Read Sermons

Listen to Sermons

Baptizmo – not a name for a Super Hero

January 13, 2019

May I speak to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we will witness infant baptism. Today, we also hear of baptism in our gospel reading – the narrative of the baptism of Christ.

Jesus, an image of the invisible God, come to us – Incarnation – taking off some of God’s self and putting on some of humanities self – fully human, fully God; has become one of us.

Jesus saves us and shows us the way – how to live.

Here. Now. In our narrative this morning Jesus is showing us the need for baptism.

Scripturally Jesus models two things for us that are what we call “sacraments” – though there may be a wider lens of considering sacrament. In the New Testament, it is Holy Communion and Baptism.

In Greek, the word for baptism has a more descriptive meaning than English conveys that helps us understand the significance of what is taking place. The verb “bapto” means to “dip in or under, to dye” – like dying a garment…when you dip in the cloth the garment changes completely into something different: it’s evident; it shows. The word “baptizmo” appears in different constructions throughout the New Testament: it may vary a bit but includes meaning “immerse, sink, drown, go under, sink into…” (Bromiley, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, p. 410).

We hear both the power and force of baptism. And perhaps the danger.

In the back of our Book of Common Prayer – which you have in your pews – there is a wonderful section called “An Outline of the Faith: commonly called the Catechism.” The word Catechism tells us the format of this outline – it is a summary in question and answer structure. How great is that?

On page 857 we have the questions: what are the sacraments? And what is baptism?

A sacrament is defined as an “outward visible sign of inward and spiritual grace.” We spoke recently of grace – grace is unmerited favor. Something we neither deserve nor earn…it just is…God’s extravagant posture toward us: full of grace.

A sacrament is something outward that is a means of grace. A vehicle of grace…of God’s extravagance…a special way God provides connection to God…revelation of God.

Communion. Baptism.

Bread. Wine. Water.

Normal and familiar things with cultural associations that God uses to show us God, to connect us to God.


January 06, 2019

Forty years ago this spring, my life’s direction veered towards a vocation in the priesthood. By that September I was enrolled in seminary, a postulant for Holy Orders. A year from now, next January 4, I turn sixty-five. The following day, the twelfth day of Christmas, is a Sunday. On that Monday, I will retire.

We had a funeral here two days after Christmas. For the service I chose a reading I had never used at a funeral before, from Lamentations, chapter 3.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;

Rosa Mundi

December 25, 2018

                                               Lo how a rose e'er blooming

This Christmas I have roses on my mind. Rosie was born four weeks ago Thursday—our first grandchild. Rosie is short for Rosamund, from the Latin Rosa Mundi, “Rose of the World,” whose birth we celebrate tonight.                                  

                                               Lo how a rose e'er blooming
                                               From tender stem hath sprung
                                               Of Jesse’s lineage coming
                                               As seers of old have sung.

In our house, the day prior to Rosie’s birth felt to me a little bit like Christmas Eve: calm, quiet, expectant. Modern obstetrics being what they are, we knew tomorrow was the day. Over at Rosie’s parent's house, the atmosphere was busier and on the father’s side more nervous. Rosie’s father’s name is Christoph which like his daughter’s echoes Christmas. Christoph means “Christ-bearer.”

Christoph’s birth might not have happened. Somehow, Julie and I managed to get married without first discussing children: would we have them or would we not. On our wedding day, right here, on my side of the aisle, the complacent assumption was that we would of course. I would found out that the new Mrs. Keller harbored reservations. The reasons why are none of your beeswax—but they were weighty. Constitutionally, in marriage, a decision to have a child requires a unanimous vote, so my wife’s uncertainty was also mine. Now I imagined two distinctly different futures: through the door to the left was life with children; through the door to the right was life without.

Living with uncertainty on big questions takes a little faith, and I had some—about average faith, I figured, for a young man who had been raised in church by faithful parents. In college, I realized I had above average faith compared to peers from other backgrounds.

On this matter of children, my faith was neither neutral nor dependent on a certain outcome. My hope was specific: the passage to the left was what I prayed for. But through either door, faith, hope, and love abide. I believed that. I had been taught it here. As the years went by, no children in sight, life was good at home.

One day, walking by Julie sitting in an armchair working yarn and needles under lamplight, I asked, just making conversation, what she was crocheting. It was none of my beeswax, she let me know, not looking up, but I peeked and saw it was a little teddy bear. The door on the left cracked open. Through the door and down the road our family would add Christoph, Mary Olive, Laura, John, and, on November 27, Rosamund.

More powerful than John

December 09, 2018

The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

He will baptize you with God.

