Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
28 February 2021
The exchange between Jesus and Peter in today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark is one of the most shocking scenes in the Bible for me. Jesus calls one of his beloved disciples, someone in his inner circle, Peter no less, “Satan.” In the Gospel of Mark, Peter is the only person who is reprimanded by Jesus in such harsh terms. It doesn’t get any worse than being called “Satan.” Peter must have been utterly stunned, confused, and hurt. What could he have possibly done to provoke such a strong indictment? Is Peter possessed by the Devil? Or perhaps he’s the Devil in disguise? But we all know it’s not Peter who betrays Jesus; it’s Judas. On the surface, it seems that Peter is just looking out for Jesus. When Jesus tells his disciples that he must suffer and die, Peter, out of his concern for the well-being of his master, naturally protests. He doesn’t want Jesus, his teacher and friend, to suffer and die.
Then, why does Jesus rebuke him? When we read on, Jesus explains that Peter is setting his mind not on divine things but on human things. What does Jesus mean by this dichotomy between “divine things” and “human things”? To place this incident in context, the disciples have been riding high on Jesus’ successful ministry. Huge crowds have been following Jesus to hear his preaching and to be healed of all sorts of diseases. The disciples are basking in the light of their master’s fame and glory. And right before the incident with Peter, Jesus has revealed to his disciples that he is the long-awaited Messiah. Jesus asks them who the people say he is, and they answer that some say Elijah and others, John the Baptist. And it is, in fact, Peter who makes the confession of faith: “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:27-30). But then far from being praised for his recognition of Jesus as the Messiah, he is soon reprimanded. Peter is confused. So are the rest of the disciples. What is going on?
Jesus rebukes Peter because he and the other disciples have it all wrong about the nature of the Messiah. They envision Jesus as an earthly king, who will use his power and authority to drive out the Romans and the corrupt Jewish leaders, and establish a new kingdom. And the disciples see themselves on the verge of obtaining honor and glory themselves. In the following chapters of Mark’s Gospel, the disciples will argue about who is the greatest among them (Mark 9:33-34), and a couple of them, James and John, will ask Jesus for the privilege of sitting at his right and left hand in his kingdom (Mark 10:35-37).
Jesus calls Peter “Satan” because this way of thinking, seeing the kingdom in terms of earthly power, honor, and glory, is precisely what Satan had used to tempt Jesus in the wilderness. Satan takes Jesus to a high mountain for a view of all the kingdoms of the world in their glory, and he tells Jesus: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” To which, Jesus replies: “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Matthew 4:8-10). When Jesus rebukes Peter with the words, “Get behind me, Satan,” he is drawing a direct parallel with this earlier incident, in which Jesus rebukes the Devil with the words, “Away with you, Satan.” So, unknowingly, Peter had become a tempter, like Satan, presenting Jesus with earthly glory and threatening to derail his divine mission.
Jesus rebukes Peter for setting his mind on the “human things” of personal glory, power, and honor. And then he calls the other disciples as well as the crowd to explain the “divine things.” He tells them: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). Jesus paints a radically different picture of the Messiah than what the disciples had expected. The Messiah will suffer and die, and he expects his followers to do the same.
In spite of the initial confusion and resistance to this message, the disciples did ultimately take up their crosses and give up their lives for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel. And so have countless others in the two millennia of Christian history. One of the great benefits for me of the Daily Masses that we have here at St. Mary’s is the observance of the feast days for the various saints. It is an inspiration to learn about the lives of the faithful down through the ages. And when we look at these saints, the examples that we hold up for following Jesus, not all of them were martyrs. Some of them lived to a ripe old age, including one of the twelve apostles, Saint John. The saints show us that martyrdom is not the only way to give up our lives for the gospel. We can offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to God. Think of the missionaries who gave up their lives of comfort, security, and privilege to venture out to distant and dangerous lands to proclaim the Gospel or the monks and nuns who gave up their lives of creature comforts and luxuries to dedicate themselves to prayer.
I find great inspiration in the life and witness of the saints. But these past few weeks, I have also found inspiration closer to home. As you have probably heard or seen on the news, the pandemic has greatly increased the number of the homeless as well as the food insecure. And several of our St. Mary’s staff and parishioners have taken up the challenge of providing food and other necessities. In case you’re not aware, we have a nice pantry downstairs in the basement. Check it out sometime if you have chance; we would be glad to give you a little tour. These past few weeks, we’ve had many volunteers who have brought food and other goods, made sandwiches and bags of food, or helped to clean up and organize the pantry. And one parishioner even loaded a truck full of food and took it to the doorsteps of those in need.
We have living saints in our midst today, faithful followers of the Lord Jesus who give up their time, energy, and resources to serve the poor and needy in our community. The work that we do in serving the needy is especially meaningful during this Holy Season of Lent. Almsgiving, or charitable work, is one of the three main disciplines or pillars of Lent; the other two are prayer and fasting.
