“Not only with our lips, but in our lives.”
Today is the third in our series of sermons on Anglican essentials. You'll remember that we began by talking about being a Christian, then about choosing the Episcopal community as the one which will support you in your commitment to follow Christ. This sermon will talk about putting those choices into practice.
The poet and essayist Kathleen Norris has written, "I firmly believe that the way we bathe a child or discuss family matters at the dinner table reveals who our God is." Not only does that reveal who someone’s God is, it reveals it more honestly than what we might say when asked to name our religious affiliation. In fact, in 2018 the pollsters over at the Pew Research Center created a whole new typology for classifying Americans spiritually, because the name of the religion we verbally claim to belong to is now almost worthless as an indication of what we actually believe and do.
“The way we bathe a child or discuss family matters at the dinner table reveals who our God is." Those are the kind of things that show and shape where our pragmatic daily worship is directed. The word worship means ascribing ultimate worth to – prioritizing above everything else. So the easiest way to figure out who or what you have actually been worshiping, actually treating as most important, is to look at your schedule, your habits, your spending, and your preoccupations, day by day. There’s no shame in realizing that what you verbally claim as your religious faith hasn’t been coming first in your habits and behavior – this is exactly why we pray in the BCP that we “show forth God’s praise not only with our lips, but in our lives.” To be able to put God first, we need to ask help from God.
We talked last week about what it means to be a Christian, to let Jesus adopt you, acquit you, and apprentice you. And I mentioned that this is one of the bedrock choices of your life, which sets the course for how you will end up approaching any number of things. So whether or not you allow Jesus to adopt and acquit and apprentice you is an important decision. However, as we continue with the second week of this four week sermon series, and talk about being an Episcopal Christian, we'll see that it's also a generic choice, a choice that always ends up taking on some further shape, depending on the community you enter to flesh out your commitment to Christ.
The Anglican writer C.S. Lewis has a great image of this. He says that becoming a Christian is like stepping into a hallway, out of which doors open onto several rooms. The choice to be a Christian is like coming inside and standing in that long hallway, but it's only a place from which to open the various doors and see which one seems the best fit for you. You can't just stay there; nobody lives in a hallway. If you want food and company and chairs to sit down on, you need to move into one of the rooms.
So as important as it is to know whether or not you have gotten into the hallway, what we’ll talk about today in sermon #2 is simply what’s behind the Episcopal or Anglican door. All the rooms have their own style, so one of the ways I'll approach this is to contrast a few things you'll find in this room with things you'd find in a different one. By doing that I am not in any way criticizing people who feel called to a different room. I know I am called to this one, and in the way anyone who really loves something would say this, well, I just think it's the best. But we need to have an attitude of appreciation for our brothers and sisters whom God has called to do things differently, while also being, as Paul says, "thoroughly convinced in our own minds."
For the next month we’re going to focus in our sermons on spiritual basics, the kind of bedrock stuff where the actual energy for Christian living comes from. We did this three years ago as well, and like then, we’ll be having both this four part sermon series,and an instructed Eucharist. Today’s topic is being a Christian, and the next two are going to cover being an Episcopal Christian, being a practicing Episcopal Christian, and then finally being a practicing Episcopal Christian here at Emmanuel.
