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Sermon: The Meaning of Our Lord is Love

A Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on May 10, 2015.

6th Sunday of Easter, Year B (RCL): Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,

be always acceptable, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

"I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete."

I love those words. For many years, "that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete" were words that epitomized the fruit of a marital relationship wedded in and through Jesus Christ. My wife Chrissie and I shared in the ministry of Episcopal Engaged Encounter for 25 years, a program endorsed by the Church for the preparation of couples wanting to be married in Holy Matrimony. This joy is not happiness. It's not a surface thing. It is something deeper. Imagine something being shared by two people as being twice the joy, and half the sorrow. Even in lament. It's a joy that manifest deep love in relationship.

Today’s image of the life that the risen Christ shares with us is the image of friendship. We are called to serve others as Jesus came to serve; but for John’s gospel, the image of servanthood is too hierarchical, too distant, to capture the essence of life with Christ. Friendship captures the love, the joy, the deep mutuality of the relationship into which Christ invites us. The Greeks believed that true friends are willing to die for each other. This is the mutual love of Christian community commanded by Christ and enabled by the Spirit.

          The Acts of the Apostles tells us Peter was sharing the good news of Jesus with a Gentile soldier and his family when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. Recognizing that the Spirit works inclusively in the lives of both the Jews and the Gentiles, Peter commands that these Gentiles also be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

          John's first epistle says that God’s children believe that Jesus is the Messiah and to love God by keeping God’s commandments. Thus the world will be conquered, not through military might, but rather, through faith and love.

          The Gospel according to John remembers the night of Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus delivers a final testimony to his disciples to help them in the days ahead. Here, he repeats the most important of all his commands: that they love one another.

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Homily: "Come, Eat, and Be Filled."

A homily preached at the new Immanuel Chapel-VTS in Alexandria, VA on April 23, 2015.

Acts 8:26-40; Ps. 66:14-18; John 6:44-51

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

           There was a happy accident that happened this past Saturday, just down the hill and across the street from here, at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill. We host a Breakfast Bible Study that Chrissie, my wife, and another, lead on the third Saturday of each month. It was a lovely morning after the storms the night before, and as we drove to the church, we noticed the traffic signals were out. Arriving at the church, we found it dark. So we began to improvise the breakfast, and found a table set up on the back patio that had been abandoned the night before due to weather. We had this lovely setting looking out to our memorial garden, and, thankfully, we could still cook most of the breakfast on our gas stove. Then the power came on during our preparations which allowed for coffee to be brewed and the bagels to be toasted. We were all set. God is good!

           I mention that because our invitation to Breakfast Bible Study is “Come, Eat, and Be Filled.” And considering today’s readings from the Acts of the Apostles and John’s Gospel, I quickly had a title for this homily.

           Today’s lesson from Acts tells of the encounter that Philip has with the Ethiopian eunuch. The Angel of the Lord had first directed Philip to go south, and then the Spirit compelled him to approach the eunuch’s chariot. Those are certainly ‘holy nudges.’ Hearing the eunuch reading from the prophet Isaiah,

Philip asks if he knew what he was reading. The eunuch replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And there you have it friends, a Bible Study group, right there on the side of the road, between Jerusalem and Gaza.

           Gathering together around scripture allows us to 1) formulate our own understanding of the text; 2) to enter into a dialogue in community; and 3) to act. The study method we use for our breakfast gathering is the African Model of Reflection, where we employ three different translations or interpretations of the reading while offering questions to guide our discussion. If you are not already familiar with this method, talk to me; I was heartened recently to hear that a priest I consider to be an elder statesperson in our Church endorses this particular manner of study.

           But back to Philip and the eunuch. It is important to note the eunuch was reading aloud so Philip could know what he was studying. And hearing those words from Isaiah, “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth,” Philip had his opening to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Philip heard, listened and acted, and the eunuch was open to receive the Word. Having heard and received the Word, then finding water along the way, the eunuch asks Philip if he might be baptized. Having done the work of the Lord in that place, the Spirit carried Philip away to continue spreading the Gospel elsewhere.