Lent is a time of self-denial and reflection in preparation for the Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. We usually think of the self-denial in terms of giving up meat or chocolate or alcohol. But the self-denial is not just about food. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves in all aspects of our life. He calls us to transcend the worldly temptations of power, honor, and glory, and to lead lives of self-denial, humility, and service. Following the example of Jesus and of all the saints past and present, let us take up our cross and walk the path to Calvary.
 C. Clifton Black, “Commentary on Mark 8:31-38,” Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-mark-831-38-4
 Ira Brent Driggers, “Commentary on Mark 8:31-38,” Working Preacher.
Fr. Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
31 January 2021
One of my favorite films of all time is “The Exorcist.” When it first came out in 1973, I was too young to see it in the theaters. But I did see a hilarious parody of it on the “Carol Burnett Show,” which made me want to see it even more. I was finally able to see it a few years later. The film exceeded all expectations. It’s a classic. I’ve seen it several times, and I’ve also seen the sequels. Not only am I a huge fan of horror movies; I find the religious dimension of “The Exorcist” fascinating – the Roman Catholic priests driving out the demon, all the mysterious rituals associated with it, the dramatic struggle between good and evil.
In today’s Gospel, we read about the origins of the Christian tradition of exorcism. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue when he encounters “a man with an unclean spirit.” The man cries out: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Jesus then confronts the spirit and drives it out of the man (Mark 1:23-25).
Jesus is the original exorcist. In the Gospel of Mark, it is an exorcism that launches Jesus’ public ministry. Moreover, the exorcism establishes Jesus’ identity and authority. The demon calls Jesus “the Holy One of God.” Elsewhere in the Gospels, we see Jesus with power over the forces of nature. He can calm the stormy waves. Here, we see him with power over the supernatural world, the realm of spirits. Jesus is lord of all. There are numerous exorcisms that Jesus performs throughout the Gospels. And he empowers his disciples to do the same. For two thousand years, Christians have been carrying out exorcisms in all parts of the world, and they have played a significant role in spreading the faith.
You may not have noticed, but there is exorcism incorporated into many of our rituals, for instance, in the prayers for blessing Holy Water or blessing a new house. And the big one is baptism. The candidates for baptism are asked to “renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God” and “to renounce the evil powers of this world, which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” In the Book of Occasional Services, which is a companion to the Book of Common Prayer and contains various rituals not in the Book of Common Prayer, there’s a section on exorcism. It begins with this statement: “The practice of expelling evil spirits by means of prayer and set formulas derives its authority from the Lord himself who identified these acts as signs of his messiahship.” It goes on to say that if a person is “in need of” the rite of exorcism that he or she can inform the priest, who then consults the bishop. So if any of you are in need of an exorcism in the future, please contact Fr. Charles – but not me. By the way, I found out from Fr. Charles yesterday that in the Roman Catholic Church and in the Church of England, there is usually an official exorcist in each diocese appointed by the bishop.
I don’t know about you, but in spite of the fact that exorcism is in the Gospels and is also a part of our liturgy, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. I love seeing movies about exorcism. But I’ve never seen an exorcism in person, and I doubt that I will ever see one. Spirit possession and exorcism are not part of my experience or worldview.
Among Christians today, there are different views of this phenomenon. Most biblical scholars view demonic possession as a form of mental illness. Ancient people didn’t have modern psychology so they turned to supernatural explanations.
But the belief in demonic possession has not gone away in modern times. In fact, it’s thriving in Christianity today. Although Christianity is declining in Europe and the United States, it is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa and Asia. And the form of Christianity that the new converts are embracing is one that is rooted in the world of the supernatural. Unlike us, they have no difficulty with the exorcism stories in the Gospels, and, in fact, they’re also casting out demons and performing acts of miraculous healing. What is interesting is that in many cases, Christian exorcism draws on indigenous beliefs about the spirit world. In Korea, for instance, the exorcist will diagnose the possessing spirit not as a demon but as the spirit of a discontented dead relative, an angry ghost. So be nice to your mother-in-law.
Exorcism is alive and well in Asia and Africa. And we have it in this country as well, though we may not hear about it as much. Pentecostals and charismatics take the exorcisms in scripture literally, seeing them as gifts of the Spirit, and some practice exorcism. And, to go back to the film “The Exorcist,” it deals with an exorcism that takes place in the context of modern Roman Catholicism in the United States. Many Romans today believe in the reality of demon possession and exorcism. So it looks like those of us mainline Protestants who have a rational, scientific view of the phenomenon are actually in the minority in Christianity.
Yet, whatever differences we may have in our views of exorcism, what is undeniable is the fact that it is a form of healing. The unclean spirits cause mental and physical pain and suffering. Exorcism frees the person from the illness and brings healing and wholeness.
