Lent 5

Of the people of the Bible that we don’t hear from, Lazarus is the one I think I’d like to talk to the most.  We can surmise that Lazarus was Jesus’ best friend outside of the Twelve; he was likely the friend Jesus could just hang out with, have a glass of wine, listen to some tunes.  He’s also one of the few people in history to be dead, really dead-dead, only to be miraculously resuscitated.  I remember my seminary professor Dr. Kathy Grieb introducing us to the possibility that Lazarus was less than happy with that, perhaps even more than a bit annoyed at his best friend waking him up.  Having experienced the pains of death, having finally found peace on the other side of that valley, Lazarus was taken from his rest, likely realizing quickly that he’d have to go through the whole dying thing again some day.  But this story is still a miracle story, a story of the power and love and even friendship of Jesus, a story that can only give us hope in times of despair.  I’d just like to know what Lazarus thought about it at the time.

 

Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”  Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.”  There’s a social isolation joke in there, but I’ll skip it.  Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?”

 

Martha did believe, along with her sister Mary and brother Lazarus.  They were not unaware of who their friend was, what He could do.  But just as surely, they must have wondered where Jesus was when Lazarus was sick and dying.  They had sent for Him; why didn’t He come?  Where was Jesus when they needed Him?

 

Can you feel the theme here?  It can feel as if Jesus is distant from us when the people of Jesus must be distant from each other.  We are, probably since the Spanish flu (and if you remember the Spanish flu, congratulations!), more alone, more distant from each other than any other time in modern history.  Even the churches are closed; you can see me right now, but I can’t see you, and so our sense being gathered together in the name of Jesus is strained, at best.

 

But it’s in these days that we must remember, intentionally remember, that Jesus is indeed with us.  By His Resurrection and Ascension, there no constraint on His presence.  He is with us in His Holy Spirit; He is with us every time we check in on each other, every time someone cares for the sick and the vulnerable, and every time, strangely enough, that we care enough to stay away from each other.  Our Gospel today reminds us that even the dead hear His voice, and so all we must do is listen and believe, and we will know that He is here, and we too will see the glory of God.

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Lent 4

There was once a man named John Henry Newton. Born in 1725 and raised up hard by his father (after his mother died of tuberculosis), young John Newton was not a nice man.  “Newton lost his first job, in a merchant’s office, because of “unsettled behavior and impatience of restraint” – a pattern that would persist for years.  “I sinned with a high hand,” he later wrote, “and I made it my study to tempt and seduce others.”  Newton took up employment with a slave-trader named Clow, who owned a plantation of lemon trees on an island off of west Africa… (he was eventually) transferred to the service of the captain of the Greyhound, a Liverpool ship, in 1747, and on its homeward journey, the ship was overtaken by an enormous storm.  Newton had been reading Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, and was struck by a line about the “uncertain continuance of life.” He also recalled the passage in Proverbs, “Because I have called and ye have refused, … I also will laugh at your calamity.””

 

Newton knew right then just how alone he was, and in finally turning his life over to God he wrote some of the most famous words ever put to song:

 

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.

 

Was blind, but now I see.  John Henry Newton was not the first to say those words; it seems that whenever Jesus is around the blind received their sight, always spiritually and sometimes, like in the case of the man we heard about in our Gospel today, physically.  Our man, blind from birth, sat at an intersection in town where the people go by, begging his only recourse.  The disciples of Jesus see the man, kind-of, but they don’t engage him as much as they use him as a set-up for a theological debate.  “Rabbi,” they asked, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.”

 

Let’s ignore for a moment the strangeness of asking if a man born blind had caused his own blindness by way of sinning in the womb; Jesus dismisses the common notion that a physical ailment must be caused by sin – not that physical ailments couldn’t be caused by sin, just must – and then He reveals what God has intended for this man, that the work of God, of God making all things new, would find its way to this particular blind man.

 

The rest of the story is long and we just heard it: the man is cured, his eyes made new; the Pharisees did what Pharisees so often do, they argued about the little things while the big things went on all around them; and finally the man born blind got fed up with the nonsense, with being asked how he received his sight.  “I don’t know who this Jesus is,” said the man, “I didn’t ask Him for anything, I don’t even know where He is right now, but one thing I know: that though I was blind, now I see.”

