Sermons From St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

Sermon: August 29, 2021 106 160 johnpaddock

Sermon: August 29, 2021

St. Mark says that evil comes from within. The things that defile us aren’t the unclean foods, the improperly prepared meals, the un-kosher kitchens. True defilement flows out of an impure heart. This kind of evil manifests itself in many ways. Mark has a list.

Theft, murder, adultery, envy – these are understandable enough. But let’s define these others:

  • Fornication is sex without love.
  • Avarice: excessive, insatiable desire for wealth or gain; avarice is extreme greed.
  • Wickedness: evil in character, behavior, or tendency. Having a bad disposition. Poisonous or toxic
  • Deceit is not just the act or practice of deceiving, but deliberate false representation.
  • Licentiousness is marked by the absence of legal or moral restraints.
  • Folly: lack of good sense or of normal prudence and foresight; weakness or triviality of intellect. Folly is an inability or refusal to accept existing reality.

Have you picked out some names of folk to place beside each item on the list?

“All these evil things come from within, from the heart,” says Mark’s Jesus, “and they defile a person.”

What we need to be leery of here is to see these as only, or even primarily, sins that belong to individuals. 

The point of this text is to remind us that even though we may outwardly obey the law, wash our hands, eat the right foods, perform the holy rituals – there’s an inward spiritual illness and we’ve all been exposed to the virus. This virus is in the world as it is.

Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians is absolutely clear that we aren’t contending with individual sinfulness and evil human hearts. 

Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. –Ephesians 6:11-12

These evil forces (what some translations call the “principalities and powers”) are clearly beyond individual human shortcomings and sins. Although verse 11 refers to “the wiles of the devil,” there’s certainly more intended here than a red-suited, pointy-tailed, creature with a pitchfork in its hand. What/who are these rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, and spiritual forces?

New Testament scholar Pheme Perkins, in her commentary on this text, says that early Christians tended to understand that the “demons” were external to humans and attacked the souls of Christians from beyond. 

“Contemporary readers are less likely to see the demons as external beings than internal forces that infect the psyche. The quest for holiness forces a confrontation with the tangled web of confusion, sin, and ignorance in the human heart. Nor should the injunction to take up the armor of God and stand firm be limited to individuals. Groups are also subject to a dynamic that works for evil that no one individual would engage in separately.”[1]

Walter Wink has written a trilogy on the subject of “the powers” in the New Testament.[2]

“Here . . . we have what is essentially a series, a heaping up of terms to describe the ineffable, invisible world-enveloping reach of a spiritual network of powers inimical to life. . . . We must include here, then, all the principalities and powers we have encountered, not only divine but human, not only personified but structural, not only demons and kings but the world atmosphere and power invested in institutions, laws, traditions and rituals as well, for it is the cumulative, totalizing effect of all these taken together that causes the sense of bondage to a “dominion of darkness” (see Col. 1:13) presided over by higher powers.  . . .We must not neglect to mention here the spirit of empire, which perpetuates itself through a succession of rulers which was so powerful, in the case of Rome, that it was able to sustain the madness of three emperors in one century (Caligula, Nero, Domitian). Nor can we leave aside all forms of institutional idolatry, whereby religion, commerce, education and state make their own well-being and survival the final criteria of morality, and by which they justify the liquidation of prophets, the persecution of deviants, and the ostracism of opponents.”[3]

What we are talking about here is that the architecture of evil is corporate, not individual. Evil may, indeed, emit from individual hearts, but those hearts were formed in atmospheres of corporate powers like racism, terrorism, classism, militarism, and all the other –isms and cultures and forces that diminish humanity and threaten God’s creation.

So if we contend against principalities and powers, how do we fight against them? Ephesians suggests that since this is a spiritual battle we need to put on spiritual armor (verses 13-17), the armor of God. Once again we turn to Wink.

“. . . this armor turns out to be strange armor indeed. Faith, the gospel of peace, the word of God, truth, salvation, and righteousness—these are not “weapons” in any usual sense of the word. It is a warfare to be waged with an enormous concentration of prayer. What good is truth—unless it is the way the Powers are finally unmasked? What use righteousness—unless it reveals God’s true will for the world? What value salvation—unless the certainty of it is needed for reassurance in the moments of despair or darkness when the gathered might of the Powers makes doubt seem only sensible? What can the shield of faith do—unless we have learned to discern when flaming darts are aimed at our hearts, with their insinuations of inadequacy and guilt or their appeals to egotism and the worship of the golden calf? What good is a sword made only of words, in the face of such monolithic evil—unless evil is not nearly so much a physical phenomenon as a spiritual construct, itself born of words, and capable of destruction by the word of God? And why pray—unless that is the only way we can consolidate, by continual affirmation, the divine counterreality which alone is real, and freight it into being?”[4]

A short word about shields. The round shields of Roman legionnaires that often appear in the movies actually were elongated very early on. Two-thirds of the shield covered the soldier’s body and one-third covered the legs of his comrade to the left. This brilliant innovation encouraged tight ranks, since each fighter was in part dependent on his neighbor for protection.

“Against such evil the church is well-advised to stand shoulder to shoulder, shields overlapping. Hence this instruction in armaments is issued in the plural throughout the paragraph. Not individuals but the whole people of God is addressed. Solitary efforts may at times be necessary, but far better when many, each individually equipped thus, can struggle together and perhaps even “prove victorious over everything.”[5]

The work, the mission, the purpose of the church is to engage is this struggle. Far more than personal comfort and edification, our worship and Christian formation programs are designed to equip and arm God’s people for spiritual battles. We provide pastoral care and fellowship so that we can care for one another with overlapping shields. We speak the word of God, bathe ourselves in the stories of the faith, in order to form human hearts that promote light and life. We engage in mission here in Fairborn and in other places like Haiti and, today, the Gulf Coast to bring to light the counter-reality we call the realm of God.

Too much of American Christianity dilutes the faith and trivializes the battle by: first, concentrating on the individual (Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior); and second, by focusing on the personal and warm sins like adultery and fornication – while essentially ignoring the corporate and cold-hearted evils of our modern life: avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, and folly.

We claim no special righteousness, no new revelation, and certainly no perfection. But we do ask those who claim to preach a “whole Gospel,” to pay attention the Gospel of Mark and the Epistle to the Ephesians. For salvation is not about “some” going to heaven while others are “left behind”. Salvation is about liberation for all people and making the whole creation new.

Let the people of God say, “Amen.”

[1] Pheme Perkins, The Letter to the Ephesians in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 351.

