A Mountain Bottom Experience

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Cohasset MA
February 26, 2017

Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9

On the occasion of the Rev. Margot Critchfield’s final service as Rector of St. Stephen’s

I have had the privilege of this pulpit before, once at the beginning of your relationship with Margot, a couple of times in between, and now this rich and holy day. I am greatly honored to be a friend, if not an actual member, of the St. Stephen’s family. Thank you.

One part of today’s richness is the inevitable look back over the years that you and Margot have shared. I do not have the whole history but I know there have been many mountaintop experiences—moments of clarity and power, times of learning and discovery, healing and forgiveness, holy surprises and instructive disappointments, griefs borne and joys shared. I hope you will take the time to look back, recall, and be thankful for those times. I also hope you won’t do it until after the sermon.

You can recall those times in the past and you can confidently anticipate many mountaintop experiences in the future. God is not through with you yet. But this moment is a mountain bottom experience, as the lessons for today imply. Look with me at what the first lesson and Gospel have to tell us about mountain bottom experiences like the one we are having right now.

The stories are familiar. Moses took Joshua up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. And Jesus took Peter, James and John up another mountain where he was transfigured, literally seen in a new way. Here we are thousands of years later remembering those literally mountaintop experiences. They are so important and meaningful that we tend to overlook the fact that each story began at the bottom of a mountain where people decided the mountain was worth climbing. The bottom of a mountain is a place of expectation. It is where Moses and Jesus decided there was something up there and it had something to say, something that people needed to know. People at the mountain bottom can feel the draw of revelation—the need to see, to hear, to feel, and to know the mind of God that awaits them at the mountaintop.

Revelation is what is up ahead. Revelation is the hint God gives us when we cannot figure things out for ourselves. By definition it is about things just beyond our reach, just a bit murky for the eye to make it out, too faint for the ear to hear, a side road off the path of reason. Revelation is the sort of thing that can only be received by experience. Right now that is what the future is for us: a bit murky, faint, something reason cannot reach from here.

Margot is right now at the bottom of one mountain. The vestry and people of St. Stephen’s are at another. You are going in different directions but the daunting aspect of each mountain is quite apparent. How will we proceed? Which path? What obstacles await? We will not know until we begin to climb. Revelation comes from experience not speculation. And revelation is waiting at the mountaintop. God is ready to hint and more so about what lies in store, ready to make clear the mind of God for you. You cannot guess it from where you are today. As in the lessons, all anyone can do is prepare to climb—expectantly.

From the mountain bottom we cannot know what waits at the top, but the lessons make one thing abundantly clear about this kind of mountain climbing. Do not go alone. The mountain bottom is where the climbing community is formed. When Moses started up his mountain, he took Joshua with him. Jesus took Peter, James and John. Revelation rarely works with individuals alone. It works best in community. Let me tell you why. One of the things I bet we have in common is that neither you nor I have ever lost an argument that takes place in our own heads—the “I am going to say, then you are going to say” little one act plays we put on in our imagination. You will know that I am not bragging when I tell you that I am consistently brilliant in those encounters, and my foes are regularly vanquished. I am undefeated when the dialogue takes place inside my head. Outside of my head, in community, I have been far less successful. In my head there is the world I created, and it favors me excessively. But I am required to live in the world that God created, the one called reality that I have to share with you. Revelation needs the reality of community. Do not climb this mountain by yourself.

One further caveat about revelation and community. In recent times those who observe our nation have been telling us that we tend to prefer echo chambers to real community. People only read or listen or share with those with whom they agree. We can all understand the comfort that gives us but it denies the benefit of being in true community. The value of a community is that it confronts the world inside of our head, scraps the one-act plays of our imagination, and broadens our perceptions. It is the people who differ from us that we need in community. It is wisely said that if two people agree on everything, one of them is not necessary. The support of like- minded people is valuable but it does not make community. What we have in common is the mortar that holds the bricks of our difference together. Mortar without bricks or bricks without mortar are not worth much. A community of difference is the best place for revelation to be known.

There have been mountaintop experiences in your time together, not every moment or even every day but often. It is good to be thankful for them and for every way that God’s hand has touched this place and its people over these years. There will be more of those moments for Margot as her life and ministry continue to unfold and for St. Stephen’s because some unsuspecting priest, at this moment undoubtedly preaching to an unsuspecting congregation, is about to join you on new mountaintops. Wondrous things! But the time with Margot is in the past, and time with that unsuspecting priest is in the future. This is now. Not a mountaintop but a mountain bottom where the expectation and the community that are necessary to receive God’s revelation are being formed.

This mountain bottom is as holy as the mountaintop for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Amen.

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The Divine Imperative to Love

Sermon for Sunday, February 19th, 2017 ||  The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Year A || Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119: 33 -40; 1 Corinthians 3: 10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5: 38-48||  The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

Last week the apostle Paul described the church in Corinth as  mere infants in Christ—spiritual infants too immature to handle the kind of deep wisdom he metaphorically referred to as “solid food.” Paul couldn’t speak to these baby Christians as spiritual people, he said, because they were still “people of the flesh”—meaning people defined more by their lives in the world than by their lives in Christ.

“I fed you with milk, not solid food,” Paul said, “for you were not ready for solid food…Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the [world].”

These must have been hard words for those early Jesus followers to swallow. They are challenging words for us even two thousand years later as we, too, struggle to walk the walk and to integrate our spiritual lives with our secular lives as spiritually mature Christians.

But ready or not, the readings on the lectionary menu this week make for a feast of decidedly solid food. No baby’s milk here. This is very rich, very heavy, spiritual food indeed. And while we may have heard the imperative to love our neighbor as ourselves so often that it sounds like pious pablum, if we are attentive to this morning’s readings—if we really listen to these words—there’s no escaping the realization that from our opening Collect of the Day through both the Old and New Testament readings, we are being spoon-fed one highly seasoned serving after another of God’s uncompromising command that above all else we be people of love.

Without love, our opening prayer tells us, we are accounted as dead in God’s eyes. We’re forbidden to hate, we hear in from Leviticus, or to take vengeance, or even to bear a grudge. We’re required to respond with love and only love, our Gospel reading says, even when others hurt us, take advantage of us, or force their will on us. Turn the other cheek, Jesus says. Go the extra mile. Give them the shirt off your back. Because even the lowliest of the low can love those who are lovable. That’s easy. But ours is a higher calling: We are to love even the unlovable. We are to love the righteous and the unrighteous.

Now I know it is tempting to be dismissive of this divine imperative to love—tempting to soften its blow by judging it a lofty, but let’s face it, unrealistic ideal. After all, are we really supposed to love the friend who betrays us, the spouse who abandons us, or the boss who fires us? Are we really expected to love the tyrants, the terrorists,  the torturers, and the trolls, really?

But the hard truth of this morning’s scripture is that yes, yes we are. It’s totally outrageous. It’s scandalous. And God knows it’s offensive. But yes, we are called as Christians to love even the most unlovable of God’s creatures.

