Epiphany 2

Last week, I began the last paragraph of my sermon with, “So, it’s been quite a week.”  Well, it’s been quite a week again, hasn’t it?  Our shared experience of our nation’s health combined with our individual experiences of everyday life in a pandemic can be overwhelming at times, difficult to get away from.  Doan suggested compiling a playlist of songs in tune, if you will, with the times.  In less than a minute we came up with Land of Confusion by Genesis; We Didn’t Start the Fire by Billy Joel; REM’s It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine); and The Final Countdown by Europe.  I added Motorhead’s End of Time – Doan wouldn’t come up with that off the top of her head. I wanted to call it our Soundtrack to the Apocalypse, so I was disappointed when I found out that Slayer already has a box set called Soundtrack of the Apocalypse.   

Today’s Gospel lesson deals with its own apocalypse, in the truest sense of the term: to reveal, a revelation, an uncovering.  Jesus decided to travel through the region of Galilee, and somewhere near or in Bethsaida, He comes across Philip, who is quickly convinced that Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah they had been waiting for.  Philip, understandably excited, finds his friend Nathaniel (who also goes by Bartholomew), and tells him that they have found the one, the one that even Moses talked about, the one the prophets foretold. 

And, well, He’s from Nazareth.  This is where I figure that Nathaniel and I would have gotten along.  Nathaniel’s first instinct, rather than to, say, marvel at what his friend was saying, was to make fun of Nazareth. 

And why not?  “Nazareth was southwest of the Sea of Galilee, and a very small community, probably less than 500 people during Jesus’ lifetime.  Being so small, and not adjacent to major cities, it was the last place one would expect anything interesting to happen.  Calling someone a “Nazarene” would have been like referring to them as a “bumpkin,” or even a “hillbilly.” Nathanael’s question is more than a little sarcastic.  He assumes that Nazareth couldn’t produce much of worth,” let alone someone Moses talked about.[1]   

Philip, for his part, kept his head about him.  He must have known Nathaniel pretty well, well enough to know that he might greet stupendous news with humor and skepticism.  And so Philip didn’t argue, he instead invited.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Well, come and see.

Nathaniel would come to see.  Jesus had seen him, seen him under the fig tree, a traditional place for the faithful to sit and contemplate the wonders of God.  Jesus had seen Nathaniel’s true spirit, the spirit of an honest man, what you see is what you get, whether you like it or not.  And Jesus promised that Nathaniel would see, would see the heavens opened, the angels of God in their processions.  He would see Jesus in all His glory.

Come and see.  What Philip knew and Jesus confirmed is that talking about Jesus and meeting Him in person are two wildly different things.  Easy to say for the guy standing here talking about Jesus, right?

That’s why the response always has to be “Come and see.”  Come and see who Jesus is to me, to us, to our community.  Come and see what knowing Jesus looks like; how knowing Him changes your life forever; how when you come and see, you never know what you’ll see, what will be revealed to you.

It’s been quite a few weeks, surely, but just as surely, things will eventually work together for the good of those who come and see the one from Nazareth, the one Moses and the prophets spoke about, the Son of God and King of Israel. 

[1] https://www.bibleref.com/John/1/John-1-46.html

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The Baptism of Our Lord

Today is the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, which marks, of course, the baptism of our Lord, the time when Jesus was baptized in the river Jordan by His cousin John. 

John the Baptist didn’t invent baptism, though I certainly thought he did when I was a kid.  Baptism “had been practiced for centuries among the Jews as a ritual equivalent to our Confession.  Until the fall of the Temple in 70 A.D., it was common for Jewish people to use a special pool called a Mikveh — literally a “collection of water” – as a means of spiritual cleansing, to remove spiritual impurity and sin.  Men took this bath weekly on the eve of the Sabbath; women, monthly.  Converts were also expected to take this bath before entering Judaism.  Orthodox Jews still retain the rite.  John preached that such a bath was a necessary preparation for the cataclysm that would be wrought by the coming Messiah.”[1]  As a means of getting ready for the revealing of Jesus as God walking among us.

Doan and Mary Ellen were reminiscing this week about Fr. Salmon, and how on the morning of my first All Saints’ Sunday in Bordentown (when I was still a Deacon), Fr. Salmon baptized eight children. 

One of the questions that is asked of the baptismal candidates or their sponsors is “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”

Well, Fr. Salmon wouldn’t wait for the answer before he expounded on the question; he said “Do you know what this means?  This means that you’ll come to church!”

