February 8, 2015 | The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

by the Rev. Robert C. Laird

Today’s reading from Marks’ Gospel
picks up right where we left off last week,
continuing a story that has already started;
it’s like we’re watching an old movie serial—
“previously, on Mark’s Gospel…”

Jesus has just called his disciples to join him,
and then they went to the synagogue in Capernaum,
where Jesus started teaching.

While there, Jesus encounters a man possessed,
and Jesus heals the man,
which is where we pick up our story today.

After leaving the synagogue,
they go back to Peter and Andrew’s house,
and where Peter’s mother-in-law is.

She has a fever,
and is so sick that she is confined to her bed.

Now, imagine for a minute
that you were sick in bed with a fever,
and your son-in-law comes home
bringing with him four men,
whom you’ve never met.

It’s safe to imagine that she was not thrilled to see them.

They told Jesus about her at once,
and Jesus went to her,
took her hand, raised her up, and healed her.

Note the next sentence:
“The fever left her, and she served them.”

She must have been so pleased,
this woman,
to have a son-in-law
who could meet such a nice guy like Jesus,
invite him over to her house
while she was sick with a ridiculous fever,
and heal her with just the touch of his hand,
so she could get back into the kitchen
and make dinner for them.

It’s easy to see this as another example
of women in the Bible getting short shrift,
a woman without a name,
only known because she’s Peter’s mother-in-law,
and how often do mother-in-law stories
make the woman in question look good?

In this light,
this story fits right in with the countless others
throughout Christian history,
in which women make the ministry of the men possible,
and get no credit for it at all;
just think of the countless women
it would have taken to keep Jesus’ band of roving men
fed and cared for while the men
“[went] to the neighboring towns,
so that [Jesus might] proclaim the message there also,
for that is what [he] came to do.”


But perhaps there is another way to view this story.

Simon Peter’s mother-in-law,
lying sick in her bed with a fever,
sees that Jesus has come to visit her,
along with the disciples that are there with him.

And Jesus does something unthinkable:
he reaches out and touches her.

The story doesn’t have him talking to her;
it’s not like a hospital where he’d say
“Hi, my name is Jesus,
I’m the Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace,
and I’m here to help you with your fever.
I’d like to take you by the hand
and lift you up,
if you’re okay with that.”

Instead, Jesus walks in,
when Simon Peter lets him know that she’s ill,
and he lifts her up,
and he heals her.

Jesus doesn’t have to say anything,
he just heals her,
and she gets up to serve them.

Getting up to serve them
shows that she is healed,
that the fever has left her fully;
and we can also hope it also shows her gratitude,
that the transformation she experienced
simply by touching Jesus’s hand,
and being raised up by him,
led her to service in the way that she was able;
our of her recognition of what Jesus has done for her
comes an act of service,
simple and pure.

And what’s more, her gratitude
pours out of her being healed on the Sabbath;
Jesus transgressed in his healing,
at least according to the customs of the day,
in order to heal this woman,
and in her gratitude,
she got up to serve him,
again, in transgression of the Sabbath,
because that gratitude came pouring out of her,
and she couldn’t help but serve them.

This mother-in-law’s act of service
is sharply contrasted with her own son-in-law’s behavior
just a few verses later.

“That evening, at sundown,
they brought to him all who were sick,
or possessed with demons,”
Mark tells us.

The disciples waited until the Sabbath had ended,
and then they went and got everyone.

One can imagine that Jesus may have been inundated
by the crowds,
and the Gospel says that everyone was there,
but that he cured many of them;
he couldn’t get to them all,
and had to leave to pray,
to strengthen and recharge himself
after the work he’d done.

And for taking the break that he needed,
the Disciples snap at him,
“Everyone is searching for you…”
having hunted him down.

Unlike the gratitude that Peter’s mother-in-law showed,
we see in this response only anxiety,
“There’s more people to heal, Jesus,
how can you take a break now?”
which is easy for them to say,
since they’re not the ones doing the work.

It’s worth noting
that Jesus can’t heal everyone in this story;
there are more people left that need healing,
there outside Peter’s door.

Jesus needs to recharge his battery
and take time for worship and reflection
before he can go on to cast out more demons,
and heal more people in the surrounding towns.

It’s an important message for us, too,
who in our own culture
feel compelled at times
to do more, and keep busy,
so we can avoid letting other people down.

Jesus is clear from the first
that he can’t do everything the Disciples want him to,
and that he needs to stay focused on his mission,
on his work.

We also need to stay focused on Jesus,
to keep our own business and work balanced
with time of reflection, prayer, and quiet.

The things that vie for attention in our lives
may not be all the sick people in a town
gathered at our door to be healed,
but the people and things in our lives
can be just as demanding as Jesus encountered today,
and the pressures we feel can be as strong
as a group of disciples hunting us down
to ask “Where have you been?”

Doing the work we’re called to,
and leaving enough time for us to care for ourselves
is a balancing act that can feel impossible.

