Pilgrim Prayers

Preached on 24 July 2016 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, WA
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12, Year C

When my daughter was in fourth or fifth grade, we read a book called The Ramsay Scallop, by Francis Temple.  It’s about a young woman in the middle ages, in a European village.  She is only fourteen years old, but I call her a young woman because she is facing marriage and she is terrified.  You see, her mother died in giving birth to her and she is afraid that she will get married, have a baby and die.

She, Eleanor, has been betrothed to Thomas, the son of a nearby family practically since birth.  Both are from the landed gentry.  Well, he is somewhat older and has been away in fighting in the Crusades.  The village has just received word that their sons who have gone off to war are about to return.  And that means that Eleanor’s childhood must come to an end.

Well, the crusaders are welcomed home and hailed as heroes.  There is just one problem.  In their hearts, they know they aren’t heroes.  They didn’t even make it to the Holy Land, much less free it from the Saracens; and along the way they have seen and done some truly horrible things.

These two young people who are supposed to get married find they can barely look at each other.  He remembers her as the little brat he used to tease; to him, she is just a child.  Neither of them wants to marry, but they must.

Now this is also a time when people would go on pilgrimages as a means to cleanse themselves from sin (as was going on Crusade), to grow closer to God, to have prayers answered.  But since the Holy Land was occupied by a people hostile to Christians, they had to find other holy sites to journey to.

Enter the village priest.  He comes up with an ingenious plan.  He forbids them to marry and sends them on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the place where St. James is buried.  They will carry the weight of sin of the whole village with them to Santiago and there, that weight will be lifted from the village; they will be forgiven.  This is to be a path for healing for the men returning from the crusades as well as for those who stayed behind.  They may marry only after the mission is completed.

So they set off with their horses and carts of baggage. Now remember, in those days, a pilgrimage would begin at your doorstep and you not only had to journey to the destination, but then you had to turn around and walk all the way back again.  The rest of the book is about their experience on the road.

It isn’t long before they give their horses to others who are in more desperate need.  As they go along, they leave behind belongings that they realize are unnecessary and are only weighing them down and holding them back.  They have plenty of time to talk and get to know one another, as well as plenty of problems to solve; hurdles to overcome.

It is an arduous journey and they learn to rely on each other, to depend on the friendship of fellow pilgrims and the hospitality of villagers along the way.  At times they get lost.  While crossing the mountains, one of them is seriously injured and they spend the winter with a shepherd family healing and recuperating.  They reach the point where they think they won’t be able to finish the pilgrimage together.  They talk about whether one should go ahead alone to complete the mission the priest had given them.

In the end, they both arrive in Santiago carrying the prayers and confessions of the people of their village.  They discover they are at last ready to devote their lives to one another in marriage because they have learned to love one another, to rely on God and each another.  They have come to know each other very deeply, having shared joy and hardship.  They are ready to work together for the good of their people; in fact, they have already begun.

Well, pilgrims still journey to Santiago de Compostela.  In fact, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world make that journey every year.  In September, I will be among them.  I will travel by plane, train and van to my starting point just inside the Spanish border in the Pyrenees Mountains, a town called Roncesvalles.  From there, I will walk the 500 or so miles to Santiago, over by the Atlantic.

I would like to take you, the people of St. John’s with me – at least virtually.  Along with my few belongings, I will carry you in prayer.  We’ll post my itinerary and a map of my route in the parish hall so you can follow along.  If you want to walk here, I can list the distances each day.  I’ll post pictures online when I have internet access.

I invite you in the coming weeks to think about your prayers for this community.  What are your hopes and dreams for St. John’s both in the transition time and for your new priest?  What are your concerns?  Your fears?

The disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray.  He told them to pray simply and intimately from their heart; to ask for their needs, their deep desires.  He taught them to pray simply and to pray persistently, assuring them that God will indeed answer their prayers; that like the friend in the parable and like they themselves, God gives good gifts.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is often attributed with writing,

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men and women to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to long for the vast and endless sea.