When Fr. Salmon got to the point in the rite when the people are asked if they will support the newly baptized in their life in Christ, he didn’t think the congregation was robust enough in their response: he made us all heartily respond “We will!”  We will support these persons in their life in Christ.

Fr. Salmon was rather forceful about the whole thing; he didn’t have time for the niceties when it comes to something as powerful, as life-changing, as sky-rending as baptism.  The whole of the baptismal rite is like that; at that font there’s a lifetime’s worth of renouncing, of repenting, of trusting, none of which is easy, and all of which requires us to be open to the Holy Spirit descending on us, filling our hearts.  It requires us to be open to each other, the community of the baptized continually, repeatedly, robustly saying “We will” in support of each other and our lives in Christ.

It’s been quite a week.  I don’t have to rehash it for you here, but needless to say, from what I’ve seen and heard and been texted, our corporate sense of safety and security is essentially shot.  Whichever side of the aisle you’re on, not much of what’s happening in the world right now can be inspiring a calm and peaceful Epiphanytide.  I’ve found myself as stressed as everyone else, and found myself watching too much news, attempting to fact-check, trying to avoid making snarky comments on Facebook.

But, of course, we can’t watch, check, or snark my way to safety, security, or any sense of peace.  What we do have – what we have that the world cannot give – is the God who loved us enough to walk among us, who was baptized to fulfill all righteousness, who gives us the Holy Spirit to comfort us, and who gives us a community that when asked if we will support each other, lift each other up, replies, “We will!” 

[1] This came from a Catholic website that I cannot now find.

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Merry Christmas, everyone.  This is an unusual Christmas, our first and hopefully last Christmas that doesn’t involve a packed and noisy church, Christmas carols, a visit from St. Nicholas, and a metric ton of candy canes.  We did manage to gather outside in the churchyard for a brief Mass, and it couldn’t have been more lovely to see everyone who was able to come, people we’ve missed dearly, which makes us miss all of you at home all the more.

It must be mentioned that this is a mournful Christmas.  As of the last news that I saw, there have been 323,000 deaths in the U.S. due to the novel coronavirus, and counting; our community has lost people dear to us; we all have friends or family who are currently sick or who are, blessedly, now recovering.  All that, and the virus has made it terribly difficult on those otherwise suffering, who are in the hospital or in rehab alone, visitors not allowed. 

And despite this year’s most popular Christmas ornament being a dumpster on fire with 2020 scrawled on it, it’s not like nothing good happened this year.  Babies were born and baptized, people graduated and got married and learned how to make banana bread.  And, in the midst of chaos and uncertainty, they responded, or should I say, you responded.  When our health care workers didn’t have enough masks, you made them, sourced them, a lot of them – we lost count at around 2400 or so.  Our brave (and overworked) first responders received meals and snacks from you, so that they could safely serve our community.  Our HomeFront meal prep never missed a beat, and we teamed up with the Baptists and Methodists to provide even more meals to our deserving neighbors.  We filled four trucks worth of food the week before Thanksgiving and then delivered 540 amazing Thanksgiving meals those in need.  We provided gifts and supplies to 47 kids, 5 families, and many others, this Christmas.  I could go on about bags of groceries and the blessing box and cash donations, but you get the point.

You responded.  In the midst of a global pandemic, in a time of remarkable anxiety and fear,  when the church was closed to public worship, even when you yourselves were dealing with sickness and loss, you responded, you made sure that the love of Jesus was never more present.

The story of God being present, the story of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ begins with, of all things, a tax decree.  Joseph and the very pregnant Mary had to make the arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, all 90 miles of it, so that Caesar would know their names and bleed what he could from them. 

So after the better part of a week of travel, of fending off the cold and the wild boars and the bandits, Joseph and Mary ambled into a Bethlehem that was not ready for the influx of inconvenienced tax payers.  With no room in the inn, they were pointed to a decently sized cave that was likely already occupied with other travelers, not to mention the stray farm animal. 

Every year, some scholar or another comes out with a new theory of where, exactly, Jesus was born.  Was it in stable with a little pitched roof?  Or was it in the courtyard of that very inn, surrounded by others who would have to sleep a bit rough during their stay?  I tend to side with – and this applies to most things like this in the ancient world – I tend to side with the place that the opposition tried to destroy.  In this case, that’s a cave, over which stands the Church of the Nativity.  Before Constantine, the Romans had tried to wipe out the memory of the cave.  They planted a grove dedicated to the pagan god Adonis, lover of Venus, and established his cult in the cave.  I guess when crucifying Jesus didn’t get rid of Him, they moved on to His birthplace.

