Sermon at St. Mark's, Charleston
The Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany
January 29, 2017
From Micah’s astounding plea for justice, to Paul’s unnerving proclamation of powerlessness and the Cross as the way of life, to Matthew’s no-holds-barred assertion in the Sermon on the Mount of the blessedness of God’s people—all celebrate the exciting good news of the nearness of God present here with us and among us. We are here today, first and foremost, to offer thanks to God who gives us life and one another as a gift, including Philip your new priest-in-charge.
A question always before us as a people of faith is, how will we use the gifts God has bestowed upon us? Could it be that we are being called to be more excited about Jesus’ promise of the Kingdom of God among us – in the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek – more excited about that, than what is to happen next Sunday evening? For those from another planet, that’s the day of the Super Bowl. Did you know that the money spent on advertising for that spectacle, including the money waged on the game around the world, could feed every person on the earth for several years?
I am going to make what might be a risky statement, perhaps even un-American to some: God does not care who wins. God does care about the individuals who play, how they live, how they use their resources, how they promote justice, but God does not care who wins and probably not even whether or not there is a Super Bowl.
Some years ago I was talking with the parent of a child who tried out for an elite traveling soccer team. This is a high stress moment. After the try-outs were over, there was great relief for those who had “made it.” Even celebration. Perhaps that is as it should be, for it is good to delight in something well done and offer congratulations. At the same time, the parent whose child made the team, said that he could not take his attention away from those who had not.
One boy, obviously crestfallen, looked as if his world had ended. The boy’s parents and coach did their best to be encouraging. Yes, a part of maturing is learning through life’s disappointments and setbacks. At the same time, some of the gloating, even meanness from others, including parents, clearly passed on a message of unworthiness and rejection, wrapped up in self-righteousness. I could not help but think for that boy, “Blessed are you,” in the hope that he would have people around him to convey a word of love.
Jesus is always leading us toward a whole new world, in how we treat each other and in how we live on the planet. We talk a lot about values in our public discourse, but I don’t often there hear about Jesus’ values as we find them in the Sermon on the Mount. God’s vision for the Kingdom, more often than not, is upside down from ours. “Blessed are the poor in Spirit” – those who know their need of God and how far short they fall; “Blessed are those who mourn” – who see the pain of the world and seek to do something about it; “Blessed are the meek” – the powerless and have-nots of our world. Paul is clear as well in his assertion that salvation comes out of crucifixion, the giving up of power and status. For Micah the values of God’s reign are justice, mercy and humility. Compare that to much of what we hear being thrown around out of Washington these days. I am not talking here of politics, I am speaking of faithfulness. Even in the midst of our tendency to glorify winning and dominating and exhibiting superior strength – being number one – Jesus’ strength comes out of the power of self-giving love.
It was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said, “Without always realizing it, we are invaded by the world’s success ethic. We don’t care what one succeeds in as long as we succeed. We transfer to our children the attitude that you must not just pass exams, you must sweep the floor with the opposition.”
Yet today we find Jesus making an amazing assertion about humanity. The blessed, the accepted, the truly happy and content, those favored by God are the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek. There are no conditions and no mention of what you must do first. Knowing you need God and the truth that you can’t make it on your own is enough. I hope the boy who didn’t make the soccer team discovers along the way that God always says, “I love you. That is why I created you. And the most important thing about you is that I love you.”
For you here at St. Mark’s, in this new relationship of priest and people, these scriptures invite you to be the persons, the community, that God created you to be. This community of faith is called to be a place where your humanity is honored, where you never have to be other than who you are. To be who God created you to be and know you are loved. To be a faith community that is blessed as you bless one another. We do this for each other, yes, but primarily so that we can be a more clear witness to God’s life out those doors.
We’re not perfect at it, God knows, but ringing in our ears is always the call of making God’s justice known, “on earth as it is in heaven.” It is why God’s Spirit has brought you together as priest and people – seeking “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” It starts right here, with us.
Conversion of St. Paul miniature in the Vivian Bible, c. 845 (via Web Gallery of Art
The Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle
January 25, 2017
As Paul’s life was about to take a radically new direction from violent persecutor of the nascent church to apostle of Christ, words from above were heard: “It hurts you to kick against the goads.” Ouch. A goad is a kind of cattle prod, a pointed stick used to guide oxen when plowing or to clean mud and clay from the plowshare. If it hurts, stop doing it, my mother always said.