What do you long for?  If there were no limitations, what would you long to see at St. John’s? in Snohomish? In your own life?

Write down the prayers, the hopes, the fears, the confessions, the longings that you want me to carry to the altar in Santiago.  We’ll have a box for them labeled “Pilgrim Prayers.”

As I will carry you in my prayers, I ask that you, too, hold me in yours.

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God, the Pilgrim

Preached on 17 July 2016 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, WA
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11, Year C

Where did you find God this week? Remember last Sunday, I invited you to look for God in your life this week?  Bet you weren’t expecting a quiz, were you?  Well, it’s not really a quiz, so even if you haven’t given it another thought, take a moment now to think back on your week. Did God show up?  Maybe you heard God in the President’s speech at the memorial in Dallas or maybe it was in a phone call with a friend or a loved one?  Or maybe you found God in the smile of a stranger or the song of a bird, or even doing household chores or pulling weeds.  I don’t know about you, but I often don’t recognize those god-moments until some time later – sometimes much later.

Abraham and Sarah find God quite suddenly and unexpectedly one day, while Abraham is sitting outside the tent, resting in the midday heat.  Three strangers show up and Abraham offers the required hospitality.  Lives depend on it.  Hospitality wasn’t about being polite or unusually kind.  People knew they were dependent on one another.  Being able to count on the hospitality of others was a matter of survival.  And so one had an obligation to care for the stranger.

For us to acknowledge that kind of dependence on others is counter-cultural.  It makes us uncomfortable.  We like to think we can take care of ourselves.  Of course, we’re fooling ourselves;

In Abraham’s world, it is well-understood and accepted and so, he offers them shelter from the sun, a place to rest and refresh, water for their feet, food and drink.  But Abraham does more than what is needed –  he slaughters a calf and provides a feast!

I wonder at what point he realizes these are no ordinary travelers.  When they ask about his wife and already know her name?  Maybe it’s when they tell him that Sara will bear him a son.  Or is it just something about them?

In the gospel reading, Martha welcomes a stranger into her home, too.  Maybe she has already heard of him, an itinerant preacher.  She busies herself with the demands of hospitality much as Abraham does.  But her sister, Mary, doesn’t.  I wonder what that’s really about.  Is Mary simply curious about this stranger?  Does she feel compelled to sit at his feet and assume the role of a disciple?  OR does she sense that Jesus has something new and different to offer her?

Today’s Psalm is about entering the Temple, the house of God, the presence of God.  It tells what is required to prepare oneself before approaching God:  Lead a blameless life and do what is right.  Speak the truth from your heart.  Do no evil to your friend.  Honor those who fear the Lord and so on.

But the readings from Genesis and Luke are about God coming into the presence of ordinary people.  God doesn’t wait for us to go to God.  God seeks us out, ready or not.

As I was reflecting on these readings and their connections, it occurred to me that through the Incarnation, God is on a pilgrimage.  Which sounds kind of strange, doesn’t it?

So let’s think about pilgrimage for a bit.  In ancient times, particularly after Christianity became legal and they were no longer persecuted and killed for their faith, believers looked for new ways to grow in their faith and to witness to their faith.  That’s what martyr means to bear witness.  One of those ways was to go on a pilgrimage.  They would undertake a somewhat arduous journey in order to be with God.  Often they would visit sites that had some religious significance and were thought to be holy.

Pilgrimage involves leaving behind the familiar and going to new territory of some kind; letting go of power; encountering the “other,” encountering God in a different way, in a different place, through different people, different cultures.  Along the way, the pilgrim learns about themselves and about God and about their place in the world.  Pilgrimage is more about the journey than about the stops along the way or the destination.

Now think about Jesus.  In Jesus, God leaves behind the “familiar,” lets go of power, and seeks to encounter us in a new way.  Think about the stories about various people with Jesus – the ‘holy sites’ he visits.  Sites like Mary and Martha, the lawyer who tests him, and all the stories you’ve heard.