[2] Walter Wink, Naming the Powers (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984); Unmasking the Powers (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986); and Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992). Wink also published a digest of the trilogy with some additional elements entitled The Powers That Be (New York: Galilee Doubleday, 1999).

[3] Wink, Naming the Powers, 85.

[4] Wink, Naming the Powers, 88.

[5] Ibid.

Sermon for August 22, 2021 381 499 johnpaddock

Sermon for August 22, 2021

What a time! 

  • There was the earthquake in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, with over 2,000 deaths. And then they got Grace . . . not Grace in a biblical sense but Grace  in the form of a Tropical Depression that dumped heavy rains in the earthquake zone. All this, of course, following the 2010 devastating earthquake, political instability as demonstrated by the assassination of her President just a month ago, and a medical system overwhelmed by a raging COVID pandemic. Haiti can’t catch a break!
  • Afghanistan: collapse of her military, her government, Taliban takeover, and horrifying images from the Kabul Airport.
  • There’s a surging Delta variant of COVID in many places—with so many of us reluctant to go back to practices that we know are effective (masking, distancing, isolating) and far too many unvaccinated and unwilling to serve the good of their neighbors. 
  • Global climate change is leading to droughts and fires in numerous parts of the world (1.3 million acres burned in Northern California alone so far this year)—storms and floods in other areas. Temperatures in the 100’s in normally moderate climes like Washington, Oregon, and Siberia. 
  • Five hundred miles above the Arctic Circle it rained for several hours on Thursday for the first time in the past 2000 years according the history recorded in ice cores. Six times since the time of Jesus, the temperatures there have risen above freezing—three of those since 2012. But this is the first time it has rained there since Jesus walked the earth.

A writer for Sojourner’s Magazine wrote this week: “I feel helpless, hopeless, as if a thousand lifetimes and mother’s prayers and daddy’s words and Bible verses could never prepare me for how fragile life feels.”[1]

Like Job, sometimes it seems that everything’s falling apart. And too often the Church isn’t much help. This summer’s deep concerns in the American religious community are: 

  • whether our Roman Catholic President can receive Holy Communion. 
  • The Southern Baptists are nervous about us learning that they were founded to provide religious support for slavery and that many of our founding Fathers owned slaves. 
  • Some of the Prosperity Gospel churches are preaching about how Jesus wants us all to be rich, what one theologian characterized in this way: “The Church is becoming a place where Christianity is nothing more than capitalism in drag.”[2]  
  • In some of our Episcopal parishes the hot topic this summer is when we’re going to get wine at the Eucharist.

The Rev. Otis Moss III has it right, when he says, “We are living a stormy Monday, but the pulpit is preaching a Happy Sunday.”[3] I would add, “An irrelevant Sunday.”

No way to sugar-coat the pain, loss, and despair in our world.

I feel it. I venture to say that we’ve all felt it throughout the pandemic, the political turmoil, the isolation, the sense that something is creeping up on us that is overwhelming—that we’re powerless to stop and control. 

With my mind’s eye I imagine the hopelessness of a slave in Egypt, the separation and isolation of an Exile in Babylon, the cry in the garden, “Take this cup from me.” No different than the fear and rumble of the shaking earth and the crash of buildings, the crackling and whoosh of the wind-blown fire racing toward the town, the distinctive clicks of the ventilator heard in the ICU, or the Hell on Earth when it’s 110 degrees and still rising.

The songs of lament fill the scriptures:

Psalm 12

“Help me, Lord, for there is no godly one left;

   The faithful have vanished from among us.

Everyone speaks falsely with his neighbor;

   With a smooth tongue they speak with a double heart. . . .

The wicked prowl on every side,

   And that which is worthless is highly exalted.”[4]

Psalm 13

“How long, O Lord?

Will you forget me forever?

   How long will you hide your face from me?

How long shall I have perplexity in my mind

And grief in my heart, day after day?

   How long shall my enemy triumph over me?”[5]

Or Psalm 137

“By the river of Babylon, we sat down and wept

   When we remembered you, O Zion. 

As for our harps, we hung them up

   On the trees in the midst of that land. 

For those who led us away captive asked us for a song,

   And our oppressors called for mirth:

   “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”

How shall we sing the Lord’s song

   Upon an alien soil?”[6]

Zora Hurston was a sociologist, poet, and novelist of the Harlem renaissance. In one of her novels she gives a theological perspective about the experience of people up against the wall, so to speak. 

“The main character of the novel, Janie, who has taken hold of her destiny by marrying the much younger Teacake, seeks to find her place in the world. In one stunning section, Janie and Teacake take refuge from a hurricane:

“The wind came back with triple fury and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others and other shanties, their eyes straining against the crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching the eyes of God.” (Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God [Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1937], 191)[7]

As we look about and take the measure of our world, it’s tempting to give into despair . . . to allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the darkness around us. 

There are lessons to be learned by those who’ve preceded us. The Psalmists lived in dark times. The Hebrews in Egypt faced deep gloom. The Jews in Exile couldn’t bring themselves to sing the old songs on an alien soil. Hurston’s Janie and Teacake, “seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching the eyes of God.”

You see, it is from the dark, in the dark, on the verge of despair, that people have discovered . . . hope, God. 

So it was the slave, in the heat of the southern sun and under the whip of the overseer, could sing:

“Nobody knows the trouble I seen,

Nobody knows but Jesus.”

For it was in the suffering, in the dark, they encountered one who had been, is there, too. He had been whipped and beaten, poked and stabbed, and had come out on the other side—wounded and scarred—dying and dead. Good Friday gave way to Easter. But only after going through it. 

The temptation is to give into despair or to pretend that the storm clouds aren’t there and celebrate a Happy Sunday. But there’s a third way—to live into the stormy Mondays of life and discover in them, at the darkest moments, the presence of God. 

[1] Article by Dante Stewart, “When Everything Seems Fragile”, in Sojourner’s Magazine, accessed online on 8/19/2021 at 7 pm at

[2] Otis Moss III, Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul WorldFinding Hope in an Age of Despair, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2015, p. 4

[3] Ibid, p. 4

[4] Psalm 12:1-2, 8 (The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p 597)

[5] Psalm 13: 1-2 (BCP, p. 597)

[6] Psalm 137:1-4 (BCP p. 792)

[7] Blue Note Preaching, p. 9

Sermon for July 11, 2021 768 1024 johnpaddock

Sermon for July 11, 2021

Sometimes our liturgical formulations just don’t seem to fit with some scripture texts.

