Sunday, February 18, 2018

What About Fear? [Lent 1B]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Genesis 9:8-17

What About Fear?

I know it doesnt seem like it, but this part of the Noah story is about what is left when fear is no longer in the picture.

You should know, I am not a seafaring man.  I knew the fields and hills of Ohio as a boy.  On those rare occasions, when I would gaze over the vastness of Lake Erie or even rarer still, the impossible expanse of the Atlantic Ocean those bodies of water seemed to me strangers.  But not kindly strangers, not friends one has just not yet met, but mysterious strangers, foreboding strangers.  I suspected danger was lurking just below the surface.

I am still suspicious of water that has not yet been domesticated.  I am very fond of the water that comes from a tap, that courses through the copper pipes of my house.  But I prefer to keep the water that fills lakes, rivers and oceans at an arm's length.  There is simply too much unknown in there.  Under the surface are creepy creatures that I cannot see, that I am pretty sure want to touch me, even bite me.  There are currents that are trying to pull me under, as if that body of water was hungry enough to swallow me whole.  I am not interested in that.  Am I afraid?  Maybe.  I prefer to say I am sensible. 

But if am afraid of the water, I am in good company.  The ancient Israelites were too.  They were a desert people.  They wandered in the emptiness of rock and sand for generations.  They led their flocks from sparse pasture to sparse pasture.  When they settled down, they built their Temple in the rocky hills of Jerusalem.  They were not a seafaring people.

In fact, as far as they could tell, the sea was simply chaos with a shore.  The sea was the realm of monsters and terrors.  It consumed ships and ate sailors alive.  To a desert people the sea was a stranger a mysterious stranger teeming with danger. 

And this fear surfaces in their sacred stories.  God's command of the waters is proof of God's might and power.  Only God was able to tame their most worthy adversary and the existential fear it inspired.  God split the water of the Red Sea.  God brought water from a rock in the desert.  God gave the prophets the authority to control the rain, to shut up the heavens and open them back up.  That Jesus was able to tame the angry sea was enough to cause the disciples to start asking some pretty dangerous theological questions.

But it all began in the beginning.  In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep waters, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  It all starts with this wrestling match: God versus the Waters.  In the creation stories found at the beginning of the book of Genesis, God's most significant challenge is to tame the chaotic waters.  And so we read that God created a dome in the sky something like a force field to protect the creation from the chaos; the dry land formed the earthly boundaries.  In creation God tamed the water that terrifying water.  That is how the people knew God was powerful; God wrestled what they most feared into submission. 

With the waters under God's control, life could emerge and thrive on the earth.  But it was always there, that dangerous water threatening to destroy them, threatening to drown them.  Chaos barely under control in that ancient worldview it was hanging over their heads, lurking at their shores, rumbling beneath their feet.  In the desert not enough water would eventually lead to famine, would cause them to pull up the tent stakes and journey on; but too much water too quickly would mean a flood instant devastation and death.

And we know that is exactly what happens.  In the Noah story, God releases the chaos.  Biblical scholar Tony Cartledge points out that, God does not say 'I will make it rain' but 'I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth...' The word translated 'flood' is...a technical term for the waters of chaos, not a simple flood.  The Bible says that the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.  Cartledge continues: Water comes up as well as down, and the very order of the universe is threatened, like creation in reverse.  In Genesis 1, God separated the chaos waters from the dry land. During the flood, that part of creation was reversed and chaos again imperiled the earth.[1]  

This was the nightmare scenario.  This was the worst case: the sea coming to find them.  Their deepest primal fear realized.  That is what the Flood story is the story of their fear come to life.  And that is why today's passage is so important.  They need to know this will never happen again in the future, that God will always protect them from the threat of chaos, from existential destruction.

Today we begin this Lenten season in the aftermath of the Flood, after God again tames the waters.  And while the passage, in English, repeatedly uses the word covenant, this is not a covenant.  It is a promise.  You see, a covenant is an agreement between two parties.  When we renew our baptismal covenant with God, God promises to love and keep us forever.  And we make vows too.  We promise to live lives worthy of God's love.  We of course continue to fail to live up to our end of the deal.  But God, in God's inexhaustible mercy, continues to renew the covenant with us.

But this is not that.  This is one-sided.  And a one-sided covenant is a promise.  God promises Noah, and his descendants, and every living creature: never again.  Never again will chaos reign.  Never again will the water overcome them.  Never again will their worst fear be realized.  God is strong enough.  They can trust God; they can look into the future with hope, not fear.  And to seal the promise, God hangs a bow up in the clouds as a reminder not for us, but so that God will always remember the promise.

We all have fears.  Israel's greatest fear was the chaotic depths, the waters.  It represented to them the thing they could not control, could not tame, could not overcome.  In their minds, water posed a threat to their very existence.

