Sunday, December 27, 2009

Funeral Sermon for Ann Fiske Atchison

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 27, 2009

Funeral Sermon for Ann Fiske Atchison
Wisdom 3:1-5,9
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 14:1-6a

It’s Not About Us

Today’s gospel reading comes from the story of the Last Supper in the Gospel of John. It’s one of the most familiar parts of the whole Bible isn’t it? We retell the Last Supper story every time we have communion and we retell it in all of its detail and power in the days leading up to Easter.

But, although it’s a familiar and old story, it’s lost none of its intensity. We can still feel how intense it must have been in that room when Jesus gathered with his closest followers and friends.

Part of the intensity of the experience is that Jesus was running out of time. He knows that the time has just about come for him to be arrested, handed over to the authorities and to die on the Cross.

Since Jesus knew he was running out of time, at the Last Supper he tried to get across to his disciples the most important things. He knew all too well that in the past they’ve been a little thick-headed and haven’t always understood, so now is the time for clarity. Now is the time for intensity.

Jesus sums up his message with crystal clarity and burning intensity. At the Last Supper Jesus said to them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Jesus knows that words alone may not get his message across. Many times Jesus has told his friends that they should not worry about status and prestige and wealth, but that instead they should live lives of loving service. Now, though, was the time for clarity and intensity. Jesus got on his hands and knees and washed the feet of his friends. Through this lowly and menial act, Jesus says to his friends and followers, says to us here today – this is how you are to live. You are to offer loving service to one another.

In other words, Jesus tells all of us, it’s not about you. Jesus tells us it’s about the love we share and the service we give to one another.

Over the past six or seven weeks the Atchison family has been through its own intense experience. It’s been a privilege to be with them – to be with you – from the day after Ann’s fall and broken hip, through surgery, hopes for recovery, and the growing realization that Ann’s life was drawing to a close.

It was an intense experience but like the Last Supper so long ago, it was an experience that produced crystal clarity.

I’m pretty sure her family already knew this, but through this intense experience it became crystal clear to me that Ann Fiske Atchison really understood Jesus’ message. Ann lived her life in a way that showed she understood that it wasn’t about her. For Ann, it was always about the love and service for her family, her friends and her church.

Whenever she could, Ann attended our Wednesday morning Healing Eucharist. Once she was no longer able to drive, I would often pick her up and give her a ride to church. Each week on the short ride we would chat away. It’s only during these past few intense weeks that I realized she almost never talked about herself. Instead, much of the time she would fill me in on her family and especially she would talk about how grateful she was that all of her children helped her out so much.

During these intense weeks I saw for myself the loving bond of this family. Several times I told Whitney, Patty, Rob and Doug that this family was a textbook example of how this is supposed to happen. The way they supported one another and especially the way they showered love on their mom was an inspiration. If Ann ever doubted it, in these last few weeks she was convinced beyond a doubt that she was deeply loved.

Whenever I’d compliment the Atchison kids on how good they were being for one another and for Ann, they’d always point back to their mom and say they learned how to live, to love, this way from her. And, they said, they were just giving back the love she had given them for so many years.

Jesus tells all of us, it’s not about you. Jesus tells us it’s about the love we share and the service we give to one another.

Ann loved her family and she also loved her friends. Sure enough another frequent topic of conversation on our rides from Lorraine Road to Grace Church was her dear friend, Anita Cole. They had been very close friends nearly their entire lives. Anita had gotten sick a few years back and Ann missed her and was so concerned about her – it was a worry that she brought up often.

As I mentioned, our Wednesday service is a healing service. Each week at that service, Ann would stay kneeling at the altar rail, waiting to be anointed with Holy Oil. Despite her own dimming eyes and weakening limbs, Ann never one asked for healing for herself. Instead, without fail, she would say softly, “For Anita.”

Jesus tells all of us, it’s not about you. Jesus tells us it’s about the love we share and the service we give to one another.

Ann loved her family and her friends and she also loved her church. Grace Church, where she was a parishioner for her whole life, was the third major topic of conversation on our Wednesday morning drives through the streets of Madison.

