Monday, December 26, 2011

The Nativity of Our Lord

Here is my Christmas morning sermon:

Merry Christmas everyone!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Annunciation, Advent 4B

Here is the video of my sermon for the 4th Sunday of Advent:

Monday, December 5, 2011

Make a Highway

Here is my sermon from yesterday, Advent 2B, Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-9

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sr Carol Andrew and me at Carolyn Murdoch's ordination, 1-29-11

The Final Judgment

My sermon for November 20, 2011, Christ the King Sunday is on youtube:

Monday, November 7, 2011

Saints of God

Youtube video sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 6, 2011:

Sunday, October 30, 2011

New Video

If you would like to see me preaching an extemporaneous sermon from October 23, 2011 click on this link:

Thursday, August 4, 2011

God's Blessing

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Augusta, GA
July 31, 2011
Gen 32:22-31, Matt 14:13-21
The Rev Deborah Magdalene

I have a photo of Jacob wrestling with an angel over my bed. It was taken of a stained glass window from the sacristy at my seminary in New York City. The picture of that window reminds me of my time in seminary, but its position over my bed is a symbol of my 24-hour-a-day struggle to follow God’s will for my life. Picturing my life with God as a wrestling match in the dark of night is an apt metaphor for my own responsibility in being a child of God.

Our encounters with the Holy are much more likely to occur during our naps, get-aways and alone-times than in the midst of frenetic activity. God’s kingdom can break through the edges and seams of our existence with more ease than when we are caught up in our daily grind. We enter the liminal space between heaven and earth when we let our guard down and try to relax. It is then that our unexamined fears and anxieties seep like flood water into our carefully cleaned houses.

The struggle begins when we try to hang on to what God would have us do in the midst of our anxiety and let go of old, tired patterns of behavior that get us nowhere. In that space between heaven and earth, where God meets us face-to-face we are challenged to become more holy than human, letting our fears take a ride while we grab that angel of hope and hang on for our lives.

Jacob was at such a turning point in his life. After what must have felt like a lifetime away from home, he is finally within reach of the land of his grandfather Abraham, his father Isaac, and his estranged brother, Esau. The same brother who Jacob cheated out of his birthright; Esau, from whom Jacob stole his father Isaac’s blessing by disguising himself as his hairy older twin; Esau, with whom Jacob wrestled in the womb, and clung so stubbornly to his heel that Esau’s birth actually helped pull Jacob out into the world.

As we join the story today Jacob is afraid that the years spent away from his ancestral home will have allowed Esau to simmer in resentment to the point of boiling over when he finally lays eyes on his devious and dishonest brother.

So Jacob sends elaborate presents to Esau along with carefully worded pleas for good will. Then he sends all of his possessions, including all the women and children, on ahead of him while he stays behind one more night in prayer, pleading with God to change the course of his fate.

“Deliver me,” he prays, just before this story, “from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him…” (Gen 32:11a) After praying, he sends the gifts for Esau on ahead, along with his two wives and eleven children. He is left alone. Jacob has done all that he can do to manipulate and massage the worrisome situation. From this point on whatever Esau decides to do is in God’s hands.

So Jacob waits as it begins to grow dark. And although the man he wrestles so fiercely with proves to be none other than an extension of God himself, Jacob doesn’t realize this until after his hip has been permanently dislocated. He can look back on the night-long wrestling match and see the numinous quality of a Holy encounter.

This encounter with God takes every ounce of strength and endurance that Jacob has … and leaves him wounded for life. Jacob holds on for dear life to this holy being who is leading him into a new birth. Just as he held on to the heel of his twin, Esau, letting Esau guide him to new life, so Jacob clings to the angel – insisting on a blessing.

And that is what this story is all about. God’s blessing. We are to understand from this nocturnal wrestling match that we receive God’s blessing not just through our plaintive prayers, but through our ability to struggle with and endure the strange, and often deadly relationship with God.

God demands our participation in our own and other’s salvation. We must seek solitude and quiet places where we can invite God to come and wrestle with us.
Commentator Terence Fretheim suggests that God seeks out these liminal, or borderland, spaces in our lives in order "to enhance the divine purpose" and to allow us to practice for the challenges that lie ahead. He says, "To go through it with God before we go through it with others provides resources of strength and blessing for whatever lies in the wings of life."

Jacob was destined to wrestle with God as he wrestled with his brother in the womb. Just as he held on for dear life to the heel of his brother, he held on to the angel until he received the light he was seeking.

Jacob emerges from this struggle with the courage to face his brother and suffer whatever consequences await him. When he finally sees his brother approach he is caught off guard as Esau runs to embrace him and cover him with kisses and tears of reconciliation.

What wrestling with God foreshadows is the loving embrace of a brother who has no reason to forgive Jacob. Carrying the blessing of a new name, Israel, which means “one who strives with God,” Jacob must live with the memories of his impulsive youth, represented by a permanent limp in his gait.

But Jacob carries with him the knowledge that he hung on to God with a ferocity that birthed a new nation, as well as a new relationship with his brother.
Which brings us to our gospel lesson for today.

Jesus is intimately aware of the holy spaces that shimmer between heaven and earth. He embodies that holy space. Being in his presence is akin to stepping onto holy ground where human logic is turned on its head and God’s poetry makes the rules.

When we encounter Jesus in today’s gospel he is at a turning point in his ministry, much as his ancestor Jacob was. Like Jacob, he pauses to spend time alone, waiting for God to show him which direction to take. And, foreshadowing his painful prayers in the Garden of Gesthemane, his attempt to spend time alone shows him the inevitable conclusion to his ministry: he must give and give and give of his life until it is finished. There will be no more rest for him from this time forward.

Prior to withdrawing to his “deserted place,” Jesus received the news that John the Baptist had been beheaded, by order of Herod. Jesus not only grieves the loss of a fellow prophet, but is painfully aware that the same fate awaits him. He knows he must ratchet-up his ministry to the Hebrew people before it is too late.

