Category Archives: Sermons

Sunday, March 10, 2019

First Sunday in Lent, Year C, 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s, Mountain Home

                I saw something posted on Facebook last month that said, “January was a tough year, but we made it.”  That’s usually how the week leading up to the first Sunday in Lent feels to me.  We have had a flurry of events that remind us of the cycle of the church year.  We started with Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras with a great feast and celebration while raising money for a very good cause.  Then Wednesday we gathered to have our foreheads marked with ash and to be reminded of our humanity, of our inescapable mortality.  We also do this to grieve the state of our broken relationship with God, or maybe we would like to call it, ‘a work in progress’.  We were invited by the Church to the, “observance of a Holy Lent” and our forty day journey began.  On Friday we began marking that special day, which during Lent we commemorate, the day on which Jesus was crucified, with a service of the stations of cross.  We walk with Jesus on the Via Della Rosa to Golgotha and remember the sacrifice made.

                So we are now four days into Lent, and our first Sunday in Lent has come.  Today in our Gospel we move back in the narrative lectionary to right after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River.  Right before the reading today, at the end of the third chapter of Luke, the action that takes place is Jesus coming up out of the water, and God declaring that Jesus is God’s beloved son.  As we bring baptism back to mind, consider the parallels we have in our liturgy, when at baptism and confirmation we are sealed on the forehead with oil, in the shape of a cross to be marked as Christ’s own;  and on Ash Wednesday, when it is time for us to be driven into the wilderness by the Spirit of God for forty days, we are marked again on our foreheads like at baptism in the shape of a cross, this time with the grit of ash instead of the smooth gentle drop of oil.  We are called to a time of self examination, of repentance, of setting the foundation of faith in our hearts and minds.

                These days it seems like the idea of giving things up for Lent has re-entered common culture.  There was a time when it was the standard for everyone, but then again so was being a part of the One Holy Roman Church.  Over the centuries the observance of Lent, especially in this country, became lost to culture, especially American mainline Protestant Evangelicals.  Now you see it more in media, hear about it on the news, and definitely see something about it on Facebook.  Many non-liturgical churches even observe Lent in some way, giving a bit more tradition and lifestyle to their message.  It’s almost, dare I say it, become so ordinary of a conversation topic, that the focus of our Lent becomes the golden calf of the giving something up and less learning how to put our trust in God.

                Now, a quick disclaimer, I am not belittling or setting aside the practice of giving things up for Lent.  I think that in the full and rich history of our faith and tradition it has its place.  I think that when done in the right mindset can be very beneficial.  However, I also think that like many religious traditions the action often loses its meaning and theological significance, and we simply do things because that’s what we do.

                So let me ask a question.  Who stops eating chocolate for good after Lent?  Who continues to struggle with that same Lenten discipline of self-denial for the rest of their lives?  I don’t know very many people, if any, that would fall into that category.  Quite the opposite actually, I’ve talked with people who are exquisitely relishing the moment on Easter morning when they can binge on whatever it is they have given up for Lent.  I wonder then, if the penitential act of self-denial isn’t so much about punishment, but about changing your life.

The Spirit of God didn’t lead Jesus into the wilderness for forty days so he could prove he could give up meat on Fridays.  His time in the desert was one of great transformation; of life changing transformation.  In the three synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus’ ministry doesn’t begin in earnest until he has been baptized, spent his time in the desert and returned, as Luke puts it, “filled with the power of the Spirit.”  In the midst of this desert time, Jesus faced tests: to observe the frailty of his humanity; to be tempted in the essence of his divinity.  And he returned to Galilee changed.

This story shows that temptation hits us when we are weak.  Temptation waits until we are at our most vulnerable before offering us the easy way out.  For Jesus this was for food, for survival, for power.  The deceiver offers Jesus a path to kingship that doesn’t include the cross.  But Jesus knows better.  We are often tempted to these same things.  Tempted to plenty.  Tempted to power.  Certainly tempted to survival.  But Jesus teaches us that our only righteous path is to put our faith in God.  To have faith that the work we have to do is indeed worth it. 

Even after the wilderness, even after Jesus goes on to do miracles, to teach, to be transfigured and gain a following, the deceiver comes back.  Luke tells us that when the deceiver is rebuffed by Jesus in the wilderness, there is a retreat and waiting for the opportune time.  That might be Judas’ betrayal, that might be when Jesus is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The point is our work in Lent, whether we give something up or not, isn’t about proving we can suffer minor inconveniences to remember Jesus’ suffering, it is about taking actions that show we put our trust fully in God and to the work God calls us as followers.

So here’s my challenge to you.  Make this Lent one of life changing transformation.  Make it count.  Be present and intentional in whatever discipline you decide to take on.  Use this time to reset or shore up the foundation of your spiritual life; of your relationship with God, and your relationships with the people around you.  Don’t give something up for Lent because that’s what you do.  In fact, don’t give anything up at all if that isn’t going to help you grow.  Personally, I usually don’t give any one particular thing up for Lent anymore.  My practice is instead to begin reshaping my life, putting my mind back to God.  To use this time to once again refocus.  Let’s be honest, life happens.  We get busy, we get distracted, because we are human we fail at leading that perfect life.  So for me it is a reminder to clear it all away, to start intentionally rebuilding and repairing every part of my spiritual life, hopefully to make a lasting impression on myself.  I don’t expect that I will ever fully arrive at that perfect life; in fact I don’t think that is possible in our human existence.  But, we are given the opportunity to always strive a little more.  To change, to grow, and to continue throughout our life, reshaping what that looks like.

So let me leave you with this.  When you, in forty days, emerge from the desert, will you be forever changed?  Will you have made a difference in your life?  Will you have done what was needed to prepare your heart and mind for that Easter vision, for the Risen and Triumphant Christ?  Will you be ready to set to work in the ministries you are called, filled with the Holy Spirit?  That is my prayer and my hope.  That each of you will find something in this desert time to prepare the way of the Lord.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Last Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s, Mountain Home

                Last November I attended clergy conference at Camp Mitchell.  It ended on a Wednesday morning so I had enough time to drive home and prepare for pub theology.  When I arrived we talked briefly about clergy conference and when asked where it was I said, “I think it’s called Petit Jean”.  Now, I took French in high school and college, and I can speak some small bits still.  So I was relatively certain I was pronouncing this right.  The people I was talking to however had never heard of such a place and we continued trying to figure out where exactly Camp Mitchell is.  Eventually someone said, “Oh!  You mean Petty Jeen!”  It got me thinking about mountain top experiences, points in our lives where we end up somewhere amazing, whether physical or not, have experiences that are transformative, and then we struggle to communicate with others where and how those events take place. 

