Jeremiah 31:7-14; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
There may be nothing more important to us than claiming our identity as the unique individuals we are. It defines us as the particular persons we are: it distinguishes us as having a personality or individuality that is different, in some crucial and irreducible ways, from the personalities of others. One of the most frightening things that can occur to us is having our identity stolen or even having our identity erased from the arenas in which we live and act. A person with no identity is virtually no one at all.
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question: "Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her."
Jesus said to them, "Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry not are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.
"And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive."
To be assigned to preach about this morning's Gospel passage seems like a punishment for my sins. Is there anything about this passage that grips the imagination? The argument between Jesus and the Sadducees seems so archaic, so irrelevant. Very little sense can be made of the argument without knowing something about 1st-century Jewish religion in Palestine--not an especially fascinating subject for most people. However, to get at the heart of today's reading, we have to understand its historical religious context. So I'm going to speak to that, and I hope you'll stick with me.
Epiphany is one of the 7 major feast days of the church. The word derives from the Greek word meaning “to reveal, or “to manifest.” In many parts of the world, including most Spanish-speaking countries, it is a much larger holiday than Christmas, with people trading gifts in recognition of the gifts brought by Matthew’s wise men rather than a large man in a red suit. In the United States and much of the western world, we have cloaked the story of the wise men with a romantic sentimentality both in the Church and in popular culture. We have made them “Kings” and put them in royal robes and placed them in radiant light inside of a manger that looks like it was designed by Martha Stewart or Oprah. And all of this has tended to cloud the important ramifications of this story in Biblical history. So this morning I would like to rescue the Wise Men from their places in the annual Christmas Pageant and put them back in their rightful roles as key witnesses to both the promise – and the threat – that the birth of Jesus represents to the world.
To place this in perspective, we need to go back to the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible and of the Christian Testament. The prophet Micah, 5:2, which is paraphrased by Matthew in this morning’s Gospel, writes: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” The Hebrew Bible also foreshadows this event in Chapter 60 of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, where the prophet writes, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn . . . They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (Is. 60:3, 6b.) Then in the Christian Testament there is the prophecy of Simeon after he has laid eyes on the infant Jesus when his parents have brought him to the Temple. Speaking to Mary and Joseph, he says: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” (Luke 2:34b-35).
And see the irony here: The Wise Men are gentiles who have no knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures of Isaiah and Micah that foretold the arrival of a Messiah. Their only knowledge of this event comes from their observations and their search for something greater than themselves. Contrast that with Herod, himself a Jew who considers himself the “King of the Jews.” When these strangers come from the East asking for the “King of the Jews” he perceives a serious threat to him and to his family and their status in society. What a contrast: We have these three gentiles who journey a long distance to pay homage to the King of the Jews, while Herod, who himself claims to be King of the Jews, wants to destroy him. The Wise Men represent the first gentiles in the Bible to recognize the coming of the Messiah and to perceive the enormity of what that will mean not just for themselves but for the rest of recorded human history.
And this epiphany – this revealing of who this infant really is – is just the first of a number of epiphanies we will hear of in the coming weeks – the miracle at Cana, the appearance of God in the form of a dove at the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, the transfiguration of Jesus before three of his disciples on the mountain, to mention only a few. And in each of these epiphanies, the world will come to know more about the identity – and the mission – of this man born of unwed parents in a muddy, smelly stable in Bethlehem.
But for today, what do we learn from this epiphany to the Wise Men? Well, first of all, we learn that this child came not just for the nation of Israel, but for all people throughout the world. That is the symbolism of the wise men – they represent all the peoples of the known world at the time. We learn that everyone – EVERYONE , without exception – has been invited to God’s birthday party, no matter what paths they may have taken on their way to the manger. And unlike King Herod, who preferred and felt entitled to the comforts of his royal palace, the Wise Men were able to see, and welcome, the King of the Jews not in a royal palace but in the dust and muck of a common stable in which God prefers to make an entrance into the world. This infant Jesus poses a real challenge to the comfortable, the powerful, the well-stationed in society who fancy that God favors them.
We need to be reminded that this child savior born into such humble circumstances will one day say things like, “The last will be first and the first will be last” (Mt. 20:16), and to say in a parable, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mt. 25:40).
