One of the key themes of the Old Testament is exile and return. In the 6th century BC, Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and large groups of Israelites were deported to Babylon. They lived there in a foreign country and settled down and had kids and got jobs in that new culture, and this went on for 70 years. It was a time when two things happened: large numbers of believers acclimated to the prevailing culture and let the practice of their faith slide, but then others consolidated their faith, compiled its scriptures, took it far more seriously, and found new ways to stay faithful.
In today’s first reading from Nehemiah, we are in the time when the exiles began coming home from Babylon and finding everything changed. This book (and the book of Ezra which is right next to it) talk about the return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the city’s infrastructure. We see today a large gathering there, a sort of renewal ceremony. “All the people of Israel gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses.”
So that renewal, you’ll notice, is based on Scripture, called the Word or the Law. It is not enough that people are physically back. It is not enough that building projects have been successfully completed. It’s not enough that some of the work routines of the Temple and the city have resumed on a smaller scale, or that there is money built up now in case something breaks or an accident happens. That was all important work. But what we see here is a commitment that is far more important. We see the people renewing their covenant with God based on his Word. It says that Ezra “read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday… and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.”
If you fidgeted a little during the 10 minute blessing of the solar panels outdoors last week, imagine standing around while Scripture was read for maybe 6 hours. And imagine being so gripped by hearing it, so deeply moved, that it made you cry. We heard Nehemiah tell them: "This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep. For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.”
We aren’t reading the rest of Nehemiah today, but after this extended reconnection with the sacred text that gives them their identity, they move on into practicing that identity. In their liturgical year it is the feast of Booths, so they get out all the stuff and observe those ancient ceremonies again together. They confess their sins, the reason they were exiled in the first place, and then they renew the covenant with God, all of them.
There are some places where the Bible gives the impression of a kind of unified exile experience – everyone left, then everyone came back – but actually we know that it was more complicated. While this very ceremony was going on, some exiles were also still in Babylon and didn’t much want to go back to being active Jews in their homeland. People had come back because they liked Jerusalem, but we see quickly as the story continues that they weren’t planning on actually practicing their faith.
In so many ways this is our own situation – we were away from our space, some have come back, some have used this time as a way of recognizing how our culture also exiles us from the truths Christianity proclaims, others have decided that assimilation to the culture is what they prefer and stepped back their involvement with Christ. We are still in exile and back from exile at the same time. Like the people in today’s OT reading, we have some structures of an active community of faith up and running, but with a different group of people and a new context in which to minister.
Our last Annual Meeting was on Zoom. In between, over the summer, our vestry and some other leaders took a long look at what we needed to consolidate and renew in order to be able to relaunch more effectively. We studied both what has happened in churches and society because of Covid, and also the longer term changes in assumptions and ways of life in the USA that have made organized spiritual practice, and organized Christian spiritual practice in particular, so very implausible. We asked why churches failed so thoroughly to make practicing Christians out of an entire generation of people, and we realized that we just can’t assume that the Christian foundations that used to be common are still there. They aren’t. We have to lay them.
Our shorthand for all this in the long run was that we don’t have the luxury anymore of putting money and time and energy into things that don’t help people commit to Christian truth, acquire Christian tools, or commit to Christian belonging. Our situation is too urgent for that. Like the Israelites, in aggregate we are a people back from exile, still in exile, and both more and less committed than ever, all at the same time. And the future of this people is in your hands.
I would have hoped we’d have the volunteer infrastructure and lay ministry capacity in place to be back to two Sunday services by, I don’t know, maybe last September? But it was a struggle even to fill the lay ministry openings on Christmas Eve! Projects we would have finished over a year ago, like deploying our rectory, were more or less dissolved by Covid and have struggled to restart. I think one of the healthiest things I’ve done in this difficult time (and it took me several months to do it, I admit) is to just accept that we can only do what we can do with the actual people and actual energy we have, and that giving ourselves grace about that is really important.
I am in my 8th year here, which is a long tenure these days, and I’m coming up on 28 years ordained, and I’ve never seen anything like this – but I don’t think any of us have. I’ve done a lot of parish revitalization over the years, but almost no rebuilding from scratch! It’s daunting, to think about all of us laying foundations and doing the work that lies ahead. But there is also, let me say, a lot to be happy about.
I’m glad that we have a small group of our lay leaders going through the Revive program from Forward Movement together – one of the things our vestry groups realized over the summer was that developing more invested and empowered lay spiritual leaders at Emmanuel is crucial. I’m glad that we have a lay team working on creating Christian formation that includes our whole church community across the generations rather than only addressing some age-based slots. Many of you experienced their work at Saints Gonna Saint and during Advent. And I’m glad that we have another lay team working on involving a wider group of people in presenting and maintaining the liturgical environment of this space, a sacred ministry that is such a key part of how Episcopalians encounter God.
If we are going make more practicing and proficient Christians, we have to take care of the resources God has given us, and in that area I’m glad about several things too. Our finances, as you’ll hear, are the best they’ve been in several years. Giving is up, and fulfillment of pledges is up. The year I arrived at Emmanuel your total giving for the year was about $350,000, and in 2021 it was about $425,000. I think you can feel good about the steps you’ve taken in generosity, as well as the transition we made a few years back to using our endowment more responsibly and sustainably.
We’ve also accomplished an astonishing amount of physical plant work so far in my time here, from the new signage to a couple boiler replacements to the sound system to substantial work on the organ to the long list of projects that will be in our Junior Warden’s report today. As they say, that’s not nothin'. If we cannot both fund what God is calling us to do and keep our sacred space in good shape, our work for the Gospel is undercut. But as we come out of this pandemic and look around at where we really are, the question we need to ask over and over – you need to ask, really – is about discipleship. Christian truth, Christian tools, and Christian belonging.
How are we doing at communicating Christian truth and making it plausible in a society that is either baffled or offended by basic Christian ideas like servanthood, forgiveness, and the common good? How are we doing at Christian truth?