For example, Psalm 137 ends with this line: “Happy shall be he who takes your little ones, and dashes them against the rock.” And the proper liturgical response immediately follows: “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.”

Today we heard Herodias’ daughter, Salome, say:

“I want you to give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. 

And then the Deacon said, “The Gospel of the Lord.” And we all replied, “Praise to you, Lord Christ.”

Not everything in the Bible is Good News or even comforting news. It’s just news. Some news is good; some of it’s bad; and some of it’s just plain grotesque. 

So, it seems to me that on some occasions we should instead of saying, “Glory to the Father,” “The Word of the Lord”, or “Praise to you, Lord Christ”, we should have the option of saying nothing . . . silence . . . as we contemplate evil and tragedy.  

Since I don’t have any idea about how to bring good news out of John the Baptist’s head on a platter, I’m not going to try. I can’t, as they say, put lipstick on a pig, and have it look like anything other than a pig.

So this seems like a good time to talk about the Bible. What it is. What it is not. How to think about it. 

Although we think of the Bible as a single book, one volume that you can hold in your hand, the title in koine Greek, common vernacular Greek that was spoken in the first century, the title is “ta Biblia”—“The books.” So the Bible is actually a library of books divided into three sections that we Episcopalians commonly call the Old Testament (39 books), The Apocrypha (13-19 books depending of which are included), and The New Testament (with its 27 books). Jews and Roman Catholics include the Apocrypha in the Old Testament. But because the Apocrypha was written in what we call the inter-testamental period, between the Testaments—Anglicans have traditionally grouped them in their own section. Many other Protestant groups don’t include the Apocryphal books at all. 

But the larger point is that the Bible is a whole library of books that are bound together in one volume. The earliest ones were written around a thousand years before Jesus was born and the latest were penned as late as 120 of the Common Era. They are the work of hundreds of authors and thousands of editors and scribes. The contents include folk tales and ancient myths; wisdom sayings, prose, poetry and songs; histories; prophecies; legal codes; liturgies; worship practices and requirements; gospels, letters, and apocalypses. 

Some individual books were written by multiple authors whose works were combined by later editors into a single book. In Genesis, for example, there are two creation stories, one right after the other, and they’re completely different. There are also two different Noah’s Ark stories that are not side by side, but have been interwoven into one by a clever editor. Hebrew scholars can distinguish them line by line, because the two were written hundreds of years apart. It’s like the difference between Elizabethan and modern English. 

The Bible was written in three different languages:  Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic—and unless we can read those ancient languages fluently, we read them all in translation. And as you know, some things get lost or added in translation. There are some Hebrew words that scholars don’t know the meaning of even to this day—depending on the version, there is either a blank or a wild guess.

None of these books were written to be “Holy Scripture.” Each author had a particular point of view, wrote in a particular time in history, and addressed a particular issue, concern, and audience. Some were the equivalent of today’s “paid political announcements”, stressing a highly partisan perspective, while others were written as refutations of the first. St. Paul, for example, never intended to write chapters for the Bible—rather, he wrote letters to the Romans, Ephesians, and the Corinthians, among others, to address contemporary matters and/or disagreements in those communities.

In fact, the first attempt to collect and distribute Paul’s letters was by a heretic named Marcion who, around 140 CE, edited out the parts he didn’t like, in the same way that Thomas Jefferson created a highly edited New Testament, removing the passages that he didn’t care for. The early church didn’t officially put together the New Testament as we have until 382 CE. Prior to that the only “Bible” they had was the Old Testament. And there was quite a debate about which books to include or not. The most highly contested was The Book of Revelation. In fact, no less a light than Martin Luther once commented that “The Book of Revelation is the most un-Christian book in the New Testament.”

What most of the books have in common is that their authors and editors were engaged in wrestling with God and what it meant to be a people of God. Sometimes they were highly complementary of the Divine and at others they complained about God and lamented their fate to him. Some wanted to dash the heads of the children of their enemies against the stones while others wanted to “love their neighbors as themselves.” Some contrasted the evil in the world like the beheading of the Baptist and the crucifixion of Jesus with the Holy Spirit’s call to live into resurrection life.

So it’s all there in the Bible, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Taken as a whole, it’s a vast range of material, gathered over millennia, that’s the record of people attempting to respond faithfully to God and the stories of their failures to do so. As one Rabbi once said, in that sense the Bible is brutally honest . . . a rarity among books of all kinds and especially among religious texts. 

Several cautions about the Bible. The first is what we might call bibliolatry—making the Bible into an idol that we then worship as a false God. We honor the Bible for what it is—but we don’t bow down to it. The Bible is never an end in itself but points beyond its pages to the Divine. 

A second caution is to understand that this book is inspired in the sense that the human authors were motivated by the Holy Spirit to write of their experiences and insights. But it wasn’t dictated by God. The Bible is not the words of God, but it can and does lead people to worship the One who is The Word of God, the Messiah, the Christ. 

A word about interpretation and understanding the Bible. Here are some questions that we should always ask about any particular book or passage.

  • Who wrote it and what was their perspective?
  • When was it written and to whom was it written?
  • What was the situation at the time?
  • How would the message of the text have been understood at the time?
  • And how has the Church interpreted it in different eras?
  • What application does the text have in our own day? 

All this is to say that the Bible is a complicated library. You do not have to have a theological education to read and understand it. But it does pay to have a good Interpreter’s Bible with introductions to each book and extensive commentary. I personally recommend The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Edition with the Apocrypha, an Ecumenical Study Bible, Fully Revised Fifth Edition, published in 2018. There are many other resources to assist people who want to delve more deeply into the texts, and I’d be pleased to share some of those with anyone interested. But that’s beyond the scope of this sermon. 

I hope and pray that these remarks are a helpful summary to the books that form the bedrock of our faith. May God bless you and keep you.

Let us pray.

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

A Matter of Fair Balance 968 1024 johnpaddock

A Matter of Fair Balance

I invite you to ponder with me the relationship between religious faith and our country. We’re gathered here in church on a Sunday morning, as we contemplate and anticipate the Fourth of July celebration next Sunday. As one looks around this sanctuary, there are  American flags as well as crosses. So we here at St. Christopher’s believe that there’s a relationship. And the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag proclaims such a relationship as we say that we are “one nation under God.”

Of course, when things are going along rather smoothly, questions about God and country might not even come up. But when a former Attorney General of the United States quoted St. Paul to justify splitting up families and incarcerating infants, toddlers, and children, then lots of questions emerged. What should be the relationship between religion and the state? 

There is also idolatry that must be avoided at all costs, where folk can worship the symbols (crosses, flags, bibles) rather than the God and nation to which they point. 

