Sermon: Epiphany 2 RCL B – “Lost and Anxious”

Mark Twain wrote, “I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” I think this is probably true and, as most of you know, the day after Christmas, I went traveling again, but this time I went by myself and discovered that I’m not a bad travel companion.

I went to Portugal on this trip and spent most of my time in Lisbon. However, I was able to travel to several nearby locations, including Fatima, the site of perhaps the most significant Marian apparitions.

I left Monday morning and arrived in Lisbon three flights and roughly twenty-six hours later. I want to be able to sleep on planes, especially flights that long, but that is not the case. In addition, the host of the VRBO that I would be staying in gave me a great restaurant to have lunch in when I arrived, so I passed on the last meal offered on the flight. Bottom line: when I got to Lisbon, I hadn’t slept or had anything to eat in quite some time. From there, the situation began to decline.

I had purchased an international data plan for my phone so that I would have access to Google maps and the like, yet, when I arrived, it would not connect, even after I spent half an hour on the phone with the provider. It was at this point that no sleep and no food gave me my first stupid idea: “I can do this. No problem.” 

My host told me the subway to take and what stop to get off at. How hard could that be? The only piece of information I forgot was that, at one point, I needed to switch trains. I rode that train and rode that train, and when it finally came to a stop, and everyone was getting off, a little older lady leaned down to me—and I must have been looking baffled at this point—and said, “This is the end of the line.” I said, “Thank you,” but what I thought was, “No…. kidding.” I then proceeded to make my second mistake: I got off the subway and rode the elevator to street level, the entire time thinking, “Surely I’ll be able to recognize something.” The problem: no Google maps or any map for that matter. In The Fellowship of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, Gandalf writes a letter to Frodo and the letter includes a poem. A line from that poem reads, “All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost.” I got off that train, and I was one who was not only wandering but also terribly lost and—no sleep, no food—did not have the sense to figure it out, so I found a spot in the shade and just stood there, staring blankly into a city I knew nothing about.

A wristwatch used to have only one function: tell the time. After a while, they added the date, then Seiko and the others added calculators, etc., and now, we have the Apple Watch and other similar devices that have more computing power than the first rocket to the moon. This little watch can do all sorts of things, but for the most, it is tied to your phone, so if your phone has no signal, your watch isn’t going to do much. If it is connected, then you’ll be able to get notifications on your watch. 

As I stood there in the shade, staring blankly into that unknown city, my watch vibrated and dinged, and I was suddenly elated. That notification could mean only one thing: I had data services and could find my way out of this mess. However, specific functions on the watch work without data, one of which is the healthcare monitoring functions. Specifically, in this case, it was the heart rate monitor. 

I raised my wrist, hoping to have a data-related message, but what I read was this: “High Heart Rate: your heart rate rose above 120 BPM while you seemed to be inactive for ten minutes.” You know you’re a little stressed when your watch tells you to chill out.

I took a deep breath and slowly walked around until I spotted a police officer. He didn’t speak a lick of English, but we were able to mime communicate enough that I could tell him where I was trying to get; when he realized where it was, I didn’t understand what he said, but it meant, “How in blue blazes did you get all the way over here?”

I asked, “How do I get there? Can I walk?” “No,” he said, wide-eyed. He then indicated he would get me to the train station; I said, “No. Taxi.” He then gently took me by the arm and led me to the street. Standing there with me, he flagged me a cab. He had a conversation with the taxi driver and told him where I needed to go. There was more to the conversation than this, but I didn’t understand any of it other than the grin, and the eye roll exchanged between them. 

I don’t know either of these two individuals’ names, but the police officer I named Angel because, following a fifteen-minute taxi ride, I was deposited in the exact spot I needed to be. 

For the duration of the trip, when I was out and about, I had no data services, but André, my VRBO host, was brilliant and helped me learn how to get around. After a thirteen-hour nap and some tasty food the following day, I set off into that remarkable city and had a brilliant time. I got lost a few more times and occasionally missed a train stop, but I really had no problem getting around after that first day.

St. Augustine of Hippo (d.430) was one of the greatest theologians the Church has known. One of his books is the City of God. In it, he writes of the City of Man and the City of God, where “the earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord.” There are many other comparisons: “The earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt of God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far contempt of self.” Although there are two cities, they are intertwined, just as in the parable of the wheat and the weeds that grow in the field together. 

Augustine says that it is in this intertwined city that we live, and it is a place where, for the most part, “the strongest oppress the others because all follow after their own interests and lusts.” It is a city where it is easy to become lost, bouncing from one thing to another, never settled, anxious, and not truly knowing where you are going.

