“Shopping for Jesus this year.”

“Shopping for Jesus this year.”

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
December 16, 2018

Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
Easton, Pennsylvania

Advent 3 at Trinity Easton 2018

“Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation,
that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a
mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

If we make it through December
Everything’s gonna be all right, I know
It’s the coldest time of winter
And I shiver when I see the falling snow
If we make it through December
Got plans to be in a warmer town come summertime
Maybe even California
If we make it through December, we’ll be fine

Got laid off down at the factory
And their timing’s not the greatest in the world
Heaven knows I been working hard
Wanted Christmas to be right for daddy’s girl
I don’t mean to hate December
It’s meant to be the happy time of year
And my little girl don’t understand
Why daddy can’t afford no Christmas gifts

Merle Haggard, the late Country Music star, was an amazing story-teller. And of all his songs. “If we make it through December,” is my favorite. It speaks of struggle, disappointment, frustration and worry. It is ultimately a song of hope, though. Even though the story teller in this song does not have answers, he has faith: “If we make it through December, we’ll be fine.”

Now some might thing that is not an appropriate song for the Christmas Season. And the Advent police might not want to hear any kind of “Christmas Song.” I imagine those other catchy lyrics: “Millard, Millard, what you gonna do? What you gonna do when the Advent Police come for you.”

Well, I have an answer—third Sunday of Advent marks the shift in focus which takes place every Advent. There is even a lovely title for this Sunday—“Gaudete Sunday.” “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say rejoice.” From December 1st through 17th our focus has been on the future. We have been invited to think about the coming in glory of Our Lord Jesus Christ at the end of time. We are encouraged by the promise that when God’s kingdom comes in fullness, it will bring an end to hatred, violence, war, injustice, poverty, abuse and oppression. At the same time, we have been challenged to ask, “What obstacles prevent God’s kingdom—already present in the here and now—from being fully realized.” And, “what are we able to do to overcome and remove those obstacles?”

The 18th through the 24th, though, focus on our preparation to remember, recall and celebrate the birth of Christ. Thus, it is very helpful to honestly discuss the abyss which separates what this season is supposed to be and what it often actually is. Such a reflection might offer us an opportunity to take a deep breath, to relax and to enter these final days of Advent with less stress and with, possibly, a sense of peace.

Merle Haggard tells us that this is “meant to be a happy time of year.” It is meant to be a season full of hope and joy. The advertisements show happy families lovingly reunited in warm and comfortable homes. They eat delicious meals—lovingly prepared at home. A few of them go to Church—but then we see them happily unwrapping perfect gifts. Everyone gets just what they longed for and they are all perfectly content. They all get along. There are no fights or harsh words or awkward moments. Well, that might happen on TV, but it does not always unfold that way in our homes.

Merle Haggard reminds us of another reality.
— Not every worker has a job.
—Not every shopper has money to buy gifts.
—Not every hungry person has food to eat, clothes to wear, or even a warm and
comfortable place to sleep.
—Not every child will receive a gift at all. Not every person is in good health.
—Some homes will have empty places at the table;
-some family members do not have time off from work;
-some family members are in the military and are stationed in foreign
countries and will spend the day in danger.
—And some homes are in mourning because a beloved family member has died.

For all these people it is a season of darkness, rather than light and of sorrow, rather than joy. Like others, I can not help but worry that the most holy feast of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom! Yes, I know that may not be the upbeat message you hoped to hear—and yes, it may sound like an extreme presentation. Please bear with me as we move along.

Just yesterday, I had an incredible conversation with an amazing person who shared the most fascinating insight with me. At first, I was shocked by his words. But then, when the “grand maul” did not happen—and the “lightning did not strike”— I was relieved, and then delighted—and then filled with joy. “Several years ago,” he told me, “I came to a surprising realization. Christmas is Jesus’ birthday. It is NOT my birthday. I do not need a gift.” He also realized that it was not his wife’s birthday or his children’s birthday—or the birthday of anyone else he loved or cared for. None of them needed a gift, either. So, he did not need to go into debt, or go crazy trying to find the perfect gift for everyone he knew.

However, he concluded, “if it was Jesus’ birthday, and if he did love Jesus, then Jesus did indeed deserve a gift.”

A new dilemma and crisis! What am I going to give Jesus for his birthday? Wow! If ever there was someone who doesn’t need anything! If ever there was someone who was not into accumulating possessions or collectibles! If ever there was someone who did not want or need clothes or jewelry or electronics! Someone who does not want a new car or a luxurious home! Someone who does not want a vacation to “get away from it all” or a night out on the town!

Do we have any idea what to get Jesus for his birthday?

It is no accident that John the Baptist is the hero of the Third Sunday of Advent. It could be ironic that on “Rejoice” Sunday we hear a fiery sermon which begins by calling people a “Brood of Vipers.” After he calms down, though, John gives a perfect and complete gift list. Note that he has nothing to say about what people ought to believe! Instead he challenges people to live as if though they are acting on behalf of God. He challenges them to live generous, caring, affirming and loving lives. He challenges them to be authentic people who lives of integrity.

To each group, John gives specific advice:

To everyone: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

To tax collectors: “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”

To soldiers: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

And then he turned the focus away from himself to Jesus. He wanted them to understand that he was someone who would prepare the way: “One who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

What if we made this our list of gifts to give to Jesus this Christmas?