But the response of Peter’s mother-in-law is telling:
Her service rose out of her heart,
when she rose from her sickbed;
She couldn’t help but respond to Jesus,
because Jesus had healed her.

When our service is a response to Jesus,
as opposed to a response to the pressures
of the world around us,
we can be sustained,
and find time for prayer,
and be the disciples that we are called by Christ to be,
instead of the disciples that the world
would prefer us to be,
which isn’t the same thing.

I would invite you this week
to spend even a brief moment in prayer each day,
time to re-center yourself
and listen to Christ,
and the call he has given you.

Let your service this week come from your deep gratitude,
and not from what the world expects from you,
in Jesus’ name.

February 1, 2015 | The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

by the Rev. Robert C. Laird

Living, as I do, with two small children,
I have been afforded dozens of opportunities
in the last few months
to watch the latest Disney princess movie, “Frozen,”
the ending of which is going to get spoiled this morning.
The movie came out 15 months ago,
so I feel like you’ve had enough time to see it
if you were going to.

And though it’s dangerous to digress in one’s second paragraph,
I will say that “Frozen” goes a long way toward
addressing the many flaws that princess movies have had;
in the end, a princess saves herself and her sister, the queen,
and the male love interest (who isn’t a prince)
is watching the whole thing happen on the sidelines.
Princess Anna doesn’t need any man to save her.
In this preacher’s opinion, this represents progress.

Anyway, the action of the film is motivated
by Elsa trying to run away from everyone,
because her power to command ice and freeze things
has run amok, and she is afraid of hurting people accidently,
particularly her younger sister, Anna.

Elsa has frozen Arendelle, her country,
and doesn’t know how to un-freeze things.

Anna ends up with ice in her heart,
and only an act of true love can save her
(we are led to think that the solution will be
a true love’s kiss… Again, the idea being
that only a man can save Princess Anna…barf…).

Elsa has no idea how to save Anna,
or how to thaw the eternal winter
she has set off across the land.

Don’t you just hate it when that happens?


By now, several of you must be wondering
how this can have anything to do with
any of the readings we heard today…
We’ll get there soon enough,
but first, let’s talk about love.

Paul writes today to the church at Corinth,
that knowledge makes people arrogant,
but loves builds people up.

He’s writing specifically to address
a problem with the wealthy and sophisticated
members of the Corinthian church
had been eating at dining rooms in a spa temple
dedicated to Asclepius, a Greek god of healing.

For the sophisticated, wealthy folks
who could afford to eat there,
they justified themselves by saying,
“But Asclepius isn’t real, so what’s the big deal?
There is no God but God.”

Paul thinks this is a valid point, and a smart one;
since Asclepius isn’t real,
it’s fine to eat that food.
And the folks who are eating that food
know that’s why they’re eating it,
so it doesn’t do them any harm.

But, Paul asks, what about the folks who are new to the church,
the folks who aren’t so sophisticated,
the folks who used to believe in Asclepius,
and who now see members of the church
eating in the dining rooms there,
and are tempted to eat there themselves,
and risk falling away from the Church,
away from the life-giving relationship they have with Jesus,
whose authority we see on display in the Gospel today?

Jesus casts a demon out of a man just by talking to him;
that’s how powerful Jesus’ words are,
how life-giving a relationship with him is.

So to challenge the faith of someone
whose faith isn’t yet strong,
simply by eating food that had been offered to idols,
that’s against God’s hope for us as disciples.

What difference does being right about how to believe make,
when your “being right” causes someone else to stumble?

Knowledge, Paul says, makes people arrogant;
if you think you know something,
you don’t know as much as you should know.

Instead, Paul suggests,
you should be focused on love.

You can know all kinds of things,
but you can never know enough things.

Instead, you need to experience love,
both giving love and receiving love,
in order to know and be known by God.

That point, that love is more important than knowledge,
even comes through in “Frozen.”
In the end, when Elsa is under attack on all sides,
Anna puts herself in harm’s way,
and saves her sister just as Anna turns to ice,
the ice in her heart finally freezing her solid,
sacrificing herself to save the sister she loved.

That sacrifice was the act of true love that saved Anna,
who thawed out and was restored once her sister was safe,
her love for Elsa, her sister, having saved her.

Elsa didn’t know how to under the perpetual winter;
she didn’t have the knowledge she needed
to undo the damage she caused;
it was love that showed her how,
taught her to do something
that no knowledge could.

Elsa was saved by Anna’s act of true love,
and through that love,
taught Elsa how to end the eternal winter.

Like I say, not your average Disney princess movie.
Good job, Disney!
And the music is fabulous. Seriously. Watch it.

And just as love is deeper than knowledge in Disney movies,
it’s also deeper than knowledge in discipleship,
for you, and me, and everyone.

