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Sermon: Behold the Lamb of God!

Sermon preached at 7:45 a.m. at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on January 15, 2017.
2nd Sunday after Epiphany; Year A (RCL): Isaiah 49:1-7; Ps. 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
         Since the Dean and President of Virginia Theological Seminary, Ian Markham, has officially returned on Epiphany from his year-long sabbatical, I offer you this in honor of his return:
           What happens if you ask Jesus to take the wheel of a self-driving car?       
           Emmanuel Override!
           (Ba dum bum ... I'll be here for about another seven minutes!)
           We're two Sundays into this season of Epiphany, and often the big question is, “Who exactly is this Jesus?” The Epiphany is the Revelation of God, how the Word made Incarnate took on flesh to be revealed to the world.
            So why are we spending so much time looking at this???
           Today’s gospel opens with further reflection on who Jesus is as seen through his baptism. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and the one anointed by the Spirit. We also hear at his baptism, for a voice from heaven declares it, that Jesus is God's own Son. That same voice will echo in a few weeks at his Transfiguration.
           But in-between, we have a number of these Gospel readings which unfold and unpack different aspects of who Jesus is. Through his words and actions, we get a clearer picture of this one born in Bethlehem, of whom the angels sang. What is his identity? And if he is the Savior, what kind of savior would he be?
           Today, John the Baptist chimes in. He declares Jesus to be the “Lamb of God.” The text also calls him Rabbi, the Son of God, and the Messiah, that is, the Christ. All these names or titles tell us something about who Jesus is.
           But Lamb of God is perhaps the most unusual name of these. It's a literal term in the Old Testament, relating to the Passover. There a lamb, a perfect unblemished male lamb was slaughtered, and its blood was used on the doorposts to mark the homes of God's people. In the final plague God levies against Pharaoh, which would kill all the firstborn of Egypt, the Angel of Death would see the blood of the lamb on the door and pass over that house. Furthermore, God commanded that the lamb also be roasted and consumed that night by God's people. It is a feast established then and carried over every year to now in remembrance of God's mercy to them. It is part of the way they recount how God saved them from the bondage of slavery in Egypt.
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Sermon: What's in a Name?

Sermon preached at 10:30 a.m. at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on January 1, 2017.
1 Christmas-The Holy Name; Year A (RCL): Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:15-21.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
       So, what’s in a Name?
          In this life that I share with Chrissie, my wife, she is Chris-Miss, but perhaps more importantly, she is Heart Of My Heart (which comes from the final verse of Hymn 488, “Be Thou My Vision”).  And I am, to Chrissie, her Beloved, for that is the etymology of my name David; the purpose which I am called to share with her.
       In the Book of Genesis, and throughout the rest of Scripture, names have been changed to reflect new identities and purposes.  Abram became Abraham and Sarai, Sarah.  Jacob became Israel, one who struggled with God, after his wrestling match at the River Jabbok with the holy stranger.  In the New Testament, Saul, persecutor of the fledgling Christian movement, is knocked from his horse and blinded; he became Paul, an advocate for the risen Christ.  Simon became Peter, the Rock upon which the Church is built.  From the beginning of creation, names have been given the highest importance.  They are more than just words.  For us, they often convey a person’s place and purpose in the world.
       Even as Chrissie and I grew in our marriage which celebrates 36 years tomorrow (I love you, sweetheart!), bringing forth no children of our own, we are accustomed to welcoming four-legged animals to fill our home and warm our hearts.  And when we began, for the most part, we developed our own tradition of claiming and renaming through adoption:

·  Valentine became Lazarus (revived when he didn’t go to a different home)
·  Dilly became Gili (which in Hebrew means, ‘my joy, my happiness’)

       Another example - this weekend, we went to see, “Hidden Figures,” the story of three brilliant African-American women at NASA who served as some of the brains behind the successful launch of John Glenn into orbit, which ultimately restored our nation’s confidence in reaching for the stars and beyond.  Names play an important role in this movie where how you address someone shows respect and intimacy.  Clearly, names have importance and carry weight.
       Today has long been celebrated as a principal feast day of the Church: what we call the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  In ancient Jewish tradition, a child was circumcised and named on the 8th day of their life.  This ritual, chronicled in the 17th chapter of Genesis, was and is, considered a sign of the covenant between God and God’s people, dating back to the time of the patriarch Abraham, about 1800 years before Jesus.               Read more...Collapse )

Sermon preached at 7:45 a.m. at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on December 18, 2016.