Feed the hungry
Clothe the naked
Find housing for the homeless
Visit prisoners
Comfort the mourning
Care for the needs of widows and orphans
Fight injustice
Work to end racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and religious-based prejudice
Work to protect the environment and nurture creation

I am not suggesting that we become miserly or cheap or like Scrooge. But what would happen if we placed our focus this Christmas on Christ? There is nothing wrong with exchanging gifts with others. But is Christmas the only time that could be done? In some countries, gifts are exchanged on the Feast of the Epiphany. Perhaps that is a wise custom. Certainly, it is something worth considering!

A final thought. The Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is a big deal for us. As the old phrase puts it so well—for us, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” But not everyone shares our faith. There are other celebrations which take place these days. Rather than being defensive and becoming soldiers in the “Christmas War,” why not acknowledge the other celebrations? Why not accept that some do not—and do not want to celebrate anything? I can not imagine that Jesus would have a problem saying, “Happy Holidays,” or “Season’s Greetings.”

It is shocking to some to discover that we Christians do not have an exclusive claim on Jesus! We do not have a copyright! Many other faith-traditions respect, value and treasure Jesus. Why not take the opportunity to ask them how they view Jesus—and please do not make the mistake of confusing Jesus and Christians or Jesus and Churches or Christian Communities.

Have you ever asked someone who is Jewish how Jesus (Yeshua, a practicing Jew all his life) is viewed in Jewish eyes? Have you asked a Muslim how Jesus is viewed in Islam—or what the Qur’an has to say about him? What about Buddhists, Hindus, or Baha’is? What about Pagans, Agnostics or Atheists? If they have reason to think that we will really listen without trying to correct them or convert them, we might be surprised to learn how positively they view Jesus and how significant his life, ministry and teaching are. And we might be inspired to live lives that so reflect who Jesus was and is that they think more kindly of Christians too!

Advent is coming to a close. December will soon end. “If we make it through December, we’ll be fine.”

“Am I not here who am your Mother?”

A sermon for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

December 12, 2018

Trinity Episcopal Church Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

What does it take to convince us that God loves us—that we matter and are important—and that God wants to have a relationship with us? This was a burning question at the very beginning of the Jesus Movement. In the simplest form, the answer was the theology of the “incarnation.” Far more than saying that God “took on flesh,” the message of those early communities of faith was that in Jesus, God had become totally one with us—truly, fully, and completely God—truly, fully and completely human. St. Paul, for instance, wrote that Jesus was like us in all things, but sin.

Imagine a loving Creator who not only made us in their own image and likeness, but who, then, became one of us. A God who knew from personal experience all the beauty and pain of the human experience. A God who knew the reality of love and sorrow, of joy and suffering—of loss and death and sorrow. A God who, through, the Resurrection restored hope and who promised health and well-being—both in the here and now—but also in a new life after this one comes to an end.

But how to present that message in such a way that it would be intelligible—that it would make sense—that it would be compelling and attractive? The Gospel According to Saint Luke chose to introduce the good news with the story of Jesus’ infancy. This touching story was full of amazing Jewish figures—Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, John the Baptist. With angels and shepherds thrown in for good measure. All of this would have made sense to a gentile audience which was struggling to understand what it meant to be grafted on to the tree of Israel.

The Gospel According to Saint John—writing to a Greek speaking, gentile audience, chose an even more audacious way to communicate the good news. In the prologue a familiar Greek philosophical concept was used—the Logos—the eternal divine presence of God. The word who was from the beginning, who was with God, and who was God. The very word through whom everything that was made came to have being. That word which did the most astonishing thing — “pitched a tent among us” and became one of us.

The danger, though, is that without even realizing that they are doing so, missionaries—those who bear the good news of the incarnation—more often than not make a horrible mistake. They confuse the Gospel with the culture of their origin and the many ways in which they have experienced the Gospel being lived out by a specific community of faith. The sad result is a cultural imperialism which exports both the seed of Christianity along with the soil from a specific time and place. That never works out well for either the evangelizer or the evangelized!

In reflecting on this, Pope Paul VI, of happy memory wrote a famous Encyclical—Evangeli Nuntiandi—“On spreading the good news.” He called for missionaries and evangelizers to practice “Inculturation.” The seed of Christian faith, he suggested, should be planted in the rich soil of each culture. Watered and warmed by the love of God, the seed will sprout and a plant will emerge which is nourished and shaped by that culture. It will have all the essential elements derived from the seed—but will be formed by the language, music, arts. food and the lived-reality of the soil in which it will be planted. It will be authentically and fully Christian—but will be expressed in new and exciting ways.

This is the message of Guadalupe. Those tender words which the Virgin Mary addressed to Juan Diego make this point clearly, powerfully, and unmistakably: “Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the fountain of your joy? Are you not in the fold of my mantle, in the cradle of my arms?”

A lovely compassionate and tender Mother appeared to that peasant, Juan Diego. A lady who spoke to him in his own language, who wore clothes that made sense to him, and who used familiar images which he understood. But even more importantly, a lady who looked like him-who could have been his own mother, his sister, or his daughter. Her brown skin proved that she was Aztec and her accent proved that she was a Nahuatl-speaker—like him.

What does this celebration say to us today—here and now? This was a real game-changer, a paradigm shift for the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Suddenly they came to understand that this foreign God who had previously not made much sense to them was in fact their God too. They were important, valued and loved by God.