Sometimes we voluntarily and intentionally set out on a pilgrimage, and sometimes we the pilgrimage finds us.  Transition is like pilgrimage.  We may find ourselves in unfamiliar territory.  There are different opportunities to encounter God and to try new things.  The journey is a time for self-discovery as a community and for listening for God in new ways.

God is seeking you.  How and where will you seek God?

Maybe a better question is, Do you want to find God; do you want God to find you?  I mean, yeah. Sometimes, especially in times of trouble or sorrow. God is comforting.  But God is not always warm and fuzzy.  It can feel risky, this God business.  Here’s what Annie Dillard writes about it,

Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? … It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping GOD may wake someday and take offense, or the waking GOD may draw us to where we can never return.

We’re on a pilgrimage, ready or not.
Along the way, what holy sites will we visit?
I wonder what we’ll learn about God? About ourselves?

What might God as of us? What might God ask of you?

The Nearness of God

Preached on 10 July 2016 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, WA
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10, Year C

Sometimes, when we hear a familiar story, we stop listening.  As soon as we hear the first few words our brain switches into auto-pilot.  It’s like driving to work every day; even if you’re half asleep you get to the end without having to pay attention to the details along the way.  We know how the story goes, we can think about the grocery list or the errands we need to run after church.  It’s not a conscious choice, it just happens.

But when that happens, we miss an opportunity to hear an old story with new ears; to hear a new message or notice different details.  After all, you’re a different person than you were the last time you heard it.  You’ve had new life experiences, met new people, grown in your relationships.  All of those affect how you experience a story; even one you’ve heard time and time again.  Have you ever read a book or watched a movie as an adult that you loved as a child?  That can really be an eye-opener, can’t it?

Preachers have the same experience.  What can I say that hasn’t already been said?  Do I have to say something new or is the familiar message ok?  What will be a life-giving or a life-challenging word to this group of people, at this time, in this place?

Today, we have one of those familiar stories.  Most, if not all, of you have heard the story of the “Good Samaritan” before.  Do you ever imagine yourself in the story?  Some people feel like the priest or the Levite but wish they were like the Samaritan or think they should wish that.

Perhaps your autopilot took you to the nagging voice in your ear or even on a guilt trip over the beggar you ignored yesterday.  I’ve never known guilt trips or nagging voices to help or motivate, however.

Today, I’d like you to back up a bit, turn off the autopilot and imagine yourself in the story in a different role than you usually assume.  So, just as a reminder, here’s a list of characters:
The Robbers
The Person they attack, rob, beat, and leave for dead
The Priest
The Levite
The Samaritan
His animal, who carries the victim
The Innkeeper
Jesus
The Lawyer who asks, “who is my neighbor?”

Now listen to the story again through the experience of that character.

Read the story

What did you notice this time?

I wonder if the Samaritan had ever been attacked like that, and out of empathy couldn’t just walk right on by no matter what the risk to himself.

I wonder, have you ever felt like the person in the ditch?  Attacked – maybe not physically, but possibly verbally, or emotionally or psychologically – stripped, robbed, beaten, tossed aside.  Were there people who ignored you or avoided you, afraid to help or even get close?  Was there someone who went out of their way to help?  Did they offer more than first aid, continuing to see to your wounds, and caring for your needs?  Have you felt God draw near to you in a time of need?

I wonder if, when Jesus told the story, he saw the world broken, lying wounded in a ditch and God drawing near to us through Jesus to tend our wounds, and provide for our needs, like the Samaritan and the innkeeper?

This time, what I notice is the theme of nearness, not only in this reading but in all the readings this morning.  The nearness of God.

