The Case for Emptiness

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany
Isaiah 6.1-8 (9-13)
Luke 5.1-11

I love it when a lectionary text comes with parentheses. It’s a sign, a hint, code for “preach at your own risk.” As in, “Do you want the good news, or (the bad news)?” Or, “These first few verses are okay, but (these verses) are liable to get you in trouble.” This week’s reading from Isaiah is one such example. The first eight verses tell the tale of Isaiah’s calling, which unfolds in a dramatic scene of burning coals and six-winged seraphim. In the vision, the voice of God fills the air, “Whom shall I send?” To which Isaiah responds with unclean, yet very brave lips, “Here I am; send me!”

According to the parentheses, we could stop there. And likely as not, we would have a pretty good shot at a pretty good sermon. After all, we probably know a thing or two about preaching the word with unclean lips. But speaking of sermons, that’s actually what those parenthetical verses are all about; a summary of what the Lord has in mind for Isaiah’s first prophecy:
• Preach a word the people can’t hear, can’t see, and can’t understand (6.9)
• Preach a word that precludes hope and delays healing (6.10)
And keep preaching, God instructs, until the cities are desolate, the houses are vacant, and the fields are fallow (6.11); in short, keep preaching until “vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.” (6.12) So no wonder these verses get the parenthetical treatment this week. I mean, that’s some assignment for Homiletics 101. Read more

The Witness of the Vulnerable

Presentation of the Lord
Psalm 84
Hebrews 2:14-18
Luke 2:22-40
In a 2016 interview, Peter Mommsen, the editor of Plough, posed a question to Stanley Hauerwas about the campaign for the acceptance of euthanasia and its connection to a desire for control. In response, Hauerwas said, “I say that in a hundred years, if Christians are identified as people who do not kill their children or the elderly, we will have done well. Because that’s clearly coming.” Hauerwas’ words, which have been oft-quoted in the two years since, have been on my mind in the past couple of weeks, as the annual March for Life in Washington D.C. and policy discussions in New York and Virginia have thrust the issue of abortion, always a prevalent topic, into the spotlight of social media and other contexts of debate. In the midst of a discussion that can be so inescapably polarizing, Hauerwas’ words remind us, as followers of Jesus, that so much of our witness and so much of our identity hinges on how we value—not just in word, but in deed—the most vulnerable among us. Read more

Responding to the Word

Third Sunday after Epiphany
Nehemiah 8:1-10
Luke 4:14-21

This week, there are two stories about people reading God’s Word – and about the importance of words for who we are, and how we are to live. Reminding ourselves of the importance of words is especially important in our social media age, where we write words rapidly, sloppily, and frequently. Our culture is prone, I think, to devaluing the impact of words.

Yet words do matter. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is maybe a cry of a bullied child hoping to make hurtful words disappear, yet in fact we know that words can and do hurt and – try as we might – words are never mere words, and often do not disappear at all! Read more

Marriage for All

Second Sunday After Epiphany, Year C

Isaiah 62:1-5
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

Eight years ago this week, a friend of sang a gospel rendition of Amazing Grace that echoed across the nave of our church, my young nephew vomited in the chancel/choir stall during the church service, and Emily and I shared Holy Eucharist with friends and family who spanned our individual and common lives.  It was our wedding and it was a joyous day to whose memories I still return to often.

Among the best of those memories are the many people who came together to make it happen. Emily and I have always had a greater abundance of community than we have of cash, and so when planning the wedding we made it a community event.  Our photographer was a friend with a serious hobby; our reception was a feast of soups and breads made by colleagues and companions on our journey together. Our cake, one of the best I’ve ever had, was made by an amateur baker and displayed on a beautiful stand made by her husband.  

All these things were gifts, given in celebration of the gift Emily and I had found in each other.  It was a day in which love was made visible, both in this sacrament between two people, but also among all those who celebrated it with us.

Given that my anniversary is this week it was hard not to think of that day as I read our lessons for this Sunday.   Read more

Who and Whose

First Sunday After Epiphany-Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-22

Baptized as a teenager, I have clear memories of the pastor whose hand poured the water and invoked the Spirit over me. In addition to the prayer of the liturgy summoning the power for faithful discipleship into my life, she concluded her blessing by looking me in the eyes and saying: “Always remember who and whose you are.” Read more

Nine Miles from Bethlehem

Epiphany
Isaiah 60
Micah 5:2-4
Matthew 2:1-12

Sunday is Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas. On that day we won’t sing: “Twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping,” but songs about magi from the East bringing gifts to Jesus. Although no manger scene would be complete without these exotic strangers from afar, Matthew says that they showed up some time after the birth of Jesus, and found Joseph’s little family in a house at Bethlehem. Read more

Seeking God

On a walk along the sea shore not long after Christmas Day a number of years ago, I spied a Christmas tree being washed up by the waves, its tinsel trailing like seaweed in the water. It was a woe-begotten site.

A couple of years ago, I overheard the manger of a local pharmacy briefly and wearily express his dislike of Christmas to an employee who was stocking shelves.

As Christians, we understand how these ways of marking Christmas fail—fail the Earth, fail our souls, fail Christ. And so, how do we Christians mark Christmas in ways that nurture Creation and our souls, and that honour Christ? Happily, the texts for this Sunday in Christmas are full of ideas! Read more

Mary’s Topsy-Turvy Vision

Fourth Sunday of Advent
Luke 1:39-55
In her hymn, Mary has a personal understanding and clear vision that God’s work in the world is a sort of topsy-turvy force that contradicts the power and privilege of human-created structures. God’s “great things” include scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful/lifting the lowly, satiating the hungry/sending the rich away empty. Read more

Receiving the Gift of Christ

Third Sunday of Advent
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Advent is a time of watchful waiting, of preparing ourselves for the Lord’s arrival. The message of John the Baptist is designed to enable our focused preparation. In Luke’s account we read that John clearly states that he is not the coming Messiah. Instead, John’s attention rests solely on the one who is coming after him, waiting, watching, hoping. Read more