Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ash Wednesday Sermon

Who’s to Blame?

Terence Grant writes in his book The Silence of Knowing:

“We want to hold something or somebody else
for our misery,
but unless we choose to be responsible,
we’ll never grow up.

There’s a story about a construction worker.
At lunch time one day on the job, the worker opens his lunch box and says,
“Oh, no, chicken salad again!”

The next day, he has chicken salad again
and reacts in the same way.

The same thing happens on the next day and the next and the next.

Finally a co-worker who has heard these repeated complaints
day after day after day says,
“If you can’t stand chicken salad,
why don’t you get your wife to make you something else for lunch?

The man replies, “I’m not married. I make these lunches myself.”

There’s truth in that story.
We play the victim.
We live as if we’re bruised and battered by this arbitrary world.
We look outside ourselves for the source of our unhappiness,
but we’re looking in the wrong place.

The source, at least for us as adults,
is always within us.”

Who’s to blame?
We don’t have to look far.
The closest mirror usually gives us the truth.
That is one of the great powers of Ash Wednesday.
That startled look
when we see our faces smudged with ash
in the mirror.
Oh! It’s me!
I’m the one with the dirty forehead.

Today is Ash Wednesday. The first day of Lent.
This day in the church is one of hard truth.
Remember that you are dust
And to dust you shall return.

It does not matter who we are,
what we have accomplished in our life,
how much money we make or don’t make,
where we live or what we drive.
We will all one day be just dust.

What matters to God
(and we hear it over and over and over again
in the scriptures--
Old Testament, New Testament, Psalms, Apocrypha
and most assuredly in the Gospels)---
what matters to God
is the love we show to one another.

God truly created us for one purpose: to love one another.
One singular purpose: to love one another.
It is through our learning to love one another
that we learn to love God.
There is absolutely no way that we can love God
without learning to love each other.
Yet we spend so much of our time blaming one another,
complaining about the “chicken salad.”

What a waste!
What a waste for this short, short beautiful time we have to be here.

These ashes that will mark your forehead this Ash Wednesday
are a visible reminder
that life is short.
Remember that you are dust
and to dust you shall return.

We gather today to repent of our sins.
In simple non-religious terminology
we gather and kneel to say,
it IS my fault, God.

I have not respected the dignity of every human being.
I have not resisted evil.
I have thought terrible thoughts about others.
I have said horrid things about others.
I have sat or stood absolutely mute
when others were saying or doing things
I knew were dead wrong.
It’s me.
It’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of your mercy
and your forgiveness.
It’s my own chicken salad that is making me sick.

It is easy to love those we see as our equals—
friends, family, those who love us as much as we love them.

The love for those less fortunate than us also has a certain beauty to it—
to love those who are poor or sick or unlovely.
This is the love of compassion.

To love those who are MORE fortunate than us is more of a challenge.
Some say it takes almost a saint to love in this way.

But the most difficult love of all
is to find in our hearts a way to love those who do not love us,
those who mock us, those who threaten us,
those who talk behind our backs,
even those who hurt us.
But that love is God’s love.

The love for those who love us not
is the love that will truly conquer the darkness.

We are one in the Spirit
We are one in the Lord.
You will know we are Christians
by our love,
by our love.

+ + +

This sermon was inspired by Terence Grant (thanks to the Church of the Savior and their INWARD/OUTWARD emails and also my Frederick Buechner's The Magnificent Defeat.

Dedication of Stations of the Cross

This prayer was written in honor of Penelope Carscaddon, an artist and member of St. John's, and in dedication of the fourteen Stations of the Cross she created and gave to the church:

A Prayer of Thanksgiving for Penelope and for All Artists

Creator God, we give thanks for all your children and today we give special thanks for Penelope and all artists. We give thanks for the way that Penelope’s work—its form, its color, its lines—open us to your mysterious Spirit in new ways. We rejoice in the work of all artists who use their gifts to serve you and praise you.

We give thanks for the multitude of ways you bless us, for the diverse ways you use our hands, our minds, our bodies and our hearts so that we might reflect your loving-kindness and continually deepen our understanding of you.

We give thanks for Penelope and her gifts as an artist and as a beloved child of God. We give thanks for these Stations of the Cross, which will lead us into the journey of Lent which lies ahead. May they bless each person who travels the journey of Christ’s passion as they walk in your Way.

