Sermon: Epiphany 2 RCL C – “Transforming”

Marriage at Cana by Paolo Caliari (1528 – 1588)

Four novice nuns were about to take their vows.

Dressed in their white gowns, they entered the chapel for their symbolic marriage to Jesus, making them “Brides of Christ.”

Just as the ceremony was about to begin, four Hasidic Jews came in and sat in the front row.

The Mother Superior said, “I am so honored you want to share this experience with us. May I ask why you came?”

“We’re from the groom’s family.”

It is not really the time of year for fireworks, but I was thinking back to when I was considerably younger than I am today and playing with those magical little bombs. You could go to the big shows, but it seems that the ones you could buy were regular firecrackers, bottle rockets (great for bottle rocket wars and no one ever lost an eye having them), sparklers, and smoke bombs. All top-notch entertainment. When it came to the regular firecracker, some folks would like to set them all off at once, but I was more a fan of the one-at-a-time method, especially because I had fun blowing things up. I wasn’t that mean little kid in Toy Story, but… load one up in a pine cone or drop one in a can, that was more my speed. I also got a kick out of putting one in a little pile of pebbles, lighting the fuse and running. No serious injuries ever occurred, except for the one time I planned on just throwing one: I lit it with the punk, but ended up throwing the punk instead of the firecracker. It kinda stung a bit.

I mention this, because today in our Gospel, John has lit the fuse on an explosive story and when it reaches it conclusion on a hill outside of Jerusalem with Jesus being crucified and then three days later rising from the dead, it is going to make one heck of a “bang!” John even gives us a hint to the fact that this is where he is headed with his Gospel, because in the telling of the events at the wedding in Cana, he first said, “On the third day there was a wedding….” In addition, in his Gospel, John does not refer to these astonishing events in the life of Jesus as miracles, he calls them signs. The last verse we read: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory.”

We’ve talked about this in the past: a wedding in the time of Jesus was a big deal. You didn’t just invite a few guests. You invited the entire town and even folks from the surrounding towns. It was also an event that wasn’t just one day, but could last up to a week. I’m sure that everyone pitched in with food and beverages, but ultimately, it was going to be the family of the bride and groom that provided for the needs of the guests. I would suspect that in seven days, that many folks could go through a fair amount of wine, yet it would seem that those hosting the wedding in Cana—for whatever reason—ran out. Some might say, maybe they shouldn’t be drinking so much, but even so, this would have been a huge embarrassment for the family and the new couple. The couple might even see it as a bad omen for their marriage. What are they to do?

Mary, the mother of Jesus (and this is one of only two times that she appears in John’s Gospel, the next will be at the foot of the cross) upon hearing that there is an issue, goes immediately to her son and tells him, “They have no wine.” Jesus response, “Mom! It’s not time.” Mom’s response, “Yes, yes,” and turns to the servants near by and says, “Just do what he tells you.” If Jesus was a disrespectful child, you would have heard the eye roll at this point, but he is not. He is obedient and he is compassionate, so he sets out to resolve the problem.

Seeing six jars that could hold twenty to thirty gallons each, he tells the servants to fill them with water. There were no waving of wands or magic incantations. He simply said, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” From the sounds of things, it was even better than the wine I make… and that’s saying something! The water had become wine. Water, something that was probably not really fit to drink, so something that was impure, had been transformed into something new and remarkable, beyond anything that they had tasted before.

John lit a fuse on an explosive story. Through this first sign, the events at the wedding in Cana and the transforming of water into wine, we can begin to grasp that John’s explosive story is not only going to be about transformation, but will be transformational in the lives of those who hear it.

Those who have had even a minimal encounter with the Gospels are familiar with most of the events of Jesus’ life. Yet, so often, when we hear them time and time again, they no longer have an affect on our lives. They no longer have that transformative power over our lives. Maybe we’ve heard them so many times that they’ve lost their awe or perhaps we just see them as stories, not believing that the events described actually took place (we’re too sophisticated to be impressed with what we consider to be parlor tricks) or maybe we think, “That was then, but these types of things simply don’t take place anymore”, whatever the case, when we hear the stories they make no change in us. We are not transformed even a little. Our regular, ordinary and impure lives remain water in a jar where nothing extraordinary has or will happen. There’s no fireworks. No bang. If you find yourself falling into such a mindset, then I invite you to a challenge: for a period of time, set aside your doubts and your criticisms, set aside your unbelief and ask yourself, “What if it is actually true? What if it really happened?”