Who is speaking?  John the Baptist, who “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee,” received the word of God and went out to tell the world about it, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” we are told.

How powerful was he?  Plenty.  John was a prophet, and prophets have been thought to speak for God. “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” Amos chapter three, the seventh verse. Prophets see or hear what God is doing, it is said. They fascinate us that way. 

I have an odd little book by a respected Catholic theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar.  (Imagine trying to make it through first grade with that name.) The book title is A First Glance at Adrienne Von Speyr.  Dr. Adrienne Von Speyr was a physician or whom Father Von Balthasar had served as spiritual director and confessor, through the course of many years

Here is how the book begins.

“This book is an eyewitness account… It is not intended as publicity or propaganda, but rather as a source of objective information.  I cannot prevent anyone from questioning the veracity of my statements.  There will be people with a personal interest in finding them to be false, for whom ‘nothing can be which ought not to be.’  There will be many others who will at once attempt to ‘illuminate’ the entire matter through the methods of depth psychology and so make it supposedly understandable or who will dismiss it all as completely ‘out of date’ and therefore neither interesting nor credible.  Finally, there will be those who will be very annoyed about a charism[i] – should it prove to be a charism – which does not conform to the conventional trends in Christianity today.  To all these persons I must say in advance that (in the sense of 1 Cor 4:1f) their opposition does not trouble me, for, when I state the facts known to me… I am simply doing what I must do…”[ii]

Well, that’s got my attention. What sort of doubtful, annoying, or otherwise objectionable information is Von Balthasar preparing his readers to encounter?  Here goes:

[i] Charism means “divine gift.”

[ii] Hans Urs Von Balthasar, A First Glance at Adrienne Von Speyr (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1968), 11.

Happy New Year! Advent Begins

December 02, 2018


Truly. Happy New Year. In our Episcopal liturgical calendar, it’s the first day of a whole new year. And in that calendar, we begin the year with Advent. Advent means “coming” and we are starting a season of preparing for the coming of Christ. That’s why we lit the candle.

What’s so fun about our liturgical calendar, is that it’s different from regular time – our contemporary Gregorian calendar. This kind of thing serves us. Helps us remember whose we are. where we are. where we are going. We can be tethered to our spirituality as we attach ourselves to our liturgical calendar…on a different trajectory than the culture around us. It may serve as a powerful reminder.

And what do calendars do? Inform us of coming events or signal us to remember past events.

Though our calendars will not hit Christmas Day for 23 more days, in our stores and neighborhoods, Christmas has come…so much for effective calendar keeping.

However, we can effectually practice the season of Advent over these next four weeks – it can both inform us and signal us to remember.

We have additional help outside of the calendar as we practice Advent. We function in the midst of much sign and symbol in our Episcopal tradition – calendars, colors, candles, hymns, and music of seasons. We tend to involve many senses as we approach God. Sight. Smell. Touch. Sound. The more senses involved, the more we are involved. One sense is sight and has to do with color.

We’ve just come off what the liturgical calendar calls “ordinary time,” though there is nothing ordinary about it. It’s a season of growth after Pentecost. The color that expresses it is green – which kinda makes sense as it expresses growth. To remind us, this color was on the altar and lectern and podium, and we, as clergy, wore it. But now, new year, new season, new color – blue, or purple. Again, using our senses to remind us of reality. In our liturgical practice blue signals expectation and preparation.

And speaking of senses – the Advent wreath also helps us – light and color.

The flavors of waiting are illustrated in the Advent wreath: preparation, joy, and celebration. These are shown in the candle colors: dark blue/purple, rose, and white.

In simplicity, as an additional candle is lit each week it symbolizes growing anticipation for Christ’s coming. Increasing light. Advent is a time of journey from darkness to light.

The season of Advent is, on the whole, a season of waiting with some different flavors to it – Advent is both simple and complex.

Apart from colors and calendar and symbols we see from our readings today, that this waiting is not linear – we hear about the promise to be fulfilled in Jeremiah and in Luke, Christ’s return. It’s about looking back – Christ coming to us as a baby; looking forward – Christ returning, and looking around – Christ confronting us…confront is kind of a strong word – perhaps bringing us up short is more what I mean, getting our attention in our now…our daily lives.

Advent. Looking back, looking forward, and looking around while journeying from darkness to light. In the midst of this, it is also both personal and corporate.


All that is and ever was or will be

November 25, 2018

Grace to you and peace from him who is, and who was, and who is to come.