It’s true to her character that she served the church in two very much behind the scenes, almost invisible ways. She served on the altar guild – the unsung heroes of Grace Church who wash and polish and iron and who do so much to make this sacred place so beautiful. Ann’s other major area of service was sort of at the other end of the church spectrum. For many years she was one of the money counters – the group that gathers in near anonymity to do the crucial work of counting the collections after the Sunday service.

She showed her love for this church in other tangible ways. I never knew this, but Ann paid for the restoration of one of our stained glass windows, which she dedicated in memory of her parents. If you haven’t seen it, check it out after the service. It’s the rather haunting window of Jesus reaching out his arms in invitation that’s in the back on this side of the church. When her brother Denny died, she donated a chalice and paten in his memory – sacred vessels which we use all the time and which will be used when we celebrate the Holy Eucharist together in a few minutes.

Ann’s love for this church became very apparent just a few months ago. On a Friday night we had a potluck supper and invited people who had grown up at Grace Church to share some of their memories. It was a fun and poignant experience.

Ann’s contemporaries, Gene Carpenter and Don Van Court put on an unforgettable slide show with amazing photos of Grace Church from the days of their childhood. Ann was there and seemed to have a wonderful time reminiscing. She brought an artifact which she proudly showed to me and others – it was the certificate recording her confirmation long ago right here at Grace Church.

Through her life as a parishioner, Ann confirmed her love for this church through her service and her generosity – service and generosity that will live on.
Jesus tells all of us, it’s not about you. Jesus tells us it’s about the love we share and the service we give to one another.

At the Last Supper, despite Jesus’ intensity and clarity, the disciples are still devastated at the thought of Jesus’ death. Jesus promised his friends that he would go ahead and prepare a place for them. Jesus told them, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

In despair and confusion, Thomas said to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life.”

Through her life, Ann Fiske Atchison knew that Jesus is the way, and the truth and the life. She knew that life wasn’t about her, but about the love and service she shared with others – with her family, her friends and her church.

Now Ann has gone to the place prepared for her by Jesus – the place of perfect love and service. For the rest of us, however, the journey continues.

On our journeys through life we can carry the memory and the example of Ann. Her memory and example teach us that we really can live lives of love and service. Ann’s life is a reminder that it’s not about us – it’s about the love and service we share with one another.


Reflection Time

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 27, 2009

The First Sunday after Christmas
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Psalm 147
Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
John 1:1-18

Reflection Time

We all know that Advent is supposed to be a time of quiet preparation and reflection, but in reality for many of us Advent is a whirlwind of shopping and planning, checking items off our list, making sure we’re ready for Christmas.

For many of us, the chances of actually reflecting about the meaning of Christmas on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day are pretty slim. Instead for many of us, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are times to gather with family and friends, exchange gifts, eat – and maybe drink - too much. And, for others of us, it can be a sad time when we feel the sting of who or what we’ve lost, or perhaps never had.

Despite the best efforts of the Church, most of us don’t have the chance to really reflect on the meaning of Christmas during Advent or on Christmas Day itself. Most of us just don’t have reflection time.

And maybe that’s OK – at least for a while. Maybe it’s OK to get wrapped up in the experience – to enjoy the decorations and the carols and hymns, to celebrate with friends and family, and even to feel the absence of what’s missing.

Maybe that’s OK because, of course, we need to actually have the experience before we can begin to reflect upon it.

In Luke’s telling of Jesus’ birth, he tells us that Mary treasured and pondered in her heart the amazing experiences of the angel Gabriel’s appearance and the arrival of the shepherds to see her son, the newborn King. But, I’m willing to bet that having just given birth in less than ideal circumstances, right then and there Mary didn’t have a whole lot of time for reflection on what all this meant. Like all mothers of newborns, an exhausted Mary had too much to do. Reflection time would have to be later.

And the same is true for the first followers of Jesus. So many remarkable things happened so quickly. According to tradition, Jesus’ earthly ministry lasted an action-packed three years. In the middle of miracles and teaching and confusing parables and disturbing predictions, when was there time to reflect?

It was only after Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and resurrection that Jesus’ followers began to reflect on what his birth, life, death and resurrection meant for them and for the whole world. It was only after Jesus was no longer physically present with them that the first Christians had reflection time.

