Sunday, January 09, 2022

Living into our baptismal identity

“You Episcopalians sure do talk about baptism a lot!”

I have heard this comment from some of my Protestant minister friends and colleagues. My best friend from high school, Chuck (who, I am sad to say, died from cancer last year) who a Baptist pastor and dyed-in-the-wool evangelical if ever there was one once told me the same thing.  He commented that we Episcopalians talk about baptism more often that most Baptists! He was raised in the Episcopal Church but his move to the Baptist tradition happened before we Episcopalians fully recovered our baptismal theology with the advent of our present Prayer Book over forty-six years ago.

And he was not alone. Once, a member of my former parish who was getting ready for her confirmation as an adult said the very same thing to me. “You sure do talk about baptism a lot!”

And, you know what? They are right! We Episcopalians do talk about Baptism... a lot!

I don’t remember my own baptism. I bet most of you don’t, either. There are a few of you here who were baptized as adults, but as strange as it sounds that is actually the exception, although it is the norm! If you look closely at the Baptismal rite in our Prayer Book, you’ll find that it is actually designed for adults… so the norm is that we baptize adults, and yet our most common practice is to baptize infants.

I can only guess, but I imagine that my baptism was a quiet affair: just my family, the godparents and the priest at the font of their parish church, which in my case was a place called Truro Church in Fairfax, Virginia. After the quiet Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon baptism, there were probably a feed at the house and lots of baby talk or talk about babies.

Even today, people will still ask me about “christening” their baby. Well, okay, but to me we “christen” ships, and we baptize people. Besides, the image of applying a champagne bottle to a baby is enough to get one turned into the proper authorities!

A strange thing happened in my Christian story that drove home the importance of my own baptismal identity. When I was twenty, I was a student at Drew University in New Jersey and studying religion that was part of the University. During the first week of Michaelmas term (i.e., the fall semester), I was sitting in the refectory across from an older American, an Episcopal priest who was doing his pre-retirement sabbatical studies at the same place. We were chatting about this and that, when I asked him his name. He said “Raymond Davis.” I was stunned! And after a moment, I blurted out “Sir! I believe that you baptized me!” The ordinary meal became a joyous reunion. He remembered my parents and my brothers, and that my dad was his senior warden when they built their new church that opened in 1959 and that I was baptized in the original colonial church that would become their chapel before my family moved to New England when I was toddler.

Our encounter in that Oxford refectory was a startling reminder that we are not baptized to save babies from fiery furnaces. We are initiated into a community of followers, friends, and apprentices of Jesus Christ.

In the first decades of the Church, the earliest Christians changed their understanding of baptism from what John the Baptist did to something entirely new. Jesus’ incarnation, passion, death and resurrection changed how they saw God at work.  And their understanding of themselves as the church, as the Body of Christ, changed, too.

John the Baptist, as we see in Luke, was like an Old Testament-style prophet, telling people to straighten up and fly right. When he baptized it was a kind of an object lesson meant to drive home a point and move people to action. It was a way for a person to demonstrate publicly that they were ready and willing to sign on the prophet’s agenda—which, of course, is God’s agenda. John’s baptism was a sign of repentance, an outward sign of the intention to live life in a new way.

When Jesus asked to be baptized by his cousin John protested. By taking on a baptism of repentance (that John said he didn't need), Jesus proclaimed that not only was he going to set us right with God, but that he was going to take on all the things that separate us from God. It was all apart of Jesus' divine work of setting us right with God, and a sign that Jesus walks with us in our pilgrimage towards wholeness, justice, healing, and peace. 

The earliest Christians understood baptism differently that John. Yes, repentance was a part of it, but the context changed. Instead of simply renouncing something, baptism became a sign that we are putting on Christ. In Baptism, the Apostle Paul would write, we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection, and literally are changed, and we become part of a new community! Think of it this way: in the early Church, Baptism changed from being something very much like an earnest New Year’s resolution into a change of identity and purpose-- a change of our very being!

It didn’t last long. Well before the middle ages, even up to our own day, baptism became a combination of a thanksgiving rite for a safe delivery, and a rite of dedication of sorts. Any talk of conversion, communion, and participation was put off until confirmation. On top of that, until a couple of generations ago, it was simply assumed that being a part of a church was part of what it meant to be in this culture.

Despite some folks who would conflate Christian living and our western or American culture, we live in a world that has largely given up on the need for a common religion and everyone is on their own, in it for themselves. Today baptism, whether for ourselves or our kiddos, is something we choose.

The good news is that this has helped us recover some of the radical implications of baptism: that in baptism we are adopted into Christ’s family the church; that in baptism we put on Christ and seek to imitate him in our ethics and our relationships; and that because of our faith in Christ and because of our baptismal promises we are now taking part in His ongoing work of reconciling humanity and creation to God.

And we have begun to look again at the idea that Christian families in Christian communities can raise up and nurture Christian children.

So that’s why we Episcopalians end up talking about baptism a lot!

You know every year, all of us have birthdays. We generally make a big deal about it. And even people who don’t like to celebrate their age, still mark the day by their studious avoidance of the subject. We don’t remember our births—at least I don’t! — but we need the birthdays to remind us that we are not only alive, but have an identity, a history and that we are important.

We Episcopalians renew our baptismal vows four or five times a year, plus every time we baptize someone new, to remind us that we have a new identity. We are marked as Christ’s own forever. We are his ambassadors of reconciliation. We are members of the Body of Christ. We are a community of baptized people.

All around us in this church are symbols that remind us of this: the font placed in full view in front of the altar reminds us that we come to the Eucharistic feast and the fellowship of Christ’s people through baptism. The “stoups” (that’s what those little fonts by the doors are called) are filled with baptismal water to remind us, as we enter church (and for some, as we go back into the world) that we can carry out the ministries we do precisely because we are adopted daughters and sons of God.

If you have any doubt that we are talking part in God’s work of reconciliation and hope, if you have any doubt that our identity as baptized followers of Jesus makes a difference, then look at this parish: at our outreach, at our Thrift Store, at our worship and music, our Bible Study, and care for each other.

When we renew our baptismal vows, and whenever we baptize a new Christian, we remind ourselves that we have the job of upholding each other in our lives in Christ, and to remind ourselves that we are, in our baptisms, marked as Christ’s own forever.

And that is why we talk about Baptism all the time. We can’t help it. It is who we are.

