Archive for March, 2013

Walking in Newness of Life

March 31, 2013

“Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into his death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For, if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:4a, 5)

In many ways tonight is all about Baptism! We don’t actually have a baptism tonight, but we have just received some folks who wish to be even more deeply a part of this church. And whenever we do that, we ask them, and ourselves, to renew the baptismal vows — the promises that we made, or were made on our behalf, when we were baptized.

Oh, we do other things tonight. We light the new fire of Easter and the Paschal candle. We ground ourselves in our history by rehearsing the stories of our salvation. We celebrate the first Eucharist of Easter. But the way you and I became part of it all – rather than mere spectators — was through our Baptism. And so whenever we are privileged to participate in the baptism of new Christians or the confirmation or reception of others, we are reminded of how important it is that it happened to us as well.

Why is it so important? Tons of ink have been spilled, and millions of sermons preached in attempts to answer that question. I’ve spilled a little and preached a few myself over the years. But this year I was struck by the richness of our Epistle tonight, this classic Pauline text on Baptism. And particularly the common reference to being “buried with (Christ) by baptism into his death.” What can this strange sentence mean?

The most common explanation is that of the early Church’s custom of total immersion, of submerging – burying — the baptismal candidate completely under the water. Some churches have retained that practice today; in fact I have immersed a few folks who felt strongly about that practice in my years as a priest. It really is a beautiful and rich way to celebrate Baptism! But, it is not the only way. And for most of the Church’s history baptisms have been done by sprinkling, or by affusion (the pouring of water), and in a number of other ways.

But I think there is something else, and much more, going on in St. Paul’s description of Baptism as dying and rising with Christ than just baptismal ceremonial. Jesus himself had spoken of his death as a “baptism,” hadn’t he? In answer to his disciples’ impertinent request to sit at his right and left hand when he became king, Jesus says,

“You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant…” (Mark 10:38-40a)

Ever since Jesus had submitted to baptism at the hands of John the Baptizer, and thereby associated himself with John’s prophetic message of radical change, he knew that he was in danger. When John himself was eliminated at the hands of King Herod, Jesus must have become even clearer about his own fate. And by the time he rode into Jerusalem to confront the religious establishment in the very precincts of the Temple, he knew it was only a matter of time. He would soon drink the cup of suffering and be baptized in blood.

So, what can it mean for us to be “baptized into his death?” Well, by associating ourselves with Jesus’ baptism and undergoing our own, we are promising – it seems to me – that we are prepared to join all those who, throughout history, have been willing to drink the same cup that he drank and be baptized – if need be – with a baptism of blood.  Why? Because the message he brought and the life he lived made it clear that God is in charge of this world and that we are not! And the powers that be (secular or religious) are scared to death of a message like that, and a life like that. And sometimes they try to snuff  it out…or at least silence it.

We sketched out what such a life looks like in very general terms in the Covenant we renew at every Baptism and which we renewed here tonight: to trust the Triune God in all things, to continue in the apostles’ teaching and to participate in this fellowship Meal we call Eucharist… to pray, to resist doing evil in our own lives and to be willing to change when we fail, to be willing to talk about Jesus and  to walk our talk, to love other people as we love ourselves (because Christ died for them too), to strive for justice and peace in this world and to respect the dignity of absolutely, every, without exception human being we ever run across!

Those words roll trippingly off our tongues in the confines of our nice, safe liturgy, but when we go back outside these doors most of us know that it is not easy to trust God no matter what. It’s not even easy to get to church every Sunday and to pray every day. It is certainly not easy to change our ways when we mess up. It’s hard to be open and to witness to our faith (in fact, it’s sometimes positively embarrassing to be identified as a Christian)! It’s not easy to love our neighbors. And it’s sometimes downright dangerous to stand up for justice and peace, and to show our respect publicly for those whom society manifestly does not respect!

But that, dear friends, is what some people are signing on to do here tonight! It’s what you and I have already signed on to. And we need each other if we expect to get it right.  Even more, we need the help of that God whom Jesus served…and we serve.  That’s why we said, at the end of each baptismal promise – “I will, with God’s help.” We need God’s help to do it! Fortunately, we know something about what that help looks like. It looks like the story of our salvation we heard read tonight:

It looks like God creating this universe out of nothing…it looks like God delivering the Chosen People from slavery…it looks like God renewing the Covenant with a rebellious people time and time again, and breathing life into dry bones. Most of all, it looks like God the Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit, raising Jesus Christ from the dead, breaking the powers of death and hell for ever. For us!

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!



Take Care of the Body of Christ Because the Body of Christ Cares For You

March 18, 2013

We have a very poignant story in today’s Gospel: Jesus is invited to an amazing dinner party in the home of his friends Mary and Martha in the village of Bethany, which is not far from Jerusalem. It was actually quite dangerous for Jesus to get this close to Jerusalem. There was already a plot against his life, and undoubtedly that would have been one of the topics discussed at the dinner table that evening, among these, some of his closest friends.

