Sermon for Epiphany 1 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Every year on this Sunday, the same question inevitably arises in the minds of the faithful. “If Baptism is for the remission of sins, and Christ was like us in every way but sin, why in heavens name did he need to be baptized?!”
It’s a natural question, but I think it stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of Holy Baptism. It is certainly the case that we believe Baptism to be for the forgiveness of sins. The Nicene Creed says as much, and the Church Fathers explain that even those who are not guilty of particular sins, primarily infants, are nonetheless subject to the stain of original sin, that sad state of affairs enacted by the fall whereby no one can escape sin’s reality by their own efforts. Thus, we are all in need of Baptism for the remission of sins, but to view Baptism as only effecting our state in this regard is to take a rather narrow view of a complex Sacrament which effects us in more ways than that, and it confuses the nature of Christ’s own baptism.

Let’s take another look at the Gospel Reading:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Now, Jesus’ baptism seemed to effect something quite different than the remission of sins, of which, remember, he was not in need. Instead, we learn from his Baptism something about his relationship to the Godhead. We learn about his intimate connection to the Father and the Holy Spirit. For Christ, this was a relationship which was already a reality. The Creation Story in Genesis makes this much clear, when we see the Father creating the world by means of the Word (or Logos) of which Jesus became the embodiment, and we read that God’s Spirit moved over the deep.

This relationship preceded Creation, it has been for eternity in fact, but in the Waters of Baptism, it is made tangible. The Holy Spirit does not arise as a feeling, but descends as a dove. The Father is not presented as a concept, but as a person with a voice which can be heard.

This is very important, because it is what is so unique about the Christian faith. If there is one thing I am reminded of by Jesus’ baptism it is this: It’s not all about some mental or spiritual transcendence whereby we leave the world and live on some different plane of existence. Rather, God is made known in ordinary, tangible stuff.

The mystery of the Trinity is made real when Jesus, a man, stepped into regular old water. Our relationship with the Trinity is effected with regular old water which, by the Grace of God, becomes something extraordinary. The Mystery of Salvation, of Christ’s death and resurrection, is made known to us not through mental gymnastics, but through ordinary water and ordinary bread and ordinary wine which by the Grace of God becomes something extraordinary. We learn from this morning’s lesson from Acts that the presence of the Holy Spirit is effected not by some sort of transcendental meditation, but through the laying on of physical apostolic hands onto a flesh and blood person, just as today, the Grace of the Holy Spirit is made real when the successors of those first apostles lay their hands, ordinary old hands, onto an ordinary head to confirm or ordain someone.

So, Baptism is about more than just the remission of sins, though for us sinners that’s part of the story. Baptism is also about the ability of God to create a relationship with flesh-and-blood people in the material world, the washing away of the stain of original sin being but the first step. It’s about Christ being known not primarily by spiritual athletes who stay in their studies or their cells and just think a lot (as edifying and gratifying as that practice can be from time to time). Nor is it about having some grand “spiritual” experience (again, not a bad thing, but not the point). Rather, the power and glory of God is made present in the midst of remarkably ordinary things: water, bread, wine, flesh, blood. The Grace of God is made present in the gathering of flesh-and-blood people, who’ve been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and maintain holy relationships with God and each other.

We as Christians, and particularly as Anglicans, have an Incarnational faith, which is to say that the reality of God becoming human in Christ Jesus makes all the difference for how we view the world. The world is no longer just a place for “stumbling blocks”, but has become the very locus of God’s saving work. Christ’s Incarnation, His Baptism at the Jordan, His whole life of woe, and his physical, bodily Resurrection all point to the fact that the way to holiness is not by some kind of world-denying levitation, but by being Christians in the material world, among ordinary stuff, acknowledging reality, and watching God make his presence known around us in the midst of that which is commonplace, whether it be ordinary water, ordinary bread and wine, or ordinary people. It is the ordinary things that serve as the vessels God uses to make His Grace known and felt. God does this for us all the time, but how much more wonderful it is when we recognize it: in plain old water, in tasteless bread, in pretty bad wine, in that person sitting next to you, in the midst of ordinary stuff. It takes a great God to forgo thunderbolts and a booming voice and the like to make Himself known in quotidian things; it takes a God who values us, who values our experience, who wants to be in a relationship with us all the time. Thank God that’s our God!