Whether we believe in demons or not, we cannot deny that there are forces of evil that seem to grip us at times and cause destructive tendencies. Indeed, we contend with unclean spirits in our daily lives. Perhaps it’s an addiction – alcohol, drugs. Or perhaps it’s a personal vice – gossip, backbiting, road rage. We try to stop the bad behavior, but it’s almost as if an outside force is controlling us. And then there are the demons that possess us collectively as a society – racism, homophobia, corporate greed, and, recently, domestic terrorism. The forces of evil are real, and they abound within and around us.
Yet, as people of faith, we have hope in Jesus, the Holy One of God. Just as he drove out the demon from the possessed man in the synagogue, he will drive out the demons that possess us today and grant us healing and wholeness. He will make us pure and holy, even as he is pure and holy.
I would like to conclude with a prayer that is part of what are called the secret prayers, which the celebrant prays in preparation for Holy Eucharist. You may have been wondering what Fr. Charles and I say under our breaths at the altar. Well, this is one of them. This particular prayer is said during the washing of the hands as a sign of purification. But I think this prayer is appropriate to pray together as we purge ourselves of the unclean spirits in our personal lives and in the society around us. So as we seek healing and wholeness in the Name of Jesus, we pray:
Lord, wash away my iniquities and cleanse me from my sin. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and sustain a right spirit within me. Amen.
 Paul S. Berge, “Commentary on Mark 1:21-28,” Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-4
 Matt Skinner, “Commentary on Mark 1:21-28,” Working Preacher.
 The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing, 1979), 302.
 The Book of Occasional Services (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1991), 170.
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
25 December 2020
There’s been quite a shift from last night to this morning. Last night, our gaze was focused on a baby lying in a stable in the little town of Bethlehem. This morning, we behold a grand cosmic vision – the creation of the world by the Word of God, the Logos. Yet both scenes are about the same person – Jesus Christ. He is both the vulnerable little infant born to Mary and the all-mighty author and sustainer of the universe. In the mystery of the Incarnation, the divine and human come together.
A lot of ink has been spilled over interpreting what we’ve just read in the Gospel of John. The fact that among the Four Gospels, it’s the only one that is given a fancy title, the Prolegomena or the Prologue, should give us some idea of how theologically significant it is. During the Seasons of Advent and Christmas at St. Mary’s, we conclude every Daily Mass with the reading of the Prologue.
The idea that Jesus is the Word of God, the Logos, is not easy to understand. As one biblical scholar defines it, the Logos is “the logic that permeates and structures the universe, the divine reason that orders and gives meaning to all that is.” Try explaining that at a cocktail party. We’re dealing with abstract Greek philosophy here.
But, the fact is, we don’t have to understand the complex meaning behind the Logos to know God. Our faith is not based on grasping the nature of the divine reason or logic behind the universe. We can leave that to the theologians. Our Christian faith rests on the statement at the end of today’s reading: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). When we come to this sentence in praying the Angelus, we genuflect to express our deep reverence. In Jesus Christ, God became human. The Word became flesh. God became one of us and entered our world. Hence, God is not just an abstract, transcendent concept – someone up there beyond our comprehension. We can now know God through Jesus. Later in the Gospel of John, we find Jesus telling his disciples: “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7). Jesus is the incarnation and revelation of God.
John, like the other Gospels, is an account of how Jesus, the Word made flesh, lived among the people of Palestine two thousand years ago. The Gospels describe and explain how Jesus revealed God through his teachings and ministry. After his death and resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven, and we wait for his coming in glory and power at the end of time. But we also believe that the body of Jesus continues to be present here on earth. The Incarnation was not a one-time event that ended two thousand years ago. It is ongoing. Jesus lives among us.
To go back to the statement “And the Word became flesh and lived among us,” the term that we translate as “live” is in the Greek actually “tabernacle” or “tent.” So a more literal translation would be “And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” or “pitched a tent among us.” Interestingly, we use the word tabernacle to refer to the box that contains the reserved host, the Body of Christ. So Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, is present with us now in the tabernacle, and he will be present as we come up for Holy Eucharist. In the bread and wine of Communion, Christ will come to us in flesh and blood.
One of my favorite Christmas carols is “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.” I just heard it on the radio this morning on my drive from home to church. I have come to especially appreciate the refrain: “Oh, tidings of comfort and joy.” I know that I am not alone in having experienced loss during the Season of Christmas. My mother died eight years ago around this time of the year. This season has never been the same since. But when I sing or hear this carol, I am reminded that Jesus came to give us comfort and joy. That thought consoles me and lifts my spirits.
This year Christmas is not the same for any of us. COVID has wreaked havoc in our lives. We have all suffered losses. Yet, Christmas reminds us that God is not deaf to our cries of pain and suffering. In Jesus Christ, God became one of us to share our human lot and to give us hope and strength. This year, not all of us will be able to find comfort and joy in the presence of our family and friends. But we can all find comfort and joy in the presence of Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, who comes to us today as a baby in the manger and in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. Merry Christmas!
 Judith Jones, “Commentary on John 1:1-14,” Working Preacher.