In Acts 26:14, “goad” is used metaphorically as it often was by the Greek playwrights. Here it refers to Saul’s Jewish faith, his fidelity to the tradition of “the prophets and Moses.” The voice from Jesus is not saying he is to abandon that past, but to go with where at its best it is leading him and stop resisting. Luke seems to be telling us that the possibility of Saul becoming the single greatest interpreter of Christ to the Gentile world had its roots in his lifelong formation as a faithful Jewish man. We know that his penchant for taking on matters of life in a zealous manner, including his religious life, led to extreme behavior. Yet in his conversion, God’s grace took that aberrant personal extremism and redirected it to Christ’s service.
Often conversion is described as an event that takes place in a moment. Over the years, however, my observation of people’s religious experience tells me this is not usually the case. It is more a process and there is always a context. To me conversion is more like falling in love than anything else. It can be experienced as momentous, life-renewing and a complete re-direction of energy, yet it occurs out of one’s own history and all that has led someone to a particular moment of encounter. For Saul it was his Jewish faith tradition which he was resisting in its fullness, and once he stopped kicking against that goad, he was able to embrace it more fully as it came to him in Jesus. In other words, Saul’s journey to becoming St. Paul was not a movement from falsehood to truth, but a transition from truth to truth. Process. Growth. Light.
In the book My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, the title character comes to a time in his life when he is able to integrate his past, particularly difficulties with his parental relationships, into a realization that all that had occurred, the good, the bad and the indifferent, had made him who he was. Once that awareness occurred he became grateful. He could see with new eyes. Or as the song says, “Falling in love is a brand new start.” It was a converting moment. Perhaps our call today is to cease kicking against our goads, whatever they may be, and embrace how they may be leading us to the now of encounter that leads us to a new future. It’s time to fall in love all over again.
Third Sunday After the Epiphany
January 22, 2017
“Immediately, they left their nets.” Those words for today’s Gospel have always fascinated me and profoundly disturbed me at the same time. I am fascinated by the incredible trust of those simple fishermen who leave their way of life – all that gives them security, their friends and families, boat and business, relatives and
responsibilities. One has to wonder what questions people asked when hearing that these men had left town to follow some wandering prophet from a nearby village.
What was it in this Jesus person that compelled them to leave their nets, immediately, to drop it all and go learn to fish for people? This is repentance of the highest order, i.e., leaving all behind to walk in an entirely new direction. When Jesus told them the Kingdom of God had come near, what did they see that was so urgent that leaving their nets and following him was the only thing they could do? What does it mean for you, as a part of this worshiping community, as you pause and take stock as to who you want to be as a Gospel community? So I remain fascinated and full of questions.
Then there is that part of me that is deeply disturbed. All the tapes of my upbringing get played here about being responsible. Isn’t personal responsibility one of the major values we who are parents try to instill in our children, taught to me as a child and which I tried to teach my own children? This act of the disciples seems totally irresponsible, even reckless, especially when it seems like the riskiest thing I did this week was drive here from Charleston. Am I disturbed because I fear they knew something I don’t know? Are they more faithful than I? Am I too attached to all the things around me that bring comfort and security? Do I like the status quo a bit too much? Am I afraid that perhaps I would not have followed?
When I look at the Bible, I see over and over again people like Peter and Andrew, James and John, Abraham, Isaiah and Paul, all who left their comfort zones to go in a single-hearted way to live the life of God as they heard the Spirit calling them. That fascinates me – that kind of complete and utter trust in God to provide, to lead, to guide, but I am disturbed. I’m all for trusting God – but I like the Arabic proverb that says: “Trust in God, but tie up your camel.”
But there’s no tying up of camels in this Gospel and I realize that the thing that disturbs me is not the call, but God. God disturbs me! It was Jesus who changed those disciples’ lives and it is God as we see him in Jesus who wants to change and challenge and redirect and transform my life and your life. That includes our attitudes, our relationships, the way we inhabit this earth. That’s what fascinates me and disturbs me all at the same time – GOD.
Give me a God who loves me, who embraces me, who nurtures me, who tells me I am beloved, all true; but don’t give me a God who disturbs me. Yet I know from the history of our tradition that the God who calls us into discipleship is the God who also disturbs us.
This time of transition in our present reality as The Episcopal Church in South Carolina and our unique 21st century mission context, is a time of disturbing, of shaking things up a bit, of challenge. It has a measure of anxiety in it, yes? Perfectly normal. Many people, although I hope you are the exception, are hoping for certain decisions so that everything can go back to “normal,” whatever that is. I don’t think I have ever read a profile of a parish that said, “In addition to a faithful pastor and lover of souls, we want a priest who will disturb us.” Yet that may be one of the most faithful things a pastor can do – to call people as Jesus did to repent – to walk a new way, see new possibilities, to leave our nets, and move in the direction of learning our only true security is God. Your main job, as always, is to fish for people and to be a light of God to the nations. If you do that, what you are to be and become as a faith community will unfold before you. Your job is to pay attention.