These are not just questions for The United States—they’re being asked and wrestled with around the globe, where some predominantly Muslim countries are being encouraged to substitute Sharia law for the law of the state. Or in Israel where the extreme religious right is often the tail that wags the dog. In India, the current government favors Hindu religion over Islam. In other places there are clashes between religious groups. Which religious laws should predominate—if any at all?

Here in the US, we’re a melting pot of religions as well as various cultures and tongues. There are widely varying interpretations of Christianity. If we decide in favor of Christian guidance for the laws that govern our common life, which of those interpretations should prevail? Fundamentalism? Mainline Christianity? Roman Catholic? Or Mormonism? And within each of these groupings, we find wide varieties and variances. For example, Lutherans and Episcopalians don’t even agree on the wording and numbering of the Ten Commandments – not to mention that the commandments started off as Hebrew Laws; there’s nothing particularly “Christian” about them. Do we simply take a vote on each issue that might arise and follow the rule of the majority? And what about the losers of any such votes? Do they have any rights or recourse?

I don’t propose to resolve these very difficult questions in a short sermon. What I would like to suggest is that there are some considerations to keep in mind as we contemplate these matters—some values, if you will, that our faith brings to the table as we contemplate the relationship between civic and religious life. 

I take as a starting point some words of St. Paul to the Corinthians. He was asking them to give generously to an offering that would go for the relief of the Saints in Jerusalem who were experiencing a famine. He said that “ . . . it is a question of a fair balance . . . . “[1] He was referring to the fact that the Corinthians were rather well off while their sisters and brothers in Palestine were living in poverty. The concept of “Fair Balance” is a biblical value that St. Paul calls isotes, meaning equity or evenhandedness. It’s not that everyone has the same, but rather that everyone has enough: enough food, enough clothing, shelter, security, opportunity and so on.

Another form of fair balance involves justice. Think of the image of Lady Justice—blind-folded to suggest that the administration of justice should be without prejudice or bias. She’s holding a scale, indicating that justice is to be dealt out evenly to all. Justice is obviously a prominent biblical theme. Amos’ famous declaration: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”[2] Or Micah:  

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
   and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God?[3]

So the law, and the administration of justice, is to be mitigated with kindness and mercy. No one expresses it better than William Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained;

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown:

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, . . . 

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy.[4]

Micah also reminds us to be humble. “Walk humbly with your God.” There’s nothing more dangerous than absolute certainty. No nation, no people, no state, no laws are perfect, and we Christians realize that we’ve been wrong before. We were wrong that the earth was flat, that the sun revolved around the earth, that we were created in perfection, that the Crusades were right and just. Many good Christians (some of them Anglicans even) wrote a Constitution with slavery enshrined in it. Just because something is the law does not automatically make it right. Some of us in this room can remember the battles against Jim Crow and legal discrimination. There are powerful forms of injustice embedded in our laws to this day. Humility and the related value of “hesitation to be too certain of our righteousness” are important and useful in community life.

Another value featured prominently in both the Old and New Testaments is hospitality—hospitality to the foreigner, the stranger, the alien. The Torah regularly reminded the Hebrews that they were once slaves and strangers in Egypt, and so they were to be vigilant to welcome those who would sojourn among them. Jesus was clear that those who welcomed the stranger welcomed him: welcomed the very image and being of God.  

A definition of democracy I learned in Junior High School was this: “Democracy is the rule of the majority with respect for the rights of the minority.” There may well be far better and more accurate definitions—but the idea of “respect for the rights of the minority” should never be lost. When that pillar of democracy wobbles, the whole structure is in danger of collapse into some form of totalitarianism. 

I don’t think that it was an accident that when we American Episcopalians last revised The Book of Common Prayer, we made one plank of the baptismal covenant the promise to respect the dignity of every human being. And I might add, without regard for whether they are in the majority or the minority.

And so we Christians, as we ponder our country, bring to our reflection these values. 

  • Fair balance, equity, evenhandedness, and enough for everyone
  • Justice seasoned by kindness and mercy
  • Humility and hesitancy to be too confident in our own righteousness
  • Hospitality, especially for the other and the stranger
  • And respect for the rights and the dignity of every human being.

The question of whether we should be a Christian, Moslem, Jewish or other religious state should be an obvious “NO.” The state should never be the monitor nor the enforcer of religious doctrine or orthodoxy. At her best our country will exhibit those values that are commonly held by what is best in all of the world’s great religions—and even by many non-believers who are ethical people of good will.

As we approach our national day of Independence this Fourth of July, I’m reminded of the words of the old folk singer Utah Phillips who used to say, “Love of country always; love of government when it deserves it.” And I might add, “An insistence that we live up to our most deeply held values—not just giving them lip service but working tirelessly to see them become the reality for all.

Let it be so.

[1] 2 Corinthians 8:13b

[2] Amos 5:24

[3] Micah 6:8

[4] William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1.

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter 580 427 johnpaddock

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter

“Peace be with you.” That’s the word of Jesus to his followers. “Peace be with you.”

But we’re not at peace.

We’ve been fighting this COVID-19 for over a year, and just as we get the vaccines to keep people healthy, we see the numbers of sick increase and the number of variants grow and new waves of infection spread around the world. The greatest spread here in the U.S. is among our neighbors in Michigan and Pennsylvania—Ohio’s numbers are growing. Too many people not wearing masks and distancing even while the new variants are demonstrating that they are far more contagious and dangerous to younger people.

“Peace be with you.”

But we’re not at peace. 

There’s another pandemic—a pandemic of gun violence. A graphic in yesterday’s NYT shows the number of mass shootings this year alone from Georgia to California, from Texas to Indianapolis. Many claim that the more guns we have the safer we are. The population of the US is approximately 330 million and the estimated number of guns in America is 434 million. We’ve got 104 million more guns that we have people. This should be the safest place on the planet if more guns were the answer. 

“Peace be with you.”

But we’re not at peace.

This week we observe Earth Day, number 51. Earth day is the annual reminder of the degradation of our environment and the rapid pace of global climate change. Despite all of the proclamations, the planet is in far worse shape today than it was in 1970.

Peace be with you. 

But there is no peace in a nation where there are, on average, three police shootings a day. That is too many. Justified or unjustified, we have got to work together as a people to find better ways to do policing in America. 

“Peace be with you,” says the Lord. This was not and is not a proclamation of what is . . . rather, it’s a prophetic call to action for us to create with passion the Divine will of God. It’s not enough to say, “Ain’t it awful,” and then go back to doing whatever it was that we were doing before. The call of the Gospel is a call for repentance and transformation.

