Sunday, January 19, 2020

2 Epiphany

January 12, 2020

John 1.29-42

+ Recently, I was reading about an incredible piece of art that was recently cleaned and restored.

I am talking about the Ghent altarpiece.

This bit of art is one you no doubt know.

If you saw it you would say, “Oh, yes, I know that.”

In it, we find a panel called “The Mystical Adoration of the Lamb” in which Jesus as the Lamb of God is standing on an altar, surrounded by adoring angels and  saints.

This altarpiece can be found in St. Bravo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium.

It was painted in 1420s, early 1430s and was believed to have been painted by brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck.

It’s a stunning piece of art.

But, if you are familiar with it, you may want to check out what was found as they were cleaning and restoring it.

It seems that, at some point, the face of the Lamb was altered.

At some point, the face was painted to look like an actual lamb.

But the original painting showed a very humanized face to the Lamb.

And this was only revealed after the restoration.

The human face on the Lamb is actually quite startling.

It appears to stare out at the observer, to stare them down essentially.

Now some describe this face as “cartoonish.”

But I found the revealed face of the Lamb to be sobering and compelling.

And it hit home to me the fact that the image of Jesus as the Lamb of God is essential in many ways to us.

All of this, of course, hits home to me this week because, of course, our Gospel reading for today deals with Christ as the Lamb of God.

And for some reason, this past week, as I was meditating on our Gospel reading for today, the whole image of Jesus as the Lamb of God really came home to me in a new way.

In today’s Gospel reading we find John the Baptist calling out not once but twice, identifying Jesus as the Lamb of God.

For us, it’s a very nice image.

A nice fluffy, sweet-natured lamb.

But…is that the right image we have of Jesus?

If God chose to be incarnate in the flesh, would God want to be looked upon as a sweet, fluffy lamb?

No, not all.

And that’s not what John is getting at when we calls out the way he does.

Sweet and gentle is not what John saw when he observed Jesus as the Lamb of God.

For John, what he observed when he looked at Jesus and saw the Lamb of God walking past, was truly a  thing that would most vegans cringe:

He saw that sacrifice that was seen in the Temple in Jerusalem.

There, the lamb was sacrificed—and quite violently sacrificed—as a sin offering for the people.

He saw before him not Jesus the man, but the sacrificial Lamb, broken and bleeding.

To be fair, in our own images of the Lamb of God, we don’t have just a fluffy little lamb.

The image we have on our altar here is not a sweet, fluffy lamb.

Look at it.

It is a defiant lamb.

It is a Lamb that stares right at us and confronts us.

And, if you look closely, you will see the Lamb pierced.

We see blood pouring from the side of the Lamb.

We see a sacrificed Lamb.

And that look of strength and defiance can also be seen directed at the one who has done the piercing.

I love this image on our altar, by the way.

We also find other references to the Lamb in our Mass

In our Sunday morning and Wednesday night Masses, we sing the Agnes Dei—the Lamb of God—after I have broken the bread.

 I am so happy we do that.

This “fraction anthem” as we call it, carries such meaning.

In it we sing, essentially:

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

Then you see me hold up the chalice and that broken bread and you hear me say,

“This is the Lamb of God. This is the One who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are we who are called to this supper.”

That shed blood.

That broken body.

That sacrifice.

I cannot tell you how many times I have stood at this altar during that anthem and looked down at the broken bread on that paten and looked into that cup and had a moment of spiritual clarity.

So many times I have looked at the broken bread and the cup and thought, this is Jesus.

This is the Lamb of God.

For me, that moment of spiritual clarity is very much like the moment John announces Jesus as the Lamb.

For me, it might as well be the Baptist’s voice in my ear, announcing to me that “This is the One!”

And it should be for all of us.

But more than just some mystical experience is this concept of the Lamb being broken.

Why do we break the bread at the Eucharist?

Why do I, when I hold up that broken bread with the chalice, and say, “This is the Lamb of God. This is the One who takes away the sins of the world…”?

We do it to symbolize the broken body of the Lamb.

The Lamb was broken.

The Lamb was sacrificed.

And it is importance to recognize that.

Trust me, we understand brokenness right now in our world, in our society, and, no doubt, many of us know it in our lives.

Brokenness is part of this imperfect world in which we live.

And it is hard to bear.

