Sermon by the Rev. Molly F James, Ph.D. | 22 February 2015

Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15 

May God’s Word be spoken. May God’s Word be heard. May that point us to the Living Word who is Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

MollyJamesA few nights ago my husband, Reade, and I sat on the couch relishing some quiet after our children were in bed. We marveled together at the blessings in our lives – jobs we love, a wonderful house, healthy children and each other. And yet we both know life has not, nor will it always be as easy and joyful as it is right now.

That is a lesson I learned early. I was diagnosed with bone cancer when
I was thirteen. It took almost a year for the full magnitude of what was happening to sink in. Until then I managed to cope pretty well. But just as I was finishing my treatments and things were looking good from a physical standpoint, the emotional and spiritual challenges really began. That was when the fear came. The kind of fear that can be overwhelming and seem to run your life.

It was as though someone had taken the rug out from under me. Up until then I had the blissful ignorance of youth. I had not had to confront my own mortality. Then I did. And I thought if this terrible thing called cancer could happen to me, what was going to protect me from all the other terrible things in the world. What I wanted, what I desperately craved was some sense of control, some sort of guarantee that I was going to be okay. That I was going to have a long and healthy life.

But no one could give me that guarantee, that sense of control, and so it was tempting to give into the fear, to let it run my life.

Now today is the first Sunday in Lent, and our Gospel lesson is about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness by Satan. Now you may be wondering what my story of fear has to do with Lent and temptation. Normally our conversations about temptation and Lent focus on the more superficial sorts of temptations like coffee or chocolate. Yet I think Lent is a good time to think about some of the other temptations we face in our lives. And I would be willing to bet I am not the only one who has ever been tempted by fear.

Now you may be thinking, what can be so tempting about fear and anxiety? Who LIKES being afraid? It is not a delicious indulgence like coffee or chocolate. And yet, I do think fear and anxiety can be tempting. They are tempting because they give us the illusion of control. In the face of a life threatening diagnosis, in the face of the loss of a job or a broken relationship, in the face of our news headlines about the shooting deaths of young people or the most recent horrific act of Islamic State, in the face of all those terrible realities of our broken and sinful world, we feel powerless, and so it is tempting to give in to the fear. It is tempting because being anxious and fearful lets us feel busy. Worrying at least feels like we are DOING something.

Yet worrying merely serves to occupy our minds. It does not ultimately give us anything other than an increase in our blood pressure and stress hormones. Most of the things we are tempted to worry about are the big things – our health, our future, the safety of our loved ones, and the possibility of our own death. While we can have some influence in these matters, ultimately we do not get to decide how long we have in this world. Time is a precious gift. None of us will live forever. That is the reminder we received as our foreheads were marked with ashes on Wednesday. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” You, me, and everyone else on this planet. That is the truth of the human experience.

So, what if we took Lent as an opportunity to live in a new way. What if we gave up fear and anxiety for Lent?

Ha, you may be thinking, well that is a lot easier said than done. It is. I agree. I am the mother of young children, one of whom is about to be mobile. And his older sister will be going to kindergarten this fall. We live in CT. For all of us who have seen the faces of the parents of children who died at Sandy Hook, even sending a child to school is not without
its worries. I don’t think my life as a parent will ever be free from fear and anxiety. And there is truth in that for all of us, parents or not, no matter what age we are. Fear and anxiety are what come with loving deeply. When we care about someone, it scares us to imagine life without that person.

So when I suggest that we give up fear and anxiety, I am not suggesting that it is a simple matter of setting our minds and never looking back. As though we could just decide to stop being fearful or anxious. And yet I do think we have some choice about how much control fear and anxiety have in our lives. I think we can “give up” letting them be dominant forces in our lives. In fact, I think as Christians, we are called to focus on joy
and hope, rather than fear and anxiety. We are called to be messengers of peace, called to be light bearers in the world. Just as Christ did in the wilderness, we are called to resist the temptations of Satan. Those include the temptations of fear and anxiety.

Fear and anxiety can be terribly strong forces in our lives, IF, and only
if, we let them. As we are human beings who love deeply, we will never
be free from fear and anxiety. We can, however, be free from their stranglehold grip in our lives. We can refuse to give in to all the fearful “what ifs?” our imaginations can conjure up. We can choose abundance and life over scarcity and loss. We can trust that the love of God is stronger than death, stronger than anything. We can believe that the hope of Easter is always real, that God is at work, here and now, bringing about new life.

That is our choice. Will we be on the lookout for those stories that feed into our fears and anxiety or will be on the lookout for those things that fill us with hope? Will we give thanks for the innumerable blessings in our lives? For the privilege of being gathered in this place for worship, the privilege of being fed and supported by this community? Will we let ourselves be filled by hope – rejoicing in the creativity and ingenuity of others? If any of us
are need a little extra hope this Lent, may I suggest seeking out the small children in our lives or the Brendons [dogs] of our lives? There is nothing quite like the laughter and smiles of children or the love of a dog to restore the soul, to remind us that even when it seems that we are surrounded by tragedy and loss, there are always signs of hope, symbols of new life, if only we will look for them.

