Monday, August 18, 2014

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, 17 August 2014, Proper 15

(Matthew 15: 21-28)
The Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

In The Midst Of The Mess

It’s been a hard week, friends.
Gaza. Iraq. The Ukraine. Robin Williams.
Michael Brown. Ferguson, Missouri.

And those are just some of the big, public stories.

I’ve been back from vacation for a few days, and have heard a small portion of what all you have been undergoing recently. Medical situations…family struggles…emotional and financial challenges of various kinds. We look around and see a lot of mess, in our lives.

Comedian Jeff Foxworthy does a bit in one of the “Blue Collar Comedy Tours" about taking his wife hunting. She’s never been hunting before. As they walk out to the site, she worries that her new boots aren’t as cute as she thought they were at first…and she worries about her hair getting mashed down by her camo cap…and “Oh, there’s a bug on my cap, get it off, get it off…Well don’t KILL it, it’s just a little bug.Probably trying to get back to his bug family…”And why are there all these dead leaves and sticks and branches everywhere, doesn’t anyone ever clean up around this place? (They’re in the forest, remember.) What a mess this all is!

We would like to have no mess. In our lives, in the world we live in. We would love for there to always be a plan, and for things always to go according to that plan.

So how’s that working out for you?

Not so much in my house. Whether it’s the grocery list (I told you to put toilet paper on there!) or the cats fighting in the middle of the night when I just really need a good sleep (we call this “the attack of the thundering wildebeests”) or the news that a dear friend has been stricken with chronic hives and respiratory tract infections…I’ve got a lot of mess.

Jesus is in a lot of mess himself this morning, in the gospel lesson. John the Baptist has been murdered by order of King Herod, and now Herod has heard about Jesus as another potential threat. So he’s looking for Jesus, with malicious intent. Just before this episode we’ve heard read, Jesus has antagonized a group of religious leaders from Jerusalem, so they’re looking for a way to get him too.

Jesus has removed himself from Herod’s immediate area of influence, and is away to the northwest in the region of Tyre and Sidon.These are Gentile cities, on the Mediterranean coast. Jesus is well distant from the places of familiarity. He is on the run, far from home and out of his comfort zone. He’s in a mess of his own.

A woman comes to him, to ask him for help. First of all, a woman addressing a man who was not her son or husband in public in that culture was not customary. It wasn’t unheard of, but it was a bold thing to do. And this is not just any woman: this is a woman from a different culture, a different place, whose speech would have
sounded strange, whose accent might have been difficult to understand. In other words: Not One Of Us. That is absolutely clear.

But she’s in a mess of her own too. She asks for Jesus help—not for herself, but for her child. And she is anything but subtle or discreet in her asking! She is shouting, calling out to him. “LORD!" she says, Have mercy, help me! Note that language—“Lord!" she says. Three times. She will not be held back in her insistence that Jesus can help, will help, must help.

And the disciples are freaking out at this. “Jesus, tell her to cool it! Don’t you hear all the commotion she’s causing? Strangers are staring at us—it looks indecent. A rabbi talking with a foreign woman in public…what will people think?”

At first, Jesus does not reply at all—to the woman, or to his friends. When he does, something amazing happens. First, he says in effect “She is Not One Of Us.”

Thanks Jesus, we had figured that out already!That’s why you should get rid of her! She’s a stranger; she’s making a scene; it’s all weird and freaky out here in a strange place where we’re already uncomfortable and more than a little scared…

In the midst of this mess—her mess, the disciples' anxiety and uproar, Jesus' own situation, the woman speaks to Jesus directly “Lord (again, she calls him Lord), help me.”

The next words Jesus speaks have caused confusion for centuries. Because they cannot be squared with our notions of Jesus as always serious, always lecturing his followers on religious, doctrinal, or theological matters. In Western Christianity we have become “…victims of the Serious, even Grim Jesus, in which Serious and Sacred are assumed synonymous. And he must always be didactic or theological.(Marc Lindsay, friend of Matthew Gunter, via FB) I have heard preachers tie themselves into homiletical knots that Houdini himself couldn’t untie, over what Jesus says next. You ready for it?

“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

If all we have is the words on the page, it sounds like a gross insult. Rude, dismissive, and utterly unlike anything we think Jesus would say.

