I remember the flecks of ash on my car, that afternoon this past November. The reddish tinge in the sky; the smell of smoke in the air; and those little white flecks of ash all over the car roof and windscreen. Landing everywhere, of course, but visible especially there on that flat surface, against the blue paint. It was from the Camp Fire in Paradise, of course. I’d only seen those little white flecks one time before: a year earlier, when I was still living in the East Bay, and the smoke and the ash were coming from right here in Sonoma County. (more…)
Proclaim the greatness of the LORD our God,
and worship upon the LORD’s holy hill.
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Have you ever had a mountaintop experience?
We use the phrase to speak of a spiritual high, a time of clarity, when our connection with God feels direct and our life feels full of meaning.
From Machu Picchu in Peru to Mt. Fuji in Japan to Mt. Olympus in Greece, mountains are places of spiritual power in cultures all around the world. And in the biblical story there are lots of mountains with special significance. Mount Sinai, where Moses spoke face to face with God and received the Ten Commandments. Mount Zion, the hill where Abraham was said to have received the revelation that he was not to sacrifice his son, and which later became the site of the city of Jerusalem and the location of the Temple itself. And of course the unnamed mountain in today’s gospel, the Mountain of the Transfiguration. (more…)
Imagine you’re living in about the year 500, in Syria. You’re a new Christian who’s just received baptism and is coming to communion for the first time, and your bishop teaches you to hold out your hands, receive the bread, and pray this prayer:
“I carry you, living God incarnate in the bread. You have confined yourself in a fiery coal within my fleshly palms. You are holy, God incarnate in my hands in a fiery coal. Lord, make me worthy to taste the food of your body as a taste of your life.”(more…)
Exactly ten weeks from today, right here in this space, you and I will be gathered together to experience what might best be called a liturgical whiplash.
It happens every year. It’s the liturgy for Palm Sunday. We gather outside, bless palms, and march around singing exuberantly. We hail Jesus as he makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It’s great fun. We get into the church building, finish the hymn, and then all of a sudden it all comes to a screeching halt. We hear this prayer: “Almighty God, your most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified.” The adoration of the crowds shifts to the suffering of the cross. From that moment the whole tone of the liturgy shifts. The gospel for the day is the story of Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion, and we’re catapulted into Holy Week. (more…)
It’s clear that the early Christians who produced the four gospels had some difficulty with that question. You can tell by comparing the four different accounts. Mark’s gospel is the earliest to be written, and Mark narrates Jesus’ baptism clearly: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan”; and then the Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove. But a decade or so later the Gospel of Matthew retold that story, and Matthew clearly found it awkward to have Jesus seemingly submitting to John the Baptist’s authority. So he inserted a dialogue where John says, “How can I baptize you when you should be baptizing me?” and Jesus responds, essentially, “It’s OK; God wants it to happen this way.” And so Jesus is baptized, and the Spirit descends on him like a dove. (more…)
Two things. It takes the wisdom of scripture and tradition. And it takes an open, seeking heart.
Consider the magi. We sometimes call them the three kings, which is a lovely tradition, although the scripture story neither calls them kings nor says precisely how many of them there were. It simply calls them magoi, a word that basically means something like the English word “mages”—people who studied the stars and ancient lore. Anyway, consider the magi. Their astrological observations lead them to believe something important is happening in Judea. And so they set off on pilgrimage. These magi are the quintessential seekers. They don’t have the scriptures, but they have a seeking heart. They know, they just know, there is someone out there. Their hearts are longing and burning for him. They don’t quite know where they’ll find him, but they have an inkling about the right direction to start. So they load up the best of all their treasures and start their quest. And their intuitions carry them far, all the way to Jerusalem, six short miles from Bethlehem. But then they need something more. They can’t quite make it all the way to Jesus on their own. They have to stop for directions. They need the wisdom of the scripture and tradition of Israel to get them all the way there. (more…)
Martin Luther said, “Beautiful music is the art of the prophets that can calm the agitations of the soul, it is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us.” Every Advent and Christmas I look forward to hearing again music that speaks to my soul. Sometimes it is the melody, sometimes it is the lyrics, and sometimes it is both music and lyrics that help me to see a new connection between humanity and the love of God. I am not a musician and I cannot read music. So, I am in awe of people who can take what looks like hieroglyphics to me and make the symbols into a loving prayer that reaches spiritual places beyond the spoken word. (more…)
This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn—
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed & pride the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.
