Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany, January 28, 2018
It doesn’t take a lot of intellectual awareness to observe that we are living in troubling times. Today I am not talking about the divisions in our beloved Church in South Carolina, although I believe that struggle participates and is influenced by our societal realities. I am noting the extremism and partisanship that tends to dehumanize anyone who is “other” than we, anyone who thinks differently, who dares to speak hard truths, or perhaps has grown and been formed in a differing cultural context. Perhaps like me, you are weary of it all.
Deuteronomy begins in today’s lesson to say that, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people.” This refers to Moses and his bold yet costly truth-telling to hold God’s people to the way of God. He did so in the midst of the great temptation, out of expediency, to do otherwise and thereby save his own skin. The role of prophet might prove to be too difficult, too costly. He might even have to change his worldview and way of life, yet Moses remained faithful and dared to tell the truth to the power of pharaoh as he worked to set God’s people free. Moses did so no matter how inconvenient or the personal cost to him. That is what one committed to the truth does.
Being a prophet is hard work. It can be dangerous work. It cost Moses being able to enter the promised land. He only got to stand and gaze at a distance across the valley. Being a truth teller cost Jesus his life as he stood up to the empire of abuse of power and the subjugation of peoples. It has cost the life of thousands of others over the centuries.
Being a prophet is also hard work because there is a psychological propensity in human beings, including you and me, only to hear and accept what we already believe. When something comes along that challenges something we deeply already hold, we tend to dismiss it, at least at first. It take repeated times of hearing a new word, facts that contradict what we think we already know, for us to begin to consider another possibility.
For us as Christians, our measure is always Jesus and what he taught, how he lived, how he showed us the fullness of God in his very being. We hear today in the Gospel that the people were astounded by the authority of his teaching. The authority Jesus exercised was found in his healing as he pointed to the full reign of God for God’s people. He exercised authority over anything and everything that in any way diminished God’s people.
Look with me for a moment at our baptismal covenant as presented in the Book of Common Prayer. It is here we discover how we are called, as disciples, also to be prophets for the sake of God’s truth found in the way of Jesus. Right there, in our baptismal promises (p. 302), we say in the three renunciations that we will do everything in our power not to participate in cosmic, systemic or personal evil. Indeed, we promise then to follow the way of Jesus to proclaim that he is Lord, as distinct from the lordship of Caesar as manifested in governments, political leaders, empire, domination, power, wealth, or even success at all cost. All of these are idols that are incredibly seductive, yet are being called out in today’s readings as contrary to the way of God.
We must always be looking to the way of Jesus. As Julian of Norwich so clearly said, “What was his way? His way was love.” I would go far as to say that any law that is not first grounded n love, grace, and the dignity of all human beings, is a law that needs to challenged and changed. “Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up,” St. Paul says to us today.
Some of you are aware that in a couple of weeks I will be returning to El Salvador. I will be meeting as a member of the Board of Trustees of a human rights organization called Cristosal (cristosal.org). The people of El Salvador continue to struggle for the basic norms of justice that you and I might take for granted. When there, I often witness the people of that country who in costly ways, and sometimes at great risk, seek to change the structures and confront the violence that keeps God’s people oppressed, without the basic rights that all human beings should be able to enjoy just by virtue of being human – made in God’s image.
I am a part of that organization because it is about a way of loving. It is an organization of people who are prophets as they tell the truth in challenging ways. They often make the powerful uncomfortable, but all to the good. Such a perspective might give us a sense of what Jesus’ hearers may have been thinking and feeling when they heard his teaching. He was always laying before them the hard word that God ‘s way always directs us to embrace the outsider, those on the edge and beyond our comfort zones.
What we see in Jesus and his ministry in Capernaum and beyond, now embodied in his Church made up of you and me, is a bringing forth of the reign of God right into the midst of the contested arena of human life. Love is hard work. It is not passive. It is supposed to cost us something. It cost Jesus his life. People who seek to live and love this way may seem odd, even deluded. It is often alien to popular opinion and unfortunately, with rare exception, doesn’t get votes. Yet in Jesus’ worldview it is the way of hope, reconciliation and freedom. It is definitive for all who dare to follow in the Way of Jesus.
