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.
Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
There is a magnificent mountain in New Hampshire called Mt. Chocurua. During my five years there I formed a special attachment for this particular mountain, which was about 25 miles north of where I lived. My “Hiker’s Guide to the Mountains of New Hampshire” has a note in it that says I climbed Mt. Chocurua for the first time on October 18, 2003. It also tells me that I did so with the Chilton Mountain Club. The word “euphoric” with an exclamation point follows that entry. It truly was.
At 3,475 feet Mt. Chocurua is far from being the tallest mountain in the White Mountain range. Mt. Washington, the tallest peak in the northeastern United States, comes in at 6288 feet. The reason Chocurua holds a special place in my heart is because of its peak. Unlike the other mountains in New Hampshire, which have been worn down into round, soft peaks by millions of years of erosion, Chocurua has a solid granite, pointy peak. It looks like a mountain and not a giant hill. Its peak is completely barren of growth except for some scrub growth and wild blueberry bushes. Because of that, once you reach the summit you are presented with an un-obstructed breath-taking 360-degree view. On a clear day, on the peak of Chocurua, it did seem, as Barbra Streisand sang, that you could see forever.
Hikers had three trails from which to choose to scale Chocurua; Champney Falls, Middle Sister or Piper. At 7.6 miles round trip, Champney was the shortest, but in my opinion, the prettiest trail. Middle Sister was 9.5 miles and Piper, the roughest and hardest trail, was 9 miles. Each trail provided moderate to difficult hiking conditions. Each had abundant views, lots of flora and fauna and some exquisite waterfalls. I recall starting at the Champney trailhead one October day in 70-degree weather at the foot of the mountain and encountering snow flurries once I reached the peak.
Regardless of which trail you hiked, the most challenging part of climbing Chocurua was the granite peak. It required some nimbleness and nerve to negotiate it, with one rather shear run that I always did sitting on my butt. If you –like me – have some issues with open heights, getting to the peak could be a little daunting. But as the old saying tells us, we must face our fears head on. Working through those fears of open heights gifted you with the spectacular 360-degree view, a sense of real accomplishment, and the presence of the holy.
In New Hampshire there are abundant anecdotes of people who climb mountains to restore their belief in the goodness of life and the creation. Many folks climb when things get too stressful and over-whelming down on the flatlands. The peak of Mt. Chocurua was one of those Celtic thin places, a place where the veil between humans and the Divine becomes permeable. There are numerous stone Cairns there, reminders of the deep sense of holiness people encounter in this place. Because of these things, climbing Chocorua was to engage in a sort of pilgrimage.
In our first reading this morning the prophet Isaiah describes a place similar to Mt Chocurua.
“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established . . . and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!” (Is. 2:1-5)
Isaiah’s prophecy came during a time of great duress for Israel. The powerful Assyrian Empire was a constant looming threat on Israel’s borders. In time the Assyrians would invade the nation and decimate ten of the twelve tribes. Life for the Hebrews was also one of significant disparities in the economic and social systems. Hebrew society was made up of a tiny, rich, elite class that held most of the wealth and power, and a huge impoverished class. Those in greatest need were treated with utter contempt by the wealthy, in clear violation of the Mosaic Law.
Worst of all, the response to Isaiah’s prophetic word to “walk in the way of the Lord,” calling on the elite class to clean up their act or suffer great consequences, was for them to engage in further corruption, selfishness and decadence.
Yet despite this Isaiah looks with faith and hope beyond the current reality toward a vision of a transformed world, a new age when all peoples will live together in peace and unity under the gracious rule of God. His vision is a mountaintop one: “In those days to come, all nations will come to the height of the mountain of the Lord to learn the ways of peace and unity.”
In Matthew’s gospel, the evangelist is also speaking to the Hebrew people in a time of extraordinary distress and calamity. Written in the early 80’s of the first century, the Jerusalem Temple had been destroyed by the Romans. The Jewish people were forced into the Diaspora, and expelled from their homeland. Hope was all but eradicated from the lives of the people.
The evangelist has Jesus prophesying these circumstances, saying that in the future hard times will be the reality and even more will come. But ultimately with the arrival of the Son of Man, God’s justice will prevail in the world. Apocalyptic times are alarm clocks, Jesus says, reminding us to stay alert. They remind us we are to live faithfully as we await the coming of the Redeemer. A few verses after the one’s we hear today is the parable of the goats and the sheep. The connection of this parable to who gets saved and who does not - the one’s left in the field and at the mill grinding and the one’s taken away, is clear. The ones who stay alert are those who have tended to the needs of the world; the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, the naked, the lonely. Those who have done this who will inherit the Kingdom brought about by God’s Son. They will be the ones who achieve the peak of the mountain top, as they journey the trail of life. Those who ignore the hungry, thirsty, sick, and imprisoned will be cursed. They will not achieve the pinnacle, that holy place where God’s reign is fulfilled. Therefore, stay awake, be alert, Jesus says. Do what God requires of you, even in the face of adversity and stressful times, and all will be well.
In the distressing times we encounter in our own day, with wealthy and powerful elites controlling society, and powers of all sorts threatening our existence, the messages of Jesus and Isaiah resonate powerfully. Economic uncertainty has taken an enormous toll on us, and a disgraceful disparity between rich and poor grows ever wider. It would appear that the middle-class, so crucial to our American way of life, is an endangered species; a diaspora of extinction. Wars continue to drag on in Iraq and Afghanistan, and new ones seems to threaten us with an erratic, nuclear, North Korea, and growing, powerful nations in Iran and China. We endure eroding freedoms from ICE raids, to cameras recording our every move. In many places if you are Hispanic, Arabic or Muslim you are viewed with suspicion, if not contempt. And while our institutional “Temples” of government, business, finance, and religion have not been literally destroyed, our trust and confidence in them to provide stability and security is teeter-tottering.
