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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Merry Christmas, everybody!  I love Christmas.  Now, I’m not an overly sentimental kind of guy – I’m sure my poor wife has something to say about that – but Christmas can bring out the sap in me.  I like to look at old pictures of Christmases past, to look and see what has stayed the same and to see what has, inevitably, changed.


The other day I was doing just that, and I saw a picture from this time last year.  It was a picture of a gigantic wreath with a huge red bow, hanging in front of the church.  If you didn’t notice that wreath on the way in tonight, that’s because it wasn’t hanging on the church, but rather on the scaffolding that enveloped our bell tower.  Pennacchi and Sons was nice enough to lend that scaffolding some holiday cheer while repointing and repairing the tower and so many other spots on our building.


We’ve done a lot more work on the buildings and grounds since last Christmas, including repairing and upgrading all the lights in the church.  You might remember that the creche in the back was basically in the dark last year, and the two spots that lit the high altar used to do a great job of illuminating the floor in front of the altar, but now shine where they should.  The downside there is that I, at least, benefit from what’s called the ‘romantic restaurant effect’ – I am better looking in dim light (I’m sure my poor wife has something to say about that too); I had to instruct the lighting guys not to aim the light directly on the bald spot on the back of my head, lest I blind the congregation.  The people who walked in darkness have indeed seen a great light; we may have been dwelling in a land of deep darkness, but the lights are shining now.


Much has changed, but of course, and much has stayed the same.  Why mess with what is beautiful, right?  The decorations are the same, the carols familiar, the readings tell the same old story.  And what a story.  In one decently sized paragraph, Luke gives us a census, taxation, dangerous travel, the birth of a baby, shepherds, angels singing, more travel, strange houseguests, and the immaculate heart of a young mother who’s just trying to take it all in, to make some sense of it all.


The story of Christmas is a good story, maybe even the Greatest Story Ever Told (if you can forgive John Wayne saying “Truly this man was the Son of God” like an uninterested cowboy).  Yes, the story of Christmas is an amazing story, and in coming here tonight to hear that same story, I think we’re really gathered to remember how that story changed everything.  To take it all in, to make some sense of it all.


Yet it’s easier to take the sappy route, at least for me.  It’s easier to clean it all up a little bit, polish it to a shine, hang some lights and eat a metric ton of roast beef, all of which I have done or will do this year.  But I need to remind myself that Christmas, the day that Jesus was born, the day that humans set eyes on the face of God, is just plainly the most important day in history.


Here’s a brief reminder of how important that day is: the entire world marks time – time! – by the day of His birth.  Art, literature, music, our culture itself, is literally built on the fact of Christ’s birth.  But even more important than that is that Christmas answers all the real questions in life.


Is there a God?  Yes, and we have seen Him.  Is He nice?  For the most part, yes, but what He really is, is loving.  Does He love me?  Yes.  By the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we know that God does in fact exist; that He has acted and continues to act upon and within His creation; and we know that for us, and for our salvation, He came down from heaven to not only be with us, but to be one of us, so that nothing, nothing, can separate us from Him.


So as much as has stayed the same, because the Savior was born this day in the city of Bethlehem, because His light shines in the darkness, because we have seen the power and the humility and the glory and the love of Jesus, everything has changed.


Merry Christmas, everybody.


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Advent 4

Advent is drawing to a close, and so sadly too is Hallmark Christmas Movie Season.  The plots of Hallmark Christmas movies are about the same: small town girl moves to the big city, finds success and a hedge fund boyfriend, but for whatever reason (grandpa’s hardware store might close, mom’s Christmas cookie business needs a hand, etc.), the now big-city girl must go home for the holidays.  There she meets a blandly good looking guy in flannel, finds out the hedge fund guy doesn’t love Christmas as much as he should and so needs to be dumped immediately, she falls in love with flannel, and Christmas magic strikes again.  If you’re not looking for the movie to make any sense, or for any minority characters, or for the female lead to have any moral direction at all, then you too can fall for the magic of a Hallmark Christmas.


The lead-up to the first Christmas was less Hallmark-esque.  We see first a visit to Mary by what must certainly have been a terrifying being named Gabriel; then a scandalous pregnancy; Mary taking off to her cousin Elizabeth’s house for three months; Joseph deciding to at least not have her killed; God persuading Joseph to take all of this on his shoulders; and eventually the birth of the baby Jesus in a cave amongst the denizens of the barnyard.


One of the great things about the story of the birth of the Christ Child is that it is obviously true.  No one in their right mind would make up that story.  It’s too dirty.  The whole things feels like everyone was under some sort of duress.  And I guess they were.


And it’s almost like, hhmmm, God wanted it that way.  All people, at some time or another, have felt some sort of duress, and let’s face it, most people around the world just plain live under duress.  If Christmas brings peace, goodwill toward men, it’s because we’re in need of some peace and goodwill.