In the story of the Wise Men, Matthew offers us a depiction of an extraordinary hope: Peoples of the earth coming together united in their search for the King of the Jews and coming to recognize that the God of Israel is the God of the least and the lost, the God of the poor and the widow and the imprisoned, the God of the stranger and the refugee, the God of Justice, the God of servanthood and not superiority. All peoples offering gifts of themselves to the Ruler of the Universe.
Epiphany provides us with an invitation to discover the wonderful gifts that we find when we yearn for connection with the living God of all creation. St. Augustine wrote in The Confessions, “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee . . . O Lord.” St. Paul, himself a Jew, devoted his life and ministry to helping Gentiles find God form a connection with the King of the Jews. In this morning’s Epistle, he points out that he even went to prison for the sake of the Gentiles, to make sure they knew that “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Eph. 3:6).
In the welcome of the Wise Men, as through the ministry of Paul, God welcomes all humanity to new life in Jesus, the Christ, the True Light. As followers of Jesus, and as successors to the Wise Men, it is our duty – as it was for John the Baptist – to testify to that light to all people. It is God’s universal welcome to all of God’s creation, shown through us – that constantly regenerates the Body of Christ, our family of faith, and makes it real to others. Churches, like Trinity, that strive to embrace such hospitality and welcome reflect the radiance of the Christ child and serve as a beacon for all who are restless to find a spiritual home. We become the new Star of Bethlehem for those who are seeking the promise of the Savior.
I would contend that epiphanies are not just a thing of the past, always beginning with words like, “Once upon a time…” By the gift of the Holy Spirit, and as latter day successors to the Wise Men and to St. Paul, we can make the Season of Epiphany come alive in our own time. The experience at the manger was an epiphany for the Wise Men. After they returned to their country “by another way” in order to avoid Herod, they provided experiences of “epiphany” to all in their own country with whom they shared their own experience and testimony to what they had seen. Paul also experienced his own epiphany when he was on the road to Damascus as described in Chapter 9 of the Acts of the Apostles, and he provided experiences of “epiphany” to the Gentiles in the many cities where he shared his experience and his own testimony.
How has the light of Christ appeared to you? By what light have you encountered the Christ Child? By what light have you encountered the risen Christ? We all have our own pathways to the manger, and each of us has our own unique, and equally valuable, ways of showing forth the light of Christ that we have experienced. But one thing we all have in common: We all are here because of the prompting of God, who is the source of our desire, our seeking, and, over the course of a lifetime, our finding. This morning Jesus invites us to give testimony to the ongoing revelation of the Word Made Flesh. I pray that this season of Epiphany and the days that follow may be a time for us to reflect on how we have experienced the light of Christ, and the ways in which we can be that light to others. Amen.
Advent invites us to wait in hopeful expectation for the coming of the Promised One. We are to watch for signs of the One who is to come. Watching means being attentive to our surroundings, to the people and the world around us, looking for signs of God’s immanence – God’s presence in our midst. When we see those signs, we are invited to make space for contemplation – to wonder about what all of this means to all of us – today, in the here and now. In today’s Gospel we are called to join Mary and Elizabeth – to wait, to watch, to wonder, and to welcome the new thing that God is doing in their lives and in ours.
This morning I want to reflect on two aspects of that beautiful story of the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth we just heard, and they are summed up in two words: “Expectation” and “Welcome.”
A word sometimes used to describe someone who is pregnant is to say that they are “expecting.” The dictionary defines the word “expect” as “to anticipate or look forward to the coming or occurrence of something.” This morning’s Gospel from the first chapter of Luke features two unlikely women who are expecting: There is Elizabeth, a woman getting on in years who has spent her marriage being marginalized by the stigma of being married and childless. She is expecting the birth of a miracle child – who will be John, the Baptizer – in a little over three months. Then there is Mary, who has just received the miraculous message from the Angel Gabriel that she is “to bear a son who will be named Jesus, who will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:31-33). I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that neither of these events was expected – even in their wildest dreams (or nightmares) – by either of these two women.
