Monday, January 27, 2020

A Very Simple Message

PROPERS:         HOLY MATRIMONY           
TEXT:                 JOHN 15:9-12

ONE SENTENCE:        The message of this moment is essentially simple – love one another as God loves us.

            What a blessing and honor it is for each of us to be here today.  Susan and Dick, we celebrate with you on this day which highlights true joy.

            It is so tempting for the preacher to approach this moment and to feel compelled to say something that is profound, insightful, or deeply thought-provoking.

            That is not my task.  I promised Susan this would not be a stem-winder.  After all, no one came here to see the priest preach.

            The core message of this moment is really very simple.  We hear it in Jesus words from the gospel lesson:

 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.  If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.  I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.

            These are John’s recollection of Jesus’ words.  They express something we have heard so many times that they have become all-too-familiar.  But they remind us of the sacramental nature of this moment.  In other words, this time together – the recognition and blessing of Susan and Dick’s marriage -- is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

            First, Jesus tells us that God loves us.  This is the love of a tender and merciful God, not an angry and vengeful God.  This is God that encourages us to cobble together joy and meaning out of the most challenging of circumstances. His love is to give meaning to life – to transform the pain of the cross to the unspeakable joy of an empty tomb.

            Then, God goes one step further.  He tells us to love one another.  We are to represent God’s love in our relationships with others.  Notice – we are not to tolerate others, or to suffer fools gladly.  We are to love one another as God loves us.

            That loves reaches its apex in a moment such as this – when Susan and Dick embark on a journey of love together.  Their love is founded in the love which they experience – whether they are aware of it or not at a particular moment – in the bonds of matrimony.

            As they live into the promises they make here – with us as witnesses – they emulate the love that Jesus shows to his followers and the entire world.  By that love, they evidence a sign of hope so yearned for in this world.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Opening to the Light

TEXT:                 COLLECT OF THE DAY; PSALM 40:1-12               

ONE SENTENCE:        The light which is characteristic of Epiphany casts                                              shadows in our lives which are to be brought into the light, offered to God, and healed.       

            In these days after Christmas, we hear much about light.

            In the gospel lesson on the First Sunday of Christmas, we heard the prologue to the Gospel according to John.  It included these words: “What has come into being is life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

            In the Feast of the Epiphany, we hear the story of the three magi being guided to the newborn savior by a star in the heavens.  And today, in the collect, we prayed, “Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world…”

            We would agree, I think, that the light is what we seek.  And that light, in general, is healing and renewing.  Light illumines. Especially, as Christians, the light of Jesus. 

            We seek to bring to light those things which fester, corrupt, or damage.  Appropriate light will help heal damaged skin.  Light is something we seek.

            But light does something else.  We hardly consider its effects, because we so want to avoid what it does.  

            Light casts shadows.

            I recall a game we used to play at my grandmother’s house in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.  She had a two-story house that her mother had ordered from Sears-Roebuck.  Yes, they used to sell houses! It was old and spooky.

            We would creep down the inside stairs at night, when all was dark.  We would reach quietly around the corner and press the button which turned the lights on in the kitchen.  Then we would giggle as the various creatures of the night would scurry for the darkness. The floor would move!

            There are events, moments, relationships in life which we seek to keep in darkness. We keep them hidden – maybe even from ourselves.  They are those things in life of which we are ashamed – or at least not proud of.

            Perhaps it is not something we are aware of.  Carl Jung, the great psychological theorist, wrote of the shadow.  It is the aspect of ourselves and our personalities that we keep in the darkness – ignored, hidden, and denied.  We may not even be conscious of it, but, rest assured, it is there for all of us.

            My dear friend, Merrill Wade, who is a retired priest in Texas, once spoke to me of the “dark, unbaptized corners of our hearts.” The light cannot reach those hidden parts – they remain unaffected by the healing powers of the light.Theologically, he was spot-on with human nature and with Carl Jung.

            We tend to ignore that aspect of ourselves.  As a result, there is a tendency to have those hidden, unhealed shadows affect our lives.  That inaccessibility of the light – the fact that the tendencies function from the darkness -- leads to behaviors or actions which separate us from our own best interests, one another, and the fullness of life for which we yearn.  The shadow affects our actions and we are not even aware – the tendency is so hidden from the light.

            But we are not helpless.  The shadow does not have to remain in the darkness.  Consider the victorious words of one who was touched by God – the author of Psalm 40:

 1I waited patiently upon the Lord; * 
he stooped to me and heard my cry.
2 He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay; * 
he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure.
3 He put a new song in my mouth, 
a song of praise to our God; * 
many shall see, and stand in awe, 
and put their trust in the Lord.
4 Happy are they who trust in the Lord! * 
they do not resort to evil spirits or turn to false gods.
5 Great things are they that you have done, O Lord my God! 
how great your wonders and your plans for us! * 
there is none who can be compared with you.
6 Oh, that I could make them known and tell them! * 
but they are more than I can count.

