Saturday, January 28, 2023

We are blessed and a blessing, we are healed and are healers

I suppose it is all too obvious to say that the world—and the country and communities--we live in need healing. The Church, the gathering of God’s people, has always been a healing community. When we pray for healing, when we do this sacramentally, we lay on hands on people and anoint them with oil. We pray that they will know God’s healing power. We also pray that God will work healing in our hearts, our bodies and our spirits. There are many reasons that this is part and parcel of the Church’s basic ministry.

First, we do this because Jesus did. He touched people. He met people at the point of their deepest need, and he healed them.

Second, in the earliest Christian communities, a major sign of the Spirit’s presence after Jesus’ resurrection was that they were a healing community.

So, what is Christian Healing? Well, for one thing, healing is more than just fixing broken bodies or lifting up broken spirits—although it certainly includes that! Christ’s healing is for a broken world and that starts on the cross and is made known in the resurrection. That means that when we undertake any ministry of healing—laying on of hands, visiting the sick, ministering to the lonely, the jailed, the outcast, feeding the hungry, working for a just world—we are taking part in God’s reign, taking part in God breaking into our world, and witnessing to the Risen Christ. Healing shakes things up!

In today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus describing the blessed ones of God. He describes who they are and what they do. And while there are many ways that God’s blessed ones live, there is no question that God’s blessing is revealed when we reach out to each other and heal.

Listen again to the core of Jesus’ teaching: the beatitudes.  Like Christian healing, the beatitudes are often distorted and misunderstood. Some preachers and writers who want to turn Jesus’ powerful teaching into something like “positive thinking” or self-help. Some try to convert Jesus’ healing into magic—you know, when you try to use the right ritual or phrases to control events or manipulate the world to your preferences. Some preachers will equate "blessing" with worldly wealth. There are some leaders and some preachers who attempt to use Jesus’ teaching to justify everything from the exclusion and expulsion of immigrants, to the  rejection and violence against gay, lesbian and transgender persons, or will use Jesus’ words to justify the persecution of people of other religions. Others want Christians to be silent and submissive and just meekly give into whatever is going on around us or whatever their leader says.

Needless to say, we live in a time, as much as any time in the church’s history, when it is essential that we listen again to the core of Jesus’ teaching.

So, let us begin again.

The beatitudes in Matthew come in three parts.

In the first part, Jesus proclaims blessing to four kinds of people who are suffering: (1) the poor who are without hope; (2) people who mourn; (3) people who are “meek.” The word that we hear as “meek” does not refer to the shy but rather to the downtrodden and oppressed. Finally, there are (4) the people who thirst after righteousness—because they are desperate for justice!

 Let’s be clear here—these are not qualities anyone wants to have. There is absolutely no virtue in being unintentionally poor. Healing though it might be, mourning is a state of broken heartedness that no one wants. No one wants to be downtrodden and disrespected (aka “meek”). People who experience any or all of these know that this is not what God intends for creation!

Notice that these first four beatitudes are beatitudes of reversal. People who are one way will receive a blessing that will take them to some place new. The poor and those without hope will belong to the kingdom. People who mourn will be comforted. People who are downtrodden will inherit the earth. Everyone who is poor, who mourns, who is downtrodden, and everyone who thirsts for righteousness will be satisfied!

How can this be? How can Jesus say that these permanent conditions of humanity will be reversed? This leads us to the next part of the beatitudes.

The next four blessings are directed to people who strive to live in the way God intends: they are the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers.

In Jewish tradition, the heart of the law is mercy. Mercy is much more than a legal thing—letting someone who is guilty go free—mercy is both the act and the life of compassion to those who are in trouble, who are poor, or who are in pain. Jesus says that people who live mercifully will also receive mercy.

Purity of heart is not just good behavior and clean living, it is a heart tuned to God and open to the working of the divine in the everyday. These are people who see God.

People who are peacemakers are people who work for justice—who work to see the poor treated fairly and who speak truth to power on behalf of those who have no voice. People who bring reconciliation to places of division will be called children of God.

What Jesus says in this second part of the beatitudes is that God blesses (and others are blessed by) people who live their lives in tune with God.

So how will the poor be welcomed into God’s reign? Because the merciful will show then in!

And how will the mourning be comforted? Because people tuned to God’s heart will comfort them!

And how will the downtrodden inherit the kingdom? Because people of peace will bring justice to God’s children!

But all this comes with a price: When people begin to live God’s reign, there will be trouble. And when people care for people with compassion and justice and with hearts open to God, there will be trouble. That's because we live in a world that wallows in injustice, that is energized by grievance and anger, that exploits poverty, and thrives on disrespect! And people—even ones who claim the name “Christian” who are steeped in these will fight back!  They will call us names (like “woke” or “snowflake” and all that), and they will get on their talk radio and cable news shows and rant about how unrealistic—and, oddly, talk about how mean—we are! They will pass laws to tell us what not to teach in schools so that they don’t feel bad about the ugly parts of our history! And that is why in Jesus’ final blessing in the second part is a word of hope mingled with a word of warning: people who do right will be persecuted—this is a part of living in God’s kingdom right now!

