Today, the last Sunday of our liturgical year, is Christ the King or the Reign of Christ. It’s a recent addition to the church’s calendar, authorized by Pope Pius XI in 1925, only eight years after the end of World War I. It was a time when the church was on the defensive from the forces of modernity and secularism and coincided with the rise of Fascism in Italy. Whatever political or theological statement was originally intended, The Reign of Christ invites us to pause and reflect on all of the themes that emerge as we make our way from Advent, through Lent and Easter, and now as the season after Pentecost draws to an end. We are asked to reflect on what it means to follow Jesus, to proclaim our faith in him, to confess that he is King of King and Lord of Lords. Continue reading
I hate losing things. One of the worst is books. A few weeks ago, I was looking for a book I had used regularly when I was teaching. I went through the shelves in my office several times and finally gave up. I have no idea where it is. Perhaps it’s in a bookcase at home, perhaps it’s in Corrie’s office. It may even be that I lent it to someone years ago who never returned it.
It’s even worse with paper documents. Grace lay leaders and staff know better than to give me hard copies of important documents. It will land in a pile on my desk and stay there, perhaps for years. Much better to send it electronically. Then I will have it, and can easily find it by conducting a simple computer search. Year end financials from 2010? Sure, just give me a second. Still, I remember what it’s like when you are looking for something; you can’t find it. As you keep looking for it, your anger and frustration grow; you start lashing out at everyone and everything. And finally, that moment of discovery—relief and happiness that overwhelm you. It might be a valuable object, a document you need, or some cherished memento of a loved one.
We all have had such experiences, so when we hear stories like the two we just heard in the gospel reading, we regard them as commonplace, ordinary tales, and put ourselves in the roles of the shepherd going back for the lost sheep or the woman searching for the lost coin, and overlook the strangeness of the stories themselves, and the possibilities that there might be other ways of connecting with the stories than by connecting them with our own experiences of search for lost items.
In fact, I think we allow our own experiences of searching for lost things to so dominate our minds as we hear these parables, that we interpret the story about the shepherd in light of the story of the woman with the lost coin, and overlook the introduction to both which might put a completely different spin on things.
Luke’s introduction to the parables strikes one of his overarching themes: sin and forgiveness. The Pharisees were once again complaining that Jesus spent time with tax collectors and sinners. Remember that these two groups were reviled by most first-century Palestinian Jews. Tax collectors, not because they worked for the federal government but because in the Roman system, their profit came by being able to extract more money from the people whose taxes they were collecting than they had send on up the pipeline to Rome. And in this instance, sinners doesn’t mean people who made the occasional mistake, but rather notorious sinners, whose lifestyles put them outside of the community—especially people who were ritually impure.
So think of the people most likely to be excluded from polite society, from our community gatherings, from our church—that’s who Jesus was hanging out with, and if he were among us now, it’s likely we would be the ones complaining, not the ones with whom he would be spending time.
In response to these complaints, Jesus tells two parables, introducing each with a question that invites the listener to enter into the story: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” Now, contemplate the absurdity of that question.
Which one of you would do that? None of us would. We would do a cost/benefit analysis and cut our losses, leaving the one to die while making sure the 99 were safe.
Or the second parable: The parable describes in great detail the woman’s actions, she lights a lamp, sweeps the floor. The narrative almost stops for a moment, heightening tension, so that the discovery becomes even more dramatic. But then what happens? She throws a party, invites her friends, spends what, as much or double the worth of the coin she had lost? We can see ourselves searching for something, but throwing a party, and throwing what we found away in rejoicing? Who of us would do that?
Two people behaving completely unexpectedly, in ways that make utterly no sense by any rational analysis. They were so overjoyed by the finding that it’s almost as if they lost their bearings. Nothing else mattered but that joy, and offering others the opportunity to share in that joy.
It’s clear that Luke wants us to see the point of the story to be God’s extravagant joy in welcoming a repentant sinner. So be it. No doubt it fills us with love and gratitude toward God to imagine ourselves welcomed in such a way. So we should think about it in light of the final sentence in the passage: “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Joy over one sinner who repents.
As important as that is, there is another aspect of the behavior on display in these two parables that might be key to our understanding of God’s nature and disposition toward us. The shepherd abandoned 99 sheep to look for the one lost one. The woman did everything in her power and persisted until she found the lost coin. What if God acts that way toward sinners? What if God does everything in God’s power, obsesses if you will, certainly persists, until finding that lost sinner—until we are once again safely in God’s protective arms? What does that say about our sin and the power and persistence of God’s grace and mercy?