We all have fears.  I am afraid; I am afraid for my children.  This week, in our nation, there was yet another mass shooting, another mass shooting of children, another school shooting.  This is the fear that haunts me: that, at any time, my children could be taken from me in a chaotic flood of bullets.  My children are in kindergarten and pre-school and they run through drills so that they are ready in the event someone comes to their school to kill them.  Thats where we are; this is the reality with which are children are living; this is their normal.  And Im also afraid that our country is so broken and divided, so partisan, that this plague will only grow worse.  Im afraid of that.  To try to keep from losing my mind, I try to assure myself that it wont happen to me and my family.  But there are grieving parents all across this nation who probably thought the same thing until it happened, until they lost their child on what was a normal day until it became the worst day of their lives.  

This is what my wife and I talk about.  We talk about it every time it happens.  And so pretty often.  And we talk about how we feel desperate and helpless and sad and afraid.  This is the existential threat of our time.  The fear: it is so big; it feels overwhelming, paralyzing, like it might devour the future.  It can cause one to sink into despair, to lose hope.  The fear is so invasive; it chips away at our ability to trust in God, to believe in love, to find the beauty in the world.  And it so stubborn.  We spend our lives locked in a staring contest with fear.  And in the face of fear, we have two choices: allow the fear to devour us, to plant seeds of hatred and violence in our hearts until we rot from the inside out or we can hand it over to someone or something strong enough to handle it. 

This season of Lent is a time of self-examination, repentance, and prayer.  Many of you are probably planning to make a change, to give something up.  What about fear?  Just because there are things in this world that are scary doesnt mean we have to be afraid. 

Fear causes us to lock up our hearts and makes us want to hide away from the world and all the bad things that happen out there.  When fear takes over trust fades and hope withers and love grows cold.  And when that happens the future feels bleak and everyone everywhere starts to look like an enemy, a threat.  God wants better for us, a better world, a better future; God wants on earth as it is in Heaven.  That will not happen until we learn to love better than we fear.  Trust and hope and love are risky in this dangerous world but they are the only path into a better tomorrow. 

What the Noah story, especially the piece of it we heard today shows us, is that God is rooting for our future.  In the story, God hangs a bow in the sky.  We tend to think of this as a rainbow, a weather event and that is true enough.  But the text does not say rainbow; it says bow as in bow and arrow.  God transforms a symbol of violence into a sign of hope.  That is why we dont need to fear the terrors that await us in the future.  Because while God is here with us today, the God of the promise is also there, in every moment beyond this present one, calling us to walk boldly into that place where fear thrives.  God is strong enough to carry our most haunting fears so that we can keep moving ahead.    

And when we give our fears to God, when we trust God with our fears, the bad things dont go away, but our hearts open and our love is set free in this scary world, this world that desperately needs to be confronted by the power of love a love that is stronger than violence, stronger than hatred, stronger than division, stronger than fear, stronger even than death.  Rather than allow fear to take us out of this world, we can transform this world through the power of love.  Because God is with us.   

Abba Doulas, the disciple of Abba Bessarion said, One day when we were walking beside the sea I was thirsty and I said to Abba Bessarion, Father, I am very thirsty. He said a prayer and said to me, Drink some of the sea water. The water proved sweet when I drank some. I even poured some into a leather bottle for fear of being thirsty later on. Seeing this, the old man asked me why I was taking some. I said to him, Forgive me, it is for fear of being thirsty later on. Then the old man said, God is here, God is everywhere.[2]

In the chaos of the sea.  In the suffocating depths of our fear.  In the darkness of the darkest night.  In the big scary future.  Ever calling us to plunge into the dangerous future armed with only trust, hope, and love.  God is here, God is everywhere.  And God is strong strong enough to handle even our greatest fears.

[1]   Tony W. Cartledge, Sessions with Genesis, 30.


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Love and Ashes [Ash Wednesday]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Ash Wednesday
Psalm 103:8-14

Love and Ashes

It has been well-covered that Ash Wednesday this year falls on February 14th, often better-known as Valentine’s Day.  For many of us this is the first time we have had to decide between ashes or a romantic dinner out.  But this is not the first time this strange juxtaposition has occurred.  The last time the two holidays fell on the same date was 1945.  That was a long time ago – though I do now realize some of you out there probably actually do remember the last time. 

In many ways Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day are strange bedfellows.  Certainly a married priest, like myself, is forced to sheepishly admit that the only date my wife will get today is the Noon liturgy and the only gift will be ashes.  (And so I am not scolded after the service, we did celebrate Valentine’s Day on Monday.) But I think it goes without saying that the two call to mind different details.  Valentine’s Day brings to mind chocolates and romantic dinners and thoughts of passion and heart-shaped decorations and love.  But then Ash Wednesday brings to mind the fact that you gave up chocolate for Lent and you are fasting and all you can think about is death and penitence and the only decoration is the black cross on your forehead and then also love again. Perhaps surprisingly, but every bit as much as Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday is about love.

