Category Archives: Sermon

Called to be Wells: Sermon for Lent 3, Year A

Lessons for today on the Episcopal version of the Revised Commonly Lectionary are Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, and John 4:5-42.

The story we have just heard from the Gospel according to John is very funny! It is a joke! The only problem is that you have to be a first century Palestinian to appreciate it. We have to put ourselves into the life of a first century Palestinian to get the point of John’s story

We have to put ourselves into a desert frame of mind. The first century Palestinian who first read or heard John’s gospel knew that water is precious. It’s very hard for us to know that. Streams that overflow their banks rather frequently criss-cross our area. One of the Great Lakes is just 30 or so miles north of us. We are surrounded by ponds and if you dig a whole just a few feet deep it will fill with water while you’re back is turned. It is even difficult for people in our country’s desert Southwest to appreciate. In Las Vegas they build artificial lakes with fountains that shoot water 26 stories high. For them and for us water is accessible merely by turning on a tap.

Not so when Jesus had his encounter with the Samaritan woman. To him and to her, and to John’s first readers, water was precious.
We not only must become for century Palestinians to appreciate John’s humor, we must become first century Palestinian Jews. They would have been steeped in the lore and cultural traditions of their place in time. They would have been schooled by their rabbi’s in the history of their people. They would share certain cultural biases. They would know, for example, that a rabbi like Jesus would never converse with a woman, let alone ask her for a cup of water and risk being touched. No rabbi could be touched by a woman other than his spouse. No Jew, for that matter, would converse with a Samaritan. We first century Palestinian Jews hate those people! When we were taken into exile in Babylon they stayed behind! They build a sanctuary on Mount Gerazim and abandoned Temple worship in Jerusalem! They even reject the book of Deuteronomy! We just won’t have anything to do with them!

We first century Palestinian Jews also know about wells in the desert and what can happen at them. We know for example that at a well like this one that John describes Isaac met Rebecca and asked her for a drink of water… and we know what happened to them: they got married! We know that at a well like this one Jacob met Rachel and asked her for a drink of water… and we know what happened to them: they got married! We know that at a well like this one Moses met Zipporah and asked her for a drink of water… and we know what happened to them: they got married! And we know what happens when people get married — there’s a feast! So we appreciate the tension this scene implies.

And now, of course to fully appreciate the situation John describes we must be not only first century Palestinians, not only first century Palestinian Jews, but first century Palestinian Jewish Christians. We Christians have learned not only what the rabbi’s taught, but we have learned the stories of Jesus. We know about Jesus and wedding feasts! We know what happened when Jesus went to a wedding party in Cana in Galilee. We know that water became wine… and we know that the wine at another feast became the Blood… and we know that the Blood is the Living Cup from the one who here calls himself the Living Water. It’s all the wonderful circle of meanings within meanings that we know about that the woman in the story does not. And that, after all, is the nature of humor! It’s irony and it’s farce!

John’s Gospel story is a joke! But it’s not an inside joke… it’s a joke we’re supposed to share! Like all good jokes it’s better when it’s shared. That’s part of our mission to share the good news, to share the humor.

That’s what the woman at the well does. Jesus gently teaches her who he is, leading her to make this discovery. Now let’s be clear about something. This woman is not, despite what you may have heard in Sunday school or other church settings, a simple person. Jesus does not condemn her or even suggest, by saying that she has had five husbands, that she is a sinner! She may have had a culturally legitimate reason for her multiple marriages. She may have been the subject of what is called Levirate marriage in which a woman is taken as the wife of her husband’s brother if her husband dies and they have no children. This was the basis of the question which some Sadducees once put to Jesus about the woman who had seven husbands; whose wife would she be in the afterlife. Perhaps the woman at the well had had a similar hard life. That’s all Jesus says to her, that she has had a hard life. And in doing so he leads heard to discover who he is.

At first she believes him a prophet and so she asks him a perfectly legitimate question. She is a Samaritan; he is a Jewish prophet. The paramount difference between them has to do with where one may worship; so she asks him about this issue. It is his answer to this question which finally leads were to recognize him as Messiah. When she does so, she runs into town to share the good news with her neighbors; she is one about the first evangelists! Later, the people of Sychar come out to the well and learn for themselves the good news that the savior of the world is among them.

Meanwhile, those bumbling idiots, the disciples come back from wherever they’ve been. John makes a parenthetical remark here which is itself a humorous one. He notes that none of them asked Jesus why he is talking to a woman or why he is talking to a Samaritan; they are used to this guy doing strange and unexpected things!

So now we can see the humor, we can see the irony, and we begin to appreciate the metaphor of the well where these people have discovered the one who is the Living Water. It is a metaphor which will be used by many as the Christian centuries progress. St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote that spiritually all people must know how to “drink from their own well.” What St. Bernard meant is that we encountered God when we dig deep into our own hearts for it is there where God has poured his love and spirit as St. Paul wrote to the Romans in today’s epistle lesson.

John Sanford is a modern Episcopal priest who has also used the well image to describe the spiritual life in what he calls The Kingdom Within. In doing so, Sanford recalls his childhood on farm in New Hampshire. At some time during his childhood his parents became wealthy enough to afford to add electricity and modern plumbing to their home. A deep artesian well was dug and an older well was covered over. A few years later Sanford uncovered the old well hoping to do drink from it, only to discover that it was bone dry. He learned that a well of that kind is fed by hundreds of tiny rivulets along which seep a constant supply of water. As water is drawn from the well, water moves along these rivulets, keeping them clear and open. When the well is not used, these rivulets close up. Sanford suggests the human soul is such a well that we must continue to draw from it, from the spirit and love which God pours into it to keep our spiritual lives from drying up.

