Sermon Preached by Eric Fialho at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, February 18, 2018, the First Sunday in Lent

“The Negation of Evil: How Mankind Counters the Devil”

In the name of the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

I have favorite television shows, we all do, but still one of my favorites is the Twilight Zone.

There is an episode from season two in 1960 entitled “The Howling Man” which is one of the best. It concerns a man named Mr. Ellington who some thirty years prior was lost on a walking holiday in Central Europe in a terrible storm.

He seeks refuge at a monastery called the Hermitage where misfit brothers lead a solitary life. He is given shelter from the storm there for the night. Next he is shown wandering through the ancient, decrepit, and leaky-roofed monastery. He hears a blood curdling howl. It is low at first and then rises to a unnerving height.

He comes upon a cell with a window with bars,  a single occupant, a nameless man therein. He is being jailed there against his will. After this discovery and speaking to the man, Ellington makes up his mind to confront the abbot, Brother Jerome, about what he has discovered there locked up at the Hermitage. Ellington threatens to call the police. After all, the imprisoned man had told Ellington that all the brothers were “raving mad”. In a scene only the Twilight Zone could achieve the staid and serious faced Brother Jerome declares, “that was no man you were speaking with Ellington, that is the Devil himself”

Unconvinced, Ellington retires to bed and then sneaks away from his room to let the man out later that night. When he arrives he now for the first time notices that all that is barring the door to the cell is a roughly-hewn shepherd’s staff. Confused, Ellington asks the imprisoned man, “Is this all that holds you? Why haven’t you lifted it off yourself?”

Next we see Ellington lift the staff from the door and all at once he realizes what he has let out of the cell, it was the devil. Who before our eyes is transformed into the pricked ears and horned headed figure of lore and vanishes.

Fallen on the floor and in shock Ellington looks up to the brothers who are now gathered around him and he declares, “I didn’t believe, I saw him and I didn’t recognize him”. I saw him and I didn’t recognize him.

We have just entered into the season of Lent, where we are invited to look and to recognize the things we want to throw off of ourselves as we walk together towards the resurrection, towards Easter. In Lent we are called to self-examination and repentance, to amend, and to make right. In this season of turning, and of introspection, we can fail to recognize the evil that is far outside of us.

How often it is we fail to recognize devils in our midst, whatever these devils may be, in all it’s forms. It is true too that we are at times unaware of the evil that is near and around us. We are wholly unaware of the delight that evil takes when we fail to recognize it, when we fail to grasp even partly, the power it can sometimes work in our lives.  If only we could lock the devil up. If only evil could be walled up with only straw to walk on and only four small damp walls to look upon.

As more and more days continue with news reports of the evils humans do whether to others or to themselves, we are brought to consider why it is we do what we do. Why it is Satan seems to be gaining. It is easy to fall into an apoplectic mind and feel angry at what seems to be a lack of power to stop what is being worked in the world.

While it is easy to feel disillusioned and to feel outdone and even overtaken by the ills of this world, we as Christians know better. We as Christians are equipped with a knowledge, a knowledge that our Father in heaven has worked Love before all things.

There are times when mankind runs directly into the arms of the devil. There are times when mankind lets the devil lose on others. There are times when we have not even the beginning of an idea we are doing it.

Whether we understand it or not we know what we are doing, we as Christians know, even if just an ounce more, just a bit more, of the weight of dealing with the devil, of being tempted, of what evil entrapment looks and feels like. We know it because we first know of all that is good.

We can sense the fleeting lies because we know the eternal truth.Our Gospel reading from this morning deals with outward temptations and evil, set against the profound goodness and grace of God. And in the middle is Mark’s depiction of Jesus there between water and the desert wilderness.

The parallel here in Mark’s text is striking. All at once Jesus was confronted with the tearing of the heavens and the image of a dove bearing down upon him, and not just that, but the very confirmation that came from God, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” We are told that when Jesus, “…came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove”.

In that moment of standing there in the warmth of the sun, in the waters of the Jordan river, a deep peace and inward realization striking at him altogether, all at once, suddenly. The moment is almost indescribable.

And yet, immediately he is led away from it, to turn from it, and to be alone with his thoughts driven away from the richness and fertility of the waters to the emptiness and barrenness of the desert.

The Greek word meaning immediately, or suddenly, or all at once, occurs some fifty-one times in the New Testament, and it occurs forty-one times in Mark’s Gospel alone. The writer of Mark must have favored it, and used it to draw the attention of his hearers.

Immediately, The Spirit Immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.

Immediately was he sent, he was not sent into yet another grace filled moment like baptism, nor was he sent into quiet meditation and contemplation, no, instead he was sent out into the wilderness into the very clutches of the devil. There where it is thought in ancient texts that the old serpent, dwells, lying in wait.

Readying himself always to clutch at someone.

Jesus was led by the Spirit into this, into being tempted by Satan. Suddenly he found himself mired by doubts, and fears which pressed deeply on his heart and his mind, that scene is indescribable.

How often we are sent, or driven, or even forced out into a sort of wilderness.

Immediately at times, sometimes it is slow, and it is in those times, in those slow and unassuming times which we are hard pressed to understand the evils which can lie in wait for us.

While the immediacy of Jesus’ turn from the waters to the desert is shocking, and altogether wrenching, at least he was able to discern what was graceless in the wilderness for he was first enveloped by grace. He was able to know what evil was because he knew what goodness was. He was able to know allurement, temptation, because he first knew God’s Love, as of a father’s love, a love given which takes nothing.

A love which seeks not to distract, not to trap, no, it is a love which freely courses. It does not dry up, and it is not a lie. We know this too. We know that our wastelands we walk through in this life, in those deserts we encounter, in those moments and days, and even years of temptation and doubt, and of those sensations that evil will always be out there, unavoidable and always grasping, trying to tighten its hold. There is one thing to remember, just one. We can always turn back. We can always get out of there. We can always set our gaze on the truth and not on the lies, on the good and not on the evils that can undo us. It may not seem like much, no, but it is.

 We do not have to stay in the desert. Jesus did not. But he did go through it. He did see for himself what lurked therein. He saw what was there fully, he understood it completely because he first knew, because he first knew what its opposite was, what it’s inverse was and is, what conflicts with evil. What will some day negate evil.

 The devil is not locked up in a cell. We know this. We also know of that indescribable love that descends upon us, on the world, from God.

 We can see that and that we can recognize.

Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Allan B. Warren III at the Church of the Advent, February 14, 2018, Ash Wednesday

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”  That familiar aphorism is taken from a letter written by Benjamin Franklin to a friend in 1789.  Franklin got lots and lots of things right, but this he got wrong.  Or shall we say half wrong.  There is nothing certain about taxes.  For you and me, taxes are inescapable.  But really rich people get away with paying little tax or no tax at all.  We all know that.  Indeed, it would seem that President of the United States gets away with paying little or no tax every year.  But we don’t really know that.  He won’t release his tax returns.  However, since he plays fast and loose with everything else, especially the truth, it is reasonable to suppose that he plays fast and loose with his taxes as well.

So it is death that is the only really certain thing.  It is also the great equalizer.  Death is remarkably egalitarian.  The rich man dead is exactly equal to the poor man dead.  No distinction.