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Christmas Eve 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Reconciliation is something we talk about quite a bit in our church and, increasingly, in the larger society. We teach our children to reconcile their differences; we find joy when marriages, friendships and relationships between parents and their estranged children are reconciled; and we are especially concerned these days that “the reconciling love of God” be made manifest in our national political scene. It is an unfortunate but perhaps unavoidable consequence of our nature that when we speak of reconciliation it is not truly the kind of radical reconciliation that we should hope for. Reconciliation in the plain sense often has the subtext of “letting bygones be bygones,” agreeing to disagree, and so forth. And these are all fine things, they are at least part of the picture, but the reconciliation envisioned by scripture is of a whole other order of magnitude.

The occasion which we have gathered tonight to observe is the celebration of reconciliation in this larger sense. Tonight we celebrate the miracle of the incarnation, that most holy mystery of God made truly human, and we are forced to contemplate what it really means.

Tonight’s gospel reading gives us a clue. “And she wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” We are not presented with Christ the King who draws all to him on the last day, here. We cannot imagine this child as head of the church or as the one who will judge the world from his throne. Instead, we are presented with a Christ who is entirely abased.

The angel who is charged with announcing the child’s birth is not sent to Jerusalem. He is not sent to King Herod or to the Pharisees and Scribes. Rather, he finds shepherds, lowly men from the fields. It is for them, the angel says, that this child is born. When the shepherds find the child they discover his surrounding no less austere than their own. He has not been born in a palace or the Ritz Carlton Bethlehem or even anything resembling a sanitary place to give birth. Instead, God’s Word enters the world in a grubby manger among livestock.

And were Christ to enter the world today it would be in much the same way. He would not be born in a well equipped, safe and sanitary hospital room. More likely, he’d be born to a poor woman in a tent in Syria. Angels wouldn’t fly out to the White House or even Lambeth Palace to announce his birth. They would appear to African men and women suffering from AIDS, to impoverished families in Appalachia, to people living in hovels in Haiti and Calcutta. It is for them, the angel says, that Christ came into the world.

When we really place ourselves in this story we find that this is, perhaps, not the Christ that we wanted to see. Were we to place ourselves at the manger, we’d find Christ in a helpless, pitiful position. He would seem all too human. The risen Christ is a much safer character to us. He is victorious and distant. His story is one which seems to provide a more tangible joy. The birth narrative is less accessible, ironically enough, because its subject is so much like us. One has to dig a bit deeper to see the hope in this story. One has to be a bit more receptive to the Good News it has to tell us.

To put it plainly, one must be prepared come to this Christ while he is in his abjection. One has to see all of the austerity, all of the grubbiness and lack of explicit majesty in the birth of our Lord to understand the nature of Christ. We often think about Jesus as God with us, his glory thinly veiled behind an human facade. Christmas calls us to think of him as a child, the most human of humans, with weakness and need to the point of utter dependence. And inextricably fused with this humanness is Christ’s divinity. It is in total acceptance of this humanness and acceptance of full subjection to the Father’s will; it is in the choice of abasement, of self-subjugation, that we see God in Christ.

Kierkegaard wrote about the need to be contemporary with Christ. The idea is that to fully understand and accept the person of Jesus for who he was and claimed to be, one must place herself in the company of Christ in his lowliness. That is, to fully and sincerely accept this child, she would have to place herself in the shoes of one of his disciples, ignoring two-thousand years of evolution, and sometime devolution, in theology; jettisoning all preconceptions about him; and forgetting about all of that resurrection and coming-again-in-glory business for a little while.

Of course, this is an exercise which is impossible to fully carry out, but we must try. We must place ourselves in the shoes of these shepherds who should have rightly thought this whole business of some kid in a manger in Bethlehem being the messiah rather dubious. The natural inclination one might have would be to dismiss all of it as a little off (“an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato” said Ebeneezer Scrooge), and yet, they believe. They believe that this is God’s work. These shepherds aren’t so partisan as to think that the only place one finds power is in the king’s palace and they are not so doctrinaire as to think that the only place one can meet God is in the temple. Perhaps their simplicity gave them an advantage in this matter. It is a rather difficult thing for us to adopt the simple sincerity of Christ’s first followers. It has been suggested that were Jesus around today, the church would probably pay him little attention. I do not know whether or not this is the case, but it seems an altogether appropriate question to ask ourselves. Would we recognize God in man made thusly manifest.

