Sunday, January 16, 2022

2 Epiphany


 January 16, 2022

 

Isaiah 62.1-5; John 2.1-11

 

+ So, if I was going to ask you to define for me what it means to be a Christian, what would you say?

How do you define someone being a Christian?

How do you define yourself as a Christian?

It’s a very important question when you think about it.

Because many of us might have very different answers.

Or maybe I should ask you this:

If it was proved—beyond a doubt—that the miracles of Jesus’ life never happened, would that change your faith?

If it was proven beyond a doubt that the virgin birth never happened, that he never walked on water or turned water into wine, or raised the dead, would you still call yourself a Christian?

Is your faith dependent upon these supernatural aspects we encounter in the Gospel.

Or is your faith as a Christian based on something else?

These are important questions to ask ourselves occasionally.

Last week I preached about deconstruction, and all that it entails.

It was a sermon that generated some discussion.

I had several people reach out to me to tell me they were in the same process of deconstructing their faith without even knowing there was a name for it.

Well, I’m going to continue on with this deconstruction discussion.

 Because if we answer the question that I just asked along the lines of,

“one must believe that Jesus performed miracles, and did this and that and we must believe all of those things without question to be considered a Christian”

well, that might be a reason to start taking a good, hard look at deconstruction.

Because we can believe those things.

We can hold those beliefs close to us.

We believe that these things are true, even if they never historically never happened.

Those beliefs can be true for us and might be very important for us to helping us understand our faith.

But, those things do not define what it means to be a Christian.

There are many people who do not believe in those things, who don’t hold these things as factual, but who still call themselves Christian.

And I really hate to break this news to you:

Believing in those things will not “save” us in the end.

At least, not according to scripture.

And if it is proven none of those things happened (and no one will ever prove that to us, I am quick to add), will our faith as Christians is still intact?

It should.

Because our faith is based on loving God and loving others.

Our faith is based on following Jesus.

Our faith is based on living out what Jesus taught, not only on what he did (or may have done).

It is important for us to remember all of that that in our spiritual journey in this life.

Now, again, I’m not saying these miracles never happened.

And I’m certainly not saying that miracles don’t happen.

Trust me, they do.

I have experienced many miracles in this life.

As I’m sure many of you have as well.

AndI do believe that miracels like this actuall can happen.

After all, Jesus is the Messiah.

Jesus is the Son of God.

God worked and contirnues to work uniquely in the Person of Jesus.

And if anyone could do it, Jesus could.

Miracles like the one at Cana still speaks to us, here and now.

In our Gospel reading for today, we find one of those miracles for certain.

 We find in our Gospel reading for today that there’s a problem at this wedding feast.

 The good wine has run out and the wedding feast is about to crash quickly.

 But Jesus turns water into wine and when he does, there is a renewed sense of joy and exultation.

 That I think is the gist of this experience from our gospel reading.

 It is not just some magic trick Jesus performs to wow people.

 It is not some action he performs at the whim of his mother.

 He performs this miracle and in doing so instills joy in those gathered there.

 But more than that, by doing this he does what he always does when he performs a miracle.

 He performs miracles not just for the benefit of those at the wedding.

 It is for our benefit of us as well.

 Because by performing this miracle, he is giving us a glimpse of what awaits us all.

 If we look closely at the story and at some of the details contained in it, we will find clues of the deeper meaning behind his actions.

 First of all, let’s look at those jars of water.

 This is probably the one area we don’t give a lot of thought to.

 But those jars are important.

 They are not just regular jars of water.

 They are jars of water for the purification rites that accompany eating in the Jewish tradition.

 That’s important

 This Jewish sense of purification is important still to us.

 If we think purity isn’t important to us, we’re wrong.

 Purity is important to us.

 Cleanliness and purity are still a part of our lives.

 So, those stone jars of water at the wedding feast are not just for thirst.

 They are about uncleanliness.

 Over and over again in the Gospels, if you notice, Jesus seems to have issues with these laws of purity.

 Or rather, he has issues with people getting too caught up in the rituals of purity.

 Those people who put too much emphasis on the laws, rather than spirit and heart of the law.

 Just as Christian today sometimes put too much emphasis on the miracles and the dogmas of the Church rather on the real heart and spirit of those miracles and dogmas.

 What we see him doing is deconstructing some traditional views on purity.

 And what a way to do it!

 He turns these waters of purity into wine.

 And not just any wine.

 But abundant fine wine that brings about a joy among those gathered. 

 In a sense, what Jesus has done is he has taken the party up a notch.

 What was already a good party is now an incredible party.

 It’s a beautiful image and one that I think we can all relate to.

 The best part of this view of the wedding at Cana is that Jesus is saying to us that, yes, there is joy here in the midst of us, but a greater joy awaits us.

 A greater joy awaits us when the Kingdom of God breaks through into our midst.