Did you notice that in trying to justify himself, the lawyer asked, “who is my neighbor?”  But at the end, Jesus asks who was a neighbor to the man in the ditch.
The lawyer wanted to establish boundaries; that there are people who are not his neighbor. So his question would be if he would be required to help the man in the ditch; is that person his neighbor?  But Jesus turned it around.  It was the Samaritan who was identified as the neighbor, who drew near, choosing, to be a neighbor to someone who was vulnerable and in great need.

It is in the drawing near, especially to the vulnerable, that we are neighbors.

In our Old Testament reading, we hear Moses talking to the People.  They are about to enter the Promised Land at last and he is offering his final words of wisdom.  He is reminding them of all that the Lord has taught them in their 40 years; reminding them that God has never abandoned them, providing for all their needs.  And most important, God has taught them how to live together in community; that if they follow God’s teaching, they will prosper, bearing good fruit not only their crops and livestock but in their own lives.  The teaching God offers is very near, Moses reminds, them it is in their mouths and in their hearts.

God comes near, showing us how to live.

As we leave here, today, and in the coming week, I invite you to continue to ponder the nearness of God.  How does God draw near in your life?  Do you find God’s word in your mouth and in your heart?  Do you find yourself on the road to Jericho?  Do you find God in your neighbor?  How do you draw near to God and your neighbor?

And in all you do may God bless you with neighbors.

What to Pack for the Journey

Preached on 3 July 2016 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, WA
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9, Year C

What would you pack for a journey?  Not just a weekend away, but a journey.  Would you “Be Prepared,” packing everything you can think of that just might come in handy?  Would you pack as light as possible, and plan to buy whatever you find you need once you get there.  After all, the people who live there seem to get along just fine with whatever they have available.  And you have a credit card in your wallet to get anything you need along the way.

Travel guru, Rick Steves, encourages us to pack light and enjoy the adventure of shopping in a foreign language and trying something new.

Perhaps you leave home with large, empty bags, filling them as you go with foreign treasures.  Or you may leave home with the smallest bag possible, carrying most of what you need in your heart and in your memory (and maybe your camera).

Jesus’ packing list is about as light as it can get:
The tunic you’re wearing.
No change of clothes.  Not even sandals.
No food, no money, no bag.  No way to provide for themselves or protect themselves.  In other words, they would be dependent on the hospitality of others.  They were sent into the world as guests.

And it wasn’t a mission without danger.  They risked the elements, hunger, rejection, injury, the dangers of the road.  Jesus told them they would be like sheep amongst wolves.

While the packing list was short, and the risks were significant, they took with them other treasures:
A partner.  They didn’t have to go alone; they could support and encourage each other, solve problems together, be companions.
Peace.  When they entered a house, they had their peace to offer.
Authority – to heal the sick and to overcome evil.
A Message.  The kingdom of God has come near.

Now before I go on, I’d like to offer a little context to the story.  Because of the wonders of the lectionary, we skip around a bit and even leave out some parts of the gospel.
Two weeks ago, we heard the story of Jesus healing the man possessed by a demon and living in the tombs.  Last week, we heard about an inhospitable Samaritan village and about the hardships of being a disciple.

In between those two stories, Luke tells us stories about Jesus healing a woman with a hemorrhage and raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead.  Jesus sends the twelve out much as he sends the 70 today, and he feeds of the five thousand. Peter proclaims Jesus as Christ and Jesus prophesies the passion.  Then there’s the Transfiguration and Jesus sets out for Jerusalem.  On the way, they go to the Samaritan village we heard about last week, where the people reject him because he has set his face for Jerusalem.

That brings us to today’s gospel.  Jesus sends 70 others.  It’s almost like a practice run, an internship.  They begin to find who they are in relation to God and to the world.  They discover the authority and power of God working through them.

Jesus sends them with a Mission and a Method.  The Mission is to heal the sick, to spread the Peace of God, and to proclaim the Message, the Kingdom of God has come near.  Notice that whether the people welcome them or reject them, they are to proclaim the kingdom.