Fourth Sunday of Advent
The Rev. Dr. Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
20 December 2020
Today’s sermon is the fourth and last in an Advent series on the Four Last Things. The first three were on Death, Judgment, and Heaven. And today I have the pleasant task of preaching on Hell. Needless to say, I haven’t been in a very festive holiday mood the past few days as I’ve been contemplating hell to prepare for the sermon.
I know that some of you were raised in traditions that preached a lot about hell and damnation. I’ve heard horror stories about how some churches have traumatized people with the threat of hell for their sins or for their theological views or for their sexual orientation. There are many wounded souls out there. In terms of my own personal background, I was raised in mainline denominations that were at the opposite extreme. We didn’t talk at all about hell, and our conception of God was rather warm and fuzzy.
So where do we Episcopalians, or more specifically Anglo-Catholics, stand on the issue of hell? Well, as with most theological issues, we have a broad spectrum of views in the Church and a great deal of room to believe what you choose. Some Episcopalians subscribe to the traditional conception of hell as a place of eternal torment for the wicked. There are others who reject the idea of hell altogether as incongruent with a loving God. What I would like to do today is to share with you what Scripture and tradition have to say about hell – a kind of history of hell, if you will, and engage in some reflections with you about the doctrine of hell.
The ancient Hebrews believed that the dead went to a place called Sheol, also called the “Pit,” the “grave,” and Abbadon. In the Old Testament, Sheol forms part of a three-tiered conception of the universe with heaven above, earth below, and Sheol under the ground. It was a dark and dreary place where all the dead descended regardless of whether they were good or bad. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek for the Jewish diaspora, the term that was used to translate Sheol was Hades, the underworld of the dead in Greek mythology.
When we come to the Gospels, we have the term Gehenna that is translated as hell in English. Jesus speaks of Gehenna as the “hell of fire” (Matthew 5:22, 18:9) or the “unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43). He also speaks of “the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12). Gehenna or hell is a place of judgment and condemnation, where the unrighteous go to be punished.
Recall Jesus’ parable of the “Rich Man and Lazarus.” Lazarus is a poor man who suffered from hunger and deprivation outside the house of the rich man, but, in death, he is carried by the angels to eternal bliss in the bosom of Abraham. On the other hand, the rich man, who, in life, had shown no compassion to Lazarus, is sent in death to hell where he suffers in agony amidst the flames (Luke 16:19-31).
Christianity is not alone in having a place of punishment for the wicked. Most of the world religions, including Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, have their equivalents of our hell. It seems to be almost a universal desire that there should be moral reckoning in the afterlife. In a moral universe, if there is no justice here on earth, surely there has to be justice in the life to come. For instance, it doesn’t make sense that the perpetrators of genocide and other crimes against humanity can live to a ripe old age while the millions of innocent victims suffer torment and slaughter at their hands. Where is the justice?
One of the commonly held beliefs about hell in Christianity is that it is a place of eternal torment, that there is no end to the punishment for the wicked. But when we look further at Scripture as well as the tradition of the Church, there seems to be the hope of redemption even for those condemned to hell. In the Apostle’s Creed, which we proclaim at Daily Mass, and in the Athanasian Creed, we find the statement that Jesus “was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell” (p.53). So, according to this phrase, during the three days that Jesus’ body was in the tomb, his spirit was in hell. And what did he do there? According to I Peter, Jesus “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison” (I Peter 3:19-20) and that the Gospel was proclaimed even to the dead (I Peter 4:6). There are also similar references in the Old Testament – for instance, Psalm 49:15: “God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.”
Based on such passages from Scripture as well as the Creeds, a doctrine developed in the early Church, known as the Harrowing of Hell. The term “to harrow” is synonymous with “to descend” – so the “Descent into Hell” – but in Old and Middle English, it also has the sense of making a raid or incursion. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, this doctrine was expressed through beautiful religious art, such as the one on the cover of today’s service leaflet. It is a painting by the fifteenth-century artist Fra Angelico. I especially like the way it visualizes Christ’s descent into hell as a kind of raid. He’s carrying a military banner, trampling on the devils, and providing safe passage to the captive souls.
Dear friends, we are drawing ever closer to the coming of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. During the Season of Advent, as we wait and prepare for his coming, one of our rituals is to light the candles on the Advent wreath. And during Daily Mass, we have been concluding the service with the reading of the Prologue to the Gospel of John, which speaks of Jesus as the “light of all people,” the light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome by the darkness (John 1:4-5). There is much darkness in the world today – the suffering and death caused by COVID, racial injustice, political turmoil, poverty, crime. But no matter how dark it gets around us, the light of Christ will shine through. Indeed, that “light of all people” will penetrate even the darkness of hell itself.
 The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 835-836.
