Ash Wednesday Sermon 2020
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
In a few moments we will bless the ashes that will be imposed on our foreheads. In that blessing we ask that God, “Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence.”
Ashes are a sign of our mortality based on the second Creation story in Genesis, where we hear that, “the Lord, God formed man from the dust of the ground.” (Gen. 2:7a) After Adam and Eve defy God’s command to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they are exiled from the Garden of Eden. God poignantly reminds the first humans of their newly found mortality, saying, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19)
Ashes as a sign of penitence also finds its origin in the scripture. Throughout the Hebrew Bible people sit in sackcloth and ashes to show their penitence, or remorse, for defying God’s ways of life. In the book of Jonah, we hear that God instructed the prophet to, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” (Jon. 1:2) Jonah walks throughout this great city telling its inhabitants to repent in forty days, or be overthrown. We learn that, “When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes:” (Jon. 3:6) A sure sign of penitence and amendment of life.
We stand on the portal of another Lent: a season when we are called by the Church to reflect on our own mortality, not so much to be reminded of our inevitable death, but to underscore the precious value of our life. Likewise, we are called to be penitent for those sinful behaviors - those “things done and left undone” as the Confession states - so that we may fully embrace the gift of the life we have been given.
So, instead of these ashes and this day being framed in the context of gloom and death, they are really about life and the opportunity, “to make a right beginning of this season of renewal,” so that we may truly live.
The greatest existential threat facing humanity in our time is global warming and climate change. While the framers of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer could not have imagined the dire environmental circumstances of our day, they certainly understood that how humanity treats “this fragile earth, our island home” is part and parcel of our sinful human behavior.
In the Litany of Penitence for Ash Wednesday, we will confess to, and repent of, “our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people,” and “for our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us.”
How do we understand those prayer petitions in 2020, considering our continued spewing of toxins from burning fossil fuels into the atmosphere, resulting in warmer temperatures, causing rapidly rising seas due to the melting polar caps, and increasingly violent, destructive weather. Or the choking of the seas and marine life by plastic waste, and the wild fluctuations of rainfall causing extremes of flooding or drought? How do we understand those prayer petitions today, and how do we repent of our own culpability in creating this existential threat?
Like Nineveh, we stand condemned for our sinful ways. Will we take this Lent as an opportunity to hear God’s voice calling us to repentance? Will we acknowledge our sinful ways; our waste and pollution of God’s creation, our exploitation of other people, our lack of concern for those who come after us? We are at a critical junction in this crisis of global warming where we must sit in sackcloth and ashes and take inventory of all our behaviors – large and small - that contribute to this environmental destruction.
Maybe we already are sitting in sackcloth and ashes, but are not aware of it.
Last month Australia experienced wildfires of a magnitude never experienced before. The fires burned millions of acres, destroyed thousands of homes, and killed at least 30 people. More than a billion animals perished.
Severe drought, wrought by the changing climate patterns of global warming, caused the forests and grasslands to become tinder boxes. Lightening did the rest.
In a NYT op-ed piece titled, “Has Australia Reached A Climate Tipping Point,” Lisa Pryor writes this: “Only a few months ago, I joked with friends who had just returned from life in the northern hemisphere that, with the state of the world at that moment, our distance from the rest of the world felt more like comfort than tyranny. Australia felt like a prosperous and benign island.
But as they say on the internet, life comes at you fast. We Australians found ourselves at the center of global events when our land erupted in flames . . . Many of us had feared that our good luck would someday come to an end, but we never imagined that the end would be so sudden, so cinematic, so biblical. We have become a portent of what the world can expect if it does not act on climate change . . . In my part of Australia, the fires are out, for now . . . [so] it would be easy to forget what the nation has gone through.”
[But the reality is] “the time has come for us to put away childish things and reckon with climate change, to do what we can to prevent a future in which extreme weather is more intense and more frequent. This time around, it was Australia that suffered, that served as a warning of our planet’s climate change future. Many other places will follow in the coming years.”
Those Australian wild fires are a poignant reminder of the mortality of not only humans, but of animal life . . . and even the life of the earth’s environment itself.
Lisa Pryor’s writing is a clarion call to penitence and an amendment of life away from behaviors that contribute to global warming and its resulting destruction . . . before it’s too late.
As I stated a moment ago: maybe we already are sitting in sackcloth and ashes, but are not aware of it.
One of the significant impacts of those wildfires is that enormous amounts of carbon gas loaded with ashes was released into the stratosphere. This of course exacerbates the very conditions that allowed the fires to begin in the first place.
But, it also resulted in something with a more profound meaning for we Christians on this Ash Wednesday. Scientists have tracked those ashes and they have circumnavigated the globe. They are in the jet streams that circulate over the entire creation. Which means those ashes have fallen down on us, they have been imposed on all of humanity. We can imagine them on our own heads. These ashes are the burned remains of the trees and grasses, the ashes of the billion animals that died, and the ashes of burnt human bodies.
Through those ashes we are called to hear the voice of God speaking – just as it did through Jonah - crying out against us and the sinful ways we are destroying Creation. Those ashes are a heartbreaking messenger of our wickedness. They are a thundering call for our penitence and an amendment of life, so that not only we, but all humanity, all those who come after us, and all Creation may live.
In those ashes of all that died, we are vividly reminded that we must work to promote life.
For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.
 Lisa Pryor, “Has Australia Reached A Climate Tipping Point?,” The New York Times, February 24, 2020
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
We conclude the Epiphany season today with the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus before his inner circle of disciples: Peter, James and John. This epiphany – or revelation of something that had not been know before - is the final one of Jesus’ earthly ministry, concluding a series of epiphanies beginning with his revelation as the Messiah to the three Wise Men, his Baptism by John in the River Jordan, and his turning of water into wine at the Wedding Feast at Cana.
The Transfiguration is significantly different from those other epiphanies because in addition to revealing Jesus being the Messiah, it also reveals what will occur in his death and Resurrection.
The literal interpretation of transfiguration is metamorphosis; a change of the form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one, by natural or supernatural means. An alternate definition of metamorphosis relates to insects and amphibians whereby they are transformed from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages. Two examples of that are frogs and butterflies.
Frog eggs hatch as aquatic tadpoles, and eventually transfigure into semi-aquatic frogs. Similarly, we see the transfiguration of caterpillars as they enter into their cocoons and emerge as butterflies. If you have never seen a transfigured butterfly emerge from its cocoon, visit the Costa Rican rainforest glasshouse at the Cleveland Botanical Gardens, which has an incubator case for cocoons, and does regular releases of newly transfigured butterflies into the rainforest biome. It’s a glorious sight to behold!
The transfiguration of a caterpillar into a butterfly, from one entity into another, is why the butterfly has become a powerful symbol of the Resurrection, symbolizing Jesus’ death, being placed into the tomb, then emerging as the resurrected Christ. Frankly, I’m glad that the early Christians choose the butterfly to represent this mighty act of God, and not the frog. I just can’t imagine dozens of colorful paper frogs being hung over our heads in the nave for Easter!
Human beings do not undergo metamorphosis, at least not in the literal, physical sense . . . well, unless you have the mind of Franz Kafka, who wrote a novella called “The Metamorphosis;” a story of a man waking up one morning to find he has been transfigured into a giant insect. But that’s an allegory and not a train of thought I want to follow for this homily.
