Sunday, January 26, 2020

3 Epiphany


January 26, 2020

1 Corinthians 1.10-18; Matthew 4.12-23

+ I have a major fault in my life.

I need to confess this, I think.

In our Gospel reading for today, we hear about “following” Jesus.

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.

As many of you know.

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 bit 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.


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 way we can.

I think it’s appropriate at that we talk about our following of Jesus today.

After all, it is Annual Meeting Sunday.

It is the Sunday in which we gather together to look at where we’ve been this last year and to look forward into the next year.

It is a time for us to stop and to think about the unique and eclectic ways in which we can follow Jesus in this coming year as a congregation and as individuals.

But, as I say that, I want to stress one very important thing:

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, you haven’t been keeping up with the news, especially 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 even in 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 Gd.

One thing that’s clear, we all deal with our own fears in this life.

I see it again and again in the ministry I do.

There is a lot of fear out there.

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, 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 Christ, 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 our first step on that path.

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, and in our year ahead.

So, today, on this Annual Meeting Sunday, 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 this—we can follow him with joy and gladness singing in our hearts.





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.

Amen.