It was in that cave that mankind set eyes on the face of God, the face of love itself.  And so Christmas is the story of how God responded.  How He responded to His creation that we broke and kicked around but that He still loved.  How He responded to His people who cried out for freedom, for peace, for His presence. 

Jesus is the response.  In the midst of global oppression, in a time of remarkable anxiety and fear,  when all of humanity was dealing with violence and sickness and death, God responded.  We called out to God and He showed up, not descending from the heavens in power and great glory but rather born into a family that was a week from home and huddled in a cave, because a false god wanted their money.

Sometimes, in a year such as this, you can’t help but feel like you’re alone.  We’re separated from family and friends; the threat of sickness and death is constant; the rulers of this world, well, they bring judgement on themselves.  In a year like this, it can be difficult to know and feel the presence of God.

But the story of Christmas is the story of God with us; with us and for us, no matter where we find ourselves, God responding to us.  This is the good news of a great joy which has come to all people, and the reason why even now, we can have a blessed, joyful, and merry Christmas.

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Advent 4

It’s the Fourth Sunday of Advent.  Just saying those words can provoke Christmas preparation panic in the hearts of priests everywhere.  Three weeks ago, at the beginning of Advent, I made my yearly snarky post on Facebook reminding my clergy colleagues that Christmas is the feast of the Nativity and not the feast of the Incarnation, a mistake seen in many a parish Christmas letter, one that I surely have made myself.   

The Nativity/Incarnation distinction is important.  The Nativity story is much grander: we get an inn with a no vacancy sign, and then the angels singing and shepherds visiting and animals mewing and all the rest.  And as much as Christmas is, by far, my favorite holy day, the fact that Jesus was born is a lesser event than the moment He took flesh, was incarnate, was conceived.  That event, which we heard about in today’s Gospel lesson, is so important, so utterly mind-blowing, that we genuflect upon reciting that for our salvation, Jesus came down from heaven, was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. 

The Incarnation, being so important, does have its own feast, but it’s called the feast of the Annunciation.  It’s called that because the Archangel Gabriel annunciated the will of God to a modest young woman named Mary who, though being a faithful and apparently brave young woman, could not have been expecting such a thing.   

Nor was it likely that she would have invited such a thing upon herself.  For one thing, angels are scary, which is why the first thing they usually say is “Do not be afraid.”  For another thing, to hear the will of God, from an angel or from that still small voice your heart can hear, is terrifying.   

To hear the will of God is terrifying because no one who has ever truly heard the will of God could go on living as if they hadn’t.  Mary knew her Scriptures, and so she knew that this visit from Gabriel was not going to end with him telling her that yes, God favors you, He is with you, so just keep doing what you’re doing.  

Mary knew that angels bearing the words and will of God would be expecting something from her.  I don’t know what Mary dreams were before the Annunciation.  Maybe she dreamed of the village coming together for her marriage to Joseph.  He was a good man with a good job, they could have a bunch of kids.  She could teach all the children of Nazareth the mysteries of the Lord and how to bake bread and perform all the rituals of their faith.  

Of all the possible futures Mary could have imagined for herself, an angel showing up and asking her if she would bear the Son of the Living God was certainly not one of them.  Surely Mary had been expecting God to act, not only in her own life but in and for the life of the world; it was the great hope of God’s people that He would send a Messiah, a Savior, to free the people of God from everything that oppressed them.   

Surely Mary had been expecting God to act, but did He have to act in such a radical way?  Did it have to be her?  Mary could have said no, of course; God doesn’t force His will on anyone.  Luke tells us that Mary was greatly troubled, as one might imagine; she had a decision to make, decision that would change not only her world but the world.  She must of ponder why.  Why her?  Why now?  But instead of asking why, Mary asked how.  And then for our salvation, Jesus came down from heaven, was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

Like I said before, there are trade-offs to being visited by angel who tells you in no uncertain terms what the will of God is for your life.  While you may or may not ever get a visit from an angel, seeking and committing yourself to the will of God is its own adventure; you never know where God will take you, what joys and sorrows and wonders there are to be found.  And when you do find the will of God in things big or small, remember to ask God not so much why, but how.   