Remember the parable of the man who wished to build bigger barns to store his surplus crops.  According to Jesus, God says to him, “You fool !  This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be.  And who knows whether they will be managed well or squandered ?”  ( Luke 12 )  All that he had worked for taken away by death.  He might as well have been poor.  All that he had worked for handed on to another who might well whittle it away.  So all the work, all the care, all the planning amounting to nothing, coming to nothing.  Perhaps in death it’s better to be poor and leave nothing behind.

Death is the great equalizer, and death is the one absolute certainty.  When we are dead, we are dead. Dead as a door nail.  Dead as a door post. Dead as dust, dust, dust.  That, again, is the one thing that I can say with absolute certainty about myself and also about you:  that at some point like it or not, ready or not, each one of us will die. 

We may see it coming.  Or it may happen in the twinkling of an eye.  But for whatever reason – sickness, age, accident, violence – for whatever reason the heart will cease to beat.  The brain waves will become flat and finally disappear.  The body will become cold and heavy, because there is no life in it.  We call this “dead weight,” don’t we ?

And there will be two moments side by side:  one when we are, and another when we are not.  This is an undoubted and undoubtable fact about you, just as it is an undoubted and undoubtable fact about me.

Some years ago, I pointed all this out to the congregation I was then serving.  When the Mass was over, standing at the church door, I was quite soundly rebuked.  A woman, whom I had never met, took me to task.  “That’s depressing,” she said to me.   “You want people to come to Church.  Well, they’ll never come back if they hear depressing things like that.  You’d better change your tune.”

I was pretty taken aback by this, and since she stormed away, I had no chance to vindicate myself.  Let me do that tonight.  In fact, mortality may not be good news, but neither should it be depressing.  A fact is a fact.  How that fact feels to us depends upon our belief and our attitude.  Our mortality, our being toward death, as some put it, is simply the truth.  And if we wish to live authentic lives, we must deal with the truth. And if we know what Christianity is all about, and if we know what Lent is intended to do, then this truth is not depressing at all.  Indeed, through faith, our mortality becomes one of the most positive, paradoxically joyful things you can imagine.  For Christianity, you see, is about rising from the dead.  Let me say that again.  Christianity is about rising from the dead. Christianity is about new life out of what is old and failing or over.  It is about creation where there was nothing before. 

Christianity proclaims that God through Christ will raise us up, and, dust though we may be, we will not be lost.  God loses nothing.  God loses no-one.  In Christ we are everlastingly found, and God, through Christ, raises and will raise us up.

*     *     *     *     *

In Lent, dear people, you and I are called upon to face facts and to search out those places where we need to be raised, those spiritual nooks and crannies where grace must be applied and new life created.  And Lent proclaims that possibility.  Lent proclaims that you and I can be changed, and that what is dusty and dead, what is diminishing and dead and sinful within us, can be done away with.  And that in this life we can be raised up.

In Lent we are, again, called upon to face facts, and one of those facts, of course, is the big one—our death, our mortality.  At a certain point you and I will be just as lifeless and seemingly beyond possibility as the dust and the ashes that we will all soon wear on our faces.  And we must face that fact, for only when we do face that fact can we know how great is our need for God and for his grace.  Only when we do face that fact can we know how great is our God and how great is his love and how powerful is his grace.  For sin and death itself have nothing to say to the God who breathes life into dust.  Sin and death itself have nothing to say to the Son of God who himself dies to being life. Sin and death have nothing to say to the God who raises the dead. And let us praise him, for both in this life and beyond it, God will raise us up.

Good people, beloved, keep a holy Lent.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Jay C. James at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, February 11, 2018, the Last Sunday after the Epiphany

…and a voice came out of the cloud, “this is my beloved son; listen to him.”

Our goal is to see Christ in His glory.  We are given the gift of having that vision with us now so we can be prepared for heaven and inspired on the way. 

There are many of us who, at some points in our lives, may look for a reason to go on.  The need may be a goal to pursue or more seriously a reason to exist.  One of the blessings of the Christian religion is that it provides both of these.  We are blessed by the Christian religion to receive reasons to exist, goals to pursue and achieve, and reasons to go on through our earthly lives.  There is a double blessing in that we are not only given reasons to exist, but to continue through our lives with a sense of joy, encouragement and peace. 

On more than one occasion these topics have come up when I have visited parishioners, friends, and even relatives.  The question of the reason God has us here, or why he allows us to continue here under trying circumstances, or what goal or purpose does God have for me, are common questions and concerns, if they are allowed to be raised.  Let’s face it, both the marginal Christian and the faithful, practicing Christian usually do not want to admit they are asking these questions to themselves.  If they hesitate to admit that they are wondering about these questions, then they certainly will not talk about them freely.   Think of the eighty or ninety-year-old nearing the end of an earthly life.  Consider someone seriously ill with a terminal disease; both of these persons have been lifelong Christians.  For them contemplating questions of why God continues to have them here is at least embarrassing, may be seen as a sign of weakness, or at worst an admission that their practice and belief of the Christian faith has been in vain. 

I had this conversation with my father two years before he died.  At the time he was recovering from a stroke and knew that his life was taking on a significant change, and the prospect of living this different existence was not at all attractive.  He could not figure out what God had in mind. He did not seem to see any more purpose in his life here.  He needed some reason to exist.  He needed some purpose to go on, and not go on just to exist, but a positive, purposeful move in the future.  This is not unusual, given his state in life.  These kinds of questions and concerns lie just under the surface and will come up to the surface very easily if we give persons social and emotional “permission” to talk about them. 

The Gospel of Jesus Christ has all the answers. So it should provide answers to those of us asking these questions or concerns about God’s purpose for our lives.  I think His Gospel answers these difficult questions about existence, purpose, and goals for our life.  The more I read about, and think about, the Transfiguration, the more I realize how powerful it is and what an inspiration it is.  Think about the portions of the Bible our Office and Eucharistic lectionaries have presented to us since Christmas. We have spent our time since Christmas in the Epiphany Season.  According to the church’s reading of Holy Scripture, that time is to be spent listening about the ways Jesus is shown to be the Savior of the World.  We have heard the miracles.  We have heard what God proclaims about Jesus and finally today we hear the testimony of how Jesus was indeed revealed as the Son of God at the Transfiguration.  We have learned who Jesus really is.  “This is my beloved Son; listen to Him.”

That is what Epiphany or “showing forth” is all about; showing forth who Jesus is.  We learn that he is the Son of God, not just another nice man.  We learn that he is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.  He is the living law that was established in the Old Testament and He is everything the prophets proclaimed.  Prophecy in both the Old and New Testaments is often thought of as predicting the future.  The prophets at times are mistakenly thought of as kinds of glorified fortune tellers.  Some think the prophets just say what God is going to make happen.  That is only the partial truth about prophecy. 

Prophecy has to do with interpreting events in the present as well.  The prophecy that we heard last week from Simeon and Anna, so nicely proclaimed and explained by Father Hanson, was setting forth what God is up to in the present.  Knowing that they had seen the Christ because they had seen the Baby Jesus, is a case in point.  Simeon and Anna were not predicting the future.  They were saying what God was telling them to say at that moment.  They were prophets and God was speaking through them at that moment.  The prophecy of Christ coming was fulfilled in Jesus. 

This kind of prophecy is heard today on top of the Mount of the Transfiguration; we see the clear Word of God from God Himself.  Jesus is wonderfully transfigured and appears with Moses and Elijah.  Then God speaks directly to Peter, James and John and declares, “This is my beloved Son, listen to Him.”  It is quite wonderful, I think, because there is no guessing.  The direct word of God is sufficient.  Peter and James and John had little doubt that they had seen and heard the Truth on the top of that mountain.