If we start from a place where our minds are already made up, then no amount of signs or wonders will change the way we think. The Sadducees and Pharisees in the time of Jesus fit perfectly in this category. Nothing Jesus did ever made a single impression on them. They denied it all and their hearts remained hardened til the end. As John said in the prologue to his Gospel, Jesus “came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”  They did not receive him and they were not transformed. They died in their sins. “But,” as John continues, “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Those who believed, were transformed, they were reborn by water and the Spirit and they became the finest of wines. They became Children of God.

Give yourself the opportunity to truly believe that Jesus can transform water into wine and you will discover that he can transform you into something new and remarkable. He can transform you into a child of God.

Let us pray:
God, our Father,
You redeemed us
and made us Your children in Christ.
Through Him You have saved us from death
and given us Your Divine life of grace.
By becoming more like Jesus on earth,
may we come to share His glory in Heaven.
Give us the peace of Your kingdom,
which this world does not give.
By Your loving care protect the good You have given us.
Open our eyes to the signs of Your Love
that we may serve You with a willing heart.

Sermon: RIP – Betty Vance Hume

It was March 19, 2018 that we were gathered here for the service for Dave, Betty’s husband for more than 70 years. At that time I shared with you a story that comes to us from around the year 125 A.D.: a Greek philosopher by the name of Aristides wrote to Hadrian, who was the Emperor, trying to explain the extraordinary success of the new religion, Christianity. In his letter, Aristides speaks of the faithfulness and righteousness of the Christians, how they treat others fairly, how they worship and pray, and even how they respond to the death of another Christian. He wrote, “If any righteous man among the Christians passes from this world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God, and they accompany his body with songs and thanksgiving as if he were setting out from one place to another nearby.” (From The Apology of Aristides)

“… as if he were setting out from one place to another nearby.”

Jesus tells us that he is going to prepare a place for us and so often we think that place is up there… far off beyond the stars, but I really don’t think the place he takes us is really all that far off. In fact, I think it is as close as right here. Just a thin veil’s width away. I say that because it seems that Jesus is often so close and the same is true with his Mother, Mary, and… the same is also true with all those that have gone before us. You can “feel” their closeness and therefore know that they are still very near… just beyond that veil.

That might sound a bit spooky to some and give rise to concerns about ghosties and the likes, but to those who understand that in death “life has changed, not ended”, it is a comfort and a blessing, because it means that we still have access to those who have gone before. We can know that they are still very much a part of our lives and in fact, since they are now closer to throne room of our God, can provide even greater assistance to us now than ever before.

Consider the words of St. Teresa of Lisieux, “My mission – to make God loved – will begin after my death. I will spend my heaven doing good on earth. I will let fall a shower of roses.” If one such as Teresa will shower us with blessings, then imagine the benefits of the blessings and prayers we shall receive from those who are so close to us, such as our mother and father and others… such as Betty.

Today, we mourn the loss of Betty, but we are joyful and give thanks that she has entered into her Heavenly reward. A place that has been prepared for her by her Savior, Jesus. We give thanks that she has been reunited with Dave and all those that have gone before us, but we also give thanks that she is also still so very near to us, continuing to love all those that she loved while still on this side of that thin veil.

As we read, the Prophet Isaiah said:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

That is a feast that all who call on the Name of the Lord will be invited to take part in. It too is a place that has been prepared for us. Until that day, when we all come together at that joyous celebration, know that those who have gone before you have not left you here alone. They are ever watching over us and they speak to the Father on our behalf; and on the day that we are called into God’s Kingdom, they—along with our Savior, Jesus—will greet us and welcome us to our true home.

Sermon: Aelred Of Rievaulx (Friendship)

Jesus said, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” Aristotle, who lived some three hundred years before Jesus, asked the question, “What is a friend?” And his answer seems to capture what Jesus had in mind: a friend is a “single soul dwelling in two bodies.” This implies a closeness that is an “indwelling” of one another. We can see this in our relationship with Jesus, but it can also come into being between two people. This is an idea that we can learn from others, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Life Together) and Thomas Merton, and also from our saint for today, Aelred of Rievaulx.