How are we doing at equipping each other with Christian tools that we can deploy when life gets overwhelming, or when we discover the first thing we’ve done for the past 24 mornings is to look at our phones? Christian tools that give us the presence to respond unlike our society wants us to when we are faced with a racist or sexist or homophobic action, or when we need the strength to make a moral choice? How are we doing at Christian tools?
How are we doing at Christian belonging? Not just belonging. Christian belonging. How are we doing at making the bonds of the body of Christ stronger than bonds of family, of economic class, of generation, of race? How immediately do we resist the temptation to gather in these walls, only with people we would gather with outside them, to surround ourselves only with people who think and act and purchase like we do? How are we doing at Christian belonging?
Christian truth, Christian tools, and Christian belonging are the foundations that we have to lay now, if we want our exile to end and our faith to be renewed. May God give us the courage, insight, and generosity to lay them together. Amen.
My favorite New Year’s tweet this year was posted by an Episcopal priest I follow: “20 years ago,” he said, “I made a New Year’s resolution that I have kept ever since. And it was – No more resolutions!”
If you have taken a shot at the annual “New Year, New You” project yourself, you know that there is a wisdom to that. But by and large, the market for campaigns of self-improvement via willpower is endless, and not just at New Year’s. Drink a superfood smoothie every morning. Purchase a subscription to these new workout videos which somehow are going to be completely different than all the other workout videos. Track your screen time, and your steps, and your calories, and your sleep so you can get rated day by day as to what progress you’re making.
Even home decorating stores will sell you art based on rules for you to keep. I took a picture of one in a store not too long ago: a framed gold and white image that said Work Hard and Be Nice to People. Since whether you’re truly doing enough of either of those isn’t measurable, it’s just a constant invitation to guilt and low-self esteem. Hang it on your wall!
There are some folks who see the whole Christian enterprise like that. Who see it as one of several possible ways to change yourself for the better (if you’re thinking individually), or one of several possible ways to change society for the better (if you’re thinking politically). And since we never manage to do those things, then it looks like an invitation to guilt and low self-esteem. And it might be that, if we only had, in the terms of today’s Gospel, say, John the Baptist and his baptism to turn to. But we have something else.
We see John today down by the Jordan, as we saw him in Advent. He has been preaching about changing your life, turning around, doing something different. Our reading from Luke this morning didn’t include everything we read in Advent, but it’s from the same chapter. You may remember that along with what he says today, John was giving instructions to those who had flocked to him for baptism at the Jordan river, telling them what they needed to do. Share your food with those who are hungry, he said. Be ethical in your business practices. Be happy with what you already have rather than seeking more. Work hard and be nice to people (well he didn’t actually say that last one.)
And people flocked to that message. We all naturally flock to that message, because we all naturally want to believe John. We want to believe we could redeem ourselves and be what we dream of being, if we just tried hard enough. We want to believe we don’t need help. And so even when John castigates his hearers for not measuring up, calling them a brood of vipers, they don’t reject him then either, any more than we reject our app when it tells us we didn’t take enough steps or drink enough water today. Yes, we failed. We know it’s true.
But see, the thing is that John doesn’t stop there. He doesn’t stop at telling us his message, that we ought to do better and reform ourselves. We all already knew that. That’s not news. What John does in the long run is to point to a new message, to something other than himself, other than his own efforts or ours.
He makes a striking contrast -- "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.” The gap between the one who is coming, whom we know to be Jesus, and the Baptism he will administer, and John and the Baptism he will administer is an immense gap. They’re physically cousins, but spiritually they are in two different eras, two different realities.
Interestingly, Jesus later makes a very similar contrast. He says, "Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the least person in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” The least person in the kingdom of God is greater than John the Baptist. Eddie is about to enter the kingdom of God via the baptism of Jesus, and when he does he will be greater than John the Baptist. John is the end of an era. He’s the hinge between the old way, the old covenant, and the new way, the new kingdom, the new covenant.
On one side of that hinge, as we saw, the crowds were coming to John. They want to be better. They want to change. And they think: Maybe this time it'll work. John tried to tell them "This isn't it. Don't pin your hopes on this. There’s something totally different coming right after me." And just as by Jan 9th most people’s New Year’s resolutions have probably petered out, a week or two weeks after John’s Baptism, most people who went to the Jordan were probably again left dry. They’d been washed externally, on the outside. They were washed as a sign of their own repentance, their own effort to change. That’s how things were on John’s side of the hinge.
On the other side of the hinge, we have the last couple sentences of today’s Gospel in which the experience of Jesus serves as a picture of the baptism into which he invites us. The Baptism into which he invites Eddie this morning. What will Eddie be baptized into? What are we baptized into? We're baptized into Jesus. Immersed into him, which means to be immersed into God’s life, God’s very being. How is this Baptism Jesus offers us different from what happened in John’s Baptism, on the other side of the hinge? Well, in several ways.
First off, this Baptism is something God does, not us. In the language of our Gospel, every time a new Christian goes to the font, the heavens are opened, and the Spirit descends. From God’s point of view, whatever it looks like to us, in the Sacrament of Baptism the person is changed forever supernaturally. We can never make that change happen; only God can.
Second, unlike in our various self-improvement efforts, in Baptism a new identity is spoken over us that is immediate, and not earned. We do not have to do anything, in fact we can’t do anything, to achieve this identity; it is given, as a free gift, at the font. What God the Father says to Jesus in today’s Gospel is what he says to us once we are baptized into Jesus: You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter. This is what you are.
Finding and expressing your true identity is such a big theme in American culture these days, and people work so hard to get it right. But identity is an elusive goal when you’re depending on yourself. How do you know you’ve gotten there? How do you ensure you stay true to yourself? But in Baptism you get a rock-solid forever identity that you don’t have to curate and you don’t have to earn: I am a relative of Jesus, a child of God, I am marked as Christ’s own forever.
So first, God does it. Second, it gives us a new unearned identity. And third, it happens on the inside. In John’s Baptism he baptized just with water, which washes on the outside but cannot change a person’s being. In Jesus’ baptism, there’s still water involved, but it is sanctified so that it carries the in-person action of God. When God bestows the Spirit and gives us our new identity in Christ, that happens not externally but on the inside. It touches the deepest levels of our being. Down below the roots of the personality, below our experiences or beliefs or goals. And that presence of God dwelling there then (unless we refuse it) goes to work on us from the inside out, not the outside in. In Christianity, change grows outward from the deep identity God has given us; it doesn’t come from something we try to push into ourselves from the outside.