What an inspiration it must have been to Peter, James and John to have the privilege of seeing Jesus in all His glory.  How reassuring it must have been for their belief.  They were able to see Christ as He truly is.  They saw Him being certified as what He said He is, “The only Son of God.”  No matter how much we are told that Christ is King.  No matter how many times we read the Bible and hear the Word of God. No matter how long we have been Christians, we can still have doubts.  When an event happens like the Transfiguration, you can bet that it goes a long way to remove, or at least relieve some doubt.  Peter and James and John must have had all their doubts and uncertainties done away, for at least a moment, when they witnessed the transfiguration on top of the mount.  But they have to keep this to themselves.  There is more God will accomplish in His Son and that will be revealed in Holy Week.

Have you ever had a moment of reassurance like the Transfiguration?  I hope you have.  Your glimpse of Christ’s Glory does not have to be as dramatic as the Transfiguration.  It would be good if it could be.  I would like that.  But maybe you have had times when, because of an event, large or small, you have come to the conclusion, “Yes, it all makes sense.”  You say to yourself, “There is actually something to this Christian religion, and everything is going to be all right, and I’m on the right track.”  These moments or events are little embryonic epiphanies or tiny transfigurations.  They don’t have to be dramatic, but even the small events, when you realize they are glimpses of Christ’s Glory, can be very powerful and help fulfill or strengthen our spiritual lives.

We need this vision of Christ’s Glory now, as we begin our Lenten journey this Wednesday.  The vision of the Transfiguration serves two purposes for us, placed as it is as our last vision of Christ before Lent.  The immediate purpose is to encourage us through the forty days of Lent.  It will not, and should not, be easy for us as we take on our Lenten practices and disciplines. Keeping the transfigured Christ before us as the ultimate vision and goal can encourage us through Lent and Holy Week.  Remember that we grow in holiness through Lent and Holy Week and in some way have the vision of the Transfiguration come more into focus.

The second purpose of the Transfiguration can be to give us the goal, the purpose, the vision for our whole lives.   Yes; Peter, James and John were encouraged and found the vision so desirable that they wanted to stay and hold the vision.  They could not stay.  They needed to come back down the mountain and continue their lives, even as we need to continue our lives and fulfill the purposes of our lives.  We continue them with the knowledge that growing closer to Jesus all through our earthly lives is a purpose.  The goal is to see Him even as He is seen at the top of the Mount of the Transfiguration; what an encouragement and what a joy.

The reaction of Peter to the Transfiguration, we find out in his second letter, is that he had the prophecy of the Word of God “made more sure.”  He had the Word of God given to him on top of that mountain and he says he knows it is true because he says, “we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with Him on the holy mountain.”  The prophecy he knew of the Christ was “made more sure” because he saw it and heard it with his own eyes and ears.  No interpretation was necessary because the Holy Spirit, at one with the Father and the Son gave them the word directly. 

For us, on this Last Sunday after The Epiphany, we learn that if we want to know what God has to say to us, either as individuals or as a church, we have to go to Him.  Remember, that Elijah had to go to Mount Horeb to hear what God had to say to him.  Peter, James and John had to go to the top of the mountain to hear and see clearly that Jesus is the Law and the Prophets.  We bring ourselves to God in humility.  And sometimes it is not easy.  It is not easy to go up a mountain and admit that maybe God knows better for us, than we know for ourselves.  But that is all right.  It may take quite a struggle to get to God.  It may take a little mountain climbing, but be assured He will be there to speak to you just as He spoke to Moses, Elijah, Peter, James and John.  So go to God even if it is hard to go to Him, or especially when it is hard to go Him.

Find out what He has to say to you.  Avail yourselves of the Holy Scriptures.  Go to the Bible regularly and often.   When you go to the Bible, you are going to the very Word of God.  Approach it with the faithful attitude that it indeed does have something to say to you and you need to know what that is.  Go to Holy Scripture in faith and obedience.  The Lenten program Father Warren has prescribed for our whole parish is an excellent way to do just that.  It is “A Lenten Journey for The Church of The Advent”.  Daily take on the reading of Scripture.  Practice disciplines of self-control.  Learn more about how God is alive and active in your life to lead you to holiness.

The Transfiguration means that like Peter, James and John, we need to follow Jesus in faith and obedience just like we go to the Bible.  Go with the Word of God incarnate in Holy Communion, just as you go to the Word of God written in the Bible.  Remain faithful to him because he is all law, all prophecy, all Truth.  Stay with Him through very sad times in your life as well as the happy times.  Stay faithful to Him through the difficult times as well as the easy times.  The whole point is to find the Truth and the only place to find that is to climb up the mountain all through this life knowing that the reason for the climb is Jesus and once you get to the top you will see him just as Peter, James and John saw Him.  He was in his glorious majesty on the Mount of the Transfiguration.  He is glorious with us now in our hearts and souls to lead us through this earthly life, and we will see Him in all His glorious majesty in heaven. 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Daphne B. Noyes at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, January 28, 2018, the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

When the artist Paul Gauguin[1] completed the painting he would later call his manifesto, he was 50 years old and broken: his body by illness and injury; his mind by relentless depression and overwhelming debt; his spirit by insurmountable grief at the death of his 19-year-old daughter, Aline.[2] He declared “I have lost my daughter. I no longer love God.”[3]

Perhaps you have seen the artwork that emerged from his agony; we are fortunate to have it nearby at the Museum of Fine Arts.[4] Entitled “D’ou Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous” or “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” the massive painting — 12 feet by four feet— was described this way by Gauguin:

To the right at the lower end, a sleeping child and three crouching women. Two figures dressed in purple confide their thoughts to one another. An enormous crouching figure, out of all proportion and intentionally so, raises its arms and stares in astonishment upon these two, who dare to think of their destiny. A figure in the center is picking fruit. Two cats near a child. A white goat. An idol, its arms mysteriously raised in a sort of rhythm, seems to indicate the Beyond. Then lastly, an old woman nearing death appears to accept everything, to resign herself to her thoughts. She completes the story! At her feet a strange white bird, holding a lizard in its claws, represents the futility of words….So I have finished a philosophical work on a theme comparable to that of the Gospel.[5]

Gauguin’s vision and questions offer an entry point into today’s story from Mark’s gospel. I daresay that after witnessing the miraculous exorcism or healing in the synagogue at Capernaum, the disciples — those hardworking fisherfolk who left families and friends to go with the one who said, “Follow me” — might well have been asking themselves the same questions Gauguin immortalized. The very identity of Simon, Andrew, James, and John — their “what are we” — was undergoing tremendous transformation as they moved from being fishers of — well, fish — for people hungry for food, to fishers of people hungry for spiritual sustenance. “Where do we come from” and “where are we going” were likely on their minds as they ventured further and further away from home, following the young man from Nazareth who astounded people with his authority. His teaching. His healing.

The theme is also pertinent on this day of our annual meeting, as we honor where we have come from, ponder what we are, and consider where we are going.