For far too many people Christianity is all about getting to heaven.

This kind of thinking is alive and well. One can see it along the freeways. There’s a series of billboards asking, “If you died today, do you know where you would spend eternity?”  And there’s a display of the Ten Commandments as a kind of roadmap to help drivers locate the happy side of eternity.

But there’s another point of view in the Gospels and in subsequent Christian theology that thinks about sin in a very different way. Rather than understanding sin primarily as bad behavior that prevents us from getting to heaven, and rather than understanding the cross as Jesus substituting himself for our sins and paying the wages of sin with his own death—so that we can get to heaven—this other perspective isn’t even primarily about heaven. It’s not about ghostly spirits, wing-ed creatures, or wispy beings in lives and worlds beyond this one. It’s about earth, as you and I know and experience it. The death and resurrection of Jesus happens where the very real body of Christ has been broken — in this world and in this life. 

That’s the point of these post-resurrection stories about Jesus having people touch him, walk with him, eat with him. The Gospel writers were affirming that the risen Christ isn’t a ghostly apparition drawing us to an existence in another realm . . . the Christ, rather, is very much a part of this reality, and it’s here that we’re called into mission. It’s not that the afterlife is un-important, but we’ve got plenty to do right here and right now.

Christian theology affirms that Sin with a capital “S” is not so much about bad behavior as it is separation from God. So that’s what Jesus was doing when he came down from heaven and became incarnate among us. He is fully human and fully divine—in himself he brings humanity and God together. The theological term is atonement—at one ment.. No division between us and God. That’s why the writer of I John says, “No one who abides in him sins . . . .” It is not abiding, not being one with God, that is Sin. All bad behaviors are just symptoms of this root cause.

The early Christians talked about the stone rejected by the builders, which became the head of the corner or capstone in an arch. It was a metaphor to speak about Jesus, rejected and despised, whom God raised from the dead and made the center of human existence. In God’s economy, the rejected stones and the injured people are the ones to whom Christ’s broken body is offered.

The Christian life isn’t about escaping this world. It’s about transforming it—making it a residence for the Risen One . . . a residence that exists “on earth as it is in heaven.” 

And so we bring our message of God’s love and abiding in Christ to the world. We do that by sharing the message in our families, neighborhoods, places of work. We insist on letting leaders in business, government, and our local communities know about our aspirations for the Peace of God. Write letters, emails, texts, and make phone calls. Pay attention to the issues of the day and subscribe to EPPN, the Episcopal Public Policy Network and join your efforts with theirs.

I often hear anxiety that St. Christopher’s doesn’t have a signature outreach program like a food pantry, clothing bank, or homeless shelter. I suggest we make working for the peace of God our mission—peace where fewer people are getting sick or shot—peace where the Climate is moving in a healthy direction, peace where there isn’t as much need for food pantries, clothing banks, and homeless shelters. Peace—on earth as it is in heaven. 

That’s a signature mission program that comes straight from Jesus.

God bless you. God bless this parish family. And may God’s peace be with us all. 


Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Easter 580 682 johnpaddock

Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Easter

Doubting Thomas. You all know the story. We just heard it read once again. The heart of the matter was that the other disciples had encountered Jesus on Easter evening. They had evidence that Thomas didn’t have. And so he was skeptical. 

I recently participated in a focus group that was considering proposals for changes in our homeless system in Montgomery County. In one exercise we were asked to divide the proposals into three categories: I approve, I’m conflicted, I disapprove.

I imagine that Thomas was in that middle category: conflicted. His friends believed in the resurrection and seemed to be enthusiastic about it. But resurrection? I imagine Thomas’ interior dialogue going like this. “I’m devastated by Jesus’ death. I desperately want to believe that he’s alive. I want to trust my friends’ testimony. But this kind of thing just doesn’t happen in normal experience. Maybe the others are deluding themselves. Perhaps they buried their sorrow in too much wine. I just can’t bring myself to go there without more evidence.”

The people who scare me the most in this life are those who are absolutely certain. You may know what I mean. We encounter folk like that in almost every walk of life and in every arena: true believers. Among some in the Christian world, it’s expressed in the mantra: The Bible says it. I believe it. And that settles it. 

The world is flat and was made in six days, and Eve talked to a snake who talked back, and there was this Tree, and God is Up and is a He, and boys are better than girls, and sex is only for baby-making, and there will be Pie in the Sky Bye and Bye. And so the blessing Thomas gets for having doubts is turned, by some, into a kind of curse against those who raise their hands at the end of the lecture, because they still aren’t completely convinced.

I’ve lived much of my life with doubt. To say that the Bible says something doesn’t fully settle the matter for me. I find myself asking questions like:

  • Does the Bible really say that? 
  • What does the Hebrew and Greek say?
  • Are there other explanations?
  • When was it written?
  • Who wrote that text, in what context, and with what agenda?
  • Has it always been interpreted that way, or have there been other perspectives?

As a boy and a young man I thought that I had things figured out. But then I started discovering that certain people weren’t quite as bad as I thought. Discovered in myself mixed motives. Realized that some of my heroes had clay feet. Ideals like freedom of speech, capitalism, and democracy have both upsides and downsides. 

For the longest time I said the creeds with fingers figuratively crossed behind my back, because they contained words or phrases that stuck in my throat. There were times that I thought that I was a fraud for being a priest and questioning some tenet of the faith. 

I’ve come to learn that this is a particularly Anglican sensibility. We’re true to our British roots, muddling through as they say. Even to this day the British are hard pressed to be clear about whether they want to be part of the continent of Europe or not. They like to look at all sides of a question. 

And you know what? Because I’ve doubted myself, I’ve never wanted to excommunicate, shun, or banish anyone else – with the rare exception of those who were so certain that they were willing to throw others off the bus for disagreeing or differing with them. 

Doubters save us from Nazism.

Doubters prevent us from engaging in genocide.

Doubters mitigate racism.

Psychologist and Middle East reporter Lesley Hazelton once delivered a TED talk entitled Believers and Doubters in which she called for a new appreciation for doubt and questioning as the foundation of faith and an end to fundamentalism of all kinds.

Hazelton points out that the prophet Muhammad was convinced that his first encounter with God was either an hallucination or evidence that he was possessed by an evil spirit. He was overwhelmed not by conviction—but doubt. In fact, Hazelton insists that doubt, rather than the opposite of faith is actually essential to faith. Faith arises out of struggle. Mohammad struggled to understand his experience. Jacob wrestled with the angel. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness striving with satan. Thomas strove with himself for a week—and out of that struggle he knew exactly what questions needed be answered in order to come to faith.