The essence of today's Gospel calls forth our commitment and re-centering on who we want to be as God’s very own. You all here, right in Cheraw, have felt compelled to leave your nets in various ways in order to follow Jesus as you understand your call. How might we continue to get on our feet and live in this time of transition? Let me tell you a story. Rabbi Aaron once came to a city. The father of a young boy named Mordecai lived there. He brought him to Rabbi Aaron to complain that his boy did not persevere in his studies. “Leave the boy with me for a while,” Rabbi Aaron said. When alone, he sat down and took the child to his heart. Silently he held him close until Mordecai’s father returned. “I gave him a good talking to,” he said. “From now on he will not be lacking in perseverance.” Years later Mordecai said that was when he learned how to convert and be converted.
We must listen to one another’s hearts. God seeks to take us to deeper places, to more radically faithful places. For the sake of one another and for the sake of the world, we are in this together. We are light, and our prayer must be, can be, if we dare it, “O God, disturb us. Help us to leave our nets, whatever they might be, and leave behind all that would draw us from you and one another. May we find our longing in your heart and in one another’s hearts, so that we might catch a glimpse of the Kingdom you prepare for us all. Disturb us. Immediately.”
The Confession of St. Peter the Apostle
Simon Peter said of Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said of Simon Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Jesus and Peter, as described by Matthew 16:13-19, are using theologically dense descriptors to identify one another. This exchange of awareness explodes on the scene and, one could argue, shifts human history forever.
It is a seismic moment and has shaped the Church’s theology and mission ever since, for good and for ill. It has been for good when the Church has lived into its mission as a reconciling body to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP p. 855). It requires a humility that remembers that the Church as described in the Gospel is an interim arrangement if you will, an in-the-meantime and thereby less than whole expression of the reign of God between the earthly life of Jesus and the fullness of the kingdom. Such a perspective can perhaps release us from dogmatic prisons which too often tend to repress, thwart and constrict God-awareness for God’s people. At its worse it has given death to God’s people. At its best it has given the freedom of life to which Jesus was always pointing.
If I were to be a director in a cinematic version of Peter’s confession and Jesus’ response, to catch the quality of the moment I would be coaching the actors to identify glimpses of awareness when a shift occurred in their own hearts and minds that changed their way of seeing the world. For me it might be in 1972, when as a naïve twenty-year-old I walked onto the campus of what was then Morgan State College, a historically African-American school, to meet the campus minister for lunch. I walked into the cafeteria as all eyes turned toward me and I realized I was the only white person amongst hundreds of people. Or it might be the time as an undergrad when I was able to use an electron microscope to peer into the depths of my own DNA and be confronted by the wonder of my own helix. Then maybe it was a bit over a decade ago, when one week after I affirmed the election of the first openly gay bishop in The Episcopal Church, I walked into a parish for my visitation and a father walked up to me, threw his arms around me and sobbed, saying through his tears, “Now I know my son is not in hell.” His gay son had committed suicide three years before.
In all these scenarios and in the account between Jesus and Peter, identity had been given and affirmed from another. A new interpretive lens was given, a shift in worldview occurred as clarity came and purpose was revealed. Unity and freedom were offered. It ought not be lost on us that the conversation between Jesus and Peter was recorded as occurring in Caesarea Philippi, a known center of pagan worship. When we are able to confess Jesus as the one who unifies and marks all of God’s creation as holy, we are living his purpose for justice and peace. Then we are a church God can truly use for the healing of the world.
Sermon at Christ Church, Denmark
The Second Sunday After the Epiphany
January 15, 2017
There is a beautiful pattern being played out for us in today’s scriptures. I wonder if we heard it?
In Isaiah we discover a prophet, a truth teller, who had a powerful and overwhelming sense of being chosen to be a voice for God. “Listen to me” he says, “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” Called to do what? To be a “light to the nations that God’s salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah’s understanding of his call was that through him everyone would come to know of God’s desire for right relationships and the deliverance of God’s people from war, violence and all things that would work contrary to God’s vision of justice for the world. Never did Isaiah think of salvation as his own personal or private domain – it was always to be given away, always to be shared – for his neighborhood – for the nations.
Then there is Paul, “called to be an apostle.” “Apostle” means: “one sent.” He believes that his apostleship is of Jesus by the will of God, and again, for what? To be the church of God, a reconciled community that invites others to call on the name of Jesus. Paul, like Isaiah, never seemed to have had a sense that his call was only for himself and his personal salvation, but always to be lived and proclaimed for the benefit of all.
