Saturday, January 26, 2019

Hope Born in Baptism

TEXT:                 ROMANS 8:38-39

ONE SENTENCE:        The Christian hope, manifested in baptism, is eternal and                                     will prevail against all events and obstacles.         

            I am the one person here who did not know Ken.  It is odd that I should be presiding at this service.

            I have been told that he loved Texas and that he was the faithful treasurer of this parish for many years.  And many, many people loved him.

            But one of the things I have detested down through the years is when a priest or pastor pretends to have known someone, when that has really not been the case. False intimacy is a form of fakery.

            I will not do that today.  This event deserves better.  And so do Ken and Ken’s family.

            But I will gladly shed the light of the Gospel on this moment.  And I will be happy to share the eternal importance of the sacrament of baptism.

            As our bulletin notes, this is an Easter service.  As scripture says, in death life is not ended, only changed. And that change began a long time ago, when Ken was baptized.

            One of the most beautiful prayers in all the prayer book is the Thanksgiving Over the Water, prayed in the baptismal service, on page 306.  We Episcopalians like to say, “Praying shapes believing.”  What we pray is what we believe.

            The Thanksgiving Over the Waterprayer summarizes, in very concise terms, the theology of baptism – what we believe:

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water.
Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.
Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage
in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus
received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy
Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death
and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.

We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are
buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his
resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.
Therefore in joyful obedience to your Son, we bring into his 
fellowship those who come to him in faith, baptizing them in
the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

            This is our theology of deliverance.  We recall God’s dramatic acts in history – creating, delivering, and beckoning to us. In our baptism – and Ken, in his baptism – we die with Christ, and new life begins.  That new life – eternal life – begins at the moment of baptism.

            And as our instructions for baptism states on page 298:

Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into
Christ's Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism
is indissoluble.

            In our baptism – and Ken, in his baptism – we have been fully initiated into Christ’s Body, the Church.  And furthermore, the bond established by God in baptism is indissoluble.  It is not our decision, it is not our action, which establishes that bond.  It is God’s gracious gift to us, to reach out and make that bond, which cannot be dissolved– no matter where life leads us.

            It was this theology which Saint Paul had in mind when he wrote what I believe to be some of the most beautiful and sacred words in his Letter to the Romans, Chapter 8:

38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

            It is for that gift that we give thanks today.  It is that gift that makes this an Easter Service in which we can, indeed, grieve for our brother Ken, but also give thanks for the gift to him of eternal life.  A gift he was given, and a journey he began, many years ago.

            In a few moments, we will say that ancient baptismal creed, the Apostles’ Creed, which is the statement of faith we make as we enter the Body of Christ.  I invite you to share that eternal hope, known fully now by Ken, and embrace the hope we have as Christians.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

More Than a Parlor Trick

TEXT:                 JOHN 2:1-11

ONE SENTENCE:        The manifestations of Christ, exemplified in today’s                                             gospel, continue in lives today.
Preached extemporaneously.

            Years ago, during the earlier days of my life in the ordained ministry, I served each year as director of a camp session.  The camp was Bratton-Green in the Diocese of Mississippi.  The camp sessions I oversaw were for a delightful group of children – either third and fourth grades, or fifth and sixth grades.

            The children were wide-eyed at what they encountered at camp.  There was bountiful fun.  There was great freedom.  And there was laughter – copious amounts of laughter.

            However, we began each camp day – after breakfast – with a chapel service in the outdoor chapel.  With the beauty of nature surrounding us and filling the background, we sang songs, read scripture, and offered prayers.

            But there was one additional element.  A dramatization, or skit, of some sacred theme.  Call it a dramatized homily – certainly more engaging than a sermon!

            I recall one particular episode – and it fits in with today’s gospel.  It was a dramatization of the Wedding in Cana of Galilee.

            I know this will surprise you, but there was no wedding and we did not actually change water into wine.  No one on my camp staff was able to do that.

            But we did the best we could.  To accomplish the deception of the campers, we placed an empty, clear glass pitcher on a purple tablecloth. In the bottom of the pitcher, we would pour a package of dry grape Kool Aid.  The theory was that the Kool Aid in the bottom of the pitcher would blend-in with the purple table cloth.