Jesus could understandably be so deep in his grief and foreboding that he has nothing left to give. The crowd follows him to his private space, hounding him for the word of God that only he can provide. But Jesus is the Holy Ground, the space where heaven and earth meet, where God greets his children and feeds them with overflowing abundance. So a new thing happens here. Jesus hands the job over to his disciples.

I picture them huddling around him, trying to protect him from the masses of people who are demanding attention. And Jesus doesn’t need or want their protection. He knows that it is not him they are trying to protect, but themselves. They are frightened of the crowds because they think that Jesus has no more to give.

Jesus, in their eyes, is a limited resource. In the previous section of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus spoke to the crowd in parables, but reserved the true meaning for their ears only. They were able to have Jesus to themselves and bathe in the light of his numinous presence. Now that the crowds have pushed brazenly into their holy space they fear that they will lose their intimate relationship with Jesus.
They don’t yet understand who Jesus has come to save.

The benevolent grace flowing from Jesus is ridiculously abundant. But like the angel wrestling with Jacob, Jesus knows that his disciples must struggle with the ramifications of this grace until they believe.

The feeding of the five thousand is not about how many are fed by such sparse ingredients. The purpose of the miracle is to teach the disciples how to struggle with God’s abundance.

Their fear is expressed in their objections:
“This is a deserted place… It is late … Send the crowds away so that they can find their own food in the village … Look! We only have five loaves and two fish! ... What are you thinking Jesus? Send them away!”

But Jesus does not operate on the scarcity principle. His grace flows from a spring with unlimited resources. He knows that it is now time for his disciples to get in the midst of God’s people and do the ministry they were called to do.

“You feed them,” says Jesus, “because it is not through me that they will be fed, but through you.” And Jesus performs the first Holy Communion. He takes the tiny meal, the paper-thin fish and fist-sized loaves of bread, and blesses them, breaks them, and gives them to the disciples.

Jesus doesn’t feed the crowds, the disciples do. In blessing the bread Jesus blesses the hands that feed and the mouths that consume the word of God. The disciples are forced to act through their fears and unbelief.

Jesus’ deep compassion for the miracle-starved masses triggers the first spread of the gospel. The disciple’s reaching out to feed the hungry from their own baskets of abundance, shimmering with Holy food for Holy People, fastens a faith within them that will not let them go.

And, just as Jacob would not let God go until he received his blessing, so Jesus will not let his people go away hungry. Jesus hangs on to us until we understand that to be fed by God we must feed God to others. We cannot stand around praying for God to help this broken world without involving ourselves. We must get down on our knees and ask God to give us the food with which we will do the work of healing what is broken.

God’s abundance in our lives is beyond our comprehension. The only way to unleash this unbounded love is to become willing to go of our fears and allow the mysterious holiness of God to shimmer around those we feed.

If we see the feeding of the five thousand as a just another miracle, says Barbara Brown Taylor, it lets “us off the hook. (Miracles) appeal to the part of us that is all too happy to let God feed the crowd, save the world, do it all.” God expects us to fight back, to argue and question; to tangle and struggle with the unruly ways of God. Miracles don’t happen unless we are willing to participate in them.

Taylor continues, “(God tells us), “Not me but you; not my bread but yours; not sometime or somewhere else but right here and now….Stop waiting for food to fall from the sky and share what you have. Stop waiting for a miracle and participate in one instead." (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Baptized by the Spirit

Easter 2A * May 1, 2011
The Rev. Deborah Magdalene
John 20:19-31

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. (John 14:27) Jesus says this to the disciples at the Last Supper. Christ’s peace is a greeting, a goodbye, an invitation to renewed ministry, and much, much more.

When the resurrected Jesus appears to his frightened disciples huddled together in their locked room he greets them three different times with these words, “Peace be with you.”

We use this greeting, ‘the Peace of the Lord be always with you,’ in our liturgy as we segue from hearing the Word of God to participating in the Holy Communion. The events on Easter Day, in the disciple’s locked and private room, are remarkably similar to what we experience here, week after week, during our service of Holy Eucharist.

We begin with readings from Hebrew and New Testament scriptures reminding us where we have come from and where Christ is asking us to pack up our bags and journey toward.

The sermon should reveal what is hidden in our travel itinerary. Like Jesus, revealing himself to his friends to be the risen Christ, preachers must reveal the Good News embedded in the ancient and familiar words.

It is with fear and trembling that I continue.

After we experience a ‘revelation’, if you will, of Christ’s message for us today, we re-enact Christ sharing his peace with us. Like the disciples, we are in our own private room of prayer and holy dining. And, just as the disciples were required to do, we turn to our neighbor and do likewise.

We greet one another in the name of the Lord, reminding one another that the Peace of God, which passes all understanding, is the powerful force, the Holy and unruly Wind that will change the world. Peace be with you. Abide in peace as you abide in Christ. And take Christ with you as you enter the world outside these doors.
We pass the peace to remind each other that Christ continues to come to us in scripture, is present in our own good works, and is the creative spark of new life in Christ.

Christ comes to each of us through the channels of peace, revealing his divinity in surprising ways, as we hear in today’s gospel. Christ knows how uniquely human is our doubt and unbelief.

Peace be with you – these deceivingly simple words carry with them the promise that our prayers have been and will be answered, our quavering faith fulfilled, and our isolation vanquished.

The disciples gather in their locked room on the evening of the first day of the week. It is still Easter day, the day that begins with Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb and finding it abandoned.

It is in the early hours before dawn when Mary sees that the stone has been rolled away from the entrance to the tomb. She runs frantically to tell the other disciples that something is wrong. For a painful moment in time, she and the disciples remain in the darkness and fear of unbelief. They do not know what the empty tomb means.

