Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
8 March 2020
Nicodemus is an intriguing figure. Mentioned only in the Gospel of John, he comes to Jesus under the cover of night. He has heard of Jesus’ teachings and miracles, and even acknowledges his divine authority. But Nicodemus wants to talk with Jesus in secret, away from the public eye. A teacher of the law and a religious leader, Nicodemus needs to be careful about his reputation. Yet as learned and well-respected as he is, Nicodemus has difficulty understanding Jesus’ teachings. Jesus tells Nicodemus during their conversation that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus responds in astonishment: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3: 1-6). Nicodemus takes Jesus’ words literally to the point of absurdity – physical rebirth, reentering the womb, and he misses entirely the point that Jesus makes: spiritual rebirth and renewal.
Nicodemus is not alone in being confused about Jesus’ teachings. It happens frequently to Jesus’ own disciples. There are numerous accounts in the Gospels where they misinterpret his words; they just don’t seem to get it. For instance, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus warns his disciples about the religious hypocrisy and corruption: “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” But the disciples mutter to themselves: “It is because we have brought no bread” (Matthew 16: 5-12). Like Nicodemus, the disciples take Jesus’ words literally and find themselves confused.
Lest we judge Nicodemus and the disciples too harshly, Jesus is not always so clear and straightforward. He speaks in parables, metaphors, and hyperboles, and he often presents difficult and controversial ideas. Centuries of biblical scholarship testify to the depth and complexity of Jesus’ teachings. When I went to seminary, I thought, like many of my fellow students, that a formal theological education would give me all the answers, and I believed that becoming a priest meant that I would need to have the Christian faith all worked out. Well, to my surprise, I discovered that the more I learned, the more I realized how little I knew. Far from answering all my questions, seminary gave me more questions.
Furthermore, now that I am actually working in a church, I am encountering more areas where my training and knowledge are lacking. Ordained ministry is like other professions; you learn far more on the job than when you were in school. Here at St. Mary’s I don’t know how many times I’ve had what might be called “Nicodemus moments.” I frequently ask Fr. Charles or a member of the Altar Party a question about the liturgy or theology, and, every once in a while, I will ask that really stupid question. And, of course, everyone is very kind in responding, but I can only imagine what is going through their minds: “You’re asking what? And you’re a priest?”
As we can see from the examples of Nicodemus and the disciples, as well as our own personal experiences, Christian faith is quite complex. We will never have all the answers to our questions, at least in this life. When we look across the broad and diverse spectrum of the Christian Church, even the clergy and the experts don’t always agree on doctrine and practice. And ultimately there are limits to our ability to reason. Our finite human minds are not capable of fathoming all the mysteries of our infinite God.
So all of us can probably identify with Nicodemus when it comes to confusion at certain points on our faith journey. For me, I can identify with Nicodemus in yet another way. He makes a second appearance in the Gospel of John. This time he is with his fellow Jewish leaders, who are plotting to arrest and punish Jesus. While his colleagues are raging against Jesus and his movement, Nicodemus quietly raises a procedural question: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” His colleagues lash back with suspicion and anger, and ask whether he might be one of Jesus’ followers, Nicodemus is quickly cowered into silence (John 7:45-52). When I read this, it seems like something that I would do. Like many of you, I’m assuming, I have an aversion to confrontation or conflict, especially when it involves holding a dissenting view. But at the same time my conscience would compel me to speak up. So I would try to do it in a way that is as diplomatic, risk-averse as possible. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll beat a hasty retreat, like Nicodemus. Academic types are rarely known for their boldness and courage.
The views of Nicodemus in the Church are split. Most Protestants do not see him favorably because of his failure to openly proclaim his faith in Jesus. He comes to him secretly at night, and his protest in his meeting with Jewish leaders is quite mild and ambiguous. John Calvin, the great Reformed theologian and leader, castigates Nicodemus for possessing a mind “filled with many thorns, choked by many noxious herbs.” He is, in other words, confused and unable to make a clear profession of faith. During the Protestant Reformation, Nicodemus even lent his name to the creation of a term, “Nicodemite,” to refer to those who disguised their faith, in particular Protestants who tried to pass as Roman Catholics to avoid persecution.
As much as I respect the Protestant reformers, especially Calvin, I think that they are unfair to Nicodemus. Frankly, I think they’re wrong. It’s not only that I can personally identify with Nicodemus in temperament; the Protestants seem to neglect what Nicodemus does later in the Gospel – his final act. He makes a third appearance in Gospel of John, and this time it is at Jesus’ Crucifixion.
For all the confusion, hesitation, cowardice, and even duplicity, Nicodemus, in the end, takes courage and steps up. While other followers of Jesus, including most of the disciples, flee for fear of their lives and abandon their Lord, Nicodemus comes forward to bury him. We are told that Nicodemus brought a hundred pounds of costly myrrh and aloes to embalm Jesus’ body (John 19:39). As a result of this act of faith and devotion, Nicodemus is remembered quite differently in other Christian traditions. He is venerated as a saint in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, as well as among Anglo-Catholics. His feast day is August 3.
Dear sisters and brothers, our Lenten journey is taking us to the same place where Nicodemus found himself, at the foot of the cross. This past Wednesday, here at St. Mary’s, we began our weekly Stations of the Cross. And for me I had the additional privilege of joining our sister parish, St. Augustine’s, for their weekly Stations of the Cross this past Friday. If you haven’t already, I would encourage all of you to come either to St. Mary’s on Wednesday or to St. Augustine’s on Friday and experience this beautiful and powerful service in which we visualize and meditate on the suffering and death of Jesus Our Lord.
On your service bulletin today, you will find the photo of a statue sculpted by Michelangelo, depicting the body of Jesus being taken down from the cross by Nicodemus, the Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalene. In the stories of the Passion and Crucifixion, we often do not notice Nicodemus, but he was there, embracing Jesus’ body. Nicodemus cast aside his initial reluctance and fear, and took his place at the cross.
Let us join Nicodemus at the foot of the cross. There, at the foot of the cross, we will gather with him and countless other followers of Our Lord, and we will witness and grieve his suffering and death. But it is also there, at the foot of the cross, that we will claim the hope and promise that Our Lord first proclaimed to Nicodemus that night he came to him: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, King James Version). Amen.
 Karoline Lewis, “Commentary on John 3:1-17,” Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=43.
 John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, Vol.1, trans. William Pringle (Edinburgh: Calving Translation Society, 1843), 107. Quoted in Robert Hoch, “Commentary on John 3:1-17,” Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1979.
First Sunday in Lent
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
March 1, 2020
I ran across an Internet meme this week that described Lent as “a religious holiday commemorating the time Jesus gave up chocolate and soda for forty days.”