It was in such a city, such a time, that Jesus was born and lived. People wandered in the city, lost with no means of finding their way. Anxious, with no knowledge of how to calm their hearts and their souls. But then, like my angel in Lisbon, along came John the Baptist, who took them by the arm and directed them to the one… the only one, who could bring peace to their souls and get them to where they needed to be: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” So, coming to Jesus, they asked, “Rabbi—teacher—where are you staying?” “Where are you staying? We are lost. How do we get there?” And Jesus responds, “Come and see.” Jesus says, “Come with me, and I will show you the way through this city. I will show you the path that leads to God, for not only can I show you the way, but I Am The Way.” 

If you are anxious and lost in the city, there are many here who can help show you to the one who is the Way. If you know of someone who is lost, be a John the Baptist to them, be an Angel to them, and point them to the Lamb of God, who will give them safe passage through this City of Man to the Eternal City, the City of Our God.

While in Portugal, I had the opportunity to visit Fatima, the site of the great Marian Apparition. During one of the apparitions, the Virgin Mary gave the children a prayer she asked to be prayed at the end of each decade of the Rosary. It is brief but addresses our most profound need while we walk the streets of this City of Man. Let us pray: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those most in need of Thy mercy. Amen.”

Advent Devotion: His Name is John?

Luca GiordanoBirth of St John the Baptist

Each year my friend, The Rev. Sean Ekberg, gathers laity and clergy to write a daily Advent reflection. Today (December 23) was mine. You can read it below or visit The Episcopal Church the Resurrection and read there along with some of the other reflections.

Luke 1:57-66

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” 61 They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” 62 Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63 He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

His Name is John?

Holden Caulfield loves his sister, Phoebe, and her innocence. He desires that her innocence go unchanged, yet he knows that every experience will change her to one degree or another. Reflecting on her many trips to the museum to view the same paintings that he has enjoyed, he thinks, “I thought how she’d see the same stuff I used to see, and how she’d be different every time she saw it. It didn’t exactly depress me to think about it, but it didn’t make me feel gay as hell, either. Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.” (The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger)

In many respects, the Church had come to see itself as one of those items that should be curated in a big glass case. It should occasionally be brought out to remove the fine layer of dust that had accumulated, along with any unwelcomed spider’s web, and the glass it set upon also properly dusted. But then it should be set back unhindered in its proper place in that big glass cabinet.

Close to two years ago, something came along and smashed the cabinet.

When it hit, we all lunged forward from our comfortable seats and dashed to catch the Church before it struck the ground and burst into thousands of unrecognizable shards. By the grace of God, we caught it, but then what were we to do? Build another glass museum case? Set it out of reach on some high pinnacle? Place it on the nearest flat surface and quietly walk away? No. None of the above. Besides, this is God’s Church and if we were not to care for it, then He would raise up from the stones those who would.

The Bishop, clergy and people of the Diocese of Oklahoma took their Church and began taking a much closer look at it. They peered into stained glass windows and found the wonders of God and signs of a life that they had not anticipated, but one they would embrace. This was something new. In a sense, within the Church, the events of the last few years are like Zechariah giving his newborn son a name that none of his family had ever received, and it was God saying, “Behold I make all things new.” And truthfully, we were all amazed. We were perhaps afraid in trying, but we were doing things that we had not ever imagined. We were speaking to the world in new ways, being creative in how we fulfilled the Great Commission. Sometimes those new ways worked and sometimes the internet signal was not strong enough; but we have persevered and will continue to do so, for we believe that the hand of the Lord is with us.

At the naming of John, Zechariah’s neighbors asked, “What then will this child become?” We can ask the same of the Church in this new era. What will we become? The answer: exactly the Church of which God desires for us to become. Let’s just not go and put ourselves back in another big glass cabinet. Let’s continue to seek new and innovative ways to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a world that has also changed. Let’s follow John out into the wilderness and be witness to Love.

The Rev. Dr. John Toles

Rector, St. Matthew’s Enid

Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma

Sermon: Proper 10 RCL B – “Silencing God”

Saint Jean Baptiste prêchant devant Hérode Antipas by Pieter de Grebber

Hibbard “Hib” Johnson was an associate of Thomas Edison and was a partner in the organization that is now General Electric. He is also the Father of the Electric Christmas Tree Light. Given all that, he was fairly well off, being worth about $30M in today’s dollars, which means he could have what he wanted and he wanted a house built by Frank Lloyd Wright and… he got it. Only problem, the roof leaked, and one evening when Johnson was entertaining distinguished guests for dinner, and after several attempts to repair, it leaked again, dripping steadily onto Hibbard’s head. It is reported that Hib, irate, called Wright in Phoenix, Arizona. “Frank,” he said, “you built this beautiful house for me and we enjoy it very much. But I have told you the roof leaks, and right now I am with some friends and distinguished guests and it is leaking right on top of my head.” Wright’s reply, supposedly heard by all: “Well, Hib, why don’t you move your chair?”