But, we humans can be transfigured spiritually. We can go from leading one way of life to another. In fact, the season of Lent, which begins this Ash Wednesday, is a season that is laser focused on our spiritual metamorphosis and transfiguration.
Let me read you the “Invitation to the Observance of a Holy Lent” that we will use during our Ash Wednesday liturgies.
Dear People of God,
The Holy Scriptures tell us of God’s loving purpose in creation: to raise up a holy people worthy of eternal life. Because we have fallen far away from that purpose, God has worked patiently to draw us back sending prophets and teachers to warn and to guide us and coming at last into this world in Jesus and sharing our human life and death so that we might know the full extent and power of God’s love and forgiveness. In the waters of Baptism and by the power of the Holy Spirit, God has called men and women of every time and place into the Church, the Body of Christ, to offer worship and praise, to bear witness to God’s love, and to work with God for the healing of the nations.
Yet, we continue to fall short of the holiness for which we were made and to turn aside to our own purposes, weakening our witness and failing to fulfill the ministries to which we are called. We stand in constant need of the forgiveness that Jesus proclaimed and which he commissioned the disciples to offer.
Therefore from very early times, the Church has set aside the season of Lent as a time when God’s people are called to repent their sins and to renew the promises made at their baptism. It is a time when we were called to examine our way of life, to put aside all luxuries and self-indulgence, and to live a life of greater discipline, centered again on our Baptismal covenant of faith and witness and our commitment to seek justice and peace for all people.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self -examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. ”
Hear these phrases:
“to raise up a holy people worthy of eternal life.”
“Because we have fallen far away from that purpose, God has worked patiently to draw us back.”
“[We are] called to repent [of our] sins and to renew the promises [we] made [at our] baptism.”
“[We are] called to examine our way of life, to put aside all luxuries and self-indulgence, and to live a life of greater discipline.”
These phrases are all ones calling us to transfiguration, to a metamorphosis of life, transfiguring us from living in ways antithetical to what God desires, to a way of life that is in alignment with what God desires.
What spiritual disciplines will you engage in this Lent so that you may be transfigured into the person God desires you to be?
It is traditional for many folks to give things up during Lent; to put aside some of those luxuries and self-indulgent items that we enjoy, engaging in self-discipline from our desires, and even addictions, for things like meat, alcohol, caffeine, deserts and chocolate. This is all well and fine, but too often I get the sense that this is really a diet, and not a spiritual discipline that will draw us back to God. How might we re-purpose this giving up of things as a vehicle to not just lose weight, but by their absence, making room for God in our hearts, minds, and even our bellies?
Other folks commit to a renewed program of exercise, so that they may be physically healthier. (Which – if successful - is about as close to a physical metamorphosis we will achieve as humans.) This too is well and fine, but again I often sense that this Lenten discipline is a do-over of our failed New Year’s resolution to lose weight and be more toned. How might we make this discipline a way to truly transfigure ourselves so we may have a closer relationship with God? Maybe meditating on a passage of scripture as we walk the treadmill? If we do, maybe, just maybe, by meditating on God’s word, this would have a longer lasting impact than our failed New Year’s resolution.
I encourage you this Lent to take to heart what the “Invitation to the Observance of a Holy Lent” requires; engaging in “self -examination and repentance; . . . prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” And, equally as important, renewing our Baptismal “commitment to seek justice and peace for all people.”
What will you engage in this Lent to achieve your own transfiguration?
At Jesus’ Transfiguration, God’s voice comes from the cloud and tells the disciple, ““This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” This is the most critical transfiguring discipline of all; listening to and following Jesus. It is by listening to Jesus and emulating his life, that we achieve our fullest and greatest metamorphosis. In practicing his ways of kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and radical love, we are authentically transfigured. And trust me, when that happens, you will feel it, you will know it, and people will see it in you. When we listen to his voice and walk in his ways our faces shine like the sun, reflecting the glory of God and our transfigured life in Christ. And that is the most wondrous metamorphosis of all!
Have a blessed Lent.
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
Good grief! It’s that Gospel passage again: Murder, slander, divorce, adultery, swearing oaths; lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
Note to self: When this passage comes up again in three years . . . schedule a guest preacher.
Well, here goes.
How do you think the crowds received Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount pretty tough message? Did it motivate them to metanoia; a change in one's way of life? Of did they just say, nope, can’t do this, it’s too hard, and then just wander off to brunch?
What’s your response? Taken literally Jesus’ interpretation of the Law is an amazingly high bar that he sets for human behavior. If just being angry, or insulting someone and calling them a fool results in your burning in hell, then the occupancy rate there is going to be SRO!
What is Jesus actually saying here?
Some Biblical commentators refer to these pronouncements on the Law by Jesus as being antitheses – or oppositions - of the Law. They believe that Jesus is modeling a greater righteousness over and above the Torah.
But that defies Jesus’ statement preceding today’s Gospel passage where he states, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matt. 5:17) By his own witness Jesus’ teaching is not opposed to the Law or the Prophets, rather his teaching is their very fulfillment.
The reality then is that these sayings we have heard on murder, slander, adultery, divorce and swearing an oath are not antithetical to the Law at all, they are intensifications of it.
And, boy, they are intense. When we hear these commands on this standard for human behavior we get very uncomfortable with them. Is Jesus serious? And if so, what does it mean if I have not been able to meet the standard he sets? Am I liable to the hell of fire?
Are these intensifications to be taken literally? Are we literally to gouge out our eye, or cut off our right hand rather than commit an infraction? And if so, then what about the whole issue of divorce (and re-marriage) which we Episcopalians allow? Are we being defiant toward Jesus’ instructions to us? Are we cherry picking the scripture?
There is a lot of material packed into this text. And there are numerous historical, cultural, linguistic, and literary considerations to examine if we are to unpack and truly get to the heart of what Jesus is saying. It entails a lot of work. The alternative to doing that work is to respond to our discomfort by attempting to water the scripture down, make it palatable, or simply ignore it. There is no shortage of people who have taken those routes, but that’s being disingenuous. If we are serious about our faith, we are to work toward comprehending what is going on in this difficult text.
These commands of Jesus must be taken with the utmost seriousness, but any attempt to take them literally leads to absurdity. This is true, as well, of the Beatitudes that precede today’s text.
No one who lives their life with their eyes open can honestly say that murder, libel, slander, adultery, divorce and false vows do not happen all the time, or that the poor are blessed in their poverty, or that those who hunger and thirst have a leg up on the well-fed. To believe that would be at the very least, to engage in flights of fantasy, if not downright delusion.
The reality is that to actually live life by the standards that these intensifications of the law establish, is impossible for we humans.
What these sayings do express is the intrinsic rule of the Kingdom, or Reign, of God; a Kingdom that is a place we know as the already, not yet; a Reign whose beginnings are inaugurated in Jesus Christ and whose fulfillment will only occur when He comes again.
What these intensifications are, then, is a vision of the eschatological Reign of God that is yet to come.
They are a revelation of what will definitely be possible in God’s Reign, versus a snapshot of the realty of our current human circumstances. When Jesus delivers these, “you have heard it is said” sayings, there is no understanding or expectation on his part for our literal adherence to these Kingdom laws. That is simply not possible for humans to do in our fallen state. They are, on the other hand, goals to strive toward as we continuously amend our lives, and look to the day when all Creation is restored to how God intended it to be.
Let’s examine one of the sayings to see how we might apply it to our life in this already, not yet phase of the Kingdom.
“Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, `You shall not murder'; and `whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, `You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
I don’t know about you, but while I have not literally murdered anyone, I certainly have been angry with people at various points in my life. And in my anger, I have said – and certainly thought – things that are insulting to another person. And frankly, I seem to have little or no control over those actions and thoughts. I am like St. Paul, who said, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:19)
Jesus understands that we humans often do what we know is not right. But he also says that anger and hostility are outside the bounds of God’s Reign; Jesus equates those things with murder.
That would be a Catch-22 we could not get out of were it not for God’s grace.
Jesus doesn’t leave us stuck in this conundrum of understanding our brokenness, but then leaving us to suffer the consequences of hell fire. Rather he tells us how we are to reconcile our broken relationships. “So, when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” So, even though following the intensification of the Law is an impossible standard to adhere to 24/7, Jesus encourages our attempts toward its fulfillment. He does this knowing each time we strive to be reconciled to those people we are at enmity with, even when we do so imperfectly, we draw incrementally closer to living the ways of God’s Reign.
This is invaluable guidance to those of us in America today. We are a nation that has made a blood sport out of anger and insult toward others. The Presidential Medal of Freedom was recently awarded to someone who thrives on this murderous behavior. Degradation of people different from us - who we don’t like - is the norm on cable, talk radio, Internet blogs and tweets, never mind plain old every day gossip. It’s murder by a thousand tweets; a thousand posts; a thousand slandering tongues.
We followers of Jesus are not helpless in the face of this moral degradation. As I said last week, we have something critical to proclaim and work toward in the midst of such brokenness.
While recognizing our own proclivity to these behaviors, we know that with God’s help each of us can live our life differently. And by so doing, we bear witness to our citizenship in God’s realm. This is true and possible for every human being, regardless. Metanoia happens.
Regardless of the topic – enmity, divorce, adultery, violence, evil – Jesus leads us away from the behaviors that are not of God, guiding us into the ways to those that are of God. We just need to choose that as our way of life.
In our reading from Deuteronomy today Moses says to the Hebrew people that God has, “set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity . . . choose life so that you and your descendants may live."
May the way of life given to us by our Savior, be our choice as well, so that we – and all people - may truly live.
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
“Jesus [told the crowds], “You are the salt of the earth;”
What kind of salt are you? Are you an old salt; a seasoned sailor who is often a raconteur, regaling people with tall tales of adventure.
Or maybe you’re someone who needs to be taken with a grain of salt; a person whose words need to be heard with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Then again, maybe you are the salt of the earth; a person who is solid, truthful, reliable, and has integrity.
What kind of salt is the Church? Well, that varies.
There are churches who tell pretty tall tales about what it means to be a Christian.
Certainly, there are no shortage of churches whose words about the Bible need to be taken with more than a few grains of salt. And then there are churches that are solid, truthful, reliable, and who strive to live with integrity.
What kind of salt is Christ Church?
Salt is essential to life. Yet too much salt is dangerous; a threat to life resulting in all kinds of illness, like hyper-tension and strokes. But, conversely, without salt in our diet we would die. And as an amateur chef, I will observe that food without salt is pretty bland, and despite the best attempts of the nurses in cardio re-hab to convince me otherwise, even inedible.
In the ancient world salt was highly valued. The word salt is mentioned over forty times in the Bible; maybe most famously in reference to Lot’s wife, who disobeying God’s instructions to not look back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, was turned into a pillar of salt. What kind of salt was she?
The Greeks called salt theion, which means divine. The Romans made up a little jingle about salt. Had electronic media existed back then, it could have been an advertisement for Morton’s. It went like this: “Nil utilius sole et sale,” which translates as, “There is nothing more useful than sun and salt.”
Being a beach lover, I totally agree!
When Jesus told the crowds gathered to hear his Sermon on the Mount that they were the salt of the earth, there were three associations that his hearers would have made.
The first is purity. Salt being glistening white made that connection an easy one. The Romans said that salt was the purest substance on earth, because it came from the interaction of two pure things, the sun and the sea. Salt was used to purify things which had become impure. When the waters of the city of Jericho had become tainted, the prophet Elisha threw salt into them to make them potable.
The second association with salt was as a preservative. Up until the last two centuries, with the development of canning, freezers, and vacuuming sealing, salt was the most common way to preserve foods, especially animal flesh. Without salting – or curing of some sort – animal flesh has a very short shelf-live before it begins to deteriorate. Salt preserves it, so that it can be eaten weeks, and even months, later. So, salt prevents rot and corruption.
And finally, salt would have been associated as giving flavor to things, which I already mentioned.
Keeping those three associations in mind – purity, preservative, and giver of flavor – what kind of salt are you? How does the salt of your life and your faith, purify, preserve, give flavor?
Unless you live in total isolation, it’s no secret that we live in a world losing principles of purity: an era where acts of decency, honesty, morality, and integrity are in decline, placing the culture in a tail-spin. In fact, on some days it feels as if we have crashed. No follower of Jesus can be the salt of the earth if they condone, or remain mute, when they encounter this loss of purity in our lives. We cannot be salt of the earth if we turn a blind eye to such behaviors, allowing them to co-opt us, in the process becoming tarnished by them. We are a part of the world, and as a part of the world we cannot withdraw from it, like an ostrich burying its head in the sand. Followers of Jesus must be in the world, setting the example of a better way of a pure life, while simultaneously, as the letter of James says, keeping ourselves, “unstained by [that] world.” (James 1:27)
Which means as the salty followers of Jesus we must be agents of preserving, being an antiseptic to those corrosive, corrupt behaviors and words that bring rot and decay to our lives, our culture, our religion, and our nation. If we are to be the salt of the earth we must witness to the wholesome power of the salt of Jesus’ good news to preserve our souls.
Followers of Jesus also must bring the excitement of the vivid flavor our faith has to offer to a culture whose taste buds have gone dead. This flavor is the joie de vie that comes from knowing all of us are beloved children of God.
Following Jesus and being good salt means we bring to others those qualities that gives life its flavor and zest: the qualities of compassion, acceptance, forgiveness, non-judgmentalism, community, beauty, grace, and abundant love. When we do so, others can see that ours is a faith of pure radiance! Ours is a faith where one is called to enjoy the fullness of life, including laughter and joy. In fact, if you can’t be joyful and have fun being a Christian, we may as well as give up the whole enterprise! Joy is essential to being good salt.
We live in an age of high anxiety. We worry, (to the point of despondency) over many things - income inequality, corrupt business practices, the environment, the deplorable impurity of our political landscape, rogue states developing nuclear weapons, the coronavirus – all these heighten our anxiety and threaten to consume us, to the point of becoming, as Jesus said, “salt [that] has lost its taste . . . no longer good for anything.” Losing our saltiness leads to a demise in our sense of self-worth, of believing we have value. Depression sets in, which breeds its progeny of despondency and despair. More and more people give up on the possibility of a better life, a brighter future. Many turn in-wards, seeing no value in community. Many others turn to addictive behaviors like opiates and alcohol to escape from the darkness of their reality.