A better definition of Lent is that it’s a solemn religious observance in the liturgical calendar in the 40 days leading up to Easter in which Christians prepare for the Resurrection of our Lord by engaging in the ancient disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
That said, it seems to me that our gospel reading from Matthew is a somewhat strange Scripture passage for the first Sunday in Lent. While we are beginning our forty-day-and-forty-night fast, Jesus’ forty days are already over! Matthew’s story focuses more on the temptation of Jesus AFTER the fast has concluded. It’s doesn’t seem like the most pragmatic way to begin Lent.
But the Church, in her wisdom, has chosen this passage for today. It would be awfully nice if it were a practical set of instructions of how to live during our Lenten journey. But maybe it’s not meant to be practical. Maybe the Church is simply trying to tell us about Jesus: who he is, and what sort of character he shows.
In the first temptation, the devil quotes Scripture and encourages Jesus to satisfy his physical hunger by turning stones into bread. When the devil says, “If you are the Son of God,” the word “if” could be translated from the Greek as “since” – “since you are the Son of God.” The devil isn’t expressing doubt about Jesus’s identity or power. He’s rather trying to deceive Jesus into using his power to satisfy his own physical needs rather than trusting the Father for them. Jesus responds in kind by quoting Scripture, affirming that life is sustained by more than physical food; it is sustained by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Jesus will not misuse his power to satisfy his own physical needs.
The second test focuses on the need for security and safety. For the second time, the devil quotes Scripture, and this time, he tempts Jesus to make himself safe from injury or even death. Jesus recognizes once again that the devil is taking Scripture out of context: Scripture does not endorse testing God’s protective grace for the sake of self-protection. Jesus will not misuse his power to make himself safe and secure.
In the third temptation, the devil tries to seduce Jesus with domination and prestige. He offers Jesus control over all the world’s kingdoms, along with the splendor that comes with it, if he will only swear allegiance to the devil. Again, Jesus isn’t led astray. He rejects the tempter’s deception and quotes scripture again in its context saying, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Jesus will not misuse his power to gain earthly power and prestige.
Just as Jesus was tempted, so we will be. Jesus didn’t respond to temptation by succumbing to it, or fleeing to another selfish vice to escape, or by complaining to God, or by wondering what he may have done wrong to deserve it. He responded by deepening his dependence on his Father. The very temptations he experienced – materialism, security, and prestige – are not foreign to us. We experience them every day. The appropriate response in resisting them is to turn to God for help instead of relying on our own power.
What are you giving up for Lent? What are you denying yourself? Jesus spent forty days and forty nights fasting in the wilderness, and it was this intentional period of self-denial that prepared him to endure and ultimately overcome these temptations by the devil. Even though Lent began this past Wednesday, it is not too late to find a way to be intentional about denying yourself something you hold dear. Intentional self-denial is helpful in the spiritual life because it reveals the things that control us. We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in denying ourselves, the things that control us come to the surface. If pride controls us, it will be revealed almost immediately. Anger, bitterness, jealousy, strife, fear – if they are within us, they will surface during intentional periods of self-denial. But we should be prepared: when they surface, we will be tempted not only to stop denying ourselves, but also to sin. If we’re properly prepared and watching for these things to surface, we can then respond as Jesus did: we can turn to God for help and rely on his grace to strengthen our will to choose to overcome all assaults and temptations of the devil. Self-denial reminds us that we are sustained “by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (v. 4). Whatever it is that we’re giving up – that is not what sustains us; God sustains us. Therefore, when we give something up during Lent, we are not so much abstaining from something as we are learning to rely on God to give us everything that we need and more. 
While this passage teaches about who Jesus is and what sort of character he shows, there is one significant difference between how Jesus responds when he’s tempted, and how we respond: Jesus never sinned and we do. You and I might choose to respond to temptation in the wrong way. We may choose to give in to our more carnal urges and gorge on whatever it is that we’ve supposedly given up. If this happens, do not lose heart! Don’t wallow in the guilt that you feel, but instead turn to God for help and pick back up right where you left off!
During the Season of Lent, our fasting and self-denial will engage the dark places in our hearts, giving us an opportunity to come face to face with them, name them, understand them, and seek forgiveness for them. We will be tempted to rely on the devices and desires of our own hearts rather than the grace of God to overcome temptation. We will fall into sin and then be further tempted to allow the guilt we feel to keep us captive. But Lent is not about guilt, it is about freedom from the control that our fears and insecurities have over us. It is about the amendment of life and new beginnings. Lent is about learning anew that we are sustained by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Friends, this Lent, let us train our very souls as a runner trains to run a marathon to depend on God to give us everything we need…and more. Amen.
 The discussion of the three temptations comes primarily from David Bartlett, and Barbara Brown. Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, 47-49.
 Much of this paragraph came from Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline 54-55.
 Bartlett 48.
The Last Sunday after Epiphany-Year A
Given at St. Mary’s Church, Kansas City Sunday February 23, 2020
Exodus 24:12-18, 2 Peter 1: 16-21, Matthew 17: 1-9
+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I love the liturgy! For those of you who know me that’s not a very surprising statement. I’m a liturgical nerd par excellence. I love everything about how the church worships. Why we do what we do, how it’s supposed to be done etc.… However, as much as I would love to stand up here and talk to you about liturgical minutiae this morning (something I am always happy to do) that’s not exactly what I mean when I say I love the liturgy. I was talking with a good friend this week who lost her grandmother a few years ago. They were very close, and after her grandmother’s death my friend got angry with God, as we often do when we’re dealing with grief and hadn't been back in church since, until this week when she had to go back for a funeral. As the funeral liturgy was playing out and they got to communion my friend told me that she had this experience of warmth and love that was incredibly tangible to her in that moment, in that time and space, she told me she felt as if Jesus was reaching out to her from the cross and embracing her and for the first time in two years she felt God’s presence and knew that he loved her.
That's what I love about the liturgy of the church, because when we gather for worship, God reaches out to us regardless of whether we're regular attenders, we've been away for a while, or this is our first time through the doors of a church. God is present, and when we celebrate the liturgy, time and space open up and fall away, heaven and earth collide, and when we remember an event we don't just call it to mind like the fond memories of our childhood but when we remember something liturgically it becomes present through the power of the Holy Spirit and we experience it here and now in an objective way through the Word of God proclaimed and preached and through the means of sacramental bread and wine. So today, as we hear the story of Jesus taking Peter, James and John up a high mountain, we don’t just remember a day, and an event, that happened over two thousand years ago in another part of the world. Instead Mt. Tabor becomes present and we join them in their ascent, and we are there standing beside them as they see Jesus transfigured in glory.
To fully understand the significance of the event we witness with them and to truly comprehend what it means to them, and to us, we have to go back a few days to the scene where Jesus asks the disciples “Who do people say the son of man is?” they give him answers they've heard in the crowd… “some say you're John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets. ” But Jesus wanted to know more than that…he wanted to know who the disciples said that he was and Peter in this very great moment entirely uncharacteristic clarity professed “you are the Messiah the son of the living God!”