That's because the values of a life of blessing are contrary to the values of the culture.

When we take part in the ministry of Christian healing, it is not just about making our bodies better, we are not doing magic and we are not simply being “nice.” We are doing something much, much better: we are introducing and taking part in God’s reign of justice, hope, and peace. When we open ourselves to God’s healing, we place ourselves alongside people who are poor and without hope—we are people in need of mercy, and when we show mercy, we are extending to others what has been freely given to us by a loving God who loved us first!

Mercy happens when we embrace people who grieve and those who give comfort. When we take part in God’s mercy, we are lift up the downtrodden and the meek, offering both justice and a welcome into God’s reign. And when we do this in the sacraments of baptism, Eucharist, and healing then we are demonstrating God’s mercy in our lives in real tangible ways.

All of us have things in our hearts of which we are not proud. All of us have things that grieve us. All of us, at some time, have struggled to have hope. And all of us, every one of us, are blessed.

We are blessed because God has given us people of blessing, and made us, in the cross and resurrection and through our faith and baptisms, into a people of blessing.

Whether you come forward for healing, or whether you stay and pray for those who do hear again Jesus’ words: Blessed are the poor and those without hope—the kingdom of heaven is here! Blessed are you who mourn—comfort is here! Blessed are you are worn down and trampled upon—you have a home, the earth is yours! All of you who thirst for God’s way—satisfaction is here!

God’s mercy comes through merciful people. Compassion comes through hearts tuned to God.

Justice arrives through people who seek peace. And no matter what happens or what is said about us, we are a people of mercy and hope and comfort and justice.  And so, wounded though we are, we are healers because we are being healed!

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Bulletin for Worship for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany January 29, 2023 at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida.

Scripture Lessons for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 29, 2023.

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's Clearwater, Florida on January 29, 2023.

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on January 29, 2023.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Old dogs. New Tricks.

There’s an old 'Far Side' cartoon that shows a dog on a unicycle, riding on a high wire, and he is juggling while holding a cat in his mouth, balancing a fishbowl on his head, with a hula hoop around his waist.  The caption reads, “High above the hushed crowd, Rex tried to remain focused. Still, he couldn't shake one nagging thought: that he was an old dog and this was a new trick.” 

So, here’s the question: is the old saying correct? Are old dog always unable to learn new tricks?

Now, I don’t know about you, but I am inclined to think not. I mean, my spouse has periodically reported to me her sense that I can be rather particular and habitual in my preferences. Every now and then I find myself muttering something like “who’s been messing with my stuff?” And I must admit that I firmly believe that God intended for a certain order in the universe…after all, if God wanted us to change he would not have put pre-sets on the car radio! But appearances can be deceiving. So can assumptions. And a close, if grudging, reading of today’s Gospel, leads me to think that Jesus does, in fact, believe that “Yes! You can teach old dogs new tricks!”

As he begins his ministry, Jesus will call people from every walk of life to follow him. In fact, Jesus is very careful to deliberately include in his band people who are from opposite walks of life. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that when Jesus goes out to look for disciples…people to serve as not only his followers but his students and apprentices… he does not go to the places you’d expect. Not the synagogues, nor the Temple and certainly not to where religious people study to be religious professionals. Instead, he goes to less obvious, but perhaps more welcoming, places. He goes down the seaside, and he finds fishermen and laborers. He will seek out tax-collectors (like Matthew) and political radicals (like Simon the Zealot). In short, he went after people who went along to get along and people who raged against the machine. His followers will include women who own property and have standing in their community like Mary and Martha of Bethany and there will be women on the “outside” who were prostitutes or who needed healing, like Mary of Magdala who might have been in both situations. He will draw to himself great Rabbis, like Nicodemus, some of whom would only visit Jesus at night, and even Roman soldiers, like the Centurion whose slave needed to be healed.

But for all their diversity they will have one thing in common. They will be, as it were, old dogs learning new tricks. That’s discipleship for you! Jesus shows us that his disciples are not just students, but friends. And being a friend and apprentice of Jesus Christ is like being an old dog who is learning new tricks.

They say it can’t be done! We old dogs are just too stubborn and too set in our ways! They tell us that we have become too used to doing things the way things have always been done them to really, deeply change.  Well, that may be so…but Jesus has this way of meeting us at exactly the point of our greatest need and, if we choose to listen to his call and follow him, he will take us to places we never imagined.

