Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Epiphany 1, Year C, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2010

Baptism of Our Lord
Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17,Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22
A Sermon preached by the Reverend Dr. Frank Sawyer
St. Augustine’s Church, Augusta, GA

John the Baptist told his followers, “I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John the Baptist truly prepares the way of the Lord. In his life we see the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament. John comes like an Old Testament prophet – out of the Wilderness like Elijah – surviving on grasshoppers and wild honey – he wears camel hair and has a wild beard – and he shouts that doom will come to those who do not listen. He is a classic prophet – yet he is to be the last in a line of great prophets because the Messiah has arrived. A new age is dawning. And John ushers in this new age by baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River.
This is what we are celebrating today, the Baptism of Our Lord and the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus shows us the way by his baptism. We all need to be born into a new life, baptized by the Holy Spirit to live a life full of the burning fire of faith. With the Baptism of Jesus a new Kingdom of God is proclaimed. The Light of the World is more fully revealed, the light first revealed to the world in the epiphany to the wise men after Jesus was born. Now, a new type of disciple and prophet will emerge because the Word has been made flesh. Those who see the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ will preach a new Gospel of love and salvation. And, as Jesus tells us in the Gospel According to Matthew, even the least of the disciples of this new kingdom will be greater than John – greater than the greatest of the prophets.
With John the Baptist we see the God we know in the Old Testament, the God of law and judgment, transformed by the life of Jesus into the God we know in the New Testament, the God that we are finally ready to understand, the God of love and mercy. All of us here today have the opportunity to know God as loving and merciful because the Apostles witnessed the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus and went forth on the Day of Pentecost burning with the power of the Holy Spirit to share the Gospel of Christ to the World.
It is John the Baptist who ushers in this new era in human history. The life of John the Baptist is joined with the life of Jesus from the beginning. John’s role in proclaiming the coming of a new kingdom has been written in heaven. Like his cousin Jesus, John’s birth is announced. Zechariah, a priest, and his wife Elizabeth are old and do not expect to have any children. But, one day Zechariah is taking his turn offering the prayers at the altar of incense in the Temple when the Archangel Gabriel appears to him. The angel proclaims that Elizabeth will bear a son and that they are to name him John.
Zechariah falls to the ground but remains skeptical. Even though this is a New Testament story, the Old Covenant is still in effect, so Zechariah is punished by God in the Old Testament way – he will not be able to speak until his son is born and named. The Old Covenant promised no eternal life with God. People were rewarded for their faithfulness and punished for their sins in this life, and death was the end. The place of the dead described in the Old Testament, Sheol, was definitely not heaven. Some of the prophets, like Daniel, offered the hope of eternal life, foreshadowing the coming of Christ. But, as the Gospel according to John proclaims, it is not until God enters the world in Jesus that we are given the power to become children of God, to know God through the Son, and to enter into God’s everlasting glory through his light. Emmanuel has come – “God is with us.”
Now, when John is born Zechariah writes on a tablet, “His name is John”, at which point his voice returns and he praises God in a song called the Benedictus. In this prayer he says to John,
“You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, To give people knowledge of salvation, by the forgiveness of their sins.”

