Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sermon for Year C Epiphany 3


Many of us watched the Presidential inauguration this past Monday--
either on television or streaming it over the internet.
Regardless of our political persuasion,
I feel our President gave a very moving address.

He used the first line of the Preamble to our Constitution
as the phrase which united his speech:

We the people..
WE the people.
He emphasized the word WE
and how important it is for us to work together
to make a difference in this country.

Paul in his letter to the Corinthians is making much the same point:

Just as the body is one and has many members
and all the members of the body, though many,
are one body...

We the people of God...
we are different, we are diverse, 
we come together as the Church, as the One Body of Christ.

Paul writes to the Corinthians--and to us--
to tell us that we need this diversity.
We are more dependent upon our diversity,
our different gifts, than we sometimes give credit.

Imagine if we were all the same.
Paul is almost comical 
as he leads us through this metaphorical

If the whole body were an eye...
we wouldn’t miss seeing anything 
but we would never hear one note of music.

If the whole body were an ear,
we would never have the joy of smelling hyacinths in the spring
or freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies right out of the oven.

We need each other 
to fully be the body of Christ
just as our bodies need eyes AND ears AND noses
AND hands AND feet and elbows and fingernails...every part.

Every part of the body is important.
I can’t think of one part that any of us would give up willingly.
Sometimes we don’t have a choice,
but God is not about perfection.
God is about wholeness.

We need diversity.
Even though diversity sometimes makes us very uncomfortable
God chose to create a world where we are each different.
It is what makes us so amazing.
It is what makes so much possible.

I am reading this marvelous book right now
by Susan Cain.
The title is: Quiet: The Power of Introverts
In a World that Can’t Stop Talking.

She opens her book
with this quote from Allen Shawn:

“A species in which everyone was General Patton
would not succeed,
any more than would a race in which everyone
was Vincent van Gogh.
I prefer to think that the planet
needs athletes, philosophers, sex symbols,
painters, scientists; 
it needs the warmhearted, the hardhearted, 
the coldhearted, and the weakhearted.
It needs those who can devote their lives
to studying how many droplets of water
are secreted by the salivary glands
of dogs under which circumstances,
and it needs those who can capture 
the passing impression of cherry blossoms
in a fourteen-syllable poem
or devote twenty-five pages 
to the dissection of a small boy’s feelings
as he lies in bed in the dark
waiting for his mother to kiss him goodnight...”

We are not the same.
We are different.
That is good news.
And the rest of the good news
is that we need each other.

This is what Paul is trying to teach the people of Corinth.
We still need this lesson today.

Sometimes we seem to celebrate our diversity
only from a position of power and privilege.
How wonderfully kind I am to accept others 
who are so different than I am.
How generous and open hearted of me 
to welcome the stranger.

But I don’t think this is the gospel message.

Last week I mentioned billboards that say
Love God.
Love your neighbor.
Change the world.

I want to throw a bumper sticker into the mix this week:

God loves everyone.
No exceptions.

God’s love is deep and big and immense and inclusive.

God loves you.
God loves me.
God loves everyone.
God doesn’t love us EVEN THOUGH we are different and diverse.
God loves us BECAUSE we are different and diverse.

We are not being asked to be kind or be generous
when we notice that someone is different than us.
We are being asked to notice and to celebrate
that someone is not our clone.

The very things that may irritate us about someone
may be the very thing God loves the most about that person.
Each and every person matters to God.

Most of you know how much Tom and I love movies.
One of our nephews, Patrick, is also a movie-lover.
He lives in LA where he is an aspiring screen writer and film maker.
Each year he sends out a list of his TOP TEN films from the past year.
I am never surprised to see a James Bond movie on his list!
But I was surprised when he included the film THE IMPOSSIBLE.

Yesterday Tom and I went to see the movie THE IMPOSSIBLE.
It is based on a true story about a family of five,
spending Christmas vacation at a gorgeous new resort right on the beach
in Thailand--
there having fun together  in the beachfront pool--
when the tsunami hit on December 26, 2004.

