Fr. Ron Feister: A Meeting Place

Sermon preached on Candlemas (transferred), Sunday, January 31, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

There is no audio podcast of today’s sermon. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Lectionary texts: Malachi 3.1-5; Psalm 24.1-10; Hebrews 2.14-18; Luke 2.22-40.

In the name of God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The feast that we celebrate today has long and ancient history. First celebrated in the churches of the east, now called Orthodox, it was called the Meeting of the Lord. It was later adopted by the church of the West were it received the name that we give it today, the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. It is also known as Candlemas, as it was the traditional day when folks would bring their candles, their main source of light during the winter months, to church to have them blessed at the feast day mass. It has always been a special day for me, because from my earliest childhood my mother would remind me, that like Jesus, I was taken to the church and as the first born, dedicated to the Lord. Believe it or not, it is also the Church’s official end to the Christmas season. Don’t feel bad, if you have left up some decoration or outside lighting, even the Pope in Rome leaves up the manger scene in Vatican Square until this feast.

Our Gospel begins, with the second and third of three significant religious rituals to be experienced by the Infant Jesus and his family. In the verse immediately preceding today’s Gospel, we would have learned that in accordance with religious tradition, that on the eighth day Jesus would have been circumcised and given his name Jesus in the Greek the name by which we acknowledge him today which is a translation of the Hebrew name of Joshua which means Yahweh is our Salvation or Deliverer.

In the Gospel reading, we have Mary coming to the Temple after she has been in some level of seclusion for 40 days to go through a ritual purification. It is also a time when the family is called upon to perform a ritual of redemption as it was the Jewish understanding that every first-born child belonged to the Lord.

Now we are asked to pause for just a moment and realize that here is something very profound going on. Mary and Joseph were doing what every devout Jewish family did. We know through the Scriptures of the great faith of Mary and Joseph. It is no doubt why they were chosen for God knew that they would faithfully take care of this sacred child in this way.

But in the eye of everyone else, there were just an ordinary family coming to the temple. They did not stand out in unique way; in fact as they entered the Temple, they were probably forced to stand in a line that makes waiting at the BMV seem like nothing. Mary and Joseph presented two turtle doves for the redemption sacrifice. Normally a lamb would have been required, but if the family could not afford one, turtledoves were acceptable. This tells us the Mary and Joseph were poor, lower working class. Think about that for a moment.

If we look upon all the encounters of Christmas, how and to whom did Jesus choose to reveal himself. He chose a lowly stable to be born. He revealed his coming first to lowly shepherds. He chose ordinary parents.

Given the hardships of life, it is tempting for us to think that that God does not care about us in our everyday lives or we might ask how can we expect Jesus to meet my needs, but that is just the point, Jesus does understand and he does come to meet us in our needs because he came as a fully human child. As we hear in our reading from Hebrews, he came to be fully one of us so that he might more fully involve himself with us. Jesus is able to hear us and understand our needs because he became part of us. He came in the most humble of ways to embrace our human nature.

When Jesus was brought to the Temple there was no fanfare or celebration except for his immediate family. Nobody was ready for their Messiah to be born. Herod was caught off guard. The rich and powerful didn’t know it happened. The ruling powers in the world from Rome to Asia had no clue. Even the religious elites in this temple, did not see anything significant about this baby He was just one more baby coming through, a simple child born to poor parents.

It seemed that nobody was ready for the coming of the Messiah, nobody except a few devout souls. The Magi from the east were ready. The shepherds were made ready by the angels. In Jerusalem there were a handful of folks, who studied the Scriptures and the prophecies and they met and prayed and lived lives of Godliness. Among them was a man named Simeon and a woman named Anna. Two unrelated, common, ordinary people who would otherwise not be notable in history, but because of their great faith, they leap onto the pages of Scripture and become central figures in the grand story of Jesus birth and infancy. We do not known much about Simeon, some think he may have been a priest or Jewish scholar, but there is nothing to support that he is more than a man just and devout. There is some indication that he was older given the ease at which he is ready to die, but we do not even have evidence of that. We do know that he was waiting for the consolation of Israel that is to say the he was waiting for the coming of the Messiah. Now the Holy Spirit would come selectively upon some individuals during the Old Testament period, and did so for Simeon and revealed to him that he would not die until he saw the Messiah. Notice if your will, that God’s plan does not follow what we would normally expect. It is not the rich or powerful or the learned that get the “inside information”. It was poor, faithful old Simeon. Who does God look for? Who does he use? The faithful. You cannot control where you end up or how you are promoted, but you can chose to be faithful to God.

I am sure that he waited for years. If he shared the Spirit’s assurance, the religious people probably thought of him as eccentric and yet he still believed. Every day he scans the babies, and I can imagine him asking the Lord, “Is this the one?” and every day hear the Lord say, “No. that is not the one” and finally on this day, he sees that humble family walk in with their baby and he asks the Lord once more, is this the one and God answers, yes indeed, this is the very child. Nothing marked Mary and Joseph as the parents of the Messiah Nothing marked this baby in that way. He did not even wearing his golden halo. Yet this child was the Son of God, the Hope of Israel, and the perfect sacrifice for Sin.

As Simeon holds the child, he speaks forth a prophecy, a declaration of what God would accomplish through this child. First he says that his eyes have seen Salvation. Salvation not as a thing or a religious term. Salvation is a person, that is the person who a that very moment was being held in his arms, the little baby Jesus, who grew to be a Man and who would take on the burden of all of our sins.

Simeon said that Jesus would be a light for the Jews, but not just the Jews, he would be a light for the whole world. He would complete the work for which the Jewish people were called and that was to be God’s light to the unbelieving nations. Jesus did not come for a select group of people. Jesus came for all who would believe. Simeon’s words were to the weary couple, an affirmation of their mission. Joseph and Mary did not just celebrate the Christmas miracle once a year, they lived it their entire lives. Simeon’s message did not just encourage, but also warned that Jesus and his message, would be for the rising and the falling of many; that his life and message would divide people. As we look upon the life of Jesus and its effect you will see that while their were many who believed in Him, there were many more who rejected Jesus as the Christ. Simeon was not the only one awaiting the Messiah.