Another modern theologian who uses the well image is Gustavo Gutierrez, a Roman Catholic priest from Lima, Peru. Gutierrez has written a book entitled We Drink from Our Own Wells about his work in his community. In it he borrows from St. Bernard and writes,

Bernard of Clairvaux put it so beautifully when he said that when it comes to spirituality all people must know how to “drink from their own well.” In … the process of liberation …, we live out the gift of faith, hope, and charity that makes us disciples of the Lord. This experience is our well. The water that rises out of it continually purifies us and smooths away any wrinkles in our manner of being Christians, at the same time supplying the vital element needed for making new ground fruitful.

Sanford uses a similar image when he writes that the living water of God flows into us and out of us into the community around us.

This is our calling: to be wells into which the living water of the love and spirit of God flow, flow up, flow over, and flow out into the community bringing forth new and fruitful growth.

The Vestry and I have been on retreat the past couple of days wrestling with our role and our responsibility as leaders of this church community. We are beginning to develop a corporate vision of what ministry has given us by our God, what mission we as a community of God’s people have in the secular community around us.

I believe that our ministry, whatever it may be, centers here at the altar where we share the foretaste of God’s eternal feast, at the altar which is a well where we share the Living Water, but it does not occur only here. Each Friday afternoon a few of us gather for the Stations of the Cross. We have been using a pamphlet written by Clarence Enzler entitled Everyone’s Way of the Cross. In it Christ speaks to us saying, “Seek me not in the far-off places. I am close at hand. Your workbench, office, kitchen, these are altars where you offer love. And I am with you there.”

At work around the tables and desks of your office, there are you gather with people just as the Samaritans and the first century Palestinian Jews gathered at their community wells. At school around the desks and work tables, there you gather with people just as they gathered at community wells. At home around your kitchen and dining room tables, there you gather with people to share of God’s abundant bounty just as they gathered to share to gift of water from their wells.

That is our mission: to call people together to share God’s abundant Living Water, to dig deeply into our own hearts to tap into the spirit and love which God continually pours out into them, to allow that Living Water to flow, to flow over, and to flow out into all the people around us. We are called not merely to gather at a well, but to be a well … a well overflowing with blessing for the community around us, “because (as St. Paul wrote) God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Amen.


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A Sermon about Nicodemus

I haven’t posted anything for quite awhile … life after Christmas got very complicated and very busy. But I’m back in some sort of groove now and here’s the sermon I preached on the Second Sunday in Lent (February 17, 2008). The Gospel lesson for the day (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A) was John 3:1-17, which recounts Nicodemus’s night-time conversation with Jesus about rebirth.

Fire. For just a moment, before we delve into the story of Nicodemus’s conversation with Jesus, I want you to think about fire. Close your eyes and imagine a fire and listen to how one professor of mythological studies describes this archetypical element:

It fascinates and frightens, warms and scorches. Too little and we die. Too much and we die. It sings, dances, plays, inspires, destroys. It purifies and consumes. In a burning bush, it marked the presence of God. In a volcano, Pele surges into raw life. Among the flames in a smithy, Bridgid and Hephaestus craft wonders of magic. Around ancient hearths, food was cooked, deities worshiped, songs sung, tales told, babies birthed, the sick and dying comforted. Ancient ritual originated in dance and drumming around sacred fire. In many cultures, a new day is born at sunset and nurtured in firelight — by the time dawn arrives, the day is already old. Fire hides in trees and hides in stars, and most of all, hides in hearts.

So writes Dr. Kathleen Jenks, Professor of Mythological Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute. (Fire: Sacrality & Lore)

The Jewish culture of First Century Palestine was one of those cultures in which “a new day is born at sunset and nurtured in firelight.” A child of that culture, Nicodemus’s coming to Jesus by night isn’t a coming at the end of the day, but a coming at the beginning of the day: our Gospel Lesson begins, as does the story of creation, in darkness and God brings forth light! Nicodemus starts a new day in the dark, seeking enlightenment.
This is such a familiar story, isn’t it? Nicodemus coming to Jesus to ask … well, we aren’t really sure what he came to ask. The conversation we heard today is like many in John’s Gospel, only partially related and set out in a way to make John’s point. In this instance, the Gospeler seems to be underscoring the mystery of salvation!

Some have argued that the detail about Nicodemus coming in the night is meant to show that he was afraid of discovery by Jews hostile to Jesus and his mission. (Cf. “Commentary” in The New Iinterperter’s Bible [Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN, 1995]: “Nicodemus hides his seeking under the cloak of night.” Vol. IX, p. 548.) Others argue that a nighttime conversation underscores the seriousness of the conversation. William Barclay, in his famous commentary, writes: “The rabbis declared that the best time to study the law was at night when a man was undisturbed. Throughout the day Jesus was surrounded by crowds of people all the time. It may well be that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night because he wanted an absolutely private and completely undisturbed time with Jesus.” (The Gospel of John, Vol. 1, Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1975, p. 124)

Budolf Bultmann, the famous German Lutheran Bible scholar, in his commentary on this gospel offers a similar comment: “There is no indication that his coming by night was occasioned by his ‘fear of the Jews’ (19.38). It is more likely that this is intended to show his great zeal, in the same way as nocturnal study is recommended by the Rabbis….” (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1971, p. 133 n. 5)

Bultmann, however, argues that John’s principal purpose in relating the nighttime setting is an “intention of creating an air of mystery.” He writes: “The nocturnal setting and style of the dialogue … give the whole passage an air of mystery, which is developed in a three-fold sense as the mystery of rebirth, the mystery of the Son of Man, and the mystery of the witness. But above all an air of mystery lies over the whole passage, because Jesus only speaks of the Revealer in the third person and never discloses himself by an [I am]-saying.” (Ibid., p. 133)