God is in the creation and transformation business. All through the Bible, we encounter stories of God encountering a person and calling them to go to new place and do something new. There’s Abram, called in old age to be the beginning of a new, chosen people and given a new name, Abraham. David was a shepherd boy picked to be the King of Israel. And so many more! Each one is a story of God starting something new and unexpected. God’s call changes them and empowers them so that when they respond to God’s call, other new beginnings can take place.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus walks up to Peter, Andrew, James, and John while they are working and says “follow me! I will make you fish for people!”  These two sets of brothers are doing their jobs, probably doing the same job their fathers did and their father’s fathers did…they were fishermen…going through the rituals and habits of working life that they had always known, living off the rhythms of sea and land. And Jesus is going to teach them something new…he is going to teach them some new tricks.

They will follow Jesus and discover that God is at work in the lives of ordinary people everywhere, drawing people into new, reconciled, healed relationships. They will see that God’s grace is not limited to the special few but available to everyone. They will experience God’s special favor growing beyond the people of the Covenant and extend to everyone, everywhere. They will find that death is not the end of life, because in Jesus’ resurrection, God has conquered it. Over and over again, they will see and meet people who they probably believed were outside of God’s family be welcomed into it.

And along the way, they will learn how to tell their story of faith. They will learn how to heal. They will learn how to pray. They will learn how to understand the scriptures and they will learn how to teach and how to lead. They will learn a whole bag of new tricks.

We are all called to be disciples. We are all called into friendship and apprenticeship with Jesus Christ. We might think that we have learned all there is to know, and that life consists of putting one foot in front of another, bumping from event to event, maybe even from crisis to crisis. But God knows something more about us, that we are capable of so much more both in our hearts and in our actions. And so, he starts with us as we are, where we are, and calls us to do and be more.

Like Peter, Andrew, James, and John, we are like old dogs always being taught new tricks.

Not that all old habits are bad. (This is not just the old dog talking…!) Habits can help us cope and help us function when things are unpredictable. That’s why firefighters, nurses, doctors, and paramedics learn protocols. Spiritual directors teach us how to cultivate holy habits of the heart. This is how God uses how we are already wired for God’s greater purpose.

The temptation is to always do things the way we’ve always done them; or, when we find something that works, to stick with it, and never, ever learn to listen for where the habit is taking us. We are tempted to make something exciting and new into something repetitious and routine. As I said, God knows this about us, and so takes even that built-in tendency and gives it a kind of judo throw. God will take our need for routine and give us the tool of prayerful rhythm, and worshipful time. God will give us the ability to create habits and the ability to reflect. And these, strangely enough, these very habits can become some of the tools of our transformation.

As we develop a habit of prayer, of listening for God, we will change our perspective and develop new vision. As we become used to the idea of serving others, we will begin to see the face of Jesus in faces we would not expect. As we become used to living in community, we will be renewed by finding that we are not alone but accompanied in meaningful ways through all of life’s changes and chances.

God teaches us new tricks all the time. The challenge is for us to listen to when Jesus calls. He will meet us at the point of our greatest need, and find us in our most ingrained habits, our most stubborn opinions, and our most unwavering assumptions and call us to something new. It will feel strange. Like being called away from something we’ve always known into something exciting and real.

There are times when it feels as if it is all we can do to keep juggling what we have always juggled. It can be disturbing to hear God take us in new directions. It might seem like we are adding a fishbowl or a spinning plates to the mix. Following Jesus’ call only starts out feeling like teaching an old dog new tricks, when in fact, it is an invitation to go with God turning our need for habits into a marvelous adventure of possibility, service, and transformation!

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Bulletin for Worship on January 22, 2023 at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida.

Scripture Lessons for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 22, 2023.

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's Clearwater, Florida on January 22, 2023.

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on January 22, 2023.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Called to the tell the story

“Once upon a time…” “I remember when…” “Daddy (Mommy, Grandpa), tell me a story…”

Something happens when we tell a story. The people who study this kind of thing tell us that when we tell a story, something happens in our brains. With the right equipment they can see it happen right before their very eyes. A different part of the brain from the parts we use every day is activated. We are not just talking about facts; we are painting images in our minds.

Once upon a time, my father had a study with a drafting table, and in this was a old tabletop AM/FM/SW radio about the size of a modern-day microwave oven. My Pop set me up with my own little drafting table, and while he would work on these great big drawings of I-don’t-know-what except that I was sure he was drawing plans that would one day land a man on the moon, I would sit at my little drafting table making my own designs of fantastic machines. And together, we’d listen to the baseball game over that big radio.

And he did something else. He taught me keep a box score… a record of every play of a baseball game that was in this great big spiral bound book. I learned that one does not need a television to visualize a baseball game, just a careful ear, imagination, and a yellow number two pencil.

Stories are important parts of our lives. They tell us who we are, what is important to us and how we understand ourselves. The stories could be from books or movies or plays or shows, or they could recall something as simple as a picnic or a day at work or a funny thing that happened at the store.