There was also a woman there named Anna . She was a prophetess, that is to say, she declared the word of the Lord. Such individual are gifted by God to interpret the word of God sometimes as it affects the future and sometimes clarifying what God has already said. She was a widow and at least age 84 years old. If you wanted to choose the most insignificant type of person to proclaim the birth of the Son of God, you would need go no further than Anna. She was a woman and women were not highly regarded in those days. She was a widow, and widows were often marginalized. She was from the tribe of Asher, basically a foreigner in Israel.

Yet she became the world’s first evangelist. In Verse 38, it says that she proclaimed or preached the news of the Messiah to all those looking for the redemption of Israel. Looking at the example of Anna, we can see the many faithful women who have held the church together by their faithfulness.

Simeon came to Jesus for comfort. Comfort for the nation of Israel and comfort for his own soul. Anna came tor forgiveness, forgiveness for the nation of Israel and personal forgiveness. These two individuals in their meeting with the Lord can teach us some valuable lessons. First, that God comes to us in simple and human ways. Showing no preference for the mighty or the lowly and that God works through human beings more often than not. The Spirit often choosing to use persons without title or position. Second, that Salvation is not some concept or idea rather Salvation comes to us in the very person of Jesus Christ. Third, that to fully encounter God in our daily lives, we need to be faithful even when being faithful seems foolish to the world or seems not to be bearing fruit for God’s ways are not our ways. Look forward to your many opportunities in life to encounter the Lord that he might present you to the Father.

In the name of God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

FN: Repairman Fixes Military Wife’s Broken Furnace for $1

Good on him.

1453734702539Betlyn said he was just continuing a family tradition.

“My grandfather was a milkman during the Great Depression and many times he’d go to the door and the woman didn’t have any money for milk. But the baby was crying in the background. So he’d put the milk on the table,” Betlyn told ABC News. “And when I heard about Bridget with her husband being deployed…I put the milk on the table.”

Betlyn has since started a “Military Deployment Kisses Fund” on The aim is to raise money to send families overseas to meet with loved ones during lengthy deployments. He’s raised nearly $1,500 in three days.

Read it all.

Funeral Sermon: The Resurrection of the Dead: Real Balm for Our Grief

Sermon delivered at the Memorial Service for Thomas Ira Dunlap, Sunday, January 24, 2016. Fr. Maney is rector of St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

Primary lectionary text: John 11.17-27.

In the name of God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today I want to speak a real word of hope to you because death under any circumstance is hard, isn’t it, especially when we are dealing with Alzheimer’s, a disease that robs people of their humanity before killing them. It is truly a wicked disease and it makes us angry and indignant, the way Jesus was at Lazarus’ tomb (cf. John 11.38) because death is our ultimate enemy, the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15.26). Not only does death rob us of our human dignity, it also separates us from our loved ones, at least for a season. But O how long that season can be! And like Martha in today’s gospel lesson we want to throw our hands up in the air and ask in desperation why God allows this to happen.

But if you paid attention to our gospel lesson, you notice that Jesus gave Martha and us a much more satisfactory answer to her “why” question about evil and death. Jesus did not answer her question directly. Instead, he acknowledged that while evil and death still exist in God’s good but fallen world, he had come to destroy their power over us. That is why Christian funerals are so important. They serve to remind us that for those who are in Christ, evil and death do not have the final say because of God’s great love for us expressed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. As Jesus tells us in our gospel lesson, resurrection isn’t a concept, it’s a person, and those united with Jesus are promised a share in his resurrection when he returns to raise the dead and usher in God’s new world. Jesus’ new bodily existence attests to the fact that we as humans—body, mind, and spirit—matter to God as does the rest of God’s creation, and that death is not our final destiny but new bodily existence for all eternity.

Paul tells us about the nature of our promised resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15 and it is worth our time to see what he has to say. Paul tells us that unlike our mortal body that is subject to disease, decay, and death, the resurrection body with which we will be clothed will be like Jesus’ resurrected body. It will be a spiritual body, that is, it will be a body animated and powered by God’s Spirit instead of being animated and powered by flesh and blood. This means that our new body will no longer be subject to all the nasty things like Alzheimer’s to which our mortal body is subjected. Whatever our new body looks like—and surely it will be more beautiful and wonderful than our minds can comprehend or imagine—it will be impervious to death and suited to live in God’s promised new world, the new heavens and earth.

When Christ returns to usher in the new creation, the dimensions of heaven and earth will no longer be separate spheres for God and humans respectively, and which currently only intersect. Instead, as Revelation 21.1-7 reminds us, the new heavens will come down to earth and the two will be fused together in a mighty act of new creation so that evil will be banished and we will get to live in God’s direct presence forever. There will be no more sorrow or sickness or suffering or death or pain or evil of any kind. We will be reunited with our loved ones who have died in Christ and get to live forever with our new body and limitless new opportunities to be the humans God created and always intended for us to be. Being the outdoorsman he was, I am sure that as he rests with the Lord and awaits his new body, Tom is all about this promised future reality living in God’s new world with its infinite possibilities for exploration and enjoyment.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting that we should not grieve. That would be cruel nonsense. You don’t love a person for an entire lifetime and then not grieve his loss when an evil disease like Alzheimer’s claims him. But as Paul reminded the Thessalonians, we are to grieve as people who have real hope and not as those who have none at all. It is this resurrection hope, the promise of new bodily life in God’s new heavens and earth that we claim today. Our resurrection hope is the only real basis we have for celebrating Tom’s life today, because without a union with Jesus, none of us have life in this world or the next.

I want to close by telling you a story that powerfully sums up our Christian hope.

In 1989 Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, wife of Emperor Charles of Austria died. She was the last Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary, and Queen of Bohemia—one of the last members of the storied House of Habsburg. Her funeral was held in Vienna, from which she had been exiled most of her eventful life. After the service in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, her body was taken to the Imperial Crypt, where some 145 Habsburg royals are buried. As the coffin was taken to the Crypt, an ancient ceremony took place. A herald knocked at the closed door, and a voice responded, “Who seeks entrance?” The herald answered, “Zita, Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary.” From within came the response, “I do not know this person.” The herald tried again, saying, “This is Zita, Princess of Bourbon-Parma, Empress of Bohemia.” The same reply was heard: “I do not know this person.” The third time, the herald and pallbearers said, “Our sister Zita, a sinful mortal.” The doors swung open.