When we gaze upon that broken bread, when we gaze upon that broken lamb, we gaze upon our own brokenness as well.

But we gaze upon a God who understands our brokenness.

A God who understands these fractures and these pains each us bear within us and in this world in which we live.

But it also symbolizes something even more practical.

We break bread, so we can share it.

We don’t get the option of just sitting around, wallowing in our brokenness.

We don’t get to just close up and rock back and forth in pain over the unfairness of this world and society and our lives.

We are called to go out and do something about it.

We break this bread and then break it and then break it again until it becomes small pieces that we must share with one another.

By sharing our God who knows brokenness, by sharing of our broken selves, we do something meaningful.

We undo our brokenness.

We become whole by sharing our brokenness.

It means we take what we have eaten here—this Lamb, this Jesus, this God who knew pain and suffering and death—and we share this Jesus with others, through our love, through our actions of love, through our acceptance of all people in love.

It is not enough that we simply recognize the Lamb.

We must recognize the Lamb, broken for us, so that we can share the Lamb with others.

And that is the purpose of our lives as Christians.

Yes, we gather here and are Christians.

But we are also gathered here so we can go out and share this Lamb that has been revealed to us.

And in sharing the Lamb, others too can share the Lamb.

So, let us listen to the voice of the Baptist proclaiming in our ears, “Behold the Lamb of God!”

Let us hear that voice when I hold up the Bread and the Chalice.

Let us hear that voice as we come forward to share that bread and drink from that chalice.

But let us be that voice when we leave here.

Let us proclaim the Lamb of God as we share Christ with others, in all that we do as Christians, in the differences we make in this world around, in all the good we do and say in our lives.

When we do that we will find ourselves, as we heard in the beautiful collect from this morning, “illuminated by [God’s] Word and Sacraments.”

And being illuminated, we will “shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped and obeyed to the ends of the earth.”

Sunday, January 12, 2020

1 Epiphany/Baptism of Our Lord

1 Epiphany
The Baptism of Our Lord

January 12, 2020

Isaiah 42.1-9; Matthew 3.13-17

+ This past Wednesday we, of course, did something here at St. Stephen’s we do on a fairly regular basis.

We welcomed a stranger into our midst.

We welcomed someone we didn’t know.

Someone we will never know—at least not on this side of the veil.

We welcomed and gave thanks for little Stephen Angelito Juan Diego.

He was only a baby.

He never breathed air or saw the sun.

He never knew the warmth and embrace of his parents.

He was cast off.

But we took him and we have made him one of our own.

As I said in my homily on Wednesday night, we do not know what hell his poor mother was going through.

And it not for us to speculate or judge.

But what we have done is we have taken up what she could not bear to carry.

And while Angelito was not able to be celebrated in a baptism like most of our babies here at St. Stephen’s are, although we were not able to rejoice in the celebration and reminder that he was marked as Christ’s own forever in the waters of baptism, we still know that he is Christ’s own forever.

But the reason we do what we did on Wednesday, the reason we welcome, the reason we include, the reason we strive to be a place where all are welcome is because of our baptism.

We don’t do it because we think these things will get us in to heaven.

We don’t do these things because we think God will grant us favors or pat us on the back.

We do these things because, as baptized followers of Jesus, we are called to make this world a better place.

Even if that means giving a dignified rest to a discarded baby who has no other place to rest.

Today, of course, we’re celebrating the Baptism of Jesus!

And because we are, it is important for us to reminded of how important the event of our baptism was in the ministry we do and the work we are called to do as a congregation.

Because this is what it’s all about for us as Christians.

All ministry—the ministry we all do together—stems from that transformative event of our Baptism.

 In fact, to be baptized means, essentially, to be called to ministry.

When we look at our spiritual lives and our ministries in the “big picture,” we cannot do so without seeing that big picture circling and being centered on the singular event of our baptism.

For those of you who have visited my home  you have no doubt seen my baptismal certificate on my wall.

It is there with my ordination certificates.

It is there to remind me and to help me commemorate that incredible event in my life 50 years ago next month—on February 8th—this event that changed me and formed me as a Christian.

And, this gives me another opportunity to remind you, if you haven’t done so yet, to do a bit of detective work and find the date of your baptism as well and to share it with me or James so we can commemorate it and celebrate it.