AMEN.

“All Things to All People” Sermon by Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D. | February 8, 2015

1 Corinthians: 9: 16-23; Mark 1: 29-39

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
– 1 Corinthians 9: 20-23

The Rev. Dr. Paul J. Carling

In this land of rugged individuality, one of the worst insults you can make about someone is to say that he is a “phony,” “two faced,” that she is “all things to all people,” someone who, like the proverbial politician, “tells people just what they want to hear.”  People like this remind us of the snake oil salesman, sizing up their mark, and convincing them that whatever they’re selling will cure exactly what ails them.

So what are we to make of Paul’s famous assertion to the Christian community of Corinth: “I have become all things to all people?”  Does he mean to say that he just tells people what they want to hear?  That to an orthodox Jew, he too piously observes the 612 purity laws from Leviticus?  That to the reform Jew, unhappy with the rigid and doctrinaire temple religion, he’s a revolutionary reformer?  While to a Gentile, he thinks most Jewish practice is irrelevant?  Doesn’t he stand for anything?

Well, to understand this, first let’s look at the context – Corinth was a wildly diverse cosmopolitan place, a cultural melting pot for the Ancient Near East.  Here lived observant Jews, reform Jews, Gentiles, slaves and free, male and female, a rainbow people from literally “…every tribe, language, people and nation.”

Most, of course, lived in teeming poverty, while the tiny elite hoarded all the wealth.  So if Paul wanted to win people to Christ, he needed to understand all of these cultures, and to speak each of their languages.  He needed to find a way into each and every very different heart.

Because what he had to share was absolutely foreign and revolutionary and scary for all of them, regardless of their culture – the Good News that none of these divisions matter in the eyes of God; that God loved every single person in this melting pot equally, and that God called them to love each other, not compete for cultural or religious or racial superiority, or for the scraps from rich people’s tables.

That’s why Paul saw a great freedom in becoming “all things to all people.”  As a Christian, he saw every person in a new and different way. “I am free with respect to all,” he said, “I have made myself a slave to all.”    Confronted with the tremendous diversity of the Body of Christ, Paul saw that God had no favorites.  Yes, the Jews were God’s “chosen people,” but so were the Gentiles, so were men and women, so was every one.

Because the fact is that what joins all of us is our common identity as “beloved children of God,” and what joins us as Christians, is that we’re committed to “loving our neighbors as ourselves.”  The more different we perceived someone, the more we were called to love them.  “What is it worth,” Jesus asked, “if you love only those who love you?”

Which is why in today’s gospel, Jesus makes a bee line directly from the synagogue gates to the gates of the city, where the most untouchables lived – the sick, the disabled, those possessed by demons – and doing so was a scandal to the priests whose company he had just left.

And speaking of priests, just after I was ordained over a dozen years ago, I arrived in a parish that had just chosen a wonderful, energetic, wise and very smart Rector, Thomas, 29 years old… and gay.  On my first day, barely hours into my priesthood, Thomas called me into his office and said,” Paul, when I arrived, a dozen families left in protest over my sexual orientation.  Your first assignment is to bring them all back.”  I found myself tearing up, confronted by this extraordinary priest – someone who, knowing he is hated simply for who he is, responds with phenomenal generosity of spirit.  “Paul,” he went on, “we all have need of one another – no matter what we believe about each other.  Go gather my lost sheep.  They’ll listen to you in a way they can’t right now to me.”

It was a slow and painful process, listening to so much I found so painful to hear, so impossible to respond to.  But I sat in each of their homes visit after visit, prayed with them, and tried to find the words that would penetrate each of their hearts.  After a year, eight families had returned, each in their own way, some only when I celebrated the Eucharist, but in the end, fully embracing Thomas when they finally let themselves get to know him.  The next year one other family came back – nine out of town lost sheep.  The tenth moved away… probably because I just kept on visiting them.  This was an experience that shaped my priesthood forever.

I’m thrilled to announce that at Easter Vigil this year, Bishop Laura will be joining us, and we will confirm at least one of our ECY members, and we hope more, and maybe even some folks from nearby parishes.  And at every confirmation, we all join in and repeat our own baptismal promises.  Together we’ll affirm this revolutionary faith, and together we’ll assert that God’s impartiality trumps all of our prejudices.  We’ll promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves; to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being; knowing that none of this is even remotely possible without “God’s help.”

St. Francis once famously said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and only when necessary, use words.”  We don’t bring people to Jesus by giving them some slick sell job, nor by telling people just what they want to hear.  No, we win them to Christ by looking so deeply into their hearts, we see their common humanity, their common share of God’s abundant love.  And we love that bit of the divine within them in a way that afflicts them with the contagious joy Christ plants in our own hearts.