This doesn’t mean we’re called to be doormats, or to stay in abusive relationships. It doesn’t mean we’re suppose to allow those who do evil to continue their hateful behavior without suffering the social, political, or legal consequences of their actions.

But Jesus is unequivocal when he says that we must love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. This isn’t idle chatter. This isn’t a pious platitude. This is a Divine Dictum that we must take seriously. Not because harboring hatred is like taking poison and expecting someone else to die. And not because love is the only force powerful enough to heal a hate-infected world—which of course it is. But we must take seriously the command to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us for one very compelling, very convicting reason: Because Jesus tells us to.

The question then, is “How?” How do we find room in our hearts for love, when our hearts are angry or aching or bitter or broken or frightened or fearful? “To be unloving is to be out of touch with God,” wrote mystic Evelyn Underhill. “Love is what you were made for, and love is who you are,” writes Franciscan priest Richard Rohr.

“Love is what you were made for, and love is who you are.” Think about that for a minute and let it sink in. Love is who you are. Love is your essential nature, your core, your authentic self. We were created by Love, with Love, for Love. Hundreds if not thousands of wise men and women throughout the ages have said as much in as many different ways. Love is who you are.

There is a wonderful, albeit apocryphal, story  about Michelangelo’s “David.” The story goes that when Pope Julius II saw this magnificent marble masterpiece for the first time, in utter amazement he asked Michelangelo how he had created a work of such exquisite beauty. To which Michelangelo is said to have replied, “I started with a big ugly rock and simply chipped away everything that wasn’t David.”

You see, the exquisite beauty of David was there all along, waiting to be revealed. So it is with the exquisite Love that is the center of who we are. All of the hurt and anger and fear and brokenness are just waiting to be chipped away at and healed. And that, my friends, is what the spiritual journey is all about: Allowing God’s love to chip away everything that isn’t love. That’s what transforms us from spiritual infants to spiritually mature Christians.

Remember back in the gospel reading, where Jesus told us to “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect”? What the Greek word used there really means is to be whole, to be complete, to be mature. Jesus isn’t telling us to be flawless, he’s imploring us to grow up—to become spiritually mature—so we can live into the fullness of who God created us to be and who we really are. And who we really are is Love.

This is precisely why spiritual formation, psychotherapy, and disciplines like prayer and meditation are so critically important to those of us who call ourselves Jesus followers. Life, whether we acknowledge it or not, is a spiritual journey. God means for life to chip away at the big ugly rocks we mistake for ourselves. God means for life to smooth out our hard edges and polish our rough surfaces and reveal the exquisitely beautiful and loving creatures that each of us is…our authentic selves…the selves we really are.

The spiritual journey we call life is going to keep chipping away at our big ugly rocks whether we cooperate or not. But our readings today would have us cooperate. Our readings today would have us go to any lengths necessary to facilitate this deeply healing process of transformation– from spiritual infants to spiritually mature Christians. Our readings today would have us commit to practicing disciplines like prayer and meditation because they invite God to chip away everything in us that isn’t love. Because love is who we are; love is what we were created to do; and love is what this beautiful world of ours so desperately needs.

It has been an amazing privilege for me to be a part of your spiritual journeys these past nine years. And now, as you continue on your journeys, may God bless each of you with an ever-deepening appreciation for the precious and beloved creatures that you truly are. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Way Station Not A Destination

Sermon for Sunday, February 5th, 2017 ||  Annual Meeting ||  Ephesians 1: 15-23; Psalm 100; Matthew 25: 31-46 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

Good morning! It feels good to be here this morning, doesn’t it? It feels good to be in this holy space, this place of safety and warmth, this place of sanctuary.

It’s like we can all exhale a collective sigh of relief. We made it. We made it through another week of chaotic schedules, competing demands, and all the noise and negativity out there. We can settle into our pews, breathe deeply, and let the familiar words of our worship heal our aching hearts and soothe our weary souls.

We’re safe.

This, I suspect, is what draws so many of us to church. Some of us find our way here bruised and broken. Most of us come starved for spiritual sustenance. Surely all of us are indeed weary and heavy burdened. And we find comfort in the connectedness and community we find here, in the breaking of the bread, and in affirming our place in something larger, and far more grand, than ourselves.

And yet the refuge we find in church has never been intended as a destination, but rather as a way station on the Christian journey. The comfort and healing with which we are graced in this place has never been intended as an end unto itself, but as a means to a far more demanding and challenging– but life-giving, cross-bearing end. The peace we find in this sacred space has never been intended as an escape from the world, but rather as the wellspring of power through which we are to serve Christ’s interests in the world.

In Eucharistic Prayer C we pray: “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.”

There is absolutely nothing wrong with coming here for solace or for pardon. That is indeed what brings most people to church, most of the time. But the Christian life is a journey, and it doesn’t end there. So we pray, too, for strength and for renewal– that in thanksgiving for all that we receive here, we may worthily –and gratefully –serve the world in Christ’s name.  We pray for the courage and the conviction to live out our baptismal vows of seeking and serving Christ in all persons, of striving for justice and peace among all people, and of respecting the dignity of every human being.

Yes, we come here to be spiritually fed and nourished. But when we leave here, we “go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

And this morning’s gospel gives us very concrete evidence of what that looks like.

In the last bit of teaching he does before embracing an excruciatingly painful and humiliating death for us, Jesus foretells the day of final judgment, when we will each be held accountable not just for what we have believed, but for how we have, or have not,  lived our lives:

‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these… you did it to me.’”

But then there’s this:

‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me… Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Now, I just don’t see a lot of wiggle room there for interpretation.

Last week’s gospel reading of the Sermon on the Mount, the very first of Jesus’ teachings, named as those especially blessed by God as the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who suffer for righteousness’ sake. In short, the disadvantaged, the marginalized, and the vulnerable.

This week’s gospel reading on the final judgment, the very last of Jesus’ teachings, says those assured entry into God’s kingdom will be those who serve the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. In short, those who serve the disadvantaged, the marginalized, and the vulnerable.

“Even as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me,” Jesus says.

Think about that. I’ve told you before about the mentor I had who used to counsel people that if they really wanted to know Jesus, they should frequent the places he’s known to hang out. Well, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus could not be more explicit about where he hangs out. He is with the weak and the poor, with the marginalized and the vulnerable, with the outcast and the sinner, with the immigrant and the refugee, with the widow and the orphan, with the addicted and the imprisoned, with the homeless and the hungry. He is with all those who suffer everywhere.

If we want to see Jesus more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly, at some point we have to leave the safety of this sanctuary to stand with, and to serve, those he calls us to serve. Because that is where we will meet him face to face.

Some of you will have read by now the pastoral letter sent out by Bishop Alan last week in response to the Executive Orders on immigration. In it he writes that:  “Our positions as Christians are determined not by party affiliation, nor by self-interest–neither personal self-interest nor national self-interest.  Rather, our Christian positions must be determined by the core values of our faith.”

