The Passion of the Prophet

The Passion of the Prophet

Jesus calling Herod “fox” speaks volumes. Herod preys on his own people, crushes them, keeps them poor and struggling by exacting taxes from them that break them. In return, he gets to be, tetrarch, live in a palace, and, occasionally, uses his power to annihilate someone who threatens him, like a prophet. Like John. Maybe, like Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t seem scared. In fact, Jesus speaks and acts with determination. You might even say, determined passion.

Image: Photograher Michael Verun, "Mother Hen and her chicks exhibit a great social behavior which human mankind needs to learn from;” available courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday Meditation: The Cup of Salvation

Wednesday Meditation: The Cup of Salvation

Jesus, his mother, and his friends are all at the same wedding. Years ago I read a book that asked the rhetorical question, “When were you ever at a wedding with both your parents and your friends?” My first response to this: This happens all the time in a small town. My second response: This also happens in faith communities. But the writer insisted, It was your own wedding, wasn’t it? So this must have been Jesus’ wedding!  I think that writer was wrong. I also think that writer was right.

This is a vividly described story: I can almost see the colorful clothing and hear the celebratory music. If there were six stone jars there, for people to have ceremonially washed their hands prior to eating… this was a large wedding. Maybe the wedding of two big, wealthy families, able to provide a meal and a celebration, not only for their own kin, but for the entire village.

Image: Daniel Sarrabat (1666-1748), “Wedding at Cana,” Public Domain. Used Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey: A Celebration of Union Presbyterian Church's 200th Anniversary

A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey: A Celebration of Union Presbyterian Church's 200th Anniversary

This morning’s reading from Deuteronomy marks a momentous occurrence in the life of another faith community; in this case, it was the imminent entrance of God’s covenant people—who had journeyed for forty years in the wilderness along with Moses—into the land of promise. In fact, the original Israelites who had escaped from Egypt had died out. It was a new generation coming into the land of promise. All of Deuteronomy is a sermon, really—a farewell sermon by Moses, to the people who will, finally, after all those years, enter into that land without him, their founding pastor. They will begin their new life, greet their future, with new leadership.

But before that, they will remember their past. That’s the main purpose, it seems, of the whole book of Deuteronomy, this sermon that goes for thirty-four chapters. The people must not forget their God-drenched history, which included:

Their own founding fathers and mothers, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Rachel and Leah; their travel as refugees to a new land, driven there by drought and famine; their lives as slaves in Egypt, generation upon generation of slavery; God hearing their cries of misery, and raising up Moses as a prophet and a leader, to confront the brutal Pharaoh and ultimately win their freedom; God’s mighty hand parting the very sea so that they could travel through it with “unmoistened foot.”

They must remember the years in the wilderness; their hunger, which God answered with manna from heaven; their thirst, which God answered with water from a rock; their utter dependence upon the God who led them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night; their awe as God provided the law on Mount Sinai; their shame at their wayward actions of creating a golden idol while they waited.

They must remember all of it: their travel, their prayer, their faithfulness, and their unfaithfulness; the people lost and buried in the wilderness, including Moses’ sister, the prophet Miriam; the babies born on the road; their quarrels and infighting. Through it all, the presence of God, faithful fire; looming cloud, holy of holies in the tabernacle they carried.

They are to give thanks…

Image: Original Log Church, Riverside Cemetery, Endicott, NY.

A New Lenten Discipline: An Ash Wednesday Meditation

A New Lenten Discipline: An Ash Wednesday Meditation

Last week a friend of mine, a psychologist in Nebraska, sent me a poem he had written, in anticipation of the season of Lent. He wrote:

We give up the wrong things

Eliminating candy instead of self-criticism

Sex instead of selfishness

Acting as if what God desires most

Is for us to be on a diet from joy

Perhaps lent should instead

Be a time of letting go

Of all that prevents community

(As an aside, do people really give up sex for Lent? Maybe it’s a Nebraska thing?)

I heard someone say that each Ash Wednesday, we begin again, to take a long, honest look at our lives; to speak humbly to a loving God; to turn back to God. The church, from its earliest days, has found that certain activities, done deliberately and repeatedly, can help us to do this work. We call them the “Lenten Disciplines,” and in a few minutes, I’ll invite you to commit to them. But before that, I’ll invite you to take on yourself the sign of ashes…

Poem: Steven Andrew Westby; Image P. Raube, all rights reserved.

Look! Listen! A Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ

Look! Listen! A Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ

What is “glory”?