+ + +   + + +   + + +

Here is the bulletin for St. John's Episcopal Church, Clearwater, FL for Sunday, 1/9/2022

Here is the video of the liturgy.

Here is the video of the sermon.

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Life in the Big Polis

Updated January 4, 2022.

I have mostly kept my feelings to myself, but I must admit that I am very sad and disappointed that the date January 6th will forever be a date that will live in infamy. 

January 6, 2021 was a Wednesday, and in my former parish, we had a mid-week Noon Eucharist to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. Even though it was mainly live-streamed and “You Tubed” because of the pandemic, there were two or three other people besides me taking part in person, we celebrated the last day of the Christmas season by recounting the story of the Magi and the recognition of Jesus as Messiah by representatives of the Gentile world beyond first century Judaism in Roman-occupied Palestine.

The message in Matthew’s Gospel is that Jesus is the Messiah for all people! The Epiphany story of the foreign astrologers who come to worship a new-born king in Bethlehem is nicely bookended at the end of Matthew when Jesus sends out his followers into the all the world to proclaim, baptize, and teach the Gospel.

See the symmetry? The world comes to the infant Jesus to proclaim him king at the start of the Gospel of Matthew; and at the end when the risen Jesus, whose kingship was proclaimed on the cross, is about to ascend to heaven, we, his followers, are sent into the world.

The Season of Epiphany, starting with the visit of the Magi, is all about Jesus being revealed to the world as Messiah and Lord and in every Gospel story at every Eucharist in the coming weeks, we will again experience Jesus being made known as Messiah and Lord.

And then there was Washington, a year ago.

That was a kind of epiphany, too, I suppose. A revealing moment. And just as the Epiphany season will show us God’s true nature in Jesus Christ, the uprising a year ago showed us something of our true nature.

Part of my reaction comes from shock and grief. You see, I am a native of Washington, DC, and it is where “my people” (as my mother used to say) came from. Both my parents and one of my brothers are also natives of The District. I also spent a bit of my childhood in Concord, Massachusetts, where “the shot heard round the world” was fired. I was a Scout, as my father was, when he ushered at one of FDR’s inaugurations. My family story is filled with people who served our country in military and civil service: from soldiers and sailors to librarians of Congress to engineers who built both civic projects and moon rockets. And while I never served in the military, as my Dad and others in my family have, and have never run for elected office, I did my civic turn in volunteer fire and EMS corps, serving on local boards, registering voters, community organizing, and mostly by never, ever, missing an election since the day I registered at 18 years old.

For me, patriotism is not merely a feeling, it’s practical. It is the practical work of the people for the common good of the “polis,” “the city”, which is the root of the word “politics.” I can still recite that part of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech in 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

One of the people who came to that Epiphany Eucharist was a friend of mine, a Lutheran pastor, who was one of my favorite theological sparring partners. We agreed on much, but we disagreed on plenty, and our plan was to go to lunch after that Noon Eucharist and kibbitz over one thing or another. Ironically, we were reminiscing about my roots in The District, when we first heard of the violence in the Capital.

As we processed the news, we asked the question “where would Jesus be in all this mess?”

The epiphany of January 6, 2021 was that our common life is fragile, and it is all too easy to be given over to fear. Fear is all to easy to be manipulated by selfish ambition. Useful, functional, politics can be easily manipulated by the unscrupulous into corrupt ends or mob rule.

It fascinates me that when Jesus taught, he used the image of “the Kingdom of God” so often. Twenty-seven times, in fact, in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. But instead of talking about an earthly political rule, he was talking about life in the “polis” or “city” of God… about our life together as people of faith. Jesus’ parables typically reflected the surprise of discovering the work of God in the most unexpected places: like yeast in a loaf, like fish in a net, or like mercy coming from a neighbor we were taught to fear and hate.

In the collision between these two epiphanies, the one that shows off who Jesus is, and the one that shows off who we are (or can be, if left to our own impulses), we discover that our life together both as a church and as a nation is at once an act of grace and an act of the will.

We can choose to participate in our common life, where there will be give and take, advances and set-backs, where we will sometimes get our way and sometimes not. We can choose to act as faithful participants or as aggrieved victims. We can tally up our wins and losses, seeking to “get even” or we can choose to learn as we go. We can choose to seek the destruction of others, or we can choose to work together in our common life. It boils down to the lesson many of us learned in Little League, as I did from a wise volunteer coach: A sore loser will never win graciously.

It is perhaps a strange grace that just ahead of this sorrowful civic anniversary, this sad epiphany into the dark corners of our civic life, that we heard all these remembrances after the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who, needless to say, undertook his own struggle against an unjust political system. One thing he said was this:

“My father always used to say, ‘Don't raise your voice. Improve your argument.’ Good sense does not always lie with the loudest shouters, nor can we say that a large, unruly crowd is always the best arbiter of what is right.”

One key to understanding how Jesus understood God’s “polis” is found in the Lord’s Prayer, where we daily pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We pray that heaven will come to earth; and we pray that our life together will in some way mirror what God’s ideal community might be.

My hope and prayer for us is that the Epiphany of Jesus as Messiah and Lord this coming January 6th, will overshadow and leaven the anniversary of that angry insurrection. That, instead, will come the epiphany that we friends and apprentices of Jesus can in fact live lives of grace, conviction, love, and justice– where our life together is a living parable of what real life is like in the “polis of God!"

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Out of sync and yet deeply connected

 

We followers of Jesus are, generally speaking, out of sync.

If you don’t believe me, look around over the next few days. Christmas came on a Saturday, so I expect that it may take a day or two, but the rest of the world is moving on.

Soon the greeting will move from “Merry Christmas” to “Happy New Year,” if it hasn’t already.

Outside the church, the Christmas music is mostly gone; the gifts have been given unless you are from a tradition or culture that does this part on the Epiphany. Starting tomorrow I expect that we’ll see the curbs lined with trees and wreaths waiting for the removers to pick them up with the trash.

But we’ll be here… hanging on for two whole Sundays before the Feast of the Epiphany arrives on January 6th. We will still be surrounded with greens and poinsettias, or if the flowers have gone off to homes and the homebound, we’ll still be singing [lots of] Christmas carols.

So, what is it? Are we stubborn, simply out of sync, or is something else going on?

Well, we are out of sync. And, yup, something else is going on because we’ve never been more connected!

The Gospel of John says that the Logos, the very Word and perfect expression of God, Jesus entered the very same world that he spoke into existence!

