Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, December 30, 2018

YEAR C 2018 christmas 1

Christmas I, 2018
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Psalm 147
Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7
John 1:1-18

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Happy sixth day of Christmas to everyone!  I hope you’re enjoying those geese a laying.  Tomorrow you should be getting seven swans.  There’s a surprising amount of poultry in these twelve days.  But on to more important matters . . .

In the beginning was the Word.  It sounds like the start to a fable doesn’t it?  As if we should all cozy up to the fire with egg nog and blankets so Father George can tell us the ancient tale called “The Word Who Came to Dinner.”  Even though most of the coming year we will be hearing from Luke’s gospel, we always get the opening of John’s gospel this time of year.  And, as a reminder, John’s gospel is kind of esoteric . . . by which I mean, “trippy.”  You cannot talk about the opening to John’s gospel without sounding just a little bit off your rocker.  And, with that disclaimer, let’s jump right in . . .

In the beginning was the Word.  Funny thing about words . . . they never appear in just one form.  Or, I should say, they operate on many levels.  If you’re reading a book, and you come across the word “dog,” you see the shape of the letters on the page, and your mind tells you those shapes together spell the word “dog.”  But then you might also get a mental image of a dog.  Some sort of vague archetype at least, if not your actual furry beast waiting at home by the fire, drinking your eggnog this morning, or chasing your six geese.

Dog is a word.  But “dog” only makes sense because you’ve seen a dog, or loved a dog, or been bitten by a dog.  “Dog” does not exist outside of having some concept of what an actual dog is.  Swirls on the page get translated into letters in your mind, and then into a word, which then calls up the appropriate concept of dog, and you get a mental image of a dog.  I bet you’re probably picturing a dog right now, aren’t you?  Okay, enough of my Timothy Leary talk.  Here’s why I’m bringing all that up.

When you hear the phrase, “In the beginning was the Word,” what do you picture?  A giant 3D version of the word Word floating through the stars and rotating slowly as light reflects off it?  I can admit to you that this is still what I picture . . . until I make it stop.  A canopy of stars and a giant four-letter styrofoam “Word” spinning out from a nebula.  Four years of seminary, and nine years as a priest, and the opening of John’s gospel still turns me into a kid watching an episode of Sesame Street.  Brought to you by the letter W.

But lest you think I slept through seminary, let’s go to the Greek.  (I promise it’s just for a second.)  When we see “the Word” in today’s gospel, it’s from the Greek logos, which is the spoken word.  But what I am picturing in my Sesame-Street mind is lexis, the written word.  Lexis is my spinning styrofoam that needs mental interpretation to get meaning.  Logos is spoken and heard, and skips the whole writing thing entirely.  And so why is that important?

Think of John’s gospel opening like this: In the beginning was the spoken word.  Or, in the beginning was the speech.  And now, think of the opening of Genesis: In the beginning, God said . . . And it was good.  The spoken Word of God.  In the beginning was the spoken Word of God.  And the spoken Word was with God, and the spoken Word was God.  Through this spoken Word all things were made.

And this Word, this spoken Word, became flesh and dwelt among us.  So think of that for a moment: The spoken Word of God, by which all things were made, becomes flesh and dwells among us.

I think one of the dangers of our careful Trinitarian formulas is that we often miss the beautiful symmetry, hiding in plain sight.  When we see the words on paper, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, there’s a chance that our mind reads the words, and then forms a mental picture of three white men, standing in the clouds: An old father with a beard, a younger son with a beard, and a little guy with a sheet over his head.  Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  We can’t help but carry our immediate images in our minds, bizarre though they may be.  (Remember, I freely admitted to that spinning styrofoam Word.)

So, let’s try thinking of the Trinity in a different way.  God the Father speaks, the breath of the Holy Spirit comes forth, and the Words formed are the spoken Word of God.  This is how creation comes to exist.  God speaks it into being, through the breath of life, and the spoken Word of God.  Maybe that’s not so radical after all, right?  Certainly more helpful than three guys standing in the clouds.

And then, the spoken Word of God becomes flesh and dwells among us.  Jesus is the spoken Word of God.  In Jesus, God is speaking not in words but in the flesh.  In a living, breathing, human being.  The spoken Word of God has become a visible, tangible human being.  No longer do we have to come up with some images in our minds about spinning styrofoam letters and men standing on clouds.  We don’t have to guess what the spoken Word of God looks like.  Well, I take that back: we’ve got a couple thousand years of mostly European artists’ interpretations in our collective memory.  So we probably do have a stock image of Jesus that we carry around in our heads.

But let’s not think about how Jesus looks and let’s concentrate instead on what Jesus does.  When the spoken Word of God walks on the earth, wonderful things begin to happen.  Water turns to wine, the lame walk, the blind see, sins are forgiven, the dead are raised to life again.  Jesus isn’t sent to earth on some kind of reverse spacewalk where he’s in radio contact with the Father ship through prayer.  Jesus is the Word that God has spoken into creation.  And when the spoken Word of God is in our midst, things are brought to perfection.  Things are returned to the way they were meant to be.  If you want to hear God speaking, look at what Jesus is doing.  Jesus is God’s “Make it So,” if you will.  The answer to the question, “What would it look like if God’s words became an actual person?”

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  I have always loved this little phrase.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  That’s the basis of all our Christmas movies, right?  In fact, that’s the basis of all movies . . . or, all good movies.  You know, the cavalry riding over the hill, darkest just before the dawn, just when all hope seems lost, the little spark catches fire once again and the flame burns bright, and everyone drinks egg nog and sings songs.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.

The interesting thing about light is that it isn’t pushy.  It’s not like wind, or water, or even fire.  Those forces can just bowl you over and overwhelm you.  But light . . . light is different.  You can close your eyes and shut out the light.  You can turn your head and ignore the light.  You can squint, or get sunglasses, or close the blinds.  But that doesn’t eliminate the light.  You can stop seeing it, but you cannot send it away.  You can reject the light, but the light still shines in the darkness.  Always there.

And honestly?  We won’t often admit it, but we prefer the darkness.  Because light is judgement in a way.  Light exposes who we are, and what we do, and how we live.  And, because of that, the more light there is, the more hopeless things can seem.  It’s a powerful irony, actually.  Because the light shines in the darkness of us.  And yet, even the despair of our darkness cannot overcome it.  And there is the hope: The light shines in the darkest places of us.

Because what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, all the darkness--all the darkness, all the time, and the darkness did not overcome it.

We need not fear this light.  Because this light is the very spoken Word of God.  Remember?  The spoken Word who heals, and forgives, and brings life and resurrection.  The light that has come into the world is the spoken Word of God.  The same Word that declared from the beginning, “It is good.”

And then there’s this curious phrase, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  The word that we get as “lived” is actually tabernacled, which is not usually a verb in our world, I know.  You probably think of that little box over by the altar when you hear the word tabernacle.  But as a verb, you can think of it as like, camping among us.  Not a permanent structure where there are utility bills and a garage to clean out.  More like, you know, pitching a tent on your front lawn.  The spoken Word does not buy a house in your neighborhood, but rather camps among us.  Ready to move when the time comes.

And that’s important because of this:  The tabernacle, as you may recall, is the portable dwelling place of the Divine Presence for the Israelites as they wander through the desert.  It was God’s tent, which the people brought with them on their journey in the wilderness.  The importance is clear, right?  God did not stay back in some building in Egypt; God goes with the people through the desert of their lives, present in all their troubles and triumphs.

The spoken Word became flesh and camps among us.  The spoken Word of God goes with us, walks with us, journeys with us.  We need not fear, because this spoken Word is with us.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

And this spoken Word reminds us where to look to find the light and life.  This is my body; this is my blood.  Given for all people, for the forgiveness of sin.  The body and blood which we keep in that tabernacle right over there, as a matter of fact.  A reminder throughout the week that the spoken Word of God dwells among us in the darkness, and in the light.

God.  Is.  With.  Us.  Emmanuel.


Monday, December 24, 2018

YEAR C 2018 christmas eve

Christmas Eve, 2018
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, a couple weeks ago, a reporter from the Massillon Independent asked me to join two local pastors for an interview, to ask about our holiday service schedules, and to have us explain what Christmas means to us.  Part of that interview involved making a video, where we each could speak for one minute and make our case.  Imagine, keeping clergy to speaking for just one minute.  Especially the Baptist pastor!  But we did it, and when I watched the video later, I kept thinking how interesting it was that we all focused on a different aspect of the birth of Jesus.

I said, essentially, Christmas is the annual reminder that God sides with the poor and oppressed.  The nondenominational church pastor talked about the sacrifice of Jesus.  And the Baptist pastor talked about how Christmas is the last chapter of God’s love story with human beings, the fulfillment of God’s promises.  We all said completely different things, but they were all completely true.