We don’t like that word, sin, although it’s all over our readings today. We heard about the sin of the Israelites, who abandoned their faith in God to worship a golden calf in the wilderness. We heard Psalm 51, that great psalm of sin and repentance. Many of us may have bristled at its language: “
Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *
a sinner from my mother’s womb.
Even if the Christian tradition has emphasized human sin, we don’t like to think about it. When we go about revising the liturgy as we did in 1979 and are in the beginning stages of doing again, one of the first things we look to remove from our Eucharistic prayers is an over-emphasis on sin; we may even do it with the confession of sin.
But at the same time, in our heart of hearts, we know our sin and brokenness. We know all of the ways that we have fallen short of our best intentions, and fallen short of being and becoming the human beings God is calling us to be.
Confession of sin is the first step. Acknowledging our faults, looking at ourselves with clear eyes, with honesty, and recognizing who we are and what we have done. But of course, it doesn’t end there. That’s only the beginning. The next step is repentance, to ask God’s forgiveness of our sins.
Sometimes, I think we are reluctant to acknowledge our sins and sinfulness because we don’t think God will forgive us. But that’s not the case. True confession, true repentance open us up to receive the grace of God’s forgiveness, God’s overwhelming and abundant mercy.
And that’s where the parables teach us about God as well as about ourselves. The joy expressed by the shepherd and the woman are not just like the joy we might experience when we find something we’ve lost; they are describing the joy that God experiences when we confess our sins and ask God’s forgiveness.
That joy, experienced by God when we approach him as the psalmist did when he confessed his sins and asked God:
Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *
wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.
9 Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
that the body you have broken may rejoice.
That’s the joy we experience, the joy of repentance and forgiveness, a response to our experience of God’s abundant grace flowing in us, remaking us in God’s image, and restoring us to right relationship with God and with our fellow humans. God doesn’t abandon us; God doesn’t give up the search, even when we don’t know we’re lost or we don’t want to be found. God is here, searching for us and the joy we experience when we repent of our sins and are forgiven is nothing compared to the joy God experiences when we are embraced in God’s mercy and grace.
In this age of cellphones, it’s impossible not to eavesdrop on others’ conversations. We’ve all had the experience where we’re standing in line and behind us someone is having a loud, perhaps heated conversation. We can only hear one side of it, and even if we’re not paying attention, or doing our best not to listen in, we can’t avoid it. Sometimes we’re drawn in and we begin to imagine what the person on the other end is saying. Intimate details can be shared, the speakers seemingly oblivious to the fact that everyone around them can hear. Such moments can be excruciatingly uncomfortable, as we hear things that aren’t meant for us. But other times, we may be drawn in and begin to imagine the life worlds of the conversation partners. Continue reading
As most of you know, later today after the 10:00 service, we will be celebrating the 10thanniversary of our shared ministry at Grace Church. Such occasions are important because they offer us an opportunity simply to have fun together, to rejoice in who we are as God’s people and to give thanks for our ministry here. For it really is a shared ministry. I may be the rector, the visible face of the congregation but all of you are part of it and whatever we have accomplished, we have done with God’s help and through a lot of hard work by a lot of people. Continue reading
A man lying in a ditch, stripped, beaten, left half-dead.
What contemporary images come to mind as you hear that description? Perhaps a homeless man, there’s likely at least one right now laying on one of the terraces surrounding the church, trying to sleep, seeking a little shade, a little comfort from what promises to be a hot, hot day. He’s certainly been abandoned, and yes, left for dead, by our merciless, uncaring, and unforgiving society. Or perhaps other more distant images come to mind—the bodies of a father and son who drowned as they tried to cross over into the US, or the many videos and images we’ve seen of children in cages, people crowded together in inhumane conditions… Continue reading
I’ve long been fascinated with cemeteries. When I lived in Massachusetts, I loved to walk through old graveyards—the Old Granary Burying Ground in Boston, or the old graveyard in Newburyport. They are places of history and witnesses to the lives of those who are buried there.
As a priest, I’ve buried people in family plots in almost forgotten cemeteries in Greenville, SC, or in rural cemeteries throughout Southern Wisconsin. But increasingly, as our culture changes and we are less connected to family and to place, we find other ways to remember our loved ones and the notion of visiting a cemetery to mourn or remember a dear friend or family member is increasingly uncommon.
Not so in the first century. Mary Magdalene came to Jesus’ tomb while she was still raw with grief. The other gospels offer an explanation for the appearance of the women at the tomb—they come to anoint Jesus’ body with spices and ointment for burial. Mary Magdalene came to the to grieve. Her grief is the grief shared by humans everywhere at the loss of a loved one. It’s a grief we’ve all experienced. No doubt, some of you carry such grief in your hearts this morning.