We followers of Jesus have something critical to proclaim and work toward in the midst of such brokenness. Being the salt of the earth means we are called to be diffusers of hope, promise and joy, and we do so not by being Panglossian – offering empty words of optimism - but by actively working toward bringing about structural and behavioral changes in our society; changes that will allow people to have hope, living life fully, experiencing joy. Proclaiming purity, preservation and flavor as paramount to human life, we become witnesses to the fundamental Christian belief that each and every human life has infinite value, is redeemable, and is worthy of dignity and respect. No exceptions, no excuses. That is what it means to be the salt of the earth. That is the message of the good news of the Gospel.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone.” Let the saltiness of that truth, be the salt of our lives. Amen.
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
I am a person who lives by rituals. Now you may be thinking, “Well, of course you are, you’re a priest. Priests perform rituals.” Which, of course, is true, but I want to embrace a more comprehensive definition of ritual to describe what I mean. Merriam-Webster defines rituals as being three-fold: a system of rites; a ceremonial act or action; and an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner. I am a person whose life is defined by all three.
One of my daily rituals is grinding coffee beans and making a pot of fresh coffee in the morning. That is a ceremonial act – almost religious in nature - regularly repeated in a precise manner. And trust me, don’t mess around with it.
A few weeks ago, I had readied our coffee maker and turned it on to brew. When I came back a few minutes later anticipating a delicious cup of steaming hot java . . . there was no liquid in the pot. When I lifted the lid, there was a slurry of grounds and water floating to the brim of the coffee maker, ready to overflow onto the counter. Evidently some grounds had become clogged in the little hole in the filter basket, preventing the water from flowing into the pot. I’m not sure who was the hotter mess; the coffee maker or me.
Some errant grounds had disrupted my ritual, ruining my ceremonial act, causing havoc in the precise manner with which I start my day. And I just about lost my mind. Okay, I confess. I’m a caffeine addict.
Performing rituals comforts us. Rituals give structure to our lives. In times of turbulence and despair, rituals sustain us and give hope. I know of many people who love the rituals of the Book of Common Prayer. Someone once likened the BCP to a pair of comfortable slippers you put on after having walked in uncomfortable shoes. The ritual of saying the familiar words of our worship soothed this person.
In her best-selling book, “Eat, Pray, Love” Elizabeth Gilbert says this:
“This is what rituals are for. We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don't have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down. We all need such places of ritual safekeeping.”
Recently I was speaking with a woman whose mother had died. She and her family were sitting Shiva. As we chatted about the loss of her mother and the pain she felt no longer having her, she told me that the rituals of mourning the dead eased the pain and loss: the reciting of the Mourner’s Kaddish at the funeral, the wearing of a small strip of torn black cloth, sitting of Shiva with the consoling presence of family and friends. These rituals provided comfort and solace, as well as hope for healing from the pain of grief.
Today’s Gospel story from Luke, for the Feast of the Presentation, informs us that Mary and Joseph were people of ritual. They were devout Jews who followed the prescriptions of their faith. If you include the verse just preceding where we start our lesson today , we encounter three distinct rituals that Mary and Joseph engage in.
In verse 21, we read that, “After eight days [from the day of his birth] had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Luke 2:21) The ritual of circumcision for male Jews was the sign of the Covenant made between God and Abraham. In Genesis God tells Abraham, “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old.” (Gen. 17: 10-12a)
The ritual of circumcision is arguably the most important ritual in Judaism. Mary and Joseph engaging in it with Jesus was a critical part of their identity. It was their link to the Jewish community and the Covenant.
We then read that, “When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.’”
There are two significant rituals embedded in these verses: the requirement to present a firstborn male – both human and animal – to God, and the purification of a woman after child-birth.
These were rituals that fulfilled God’s commands in the Torah. In Exodus God says, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine.” (Ex. 13:2) and in Leviticus, “If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean seven days . . . On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Her time of blood purification shall be thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification are completed.” (Lev. 12:2-4) So the total time a woman was ritually un-pure after the birth of a male child was forty days, ergo the celebration of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, forty days after Christmas.
When presented to the priests at the Temple, male animals were sacrificed to God. Human children were redeemed by the purchase of a sheep or two turtledoves, depending on the wealth of the parents. These would then be sacrificed to God, in lieu of the child. Joseph and Mary sacrificing two turtledoves indicates that they were of limited financial means.
All of which to say is that Mary and Joseph were people of ritual.
An essential part of Judaism is honoring God in all of life. As observant Jews, Mary and Joseph strived to do so.
Mary and Joseph performing these three rituals of circumcision, presentation, and purification honors God. They give their lives meaning and substance, and they connect the Holy Family to a community.
Rituals and observance of religious requirements have fallen on hard times. (Although I would observe the ritual of coffee making is at an apex in our culture!) For example, the demands of busy schedules, dual-career marriages, and after-school activities mean that people eat fewer meals together. This results in the simple ritual of offering grace before a meal, recognizing that our daily bread comes from God, is rare.
The marking of events with rituals that recognize the sacredness of life and the presence of God in the everyday is practically extinct. We have left little room for mystery and encountering the transcendent in our secular, technology driven lives. How much time do we spend each day in front of television, computer, and smartphone screens, versus engaging in the simple rituals of sitting quietly, being in the presence of the holy, talking with our beloved family and friends, playing with children, reflecting on a passage of scripture, or being aware of the joy and wonder of all God’s good gifts to us in the Creation?
Among other things, the lack of ritual results in our being less connected to community, of believing that life has little meaning beyond mere existence, of ignoring the presence of the holy in all things. This then leads to growing feelings of despair, of not having hope during stressful times in a better future.
We need to reclaim the importance of ritual in our lives. Ritual gives us a way to dramatize our gratitude for the goodness and mystery of life. It is a vehicle toward authentic relationships and community, of giving life meaning, and of offering hope for a better future in times of darkness and despair.
Ritual’s ability to do these things is incarnated in the two other characters in our Gospel story - Simeon and Anna – and their encounter with Jesus.
When Simeon, who is described as “righteous and devout” – in other words devoted to the rituals of the Torah - encounters Jesus, he takes the baby in his arms, over-joyed that God’s promise of a Messiah – the one who shall liberate Israel and save all humanity - has been fulfilled. Simeon calls him, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and [the] glory [of God’s] people Israel."
For the majority of her long life, Anna engaged in the rituals of fasting and prayer in the Temple. Like Simeon, her fervent prayer was for the redemption of Israel from brutal occupying empires. When she sees Jesus, she is overwhelmed with gratitude and she praises God, speaking to all she encounters about the child who would bring about “the redemption of Jerusalem.” In other words, she rejoices.
Two faithful Jews, ever-hopeful that God’s promises would be realized, despite the darkness and despair that enveloped their people, have seen that moment come to fruition in their lives. The rituals that they practiced sustained them, and led them to this moment of redemption; it was hope-fulfilled.
We too need to reclaim ritual, if we are to reclaim hope.
An alternative name for today is Candlemas. Our use of lots of candles in our worship symbolizes Simeon’s calling Jesus, “a light for the Gentiles.” As John’s Gospel tells us, “in [Jesus] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:4)
Lighting candles is a ritual of hope. In performing this ritual, we are reminded that we are one community in Jesus Christ, and that his light, which no darkness can ever overcome, shines ever brightly. In that knowledge, the ritual of lighting candles comforts, sustains and strengthens us.
In the ritual of lighting these candles, we reclaim the hope that Christ brings to the world. And that hope will sustain us today, tomorrow, and for eternity.