It is what the two days have in common.  I suppose it is fair to say that love is expressed differently during this liturgy than it is perhaps on your average Valentine’s Day, but both days celebrate love.  In fact, one cannot truly understand Ash Wednesday, certainly not properly understand Ash Wednesday, without understanding that Ash Wednesday is first and foremost about love.

It is our Psalm today that begins, “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.”  You see, it is easy to see this day, and the entire season of Lent, as a dark and difficult time one is forced to endure until finally Easter restores the happiness to our lives, a dour season in which self-flagellation is encouraged.  And it true that on this day and in this season we are called to remember our mortality; we are called to lives of repentance; we are called to gives ourselves to deep, prayerful reflection and intentional, sometimes difficult and painful, self-examination.  There is a gravity associated with this season that we should feel in our souls.

But the discipline that defines this season, that the Church encourages, is not the price we pay for God’s approval.  Our Lenten offerings are not intended to sedate an angry, wrathful God.  If you showed up here today to earn God’s love, or if you swore off of chocolate or social media for Lent to earn God’s love, or if you made a pledge to say an extra prayer for each of the next forty days to earn God’s love, you are wasting your time.  God already loves you.     

And that is why we do this.  That is what gives us the strength to bear these signs of our mortality.  That is what gives us the courage to lay bare our weaknesses and faults.  That is what allows us to throw ourselves upon the mercy of God.

Because the first word is always: “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.”  It always begins there.  It starts with love. 

When you look in the mirror today and you see those black ashes on your face and you are reminded that you are flawed, sinful, and dying, remember this also: God loves you…ashes and all.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Change [Last Epiphany B]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Mark 9:2-9


Don’t let the Gospel fool you: Peter knew exactly what he was saying and why he was saying it.  I have no doubt that he was awestruck and terrified, and so I can concede that perhaps his response to the Transfiguration was not terribly well thought out.  But then that probably just means his response was actually honest, not pious, not guarded, but the honest expression of his heart.

The word “transfiguration” comes from a Latin word that means a “change of form.”  And so I believe Peter’s response to Jesus’ transfiguration was a very natural human response to the change he witnessed, to change in general: don’t.  Don’t change.  After a lifetime of fishing for something, Peter found meaning and purpose in Jesus and change was threatening that.  Change reminds us that nothing beautiful can be frozen in time.  Each moment brings a change with it that transports us into the next changing moment; and those moments carry us right up to the final moment.  Ever constant, change always moves us in the same direction, relentlessly – and always in the direction of death. 

Peter’s blurted out sentiment is no different than our own tendencies.  It is inside each of us.  It is that thing that makes us take pictures; that drives us to shoot videos; that saves old love letters and keep journals.  Because the change of life will drive us further and further away from our treasured memories.  And so we find ways to hold onto the most beautiful, precious moments of our lives.  We try to keep them alive in two dimensions. 

And in our hearts, in our minds, somewhere, we believe that if we can just hold on to those moments, it will make the rush of time and the pain of loss a little bit more bearable.  It seems impossible to believe that every moment fades into the past as quickly as it appears.  And it is hard to admit that we can never get them back.

Change is indiscriminate. It violates the best and the worst moments of our lives.  It is true that sometimes change is a blessing – trading trauma for healing and injury for pardon.  But that is not the change we struggle against, is it?  The change that hurts lives in this moment of Transfiguration – a moment that Peter watches dissipate right before his startled eyes.

It is the pain that drips from today’s Old Testament lesson from Second Kings.  Elisha is watching it slip away and he is powerless to stop it.  He doesn’t want to think about the loss he is about to experience, but everything reminds him of the unwanted change around the corner.  He tries to quiet the voices, to block them out, but there are reminders everywhere.  And he cannot seem to silence them.  He walks through the water just to be near Elijah, to be close enough to touch, to reach, to hold onto.  But he cannot stop the momentum any more than one can defeat gravity.  The future is like a vortex pulling us into its center.

One moment he is there and the next he is gone.  And Elisha is left alone – stuck in a moment filled only with absence.  One moment his mentor Elijah was there but change brought a new moment into the present and Elijah was gone.  And the most painful thing about change is: it cannot be undone.  And so, like Peter, Elisha reacts, perhaps not in the most composed way, but in the most human way: he tears his clothes in two and weeps because things were perfect but then they changed.

Even our happiest moments carry with them a hint of grief.  It is not right or wrong, it is just built into the system.  We are finite beings.  We carry change in our cells and death in our genes.  And we know it.