Ask any group of people what Christmas means, and you will get a group’s worth of responses.  And that same group of people will probably have different responses if you ask them next year.  In the most obvious example, a child and her parent have totally different ideas of what Christmas means.  Finding “the true” meaning of Christmas is kind of like that old example of three blindfolded people touching an elephant and describing the animal.  None of them is wrong, but they experience completely different things; so saying one thing about Christmas is just saying one thing about Christmas, is my point.

So, speaking of Christmas, are you ready for Christmas?  (This is where all the children say “yeah!,” and the adults ask, “are you kidding?”)  I have realized that there are two kinds of people:  Those who are not yet ready for Christmas, and those who have not yet realized they are not yet ready for Christmas.  If you think you are ready for Christmas tonight, well . . . as I say, there are only two kinds of people.  No matter how much you do to prepare, you will never get it all done.  And what exactly is the “it” that we never get done?  Well, take your pick.  Christmas preparation is an ever-expanding horizon.  Everything you did last year to get ready is just the preparation to get ready for this year.  This is just the way life is; you cannot fight it; you can only submit.

But what is it exactly that we are all racing around doing to get ready?  Well, that varies from family to family of course, depending on your traditions and stuff.  Decorating our houses, sending out Christmas cards, getting trees, tipping garbage collectors, paper and mail carriers, hanging stockings, and watching the Charlie Brown Christmas Special . . . or Die Hard.  Not to mention parties and school assemblies.  There’s a lot to do to get ready for this day, and we never seem to get it all done.  As much as we prepare, there is always something missing.  And that seems appropriate, in some way.  Because, despite all our preparations, we can never be ready for God breaking into the world.

Many years ago, when our nephew Walter was about 2 years old, he noticed there was something missing from the manger scene his parents had set up.  His family always waits until Christmas Day to put Jesus in the manger—as many of us do.  Although, come to think of it, we do put the shepherds and wisemen there long before Jesus arrives, so I guess we’re not all that rigid about it.   Anyway, nephew Walter noticed that the manger was empty, and realized that his Oscar the Grouch finger puppet was the perfect size.  Each day, Walter would wrap the Grouch in swaddling clothes and lay him in the manger.  Because there was no room for him at the Inn of  Walter’s Patience
Still, you can’t hurry a baby.  A baby comes in the fullness of time, and not a minute sooner, even if some of us can’t wait forever.

Parents, on the other hand, can wait forever—at least when there’s a deadline of a newborn breathing down our necks.  Here comes December 25th.  We’ve known it was coming for more than nine months.  But still it’s not enough time to prepare.  There’s a baby coming, and we are not ready.  But can you ever really be ready for a baby to come?  As every first-time parent can tell you, the answer is no.  No matter what you do, no matter how many books you read, or classes you attend, there is too much uncertainty in the birth of a baby ever to be truly ready.  Still, you hopefully do something to prepare for the birth of a baby.

But what if you’ve done nothing to prepare for this baby?  What if you have intentionally decided to say, “bah humbug” to that whole Christmas spirit stuff?  What if you have spent the last four weeks refusing to buy into the commercialized hype?  Or, what if you have spent these past months grieving the loss of someone who meant the world to you?  Or wondering how you will explain to your kids that their parents are not living together on Christmas morning?  Or what if the last thing you want to do is celebrate some religious holiday that makes no sense to you, based on a god you don’t believe in, but you came to church tonight in order to make your mom stop complaining about the loss of family traditions? 

What about those of us who just don’t get it?  Well, I think we’re in good company.  Just look at all the people in the story who don’t get it.  We could start with the innkeeper.  Not only does the innkeeper not understand, he has no room for Jesus; he sends him away.  Tells him to go find somewhere else to be born.  Hustles the parents around back where the animals live, sending a king to be born in a stable.  And the shepherds?  Just look at the language they use to describe Jesus’ birth.  They know something has happened (angels appearing over your head and singing songs is a pretty good clue of that), but after the angel explains, they say, “let us go and see this thing that has happened.”  And then they go out and tell people about “this thing that has happened.”

“Hey, you’ll never guess what happened!”
“This Thing!!!”

Or take Joseph.  In Matthew’s version of the story, he is planning to send Mary away and break off the engagement quietly.  It takes a personal visit from an angel to make him consider welcoming Jesus.  And in Luke’s version, Joseph is essentially just the guy leading the donkey, heading off to be counted.  And Mary?  She is treasuring words and pondering these things in her heart.  Sounds nice, dreamy even.  But as any child knows, if you ask your mom for something and she says she will ponder it in her heart, the real answer is “probably not.”  Way back when, as I got down on my knees in the sand and asked Cristin to marry me, if she had said “I will ponder this thing in my heart,” well . . . I would have taken that to mean, “no thanks, pal.”  To ponder in your heart isn’t even close to “Yes!  I totally get it!”

In the story of this baby being born—God coming into the world—nobody gets it.  Nobody understands.  Nobody is ready.  But the baby comes anyway.  Perfect.

And so what does this mean?  What does it mean that nobody knows what it means?  When three clergy people living in the same town have three completely different answers to the question, “What does Christmas mean?”  We all want to know what it means -- to understand this Christmas story.  And, on cue, Hollywood steps in with the answer.  How many movies and stories talk about the “real meaning of Christmas?”  No matter the plot of any Christmas story, somewhere in the last few minutes, I guarantee that somebody is going to learn “the true meaning of Christmas.”  Happens every time: because they see Santa Claus, or because the villagers gather and sing despite having no gifts, or because an angel gets his wings, or because the Christmas spirit makes a sleigh rise up over Central Park, the point is always that someone finally learns the true meaning of Christmas.

But that’s life in the movies.  After all my years of actual life, including being ordained for nine years, I do not understand the full meaning of Christmas!  And I don’t think anyone could explain the full meaning of “this thing that has happened.”  But we all know it when we see it, don’t we?  We must have some shared idea of what it means, because we appeal to people’s sense of “Christmas spirit.”  Come on, pal, where’s your Christmas Spirit?  We don’t have this with other days—not even Easter.  And certainly nobody ever questions your sense of Whitsunday spirit, or Transfiguration cheer.

Christmas is kind of a trump card: a get out of jail free pass.  You go to your boss with your hat in your hand and remind her that it’s Christmas, and you probably get the day off.  (Unless you’re a priest, of course.)  Cop pulls you over on Christmas, and you’re not breaking a serious law, you might get by with just a warning.  The phrase “but it’s Christmas” has deep meaning for us, even for people who don’t consider themselves to be Christian.  But what exactly is that deep meaning?

It’s got something to do with an undeserved gift, doesn’t it?  There’s some hint that none of us deserves what we’re getting, so we are generous to one another.  There’s some admission that none of us is ready, and the baby comes anyway.  There’s some recognition that we’re all in this together, no matter how different or distant we might seem from one another in these divided times.  After all this preparation, we are not ready; after all the trying so hard to be good, we are not worthy; after a lifetime of hearing this Christmas story, we still do not fully understand it.

Here’s the crazy thing.  No matter how much we have done to prepare, it is not enough; but no matter how little we have done to prepare, it is enough.  We do not understand, and God understands that.  Jesus meets us at this altar, whether we are ready or not.  Jesus promises to be in this place—to meet us here, whether we understand or not.  You are welcome here because God has broken into our unwelcoming world.  The one born in a stable sets a table before you and says, “Come and eat—you are welcome, and I am here for you.”  We are not ready, and we do not understand, and we don’t feel ready to meet God.  And that’s okay.  Because, in the birth of Jesus, God is ready, God understands, and God has come to meet us.

Merry Christmas indeed!


Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Rhea S. Bossart

The Burial of Rhea Bossart
Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 6:37-40

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.
The first time I stepped into this pulpit, two and a half years ago, Rhea shouted out, “I love you!”  In some ways, that tells you everything you need to know about Rhea.

When she was well enough to come to church, Rhea always sat in the front row, with her caregiver.  She was very much like a part of the church itself, at least from this vantage point—Sunday morning, look to my left in the front row, Rhea.  Or, walk out of the 8 o’clock service into the parish hall, Bob and Rhea sitting at a table, with Rhea making some beautiful creation out of yarn.

But there’s more than that.  If you look at the church photo on the wall in the lounge, you can see Rhea nestled among the people.  And if you look back through the baptismal records, you’ll find Rhea.  And in the marriage records, you’ll find Rhea.  And now in the necrology, you’ll find Rhea.  But you will also find Rhea in our hearts and in our memories, because Rhea is everywhere, it seems.  She lived her entire life as part of this church.  Given to God in her baptism, and now given to God in death.