What is often mistaken for faith is fanaticism, an absolute conviction that those who believe like we do possess the truth with a capital “T”. “Without doubt, what is left is absolute heartless conviction.” Others, who do not accept our truth are then disposable as infidels, from the Latin, meaning “faithless”. It was applied by Christian Crusaders to Muslims and more recently, by Muslim extremists to Christians, Jews, and even fellow Muslims who disagree with them. In fact, says Hazelton, fundamentalists of all stripes are the infidels, the faithless, because they have no questions, only answers. It’s the perfect antidote to thought and struggle: certainty. 

Real faith has no easy answers. It’s difficult, because it requires an ongoing questioning of what we think we know. It goes hand in hand with doubt. 

This understanding is why many of the more certain churches grow and have large campuses and numbers. It’s why many of us in the mainline of Christianity are witnessing declining membership. Because too many are not willing to engage in the hard work of doubt and coming to faith. 

Of course, there are many other factors at play which are beyond the scope of this reflection. But Be encouraged to know, as you struggle with what to believe and question certain affirmations, that you are being faithful. You are faithful to the traditions of the world’s great religions and to our own Anglican and Christian heritage. As cracks may appear in your faith from time to time, they are allowing an opening for the Holy Spirit. As our United Church of Christ friends say, “Do not put a period where God has only placed a comma.”

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier of life. Amen.

Sermon for Easter Day 534 600 johnpaddock

Sermon for Easter Day

The story goes that little Johnny was asked about Easter. Johnny responded, “Isn’t that when Jesus comes out of his grave, looks around for his shadow, and then goes back in for six more weeks?”

 Johnny had part of it right. Jesus rose from the dead. 

  • But why? 
  • What is the meaning of Easter? 

Of course, in order to understand what Easter is about we need to know why Jesus was in the grave in the first place. 

The stories of the Passion—the Suffering of Jesus in all four Gospels make it clear that Jesus was arrested, tried, and was nailed to cross in a collaborative effort between Temple authorities and the State. Jesus was a threat to both religious and secular order.

We’re familiar with his many conflicts and arguments with the Scribes and Pharisees  It’s clear from Gospels that the Temple authorities were keeping track of his many violations, and they were looking for opportunities to put an end to him and his heretical teachings. 

The threat was that they had a religious system in place where the authorities and hierarchy were in control—where everyday behavior was regulated—where conformity to established norms was the order of the day, where wealth and privilege went to a select few. Jesus’ laser focus on justice and the welfare of all and his growing popularity couldn’t be ignored. 

What may not be so obvious is why Jesus was perceived as a threat to the might of Rome. Empires maintain their hegemony by force and threat of violence. They understand that any challenge must be addressed forcefully before it grows and expands. The Pax Romana (the Peace of Rome) was based on violence. Military legions patrolled the Empire putting down both internal rebellion and external threats. Historians speak of how the Appian Way, the main road into the city, was lined with crosses—with bodies in various states of decay as a warning and means of social control. “Step out of line—and see what awaits you.”

Jesus’ followers had begun to refer to him as Messiah, Anointed One, Lord, Prince of Peace, Son of God, Born of a Virgin, Savior of the World—all titles and attributes affiliated with Augustus Caesar and the Emperor cult. When Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, he was talking about a realm that was in direct opposition to the Kingdom and the values of Rome. 

The earliest creed of the church was the simple statement, “Jesus is Lord.” To make that affirmation was also to deny that “The Emperor is Lord.” 

In the several days after Jesus’ Palm Procession into the City of Jerusalem, hailed as King and cheered by crowds, he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and merchants in the Temple—and called into question whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. They had to get rid of him.

So Jesus was arrested, found guilty of heresy by the Temple Authorities, guilty of sedition by Pilate, and crucified as punishment for his crimes. A mockery of his kingship and his kingdom was made with a crown of thorns, a purple robe, a cross as his throne, and a sign attached to the cross, announcing for all to see, that here reigns the King of the Jews. 

The contrast between Jesus’ peaceable kingdom and the violence of his murderers was emphasized at the time of his arrest when one of his disciples raised a sword. “Put down the sword,” he said. “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.”[1]

In his dialogue with Pontius Pilate, Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’[2]

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that against this background, Easter is subversive of the death-dealing dominant culture with its focus on security, order, enforced social norms, short-term gains, and ignoring the common wealth that trades on fear, violence, and death.

Quoting Brueggemenn:

There is a countertruth that surfaces in Christian worship. It is a small counterpoint without great voice or muscle. It has been a minority perspective for a very long time. The ones who practice the counterpoint know very well that ours is not and will not be a dominant voice. It is a sub-version of reality, one that sounds beneath the loud sounds of the dominant version, one that flies low beneath the radar surveillance of the dominant version.

This delicate tension between dominant version and sub-version, I believe, is the true character of worship. The claims made in the sub-version, claims such as “Christ is risen,” are a deeply felt, eagerly offered truth. And yet in its very utterance the community at worship knows that the facts on the ground, the data at hand, contradict this and give evidence that the odor of death is still very much in play.[3]

Johnny was right about Jesus coming out of his grave. But the Resurrection of Jesus is about so much more than simply one individual who escaped the tomb. 

But we continue to affirm that “Jesus is Lord” and “Christ is Risen.” It may be a minority report. But that doesn’t lessen our confidence that it is the ultimate reality, rooted in the One who is the Ground of Our Being. 

We live in an age of violence and death, real, imagined, threatened. Gun violence, terrorism, nuclear sword-rattling, Climate Change, and this past year, a Global Pandemic. Some days that’s all that we can see or hear. Easter invites to embrace the alternate vision of a non-violent order and a different way—where lions lay down with lambs, where swords are beaten into plowshares, where universal human rights are connected to universal resurrection, where death is not the last word. This is the poetry, the deep meaning of Easter.

Brueggmann again:

“The church, by its words and by its odd acts of generosity and emancipation, opens the world to new possibility that make all the old possibilities impotent . . . .  The powers of death did their best—or their worst—on Friday; those powers did not prevail. They are shown to be helpless before God’s power for life. And the church continues to mock death and to celebrate God’s gift of life that will not be defeated.”[4]

Alleluia. Christ is risen.

The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia.