And so we return to Jesus’ question to Martha in our gospel lesson. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this? The promise is mind-boggling. But the God we worship is mind-boggling. Jesus’ promise that he is the resurrection and the life is ours, not because we are deserving, but because of who God is, the God who created us to have life with him forever and who is embodied in Jesus Christ raised from the dead. That is why we can rejoice today, even in the midst of our grief and sorrow. Because of his faith in Jesus who loves him and who has claimed him from all eternity, the doors of heaven have swung wide open for Tom and he is enjoying his rest until the new creation and the resurrection of our mortal bodies come. And that, of course, is Good News, not only for Thomas Ira Dunlap, but also for the rest of us, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Daniel Semelsberger: A Body Made to Suffer Unity

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Epiphany 3C, January 24, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. Daniel Semelsberger is our invited guest preacher today.

If you would prefer to listen to the audio podcast of Daniel’s sermon click here.

Lectionary texts for today are: Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19.1-14; 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a; Luke 4.14-21.

Good morning!

Well, now this is different, isn’t it?

I stand here in this pulpit on this third Sunday of Epiphany the invitation of Fr. Kevin, who is his infinite wisdom and excellent judgment, has obviously decided that the benefit of not having to write a sermon outweighs whatever potential harm my presence here on this platform may precipitate. I suppose we shall all discover together in due course whether or not he’s right.

As some of you may know, I am currently in the second year of a two-year Fellows program of discipleship, spiritual formation, and Christian apologetics through the C.S. Lewis Institute.  When Kevin invited me to speak, his only request was that I distill something from my time spent in the Fellows program into something that I could share with everyone at St. Auggie’s for our collective edification and benefit.

I have endeavored to do just that, so, I would like to center our minds and hearts this morning on our New Testament lesson, drawn from the twelfth chapter of 1st Corinthians. Before I really kick into gear, let me offer this disclaimer: I make no pretense to being trained at length in Biblical scholarship, and, rather than performing strict exegesis on this passage, I am instead going to contextualize the passage within some of Paul’s other writings on the Church, and do my best to demonstrate their relevance to the topic of suffering.

So, without further ado or shenanigans, let us begin:

The presence of evil, pain, and suffering in this world is almost certainly the most frequently given objection to the existence of God, and, by extension, to the truth of Christianity. If, like me, you have an interest in conversing with people that have serious doubts about, say, the existence of God, or about the validity of the Christian faith, you can expect to encounter this objection at nearly every turn.

It comes not only in clearly-vocalized and carefully-worded questions like “How can a totally good, all-powerful God allow evil, pain, and suffering in His world?”, but also in ways less-easily identified, such as the hurt, pain, grief, sorrow, and fear that each of us, at one time or another in our lives, carries locked away inside of us. It shows up in the anger with which the question is sometimes asked: “How could a good God allow this to happen to me, or to someone I loved?!?” Or, if not anger, then perhaps in desperation: “How? How does a good God, who says He cannot abide evil, not put a stop to this? Why does He allow it to continue? When will it end?”

Whatever the particular guise in which this question appears, you can rest assured of one thing: it will appear.

And it ought not to surprise us when it does, particularly here in the United States and in other countries of Western heritage. When compared to every other great civilization of history, modern Western culture stands almost unique in its inability to account for the presence of suffering as a meaningful part of existence. For, at base, any conception of the world as being utterly material (i.e. excluding spiritual or other immaterial forces) and solely natural (i.e. excluding the possibility of supernatural beings or forces) precludes any belief in the spiritual or the eternal. In such a perspective, all that exists is what is right in front of us—this world, this life, this existence. If the ramifications of such a thought process on the nature and purpose of suffering are not clear, listen to these words from Tim Keller:

“In older cultures (and {some] non-Western cultures today, suffering has been seen as an expected part of a coherent life story, a crucial way to live life well and to grow as a person and a soul. But the meaning of life in our Western society is individual freedom. There is no higher good than the right and freedom to decide for yourself what you think is good… But if the meaning of life is individual freedom and happiness, then suffering is of no possible use. In this worldview, the only thing to do with suffering is to avoid it all costs, or, if unavoidable, [to] manage and minimize the emotions of pain and discomfort as much as possible” (Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, 2013, p. 23).

So, as I say, it ought not in the least to surprise us that the reality of suffering will inevitably surface from those asking honest questions about the existence of the infinite-personal God and the truth of the Christian faith. Suffering, quite literally, does not compute to most of our non-Christian peers. At best, it is an impersonal outworking of the cruelty of impersonal natural forces. At best, it is an accident. Or a mistake. But either way, it is horrible, and it means nothing, so let us avoid it! Indeed! Are we all agreed? Good, then this service is adjourned and we can get on with medicating ourselves!

But, in all seriousness: there are good reasons why the truth of Christianity can be such a bitter pill to swallow: depending on one’s understanding of reality, the suggestion that there is an infinite-personal God who loves His creation can seem laughable. Unconscionable, even. If suffering is an accident or a mistake, how could God allow an accident of such miserable consequences, or make a mistake of such a proportion? If it is not an accident, then, on what grounds can we call God “good” and “loving”? The feathers begin to ruffle. The indignity and cursed unfairness of it all gets people all hot and bothered: Who does this God think He is, anyway? How dare He call himself Good, and say that He is Love?!?

As professing Christians, it is easy to be taken aback in the face of these sorts of questions—particularly if—as I will freely admit has been the case for me—such thoughts are not foreign to our own minds.

And, yet… we, the body of Christ, ought not to be discouraged in these moments. Indeed, I now find these moments, when I encounter them, to be strangely comforting. For, the experience of suffering is, I am convinced, universal to the entirety of humankind. In that sense, it is an empathic connector, because we’ve all suffered. And, quite frequently, raising the objection to the existence of a loving God on the basis of suffering is a moment of vulnerability and honesty. It is the moment when the pretense (hopefully on both sides) comes to an abrupt halt, and everyone can get down to brass tacks.  So, my response is almost always: Yes. Yes, let’s talk about suffering. Please, let’s talk about suffering.

So, then, what does the twelfth chapter of 1st Corinthians have to do with suffering?