But the world did not notice. The gospel says that Jesus came to his own people, the ones God picked out of all the tribes and nations and peoples of the earth, and they did not know him either.

It was as if God and humanity and creation were not in sync with each other.

Well, in fact, it’s true. This creation is out of sync. And so is humanity. We are all out of sync. You don't have to look far: the news channels, the internet, and the papers will all tell you. I could give you a litany of all the things that are wrong with the world right now; all the evil, all the neglect, all the corruption. We could compare notes. But I don't need to. We all know it's there. Ironically, that appears to be the only thing in sync.

Here is the good news. Rather than let us stay out of sync, God has done something about it. God has come among us as one of us to put us back in sync with God and each other and creation.

John's first chapter is his nativity story. I’ve heard it called “the Nativity Story for grown-ups!” There are no stars, no babies, no magi, or shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. Instead, there is a poem. A hymn. A meditation on what God is up to.

It’s a poem because what God is doing is beyond our imagination! Sure, it all happened in history, and it all takes place in the same cosmos as ours! The One God, who spoke all things into being is now one of us. God became human without diluting either his divinity or his humanity, so that we might be truly, and wonderfully alive. God draws near to us, so that we may draw nearer to God.

John's nativity story is not without a birth though. What is born is us. Check out Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John chapter 3. What’s born is us!

When we see Jesus, we see the very face of God. And when we see Jesus, we see the very face of humanity. And when we see Jesus among us, and witness his grace and his truth, we are changed. We are born to a new life.

And that is not all. After meeting God in Christ and having been changed, we witness to what we know. The Gospel talks about John the Baptist who was not the Light, but told us about it, because he is the model of the Christian. One who has faith, who has seen the Christ, who tells what he sees and hears.

The world has moved on. For most people, Christmas is over. For us, who are baptized followers of Jesus in word, sacrament, service, and community, Christmas is never over! In fact, as Blessed St. Benedict of Nursia says, “Always, we begin again.”

We are always seeking after Jesus, the one who is the fullness of God and the fullness of humanity in one person!  We are always seeking to be changed by this new relationship with God; we are always serving Christ in the people God gives us, especially in the faces of the poorest, the loneliest, the most unlovely among us.

To the world, followers of Jesus always seem to be out of sync. And that's okay. Because in Christ we are in sync with God and we are more and more deeply connected with what God is doing in the world.

+ + +   + + +   + + + 

Bulletin for the First Sunday after Christmas found here.

A video of the Liturgy may be found here.

A video of the sermon may be found here.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Mary sings radical, challenging, transformative hope!

This is my first winter as a full-time resident of these parts, and I must admit to a certain disorientation. I mean, where are the snowplows and the driveway salt? Where's the morning ritual of listening to the radio for your school district on the daily list of cancellations? I know… I moved down here to get away from all that, as many of you have—or at least make the annual trek south. But still... it’s disorienting!

You know, Advent, which we are wrapping up this week, can be disorienting, too! Everyone else is the full throes of Christmas… but we are still waiting. We are still looking forward because we know that the best is yet to come. Advent is the season of hope. And hope is faith that looks forward.

This week, we’ll officially enter winter, and we’ll discover somethings will begin to change. If you like to drive out the beach to watch the sunset, soon you’ll be doing that after dinner, not before. The days will gradually get longer, another sign of our season of hope.

And it happens all by itself! As the Earth spins around the Sun, and the tilt of our planet leans us more and more towards our star, Advent reminds us that we don’t save ourselves, but God is always doing his gracious work; all the more reason to find hope!

Today, with four candles lit, we got a double dose of the Song of Mary as it soared through as a Canticle and then in the Gospel reading and into our hearts once more!

We often think of Mary as gentle and meek, but today she is brave and bold, singing loud and strong. There has been a lot of chatter on the inter-webs and in social media about that song that muses about whether or not Mary knew what God was up to in Jesus. I don’t particularly care for the song, because, well, read the Gospel… she knew! But as in all our faith journeys, her knowledge unfolded as she uniquely participated in God’s redemptive work.

Mary the unwed mother, the fiancé of a poor carpenter, understood in a way that no one else could that everything — the very shape of human history — was about to change! A new dawn is on the way, and Mary sings out to greet it. The weight lessens; hope is born!

Hope is powerful because hope is faith that looks forward.

In the first installment of the three-part series The Hunger Games, there is a scene in the movie that is not in the book, but it sums up the trilogy’s theme. President Snow, the dictator of the dystopian, futuristic country of Panem, is walking in his rose garden with the chief “game maker,” Seneca Crane. Crane is the man responsible for creating the game that pits young people from the twelve districts of Panem against one another in a highly publicized fight to the death each year. The winner of the Hunger Games is then held up as a brave, strong hero that represents the spirit of Panem.

President Snow challenges Seneca Crane as to why the games must always have a winner. If the Capitol simply wanted to show its power and to instill fear and control, he says, why not simply execute people? It would be more efficient than the games! Why a winner?

Seneca Crane does not understand. He does not get what President Snow is driving at.

“Hope,” Snow says answering his own question. “Hope is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.”

The purpose of the Hunger Games was to give just a little hope, Snow explains. It’s really the illusion of hope, because the games entertain the people and allows them to have a hero to root for, while also keeping the Capitol firmly in control. A lot of hope would topple Snow’s oppressive regime entirely. The books and movies, as you either know or can probably guess, are about that spark that is not contained. The second installment of the story is called Catching Fire, as hope — a lot of hope — is revived in the country of Panem.

Hope is more than mere optimism. A lot of hope can shake the foundations of everything that weighs us down. A lot of hope can change the course of history. That’s because hope always looks forward. Hope is faith that looks forward.

Luke’s Gospel says that when the angel tells Mary the news, she consents, but she’s not singing yet. Not right away, anyway!

As Mary absorbs the news from the angel Gabriel that she will conceive and bear a child, he tells her, perhaps to console her: Elizabeth, your cousin, is pregnant too, even in her old age!

Gabriel didn’t actually tell Mary to go see Elizabeth. But she “made haste” (as the Gospel says) to go to the Judean town in the hill country just the same.

I think Mary wants to be near someone who understands; and also, to see for herself. And because Elizabeth’s pregnancy is also miraculous, she won’t think Mary’s crazy! And it is here, with another human being who understands that God works in weird and unexpected ways, that Mary is finally able to find the courage to sing her song of hope. Not ordinary optimism, but great hope! The kind that catches fire! The kind that sings out loud!

