Sermon, January 23, 2022 – Epiphany III

Telling Stories

There is a wonderful celebration in the Jewish community at the end of Sukkoth, also known as the Feast of Tabernacles – which recalls the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness for forty years.  The celebration is known as Simcat Torah, which means “Rejoicing in the Torah.”  In this celebration, the final verses of Deuteronomy are read and then, with great flourish the Rabbi or the reader rewinds the scroll to the very beginning and reads the first verses of Genesis.  The Jewish community will read the entire Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures) over the course of a year; so, this is a continuous cycle of readings – much like our various lectionary cycles that continuously recycle from year to year enabling us to hear the whole of the sacred story told us in the scriptures.

In today’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures, we find Nehemiah, the Persian appointed governor, and Ezra, his scribe, standing before the people.  Ezra begins to read the Torah – the book of the Law, to the people.  It takes all day and at the end the people begin to weep.  Nehemiah instructs them not to weep, but rather:  And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

In other words – rejoice and give thanks – celebrate the gift of the Torah.

The back story for this event is that the Persian emperor had released the Jewish people from their seventy years of captivity in Babylon.  The captives, as well as those who remained in Israel, lived through a period of abject spiritual poverty after Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and the destruction of King Solomon’s Temple in approximately 597 BCE.  The Temple was gone, along with every vestige of their religious life and worship evaporated.  Fast forward seventy or so years – the Persians overthrow the Babylonians and the Persian emperor gives permission for the exiles to return home.

Nehemiah is appointed as governor (meaning he’s responsible for collecting the taxes due the emperor).  Nehemiah and Ezra return to a still shattered Jerusalem.  This is where the story goes beyond today’s consideration (I invite you to take some time to read the books of Ezra and Nehemiah).  What was happening here is that the people – those taken into exile and those who remained had forgotten their story, they had forgotten who they were, and, more importantly, whose they were.  So, Ezra and Nehemiah tell the people their story.  The people needed to hear their story so they could, once again, become the people of God.

This, my brothers, and sisters, is why we recycle the lectionary every three years (two years in the Daily Office cycle).  By the way, the Forward Day by Day devotional guide is a wonderful way to follow the daily office lectionary.  There are other resources to help with this as well.

Nehemiah’s people had forgotten their story; consequently, they had lost their identity as the people of God – the Chosen people.  The people in Nazareth were on the verge of losing their story, their identity.  The Roman occupation, and Herod’s disregard of Jewish law had an eroding effect on the people.  When Jesus chooses the passage from Isaiah 61: 1 – 2, which heralds Israel’s return from captivity, Jesus is saying to the folks in his hometown, “remember your story.”  Remember who you are and, more importantly whose you are.  When Jesus says to the gathered congregation, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” he is telling them that their story is alive and well and the promise of God’s love and favor is still theirs.

Our Judeo-Christian faith is full of stories.  These stories remind us of the depth and breadth of God’s love for us, and for the whole world.  We have stories because it makes it easier for us to remember the great truths of the Gospel.  Writer Elie Weisel was once asked by God created humanity, he replied, “God made man because God loves stories.”  One of my favorite stories is about a rabbi named, Baal Shem Tov (which means – Master of the Good Name) who lived in the Ukraine during the early to mid-seventeenth century and is credited as the founder of the Hassidic movement in Judaism.

[Baal Shem Tov story – see below]

The moral of this story is that when someone comes to us and tells us our story, we know that we are loved and forgiven.  Therefore, we are able in the words of our first reading:

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Today this scripture is fulfilled in our hearing! Amen.

Baal Shem Tov story

The version I told this morning (23 January 2022) was edited and shortened from the version here:

The founder of Chassidism, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (called the Baal Shem Tov, or “the Besht” for short), was well-versed in the secrets of the Torah and of creation. But he also knew the greatest secret of all: what each man’s purpose is in this world.

Those who believed this completely and followed his directives were called his chassidim.

To each of his chassidim the Besht revealed his task in life, and one, who is the hero of our story, he instructed to become a wandering storyteller. He should travel from town to town and from village to village and tell people stories about the Baal Shem Tov. “You will know when your mission is achieved,” the Besht added.

Shortly thereafter the Besht passed on to his eternal rest. For the next ten years the chassid diligently and joyously carried out his assignment, wandering from town to town telling the “Baal Shem Tov stories” he had witnessed or heard about.

One day, someone told him that there was a rich Jew in Vitebsk who actually paid money for such stories: ten rubles (at that time a huge amount) for every new one, and five for those he had already heard, plus traveling expenses. It was a two-day journey, but to our hero it seemed like minutes. He knew many stories and he really needed the money!

When he arrived at the rich man’s plush home, it was already late Thursday evening, and he was so tired from the road that he wanted only to sleep. But there would always be tomorrow.But he woke late on Friday, and by the time he finished praying, it was already time to get ready for Shabbat. But there would be Shabbat.

