I have often said that Luke 3:1 is the most important verse in the entire Bible. “In the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was king of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to a man named John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness.”
It is the most important line because it is saying our faith is not based upon “once upon a time.” It is not a fairy tale. It is not make-believe. It is not “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”
No. It is clear. In this time and in this place, the word of God came to John. And Mary. And Joseph. And Mary Magdalene and Jesus. The Spirit acts in real people, in real time. Theologically we call it, “incarnation.”
Knowing that makes our WMA pilgrimage to the Holy Land a deep spiritual experience. In this time and in this place God acted. Now sometimes there are conflicting stories as to where things happen. It is said “holy sites tend to move.” But there is no doubt that it is the Sea of Galilee where so many powerful stories of Jesus and the disciples happened. No doubt that it is the Jordan River where John baptized. No doubt that it is the Jericho Road featured in the Good Samaritan story. And no doubt somewhere in old Jerusalem is the Temple built by Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians, rebuilt by Herod and destroyed by the Romans. Lots of sacred sites have very old churches built over them because oral history said “this was the place where…”
I will reflect more on this experience over time. But here are two immediate impressions.
I never knew how much caves and rocks were part of the housing in the times of Jesus. That barn where we say Jesus was born was really a cave. Families lives in homes homes built with hewn rocks and carved out caves.
For the first time I appreciated the mysticism of the desert. Pictures never do it justice. The desert of Israel is not plains of sand. They are mountains of rock and sand and sparse vegetation. To be in them is to be in a place of awe and vulnerability.
And there is a lot to say about the political conflict in Israel and the oppression of the Palestinians. But a few words would not do justice to a complex situation with many conflicting dimensions. And there is much to say about the tension of the three major religions jockeying for position in this holy land. I will tell those stories in future reflections.
In a couple of days I will leave here with deep gratitude for this experience and for the way my traveling companions engaged this trip not as tourists but as pilgrims on a spiritual journey together. And looking forward to the Spirit who continues to speak in our time and in our place.
The following sermon was given this morning at the annual Renewal of Vows and Blessing of Oils at Christ Church Cathedral.
Welcome. Thank you for taking time away from sermon prep, acolyte wrangling, bulletin proof-reading, pastoral care and answering questions about when IS the Easter Service, to come together in mutual support of one another in ministry.
Lutherans and UCC. Some of our liturgical language may be different, but the
mission is the same. Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion and hope. When so much
in our world seems to be coming apart, we are coming together. I am grateful
Renewal of vows makes me think of Holy Week
1998. Betsy and I and our very young children were at Holy Innocents in
Highland Falls New York and I was the Episcopal West Point chaplain. We had a
Holy Week evening service in the church with only the candles on the altar for
our light. At that service most of the congregation were West Point cadets and
we all stood around the altar for the Eucharistic Prayer. Grace, four years
old, stood next to me at the altar, her chin level with the top of the altar.
She was captivated by the scene. For her it was magical and mystical. Looking
out at everyone, looking at me leading prayer. Afterwards Betsy asked Grace
“Did you like being up at the altar with daddy?” To which Grace responded “Oh
yes, mommy. I loved it. I felt just like a pwiest!”
Betsy said, “Would you like to be a priest someday?” Grace was very clear in
her answer. “Oh no, mommy. I want to stack the groceries at the supermarket.
That’s a cool job.”
reminder on the day we renew our vows as ordained leaders in the church.
veteran bishops for coaches. A question my coach would ask me in every session
was “why did your diocese choose you?” It is a way of getting clarity and
setting priorities. I think it was because I said a lot about social justice
and about trying new things in ministry. 50 new things even if 49 fail. And
there is one more. After the election, one of our church leaders said to me:
“You know, bishop, no one in my parish was going to vote for you when the slate
was announced. You were the only candidate with a doctorate (in ministry) and
we knew we didn’t need some academic lecturing us in something abstract when
the needs are so real.” Now that is not my perspective but it was his. And then
he added “But when we went to the walk-abouts and you were asked questions, you
would leave the stage and come into the middle aisle and answer the questions
from there. From where the people were. That night in the parking lot, we all
decided we were voting for you.”
wasn’t because of what I said. No great insights or pearls of wisdom changed
their minds. It was being in the midst of the people. Going to where they are.
That’s what I will be praying about today when
I renew my vows.
you? Priest, minister, deacon. The Holy Spirit, working through so many people
around you and through sponsoring parishes and commissions on ministry, called
you. Maybe it was a few years ago or maybe it was forty. Why did they choose
you? In all your quirky uniqueness. Why did they choose you?
made you say yes?
are thinking about that, let me provide a structure for your particular answer.