Perhaps the most mysterious thing Jesus says in the whole passage is his insistence that one be born “from above.” (3:3) This puzzles Nicodemus as much as it puzzles us. The Greek term used by John to relate Jesus’s words is anoqen (anothen), an ambiguous word which can mean “from above” or “from the beginning” or “again”. Nicodemus assumes it means “again.” But Jesus makes it clear that it is the first meaning that he has in mind when he reiterates his insistence in different words: “[N]o one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (3:5, emphasis added.)
So, you may be wondering why I would choose to begin meditating on this week’s Gospel Lesson with a reference to the element of fire. I admit that it may seem a bit odd inasmuch as Jesus does not mention fire he mentions water and he mentions the wind (i.e., the air), but he does not mention fire. But we enter our reflection on this gospel with fire because Jesus insists we be born of Spirit. The recently introduced Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church contains this precis of the Biblical symbolism of fire:

While water signifies birth and the fruitfulness of life given in the Holy Spirit, fire symbolizes the transforming energy of the Holy Spirit’s actions. The prayer of the prophet Elijah, who “arose like fire” and whose “word burned like a torch,” brought down fire from heaven on the sacrifice on Mount Carmel. This event was a “figure” of the fire of the Holy Spirit, who transforms what he touches. John the Baptist, who goes “before [the Lord] in the spirit and power of Elijah,” proclaims Christ as the one who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Jesus will say of the Spirit: “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!” In the form of tongues “as of fire,” the Holy Spirit rests on the disciples on the morning of Pentecost and fills them with himself. The spiritual tradition has retained this symbolism of fire as one of the most expressive images of the Holy Spirit’s actions. “Do not quench the Spirit.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, The Profession of Faith, Section Two, Chapter Three, Art. 8, Para. 696, “Fire,” footnotes omitted.)

The same point is made in Easton’s 1897 Bible Dictionary when it states that “fire is a symbol of Jehovah’s presence and the instrument of his power.”

The last sentence in the Roman Catechism is a quote from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians: “Do not quench the Spirit.” For Paul, fire was the very image of God’s Spirit. To the Corinthians he wrote that the Day of the Lord would “be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each [person] has done.” (1 Cor. 3:13, NRSV) To the young bishop Timothy he wrote, “[F]an into flames the spiritual gift God gave you….” (2 Tim 1:6, New Living Trans.)

So this is what Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You must be born of water and the fiery Spirit of God.” No wonder Nicodemus was confused. Nicodemus is as much a child of Greek culture as of Jewish … the Greeks had established in the “scientific” understanding of his world the idea that the Cosmos was made up of Four Elements: water, earth, fire, and air. Everything was made up of combinations of these four primal ingredients, except when those elements were “opposites” and did not mix. Earth and air did not mix; fire and water did not mix. So Jesus answer to Nicodemus is really no answer at all – it was simply an impossibility and so his answer simply raises more questions! “Be born of water and fire?” Seen through the lens of the ancients’ understanding of the Four Elements, what Jesus asks is incomprehensible! Fire and water cannot be combined…. What is he talking about? “How can these things be?” asks Nicodemus.

In my pre-ordination life as a litigation attorney one of my specialties was handling questionable fire cases. I learned a lot about fires, fire suppression, fire investigation and so forth. One of the things I learned is that there are certain fires against which water has no effect. In fact, there are fires which burn so hot that water actually fuels them – the addition of water to such fires, rather than dampen them, causes explosions!

This is was what Jesus seems to be looking for … the fire of the Spirit combined with “living water” resulting in something explosive and uncontrollable … a transformative rebirth, the creation of a “new human being.” That’s probably not what Nicodemus wanted to hear!
John doesn’t tell us how old Nicodemus was, but this leader of the Jews hints at his age when he asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” (3:4) Thus, the tradition has grown up that Nicodemus was an old man. For example, in his book What is Regeneration?, the Chinese evangelist Witness Lee writes, “Nicodemus was an old man of perhaps sixty or seventy years of age.” No wonder he asks Jesus in disbelief, “How can these things be?” (3:9) Nicodemus needs to remember his ancestor Abraham.

Our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures is a short one, the first three-and-a-half verses of Genesis, chapter 12. Let me read it for you again:
The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.

Our reading, for some reason, leaves off the last sentence of verse four: “Abram was 75 years old when he departed from Haran.” Can you imagine starting all over at age 75? Packing up everything you own, including your nephew and his family, loading it all on the family camel, and setting off across the desert for some unknown new land? Now that’s what I call being born again. How did Abram arrive at this renascence? Did it happen all at once? Perhaps not…

Abram was a native of the ancient city of Ur. An article in the December 2001 National Geographic speculated, “He may have worshiped Sin, the god of the moon and Ur’s chief deity.” The author wrote: “I wondered if, somehow, Abraham’s reflections on the moon god had led him to the idea that the world is governed by one God.” (p. 106) Abram’s rebirth (marked by the change of his name to “Abraham”) may have been a gradual thing.

That’s the way fire is sometimes. Coals may smolder unseen; embers may burn unnoticed. That’s the way Christian rebirth is sometimes, too. Someone once wrote about the way a few famous Christians came to their faith:

Noted evangelist Billy Graham says that he can point back to a definite time in his life when he experienced conversion. But his wife, Ruth, says that she grew gradually into the faith and can point to no definite starting point. Her experience is similar to the testimony of Count Von Zinzendorf to John Wesley. When Wesley asked him if he knew when he was saved, he replied, “I have always been saved!” A very famous churchman’s reply to the same question was, “I was saved nearly two thousand years ago, on a hill called Golgotha, outside the city of Jerusalem.” And this is the main point of the biblical witness: Our Salvation was accomplished nearly two thousand years ago in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the one true Son of God. The meaning that this past event has for us today, our response to that event, and our willingness to believe is crucial for us. It doesn’t matter so much when we come to believe as it does that we believe.

It is this coming to belief, to faith, instantly or gradually, that Jesus seems to mean when he insists that we must be “born again.”