Unfortunately, that evening at the Shabbat dinner, try as he could, he just couldn’t remember any stories, not even one. He thought that after a good night’s rest his mind would be sharper, but it wasn’t. And the next day it was the same thing: he would begin a story, and suddenly his mind would go completely blank.

He thought that perhaps he was going mad. No matter what he did, he had no results. He even remained for another two days, but it was obvious that something very strange was going on: he, who knew hundreds of stories about his great teacher, having witnessed many of them himself, and having told and retold them countless times over the years, could not remember anything! He had forgotten everything; he had no other choice than to shamefacedly give up.

The wealthy man was very disappointed, but nevertheless, against all hope, he accompanied the chassid to his wagon; perhaps at the last moment some story would pop into his mind—but it didn’t.

The host slipped a few silver coins in the pocket of his visitor so he wouldn’t feel completely broken, and helped him onto the waiting carriage. Then, as he put his foot on the first step, he remembered . . . “A story!!! I remember a story!” he shouted.

“Once the Baal Shem took ten chassidim (I was one of them) and told us to get in his carriage shortly before Shabbat. We didn’t ask any questions, being used to such journeys. We entered and sat down and, as usual, we immediately felt as though the carriage was flying in the air. Moments later, we landed.

“We got out and found that we were in a place we had never seen before. It was a large town square that was completely deserted. Even the stores were all closed, and off to one side stood a stage or pulpit, that looked recently built, surrounded by several large crosses and flaming torches, as though there was about to be some sort of large outdoor church ceremony.

“The Besht told us to follow him as he quickly left the square, walked quickly through some winding streets, and in just minutes went through the gates of what was obviously the Jewish ghetto. He stopped before one of the houses and began pounding on the door, until a small peephole opened up and someone frantically whispered from inside.

‘Are you mad?! What are you doing out there?!’ Several bolts and locks clicked and slid until the door opened and the owner frantically motioned for all of us to enter, slamming it shut behind us.

“‘Tonight is one of their terrible holidays! The worst of the worst!!’ he said, short of breath, as he was reclosing the bolts and locks as fast as possible. ‘You’re lucky I let you in! In another few minutes the entire town square is going to be filled with bloodthirsty Jew-haters from all around, and the devil himself, Bishop Thaddeus, yemach shemo (may his name be blotted out), will give his annual Easter speech. It’s full of venom against us. Come, follow me — we will make place for you in our underground shelter. Come! We mustn’t waste an instant! Before they start going wild.’

“But the Besht turned to one of his pupils and calmly said, ‘Go back to the square, and when the bishop begins to speak, go up to the stage, pull on his robe, and tell him that I wish to speak to him urgently.’

“The owner of the house was shocked! He watched in wide-eyed astonishment as the chassid actually began to reopen the bolts, open the door and slip outside. He didn’t know if he should lock them again or not; he’d never seen anything like it in his life! It was like seeing someone walk into a burning furnace!

“The chassid, once outside, made his way back through the winding streets ’till he reached the square. It was already filled with thousands of people, and more were silently arriving from all sides. A strange, cold silence hung in the air, and it was beginning to get dark.

“The bishop strode to the front of the stage, as if from nowhere, and stood imposingly before the crowd in his bright crimson robes and high pointed red hat. The torchlight danced weirdly in his eyes and made the huge golden cross hanging around his neck gleam diabolically. To make matters worse, the fires and huge crosses surrounding the stage reminded the chassid of the stories he had heard of the Inquisition. But he pushed all these thoughts from his mind, waited for the bishop to begin, closed his eyes for a moment, whispered Shema Yisrael, and with his head down, began gently pushing his way to the podium.

“But the Besht wasn’t pleased. ‘Go back and tell the bishop“Amazingly, no one even noticed him. They were so transfixed by the bishop that they just moved out of the way, and before he knew it, he reached the front. He took a deep breath, said another Shema Yisrael, grabbed the robe of the bishop and pulled twice.

“The bishop was just beginning his tirade when he felt the tug at his garment and looked down. He was startled, outraged, his face became livid with anger; but before he could utter a sound the chassid looked him in the eyes and said, ‘My master and teacher, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, wishes to see you, and he says you should come urgently.’

“Suddenly the bishop’s face became pale and his eyes opened wide, as though he was afraid. ‘Not now!’ he whispered after a few seconds of confusion. ‘Tell him that I can’t come now. Later! Tell him later. Go away!’

“Miraculously, the entire crowd was all still standing like statues, as though hypnotized, and noticed none of this. So the chassid backed his way out and returned alone to the Besht, convinced that he had fulfilled his mission.

“But the Besht wasn’t pleased. ‘Go back and tell the bishop that if he doesn’t come now, it will be too late.’