Last week, a number of parishioners met for a seminar on challenging conversations. Toward the end of the gathering, the presenter, Harvard Law professor Bob Bordone[6], invited participants to describe the Advent’s community. Answers were varied, but — not surprisingly — shared a consistent theme: identity as Anglo-Catholics. Time did not allow us to delve into various definitions of Anglo-Catholicism, so today, with that in mind and in the spirit of Gauguin’s interrogations, I offer for your consideration some thoughts about our tradition.[7]

We share a corporate vision that emphasizes the church as the body of Christ and an integral element in the proclamation of the Gospel. It is, in part, a materialistic vision that rejoices in the physical, in the flesh, rooted in the principle that matter is the vehicle of the spirit, not its enemy. This is perhaps most apparent in our worship. Evelyn Underhill:

Worship is a spiritual activity; but we are not pure spirits, and therefore we cannot expect to do it in purely spiritual ways. That is the lesson of the Incarnation. Thus liturgies, music, symbols, sacraments, devotional attitudes and acts have their rightful part to play in the worshipping life…If music is something that may awaken the awed awareness of the Holy, if pictures can tell us secrets that are beyond speech, if food and water, fragrances and lights, all bear with them a memory of sacred use — then the ordinary deeds of secular life will become more and more woven into the seamless robe that veils the glory of God.[8]

The material world is the primal sacrament from which all others derive: Bread and wine are symbols of the transformation of all human resources. This idea of transformation extends to the quest for a transformed society, evidenced in the liturgy of the eucharist, when “the fruits of the earth and the work of human hands”[9] are brought within the redemptive process.

The bread and wine at the offertory set forth structures in history which have been brought out of the fallen world into the first stage of its redemption.[10]

Although we value tradition, we have a rebellious streak. The fact that the Tractarian movement is remembered primarily for controversies about church furniture and fashions is not the point: once a movement of nonconformity has been inspired in one area, it can spread to others. In 1946, one priest described the eucharist as a “meeting of rebels against a mammon-worshipping world order.”[11] Alongside pastoral ministry, especially to the “sick, the friendless, and the needy,” the task of nourishing a culture of resistance to challenge society’s false values — racism, sexism, inequality, prejudice — is equally important. The eucharistic principles of common life and equality are maintained only when they are extended to the social order outside the sanctuary.

Finally, the Anglo-Catholic vision is expansive, not contractive, concerned with the working out of God’s purposes in the upheavals and crises of world history. And God knows we have no shortage of upheaval and crises. As William Temple famously noted, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”[12] A century ago, one theologian urged the church to go beyond preaching the Gospel to

…return to what the New Testament calls “the Gospel of the Kingdom” — the Kingdom of God, the cardinal doctrine of our preaching, regulative of our theology … the touchstone by which all the activities of the church are tested.[13]

These words remain a central truth.

There are those who believe that our tradition is isolated, exclusive, frozen in the past, detached from the realities of the world. To them I say: No.

“One of the insights of the Anglo-Catholic tradition…is the recognition that visions and dreams…must constantly be tested against experiences of real people and concrete struggles — against the realities of homelessness, racial oppression, the collapse of communities….It is out of our old history that our new history must be made.”[14]

Gauguin referred to two figures in his painting who “dare to think of their destiny.” And that is what we do today. Not only because it is annual meeting, but because we must, of necessity, consider our destiny every day. Every time we speak to, and listen to, each other. Every time we approach the altar. Every time we pray. Like Gauguin’s figures, we too are part of a masterpiece born of suffering and hope and love.

Amen.


[1] 1848-1903

[2] She died in 1897.

[3] The Letters of Paul Gauguin to Georges Daniel de Monfreid, translated by Ruth Pielkovo. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1922. He wrote that initially news of Aline’s death “did not move me particularly, I have grown so used to suffering. Then each day memory comes back, the wound opens more deeply…”

[4] See http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/where-do-we-come-from-what-are-we-where-are-we-going-32558.

[5] The Letters of Paul Gauguin

[6] See http://hnmcp.law.harvard.edu/hnmcp/faculty_staff/professor-robert-bordone/

[7] Drawn largely from a presentation by Anglican priest Kenneth Leech (1939-2015), “The Radical Angl0-Catholic Social Vision,” presented in March 1989 at the Centre for Theology and Public Issues, University of Edinburgh.

[8] Evelyn Underhill (1845-1941), from Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness.

[9] From a prayer said “quietly” by the Celebrant when placing the bread and wine on the Altar before they are consecrated. The form of this prayer goes back to the Jewish Berakhah, a prayer of blessing or praise to God starting “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe…”

[10] F. H. Smyth, Discerning the Lord’s Body (1946)

[11] Fr James Addlery, in “Christian Socialism Past and Present.” The Commonwealth, December 1926.

[12] William Temple (1881-1944) was Bishop of Manchester (1921–29), Archbishop of York (1929–42) and Archbishop of Canterbury (1942–44). See also Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison. “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others…nor dominating, but helping and serving.”

[13] P. E. T. Widdrington, The Return of Christendom (1922). See Matthew 4:23; Mark 1:14.

[14] Leech

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Allan B. Warren III at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, January 21, 2018, the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

From the Gospel this morning:

Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.

You didn’t have to have a sophisticated education to be a fisherman in ancient Judea.  You probably learned the trade – sailing the boat, catching the fish, mending the nets – from your father, who learned it from his father, and so on.  It was a trade, and though it may not have made you an aristocrat, it didn’t mean that you were poor.  Fish were plentiful in the Sea of Galilee, and there was always a market.  It was hard work – yes – and it was dangerous.  (Fishing is always dangerous.  Doubly so on a very tricky body of water like the Sea of Galilee.)  Even so, fishermen did well.  They might not have become rich, but neither were they poor.

There is a house in the excavation of the city of Capernaum which, since very early times – the middle of the first century – has been reputed to have been St Peter’s house, in that town where he and other disciples lived and where Jesus spent a great deal of time.  This may well be true, for it was quite early on turned into one of those house-churches in which Christians worshipped in the beginning.  It is not – to be sure – the house of a rich man, but neither is it a shack or a hovel.  Rather, it is a house as substantial as any other house of a small businessman in the city of Capernaum.

And so, the story in this morning’s Gospel is all the more astonishing.  They dropped everything – a good life, an established position in the town, family, friends – they dropped everything and they followed him.  We call the story the account of Jesus’ calling of Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, James and his brother John.  The incident takes place at the beginning of St. Mark’s Gospel – which we just heard – as it does very early on in the Gospel of Matthew and somewhat later on and in a different form in the Gospel of Luke. 

In Matthew and Mark it is both a beginning and an introduction, setting forth, as it does, the meaning of what is yet to be recorded.  Jesus, passing by Simon Peter and Andrew, summons them and makes a promise, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  And that same promise, we may well assume, was extended to James and John, and later to eight others: Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew and Thomas, another James, Thaddeus, another Simon, and even to Judas, who betrayed him.  There were twelve in all – and to each of them the same promise or something like it, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

*     *     *     *     *

Jesus, as Christianity has it, is the revelation of God.  In his deeds and in his words and in his life, he shows us who God is and how God is and what God is doing.  He is called Rabbi and he teaches, for God is the source of all wisdom and in his teaching Jesus makes known that wisdom and proclaims the coming of God’s kingdom.  He is a healer of the sick, and by that action shows God to be the source of all health and wholeness and life.  He calls on men and women to repent and has the audacity to forgive sins, and thereby makes real and active God’s mercy and his yearning for reconciliation and righteousness.  Jesus is called by some the Messiah, for he is the focus of God’s action in the dawning of God’s Kingdom.

