January 12, 2020
Today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. We acknowledge, we honor, and we respond.
But what is this baptism thing? It is a sacrament and if I asked what a sacrament is, many of you, perhaps from your preparation for confirmation back in the day could spout it off. A sacrament is (and this is found in the catechism section of our Book of Common Prayer in page 857): “sacraments are outward signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.” Simply put sacraments are things familiar to us that God uses to show God to us.
In our contemporary culture baptism may be thought as something we do to babies and we go Awwww. And in our building lay out, we do it often a little clandestinely in the back corner. What’s going on back there anyway?
Well, a lot.
This bowl of holy water and little babies make baptism seem tame, but there’s a wildness to baptism, a recklessness, a danger to consider.
The wildness comes as we take in all the angles of action going on.
In our narrative this morning, the Trinity is uniquely present – Jesus – incarnate God, the Holy Spirit as a dove, and God the Father expressed through voice, speech.
As we look at this, quite dramatic expression of the Trinity, let’s remember that Jesus is Savior, but also, that Jesus is also our model. He shows us how to live and informs our understanding of what is happening. So, a part of baptism for us now, today, is that the Trinity is expressing God. All of God present. All of God moving.
The wildness comes as we consider God’s voice and the water. We heard in our gospel account: “just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”
Just as he came up from the water.
Historically, people were baptized more regularly as adults, and it was more regularly done as a full immersion – all of a person all the way under the water. Now, that changed over time, because of need and in response to culture. That’s the beautiful thing about liturgy – it is dynamic, not static. It changes in ways that are discovered with care in response to culture and crisis. The crisis of change with baptism was infant mortality. By illness and other factors, so, the sacrament of baptism began to be done with infants – because they might die.
Sacraments are familiar things…
January 05, 2020
Are you ready now? The good witch asks the farm girl.
Yes, she answers, but hesitantly. Behind her stand beloved friends: a tin man, scarecrow, and lion. She draws a deep breath and says, her doubt resolved:
Say goodbye Toto. Yes, I’m ready now.
Then close your eyes, and clap your heels together three times.
Eyes closed, she taps the ruby slippers.
And say to yourself “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.
I’ve told you before that the father of my first year college roommate was Robert Penn Warren, the novelist. I don’t believe I have previously mentioned that the great uncle of my second year roommate was L. Frank Baum, who wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I’ve used All the Kings Men and The Wizard of Oz for sermon fodder so often through the years I may owe my roommates royalties.
I left home, here, for college in 1973. My father’s bishop’s diary entry for that September 3 reads: “Labor Day weekend with family. Down to two children at home. Tomorrow it will be one.” September 4: “Put son Christoph on the plane for Amherst College. Felt somewhat like the old rancher in the classic Norman Rockwell picture.” “Breaking Home Ties” is the name of the painting. A sad father sits at the bus stop with his eager son, who is leaving for State U.
This eager son boarded the plane and was homesick all the way to Massachusetts. Four years later I collected my diploma and came right back home.
On June 26, 1982—my sister Patty’s birthday––I was ordained deacon here. I was the only ordinand that day. As my home parish, you presented me for ordination. Somewhere down deep in the Cathedral archives there must be a vestry vote recommending me for ordination. My father came out of retirement to preach, from this pulpit, about the life and work to which I had been called.
So kneeling on those steps, X marks the spot, is where I started out in ordained ministry, a yellow brick road that wound around the state: south to Pine Bluff, west to Van Buren, back east to Little Rock (St. Margaret’s); up north again for some extra years of school, then south back to St. Margaret’s, and finally right back here, home base, six years ago.
December 25, 2019
It’s Christmas morning. Whew. We made it! It was a late night for us potentially in a lot of ways – gathering to worship and preparing for celebrations. And a late night for those on the scene at the first Christmas: Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds.
We like them may be a bit tired and fuzzy.
It’s interesting to ponder what this morning was like for those on the scene in contrast to what it’s like for us and for the writers of the readings we have heard this morning – particularly Hebrews and John.