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Advent 3

This past week was dominated, at least for me, by cookies.  That sounds pretty good, right?  But none of those cookies was for me (it’s alright to play your world’s smallest violin for me right now). 

The cookies that filled a room in the rectory were for Operation Cookie Drop, which brings the joy of Christmas cookies to our service men and women here and around the world.  Our parishioners and friends of the parish baked 2,309 cookies – maybe I did have one? – 2,309 cookies this year.  When we dropped off the cookies at the designated spot outside the Joint Base, we arrived at the same time as a couple bringing cookies from a local school district, 4,700 cookies.  Was I a little too proud that our parish brought in so many cookies compared to entire school district?  Maybe?  But the truly joyful thing was that, in the course of 5 minutes, 7000 cookies were dropped off for our troops.  The Operation Cookie Drop bins were wholly inadequate for the job.

If cookie-induced joy was the theme of the week, just-plain joy is the theme of this Sunday.  Certainly some of you will take joy in seeing me in bright pink vestments, I surely do.  The Third Sunday of Advent, like the Fourth Sunday in Lent, has a name, Gaudete Sunday; it’s named for the first word in the Introit, rejoice (the Fourth Sunday in Lent is called Laetare Sunday – laetare also is translated as rejoice).

The theme of joy, rejoicing, runs through the readings as well.  If we read the lesson from Isaiah, we would have heard God himself rejoicing over Jerusalem. In the psalm, the peoples mouths were filled with laughter, their tongues with shouts of joy; they knew that “Those who sowed with tears, will reap with songs of joy.  Paul tells the Thessalonians to “rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances.”  Even John the Baptist, not a biblical figure known for his joy, gives thanks that the Messiah has come near, to the point that he says that “joy of (his) is now full.”

So if joy is the theme, what are we supposed to be so joyful about?  A world in the midst of suffering and rancor?  A Christmas afternoon being not surrounded by family and friends?  I heard from a priest friend about a parishioner of his who doesn’t want to hear the hymn Joy to the World this Christmas, because she’s just lost too much in 2020.

I get it.  It’s tough to find a place of joy in an all but empty church, even on the Sunday that expressly reminds me to rejoice.

That’s why I always return to the theologian Henri Nouwen, who “described the difference between joy and happiness.  While happiness is dependent on external conditions, joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away.” Thus joy can be present even in the midst of sadness.”[1]

We’re rounding the calendar corner to Christmas, a Christmas unlike any other in modern memory.  We will have our Christmas trees and wreaths and poinsettias and roast beasts and yes, cookies, though the happiness brought by being together, being close, may not come to pass.

So let this Gaudete Sunday sink in; let it’s glorious flashes of pink remind you of the anticipation of the joy that is Christmas, the joy of knowing that you are so loved by God that He sent His only Son to be among us, to be one of us, that we may become, with Him, heirs to eternal joy.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaudete_Sunday

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Advent 2

So the big news in my life is that the McRib came back to McDonald’s, if only for a limited time.  For a certain segment of the population, including me, this is a big deal, and so when I read the news back in October, I knew I had to prepare.  I put “McRib” on the calendar for 11am on December 2nd.  I informed likeminded friends.  I knew I couldn’t get distracted.  I even downloaded the McDonald’s app to make my prepare my way, to make my path to tangy enjoyment straight.

I’m rarely so prepared.  Do you ever have so much to do that you look at all you have to do and then just go take a nap?  I wish I could say that I’ve never done that, but I certainly have, in many variations.  Why do I decide to paint the porch or clean all the air conditioners or read the paper or whatever when there’s 27 vital, time-sensitive items on my to-do list? 

Experts will tell you that we fail to get started on things when there are too many things.  We get overwhelmed, not just by items on our to-do lists but by options at the supermarket or channels on the TV.  Our brains just can’t sort it all out, and it keeps us not only from getting things done, but from having a good time while getting things done.

We get so distracted with things we have to do that we look for distractions from the distractions, and then…what was I saying?  Oh yeah: we get so distracted that we forget that there are goals we are working toward.  We forget that there is joy in working toward those goals, and that one of the end goals is, in fact, joy.

This is the Second Sunday of Advent, the season of the Church Year that exists to remind us not only of joy, but that we must prepare for joy.

