Is Your Baptism Incomplete?

What does it mean to have an incomplete baptism?

That is the question suddenly confronting the believers in Ephesus we read of in our lesson from Acts.

Paul arrives and says to them, “‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ Then he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They answered, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.’”

We might initially assure ourselves that this story has nothing to do with us.

We were baptized into Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in the name of God the Father. Our Trinitarian credentials are secure.

But to read this text on that literal, surface level is to miss what it has to teach us.

Let’s take a step back and ask in what ways we were baptized into John’s baptism, why that was valuable, and what might still be missing from our baptism.

How are we failing to live into the full baptism of Christ? Continue reading

Day 7 to Day 8: Naming the Truth

One week. In the nativity story, Jesus is one week old.

We in the Church are still knee-deep in the Feast of Christmas, even though most of the rest of the world has moved onto after-Christmas sales and New Year’s Eve partying.

There are twelve days of Christmas, and we’re only on Day 7.

So today we celebrate the First Sunday of Christmas, and we have what I think are jarringly grand scriptures.

In Isaiah, we read phrases like, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”

In Galatians, we hear, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”

And then, of course, we have John’s Prologue. “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.”

It’s all this sweeping cosmic theology, and in the case of Isaiah, seriously grand celebration.

It’s all very appropriate for examining the deep eternal meaning of Christmas and the world-changing implications of the Incarnation.

But I can tell you right now that it has precious little to do with what’s happening to the Holy Family at this moment. Continue reading

True Confessions of a Grinchy Priest

Okay, St. Francis, I’ve been on board with you now for over a year, and it’s time for me to come clean, publicly, from the pulpit. It’s time for you to know the full truth about your Associate Rector, and I hope you still love me after I tell you.

I’m a Grinch.

It’s true. It’s awful but it’s true.

I do not want to jingle all the way.

I don’t deck my halls—I don’t own a single Christmas decoration, not even a sad Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

I do not ding dong merrily on high, or on low for that matter, nor am I interested in participating in any reindeer games.

I am a Grinch.

There. I said it. Let Father Davies know if you’d like him to ask for my letter of resignation.

Here’s where I need to clarify.

I do love the Feast of the Incarnation.

The birth of the infant Christ is deeply meaningful to me, and the Holy Family are three of my absolute favorite people on earth—I even have an icon of them in my office.

But I do not love American Christmas, which is very different from the Feast of the Incarnation, and every year I find it harder and harder to tolerate.

I know it makes me sound like an 85-year-old telling those kids to get off my lawn, but I can’t help it—the noise, the materialism, the smearing of badly considered theology on top of secular pagan traditions—blech.

It just wears me out. I basically stick my fingers in my ears on the day after Thanksgiving, close my eyes and shout Advent hymns to drown it all out.

But what I’ve gotten up here to tell you today is that this year I’ve received an additional insight as to why I hate American Christmas so much, and it’s actually much closer to the Feast of the Incarnation than I expected.

And to explain it, I have to tell two stories. Continue reading

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Are Not the Same Thing

We made it! We’ve arrived!

Every bow has been tied, every stocking has been stuffed, every cookie has been baked and every Christmas tree light has been lit.

Or if that’s not all done, well, it’s too late now, so don’t worry about it.

The storm is over and we have gathered in a quiet country barn with the family who found no room at the inn to see and experience the miracle that changed the world.

This is the most sacred hour of the year. The whole world hushes to anticipate the arrival of the incarnate God, our savior Jesus Christ being born.

The interesting thing is that along with all the holiness and awe, there is a great deal of pain. Continue reading

Mary’s Questions

Anyone in Mary’s shoes at the Annunciation would have some questions. But we learn a lot about Mary and her rare spiritual depth by what she doesn’t ask.

Mary asks, “How?”

But Mary does not ask, “What?” or “Why?” or “When?”

After greeting Mary, who unsurprisingly is rendered “much perplexed” by an angel showing up out of nowhere, Gabriel gives a little speech.

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

I don’t know about you, but the first question out of my mouth would be, “What?” Or more, like, “WHAT?!?!”

“What?” in the sense of, “I understand that you’re speaking English (or Hebrew) but what you’re saying is so crazy that I’m really not following you right now,” and “What?” in the sense of, “What hallucination am I having right now?”

Even, “What?” in the sense of “What does all this mean and what are you talking about?”

But not Mary. Continue reading

The One Who Calls You Is Faithful

“The one who calls you is faithful.”

That’s 1 Thessalonians 5:24, and it is now officially one of my favorite verses in scripture.

This entire 1 Thessalonians passage is beautiful, every phrase packed full of practical encouragement in the life of faith that somehow manages to rise above plain advice and reach a lyrical joy.

These are words you can write on your heart, words you can carry around with you through the day, words you can call up when your soul is hungry for light.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances,” Paul says. “Do not quench the spirit…hold fast to what is good.”

Those are lofty goals.

I wish to heck I did rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances, but I can guarantee you I don’t.

There are days it’s more like “complain always, feel sorry for myself without ceasing, and make my own life more difficult in all circumstances.”

How do we live lives drenched with rejoicing, governed by prayer, and radiating gratitude?

Both the how and the why of it are all contained in that concluding phrase: “The one who calls you is faithful.”

This phrase has more than one meaning, and we can see it through all of our scriptures appointed for today.

“The one,” of course, in “the one who calls you is faithful,” is God.

But there is more than one way to look at God’s call. Continue reading

Who Wants to Talk About Virtue?

Our Isaiah passage and our psalm today are among my most beloved scriptures in the Bible.