And in today’s lessons we heard two examples of the early Church reflecting on Christmas, reflecting on what it means for us and the world that, in Jesus, God became incarnate; that, in Jesus, God has come and lived and died as one of us.

First up is St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The best guess is that this letter was written around the year 55 – already a couple of decades of reflection time had passed since the earthly life of Jesus.
One of the problems in reading Paul’s letters is that we only have one side of the correspondence – we don’t know exactly what issues provoked Paul to write what he has. In the case of the Letter to the Galatians, Paul was writing to urban Christian communities he had planted in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey.

It seems that most of the people in these communities were gentiles, not Jews. But, since Paul had been away some other Jewish followers of Jesus arrived and tried, probably with some success, to convince these gentile Christians that they needed to observe Jewish Law.

The question of whether gentile Christians needed to obey Jewish Law was the hottest debate in the early Church.

Paul was not pleased to hear about what’s going on in the Galatian churches. Paul was provoked to write very clearly how he thought the birth of Jesus has changed everything. What Paul wrote is undoubtedly the product of many years of reflection time – time spent reflecting and praying on the meaning of Jesus’ birth. Paul has come to the conclusion that Jesus has changed forever our relationship with God.
Paul writes that the Law had served as our disciplinarian. That was a very precise term in Paul’s day. A disciplinarian was a household slave who supervised the discipline of children. It seems like it wasn’t a particularly warm, loving relationship but it kept the kids in line.

But now thanks to Jesus all of that changes. Paul writes that, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”

Paul claims that the disciplinarian is no longer needed, because, through Jesus, God has bridged the gap separating us from God. God has adopted us as children. So, now, along with Jesus we can cry to God, “Abba, Father!”

Imagine how much reflection time Paul needed before he could arrive at such a rich and beautiful understanding of Jesus and how his birth changed everything.

The Gospel of John was written near the end of the First Century – some sixty years after the earthly lifetime of Jesus. The whole of John’s gospel, and especially the famous prologue that we heard today, is obviously a product of much prayerful reflection time – reflection about Jesus, about God, about philosophy, and much more. After decades of prayerful reflection time, the Gospel of John offers a cosmic view of Jesus’ birth.

John begins his prologue by echoing Genesis, “In the beginning…” John boldly attempts to describe some of God’s inner life, writing that the Word was with God, that the Word was God and that all of creation came into existence through the Word.
Again, undoubtedly after much reflection time, John is inspired by God to take the next leap. The Word of God who was with God, who was God, through whom everything came into being, the Word of God “became flesh and lived among us.”

And just like Paul, John has come to understand that the birth of Jesus, the birth of God’s Son, the Word of God taking flesh, has changed forever our relationship with God.

John writes, “(But) to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” John offers a more cosmic view than Paul, but he gets to the same place. The birth of Jesus has changed everything. Through Jesus, God has bridged the gap separating us from God. God has adopted us as children.

Here’s one last example of someone who had put a good deal of prayerful reflection time into the meaning of Jesus’ birth. One of my favorite early Church Fathers is Irenaeus of Lyon, who was a bishop in the Second Century. So he lived and wrote a century and more after the earthy life of Jesus.

Irenaeus was especially influenced by St. Paul and built on Paul’s understanding of what Jesus’ birth means for us. Undoubtedly after much reflection time, Irenaeus developed his idea of recapitulation. In a nutshell, Irenaeus looked back to the Garden of Eden story and recognized that it was because of a human being that our relationship with God got broken.

Irenaeus suggests that in Jesus, God recapitulates creation. In Jesus, God unites with us and gives all of us a second chance. In Jesus, God fixes what got broken by sin, and adopts us as God’s children.

So, merry Christmas! For us here today it’s still Christmastide but for the rest of the world Christmas is over and it’s time to move on to the next thing.

But, for us Christians, Christmastide offers us an important opportunity. As some of the Christmas excitement begins to fade the Church gives us the opportunity for prayerful reflection time.

Today’s lessons offer us the inspired, prayerful reflections of Paul and John on the meaning of Jesus’ birth. Plus, we have 2000 years of Christians such as Irenaeus and many others reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ birth.

