“A sin of fear”

A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent at the Church of the Epiphany, inspired by John Donne. Our little recording of the hymn is on YouTube.

I fell in love with John Donne when I was nearly a teenager. He had been dead several centuries by then, but no matter. His words were timeless. We sang a poem of his this morning, A Hymn to God the Father.[i]

Before he was chaplain to the king and the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, Donne had a past. He went into law first rather than the church, and he was known around London for his womanizing rather than his piety. He went to be a soldier for a time. When he fell in love finally and married, when he became a parent, and a bereaved father, and was widowed, he began to think on different themes than he had in his earlier, more licentious life.[ii] He contemplated his mortality, and that of those whom he loved, and perhaps it was through them that he found God.

Before he was ordained, Donne wondered whether it was such a good idea, given his past, and his well-published sins. Yet the faith that he had found was in a God whose forgiveness outstripped any error that Donne had made, and he was persuaded to share his discovery, his uncovering of that grace, that love, not only through his poetry but from the pulpit.

Today’s hymn describes in a tightly compressed form that journey of the body and spirit from reprobate to repentant and grateful sinner.

In the final verse, Donne writes, “I have a sin of fear that when I’ve spun my last thread, I shall perish on the shore.”[iii]

He identifies his fear of being left behind by God as a sin – Donne knows the stories of the lost sheep and the persistent shepherd. He knows Jesus’ promise to the bandit on the cross beside him, that he would see paradise soon. Like the worried father in another gospel story, Donne’s prayer is, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief!” (Mark 9:24, KJV). 

“The cross,” writes Paul, “is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). 

The blessing of the bandit, the welcome into paradise of the sinner, the profligate and promiscuous forgiveness that God hands out is an outrage to our fallen sense of injustice, our punitive sense of fair play. Yet it is, too, our only hope, knowing, as we do all too well, our own pasts, presents, and even some of our future sins. As Donne once preached, “I know nothing, if I know not Christ crucified, And I know not that, if I know not how to apply him to my selfe.”[iv]

But this Christ is not a hope only for the future, or for that other shore. He is a very present help in times of trouble, and he helps us to turn the tables on our sin of fear and embrace grace.

Sin is often defined as anything that separates us from the love of God. Identifying his fear of rejection, of condemnation, his fear of hell as a sin, Donne recognized that it threatened to keep him from the full embrace of that foolish and fond grace that Christ had mediated to him.

Fear of our own condemnation is what leads us so often to condemn others. Fear of missing out makes us grasping and fetters our generosity of spirit. We covet what is our neighbour’s instead of making sure that they have enough to get by. Fear of rejection leads us to scapegoat, separate, scorn those whom Christ would welcome from the cross into paradise. Fear makes thieves of our prayers. We seek to secure to ourselves the blessings that God would share with the whole of creation.

We can repent even of this fear; not because it would keep us from heaven, but because here and now, God calls us to love our neighbours, to keep the commandments not as a duty but for the joy of embracing God’s will.

Again, I borrow from Donne, who prayed,

Forgive me O Lord, O Lord in the merits of thy Christ and my Jesus, thine Anointed, and my Saviour; Forgive me my sinnes, all my sinnes, and I will put Christ to no more cost, nor thee to more trouble … I ask but an application, not an extention of that Benediction, Blessed are they whose sinnes are forgiven; Let me be but so blessed, and I shall envy no mans Blessednesse.[v]

When we turn the tables, doing justice, promoting and provoking mercy, zealously and foolishly following Jesus, even when all seems lost and to lead only to the cross; when we embrace the grace of God not for ourselves but for its own sake – because it is beautiful, because it is gracious, because it is foolish, because it is hopeful – then we will find our sin of fear, and our fear of sin, wiped clean. 

Donne’s conversion didn’t only save his eternal life. It changed his life in the here and now, or at least in the there and then. Acting on his understanding of God’s grace, he amended his own life and reached out to others in prayer and compassion, preaching redemption, knowing well his own foolishness, and trusting instead in the wisdom, the love, the inexhaustible goodness of God, writing out his prayers and living them with his body:

“Lord, I believe: help thou mine unbelief.”