Jesus said, "Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away . . . And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”

The Rhea we knew in her earlier days might have seemed lost to us these last few years, but she was not lost to God.  No one is lost to God.  Though the Rhea we cherished slowly slipped away from us this past year, she was always known to God, always cherished by God, and always redeemed by God.

You could say that in death, Rhea has now stepped through a door to another room, to be greeted by the ultimate caregiver.  And I imagine Jesus greeting her the way she first greeted me, shouting out “I love you!”  Because that would make Rhea smile, like only Rhea can smile.

One day we will see Rhea again, and it will be a glorious reunion indeed.  And in the meantime, we hold onto that promise from Jesus:  I will lose nothing that has been given to me, but will raise them up on the last day.  Rhea is safe, in the arms of Jesus, and we will see her again.


Sunday, December 16, 2018

YEAR C 2018, advent 3

Advent 3, 2018
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Grace, Mercy, and Peace be unto you from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Or, as John the Baptist might put it, “You bunch of snakes! The wrath is coming for you. Don’t say, 'My parents built this church’'; because God can make Episcopalians from these stones. The ax is cutting down trees, so don’t be a tree.  Amen.”

John the Baptist was not a hit at parties.  And he obviously didn’t have an ear for how to start a sermon.  On the other hand, the people definitely listened to him, so maybe we preachers should take a hint from his dramatic opening today.  He certainly got the people’s attention by calling them a “brood of vipers.”  And their response is to ask, “What shall I do?”

And then John has a prescription for each group.  To the general folks he says, share what you have with those less fortunate.  To the tax collectors he says, don’t cheat people.  To the occupying forces he says, don’t use your power to oppress people or take advantage of them.  Despite John’s crazy, radical opening, these are not crazy, radical demands.  And they sit nicely with you and me because they honestly sound a lot like saying, take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.  Don’t take your sister’s toys without asking.  Or, never cheer for the University of Michigan when visiting a friend in Columbus.  Common sense rules of decency.

It almost seems like the people ask John, what must we do to be saved?  And John says, everything you need to know about being saved, you learned in kindergarten.  There’s nothing all that radical here.  Be nice, play fair, don’t cheat people just because you can.  If you do this, the world will be a better place.  And I hate to sound flippant, but . . . Duh!  If everyone was nicer to others, the world would be a better place.  And if I am nicer to my neighbor, then I too will be saved.  It seems to me, there’s no need for Jesus in this proclamation.  Everyone just needs to be a little nicer, okay?

In fact, if that is John’s point, then he’s really getting us ready for Santa Claus, not Jesus.  Making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out which tax collectors have been overcharging and which soldiers have been taking advantage of the weapons in their hands.  If you want candy instead of coal in your stocking, then by all means start being nice to people.  And there’s the rub . . .

If it were simply a matter of our decision and effort to treat people better, we’d have no need for Jesus.  If it were within our power to make the world into the kingdom of God, then we would not need a Savior.

I know it’s tempting to turn this Gospel reading into a social-justice message.  And I know many priests and pastors will be doing just that with this text.  Which is not to say that’s wrong, but--well, as I've told you a thousand times by now--I grew up Lutheran, and my catechism teacher would never forgive me if I did that in a sermon.  If I were to tell you that the point of Christianity is to be nicer to people, then I would forever be haunted by the Ghost of Catechism Past.  There simply has to be more to this text than, be nice, and play fair.

And, of course, there is.  But before we get there, I think it will be helpful to remind ourselves that one of the points of this time we call “Advent” is to remind us why we need a Savior.  To remind ourselves why we cannot do it alone.  Why it is that we welcome the birth of the long-awaited Messiah of God.

From the very start of our Scriptures, God lays out what people need to do to be reconciled to God and one another.  Way back with Cain and Abel it’s as simple as “don’t kill the only other child on the planet.”  And before that it was, “don’t eat the fruit off this one tree over here.”  Whether you view these stories as factual historical episodes, or as mythical plot points, the resulting message is the same: We can’t follow simple instructions.  Oh, sure, we think we can.  The ten commandments seem pretty straight forward . . . until we dwell on the meaning of the word “covet” . . . or until we consider what gods we put ahead of our Creator.  Not to mention that Jesus goes and ups the ante by saying that thoughts are as good as deeds when it comes to following these simple rules.

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

That’s how today’s gospel reading ended.  Remember that?  Did it strike you as almost funny in the context of what John tells this brood of vipers?  Like he lays out all this scary stuff about a winnowing fork and unquenchable fire and hell and damnation and then we get, and in many other ways,  “he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

That’s the good news, John?  Really?  Please don’t say you’ve got some bad news, right?  But let’s follow the arc of this overall story here . . .

The people come to John to be baptized.  A few verses before today’s gospel text, he has been walking up and down the Jordan River, on both sides, telling the people they need to repent and be baptized.  And when the people come to John, he calls them a brood of vipers and asks, “who told you that you could flee the wrath that is to come?”  It’s tempting to picture them saying, “Uh, you did John.  Remember how you just told us to repent and be baptized?”  And this is a sticky little point we have to look at:  John tells them to repent and be baptized, but he never says that it will save them from the wrath that is to come.  It seems as if John is saying they need to repent and be cleansed, but the wrath that is to come is a completely different animal.  And that’s because, well, He is.

As John says, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  Water cleanses; fire purifies.  John baptizes with water; Jesus baptizes with fire.  What does this mean?  Well, everything.

If your car is broken down and also dirty, John will come along with a bucket and a sponge and clean the outside.  But your car still will not run.  If your house needs painting and the foundation is crumbling, John can slap a new coat of paint on it.  If you’re lying on your deathbed and your hair is messy, John has a comb he can use to straighten things out.

But on your deathbed, you need more than a cosmetic makeover.  You need someone who will save you.  You need someone who will purify your soul.  You need someone with a “winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

You need Jesus.

In the here and now, you need to be baptized with water, yes.  And if you ask the preacher how you should live, the answer is to be nice to your neighbor, and share with those less fortunate, and not take advantage of people less powerful than you.  But those answers do not save us from the wrath that is to come, silly brood of vipers that we are.  What saves us from the wrath that is to come is one thing and one thing only: The baptism by fire of the little baby whose birth we are eagerly awaiting.  Only Jesus can purify our hearts.

The winnowing and the threshing floor and the unquenchable fire are not the wrath.  They are the purification.  The sanctification.  The things that make us what we were meant to be.  What is burned away is not what we are.  What is burned away is the rust that has accumulated.  The barnacles on the boat.  The stuff that clouds our true nature as redeemed children of God.  The wrath comes in not trusting the one who can make us whole.  The only wrath we face is the self-imposed one of not opening our hands to let go of the chaff and receive the gift of life.

And today, at this altar, we have yet another opportunity to unclench our fists and receive the gift of life, in body and blood, of the One who is coming to save us.  We need not fear his coming, because he is coming to cleanse us with a purifying fire, to be what we were always meant to be.  To sanctify us, that we may faithfully receive this holy sacrament, and serve him in unity, constancy, and peace.  And at the last day, this brood of vipers--this thing we call the Church on Earth--will join with all the saints, of every time and every place, in the joy of God’s eternal kingdom.


Sunday, December 9, 2018

YEAR C 2018 advent 2

Advent 2, 2018
Malachi 3:1-4
Canticle 16
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I figure it never hurts to remind us all that every Advent, the Church begins a new year.  And when we begin a new year, we make the move to focus on a different gospel book.  And this year, starting last week, we switched the spotlight to Luke, which is my favorite of the four gospels (but please don’t tell the other gospels).  And using the phrase “switch the spotlight” is perfectly appropriate for Luke’s gospel, because the first three chapters are really like a little musical.

The story is just moving along in Luke and, when there’s a dramatic moment, the characters are beside themselves with excitement, and this calls for a song!  Two pregnant women, Elizabeth and Mary, get together, and they’re so thrilled that Mary breaks into what we all call the Magnificat.  Then, Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist is born, and his father is so happy—and he can finally speak again—that he sings out the Song of Zechariah—which today’s bulletin insert calls “Canticle 16.”  Then the Spirit of God tells Simeon that he would not die before seeing the Messiah, and when he sees the baby Jesus in the Temple, he breaks into Simeon’s Song, “Lord, let your servant depart in peace.”  Luke’s gospel has just got started, and we’ve already got three chat-topping hits—arguably the three most popular songs in the history of the Church.