                Today we end the season after Epiphany the way in which it always comes to a close with a reading of the Transfiguration of Jesus.  This is separate from the actual feast of the Transfiguration which is observed on August 6th.   So why do we have it here?  It is in a way both in order of the narrative but also completely out of order for what we’re doing next.  It is in order because the Transfiguration is literally the last Epiphany of Jesus.  It is the last grand ‘ah ha’ moment for folks.  From this mountain top, Jesus will continue his ministry en route to Jerusalem, for his ultimate torture and death.  That is the narrative road we are walking too.  We are preparing for the end of his ministry and the road to Golgotha.  That is where Lent takes us, and eventually we get to the resurrection.  But for now we have one more bright shining moment before we come down to do ministry.  

                In terms of moments in life of Jesus, this is a spectacular event, something that at the end of the reading we even hear that those who witnessed it wouldn’t talk about it.  And let’s be honest here, that’s now always our experience of the disciples.  But this is so profound, so amazing that they just don’t speak of it.  I can’t blame them either.  This is the sort of story that gives us the term ‘mountain top experience”.  In fact if you consider everything that happens on a mountain top in our scripture and tradition….well….we might start staying at base camp more often.  But there they are, Jesus, John, Peter, and James.  They go up to the top of this mountain, really Jesus goes up there to pray, the disciples go with him, and while Jesus is praying he is transfigured.  His countenance is dazzling, his clothes change, his face shines, and two figures are there with him, talking to him, Moses and Elijah.  As those two figures depart, Peter says something very interesting.  “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  A lot of the time that this passage is preached, we focus on things like Peter being silly and suggesting they build huts, and how wrong he is, or how the important part of a mountain top experience is coming back down.  

Generally, that statement is very true.  A mountain top experience does not hold its importance unless it is unique.  It cannot be your day to day routine or it ceases to be so profound.  Don’t we, at a certain point in life have to realize and begin training ourselves to remember to be amazed at waking up every morning?  Routine removes the miraculous nature of life.  So while it’s true that you have to come down from the mountain top, something has really stood out to me in studying this scripture again.  Partly it’s what Peter says…and partly it’s that in all three of the gospels where this story occurs, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, no one argues with Peter.  No one says “No, Peter, wrong again.”  Peter doesn’t always have a great track record with making suggestions people agree with, especially Jesus.  But this one…this time Peter says, “it is good to be here”, and no one disagrees.

The Transfiguration is one of the five major points in Jesus’ life, along with the baptism, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, and what makes the miracle of the Transfiguration so important is that on the top of this mountain, where Jesus has gone to pray, the temporal and the eternal meet.  It is a holy moment, and like Peter says, it is good to be there.  So what sets this apart from what we normally think of as a mountain top experience is that this isn’t really something that has an end.  Sure, Jesus stops glowing, and the other two figures disappear, but this isn’t something that changes us and then dissipates over time.  In fact I think the Transfiguration sets a different standard.  A standard where this  mountain top experience is an ongoing transfiguration of Christ, of the World, and of ourselves.  And we shouldn’t ever come back down from that.  We come together here on this day as a community, to worship, to pray, and to experience together the temporal and the eternal.  That is why we break bread together, why we remember, why we baptize, why we renew, why we bother getting up on a Sunday morning to come here.  We are seeking the presence of the Transfigured Christ here in this place, and it is good.

Of course we also know that presence doesn’t just reside here, it’s everywhere.  The mountain top is the start of the journey for us as followers of Christ, not the goal.  The presence of the transfigured Christ is our reality in the Kingdom of God and we should be carrying that with us every day, every minute.  Following Christ, the way of the Christian, is a transfigured life, a life where the eternal and the temporal are no longer separate.  Where we live in the values of the Kingdom of God while we still await that kingdom to be fully realized.  Thought it may look to others as though you are staying on the mountain top, the truth is you are simply forever transfigured.  You don’t have to stay physically on the mountain top to keep that experience as the new reality.

What does it mean to you to dwell in the presence of the transfigured Christ?  What does your reality look like when you remind yourself you always are dwelling there, and you are there with every single bit of God’s infinite creation?  Ponder that this week.  Notice the spaces in your life that are full of transfiguration, and notice the places that could use a bit more.  As we begin the final walk to the end of Jesus’ ministry we begin with Transfiguration, but every moment of every day it is our duty to be there on that mountain top, in the midst of Christ’s transfiguration.  Like Peter said, it is good to be here.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C, 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

Have you ever been asked, “What does Heaven look like?” Maybe by an inquisitive child or someone having a conversation about faith?  What was your answer?  Or what would you answer right now?  Usually when we talk about Heaven, we mingle scripture and tradition.  We talk about streets paved with gold, giant gates made of pearl.  We might say St. Peter waits for us at those gates…certainly there are a few jokes that start that way.  Would you say that those one has loved and lost will be there waiting to greet the new arrival?  Perhaps one would describe the innumerable angels or even the throne of God in its magnificence, surrounded by all peoples in adoration.  When I did a search on the internet for, ‘descriptions of Heaven’ many results came up.  Most of them quoted scripture, especially the Book of Revelation, chapter twenty-one, to talk about what Heaven looks like. 

From the Common English Bible, “the city…was fifteen hundred miles. Its length and width and height were equal. The angel also measured the thickness of its wall. It was two hundred sixteen feet thick. The wall was built of jasper, and the city was pure gold, like pure glass. The city wall’s foundations were decorated with every kind of jewel. The first foundation was jasper, the second was sapphire, the third was agate, and the fourth was emerald. The fifth was onyx, the sixth was ruby, the seventh was peridot, and the eighth was beryl. The ninth was topaz, the tenth was turquoise, the eleventh was jacinth, and the twelfth was amethyst. The twelve gates were twelve pearls; each one of the gates was made from a single pearl. And the city’s main street was pure gold, as transparent as glass.”

But what if the best descriptions of Heaven have nothing to do with what the visual experience is?  What if the best descriptions of Heaven, the Kingdom of God, what we might even call (in theological terms) ‘the eschaton’ have more to do with how it feels to exist in such a place?  The Book of Revelation touches briefly on descriptions that talk about no hunger, no thirst, always bright, no death, no mourning, God dwells amongst the people.  But how often have you been asked, “What does Heaven look like” and you’ve gone to the words of Jesus, about the Kingdom of God.  Would you think to recite one of many parables that Jesus spoke, which begin with the words, “The Kingdom of God is like…”?  It gets confusing, I realize that, when we hear Jesus say something about the Kingdom of God, and then to say that the Kingdom of God is at hand, but then also to talk about that eschaton, or the end of all things which brings us to the fullness of that Kingdom, or as we call it, Heaven. 