            We can only theorize or speculate on what the psalmist had experienced – the precise nature of the desolate pit.  But I suspect he did not get there overnight, nor did he get out of it overnight.  Many, if not most, times, the work of the Spirit takes time.

            We may seek to do what is right, but we cannot.  The Apostle Paul puts that plaintive cry so succinctly: “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing." [Romans 7:18b-19] 

            And, so it is with the shadow – the hidden part of ourselves that is our desolate pit. To emerge from the muck and the mire that weighs us down, we need to turn inward.  We need to inspect our feelings, our motivations, our actions and then bring them to the light.

            Once we have exposed the unbaptized corners of our hearts to the light which Christ brings, we are freed from the control it lorded over us from the dark recesses of our souls.  In fact, we share in Christ’s victory over the forces of darkness and we become more whole through that healing light.

            It takes time, though – and rigorous self-examination.  We need to turn an unblinking eye within, and listen with unguarded ears to those who would help us find the light.

            And when we come to the power of the light, we will have found our Epiphany.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Rest of the Story

TEXT:                 MATTHEW 3:13-17

SUMMARY:       Baptism is the full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body, the Church.  The bond established by God in baptism is indissoluble. 

            Today is one of the great baptismal feast days of the church year – the First Sunday after the Epiphany, also known as the Baptism of Our Lord.

            Today is a fitting day for Holy Baptism – along with the Easter Vigil, Pentecost. the Sunday after All Saints’, and any day on which the Bishop visits. It is the reason we will renew our baptismal vows in a few moments.

            Baptism did not rise ex nihilo in the early church.  It had been around for many years.  Before it became one of the dominical sacraments – that is, a sacrament instituted by Christ – it had two major threads.

            The first was Baptism of Conversion.  It was a practice used by biblical-era Jews to initiate catechumens – Gentiles studying to join the Jewish faith – into the body of faithful people.  Converts would typically study the Jewish faith and, when adequately prepared, would receive the baptism of conversion.

            Conversion into the Jewish faith – the early thread.

            Then came John the Baptism – a “wild ass of a man”, wearing a leather girdle and eating locusts and wild honey.  He lived, preached, ministered and baptized in the arid desert-like area along the Jordan River in the Judean Wilderness.

            John offered something different.  Something different from the baptism of conversion.  He offered baptism to faithful Jews – offering baptism for the repentance and forgiveness of sins.  People of the covenant community would undergo baptism to cleanse them of their sins.

            Now, of course, that raises the question of why Jesus received baptism.  And as you heard in today’s gospel, John said that he needed to be baptized by Jesus.  Jesus demurred:  We must do this to fulfill all righteousness.

            So, there you have it.  Any other questions would be met with silence – part of the divine mystery.

            So, we have two threads in baptism now – conversion into the community of faith, and for the repentance and forgiveness of sins.  But there’s more…

            We Episcopalians believe that praying shapes believing and that our beliefs can be found in our liturgy, our Book of Common Prayer.  That is certainly true in our theology of baptism.

            Turn to page 306 in the Book of Common Prayer.  There you will find one of the most beautiful and theologically-profound prayers in all the prayer book – the Thanksgiving Over the Water.  I love this prayer.  It says so much in so few words.

            Listen anew to it:

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.

            There’s a lot of meat there – a lot of substantive imagery.  It tells us a lot about our theology of baptism.

            First, we are told about God’s movement in creation.  Then we refer to God’s saving action by bringing the people of Israel out of captivity in Egypt, through the waters of the Red Sea, into the Promised Land. And then we are reminded of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River.

            Then we are told of how all this matters to us.  Going down into the waters of baptism, we going down into the grave with Jesus and when we come out water, we are rising with Jesus in his resurrection.  We have died with Jesus, and we have risen with him – under the movement of the Holy Spirit..  We enter new life.

            So, in addition to the conversion aspect of baptism and the repentance and forgiveness of sins, we add other elements to our understanding of baptism.  We are made new creatures, as in God’s movement in creation.  We are delivered, as through the Red Sea.  And we share in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

            Those are remarkable and profound meanings for a simple liturgical act – a simple act which has life-long and even eternal consequences.

            Yet, there is one additional aspect to baptism that I want to emphasize today.  It is found in the rubrics on page 298 in the Book of Common Prayer – the very first paragraph:

“Holy Baptism is the full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church.  The bond established by God in Baptism is indissoluble.”

            Note these tenets of the Church’s teaching about Baptism:

·      It is the complete initiation into the Church; not partial.  Nothing else needs to be done to complete it.  It is the work of water and the Holy Spirit, and not something we do.

·      The bond established by God in Baptism is indissoluble.  In other words, God establishes the bond.  It is God that moves first.  It is something which God does.  And the bond which is established cannot be dissolved.  Once we have become children of God, we are always God’s child.  Nothing we do or say can separate us from that love.

            The act of Baptism seems so simple, so straightforward. It has so much meaning beyond the apparent.

            Now you know the rest of the story.