Holy God,
Holy and Mighty,
Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

The Stations of the Cross were dedicated on February 15, 2009

Sermon for the Feast of St. John Apostle and Evangelist (tr)

The A & E Network

When we hear the letters A & E, put together like that,
we might think of the Arts and Entertainment Network.
but when we hear A & E in the context of the church
we should remember St. John—
St. John
Apostle and Evangelist.
A & E.

This morning we celebrate the Feast of St. John.
The actual designated feast day for St. John is December 27.
But that is a time of year when we are almost feasted out
after the glorious celebrations around Christmas.

So we have transferred that feast to this day.
Our Book of Common Prayer tells us (page 16)
that the feast day of a parish’s patron saint
may be observed on its designated day
or transferred to a Sunday,
except in the seasons of Advent, Lent and Easter.
It’s still the season of Epiphany—
So let the feasting begin for St. John!

I have three questions for us today.
(1) Who was St. John?
(2) Why do we care?
(3) What should we do about it?

First: Who was St. John?
First of all, we need to be sure we have our “Johns” straight.
St. John the Apostle and Evangelist is a different person
than John the Baptist (or Baptizer).

Our John was the son of Zebedee. His mother’s name was Salome.
This rather well-to-do family lived on the shores of the sea of Galilee.
John, with his brother James,
was called by Jesus from being a fisherman
to being a disciple.
Jesus called John to follow and “fish for people”.
And John did just that.

With Peter and James, John became one of three disciples
whom Jesus chose to be with him
at the raising of Jairus’ daughter,
at the Transfiguration,
and in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Yes, even Jesus had an inner circle of friends.

John and his brother James are recorded in the Gospel
as being hotheaded and impetuous.
Don’t you love it how Jesus seldom seeks perfect people?
I find that very comforting!

Jesus nicknames John and James “Boanerges”
which has been translated as “Sons of Thunder”.
I imagine you knew when John and James entered a room.

John may have been Jesus’ closest, dearest friend.
The Gospel names one of the disciples
as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”.
He sits closest to Jesus at the Last Supper,
He receives the care of Jesus’ mother at the cross
and he in turn is given into her care.
And he is the first male disciple
to understand the truth of the empty tomb.
Many believe that John, the Apostle and Evangelist,
is the same John who was the Beloved Disciple.

According to tradition, John later went to Asia Minor and settled in Ephesus,
now in modern day Turkey
(thus our Turkish inspired lunch feast following the service today).

Under the Emperor Domitian,
John was exiled to the island of Patmos.

Based on other historical writings,
it is believed that John died in Ephesus.
He alone of the twelve disciples
is said to have lived to extreme old age
and to have been spared a martyr’s death.

The words traditionally given to John are these:
Little children, love one another.
That is what tradition says he preached over and over:
Little children, love one another.

So now you have at least some of the answer to the first question:
who was St. John.

Why do we care?
First of all, we care because St. John Apostle and Evangelist
is the patron saint of our parish.
It is like knowing your own personal family history;
it is important to know
our saintly geneology as well.

What we don’t know,
or at least what I have not been able to uncover,
is why this particular saint was chosen for this particular parish.

Many of you know that St. John’s began as a church plant
in an area of Asheville that was fields and farmland,
a very rural Haw Creek.
Downtown Trinity Episcopal Church planted a little church right here—
and it was named Trinity Chapel.
That is why the street that leads up to St. John’s is named
Trinity Chapel Road.

Trinity Chapel grew and grew up
and when it gained status as a parish, no longer a mission church,
the congregation chose the name St. John’s.

But why St. John’s?
Were there a bunch of “hot heads” here, “Sons of Thunder”?
It is doubtful that was behind the choice.

Most likely John was selected as the patron saint because
this was a church plant
and for church plants to become viable congregations
they have to seriously do the work of apostles and evangelists.

A church plant begins with a tiny core group of people—
usually no more than 12.
Probably the Bishop asked some folks at Trinity
if they would leave Trinity
and go and plant a church in the Haw Creek neighborhood.
They were called and asked to follow and they answered that call.

If a church plant does not do evangelism—reach out into the community,
invite people to worship,
offer hospitality to strangers—
the church plant will die.
That is not what happened here at St. John’s.
We are still here in the year 2009
It seems clear that St. John’s has a history
of being a part of that historic A & E network:
Apostles and Evangelists.

Finally, question number 3: What should we do about it?
How do we continue to live into the tradition of our patron saint?
We too are called to be apostles and evangelists.

I am not suggesting that we take shifts
down at the corner of Tunnel Road
and New Haw Creek Road
waving a sign that says , “REPENT!”