But I think Jesus doing something very different at this moment. I hear Jesus speaking these words playfully, even with a bit of mischief. We talked about this during Lent, that showing compassion to a person has three elements: tenderness, fierceness, and mischievousness. Here’s the mischief—and Jesus has enlisted
this Canaanite woman as his co-conspirator in making mischief.

Hear the words again, in that playful tone. “It is not fair (almost a faux-whine) to take the children’s food and throw it to the DOGS.” The unworthy, undeserving, not even quite human. Definitely Not One Of Us.

And she throws a response back in just the same tone and attitude: “True, Lord…but even the DOGS get the leftovers the children don’t want.

And Jesus smiles—laughs, I think, and tells her, “Get out of here—I’ve got this handled.”And she goes; and he does.

She knows she’s not a DOG. And so does Jesus. It’s the disciples who need an object lesson in what’s really going on here. The disciples, the followers, the ones who Jesus has invited to be with him, but to whom he has said over and over “Oh you little-faiths! Don’t you get it yet?”

Even the Not One Of Us Ones understand better than you. The good news is for them too. Even the ones who have funny accents and strange ways of dressing and interacting. The kingdom of God—healing, wholeness, welcome, sustenance and love and joy—is for everyone.Whoever they are, just as they are, right now, where they are.
Even in the midst of mess.
Especially in the midst of mess.

We can’t wait for the mess to be tidied up for the Kingdom to show up. And we don’t have to. Again and again, from his birth in a barn surrounded by farm animals and the smell of cow plop, to his death on a cross surrounded by criminals and jeering crowds, Jesus shows us that it is precisely there, in the messes and anxieties and places of apparent disaster, where the Kingdom of God may be found. And yes, it too is messy and strange and puts us out of our usual places of comfort and ease.

Jesus, the revelation of God’s desire for all people, comes into the midst of our messes, for just that reason—to show that the Kingdom is for all of these, is already present somehow, even in ways we don’t recognize or understand. For Iraq and Gaza. For the Ukraine, and for Ferguson, Missouri. For Michael Brown, and Robin Williams.And for us, in our own places of mess.

Like the Canaanite woman, we are allowed to call out, to cry out for God’s healing and attention in the places and for the people who have most need of it. In fact, it is our work to do just that. To ask, and to enact. To call upon God’s mercy, and to
be agents of that mercy. Our hands, our feet, our gifts and skills deployed for God’s mission in the world.

So then.

How will you invite Jesus into your place of mess this week, this day, this moment? And how will you carry the Kingdom of God as a follower of Jesus, this day, this week, in the world outside these doors?


Monday, July 28, 2014

The 7th Sunday after Pentecost, July 27, 2014, Year A

Matthew 13:31-34; 44-52
Preached by The Rev. Dr. Jason M. Haddox

When Shannon and I lived in New Jersey, I baked bread every week.  Six cups of flour made enough bread for the two of us weekly, plus (often) a loaf to give away.  So I wondered about this parable of Jesus’: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour, until all of it was leavened.” (Matt. 13:33)  How much is “a measure”?

Three measures sounds like a relatively small amount.  Three cups, maybe double that to make six.  Enough dough for two good-sized loaves.  Perhaps even double that again, to imagine a four-cup measure—that’s the biggest measuring cup in my kitchen.  Four cups times three measures is twelve cups.  That’s quite a lot of flour, right? 

Except that’s not even close to Jesus’ bread recipe this morning.  The word translated as “measure” of flour in the gospel this morning—a single “measure”—contained somewhere between fifteen and twenty pounds of flour. 
You know those five pound bags of Lily White unbleached all-purpose flour they stock at Publix? 

Imagine twelve of those five-pound bags lined up on the kitchen table, waiting to go into the mixing bowl.

Imagine the mixing bowl into which twelve five-pound bags of flour would fit.

Imagine the quantity of dough that would be made by such an undertaking. 

Imagine the wooden spoon—as big as a kitchen broom—used to mix the yeast into the dough. 

And about the yeast.  Jesus isn’t talking about those tidy little red-and-yellow envelopes of Fleishmann’s dry yeast pellets on the shelf above the bags of flour.  He’s talking about sourdough starter. 