The Method is to be a guest; to be vulnerable and dependent.  Hospitality is a relationship between host and guest.  Each has responsibilities and obligations.  We may prefer to be the host because we feel more in control and less vulnerable.  And when we’re a guest, we may expect simply to be served.  But the guest has obligations as well – to graciously receive what is offered (“eat what is placed before you”) and to graciously offer what they have.  In this case, Peace, Healing, the Message of the Kingdom.

We would do well to remember that really, we are always guests.  Sometimes we need to shift our perspective a little to see that, though, so here’s a little story from my own house.  We have an old kitty who pretty much lives on our bed.  She gets down from time to time during the day to eat or drink or use the litter box, but for the most part, she spends her whole life on the bed.  It’s her world.

And then, every night, we invade.  We take up most of the space and shove her over.  We act like we own the place!  Now I don’t think we are entirely unwelcome in her world; she does seem to enjoy the warmth of the extra bodies, but I’m pretty sure she doesn’t see herself as the guest in our bed.

Whether we’re walking through the woods or along the beach or down the street downtown, we are walking through someone’s home.  What kind of guests are we?  How are we expressing hospitality to our hosts?  How are we living God’s message that the Kingdom of God, the Commonwealth of God has come near?

You are beginning a new journey together as a Community of Faith.  It is a time to explore and discover who you are as a community, and who you are becoming.  A time to try something new; to practice your mission.  It’s a time to notice what God is already doing in our midst and to discern where God is inviting us to go as a guest and what we are to graciously offer our hosts.

As we set out together, what are we willing to set aside to make room for God?  What do we want to take with us?  Here’s my suggested packing list:

  • Open hearts and minds; eyes to see and ears to listen
  • Tenderness, compassion, and patience, not just for others, but for yourself as well.
  • Curiosity and a sense of Wonder.
  • Willingness to depend on one another and to be dependable.
  • Helping hands.
  • Understanding.  Understanding that the journey is not easy or straight or short.  It may have strange turns and stumbling blocks, but the Holy Spirit is there to guide us, even if we take a wrong turn.
  • Expectation – not of specific outcomes, but expectation that God will indeed show up; that you will encounter God in unexpected people and experiences; that people are good and are acting in what they understand as the best interests of the community and of the Mission of God.
  • Joy and Delight. Remember that the seventy returned rejoicing in what they had done and seen!

And in all this, to be guided by prayer.  The Collect for today seems particularly appropriate for this journey. O God, You have taught us to love you and our neighbor:  Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Birds, The Cheese, and God

Preached on 21 May at Christ Episcopal Church, Seattle, Wa
First Sunday after Pentecost, Year C Trinity Sunday

I love watching birds, but I’m not a bird-watcher.  I delight in watching a raptor circling above, soaring on the air currents, hunting for its next meal, or swallows darting to and fro over a field – appearing to fly for the pure delight of it, although they, too, are probably after food.  It’s breathtaking to watch a flock of birds at the beach flying in concert, turning in unison or in a sort of wave.

And I enjoy sitting on my deck in the morning listening to the birds sing.  Now since I never seem to actually see the individual singing, I have no idea which birds sound like what.  To be honest, I know very little about birds and couldn’t tell a sparrow from a chickadee from a wren.  But that doesn’t diminish my delight; the experience of listening to their song and watching them fly enriches my life.

I also enjoy tasting cheese.  I’m not sure how I got started.  When I was a kid, I liked mac and cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches, but that was about it.  Perhaps it was because my father’s tastes leaned toward extra sharp aged cheddar and that was a bit much for me.  Somewhere along the way, I must have tried some milder, gentler varieties and realized that I really did, in fact, like cheese.

I expanded my experience, tasting different types of cheeses – fresh cheese, aged cheese; creamy, crumbly; bloomy-rinded cheeses and cheese preserved in ash.
I tried cheese made from different kinds of milk – sheep, goat, and even buffalo.  I discovered that if I talked to the cheese monger, I could learn more about the cheeses and they could help me choose something I would like – even offering samples.  I heard cheese described as nutty or pungent or even grassy.  Since I don’t eat grass, I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean.  When I travel abroad, I like to stop in a cheese shop and try some of the local cheese.  With their “little bit of English” and my “little bit of French” or whatever, we manage to communicate and I experience a new cheese for a picnic lunch.