This brings us back to the idea of reconciliation. Christ’s abasement, his lowly stature as highlighted in the birth narrative, is a central concern in God’s mission in Christ. Jesus’ role was in truly reconciling God and humanity. This required that he be not only fully human and fully divine, but that his humanness be profoundly demonstrated. This is the great apparent contradiction of our faith- the beautiful paradox of Christian orthodoxy. It is also a mystery which holds so much hope for mankind. “Then a virgin conceived,” wrote St. Ambrose, “and the Word became flesh that flesh might become God.” Christ offers that which is more than simply a way to put up with each other despite our differences. In the Word made flesh we are given insight into God’s purpose for us. We are given a chance to live more fully in the knowledge of God. And in this realization and in the choice to live into its implications, we are afforded the chance to see the humanity and, indeed, the sacredness (the spark of divinity) in each other. We are enabled to go beyond “getting along” and instead learn to live in love in certainty that each and every human being is a child of God, beloved of God, and worthy of our own love and care. In this, particularly in the face of all that divides us (those divisions being the work of the tempter) there is great hope in the work of God in Christ reconciling us each to the other. And from this hope rightly springs joy. For the people who walked in darkness have this night seen a great light; all of us who lived in the land of deep darkness-on us light has shined.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Advent 4 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

It’s been a while since I’ve introduced you to a Greek or Latin word in a sermon, so it’s time to make up for that oversight. The word for today is fiat, and I think it may be one of God’s own favorite words. I do not mean to say that God prefers Italian cars or the printing of bank notes. The fiat to which I refer might only be familiar to those who had to struggle, as I did, through high school Latin. It is, those poor souls will know, the third person, singular, present subjunctive of the irregular verb fio, fieri—to become—and it means “let it be”.

I say that it is perhaps God’s favorite word, because this is the word by which God’s will is accomplished in this old world. It is by this word of apparent passivity that men and women are brought into the active work of God’s plan of salvation. It is a word that to utter implies that its speaker must realize his own fallibility and imperfection and God’s own infallibity and perfection. It is a word by which the Christian places her trust in God’s overwhelming providence rather than human ingenuity. It is, in short, the word by which the world is saved.

And it is one particular utterance of the word fiat by which a seminal and singular event in human history came to take place. St. Luke tells us that an angel appeared to Mary and said “behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name ‘Jesus’. He shall be great , and be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God, shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.” Our Lady responded by saying fiat. “Behold the handmaid (or servant girl) of the Lord; be it unto me according to word.”

It is through Our Lady’s free choice that Our Lord was given the chance to live a life of submission himself, a life and death given wholly not to his own will, but that of the Father. This the writer of Hebrews knew well when he wrote that Jesus had said “See, I have come to do your will,” And then explains “[Christ] abolishes the first [covenant] in order to establish the second. And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

So must we all respond to the call of God. Just so must we—like Mary and like her Son—say fiat to God. So must we pray “thy will be done” and mean it. So must we put aside our pride and pettiness that we, like Mary, may say “he that is mighty hath magnified me; and holy is his name.” It is only through humble submission, by saying fiat, “let it be, O God”, that we come to greatness and to glory. We cannot magnify ourselves, we can only fool ourselves into thinking we have done. God, however, has promised to “exalt the humble and meek.”

And so, as we prepare once again to celebrate the birth of the Christ child, let us go even unto Bethlehem with a spirit of humility and contrition. Let us like Mary sing the wonders that were done, knowing that salvation is not of our own making, is not wrought by the strength of our own will, but by the will of Him to whom we bow and obey. For we know that God’s power is made most perfect in weakness, and his glory revealed through the humility.

And let us pray.

O Divine redeemer Jesus Christ, prostrate before thy crib, we believe that thou art the God of infinite majesty, even though we see thee there as a helpless babe. Humbly we adore and thank thee for having so humbled thyself for our salvation as to will to be born in a stable. Would that we could show thee that tenderness which thy Virgin Mother had toward thee, and love thee as she loved thee. Would that we could praise thee with the joy of the angels,; that we could kneel before thee with the faith of Saint Joseph; the simplicity of the shepherds. Uniting ourselves with these first worshippers at the crib, we offer thee the homage of our hearts, and we beg that thou wouldest be born spiritually in our souls. And, O Holy Mary, as we here adore thy Divine Son, pray for all little children and for those not yet born, that they may be protected from all harm and danger, and that they may grow in grace and in favour with God and man. All these things we pray in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.