Creator in a garden or what has been described as paradise. This was the time before humanity’s self-realization, before humanity became arrogant and decided it no longer needed help, whatever it was, caused a rift, a chasm in the relationship that the Creator tried to repair.

In my Christmas message, I mentioned that when Jesus was born, that relationship was repaired, and the Creator, once again, walked with creation. That in the birth of that baby, thousands of years had been repaired, but there was more to come, and we see that today.

There is something pagan at the beginning of creation time. “Pagan” originally meant “of the country,” a kind of sensual simplicity. This has to describe the time before us. It is just day and night.

There is no doubt in my mind that humanity has abused creation. Humanity has taken the gift of stewardship of creation to mean we can do what we want with it. Entire species have been wiped off the face of the earth due to humanity’s inability to regulate itself. We have lost the reverence and awe we should have, and greed has replaced it.

It is no secret that Nicky and I are the new stewards of the Loring House just down the street. The house is believed to be the oldest house in Hull and is purported to have been built around 1658, which makes the structure 365 years old. It’s not as old as the creation itself, but still, it’s pretty old. We consider ourselves stewards or caretakers rather than owners, and we embark on a restoration, not a renovation. Sure, we will have electricity, indoor plumbing, a modern kitchen, and heat, but we will honor the hands that built the house and all those who lived in it before us by preserving it in the future.

How do we get this sense of reverence back and make it part of our daily living? Baptismatus sum, said Luther. I am baptized and renewed in creation that had my name in it from the very beginning. I am christened to creation. My DNA comes from the original light and lightness.

We have lost reverence. Reverence is a deep understanding of human limitation. We have been taught that we have no limitations. We can send humans to the moon but cannot figure out how to feed people.

The Gospel is earthy, grounded in the real, tactile, sensual, fleshy world. This morning, we hear of rivers, clothing from camels, diet from bugs, tying shoes, a bird analogy, and an interesting weather phenomenon. This earthiness reminds us that we are not set over or apart from creation but part of creation. The dirt came first, and we were fashioned from that dirt. Jesus stepped down into the water of Jordan not to be cleansed from some made-up sin of people that lived eons before him; Jesus stepped into the water to show us the connection back to creation itself.

Along with reverence, we have lost a sense of awe. “Awful” and “awesome” come from the same root in “awe.” These two words used to be the same side of the same coin. We have awe at awful things. We have awe at wonderful things. We have awe. Now awful is reserved for bad things, and awesome is reserved for good, and, if you are from Boston, “wicked awesome” is even better!

This word change has robbed us of integrity, unity, and oneness of experience. We need a return to reverence, an all-encompassing appreciation of mystery and its root in human limitations. Reverence is not just a religious value. Reverence is the virtue that keeps us from acting like gods!

How do we change? We practice the great lightedness that separates night and day. We can remember our baptismal waters and the connection to creation. We can reclaim the moment before humans when God created. We can reclaim time before time when God’s spirit moved upon the waters. We can regain a sense of awe and our part in creation.

The baptism of Jesus was not the start of something new but a continuation of something that began in the beginning. The baptism of Jesus and our baptism is a reminder that we are connected to creation by the very elements of that creation.

The birth of Jesus restored humanity’s relationship with the Creator. The baptism of Jesus restored humanity’s relationship with creation. Our task is to care for and learn from creation and understand our limitations.

At the end of each day of creation, the Creator sat back, looked upon all that had been accomplished, and proclaimed that it was good. Today, remind yourself of the awesomeness of creation and commit to being better stewards and caretakers of the awesome gift we have been given.

Amen.

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