But her grief is especially familiar to those who have lost friends and family members in an untimely fashion, and especially those who grieve the deaths of those they love because of the violence, oppression, and hate of other humans. No doubt, in her grief is also fear, and anger, impotence and rage.
Imagine her surprise, her horror when she discovers that the tomb is empty, a final indignity to her friend. He couldn’t even be allowed to rest in peace. In fear and anger she runs to her friends, to tell them what has happened, to share the outrage. Peter and the other, the beloved disciple run to see, look at the empty tomb, see the discarded grave clothes and leave.
Mary stays behind, lingering in the garden, lingering with her fears and doubts, lingering with her dashed hopes. The angel tells her what has happened—but she cannot take it all in. She can’t understand the meaning of his words. And so she turns. She sees the gardener, deciding to ask him where Jesus’ body was taken.
And in that moment, everything changes. He calls her by name; the mist of incomprehension is cleared from her eyes, and she knows him, “Rabbouni, Teacher,” she cries out. Suddenly Mary, and all of us, experience the world, our lives made new in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The risen Christ transforms her grief into joy. In his presence, she experiences the power of God’s love.
I’m not expecting you to understand or make sense of the resurrection. I am asking you to believe it, to experience it. I’m hoping you’ll experience it like Mary Magdalene did, in that moment that Jesus called her name. I’m hoping you’ll experience that flash of recognition, suddenly knowing Jesus Christ, knowing yourself, and knowing the possibility of resurrection in your own life.
For the resurrection is not just about an empty tomb and a two thousand year old story. It is about relationship, with God in Jesus Christ. It’s experiencing a God who overcomes death, a God who created us and the world, a God who in Jesus Christ is making a new creation in ourselves and in the world. It is a story about a God who doesn’t give up, a God who doesn’t abandon us to our own devices and desires. As Rowan Williams has said, “the resurrection is at least in part about the sheer toughness and persistence of God’s love.”
Last night, we baptized two people; this morning we will baptize two more, Grant and Luke Flannery. They will be baptized by their grandfather, Rev. Floyd Schoenhals, who already knows them intimately and has called them by name many times. In baptism, we are all called by name by Jesus, we all enter into relationship with him, and whoever we are, whatever we have done we are made new in that moment. Called by name, recognized by Jesus Christ, marked as Christ’s own forever.
In our world, there are so many voices, so many people who try to name us, to tell us who we are, and what our worth and value is. We are bombarded by imagery and advertising that holds up impossible ideals of beauty, wealth, and success, that tells us repeatedly, endlessly that unless we do this, or buy this, or have these, we are of no worth. We live in a culture where still, the color of our skin, our national origin, our gender or sexual identity, our educational attainment, defines who we are, what our value is. We internalize those messages and sometimes we are filled with self-loathing, insecurities. Often those messages and identities shape our lives, our futures, our destinies.
When Jesus said, “Mary” he broke through all of the barriers in her life that prevented her from knowing him fully. When Jesus said, “Mary” he removed the mists of incomprehension from her eyes and from her heart. When Jesus said “Mary” he also says all of our names, inviting us into relationship with him, inviting us to know and experience him fully, inviting us to experience the wonder and persistence of God’s love.
Just as Jesus called “Mary,” he calls us, inviting us into relationship, inviting us into experiencing the risen Christ, inviting us to experience transformed humanity, the world made new by the God’s creative love. Jesus calls us by name. He tells us who we are, his beloved children, marked as his own forever.
When the Risen Christ calls us by name and invites us into relationship, the power of resurrection begins to transform us and our lives, making us new creations, remaking us in his image and likeness.
We mustn’t let it end there, however, not with our own experience of the wonder and persistence of God’s love. Like Mary, our joy should be so great, our hearts so overflowing that we want to share the good news of that love, inviting others into relationship with Jesus Christ, calling others by name as he called us by name, making present to them the transforming power of new life in Christ, inviting them to experience the power of resurrection.
Today is the Feast of the Epiphany. While it is a major feast day of the Church, unless it falls on a Sunday, as it does this year, most Christians, most Episcopalians, don’t really observe it. Epiphany marks the end of Christmastide in our calendar, so while the church is still decorated for Christmas today, the decorations will be removed after today’s service. There’s a bit of confusion or controversy there, because many people take down their Christmas trees and other decorations on 12th night, which occurred yesterday, the 12th day of Christmas. We keep our decorations up largely because we want to retain the crèche and enjoy seeing the magi and their entourage worshiping the christchild at the crèche. If you weren’t here for Christmas, they spent the entirety of Christmas season on the table in the rear of the nave.