And now, on this First Sunday after Christmas, you and I are invited to take some of our own prayerful reflection time, to really reflect on what it means for us that in Jesus, God has come and lived among us.


Friday, December 25, 2009


Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 25th, 2009

Christmas Day
Isaiah 62:6-12
Titus 3:4-7
Psalm 97
Luke 2:1-20


You may not believe this, but I’ve been told that the so-called Christmas season can be very… stressful. There are many sources for this holiday anxiety. For many of us there is the anxiety of trying to get everything done for last night and this morning – presents bought and wrapped, house cleaned, food prepared, table set, fingers crossed that there’s no family drama to spoil the holiday.

For others of us, the stress comes from a different place – the sadness we may feel about someone we love who is sick or has died. For us, there is the challenge of being in “good cheer” when all we really want to do is get back into bed, pull up the covers and wake up when Christmas is over.

Christmas can be stressful for kids, too. Teachers have been known to cram a lot of work and tests into the last days of school before Christmas vacation. And, I’m sure this isn’t true for the kids here today, but I used to worry that I’d be judged as naughty, not nice, and there’d be a bag of coal waiting for me under the tree on Christmas morning.

I wish I could tell you that the Church is free of stress and anxiety today and in the days leading up to Christmas. Unfortunately, the truth is just the opposite. It takes a lot of work and planning by many people to put on the spectacular celebrations last night and here this morning.

Everyone has different ways of dealing with stress and anxiety. One of the things I try to do to calm myself down is try to focus on what’s most important, what’s essential.
And, as far as Christmas is concerned, there are three essential pieces.

First, of course, we need to gather together. Second, we need to hear the old, familiar and yet still-so-powerful story of the birth of the Messiah. Finally, the last essential ingredient for a Christmas celebration in church is hymns.

Can you imagine a Christmas celebration without hymns? Can you imagine Christmas without these poetic texts set to music to praise God? I know some of us are uncomfortable singing, and yet, for even the most tone-deaf it’s hard to resist singing just a little bit of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!” or “Joy to the World”.

Hymns are essential to our celebration today and in fact they’ve been an essential part of the Christian life right from the beginning.

Hymns are certainly an important part of the Gospel of Luke. In fact, Luke uses several hymns to help tell the story of Jesus’ birth.

First Mary, while visiting with her relative Elizabeth, bursts into song, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior…”

Second, Luke tells us that the priest Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and sang a hymn prophesying about his son John the Baptist: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways…”

Today we heard and sang the third hymn. The heavenly host appears before the shepherds, singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven!”

These hymns are rich and powerful and they have all inspired so much beautiful music. But, as I thought about today’s angelic hymn – a hymn that is so familiar and seemingly so simple, I started wondering what exactly are these angels singing? What does it mean to sing “Glory to God”? What is glory?

In the Bible, the word glory is used in two different ways. The first meaning is the honor and esteem we should give to God because, well, God is God. As our creator, and the source of life and love, God is worthy of our praise and so we give honor to God.

But there is second meaning of glory in the Bible. Although God is invisible, the people of Israel came to understand that sometimes they could see signs of God’s power and presence – what they called God’s glory. So they were able to see God’s glory, they were able to see God’s power and presence, in the tabernacle they carried those forty long years in the desert and they could see God’s glory, they could see God’s power and presence, in the Temple. In today’s gospel lesson Luke tells us that the angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds “and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”

In Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, both meanings of glory meet one another.

The angels sing out and give honor, give glory to God, because in that feeding trough in Bethlehem, the shepherds, along with Mary and Joseph and even the animals, were about to see God’s power and presence.

In that helpless newborn child, born in the humblest of circumstances, they and we see God’s power and presence – we see God’s glory.
In that helpless newborn child, born to a young mother with so much to ponder in her heart and an adoptive father who had to take a very great leap of faith, we see God’s power and presence – we see God’s glory.

In that helpless newborn child, wrapped with bands of cloth and lying in a feeding trough used by animals, we see God’s power and presence – we see God’s glory.
And when we see God’s glory the only correct response is to give God glory – to give God honor and praise and thanks for living among us in Jesus. So Luke tells us, “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”

But, there’s even more to God’s glory than the story of Jesus’ birth.