And having done that, thou hast done; I fear no more.

[i] John Donne, A Hymn to God the Father/Wilt Thou Forgive That Sin, Where I Begun,https://hymnary.org/text/wilt_thou_forgive_that_sin_where_i_begun/fulltexts

[ii] For more biographical details, see Richard Schmidt, Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002), 47-51

[iii] Donne, op. cit.

[iv] John Donne, Sermons on the Psalms and Gospels with a Selection of Prayers and Meditations, edited by Evelyn M. Simpson (University of California Press, 1963), 53

[v] Ibid., 242-243

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On being lost

Today’s Speaking to the Soul at the Episcopal Cafe draws upon my word to the parish for March, as well as a much older memory of being (almost) lost in the wilderness

Once, we thought we were lost for real.

It had been a long day and night of travel. We disembarked our train too early for dawn, on a concrete platform barely long enough to hold half the carriages, in a place we had never heard of. But we were not lost. The appointed people met us and took us to a large room to sleep until daybreak.

We sprawled into longtail boats for the hours-long journey up-river. On a bend in the bank I saw a monitor lizard that I swear was as large as the Komodo dragons at the zoo. We arrived at last, late in the afternoon, unpacked the children and checked into our cabin in the Malaysian rainforest. We thought we would take a quick walk before dark.

The signs said that it should take us about half an hour to loop through the encroaching forest and back. They were not entirely accurate. After well over an hour, with the canopy darkening and the narrow path dimming into that grainy soft focus that comes with the dusk, we were afraid that we might, in fact, be lost in the jungle, reputed still to harbour the occasional tiger, and definitely full of scorpions, spiders, and large and small lizards, along with our baby, toddler, and child. It was too late to turn back; the darkness would be upon us within minutes.

We were not lost. The signs at the start of the trail were misleading; the loop was approximately three times longer than advertised, but it did lead us back to the opening and the paved path, our cabin and our friends next door.

I wrote to my parish for the beginning of March that we have been a year now in the wilderness of pandemic life. When first we closed our doors and retreated online last March, we had no idea how long this journey would be. We are not at the end of it yet, nor can we turn back, but we are not lost.

I wrote, “We can bear the wilderness a little longer, if staying here means that we are learning to love God and one another in new ways. We can bear it, knowing that God is with us, as God was with the people when they complained and cried out in the desert, and received manna to eat and water from the rock to drink. God is with us, even in the wilderness. Perhaps, especially in the wilderness.”

We can bear it, especially, if we know that we are not lost, if we

believe that [we] shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord! (Psalm 27:13-14)

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Less than forty years

I wrote this to my parish in our March newsletter at the end of last week, one year after last year’s longest Lent began.

Last March was our transition to the wilderness of pandemic life. On March 1, we entered into the First Sunday in Lent. On March 8, the Bishop visited our parish. By March 15, the last time we gathered for worship in the Nave as usual, the mood was sombre as we shared Communion in one kind only, and broadcast the service to those already sheltering in place. On March 22, we had our first Zoom service from the Chapel. By March 29, we were under a statewide stay-at-home order, and we shared Morning Prayer from our homes.

Since we became aware of this pandemic disease a year ago, more than 500,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the US alone, 100,000 of them in just the past month. We are not yet out of the wilderness.

During Lent, we read of God’s successive covenants with God’s people. We read of their wanderings through the wilderness of flood plain and desert, exile and exodus, displacement and occupation and the hope, always, of return, of resurrection.

We have been in this wilderness for a year now. It will not take us 40 years to reach its far side, but it will remain a part of our faith story, shaping our lament and our hope for years to come. It has physically altered our prayers and our liturgy. It has called us, like Noah, like Abraham, like Moses, into new ways of being and new understandings of God’s presence with us.

Half a million people is a lot of grief to bear. Their weight should slow us down, our footsteps should falter rather than rush toward false hope: a golden calf, an idol of our own making.