After Mary is visited by Gabriel and Jesus is conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary goes to stay with her cousin Elizabeth for three months. When Mary arrives John greets Jesus by jumping for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. The lives of Jesus and John are connected from the beginning and both will live and die for the truth. But first their lives take different paths. John grows up in Judaea. Jesus grows up far to the north in Nazareth, likely learning his father’s trade as a carpenter.
John would have been eligible to follow his father into the priesthood. To be a priest you had to be descended from priests. All priests traced their lineage to the first High Priest, Aaron, the brother of Moses. But John did not enter the Temple as a priest. No, like Jesus, he was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit, where he spent time with God like the prophets of old. His time in the desert sealed his call and his mission as the Prophet of the Most High.
John bursts back into civilization with a blunt message to God’s people – Repent your sins for the Kingdom of God is at hand. John’s preaching is direct and powerful – it strikes fear into the hearts of many who hear him. They could have just rejected John and his message, but they come to confess and be baptized. Even some Pharisees come down to the Jordan seeking forgiveness. This is important - if we confess that Christ is our savior, the next step is to acknowledge that we have sinned, to accept responsibility for our actions and seek God’s forgiveness and God’s help, so that we can commit ourselves to live the life that Jesus is calling us to live.
And like those who listened to John the Baptist 2000 years ago, if we listen to him today we are reminded of what Jesus Christ has done for us. The Light of the world is with us – we don’t have to live by all of the old and complicated laws of the Torah – if you want to see how tough and complex they were, just flip through the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and be thankful. All these laws have been fulfilled by Christ in the Great Commandment, that we love God and love our neighbors as ourselves – on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
John the Baptist is the pivotal bridge between the Old and the New Testament. He proclaims the coming of Christ, a new way of living and knowing God. When John attacks the Pharisees and Sadduccees, he calls them a “brood of vipers.” John is saying that their rigid practice of the Law first given by God through Moses has become empty of the light and life of God. The law has become more about judging others than loving them. Jesus Christ proclaims that love is the new Law. Jesus will make this clear by healing on the Sabbath and forgiving sins, breaking the laws of God in the eyes of the Pharisees. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan the hero of faith will not be the priest or the Levite who pass by the man lying by the side of the road but the Samaritan who stops and shows love and mercy, the same man whom the priest and the Levite would have called a sinner for not keeping the Law right way. We need to be Good Samaritans.
Now, after he baptizes Jesus, John continues to preach his message and to speak the truth about what he sees. His honesty finally gets him thrown into prison by King Herod. In prison John realizes that he has proclaimed that his cousin Jesus is the Messiah, and he has a flicker of doubt. But what momentous decision is not made without some doubt? In faith there is always some doubt. So he sends a messenger to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” And Jesus answers John’s disciples, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought to them.”
The news comes to John that the Messiah has come – and where is the Messiah to be found – caring for those in need and opening the Kingdom of Heaven to all people – all of the Law and the Prophets have been fulfilled through the love of God in Christ. John meets his death with the certainty that he did what he came to do – he proclaimed the Savior, and he saw the first light of a new Kingdom of God.
We all need to hear the voice of John the Baptist. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We all need to repent. We cannot receive the Kingdom of God unless we are able to admit that we have stumbled, that we have sinned, and that we have not lived up to our potential as children of God. God knows our weaknesses and God knows our potential. Today we are called back to the Jordan River to confess our failings and to open our hearts to God’s forgiveness and grace. We are called to take an honest look at our lives and ask ourselves, are we prepared to meet Jesus Christ? Are we prepared to confess him as our Lord and Savior? Are we prepared to live the life that Christ is calling us to live? If our answer is “yes” we must put our faith into action.
The life, death, and resurrection of Christ fulfilled John’s prophecy. John the Baptist proclaimed and witnessed the end of the Old Covenant of the Law and the beginning of the New Covenant of God’s love in Christ. Today we should approach this altar with the knowledge that no matter how far we have strayed from the love of God, Jesus calls us back with open arms of love, and shares with us his Body and Blood, the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation. We become one with God and one with each other in this Eucharist. John proclaimed Christ so that we might know Christ and share in his kingdom in this life and the life to come. John testified to that light, the true light that enlightens the world. May we behold the Light of Christ as we celebrate his Baptism today, and may we share his Light with the world.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Epiphany 3, Year C, Sunday Jan. 24, 2010

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21

The Preacher (Preached By Fr. Peter Courtney)

If you ask any school child what Jesus did he or she will tell you several things.

He helped people.

He preached.

That’s about it. That’s what folks know. Oh, sometimes they go off on some theological expedition about Jesus dying on the cross for our sins or something like that. But you know this is a sidebar, a kind of “right answer” from the margins. Someone told them this in a firm voice, but you can tell it is one of those truths which have little or no real claim on them. You can see the clouds of uncertainty float across their eyes as they hope against hope no one asks them “what did Jesus preach about?”

The children are right. Jesus did do a lot of healing. And the man we call Luke reports that Jesus preached. Jesus preached here; he preached there. People heard about him preaching somewhere else and went off to hear him. Some of them never came back. Jesus was the black hole preacher; once you heard him, sucked in, gone forever.