Budde is the Bishop of Washington D.C. She points out how often the Bible
contains a “so that” statement. Here are a few examples:
Matthew 5:16 Let your light shine before others, SO THAT they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
Romans 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, SO THAT you may discern what is the will of God- what is good and acceptable and perfect.
John 3:16 For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, SO THAT everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
ordained so that… What comes next? I hope you answer that with something
spectacular. Something worth giving your life to.
A couple of
weeks ago, I put that question to a few of our clergy in an email. Here is what
I will renew my vows SO THAT I can offer my spiritual gifts to a community of faith that has richly blessed me and that helps me to grow in ways that matter.
I will renew my vows SO THAT I might share and testify to the love that saved me and made me and holds me.
I will renew my vows SO THAT the hope and justice of God in Christ would be made known.
called by God, loved by Christ SO THAT we may understand the power of His
ordained SO THAT I could help spread the light and hope of Christ.
What is it
for you? I was ordained so that…
think of your answers I’m going to ramble on about a couple of other things.
Whatever that great, holy, Jesus-centered,
Holy Spirit inspired statement is for you, know that to get there we need to
cultivate resilience, and persistence, or what some in leadership circles are referring
to as “grit.”
quote from the wise Mariann Budde. It is a long quote and we all know you
should never use a long quote in a sermon. So don’t tell the bishop.
we need resilience. Because we are called to lead others from where they are
now, as a body, to where God is calling us, a preferred future or a necessary
sacrifice. That process, by definition, invokes resistance. Resistance is not
all bad; nor is all change good. As a result, those of us called to lead have
no choice but to live and move and have our being in what might be called ‘the
messy middle.’ That place where nothing is clear, where what you thought was a
God inspired idea goes nowhere, where those who called you to lead are now
resisting you with everything they’ve got, and it occurs to you that working as
a barista in your neighborhood coffee shop seems like a more fruitful place for
ministry than the church.” Or you long to stack the groceries in the
happens, not if, when that happens, have friends, deep friends, to confide in.
And a disciplined prayer life. And maybe some scripture verses that can serve
as a mantra. Like Paul’s in the second letter to that conflicted, confused,
hungry for the Spirit community in Corinth. “Since it is God’s mercy that we
are engaged in ministry, we do not lose heart.” Or in Genesis, Jacob wrestling
with that angel “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Now for a
few minutes on today’s gospel. I won’t be long. I know not all the Holy Week
bulletins are done.
I chose the
Gospel about what Walter Brueggemann calls “the riot in the Temple.” I chose it
because I believe it is a pivotal part of the Holy Week story and it gets
overlooked. And I think it is a key story for the ministry we share.
I just learned
a few days ago that the Cathedral in Connecticut is doing something new and
meaningful with this story. On Palm Sunday we begin with the triumphant entry
into Jerusalem and then at the time for the Gospel we read the Passion which
continues the story beginning with the Last Supper. We go from the hosannas of
the crowd to Jesus agonizing over his impending death. We leave out a key part
of the story that explains this very severe change of tone. The riot in the
temple. Here’s what Connecticut is doing. The usual opening of the service with
the entry into Jerusalem. Then at the time of the Gospel the story of the riot
in the Temple is read. And then at the very end of the service, the Passion is
read and the congregation leaves in silence to continue their Holy Week
suffers too from a superficial understanding. How often has this passage been
used as “you see Jesus is human like us. He got angry.” The same way the Martha
and Mary story gets reduced to “we all need to balance out our busy Martha
lives with Mary-like contemplation.” We interpret the verse this way SO THAT we
don’t have to acknowledge the social revolution Jesus began in bringing women
into the male-only circle of religious thinkers.
has meanings so deep that the four evangelists take three approaches to it.
Mark and Luke just tell it and then go right away to the chief priests looking
for a way to kill him. John uses it to illustrate the scripture “Zeal for your
house will consume me.” And an early reference to the Resurrection. Only
Matthew follows the Temple cleansing with healing stories. Throwing over tables
creating a space for healing. I will come back to that. But the heart of it was
an unjust sacrificial system that made demands on the poor. In words and with
very clear action, Jesus drew our attention to a societal problem and acted on
it. Jesus didn’t just offer thoughts and prayers. He overthrew tables. He
disrupted the system. A system that many believed to be sacred.
On this day
in which we renew our vows, I will ask another question: Do you ever feel like
throwing over some tables?
I feel like throwing over.
The public health crisis of gun violence. 97 people a day die from gun violence in the United States. Many from suicide. Several children every day from accidents. Many in our urban communities as victims of what Michael Curry calls the “Unholy Trinity” of racism, poverty and guns. And some in our growing number of mass shootings – the ones that get our attention. America loves her guns and her guns are killing her loved ones. Many loved the theology and culture and economy of the Temple sacrifices but that did not stop Jesus.