So, that’s one reason I love Luke so much: because it’s like a musical.  But let me interrupt myself here to complain about what the church year does to Luke’s narrative flow.  In the section of Luke that we just heard, John the Baptist is, you know, somewhere around 30 years old, and he’s out in the desert.  And soon, Jesus is going to come to him to be baptized, because Jesus will also be around 30 years old.  (Six months younger than John, by tradition at least.)  But the Canticle we heard from the Choir today is the song of Zechariah, which happens right after John has been born.  And, since this is the Second Sunday of Advent, that means Jesus himself won’t even be born for another 16 days.  Because of these assigned texts, today is sort of a wibbly wobbly timey wimey, or Jeremy Bearamy kind of day.  You’ve just got to go with the flow, disjointed though it might be.

Okay, but here is what I most want to focus on: the opening sentence of today’s gospel reading.  And I’ll tip my hand from the start by asking, see if you hear an action verb in the following:  In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas . . .”  And now I’ll answer my own question: No, you did not hear an action verb.  ALL of that stuff is what we call a dependent clause.  (And by that I don’t mean one of Santa’s children.  Hey, Dads are gonna Dad Joke.)

All of those names and places are dependent on the action part of the sentence, which is, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”  That’s the point of the sentence: the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  All that other stuff is like Luke adding the phrase, “One day,” before the action part.  Or adding, “Once upon a time.”  The beginning of the sentence doesn’t really do anything.  Which raises the question, why is it there?  Why tell us which leaders were ruling which things, and who led the Priesthood and all that?

Well, two things.  First, has it ever struck you as odd that the name Pontius Pilate comes up in the Nicene Creed?  Like we’re just going along with all this really ethereal language and these theological concepts and suddenly there’s this guy, whose name we only know because he put Jesus to death.  Why is he in there?  Well, one reason we say his name in the Creed is to anchor the life and death of Jesus to a specific point in human history.  Historians will always be able to tell us what years Pilate was in charge, which means we know when all this happened, like in actual human years, with dates.  When you look at Greek and Roman mythology, there are no anchor points tying them to real history.  And that’s why we call it mythology.  Could have happened last week, or a billion years ago.  But Jesus was put to death at a specific time and place.  And Pilate’s name tells us when.

So, one of the reasons Luke names all those people is to tell us where and when we are in human history.  John the Baptist was in the wilderness when Tiberius was Emperor, and etc etc.  Tiberius is in the history books, so we know John lived at a particular time and place, and later on, Jesus will come to be baptized by him.  (You know, after he’s born . . . later this month.)

But as I said earlier, all those names and titles are a dependent clause to “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness,” so linguistically speaking they’re not important.  And here’s why I love Luke so much:  Because they are important.  Luke turns everything upside down.  The beauty of that sentence is that those people are important in society’s eyes.  In fact, they’re the only people who are important!  That list is a who’s who of everyone you need to know in first century Palestine.  And the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  Who is Zechariah?  Nobody.  Who is John?  Nobody.  Where is the wilderness?  Nowhere.  The word of God came to John . . . son of Zechariah . . . in the wilderness.

You would expect the word of God to come to the Emperor, the governor, the ruler of Galilee, the high priests.  But the word of God came to John.  In Luke’s Gospel, God comes to the lowly, the outcasts, the unimportant.  To Mary, to shepherds, to Bethlehem, to the wilderness.  God is at work where nobody expects to see God working.  Lifting up the lowly and casting down the proud.  Raising up the valleys and leveling the mountains.  God bypasses the rich and powerful, living in their important cities, doing their important things, and seeks out John, a nobody, in the wilderness.

And, quite frankly, that is the best news you and I are going to get.  Because in the 18th year of the 21st century, when Donald Trump was President of the United States, and John Kasich was Governor of Ohio, and Kathy Catazaro-Perry was Mayor of Massillon, and when Michael Curry was the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the word of God came to St. Timothy’s Church, in Massillon, Ohio.

God does not need for you to be strong and good and rich and powerful in order to come to you.  God does not need you to be popular and worthy and upstanding to seek you out.  In fact, at least the way Luke tells the story of Jesus, you’re almost better off not being any of those things!  Because the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

And as I never tire of reminding you, we all receive the bread of heaven just as a beggar receives bread, or a child receives a gift:  with our hands stretched out in front of us, expecting nothing, but hoping for everything.  Deserving nothing, but hoping for a miracle.  And God bypasses the rich and powerful and important things of this world to come directly to you, because you are loved, more than you could ever imagine.

The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness, and the word of God comes to you.  To you!  Thanks be to God.


Monday, December 3, 2018

Carl D. Pennington

The Burial of Carl D. Pennington
January 15, 1930-November 29, 2018
Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 23
Revelation 21:2-7
John 6:37-40

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

You are all here because you knew and loved Carl Pennington.  Unlike nearly everyone in this room, I did not get to know Carl Pennington.  I met him, of course, but it was long past the time when he would have known who I was, or why I was there.  I can’t tell you anything about Carl that you don’t already know.

I do find it quite interesting that he enjoyed hunting for arrowheads.  And that he was a member of the Archeological Society of Ohio, which has been “Striving to Preserve Ohio's Archaeological Heritage Since 1942.”  I admit, I’d never heard of the Archeological Society of Ohio before, but I appreciate that they do strive to preserve the past for the rest of us.

In many ways, you all share their desire to preserve the past, as you remember Carl, and all that he means to you.  Over time, you had to hold on to memories for Carl, because he could not hold onto them for himself.  And together today you remember the life of the one you loved.  And just like the arrowheads that Carl hunted, you cherished Carl as you found him, diminished though he might have been from the peak years of his life.

I hope that you will continue to share stories and memories of your time with Carl on this earth in the days and years ahead.  But here is what I really want you to hold onto as you leave this place today . . .

Jesus said, "Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away . . . And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”

The Carl you knew in his prime might have seemed lost to you in his latter days, but he was not lost to God.  No one is lost to God.  Though the Carl you once knew was hidden from you, much like an arrowhead is hidden in the earth, Carl was always known to God, always cherished by God, and always redeemed by God.

One day you will see Carl again, and it will be a glorious reunion indeed.  And in the meantime, hold on to that promise from Jesus:  I will lose nothing that has been given to me, but will raise them up on the last day.


Sunday, December 2, 2018

YEAR C 2018 advent 1

Advent I, 2018
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-10
I Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, happy Advent, y'all!  You probably weren’t expecting that Gospel reading, were you?  You were maybe expecting something about a baby?  Or maybe some shepherds seeing angels?  Or maybe even John the Baptist standing by a river?  But I’m pretty sure that people “fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” was not what you had in mind when you saw all the pretty decorations in the room this morning.

Well, let’s jump right in here.  As usual, you’ve probably been hearing Christmas carols since, oh, I don’t know, the day after Halloween?  And you might even have been playing them yourself since the day after Thanksgiving.  It’s hard not to join right in, since everybody else is doing it.  You know, peer pressure and all that.  Outside these walls, you’re surrounded by a society that is full-on celebrating Christmas, while we’re in here listening to Jesus talk about the end of the world.  Jesus is the reason for the season . . . that isn’t here yet.

This disconnect can make it seem like the Church is out of sync with the culture.  But, of course, in reality, it is the culture that is out of sync with the Church.  Because, Christmas starts on December 25th, and Christmas goes until January 6th, which is when you’ll be receiving your twelve drummers a drumming.  But our American culture has taken our particular feast, celebrating the birth of the Savior, and decided it really starts around Thanksgiving.  Which is fine, whatever, but let’s remember who is actually out of sync with whom around here.  Jesus is the reason for the season . . . that we are waiting another 23 days for.  Okay.  Rant off.

On to the text at hand, the comforting little story of the time when people will be fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  This gospel reading we heard today falls into the category of what we call apocalyptic literature.  We tend to think of the word “apocalypse” as having something to do with death and destruction and the end times.  But the word “apocalypse” means an uncovering, a disclosing if you will.  Something is going to be revealed, not destroyed.  It’s like unwrapping a gift, which means on Christmas morning your family will be enjoying a lovely little apocalypse together around the Christmas tree.

So, today, Jesus is revealing something to the disciples.  He is not predicting a coming destruction:  he is disclosing some truth to them.  Which means we need to try to find out what that truth is.  What is he telling them?  Well, just two things.  First, the Kingdom is at hand, and second, so pay attention.  Amen.  Please rise for the Creed.  Just kidding.  Let’s break those two things down a little.

What does it mean to say that the kingdom of heaven is at hand?  Well, in popular thought, the phrase “the kingdom is at hand” is connected to a guy with a bullhorn and a sandwich board out on the street corner, right?  Someone yelling at us about the need to repent because destruction is coming.  Or, how we’d better get ready because Jesus is coming back, and he’s really, really mad at us because he hates us so much.  And that way of thinking about the phrase starts from thinking “at hand” means “coming up in time.”  But this phrase, “at hand,” does not mean, “coming up next.”  It means within reach.  Like, you’re watching a show on Hulu and there’s a commercial coming up, so keep the remote at hand.  Within reach of your hand.