On Christmas, of course, our focus is on Jesus’ birth, but we can never lose sight of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Just because it’s Christmas, we don’t take down the crosses in church. Just because it’s Christmas we don’t forget about Good Friday and Easter. Just as we do each Sunday, in a little while, we’ll gather at the table, remember the Last Supper and we will see Jesus, see the glory of God, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

Just like those long-ago shepherds, just like Mary and Joseph, we also see God’s glory in Jesus and the only correct response is to give God glory.
But, there’s even more to God’s glory.

In our baptism, we become the Body of Christ in the world. So, if we are open and paying attention, we can see God’s glory in one another and the only correct response is to give God glory.

Over the past few weeks, right here in this little part of the Body of Christ called Grace Church, I’ve been reminded that if I’m open and paying attention I can see God’s glory and the only correct response is to give God glory.

I saw God’s glory in a family gathered around their dying mother, united in love, holding her hand, kissing her forehead, and telling her over and over as she slipped away, “We love you, Mom.” “We’re going to be OK, Mom.” “You did a great job and now you deserve to rest.”

Glory to God in the highest!

I saw God’s glory in the elderly parishioner, recuperating from a broken hip, who in the midst of his painful rehabilitation came up with an idea for a new ministry. He offered to come with me as I visit people in nursing homes and rehab centers and be a living example of hope for people working at their own rehabilitation.

Glory to God in the highest!

I saw God’s glory in the person who drove through the middle of a violent snowstorm to bring an old and sick cat to the vet – making it possible for that beloved family pet to die knowing for sure that it was cared for.
Glory to God in the highest!

I saw God’s glory in the parishioner who has personally visited nearly all of the organizations supported by our outreach funds, in the person who drops off food into the Food for Friends barrel hoping no one sees, and the team from Grace Church who went to Jersey City to lead the funeral of someone they never even met.

Glory to God in the highest!

Just like those long-ago shepherds, just like Mary and Joseph, we also see God’s glory in Jesus and the only correct response is to give God glory. On Christmas and every day you and I are the Body of Christ in the world and despite our stress and anxiety if we are open and pay attention we can see Jesus – we can see God’s glory – in one another.

And so along with the angels the only correct response is to sing, Glory to God in the highest!


Sunday, December 13, 2009

First Repentance, Then Rejoicing

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 13, 2009

Year C: The Third Sunday of Advent
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9
(Philippians 4:4-7)
Luke 3:7-18

First Repentance, Then Rejoicing

How is it possible that we’ve already reached the third Sunday of Advent? The weeks are just flying by and it feels like we are hurtling towards Christmas. We had a little debate about it at the other day at the Men’s Breakfast, but I checked – Christmas is just a week from Friday. Wow. Advent is supposed to be this season of quiet waiting, reflection and anticipation, yet I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling the anxiety of time running out.

Anyway, here we are, ready or not, the Third Sunday of Advent. And, as you’ve probably noticed by now, this is the Sunday we set aside the blue Advent vestments and bring out the beautiful rose vestments.

Traditionally today is called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word meaning “rejoice.” As Lauren mentioned in last week’s sermon, in the past there was a pretty heavy penitential aspect to Advent - it was considered by many to be a little Lent. The third Sunday was set aside as a time to take a little break from all that penitence, to inject a little joy into Advent, recognizing that we were getting close to Christmas.

Although in modern times the Church has softened the penitential side of Advent, we’ve held onto Gaudete Sunday, this Advent Sunday to rejoice. So out come the rose vestments and maybe some of you use a pink candle in your Advent wreath at home.

Maybe you noticed, however, there is however a little problem with Gaudete Sunday.

In the readings from Zephaniah and in the First Song of Isaiah (and the Epistle to the Philippians) the theme is clearly rejoicing. So far so good. In the words of Isaiah, “Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things, and this is known in all the world.”

But the gospel lesson seems to be off-message. Here we have what seems to be a very different theme: repentance. We heard the familiar story of John the Baptist preaching repentance to those he calls a “brood of vipers” – otherwise known as his congregation. John’s preaching is so tough that Luke’s last line is almost comical, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

Um, where exactly is the good news that John was proclaiming? Where is the rejoicing in this gospel for Gaudete Sunday?