The author of the annotations to this Gospel Lesson in The New Interpreter’s Bible makes the point that “the use of the phrase ‘born again’ … has become a slogan and rallying cry” which repeats Nicodemus’s misunderstanding. That author writes:

By codifying the expression “born again” and turning it into a slogan, interpreters risk losing the powerful offer of new life contained in Jesus’ words. Nicodemus and the reader are intended to struggle with the expression “born anothen” in order to discern what kind of new birth is at the same time birth from above. In that struggle of interpretation, the reader is called to listen to all of Jesus’ words in this text, not just a few of them. As the reader moves with Nicodemus and Jesus through this dialogue and into the discourse, a fresh and fuller understanding of “born anothen” emerges. “Born anothen” is complicated to interpret because its language and its promise transcend conventional categories. It envisions a new mode of life for which there are no precedents, life born of water and the Spirit, life regenerated through the cross of Jesus. If interpreters turn “born again” into a slogan, they domesticate the radical newness of Jesus’ words and diminish the good news. (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol.IX, Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN, 1995, p. 555, emphasis in original.)

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit,” said Jesus. (3:8) What kind of fiery transformation we may experience, whether a spontaneous combustion or a slow smoulder, isn’t up to us; it’s up the Spirit who does what she chooses.

So, “let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29) Amen.

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The “E” in Christmas

The following is my sermon for today, Christmas Eve 2007. It will be preached at the “Midnight Mass” this evening. The text, of course, is Luke 2:1-20.

As many of you know, it has been my custom to illustrate my Christmas sermon with an object, something that I have found while shopping for gifts that has seemed to me to exemplify some aspect of the Incarnation, something that has spoken to me of the meaning of Christ’s Nativity.

Well, this year I haven’t done any Christmas shopping. The money that I would have spent on presents for Evelyn, Patrick and Caitlin, I instead gave away to Episcopal Relief and Development to further the Millenium Development Goals. So, I haven’t been in any stores and I haven’t seen any oddball object to share with you.

But I did read a story! It is a very brief tale contained in J. Philip Newell’s book Listening to the Heartbeat of God about an event in the life of the Scottish Presbyterian clergyman George MacLeod who, in the 1930s, founded the modern Iona Community. Before I tell you the story, though, I have to preface it with a bit of linguistic explanation.

If you’ve ever been to Great Britain or to some parts of Ireland, you may be familiar with the expression, “the High Street.” This is the British Isles’ equivalent of the American expression “Main Street” or “downtown”. Traditionally, the High Street was the central business and commercial district of a British or Scottish town.

It seems that in a church where MacLeod was preaching there was a stained glass window of the Incarnation over the altar. It depicted the stable scene with angels flying overhead and included a part of the angels’ song, “Glory to God in the Highest”, in its artwork. However, at some point before MacLeod came there to preach, some hooligan had chucked a rock through the window! The rock had broken out the letter “e” in the word “highest” so that the angels’ song now read, “Glory to God in the High St.”

MacLeod is said to have commented that the window should be left that way, or that perhaps the “e” should be replaced on a swiveling panel so that the window could say both things – “Glory to God in the Highest” and “Glory to God in the High Street” – for it is in “the High Street”, on the Main Streets, in the business districts, in the everyday commerce of life, the ordinary business of living, that the Glory of God in the Incarnation ought to speak to us most loudly.

So my “object” for this year’s Christmas Sermon is the letter “E” …. What can “E” tell us about Christmas? Well, let’s consider a few words that begin with the letter “E” and the first one I want to explore with you is a little used one in its basic sense … the word evangel.


We know this word usually through derivative terms like evangelical and evangelism and evangelist … and we could, I suppose, consider one or another of them, but these words all have the archaic and little-used word evangel as their root, so let’s take a look at it.

Evangel is the English version of a Greek word – euangelion (euangalion) – and both the English and Greek mean “good news”. It was translated into Old English as “god spell” and eventually into the modern English “gospel”, but it really just means “good news”. I thought I might just tell a few “good news, bad news” stories to illustrate this word, but the truth is that any piece of news can be good news or bad news depending on one’s viewpoint.

The star which shone over Christ’s birth place was good news to the Magi and the Shepherds, but it was bad news to Herod and his court. Jesus’s announcement during his ministry on earth that “the Kingdom of God is at hand” was good news for the poor and oppressed, but it was bad news for the devil and the oppressive systems he uses. It all depends on your point of view and your attitude.

The Nativity of Christ was and is evangel, good news, to those who had the right attitude, the right point of view. The amazing thing about the Incarnation, though, is that it also fosters in us the attitude that can make any situation, no matter how difficult or tragic, a matter of evangel, of good news, of Gospel. This is because the Incarnation of God in Christ happens, as MacLeod saw in that broken window, in the High Street, in the places where we live the ordinary occurrences of everyday life.

There’s a story that demonstrates this that’s been floating about for years. I tried to find out who first wrote it, but I couldn’t. It is the story of Michael, a man who worked on high communication towers, like those used for cell phones and micro-wave relays. Here’s the story as told by the unknown author:

Michael is the kind of guy you love to hate. He is always in a good mood and always has something positive to say. When someone would ask him how he was doing, he would reply, “If I were any better, I would be twins!”

He was a natural motivator. If an employee was having a bad day, Michael was there telling the employee how to look on the positive side of the situation. Seeing this style really made me curious, so one day I went up to Michael and asked him, “I don’t get it! You can’t be a positive person all of the time. How do you do it?”

Michael reply: “Each morning I wake up and say to myself: Mike, you have two choices today. You can choose to be in a good mood or you can choose to be in a bad mood. Each time something bad happens, I can choose to be a victim or I can choose to accept their complaining or I can point out the positive side of life. I point out the positive side of life.”

“Yeah, right, it’s not that easy.” I protested.

“Yes, it is.” Michael said. “Life is all about choices. When you cut away all the junk, every situation is a choice. You choose how you react to situation. You choose how people affect your mood. You choose to be in a good mood or bad mood. The bottom line: It’s your choice how you live life.”