Aelred lived during the twelfth century, dying on this day in year 1167. He was a monk and later the abbot at the monastery of Rievaulx in Yorkshire, England. He is the author of several works, but perhaps his most known is the short, three part book, Spiritual Friendship. In the introduction of the Liturgical Press edition, the editor states: Aelred “writes of the sacramental essence of friendship—the way in which men and women may by loving one another embrace Christ in this life and enjoy eternal friendship with God in time to come.”

Aelred, like Aristotle, believes that true friendship is the making of two into one. He writes, “Friendship is that virtue by which spirits are bound by ties of love and sweetness and out of many are made one.” That sounds very close to what we hear in the book of Genesis and the marriage vows and I believe that is exactly what Aelred has in mind: friendship with another as close as a friendship with a spouse.

He tells us that “No medicine is more valuable, none more efficacious, none better suited to the cure of all our temporal ills than a friend to whom we may turn for consolation in time of trouble, and with whom we may share our happiness in time of joy.”

In addition, he sees nothing wrong with having what we might call a best friend, writing, “Divine authority commands that many more be received to the clasp of charity than to the embrace of friendship. By the law of charity we are ordered to welcome to the bosom of love not only our friends but also our enemies. But we call friends only those to whom we have no qualm about entrusting our heart and all its contents, while these friends are bound to us in turn by the same inviolable law of loyalty and trustworthiness.” Love demands that we love and pray even for our enemies, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to pour out our hearts to our enemies or just anyone else that sits down beside us, therefore, a friendship is something that includes love, but is also beyond love, for in a friend we find another part of ourselves.

In the words of Winnie the Pooh, “A day without a friend is like a pot without a single drop of honey left inside.” I pray that your honey pot is running over.

Sermon: The Baptism of Our Lord RCLC

Baptism of Christ by Pietro Perugino

Boudreaux wanted to go parachuting, so he signed up for a class.

During one of the first classes, the instructor tells them, “One thing you need to know, is that it’s important to start preparing for your landing at around 300 feet.”

Boudreaux asked, “How do you know when you’re at 300 feet?”

“A good question,” replied the instructor. “At 300 feet you can recognize the faces of people on the ground.”

Boudreaux thought about this for a while before asking, “What happens if I don’t recognize anyone?”

Facial recognition has been the dream of many technology companies and is now used by police departments to identify criminals and mobile phone companies to unlock phones. Needless to say, there are many benefits to being able to properly identify an individual via a computer, but there are also many opportunities to exploit the technology. Whether good or bad, the computers are getting better at it. As for people recognizing other people, we do fairly well. We will recognize a person’s face even if we can’t remember their name, so how is it the brain does this? For the answer, we have to go to the scientist and I found an article in the Smithsonian that helped.

Turns out, when we are remembering a person’s face, we are not remembering the entire face, but really only key points. The scientist who was interviewed said, “as far as your neurons [your brain] are concerned, a face is a sum of separate parts, as opposed to a single structure.” (Source)

This might very well explain why, when I have spoken to people who are wearing a mask for health reasons, I end up talking to complete strangers. Only seeing half their face does not allow my brain to properly analyze those key points. It has, however, made for some rather interesting conversations.

I got to thinking about this and thought, “Wouldn’t it be a great idea if there was a key marker in our faces that would identify us as Christians.” That would make it easy for us to recognize one another so we would know when we are with the “right people”. For example, maybe when we are baptized there is some subtle change in our appearance, some marker that declares to everyone: Christian, but then my cynical mind kicked in and said, “Think of all the money you could make by coming up with a product that could hide that marker, so that when we felt like being ‘not so Christian’, we could cover it up.” And the only reason my cynical mind thought of that was because I would likely be the first one in line to buy it! As Hamlet says in the William Shakespeare play, “God has given you one face, and you make yourself another.” Still, there must be a way. How can we identify each other as Christian?

Jesus actually provides us an answer to this question: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 1:34-35) That sounds so simple, but we are all aware of how truly difficult it is, because love is far more than words.