Even though I knew about the tsumani
and it’s vast destruction--of human lives and property and the land itself--
for some reason I had never thought about so many families,
so many little children, being there,
being overwhelmed by that 98 feet tall tidal wave.

This is not an easy movie--
and I know that the film is far, far easier to experience
than what it was that day--and the days that followed.

But what you see
is the diversity of humanity.
What you see is that none of us are protected
because of our income level or the color of our skin
or our jobs or our family or our country of origin.
We are each as vulnerable as the next.

I do not believe that God makes tsunamis happen
or earthquakes or hurricanes
nor do I believe that God will protect us from anything horrible
happening in our lives.
I do, however, firmly believe that God will be with us.
God is with us through everything
and God is with us through every person.

There is a scene in the movie,
after the tsunami first hits,
when the mother, Maria,
and her oldest son, Lucas, see one another
as they are being violently pushed along by the waters.

They are finally able to connect, to grab hands--
even though they are both hurt, injured,
especially the mother.

But the survival instinct is very strong.
They see a tree that is still standing and they know they need
to get to that tree and climb as high as they can
in case there is another tidal wave coming.
The tree will give them refuge until someone comes--
they hope and pray that someone will come.
But on the way to that tree
they hear a child crying out.

At first when you see Maria listening,
you think she is listening, hoping
it might be one of her two youngest boys,
two little boys, ages 5 and 7,
that she has lost--along with her husband-- when the tsunami struck.
She listens, hoping.

But then you can tell by the expression on her face
that it is not one of her own children.
Mothers--and fathers--
usually know the sound of their own children’s cries.

But she tells her son Lucas that they need to find this child,
this child who is crying out.

Lucas, who is about 11 years old, is the practical one.
He knows how badly his mother is hurt.
He knows they need to save themselves--
and at this point, they barely have the strength 
to save themselves.

NO, Lucas says.
We can’t.
We have to get to that tree and climb up.

But Maria, even though she knows her son is right in so many ways,
she finally says to him,
“Lucas, it may be the last thing we ever do,
but we have to try to find that child.”

Maria sees and hears and feels, at least at that moment,
with the heart of God.
She knows that everyone matters.
She knows that everyone matters as much as she matters.
I have no idea of her religious beliefs
but at that moment, she fully understands what it is to be the body of Christ.

They go in search of that crying child.

God loves everyone.
No exceptions.

You may think you don’t matter.
You are wrong.
You do matter.
What you have to offer as part of the Body of Christ 
is so important, 
so vital,
so vibrant.

You matter to this little microcosm of the Body of Christ,
St. John’s Episcopal Church.

When you are not here worshipping with us,
you are missed.
I really mean this.

We miss you when you are not here.
The prayers don’t have the right cadence if YOUR voice is missing.
The hymns sound  a little flat if you are not here--
or maybe they don’t sound flat enough 
when you are not here!

Are we all the same?
But we are all God’s children.
No one is superior.
No one is inferior.

We are different.
We are diverse.
To God we are each equally amazing.
We all belong to a God who loves us.
Our task is to learn to love one another as we are so loved by God.
To learn to love one another BECAUSE of our differences
not in spite of our differences.

Jesus came into the world to bring this good news to us.
Now the scroll has been passed into our hands.
To go into the world and share the good news.

God loves you.
God loves me.

God loves everyone.
No exceptions.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sermon for Year C Epiphany 2


We are gospel hopping during Epiphany.

On the Feast of the Epiphany 
we heard from Matthew
as the magi traveled in search for the Messiah
who turns out to be a baby.

Last week
we were in Luke’s gospel--
the Baptism of Christ.

This week we have jumped over to the gospel of John
and we hear about the wedding in Cana
and Jesus turning water into wine.

I don’t believe we will hear from the Gospel of Mark
during the Epipany season
but hearing from three out of four of the gospels
makes it a rich and diverse season.