Advent III; Year A (RCL): Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

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

         Driving south last week on I-95, I saw a roadside sign for Caroline County. It caught my attention because I’d just seen the movie, “Loving,” about Richard Loving, a white construction worker in Caroline County, and Mildred Jeter, a local bi-racial woman; they had fallen in love. Learning she was pregnant, they decided to marry in 1958. However, Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 prohibited interracial marriage, so they drove to Washington, D.C. for the ceremony, but returned to their life in Caroline County.

           Five weeks later, sheriff's deputies raided Mildred's home to arrest and jail the Lovings, saying their marriage was invalid in Virginia. After pleading guilty to breaking the anti-miscegenation law, and being sentenced to one year in prison, the judge suspended their sentence on condition that they not return to Virginia together for at least 25 years. The Lovings moved to the District of Columbia, but when they returned briefly to Caroline County so their first child could be delivered by Richard's mother, a midwife, they were arrested again. Only after their lawyer pleaded that he’d advised them erroneously were they able to go free to return to D.C.

           Two other children were born, and Mildred grew increasingly frustrated being away from the country. After watching the 1963 March on Washington, Mildred wrote to then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy for help, and he referred them to the American Civil Liberties Union. Two young ACLU lawyers took their case and, after considering constitutional law, they concluded the Lovings' ordeal had a good chance of being heard before the United States Supreme Court after losing in the lower courts. When this happened, attorney Bernard Cohen asked Richard if he had a message for the Chief Justices; he replied simply, "Tell them that I love my wife." Ultimately, the Supreme Court's ruling in 1967 struck down the country's last segregation law. I suspect some of you might remember this landmark decision.

           Today in Matthew’s Gospel, we hear of the birth of Jesus Christ from Joseph’s perspective, sometimes called ‘The Annunciation to Joseph.’ With little in Scripture about this most important surrogate father, it is understandable that if this were the birth of a common child, we would not need to hear anything more. Yet this is no ordinary birth. This is the birth of Christ Jesus the Messiah: The Son of God, begotten by the Holy Spirit, the Incarnation, when God became flesh and dwelt among us. This is also a story about a man’s devotion and character. In this, I see similarities between Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Richard Loving, the husband of Mildred.          

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Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on November 27, 2016.
I Advent, Year A (RCL): Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

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

          Charles Dickens’novella, A Christmas Carol, is a well known story that makes its rounds every year about this time.  Its theme is an eternal truth: the importance that time has on us and how our perception of it helps us live our lives most authentically.  Dickens’ story, which you probably know, uses Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future, to show a man how he turned into a mean, miserly person.  Each ghost helps him understand just how unhappy he is and how miserable his life is.  The story is so popular - it plays every Christmas in the Nation's Capital at Ford’s Theater, and that there are at least 45 adaptations, featuring among others, Mickey Mouse, the Muppets, Bugs Bunny, the Smurfs, and of course my wife Chrissie's favorite, Mister Magoo, that have been made based on it – because the man, Ebenezer Scrooge, wakes up from his nightmares and chooses to do something about his own life and thereby makes his world a better place because of it.
Today is the First Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of the new church year, a great opportunity to think about time for all of us.  The word "Advent," from the Latin 'adventus,' means "coming."  So in Advent, we celebrate the various comings of Jesus, the Word incarnate and God on earth.  I invite you now to consider with me how this Season of Advent, just like Dickens’ story, can operate in three tenses, all at once: Past, Future, and Present.        
To begin with, in Advent, we await the birth of the Christ child as we recall a past event, a birth that happened over 2000 years ago; it is a celebration that will happen -- that is already is beginning to happen -- right now.
         And this past event has great significance to our present time.  In Advent we once again await the birth of Christ into our lives, our families, our church, and the world.  We await this Christmas, that holy evening, just 28 days away, where bathed in candlelight, we will say: "Yes Lord! Thank You Lord" and rejoice in his presence, his having come among us as a babe, a child, a man, a human like us, to love, to teach, and to heal us. 
        And as we wait, we savor those things that remind us of all the good Christmases that have past.  We relish them and make them part of this Christmas, with music and carols, special dinner dishes and treats, candle lit worship, visits and phone calls, prayers and readings, cards and notes, and those wonderful smells of the season.
In Advent, we await a past event and indeed we prepare our lives for it.  And the preparation we do now enriches our lives and makes this is a special time.       
        But in Advent, we also await the future, a special future: we await the unveiling of the reign of God, something continually being revealed, but yet to be fully realized.
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Sermon: The Attitude of Gratitude

Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA for Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 2016.
Thanksgiving Day; Year C (RCL): Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 100; Philippians 4:4-9; John 6:25-35        

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,
be always acceptable, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.      
        What gifts do you receive on a regular basis?  I’m talking about those daily happenings that we all have which make our lives a little bit easier, a little bit brighter, a little bit better—however you may choose to describe it.  Maybe it’s the interactions you have with the coffee shop employees and patrons.  Maybe it’s the smiles you receive on a walk through a store.  Maybe it’s the snuggles you get from your pets or your children or your loved one.  Maybe it’s the paper that gets delivered to your door every morning.
        What happens to you when that flow of such seemingly small gifts—I mean, I love my newspaper with my coffee, but I can get the news in other ways—when those daily expected things are suddenly not there?  Think about that.  What happens when your dog shuns you because you were gone for a few days, or your cat shuns you because, well, because it’s a cat!  Or that first time a small person you love pushes you away and says “no hugs?”  Or when that morning coffee comes with a confrontation, or your paper fails to arrive?
Be honest with yourself.
          If you are like me, my first thought is annoyance.  Because I have come to EXPECT something good, and it is not happening.  To me.  I (emphasis I) am affected.

        I submit that in our world of mostly plenty, this kind of mindset permeates our society on too many different levels.  Most of us are blessed by the way we live, even if we do not always consider our daily gifts as real blessings.  Yet in this same land of plenty, in our very community here, there are still far too many who live on our streets and under our bridges, seeking their next meal for themselves and others, and wondering where, and if, some sound work and good clothing might be found.  I was disheartened to hear recently at a Region IV Council meeting of the eight Episcopal churches in Alexandria that there may be as many as 185 students in our city’s public schools who are homeless!  When I hear that, I realize how at risk I am, and that we all might be, of becoming complacent, and prone to not giving thanks for everything or even anything, and by that lack of gratitude, failing to offer my help to those in need.
        “Attitude is everything.”  It’s no different when it comes to actions of Thanksgiving, or what we at Immanuel refer to often as Grace and Gratitude.  The attitudes we carry throughout life are of paramount importance if we are truly to live lives that demonstrate our gratitude to God for God’s movement in our lives.  And God’s presence, the essence of how God works in our lives is manifest both in the myriad gifts we are given and in the power of our gratitude for each and every one of those gifts.  The attitude for gratitude leads to action!        Read more...Collapse )
Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on November 6, 2016.
All Saints Sunday; Year C (RCL): Wisdom 3:1-9; Ps. 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,
be always acceptable, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.      

          Few things have more power to change us, confront us with reality, open our ears to a new truth, or turn our life in a different direction, like a reversal of fortune. I dare say all Chicago Cubs fans know this feeling intimately this week, as they bask in the glow of winning a World Series after a 108 year drought! For the rest of us, it might be a time when we realize we are going backward rather than forward or receive an unexpected windfall. For the people of his day, the Gospel of Jesus Christ reverses business as usual in as dramatic a manner as the Cubs victory: preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the prisoners, offering sight to the blind, and setting free those who are oppressed. Look closely at the life of Jesus and you will see reversals, one after another. Our faith in God, our Christian life, is based on these reversals which we see outlined in the four beatitudes and the four woes we just heard read in today's Gospel.
          Those who are poor, hungry, or weeping; those who are hated, excluded, and slandered can expect things to get better. Their situation will be reversed and they will be blessed. Likewise, those who are rich, those who are full, those who laugh, those who are popular and respected can expect to lose what they now have. Their situation will also be reversed. Woe to them.
          What do we make of all that? What do you hear in Jesus' words? Is he calling simply for a redistribution of wealth and resources? What happens then? Does Jesus love the malnourished more than those who have food enough to eat? Would he really prefer our lives be burdened and broken by loss and sorrow? Is there no place for joy or laughter? None of that makes sense. So let's look at what we can make of these challenging sayings.
          This world and our lives are more than just things we can touch, use, eat or own. Jesus is not distinguishing between spiritual and material lack or abundance. It must be both. Jesus was human like us. He had needs as do we. Some physical, some emotional, and some spiritual. He was body and soul; we are also. Our lives are a mixture of needs also; some met, some unmet. Parts of our life are rich, full, and abundant; other parts are empty, broken, and grieving. It’s not one or the other, but what we call the "Both/And."
          That’s why the blessings and woes of today’s gospel should not and cannot be seen as a final judgment or a system of reward and punishment. Read more...Collapse )