If you’ve worked with sourdough starter, you know that it is gooey and smelly and more than a bit temperamental.  Added to flour and salt, it rises into bread dough.  Added to wheat and hops and water, it creates beer (which Benjamin Franklin stated was proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy, but that’s another sermon altogether.)  Exactly how this weird smelly stuff works is mysterious.  And when it’s mentioned in the Bible it is always used as a symbol of corruption and uncleanness.  The bread of remembrance in the Passover meal is unleavened—perhaps a rejection of all that the children of Israel had suffered in Egypt, where both baking leavened bread and brewing beer were important industries.  In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells his hearers: “Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?  Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened.  For Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed for us.  Therefore let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1 Cor. 5:6-8) 

But here in this tiny parable, Jesus takes that symbol of yeast—smelly, gooey, strange, and highly suspect—and uses it to talk about something that is just as weird and mysterious.  The Kingdom of God, to which Jesus has been pointing his hearers all along.  “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…which a woman took and mixed in with flour….” 

Our English Bibles tell us that the woman “mixed in” the yeast.  That’s good standard baking advice—one does want the leavening agent to be well distributed through the dough before the bread is baked—but it’s a lousy translation.  What Jesus actually says is that the woman “HID” the leaven in the flour.    

Think of that for a moment.  The yeast—Jesus’ chosen symbol of the kingdom, in this parable—is hidden.  Invisible from ordinary sight, yet slowly and steadily working its hidden magic in and through that whole enormous bowlful of dough.  Sixty pounds of flour, plus the hidden yeast, aerating and lifting and swelling up to the edge of that enormous mixing bowl, over the edge, spilling out onto the kitchen table, onto the floor, filling the whole room.  It cannot stay hidden for long, not like that. 

My mother tells a story from her college days, where her dormitory on the edge of the campus sat just across the street from a large commercial bakery.  Every morning at about 3:30 a.m. the ovens would be loaded for the first batch of the day, and the smell of fresh bread would drift—no, it would pour, cascade, flood out into the surrounding streets and homes for several blocks in every direction.  There was no missing it, that fragrance entered every door and window in the vicinity.  

What does the kingdom of God smell like? 

What fragrance accompanies the presence of God? 

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…which a woman took.” 

Jesus uses a particularly feminine image in this parable, to talk about God’s activity in the world.  It is not an image of great power in the usual triumphant sense, banners and parades and cheering crowds.  It is, in a way, the very opposite of such power—this power is hidden in a bowl, on a kitchen table, measured and mixed, kneaded and rolled and baked by strong, flour-covered hands.  The hands of a mother, a grandmother, an aunt…someone at once perfectly ordinary, and at the same time extraordinary.  A worker of miracles.  A magician, whose magic will bring forth miraculous food for many.  Jesus, the Bread of Life, puts the work of God’s kingdom into a woman’s hands. 

The day after tomorrow, the 29th of July, is the feast of Sts. Mary and Martha of Bethany.  Two sisters, whose names we know, who ministered to Jesus, who were among his closest friends.  It is also the fortieth anniversary of the ordination of eleven women, the first women to be ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church.  It happened in Philadelphia, on a humid Monday morning in 1974, in the Church of the Advocate.  Three retired bishops laid hands on eleven women deacons, conferring apostolic ordination upon them in the presence of two thousand witnesses.  The service did not go unnoticed; there were more than a few objections in the days and months that followed.  “Irregular,” the House of Bishops would say later.   “Uncanonical.”  And so two years later in Minneapolis, the General Convention rewrote canon law to admit that—in fact—the Holy Spirit was up to something new and transforming in the Episcopal Church.  And we, my brothers and sisters, have been immeasurably blessed and enriched by that new thing.  I have heard you tell stories of Sr. Elena here at St. Augustine’s, her love and leadership among you.  Sister Ellen Frances and my dear Texas friend and colleague St. Miriam Elizabeth have blessed us in this parish, and gone in service to many in their work as ministers of the gospel.   

Last Sunday the Rev. Julia Sierra Wilkinson Reyes of Christ Church, Savannah (whom Scott Benhase, the tenth bishop of Georgia, fondly refers to as “the twelfth bishop of Georgia”) welcomed the Most Reverend Katherine Jefferts-Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, into the pulpit of the mother church of Georgia.   As of only a few days ago, women can be elected as bishops in the Church of England, even perhaps to the office of Archbishop of Canterbury.  Jesus’ image of a woman holding, handling, sharing the “stuff” of the Kin-dom of God is being made manifest in our own time.  This is God’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.   