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” And that is just one aspect of what love is, because love also involves acceptance and sacrifice, giving and receiving, repenting and forgiving, and so much more. To be identified as a Christian is to love in such a way, which as we know, means to love as Jesus loved. It would be nice, if at our baptism, we were suddenly imbued with the capacity to love in such a way, but that is clearly not the case. However, at our baptism, we are given a road map. Would you take out your Book of Common Prayer and turn to page 292.

Please see below for The Renewal of Baptismal Vows.

You are all familiar with this. It is the Baptismal Covenant and most of you have renewed your vows in the past. And as this is the day we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, we are given yet another opportunity to renew them.

That first question (“Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil and renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?”) is the equivalent of our more protestant friends asking us if we are “saved”. The next three questions concern what we believe and the combined answers make up one of the oldest confessions of the Christian faith: the Apostles’ Creed. There are 1,000s of pages written further explaining what it is we are saying in those few words, but these statements are truly sufficient. The road map on how we are to love as Jesus loved is provided in the next five questions. Like the Creed, each of these can be expanded on, but once we fully understand what it is we are saying, we learn that these questions are all inclusive of the Christian life: fellowship, Communion, worship, prayer, study, service, repentance, forgiveness, loving, justice… all are included here. Yet, we also know that it is not all about what we say. It is also about what we do, for as the Apostle James said, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:14-17) We will be identified as Christians by our love, but that love must be accompanied by actions that reflect it.

In the renewal of our baptismal vows, we state in Who and what we believe, then we respond as to how we live and act as we are called. What does that look like? I’ll never be a Mother Teresa, but…

Shane Claiborne is an activist and author and had the opportunity to work alongside Mother Teresa. In his book, The Irresistible Revolution, he says that he is often asked what she was like. He writes, “Sometimes it’s like they wonder if she glowed in the dark or had a halo. She was short, wrinkled, and precious, maybe even a little ornery, like a beautiful, wise old granny. But there is one thing I will never forget – her feet. Her feet were deformed. Each morning in Mass I would stare at them. I wondered if she had contracted leprosy. But I wasn’t going to ask, of course, ‘Hey Mother, what’s wrong with your feet?’ One day a sister said to us, ‘Have you noticed her feet’. We nodded, curious. She said, ‘Her feet are deformed because we get just enough donated shoes for everyone, and Mother does not want anyone to get stuck with the worst pair, so she digs through and finds them. And years of doing that have deformed her feet.’” Claiborne wrote, “Years of loving her neighbour as herself deformed her feet.”

We are not all being asked to wear shoes that deform our feet so that others may be more comfortable, but we are all being asked to love in such radical ways as to have the unmistakeable and identifiable mark of Jesus upon our lives. So I give you this to consider: when someone looks at you and your life, will they be able to identify you as a disciple of Jesus?

Let us pray: God, our Father, You redeemed us and made us Your children in Christ. Through Him You have saved us from death and given us Your Divine life of grace. By becoming more like Jesus on earth, may we come to share His glory in Heaven. Give us the peace of Your kingdom, which this world does not give. By Your loving care protect the good You have given each of us. Open our eyes to the wonders of Your Love that we may serve You with a willing heart. Amen.

The Renewal of Baptismal Vows

Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil and renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?
I do.

Do you believe in God the Father?
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
I will, with God’s help.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
I will, with God’s help.

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
I will, with God’s help.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
I will, with God’s help.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
I will, with God’s help.

The Celebrant concludes the Renewal of Vows as follows

May Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given us a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and bestowed upon us the forgiveness of sins, keep us in eternal life by his grace, in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Sermon: Eve of the Epiphany RCL C

Edward Burne-Jones – The Adoration of the Magi

My friend, St. Josemaría Escrivá, in his book, Christ is Passing By, writes about his contemplation of the baby Jesus lying in a manger. He begins by asking, “Lord, where is your kingship, your crown, your sword, your sceptre?” Escrivá says, “They are his by right, but he does not want them. He reigns wrapped in swaddling clothes. Our king is unadorned. He comes to us as a defenceless little child. Can we help but recall the words of the Apostle: ‘He emptied himself, taking the nature of a slave’?

