Forty Ways to Be Baptized, Forty Ways to Die

Today we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, the first Sunday after the Epiphany.

And the first thing I have to tell you is that I can take very little credit for the ideas in this sermon.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to attend the retreat conference of the Wabash Pastoral Leadership Program, and the presenter was The Reverend Alan Storey.

Alan Storey is a Methodist pastor from South Africa.

His father is Peter Storey, the famous anti-apartheid faith leader who began his pastoral career as Nelson Mandela’s chaplain during Mandela’s 27-year prison term.

On our trip to South Africa, we had the opportunity to meet and spend time in conversation with both Peter Storey and his son Alan, and it was immediately obvious that Alan had inherited a double share of his father’s prophetic spirit.

So of course I was excited to see and spend time with Alan again at that retreat, but I wasn’t expecting to be presented with remarkable new theological ideas that galvanized my imagination. That retreat has continued to significantly influence my thinking and my prayer life.

One of the ideas that Alan expanded on was a rethinking of the nature of baptism, and those are the ideas I want to share with you now.

Baptism is our entry into the church, it is how we become members of the Body of Christ.

And so Alan began by asking us: this community that we join at baptism, what is it?

What is the purpose of the church?

To answer that question, we have to ask what problem the church is trying to solve.

If we go back to the Garden of Eden, we see Eve in conversation with the serpent, and the serpent introduces the voice that will forevermore drive our grasping after power and things and control.

That is the voice that says, “You are not enough.”

Our sin is driven by the falsehood: “You are not enough.”

We hear that voice and we do anything to hush it up, to somehow augment our faltering self-image so we can drown out the words: “You are not enough.”

And so we sin. That is what that voice forces us to.

And we have talked about this before here at St. Francis: sin is an addiction.

We are addicted to a way of life that kills us, kills our planet, kills our future.

We as Western Christians cannot seem to do anything that is systemically constructive to end the poverty and suffering that plagues the rest of the world.

And so our addiction traps us and everyone around the world in a planet and a society hurtling toward death.

So what is the purpose of church? Continue reading

We Need To Stop Sending Private Investigators After Jesus: A Manifesto

Every year we celebrate the season of Epiphany, but most of the time, the actual day of Epiphany falls on a weekday.

Big deal, anyway, right?

It’s a strange little holiday that we don’t celebrate very much.

We don’t get each other Epiphany presents.

We don’t hang up Epiphany lights or set up an Epiphany tree.

There are no Epiphany turkey dinners or Epiphany fireworks.

What is the point of this holiday?

Well, first of all, Christmas is ending. Yesterday was the twelfth day of Christmas.

Jesus was born on December 25, and today, Epiphany, marks the day he is revealed to the world for who he really is, the Son of God.

Mary had twelve precious days to hoard him to herself.

Only Joseph and the shepherds knew he was alive.

But then the Wise Men arrive, and that is the first century equivalent of giving a press release. They witness his glory, and go out to spread the good news.

The word Epiphany means appearance or manifestation. Another word for what’s happening is Theophany—the appearance of God.

It’s remarkable that God is already allowing Jesus out onto the public stage at not even two weeks old.

Surely it would have been possible to keep Jesus’ identity hidden until he was a sturdier year old, or better yet, twelve years old, or better yet, twenty years old.

He’s going to be a target for curiosity seekers and fans and lovers and assassins, give the kid a chance.

Two weeks old and already the word is out? Continue reading

And Every Stone Shall Cry

Merry Christmas!

The rest of the world may be moving on to the New Year, but we Christians are still deep in the season of Christmas. 12 days is really not long enough to celebrate Christmas, but we’ll make do.

So in most of our Christmas worship, we want to sing the most obvious hymns possible.

It’s not Christmas if we don’t sing “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Silent Night,” and “Joy to the World.”

These are gorgeous hymns, rich with meaning, and layered in our hearts with year after year of beautiful memories.

When we sing them, we sort of turn our minds off. Our hearts rise up and shine through our voices, and we experience full, unmediated grace through the words and notes we know so well.

That aspect of Christmas worship—the words and songs that flow off our tongues so easily and joyfully—is so important.

But we also need something else in our Christmas worship.

We need something to make us think. Continue reading

Who Counts At Christmas?

We begin the story of Christmas with a sentence from scripture that’s not quite true.

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”

Well, almost all the world.

Everyone who had some kind of position in society, even a working class one, like Mary and Joseph, went to be registered.

Anyone who could conceivably pay taxes was on the Emperor’s list, and had to report in and be accounted for.

It was sort of the first century equivalent of Big Brother/Big Data.

You’re not getting anywhere in America without a social security card, and you couldn’t get anywhere in first century Palestine without being on the Emperor’s list.

If you were taxable, you would be counted.

“All went to their own towns to be registered,” Luke says.

Well, again, not quite all.

Luke himself tells us that in the next paragraph: “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.”

The shepherds did not return to their hometown to be registered. They were on the very bottom rung of society.

They couldn’t pay taxes, and had fallen so far between the cracks of the Roman Empire that they weren’t even expected to.

They were nobodies.

When it came time for the registration, to show up and present your name and your papers to the government, no one looked for them.

They quite literally didn’t count.

Continue reading

God The Unrequited Lover

What are you like when you’re in love?

Have you ever been in love? Especially that first flush of new love?

Everything is beautiful all around you.

You can’t stop thinking about that special someone.

Everything reminds you of him or her.

When you’re with that person, time seems to stop. You can’t imagine how you lived before you met him or her.

You know what else you do when you’re in love?

You sing.

You sing all the time.

You sing in the shower, you sing while you’re driving, you sing while you’re cooking.