Now these are not, of course, four options to pick and choose among. They’re a chain of developments. Being a Christian comes first, taking on the central identity God gives us... being an Episcopal Christian is choosing a community in which to live out that central identity...... practicing it is inviting God to shape your way of life to reflect your commitment… and doing it at Emmanuel is choosing which local group of Christians will support you and challenge you.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus goes back to the synagogue where he grew up, and they invite him to be the one who reads and expounds the Bible. There’s some dispute about whether Jesus chose what he read, or whether it was simply the lectionary for that week. (Not to be too technical, but while we know there were Jewish lectionaries, dating them is very tricky.) So maybe he chose this passage or maybe it was assigned. But at any rate, Jesus opens the scroll to Isaiah 61, and he reads as follows:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
There must have been something about the way he read it, because Luke tells us that the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. It was one of those moments where you just know that something extraordinary is happening. And the very first line of Jesus’ sermon, as a colleague of mine commented this week, is the ultimate mic-drop: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
An epiphany is a revelation, a light bulb going off. And revelations are transformative. By their very design, revelations refuse to leave you in the same place, doing the same stuff, thinking the same things. Otherwise, they would just be reminders. And revelations are not reminders. A revelation, an epiphany, has no precedent in what you had once accepted as normal. Indeed, they come to challenge and disrupt precisely what you accept as normal. Epiphanies make you rush back to your schedule, your agenda, your relationships, your life story itself because you must have missed something. Surely there has been some mistake. A revelation reconfigures the coordinates, redraws the map, scrambles the data. And you can only proceed according to the terms that it establishes for you. It transforms you into a witness, maybe not the most reliable one at times, but a witness nonetheless.
This need not be all spiritual and religious, so let’s bring it down to earth. There are any number of epiphanies like this that we can think of. September 11th. The assassination of JFK. Tragedies unfortunately can come to mind the quickest. But any event that no matter how many years have passed you can still remember exactly where you were and what you were doing counts as an epiphany. Because to remember exactly where you were and what you were doing is to be a witness. Those events transformed you.
King Herod spent part of the decades before Jesus was born supervising a construction project. Unlike us, he wasn’t putting a slate roof on or getting structural repairs made to an existing property – no, he was building a magnificent fortress retreat south of Jerusalem. Herod’s administration was known for huge building campaigns, actually, but this one beat them all. For starters, he installed a man-made mountain; he then followed it with a 7-story palace, a complete Roman bath, a massive penthouse guest suite, an outdoor theatre, and a swimming pool large enough for small-craft sailing.
Herod named the complex after himself – Herodium – and gave instructions that he was to be buried there. Which he eventually was, after a thirty-day funeral procession with a solid gold bier. Archeologists have been excavating the site, and they found King Herod’s sarcophagus in 2007. It’s pink.
Welcome to the 6th day of Christmas!
In my opinion one of the great blessings of the Episcopal Church is to celebrate all 12 days of this wonderful season. This gives us a chance to settle into the significance of the holiday. The pomp and circumstance is mostly over and with that the anxiety that is often partner to the pageantry. We have experienced beautiful poetry, beautiful music, beautiful flowers and beautiful colors. It has been a feast to delight all our senses. And now, we have these days of more relative peace and quiet to reflect on what meaning Jesus’ birth celebration has for us this year. A part of our reflection includes experiencing the familiar carols and biblical stories that tell of Jesus’ birth. And a part of our reflection includes remembering past Christmases and the joys and challenges they held. We each have our favorite ways to keep the season and so, our Christmas 2018 is blended with those memories of the past.
One of my best memories of Christmas is reading this morning’s gospel. It is probably my all-time favorite passage from the Bible and I am always grateful to be able to read it on this first Sunday of Christmas each year. On Christmas Eve, we heard Luke’s account with the animals and angels and today we hear from John. These verses, the prologue of John’s gospel, are poetry that is meant to be voiced aloud. What this poetry tells us is the essence of the story of Christmas. And in fact, I believe that this short passage contains the message of the entire New Testament. So, bear with me for a few minutes as I talk about it. If you prefer on this sixth day of Christmas to let your mind wander to your favorite memories of this season, go right ahead!
This passage begins by talking about the word of God. Words are a major way of communication. We are surrounded by words, both the written and spoken. There are books, newspapers, magazines, blogs, texts, tweets and all other sorts of electronic communication. Words are important and seem to be everywhere, at least in my world. In fact we all are surrounded by words in this day and time. We spend much of our time each day speaking and listening, reading and writing words. Words entertain us, teach us, and most importantly connect us to others in our world. We seek to make these connections and to develop our relationships with others primarily through communicating in words.