Personally, we encounter mini-apocalypses brought about by sickness, aging and loss, as well as failure and disappointment on the trails of life we climb.
But do not despair, scripture tells us. Be patient Isaiah and Jesus say. Be hopeful. Be alert and do what is right and just, even in the face of overwhelming odds. Face those fears you have head on, keep moving up the trail, even if it means you need to move forward on your butt now and then!
That is the Advent message. The final coming – the final analysis, if you will – the coming of the Savior, and the Restorer of the world to the way God intends for it to be, will be a scenario in which God prevails once and for all. Advent’s message is one of hope. It is light in the darkness. This season embraces our longing for a better way and a better time when the whole world will be complete and whole. A time when we will reach the mountain peak – regardless of how challenging the trail - and the thin place veil has evaporated to reveal the glory of God’s reign.
Our task in this life is to persevere and have faith in the promise that God’s reign will come.
There is a poem written by an anonymous African-American slave in the 1800’s that powerfully conveys this message of perseverance and hopefulness.
"There's a king and a captain high,
And He's coming by and by,
And He'll find me hoeing cotton when He comes.
You can hear His legions charging in the regions
of the sky,
And He'll find me hoeing cotton when He comes.
There's a Man they thrust aside,
Who was tortured till He died,
And He'll find me hoeing cotton when He comes.
He was hated and rejected,
He was scorned and crucified,
And He'll find me hoeing cotton when He comes.
When He comes! When He comes!
He'll be crowned by saints and angels when He comes.
They'll be shouting out Hosanna! to the Man that
And I'll kneel among my cotton when He comes."
Despite the trials and tribulations that we encounter, even the brutal, harsh conditions of slavery that this poet endured, Isaiah and Jesus assure us that if we persevere and hold onto the hope in their promises, as the poet did, we too will be rewarded with salvation and great joy, when he comes, when he comes.
Malachi 4:1-2a, 2 Thess. 3:6-15, Luke 21:5-16
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
This past Wednesday evening I took Anthony out for a birthday dinner at a well-known Cleveland restaurant. We intentionally arrived a half-hour before our reservation so to have a cocktail at the bar and relax.
The barroom was packed when we arrived and every barstool occupied, so we grabbed a table and I went up to the bar to order our drinks. A few minutes later the bartender placed the cocktails on the bar. As I took out my wallet to pay for them, she says to me, “Oh, you don’t have to pay. It’s an open bar.” My initial thought was, “Wow! This restaurant is even better than I thought it was!” But then I realized the big crowd at the bar was probably a part of a group. So, I said, “Oh, I’m not a part of the group.” To which she replied, “Oh, okay. Thanks for being honest.” Thanks for being honest?
I have been thinking about that comment ever since. Is honesty now something that needs to be thanked for when it occurs? When was the tipping point when honesty and its companion truthfulness, no longer were the norm for our communal behavior, but rather, the exception. So exceptional that when it occurred it required an expression of gratitude?
I recall that when I was in elementary school back in the 1960’s we were not only graded on the academic piece of our education, but on our citizenship qualities as well: civility, cooperation, truthfulness, responsibility, respect, and the ability to form positive interpersonal relationships. I checked on-line and discovered that these citizenship qualities are required to be taught in some school systems, but not in others. Most distressingly these citizenship qualities are not seen as being particularly important in the systems that do teach them, and certainly not nearly as important as the academics.
This lack of emphasis on good citizenship qualities and the fact that a growing percentage of our population views them as being unimportant, explains much about the current state of affairs our culture finds itself in: A state of affairs that has seen a corrosive and toxic atmosphere invade every aspect of our lives, infecting our populace, and diminishing our citizenship. This has been in no small part due to the internet where the ability to post hateful, scurrilous and untruthful comments has created a milieu that is as capable of great harm, frequently diminishing its positive benefits. From a Christian perspective, we live in a time where the tenants of the Baptismal Covenant to persevere in resisting evil, respect the dignity of every human being, and seek and serve Christ in all persons are viewed as being quaint, archaic, and even just plain foolish behaviors . . . behaviors of losers.
Now, I’m not an anthropologist but I feel confident that my observations would confirm that this situation is commensurate with the decline of participation in organized religion. While organized, institutional religion is not perfect, it historically has been a place where honesty, truth-telling, and civility have been taught as important qualities of a life well-lived. And in fact, these qualities are part and parcel of the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The new commandment to love one another as Jesus has loved us calls us to behave civilly, respectfully, and honestly with one another.
Yet the assault of incivility, untruthfulness and disrespecting people grows daily, and it has taken its toll on our humanity. Sadly, we are growing so accustomed to these behaviors – even while not accepting them - that they are becoming the new normal. It like the rising tides subsuming Venice, one of civilizations greatest treasures: we seem resigned that the forces of global warming and rising seas levels will make this city the next Atlantis. This versus demanding substantive changes of ourselves and of industry and government, to the way we live our lives on this planet earth, our fragile home; working faithfully in the face of a great challenge to save the values and human achievements imbued in this great city. We have given up hope. This is equally as true as we are battered by the forces that assault our values: we are tempted to abandon those values, our higher angels, because it can be exhausting to be under constant assault and therefore hopeless as well. We get fatigued. And it just seems easier to just give in and let whatever happens, happen.
In Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, the apostle is writing to a church congregation in the Greek city of Thessalonica. This is a congregation that has rejected the values of the greater Roman culture – a culture that devalued human dignity and life, and offered a peace – the Pax Romana - regulated by force and brutality. The people of the church now live by a different standard of values offered by the Gospel; they have become citizens of the Reign of God. Because of that there is intense pressure from the greater culture on this community to abandon those values and return to the life from which they had come. They are under constant assault to abandon the ways of their faith, the values of their citizenship.
Paul describes those assaulting the Thessalonians and creating havoc in the church as, “not living according to the tradition,” and as “mere busybodies” who are influenced by “the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders and every kind of wicked deception” to turn people away from Jesus, “because they refused to love the truth.”
He concludes this passage by offering encouragement to his flock; “do not be weary in doing what is right” he tells them. Do not be weary in doing what is right.
Paul’s words of encouragement to an exhausted congregation are as valuable to us today as they were to the Thessalonians two millennia ago.
Just like that small church community, we in our culture are under assault by those who are in opposition to the values of the Hebrew prophets and of Jesus, to the values of our Baptismal Covenant. Under the weight of the constant barrage of false claims, untruthfulness, lack of civility and disrespect, we, like the Thessalonians, are susceptible to fatigue and burnout. As a result, we are tempted by the satanic forces of evil to abandon our values just to get some relief from the assault.
But we must not do that. We must resist that temptation. For if we abandon our values, the ways of evil win. Rather we must take heart from Paul and not become weary in doing what is right.
Paul’s is a clarion call for us to take heart and be hopeful, because despite the darkness, gloom and despair that engulf us, there is God’s promise to redeem us. This hopefulness is captured in the Day of the Lord theme that undergirds all three scripture lessons today, as we prepare for Advent.
The prophet Malachi, addresses the abuses and corruption by the Temple priesthood towards the people they are meant to serve. He encourages fidelity to the ways of God, and like Paul, encourages steadfastness in the face of opposition, because redemption is on the way. “See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.”
Those who promote evil and oppose the ways of God will be eradicated, Malachi prophesies. Those who stay the course and are faithful to God’s ways will see the son of righteousness arise. And they will experience healing and renewal of life.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus also preaches of the end times, that Day of the Lord. The people of Israel are living under the same brutal yoke of the Roman Empire that the Thessalonians were. In addition, the Temple priesthood were again behaving corruptly toward the people with unfair exchange rates between the Temple shekel and the denarius, for gouging the poor, not to mention making the Temple – Jesus’s father’s house of prayer - a commercial district. In the times leading up to when God shall redeem these horrid conditions, Jesus says, there will be false messiahs, wars, insurrections, persecutions and family betrayals. Which sort of sounds like boot camp to prepare us for our family Thanksgiving dinner next week Thursday!
Yet, in spite of all this, Jesus says, “not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls." Be hopeful therefore in God’s promises to eradicate the evil that assaults you, and bring you to a new day.
The word of God as received through the scripture can not only offer us comfort during times of trial, but also hope that ultimately in all things God’s ways, God’s truth, shall prevail.
In our Collect for today we prayed: “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.” In these times of assault on the most sacred values held by our nation and our faith, may we inwardly digest the scriptures so their sustaining word may give us strength to persevere, and the ability to be a people of hope in the world. And may be never weary in doing what is right.
All Saints Sunday
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
We gather this morning to celebrate the confluence of three significant occasions: All Saints Sunday, the in-gathering of our stewardship pledges for 2020, and our 150th anniversary of being established as a parish. So Happy All Saints, Happy successful stewardship campaign, and Happy Anniversary!
A few weeks ago, as we were discussing the jam-packed plans for this weekend, Anthony said to me, “Gee, why not schedule a baptism for Sunday as well, so you cover all the bases?” I did detect a touch of sarcasm in his voice, when he said it. That would have made for a very full service. Anyway, no baptisms today. But very soon!
All Saints is one of the seven major feast days of the Church. Initially it was a feast to honor and lift up the lives of the great saints: Peter, Paul, Mary, (I know, I know, but not them!) John the Baptist, Francis, Martin Luther King. These were the Christian exemplars; role models of holy living and of how God desired us to live our lives.
Later a day of observance was added to honor the lives of the rest of us. We poor folks who fell short of the mark of the great saints. This day was All Souls Day, which occurred the day after All Saints. In the past few decades this observance of two separate days – one for the great saints and one for the rest of us souls – has been pretty much left behind in favor of honoring all people as saints of God, or at least having the potential for a saintly life, on All Saints Day.
Our Gradual Hymn, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” captures this theology perfectly:
“I sing a song of the saints of God . . . and one was a doctor, one was a queen, one was a shepherdess , one was a soldier, one was a priest . . . they were, all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one too.” These lyrics recognize the universality of the sainthood of all people, as long, as the lyrics say, they “love to do Jesus will.”
Just what is Jesus’ will that those saints loved to do? Well, certainly it was following the distillation of the Mosaic Law that Jesus offered us: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. I would add to that the New Commandment Jesus gave us the night before he died, which was to “love one another as I have loved you.” As Our Presiding Bishop states, “Love is the way!”
Today’s Gospel lesson from Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, lists those ways of loving to do Jesus will that lead to our being saints of God. We begin with the litany of the Beatitudes and Woes, which describe who are blessed, and those who better look out in the world of God’s Reign. They conclude with this summary:
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
What we have in this passage are commands about love, nonretaliation and forgiveness. Commands about how we can live lives loving to do Jesus’s will.
