Sunday, January 24, 2010


Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
January 24, 2010

Year C: The Third Sunday after Epiphany
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm 19
(1 Corinthians 12:12-31a)
Luke 4:14-21


As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to recognize the power of homecomings. Of course, part of the power of homecomings comes from nostalgia. But, it’s more than that. I have found there is something deeply emotional and even unsettling about visiting places from my past – the houses, streets, neighborhoods, churches and schools that helped to make me who I am today.

It’s emotional to see these places from our past, to stand on the same sidewalk where we played as children, to touch the doorknob we turned thousands of times, to feel again the wood of the banister. Homecomings are emotional. It’s emotional to revisit places that once seemed so ordinary, places that we took for granted, but now are loaded with memories and meaning.

Homecomings are emotional and they can also be unsettling. Many of us have experienced the cliché of returning to a place and everything looking so much smaller than we remember. Homecomings can be unsettling because we see the changes, often dramatic changes, which have occurred since the last time we were back. There’s a driveway where the garden used to be? They tore down the house next door and replaced it with a McMansion! They put aluminum siding on our house! Wow – the old neighborhood sure has changed! Homecomings can be unsettling.

But homecomings can also be moments of grace and clarity. Obviously, homecomings remind us of our roots and our history. Homecomings can also remind us of how we became the people we are today. Homecomings can also help to remind us of what’s most important in our lives – and to get us back on track if we’ve lost our way.

Since today’s lessons are very much about homecomings, I got to thinking about some of my own homecomings and how they were emotional and unsettling, but were also times of great grace and clarity.

A few years ago, just as seminary was wrapping up, I really felt like I had lost my way. I had left my comfortable teaching life behind and stepped into the unknown – and three years later it felt like I was still stepping into the unknown. Meanwhile my best friend and high school classmate and former teaching colleague had just gotten the job of principal at our school. I remember thinking, here we are both stepping into middle age and he can point to real achievement while I might have made some very big wrong turns and ruined everything.

With all of this anxiety swirling around in my head, I took a beautiful spring day to just wander and think, walking up and down the familiar streets of downtown Jersey City. Finally, I came to what had been my grandparents’ house – where I had spent a lot of time as a child. Standing on the sidewalk looking at that familiar red brick row house, touching the cold metal railings on the stoop, the memories seemed to wash over me.

Yes, that homecoming was emotional and unsettling – my grandparents are long gone from that house. But that homecoming was also a moment of grace and clarity – a moment when I remembered the unconditional love given to me by my family – a moment when I remembered that ultimately life is about sharing that kind of love - and all the rest just isn’t that important.

My second homecoming was more recent. I’m very fortunate to love my job, but like any other job the daily routines can make me stale, make it easy to lose sight of the big picture, to forget why I wanted to do this in the first place. Maybe some of you have had a similar experience.

Anyway, a few months ago I was back at our home parish, St. Paul’s in Jersey City. This was a sad homecoming since we were there for Sue’s mom’s funeral. I arrived very early to make sure I had plenty of time to get everything ready for the service.
As soon as I walked into the church, the sight of all that dark wood and the red carpet – and the slightly musty smell the church always had – brought me right back to why I fell in love with that church and felt called to the priesthood.

I especially found myself thinking back to my two role models – two very different priests who each in their own way continue to inspire me. I remembered the retired rector of the church, Frank Carr, warning me to stay focused on the Gospel and not to worry so much about my career. I remembered the joy and passion that the church’s rector, Dave Hamilton, brought to his priesthood, even when times were not so good.

My homecoming at St. Paul’s was emotional and unsettling. Of course, we were there for a sad reason. But it was also sad and emotional because Frank and Dave, and Sue and I for that matter, are no longer there. But that homecoming was also a time of grace and clarity – a reminder of the excitement and sense of call I felt, a reminder of the kind of priest I want to be.

Homecomings are powerful experiences. Today’s lessons are about two very powerful, very emotional homecomings. Both of these homecomings are also times of great grace and clarity.

The setting of the lesson from the Book of Nehemiah is Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile. Many Jews had spent much of the Sixth Century exiled to Babylon, where it had been a great challenge to maintain their distinctive identity living as a minority in a foreign land.

Some, of course, completely lost their way, and were absorbed into the larger Babylonian culture. Others made all sorts of compromises in order to survive, but tried their best to remain faithful to God.

After the Persians defeated Babylon, the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland. Some chose to stay while others made the trek back to their largely ruined home. It’s an understatement to say that this homecoming was emotional and unsettling. The biblical account tells us that Jerusalem, including the Temple, was in ruins. This homecoming was the beginning of the painful and difficult task of rebuilding Jerusalem, the Temple and, most of all, rebuilding their Jewish identity.
The homecoming of the Jewish people after the Babylonian exile was emotional and unsettling, but it was also a time of grace and clarity. It’s during this homecoming that Jewish people rediscover, or maybe really discover, themselves and their relationship with God.