We can bear the wilderness a little longer, if staying here means that we are learning to love God and one another in new ways. We can bear it, knowing that God is with us, as God was with the people when they complained and cried out in the desert, and received manna to eat and water from the rock to drink. God is with us, even in the wilderness. Perhaps, especially in the wilderness.

The hope of return and resurrection sustains us, but it is not all that gives us life in the wilderness. The knowledge that God is with us in lament, is with us in hope, is with us in the waiting, the lost days, the wandering and wondering of the wilderness, even the emptiness of Holy Saturday: that is our faith, our rock, the covenant of our salvation.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord! (Psalm 27:13-14)

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Ash Wednesday comes around again

Ashes line the grate
after the great snow storm.
Chill strikes down the chimney;
a ghost stepping over the grave
of last night’s fire.
Ashes lift and shiver,
settle and sigh, whisper
to the warm wood tales of passion;
eagerly, we consume their heat,
lying in the dust,
brushing away reminders
of how it always ends
until tomorrow’s embers,
spent, draw us back
to kneel among the ashes
with dustpan and brush
and the unclean slate

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A prayer for a bad day

(Save it for when you need it. May you never need it.)

This post first appeared at the Episcopal Cafe, Speaking to the Soul, on February 10, 2021

There are days that will not let go.
They drag at you like a bramble.
Whether with the weariness of worry,
or of sickness, or decay,
they etch themselves inside the bones,
an internal calendar of dismay.
They make mockery, singing off-key:
This is the day that the Lord has made …

This is the day that the Lord has made,
and in the beginning each was given its bounds:
there was evening, and there was morning,
none allowed to stay for ever.
This is the day, fleeting like a breath,
a long-drawn sigh, mortal like us;
may we find compassion for its brevity,
love it like an enemy, pray for it as a persecutor.

This is the day that the Lord has made.
May God give it only the measure that it deserves.

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red white and blue

Content warning for fear of gun violence at a school

sirens stretch the air like an old jazz horn

lights the color of a fresh wound


snow around the school drive pounded

into ice by parents pacing out their prayers 

as once they cradled newborns refusing to fall asleep

feet stamping out the new national ritual

of waiting for news;

all I can offer is

Christ, have mercy

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Love, knowledge, authority, and unclean spirits

A sermon for the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 2021. The readings include Moses’ job description for a prophet, Paul’s admonition that “knowledge puffs up; love builds up,” and Jesus casting out demons with authority in the synagogue at Capernaum, as well as Psalm 111:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; those who act accordingly have a good understanding.”

The unclean spirits knew who Jesus was. The devil can quote from the Bible. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

The scribes, who elsewhere get a bad rap, were perhaps wise. They taught, not as ones with the authority of Jesus, the Word of God himself, but with humility. They heeded the warnings of Moses, that the one who claims to speak for God had better be careful to check with God first.

Information is not the same as motivation. The unclean spirits knew who Jesus was. But they were on a whole other mission.

In her opening remarks to the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church last week, House of Deputies President the Revd Gay Jennings called out the phenomenon of Christian nationalism, which was on full display during recent disturbing and violent events at the US Capitol. She said,

This violent and exclusionary movement is on the rise in the United States, and those of us who believe that God is calling us toward a very different vision, toward the Beloved Community, have a special responsibility to stand against it. If we will not tell the world that it is not Christianity, then who will?


The unclean spirits knew the name of Jesus. It rolled off their lips with ease. That did not make them Christians.

But this is where we need to be even more careful. Jesus was able to separate the unclean spirits from the man driven by them. He, because of who he was and the authority he wielded, was able to bring healing to the situation, reconciliation to the community. Because he loved the man yelling at him in the synagogue, Jesus would not leave him to the mercy of unclean spirits.

President Jennings went on in her address to raise up a white paper from the Office of Government Relations, detailing ways in which our church can be an instrument of healing and of reconciliation in these precarious days. They wrote,

The Episcopal Church has the opportunity to respond to this threat by offering an “off-ramp” for those who have joined extremism groups, expanding the possibility of reconciliation and forgiveness. The Church can prevent those who are on the brink of joining radical extremist groups from doing so, inoculating young people from succumbing to these ideologies.