Through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, that Kingdom of God begins to break into our world.  Jesus teaches continually about how to live that ideal existence, about the values of the Kingdom of God, and today’s Gospel lesson is no exception.  That’s why what Jesus says today about turning the other cheek, about giving without expectation of receiving, about doing to others as you would have then do to you seems both wonderful and completely unattainable.  Jesus never says, “The Kingdom of God is easy and super simple to experience.”  We know that living in the world means if you turn the other cheek you may be inviting more violence.  Giving more to those who have stolen from you might encourage more of the same behavior.  Jesus isn’t speaking hyperbolically when we he says those that are willing to lose their life for his sake will save it. 

In the Revised Common Lectionary for Eucharistic readings, this passage from Luke only shows up once: for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany in Year C.  What you may not be totally aware of is that the season after Epiphany does not have a fixed number of days.  Its length is determined by when the Feast of the Epiphany falls and when Lent begins.  So there can be up to eight Sundays after Epiphany possible before the last Sunday after the Epiphany.  The last time the calendar fell in such a way that this passage from Luke was used as the Gospel was Sunday, February 18th, 2001.  It’s been eighteen years since we have heard this passage at a Sunday service.  I’m pointing out the rarity of this passage because of how important Jesus’ words are.  This passage is important because it’s incredibly difficult and yet exemplifies what it means to really live as a Christian.  Jesus Christ makes clear to us that there is nothing Christian about fighting back, there is nothing Christian about defending yourself with violence.  There is nothing Christian about walking past a homeless person and pretending they don’t exist so we don’t have to feel bad about ourselves. 

Now, I know we are all going to fail at this teaching again and again.  These are values of the Kingdom of God, and that is a huge height to aspire to.  As I often tell people, I am a pacifist, and I believe without a shadow of a doubt that is what Jesus Christ teaches.  I will hold fast that pacifism is the only way to respond to violence as a Christian, even if that means losing your own life.  That is a value I hold.  But what I will also tell people is that the strong conviction I hold for that Christian ideal has never once been put to the test.  So, in all honesty, I know that while I have no doubt that is how Christ wants us to live, if someone actively threatened my life, I can’t tell you how I would actually react.  I would like to tell you how I believe I should react if I am a follower of Christ, but I also know I’m not perfect.  God knows that too.  Jesus knows that, and certainly if he ever forgot this, his disciples were there to remind him of the fallibility of humanity.

So what do we do with teachings that seem unreachable?  What do we do when Jesus tells us how to live and his way seems absolutely unrealistic and out of touch with the world we live in?  On April 16th, 1963, The Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Junior wrote the ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ where he was placed after being arrested for non-violent demonstrations against segregation.  In that letter he wrote,

“…I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” […] So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”

This is the work of a Christian.  Jesus Christ gives us the clearest views of Heaven and how we live into the values that exist there.  Jesus calls us to be willing to stand against the cultures of the world and proclaim these values by word and deed.  So, when someone asks you, “what does Heaven look like?”  Tell them, “Heaven is a place where everyone lives in Love; just as Jesus himself calls us to do now.”  This life of a Christian is not an easy one, but if we believe, then we know it is one to which we are called.  Jesus’ words are clear.  Now it is our turn to take up our cross and follow.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C, 2019

Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

In today’s Gospel, we hear the beginning of the sermon on the plain, which is a well-known passage often taken to be a list of the people that Jesus is saying are favored by God and those who’s lives have damned them.  Make no mistake, this passage certainly is, as David Ostendorf calls it, “the raw, unvarnished, faith-rattling declaration of the realm of God.”  It is not however a list of who is in and who is out or a blanket statement intended to be applied in the way we often think.

The first important thing to note which is commonly overlooked is that Jesus is not pronouncing this list of blessings and woes to the people gathered to hear him preach or declaring this to be the way of universe.  In fact, before he begins to speak, scripture says he looks up at the disciples.  Jesus is address this to the disciples, to people who have chosen to follow Jesus.  This statement is one of warning and of calling to those who would follow, whether they are disciples, the church throughout history, or to us gathered here today.  It is a call to a life in the kingdom of God that is unlike anything society at the time of Jesus and still society today declares good.

This passage contains four blessings and four woes that directly correspond to each blessing.  As we can see, it starts out with, “blessed are you who are poor” and then the woe which follows is, “But woe to you who are rich.”.  Knowing that Jesus is addressing this to his followers, which we often these days simply call, ‘the church’ begins to offer a different view of how this is to be taken.  This is a guide to how the Kingdom of God, heralded by the incarnation of Jesus, a Kingdom we constantly strive to live into, and seek glimpses of through the mysteries of the Eucharist.  This Kingdom turns the values of life on its head, and asks us to suppress the most animalistic, base desires and passions for a higher existence.

Something else I want you to catch is that the words that are chosen in the Greek for, “woe to you” show clearly that this is not a damnation, but a warning and signpost for the Kingdom.  This, “woe” does not carry a meaning that infers if you are rich, you are going to Hell or that it is a grievous sin.  What it does mean is a warning.  You could read this as ‘be careful’ or ‘watch yourself’ or in more modern parlance, I like to imagine Jesus telling his disciples, “they better check themselves before they wreck themselves.” 

To hear the ‘woe’ section another way, The Message bible rewrites it as, “But it’s trouble ahead if you think have it made.  What you have is all you’ll ever get.   And it’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself. Your self will not satisfy you for long. And it’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games. There’s suffering to be met, and you’re going to meet it. There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them. Popularity contests are not truth contests – look how many scoundrel preachers were approved by your ancestors! Your task is to be true, not popular.“ 

Jesus is warning his followers against complacency and against putting all their care into the kingdoms of humanity.  It is easier to worry less about others when you have yours.  It is also easier to justify not giving to those in need when you are fighting to have your own.  Jesus calls those without ‘blessed’ because they are not wrapped up in the world, not focused on what the Empire teaches as blessing.  This passage is not to look at those who are suffering in homeless camps and simply reassure them that they are blessed so they should be joyful in their suffering.  This passage is clear that those who take up their cross have a different way to live turning from the values of empire and turning to the values of the Kingdom of God.

Last Friday evening, at the Eucharist which opened the Diocesan Convention, Bishop Benfield preached about greed.  Later we would hear more about the story of Adam and Eve and how we can absolutely see that their sin is in many ways greed.  They want more knowledge, more power, more ability.  I see the hallmarks of that in this Gospel lesson today too.  Greed manifests in a lot of different ways, not just for money or possessions, and letting that drive our existence is absolutely in opposition to the Kingdom of God.  Bishop Benfield referred to purveyors of the prosperity Gospel, such as Joel Osteen, and how the understanding that God will bless you more and more as you give more and more, and that financial success is a sign of God’s blessing are clearly not in line with the teachings of Jesus. 