We read from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans this morning – what we read is the beginning of the letter, the greeting.  The letter is addressed to “all God’s beloved in Rome”, to whom Paul is sending “grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”


Now, state-sponsored persecution began in AD 64 under Nero, but life was not great for Christians in the year 58, when Paul’s letter was delivered.  “Rome was the center of the Empire (of course) and was ethnically diverse.  In the first century AD it had a population of around one million people in an area less than ten square miles.  Of this large population, it is estimated that there was between 40,000 and 50,000 Jews in the city,” most of whom would have had to have come back after the Jews were expelled from the city by Claudius in AD 49.[1]


Paul, then, was writing to a Christian population that was under duress for being Christian, being Jewish, or being both.  He wrote mostly to explain the doctrine of salvation, but first, first, he offered them what they really needed: grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.


What Paul offered them was the true magic of Christmas.  As much as I love Hallmark Christmas movies, what Paul offered them wasn’t glossy or sparkly or a little to easy, but something more, something literally more down to earth yet all the more heavenly.  What he offered was the grace, the peace, the goodwill that comes only from the knowledge that God not only wills those things for us, but personally brings to us His peace, His grace, and His goodwill.


And so when you find yourself under duress, remember that the history of salvation isn’t a magical feel-good story, but was rather completed by a Man who was born under strange circumstances, raised in a humble home, and died in the midst of scandal, all so that no one would ever be out of reach of His grace and peace.

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Gaudete Sunday

“What did the President know, and when did he know it?”  Sounds like a modern question, but it was really asked 46 years ago.  The President in question was Nixon.  The person being questioned was former White House Counsel John Dean, and the questioner was Senator Howard Baker, Jr., Republican from Tennessee.  Baker was actually trying, at the time, to protect Nixon (he switched sides when he found out the truth), and we all know how all that ended.[1]


But it’s an interesting question when posed rhetorically: What do any of us know, and when do we know it?  Our Gospel lesson today wonders the same thing.


“John the Baptist, in prison because of his confrontation with Herod over the king’s unlawful marriage, sends disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the one they have been expecting.


“Matthew makes it clear that there is no question in his own mind as to the identity of Jesus.  He writes: “When John heard in prison of the works of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to him”.  In other words, from his post-Easter perspective, Matthew has no trouble referring to Jesus as “the Christ.”


“But the Baptist apparently had his doubts.  Why?  Among the varieties of Judaisms of the first century—among, for example, Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes—there was a corresponding variety of images of the Messiah.  Some expected the Anointed One to emerge from the priestly caste.  Others looked for a prophet like Moses.  Many expected a son of David cut from the same combative cloth, i.e., a warrior king who would defeat their enemies and establish political autonomy for the people of Judea.  John had preached a coming Judgment Day, when the ax would be laid to the root.”[2]


The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the common people of Israel would likely have had to strain their eyes to see any of those expectations fulfilled in Jesus.  And so John, despite having ushered Jesus onto the stage, so to speak, just has to ask.


In turn, “Jesus had to reply in such a way that John would have no doubt about the genuineness of his messianic activity, and the message he sent back to John was about the blind receiving their sight, the lame walking, the lepers being cleansed, the deaf hearing, the dead being raised, and the poor having good news brought to them.”[3]


In other words, you can know that I am the Messiah because order, God’s order, was being restored in the world.  Things that were cast down were being raised up, the old were made new, the broken made whole, chaos was being brought to order.  God’s first act in creation, when all was darkness and emptiness we are told in Genesis, was to bring order to the chaos, and in God’s action of sending His Son to be among us, He was doing just that once again.  From here on out, Jesus is saying, there is the sure hope of being made whole.  There is the sure path to God: you now know the way, the truth, and the life.


What do we know, and when do we know it?  We know Jesus is the Messiah because of what we see Him doing around us, how He tends the sick, gives rest to the weary, blesses the dying, soothes the suffering, pities the afflicted, and shields the joyous.  And when we, like John the Baptist, have our doubts and fears, we too can send to Him in prayer.  Jesus might just answer back, What do you hear and see?




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Advent 2

Advent is full of contradictions.  The Church tells us to slow down, be quiet, contemplate, light a candle, take a bath, whatever and on and on.  I sometimes have a hard time taking that teaching of the Church seriously when, right after telling us all that, we’re given John the Baptist for two out the four Gospel readings in Advent.


Slow down, you brood of vipers!  Be quiet, don’t worry too much about the wrath to come.  Contemplate the ax and the winnowing fork, but only after you light a candle and ease into the bath.


John the Baptist himself was full of contradictions.  He was, as tradition tells us, a highly educated man from a good family who spent his time in desert caves eating locusts, wearing his camel hair coat.  Now, I have a camel hair coat; it’s soft and warm and not really camel’s hair – it’s wool – but it’s the color of camel’s hair.  John had no such thing: his camel coat was more likely the tanned skin and untreated hair of some dead camel he found, much like the scratchy coats still worn by the desert Bedouin today.  John knew that God was up to something, and so was full of hope, but because he knew God was up to something, he was full of dread.  Maybe that’s not so much a contradiction as a wise and relatable reaction to God being up to something.


And the people in this story, there’s contradictions there, too, it seems.