As dawn begins to lighten the sky, Peter approaches the tomb to see for himself what Mary claimed was true. He gazes into the empty tomb and still does not understand what he is seeing. In the darkness, he returns to the frightened disciples, while Mary keeps a tearful watch at the empty tomb.

In the revealing light of dawn Jesus appears to Mary, yet she doesn’t recognize her Lord. Her inability to see, or her unbelief, needs only to hear her name called in that sweet, familiar voice to be completely dissolved. She then believes, and runs in haste and with deep joy to tell the other disciples.
They still do not believe her report.

When Jesus finally appears to Peter and the others, it is the evening of that same day. Darkness in John’s Gospel always denotes confusion and unbelief. (It was in the dark of night that Nicodemus approached Jesus with his first questions.) The darkness mirrors the doubt, fear and confusion of the disciples.

Jesus then uses the pivotal words meant to remind them who he really is, “Peace be with you.” Don’t you remember?

His greeting is intended to pull them back in time to their last meal together, shared in this same room, when he promised that he would return to them.

He had said to them, “Peace I leave with you; my [own] peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, 'I am going away, and I am coming to you.' If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father.’” (John 14:27-28)

When Jesus shows himself to the disciples it is the fulfillment of the promise he made to them, just a few days before, at the Last Supper. He comes to them in order to abide with them – to call them each by name, to dwell with them in the peace that passes understanding, and to prepare them for their baptism in the Spirit.

John the Baptist testified that, “the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” (John 1:33) This is the moment of the baptism.

But, if we believe the text, Peter and the others still do not understand. It is not until Jesus intimately reveals to them his wounded hands and side that they finally believe, and finally rejoice, as a community, just as he promised that they would.

He reveals himself to them in a way that breaks through the fear and denial so that, through the chinks in their armor, he can blow the Holy Spirit into them, baptizing them in the Spirit, changing them forever more.

Peter had three chances to wake up, smell the coffee, and believe that he was really in the presence of the risen Lord. As we have experienced with Peter, it always takes three times for him to absorb Jesus’ teachings. (John’s gospel ends with the story of Jesus telling Peter three times to “Feed my sheep.”)

Once Peter and the others finally twig to who it is, standing among them, they rejoice, but they do not profess their belief in Jesus’ true nature: the Risen Christ, Son of God, in their very own presence.

That honor is reserved for Thomas. Once we understand how difficult it is for the disciples to understand, who know Jesus so well yet cannot recognize him in this resurrected form, we can have some compassion for Thomas.

Those who are in the room with Jesus need time and some extra help from their teacher in order to fully comprehend the ramifications of what they are seeing. Thomas isn’t there, for one reason or another, and his reaction to the news that they have seen the Lord is the same as the disciples hearing Mary’s report.

“I have seen the Lord!” cries Mary, but they believe her not. “We have seen the Lord!” cry the disciples, but Thomas believes them not. Peter didn’t believe when Mary told him, so why should Thomas believe what he hasn’t seen?

We need to take a step away from this story for a minute to see the full context of this locked room where the revelations take place. We must remember that this gospel was written during a time of great persecution and betrayal. The new Christian movement was literally being disowned by their parents in the faith – the Jewish authorities.

When we hear the words, ‘for fear of the Jews’ we are reminded of the context in which this gospel was written. Early Christian communities were being persecuted, punished, and banned permanently from the synagogues. Church took place in family homes, in rooms that were often locked and guarded for fear that they would be raided and run out of town, or worse.

Much of what we read in this story of Jesus appearing, in his newly resurrected form, to his community of disciples is designed to mirror early Christian worship and prayer.

Christians secretly gathered together in private rooms to share their experiences of Christ in their midst, to read passages of Hebrew scripture, to hear the occasional letter from Christian missionaries, like Paul, and to share in the Eucharistic Feast. From these early meetings evolved our current liturgies of worship and praise.

But fear was an integral part of the early Christian experience. When Christ says, ‘Peace be with you’, he is wiping away fear and replacing it with faith.
God intends for them to be right where they are, doing exactly what they are doing. Just as we, thousands of years later, are acting out our faith in the drama of our familiar liturgy – eager to hear God’s words of Peace to us, so that we can leave refreshed, comforted, and free of fear.

Jesus baptizes them with the Holy Spirit, creating in them a new humanity, reminding us that God created the original Adam, or earth-being, by blowing God-breath into lifeless creatures: inspiring new life.

It is as new life-forms that Jesus sends them out into the world, as he was sent into the world. Just as he revealed himself to the disciples, they are to reveal themselves to others as Christ-bearers. ‘Peace be with you,’ is to become the emblem of bearing Christ, and a sign of the new community.

When we come back to the locked room a week later, it is a Sunday evening. We recognize that this is just like the gathering of Christians on Sundays – a practice already in use during the time this gospel was written, in the late first century.

Thomas is with the disciples when Jesus appears and singles him out. In the midst of all of his friends, Jesus calls him to come and touch the wounds so that he can believe. And that is all it takes. At Jesus’ invitation Thomas falls on his knees and proclaims, “My Lord and my God.”

Each part of the story has presented a different way to perceive the Lord. Mary hears Jesus say her name, Peter and the other disciples see his wounds, and Thomas is invited to actually touch the risen Christ, which is enough to inspire the first proclamation of Jesus’ true nature – Lord and God.

The climax of this story occurs just after Thomas’ witness. Jesus first addresses Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” Then, Jesus turns to us, to the readers of this gospel and says to us, gathered here, in this room, “Blessed are you who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

We are the climax of this story because we depend on the hearing the Good News from others. Blessed are we who have come to believe that Jesus came into the world in order save us from ourselves.

The descriptions of the various ways Jesus’ disciples experience his risen form is one of the most compelling proofs of the resurrection. Something powerful happened to Christ’s followers after his death. Each one of them experienced the resurrection in a different way. Each received the baptism of the Holy Spirit in ways that called upon their individual gifts and created new, often powerful and courageous beings.