I reflected on what Michael said. Soon thereafter, I left the Cell Tower industry to start my own business. We lost touch, but I heard that Michael was involved in a serious accident, falling some 60 feet from a communication tower.

After 18 hours of surgery and weeks of intensive care, Michael was released from the hospital with rods placed in his back. I saw Michael about six months after the accident. When I asked him how he was, he replied: “If I was any better, I’d be twins. Wanna see my scars?” I declined to see his wounds, but did ask him what had gone through his mind as the accident took place. “The first thing that went through my mind was the well being of my soon to be born daughter” Michael replied. “Then, as I lay on the ground, I remembered that I had two choices: I could choose to live or I could choose to die. I chose to live.

“Weren’t you scared? Did you lose consciousness?” I asked.

Michael continued, “The paramedics were great. They kept telling me I was going to be fine. But when they wheeled me into the ER and I saw the expressions on the faces of the doctors and nurses, I got really scared. In their eyes, I read ‘he is a dead man.’ I knew I needed to take action.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“Well, there was a big burly nurse shouting questions at me,” said Michael. “She asked if I was allergic to anything.”

“‘Yes,’ I replied.

“The doctors and nurses stopped working as they waited for my reply.

“I took a deep breath and yelled ‘Gravity.’

“Over the laughter, I told them, ‘I am choosing to live. Operate on me as if I am alive, not dead.'”

Michael lived, thanks to the skill of his doctors, but also because of his amazing attitude.

It is in every situation, every moment of life, both easy and difficult, both the favorable and tragic, that God is with us. God was with Michael in that fall, with Michael in that hospital, with Michael and with the surgeons and health care professionals in his treatment and in his recovery, because God was Incarnate in Christ in that stable in Bethlehem. At Christmas we celebrate not only the Good News that Jesus was born 2,000 years ago, but also the Good News, the Evangel, that he is with us in the High Street, in our ordinary lives, today


Another “E” word I’d like to consider with you is engagement. Of course, it’s a word that comes up in the Nativity Story because Joseph and Mary weren’t yet married when she became pregnant. They were “betrothed” – an old fashioned word for engaged. But that’s not the sort of engagement I’m thinking of tonight. Another use of the word engagement is to describe the action of gears and cogs. When the teeth of two gears mesh together, they are said to be engaged … and they then work together to get something done.

God’s engagement with humankind is what the Evangel, the Good News of the Incarnation, announces. Until the Birth of Christ, God and humankind were separate. When Mary gave birth to Jesus, that changed. God and humanity were engaged in the most intimate of ways.

St. Athanasius of Alexandria wrote, “God became human so humans would become gods.” It is sometimes said that “in Christ, God was reconciling humanity to himself,” but as Athanasius’ statement implies, much more than a superficial reconciliation occurred in the Incarnation. Through the Incarnation we have been made co-creators with God and co-redeemers with Christ. We are engaged with God in the on-going work of creation and salvation, and God is engaged with us in every aspect of our lives.

There used to be a television show on CBS that I almost never got to see, except when someone video-taped it for me. It was called Sunday Morning (and the title may give you a hint why it was impossible for me to watch it very often). On one segment of the show, Charles Osgood told the story of two ladies who lived in a convalescent center. Each had suffered an incapacitating stroke. Margaret’s stroke left her left side restricted, while Ruth’s stroke damaged her right side. Both of these ladies were accomplished pianists, but had given up hope of ever playing again. The occupational therapist of the center sat them down at a piano, and encouraged them to play solo pieces together. Ruth would play the bass left-hand notes, while Margaret played the higher right-hand notes. They learned to play in a new way, and a beautiful friendship developed. That is a wonderful model of the engagement of God and man lived out in the Incarnation of Christ.

Or perhaps another piano-playing story, one I’ve shared here before.

Ignatz Jan Paderewski, the famous Polish composer-pianist, was once scheduled to perform at a great American concert hall for a high-society extravaganza. One of the stage hands had brought his 9-year-old son to work with him and the boy was waiting for his father in wings. Growing bored and tired of waiting, the boy slipped away and, for some reason, was drawn to the Steinway on the stage.

Without much notice from the audience, he sat down at the stool and began playing “chopsticks.” There was an uproar as people began yelling, “Get that boy away from there!” When Paderewski heard the commotion backstage, he grabbed his coat and rushed over behind the boy. Reaching around him from behind, the master began to improvise a countermelody to “Chopsticks.” As the two of them played together, Paderewski kept whispering in the boy’s ear, “Keep going. Don’t quit, son…don’t stop…don’t stop.”

In the Incarnation and life of Jesus Christ, God engages with us and plays a counterpoint to the chopsticks we play, and together with God we become co-creators of the composition of our lives and co-redeemers of all who hear the melody.


The story of Paderewski reaching his arms around the young boy brings us to one more “E” word … embrace. The dictionary says that embrace means to enclose or encircle, to eagerly accept, or to hold close with one’s arms as an expression of affection. In the Incarnation, God does all of those things. God encloses us within the circle of his love; God eagerly accepts our humanity; God holds us close with deep, deep affection.

God’s embrace is an everlasting embrace. God always surrounds us with his love and protection. In the Celtic Christian tradition, there is a poetic prayer form called a lorica or “breastplate.” It celebrates the encircling, safeguarding presence of Christ.

George MacLeod, whose observation about that broken “E” in the Incarnation stained-glass window started us off tonight, wrote a lorica which I would like to read for you. If you’d like to read along, you’ll find it on the last page of this evening’s worship booklet:

Christ above us, Christ beneath us,
Christ beside us, Christ within us.

Invisible, we see you, Christ above us.
With earthly eyes we see above us
clouds or sunshine, grey or bright.
But with the eye of faith
we know you reign,
instinct in the sun ray,
speaking in the storm,
warming and moving all creation.
Invisible, we see you, Christ above us.