In my life with cheese, I have reached the point where I want to learn some more about it, to learn the language so that I can communicate with other people a bit better about cheese.  I bought a book.  I expect that as I understand cheese better, I will be able to broaden my horizons even more seeking out new experiences with cheese.

You probably have interests like these in your own lives.  Things that delight you just for being, as well as things that you know and understand more deeply.

What I’m getting at is the centrality of actual experience in our lives.  Sharing experiences – either experiencing something together and then talking about it or listening to someone else telling their story or telling our own, opens our hearts and minds to new interpretations, new understandings of our experiences, of our neighbor, of our world.

It opens our lives to the possibility of richer experiences and relationships in the future.

We can also share experiences across space and time.  I bought a book to learn more about cheese.  But there are so many ways we can learn about what people in other places and other times have experienced and how they have interpreted them.

This is especially true when it comes to our experience with God.  How often we don’t recognize God until we look back on it.  Or until we hear someone else’s story and see the similarities. When we interpret those experiences, we develop an idea of the nature of God and of God’s relationship to us and to the world.

Now, on the one hand, we can delight in God the way I delight in birds.  On the other hand, at some point in our life with God, we may want to learn more:  How have people in other places and times experienced God?  How have they interpreted them?  How do they describe the nature of God and how has that played out in their relationship with God, with one another and with the world?  What metaphors, images, or names have they used for God?

Our Creeds and Doctrines and Holy Scriptures can be helpful in this search for deeper understanding.  The key question is this How do they enrich and strengthen our own relationship with God, with ourselves, with our neighbor, and with the world around us?

As an example, let’s look at a couple of our readings for this morning.  The psalmist extols the praises of God, and the majesty of God’s creation; and then wonders at how this magnificent God, out of all of this Creation would pay attention to one seemingly small, insignificant individual.  God reveals Godself to us, desires a relationship with us.  Scripture is filled with stories of God reaching out to people and of people crying out to God and God responding.  The psalmist understands humanity’s place in creation as “just below the angels” and master of all living things.

In Proverbs, we hear about Lady Wisdom who is thought to be the pre-incarnate Christ, in some traditions.  We heard just a brief excerpt from this hymn to Wisdom.  Lady Wisdom is calling out in the street, at the crossroads, at the gates of the city!  She calls to all living things, offering her gifts of wisdom and understanding.  She reminds them that she was with God before the beginning of the beginning; when there were no depths, no springs, no mountains or hills. Remember how Genesis starts?  “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…”  Lady Wisdom was with God before the deep existed.  She was with God through all of creation, delighting God, rejoicing with God, and delighting in the human race.

How might this image of Christ as Lady Wisdom affect your relationship with God?  Does it help you understand your experience?

God is as God is – what we read or write, or say or think about God doesn’t change God.  But our Creeds and Doctrines and Scriptures, our images and names for God do help us communicate our experiences.  Help us understand the nature of God.  They can give us something of a common language to explain that which is difficult to explain.

What’s important to consider is this: How does your experience with God affect your life and how does your neighbor’s experience help you understand your own?  How does it expand your image of God and deepen your relationship with God?

And perhaps even more important,
How does your life with God free you to turn outward in order to become Community –  to help your neighbor or to ask your neighbor for help when you need it?

After all, I could read every book ever written about cheese, but it wouldn’t mean a thing  if I never take a bite.

Oil and Ashes

Preached on 14 February 2016 at Christ Episcopal Church, Seattle, Wa
First Sunday in Lent, Year C

A number of years ago, a priest dipped his thumb in beautifully fragrant olive oil.  With it he traced a cross on my forehead, and assured me, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own, forever.”  My identity would always be linked with Christ’s.  Life in Christ is eternal.