Yet once again, we see God acting in unconventional and unexpected ways. Once again, as God has throughout salvation history, God shows a propensity to work not through the rich and the powerful, but through the marginalized, the small, the seemingly unimportant – probably the last people that the world would expect. We see in this meeting of these two women a reflection of earlier scenes from the Hebrew Bible.
It is reflected in the opening words of our Old Testament lesson from Micah: You, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel . . . Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth . . . And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. (Micah 2:2-4a). The Redeemer of Israel is to come from one of the little clans. And He will feed is flock like a shepherd.
Elizabeth’s words of greeting to Mary on her arrival, Blessed are you among women, recall ancient words spoken about Jael (Judges 5:24) and Judith (Judith 13:18), two women famous for the parts they played in liberating Israel.
And the words that Mary speaks in the beautiful song known as The Magnificat echo the words of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 when she gives thanks for the new life embodied in her long-awaited son, Samuel. Like Mary’s song, Hannah sings of divine majesty and power working through the most unlikely of actors. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength . . . [The Lord] raises up the poor from the dust, he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world. He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness, for not by might does one prevail. (1 Samuel 2:4, 8-9). The Song of Hannah paints a picture of God as a master of reversals, of turning the expectations of the world upside down.
And this is all the background for this meeting of the Virgin Mary and her kinswoman Elizabeth. Luke tells us that after hearing Gabriel’s news, Mary’s first instinct is to leave her home (and her fiancé) in Nazareth for an extended stay with her relative, Elizabeth. We aren’t really told what cases her to travel to visit Elizabeth: perhaps the sheer vulnerability of being a young, pregnant unmarried woman in first-century Palestine (or anytime and anywhere for that matter!). Perhaps she needed some time and space to process what was happening. Or perhaps she was just eager to spend some time with an older, trusted woman who was experiencing her own unexpected and miraculous pregnancy. Whatever her motives, Mary’s first move was to a sanctuary of love, of solidarity and support. The fact that this sanctuary was in a small town in the hill country of Judea, some distance away from the more politically and scripturally prestigious cities of Jerusalem, Rome, Bethlehem and Nazareth, only underscores the story’s central theme: That the God of Love lifts up the lowly, working out deeds of power through supposedly powerless people and in supposedly insignificant places.
To be sure, the words and the acceptance embodied in Mary’s song will eventually change the world. But on this last Sunday of Advent – the last Sunday before the feast of our Savior’s birth – we might do well to pause and focus on the small, personal aspects of this day. In their interaction, God gives to Mary and Elizabeth not just a chance to reflect on their unexpected places in history, but on two things that they each lacked individually: community and connection. In their mutual sharing, God helps them to understand themselves more fully in the context of something larger than their individual lives and destinies. What will become of them and of their miraculous sons is not yet known, and will unfold over time through both triumph and tragedy. For now, they wait in hopeful expectation on what God has promised, and they mutually commit to welcome whatever that entails, and to offer their lives – their bodies, minds and spirits – in journeying wherever that may lead.
Most of us who were raised in the church here in the United States have learned to celebrate Christmas in the secular context of the wider culture: Town Christmas trees and nativity scenes on the Town Green, Christmas carols sung in public school Christmas concerts, politicians sending Christmas cards to constituents. As our culture has become more openly diverse, many Christians – and particularly some Christian politicians – have lamented that Christ is being taken out of Christmas.
And yet, I don’t think that is the problem. I think that by allowing the story of Jesus to be diluted into popular culture, WE have contributed to taking Christ out of Christmas and allowed Christmas instead to be an annual festival of excessive spending, excessive indulgence, in which the predominant statement is, “I want . . .” We are assaulted daily by a culture that, in not so hidden messages, tells us what we should “expect” out of life – more, better, bigger things. I think the problem is that we have as a culture – and perhaps even as a church – lost that essential message of Advent and Christmas that is epitomized by this morning’s meeting of Mary and Elizabeth. What if, however, we shut out the messages of more and better and bigger and, instead, paid more attention to the messages that prompted us to expect not what we might receive, but what we might give? When, invited by God to become the most famous virgin teenage expectant mother in history, Mary did not ask, “What’s in it for me?” No, she said, “here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38). Mary and Elizabeth did not think about what they could expect to receive. They simply gave their lives, a living sacrifice, to the God who called them.
