Sunday, January 13, 2019

Year C Baptism of our Lord 2019 Water & Promises

Year C 1st Epiphany (Baptism of our Lord), 13 January 2018
Delivered on Facebook Live because of a snow event, for St. James the Less, Ashland
“Water and Promises”

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

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

We see so much in something so simple. We saw it hear on December 23. There is water and promises. We have both water and promises every day. But there is something unique and singular about baptism, where the two collide and give import and meaning. It is a demarcation. It is a declaration. It is a dawning.

Baptism is a demarcation, what before is no longer. There are certain things that draw lines in the sand for us. Birth. First days of schools. First kiss. Driver’s License. Graduation. Marriage. Becoming a parent. And in all of these, baptism is one of those life moments. At the baptism on the 23rd, the beautiful Christening dress had been used in the family since the 30s. Wow. Talk about a demarcation. In the family this was a moment of portent, and has been for coming on a century.

In our prayer book, with the new prayer book there is an assumption of older baptism instead of infant baptism. The person who can speak for themselves comes before an infant in our rites. (p. 300) In fact, the amount of “cradle Episcopalians” continues to decline. I and my family are come-alongs, and gladly so. We chose to be a part of this Church through a call of God we felt strongly. Stephanie and I were received in one of the last visits of Bishop Lee. My girls were baptized the same day. In one of my favorite memories, when my youngest was baptized in the traditional Trinitarian formula, Abbott Bailey, our priest (who is now Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of California), was so positive and happy, our daughter thought it was a game. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…” pouring and cleansing with each invocation. It was wonderful and beautiful, just like it had just been with our oldest just moments before. And then my daughter, reached in with as much authority as the Holy Roman Emperor crowning herself, got a handful of water and baptized herself. And blessed it with a loud, “Whee!” Bishop Lee looked shocked, Abbott and the rest of us just laughed. Our baptisms, while a demarcation, should be a “Whee!” That joy, enthusiasm, and sense of fun should mark our Christian walk, especially at the beginning.

Baptism is a declaration, before God and the whole world we are declaring which side we choose to be on. I have talked about this before. I am one of the few people in our society that can make declarations. Kings, Presidents, Judges, High Officials, and ministers can pronounce and upon utterance it is so. I declare marriages. I declare blessings. I declare pardon. I declare one “marked as Christ’s own forever.”

It is not just me, though. The baptized are making a declaration. In other countries, missionaries often face the problem that there could be many coming and worshiping and fully participating with their work, but they will not be baptized. In countries where the majority faith is opposed to Christianity, families are often fine with people checking out a Church, and maybe even believing, but once one is baptized all recognize their child is no longer part of their faith, forever. By being baptized, believers must often renounce traditions and connections; they often are rejected by their family and seen as “dead.” In the most extreme cases, this warrants an “honor killing” like the woman from Saudi Arabia stopped in Thailand on the way to Australia was afraid of. (She denounced Islam, not that she embraced Christianity, but the outcome was the same.)

When we are baptized, we are making a statement to ourselves and to the world, what was before has passed away, what is to come is new. Do we do it perfectly? Of course not, but try. That is what in the covenant we respond, “I will, with God’s help.” Perfection? No. Attempt? Yes. “Till turning, turning, we come round right.”

Baptism is a dawning, a rebirth. Now this is what we often emphasize because it is the predominant symbol. The world baptizo in the Greek means immersion. To dunk. So, in that, our full immersion brethren literally symbolize the burial and resurrection. In the early church, the symbolism was layer upon layer upon layer. Three years of training ended with an Easter morning ritual. At dawn, they faced the rising sun and declared their choice to join in the light. They would turn to the dark west and renounce Satan and the forces of darkness. In living water, flowing that is, not some pool in a church, the candidate was stripped like a corpse, and placed in the living water and buried to the old self with full immersion. When they emerged, they were given new clothes and often a new name. Hence, they were “Christened.” Fully new. Fully alive.

You see hints of this in our liturgy. When Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Empire people rushed in. The three years of intense training and discipleship ceased. People, fearful of their little ones going to hell, pleaded that they be brought into the church and things changed. Instead of a transformation and a renunciation, it too easily became “what one did.” For many it stays that way.