This passage today from Luke absolutely underscores that.  God does not shower us with fat bank accounts.  God blesses us with those who need our help, when we have more than we need.  God blesses us with reminders that if all we focus on is our own success, we are in danger of walking down a path that heads away from the values of the Kingdom of God.  This passage is not about salvation.  Nowhere is it said that one is ‘damned for eternity’.  Salvation is separate from this, and as we know already offered through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.

The sermon on the plain illustrates ways in which those of us who follow Jesus are to live.  It warns us against the dangers of complacency, against the sin of greed, against putting all our trust and all our care into the values of the empire.  We are called to a different world.  We are called to a Kingdom where the values reflect love for all, care for all of creation.  That is our work as followers of Christ.  Perhaps we should reread this passage as saying, “Jesus looked up at the congregation of St. Andrews and said…”  This is as much for us here and now as it was for the disciples then.  It shows us that though the Kingdom of God is eternal, seeking out its values still remain a difficult task.

Find places in your life that you think fit the blessings here, and that fit the woes.  I promise you we all have them.  When you have found them, decide what that means and what you’re going to do about it.  Lent will be with us soon, and that’s always a good time to try on a change in life.  Seek out a path that leads to blessing and not to the warnings that Christ offers us.  There is a way to live as his followers, so let us be reminded of that today as we daily continue to take up our cross.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C, 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

I remember around November or December of 2017, nearing the middle of my last year of seminary, I began having discussions with different people about finding that elusive first call.  One of those people was Father Andrew Hybl, the Dean of Students at Church Divinity School of the Pacific.  Father Andrew is also originally from Arkansas, and previously served as the priest at St. Peter’s in Conway.  Well Father Andrew and I were talking about some of the many possibilities starting to open up across the church, and he asked me, “have you consider the Diocese of Arkansas?”  I’m not sure if the sound I made was more laughing or more simply scoffing, but was certainly to communicate how ridiculous I thought that idea was.  Arkansas?  All the way over on the other side of the country?  I don’t think that sounds like the sort of place I’m going to go.  No, that would be completely out of the question to take a job in Arkansas of all places.  He pressed, “you really should consider it, it’s a great diocese and the bishop is amazing.”  I thanked him for his counsel and reassured him that was one of the last places on Earth I would end up.

You see, I seem to have a bit of a talent for daring God to make the next move.  My three successive positions I held at Symantec were like that.  I would be talking with the person doing that job and would exclaim, “I would never want your job!”  Six months to a year later I would be doing it.  Of course, this doesn’t quite work like a spell.  I’ve tried that.  For example, I would hate to be independently wealthy.  Oddly that statement has not produced any results.

The point is that God calls us to places, to work, to ministries that we don’t always expect, don’t always understand, and sometimes don’t know that we will want.  There are countless examples of this throughout scripture.  One could argue that it is one of the clearest hallmarks that God is involved.  Someone reluctant is told to go do something.  Moses.  Jonah.  Abraham.  Peter.  Paul.  So many times God speaks, and for the stories we read today God speaks clearer and louder than most people ever get the opportunity to hear, and yet still those that God has called try to refuse.  They try to bargain or find their way out.  It’s not that God has taken their free will, they ultimately choose to follow one way or another.  It is something that they will feel compelled to do. 

Some like Jonah go kicking and screaming.  So do we.  We hear God’s call and sometimes it’s too difficult.  Or maybe it’s too scary.  Or maybe it’s too unbelievable.  Sarah had that experience.  She laughed when she heard God tell Abraham she was going to have a child.  When God speaks, we might be tempted to laugh.  I think we all have stories about that in our lives.  But we also have stories of times when that call from God was as clear as Jesus telling Peter where to cast the nets. 

Peter doesn’t argue with Jesus when the command is given.  Peter says, “If you say so, I will do it.”  Jesus is not a stranger entirely to Peter and the others, though this seems to be their first meeting.  But certainly it would be hard to believe that Peter and the others involved in our Gospel lesson today haven’t already heard of Jesus.  They had to have known of some of the things Jesus had done, some of the miracles, some of the teaching; certainly this spectacle of Jesus needing to go out on a boat to address the crowd would tell them something.  Peter has faith in Jesus and in following what he is told to do.  It makes me think that we today, with the benefit of all this scripture and thousands of years of Jesus still find it hard to follow as readily as Peter did.

Let’s also be clear about something else:  Even when those that have been called follow God, they don’t automatically become perfect.  Peter is of course our best example of that.  How many times does Jesus have to correct Peter in our Gospels, leading of course to that most famous line, where Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan.”  The book of Jonah ends with Jonah sulking under a shrub and cursing the shrub that God has put there to give him shade.  Moses never gets to enter the Promised Land.  In the reading this morning Isaiah clearly does not see himself as worthy or clean enough to take on the call of God.  He exclaims that he is unclean even though he has gazed upon God.  Peter falls to his knees exclaiming that Jesus should go away from him because he is a sinful man.

That highlights the other element that is so incredibly important to passages such as these today.  While God calls us all through either obvious or mysterious encounters, one response we might always have on hand is not thinking we are worthy enough to take up the work.  In these stories, it isn’t that they just think poorly of themselves or are being demure.  I think it’s fair to believe Peter and Isaiah when they point out their unworthiness, and to accept they truly believe it.  But what God offers, has already offered long before any call is issued, is forgiveness.

Isaiah is ritually cleansed when the angel touches the hot coal to his lips.  It’s fair to say this act is symbolic and certainly not a practice we will begin participating in anytime soon.  But the forgiveness, the blotting out of sin, the acceptance of humanity in its broken and healing nature is as intrinsic to the nature and narrative of God and the ministry of Jesus Christ as calling people to their work.

God calls us all to something.  For some of us it is to be clergy, some to teach, some to lead in a multitude of ways.  Some to sing, some to sweep, some to pray.  That call that God offers will always be waiting.  It’s not something that ever quite goes away or seems completed.  It is lifelong work.  What is equally important for us to recall is the forgiveness that goes along with it.  If there is ever a time when you are contemplating what you know God has called you to, and telling yourself that maybe you just aren’t good enough or holy enough or worthy enough to follow, remember that forgiveness from God is eternal and unwavering.  God’s forgiveness holds us lovingly and when we can embrace it, takes away those obstacles we put in front of our call.  Listen for where and to what God calls you.  Know that you are loved, you are worthy, and you are forgiven.  Nothing stands between you and the tasks to which you are called.  Take up your nets and cast them where God has told you to.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, 2019

Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

The Gospel lesson today is the continuation of the story for last week, where Jesus takes a scroll of the writings of the Prophet Isaiah and reads them in the synagogue of his home town.  As we continue on in this story we hear a very commonly quoted phrase, “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town” and Jesus preaches a bit more.  Then of course, as we have come to expect, the people who have been there to hear his preaching try to throw him off a cliff.  Just so we’re clear, that is not an acceptable way to lodge complaints about anyone’s preaching.