And also, as we heard in the Gospel, Jesus calls people and gathers them together and sends them out to call others and to gather those others together as well.  This action of calling and gathering together is no less an action and revelation of God than his teaching, healing, and forgiving.  For God yearns for his people and he calls them back to himself.  God created all people out of love and for love – his love for them, their love for him and for one another.  God’s will from the beginning was to overcome separation and enmity.  And in Jesus he acts supremely to do just that: to bring humanity back to himself and to gather men and women together, one to another, in one body.  And it is a miracle – isn’t it?  To bring together people who are different and divided is as great a miracle as restoring sight to the blind.  To dispel enmity and gather people into one body is as great a miracle as raising the dead.  Perhaps in fact, it is a raising of the dead.  “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

There are some scholars today who, for whatever reason, maintain that Jesus never intended to found a church.  Perhaps they do this to shock and call attention to themselves.  Perhaps, cynically, they do this just to sell a new book.  The Church, they say, was a kind of mistake or accident or misinterpretation of what Jesus was all about.  That opinion is both rubbish and impossible.  Impossible, because the kind of individualistic religion proposed as Jesus’ intention by such scholars would have been incomprehensible in the ancient world. And rubbish, because such an interpretation flies in the face of everything Jesus said and everything he did.  For example, consider the following:

As we heard today, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

“For wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Mt. 18:20)

 He established a meal in his memory and for his re-presenting.  And what is a meal but something that brings people together.

 “And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all people to myself.”  ( John 12:32 )

“I pray, Father, that they may be one even as we are one; I in them and they in me, that they may be perfectly one.”  ( John 17:23 )

Union, communion, fellowship.  A household, a family, a church, called and gathered together by God in Christ.  Bound together one to another in Christ’s Body.  Bound together by the power of the Holy Spirit.  This, no less than teaching, healing, forgiving, this, a church, is part of the meaning of Jesus and his mission.  And in it we may find a foretaste of salvation and God’s coming kingdom.

“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Jeffrey A. Hanson at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, January 14, 2018, the Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Many of you know my son Tristan; he is eight years old now, and currently he is obsessed with talking interactive computers like Google’s search engine, which lets you ask rather than type a question and answers back in an audible voice. Mostly he asks about the weather or about the news or to hear a song, but sometimes he gets more philosophical and asks a deeper and more profound question: “Google, who are you?” Tristan will ask. And Google answers: “Searching for oneself can take a lifetime, but a good place to start is classic rock,” whereupon Google provides you with a link to a video of The Who’s 1978 smash hit “Who Are You?”.

Besides the title to a classic rock track though it’s an important question actually, one that all of us have asked, and we spend our whole lives asking it of ourselves most of all: “Who are you?”

The reason I bring this up is because in today’s readings we actually get answers to this profound question. Both our reading from Mark’s Gospel and from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians each in their own way explicitly address the question of identity, the identity of Jesus Christ, and our identity as Christians.

I bring it up for another reason too and that is that today we are blessed to baptize another young member of the body of Christ, our little friend Luke Graham Ankstitus, whose parents Laura and Dayna have brought him here in faith today to receive the sacrament that will initiate him into Christian life. And therefore I will also speak about baptism, because baptism is the place where the question of who Jesus is and the question of we are come together; baptism is the place where his identity and our identity intersect.

Let’s start with Mark. This brief reading is Mark’s version of the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is quite minimal when it comes to detail. We have been given almost no information at all about Jesus. John the Baptist is in the wilderness, and hordes of people are pouring out of the city of Jerusalem to be baptized by him, something that normally would only happen to Gentile converts to Judaism. Yet John is calling for everyone to be baptized, for all the people of Israel to repent of their sins and recommit themselves to follow God.

Jesus steps into this scene from some other place altogether, not big-city Jerusalem but backwater Nazareth. And yet John has said someone like this is coming. He knows that someone mightier than he is on his way, and now, from an unexpected place and without any warning, out of the blue, here Jesus is.

What is he doing here? How did he get here? What does he want? What does he look like? Where was he born and who were his parents? In short, Who is this?

In Mark’s version of the story nobody at this early stage seems to know for sure. Nobody knows why Jesus would want to be baptized when he has no sins to repent of and he is already wholly committed to God.

So the question is “Who are you, Jesus?” And the answer comes in verse 11, and it comes from God Himself. Jesus goes down into the water, and when he comes up, we get the answer. Who are you? “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”

That is the answer to the question “Who are you?” when addressed to Jesus. This is his identity. For Mark, this comes first. Who are you? You are my son. And I am pleased with you. He introduces who Jesus is with these words, with God’s words.

Mark does not tell us about Jesus’s miraculous birth, his mother, his father, there’s no angels, no shepherds, no magi, none of that comes up at all. For Mark, Jesus’s identity comes not from his origins, from his parentage, from the time or place of his birth, it doesn’t come from his job or from his friends or his peers. It comes straight from God. And the basis of Jesus’s identity, his being as the Son of God, is something that is made clear for the first time at his baptism.

So what about us? When we think about our identity, where do we think it comes from? From our parents? From our culture? From the time and place of our birth and upbringing? From our job or our friends or family or peers? That’s what I think of first. If you asked me “Who are you?” I would tell you where I was born, what my parents are like, where I grew up, about my job, my wife, my son. I bet you would too. It’s not at all surprising that’s the sort of thing we think of first.

Because just about the entirety of the modern world is based on the idea that my identity is what I can call mine. We think our identities are built up from our homes, our language, our family, our property, and at the very bottom of it all if I have nothing else to point to my identity is based on my body. In fact, enormously influential economic and political theories have been based on this idea: If you have nothing else, you have yourself, and even if you don’t believe in the soul you at least have a body and that is yours if nothing else is.

And what could be more obvious? Isn’t it plain that my identity consists in what is mine, and that even if I have nothing else I have my own self or at least my own body that I can call my possession?

As obvious as that seems, I say it’s false. I think it’s wide open to challenge, and I think St. Paul rather boldly challenges this cornerstone of the whole modern world.

The truth is that for a believer in Jesus Christ our identity also comes straight from God.

This is the key teaching I think from St. Paul in today’s reading from his first letter to the Corinthians. He says everything you think you know about your own identity is at best only part of the story. You are not just your parents’ child. You are not just your place of birth or where you grew up. You are not just your native culture and language. You are not your family or friends or your job or even your body. And why is that?

1 Corinthians 6:19: “You are not your own.” This is Paul’s answer to the question “Who are you?” This is what he teaches us is the basis of our identity. Who are we? Paul says we are not our own. And this is why he condemns sexual immorality, not because he is a hopelessly outdated puritan and a joyless scold but because our souls and yes even our bodies do not belong to us. They belong to God, and our identity too comes straight from God.

And this is what we affirm in baptism. When we bring a child forward to be baptized into the body of Christ, into the family of those who believe in him, we are saying something powerful about identity: about the identity of Jesus Christ, about our identity, and about that child’s identity.

I said before that in baptism Christ’s identity and our identity overlap. When we baptize Luke we do so in confidence that Luke’s life and death will be caught up in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the victorious Son of God. In the moment of his baptism, God says to Luke too, “You are my Son,” because from here on out Luke is no longer Luke.