Unknowable, we see you, Christ beneath us.
With earthly eyes we see beneath us
stones and dust and dross.
But with the eyes of faith,
we know you uphold us.
In you all things consist and hang together.
The very atom is light energy,
the grass is vibrant,
the rock pulsate.
All is in flux;
turn but a stone and an angel moves.
Underneath are the everlasting arms.
Unknowable, we know you, Christ beneath us.

Inapprehensible, we know you, Christ beside us.
With earthly eyes we see men and women,
exuberant or dull, tall or small.
But with the eye of faith,
we know you dwell in each.
You are imprisoned in the dope fiend and the drunk,
dark in the dungeon, but you are there.
You are released, resplendent,
in the loving mother, the passionate bride,
and in every sacrificial soul.
Inapprehensible, we know you, Christ beside us.

Intangible, we touch you, Christ within us.
With earthly eyes we see ourselves,
dust of the dust, earth of the earth.
But with the eye of faith,
we know ourselves all girt about with eternal stuff,
our minds capable of Divinity,
our bodies groaning, waiting for the revealing,
our souls redeemed, renewed.
Intangible, we touch you, Christ within us.

Christ above us, beneath us,
beside us, within us.
What need have we for temples made with hands?


Well, we need temples made with hands, these churches of ours, as places where we can meet to express our mutual love of God, our mutual commitment to one another as Christians, our support of one another in the faith, our shared joy in the Incarnation. We need temples made with hands so we can come together in one place to hear once again the old familiar story, to sing the old familiar carols, and to remember the last and most important of the “E” words for tonight – Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” God is with us in our commercial places; God is with us in our work places; God is with us in our homes; God is with us in the ordinary, everyday business of life.

The Glory of God is with us in the High Street.

Glory to God in the Highest! Amen.

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Sermon for Proper 28C: A Bright, Brand New Day

 Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 28C, texts:  Isaiah 65:17-25 and Luke 21:5-9

If you’ve ever been here for the “Midnight Mass” on a Christmas Eve, you may have noticed that when we sing Silent Night, as we traditionally do at the end of that service, I don’t sing. It’s not that I don’t like Silent Night; I do! It’s a lovely carol. Perhaps it’s because I like it too well. The reason I don’t sing it is that I can’t sing it. It’s one of those songs that, for some reason, “tugs at my heart strings.” I get a lump in my throat and I just can’t sing!

Perhaps there are songs that are like that for you. Another one that always gets to me is one written by the Irish folk singer Phil Coulter during that time of terrible conflict in Northern Ireland which the Irish, with characteristic understatement, call “The troubles.” I don’t know when I first heard the song, but I do remember that I just started weeping when I did so … and after that I simply avoided listening to it. I love Irish folk music, but if I would get an album with that song on it, I’d make the player skip the song (unless, of course, I felt like crying for some reason).

Earlier this year, my wife and I were in County Clare, in the town of Doolin, which is called “the capital of traditional Irish music.” We stayed in a bed-and-breakfast run by Bev and Adrian O’Connor, and Adrian is a guitarist and folk singer. One evening we went to a local hotel-pub to listen to him sing and, of course, he sang Phil Coulter’s song and there I sat with tears streaming down my face.

I don’t know exactly why this song gets to me, but it does. It’s called The Town I Love So Well:

In my memory
I will always see
the town that I have loved so well
Where our school played ball
by the gas yard wall
and we laughed through the smoke and the smell
Going home in the rain,
running up the dark lane
past the jail and down behind the fountain
Those were happy days,
in so many, many ways
in the town I loved so well

In the early morn
the shirt factory horn
called women from Creggan, the Moor, and the Bog
While the men on the dole
played a mother’s role
fed the children, and then walked the dog
And when times got rough
there was just about enough
but they saw it through without complaining
For deep inside
was a burning pride
in the town I love so well

There was music there
in the Derry air
like a language that we could all understand
I remember the day,
when I earned my first pay
as I played in the small pick-up band
There I spent my youth,
and to tell you the truth
I was sad to leave it all behind me
For I’d learned about life
and I’d found me a wife
in the town I loved so well

But when I returned,
how my eyes were burned
to see how a town could be brought to its knees
By the armoured cars
and the bombed out bars
and the gas that hangs on to every breeze
Now the army’s installed
by that old gas yard wall
and the damned barbed wire gets higher and higher
With their tanks and guns,
oh my God what have they done
to the town I love so well

Now the music’s gone,
but they still carry on
though their spirit’s been bruised never broken
And they can’t forget
for their hearts are set
on tomorrow and peace once again
For what’s done is done,
and what’s won is won
and what’s lost is lost and gone forever
I can only pray
for a bright brand new day
in the town I love so well

This song came to mind as I was contemplating our gospel lesson today. I thought that Coulter’s sentiments about Derry during “the Troubles” would probably ring true for anyone going through the kinds of things described by Jesus in today’s reading from Luke. And, if you’re following the daily office lectionary, as my wife and I do in our daily prayers, you know that we’ve been reading the same sorts of things in Matthew’s Gospel every day, as well. What must it have been like to live through “the Troubles,” what must it be like to be living through the conflict in Iraq, or to be living through the terrible destruction in Bangladesh caused by Cyclone Sidr?

Two events in my life this week also made me think of what it must be like to witness such cataclysms if one takes a somewhat different view of Scripture than we do in the Anglican tradition. The first event was channel surfing. There I was flipping through channels and I landed on the Eternal Word Television Network, which is certainly one of the more interesting offerings on cable in today’s world. There was one of the priests who regularly appears on that network holding forth in a program called A Crash Course in Catholicism. “This looks interesting,” I thought; so I watched for a while.

His presentation was a sort of PowerPoint thing with informative slides. At first he went on for a bit about the relationship of Christianity to Judaism and Islam, and then he began comparing the Roman tradition to Eastern Orthodox on the one hand, and western Protestantism on the other … and one of his PowerPoint slides popped up saying that the Roman church teaches that the Bible is the “inspired, literal, infallible, and inerrant” word of God. “What?” I thought, “I didn’t know that’s what the Roman Catholic Church teaches!” I know that Southern Baptists hold that view and some of the other more conservative evangelical sects, but not the Romans! That certainly isn’t what the catholic tradition has taught down through the ages, at least not the catholic tradition represented by the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church.