Well, I puzzled over this question for quite a while. Finally I realized that if we rearrange the order of today’s lessons, we really can find the good news, we can really find the joy in Gaudete Sunday.

Here’s the good news: first repentance, then rejoicing.

First repentance.

In today’s gospel we once again find John preaching repentance and baptizing the crowds in the River Jordan. Hearing John’s harsh message we might wonder why in the world people came to this prophet in the river.

John himself seems skeptical that the crowd is there for the right reasons. He warns them they need to drop their sense of spiritual entitlement – being a descendant of Abraham doesn’t get you far with John. And John tells them being a descendant of Abraham won’t get you anywhere with God, either.

John tells them to drop their sense of spiritual entitlement because we are all going to be judged on if we bear good fruit. John tells them we will be judged on the way we live our lives.

John gives them a tough message and yet they still come to him. Maybe part of the reason people came to John despite his harsh message was because he offered very clear, concrete instructions on how to lead a life “worthy of repentance.” Have two coats? Give one away. Have food? Give some of it away. If you’re a tax collector, don’t take more than you’re supposed to. If you’re a soldier, don’t shake down anyone for money.

John is very clear and concrete. By the way, it’s no surprise that Luke includes these examples that challenge economic inequality and oppression. Remember this is the same gospel in which the Virgin Mary sings that God “has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich has sent away empty.”

Ultimately, though, maybe the people came to John despite his harsh message because in their hearts they knew they needed repentance. They knew that their lives were headed in the wrong direction. They were burdened by the knowledge that they were not living the kind of lives that God intended for them.

Luke tells us that the people were “filled with expectation.” What were they expecting? They were expecting, desperately hoping, that John would be the messiah. They were expecting, desperately hoping, that John would be the one who would free them, who would lead them from repentance to rejoicing.

First repentance, then rejoicing.

John is an important and interesting character, but, really, he is the last in a long line of prophets calling the people to repentance, to change their ways, to turn back to God.

In our Old Testament lesson we heard from another of those prophets. We don’t know much about the Prophet Zephaniah. He apparently lived in Jerusalem in the 6th Century BC. This seems to have been one of those times when the people of Israel had gone astray. They were worshipping idols, acting in unethical and immoral ways, and in general just not paying any attention to God. You know, the usual.

In response to this misbehavior, the Book of Zephaniah contains a series of prophesies about the Day of the Lord – the day when God was going to issue judgment on this unfaithful people.

Most of the Book of Zephaniah is gloom and doom. It would seem that the Day of the Lord is not exactly good news. Here’s how God describes the Day of the Lord, according to Zephaniah:

“I will bring distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the Lord, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung.” (1:17)

You can check it out at home if you’d like, but that’s a fair example of what most of the Book of Zephaniah is like – most, but not all. Today we heard the conclusion of Zephaniah where the prophet offers a very different vision – a vision of salvation and rejoicing.

Zephaniah says that some faithful people will repent – and that repentance will be the gateway to joy. Just before the passage we heard today, Zephaniah offers this vision of these faithful, penitent, transformed and joyful people:
“They shall do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths. They will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid.”
First repentance, then rejoicing.

So, what does all this have to do with us?

Can we relate to the people of Israel in Zephaniah’s time? Can we relate to those people who had gone astray, who were worshipping idols, who were acting in unethical or even immoral ways, who in general were just not paying any attention to God?
Can we relate to those people who came to see John the Baptist? Do we carry around a sense of entitlement? Do we know in our hearts that we need repentance? Do we know in our hearts that our lives are headed in the wrong direction? Do we know that we are not living the kind of life that God intends for us?

Are we expecting, desperately hoping, for the One who will free us, the One who will lead us from repentance to joy?

Well, if so, we have some very good news. This really is Gaudete Sunday – this really is a day to rejoice.

First repentance, then rejoicing.

Our lessons may have been a little out of order today, but the rest of the service is in perfect order. In just a little bit we will kneel and say the familiar words of the confession. Just before that we always have a few moments of quiet. Today, let’s really use that time. Let’s really take a moment think of how we need to repent. Today, let’s really pay attention to the familiar words.