There's no resolution in there, no program, no willpower, nothing we can earn. It’s simply a gift to be received. A love to be allowed. A presence to be consented to. But the ironic secret is that this gift of baptism into Jesus Christ, this holy unshakeable identity, if we will receive it, actually offers much greater potential for change than any of our self-improvement projects.
Even if you were baptized 50 years ago and have been ignoring God’s gift all this time -- even if you haven’t fed it with Holy Communion, even if you haven’t nourished it with God’s Word, even if you didn’t know you could say yes to it – no matter how long you’ve let it lie fallow, that gift of a true identity in Jesus is still there for you, and it still has the power of transformation. So if you want to be a somewhat improved person some of the time, OK, make a resolution, download the tracking app, use your willpower. But if you want to be a transformed person, the person God made you to become, receive this gift waiting for you in our baptism into Jesus. When we with Eddie renew our vows to God in a minute or two, take seriously what you say. Take seriously that yes.
So much has happened in the last 12 months that has been outside of our control. We’ve lost friends. Some of us have lost family members. And we’ve all lost much of what we loved about life before COVID-19 turned everything upside down. Couple all that with the statistics and graphs and predictions about 2022, and I don’t think any of us need much imagination to understand why lots of folks are at the end of their patience.
Yet here we are, sitting in church the day after Christmas, when the candy canes and colored lights are on sale and stores are already setting up for Valentine’s Day. The world around us is moving on to the next antidote for the darkness. But we aren’t. The greens are still up, the Baby is in the manger, and we are gathered here today in hope and expectation — because we know that the birth of Jesus still holds promise for us today.
As St. John says in our Gospel reading this morning, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Our world changed forever when God’s Son was born of Mary. He who is the perfect image of the Father left his rightful throne to be with us — coming to earth not as a king or a warrior but as a helpless child.
What does this tell us, that he who knows the name of every star willingly and gladly accepted the limitations of infancy? That he who scatters hail like bread crumbs would humble himself to the point where he must learn how to walk and how to speak and all of it from two feet off the ground. What does this tell us but that God wants more than anything to save every last one of us. He wants us to see who we are in his eyes: beloved men and women and children who are made in the image of God himself, made to love in return the one who loved us first.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and in the light of his presence, we can see. We can see the immensity of God’s mercy; that even amid the pain and sorrow of our world God knows and will accomplish the plans he has for us, plans for welfare and not for harm, to give us all a future with hope.
And all of this rests, not on our ability to get things right, but on the shoulders of God’s Son, who knows precisely what it means to be human, from birth to death and beyond. And it is out of that fullness, out of Christ’s life of perfect obedience and love toward the Father, that we have all received grace upon grace; that we might be given the power to become children of God.
This is the promise we possess, a promise guaranteed in Christ’s name and underwritten in his blood, a promise that will not come down with the Christmas decorations or be boxed up until next year’s holiday season because it is founded in eternity.
Hear these words: Before the world began, God knew each one of us and deemed each one of us as worthy of salvation, no matter our histories or our current struggles or even our fears about the future. God loves us regardless of any and all of that, loves us so fiercely and so selflessly that he would send his only Son into a dark and cruel world, knowing that his life of suffering and death would be what saved us from ours.
This is our hope, our light that illumines the path before us, leading us on toward glory even when we’re not sure we know how to get there — for this light is certain. This light is sure. This light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. AMEN.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.”
Today marks the coming to an end of the season of Advent. If you have been following along with the Sunday lectionaries I would not be surprised if your head is spinning a bit today. What happened? Last week we heard about the adult John preaching and calling everyone to repentance. Today the same John is yet unborn, in his mother, Elizabeth’s womb. In both Gospels he demonstrates his prophetic voice by delivering important messages, but that is getting ahead of the myself. (If you want to read the Luke story in more chronological order follow the lectionary for Morning Prayer this coming week. We are in year 2, the fourth week of Advent.)
I want to go back a bit from today’s Gospel and remind us of what has happened in the story right before this. Mary, a devout, teenaged girl, engaged to be married to an older man, Joseph, has been visited by the angel Gabriel. In that visit she was told that she will bear a child who will be the long-awaited savior. This child she will carry will be the Son of God and is to be named Jesus. That encounter ended by Mary answering yes to Gabriel, let it be according to God’s word.
There are many glorious works of art, paintings, sculpture, music depicting this encounter of the angel with Mary. We have a copy of one on the altar in the Lady Chapel that is rests there each Advent. It is the beautifully colored Fra Angelico’s work from the 15th century. I love to look at these various art works of the Annunciation. Most often I focus on the faces of both Mary and Gabriel. Usually, the artist will show Mary concentrating hard on Gabriel. Sometimes she has a dreamy expression, off in her own world it would seem.
Sometimes she has a look of surprise or even shock at what she is hearing. The angel on the other hand most often looks serious and intense, though not stern. He has an important message to bring after all. Recently I saw a pair of statues of this encounter and both Mary and Gabriel had looks of surprise and amazement. Like I said, I enjoy focusing on their faces and wondering what must it have been like to receive and give such a message?
Mary was able to give her consent to what would be, because of her faith in God but the scripture does not give us any other words of hers following this meeting. We are left with Mary’s quiet wonder at what she had been told.
This brings us to the passage from today. We are told that in “haste” Mary traveled a fair distance away to stay with her cousin Elizabeth, whom the angel related is also expecting a very important child. This is not so different of what might have happened to an unmarried pregnant teenager even as late as the beginning of this century. The thought was to get the girl away from the gossip and spare her family embarrassment. In Mary’s time becoming pregnant while engaged to another man could be very dangerous, she might even be killed for it. Making inferences Mary was probably an outcast, alone, separated from her family by their astonishment and lack of understanding of the situation.