In the Sermon on the Mount we read last week, and in the Parable of the Goats and the Sheep we read this morning, those core values of our faith are made abundantly clear.

And so as I prepare to leave you I pray, my beloved St. Stephen’s, that in your future together you will unite as the body of Christ that you are as his church, and fight for those core values of our faith. That you will stand with those in need regardless of political affiliation, nationality, religion, race, gender identity, physical ability, immigration status, or sexual preference. That you will continue to come together week after week for solace and for strength, for pardon and for renewal, and that then you will get out there and serve Christ’s interests in the world!

Now won’t you join me in renewing our Baptismal Vows…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Let the One Who Boasts, Boast in the Lord”

Sermon for Sunday, January 29, 2017 || Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A || Micah 6: 1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1: 18-31; Matthew 5: 1-12 ||  The Rev. Margot Critchfield

“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong…Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

How do we—-a congregation in which I dare say most of us are pretty well-educated—if not wise; many of us are influential—if not powerful; and at least some of us come from well-healed, if not “noble” families–how are we to hear today’s lessons? How do we hear these lessons in which Paul proclaims that the weak, the foolish and the despised are saved, and Jesus teaches that the meek, the poor in spirit and the persecuted are blessed?

If these readings make you a little uncomfortable, they should. It is natural to wonder if there is room for relatively successful, relatively well-to-do Americans in the Kingdom of God.

Paul is a very black and white thinker. Everything’s either foolish or wise, weak or powerful, saved or doomed to perish. Paul loves to point out the paradoxes of the Christian life and attack them head-on, beginning with the greatest paradox of them all, the paradox of a crucified Savior. To the Jewish scribes—the interpreters of the law—it was an unthinkable stumbling block, a scandal, that the powerful and mighty God they worshipped would send a weak and powerless Savior to be mercilessly humiliated on a cross. And to the great Greek minds of the day, the Sophists–or “debaters” as Paul refers to them–it’s just plain nonsense that defies all logic.

So Paul wants to be very clear with the Jesus followers in Corinth that while the idea of a crucified Messiah may seem like foolishness to the culture around them, the so-called foolishness of the cross is, in fact, the ultimate revelation of God’s profound wisdom and unsurpassed power.

Paul explains that God deliberately chose what is foolish in the eyes of the world to shame the so-called wise, and chose what is weak in the eyes of the world to shame the so-called strong, so that no one would be tempted to boast of themselves before God. No one could make the mistake of thinking they had an inside track with God because they were powerful scribes, brilliant philosophers, successful money managers, influential attorneys, or successful CEOs. No one could make the mistake of thinking that God placed any special value on the wise, the well-educated, the powerful, or the affluent.

No, God wanted to make sure everyone understood that those are not the things that matter. So God, in all God’s wisdom, chose to reveal God’s self in the mighty strength of utter powerlessness, and in the awesome power of weakness and vulnerability. God chose to reveal God’s self in as the child of an oppressed people, who would spend his early years a refugee in a foreign land. Then God called as his own the “low and despised” of the world: Those of humble origins, low social standing, and no political power. “Consider your own calls,” Paul writes, “…not many of you were wise by human standards, not many of you were powerful, not many of you were of noble birth.”

So what about us? Is there room for us, even if, when we consider our own calls in relation to the Corinthians, we have to admit that we like to think we have at least some modicum of wisdom by human standards, that we are at least moderately powerful, or that we come from relatively “good” families? Is there room for us here?

The answer to that depends on where we position ourselves in relation to what Paul calls “the foolishness” of his proclamation: Christ crucified. Because the real question for us today is whether or not we’re willing to live into the so-called “foolishness” of Paul’s proclamation by living into the demanding realities of the cross.

Do we stand with the foolish faithful who proclaim Christ crucified, or do we– like the wise Greek philosophers– think a crucified Savior lacks intellectual credibility? Do we proclaim Christ crucified, or do we, like the powerful Jewish scribes, find the idea that God would be revealed in weakness and powerlessness beyond credulity?

Funny how such questions survive the test of time, how two thousand years later our human intellects still insist on dogging our God-given faith. Maybe the problem is that like Paul, we think too much in black and white. After all, does the reality of a crucified Messiah have to be paradoxical?   Why is it so difficult to recognize the divine strength in Christ’s utter powerlessness, and the awesome power in his submission to weakness and vulnerability? Must it seem like a contradiction in terms that God’s power was revealed in Christ’s powerlessness? I don’t think so.

Because in Christ, God chose to be powerless.

In Christ, God chose to be vulnerable.

In Christ, God chose what was foolish in the eyes of the world to reveal his love and wisdom.

And frankly, that’s very good news for us. It means that while we may be powerful, we can choose to be powerless in Christ; while we may be strong, we can choose to be vulnerable by loving as Christ loved; while we may be intellectual giants, we can still be “fools for Christ.”

When we position ourselves with those who proclaim Christ crucified, and accept the demanding realities of the cross, we open ourselves to a world where opposites do not necessarily conflict, a world where contradictions are not mutually exclusive, a world of “yes, and…” instead of “either/or.”

It’s a world where powerful politicians are meek and poor in spirit: Positioning themselves with those who proclaim Christ crucified, they know who’s got the real power and who doesn’t, so they’re humble enough to admit their powerlessness before God, listen to His word, and seek His will.

It’s a world where influential lobbyists mourn: Positioning themselves with those who proclaim Christ crucified, they see the heartbreaking difference between the world as it is and the way God created it to be, so they work to represent God’s interests, not just their client’s.

It’s a world where successful businessmen and women are righteous and pure in heart: Positioning themselves with those who proclaim Christ crucified, they have moral and ethical integrity and are true to their ideals, even when it means a reduction in profit.

It’s a world where high-powered attorneys are peacemakers: Positioning themselves with those who proclaim Christ crucified, they know that justice and reconciliation is more important than winning a case.

God revealed God’s power in weakness and His wisdom in folly, and we are called to do the same. It’s not meant to be easy. But it’s not impossible. History is peppered with powerful, wise and successful leaders who were also deeply faithful, humble, and compassionate.

So where do you choose to position yourself: with the wise and the powerful, or with the foolish faithful? Because,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.  Amen.

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What Are You Looking For?

Sermon for Sunday, January 15, 2017 ||  Second Sunday After Epiphany, Year A || Isaiah 49: 1-7; Psalm 40: 1-12; 1 Corinthians 1: 1-9; John 1: 29-42 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

“What are you looking for?” Jesus asks the two disciples who follow him in this morning’s gospel.  What are you looking for? It’s a question Jesus asks each of us repeatedly in the course of our lives, despite our natural proclivity to evade answering it.  We evade answering it, I think, because answering it in the spirit in which it’s asked—which is to say, on a much more profound level than one might ask about a misplaced cellphone or set of keys—requires deep reflection, honest prayer, and the terrifying adventure of opening one’s heart—the home of one’s deepest dreams and longings—to God’s own self. And that’s scary.

