One evening last week I came across the 1984 Sally Field’s movie, “Places in the Heart”. It had been a long time since I had seen it and I did not remember a lot of the details. The themes of the movie include poverty, oppression, sexism, and racism. Coincidently I was preparing for today’s sermon, and I was very surprised to hear today’s passage from First Corinthians read in the closing scene. It is a powerful scene, and I don’t want to give it away if you have not seen it but for me it spoke to the all-encompassing power of God’s love, and how humans can strive to demonstrate God’s love even though they will sometimes fall short.
While I was surprised to hear Corinthians 13 in a movie, I cannot remember how many times I have heard today’s second lesson read at a wedding. I have been the reader myself at least five times and I am certain I have listened to it at many others. Perhaps you used it in your marriage ceremony. (I can see a few of you nodding.) It is a wonderful passage for use at a wedding, reminding both the congregation and the couple being married of the actions involved in loving. Love that endures involves much more than a romantic feeling. The love we heard about in this lesson is lived day-by-day through our behavior and in how we treat others. Much can be gained by hearing these words at a marriage rite. However, the love between a couple and a conclusion to a movie about society’s outcasts, were not the original purposes when St. Paul wrote these words.
Rather, the entire epistle to the church at Corinth was written to address a time of conflicts within that church. The Corinthians were very divided in their opinions. Each group believed they were “right” in whatever the issues were. This division caused them to split into various groups and the groups had become deeply rooted in their conflicts. When the groups came together there were many arguments. Not discussions, which would involve listening as well as putting forth their points, but arguments. Much time was spent within the groups preparing their arguments as to why they were right and why their position made them better than the other. Paul wrote to address their behavior towards each other and the separation this had caused. Earlier in this letter Paul spoke about spiritual gifts and the importance of all gifts being necessary for the benefit of the whole. Today’s passage is a part of Paul’s charge to the Corinthians to find unity in the middle of their differences. And Paul says that the key to unity in a Christian community is love.
In this I think Paul’s words can speak directly to us in the 21st century. We are divided now into multiple camps. We are different from each other, perhaps physically in terms of our race or who we love or who and what we support. We have certain and opposite understandings on multiple issues. While true for our society in general it is also true in the church. Often, we have become so entrenched in the issues that divide us that we are like the Corinthians. As Paul would point out, we too have lost sight of our central belief, our belief in God.
We are different, yet wouldn’t it be boring and lackluster if we were all the same. Difference, diversity can make us stronger. Differences can make us collectively more beautiful and more interesting, and able to accomplish much more when we work together. God’s created world intended humans to have diversity just as his created world of plants and animals is full of differences. Paul reminds us that what enables a community to embrace and respect differences is when love is the foundation.
This love that Paul speaks about today is an action or collection of actions, rather than an emotion or feeling. Without the actions involved in love we are empty. Love must be at the center of our being leading us, guiding us,, directing us, encouraging us and this love is God’s love. The attributes that Paul uses to describe love are in fact attributes of God.
I want to look at verses 4-7 from this 13th chapter of First Corinthians again. This paragraph begins with “Love is patient” and finishes with “Love never ends”. You may check on your bulletin for this paragraph if you want. Or not, it is a familiar passage. I want to read it again using the word God in place of the word Love.
God is patient; God is kind; God is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. God does not insist on God’s own way; God is not irritable or resentful; God does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. God never ends.
In fact, all the positives in this paragraph, being patient, kind, (and so on) are descriptions of who God is and how God loves us.
And the opposite, the negatives in the paragraph, those actions of envy, boasting, arrogance, rudeness, insisting on its own way, (and so on) are all qualities that the Corinthians were exhibiting at the time. Those attributes got in the way of their relationship not just with others of the opposing groups, but with God.
Human beings are not perfect. The Corinthians were not perfect, nor are we! We cannot love as God loves all the time. God knows that about us, perhaps better than we do. We need his presence in our lives to even attempt this type of love. He must be our center. When we waiver off that path of love it is time to re-focus, to re-focus on God in Christ and the love that we have received and are asked to demonstrate.