So, Mary goes to stay with her cousin. This cousin had had an encounter with Gabriel of her own. Elizabeth is pregnant with a son, John, who will become the prophet to tell others of the savior Jesus’ coming. Elizabeth is also probably isolated from others. She was older, beyond the usual age of childbearing and her husband Zechariah was unable to speak throughout the pregnancy as he did not believe the angel’s message. She too was an item of gossip in her town.
What happens when Mary and Elizabeth meet, the in-utero John leaps and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit allows Elizabeth to be able to recognize and acknowledge what is happening with Mary.
Both women, likely distanced from others because of the circumstances of their pregnancies, embrace each other. Their relationship is firm; they have another to lean on. They have formed a community of two.
With Elizabeth’s affirment of who this baby is that she is carrying, Mary is better able to understand what this means. And as she grows in her comprehension, the surprise and fear quickly turn to joy. Her joy overflows in song, a famous song from generation to generation. We have spoken it and heard it twice this morning. Mary’s soul is filled with God’s presence and her gratitude and joy abound. Those emotions are not present in any of the artistic works I have seen from the annunciation. Mary did not sing with Gabriel’s message. This joy at becoming the mother of Jesus, who he will be and what he will do, has taken time for Mary to comprehend. And it is in the supportive presence of Elizabeth that has assisted in this growth.
Being in community with another who is going through similar things helped both Mary and Elizabeth in living into who are these children they are carrying. While the message to each was given by the angel alone, it was the community, the relationship between the two, that aided in the realization of what this meant. Mary would continue to draw on her community to grow in understanding of who Jesus is, throughout his time on earth.
So, what can we learn from this story this morning? Following Mary’s example, as we live with Jesus, it is important that we have a community to assist us in that relationship and in building joy, finding peace and being able to sing out our gratitude for it.
While God or his angels may speak to us alone, we need the Christian community to assist in our understanding of what is His message.
Each of us is a part of many communities. There are communities built around our work, our roles as family members, a like of a certain game or sport, our own physical neighborhoods and so on. However, it is our community which has at the core a shared love of God and desire to know him better, that assists us to grow into our relationship with Christ. Just like Mary, it is this faith community that will help us get beyond fear and amazement to reach joy and peace.
How do we build such a faith community? It is through regularly spending time together, sharing scripture, praying for each other, caring for one another, and demonstrating the love of Christ to the wider world. Community can grow also by working towards a common goal—perhaps helping this worship space reflect the glory of God or in participating in one of the intergenerational formational activities of the church. Another important characteristic of a true faith community is seeking and welcoming others to join it. There are multiple opportunities to build these faith communities that can be areas of growth and understanding of who Jesus is.
Remember that Mary was able to say yes to God at that original encounter with Gabriel, but she did not experience the joy until the affirmation of her cousin and the sign from the yet unborn John. It was then that Mary could sing out her understanding of the wonder that was happening to her and her gratitude for this son that she would bear.
While you have already heard her song twice this morning, I think reciting it again together is a good way to end the Advent season. Please take your bulletin and let us say the Magnificat along with Mary to express our joy at this soon to arrive Messiah.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
My spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
The Almighty has done great things for me,
And holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
In every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
He has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
And has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich he has sent empty away.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel,
For he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers,
To Abraham, and his children forever.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.
Today, we’ve all received a Christmas card from our good friend John the Baptist, and it reads: “Happy Holidays, you brood of vipers!”
We laugh, but that’s actually what’s going on. John is speaking to us; and his words cut. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
What would your reaction be if you opened a card like that? We’d think, How judgmental can you get? And then throw the card in the trash without a second thought because we don’t need someone hating on our good intentions. After all, we’re mostly nice, law-abiding, God-fearing people. Isn’t that enough?
But what we forget is that John’s original audience was also made up of decent, law-abiding, and God-fearing people — who were just as complex, just as good and just as bad as we are.
Humankind hasn’t changed. Beneath the surface, every one of us is a mess of pride. Of jealousy. Of idolatry. Of “me first and then we’ll see about everyone else.” And if we’re honest with ourselves, we can admit that. Think of the story in John’s gospel of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus says, whoever is without sin can cast the first stone — and what happens next? Everyone leaves because everyone has sinned.
John knows this, knows that “no one is righteous. . . . All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” He knows this, and he won’t rest until those who hear his message will accept it as truth — because the stakes are higher than anyone realizes. Hope is on the horizon, and if we could but raise our eyes from the ground, we would see it.
“For behold, darkness covers the earth, and thick darkness is over the peoples; but the LORD will rise upon you, and His glory will appear over you.”
A light is dawning in the east, and in the grey shadows of morning, the world is changing. Valleys are being filled, crooked paths are made straight, and rough ways are smoothed. The one crying in the desert is preparing the way of the LORD, then and now. For what must be prepared, what must be brought low, what must be set right but our hearts, our hearts that are restless and wandering and confused until we find every good in God himself?
John challenges us to grapple with the fact that we are just as broken as the soldiers and tax collectors and sinners gathered in the desert that day. We are just as desperate for Emmanuel as Israel was of old. In the classic words of our last Prayer Book: “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. . . . And there is no health in us.”
There is no health in us — but the physician is coming. Our savior is coming. Not as a baby boy in weakness. Not as a man bound for the cross, but as a conquering king.
In righteousness he will judge. Before him, nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. “All power is his, all glory! All things are in his hand, all ages and all peoples, till time itself shall end!”
And yet the one who is coming, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, the conquering king. . . . he is like a Lamb who was slain. His robes are dipped in blood. The writer of Hebrews tells us that we have a great high priest who has been made like us in every respect, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near the throne of grace, for Mercy himself is found there.
For this we sing. For this we shout. For this we rejoice and exult with all our hearts, for the LORD will save the lame and gather the outcast. He will proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind. He will change our shame into praise and renown in all the earth.
And this is not just a promise we are looking forward to. It is a gift we are given now, for Christ came in weakness that he might rise in strength and return in glory. And on that day, all will be set free and all will be made right and all will obtain the freedom of the glory of God.