Just a few days ago, a priest dipped her thumb in a bowl of ashes from burned up old palm leaves.  With it, she traced a cross on my forehead, leaving a black smudge in roughly the same place as that now-invisible, but forever-present cross in oil – the seal of the Holy Spirit, the mark of my baptism, the source of my identity.  She said to me, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  A reminder that we are mortal; our time on earth is limited.

Those of us gathered were invited to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

In the early church, before Lent was Lent, Easter, the Feast of the Resurrection was the primary baptismal feast.  Beforehand, candidates for Holy Baptism entered a period of intense preparation including study, prayer, self-examination and repentance.

Whether or not you can remember your baptism; and whether or not the details of the ritual were like mine, you are marked as Christ’s own, forever.  And even if you were never baptized, you are God’s beloved child.

It is because of this Truth that we come to church to have someone smear ashes on our foreheads and remind us that we are mortal.  It is in the context of the Reality of our relationship with God through Christ that we enter into the observance of Lent, with or without ashes.  We are preparing to claim or reclaim our identity in Christ when we renew our baptismal covenant at Easter.

And so our Journey toward Easter begins.  It is a journey of Identity.  We begin with a look into the identity of Jesus – with his baptism.  Ok, we have to back up a few verses, but we always start Lent this way.

Remember, just a few weeks ago, the first Sunday after the Epiphany, we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus, just as we do every year.  In Luke’s account, Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan.  Then, while he is praying, heaven opens and the Holy Spirit descends on him in bodily form like a dove and there’s the Voice, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well-pleased.”

With those words ringing in his ears and full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is led in the Wilderness where he is tested by the devil for forty days.

What does this story tell us about the identity of Jesus; about his character?  What does it tell us about the nature of his relationship with God? What do you notice in this story?  What stands out?

Here are a few of the things I notice.

First, I notice how fully human Jesus is in this story.  He fasts for 40 days and is famished.  The devil has been testing him for all that time and Jesus continues to face the temptations.  We come in at the very end of his ordeal. I imagine he is weary, exhausted.

I notice the nature of temptation itself.  In each instance, the devil tries to draw Jesus away from his true self; away from his identity.  He tries to drive a wedge in his relationship with God.  Twice he casts doubt on his identity, “If you are the Son of God,” the devil says, “prove it.”  The devil tells him he is inadequate, that God’s power is not enough; he must seize power for himself and turn away from God.

I wonder, what if Jesus had been the kind of messiah many had hoped for.  If he had come in power and might, overthrowing the Romans and restoring the kingdom of Israel, who would have heard Good News?  Would it have reached the poor and marginalized; the lame, the lepers, the outcasts and sinners; the prisoners and prostitutes?  Would the gospel have reached to the ends of the Earth?

And I notice that Jesus turns to scripture to counter the challenges the devil throws at him.  It’s a matter of his identity.  Yes, he is the Son of God – as the Voice proclaimed at his baptism.  At the same time, he is a man, a Jew living in first century Palestine under Roman occupation.  He is rooted in the history and religion of a particular people in a particular place and time and their Holy Scripture is his Holy Scripture.

Now, what do you notice?

This first week of Lent, I invite you to spend some time contemplating the identity of Jesus.  Then consider how Jesus is the source of your identity. You are rooted in Christ.  What do you think that means?

How might it play out in your life?

Remember, you are a Beloved Child of God.
You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.
You are dust and to dust you shall return.

Oil and ashes.  Ashes and oil.

Every Baby is a Sign of the Kingdom

Preached on 20 December 2015 at Christ Episcopal Church, Seattle, WA
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C

Every baby born is a reason for hope.  Now you might be thinking, “Of course,” and imagine the possibilities that lay ahead for this new little life.  And there are the hopes and dreams of the parents and families.  Now this is all true, but it’s not what I’m getting at.