As a young girl my love of words and more specifically, reading them, was fostered most especially by my paternal grandmother, my granny. Granny read to me continually as a young child and for each gift occasion I would receive a book from her in addition to whatever else she might give. I learned from an early age the joy of words.
However, from my granny I also learned another way of communicating, without words. As a young child this was through hugs and special hand squeezes. When I was 12, my granny had a stroke that left her partially paralyzed and unable to speak for the rest of her life—for 18 more years. She had one spoken word and that word was No. Now that one word could mean a variety of things. If she said it loudly it meant no. However if she said it softly it meant yes. Her one word was “no” but her ability to communicate was much more. She spoke with her eyes, her hands, with her smiles and tears. Our connection was strong and remained so. Most often our communication was at a deep level without using any words.
I tell you this as a background to one of my own personal Christmas memories. For our oldest child’s first Christmas I took him to visit his great granny. He was almost one year old at the time.
She loved to see him and would play peek-a-boo while I held him. This time though she wanted to hold him herself and kept indicating to me to leave him to her. And so I did. I handed him over and began to do something else nearby. When I looked back at the two of them they were laughing together. The first letter of her one word “no” had transformed on that occasion to an “h” and she was saying Ho Ho HO as she hugged him tightly to wish him love and a merry first Christmas.
There is a communication of love that comes through with or without words and this communication of love is what this morning’s powerful gospel is about.
In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.
Before the existence of anything but God, God is already love. God is relationship. God’s very nature is giving and receiving, love that flows out and love that returns. God has been trying to communicate this truth with humans ever since we were created. God’s word came to us first through his prophets and his law. Yet we did not understand the message he was sending us. We either ignored or did not comprehend the words he gave to us through his messengers. And so God chose to send his message of love to us in a different way. He gets our attention by sending his Son. He sent his son not to bring the message but as the message himself. The message of God’s love comes to us as a living and breathing human being. A human who could smile and cry, who could touch and comfort, who could be physically present.
God wants to share himself with us. God wants us to experience and live the love that he is. So the birth of Jesus, the incarnation, is the climax of God’s continuous communication of love.
“The word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” Those nine words summarize the gospel.
If you were here on Christmas Eve you heard this gospel read by the celebrant and at this sentence the altar party genuflected. We went down on one knee to acknowledge the depth of meaning in this one sentence. Our Lord took on flesh and blood and came to us bringing in his being the love of God. The word was made flesh and dwelt among us. This is the essence of the good news, the entire gospel. And it is that God came among us, not only to be one of us but also to be one with us.
Through this ultimate expression of God’s word in human flesh, we are drawn into dialogue with God both receiving and responding to his love. God’s very being is relational love. And the love that he pours out into the world is to bring us into that relationship of love. This is the core of the incarnation.
Now admittedly this mystery of God coming to us might be more than a bit frightening or overwhelming or difficult to comprehend. So let’s think for a moment about how God came to us. Was it with a lot of fanfare and flashing lightening or loud thunder?
No, it was not. God entered into the world in the same way as all human beings. God came as a baby, a vulnerable baby who, as all babies do, needed care and tending. Jesus needed to be fed and changed and washed and nurtured as do all babies. God’s most important message of love came to us as a tiny child. Each of us has some understanding of holding and smiling and making sounds and keeping a young one comfortable to allow the love and the child to grow. And this is how God chose to send us his word. Think of my Granny and her wat if communicating with her great grandson. We can do this. We can recognize the life God offers to each one of us. We can approach God’s love in a gentle way and allow it to grow in us. We are invited into relationship with God through the incarnation.
John also tells us in the passage this morning that God does not force a response from us to his gift of ultimate Love. We have to choose. We can turn away from this great gift, from this light. We can choose darkness, darkness that represents evil and hopelessness and ultimately spiritual death. We can choose that or we can accept the gift that God sends us and live in His love as one of his children. It is given to us and it is for each of us to decide to accept or not.