Therefore we will trust and not be afraid; for the LORD God is our strength and our song, and he has become our salvation. Cry aloud, inhabitant of Zion, ring out your joy, children of God, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel. AMEN.
For most of the world’s Christians, today is New Years’ Day. Happy New Year! We begin a fresh liturgical year this morning. If the liturgical year is unfamiliar to you, you actually pass a diagram of it every time you walk in that back door, so stop and look -- and you can pick up a free calendar with its dates and times in the Great Hall to take home today. Living by that calendar rather than by the secular American calendar is one of our important Christian tools.
The liturgical year is our way of letting the Spirit teach us that that time itself belongs to God, and that every day and hour is given its real meaning by the work of Jesus Christ in his life, death, and resurrection. The liturgical year is our way of letting the Spirit demonstrate that no matter how many times we approach Jesus together in Scripture and Sacrament, there is always something new to find. The meaning of who Jesus is and what he has done is inexhaustible, so we live it out in our calendar year after year, even though most Americans barely know our calendar exists.
The diagram of if you pass on the way in shows the liturgical year a circle, which is a common image, but one scholar has suggested a better image may be a spiral, ascending as it moves. Because every time we come back to the readings for today, the collect for today, there has been change in us, change in our world, and we discover that God is competent to address it. We learn by experience that he has ever new guidance and insights and challenges for us, as we spiral through the liturgical year and re-encounter the same readings and prayers over and over. So if you are choosing to live as a disciple of Jesus, one thing that will help you is to pick up this tool of the liturgical calendar and begin using it. Your clergy can recommend more resources.
Now you might have noticed in our readings today that on this day of new beginnings, we begin at the end. All three readings do this, but let’s look right now at the Gospel from Luke. Luke is our Sunday Gospel for the next 12 months, and we’ll be focusing on it this whole liturgical year, until Advent 2022. In Luke today, Jesus talks about the passing of the present order of things and the hope of the future, when he is revealed in his fulness and the universe finally, fully works God’s way. And again, we see a similarity to that difference of what calendar you follow: there is a difference between us who belong to Jesus, and those who belong to something else.
Jesus explains, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." Do you see those two reactions? Some people are filled with fear and foreboding when God gets his way, but how do disciples react? We stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption is drawing near.
If we are invested in the present order of things – and I think even we who belong to Jesus fall into that investment at least some of the time – we are likely to want to stay inside that order and all the things we’ve invested in. Now if you are in an oppressed group that’s getting a raw deal systemically, it may immediately hit you as good news that the present order is not permanent. Many Christians live under that kind of oppression. But if the present order is basically working OK for you, you are likely to want to keep it going.
But the problem there is that the more we limit our vision to the present order of things, and the more we feel like doing so is working out OK, the more placing our hope in Jesus’ order of things will stop coming naturally to us. The more our motivation to live as a disciple will peter out. God just won’t seem as real. So you can see why, if we habitually focus our hearts and our time on adjusting to the present order of things, we probably would be filled with fear and foreboding when we have to face the truth that that whole order is not ultimate. All the things we’ve focused on and invested in will in the end let us down.
But it’s not like that if you have begun at the end, as Advent gives us the chance to do year after year. If you have looked past the present order of things and gotten your perspective in line with Christian truth, you will have a more realistic view. If you have put Jesus first in life and trusted that he is able to arrange all the other good things in the way that he knows is best, when the end comes – either your own end, or the real last days – you will find yourself able to stand up and raise your head and know that while loss of things you’ve been used to is hard, your redemption is drawing near. It’s one of the many great gifts of discipleship. Because we begin at the end, we don’t have to cry out: our world is being shaken! Run for your lives! We cry out, Come, thou long expected Jesus! from our fears and sins release us, now thy gracious kingdom bring!
If you’ve ever rewatched a movie or re-read a book, you have experienced the difference it makes to know the end. When you know the end, you can see the beauty of the construction of the story, the hidden references you missed the first time, you appreciate how it was all put together. And so in Advent, we begin at the end. We begin with ultimate questions: Where is my life headed? Where is the universe headed? What’s the last chapter of the story of the world? What is the real situation we are in as human beings? What deserves to be my top priority?
Many of us, these last months, have lost sight of those kinds of questions. Of course those who have most completely lost sight of them are not with us at Mass anymore. But even those of us who are here, let’s be honest, we have been shaken these past months, nearly all of us. Even those of us who do know the end. We have found ourselves staring dully as we scroll endlessly through our phones, or having one too many cocktails a few too many times, or being too numb to make the simple efforts of showing up in the communities that used to mean so much for us. And today, the Bible warns us, Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.
The first Sunday of Advent is a time to accept the grace of starting again. To come to Christian truth, and Christian tools, and Christian belonging, afresh. On the first Sunday of Advent, we begin at the end: where is all this going? Who holds the future? The present order of things has no idea of the answers to questions like that. But your Bible can tell you. The liturgical year can tell you. The Mass can tell you. Jesus can tell you. Happy new year.
If someone had sat us down two years ago and told us that much of what we love would be changed or taken away from us entirely over the course of 2020 and 2021, I think we would have laughed. A catastrophe of this magnitude and length would simply have been beyond our ability to imagine. It wouldn’t be worth thinking about seriously because dwelling on the cost of prolonged isolation, mixed scientific and political messaging, and the death of hundreds of thousands of people is pretty clearly an unhealthy exercise.
Yet here we are. Everything we love has changed, and we’re still scrambling to make something of what’s left.
I begin there today because I think our collective pandemic experience puts us in a unique position to empathize with Jesus’ disciples, who have just learned that the Temple they love will be destroyed. “‘Do you see these great buildings?’ Jesus asks. ‘There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’” Everything you love will change, Jesus says — and the disciples simply don’t know what to do with that knowledge.
So they ask him privately, “‘When will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?’ And Jesus begins to tell them about the false prophets who will come bearing his name and how the disciples will hear of wars and rumors of wars and earthquakes and famines. “Do not be alarmed,” he says. “This must take place, but the end is not yet. . . . These are just the beginning of the birth pangs.’”