I hear a lot of naysayers and worrisome comments lamenting the demise of the Church Universal (especially in the USA), but perhaps the social Christians feel safe enough to no longer go through the motions. Reading the paper and drinking coffee is now more of the norm instead of dragging oneself to church. Taking the kids to sports or whatever give folks more meaning. Perhaps this winnowing, this pruning, will keep the core healthy and vibrant. We will see. And for those of you who came out in this weather to be here, and those who paused at home to see it online, I pray you will be blessed and think through your Baptismal vows today as we remember the willing submission of Jesus to enter the waters of baptism.

In the Episcopal Church, a huge part of our baptism leans back on ancient traditions. Part of that is vows we take, or promises in how we will try to raise those who cannot speak for themselves. Let’s remember those this morning...

Question:      Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? 
Answer:        I renounce them.

You hear here the promises from the early Church, turning to the Light, rejecting the Dark.

Question:     Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
Answer:        I renounce them.

We do not think about that when we “do something bad.” Sin is something more than making a mistake. It is something done, or left undone. And in these conscious acts, we corrupt and destroy others and ourselves.

Question:      Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Answer:        I renounce them.

C. S. Lewis described our desires in an interesting way. We all have desires. We all have wants. He said not that they are too strong, it is that the ones that draw us to the Good and the Right, the ones who draw us unto God, are not strong enough. We give into the desires to love God, to love our neighbor, and to love ourselves fully.

Question:      Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
Answer:        I do.

In our country where our predominant national story is the self-made person, it is hard for us to say that we need help, and that we need to be saved from anyone or anything. Even worse, to have a named Savior. But at some point we have an Epiphany, we cannot do it alone. We cannot do it by ourselves. “Y’all need Jesus,” and I do, too.

Question:      Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
Answer:        I do.

And naming him is the first step, embracing his grace and love is the fulfillment of this relationship. We do not get married for the wedding, we get married for the life together. We do not claim Christ for the checkmark of being baptized, we get baptized to embrace the life, the abundant life, described by Jesus as the way to be fully ourselves.

Question:      Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
Answer:        I do.

The only way to life, a Jesus life, is for him gradually to turn down the Savior knob, and turn up the Lord knob. If Jesus is saving us all the time, we are not trying very hard. As he increasingly moves into the chambers of our heart and of our life, he gets to clean and rearrange, and make himself at home. That is what these words mean.

In the Baptism of Jesus, he was claimed and given the heavenly “Atta-boy!” In our baptism we are claimed and named as Christ’s own forever. In our Isaiah reading we have such a promise. We see it fulfilled in Christ’s baptism, and we see it fulfilled in our own. Isaiah 43:1c “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” Such love. Such truth. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Whee!

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Year C Epiphany WED 2018 Cut The Middle Man

Year C Epiphany WEDNESDAY, 9 January 2019 
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA 
“Cut The Middle Man”  
Collect: O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. 

John 5:1-15 
1 After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew (or Aramiac)] Beth-zatha,(or Bethesda) which has five porticoes. 3 In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed—waiting for the stirring of the water; 4 for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had. 5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” 7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” 8 Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 9 At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath. 10 So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, “It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.” 11 But he answered them, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’” 12 They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take it up and walk’?” 13 Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. 14 Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.” 15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. 

We are funny creatures. We cannot help it, I don’t think. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, but at the same time we can really do some stupid things, and usually with the best of intentions. 

If you have never seen them, a wonderful way of highlighting this, and making fun of it is something called a Rube Goldberg machine. If you have never seen one of these, there are videos galore in the internet. Rube Goldberg was a cartoonist, who drew overly complex and indirect machines to perform a simple task. People actually construct some, and this is the foundation of the crazy kids’ game Mousetrap 

Why, why, why do we insist on making things so complicated? What is it about us? 