Last Sunday after Pentecost
Christ the King
The Rev. Dr. Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
November 22, 2020
Today the Church commemorates the Feast of Christ the King. As we prayed in our opening Collect, we praise and worship Jesus Christ as “the King of kings and Lord of lords.” The Feast of Christ the King is a relatively new addition to the church calendar, having been instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925. It falls on the last Sunday of the church year, drawing a parallel with the end of time, the last days, when Christ will come in all his power and glory.
Although the feast is relatively recent compared to other feasts that have been around for centuries, it is firmly rooted in Scripture. In today’s Epistle, we read that God “raised [Jesus] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet” (Ephesians 1:20-23). And in today’s Gospel, we read: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him” (Matthew 25:31-32).
In the Orthodox Church, this vision of the exalted Jesus has expressed itself down through the ages in the iconography of Christos Pantocrator (Χριστὸς Παντοκράτωρ) or Christ Almighty. We have an example on the cover of today’s service leaflet: the mosaic of Christos Pantocrator from the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The church is built over what is believed to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. With the Christos Pantocrator on the ceiling of this church, we see a colossal, regal Jesus set against a gold background and surrounded by a celestial court of angels and saints. Jesus is the enthroned king of heaven and earth, looking down on the faithful.
For some of us today, we may not be entirely comfortable with calling Jesus king. It certainly doesn’t figure as prominently in Protestant theology as it does in Roman Catholic or Orthodox. There are plenty of Roman churches named Christ the King, including the one here in Kansas City on 85th and Wornall Road. But how many Protestant churches do you know that are named Christ the King? I don’t think there are many Episcopal Churches with that name either, Anglo-Catholic or otherwise.
Another reason why Christ the King may not sit too well with us is because the title of “king” may go against our modern, democratic sensibilities. “King” can be seen as an anachronism, outdated and irrelevant, belonging to less enlightened periods of absolute rule and authoritarianism. Our nation, after all, was born in rebellion against the tyranny of King George III.
But, on the other hand, there may be others who don’t mind the royal language at all – and even like it. The Episcopal Church, with her origins in England, is full of Anglophiles, including those who love the British monarchy, especially good Queen Elizabeth II. I won’t mention names, but I think there may even be clergy at St. Mary’s who fall in this category – and who this past week celebrated the seventy-third wedding anniversary of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. But even apart from the Anglophiles in our midst, judging by the popularity of British royal gossip in the American press, we haven’t entirely severed our emotional ties to the monarchy in the old country. We love the pageantry, the glamor, and the rich traditions.
Whatever our attitudes toward the term “king” may be, the message about Jesus in Scripture and in today’s feast day is clear. There is no power or authority in all the world greater than Jesus. He is all-mighty, all-powerful, sovereign over heaven and earth. He is God Incarnate. And Christ’s kingdom is eternal. His reign will have no end.
If we might extend the royal metaphor a bit, if Jesus is king, then what does that make us, his followers? At the most basic level, we are subjects of his kingdom, enjoying the benefits and privileges of Christ’s reign. But Scripture tells us that we are more than mere subjects. Christ calls us as his disciples to a more active and significant role. He calls us to proclaim and to help build his kingdom on earth.
Just as a traditional king would have officials, called ministers, to help him rule, Jesus calls us to be his ministers in the kingdom. Interestingly, the term “minister” has both this secular and religious meaning. So just as there are different ministries in a royal government, such as ministry of state, ministry of the treasury, and so on, we, too, have various ministries in the Church. In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he speaks of the many different types of ministry and service in the Church – apostles, prophets, teachers, and healers (I Corinthians 12:28). Some are called to preach. Some are called to be prophetic voices, working for peace and justice in the world. Some are called to teach. Some are called to heal the broken in body, mind, or spirit. Some are called to be ordained, as our own Deacon Lynda Hurt and Deacon Isaac Petty were this past Monday. Some are called to leadership and service as lay people.
We have a variety of callings defined by our God-given gifts, talents, and passions. But we also share a common calling. In today’s Gospel, Christ calls all of us to care for those who are hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison (Matthew 25: 35-45). When we serve the most vulnerable among us, we are serving Christ in them. And it is for these acts of love and compassion for which we will ultimately be judged.
Dear friends, on this Feast of Christ the King, we are reminded that Jesus is Lord of our lives and Lord of all Creation. And as Christ’s followers, we are his ministers, representatives of his Kingdom in the world. We have been called to be his apostles, prophets, teachers, and healers. And we have gathered this morning to renew our vows to the Lord and to be refreshed, nourished, and empowered in Word and Sacrament. And at the conclusion of our service today, as we head back to our daily lives, we will be reminded by our newly ordained deacon what is our sacred task this week as Christ’s ministers: Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
 The exception seems to be Lutheran churches, quite a number of which have the name Christ the King.
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Dr. Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
October 11, 2020
Joy is one of the central features of our Christian faith. We express this joy through the greetings that we share during the two biggest celebrations of the year – “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Easter.” And we can witness the joy everywhere in our public worship and private devotions – in our hymns, in our prayers, and in our liturgy. The Psalms are filled with joyful praise to God, and, in the Gospels, including today’s reading, the Kingdom of Heaven is pictured as a banquet – a joyful and festive celebration. The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis used the phrase, “surprised by joy,” to describe his conversion from atheism to faith, and it’s the title of his autobiography, which some of you may have read. Joy is, indeed, a part of our Christian DNA.