Thinking of the kingdom at hand in this way changes everything.  The kingdom of heaven is at hand: right here.  It’s right next to you.  All around you.  The kingdom of heaven is near, doesn’t mean it’s nearly here, or it’s coming up at the next exit.  It means near to you.  The kingdom is within reach.  That’s the first part of the apocalypse.  And the second part is related to it.

Pay attention.  Most of the rest of this gospel reading is about this idea of paying attention.  Be on guard so that your hearts will not be weighed down with the worries of this life.  The distractions of life, the inattention of being so busy, no matter the season.  We run the risk of not seeing what is all around us because we’re so busy being busy all the time.  Jesus says, be alert at all times.  Notice that Jesus is not saying, I’m coming back, so look busy.  No, in fact, he’s saying quite the opposite.  Stop being so busy and distracted with the worries of this life that you miss what is at hand.  And what is at hand, you ask?  Why, the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Jesus tells us, “When you see these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”  What things is he talking about?  What are these signs?  Jesus says, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

Are we seeing those signs?  Well, some people try to read into natural disasters and international conflicts, and then scare everybody by saying Jesus is coming back, and he’s really, really mad at us because he hates us so much.  I don’t have to go through the entire list for you, because I’m sure you’ve seen examples.  You know, God sent AIDS because people are gay, hurricanes happen because New Orleans parties too much, California wildfires happen because democrats live there.  These are the signs that Jesus is coming back, and man is he angry!

But forget all that.  Those people are just making stuff up because they have a microphone or a typewriter and have anger issues.  You don’t need to look at natural disasters or international conflicts to see the signs. 

“People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”  Impossibly large language for impossibly large events, but which apply to you and me as well.  Specific times in our lives are just like that.  Tragedy hits us and the world is turned upside down.  Our only love gets cancer.  We lose the one job in the family.  Someone we care about dies unexpectedly.  People we love go to jail, have tragic accidents, turn their backs on us when we need them.

In these moments, for all we can see, the sky is dark, the sea is crashing down upon us, the world is shaking and the heavens are shaken.  These are the signs of this day and this hour, whether or not Jesus is ever coming back.  And when our world is crashing down around us, Jesus has a message for us:  “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

You don’t need to look at the world to know you need redemption.  Look at your own life.  Look at the suffering of those who live around you, or work with you, or sleep under the overpass.  We know we need redemption because the world is not as it should be.  And if we keep awake, if we pay attention, we will see the signs.  And when we see the signs, we should stand up and look up, because redemption is drawing near.

Jesus doesn’t tell us what to do about any of this, though, does he?  No, what he tells us to do is to keep awake and watch.  Pay attention.  The kingdom of God is at hand—right next to you.  And that is exactly what gives us hope in the midst of darkness.  When we see distress among nations, and when we are confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves, look up, because redemption is drawing near.  When people faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, look up, because redemption is drawing near.  When people try to tell you that you don’t matter, or that you are not loved by God, or that the coming of Jesus means condemnation, look up, because redemption is drawing near.

You are loved by the God who created you.  You are loved by the God who has redeemed you.  You are loved by the God who sustains you.  Keep awake to that truth, be alert to that reality, because your redemption has already come near.  In fact, your redemption is at hand.


Sunday, November 25, 2018

YEAR B 2018 christ the king

Christ the King, 2018
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalm 93
Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today’s Gospel reading is all about power.  There’s the obvious power struggle between Pilate and Jesus, and there’s the background power struggle between Pilate and the Jewish leaders.  And there’s an overall power struggle between the Jewish people and Rome.  Lots of power being thrown around, and it’s hard to tell who’s actually going to win in the end.

I grew up in Niagara Falls NY, and was surrounded by natural power.  We had this massive waterfall—perhaps you’ve heard of it—powerful in it’s own right.  Safe to look at from a distance, but if you get in the way of its flow, you will be swept away.  And thanks to Nikola Tesla, the power of the water was harnessed into the power of electricity.  And electricity, like the waterfall that generates it, is powerful in its own right.  Safe to use in daily life, but get in the way of its flow and you will be electrocuted.

It is the nature of powerful things to sweep over us.  You think of a tsunami, or a hurricane, or Rome in Jesus’ day.  You can stand in the way of such things, but they will sweep you away without so much as a ripple.  Powerful things cannot be resisted, like electricity, earthquakes, and the IRS.  You might step out of the way, or leave town, direct the energy elsewhere, but when power hits you head on with its relentless force, there really is nothing you can do.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is being held captive.  He’s kind of on trial, being interrogated by the one in power.  Pilate has the power to decide what happens to Jesus.  The power of life and death over Jesus.  He says, “Your own people handed you over to me.”  Your own people have put you in the path of my power, and you will now be swept away without a ripple.  Do you not understand the force of my awesome power?

And the two of them have the strangest conversation.  Pilate keeps asking questions that seem designed to help him justify putting Jesus to death, but the answers make it sound like the two of them are each talking to someone else.  Like they’re not using the same rules of conversation or something.  Pilate asks if Jesus is the King of the Jews.  Jesus asks if he’s asking on his own or if someone else told him about him.  Pilate says, I’m not a Jew; what have you done?  Jesus answers, My kingdom is not of this world.  Pilate asks, “So you are a king?”  Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king.”  But “I testify to the truth.”

We would expect Jesus to be talking his way out of getting killed.  We would expect him to be trying to step out of the tidal wave of Pilate’s power.  We expect Jesus to seek higher ground, but he just stands there, talking like a crazy man!  Pilate is playing a game of sorts with Jesus, and Jesus is going to lose.  It’s a fight to the death, and Jesus won’t even pick up a sword.  Jesus is swept up in the wave of Rome’s power.

There are some confrontations in life where you could say just surviving is enough.  Maybe you didn’t win the fight, but you’re still alive, right?  The Hunger Games, Presidential Debates, pistols at twenty paces, in these cases, surviving is good enough.  You don’t necessarily have to win to win.  You just need to not be dead, right?  But Jesus cannot be said to have won even on this level.  Because, as you and I both know, Jesus does end up dead when this is all said and done.

Following this exchange with Pontius Pilate, Jesus is overpowered in every sense of the word.  And yet we call him victorious.  We call him king.  Jesus loses the game in the most decisive way possible, and yet today you and I are celebrating Christ the King Sunday.  What makes the difference?

Well, there’s a temptation to say that Jesus loses the battle but wins the war.  We want to say that when you put his death in the context of the larger picture, Jesus wins.  In the broad scope of things, Jesus’ death is just a temporary setback on the way to the larger victory.  Gotta break some eggs to make omelets.  The end justifies the means, as some like to say.

The problem with that approach is that it justifies the smaller battle on the way to winning the overall war.  When you and I take this approach to things it is exceedingly dangerous, because we get caught up in moving the goal posts.  Before long, any act can be justified in service to the greater good.  You can end up approving anything by simply dialing out the lens and putting it in a larger context.

We can see this in dictatorships all around the world.  The suffering of one person, or one race of people, means nothing if it achieves the overall goal.  People are completely dispensable when we can trade them in for lofty things like world peace, or purity of doctrine, or an achievable political agenda.  And if we claim that we don’t do this ourselves on at least a small scale, then we’re not looking at our lives very carefully.  We do this kind of cost-benefit analysis all day long, when you think about it.

And sacrificing one person for the overall good of many should sound familiar to us because it is ultimately what gets Jesus killed.  For the survival of Israel, one man must die . . . for today.  If this one man is sacrificed, the Jews can have peace with Rome . . . for today.  All will be right in the world, the thinking goes, if we can just get rid of this one rabble rouser.  In the bigger picture, killing Jesus is the right thing to do.  For the benefit of many, let us join together and turn against this one man.  And look!  He’s not even willing to put up a spirited defense!  What could be better?

And you and I can safely watch this injustice in the assurance of the resurrection, right?  We can fold our arms and say, “You just wait until Sunday buster.”  And when we do that, we’ve walked ourselves right back into thinking it’s okay for Jesus to lose the battle because he wins the war.  But if his death is okay because we know he’s going to rise again on Sunday morning, then we’ve missed the point.  Because “the end justifies the means” is exactly the thinking that gets Jesus killed.  Strange as it sounds, Jesus’ death is not made “okay” because of the resurrection.  The death of God’s own son is not just a minor setback on the way to the bigger goal of salvation for humanity.