But I do think we need to take the call that John heard into our hearts.
I do think we need to learn to invite others to come and worship with us.
I do think we need to reach out for those on the margins.

What should we do about it?
Continue to reach out into the community.
Always have our eyes open for those who need our help
and then fearlessly find ways to meet the needs.

What should we do about it?
Continue to go deeper and deeper in our own relationship with God.
Though worship. Through prayer. Through study.

What should we do about it?
Little children, love one another.

Those are the words that probably should be printed on a t-shirt for our parish.
St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Little children, love one another.

One of the gifts of being part of a church is we have a place to practice.
We can practice loving one another right here within the walls of this parish.
We can practice loving one another in outreach projects,
reaching out in the world, both near and far.

We are not called to be perfect.
Even the saints were not perfect.
We are simply called to follow in the footsteps of St. John
who followed in the footsteps of Jesus.

Each day
is another wonderful opportunity to take a step.
St. John, Apostle and Evangelist,
is right here to guide us.
Little children, love one another.

Sermon for Year B Epiphany 5

“Every day is a great day now”

Every day is a great day now.

Those might be the words of Simon’s mother-in-law
after Jesus heals her.
In our modern day world of medicine
we usually don’t take a fever all that seriously.
But this was not the case in the first century.
People could die from a fever.
We hear the story as part of Mark’s gospel
because it is another example of a healing miracle performed by Jesus.
No less amazing than causing demons to come out of amn.
Simon’s mother-in-law is healed.

Every day is a great day now.
Actually those are not the words of Simon’s mother-in-law.
Those are the words of Gerry McNamara, a friend of a friend of my brother.
This friend, an attorney like my brother, was on the US Airways flight
that crashed into the Hudson River.
You likely know that everyone—all 155 passengers and crew—
survived that crash.

Gerry McNamara shared his experience with the members of his firm
And some friends
And my brother emailed me a copy
of what Gerry wrote about that experience.
His email was titled: Every day is a great day now.

I share this story with you
Because I believe it directly relates to our gospel reading today.
And I will get to that.
But first, listen to this story.

Listen to it with parallel ears—
Hear the story of Gerry McNamara’s experience.
Hear the story of Simon’s mother=in=law.
Hear, perhaps, your own story of a time
when you have received a second chance.

Here is the story:

Thursday was a difficult day for all of us at the firm
and I left the Park Avenue office in the early afternoon
to catch a cab bound for LaGuardia Airport.

I was scheduled for a 5 pm departure,
but able to secure a seat on the earlier flight
scheduled to leave at 3 PM.
As many of us who fly frequently often do,
I recall wondering if I’d just placed myself
on a flight I shouldn’t be on!

I remember walking on the plane and seeing
a fellow with grey hair in the cockpit
and thinking,
“That’s a good thing—I like to see grey hair in the cockpit!”
I was seated in 8F,
on the starboard side window and next to a young business man.
The New York to Charlotte flight
is one I’ve taken what seems like hundreds of times over the years.

We take off north over the Bronx and as we climb,
turn west over the Hudson River to New Jersey and tack south.
I love to fly, always have,
and this flight plan gives a great view of several NY landmarks
including Yankee Stadium and the George Washington Bridge.

I had started to point out items of interest to the gentleman next to me
when we heard a terrible crash---
a sound no one ever wants to hear while flying—
and then the engines wound down to a screeching halt.

10 seconds later, there was a strong smell of jet fuel.
I knew we would be landing
And thought the pilot would take us down no doubt to Newark Airport.
As we began to turn south I noticed the pilot lining up on the river—
still—I thought—en route for Newark.

Next thing we heard was “Brace for impact!”—
a phase I had heard many years before an active duty Marine officer
but never before on a commercial air flight.

Everyone looked at each other in shock.
It all happened so fast we were astonished!
We began to descend rapidly and it started to sink in.
This is the last flight. I’m going to die today.
This is it.
I recited my favorite Bible verse, prayed the Lord’s Prayer,
and asked God to take care of my wife, children, family and friends.
When I raised my head I noticed people texting their friends and family—
getting off a last message.
My Blackberry was turned off and in my trouser pocket…
no time to get at it.

Our descent continued and I prayed for courage to control my fear
and help if able.
I quickly realized that one of two things was going to happen,
neither of them good.
We could hit by the nose, flip and break up, leaving few if any survivors,
bodies, cold water, fuel.
Or we could hit one of the wings and roll and flip with the same result.
I tightened my seat belt as tight as I could possibly get it
so I would remain intact.
As we came in for the landing,
I looked out the windows
and remember seeing the buildings of New Jersey,
the cliffs of Weehawken, and then the piers.