In order to begin to answer this question properly, we must first acknowledge two things: First, that Scripture does not provide ultimate, complete answers about the reason or reasons that we experience suffering. If you ever grow confident that you’ve cracked that particular nut, I would encourage you to revisit (or perhaps visit for the first time) the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, and, quite literally, read them and weep. Second is this: where the Old Testament draws sometimes stark connections between the experience of suffering and the judgment of God, the New Testament paints a far more inscrutable picture of the nature of suffering now that God’s judgment for our sin has been satisfied at the cross. To be certain, we bring suffering down on ourselves when we transgress against God’s created order. And, yet, God’s originally-created order is now very much fallen, so, one might with good reason say that suffering is best understood as separation from God—and that regardless of one’s preferred adjectives to describe that state of being—fallen, corrupted, depraved, sinful, etc.—our experience of suffering in the wake of Christ’s ultimate victory over death and sin can be understood in far more redemptive tones than that of the people of Israel.

That is to say, though we still reside in this world of God’s good-but-fallen creation, and are still at war with our fallen, sinful natures, restoration to God is freely available to us through the work of Christ, who suffered judgment for our sake. And we, having entered into the Kingdom, now have an inheritance in the new creation to come. This is, as Kevin is wont to remind us, the ultimate hope of the Christian faith. And it is a large part of the Christian’s response to the problem of suffering: someday, suffering will no longer exist, because we will be fully and perfectly restored to right relationship with God. In the new creation, we will no longer suffer because of our separation from God. And amen to that!

And, yet: here we still are, you and I, tucked into this chapel building in Westerville, Ohio, on a gray, cold January day. Here we still are, and, for at least a little while more, it seems, we shall continue to be here. And just what are we to do with that? Shall we all sit and twiddle our thumbs waiting for the new creation? By no means!

For, you see: we are the Church. And the Church is the other part of God’s response to the reality of suffering.

In one sense, the modern Western Church gets this. For the most part, we take seriously Scriptural commands to care for the needy, to feed the hungry, to provide for the fatherless, the widow, and the destitute. Or, at the very least, we understand that we need to do these things, even if we struggle to set aside our self-centeredness and our materialism, and regularly justify our preoccupation with comfort and security. We know that there are people starving to death, people being killed in cold blood, and people perishing from preventable diseases in other parts of the world. And we live with some level of compunction about these things: we know that they are bad, and that we ought to help alleviate things.

But there is another aspect to the Church’s purpose about which we frequently seem not only inactive but also utterly indifferent.

Consider again the New Testament depiction of suffering: what does it mean to suffer? To be separated from the infinite-personal God, the one who sustains and upholds the universe and all things in it, and who loves you. What, then, is opposite of suffering? Unity with God—the one who sustains and upholds the universe and all things in it, and who loves you. Yes, we still suffer, but, as the Apostle Paul—and, indeed,  the entire litany of New Testament authors—are quick to remind us, we are now strengthened in that suffering because of the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Let me put it succinctly: it is Unity that alleviates and, eventually, completely undoes the reality of suffering. It is precisely because we have been restored to a measure of unity with the infinite-personal God that our suffering takes on a transformative character.

What, then, are we to make of what Paul writes in 1st Corinthians 12:14: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body… and all were made to drink of one Spirit”?

Or Verses 24-28: “But God has so composed the body giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

In these verses, Paul paints the way forward for the splintered Church in Corinth, and, indeed, for the Church universal: in unity with one another, our joys and sufferings are shared, and, so, are multiplied and mitigated, respectively. But, why, we are tempted to ask, is there still suffering in the unified body of Christ? Paul does not write that being unified will eliminate our suffering. What, then, is the big deal about unity, if it doesn’t do actually do away with suffering?

The answer, of course, is that it won’t do away with suffering yet. But to fixate on eliminating suffering is to ask the question quite apart from the Scriptural narrative altogether, because one is still fixated on avoiding suffering. We are not given that option in the Christian understanding of the world. Rather, as Christians, we are told that we must share in Christ’s sufferings if we are to be co-heirs of the Kingdom (Romans 8:17). And, therein lies all the difference, for Christ suffered that we might experience restoration to God—Unity with the infinite-personal God. We must, too, suffer, as we grow deep in unity with God and with one another. The Church was made for transformative suffering—both to share the Gospel with those that need to be reconciled to God, and to uphold one another within the body. Paul refers to this in his next letter to the Corinthians as the “ministry of reconciliation” that has come to the Church from God through the work of Christ. Reconciliation not only for those still separated from God, but, continually, ongoing, for those within the Body of Christ.

Make no mistake: unity, if it taken seriously, will bring about suffering as we struggle with our sinful natures. Surely, any of us in the room that are married know this immediately: taking seriously unity with one’s spouse will inevitably bring suffering. But how much more easily borne is the suffering because of the unity—and how much greater is the joy experienced in the bonds of unity and love. Familial relationships are similarly trying and rewarding—and full of suffering because of the sorrow that one experiences by being connected to others.

Why should the Church be any different? To join the Church is to join a body marked by a unity that transcends unimportant differences. The Church is not a country club, where you won’t have to put up with people you find distasteful or with whom you have real disagreements and differences. It is not racially exclusive or economically exclusive. Convenient divisions on the basis of these things, other cultural differences, and, God help us, pet doctrinal preferences will ultimately be exposed as nothing more than feeble human edifice and vanity, swept away in the consuming glory of Christ’s triumphant return. And thank God for that.

In closing, think back with me just one short week to our baptismal service and reception of members, and hear these words from Galatians 3:27-28: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Remember likewise the words we spoke to those newly baptized and received into the body: “There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. By one Spirit we are all baptized into one body. We welcome you into the fellowship of faith; we are children of the same heavenly Father; we welcome you.”

So, as a member of St. Augustine’s, and by extension the Church universal, let me say this:  We welcome you. You can bring your suffering and pain into this body and you will not be turned aside. We still welcome you. Come grow in reconciliation and unity with us. Come grow in love with us. Come share in the sufferings of Christ, for His yoke is easy and his burden is light. Come share in our hope for His return, for the fulfilled Kingdom, and for the new creation.

And, finally, as a fledgling apologist who has spoken with many hurting people outside the body of Christ, let me say this to you, all my brothers and sisters in Christ: As the Church, we must persist in welcoming one another, continually. Inasmuch as we love one another, we must live out that love in bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, and enduring all things for one another. If we are to be ambassadors of our faith to the world, we must answer the question of suffering by being the Church, and understanding that in taking on the mantle of Jesus Christ we are commanded to suffer unity in Christ and with one another. We cannot fall short in this, because God’s beloved creation is crying out in pain, and does not know how to account for its suffering. The last thing that the lost in God’s beloved-yet-fallen creation need is another solution to minimize or avoid suffering. But a Church that embraces—rather than runs from—suffering, knowing that it is transformative and purposeful, will be a light that pierces the darkness and serves as a living witness to the truth.