It is with this proclamation of faith fresh in their minds that Jesus reveals to them his glory on the Holy Mountain. The glory of the living God, the glory that Moses sees prefigured in the cloud on Mount Sinai, the glory that reveals beyond a doubt and confirms who Jesus truly is. And so today with Peter we exclaim “Lord it is good for us to be here!” because, like Peter and the other disciples, we too, over these last days and weeks since Epiphany, have through our participation in the liturgy, been on a journey of revelation and realization. We heard of the wisemen’s visit and with them we worshiped the newborn king. We were there standing next to Mary and Joseph in the temple as Jesus was circumcised and fulfilled the law for us. We were there with Simeon and Anna as they rejoiced and glorified God for the salvation that was promised, the salvation they now held as a baby cradled in their arms. We were there on the banks of the Jordan River as John the Baptist professed that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and we watched as Jesus went down into the waters of chaos to identify with and take upon himself his fallen creation. We journeyed with Jesus as he went from town to town teaching and preaching in the synagogues, we saw him heal the sick and call people of all walks of life, including you and me, to follow him no matter the cost.
Today on the mountain we see Moses and Elijah speaking with Jesus, and we know from Luke's account of the transfiguration that they’re speaking of Jesus’ departure, or put rather more plainly, of his crucifixion. Moses and Elijah are there to bear witness to Jesus and to confirm for the chosen disciples, and for us that he is the one of whom all of the law and the prophets bore witness to. From this time on once they descend the mountain Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem towards the cross, towards his departure from this life and from this world. He knows that Peter, James, and John aren’t expecting what’s about to happen and so he gives the transfiguration as a gift to these chosen disciples, so that the dark days of his passion and death will not make them lose all hope. Saint Leo the great in a sermon on the transfiguration From the 5th century gives voice to the reason for the transfiguration in this way , and I quote, “the reason for this great transfiguration was to remove the scandal of the cross from the hearts of his disciples and to prevent the humiliation of his voluntary suffering from disturbing the faith of those who had witnessed the surpassing glory that laid concealed…”  The disciples needed that reassurance because they didn’t know the end of the story, they didn’t yet know that Jesus would have to die on the cross, they didn’t yet know that Jesus’ death wouldn’t be the end of the story, or what amazing things God had in store for them. We on the other hand know the end of the story and we know that the cross is not the end of that story. We know that it's not something that Jesus was forced to do or something that wasn't planned but it was the way in which our God who loves us chose to reveal to us who he is and what he is like. We know that it is through Jesus’ death on the cross that we are freed from the sin and death which kept us captive and that it is through the suffering of the cross that Jesus takes on and sanctifies the fullness of our human experience. We know that the joy of the resurrection comes after the sorrow of the cross, and that in the end everything will be all right and that we have hope for a better world where pain, loneliness, fear and everything that troubles us in this life will be no more.
We know the end of the story, and yet year after year on this Sunday as we transition from Epiphany to Lent, as we arrive at the halfway point between Christmas and Easter the story of the transfiguration is placed before us to hear again, and experience anew, not because we need it to strengthen our faith but because it is, in the words of our opening hymn this morning, a vision of the glory that the church may share, and as we prepare to enter once more this holy season of penitence and self-denial, we are invited to journey up the mountain with Moses and spend forty days in the presence of God, we are invited to spend forty days face to face with Jesus in the desert, and to walk with him the long and lonely road to Calvary where on the cross we see the fullest revelation of who God is and what God is like. And walking with him to Calvary It is for us to “follow him with all speed, yearning for the heavenly vision that will give us a share in his radiance, renew our spiritual nature and transform us into his own likeness making us forever sharers in his own godhead and raising us to Heights as yet undreamed of.” 
This is the goal of our entire Christian life, not just in lent but every day. In Baptism we are called to enter into union with the Triune God, to be transfigured and to grow in God’s love and service. In the season of lent as we remember in a particular way our own sinfulness: both as individuals and as a society, and as we place before ourselves our need for a savior, and take up practices of self-denial and penitence it is the perfect time for us to “retire from the world, stand aloof from the earth, rise above the body, detach ourselves from creatures and turn to the creator.” We attempt to set aside those things which hold us back and make us afraid to behold God’s glory in doing so we are better able to encounter the glory of God revealed on the mountain to us today, we are better able to see Jesus and only Jesus, as Saint Matthew tells us the apostles did.
As we prepare to enter this holy season of lent let us keep the all that we have seen and heard these past weeks fresh in our memories and through our participation in the liturgy of the church…coming to this altar day after day and week after week… let us encounter again and again the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ who gives himself to us in the forms of bread and wine. Through eating this heavenly feast let us be transfigured into his image and likeness and be brought into full and perfect union with him who is the very image of the invisible God, which we saw on Mt. Tabor. Let us descend from the mountain to the mundane and often boring realities of our day to day lives, boldly proclaiming with Peter that we have been eyewitnesses of his glory. And knowing the end of the story and the hope that is ours through the resurrection, let us share with all those around us the good news what God has done. Let us tell a broken and hurting world that the God of the Universe, the God of Glory became one of us and gave his life for us on that other holy mountain, and that he wants them too to come to know him…That he loves them and is reaching out from the cross to embrace them in a warm embrace, an embrace which sets everything aright if we allow ourselves to be transfigured.
 Leo the Great Sermon 51
 The Chapters of Anastasias, Abbot of St. Katherine’s: Letter 1
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
16 February 2020
Today’s Gospel reading has some very strange sayings of Jesus: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” (Matthew 5:29-30). We are obviously not supposed to take these commands literally. Otherwise, we would all be sitting here with missing eyes and hands. I am not aware of any of Jesus’ followers in the Bible or throughout Christian history who have actually torn out their eyes or cut off their hands as a consequence of sinning.
Jesus is employing a rhetorical device, hyperbole, making exaggerations for dramatic effect. He takes what appears to be a minor offense – lust or anger – and imposes an extreme, violent punishment – physical mutilation – out of all proportion with the offense. This seems absurd, almost comical. I’m not a big Monty Python fan, but it seems like something you would see in the kind of grotesque physical comedy of a Monty Python film – tearing out an eye, cutting off a hand – “it’s just a flesh wound.” So what is the point of the graphic hyperboles in Jesus’ teaching?
The context in which we find these sayings is the Sermon on the Mount, a collection of Jesus’ sayings that lay out his moral teachings. In today’s passage, Jesus takes two basic moral injunctions, namely the Sixth and Seventh of the Ten Commandments – You shall not murder and You shall not commit adultery, and he explains to his followers that it is not enough just to obey the commandments not to murder or commit adultery. Jesus declares that it is no less a sin to become angry or harbor lust: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’…But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery”…But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery in his heart.” (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28). Jesus thus sets a higher moral and spiritual standard for his followers than what their society expects of them. He takes the old laws and intensifies and radicalizes them.