His identity is found from now on not in his loving parents, his home here in Boston, or even his own body: None of that is his, and his identity from now on comes from God.

So what does that leave him with? What does that leave us with? I am telling you something outrageous, something that nothing in our culture would countenance, that nothing we our tempted to call ours is really our own. So what can I call my own? What can Luke call his own once he is baptized?

Remember the words of God that Jesus hears at his baptism. God the Father proclaims not only “You are my Son” but also “With you I am well pleased.” Why should God the Father be well pleased? What is the source of this pleasure?

I believe that God the Father is pleased with Jesus’s sinless life of perfect service to and love for others. But God has declared that Jesus is his one and only beloved Son, and in Jesus’s life God was so pleased that he refused to consign that perfect life to death but raised him from the grave.

God the Father’s pleasure at the Son’s life lived wholly in devotion to God the Father and in sacrificial love and service to others moves God the Father to vindicate the life of the Son by making that life invincible. And if God raises Christ from the dead then anyone whose life has been given over to Christ will also be raised. As Paul says in verse 14, “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power.”

What Luke is left with, then, what we are left with, is a life that can not die, a life of service and devotion to others, the only life that pleases God. The life that pleases God consists not in what we think we can call our own but only in what we give away. In baptism he and we die to all the things that we think give us our identity—those things are drowned—and what comes back up from under the water, what survives the plunge, is only what pleases God, only the love and service and giving for others that Christ models for us in his perfect divinity and perfect humanity. That is the true identity of Christ. And it is the true identity of all those who follow him. Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Allan B. Warren III at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, January 7, 2018, the Solemnity of the Feast of the Epiphany

The heavens, you know, have always fascinated us and excited our imagination.  I am sure that there is no one here this morning who has not felt the thrill, the moment of exaltation which is inevitable when, on a clear night, the stars dazzle us and the panoply of the heavens is spread out from north to south and east to west.  There is nothing like it, and we never forget it.  Having seen it, we look for it still.  It is, I suppose, a primordial human experience and an impression which is imprinted on our minds.

And it appears that there is, as well, an inherent human reaction to the splendor of the heavens.  And that reaction is the idea – the myth, if you will – that the heavens are the realm and the revealer of truth.  Throughout history and in virtually every culture, truth has been searched for in and through the heavens.  Today we send up rockets and satellites and giant telescopes and robot probes to discover the truth about the heavens and the stars.  And our expectation is:  that the truth which we discover there will reveal a truth we search for here.  The ice in a comet will tell us something about the beginning of the earth, or the substance in a meteor will explain the origins of life.  What’s happening in and around a black hole will let us in on the make up of matter, energy, and time.

In the ancient world it was the same.  The difference between us and them is really only one of method.  They too searched the heavens.  They too searched for truth there.  They too examined minutely the patterns in the sky and the movements of great lights, and their expectation was – like ours – that from a search of the world above would be revealed the truth of the world below.

The truth in the sky.  The truth to be found in the sky.  It is a myth which excited the ancient world and guides us still.  And what people see in the sky tells us something about them.  In an optimistic age the heavens reveal a cheerful truth.  The majesty of creation, “the spacious firmament on high” – to quote a hymn by a happy poet – these mirrored the Majesty of the Creator, and the world, in that happy view, was as good as it should be (or at least as good as it could be).  In times, however, in which a different temperament prevails, the stars are felt to be almost hateful and to reveal a cruel and painful truth. Their timelessness makes the short span of man’s life and his striving seem pointless.  Their unchanging order mocks the disorder of human affairs; the truth-in-the-sky makes men even more aware of the un-truth of life below.  The “eternal note of sadness” – to quote an unhappy poet – the unavoidable tragedy of life was made clear by the contrasting glory of the heavens.  The truth in the sky: it can be a happy truth or a sad truth.  But for some reason men and women again and again look for truth to reveal itself there, in the sky.

*   *   *   *   *

This morning we are commemorating the visit and the homage of the Magi to the Child at Bethlehem.  For the moment, let’s forget that we call them kings.  Scripture doesn’t, and this tradition, as pleasing as it is, is much later than the Gospels.  What we are told there is that these men were “Magi,” and if we do a bit of research, we will discover that Magi were not at all an uncommon thing in the ancient Middle East.  They were, it seems, a caste of priestly scholars who originated in Persia and were known all over.  At their best they were real scholars and often the advisors of rulers.  At their worst they were cheap magicians for hire and charlatans. 

If they were legit, they studied the natural sciences and medicine.  They pondered the wisdom of many cultures, dabbled in magic, and were involved in things which today we would call occult.  And like men in every age, they looked to the heavens for signs of the truth.  They looked for the truth in the sky:  they were astrologers and astronomers, and they searched the heavens for patterns of the present and signs of the future.

The Magi in the Gospel today we call in English “wise men,” and the translation here is, I think, unwittingly astute.  For, it would appear, that more than simply being adept at all manner of learning and study, these men had in fact discovered what all truly wise men knew: that there is no rest in the search for truth in this world.  And that, indeed, all worldly truth, even the truth-in-the-sky, is only a glimpse of truth itself.  And so, being wise in that way – they were on a journey – looking, still searching.

There are many puzzles in the story we just heard.  If they were scholars, why did they look for a king?  And that king, a child?  And why look among the Jews?  A king in conquered Israel could be no great shakes.  What did the “star” tell them?  What was the sign?  What did the truth-in-the-sky reveal which prompted their long journey to Bethlehem?  Had they any idea what they would find?  We don’t know.  The Gospels do not tell us.

But what we do know is this.  At Bethlehem those ancient seekers-after-truth found a truth which went beyond all their learning.  They found a truth at once so simple and so complex that it was the summation of all truth.  This time it was not the truth in the sky.  Nor was it the truth found on the pages of their books or the truths gleaned from their arcane investigations.  No.  This truth was alive.  This truth had a human face.  It was a child.  It was Truth Itself/Himself.  Jesus, living Truth – a truth which looks like Love.  And Scripture tells us:  they fell and worshipped him.

The search for truth.  That’s what the wise men were up to.  The search for truth.  But it’s funny – isn’t it? – in today’s world this sounds almost quaint.  And we don’t hear a great deal about it, do we?  It’s not often discussed in schools or universities.  Except, perhaps, as a dead, stock phrase.  Many philosophers, who should know better (it used to be their job to search for truth), now avoid mentioning what may or may not be true.  Certainly politicians don’t talk about it – they’re afraid to.  No, we don’t hear much about this nowadays, and I suspect that the reason for this is the sad poverty of serious thought in our age.  Modern notions of what makes us tick are embarrassingly trivial and in the end shallow.  Our already sad twenty-first century appears to be content with a world in which nothing is transcendent, all is relative, and truth is what you make it out to be.  (The wise men would have scoffed at this.  It sounds like the cynicism of Pilate.)  And end of this emptiness is disaster.  Morality, philosophy, knowledge all collapse into solipsism or are established arbitrarily, often by the barrel of a gun.  Truth is:  truth for me.  Truth is:  truth for the Party.  In the end it’s all the same.  No need to search.

But the Christian understanding – and thank God for it – is rather different.  The Christian notion of what it is to be human is much more dignified and exalted than that.  What it tells us is that we are made to search for truth.  It’s part of us; it’s the primary task of human life.  Consciously or unconsciously, we cannot not do it.  And we shall never be happy, we shall never be satisfied, never be at rest, never be ourselves – until we know what is true.