We sing it every week… “Glory be to God, Creator…,” as if it were within our power to confer glory. And, in a sense, it is… “Ad majorem Dei gloriam,” was the Latin motto of the Jesuit priests who taught me at Boston College, and it means, “To the greater glory of God.” So, all they did—whether they taught theology or Latin or physics, whether they were chaplains to the football team or pastors of congregations or choreographers of modern dance—all their work was dedicated to that greater glory.

But then, in our passage this morning, we witness two figures from the long history of God’s covenant people, appearing alongside Jesus, and they do so “in their glory.” And the three disciples who are roused from their drowsiness see Jesus, and “they see his glory.” And then it seems as if glory isn’t something we can give at all, but rather something we recognize, something we witness. A brilliance, a greatness, a holy and fearful beauty beyond our power to tell of it. And all we can say is “Hallelujah, Glory!”

Image: The Transfiguration of Christ, MAFA Jesus, Cameroon.

Love: the Verb (Including, Everyone's Favorite Bible Verse)

Love: the Verb (Including, Everyone's Favorite Bible Verse)

What kind of caffeine high—that rush of optimistic energy that makes you feel indestructible and brilliant and hopeful and even happier than usual—what kind of mood altering substance was I on when I thought, “Hey, I’ll totally preach on Luke 6:27-38!”

Why did I want to tackle what feels like an endless list of stuff most of us find nigh on impossible?

It’s possible I am just speaking about myself.

Image: Normal Rockwell, “Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them Do Unto You.”

Blessings and Whoas, or On the Other Hand....

Blessings and Whoas, or On the Other Hand....

Blessed are you poor, Jesus tells us, for yours is the kingdom of God. And I can just imagine how that sounds to those who are financially on the edge—or worse, who have fallen off the edge completely—coming from an unimaginably wealthy monarch (not to mention, from a preacher who clearly hasn’t missed any meals). Blessed are the poor. And not only that, but woe betide the rich, because they have already received their consolation.

What does this mean? Is Jesus truly dismissing any possibility for those other than the poor—or the hungry, or the weeping, or the hated—to be blessed?

Image; James Tissot, “The Sermon on the Beatitudes,” Brooklyn Museum. Used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Deep Water

Deep Water

What must be going through Simon’s head? What is he thinking? Let’s imagine, he’s heard Jesus at the synagogue, which means he also witnessed a healing there. And then he brought Jesus back to his home, where he witnessed Jesus healing, first, his mother-in-law, and then, all those people that were brought to him. It’s clear that the people, the anxious crowds with their desperate and their ill, can’t get enough of Jesus—his words and his healing touch. And now… Peter’s boat is a kind of floating pulpit for Jesus, and he’s teaching these enormous crowds, and the crowds keep growing.

Is Simon thinking, “This is great! This is so exciting!”? Or maybe, “Why do I keep running into this guy?” Or even, “What am I doing? What is happening to my life? This is getting out of hand…”

Or maybe some confusing combination of all of these?

Image: Deep Water. P. Raube, January 2019. All rights reserved.

Over A Cliff

Over A Cliff

In 1940 Thomas Wolfe published a novel about a young writer named George Webber, who, in his first published work, writes extensively about the place he grew up, the fictional town of Libya Hill. The problem is, the people in his hometown don’t like what he has written—they see it as a distorted version of the place they love, and so they start sending Webber nasty mail. Death threats. It’s almost as if they’d like to throw him off a cliff.

The title of Wolfe’s novel? “You Can’t Go Home Again”…

Image: View From Mt. Arbel, Photograph by Jesse Davis of Kingston, Canada. Used by permission of Wikimedia Commons.

The Year of the Lord's Favor

The Year of the Lord's Favor

In a Presbyterian Church in 2019, when the preacher sits down, the sermon is over. In a synagogue in ancient Palestine, when the preacher sits down, the sermon is just about to begin. All we get today, is Jesus’ opening line: 

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).

(Tune in next week for the rest of the sermon.) 

But… what an opening line!

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Robert Short wrote the classic The Gospel According to Peanuts.

Then there was a Gospel According to the Simpsons

both published by our very “hip” Presbyterian publishing arm.

Someone else has written The Gospel According to Tony Soprano.

It’s touted as being about “faith, forgiveness, and family values.”

Well, my book is almost finished.

The Gospel According to the Ed Sullivan Show.

Chapter One explains to younger readers who he was.

Chapter Two explains the concept of the variety show.

And Chapter Three tells of why Sullivan’s Sunday night show ran for 23 years.

Sullivan himself was a writer, a columnist.

He didn’t tell jokes, he didn’t sing or dance or act.