I watch my children grow and learn and I am so proud, but also I miss who they were, when we first fell in love.   And I look at my dad; I met him a couple of weeks after his 23rd birthday; he was so young and there was so much life ahead of him.  And now thirty-seven years have changed him.  And thirty-seven years have changed the way I see him and the way he sees me.  And I look at myself in the mirror, and in this middle age, I can no longer decide if I am young or if I am old.  I suppose it depends on the day.  And I think about all that has changed in my life and in me.  I think about all I have forgotten; all of the perfect memories that have slipped through my fingers, lost to time.  And then I think about all that is before me, change that will happen, and I am confronted by my mortality, a confrontation I never asked for but was given anyway.  Some days I am Peter and I just want it to stop, to pause the film, to get stuck in a perfect moment and build a house there.  Because I know how this story ends – for me and for everyone I love.  And I am not quite ready for the ending.

That is why Peter wanted to build the dwellings: to live in that moment.  It was the only way to keep it, to hold onto something beautiful.  If you can pause the moment nothing changes.  And if nothing changes, nothing dies.  We’ve been trying to hold off the pain of change forever.  Some things never change.

It is hard in some ways to imagine that there could be pain in the moment of Transfiguration – such a perfect, beautiful moment.  But that’s the thing, right?  Even our happiest moments carry with them a hint of grief.  Because we are always aware, even as it is happening, that the moment is fading into the past – and there is nothing we can do to stop it. 

They had to walk back down the mountain.  Change was in the air.  And grief, you see, was appropriate.  It wasn’t just that the vacation was over and they had to go back to work.  It was much more existential than that.

They were falling down the mountain into Lent.  And into Holy Week.  And into Good Friday.  Gravity always wins.  And that is why you stay on the mountain, that is why you grasp for the moment.  This is where change leads.  Change keeps changing until it reaches its final destination. It is not right or wrong, it is just built into the system.  We are finite beings.  We carry change in our cells and death in our genes.  And we know it.  And so also we carry some grief in our hearts.   

If you can pause the moment nothing changes.  And if nothing changes, nothing dies.  But if nothing dies, there is no resurrection.  And so, because of our Easter God, sometimes change is not so much a threat as it is a promise from the who loves us through eternity with a love that will never change.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Be Like Brady [Epiphany 5B]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Mark 1:29-39

Be Like Brady

You’ve probably heard: today is Super Bowl Sunday.  It’s such a big deal even Fr. Brendan knows there is a football game today – though I’m not sure he knows which teams are playing.  It’s the Eagles and the Patriots.

Now I don’t want to appear partisan in such a divisive and charged environment, but it is worth pointing out that our Old Testament lesson today does say that those who wait for the Lord shall…mount up with wings like Eagles.  Now, I’m not saying that God wants the Eagles to win, I would never say that, but it is possible that the prophet Isaiah does.  And he is a prophet, so might it possible that this morning’s Scriptures foretell an Eagles victory tonight?  Probably not. 

Most of you know that I am a Browns fan – not the easiest thing in Broncos’ country; I face a lot of peer pressure to convert; that will never happen.  And because I am a Browns fan, I know better than anyone how difficult it is for a team to make it to the Super Bowl (which the Browns have never done), let alone win.  And so even all of those Broncos fans out there, who cannot stand Tom Brady, have to admit that it is simply amazing that tonight Brady will play in his eighth Super Bowl and try for his sixth Super Bowl victory. 

Now the thing about Tom Brady is: he’s not the best athlete; he’s not the fastest runner; he’s not exactly what one might describe as nibble.  Judging by interviews, he’s not the most intelligent person in the world.  There are quarterbacks with stronger arms and more precise accuracy.  His biceps do not really bulge; his abs are not chiseled.  He was famously drafted in the sixth round of the NFL draft, pick number 199, after sharing snaps in college with a guy named Drew Henson. 

And yet, by most accounts, Tom Brady is now considered the best quarterback of all-time, maybe the greatest football player of all-time.  And that is because, more than anyone else, he is willing to do what it takes to be the greatest.  He is absolutely obsessed with winning, obsessed with being the best.  And I mean really obsessed.  He has every day scheduled out: his treatments, his workouts, the food he will eat, his recovery time, the film study, his team and position meetings, and the time he will rest.  Not for the week.  Not for the season.  But for the next three years.[1]  And he keeps the schedule even when he is on vacation, which must be great fun for his wife and kids. 

His teammates, even those who have played with other Hall of Famers, say he is the most intense person they have ever been around.  He wakes up as early as 3:30am to watch film by himself, when no coaches are even around to give him credit.[2]  And puts in upwards of 16 hours per day – until he knows every tendency of the team he will face any given Sunday.  And he prepares obsessively, not just for the Super Bowl, but for, like, week 5 against the Jets – which, of course, is not really even necessary, because it’s the Jets. 

Now most of us would prefer much more balanced lives than that.  And were we to throw ourselves so fully into something, most likely it would not be into being great at a game.  But even so, in some ways I find myself jealous of Tom Brady’s deep dedication.  For football of all things, he has built around himself a life of discipline and sacrifice, a kind of undistracted singleness of heart and mind that allow him to be the very best version of himself on the football field.  And truth be told, I wish I were able to give myself that completely to a life of prayer, to my relationship with God, to the work God has given me to do.