After all, everything we do as Christians should come from the joy and amazing beauty of that simple event.

As you all know, as you have heard me preach from this pulpit many, many times, probably to the point you start rolling your eyes, Baptism, for me anyway, is not a sweet little christening event for us as Christians.

It is not a quaint little service of dedication we do.

For us Episcopalians, it a radical event in our lives as Christians.

It is the event from which everything we do and believe flows.

It was the day we were welcomed as loved children of God.

And it was the day we began following Jesus.

And when we look at the actual service of Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer, the words of that service drive home to us how important that event is.

For example, after the Baptism, when the priest traces a cross on the newly baptized person’s forehead, she or he says, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”

You have heard me preach on those words many times before.

And trust me, I will preach them again and again.

Because, these words are important.

I will preach about them because they are probably the most important words we are ever going to hear in our lives.

You are marked as Christ’s own forever!

That is not just some nice little sentiment.

Those words convey that something transformational and amazing has happened in the life of that person.

This is essential to our belief of what happens at baptism.

In baptism, we are marked as Christ’s own.

For ever.

It is a bond that can never be broken.

We can try to break it as we please.

We can struggle under that bond.

We can squirm and resist it.

We can try to escape it.

But the simple fact is this: we can’t.

For ever is for ever.

On this Sunday on which we commemorate Jesus’ own baptism—on this Sunday in which we remember the fact that Jesus led the way through those waters of baptism and showed us a glimpse of all that happens in this singular event, we should remember and think about what happened at own baptisms.

Yes, we might not actually remember the actual event.

But the great thing about baptism is that, our own individual baptismal event was, for the most part, just like everyone else’s.

In those waters, God spoke to us the words God spoke to Jesus in today’s Gospel reading.

“This is my child, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”

In those waters, the words we heard in our reading from Isaiah were affirmed in us as well.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
   my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

Those words are our words.

Those words were spoken to us in those waters.

In those waters, we were all made equal.

In those waters, the same water washed all of us—no matter who are.

In those waters, there are no class distinctions, no hatred, or discrimination or racism homophobia or sexism or ableism  or war or violence. Or walls.

In those waters, we are all equal to one another and we are all equally loved.

In a few moments, we will process back to the baptismal font and renew the vows we made at baptism.

When we are done, I will sprinkle you with water from the font.

The sprinkling of water, like all our signs and actions that we do in this church, is not some strange practice a few of us High Church-minded people do.

That water that comes to us this morning is a stark reminder of those waters we were washed in at Baptism—those waters that made us who we are asChristians, those waters in which we all stand on equal ground, with no distinctions between us.

Here at St. Stephen’s, all of our ministry—every time we seek to serve Christ and further the Kingdom of God in our midst—is a continuation of the celebration of baptism.

Sometimes we lose sight of that.

Sometimes we forget what it is that motivates us and charges us to do that wonderful work.

Sometimes we forget that our ministry as baptized people is a ministry to stand up and speak out against injustice.

Our ministry is to echo those words from Isaiah God spoke to us at the beginning of our ministries:

I have put my spirit upon [you];
   [you] will bring forth justice to the nations. 
   [You] will faithfully bring forth justice. 
[You] will not grow faint or be crushed
   until [you have] established justice in the earth

The water of our baptism is a stark reminder to us of our call to the ministry of justice.

There is a reason the baptismal font in the narthex—the place we actually baptize—is always uncovered and always filled with fresh, blessed water.

Again, this is not some quaint, Anglo-Catholic tradition that spiky Fr. Jamie introduced here.

This is a very valid and real reminder that in that place, in those waters, we began to do the radical things we are called to us as Christians.

It is good for us to take that water and bless ourselves, and with it to be renewed for our call to justice.

It is good for us to be occasionally sprinkled with water as a reminder of what we must still do in this world

It is good to feel that cold water on our fingers and on our foreheads and on our faces as a reminder of our equality and our commitment to a God of love and justice.  

And, as you have heard me say many, many times, it is good to remember the date of our baptism and to celebrate that day, just as we would a birthday or a wedding anniversary.

Today, on this first Sunday in Epiphany, we start out on the right note.

We start out celebrating.

We start our commemorating the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan.

And by doing so, we commemorate our own baptism as well.

In our collect today, we prayed to God to “Grant that all who are baptized into [Jesus’] Name maybe keep the covenant that they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Saviour.”

