Sunday, January 29, 2017

4 Epiphany

January 29, 2017

Annual Meeting

 1 Corinthians 1.18-31; Matthew 5.1-12

+ Today, of course, is our Annual Meeting. And my sermon on Annual Meeting Sunday is a sort “State of the Union” address.  

I think it is particularly appropriate that we also hear Paul this morning.  And we don’t only hear Paul. This morning, we heard Paul quoting the prophet Jeremiah.  Paul’s quote, that we heard today, is, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”  You know Paul was definitely a boastful kind of guy, I think.

The actual quote from Jeremiah is this,

“…let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I take delight, says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 9.24).

I’m going to repeat that.

“I act with steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I take delight, says the Lord.”

Now, that could be our motto here at St. Stephen’s on this Annual Meeting Sunday.  But, let’s face it, boasting is not something most of us do well.  Boasting for most of us means being prideful.

But, certainly armed with these scriptures, holding them close, we realize we actually can boast.  Certainly, here at St. Stephen’s, it’s all right that we boast a bit.  We can boast, because we are not boasting in ourselves.  We are not boasting because we think we did any of these great things we have done all by ourselves, in some arrogant way, nor that we are better than anyone else.  We boast because we are joyful God continues to do what God does here.  We boast because we know that God does act with steadfast love, with justice and with righteousness in the earth.

Even if it might not seem like it right at this moment in our world.  And we boast because we are simply trying be the conduits through which God can continue to act in such a way.  We boast in the fact that the work God has called us to do here at St. Stephen’s is the work of steadfast love, justice and righteousness.  We boast because we are able to recognize the blessings of God in our midst.

What we have done and what we continue to do here is a true reason to rejoice.  We rejoice in the blessings God has granted us here. And as we rejoice in these blessings we rejoice too in the ministries we do beyond these walls, as we strive to be conduits of God’s steadfast love, justice and righteousness in our lives and in our community. 

Our job here, in following Jesus, in being conduits of God’s love, in working toward steadfast love, in working for justice, in working for righteousness, it is a nonstop job. Doing so is not easy. Doing so may seem at times like something weirdly absurd.

Why even try? we might ask ourselves, when the world seems to be unraveling around us at times. Doing these doesn’t seem to be making a difference in the face of such overwhelming nastinesss in the world.

I know the feeling. Every single day those moments haunt me as well.  

Our reading from Paul this morning somewhat echoes this absurdity. Paul says that for the Romans of the day, the crucifixion of Jesus seemed like the ultimate failure. For them it was foolishness.

You idiots, they no doubt said. Why worship a failure?

A failed prophet in some conquered province was condemned and tortured and was executed on a cross.

For Jews, this same failed prophet, because he was hung on a cross, was cursed.  According to Judaic Law, anyone hung on a tree was a curse. You couldn’t even touch that person, or tree on which that person hung.  So, to them, it was truly a stumbling block.

Would God work through a curse? They would wonder.  By other people standards, it all seemed absurd or cursed. But for us, who follow Jesus, who know Jesus right now, his death on that cross was not foolish or a curse at all.  It was rather life and glory. What seemed like defeat to others was victory to those who followed Jesus.

We understand this here at St. Stephen’s. We understand what it’s like to see who we are and what we do through the eyes of others.

As I said at Stewardship time, our supposed little church up here in north Fargo should not be what it is—by other people’s standards.  We do not have fancy architecture. Our steeple is not seem for miles.  We are not on some busy thoroughfare that be easily accessed. One must actually seek us out here on this side street in north Fargo. Our pews don’t match. We aren’t fancy. We smell of incense and regular intense worship. By some people’s standards, why would anyone worship here

But…but… we are a spiritual powerhouse! And we make a big difference in the lives of the people who seek us out, who worship here, who benefit from the ministries we do here.  We make a difference in those who find a safe place to know the God of love and acceptance here.

This is an amazing place. But I don’t need to tell you that. You, who are here this morning, you know that.  And you know full well that this is a  great time to be at St. Stephen’s.