“Without hesitation the chassid turned and did as he was told. He left the house, returned to the town square, pushed his way through the crowd, and pulled on the bishop’s robe just as before.

“But this time, when the bishop heard the Besht’s message, he was really stunned. He took a few steps back, put his head in his hands, and then, turning his face to heaven, he yelled to the crowd: ‘I’m receiving a message from the Lord!! I must be alone!’

“He motioned the chassid to leave, watched him as he walked toward the Jewish section, and then he himself descended from the back of the stage and headed in that direction, holding his hat under his arm.

“Minutes later he was standing with the chassid before the house in the Jewish quarter. ‘Tell him to remove his crosses before he enters,’ said the Besht from inside. The bishop did so, and as he entered the house and saw the face of the holy man, he fell to the floor and began weeping like a baby!

“The Baal Shem turned to the others and explained. ‘This man was born a Jew. He even had a bar mitzvah. But shortly thereafter he was lured to the Church and eventually became the anti-Semite he is today. I saw in heaven that now was a propitious time to bring him to his senses.’

“After the bishop stopped weeping, the Besht told him to stand and follow him into a side room, where they closed the door and spoke for several minutes. No one knows what they said in there, but after a while the bishop came out dressed in different clothes, left the house, and no one has seen him since. And that is the end of the story.’”

The chassid looked at the rich man and saw that he was smiling with contentment; he liked the story. He liked it so much that he put his hand over his eyes and tears began rolling down his face. He was crying, weeping from sheer happiness. “That is the story I’ve been waiting for,” he said.

He dried his eyes, looked at the chassid and continued. “I am the bishop in your story. The Baal Shem Tov told me in that side room to live a life of repentance until someone came and told me my own story. Now I know my prayers have been accepted by G‑d.”

By Tuvia Bolton


Sermon, January 9, 2022 – Feast of the Baptism of our Lord (Epiphany 1)


Today our celebration centers around the Baptism of our Lord by his cousin, John the Baptist.  This feast is always celebrated on the first Sunday after the Epiphany and marks the close of our Christmas observance.  This entire Epiphany season invites us to reflect on Jesus’ baptism and its importance for us who follow him.         

Luke’s version of Jesus’ baptism is more concise than the other Synoptic Gospels.  Luke’s intention is for us to focus on the work of the Holy Spirt in Jesus’ baptism, and, by extension, ours.  Catholic theologian Raniero Cantalamessa has written that: “John the Baptist presented Jesus to the world as ‘the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’ (see Jn. 1:33). Not only through the sacrament of baptism that he instituted, but throughout the whole of his work, Jesus ‘baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’ His entire messianic mission consists in pouring out the Holy Spirit upon the world.

The baptism in the Holy Spirit, that once again we have started to recognize and discuss in the church, is one of the ways in which the risen Jesus continues his essential work, which is to baptize all of humankind ‘in the Spirit.’ It has been described as a renewal of the Pentecost event and, as importantly, also of the sacrament of baptism and of Christian initiation in general, even though the two realities coincide and therefore never come about separately or in opposition one to the other. Pentecost does not cast sacrament into a lesser role (especially the sacrament of baptism with water), and neither does sacrament cast Pentecost into a lesser position.”

In his baptism, Jesus becomes aware of his full identity.  In the same way, we, too, are immersed into our full identity through the gift of the Holy Spirit.  There is an old Hindu parable about a tiger cub raised by goats.  The cub learned to bleat and nibble grass and behave like a goat.  One night a tiger attacked the goats, and they all scattered toward safety. But the tiger cub kept grazing and crying like a goat, without getting frightened.

The old tiger roared, “What are you doing here, living with these cowardly goats?” He grabbed the cub by the scruff of his neck, dragged him to a pond, and said: “Look how our faces are the same, reflected in the water! Now you know who you are and whose you are.”

The tiger took the cub home, taught him how to catch animals, eat their meat, roar, and act like a tiger. Thus, the tiger cub discovered his true self.

In baptism, we are gifted with our true selves.  This is more than mere identity, rather this sacrament allows who we are – created in the image and likeness of God to take root and bring our souls to light and life.  In a very real sense, the Holy Spirit brings us to the water and there we see our reflection and God’s staring back at us.  This is where we begin to discover our true selves as God intended us to be.

When this happens, we discover that along with being baptized with water we are also immersed in the Holy Spirit.  Thus, we are marked and sealed as Christ’s own forever.



Sermon, January 2, 2022 – Christmas II

We’ve Got Work to Do

Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!

This year we are blest with having two Sundays in the Twelve Days of Christmas. Depending on what day of the week Christmas falls determines how many Sundays in Christmastide we’ll have.