Then there is crisis of creation around climate change. I could quote our own Margaret Bullitt Jonas on this but in the spirit of ecumenism I will go with Pope Francis: “Human induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity. In this core moral space, the world’s religions play a very vital role.” If we commit to passing the faith down from generation to generation then we have to commit to a sustainable island home for future generations.
The plight of immigrants in our immigrant nation. Children in cages at the border. Lucio Perez in sanctuary at the UCC Church in Amherst for a year and a half, forced to live apart from his wife and their four children. What would the Jesus we follow- the table over thrower- tell us to do about that?
ordination of a bishop in the Episcopal Church, eight questions are asked and
answered. One is “will you shake up the conscience of your people?” Another is
“will you defend those who have no helper?”
are never closely adequate to the depth and expanse of the question. Thank you
for all the times you have inspired me in this work of overturning tables.
And we do
this not just as a voice crying out in the wilderness, not out of righteous
anger, but as Matthew makes clear, SO THAT healing becomes possible. The royal
wedding preacher says “WE are the Jesus Movement that is out to change the
world from the nightmare it is for so many into the dream God has for it.”
On this day, as we renew our ordination vows, let’s return to that wisdom of Paul. Since it is God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. And as my go-to-theologian Walter Brueggemann adds “Do not lose heart. God has not quit, and will not until our joy is reflective of God’s own.”
“Now imagine: if you wanted to find an organization well positioned to encourage change on all of these four levels (intrapersonal, interpersonal, structural, and cultural), whom would you call? You would need an organization that is both local and global. It would need to involve people from all sectors of society – agriculture to government, health care to education, for profit to nonprofit, science to the arts. It would need to specialize in personal development, community building, deployment for mission, and public communication. What organizations would fulfill these diverse requirements? As soon as you answer the church, you have to ask why so many of our churches remain ineffective and complacent about this potentially transformative role. The gap between the church’s potential and actual impact can make you cry.”
“But far better: the gap can make you cry out, determined to see the church fulfill its potential. That’s why we need movement-building initiatives that help individual Christians, congregational leaders and denominational leaders and network leaders come together and work together for intrapersonal, interpersonal, structural and cultural change.”
Or as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says “We are the Jesus Movement that is out to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the Dream that God has for it.”
Or as Jesus says “I make all things new!”
In a time when the Church is seen by so many as having outlived its purpose, I believe our purpose is as essential as it has ever been. We are called to dive deeply into the life of the Spirit, build community and follow Jesus in his mission of mercy, compassion and hope. This is why we pray together, take care of our neighbors, bless journalists, care for creation, stand with refugees and immigrants, address the public health crisis of gun violence, celebrate diversity, combat racism and on and on.
Our Church has a “why”, a “purpose”, a “mission.” Come Holy Spirit and enliven our hearts.
I have often begun Christmas sermons, and reflections about Christmas, with stories about Christmas Pageants I have seen. Like the time the child portraying the angel Gabriel did not exit the stage after her “annunciation” to Mary. Instead she stayed with Mary through all the rejections she and Joseph and the baby Jesus faced as they were turned away at inn after inn. And Gabriel looked on aghast but never left them.
Or the time
the youngest children dressed as sheep were crawling down the middle aisle of
the Church toward the stable as “Holy Night” was being sung. But when one
noticed all the toys off to the side that had been collected for the needy, he
broke ranks and headed for the toys. And so did the rest of the flock.
Or the time at Pageant rehearsal when my daughter Grace had the part of Mary. She was sitting and holding the baby, a real one, when the boy portraying Joseph standing next to her said, “I want to hold the baby.” Mary (Grace) said “No, I’m holding the baby.” Joseph insisted he should hold the baby. Mary said “no, the mother always holds the baby.” Joseph said “this year I should hold the baby.” To which Mary replied, “You know, Joseph, technically you are not even the father.”
Another preacher, I think it was Thomas Long, wrote about another pageant rehearsal. The director was encouraging the young people to read along in their bible as they recreated the story. When they got to the story of the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew, one girl kept on reading. She got to the part where King Herod was furious at the Magi, and ordered the death of every male child under the age of two in an attempt to kill Jesus. She said, “Hey, wait, what’s this? This is terrible!”
The director assured the girl that this part would not be in the pageant. She responded, “No. It is part of the story. We have to include it.”
The director and the young actress settled on a compromise. An actor dressed as the king would stand at the far edge of the stage throughout the pageant, hovering over the story of the first Christmas.