God bless you all.

The Finest of Wines

Sermon delivered on Epiphany 2C, Sunday, January 17, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 62.1-5; Psalm 36.5-10; 1 Corinthians 12.1-11; John 2.1-11.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This morning we celebrate the joyous occasion of baptizing 3 new persons into the Body of Christ and receiving 5 new members, thanks be to God. And commensurate with this joyous occasion, it is appropriate that we look at what our lessons say about the basis of that joy.

There seems to be legitimate disagreement among interpreters about exactly who the speaker is in the first verse of our OT lesson. If the speaker is the prophet rather than God, it turns our lesson into quite a poignant and marvelous promise, one that we all get and hope for. Let me refresh your memory as I read verse 1 for you again:

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch (Isaiah 62.1).

Do you hear the desperate resolve in this? In its original context, the prophet has warned his people their worst nightmare is going to come true. They are going to be driven from their beloved land, the very land God promised them, because they have been unfaithful to the covenant God made with them through Abraham and Moses. In other words, they have not been the people God called them to be. Time and again we hear in Isaiah God promising to restore his people from exile and renew the land. But nothing seems to be happening, and we get that. We haven’t been exiled from our land, but there have been plenty of times in our lives that it seems God has abandoned us or is punishing us. I don’t need to provide examples. You all can fill in your own blanks. And that’s the point. Now, instead of being silent, the prophet confronts God, resolving not to be silent until God makes good on his promises. I suspect the prophet had God’s honor and reputation in mind as much as he did his own people’s future plight. When are you going to act on your promises, God? How many of us have asked God the same thing in the darkness of our exile and alienation from God?

And then we hear God’s astonishing and breathtaking answer. I am going to put new clothes on you, the clothes of royalty, because I am going to treat you like kings and queens! That is how much I love you. Others will see and be envious. They will want in on the action! No longer will you feel like a widow. No longer will you feel abandoned. No! You are to rejoice like newlyweds because I am sending my Messiah, my chosen one, to restore you and you will know beyond a shadow of doubt that you are mine! Rejoice, therefore, and celebrate! Drink the finest wines and eat the finest foods in anticipation of that time because you won’t believe how good it can be, a sentiment echoed in our psalm. Have you experienced this promise of God’s healing love and presence in your life? If you have, you know what the prophet says is true.

Now it’s a funny thing that our OT lesson ends with the exhortation to celebrate our restored relationship with God as newlyweds celebrate at a wedding banquet, a frequent biblical metaphor that describes the intimacy of the relationship between God and his people, because we read in our gospel lesson the wonderful story of Jesus at the wedding of Cana. For those of us who know Jesus and therefore know the true love God has for each of us that we just talked about, this story is not surprising at all. In fact, we expect things like this to happen when Jesus enters our lives. This is why I know Fr. Bowser loves Jesus so much. Any story that recounts how Jesus made between 120-180 gallons of the choicest wine is bound to capture his heart.

But what does John want us to learn from this story? There are several lessons that can be had, but first and foremost I think John wants us to focus on the extravagance of the “sign.” Note carefully that Jesus didn’t address a critical need in turning the water into wine. Sure, this would have been a social catastrophe for the hosting family if the wine had run out. But it wasn’t literally a matter of life and death. No one was desperately sick or suffering. In fact, Jesus even asked his mother what it had to do with him or her? His hour had not yet come. More about that in a moment. No. It seems that John wants us to see that in Jesus, God was answering the bold and persistent complaints of his people: When you are coming to rescue us? God’s answer? Here I am. Pay attention. Have open minds to consider new possibilities. Have ears to hear and eyes to see. Look at the abundance of the finest wine, and coming after the cheap stuff to boot! I’ve saved the best for last by coming to you myself in Jesus.

This makes us recall what John has told us in his prologue (John 1.1-18), that in Jesus’ fullness, the fullness of God the Father, we have received grace upon grace. In other words, the grace of God’s Law given to God’s people was being fully realized in Jesus the Messiah. Here in his first “sign,” John’s term for mighty acts of God’s power, we see the abundance of Jesus’ fullness. The wine that he made and that gladdens our hearts, like the Law of Moses, is simply a signpost or a road sign, that points us to the real deal, the ultimate goal: Jesus himself. The Law was given so that we could relearn to act like God’s true image-bearers again instead of acting like the sinful, proud, and self-serving chuckleheads we’ve acted like since the Fall. In other words, the Law is not some obnoxious thing we have to try to follow. It is our path to liberty, to real freedom, so that we can be fully human once again instead of cheap imitations.

And the wine that gladdens our hearts and makes us feel so good when we drink it? A mere foreshadowing of how we will feel constantly when the new heavens and earth are brought forth fully at Jesus’ second coming. Imagine an eternal buzz at its best without a hangover the next day. This is grace at its finest, folks, because we deserve none of it. But because we love and worship a God with an extravagant heart, we can have it nevertheless if we put our whole hope and trust in Jesus and act accordingly. This is what new creation is all about, both here and hereafter. Do you, will you, dare believe in such extravagance?

How do we know this? John gives us some clues. He starts by telling us the wedding happened on the third day. And what happened on the third day? Resurrection, the first fruits of God’s new creation shown to us. New bodily life. An end to death and sorrow. An end to sickness and suffering. The supreme answer to our desperate prayers, demanding of God that God will make good on his promises to rescue us. And what had to happen before the resurrection? Crucifixion, Jesus’ death to break the power of evil in God’s world and our lives, and to end our alienation and exile from God. This is the hour to which John refers. Jesus’ death and resurrection are John’s seventh—a number signifying completeness in Scripture—and ultimate “sign.” It takes great faith to believe that God’s glory is manifested in utter humiliation and that resurrection springs forth from death. But that’s exactly what John pronounces to us in his gospel and that for which this first sign at Cana serves as a signpost. Do you want to experience the extravagance of God? Then go the way of the cross and you will, says John.