I have to admit that this is a passage that I have not paid as close attention to in the past as I should have.  I have always assumed that the reading of the scroll, the proclamation that the prophecy is fulfilled is what angers people.  The way this story is written in other Gospels it also seems that Jesus’ familiarity with the people is to blame for his inability to perform miracles.  But taking another look at this, I’m not actually so sure that familiarity is the problem when it comes to a prophet in their own town.  In fact I think there is something far more simple to explain what happens and clearly in Luke’s telling it is Jesus’ preaching and interpreting after the scripture reading that has fully angered the people.

Every preacher seems safe to stick to reciting scripture, but people don’t always like being reminded of what scripture actually says in full.  That’s where things go awry here.  I can imagine the scene at the Synagogue in Nazareth.  Jesus, the local home town boy, ‘the son of Joseph’ as some have exclaimed, shows up in synagogue to read and teach.  The folks in his home town have been hearing about Jesus!  They have heard about the miracles he is performing, the work he is doing in the exercise of his ministry.  They have pride in that the child they’ve watched grow up, the kid they probably had to put up with from time to time.  In fact I don’t think it’s a far stretch to imagine they have some sense of ownership.  This is THEIR Jesus.  Surely he will bring his best miracles for them then.  Surely they get some honor for having been the proverbial village to raise a child.

But that is not the case.  Jesus either sees what they are expecting or might have already been asked by folks to perform miracles.  Instead he refers to two stories of Elija and Elisha when God specifically shows that God’s grace and miracles are not just for a select few.  Jesus uses this illustration to press the point that just because he is from that town does not mean these people should feel special or get any accolades.  In fact these examples are extremely far to the other end of the spectrum.  These stories from Jesus illustrate times when the ‘chosen people’ of Israel were suffering, and the prophets bring miracles to non-Jews.  Jesus makes clear that the foreigner, the stranger is just as worthy of being blessed, and though I am extrapolating a bit here I think it also shows that those closest to God are tasked more with the work of the Kingdom than the benefits.  Jesus certainly makes clear that his message is not just for the chosen, but for all.  Jesus is clear that what is being offered is offered to those farthest from who we think it should be offered, those outside of our circles.

The continuation of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we hear, probably one of the most well known passages from it’s use at weddings, underscores our work as Christians to the world.  This passage is still about the divided and broken community in Corinth.  This is still addressing the wrongs and problems that are occurring in a Christian community.  And yet, I think it is accurately paired with the Gospel lesson today to contrast with the lack of love that the people of Nazareth have for Jesus when we tells them they will not benefit from him as others have.  Our work in the Kingdom of God is above all else to Love.  That is the message brought by Jesus and the one that Paul is seeking to deepen in the hearts of the early church that still bear weight today. 

At a time such as this, while we are consumed with political power, with walls to keep out the stranger, with high ground and winning, perhaps Paul might say you can have all that, but without Love you have nothing.  You can fight, you can hoard wealth, you can refuse to share your fruits with a hurting world, but if you lack Love, than there is an emptiness in you greater than any other object or feeling can fill.  Our work as followers of Jesus Christ is to teach the Love that is inherent to the Kingdom of God.  Everything else comes after that.  Orthopraxy, orthodoxy, how to vest, what creed to recite, what direction you cross yourself.  If you don’t have Love, then all of it is for naught. 

I have often said that the easiest and most difficult thing God has ever commanded of us is to love one another.  It is simultaneously so simple and yet not fully attainable.  It is our work to strive for that in the realization of the Kingdom.  We are called to Love.  Everything else comes after that.  Give freely and generously of your Love, and the ministry of Jesus Christ will follow.  As the dismissal calls to us at the end of the service.  Go in peace to Love.  And to serve the Lord.

Sunday, January 27, 2019 – Third Sunday after Epiphany

Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

Since my arrival here, I think I have preached almost exclusively on the Gospel reading on Sundays.  This pattern works well because of the ongoing narrative that plays out through the lectionary, whether sometimes disjointed or not.  Every once in a while we are offered a two week telling of a story, and this week is one of those times.  Next Sunday we will hear the conclusion of the story of Jesus reading and teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth.  This affords me an opportunity to turn my attention elsewhere today without losing the narrative, and especially as it falls on the same Sunday as our Annual Meeting, how can I pass up an opportunity to talk about Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth?

Paul writes to a church that is fractured.  There are competing members of the church and the relations in that community are very broken.  Paul wants to make a case for unity and connectedness which the church is struggling to maintain.  What better way to talk about the unity of the Body of Christ than in terms the listeners would already know?  Paul sets about describing the body of Christ in terms of body parts.  Ears and eyes, feet and hands.  This idea of imagining society as a body, an straightforward example, exists throughout classical literature, so the church Paul is writing to has heard this sort of language before.  The difference is that Paul’s writing takes this common trope and turns it on it’s head.  Pun very much intended. 

The image of society as a body was often used to showcase how some members of society were more important than others.  Surely a brain has more importance than a pinky toe.  Except….have you ever stubbed your toe?  There are certainly times when that little toe is far more important.  Of course all of this is set in a very different time, with different science, and a different understanding of medical function, so we know now that truly every part of the body serves some function, and if one part is harmed, other parts may be too.  Paul’s description pushes in a different direction.  Paul wants the church to understand that every member is equally important to the survival of the church and the community.  I really like the phrase, “if the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” 

The idea that the lowest members and the highest members have their existence tied together in the function of the body of Christ is what Paul is driving at.  We know that there were times when poorer members were kept from entering the room where the mass was being celebrated, because there wasn’t enough room for them, or perhaps they were not invited to the larger feast of the community.  Paul addresses these sorts of practices a few times throughout his letters and his aim is to reflect the same values of the Kingdom of God that Jesus did.  Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew that the first will be last and the last will be first.  The hierarchy of the Kingdom of God is proclaimed as something upside down from how most of society functions, both at the time and still today.

Finally Paul moves into showing that this subversion of hierarchy isn’t just for the members, but extends as well to the hierarchy of the community.  He lists rolls like apostle and preacher, and gifts like speaking in tongues or healing.  These are all members of the body of Christ and they all flourish together, not singularly.  Just before this passage we read today, in First Corinthians, Paul has that similarly well known writing about their being many gifts but one Spirit.  This is in many ways a continued explanation of that.  Teaching that every member of the body is equally important, just as every gift the Spirit is important, because we are all bound and buoyed up by the same Spirit that Christ has sent into the world to assist us in carrying out the work of the Kingdom of God and Christ’s ministry.  As one body functions only together, so too will we only thrive if we strive to work together.