We can almost see the expressions on the disciples’ faces — their wide eyes, their clenched jaws — at hearing this news. Everything you love will change, Jesus says. The places you go, the people you see, the little things you took for granted because they were so much a part of your life — all of it will change, will be gone in an instant. And that’s just the beginning.
What could be worse news? Wars and natural disasters are life-changing events; but to have the core of one’s faith left in rubble is a waking nightmare, the kind that you can’t shake even months and years later. The Temple was a part of the disciples’ home, a cherished part of their lives. And it would all be destroyed.
To make way for something better.
Not that that was the thought that came to them in the moment. The worry was too present, like a weight on their shoulders or pressure in their chests. They couldn’t possibly imagine the gift that would be given them when the Temple was destroyed, only to be raised three days later.
And yet this is the path onto which the disciples have stepped. The path we also walk.
The disciples will suffer. We will suffer. Everything we love will be radically changed — whether by the marching armies of Rome, by a years-long pandemic, or simply by time; but like the woman who cannot imagine surviving the pain of childbirth, there will come a moment when the suffering is nothing compared to the new life before us.
Looking back, the disciples will grieve what they have lost, just like we grieve what we have lost. We shed tears over what once was, knowing that the past held both beauty and goodness. But then there will come a day when the story resolves, when the pieces click into place, and we turn our eyes toward the one who is life incarnate, who “by a single offering . . . has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified,” knowing that by his sacrifice, the path our lives take will never end in the valley of the shadow of death.
And in that moment, when our hearts are lifted up to the heavens, we will praise God, saying, “O Lord, you are my portion and my cup . . . I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand I shall not fall.” Because God is at our right hand, we will not be shaken.
We shall not be shaken because we are washed, we are clean, we are made new in the blood of the Lamb. Through our Savior’s sacrifice, we have a certain hope that we will not be abandoned to the Pit, that we will not be left to struggle forever against the corruption in this world; but that our minds, our hearts, and our bodies — our whole selves — will be redeemed, will be brought into the very presence of God.
And that is a promise that cannot be broken. A fortress that cannot be overrun. A reality that will never change because Jesus himself, God himself, has given his own life to guarantee it.
Brothers and sisters, we are living in a time of loss, a time when our lives have changed before our eyes into something we wouldn’t recognize two years ago. The pain of that is real and present; and we will wrestle with it for years to come. But it is also not the end, for we walk a road that ends in resurrection.
“I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand I shall not fall. My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices; my body also shall rest in hope. For you will not abandon me to the grave, nor let your holy one see the Pit. You will show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy, and in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” AMEN.
The clergy have had a lot of questions about this, so let me start by saying: No, the Episcopal church does not have a formal canonization process. In other words, while we have feast days on our calendar that commemorate particular Christians, there’s no committee that grades their holiness as an individual and passes judgment on it. In the Anglican communion, we do not pronounce people saints.
Instead we follow what was the practice in the first 1000 years of Christianity, which was not to grade individuals’ virtue, but instead to pay attention when faithful Christians continued to be inspired by someone after their death. Were Christians continuing to find this person’s witness to the Gospel inspiring, were local traditions growing up to celebrate and remember the person, were Christians naturally asking for the person’s prayers? So in essence, was this a believer whose story and actions were still inspiring many people to love Jesus better even several years after their death? Was this a believer whose story and actions might inspire us to love Jesus better right now? Then let’s remember them.
David Brown from Durham Cathedral, who wrote Through The Eyes of the Saints, comments that this is a more useful way to think than saying “Well, St. So and So was perfectly holy. God bless them. Of course, I could never be like that, so I’m off the hook.” Saints are actually meant to put us on the hook, precisely because they are like us. They are not superhuman or superperfect. But they are people who have been notable in letting the presence and teaching of Jesus reveal itself through them, and specifically, reveal itself in the context of a different culture or time period than first century Judea. And that’s really the Christian life, isn’t it? We’re not here because we’re interested in first century Judea, but because we long to experience and reveal Jesus in our own culture and our own time.
Emmanuel has been running a series of Instagram quiz posts on saints the past couple weeks, and they kind of made an effort to point out the different backgrounds of many of the people Christians commemorate: Egyptian, Syrian, African, Asian. Not because we are aiming at checking boxes, but because the Good News of Jesus is that big. I’ve mentioned before that the historian of Christianity, Andrew Walls, has pointed out that most of the great world religions are centered in the same region of the globe where they began. Buddhism has spread, but the Far East is still where the majority of Buddhists live. Islam has spread, but Mecca is still its center today. Hinduism, born in India, remains a predominantly Indian religion.
Christianity is an exception to that rule. Its center keeps moving. Most of its adherents were first in the Middle East, then in North Africa and the Roman Empire. After that, most Christians were in Europe for awhile, and now the center has moved to the Southern Hemisphere. There are about 685 million Christians in Africa, for example, most of them in locally-based churches that have no equivalent in the West. Jesus is wide enough for all of us, and if we act like Christianity is only good news for one kind of person, we are misrepresenting Jesus and the Gospel. The good news of what Jesus has done is for absolutely everybody.
So when we look at the wide variety of the saints, we are helped to imagine how big and how accessible and inclusive the Gospel is. We are helped to notice that Jesus is enough for everyone, of every race and culture, every era, every gender expression, every generation, every body. When Christians are bearing authentic witness to Jesus, we will look as different from each other as the saints do.
In fact, the genuineness of my and your profession of faith can probably in part be evaluated by how much being Christian has connected us to people we would not ordinarily spend time with. People where the only explanation for our connection is Jesus. If we come to church, but while we’re here we limit our relationships to people who are our own age or our own economic group or our own education level, we are simply importing the sinful patterns of the world into the Kingdom.
After all, we come together at church to have sort of a lab -- to live the Kingdom, to show each other and the world what the Kingdom of God looks like. We’re nourished by the life of the Kingdom when we hear the Word of God, fed by the life of the Kingdom when we receive the Blessed Sacrament. Yet you know as well as I do how easy it is, even here right in the middle of our lab for the Kingdom, to behave in ways that contradict the Kingdom. To import the sinful habits of this age that undermine our own faith and our own witness. Of course there are lots of those habits of this age, and we’ve all seen them imported into the church in discouraging ways. But on All Saints Sunday that habit of churchgoers acting as if the world’s groupings define us even here, is particularly worth renouncing.