 When it does, it is very much like a wedding feast.

 When it does, the waters of purification will be turned into the best-tasting wine because we will no longer have to worry about issues like purity.

 In God’s Kingdom, there is no impurity, no sin, so racism, no homophobia or transphobia or sexism.

 To some extent, the wedding at Cana is a foretaste of what we do every Sunday (and Wednesday) here at this altar.

 It is a foretaste of the Holy Eucharist—the meal we share at this altar.

 And the Jesus we encounter at this feast is not a sweet, obedient son, doing whatever his mother says, though I truly believe there is an almost playful attitude between Jesus and Mary in their exchange.  

 Both Mary and Jesus know who he is and what he can do.

 They know he is the Messiah.

 They know that is he is this unique Son of the Most High God.

 They know that because he is, he is able to do things most people cannot.

 Now, to be fair to Mary, we must realize that at no point does she actually request anything from Jesus, if you notice.

 All she does is state the obvious.

 “There is no wine,” she says.

 She then says to the servants, “Do whatever he asks.”

 No one, if you notice, asks Jesus to perform this miracle.

 And that is important too.

 I will take this one step further.

 I have a standard message at most of the weddings I do.

 It’s adapted to each couple, but the message remains the same.

 And the message carries within it my own understanding of how love and marriage works.

 This coming from your celibate/asexual priest—your aromantic asexual priest nonetheless.

 I say this at weddings.

 Love and marriage are a grace from God.

 But to truly understand that statement we have to understand what “grace” is in this context.

 My definition of grace is this:

 Grace is a gift we receive from God that we neither ask for nor even anticipated.

 It is something God gives us out God’s own goodness.

 Love and marriage are often—often, not always—signs of grace.

 Oftentimes the right person comes into our lives at just the right time.

 No matter how much we might want to control such situations, the fact is we cannot.

 That person comes into our lives on God’s terms, not ours.

 Often it happens when we least expect that person.

 But when they do come into our lives, our lives change.

 That is how grace works.

 God’s grace changes our lives.

 We can’t control God’s grace.

 We can’t really even petition God and ask God for a particular grace.

 Grace is just there because God chooses to grant us grace.

 That’s how grace works.

 It just happens on God’s own terms.

 Sometimes we might not even deserve it.

 But God—in God’s goodness—just gives us this one right thing in our lives.

 And all we can do, in the face of that grace, is say, “Thank you, God.”

 That to me only cements the fact that what happens at Cana happens each time we gather together at this altar for the Eucharist.

 Here too, at this altar, we see Jesus reflected in this wine.

 And in each other!

 Just like the wedding at Cana, this Eucharist we celebrate is a foretaste of that meal of which we will partake in the Kingdom.

 In that meal, the words of the prophet Isaiah that we heard earlier this morning will be spoken to us as well:

 “for the Lord [will delight] in you,

And your land shall be married.

For as a young man marries a young woman,

So shall your builder marry you.

And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,

So shall your God rejoice over you.”

 God rejoices over you!

 In God, our truest and deepest joy will come springing forth.

 So, as we come forward for Communion this morning, let us do so with that image of the wedding feast of Cana in our hearts and minds.

 Let us look, and see the image of Jesus reflected in the Communion wine. And in one another.  

 Let us know that what we experience today is not a magic trick.

 We come forward to a miracle.

 We come forward to a sign of God’s kingdom breaking through into our very midst.

 We come forward to partake of an incredible grace.

 And all we can do, in that holy moment, is say,

 “Thank you, God!”

 Let us pray.

 Loving God, you delight in bestowing your grace upon us, and turning the water of our complacent ways into the wine of new understanding; help us to see the miracles your perform in our very midst in our everyday life, and when we do, help us to see with new eyes your Reality in this world; we ask this in Jesus’s name.

 

 

 

 

Sunday, January 9, 2022

1 Epiphany/The Baptism of Jesus

 


January 9, 2022

Luke 3.15-17, 21-22

+ Our Gospel this morning begins with this fascinating statement:

 “…the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts..”

 These people, who were about to witness the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, are filled with expectation, and questioning in their hearts.

 I think most of us can relate to that.

 We know what it’s like to be filled with expectation.

 And certainly here at St. Stephen’s, we know a few things about questioning in our hearts.

 In many ways, this is what we are dealing with as progressive Christians right now, in this strange time in which we live.

 Here we are, living in (hopefully) the ending of a pandemic.

 But even more so, we, as Christians, have just endured several years of political upheaval in our country.

 And that political upheaval also involved many people claiming to be Christians, who have held high the name of Jesus in situations that we hopefully find offensive and terrible.

 Of course this last Thursday was the first anniversary of the January 6 Insurrection—and it WAS an insurrection, it was an attempt to overthrow our government, and to undo the last election, and to overthrow democracy, there is no doubt about it.