 

Though I was blind, now I see.  I would say that I can only imagine the joy and the relief and the hope and the comfort felt by John Henry Newton and our once-blind beggar, except that I know those things in Christ Jesus.  And every time He opens my eyes again, every time He opens my eyes to truths I never knew or injustice I didn’t see or to a person to which I turned a blind eye, I can’t help but feel those things.  Though I was blind, now I see.

 

In the midst of this present crisis, it will likely get easier and easier to stop seeing our neighbor as Jesus sees them.  Instead, they can become competition for supplies or a source of contagion, to be shunned or overcome, the vulnerable in our midst ignored or used as a subject of debate.  All it takes is ten minutes on Facebook or a trip to the Aldi to see it happening already.  But, I am proud to say, I haven’t seen it from you.  Instead, we’re swamped with offers to help the sick and the underserved, funds have come in for my discretionary fund and the food pantry, and you all have been checking up on me and each other.  We may be sequestered, but we are not separated.  By the amazing grace of our Lord, our eyes are open, and by that same grace, they’ll stay that way.

 

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Lent 3

Water is power.  The signs of that are all around us.  Ports on the Delaware, the D&R Canal, the draw of the shore in the summertime.  If you live on the shore, the power of water is obvious, especially when it ends up in your house.  Water also separates the powerful from the powerless – just ask the people of Flint, Michigan.

*

The need and the fear of water were just as familiar to people in Jesus’s day as they are to us. Water was an obvious, multivalent symbol of life and death, order and chaos, ordinary and sacred. Whoever controlled water exercised tremendous power.

 

In Jesus’s place and time, women were responsible for bringing water to the home. This labor was usually saved for the coolest parts of the daytime, the morning and evening. Not only was it more comfortable to carry heavy loads of water when it wasn’t too hot, but by visiting the well at the same time, the women of a town could enjoy company, news, gossip, and a little security.

 

The woman Jesus meets in today’s Gospel isn’t looking for company. By visiting the well at noon, she made it unlikely that anyone would bother her. John doesn’t make it exactly clear why she isn’t on the best of terms with her neighbors but it’s clear enough that she is a troubled outcast. The only thing worse than a man, conspicuously alone, waiting at the well to give her more grief would have been for that man to be a member of her culture’s great arch-enemy.

 

The story of how Jews and Samaritans became separated from their common Hebrew ancestry is long, complex, and fascinating, but it’s not the story I want to tell today. What you need to know is that the animosity between today’s Israelis and Arabs is nothing compared to the centuries of entrenched hatred that existed between Samaritans and Jews in Jesus’s time. In other words, there’s no more intense fight than a fight within the family.

 

So it’s no wonder that the conversation between Jesus, a Jewish Rabbi, and this Samaritan woman, sounds less than cordial at first. She may have been relieved that Jesus seemed more interested in just getting a drink than in giving her trouble, but who could blame her for being skeptical about his talk of living water. Especially since living water, by definition, came from a spring or a river, not a well. Or perhaps she expected the water to miraculously well up and spill out on its own, as a popular legend of the time said it had for Jacob. Either way, she was like so many of us, skeptical yet longing to believe.

 

Jesus gives her the living water of faith, revealing himself to be the Messiah, plainly revealing himself when she raises the subject. He gives her the living water of love and grace and truth, for that is precisely what he is as the Christ, fully human and fully divine. It would have been improper enough for an unrelated man and woman to speak directly enough to each other, let alone members of these two religious groups. But Jesus breaks into our lives like an unstoppable wall of water, breaking down barriers we thought could never be breached.

 

Literal water can be a means of either life or death, but God’s living water can only be benevolent. The woman’s life was instantly transformed by this one unforeseeable encounter. The people who had shunned her listened and believed. Because one woman questioned Jesus, and listened to him, and found faith, and shared the story of her faith, a whole community was reborn.

 

Water is power, and the living water of God-given faith can’t be stopped. In this season of Lent, take the time to consider what parts of your soul are thirsty for what only Christ can provide.