Dr. Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. writes this about the passage.
“[Jesus] brings satisfaction and belonging to those who suffer from poverty—which includes more than the people who lack money but also the powerless and the disenfranchised. His ministry feeds the hungry . . . and [he has] a penchant for eating with others [whom society rejects.] It also lays a foundation for the hospitality and meal-sharing that are hallmarks of the community he creates. The people who cry, who live in perpetual loss and grief and who have lost hope, will not be forgotten but will experience joy. Exclusion and persecution prove to be no match for those who share in Jesus’ prophetic, liberative ministry.”
A quick word about those “woe” statements and who they apply to: those people who are now rich, well-fed, laughing, and have people speaking well of them. Woe in this case is not some curse of damnation, but rather means look out! It’s a forewarning to those people who have wealth, health, and happiness and who take the good things of life for granted, and even worse, do not share those good things with, or comfort those who do not have those things. When Jesus says woe/look out, it is to induce an amendment of life from ways that are not of God, and to turn to the ways of saintly living that are of God. The woe statements remind us that God intends us all to be members of that great communion of saints, and that in God’s reign saints look out for the well-being of each other . . . not just for themselves. They do so by loving to do the will of Jesus: which is to tend the sick, comfort the afflicted, be companions to the lonely, the imprisoned and bereaved, feed the hungry, cloth the naked, to not judge, to not seek retribution, to be generous with the giving of themselves and what they have, to others.
For 150 years – in four different edifices, under the spiritual leadership of thirteen different rectors and numerous assisting priests, in times of plenty and in times of scarcity, the people of Christ Episcopal Church have striven to love to do Jesus’ will.
We have not always done so perfectly, and at times we have failed miserably. But after-all we are human, and the really good news of the Christian faith is that God is in the forgiveness business. Yet each time we did not live up to our saintly potential we heard that loving warning of, look out! And we took that warning to heart and amended our ways of life to be in line with the ways of God’s reign. One has only to look through our lovely commemorative booklet produced for this celebration to see the numerous ways we have done Jesus’ will and loved it! And that booklet is far from exhaustive in listing all the ways we have done so. It is why we are still here after 150 years, and why I believe God has another 150 years planned for our doing Jesus’ will.
In a few minutes we will gather-in our pledge commitments of our treasure so that we may determine how we can financially secure our future into the year 2020 and beyond. It is by the generous commitment of those gifts of time, talent and treasure to this parish that we will continue to love to do Jesus’ will. It is by the giving of those gifts that we will emulate all those saints of God – saints like Byrdie Lee, Charlie Buss, Mattie Jackson, John Sanders, Lollie Bailey-Nilson, Molly Vander Hoof, Mo Maloney, Jim Lightbody, Patricia Burgess, Al Corrado, John Sims, Jim Schiller, Ted Ray, and thousands more -who have gone before us in this parish these past 150 years; and who are a part of that great communion of saints. It is by the giving of our gifts in our pledge commitments that we honor those saints, and all saints, and recall that the saints of God are just like us, and we mean to be one too.
 Dr. Matt Skinner, Working Preacher web page: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4256 November 3, 2019.
Genesis 32:22-31;2 Timothy 3:14-4:5;Luke 18:1-8
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
All three of our scripture readings today have the common theme of persistence.
In the Genesis story we hear of Jacob in a wrestling match. “A man wrestled with [Jacob] until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.” We eventually learn that the man is actually God. Jacob wrestles with God all night long - for hours and hours on end - despite the fact that one would believe God has an advantage over him. And yet, he persisted.
God prevailed over Jacob on the mat only when God took an unfair advantage and dislocated his hip. Yet despite his being made lame, Jacob holds fast to God. “[God] said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." You see, Jacob desperately wants God’s blessing. He is returning home to Israel which he left after he stole his older brother Esau’s birthright through trickery years before. Jacob believes that Esau wants to destroy him in retribution. If he can wrangle a blessing out of God it will serve to protect him in what he knows will be an inevitable encounter with Esau. But God wants to leave without giving Jacob his blessing. And yet, he persisted.
Because Jacob persevered, God acquiesces and gives Jacob a blessing. Jacob has to be gob-smacked by what his persistence has resulted in: God’s blessing and the fact that he is still alive, for it was believed by the Hebrews that to see God face to face would result in death. In awe and wonder Jacob says, “"For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." All because, he persisted.
In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, Paul advises his younger protégé to persevere in the face of adversity. Timothy is the leader of a group of churches and responsible for protecting them from destructive outside influences, as well as dissidents from within. “Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it,” Paul writes him. He continues, “I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” Paul encourages Timothy to persevere in the face of strong opposition. And Timothy prevailed over his opponents, because, he persisted.
In the Gospel of Luke, we hear the parable of the widow and the unjust judge. The unjust judge, “neither feared God nor had respect for people.” I will refrain from drawing any contemporary parallels here! The widow has been wronged by someone and she keeps coming to this judge demanding justice. “Grant me justice against my opponent,” she insists. But he doesn’t. This in itself is appalling. Throughout scripture, widows are counted among the most destitute members of society, alongside other vulnerable groups such as the poor, orphans, and resident aliens, or, as we call them, immigrants. Because of the precarious social and economic position of such groups, biblical texts make provision for them, saying that God calls us to ensure that they do not fall victim to exploitation by others, and are well-looked after.