That’s a lofty idea.  It sounds like a burden.  It is a burden.  But then, of course, there is Bethlehem.  For, you see – dear Christian people – those wise men found what they were looking for.  It was a surprise, but they found it.  A king, yes.  The Christ, yes.  But a king and the Christ, because He is the Truth.  And the truth was a face and that face was a life.  The Word was made flesh and was born in Bethlehem.  They fell and worshipped him – the end of their journey.  The fulfillment of their search.

And what about us?  Do you search for truth?  Do I?  Do we take this seriously? It is much easier for us, you know, than it was for them.  We need not look for truth in the sky – that, after all, is only a hint.  We can – if we wish – put aside the books and suspend our study – for all is summed up in that one life.  And we need not journey to Bethlehem, for Bethlehem comes to us at the Altar in the church.  Indeed, we need not journey at all.  For now in love Truth comes to us, and gives us Himself (He will today).  And what else can we do?  Except – as did the wise men – fall down and worship Him!

And to that Truth, to Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life –

To the Babe of Bethlehem –the King of the Jews – now made known to the Gentiles –

To Jesus our Lord –

Be ascribed honor, glory, might, dominion and worship, for ever and ever.

Amen.

 

 

Sermon Preached by Eric Fialho on Sunday, December 31, 2017, the First Sunday after Christmas Day

In the name of the One true God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Recently at another Church I work at as Christian Education Director I was leading a lesson on the Incarnation. In the middle of the lesson a young student raised their hand and said, “My grandfather does not believe in heaven.” After he finished another younger student said “My mother does not believe in God”. Silence. What does one say in a moment like that? It’s easy to be sectarian or even patronizing and say something like “Maybe your grandfather or your mother lack the faith you have? Maybe your grandfather or maybe your mother failed to see God in their midst? “

All I said was something like, “hold onto the love for God you have.” To that love of God you have received. I thought some more about the two student’s remarks, and their concern, and about my answer to their declarations. After all, they hadn’t asked questions. They merely said statements.

Our Gospel reading from this morning deals with the age old questions of belief.

Before us this morning were the words of a poet. Before us this morning in our midst and dwelling among us were living words, words which for but a few moments of being heard struck us with an intensity which can only come from God our Father.  In these words lay almost innumerable images which provoke the mind and give a sort of lightness to our at times heavy hearts. These words from John’s Prologue speak of word and flesh, light and dark, bearing witness, human will, and receiving belief.

At all times and in all places these words have been timely and they have been needed by many.  With the thoughts of incarnation preying inwardly on our minds of late in this season, the words of John; “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” strike at us in our own particular ways. Perhaps we greet these words curiously, or perhaps they conjure up enigmas and mysteries, or perhaps they only sit within our heads for a short while, and then quickly flit away replaced with the daily stresses and often consuming thoughts of our daily lives. These words are familiar, famous the world over even.

When reading John’s Prologue again recently I was struck by the word “with” in the English or “pros” in the Greek. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. With God. In the Greek “pros” translates literally as “toward”, toward God. The Word incarnate, Jesus,  was in the direction of God, it was in the midst of God, it was moving. This preposition presupposes movement. It was in the direction of God. It wasn’t stagnant. It wasn’t still. It was with God. It was with the creator, the Father of all who in his creativity is always expanding, always sending, always doing, He has a Son, the incarnate Word who was before all things coexisting in a movement of power and transformation which was sent into the world. Sent. Moving towards, coming into the world.

The drama of the Prologue is only built up to greater heights as it continues. We are told that the very essence of our being of our existences is owed to the Word, things were made through it, life came from it. The style of writing that is throughout John’s Prologue is often referred to as “staircase parallelism”. That is to say the last word of a sentence or clause is repeated and furthered and emphasized in the next sentence. Word and word, life and life, light and light, receive and receive. The writer wanted to make sure certain theological points were made clearly.

In the middle of these eighteen verses there is a timely verse which which concerns belief. And in the verse is the the word “right”, “right to become children of God” right, or authority, or power as it sometimes translates. We are reminded, albeit briefly by John, that when we receive Christ, and believe in him, we are given a right, a privilege, a sort of authority. Not to be children of God, no, but to become children of God as the text declares. To have the right or ability to become.

Authority or the right to become children of God.

Perhaps in many ways this is what lays at the bottom of disbelief, or distrust, or doubt in God at the present time.  One may stray away from or avoid altogether a belief in God. In the true God. They may do it not out of any lack of faith or any absence of a knowledge of the Divine. No, you see I don’t always think that is quite it. No, I think at times, perhaps more often than not one may fear the authority that is given them when they give themselves over to believing. They may fear that right, that privilege that can and only does come from the Father. One fears it out of ones own desire to not be held accountable, to not be left to make a decision. To not fully allow oneself to move towards God. After all, with authority, and right, and privilege comes accountability, and that is a fearful prospect for some.  To be one’s own end is to be void, utterly void of accountability.

When looking through the original Greek texts I was struck by something in particular. Verse five states, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Has not overcome it.

Verses 11 & 12 read,”he came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,” who did receive him.

In an English translation a profound connection between these verses is lost. There seems to be a sort of continued parallelism which is lost in English and found in the Greek. There is actually a relationship in the Greek between the words “overcome” and “receive”.

The light shines, that incarnate word made flesh, Jesus, shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Or seized it, found it, won it, caught it.  No. the darkness remained unable to attain, to overcome the light. The Word.

And verses 11 and 12? He came to his own. Jesus the word with God, came to his own people perhaps? Or the world? They didn’t receive him, they didn’t take him in, they didn’t accept him. The darkness did not overcome it, and the world did not receive it.

But to all who did receive him, to all who took him in, to all who did not just receive him, but as John declares, “believed in his name”, what is their outcome? What is their payment, our payment. What is given to us when we revive him, and believe in his name? We are given the right to become children of God. We are given the right to begin to turn. We are given the right to shed the world and darkness and turn. We are given authority to reject the darkness and embrace the light. The true light. To be given the ability to not be born of the will of man, but of God. To not be our own ends but to embrace and receive and believe in the end that was in the beginning and has no end.

Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Daphne B. Noyes at the Church of the Advent, Christmas Eve 2017 (4:30 pm)

Christmas.

When you hear that word, what’s the first thing you think of?

Is it special Christmas music, or Christmas cookies, or Christmas vacation?

Or maybe it’s presents.

…the presents you hope the grownups in your family might give you. (You’ve been asking and asking, right?)

Or perhaps the present you have made specially for someone, friend or family.

Soon many of you, perhaps all of you, will be opening presents. Opening presents can be an exciting time. It can also be a time of surprises, some good, some not so good.

I remember one present I opened many years ago, when I was a little girl, about 8 years old.

It was about this big, and like all the other presents under my family’s tree, it was wrapped in colorful paper and tied with a bright ribbon.

After untying the ribbon and tearing off the paper, I saw a very fancy box, sort of a deep red color, with fancy gold letters printed on it. They said, “Oxford Bible.”

Oh dear. This was a big box, so surely it held a big bible.

I will tell you, this was not an exciting gift for me. I had not asked for a bible, especially a big bible. Why on earth would my parents ever think I wanted a big fancy Bible for Christmas?

My love was horses. I rode horses, I read about horses, I drew horses, the walls of my room were covered with photos of horses. In fact, I think I liked horses more than just about anything else in the whole wide world.