On the other hand, you may think that someone would have to be crazy to bring a new baby into this messed up world.  And yes, it is messed up – often because of human actions.  From climate change to war and violence and poverty that kills while some have so much they don’t know what to do with it all.  Yes, this, too is true and oddly, it’s getting closer.

Every baby born is a reason for hope because every baby is a sign of God’s faith in us.  Despite all that we see wrong with world, God sees more.  God sees the goodness of creation.  God sees what can be and what will be.  God sees the kingdom already fully realized.  And so, each time a baby is born, it is a sign of God’s faith in us; in the whole creation.  God continues to create humankind in God’s own image and to see that it is very good.

So, if every child is a sign of God’s faith, how much more is the birth of Jesus a sign of God’s faith?

Mary’s world was just as messed up as ours; maybe more so.  They were living under the occupation and oppression of the Roman Empire, with an emperor who claimed to be god himself.  Who would want to bring a baby into that world?  Well, it turns out, the answer is God did.

Now Luke is pretty good storyteller.  Perhaps that’s why we love the Christmas story so much.  But we came in at the very end of the story in today’s gospel reading.  So, I’d like to back up a bit.

Luke has set up two parallel birth stories – John and Jesus.  He starts with the annunciation of the birth of John.  Elizabeth has been married for a long time.  She has no children and may be past her child-bearing years.  The angel Gabriel comes to her husband, Zechariah, and announces that she will bear a special child and gives instructions.  Following the usual pattern of such stories, Zechariah, questions and asks for a sign.  The angel gives him one – he strikes him dumb.  Elizabeth does indeed become pregnant.

The second annunciation begins with Mary.  She is a young woman of marriageable age.  As was the custom, her family has arranged a respectable marriage and she is promised to Joseph.  She may be thinking and wondering about married life, probably with a mixture of nervousness and excitement.  She may even imagine herself as a mother or worry that she could be barren, like her cousin, Elizabeth.

Then Gabriel shows up and tells her that she will indeed have a son; and he will be amazing!  In fact, he will become king, like David; he will have titles to rival the Roman Emperor.  Again, following the usual pattern, she questions, “how can this be?”

She’s a young woman about to be married.  She is told she is going to have a son.  This is good news; her husband will be very pleased!  But it’s not a surprise, other than this stranger seems to know about it before it happens.

I don’t think she is asking about the mechanics of conception.  It seems far more likely to me that she is asking how someone like her, betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter, could give birth to a son who is great and will be called the Son of the Most High; who will be given the throne of King David!  How could that be?

Gabriel reassures her that God will indeed make it so through the Holy Spirit.  And then Gabriel gives her a sign so that she will know that he is indeed a messenger from God and what he says is true.  The sign is that her cousin, Elizabeth, who was barren is with child.

That’s where we come into the story today.  Mary is checking out the sign.  She visits her cousin and finds that she is, in fact, pregnant.  The child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps at the sound of Mary’s voice.  The two women suddenly realize what this means.  They’re the first to know.  No wonder Mary bursts into song, singing Hannah’s song from the book of Samuel, praising God for God’s saving works in the past and anticipating that they will be repeated.  God is fulfilling the promise to Abraham and his descendants.

Advent means coming and in the season of Advent, we prepare and wait in hopeful anticipation for the coming of Christ.  We remember the people of Israel waiting for the coming of Messiah and Mary waiting in hopeful anticipation for the birth of her son, Jesus.

We remember Christ coming to the people of Israel 2000 years ago.  We watch for Christ coming into our lives again and again, transforming us.

And we wait for the coming of Christ at the end of the age; when the kingdom of God will be fully realized.

Each baby is a reason for hope; a sign of God’s faith in us.  Christ continues to come into the world and transform it one person at a time, one baby at a time.

Every birth is a sign of the advent of Christ’s kingdom.  Like Mary, may our lives be a song, rejoicing in God’s gracious, faithful love.