This widow is one feisty woman! She has been taken advantage of, most likely by unscrupulous predators. She is looking out after her own best interest by repeatedly going to the unjust judge to demand justice. Eventually the unjust judge thinks to himself, “’because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'" And so he grants her justice because, she persisted.
This is an instance where the NRSV translation of the scripture takes the punch out of the textual meaning . . . literally. In the original Greek the phrase the NRSV translates as “wear me out” is the verb hypopiazo, which means “to give a black eye.” So, what the original text states is, “because this widow causes trouble for me, I will give her justice, so that she may not, in the end, give me a black eye by her coming!”
Wow! The widow is a pugilist! Her persistence and call for justice are such that the judge characterizes her actions as those of a boxer. She’s Rocky! And he wants to be rid of her for fear she goes to sucker punch him. So, he gives her justice because, she persisted.
Now this imagery of the widow as a boxer, ready to take on the judge is a humorous one. It’s funny; worthy of a SNL skit. But the jokes not on the widow. “New Testament scholar F. Scott Spencer rightly recognizes, the humor in this scene is not one of comic relief. The humor in this scene instead pokes fun at the powers-that-be, “lampooning and upending the unjust system stacked against widows, orphans, immigrants, and the like.” Like our political cartoons today, Jesus’ parable encourages us to laugh at those who wield their power unethically. We laugh, though, in order to challenge such figures, and ultimately, to offer a different way.”
We may initially laugh at the image of an older, frail woman as a boxer. But the one who is the butt of the joke is the judge, a buffoon who is the antithesis of God’s mercy. In God’s eyes the joke’s always on the one who doesn’t look out for widows, orphans and immigrants; on the person who makes their lives harder, more miserable by their callousness and lack of respect for people and God.
Jesus promises us that God will vindicate these “little ones” against those who inflict hardship on them, or who fail to use their power to alleviate their plight. God does not protect the property and monetary interests, or the immoral behaviors and desires, of the powerful and privileged who defy God’s ways. And God will never condone those who support those who do so.
Rather God is compassionate, ready to respond to the needs of the powerless and distressed. Jesus is crystal clear in stating this truth; the ways of God’s reign call for our priorities to be based on compassion.
To emphasize this Jesus compares and contrasts the judge to God. He tells his listeners, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” In other words, if a recalcitrant, compassionless judge who has no respect for people eventually gives what is needed, then God, who is full of compassion for the beleaguered of the world, will do so with enthusiasm. God doesn’t need to be badgered or cajoled into doing so.
In this parable God is like the widow, (and at least in her willingness to fight for what she needs, like Jacob) in her own relentless commitment to getting what is needed to gain justice. And she did so because, she persisted.
Jesus tells us to pray night and day – to be persistent like the widow, and Timothy, and Jacob – in seeking God’s guidance and companionship to bring about justice and mercy for all people. To persistently pray to God, asking that we be given the wear-with-all and the chutzpah to become persistent boxers and wrestlers against the powers-that-be who ignore the pleas of the needy and marginalized. To be willing to give a metaphorical black eye to those who defy God’s reign. To laugh at the pompous buffoons of the world, challenging them in their egregious behaviors and ultimately, to let them know there is a different way; the way love which is a power that can never be defeated or overcome because it is of God.
My companion followers of Jesus, let’s go to the mat for God, and as Paul writes Timothy in his first letter, “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. [And] fight the good fight of the faith.” (1 Tim. 6:11b – 12a)
In our prayers let us beseech the Creator that we become pugilists for God, and that in so doing we move God’s reign ever closer, because, we persisted.
F. Scott Spencer, Salty Wives, Spirited Mothers, and Savvy Widows: Capable Women of Purpose and Persistence in Luke’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 292-93.
 Brittany E. Wilson, Assistant Professor of New Testament, Duke Divinity School, Durham, N.C., Working Preacher commentary on Luke 18:1-8. https://www.workingpreacher.org.
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
I love the ocean! I spend ten days of vacation each August in Ogunquit, Maine, a place that has a stunning three-mile long, white, sandy beach, as well as a mile-long path called the Marginal Way, that runs along craggy rocked shore-line with gorgeous views of the Atlantic ocean. I call this time there my annual ocean fix, which is crucial to my mental and spiritual health and well-being.
Nothing like the ocean restores my weary body and soul. The sea is the Balm of Gilead for me. And like good liturgy, which I also love, the sea touches all five of my senses: the sound of the waves, the briny smell of the spray, the salty taste, the ever-changing colorful seascapes that the sun, moon and stars play upon the ocean’s surface, and – at least in Maine, where the average August water temperature is in the high 50’s – the bracing, invigorating and then numbing effect of the cold water on your skin. The ocean makes me feel alive, because in so many ways the ocean itself is alive. It is living water.
One of the joyful pleasures of on the seashore is walking on the beach and watching young children encounter the ocean – this living water - for the very first time. Have you ever done this? Watched little children at the seashore and discover the water? It’s truly one of life’s pleasures.
Watching little children, somewhere between the ages of one and four years old, encounter the sea for the first time is to remember what joy and wonderment are all about.
Now the ocean can initially be a little intimidating for the uninitiated, especially little kids. Many who are hesitant to get up close are introduced to the sea by an adult picking them up and slowly carrying them into the surf, allowing all their senses to be engaged by the water slowly and safely. Yet many children get this look of trepidation on their faces as the adult moves into deeper waters. They are unsure of what to expect and not sure they want to go any deeper . . . even safely embraced in adult arms.