God raised Jesus from the dead in order to establish once and for all that the birth pangs of death are destroyed. Death no longer has the power to create or control life beyond the grave. Creation is in the hands of God. And it is through God that we receive the gift of the Spirit – the innovative, creative force that calls us to become bearers of Truth.

It is in Peace that we carry the message of hope out into the world. The Peace of the Lord is none other than the power of God, pulling Christ out of the grave in order to bring us life.

May the Peace of the Lord be always with you. Amen.

Easter Vigil, 2011

And God Saw that it was Good
The Rev. Deborah Magdalene
Easter Vigil 2011

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!

When Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to visit Jesus’ tomb it was the dawn of a new creation. In the twilight of this momentous morning God was doing a new thing. Like the beginning of time, on the first day of the week, when God separated the formless void of chaos and darkness by blowing His Holy Wind over the waters, God again blew a powerful wind deep into the earth shaking it fiercely with the birth pangs of resurrecting Christ, our new light. And God saw that it was good.

Christ is the new light through which we participate in birthing a new world.
The Paschal candle plays a primary role in the Great Vigil of Easter, reminding us that when Christ died our light went out, but with his resurrection at dawn, “on the first day” the light of our own new life with Christ is lit forever, never to go out again.

The two Marys, through their simple act of being present to Christ throughout his suffering and death, never once abandoning him, were the first to hear the Easter message, “Do not be afraid, for He is risen!”

Like the dawn of creation, Christ’s resurrection is the creation of a new form of life: inviting us all to abandon our old ways of thinking in order to follow Christ into an unknown, but abundantly creative and surprising future.

Tonight, we are literally co-creators with God as we bring new life to pass through Christ, in our liturgy. God is doing a new thing which we celebrate through an ancient and mystical midnight service, signifying the end of Lent. Tonight’s great liturgy of Easter pulls us into the present moment, where Christ rises again and leads us all into a new and resurrected life.

Christ’s death and resurrection is a culmination of the ancient Jewish celebration of Passover (or pascha). As God rescued the Hebrew people from the Egyptians at the Red Sea, so God rescues us through the death and resurrection of Christ: the central saving act of God in the New Testament.

God has a habit of creating new things when we least expect it. Tonight we hear the story of our Hebrew ancestors crossing the Red Sea. This parting of the waters is another mirror of the creation story. God’s Holy Spirit-filled wind separated the waters as it had once separated the dark and watery void from the light.

It was in this new light that God beckoned his people to follow Moses into the Promised Land, never again to be bound as slaves in Egypt. Our Christian ancestors in the faith saw in this deliverance of the Israelites an image of our passing through the waters of death into the promised land of our Baptism in Christ.
We participate sacramentally in Christ’s death and resurrection each time we celebrate the Eucharist, but the primary celebration of our Christian year is this Great Vigil of Easter.

During the Vigil the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist come together in dramatic fashion in the celebration of joy that is ours on Easter morn. This night of all nights is also the night of our own salvation, where all who believe in Christ are forever saved from sin and death.

In the words of Leonel Mitchell, in his book “Praying Shapes Believing”, it is “in the baptismal waters [where] sin is washed away and grace [is] given – a grace which establishes, through Christ, a new relationship between God and the race of Adam”.

Tonight we hear the great narrative of our Christian faith from a series of readings out of the Hebrew and New Testaments, plus multiple collects and psalms that draw our attention to Paschal, or Easter, themes. The readings are our final class, or a catechumenate review of Scripture, to prepare us all for Baptism.

This ancient Vigil service contains the passion and resurrection in a single, unitive celebration. Early Christian liturgists and theologians developed this service out of an instinct that the power of God in the resurrection is a mystery that emerges by, through, and in human suffering.

In our participation in the renewal of our baptismal covenant, we are plunged into the water of our own baptismal renewal, before we receive the Eucharist as if for the first time. The effect is powerful.

In the early church, baptism into the body of Christ occurred at Easter, after months (and sometimes years) of catechumenate study. Baptism was seen as the entry point into the great Paschal Mystery which focused their attention on the great redemptive themes of our faith.

Immersion into the water is intended as a burial into Christ’s death, followed by a physical rising out of the water as a sign of our resurrection with Christ. We enter the life of the resurrected where time is compressed and the end of time is upon us now, calling us to urgent and new action based in Christ’s love.

The order for Holy Baptism emphasizes God’s role in creation: especially in the Thanksgiving over the Water:

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water.
Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.

Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage
in Egypt into the land of promise.

In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy
Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death
and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.

We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are
buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his
resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.

It is in the reborn state that we approach the Eucharist. In our Eucharistic Prayer we affirm the relation of God to all of creation. The earliest Eucharistic prayers always included a thanksgiving for God’s creation, echoing the ancient Jewish prayers of thanksgiving.

Eucharistic Prayer II in Rite I includes the line, “for that thou didst create heaven and earth,” and in Eucharistic Prayer A, which we will use tonight, we hear this:

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and every-
where to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of
heaven and earth.

But chiefly are we bound to praise you for the glorious
resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; for he is the
true Paschal Lamb, who was sacrificed for us, and has taken
away the sin of the world. By his death he has destroyed
death, and by his rising to life again he has won for us
everlasting life.

This prayer, known as the Proper Preface for Easter, contains the images of Christ’s triumph over death, reminding us that suffering does not have the last word.

As the Hebrew people suffered during the years of slavery in Egypt, and as Christ’s followers suffered in their bewildered horror at his painful death, we have a tendency to suffer through our days as if we have not been already saved.

In our weekly liturgy we are asked to gather up our sufferings in order to present them to God as our gift – along with our faith and hope in the new life we receive through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Like the two women at the tomb, the light of Christ beckons us to follow Christ as he awaits us in Galilee. The only way there is through actively reaching out to others to join us in the quest. We are on our way to salvation, and we must spread the Good News.