Of course, Jesus’ death and resurrection is part of what baptism is all about. When we baptize John, Dorothea, and Ashley in a moment, we unite them with Jesus’ death so that they can be united with Jesus in his resurrection as well, thanks be to God! And as Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson, when they are baptized and join the body of Christ, the Church, as part of God’s reconstituted family around Jesus, they will be empowered by the Holy Spirit and receive gifts that will help them to make Jesus’ presence known in and through his people. God doesn’t leave anything to chance when he makes us his own, nor does he leave us abandoned in answer to our desperate prayers. If this is not reason for us to celebrate today and every Sunday, I don’t know what is, my beloved. As we remember our own baptism and renew our vows to help support and uphold our newly baptized, let us do so with relish (or even with pickles and onions and mayo), remembering the extravagant God who does more than turn water into wine. He turned us from being his enemies into being his adopted children and he turns our death into life. That really is Good News, the best news of all, now and for all eternity. Pass that extravagant wine at communion, please, and let the celebration begin, never to end. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Photographer Captures Moment Service Dog Calms Bride Down Before Vows

Sweet story.

1929791_826545604120528_2038397792067598309_nA wedding photographer captured the touching moment when a service dog dressed in a pink tutu calmed a bride just moments before she walked down the aisle.

Valerie and Andrew Parrot, who married on Jan. 9 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, were accompanied by their service dog Bella during the ceremony, Fox 25 reported. Bella helps Valerie deal with migraines and panic attacks, and even helped walk her down the aisle at the wedding.

Read it all.

Anglican Primates Agree to Set Fixed, Common Date for Easter

holy-fire-kievAnglican leaders meeting in Canterbury this week have agreed for the first time to work with Orthodox Christian leaders to move towards a fixed date for Easter.

Helping negotiate an agreement between Christian churches to fix Easter to a set Sunday in April would end centuries of disruption around the date and endear the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby to schools, businesses, holiday companies and millions more individuals in the UK and abroad, throughout the world.

Although there have been unsuccessful attempts to do this before, the latest initiative is the brainchild of Patriarch Tawadros II, Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Archbishop Welby said in Canterbury today: “Pope Tawadros has suggested that Easter is fixed around the second or third Sunday in April and the Primates agreed that they support that.” He added: “I would love see it before I retire. The first attempt to do this was in the tenth century so it may take some time.”

He predicted it could be done in five to ten years, because all sorts of things such as school holiday dates for some years ahead had already been settled.

Few people grasp the maths behind Easter, although this writer explains that it is calculated using both the Sun and Moon and is on the first Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon. It changes each year according to the Julian calendar used by Eastern churches and the Gregorian calendar used in the West, and only occasionally falls on the same date for both East and West.

Read it all.

Terry Gatwood: The Waters of Baptism

Sermon delivered on Epiphany 1C, the Baptism of Christ, Sunday, January 10, 2016 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 43.1-7; Psalm 29.1-10; Acts 8.14-17; Luke 3.15-17, 21-22.

Water is essential to life. Without water, there is only a dead and barren wasteland.

Yesterday, I happened to read an article about the rains in Australia right now. They’ve been so great that a dry lakebed in the desert lands north of Adelaide has filled and become the largest lake in the country. It is a rare occurrence for this lakebed to fill, as the region seldom gets enough rain to form a little puddle. It typically only fills three times each century. Reporters interviewed a local man who marveled at the amount of vegetation that has sprung up seemingly out of nowhere as the waters have come. The growth is so strong that the man is having a hard time keeping up with keeping it down on his land. The dead, barren desert landscape is being fed new life by the water that continues to come.

Water is a wonderful thing, a marvelous thing that sustains life on our planet. And it is often something many of us seek out in our leisure when we have time away from our work responsibilities. My parents and grandparents would take us kids to a campground near Lithopolis, Ohio, for the entire summer for swimming and fishing. The solitary time that I value is nearly always spent on the Big Walnut Creek, the creek that fed my people’s land for two centuries, near my home, fishing or quietly sitting and thinking and praying. My wife and I were even married near the waters edge at Coligny Beach on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. We lived together after we were married in a house on the marsh land right off of the Harbor River. It was a great place to begin a new marriage surrounded by all that water. Water brings a peace to many of us, and leaves lasting memories that will always be there for us when our minds begin to slow down as we age.

Water is used for cleaning, for drinking, and irrigating fields to produce food for us to eat. And when we don’t have water in abundance, or we’ve polluted it beyond use, or are wasteful with it we have enormous problems that affect more than just us as individuals. It’s a great gift to us, and we should treat it well as good and faithful stewards.

Today we remember the baptism of our Lord, Jesus Christ, by John. Water, of course, figures prominently in our Gospel reading this morning, and plays a huge role in the life of the Church. John was preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He wasn’t asking people to be baptized because they felt sorry or as an act of divine fire insurance, but because he had been sent to call them forward towards living with God, and being his children.  John chastises the people for their failure to turn in obedience with one of my favorite lines in all of Scripture, “You brood of vipers!”

So, a question then: why did Jesus get into the water to be baptized if he was truly the Son of God and sinless in every way? Would not his participation in a baptism for repentance mean that he had something to repent of? To give a short answer, no. He did not. The not-as-short-answer: as God’s Son, and the rightful heir of all things Jesus stands out as the true King of Israel. As Israel’s Great High Priest and King he is also the head of all God’s house, and represents the nation of people before God. His coming through the water is a recapitulation, or doing again, of the history of Israel. In Jesus we find perfect Israel on display here. In everything that Israel had been disobedient to God, Jesus was obedient. Thus, in coming to the water, he reenacts God saving his people through the waters as an act of grace on God’s behalf. He obediently follows, and as the head of God’s chosen people, shows us the path to life is by following God through the waters; by being obedient. Perfect Israel has done it, and so should you.

And then we see the heavens open, and we witness the Holy Spirit descending upon him in bodily form like a dove, and then we hear the voice of God the Father “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well please.”  In this baptism of Jesus we are confronted with the reality the God of Israel is truly a triune God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. And God takes pleasure in the Son because of his faithful obedience to him as the one sent to redeem not only Israel, but also all of humankind. And it starts in the blessed water that this grace becomes available to all people for their salvation and living into the kingdom of God as God’s children forever, learning to love as God loves, and being made perfect in Christ through his atonement that he is going on to make for us later in the Gospel narrative. The image of the Trinity is the prime example of how we should order ourselves in the Church; the Trinity is the clearest picture of what love looks like in community, the Church. Baptism is what brings us into this loving relationship with the Triune God and with all people, united uniquely together in the Church through our baptism, learning to love more and more as God does as we continue in our faith that has been given to us as a gift by God through his abundant mercy and grace.