That’s precisely why God calls us to be “all things to all people,” to see beyond the differences of language and culture and race and economic status – and yes, even prejudice – and to love every person we encounter – every person – as equally beloved of God.  This is how we discover the wideness in God’s mercy, by trying our best to first see God’s love in ourselves, so that we may then see, in every person, near and far, the beloved child of God that lives within them.

 

Holy Muck: Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Paul J. Carling | January 11, 2015

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
-Mark 1: 4-11

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus. In my parish church, St. Paul’s, we’re blessed with a virtual explosion of baptisms. Sometimes it feels like we don’t have time to dry off between services! So because we’re Episcopalians, we try to keep things neat and tidy – a few dollops of water on the forehead, a drop or two of oil, both quickly wiped off with a towel. It reminds me of the old commercial – “A little dab will do you.”

The Rev. Dr. Paul J. CarlingBut every once in a while, a baby will take charge and remind us that baptism is intended to be messier than all that, the gift of new life breaking into our lives. And I’m always thrilled when that happens – my glasses get pulled off, the baby tries to dive into the font, or maybe the water just suggests something very basic to the baby and… When things like this happen, they kind of remind me of how messy Jesus’ baptism must have been.

Imagine the scene: Crowds of people gathered in the mud and muck of the river Jordan, elbowing their way toward this wild man with hair matted by locusts and honey, people from every one of the margins of society.

John baptized sinners, and in Jesus’ time, sinners were those who had some misfortune befall them – lepers, people with disabilities, impoverished widows, people “possessed” with demons, people without a home or a meal – the last, the lost and the least, the ones who spent their lives falling down and getting up, and then falling down again.

They came to John to repent of their sins, to be washed clean in the waters of baptism, to be reminded of God’s presence on their journey.

And this was familiar to them. Baptism, and various other purification rituals, were an essential element of praxis for faithful Jews.
So into this motley crowd steps Jesus, one of maybe hundreds baptized that day, patiently waiting his turn. Is it any wonder that John is shocked? In Matthew’s gospel, John blurts out, “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!”

He couldn’t believe that Jesus, who was without sin, who was God, for heaven’s sake, would make himself equal to all those social outcasts, and ask to be baptized. This Jesus, who put himself right in the middle of the messiest situations imaginable, was simply not the Messiah John expected, nor the God – distant and judgmental – that John knew.

So why did Jesus – who was without sin – choose to be baptized?

The evidence of how early Christian communities offered and prepared for baptism suggests that they saw a whole new meaning in baptism, apart from ritual purification. Christian baptism was, in effect, an affirmation of the basic covenant between God and God’s people; not just a periodic demonstration of repenting for our sins, but a once and for all fundamental commitment to continuously conform our lives to God’s will, and not our own. That’s the origin of the bold promises we make at baptism, and that we repeat at every baptism in which we participate.

So just sit back for a moment – or better yet, fasten your seat belts and put on your crash helmets, as author Anne Lamott warns us – and listen to how absolutely outrageous these promises are in the context of our 21st century lives:

  • to renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God;
  • to renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God
  • to renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God;
  • to turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior;
  • to put your whole trust in his grace and love;
  • to promise to follow and obey him as your Lord;

Whew! But wait, there’s more:

  • to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers;
  • to persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, to repent and return to the Lord;
  • to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ;
  • to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • and (finally!) to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of all human beings.

I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear those promises again – the basic commitments to live a Christian life, I feel overwhelmed by inadequacy.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? The only chance we have is to acknowledge that none of these promises can be fulfilled in our lives without God’s grace, God’s confidence, and God’s strength – it’s the only shot we have.

I think there may be a second reason, beyond redefining baptism, that Jesus chose to be baptized by John.

Maybe it’s the same reason Jesus was born in a trough reserved for cattle, as a homeless immigrant; the same reason this king of ours was crowned with thorns instead of gold and precious jewels, and hung on a cross.

Maybe it’s God’s way of saying that there’s no place so messy, no situation so hopeless, that Jesus is not willing to jump right into the middle of it with us, to offer us strength and guidance, to help lead us back to safety, to bring us home.

Maybe it’s because Jesus has never been the kind of savior to cheer us on from the sidelines, to shout directions at us from some safe place of his own. His style has never been to save himself the grief, the pain, the death, by insisting that we come to him wherever he is.

No, whatever our situation, Jesus loves each of us so much that he walks right into the middle of the muck of our lives, so he can lead us to life eternal. He has always led us from our midst, joining us in the water, in the skin, to show us how life is to be lived.

Today’s gospel message is loud and clear; “Fear not,” says Jesus, “there’s nothing too messy in your life for me to get involved in. There’s’ nothing you can say or do or think that can separate you from me and from my love. It’s simple – just open your heart, and let me into the mess. So that together, we can figure out how to live a life of great meaning… and great joy.”