           I find it important and meaningful, when I read Morning Prayer alone, to read aloud. There is something more powerful about scripture when it is not only read, but is also heard. Taking scripture in through reading and hearing seems to help it find its way more profoundly to my head and to my heart. Plus, the added benefit of hearing something aloud, allows others to know what you are doing when they happen along, and it may be the catalyst to invite them to join you.

           In John’s Gospel, following the feeding of the Five Thousand and Jesus walking on the water, Jesus is again teaching. Here we come to see it is only the humble, teachable ones who hear and understand what the Father says. Jesus makes the simple, unequivocal assertion, “I am the bread of life.” The contrast with all physical bread, particularly the manna given their fathers in the wilderness, is sharply drawn. That bread, Jesus says, they ate and are dead. But Jesus is “the bread” which comes down from heaven. His coming into the world is once for all. The Incarnation will not be repeated! The living bread, which is his flesh, is given, not just for those to whom He speaks, but for the whole world. Jesus knows their hunger and knows what they need.

           So, whether they be happy accidents, or ‘holy nudges,’ or acts of obedience, the call is the same: Come, Eat, and Be Filled. Thankfully, through fellowship, food, and the Word, all are invited, and those who come, will be fed and satisfied.


Sermon: Five Proofs of Jesus' Resurrection

A Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on April 19, 2015.
3rd Sunday of Easter, Year B (RCL): Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,
be always acceptable, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

We Christians believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is this belief which distinguishes Christianity from all other world religions. No other faith tradition claims that its leader and founder was bodily raised from the dead and that His spirit now lives in those who worship and serve him.

Jesus the Shepherd was struck down and the sheep had all scattered! The flock responded as you might expect, realizing that now they were on their own. There is no one to lead them, no one to protect them, no one to provide for them. The sheep are frozen with fear and they huddle together in that upper room.

Yet the Great Shepherd is not gone forever. It was three days. Okay people, here comes your wake-up call! Alleluia, Christ is risen! (The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!) On Easter Sunday, we heard from the Gospel of John. Last week, we heard from Mark. So today, we get Luke’s resurrection account when Jesus first comes to his flock to calm their fears. He simply wants them to know that He has returned and that all shall be well.

There are times when it may be hard to imagine Jesus present with us as we worry about things, all that ‘stuff’ that troubles and consumes us. I don’t know how it is for all of you, but since I said ‘Yes’ to this call to ordained ministry, my life has certainly had its challenges: Family issues, graduating from seminary, the process requirements from my diocese, and questions in my own mind; that’s not to mention the General Ordination Examinations that have to be taken, which was light work for some, and required additional work from others (like me). Yet as followers of Christ, there is comfort in knowing that the risen Christ is present with us, and we are not alone.

Yet the world doesn’t seem to accept this. For the world to seek relief from worry and fear means that problems must be fixed. Unless the crisis or catastrophe or injustice is resolved and finally settled, the world says, ‘What good is this Lord of yours? How can you believe in Jesus Christ? Jesus is the divine ‘fix it guy!’ Christ should mend what’s broken and if He doesn’t fix it, then who needs Him?’

We ALL need Him. And for us, it is enough to know that Jesus Christ risen from the dead is present with us. We turn to Jesus for guidance and direction, to guard us and protect us, but in the end we say, “Thy will be done. Lord, just abide with us. Please, Jesus, be with us.” As long as we know His presence, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” (Rom 8:28a) We know the peace which passes all understanding, even in the storms of our lives.

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Sermon: John 3:16 & The Rainbow Man

Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on March 15, 2015.
4th Sunday in Lent, Year B (RCL): Numbers 21:4-9; Ps 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,
be always acceptable, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Every time I hear this text, I can’t help but think of “The Rainbow Man.”