It reminds me of the deep dedication, the singular devotion, of the desert fathers of old.  “They told this story of John the Short.  He went to live with a hermit… who was living in the desert of Scetis.  His abba once took a dead stick and planted it, and told him, ‘Pour a jug of water over its base every day until it bears fruit.’  Water was so far from their cell that John had to go off every evening to fetch it, and it was dawn before he returned.  At the end of three years the stick turned green and bore fruit.”[3]

The truth is: there are no shortcuts on any journey worth taking.  Any life worth living is one defined by sacrifice and dedication.  This is what captures me about today’s Gospel reading.  Jesus’ deep dedication and singular devotion to his mission is incredible.  We often think of Jesus’ life in terms of sacrifice because of the Cross.  But sacrifice defined the life of Jesus, not just his death.  He could have had success and stability, power and fame.  Look at those crowds; he could have lived a comfortable life of luxury in Capernaum.  But he sacrificed his life every moment of his ministry – giving himself completely to the mission to which God had called him. 

The whole city gathered around his door, desperate for salvation, for healing, for a word of hope.  And he healed them, saved them, spoke into their lives.  And when he was done, there was more to do, because the world never runs out of need.  And when there was a break in the crowd, even a slight pause, he stole away to do the hard prep work of prayer – in the darkness of the morning – even though no one was around to give him credit.  Jesus understood his mission, his purpose, and he dedicated his heart and soul, and eventually his life, to that mission.

Now I’m not Jesus and neither are you.  Jesus sets a pretty impossible standard.  And thankfully God knows that.  And I should also make clear that I don’t think the purpose of life is to be busy; sure, Jesus keeps up a pretty impressive pace in Mark’s Gospel, but I don’t think that is the takeaway from today’s Gospel lesson. 

But I do think that we are called, in baptism, by God, to grow into the full stature of Christ.  And I think that means that we are called to give ourselves, fully, with deep devotion, rigorous discipline, and great sacrifice, to the work to which God has called us.  Each and every one of us has been blessed by God with great gifts and a unique calling – gifts and callings that are well-worth our best efforts. 

There is plenty of work to do.  The state of our world is pretty far from Heaven.  And so our work comes with some holy urgency.  In a world in which the need overwhelming, God has us.  We are the ones God is calling to complete the work, to make the dream the reality, to usher in the reign of God on this earth.  I mean, it won’t get the ratings of the Super Bowl, but that’s still a pretty big deal, a pretty important mission. 

I guess what I’m saying is: I think it’s time the Church get a little obsessed with our mission, to throw ourselves into a life of prayer, to let the Good News of God’s love loose in our lives and in our world – to really put our hearts into this thing.  Because when we do, day in and day out, I think we will start to see a difference, I think we’ll see new life in the dead stick; I think we will see some Heaven on this earth.

[3] Williams, Rowan.  Where God Happens, 144-5.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Spiritual Forces of Wickedness [Epiphany 4B]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Mark 1:21-28

Spiritual Forces of Wickedness
Public confrontations are so uncomfortable.  So it is not difficult to imagine the edgy energy present in todays Gospel.  You can feel the tension ripple through the congregation.  Eyes shift to the floor.  The security team moves into position.  Parents hold their children tighter.  And Jesus pauses his teaching mid-sentence his eyes fixed on the possessed man screaming at him from the center aisle.

Somehow, despite his demons, this man got into the synagogue.  Probably because no one was keeping an eye on him.  Because once the wickedness took over, friends and family slowly drifted away.  And he was left alone a shell of a man, a shadow of his former self, a lost cause.  That is the thing about those evil spirits, those spiritual forces of wickedness: they corrupt and destroy.  They corrupt and destroy not only their host, but the corruption spills over, like toxic acid sloshing about, wounding anyone who gets too close.  Until all that is left is shame and loneliness and that inescapable feeling of despair.

It is hard to say why exactly the man wandered into the synagogue.  Was he dragged there for the confrontation or did he muster his last scrap of agency for the off-chance that there might be some salvation hiding in that holy place, a last desperate move of a desperate man watching his life slip away?  At once both invisible and impossible to miss, he bursts onto the scene.  This is what it looks like to be in the middle of a crowd and be utterly alone.  He stands there surrounded by the friends and family who left long ago.  You cant blame them.  At first, they probably tried to help him.  They noticed the differences.  At first they were subtle, but eventually it took over and he was more unclean spirit than the person they knew and loved.

The village was small, as villages back then most often were.  And so probably everyone in the place knew him, or knew the man he used to be.  And probably they experienced that devastating mix of feelings: a mix of anger, embarrassment, and deep sadness.  They hated what he had become; mourned who they had lost; and hoped that by some miracle he might yet be set free. 