As the lives of Mary and Elizabeth, and the miracle sons whom they welcomed, would play out over years and even decades, so does the Jesus story continue to play out in our lives and in our life as a community of faith. Each one of us is a descendant in faith of Mary and Elizabeth, of Joseph and of Zechariah. How, by sharing and joining our stories with one another, can we connect our lives with the larger story of Jesus the Christ? As the world pushes us to an ever bigger, flashier and more expensive December 25th, can we connect with that sense of urgency, of waiting, watching, wondering and ultimately welcoming that which the Lord has in store for us? What do you “expect” this Advent season? What are you expecting for Christmas? And where might that lead you? Where might it lead us?
Please pray with me: Lord Jesus, as we await the annual festival of your birth, help us remain focused during these coming days to re-center, reflect and be ready for your expected arrival. Help us to be as devoted as Mary was, to say yes without hesitation, to welcome whatever it is you have in store for us. Help us to turn to those in need and sacrifice all we have to those who need it more, as Hannah did with her son Samuel; and lastly, help us to keep you in our minds, words and acts so that we may end this year and enter the next as the children of God you have asked us to be. Amen.
THE ORDINATION OF BENJAMIN WYATT AS PRIEST December 13, 2018
Trinity Church, Hartford
(Dear God, let your priests be filled and clothed with righteousness, and let your people dance and sing for joy.)
What a very happy night! Tonight, here, with God’s blessing, we will ordain Ben Wyatt a Priest in the Church of God.
A priest. How can we describe or comprehend what that is, or, what he will be jumping into?
Priest. The title itself been adopted by and passed through so many traditions, religions, and even Christian variations, it’s been added to, reformed, mostly held in honor, sometimes dishonored and despised.
At the same time for us in the Church it is a central mystery, priesthood, an office divinely ordained and revered among us, conferred and blessed by God and the Church together, for God’s glory and the blessing of Christ’s people and everybody in the world.
Even if we cannot pick it up, spread it out and pin it neatly down, there are some of the aspects and gift of “priesthood” that rise and shine from Scripture we have read tonight.
In the Gospel according to John, Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep … I know my own and my own know me. I have other sheep that don’t belong to this fold. They also will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
Should this be the defining symbol? The shepherd?
My knowledge of sheep and shepherds comes mostly from hiking through hillsides and pastures in the British Isles. Just from walking and watching, I’ve learned that sheep are sheep. And a shepherd is not a sheep; a shepherd is a knowledgeable, skilled and experienced human who knows and feeds and guides and cares for and protects the lives of the sheep.
I think the temptation on an occasion like this, is to peel off the shepherd metaphor for Jesus and paste it on “priest” — to say that the priest is the shepherd of a flock, and what we’re about tonight is to elevate a sheep into shepherd-ness..
Which temptation we should resist, I think. The shepherd image is not about a priest. It is about Jesus. Just as sheep are sheep, and the shepherd is the shepherd, and they’re really different, so it is for us. For better and for worse, in the image, we are the sheep. Jesus is the shepherd, the good shepherd, the really good shepherd. The best.
And of course it’s a metaphor: we are not sheep; we are made in the image of God, brought into new life through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, baptized and empowered with gifts and ministries in the Holy Spirit, every one. Including the care and protection and guiding of each other. But to lay the expectation to be the Good Shepherd on any person is to look way above our created pay grade. Even those of us who are ordained and appointed to carry a pastoral staff have to remember that the staff we bear is about Jesus.
The truth of the shepherd image is that it’s about Jesus. Who at all times and in all places is The Good Shepherd, ours, the best, no matter who or what may come to seek to snatch and destroy. A profound and joyful truth for all of us of the flock, and especially for those of the flock ordained to be priests.
So to be a priest therefore is not to be elevated over the flock, and changed into someone we are not, but is to be a member of the flock who has been specially identified and co-missioned within the flock.
There was a time in the 1960’s when some of us clergy resisted the notion of being “set apart” or “singled out” or “made different” in ordination. Yet, a priest does agree to enter into “orders,” to give up the freedom of the laity, no longer a free agent, and to accept a framework of canonical accountability and discipline, and to assume responsibilities and yes, privileges also, on behalf of the ekklesia, the community of believers, and on behalf of God.