How, you might ask, does this apply to us here at St. Andrew’s?  Well, without sounding too congratulatory, I think it’s important to acknowledge we don’t struggle with the same issues in the same way that the church in Corinth did.  We are not fractured, we are not divided entirely, and though we all have our differences we gather ourselves as one parish to proclaim with a loud voice in this community the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But, it is important to be reminded that no one person can shoulder all the work of this parish, nor does this parish thrive without all its members taking a part.  Imagine if the Altar Guild was to simply stop coming, or the secretary to disappear.  The building committee, the worship committee, the choir, the folks that are greeters out in the narthex, or those that sign up for coffee hour, or those that volunteer for our pantry.  These are just some of the many facets of life and ministry here at St. Andrew’s and without one of them the rest of the body hurts. 

In the grand scheme of things I tend to think I’m more an elbow.  I bend and move, and try to support others in their work.  I have a function here just like everyone else, and I don’t deserve any more praise at a successful working of ministry than anyone else here receives.  We thrive or we perish together as one body. 

As I turn my thoughts to our Annual Meeting and all the reports that have been written around the various ministries I think about our body of Christ here at St. Andrew’s.  I think about all the work that has been done and all the work that we have before us.  Much of that work is by choice.  We can as a community decide to continue working to our mission or not.  We can enliven ourselves and as we come into a new age of this parish, begin discerning anew our gifts, our call, and our lives together.  I want you to take time to think about where God is calling you.  Pray about what gifts or interests you feel called to explore. 

Truly this body has so many parts, so many members and each one of us has something important to offer.  Maybe you have a love for cleaning and pressing linens.  Don’t laugh, I actually loved doing that when I was a sacristan in seminary.  Maybe you love to read.  Maybe you feel called to healing ministries.  Maybe the Spirit has awakened in you a passion for some other ministry that is yet to be started.  Maybe you are called to just show up from time to time and share in the sacraments.  Wherever it is that the Spirit of God is calling you, let us enter into that discernment together.  We should all be praying about and exploring together the different gifts and parts of this body and how that work contributes to the wholeness of the community. 

 As the one Body of Christ, it is our call to do all this together.  Some days we will do it better than others, but we are always called to prayer and discernment about where God is inviting us.  We all gather around this table, to share in the sacrament of bread and wine, the body and blood, as one body, so let us always strive together to live into that vision that Paul gives us, and the command that Christ gives us, to be one in the Spirit. 

Sunday, January 20, 2019 – Second Sunday after Epiphany

Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

Even before we got engaged last November Annie and I had started planning our wedding.  We were discussing venues, dreaming of what clergy we wanted to preside, even starting to pick out hymns.  Yes, this is what happens when church nerds plan a wedding mass.  As we contemplate the reception, there’s one thing I know I can count on.  There’s a tradition in her family, as Annie and her father enjoy making wine as a hobby, that for all the children’s weddings, there is a special wedding wine that is made and bottled.  Now of course this needs to be preplanned because wine has to sit in the bottle awhile and condition.  Then of course it’ll need to be brought to the wedding location from Oregon, and hopefully enough has been made for the Midwestern Lutheran sized wedding set in an Episcopal sized church.  It seems like perhaps what we should do instead is just invite Jesus and friends.

Now last week we observed the Baptism of Jesus, which alongside the visitation of the Magi, and the first miracle at the Wedding of Cana are how we mark our understanding of literally the epiphany that Jesus Christ is God incarnate.  These events herald the incarnation of God into the world, and are part of the early understanding of Jesus’ legitimacy as the Christ.  The interesting thing is that in the synoptic Gospels, immediately following Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit of God drives him into the desert for 40 days.  Obviously, since we aren’t starting Lent for another 45 days, we need to talk about something else first.  So we get the wedding feast at Cana.  This is the first public miracle of Jesus’ ministry and there is a lot said by such an almost nonchalant telling of the event.  This event is only recounted in the Gospel of John, and is one of the very few times that Jesus’ mother is mentioned in that gospel.

There we are at a wedding feast in Cana.  A small town by any account, and it’s hard to imagine the wedding feast consisting of more than one or two hundred people at the very most.   In the midst of the feasting and celebrations the wine runs out.  Mary brings this to Jesus’ attention and his response is really curious.  He says, “What does this have to do with me?  My time hasn’t come yet.”  Now this of course is very good foreshadowing to the institution narrative, to Jesus saying drink of the wine for it is his blood of the new covenant.  But, this is also important about how the author of John writes and where the focus is at.  I don’t know about you, but if I ever, even today, responded to my mother by first calling her ‘woman’…I’m going to guess that isn’t going to go well for me.  But that phrasing connects directly with the moment during the Passion when Jesus tells his mother to regard the Apostle John as her son.

Now, at the wedding feast, Mary doesn’t argue with Jesus, they don’t discuss it, she simply instructs the servants to do as Jesus says.  She leaves the decision on what he’s going to do in his hands.  Jesus tells them to take the stone jars full of the water for the rite of purification and start serving from those.  I think there is some importance in recognizing that Jesus doesn’t wave his hands over the barrels.  He doesn’t swirl his finger in them seven times, he doesn’t do anything to indicate this is a magic trick or to draw attention to himself.  He simply tells the servants to pour from the barrels.  When they do, what is handed out is exclaimed as the best wine by the steward. 

There are a few things I want you to notice.  The first is that when this happens, the servants don’t go to the steward or even the host and say, “by the way, that amazing wine was actually changed from water by the guy sitting over there.”  There’s no grand public demonstration, no big revelation, no one is thanking Jesus for this, it’s really a moment for him to show his disciples that the one they are following is more than just your average rabbi.  The second thing I’d like to point out is based on a little math I did.  Our translation of John says these six stone jars each held 20 to 30 gallons of water.  So they fill them all to the brim, so let’s say they’re each 30 gallons…which means we’re talking about 180 gallons of wine.  Just to be clear, in our modern standard system of 750mL per bottle that comes out to 908 bottles of wine, or seventy five and a half cases.  Like I said, invite Jesus and his buddies to your next wedding.  This isn’t a wedding in Jerusalem, or Rome, this is Cana.  That is a lot of wine for a wedding in Cana.  That, coupled with this being the best wine the steward has tasted together speaks to a very important change in the world.

John the Baptist has been in the wilderness eating locusts and honey, wearing hair shirts and proclaiming that the time of repentance is at hand.  The messiah, the God incarnate shows up and overflows the wedding feast with more of the best wine than the party can reasonably consume.  This is the change.  Jesus Christ, the one foretold has come and now the Kingdom of God is at hand.  That Kingdom is one of abundance, of grace, of joy, and of celebration.  Isn’t that what the Psalmist says, “They feast upon the abundance of your house; you give them drink from the river of your delights.” 