If you are a fan of the PBS program Downton Abbey,
as I am,
but have missed the first two episodes of Season 3
I may need to issue a spoiler alert for the next part of my sermon.

If you don’t know the program Downton Abbey at all,
I can tell you that it has nothing to do with a religious abbey
and I haven’t seen a single monk in any of the seasons.
Downtown Abbey is the name of a large house and estate--really large--
think bigger than Biltmore Estate large.
Downton is owned and occupied by Lord and Lady Grantham.
They live there with their adult children, 
a variety of others who stop in now and again.
and a diverse group of servants. 
Lots of servants.

It is one of these servants that kept creeping into my thoughts
as I prepared this sermon.
Mr. Carlson is the Butler at Downton.
He is traditional to a fault, loves the old way of doing things,
does not like change
and is absolutely loyal and devoted to the family he serves.

All the male staff report to Mr. Carson.
Mr. Carson is in charge of the pantry, 
the dining room, and the wine cellar.

Mr. Carson has a kind heart but extremely rigorous standards.

I kept seeing Mr. Carson as the wine steward 
in today’s gospel.
That he tastes the water turned to wine
and is so surprised that he goes immediately to Lord Grantham
to point out how unusual this is.

Lord Grantham, sir,
we have an unusual situation here.
This wine...

What is it, Carson?

Well, your Lordship, we usually serve the more inferior wine
once the guests are quite--uh, might I say--tipsy?
But this wine which we are about to put out--


Well, Lord Grantham, it is quite excellent.
In fact, quite a bit more excellent a vintage than what we served
the guests when they first arrived.

Lord Grantham trusts Mr. Carson
and values his opinion.

That is true of the steward in John’s gospel today as well.
It is the steward in today’s gospel--
his surprise when he tastes the wine--
that tells us
that something unusual has happened.
We trust him.
We value his opinion.
We know he is telling the truth.

Not only has the water been changed into wine,
the water has been changed into magnificent wine.

Remember? Epiphany is about shining light
onto Jesus being no ordinary human being--
yes, human.
But also, yes, absolutely divine.

The changing of the water into wine
is the first miracle Jesus performs.

We need to think of these moments--
following a star to find a baby in a manger,
the heavens breaking open 
        as Jesus prays right after his baptism,
changing water into wine--
these are “thin place” moments.

Moments when heaven and earth intersect--
right before our eyes.

In John’s gospel they are called “signs”.
The water into wine is the first of Jesus’ signs.

Jesus’ mother is there with him.
She is never named--she is only referred to as his mother.

It’s not surprising that she is there, too.
The tradition of that time
would have been to invite the whole village.
There would not have been a guest list---
everyone was welcome, invited.
And probably--because weddings were usually multi-day feasts,
everyone would have wanted to be there,
to eat, drink, be merry and celebrate.

Running out of wine
would not have been just bad planning 
but a disgrace for the family.
It would have remained an embarrassment for a long long time.
Some might have looked on it as a very bad omen
for the bride and groom and their married life together.
Running out of wine
would have been a disaster.

Jesus’ mother understands this.
She doesn’t tell him WHAT to do
but it is implicit that she wants him to do something
when she tells him they are running out of wine.

Oh, and then that moment when Jesus responds
and calls her “Woman”.

I don’t know about you,
but if I had ever addressed my mother as “Woman”
I don’t know if I would have lived long enough
to be standing here in this pulpit!

Yet that comment to his mother
lets us know quite clearly that Jesus is no longer a child.
He is coming into his own.
It is happening right before our eyes.

His mother also knows he is no longer a child either
and she knows that he is no ordinary person.

She tells the servants to 
“Do whatever he tells you.”

His mother knows.
His mother knows
that Jesus can--and will--do more
than just transform water into wine.

Jesus can transform us.
Jesus can take what is ordinary
and transform that ordinary into extraordinary.