And if we really repent, if we really say sorry and promise to try to live in a more faithful way, then we have created just enough room for God to lead us into rejoicing.

And the order of the service captures this perfectly, doesn’t it?

After we hear the words of forgiveness we move on to the rejoicing that is the peace and the rejoicing that we receive the presence of Jesus in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Finally, we leave this place rejoicing in God’s love and God’s mercy and God’s gift of himself in Jesus.

On this Gaudete Sunday, we have one very clear theme: first repentance, then rejoicing.

Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009


Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
The Messenger
December 2009


Some Saturday nights I go to sleep anxious about the next day’s sermon or eager to get as much rest as I can, knowing that I have a long Sunday ahead. But a few weeks ago I went to bed on a Saturday night without a worry in my head, looking forward to a relatively easy and enjoyable day of church. Lauren would be preaching so there would be no tossing and turning about the sermon. We had a couple of baptisms scheduled. Finally, in the afternoon I planned on heading down to House of Prayer in Newark (a wonderful church where I had served as a seminarian) for its 160th anniversary celebration. I fully expected it would be an easy, but memorable, day.

Before I dozed off, did I pray? Did I give thanks to God for the many wonderful gifts in my life? I can’t say for sure.

Around 4:00 Sue woke me up out of a deep sleep with shocking and terrifying words, “I think I have to go the hospital.” I tried to focus as I stumbled around the house, getting ready to leave, my heart racing, trying to make sense of what was happening, trying to stay calm.

In the car, driving as quickly as I could through the dark, deserted streets to Morristown Hospital, I tried to fall back on my clergy training and attempted to be a “non-anxious presence” for Sue. As I tried to radiate calm, inside I was thinking that this was one of those moments when your life takes a turn – the grim diagnosis, the phone call in the night, one wrong move, words spoken that can never be taken back or forgotten. As a priest, of course, I spend much time with people in the midst of those moments. Now, I thought, it was our turn. I believed we were in one of those moments when everything changes.

The emergency room was nearly empty. Apparently the injuries of Saturday night had already been bandaged and the new day’s wave of emergencies had not yet arrived. Once it was 6:00, I called Lauren and told her what was going on and that I wasn’t sure if or when I’d be in church. She told me not to worry about church and to update her on what was happening.

Although it took a few anxious hours, the doctors did figure out what was going on and Sue underwent a brief procedure that solved the problem. Exhausted and relieved, Sue and I stopped for breakfast and then returned home. I looked at the clock in the living room. All of this had happened before noon.

No surprise, we were both grateful that this frightening experience had ended much better than we had dared to hope. Like anyone who has a close-call, we had a renewed appreciation for the simple gifts of our everyday lives – the nice place to live, the purr of our cat, meaningful work, and the company of one another.

As the day went on my sense of gratitude for Grace Church deepened. Since this had happened on Sunday morning, everyone who was in church that day heard that I had taken Sue to the hospital early in the morning. Knowing that (obviously) Lauren couldn’t get to the hospital for a while, one parishioner took it upon himself to drive to the hospital after the 7:30 service to offer us some much-appreciated pastoral care. When I got home and went on the computer, waiting for me was a pile of concerned emails from parishioners. After I sent out a parish-wide email to let everyone know Sue was OK, another avalanche of emails arrived. Flowers were delivered and a dinner was prepared for us. How blessed we are to be a part of Grace Church!

Since that difficult, but memorable, day and with the approach of Thanksgiving, I’ve been trying to be more mindful of the many wonderful gifts in my life. The other day in the New York Times there was a review of a new book called The Gift of Thanks. The reviewer quoted a line from the book that really jumped out at me: “Gratitude is always a matter of paying attention, deliberately beholding and appreciating the other.”

As we approach the end of this year, and look to the start of the next, it is all too easy for us to be anxious about what is yet to come – what life-changing moments will we face, what will be broken, what will be lost. My plan, though, is to be more deliberate, to pay closer attention, to behold and appreciate all the “others” in my life – the people, the places and the experiences that make life so rich and rewarding. On Sundays, during the prayers when I hear the words, “We give thanks for all the blessings of this life,” I am really going to give thanks to God for all the blessings of my life and all the blessings of our life together.