If we think that this work does not apply to us, then I would remind us that at least seven full buses left Cleveland on the morning of January 6th to travel to DC. And while I know of no one from this church attending, I know from colleagues that there were Episcopalians among those joining the caravan. We are closer than we think to the opportunity to help someone shake the unclean spirit of radical racism and Christian extremism.

It is not enough for us to know that there are unclean spirits out there. As long as one of our cousins in Christ is tempted by their false naming of him, our conscience is not clean.

But it is not enough, either, for us to know that there are unclean spirits out there. They know us, too. They speak our names, and puff us up with pride or tear us down with fear. But Jesus speaks our names with love. Our unclean spirits may talk up a storm, puffing us up with pride that we are not like those other, weaker Christians, but Jesus knows us, and all the ways in which we have been led astray, and all the false words we have devoured and spat out. He knows our unclean spirits. And still, Jesus loves us.

Jesus spoke with authority, and not as the scribes. God knows, I am merely a scribe, a person of unclean lips. But God has commissioned me to love God and to love my neighbour, and my enemy alike, the very best that I can. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

Paul does not consider knowledge of the gospel nor learning, of which he has plenty, to be a bad thing. But he knows that it can lead to some self-satisfaction, some self-righteousness, some self-sufficiency, some superiority which is at odds with the Beloved Community of Christ, the church that Paul is planting. Love: love is the thing that will save us.

The unclean spirits knew Jesus, and they named him. Jesus knew the man, and he loved him.

May Christ have mercy on each of us, and fill us with the knowledge of God’s love for all whom God has made.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10, KJV)


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Being human in Nineveh

A sermon for the third Sunday after the Epiphany in January, 2021. The readings include the conversion of Nineveh by a reluctant Jonah, and Jesus’ call to his first disciples to come “fish for people.”

Nineveh was a byword, and the story of Jonah may be read as a parable. God’s relentless wrestling with the wickedness of the world, God’s pursuit of mercy run riot through the story.

Nineveh was a byword. Nineveh was Sodom and Gomorrah for foreigners. Nineveh was old Vegas, Gotham, and Deadwood rolled into one. Nothing good could ever be said to come out of Nineveh. Nineveh was like Chile under Pinochet, South Africa under apartheid. Robert Alter, in his new commentary to the Hebrew Bible, remarks that sending Jonah to Nineveh was “rather like sending a Jewish speaker to deliver moral exhortation to the Germans in Berlin in 1936.”[i] No wonder Jonah didn’t want to go there.

The thing about bywords is that they are short cuts. They only take you so far. They paint with a broad brush (to mix the metaphors).

But focus in on Nineveh, and you find the people. The shopkeeper who gives away his produce at the end of the day to the orphans in the alley. The mother who would do anything for her children. From the king’s palace to the shanties on the edge of the town, you find devotion and regret hidden under the weeds of wickedness. You find humanity, if you look closely enough.

Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh. He knew, he had heard the stories. But walking the city step by step, passing person by person in the streets, he soon learned to see the wood for the trees. He preached, as God had commanded him, the coming destruction of the city. And the miracle of it all was that the people listened, and they changed their ways. Faced with the consequences of their wicked ways, they turned to look for something better.

Is it possible that these people, evil by reputation and wicked by renown, were gnashing their teeth because they were hungry for the good news of God, the mercy of grace, the reconciliation of repentance?

Jonah should have been used to miracles, after the belly of the whale and all of that. Still, he was taken by surprise. Fear, rumour, judgement were hard habits to break.

It was not inevitable that the people or their king should repent. If they had not, there is no reason to suspect that God would not have pursued their obedience as emphatically as God stormed Jonah from the ship and into the great fish and onto the beach. There are consequences for running from the will of God, for running a corrupt country, for turning one’s back on the fate of one’s fellow humans, for failing to call out wickedness. For not following through on the commandment and promise to love every neighbour as ourselves.

If Nineveh had not repented, who knows how the story would have ended.