God’s unchanging nature is love. God desires us, you and me and all of his creation to be part of His love. He beckons us; he invites us to enter into conversation with him, to enter into his love. My prayer for each of us in the year ahead is that we continue to accept and nurture God’s gift of loving relationship with him.
“In the beginning was the word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us. And we have seen his glory the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
What for you is the message of Christmas? We certainly hear a lot of messages this time of year. I was on YouTube a few days ago looking at some recent Christmas commercials, and many of them have messages and slogans designed for the season. Some are pretty much what you’d expect: The auto manufacturer Honda targets the Generation X market with an ad suggesting that if as a child, unwrapping a plastic Six Million Dollar Man action figure on Christmas morning made you feel good, you’ll feel way better now if you buy yourself a $30,000 car. In a spot set aboard the International Space Station, Macy’s tells us to Believe in the Wonder of Giving. Apple hits a similar tone with a Pixar-inspired story that urges us: Share Your Gifts.
Amazon shows us an ever-growing army of sentient Prime packages spreading all over the world, singing over and over “Can you feel it? Can you feel it?” The main thing I feel there is a little threatened by the reach of the Amazon Industrial Complex. If you saw the satirical version of the ad that replaced the holiday soundtrack with the ominous theme to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, maybe you do too. Can you feel it?
“It was a real wake-up call.” In my years as a priest, countless people have spoken that sentence to me. Sometimes it was in reference to a personal health scare, or the unexpected death of a loved one. In 2008 it was people watching their retirement accounts tumble during the financial crisis; in 2001 it was the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Whatever it was, it made people see things differently – they started to read the Bible, or began exercising regularly, or started learning how to pray, or called their friends more frequently – and they all referred to it the same way: a real wake-up call.
The prophet Malachi, whose words from the very end of the Old Testament we read this morning, is an example of a person who is living after a real wake-up call. Broadly speaking, the whole spiritual history of the people Israel falls into two parts, before everything fell apart and after everything fell apart. The crisis came in 587 BC, when the country they had thought God gave them forever was conquered and plundered by an army from Babylon. The Temple they had seen as a permanent guarantee of God’s approval was razed to the ground, the routines and values they had taken as God’s eternal instructions were robbed from them, and they were carted away as prisoners, leaving the ruins of their beloved holy city to be re-colonized by foreigners.
Last Easter Sunday, NBC aired a staged concert version of the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.” It was broadcast live, and while John Legend wasn’t really up to the role of Jesus in my opinion, Brandon Victor Dixon was an amazing Judas. And you need a great Judas for “Jesus Christ Superstar,” since that musical is essentially told through the eyes of Judas -- although it depicts very memorably the encounter between Jesus and Pilate that’s recorded in the Gospel of John, and from which our Gospel reading today, as we observe Christ the King, comes.
The story of Jesus’ passion as written by the apostle John is an astonishing piece of literature, and so important that we hear it every Good Friday in full: two whole chapters of Scripture! And this encounter is a key part of the conflict. In this corner, Pilate, the Governor of Judea, the political appointee from south of Rome, lording it over a bunch of hick towns, representing the kingdom of this world. And in that one, Jesus, an ethnic minority, beaten bloody and under arrest, but nevertheless God incarnate, representing the kingdom of God. It’s no wonder Andrew Lloyd Webber’s presentation of this epic face-off in "Jesus Christ Superstar” is so memorable, as of course are those of other artistic presenters of John’s passion text like J.S. Bach.
We only get a small section of the confrontation today, but even these five verses show us worldly power – its delusions, its hypocrisy, its pathetic limitations, both in the person of a Gentile, Pilate, and by implication of the Jewish leaders who have handed Jesus over to him. And they make a deep contrast between that worldly power, and the effortlessly true power of Jesus the real king, to whom all authority and heaven on earth has been given, who came to testify to the truth, meeting us in the face of a man condemned to die.