One the weirdest news stories I can ever recall has been unfolding this week, where a fellow recently elected to Congress has been found to make up whole chapters of his biography that must have sounded much better to him and to others than his actual story.  And the really weird part is that he apparently acknowledges his deceit but is sticking to his stories. While this kind of thing may keep psychotherapists in business, it really messes up our understanding of how stories help us make meaning out of living.

And, as far as I can tell, no one has asked the most fundamental question of all: if your cause is just, then why do you need to lie about it?

It’s true… we all love to buff, shine, and polish the parts of our stories that are not flattering, or are inconvenient, or just plain painful. But Jesus said “If you … are truly my disciples… you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32) As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said and taught, we are grounded in and speak the truth.

Tomorrow is our annual celebration of the Rev. Dr. King. In our culture, it is the habit of civic holidays is to celebrate famous people’s birthdays, but in the church’s calendar, the commemoration of the Rev. Dr. King is actually on April 4… the date of his murder and martyrdom by an assassin. The Church in recognizing his death, also celebrates King’s life as a Christian witness, a pastor, a theologian, and a prophet.

But that’s not the only way that the Rev. Dr. King’s story has been distorted and co-opted. This weekend we will undoubtedly hear over and over again a small snippet of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech from the 1963 March on Washington. And we will hear all kinds of people talk about that “Dream”, even though the context of that talk—the call to racial and economic justice and a description of the racism that is deeply embedded in our culture—has been cut out. And so, people who, during his life—and since his death—hated his message, worked against his mission, and even today work against the goals of justice, equality, and economic empowerment that marked his real life ministry—even to the point of passing laws about how we can even talk about our history of race, slavery, and segregation—will without shame use his image and words to ease their guilty consciences and salve their troubled souls.

We followers of Jesus must avoid the temptation to domesticate and water-down the hard parts of King’s life and work. Because the same people who domesticate the Rev. Dr. King, also strive to domesticate and water-down Jesus and the work of God through the people who follow him.

The truth is that the story of God in Christ is one of transformation that challenges our being down to our very core. And we, his baptized followers are God’s storytellers. We are invited by God to share good news and to tell what we have seen and heard. We are like the prophet Isaiah who today says that before he was born he was called to be a “light to the nations,” not only to Israel, but to the whole world.

The Psalm today says, "I have spoken of your faithfulness and your deliverance." And Paul talks of his apostolic calling and "the calling of the Corinthians to give testimony to Christ, to tell of him."

And then there is today’s Gospel lesson. Right after that great hymn to the Logos, the word of God, that we heard on Christmas Day, comes a story of how people experience and then tell the story of the Logos to others.

There’s a whole line of people who tell each other they have seen Jesus and who they think Jesus is. John the Baptist points to Jesus and because of that, John, the Beloved Disciple, and Andrew decide to peel off from following John the Baptist and start to follow Jesus. Then Andrew tells Peter who then goes to Jesus who, after meeting him, follows him too. Next, in a part of the Gospel we don’t get to hear today, Jesus calls Philip, who then goes and tells his brother Nathaniel, who—while scoffing—goes to see to Jesus anyway and because Jesus knows him, he decides to follow Jesus too. In all of this we, too, are invited to “come and see” and to tell what we have seen and heard.

This is how the Logos, Jesus, God’s Own Best Expression of Godself, is made known – through people who tell the story. At the end of the first chapter of John, Jesus describes the process to Nathaniel, it is just like Jacob’s vision of angels ascending and descending to earth from heaven on a heavenly ladder. God comes to our world, but no one knows it until, we go and tell. This is how God’s word works: when people who have discovered God’s love and learned God’s love have also shared God’s love.

When we tell our Gospel story it becomes a part of us. The sharing of how God is in our lives makes us more conscious, more aware of how God is at work in us now. Human beings are storytellers. We are wired to tell stories because it is how we make meaning out of living. And we tell these Gospel stories because we are also wired to be at home with God. We are looking for a home. Looking for a place to be.

In the middle of today’s Gospel, Jesus asks the two disciples "What are you looking for?" That question is for us, too. "What are you looking for?" It’s kind of an odd question, really. He doesn’t ask "What do you want?" He asks “What are you looking for?”  The heart of the story that they meet Jesus, and he meets them!

The Gospel is not just about information. Anyone today can look on Wikipedia, search on Google, or go to the library and find all the information they want. We don’t lack for information. No, the Gospel is compelling because it tugs our hearts much as much as our minds.

Notice that two disciples did not ask Jesus “what are you doing?” They asked, "Where are you staying?" Yes, the disciples were curious, but what they are looking for is a different kind of information. They are looking for a place to be, a place to rest, a place—a person with whom the can “abide.”

And that’s what we are all looking for—often without knowing it—a place to stay, a place to be.