In this morning’s Gospel, Luke tells us about an incident in Jesus’ life when he was twelve years old. Jesus and his family are in Jerusalem for Passover. It’s also the occasion of Jesus’ Bar Mitzvah, which is the Jewish rite of coming of age. In that ceremony, Jesus receives his prayer shawl, and says to his mother, “Woman, today I am a man.”  Jesus’ parents and their traveling companions – traveling in a group was safer that traveling alone – head for home in Nazareth. Jesus is not with the group, and Jesus’ parents discover he is missing when they had gone a days’ journey from Jerusalem. In a panic, Mary and Joseph return to Jerusalem searching frantically for Jesus. After three days, they find him in the temple talking with the elders. Mary’s exasperated response on finding Jesus safe and sound is typical for all parents when they have spent any significant amount of time searching for a missing child. Jesus’ response was one of a typical teenager who doesn’t quite understand why his parents are upset.

What Luke is doing in these early chapters of his Gospel is to paint a picture describing how this child is unique. While I personally believe that every child is unique in his/her own way, Luke wants us to know that Jesus is special.

According to Luke, even at an early age, Jesus is somehow aware that he is destined for a unique mission in life. Here he is at twelve years old, aware that he has work to accomplish; hence, he “must be in his Father’s house.”

What about us? What work are we being called to accomplish this Christmas and beyond?

Howard Thurman, who lived from 1899 to 1981 wrote the following:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and 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 people,
To make music in the heart.

The work of Christmas continues for us and for all who claim membership in the Body of Christ. Our task as Christians is to fulfill and complete the work Jesus began during his life. In other words, we are called to be in our Father’s house doing what we are called to accomplish. We are called to live fully and faithfully into our Baptismal Covenant. That is what is meant by the work of Christmas.

So, my friends, we have work to do. We need to be in our Father’s house, seeing to the work our Father has given us to do.

Merry Christmas!



Sermon, December 26, 2021 – Christmas 1

Christmas’ Meaning

Merry Christmas!

Today we shift our focus from the events in the stable to asking what does this all mean? Luke told us about that marvelous night when Jesus was born – the angels and the shepherds – Mary pondering all these things in her heart.  This is great story telling.  Now John comes along and says to us, “this is what all this means” – the Word which was in the beginning is now dwelling in our midst as one of us.

So, what does all of this mean?  Especially when we consider that there are more than two millennia separating us from the event. This is something theologians have been wrestling with since the day of Pentecost, and we continue to wrestle to this day.

For the ancient Israelites and Jews, the Word represents God’s creative power. It was by means of God’s spoken word that the heavens and the earth were created. Jewish people even regard their own spoken words as dynamic, as having an inherent power. This is why many Jews are careful with their words. They are careful in pronouncing blessings and curses, and in choosing meaningful, significant names for people and places. They also believe that the Word represents the “Wisdom” of God which is intrinsically creative.

The expression “the Word of God” can even refer to God himself. Out of reverence for God, whenever he was mentioned in the Scriptures as having human feelings and actions, some people substituted the name of God with the phrase “the Word of God” to avoid anthropomorphism. This overscrupulous paraphrasing, however, overlooked the fact that sometimes God does indeed act personally with humankind in ways that we, as humans, can identify with both emotionally and practically.

Certain strands of Greek philosophy held that the world was created by a mediator called the Word or Logos. The Greeks considered that all matter was evil and so a transcendent, spiritual God could never have been in contact with evil, base matter, let alone create it. However, the Greeks also recognized the beauty, order, and rhythm of the universe, and saw it as the work of a divine creator. Greek philosophers came up with the idea that the supreme God created the universe through an agent: the Word or Logos.

This Greek idea, that the world was created by the Word, interestingly enough, originated in Ephesus, where John wrote his Gospel. It was the Ephesian philosopher Heraclitus in 560 B. C. who came up with the idea of the Word as, not only the agent of creation, but also the sustainer and controller of the universe (cf Heb. 1:2-3).

Heraclitus also saw the Word as the Judge of Truth, and the mind, or Reason, of God. His philosophy spread and became established in many branches of Greek philosophy. The Greeks saw the Word, or Logos, as the creating, guiding, and directing power of the supreme God, so John cleverly used this Greek concept to introduce Jesus to his Greek readers.[i]

Keep in mind that the New Testament, especially the Gospels were written forty years or more after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  The world had changed for the Jews as well as the Christians. Hence, there was a need to link Jesus’ life with the people’s world view and their understanding of that world view.

It’s the same for us.  Our world is vastly different from the world Jesus and the earliest disciples knew.  Bishop N. T. Wright in his seminal work, Paul: A Biography (2020 reprint) stated that if Paul were to walk into either a Christian or Jewish worship service today, he would not recognize the service Jewish or Christian.

In other words, our understanding of the Gospel and of the early fathers and mothers in the faith have evolved; just as our liturgical practices have evolved through two millennia of lived experience. How we understand the Christ-event is nothing like the understanding of that same event that emerged in the last quarter of the first century, or the understanding of those who went before.