But God is– in addition to faithful and compassionate–persistent, and God has all kinds of sneaky ways of getting our attention and causing us, finally, to relent and consider this question—a question which he asks us, after all, not for his sake but for our own. What are you looking for? What are you seeking?

Ten years ago God caught me in what must’ve been a weak moment, because I could no longer avoid the question. Our then-17 year old daughter was a junior in high school and while I didn’t think I was looking for anything just yet, I knew that once she graduated I probably would be. Don and I had started to imagine what the future might hold, to ask ourselves what we were looking for.

“A little church in New England,” I would say, “where I can fall in love with the people and stay till I die.”

“It needs to be near an airport,” Don would say (ever the pragmatist), “so I can keep freelancing.”

“Wouldn’t it be awesome if it were near the ocean?” I’d ask, giddy at the very thought.

And next thing we knew God sent two angelic messengers in the persons of Jerry and Susan Murphy to tell us about St. Stephen’s Church, a fabulous little church, they said, in a seaside town we’d never even heard of. The problem was, the timing was all wrong. You all wanted a new rector in place long before I would be ready to leave Washington—Grace still had a year of High School ahead of her, so we weren’t going anywhere. Yet as I explained in the cover letter I wrote to the search committee, I couldn’t not respond to what was a very compelling sense of call.

“Come and see,” Jesus kept urging me. Come and see.

Well, God worked out the timing and the rest is history. Until now. This time around it took a series of events in my personal life and in our national life to gradually cause me, once again, to be attentive when Jesus asked “What are you looking for?”

It began, as best as I can figure with 20/20 hindsight, with the riots in Ferguson more than two years ago. What I started looking for then (innocently enough) was a faithful response to things about which I realized I knew virtually nothing, yet about which, as a woman of faith, I cared very much.

The invitation from Jesus to “come and see” meant starting to educate myself about racism, white privilege, and implicit bias. It meant reading minority writers and listening to minority voices. It meant waking up in a new way to all sorts of issues Jesus taught and preached about like economic injustice and oppression, hospitality to immigrants and refugees, caring for the poor and the vulnerable, and proclaiming the good news of God’s love to all of God’s people.

And I have to tell you that unlike the invitation to “come and see” St. Stephen’s Church, this “come and see” invitation was not one to which I responded enthusiastically. It scared me. I think on some level I knew where it might lead, and I didn’t want to go there. After all, my plan was to leave this church toes up, right?

Then there was the breast cancer, and embracing the preciousness and fragility of life with which I was already so intimately familiar. Cancer does, as Samuel Johnson so aptly noted about death, have a way of focusing the mind.

But I knew there was no turning back when last August, while preparing a sermon on Luke’s gospel and the 53rd anniversary of the March on Washington, I learned that right here in our backyard, in Suffolk County, thirty-seven thousand children under the age of 18 were living in poverty. Thirty-seven thousand children, within 30 miles of us, living on what Dr. King would’ve called “a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

That flattened me. That hit way too close to home, was way too close for comfort. Jesus was no longer whispering, “Come and see,” he was shouting it in my ear. I knew then that I had to “do” something—and that’s when I started organizing our team of tutors to serve the kids at St. Stephen’s, Boston. I still hoped that would be enough—that this burgeoning call to serve the most vulnerable and marginalized among us would go away. But it didn’t. And yes, of course the election had an impact on my decision.

So, what am I looking for? What am I seeking? I’m seeking to respond faithfully to this new thing God is doing in my life, to this new passion he has planted in my heart. I’m answering, rather reluctantly but entirely willingly, Jesus’ invitation to “come and see” because I can no longer not. It’s that simple and that hard!

Your invitation is a very different one right now. You will be thinking and feeling all kinds of different things about my leaving. Typically, the most common response when a priest leaves a parish is for people to have feelings of abandonment stirred up, and those feelings can come out sideways if they’re not addressed directly. Some of you have already said you are feeling desolate. Many of you, I know, are sad. Others, let’s be honest, are pretty relieved. All of those feelings are okay, they’re all appropriate, and they all need space to be expressed. So please be kind to each other in the coming weeks and be respectful of each other’s feelings.

Remember  that what you all share—beyond your concerns about what will happen next…and who will be called to be your priest…and whether he or she will be a good pastor or preacher…what you all share is that as a community of faith bound in Christ, you are –as Paul says to the Corinthians this morning—“not lacking in any spiritual gifts.” You are not lacking in any spiritual gifts and you are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So when the time comes, know with confidence that you have everything you need as a community of Jesus followers to answer the question, “What are you looking for?” Then trust him to lead you there, and go and see.

But not just yet. For now, take time to process and to breathe. Take time to feel whatever you feel. And as you do, know that I am praying, “Grace to you, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Following the Star

Sermon for Sunday, January 8th, 2017 ||  The Feast of the Epiphany || Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3: 1-12; Matthew 2: 1-12 ||  The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

“In the bleak mid-winter, frosty wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone…” So starts one of the most poignant hymns of the Church, based on Christina Rosetti’s incredible love song to God.

And into this bleak mid-winter, bursts one very bright, one very shiny star, illuminating the cold night sky and the lives of all those who follow it.

I love that star. I love its promise of hope. I love the way it touches some ineffable, unidentifiable warm spot within me and makes my heart say, “Yes, I’d follow you anywhere.” And I like to think I would. It’s never misled me yet: after all, it led me here.

I believe that star led each of you here, too. And I wonder what shape or form it took in your life, how it got your attention, and why you decided to follow it. Did the Light that led you to this place disguise itself—perhaps in a friend or a family member, a “holy coincidence,” a sense of obligation, or perhaps a gnawing hunger for some sort of spiritual food you couldn’t quite name?

No matter, it was the star. It was that breathtaking Light that shines in the darkness that the darkness cannot overcome. It was God’s in-breaking presence in our world, in your world, saying, “Look, here I am. Follow me…” And you did. Maybe tentatively, maybe begrudgingly, or maybe even wholeheartedly, full speed ahead. But you followed, and here you are, still seeking, still following that star….still responding to it’s irresistible call…in the warmth of this place, in the presence of its Light, moving ever closer to the One toward whom it is leading you.

This, my friends, is the Epiphany. Not some grand revelatory, “Aha!” –but the sometimes steady and often faltering commitment we make to the spiritual journey: It’s our decision to say “yes” to following that star. It’s our response to God’s invitation in our lives.

You know, scholars say the wise men weren’t especially bright or well-educated—and that they most certainly weren’t kings. They were likely itinerant pseudo-astrologers, more akin to new-age gypsies than learned sages. They were seekers, committed to the journey—and though they were indeed wise to follow the star, even they got fooled by preconceived ideas about where it would lead them: Did you notice they took a very logical, but misguided, detour to Jerusalem before letting the clear and consistent Light of that star lead them to Bethlehem?

Yet they got there. They got there just as each of us got here, and filled with joy they fell to their knees and worshipped the newborn Jesus in awe. And when they left that place they were different than when they came. When they left that place they had a Light in their hearts that the darkness could not overcome, they had a hope for the future that couldn’t be extinguished, and they had an astonishing story to tell about a very bright, very shiny star that illuminated the cold night sky one bleak mid-winter night, and how it touched some ineffable, unidentifiable warm spot in their hearts that made them say, “Yes, I’ll follow you anywhere.”