That salutation is from John, in the book of Revelation. The one who is, and was, and is to come is God; God, to John, means Christ, in whom God lived within the universe of his own making. We call God’s life on earth the Incarnation. “The Incarnation,” Thomas Aquinas says, “is the exaltation of human nature and the consummation of the universe.”[i]

The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.

That pronouncement was Carl Sagan’s opening line in Cosmos, his famous 1980 book and public television miniseries. His student Neil DeGrasse Tyson repeated it in his recent update of the series. Cosmos, word for word, replaces God, suggesting science replaces faith in God. “Scientism,” we call that.

Modern science began in 1543 when Copernicus gave evidence the earth is not the center of the universe. On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres was the title of his study. In 1859, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, followed twelve years later by The Descent of Man.

Approaching the hundredth anniversary of Darwin’s second book, Jacques Monod, a founder of molecular biology and winner of the Nobel Prize, published Chance and Necessity, “a philosophy,” he said, “for a universe without causality.” According to Monod, “the ancient covenant is in pieces; man, at last, knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged by chance.”[ii]

That isn’t true. Man does not know that; nor does woman. Scientism plays a pair of fours like they were aces.

In John, the Gospel, Jesus says to Pontius Pilate: “My kingdom is not from this world.” Pilate had challenged him: “Are you the king?” That would put Jesus and Pilate in the same arena, competitors like Sagan did with God and cosmos. Jesus rejects the false equivalence. “My kingdom is not from here,” he says. “So you are a king,” replies Pilate, missing the point. Like Sagan, Pilate sees only to the limit of his own expertise, in his case politics, where one king and one king only is the rule. Jesus indicates that with respect to him, to God, this rule does not apply.

After publication of The Origin of Species, an English bishop named Charles Gore gathered a group to think and write about questions Darwin’s science had raised for Christian faith.[iii] One of the group, J.R. Illingworth, wrote an essay titled  “The Incarnation and Development.” It begins: “The last few years have witnessed the gradual acceptance by Christian thinkers of the . . .  the theory of evolution. History has repeated itself, and another of the '‘oppositions of science [so-called] have “proved upon inquiry to be no opposition at all.”[iv]

[i]Lux Mundi, 186

[ii] Jacque Monod, (1972), p. 167, quoted in Southgate, p. 154.

[iv]Lux Mundi, 181.

Hannah Prayed

November 18, 2018

Hannah prayed. 

Prayer is not easy.  It is not easy to define because it is both simple and complex.  If we think of it at either extreme, we will not understand prayer.  It often is not easy to do, either.  Or at least, it is not easy to recognize that we are praying.  I am standing before you as one example of someone who once thought they didn’t know how to pray.  I can tell you, though, the place I was standing when I learned otherwise.

Today, we have Hannah’s story about prayer that begs to be heard, begs to be understood.  Hannah prays twice.  In the first, we have a visual—we can only see her praying because she speaks no “words.”   In the second, we hear her prayer— and it is a SONG.

In Hannah’s first prayer, this is what we see:  a woman, alone, intentionally coming to the sanctuary, a safe place, to honestly present herself directly before her Lord. If we only stand at the entrance to watch Hannah, we like Eli, might not see a person in prayer.  But if we are willing to go further in to look closer, to look into Hannah’s eyes, to look into her heart, we will see, we might even feel, we might even hear: an unspeakable distress, a bitter weeping, a great anxiety, a troubled self-image, a broken heart, a deep longing, a desperate sadness, a crushed aching and pleading spirit.

This is a picture of Hannah pouring out her heart to God, a prayer of petition and oblation.  But no doubt, the picture captures some of our own silent prayers—yours and mine.  I understand this prayer because I’ve been there myself, and I’ve been with fiends who have prayed without words, directly from their heart. I’m thinking you also understand this prayer for the same reasons.

In Hannah’s second prayer, time has passed, she has given birth to a new life, and she sings her prayer of adoration and praise and thanksgiving with gusto--“bursting with God-news!” . . . and “dancing her salvation,” is the way Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message Bible.  I understand this prayer, too.  I can also burst with God-news.   I’ve seen some of you bursting with God-news. 

Our lectionary places Hannah’s Song as our Response to her first prayer—we responded this morning with a powerful song about a God who embraces the world in Love, turns the world upside down, and invites us to see it as God intends it to be.  It is a song that will later influence The Song of Mary, the Magnificat.

There is a part of Hannah’s story that I haven’t mentioned.  We need to look again at Hannah’s first prayer.  Eli, the priest, finally understands that Hannah is not drunk, but instead has been praying.  Once understood, Eli sends Hannah on her way to go in peace, sends her out with a blessing and a prayer of his own that God will grant Hannah’s petition.    Scripture tells us that Hannah turned to leave the sanctuary “. . . and her countenance was sad no longer.”