The foundation of our relationship with God,
and God’s relationship with us,
is not rooted in our heads;
you can read everything that every theologian ever wrote,
and acquire all the knowledge that anyone ever had,
but it’s not enough.

Our relationship with God is rooted in our hearts,
in the love that we have for God.

Our relationship with the Divine
lies in the choice to love, and to be loved by,
Jesus, who is the Holy One of God,
which even the unclean spirits in Mark’s Gospel
seem to have figured out.

And loving is a choice,
particularly the kind of love that Jesus and Paul
talks about all the time in the New Testament.

We use the verb “falling” to describe how we come to love
our spouses and partners,
and centuries of romantic literature
have peddled the trope of “love as destiny;”
The Immortal Bard, William Shakespeare did it,
and countless (lesser) playwrights, screenwriters,
and novelists have followed suit.

But ultimately, love is a decision,
a choice that we make, and continue to make,
even when we don’t exactly feel like it,
or when it bores us, or when it hurts.

And unlike the emotional affection we may feel for someone,
which we don’t have control over,
truly loving, in the way that Jesus and Paul talk about loving,
is a choice—the greatest choice we make in our lives.

Love is actually one of the main themes
of this letter to the Church in Corinth;
and today’s reading isn’t the part that is best known.
The thirteenth chapter is often read at weddings:
“Love is patient, love is kind,
it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, is isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude…”
And since love is a choice that we make, every day,
and not just a state that we happen to find ourselves in,
because we happened to “fall in love,”
it’s a calling, a way of life, and a vocation.

But regardless of where you read about love in the Bible,
love is the foundation of our relationship with God,
and our relationship with each other.

And just like the other loving relationships in our lives,
whether they’re with a husband or wife,
with our parents, or children, or siblings;
or our families of choice,
the people we consider our family,
even though we may not be legally or technically related,
our relationship with God in Christ
requires cultivating, and nurturing, and feeding.

Our relationship with God is nurtured
the same way that our other relationships are:
through communication, and shared experiences.

This is one of the reasons that worship is so important
to our understanding of what it means
to live a Christian life:
if we don’t gather to worship,
to share in the bread, and wine, and Word, and song,
then we can’t be sustained for the road ahead.

We need all of those things:
bread and wine, to feed our bodies and souls;
Word and song to remind us of where we’re headed,
and our relationships with others,
to accompany us on our journey.

When we come to this table,
we fill our souls for the work of the week,
following Jesus each day,
working for peace, love, and justice each day.

We also nurture our relationship through prayer:
our individual prayer, each day,
whether it’s in the formal language of the Daily Office,
asking God’s blessing on the food we eat,
or just telling God what we’re grateful for
in the moments when we feel that gratitude
welling up inside us.

Our individual prayer, each day,
is a vital part of our loving relationship with God,
and as Paul says in our reading today,
loving God is how God knows us.

Prayer and worship are the two best ways
for us to nurture our loving relationship,
to be filled by God’s love,
and to give love back to God,
from what God has given us.

Being here today,
to receive the bread that gives life to the world,
is a significant part of that,
and I thank you for being here
to be a part of this community.

In the words of the poem by George Herbert,
“Sev’n whole dayes, not one in seven, I will praise thee;”
Each day, we should offer praise and thanks to God,
even if it’s just saying “Thank you, God” before a meal,
or saying the Lord’s prayer at a stoplight.

If you’d like to have a resource to take with you,
please take a Book of Common Prayer
from the shelf by the door when you leave today;
there are lots of different devotional resources in it,
and I’d be more than happy to show them to you
following the service today,
or on the phone or by email this week.

This week, share your love with God,
because love is the foundation of that relationship.

As Paul tells the church at Corinth,
as Elsa learned from her sister Anna,
and as Jesus shows us over and over again
in his life and ministry,
loving is how we practice our faith,
sharing the love that God gives to us,
and giving it back to God.

We can’t ever know God, really;
as Paul says, if we think we know something,
we don’t yet know as much as we should know;
but if we love God,
then we are known by God.

Here’s to a church and a world known by God,
that is known for its love,
in Jesus’ name.

January 25, 2015 | The Third Sunday after the Epiphany

by the Rev. Robert C. Laird

One of the great tragedies of our lectionary
is the fact that we only hear from Jonah twice every 3 years;
thankfully, today is one of those two days
(the next time we hear from him is September 24, 2017).

I adore Jonah, really:
The entire story is practically a farce, really:
God says to Jonah,
“I’d like you to go tell the people of Nineveh
that I’m upset with them,
and I’m going to destroy them.”

Nineveh was the capitol of Assyria,
built on the Tigris;
the modern city that stands there today is called Mosul,
in northern Iraq.

It was the largest city in the world for about fifty years,
until it was sacked
by a coalition of former subjects of Assyria;
turns out the oppressed had had enough,
and weren’t going to take it any more.

And instead of heading Nineveh,
Jonah instead heads to Joppa,
which is north of Tel Aviv, on the ocean,
and gets on a boat to run away from God.