(Cue the wig)

Maybe you remember him. If you’re a fan of professional sports (and maybe even if you aren’t) and watched any major sporting event on TV between the late 1970s-1980s: be it football’s Super Bowl, or baseball’s World Series, or NBA’s Championship Finals, you saw this guy. A LOT. He was America’s most celebrated fan. His name is Rollen Stewart.

Stewart started out as a wig-wearing self promoter who showed up at almost every major athletic event worldwide and always managed to plant himself smack-dab in front of a TV camera. Known as “the Rainbow Man” for the multicolored Afro wig he wore; he was also called “Rock 'n' Rollen” for the party vibe he exuded. Stewart drove miles and miles to attend big events. He often got more TV face time than most network announcers. He found fame, as he intended, simply by showing up.

For a first few years, he just danced in the stands. After the 1980 Super Bowl, he was up late in his hotel room and saw a televangelist preaching about the end of the world. Stewart experienced a dramatic conversion and, then, decided his Rainbow Man character would convince the world to believe in Jesus. Sports arenas were his church and TV his pulpit, with the Word a sign saying, ‘John 3:16.’

(Cue the sign!) Do you remember him now?

Selling his home to buy tickets, Stewart lived in his car and traveled from place to place for game after game. He learned where to place himself in the stands, and when the camera would be on him. The pitcher winds up and there's Rainbow Man preaching ‘John 3:16’ right behind home plate. The kicker lines up a game-winning field goal--there’s ‘Rainbow Man’ behind the goal posts--‘John 3:16.' The horses leave the stables, turning the corner toward the track at Churchill Downs, and in this one perfect spot, amidst fans with mint juleps and their fancy hats, is Rainbow Man with his massive wig, waving a sign: ‘John 3:16.” It’s fair to say this scripture is well known, due in part, to “Rainbow Man.

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Sermon: Lent I - Testing or Temptation

Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on February 22, 2015.

First Sunday in Lent, Year B (RCL); Genesis 9:8-17; Ps. 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15.

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

      Today, the First Sunday in Lent, is traditionally when we reflect upon Temptation. So when I say the word temptation, what comes to mind? For me, my first recollection of ‘temptation’ was the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies cooling on the kitchen counter. My mother would look at my older sister, brother and me over the top of her glasses and say sternly, “Not before supper.”

        In the rather bare account from today’s Gospel, Mark simply tells us that after his baptism, Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days where he is confronted by Satan -- and faces temptation.

        The Greek word for this confrontation, peirazó (pi-rad'-zo), serves as to “try,” “tempt,” or “test.” Here it be better to translate that Jesus was ‘tested’ rather than ‘tempted.’ This story reminds us of biblical precedents where God tests people called to play a significant role in the drama of humanity’s redemption, and gives us a key to discover what Mark is saying to us. God sent Abraham away from the land of his people to a new land that God would give the children of Israel.

        The forty days of Jesus’ temptation also recalls the great flood, the “baptism” which the faithful Noah and his family endured. Just as from Noah’s baptism of testing there emerged a new people of God, we find in Mark’s narrative, soon after his baptism and testing, Jesus calls his disciples and reconstitutes a people of God. As with Noah and his family, Jesus and the disciples will be the beginning of a new humanity “born again from above” (as John writes), in the image of Jesus, the one after God’s very own heart.

        With this scene of Jesus’ testing being set in the wilderness, God’s dealings with the children of Israel following their exodus from Egypt is undoubtedly being referenced here. The Hebrew people were constituted as a nation, not just through “baptism” as they escaped the bondage of Pharaoh in Egypt through the Red Sea, but in their formative testing during forty long years in the wilderness.

        Such testing may or may not include temptation as you and I imagine it. Yet it did involve the people facing extreme conditions, out on the edge, where, not having common human comforts and support, the strength of their faithfulness to God’s calling could be both assessed and refined.