“Our Lord became man to teach us the Father’s will. And this he is already doing as he lies there in the manger. Jesus Christ is seeking us—with a call which is a vocation to sanctity—so that we may carry out the redemption with him. Let us reflect on this first lesson of his. We are to co-redeem, by striving to triumph not over our neighbour, but over ourselves. Like Christ we need to empty ourselves, to consider ourselves as the servants of others, and so to bring them to God.

Therefore, Escrivá continues, “As you kneel at the feet of the child Jesus on the day of his Epiphany and see him a king bearing none of the outward signs of royalty, you can tell him: ‘Lord, take away my pride; crush my self-love, my desire to affirm myself and impose myself on others. Make the foundation of my personality my identification with you.’” (#31)

I won’t speak for anyone but myself, but when I consider how many times I want to put myself first, how many times I see myself as better than someone, how many times I think I deserve more or the best—this could be a long list—and then I come alongside the Magi and kneel before this child and consider all that Jesus gave up to be born in a manger and all he endured because he gave it up… I would like to think that I’m a humble person, but I know the truth of myself… I’m a spoiled brat. I am a redeemed spoiled brat, but spoiled brat all the same.

We must learn humility from this child, the One True God, who lies in the manger wrapped in swaddling clothes. We must learn to submit to and humble ourselves before God and submit ourselves to one another, so that in the end, we may be raised up with him.

It is as St. Paul teaches us in his letter to the Philippians (2:6-11) “Though [Jesus] was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

On this Eve of the Epiphany, as we kneel alongside the Magi, may we be reminded of our Savior’s great humility and learn to follow in the way he leads.

In the words of Escrivá, let us pray: ‘Lord, take away our pride; crush our self-love, our desire to affirm ourselves and impose ourselves on others. Make the foundation of our personalities our identification with you.’ This we pray in the Name of your Incarnate Son, Jesus. Amen.

Sermon: Christmas Day RCL C

Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

A few months back I started a subscription to The New Yorker. No. I’m not all that hoity-toity and I can’t even do the simple crossword puzzles in the back, but it has some good articles and other items, but the main reason I started getting it was for the short stories. Each issue has a new author. Sometimes the stories are good, sometimes I don’t finish them, but… its nice.

A few months ago there was an interesting story, The Ghost Birds, by Karen Russell. I haven’t heard of her before, but I did enjoy her story. It talked about a father who loved “birdwatching” and had taken his teenage daughter along for the most recent outing. When they returned they shared with the mother—the parents weren’t getting on so well—about the trip. The mother asked the daughter if she enjoyed hearing the birds, because when she had gone, she had not. She said they sounded like barking Chihuahuas. The daughter said that she did in fact enjoy it. So the mother said, “What did you like about it? To me it sounded like, cow-cow-cow.

Turns out, it wasn’t the birds the daughter enjoyed the most. Instead, she turned to her mom and replied, “I like watching Dad’s face while he listens.”

Perhaps I’m not being true to the Gospel, but on Christmas Eve—last night—I want our regular attenders to hear it, but I really want those who may be visiting to hear a particular message without complicating it. The message: God loves you. If they don’t hear anything else, I want that message to follow them on their way, but there is that other part of the Gospel that can never be separated from the Incarnation, the birth of Christ, and that is the Crucifixion, the death of Christ. What I find so fascinating is that, before the Incarnation, Jesus knew the Father’s will and he knew why he was coming into the world and what was going to happen in the end. And I guess, having had that knowledge, I would want to ask him why? I know it was out of love for us, but… if you asked him, “Why?” he endured so much, how would he respond?

Well, this is putting words in the mouth of Jesus—which is never a good idea—but it feels true to me. I think Jesus would respond by saying something like, “I like watching your face, when you realize how deeply you are loved. I like being there, when on your last day you step into that Heavenly Kingdom and fully understand that the promises of God are real. I like watching you as you stand up straight and tall, all of your earthly burdens finally lifted from you. And I like watching my “Dad’s” face while he listens… while he listens to your voices in praise knowing that his children—you—have come home to him.”

Let us pray:
Father, we are filled with the new light
by the coming of your Word among us.
May the light of faith shine in our words and actions.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit, one God,
for ever and ever.

Sermon: Christmas Eve RCL C

Photo by Akira Hojo on Unsplash

Boudreaux and Thibideaux somehow managed to get a job working in the same office, and on one particular Friday, Boudreaux showed up to work and found Thibideaux hanging upside down from the ceiling.