Today, Mary’s song invites us into the vulnerable territory of daring to hope big. Optimism looks backwards to find comfort in what we’ve experienced before. Hope — the big, world-shaking, musical hope of Mary — looks ahead, knowing that we cannot fully imagine what God is able to do, but trusting in God anyway.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with optimism. Optimism wishes for good fortune, for fun with friends and family during the holidays, for a blessed and happy new year, and for love and warmth to surround us. There is nothing wrong with a little optimistic Advent and Christmas cheer.

But if you have experienced the depths of despair, if you have experienced grief, if you have seen the pain that exists in the world, you know that optimism is not enough on its own. It is too difficult to sustain. The world is too broken, too violent, and too divided, and we alone cannot fix it.

Our one spark of hope is that God has spoken and told us that someday, all things — all things — from our personal struggles to the weight of the world’s pain, shall be made right. That hope is why Mary sings.

Today, the Gospel story invites us, like Mary, to seek out others in order to find our song of hope. It wasn’t until Mary was with Elizabeth that her hope burst into song. And maybe, whether we know it or not, that’s what we’ve done today, too. We have made haste and sought one another, to gather together so that we, too, can sing songs of hope.

Our song is one of extraordinary hope. Hope that has seen the broken and divided state of the world and knows that mere optimism we cannot repair the world on our own. Only God can, and only God will do that through the gift of Jesus. In the meantime, we are called to make our corner of the world that God so loves a less divided, more trustworthy, more hopeful place.

We are called to sing as Mary did: that God will lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things.

The best part about Mary’s song of hope is that is always fulfilled. Every year—every day if you say or sing Morning or Evening Prayer--we remember her bold song to remind ourselves that God has already broken through. Even in the darkness, even in the deepest disappointments, even when we are betrayed, and even when the world looks most broken, we keep this crazy hope alive because God has broken through into our world in the coming of Jesus and God will break through again in the power of the Holy Spirit and through God’s people, the Church. Today, we make haste to find each other to sing that hope again, to fan that spark into flame again.

Advent reminds us that our hope is never in vain. There is never an Advent where Jesus doesn’t get born. We long, hope, wait, anticipate, and we are never let down. Every year, Christmas always arrives. Even if we feel exhausted or brokenhearted, the Light of Christ always comes to the Church. Always. The final candle is always lit.

Advent and Christmas remind us that God has already broken through the darkness of sin and separation in the person of Jesus Christ. Despite the world’s pain, the dawn is well on the way.

And that is why Mary finds Elizabeth and sings her heart out, telling out her soul the greatness of the Lord. In saying yes to God, she discovers faith that looks forward. And ever since, we followers of Jesus have come together, found each other and sung our hearts out to the God who breaks in and joins us to sustain us in our living. In Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension, God dares us to hope big — and invites us to sing out loud.


Here is a link to the Bulletin for the 4th Sunday of Advent, 2021.

Here is a link to a video of the Sermon and the Liturgy on the 4th Sunday of Advent, 2021

Here is a link to the lessons for the 4th Sunday of Advent, 2021.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

An urgent and gracious invitation

This is the second week in a row we’re hearing about John the Baptist, and you know what’s really special about him? Nothing! Well, not nearly as much as you think!

Yeah, sure, he starts out by calling people names, and it sure seems like he’s knocking heads and talking names when he says to the crowd that has come out to hear him: “You brood of vipers, who told you to flee the wrath to come?”

Well, John, if you really want to know, you did!

All these people came out into the desert near the Jordan River to hear John preach and also to receive his baptism signifying their repentance and their need for forgiveness. You remember what “Repentance” means, right? It’s a change of mind; a decision to go in a new direction. Repentance for the forgiveness of sins involves accepting responsibility for what you have done. When one publicly repents, they are saying that they are participating in a sinful and broken world, that they are benefiting from the brokenness around them, and they commit to going in a better direction. So taking part in John’s baptism was a ritual cleansing that signified their commitment to walk in that new direction.

But when St. John Baptist looked out at all these people he wasn’t very convinced!

John’s ministry was well-known and popular and the crowds had people of all sorts of motivations and intentions. Some took John’s preaching to heart, some wanted to see a good show, some wanted John to bless their choices and behavior while not really changing very much. And some people who came out would fall back on their earnest commitment to the Traditions they’d always been taught. But John would have none of it: “Don’t tell me how you have Abraham for your ancestor! Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

Ouch! I gotta tell you, as a card-carrying cradle Episcopalian, that really hurts!

A lot of us Christians like to think that being Christian means being a good person, but “good” is not the point. Too often, we like to divide people into groups of “good” and “bad” people, and isn’t is fascination how we always put ourselves in the pile of “good” people—and all the others are, well, not. So much violence has been done by Christians who justified the persecution and oppression of others, because they thought themselves to be the “good” people and others were not.

So when John says, “You brood of vipers,” I get kind of nervous. I mean, I want to be a good person, a good Christian… who really wants to be a “bad” person, anyway?

But if you listen carefully to what St. John Baptist is saying, he is not saying to be good people. Instead,  he says, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” In other words, change the direction of what you’re doing, stop worrying about whether you’re a good person, or the “right sort of person,” or not—and start doing the things in your life that are worthy of and communicate the love of God that you have been receiving all along. People ask him what he means, and he tells them.

We tend to think of St. John Baptist was that hair-raising, outlandish radical in his teaching, and we assume that he expected huge things of people that absolutely no one could satisfy. But that isn’t true at all! What he tells the people to do were exactly the things that were commanded in the law: If you encounter someone who doesn’t have adequate clothes and you have enough, give them your extra coat, and if someone is hungry, feed them. It turns out that it’s not rocket science, like maybe we thought it was. The point is to respond decently and generously the next time we are faced with human need.

So when soldiers and tax collectors came to John and asked “what shall we do?” he didn’t say quit your jobs, or overthrow Caesar. He said like ethically and decently. What God requires is not dramatic, nor anything to brag about.

As I have gotten to know the folks at St. John’s these past five or six months, it’s what I consistently noticed in this community. There is concern for others, there is generosity—not ostentatious, or big, or glamorous but looking to make sure people who are hurting or in need are taken care of.