You have to admire Jonah’s moxie for running,
but choosing a boat was a bad idea,
because it was inundated in a storm,
and the sailors on the boat were terrified,
and Jonah admitted that it was he that God was after,
so he said, “Throw me into the sea;
then the storm will stop.”

And they did,
and he was swallowed by a gigantic fish.

The story has now become truly ridiculous,
and I love it all the more for it.

Jonah prays a beautiful prayer,
and God spoke to the fist,
so the fish “vomited Jonah upon the dry land.”
(That according to the King James version, anyway).

So God tries again, which is where our reading today starts:
Jonah, how about going to Nineveh?
And Jonah replies, Right. Nineveh. Got it.

Jonah goes to there, and it’s an enormous city
(not to mention hundreds of miles from where he was),
and he tells them,
“Forty days and this city will be overthrown!”

Notice he doesn’t even mention God;
just tells them that they’re going to be overthrown.

And those jerks in Nineveh actually listened,
which made Jonah so mad he could spit nails.

Everyone heard him, and believed him,
and they changed their ways.

Which is the worst,
since Jonah pretty much hated them.

But then something even more awful happened:
God appreciated their change in attitude,
and listened to them,
and spared them.

This made Jonah so mad he was breathing fire,
because Jonah was a prophet of Israel,
and Nineveh was not Israel.

God had the audacity to care for Nineveh,
and then Nineveh CARED BACK.

What is the world coming to?

It actually sets up some of the best sarcasm in the Bible,
which we sadly didn’t read today,
so I’ll just give it to you now.

Jonah is whinging in response to what God did, and says:
Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning;
for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and ready to relent from punishing.
And now, O LORD, please take my life from me,
for it is better for me to die than to live.”

This is all in response to God not destroying Nineveh.

It’s tough when you think you have everything figured out,
and then God doesn’t do what you think God ought to,
but instead does what God actually ought to do.

After all,
we believe in a God whose love is big enough for everyone,
and who created the whole world in God’s own image;
so how could God not also care for Nineveh,
even if God also cared for Israel?

Admittedly, we have the benefit of hindsight on this,
so we can see more clearly than Jonah could
that God is actually being God in this,
the God that created us in God’s image,
as opposed to the God Jonah might have preferred,
a God created in Jonah’s image…

But thankfully we got the God we did,
the one who does care for Nineveh,
the one who cares for the whole world,
even the parts that we don’t care for so much.

That’s the first significant point we see in this story:
God cares for the other, too;
but we also see something else that’s pretty remarkable:
Nineveh believes right away.

Jonah doesn’t even mention God:
he just says, “Okay, this place is history in a month.”

And the whole city,
big enough that it takes 3 days to walk across,
the biggest city in the world,
says, “Geez, good thing you came and told us!
What do we have to do?”

Let’s just compare and contrast that with Jonah for a moment.

Jonah, the prophet, the preacher,
heard God and says “I’m outta here.”
He then encounters a storm,
and getting SWALLOWED BY A FISH,
and finally says, “Okay, Nineveh. Got it.”

He then also has the cheek to get angry with God
because God is merciful,
and falls into histrionics,
saying “It’s better for me to die than to live.”

This prophet gets it wrong at almost every step,
and still God’s work is done,
and Nineveh is saved.

And the parallel in the Gospel is Christ’s disciples,
who hear just a word,
just “Follow me, and I’ll make you fish for people,”
and they say, “Right. Awesome. Let’s do this.”

Just like the Ninevites. They hear the word, and they go.

Now, the thing that is most compelling about this
is that Jesus is saying that
“The time is fulfilled,
and the kingdom of God has come near.”

Literally the first thing out of Jesus’s mouth in Mark’s Gospel
is telling us that the Kingdom of God has come near,
that it’s not something to wait for eventually,
or something that we should be focused on seeing
once we get to heaven;
the kingdom of God has come near now,
and we are invited to repent and believe the Good News.

And we see from both Jonah and Paul this morning
what that Good News is:
God created the whole world,
and even though we’re not capable
of loving everyone,
God is.

God’s love is so big, in fact,
that even our enemies (like Nineveh, for instance)
are embraced by it,
even though it may rankle us,
or terrify us (like it did for Jonah).

And God’s kingdom,
the reign of God,
is here, and now,
for everyone, everywhere,
like Jesus said in the Gospel.

So as his disciples,
called to follow just like Peter, and Andrew,
and James, and John,
we are to live in God’s kingdom,
and make God’s kingdom known throughout the world.

That’s one way to look at Paul’s letter to the Corinthians today:
the present form of the world is passing away,
because Christians throughout the world
are making the Kingdom of God known,
instead of the kingdom of humanity.