“What are you doing?” Boudreaux asked.

“Shh,” Thibideaux said, “I’m a light bulb. I’m acting crazy to get a few extra days off, as squirrel season opens this weekend.”

A minute later the boss walked by and asked Thibideaux what he was doing.

“I’m a light bulb!” Tibs exclaimed.

“You’re going crazy,” said the boss. “Take a few days off, and come back when you are less stressed.”

With that, Tibs jumped down and started walking out. Boudreaux started following him whereupon the boss asked where he thought he was going.

Without missing a beat, Bou says, “I can’t work in the dark.”

Boudreaux knows how to work the angles.

I am definitely a night person, but I still need the light in order to work, but we know that John in his prologue was speaking of different kind of light and a different kind of darkness when he wrote, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Lord Byron, in his poem, Darkness, does a fine job of describing the kind of darkness that John refers to. He writes:

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light.

In Byron’s world of darkness there was nothing but despair and the people began to die off. They all finally came together and built a great fire, but they all died when, in its light, they saw what they had become. And a Merry Christmas to you too.

I don’t know the circumstances behind Byron writing that peom, but I believe it does a fine job of describing the world that Jesus was born into. For the people of God, the world held a great spiritual darkness. There hadn’t been a prophet from God for over four hundred years, the oppression of the Roman legions was steadily on the increase, and the religious leaders were no help, so all that God had promised seemed to be vanishing before their eyes.

The people of of God were horrified at what they had become and there seemed nothing that they could do about it, but our God who is faithful and true had not abandoned his people.

On a cold winter’s night, God tore open the heavens over the region of Judea, above the City of David, which is called Bethlehem, and a star appeared. That star received its light from the God who created it, but was then wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. And the child not only gave light to the star, but to all flesh. God had become flesh and dwelt among us.

As we declare in the Nicene Creed: For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man.

The birth of Jesus, the Incarnation of God, was what this dark world had been waiting and praying for. Yet, the mistake we all can make is to limit the incarnation of our Lord to its historical context. We say that it was something that happened 2,000 some odd years ago, and in doing so we fail to understand its power in this present dark world and in our own lives

The light that first shone in the world on that first Christmas still shines as brightly today as it did back then. It still has the power to dispel the darkness and to bring about our redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

St. Paul confirms this: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” This Light, who is our very life—body, soul, and spirit—has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and given us access to the very Kingdom of God. And to all who receive this Light, who believe in his name, Jesus gives the power to become children of God, but understanding this still leaves us with one very important question: Why? Why has God rescued us? Why has he forgiven us? Why has he given us power to become His children?

Why did God become man? Holy scripture has one answer to this question: love. “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atonement for our sins.”

God became man because of his love for you, so then the question is: do you believe that you are loved by God? We can talk theology and philosophy and so on, but that’s what it all comes down to: do you know and believe that you are loved by God? My friend Brennan Manning says, “I am now utterly convinced that on Judgment day the Lord Jesus will ask one question and only one question, ‘Did you believe that I loved you? That I desired you? That I waited for you day after day?’” Brennan believes the answer for most of us will be, “No.” We don’t believe God loves us or even could. Why? Because, as Brennan says, “We make God in our own image and he winds up being as fussy, and rude, and narrow minded, judgmental and legalistic, and unloving and unforgiving as we are!” And a God like that could never love us, but those are human traits, not God traits, because as St. John tells us, “God is love.” Because of this love, Brennan believes that Jesus comes along side each one of us and says, “I have a word for you. I know your life story. I know every skeleton in your closest, I know every moment of sin and shame, dishonesty and degraded love that darkens your past. Right now, I know your shallow faith, your feeble prayer life, your inconsistent discipleship. And my word for you is this. I dare you to trust that I love you, just as you are! Not as you should be. Because none of us are as we should be.” I dare you to trust that I love you….

On a cold winter’s night in the region of Judea and in the City of David, which is called Bethlehem, God tore open the heavens and the Virgin gave birth to the light of the world, God’s one and only son. Mary wrapped the child in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger. This and all that followed… was for us, for our salvation, and because of his great love. Receive the gift. Receive the Light. Dare to believe you are loved by God.