A rabbi once told me this: I am a rabbi, I am a scholar and teacher for God’s people; and the people pay me to be a rabbi so that I don’t have to be a doctor or car mechanic or lawyer.
In this age it may be that the priesthood may not be a ticket to full-time pay, (Sorry about that, Ben), (Saint Paul supported himself in his trade as a tentmaker) but there is the charge that they fashion their lives so that the responsibilities and privileges of a priest will be at the center of their lives.
As a member of the flock we heap on the priest-person the tasks of professor and confessor of the faith, nourisher, strengthener, learner, gatherer, prayer, so many hopes. Listen to the charges the bishop will name in the Examination. Do we realize how much, what we ask, day to day, of our brother in this liturgy tonight? Faithful pastor to all. Patterning his life to be a wholesome example of Christ for all. Diligent in reading and the study of Holy Scriptures, serving young and old, rich and poor. Pile it on!
Then, there are privileges of authority given to a priest by the Church — specifically to pray in public, to preach, to Baptize, to celebrate the Eucharist, to pronounce blessing and declare absolution for sin, and to care and serve among the people among whom she or he works.
It’s all a bit breathtaking, isn’t it? A priest, one of us, identified, taught and ordered to know God and make God known. Who is as absolutely essential to the nature and life of God’s people as God’s people are essential to life of the priest.
One other thought tonight about “priest.” It flows from the vision-experience of the prophet in the sixth chapter of the book of Isaiah. Like Isaiah, a priest is sent, and may never again have one earthly place to call home.
“I saw the Lord sitting on a throne high and lofty. And I said, ‘Woe is me, for I am lost, for I am a man unclean and live among a people unclean.’ Then a seraph touched my mouth with a live coal taken from the altar. And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ And he said, ‘Go!’
Maybe we don’t often think about it, but it’s true: ordination as a deacon or priest or bishop often means leaving to go, leaving home, and moving from one place to another in response to God’s call, the needs of the Church and the world, faithful to God’s mission.
To be a priest is not a place for the personally ambitious or those who crave life predictability. It is a place for gentleness, peace beyond understanding, prayer, for exercising lifelong humble personal discernment in the Spirit, obedience to Christ’s call, and openness to God-knows-where or -who will be the people among whom one will serve.
The pattern is Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Isaiah, John son of Zechariah, the apostles, Saint Paul for sure, and above all, the pattern is Jesus.
Ben Wyatt, our brother in this parish community, in the Church of God.
We are about to ask many things of you, and the Bishop specifically will ask you if you believe you are truly called to the priesthood. and that you commit yourself to this trust and responsibility. We will be thrilled when you say, “Yes.”
You bring special gifts to the Church for the exercise of the priesthood. Your ability to proclaim the Scriptures we already know well. And your curiosity and thirst to study the faith, and especially the intersections of holy spiritual practices and the intellectual disciplines of theology are blessings for the Church.
Remember always that this sacred life you enter in Christ may surprise you, and take you geographically, spiritually and culturally to places you ever expected or thought. And always, always I pray the joy of your life as a priest will be to serve among the people, whoever they are, and wherever they are.
And above all, Rejoice in the Lord always; know that Christ Jesus, the One who is The Good Shepherd, who knows your name even more surely than you know his, always watches over and guides the flock and you within it, and stick close to this Jesus whom you serve as priest, who is The Good Shepherd, the Best!
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69
For the past several Sundays, the Gospel has focused on Jesus as the Bread of Life and variations on that theme. As we approach that theme Sunday, I would like to do so through the lens of the Collect for the Day, which asks God’s blessing so that the Church can show forth God’s power to all people.
There are two aspects of today’s Gospel passage that I find particularly fascinating. The first is the growing disaffection of some of Jesus’ followers with His message, and the second is the way that Jesus responds to their challenge to his teaching.