How many of us can ever read Isaiah 40 without hearing Handel’s setting of it for Messiah?

And Psalm 85:10, “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other,” I count as one of the most vivid and beautiful descriptions of the Dream of God in all of scripture.

I notice a shared image between Isaiah 40 and Psalm 85.

Isaiah is commanded to proclaim: “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever.”

Psalm 85 says, “Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven…and our land will yield its increase.”

These are images of plants growing up from the ground, but we notice that the result is very different in each case.

We humans are like blooming plants, but we do not last. We fade and wither, and quickly return to the Earth, our source.

What plants grow up strong and stand fast forever? The virtues or values of truth and righteousness, and the Word of God.

What do we make of this? What does it have to say to us in our walk of faith?

Advent is a good time to reflect on our mortality.

It is technically a penitential season, which means it is our opportunity to reflect on sin and death.

As grim as that seems, we don’t reflect on sin and death to be morbid or self-abasing. We do it because it helps us gain needed perspective, to see ourselves as those flowers that fade and the grass that is cut down.

And what’s the purpose of that?

To teach us to cherish every moment we have in this mortal life, and also to remember that no matter how big the mistakes and regrets we have, they too are as fleeting and mortal as the grass in the sweep of the long story of our loving and forgiving God.

So we learn from our texts that virtue lasts: truth, righteousness, mercy, and peace.

What does that actually mean? Continue reading

Good News: The End Is Nigh

You have no idea how tempted I was to get in the pulpit today wearing a big sandwich board sign that said, “The end is nigh!”

It’s Advent, and the texts chosen for us to study and reflect on in the Advent season are often chaotic and dramatic, foreshadowing the end of the world.

There are themes of apocalypse woven throughout, whether it is John the Baptist or Mary the Mother of Jesus talking about social apocalypse or Jesus talking about cosmic apocalypse.

We hear in our scripture readings on Sunday mornings about valleys being made low and hills lifted up, about the mighty being cast down from their thrones, about the axe being at the root of the tree and the chaff being burnt with unquenchable fire.

As I’ve preached before, despite what the onslaught of saccharine Christmas commercialization would have us believe, Advent is not really a tender and gentle time. It is about dramatic and earth-shattering upheaval.

And our texts for this Sunday are no exception. Jesus tells us that “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

That’s pretty intimidating.

And Isaiah seems positively eager for everything to go to hell in a handbasket.

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence, as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil.”

He can’t wait!

Here is another opportunity to remind ourselves how different our outlook is from the people who originally heard these words proclaimed.

What kind of people are eager to see society torn limb from limb and for God to erupt into history with righteous vengeance? Continue reading

Standing Up for Where You’re Wrong

This gospel is always one of the hardest to deal with in a sermon for me, because it convicts me so deeply.

Jesus sets forth a very clear and simple standard for our lives as disciples, and I know how badly I’m failing at it.

Am I feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger every day?

Maybe if I stretch the interpretation and say that I’m feeding the spiritually hungry, I can give myself some cover.

But honestly, I’m a fundamentalist and a literalist about these types of texts, and I know the truth about my life.

Jesus in the gospels virtually never tells us what to believe.

He tells us what to do.

And what he tells us to do over and over again is to care for and empower the poor, the oppressed, and the most vulnerable in our society.

I fear that I’m not really doing that, at least not in any way that requires much sacrifice or initiative from me, and I doubt I’m alone in this room in that cringing realization.

Reading a text like this honestly, and facing up to the fact that we’re not doing what Jesus has asked of us—that is a painful, frustrating, guilty and helpless state of mind.

We call that state of mind “being convicted.”

It hurts so much that I started to ask: what is the value or the function of this feeling of conviction in our spiritual lives? Continue reading

Anita Hill, Sexual Harassment, and the 10 Virgins

Trigger warning: this piece contains discussion of sexual harassment and sexual violence.

 

 

The floodgates have opened on the reality of everyday experience for American women.

Sexual harassment is a daily occurrence, and the number of women who have not experienced sexual assault is vanishingly small.

In the circle of women who are most dear to me, several have been raped.

I myself had what I would describe as a semi-consensual sexual experience in college that had deep repercussions for me.

And with regard to sexual harassment, the reaction of most women I know to men who are asking, “Is it really this prevalent?” is, “You mean you didn’t know?”

There are few of us who do not have strong emotions about this cultural moment.

I have talked to straight male colleagues who are frightened.

They are examining years of their lives in retrospect, wondering if they ever crossed a line somewhere and will find out about it on the front page of the local paper.

I have talked to male colleagues who react with scoffing dismissal, insisting these accusations are a fad and a bandwagon for every opportunist holding a grudge.

Other male colleagues have reacted with sensitivity, solidarity, and commitment to being part of a solution.

The female colleagues I have talked to have had a range of reactions as well.

Some have had to shut down all news and social media in their lives because the constant barrage of sexual harassment allegations has triggered their own memories and swamped them with PTSD.

Some who have not dealt with outright abuse or assault have felt guilty or privileged compared with those who have.

Many are deeply cynical that any real change can occur in a nation that elected as president someone who freely admitted to sexual assault in what he called “locker room banter.”

And this doesn’t even begin to address the additional levels of harassment and assault experienced by those rendered even more vulnerable than those in my dominant milieu of middle class white women.

People of color and LGBTQ colleagues I’ve spoken to have shaken their heads as they’ve affirmed that my privilege has shielded me from additional layers of poisonous harm that bombard them from the outside world every day.

I think one of the questions everyone is asking is, “Why now?” Continue reading