Then the adult slowly lowers the hesitant child so that a foot gets wet and they feel for the first time that delicious cold salt-water moving on their skin. Or maybe a larger wave breaks and the salt spray covers the child and the adult, inducing a moment of shock on the child’s face, which quickly transforms in to joy and wonder and glee. It’s an aha moment. Before long the child wants to be let down, so that they can run back and forth as the waves ebb and flow on the shore; it’s the as if the child is playing a game of tag with the ocean.
And oh, the shouts of glee and laughter that peal forth from the child as they play in these living waters. It is a joy and wonder to behold. And I have not even mentioned the sand, sea shells, starfish, periwinkles, gulls and crabs, yet!
(At the 10:30 service) (In a few moments) we are going to baptize Fionnan Miquel into the household of God. In the liturgy we will pray one of my favorite prayers in the Book of Common Prayer.
“Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy
Spirit you have bestowed upon this your servant the
forgiveness of sin, and have raised him to the new life of
grace. Sustain him, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give him
an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to
persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and [my absolute favorite phrase] the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.”
That’s precisely what little children encountering the sea are doing: expressing “the gift of joy and wonder in all [God’s] works.” The magnificence and the beauty of the sea that God has created induces this exuberant expression of joy and awe in them. It’s the same joy and awe when a child first encounters any number of things for the first time: a bug, a fragrant flower, a puppy, a kitten, ice cream! Each brings about one of those aha moments, as the child expresses the gift of joy and wonder in all that God has made.
As we baptize Fionnan Miquel, we celebrate that gift of joy and wonder. That’s our prayer for him today as he encounters the living waters of baptism; that he retains that gift of joy and wonder in his life; even as he grows into adulthood, and the changes and chances of live threaten to wear him down, inducing cynicism and even a loss of hope. That in those moments of despair or hard-heartedness, he will reconnect to the innocence of his childhood and remember that life is full of awe and wonder and that taking delight in God’s gifts can move him from despair to renewed hope. Allowing him to laugh with glee and joy as he revels in the goodness of all God has given us. We need to pray that very same thing for ourselves, as well.
We live in very cynical times; times when the despair quotient seems to exponentially increase daily. When compared against other western nations our nation falls further and further down the happiness scale each year. The number of people who find little happiness in life grows with each depressing, seemingly hopeless, event in our national life. The lack of common decency and civility, the legitimation of hate and violence against people who are not white, straight, supposedly Christian, and wealthy, the growing economic disparities, the reckless behaviors and verbiage that put people’s lives in danger, all these and more add to our lack of hippiness, national despair and a loss of hope. In the book of Proverbs, we are told that where there is no vision the people perish. I would observe when there is no vision, there is no hope, and when there is no hope, people perish. Our current lack of a coherent and healthy vision for the future for us as a people, means we have less and less hope, and therefore we are in danger of perishing.
Fionnan’s baptism today, and the joy and awe that we witness in our children as they encounter the Creation and all of life, are the antidote to our despair and loss of hope. They can heal us, allowing us to live and thrive if we hold them as the great gift from a Creator who loves us; a Creator who wants nothing more than for us to live joyfully as God’s children; as joyfully as children encountering with awe and wonder all the goodness of life.
In our reading from 2 Kings, Naaman the Syrian general who has leprosy, is an object lesson of how we can move from cynicism and a loss of joy in life, to new life that revels in joy and wonder at all that God gives and does for us.
When Naaman is told by the prophet Elisha, to wash in the waters of the Jordan to cure his leprosy, he is not only cynical, he is disdainful. Why bother with such a simple act? Won’t it take a more elaborate process to cure him? After all, he is a general, an important man. He is so wrapped up in himself, he can’t see the gift of God being offered to him.
Wiser minds prevail and convince him to do as the prophet says. And he does so and is healed of his leprosy. We are to told, “[Naaman’s] flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.” I believe that his mind and his spirit were also restored to that of a young boy, as well. Because in those living waters of the Jordan river, he rediscovers the joy and wonder of God’s goodness and love for him.
As we call down the Holy Spirit upon the waters of baptism today they will become living waters; the waters of God that heal and bring us new, authentic life in Christ. Like the living ocean waters of Ogunquit that bring such joy to children, these living waters of baptism remind us of our own youthful, less cynical selves and invite us to reclaim the joy and wonder in life that God gives to us. There is immense blessing in that. And in that blessing we can become restorers of hope, joy, awe and wonder of God’s love for us to the world. That is holy work, indeed!
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
This morning we hear the familiar parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Jesus tells this parable in response to the religious authorities who are grumbling that he associated with people they considered to be sinners.
We need to understand the term sinners here with a few grains of salt. Religious authorities have applied the term pretty wantonly, using their own prejudices – and not the Gospel - to determine who was engaged in sinful behaviors; behavior such as dancing, playing cards, drinking, being divorced, engaging in sexual intimacy before marriage, marrying outside of your faith, marrying a person of a different race, being LGBTQ, sparing the rod in child rearing, having an illness, not being rich. I recall a church in New Hampshire that excommunicated a woman and her family because she worked as a waitress in a restaurant that served alcohol. She herself didn’t drink, but because she served alcohol her church considered her to be a sinner. So, they cast her out. Historically the list of behavior deemed sinful by religious leaders is seemingly infinite.
Jesus repeatedly, in word and deed, defied the religious authority’s idea of sinful behavior. When the religious authorities said that being blind, deaf or lame was due to sinful behavior by the afflicted person or their parents, Jesus said it was not. When the religious authorities proclaimed that being rich was a blessing from God and therefore being poor was God’s judgment, Jesus said it was not. When the religious authorities said that helping a person in distress on the Sabbath was a sin, Jesus said it was not.