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…in the hands of a woman…hidden in an abundance of flour…until it was all leavened and raised and filled with life.”

 The hidden, transforming, mysterious workings of God and God’s dominion
are always beyond our notions of normal.  

And they will move us—if we allow them—beyond our own places of comfort and security.

 Where is the messy, mysterious, uncontrolled yeast of God working in your life just now? 

Where is God, the baker-woman, kneading and stretching you,

beyond your usual places of comfort and safety this week?

Where are you called to be bread, abundant, fragrant, and delicious, for a hungry community today?   

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Palm Sunday, April 13, 2014, Year A

Matthew 26:14-27:66
Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

 What is happening?

From “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” to “Let him be crucified”…today is a day of almost unbearable extremes, straining in contrast with one another.  If you’re not feeling a bit of mental whiplash, you’re not paying attention.

Many things can be true at once.  And especially today…as we begin the most extraordinary and significant week of the Christian Year, as we “…enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby [God has] given us life and immortality; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

 Many things can be true at once.  And the story we have before us is so multi-layered, that no sermon can begin to say even a percentage of all that is before us.  So I’m not going to try to do more than call your attention to two things throughout:  The expectations of those who are part of the story, and Jesus’ constant refusal to be constrained by those expectations.

When we began, with shouts of Hosanna and waving palms in a parade into the city, we have to remember that there’s another parade going on across town.  As Jesus is entering Jerusalem on a donkey through the east gate, Pilate is riding a white horse from the west, backed by the armies of the Roman Empire.  Many of those who follow Jesus are expecting great things from him.  Perhaps a confrontation with the religious and political power structure of the day, perhaps a challenge to the empire and its domination over their lives.  And the funny thing is, apparently the religious and political leaders, those invested in the empire and its domination, seemed to expect some such thing as well.  For they too were mindful of this “prophet Jesus from Galilee in Nazareth.”

But what they expected is not what they got.  Jesus the prophet from Galilee came not as a politician, not as a military leader, not as one crying for violence and revenge against those who perpetrated vengeance and violence—none of those categories would work.  And this frustrated the people no end: both the people who were in favor of Jesus (as far as they understood him) and the people who were opposed to him, and fearful of him. 

Neither group could quite figure him out. 

When they come to arrest him, with clubs and swords, he tells those who would die to defend him in the same manner: Put your swords away. 

When he stands before the governor, on trial for his life, and is asked over and over to explain himself, he does not answer.

When he is cursed and humiliated, he will not curse them back.

Over and over in Matthew’s gospel, we hear echoes of the words of the prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy and steadfast love, not sacrifice; the knowledge of God above all things, says God.” (Hos 6:6)  Jesus has preached it, practiced it, shared it, and having lived in that way all along, he lives in that way until the end. 

Confronted with violence, Jesus rejects violence as a tool, even for self-protection. 

Confronted with words of fear, anger, and hatred, Jesus enters into silence—a silence more profound than any words that could be thrown at him.

And in that silence, even the stones under his feet cry out.

When you come forward for communion in a few minutes, I invite you to put your hand in the baptismal font.  During our Lenten journey it has been filled—not with water, but with sand.  Dry, dusty, gritty, the stuff of the desert.  Today it is filled with stones.  Hard, jagged, rough, the stuff of the road down to Jerusalem, and the road up to Mount Calvary.  The stuff of the tomb, sealed tight, hard and dead and buried.

I invite you, as you come forward to receive the bread and the wine, Christ’s body and blood, to take a stone from the font with you.  Keep it in your pocket this week, as together we walk the road as Jesus’ followers.  Let it remind you of the stony and rough places in your life, the violent and bloody places, the places where the stones have been piled up and sealed against death itself, from which, even now, God is bringing forth new life.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 6, 2014, Year A

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
Preached by The Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

Today is the fifth reflection on Forgiveness in our Lenten series.  It’s an easy word to say, and an important thing to do—for others, and for ourselves.  Forgiveness allows the world, and all of us who live in it, to be set free.  Forgiveness allows us to learn from past misdeeds and mistakes, it frees us from bondage to those mistakes and misdeeds, making it possible to move forward into new and transformed lives. 