But Nineveh did repent, and the reason that this byword for sin and evil changed its ways, and its fine robes for sackcloth and ashes, is because a prophet, reluctant, inadequate, and very fishy, walked among them. Because he came to see them not as political cartoons, memes, or caricatures, he found himself acting as a human toward them.

Just so, when Jesus became incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, sharing our life, our stories, our humanity, he brought us to our knees with the knowledge of the mercy of God.

There is something truly salvific in being human to another person.

Repentance is key. If Nineveh had not repented of its evil – if it had continued in the ways of greed, oppression, violence, and sin – then the story might have had another ending. But if Jonah had not walked among them, fearful, inadequate, and doing penance for his own attempts to evade God’s good graces, they might never have known that the mercy of God awaits those who are ready to repent and recognize it.

What if we had the chance to fish for a miracle? What if we had the good news that could change the ending of a story?

What if we, fearful, fishy, feeling somewhat inadequate, out of our own repentance, in fact had the power to change the world around us, simply by being human to one another, telling the truth with love and trembling, wherever we connect, online or in the grocery store or in our prayers?

I like Jonah. He has all of the flaws you need in a hero. He saved Nineveh, once he finally grasped for himself the persistent, insistent, and inescapable mercy of God. I love that he is a bit fishy, and that God send him anyway to scold the city with love.

And Nineveh repents, and is saved by the very human intervention of God, just as we have been.

[i] Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (Norton, 2019), Vol. 2, “The Prophets”, p. 1289, commentary on Jonah 1:2

Featured image: Maarten van Heemskerck (1498–1574), Jonah Under His Gourd. Date: 1561. Royal Collection, UK, via wikimedia commons

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Prostitutes and Pharisees: enough of contempt

A sermon for the second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 17th 2021

In the genealogy of Jesus according to Matthew (Matthew 1:1-17), five women are mentioned, four of them by their names. Apart from Mary, his mother, there is Ruth, who was the grandmother of Jesse, the father of King David. The story of her “courtship” with Boaz makes for interesting reading (Ruth 2-4), but the writer makes no more of it than necessary.

The most ancient woman named in Jesus’ line of ancestors is Tamar (Genesis 38). Now Tamar was married to the son of Judah, son of Jacob; but he died. Following the tradition of levirate marriage, she was married to her husband’s brother, but he, too, died. Fearing that this was becoming a pattern, Judah withheld his younger son from Tamar, and left her to live as a widow. But Tamar tricked Judah. He met her on the road and thought that she was a prostitute, and hired her. He promised to pay her a goat, and she made him leave her his signet ring for surety. But when he sent back to claim it, the alleged “prostitute” was nowhere to be found.

A couple of months later, the townspeople complained to Judah that his daughter-in-law was pregnant. “She has been playing the whore,” they accused (forgive my language; it’s biblical). And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” That is when Tamar presented him with the signet, cord, and staff that he had left in her possession, when he used her in such a way that he did not even recognize her. Tamar gave birth to twins, Perez and Zerah. When Zerah reached his hand from the birth canal, the midwife tied it with a crimson cord; but Perez pushed his way past and became the firstborn. Perez, the son of Judah’s dereliction of duty and Tamar’s deception, was the ancestor of King David, eventually of Jesus himself.

A few generations later, after Egypt and the Exodus, the crimson cord and other themes resurface in the story of Rahab (Joshua 2). Rahab, who would become Boaz’s mother, therefore Ruth’s mother-in-law, in her younger days was the prostitute who protected and abetted Joshua and his spies in capturing Jericho. They told her to hang a crimson cord in her window so that they would be able to find and rescue her during the fall of Jericho that she had helped to bring about, and she lived forever afterward with the Israelites, becoming the great-great-grandmother of David, in the line of the accession of Jesus.

All of which is to say that when Jesus tells the priests and elders of the people that the tax collectors and the prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God ahead of them (Matthew 21:32), he has some family stories to inform him. When that old Pharisee Paul goes off on one about prostitutes in his letter to the church of Corinth, remember Tamar. Remember Rahab.