The water was dark green and sure to be freezing cold.
The flight attendants were yelling in unison, “Brace! Brace! Brace!”

It was a violent hit—the water flew up over my window—
but we bobbed up and were all amazed we remained intact.

There was some panic—people jumping over seats
and running towards the doors,
But we soon got everyone straightened out and calmed down.

There were a lot of people that took leadership roles in little ways.
Those sitting at the doors over the wing did a fantastic job…
they were opened in a New York second!

Everyone worked together—
teamed up and in groups to figure out how to help each other.
I exited on the starboard side of the plane,
3 or 4 rows behind my seat
through a door over the wing
and was, I believe the 10th or 12 person out.

I took my seat cushion as a flotation device
and once outside saw I was the only one who did…
none of us remembered to take the yellow inflatable life vests
from under the seat.

We were standing in 6-8 inches of water and it was freezing.
There were two women on the wing,
one of whom slipped off into the water.
Another passenger and I pulled her back on
and had her kneel down to keep from falling off again.
By that point we were totally soaked
and absolutely frozen from the icy wind.

The ferries were the first to arrive,
And although they’re not made for rescue, they did an incredible job.

The first ferry boat pulled its bow up to the tip of the wing,
and the first mate lowered the Jacobs ladder down to us.

We got a couple of people up the ladder to safety,
but the current was strong,
pushing the stern of the boat into the inflatable slide
and we were afraid it would puncture it..
There must have been 25 passengers in it by now.

Only two or three were able to board the first ferry before it moved away.
Another ferry came up,
and were able to get the woman that had fallen into the water
on the ladder,
but she just couldn’t move her legs and fell off.

Back onto the ladder she went;
however, the ferry had to back away because of the swift current.

A helicopter arrived (nearly blowing us all off the wing)
and followed the ferry with the woman on the ladder.
We lost view of the situation
but I believe the helicopter lowered its basket to rescue her.

As more ferries arrive,
we were able to get people up on the boats a few at a time.
The fellow in front of me feel off the ladder and into the water.
When we got him back on the ladder
he could not move his legs to climb.
I couldn’t’ help him from my position
so I climbed up the ladder to the ferry deck
where the first mate and I hoisted the Jacob’s ladder with him on it..
When he got close enough we grabbed his trouser belt
and hauled him on deck.
We were all safely off the wing.

We could not stop shaking.
Uncontrollable shaking.
The only thing I had with me was my Blackberry,
Which had gotten wet and wasn’t working.
(It started working again a few hours later)

The ferry took us to the Weehawken Terminal in NJ
where I borrowed a phone
and called my wife to let her know I was okay.

At the terminal, first responders assessed everyone’s condition
And sent people to the hospital as needed.
I stayed with my sister on Long Island that evening,
then flew home the next day.

I am struck by what was truly a miracle.
Had this happened a few hours later,
it would have been pitch dark
and much harder to land.

Ferries would no longer have been running after rush hour
and it would not have been the same uplifting story.
Surely there would have been fatalities, hypothermia, an absolute disaster!

I witnessed the best of humanity that day.
I and everyone on that plane survived
And have been given a second change.
I wanted to share this story—the story of a miracle.
I am thankful to be here to tell the tale.
There is a great deal to be learned including:
Why has this happened to me?
Why have I survived
and what am I supposed to do with this gift?

For me, the answers to these questions and more will come over time,
but already I find myself being more patient and forgiving,
less critical and judgmental.

For now I have 4 lessons I would like to share:

1. Cherish your families as never before
and go to great lengths to keep your promises.

2. Be thankful and grateful for everything you have
and don’t’ worry about the things you don’t have.

3. Keep in shape. You never know when you’ll be called upon
to save your own life,
or help someone else save theirs.

4. When you fly, wear practical clothing.
You never who when you’ll end up in an emergency
or on an icy wing in flip flops and pajamas or high heels
and of absolutely no use to yourself or anyone else.

Thanks to all you have reached out…I look forward to seeing you soon!
That is one person’s story of a day that he thought would be his last day.
He was give a second chance.
And now every day is a great day.