And this intensification and radicalization take place as Jesus points inward into our minds and hearts, exposing our deepest thoughts, feelings, and emotions. There is, in other words, a profound internalization of the law. For followers of Jesus, externally observing the laws through our actions is not enough. He expects complete inner control of our minds and hearts – in effect, moral and spiritual perfection.
I know there are several of you in our parish who are from Methodist backgrounds, and you may know that the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, developed a doctrine known as Christian perfection. He wrote a book, in fact, titled A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. I have to tread carefully here since I’m not an expert on Methodism, and we do have some experts on Methodism, like Fr. Larry Parrish, a former Methodist minister, and Mr. Isaac Petty, our Postulant for Holy Orders, who has been trained at Nazarene Theological Seminary, deeply rooted in the Wesleyan heritage. As I understand the doctrine, Wesley believed that it was possible that in spite of the shortcomings and limitations of our human condition, we could, through faith and love, attain a state in which we are free from sin. And, of course, there is Biblical basis for this. In the very next section of Matthew that follows today’s reading we find Jesus preaching: “Be perfect, there, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
In our Anglican tradition, we don’t often use the Wesleyan language of perfection. Instead, we prefer to use another word: “holiness.” Wesley talks about holiness as well. By the way, as many of you know, Wesley was an Anglican priest and remained so until his death, so there are clear Anglican influences on his theology and piety.
The word “holiness” is especially dear to us Anglo-Catholics. Some of you may have heard the old Anglo-Catholic slogan: the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty. Most interpret the phrase in terms of our glorious liturgy- the sense of holy mystery in our worship, but it applies more broadly to the Anglo-Catholic tradition. Holiness is, indeed, a way of life for us, and it takes on a particular, distinctive form in our tradition.
As you know, St. Mary’s has recently started to offer Daily Mass. We are the only Episcopal church in our diocese to do so. And I remember a few months back when we were discussing and planning this, Fr. Robert Hutcherson, our Rector Emeritus, sent the clergy team an email that eloquently captures the heart of what we do here at St. Mary’s and what gives us our identity. Fr. Hutcherson rejoiced how the Daily Mass will contribute to our catholic piety and discipline. That phrase “catholic piety and discipline” struck me, and I thought about the different ways in which we practice that here at St. Mary’s: Daily Mass, Private Confession, Marian Devotions, Saints’ Feast Days, Morning and Evening Prayer. Soon we will begin the Season of Lent, in which our spiritual discipline will become even more rigorous with fasting, abstinence, and almsgiving. Holiness is hard work. It requires intense spiritual training.
Yet, for most of us, no matter how hard we work, we will never attain the state of Christian perfection and holiness in which we will be free of all sin both in action and intention. Can you imagine a sustained mental and spiritual state that has banished forever anger, lust, envy, greed, or any of the vices that plague our daily existence? I certainly cannot. It seems superhuman. But as elusive as such a goal may seem, it is not beyond the realm of possibility. We believe that Jesus lived such a life. He is our model and inspiration for holiness, spiritual perfection. Moreover, we also hold special recognition for the saints, those exceptional individuals in the history of our faith who stand out as exemplars of holiness. For most of us, however, ordinary people that we are, such spiritual maturity and perfection will be difficult to attain in this life.
Dear sisters and brothers, you and I may not be on the path to sainthood, but we, too, are called by Our Lord Jesus Christ to live the life of holiness. Therefore, let us strive to shed ourselves of all the sins that keep us from God and from our neighbor. Reaching deep into our reservoir of faith and love, let us commit ourselves to good works and pure intentions. Let us create in our daily lives the beauty of holiness.
 The quote is from the film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975). King Arthur has sliced off both arms from the Dark Knight in a duel, but the latter insists: “It’s just a flesh wound.” My thanks to Mr. Isaac Petty for the reference.
 Amy Ogden, “Commentary on Matthew 5:21-37,” Working Preacher. https://workingpreacher.org/preaching-aspx?commentary_id=795.
Year A – Fifth Sunday of Epiphany
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
February 9, 2020
Last week, had Candlemas not been on a Sunday, we would have heard Our Lord give his disciples the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit! Blessed are the peacemakers! Blessed are the merciful! Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness!” It was with these words that Jesus began his longest continuous sermon that we are given in the New Testament, a sermon we know as the Sermon on the Mount. The reading we heard today about salt and light comes just after the Beatitudes, and we will continue hearing the Sermon on the Mount in our gospel readings until Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. Scholars believe that St. Matthew wrote his gospel around the year 80 AD, which not long after the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. Judaism was in a state of upheaval, with socio-political and theological tension all around. The people of God were asking questions like, “Who are we? How are we to live in the midst of the political and religious turmoil in which we find ourselves?”
When I was in seminary, an older priest who had long retired gave a presentation one day. He was describing the difference between his years of seminary formation back in the 1950’s and our experience in 2014. It was in the 1950’s that the Episcopal Church experienced its peak in membership and relative pledge and plate income. The church’s attitude was, “If we build it, they will come.” Churches were built in residential neighborhoods all across the country, and the doors were opened, and people came. Attendance was great, the Church was held in high esteem by society at large, and there were abundant financial resources. You should have seen our jaws drop when the priest told us that his diocese provided a car for each seminarian. Needless to say, that’s not at all how things are today.
In 1965, The Episcopal Church had 3.6MM members. In 2018, that number was a little over 1.8MM. In 1965, nearly all active priests in our church served in in a full-time, paid capacity; in 2017, 40% of active priests were either part-time or non-stipendiary. Even outside of these walls, the Episcopal Church had an important position within American society. Christianity in general was respected, and the church’s voice carried weight in the world. Today, we are often ridiculed by the media and those around us and many no longer see the relevance of the message of Jesus Christ. In 1965, the differences between Republican and Democrat were fairly minor, and most Americans respected government officials, even those from the other side of the aisle. If you’ve turned on the TV anytime during the past 5 years, you know that the nature of our political discourse is less than healthy.
Who are we? And how are we to live in the midst of the political and religious turmoil in which we find ourselves?
Jesus tells his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth.” Salt of course seasons food, and in the Old Testament, it is also linked with the ideas of sacrifice and of being in a covenant relationship with God. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to bring flavor to the world around us, living in a sacrificial way that embodies our covenant relationship with the living God. In other words, we are called to live out the standards given to us in the Beatitudes. The Church loses its saltiness when it ceases to live out these principles. We lose our saltiness when we refuse to stand up for the meek and those who mourn. When we stop seeking peace and when we refuse to stand up for those who are persecuted. When we stop showing mercy to those on the fringes of our society. The result is that the salt “is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.” The salt loses its flavor and no longer exemplifies the sacrificial way of living we are called to live.