Let us pray:
Father in Heaven,
You made us Your children
and called us to walk in the Light of Christ.
Free us from darkness
and keep us in the Light of Your Truth.
The Light of Jesus has scattered
the darkness of hatred and sin.
Called to that Light,
we ask for Your guidance.
Form our lives in Your Truth,
our hearts in Your Love.
Through the Holy Eucharist,
give us the power of Your Grace
that we may walk in the Light of Jesus
and serve Him faithfully.

Sermon: Advent 4 RCL C – “Walk with Her”

Photo by Marites Allen on Unsplash

Over the last several years I’ve told you so many silly stories that I can’t remember when or where I told them, but in my opinion, a good joke is worth repeating and sometimes they can’t be helped. As I know I’ve told you, if I hear the word “unique”, then that stupid joke immediately pops in my head and it is a struggle not to tell it: “How do you catch a unique rabbit? You ‘neek up on him.” All that to say, as this is a day when our readings focus on the Blessed Virgin Mary, then I have to tell / re-tell this one…

The main place of worship at Nashotah House is The Chapel of St. Mary the Virgin. Perhaps this is why so many of the graduates of the House have such a love for the Blessed Virgin, myself included.

The joke tells of a priest that dies and finds himself standing before Peter at the Pearly Gates. The priest tells Peter who he is, but Peter says that he’s not on the list. “What do you mean. I faithfully served the Church for over 50 years! Please check again.” Peter checks, but comes up with nothing. “Would you please go get Jesus, so that I can talk with him?” Peter obliges, but even Jesus says he’s not on the list. The priest protests again, giving a litany of the things he has accomplished in service to the Lord, hoping something will spark a memory. Finally, having exhausted all other options, he blurts out, “I went to Nashotah House,” at which point Jesus holds up his hand and smiles. Jesus says, “That explains everything! Come on in. You’re a friend of Moms.”

I’m hoping that I can get into heaven because I’m on the list and Jesus knows me, but if necessary, it will not be beyond me to have his momma talk to him.

Today in our Gospel we read about Mary going to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was also pregnant with the forerunner of Jesus, John the Baptist. Elizabeth said to Mary, “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” Why did John leap in his mother’s womb? St. John Chrysostom tells us that in Mary, “The Lord is present, so [John] cannot contain himself or wait for nature to run its course; he wants to break out of the prison of his mother’s womb and he makes surefire he witnesses to the fact that the Savior is to come.” (From a sermon recorded by Metaphrastrus) Mary has brought Jesus very near and through the power of the Spirit, John recognizes that he is in the presence of his Lord, so even though he cannot speak, he proclaims the Savior by leaping for joy, just as David leapt for joy and danced before the Lord when the Ark of the Covenant was returned to Israel.

This all points to the most important role of Mary for us all: to bring us into the very presence of God, by bringing us to her son, Jesus. What can such an encounter look like?

I know of a man who, while praying the Rosary, had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

He had been walking along a country road. On one side of the road was a piney forest and on the other was a field and a pond. As he was walking, he had been searching for the Virgin, but unable to find her. Then in the distance, he saw her walking toward him down the road. He quickly turned and ran to meet her, but—and this is probably funny—the closer she got, the bigger she got so that when they finally met, she was able to reach down and pick him up and put him in her pocket.

He tried to see through the weave in the fabric of her dress to see the outside world and determine where she was taking him, but was unable to. Not only that, but the further they went, the darker it became until all was dark. Yet as the light had lessened, he had been able to detect something new: a sound. At first, it sounded like the soft beating of a drum, but a short distance on, the sound was unmistakable: it was the beating of a heart. He began to not only hear the heartbeat, but to also feel it in his entire body. Each beat was like a loving embrace. It was then the man realized that Mary had done what she had always done: she had brought him to Jesus. You see, it was not her pocket that she had placed the man into. No. Mary had placed the man in the wound in Jesus’ side so that the man could be near the beating loving heart of the Risen Lord. There the man learned even more of the great love of Jesus. He had been allowed to remain in that place for a short time and then was sent on his way to try and fulfill the Lord’s will.