All the scriptures this day are addressing that gift of freedom—The freedom and the power that comes from God, given freely to all, in the midst of disaster and destruction and death, to bring forth new and transformed life.   In the first reading, Ezekiel addresses the people of Israel in exile, far from home and the life they had known, their hope lost, their spirits destroyed. “We are cut off”, they say.  “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost.”   He tells them of the vision he has had—the vision of God’s spirit blowing over those dry, dead, dusty bones in the graveyard, filling them with new life, making them a new creation. 

 And if we listen carefully, we hear the echoes of another story, like the sound a familiar tune humming quietly behind Ezekiel’s vision.  Accompanying that vision is the story that starts off “In the beginning…” In the beginning, when the Holy Spirit hovered over the face of the waters, and breathed into the dust of the ground, to create life at the beginning of all things.  Out of dryness and dust, God makes new.  Out of death and destruction, God brings life. 

The Psalm, the Epistle, and the Gospel all proclaim this truth today:  The spirit of God, moving through dryness and dust, moving in the death and destruction that seem overwhelming, brings forth new life, transformed life.  Jesus addresses Sister Martha this day with the words we know well:  “I am the resurrection and the life.”  She’s already acknowledged that resurrection happens—someday, somewhere, out there in the future.  But that won’t do, it is not enough.

Jesus calls her to attention.  “Martha—you don’t have to wait that long.  It’s right here, right now.”

And so he goes, and stretches out his hands, and speaks the words, “Unbind him, and let him go!” and life is transformed. 

Lazarus’s life, Martha and Mary’s life, the life of every person there that day—Jesus himself included.
They couldn’t just go back to normal, of course.  What had happened was too much, too earth-shattering, far too destructive of all that had come before.  Lazarus was dead, he was buried, and now?  It was all just too, too much.  Afterward there were days, perhaps, that they all wished Jesus hadn’t done what he did.  He oughtn't to have done it.  He’d thrown everything off balance.[1]

In throwing everything—even life and death itself—out of balance as they all had known it, God-in-Christ opens the door for transformation.  Not simply “back to business as usual”, for that cannot be.  But transformation into a new way, a new life altogether.

That new way, that new truth, that new life that Jesus offers Lazarus and Mary and Martha is for us too.  Each and all of us are invited to live in that transformed, spirit-breathed, resurrected reality that Jesus calls “the kingdom of God.”  To enter that way, that truth, that life, we have to be freed from the things that tie us up, the things that keep us bound, the things that hold us back from moving forward into that new creation. 

Four weeks ago at the beginning of Lent we talked about experiencing unconditional love and acceptance. 

So I invite you to take a moment, and remember yourself surrounded by and held in unconditional love.  Remember that there is nothing you can do, or ever have done, nor is there anything that anyone else has done or will ever do to you, that can separate you from that unconditional love.  Rest for a moment in that love, knowing that it is always there, always holding you, always available to you. 

In that love, take a moment—in the privacy of your own mind, think of something you have done that causes you to feel guilt.  Don’t minimize, rationalize, or deny any of it, simply be in the moment, admit what you did and then…

Remember that there is nothing you can do, or have ever done, that can separate you from the unconditional love of God.  To suppose that there is some such thing is either extremely arrogant on your part, or you are addressing a false god that is very puny.  So take a moment and be aware of the true God’s love for you, in spite of what you have done. 

In the light of that love, examine the thing you did.

Be aware of the demand that you are placing on yourself as you recall that past event, such as “I demand that I would have/would not have done…”

Convert that demand to a preference, such as “I would prefer that I had not done/would have done…”

Decide what personal value of yours was violated in that action, and if you wish to keep that value in the future.

If you do wish to keep that value in the future, then take a moment and decide what you will do differently if you encounter a similar situation in the future, and you want to honor that value.

 And now surrender yourself into the infinite goodness of God.  Let yourself be held by that love, in the deep and abiding peace.  Be at peace with yourself, and with God.