Next, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” I remember an ice storm when I was a child that resulted in the loss of power for several days. My mother lit candles around the house so that we could read and play board games. I remember being in awe at how just one candle could provide light for an entire room. In Jesus’s time, many of the homes had only one room, and one single candle would “give light to all in the house.” In the previous chapter, Matthew connects the image of light with Jesus’s mission in the darkness and death of a Palestine ruled by an oppressive, imperial power. In this passage, Jesus calls us to let our light shine before others, so that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven. That is, we are called as disciples of Jesus to live in such a way that this light shines brightly and provides warmth and clarity to all of those around us.
I have to admit…when the old priest told us seminarians about the state of the church in the 1950’s, I struggled with a bit of jealousy. Things then seemed healthy and positive, and things now can seem sickly and without hope. The Episcopal Church, and even St. Mary’s doesn’t have the people or the money or the political power that we once had. Living out the principles of the Beatitudes is often met with disdain by non-churched folks around us, and we are living in a time of extreme turbulence and division in our society.
Who are we? How are we to live in the midst of the political and religious turmoil in which we find ourselves?
Friends, today, just as it was 2,000 years ago, salt continues to be flavorful and tasty. A candle continues to provide light and warmth in a dark room. God has brought us into relationship with him and with each other through our baptism, and Jesus continues to call us to live out the kingdom principles we he taught us in the Beatitudes. We are called to stand up for the poor and the weak. We are called to give hope to those who have none, to comfort those who mourn. We are called to love not only those whom we want to love, but also to love our enemies. We are called to extend God’s mercy to those who are marginalized in our society – the widow, the orphan, the undocumented immigrant, the oppressed, the prisoner, the persecuted.
In the midst of religious and political turmoil, you and I have an opportunity to share with the world that there is more to believe in than just ourselves. We have such a beautiful opportunity to be the salt of the earth! To be the light of the world! And thanks be to God, we don’t have to do it alone! Look around you and see the beautiful, holy, flawed, strong faces of those in the pew next to you. We get to do this together as a parish community. By the power of the Holy Spirit, little ol’ St. Mary’s Church in downtown Kansas City is bucking the trends of decline and institutional illness in the wider diocese and Episcopal Church. We are not shrinking, we are growing! God is raising up men and women among us for ordained ministry – almost so many now I lose count. New ministries are forming that focus on bringing the saltiness of God’s justice to the people who need it most in Kansas City.
Being the salt of the earth and the light of the world requires more saying a prayer for the person you met last Sunday who sleeps on the streets, or posting how disgusted you are with the latest political happenings on social media. It requires that we practice what we preach and live sacrificially. It requires that the Church be in authentic relationship with the world around us, offering people a Way to live that is unlike any other way: A Way that is the perfect self-giving and self-emptying of the Cross.
Who are we? We are the salt of the earth! We are the light of the world! How are we to live in the midst of the turmoil in which we find ourselves? We are to live sacrificially, giving of ourselves and emptying ourselves just as Jesus did with his very life on the Cross at Calvary. We are to let our light shine before others, so that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven. Amen.
 Michael David Coogan, ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version: With the Apocrypha: An Ecumenical Study Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 1752.
 http://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/full-time_and_part-time_status_of_priests_by_domestic_diocese_2015.pdf. These numbers do not include retired priests, or supply priests.
 Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), 138.
 Much of this paragraph came from a Facebook post written by a friend and colleague, Fr. Keith Voets, on 2.8.2020, very likely from his sermon from today..
Feast of the Presentation
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
February 2, 2020
Today marks the end of the 40 days of the Christmas cycle. Just like Lent is 40 days long, so is Christmas. It is only every seven years or so that today’s feast falls on a Sunday, so we are taking advantage of the opportunity. Now I’ve heard a rumor today might be considered a special day for another reason…perhaps because of some event that is happening this evening. Your minds might be on the big baseball game that’s about to happen – perhaps you’re planning a party or figuring out which sports bar is the best place from which to watch. All I ask is that you give me just a few minutes of your mental and spiritual time, and I promise, you’ll be out of church at least a few minutes before the game begins.
Today, on this last day of the Christmas cycle, we remember when Mary and Joseph took the child Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem. The requirement in Levitical law was for Mary to be “ritually cleansed” forty days following the birth of a male child. Until that day, she could touch no holy thing nor enter the sanctuary in the Temple. This purification ritual made it into the early prayer books in our own tradition in the ceremony called “the churching of women.” We continue to celebrate this rite in our church today, though with a less flashy name. In the current prayer book, it’s called “A Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child” and in it there is no hint of the ritual impurity of women. The Candlemas blessing and procession we just experienced has its roots in the churching of women. Instead of purifying something that is ritually unclean, the rite celebrates the old man Simeon’s response upon seeing the holy family. Simeon praised God and acclaimed the infant as “the light to enlighten the nations.” This image of Christ as the light has led to the celebration of light countering darkness, with candles taking a central place in the observance of today’s feast.
Friends, today is about light. Light that expels the dark shadows of evil in the world. Jesus Christ is this light. As St. John says in the prologue to his gospel, he is “the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” Each candle that we see today, and each candle that was blessed today and will be used throughout the year symbolizes his light. The physical candles end up being extinguished and even burned down to a stub. But you and I are called to shine this light brightly in both word and in deed. As St. Luke says in chapter 11 of his gospel, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar, but on the lampstand so that those who enter may see the light.”
How can we speak this light to our friends and family through our words? What words of encouragement and love might we say to those who need to hear it? How can we shine Christ’s light brightly in our actions this day, tomorrow, and throughout our lives? What might we do in service and love to our neighbor to make the brilliance of his eternal light known to them?
I leave you with these words preached by St. Sophronius, bishop and patriarch of Jerusalem in the seventh century, at Candlemas:
“Our lighted candles are a sign of the divine splendor of the one who comes to expel the dark shadows of evil and to make the whole universe radiant with the brilliance of his eternal light. Our candles also show how bright our souls should be when we go to meet Christ. The Mother of God, the most pure Virgin, carried the true light in her arms and brought him to those who lay in darkness. We too should carry a light for all to see and reflect the radiance of the true light as we hasten to meet him. The light has come and has shone upon a world enveloped in shadows; the Dayspring from on high has visited us and given light to those who lived in darkness. This, then, is our feast, and we join in procession with lighted candles to reveal the light that has shone upon us and the glory that is yet to come to us through him. So let us hasten all together to meet our God. The true light has come, the light that enlightens every man who is born into this world. Let all of us, my friends, be enlightened and made radiant by this light. Let all of us share in its splendor, and be so filled with it that no one remains in the darkness. Let us be shining ourselves as we go together to meet and to receive with the aged Symeon the light whose brilliance is eternal.”