The exploitation of another human being for sex or power or any other form of selfish greed is heinous. We know that we have an ongoing problem with human trafficking, and it is the sin and the gluttony and the inhumanity of those who victimize others for profit that is the evil in that realm, not the bodies of the women, men, or young people who are enslaved by the wickedness of others.

The sin which Paul calls out in his letter to the Corinthians, which quivers with his personal distaste, is the sin of the one who pursues his own gratification without consideration to right relationship, mutual respect and love, faithfulness, continence, and grace. The prostitute does not defile the purchaser; he defiles himself.

Any time that we use another human being for our own gratification, without due respect to the full image of God, the full image of Christ within them, we commit the kind of blasphemy to which Paul refers. When we exploit one another for economic gain, or put someone down to bolster our own ego; when we use another to vent our frustration, of any kind, to vent our anger, to be our scapegoat or our escape; when we label the other with our own sin and blame; when we treat any other person as less than as gloriously full of the image of the divine as we are, then we are subject to the kind of judgement we normally reserve for those we consider sinners.

Perhaps that is why the mob was so quick to drop its stones when Jesus invited the one without sin to throw the first one at the woman allegedly caught in fornication, and why the elders, those who had lived the longest and learned the most, and sinned the most, the descendants of Judah were the first to drift away. And perhaps Jesus was thinking of his great-great-great-grandmother when he looked at the woman and, finding them to be alone together, said, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you? … Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and do not sin any more.” (John 8:1-11)

It is easy to condemn the other. It is easy to separate ourselves into “us” and “them”. It gets even easier when we use labels and group people together: black and white, right and left, sinners and saints, gay, straight, cis- or transgender, prostitutes and Pharisees.

But Jesus looked at Nathaneal and saw him for who he truly was, with no deceit. And Jesus looked at the woman, caught in sin and violently scorned by the crowd, and saw her as a woman, fully human, and made in the image of the divine. He saw their common ancestry, their shared humanity, and the mercy of God that filled the divide between them.

Almost everyone’s story is more complicated in its roots and its backwoods than it first appears. We are not as adept as Jesus at seeing through to the core at first glance. But we are his spiritual descendants, and his ancestors are our ancestors. We can practice, removing labels and resisting prejudice, remembering where we have come from, the skeletons in our closets, the memories behind the mirror, resisting the temptation to use or abuse others to feel better about ourselves, and wondering instead how we can be of service, to help and to heal the world, following in the way of Jesus, in whom the image of the God was made perfectly, fully, and compassionately human.

Let me close with a prayer penned by one of those who strove to follow in Jesus’ way of love, Martin Luther King, Jr:

O thou Eternal God, out of whose absolute power and infinite intelligence the whole universe has come into being. We humbly confess that we have not loved thee with our hearts, souls and minds and we have not loved our neighbors as Christ loved us. We have all too often lived by our own selfish impulses rather than by the life of sacrificial love as revealed by Christ. We often give in order to receive, we love our friends and hate our enemies, we go the first mile but dare not travel the second, we forgive but dare not forget. And so as we look within ourselves we are confronted with the appalling fact that the history of our lives is the history of an eternal revolt against thee. But thou, O God, have mercy upon us. Forgive us for what we could have been but failed to be. Give us the intelligence to know thy will. Give us the courage to do thy will. Give us the devotion to love thy will. In the name and spirit of Jesus we pray. Amen.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Featured image: Jacopo Tintoretto (1519-11594), The Meeting of Tamar and Judah (detail), via wikimedia commons

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Resisting evil

A sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany in January 2021, days after insurrectionists briefly ousted the US Congress from its chambers

On the Feast of the Epiphany, the day on which we celebrate God’s revelation of the Incarnation of Christ to the nations of the world, images from our nation’s capital were cast about the globe of insurrectionists wrapped in flags, some with the name of the president and symbols of civil war, and some which bore with them the holy name of Jesus.

On the day of the Epiphany, when God’s love shone out from the cradle of the Christ-child, born to be one with us, to seek and to serve us in mercy, in humility, and in the miracle of forgiveness, we mourned the deliberate divisiveness that fuels violence among us, the lies that lead to conspiracy against the truth, the violation of our democratic ideals, the ironic vainglory of some who hold themselves to be supreme while wrapping themselves in the name of Jesus. We mourn the several deaths that resulted directly from the rhetoric and actions of that day.