While that may not be exactly what Paul meant
(since it sure seems like he was saying
that Jesus was going to be back next Tuesday,
so don’t get too comfortable),
we can, at the same time,
see how the old is passing away
as we continue to work for the Kingdom of God
here and now,
making Christ known to the world
and following him as best we can,
with God’s grace and love to support and sustain us,
since we all make mistakes,
even though we wish we didn’t
(this is the “repent” part that Jesus was talking about).

And we will all get it wrong some of the time:
we each make mistakes,
with our spouses,
with our children,
with our coworkers,
with our friends,
with our families,
with strangers,
with our fellow church members:
we are all afforded opportunities to repent,
every day of our lives.

But we also keep working at it,
and keep on being supported
by grace, and love,
and hope, and faith,
and wisdom, and counsel,
and understanding, and fortitude,
and knowledge, and piety, and holy fear,
and all the gifts and fruits of the Spirit
that support us in our daily lives,
in the moments when we’re aware of it,
and in the moments when we’re not aware of it,
and even in the moments when
we wish we were just about anywhere else
(like Jonah, poor guy).

Thanks be to God,
who doesn’t give up on us,
and who supports each of us
through our toughest moments,
even when we’re in the belly of a fish,
and gives us enough grace and love
to accomplish things that seem impossible,
like Jonah.

January 11, 2015 | The First Sunday after the Epiphany

by the Rev. Robert C. Laird

When I was finishing college,
I found myself at a crossroads
that I hadn’t particularly been looking for.

I was in discernment for ordination in the Episcopal Church,
but wasn’t yet ready to go to seminary.

I had a whole plan made:
where I was going to live,
what I was going to do,
I’d charted the whole thing out.

But then it all fell apart.
The shards of my plan lay all around me,
and I realized I was going to have a year to fill
before the next thing that was going to happen,
whatever that was…

Looking back, from this vantage point,
this isn’t an awful place to be when you’re 26, actually;
I had nearly unlimited possibilities before me,
and could do whatever I wanted.

And then I had dinner with Philip.

Philip is still one of my dearest friends,
despite the story I’m going to tell you.

Philip saw for me what I couldn’t see for myself;
what the next thing was going to be.

He said to me,
“You know, why don’t you consider
doing a year of service,
like the Jesuit Volunteer Corps?
You can go live in a Christian community for a year,
doing some kind of direct service
in a nonprofit of some kind.
I know someone who did something like that;
you should talk to him.”

The words still hung in the air,
like a word bubble in a comic strip,
but I knew that’s what I was going to do.

And I filled with terror at the thought.

It would mean leaving everything I knew,
my home, my friends,
my life as I had known it;
it was not the plan I had made,
wasn’t anywhere near part of the plan…

But I knew it was the right thing for me.

The truth had been named,
and it was just out there,
and I had to acknowledge it,
and admit that it was the truth for me.

I think there’s moments like that in most everyone’s life,
when you get leveled with the truth,
and you just have to change directions,
even though it means changing the plans
you’d so carefully laid.

John the baptizer has that gift, that power
in the Gospels,
and particularly in the Gospel we’ve heard today.

John preaches the word,
and people start coming to him,
to be washed in the waters of the Jordan,
and tell him their sins.

And John looked like a hot mess:
he wore camel’s hair,
and wore a leather belt around his waist;
this was a garment for a prophet,
a little wild, a little crazy.

And he ate locusts and wild honey;
the only time locusts are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible,
they are bad news,
a pestilence that devours everything;
and John the baptizer devours them, instead.

But not only does he devour the locusts,
and dress like a wild man,
but he speaks the truth.

This guy does not, to my imagination,
look like someone who people
would just start pouring out confessions to.

And yet they do,
over and over again.

The word that John preaches,
the call to repentance,
and to new life in the waters of baptism,
is so compelling that everyone is jumping in.

I’m willing to bet that if you’d heard him there that day,
you’d have done the same thing.

When someone just lays the truth out there like that,
you know it; you can’t help but follow.

In fact, John was so compelling that Jesus,
who was without sin,
who had nothing to confess,
Jesus himself is baptized.

It’s a paradox, Jesus getting baptized.
It’s an act of utter humility,
being baptized along with everyone else,
the rest of the sinful crowd that had gathered there
in the River Jordan.

After all, Jesus has all authority in the world;
he’s God’s Son,
and he’s being baptized.

But his authority and his humility are intertwined
in this act of his baptism:
He has authority as the humble one,
and he has the true humility of one
in whom all authority is invested.

It’s the same humility we’ll see from Jesus
on the cross, at Golgotha on Good Friday;
it’s the humility that is integral to him as a person.

It’s the humility we’re called as Christians to live out,
following in Jesus’ example,
who has claimed us in baptism,
and marked us as his own forever.

And today,
as we remember Jesus’ own baptism,
we renew our own baptismal vows,
making anew the promises of our baptism.

We promise to seek and serve Christ,
and strive for justice and peace,
and continue in the teaching and fellowship of the faith,
and to repent and return when we fail,
and to ourselves proclaim the Good News.