I’m sure I can be stubborn at times, but not so pig-headed as to not move the chair. However, when we get our minds set on something, we can get a bit stubborn, whether we know we are right or wrong. Why? Because we want to get our way. We want what we want. After thinking on our Gospel lesson, I believe that was what was behind Herodias’ desire to have John put to death.

A little background, which is the story of three Herods. There was Herod the Great. He was the Herod that the three wisemen came to visit and that had all the young children in Bethlehem put to death. Then there was Herod II, son of Herod the Great. Herod II was heir apparent to the throne and married to Herodias; however, just days prior to Herod the Great’s death, Herod II fell out of favor with dad and it was Herod Antipas (we’ll call him Antipas) who was Herod II’s brother by another mother, that became king. Clear as mud? So, Herod II is married to Herodias and Antipas is married to a foreign princess. Herod II loses the throne to Antipas, and this is where things get really complicated. Antipas and Herodias, have a little thing on the side and both end up divorcing their spouses and marrying one another. Some might say they fell in love, but it would seem to me that Herodias just wanted to be queen, no matter what. She got it and was determined to remain so, but then, along comes John the Baptist, calling them out on their sin: you can’t marry your brother’s wife.

That would certainly be enough to get John in trouble, but as Herod was king and Herodias queen, they would have received criticism from many, and if those critics get too loud, you get rid of them, but there was something about John that was different from those other critics. Our reading said, “Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”

Enter the dancing daughter. Must have been a fine dance, because Herod offers her half the kingdom. Being the devoted daughter, she asks momma: “Momma, we can have half the kingdom. What should I ask for?” She could have had so much, but instead she asked for John’s death. Why? I think part of the answer lies in the fact that Herod “liked to listen to” John. And what if, in all his talking that Herod like to listen to, one day, John was able to finally convince Herod that he shouldn’t be married to Herodias? Herodias understood that. Herod could as easily divorce her as he did his first wife. She could have had anything she wanted, but she could have lost what she so stubbornly went after: being queen. So, she had eliminated the one that might bring about her demise. “Well, Hib, why don’t you move your chair?” “Well, Herodias, why don’t you stop being so pig-headed and listen to God?”

This incident tells us about the lives of the king and queen and the death of John, is a microcosm of the world that Jesus entered into. A world where those who rule, both civilly and religiously, are corrupt and sinful. A world that does whatever it wants in order to get whatever it wants, whether it be right or wrong. A world that will put to death those who try to speak the word of God into the sinfulness. It is a story about how the world goes about silencing God. The entire incident, therefore, is a foreshadowing of what is to happen with Jesus, for like John, Jesus is going to call them all out on their sinfulness and as we know, they will silence him as well.

Today… today we also silence God. From taking prayer out of schools to perverting God’s word to suit our purposes, whether using it as a weapon against those who are different or by reinterpreting the difficult bits so that we no longer call sin sin. These and in so many other ways we silence God. But not only do we see the silencing of God in the world around us, but we silence him in our own lives as well.

Think of Herod and Herodias and John calling them to repentance. John was performing the same function that the Holy Spirit performs in our lives. With the king and queen, he spoke to them, showing them the errors they were making, and then showing them the path of righteousness. The same is true with the workings of the Holy Spirit in our own lives, and like Herod and Herodias, when that voice in the wilderness speaks to us, pointing out our errors and showing us the path of righteousness, we can become stubborn in our sin and effectively tune out and silence the Spirit. If we persist, then we put ourselves in danger of no longer even recognizing that voice, and then we really are in trouble, but we are not lost. Our God is one that seeks out the lost.

They brought to Jesus “a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him.  And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’ And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” (Mark 7:32-35)

We can silence God to the point where we become deaf to God, but if we will allow it by not being stubborn in our sin, if we will accept his corrections, then he can once again open our ears and our spirits to the voice of the Spirit of God, that we might walk in paths of righteousness. Consider the first verse of our Psalm:

“I will listen to what the Lord God is saying,
for he is speaking peace to his faithful people
and to those who turn their hearts to him.”
(Psalm 85:8)

Don’t be the one who is too stubborn to move your chair when the water is pouring on you. Don’t be the one who silences God when God is trying to correct you. Pray that the ears of your heart will be opened, then turn your heart to him and listen to what the Lord God is saying and he will be faithful to you and lead you along the path of righteousness.

Let us pray: Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.

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