        Since Israel is God’s “child,” the biblical tradition describes God’s testing of Israel in the wilderness through the image of a father’s disciplinary testing or training of a son. This, then, is the background to Mark’s record of Jesus’ ‘testing.’


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Sermon: The Water That Unites Us

Sermon preached Epiphany I: Baptism of Our Lord at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill, Alexandria on Jan. 11, 2015.

First Sunday after Epiphany; Year B (RCL): Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11.

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.

         Water, darkness, and light. These are things so familiar to us that we could not imagine life without them. They are elements so universal to our experience that humanity has fashioned them into symbols of other things, thereby giving them meaning and power. For us, that power is mostly symbolic and not real.   In the case of water, we cannot physically exist without it. When we visit the ocean, we enjoy its beauty but few of us have experienced the terror of being on a boat in the midst of a raging storm. Similarly, darkness is easily dispatched with the flip of a light switch or the glow of a cell phone. The fear of unknown things creeping about in the dark is something children grow out of as they begin to age and start to reason--unless you are Stephen King, who claims to still look underneath the bed every night. Hear again the first words of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

           What comes to mind as you hear those words? How do you imagine this? What does it look like? The most important thing to note is that God is not creating the universe out of nothing. Rather, there is already something there and it sounds very much like chaos. The Hebrew conveys that sense even more strongly. The words for ‘formless void’ are “tohu va vohu,” and for ‘deep,’ “tehom.” Both are related to Babylonian words, names of Babylonian deities that played a role in their creation myths.[1] Here they are gods no longer, but inanimate stuff from which God creates the universe.

           Water of the sort described in Genesis 1, the tempestuous waves of an ocean in the midst of a storm, seems a far cry from the waters of baptism, especially that which we use in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. Basically it’s a few drops here and there. It is hard to imagine being afraid of baptism, unless you consider a newly ordained priest wrangling a child around a flower-festooned font at Easter. My friends, the Reeds, would tell you that their daughter Maggie’s baptism looked more like a water boarding incident than a baptism.

           Our baptismal water, the way we perform our sacrament with less than a gallon of water in total and at most a few sprinkles over the forehead, does not convey the rich and powerful imagery of baptism in the New Testament. Paul writes repeatedly that baptism is a means by which we share in Christ’s death: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3)


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Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA December 25, 2014.

Christmas Day; Year B (RCL): Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4; John 1:1-14

Alleluia. To us a child is born: Come let us adore him. Alleluia!

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” I don’t know about you, but when I hear those words, I am shaken to my core. To think that God loved us, his creation, so much to become flesh here on earth with us, to live the life we live, to feel the joys and hurts that we know, to come and die for us that the whole of creation might be redeem. I cannot fathom it.

Our Lord God takes on human flesh and nature and appears on earth, full of grace and truth. This is a novel concept in the history of religious teaching and the development of our faith. But what the Evangelist describes with his words is neither legend nor myth. It is a description of how divine life and light again make themselves present in the darkness of death and sin. It is the story of re-creation revealed by the Lord and Giver of Life Himself.

John the Evangelist tells of the great mystery of how God became human in order to save humankind. “For us and for our salvation He came down from heaven”: so the Church confesses in the Creed. It is a confession of faith, of belief in what transpired in Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and other points in ancient Judea. What took place was for the world’s redemption: God being incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and made man, so that He may suffer and die to atone for sin.

John’s Prologue to the Gospel literally takes hearers back to the beginning: “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 were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made.” The beginning of creation is the focus of John’s opening sentences. God the Father spoke the Word, God the Son, and creation came into existence: light and darkness, land and sea, sun and moon, grass and trees, birds and fish and land animals. That same Word was spoken when God the Father said: “Let us make man in our image and likeness.” And everything was good.

Yet you know how what was good in the beginning quickly became anything but. What once had the fullness of God’s favor lost it with the Fall into sin. Man lost the likeness of God, becoming thoroughly tainted and corrupt. What the Word had made and pronounced as very good was now not. Death had entered where there once was nothing but life.

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