This part of the story makes us feel uncomfortable but it is true. Baby Jesus was not born into a spiritualized abstraction. He was born in the midst of a poor people ruled by a tyrant who was propped up by an Empire. He was born to parents who immediately became refugees fleeing to protect him.
And that is why Christmas is a life changing story of hope that never gets old. As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, the famous Royal Wedding preacher, puts it so eloquently and so forcefully: “We are the Jesus Movement that is out to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the Dream God has for us.”
Christmas is about hope, about dreaming of a better world while we are in the midst of this one. Christmas reminds us of all the love that is around us, reminds us of so much that is good and holy and sacred. At Christmas we tell stories of our “better angels.” Christmas reminds us of generosity and forgiveness and courage – even as King Herod looks on.
Christmas reminds us that God has not given up on us. Just the opposite. We call this baby, “Jesus” – which means “God saves us.” And the angels tell us “do not be afraid. This is a message of great joy.” God is here now, in 2018, in the midst of us.
Everyone (and we mean everyone) knows our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry as “the Royal Wedding Preacher.” He certainly touched souls around the world in his inspired message of the transforming power of love. But did you know that five days later he participated in a Vigil at the White House?
Bishop Michael Curry (C) waits to speak during a vigil outside the White House May 24, 2018 in Washington, DC, in response to what organizers say is “the moral and political crises at the highest levels of political leadership that are putting both the soul of the nation and the integrity of Christian faith at stake.” (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
The Vigil was a witness that both rejected President Trump’s “America First” policies and urged bringing people of all political parties together for the sake of the common good. The Vigil was a follow-up on a declaration Michael wrote with other faith leaders several months before called “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis.”
That document includes the powerful statement: “We reject domination rather than stewardship of the earth’s resources.”
As we gather together this Sunday in Pittsfield and Worcester for an Episcopal revival led by the “oh so much more than a wedding preacher” Michael Curry, let’s look at why this is a time of crisis for God’s creation.
The Earth is reeling under many pressures, from an explosive growth in human population and consumption to species extinction, habitat loss, and resource depletion. But our most urgent concern is how human activity is changing the climate. Our fears were confirmed last week when the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading international group that assesses climate change, released a major report. The IPCC report was stark: humanity is on the brink of catastrophe. The only way to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degree Celsius – the level that countries around the world have agreed is a safe upper limit for maintaining life as we know it on this planet – is for nations to cut their carbon emissions drastically and rapidly. In just over ten years – by 2030 – the world will need to have cut global emissions in half (45 percent below 2010 levels). To hold global temperatures to 1.5 degree Celsius will require rapid and massive transformation of every level of society. For example, the report calls for a total or near-total phase-out of the burning of coal by 2050.
The task ahead of us is daunting. The world has already warmed 1 degree Celsius from pre-industrial times, and without a massive global effort, the world will warm by 1.5 degrees in as little as 12 years. If we allow global warming to rise by 2 degrees Celsius – to say nothing of allowing business as usual to continue on its present track, which would raise global temperatures by 3.4 degrees by the end of this century – we will live on a planet that is extremely difficult not only to govern, but even to inhabit. The IPCC report warns that there is “no documented historical precedent” for making the sweeping changes in society that would be required in order to hold global temperatures to 1.5 degrees. Yet if we want to prevent massive crop failures and droughts, extreme storms and sea-level rise, and the migration of millions of refugees, and if we want to pass along a habitable world to our children and our children’s children, we need to tackle climate change.
The day of reckoning has come. As St. Paul exhorts, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2). Today is a good day to put climate denial behind us. Today is a good day to reject the climate denial expressed in White House policies that promote fossil fuels and ignore, downplay, or even accelerate the climate crisis. Today is also a good day to admit our own everyday version of climate denial and to step up our personal efforts to reduce our use of fossil fuels.
What next steps can you take? For starters, does your congregation have a “green team” or “Creation care committee”? Whatever you call it, a team of parishioners concerned about climate change can take the lead in educating and organizing its community. You can download an article about how to start a “green team” here. At diocesan convention, delegates will vote on a resolution that asks every congregation to create a green team or liaison.
Here’s another idea: how about eating less (or no) meat? A new report confirms that shifting to a plant-based diet is one of the most effective actions we can take to reduce our carbon footprint, limit climate change, and allow the Earth to keep feeding the global population.
Michael Curry has made Creation Care one of his three priorities. (Racial Reconciliation and Evangelism are the others.) We have said many times that this Sunday is so much more than great speeches by Michael. It is an opportunity to commit to a revival of our souls, our church, our communities and our world. In a time of crisis, may we passionately recommit to fighting climate change and caring for God’s creation.