For them—and for the conquistadores, it had an even more shocking message—they were sisters and brothers-members of the same family! The Spanish would be forced to recognize that the native peoples of the Americas were not less than human, were not expendable and must be treated with love, dignity and respect. Or else, they could not claim to live authentic Christian lives.

We are not there yet! But from generation to generation we do make progress—even if slowly–towards justice, equality and healing. “God has made one family of all the peoples of the earth.” That is the good news which the Apparition at Tepayac reminds us today—and which it challenges us to make real, present and effective—here and now.

“Living in green pastures- here and now!”

A sermon for the Twenty Sixth Sunday After Pentecost
Preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
In Easton, Pennsylvania

Millard S. Cook

Grant, O Lord, to us who struggle with the many challenges of life the spirit of faith and courage, that we may have strength to
meet each day with steadfastness and patience;
not in fear or worry, but in thankful remembrance
of your great goodness, and in the joyful hope of eternal life
with those we love. And this we ask in the Name of
Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.


Going up home to live in green pastures

Troubles and trials often betray those
On in the weary body to stray
But we shall walk beside the still waters
With the Good Shepherd leading The Way

Those who have strayed were sought by The Master
He who once gave His life for the sheep
Out on the mountain still He is searching
Bringing them in forever to keep

We will not heed the voice of the stranger
For he would lead us to despair
Following on with Jesus our savior
We shall all reach that country so fair

Going up home to live in green pastures
Where we shall live and die never more
Even The Lord will be in that number
When we shall reach that Heavenly Shore

I have a very vivid memory of the first time that I heard this song. I must have been around ten or eleven years old. It was a Sunday morning at Beech Mountain Missionary Baptist Church. It was sung by my great-great Aunt, Vania McGuire and her husband, John Trivette. It had a haunting melody—and I remember, even then, being struck by the power of the lyrics.

Interestingly enough, Uncle John and Aunt Vania were not at all pessimistic people—in fact, I guess that many might have described them as “happy go lucky.” And yet, the song came across as rather sad. It created a kind of visual image. This world is not a good place. We really do not belong here. It is full of troubles and trials. But, there is a better and happier place—a land filled with green pastures. And that is where we are headed. Then too, there was that warning about the voice of the stranger. If we followed it, it would only lead us to despair.

This song seems to capture, for me, the essence of the theology which I learned as a child. And though, Uncle John and Aunt Vania were themselves, positive and upbeat, the theology was not.

I am not surprised by this perspective when I reflect on the lived reality of those mountain farmers. Life was hard! Most of them lived on the edge. Farming was a very risky undertaking. All sorts of things could go wrong. The weather was unpredictable, the work was back-breaking—long and intensive—and then there was not any way to be sure that the crops would sell at a fair price. It was a life often close to poverty. If something unwelcome happened, such as illness or bad weather, one could easily become destitute.

In such a time and place, the one consolation, the one hope was the belief that God loved and cared for each person—that God cared for me. And, there was a promise, that even if it was hard in this troubled word, there would be a better one in which all the pain, grief and worry which we endured here would be replaced with something better.

There is a “fancy term” to describe this kind of literature. That word is “apocalyptic.” When looking for a quick and handy definition, I often turn to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Here is how it defines apocalypse: “revelation, disclosure,” from Church Latin apocalypsis “revelation,” from Greek apokalyptein meaning to “uncover, disclose, reveal,” The Christian end-of-the-world story is part of the revelation in John of Patmos’ book “Apokalypsis” (a title rendered into English as apocalipsis “Apocalypse, and “Revelation.”). The meaning “a cataclysmic event” is a modern perspective derived from the late nineteenth century. Apocalypticism is the “belief in an imminent end of the present world.”

It is quite possible, of course, that you have worshiped, at some point in a church at which someone read from the Book of Revelation, and the Reader referred to is as “The Apocalypse.” But, this literary genre is found, not only as the last book-and ending—of the Christian Scriptures, it is found in the Gospels. It is also found in various places in the Hebrew Scriptures as well.

This is a theme which we will encounter on a more regular basis in the closing weeks of the liturgical year as we begin to move towards the close of this year of grace and towards the complex new beginnings celebrated in the Season of Advent.

The $64,000 question is “Is Apocalyptic literature good or bad? Is it helpful or hurtful? Is it only something for the past? Or, can it be a useful tool for us today—here and now?”

As a child, I was taught that the most destructive attack ever launched on faith had come from the writings and work of Karl Marx. In those cold-war days, most people were convinced that Godless Russian Communists were going to show up almost any day and were going to either slaughter all of us or else confiscate our Bibles. We had heard wild slogans, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” Now not everyone understood exactly what that was supposed to mean, but it did not sound good.

In this day and era, though, in which so many of our neighbors, friends, and even family members have become addicted to prescribed pain-killers, we have a better sense of what this might mean. There is a horrible sense in that something which was intended to be good—and to cause good has been horribly distorted. As a result, people have become trapped, ensnared, and even enslaved—they are addicted–and are unable to break free unaided.

Sadly, it must be admitted that there is some validity to the claim by the Marxists that faith was intentionally abused to keep slaves, and poor people in subjection. They were told that God wanted them to be docile, obedient and compliant. They might not have a good life now. But, if they were cooperative with the “powers that be,” there would be a better life to come. This “pie in the sky” theology was used to prevent them from “rising up and throwing off the chains that bound them,” as Marx begged them to do.