But here’s the thing: repentance is an ongoing process. It is often challenging; and it can be a painful process, especially when we realize the way we have given in to being fearful or selfish or when we get selective about who will or won’t welcome, or in how we are selective in accepting change in our community. But the key is that we are striving to be practically decent and faithful people—decent to one another, decent to people out there in the world, and faithful to God and our baptismal promises, and maybe most especially, decent and caring to those who might earn our annoyance.

If you don’t believe me, look at what John says to those Roman soldiers and tax collectors who come to him and asking what they should do in order to repent. These  were not well like people, and there was a lot not to like because they were agents of oppression of the Judean people—imperiling their lives who had no one to protect them or exacting heavy taxes from a populace who had very little. Notice that John does not tell them is not to leave their jobs or to become radically poor, or anything along those lines. What he tells the tax collectors is simply “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” And the soldiers, “Don’t extort by threats of violence or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”  Both of those things were simply what was legal and prescribed in the Roman law. But everyone knew that tax collectors became wealthy by overcharging the people they were entitled to tax, especially those who had no influence or ability to push back. Likewise, soldiers were widely known for intimidating the populace for no real purpose other than to make themselves more comfortable and powerful. Actual repentance would make a real difference in how the tax collectors and the soldiers lived. What’s more, it would make a real difference in how the people they had power over lived. Actual repentance would change how we live today. Briefly stated, repentance is the change from fearfulness and selfishness about our own comfort, to being decent, generous people; people who trust God to provide enough so that all can mutually thrive.

The Apostle Paul says the same thing in a positive way in this passage from his letter to his friends at Philippi: “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:5-7)

In other words, let the way you deal with anyone demonstrate kindness, decency, gentleness. It’s not a matter of showing the “good people” that you are a “good person,” but rather that we deal fairly and graciously with everyone.

When Paul says, “The Lord is near,” we might expect that amid all the prophetic and apocalyptic imagery of Advent, that this is an announcement of God’s judgement. Maybe it is. But not in the way think. Paul is saying that God’s judgement is, “Do not worry.” Even though he was imprisoned when he wrote this, Paul could say in confidence that everything should be taken in thanksgiving to God.”

It turns out that John the Baptist’s call was not a harangue but an invitation. An invitation to repentance, a God-sent invitation that we our lives and behavior will be properly aligned with the love that God had been given to us from the very beginning. “Bear the fruits of repentance,” he said. Ultimately those fruits are generosity, thankfulness, and joy.

As Paul said to the Christians in Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always…! And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Sunday, December 05, 2021

That other nativity story

Pop quiz, Bible fans: Do you know that there is a second Nativity story in the Gospel of Luke? We all know about the story of Jesus’ birth… but do you know about the other one… the one about the birth of John the Baptist?

The way Luke tells it, there are certain similarities in the two nativities that ought to make your Biblical ears perk up like a little dog listening to “his master’s voice.”

For one thing, whenever God speaks to a person, that person breaks out in song right away. We call those songs ‘canticles’ and the two famous Christmas songs are The Song of Mary, spoken by Jesus’ mother after the Angel Gabriel announces that the child she is carrying will be the Messiah. We’ll sing that in two weeks.

The other one is sung not by Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, but her husband Zechariah. Today, we sang a metrical version of that canticle in our worship.

Like the Psalms, the Canticles are more than just pretty songs but are poetic proclamations of deep spiritual truths. The Song of Zechariah helps us understand the meaning of John’s ministry and his place in God’s redemptive work:

In the tender compassion of our God

The dawn from on high shall break upon us.

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death

And to guide our feet into the way of peace.

John the Baptist was born to Elizabeth, who was Mary’s cousin. An angel told Zechariah, John’s father, that this was coming, and that God wanted to name the child “John.” Well, Zechariah said that’s all well and good but really, would mind so much if he named the kid “Zeke Junior” instead? Well, the angel said “uhm, not so fast Zeke” … and took away his voice until Zechariah gave him the name God wanted: John. The canticle we sang today was the second thing out of Zechariah’s mouth after blurting out John’s name.

We love the idea that St. John Baptist camped in the wilderness, living off the land, and wore camel skins. Kind of a first century BC hippie or Mountain Man. But St. John Baptist grew up to be a tough guy. He didn’t take any guff. There was nothing soft, cuddly, or hip about him.

John called people to repentance. He was not afraid to say hard words to those who tried to game the system. He talked about people who said long fancy prayers but did nothing about the suffering of the people. He spoke up against those who used power for their own ends. He spoke against religious and political leaders who said one thing but did evil in the name of God.

Needless to say, the powerful did not react well to John’s words …especially after people started paying attention and going out in the wilds to hear him preach. In the end, they decided to shut John’s mouth by cutting off his head.

But the canticle that his dad Zechariah sang before John was born tells us what John was really about. “The tender compassion of our God,” the song says.

John grew up to be a voice crying in the wild places saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” And, as the song goes, “to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

He was preparing the way for Jesus. He proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, and he confronted the powers of this world that work and act against God and God’s people.

We still need the voice of John the Baptist. We live in dark, violent times, and it is difficult to see that path towards peace. The news is often pretty bleak. If there isn’t violence, there is news of corruption, abuse of power, and organized dishonesty. On the one hand, we are processing the news of yet another school shooting and this time the prosecution is asking the same hard questions of the parents of this middle-class gunman as we all the time ask of teenage shooters in less affluent communities.

We also hear of political leaders and watch talking heads claim to know it all. They dream of power more than of leading; they find it easy to voice grievance and stoke resentment while putting aside the pesky questions of what might actually be done about it. Because it’s easy to get a mob to rally around anger. It’s hard to lead people to solutions.

And the list goes on and on.

St. John Baptist was living in a situation not that different from our own, and he courageously called for repentance. “Step back from the chaos of fear.” Comfort ye my people, says the prophet. Prepare the way of the Lord—make the superhighway of Peace, a straight road, not winding around every up and down, but going straight through to peace—without fear, without recrimination, and without revenge.

His message to prepare the straight way for the Messiah is so different that our cultures messages of violence, me-first, and rage. Time and again, we humans think that it is only the use of power and violence that can destroy violence. Remember how angry we were after 9/11 twenty years ago? But the anger and the war that followed did not destroy the violence, did it? It moved it around, and along the way recruited more angry and violent people on all sides, in our country and in others. Intolerance and xenophobia grew in our country and elsewhere. The more that we attempted to crush violence with anger, violence and exercise of power, the more violence multiplied in more places. This fear-laden game of violence whack-a-mole affects everything in our common life.

But John the Baptist tells us that God has another way.