We hear in our epistle this morning, written likely at least 60 years after Jesus’ birth: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”
This echoes the creation narrative of Genesis 1: God created. Over and over we hear from Genesis, “God said,” and our imagination goes to immediacy – poof - water, trees, sunlight, moon, stars, animals, people. God did not think, God did not wave a magic wand, God spoke and created.
A big deal. A powerful deal. It’s a little hard to grasp in our day. Words unfortunately do not tend to be a big deal now, but in the then and there they carried weight, had authority, conveyed truth, and communicated the power to accomplish what they said.
We’ll come back to words.
Let’s consider those on the scene -
That first Christmas morning must have been a tired one. Mary and Joseph had a newborn. Jesus is God incarnate, become one of us. Incarnation. We hear that language in our gospel reading. Jesus is God incarnate, but that does not mean some definable percentage of human and divine was mappable in his person. Jesus was both, and his humanity was not compromised at all – he had likely already been breastfeeding, filling his diaper, crying and keeping his parents awake in their makeshift “room.” They were tired on this first Christmas morning.
December 24, 2019
“He might as well have been a friendly alien, thrown upon the rocks of our planet to help us find our way to the impossible possibility that we are loved.”[i]
Those words were written not of Jesus, but of Mr. Rogers, by a journalist named Tom Junod, in the December Atlantic. I read it on an airplane. The article was titled: “What Would Mr. Roger’s Do?”
Personally, I was too old for Mr. Rogers. His show came on the air in 1968, by which time I was thirteen and done with children’s television. Eddie Murphy and Johnny Carson’s late night impersonations of him made me laugh, and that was all I knew.
Along with the rest of the country, I am getting to know him now in hindsight, through last year’s documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” and this year’s movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” with Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers. In both we learn about this writer Tom Junod, whose life Mr. Rogers changed by being kind. This happened in 1998, when Esquire assigned him a story on Mr. Rogers, a short profile, for a special “American Heroes” issue.
At the time, Junod was a forty-year old reporter who had built his reputation by knocking big shots off their high horse. Mr. Rogers seemed ripe for exposure. Surely his niceness was an act and Tom was just the reporter to bring that truth to light—capable, he says, “of silken cruelties committed in the name of revelation.” He was assigned the story on Mr. Rogers, he remembers, “because one of the editors at Esquire thought it would be amusing to have me, with my stated determination to ‘say the unsayable,’ write about the nicest man in the world.”
One interesting thing he found out also came as a surprise to me. In Fred Roger’s closet there was . . . a preacher’s gown. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister. Tom asked him heavy, grown-up questions. In the news, another shooter had attacked a school. If God is love, why this evil? Fred replied with a grown-up, seminary educated reflection that God is constrained in his dealings with the world by some of his own commitments to it: “If there is such a thing as a ‘dark corner’ of God’s nature then I think it is God’s refusal to go back on the promise of ‘the creation’s freedom to love or not.”[ii]
Against his producer’s advice, Mr. Rogers was open to the Esquire interview. He sat for one, then another, and another. Finally the hidden truth came out, unearthed—but the tables had been turned. As Tom had scratched for dirt on Mr. Rogers, Fred was digging for gold in Tom. He knew he would find it. When he did, Tom said his heart, which had felt like an iron spike, “opened like an umbrella.” This happened in a prayer.[iii]
As for Mr. Rogers, his deepest secret was his kindness, born of his belief in children. “The Kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid.”[iv] A child was that treasure. Empty the bank to buy that field. And what Faulkner said about the past, he applied to childhood. No matter our age, our childhood isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.
December 08, 2019
Our psalm is a prayer for good government:
Give the King your justice, O God,
And your righteousness to the King’s Son;
That he may rule your people righteously
And the poor with justice.[i]
Such a government would be godlike in its impartiality, and for its care, top to bottom, for the common good.
We now interpret “King” democratically, with separated powers:
Give the president your justice, O God,
And your righteousness to congress.