The God who created us brings us through this water, and saves us just as he did the Israelites fleeing Pharaoh and Egypt. Through the Red Sea they fled according to God’s promise of a future and a life with him. Men, women, children, and all were saved by coming through those waters and trusting in God by faith. God also saves us and marks us as one of his own in the waters of baptism. He takes dry and arid places of our hearts and causes perfect love to grow there; for him, for others, and a right love of the self. He begins a work in us through the power of the Holy Spirit to bring us on to maturity and farther and farther away from willfull sin that would be happy keeping us as dry and arid people, with no growth or life or health within us.

Have you been baptized and felt the creeping up again of the dryness of a life you no longer want to live, but instead you desire to see growth in your life? Do you desire to live in that relationship with the Lord where he is primary over all things, and where you love him more than anything else? Do you want to live not just for him, but with him on a daily basis? Good. You’re not dead, you’re just experiencing a funk, and we’re here to help you out of it by remembering your baptism and what God did there for you, and what you believed about it when you first believed.

If anyone of you who is not baptized would repent of your sins that hold you back from entering into the fullness of life God has in store for you, living in a loving relationship with the Trinity and with fellow people is entirely possible for you to. God promised it, and in it he marks you with his promised holy spirit. You are his child forever. Be baptized and enter into this covenant community with us. We’d love to count you fully as our brother or sister.

We all need to repent, from time to time, of the things that hold us back from living fully in relationship with Our God and His Church, in this inaugurated kingdom that is coming to its fullness at Jesus’ return.

It is God’s desire that we experience the fullness of the Trinity at the baptismal font, and there find God saving us, once again, through something so simple, so beautiful, so common as water. And at that font you are sure to meet our Triune God and find yourself fully in his care.  This is where life begins.

The Epiphany: The First Star Trek

Sermon delivered on the Feast of the Epiphany (transferred), Sunday, January 3, 2016 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you would prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 60.1-6; Psalm 72.1-15; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Merry Christmas, St. Augustine’s! Today marks the 10th day of Christmastide (are you still celebrating or have you packed it all up?) and we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, which actually falls on January 6. We do this because otherwise we would only get to celebrate the Epiphany about every 5 years when it falls on a Sunday since we do not hold weekday services. Epiphany comes from the Greek word that means manifestation or appearance. This, of course, refers specifically to the manifestation of Christ to the Gentile (non-Jewish) world as illustrated in our gospel lesson this morning when the Magi came to visit the Christ child. More about that in a moment. The Church traditionally used the feast of the Epiphany to commemorate the baptism of Jesus and his changing of water into wine at Cana. Only later was the visitation by the Magi added and in the centuries before December 25 was recognized as Christmas by the Church (probably around 336 AD), Jesus’ birth was also celebrated at Epiphany along with his baptism.

Enough for your history lesson this morning. I don’t want your eyes glazing over too early in the sermon. There will be plenty of time for that! You recall that on Christmas Eve we talked about the hope and promise of God entering his world and history as a human. We saw that God’s Incarnation means that we humans matter to God, along with the rest of his creation, and that God intends to put all the wrongs of this sad old world and us to rights. If there was nothing else besides this, we would have a real basis to rejoice and celebrate during this Christmastide and beyond. After all, who doesn’t want to see all the wrongs of this world put to rights and evil defeated? But of course there is an added dimension to the gospel that is related to God’s overcoming the evil that afflicts his world, a much more personal dimension to the gospel: our reconciliation with God and hence our rescue from sin and death. All our lessons attest to this fact, either explicitly as in our epistle lesson, or implicitly as in our gospel lesson. This is what I want us to look at this morning.

We start by looking at the familiar story of the Magi visiting the baby Jesus in fulfillment of the prophecy that we read in our OT and psalm lessons. Matthew is inviting us to see that the light about which Isaiah speaks, and which will result in the nations coming to recognize God, is in fact beginning to be fulfilled in the star that brought the Magi to worship Jesus. Here is God’s glory on display, but not as we expected it. Instead of a dazzling and terrifying theophany, or appearance, by God, we see a baby born of a virgin, later to become a bloodied and tortured man, pierced and hanging naked on a cross for our sake. This is God’s glory made manifest to the world. This is the glory of God that all will eventually acknowledge, either willingly or unwillingly. This is God become human, destined to die for the sins of the world, for your sins and mine, so that we might not remain alienated and hostile to God for all eternity. This is the baby who will one day defeat the dark powers and principalities that have usurped God’s righteous rule over his good creation.

So how does this story of the Magi’s visit attest to our personal healing and salvation? Good question! To answer, we must not let our sentimentalized version of the wise men prevent us from seeing what Matthew is actually telling us. We must remember that the Magi were magicians and astrologers. They were the Jean Dixons of their day and the OT roundly condemned the practice of divination and astrology (see e.g., Deuteronomy 4.19, 18.9-13; Isaiah 47.13). The medium of Endor, for example, was horrified when she learned it was King Saul who had asked her to arouse the spirit of the prophet Samuel and seek his advice because this kind of activity was strictly forbidden by the Lord, and she feared being put to death because she had practiced the forbidden (1 Samuel 28.3-14).

But now we see folks who were professional magicians and astrologers, exactly the kind of folks the OT condemned, seeking out the newborn king and being granted an audience. This wasn’t what good and proper religious types of Jesus’ day would have approved. In fact, they would have sneered at it. But Matthew reminds us that it was not the religious types who showed any interest in Jesus. We note that no one from Jerusalem, not the chief priests and scribes, the so-called “experts,” accompanied the Magi to Bethlehem. They simply didn’t care or couldn’t see the truth behind the cosmic event the star announced, and which the Magi reported to them. So in this story, one of the things Matthew is reminding us is that it is the most unlikely who are granted an audience with God, startling and unexpected as that might be.

Why is this important? Because as Paul tells us in our epistle lesson, it is through Jesus, and only through Jesus, that we can have access to God with boldness and confidence. We have this confidence and boldness to approach the Father’s throne, the Creator of this vast cosmos, not because we are deserving of being in God’s presence. To the contrary, Scripture paints a terrifying and awful picture for us. Our sins alienate us from God and prevent us from appearing before God! As such, without any outside intervention, when we do appear before God, we can expect nothing but God’s righteous condemnation of our sinful rebellion in all of its myriad ways. This is not a pretty picture, despite many a wrong-headed attempt to mitigate the awful and deadly consequences of our sin and rebellion against God. When we separate ourselves from our lifeline, we can and should expect nothing but death.