The Third Sunday After the Epiphany; January 21, 2018
Why are you on this planet? Such a question can be raised when we hear the words of Mark that, “immediately,” the fisherman left their nets to follow Jesus. It is a word Mark uses over and over again in his Gospel to convey a sense of urgency in the discipleship business. So again, why are you on the earth? Why are you a worshiping community? Why gather here at the First Community Bank to celebrate this meal of thanksgiving we call the Eucharist? Does our sense of mission and ministry have a sense of urgency to it?
The words of St. Paul today, out of his sense of urgency, may speak to us when he says: “The form of this world is passing away.” Perhaps you know this better than some. You had to shift from one reality to another as one form of your world was passing to another. Rather than scattering to the four winds you had to decide whether you were going to continue as a community of faith as Episcopalians. I admire you for your decision and the faithfulness you exhibit. Although in a different context from St. Paul, you too must be preparing for a different future, one that is not yet known except for one thing – God is with you and among you, for his love of you will never fail.
Sometimes in life we get wake-up calls, you know, those times when we are caught up short, perhaps confronted in some significant way when we ask ourselves about purpose and meaning. There was a moment some years ago when I was in the office of a parish church I was serving. It was late on a Saturday when no one else was around and things were pretty quiet. I was finishing up preparations for Sunday when I heard some laughter and conversation coming from an area of the back porch of the parish hall that faced a body of water. I walked back to find the source and looked out the window, undetected, to see two teenage guys drinking cheap wine and smoking funny cigarettes, if you catch my drift.
Without thinking too much, I popped open the door and said in as firm and authoritative voice I could muster, “Boys, get in here!” To my great surprise they actually did. They must have been so startled, perhaps scared, they didn’t know what else to do. We sat down in my office, I told them I wasn’t going to be calling their parents unless they did not cooperate, and I asked them the first thing that came to my mind, “Why do you think God put you on this earth?”
So we talked and the deal was in order for me not to call their parents, they had to come and see me each Saturday afternoon for three more weeks just to talk. I know it doesn’t always come out this way, but today one of those boys is a physician with Doctors Without Borders and the other is a businessman in his community with a wonderful family. They had their wake-up call.
I have seen similar things happen when I have joined young people on missions to El Salvador. High school teenagers often are forming a sense of how they believe they might spend their life vocationally, yet because of their experience on mission many of them change their sense of vocation radically to dedicate themselves to serving the oppressed, the poor, and the least of the world. I know of one young woman, now a priest, in part because of her experience among the people of El Salvador. She too had a wake-up call.
So too for us. If we are the Body of Christ as St. Paul understands us to be, there is a reason for our presence individually and as a community of faith. We, in our parishes and worship communities, live in odd times. The cultural realities around us are shifting faster than to which we can respond. Add to that our in-between time in South Carolina as we engage yet unknown possibilities for our future. The old ways of doing church are gone forever. Many of us are anxious, even fearful about our future. Yet we do have a choice and we, like those first century fisherman, are also being called to leave our nets, immediately.
We can live out of fear and hunker down in survival mode, or, we can see this time as a gift and call from God, even when gathered in a bank, empowered by the Spirit to reorient, plant our feet once again deeply in God’s love and listen for the possibility for us to re-awaken to our purpose for being as a community of faith in the discipleship of Jesus.
God, in Jesus, is always looking to restore his people in every age, in every time. It is why he called forth Jonah: “Get up and go to Nineveh.” It is why he called forth St. Paul who said in response: “the appointed time has grown short.” It is why his Son became flesh. It is why you have been called forth here in Cheraw, at a bank, for it is just as true today as it was when Jesus asked those first century fisherman to drop their nets and follow him to fish for people.
It may look different in every age, but we do know that God desires to be in relationship with us. Out of that relationship we take on God’s agenda, God’s dream of justice for the world, a world where all things are set right in our relationship with God, one another, and the entire creation. It is why you are on the planet. It is why you are here today.