There is a story about Thomas Merton (known as Fr. Louis in his monastery) was speaking to a group of his novices:

He said,

          “There is only one thing for anybody to become in life.

There’s no point in becoming spiritual — the whole thing is a waste of time. What you came here for is to become yourself, to discover your complete identity to be you. But the catch is that of course our full identity as monks and Christians is Christ. It is Christ in each of us. … I’ve got to become me in such a way that I am the Christ that can only be the Christ in me. There is a Louis Christ that must be brought into existence and hasn’t matured yet. It has a long way to go. There is a Louis Christ [a Thomas Merton Christ], a you Christ, a me Christ — each one of us is called and graced to be our true self — the self that God has made us to be.”

To put it a different way as St Irenaeus said, “God has become what we are, what I am, so that I/we might become what God is.”

My dear friends in Christ, we will continue to wrestle with what Christmas means, and that is one of the gifts given to us in this holy season.

Merry Christmas!



[i] Marg Mowczko at


Sermon, December 24, 2021 – Christmas Eve

What I Want for Christmas

Merry Christmas!

Every year in my family it was the same question over and over – what do you want for Christmas?  The answer from every member of the family was, “I don’t know.”  Unfortunately, our gift-giving was reduced to gift cards which more often than not wound up in a drawer and forgotten.  Having a birthday so close to the holiday compounded this dilemma for me.

Several years ago, we, as a family, agreed that instead of giving gift cards because we couldn’t think of what to give; instead, we would find an activity that was open, such as a museum or state park, and visit that place as a family and spend the day together.

When I was younger, Christmas morning was spent opening gifts. Breakfast was cereal and sweet rolls.  We would spend the morning playing with our gifts. The Christmas feast was not the traditional turkey and usual trimmings – it would be hamburgers and hot dogs cooked on the grill.

How did your families celebrate the Christmas holiday? What traditions carried over from generation to generation in your families? What kind of gifts did you exchange?

Perhaps a question that needs to be asked, what would you like to receive this Christmas?

All birthdays have one thing in common – they are celebrations of a person’s life and the gift they are to us? What should come into clearest focus in these celebrations is the shared love made manifest. Geoffrey Tristram of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, or Cowley Brothers, writes:

Christmas is not about the arrival of a new philosophy, nor of a new religion, but the arrival of a person — a person who stands with me and holds me and strengthens me — whose words and actions and sufferings make sense of my life — and can transform my life with a love which is stronger than death.

Today we celebrate God’s ultimate gift to the human race. A gift that draws us deeper and deeper into God’s unconditional love for us. A gift that empowers us to love others in the same way that God loves us. A gift of love that will find its way to the cross in order to demonstrate the infinity of God’s love.

So, what would I like for Christmas? I would like to kneel at the entrance to the holy grotto – the stable offering shelter to the Holy Family – before the angels begin their singing; before the shepherd arrive from the fields. I want to listen to the sounds of a young mother in labor. I want to hear the first cry of a newborn baby in the night, and in that cry hear the whisper from heaven, “It is finished.” Amen.


Sermon, December 19, 2021 – Advent IV

It’s Not Christmas, Yet.

Today is the Fourth Sunday of Advent.  Four tapers burn on our Advent wreath, and many of will begin in earnest to prepare for the holiday later this week.  It’s not Christmas yet. 

If your family’s custom is to set up a Nativity Crèche you may do so, including the animals and the Holy Family.  The baby Jesus figurine, however, must remain in the box until Christmas Eve after Mass.  The shepherds will arrive at dawn on Christmas Day, and the Magi have to wait until Twelfth Night, or January 6th.

For three weeks now, we’ve been hearing the prophetic voices warning us of what’s in store for us; last Sunday we heard John the Baptist call us a “brood of vipers.”  Today we turn out attention to Bethlehem and the meeting of two very different women.  In some places, the hymn by Bishop Philip Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” will be sung as the processional out into the world; but it’s not Christmas yet. 

The prophet Micah was active in the southern kingdom of Judah during the middle of the 8th century BCE.  The northern kingdom of Israel was about to be conquered by the Assyrians and Judah was about to become a vassal state in order to preserve their way of life for a little while longer. 

Micah tells us that God is about to turn things upside down in the lives of the people of Judah.  In order to preserve the status quo with the Assyrians the nation of Judah had to pay tribute in order to keep the Assyrian army from marching in.  This tribute was paid through exorbitant taxes most heavily leaved on the poor and disadvantaged (if this sounds familiar …).  Micah tells us that God’s people will be taken back to a different time and promises the restoration of David’s throne.  However, we will not return to Jerusalem the home of King David, but to Bethlehem the home of the shepherd and peasant David.  It will be a restoration of God’s justice.