 Robert Atwell and Christopher L. Webber, comps., Celebrating the Saints: Devotional Readings Saints' Days (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Pub., 2001), 50.
 John 1:9, King James Version
 Luke 11:33, NRSV.
The Third Sunday after the Epiphany
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
May 5, 2019
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!”
I’ve mentioned to you before that there is a street preacher who likes to spend time with his megaphone down at 13th and Main during the day. He likes to say this phrase intermingled with threats about how God will punish the passersby for their sins. Admittedly, this phrase sounds a little less irritating when Deacon Gerry says it in church, but nonetheless, this isn’t a phrase that we generally like to hear.
Jesus, of course, doesn’t say these words in a vacuum. Two weeks ago, we heard Matthew’s account of Jesus’s baptism, followed by John’s retelling of the story last week. In Matthew’s account, just after Jesus’s baptism comes his temptation in the wilderness which we won’t hear until the First Sunday in Lent. But right after that is the story we heard this morning which announces the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry.
John the Baptist had just been arrested for his announcing of the kingdom of heaven and for criticizing King Herod, and in response, Jesus withdrew to Galilee. The Greek word translated here as “withdraw” connotates fleeing – it’s the same word used to describe Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fleeing to Egypt because of King Herod’s evil deeds toward the Jewish people. He flees from Nazareth to Capernaum which is on the northwest coast of the Sea of Galilee, “in the territory of Zebulun and Natphtali.” Zabulun and Natphtali were the old Assyrian names of the Israelite tribal territories in northwest Galilee from the 8th century BC when the Assyrian Empire annexed them and sent the Hebrews into exile. The use of these old names would have been striking to those in the first century – perhaps a bit like referring to New York City as New Amsterdam or Paris using the ancient Roman name of Lutetcia. Matthew doesn’t use these old names for nostalgia’s sake, he uses them to reiterate that Jesus’s move to this part of Israel is a fulfillment of the prophecy we heard in Isaiah 9. The people who sat in darkness refers back to the Hebrews who had been exiled by the Assyrians so long ago in Isaiah’s time. They are the ones to whom God will bring the light. Now, the people who live in the same geographic area are again ruled by the Gentiles – this time, the Roman Empire. And Matthew proclaims that they are receiving that light promised so long ago in the person of Jesus.
This is the context of Jesus’s declaration, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” This is the same message that John the Baptist proclaimed, but the difference is, Jesus himself is the inbreaking of the kingdom of heaven. He is the long-expected one who will save Israel from their enemies, he is the one who will bring the exiles home, he is the one who will give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, he is the one who will heal the sick, he is the one who will guide our feet into the way of peace.
And, even better news - this promise that the kingdom of heaven has come near isn’t about how to escape from this world into another one, it’s about God’s reign coming “on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s not about the afterlife, it’s about the here and now.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Jesus then started walking by the Sea of Galilee and saw Simon Peter and Andrew as they were fishing. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” [I’ll let you in on a little secret: I much prefer the King James translation, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” to “I will make you fish for people.” Same thing at Christmas: “swaddling clothes” is better than “bands of cloth.”]. In any case, it’s amazing to think about how compelled Peter and Andrew were to follow him. The text says “immediately,” they left their nets and followed him. The putting down of their nets meant that they left their livelihood – their means of an income – to follow him. When their two other brothers, James and John, decided to follow him, they left not only their nets and their boat, but their father. It’s hard for me to imagine the radical obedience of these men, probably because of the fact that Jesus continues to call you and me to the very same radical obedience in his call to follow him today.
It is the conclusion of this passage where we see the inbreaking of the kingdom of heaven begin to be played out. Matthew says, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” Remember, the area around Galilee was not only ruled by the Roman Empire, it was inhabited by mainly Gentiles. Jesus was not only teaching in the Jewish synagogues, he was proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing the sick all over, even…maybe especially among the Gentiles.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Friends, rather than a threat as used by the street preacher, this is a beautiful promise! The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned! This is good news that so many in our world need to hear, whether it’s those who are the most marginalized in our society like those without housing, or wrongfully imprisoned, or what have you – or even those of us who have plenty but are struggling with mental or physical illness. Jesus himself is that great light, and he continues to proclaim “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Like Peter and Andrew, he asks us to follow him, no matter the cost. Like Peter and Andrew, he makes us “fishers of men” – Jesus gives us everything we need to invite others to follow him.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
 Working Preacher: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4366
 Michael David. Coogan, ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version: with the Apocrypha: an Ecumenical Study Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 980.
 David Bartlett, and Barbara Brown. Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, 287.
Epiphany 2 – John 1:29-42
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
January 19, 2020
Annual Parish Meeting
According to the national canons of The Episcopal Church, every parish church must have an Annual Meeting in which the members of the parish gather to elect new members of the Vestry, our governing board, and conduct other important business. It is a time to reflect on the previous year and look forward to the year that is to come. As our Annual Meeting is today after the 10:00 service, it did not escape my notice this week when a member of another parish posted a meme on Facebook entitled “Why people attend the Annual Parish Meeting.” It was a pie chart showing about 2% attending because they are the priest or deacon and have to, 4% have a report they have to present, 25% attend to nitpick the budget, 69% because there’s lots and lots of food, and 0% because they feel it’s important.
If you’ve been in The Episcopal Church for any length of time, this meme is funny because you’ve seen, as I have, an Annual Meeting or two drag on and on and on, with one or two people overtaking the conversation in an incredibly negative way. This parish, like any other, has had our share of negative and tedious annual meetings over the 163 years of our existence.
But as I was reflecting on our last year together in preparation, I was filled with such a sense of peace and happiness and even joy. What a great year it has been! I want to share just a few highlights with you:
In terms of sacramental ministry, seven of you were confirmed or received into the Episcopal Church. One of you was baptized. There were several dozen hospital or home visits to bring communion to those who were sick. There were three weddings here in the church, and two performed by our clergy elsewhere. A couple dozen private confessions were heard. Incredibly for a small parish like ours, the Eucharist was celebrated nearly every day with less than a dozen cancelled because no one showed up or because of bad weather. There is an incredible team of seven priests from around the diocese, including the four of us who serve here, who give of their time and energy to make sure that the Eucharist remains the beating heart of St. Mary’s. Thankfully, we’ve had no funerals since the last Annual Meeting. And importantly our average Sunday attendance was 13% higher in 2019 than it was in 2018, and is now 50% higher than it was during 2017.
When it comes to outreach, hundreds upon hundreds of people in need have been given groceries from the food pantry. Over a hundred have received non-food necessity items thanks to your generous donations. You donated many coats and scarves and other items for those who can’t afford them. And we’ve raised money and collected items for several outside charities that serve those in need in Kansas City.