Then of course the Gospel event today portrays John the Baptist pointing to Jesus with the words, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” He points away from himself to another. “I come,” the Baptist says, “so that he might be revealed to Israel.” John points the disciples away from himself to follow Jesus, not John, and Jesus invites them to “come and see,” whereupon Andrew goes to find his brother to inform him that “we have found the Messiah.”
So who is the recipient of all of this? We are! From Isaiah telling the story to John the Baptist’s witness, Andrew and Peter and all in-between down through the centuries, the story has been told faithfully until it has come to us. It was precisely this story that motivated the man we remember tomorrow, Martin Luther King, Jr., to do the work he believed he was called to do, and the world is not the same because of his witness. How do we think it will be told in the future? Through us, only us, and we never know how one word, one touch, can have repercussions that end up influencing generations. Do you think Isaiah, Paul, John the Baptist, or Martin Luther King, Jr., could have imagined how their words would influence all human history?
One of the things we are being called to do is continue to work on what it means to be a people of faith in a 21st century mission context and how we will respond as disciples of Jesus. There are no easy answers or 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 through you in the life of this parish and beyond.
We are called out to the world, to the neighborhood, to be agents of love and hope, joy and wonder, confronting and working to change everything that works against God’s love in the world. Christ Church does not exist for itself. It exists for the world and everyone in it.
Let me leave you with a story told by Dr. Scott Peck of a monastery that had fallen on hard times. It once was great but over the centuries persecution and the rise of secularism contributed to a steep decline. All that were left were 4 monks and one abbot. They knew of a rabbi who would occasionally come and stay in one of the hermitages, so the abbot went to him and asked if he had any advice. All he got, however, was something like, “I know how it is. The spirit has gone out of the people. No one even comes to synagogue anymore.” They cried together. They prayed. Upon leaving the abbot asked if there was anything else and the rabbi said, “No. But I can tell you this, the Messiah is one of you.”
The abbot went back to the community and said, “He couldn’t help. We wept. We talked and prayed, but he did say an odd thing – the the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”
Well days, weeks and months went by, and they all kept wondering, who? Who was the Messiah among them? The abbot? He was a holy man and leader. Thomas was great at the prayers. Aelred? No, too crotchety. But a strange thing happened. They began to treat each other with a new respect at the off-chance that one was the Messiah. They got a new sense of purpose and the village around them saw a new spirit of vibrancy and hopefulness in them as the monks ventured out into the neighborhood around them.
This is how it happens. Like Saints Peter and Andrew, we have found the Messiah. The Messiah is Jesus. The Messiah is one of us. The Messiah is all of us. God is at work and we are the called ones to know and tell our story of transforming hopefulness and love and to live it for the sake of the world. Can this parish in its heart of hearts be an answer to what we prayed today in the Collect that, “through us Christ may be known, worshiped and obeyed to the ends of the earth”? The story continues and can continue right through Christ Church, for God desires to change the world through you.
The Baptism of Our Lord
January 8, 2017
In just two weeks we have jumped some 30 years in Jesus’ life, from his birth, then his naming on January 1 when we celebrated The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus (you see it’s not just New Year’s Day), to The Epiphany and the visit of the Magi, to today, his Baptism. We have gone from infant to adult, from his birth to the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry, leaving out all of those intervening years.
We do have one account of Jesus as a 12-year-old in the temple, but even though we may have curiosity about what kind of child Jesus was – have you ever wondered if Jesus ever gave Mary a hard time – we won’t spend too much time there speculating. The Gospel writers want us to clearly see that Jesus was born, chosen and sent for a purpose. Today’s celebration then, is to help us see that we too are born, chosen and sent for a purpose.
Born. We just spent the 12 days of Christmas from Christmas Day to The Epiphany echoing the hymn of the shepherds – “Glory to God in the highest.” I hope we discovered the message that Jesus’ birth was no accident. It was a dramatic unfolding of a tapestry showing forth God’s desire to be in relationship with all of creation. I realize the sweeping theological implications of what I am about to say, but I am going to risk it. Part of what we discover in the birth of the Christ is that in God’s amazing providential love, even under circumstances that may confuse us, no birth is an accident. I am not saying that every birth occurs in a manner God wills it, but no birth is an accident. In other words, no person is an accident.
Hear again the words of Isaiah: “…I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” This is true for each of us and for all of us. One of our responsibilities as a Christian community is to help each person among us to discover that she or he was born for a purpose and is of infinite value, loved by God beyond our wildest imaginings. In so doing you will discover that you too were born for a purpose. What might that be?