One of the most helpful lessons for me that I often reflect on in this story is how Mary interacts with Jesus around what the problem is.  She doesn’t demand that he fix it, she just lets him know what’s going on.  She tells the servants to do whatever he says.  She trusts in Christ’s judgment and work in the moment when she has informed him of the situation.  She has faith that Jesus will do what is best, and she basically is asking the servants to do the same.  So I think for us, our takeaway is twofold.  The first thing is that we need to have faith in God’s movement.  We don’t always like or understand how things work, but that shouldn’t stop us from bringing our cares to God and laying them at Christ’s feet.  God knows what we need even before we ask, but in the asking we ourselves might be opened to seeing better the hand of God at work.  The second lesson is to trust in God’s abundance.  God’s love and grace are overflowing to us, and this almost facetious act of water into wine is a reminder that the Kingdom of God is abundance.  When we live with a fear of scarcity, we tend to hold on to the things we don’t need.  We keep that extra coat in the closet while others are freezing.  Living with faith in God’s abundance is a radical act of living into the values of the Kingdom, and a way in which we can work towards that existence.

Sometimes we have to hold faith that Jesus might just show up and bring ridiculous amounts of wine with him.  We don’t get to know if the host of the wedding feast was stressed about running out of wine, hadn’t been able to bring enough, or had more people show up than expected.  We don’t even get a reaction from the host after the steward compliments the better wine that has all of a sudden appeared.  What we do see is the first sign, a declaration by God incarnate that the Kingdom is at hand and the abundance that is promised is very real.  Let us all recall the generosity and abundance of Christ’s miracle at the wedding feast as we go out from this place today, back into a world sorely aching for that reminder of the Kingdom of God.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

First Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, 2019
(Baptism of our Lord)
Kevin Gore, St Andrew’s, Mountain Home

The more I preach, the more I often feel like an apologist for the Revised Common Lectionary.  Today as we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, as is always the case on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, we have moved our narrative from last week’s Jesus being somewhere under the age of two, to adulthood and about to start his ministry.  Added to this fast forward is the way in which the lectionary pieces together a life story of Jesus that isn’t always congruent.  In fact our baptism narrative today is from Luke, which is where we will spend most of our time in this liturgical year.  But Luke’s nativity does not include magi or the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents.  It does not include the holy family’s flight to Egypt either, all of which is found in Matthew.  Instead, Luke’s story includes a narrative of Jesus growing up in Galilee.  The circumcision and dedication of Jesus, the stories of Anna and Simeon in the Temple, and Mary and Joseph losing Jesus in the temple when he is twelve years old, because he wandered off to teach.  Luke is creating a narrative of a very traditionally raised Jesus, one who has undergone all the proper ceremonies and rites for a Jewish child of the time.  So we have skipped over all of that, we have already talked about John the Baptist as portrayed in Luke back in Advent, and now we are at the end of John the Baptist’s ministry with the baptism of Jesus. 

If you notice on your handouts there are three verses missing from the Gospel reading today.  We stop at verse seventeen and pick up again at verse twenty one.  What we miss out on are these three verses: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.”  I understand why the writers of the lectionary left it out.  It might appear distracting or maybe even confusing from what seems to be the main event, the baptism of Jesus.  However, I think that the consequences of leading a life following God, of proclaiming the good news, are certainly exemplified by what happens to John the Baptist.  He decries the evils and sins of the insane ruler and because he speaks truth, he is punished for it.  We also know that John is not the last person this will happen to.  Jesus, of course, will be crucified for his declarations of the Kingdom of God, and his followers will suffer a multitude of gruesome ends as well.  These events are reminders to us that what we undertake, as followers of Christ, as those whose work is to live with one foot in the Kingdom of God, is not always going to be an easy task.  It is not always going to be popular or welcome, but to proclaim the Kingdom in the face of danger or persecution is all part of the mantle we accept. 

I have been to one of the two pilgrimage spots on the Jordan River where it is believed Jesus was baptized.  Qasr el Yahud is in the West Bank, Palestinian land by right, but occupied by Israeli military forces.  It is a surreal experience.  After leaving Israel proper, traveling through giant concrete walls with armed guards, knowing we are only getting through because we are a tour bus full of Americans, you drive through the countryside to finally reach the turn off.  By now we have gone into the wilderness and it is fairly flat, rocky terrain.  The spot is four or five miles directly north of the Dead Sea, east of the city of Jericho.  This is a place where Christians have observed the baptism of Jesus for centuries, with archeological evidence that they started worshiping there between the 2nd and 5th centuries.  The existence of churches and monasteries is what we base a lot of our evidence on in deciding on the spot, in addition to geographic clues from the bible, and common sense about how the Jordan river was during the life of Jesus.  So you travel along a highway for awhile getting to a very non-descript turn with a small sign indicating the spot.  You drive about 1000 ft down a two lane road, before you begin to see the signs behind a simple wire fence on either side of the road.  Caution.  Landmines.  This goes on for another 1000 feet or so and then you begin to see old shells of buildings.  Some more intact than others, but all exterior walls pocked from the repeated gunfire of conflicts past.  You go by two old monasteries, one looking someone like an old medieval fort.  All abandoned.  The signs warning you of landmines are still all over.  Eventually about a mile and a half down this road you reach the guard station.  We almost didn’t make it in that day as we had come very late.  The military let us pass anyway, and we drove a little farther to the parking lot.  Once there you walk to the river, and there is a structure with steps and tables, lots of places for people to gather, sit, pray, change into clothes to go into the river, and showers to rinse off afterwards.  And roaming all of this are Israeli soldiers with assault rifles.

You go down to the water, where there are steps leading down into it to aid in immersion.  People often will wade in to be baptized.  But in this little section of the Jordan River, amidst reeds and cloudy water, there is a bright yellow rope with floats on it halfway through the water, accompanied by signs warning that you will be shot if you cross the rope.  Then you see, standing on the other side of the river, which is, mind you, no more than maybe 30 feet across, Jordanian soldiers carrying assault rifles.  There is a visitor’s center on the other side, Jordanian flags flying, and not too far off a Christian monastery that the King of Jordan has allowed to exist.  All this surrounds the spot where Jesus may have been baptized by his cousin, John.  All this surrounds the place where Jesus, joining the queue with soldiers, tax collectors, and all the others who came to hear John’s message, joins in the subversive and holy act of baptism. 