In today’s Epistle reading from Philippians, the Apostle Paul focuses on this key Christian virtue of joy when he says: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). Joy is one of the main themes throughout the entire letter to the Philippian Church. Paul begins the epistle by saying that he is “constantly praying with joy” (1:4). Later, he speaks of “joy in faith” (1:25) and how he wants the Philippians to “make my joy complete” by having the same intent and mind (2:2). And he calls the beloved Philippian community his “joy and crown” (4:1).
What is ironic about Paul’s emphasis on joy in his letter to the Philippians is that he is writing from a dark, gloomy, rat-infested Roman prison. And this is not the first time that Paul is in prison. The Bible records at least three times when he was arrested and thrown into jail, and ultimately, he will be executed under the Emperor Nero. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul presents a long litany of all his sufferings:
Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked (II Corinthians 11:24-27).
If anyone had cause to complain and be bitter, it was Paul the Apostle. His great missionary journeys to spread the Gospel around the Mediterranean world came at a huge cost to his personal life. How can a man who suffered so much be so joyful?
Paul’s joy springs from his faith in Jesus Christ. As he says in his letter, his joy is in the Lord. It is not a superficial emotion that he is conjuring up to keep a stiff upper lip; it is a deep and abiding sense of peace and delight, rooted in the experience of divine presence and love. He knows that no matter what the situation, God is there with him, and that even in death, he has nothing to fear because Christ has conquered death and redeemed us to eternal life. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?... [Nothing can] separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).
Grounded in the knowledge of God’s constant presence, Paul rejoices at all times. And whenever he finds himself in a tough situation, he taps into this deep and abiding reservoir of joy through prayer and song. In the Acts of the Apostles, we have the story of Paul and his fellow missionary Silas being arrested, flogged, and imprisoned for causing a public disturbance with their preaching. We are told that while in prison, Paul and Silas prayed and sang praises unto God. They did not let the beating and imprisonment get them down. They rejoiced in the Lord through prayer and song.
Another way that we see Paul tapping into the joy of his faith is through expression of love for his fellow believers. While in prison, he writes letters to the beloved communities that he founded, recalling joyful memories and reminding himself of their love and support. In the letter to the Philippians, he calls the community “my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown” (4:1). Paul experiences joy as he pictures in his mind those whom he loves and who love him.
We may not be languishing in a dark prison cell like the Apostle Paul, but we, too, face our trials and tribulations. For some of us, this pandemic has created both physical and psychological confinement and isolation, where we experience despair and depression. And the social and political turbulence raging around us in our nation has created anxiety and fear. We may wonder when the doom and gloom will ever end.
But, as people of faith, we are called to rejoice even in our darkest moments. Let the Apostle Paul be your inspiration and model. He prayed, sang, and loved to bring the light of God’s joy into his prison cell. Dear friends, no matter what our situation may be, God is there with us. So the next time you find yourself in a tough situation, pray, sing, think of the love of your family and friends. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
 Christian A. Eberhart, “Commentary on Philippians 4:1-9,” Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2148.
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.
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.
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
5 January 2020
In today’s Gospel we read about the wise men from the East who visit Jesus and the Holy Family. We mark this event with the Feast of the Epiphany, the manifestation or showing forth of God to the Gentiles through Jesus Christ. God’s revelation to the non-Jewish wise men from the East means that Jesus came to redeem not just the Jews but all people. Jesus is Savior of the world.
One of the most popular hymns that we sing to celebrate the Epiphany is “We three Kings of Orient are.” We’ll be singing it soon today as our Post-Communion Hymn. I remember being very intrigued by this hymn when I was growing up. I’m going to date myself here, but there was a time when the term “Orient” was quite common. The term “Oriental” was not politically incorrect as it is today, and it was actually the term used to refer to people of Asian heritage like me. The term that we now use, of course, is “Asian-American.” So if we were to translate the title of this classic hymn into today’s politically correct English, it would be “We three Kings of Asia are.” What fascinated me about this hymn was the possibility that there might have been Asians or “Orientals” present at the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. And, in fact, in some visual depictions of the Three Kings or the Wise Men, there is usually one with distinctly Asian features, with the other two having African and white European features – a kind of United Nations in miniature.
Well, I was a bit disappointed to later learn that there was no Asian wise man. Neither was there an African or white European. According to historical scholarship the wise men were Middle Easterners, mostly likely Persians from the Parthian empire, which is present-day Iran. “Orient,” like “Asia,” is a pretty broad designation, and it refers to the Middle East as well as East Asia. I also learned a few other things. For one, the wise men weren’t kings; they were astrologers, trained in the study of the heavens and predictions of the future. And we don’t necessarily know that there were three of them. The passage from Matthew today simply refers to the “wise men from the East” and has no number or names. The Bible provides very little information on the wise men. But down through the centuries a rich tradition of legend and lore has developed around them in the Church.