That should be our prayer as well today and always.

We pray that we may keep this Baptismal covenant in which we seek to follow Jesus and serve all people equally and fully in his name, no matter who they are.

We pray that, in keeping this covenant, we may continue to welcome all those who need to be welcomed, love each other and those who come to us, to respect and serve each other, and, yes, to honor the lives of those who have been cast off and abandoned by this world.

Even little babies.

And we pray that we may boldly live out our covenant by all that we do as Christians in seeking out and helping others in love and compassion and justice.

May we always celebrate that wonderful baptismal event in our lives.

And may we each strive to live out that baptism in our radical ministry of love and service of God and of one another.


Sunday, January 5, 2020


January 5, 2020

Matthew 2.1-12

+ It’s January.

And you know what January at St. Stephen’s means.

No, I’m not talking about the Annual Meeting on the 26th.

It means Fr. Jamie is making his vacation plans for next month.

After all, as most of you know, January is my least favorite month.

So, planning my vacation is what gets me through this ridiculously long, seemingly unending month.

However, my travel plans are not as easy as they’ve been in the past.

I will be making a somewhat circuitous trip—rather than my straightforward flight to Florida.

I will be headed to DC first before I head to Florida to see my good friend Leslie who is in seminary at Virginia Theological Seminary and is interning at the National Cathedral.

However, trying to plan this trip with the fewest number of connections is driving me nuts!

Yesterday, I threw book across the room in frustration.

So, here I am complaining about such minor, First World things.

And what did we just hear?

We just heard in our Gospel reading for today about these wise men who traveled under worse conditions than anything I could even imagine.

Trust me, they didn’t worry about connections! They had plenty of other things to worry.

But, you gotta give them credit.

It would take great faith and great bravery to load up everything, including valuables like gold and spices into that time of highjacking and robbery, and just head off into the unknown. Following a star.

But these men did just that.

These “wise” men did something that most of us now days would think was actually naïve and dangerous.

Originally, of course, the word used for these men was “astrologers,” which does add an interesting dimension to what’s occurring here.

Astrologers certainly would make sense.

Astrologers certainly would have been aware of this star that appeared and they would have been able to see in that star a unique sign—a powerful enough of a sign that they packed up and went searching for it.

And it certainly seems like it was a great distance.

They probably came from Persia, which is now modern-day Iran.

How fortuitous on this Sunday, as we heading closer and closer to war with Iran, that we are commemorating these Persian wise men.

And they would’ve come in a caravan of others.

These Magi are mysterious characters, for sure.

We popularly see them as the three wise men, but if you notice in our Gospel reading for today, it doesn’t say anything about there being three of them.

There might have been four or five or even two of them for all we know.

Certainly, it might seem strange that I am talking about all of this today.  

Why ae we talking about the Christ child and the Magi?

It’s the beginning of January, after all.

Christmas already feels long over.

Most of us have put away our Christmas decorations.

Trees came down quickly in the first few days after Christmas, the rest in the days immediately after New Years.

Since we’ve been hearing about Christmas for months, we are maybe a little happy to see the Christmas season go away for another year by this time. 

We’re ready to put those trappings aside and move on.

The fact is: the Christmas season, for the Church, began on Christmas Eve and ends tomorrow, on January 6.

Tomorrow is the feast of the Epiphany, which we are sort of commemorating today.

It’s still Christmas officially.

Today is still the Second Sunday of Christmas.

The greens are still up (at least until after Mass today)

But, I think Epiphany is important for us, and so we’re gonna talk about it today.

And we’re still gonna Proclaim the Date of Easter, Bless the Chalk and have 3 Kings Cake.

So, what is the Epiphany really? 

Well, the word itself—Epiphany—means “manifestation” or “appearing.”

In this context, it means the manifestation of Christ among us. 

God’s own Christ, God’s own anointed One, God’s very Son, has appeared to us.

And in the story that we hear this morning, it is the appearing of God not only to the Jews, but to the non-Jews, as well, to the Gentiles, which we find represented in the Magi—those mysterious men from the East. 

That is also is very fortuitous to us on this Sunday in 2020.

If you watched the news and paid close attention, you no doubt heard about the awful anti-Semitic attacks against Jewish people during Hanukah in the last few weeks.