This Advent season reminds us of “the tender compassion of God” which guides us “into the way of peace.”

Some people think that the way of peace is the way of wimps. Many believe that peace is a passive thing. But let’s look in Scripture at who God sent to proclaim peace. None of the prophets, especially John the Baptist, were particularly passive or lazy or soft. In fact, I can’t think of anyone in the whole Bible tougher than John the Baptist. Except maybe Mary. Except maybe Jesus. The path of peace is not the path of fearfulness, and it is certainly not the path of surrender. The path of peace requires fortitude and courage.

Pope Francis once talked about prayer reminding us that the life of prayer is not a life of passivity. He said, “You pray for the hungry. You pray that God will provide for the hungry. Then you feed the hungry. That’s how prayer works.” Or, as Pennsylvania labor organizer Mother Jones more colorfully said over a century ago: “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”

After the shootings in Wisconsin last week, we did not hear the phrase “thoughts and prayers” very much because a few years ago that stock phrase of politicians and pundits took a very public drubbing. And for good reason. Because it equated prayer with inaction and mere passivity.

Pray, yes. But what will our prayer do about gun violence if we lack the courage to act?

We live in a world that assumes that prayer is platitude, that our prayers are meant to hide our inaction and our fear. Our culture assumes that faith is as good as dead.

But our faith is not dead, when, as James says in his epistle, we take action! Listen to what St. Paul wrote from prison toward the end of his life in our Epistle lesson today to his friends at the church in Philippi during a very difficult time both for the congregation and for Paul. He said:

“I am confident of this, that the One who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.… And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”

God guides us in the way of peace. God causes love to overflow, clear-eyed, wise, and ready for action. God’s love in Jesus Christ gives us power and does not concede the world to everyday… or extraordinary… evil. In fact, the way of peace never cringes before evil, but looks evil in the eye and overflows with love. The way of love always does the things that evil hates and makes it retreat. In the Incarnate, Crucified, and Risen Jesus, the way of love makes what was crooked straight and what was rough places smooth—and not just for us, but for all the people we meet and care for as we also prepare the way for Jesus.


Sunday, November 21, 2021

An unexpected king, a different kind of reign

I wonder. Do kids play ‘king of the hill’ anymore? No, I don't mean the cartoon on TV. I mean the game where a kid will try to get to the top of a small hill, or top of a pile of other kids, and stay on top while the other kids try to push him (…I always remember boys doing this…) off.  The kid on top proclaims “I am king of the hill!” and then the others try to push him off.  The game can get pretty rough and most schools and camps ban it, or at least discourage it, from being played. So, I wonder if kids even know about it?

Well, they may have taken it out of the playground, but people still play some form of ‘king of the hill’ all the time! The playground game can be pretty good metaphor for life in the business world. All you really need is for one person to decide that they want to be the next king of the hill and then get everyone else involved in pushing the one at the top of whatever heap is being sought after to do the shoving and kicking and pulling. In some workplaces I have seen, the game of king of the hill is more fun, more time-consuming, and more important, than doing the work of building, selling, or providing whatever widget needs to be built or sold, or whatever service needs to be delivered.

Of course, it doesn’t just happen in business. It happens in politics… which I think is why the news looks more like sports coverage than news…. It can happen in homes. And it can even happen (dare I say it?) in churches.

When the game of king of the hill becomes too important, we are forgetting who is really in charge.

Today we celebrate the end of the Church’s year and we summarize everything that has happened all year long in this way: At the end of all the history of God’s saving activity since creation, Jesus reigns over all creation as King of kings and Lord of lords.

But listening to today’s Gospel, we might think that this doesn’t much of a kingship.

In the Gospel, we see Jesus who has been arrested, humiliated, and is seen standing before a real ruler. Not a king, mind you, but a Roman Governor…who represented Caesar who at the time ruled ¼ to 1/3 the known world. Governor Pilate asks this pathetic-looking wandering rabbi “Are you the King of the Jews?”

For Pilate, Jesus is nothing more than a political wannabe. A competitor. A power-seeker. One who stirs up the populous and disturbs the Roman peace. Pilate asks Jesus in effect “Do you think you are king of the hill?”

Jesus answers, yes, I am a king, just not in the way you think.

That’s because Jesus’ kingship, his power, is expressed in very differently than the way we think of or use power. His Lordship will be expressed not from a throne or from behind a big desk but from a cross of shame. It will be through this cross that Jesus will heal the rift between God and humanity, rescue us from sin and the power of death, and return us to a whole, healthy relationship to God. All we have to do is believe that he is the Christ and follow him.

In our baptisms, we took on Christ. We said we believe in Jesus, and accept him as the savior, the Messiah, the Christ. We promised to follow Jesus as our Lord over our lives.

We said, in effect, that we would put aside our own King of the Hill thinking.

I don’t know about you, but this is more easily said than done. Sometimes we get our wires crossed. I grew up in a parish church that was originally built by the wife of a wealthy industrialist for his workers. The church was built in memory of Samuel Colt of six-gun fame by his wife, Elizabeth. My home church was built so that workers of the gun factory could worship, yes, but also improve themselves in the parish hall which was really a community center: it had a ballroom, a gym, a bowling alley, parlors, a library, and classrooms. All good things. As 19th century industrialists went, I guess Colt (or at least his wife) was pretty enlightened about caring for his workers.

At the same time, it was also built to remind the workers who made their jobs, their houses, their school, and their church possible. Six guns and early style bullets (mini-balls) were carved into the Corinthian columns at the church entry ways. And in the rear of the church there was a big stained-glass window that showed Moses leading his people through the Red Sea…and (would you believe it?) Moses looked an awful lot like Samuel Colt! My home parish was built to reinforce our usual idea of kingship. Samuel Colt was king of the hill. In fact, the message was that God sent him to be King of the Hill. And you had better be grateful.

Now in fact I am very grateful to my home parish because by the time I got there, it was a very different place. The parish welcomed and reached out to the neighborhood with food, education and tutoring, youth programs, parenting classes, arts and music programs and AA meetings. It was a racially and culturally diverse community that also welcomed LGBT people way before it was cool! I didn’t know it then, but that parish formed me into the kind of Christian I am today. Samuel Colt might have been surprised to find that the parish he founded taught a different kind of power: the power of Christ in community to proclaim and make alive the Gospel.