We each have our own stories to tell about the star that led us here, and the detours we’ve made along the way. We each have our own stories to tell about how different we are now than when we first came to this place…about how we leave here each week different than when we came…with light and hope and our commitment to the journey renewed.

And I wonder how we might share those stories with the itinerant seekers out there who have lost their way to Bethlehem…or who are so tired they’ve given up searching… or who simply haven’t noticed the brilliance of the star right here in Cohasset at St. Stephen’s Church. Because “In the bleak mid-winter, frosty wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone…” And into this bleak mid-winter, burst one very bright, one very shiny star, illuminating the cold night sky and the lives of all those who follow it. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Making A Holy Resolution

Sermon for Sunday, January 1, 2017 || The Feast of the Holy Name || Numbers 6: 22-27; Psalm 8; Philippians 2: 5-11; Luke 2: 15-21 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

Happy New Year! New Year’s is always something worth celebrating—a chance for new beginnings, fresh starts, and re-boots — all inspired by a unique kind of resolve that has a special way of infusing us each year when the calendar reads “January 1.”

And in the life of the church, on this first day of the New Year we also celebrate what’s known as the Feast of the Holy Name—commemorating the fact that 8-days after his birth, the infant embodiment of “God-with-us” was circumcised according to Jewish tradition and given the holy name of Jesus—Yeshua in Hebrew—the meaning of which is as powerful as it is concise: he saves.

And save he does! This Holy Name belongs to the One into whose life we are baptized and made new, and by whose resurrection we are set free from sin and death. This Holy Name is given by God’s own messenger, who in Luke’s gospel tells Mary she is to name her child “Jesus” and in Matthew’s gospel explains to Joseph why: “…for he will save his people from their sins.” This Holy Name is the name, we are told, “that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth…”

Now, all of that sounds very lofty and churchy and theologically dense—which indeed it is– so what I’d like to invite you to consider with me this morning is something that’s actually very pragmatic and down to earth. What I’d like us to consider together is this: Between the day we’re baptized and made new, and the day we face death in the hope of the resurrection, what bearing might the Holy Name of Jesus have on the way we actually live our lives day by day? How might it effect the way we make decisions, set goals, change behavior, nurture relationships, live in community, and make the world a better place–as bearers of his name and members of his body?

These are such fundamental questions about what it means to stake our claim as Christians, as Holy-Name-of –Jesus-followers; my prayer for us is that our answers will inform the way we choose to harness the unique sense of resolve that this New Year’s Day provides.

So: what difference might the Holy Name of Jesus make to who we are individually, and to how we are together as a community of faith? If we start by looking at this morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we can get a pretty good idea. But let’s begin one sentence earlier than what’s appointed for this morning: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Each day of our lives, as those who are baptized into Christ and as those who will die with the assurance of new and eternal life in him, we are to look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others.

And if we’re unclear what that means, of what it would look like to let the same mind be in us that was in Jesus, we need only keep reading. Jesus, Paul tells us, emptied himself, humbled himself, and was obedient to God.

Jesus—the same Jesus who Paul tells us “was in the form of God” and who John’s gospel tells us was with God in the beginning, and was God, and without whom not one created thing came into being—this same Jesus freely chose to surrender his Godly status, power and privilege– to become one of us. To get a sense of what such a descent from the heights might feel like, C.S. Lewis once suggested that we imagine how we’d feel if we woke up one morning and discovered we’d turned into garden slugs.

Yet the bearer of the Holy Name of Jesus knowingly and willingly emptied himself, Paul tells us. He humbled himself, and was fiercely obedient to God–even to the point of death, and a humiliating one at that.

This is the One in whose name we are marked forever at our baptism. This is the One by whose name we are freed from the power of sin and death. This is the One we’ve chosen to follow and after whom we are to model our lives—the self-emptying, humble, obedient one– who looked not to his own interests but to the interests of others.

This is the Christ Jesus whose mind Paul exhorts us to have and to live by every day, whether at church, at work, at home, or at school: Self-emptying. Humble. Obedient to God.

In a culture like ours that rewards self-promotion…that lionizes the acquisition of power and money…that bestows honor and privilege on whoever goes home with the most toys or shouts “I’m king of the mountain” first, what would it look like to take seriously Paul’s charge to let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus? Or, as scholar Rob Fringer asks, “What if human power is supposed to look more like Christ’s actions than those of the various world leaders in power today?” What if our fundamental call is to yield power, rather than to wield it? To be willing to give up some of our prestige and privilege, our status and security, our ease and entitlement, for the sake of looking not to our own interests but to the interests of others?

“We must resemble him in his life,” said the 17th century preacher Matthew Henry, “if we would have the benefit of his death.”

What might that look like, here on the ground, at St. Stephen’s? How might it impinge on the way we form our budget and allocate our resources, on how we articulate our vision for this church and our goals for the next five years, on how we share our space with others and make it more hospitable to visitors and newcomers, on how we build relationships within our community –and more importantly with the world outside these hallowed walls? How might it impinge on your own life, how you set priorities, how you make decisions, how you spend your time and money?

Being a follower of Jesus must make a difference in how we live every day of  our lives or else we take his Holy Name in vain when we identify ourselves with it. It has to make a difference, because the way of Jesus is not the way of the world. The way of Jesus is in direct opposition to the way of the world…it’s the way of self-emptying, of humble service, of fierce obedience to God.

So on this New Year’s Day, may the God who blesses us and keeps us, who makes his face to shine upon us and is gracious to us, who lifts up his countenance upon us and gives us peace, grant us the grace and the courage to make a resolution for this new year, that the same mind will be in us that was in Christ Jesus; that we will look in all things not to our own interests, but to the interests of others; and that we will do so in obedience to the name that is above every name and before whom every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth… the name that saves…the name we commemorate today…the Holy Name of Jesus. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Joseph’s Leap of Faith

Sermon for Sunday 10 am, December 18, 2016 || Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A || Isaiah 7:10-16 ; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25|| Amy Whitcomb Slemmer

What a gift it is to be here, out of the weather, in the warmth of this sanctuary, gathered as members of a Christian community, yearning to grow in depth and understanding of God as we await our celebration of the anniversary of His birth at Christmas. In this busy season of preparation, it feels like a holy gift to set time apart to gather, listen, pray and learn.

This morning we will extend this blessing, practicing the ancient teachings of our faith as we baptize Annabelle Gillian Redding and Thomas William Gayowski, the timing of which is marvelous, as we are focused on the wonder of babies and children at this time of year.

As we think about the nativity and the pending joy and miracle of Jesus’ birth, my guess is that we spend the least amount of time considering Christmas wonder from Joseph’s point of view. Think about how we set up the crèche, with careful placement of the manger, the animals, the wise men, Mary and the baby Jesus, or famous paintings depicting the Holy Family with Mary and Jesus at the center and God’s favor shining on the two of them, or even nativity plays — Joseph is the coveted role if you are hoping to have no lines at all.