This past year, as always, you really just stepped up to the plate, again and again. We have a very solid acolyte corps. We have a great Altar Guild. We have people stepping up to do things like Lectoring and Worship Leader and Eucharistic Visitor and Preaching. We have people working in the gardens and on the maintenance of our building. We have a gorgeous Memorial Garden in which people are buried with dignity and beauty and Christ’s blessing.  We have people helping out in the Pride Parade and Sundaes on Sunday and in ministry in East Africa and in many other areas.
Our liturgical and musical life here at St. Stephen’s rivals that of many cathedrals.  And look at these gorgeous stained glass windows! In the next few months, it is going to look different in here.

And most importantly—most importantly of all—we continue to stand up for the refugee, for the vulnerable, for the marginalized, for those who are being excluded. And let me tell you, there ARE people this morning who are being marginalized and it is us—the followers of Jesus, the Body of Christ in this world—who need to speak out for them!

Yes, this so-called little church in northeast Fargo is a true spiritual power house. There is an abundance of spiritual energy emanating from this place, emanating from the people here, emanating from this altar.  It is an amazing place to be, as we all, this morning, know full well.  This seemingly little congregation in north Fargo continues to be a force to be reckoned with—in our city, in the Diocese, in our country and in the world.

To others, it just doesn’t seem possible. But to us, who are here, who are living our ministries, we know it is true.

But like any State of the Union address, I have to say this as well.  We do still have much more to do.  We have not even begun to exhaust the resources we have here in this congregation.  There is still much more potential.  There are still many opportunities for growth here.  There are still more opportunities to stand up and speak out!  We still have much ministry to do.

And God is calling us.  God is pushing us.  God is moving us to proclaim the Good News of Jesus and to further the Kingdom of God in our very midst. God is moving us to work for steadfast love, for justice and for righteousness in an unraveling world.

It is a great time to be here at St. Stephen’s.  As you have heard me say many, many times, things are “popping.”  As someone who hasn’t had a day off in two weeks, I can tell you: things are popping here.  And this outpouring of the Holy Spirit’s love and grace in our congregation should be bringing smiles to our faces and joy to our hearts.

But it should also be bringing a jolt of energy to our feet and hands.  It is not the time to sit back complacently and revel in these blessings.  It is time to share them.  It is time to get up and make sure those channels of the Spirit of Jesus—Jesus, the ultimate Refugee— in our midst remain open and flowing.  It is time to make sure that the flow of the Holy Spirit’s life and love through the conduit of this congregation to others remains unhindered and free.

We proclaim things not because we are bragging.  Rather we boast, in the proper way of boasting, in all that we are doing for God.  And we should be boasting in all that God is doing for us here at St. Stephen’s.

The successes here at St. Stephen’s are not a result of anything any one single person here is doing.  The successes here at St. Stephen’s are a result of we all are doing together. We are all working hard.  We are all stepping up to the plate and making this place a place of holiness, of renewal, of radical hospitality to those who needs radical hospitality.  We together are making this a place in which God’s presence and love can dwell and from which it can emanate.

So, my fellow ministers here at St. Stephen’s, let us boast in a humble and thankful way.  Let us rejoice.   Let us celebrate.  And let us together give thanks to God who is present among us this morning.  Let us give thanks to God, who has come to us as a Spirit of steadfast love and justice and righteousness.  Let us rejoice in the God who is present with us in Jesus, whose Body and Blood we will share at this altar.  And let us celebrate the God who is present in us as a Holy People, blessed and renewed and commissioned to go out to share this blessing and renewal with others.




Sunday, January 22, 2017

3 Epiphany

January 22, 2017

1 Corinthians 1.10-18; Matthew 4.12-23

+ I know this won’t come as too much of a surprise to many of you. Or maybe it will. Either way, I feel the need to confess this, I think. I have never found this idea of “following” a great one. I know I preach a lot about following Jesus and how a Christian is a follower. But, deep down, such talk really grates on me at times. Being a follower in my understanding has never been something I enjoyed.

I was never a follower. I’ve always kind of done my own thing. And so when we come across this talk of Jesus telling us to follow him, I will do it. I get it. I understand it. And I try hard to do it. But it has not been easy for me at times.

And I can imagine if I had lived in his time, I would’ve been the one who would have done so a bit reluctantly. I would have been the disciple standing off to the side, with my arms crossed. I’d be there. I’d be listening. And I would follow. But I’d do so with a big of a drag in my feet as I did it. And you know what? That’s all right.