That’s a poem by Madeleine L’Engle, author of the famous children’s book A Wrinkle in Time, a writer for children and adults and, incidentally, an Episcopalian. She wrote it in 1973, during a Christmas marked by the appearance of a major comet—but aside from that, almost everything in the poem sounds like it could have been written today. (more…)
“O higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the cherubim, lead their praises, Alleluia! Thou bearer of the eternal Word, most gracious, magnify the Lord, Alleluia!”
That’s from a hymn called “Ye watchers and ye holy ones.” We sing it a lot when the scriptures of the day talk about angels and saints. The verses imagine all the ranks of heaven joined to praise God. But one verse is dedicated just to one person, the one called “higher than the cherubim” and “more glorious than the cherubim,” the one who was the “bearer of the eternal Word.” It’s Mary, mother of God. (more…)
One of the books my daughter and I sometimes read before bed is a 1930s children’s classic. It’s the story of construction worker Mike Mulligan and his beloved steam shovel Mary Ann. Together they dig out all kinds of big projects from canals to skyscraper cellars. One page shows them carving a pass through a tall mountain range. They pull down the high ground and fill in the low ground and smooth out the earth to make a wide, level highway for cars to go through. (more…)
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”
Who do you say I am?
During hard times, when people want to be helpful and they really do not know what to do, they will often come up with a saying in the hope that it might make things a little better for us. My mother used to say, “And this too, shall pass.” It was to remind me that all experiences, good and bad, have their time and place and will not last forever. I once heard someone say, “Stop telling God how big your problems are and start telling your problems how big your God is.” This, I find, is a good reminder for those times when one feels especially overwhelmed by life’s difficulties. Another saying I heard recently is to remember Grace over Drama. G-O-D. It helps us to remember to pause, center, and focus on God’s grace rather than give into the emotional turmoil of the moment. (more…)
As a teenager in the 1990s I spent a few years identifying with a particular kind of evangelical Christian subculture. My youth group friends and I wore bracelets with the initials WWJD on them, for “What Would Jesus Do?,” and shopped at Christian bookstores for CDs by popular Christian bands with names like Jars of Clay and the Newsboys. None of these references will probably make sense to you unless you happened to come up through the same subculture. But they functioned as markers of identity. (more…)
It’s almost too easy, really. Hearing this gospel story the week before the end of our annual pledge campaign. This is one of the classic so-called stewardship texts, isn’t it? This poor widow has put in more than everyone else, for she has put in everything; all she had to live on. Now I’m supposed to say: go and do likewise. Increase your pledge! Classic stewardship sermon, and I can go sit down—which is good, because sermons are supposed to be short during the pledge campaign so there’s time for the testimonials later. (more…)
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. (Psalm 23)
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Whenever I read the name of someone who is featured in a Gospel story I learn two things. One is that someone thought enough of the person to remember their name and two that the story is like the underline in a written document as it is meant to draw our attention to something important. I do not know about you, however, these days I have difficulty remembering a person’s name within minutes of having been told what it is. I am much more likely to remember their face what they wore or some part of what they shared with me than their name. It is different though if they have a dog. I will remember the dog’s name. And from then on the person who I met will forever be remembered as “Fluffy’s” mom or dad. I do not care how famous they are or how well known they may be in the community, for me their primary identity will be as a pet. (more…)
In the name of God, Source of all being, Incarnate Word, and Holy Spirit: Amen.
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What comes to mind when I say the word “Ambition”?
Maybe it’s a positive word for you, something to do with setting goals and working hard. Maybe it’s more of a negative word, something to do with lacking humility and trying to be better than other people. (more…)