There is no other way to put it—this was, and whenever it happens now, is a cruel distortion of the Christian message. It was the very antithesis—and the negation of what this kind of literature was supposed to accomplish.

The point of apocalyptic literature was never to predict how the end of the world was going to come about. Rather, it was to give hope to the wounded, hurting, oppressed and marginalized. It was a message of comfort to slaves, to poor people, and to those excluded from power—to women, to foreigners, to migrants, and to lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender persons. It was a promise that they are never forgotten by God. God loves them totally and unconditionally and is constantly working for their good. Thus, even in their suffering and adversity, they are not alone and abandoned.

The prophets, though, in the past—and in our own day have another way of using this kind of literature. And that is the real value of it to us, here and now. They use apocalyptic literature as a lens, or a photo or a vision of how things could be and should be. They challenge us to prayerfully consider—and to imagine how things might be if they existed as God created them to be and wants them to be.

Imagine a world in which every person finds a home. Imagine a community in which every person is welcomed and loved. Imagine a work place in which every person is enabled and empowered to use their God-given gifts and talents to create—and to earn a living wage which will support them and their families. Imagine a peaceable kingdom in which Sisters and Brothers live in unity. Imagine a world without hatred, violence, racism, misogyny, xenophobia and homophobia.
This is not just a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or a powerful song by John Lennon. This is the Gospel—the “good news” of Jesus Christ. This is our call to action. This is an invitation for all people of faith to get busy and to make God’s plan come true.

Jesus was an observant Jew. The Gospels make clear to us that he was no stranger to the Temple. He visited there as often as he was able to do so. He worshiped there. He prayed there. He no doubt had sacrifices offered there. He appears to have preached on or near the Temple grounds and performed miracles in the vicinity of the Temple. In the end, his perceived “attack on the Temple” was the reason that his enemies finally came together to eliminate him.

Jesus had some reservations about the Temple and about the religious leaders of his day. And lest we be quick to assume that he was only critical of the Temple priests, and of the scribes, remember that he did not fare any better with the leaders of the synagogues. After his very first sermon–based on the apocalyptic writings of the Prophet Isaiah–the congregation literally tried to kill him by throwing him off a cliff.

Today, we “overhear” a discussion between Jesus’ disciples about the Temple. They were obviously impressed but the beauty, the grandeur, the majesty and the power of the Temple building. And they were not alone. It was an incredible sight–high on the Temple mount. It was one of those “wonders of the ancient world.” People literally came from the ends of the known world—Rome, Spain, and Africa to see it. The white marble and gold caught and reflected the sunlight and made it glow. It was breath-taking. And for those of the Jewish faith, it was even more special. It was the place where God could be found. It was literally God’s house—God’s footstool. In the inner sanctum—the “holy of holies,” was the very presence of God. Yes, it was an impressive sight.

Now Jesus, does not deny any of that. He too loved the Temple and appreciated its beauty. But, he wanted to help his closest friends see “behind the curtain.” He wanted to make sure that they did not miss the point. He wanted rip away the cataracts which prevented them from seeing all of this from God’s perspective. And he wanted to challenge them to become God’s agents-working for a just and peaceable world.

Sure, the restored Second Temple was beautiful. After all, Herod the Great had invested more than 40 years working on it. But where had the resources for that beautification come from? It had come from oppressive taxes and money literally extorted from others. It came from the fees that everyone—rich and poor had to pay to use the Temple. It came from donations which were given from those who thought they could please God by an offering when the very gift the donated had been stolen or extorted from widows and orphans.

Even worse, the Temple, which was meant to welcome all into God’s loving and inclusive presence excluded the poor and needy. Codes of ritual purity meant that many were not welcome in the Temple. They knew the experience of having the well-dressed and powerful look down on them because of their accent—or because some thought they were dirty, uneducated and smelly. How sad. It literally appeared to Jesus to be the corruption of the best.

So, his words are not intended to be primarily a prophecy of a revolt which the Romans would brutally suppress—and then tear down the Temple so that not even one stone would remain standing on another. Nor were his words about war and famine and pestilence predictions about the “signs” that would herald the coming of the “end times.”

The words our Lord speaks remind us that God does not need a beautiful building in which to be worshiped. Temples and Synagogues, Churches and Mosques were not intended to be God’s home—they are intended to be a home in which all People of Faith gather in peace and love to be nourished and fed. Not just my home, but our home! A home in which all are welcomed, loved and treasured. A home which will never turn anyone away for any reason. Now that really is good news.

Jesus wanted a world in which we find green pastures here and now—and not only in some far distant future heaven. And not only there—but here and now we have that wonderful promise: “Even The Lord will be in our number.”

“We are all priests according to the Order of Melchizedek.”

The Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost

“We are priests forever according to the Order of Melchizedek”

October 21, 2018
A sermon preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania

Baptism of DNJC

“Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

On the Feast of the Epiphany we reflected on the surprising gifts which the Magi brought to the child in the manger at Bethlehem. Gold-a kingly gift, Frankincense-a priestly gift, and Myrrh-a prophetic gift. Without repeating the whole sermon from that day (hopefully) that story reminds us that from the beginning Christians have struggled to understand just what the mission of Jesus was in this world.