The fact is, we don’t all have to follow Jesus in the same way. Some of us might be enthusiastic. Some of us might…not.  Following Jesus doesn’t mean conforming. It doesn’t mean being a stereotype. It doesn’t mean I have to follow him the same way you follow him. We can follow in our own particular way.

The key isn’t how we follow him. The key is that we simply do follow in whatever we can.  Following—and this is real point for me in all of this—doesn’t mean conforming. 

Which is what makes us, especially here at St. Stephen’s, so…how shall I say it...eclectic. Notice that I didn’t say eccentric. Though we are definitely that as well.  And following Jesus in our own unique ways sometimes means that there will be differences of opinions.

There are divisions in our churches and—I guess I don’t have to really say this—there are divisions in our society right now.  If you don’t think so—uh, where were you this past week? We are divided. Even here this morning, there are diverse views in our divisions regarding where we are in this country and society. And it’s unfortunate that such divisions have to exist.

But, in our following Jesus, although there can variety, although we can be eclectic, we cannot allow ourselves to be divided from each other. We can have differences of opinions. We can argue about semantics. We can debate the fine aspects of how to live our lives as Christians. But if we are following Jesus, we cannot be divided from each other in our following.

“Has Christ been divided?” Paul asks this morning his letter to the Corinthians.  The answer, of course, is no.  Christ cannot be divided.  And that same thinking can be applied to Christ’s Church. Yes, there may be denominational divisions, or, as we are seeing right now,  political divisions or even physical divisions, but the fact remains that the Church continues to be the Church Undivided in even the midst of all the wrangling and fighting and misunderstanding.

Even death does not divide us.  We are also part of the Church that dwells now in the nearer Presence of God.  We are living, at this moment—all of us—with a certain level of fear.  In our lives, in this country of ours and in the world. And it is a fear that can truly destroy and wreak havoc.

If we as Christians are to face what seems to be overwhelming fear in our country, we need to be united. We cannot let these fears divide us.  When we gather together—even two or three of us—Christ himself and the whole Church, both here on earth and in the nearer Presence of God is present fully and completely.  

And the great reminder to us of this undivided Body of Christ is baptism. We are sealed against division, against fear, against the forces of darkness that may seem at times to prevail in this world by our baptism.

A few weeks ago I preached about how, in these waters of baptism all of us were made
equal. If you ever notice, at our funerals here at St. Stephen’s, the urn of ashes or the coffin is always covered with a white pall.  The use of the pall is not just one of those quant things we Episcopalians do.  It is not simply some fancy cloth we place over our mortal remains to add a touch of class to the service (though it does do that).  There is a very practical reason for placing the pall on the urn or coffin.  We put the cloth on because, no matter how fancy and expensive or cheap and inexpensive an urn or casket may be, before the altar, at the funeral, no distinction is made, just as, in God, there is no distinction between any of us.

We are all equally loved children of God.  We are essentially on equal ground under that pall. We are all the same.  

And, in so many ways, that pall represents baptism as well. Just as the pall is the great equalizer at funerals, baptism is the truly great equalizer in our Christian lives.  Our baptism—that singular event that made us Christians—is the starting out point of our lives as Christians and the common factor in those lives.  And just as importantly, that holy moment in our lives was the first moment when we were all compelled to preach the Kingdom of God. Without fear.

Yes, many of us are living in fear.  But, our fears died in those waters in which we were washed.  Our baptismal call is to stand up—strongly, surely, and without fear—to proclaim our equality before God.  Without fear.  To a large extent, what happened at our baptisms was the first major step in our direction of being followers of Jesus.  It was the day in which we essentially were called by Jesus , as Jesus called the disciples in today’s Gospel, to be fishers of people.

Baptism is the first of many steps in following Jesus.  And when we see that—when we see our following of Jesus beginning at that very moment in our lives in which we were baptized—we realize how following Jesus is truly a life-long experience.

In our collect for today, we prayed

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works…

That is what Baptism does.  It compels us to answer the call of Jesus and to proclaim to all people the Good News of the Kingdom of God.  And the first volley of that proclamation began at our baptism.

In today’s Gospel, when we find Jesus and his first followers going through Galilee, “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom,” we realize that call to us to be “fishers of people” is not necessarily a call to holier-than-thou. It is not a call to be exactly like everyone else in our proclamation.  Proclaiming the good news and being fishers of people might simply involve us communicating the truth of that reality in our own unique way It means proclaiming Christ through our demeanor, through the choices we make in our lives and the very way we live our lives.  It means standing up for what is right in our way. And it means doing so without fear.