If Washington, Hamilton and Madison were father to those revisions, their grandfather was John Locke. According to Locke, government exists to preserve a community, small or large, and protect the natural rights, God-given, of its people. The powers of government are given with trust for the attainment of these ends.[ii]
Locke knew that wars complicate this formulation.
I have been reading James Michener’s novel The Source, an eight thousand year stroll through the history of the Holy Land. In 336 BCE, Alexander the Great conquered Israel for Greece. His successor Antiochus IV decided that it would serve the empire best if all its peoples practiced one religion, centered on Zeus, whom he personified. He renamed himself Antiochus Epiphanes, “God-Made-Manifest.”[iii] Under penalties up to and including death, a Jew “could neither keep the Sabbath, nor observe the feasts of his fathers, nor so much as confess himself to be a Jew.”[iv] Many faithful Jews refused to obey and were executed. In 166 BCE, Judah Maccabee led a Jewish revolt that drove the Greeks from Israel.
The Greeks were followed by the Romans, who ruled Israel through Herod, a puppet king. John the Baptist chastised Herod for breaking divine law, and was beheaded.
Such things don’t happen in our country as a rule. Our founders placed a hard stop on religious executions. These founders were wise to human nature’s mix of great and terrible potential, and masterful at giving freedom air to breathe while frustrating its appetite for power.
One of their best designs was the 1st Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That plan would have spared John the Baptist and saved the Jews from Antiochus Epiphanes.”
December 01, 2019
Advent is here. The word advent means “coming.” And we hear that in our Isaiah reading – a bidding for people to come. And we hear of Jesus’ 2nd coming in our gospel reading.
Come. Respond. Move toward something…but what? We hear at the end of our Isaiah passage: come to the light.
In this time of year, it is dark. A lot. Maybe it’s dark when we go to work, and dark when we come home. It can affect our well-being, our energy. We can easily become inert and feel like its midnight and be shocked when we look at the clock and see its only 7 p.m.
In the midst of this dark potentially inert time, Christmas is already around us. This past week – before Thanksgiving – Little Rock had the lighting of the Christmas tree downtown. This month will quickly become full – busy with food, parties, shopping, decorating.
Into the short days and busy-ness we throw church into the mix: We’ve got the Christmas pageant – which many of our children have been diligently been preparing for. We’ve got music, which in the Episcopal tradition may feels odd to some, but can be so meaningful. We do not do Christmas songs before Christmas. It’s just too soon. And we’ve got the Advent wreath, which tonight, speaking of the bidding to come – come to our Advent event. Complementary dinner, Chris will help us understand this season and the meaning of the wreath. We’ll also have opportunity for wreath making for you to take home your own wreath, as well as ideas of how to practice Advent in the home. It is our great hope that this will be parish wide – families, young adults, not so young adults…everyone included.
So, we’ve got darkness perhaps stress, and church that is a bit out of sync with culture. When we put all this together, maybe personally it just feels like, when will this be over?
Jan Richardson in her Advent Devotional, Night Visions, helps us take stock a bit. Here’s what she says:
“The season of Advent means there is something on the horizon the likes of which we have never seen before. It is not possible to keep it from coming, because it will. That’s just how Advent works. What is possible is to not see it, to miss it, to turn just as it brushes by you. And you begin to grasp what it was you missed…So, stay. Sit. Linger. Tarry. Ponder. Wait. Behold. Wonder. There will be time enough for running. For rushing. For worrying. For pushing. For now, stay. Wait. Something is on the horizon.”
Our readings today around circle around ideas of darkness, light, and time.
November 24, 2019
God is normally invisible to human beings, and also inaudible and undetectable to human taste, or touch, or smell. Angels are thought to have more sensitive receptors—but we are naturally blind and deaf to the One in whom we live and move and have our being.
Obviously, this is a gift.
Imagine how different life would be if God were always tapping on our shoulders and staring at us from the rear view mirror. “Take a left here, you’ll save ten minutes and reduce your carbon footprint.” Morally and spiritually we would be a world of Peter Pans, stuck in childhood. As things are, we can grow up and come into our own as beings in God’s image who can think for ourselves and do as we see fit, as though God had retired and moved to Florida. We call this freedom.