“Go quickly,” says the angel, “and tell the others, ‘He has been raised from the dead and has gone ahead of you – waiting for you as he leads the way.’” And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day of our renewed life in Christ.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Be “Perfect”

7 Epiphany, February 20, 2011
Lev 19:1-2, 9-18, I Cor: 3:10-11, 16-23, Mat: 5:38-48

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy…You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Lev 19:2b, 19b)

The Hebrew word for holiness, "kedushah," has spiritual as well as physical connotations. It literally means ‘separate,’ or ‘set-apart’. That which is ‘holy’ is completely or wholly ‘other’ and is suffused with the numinous shimmer of God’s true nature. Holiness is considered to be the very essence of God.

In Jerusalem there were concentric borders surrounding first the Holy of Holies in the inner sanctuary, then the temple itself, and finally the walled city of Jerusalem. People knew when they stepped inside the boundaries of the city of Jerusalem that they were in a place set-apart from the ordinary. They were literally approaching the borderlands between our world and God’s world.

This holiness, or "kedushah," had an inner quality also. When Moses came down from the mountain after speaking with God his face glowed with the residue of holiness. The encounter with God changed his inner nature and set him apart from the Hebrew people. The holiness emanating from Moses was considered fearful and awesome, yet was desired as something everyone could aspire to.

The ancient Hebrew people structured their lives to emulate God’s holiness. By saving the outer portions of their fields for the poor to reap they were not only creating a healthier community but affirmed that in doing these acts they became holy as the Lord their God was holy.

The commandments for moral and ethical behavior were put before the people as a way to become closer to God. God acted ethically and compassionately with them therefore, out of their love for God, they aspired to act likewise.

Jesus asks us to, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mat 5:48) Our culture has so much baggage attached to the word ‘perfect’ that it’s become difficult to see this jewel of Hebrew wisdom. Being perfect, in this case, has nothing to do with perfectionism – that neurotic self-imposed voice that tells us we never do anything right and must try harder and harder to overcome our own mediocrity.

The word used exclusively in Matthew’s gospel stems from ‘telos,’ the Greek word for ‘goal’, ‘end’ or ‘purpose.’ We are to meditate on God’s whole and undivided nature in order to become more whole and undivided ourselves. Instead of telling us to be perfect in human terms, Jesus is telling us that we were created whole and complete in order to remember our origins: the same complete holiness that created us and gave us life.

It is in this sense of ‘being’ as our maker intended us to ‘be’ that we are asked to endure harsh treatment, love our enemies, and pray for those who attack us. Jesus does not mean for us to endure an abusive relationship at the risk of our own and our children’s safety.

These teaching of Jesus use the plural form of the word ‘you’ and are intended to teach a community how to live as a community of God, belonging to God, and desiring to live in holiness with God.

Matthew’s gospel was written at a time when the Christian community was being attacked and persecuted. Jesus’ words of wisdom became the template for passive community resistance against tyranny and evil.

Like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Egyptian people in Tahrir Square, Jesus teaches the beauty of setting ourselves apart from the self-involved cruelty of political systems.

Jesus was raised in a communal culture and spoke to communities of disciples, religious authorities, and common people. It is as a community that we are asked to turn the other cheek, to give away our coat of security and warmth, and to feed the hungry. When Jesus tells us to be perfect it is as a community.

Another way of saying this is, ‘Be whole and undivided among yourselves as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit is whole and undivided.’

Paul is asking the Corinthian community to aspire to this same principle. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you… For God’s temple is holy and you are that temple.” (I Cor 16, 17b) Once baptized as a member of the Christian community we become an integral part of the Body of Christ that dwells in, and yet is separate from, the world and its chaos.

Paul is speaking to a fractious and competitive community that has lost sight of the big picture. He reminds them that it is not human leaders who will teach them how to live a Christian life, but Christ himself.

The community is called to be the Body of Christ in a literal way, with each person living into the gifts God gave them. As Christ belongs to God, they belong to Christ. Their communal responsibility is to become one whole and holy container for the Spirit of God that dwells in their midst.

Each of us must find the role that God is asking us to fill in this community. We are not very good at identifying and promoting our own strengths. This is why our culture of individuality clashes headlong into God’s Kingdom community. We can recognize the holy in each other only when we’re not threatened by or jealous of one another.

The early Hassidic sage Rabbi Zusya once said, "When I reach the next world, God will not ask me, 'Why were you not Moses?' Instead, he will ask me, 'Why were you not Zusya?”

This ancient wisdom bumps up against our American do-it-yourself individualism. The idea that God may have a design for our lives sounds suspiciously like God wants to rob us of our freedom to choose what is best for us. The author of the book titled ‘Bobos in Paradise’, David Brooks, writes that the prime directive of the baby boomer generation is "Thou shalt construct thine own identity."

It is easy to assume that our deepest desires must be obeyed, or we wouldn’t feel them so powerfully. The answer to this dilemma is multi-faceted. Our deepest desires are related to God’s desires for us, but they are in a language we are not accustomed to hearing.

God speaks to us in conundrums, labyrinths, dreams, and metaphors. I still remember clearly my childhood desire to be an actress. From the age of five until I was in high school it was all I thought about. I knew without a doubt that God wanted me to act. When I bumped into my first real road block I concluded that I must have gotten the message wrong.

At the age of fourteen I landed the role of Wendy in Peter Pan. But when an accident put me on crutches the director (wisely) had to choose another, more nimble, Wendy. I interpreted my broken heart as God trying to tell me to choose something a little easier to accomplish in life. I was sure that God didn’t want me to feel as badly as I did.

I grew up with the adage, “You can be anything you want to be. You just have to want it badly enough.” I wanted to be an actress. I wanted to be popular. I wanted to be the star. And I wanted it to be easy. I wasn’t prepared to suffer. The ironic thing that I couldn’t have known at the time, is that suffering is what we human beings do best.