Simon’s mother-in-law was given a second chance.
She was saved from a fever, an illness, that could have ended her life.
In Jesus, we see the very best in humanity.
Someone who takes time to help someone who needs help.
The best of humanity reaches out and touches and heals.
We all know that not everyone gets a second chance,
Not everyone is saved from disaster.
That is the part we do not understand.
That is where our ways are not God’s ways,
God’s mind is not our mind.

But often we say that miracles like those in the Bible
don’t happen any more.
Perhaps we only need to open our eyes.
Miracles do happen.
A plane lands in the Hudson River and everyone—EVERY ONE---survives.

God works through Jesus.
God works through a pilot on a USAirways flight.
But not just through the pilot—
through everyone—the flight attendants, the passengers,
the ferry boat crews, first responders, every one.

God works through you and through me.
In ways we cannot ask or imagine.

When we see life—daily, ordinary life—as the miracle it truly is,
We begin to understand why Simon’s mother-in-law,
When healed,
got up and immediately began to serve.

The Greek work for “serve” in this passage is diakonia.
The same word that is the root of our word deacon.

She served because she was thankful.
She served as a way of showing her gratitude to God.
She served not because it was her duty or anyone’s expectation.
She served because in Jesus she had seen the best of humanity.
She received a second chance.

She did not care that she understood the miracle of her healing
or how it scientifically happened.
She only cared that she had a new day to offer her gifts,
to God and to the people in her life.

Every day is a great day now.
This is how we are called to live.
This is how we are called to serve.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sermon for Year B Epiphany 3

Repent, Believe, Follow, Fish

We are in the month of January.
It is a new calendar year.
We all know what that means.
Lots of new year resolutions still fresh on the page.

Pick up any January issue of most magazines and you’ll find things like:
Dr. Oz’s 10 step check list for ultimate wellness.
5 things to do to improve your relationships
4 tips for a more beautiful you
7 Home Improvements even YOUR husband can do!

I pondered what kind of magazine front cover
Jesus and today’s gospel reading
might encourage.

Four ways to share the good news


Jesus calls us to repent and to believe in the good news.
Jesus calls us to follow and be transformed into fishers of people.


The order of those actions is quite fascinating.
This is not necessarily the order we do things in our lives—
or in our churches.

Our tendency is go immediately to work, to start fishing--
long before we have done the work of repenting.
The word repent—metanoia in Greek—means to turn around.
To change. To go a different way.

When Jesus calls us to repent
he is calling us to be transformed into different people.
to let go of our old selves
and to fully embrace our identity as children of God.

Let go so that we might become who we really are created to be.
It may sound frighteningly Baptist—
But we really are all sinners.
Sin means anything that separates us from God.
It can be addiction or self-centeredness or anger or hate or jealousy…
I saw a bumperstick this week that said:
Humankind. Try being both.
That might be a good first step towards repenting.

Jesus is not calling us into doctrine or even discipline.
Jesus calls us to believe in the good news.
To believe that God is good ALL the time.

I had a professor in seminary who taught pastoral care.
He reminded us all semester long to look for God’s goodness
in every situation—in illness, in despair, even in death.
If we open your eyes we will see that God is always present—
in some small gesture, in some random action,
in a person who appears at just the moment you felt that all was lost.
Believe in the good news.


Why do we come to church?
Much of our modern American world doesn’t, you know.
They sleep in. They go to Starbucks for coffee and the NY Times.
Why are we here?
There is no one answer to that question but perhaps the reason
we are here is
because we heard a voice calling us to follow.
Maybe it was the voice of God or angels or maybe it was the voice
of our mother or a neighbor or a friend.
We come together as a community
because that is one of the main lessons in the Bible.
God never encourages lone rangers.
Even Jesus doesn’t set out to do ministry by himself.

IMMEDIATELY Jesus comes and calls others to join him.
Jesus calls Simon and Andrew, John and James.
And over time he will call others
And somewhere along the way he called you
And he called me.

We come to church to be with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
We come to church to listen for how we might follow,
To pay attention to the words and the music and the prayers
And the beauty of this place
And the beauty in each person.
We follow so that we might make the tracks that others will follow.
We follow so that others might find their way as we find ours.


I will make you fishers of people.

I know I have shared this phrase before==and no doubt I will share it again--
because it is one of my favorites.
The definition of evangelism
is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.
That’s the way theologian DT Niles puts it.

If we are transformed by God’s love for us.
If we have eyes and ears and hearts that are open to the good news
so that we can believe in the goodness and mercy of God.
If we have been courageous enough to let go of all that binds us
And follow Jesus,
Then we become fishers of people—
So that we too might share the good news --
The good news that there is room in God’s boat for everyone.