This morning I want to connect some of the Advent dots before us, and wonder together about Joseph’s leap of faith in response to what must have been the biggest surprise and unexpected twist of his life.

In this morning’s story, Mary and Joseph are engaged, but not yet married – in biblical times, engagement was the equivalent of having signed a marriage contract, but not yet cohabitating. This betrothal or engagement could have been entered into by the parents of the intended couple when each were children. The contract was binding and any violation of it, particularly, any deviation for the woman, was considered adultery, punishable by death.

This morning, Matthew treats us to Joseph’s version of events, a bit less familiar than the oft-retold Lukean version made memorable by Charles Shultz and the Peanuts gang, with the angel Gabriel announcing the pregnancy and its holy and miraculous origin to Mary.

Today we begin mid-story. Mary, who scholars believe to have been about 13 years old, has already told Joseph that she is pregnant. He knows that the baby is not his – and we are told that, rather than exposing Mary to shame and humiliation or death by stoning which would have been the custom, he has decided to walk away quietly and not make a big deal Mary’s affair or betrayal.

I used to think that Joseph’s initial inclination, while honorable, was his way of saving his own face as well. Once Mary’s pregnancy became obvious, or after the baby’s birth, people were going to be able to do the math and assume that both Joseph and Mary had violated the engagement. However, God had other plans –

And here is where we, the modern day hearers of God’s word need to lean in closely to see if we can suss out the holy sign Joseph is offered.

We can be forgiven at this time of year, a week before Christmas if we are distracted or tired and require more pointers and holy indicators of a true sign from God. The lectionary writers literally repeat the same exact – neon, university band playing, sky writing version of a holy sign three times in our readings this morning.

An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, and as angels often do – and as we have heard echoed throughout our Advent scriptures – the angel tells Joseph to not be afraid – which is like the super secret angel password – do not fear – be not afraid – that the baby is the work of God, that Mary has known no other man, and that Joseph is to marry her and raise this holy begotten child as his own.

A pretty clear and specific sign, if ever there were one.

Yet, we do not know what Joseph thought upon waking. The gospel writer throws in a bit of relevant Isaiah text to remind us of the ancient biblical prophesy of God coming among us in the form of a baby born to an unwed mother. This would have been familiar scripture to Joseph. However, we can’t discern his thoughts or inclinations the morning after that dream.

Did Joseph wrestle with whether the dream was divine or imagined? Did he debate whether he could faithfully raise a son who would not look like him, or be biologically connected to him? We skip to the good part, where he marries Mary and some months later, they head off on a treacherous journey and non-romantic honeymoon with Mary nine months pregnant, traveling nearly ninety miles to Bethlehem, which was Joseph’s home town, to register for the census.

This morning’s gospel invites us to appreciate the pause between verses 22 and 24, and give thanks for Joseph and the example that he set for us. Not just being aware of the sign, but taking definitive and probably very difficult action, to believe Mary, to believe the angel and to very deliberately become Jesus’ earthly father.

We can’t know whether Joseph was immediately comfortable with his difficult decision. Did he know the minute he married Mary that he had done the right thing, as God asked and honored the ancient prophesy? Or did he continue to struggle with his decision and his family’s origins throughout his life?

When Jesus gave his parents trouble did Joseph righteously point out it didn’t’ come from his side of the family? Or when Jesus acted as an improbable saint demonstrating early signs of his divinity, did Joseph and Mary look at each other over the dinner table, sharing the secret knowledge of his actual lineage, and the familiar insight that he didn’t take after his earthly Father?

We know that Joseph was most likely a very careful man. He was older, and he was a carpenter, eventually teaching his sons that trade. Carpenters are not known as wild risk-takers. To be a good carpenter takes a significant amount of precision, some deliberation and action once you are sure of measurement, dimensions and scope.

Marrying young Mary had to be the biggest leap of faith in Joseph’s life. Yet the ramifications for faithfully following God’s call has brought us to this morning, thousands of years and a week before we celebrate the birth of his divine son Jesus.

While we struggle to live in daily expectation of a second miraculous birth of Emmanuel, or God among us, together we affirm our belief that God will come again. And, in this season of Advent, as we await his coming, we are challenged to be continually on the look out for signs.

Joseph’s leap of faith – following the sign in the form of an angel’s direction — provides some instruction for our own search for signs. First of all, in practical terms, Joseph had to sleep so that he could dream, which meant that he had to be free from distraction, able to rest and be aware of God’s presence and available for the appearance of a comforting angel.

That may be an awful lot to ask of any one of us, particularly if you have your own infant or children at home, or are a caregiver for someone else, but as we approach this final week before Christmas, I urge each of us to intentionally set aside some period of time – even if we have to set our iPhone alarm or timer to mark this time – to quietly sit and contemplate God’s presence in the world – or to ask for or seek signs of God’s presence.

We could put this off until Saturday’s Christmas Eve service, but our experience of this final week of Advent would be poorer for it. So I hope that each of us can find time between now and then. Whether sitting in a quiet room, gazing at a decorated tree, or at a loved one’s card that has arrived, with child in lap, or loved one’s hand in your own, or with bible open on the coffee table, or a hot cup of coffee in your grasp. Get as quiet as you can and ask for an awareness of God’s presence.

You may give thanks for Joseph’s extraordinary act of faith. For taking on Jesus as his son, for being what must have been an extraordinary adopted Dad, who loved and raised his son equal to his earthly siblings.

Consider that we worship the birth of a baby, a human in its most vulnerable and dependent form, as the embodiment of God on earth, and we take our cues for how to live and love one another from this child who could have been abandoned or been raised as an outcast, but was loved and protected by his earthly parents in advance of his universe changing ministry.

This morning and throughout this week, I want to give thanks for Joseph, for seeing him with new eyes and for appreciating his enormous faith-filled act that has brought us here this morning. And I want to give thanks for Annabelle Gillian’s father Jordan and Thomas William’s father Keith and the Dads and father figures in each of our own lives whose leaps of faith of all sorts have impacted who we are and how we navigate this world.

In your own prayerful contemplations this week, you may not get an angel urging you to be not afraid, or some another neon impossible to miss- God-inspired sign, but I hope that you do encounter some signs or guides. Once you recognize a sign, the divine question becomes – what are you going to do about it?  Amen.

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Advent Preparation

Sermon for Sunday, November 27, 2016 || First SUnday of Advent, Year A ||  Isaiah 2: 1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13: 11-14; Matthew 24: 36-44 ||  The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

This First Sunday of Advent is New Year’s Day in the life of the church. We renew our annual procession through the liturgical seasons of the year from Advent to Christmas, Christmas to Epiphany, Epiphany to Lent, Lent to Easter, Easter to Pentecost (or “Ordinary time”) and then back again to Advent a year from now. The colors of the altar paraments will change with each season, as will the scriptural themes highlighting the many facets of what it means to be a Jesus follower. And this year, in the 3-year cycle we follow of appointed readings for each Sunday called the lectionary, we begin a steady diet of readings from the Gospel of Matthew, rather than from Luke, with whom we’ve spent the last liturgical year.