He wasn’t even a very good announcer, really.


But his variety show ran for all those years because he knew the meaning of variety!

He booked a ballet company, performing seals, Johnny Cash,

a vaudeville comedian who drew a long string of bananas out of his baggy coat,

and a Metropolitan Opera tenor —

followed by a trapeze artist from the Barnum and Bailey Circus,

all in one hour-long show.

He brought on the likes of Elvis and the Beatles in their heydays,

but only amid dancing elephants, a jazz pianist, and trained monkeys.

There’s nothing like it on TV now, except Sullivan’s reruns.

The variety show is passé.


One reason is that we don’t much care for variety anymore.

We know what we like, and we have a low tolerance for things just outside our liking.

As bandwidth increases, our tastes become more narrow.

You want elephants and seals? They have their own channel now.

A teenager who likes Taylor Swift isn’t going to sit still for Wynton Marsalis.

A fan of the opera might not appreciate dancing bears wearing tutus.

In our likes and dislikes, we have becomes specialists,

and variety is a spice that has somehow lost its flavor.

Oh, we have choices, more choices than ever before.

Almost every day brings another toothbrush design,

another electronic gizmo, another way to do our banking.

We have choices, but so often we settle into our ruts and coast,

suspicious of new turns, new ideas.


And that includes our worship, too.

We have settled into an order of worship that most of us appreciate.

The vast majority of folks enjoy the old familiar hymns,

even while admitting that every hymn was new before they learned it!

Some folks love the “real” Doxology and the most familiar Gloria,

and if we change them, just for a season, it is discomforting.


When I graduated from seminary as the 1970’s dawned,

some churches were experimenting with folk masses, jazz services, and rock music.

There was a newsletter that I subscribed to, called “Lively Liturgy.”

If Vatican II had opened an age of experimentation in Catholic churches,

we Protestants responded by adapting Catholic folk hymns into our services.

Out of the “Bossa Nova Mass” came, “We Are One in the Spirit,”

better known as “They’ll Know We Are Christians by our Love.”

[Yes, that’s from the “Bossa Nova Mass!”]

I was ordained as a “Minister of Electronic Media”

and when I was invited to lead worship in local churches,

the expectation was that I would go “do my thing,”

which meant playing rock music, projecting slides, and, later, using video...

in the eleven o’clock worship service.

If people hated it, the pastor could blame it on me,

and go back to worship as usual.

Which almost everybody did.


These days worship experimentation is in revival.

As few years ago I visited a once staid New Hampshire church.

Its congregation met in a recently renovated sanctuary,

a room that preserved the traditional lines of an historic building

and that still held the traditional furnishings of a church in the Reformed Tradition,

that is, a pulpit, a table, a baptismal font.

But there were also music stands for the “praise band,”

and microphones enough for every other singer,

a projector, and amplifiers and speakers,

all signs that their worship is slightly different from ours.


When our son Jim first went out to Purdue University for his graduate work,

Joan and I joined him in visiting a church in Lafayette.

It was a Presbyterian church, our brand,

but its worship style was very different, slick and smarmy, I thought.

When I came back home and preached a sermon critiquing their worship

and holding ours up as an example of “correct” worship,

I was rightly critiqued myself, by a visiting minister

who thought my sermon was too judgmental, my view too narrow.

He was right...

for as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, there are varieties of gifts.

Still, I know what I like.

I know what speaks to me in worship.

The problem is, I need to know what it is that God likes

and what in the worship that we offer speaks to God,

for it is God at the center, not my likes, my feelings, my comfort.

I get the feeling God likes variety, for that is how God made us,

different folks, different strokes, as the song says.


Brian Wren is a poet, a hymn writer, and a professor at Columbia Seminary.

He has come to appreciate the variety of gifts that enrich worship.

I doubt it came easily, but this sentence from one of his books is helpful for me:

“I have come to appreciate musical styles formerly unknown or foreign to me,

and to accept as valid styles that offend me theologically

or aesthetically leave me cold.”                [Wren, Praying Twice]

More power to him! And to his worship of God.


Not entirely unrelated...

Before David Letterman and Stephen Colbert did their late night TV shows in the Ed Sullivan Theater,

CBS had turned a magnificent showplace into that studio space.

Built in 1927, it was originally called Hammerstein’s Temple of Music.

Actually, looking at the photographs of the original interior of the theater,

one can see the design of a gothic cathedral,

complete with stained glass windows, vaulted arches, murals painted to resemble a mosaic ceiling,

and instead of proscenium boxes, there were urns reminiscent of baptismal fonts.