So here I was with this big red box with fancy gold lettering, which I hadn’t yet opened, trying to arrange my face so my parents wouldn’t see my disappointment at the gift of a bible.

I took a deep breath and thought about trying to look excited and opened the box. Surprise! There was no bible inside. There was a beautiful toy horse. A perfect gift for me.

Thank you, Mum, Thank you, Dad. I treasured that horse for years.

Why do I tell you this story? Because despite all the excitement of Christmas — music, cookies, vacations, presents — there can be surprises, even disappointments.

A long time ago, before Jesus was born, the world was waiting for a perfect present. For many years, God sent present after present: God sent prophets to tell stories about how God was doing great things in people’s lives. God sent poets to write songs about God, sometimes love songs, sometimes not so much. (We call these psalms.) God sent leaders to help people live in freedom and not be afraid that others would make fun of them, or be mean to them, when they prayed.

So the world went on like this for a long, long time, probably more years than you or I can count. With prophets and poets and leaders….but something was missing.

Then one day, God looked at the world and thought, I am going to give the world a surprise. Something no one really expects. God needed human help to make this surprise happen, so God asked a girl named Mary if she would help. She said Yes.

And I think you know what happened next. Mary had a baby, named Jesus, who was the son of God. Jesus was the present God sent to the world, to help people who were sad or hurting or hungry. As he grew up, Jesus showed his friends, we call them disciples, how to take care of people: how to feed them even when there didn’t seem to be enough food. How to help them get better when they were sick. How to be friends with them, when no one else would. How to comfort them when they were sad. How to share things so everybody had enough.

Tonight, Christmas Eve, is the time we remember that wonderful, surprising present from God: a baby named Jesus. I don’t think anyone expected a present from God to come wrapped up in baby clothes. But as the baby grew, they learned that Jesus was the best gift ever. And that gift was not just for them, then, but is for us, now.

Now you may think that baby Jesus is something that’s only for Christmas. But here’s the surprise: Jesus is there for you tonight and will be there for you as you grow. Sometimes you may think Jesus is not there, or is not giving you something special that you really want. But I can promise you this: Jesus will be with you when you are happy or sad, excited or disappointed. Jesus will be with you even when you are not paying attention and your mind is on other things.

No, wait — that’s not right. I said Jesus will be with you. I should have said, Jesus is with you. Because Jesus is God’s love, wrapped up in human flesh. And that is God’s present for each one of us— that is the surprise of Christmas.

When I opened the red box with the fancy gold lettering, there was no Bible. There was a toy horse. And there was something else I didn’t see then, but I can see now: there was love. May the gifts you give and the gifts you receive be filled with love, just as Jesus is filled with God’s love for us. Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Daphne B. Noyes at the Church of the Advent, Sunday, December 17, 2017, the Third Sunday of Advent

This morning I would like to reflect on two key words from today’s Gospel: wilderness and witness.
 
First, wilderness. Certainly “voice crying in the wilderness” is one of the most familiar phrases from this portion of John’s Gospel. We can only imagine how the early readers of, or listeners to, John’s Gospel, understood this word “wilderness.” Certainly it is rich in reference to Israel’s history.
 
Abraham and Sarah banish Hagar and her infant son Ishmael into wilderness. The survival of mother and child is achieved when God miraculously provides life-giving water. The enslaved Israelites Moses and Aaron ask Pharaoh “let my people go” so that they may hold “a feast for [God] in the wilderness”; later, in that vast wilderness, bitter water is made sweet; bread comes from heaven; the glory of Lord appears in a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire; water springs from a rock: miracles happen.
 
Our contemporary understanding or image of wilderness is probably quite different: ranging from the Australian outback to the Sahara Desert to Yosemite to Canada’s Northwest Territories to the Amazon River. Even attempting to navigate the streets of an unfamiliar city can feel like wandering in the wilderness.
 
Yet: I propose there is another kind of wilderness. This is the wilderness we find ourselves in today— a spiritual wilderness. In this wilderness people of all political positions feel themselves under siege; in this wilderness the moral codes of the great Abrahamic religions are misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misused; in this wilderness enmity, suspicion, and self-interest crowd out trust, openness, and altruism.
 
In this wilderness children and teachers are slaughtered in their classrooms and worshippers in their churches. Celebrations at nightclubs and concerts turn into scenes of mass murder and mayhem. Violent death visits movie theaters and social service centers and outdoor markets and the streets of our neighborhoods. In this wilderness men, women, and children seeking to flee oppressive regimes die from hunger, disease, or drowning.
 
In this wilderness, lies become truth and truth becomes lies as personal agendas overwhelm the common good. Hannah Arendt writes, “If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.”
 
Both experience and history have shown that wilderness is not monolithic: it can be a place where resources are tested, where life is agonizing, survival is difficult. Wilderness can be a place of retreat, of respite from mundane things, a place to hear God’s “still small voice.” Even though these two aspects stand in contrast, one thing unites them: wilderness is a place where miracles can happen. Jesus demonstrates this at the very beginning of his ministry, when the Spirit leads him into the wilderness, there to encounter the Tempter. In this case, it’s the miracles that don’t happen — stone is not turned to bread, for example — that offer witness to God’s power over evil and love for humanity. But that’s a story for another day…
 
Now, witness. As John was a witness in the wilderness, so must we be.
 
Witnesses are not always popular — in fact, they are frequently seen as dangerous, subversive to the established order. Look at what happens to John. Consider that the English word martyr comes from the Greek word for witness.
 
Advent is a time for us to identify and uncover, to reveal and release that part of ourselves that bears witness to the light. We are witnesses not for our own benefit but, as John has written, “that all might believe.”
 
Consider: every person initiated into God’s church by baptism with water, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, has pledged to be a witness by answering in the affirmative the first three questions of the rite:
Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Sealed in the mystical ritual of baptism, these vows are not a one-shot deal. They warrant repeating each time we witness (that word) a baptism, or renew our own baptismal vows— say, at the Easter Vigil.
 
The world we live in is interrupted, disrupted, and corrupted by all sorts of wickedness, all kinds of evil. A witness has the ability to recognize and the courage to name obstacles to justice and mercy. A witness can identify roadblocks on the spiritual highway that links the human and the divine, can seek out the means by which these roadblocks can be removed, can be part of the effort to blow them to smithereens.
 
Advent is a time not for us to simply focus on the anticipated joy of Christmas, but to recall and reclaim the reason that God sent his only son: not as reward for our virtues, but as redemption for our vices. “Once he came in blessing / All our ills redressing…..”
 
The theologian Fleming Rutledge reminds us, “When Christ came into the world he entered territory already occupied by hostile forces; these forces will not give up their space without a fight.” She goes on to identify the “essential signs of Christian warfare: It results not only in victory and justice but also in forgiveness and reconciliation.” The actions of countless witnesses in the wilderness — Moses, John, Jesus — serve to guide God’s people toward that place where “those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy”; a place where, as the Israelites did so long ago, we can hold a feast for God in the wilderness. Which is what we do today in the Eucharist.
 
As followers of the Prince of Peace, we must be both witnesses and warriors, alert for signs of God’s presence, seeking God’s light in the wilderness, fighting against the darkness that would obscure that light. Because we know that, just as Moses and the Israelites saw, God’s glory will be revealed in the wilderness, like a rose that blooms in the desert.