Secular Christmas season is upon us… it’s not even Advent yet… you know the Great Winter Festival that will start with football and turkey on Thanksgiving and will end with the Super Bowl in February! But that’s okay. We Christians run on a different calendar. And on this last week of the Church’s year, let’s reflect on what it all means…the “why” God is doing what God has done. 

Diana Butler Bass writes that the theme of Christ’s Sovereignty that we hear today actually helps us think about Christ's birth in a different way as we move from ordinary time to Advent and then Christmas. She writes:

“While the world might think Christmas is about WHAT happened (Jesus was born) or HOW it happened (Mary, a stable, angels, shepherds), this Sunday insists that the most significant question is WHY Jesus was born. The answer to that question is encapsulated in the dramatic confrontation between Pilate and Jesus (John 18:33-37), as Jesus witnesses to what is really means to be ‘king.’”

Jesus’ confrontation with Pilate shows us that what is important is not who is in political power, who has the most ratings, who sold the most, or who is ‘king of the hill.’ The most important question is who it is that we follow. 

That is why I prefer to call this day not “Christ the King” but “The Reign of Christ.” What is important is not just who Jesus is, but what Jesus does! And what Christ does is “reign.” His rule is one of power, but the power of creation, service, love, and transformation. The importance of Jesus’ reign is that we are all drawn into a deep, abiding relationship with God that heals us inside, heals our relationships, and heals all creation.

So today’s the image of hundreds and thousands of saints gathered around the throne that we heard today in Daniel and in the Revelation of John is a picture of Jesus’ reign that draws people to him from every nation and people into a new kind of community: a community of service to God and to each other.

It’s no longer “king of the hill” but a gathering of all God’s people! The reign of God is like a cross between an open-air market and street-festival, a field hospital, a rock concert, an outdoor school, and a worship service where people of every kind gather around Christ and in their words, their actions, their relationships and their creativity proclaim him as Lord.

And you know what? We don’t have to wait! In our baptisms, in our common life, and in our daily living, we and all God’s people—we—are already citizens of God’s people and members of Christ’s household living abundantly under Jesus’ reign in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Amen and Amen!

2 Samuel 23:1-7
Psalm 132:1-13 (14-19)
Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

Bulletin for The Last Sunday after Pentecost - November 21, 2021 may be found here.

A video of today's liturgy at St. John's Episcopal Church, Clearwater, FL is here.

A video of this sermon may be found here.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Not one stone

The disciples were like tourists when they finally got to Jerusalem. One can almost imagine them taking selfies, buying postcards, and snacking on food from street vendors as they marveled at the grandeur of Jerusalem and the temple that was that heart of the city.

“Look at all these magnificent stones! Look at these beautiful buildings!” the disciples exclaimed.

But Jesus, ever the party pooper, said, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."

Wait… what? When? How?

Jesus says that there will come a time when the great city will be wracked by violence and terror. At the same time, he also says, don’t fret, don’t give in to fear, and don’t be bamboozled… this is not the end! It is only a birth pang, Braxton-Hicks on the way to birthing the reign of God… but it is not the end!

When Mark’s Gospel was written, in the late 60’s AD/CE…about thirty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection…the Jewish community (or a major part of it) in occupied Palestine was in rebellion against their Roman occupiers. Full scale war had not yet broken out, but it was on the horizon! And when, a few years later, Jewish rebels attacked Romans. Roman soldiers cracked down…hard!

Mark’s Gospel remembers Jesus’ words at a time when Christians were being tempted to pick up arms, join with the radical Jewish rebels and nationalists, and fight against the Romans. Mark’s Gospel reminds this early Christian community that violence will not bring about God’s kingdom; but, at the same time, God’s reign will not be born without pain, pain akin to childbirth.

The challenges facing Mark’s church are not unlike those we know today. We live in angry times. People have retreated to their silos of certainty, and we taunt each other and egg each other on like that lone soldier in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who insults King Arthur from his castle tower. Today, we see people fly flags and offer obscene jokes at the those they disagree with, reinforced by the cackles and yuks of their buddies, egged on by their favorite talking head on their favorite cable news channel, radio show, or podcast. We are coming to terms with the consequences that angry mobs have gathered in our streets and civil shrines protesting, brawling in the name of their cause. As I said, these are angry times. Everyone wants “our side” to “win…!” …. whatever that means.

A few years ago, after terrorist attacks… coordinated acts of war…against civilians took place in Beirut and then in Paris, Bishop Pierre Whalon, the Episcopal Bishop of Europe, asked a question that must have dogged the early Christians of Mark’s Church: “Do we have to love our enemy?” (To which Jesus might say "Well, uhm, yeah!") Here is what Bishop Whalon said:

“Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.” Doesn’t that just 'enable' them?

Here is where our baptismal promise to “follow and obey Jesus as Lord” cuts into our lives. We should do good to those who hate us, because Jesus has told us to. So how can we?

First, I think we need to see that loving the enemy who can do such things to us is not just vapid idealism. The whole point of the Christian story is summed up thus: “While we were yet his enemies, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5: 6-10) In other words, God shows love for us precisely by putting off the divine power that we crave. The day after this heinous attack, we may wish for God to come down and wipe out our enemies. Instead, Christ on the cross, completely powerless at the last, shows us that it is only love that can overcome hatred, evil and even death.

Jesus asks us to follow his way, as love is the only power in this world that can literally and figuratively save us. He certainly did not “enable” his enemies. In the short term, we need the police and the military, and we should be grateful [for]… the firefighters and emergency medical teams [who] need our prayers and deserve our support. Not to mention the wounded and dead, and their families and friends.

But the question of their assassins concerns not only us here and now, but the whole human race. What word do we have for these people? Our first instincts are to demonize them. . . to label them as “Islamic fundamentalists” or some such, and cheer as the [military] carry out a massive campaign in retaliation. But this is too simple. It is not what Jesus would have us do. What he wants is harder.

When we baptize or confirm people, Episcopalians always repeat the promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people”… We need therefore to chart a way to make peace. Peace, not appeasement or total war. In order to be able to do that, we first need to turn back to Jesus and ask for help.

When the going gets tough, we are tempted to circle the wagons, to build our own little forts or silos; or, as often happens in many churches, start doing what we’ve always done with even greater fervor hoping for a different result! We may be tempted to huddle even closer with the people we are the most comfy with, in whatever little safe rooms we’ve constructed in our hearts and sanctuaries.

But, as Jesus said, not one stone will be left standing.