Until we embrace the truth that no matter what we think we want in life, all choices involve suffering, we will be wandering around in the spiritual desert. It is how we deal with our own and others’ suffering that separates the truly wise from the ordinary whiner and complainer. The Corinthians were whiners. We are encourage to do better than that.

God did not create us to suffer but, with God at our side, to transform suffering into new life. No one teaches this better than Jesus. The verses we heard from our Gospel today come after the Beatitudes and are meant to be an extension of them.

These pithy wisdom sayings of Jesus are the essence of the road less traveled. They are the exact opposite of normal human desires as they are the epitome of ancient Semitic wisdom.

The desert fathers and mothers of the fourth century interpreted being perfect as, “Being perfectly humble in your recognition of who made you.” The ancients knew that we can’t even come close to behaving and thinking as God would have us behave and think. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

It is in trying to act as God would have us act that we bless other’s lives with holiness. This was one of the many reasons I felt called to join a religious order. I thought that if I were living with a group of people who committed themselves to daily prayer and service I might finally be acting as God wanted me to act. Maybe I was, but I was also trying to escape the voice inside my head which told me that I was never good enough.

I confused perfectionism with Christ’s call to be perfect. There is nothing wrong with joining a religious order as a valid way to live a life closer to God. But my own sticky wicket was the discovery that life lived within a closed community of women is just as ordinary and flawed as any other life, only much more intense.

I constantly bumped up against my interior ‘behavior police’ who constantly nagged, “These sisters aren’t doing it right! Why does one get away with being grouchy all the time and another with dominating the conversation? Why do the sisters always talk about each other behind their backs, blah de blah de blah.”

I was thrown right smack up against the same issues that plagued me before I entered. My desire to be perfect was deflected onto everyone else in my vicinity because of a neurotic wish that they should behave perfectly – like nuns should! As long as I stayed focused on them I avoided the hard work that God was calling me to do.

I eventually realized that my only escape was to shine that piercingly neurotic spotlight on my own behavior and begin to accept that I didn’t have a clue how to behave with humble tenderness toward my sisters or myself.
I turned toward scripture and spiritual writings, and I found a wise spiritual director. I began to grow up spiritually.

I still struggle with my interior behavior police directing my attention toward others’ mistakes rather than my own pride, but I have developed a healthy sense of humor about my own foibles and missteps.

Just as the ancient Hebrew people set apart what was holy from the mundane sludge of everyday life, we can set apart our spiritual life in Christ. We can set aside a times to pray and mediate on God’s whole and healthy desire for us.

We can consider ourselves part of a holy enterprise and therefore cherished by God. As Christ’s own beloved people we can allow ourselves to have an inner shift – an awakening to the joy of belonging to God.

We make things much too difficult for ourselves. We belong to Christ as Christ belongs to God. We can stop and think before allowing ourselves to be directed by our habits and compulsions. And we can learn to be spiritual people living a spiritual life – focused and aiming constantly toward our holy and undivided Christ.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Isa 9:1-4, 1 Cor 1:10-18, Mat 4:12-23
January 23, 2011
The Rev Deborah Magdalene

Two weeks ago tomorrow President Barak Obama gave a eulogy for the innocent victims of the recent massacre in Tucson. He gave words of comfort to grieving families, friends, and coworkers; he summarized the lives of the dead, giving us all a better idea of their common humanity; and he encouraged Americans to refrain from blaming those who think differently from us.

Obama said, “It’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”
Those words carried light into my heart, and made me grateful that I wasn’t listening to a political speech, like I’d expected, but a sermon: a crafting of words chosen to illuminate the good news of hope in humanity, and faith in God’s power to help us change old behaviors.

Obama quoted Job to describe the suddenness of the attack in Tucson, “When I looked for light, then came darkness.” The whole verse reads, “But when I looked for good, evil came; and when I waited for light, darkness came.” (Job 30:26)

The people lined up to meet Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords that Saturday were there because of an active interest in their representative – to make real their little corner of Arizonan democracy. The last thing they expected was the sudden darkness of senseless tragedy.

In times of shock and grief we have an instinct to do something to make the hurt go away. Obama encouraged everyone to use that ‘do-something’ energy to do the hard work of “[Becoming] willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future.”

Challenging old assumptions – sounds strikingly like the language of Martin Luther King Jr. On September 16, 1963, King said in his “Eulogy for the [3] Young Victims of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing” in Birmingham, Alabama,

“God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city… The spilled blood of these innocent girls may cause the whole citizenry of Birmingham to transform the negative extremes of a dark past into the positive extremes of a bright future. Indeed this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.”

This theme of God’s light breaking-in to transform heartbreaking, evil and unjust circumstances is what runs through our church season of Epiphany.

The first line of the Psalm for today says it well, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?” (Ps 27:1) We must always be attentive to the inbreaking of God’s grace in our human history.

God has a habit of breaking-in to the world’s chaos and creating light. In God’s world, “Let there be light,” is not a past event, but an ongoing process of creation. Where there is darkness God will create light.

The rainbow after the flood is the magical light-filled promise of God’s new covenant with his people. The light emanating from Moses’ burning bush and the pillar of light that guides the Hebrew people through the wilderness are examples of the inbreaking of God’s transparent clarity and power in times of struggle. God actions are not obtuse.

God speaks to us with the clarity of light. But we have to walk through some dark, difficult, and depressing times before the light can break through. This is why we repent of our shortsightedness and clumsy self-centeredness before we can feel the inbreaking of light through God’s forgiveness.

Isaiah cries out, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them has light shined.” (Isa 9:2)
Here the prophet is encouraging the Hebrew people who lived in the areas in and around Galilee in the 8th century before Christ. They were overtaken by the Assyrians and had lost all control over their own lives. The lands of Zebulun and Naphtali were the Assyrian names given to the areas in and adjacent to first Century Galilee.