Once upon a time, the poet Kathleen Norris moved to the plains of South Dakota, where her family had lived and had deep roots. One day, she went to a tavern and had a conversation with an old cowboy, who sought her out because she was from "one of the old families." He wanted to tell her about a side saddle he owned, made by his great grandfather as a wedding present some 150 years before. She tells of how they mused awhile on the subject of their ancestors, when suddenly the old man said, "Who are we and where do we come from?" That's the real question, isn't it? Before Norris could reply, he smiled and said, "And here we are telling each other lies." "Stories!" she said, laughing. "Call them stories!" "Stories!" he nearly shouted back, pounding one hand on the bar. "That's who we are!"

One of the things I have discovered and enjoyed the most in my short time with you all at St. John’s is the variety of stories—encounters with God in Christ in a variety of ways and places. In this and other congregations, in the thrift store, in homes, hospitals, and even jails.

Jesus turned to Andrew and the Beloved Disciple and asked them "What are you looking for?" To people who wondered if they had a place in God’s story, Jesus said “Come and see.”

The thing that moves people from "What are you looking for?" to "Come and see" to proclaiming to others “We have found the Messiah!” is the story the church is called to tell. It is, in fact, the only story the church has to tell! For all the things we do, for all the activity, for all our programming, and worship, the only thing we have to offer is the story of our home, from which we draw hope, strength, and power. The home to which we invite people to “come and see” is a person, Jesus Christ, and the best way to tell his story, without apology and never watered down and perhaps the only way to do that is with our lives.

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Bulletin for Worship on January 15, 2023 at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida.

Scripture Lessons for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 15, 2023.

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's Clearwater, Florida on January 15, 2023.

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on January 15, 2023.

Saturday, January 07, 2023

Believing is seeing

You’ve heard it is said that seeing is believing? Well, I’m here to tell you that believing is seeing.

John the Baptist believed that people were far away from God and needed to repent. John the Baptist saw exactly what the world needed. What the world needed, John saw, was to turn around— people needed a change in direction—away from error, inattention, and imperfection and towards an intentional, deliberate, following of the commandments and traditions of the Law.

Now St. John Baptist was an innovator—he understood that people needed to begin where they were, not where they were not. And for John, the starting place was our sin, our brokenness, and our need for God at the very deepest, most practical level.

He came out from the wilderness and began baptizing people—a strange ritual to be sure, but actually one that was really quite familiar to Jews of 1st Century Palestine. Part of the process for a Gentile convert to become a Jew was, in addition to learning the Torah and being circumcised, was to be ritually cleansed. But John’s innovation was that instead of going to the temple or the synagogue, he baptized in the river. 

To be baptized is to be “dipped.” Have you ever made a tie-dye a t-shirt? Right! You dip it, submerge it, into the tub of dye to make it color you want. The word for baptism is the same word used to describe this process. In first century Palestine, after wool was shaved off the sheep, it was combed out and but before it be turned into thread for fabric, the wool was  dipped into a tub or a vat of bleach. It is immersed and came out changed: all the dirt and all the various shades of brown and gray in the wool came out, ready to be turned into cloth.

John took the somewhat arcane ritual of conversion to Judaism—something an ordinary Jews may have known about but probably never seen—and combined with something a lot of people knew about in their daily lives. He is saying that if you want to get right with God, you had better be converted in your heart and that is a lot like being dipped and made clean.

Believing is seeing. And for John, seeing meant looking at oneself as needed to be made right, cleaned up, fixed up.

Now when Jesus comes along things get interesting. We know that Jesus is the Messiah, but they don’t know that yet! So Jesus when is baptized, some strange things happen. Matthew describes the heavens opening up and the Holy Spirit visibly descending on Jesus. He also describes that the audible voice of God is heard by everyone there, saying about Jesus “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The voice of God is a word of blessing, not of judgment.

In the process the fullness of the Triune God in the person of the man Jesus is made known for the first time in public.

Now Jesus and John share a mission. Like John, Jesus is aware of how broken, how cynical, how willful, how blind, how prideful all of us are. He knows that we are broken and need to be healed. He knows we need to be in relationship to God.

Jesus sees us differently than John does. John brings a word of judgment because John believes that we are obstinate, stubborn people who need to straighten up and fly right. Jesus brings a word of blessing. Both know we need fixing, but Jesus starts with the truth that God created us and blessed us with an essential dignity that we all carry around and that Jesus’ redeeming work is going to reclaim that dignity for everyone everywhere.

John saw us exactly as we are, and he was not wrong. He followed the model of the Prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. He thunders at the corrupt leaders and practices around him; he tells us the truth about ourselves and our sin, and John gives us a prophetic sign—baptism—to show us the seriousness of the call to turn around and be renewed.

