Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

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

Many of us are probably familiar with that now clichéd quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words. Hackneyed as it is, St. Francis’ admonition is still quite correct. Nevertheless, it seems—in my experience, anyhow—that those who repeat this admonition most forcefully are those who are most likely to give short shrift to one of the admonition’s implications: namely, that sometimes the Gospel may, indeed must, be proclaimed by words as well as deeds. We need only to turn to any of today’s three readings to see that this is so.

First, from the Old Testament, Ezra uses so many words to interpret the book of the Law, that is to express the Good News of God’s covenant with his people, that his sermon lasts from early morning to midday. Paul’s letter from which our Epistle is taken—all sixteen chapters of which would have been read aloud when the Corinthian Christians gathered for worship—uses a great many words to explain how the Good News of Christ’s resurrection should affect the life of the Church in Corinth. And finally, in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus gives perhaps the shortest sermon in the history of the Church; yet, it is a sermon whose few words leave no doubt as to Jesus’ understanding of his own place in the history of salvation: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

And so, we are, as today’s collect put it, “to readily answer the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and to proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation” in both word and deed. Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words. And, yes, sometimes it is necessary to use words.

But what is the Gospel that we are proclaiming? What is the Good News that we are to preach both by word and deed? It took Paul the entirety of his letter to the Romans to answer this question, and I suspect none of us is as smart as Paul was. But I think we can start by ruling out what seem to me to be two prevalent ways of misunderstanding what the Good News is, each of which gives us an important part of the picture, but each of which oversimplifies the Gospel.

The first of these misunderstandings is that the Good News is entirely about social transformation. That is, the Gospel at its very core is really only about meeting the very physical needs of the marginalized—the poor, the hungry, the persecuted, the oppressed, the widow, the orphan, and so forth—and nothing else. The Gospel is all about this world and how Christians can make it a better place. But this understanding of the Gospel doesn’t take account of our (or at least my) stubborn insistence on the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Nor does it account for the fact that we are more than just flesh and bones, but spiritual beings and, as the prayerbook puts it, sinners of Christ’s own saving.

Conversely, the second misunderstanding of the Gospel, is that Christ’s message was entirely other-worldly. This way of construing the Gospel holds that the Church is merely a lifeboat off a shipwrecked world. The Church need not interact with the world in which she finds herself except occasionally to beckon people aboard before they sink into sin for eternity. But this version of the gospel ignores that God himself deigned to come into the world, and while he was here he healed the sick, and fed the hungry, giving us a model for how to conduct our own lives.

And so it seems that the mission of the Church must be to proclaim a gospel which is both this-worldly and other-worldly. We are to proclaim a gospel that transcends this world while still being very much within it. We are in this world, but we are not of it. We preach the Good News of salvation in Christ which not only effects our eternal destination but speaks to our present state as well. We must both speak to the immediate, pressing Bad News of those we come across, giving them the Good News appropriate to them—if they are hungry the good news that they will be fed, if they are homeless the good news that they will find shelter, &c.—and also to the universal Bad News, that we were all once slaves to sin and death, we must proclaim the universal Good News of Christ crucified and raised from the dead, effecting for us the remission of sins and the promise of our own resurrection.

Turning back to today’s gospel reading we recall the passage Jesus quoted from the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captive

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
When we understand the mission of the Church as the proclamation of a Gospel which is both this-worldly and other-worldly, we may read this passage from Isaiah on both levels. We must support the one who is literally poor, while ourselves striving to be poor in spirit, not attached to the things of this world but to things heavenly. We must work to free those who are wrongfully imprisoned, while proclaiming that Christ has the power to free everyone from the bondage of sin. We must give help to those who are physically blind, while proclaiming Christ crucified to those who are blind to God’s love. We must strive to free those who are oppressed by the powers and principalities of this world, while proclaiming that Christ has freed us from the oppression of death.

The mission of the Church is both universal and comprehensive. That is to say that it is for the whole world and effects every aspect of humanity—body, mind, and spirit. Our mission is both to strive to effect the Kingdom of Heaven in the here-and-now, while always pointing to the world to come, ever cognizant of the fact that anything we accomplish pales in comparison to the Kingdom Christ himself will effect when we are risen up on the last day.

We have our work cut out for us. But thanks be to God that there is no shortage of workers in the field. Here’s a bit of trivia which today is very much to the point is that the full legal name of The Episcopal Church is “The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.” That’s a mouthful, but the important part is that we are members of a missionary society, which is to say that each of us is a missionary. But we’re not just missionaries by virtue of the Episcopal Church’s legal name. Each of us is a missionary by virtue of his or her own baptism. The task of proclamation is not particular to those who are ordained or licensed to preach. The task of proclaiming the Gospel is the responsibility of each and every one of us as baptized Christians

We are all members together of Christ’s own body. As Paul says in today’s Epistle, “For in the Spirit we were baptized into one body…and were all made to drink of one spirit…Now [we] are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” We are intimately bound one to another (whether we like it or not) in that greatest and most holy of mysteries, Christ’s Church. Than this I can think neither of any greater reason to rejoice nor any greater reason to continue to proclaim the gospel with joy and unwavering resolve.