A relatively recent, modern addition to the many layers of tradition about the wise men is a short novel written in the late nineteenth century by the Presbyterian minister Henry Van Dyke called The Story of the Other Wise Man. I remember being part of a Christmas pageant based on this story when I was little. Some of you may be familiar with the story, but for some reason we don’t seem to hear much about it these days. It’s a beautiful story, and I’d like to share with you the basic plot. In addition to the three wise men, there was a fourth wise man from Persia named Artaban. When he sees the Star signaling the birth of Jesus, he sells all his possessions and buys three precious jewels – a sapphire, a ruby, and a “pearl of great price” – to present to the new-born king. He arranges to rendezvous with the other three wise men to travel by caravan together.
But on his way, he comes across a dying man. Artaban cares for him, and the delay leads him to miss the appointed meeting with his colleagues. Not able to join the caravan, he is forced to sell one of the jewels, the sapphire, to buy his own camels and supplies for the journey. Artaban arrives in Bethlehem, but he comes too late. The Holy Family has fled to Egypt in the face of Herod’s persecution. But while in Bethlehem Artaban manages to save the life of a child from the slaughter by bribing one of the soldiers with the ruby. Artaban then travels to Egypt as well as many other places in search of Jesus but always one step behind, and during his journeys he performs other acts of charity. Finally, after 33 years of looking for Jesus, Artaban finally locates him, but again he is too late. Artaban finds Jesus nailed to a cross on Golgotha. While in Jerusalem, he uses his last jewel, the pearl, to ransom a young woman from being sold into slavery. Artaban, at the end of his life, is frustrated and disappointed that he has failed in his life mission to meet Jesus. But then a voice comes to him as he lies dying: “Truly I tell you, just as you did to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Jesus had been present with Artaban all along throughout his long journey.
When our Lord Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, there were very few people who were privileged to witness the event – some poor Jewish shepherds and a handful of Persian astrologers. But, like Artaban, the fourth wise man, we, the followers of Jesus, have endless opportunities to encounter Our Lord. When we help and serve those around us in need, we are encountering Jesus. And our ultimate encounter with Jesus occurs each time we come to the Altar for the Holy Eucharist. Jesus comes to us in the Eucharist, and we unite with His Presence through the Sacrament.
We usually focus on receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, but the Sacrament also involves the offering up of ourselves. And this is deeply embedded in the liturgy. The Offertory Sentence invites us to follow Jesus in giving of ourselves as an offering and sacrifice to God. And during the Offertory, we present our gifts at the Altar. We tend to think of our gifts mainly in terms of money, but in other parts of the world, Christians present various objects. In Haiti, for example, the worshipers present fruit, vegetables, and even live chickens during the Offertory. The Offertory is our opportunity to bring our gifts, just as the Wise Men brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Our Lord. But we possess a gift that far surpasses the value of the gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Like Artaban, the other wise man, we have the gift of our very selves to present to Our Lord and in service of those around us. I heard a sermon once in which the priest likened this offering of ourselves to having a gigantic alms basin and us climbing into it to be placed at the altar. I don’t think Fr. Charles or our Sacristy team would ever approve of such an inelegant gesture, but it gets the point across.
There is a lot we don’t know about the wise men from the East who visited and worshiped Jesus at his birth. But we do know that they began the powerful tradition of offering gifts to Our Lord, especially for this Season of Christmas. Dear friends, let us join the wise men from the East and bring to the Altar our gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But, above all, let us “offer and present unto [Our Lord,] our selves, our souls and bodies.” Amen.
 The main reason that the term “Oriental” became politically incorrect was the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978). In the book, Said explains the various ways in which the idea of the “Orient” is associated with Western imperialism.
 Henry Van Dyke, The Story of the Other Wise Man (CruGuru, 2008).
 Matthew 25:40.
 The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 1979), 342.
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
8 December 2019
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
Today we observe the second Sunday of Advent, the season of expectant waiting and preparation for the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ. As Fr. Charles explained in his sermon last Sunday, our waiting is three-fold: we wait for Jesus to come to us as a infant in Bethlehem, we wait for him to come to us through His Presence in the Holy Eucharist, and we wait for him to come in all his glory at the end of time.
In today’s Gospel we join the Jews in first-century Palestine who are waiting for their Messiah. And out of the wilderness appears the strange and mysterious figure of John the Baptist, dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey. He identifies himself as a prophet announcing the imminent coming of the Messiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Matthew 3:3). In his preaching, John urgently calls on the people to repent of their sins and be baptized as they wait for the appearance of the Messiah.