But Jesus is taking a new, different way. One that begins by his voluntary submission to John’s baptism. He changes John’s baptism from a turning away from sin into a turning towards God. Jesus shows us that God is joining with us: he is walking the way of humanity, he is taking seriously our struggles to lives whole, complete, healthy lives, following the way of the law to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Like John, Jesus sees exactly what we needed. But he sees us through the eyes of the Messiah, not a prophet of the old covenant. Jesus believes that we are made by God with dignity, with creativity and power, and he sees that we are a people who are lovely and worthy of redeeming. So, instead of zeroing in on what is wrong with us; Jesus sees us through the eyes of God’s love.

Believing is seeing. That pretty well describes Epiphany season. Believing is seeing.

Epiphany, from last Friday with the gifts of the Magi, through Jesus’ baptism, and all the way up to the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday, is the season of Jesus showing himself for who he really is. Believing is seeing.

There is an old joke: the optimist sees the glass as half-full, the pessimist sees the glass as half-empty, and the engineer sees a glass that is a little too big for its specified use. We see what we believe.

I believe that God sees us with clear-eyed, unfiltered realism. God sees us for all our foibles, follies, and foolishness and God sees us as God made us to be, with all our potential, all our possibility, and all our power. God sees both our sin and our dignity.

During this Epiphany season, we are invited to see Jesus more and more and to encounter him in word, in sacrament, in scripture, and in Christian community. In the Gospels in these next six and a half weeks, we’ll see again and again the ways that Jesus showed himself. But most of all we will see in Christ how God sees us. As a people who are broken, yes, and as a people who also are lovely, made in the very image of God.

Believing is seeing. Look deep inside and you will, with God’s grace, see yourself just a bit as how God sees you. You will see obstacles and you will see potential. You will see what could be as well as what is. You will know the sin and take it seriously, and you, I pray, accept the forgiveness of the cross and the new life of the resurrection that we took on in our baptisms.

Believing is indeed seeing. It is important that we trust in God with all our being, and love the people God gives us with all our heart because these will change and inform what we see. And, never, ever forget that from the beginning, God always believes in us, and that drives how we are seen. 

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Bulletin for Worship on January 8, 2023 at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida.

Scripture Lessons for the First Sunday after Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's Clearwater, Florida on January 8, 2023

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on January 8, 2023

Sunday, January 01, 2023

What's in a name?

So what’s in a name? We hear Jesus’ name so much, that we don’t even think twice. Coming out of our mouths it is can be a blessing or… it might be a curse. When do you utter the name of Jesus? Certainly in Church, in prayer, hymn or study. Maybe at bed-time prayers. Then, we must admit, it becomes something else on the street. Maybe an expletive? We don’t even think twice…or do we?

We have a hard time with the name of Jesus not just because of the name but what went with the naming.

When the New Year was moved from the middle of March—it used to coincide with the Annunciation, March 25 – to the first of January, the feast of Jesus’ circumcision and his naming became the first day of the year.

Now, our modern celebration of New Year’s Day tends to be a feast of exhaustion, particularly if one stayed up to see the new year in. How did that happen? Well, there are several reasons. One cause was the way the Reformation happened in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Many of the old church feasts were abolished. And often this was imposed on ordinary folks with out much input or regard for their customs. As is often the case, when people are deprived of things to which they are deeply attached, they find other ways to celebrate, and so the old celebration of the Feast of the Circumcision was transformed into (or returned to) the secular day of feasting and sport and sport we know today.

While Anglicans retained the old feast day, we tended not to keep it, not even our own liturgical recovery and renewal in the Episcopal Church. Which makes me wonder why? I kind of suspect that the mere mention of circumcision sounded a bit embarrassing; perhaps it made us blush. Now we call New Year’s Day the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.

So what's going on?

What is happening here is an initiation rite. Jesus’ parents are initiating their son into the covenant people of Israel… the Jewish people. Luke tells us at the end of the Gospel reading today that when the child of Mary and Joseph was taken to be circumcised, he was given the name Jesus. Certainly to the first-century Jew in Palestine there was nothing earth-shaking about the name. Many male children were given the name Joshua/Jesus, which means “God with us,” or more precisely “Yahweh saves.”

Today in Latino  culture, Jesus is a fairly common name to give to a baby.

So, what’s in a name?

The collect for today states that the name of Jesus is the “sign of our salvation.” Some of you may remember a time in the Episcopal Church when we were taught as children to bow our heads slightly whenever the name of Jesus was said out loud, especially in church—during a prayer or a hymn.

In Luke’s Gospel, we hear about two old people, Ana and Simeon, rejoiced to see the young child. Simeon exclaims that “these eyes of mine have seen the Savior.”

What’s in a name? These days, we tend to pick names because of how they sound. We don’t necessarily pick them for symbolic value, but we do worry if the name might sound too “geeky” or will cause the child to be made fun of in school.

And even though it was John Wayne’s real first name, we don’t see many boys named “Marion” these days, do we?