This is one reason we’re deliberately inviting everyone to mix it up today – to form scavenger hunt teams that are not just people you already know you enjoy, to rotate among stations with Emmanuelites you wouldn’t naturally get to know. It’s why, especially at the food table, we have discussion topics, so that we won’t stand around and import secular norms for chit-chat that undermine why we came to church in the first place. We don’t want to have a secular gathering that just happens to be taking place at the street address of an Episcopal parish. Our situation in the churches today is far too urgent for that. We don’t have that luxury anymore. We need to learn what Christian belonging means, and we need to learn it now.
And we have the saints to help us. We have the proof in them that any distance we think exists between us and Jesus can be bridged. We have the proof that the Gospel is big enough for everyone. We have the proof, in all these very different human lives, of what is possible when you surrender to God. And we have their prayers, that we, too, would surrender.
All you Holy Apostles and Evangelists, Pray for us.
All you Holy Martyrs, Pray for us.
All you Holy Bishops and Confessors, Pray for us.
All you Holy Priests and Levites, Pray for us.
All you Holy Monks and Hermits, Pray for us.
All ye holy men and women, saints of God, make intercession for us. Amen.
“The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.”
It seems like many things I read these days reference the longer lasting effects of the pandemic. There are disagreements over vaccinations, wearing masks, and rules and regulations. While designed to keep us healthy, I think many people are tired of it all. Negative emotions abound. Grief over actual loss of life and grief over loss of life as we knew it are both very real. Anger is close to the surface for many and that anger comes out, not always at situations related to the pandemic. I find that simple kindness is often a rarity. One example that comes to mind is the increase in speeding and what I would call reckless driving. This is both in town and on the interstates. After much reflection over several times of distress, I have concluded that making what I consider poor choices in the use of a motor vehicle is one area where people can have control of their environment. Rather than let another car into a long line of traffic, said cars often speed up to close that gap for themselves. Winning at small things seems to give glee. Driving too fast, dodging in and out of traffic, has become a way of life that affects us all. I often find myself yelling out, “People live here! Slow Down!” Now that is also showing my anger—inside my car no one can hear me yelling, except me! So why do I continue to do that? I am angry at the other’s anger. Hmm.
Fear, Grief, Resentment, Anger, and more have become part of the pandemic life. We can certainly see evidence of the broken or fallen world on a day-by-day basis. We need our savior Jesus more and more.
My reflection in witnessing and experiencing these emotions and actions has gone on to pondering, how can we change this cycle? Perhaps a better way to phrase this is how can we allow our Lord to change us?
Always when I am feeling stuck, I find that turning to scripture and prayer helps. For me it is scripture first and then prayer. And most often for me the psalms are the best place to start.
So, this morning I will take a closer look at Psalm 126, the lectionary appointed one for today. This particular psalm is one of a group of 15 together called the Songs of Ascent. These were sung by the Hebrew pilgrims as they walked to Jerusalem for major feasts, such as the Passover. Jerusalem is a city on a hill so no matter the direction from which you travelled you always were going up. To break the monotony of the long journey they would sing. I can relate to this as before we had our “devices” my family would sing to break up long car trips. How wonderful that the Hebrews would use these Songs of Ascent as they walked.
Professor and writer of Old Testament Interpretation, James L May has said that the songs of ascent are both “Joy remembered and joy anticipated.” Joy remembered and joy anticipated. Why don’t you look at your bulletin for a moment and we will see this joy expressed.
This psalm recalls the historical events of the Jewish exiles returning from Babylon and the rebuilding of the Temple in 6th century BCE. That time was a grand scale restoration of the Israelites and brought with it intense joy. In singing this psalm the people would remember the marvelous things that God had done for them in the past. The first two verses: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream. Then our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.” And then the next two recall how grateful they were for what God had done for them. “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.” Then the tone changes a bit and in the next verses they speak with confidence to ask for God’s restorative power now. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses of the Negev.” And then continued to express their trust that “Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.” Remembering what God had done assured them that God would be with them time and again. It was God who would replace their sadness with joy.
Psalm 126 and the rest of these Songs of Ascent were community songs of trust. Remembering God is the one who brings joy out of sorrow, laughter out of tears and good out of evil, strengthened their trust in him.
Joy remembered brings joy anticipated.
While we can certainly use this for our personal joys, this morning I propose that we try this collectively, looking at our community. What joy has God brought to Emmanuel in the past?
The first joyful memory that first comes to my mind is the result of the rectory fire. Seeing the flames going high out of the rectory roof was a time of shock and fear. However, due to the wonderful fire fighters and to the grace of God that fire was put out with little damage to the rest of the building. The nave, sanctuary, offices, Great Hall and Mowry building were fine. That in itself was a joy. But the future has brought even more joy as the rectory has been redone saving the beauty of the original structure and repurposing the space to offer more to the surrounding community. Plans are currently in formation as to the specific details of how the building will be used but the joy at seeing it fully completed is wonderful. It is more beautiful than we could have imagined. Our gratitude to all who worked on it and our gratitude to God is something wonderful to remember. And, if you want a reminder of the devastation of the fire, for now you can still see the paint peeling off the pillar of the porch in the courtyard. God has brought us out of tragedy and into joy!
The second joyful memory of mine is also of a fire. This was smaller in scope and occurred on the high altar. While the flames destroyed the altar linen and a few other things it was quickly extinguished by the lay reader before the space was totally gone. There is a reminder of this joy on the front of the tabernacle on the altar. The carving of the agnus dei, the lamb of God is charred black. It has been left that way purposefully as a reminder of God’s providence and saving power.
As we remember the joys, we are grateful, and that gratitude extends to all the people who listened to God to help achieve His purposes here. The Polks, the family who gave the money to build this structure, are a part of that group, as well as those who gave the stained glass windows and other items to reflect the beauty of God’s world and God’s story. The committees who planned and saw to it that the additions to the building were made to reflect the needs of the 1960’s. The people who worked tirelessly in the late 1980’s to see that this space would continue to be a beacon of Christ’s light in the world of downtown Champaign. There is much joy to be remembered here.