I think part of it is that we think because the problem is big we have to have a complicated solution. But sometimes easiest works best. Two stories: 
  1. 1) There is a story told of big rig getting stuck in the entrance of a tunnel in New York City. It wedged itself in there in an unbelievable way. Police, fire department, city engineers all came and tried to figure out what to do. A tow truck? A crane? How might they get it out? A little boy approached an officer, and tried to get him to listen. Imagine, if you can, your best W.C. Fields impersonation, “Go away, kid, you bother me.” But in his insistence, the little boy suggested letting some of the air out of the tires and backing it out. When in doubt, make sense. 
  1. 2) The other story that comes to mind is when we were having our astronauts in space, and the need for them to do calculations, take measurements, and record observations in the zero G environment. NASA engineers had to figure out a way for ink to flow no matter the direction. They developed a pressurized ink cartridge that would push the ink out no matter the direction or even if there were no up or down. You can still buy a Fisher Space Pen in any NASA gift shop. When they were having a meeting, a proud NASA engineer asked a Soviet engineer how they dealt with the same problem, he said they just sent up pencils. Why, why, why do we have to make it so hard? 

The man begging for a chance at a healing thought in much the same way. He wanted to be able to get to the pool first, so he could be first in the water to receive the blessing of the angel who caused the ripple on the pool. He had put his hope on this for years, 38 years. And Jesus asked if he wanted to be well. The man at the pool just complained. Little did he realize that his hope was there. He put all his thoughts and hopes on a chance at healing with all the help. He had constructed a scenario that was only a maybe. But Jesus cut out the middle man. Jesus cut out all the machinations in the head of this desperate man. “Take up your mat and walk.” Simple. Direct. From the source.  

When we have a need, think of all the things we go through, the plans, the scenarios, the mental constructs, when we can go to the source of our hope and ask directly. This year, may we bathe everything in pray. May we cut out the middle persons who only clutter and make us feel like we are “doing something.” Our faith need not be a Rube Goldberg machine. Our faith can be direct and simple, and probably more effective. Amen. 

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Year C Epiphany 2019 Exponential Grace

Year C Epiphany, 6 January 2019 
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA (8 a.m.)
& Duncan Memorial United Methodist for Ashland Epiphany Celebration
“Exponential Grace” 

Collect: O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. 
Matthew 2:1-12 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 
 `And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'" 
 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. 

Matthew 5:14-16 
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” 

Epiphany, when not applied to this day, is a moment of sudden revelation or insight. It is often combined with “Eureka! (I found it!)” or some similar exclamation. And this day is exactly that. When people from far flung places were illumined with the knowledge that something singular, unique in all the world, unique in all the history of the world has taken place. The wise men as we call them saw the unexpected. A “king” who was born without wealth or prominence. A “king” who was not in the capital city, but in the village 10 miles down the road. 

We remember this day because it is why we are here, too. We are here because the light spread. That original torch that was lit was handed down from person to person, from generation to generation, one candle at a time. From where we sit to Bethlehem is 5,967 miles, and yet, God found a way for you to hear and be illumined by the same message that the Wise Men received, God’s Light had come into the world. 

On Christmas Eve I love the end of our service, your church may do it to. We sing Silent Night and from a single candle, in our tradition the Paschal Candle, I light my candle, and our deacon lights his. Together we share flame, one person at a time, row by row. And they share it, and they share, and they share, and so on and so on and so on. Before the third verse, the church which was pitch black has suddenly become ablaze. Light comes from every corner, each light a beloved soul, their face illumined, glowing in the light that came from the Christ candle, the Paschal Candle alone in our midst. Life, like Grace, is not a Zero Sum Game. 

There is a disease running rampant in our society right now, this idea that for there to be winners then there must be losers. For me to have, someone else must do without. There is nothing than can be further from the Truth of Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus said he came that we might have life, but not so that someone can do without. “Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.” John 10:10b And from that Abundance, we can share what we have been given. We are the light of the world, and the glow goes a long way. We do not hide it, we let it shine for all to see. We let it shine, so those away from the light can give thanks to God. We let it shine, so they can come and be illuminated as well. They can light their candle, and the light can go on. 
Life, like Grace, is not a Zero Sum Game. Life is meant to be exponential. From our limited capacity we tend to think arithmetically, 1 + 1 + 1 + 1… But from God’s point of view, God can see the exponentially replication that explodes out and cannot be stopped. When I light the first candles on the ends of rows, I get to step back and see the light go out and fill the entire church on Christmas Eve. It is beautiful, almost magical. It seems that way because it is exponential. It goes forth and cannot be stopped. 