We live in a very materialistic age. We think of ourselves as very pragmatic, can-do people. So we often discount the symbolic when we pick out our names; but, as the Scottish Protestants and English Puritans found when they abolished all the feasts, like Christmas, people will fill in vacuums these create.

The truth is that the symbol exists and still has its power, even as we become ignorant of its origin and meaning. Telling our spouses that we love him or her may be an automatic response, but sometimes on purpose and sometimes by itself, we live into the deepest meaning of “I love you.”

And what’s the most popular proper name for a mindless expletive? It’s not “Fred!” I once heard of a Japanese student at West Virginia University who knew nothing of Christianity except what he observed Americans do—now there’s a scary thought! He came to believe that we Christians worshipped a demon named Jesus because the only times ordinary people uttered the name was as a curse or an expletive. Even though we may use “Jesus” as an expletive, the meaning of who Jesus is may and often does communicate itself anew by our mindless utterance. There is power

in a name and in a symbol. We may be unconscious of the power. We may twist the symbol, but the power is still there.

Jesus is “Yahweh saves.” He is “The Savior.” He is “God with us.” And that means that we belong to Jesus. It does not mean that he belongs to us. That’s an important point to understand, because there is more than one way to twist the power of Jesus’ name in to something perverse— more than just a mindless expletive. It is so easy for us to decide who Jesus should love or save and who he should not. In the name of Jesus, Christians have perpetrated violence and war, oppression and exclusion, and cover for crimes against people different or weaker than ourselves. When we decided that Jesus belongs to us, “Yahweh saves” is the last thing on our minds. But “Yahweh saves” will not go away.

We were named and signed in our baptisms. In baptism we were claimed, adopted, forgiven, and made members of the priestly body, the Body of Christ. And when we were named, we were marked as Christ’s own forever.  We, like Jesus, are here to be God for others. What we do, and how we live, and how we are with the people around us tell others that we belong to Jesus. In baptism, we are part of Christ’s family and we share the name “Yahweh saves.” And as God is seen in the face of Jesus Christ, the face of Jesus is seen in us.

There is more: in our baptisms we not only took on the identity, the face and name of Jesus, we are also called and inspired to see others as God sees them. So when we look into the faces of the poor, the lonely, the sick, the disabled, the imprisoned—even our neighbor across the fence, we see Jesus. We see the people that “Yahweh saves.” This is what it means when we are called to be Christ-like, or Christians. People see “Yahweh saves” projected on us, and we see who “Yahweh saves” all around us.

So, what’s in a name? More power than we think. In the midst of our daily struggles to live with a measure of integrity and dignity, we exclaim “God help us!” And that is the point. God does help us. God seeks us, God finds us, and particularly at the family table we gather around today, the Name of Jesus, the Word, joins with Bread and Wine and transforms us into newness of life.

This is what is in a name: Yahweh saves.

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Bulletin for Worship on January 1, 2023 at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida.

Scripture Lessons for the Holy Name

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on January 1, 2023

Saturday, November 12, 2022

More than a building

A few years ago, my family and I took a trip to Ireland and Wales before I did my last Sabbatical in London, Oxford, and Glasgow. While in Dublin, we stayed in a bed and breakfast and had a marvelous time touring the city, listening to churches across the city ringing the changes before evening prayer, and learning the history of that ancient place.

At the B&B, we asked where a good place to eat and where we might hear some Irish music and see some Irish dancing. We were directed to an unusual (to me anyway) restaurant. It is called “The Church” and that’s exactly what it is. Built in 1702 and consecrated as St. Mary’s, it continued as a Church of Ireland (Anglican) parish until it closed in 1964.

The organ in the church was used by George Fredrich Handel as he worked out the details and kinks in his oratorio, The Messiah, which premiered in Dublin in 1742.  Jonathan Swift, the author Gulliver’s Travels, attended the parish before he became Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and took services there. John Wesley preached his first sermon in Ireland in the pulpit of St. Mary’s.

Now it may be me, but in bringing me to this place I think God was trying to teach me something. As much as much as I enjoyed the place, there was for me, a kind of poignancy about it

At first, I thought, how clever! What a nice way to use this old building! Then it struck me: everything that made this restaurant successful ought to have made the congregation once housed there a thriving one.

Yet, for some reason, the congregation disappeared. We don’t know why. The website for The Church says that the building was put to several uses since the parish closed in 1964 until the present owners bought and refurbished the place in.

I could not help but think of Jesus’ words to his disciples and followers when they finally laid eyes on the Temple in Jerusalem, some for the first time, I’d imagine!

In fact, Jesus had only been in Jerusalem a few times, too, at least once as a child, and at least once as an adult. In our Gospel today, we hear that he is in Jerusalem somewhere between the Triumphal Entry—a.k.a. Palm Sunday—and the Crucifixion—which we know as Good Friday. According to Luke, during this time he has raised a lot of Cain: he has cleansed the temple of the moneychangers; he has confronted the Pharisees and temple officials and revealed their hypocrisies; he has foretold his own death; complimented a poor widow on her generosity; and now he is talking about the destruction of the Temple.