The beginning of each season reminds us that there is such comfort to be found in the familiar rhythms of our liturgical year, just as there is so much comfort in the familiar words and rhythms of our hymns and our prayers. They ground us and center us, nurture our very souls and give us strength for the journey, as we learn to live ever more faithfully into our call to follow Jesus.

It is not an easy call. It is not for the feint of heart. Because to choose to live as a Jesus follower is to choose to live in a radically different way than most people today choose to live. We are steeped in an ethos that honors independence and self-reliance, while the One we choose to follow models inter-dependence and reliance on God. The economy in which we live rewards ambition, competition, and survival of the fittest, while the One we choose to follow advocates humility, collaboration, and self-sacrifice. And while our social values promote the accumulation of status, power, and riches, the One we choose to follow commends dying to self, service to others, and repeatedly warns against the terrible perils of hoarding one’s wealth.

Sometimes it seems as if everything held in high-esteem by the world beyond these walls is flat-out denounced by Jesus, while so many of the teachings around which we organize our lives as his followers are the object of snarky remarks by an increasingly secular and cynical world: teachings like working for the common good instead of personal gain, about forgiving those who hurt us, about observing Sabbath time to worship God and to give thanks.

To choose to live as a Jesus follower is to choose to live in a radically different way than most people today choose to live. And never is this more painfully clear than during this season of Advent! Just as the word on the street is heralding a countdown to Christmas and preparing for the coming of Santa– encouraging us to spend money on things we don’t even need–the Word in our scripture is heralding a countdown to the end times and preparing for the coming of the Son of Man — warning us to turn away from the same conspicuous consumption that our culture is urging us towards.

“Cast aside the works of darkness,” St. Paul exhorts us, “and put on the armor of light.”

Advent is a time of faithful waiting, a time of not only anticipating and celebrating the coming of, God-with-us, Emmanuel, in the person of the baby Jesus –but a time of faithfully anticipating the unimaginable but promised time when it will happen again, “on a day and hour that no one knows, neither the angels of heaven nor the Son, but only the Father.”

As Episcopalians, we don’t talk much about what Matthew calls “the end of the age” or about the “coming of the Son of Man.” Many of us may not even think we believe in the Second Coming; it sounds too much like the stuff of bad apocalyptic movies and hyped up novels about the rapture.

But when you really think about it, you realize that if we are faithfully waiting and working for violence to cease, for poverty to be eradicated, for hunger to be eliminated, for disease to be obliterated, for justice to be done and for love to conquer all then we are anticipating the day when Jesus comes again and God’s will is at last done on earth as it is in heaven. Whether we realize it or not, we are counting on the day when God will set all things right by restoring and reconciling all of creation to God’s original intent. Because then, and only then, will all those things we are waiting and working so hard for be fully realized.

In the meantime, as Jesus so urgently reminds us this morning, we are called not only to wait for that day but to prepare for it. And while we may prepare for Christmas by decorating, baking, shopping, and wrapping, we prepare for the day we will meet our Lord face to face by being fully awake to the world within us and to the world around us. We prepare for the day we will meet our Lord face to face by slowing down while the rest of the world speeds up around us, by taking inventory of our lives, our relationships, our hearts, and our souls…by accepting God’s forgiveness and giving thanks for it…and by turning back with new found freedom and joy, passion and commitment, to living as Jesus followers are called to live. In short, by casting away the works of darkness and putting on the armor of Light. Now that is Advent!

Of course, in this crazy culture that makes such an idol of our egos, who wants to take stock of his shortcomings or sins, her failures or flaws? When everyone else is ramping up for parties and eggnog, who wants to imagine themselves standing alone before God, or considering what such an encounter might reveal? But to choose to live as a Jesus follower is to choose to live in a radically different way than most people today choose to live.

To choose to live as a Jesus follower is to sign-on to a faith that asserts that sooner or later we will be held accountable for how we have lived our lives—how we’ve lived in relationship to God, to each other, and to all of God’s creation. To be sure, we will be judged with Divine love and mercy beyond our imagining—but we will be judged. So whether it happens when our entire world is completely transformed by that inconceivable moment when Jesus actually walks this earth again, or in the much more mundane inevitability of our own individual deaths— we will be held accountable. Whether God comes to us, or we go to God, God’s loving judgment will purge us of all that separates us from God’s Divine Love. God’s loving and merciful judgment will reveal –and heal– all of our brokenness.

The German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that, “The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience…”

Frightening because when we stand face to face with God’s all-powerful Love—our judgment may well be in the painful realization of just how much we have hurt the One who loved us into life itself. Our judgment may well be in suddenly seeing just how much we have disappointed this God of Divine Love, how much we’ve fallen short of God’s dream for us… how miserably we have failed to love God with all of our heart, and all of our mind, and all of our strength, or to have loved our neighbors as ourselves.

It could well be that in the brilliant Light of God’s Divine love we will no longer be able to avoid seeing the truth about ourselves and our lives with absolute clarity: All the things done and left undone, or as the Litany of Penitence in our prayer book says—all of our pride, hypocrisy and impatience; our self-indulgence, dishonesty and envy; our greed, indifference, and idolatry; our abuse of this planet, of our selves and of each other.

But when we do—when we face that judgment—we have the blessed assurance that the One we choose to follow, Jesus himself, will be there to remind us that we are already forgiven. The One we choose to follow will be there to embrace us and restore us. The One we choose to follow will be there to heal us and to love us into new life.

Wouldn’t that be divine? Wouldn’t it be divine to stand before God already healed of all brokenness, purged of all sin, restored to perfect wholeness, free from all that now binds us, bathed in the Light of God’s perfect Love? Wouldn’t that be…well, wouldn’t that be heavenly?

So I wonder what we’re waiting for? This morning’s gospel reminds us that we have the freedom to wake up and to prepare right now for the unimaginable day that none of us can foresee, when we will meet God face to face. We can choose right now to examine our lives, our relationships, our hearts and our souls. We can choose right now to take stock of all our broken places and to seek healing. We can choose this very day to return with newfound freedom and joy and passion and commitment to living our lives as Jesus calls us to live as his followers.

Advent is indeed a time of waiting, but we needn’t wait for the Second Coming to experience God’s forgiveness or to be healed and redeemed by God’s generous love! Now is the moment to wake from sleep, because as our gospel makes painfully clear, “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour,” and none of us knows when that will be.

So I invite you to cast aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light by anchoring yourself in the familiar words and rhythms of our hymns and our worship, so you don’t get tossed to and fro by the frantic machinations of the holiday season. Cast aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light by strengthening yourself with Word and Sacrament to gird against the siren call of conspicuous consumption. And cast aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light by insisting on Sabbath time in your life to prepare for Jesus, as well as for Santa.

