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Sermon: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Homily preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016

Year C (RCL): Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.

I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     Each Ash Wednesday, I am reminded of the words of Committal from the Burial office in our Book of Common Prayer, when the Celebrant says, "...we commend their body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

       A form of those words are spoken for the very first time in the garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God says to them, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return." (Gen. 3:19c)

       Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. This is a stark reminder of whence we came and to where, all other factors being equal, we shall return. We are by nature and deed a walking, talking, thinking, doing package of dust and ashes.

       There is not much value in dust and ashes. Gardeners understand that it can be used to help grow plants, but it is worthless. It is often less than worthless. It can be a hindrance and a liability. You can't make it pretty by painting it, and you can’t make it smell good by spraying perfume on it. Dust is dust, and ashes are ashes, and the plain fact is they both are largely to be avoided.

       That goes for us, too. When all is said and done, our righteousness is like rags upon us; our virtue is but a spray of perfume upon thoughts and feelings and deeds that are best buried and forgotten.

       So why do we take time to smear ashes on our foreheads? Why on this day do we gather and remember what we are?

       The answer is that while we gather to remember who we are, we gather also to remember who God is, and what God has done for us, in and through Jesus Christ.

       We gather because, as devoted people of God and followers of Jesus Christ, all other factors are NOT equal.

       God has given us a way out of our plight of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” It is the way of the Cross. The death of Jesus Christ at Calvary was God's way of placing a sign of infinite value upon that which would otherwise be worthless. This day, this Ash Wednesday, which starts our holy and penitential season of Lent, is for us to know and realize that God has chosen to give us some other life than that which leads only to dust heaps and ash pits.

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Sermon: O Wondrous Type, O Vision Fair

Preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill February 7, 2016 for the Last Sunday after Epiphany.

Transfiguration Sunday, Year C (RCL): Exod. 34:29-35; Ps. 99; 2 Corinth. 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36.

         In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

         Today is Transfiguration Sunday, where we straddle between the end of Epiphany and the beginning of yet another church season. Later this week, we’ll be feasting on pancakes, bacon, and sausages to celebrate Shrove Tuesday before we enter into that holy and blessed penitential season of Lent.

           Today signals the transition from the Incarnational Cycle of God breaking forth into the world through the birth of Jesus to the Paschal Cycle of Christ which culminates with the crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection of the Messiah. We have an Epiphany hymn that I think describes this odd time and this unique event in far more lovely words than I could ever write. It’s Hymn 137, if you want to hold that open...

“O wondrous type, O vision fair

of glory that the church may share,

which Christ upon the mountain shows,

where brighter than the sun he glows!”

           Our lessons today from Exodus, Second Corinthians, and the Gospel according to Luke tell us that witnesses to the glory of God will be unable to avoid reflecting that glory in the world. This is the “Glory that the Church may share.” It was true of Moses as he came down from Mt. Sinai to renew God’s Covenant with the people of Israel. It was undoubtedly true also for Peter, James and John when they witnessed the meeting of the Law, represented through Moses, and the Prophets represented by Elijah, with Jesus, God’s Incarnate Word in the World.

           We pray that it will be true of all of us also who see the glory of the Lord in the world, and in the Eucharistic supper to which we all join around this table, and in those who are being “transformed into the same image” by the Spirit of God.

           God is always being revealed in ways that can both surprise and confuse us, whether it be shining forth from the face of Moses on a mountaintop, or in the dazzling appearance of Jesus, or after Christ dies on the Cross and later rises from the tomb. God’s presence and God’s glory is a mystery to us. But the Mystery therein is what we seek, and what we seek to share with our world.  


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Sermon: Yes, It Is Time!

An 8:00 a.m. Homily preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on January 17, 2016.

The 2nd Sunday after Epiphany: Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

        I usually warn couples during marriage preparation that things can go wrong on their wedding day.

          It may be unfortunate, like the person responsible for distributing the service bulletins to wedding guests beforehand suddenly takes ill so nothing was handed out, leaving everyone there (except for the priest's spouse) with little to no idea of how or when to respond during the service.

          It might be something that few, if any, notice such as a diamond chip falling out of the groom's ring that is found by the Altar Guild just as those outward and visible symbols of vows exchanged are prayed over and blessed (that was Chrissie's and my wedding thirty five years ago with our initial wedding bands).

          Or perhaps it is something all too obvious as when weather intrudes upon an outdoor wedding venue. The service had concluded and no sooner than the bridal party and I had processed out and were under cover, the skies opened up, leaving the wedding guests tossing chairs about and scrambling for cover!

          But weddings are fun. I love doing wedding because the occasions are joyous and because I truly value the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Yes, couples are usually stressed, but by the time the reception begins they are finally married and have moved beyond all the details into that sweet “whatever will happen, will happen” kind of mindset.

          What do they care, they are married and are kissing every time someone clinks a glass. The wedding planner, whether paid or some really organized friend, on the other hand still has lots of other things to worry about as the reception unfolds. How’s the food going to turn out? Will the servers circulate or just stand around? Will the DJ get the first song right? Will everyone be able to hear the toasts? When should they cut the cake?  No, the wedding planner doesn’t relax until well after the happy-couple departs for their honeymoon. You couldn’t pay me to be a wedding planner!