Because after all,
through that baptism,
through his love for us,
Jesus transforms each of our lives,
teaching us through his example,
forming us as disciples in following him,
and empowering us to respond to the needs of the world
through loving service.

This is not an easy life we’re called to;
it can be intimidating,
and difficult at times.

But it’s also a powerful call,
a call that claims us in the hearing of it,
that levels us when we hear it,
and we have to change directions,
even if it means changing the plans
we’d so carefully laid.

But it’s worth changing our plans
when it’s because the heavens have been torn apart,
as they were there that day at the Jordan River,
and the love of God,
which was made manifest that day for Jesus,
descends upon us like a dove,
as we profess our faith
in our baptismal promises,
and join in the song of heaven
as we celebrate the grace God has given each of us
in the Word and Sacrament we share;
in the lives of faith we live;
in the gift of Jesus,
God’s only Son,
there in the river,
and here in our midst.

The life we have each been called to
as disciples of Jesus Christ
isn’t an easy one.

But as we see in Jesus’s own baptism,
as we see in the preaching of John the Baptist,
as we see in the life in community
we share as Christians,
it’s a life worth living,
even though it can be hard.

It’s a life that claims us,
and that we claim,
in the promises we make,
which we keep with God’s help.

January 4, 2014 | The Second Sunday after Christmas

by the Rev. Robert C. Laird

Each year, Santa puts two things in everyone’s stocking,
at least at my house.

The first is an orange, usually a clementine;
it’s always the first thing put in the toe,
so it’s always the last thing that comes out of it.

This is apparently something Santa does in many houses;
St. Nicholas was reported
to have dropped three sacks of gold
down the chimney of a poor man to provide a dowry
for his three daughters;
the oranges are meant to represent those sacks of gold,
and have been found in stockings for centuries.

But Santa also brings one other gift to everyone,
including this year when my mom and sister were with us:
a fresh package of thank you notes for each stocking.

Thanks to Santa,
I learned to write thank you notes at a young age,
always trying to get them in the mail before the New Year;
some years I am more successful than others,
but I learned early on the importance of saying thank you.
No matter how you feel about the gift,
you should say thank you;
in offering thanks,
we complete the action of giving and receiving;
otherwise we’re just sort of taking the gift,
instead of receiving it with gratitude.
Without offering thanks,
we rob a gift of its intrinsic holiness.

And that gratitude,
that simple statement, “Thank you,”
is the foundation of what the author of
the Letter to the Ephesians is saying today.

The whole letter is almost liturgical in its construction;
our selection for today consists of a blessing
(“Blessed be God, who has blessed us in Christ
with every spiritual blessing…”
and a thanksgiving,
(“I do not cease to give thanks for you
as I remember you in my prayers.”)

In fact, our selection of the letter today
is almost a rhapsody,
pure emotion flowing through the pen
and pouring onto the page.

And the verses of that rhapsody
are shot through with thanks:
thanks to God for making a world that includes us,
thanks to God for not only making us,
but for making us God’s own children by adoption,
through Jesus Christ,
and to honor the glorious grace that has been given to us
freely through the Son.

God gives us something amazing:
our lives,
the fullness of our very selves,
made in God’s image,
and called into relationship with God through Jesus.

And what do we do in that relationship?
We give thanks right back to God
for the gifts that God gives us.

To use the language from Ephesians,
we bless God for the blessings that God has given us,
from the blessings that God has given us.

This cycle of blessing and thanks,
giving to God from what God has given to us,
is the foundation of our relationship with God.

Anne Lamott, the essayist and author,
says there are really only three prayers:
Help, Thanks, and Wow;
and each of them is essential in its own way.

“Thanks” is certainly essential to our relationship with God,
because giving thanks nurtures and cares for
the holiness of the gifts and blessings we receive from God:
if writing a thank you note to your aunt for the Chia Pet
you received for Christmas is important,
then how much more important must it be
to give thanks to God for the myriad blessings
we receive from God each and every day?

Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits,
required each Jesuit to examine their daily lives
twice each day, and express their gratitude to God
for the ways that God works in their daily lives,
a practice which Jesuits keep to this day.
In fact, during the Council of Trent in the mid 16th century,
when the Jesuits there asked Ignatius
if they could skip their prayers because they were so busy,
Ignatius said they could skip anything but the Examen;
expressing gratitude is central to our lives.

It’s actually the thing
that makes it possible for us to do what Paul
prays we will be able to do:
To receive a spirit of wisdom and truth from God
through the Holy Spirit,
that the eyes of our hearts may have enough light
to see what is the hope of God’s call;
if we receive God’s blessings,
and give them back to God as thankfulness,
then God will continue to give to us,
and us back to God;
it becomes a virtuous circle,
which keeps reinforcing itself
as our gratitude grows and deepens.