St. Mark sets us up nicely by the way he begins his proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah.  Mark begins not with Jesus, but with John, John the Baptist.  The Baptist is out in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey and preaching and teaching and, of course, baptizing, all to do what?  To prepare.  To prepare the way of the Lord, to make his paths straight.

Now, sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that preparing the way of the Lord, making his paths straight, is something the Lord needs us to do for his benefit.  That’s how it reads, right?  Like a work order at the Department of Public Works, or the since disproved notion that 1 mile out of every 5 miles of interstate highway needs to be straight so that military planes could land on it.  Like somehow, if the Lord’s paths were straight and smooth, he would have an easier time getting to us. 

But God doesn’t need help getting to us; we need help getting to God.  We tend to be distracted.  We need to “remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy.”

Our first problem, as John the Baptist reminds us today, is sin.  Our sin covers us in shame and guilt – we can’t see true joys through the fog of sin – sinful things can at least look like distractingly fun things, in the short term.  And so we get lost in the fog.  With our destination unclear, it becomes impossible to even begin preparing to get there.

So how do we begin, to begin to prepare, to prepare for joy?  The first step, as always, is the forgiveness of our sins.  What we do at each Mass shows us how important that is.  The last thing we do before proclaiming the peace of the Lord, before lifting up our hearts, before entering into the joy of the presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, is the Confession and Absolution of our sins.   And remember that our sins are forgiven as we forgive the sins of others.

This is how we begin to prepare the way of the Lord, to make His path straight: by seeking the forgiveness of our sins, by removing the things that distract us from His presence, that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy. 

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Christ the King

Happy Christ the King Sunday, everybody.  Being our Feast of Title, we would usually be whooping it up a bit: processions, Evensong and Benediction, lavish parties, et cetera, but this is, of course, 2020, so none of that this year.

Christ is still King, however, so we have that comfort and that to be grateful for.  I saw His Kingdom break out a bit this past Tuesday evening when we had Fill Fr. Matt’s Truck for Thanksgiving.  We managed to fill four trucks with food, personal items, and dog food; my back wants to thank whoever brought the 50 pound bags of dog food.

All of that is wonderful, but why do I consider Tuesday night to be a little break-out of the Kingdom of God?  Because how comically literal, how down to earth, Jesus’ words are in today’s Gospel.

Jesus starts out not down to earth but up in Heaven.  First, He says He will come to us in the flesh, and we will see Him with His angels, seated on His throne.  This is the last day, of course, when our King shall judge the nations, separate the sheep from the goats.

And how shall He judge us?  That’s easy: by how we treated the poor, the vulnerable.  There’s no rationalizing or spiritualizing what Jesus is talking about here, though some try.  “The command to be involved with the physically poor means just that, the physically poor.  It is rationalizing when we turn (this command) into something less concrete, namely, when we define the physically poor in such a wide sense so as to include everyone—“To feed the hungry can also mean feeding those who are spiritually hungry.”  “To give drink to the thirsty can also mean giving spiritual nourishment to those who, while affluent materially, are hungry for deeper things.”  There is a sense in which this is true, but that is not what Jesus” is talking about here.[1] 

God’s command to address the needs of the poor is everywhere in the Bible.  “Taken as whole, every tenth line in the New Testament is a direct challenge to the Christian to reach out to the physically poor.  In Luke’s gospel, it is every sixth line.  In the Epistle of James, it is every fifth line.  Involvement with the poor is not a negotiable item.”[2] 

Involvement with the poor is involvement with Jesus: “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”  And so on Tuesday evening, I asked a few people at random what they got out of standing in the cold in Rob Pecht’s parking lot filling up trucks with food.  Some tried to pull out a Biblical reference – you know, “He’s a priest, he must want a religious answer” – but most said something along the lines of either that it felt good to help others or “isn’t this what we’re supposed to do?” 

Yes, to both.  And while no one on Tuesday night made the direct connection of Jesus to the poor, remember that in today’s Gospel, neither did the sheep.  “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?  And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee?  And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?”

The sheep got credit for it anyway, right?  One of the things that I love about Christ Church is all the opportunities we give people to do as the sheep, to meet Jesus, to bring His Kingdom closer.  That’s is simply the work of the Church, the work that we have been given to do, so that when Jesus comes in His glory, with all His angels with Him, we and all Bordentown will hear Him say “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you.”