The Second Sunday after the Epiphany
January 14, 2018
Like much of North American Christianity, we are having to redefine what it means to be a people of faith in a 21st century context as we live into our call to be disciples of Jesus. We do this work knowing that there are no easy answers or any quick fixes. What we do know is that we have a God who desires to be in relationship with us and is always calling forth our trust in the possibility that God’s dream can be made manifest, an epiphany, in you and in the life of this parish for the sake of the world.
I want to tell you about a faith community that was wrestling with its identity and what God was calling them to be. They had fallen on hard times as they were once full of life and vitality, but the rise of secularism, along with shifting demographics and a loss of vision had taken its toll. They had declined to a point of four people and the occasional presence of a priest.
Every now and then there was a visitor who, while traveling would come for worship, about once per year. The priest went to him and shared his concerns and asked if the visitor had any advice. All he said was, “I know how it is. The spirit seems to have gone out of the people. They have forgotten why God put them here.” They wept together. They prayed together. Upon leaving the priest asked if the visitor had anything else to offer and he said, “No, but I can tell you this, the Messiah is one of you.”
The priest went back to the faith community the next week and said, “He couldn’t help. We cried. We talked. We prayed. But he did say one curiously cryptic thing. ‘The Messiah is one of us.’ I don’t know what he meant.”
Well, days and weeks went by and each of them wondered who it was. Was it the priest? He was a holy person and their leader. Was it Thomas who was always reminding them to pray? Or maybe Bob, but nah, it couldn’t be him, he’s so crotchety and gruff and always giving everyone a hard time. How about Mary? She doesn’t ever say much, but she tries hard to keep the peace.
Yet a strange thing began to happen. They all began to treat each other with a new respect on the off-chance that one of them was the Messiah. They got a new sense of purpose as a renewed center of faith and the village around them saw a new vibrancy and hopefulness in them as they ventured out into the surrounding neighborhood.
I am not saying that this story describes specifically the reality of All Saints. It does, however, point to the center of our faith in Jesus the Christ. We must never fall into the trap of acting like functional atheists, that is, behaving as if there is no God. Just a few weeks ago we celebrated our God who became flesh, has come among us, and has promised to be with us always, even unto the end of the age. We heard in I Samuel this morning that hearing “the word of the Lord was rare in those days.” At the same time we get a wonderful word of hope: “…the lamp of God had not yet gone out.” The living God is always bringing what appears to be hopeless into new life, despair to renewal.
Eli and the boy Samuel were guarding the Ark of the Covenant at a sacred site, the sign and symbol of the presence of God, yet God seemed silent for Samuel did not yet know the Lord. What did he need? He needed someone, in this case the old priest Eli, to point to God and help him distinguish what was God’s voice and what was not. Samuel discovered that God was already among them and became a powerful voice for God, showing forth a different reality of faithfulness and hope born of God, rather than the voices of violence, separation and domination that had seduced Eli’s sons.
All of the data tells us that faith communities that are the clearest about their identity, that is, why they exist, and that have a passion to make a difference in the world around them, are the ones that tend to be most alive in God’s Spirit. In John’s Gospel, Philip was going about his every day business and needed the presence of the Messiah to call him forth to a new way of life. “Follow me,” Jesus said. Philip then went and found someone else, Nathanael, and on it goes through the centuries until we find ourselves here.
Nathanael asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” We might ask, “Can anything good come out of Hampton?" Of course it can! And does! God has found us. The Messiah is one of us. God is at work among us. Our response is to seek him with all of our hearts and recognize the possibility of the new creation God wants to bring about in you individually and in this parish as a community.
God’s Spirit is calling you to be an answer to what we prayed together in the Collect at the beginning of this service. “Might you shine in the radiance of Christ’s glory, be a light in the darkness of this world, and through you Christ known, worshiped and obeyed to the ends of the earth.” The story continues right here through the ministry of this parish community, for God desires to change the world through you. It can only happen, however, if you decide to be the answer to the prayer and make it your mission to do so.