This is Advent. Living into it is our call as Jesus followers. May we be richly blessed as we seek to respond faithfully, and may we share the blessings of our faith with others each step of the way. Amen.

 

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Christ is Our King, the Baptismal Covenant is Our Guide

Sermon for Sunday, November 20th, 2016 || Proper 29, Year C || Christ the King Sunday || Psalm 46; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43|| by Amy Whitcomb Slemmer

This is our last Sunday of our liturgical Year C– and marvelously, it is also Christ the King Sunday, a newcomer’s welcoming Sunday, another opportunity for ingathering of our annual financial pledges and donations AND we have the joy of baptizing Oliver and Murphy’s brother, three month old Quinn Buchanan this morning.

We are also welcoming our pilgrims Margot, David Bigley and Tim Reynolds back from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. Since we met a week ago our teens and tweens and their leaders have learned more about themselves scrambling on a high and low ropes course at Tree Top Adventures in Canton, and they and others have been grappling with the highs and the lows of our national election and its on-going aftermath.

So there is a great deal going on in the life of this church this morning and it has been a complicated, emotional and challenging week for many. Let’s begin this part of our time together with an appreciative and shared deep breath. We are grateful to be in God’s house with one another out of the rain and bluster. We cherish this time to be with God’s people surrounded by friends, family, loved ones and newcomers warming up for the wonder of the coming season.

This morning we focus on the Kingship of Christ, his sovereignty and the nature of his power. It always feels odd to wrap up our liturgical year with this stark Gospel reminder of Jesus’ crucifixion and with it, one of the most uncomfortable aspects of God – Christ’s Kingship. We are a nation whose system of government was established as a direct response to eschewing a monarchy and royal rein and subjugation, but as Christians we are ruled by a sovereign unique in all the world and human history. In this morning’s gospel our King, Jesus Christ is on the cross, suffering the human trauma of approaching death, yet fully divine and powerfully able to save himself if he were to so chose. To respond to the taunts and jeers of those at his feet by wielding his great power….and as we heard, he did respond.

He demonstrated his revolutionary, world and soul- saving power by saving another. Jesus had done nothing wrong. He was wrongly convicted. Those who taunted him, condemned him to death and nailed him to the cross knew that he had done nothing wrong, but he was persecuted for shaking the status quo, for upending the power structure and threatening the control of the state. To be crucified in Roman times was to be visibly killed as an enemy of the state and made an example for passers by.

We, today’s listeners know the good news that is to follow. Three days after the story in today’s gospel Jesus rose and rejoined his friends. But this morning we contemplate how the fully divine and fully human Jesus demonstrated his Kingship by dying on the cross, without retribution, without a show of force and without saving himself.

Jesus heard the man hanging next to him affirm that Jesus had not sinned, and while this condemned man could have been understandably consumed by his own discomfort and pain, this criminal acknowledged Jesus’ divinity and asked to be remembered in Christ’s Kingdom. And Jesus saved him.

This is the King that we worship and celebrate this morning, whose sovereignty we acknowledge and by whose power we are ruled, Christ the King who demonstrates his authority wielding the revolutionary tools of compassion, humility and love. Christ the King who is focused on saving others. This is the King that we are promising to help Quinn understand and love.

We have so many opportunities to practice this radical power. Listen to your fellow parishioners about their work in the world. We will all hear about the trip to White Earth Reservation that our advance team of pilgrims concluded this week, and several of us are strengthening our relationship with our sister parish, with whom we share our namesake’s saint, St. Stephens Boston, with two teams of tutors working with young people a couple of times a month. Each encounter is an opportunity to build bridges, which are aimed at lifting us up, helping us to see Christ in others and expanding our appreciation of the diversity and needs of God’s kingdom on earth.

St. Stephens’ rector Rev. Tim Crellin will visit us sometime early next year to talk about the ministries underway in the South End and how we may continue to draw closer together in our life in Christ, to more closely connect our children to one another and to listen to how their church community feeds their spiritual and social needs as we do here. Let us be curious about how to share the witness and the pain and angst of community members who experience life very differently from ours in Cohasset.

Among the faith filled mysteries and connections that we share with one another is baptism and our baptismal covenant. This morning we are blessed to be baptizing Quinn and welcoming his Godparents and loved ones to our parish community and into a life of fullness in the body of Christ. This is not something that we will be doing to Quinn and his family. Baptism is something that we will be doing with the Buchanan family. Each of us renewing our baptismal covenant, promising the Buchanans, God and each other that we believe in God, renounce evil and promise to persevere in resisting its effects. We are going to promise to continue in the apostles teaching and to love and serve god and one another.

If you’ve been in the Episcopal Church for a long time, you may be tempted to say these words by rote. They are familiar, they echo the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, and we read them each time we baptize and welcome someone into the full life of Christ. This morning I want to set them apart and ask you to simultaneously listen to someone close to you, while you are reciting and affirming your own renewal of your Baptismal Vows. Listen and speak generously as you think God hears and welcomes your words and those in this sanctuary. If the Baptismal Covenant is less familiar to you, it offers us both a statement of our shared faith and guidance for how to live into its promise. It also provides a wonderful road map to consider as we grapple with how to love one another demonstrating the skills of compassion, humility and love.

The five questions we are asked in our vow renewal are big thorny questions “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you strive for justice an peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?” Fortunately, as we signal with our answers, we are not left to do this tough work alone – we affirm that we will do these critically important, Christian things, with God’s help.

I want to challenge us to spend some extra time with our baptismal covenant as we approach the new church year. Let us think about some concrete tangible ways that we will live into the challenging promises we will affirm during the coming year. The cliff’s notes version of our Baptismal Covenant is – how are we going to demonstrate Christ’s love in the world, at home or school or at work and here in our church community? How are we going to reach beyond ourselves, understanding that our job is not to save ourselves, but to save another, and how might we demonstrate compassion, humility and love to one another and to strangers.

This morning it is easy to imagine ourselves modeling and demonstrating God’s love to Quinn as we baptize and welcome him into our community – and into the fullness of Christ. Jesus in today’s gospel reminds us that we are to love, serve and save all, which can be much more difficult. Our friend and colleague, Dr. Frank Wade whom many of you know and who has been a mentor and guide for both me and for Margot, wrote a prayer of petition to help remind us and ask for God’s help as we work toward realizing the challenging promises we make in our Baptismal covenant.

Let us pray—

Lord God, who has made all manner of people wonderfully and disturbingly different, hurl us into the differences that beset us. Grant us the cross bearing patience to listen when we would rather speak, to understand when we would rather proclaim and to draw near when we would rather push back that we might make harmony out of discord, trust out of skepticism and community out of conflict.

If we can spend the coming year – Year A– finding the patience to listen, experiencing comfort in understanding rather than satisfaction in our urgency to be understood, if we can find pleasure in harmony and nurture trust and community, then we too will be with Christ the King in Paradise.  Amen.

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Filed under Sermons by Amy Whitcomb Slemmer