You sing about your loved one, you sing to your loved one, every love song on the radio is about you and your relationship.

That’s usually how you learn someone is in love in a musical or an opera, too. They burst into radiant song and you know—they have fallen, and they have fallen hard.

But what happens when your love is not returned?

Have you ever experienced unrequited love?

Oh, it hurts.

Whenever you’re in a room with that person, no matter how crowded, you’re constantly aware of where he or she is.

You replay every conversation you’ve ever had, straining it for deeper meaning than is really there.

If you’re technologically minded, you might do a bit of light Facebook stalking, hoping that they’re happy and in love with someone, no matter how sad you are that you’re not that person. Continue reading

John the Baptist Commits a Major Party Foul

Today is the third Sunday of Advent, traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday.

What does that mean?

Gaudete is the Latin word meaning “rejoice,” and the origin of this name for the third Sunday of Advent comes from the beginning of our reading from Philippians today: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”

In the old Latin mass, the introit used this text, so the first words the priest said were, “Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.”

Hence the name Gaudete Sunday, a Sunday of rejoicing.

Advent is actually a penitential season like Lent, something many people don’t realize.

That’s why when I dismiss you at the end of the service, I don’t say “Alleluia, alleluia.” We just say, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” and you respond, “Thanks be to God,” just like in Lent, because it’s a penitential season.

Just like how in Lent we use the time to prepare for Easter and reflect on things like our mortality and sin, we do the same in Advent to prepare for Christmas.

Thinking about how much we need Jesus helps us get ready to welcome and greet him. Continue reading

Do You Need to Be Silenced?

We have been told so many times that Christmas is God’s gift to us that I think we sometimes relax into a problematic complacency.

Christmas and the coming of the Christ Child absolutely is a free and unmerited gift to us—God gives Godself to us in the Incarnation with no strings attached.

But what we forget is that if we choose to participate in this process, we will be changed.

Advent is actually all about change.

The valleys are being lifted up and the hills are being made low.

Our entire internal landscape is being rearranged—or it should be, if we have not gotten too deaf and numb to God’s presence in our lives.

This time of year it’s easy to bounce between frantic, consumer-driven gaiety and frightened depression at the state of the world and its violence.

But somewhere in the middle of the swirling commotion is a still point, where the chaos that comes from God and not from the world can reach our hearts and gently, lovingly, slowly turn us inside out. Continue reading

Jesus Says “Keep Your Chin Up”

Happy New Year!

That’s right, today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the new liturgical year, and Jesus starts us off with a bang. We’re going to have to find the Good News within these texts, because honestly on the surface they seem like bad news.

“People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken,” Jesus says. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Goodness. That’s dramatic. And pretty scary.

Apocalypse always seems like bad news to those of us who have power and wealth.

But remember, apocalypse, the total upending of the universe’s order, seems like Good News to the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

For them, God coming in and blowing up everything and starting over with justice and mercy sounds brilliant.

Apocalypse is only bad news to those of us who think we have something to lose.

But there’s one verse that jumped out at me that definitely is Good News, even for those of us who are at the top of the pyramid and can’t always identify with Jesus’ audience. And that verse is this: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Stand up and raise your heads.

Or as your mom might have said to you when you were a kid, “Hold your head up and your shoulders back, you weren’t born under a rock.”

Or, when she saw you were feeling down, “Keep your chin up.”

This is an interesting instruction from Jesus, one of the only ones I know of in the gospels where he gives us a commandment for our physical posture. Continue reading

Oscar Romero and the Voice of Truth

I’m going to take a page out of Davies’ book and do something today with my preaching that I rarely do: use a visual aid. And that visual aid is my prayerbook.

This combination prayerbook/hymnal was given to me by St. Michael And All Angels Episcopal Church in Dallas at the conclusion of my internship with them when I was in college. It has my full name, Whitney Elizabeth Rice, embossed in gold on the front, and I never enter a liturgy without it.

But I’m here less to share with you this prayerbook than to share what’s inside it.

I’ve found that the extraneous contents of a priest’s prayerbook, what he or she has paperclipped or taped inside it, are interesting and revealing.

And one of the main pieces in mine relates to our feast day today, Christ the King. So let me give you the full tour.

I only have one thing inside the front cover: a yellow sticky note with 36:5-11 written on it. That’s the verses of the psalm text for Monday in Holy Week.

Ever since I became a rector back in 2011, I’ve done a Eucharist every day of Holy Week, but because the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday services are so simple, I’ve never had bulletins printed—we just do the service right out of the prayerbook.

And without a bulletin, I need to know what the texts are, especially the psalm, which I’m usually leading away from the lectern. So that sticky note stuck, and every year it helps me get Holy Week off to a good start.

I have a lot more things clipped in the back of the prayerbook.

First are the words of emergency consecration. Continue reading

True Confessions of a Convicted American Consumer

I finally did it.

I finally got rid of the stationary bike in my apartment that had long served as an impromptu clothes rack.

Even the shame of admitting I never used it could not overcome the freedom I felt when it was gone.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about consumption. The verdict: I am a big-time consumer.

A series of blog articles and books has led me to evaluate the amount of “stuff” I have in my life, and I don’t like what I see.

I have long felt convicted by Jesus’ economic teachings. Over and over in the gospels he says things like, “Sell everything you have, give the money to the poor, and then come, follow me.”

And I feel exactly like the rich young man in that story, who goes away discouraged and downhearted “for he had many possessions.”

That young man gave up the chance to travel and learn and live with Jesus because he loved his stuff so much.

His stuff kept him imprisoned.

I’ve finally realized that I’m running much the same risk. Continue reading

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