This is the beginning of Jesus' public ministry and probably not exactly how he pictured his debut in the synagogue going.  We arrive at this moment in the Gospel rather suddenly.  Before Jesus makes this appearance in the synagogue in Capernaum, Mark's gospel, which is rarely bogged down in the details, speeds through the preparation stage in a cool twenty verses: baptized in the river, tempted in the wilderness, recruits a team down by the water, and shows up in the synagogue ready to get to work.  All of this and we are still in chapter one.

The lights go on, Jesus steps into the spotlight, his very first time before the crowd and a heckler.  The very first act in his public ministry, at least the first act that anyone will remember (because lets be honest no one is talking about the sermon on that walk home) is an exorcism.  That is the first thing; that is the opener.  The first thing Jesus does publicly in the Gospel is free this man from an unclean spirit.

And that matters.  This is no accident.  By placing this story first, Mark is setting the stage, telling us what is at the very heart of Jesus ministry.  Setting people free from the spiritual forces of wickedness, from evil powers, from unclean spirits will define Jesus ministry in Marks Gospel.  This is the first of four major exorcism accounts, not to mention passing allusions to this specific ministry, in a Gospel that is only sixteen chapters long.

This was an aspect of Jesus earthly ministry that was obviously important to Jesus, important to Mark, uncomfortable for most 21st century Christians.  Most often we when talk about being Christian, being like Jesus, we mean loving those on the margins, caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, breaking bread with our brothers and sisters in Christ, stealing away to quietly pray, or challenging someones inhumane interpretation of Scripture all of which Jesus did and all of which we are pretty good at.  Almost never have I heard an Episcopalian interpret Be like Jesus as embarking on a ministry of casting out evil spirits.  We just dont talk much about this aspect of Jesus ministry, this significant aspect of Jesus ministry.

Now I have been a priest long enough to know that like most topics in the world, Episcopalians, including those present, are not of one mind on the topic of demons, of unclean spirits.  I have had enough conversations on the topic to know that there are people here today who are absolutely convinced that evil spirits exist and are active in this world much in the manner that we see in todays Gospel.  There are others here today who find that very notion absurd.  And then there are the rest of us: good Episcopalians who are happy to leave plenty of room for mystery, which is an Episcopal way of saying: we just dont really know.

But what we can all agree on, because we have seen this in the lives of friends and family members, maybe even experienced it in our own lives, is that there are spiritual forces of wickedness in this world, evil powers that exist to corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.  They are out there and we have witnessed their destructive power.

You know those spiritual forces of wickedness by name; you are acquainted with the evil powers of this world.  You have seen lives and friendships and families destroyed by Addiction and Substance Abuse.  We have watched wars declared in the name of Pride and nations destroyed by the corrupt forces of Greed.  We have witnessed the ways in which Jealousy can tear relationships apart.  We have seen Racism hang children from trees and Sexism leave women with scars that never seem to go away.  We have watched Hatred and Violence set off bombs and fire bullets, robbing victims of years and the victims loved ones of happiness.  Spiritual forces of wickedness.  Evil powers that corrupt and destroy, that ruin lives and shatter relationships.  And we have allowed the spirit of Apathy to whisper that all of this is just the way it is, just the way of the world. 

Jesus did not believe that; Jesus did not accept that; neither should his Church.  Jesus did not cast out evil spirits to fill the pews or make a name for himself.  Exorcism wasnt some parlor trick; this is about salvation, transforming the world into the Kingdom of God one life, one soul, one family, one community at a time.  Jesus came into the world on a mission.  He came to confront the spiritual forces of wickedness that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.  He came to prove that good is more powerful than evil, that love is stronger than hatred and division, that the forces of life will overcome the forces of death and destruction.  He came to end the reign of despair and declare the reign of God.

It is a message that is as universal as it is intensely personal.  The Good News is for a world weighed down and worn out by too much bad news. But the Good News of Jesus is also for you and for me.  It is written across the cosmos but also it is spoken directly to the one desperate man standing alone in the middle of the synagogue.  Because Jesus there is hope. 

Two thousand years ago, Jesus stood in the synagogue, the genesis of his ministry, and locked eyes with a man who had been taken over, who was being held captive by the spiritual forces of wickedness, forces that seek to destroy and corrupt the creatures of God.  And with a word, he set him free; he saved his life. 

Two thousand years later, Jesus is still setting people free, still about the work of salvation in this world.  Friends, this is the Good News: Jesus has come to set you free from all of those things in your life that hold you captive, from all of those things that weigh you down, from all of those things that steal your joy. 

Jesus sees you in the crowd and can transform your life with a word.  And this message, this Good News, it is as universal as it is intensely personal.  The world is waiting for the people of Jesus, the Body of Christ, those of us who have been transformed by his love, to carry on his work, to share the Good News of his love.  Somewhere beyond these doors there is a lonely person, weighed down, held captive, waiting for Jesus to lock eyes with them and speak into their life a word of hope.  And you, you are the living, breathing Body of Christ in this world.  That someone is waiting for you.        