[1] Matthew 26:52

[2] John 18:36

[3] Walter Bruggemann, A Gospel of Hope, Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 2018, p. 14

[4] Ibid., p. 18

Sermon: Christmas Eve, 2020 150 150 johnpaddock

Sermon: Christmas Eve, 2020

At the beginning of his Gospel, Saint Luke spent more than a chapter setting up the events that led to the coming of Jesus into the world. But then Luke used only one verse to describe the actual birth.

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. –-Luke 2:7

Mary gave birth in a stable, wrapped her son in strips of cloth to keep him warm, and laid him in a manger. Her baby’s crib was a feeding trough for farm animals . . . because there was no place for them in the inn.

No place. No place for them. No other place to lay one’s head.

It doesn’t take much imagination to realize just how widespread is this experience of “no room in the inn,” no place to call home; no place to be at ease. So much of our modern Christmas mentality and Christmas mythology is about family, about home, about having a place. What’s the holiday song, “I’ll be home for Christmas?” 

And yet the one who’s birthday we celebrate was uprooted from home and extended family in Nazareth and forced to be born in a barn and to sleep in a feeding trough. And in the Gospel of Matthew, who with St. Luke also wrote a birth narrative, the infant Jesus is forced into exile in Egypt.

For many of the world’s people, both in the first century and today, the experience of homelessness is an ever-present reality. For some, they have no place to lay their head because of addiction or mental illness. Others are victims of poverty and economic dislocation. Far too many have had their homes destroyed by the forces of nature. Still others are refugees from home and hearth because of the evil, violence, and hatred that grasps and twists some human hearts.

In Bethlehem’s around the world tonight, God’s children are laying down to sleep with a cardboard box for a manger, some old newspaper for swaddling clothes, a bit of plastic stretched over a pole for a stable . . . because there is no place for them in the inn.

But we don’t have to be homeless refugees to be dislocated and to feel as if we’re not at home. So many of the certainties and securities, which many of us thought we knew, have vanished. In a world of Pandemic, massive job losses and business failures, racial and political distress, global climate change—in a universe of multiple realities, where truth is relative or time-limited, we are afloat, cast adrift, lost in a sea of ideas, beliefs, experiences and ideologies. 

The consumer culture teaches us to value things over relationships through which we discover our humanity.There is a dis-ease in the center of our souls wherein we know that we’re lost, but haven’t a clue about how to get home. This is especially true in a time where we cannot be home with all those we deeply love without putting them and ourselves at risk of illness and death. 

These past few nights many of us have been watching the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. When we look up at the vast array of stars and galaxies in the night sky, it’s a humbling, disorienting realization that we’re but a speck in God’s vast universe. We’re refugees even when we have beautiful homes, paid up pensions, and good health insurance. We yearn for something, someone, more. We have a deep longing for a place that we can call home.

The deep mystery of God calls to us from Bethlehem’s manger. For it’s there that God became human and dwelt among us, experiencing the dislocation and alienation of the human condition. And it’s in that same manger that our hearts can discover their true home. 

G.K. Chesterton captured the wonder of such a thought in his poem, entitled The House of Christmas.

There fared a mother driven forth

Out of an inn to roam;

In the place where she was homeless

All men are at home.

The crazy stable close at hand,

With shaking timber and shifting sand,

Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand

Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,

And strangers under the sun,

And they lay their heads in a foreign land

Whenever the day is done.

Here we have battle and blazing eyes,

And chance and honour and high surprise,

But our homes are under miraculous skies

Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,

Where the beasts feed and foam;

Only where He was homeless

Are you and I at home;

We have hands that fashion and heads that know,

But our hearts we lost – how long ago!

In a place no chart nor ship can show

Under the sky’s dome.

To an open house in the evening

Home shall men come,

To an older place than Eden

And a taller town than Rome.

To the end of the way of the wandering star,

To the things that cannot be and that are,

To the place where God was homeless

And all (people) are at home.

Sermon for Advent 4, 2020 150 150 johnpaddock

Sermon for Advent 4, 2020

Blessings and joy and exultation. Such celebratory emotions have felt mostly absent this December with the possible exception of the approval of the two coronavirus vaccines. 

The Gospel speaks of the time that Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Both women were pregnant, and we’re told that when Elizabeth heard the sound of Mary’s voice she said, “The child in my womb leaped for joy.” And shortly after that Mary broke out in song, singing the Magnificat:

“My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.”

The news of the day, whatever it might have been, would probably have not been encouraging about a hopeful and joyful world. But here we discover joy and rejoicing nonetheless, despite the darkness of the world around.

A key to understanding Elizabeth and Mary’s joy is embedded in the Magnificat in the line, “He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.” The more contemporary translation is, “He has scattered the proud in their conceit.” And while that may be true, the problem as stated in the older version is with our imaginations. As we look around at the darkness and the anxieties with which we live, can we imagine a different world, a better way—more meaningful and compassionate? So Mary sings her heart out, imagining all sorts of reversals of power and wealth and help for the hungry and lowly when God reigns. 

Some years ago a professor told me, When it comes to preaching at Christmas time, don’t try too hard to explain it. Tell the story. Sing the carols. Let the poetry of the season carry the message.

Writer and researcher Diana Butler Bass tells the story of her friend, theologian Phyllis Tickle, who was lecturing in the Episcopal Cathedral in Atlanta. During a question-and-answer period, a person asked, “Do you believe in the Virgin Birth?” Immediately, another person jumped up and proclaimed, “Of course, the Virgin Birth is true! If it’s not, then how can we believe any of the rest of the Gospels?” And then a shouting match broke out with people loudly arguing various positions. 

Later on, after calm was restored and the session was over, Tickle was approached by a teenager who’d witnessed the whole spectacle. He asked, “What was that about, all those adults arguing about the Virgin Birth?” Before she tried to explain, Phyllis Tickle asked the young man what he thought. And he replied, “The Virgin Birth has to be true, because it’s so beautiful — whether it ever happened or not.”

“Sing Out My Soul” – based on Magnificat by Janet Morley 

Sing out my soul,

sing of the holiness of God: 

who has delighted in a woman,

lifted up the poor, 

satisfied the hungry,

given voice to the silent, 

grounded the oppressor, 

blessed the full-bellied with emptiness,

and with the gift of tears 

those who have never wept; 

who has desired the darkness of the womb, 

and inhabited our flesh.

Sing of the longing of God,

sing out, my soul. 

One of my favorite philosophers is Arlo Guthrie who said, “You can’t have a light without a dark to put it in.” 

Diwali in November – Hindu Festival of Lights

Just concluded Hanuhukkah – the Jewish Festival of Lights

Skandinavia – Dec. 13, Santa Lucia, Teenage girls wear crowns of candles in their Hair

Chinese New Year will be observed with lots of fireworks.