The Gospel of Luke was written in 80 AD, plus or minus. He is recording Jesus’ words ten years after the destruction of Jerusalem including that magnificent Temple. But when Jesus is speaking about the magnificent third Temple—it was 30 years away from being completed—Herod the Great knocked down the puny and ragged second temple and his son Herod Antipas was finishing what the father began. When Jesus said that not one stone will be left on top of another, not all the stones were yet in place.

Still the Temple was a magnificent building! Sitting on top of the mountain that Jerusalem itself was built upon, it stood fifteen or more stories high. It is said that the exterior was sheathed in gold leaf so that the sun glinted off it’s sides and was visible for miles around. The complex could hold thousands of people all at once—it was the center of Israel’s political and religious life. It was the center of occupied Israel’s life. People would do anything to keep the Romans at bay, and make sure that the Temple still stood.

So when Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple, he was saying out loud what many people feared: everyone knew that Rome had leveled many cities as their empire grew. One good siege could turn their safe walled city into a noose. Peace with the occupiers was a dangerous, tentative thing.

Jesus is saying something else, too, something that we need to hear again and again: The magnificence of the building means nothing without the faithfulness of the people inside.

It does not matter if the building is the most magnificent structure on earth—or at least in town—if the people within it do not live in faithfulness. Unless the people who stream to that building go out from it to do God’s work and God’s will in the world, why it is just a pile of stone and glass or at most a tavern.

What makes a building—be it the great Temple of Jerusalem or a neighborhood church—a place of faith is the people who make up the community within it. The building is a symbol of faith only in proportion to the sense of blessing, the awareness of joy, the consciousness of holiness and the commitment to mission of the people housed in that building! The building does not need us to give to it; the building reflects the faithfulness of the people inside.

The people in Jerusalem thought the temple would last forever. The people of that congregation in New Orleans did not have a restaurant when they built their church. The funny thing is that when you give to save the building, when the focus is on staying open, when we worry more about balancing the books than in staying faithful and doing mission—then what Jesus foresees comes true: a pile of rubble, or a pretty building suitable for renovation.

I love this place, this building, this space. We have a wonderful worship space that also houses wonderful people and has witnessed an infinite array of sacred moments—births, baptisms, marriages, healings, new ministries, burials and memorials, and everything in between. There is much to cherish in these sacred, venerable walls, this living work of sacred art. This little corner of God’s kingdom does give us a hint of what God is making us into. We might be tempted to think that the building is the beginning and the end, but there is so much going on here! What is here is a kind of sacrament in stone, brick, wood, etched glass and tile. This is the outward and visible sign. The inward and spiritual grace is all of you and all of the people who have come in and out of our lives in this community. This holy space becomes holy because the Church has set it aside to do within the sacred things that God is doing in our lives, in this neighborhood, in our towns and homes.

Yesterday, I saw this in action: we had a small class for Lay Eucharistic Visitors, other members were cleaning and tidying up the vesting room in the back, the chapel, the narthex, and the patio. Meanwhile, the Thrift Store was busy, crafters were in the parish hall making fabric art, a large twelve-step group was meeting and Good Neighbor’s was both taking in food and getting ready for the Great Turkey Delivery—a 1000 turkeys and all the fixin’s that will arrive tomorrow for distribution next weekend (as Marti Moore described in our announcements).

We are a vital, dynamic community of faithful people because we are aware of God’s blessings in all our lives. Every week, we come to this table, and lay before God our whole selves, our souls and bodies, and we have discovered time and again that God’s gives back—over and over again-- more than we can ever hope for or imagine.

Jesus warned his disciples that temples are brought down, and that Christians will face hard times. Jesus assures us that no matter what happens, we will do more than survive, we will conquer and thrive because while human temples are made with stone and steel and glass. Jesus’ temple is us—the Church—and we are built with nothing less than the power of the Holy Spirit!

We are not a restaurant, like “The Church” in Dublin, but people are certainly fed here! Notice that in our tradition, we never call our churches “temples.” This building is not a temple. That’s because we are! We are the adopted members of God’s household; we are the Body of Christ; we are the temple of the Holy Spirit! We are a gathered community of faith that is learning how to pray, how to worship, how to serve our neighbor, how to be friends and apprentices of Jesus. And we are doing the work of Jesus in our care for our community, our neighbors, and each other. We are doing something greater than just taking care of a nice building on the corner. Together we are bringing the love and the power and the healing and the welcome of God to a hurting, needy world.

And that is something that can never be torn down or taken away.

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Here is a link to a video of the sermon.
Here is a link to a video of the liturgy.