Three Widows

November 12, 2018

Three widows are featured in our readings, including the woman in the story of the widow’s mite, as we used to call it. The “mite” was her tiny gift of all she had into the treasury, which Jesus counted higher than the big donations of the wealthy.

Our other two widows, Naomi and Ruth, are also poor. Theirs is a beautiful short Bible story with a harsh start and happy end. Naomi had been married to Elimilech, with whom she had two sons. Elimilech died. In Israel, the rain stopped, crops failed and there was famine. Looking for food, Naomi led her sons to the land of Moab. They settled there and the sons grew up to marry Orpah and Ruth, gentile women of that country. Then both sons died. Now there were three widows in one family with no children, no money, and no work. These were dire straits. Generously, Naomi urged her daughters-in-law to return to the safety of their own parents’ homes. Tearfully, Orpah said goodbye, but Ruth wouldn’t leave Naomi. “Where you go, I will go,” she vowed. “Your people shall be my people and your God my God.” Like the widow with her mite, Ruth offered all she had. Ruth’s great-grandson David would be king.

I still have the Bible this cathedral gave me as an ordination gift in 1982: New Oxford Annotated, expanded edition, Revised Standard Version. It is handsome, black leather bound, but also scholarly and full of expert notes. The notes to Ruth date the story’s composition. Like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, it was written centuries after the events it describes occurred. By then, after David, Israel was divided and had been conquered several times, culminating in 587 when Jerusalem was sacked, the temple destroyed and the Jews were exiled to Babylon. In 538, Babylon was overthrown by Cyrus, King of Persia, who let the Jews go home and rebuild their city and temple. In scripture, the books of Isaiah, Ezra, and Nehemiah tell that story of return. Ruth was written at about the same time as Ezra and Nehemiah.

Now I quote the experts in my old ordination Bible.

Israel after the Exile developed tendencies in two opposite directions: on the one hand a major tendency to draw within herself and emphasize the exclusiveness of her election as God’s chosen people, and on the other hand a broad and liberal one which sought to make of her “a blessing in the midst of the earth (Isaiah 19:24), a ‘light to the nations.’ (Isaiah 49:6) Among the noblest monuments to the latter tendency are the books of Jonah and Ruth.

So the Bible embodies a debate: Should we be like this, or like that, to be faithful? 

If we follow Thomas Aquinas, and here I do, this was not a conflict between good and evil, but between two variants of good. According to Aquinas, “whatever is of value, and can satisfy desire, is good.” [i] That is a definition of good without judgment. It would include things we would judge as bad, but Aquinas would say that, even with bad things, if we want them it is because there is something good in them to attract us. In the Book of Ruth, the Bible shows the goodness in Ruth, a foreign immigrant. In Ezra and Nehemiah, it lays the accent on Israel’s unique vocation.

[i] Timothy McDermott, ed. and trans, St. Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae, A Concise Translation (Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1989), 168.

Heritage Sunday

October 28, 2018

Today is “Heritage Sunday,” a day to celebrate the lives and ministry of:

Seven parishioners who have been members of Trinity for seventy-five years or more: Martha Campbell, Lawson Deloney, Pete Maris, Ed Penick, Jr., Frances Mitchell Ross, J.D. Simpson, and Belle Spatz; and of:

Eight parishioners who have enriched our lives on earth for 90 years or more: Ted Bailey, Kathryn Bost, Joanne Cooner, Mary Fine, Adolphine George, Catherine Hepinstall, Bill Pumphrey, and Nell Stephens; and of:

Three parishioners who done both ninety years of life and seventy-five years of ministry at Trinity: Marguerite Gamble, Gordon Wittenberg, and Betty Terry; and of:

One organist and choirmaster, Charles Rigsby, long and well loved here and throughout the church in Arkansas.

Trinity’s heritage began with our founding on October 19, 1884, by Bishop Pierce. That start (a birthday of sorts) brings to mind something Karl Barth said about people. On the day we are born we have a present and a future, with no past. Thereafter, our past gets longer and our future shorter by the day. Barth wasn’t counting heaven, which is on a different clock. On our clock, Trinity has 134 years of past, which is a nice length—and, we pray, a much longer future.

One of our honorees, Betty Terry, owns a past reaching back to the 1920s. A week ago last Wednesday, October 17, her birthday, Betty’s great-granddaughter and namesake was born—Madeline Elizabeth Borné -Williams—whose future stretches forward to the 22nd century, easily. In the heritage of Trinity Cathedral, that is a powerful one-two punch.