What Jesus taught, what Mark’s Gospel community learned, perhaps the hard way, was what Christians have learned time and again: that silos, echo chambers, and safe rooms don’t protect us. They never have. And whenever we try to run and hide from the world, the world has a way of finding us! The Church, and all the baptized people and faithful communities where the Church lives, are called to step out from behind the walls, go into the heart of where people live… and just love them. Care for the sick. Comfort the frightened and anxious. Imagine God’s reign, live out God’s love, and act with God’s power… to practically and usefully communicate God’s grace and love to the people God has given to us!

When Jesus points to the massive stones of the Temple, he tells his disciples that a storm is coming but for the Church, while Rule #7 applies, sheltering in place is not an option! That may be fine for hurricanes, but never for Christ’s people in community, the Church!

It may feel as if the world is falling apart…even ending. We are tempted to give into the merchants of terror and treat each other the way they treat and provoke us. But we don’t have to live in those structures. We can tear down the temples of false nostalgia and become people of hope… people whose faith looks forward! As we learn and do the work of Jesus, God shows us over and over again, that the church is built up not with stones or bricks or the powers of the marketplace or world, but through an ever-widening community of love.

+ + +   + + +   + + +

Here is the link to today's Bulletin at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida

Here is the link to today's liturgy.

Here is the link to a video of today's sermon.

Sunday, November 07, 2021

Everyday Saintliness Made Real

Do you think you are good enough to be one God’s saints? How do you think you'd look dressed up in stained glass? How do you think you'd look as an icon with colors of egg tempra? What do you think? Do you think you have what it takes?

What a strange question! We tend to think of saints as really and obviously holy people; people who meet strict criteria get to be called saints, right? Our sisters and brothers in the Roman Catholic Church have a strict process that moves a person from Beatified to Sainthood, with a few miracles under their saintly belts.

Our process is a little different. To get into our own calendar of Saints is less stringent… no miracles are required but there is a vote in General Convention. We invoke saints in our prayers, we name churches for them, as well as cities, colleges, and hospitals.

Maybe you’ve done what more and more Episcopalians do every Lent? Vote for your favorites saint during Lent Madness… a thirty-two slot bracket (like the NCAA Basketball March Madness) where Episcopalians vote for their favorite saint in daily matchups from the first Thursday in Lent until Wednesday in Holy Week? Last year, Absolom Jones won the Golden Halo, joining others like George Herbert, CS Lewis, Mary Magdalene, Frances Perkins, Charles Wesley, Francis of Assisi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Florence Nightingale, Anna Alexander, Martha of Bethany, and Harriet Tubman… who all were winners of their annual contests. Who will win the Golden Halo next Lent? Stay tuned!

Would it surprise you if I told you that the word “saint” appears in the New Testament 62 times and that the Apostle Paul used the term 44 times? You see, in the New Testament, every follower of Jesus is a Saint, or in Greek "hagios", one of the holy ones.

You are one of God's saints. Yes, you!

So, what makes a saint a saint? The Apostle Paul says faith in Jesus and Baptism are the marks of sainthood. He’s not alone. The writer of the Revelation to John in his heavenly vision puts it another way- "I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them…’"

We are called saints because of God's continuing presence among his people; it is God who is intimately and fully holy, it is a God who came in the flesh in the person of Jesus, who still dwells with us, His people. That presence permeates the entire community of faith.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said:

God came among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to change the world, to change it from the nightmare it often can be into the dream that God intends. He came to change the world, and we have been baptized into the Triune God and summoned to be disciples and followers of this Jesus and to participate in God’s work, God’s mission of changing and transforming this world. We are the Jesus Movement now….

…We are part of the Jesus Movement, and he has summoned us to make disciples and followers of all nations and transform this world by the power of the Good News, the gospel of Jesus.

What makes God's people holy is His presence in and with us. It’s not our behavior which, truth be told, is often less than perfect, that makes us saints, but it is our living identity as Jesus’ people that makes us saints. It is how learn and do the works of Jesus as his friends and apprentices that makes us saints.

The former slave ship captain John Newton, who wrote the famous hymn "Amazing Grace," brought home in his beloved hymn the reality that it is God's gracious presence in the midst of His humanity that makes sainthood possible.

"Amazing grace! how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see."

Left to our own devices, we will eventually disappoint at least our own selves. But with God's loving grace we can grow to be the people God made us to be…to live into the sainthood we have been adopted into!

In today’s reading from the Revelation to John, God's voice thunders from heaven, "See, I am making all things new." God is making a promise to us. 

When I was in high school and college, the movement that was sweeping the Episcopal Church (and many other churches) was the charismatic movement. People were experiencing the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including but not limited to speaking in tongues, and ecstatic prayer. Well, I loved going to those churches and prayer meetings and I learned so much. I was energized and inspired by their worship. But, as I have said to some of you before, I made a rotten charismatic. I am just too tightly wound. The truth is that the only time I’ll ever pray with my hands up will probably be during a bank robbery!

I used to feel guilty about this. That maybe I wasn’t holy enough. But a wise woman reassured me that it was okay…that God was not finished with me yet.

We live in a world that often advertises promises of perfection. It turns out that saintliness is much less about perfection than it is about transformation. We who are God's saints on earth are called to allow the holy presence of God be a transforming influence in our life.

The Rev. Dr. James Fenhagen, who was then the Dean of General Seminary, spoke about the Church in American culture. He said that modern Christians tended to have hard crusty exteriors but soft inner cores. The problem is God call us to have a solid core and soft exterior! Historically Christianity has advocated focusing on forming the inner person, engaging in disciplines such as prayer, study of Scripture, spiritual direction, and sacramental living, that shapes who and what we are deep in our souls. This is how transformation happens; that is how we grow as God's saints on earth.

A few years ago, my wife and I joined about four dozen other Episcopalians on a pilgrimage across northern Spain called the Camino de Santiago. We walked this ancient pilgrim way following in the steps of countless Christians—not just on the Camino but in all kinds of ordinary living-- who seek to follow Jesus every day, and to turn this journey into a moving walking prayer. 

What I learned from that pilgrimage is that being a saint, a follower of Jesus, is to be “on the way every day,” learning and doing his work, seeing his face in the people we meet, and joining a countless band of other saints, living and dead, who are walking on the way in prayer, acts of service, and humble worship. So, yes, you have what it takes, because we are, all of us, by grace, saints of God!

Here is the link to the full liturgy at St. John's Clearwater, Florida

Here is the link to the sermon