[1] Thanks to Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” for the phrase and concept of this earth-shattering truth.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Epiphany 7, 23 February 2014, Year A

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
Preached by Rev. John Warner 

Imperfection Striving for Perfection 

           May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight oh my Lord and my Redeemer.
          During my tenure as the director of the local community mental health center, I established annual goals for each of my managers, which would be used as the foundation for each one’s performance appraisal. Each were to write similar goals for their respective managers and employees they supervised. Within the area of customer service, I required that each would have NO substantiated customer complaint. This goal was followed by much grumbling. “You expect me to be perfect. That’s impossible!” one after another would state. My responses to such statements would be to ask, “Would you feel comfortable going under a cardiac surgeon’s knife who bragged of only losing 20% of his patients on the operating table or to fly on a transcontinental flight with a pilot who proudly exclaimed only two crashes last year?” Although I didn’t expect perfection, I did set an achievable bar even if the employee had to stretch a bit.
          I believe that Jesus wants us also to stretch a bit. Okay, a lot! Today’s reading from Matthew continues Jesus’s inauguration of the Kingdom of God, not the kingdom of God future but the kingdom of God present as displayed within the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount addressed to the disciples is an expectation of greater righteousness.   Radical words, many which I confess I find difficult to understand much less follow. Take, for example, the words spoken today. First, I am not to seek “an eye for an eye.” Does this mean that if someone I love is murdered that I should not seek justice for his or her death?” Second, if I am sued for $100,000, I should give the person who has taken me to court, a double amount or even greater amount. Finally, if I’m forced to perform some act of submission, I’m also to roll over and become a door mat.  Jesus summarizes the lesson by directing us to love both our friends and enemies.  Granted, I haven’t had many enemies in my life, but I have had a few who have persecuted me; who made it their mission in life to destroy mine. Love them! Are you kidding?
          To understand the relevance of this portion of the Sermon of the Mount in preparation for my sermon, I had to dig a bit deeper in these verses. If a Jews in ancient Israel was struck on the right cheek, it was generally done with the back of the hand—violence, for sure, but also an insult. Generally, there was also a power differential between the assailant and victim. One would have been inferior in social status to the other.  Jesus is saying that you can hit me again but you are going to do so with both of us being equals. All are equal in God’s kingdom.
          If an enemy takes you to court to sue you, probably for a large debt, you are not going to win. Therefore, you can at least show him what he is doing. In a world where most would own only a coat and cloak, you can at least shame the individual by your impoverished state. Could this be a metaphor that the rich and powerful may be reducing the poor to a state of shame?
          The third situation reflects the Roman occupation of Israel. As conquerors, a Roman soldier had every right to force a Jew to carry their equipment for one mile but no more. Jesus is telling his disciples to be as generous as God. Don’t complain and plot revenge, but go that extra mile. Show the soldier a different humanity, one that does not involve revenge and injustice.
          Although I understand the “good news” better, it doesn’t make following his teachings any easier. Jesus sets a high bar! But what would you expect for those who have Jesus Christ as their foundation? If, as Paul tells the church in Corinth, we are God’s temple sanctified by the Holy Spirit, what other rule of life should we aspire to?
          As much as I try, I haven’t fully moved into the kingdom of God. When I’m in my clericals, I have to keep reminding myself (or Marsha reminds me) that I am a wearing a collar and to watch my behavior. The collar tells me, “Don’t yell at that elderly man who just pulled out in front of you and is now driving like a tortoise down the road” or “Don’t ignore that woman who needs help.” I dream for the day when I don’t have to remember that I’m wearing a collar to remind me to be an example of God’s charity to others. I dream for the day when I internalize the collar within my heart. I hope eventually to be a light of Christ in the world. But for right now, I’m only on a journey of becoming.
           The Sermon of the Mount wasn’t just for us; it was also for Jesus. It was the blueprint for his life. He asked nothing of others that he wouldn’t do himself. Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus shows us what God is really like. The Sermon on the Mount isn’t just about how to behave. It’s about discovering God in the living, loving, and dying Jesus, and, with his help, in us reflecting that love into the world.

(Some of the information used in this sermon is a paraphrase of commentary found in the book Matthew for Everyone – Part One by Tom Wright.)


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 5 January 2014, Year A

Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
Preached by Rev. Deacon John Warner 

Does the Magic Continue?