Jesus came to transform the world.
That is our call as well.

There are some Episcopal billboards going up around the country--
we are trying to get some for Western NC too--
they simply say this:

Love God.
Love your neighbor.
Change the world.

Because with love
anything is possible.

Jesus did not change the water into wine to be a show off,
to do a magic trick as entertainment.
He did this because he had compassion, love 
for that family, that bride and groom--for his mother.
Jesus did not want the wedding to be a disaster.
He cared about people.

Yes, the story is here in John’s gospel as a sign,
to show us that Jesus could do anything--and did.

It is also a sign for the future--
another third day will come.
When everything looks hopeless,
resurrection will come.
The time is not yet
but it is sooon.

But now, it’s the season of Epiphany.
Once more we see the Light coming into ordinary life.
Jesus’ mother gives good advice.
Do whatever he tells you.

Do whatever he tells you.

We are called to use our gifts--
and, as we heard in the reading from Paul’s first letter
to the Corinthians,
our gifts are many and they are wonderfully diverse.

We are called  
to use our gifts, to do whatever God calls us to do,
to go wherever God leads us,
and to love all those we meet along the journey.

Love God.
Love your neighbor.
Change the world.

I think even Mr. Carson
would approve of change
when love is at the heart of it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sermon for Year C Epiphany 1

Washing up for God

I was a teenager
and I was riding with my mother from Raleigh
where we lived
down to Wendell to see my grandparents.
As we drove along old Hwy 64
my mother pointed to a river that ran near the highway.

“Right over there--right at that spot in the river--
that’s where I was baptized.”

She had never pointed that out before 
and she never pointed it out again.

I was too young or too into my own adolescence
to be all that interested that day
or to ask any questions.
I regret that now.
Because I can’t remember the place on the river,
the place where my mother was baptized
and I wish I could.

But what really matters 
is that my mother remembered the place.
She knew the where of her baptism
because it mattered to her.

The place of Jesus’ baptism
obviously was important to the writers of the four gospels.
Matthew, Mark and Luke
all explicitly describe Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River.

The gospel of John doesn’t describe the baptism 
but refers to it implicitly.

Today we celebrate the Baptism of Christ.
Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River.

Remember, we are in the season of Epiphany
and Epiphany is chock full of events
that shine light upon Jesus’ divinity.
This is no ordinary fellow the scripture keeps telling us.

No ordinary fellow.
So why then did Jesus need to be baptized?
Scholars and ordinary folks have wrestled and theorized
about this question
for centuries.

First a little background information:

The word baptism comes from the Greek word 
which means “washing.”
That’s right--”washing.”

Washing rituals were important.
Not only to the ancient Hebrews
but to many other ancient religions.

The washing of vessels used for food,
the washing of hands before eating,
the ritual washing by women at the end of their monthly cycle.
We read about these washing rituals in scripture
as well as other historical writings.

These washings were not for the purpose of getting physically clean--
they were for the purpose of getting spiritually clean--
preparing body, mind, spirit and all things surrounding
to receive God’s presence, to welcome God’s action.

One of these ritual washings
was used for someone who wanted to convert to Judaism.

At the time when Jesus lived,
there were several different sectarian Jewish communities.
The Pharisees and the Sadduces were essentially city dwellers.
They followed the tradition which said
 if your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish. 
Thus, no ritual washing, no baptism,
was needed for your conversion.

But another one of these groups was the Essenes.
They lived in the desert.
We best know the Essenes as those who authored and saved
what we call the “Dead Sea scrolls”

Some Essenes believed that everyone
needed a ritual washing,
even those who were, by tradition, already Jews.
They felt that the washing, the baptism,
was symbolic of their conversion and purification.

Archaelogical digs at the Essene community near the Dead Sea
have found large pool-shaped depressions
where these ritual baths, these baptisms,
probably occurred.
So you see, 
not everyone was baptized in a river.