If we do so in such a way, our whole life then becomes a kind of walking sermon, even if we personally don’t say a word.  And to a large extent this unique personhood that we received from God was formed in the waters of baptism.

“Follow me and I will make you fishers for people,” Jesus said to those first followers. And he continues to say that to each of us this morning.

So, let us follow him.  Let us follow him from the waters in which we were washed to whatever place he leads us in our lives. Let us stand up for truth. Without fear. Let us not let fear win out in our lives and in this world.

We are the ones who can stand up and fight against fear and injustice and inequality by simply being who we are. We have nothing to fear.  We have been formed and blessed in those waters of baptism. As baptized followers of Jesus we are protected in a unique and holy way.  Let us go out and proclaim this amazing message in our own unique and eclectic way. Let us fish for people and let us bring in a hearty harvest.  This is what it is all about.  This is how we truly follow Jesus where he leads.  And knowing this—truly knowing that—we can follow him with joy and gladness singing in our hearts.



Sunday, January 15, 2017

2 Epiphany

January 15, 2017

John 1.29-42

+ A few weeks ago, our Senior Warden, Cathy McMullen and Michael McMullen gave me a wonderful Birthday/Christmas/Epiphany gift, a biography of the infamous Russian religious figure, Rasputin. I love the book!  It was a fascinating book about Rasputin and the fall of the Romanov dynasty.

But surprisingly, what I found truly interesting was some of the back history about religious life in Russia before the Revolution.  And I soon found myself exploring, on my own, some of those religious expressions, namely a branch of Russian Orthodoxy called hesychasm. Hesychasm was—and is—a mystical ascetical expression of the Orthodox Church that was prevalent in Russia right up to the Revolution one hundred years ago. 

As I read some articles and historical accounts I found myself going down a kind of rabbit hole. I’m sure some of you history buffs do this on occasion. You find yourself going down side stories and interesting tidbits that go hither and yon.

Somehow, my rabbit hole led from Rasputin to hesychasm to a fascinating view in orthodoxy regarding the Lamb of God. Namely, the fact that, in the Orthodox Church, they do not allow any representations of the Lamb of God.  Yes, there is Jesus in his human form, of course, depicted in icons. But they do not allow any representations of Jesus as the Lamb of God. Which shocked me. (I already sort of knew this about Orthodoxy, but never really have it a second thought).   

So, my rabbit hole got deeper as I tried to find out why. Which led me to the Council of Trullo. The Council of Trullo was held in 692,  I’m not going to go into all the controversies that were going on the Eastern church at the time.  I invite you to go and explore them—they’re fascinating if you’re into all those things. But I will share what the Council of Trullo ultimately decided about the Lamb of God. Its  82nd canon declared:

In certain reproductions of venerable images, the precursor [St. John the Baptist] is pictured indicating the lamb with his finger. This representation was adopted as a symbol of grace. It is a hidden figure of that true lamb who is Christ, our God, and shown to us according to the Law. Having thus welcomed these ancient figures and shadows as symbols of the truth transmitted to the Church, we prefer today grace and truth themselves as a fulfillment of this law. Therefore, in order to expose to the sight of all that which is perfect, at least with the help of painting, we decree that henceforth Christ our God must be represented in His human form but not in the form of the ancient lamb.

In other words, they didn’t want people to think that Christ was really an actual lamb, with fleece and hoofs. Sort of like the lamb we find on today’s bulletin. It was only a description of him.  And, as such, should not be represented in art and icons.

All of this, of course, hits home to me this week because 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 hit 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. Now, we can kind of see where those bishops of Trullo are coming from. 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 always have just a fluffy little lamb.  In our images of the lamb, if you look at them closely, we see the Lamb pierced.  We see blood pouring from the side of the Lamb.  We see a sacrificed Lamb.

In our Sunday Mass, we sing the Agnes Dei—the Lamb of God—after I have broken the bread.  I am so happy that we do.  This “fraction anthem” as we call it, carries such meaning. In it we sing:

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.”

This shed blood. This broken body.  This sacrifice. That is what we hold up.

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 real 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. The hesychasts of pre-revolutionary Russia would be proud with such a revelation.