[1] Ron Rolheiser: https://liturgy.slu.edu/ChristKingA112220/reflections_rolheiser.html

[2] Ibid.

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Pentecost 24

Remember back in the ‘80s when it seemed like everyone had bumper stickers?  Plenty of people still do, of course, but not nearly to that ‘70s and ‘80s level.  Pretty much every car I bought until 2013 was both 1:old and 2: laden with stickers of one kind or another.  I kinda miss them: many were funny, and no matter what, they were an insight into the mind of whoever was driving the car. 

One of the more popular bumper stickers back in the day was the classic Jesus is Coming: Look Busy.  Whoever came up with the phrase probably meant it as a little jab against either Christianity or certain types of Christians, but they likely didn’t know that they were tapping into a deep well of Christian anxiety dating back to, well, probably 5 minutes after the Ascension.

Among those worrying about the day of the Lord were the Christians in the city of Thessalonica.  Thessalonica still exists, of course – it’s the second largest city in Greece – but even back when St. Paul visited it was relatively large, with more than 200,000 people living there.  The city was named after Alexander the Great’s half-sister, who was named, not surprisingly, Thessalonike.  It was and remains an important port city, and in and around 50 AD when the Church was planted there, it was a rather worldly place.  Thessalonica was no Corinth, the party capital of the ancient Mediterranean, but they could hold their own.

Thessalonica was also a very religious city.  Jews lived and worshiped there freely, and everywhere one looked there was another temple to a Greek or Roman god.  But when these Christians made the scene, they were not well received.  They were different: they weren’t sexually promiscuous; they were unusually hard-working and trustworthy; they gave generously to the poor; and they were made up of both Jew and Greek, and so both populations looked upon the converts with suspicion.

Persecution came quickly.  We know Christians there were victims of violence, and given the concerns Paul addressed in his letters to them, some Christians there were martyred for the Faith, hence last weeks discussion on the condition of the dead.  Word of their troubles reached Paul, who sent Timothy to check in on them personally.  Timothy returned to Paul with mixed news: things were not great for the Church in Thessalonica, but the people themselves were still filled with faith and joy, waiting for the return of Jesus.

Waiting.  Waiting, in the midst of persecution and joy and death and hope, in a city that’s both revolting and tempting, waiting for the Lord.  What do we do while we’re waiting?  Look busy?  When’s He getting here, anyway?

We still ask these questions, don’t we?  Episcopalians don’t usually get involved with the guessing game, with predictions of when the Lord will arrive, but the hope of His arrival keeps us looking to the skies.  If we must keep waiting on the Lord, how then shall we live?

Paul gives us some answers.  Avoiding sin is on the list and underlined, of course, but that answers the question of what we should be doing, not how we should be doing it.

Followers of Jesus, Paul tells us, should live in the present as if Jesus is already with us, because He is.  Though the darkness surrounds us, live in the light of the Kingdom of God; live with an awareness of the presence of Jesus, looking for Him not just in the sky but in each other, in the stranger and in the vulnerable.  Watch for Jesus, Paul tells us, because you just never know when He’ll show up.

Looking busy this isn’t.  More like watching out, looking out for the Lord. 

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Pentecost 23

This was, as expected, quite a week.  I didn’t think I was too stressed out or purposefully avoiding watching the news until I began my seventh hour of mowing in the churchyard.  There is stress and anxiety caused by any election, but it’s amplified, of course, by both the polarization of our country and by the uncertainty we faced as the votes were counted and the days went by.  Words of anxiety and fear flooded social media, as did well meaning posts trying to calm everyone down, about the election not being a life and death situation.  The problem there is that elections are life and death situations: some people live or die based on policy, and we all live better or worse and die better or worse based on policy. 

Now don’t get worried: this is not a political or policy sermon, though this week, which began with a Mass for All Souls and stretched into days of uncertainty, did get me thinking about the uncertainty of life and especially what comes after this life, about which I’m strangely more certain.   

This is not a new concern, though, as we see in our Epistle reading for today.  The Thessalonians were concerned for the dead, and were certainly concerned for themselves as to what happens on the other side of the grave.  So how did Paul meet that concern?  With hope.  “But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”

“Hope in the face of death was not part of most paganism in the Roman Empire. Here’s the inscription on an ancient Roman grave: “I was not, I became. I am not, I care not.”1  “Another Roman grave, it’s on the tombstone reads, “Live for the present hour since there is nothing else.” And yet another gravestone expresses some of the religious superstition that some Romans had, reads, “I lift up my hands against the gods who took me away at the age of twenty though I had done no harm.””2

Flying in the face of such hopelessness is the hope that Paul wrote about, the hope found in Christ. “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”

But Paul doesn’t leave it there, he makes one of his boldest statements in this passage: “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord (and so Paul claims here to be speaking something received, not postulated), that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.”