  • The vast majority of this sermon was stolen from Fr. Bret Hays
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Lent 2

So up until now, I haven’t mentioned anything about the Coronavirus, but I guess it’s time. Thankfully, because I have a Facebook account, I am now an infectious disease expert, much like the political science expert it has helped me become during this election cycle, so I’m here to help. Even though I was kinda hoping we’d have a handle on the Coronavirus by now, we don’t, obviously, and even Diocesan Convention was indefinitely postponed out of an abundance of caution. To your credit, I haven’t gotten a single question from any of you about the reception of the Blessed Sacrament in this time of disease, which makes me very proud. But because I’m supposed to, and because, believe it or not, today’s gospel is basically about disease cures, one quick word about how to be the Church in the time of outbreak:

 

Wash your hands. Don’t sneeze on people. Maybe go for a fist or elbow-bump at the Peace. Don’t touch your face. By the grace of God, we don’t intinct for ourselves here, but it is still more sanitary to drink from the chalice than it is to have another set of hands on your Host, even though all those hands will have been recently sanitized. It’s also completely acceptable to receive only the Body of Christ; you will not somehow miss out on the fullness of His Presence if you do not receive His Blood. That’s called the Doctrine of Concomitance, which states that since Christ is indivisible, no one part of Christ’s substance can be divided. Thus, Christ’s Body cannot be separated from his Blood, which means that Christ’s full presence is in each element fully. And last but not least, do not be afraid. Live your life. Care for the sick and the vulnerable. Take both the necessary precautions for yourselves and the necessary risks for the benefit of others. Pray for a quick resolution. And now back to our regularly scheduled Gospel.

 

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life.

 

“These verses refer us back to (a unique story) in the Old Testament. In the book of Numbers, we find the Israelites in rebellion against God. God sent a plague of deadly serpents, called fiery serpents, simply because fire, or a fever, that ultimately led to death, was the predominate result of their bite.

 

“The people cried out for mercy and God instructed Moses to make a brass serpent, put it on a pole, and hold it up in the midst of the camp. Those who looked up at the serpent were healed. It was as simple as that.

 

“Why not develop medicine? Why not require them to work for a cure? It would have given them all something to do and would have satisfied every natural instinct of the heart to work on behalf of its own cure. The fact that they were not told to make a human remedy is indicative of the greater fact that there is no human remedy for sin. Nothing but death awaited them unless God provided the remedy.

 

“That incident in Israel’s history became a prefiguring of Jesus Christ on the cross, lifted up, (shamefully gazed at then, lovingly looked upon now). Salvation, spiritual healing, (the re-birth Nicodemus was having trouble with), comes from (first) looking to Him, and, in (seeing what He has done), believing that hope (and love and salvation) comes only from trust in Him.”[1]

 

We’re in this Covid-19/Coronavirus thing now, and it’s likely only a matter of time before it hits close to home, and, conversely, until it’s contained. In the meantime, be the Church: do not be afraid, care for the sick and the vulnerable, pray for an end to the disease; and remember that God so loved the world, that He sent His only begotten Son, so that in looking up Him lifted up for us, we will find everlasting life.

 

[1] https://www.christianity.com/jesus/is-jesus-god/old-testament-prophecies/jesus-is-like-the-bronze-serpent-moses-lifted-up.html

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Lent 1

In spite of him being my polar opposite, or perhaps because of that, one of my favorite professors at seminary was the Rev. Dr. Robert Prichard, professor of Church History, among other subjects.  Dr. Prichard literally wrote the book on the Episcopal Church, and for years he’s been the guy in the corner of the room at most Church-wide functions, that when some point of history disputed, they all look at him for his thumbs up or down.

 

Anyway, years ago, Dr. Prichard had spent an afternoon playing flag football on campus, and he had gotten a little banged up.  He hurt his leg, but also had gotten dinged on the side of his head, so that he had a bump forming near his eye.  It was in this shape that Dr. Prichard got into the dinner line at the refectory, and it was when it all went south.  As he approached the lady serving the mashed potatoes – she was an older, off-the-boat Italian woman – she gasped, grasped at the amulet hanging from her necklace, and ran off, screaming something in Italian.  It seems that the woman thought that Dr. Prichard, a priest in the Church, and so, spiritually, a powerful man, had given her the evil eye.  As the story goes, she never came back to work.  Poor Dr. Prichard still feels guilty about it to this day.

 

Lest you think I’m making fun of this woman, let me assure you that I’m not, even if it is a funny story.  We (very) north Americans, along with at least the Caucasian Nordic population, have essentially given up the idea of spirits, angels and demons, or at least given up the idea, or rather the feeling, that they are all around us.

 

The entire rest of the world has not given up on this in any way.  Depending on where you’re from, everything from amulets to gourds to the color of the clothes you wear might signify what spirits you’re trying to attract or repel.  If that sounds rather superstitious or naïve, then we should revisit jack o’ lanterns, crosses on doorframes, or perhaps, chalking a formula above your door.