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

Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany

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

Who doesn’t love a good party? Well, I admit, being somewhat introverted, they aren’t my favorite thing in the world. They can be noisy and crowded and keep me up past my bed time (which, some of you know, is embarrassingly early). This is particularly true of wedding receptions, though when the couple remember to invite me (which doesn’t always happen) I feel it’s my obligation to at least make an appearance and I’m not such a stick in the mud that I don’t have any fun. I’ve been to some pretty raucous receptions, but they have nothing on how ancient people partied!

It might surprise you to know that the Marriage in Cana included nothing of what we might recognize as the religious portion of the wedding. Weddings in ancient Israel didn’t include what we would call a church service. It was all party- seven days of it in fact. Unfortunately, the bride and groom would have missed the first six-and-a-half days of the event. They would have been sequestered in their bridal chamber with nothing to do but (to put it as delicately as possible) what the Law of Moses had enjoined them to do in order to consummate their marriage. Then, the couple would come out of their chamber and make it known that, in fact, it was a marriage, everyone would go bananas, and then they’d continue drinking what by modern standards would be considered an unhealthy amount.

So, this would not be my idea of a good time. It all strikes one, quite honestly, as a bit vulgar- drinking until one is sick in celebration of a rather indiscreet announcement of two people’s success in a matter that respectable people in our culture don’t talk about. But Jesus and his disciples didn’t seem to mind. They probably didn’t even have to go to the wedding. The language of this morning’s Gospel suggests that really it was Mary who needed to be there, and her strange son and his goofball buddies were invited as an afterthought, perhaps because unmarried men still lived with their parents in those days and it would have been rude to invite Mary without saying the kid could come along, too. There’s a stereotype these days about the sort of person who still lives with his mother when he’s thirty and never seems to go on dates. In first-century Palestine, it would have been even more of a cause for snickering. What’s more, we can surmise from some comments by Pharisees in the Gospels about Jesus and his disciples that these young men were considered by some to be what we’d call today “party animals.” All that said, I wonder if the hosts of the wedding party might have been a bit disappointed that their friend Mary’s son actually showed up and brought twelve of his good-for-nothing friends. “Well great,” I can imagine them saying, “there goes the wine budget along with the respectability of the whole affair.”

Little did they know what was going to happen next. They ran out of wine, a disaster at this sort of party, and Jesus not only provides some, but it’s great and there’s a lot of it. Somewhere between 120 and 180 gallons of good wine just appears. It’s more than even those raucous party-goers will be able to consume. The day is saved, even if Jesus seemed to be a little bit surly with his mother.

More is at work here, though, than just doing a solid for the newlyweds. In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) Jesus’ miracles (in Greek the word is dynamis or “deed of power”) tend to show God’s power and raise up the poor and needy. In John’s Gospel the word is seimon or “sign” and there is always a deeper truth about God being communicated. The people didn’t need more wine. To throw a party like this one, the hosts would have been rather wealthy, and elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus doesn’t seem too interested in helping rich people out. Rather, his actions here are didactic.

That being the case, what do we learn from this sign? First, we learn that God’s love is not only abundant, but decadent. They’ll never drink all that wine, but it’s there for the taking. We learn also that in the New Covenant mere rules-based obligation and purity are replaced with joy and freedom. The water pots, we are told, were meant for ritual purification. Instead, they ended up holding wine, which gladdens the heart and frees the soul from care (at least that’s what the ancients believed; now we know that that’s true to a certain point, but moderation is important).

Finally, we learn that God’s blessings can be mediated by the most unexpected people. When we let the outcast come to the feast, she or he may be the very person by whom God is made present. This thirty-year-old man who lived with his mother and his twelve rowdy friends saved the party. When we start seeing Jesus in that sort of person, the sort of person we really don’t pay much attention to, we’ll be surprised how much we are blessed.

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

Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany

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

After years and years of preaching on this text–and regularly talking about how Jesus obviously did not require remission of sins, making his baptism different from ours–I recently discovered a new way of understanding what is happening in this reading. I say “new” but its really only new to me, and dates back to at least the Fourth Century. St. Ambrose of Milan, one of the most important theologians of his era, said, essentially, that in his Baptism, Christ is not cleansed and purified (being perfect and sinless and God himself he didn’t need that) but rather that he cleanses and purifies water, imbuing it with the power to cleanse and purify us.

I love this reading, because it gets to a truth about the Sacraments– namely, that they use ordinary things which have been transformed into the means of extraordinary grace by the power of the Holy Spirit.

This, I think, is something unique and wonderful about the Christian faith. 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. (One of the effects of having an ecumenical lectionary, as I’ve mentioned before, is that sometimes we get lessons that don’t necessarily comport with what we believe the thematic “through-line” of a particular day is; I don’t think this reading from Acts is about Baptism, but rather about Confirmation, though it does relate to this larger point about sacramental theology.)

Anywat, 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, and 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 Anglican Christians are said to have a particularly Incarnational view of the 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 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, and admittedly cheap 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 the quotidian; it takes a God who values us, who values our experience, who wants to be in a relationship with us all the time.

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