This is surely what happened in the countryside around Galilee where Jesus preached in the synagogues. We can be forgiven for assuming that this was some kind of special event; a stem-winding, gut-thrilling, vein-extending, eye-bulging, pheromone-induding phenomenon. It must have been something. I mean something! After all people remembered Jesus did it. But it doesn’t seem like they remember much about it except for the text from Isaiah. If they remembered anything else, no one wrote it down except for the punch line: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Preaching is as preaching does. I suppose.

So what did Jesus preach? Well, for one thing he preached: “The time is fulfilled.” The time is fulfilled. Today it would sound like: Gong, time’s up! The clock has run out. No overtime, no nothing. Things are what they are from now on. As the Psalmist puts it in Psalms 31:15 My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.

Or as the prisoner says: “Time, time is all I’ve got.” But Jesus says: “the time is up.” What’s more the prophecy is come true: The prisoner is set free! He has no more time. The Gospel is that God takes all time in God’s hand and when God says, “Time’s up” you are in free!

Jesus went on: “The kingdom of God has come near. Time’s up. God’s plan is now complete.

Jesus said to his disciples: “My time is not yet come. Your time is always here.” My time, your time. There is never time in the world for the kind of time that Jesus has: his time is betrayal and death. The world has no time for that.

Just as we do Jesus’ brothers live in the world of the tax cut rhetoric. They like us live in the Land of Oz with lots of heat and virtually no light. The truth of course is that there is no such thing as a tax cut. There is tax deferral – borrow now, pay later. There is tax shifting, moving the burden from one group of tax payers to another. The spending has never gotten less, ever, so someone has to pay more, always. The poor are too poor to shift it to, so it gets shifted to the next group up which is most of us. It just isn’t our time, is it?

And so Jesus preached “Repent.” Repent, turn around, look the opposite way so that there is some possibility we can see our way out of the rhetoric, out of the time that is always here into the time that Jesus announces, a time fresh and full of the possibility that God’s people will live into the freedom promised them in the Gospel.

And so Jesus preaches: “Believe in the Good News.” The Good news is that we are not in Kansas anymore, we never were. We are invited into the world God made for people to be free, to be honest about what really is and is not. Yes, there are people behind the curtains pulling the strings and mouthing the words, but they are in a time that is always here. We yearn for the time Jesus preached, the time of the Good News when the poor hear Good news, not just the rich, when the prisoner’s term is up and she is set free.

Whatever our poverty, whatever our imprisonment, Jesus is here healing the sick, preaching good news and telling us the time is up! We are now Peter, James, Andrew, Mary, Joanna, the other Mary and still another Mary. If we have been restored from poverty or illness, we can claim the presence of God in those miracles. If we continue in poverty and illness, we can still claim the presence of God in those pains. It is harder and it can be done. Time’s up.
©Shaker Shop Graphics 2010

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Epiphany 2, Year C, Sunday January 17, 2010

Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

Last weekend we held our annual Vestry retreat at the Kanuga Conference Center, and there we heard a series of presentations about post-modernism and the Church. What we heard was both encouraging and challenging.

We were encouraged to learn that we at Saint Augustine’s are doing quite well! We were reassured that we are on course with our search for a new rector. We learned that we could choose to look at our finances from a perspective of abundance rather than a perspective of scarcity.

The speakers suggested that when a church program isn’t doing so well, instead of trying to build a bigger and better program, we could decide to let it go. In the post-modern world, we learned that we may expect a shift from the program-centered church to the missionary church. This shift will be gradual, and the speakers directed us not to change programs and services that are working well.

I tried to think about applying this idea to the Order of Saint Helena. We are now living in South Augusta, and one of the drawbacks of our present location is that it’s not a great neighborhood. We had several break-ins about 9 years ago, so now we protect ourselves with better locks and with a security system.

As I’ve thought more about that, I began to wonder what a religious order of the future might look like. We can protect our safety, but we can also try to improve the neighborhood. We can try to get to know our immediate neighbors. We could join the local neighborhood association. We could help our local school system. We could find ways to pray for our neighbors and to volunteer.