 Don’t call it a riot.

 We are still dealing with the after-effects of that event.

 And we will for many years to come.

 This event is indelibly written into our history now.

 But what offended me most—no, what truly angered me—as I watched in 2021, and as I re-watched the events last Thursday, was the overabundance of Christian placards at that Insurrection.

 


Did you notice them?

 Jesus’ name was all over the place.

 It was there as the windows were being broken.

 It was there as the doors of the capitol were battered against and knocked down.

 It was there as the senate chambers and our elected officials’ offices were ransacked.

 It was there beside the noose on which they planned to hang to hang Vice-President Pence because he wouldn’t go along with their plans to undo the rightful


election.

 For me I am more than offended to find the Name of Jesus being used in such a blasphemous way.

 The people who were doing this felt justified to do what they did by their political leaders AND by their religious leaders.

 And many of them were doing it (they felt) in the name of Jesus.


 
They did it because they saw themselves as “Christians.”

 Which leaves the rest of us Christians—the majority of us, I am quick to remind you—shocked and appalled and furious.

 Is this what Christianity has been reduced to now?

 How do we go on as Christians if this is what we are being reduced to?

 And when you start thinking that was happened a year ago as some isolated incident that we should just get over, the fact is there are many, many Christians right now who simply can’t.

 I am one of them.

 There are ripple effects to everything.

 There are consequences to actions.

 And we will be dealing with the consequences of these actions for years to come.

 Now, I will tell you, you will be hearing, if you haven’t already, about a new thing happened in Christianity right now called Deconstruction.


 Many Christians, in the wake of this blatant high jacking of our Christian faith by people who have made Christianity into a circus of hatred and violence, who have made Christianity into a force of American Nationalism and have formed an ugly white, spray-tanned, blond idol out of Jesus, are struggling with our faith.

 How do we move on from this—this disgusting reduction of all we hold dear?

 How do we go on as Christians when we have seen such ugliness and violence and racism in the name of our faith, in the name of Jesus, whom we love and follow, when we have seen our faith distorted and bastardized by these small-minded people who have allowed themselves to be deceived and brainwashed by conspiracy theories and talk show hosts?

 How do we separate the Jesus we follow—that middle-eastern Jew who sided with the marginalized and discarded of this earth—from the white, Americanized Jesus behind whom are amassed these ugly, hate-filled people?

 That is what many of us are struggling with.

 And will be struggling with for a long time to come.

 Many are just leaving.

 Many are separating themselves from Christianity as a result.

 I cannot tell you how many times I have people come to me and say, “I am embarrassed to call myself a Christian if this is what Christianity has become.”

 I feel the same way.

 But I will stay.

 And I will do everything in my power ( as limited as it is) to reclaim the name Christian.

 But in the process of stating, some of us are being forced to deconstruct our faith, so we can rebuild it again.

 I will be talking a lot about deconstruction in the future.

 It is certainly something, as some of you know, that I have been doing in my own faith life for the last several years.

 I have been forced to question some things in my faith that I never thought of questioning before.

 And, let me tell you, it is not a fun process.

 It is often very painful.

 It is often the equivalent of pulling a tooth or having surgery.

 But sometimes we must do it if we want to continue on.

 Sometimes we must do it is we want a real, living faith.

 Because Deconstruction usually is followed by reconstruction.

 And it also means that we are able to truly come to a belief in those things that really do sustain us.

 One of the areas in my own personal deconstruction and reconstruction is baptism.

 How appropriate to talk about this on the Sunday of Jesus’ own Baptism.

 I seriously took a long, hard look at baptism.

 And I came away with a deep conviction that something amazing and powerful happened to each of us in those waters of baptism.

 BUT I also came to the conclusion that we MUST jettison our beliefs that baptism is somehow an initiation into things like Communion.

 The official belief in the Episcopal Church is that all BAPTIZED people may receive Holy Communion.

 My issue with that is that I think such a rule minimalizes not only Holy Communion but Baptism also.

 WHO at the last supper was baptized?

I know of only One.

 The One whom we encounter being baptized in today’s Gospel.

 We know nothing about any of the others there being baptized.

 But Jesus still fed them all.

 Yes, even Judas, the one who would betray him.

 This is one of those areas that we, as Christians, in our personal deconstruction/reconstruction, must grapple with.

 And in doing so, we will find that our understanding and belief of both Baptism and Holy Communion have expanded and made even more real for us.

 After all, we need to hold close to our hearts the first great example being set.

 As Jesus comes out of those waters, as the Holy Spirit, like a dove, descends upon him, he hears the words from God:

 “You are my Son, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

 Here the standard is set.

 Here the breakthrough has happened.

 From now on, this is essentially what has been spoken to each of us at our own baptisms:

 “You are my child, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

 For most of us, we have no doubt taken for granted our baptisms.