Some believe that John the Baptist 
was a member of the Essene community.
Scripture and other writings do not confirm this
nor do they deny this. 
But certainly John lived an ascetic lifestyle like the Essenes
and he lived in the desert.

It is very possible that John was a member 
of this early Christian community 
which called for the baptism of all converts,
for everyone, even those who were born in Judaism.

And this leads us back to the question:
Why did Jesus need baptizing at all?
After all,
his mother was Jewish.
He was not an Essene--
he grew up in Nazareth in Galilee,
not in the Dead Sea area.

Plus if Jesus was the Son of God,
if Jesus was completely without sin
which is what we hear repeatedly throughout the New Testament writing,
why did Jesus need to be baptized?

There are a lot of theories from a diverse variety of scholars--
here are just a few:

THEORY # 1: 

Jesus and John plotted together to do this 
to get attention
for Jesus’ ministry.

Hmmmm...I don’t think I am going to buy this theory.
It sounds a little too much like a 21st century PR campaign
and it just doesn’t ring true to me.


Jesus got baptized to please his mother.

This was suggested in an ancient text 
(the non-canonical Gospel of the Hebrews)
but it wasn’t even accepted by the early church
and isn’t likely to hold water (no pun intended)
even today.


Jesus submitted to baptism 
as a foreshadowing of his death and resurrection---
Now this theory makes more theological sense--
in baptism,
you go under the water (death), 
and you are raised back up again (resurrection). 

This is some of the theology behind full immersion baptism--
but we have no proof that Jesus’ baptism was full immersion.

We believe that was the early tradition
but already by the 3rd century baptism was primarily by pouring
or even just sprinkling with water 
as part of the washing ritual.

The oldest icons of this baptism event 
show Jesus standing in the Jordan River, 
the water barely up to his mid-calf 
and John is pouring water over his head. 
He is not being “dunked.”


Jesus came to represent all of sinful humanity
and his baptism represented the washing away of all sins.

Again, there is theological soundness to this theory,
but the problem with this theory is
John was not primarily baptizing for repentance,
the TURNING AWAY from sin--
yes, that was part of it,
BUT John’s was much more a TURNING TOWARD--
turning toward the coming kingdom of God.

John the Baptizer’s mission was to prepare the way 
for the Messiah to come,
not to just cleanse humanity 
but to get them ready to receive.

So why did Jesus go to be baptized?

Perhaps for much of the same reason
we bring a baby to be baptized 
or we go to be baptized ourselves.

Baptism makes us part of a community--
a community of people who love God
and believe that God loves them.
A community of people 
who commit to trying their hardest 
to love one another, too.
A community of people 
who desires justice and peace 
and respects the dignity 
of every human being.

Through baptism
we are given new birth
by water and the Holy Spirit.

And so was Jesus.
He was given new birth
because his baptism marks the beginning
of his public ministry.

God promised John
the Messiah was coming 
and God gave John some ways to identify Him.

John looked at Jesus
and what he saw was God’s promise fulfilled.
Jesus chose to be baptized
as a confirmation, fulfillment of what God had promised.

Jesus did not go to the Temple to be baptized.
Jesus went to his crazy cousin, this radical preacher John.
Jesus went to the river.
The river Jordan.

The waters of the Jordan River,
just like the waters of the Red Sea in the book of Exodus
represent all that is chaotic, all that can pull us under and drown us.

But chaos does not win.

The Hebrew people make it through the Red Sea
and escape the chaos of oppression.
Joshua leads the Israelites over the Jordan River,
out of the chaos of the wilderness
into the promised land.

Both the names Jesus and Joshua
come from the Hebrew “y’shua”
which means “God saves.”

Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River 
shows us once more 
that God is with us.

Sometimes the river rages,
threatening to overflow the banks.
Sometimes the river moseys along gently, peacefully.
Just like our lives,
the river is constantly moving, always changing.

But one thing never changes:
The love God has for each one of us.
A love so deep, so immense, so full of light
that it can never be washed away.
Not ever.