We faced a similar challenge in my seminary community in New York City. A group of us students saw the homeless sleeping on the sidewalks outside the seminary walls, and decided open an overnight shelter. In NYC, there are intake centers where homeless people can go during the day to receive screening, health and social services. At night they go in small groups to overnight shelters in houses of worship. Our proposal was to become part of this network, and we received a very mixed reaction. Some didn’t like the idea at all, some were enthusiastic, and others wondered why we didn’t just open the doors to everyone on the street. Our dean responded that the seminary wasn’t a drug rehab center and we weren’t equipped to handle all those who might come in, but we could become part of the network.

Many meetings and discussions and fundraisers later, we opened the doors to a shelter for men, three nights a week. I stayed several times in the shelter, and one morning as the group got ready to leave, someone asked me to come over to his bed and he showed me that he had taken a little piece of paper, written his name on it and placed it on the pillow. He said that during the day he would remember that there was a pillow with his name on it.

I asked the men where they went on the nights that they didn’t come to the seminary shelter. They said that sometimes they went to other church shelters and sometimes there was no place for them to go, so they would spend the night in plastic chairs at the center. One man said, “During the day we’re just a number, just a statistic, but here you know our names.”

One evening a seminarian brought his wife and little baby to the shelter for a visit. The next evening that baby was all they wanted to talk about. The men said that no matter what had happened during that day, every time they thought about the baby’s smile, they felt better and they felt that everything was going to be ok.

A few seminarians decided to start this project; others volunteered to stay overnight and some scheduled the volunteers; some organized the fundraisers and some gave the money for renovations; some painted and decorated the shelter; some came to an opening blessing of the room; some donated the snacks; others said prayers.

Not everyone at the seminary was directly involved in the shelter, but still, this ministry affected us all. We told each other the stories and we were all blessed by this ministry. When the six-year-old son of one of my classmates learned that there were homeless men staying in the shelter, he said, “If homeless men are here, then Jesus is here too.”

We put our separate gifts to work for this ministry, all gifts from God and “activated by one and the same Spirit”. And I think this is a glimpse of the church of the future: not a building, not a hierarchy of power, but all of the people of God serving, each in their own way, taking the risk of love, and bearing the Name of Christ into the world.

The poor and needy will always be with us. There will be hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes. No one has sinned to cause these disasters, and God is not punishing anyone when these things happen. Rather, I believe that love and compassion of God is most present with those who suffer and those who grieve. God is our constant, faithful refuge and strength, even in the midst of the most terrible suffering, and even today in Haiti.

At Saint Augustine’s we will continue our journey towards calling a new rector. This process I imagine will be something like a courtship, a wedding, and a honeymoon, and then, God willing, a long and happy marriage. God has a rector chosen for us, and we just need to find each other. He or she won’t be perfect, and he or she won’t be the Christ. He or she will have gifts of the Spirit as well as weaknesses, like every one of us. Our shared gifts and generosity will lead Saint Augustine’s community to becoming a church of mission and a church of the future.

A wedding is both a private and a public commitment of a couple to each other. In church we make both private and public commitments to Jesus Christ, and both are important. Our inward spiritual journey as a community of faith can support and give us sustenance for mission and witness, and the experience of mission, in turn, can feed our inner spirit and our faith.

As Christ loved us, so may we love one another, and reach out both within and beyond our community, carrying the Name of Jesus and shining with the radiance of Christ’s glory.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Christmas 2, Year C, Sunday January 3, 2010

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matt 2:1-12
Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH
“I am going to bring them… and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth…” (Isaiah 31:8)

Some of the early mapmakers were Europeans who traveled the high seas and mapped out the world as they discovered and explored new lands. Naturally, they saw the world from their own point of view, and they saw their homelands as the center. Most world maps today still show Europe in the top center, and all else spreads out from there: North America to the left; Russia and the Far East to the right. South America and Africa and Australia are down in the lower half of the map. The North Pole is at the top and the South Pole is at the bottom.

Once, however, I saw a map of the world that had been printed in Australia. I could tell where the oceans were because they were blue and I could tell where the landmasses were because they were brown and green, but none of the shapes made sense to me, at least at first. At the top of the map were two large continents with little pointy ends going up, and a very large island in the center. There was a large landmass on the lower right and a smaller one on the lower left.