Sunday, January 7, 2018

In the Beginning... [Baptism of Our Lord B]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Genesis 1:1-5

In the beginning...

In the beginning... That's how it always starts. A few words on a blank page. And every possibility – an indefinite future stretching across the expanse of infinity, juggling hope and failure, tragedy and triumph, mingling laughter with tears until all that is left is just life.

In the beginning... God. The Creator: like a prepubescent boy, eyes like saucers, trembling with excitement, mind bursting with ideas and dreams, staring down at a huge heap of Legos – ready to turn chaos into a masterpiece. The stuff of dreams and futures and “it is good” was all there. This creation did not come from nothing. It was creation by organization. Taking the formless void and the covering darkness and the face of the deep and making sense of it – and then sweeping it alive with the wind from very lungs of God. Turning chaos into a masterpiece. And then shining a light on that masterpiece – like a work of art perfectly illumined.

Perfectly illumined but without the velvet ropes. Creation was only the beginning. A few words on a blank page. And every possibility, laid out like limitless space. Like a clay pot never fired, always malleable. A God who cannot get enough of the creative process. A God who is infinitely curious. And so the masterpiece shapes and re-shapes itself. Always under the watchful eye of the Creator but still granted such dangerous freedoms as one with less self-confidence would never dare grant – the freedom to destroy and change and even to make good into another kind of good. The Creator watching to see what future the creation will make, not watching passively, at a distance, but always close enough, attentive enough, to step in as salvation when necessary.

Which, of course, is what the most recently completed Church season reminded us: God likes to start at the beginning – beginnings within beginnings of stories within stories. Even the step-in salvation started small and then grew. Never believe that God is distant or unaffected. God snuck into the world on Christmas, the Creator fully immersed in the creative process, as a newborn baby – reliant, vulnerable, entirely affected. God as one of us. God as beginning.

It was like Creation all over again: it came together in the dark, watery deep, in the space of the womb – cells organized in the void and animated by the very wind of God. An “In the beginning...” that would find its way into a world of straw and shepherds before ending up back in the water for yet another new beginning.

Baptism. We celebrate today that God got down into the deep, swallowed by the same watery chaos that God once tamed, that the spirit danced upon, way back in the beginning. There was enough wild left in the creation that spirit-ed things still happened. New could still be found. Creation was still mysteriously active.

God in the deep: it is there in the watery depths of the creation that we meet Jesus. We find him under water. In the place where baptism happens, where creation is still mysteriously active, where new life can still be found. Baptismal water: it is like water imported from that magical time in which things were still made of dreams, like in the beginning. And it is thick with Spirit – Spirit dancing on those waters, life riding the wind, that ancient wind from the lungs of God.

Incarnation and baptism have this is common: there is God at every beginning.

The Spirit is always and forever filling the void, sparking in the darkness, moving through the water like a sleek, mythical beast. First the water in the womb – giving the breath of life to tiny, new beginnings. And then the water in the font – breathing new life into those who come to meet Jesus under water, those longing to begin again.

Baptism is another “in the beginning...” - a blank page upon which our creative God prepares to write a masterpiece, to speak into the world another round of infinite possibility. Baptized Christian, God is watching and waiting, ever and infinitely curious, ready to see what you do with the life stretched out before you. You are made in the image of a good Creator – a creator who dares to endow God's living, breathing masterpieces with hopes and dreams and visions for a future yet unrealized. The Creator watches and waits, hoping that you will fill creation with goodness – that you will follow in the footsteps of the one who made you and called you and loves you and names you good.

Know this, God does not watch and wait from a distance. Baptism, like Incarnation, is another path God carves into the heart of creation. God is always finding ways to get closer. God is always finding ways to sneak in – into this wild world, into your beating heart.

In the beginning... That's how it always starts. A few words on a blank page. And every possibility – an indefinite future stretching across the expanse of infinity, juggling hope and failure, tragedy and triumph, mingling laughter with tears until all that is left is just life.

And God. The God who was there at the beginning. That same God finds a way in. And sticks around. Through the laughter and through the tears. There at the beginning of your story and there still long after the story ends.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas in the Dark [Christmas Eve 2017]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Luke 2:1-20

Christmas in the Dark

Christmas: it comes under the cover of night, like a covert mission by a holy Spirit. As a weary world sleeps, Christmas comes – so silent and unnoticed that it is shocking. The light of the world smuggled into the deep darkness.

When I close my eyes and picture Christmas this is always what I see. My imagination carries me into the night. I see the shepherds in the fields, huddled for protection against a deep darkness that has long since gone extinct. I see the angels, their radiant light made all the more impressive against the backdrop of midnight sky. And I see the precious nativity scene, with that tiny angelic baby perfectly framed by his human and animal admirers, lit only by an impossible star. And I see Charlie Brown and Linus pondering the profundity of the tiniest tree in the cold, dark lot. I know that last one is not biblical, but it always seems to slip in none the less. This is Christmas and it always comes under the cover of night.