So why then would Paul tell us we can have access to God the Father with a bold confidence? Precisely because God became human and died for us to end our alienation from him once and for all. We are reconciled to God the Father through the blood of the Lamb shed for us on the cross so that now our relationship with God is restored in the way God always intended, and we can confidently approach God’s throne without fear of hearing the terrible words of God’s righteous and just condemnation of our sins, thanks be to God! Amen?

This is what makes our gospel lesson so poignant if we have ears to hear, eyes to see, and a mind opened to God’s truth in and through the power of the Spirit. Here we see gentile folks who are clearly outside the promises of salvation God made to Abraham and his family, precisely because they are not part of God’s people. Moreover, these men practiced things expressly forbidden and condemned by God’s law. But here they are, the first gentiles to pay homage to Jesus the king! If you want to know what God’s grace looks like, look no further than this story. God in his tender mercy and love for his fallen image-bearing creatures—even the most unworthy and undeserving of us—has invited these lowlifes to visit him and pay him the homage due to him, while the so-called righteous and proper folks, folks like you and me, those who should have known better, decline the invitation. Think on these things!

Let me put it another way. Think of someone you know (or know about) whom you consider to be entirely unworthy of approaching King Jesus (you had better not be thinking about me!). For whatever reason(s) in your mind, that person should in no way be granted an audience with the King because he or she is either too evil or too nasty or too undeserving: you know, a real lowlife, slime-doggy! Whoever that person is, if we dropped him or her into Matthew’s story today, he or she would have been invited to come before the King and be transformed forever by the King’s great love, mercy, and grace for that person. We aren’t told if the Magi experienced that transformation. What we are told is that they were offered an invitation and had the wisdom to accept it. Do you?

And so If you are someone who is struggling with your relationship with God, primarily because you are convinced you are unworthy of God’s love and attention, pay attention to the story of the Magi because it is your story, my story, our story. Come and accept God the Father’s gracious invitation to worship the newborn King and be healed and transformed through his Son in and through the power of the Spirit. Your healing and transformation likely won’t happen overnight and there will be bumps and detours along the way. But that’s not the point of the story. The point of the story is that you are worthy in God’s eyes because you are covered by Jesus’ blood shed for you, and when you believe this by faith, it must inevitably change you so that you begin to act in ways that are more fully human. In other words, you will begin to act like Jesus, not out of compulsion but out of a profound and heartfelt sense of thanksgiving and gratitude for the love of God that has rescued you from being a dead person walking and an eternity of death. The Magi would be the first to tell you that it’s all true, unbelievable as it may seem. This is one of the lessons the feast of the Epiphany can teach us!

But for what are we saved? Many who put their faith and trust in Jesus sadly act like they are saved so that they can act snotty and look down their noses at unbelievers or those who don’t believe exactly as they do, and that they no longer have to really take an interest in the things of this world because their destiny is heaven, not earth. If you’ve listened to me preach long enough, you know how I feel about that baloney. Nothing could be further from the truth. No, Paul tells us in our epistle lesson why God has rescued us from sin and death. We are rescued so that we as Christ’s body, the Church (and I am talking not about us as a parish but us as part of the Church catholic or universal) can make known the wisdom of God revealed in Jesus Christ in its rich variety to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places!

That’s ridiculous, you exclaim! I have a hard time keeping on top of my work and the family finances! Finding a pair of clean underwear in the morning is a challenge. How can I make known the riches of God’s wisdom to the powers and principalities? Is Paul nuts?? I’m not a big shot. I have no political power or authority. How can Paul make such a crazy statement? Well, Paul can make such a crazy statement because it’s true. He is not talking about exercising an individualistic faith, but a faith lived out together as fellow members of Christ’s body, the Church, strange as that sounds to our individualistic ears. As he tells us, this is the mystery of God that has been revealed, that both Jew and Gentile are woven into a new family of God under the authority and leadership of our crucified and risen Lord and King. We are to live out God’s love and mercy and grace in how we treat each other, according to the gifts God gives each of us. We are to embody God’s justice to the world and speak out against all forms of true injustice, not our own selfish, human-made versions. For you see, God has rescued us and his creation from the ravages of evil, sin, and death, and when Christ returns to consummate his victory over evil won on the cross, we will be rulers with him in God’s new world. So we’d better learn how to rule right now! That means we learn to live like Jesus, rejecting all the sin and darkness that afflicts our lives, and living as the truly human beings God created us to live. This will look somewhat different in each of our lives and across cultures. That’s where the rich variety of God’s grace comes into play. And as we do, this is how we help bring in the kingdom on earth as in heaven, unlikely as that seems to us.

This, then, is our challenge as part of the broader Church. How will we manifest and embody the riches of God’s grace and love and mercy to others here at St. Augustine’s? Whatever that looks like, God help us if we ever prevent anyone from coming to know and worship King Jesus by our hard-heartedness or being judgmental, because as we have seen, no one is excluded from the invitation to be a member of God’s Kingdom. No one. Surely one way to start showing the wisdom of God who calls the least and most unlikely to life is by loving each other and treating each other the way God has treated us in and through King Jesus and the power of the Spirit, something we as a parish have done very well to date. But we dare not get complacent or lax. We have been given an unexpected and awesome privilege of announcing the Good News of Jesus Christ, not only to the world but to the powers and principalities who are pathologically opposed to God’s rule in and through Jesus, and we can expect to get our noses bloodied in the process. But when we do, we are to take heart, because as Paul reminded the Ephesians, the very fact that he languished in prison as he wrote his letter to them is a tangible sign that the kingdom of God is coming and the dark powers’ day is done. We too are invited to be part of this wonderful project, astonishing and unlikely as that is, because like Paul, we are people who are filled with the power of the Spirit who makes Jesus known and present to us so that we can live and act as people who really know they have Good News, now and for all eternity. May our lives this year be an ongoing epiphany of the love and tender mercy God has for each and every one of us. Take it to heart so that you may be healed and changed by it, allowing the world to see and come to believe as well. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Merry Christmas, my beloved.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.