The other event was a conversation with my local Presbyterian colleague. He was telling me about once having had a staff member, his Sunday School superintendent, who had been reared in a church which followed what is called “dispensationalist theology” – these are the folks who believe in “the rapture” and “the tribulation” and all that sort of stuff. That isn’t what Presbyterians teach, nor is it what Anglicans teach, and he was telling me about how he had to reign in this Sunday School teacher.

Part of our conversation got me to wondering how someone with that sort of Scriptural view would understand events like “the Troubles,” or the Iraq war, or even a natural disaster like Cyclone Sidr or Hurricane Katrina. Have you ever noticed that the folks who hold a literalist view of Scripture tend to focus only on the scary bits of Scripture, like these words of Jesus today or the parts of the Book of Revelation? And have you ever noticed how they seem to be somewhat negative people? I guess it would be no wonder if you thought every conflict, every disaster, might be the beginning of the end.

But such an outlook overlooks what is said in the prayer that we began our worship with today. Turn with me to page 236 of the Book of Common Prayer. Each Sunday we begin worship with a prayer, called a “collect” which is the “proper” for the day. This Sunday, being the Sunday closest to November 16, the prayer book calls us to offer Proper 28, which begins with these words:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them….

We should underscore that word “all” … because therein lies the antidote the negativism encouraged by a literalist, inerrantist misconception of Scripture. If one reads, marks, learns and inwardly digests all of Scripture, one knows that the Bible includes many kinds of literature, including poetry and even fiction, in addition to history and prophecy. And one would be familiar with other sorts of visions, not just the scary ones – visions such as that which we heard today from Isaiah, that vision of a time when “no more shall the sound of weeping be heard … or the cry of distress,” when the lion and lamb will feast together, and no one will be hurt again. When, in Phil Coulter’s words of hope for the town of Derry, there will be a “bright, brand new day.”

When one reads, marks, learns, and inwardly digests all of Holy Scripture, one learns that conflict and disaster are not the end, no matter what may befall us, there is always “the blessed hope of everlasting life, … given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.”


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Preaching Extemporaneously

I did not post sermons for October 28, nor for November 4, because on both occasions I did not preach a prepared sermon.  In fact, I would have to say that I did not preach at all.

On October 28, I did what I called “a factual instruction” on tithing using some of the elements set out in my posting here of October 19.  I witnessed to the fact that my wife and I are tithers and what that means for us, and I invited the congregation to join us in dreaming what might happen, what could happen, what would happen if every parish household tithed.

On November 4, I preached briefly, extemporaneously on the meaning of All Saints Day, tied it to the democratic nature of our denominational polity, and invited those present to ask questions about the way we live together as a church.  It was an interesting experience, especially given the secular media’s coverage of recent events in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Preaching extemporaneously is always a dangerous exercise, and often a scary experience…. I’m usually surprised with what comes out of my own mouth and, frequently, when I think I’ve been simply struggling to say anything of value … that’s when I get some the greatest compliments about my sermon.  Go figure!

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God Is a Nag! (Sermon for Proper 24c, October 21, 2007)

What is this parable about? Jesus told this parable to his disciples “about their need to pray always and not lose heart;” at least that’s what Luke tells us this parable is about. But I’m not so sure this is a parable about prayer.

Does Jesus really mean that we are supposed to nag God? Is that what it means? Does it mean that if we harass God enough, if we beg long enough, if we keep asking for something often enough, God will finally give in and give us what we want?

I don’t think so. I think this is a parable about something else and the key to what it’s about is found in a phrase in our lesson from Jeremiah that is also repeated in the Second Letter to Timothy. Twice in this short piece from Jeremiah, the prophet writes (on God’s behalf) “the days are surely coming…” And the author of this letter to a young bishop giving him advice on how to do his ministry uses the phrase “the time is coming.”

Could this parable be about the time, the days that are coming?

There are two clues in Luke’s Gospel that it just might be. The first is a missing word!

Our Gospel lesson today comprises the first eight verses of Chapter 18 of Luke’s Gospel. But the people who edited our book of eucharistic lessons left our the very first word. Your bulletin insert, which copies the lesson as shown in the reading book, indicates that the first word of verse one is Jesus … but it’s not! The first word in the eighteenth chapter of Luke is Then.

When a lesson, a paragraph, a sentence begins with the word then, that usually suggests that the words that come before it are nearly as important as the words that come after it. So we ought to look at Chapter 17 as we try to make sense of this first story in Chapter 18, don’t you think? If we did that, we’d discover that Jesus tells this parable of the unjust judge and the persistent widow in the context of a conversation with the Pharisees.

The Pharisees have come to Jesus and asked him a question. “Jesus,” they said. “You’re a smart guy. Perhaps you can tell us. When is the Kingdom of God coming?” Jesus’s answer is typically ambiguous, at least in the Greek Luke was writing in. Some translators say the Greek words in Jesus’s answer mean, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” That would mean that the Kingdom of God is a personal thing, that it is here in the sense of and to the extent that the individual is spiritually growing or spiritually mature. Other translators say the Greek means, “The Kingdom of God is among you.” That would mean that the Kingdom of God is a community thing, that it is here in the sense of and to the extent that our relationships one with another and with the world around us are spiritually authentic. Of course, the beauty of New Testament Greek is that it can and probably does mean both of those things!

So Jesus tells the Pharisees that the Kingdom of God is, in some sense, already here. Then he turns to his closest associates, the disciples, and says, “But it’s also not here yet….” And goes on to warn them that they really don’t want to be around when it arrives! The “day of the Son of Man,” says Jesus, is going to be really unpleasant. And then … then is when he tells this parable.