As Fr. Bret Hays wrote, “Why did anyone come to see John, let alone the powerful Pharisees and Sadducees, members of elite urban movements, people who enjoyed everything the world had to offer?  Maybe because they wanted to sleep at night.  They realized that their identity, their category, wasn’t enough, though the world said it was.  They realized they needed to change something real.  Despite what the world told them, they could feel the discomfort of a strain that threatened to tear them apart, the growing divergence between what they wanted and God’s will for them.  They felt the ax at their roots.  They felt the need to change.


“John points us in the right direction, as he always does.  We think of repentance as a change of heart, but “the Greek word translated ‘repent,’ metanoeite, means change one’s mind in a radical way; the corresponding words in Hebrew and Aramaic mean to turn, to reverse completely one’s life direction.”  A change of direction inevitably brings a change of outcome.  John doesn’t say, feel better about yourselves, and certainly not, “take two aspirin and call me in the morning.”  He doesn’t try to boost their self-esteem.  No, he says, “bear fruit.”  “Bear good fruit.”  That’s good for them and good for the world.  And not just as a strategy to avoid the ax and the fire.  Doing good will make us feel better than anything else can.  Grace and peace go together.  And the labors of our fruits will, by God’s grace, give us the peace which the world cannot give, and let our weary souls find the rest they seek.”[1]


And so perhaps Advent and John the Baptist are not so contradictory.  Advent seems to be calling us to slow down, be quiet, contemplate, light a candle, and take a bath, but to just be able to do any of that, we must first visit the Baptist in the desert, to hear his voice crying in the wilderness, to hear what he is trying to tell us.  Because what he trying to tell us is that the coming of Jesus to be among us is, on top of the best cause of celebration ever, is something we must prepare for.  With prayer and fasting and repentance and good works, we must prepare for Jesus.  Because in sending Jesus to be among us, God was and is up to something.  John the Baptist had his feelings about that; how do you feel?



[1] Fr. Bret Hays, Sermon from Advent 2, 2016

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Advent 1

Ah, Thanksgiving.  We’ve always had a decent outreach effort around Thanksgiving, with HomeFront meals and turkeys and food going this way and that.  But five or six years ago, I remember being at the firehouse and Michelle Dudas, God rest her soul, asked if I thought that Consolidated and Christ Church could get together and cook meals for those who might need them in Bordentown.  Sure, why not?  We roped in the Kiwanis, others hopped on board, and we sat down to see if we could pull off cooking and delivering 50 to 75 meals on the day before Thanksgiving.  Thanks to so many of all of you who cooked and delivered, we managed that, and we were satisfied with our efforts.  Maybe we could do 100 meals next year?


Fast forward to this year, and with the help of the Rotary and the Elks and Whole Hog Cafe and so many more friends of the parish, we prepared and delivered 490 meals, all fresh food, all made with love.  It takes a lot of people to manage that, and we wore out a lot of people in the effort.  I know more than a couple people who spent most of Thanksgiving and Black Friday on couches, pretending not to nap.


But then all of sudden, as is often the case, God tells us to wake up!  Saint Paul told us this morning that it is “time now for you to wake from sleep!”  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand.


And as much as I hear what Paul is saying, I just want to reach over and smack…the snooze button on my phone.


But there is too much value in being awake – spiritually awake, that is.  Paul is telling us that all too often, even the best of us live most of the time in a state of spiritual slumber.  We could even be on a good track: avoiding egregious sin, going to church, preparing meals, being kind to our neighbors, all of which keep us in the true Faith; but Paul says we’re missing something.


Anybody remember Harold Camping?  Harold Camping was a rich guy who was convinced that he knew when Jesus was going to come back and the world would end.  Camping founded the Family Radio Network and was the station’s main attraction, somehow.  He talked like his own mouth was trying to stop him from talking and his reasons for thinking the world would end on May 21, 2011 – wait, no, October 21, 2011 – strained reason, but even I listened to him on occasion.  Camping missed, among other things, one big sentence uttered by Jesus: “for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”  But I will give him credit for his attempts at keeping people ready for the Lord, for keeping people spiritually awake.


So in the real world, the one outside of numerological predictions of the end times, what does staying spiritually awake look like?


Lucky for us, today is the first day of Advent, which is, in and of itself, a great teacher of spiritual wakedness.  Advent is a time, much like Lent, in which we are preparing ourselves for something, in this case, Christmas.  In Advent, we are literally counting down the days for our Lord to come to us – sound familiar?  There are practical concerns: trees and bulletins and wreaths and candles and roast beasts and presents and flowers and choir anthems.  And there are spiritual concerns: what becomes of the needy, the forgotten, those who grieve?  What do I need to apologize for, the things said or done or unsaid or undone?  What of my own relationship with God?  Have I listened to Him in prayer, have I watched for Him to come to me in friend and stranger?


In short, in both the spiritual and the practical, the question becomes, Am I living as if I am expecting Jesus to arrive at any minute?  Am I living as if I am aware that Jesus is already here and intimately present with us in His Holy Spirit?  If it is time for us to wake from sleep, what would it look like if we did?

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