           May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight oh my Lord and my Redeemer. 
            As many of you know, I love to read. I read a little of everything.  In fact, if I find myself alone in a restaurant without a book, I’m likely to be seen reading the labels on condiments. Did you know that green Tabasco sauce contains distilled vinegar, jalapeño pepper, water, salt, cornstarch, xanthan gum and ascorbic acid “to preserve freshness?” 
            One of my favorite literary genres is “magical realism.” Magical realism is not fantasy; nor is it science fiction. It exists when the mundane is invaded by something fantastical, something difficult to believe. For example, in the Spanish writer Gabriel García Márquez’s novel,  One Hundred Years of Solitude , a trail of blood from one man, after leaving a house, turns right and left until it finally covers the town. Or, in Sarah Addison Allen’s The Girl Who Chased the Moon, there is a bedroom with wallpaper which changes patterns depending upon the emotions of its occupant. 

            When the mundane is invaded by something hard to believe. This definition certainly fits the magic of the Christmas story. Of course, I am not referring to the magic of how a jolly old elf, although lively and quick, along with twelve tiny reindeer can deliver all those presents to the children in the entire world during one night. What I’m talking about is the Incarnation --when God became flesh, to live like one of us, among us, by being conceived in the womb of a young humble peasant from Nazareth. 

            Now Christmas is gone. The trees have been thrown out, Christmas decorations taken down and stored again for next year, and Christmas presents received have been separated into three piles, to keep, give away or to regift next Christmas.  

            But, is Christmas gone? The Christmas 25th  holiday is gone, but we shouldn’t confuse the secular holiday with the Christmas within our Christian liturgical year.  As Father Jason said in last Sunday’s sermon, the twelve days of Christmas doesn’t end with Christmas. It begins on Christmas Eve and ends with the Feast of the Epiphany, which is tomorrow.  

            Does the magic of Christmas continue into Epiphany? Are there events that produce awe and wonderment? Are there episodes where the mundane is invaded by events difficult to believe? I believe the answer is yes based upon today’s reading from Matthew. The three wise men, the spiritual elite of the Gentile world, use the arcane knowledge of astrology to identify the birth of the king of the Jews. Appearing in King Herod’s court, the magi request his assistance in locating the baby so they can pay homage, but their inquiry only alarms Herod and the Jewish spiritual leaders. Herod dismisses the magi to find the baby but to return with the baby’s location so he can worship … the future king of the Jews! The star that announced the birth of Christ now moves ahead of the wise men until it stops over where the baby lies. The star’s movement is plausible within the ancient world’s model of the universe because stars were believed to be alive, especially, the Jews, who believed stars to be angels. They enter to worship the baby bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Departing, they return to their own country by a different route, having been warned in a dream to avoid Herod. 

            Why these three gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh?  Although we don’t know why the wise men chose these three, tradition may yield some clues. Gold is probably the most obvious. Throughout the Bible, gold is symbolic for divinity; therefore, what better gift for Christ or God made flesh than gold.  Frankincense is essentially hardened tree sap, which when burned gives off a fragrant offering to God, representing holiness and righteousness.  Therefore, frankincense is symbolic for Jesus’ willingness to become a perfect sacrifice, a perfect offering for our sins.  Finally, myrrh, is a spice used for embalming.  Myrrh symbolized bitterness, suffering, and affliction; therefore this gift was a foreshadowing that the baby Jesus would grow to suffer greatly as a man giving his life on the cross for all who believed in him. 

            The wise men gave gifts worthy of a king; however, these gifts pale in comparison to the gift the Incarnation offers us. According to Isaiah in today’s reading, he brought light to illumine the darkness; he offers hope to those in despair and reconciliation, drawing the whole world to him.  

            Does the magic of Christmas and Epiphany continue? In 2002, I was ordained a deacon in the Diocese of Georgia. However, I had a diaconal ministry before that. It began with my baptism. Yours did, too. We all share a diaconal ministry, a ministry of service, which began when we were baptized, when we were grafted into the Christian family.  It does, if we live out our baptismal covenant and become instruments of Christian service in this world. It does when we give of our time and talent. It is when we are serving the needs of this world that the mundane, the ordinary, is invaded by the fantastical, something hard to believe – a world transformed by our Christian service.