Our focus may be on the star and the magi or wise men on Epiphany, but it’s a feast that has other connections in the larger Christian tradition. It is also associated with Jesus’ Baptism and with Jesus’ first miracle recorded in John, the turning of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana.
Both of those stories point to the deeper meaning of the feast of the Epiphany. The word Epiphany comes from the Greek word that means “appearance,” or “manifestation”—especially of the divine or of God. It was used in the Hellenistic world of Jesus’ day to describe those appearances of the divine to humans, moments when the gods seemed especially near. It was also used often as a title for rulers and became associated with the imperial cult, as emperors came to be understood as manifestations of the divine.
We see elements of that notion in our familiar gospel story, the story of the coming of the wise men following the star. It’s a lovely story, but one that’s been very much domesticated by the Christian tradition, so that we miss the deeper meaning and power of Matthew’s larger purposes in telling it. First of all, the wise men, or kings. Well, they’re not kings, are they? Associating them with kings derives from other scriptural references such as those from today’s reading from Isaiah and from the Psalm. When we call them “magi” we’re getting closer to what Matthew had in mind, astrologers from the East, very likely Zoroastrian priests from Iran—who were astrologers, using the movements of the constellations and planets to predict the future.
Their very exoticism, their “otherness” is part of Matthew’s point. Coming from the east, they had no knowledge of Jewish scriptures or traditions; they were Gentiles. In part, Matthew wants us to see them as part of the larger mission of sharing the good news—to all the world, as he has Jesus command his disciples in the last verses of his gospel. But he also wants us to understand that even apart from scripture, Gentiles can come to some understanding of God and of God’s saving work—all it took for the magi to begin their quest was to see a new star rising in the East.
The magi’s intuition of God’s new actions in the world provide a sharp contrast with that of Herod who had know clue about the birth of the “king of the Jews” and was terrified when he heard of it. He had to bring in scripture experts to answer the question the magi posed to him.
Let me tell you a little bit about Herod the Great. Herod’s father and grandfather had been supporters of Rome and rulers of provinces in Palestine. Herod’s father appointed him Governor of Judea. Eventually, in the midst of conflict over succession to Julius Caesar, Herod fled to Rome and succeeded in getting declared King of Judea by the Senate; returning to Palestine, he also gained control over Galilee, and eventually, by marrying the daughter of his chief rival, became de facto King of the Jews. He was a ruthless ruler, known for his excessive taxation. He built Roman style cities such as Caesarea Maritima and began the rebuilding and expansion of the Jerusalem Temple. He also had considerable conflict within his domestic life—he had five wives, one of whom he had executed, and killed two of his sons when he feared conspiring against him, and just days before his death, had a third son executed.
All of this is backdrop to Matthew’s story and while we didn’t hear the next episode of this story—the flight to Egypt and the execution of all boys in Bethlehem under the age of two, and while there’s no independent evidence to support this episode, it’s entirely in keeping with what we know about Herod historically. If he killed his own sons because of their efforts to wrest power from him, it’s likely he would have had no qualms with large-scale executions of whole demographic groups.
Matthew is drawing a sharp distinction between Herod, King of the Jews, and Jesus, King of the Jews. He is also drawing a sharp distinction between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. When Herod heard the news of these visitors from the East in search the child born “king of the Jews” Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. The magi say their intent is to go to the newborn child and pay him homage—we should have in mind a formal act of obeisance a subject might offer to a king or ruler.
So there are two kings in this story, not three. The two kings are rivals—both King of the Jews, one is Jesus, one is Herod. Herod represents the power and ruthlessness of the world, willing to take any action to gain and consolidate power, and once in power to use everything and everyone at his disposal to display and project his wealth and power.
On the other hand, the king of the Jews, born in Bethlehem, born to ordinary, poor, people who are at the mercy of the other king—whose experience of his kingship is terror and fear, who flee their home for another country in search of safety. That king of the Jews will grow up to proclaim the coming of God’s reign, a reign not of power and fear, maintained by bloodshed, but a reign of peace and justice. Jesus’ life will end as he is proclaimed “King of the Jews” by the charges leveled against him by the Roman Empire, a revolutionary, a rabble-rouser.
Like the magi, we stand between these two kings, these two kingdoms. Our journey in search of Jesus has brought us to this place, to this crossroads. We may want to make homage to the king of the Jews, but do we know what that truly means? Are we able to make that journey? Herod’s kingdom may beckon to us with its power and wealth, even with its ruthlessness, but the kingdom of the one who was born in Bethlehem, whose parents fled with him toEgypt, who preached mercy and peace, and whose life ended on the cross in Herod’s city of Jerusalem, beckons to us as well. To whom will we pay homage, before whom will we offer our gifts?