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
The overture of Matthew’s Gospel has been a lively, drama-filled one, with spine-tingling plots and sub-plots to rival any Stephen Sondheim play. We have encountered an engaged woman who has become pregnant, not by her betrothed, but rather by the Holy Spirit. We have had three wise men; Persian astrologers who travel two years to pay homage and bring gifts of great value to the new born Messiah, Jesus. Then there was the despotic, small minded king Herod who, threatened by what the wise men describe as this newborn king of the Jews, goes on a murderous rampage, killing every male child under the age of two in his realm, after the wise men foil his plot to lead him to the manager of Bethlehem. And then there is the flight to Egypt by the Holy Family to escape the murderous Herod; fleeing hundreds of miles and becoming refugees in a strange land.
Even Sweeny Todd wasn’t this suspenseful and intriguing!
Up to this point the events of Jesus’ life, as well as that of Mary and Joseph, have been fraught with spectacle and excitement. And now we arrive at the banks of the Jordan River and the baptism of Jesus. This is an epiphany moment when Jesus is revealed as God’s son. The text tells us that after Jesus comes up out of the water a voice comes from the heavens – presumably God’s – and says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The Greek word eudokeo translated as “well pleased” is more accurately understood as content. Which means that what the voice actually said is, ““This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am content.” Content? God is merely content at this monumental epiphany, the revelation of Jesus as his son?
What an anticlimactic response to the baptism epiphany. Up to this point we have been brought to the edge of our scriptural seats with lots of drama, waiting to see what plot twist comes next and then this; God is merely content? It’s like taking the bubbles out of champagne; it was effervescent and exciting, and now is flat and dull.
The epiphanies of Jesus are almost always accompanied by excitement, awe, and even fear. The Wise Men are “overwhelmed with joy” when they find Jesus. The steward at the wedding feast at Cana is in awe by the appearance of excellent wine after he believed it had all run out. Not knowing where the wine came from, he exclaims to the bridegroom, “you have kept the good wine until now!” And when the disciples witness Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop and hear the same voice we hear today, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” They fall to the ground, “overcome by fear.” Epiphanies are high drama! Yet today at the baptism of Jesus, no drama God is merely content.
A commentary on the passage I read stated that, “God’s response is not of exponential proportions. It is not like the response shouted by fans at athletic events or concerts . . . One would expect more . . . Jesus travels from . . . Galilee, to be baptized by John in the Jordan. His vicissitudes in human form have not been light [thus far]. Surely, a baptism in the wilderness would garner more applause.”  I would say that Jesus being revealed God’s Son should result in timpani rumbling, clanging symbols, klieg lights flashing, balloons and confetti. Yet this is a subdued event. God is one cool cucumber. If there had been Anglicans back then I would describe God’s response to Jesus’ baptism as a very British one; controlled emotions with a stiff upper lip.
Why is this? Why did the drama and suspense give way to this more mundane inaugural of Jesus’ ministry?
The answer lies again in the phrase, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Biblical scholars have linked the “with I am well pleased” text to the first verse in today’s reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah, which states, "Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” (Is. 42:1) This verse opens what is known as the first of the Suffering Servant songs in Isaiah; songs that describe a redeemer of Israel who will bring salvation to the Jews, not by the sword, but by peaceful means that includes suffering.
The verses following describe the Suffering Servant thusly: “I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.” (Is. 42:2-4)
Christian theology understands the Suffering Servant songs as describing Jesus, who, as the Messiah, brought salvation and justice to all people, not by the sword, but through peaceful means, and ultimately by suffering through his Passion and Crucifixion.
Linking Jesus to the Suffering Servant informs us that Jesus is God’s servant who will achieve God’s goal of salvation, but not without suffering. This is a pretty sobering acknowledgement. Sobering enough to see God’s subdued response of mere contentment at Jesus’ baptism, as being that of a father who understands that even though this is a joyful moment, it also is one of recognizing that as his child leads his life it will include many challenges, pain and suffering.
Isaiah goes on to describe what the Redeemer will do as God’s servant: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” (Is. 42:6b-7)
This work of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah is reiterated by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. When the imprisoned John the Baptist sends his disciples to inquire of Jesus, ““Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Matt. 11: 3-5) The prophesied work of the Suffering Servant, bringing justice to the oppressed, release to the captive, and sight to the blind is realized in God’s Son, Jesus.
Bringing people out of darkness to light, freeing them from the shackles that constrain them, feeding the hungry, bring good news to the poor is the, often, mundane work of ministry, but it is the necessary work of bringing about God’s reign. Our faith life can’t always be flash and dash and high drama. In my experience it usually isn’t. Being a Christian isn’t always about feeling the excitement of the Incarnation at Christmas, or the Resurrection at Easter. The reality is all too often we encounter a lot of suffering in living out the ministries the Suffering Servant in Jesus calls us too; we may even suffer ourselves as we do them.
At the final major epiphany of Jesus at the Transfiguration, there’ plenty of drama what with Jesus’ transfigured face, his dazzling white cloths, and three dead prophets appearing amid the bright clouds. But once it is over Jesus and the disciples descend the mountain to continue to journey and do the work of healing a broken world that they have been given to do. So, it must be for us as well. That is the journey of our Savior, and therefore it is our journey as well.
We have just completed the Christmas season; a time when there is plenty of scriptural and secular excitement and drama. Lots of drama in the story of the Nativity, lots of partying and lights, merry-making, song and food. It’s an exciting and adrenaline pumping season. But now Christmas is over, and we must descend the mountain and return to the work of bringing about God’s reign.
There’s a poem by Howard Thurman that captures the truth of this message perfectly, titled,
“The Work of Christmas.”
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers [and sisters],
To make music in the heart.
 Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, Associate Professor of New Testament Chicago Theological Seminary; Workingpreacher.org, Commentary on Matthew 3: 13-17; January 12, 2020.
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
The road to joy can seem daunting, if not impossible, these days. A recent op-ed piece in the NYT was titled, “Are We Living in a Post-Happiness World?” The author stated that, with happiness harder to come by these days, people are grasping at any moment of joy they can get.” The premise behind the decline in joy was rooted in our vicious, polarized politics, the growing disparities in economic wealth and opportunity, and the destruction of our planet through global warming, that now appears to be beyond our ability to remedy.
“’In an age of despair, choosing joy is a revolutionary act,’ said Douglas Abrams, an author of “The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World,” a 2016 best seller he wrote with Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.”
Today we conclude the season of joy. It is the 12th day of Christmas and tomorrow begins Epiphany. For the past twelve days, (or longer) we have been immersed in joy, or at least behaved as if we have been. We have sung, “Joy to the World, the Lord is come,” and “O tidings of comfort of joy.” We have heard the angel proclaim to shepherds in the field, “Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
As we conclude the Christmas narrative this morning with the arrival of the magi at the manger in Bethlehem, we hear, “When [the magi] saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”
Christmas and the birth of Jesus are saturated with joy.
But in an age of despair, are we really feeling the joy? Is our joy authentic or is it faux? Did we mask the realities of our current circumstances with our Christmas celebrations, but now that they are over, have we returned to a state of despair?
The story of the Nativity is not meant to be a fleeting joy, but rather to offer us permanent joy and hope, even in the most despairing of times. As the angels proclaim, the birth of Jesus is tidings of great joy for all people. And for all time.