And even when certain behaviors were sinful, like tax collectors gouging people, or engaging in prostitution or committing adultery, Jesus said that all people – even sinners - are worthy of redemption if they amended their sinful ways. That is why Jesus associated with them, to help show them a better way of life by affirming their being beloved children of God. The religious authorities said that was not possible; once you sinned you were done and out, and sometimes even dead.
When we people of faith want to engage in the dicey business of determining sinful behavior – I’m thinking of the names Falwell and Graham here - we would all do well to recall Jesus’ pronouncement in the story of the woman caught in adultery. When all the religious folks wanted to stone her to death – the penalty for adultery – Jesus said, ““Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Realizing their hypocrisy, everyone puts down their stones and walks away. Jesus’ desire was to redeem this woman, not condemn her. Jesus then says, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8:10)
This woman is a lost sheep who Jesus finds and brings back into the fold, the flock of the children of God, which is all of us.
Ergo the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Notice that both the shepherd and the woman go to great lengths to find what has been lost. They are relentless and stop at nothing. The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep and doesn’t stop searching until he finds the lost one. The woman lights a lamp to brightly illumine the house and then she sweeps and sweeps and sweeps until she finds the lost coin. (BTW This is a person I need as a housekeeper!)
Such is the intrinsic value of what has been lost that no effort is too onerous in finding what was lost and restoring them to the flock or the coin purse.
In both parables Jesus is the shepherd and the woman. And in telling these parables, he reminds us that his life and ministry are always about imprinting on us the ways of God’s reign. As Jesus’ followers that is our goal; to have the Good News of the Gospel imprinted on us and for us to be like Jesus in our lives.
There’s a wonderful blog titled “Nakedpastor.com. Graffiti on the Walls of Religion” by David Hayword. David is a gifted graphic artist and his blog is comprised of sharp and often biting editorial cartoons critical of a lot of religious practice; practice that is contrary to what Jesus desires to imprint on us in the Gospel.
One of these powerful drawings shows Jesus standing with a lost rainbow-colored sheep which he has found and is now restoring to the fold. Jesus and this sheep are facing the rest of the flock, who are at the gate of the sheepfold. The lead sheep at the gate says to Jesus, “Oh, he’s not lost, we threw him out.”
Hayword’s cartoon is a poignant reminder that we often throw out of the flock those whom God says are valuable members of it. This is a vivid example of how religious people often determine sinful behavior in contradiction to what Jesus would have us do.
Today is Homecoming Sunday. As we re-gather as a congregation for a new program year, it is important to recognize that this parish has been very intentional in discerning how Jesus desires to imprint the ways of God’s reign on us, and then for us to welcome those sheep who have been thrown out of other churches. To a large degree we have attracted these lost sheep. If you look around at our parish you will see divorced people, inter-racial and inter-faith marriages, LGBTQ folks, bi-racial people, people who are poor and rich, people who are healthy and people with declining health, people of strong faith and people who wrestle with their faith, people who are married, and those who are not, but clearly are in love with another person. And all are welcome, because all are valued members of the flock by the sheer fact that all are beloved children of God. Ultimately nothing else matters.
We do not cast out at Christ Church, but rather we welcome the lost sheep of the world.
But a critical question we need to ask ourselves is, how much do we actively seek the lost, leaving everything and relentlessly searching for them, rather than waiting for them to find us?
I would postulate, not too often. Which leads me to an observation: There is one thing we have cast out – often without recognizing we do so. We Episcopalians are not too eager to go out and seek lost sheep. In our reticence to do so, what has been thrown out is our ability to articulate to others what we have in this congregation; the Good News of Jesus that is imprinted on us. All too often, speaking with confidence about are faith and the beautiful diverse flock we belong to, becomes our lost sheep, our lost coin. If we are to gather other lost sheep, and not just let them find us, then we need to recover what we have cast out. The lost voice of our Gospel faith must be found, or sticking with the metaphor, brought back into the flock first. Because if we don’t do that, too many lost sheep will only hear the voice of that lead sheep in Hayword’s cartoon: “Oh, he’s not lost, we threw him out,” and they will then believe that that sort of hateful exclusion defines all religious communities.
Okay, what I’m am about to say is not a political endorsement. Heaven knows I’ve had enough issues this year without having the IRS hound me. Rather it’s a religious endorsement. There is a candidate who is running for president this year who has – astonishingly– brought the lost sheep of the voice of Gospel faith back into the public square. I think we are all aware that the only voices of faith in the public square these past few decades have been those of the cast-out variety, and not the let’s go look for the lost sheep variety. So, what we are left with are political leaders who either embrace the cast out religious types, creating a society that in opposition to God’s reign, or those politicians who are afraid to speak of faith at all for fear of being perceived as being one of the cast-out variety. They, like us, have lost the voice of Gospel based faith. And frankly, considering our current state of affairs, it is imperative that what has become lost needs to be found if we are to have a just and loving society.
This is why it so refreshing and hopeful, to see someone – who happens to be Episcopalian, no less – articulate their faith and how it has formed them as a follower of Jesus, as well as how the Gospel informs how they lead as an elected official. And more to the point, they are not afraid to do so, but eager to talk about how Jesus imprints their life.
This is a person who is a relentless seeker of the lost and who desires to restore all people to the flock of our society.