Although John saw his role as only a messenger, someone who was sent by God to prepare the way for the Messiah, he acquired quite a following of his own. We are told in the Gospel that “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matthew 3:6). His fame drew the attention of the religious authorities as well as the king. Prior to John’s birth, the angel Gabriel had appeared to his father Zechariah and foretold that John would become a mighty prophet like Elijah (Luke 1:13-17). And the greatest compliment that John received came from Jesus himself, who told his disciples: “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11 and Luke 7:28).
Yet for all the accolades and popularity, John never lost sight of his focus, to point to the Messiah, and he repeatedly humbled himself before Jesus. John called himself “the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.” Furthermore, he explained that Jesus “must increase, and I must decrease” (John 3:29-30). And in today’s Gospel he states that he is not worthy even to carry Jesus’ sandals (Matthew 3:11).
It couldn’t have been easy, however, for John to play second fiddle, especially considering the fact that Jesus was his younger cousin. John was a great prophet, but he was also a human being, after all. He must have struggled with his ego. John had begun his ministry before Jesus and had a larger following. But then some of his disciples started to leave him for Jesus. Although he graciously accepted this as part of God’s grand plan, it is difficult to imagine that he wasn’t personally affected in some way – even hurt – to see his loyal disciples and long-time companions abandon him. And it seems that John occasionally had doubts and questions about Jesus. At one point he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you really the one?” (Matthew 11:3). Yet, in spite of the blows to his ego and his doubts, John remained faithful to the end. The Church remembers and honors him as the prophet who paved the way for Jesus, the last of the great prophets.
Moreover, John sets an example for us of how to live the Christian life. He takes the focus away from himself and turns it on Jesus. This is no easy task. I don’t know about you, but for me, the self – my ego – constantly intrudes no matter how noble and lofty my intentions may be. As you know, I was ordained priest this past May, but the process for ordination began about three years ago. We have several parishioners at St. Mary’s who are currently Postulants for Holy Orders – Lynda, Richard, Isaac, and David – and you can probably relate to what I’m about to share – or rather, confess.
For me, parts of the ordination process were rather narcissistic. I lost count of how many psychological tests I took to learn more about myself and how many times I had to articulate my faith journey, my calling, and my vision for ministry. On the one hand, this was a wonderful process of self-discovery, but, at the same time, I also struggled to keep the focus away from myself to the reason why I began the process in the first place – to serve Christ and His Church. And the struggle with my ego has not stopped. As you know, I’m a bi-vocational priest, and in addition to serving at St. Mary’s, I also teach history at the University of Central Missouri. There are several of you in our parish who are also teachers. And we all know that we get into teaching for the big money. As a clergy friend who used to be an academic once observed, we teachers may not make a lot of money, but we do tend to become obsessed with status. Academics measure their self-worth in terms of their degrees, the numbers of publications, the schools they attended, and official titles.
Unfortunately, the Christian ministry is not immune from the game of status and recognition. I’m sure you have encountered ambitious clergy who can barely hide the fact that they aspire to wear the purple shirt of a bishop someday or at least become rector of a large, well-heeled parish with a substantial salary. The Church is no stranger to power and money.
In this penitential season of Advent, let us examine and reflect on those areas of our lives in which our egos stand in the way of our faith. Where in our lives do we encounter the temptations of power, status, and wealth? When do pride and self-centeredness get in the way of serving God and those around us? How do we orient our lives so that it is not about us but about Jesus?
One of my favorite theologians is Karl Barth. Never mind the fact that he is a Reformed theologian, coming out of the Calvinist tradition, and I’m an Anglo-Catholic, and, of course, the two sides don’t always see eye to eye. I still like what Barth has to say. Well, Karl Barth had a painting of the crucifixion by the German Renaissance artist Matthias Grunewald hung above the desk in his study. In the painting there is an image of John the Baptist, who is standing off to the side and pointing his finger to the cross of Jesus in the center. Of course, this is not historically accurate. John the Baptist had died long before the crucifixion, but this image comes from the artist’s imagination. The story goes that whenever Barth would have discussions with visitors about his theological writings, he would direct them to John the Baptist in the painting, and he would say, “I want to be that finger." Barth did indeed become a finger pointing to Christ both in word and deed. Barth’s theology is firmly grounded in Christ as the revealed Word of God, and in his personal life as well, his focus on Christ never wavered. At a time when most of the clergy and theologians in Germany, threw their support behind the Nazis, Barth wrote a personal letter to Hitler proclaiming that he has no lord except Jesus Christ. He paid for this act of defiance by getting fired from his position at the University of Bonn.
Dear friends, in this holy season of expectant waiting and preparation for the coming of Jesus, we give thanks for the witness and example of John the Baptist, herald of the Messiah. Let us listen to his voice calling us to “prepare the way of the Lord” and live not for ourselves but for Jesus. Let us also take a moment to visualize John the Baptist’s finger. It points to our crucified and risen Lord. And today that finger points to none other than our own Altar at St. Mary’s. For it is here that Christ will soon come to us in the Holy Eucharist. Come, Lord Jesus!
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!