As in our own times, the circumstances of the world that Jesus was born into was one of great despair. I read a quote from an evangelical minister recently that stated that when Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt to escape the genocide of Herod’s murdering all the boy children under age two in his realm, that they were not actually refugees. This pastor was refuting the claim by some Christians – like us – who understand that the Holy Family were compelled by the threat of violence to become refugees, just like those people today fleeing violence in Central America. His premise was that all the peoples and countries living under the Roman Empire’s Pax Romana were just one big happy nation and so, the Holy family could not have possibly been refugees. They were just residents moving from one part of the country to another!
I assure you, no one who lived under the brutality of Roman rule and oppression thought that they were part of one happy country. The perpetual efforts of the Jews to liberate themselves from Roman rule attests to that.
Peoples who lived under Roman occupation were over-taxed to the point of poverty, subject to the terroristic tactics of the Roman Legions, were quickly enslaved to meet Roman labor needs, and even more quickly crucified if they challenged or threatened Roman authority. This was not one big happy country.
So, under these conditions choosing joy at the time of the birth of Jesus was certainly a revolutionary act.
And the magi certainly faced some arduous challenges as they followed the star to where the Messiah was. Two years of travel by camel through dessert sands, in the blazing heat of the day and bitter cold of the night, through an environment inhabited by vicious animals and marauding bandits. I rode a camel for five minutes in Israel several years ago; it was hardly comfortable, and mounting and dismounting that animal was terrifying. Two years of doing that is beyond my imagination!
I’m sure the magi experienced more than a few moments of despair as the star moved west, constantly recalibrating their travels to – hopefully - bring them to the goal of seeing the new born messiah. At times I suspect it would have seemed like a hopeless endeavor. But they persisted. They held onto to the hope that the star represented.
Once the magi get to Jerusalem they encounter Herod, a small-minded, despotic king who feigns interest in what they say about the birth of a newborn king of the Jews. But as he is the king of the Jews, he is alarmed. Who is this threat to his throne that these exotic visitors are seeking? The scripture says Herod was “frightened,” but I would speculate that he exploded in rage once the magi were out of earshot. After consulting with the theology experts, he discovers that scripture foretold the messiah would be born in Bethlehem, David’s city.
So, Herod meets the magi again and points them in the direction of Bethlehem. He says to them, “"Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage."
Now, being learned people, I suspect that the magi might have been skeptical of Herod’s desire to pay baby Jesus homage. If for no other reason than small-minded despots seldom can hide their true feelings, especially if its malice.
The magi go to Bethlehem and the star stops over the place where the child lay. Two years of challenging and exhausting travel, in arduous and dangerous conditions, with more than a few moments when it must have seemed like a foolish endeavor to be pursuing this star. Under the circumstances who would fault them if they threw up their hands in despair, giving up hope and returning to Persia?
But they persevere, and the end result of their persistence, even in the face of huge obstacles, is that the magi are over-whelmed with joy!
Their perseverance leads to joy and was in all ways a revolutionary act!
Joy is always the result of encountering Jesus.
In the beloved carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem, we sing that “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Who knows what hopes and fears the magi had met for them in Jesus when they arrived in Bethlehem. I can’t imagine they would be much different than the hopes and fears we all experience in our lives. The fear of being unaccepted, un-loved, unappreciated, uncared for. The fear of our very existence, and that of our children, and children’s children, being threatened by political, economic and climate forces that seem beyond our control. All these fears are cause for despair. And then there are our hopes: hope of being accepted regardless of who we are, of being forgiven our sins and offences, of being released from the abuses of the evil ways of the world. The hope that God can and will redeem all despair. In Jesus all those fears are eased, and all those hopes are fulfilled. No wonder the angels, the shepherds, and the magi all responded to him with joy! Their hopes and fears – like ours – were, and forever will be, met in him. What other response than joy could we possibly have in realizing this is the gift to all people in the child of Bethlehem? It was a revolutionary act in their time. It is no less a revolutionary act in our own time.
I think the most important phrase in this text is that once the magi had experienced the joy that Jesus brings, “they left for their own country by another road.” Their lives found a new path to journey on because they encountered the joy of Jesus. It was the path of hopefulness. And leaving by this new path of hope informs us that our lives are transformed after we encounter Jesus. We no longer travel on the road of despair. The babe of Bethlehem redirects our lives and places us on another road; the road of hope and joy.
As the dark clouds of despair seem to grow more oppressive, grasp the gift of good news for all people, and the hope and joy the message of the Nativity brings to the world. It’s a revolutionary act to do. And it will save us and redeem us. Joy to the world the Savior reigns! Merry Christmas!
 Laura M. Holson, “Are We Living In A Post-Happiness World?” New York Times, Sept. 28, 2019
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
There’s a 1965 epic film about the life of Jesus titled, “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” It’s a grand Hollywood film which pretty much renders Jesus’ life, from the Nativity to the Ascension, in a fairytale-like way.
Now fairytales have a purpose. I’m a big fan of them, actually. They evoke memories of my childhood and provide a sense of comfort. We like fairytales so much that we have rendered the Nativity story into one; a wonderful story that provides a brief escape from the stress and drudgery of the real world we face every day. The Nativity as fairytale is comforting and sweet. It’s the reason why the children’s Christmas pageant is the best attended worship service of the year. Its charm and the serendipity of what the children will say and do, bring big smiles to our faces. The pageant sets the mood for the joyful festivities of Christmas which follow.
In this Nativity fairytale Jesus is a rosy cheeked, plump, perfect baby, who as the carol Away in a Manger proclaims, “no crying he makes.” Now that’s a perfect baby!
In this fairytale Mary is clothed in a pristine white Alb with a gorgeous blue robe over it. Her hair and make-up are perfect, just like every women’s hair and make-up are perfect after they have given birth. Joseph stands over them, benignly gazing over this perfect baby and wife. All three seem far removed from the problems of the ordinary world in which they live. T his is a beautiful tableau and its purpose is to make us comfortable in an often-uncomfortable world . . . it is also about as far removed from the reality of the night of Jesus’ birth as we can get.
Let me be frank here: The Biblical text about the life of Jesus is without a doubt the greatest story ever told, but it is equally, without a doubt, the most scandalous story ever told, as well. And it all starts with his birth in Bethlehem which is the inaugural witness of the scandal that Jesus will usher into the world in his life, crucifixion, and resurrection.
All of which is to say that the fairytale we have created of Jesus’ birth should not prevent us from realizing the extraordinary scandal of just how God came into human history as a completely helpless newborn child, and was laid in a feeding trough, surrounded by animals in a cave. Because it is in that scandalous birth that our salvation lies.
Think of all the scandalous details surrounding the birth of Messiah. Luke certainly did. His narrative opens discussing powerful leaders: Emperor Augustus and Quirinius the governor of Syria. Yet this is not their story. The story is of a vulnerable unwed mother and her newborn child. And this birth occurs outside of any center of power, in a gritty backwater village called Bethlehem. The news of the birth is not proclaimed from the hills of Rome or Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, but to a bunch of ragged shepherds tending their flocks on the outskirts of Bethlehem.
This is not what we expect of God. We expect God works on a splashier stage with a better-heeled audience. This is scandalous!
Opening the story by citing the powerful and proud rulers of the time and then shifting to Bethlehem is to make a critical claim; a claim that this birth will change the course of history about the place in God’s reign for the rich and the proud and the poor and the humble. As Mary sang at the Annunciation, God in Jesus “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” Scandalous!