Isaiah prophesies that the Assyrian oppressor will fall and that the Hebrew communities of faith will be restored. The troubled people of Galilee will gain control over their lives, will be able to worship their God freely, and will have no need to fear any more. “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?”

In Paul’s letter to the troubled community of Corinth, he warns of the same dissensions that trouble Americans after the shooting in Tucson. Different factions are trying to gather momentum and overpower each other in their bids for supremacy. The impulse to do something creates chaotic and pointless posturing and resentment. Human behavior hasn’t changed much in two thousand years.

Paul believes that any factions competing for power are in blatant denial of the light and truth of the gospel. “Was Paul crucified for you?...Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?...Has Christ been divided?” (1 Cor 1:13)

Paul is striking them with his sarcasm in order to wake them up and shake them. All that matters to Paul is that they understand the radical message of the cross.
“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18) This is one of the most famous quotes of Paul that encapsulates the new saving grace of the death of Christ.

Jesus died as a common criminal in direct opposition to the belief that the Messiah was coming as a powerful leader in this world. Jesus in fact came to us as the inbreaking of God’s world into ours, turning everything upside down and sideways. The power of Christ is the power of transformation – not takeover.

Because of the brutal way Jesus died the majority of faithful Palestinian Jews couldn’t get their heads around the transformation of God’s promise to them. They could not reconcile that God’s emissary died the most shameful and public death of an enemy of the people.

Paul emphasizes the cross for a reason. It is only through embracing the complete humiliation of being a fragile human being and dying a death that terrifies the most faithful Jews that he could expose the radical love of God.
This is a love that follows us down into the grave, embracing all that is lost and hopeless, in order to raise us up in the full sunlight of God’s forgiving grace.

Paul knows that if the Corinthians had fully realized what Jesus did for them they would drop all their self-centered arguing and posturing and fall down on their knees in awe. There is no need to follow anyone but Christ. Paul doesn’t want followers, and he ridicules their desire to follow anyone but Christ. He wants believers who know what a precious gift they have been given.

esus brings eternal life to those who believe. The promise that the Kingdom of God is near – that because we believe that Christ is the Son of God and that he rose from the dead – the Kingdom of God has now entered our lives and has the power to change old behaviors. In God’s Kingdom we never have to fight our way to the top of the pile.

Fighting for political power, for human attention, or for religious popularity is another way of saying that you have lost the central message of Christ. Christ came to us in order to bring us the prism of new light. Nothing is the same when you keep your eyes glued to the wisdom of Christ’s saving power.

The ramifications of getting caught up in crowd mentality are nothing short of denying the message of the gospel. Our guide for behavior is our faith that God will guide us in no less a way than God guided Jesus – through the most painful work we can imagine in order to bring us out into the light.

When Jesus called the fishermen Peter, Andrew, James and John, he was calling them to a new vocation. He called it, “Fishers of men.” But he never tells them, or us, exactly how we go about this kind of fishing.

Do we brag that we have the best church in town? Do we attract believers by inventing new and exciting programs? Do we call all our old friends who used to come here and ask why we haven’t seen them recently? Do we walk door-to-door and share with the neighborhood our stories of salvation?

Jesus never tells us to do any of that. But he does say, “Follow me.” Follow me and I will move you through darkness to a great light; for you are sitting in the region and shadow of death and cannot see that the light has dawned.

It is only through repentance of our old habits that keep us stuck and unable to see the Christ-light in the faces of those who love us – it is through repentance of our inability to consider a radical change in our lives – it is through repentance of our attitudes of hopelessness and our exaggerations of doom and gloom that we can relax and feel God’s blessings and love forgive us and set us free at last.

Jesus began his ministry in Galilee. Matthew emphasizes that this was to fulfill Isaiah’s prophesies. Jesus came to Galilee to live as God’s light of justice and reconciliation. When he says ‘Follow me’ he doesn’t promise that it won’t hurt. But he does promise that through our transformed lives we will not only see light, but will bring light to others. “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?”

God did not let bad things happen to the innocent people in that shopping center in Tucson two weeks ago. But God can salvage souls by showing us the way through painful times.

Nine year-old Christina Taylor Green was born on 9-11 in the year two thousand and one. She was one of 50 children born in the United States on that day. President Obama wisely used the story of her brief life to illustrate the saving power of hope.

Because Christina had such an unusual gratitude for the gifts God had given her he encouraged us to not let her death be the last word. Christina was fascinated by the world of politics and believed that she could make a difference in the world.
Obama said, “I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us - we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations.”

The Good News that Jesus brings us all is that we have to work hard to discern God’s will for our communities. It is through the hard work of doing justice, bringing reconciliation, and acting abiding love that we bring light to our communities and to one another. “The LORD is our light and my salvation; whom then shall we fear?” We need fear no one.

The Baptism of Christ

Sunday, January 9, 2011
The Rev Deborah Magdalene

In the movie, ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou,’ three men escape from a chain gang and begin an epic journey through the South, looking for an illusive hidden treasure. At one point in their journey, as they are walking through a dimly lit forest, they begin to hear the sound of many people singing:

“As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good ol' way
And who shall wear the starry crown?
Good Lord show me the way!”

The fugitives hide among the trees and watched transfixed as a large group of men and women, dressed completely in white, hurry toward a ravine where a large, lazy southern river winds its way through the forest.

“O sisters let's go down
Let's go down, come on down
O sisters let's go down
Down in the river to pray.”

Then, continuing to sing, one man wades into the river and beckons the first woman in line to come into the water. With a forceful shove on her shoulders, the preacher pushes the woman down into the water and holds her there for a breathless moment.

The force of a gale propels the woman up out of the water shaking and sputtering with new life. She has no time to catch her breath as another woman approaches, ready for her turn to be shoved into the water. And so it goes, as everyone takes their turn to be baptized in the river.