          When I read this account, I wonder if Jesus’ mother, notice this gospel never names her as Mary, was the wedding planner. She seems to be very concerned about the details of this wedding feast.


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Sermon: Resolutions, Sacraments & Covenants

A Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on January 10, 2016.

The 1st Sunday after Epiphany: Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth Your Spirit, and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.

          Here we are, more than one week into the New Year, so I have to ask: How many of you have already broken New Year’s resolutions? This week, I flipped through Facebook and found a poll about New Year’s resolutions. Number One is, of course, to lose weight or quit smoking or become healthier in general. Number Two was to get out of debt. Number Three was to get a new job. Number Four was to get more organized. Number Five was to run a marathon or become better at a particular sport. We all know that New Year's Resolution are no new thing. In fact, we may need to credit the first ever new year’s resolutions to the Babylonians whose number one resolution was to return borrowed farm equipment.

            Why do we make New Year’s resolutions? The beginning of a new year brings with it a seemingly clean slate. A new year is a new beginning, a time where we can start over, begin anew, and work to change some things in our lives. This First Sunday after the Epiphany is the perfect time to talk about baptism as we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ and we renew our own baptismal promises.                 

Baptism is a chance for a new beginning and a new start, but it is not like New Year’s resolutions, that are broken within a few weeks. Rather it is a covenant between God and us which remains always, and can never be broken. It is important for us to know and remember that Baptism is both a sacrament and a covenant.


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Sermon: Living Christmas as a Verb

An 8 a.m. Homily at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA December 27, 2015.

The 1st Sunday after Christmas: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

"And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory,

the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth."

[Please be seated.]

        So, how was your Christmas? Today is the 27th of December and I've already had more than enough people ask, directly and through Facebook, "How was your Christmas?" While I understand what's being asked, I also hear the assumption that Christmas is over. As our church calendar rightly reflects, there are Twelve Days of Christmas. It is a Season, not only a day. But already in some homes, trees have been taken down and dragged to the curb, decorations have been packed away, and leftovers have been thrown out.

          I mention this, not to criticize or judge, but really in recognition that we're mostly 'event-driven' people. We tend to live our lives from one event to the next. If you don't agree with me, I invite you to take a look at your calendar. I've looked at mine. It is mostly a schedule of events. Go here next, do that after, on and on. Our days are full of events and appointments, and should there be a day or two when there's nothing scheduled, we say things like "I have nothing going on that day," or "I'm not doing anything that night." It's as if there's no life, nothing to learn or discover, little to nothing to experience during those non-event times. Thankfully, St. John's Gospel has a different understanding of Christmas, life, and humanity.

          "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

          This, for St. John, is the Christmas story and it is set in the context of creation, "In the beginning." Creation is not an event of the past, but rather is the ongoing life of God with God's people. St. John echoes and continues the story of creation from Genesis, "In the beginning God said, 'Let there be ...' and there was ..." Land, sky, vegetation covering the world, living creatures from the waters, birds of the air, creatures creeping along the face of the earth, and humankind made in the image and likeness of God.


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Prophets: Old and Young

The 8 a.m. homily at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on December 20, 2015.

The 4th Sunday of Advent: Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth Your Spirit, and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.

         Okay, as today's preacher, I feel I owe you an explanation. When multiple lectionary options appear, the preacher has the latitude to select the lessons to be read. Today, our options were Psalm 80: 1-7 OR Canticle 15 (or 3) which is the Song of Mary, better known to the Christian world as the Magnificat. Expecting that Mary's Song would be part of our Gospel text, I picked Psalm 80. What I hadn't realized is that today's lectionary omitted verses 46-55 of Chapter One in Luke's Gospel, leaving us with the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. So I added those verses back in for your hearing.

         The readings on this Fourth Sunday of Advent move us from the time of preparation and anticipation to a place where the cradle and cross are inextricably connected. Between a lovely tribute to the little town of Bethlehem and the Blessed Virgin Mary's magnificent song of praise, the letter to the Hebrews reminds us in no uncertain terms that Christ’s advent is for “the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” It is this kind of tension in which the church always lives as when in the Holy Eucharist – with high delight – “we proclaim the Lord’s death.”

         The eighth-century prophet Micah was one whose prophecies were intended to call the Kingdom back to its common core values of righteousness and justice, especially for the poor. This prophet, having pronounced God's judgment upon Judah, speaks of a future shepherd-king who, like David, will come from the small town of Bethlehem. (Ephrathah refers to the area around Bethlehem.) This king will restore Israel and bring peace. And while this passage is not a prediction of the birth of Jesus, New Testament writers often interpret it as such.

         The imagery language "when she who is in labor has brought forth" might be related to Mary, however the language in the original Hebrew is ambiguous, and the "she" could refer to the nation or something else. Micah the prophet is concerned with political history and its future, and how God will deliver God's people; Micah is not necessarily prophesying about a Messiah.

         The significant message of Micah is that in the midst of turmoil for a nation that has lost its bearings, God's plan will continue to be revealed and will involve leadership that ushers in a reign of peace. This is a message of hope needed in any time, especially in our own.

         "Restore us, O God of hosts; show us the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved." The psalmist today picks up this sense of longing for restoration and leads us forward into the reading from Hebrews.


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