Our Gospel recounts the meeting between two marginalized women.  Mary is young, she is betrothed but unmarried, and pregnant – this put her not only on society’s fringes, but in potential mortal danger under Jewish law at the time.  Elizabeth is older, though married, she was past child-bearing age and barren, thus on the margins of society.  Mary has just had her encounter with the angel Gabriel announcing that she will conceive and give birth to a son.  Now, she off to see her cousin Elizabeth who is now six months into her pregnancy.

The two women greet each other, and the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy.  Elizabeth calls Mary “Blessed” and Mary responds with her hymn which is traditionally known as the Magnificat from the Latin opening “magnify,” or as we have it now, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. (BCP, page 119).  This hymn is traditionally sung at Evening Prayer as the response to the first reading from Scripture.

This hymn makes the idea of Mary as a meek and mild woman a lie – this is a statement of strength, specifically feminist strength that calls into question the social norms of her day.  During portions of the last century, this hymn was prohibited by several totalitarian regimes because of its subversive message.  It’s ideas are nothing new, Hannah’s Prayer (I Samuel 2: 1 – 10) is another example of the notion that God’s desire for justice places everyone on the same level no matter what their race, economic status, sexual orientation, or political affiliation.  Both Hannah’s Prayer and the Magnificat describe God acting in history to bring about his desire for justice and love in the human community.

Mary, along with Elizabeth and Hannah, are envisioning a world turned upside down.  The one who will accomplish this is God, and that plan is in motion and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.  Today’s Gospel is intended to give us hope that the world for which God long, for which we pray to come among us, is indeed taking place, and eventually we will find our world turned upside down.

Still, we have to wait – it’s not Christmas yet.



Sermon, December 12, 2021 – Advent III


Happy “Brood of Vipers” Sunday!  Every year on the Third Sunday of Advent we hear John the Baptist call us a “brood of vipers fleeing the wrath to come. (Matthew 3: 7 – 12; Mark 1: 2 – 8; Luke 3: 7 – 9).  Only Luke adds the admonitions to groups that were considered outsiders from the Jewish community of the time.

This is in sharp contrast to the liturgical emphasis for today.  Today is “Gaudete” Sunday, or “Rose” Sunday – many congregations in the Anglo-Catholic traditions will wear Rose (not pink) vestments.  The term “Gaudete” comes from the Introit of the Latin Mass meaning “Rejoice, O daughters of Jerusalem.”  It signals a lightening of our Advent disciplines in order to focus on St. Paul’s instruction for us to rejoice always.  At the same time, we pray for our Lord to come among us and stir up in us the fire of His love.  We light the Rose-colored candle to give further emphasis on today’s importance.

We are called to live a life grounded in joy.  This is not a giddy feeling that comes when something extraordinarily good happens.  Rather, it is a deep abiding presence that sustains us no matter what happens – good, bad, or in the midst of a brood of vipers.  This joy is ours as a gift given to us in our baptism and is one of the signs of being marked and sealed as Christ’s own forever.

The church in Philippi was a source of joy for Paul, of all the congregations he started they were the ones who got it right.  So here he is in a dark, dank Roman jail filled with joy when he remembers the Philippian people and their faithfulness to the Gospel of our Lord.  What does Paul do, he encourages them to remain joyful and to allow their joy to permeate every part of their lives.  In this life of rejoicing, Paul adds another gift to the mix – God’s peace which passes our understanding.  A peace that will guard our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God in and through Jesus the Christ.

This enables us to trust and not be afraid, even in the midst of this we cannot understand.  So, too, we on this Third Sunday of Advent are called to sing for joy, to celebrate the ways in which God has delivered us, is delivering us now, and will deliver in the future, until there is true peace, shalom, wholeness on earth and goodwill throughout the entire creation.  Isaiah reminds us that we shall draw water from the springs of salvation (healing).  If the Lord of love is ruling how can we not sing for joy. 



Sermon, December 5, 2021 – Advent II

The Prophetic Voice

We continue our journey through Advent, now two candles bear silent witness to our coming Lord. Advent’s purpose is to help us prepare our hearts and minds for the mystery that will unfold for in about three weeks from now.

This morning we turn our attention to the work of the prophets. A prophet in Jesus’ day and age was not a fortune teller who would predict future events in order to persuade people to part with their hard earned money for pipe dreams and the empty promise of get rich quick scams, or to convince God to give us something for nothing by investing in anyone of the many prosperity gospel schemes that attempt to convince us that wealth in this world equates with the amount of God’s blessing as well as the outward and visible sign of one’s faithfulness.

The Biblical history of the life, work, and ministry of the prophets is completely different. The prophet’s primary task was to give voice to God’s word, usually because our society’s acts and values are in conflict with God’s desire for us, and the standards to which we are called.

John the Baptist is considered by many as the final prophet in a line and heritage that traces its roots in Abraham’s encounter with God in the form of the three mysterious visitors under the oaks of Mamre through Moses, and the likes of Elijah and Elisha. The prophetic tradition includes notable figures such as Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.