We too become fishers of people
because we feel called by God to share the good news.
Because we feel blessed by God
So much and so abundantly
That we stop paying attention
to people’s faults and shortcomings—
(And yes, we all have those)
And we begin to focus our hearts on the amazing grace
That blesses us all.

But we don’t start with fishing.
We don’t even start with following.
We don’t even start with belief.

We start by repenting.
We start by making changes in our own lives.
We start by opening ourselves to God so that God might turn us around,
transform us, save us.

Jesus did not ask Simon and Andrew and James and John
To add one more task to what they are already doing.
Jesus calls them into a whole new way of being.
Jesus calls them to leave behind, to let go of their old way of life
And be made new, completely changed,
Absolutely transformed.

The recent movie Billy Elliot tells the story of a young boy
growing up in a rather rough and rowdy working class neighborhood in the north of England.

Quite unexpectedly, the boy—Billy Elliot—discovers
that he loves classical dance—and that he is a very fine dancer.

Billy knows his family well enough
to know that his gifts as a dancer
are not going to sit well with his father.
His father cannot understand why any boy would want to dance.
Billy is becoming part of a world that is alien to his father—
And nothing frightens a parent more.

Part of what we dream for our children
Is that they will set out on their own seas,
Go their own ways,
Make their own lives.
Sometimes however when that happens
We are shocked and discover that
Deep inside we rather hoped they would stay close by,
Hug the shore along with us.

It could not have been easy for Zebedee
To watch his own sons, James and John,
Leave him behind
As they set out to follow Jesus.

Yet by the end of the film, Billy Elliott’s father travels to London
and watches his son leap and turn and dance with beauty and joy
and the father takes delight and pride in his son,
in his child Billy.

We don’t know what happens to Zebeddee.
Did he become a follower of Jesus?
Or did he shake his head and turn back to mending his nets?

Just like Andrew and Simon, James and John,
Billy Elliott had to start with change.
He had to embrace a new way of life that was as alien to him
as it was to his father.

Billy had to embrace how God was working in his life in new ways.
He had to see the “good news” that his dancing brought.

Billy had to follow a path
that was not the usual path of boys in his neighborhood
or those in his family followed.

And in the end, it is not only Billy that is transformed
but all those around him

That is what fishing for people is all about.
When we ourselves are transformed
so are those around us.

Fishing requires heading out into the deep water.
The deep water is where we take that long honest look at ourselves
And our own lives.
And deep waters can be terrifying.
But if we don’t go into the deep water our nets will remain empty.

Jesus called THEM.
Jesus calls US.
We travel together.
We sail on deep seas together.
We rest safely in God’s arms together.
We realize how wide open and all embracing those arms are
and we call to others to come into the embrace.


Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany

Three Gifts

I have a surprise for you today.
But it means you are going to have to come forward
and sit a little closer to one another.
I want to pass something around and it just isn’t going to work
if you each stay in your own personal pew.
So take a minute and move.
We’re Epsicopalians!
We know how to do this--
we get up and down and move all around during worship.

Thank you for doing that.

In celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany
we are going to have incense.
Now, no need to go fleeing out the back door,
it’s not the smoking kind.
(At least not today for this service!)

But I want you to actually see one of the gifts the wise men gave.
I’m afraid I don’t have a box of gold to pass around,
Plus we have all seen gold if only in a piece of jewelry.
But I do want us to take a close look at frankincense.
And I want us to talk about myrhh.
Three gifts—gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The gifts the wise men brought are each significant—
as gifts often are.

Remember—we are celebrating the feast of the Epiphany.
And epiphany means to show, to reveal, to become aware—
And there was indeed an awareness for the magi
of whom this baby is.

Not just any baby—but the manifestation of God.
Emmanuel—God with us—right here.

Matthew’s gospel tells us
they entered the house and opened their treasure chests
and offered the baby their gifts.
Extravagant gifts.
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The gift of gold makes absolute sense.
In the first century or the twenty-first century
gold is an extravagant gift of great value.
Gold is a gift fit for a king.
Gold is the type of gift that a king would bring to another king.

The people are expecting a king.
A king who will come in great glory and splendor.
The wise men
When they left on their journey following a star
They had no idea what the end of the journey would reveal.
But it is doubtful that they thought
it would reveal a baby of such humble beginnings.
But that is what they found.

Frankincense was a gift that recognized
the priestly qualities of the Christ child.
Frankincense was widely used in religious rites of the time.
We still use it as incense in the church today.