When patrons first entered the theater back in the twenties,

not surprisingly they were greeted by the sounds of a large pipe organ.

Here was a Broadway theater designed to look like a church.


The irony these days, of course, is that modern church interiors

are being designed to look like Broadway theaters, or TV studios,

with stages and theatrical lighting and audio paraphernalia, even plush theater seating.

And what goes on in some of those newer sanctuaries

seems more like a “show” of some kind rather than worship.

The worship leader sounds like an emcee,

the choir sings into hand held microphones

as their voices are mixed with a pre-produced orchestral music track,

and each element of worship is rewarded with warm applause.

It’s all very entertaining.

And many folks, finding the old traditional forms of worship dull and rather lifeless,

flock to those worship centers (no longer referred to as sanctuaries),


I think of an Assembly of God church I once attended.

That congregation of hands-clapping, tongues-speaking, bodies dancing “charismatics”

had moved into an old downtown gothic stone church

that had been abandoned by mainline Protestants who fled the city for the suburbs.

There was no order of worship that day I visited, nor was there ever an order, the pastor told me later.

The Holy Ghost gives us our orders, he laughed.

Guitars, bass, drums, and some horns joined the pipe organ in syncopated praise

while parishioners raised their hands over their heads and swayed rhythmically.

The preacher shouted, the people shouted back, Spirit-fed fire in their voices.

For two hours the energy level remained high as heaven allowed,

and one of my seminary friends received the gift of “tongues” that day.


A few weeks later, I was sitting in the rustic chapel of a Trappist monastery

listening to the gentle and comforting unison of Gregorian chant offered by the monks.

Young novices stood straight in their places in the choir,

joining their voices to those of their elderly, bent-over brothers

who had sung the same flowing tunes for sixty years.

An old monk padded his way to the lectern and read the Epistle reading

without a spark of emotion,

but clearly, slowly and distinctly, and with deep reverence for its mystery.

The chapel’s little electronic organ remained cloaked by a canvas cover.

The music of the monastery was unaccompanied,

unless you counted the feeble sound of a pitch pipe as the little choir rose to sing.


We followers of Jesus have so many ways to worship God.

So many songs, so many voices, so many gifts.

When a confirmation class of 12 and 13 year-olds

had finished a four week “tour” of local churches and one synagogue,

they sat in a circle in the youth center of their church

and reflected on the differences they experienced.

They had endured the marathon length of a Greek Orthodox service,

but loved the rich visual imagery of statuary, colorful mosaics, and icons.


They didn’t understand much of the synagogue’s worship since it was in Hebrew,

but they liked the rabbi’s storytelling sermon (which was in English, of course).

The Roman Catholic church included a praise band and the baptisms of eleven babies;

it was a so-called “family” service, youth-friendly, with up-tempo music.

They went to a small, rural church of their own denomination

and heard a seminary student say, “y’know,” fifty times within his 17-minute sermon.


As the youth thought back over the tour,

they focused naturally on the differences,

and some insisted on arguing for a particular style that was right.

(And, not surprisingly, “right” meant, “the way we were brought up.”)


So their pastor tried to move them away from their arguing,

and asked which service had provided the richest experience

of true worship for them as individuals.

The next exercise was to see what they would do to change their own church’s worship.

When they tried to take something from each service,

the way a hungry person might take several offerings from a cafeteria line,

they realized they couldn’t agree as a group on any one new order.

The closing devotions were based on Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman,

the memory verse being John 4:24...

“God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth.”


As we read Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth,

we realize that followers of Jesus have always enjoyed a variety of ways

to sing, pray, preach, and offer their worship.

The church there was vividly alive,

and worship in the spirit was undoubtedly noisy, happy, and, even then, — divisive!


Not everyone who gathered in the Lord’s name

liked what was happening in the Lord’s name.

And somehow Paul got wind of it.

We lack details, but it’s clear that some folks there were manifesting signs

of not their oneness in the Spirit, but spiritual conceit.

They weren’t using their gifts so much for the worship of God,

but to show off,

to let fellow worshippers know what they had achieved spiritually.


I confess that I might have been one of the “whistle blowers,” if I had been alive back then.

I know it’s hard to believe, but I’m an introvert,

and I’m very uncomfortable with extroverted worship!

If someone leading music says, “Come on! Clap your hands!”

I’d really rather just stand in the back and watch.

As a worshipper, I’d rather sit with the Trappists than stand with the Pentecostals.