The Music Ministry at St. Mary’s continues to serve as a bedrock of our liturgical leadership. The choir has led us in exquisite beauty in countless High Masses, Evensongs, and Sung Compline services. We continue with our fruitful partnership with the William Baker Festival Singers, and welcomed many guest choirs and musical ensembles from all over the nation throughout the year.
In March 2019, after having served for over 14 months as Assistant to the Rector despite the fact that we had no rector, I was named priest-in-charge. A couple of months later, we welcomed a new priest – Fr. Sean Kim – who not only helps tremendously in relieving some of my workload, but shares his many wonderful gifts and talents with our whole community. I’ve heard from so many of you how much you’ve grown to love and appreciate Fr. Sean.
At the end of the year, Dcn. Gerry Shaon retired as our parish administrator and we welcomed Raja Reed as he began in that role at the beginning of the month. I’m grateful to Dcn. Gerry for his countless years of service, and am so glad that he is continuing to serve as a clergy leader of this parish.
On the financial side, our Treasurer Chris McQueeny will share the details with you after the service, but I’ll steal his punchline: 2019 was a great year, with 2020 looking even more promising.
God is continuing to raise up faithful men and women at St. Mary’s to serve Him and the wider Church in ordained. In 2019, Bishop Field named two of our own as postulants as they continue to prepare for ordination to the priesthood: Isaac Petty and David Wilcox. And we have at least 3 others who are ready to begin formally discerning a call to serve as a deacon or priest.
I could go on and on, but suffice it to say, we’re growing…in depth of faith, in number of souls, and in tangible resources to help support and expand the ministry we’ve been called to do in downtown Kansas City.
I think it’s no accident that today’s assigned gospel reading provides a helpful construct for us as we think about who we are and where we’re headed. Last week, we heard the story of the Baptism of Jesus from St. Matthew’s perspective, and today, we heard St. John’s retelling of what he saw. Matthew described Jesus’s actual baptism in detail, but in telling the same story, John is more interested in focusing on the signs that might lead others to believe in Jesus as the Son of God. The three synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – reveal Jesus’s identity as the Messiah gradually over time, but not so with John. Right out of the gate, he begins his gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Then John himself enters the scene, and identifies himself as the voice crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord” in the words of the prophet Isaiah. He says that he is not the Messiah, and that he is not worthy to untie the thong of the sandal of the one who is coming after him. The next day, John sees Jesus coming toward him and says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” This is the one I’ve been telling you about! John doesn’t describe Jesus as a royal conqueror or as a warrior – that would have made a lot of sense, as the Jews were expecting an earthly, political Messiah – he describes him as the Lamb of God. Instead of an all-powerful being who would deliver God’s people in might and power, John says that God chose to send the Messiah as a weak, sacrificial lamb like the one the Hebrews sacrificed each year at Passover.
How is this passage helpful to us as we think about who we are and where we’re going? I’ll always remember a comment that Fr. Sean made this past Easter when he came to sit in the pew before he was ordained priest. After the service, during which I had talked about the importance of the physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead to our faith, he said, “I’ve never heard an Episcopal priest publicly affirm the physical resurrection from the pulpit.” In that vein, it isn’t unheard of these days to hear Episcopal priests publicly teach that parts of the Nicene Creed simply are not true in violation of their own ordination vows. Friends, I commit to you that you’re never going to hear such nonsense from this pulpit as long as I’m around. The Christian faith is rooted in and founded upon the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. As St. Paul puts it, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain….if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins…If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied…but in fact Christ has been raised from the dead!”
What you will find at St. Mary’s is a safe place to ask questions without fear of judgment…to explore the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! When you struggle with your faith – and I promise, you will! – whether that be doubting parts of the Creed or even doubts about the very existence of God, your brothers and sisters at St. Mary’s will be here for you to say the Creed on your behalf. No matter who you are – Jew or Greek, male or female, black or white, Democrat or Republican, cis or trans, gay or straight – you will find a safe place to explore the faith that has been handed down to us from the apostles, and at St. Mary’s, you’ll find the grace and power you need to serve others selflessly without expecting a thing in return.
And yes, you’ll find a pesky priest who will relentlessly encourage you to respond with joy and excitement every time you see Jesus in your everyday lives and proclaim like John did, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” When you do, your friends and family will hear you, and some of them by God’s grace will respond like the disciples did and decide to follow Jesus.
When he saw John and the disciples following him, Jesus said, “What are you looking for?” They ask him where he’s staying, and he says to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw and “remained with him that day”, a Greek phrase that essentially meant that they went to hang out with Jesus. It was this deep, intimate encounter with him that led Peter to confess, “We have found the Messiah.”
My friends, what an exciting time it is to be at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church! As we reflect on the past year and look forward to the year to come, like Jesus did the disciples, I invite you to “Come and see.” Come and spent time with Jesus! Come and hear him proclaimed in God’s Word, come and experience his unconditional grace and love in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, come and see him in the faces of all of us who call St. Mary’s home. As we encounter our risen Lord again and again, by God’s help, we will continue to grow in numbers, to grow in love for each other, and to grow in service to those desperately in need of Good News. Amen.
 David Bartlett, and Barbara Brown. Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, 263.
 Selected verses from 1 Corinthians 15.
First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord
Sunday, January 12, 2020
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Each year on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, we hear the story of Jesus’s baptism in the river Jordan. Surprisingly, unlike the Christmas story, this particular scene is so important that it is mentioned in all four of the Gospels. This passage is often used by those who argue that the mode of baptism must be “full immersion” as opposed to the way we typically do it by affusion, or pouring. The argument is this: in verse 16, when Jesus was baptized, the text says that he “came up from the water.” It’s true: scholars agree that Jesus went down into the water in the river Jordan and came back up.
While I’m not all that interested in combing through all of the arguments about the modes of baptism this morning, this passage always makes me think of my days as a Southern Baptist, and in particular, one memory from college. I worked for two years as music minister of Sycamore Baptist Church, a little country church in the middle of a forest outside Gurdon, Arkansas. The church got running water two years before I got there, and up until my second year, they baptized people by full immersion at the local pond. The pastor, Bro. James McCain, who drove a semi to Minnesota and back during the week, decided that we needed a proper baptistry – you know, one where you can properly baptize by full immersion in a pool of water. So he decided to ask one of the parishioners who owned a pool business for some help. I showed up one Sunday to find that the choir pews on the right side had been removed, and a large, gray hot tub had been installed. Well, guess who had a key to the church. I have to admit, there were many Sundays that last year I was there when I would turn on the heat after Sunday morning services and then come back with a group of friends that night. Don’t worry, I was a pure little Southern Baptist boy, so there were no shenanigans going on, but we sure felt like rebels!