It also reveals to us that as a Community of Faith we have wanted to better understand not only what our Lord did—but also who he was and is. This no doubt rose from the realization that there were two essential facts: Jesus is the “eternally begotten son of God” He is Emmanuel—God with us. At the very same time, Jesus is fully and totally human — “like us,” we are told, “in all things but sin.”

On the surface, those two astonishing facts might appear to be contradictory. It is no surprise, then, that some believers, in attempting to reconcile them or to make sense of them were led in what the Church said was “the wrong direction.” They were said to be proponents of heresy — “wrong belief” or “wrong teaching.” I do find it amusing that a Roman Catholic Sister I knew, (who had some very unusual theories about God) once said to me, “Every good homily contains at least one heresy.” I can not promise that I will have only one today, or that this will be a good sermon. But here we go anyway.

Theologians, (who are quite interesting people by the way), perhaps inspired by the gifts of the Magi — in the Bronx we would have been careful to avoid the term “wise guys” — that meant something quite different — came to speak of the “three-fold office” or “three-fold ministry” of Christ. When they claimed that Christ was a King they often contrasted his rule with that of earthly Kings. His was a ministry of service, and not of exploitation. He came to “serve and not to be served.” Clearly there is an example of that in the Gospel today when we are reminded that the person who is “powerful” is the servant of all.

The same holds true for the office of Prophet. The prophet was not one who made predictions about the future, but rather was one who boldly, honestly, and powerfully tells how God sees things. There is a clear distinction between God’s perspective and ours. In God’s view, every person is beautiful and deserving of love and respect. There are no outcasts or outsiders. The abundance of the earth is to be shared by all. Every, gender and orientation is created by God and is to be treated with dignity. Every life is sacred from beginning to end. God, we told, “has made of one blood all the peoples of the earth.” Thus, Christians are called to reject as sin the evils of racism, homophobia, misogyny and xenophobia! Until we do, God’s kingdom will not be realized.

We are also reminded that the ministry of the Prophet is a difficult one. We often do not like to hear what prophets have to say. They challenge us and call us to change and grow — they call us to conversion. That can be both painful and frightening. Our beautiful reading today from the third part of the Prophet Isiah reminds us of this. It is sometimes called the “Song of the Suffering Servant.” Prophets were not afraid to speak truth to power. But, there is often a price to be paid for that. Most prophets were abused, jailed, or even killed. That gift from the Magi reminds us that myrrh was used to anoint the body of the deceased before burial.

Today, though, I am more interested in the last of those three ministries — the ministry of office of the Priest. Our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews has a good deal to say about that.

I have to take a moment to gush about the Letter to the Hebrews. I love it! It is one of my favorite parts of the Christian Scriptures. I find it to be a constant source of encouragement, hope and strength. I recall that once, during confession, a very wise and holy priest gave me an unexpected penance. He asked me to read the 12th chapter of Hebrews. Those comforting words remain with me to this day: “let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” That very same passage reminds us that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” who love us, support us and pray for us on our journey. As people of faith we are united with those from every time and generation who have made this same journey. We are never alone or forgotten.

One of my favorite blessings from our Scriptures is the one which I shared at the beginning of this sermon today — and is taken from the 13th Chapter of Hebrews. Although it uses the term “great Shepherd of the Sheep,” — rather than Priest, or High Priest, I think it is saying the same thing. And although this is a blessing reminding us of Christ, it could just as easily be a blessing from Christ — asking that God who made us good enable us to do good in his name to the glory of God. In the simplest way it is a prayer that God will make us useful and helpful.

This statement of the office of High Priest, though, is a quite unusual one. If we took it literally, as defined by the law of Moses, it would seem to be an impossibility. Priests, after all — according to the Law of Moses — are descendants of Aaron. If one is an Aaronite, one does not choose to be a priest, one is born a priest. And, since the time of Solomon, supposedly, High Priests should be descendants of Zadok-who anointed Solomon as King. No one else may choose to become a priest. Jesus, we are told, is a descendant of David — not of Aaron or Zadok. So, on that basis, it would not seem to make sense at all to speak of Jesus having a priestly ministry or office.

The Letter to the Hebrews, though, shares another insight. God is broader, vaster, and wiser than any code of law or conduct. God has often done surprising things — that was true in the time of Jesus and will always be true.

We are introduced to an unexpected figure in Hebrews today. The King-Priest Melchizedek. In the 14th Chapter of Genesis Abram had a good deal of family drama going on. His beloved nephew Lot had gotten into serious trouble by choosing the wrong side in a war. He had chosen to live in the big city of Sodom.

The King of Sodom, and his supporter Lot, had been captured and were in danger of being killed or sold into slavery. Hearing of this, Uncle Abram rounded up his troops and charged off on his white camel to the rescue. Wayward nephew and grateful king were rescued and freed. But the rescue party (and the rescued) were licking their wounds and were tired, hungry and thirsty.

At that very moment, the King-Priest of Salem (a name meaning peace) showed up without any warning. We are told that his name was Melchizedek-which literally means “King of Righteousness.” The Letter to the Hebrews, presents him as a very mysterious figure: “Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever.”

Melchizedek first provided a meal for the weary party — bread and wine (doesn’t that sound familiar!). He then gave them a blessing: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” Then, in thanksgiving, Abram gave Melchizedek — actually he returned to God in thanksgiving—a tenth of all his possessions. Note this is not intentionally a sermon about stewardship!