So I can picture myself at this house church in Corinth,

and I look around me and people are standing there swaying back and forth,

heads thrown back in ecstasy, eyes closed and arms raised,

and someone starts praying in a strange language,

then another, and then more, and here I am surrounded by the spiritually gifted,

feeling like a wet blanket,

wondering why the Lord hasn’t goosed me with such spirit-energy.


And afterward, one of the Lord’s more boisterous worshippers

approaches me and says something like,

“If you knew the Lord better, the Spirit would move your lips and your hips, brother Jeff.”

Or, “If you’d just let go of your inhibitions,

the Spirit would be freed to use your voice to praise the Lord!”

Not agreeing with my exuberant Christian friend,

I determine to write Paul and tell him how these so-called spiritual gifts

are causing trouble in church.

I’m wondering if you’d sign my petition?


Maybe this isn’t a ‘hot button” issue for you,

but I’ll bet it would be if five or six folks announced one Sunday

that the Lord had given them a song to sing,

and they pulled out their electric guitars and asked you to clap along,

and raise your hands in the air and open yourselves to the Spirit,

and sing along, whether you know the lyrics or not —

the Lord will give you the voice you need...!

And then in the middle of the song,

(though you are only guessing it’s the middle, because they’re making it all up as they go along,

led by the Spirit, of course)

someone starts speaking in tongues,

and then this Corinthian thing comes home to roost, so to speak,

and, now, you’ll sign the petition,

because these holy rollers have disrupted the way we do things around here.


And it’s not just the idea of change we reject.

Or, the element of surprise, or that none of this went through the proper committee first;

here’s what gets us:

there is the growing implication that those “on fire for the Lord” folks

really are “on fire for the Lord,” and we’re just sitting here smoldering!

Whether they’ve actually said anything,

we just know they think they’re better than we are, spiritually speaking.


So, Paul hears what’s going on and writes back.

And we 21st Century Christians read this excerpt

and wonder if we’ve gotten the right mail.

Paul is writing of variety, and that we understand.

Variety is good.

Different people have different gifts.

As the old song from the 70’s sang,

“Different strokes for different folks...”

Varieties of gifts, same Spirit.

Varieties of services, same Lord.

Varieties of activities, same God.


Yes, this post card has our address on it.

Until, Paul starts getting specific.

He writes of the “utterance of wisdom,” and the “utterance of knowledge.”

Gifts of healing.

The working of miracles.



These are not the gifts of our church, are they?

They may have been the gifts of the Corinthians, but not of Union Presbyterians.


Is that what you were thinking as the Epistle lesson was being read?

How foreign this all sounds?

Remember that the context here is worship.

Miracles. Prophesy. Tongues.

Variety is one thing; but the rest sounds more like holy rolling Pentecostals.

Is our worship Biblical if it lacks the spiritual gifts Paul lists here?


Sure it is. Remember? Varieties of gifts.

They may not be my gifts, or ours here, but they are given by the Spirit to some.

And the same Spirit gives other gifts to other folk.

Elsewhere in the Epistles, there are other lists of gifts,

not so much for worship expression, but for the living of our spiritual, worshipful lives.

Love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, self-control...

Everyone who can summon the faith that says, “Jesus is Lord,”

has a gift from the Spirit of God.

Everyone, every one who is in Christ has entered the realm of the Spirit,

and has a gift to offer in worship of God and in service to neighbors.

Your gift is perfect for you,

and mine for me.

And our gifts are meant to be shared.


What Paul is saying here is summed up in verse 7:

“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

The Contemporary English Version puts it even more simply:

“The Spirit has given each of us a special way of serving others.”

Whatever gift we have is not for our own benefit,

certainly not the stuff of spiritual boasting,

but is beneficial only as that gift profits others.


The AIDS quilt comes to mind here.

Individual squares, patches so different from one another.

Some are childlike, some sophisticated.

Some are roughly crafted; others are expertly sewn.

There are patches that are sweet and some that are outrageous.

Some hold hope. Some are sewn in despair.

Such diversity!

Each piece of that quilt, that quilt now too large to display in one place,

each piece represents a person who lived a life, a gifted life, cut tragically short,

— yet all those patches together make one immense blanket

“of love, care, sadness, and beauty.”         [Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush, Compassion in Action]

Each square is a small gift that contributes to the common good.


On this particular Sunday in January,

it is good to remember the truths we heard in the preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr.

One of the things he taught was that while God’s people are of various colors,

live in differing cultures, and even practice different religions,

there is one “supreme unifying principle of life” – love,

“the key that unlocks the door that leads to ultimate reality.”

Knowing that the Ultimate Reality is the God whom we worship,

we weave every individual gift into an offering of love to God,

who so loves us!