The Baptism of Our Lord: January 7, 2018
Most of us have had occasions in life that we might describe as “defining moments.” Some obvious ones are when we receive a degree or a title, such as BA, Ph.D., MD, CPA, RN, or even the Rev. Such times can also be the birth of a child, a marriage or a death.
Sometimes defining moments come when we are struck by an image. I’ll never forget the feelings of awe and wonder the first time I entered the Washington Cathedral, also called our National Cathedral, in D.C. As a young teenager I was struck by its immensity in the vaulted ceilings and it pulled me up to a vision of the glory and grandeur of God, even joy. Then there are those sobering times that challenge one’s heart and soul to its depths. I entered Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem. At the entrance was a sculpture made up of a mound of dozens and dozens of worn and discarded shoes from the gas ovens. It was entitled, “All that remained.”
Then there are the defining moments that can come from another person. Mr. Keith Harmeyer, my 11th grade Analytic Geometry and Trigonometry teacher, met me at the door of the classroom the day of report cards and shook my hand as a way of congratulating me for my grades in the class. On the flip side, people have told me stories of poor teachers who shamed them with messages of non-worth. Defining moments can enable us to feel cherished and valued. They also can make us feel devalued and take away our dignity.
Today we get to celebrate one of the defining moments for a Christian. Let me show you (go to the baptismal font). What happens at this font, the word from which we get the word fountain by the way, is a celebration, an immersion if you will, of God’s love for all humanity. How do we know? It was Jesus’ defining moment as we discover in the account of his baptism in Mark’s Gospel today.
Jesus was baptized by John, called the Baptist for obvious reasons, and in poetic language we discover the heavens were torn apart, the Spirit descending like a dove on him, and a voice coming from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In Mark’s account the voice of God confirms Jesus’ identity as “Son,” and also his value, “with you I am well pleased.” Later on in the Gospel, when Jesus is asked by what authority he goes about his ministry, he recalls that time in the Jordan River when he asks the elders in the temple, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of human origin?” He left it to them to decide.
Today’s celebration of Jesus’ baptism, is an “epiphany” or “showing forth,” of Jesus’ defining moment at the beginning of his public ministry. It is also our defining moment of empowerment to be disciples of Jesus. Martin Luther, in a period of his life when he was feeling most attacked by the religious authorities of his day, over and over again repeated to himself, “I am baptized. I am baptized.” He was reminding himself of his own defining moment as a person of Christ. No matter how he was tempted to doubt himself, he kept coming back to that truth. We can do no better.
There is a psychological theory called Rational Emotive Therapy. In short it points to an understanding that the manner in which a person perceives an event is affected by that person’s internal belief system. So, for example, if I have learned to have a high need for acceptance and love because of certain defining moments in my life, perhaps when I got the picture I was not acceptable or lovable, then when I am negatively criticized I hear those tapes playing again, triggering a voice telling me I don’t measure up. The cause of my distress is my belief system, not the one doing the criticizing.
To the contrary, I invite us to see and incorporate ever more deeply into our heart and soul an awareness that our baptism into Christ is the bottom line for our belief system. At our own baptism the heavens were torn apart, the Spirit descended, and God’s voice said to us, “You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Please repeat after me, out loud: I am God’s child; I am beloved; God is well pleased with me.” Do you see? You have inherent worth before God. It is because you belong to Jesus, forever.
The Spirit’s gift then is freedom, the freedom to be the human being God created you to be, to be the human being God says you are. That freedom then empowers us to speak, act, witness to the love of God in Christ in whatever situation we find ourselves. Our baptism, just as it was for Jesus, is our authority for Christian ministry.
I encourage you to claim your baptismal authority, given as a gift of God, empowered by the Spirit to be a person on this earth who is always pointing to the new reality God wants to bring about through you. It is to offer a different voice to the ones that trumpet power, domination and accumulation. We are to be a voice pointing to a different reality that is willing to challenge anything and everything that would deny the dignity of every human being.
Live in the light of God’s baptismal promise. You are chosen, Spirit-blessed, and beloved of God. Be the light God created you to be.
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.