The common thread throughout the prophetic tradition is for the people (including us) to repent. This was the heart of John’s message. “Repent, (literally turn around or change your mind) because the Kingdom of God is at hand.”  In this call for repentance, we catch a glimpse of God’s grace and love. The prophetic message is not “repent or something bad will happen,” or “repent, and then God might do something good for us.”  No, the prophets’ call to repentance is always a response to God’s gracious presence already in the here and now. Our repentance, our turning around, is not a legalistic transaction but rather a response to the love already given to us. It is through this encounter with the Divine love that we are placed in a position of having God let go of our sins, which is the heart of forgiveness. Only God has the authority and power to let go of our sins. This is the gift we await in this Advent season. John is inviting us to prepare with him the way of the Lod.

So, on this Second Sunday of Advent, let us pause to listen once again to the voice of the prophets. Let us continue the process of repenting knowing that the One who will release us from our sins is coming.



Sermon, November 28, 2021 – Advent 1

A Promise of Hope

Happy New Year! This morning marks the beginning of a new church calendar year. Once, again, we, as Christians, demonstrate that we are deliberately out of step with the rest of the world – especially the consumer world. Just look around, the stores have been decorated for Christmas since sometime in mid-October. Sadly, it will all be gone on the morning of December 26th – just as we are getting started celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Advent is intended to be a time of quiet reflection and contemplation, not just on the meaning of Christmas and the birth of our Lord. Rather this season is intended to give us an opportunity to give thanks for the year just past and prepare for the year ahead. Our Jewish brothers and sisters begin their celebration of Rosh Hashanah with the blessing, “May you be inscribed with a good and sweet new year.”  By the way, our Jewish brothers and sisters begin their observance of Hannukah tonight at sunset.

We begin this new year by looking at the last things. Jesus, in our Gospel reading from Luke, tells us to be on the lookout for the calamities that will strike the world before this generation passes away. Signs and portents that could cause fear and discomfort – the antithesis of how the world wishes this season to be about. Yet, Jesus invites us to live in hope for the promised redemption foretold by the prophets.

The prophet Jeremiah, in our first reading from the Hebrew scriptures, tells us emphatically that “the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to Israel and to the House of Judah.”  An assurance that God will keep the promises He has made. This is meant to give us a source of hope, even in the midst of desperate and fearful times.

God’s promises are all around us, reminding us that God’s faithfulness is something we can depend upon no matter what the circumstances. When I was at Nashotah House about this time of year, I became somewhat depressed because of the cold temperatures and gray skies. I called my Dad and told him what was going on. He told me to take a walk in the woods and take a close look at the branches of the maple trees (we had just finished raking up all the leaves earlier that week), and then call him back. I put on my parka and gloves and headed out. I didn’t have to walk far. I pulled down a branch and examined it closely. There on the branch was the bud that would grow into a new leaf once spring arrived. It began to dawn on me that here in the early winter with its cold temperatures, blistering wind, and dark gray skies was the promise of spring already present. When I called back, Dad explained that the emerging bud of the new leaf was one of the reasons the old leaves turned their glorious reds, and yellows before falling to the earth.

So it is for us on this First Sunday of Advent, we are called to live in hope, knowing that God’s promises are already in our midst; because “the days are coming says the Lord when I will fulfill the promise I made to Israel and to the House of Judah.”

Happy New Year! I wish you a joyful, and peaceful, Advent and a sweet and good new year.



Sermon November 21, 2021 – Feast of Christ the King

A King Like No Other

Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. This festival marks the end of Ordinary Time and serves as a bridge into Advent. This is a fairly new commemoration – less than 100 years old.  It was instituted by Pope Pius XI in December of 1922 as a response to the growing secularism that emerged after World War I. This feast is somewhat difficult for Twenty-first century Americans, since we have no royalty; moreover, one of the central issues in the rebellion that won us our independence was to rid ourselves of the trappings of a royal court. Nevertheless, here we are acknowledging that God is restoring all things through his beloved Son the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Unlike other peoples in the ancient Near East, Israel’s institution of the monarchy came relatively late in their history. Other kings were often regarded as gods, but the Lord God was the only sovereign of Israel (Jer. 10:7-10), the “great King above all gods” (Ps. 95:3). Honoring the covenant between God and Israel also distinguished the monarchy of Israel from that of other nations. A king in Israel was often referred to as the “anointed one” (1 Sam. 2:35), from which the title “messiah” was derived.

David was revered as the greatest of all the kings of Israel, the one through whom the Messiah would come. In today’s Old Testament passage David’s last words contrast a just ruler and a wicked ruler. David himself is described as “anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the Strong One of Israel” (2 Sam. 23:1).