In the meantime, as we await the gifts this newest year brings,

maybe we could consider a new Doxology.

Maybe I need to adjust my preaching style.

There are still new hymns to learn.

Maybe there is more wisdom than we know in what we do Sunday-by-Sunday.

Maybe there are more miracles in our midst than we can see.

Maybe there is healing that we overlook.

I wonder what gifts are here before our very eyes...


This we can know for certain: there are varieties of gifts,

all signs and wonders of the grace of God and the love of Jesus Christ,

and all we have to do to experience renewed worship and revitalized faith

is count our blessings, consider our gifts, thank God for them all, and then

put our gifts to work.


Sharing the Light of Christ

For many years, Joan and I have kept single white candles in the windows of our homes.            When we moved to Vermont and we put a candle in the window of the manse in East Craftsbury.  Within two weeks, the light literally became a gentle but effective beacon one frigid, snowy night.       A knock at the door came around 2 A. M. the second Sunday we were in town. 

I left my warm bed, threw on a robe, and met at the front door two shivering U. of Vermont students

whose car had broken down in that sub-zero darkness. 

They had seen our candle, and asked to use the phone to call home for help.

While some folks may look at those candles and see only a quaint decoration,

eyes of faith can see a powerful expression of God’s love in the windows of our lives.

When even little signs bring saving light, they are known as epiphanies. 

           +     +     +     +     +     +

The word "epiphany" has its roots in the Greek word for sunrise or dawn

and it's not difficult to understand the link between that sunrise

and the appearance of the Lord in the midst of humanity,

that is the coming of the one Micah called the "sun of righteousness".


The Bethlehem star the Magi followed and  maybe three decades later

the baptism of Jesus were for the early church a clear and unmistakable sign

of God's Light and Love coming to those with whom God is pleased.

You see, signs, symbols, images, visions--epiphanies, things and experiences

that identify and point to and remind us of deeper meaning,

or that reveal some great truth or prove some cosmic point—

they are important things to people of faith.  Always have been. 

From the very beginning, when God said, "Let there be light";

and there was light (some 13 verses before God made the sun!)


The Christian year moves from the celebration of the advent and nativity of Jesus the Christ

to the festival of Epiphany, which centers first on the magi who follow a star (a celestial light)

to the infant. 

And then, the scene shifts to the Jordan River.

+     +     +     +     +     +

Imagine that day, the sun shone brightly overhead and flashed its reflection in the water

until Jesus' head plunged into the Jordan. 

Instinctively, he had held his breath and closed his eyes under the water,

and the river had cut off his hearing as well. 

Darkness and silence enshrouded him; 

he could not see or hear or breathe immersed in John's baptism. 

So much like death...

until he stood straight up, rose from the water, and heard again the noise of the crowd

and John's strong voice above the din.

Gasping for that initial breath and wiping the Jordan from his eyes,  

Jesus felt exhilarated, cleansed, and renewed.                                                                           

He was about to rub the water from his dripping hair when he was startled                                   

by the flash of the brilliant sun on the surface of the water.                                                           

The sun's image was scattered in resplendent shards over the rippling surface,                              

as if it had exploded into a hundred dazzling daystars, as if the dome of the heavens had shattered, as if the sky had been ripped open and heaven's light burst again into Creation.


Jesus watched as the waters calmed and the scattered suns flowed together again,

and the last bit of light rode a gentle wavelet back into focus,

like a gleaming white dove floating from heaven to a waiting hand.

The voices around him came into focus as well. 

He heard the Psalmist sing, "I will tell of the decree of the Lord:

He said to me, `You are my Son; today I have begotten you.'" (Ps. 2:7) 

He heard the voice of the prophet Isaiah announcing,

"Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights." (Is. 42:1) 

And again, Isaiah echoes, "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down."


Voice and vision reveal, proclaim, affirm that John's baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins is transformed into a baptism of water and spirit.

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all saw this epiphany with different eyes. 

The audio-visual special effects of voice and vision

are well known after centuries of Christian proclamation. 

You heard Luke’s version read this morning. But here’s a curious thing:

for Mark, it was a secret epiphany, not a public sign. 

For it was not the crowds or even John who saw the heavens open and heard the voice;

it was Jesus. 

Others must discover the meaning of that moment by listening to what Jesus says

and watching what he does. 


When we have heard him preach the advent of the Kingdom,

when we have heard him teach in conversation and confrontation,

when we have seen him work wonders and rail against injustice,

when we have witnessed his embracing the outcast and the stranger,

we begin to glimpse the meaning of Jesus’ baptism. 