Melchizedek is a priest of the “Most High God” “El Eliona Adonai.” In other words, he is a priest of the same God that Abram worships. This is the very first time in the Torah that the word Priest (kohein) is used.

The Letter to the Hebrews goes on to explain what this means when used in reference to Jesus. Jesus is our High Priest. He was not born to the office as a descendant of Aaron or Zadok but was called to it by God. He is, thus, a priest forever “according to the order of Melchizedek. “

“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.”

We are told that in our Baptism we are sealed as Christ’s own forever. We are given a share in the three-fold office and ministry of Christ as priest, prophet and king. We, like Christ are called to make real, present and visible God’s love in this world. We are called to work for peace, justice, reconciliation and healing. We are called to suffer and be made perfect through loving service to others. We are called to be priests forever according to the order of Melchizedek.

May the resurrection from the dead of our great high priest then truly enable to us to say, “We know who Jesus is” and we recognize, love and serve him—present in every person that we meet.

A Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania
September 16, 2018

“Finding God in Sacred Scripture.”

 Millard S. Cook

“Faithful God,
in Baptism and Eucharist we are made one with you.
May we who have shared in holy things
always bear witness to your covenant,
in the name of Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.”

There are a few experiences which I think every one should have—once! One of those experiences was to be a teacher in a boys’ Catholic High School. Actually, I did it twice—once in Savannah, Georgia and once in New Rochelle, New York. Yes, I do think that once would have sufficed! I also taught at a few colleges over the years—a much different experience. And so, my ears are clearly attuned to the talk about teachers which we hear today. I will say this, the vocation of teacher is a most important one. The etymology of the word “educate” from the Latin e ducare suggests “leading out.” The implication is that the teacher is one who leads from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, from “cluelessness” to awareness, from a state of not knowing to truth. It is no mistake that the most important title given to Our Lord during his public ministry was “Rabbi,” a word which is usually translated into English as “teacher.”

Today, I would like to so something slightly different. I would like to share with you an ancient Christian and monastic method for entering into Sacred Scripture. This hallmark of Benedictine spirituality is called Lectio Divina, or “Divine Reading.” Traditionally, it has been divided into three components—or “movements,” Lectio—or reading, Meditatio—or meditation and Contemplatio—or contemplation. In the recent past, people have gathered in groups to share this Spiritual Practice—the most famous example of this would be “Contemplative Prayer,” or “Centering Prayer.” Traditionally, though, this was a solitary practice engaged in—in a private setting.

The first thing to note that it is normally based on a short reading from either Sacred Scripture or from the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict. It begins with a brief period of silence and continues by reading the passage aloud. This allows the passage to be accessed both visually (through reading with the eyes) but also to be “heard” with the ears.

The passage on which we will focus today is one which you have just heard—and is taken from the Holy Gospel according to Saint Mark. I invite you now to listen with me:

“Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”

Normally, there would be another period of silence following the reading of the passage. This provides a time to allow the spoken and written word to be taken in, to be devoured by the practitioner.

The second stage, ‘Meditatio,” the word does not mean what most people think it means when they hear it. In fact, historically, there has been a kind of internal Benedictine debate about what this should be called. Some have suggested that a better word is “Ruminatio”—or “to ruminate.” In this stage we apply our intellect, and all the knowledge which we possess. From a human perspective, we ask the questions: “What is happening in this passage?” “What is this passage all about?” “What can I learn from this passage?” “What is God saying to me—or to us through these words?”

As I prayed on this passage in preparation for today in Lectio, here are some things which occurred to me.

We are told that Jesus “went on with his disciples.” I like this image. Jesus and his closest companions are on a journey. They realize that to be safe on the journey they will need each other. And yet, this is time away from all the responsibilities and worries that face them every day. They are, as the French would say, “en famille.” They are at home. And in this free context, they are able to be themselves, without worrying what anyone else will think of them or say about them. Over time they have come to know and to love each other. And so, they are able to be completely open and honest with each other. They have no fear of saying what they think and feel—of sharing what is important to them. In this amazing intimacy, they are able to laugh and to cry with each other. Perhaps they even use nicknames for each other (at least they would if they were Southerners).

We are told that they are visiting a series of villages. Villages are amazing places. Then, as now, things move at a slower pace than in big cities. There is less noise, fewer interactions with others, and fewer distractions and interruptions than in the big cities. Thus, they are able to focus on essential things—on things which really matter. It is one of those times of “retreat” and “reflection.” In their solitude, perhaps they pray together. Perhaps they pray the Psalms as they walk along. Perhaps they sing Hymns or perhaps even secular songs which they have learned. This free time “away from the crowds,” provides an opportunity for them to have the most meaningful, significant and important conversations. It provides an opportunity for Jesus to teach them—and to model for them, what it means to teach, to guide, and to mentor others. It also gives them space—which every family needs—to hash out disagreements. It gives them the time to argue, to reconcile, and to share from their hearts.

The final context which we are given is that they are in the region of Caesarea Phillipi. Wow! Now the trip becomes really interesting. In the time of Alexander the Great, there was apparently a shrine there to the god Pan. During the reign of the Herodians, a kind of “model Greek city” was built there and dedicated to the Roman Emperor Augusts. So, for observant Jews, this would definitely have been a kind of “foreign territory.”