            Some camp staffer would be portraying Jesus.  At the right moment, that person would pour another pitcher of clear water into the glass pitcher containing the powdered Kool Aid.  The water would become the grape Kool Aid as it filled the clear glass pitcher.  Voila!

            No one was fooled.  The campers did not come to town on a turnip truck.  The kids recognized the ruse immediately.  But, backed with teaching, the message got across.

            Jesus can change things. 

+ + + 

            We are in the season of Epiphany.  The Feast of the Epiphany – two weeks ago – is also known as The Manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles.

            The season of Epiphany (also known as the season of Mardi Grasin these parts) emphasizes three major manifestations:  the appearance of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, and the wedding at Cana of Galilee.

            In those three events, the remarkable nature of Jesus is made known. The Magi worship the new-born king. A dove descends on Jesus at his baptism, and a voice from heaven announces a special blessing upon him. And at the wedding, Jesus performs his first miracle – changing the water into wine.

            But those three events are like the definition of a sacrament – an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.  They point toward something else– something greater; something with more profound meaning.  They are manifestationsof something much greater.

+ + + 

            Rest assured, the changing the water into wine was no cheap parlor trick.  It represented something far greater then. And it represents something far greater now.

            There were many things that Jesus did during his earthly ministry.  But nothing was more profound than changing the hearts and livesof those he encountered.  No one who came across his path would remain the same – the woman with the issue of blood; the lepers; Mary Magdalene; the Syrophoenician woman; Matthew, the tax collector; Zacchaeus; Peter; and the soldiers who crucified him.  He changed their lives.

            But his life and ability to change lives – to manifesthis presence – was not a one-and-donematter.  He continues to manifest himself today… and to change lives.  Epiphany continues.

            We seldom are aware of his manifestation in normal times – when the waters are calm and the wind is at our back.  We are blissfully unaware.  We feel independent and self-sufficient.  Life is easy and good.

            But storm-clouds arise – in various forms.  Life is turned upside-down.  The prevailing winds turn against us, and we are like the disciples on the sea:  We are making headway painfully, if at all.

            And in such moments – when life becomes difficult – we may utter those words, “My God, my God!  Why have you forsaken me?”  We feel so alone… so fragile.

            It is in such moments that we are most pliable – and we have the greatest potential to be touched, transformed, and made new by Jesus, with the Holy Spirit acting in our lives.

            We may be aware of our manifold blessings on the mountaintop, but it is in the deepest, darkest valley that we may be made new.

            Yes, it all happens today.  Not just at a wedding long ago and far away.  Jesus can manifest himself and his ability to change us in the here-and-now.
            If we are willing to pour ourselves out like water, and be willing to be transformed into something new.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Manifestation Even Today

TEXT:                 EPHESIANS 3:1-12; MATTHEW 2:1-12

ONE SENTENCE:        The Manifestation of Jesus continues to this day.    

            Louis Zamperini’s life has been well-chronicled.  He died in 2014 at a ripe old age of 97.  His story had been told in three movies and multiple books.

            He had lived a full life.  The child of immigrants, he at first spoke no English in his adopted home state of California.  He got in trouble with the law.  He became a track star, running in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, setting a record for the last lap of the 5,000 meter race. He was introduced to the new German Fuhrer, who asked: “Ah, so you are the fast one?”

            Zamperini went on to join the Army Air Corps and served as a bombardier on a B-24 in the Pacific Theater.  While on a search-and-rescue mission over the vast emptiness of the Pacific Ocean, his plane developed mechanical problems, causing it to ditch in the open waters. Eight of the 11 crewmen perished.

            That is the part of the story where Zamperini’s story becomes well-known.  He and one other crewman spent 47 days at sea, in a tiny life raft, before beaching on one of the Marshall Islands. He was immediately taken prisoner by the Japanese navy.

            The ensuing story of his captivity is one of valor, bravery, torture, isolation, hard labor, and privation.  Laura Hildebrand’s best-selling book about the first 30 years of his life is appropriately named:  Unbroken.

            Despite the brutal treatment he received at the hands of his enemy captors, he endured.  He survived. And he returned home from captivity to marry his pre-war girlfriend.

            It is what happened next that makes Louis Zamperini’s story even more remarkable.