We’ve been lighting our Advent Candles—adding an additional candle weekly—increasing the light.

Here in the shortest days (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), the darkest days of  the year we Christians celebrate the birth of one who is the Light of the World. We decorate our homes and trees and communities with lights. And then after twelve days we observe the Feast of Epiphany with the wisemen following the bright light of a star.

The author of the Fourth Gospel does not have a birth story as such. But here’s how St. John spoke about Christmas.

“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.”

Joy to the World! Sing of the longing of God, sing out, my soul.

Sermon for First Sunday of Advent, 2020 150 150 johnpaddock

Sermon for First Sunday of Advent, 2020

Gurdon Brewster was a seminarian at Union Seminary in New York City in 1961 when he did a summer internship at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Brewster was white. His father was a lawyer and his mother a pediatrician. He’d gone to boarding school at Philips Exeter Academy. He has written a fascinating account of his Atlanta summer in his book entitled, No Turning Back.[1]

What was distinctive about Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1961 was that the co-pastors were Martin Luther King, Sr. (known as Daddy King) and his son, Martin Luther King, Jr. Brewster, who’d never preached a sermon before he stood in the Ebenezer pulpit, preached a few times that summer to shouts of  “Amen!” and “Preach it, bother!” and “Praise Jesus!” It was quite disconcerting for this New England Episcopalian. But the shouts of encouragement from the congregation, were punctuated by the deep voice of Daddy King, seated nearby, saying “Make it plain, Brewster, make it plain!”

Not a bad bit of advice for any preacher, especially when the texts seem so dense, so laden with forgotten history and hidden meaning as these from Isaiah and Mark with their images of the end of the world, the great judgment, the coming of Messiah: the heavens torn open, mountains quaking, fires so hot the waters boil, sun and moon darkened, stars falling from the sky, and the powers of the heavens shaken. 

These are apocalyptic texts about the end times. But “apocalyptic” also means “an unveiling” or “revealing.” Biblical authors like Isaiah and Mark use these dramatic images of a supposed distant future to reveal something about the present. The 13th chapter of Mark was written around the year 70 of the Christian Era just as the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed and the residents of Jerusalem fled the city. The text purports to come from the mouth of Jesus forty years before as a future prophecy, but for the author of the gospel, it’s really a description of current events.

The apocalyptic language of Isaiah was actually a contemporaneous description of the destruction of Jerusalem in the first part of the Sixth Century Before the Christian Era. The Babylonians destroyed the city and the Temple, and carried the residents off into captivity for a period of fifty years. 

The Markan language about “the desolating sacrilege” and “the Son of Man coming in clouds” is actually taken directly from the Book of Daniel, another apocalypse written during the time of the Antiochus IV, the Seleucid Emperor who in 167 BCE desecrated the Temple with the sacrifice of pigs on the high altar and banned all Jewish religious practices.

So what we have here, to make it plain, are apocalyptic projections lifted from earlier contexts and applied to new, current situations.[2]

These authors are looking around at their contemporary world – especially at the earth-shaking events that called into question the survival of the world as they’ve known it – and they’re asking, “What does it mean?” and “Where is God?”

Isaiah laments, “You used to speak clearly to our ancestors, the great heroes of our past, so where are you now? You talked plainly to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Elijah. But you’ve hidden your face from us.” “Our world is falling apart. But you are the potter and we are the clay. Make us anew, and sculpt a new world for us.”

When terrorists strike, when hurricanes and earthquakes and fires and famines and floods and Pandemics occur – we, too, look back at the apocalyptic predictions from the past and ask, “Is this the time?” Is this the end? Daily, we listen to the news: economic news, the number of positive COVID tests and hospital admissions; we spin the dials of our radios, scanthe newspapers, click our keyboards, surf the channels of our televisions searching for pundits (prophets) to interpret the signs. 

  • “Is this the time?” 
  • “What does it mean?” 
  • “Where is God?”

Theologian Christopher Hutson has written:

Amid the smoke of battle, the fog of politics, the confusion of economic distress, the babble of would-be leaders wearing God masks and claiming divine authority, how shall we know which way to turn? God’s people should not be surprised or confused, because Jesus warned us ahead of time that such things would happen. 

The powers that be will lull us to sleep by reassuring us that they have our best interests at heart as they pursue their worldly agendas. They play to our fears, our prejudices, our self-interests, so we do not notice their demonic behaviors. Beware. Keep alert. Keep awake. The one who endures to the end will be saved.[3]

The reality is that although there may one day be a final apocalypse, there have already been multiple apocalypses – ends of worlds as we have known them. The Babylonian Captivity, the Antiochine desecrations, the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, The Black Plague, the Middle Passage, the Trail of Tears, the Holocaust, 9/11, multiple hurricanes and tsunamis, Global Economic Recession, climate change, the Covid Pandemic. Each was an unveiling. 

  • September 11 brought to an end the view that we were immune from evil; and revealed that the United States was not the City on a Hill and a New Jerusalem for all people.
  • Katrina revealed the racism and poverty that had been so carefully hidden from plain view. 
  • The economic apocalypse of 2008 unveiled the greed and collusion that was rampant among bankers, financial institutions, markets, government, and rating agencies. And it revealed the cooperation of many of us who – even if we didn’t know the details of what was happening – nevertheless enjoyed the easy credit, consumer lifestyles, and the upward-spiraling Dow Jones. 
  • And the pandemic has certainly revealed just how fragile we are—fragile health, fragile jobs, large and small businesses as risk.

Here at the beginning of Advent, we’re invited to open our eyes and to stay awake. As the world rushes toward another Christmas, with its Black Fridays, Electronics Mondays and 4 a.m. store openings and stampedes, let’s pause to recognize that whenever one world ends, a new one emerges. The Potter’s hand is at the wheel as she reworks the clay and recasts her creation.

The people of God are asked to watch for signs of it, and to listen for the voice of God. It’s a time of waiting for the holy to be born. 

But it’s not just a passive waiting, like a person standing at a bus stop. Rather, it’s an active time of caring for one another, serving the victims, and ministering amidst the brokenness of the latest apocalypse — all the while listening, watching, waiting on God. 

Advent – God is coming – when, where? 

God is speaking – how, what?

God is creating – why, who?

God is. Listen! Watch! Wait!

[1] Gurdon Brewster, No Turning Back: My Summer With Daddy King, Orbis Books: 2007.

[2] See David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2008, p. 22. 

[3] Ibid., p. 24.

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