Christmas Eve, December 24, 2013

Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

 The great German/Latin Christmas carol In Dulci Jubilo (known in English translation as Good Christian Friends, rejoice) ends with a prayer:  “O that we were there!”
The desire expressed is that we, the worshippers, might have been present at the cradle, at the inn in Bethlehem, at Jesus’ birth. 

 What would we have seen?

 An overcrowded town, stretched to capacity and beyond with visitors from far and wide.  Some of them would have come in great style, with plenty of money to spend on the best accommodations, the choicest food and drink.  Many would be staying with relatives or friends, who were in turn obligated to show the best hospitality possible, even to their own detriment.  And then there were those who were there only by extraordinary stress and cost to themselves, but they had to be there nonetheless.  From far and near they came, and filled every available place and space that was to be had.

To me it sounds like Augusta, Georgia, during Masters’ Week. 
Overfilled, overwrought, stressed out, full up, no room for anything, or anyone, else.
Least of all for a young, poor, unmarried couple with a baby about to be born.
And yet someone—some innkeeper or stable hand, some homeowner who had a few critters under a shed in the back yard—saw more than “yet another stranger in trouble.” Someone looked a little bit closer, and saw something unusual, something just a little bit odd, and made room.  Found room, after all.   

And so the birth we remember tonight took place in a barn.  With barn critters in attendance, animals that moo-ed and baa-ed and snorted, that chewed their feed out of the feeding trough (which we call the manger) and stamped their hooves (or paws, or whatever) and made the barn smell—like a barn.  The smell that night was not that of pine boughs and incense, nor of cinnamon and peppermint and gingerbread.   

Those who saw and heard and smelled all that was there were not the well-to-do citizens or visitors to the town.  All of them were safely tucked away at the Bethlehem Hyatt.  Only those who passed by and perhaps heard the sound of a baby’s first shouts might have known that something was up.  It was, I suspect, anything but a “Silent Night.”   

The shepherds were not expecting an invitation into town that night.  They were hardly prepared for a social gathering.  They had been living outdoors, camping in the fields for weeks or months at a time.  They likely smelled very much like the sheep themselves.


No matter, said the angel, never mind about that.  This news of great joy, for all people, is shown to you first of all. 
Go, and see!

This child, whose life will turn the world upside down, has arrived in the world. 
Go, and see! 
You’ll recognize the family when you find a baby wrapped tightly, asleep (if Mary and Joseph are very lucky) laying in the animal’s feeding trough of the barn. 
Go, and see for yourselves!

 So they go, looking for something, someone—they hardly know what or why—and find him.  Find them, gathered there, exhausted from the journey and the birth process.  The barn wasn’t crowded enough already, we’ve got to bring in a flock of sheep besides?   Was there really room for them too?

 All during the season of Advent we’ve been thinking about “making room”.  In our lives—as busy and overscheduled and stressed as we may be; in our hearts—as distracted and pulled apart as they may be; in the midst of the overcrowded, untidy, malodorous barns of our daily lives.  And prepared or unprepared, ready or not, here we are.  And here he is.

 There were plenty of people in Bethlehem that night, who might have heard or seen something. 
Perhaps they were busy.  Distracted by other, more urgent, matters.
Only shepherds, half-awake in the night, were quiet enough for the angels to get their attention. 

If the story of Jesus’ birth means anything at all, thousands of years later and a world away, it is this:  God’s love comes into the midst of the mess.  Our mess.  All of it.  God’s love for the world reveals itself in the midst of the mess.  Our mess.  All of it.

In a completely inappropriate location,
accompanied by smells and sounds and sights that,
just perhaps,
we’d rather not smell or hear or see.

 As a tiny, helpless being, who is vulnerable and easily overlooked
Surrounded by people who are not themselves fully aware of what’s happening. 
Not right at the moment anyway.
And so, in this Christmas season, lest we miss the message ourselves:
with the innkeeper, the stable hand,
we look carefully at the ones right in front of us;
With Mary,
we hear and heed the angel’s message even where we are sure it can’t possibly be on the play list; with the shepherds, we come seeking the Christ, God’s beloved and chosen one,
in the face of every person we meet.
Because, in a way, as the carol prays, we are there.  Tonight and always.
And better still, He is here.  Emmanu-el.  God with us.  Tonight, and tomorrow, and always.