My friends,
no matter who you are,
no matter what you have done,
no matter if you have much faith or little,
God is already working in your life,
and doing amazing things;
when you realize it,
and give thanks for what God is doing in your life,
and give thanks for Christ,
through whom it’s all possible,
that’s discipleship.
That’s what lies at the root of being a Christian,
at least as we have received the faith.

After all, the our primary act of worship on Sunday,
the Eucharist,
is a Greek word that means “Thanksgiving.”

What we do is give thanks,
in our worship,
in our private prayer,
through our missions,
in our life as a community,
joining in the prayer of the whole host of heaven,
that sings throughout time:
we give thanks.

It’s even easy to give thanks,
at least when times are good.

It’s pretty easy to thank God
when we win the lottery,
or get the promotion we’ve worked for,
or find ourselves in the flush of new love,
or are called “Mommy” for the first time.

It’s harder to be grateful
when we’re confronted with a truth about ourselves,
perhaps one we desperately need to learn,
but are loath to hear.

It’s hard to be grateful
for the times in our lives
that push us to the edges of ourselves—
a troubling diagnosis,
a disappointment or a betrayal,
or circumstances that are beyond our control.

It’s hard to be grateful
when we only have hard choices,
like Joseph and Mary faced in today’s Gospel.

Confronted with the truth
that Herod wanted baby Jesus dead,
Joseph rushes his family out of the barn
and into the night,
fleeing for their lives to Egypt,
with a newborn child and his young mother,
still recovering from childbirth.

It’s hard to give thanks when things look bleakest.

But Joseph,
who remained faithful to God
as this astonishing and amazing story unfolds,
acted to protect his family,
trusting God,
who three times in today’s Gospel
spoke to Joseph through an Angel in his dreams:
“Go to Egypt to escape Herod,”
and then “It’s all Clear: Go back to Israel”
(and then “PS: Go to Galilee, not Jerusalem”),
and each time, Joseph did as he was told.

Now the Gospels say precious little about Joseph at all;
he gets short shrift from the Evangelists,
which I think is unfortunate.

After all,
he endured so much to do his part in raising Jesus,
to living God’s call to him,
even though it was hard.

And each of us is given these opportunities in our lives:
each of us has the opportunity to give thanks,
even when things are hard;
even when the road is difficult;
and we can’t see where the road leads;
and in learning to express gratitude even then,
even when times are rough,
we live more fully into the call to be disciples,
and we journey more deeply
into that virtuous circle,
where blessing begets blessing,
and we continue to be nourished
through giving our gratitude,
even when it’s not easy,
even when the night falls dark.

So what are you most grateful for?
I’d invite you to answer that question now,
but more importantly,
I’d invite you to answer that question tonight,
just before you go to bed,
thinking about everything that happens between
this moment and that one.

What are you most grateful for?
It’s a question that God can help you answer,
if you ask for help;
Just review your day,
moment by moment,
and ask God to help you see
the moments that you are most grateful for.

It’s the one thing that Ignatius of Loyola asked his Jesuits to do
twice every day;
it’s the beginning and end
of the virtuous circle of our lives of faith,
and it’s the thing that honors the holiness
of every gift and blessing we receive,
whether we realize the gifts and blessings when they come,
or whether we need a little distance in order
to see them as blessings and gifts.

It’s the very cornerstone of our worship as Episcopalians:
we give thanks at the table,
for the bread and wine,
for the gift of Jesus, who is present to us
in the bread and the wine,
and for the many blessings that we receive each day,
because God is doing amazing things in each of our lives,
whether we realize it or not.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ
with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,
just as he chose us in Christ
before the foundation of the world
to be holy and blameless before him in love.

Thanks be to God.

December 21, 2014 | The Fourth Sunday of Advent

by the Rev. Robert C. Laird

It always amazes me to see all four candles lit
on the Advent wreath,
and how quickly it feels like it sneaks up on us.

At the beginning of Advent,
there is so much time;
we have four weeks, after all;
but these weeks are always so full,
with shopping, and friends, and family coming into town,
and then, suddenly,
you’ve barely taken a breath,
and the whole wreath is ablaze.

This year, we light the last candle,
and begin our journey to Bethlehem,
to the birth of Jesus,
which is announced in today’s Gospel.

It is a remarkable thing to see Mary today;
she’s engaged to be married to Joseph,
which means that Joseph has already paid the bride price,
the money that due to to Mary’s father
for the right to marry Mary
(this is why in Matthew’s Gospel,
Joseph decides to quietly dismiss Mary,
even though they had not yet been married;
that’s how engagement worked in those days).

The other remarkable thing is that
these marriage contracts were,
in Mary and Joseph’s time,
entered into when the bride was between
twelve and twelve-and-a-half years old;
it was truly a different time;
nowadays, women are typically
more than twice that age before they consider marriage,
and then they decide to get married on their own.
In the US today,
most children turn twelve when they’re in sixth grade.

But for her time, Mary was of marrying age,
and was preparing to make a life with Joseph,
and then into that world crashes the Divine.