Eventually, I realized that those teardrop-shaped continents, at the top of the map, were South America and Africa, and the large island in between them was Australia – now placed top and center! The large landmass at the bottom was Asia, the smaller one was North America. From an Australian point of view, the “Near East” was China and Japan. The “Far East” was Iraq and Syria.

In this Australian worldview, South was up, so the whole world map was, from a traditional European perspective, upside down. Seeing the world this way for the first time made me realize that, of course, in outer space there is no “up” or “down”. Placing North at the top was an arbitrary choice, made by early mapmakers, as they looked at the world from a Eurocentric point of view.

In the ancient world, there was a clear sense of who was “up” and who was “down” from a social perspective. There were plenty of appropriately distinguished candidates who might have been the first to welcome the newborn Jesus: the High Priest, members of the Sanhedrin who were the elite clergy, the Pharisees and scribes, and the wealthy upper classes. Yet the Gospels give us an upside down story. The Gospel of Luke tells us that shepherds, who were among the lowest of the social classes, were the ones who heard the message of the angels and who were the first to visit the newborn child. The Gospel of Matthew tells us today’s story, of the Magi, who were astrologers and who followed a brilliant star, which led them to Judea.

The Magi were exotic, foreign Gentiles, about as far away from Jewish as anyone could be, and yet they came with specific symbolic gifts to honor Jesus: gold for his kingship, frankincense for his priesthood, and myrrh for his sacrifice in death. Wednesday this coming week, will be the feast of the Epiphany, which commemorates the journey of the Magi to visit the Christ child and which also is a celebration of thanksgiving that the salvation of Christ is offered to all peoples.

A few years ago I stayed for a week in Qatar, which is a Middle Eastern country and a peninsula attached to Saudi Arabia and which stretches into the Persian Gulf. The Anglican parish there has been named the Church of the Epiphany. I spent my time visiting with the rector, meeting parishioners, and assisting at services. They didn’t have a dedicated church building, but instead worshipped in a high school gym. They had a processional cross, torches, altar, chalice and paten, vestments, and everything they needed stowed neatly away, and it took only a short while to turn the basketball court into a holy sanctuary. They were not able to advertise church services publicly, since Qatar is a conservative Muslim country, but by word of mouth many Christian expatriates living and working in Qatar find their way to this thriving community.

It was by far the most diverse worship experience I’ve ever had. I met a man who was from Ghana, and who knew my Ghanaian sister Rosina. I met families from India and South America. I met a group of Philippinos who performed as an impromptu choir. The people in this congregation were literally from all over the world.

A few years earlier the Archbishop of Canterbury had visited this church. While he was there, he asked one of the men in the congregation what it meant to him to be a member and to worship there. This man was a day laborer. The man answered, “When I come to worship here I might be sitting next to the British Ambassador, and here everyone is the same.”

There is a hymn which begins with the words, “In Christ there is no East or West, in him no North or South….” Respectfully, I’d like to suggest a slight adjustment to these words. Christians are after all from East, West, North, South, and we do have differences. We can honor these differences and our differences don’t disappear in Christ. In my humble opinion, I think these words might say: “In Christ there is no up or down”.

The light of Christ has come and is coming into the world as a sign of hope for all people, especially those who suffer and those who are seen as “down” by the standards of the world. Throughout the Gospel stories, Jesus is always most attentive to those who were thought to be sinners, outsiders, insignificant, unworthy, and even those outside of the Jewish tradition. He shared our humanity fully, not shunning anyone and being ultimately shunned and dishonored himself, and yet still he welcomed, accepted, taught and healed all those who believed in him. By receiving all people with compassion, he truly did restore their full humanity and dignity.

The Magi were astrologers who studied the stars, and who saw the brightness of one special star as a sign of the light that was coming into the world. On the feast of the Epiphany, we remember their long, arduous journey following the star. This is a star still shining for us today, leading us also to Bethlehem. May this light shine in our hearts and in our lives, as a true sign of the gift of divine life which is offered to all people and which we share in Christ.