I don’t paint this picture to talk about Israeli politics or occupation or the uneasy borders with Jordan.  I offer this image to you because that day, reflecting on miles of land covered in explosive devices and bullet riddled ghosts of monasteries and churches, in approaching this holy site surrounded by weapons and threats of death should one misbehave, it offered me such a disturbing and moving image of what baptism really is.  Jesus did not undertake this task lightly.  He knew that standing with the broken people in this act of water and renewal showed him to be other to the popular life.  We too, cannot enter into our own baptism lightly.  We are marked as Christ’s own forever, and with that comes the joy of being part of that family, and also the burden.  We make promises in our baptismal covenant that are not in keeping with how most people choose to live in this world.  These promises and the act of baptism set us aside as other, as dangerous, as those who are called to live in the Kingdom of God at hand.  That has to be the first and greatest rule to which we apply our lives. 

It won’t be a perfect application.  Jesus even knew that.  He still had to navigate the world, even if the world was ultimately going to kill him.  He pushed the boundaries and rules, and we too have to be willing to stand with God and the values of God’s Kingdom regardless of the cost of our discipleship.  It is a dangerous thing to enter in to, to be marked as God’s beloved children.  No wonder the path to and from is littered with land mines, the site itself watched over by uneasy guards carrying deadly weapons.  Baptism is dedication of our lives to something greater than we can understand.  It is the point where we are invited into the mysteries, the joy, and the danger of following Christ’s footsteps.  At the end of the baptism liturgy there is a welcome that the celebrant and people say together to the newly baptized: “We receive you into the household of God.  Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.”  Remember as you go out from this place today that as you are marked as Christ’s own, so too you are called to the work of the Kingdom of God.  No matter what the road looks like, no matter who looks askew as we strive for the Kingdom of God, there is one thing we can be assured of.  God has looked upon us, and said as Isaiah reminds us, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed  you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

Sunday, January 6, 2019 – Epiphany of Our Lord

Epiphany of Our Lord, Year C 2018
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home

The visitation of the magi, which we observe today on the Feast of the Epiphany, is developed into one of the more odd traditions surrounding Christmastide.  I say that because it has grown into what we think of today as the ‘three kings’ or ‘wise men’ which we even have names for.  But if you look at the handy little insert in your bulletins, you can see that Matthew (and Matthew is the only Gospel that mentions them) does not in fact tell us how many there were or what their names are.  If we look deeper into the traditions surrounding this story globally we find in some other Christian traditions the magi depicted as being up to twelve in number.  In more recent tradition, and by more recent I mean now and the 5th century, we have landed on three simply because of the three gifts that are brought for Jesus.  The names we use, Melchior king of Persia, Caspar king of India, and Balthasar king of Arabia, come from manuscripts written between the 6th and 9th centuries.  All of this we fold into our traditions, in marking lintels with initials and numbers as an Epiphany blessing on any dwelling place, in all sorts of cultural celebrations, and embrace this understanding that these strangers, gentiles from faraway lands, came to pay homage to this king of kings.  Also a note about timing.  Matthew does not say that the magi arrived the same time as the birth, or any particular amount of days after.  The only speculation we have regarding when they might have arrived is based on Herod’s decree to kill all male children under the age of two.  There is no telling when the author of Matthew intended for the magi to have arrived specifically.

There is certainly a sermon in pulling apart what magi are in the biblical tradition versus us calling them kings, and what that is meant to signify, but perhaps I’ll save that for next year’s Epiphany sermon.  Or we could talk about the gifts and the significance of those three objects of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  This story is both so vague and filled with such folklore that the imagery offers many, many opportunities to reflect on what this can or should mean to us here today.  But for now, I want to stick with what Matthew writes, and in fact I want to go a little further because I think our lectionary stops a little short of where we should be today.  Our reading stops at verse twelve, but I think this story continues in a very important way.  In verse twelve we learn that the magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who is pretending to want to pay homage to this child king, but is secretly trying to use the magi to find out where the child is.  So the magi escape Herod’s plot and then we pick up with verse thirteen: “Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”  When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” 

This part of the story is usually reserved for December 28th, when we commemorate the Holy Innocents, the children who died because of the rage and insanity of Herod.  I think it is important to remember in our telling of the visitation of the magi because otherwise we tend to make the stories around Christmas a little too sanitized and cheery.  We tend to only focus on images of a cooing baby Jesus, of shepherds and angels, and of the magi, but forget looming over all of this is the megalomaniac that is about to slaughter countless children.  This part of the story is important in the Gospel of Matthew as the author seeks to build a story which showcases similarities between Jesus and Moses, a savior of the people. 

This part of the narrative is also important to remind us that the birth of the Messiah, God’s incarnation in the world did not come about without suffering.  It is a reminder that no matter what is going on, there is still good and evil playing out in this world.   God does not promise us that evil is eradicated, or that evil people will not do evil things.  God is not naïve about the evils of the world, and this story is a reminder to us that we cannot be either.  This part of the story doesn’t get tied up with a shiny bow or get a place of honor at the Christmas pageant.  Honestly, there isn’t any evidence that it’s even historically accurate.  But that’s not what matters.  What matters is how the stories we hear shape our faith and inform how we follow God. 

For me, I confess I cannot read the account of the magi, the slaughter of the holy innocents, or the story of the holy family living as refugees in Egypt and not think of the four children who have died in custody at the government run internment camps our country has setup, most recently the two of the children that died near Christmas.  Herod ordered the slaughter of the innocents because he feared any challenge to his power, even that of a child.  Now clearly these children who have died in custody were not ordered to be executed, but how can we worship a God whose incarnate self was forced to flee and not reflect on how we personally and nationally treat those fleeing their own persecutions.  The magi refuse to return to Herod and tell him where this child is that is called the king of the Jews, because they have been warned in a dream, presumably of what Herod would do to the child. 

As in any biblical story, I find the practice of reflecting on where we see ourselves to be a helpful one.  Are we like magi who would not reveal the hiding place of the child?  Are we like the dutiful soldiers carrying out Herod’s command slaughtering the innocents?  Are we like Egyptians who welcomed the holy family and kept them safe until Joseph was told in a dream they could return?

The story of the magi on a long and perilous journey is one that no doubt captures our imagination.  Mystic sages from lands wrapped in colorful silk, heavy with the scent of ornately spiced foods, riding camels across untold miles of desert following an astrological sign God has placed in the sky for them.  Magi bearing gifts with weighty symbols.  As the church Father Origen says, “Gold, as to king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God.”  This is a rich story that should captivate our senses.  But remember that it also too is for us a reminder that though the brightest light shines in the world, so too darkness follows.  We, as followers of that Light, of Jesus Christ, must not forget the whole story, must not forget the slaughter of the innocence, lest we ourselves are doomed to complacency when the world again offers evil in the face of children.