Think of the irony that an emperor in Rome and a newborn peasant baby in Bethlehem have anything to do with one another, or that angels would bother singing God’s praises to smelly shepherds, or that a grimy village would get preference over the splendor of Herod’s jewel-encrusted and gold-leafed Temple. But they do. This radical, un-God like shift of focus from the what the anticipated narrative of Messiah’s arrival would be turns life upside down and inside out. Scandalous!
And then there’s the total vulnerability of the Holy Family brought on by their dire circumstances. A long, arduous journey through territory inhabited by bandits and wild animals, strange surroundings in Bethlehem, a no vacancy sign at the only inn in town, a newborn infant to protect, a dirty and foul smelling stable, a young woman compelled to undergo an unexpected pregnancy outside of the bonds of marriage, a husband who is struggling to follow God’s guidance even though he has serious doubts about how life is unfolding. The fear, confusion and anxiety weighing heavily on Mary and Joseph’s hearts had to be enormous. Frailty and vulnerability define these characters; they are steeped in it. God with us is frail and vulnerable. Scandalous!
We are disappointed, even repelled by how these actual circumstances of Jesus’ birth disabuse us of our fairytale imagery. Yet, conversely, they also fascinate us, compel us to look closer. Why?
I believe it is because we instinctively feel empathy for the Holy Family. Our compassion kicks in for them because we see ourselves reflected in them. If this is how God – Emmanuel - comes to dwell with us, in the midst of these scandalous, dire circumstances that seem beyond the pale, then it gives us hope that Emmanuel dwells with us today in our own lives, our own dire circumstances as well.
Theologian David Lose say this about Luke’s nativity story: “If God can work in and through such ordinary characters [ and circumstances, then] we are bid to wonder, perhaps God can also work in and through us. Luke wants, I think, to make sure we realize that it is not just human flesh ‘in general’ that God takes on in Christ; it is our flesh. And it is not simply history ‘in general’ that God enters via this birth, it is our history and our very lives to which God is committed.”
In the scandalous circumstances of Jesus’s birth I see my own vulnerabilities: my frailty in dealing with the challenges of live and relationships that can leave me feeling drained, isolated and lonely; the dirty and foul areas of my life that have me wondering if I can faithfully follow God’s call; those nagging doubts and fears that blemish my being the person God desires me to be; the vulnerability I feel as I grow older, contemplate my declining physical abilities, my health issues, and how these will impact my security. Dare I hope that in all those moments when I am afraid, doubtful and insecure and frightened, that God actually dwells within me?
And then the truth of the scandal embedded in Luke’s nativity story washes over me like the light from the star in the east. By entering human history in this way God identifies with all the oppressed, lonely, frightened and broken people in the world; which means all of us at one point or another.
In this scandalous birth God fully reveals God's intentions for humanity. God has not abandoned us to the brokenness of the world. In this scandalous birth a new world order unfolds. An order where wholeness trumps brokenness, love consumes hate, and life tramples death.
This truly is the greatest story ever told!
Draw closer to the manger, my friends. Look closely. You and I are there as well. This nativity story is as much about you and me as it is the all other characters. This is no fairytale. The circumstances of Jesus birth give us hope and courage in the midst of our own fragile, broken lives. In this birth we find our salvation. What a scandalous claim! What utter joy!
Matthew 1: 18-25
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
Of the four Gospels, only Luke and Matthew offer us birth narratives of Jesus. Luke’s story tends to focus on Mary as the active parent, while Matthew focuses on Joseph as the active parent, or, more theologically accurate, active step-parent.
There’s a wonderful meme circulating on social media this holiday season that depicts Mary taking a nap on a straw covered palette, while Joseph is seated next to her in a chair cradling the swaddled baby Jesus. I love this image because it shows Joseph as an involved parent and not some aloof father. He has taken his role as a parent seriously, not leaving childcare to the mother, while he focused on his carpentry work to bring home the bacon . . . or, as he was Jewish, the bagels!
The circumstances surrounding Mary’s pregnancy certainly didn’t bode well for Joseph being an involved parent. As Matthew tells us, Mary and Joseph were engaged to be married. In the culture of first century Palestine this engagement required fidelity to your betrothed. When Mary finds herself pregnant, Joseph automatically believes that she has been unfaithful. The Law of Moses was very clear about the penalty for infidelity; stoning to death. In Deuteronomy we learn that, ““If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So, you shall purge the evil from your midst.” – (Deut. 22:23-24)
By the time of Joseph and Mary, the Rabbi’s had mitigated this penalty for infidelity, but it still would have been severe and humiliating. Certainly, being an unwed and pregnant woman would have caused Mary to be subject to considerable scorn, gossip, and shunning.
Under the circumstances of his not being the father of Mary’s unborn child, Joseph would have been within his legal rights to expect that Mary be penalized to the degree the Rabbi’s allowed, most likely being ostracized from her family, friends, and village.
But he does not demand that. We read that, “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose [Mary] to public disgrace, [Joseph] planned to dismiss her quietly.” In other words, Mary is going to be sent away to a place where she is unknown and where - hopefully - she can have her baby in relative peace and safety. This will save Mary from public humiliation and disgrace.
I’m afraid that Joseph would not find much support today for his righteousness toward Mary in those segments of society that are swift to judge, and even swifter to condemn. In more archaic terms many would consider him to have been cuckolded; made a fool of by his cheating wife. In the patriarchal society he lived in – and which is still all too dominate in our own - Joseph would have been seen as being, “less of a man,” not only because he had been cheated on, but because of his compassionate response to Mary’s pregnancy. In more contemporary language he would be deemed a snowflake.
But is he really “less of a man” and a snowflake because of his response? And if so, why would Matthew describe him as being righteous.
The word describing Joseph as righteous in Greek is dikaios which literally means “just.” In the understanding of first century Hebrew culture, being “just” would have meant to live by the Law of Moses. In our own time we would call a just person who lived within the confines of society’s rules and regulations, a law abider. Well, Joseph acting justly in this case would have been a law abider. Which means he would have allowed Mary to be subjected to the penalty of the Law for her perceived infidelity. With this understanding Joseph is not just, because he does not follow the letter of the Law; in this case he is not a law abider. Yet Matthew calls him just.
He is not a law abider, yet just none the less, because an epiphany from an angel informs him that Mary’s is no ordinary pregnancy, and the child in her womb no ordinary human being. So, obedient to God, he compassionately takes Mary as his wife and serves as Jesus’ legal father, to the point of naming him Jesus, as the angel told him to.
In God’s eyes what Joseph did is true just behavior. Just behavior is to not abandon Mary to the cruelty’s society would have wrought on her; to not leave her alone, unprotected, afraid, and destitute; to nurture, feed and protect the child who will soon be born.
In this understanding of what it means to be just, Joseph is not rigidly following the letter of the law, but he is fulfilling the spirit of the law.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus states, “ Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but fulfill.” (Matthew; 5:17) He then offers a series of “you have heard it was said . . . but I say to you” examples of what the authentic fulfilling of God’s law requires.
Joseph is the precursor of the behaviors Jesus says are required of us by God; Behaviors which do not violate the Law, but actually fulfill it . . . justly.
For instance, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven . . . For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43- 45a, 46-48)
In these sayings Jesus is teaching the necessity of having a heart to follow the laws of God justly. As citizens of the Realm of God we are held to a higher standard of behavior; a standard that completely supersedes our external conformity to a set of rules and regulations.
Joseph is Matthew’s original role-model of what that standard looks like in action. In the case of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph is just. The requirements of the law were not.