When I got married, I did not think I could love someone any more than I did that day. But then we had a daughter. Now I did not love my wife any less, but actually I loved her even more than I did on our wedding day years before, and here was this fragile, beautiful little thing and my heart grew three sizes that day. (Like the Grinch.) And then we had another daughter, and once again, my heart hurt from all the love. I could not fathom before what that meant before it happened. Love grows and expands, but not arithmetically. Life, like Grace, is exponential.

A story is told of an official in China who is to be rewarded by the Emperor for his service, and it promised any wish that is do-able. The man, incredulous, says this is too great an honor. But the Emperor urges him to name his reward. So sly, the official says he wishes a meager gift, and asks for a chessboard to be brought forth. His request of the Emperor is to put one grain of rice on the first square, and then double it each square till all 64 are filled with the double of the previous one. The Emperor laughed, saying this is too meager and too simple. But the official understood the idea of exponential expansion. What started with 1, then 2, then 4, then 8, goes on by the 64th doubling to be 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of rice. This promise, if kept, would have been all the rice in China for hundreds of years. We think arithmetically and God’s vision is exponential. And if that is an Epiphany to you, praise God. I am glad you see the light. Life, like Grace, is not a Zero Sum Game.  

Here in Ashland, think about it, if every person here committed to one Grace-filled act once a day for the rest of this year, and encouraged those we love and serve to do the same, we cannot imagine the difference it would make. The town, the Commonwealth, the nation, the world would be different. The prayer we pray repeatedly, “on earth as it is in heaven,” might actually begin to take shape. Unhide your light. Throw away your bushel basket. Shine your light before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Life, like Grace, is meant to be exponential. May we make it so, to the Glory of God! Amen 

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Year C Christmas 1 WED 2019 Begin with Prayer

Year C Christmas 1, 2 January, 2019 
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA 
“Begin with Prayer” 

John 6:35-42, 48-51 
35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; 38 for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.” 
41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”  
48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  And so it begins! Another year. Another start. Our arbitrary calendar is an accident of history, and tradition. But it is ours, and we will not change it any time soon, so the line in the sand is what it is. A new year. 

Yesterday marked a new beginning in Jesus’ life, with the the Feast of the Holy Name. Mary and Joseph took him to the Temple and named him Yeshua (Jesus in the Greek). It was foretold by the Angel Gabriel. It means “Yahweh (the proper name of God given at the Burning Bush) Saves.” During that there was recognition that he a) had lived and survived childbirth a whole week, and b) was male, so Jesus was also welcomed into the lineage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through circumcision.  

You may or may not have made promises or resolved to change yesterday, but however you see it, we all have to write new dates on our checks. 

Yesterday my best friend from High School called to check in and let me know he was praying for me and my ministry. He is now a Pentecostal preacher near the North Carolina border. He said something that is so true, and it caught my attention. He was telling his people how they had to bathe everything with prayer, and if we do, God will be glorified with whatever the outcome. He let me know that he sees evidence of God’s blessings in my posts on Facebook. I pray he is right. So in light of that, let’s soak this year, and its new beginnings in prayer. This morning I would like to help us all start with a prayer from the theologian and teacher, Howard Thurman, one of my favorites.  

A Prayer For The New Year   God,  Grant that I may pass through the coming year with a faithful heart. There will be much to test me and make weak my strength before the year ends.  In my confusion I shall often say the word that is not true and do the thing of which I am ashamed. There will be errors in the mind and great inaccuracies of judgment.  In seeking the light, I shall again and again find myself walking in the darkness.  I shall mistake my light for Your light and I shall drink from the responsibility of the choice I make...  Though my days be marked with failures, stumblings, fallings, let my spirit be free so that You may take it and redeem my moments in all the ways my needs reveal.  
 Give me the quiet assurance of Your Love and Presence. Grant that I may pass through the coming year with a faithful heart. 

As Jesus put it, look for and look after God first, and everything else will be okay. Blessings on our 2019! Amen.