+ + + 

            For years following the war he was further-tortured by his memories.  He would have recurring vivid dreams of strangling his captors.  He sank deeper and deeper into the bottle.

            Today, we would likely say he had some sort of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

            His life was unraveling… untethered.  His marriage was falling apart.  He was not sleeping.  The year was 1949, and the city was Los Angeles.

            It was in that same city and year that a 31-year-old North Carolina preacher was having his first crusade.  It was originally scheduled to run for three-weeks, but because of an overwhelming response, it had been extended to eight weeks.

            The crusade was in a massive tent, set-up on a parking lot, built to hold 9,000 people. A young Billy Graham preached night-in and night-out.

            And it was in that tent that the struggling former prisoner-of-war encountered the Risen Christ.  Louis Zamperini learned the meaning and power of the word forgiveness.  His life was never the same.

            Jesus Christ had manifest himself to Zamperini.

+ + + 

            Today – January 6, the Epiphany – is one of the great feast days of the Church year, right up there with Easter, Christmas, All Saints, and the Ascension.

            Another name for it is the Manifestation of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.

            In the second lesson – from Ephesians– and the gospel lesson – fromMatthew– we have two examples of dramatic manifestations that molded the church’s understanding of this day.

            First, we have Paul.  Over his years as the most remarkable Christian evangelist and theologian, Paul wrote many letters.  His voice and teaching endure to this day.  He has molded the church’s doctrines for two millennia. His understanding of Jesus’ ministry is why we read his letters even now.

            But, as we all know, he did not come there easily.  His story is one of the great examples of manifestationwe have.

            The story is told several times in the Book of Acts.  First, it is told as it happens, then Paul recounts the manifestationmultiple times in his own words.  We know it well:  Paul, a zealous Pharisee, was on horseback, riding toward Damascus, to persecute the young church there.

            He was struck by a blinding light – knocking him from his horse.  Blinded, he heard a voice from the light, “Saul, Saul.  Why do you persecute me?”

            Saul was his Jewish name, and the voice which spoke to him out of the light was the ascended Jesus – some years after his crucifixion.

            Jesus instructed Saul to travel on to Damascus, and there to lodge in the home of a noted Christian.  It was there, on a street called Straight, that Saul became Paul, and he was formed into a potent Christian missionary.

            Jesus had, indeed, manifestedhimself to Saul.  That encounter is memorialized in countless classic paintings.

+ + + 

            The story of the Magi – the Three Kings – is another, and earlier, example of a manifestation.

            The Magi were from the East – it is believed to be Persia, modern-day Iran. The story is confused with Christmas, but it was actually a later event.

            After following a heavenly light, they came to Bethlehem and found the infant Jesus and his mother, Mary.  They paid homage to him, these three Gentiles, and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

            Even in the stable, and as an infant, Jesus’ manifested himself to the three Magi.  It is a event we remember thousands of years later.  It is a remarkable story.

+ + + 

            The manifestationof Jesus is not limited to Saul crossing the barren land to Damascus.  Neither is it limited to the three Magi approaching the stable stall, to see the infant king.  Nor is it restricted to such dramatic turnabouts as the life of Louis Zamperini.

            Manifestations of Jesus happen to ordinary people – like you and me.  They happen even today – in normal lives, in routine circumstances.  

            It is not necessary for us to be in biblical times… to be crossing a desolate landscape on horseback… to be recovering from the devastating impacts of being a prisoner of war… or to approach Bethlehem’s manger.

            A genuine manifestationtakes place in mundane circumstances.  It may come in the midst of a significant personal failure – one in which your life is turned upside-down.  It may come in a moment of celebration, when you realize in some transcendent way how blessed you are.  Or maybe it comes when you hit bottom due to some addiction or brokenness in your life, and you realize, surprisingly, that you are not alone.

            Paul Tillich called this the experience of being grasped by the ultimate concern.  Slowly but surely… or maybe even quickly and unambiguously… you realize that you are cradled in the hand of something that is well beyond your understanding.

            In such moments – as you are overwhelmed by the power of the experience – you are like the apostle Thomas: “Lord, I believe.  Help thou my unbelief.”

            My core message is this:  Sacred manifestations of Jesus continue today. Do not be surprised.  Be open. Be patient. Be thankful when he crosses your path.