Had they asked me for my opinion, we might have installed a lovely font like the one we have in the back. When the Baptists use this passage to argue for full immersion, I think the they are missing the point entirely. This story isn’t about the mode of baptism…in fact it’s not about Christian baptism at all: it’s all about the identity of Jesus.
Jesus comes to John the Baptist at the river Jordan to be baptized by him. This shocks John to the point that he wanted to prevent him from being baptized. It is equally as shocking to those of us who know that Christian baptism, among other things, brings the forgiveness of sins. “Jesus was sinless!” we think. Why in the world would he need to be baptized? As I said, this isn’t Christian baptism we’re talking about. St. John Chrysostom points out that though the baptism of John was intended for repentance, and Jesus clearly had no need to repent of his sins, the Greek word in verse 11 that we translate “repentance” actually means transformation or turning.
And his baptism is a transformation indeed. At his baptism, Jesus chose to identify with sinful humanity in a real and tangible way. The Jordan River wasn’t clean and clear like the mountain streams and lakes that I grew up around in Colorado, it was muddy and dirty, and still is to this day as we heard Fr. Sean tell us a few weeks ago when he described his recent trip to the Holy Land. Jesus didn’t choose to stand on the side of the dirty river while the sinners John was baptizing got into the muddy water, he chose to get in with them. He chose to identify with them.
He did this to “fulfill all righteousness.” Unlike other places in the New Testament, the word “righteousness” here isn’t a legal or forensic term, but is about discipleship. John is to baptize Jesus as an act of submission and obedience to God, even though he thinks it’s an appalling idea. In so doing, John participates in this unfolding transformation of Jesus’s ministry and tangibly lives out the revealing of the coming of God’s kingdom, the kingdom of which he has been a herald and a forerunner.
And so Jesus is baptized. When he comes up out of the water, God opens up the heavens and reveals to all that Jesus is God’s Son. God anoints Jesus with the Spirit, recalling to mind God’s anointing of the Hebrew prophets of old. It’s not that God’s Spirit wasn’t upon Jesus in any way before his baptism; rather, God’s Spirit came upon him in a public, formal, ceremonial way to inaugurate his public ministry as the Messiah. The Spirit descends upon him like a dove and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The location of his baptism is hugely important. Jesus isn’t baptized at a font like this one in Kansas City, nor at a hot tub in Gurdon, Arkansas, he is baptized in the Jordan River, a place where all sorts of miracles and important events had happened throughout the history of Israel. Arguably the most poignant moment in the Hebrew mind at the Jordan River was that of the Exodus. When the Hebrews were in exile in Egypt, God delivered them from hands of Pharaoh and they began their journey home to the Promised Land. Because of their stubbornness, they spent forty years in the wilderness. The crossing of the Jordan River was the final step of their journey, and once they got to the other side, the finally realized the freedom they had been promised so long ago.
Friends, today’s feast isn’t about our baptism, it’s about Jesus’s baptism. Today, the Church remembers with joy the transformation of our Lord in the dirty water of an old river. We remember that day when God chose to publicly identify with sinful human beings like you and me. We remember that day when all of John the Baptist’s proclaiming of the coming of the kingdom came to fruition when the Spirit of God descended from heaven like a dove upon the one who was so long expected.
In the Baptism of our Lord, just as the Hebrews experienced their freedom at the end of their long journey from slavery, so too do we see the beginning of the freedom from sin and death and suffering promised to us. Let us this day reaffirm our hope that Christ will bring us safely out of this valley of tears to that heavenly country where, with all the saints, we may enter into the everlasting heritage of his sons and daughters. Amen.
 David Bartlett, and Barbara Brown. Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, 239.
Votive Mass for the Ministry I
1 Corinthians 3:5-11
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Tuesday, January 7, 2020
Almighty God, the giver of all good gifts, who of thy divine providence hast appointed various orders in thy Church: Give thy grace, we humbly beseech thee, to all who are called to any office and ministry for thy people; and so fill them with the truth of thy doctrine and clothe them with holiness of life, that they may faithfully serve before thee, to the glory of thy great Name and for the benefit of thy holy Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Today, we are celebrating what the Prayer Book calls a Votive “for the Ministry.” Specifically, today’s Mass is being offered in prayer for those who are discerning a call to be ordained. We wear violet vestments for this service because historically, the service was only conducted on Ember Days which are three days within the same week four times during the year that are set aside for fasting and prayer. We can see the connection between fasting, prayer, and then ordination through the example the Apostles in the book of Acts, “Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off." For many centuries, ordinations were restricted to Ember Saturdays, and I think this reminds us that it is only through prayer and self-denial that we can even begin to hear God’s voice in our lives.
So too are we reminded today that those who are called to ordained ministry, in the words of St. Paul, are “God’s servants.” Some of us are called to plant, and some to water, but “neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” As we pray and practice the spiritual disciplines of self-denial like fasting, we become more and more aware that it is God who does this work in us and through us.
One of my favorite saints in the church is St. Gregory the Great who was Bishop of Rome in the 5th century. He is famous for laying the early foundations of Gregorian chant, and for sending St. Augustine of Canterbury to evangelize England. Gregory was the first pope to use the title “Servant of the Servants of God,” a title still used by the Pope today. I love the fact that we call he who is arguably the most important bishop in the world “Servant of the Servants of God” as it tangibly reminds us of the words of our Savior in Matthew 23: “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” However, Gregory didn’t necessarily create this title for himself out of the purest of intentions. The Byzantine Emperor had just granted the title “Ecumenical Patriarch” to the Archbishop of Constantinople, implying universal supremacy over all the other bishops including the pope. This led to a series of letters between Gregory and various Eastern authorities in which he indicated that the Archbishop’s assumption of this title was “a clear indication that the age of the Antichrist was at hand.” It was then that Gregory began using the title “servant of the servants of God,” in contrast to Patriarch John IV’s narcissistic actions. Just as we occasionally have the pleasure of experiencing nasty church politics and clerical narcissism in our own age, Gregory was certainly not immune to the effects of power and prestige.
So I ask today that you join with me in praying for those who feel called to be ordained as a bishop, priest, or deacon – especially our own. Pray that they may set aside their own will, and seek God’s grace above all else. Pray that they may know that the call to serve God and the Church in this way is a call to be a servant. And pray that when they – and when those of us who are already ordained – fall under the influence of the power and prestige that comes with the collar, we may remember that even the most important among us is truly “the Servant of the Servants of God.”
Preached on the third anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood.
 BCP p. 929, #15. This the typical Ember Day Mass from the Prayer Book.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!
To the Glory of God and in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary
St. Mary's is a a parish of the Diocese of West Missouri, The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion.
1307 Holmes Street
Kansas City, Missouri 64106