Chosen. “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” In his baptism Jesus is beloved and God is well pleased, and he hasn’t even yet started his ministry!! God’s favor comes before he does anything.
Too often we go about life trying to earn favor, to prove our worth. Unfortunately we often feel like we have to do that with people, even those closest to us. I am here to tell you, however, that you do not have to do that with God! In baptism we already have God’s favor. God is already pleased. When the water was poured over you at the baptism of any one of you, God was saying – “you are my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We cannot impress God; we cannot earn God’s love; we get no brownie points. The love is given and we are Christ’s own forever. You were chosen for a purpose. What might that be?
Sent. This is Jesus’ inauguration day, the beginning of his public ministry. Even though we sometimes used to do private baptism, except in an emergency it is a contradiction in terms. There is no such thing in Christianity as private believing. Jesus was baptized to be sent. We are baptized to be sent, which is what the word “apostle” means – “one sent.” All of you confirmed and received this morning do so in order to be sent, to live out your faith in the world as one transformed by the Spirit’s love and hope. Our call, no different than that of Jesus himself, is to give our life, so deeply secure in the embrace of God that we will be resolute about bringing healing, freedom and hope in collaboration with God’s vision of justice for the world God has made.
In the birth of Jesus we might say that God hit the streets. We take our faith and go into the streets of our living. In that sense faith is more a verb than a noun. You will remember that Jesus asked if a city built on a hill can be hidden, or if you would light a lamp and put it under a basket so that no one could see that light. I do not want to stretch this too far, but private baptism can lead to private thinking, which can lead to private believing, which can lead to private Christians, that is, those who may believe but keep it unseen and hidden. You are sent for a purpose. What might that be?
Faithfulness is meant to move us through life so that even when we find ourselves in darkness, and there is plenty of that to go around, we who are the beloved in God’s Spirit will be a source of light to touch and change the world with God’s love, mercy and forgiveness. Each of us must be able and willing to tell our faith story, just why it is we are disciples of Jesus, and why it matters. That’s why we baptize and confirm.
Jesus was born, chosen and sent for a purpose. You were born, chosen and sent for a purpose. And especially those receiving the bishop’s laying on of hands today, you were born, chosen and are sent for a purpose. The joy of life is in knowing it and living it if you have the courage and will to do so.
The Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ
January 6, 2017
In the sense of its visionary yet beautifully impractical wondering and wandering, what a romantic story this is in Matthew 2:1-12. I am star-struck by the Magi astrologers who go on a trek across deserts from perhaps Persia or Arabia to seek out the new born King. Such a journey could have taken up to two years. What prompted such a sense of adventure? Just a star? Or was it the imagination of their hearts seeking the promise to which the star pointed?
How they got there doesn’t matter a whole lot. My mischievous side enjoys knowing that apparently some of the early Christian community was scandalized by the idea of the Magi following a star to Bethlehem. They worried that this feature of Scripture could give credence to a fatalistic reading of the stars and undercut the sovereignty of God. Of course we know that as the fly-fishing philosopher Henry Bugbee has said, “The tenets of scripture are meant to be occasions for wonder, not the termination of it.” Be that as it may, they got where they were going by their foolish wandering wondering. God is so good!
Some years ago I set off on my own fantastical journey to Calcutta, India, in the hope of discovering a renewed manifestation of God in my life. One of my stopovers was in Amman, Jordan. The only gift I took was myself. Little did I know at the time that just as the Magi did, I too would be gazing into a crib in a faraway place. The prayer that arose in me that morning was, “God, let me be out of control for you so that my security is in you alone.”
So I went into the “House of Joy,” as the local orphanage was known, to play with the children. They loved to play down on the floor-mats as many could not walk from war injury or other disability. They liked to have their legs rubbed and to play hand games which made them laugh. But that day I was directed to the crib where 18-month-old Josef was lying. He weighed 8 pounds. He had no legs and only stubs for arms. In the place of eyes were bulbous growths in a small misshapen skull. I was told his head contained nothing much more than a brainstem that kept his heart beating and lungs breathing.
As he was placed in my arms I was asked to feed him. As I did so I was broken and out of control. Where had God led me? As I held him and gazed into his grotesque yet strangely beautiful face, a deep peace and profound gratefulness, even joy, came over me. Of course he was Jesus. Just at that moment a Muslim man came up to me who had also appeared that day to be with the children. It was a Muslim holy day, and he said today this needed to be his prayer. He wanted me to know that he saw my tears and they helped him to pray. Jesus again. Jesus everywhere. For everyone. Epiphany indeed.
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.