One of the amazing things which often happen when one visits a place in which there is a different culture and often a different language spoken is that one is given an opportunity to learn and to grow. Foreign places provide an option to be “open to the new” in a way that one can not do at home. And if it is a place in which there is some tension with one’s own native place, there is often the amazing opportunity for “self-discovery.”

To give a small example of this, in the Fall of 1981, after my graduation from Avery County High School, I traveled to France and lived for a semester with a French family in the village of Cormentreuil—a suburb of the large historic city of Reims. Imagine that you are 18, and for the first time, travel outside the Blue Ridge mountains—and to another country and culture. The greatest discovery for me in France was that I was “an American.” The French whom I got to know (and to love) had some interesting ideas about “America,” and about ‘Americans.” To my surprise, they thought I was one. They were suddenly lumping me together with people from California and Iowa—and yes, with people from New York and Pennsylvania. And they had concluded that the movies and television shows which they had seen represented the whole country. I had not been raised in an inner city—I was raised on a farm some ten miles from the smallest town. I had only seen Cowboys and Indians in movies! And, I had never given much thought to how the policies of the U.S. government would be perceived—and at times, in a very negative way by others. I was a farm boy, a mountaineer, perhaps a Southerner. But an American—that was a concept which was too big for me!

Jesus and his friends, quickly learn the importance of sticking together—of supporting and depending on each other. That is what it means to travel as a group into “foreign territory.”

As the discussion unfolds, Jesus takes the opportunity to ask them what others are saying about him. To paraphrase, “What is the word on the street about me?” “What do you hear others saying about me?” The response is quite informative: There is all kinds of speculation about you. To be honest, many people don’t know what to make of you. Some are comparing you to John the Baptist or to Elijah—perhaps even Moses or one of the other prophets.

Fascinating—a prophet! Someone who boldly proclaims the truth as God sees it. Someone who speaks truth to power. Someone who makes everyone uncomfortable by asking difficult and unpleasant questions. Someone who may be attacked, persecuted and even killed by power structures which are threatened. Someone it may be dangerous to know and to hang out with. Someone who may call others to conversion, to change, and to service. Not someone to be taken for granted or to be treated casually. Someone who will insist that every person be treated with love, respect and dignity. Someone who will insist that the hungry be fed, the naked be clothed, the sick be nursed and prisoners visited. Someone who will welcome the outcast, the alien—anyone who is “other.” Someone who will build bridges and tear down walls! That is a prophet.

The most important question, though, is one which is addressed not only to his friends, but also addresses to each of us. “Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus, who are you to me? What does it mean to say that you are the Messiah–my teacher, my Lord, my Savior? Are there things in my life which cause me to be a “Satan,” –an opponent–someone who gets in the way of your ministry, service and love? What do you call me to give up, to renounce to follow you? What is my cross that you ask me to carry?

The final stage of this Spiritual practice is called contemplatio or contemplation—and is a step which I will invite you to take at some point during the coming week. It is said that we do the first two steps but that it is God who does the third. In the silence in which we rest after listening and the hard work of trying to understand the passage, God speaks to us. This is a gift which God gives us.

Perhaps we receive answers to the many questions which arose in our rumination or perhaps we receive guidance. Perhaps we are just comforted by God’s love and care. Perhaps nothing appears to happen at the time—and it is only later that we realize that we received strength and energy to continue. Perhaps in our tiredness and frailty we fall asleep and rest as the disciples did in the Garden.

There is an old prayer derived from Scripture, ‘May God bring to completion the good work which he began in you.” Through our entry into Holy Scripture may our hearts and lives be transformed to be the people that God has lovingly created us, called us, and empowered us to be.

Wisdom, be attentive

Tiles from Trinity EastonA sermon for
The Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
August 19, 2018

Preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania

Almighty and eternal God,
so draw our hearts to you,
so guide our minds,
so fill our imaginations,
so control our wills,
that we may be wholly yours,
utterly dedicated to you;
and then use us, we pray you, as you will
and always to your glory
and the welfare of your people;
through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

There are many dramatic moments in the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. If you have a liturgy that lasts three hours you have to do something to keep people awake and interested. So, it is not surprising that this is an experience which engages people on many levels. There are beautiful icons, haunting minor-sounding melodies, two major parades (I mean processions) with richly clothed ministers—and literally, clouds of incense billowing up to heaven. Just before the Gospel is chanted, the Deacon proclaims: “Wisdom, let us be attentive.”

In explaining the significance of this message, a blogger has this to say: “You’ll hear that exclamation from time to time during Byzantine liturgical services. It usually precedes the reading of holy Scripture, which is the wisdom of God in human words, and hence deserves our undivided attention. (It can also serve as a sort of wake-up call if you happen to be daydreaming during the service.) I think it was introduced rather early in the history of the Byzantine Churches, evidently because they really did have to call to order the sometimes unruly and boisterous congregations!”

The idea here is that Wisdom is an invitation from God to have an encounter, an experience of God—mediated through the Word of Revelation. To receive and welcome this Word we are called to be attentive. Our ears are open, as are our hearts and minds to hear and to perceive God. Wisdom is also a truth—for the reality which is disclosed to us is something which only comes through God’s self-revelation—it is not something which would ever have come to us apart from God communicating to us. Most importantly, Wisdom is a person—it is an encounter with God’s own Word—the only begotten Son of God, our Lord, Jesus Christ.