There is always much confusion surrounding the role of Mary in the Church and in the life of God’s people, but that confusion only arrises when people fail to understand her purpose. The Venerable Fulton Sheen (I do like him) says, “Devotion to the Mother of our Lord in no way detracts from the adoration of her Divine Son. The brightness of the moon does not detract from the brilliance of the sun, but rather bespeaks its brilliance.” Because of who she is, Mary receives our devotion, but she never seeks to be worshipped. Instead, she seeks to draw people to herself so that she can then lead them or even take them to her Son. So that she can place them near His heart that they might know of His great salvific love for them.

I encourage you all to take a quiet walk with Mary. You may think that she is simply spending time with you, which she is, but when the walk is over, just like John, you will find yourself in the presence of the Lord, and your soul (if not your body as well) will leap with joy.

Father, source of light in every age,
the virgin conceived and bore Your Son
Who is called Wonderful God,
Prince of Peace.
May her prayer,
the gift of a mother’s love,
be Your people’s joy through all ages.
May her response,
born of a humble heart,
draw Your Spirit to rest on Your people.
Grant this through Christ our Lord.

Sermon: St. Nino

Legend has it that a Jewish Rabbi named Elias was in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified.  Following the crucifixion, he found the soldier who had won Jesus’ robe through the casting of dice and bought it from him.  He then returned to his own country in Georgia, taking the robe with him.  Later, the robe would find its home in the crypt at the Orthodox Cathedral in Mtskheta.  Every year it is brought out on October 1st and celebrated as the Robe of Christ.

Around the year 300, a young girl, Nino, was born in Cappadocia, Turkey.  When she was twelve, her family moved to Jerusalem where Nino would eventually become an orphan.  She was taken in by an older Christian woman who told her the stories of Christ, including the history of the Robe.  Hearing this, Nino desired to be found worthy to travel to Georgia to venerate the relic, so she began to pray to the Theotokos, the Mother of God. 

Her prayer was answered and the Virgin Mary spoke to her, “Go to the country that was assigned to me by lot and preach the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will send down His grace upon you and I will be your protector.”

Nino did not believe she could carry out such a task. “How can I, a fragile woman, perform such a momentous task, and how can I believe that this vision is real?”  In her vision, she was given a cross made out of grape vine and the Theotokos said to her, “Receive this cross as a shield against visible and invisible enemies!”  When she woke up, the cross was in her hands.  She relayed the words of Mary to the Patriarch of the church, her uncle, who prayed.  “O Lord, God of Eternity, I beseech Thee on behalf of my orphaned niece: Grant that, according to Thy will, she may go to preach and proclaim Thy Holy Resurrection. O Christ God, be Thou to her a guide, a refuge, and a spiritual father. And as Thou didst enlighten the Apostles and all those who feared Thy name, do Thou also enlighten her with the wisdom to proclaim Thy glad tidings.” (Source)

A series of events eventually led Nino to the people of Georgia where she was able to convert the Queen and eventually the King, solidifying the Christian faith in that country.  

The Church that was originally established by the preaching of the Apostle Andrew and later built up Nino is still in existence today and Nino is still revered by the people of the Russian Orthodox Church and others.  

Is there a connection to St. Nino and St. Matthew’s?  As a matter of fact there is.  St. Nino’s Russian Orthodox Church still meets once a month in our St. Julian’s Chapel.  As a gift for them during this Christmas season and in celebration of their Patron Saint, I ordered this icon of the Theotokos for them.  I thought that today we would bless if for them before presenting it.

O Lord our God, Who created us after Your own Image and Likeness; Who redeems us from our former corruption of the ancient curse through Your manbefriending Christ, Who took upon Himself the form of a servant and became man; Who having taken upon Himself our likeness remade Your Saints of the first dispensation, and through Whom also we are refashioned in the Image of Your pure blessedness; Your Saints we venerate as being in Your Image and Likeness, and we adore and glorify You as our Creator; Wherefore we pray You, send forth Your blessing upon this Icon, and with the sprinkling of hallowed water, Bless and make holy this Icon unto Your glory, in honor and remembrance of the Theotokos; And grant that this sanctification will be to all who venerate this Icon of the Theotokos, and send up their prayer unto You standing before it; Through the grace and bounties and love of Your Only-Begotten Son, with Whom You are blessed together with Your All-Holy, Good and Life-creating Spirit; both now and ever, and unto ages of ages.  Amen.

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