Let’s return for a moment to where we started, talking about the power of nature.  When a massive wave is rushing toward you, if you do not move out of the way, you will be swept away, no matter what you do.  But what would happen if you could change the nature of the water?  What if you could separate the hydrogen and the oxygen, for example?  Or what if you changed the forces of friction, or gravity, or the nature of mass itself?  The point is, power sweeps us away because we are forced into playing the game on water’s terms.  The reason water can overwhelm us is because we’re stuck in this system with the laws of nature governing what happens.

Now, step back into the interrogation of Jesus before Pilate with all that in mind.  Pilate is fully expecting Jesus to beg for his life, plead for mercy, or at least stand up to him as a king.  What Pilate is not expecting is for Jesus to stand there like he doesn’t understand the game.  Pilate is working from the perspective of the massive wave of Rome’s power, and Jesus isn’t responding appropriately.  And though I know I’m reading into the text when I say this, I think it freaks Pilate out.  I think he is unnerved by this reaction . . . Or, lack of reaction.

And here’s the important thing: The reason Jesus is not playing the game as Pilate expects is because Jesus has declared the game to be over.  Jesus has seen the violations of the rules, the undeclared fouls and penalties, the absolute corruption of the referees and judges, and declared the entire game invalid.

The resurrection is not just some last-second score that somehow wins the game in overtime, because that would still be playing by the rules of the game, you see?  Jesus does not overpower Pilate with an even bigger dose of power.  Instead, Jesus changes the very nature of power itself.  Changes the laws of nature, if you will, in what it means to wield power.

Because of Jesus, power is no longer displayed in putting someone to death, but rather in rising from death.  Power is no longer displayed in taking from the hungry, but rather in feeding them.  Power is no longer displayed in conquering my enemies, but rather in loving them.

We began this day with a Collect proclaiming that it is God’s will to restore all things in Jesus, asking that God would grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule.  The most gracious rule of Jesus.  Power as Jesus defines power.

In Jesus, God has changed the very meaning of power and strength.  Power and strength come from the hand of God, and they are to be used for very different purposes than what the world has taught us, or would have us believe.  And for those of us who gather at this Altar, true strength comes in holding out our hands as beggars, to receive the most precious body and blood of God’s beloved son, Jesus Christ our Lord, our strength, our redeemer, and our king.


Sunday, November 18, 2018

YEAR B 2018 pentecost 26

Pentecost 26, 2018
Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, one of my favorite bumper stickers is the one that reads, “Entropy Rules!”  Entropy is the science-y word that means, everything naturally falls apart.  Like, you cut down a tree, come back in 20 years, and it will have slowly decayed into the ground.  Or, to quote from a popular movie from the 80s: "Screws fall out all the time; the world is an imperfect place.”  This is why we have to get our cars serviced, and contribute to capital campaigns.  Because the natural order of things is to fall apart.  Entropy Rules!

And that’s kind of how Jesus responds to the disciples as they leave the Temple in this morning’s gospel reading, and it’s kind of depressing.  As we heard, one of the disciples says to Jesus, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” And Jesus asks him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  What Jesus could have said was, “Yes, it’s all very impressive.  But remember: Entropy Rules.”

I have a friend who used to be a pretty hardcore Evangelical, and he was really hooked on the idea that when Jesus returns he’s going to wipe everything out and start over.  When anyone got too attached to the world, my friend loved to use the phrase, “It’s all gonna burn.”  Like you’d say to him, “Hey, I’m really happy because we were finally able to get into a house in Massillon, and things are going really great at our church, and I’m excited about the future.”  And my friend would say, “Don’t get too excited, because it’s all gonna burn!”  Like when Jesus comes back he’s going to be carrying the Mother of All Flamethrowers.

And some people take that view, like my friend, because they think that everything is broken and tainted and must be replaced.  Irredeemably flawed.  I personally disagree with that view, because from what I see in the scriptures, it seems more the way of Jesus to perfect things rather than replace them.  When Jesus sees a blind man, he doesn’t replace him with someone who can see; Jesus gives the man his sight.  Jesus restores things, rather than upgrading to a newer version.  At the tomb of his friend Lazarus, Jesus brings him back to life, instead of rolling out Lazarus 2.0.  In Jesus, things become what they were meant to be, rather than what they are, and as opposed to what people say they should be.

But there’s a tricky balance at work here.  If my friend is correct and everything is gonna burn, then why take care of anything?  Why eat vegetables since I might get hit by a bus tomorrow?  Why start singing a song if I know it’s going to end after the last chorus?  Is there any point in pursuing beauty through preservation and care if it’s all going to be destroyed?  And that’s where there is a difference between entropy and It’s All Gonna Burn.  Entropy makes us engage to make things better; thinking It’s All Gonna Burn makes us despair.  Entropy rules, but not if we can help it, right?  There’s a great quote that applies here, sometimes attributed to Martin Luther:  “If I knew that tomorrow was the end of the world, I would plant an apple tree today.”

So, one of the disciples says to Jesus, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” And Jesus asks him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  And I think there’s something more than entropy at work here.  Remember last week’s gospel lesson?  The one about the widow and the two pennies that Mo preached about?  That story comes immediately before this one.  Jesus commends the poor widow, who gave all she had to a system that was set up to intentionally and unabashedly oppress her.  And when you take the long view, all the little two pennies from generations of widows had come together to build those great buildings of oppression, which so impress the disciple.

Sometimes, the buildings that oppress are built by the oppressed.  And there’s something about that in Jesus’ response, I think.  Imagine walking through the Egyptian desert and saying, “Look at these huge pyramids the Pharaohs built!”  Well, yeah, if you mean built on the backs of slaves!  The Pharaohs did nothing to build those giant structures except to enslave other people to build them for them.  Glorious monuments of horrific oppression.

Or, closer to home, drive on over to Washington DC and visit the White House.  “Look at this giant grand home with the columns and the beautiful gardens.”  And Jesus might respond, “Do you see this great building? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  Entropy Rules!  Maybe it’s the literal physical structures, sure.  Or maybe it’s really the oppressive systematic structures that find a way to claim greatness by sacrificing the lives and hopes of those around us.  Two pennies at a time from widows might build impressive structures, and those structures might or might not be oppressive, but eventually, “not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

So let’s bring the lens in closer, to the corner of 3rd Street and Tremont Avenue.  With the Massillon Candlelight Walk less than two weeks away, I’m excited for the chance once again to show off our sanctuary to scads of visitors!  One of the thrills of being the Rector at St. Timothy’s is that throughout the year I get to bring groups of people into this space and hear them ooh and aww at the beauty that has been handed down to us.  Look, Teacher, what large stones and what fine Tiffany windows!  And then, naturally, I always turn to them and say, “Do you see these great windows in this amazing building? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.  Hope you can join us for worship on Sunday!”

Of course I don’t actually say all that.  Because we’re sure that Entropy doesn’t rule here!  This building will stand forever!  Just ask anyone in the room whose grandparents were baptized here.  St. Timothy’s Church will be here forever because it has always been here forever.

Now, I know we don’t like to think about it, but it’s obviously true:  Some day, somehow, this building might no longer be here.  Although we are called to care for this structure as best we can, at some point, this could just be an empty lot.  And, hearing me say that, if you thought I knew the future, you would now turn to me, just like the disciples, and say, “Father George, tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”  We want to know when, so we can prepare, right?  If you knew the date when all this would occur, you would be sure to stop by the day before and rescue the photo of the choir that you’ve always liked.  Or at least rescue the cushion from YOUR PEW.

Hearing that something is going to change naturally makes us want to know when it’s going to happen.  And when the disciples hear Jesus suggest that all these buildings will be rubble at some point, they want to know when.  Tells us the day, Jesus.  Give us the signs that we are to look for.  Is it today?  Tomorrow?  Next week?  They almost seem to panic, don’t they?  What do you mean St. Timothy’s won’t be here forever?  What will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?  Whatever will we do?

And you know why they panic?  Why we panic?  Because we often put our faith in structures, and in buildings.  This system we have created will last forever.  This building will always be here to shelter us.  And when we start putting our faith in buildings and structures, well, maybe it’s helpful to have someone say to us, remember: Entropy Rules.  Or when we put our hope and our trust in kingdoms and nations, well, as Jesus says, “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes; there will be famines.”  One hundred years ago this month the War to End All Wars came to an end, and simply paved the road to an even more devastating war.  We will be disappointed if we put our trust in kingdoms, nations, or buildings.