This isn’t a parable about prayer at all … it’s a parable about the Kingdom of God which Jesus ends with a question, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

But the parable must have something to do with prayer! So let’s consider two questions. First, how does God answer prayer? Second, why do we pray?

Note that my first question is not, “How do expect God to answer prayer?” I can tell you that … we take it for granted that God is going to answer our prayers in the way we have packaged for Him. We give God multiple-choice test with three answers: “Yes,” “No,” or :Wait.” We do that every time we make a petition, as we will do in our prayers of the people in a few minutes:

“God, there are some people who are sick and need to be comforted and healed. What’s your answer? Yes? No? Later?”

“God, there are some people in danger because of that stupid war over in the Middle East. Keep them safe, OK? What’s you answer? Yes? No? Later?”

“God, there are some people who are celebrating birthdays and anniversaries. Shield them in their joy! What’s your answer? Yes? No? Wait?”

Of course, we only ever acknowledge it when God says “Yes” to our prayers. I was recently with a friend whose mother just came home from the hospital. We were talking about what a miracle that was because she had been very ill and not expected to survive. “Isn’t it wonderful,” he said, “that God answers prayers? Praise God for that.”

I wondered if he would still have said “Praise God” if God’s answer to the prayers for his mother’s healing had been “No.”

But God doesn’t answer our prayers with a “Yes,” “No,” or “Wait!” God’s answers in another way … but before I get to that, let’s consider the other question.

Why do we pray?

We do not pray to tell God about something God doesn’t already know. We do not pray in order to give God advice. We do not pray so that we can convince God to do something he wasn’t going to before.

We pray to conform our will to God’s. That was what Jesus taught his disciples when they asked to teach them to pray, “Thy will be done.” That was the prayer he exemplified in his own life, especially in the Garden at Gethsemane when prayed, “If it is possible let this cup pass from me, yet not my will, but thine.”

And that, the reason we pray, the confirming of our lives to God’s will, is why when God answers prayer the answer is most often not “Yes,” or “No,” or “Wait.” The answer is most often “You”:

“God, there are some sick people who need comforting.”
“Oh … You! You take care of them.”

“God, there are some people in danger in that war.”
“Oh … You! You find a way to work for peace.”

“God, there are some people who are hungry.”
“Oh … You! You feed them.”

“God, there are some people having birthdays.”
“Oh … You! You go celebrate with them!”

Which brings us back to the parable.

A way to understand parables is to ask ourselves two things. Where is God in the parable? And where are we in the parable? In this parable, there are two characters. Which one is God? Is God the unjust judge who has no regard for anyone not even himself? That doesn’t seem very likely, does it? So that must mean God is the widow seeking justice. And if God is the widow, then that must mean ….

Prayer is about God transforming our lives. And like the widow seeking justice, God can be something of a nag until that happens. But if we go to God constantly in prayer, and if our prayer is made with the intent that we seek to conform our lives to God’s will, then the question with which Jesus ended the parable will be answered in the affirmative. We will be people of faith.

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Church Pledges, Tithes … Dreams

OfferingThis is that time of year that I am sure most clergy like just about as much as having a tooth pulled without anesthesia; it is that season when we endure the annual campaign to get parishioners to pledge their financial support of the church for the coming year.

Members of my parish will soon be receiving a letter and a flyer encouraging them to think about the “rainbows” all about us in our lives and in the church. The letter will suggest that they find the rainbows that encourage them to come to our church for worship and fellowship and celebrate those rainbows with their pledge … with the biggest pledge they have ever made.

In another week or so, the parishioners will receive another letter, another flyer, and a pledge card for 2008. This letter may also include a budget worksheet setting forth some of the possibilities and priorities of the vestry for mission and ministry (whether it does will depend upon actions taken at the vestry meeting on October 22, 2007).

When a Christian considers how much to pledge and how much to give to his or her church, the Episcopal Church teaches that the starting point is “the tithe” – the biblical call to return to God, through the religious establishment, one tenth (10%) of our earnings. In the July 2001 issue of Networking, the newsletter of the Episcopal Network for Stewardship, Terry Parsons (Stewardship Officer of the Episcopal Church), set forth these facts about tithing in an article entitled The Give and Take Connection:

Did you know that if Christians in the United States had tithed in 1998, they would have contributed an additional $131 billion to their churches? International organizations that deal with health matters estimate that $2.5 billion annually could stop an estimated 11.1 million deaths of children under the age of five that take place each year. These are the so-called preventable deaths due to things like starvation and the lack of immunization as well as what most U.S. parents consider ordinary medical care. That’s right. We could have prevented the deaths of approximately 30,410 children each day and still had $128.5 billion left over! We could have spent $7 billion providing primary education for the world’s children who are currently without it and doled out another $70 to $80 billion providing basic services for the rest of the world’s population in need of same. Still, we would have had a princely $40.5 to $50.5 billion or so to lavish on ourselves in the form of priests, musicians, youth leaders, lay leadership training and Christian formation, plus we could repair leaky roofs, wheezing organs and rusty plumbing, and then do new construction and assorted other maintenance and ministry needs here at home. Sounds downright miraculous, doesn’t it? And all it takes is a faithful ten percent from each of us.

Wikipedia reports the following about our city, based on the 2000 census:

The median income for a household in the city was $50,226, and the median income for a family was $57,435. Males had a median income of $42,437 versus $26,893 for females. The per capita income for the city was $21,709. About 5.1% of families and 5.7% of the population were below the poverty line, including 7.1% of those under age 18 and 6.2% of those age 65 or over.

Our parish has approximately 160 active member households. If each of those households earned only the per capita income shown in these data, and if each of those households pledged a tithe, the parish’s income from pledged contributions would be $347,360! If each of those households earned the per household median and tithed, the total pledged income would be $803,680.

That’s something to think about! It certainly demonstrates that what Terry Parsons wrote about is true in our church and our community!


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