I want to pass around this frankincense.
It does not look much different
than what would have been brought by the wise men.

The gift of frankincense makes absolute sense.
Frankincense was the incense used by the temple priests.
This gift symbolizes that this child is a gift from God.

Both frankincense and myrrh come from a bush or small tree.
It is the sap of these trees that is this chunky resin we use.
But in some ways myrrh is a strange gift to bring a newborn.
Now myrrh was very expensive, definitely an extravagant gift.
But myrrh was the incense burned at funerals.

Myrrh was made into an embalming ointment,
used to anoint the bodies of the dead.

It is through the gift of myrrh that the writer of Matthew’s gospel
Reveals the symbolism behind these gifts
and who this baby really is.
Alpha and Omega.
Beginning and end.
Birth and death.

Gold to symbolize the baby’s royalty.
Frankincense to symbolize the baby’s divinity.
And myrrh, to reference his future death.

Matthew wants his readers to understand
that God came into the world in human form
and everything was transformed
but everything was not easy.

The symbolism behind those three gifts was a way of saying:
Buckle your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

The wise men fell to their knees
and offered their gifts.
Nothing was withheld.

What will we offer?
What will we give to God?
How extravagant are we willing to be?

This congregation is amazing.
Unlike many other churches
our stewardship drive is complete.

You HAVE been generous and open=hearted in pledging and giving
to financially support the ministries of this parish.
Whether we like it or not
how we choose to spend our money
is a powerful reflection of our spiritual lives.
The gifts we give and how we give what others give to us
are very symbolic
of how we perceive the world, our selves and others.
Epiphany is a wonderful season to take a closer look.

We are also called—repeatedly—to give our time.
A wise person recently said to me,
“My money and my time—
those are the two things I have that I can give away.”
The joy with which he made that statement
absolutely stunned me.

Most of us are very busy people.
We never have enough time.
But we can all give something.
We can all volunteer somewhere,
do something to make this parish, this community, this world
a little bit more like the kingdom of God.

We are a small church but we are a mighty church.
And it is each of us offering our gifts
that makes us strong and alive
and joyful.
We all have many gifts—often more than we imagine.
Epiphany calls us to offer something new.
To step outside our box, the roads we know.

(Story of Jody at camp—step outside your box)

Epiphany calls us to dream dreams and to see visions—
to follow a star to unknown places.

Epiphany is a wonderful season
to reflect upon the gifts we have received in our life.
Epiphany is a wonderful season
to reflect upon what we might give to others—
to our family, to our friends, to our church, to our community, to God.

Being an extravagant giver is not always easy.
It can be a very bumpy ride.
But oh what a marvelous journey!

When we give a gift,
We let down our guard.
We offer a part of ourselves—
in thanksgiving, in celebration, in hope.

When we receive a gift,
we are called into relationship.
we are called to remember
the one whose arms are always held wide open to us.

When we try something new, when we travel a new path,
we place ourselves in God’s hands.
We trust.

May this holy season of Epiphany be for each of us
a time of moving beyond what is reasonable—
a time of living in God’s extravagance--
a time of following a star of wonder.

Sermon for Year B Christmas 2

Insignificant Places

Our Sunday scripture readings do not follow a linear route.
We made it to the birth of the Christ child on Christmas Eve
Last Sunday we were still at the beginning as well—
with John’s beautiful gospel…
In the beginning was the WORD…

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany—
Herod will be sending out the wise men to search for the baby.
The baby Jesus is back in the manger
And the magi arrive, following a star.

So where are we this Sunday?
We are still in the festive Season of Christmas,
at least according to the church year calendar,
We hear joy and praise expressed in Jeremiah,
We hear great happiness in the psalm
And in Paul’s tender words to his friends in Ephesus
We hear of God’s grace and greatness.

But the gospel reading today is a bit scary.
The wise men have left.
An angel appears to Joseph in a dream.
This angel skips the formality of saying the usual, ‘Fear not.”
This angel goes immediately to the action:
Get up. Take the child and his mother and flee…

Joseph does not argue nor delay.
Joseph gets up, gathers Jesus and Mary and leaves immediately.

They are fleeing from Herod.
Herod who would kill a baby without a blink.
Herod who HAS killed babies without a blink.
Herod who seeks to destroy this baby Jesus.

First the holy family travels to Egypt for safety
Then another angel appears and directs them to Israel.
But rather than go to Judea,
Joseph takes his wife and his baby, to the district of Galilee,
to the town of Nazareth.