And as we remember the joy that God has brought to us we can also find the assurance of his presence with us through the more difficult times. “Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.” The times of sadness are like a season of growing and they will come to an end.
The psalms of ascent promise that; God promises that.
Joy remembered and joy anticipated.
Take home the weeks psalm. Read it and remember your own times of joy at what God has done for you. Be grateful for those and be assured that joy will come again. God is present with us always and doing good for us in all things. Our gratitude will overflow! And we will want to give back to the one who has given us all.
Perhaps now instead of yelling at those other drivers I can pray for them to know God’s kindness, presence and joy!
The Lord has done great things for us and we are glad indeed!
As we’ve commented, this fall is a time when our lectionary readings reveal Jesus showing himself at his most challenging. Just to remind you where we’ve come from, before we talk about where we are:
Last week Jesus left his disciples “exceedingly astonished” by teaching that not even a moral pillar of society, a man who had it all economically, socially, and spiritually, had the slightest chance at entering the life of God without giving up reliance on his skills and achievements and relying on Jesus instead. When the man walked out on that offer, the disciples were not happy. (I mean, he could have been a potential big donor. An important supporter of the ministry. And Jesus won’t compromise the message to keep him happy.)
You’ll remember that Jesus commented to the disciples, “It’s so hard for people like that to enter the Kingdom.” And at this point they can’t contain themselves: “If not him, Jesus, who?” And Jesus, true to form, cheerfully replies, “Nobody. Nobody can enter the Kingdom. It’s impossible. Except with God.” What can you say? He is so confident in his Father that he just has no fear.
So as we come in today, the disciples have been trying to process this event. And their conversation eventually morphs into a hypothesis. It’s the kind of hypothesis you come up with when you try to fit Jesus and his message into your preconceptions about religion.
So here’s their hypothesis: all this security that makes Jesus so completely confident, all these resources he acts like he has, and that he seems to think so outweigh money and achievement that you could drop those in a second if you only understood -- maybe all those riches and power and security are going to show up. Maybe Jesus is going to be crowned King, and reign in glory, and they’ll be the Cabinet. Maybe that’s what’s going to happen.
And so two members of his inner circle, James and John, want to call the best seats. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Now there is going to be glory. There are going to be infinite resources revealed. But it’s not going to happen in a way that fits their preconceptions about religion. The Son of Man is going to be glorified, all right, but glorified by being lifted up on a Cross, by showing the lengths to which God will go to give himself to us. Glorified not by collecting glory, but by giving it away, liquidating his assets and pouring them out over us in love.
Not exactly what James and John were thinking of. But you can’t blame them; we all think like that without God’s help. As Jesus says it’s impossible to enter the Kingdom for us. We have to let God bring us in. Without God, we all turn everything back to how it affects us, what we think we and others deserve, how we will benefit. We think that’s normal, because we think sin is normal. But as I said a couple weeks ago, Jesus knows what’s actually normal, what God originally intended.
Jesus’ reply to the disciples’ request is gentle, but also comical in its level of understatement: “You do not know what you are asking.” They don’t know that the way they interpret Jesus, according to their preconceptions about improving yourself and managing your own resources – all of that comes from being trapped within the worldly system that Jesus came to save us from. And so Jesus tries to tell them. He tries to help them imagine how it is, in God’s system, God’s kingdom, which, remember, he has already launched and is already available.
Jesus tries to explain, as he does over and over, that the way God does things isn’t the way this fallen world does things. “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve. He came to give his life away, a ransom for many.” With God, the primal movement is not inward, it’s outward. It’s not about what comes to me, but about what I let go. It’s not about who respects me, but about giving honor and opportunity to others. It’s not about safeguarding our blessings, but about being a blessing to others.
This principle is all through the Bible, and it baffles me how often churches act as if it weren’t. In so many churches you would swear someone just cut all those pages out of the book. In so many churches the attitude is like, yes, that’s what’s in the Prayer Book and the Hymnal and the Bible, but once we walk out of Mass into the parish hall – never mind walking out of the parish hall into the parking lot – once we leave the service we are going to act as if God were very limited in his abilities and very narrow in his priorities, and we need to ration our resources and make sure we don’t get too involved, because apparently the Holy Spirit has been kidnapped and tied up in a closet somewhere.
But all those pages are in the Bible, and God knows what he’s doing with this infinite blessing stuff, and the most heartstoppingly beautiful example of that is Jesus. The way he emptied himself on the Cross for us is so beautiful that when we really see it, when it really connects, it opens up the opportunity to feel all those other things that have taken over our priorities being drained of the power we mistakenly thought they had. We thought we needed them, but that was just the way the world did things. The way God does things is different. Acclaim is just acclaim. Time is just time. Money is just money. In Christ, we can have them, or let them go. He is enough for us.
You don’t have to believe that, of course. Christianity is hard to believe. And the Episcopal church is, thank God, a safe place for people who aren’t yet ready to believe it, a safe place to ask questions and dip your toes in the water of Christian life. But it’s not meant to be a place that encourages you to stay in the shallows forever and never go past your toes, either. It’s meant to help you learn to swim. God the Holy Trinity is an infinite ocean of joy and creativity and love and the sooner you strike out into the depths the better your life will be. And the better the lives of others will be, because as you become secure in God’s blessing he will be able to use you to bless others.
God is always seeking to give more and more out of his infinite resources -- even to us Episcopalians, who so often hold back, lingering right on the shoreline in case some better option comes along. Who so often can’t be bothered to realize how much God is offering us because we’re far more motivated by trying to hold on to what we’ve got.
But when we do open our hands, when we do even start to look at Jesus and let go of trying to deserve and control and plan, when we swim instead of backing away from the beautiful big waves, we’re filled with blessing. And the same blessing spills out from us, and we say “Is that how Christianity works? Why did I miss this for so long?”
You don’t have to believe that. But I want to tell you, it’s worth a try.