We should not be surprised that Wisdom was a hugely important concept for the Church of Constantinople—the Second Rome. The Cathedral of that great city was named “Hagia Sophia.” Holy Wisdom.

Rosemary Radford Reuther has written extensively on the genre of Wisdom Literature. She points out that Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures is a feminine concept. Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs, for instance, is a lady who throws an elaborate banquet and invites all to attend. The imagery used to describe this meal was so inviting and attractive that it was used by Christians, across the centuries, to speak of their own imagining of what the heavenly banquet would be—choicest meats (they were clearly not vegetarians), finest wines (clearly not Bible-belt fundamentalists), an abundance of milk and honey (no one was lactose intolerant or allergic)—and the most attractive of decorations. It is an experience of “abundanza.” The surprise, though, is that this amazing hostess who meets every desire and welcomes every person—without exception—is God. Yes, God is depicted as a woman. This powerful image provides a balance—and perhaps a corrective to all that masculine language about God. Not a warrior, not a Father—but a hostess, perhaps a mother. Wisdom, let us be attentive.

St. Paul too speaks of Wisdom. He admonishes us to be wise. He suggests that Wisdom is the product of prayerful discernment. As we come to understand the will of God, for us as individuals, as families, and as communities, we will be empowered to live wisely. Gradually, we will be filled with the Spirit—perhaps another feminine concept (we think of words like “Consoler,” “Healer,” and “Comforter” which are used to describe the actions of the “Paraclete.” They all sound very maternal to me). And this indwelling of God’s loving presence in our lives will have a noticeable impact—the best word to describe this is joy. We will be moved to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. We will make a melody in our hearts. We will be filled with gratitude for all the incredible blessings which God has given us through our Lord, Jesus Christ. Wisdom, let us be attentive.

As I grow older, (and perhaps ever slightly wiser), I come to feel ever more strongly each day that the most important reality is that of making connections. There is a longing, a desire, a passion in each of us to feel connected. Sadly, all too often we do not feel connected. In the twentieth century two French thinkers: Sartre and Camus, addressed this reality. They concluded that it is the essential nature of humanity to fail to connect—the concept of “existential angst.” They suggested that the normal state of humanity is loneliness, alienation, and isolation. In a world which was undergoing unprecedented social, economic, political and behavioral transformation such critiques are understandable. Anyone paying attention to the recent Opioid crisis appreciates that their warning must be heard.

This is not the revelation of God, though. In fact, it is just the opposite. We might say that God’s Wisdom in one of “existential connection.” Wars, pestilence, famine, injustice, poverty and division are not the only reality. These are factors which challenge us—they do not defeat us. And they are not the final word. Life is not empty and meaningless. Wisdom, let us be attentive.

When I have been confronted by those who are “Spiritual, not Religious,” I often have two thoughts. The first is that we have clearly failed to help them be connected. There is almost some story of having been hurt or wounded by People of Faith. It is not the message which has wounded them and turned them off—it is the messengers. It is not God, but people who have claimed that they acted on behalf of God and in the name of God. As an aside, it would be impossible to be unaware of the tragedy of the sexual abuse of children and young people which took place in our own state over so many years. If you have not had the opportunity to do so, I invite you to prayerfully read the pastoral letter from Bishop Sean Bishop Sean Letter 08-17-18 regarding this issue. Father Andrew posted it on our web page, and it is readily available.

Secondly, I am reminded that religion really means “to bind back together.” Religion is ultimately about being connected to God—and being connected to a community. It is not only about believing certain things, or acting in a certain way. It is about building bridges. It is about undertaking a journey—a pilgrimage of faith that ultimately leads to God. It is not only about heaven. It is about seeking and finding God in the here and now. It is about a life which is full of joy and gratitude. It is about the abundance and generosity of God which offers an abundance for every person—if we learn to share God’s generosity with others. It is about justice, healing and reconciliation. It is about living in harmony and peace. It is about the affirmation of the beauty and dignity of every person created in God’s image and likeness. Wisdom, let us be attentive.

For Christians, the fullness of God’s revelation, the fullness of God’s Wisdom is the “good news” that Jesus Christ is “God with us”—fully and completely God—fully and completely human. This revelation, though, is shocking. We have a sense of that in the Gospel today. Many of those who were listening to our Lord found his words to be foolish. They just did not make sense. “How can someone give us their body to eat?” That just did not make sense! It was this teaching which forced his audience to discern, and to make a choice. For some, it was just too much! Later in this same chapter of John we hear what I refer to as the saddest words in all the Bible, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”

What Jesus offers is an opportunity to be connected to him-and through him to a life lived in unity with God our Father and Mother and with the Holy Spirit. This is not just an abstract concept, though. Jesus offers himself to us in the most intimate and personal way imaginable. He comes to us as bread—to feed our hungry hearts. An abundance of food which will be all that we ever need. And a meal shared in community with others. This is the table of God’s altar. True food and true drink—and for dessert, eternal life. Wisdom, let us be attentive.

The Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

Let us pray,
that Our Lady of Mount Carmel
may intercede for us, her children

may the prayers of
the Blessed Virgin Mary,
Mother and Queen of Carmel,
protect us and bring us
to your holy Mountain,
Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

I love this amazing hymn (in Spanish) in honor or Our Lady of Mount Carmel. It is called “Oh Virgincita” by Fabby Martinez.