Our gospel reading today is bot joyful but wise.
Joseph shows great wisdom.
First of all he listens.
He listens to the angels.
Joseph acts quickly.
Joseph makes wise decisions.
Especially the decision to return to Nazareth.

Nazareth, according to Luke’s gospel, was the home of Mary and Joseph
At the time of the Annunciation,
At the time the angel came to Mary
and told her she would be the mother of this baby.

From there they set out to Bethlehem to register as was required—
and it was there that the Christ child arrived in this world.

But Bethlehem was not a safe place.
So ultimately Joseph returns his family to Nazareth.

The interesting thing about Nazareth is there is not one mention
of this village in the Old Testament.
That is not surprising
Because in truth, Nazareth was quite insignificant,
Quite unspectacular.

Nazareth is a small village located on the side of a hill
about 15 miles from the Sea of Galilee
about 20 miles from the Mediterranean

In Jesus’ day it was a very small, secluded village
not on any main highways
although it was near Sepphoris, an important city—
and a city that Jesus probably knew well.

But Nazareth was pretty much in the middle of no where.

In John’s gospel (John 1:45),
when Philip speaks to Nathanael about Jesus being from Nazatreth Nathanael replies,
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Nathanael cannot believe that the Son of God
could come from a place as insignificant
As the village of Nazareth.

When I was in high school and looking towards college,
I decided the place for me was New York University.
I wanted to go to school someplace important—
and in those days, you didn’t get more important
than New York City!
I grew up in Raleigh,
The capital city.
But it wasn’t capital enough for me.
Somehow I felt that if I could go to college in New York City,
My life would become so much better,
so much more significant.

So I told my mom I wanted to go to NYU.
And she looked at me and said,
We can’t afford NYU.
North Carolina has great colleges.
Find your second choice.

The Olivia Raney Library in downtown Raleigh,
Had a whole section in those days devoted to college catalogs.
I spent a whole Saturday afternoon perusing those catalogs
And found my second choice.
Only this time,
I didn’t go directly to my mother,
I went to the college counselor at Broughton High School.

Here’s where I want to go to college.
I had “borrowed” the catalog from the library.
I laid it on her desk.
Black Mountain College.
In Black Mountain, NC.
(In 1967 I think that Black Mountain,NC
might have given Nazareth a run for its money
in the “insignificant” category!)

Why did I pick Black Mountain College?
Certainly not for its name recognition—at least not at the time.
I fell in love with the college because the catalog
told me of the artists, the poets, and the musicians
that composed its faculty.
If I couldn’t have New York City, I could still have ultimately cool!

The college counselor looked at the catalog
(stamped—“Olivia Raney Library—REFERENCE—
Not for circulation”)
and said,
“Jeannie, this college no longer exists.
It closed. “
I found out that Black Mountain College
had indeed closed ten years earlier
in 1957.

Well, I had to go on to choice number 3—
the University of NC at Chapel Hill.
And no self-respecting Carolina alumni would dare call that insignificant.

But I tell you this story because I think not all of us
would choose as Joseph did.
We don’t use our wisdom to discern and choose.
We use our egos or our desires for things that will not serve us best.

But Joseph listened and made wise choices.
Joseph thought of his family above anything and everything else.

Perhaps it was because he truly realized that this baby
was someone far from insignificant.
Or perhaps he was just a good father
Perhaps he was a father
who loved his family more than he loved himself,
a man who did not need to be important himself,
or live at an impressive street address—
but a man who only cared that his family had a safe home.

If we use our own wisdom,
that is probably not far off
from what most people in the world want today—
a safe home.

We need to listen to Matthew’s gospel
and learn from Joseph.
How are we being called
to make safe homes
a reality for the people in our community,
in our city, in the world?
How are we being called
to reach out to those who are homeless,
those who are without safety, those who spend their lives in fear?

Habitat for Humanity.
Room in the Inn.
Swannanoa Women’s Correctional Center.
Episcopal Relief and Development.
Guardian Ad Litem.

Those are only a few of the places one could start.
The longing for a safe home is immense and global.
God has given us ears to hear and eyes to see--
just as he did with Joseph.

Perhaps the angel is standing at our door saying:
“Get up.
Flee from those who seek to kill the dreams of God.
Get up and get out into the world
and make a difference.
Don’t just say you are a Christian—
actually live like one.

Perhaps if we listen,
we, too, might fulfill
what has been spoken by the Lord through the prophets.