Death and resurrection would have been very much on their minds since another of the guests was Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus who – John’s Gospel has just told us – Jesus had raised from the dead! The two women are fulfilling their expected and predictable roles – Martha bustling around serving the meal; Mary absolutely focused on Jesus and, no doubt, worrying about his fate and the danger he was in by just being there.

Her love for Jesus leads her to go far beyond the servants’ role of washing his feet, but to anoint them with expensive perfume – a kind which would have been imported from the Himalayan mountains! Judas takes offense at this extravagant offering, making what is actually a pretty logical argument that this expensive stuff could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Why waste it on someone’s feet?

The Gospel writer, John, interjects himself into the story at this point, calling Judas’ sincerity into question. Apparently, in this tradition, Judas wasn’t known for his commitment to the poor or for his generosity at all, but rather was known to steal from the common purse Jesus and his friends used to live on! In any case, Jesus sees a deeper meaning in Mary’s action (probably connected to the fact that they had been talking about his possible assassination).

He sees the anointing as a kind of symbolic gesture, the kind of “in-acted parable” that he and the prophets used to engage in. He sees it as a solemn warning. Before too long (Mary seems to be saying by her actions) there will be another anointing of this body. But it will be the anointing reserved for his corpse! The traditional anointing of the body before burial. So, Jesus says, “Leave her alone! You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me!” (John 12:8)

I’ve actually heard this line quoted to suggest that the Church has no responsibility to give to the poor! After all, there will always be poor people!

But Jesus was actually citing the first half of a verse from the 15th chapter of Deuteronomy. “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land!’” (Deuteronomy 15:11)

Believe me, everyone in that room would have been able to complete the second half of that verse, and would have known Jesus was not giving anyone permission to ignore the poor! I think he was saying, “You always have the poor with you (and you can help them whenever you will), but this is a special time, a unique moment in history…and it’s right for Mary to observe it in this way.”

In fact, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that when you make an offering to Jesus you ARE making an offering to the poor. And when you make an offering to the poor, you’re making an offering to Jesus. After all, didn’t he once say, “Inasmuch as you have done it to one of these least of these…you’ve done it to me?” (Pause)

Actually this is one of the reasons I like the “unified offering” system we have in The Episcopal Church. Except for emergencies and very rare occasions, we try not to take up special offerings for this and that cause, Sunday by Sunday, like some churches are wont to do. Offerings for domestic mission, offerings for overseas mission, special offerings to repair the church heating system…and on and on.

Instead, we ask you to tithe…or to give some percentage of your income…pledge to offer it here on Sunday mornings…and trust the Church to be good stewards of what you give. Because good stewardship is not “fund raising.” Good stewardship is not just paying the light or heating bills at St. James’ Church. And good stewardship is certainly not supporting things you approve of and withholding money from things you disapprove of.  Good stewardship is doing what Mary did in today’s Gospel – offering something to Jesus because you love him! Taking care of the Body of Christ…because the Body of Christ cares for you!

I’ve been a tither for most of my adult life. That means ten per cent of my income given away for purposes that I believe align with the heart of God. A good portion of our tithe goes to the Church. Some of it goes directly to poor and marginalized people. Some of it goes to programs and efforts we believe make this world a better place.

Of the amount you and I pledge to the Church, some of it goes for institutional concerns – buildings and grounds, staff salaries and the like. Some of it goes for children’s and adult education, music, evangelism, and outreach. We will promise in a few moments to help Phoebe, the young person we will baptize today, “to grow into the full stature of Christ.” That means this church needs to be here and to be strong to support her in her lifelong pilgrimage.

Some of the amount we pledge here goes on to our diocese – to support youth ministry and campus ministry and small congregations, to continue our companion diocese relationships with SE Mexico and the South Sudan, to help foster good communications so that we can work together more effectively. Of what we give to the diocese, some goes on to The Episcopal Church and even to the Anglican Communion to support missionary efforts on national and international level that we could not possibly do on our own.

I know this is Lent, not “Stewardship Sunday!” But today’s Gospel is all about giving and the three traditional Lenten disciplines include not only prayer and fasting, but also almsgiving! And Lent is a good time to remember that we all need to take care of the Body of Christ because the Body of Christ cares for us.

To remember that what we offer to Jesus, we also offer to the poor and what we offer to the poor, we also offer to Jesus.

We need to be as sacrificial in our giving as Mary of Bethany was in today’s Gospel. We need to see our tithes and offerings as pure nard…anointing the body of Jesus…so that the fragrance of that perfume (that perfect offering) may fill…this…house! Amen.