We need to use this person as an example of how to do the same. To speak confidently and without fear about the Good News we have at Christ Church. That this parish is a place where the imprint of Jesus has us not only welcoming those who are lost or have been thrown out, but actively seeks and brings them back into the fold of the loving arms of God that we extend to them.
By doing so we become healers of a broken society and the Reign of God comes closer to becoming fully realized. And we, like the shepherd and the woman, can proclaim, ‘Rejoice with me, for what was lost, has been found!’
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
"’I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’”
These words of Peter from the Book of Acts are spoken to the Roman centurion, Cornelius, and other gentiles in Cornelius’ home, after Peter has a revelatory dream about who can be included in the membership of the early Christian church. Up until that dream it was required by the church elders that to be a member of the church one had to follow the Jewish law, including dietary restrictions and male circumcision. Peter’s epiphany, which was a message from God, caused him to have a change of heart. Where he once believed that partiality needed to be shown toward who could be a part of the Church, he now doesn’t. God showed him otherwise. All are able to be included as long as they honored God and did what was acceptable to God: Which translates as following the way of life that Jesus taught us as he preached the unfolding reign of God.
In that revelation to Peter, God explodes the norms that guided the religious society of that day. Norms that were restrictive and exclusive were set aside, and new norms of inclusion and radical welcome were set in place.
How are we doing with that folks? How are we living into the norms of God’s reign that Jesus preached? How are we doing showing no partiality toward others? Others who we may find different from us and may want to exclude, but rather doing what is right and acceptable to God, which is to love them? How are we individually and as a society, doing with that?
I would venture to say poorly. In fact, instead there has been an increase in showing partiality – even what I would call hyper-partiality - and of excluding others who we don’t think fit into the fabric of our country, our neighborhoods, our schools, and our churches, over the past few years.
So extreme are some elements of this trend of showing partiality, that the norms of our society and of God’s reign are being ignored, and even at times maligned, as not being of God.
In a New York Times op-ed piece recently titled, “People Can Savage Social Norms, but Also Revive Them,” columnist David Brooks speaks to the current assault on norms that we as a culture and nation once held dear.
He writes, “A culture is made up of norms — simple rules that govern what thoughts, emotions and behaviors are appropriate at what moment. It’s appropriate to be appalled when people hit their dogs. It’s inappropriate to ask strangers to tell you their income.”
‘Most norms are invisible most of the time. They’re just the water in which we swim. We unconsciously absorb them by imitating those around us. We implicitly know that if we violate a norm, there will be a social cost, maybe even ostracism.”
Some of the norms that Brooks is speaking of are civility, common courtesy, mutual respect, which includes not verbally or physically abusing others, and just plain old common decency. In times past these were the norms that guided society and allowed us to live together in reasonable harmony.
Yet these norms are being flaunted, often with glee. And in many circles instead of people who do so being ostracized by others - or at the least challenged - they are being encouraged, being lifted up as good people with a noble cause. At times it gets so extreme it seems as if a new blood sport has come into vogue in savaging these previously accepted norms, which are being thrown to the lions like so many Christians during Roman persecutions of the faith.
Brooks observes, “We’re living in a moment when norms are in maximum flux. [Those in public office] have smashed through hundreds of our established norms and given people permission to say things, [and I would observe, do things as well] that were unsayable [and, again, I would add, undoable] just a decade ago. Especially in politics, the old rules of decorous behavior no longer apply.”
Yet, some norms are eternal and should never be disregarded, and certainly not savaged. These eternal norms find their genesis in the sacred texts of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Norms like: caring and providing for the alien and stranger in our midst. Seeking after the welfare of widows, orphans, the sick and vulnerable, the poor. Protecting those imperiled by violence. Living the values of the Beatitudes. Seeking Christ in all persons. Loving those who don’t love us. Respecting the dignity of every human being. These are the norms of God’s reign that Jesus and the prophets proclaimed; norms which have undergirded the norms of civil society.
It was in upholding the values of these eternal norms of God that Jesus was scourged, crucified and died. He was savaged by those who saw those norms of non-violence, radical respect and love as being of little or no value.
The Resurrection of Jesus from the grave is God’s response to Jesus’ death, and the attempt to negate those norms he proclaimed. Resurrection is God’s validation of what Jesus preached about the poor, the outcast, the penitent, the marginalized, the despised. Despite anyone’s best attempts you cannot kill those norms that God lifts up in Jesus’ Resurrection, just like you can’t kill Jesus, because those norms find their source in God. They are eternal.
Resurrection of these norms in our own time is to be our response to those who have savaged them. Paraphrasing David Brooks, people can savage these eternal norms, but that God, through us, can resurrect them.
The theologian, Amy-Jill Levine states that, “The whole message of the Bible, and specifically of the kingdom of Heaven, is to see the world otherwise: as God wants it to be rather than as it is.” That’s why we who profess faith in Jesus need to resurrect these norms. We see the world otherwise. We see the world the way God wants it to be. And as we see in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, God will not be thwarted by anyone who would savage the ways of God.
On this Resurrection Sunday, we are called to work toward resurrecting decency and civility. We are called to resurrect non-violence and the complete welcome of the other. We are called to resurrect mutual respect and honor the dignity of every human being.
These are the norms of God’s reign. They are the norms that Jesus died for and for which God raised him from the dead.
The empty tomb represents the triumph of those norms over the way of savagery, of hope re-renewed in what Jesus taught and preached. They are an invitation to participate in God’s work of building God’s reign through Jesus Christ. For us this Easter and every day that follows may it be so.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
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.