A just king who rules “in the fear of God” (v. 3) is like morning light and refreshing rain. David has ruled according to the everlasting covenant made with the Lord, from whom his power was derived as a gift. Therefore, his household has prospered, and God has promised an everlasting dynasty for David’s heirs. In contrast, godless rulers are like thorns to be thrown away and immediately consumed by fire.

The Gospels frequently applied royal imagery to Jesus, beginning with the arrival of the Magi, who ask, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” (Mt. 2:2). Matthew’s genealogy established that Jesus was of the royal Davidic lineage (Mt. 1:1). Although Jesus was accused of royal pretensions (Lk. 23:2), he resisted all efforts to make him king (Jn. 6:15). Nonetheless, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the crowd proclaimed, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Lk. 19:38).

The Gospel reading for this Christ the King Sunday is from John’s account of Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate, with the royal status of Jesus as a major point of Pilate’s interrogation. However, a beaten and scorned Jesus hardly seems kingly. He had been flogged, dressed in a purple robe with a crown of thorns, and mocked by the soldiers: “Hail, King of the Jews!” (Jn. 19:3). Although he seems utterly powerless as he stands before Pilate, Jesus is the only one who knows where true power comes from and what it means.

As this dramatic confrontation begins, Pilate asks Jesus point-blank, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (18:33). Although this question is asked by Pilate in all of the Gospel accounts (Mt. 27:11; Mk. 15:2; Lk. 23:3), only John records a lengthy response by Jesus.

Roman law required a definite accusation, even for the punishment of noncitizens. Pilate had dealt with other nationalist rebels, and Jesus did not seem to be a violent terrorist. Jesus had already been found guilty by the Jewish authorities, and now Pilate sought to verify the vague charges against him.

Jesus, in his public ministry, had avoided the title of Messiah because it represented a distortion of his objectives; nevertheless, some of his actions had raised messianic hopes in the minds of the people. Thus, Pilate asks Jesus directly if he is the King of the Jews.

Instead of affirming or denying the accusation, Jesus simply inquires whether Pilate asks this question on his own, or whether he has heard others say this about him. Pilate contemptuously replies that since he (Pilate) is not a Jew, the issue is really between Jesus and the Jewish religious authorities, and therefore has nothing to do with him.

In verse 36, Jesus defines the sense in which he is indeed a king: “My Kingdom is not from this world.” If the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed belonged in any sense to the temporal world, he would not have been handed over without a fight from his followers. The fact that there had been no conflict — nothing more than Peter’s impulsive attack on the High Priest’s slave — demonstrated the falsity of the charge brought against him. Jesus again reiterates this fact: “But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Pilate’s only context for the idea of kingship was political and not spiritual; thus he once again asks Jesus, “So are you a king?” (v. 37a). Jesus then replies that he has come into the world to bring a reign of truth, and those to whom truth is meaningful will give heed to his word. In him, the world can see the nature of God most fully (cf Jn. 14:6).

Jesus exemplifies the character of true kingship and redefines worldly assumptions about power and authority. Pilate, who thinks he has power, in fact has little; and the power that he does have to order Jesus put to death will be overcome.

In Jesus there is no personal vanity or desire for aggrandizement at the expense of others. He came to serve and not to be served. His Kingdom would create a new community of believers who would hear and obey his voice. Jesus rules through grace and love in a realm of spirit and life in which justice and peace shine out for all. This was the saving truth that was being offered to the whole world in our crucified Lord, and is the essential meaning of our proclaiming Christ as King.

In a final twist of irony, Pilate ordered the inscription over the cross of Jesus to read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” When the chief priest insisted that it be changed to read, “This man said, I am King of the Jews,” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written” (Jn. 19:19-22).

The description of the exalted Christ in the Book of Revelation provides a vision of the celestial Kingdom. Addressing the seven churches, the writer begins with blessings of peace in the style of Paul’s letters. The source of blessing is the Divine One “who is and who was and who is to come,” along with the “seven spirits” or seven archangels who serve God and Jesus himself (1:4).

The victorious and exalted Christ of the vision is described as the faithful witness; the first from among the dead in his victorious Resurrection; and “ruler of the kings of the earth” (v. 5). By his love for us we are freed from sin through his blood. As Christ’s redeemed, we are ourselves a kingdom and priests to God the Father. Verse 7 reflects the language of the vision of Daniel (Dan. 7:13), as Christ comes in the clouds where “every eye will see him.” Then all the tribes who rejected him will cry out in fear of the coming judgment.

The Lord God is Alpha, the beginning, through whom all things were made; and Omega, the ending to whom all must come. Here all the ends and purposes of life and history are brought together through the One “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (v. 8b)

As we sit on the cusp of a new Church year. Let us give thanks that we live in a kingdom that is not of this world but transcends it. A kingdom that calls us to new life in and through Jesus the Christ – the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.