The Corinthians had gotten off-track. They had replaced God with being “right” as the center of their community. And throughout the time following the early Christians, there have been occasions when groups have also gotten off track, multiple times actually, if we look at history. Perhaps if we reflect now, we might find ourselves in that same place also. Is God and God’s love at the center of our Christian community?
When that is so, it is wonderful and encouraging to the world around us. We live as beacons of light to the world showing how unity can exist with differences.
Is God’s love at our core? If not, how might we re-focus to become so?
It’s not as difficult as it sounds. Hitting the pause button is the start of remembering God’s love is at the center of all we do and say and in how we act. Go back to the basics and take a little quiet time apart from others to read this passage aloud and listen to what God is saying to you through it. Maybe even read a little more of 1 Corinthians—we have been using it as the Epistle for the past few weeks—or choose some other scripture that has meaning to you.
Read and reflect and then discuss what you have heard with a trusted friend to go a little deeper into God’s word. Most of all, think about how God loves you and accepts you as his beloved child. And then remember, God accepts us all as his beloved. God is patient; God is kind. God bears all things, hopes all things; God’s love never ends. There is unity in God’s kingdom that includes our differences.
This world of ours needs God’s love and we are called to be the agents of his love. Without His love at our core, we are lost. His love is our anchor. No matter our circumstances at the moment, God’s love will never end.
“And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Amen.
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.
John’s Gospel begins with one of the most striking passages in Scripture: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” It’s hard to get any higher than that. We’re at a cosmic level. An ancient and epic battle between good and evil unfolds before us, and we’re told that God will be victorious in the end. John’s readying us for an incredible ride.
But what we hear in today’s gospel lesson doesn’t exactly match up.
The creator of the universe, the light of humankind, the Son of God himself goes to a wedding. In the space of two chapters, we move from contemplating the heavens to watching what should be a moment of domestic bliss begin to unravel.
The wine has run out.
And that’s a disaster. People would talk. They’d gossip about how bad the groom was with his money; and they’d take bets on whether or not the bride’s family would sue. There really is no more melodramatic problem that Jesus could walk into.
But he did. And rather than walking away from the worldliness of it all, he brought the power that formed the universe to bear on this family’s crisis of hospitality.
Where there was lack, he brought fullness. Where there was despair, he enabled rejoicing. Where there was water, he made wine.
When we take a step back from this story and look at the entirety of John’s gospel, the soaring introduction, the mysterious dialogues and beautiful prayers, the reasons for including this strange little tale at Cana in Galilee don’t immediately come to mind. Why does it matter that the Light of the World was a guest at this wedding? Why does John care that Jesus — who walked on water and raised the dead — would intervene so that one foolish man’s hospitality might not run dry?
Because the God Jesus reveals is the very definition of radical hospitality. He doesn’t withhold blessing until we somehow deserve it. He doesn't wait until the situation is appropriately grave or religious. No, he’s a God of extravagant generosity, lavish hospitality. He’s the manager who pays his workers a full day’s wages for one hour of work. He’s the father who throws a party for the son who squandered his inheritance. He is the God that the world cannot understand because his generosity won’t stop even at the giving of his own son.
This is the God we worship.
Mary told the servants to do whatever her son said, and Jesus asked for water. And what they brought him were six stone jars dedicated to the Jewish rites of purification. The water Jesus received was the water of the old covenant, the water that might make a sinful person clean for a day but could never do anything about the hardness of our hearts. Jesus asked for that water, and he changed it to wine, wine that offers us a taste of heaven, for it is the blood of the new covenant.
And that is why the wedding at Cana matters. We worship a God who stepped down from his throne, who did not refuse to join us in every facet of what it means to be human, who would sacrifice his own life so that he might welcome us to another wedding banquet, where the Lamb of God is no longer a guest, but the Bridegroom himself.
Again and again, God gives us a share in his hospitality. When we taste of his wine and eat of his bread, we are united to him and to each other. We become his very body. We become the hands and feet of he who is hospitality incarnate. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel. 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.