One woman who would have been honored today, Jane Wilson, was buried from here on Monday. In Jane’s funeral, our heritage of faith wrapped her death in transcendent, hopeful beauty.

Heritage is treasure.

Consider Charlie Rigsby, at the organ. In Charlie at the age of 27, Dean Higgins saw energy and talent and hired him on the spot, bringing a musical life to this Cathedral the likes of which is seldom heard, not only but especially with children. The musical and spiritual seeds Charlie planted in lives going back to forty years ago continue to flower here, even as new seeds are being sown by Victoria, who is one of Charlie’s many protégés.

Heritage can be baggage too, of course. Our southern heritage is a glaring example. We southern states were on the wrong side in the Civil War, and again in the struggle after that for civil rights for black folk. From that bad history, we can’t hide. Shelby Foote, in a low moment in the sixties, said he was ashamed to be southerner—when for most of his life the South had been “the one thing [he] really ever loved.” “Good Lord,” he swore, “when I think what we could have been, the heritage we perverted!” Then he began to list things he long had loved about the south: “the misspent courage, the hardcore independence. The way a rich man always had to call a poor man “Mister.”[i]And that brings us back to treasure. As for me, even with the baggage, I would rather be from here than anywhere. I am speaking now both of the South and Trinity Cathedral.

[i]Letters, 125.

Homily for Jane Thomas McGehee Wilson

October 22, 2018

“Pillar” had been the first word that came to mind for Jane: pillar of her family, pillar of the city and this church. But pillar is a dusty word, so I was going to add a pretty one: jewel. “And she was a jewel of a lady too.”

Then the Bible offered up a better word. Tuesday afternoon, Lisa was looking over the prayer book’s list of suggested readings for this service. For each suggestion, it gives a very short description. On the list was Isaiah 61. The description says: “to comfort all that mourn.” At that point, Tuesday, in all of us, mourning felt like shock. Lisa looked up. “What else does it say? Could you read the passage?” I went over to the shelf and picked up a Bible. Make of this what you will, but in my hands it fell open to Isaiah 61.

They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.

“Oak,” there’s a word for Jane that blends the strength of a pillar and the beauty of a jewel. I have a particular oak in mind, a giant willow oak I love on Hawthorne Road: broad, rooted, vibrant, green. It covers the street. Watch it shimmer on a windy day.

I knew about Jane since I was twelve years old and moved to Little Rock. My source was her nephew Herbert Thomas III, who had reached out and befriended me. Herbert would tell me about Little Rock while beating me at tennis. “We’ll get two good snow days almost every winter. (By the way, its forty-love.)” He was proud of his cousin Frank who played for Hall, and in talking about Frank he would throw in compliments to Frank’s mother, Jane. Most grown-ups are invisible to teens, but Jane was not to Herbert.

For the next fifty years that truth about Jane didn’t budge an inch. Lisa mentioned it in passing Tuesday, that Jane was a feather in her grandchildren’s caps. When college friends would come to town, they wanted to hang out with Jane. Sophie said to Lisa: “Mom, I don’t know my friends’ grandmothers, but they all know mine!”

“Oaks of righteousness”: What’s that? I still keep a big fat dictionary by my desk: Random House, 2nd edition, unabridged. I looked up righteous just to see what it would say. It means “cool,” and the opposite of cool. Literally, it means upright, virtuous, moral, as in “righteous indignation.” None of that is cool. But definition four reads metaphorical: “Righteous (slang): absolutely genuine or wonderful,” as in “some righteous playing by a jazz great.” Now righteous is the epitome of cool. Jane was all of it—righteous in the cool way, and also in the way that isn’t charmed by cool. She navigated by a higher star.

I also looked up growth stages in an oak tree. Google gave me six: sprout, seedling, sapling, mature, ancient, and decay. We never saw decay in Jane. She was ancient like the Willow Oak: powerful, majestic. Thinking back to “sprout,” she was born in 1926, the same year as Harper Lee. As a sapling, I could picture Jane as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Her high school years were almost exactly those of World War II. She was mature, at 37, when John F. Kennedy was killed, and 42 when we landed on the moon. She raised three boys through the tumult of the sixties, and had what that took: ingenuity and spunk, wrapped up in love. At fifty-one, she suffered the death of Frank, Sr., her husband, and at seventy-five of Frank, Jr., her son. She was eighty-seven when she lost her second husband, Bob. According to an old song, “without a hurt the heart will hollow.” Jane’s heart was full.