There’s a United Methodist Church in California that has a creche on their property this December. In that display the Holy Family - Joseph, Mary, and Jesus - are locked up in individual cages. It is powerful imagery, especially in light of what is occurring on our country’s southern border. It’s also a profound theological statement that reminds us the Holy Family became refugees seeking safety in a foreign country, as they flee the genocide of an irrational and power-hungry tyrant.
The rules and regulations that undergird our government to engage in this behavior of separating families and locking them in cages may be legal according to the law, but it’s certainly not just. Not in God’s eyes.
Certain so-called Christians have railed against this UMC church, calling the display blasphemous. There have been death threats against the pastor, and anonymous messages threatening to blow the display and the church up. Yet the true blasphemy in this case is in this threatened violence by alleged Christians. The true blasphemy is supporting the government’s actions and saying that God supports the ripping asunder of families and the mis-treatment of children to keep our country a majority white one. The rules and regulations may support these folks who believe our government is behaving justly, but what we are doing on our southern border in every way violates the justice of God.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to live by a different standard. “You have heard that it was said, ‘We need a wall on our southern border to protect our nation and keep brown people out. But I say to you, “show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor;” (Zechariah 7:9) you shall love one another as I have loved you.”
We are on the cusp of Christmas. As we celebrate this momentous act of God’s entering into human history, let us remember Joseph who modeled God’s just behavior as he prepared for the birth of the Savior. And let us never forget that it is in Jesus we - like Joseph - are called to live into the higher standards of God’s reign. In so doing we will truly be proclaiming the Good News of Jesus’ birth.
The Rev. Faass, Rector
Ah, nothing says “Happy Holidays” like calling people, “a brood of vipers!” Somehow slithering snakes just don’t quite fit in with the Victorian Christmas tableaus we strive hard to achieve at this time of year. Yet, here they are in Matthew’s Gospel as John the Baptizer prepares the way for the first coming of Jesus.
For the past few weeks we have heard scriptural admonitions to stay alert, keep awake, be prepared, get our lives right with God, for we do not know the hour that the Lord will appear.
Well, in Matthew’s text the time of his arrival is imminent and John is busy preaching and baptizing, preparing people for the life-changing message of Jesus’ Gospel. Just like in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, when Jesus the bridegroom arrives you’re either ready and get to enter into the wedding banquet, or you’re just plain out of luck and left out in the cold and dark.
There’s no pussy-footing around when it comes to the prophets, as the Collect for today states, “preach[ing] repentance and prepare[ing] the way for our salvation.” Which means the prophet’s words can be harsh at times as they admonish and call us to a new way of life. That’s why John rails at the Pharisees and Sadducees, calling them a brood of vipers, and asking them, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
John was well aware of the hypocrisy by the religious authorities appearing at the River Jordan. He knew the real reason the Pharisees and Sadducees had come was to see what he was up to; they were on a reconnaissance mission. They definitely were not there because of an authentic desire to amend their lives and be cleansed of their sins. The Pharisees and the Sadducees believed that their status as children of Abraham – as Jews – already guaranteed them their salvation. It was a done deal, no further action required. But John said that was not the case. It’s an erroneous belief, he says, because, “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Don’t rely on your lineage, he tells them. You need to bear good fruit in your own lives. You don’t get a pass allowing you to behave anyway you want based on your ancestry. Walk the talk; actions and behaviors are what matter to God.
This message rattles the religious authorities. When they come to see John, they are there out of concern for the huge numbers of people streaming to hear John preach. There is also some malice as they spied on John because his message was threatening their status. So, they went through the motions of coming to hear John, but it was inauthentic repentance. More self-serving than self-improving.
That’s why John calls them out in front of the crowds; to point out their hypocrisy and use them as an object lesson of what preparing the way of the Lord was not about.
Like all the prophets, John is calling people to live lives of holiness; lives that bear fruit worthy of repentance. Lives that strive to be in alignment with the ways of God’s reign. Lives focused on “let[ting] justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” as Amos says. (Amos 5:24) Lives of act[ing] justly and . . . love[ing] mercy and . . . walk[ing] humbly with . . . God,” as Micah says. (Micah 6:8) Lives where we “share [our] bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into [our] house; [and] when [we] see the naked, to cover them,” as Isaiah says. (Is. 58:7)
These are the ways of holiness that the prophets call us to. Peter Marty is the publisher of The Christian Century. In a sermon he wrote for Advent, Marty quotes the late Eugene Peterson, who said, “’holiness is the most attractive quality, the most intense experience we ever get out of sheer life.’ And our hope, Marty says, is in the Lord’s patience with us even as we struggle to live holy lives.”
Someone who heeded the prophets call to lead a holy life was St. Nicholas who served in the first half of the 4th century as Bishop of Myra, in what is now Turkey.
Nicholas was born circa 270 CE to wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian. His parents died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. It is possible that he was one of the bishops attending the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325. One of the most famous incidents from his life is when he is reputed to have rescued three girls from being forced into prostitution by dropping a sack of gold coins through the window of their house each night for three nights so their father could pay a dowry for each of them. Other early stories tell of him calming a storm at sea, saving a ship and sailors from imminent peril, and rescuing three innocent soldiers from wrongful execution. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love and compassion for children, his concern for sailors, and his protection of the most vulnerable in society.
At his death he was buried in his cathedral in Myra. In the 11th century, when Venice was a powerful city-sate, sailors from that city raided Nicholas’ tomb and took his relics to Bari, Italy where they are currently entombed in the Basilica di San Nicola. His feast day is celebrated on December 6th.
Nicholas is famed as the traditional patron of seafarers and sailors, and, more especially, of children. As a bearer of gifts to children, his name was brought to America by the Dutch colonists in New Amsterdam and who called him Sinterklaas. When the English took over the Dutch colony they heard Sinterklaas as Santa Claus.
In the early 19th century Clement Clarke Moore, a Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature, as well as Divinity and Biblical Learning, at the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan wrote, "A Visit from St. Nicholas", first published anonymously in 1823. It later became widely known as, 'T’was the Night Before Christmas.’ In this now famous poem, Nicholas the saint morphs into Santa the jolly elf, and well, the rest is history. While St. Nicholas certainly is the precursor of Santa, our culture has taken the jolly elf and made him less a witness to a holy life, like St. Nicholas, and more an avatar of commercialism and the acquisition of loot. This truth may be best summed up in Eartha Kitt’s sultry Christmas song, “Santa Baby, Put a Sable Under the Tree For Me.”
God’s prophets don’t do sable, they do holiness of life. Which is what the incarnation of God as the baby Jesus in the manger of Bethlehem is all about.
With the focus on commercialism and hedonism during our culture’s Christmas celebrations, we fervently need to be touched by St. Nicholas’ example of a holy life. His life is a witness to the call of the prophets to have compassion for the weakest and most vulnerable in the world, putting others before self. Nicholas’ life incarnates Christ’s example, and his holy life calls us to do the same.
We are in the midst of the frantic holiday season. The Church focuses on Advent in these weeks leading up to Christmas, calling us preparing ourselves for the coming Savior. At the last, when God checks the list of our behaviors – to see if we have been naughty or nice, sinful or holy – what will God find?
Maybe, better put: If Jesus texted you that he was five minutes away and would be at your door momentarily, what would he find when he got there?
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight as you strive to heed the prophet’s call to holiness of life.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.