The scene in today’s Gospel passage is from a part of Jesus’ ministry which represents almost a crisis point. Jesus has been wildly popular, travelling about the countryside preaching, teaching, healing, performing miracles, and the world was charmed. But then as he continued his teaching, as the real meaning of what he is saying begins to set in, the crowds that were once charmed find that the full package of what Jesus is teaching is too much to take. Many of the disciples say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Jesus can see that even the original 12 are struggling, and decides to test them. He must have felt pretty dejected when he turned to them and asked, “Do you also wish to go away?” And Peter’s response could not have been very reassuring: “To whom can we go?” It’s as if Peter is saying, “Well, you’re the best we’ve got, so we’ll stick around for now. . .”
But there is something else we see in this passage, and that is the way Jesus reacts to public criticism and reaction. That must have been more than a little intimidating for Jesus, the man, when many of his previously loyal followers turned away from him. He must have internally struggled, at least a little bit, about how to share his message, whether he should hold back on some of the harder truths, perhaps whether he should “change his brand.” And yet, he never – ever – gave into this temptation. Instead, he maintained his commitment to proclaim the truth that He was sent to proclaim to the world, the Good News of the Gospel: love, peace, forgiveness, acceptance, grace, reconciliation for all of God’s creation.
My friends, it is so easy for us to look at those disciples from our arm chairs while we are reading our Bibles and criticize them for what may appear to be a hollow or a shallow faith. But I’d like to suggest to you that before we get down on the apostles, or criticize the ways in which our own contemporaries live out their version of the Gospel, that we take a look at our own lives – as individuals in a democratic society, and as a church in a country which allows freedom of faith – and assess how faithful we ourselves have been to the life and teachings of Jesus.
As Christians in the United States, we might well adopt as our own the famous line of the comic strip character Pogo on the occasion of the first US Earth Day in 1970: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Throughout the history of the church in this country, we can see the ways in which the institutional church has shied away from proclaiming the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and instead has settled for an easier message that people want to hear – that won’t make them turn away and mutter, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” This has actually been a phenomenon throughout the Western world, and the phenomenon has a name: Christendom. “Christendom” – in contrast to Christianity – is the rather unholy alliance between the institutional church and the secular society that leads some politicians today to refer to the United States as a “Christian nation” despite the fact that the United States Constitution specifically says there will be no establishment of an official state religion in this country. In my humble opinion, “Christendom” is the reason why Thanksgiving Day is more known for great football games and overeating than it is spending an hour in church to thank God for the many blessings in our lives. It’s the reason why liturgical Advent is all but ignored and Christians begin preparing for Christmas before Halloween when the displays change on the shelves in the stores. What are essentially religious holidays get hijacked by secular festivities.
It is an age-old problem – we are always, at least in part, creatures of our environment, of our culture, and of the particular traditions with which we have become familiar. We see it in this morning’s lesson from the Book of Joshua, where Joshua is challenging all of the Elders and other leaders of Israel to put away the gods of their ancestors and to serve the Lord. “Choose this day whom you will serve,” he tells them, “but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Just as Joshua’s people needed to decide which God to serve, just as those early disciples of Jesus had to make the decision whether to walk away from Jesus or to embrace the life-giving, life-changing yet hard teachings he taught, so we today in the Christian Church in the United States and throughout the world also are being called to make a choice between the institutional church as it has evolved and as we have known it through the recent decades, or to stand by the teachings of Jesus, in the way He actually lived them and taught them. Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has summoned all Episcopalians to renew that Jesus faith, to reclaim at least some of the passion of Jesus early followers, and to accept the challenges Jesus’ actual teachings make to our comfortable American lives. And he calls our church “The Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement.”
Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, states the problem succinctly: For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Ephesians 6:10-20 offers us a powerful outline for resisting the forces that would lead us away from Jesus’ fundamental teachings:
Proclaim the Gospel of Truth as Jesus taught.
Strive to live a righteous life.
Be agents of peace and reconciliation in the world.
Have faith in our Lord, believing that God is for us and with us at all times and in all places.
Believe in and value the salvation that Jesus promises.
Let the Holy Spirit guide us and take control over our lives.
Pray in the Spirit at all times.
You know, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.” I’m afraid that over the decades we have lost sight of that role.