When we imagine the coming of Christ into our world today, that event so often referenced in our prayers and liturgies, we often picture Christ's second coming in glorious majesty. And it never looks like this – typically, in fact, quite the opposite. We expect Christ to come, not as a weak, vulnerable infant, but in great triumph, not in under the cover of darkness, but shining like the sun in broad daylight, not into the intimacy of a couple's life, but on the world stage so that every eye shall behold him. In the imaginations of our hearts we anticipate an appropriate entrance for the King of Glory – everything his first coming was not. Christmas is a romantic idea – if you don't think about it too much. But if you think about it at all, you will see that it was far from glorious. That first Christmas was much too gritty to fit into even the most primitive of birthing plans. It was far below the dignity of the King of kings and Lord of lords. We can't help but imagine something better, something grander, and, we are Episcopalians after all, so something with a bit more pomp and crisper execution. Perhaps that's why we have planned a more regal re-do.

Because when Christ came, his coming into our world was far from regal. Christmas was the light of the world smuggled into the deep darkness by an uncouth God and an unwed virgin. And it happened far from the spotlight. Very few eyes beheld him at his appearing – just those of his mother and Joseph and perhaps those of a beast of burden awaken by anguished labor pains. He did not look like a king; he looked like a newborn baby. His tiny body was greeted not by the decadent grandeur of palatial estates. Kings and queens, princes and princesses slept through this birth; so far above this peasant family were they that the knowledge of such a lowly birth could never ascend such ranks. The only royal purple in the manger was that of his pulsating umbilical cord. His only divine declaration the desperate cry of newly freed lungs. His tiny legs curled and crooked; his tiny eyes struggling to open; his tiny lips desperate for his mother's milk. This is how Christ first came. And the dark world around him scarcely noticed.

God's greatest plan and it started not with a bang, but shrouded in deep darkness – the darkness of the night, the darkness of the womb, the darkness the accompanies one born into a family with no status or wealth. That is how Christmas came. “It came without ribbons!... it came without tags!... it came without packages, boxes, or bags!” There was none of the fanfare of a royal birth; none of the excitement that surrounds the debut of a hotly anticipated celebrity spawn. There were no TMZ cameras, no paparazzi, nothing went viral. Christmas night came and went without even as much as your standard, run-of-the-mill facebook announcement. But “somehow or other, Christmas came just the same.”1

And I suppose that tells us something about the one who conceived this plan. I think that perhaps the circumstances of that first Christmas give us a glimpse into the heart of God. God entered into the darkness – hidden in a virgin womb, silent for nine months. Silent, but present. Silent, but there.

I think that Christmas was not a new thing. I think that Christmas was simply a new way to do an old thing. God was always and forever Emmanuel - “God with us.” God was always with the children of the Earth, as close as the breath that gives us life: walking in the Garden, and hearing the desperate cries of the slaves in Egypt, and pitching a tent in the heart of the camp as the people journeyed through the desert, and feeding lonely prophets in the wilderness, and clearing a path out of exile, and holding the prayers of the lonely and forgotten, from one generation to the next. God did not enter the scene on Christmas. God was always there. Not always like this, but always there. Often hidden in plain site, but always there, always and forever Emmanuel.

It is in the dark corners of the Christmas story, that we find Emmanuel. Our God is not afraid of the dark. The shepherds might have felt like they were all alone in the cold, darkness of the fields, but Heaven was hiding just beyond the dark curtain of sky – ready at a moment's notice to fill their hearts and ears with the songs of the angels, to open their eyes to the blinding light of eternity. Mary might have felt like she and Joseph were all alone in that stable – no room in the inn, away from home and family, unnoticed by a great, big world, but God was right there, hiding under her skin, growing silently in her body, filling her with the Divine Word that spoke the worlds into being. Those who walked in darkness were never truly alone.

Christmas comes under the cover of night, like a covert mission by a holy Spirit. As a weary world sleeps, Christmas comes – so silent and unnoticed that it is shocking. The light of the world smuggled into the deep darkness.

Of course. In the darkness is where we most need the light.

And in the darkness is where we find Emmanuel - “God with us.” Sometimes hidden, sometimes silent. But always there.

No matter how deep your pain. No matter how difficult the road you walk. No matter how dark the night seems. No matter how lonely your heart feels. No matter how daunting the future looks. You will never hurt alone. You will never walk alone. You will never be alone.

That is the miracle of Christmas: the God of the Universe gets under our skin, yearns to be close to us, does whatever it takes to be with us. It's not a story of the past; it is a story that never ends. It is a story that is always true. Emmanuel is here - “God is with us” - always and forever. Even in your deepest darkness you are not alone. Because, you see, your God is not afraid of the dark.

1How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Dr. Seuss.