 

Some people, and most other peoples, are more in tune with the spiritual world, which is good, I think, because the spiritual world is in tune with us.  In today’s Gospel lesson, we get the story of what happened right after Jesus was baptized, which was, as you might imagine, a big time spiritual event.

 

“When the voice from heaven identified Jesus at his baptism as “my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” all the spirits heard this compliment.”  And such a thing will not be left well enough alone.  “Spirits will test Jesus to determine whether the compliment is indeed true, and just in case it might be true they will try to make him do something displeasing to God.”[1]

 

It is no surprise, then, that what came next was spiritual warfare.  The Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness, where the evil spirit, Satan, pursues Him.  What might have come as a surprise to Jesus’ contemporaries is that Jesus is not reported to be wearing any special garments or using an amulet or even special formulas for protection.  “Rather, he engages in direct one-on-one dialogue with this evil spirit in a Scripture-quoting contest.”[2]

 

Jesus was tempted, tempted for real, but as we know, He “was in every way tempted as we are, yet did not sin.”  Jesus, even exhausted and half-starved, found His strength in His Father and His words from Scripture, a combination powerful enough to ward off even Satan himself.

 

So the lesson today, I think, is not to throw away your crosses or lucky shirts or to wipe the chalk off your doors, but to remember that these are, above all, powerful reminders of the might of Christ, of His ability to save, and of His example in the wilderness.  It is by His grace that we are able to triumph over every evil, seen and unseen, even Dr. Prichard’s evil eye.

[1] John J. Pilch: https://liturgy.slu.edu/1LentA030120/theword_cultural.html

[2] Ibid.

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Epiphany 2

So I want you to think of a carpenter, a guy carpenter.  I know at least fifty carpenters and general contractors, so surely you know a few as well.  You can picture them, right?  Masters of  the math of construction, and probably stronger than most.  Pulling up in their pickup with the ladder rack or their van or box truck, ready to destroy whatever is wrong and build it back right.  How many of them have the nickname Lamb?

 

When I think of lamb, the first think I think is mmmm delicious.  Like a good MLT, mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, when the mutton is nice and lean.  I had lamb on Thursday at a Turkish joint, gyro lamb over rice with a nice yogurt sauce.  Mmmm delicious.

 

I’ve often wondered how Jesus reacted when John the Baptist started pointing at Him and yelling, “Behold, the Lamb of God!  Look!  The Lamb!”  Being a carpenter, a general contractor, really, one who had likely eaten His share of lamb, I could imagine Jesus being like “I’ll show you lamb”, or maybe even “Mmmm, delicious.”

 

Being called a lamb is not usually thought of as a compliment, I guess.  Lambs are small and fluffy and prone to wandering off in all directions.  They take orders from sheepdogs and are easily picked off by, well, any predator.  And they are, as we have already mentioned, known to be delicious.   The highest honor any lamb could hope for was to end up a Temple sacrifice.

 

Aha!  There it is.  The sacrifice.  Jesus and John the Baptist lived in a society in which the word lamb automatically carried the connotation of sacrifice.  Jesus likely heard John yelling it and just thought “Yeah, I know.”

 

And yet, despite it being a great metaphor, Jesus never referred to Himself as the Lamb of God.  A shepherd, sure, even THE Good Shepherd, but not the lamb.  The Baptist called Jesus the Lamb of God twice in two days, but then “the next time we run across that image (is) in the Book of Revelation, (when) we are told that the lamb John (the Evangelist) saw in his heavenly vision was not just any old lamb: this one was a lamb “that had been slain.”  A dead lamb walking—that’s what John saw.  It is also what John the Baptist” saw and called out in today’s Gospel.[1]

 

So it’s no wonder, really, that it was only John the Baptist who had the guts to call Jesus the Lamb of God, at least to His face.  And yet now, much like most Christians for the last 2000 years, we call Jesus that all the time.  We say Lamb of God at least four times at every Mass: three times during the Agnus Dei, once at the Ecce Agnus Dei (Behold the Lamb of God; behold him to taketh away the sin of the world), and then more times if we insert the phrase in antiphons and the such.  Lamb imagery is all over this church and most others, especially in stained glass.  There’s even a lamb, an Agnus Dei, in our parish logo (check out the back of the bulletin).