PLEASE Don’t Say “There but for the grace of God, go I!”

March 4, 2013

Whenever I read today’s Gospel appointed, I remember a day right after the awful earthquake in Haiti years ago which left so much devastation. My wife and I were having lunch in a little sports bar in Davenport when I happened to overhear a couple of young men at the bar, talking about it as the news continued to come in over CNN.

One of them said, “Well, they actually deserve what they get, you know. All that AIDS down there and all…” His friend just nodded…in mute agreement, I guess. Not being sure I could trust myself with a response to such heartlessness, I just paid our bill in a hurry and shot them a withering glance on the way out.

I suppose not many people would be so blatant about saying something like that. Although a well-known so-called evangelist in this country famously said that God sent Hurricane Katrina to destroy much of New Orleans because of their many sins! But there are a surprising number of people out there who really do think God punishes us like that — and that people who are suffering are really “getting what they deserve” in some way.

I guess these folks have never read the New Testament. Or at least the passage we had today from St. Luke’s Gospel.  Apparently Jesus had just learned of one of the many atrocities committed by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Often, Jesus’s fellow countrymen from the north in Galilee would come to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices in the Temple. Some of them may have been making noises about the overthrow of the Roman occupation at the same time, and the historian Josephus tells us that Pilate regularly executed such rebellious Jews for that kind of talk – inside or outside the Temple!

And that must have happened to these Galileans. There had also been a recent industrial accident just southeast of Jerusalem where a tower under construction had fallen and killed eighteen people. Jesus decides to use these “current events” as “teachable moments,” so he says, “Do you think those Galileans or those eighteen who died were any worse sinners than all the others living in Jerusalem at the time? “NO, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (Luke 13:5)

In saying this, Jesus is doing at least two things: First of all, he’s renouncing what was a popular teaching in those days, the doctrine of “retribution.” It basically said that, since God was in charge of everything and was a just God, then those who receive special punishment, or suffer tragedy, must be guilty of some great sin. Pretty much what those guys in the bar were saying after the earthquake in Haiti.

Jesus says that is simply not so. We don’t know why good people suffer sometimes, and Jesus doesn’t attempt a kind of global, simplistic explanation for that kind of thing. Sometimes good people, like those Galileans, suffer at the hands of bad people! They are innocent victims of human sin – like Jesus himself would finally prove to be; like those precious children in Newtown, Connecticut would prove to be, dying at the hands of a madman. As tragic as it is, God created us with free will, and some people abuse that free will and use it to hurt others.

Other people, like those eighteen on whom the tower fell, suffer because of accidents or disease. This is not a perfect Creation! It’s a good Creation, but not perfect. There is room in this Universe for accidents because not everything in life is “pre-programmed” or scripted. And we haven’t yet discovered cures for all the cancers and other diseases to which the human body is susceptible.

There are also so-called “natural disasters” like Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti or Hurricane Sandy. These can be especially difficult to understand. Sometimes they may be the result of our monkeying around with the environment and throwing things out of whack. Sometimes, they are just part of the cycles of nature or the ongoing formation of the earth and its surface.

Tragically, sometimes people have chosen, or HAVE, to live in the path of these seismic events and that results in another kind of “accident,” of being “at the wrong place at the wrong time.” Like the poor guy in Florida whose bedroom was swallowed up by a sinkhole which are all over the place in that area.

And, of course, there ARE cases of terrible things happening because of the consequences of our own actions, even our own sin – like someone dying of a drug overdose or being killed in a car crash while speeding. No less tragic, but at least these occurrences are somewhat understandable. What Jesus is saying (and this is his second point today) is that we need to very careful about making judgments in these cases about other people.  All of us are flawed, and the fact that we may survive while another dies should be no source of comfort…but rather a call to humility.

Please let us agree to stop using the phrase “There but for the grace of God, go I!” I hate that! What are we saying about the lack of God’s grace for the other guy? What Jesus is saying is that life is as tenuous and fragile for us as it was for those Galilean pilgrims or those eighteen accident victims. Their deaths came unexpectedly…and ours may as well.  We need to be in a constant state of self-examination and faithfulness so we will be ready to meet our Maker whenever and wherever our time comes!

This is part of what the season of Lent reminds us of – that we’re all in this together. None of us is perfect. All of us stand in need of God. As the old saying has it: “the ground is level at the foot of the Cross.” That’s why the prayer we offer to bless the ashes on Ash Wednesday reads like this: “Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life…”

God is gracious, dear friends. Not angry or vengeful or punishing. Our task is to know that is true, to be eternally grateful for that fact, and to live our lives in humble and thankful response to that good and gracious God. Let’s not judge other people. We can leave that to God.

Let’s just be grateful that God doesn’t judge us like those two guys in the bar were judging the people of Haiti.

Because if God did…none of us would make it!  Would we?