But, as you’ve probably heard said, the Church is not a building; the Church is us.  Sure, we happen to have inherited the most beautiful structure in the state of Ohio, but this building is not the Church.  We are the Church, along with all the others who have ever lived and will ever live.  We do not put our hope in the current things of this world, where Entropy Rules.  But you know where we do put our hope?  We heard the answer in the reading from Hebrews this morning:

“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”  We put our hope in the promises of Jesus Christ.  And we can trust that hope, believe that hope, live that hope, because Jesus who has promised is faithful.  And among the promises of Jesus, we know he has promised to be among us, when two or three are gathered in his name.  And here we are, more than two or three, doing exactly that, in this astonishingly beautiful place.  Which means Jesus is among us this morning.

I still believe the best bumper sticker ever is the one that says, Entropy Rules, though I’m tempted to add, “So Far.”  And that’s because, though things do fall apart, God restores them to fulness.  And though we all do go down to the grave, God promises to raise us up to new life.  May God give us the grace to trust in the hope of these promises, and to live together in unity and peace, until the day that Jesus returns, and makes all things new.


Sunday, November 4, 2018

YEAR B 2018 feast of all saints

Feast of All Saints, 2018
Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9
Psalm 24
Revelation 21:1-6a
John 11:32-44

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints.  We heard a fantastic collection of readings today.  And, to be honest, All Saints Day is one of my favorite celebrations of the Church year, which is why I was willing to risk imposing incense on you this morning.  On All Saints Day we remember the saints who have gone before, and also the saints of today, and also the saints of tomorrow.  All the Saints.  But we’ll get to all that in a moment.  First I want to tell you a story . . .

When I was in high school, I remember a friend telling me I should sign up to take physics.  (Taking physics was optional in those days, which explains how I was able to graduate from high school.)  So my friend Dan told me I should take physics because they were doing all sorts of cool things.  I said, “Yeah, sure, right.  Like what?” 

He told me the class had proven that the molecules of the dying breath of Julius Caesar have spread out everywhere on the earth.  “Which means,” Dan said, “every time you take a breath, you are breathing in a molecule from when Caesar said et tu brute.  Dude.  Isn’t that the coolest thing?”

I had to admit, that was pretty cool.  But then Dan showed me the complicated calculations the class had labored over to reach this conclusion and I decided, sure it was cool, but it wasn’t that cool.  Dude.  So, needless to say, I never took physics.  But I still think about that first concept.  Every single breath contains a molecule from Caesar’s dying breath.  Wow. 

That seems intuitively significant, though I can’t say why, exactly.  I think the science of it works with anybody who lived a long enough time ago, but the name Julius Caesar gets our attention.  He’s famous, after all.  We tend to celebrate celebrities.  That's what makes them celebrities.  Julius Caesar is important because . . . well, because we know his name.  But, really, other than the calendar, has Julius Caesar really impacted your life?  Probably not.  Even though, here we are, breath after breath, sharing some little chunk of his dying breath.  And we don’t even really care about this guy!  The world remembers him, but he means nothing to you and me.

So what about all the people who mean nothing to the world, but who mean the world to you and me?  What about the ones who have made a real difference in our lives? The people who brought you to church?  Or taught you the faith?  What about all the Saints who from their labors rest?  Chances are, you could name one of those people right now.  These are the saints we know.  The ones whose actual living breath we felt on our cheeks.

And each person we name would have had their own names to thank, and the people they name could add someone else who was dear to them, and so on and so on, in a long line that leads us all the way back to the disciples themselves.  You and I are sitting here today because the story of faith has been passed along to us, by the saints who have gone before.  We know some of their names, and others we will never know in this lifetime.

And, of course, it works the other way too.  For the past 180 some years, the kids in this church haven’t driven themselves over here.  Children come to church because someone brings them here.  And during Sunday school, the children learn the stories of our faith because someone takes the time to teach them.  And those children receive communion or a blessing at this Altar because the adults in this parish have made sure some priest was here to do that.  As the Church, we have received the message of Good News, and we pass it along to others.

And what has kept that message going is that people have been willing to do whatever it takes to share the gospel.  We give of ourselves in order to proclaim what God has done for us.  We offer up our time, our talents, and our possessions.  We offer ourselves back to God because we are grateful for what God has done in our lives.  Which is the whole point of the United Thank Offering that we will contribute to this morning.  We respond out of gratitude by giving back to God.  But the really important thing is that God transforms our gifts into something even more amazing.

We offer our time and skills, and God uses them to build up a community of faith.  We offer our money and possessions, and God uses them to further God’s kingdom and keep this message going. We offer mere bread and wine, and God transforms them into the body and blood of Jesus.  We offer our meager selves, and God unites us into the living body of Christ, the hands and feet of Jesus in the world.

This past month,  we have talked about stewardship a lot.  Now I know that the word stewardship strikes fear into the hearts of us all.  But that’s because we tend to think of stewardship as being about money.  But stewardship is actually about offering up to God whatever it is you did to make that money.  And it’s also about a lot of other things.  Like offering our time and talents.  Offering the gifts of service to the church and those around us.  And that means, stewardship is really about keeping the story going, inviting more people into the story of salvation, and giving ourselves back to the One who creates and redeems us.  In other words, stewardship is all about All Saints.  The ones who came before, and the ones yet to be, and us—the ones who are right now busy breathing in those molecules of Julius Caesar’s dying breath.

And, although year after year, physics students talk about Caesar’s dying breath, there is nothing special about that breath or those molecules.  Just another despotic tyrant, killed in a moment of betrayal, dying a dramatic death, according to Shakespeare.  Big deal.  We know his name because we learned it somewhere along the way.  But so what?  You know Caesar’s name, and you’re breathing in scraps of his dying breath.  Great.

The thing nobody bothers to mention when they talk about this physics exercise, and those molecules of Caesar’s breath is this:  Every breath you take also contains a molecule from the dying breath of the cook who made Caesar’s breakfast, and the guy who sold Brutus the knife, and the gravedigger who buried Caesar’s body.  When it all comes down, there’s only so much recycled breath to go around.  A molecule by any other name would still be a molecule . . . as Shakespeare might have said.

But you know what is more interesting?  Every breath you take also contains a molecule of the dying breath of someone with the same initials . . . Jesus Christ.  As Christians, that seems more significant to you and me, sure.  But, still, does that even really matter?  Does it change anything?  I don’t know.  But it naturally leads us to something else:  It must also be true that each breath you take also contains a piece of the first resurrection breath of Jesus Christ.  The first breath of the risen Lord.

Which means every time you take a breath, you are breathing in the resurrection.  The first new breath of the one who has defeated death.  If there’s anything to all these molecules and that significant breath stuff, I’d put my money on the first breath of the resurrection.  Caesar’s dying breath changed nothing, really.  But the rising breath of Jesus?  Oh, that changes everything.  Nothing is the same when God’s breath of redemption fills the world.

We breathe in and we breathe out, just as people have always done.  And we gather around this Altar, just as Christians have always done.  And we celebrate here with the saints of every time and every place, the wonder and majesty of what God has done and continues to do in this world.  And, perhaps, someone somewhere will speak our name, because we gave of ourselves to make sure this story continues, forever and ever.

The rising breath of Jesus changes everything, whether or not anyone ever talks about it in a high-school physics lab.  Yes, we breathe in the dying breath of Jesus.  And we also breathe in the rising breath of Jesus.  In baptism we are united with him in his death.  And we are also united with him in a resurrection like his.  And around this Altar, we are united with the saints of every time and every place:  the ones whose names we know, as well as the ones whose names we do not know.  All of us celebrating the story of God’s Good News, which will never leave us nor forsake us, for as long as we draw breath, and even after we have drawn our last breath. 

The breath of God’s resurrection continues well beyond the grave, and this is what gives us the strength and hope to carry on, until each one of us joins the Saints who from their labors rest.  And until that day, we all continue to breathe in that resurrection breath of Jesus Christ, to whom we give honor and glory, forever and ever.


Monday, October 22, 2018

Elizabeth McLain Humes

Elizabeth McLain Humes
October 22, 2018
Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 23
Revelation 21:2-7
John 14:1-6

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Unlike nearly everyone in this room, I did not know Betsy Humes.  I’m sure you all have lots of stories and memories to share, and I hope you have already been doing that, and will continue to do so in the months and years ahead.  And thank you to Billy for the stories he shared with us this morning.

It’s never easy to lose someone we love.  A mother, a grandmother, a great grandmother.  Someone who has been there our entire lives is no longer with us.  No longer seen or heard from.  And the emptiness can be overwhelming.  Someone who was in our lives forever is no longer here, which makes everything seem fleeting.  But that is not true.  Not for God, and not for those who live their lives as part of the Church of God on earth.  Because there is continuity in the changelessness of God.