We Americans like to pride ourselves on the myth that our Constitution preserves a separation between Church and State – and indeed, it may do that better than any other constitution in the world. But that can’t change the fact that we who have grown up as Christians – particularly if we are white Christians – have become all-too used to a world in which the mechanisms of society have in fact been molded around the major tenets of the Christian faith, and the church and State have developed a symbiotic relationship that would have made Jesus turn over in his grave if he had stayed there long enough. As a lawyer and an Episcopal priest, I have to say that I am appalled that in the United States of the 21st century there are serious claims by various sectors of the Christian church that by granting basic human rights to all people, we are denying rights to Christians. What rights did Jesus ever deny anyone?
My friends, the question we face is this: Who is Jesus Christ for us today? What does our loyalty to Christ, as disciples, require at this moment in our history? Bishop Curry has issued a statement, co-authored with The Rev. Jim Wallis and joined by leaders of many major Christian denominations, laying out some fundamental principles not just to profess when we are within these walls, but to live by in our public lives. In “Reclaiming Jesus,” he writes, “We believe it is time to renew our theology of public discipleship and witness. Applying what “Jesus is Lord” means today is the message we commend as elders to our churches.
“I. WE BELIEVE each human being is made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). That image and likeness confers a divinely decreed dignity, worth, and God-given equality to all of us as children of the one God who is the Creator of all things. . .
“II. WE BELIEVE we are one body. In Christ, there is to be no oppression based on race, gender, identity, or class (Galatians 3:28). The body of Christ, where those great human divisions are to be overcome, is meant to be an example for the rest of society. . .
“III. WE BELIEVE how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Christ himself. (Matthew 25: 31-46) “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” God calls us to protect and seek justice for those who are poor and vulnerable, and our treatment of people who are “oppressed,” “strangers,” “outsiders,” or otherwise considered “marginal” is a test of our relationship to God, who made us all equal in divine dignity and love. . .” My friends, I remind you that almost these exact words are part of the founding principles of this congregation in which we claim membership. The statement continues, “Our proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ is at stake in our solidarity with the most vulnerable. If our gospel is not ‘good news to the poor,’ it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ (Luke 4:18).
“IV. WE BELIEVE that truth is morally central to our personal and public lives. Truth-telling is central to the prophetic biblical tradition, whose vocation includes speaking the Word of God into their societies and speaking the truth to power. A commitment to speaking truth, the ninth commandment of the Decalogue, “You shall not bear false witness” (Exodus 20:16), is foundational to shared trust in society. The search and respect for truth is crucial to anyone who follows Christ. . .
“V. WE BELIEVE that Christ’s way of leadership is servanthood, not
domination. Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles (the world) lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:25-26). We believe our elected officials are called to public service, not public tyranny, so we must protect the limits, checks, and balances of democracy and encourage humility and civility on the part of elected officials. We support democracy, not because we believe in human perfection, but because we do not. The authority of government is instituted by God to order an unredeemed society for the sake of justice and peace, but ultimate authority belongs only to God.
“VI. WE BELIEVE Jesus when he tells us to go into all nations making disciples (Matthew 28:18). Our churches and our nations are part of an international community whose interests always surpass national boundaries. The most well-known verse in the New Testament starts with “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16).
The statement continues: “The best response to our political, material, cultural, racial, or national idolatries is the First Commandment: ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ (Exodus 20:3). Jesus summarizes the Greatest Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, and your mind. This is the first commandment. And the second is like unto it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:38). As to loving our neighbors, we would add ‘no exceptions.’ “
When everyone else was bailing on him, Jesus asked his 12 closest friends, “Do you also wish to go away?” Without really knowing the historical or theological context in which Jesus was teaching, and with no way of knowing what theories or practices theologians and church leaders would come up with over the centuries, Peter, as it turns out, came up with about as good a response to Jesus’ question as anyone has since: “To whom can we go if not you?” We have seen your life, we have heard your teachings, we have seen your miracles. You have the words of everlasting life. Where else would we go?”
And to Peter’s words, I would invite us all to add the response of Joshua: Choose this day whom you will serve. . . As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” AMEN.
It is God who calls us together into a community of faith. It is not a random happenstance: God calls us to our location on Asylum Hill as the spiritual base from which we live out our call to minister in Jesus' name.