Homily: Act As If

Homily preached at 7:45 a.m. at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA October 2, 2016.
20 Pentecost; Year C (RCL): Lamentations 1:1-5; Ps. 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10      

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,
be always acceptable, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
          “If I just had more faith ...” I think most of us have struggled with that at some point in our lives. If I just had more faith … I wouldn’t have so many questions or doubts. If I just had more faith … God would answer my prayers the way I want them answered. If I just had more faith … they wouldn’t have died. If I just had more faith … I would be more involved in the church. (Wait! Do we really hear or think that in this place?) If I just had more faith … I would be a better person, a better parent, a better spouse. If I just had more faith … I would know what to do, I would handle things better.  If I just had more faith, life would be different.
           On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus is teaching his followers about the power of faith and the duties of discipleship. He tells his disciples that their faith, however small, can work wonders, and calls them to adopt the attitude of servants whose actions are responses to their identity rather than works that seek reward.
This is an approach to faith at least as old as the apostles’ own faith. It is the approach they have taken in today’s gospel. “Increase our faith,” they ask Jesus. Jesus has just warned them not to become stumbling blocks to others and is commanding them to forgive as often as an offender repents, even if it is seven times in one day. That will be difficult. It will be a challenge to live that way. “Increase our faith,” is their response. It seems like a reasonable request. If a little is good, a lot must be so much better. If McDonald’s can supersize our fries and drinks, certainly Jesus can supersize our faith, right?
The request to increase our faith, the belief that if we had more faith, things would be different, reveals, at best, a misunderstanding of faith itself and, at worst, demonstrates our own unfaithfulness. Jesus is very clear that faithfulness is not about size or quantity. It’s not like service bars on our cell phone or the battery-life percentage on our iPads. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed,” he says, “you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
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Sermon: You Cannot Serve God and Wealth

Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA September 18, 2016.
18 Pentecost; Year C (RCL): Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Ps. 79:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13      

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,
be always acceptable, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
         In today's Gospel, Jesus tells a parable speaking to the purpose of money. Many commentaries and blogs suggest this story of the dishonest manager is one of the most challenging of Jesus' parables. Incompetence and dishonesty seem to be rewarded. But I'm fairly positive that isn't why Jesus told this story.
           Jesus speaks about "dishonest wealth" -- money or profits gained through usury, the illegal practice of lending money at unreasonably high interest rates. Jews were forbidden from lending money at interest, so they found their own version of a loophole: they could lend commodities such as oil, corn, or wheat, and charge interest on those goods. Here this rich man, through his manager, assessed his neighbors interest. It is this illegal profit to which Jesus points as "dishonest wealth."
           When the manager learns he is going to be fired, he tells all those who owe his master to dispense with the interest. They need only return what they first borrowed and no more. What the manager was "buying" were relationships and favor in the future if and when he should become unemployed. This is a shrewd move. The dishonest manager was not punished by the rich man, for in acting so, he brought favor upon his master as well. The manager, who took these actions without asking his master, and thus was dishonest, still almost made his master appear pious. Jesus commends the manager's astuteness, not his dishonesty, for he knows how to make the money and situation work for him. It's certainly a curious story.
           Jesus said hard things about money, or rather, the love of money. We cannot put our security in money. Bank accounts, bonds, stocks, real estate, or gold all have worth that fluctuates. Just think of the many economic swings our nation has undergone over the past 100 years. Like many of you, our own portfolio took hits several years ago and only now seems to have stabilized and is growing (slowly). Jesus says we dare not put our love and hope in material things.
           Money is intended to be a source of blessing, not a tool of power. It is to be used to bless you, your neighbors, and the world. Yet, sometimes, money exercises power over us and others. Wealth that is an active power demands its own devotion, and then that devotion becomes an active rival to God.
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