I know that Elizabeth and William were married at this very Altar by the Rector who was here four priests before I arrived.  I’ve seen the pictures!  That’s a long time ago, and much has happened in our lives and in the world since that time.   So long ago, in fact, that no one batted an eye as Bill lit up a cigarette on the front steps out there.  From our perspective, that wedding was ages ago.  But from God’s perspective, it just happened, and the reception is still going full swing.  And the difference between our sense of time and God’s perspective can really help sometimes.

And here is what I mean by that:  There are things that we are waiting for which are already accomplished for God.  As we heard from the prophet Isaiah, “God will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.”  And as we heard from the Revelation to St. John, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”  And because Jesus is the beginning and the end, everything that happens to us happens within the arms of Jesus.

You and I are still waiting for the day when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and will swallow up death forever.  But for Betsy, that day has already come.  She is safely within the arms of God, which is where she has always been.  Because in Betsy’s baptism, she was claimed as God’s own forever.  And nothing can ever take that away from her.  Betsy is with God, and God is with you.  And one day, you will be together again.


Sunday, October 21, 2018

YEAR B 2018 pentecost 22

Pentecost 22, 2018
Isaiah 53:4-12
Psalm 91:9-16
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

There’s a difference between echoes and facts.  Hints and truths.  Theories and reality.  We humans love a good conspiracy theory.  And that’s because we want to force connections and order onto the world around us . . . whether or not they’re really there.  When we see things that suggest a connection, we impose a few extra connections in order to make it work.  Then, when someone questions us, we can say, “Prove I’m wrong.”  Which of course, they can’t.

There’s just enough evidence for the grassy knoll, or the fake moon landing, or pizza gate, or Vince Foster, or Seth Rich . . . just enough of a tenuous connection that, for some people, the urge to make that connection solid is just too tempting.  We hear things like, “It all makes sense; just look at the facts.”  And without any facts strong enough to disprove the conspiracy, well, it must be true.  It is our nature to make connections between things, no matter what.

There’s a little bit of that going on in the collection of readings we heard today.  When we take them all together, sitting here in this Christian worship service, it sounds like they’re all about Jesus, because we want them all to be about Jesus.  Take the reading from Isaiah, for instance.  This is from the section of Isaiah that is often called the “Suffering Servant” section of the book.  The lamb led to the slaughter, the righteous servant who will make many righteous, poured himself out into death, made the intercession for our transgression.  It all sounds a lot like Jesus.  But as Christians, we must be mindful to see when we’re appropriating the Hebrew scriptures as prophecy for our own Messiah.

It is important to remember that the first two thirds of our Bible belong to our Jewish brothers and sisters first, and we are in a sense “borrowing” them.  Yes, the Suffering Servant sounds a lot like Jesus, but that might be because we want it to sound a lot like Jesus.  Or maybe not.  But there is a Jewish understanding that this text refers to the Nation of Israel, and tells of all they would endure over the centuries.  Again, as Christians, we want this to be only about Jesus, and so that’s what we do with it.

And then there’s the Psalm we read together.  The angels will bear you up, lest you dash your foot.  You will trample the lion and the adder.  You are bound to me in love and I will deliver you.  A Christian reading of this text wants it to be about Jesus, but is it?  There are certainly echoes of Jesus Christ in both these readings, but if we’re honest, we kind of impose our beliefs onto the text because . . . well, the connections to Jesus are known to us.  And yet, the connections to Jesus are completely mysterious to us.

And then there’s Melchizedek.  Did you wonder to yourself when you heard the name, “Who the heck is Melchizedek?”  Of course you did.  And you probably thought, “Let’s see . . . I learned about Noah and Abraham and Daniel and Esther and Solomon and Rachel and Goliath . . . but am I supposed to know who Melchizedek is?  Maybe I missed Sunday school that week?”  The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews certainly sets it up like we’re supposed to just know who that guy is and go, “Oh yeah.  Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek.”

I’m gonna let you off the hook here by telling you that Melchizedek comes up just once, in the book of Genesis.  And it’s not something you’d remember.  Abram takes a few hundred guys out to rescue Lot who has been captured by the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah, and when he returns,  “Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God.”  That’s it.  Then there’s also a mention of him in Psalm 110, a Psalm of David, that says, “Thou art a priest for ever after the manner of Melchizedek.”  Which is where the mention in today’s Epistle comes from.  The connections to Jesus are known to us.  And the connections to Jesus are completely mysterious to us.

So, you’re wondering, “What’s the connection here?”  Lots of people have wondered the same thing.  And, to be honest, I’m not sure there really is a connection.  We can get lots of echoes and hints, with bringing out the bread and wine, and being a priest, and so on.  But it’s not like Melchizedek is a priest like the Levites who came after him were.  I mean, he’s a priest for a totally different god.  There’s a thin thread that connects all these things, but, really . . . you kind of have to want it all to be connected in order for the connection to hold.

So, that was all just clearing my throat, really.  So, ahem.  Shall we turn to today’s Gospel?  As we just heard, James and John come to Jesus on the sly in order to move on up when Jesus comes into his glory.  But let me back up.

Right before today’s Gospel reading, there’s a little scene that gets skipped between last week and this week.  Jesus gathers the disciples around him and says to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”  This is the third time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus tries to tell the disciples what is going to happen, and it is the third time that the disciples have an utterly inappropriate reaction.

The first time he tells them, Peter says “God forbid this should happen!”  And the second time he tells them, they start arguing about who is the greatest.  And now the third time he tells them, James and John ask if they can sit at his right and at his left.  In these three cases, instead of trying to make this into something about Jesus—like the other readings we heard today—the disciples are trying to make Jesus into something he is not.  Rather than transform the text, they want to transform Jesus.  To make him into a ruling king rather than a servant who is about to be crucified.

So, James and John have pulled Jesus aside to tell him that they would like to do what Jesus will do, which is reign in glory over all creation for eternity.  Jesus is known to them.  And Jesus is completely mysterious to them. And Jesus looks at them and says, "You do not know what you are asking.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" And they reply, “We are able."  (Their response always makes me think of Pippin and Merry, the Hobbits from Lord of the Rings.)  So, right, they stand up smiling and tall and say, “We are able.”  And we kind of expect Jesus to say, “No you’re not, you goofballs!”  But he doesn’t say that.

Instead, Jesus says, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”

We expect Jesus to say “Who do you two think you are?”  But that is not what Jesus is saying.  That is what the other disciples are saying.  You’ll note the other disciples become angry with James and John because they were the first ones to yell “Shotgun!” before they thought of saying it.  James and John stepped to the front of the line when nobody was looking, and the other disciples are mad at them for it.  And so then Jesus has to call the whole team together to try to set things straight.

James and John come to Jesus wanting to change Jesus.  And they approach him in secret to try to elevate themselves to where they want Jesus to be heading.  But in doing so, they miss the whole point of Jesus’ mission.  They don’t understand where his path leads.  They don’t get that you have to go through Good Friday in order to get to Easter morning.  James and John want to reign alongside Jesus, but they are completely in the dark about what Jesus is going to do, even though he has told them three times.  They do not know what they are asking, and Jesus tells them so.

And then Jesus says, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”  And if we didn’t know better, we’d swear this means James and John are going to be crucified in place of the two criminals next to Jesus when the day comes.  But let’s take off our human intuition goggles for a moment and replace them with our sacramental ones this morning.

If you look on page 292 of the Book of Common Prayer, you’ll see the place in the Easter Vigil where we come to The Renewal of Baptismal Vows.  And if you look at the paragraph that precedes the Renewal, you will read these words:
Through the Pascal mystery, dear friends, we are buried with Christ by Baptism into his death, and raised with him to newness of life.

Jesus tells James and John, “with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”  They are baptized into his death, just as you and I have been baptized into his death.  And together we have been raised to newness of life.  All of us.  But what about the cup?  Jesus says, “The cup that I drink you will drink.”  Have we done that?  Have you and I drunk that cup yet?

Well, the truth is, we’re still drinking it.  Sip by sip, week by week, at this Altar you receive the Blood of Christ and the cup of salvation.  And over the course of your years—however long they may be—the bread from this Altar  and the sips from that cup will sustain you, and carry the promise of forgiveness, and the hope of everlasting life.

The connections to Jesus are known to us.  And the connections to Jesus are completely mysterious to us.  He is the one who offers himself as a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.   And you and I follow where he leads us, from baptism to the grave, to the resurrection.  And we are assured along the way of forgiveness and reconciliation through the power of his body and blood.  There are great mysteries and echoes and truths and connections in all these readings today.

The connections to Jesus are known to us.  And the connections to Jesus are completely mysterious to us. But the thing for us to remember is that we are called to follow the one who has already led the way, being baptized into his death, and being raised to newness of life, and being sustained through the paschal mystery of this holy meal.  That is what we know for certain.