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, say, “This is the Lamb of God. This is the One who takes away the sins of the world…”?

Yes, 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 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 Christ, this God who knew pain and suffering and death—and we share this Christ 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 broken Lamb.  We must recognize the Lamb, broken for us, so that we then 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 broken and given 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 8, 2017

1 Epiphany

The Baptism of Our Lord

January 8, 2017

Isaiah 42.1-9; Matthew 3.13-17

+ Sometimes—oftentimes—when one preaches week in, week in, the preacher maybe—sometimes—oftentimes—falls into ruts. We preachers too are at the whim of our obsessions, whatever might be right on the surface in our lives, or what have you.

So, of course, on this Sunday—this Sunday of the Baptism of Our Lord, this Sunday in which we officially end the Christmas season—yeah, you kinda know where I’m going.  You know it’s gonna be another of one of those Fr. Jamie Baptism sermons.  Because, as you know, there are few things I like preaching about more than baptism.

It could be worse, right?

Of course I’m going to preach about baptism today.  After all, we’re celebrating the Baptism of Jesus today! And of course, how can we not talk about baptism? And ministry?

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 the rectory 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 47 years ago—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 here 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 forever.”

You have heard me preach on those words many times before. And trust me, I will preach them again and again. I will because they are probably the most important words we are ever going to hear in our lives.  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.  Forever.  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.  Forever is forever.

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. 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 homophobia or sexism 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 stand and renew the vows we made at baptism.  When we are done, I will sprinkle you with water. 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 Christians, 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.  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.  Amen.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Holy Name of Jesus

Holy Name
January 1, 2016

Numbers 6.22-27, Psalm 8, Galatians 4.4-7 and Luke 2.15-21


+ Happy New Year. I always sort of revel in the New Year. I really kind of like this time. I love getting up early on New Year’s Day and driving around town. It is so quiet and so serene.

This getting up early on New Year’s Day is a new tradition for me, especially ever since I became a teetotaler a few years ago. It’s nice waking up on New Year’s Day and not having a hangover, or, as my mother calls it, the “bottle flu.” There is always something so hopeful and wonderful about New Year’s Day.

But…I am going to share a story of a time when it wasn’t so wonderful and hopeful in my life. Fifteen years ago, as the new year of 2002 began, I faced a bleak new year. I had just been laid off from a job I really enjoyed because, surprise of surprises, I had some issues with my superiors. If you thought I was rebellious now, you should’ve seen me back in 2001!

It was an unpleasant situation, and two days after Christmas, they informed me that they were letting me go due to a “financial shortfall.”   I knew the real reason., We all did.

But I limped toward the end of that year beaten down a bit. I was still three years away from being ordained a priest, and the past year had been a particularly difficult one for me in ministry. I was still transitioning from my pre-ministry life to the stark realities of what real ministry was like. And, let’s just say, it was hard. And it wasn’t always fun.

As that New Year dawned, I, for the first time in several years, had very serious doubts about whether I should be ordained or not.   And I was, to put it bluntly, struggling. I was definitely praying for an answer, but no clear answer came.

In fact, rather than a clear answer telling me I should definitely go forward, the new year brought me a bigger devastation than losing my job. In February of 2002, I was diagnosed with cancer.  And I spent most of the rest of that year getting better.

It’s not the most pleasant story for us to hear on this New Year’s Eve. But…actually it kind of is. The answers I received to the prayers I was praying on that bleak New Year’s Day in 2002 were answered. They were just not answered in the ways I expected, or even wanted. My zeal for being a priest was renewed. I was healed. I got well. I pushed forward. And look! I endured.

And when anyone asked me then, or even now, what got me through, I say:

The love of my parents, the support of my friends and the Holy Name of Jesus.

In the midst of the stress and turmoil of it all, in those moments, when I couldn’t form a tangible prayer in my head, the prayer I prayed most was simply the Name of Jesus. If any of you have ever been anointed by me in the hospital or at any other time, you will have invariably heard me repeat a wonderful passage that we find in the Book of Common Prayer. It goes,

The Almighty Lord, who is a strong tower to all who put their trust in him, to whom all things in heaven, on earth, and under the earth bow and obey: Be now and evermore your defense, and make you know and feel that the only Name under heaven given for health and salvation is the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

That passage spoke loudly to me back in 2002, especially when I was so sick. And you know what? It speaks loudly to us this morning as we begin this year of 2017.