Gabriel shows up to her,
with some amazing news:
she is going to have a child.

This wasn’t the first time God had announced an amazing birth:
both Hagar and Sarah spoke to angels
about the birth of Ismael and Isaac;
the birth of Samson was announced to the wife of Manoah
(whose name is lost to history);
and Elizabeth was visited by Gabriel
to announce the birth of John the Baptist
(well, actually, Zechariah was visited,
but one would certainly hope
that even though Zechariah couldn’t talk at the time,
he somehow communicated to Elizabeth
that she was going to be pregnant,
despite her advanced age;
what a shock to her if he didn’t!).

But those women were all older,
and infertile;
Mary was still a virgin:
this “something unheard of” was new.

And her response is remarkable:
first, she asks “How is this possible?”
which is perfectly understandable,
if not almost precocious;
then she says “Here am I, the Handmaid of the Lord;
let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary, a sixth-grader by our understanding,
was saying yes to God in a way
that is amazing,
and changed the world for all time.

Because after all,
Mary was agreeing not only to raise Jesus,
to carry him to term, and love him,
but to co-creating with the Holy Spirit
the Divine breaking-in to the world,
Jesus, God’s own self,
born as a human, and in the world to save it.

Mary must have known that she was exposing herself
and her family to scandal;
how the tongues would wag,
given how small Nazareth was,
when Mary turned up pregnant before her wedding.

She must also have known
that being God’s son,
and born to a poor family like hers,
would not go well for Jesus;
the life expectancy for prophets in Israel
was pretty bad,
and wasn’t likely to be any better for Jesus.

Mary was saying “yes” to raising a son
who would deny her,
saying “I have no mother, only a Father in heaven;”
she was saying “yes” to following him to Golgotha,
to the place of the skull where Jesus was crucified;
she was saying “yes” to watching his death,
and grieving his loss;
she was saying yes to carrying in her mother’s heart
the ugliness of human existence,
all of which Jesus encountered,
and ultimately redeemed,
but at an ultimate cost.

It’s truly amazing what Mary does in today’s Gospel.
But it’s equally amazing what God does in today’s Gospel.

Though Gabriel,
God is not only breaking into the human world,
both by sending Gabriel to talk to Mary,
but also by telling of Jesus’ birth;
not only has God come into the world,
but God has chosen to come into the world
on the side of the poor, and the oppressed;
after all, Mary was not of a wealthy family,
nor was Joseph.
Jesus was to be born to a poor family,
raised the son of a handyman;
a far cry from the royal birth we saw last year
of Prince George of Cambridge.

Mary’s song reflects this truth:
“He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts
and proud inclinations.
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty-handed.”

God has chosen the poor,
and Mary is an example of this;
Mary, who was not particularly favored in our world,
as a girl, as someone without means,
one of the most lowly in her culture,
is most favored by God.

In Mary, God is siding with those on the margins,
something Jesus does consistently
throughout his ministry.

God has just turned Mary’s world upside-down,
and will do the same for us,
if we give him the chance.

After all, as Gabriel says to Mary,
“Nothing is impossible for God.”

Even though for humanity,
so much seems impossible;
in Mary’s time,
just the idea that Mary would be favored,
or that Rome might not rule Israel forever,
or that the hungry might have food,
would have seemed impossible to us,
but nothing is impossible for God.

In our time,
just as much seems impossible;
globally and nationally,
we are as divided and paralyzed as we’ve been
in several generations;
and each of us individually
knows our shortcomings,
the things that feel impossible for us,
the things that drain our hope,
and feel insurmountable.

But none of it is impossible for God.
God, who breaks into human history—
into our history—
God, who chooses the poor and the marginalized,
who gathers up the lowly;
God, whose kingdom promises justice,
and love, and peace, and hope—
nothing is impossible for God.

Regardless of your political persuasion,
I think it’s we can all agree
that we ‘ve made a pretty good mess of the world.

Looking over the two thousand years
since Jesus’s birth was announced to Mary,
(and for the thousands of years before that),
humans have a pretty spotty track record.

And Gabriel proclaims in today’s Gospel
that God will right the wrongs,
and God’s reign will restore and redeem
the mess that we have made:
for with God, nothing is impossible.

That’s what the lights of the Advent wreath
mean for us today:
that God has entered into the world;
that God has chosen to be with us,
as flawed as we are, and as messy as we can make things;
that for God, nothing is impossible.

It’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a sixth-grade age girl,
and even more to put on a baby boy,
who will be born to a poor family in a barn;
but God is capable of surprising us,
and turning everything upside down,
in amazing, delightful, and terrifying ways;
but it’s not too much for God,
and it’s not too much for us,
with God’s help.

Christmas Services

St. Luke’s Christmas Eve service will be at 7:30 PM on December 24, 2014. Join us as we celebrate Christ’s birth on Wednesday!