Anti-Semitism is something I simply do not understand.

I do not understand how Christians—people who profess to be followers of Jesus—can be anti-Semites.

I hate to break this news to those Christians with anti-Semitic beliefs but—Jesus was a Jew.

And not just any Jew.

He was the King of the Jews.

And that title alone, inscribed on the board affixed to the cross on which he died, could also be viewed as a form of anti-Semitism.

I am going to be blunt on this Sunday.

You cannot be a Christian and be anti-Semitic.

You cannot be a Christian and a Nazi.

You can’t.

It’s just not possible.

We are all inheritors of Judaism.

We are all children of the God of Israel.

And my prayer on this Feast of Epiphany is that that very statement—one cannot be a follower of the Jewish Jesus and still be an anti-Semite—will come as an “epiphany.”

Epiphany, after all, is all about the manifestation of God in our midst. 

Epiphany is a moment of realization. 

In this feast we realize that God is truly among us—all of us, no matter our race or religion or our understanding of this event.

Epiphany is the realization that God is among us in the person of this little Jewish child, Jesus. 

Over the last month or so, we, as the Church, have gone through a variety of emotions. 

Advent was a time of expectation. 

We were waiting expectantly for God to come to us.

Christmas was the time of awe. 

God was among us and there was something good and wonderful about this fact.

Epiphany, however, gets the rap for being sort of anti-climactic. 

It is the time in which we settle down into the reality of what has come upon us. 

We realize what has happened and we accept it.

A bit of the awe is still there. 

A bit of wonder still lingers.

In this morning’s Gospel, the wise men are overcome with joy when they see the star stop over Bethlehem. 

But, for the most part, despite the joy they felt, we are now moving ahead. 

There are no more angels singing on high for us. 

The miraculous star has begun to fade by this point. 

The wise men have presented their gifts and are now returning to home to Persia. 

It is a time in which we feel contentment. 

We feel comfortable in what has happened. 

But, in a few weeks, this is all going to change again. 

We will soon face the harsh reality of Ash Wednesday and Lent. 

Now, I know it’s hard even to think about such things as we labor through the cold of January.

But it is there—just around the corner. At the end of next month.

The time of Christmas feasting will be over. 

The joys and beauty of Christmas will be replaced by ashes and sackcloth and, ultimately, by the Cross.

But that’s all in the future. 

Christmas is still kind of lingering in our thoughts today and, in this moment, we have this warm reality. 

God has appeared to us, as one of us. 

When we look upon the face of the child Jesus, we see ourselves.

But we see more. 

We see God as well. 

We see how God lives and dwells in a unique way in Jesus.

In this Child—God’s very divine Son—the divine and the mortal have come together. 

And for this moment—before the denial of our bodies in Lent, before the betrayal and torture of Holy Week, before the bloody and violent murder of Good Friday, we have in our midst, this Child.

We have God appearing to us, appearing to us, dwelling within the most innocent and most beautiful form of humanity possible. 

It is the Child Jesus we delight in now.

It is the Christ Child we find ourselves worshipping at this time.

And in the Christ Child we find ourselves amazed at the many ways God chooses to be manifested in our midst.

For now, we are able to look at this Child and see God in our midst.

With Lent coming upon us, we will find God manifested in other ways—in fasting, in penitence, in turning our eyes toward the Cross.

For now, we are the Magi.

We are the ones who, seeking Christ, have found him.

We are the ones who, despite everything our rational minds have told us, have decided to follow that star of faith we have seen.

We, like them, have stepped out into the unknown and have searched for what we have longed for.

We are the ones who have traveled the long journeys of all our lives to come to this moment—to this time and place—and, here, we find Christ in our midst.

We have followed stars and other strange signs, hoping to find some deeper meaning to our lives.

We have trekked through the wastelands of our life, searching for Christ.

But our Epiphany is the realization that Christ has appeared to us where we are—right here in our own midst.

And this is what we can take away with us this morning—on this day before the feast of the Epiphany.

This is the consolation we can take with us as we head through these short, cold, snow-filled days toward Lent.

No matter where we are—no matter who we are—Christ is here with us.

Christ is with us in all that we do and every place we look.

So, let us look for him.

Let us see him in our midst—here in our lives.

And whenever we recognize him—that is our unending feast day of Epiphany.