We understand it as a sign that validates the rite of baptism for future generations of his followers,

a sign that he comes to complete the law and reform it for those who heed his call.


The heavens open!...a sign that this baptism is of more than earthly significance. 

(Lamar Williamson writes that) this ripping open of the heavens

points to the cosmic meaning of this moment. 

What had been sealed is now suddenly flung open as if the answer Isaiah's plea:

O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down! (64:1) 

Luke has Jesus praying, and then the heavens opening, and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove."  The sign of the dove.  A symbol of purity?  Of divine life?         


The Fourth Century Christian Gregory of Nyssa wrote,

"Jesus who is spirit and flesh comes to begin a new creation through spirit and water.

Jesus rises from the water and the world rises with him."


Then there is the voice from heaven, a voice signifying Jesus' uniqueness,

a sign to him that the baptism of Jesus establishes his identity. 

And the baptism of Jesus' followers establishes our identity. 

As Lamar Williamson puts it, Jesus is who God says he is, and we are who God says we are. 

This epiphany is a sign of our true identity.


But it, too, may be a private epiphany unless our ministry in his name shatters a stormy world

with the Light of God's steadfast love enfleshed in our signs of compassion, mercy, and unselfish service to the least of our brothers and sisters. 

In our baptism, we are given our Christian names,

but more, we take on our full identity as children of God. 

Who we are is a secret until our identity is revealed with convincing power in the unfolding

of our life and death...and resurrection!

In words inspired by this story, one of my teachers, Neely McCarter prays,

"All this happened to you, Lord, while you stood dripping by the river,

surrounded by nondescript people and a fanatical preacher." 

You give new hope to our lives, for because of you we also are children of God

and know God's favor.


This wonder-filled vision of heaven's opening and dove descending and voice proclaiming

is reminiscent of the calls of the prophets.

Like them, his ministry begins with an intense experience of the Spirit of God.  (Marcus Borg) 

To be sure, our baptisms are more subtle occasions of the Spirit's work,

but be assured: the Spirit is at work in our lives,

just as sure as the Spirit hovered over the face of the water at Creation,

and just as surely as the Spirit descended on Jesus and enflamed the church

with its vision and purpose.


A word of caution may be in order here.

In a book called The Gospel According to Jesus, Stephen Mitchell warns us

about getting too caught up in the wonder of this vision. 

East and West, North and South, visions, revelations, and prophesies

occur in every religious tradition. 

Experience the vision--or imagine it and examine its meaning for yourself—

read the signs, but beware! 

After the vision fades, if we haven't seen to the source of all visions,

we take up our lives untransformed. 

When he says the ordinary must become the miracle,

maybe he's saying the everyday must become the holy. 

Like a candle in the window signals light in someone's heart;

like water, bread and wine become sacraments, outward, visible signs of inward, spiritual grace,

signs that God redeems the everyday and transforms even normal folk like us

into star-transfixed and following Magi, into witnesses to signs of new life and new beginnings

(even when it’s not the first week of the newest year),

into people who share the very light of Christ into lives we didn’t even know were enshadowed. Everyday people are transformed into the “saints in the light.” From “non-descript to indescribable.


Early on, I asked you to imagine the baptism of Jesus.

Now, imagine your own.

Maybe you were baptized as a youth or an adult, and you needn’t imagine: you can remember!

The church, the font, the water dripping or drenching, the people who were there, maybe even some of the vows that were spoken, promises you made.


But many of us were mere infants, some of us sleeping peacefully through the whole sacrament.

If we were awake, or awakened by the shock of water in the dabbing or dunking,

the memory has long dissolved.

The promises were made on our behalf.

But the act was accomplished, as a once-in-a-lifetime initiation into the life and teachings of Jesus.


I was baptized within just a few feet of this pulpit.

I doubt it was this font, but it might have been.

And more than once, I’ve tried to imagine what that scene was like.

I was born while my Dad was in the Philippines during World War 2, s

o my baptism was on hold for his return.

Rev. Hayes was the pastor then in the mid-1940s.

Mom and Dad were there,

and I can’t imagine my grandparents, Episcopalians on both sides, being absent.

Was it a “private” occasion as was possible back then?

Or, was the sacrament rightly performed in the midst of the whole congregation

one Sunday morning? I can only imagine.


I’m told there was a rose.

For some reason, the tradition was that a rose was dipped into the water in the font,

and gently applied to the infant’s head.

And the rose was given to the parents and in many cases was pressed into the family Bible

(or the baby book) as a keepsake.