The passage we heard from Nehemiah tells of the celebration in Jerusalem at the culmination of the homecoming and reconstruction. At the celebration Ezra the priest reads from the Torah – reads from the Law of Moses. No surprise, there was great emotion in the crowd that day – we’re told “For all the people wept when they heard the words of the Law.”

Homecomings are emotional and unsettling and are also times of grace and clarity. The Jewish people had returned home and rediscovered who they were and rediscovered their relationship with God.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus has a powerful homecoming of his own. Unlike Mark and Matthew, Luke places this incident in the Nazareth synagogue right at the start of Jesus’ ministry. By putting it first, Luke is letting us know that he thinks this is a very important moment in Jesus’ life and work. It’s almost as if he can’t wait to get Jesus back to his hometown.

At this homecoming in Nazareth we have the next in our series of epiphanies. So far this Epiphany season we’ve seen Jesus revealed as king and as God’s beloved Son. Last week at the wedding at Cana, Jesus is revealed as a sign of God’s overflowing abundance. And now in this emotional and unsettling homecoming, Jesus reveals both his identity and his mission.

Imagine the scene. The synagogue was probably just a large room in someone’s house, but at this homecoming maybe the room seemed smaller than Jesus remembered it. Maybe he noticed how people had aged or the absence of those who had died since he had last been there.

For their part, the people may have noticed many changes in Jesus since the last they had seen him. Luke tells us that Jesus had heard the voice from heaven at his baptism say “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And then Jesus had been tested for 40 days in the wilderness. Jesus must have seemed very different, making this homecoming emotional and unsettling for everyone present.

But, this homecoming to Nazareth was also a time of grace and clarity. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah and reveals both his identity and his mission.

At his homecoming Jesus reveals that he is God’s anointed, chosen to bring good news, freedom and healing to the least and the poorest.

Homecomings are emotional and unsettling and are also times of grace and clarity. But, there’s something else about homecomings – they don’t last. In my case there will always be times when I feel like I’ve lost my way or that my work has grown stale – but I can always remember my times of homecoming.

We know that after their return from Babylon the Jewish people will face many more trials, yet the memory of that homecoming celebration in Jerusalem continues to echo down through Scripture and Jewish memory right to the present day.

We also know what lies ahead for Jesus. Be sure to come back next week for the dramatic conclusion of Jesus’ homecoming. (Hint: they want to throw Jesus off a cliff.) But even though it was a brief experience and didn’t end as well as Jesus must have hoped, Luke recognizes how important this homecoming was for Jesus – a moment of grace and clarity when Jesus reveals both his identity and his mission.

So today, let’s give thanks for the homecoming of Jesus and our own homecomings. Let’s give thanks for these emotional and unsettling experiences that are also times of clarity and grace. Let’s look back at them, remembering where we come from, remembering the people and places that have shaped our lives, and especially remembering the God who loves us, the God who is our true home.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Personal, Not Private

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
January 10, 2010

Year C: The Baptism of Our Lord
Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
(Acts 8:14-17)
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Personal, Not Private

Show of hands - do people ever ask you why you joined or why you go to the Episcopal Church? When Sue and I started going to the Episcopal Church, I used to get asked that question a lot by family and friends.

I used to give many different reasons for the switch – some pretty typical, others maybe not. I liked the friendliness of the congregation, the preaching, the music, the smaller scale. I liked how I was encouraged to think for myself. All very typical, I guess. But one of the things I like best about the Episcopal Church, that might not be typical, is that we have our baptisms during regular Sunday church services.

Now, I know it wasn’t always this way and some of you “Cradle Episcopalians” can remember the days when private baptisms were very common. Maybe you miss those days. Now private baptisms are rare - and are really only supposed to be done in emergencies. Now our custom is to gather as a community, to witness the baptisms of our brothers and sisters, and to promise to support the newly baptized in the Christian life.

Public Baptism is important for lots of reasons. It reminds us of our own baptism – and the baptismal promises we made or were made for us.
Public Baptism reminds us that we live our Christian lives in community – making the journey beside people we might otherwise never encounter and, frankly, might never choose to be with.

Public Baptism reminds me of a line from Jim Wallis, the founder and editor of Sojourners magazine. Wallis says, “God is always personal, but never private.” And the same is true of our baptism – baptism is personal, but never private. And the same should be true of our Christian faith – our faith should be personal, but never private.

During the season of Epiphany we remember a series of manifestations of who Jesus really is and what he means for all of us. Last week we remembered the first of these epiphanies when the wise men arrive in Bethlehem and recognize the newborn king, not in a palace but in a simple house in a little town.