Today, we celebrated the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.   This feast used to be known at the Circumcision of Our Lord.  We have kept the feast, but we’ve changed the name, probably for good reason.  On the eighth day following Jesus’ birth, he, like all Jewish males born in his time, was brought to the temple, circumcised and named. 

His name, Jesus or Joshua, Yeshua in Hebrew, was a common name in his day.  There are two differing translation of the name: one is “God with us.”  The other is “God saves,” or more specifically “God saves us from our sins.”

Today is an important feast. It’s a VERY important feast. Because, that Name is important to us. It’s important to those of who have been healed by it. It’s important for those of us who have found that it is, at times, the only prayer we can pray.

Today’s feast also reminds us that we do truly have an intimate relationship with God. God is no longer a nameless, distant deity.  God has a name.  The God who came to us in Jesus has a name. 

Names, after all, are important.  Our names are important to us.  They define us.   We have been trained to respond when we hear our name called.  We, in effect, are our names.  Our names and ourselves are bound inexorably together.   Our name is truly who we are.

The same can be said of God.  In the Old Testament God reveals the Divine Name as Yahweh.  Yahweh is such a sacred and holy word to Jewish people that it cannot even be repeated.  In a sense, the name Yahweh becomes so intertwined with Who God is that is becomes, for the Jews, almost like God.   And I agree completely.

It is the Name God revealed to Aaron.  God said,

“they shall put my name—Yahweh—on them and I will bless them.”

The message here to all of us is that to have a truly meaningful relationship with anyone—to truly know them—we need to know them by their name.

So, too, is this same idea used when we think about our own relationship with God and, in turn, God’s relationship with us.  God knows us by name and we know God by name. This is important.  God is not simply some distant Being we vaguely comprehend.  God is close.  God is here, with us.  God knows us and we know God.   We know each other by name.

This is why the name of Jesus is important to us.   That is why we give the Name a certain level of respect. Like the Name that was revealed to Aaron, so has the Name of our God been revealed to us.   And like the name Yahweh to the Jews, the Name of Jesus is holy and sacred to us Christians. 

Certainly even for us, the Name is a vital and important part of what we believe as Christians.   The collect for today recalls that the name of Jesus is the “sign of our salvation.” 

Now, I don’t see that as a sweet, overly sentimental notion.  I see it as a very important part of who we are as Christians.

As most of you know, I try very hard to take the Name of Jesus very seriously. Coming from a more Anglo-Catholic background, you’ll notice during our liturgy on Sunday or Wednesday night, I bow my head every time the Name of Jesus is mentioned.   Again, I don’t see that as an overly pious action.  I see it as a sign of respect for Jesus at a time when his Name is widely abused and misused.

We’ve all done it.  We’ve all sworn, using the Name in a disrespectful way.  I’ve done it.  We have not given the rightful respect to God’s name in our lives, even when we know full well that a name is more than just a name.

A Name is, in a sense, one’s very essence.   Certainly in the case of Jesus case, it is.  Jesus is “God with us.”  Jesus is “God saving us.”  By this very name we have a special relationship with this God who has come among us. We belong to this God whose name we know.  God, in Jesus, has come to all of us.  God in Jesus knows each of us by name.  We are special to our God. We are, each of us, deeply loved and cared for by our God.

Certainly those of us who are Christian know this in a unique way. When we were baptized, we, like Jesus eight days after his birth, were named. At our baptism, we were signed as Christ’s own forever. We were claimed by God by name. By Baptism, our own names became holy names. By Baptism, God came to know us by name and because of that, our names are sanctified. We bear in us our own holy name before God.

So today—this day we celebrate not only God’s holy name but our own as well—and in the days to come, take to heart the fact that God’s name is holy and sacred. Be mindful of the words you use and be mindful of that name of Jesus in your life.  
But also be mindful of your own holy name.   When you hear your own name, remember that it is the name God knows you by and, as a result, it is truly holy. In sense our own names can be translated as “God with us.”  When we hear our names, let us hear “God saves us.” And let us be reminded that God knows us better than anyone else—even our own selves. Claim the holiness of your name and know that God in Jesus is calling you to your own fullness of life by name. Amen.