I was one of many, many “war babies” baptized here.

There have been many baptisms here since, but many more previously.

Guess how many baptisms we’ve had here since 1819.

Oh, I have no idea; we can only guess, of course.

But there is no guessing at the influence of all those lives, generation upon generation.

Many of you here today are but one generation among many who have called this their church family.


Keep imagining.

Think now of all those for 200 years who have communed at this or a similar table.

Bread broken, wine poured…OK, not wine, but grape juice, “fruit of the vine” as we call it.

But the substance of the bread and contents of the cup are not as important as understanding

there is one loaf, one vine, unity as we commune, no matter our many differences –

we are one in Christ Jesus at this table.


We are one with those who put on pageants at the Elvin and Lyric Theaters.

One with Lois Saylor who played the organ for five services here every Sunday:

morning worship, Sunday School, Junior Endeavor, Christian Endeavor, and evening worship.

Oh, and a mid-week service too.

One with all the women whose many aid and missionary societies and fund-raisers more than once bailed out the budget.

One with that long line of ministers who served here, from John Manley, a scary-looking guy

who served our predecessor Dutch Reformed Church in 1791,

to Wilbur J. Kerr and Gerald Hertzog whose pastoral leadership led me to seminary,

to Rev. Pat Raube who begins her annual study break today and regrets not being here

to help kick off this Bicentennial year.

We are one even with the followers of Christ who see the light through different eyes,

such as the Baptists on Liberty Avenue a block away who claimed our previous church building

was hit by lightning because we had a pool table in the basement of the church.


In the coming year, we will hear lots of stories about who we’ve been

and how we’ve shared the Light of Christ here and around the world.

But through it all, please remember your baptism and be glad.

Let the Light shine in your life: starlight, a candle’s glow,

or Epiphanies so bright your  joy, hope, and love will be talked about for generations to come!





Wondering and Wandering

Wondering and Wandering

God offers to ornery and ordinary humanity the gift of grace, undeserved. The gift of love, unqualified. The gift of forgiveness, unearned. The gift of affirmation that, though we’ve spent centuries pondering (and theologians have spilled rivers of ink theorizing) something we call “original sin,” we are slow to apprehend God’s original blessing—that we are created in love, unique, amazing, in God’s very image and likeness.

Welcomed With Love

Welcomed With Love

By any reasonable assessment of the situation, Mary becoming pregnant by anyone except Joseph is a pretty big problem for her. In fact, the law says that she should be stoned, she and the father, for this violation of the contract between her and Joseph. Let’s assume Mary believes the angel’s words. Let’s assume that she believes she can convince Joseph of what the angel revealed to her. These things still don’t entirely account for the words in this song. Words of victory over an enemy. Words that describe a world that is about to turn, with the powerful crashing down, and the powerless being raised up. What is she talking about?

Let There Be Joy!

Let There Be Joy!

These are rough and tumble days we live in. It is the era of the viral, stinging tweet, the verbal or virtual stand-off, nastiness drawn like the guns at the OK Corral. In such times, it’s gentleness that comes as a shock. We are expecting a cutting rebuke, and instead, we receive kindness, and grace. Paul connects gentleness with the nearness of the Lord… Maybe that’s something like, how do you want Jesus to find you, when he returns? On the other hand, maybe it’s a reminder that everyone… even the one we don’t particularly like, or agree with… is made in the image and likeness of God. Gentleness, like joy, is a choice we can make. Let your gentleness be known to everyone… the Lord is near.

Can There Be Peace?

Can There Be Peace?

Then, Zechariah sings directly to his son:

And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,

for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way,

to give God’s people knowledge of salvation

by the forgiveness of their sins.

In the tender compassion of our God

the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,

and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” ~Luke 1:76-79

Where Is Hope?

Where Is Hope?

Jesus’ words are not all dire warning. In fact, “warning” can be a gift that opens in us the space for change and the room for a new view. “When you see these things taking place,” Jesus says, “you know that the kingdom of God is near.” And this is the reminder we need us that the kingdom of God is as near as our next breath. Christ comes—in history, yes, and in the future, we pray, but also, and most urgently, today. In that second coming, Christ comes daily, into our hearts, and that means, this very minute. Now.

A King's Last Words

A King's Last Words

The kings and queens whose stories flickered across my computer screen surely played according to type as outlined by God, even those of relatively good character. Here’s the problem: the kind of power traditionally given to royalty could corrode the morals of even those who started out promisingly. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Image: Jesus of the People copyright 1999 Janet McKenzie