Wow.  The dead will be first, not last; those we no longer see will get to greet Jesus at His second coming before the living get to.  Paul doesn’t explain this at all, really, but I have a theory.  My theory is this: the dead will come first because the dead have a special place in the heart of Jesus, and that’s because one time Jesus was – wait for it – dead, but is now alive, the firstborn from the dead, and so even as Jesus is alive, He grabs hold of those faithful dead to bring them to Himself, to waste no time in making them like Him.  It will be only after them that the living are gathered up; Paul tells the Thessalonians to “comfort one another with these words.”

This, then, is the hope of Christian: that even as we struggle with the pains of death, with the grief and the loss and the uncertainty, the Thessalonians are evidence that we are not the first in that struggle; that no less than the Apostle Paul cared to address that struggle, and what he told us was this: that the Lord Jesus is coming back to us, and that no one, living or dead, is without the hope of meeting Him when He arrives.

The election may have been called, but we are still living in uncertain times, times of policy and plague, times that separate us from each other in varying degrees, a time, like every other time, of life and death.  What makes these times bearable, indeed what makes life and even death bearable for us, is the hope that can only be found in Jesus.

1Scott Hoezee, This Week.


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All Saints

So yesterday was Halloween, of course, and we were delighted to see everyone in their costumes walking around town.  Most people were doing a good job of social distancing from each other, and Doan made a candy pipeline that carried treats from the porch down to the kids.  Because I already had the costume, I dressed up like a middle-aged man grumpy that his candy was being given away, which was a hit.

So if yesterday was Halloween, today must be All Saints’ Day, and tomorrow, then, is All Souls’ Day; we’re in the middle of what’s called All Hallowstide.  All Hallowstide used to be a big deal: “in the mid-15th century, Pope Sixtus IV expanded the triduum into a full octave, or 8 day observance. This expanded form of Allhallowtide lasted for centuries until 1955, when it was eliminated by Pope Pius XII as a part of a greater (pre-Vatican II) liturgical reform.”

So as it stands, we still have our three day celebration, our triduum of the dead, three days to prepare, celebrate, and pray for those who have gone before us.  Why is this a big deal?

Because, and especially in this present season of death by contagion, it is good to be reminded that our God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.

Our God is the God of the living; He does not reign over a Kingdom of the dead but rather a Kingdom alive with glory and honor and worship.  A Kingdom constantly in prayer, a Kingdom in waiting, a Kingdom built for us. A Kingdom praying for us.

And don’t we need that?  Don’t we, as the Church Militant, the Church still here on Earth fighting the good fight, don’t we need the prayers of the Saints, don’t we need their example?  Do we not need to be knit together in one fellowship?  The fact is we are knit together, which can bring us great joy and terrible grief.

If we were not knit together, our hearts would not break when a loved one dies.  We would not mourn the divisions we see in the Church over issues both spiritual and political.  It wouldn’t hurt to see oppression and degradation, needless suffering.

But we are knit together, person to person, the living to the dead.  The Church Militant is inextricably tied to the Church Expectant in Paradise and even to the Church Triumphant in Heaven.  We pray for our beloved dead in Paradise even as the Saints pray for us in Heaven, the living for the dead and the dead for the living, or really the living for the living, for …as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?  He is not God of the dead,” Jesus said, “but of the living.”  This is the joy of the Communion of Saints, that in participating in the work of Christ, in tending to the sick, giving rest to the weary, blessing the dying, soothing the suffering, pitying the afflicted, and shielding the joyous, we work together, together forever.

And so we find ourselves, with all Christians, knit together, surrounded by such a cloud of witnesses to the goodness and mercy of God in Christ Jesus, that we are nothing if not a family, brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus.  The Christ Church part of that family is called to continue the work of the Saints, to grow in wisdom and strength and faith, to proclaim the same Gospel proclaimed by those whose race has been finished, whose rest has been won.  May all the Saints pray for this our family, that through us, Jesus Christ may be praised now and unto the ages of ages.

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