Obviously, it is also a problem.
Divine invisibility opens the gates for human error and confusion. We are governed by people no better or wiser than ourselves. We get lonely often, and in trouble sometimes, and would appreciate a reassuring touch or a helping hand from heaven.
Church is an answer to this problem. Here we surround ourselves with sights and sounds, and offer things to taste, touch and smell that have been blessed to stimulate our minds and open our hearts to God’s presence in our midst, and purpose for our lives––and to raise awareness of his almost palpable assistance.
Karl Barth said it: God “is never sleeping but always awake; never uninterested but always concerned.” [i]
And invisible does not mean inactive.
Allow me to be personal and specific. From beginning to end my time here has seemed to me to have been invisibly scripted in key respects. There were events around my coming, my staying, and now my going that have called me to do things that I had not planned and, but those events, would not have considered doing.
2013: “The dean is leaving: will you help us?” “No, I can’t do that.” Inaudibly, a still, small prompt: “Why don’t you just reconsider?”
2015: The new dean was on his way. They would be announcing it at any minute. Again, a prompt: “He ain’t coming. Are you going to leave them in the lurch?”
November 17, 2019
Today in with both our Old Testament and Gospel reading we hear prophecy. Prophecy tells us what will come and how we get there.
We can glean from these readings that we need help – we have a problem with sin that we need help outside ourselves to solve. We are not powerful enough. But God is. But what becomes fascinating is that Jesus came, lived, suffered, died, and was resurrected from the dead, and though we live in the miracle of our Christian faith, we still are fallen – we sin, we have separation through sin with God, self, and others.
We hear from Jesus in our gospel reading, referred to as apocalyptic warnings, that there will be an ushering in of God’s ultimate reign. This comes to us either when we die; Jesus said to the thief on the cross beside him, “today I will see you in paradise,” or when Christ returns.
In Isaiah we hear the need for help and looking forward to the Messiah and in the gospel, we hear of Jesus’ second coming. Through both we hear of renewal, healing, recreating.
Simply put, Jesus came and needs to come again. Even for God, it takes more than one visit to heal and deliver us from sin. Take that in for a minute. Even for God, it takes more than one visit to heal and deliver us from sin. We can glean a bit the magnitude of the problem of sin and how much help we need.
Witherington, in his commentary on Isaiah (Isaiah Old and New) articulately asserts: “a single bringing of help and healing and some resurrection back to life in this world would not solve the whole problem…There would need to be a further and final coming of the messiah, a final redemption of the earth…not back to the old mortal life, but forward to the immortal life.” (Kindle Loc 6592).
The Christian life is multidirectional: Jesus came, looking back – we have been saved. In our present we literally are a new creation in Christ, the old is gone and behold the new has come…but in our limitation we are as Paul puts it in Philippians, “working out our salvation,” looking around in our present reality - we are being saved. And as we transition into eternal glory the reality of what we already have will be fully accomplished, looking forward – we will be saved.
Looking back, looking around, looking forward.
We have been saved. We are being saved. We will be saved.
What in the world?
A few theological terms help us understand our present, this place where we are being saved.
November 10, 2019
Jesus debates the resurrection: “Resolved, the dead are raised.” Jesus argues the affirmative: yes, the dead are raised. His opponents are the Sadducees, who don’t believe that.
For me, this reading brings back memories. My first sermon ever was on this text. It was November, 1980 at Christ Church, Hyde Park in Boston, my second year in seminary. I told them about my sister Caroline’s husband Robin, who was dying from a brain tumor at the age of thirty-nine. I dedicated my sermon to him, a month before he died.
Let’s see how this debate unfolds.
From their side, the Sadducees serve up a reductio absurdum. Are the dead raised? No, because that would lead to an absurd result. They tell their story of the unlucky widow who married, then buried, seven brothers in succession. If the dead are raised, she’ll find herself married to them all, which is crazy. Claim, evidence, warrant: they’ve met the burden of proof.