 We have viewed baptism as no more than a quaint christening service for babies—a kind of dedication ceremony.

 Or worse yet, an initiation ceremony into the “club” of Christianity.

 Baptism is much, much more than that.

 As you hear me say again and again, baptism is THE defining moment in our lives as Christians.

 Whether we remember the event or not, it was the moment when our lives changed.

 It was the moment we became new.

 It was, truly, our second birth.

 When some Christians ask you, “Have you been born again?” you can tell them in no uncertain terms: “Oh, yes I have actually!”

 You can, “I was reborn in the waters of life and marked as Christ’s own forever on the day of my baptism.”

 But, what baptism cannot do is separate us from others.

 It cannot put us into a camp of “us” versus “them.”

 It cannot give us an excuse to exclude anyone from our church, or our table.

 One of the biggest complaints I get from Episcopalians and Lutherans and others are the frustrations they have when they attend a Roman Catholic Mass and what they view as their restrictive view on the Eucharist.

 Actually I have LOT of issues about it as well, as you have heard me say many times.

 But what I really cringe at is when I hear anyone say, “I don’t care what they say about Communion. I am going to go up and receive anyway. I am a Christian. I believe what they believe. They can’t exclude me!”

 I always say this in response:

 Please don’t. Don’t disrespect them in their own house. But rather, sit back. Stay in your pew. And when you do, do this: Look around.

 Look around at the others who also are not going up.

 It is those people I feel closest in moments like that.

 Because it is with them—the unbelievers, the ostracized, the excluded, those who aren’t “in,” yes, even the unbaptized—that Jesus is truly present.

 You want real Holy Communion, is right there, right then.

 And when we exclude from our own altar, we run the very real risk of losing the Presence of Christ in our midst.

 THAT is the real power of baptism.

 The paradoxical power of baptism is making us truly aware of how much we need to side with those who are not baptized, of those who are not “in,” of those who are excluded, or simply cannot allow themselves to be included.

 In the waters of our baptism, we were reborn as children of our loving and caring God.

 We became what was Jesus is.

 We can, from the very moment of our baptism, trace our relation with God our Parent—the God who recognizes us and loves us and accepts us and embraces us.

 BUT becoming what Jesus is means being where Jesus is in this world.

 And Jesus, I have learned through my years of deconstruction/reconstruction, is in that paradoxical place on the fringes of our society AND our church.

 The bond that is made at baptism is one that truly can never be broken.

 That relationship that was formed with God in those waters is eternal.

 In baptism, we truly see that we are God’s child.    

 For ever.

 We become God’s own Beloved.

 God never denies us.

 But we must accept the fact that there are some people who, for whatever reasons, just cannot make that commitment, who cannot see this amazing thing in those waters, but who are also children of God.

 Who still desire Jesus in some way, whether they even know it or now.

 Who still desire some Presence of Christ in this world, even if they might not even be aware that it is Christ they long for.

 To deny them the Presence of Christ in the Bread and the Wine of the Holy Eucharist is cruel.

 And it is blatantly unchristian.

More than that, it is diametrically opposed to what we as baptized Children of God are called to do in this world.

We have to fight to not become those Christians that are causing so many of us to deconstruct a faith we have held dear for so long.

We have to fight not to become those people who turn others away from Christ.

We as baptized Christians must fight hard to not become ugly stereotypes of what Christianity is right now in this country.

We, as loved children of a loving God, must work hard to not be manipulative, controlling, gossipy, backbiting, unloving people.

We must not hide behind the name of Jesus as we call for destruction and death on those who don’t follow out own deceptions.

We must not be what our critics accuse of us being.

We must love and respect each other equally.

Our baptism forces us out into the world to be a part of the world and, by doing so, to transform the world.

 In a few moments, I will come through the nave and will sprinkle you with holy water.

 As that water touches you, remember how God loves you and cherishes you.

 And when you leave church, pay attention to the baptismal font in the narthex and the blessed water in it.

 Touch that water, bless yourselves with it, and when you do, remember it as a reminder of that wonderful event in your life which marked you forever as God’s very own.

 But let us not see this amazing event as some special, exclusive initiation.

 Rather let us see it as a radical event in our lives that puts us in the company of those who are on the fringes of our life, our society and our church.

 When we do, it is then that those words spoken to Jesus on the day of his baptism are spoken to us again and again.

 “You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

 Let us pray.

Loving God, we are so grateful for what you did for your Loved One Jesus in those waters in the Jordan River; we are thankful for what you did in the waters of our own baptism; help us to live a truly baptismal life of love, of acceptance, of inclusion, of radically embracing those who are excluded, of those who are on the fringes. Help us to be Jesus in this world to those who need Jesus. And especially help us who are struggling to rebuild our faith so that we can truly live a faith pleasing to you. In Jesus’s Name we pray. Amen.