Those flags that bore the name of Jesus might have been the robes of Herod, who pretended to the Magi that he wished also to worship the Son of the almighty God, when in fact he worshipped no one but himself. Erecting a gallows while wrapped in the name of the one who hung from a tree for us and for our salvation is perhaps the deepest and most devastating irony.

Jesus, meanwhile, was in the manger: God incarnate, born into the humblest body to show us the way of God’s love. Love is creative, not destructive.

The Greek disciples whom Paul found at Ephesus had never heard of the Holy Spirit. They had not been raised on the same Jewish scriptures as Jesus and Paul, full of the prophetic voice of God. They didn’t know any better. We do not have their excuse. We have seen the revelation of God in Christ spread about the world. We have known the anointing of the Holy Spirit. We know that the counterpart of our baptism of repentance is the provocation of the Holy Spirit to follow in the footsteps of that Jesus: to do justice as he did, love mercy as he loved, resist evil, as he resisted, walk humbly as he walked with God. We have made our covenant in baptism, to renounce evil, to proclaim the Gospel of Christ in word and in deed, to uphold the dignity of those made in the image of God.

Where does that leave us after Wednesday’s deep indignities?

We cannot claim ignorance, and we dare not pretend that this, resisting this violence against the body of our nation and the name of our Lord, the one for whom we call ourselves Christians, is not our business, nor that repentance is not required of all of us.

We cannot make an idol of our political institutions, recognizing that no political system can be said truly to represent the reign of God. Still, democracy coexists so kindly with Christianity because at its best, which, like the kingdom of God, we have not yet fully realized, it promotes the submission of selfish and power-greedy, divisive and unequal ideologies to the cooperation of the body, and sacrifice for the sake of the dignity and welfare of the whole community.

Neither can we allow ourselves to adopt the same tactics of vainglory, or vengeance, or violence of spirit. Jealousy, anger, factions, quarrels, and dissensions are directly opposed to the work of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:19-21), according to the same Paul who baptized the disciples at Ephesus.

The Holy Spirit, who brooded over the waters at the beginning of creation, the dark face of God, which fell upon Jesus in the form of a dove at his baptism, is the same Spirit that we received at our baptism. And the fruits of the Spirit, Paul teaches us, are love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is, he says, no law against such things. (Galatians 5:22-23)

Consider what we saw invading the seat of our government on Wednesday, and whether the flag of Jesus was used to promote peace or to signal jealousy; to cover the image of God with glory or to defile it with White supremacy; whether the name of Jesus was used to spread love or to shout anger; whether it was displayed with self-control, or with wild dissension.

Consider how we signal our own discipleship, and how we wear the name of Jesus.

Consider our side of the covenant, made at baptism, to repent of the evil that invades us, to resist all evil that tempts us, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, serving the way, the truth, and the life; the life of God shining throughout creation.

Consider God’s part in our covenant, made at the beginnings of creation: God’s promise to make all things well, to be steadfast in mercy and forbearance, to bring all peoples, languages, and nations to know the love that God has for the world, and the justice of God’s kingdom.

Love is creative, not destructive.

Consider how we, brooding with the Holy Spirit, the dark face of God, over the troubled waters of our baptism, might create healing, promote peace, reflect Christ’s humility and love.

But first we must repent, and turn away, turn aside from evil.

On this day, on which we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, if we were together, we would rehearse our own baptismal covenant. We always begin it with the reaffirmation of our renunciation of wickedness and sin, and our affirmed commitment to follow Jesus.

Trusting in our God, who always keeps God’s covenant of faithfulness, let us do just that today:

Question Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? Answer I renounce them.

Question Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? Answer I renounce them.

Question Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? Answer I renounce them.

Question Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? Answer I do.

Question Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? Answer I do.

Question Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord? Answer I do.

Do you believe in God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?
Our service continued, answering with The Apostles’ Creed

Book of Common Prayer, Holy Baptism
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