The ball in his court, Jesus must offer a rebuttal. He might have countered that Jacob was married, at the same time, to Leah and her sister Rachel, and no one called that crazy. That argument would have been about two thousand years before its time, and Jesus doesn’t use it. Instead, he rebuts by dissolving his opponents’ premise. The Sadducees have assumed that marriages made in this life would continue in a new one. Not so, says Jesus Christ. “Those who are considered worthy of a place in the life to come neither marry nor are given in marriage.” That is to say the least an interesting disclosure and––voilà––by resolving the absurdity it meets the burden of rejoinder.
Caroline grieved Robin’s death intensely, then married Jim and they have been happy now for almost forty years. I imagine they are glad not to have to worry or haggle over who will be married to whom in paradise. Deciding who will be buried next to whom is hard enough.
Now Jesus serves another argument, which boils down to a logical proof built from premises in scripture his opponents would accept. How did God identify himself to Moses? Everybody knew the answer: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Did Abraham, Isaac and Jacob die? They did. So here is the proof, dear Watson, a simple matter of deduction:
God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob.
God is the God of the living, not the dead.
Therefore: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who died, were raised.
For Luke and his early Christian readers, this little debate is merely academic. They all know what is coming. This is chapter twenty in Luke’s gospel. We are already in Jerusalem, between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. That the dead are raised will very soon be seen in Jesus Easter morning. For “proof,” observation beats logic seven days a week.
October 27, 2019
Growing up, our family dinner table was a forum, no holds barred and no topic out of order. School, politics, religion, war, sports, race: you name it and we would argue it. The table referee was Dad, who mostly listened, but would throw a flag for two infractions: (1) bad grammar and (2) self-righteousness.
“Me and Charles are going camping.” Stop. “You mean: ‘Charles and I are going camping.’ What about Fred?” “Eddie and him got mad last time because Charles wouldn’t let us go to sleep.” Stop. “You mean ‘Eddie and he got mad.’” Those were five yard penalties. Changing the subject, I complain about a girl at school “Barbara Melvin is a stuck up snob.” Stop. “So now you’re too good for Barbara Melvin?” Fifteen yards for a personal foul.
Bishop Keller seldom quoted scripture to his children, but Jesus was his guide, who also called fouls on those, I quote: who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.
The Pharisee prays “thank God I’m good,” while Jesus approves the other man, a remorseful tax collector. This is the story of the prodigal son in miniature.
I would like to say a word on the Pharisee’s behalf.
Where would we be without the righteous? If right-doers, feeling disrespected, went on strike worldwide, the world would come unglued and so would churches. I remember a Mother’s Day sermon at the Fort Smith Ninth Street Baptist Church, an African American congregation. My friend, their pastor A.J. Parish, preached the story of the prodigal son, but with a twist. For Mother’s Day, he praised the older son, the boy scout. He showed up on time for work, said his prayers, and paid his bills. True, he sulked when his bad boy little brother came home broke and was welcomed back with open arms. Let’s not be self-righteous about that. “Thank God for that older brother!” Rev. Parish shouted, “who didn’t waste his father’s heard-earned bread and give his poor mother sleepless nights for years.” The church house resounded with laughter, claps and loud “Amens.”
Let’s stay with that point for another minute. There is a grammar to good living in society. It’s how we solve Freud’s problem of the id. I love repeating C.S. Lewis’s description of that problem as he met it in the demons of his own psyche. I looked inside myself, he said, “and there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.”[i]
Those demons are cruel masters if we let them take charge.
Our parents quickly train us not to give these instincts full expression—we learn that grammar of good living at the dinner table––and if our parents fail our neighbors or the law will try to teach us. In Freud’s terms, we fold our primal id into a law abiding ego, for our personal safety and the public good.
Then comes life. We grow up, leave home, and drama, tragedy, and comedy ensue. Some never learn the grammar and are constantly in trouble. Some know it, keep it, then rebel midlife. Some get tired of pushing that big old rock up that same steep hill. Some think it is a rigged game and refuse to play, self-righteously.