Today we remember the second in our series of epiphanies, the baptism of our Lord. But, this epiphany is an epiphany for Jesus himself. At his baptism it seems that Jesus discovers who he is. Luke tells us that after his baptism while Jesus was praying he hears the voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

It’s obviously a very important moment in Jesus’ life.

This year we heard Luke’s version. Let’s take a look at what Luke tells us, piece by piece.

Luke writes, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…” So, first off, Luke makes it pretty clear that Jesus’ baptism is a public event. Jesus is baptized with other people. Jesus’ baptism is not some secret, private event.

Second, Luke makes it clear that he’s interested in Jesus, and not so interested in John the Baptist. Just as in the other two gospels Luke begins the baptism story with John telling the crowd that, no, he’s not the messiah; someone greater is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Mark, the earliest of the gospels, leaves it at that.

Scholars think that there was competition between the followers of John and the followers of Jesus. So, Luke wants to make sure we really get that John can’t hold a candle to his cousin Jesus. The point of Luke’s gospel is that Jesus is the Lord, the Son of God.

Luke’s other point is that in baptism it’s not about the person who is actually pouring the water. At our 11:15 service today Lauren is going to pour water over two children, Samuel and Chelsea. But Lauren, or I or John or any baptizer is just a vehicle used by God.

Baptism is an encounter between God and the person being baptized.

So, if we look carefully at the baptism scene itself, Luke bends over backwards to actually eliminate John from the scene. We can presume that it was John who baptized Jesus, but that’s not exactly what the text says.

Take a look: Luke writes, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…”

So, this baptism is a public event that is all about Jesus.

But there’s more. Luke writes, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus’ baptism is definitely a public event, but Luke tells us that Jesus’ baptism is also personal encounter between God the Father and Jesus the Son.

God is always personal, but never private. Baptism is always personal, but never private. Our faith should always be personal but never be private.

Just in case we forget the public nature of Jesus’ life and the public nature of our Christian life, the next verses in Luke’s gospel are, “Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work…”

After Jesus’ public baptism, after Jesus’ personal encounter with God the Father, Jesus doesn’t just continue his life as if nothing happened. After his baptism, Jesus doesn’t just keep this experience private. Just the opposite! After his baptism, Jesus begins his work, begins his public ministry, begins his teaching, preaching, and healing.

And what was true for Jesus should also be true for us.

After our baptism, we shouldn’t continue our lives as if nothing happened, as if we’re the same. Just the opposite! After our baptism, just like Jesus, we are called to publicly begin our work, to share the Good News with a broken and hungry world.

We often forget – or would like to forget – that we are called to live out our Christian faith in public. Many of us were taught and maybe believe that religion is a private matter. We may be embarrassed to reveal our faith to the world. In our hearts we may think that all this stuff is fine in church but doesn’t really apply to the “real world” of work or school or the Shop Rite parking lot.

We also may confuse being a public Christian with boasting about how religious we are. For good reason, we don’t want to be part of that crowd.

But, let’s be honest, even if we’re ready to try, it’s not easy to be a public Christian. In the Baptismal Covenant there are some powerful reminders of how we are to live out our faith in public.

We are asked, “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” So, here’s some good news – congratulations to us - just by being here in church today we are living out our faith in public!
Our faith should always be personal but never be private.

But, hold on; let’s not get too self-congratulatory. The next questions about being a public Christian get harder. We are asked, “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

Even those of us who have heard these questions many times can still find them at best challenging and at worst impossible. I mean, can we really “seek and serve Christ in all persons”? Can we really “strive for justice and peace among all people”?

It’s not easy being a public Christian. But, although the questions asked in the Baptismal Covenant are important, maybe the answer we give is even more important. After each of these tough questions we answer, “I will, with God’s help.”

If we try to live our public Christian lives without God’s help then we are doomed to dismal failure. But, the story changes when we recognize that we can do nothing on our own. With God’s help and the support of the Christian community, then all things are possible, then loving our neighbors as ourselves becomes a real possibility.

And since God makes an unbreakable bond with us in baptism, then God’s help is always available to us as we try to live as public Christians.

Today we remember and celebrate the second in our series of epiphanies. In his public baptism, Jesus the Son had a personal experience with God the Father.
After his baptism, Jesus doesn’t just continue his life as if nothing happened. After his baptism, Jesus begins his work, begins his public ministry, begins his teaching, preaching, and healing.

Today we recall our own baptism and the promises we made or were made for us and we celebrate the baptism of Samuel and Chelsea.

And we remember that God is always personal but never private. We remember that Baptism is always personal but never private. And we remember that our Christian faith is always personal but should never be private.