 

So there must be something incredibly compelling about all this, something so compelling about the thought of a sinless man in a sinful world, lamb-like in His innocence, yet containing the strength, the courage, and the will to lay Himself down as a sacrifice for us, for you and me.

 

There’s something so compelling, and yet so humbling, about God coming among us not to conquer us (or to conquer our enemies), but to save us, to save us from the enemy, which is all too often ourselves and our own flirtation with eternal death.

 

So I guess what calling out Jesus so often as the Lamb of God teaches us is that we, despite our best efforts, are not the Lamb of God.  Jesus has done something for us that we could not, in any way, do for ourselves, which is the reconciliation with God we so longed for.  We no longer need to feel like God is far away, foreign to us, because through Jesus, we are part of the substance of God.  I can’t think of anything better than that, even a good MLT, mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, when the mutton is nice and lean…….

 

 

[1] Scott Hoezee: https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-2a-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

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Baptism of Our Lord

So on Wednesday, I attended the annual dinner of the Burlington County Fire Chief’s Association – every year I open and close the dinner with prayer.  The keynote speaker this year was Daniel Onieal, who is the Deputy Administrator of the United States Fire Administration, who also, improbably, grew up down the street from my mother in Jersey City.  So Onieal told me a Jersey City story, which sounds embellished, but anything can happen in Hudson County, about a political hack who needed a job.

 

The story goes that the ruling Democrats had just been voted out – not by Republicans, mind you, the other Democrats happen to win – and the old groups political fixer needed to be protected and kept on the payroll.  So the outgoing mayor appoints this guy to be the Hudson County administrator of weights and measures.  This guy apparently had a third grade education and was not up to the job, and worse yet, everyone knew it.  The mayor holds a press conference, announces this guy, and he makes a short speech about making sure no businesses in Hudson County will be cheating their customers any more.   The press corps is sort of laughing at this guy, and one reporter asks, “So, Bub, how many ounces in a pound?”  And the guy says, “Give me a break fellas, I just got the job!”

 

I can’t help but think that Jesus might have felt a little like that at His baptism.  As much as He surely knew who He was and what was coming, perhaps He wanted to ease into it a little bit.  Perhaps He even thought that was what He was doing: going to see John the Baptist out in the wilderness, not too many people around.  I would call it a dry run except for the all the water and baptizing and stuff.  But it wasn’t meant to be; Jesus goes out there alone, but then, just as the whole ritual was wrapping up, His Father shows up and makes it a big deal.  Even the heavens were opened, mortals heard the voice of God, and then the Holy Spirit swooshed down.

 

This was no dry run, no soft opening to the public ministry of the Son of God.  Jesus’ baptism is often called the second epiphany – the first was, well, the Epiphany, when the gentile Wise Men show up and Jesus is revealed to the wider world.  The word Epiphany means to reveal, to make known, and just to close the loop, there’s also the third epiphany, which was Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana, which revealed His true identity and power to His disciples.

 

The whole operation kicks into another gear altogether with what happened immediately following His baptism: the temptation in the wilderness.  The same Holy Spirit who so gently descended from heaven like a dove moments after Jesus came out of the water then drove Jesus into the desert to be tempted by Satan for 40 days.  One minute Jesus is living as a carpenter in a small, secluded village, and the next He is thrown into the test of a lifetime, all for doing what He was supposed to do; one minute we see Jesus fulfilling all righteousness, and the next we see Satan literally tempting God.

 

I remember when I arrived in Bordentown, eleven and a half years ago, I got here on a Tuesday afternoon and Mr. Trout found me wandering around trying to figure out how to get into the rectory.  The next day I was moving stuff around and Andy Law stopped by and we talked for a long time, and I confirmed that we had a supply priest for Sunday, and then Andy said, “By the way, you’re preaching this Sunday – we want to hear from you.”  I thought, “Give me a break, I just got the job!”

 

Most of us were baptized as babies; we got the job of being a Christian a while ago now.  But it can often feel like we just got this job!  We desperately want a dry run, a soft opening, to finally fulfilling who we really are.  Sometimes it can feel like we finally get something right, we’ve fulfilled all righteousness, and just then we’re thrown into the wilderness.

 

Well, Jesus is here today to tell you that you’re not alone.  He’s been there and done that, and He knows that being a Christian, being who God has called you to be, is not always cool waters and gentle doves.  And while we are not divine – none of us are the Son of the living God – God has adopted us as sons and daughters through our baptisms, and when we follow Jesus, with us too is God well pleased.

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