Suddenly, one of the fugitives breaks free from their hiding place among the trees and pushes his way through the people-in-white and into the river, presenting himself eagerly to the preacher. The preacher looks him in the eye, recognizes his desire, and shoves him into the water.

Up he comes shouting jubilantly “I been saved! I been saved!” while his friends shake their heads in disbelief. What looks like foolhardiness to them is a true epiphany for the baptized man. Throughout the rest of their journey he remains a changed man. He thinks about his actions and worries about the helpless. It was a new being that rose up out of that lazy river.

This last Thursday was the Feast of the Epiphany, and the first day of the season of Epiphany. This is when we traditionally celebrate the arrival of the wise men, guided on their journey by a bright and luminous star, to Christ’s manger in Bethlehem. The foreign wise men traveled hundreds of miles in order to see a tiny prophet who would reach across boundaries and bring all nations together in peace.

When the magi visited the baby Jesus it was a foretelling of the future of Christianity. Because of Jesus, all nations would be invited to recognize the true nature of God. When the magi leaned in to worship the infant Jesus they recognized something new coming into the world.

This is what the word ‘epiphany’ means: a breaking-through of divinity into human understanding… a ‘showing’ or an appearance of God’s true nature in the midst of the darkness of our struggles, disappointments, and fears.

The word ‘epiphany’ can also mean a “perception of truth by means of a sudden intuitive realization.” We’ve all experienced an epiphany. Cartoons illustrate a light-bulb turning on suddenly in the bubble over someone’s head – that ‘aha’ moment when everything becomes clear and Popeye has a new idea.

This ‘new idea’ shines through the ministry of Christ throughout the season of Epiphany – unique manifestations of God’s nature as seen through the saving humanity of Jesus.

We traditionally celebrate the baptism of Christ on this first Sunday after the Epiphany. It is at the River Jordan that the immensity of Jesus’ ministry to the people of God is made clear to him. As he rose up out of the meandering waters of the Jordan River “suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” (Mat 3:16)

As Matthew tells the story, this is the first time that Jesus hears the voice of God, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” (Mat 3:17) It is only after the baptism and this anointing by the Spirit of God that Jesus begins his public ministry.

In his novel, ‘The Last Temptation’, Nikos Kazantzakis explores how Jesus might have suffered before his baptism by John. He imagines that as Jesus reached adolescence he began to experience crushingly painful headaches that accompanied frightening ideas about his own death and the suffering of his people.

Except for the pain, these experiences were all shadowy and indistinct. The teenaged Jesus felt the deepest part of his being struggle with these bizarre visions that came from an even deeper and mysterious place within him. It was not until his meeting with John the Baptist that Jesus discovered the truth of his destiny.

Matthew emphasizes that it takes two important figures coming together in righteousness in order to complete God’s plan. The Baptizer immediately recognizes the holy nature of Jesus and begins to back away from him in humility. “No, no, it is you who should be baptizing me!”

But Jesus draws John back to him with the words, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." (Mat 3:15) And so the baptism becomes a dual act, an obedient coming-together of the baptizer and the baptized, setting the stage for God to show himself to Jesus.

The word, ‘righteousness’ is very important to Matthew. He uses either the word ‘righteous’ or ‘righteousness’ repeatedly throughout his gospel, drilling the concept it represents into our understanding.

So. What does ‘righteousness’ mean to Matthew? Joseph is called ‘righteous’ when he takes his dreams seriously and agrees to wed Mary and make a home for the Christ child. Jesus teaches that those who hunger and thirst for ‘righteousness’ are blessed and will be fed. (Mat 5:6) He says again, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” and all that you truly need will be given to you. (6:33)

Righteousness can mean justice, uprightness, and redemption. It can be an attitude or an action. When we comply with God’s righteousness it implies that we are working, with unified attitude and action, toward the completion of God’s work on earth. We are literally bringing in the Kingdom of God with God.

Jesus and John the Baptist work together as equals, conforming their actions to God’s righteousness. This public moment becomes the template for all future baptisms in the name of Christ.

When the priest helps the child of God emerge from the water bath, they have participated together in the birth of a new being. For Christians, each time we witness a baptism we remember not only the moment of Christ’s own baptism, but his death on the cross.

Like the preacher in the movie, the cross shoves Jesus into the darkness of the river of death, where he stays long enough for us all to lose hope. Then, in complete alignment with God’s righteousness, Christ rises from the depths of the grave as a new and radiant being.

This is our promise, as baptized members of Christ’s family. Like Jesus, we know that we are beloved by God, and that we now share his new and radiant life in our lifetime and in the next.

Baptism is where it begins. Eternity is where it continues. It is the water that is our physical and outward reminder that we are part of God’s plan.
The oil used to seal the new Christian is a reminder of the epiphany of God to Jesus. As Jesus heard the voice of God, we hear the voice of the priest saying, ‘You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.’ (BCP p.308)

This public act of adoption into Christ’s family was so important to the early Christians that it became part of their earliest creeds. In fact, in the reading we have today from Acts we hear an early form of this creed in Peter’s speech to Cornelius and his family:

“You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ-- he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” (Acts 10:36-38)

Peter’s speech reminds us of the close link between Christ’s baptism in the water, followed by the sealing of the Holy Spirit. And at the end of Matthew’s Gospel he makes clear that the mission of the new Church is inseparable from baptism.

After the resurrection, Jesus appears to his closest followers, saying powerfully, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And lo, behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mat 28:19-20)

Jesus and John the Baptist showed us how to align ourselves with God’s righteous plan for his world. It is in baptism that we celebrate the new life we have in Christ as we are joined to Him and adopted as God’s own children forever.

Whether or not we remember the event, at our baptism God takes up residence in our hearts, willing us daily to pay attention to the holy and righteous purpose of God seeking to live through our attitudes and actions.

Like Christ, our ministry begins at the moment of our baptisms.
We belong to God, and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We are all gathered at the river, looking forward to the day when we will rise with Christ to life eternal.