Gifts of Gratitude for the Messiah

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

Today, we officially celebrate the Second Sunday after Christmas and the last day of the Christmas season, and we unofficially celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. I say, “unofficially,” for while tomorrow is the actual feast day, the Gospel readings are, in fact, identical. So you can consider this a preview of coming attractions, like a movie trailer.

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The Epiphany is an ancient Christian feast day, even older than Christmas. Like Christmas, it is a feast of the Incarnation. Since Incarnation happens to be the title of our parish, it is quite fitting that three of our stained-glass windows have to do with the visitation of the Magi, a story long-associated with the Epiphany. We have three crowns, three gifts, and a miraculous star. (You get extra credit if you can spot them later!) But the Epiphany differs from Christmas, that other great feast of the Incarnation, in that it has a narrower focus: the appearance of the Incarnate God to the Gentiles.

The Gospel reading for today is that well-known story of the Magi. The story is too well-known, in fact, for we think that we know more than we really do! We think that there are precisely three Magi, despite the fact that the Bible never specifies their number. We think that the Magi are really foreign kings, despite there being no mention of this in the Scriptures. We think that we know their names—Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar—information St. Matthew never provides. And we even think we know better than the Gospel about where the event took place. For the Gospel says that the Magi visited the Holy Family in a house, whereas every nativity scene in the world shows the Magi headed for a stable.

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So what do we really, really know? Just this…some unknown number of Magi, Zoroastrian priests from Persia, travel in search of a great king whose birth has been foretold in the heavens. But astrology gets them only so far. When they get to Jerusalem, they must consult with Jewish religious scholars to determine what only divine revelation can tell them, the exact location of the Messiah’s birth.

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Jesus, Our Emmanuel

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible Readings

This is the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. And today we focus on a time just beforeJesus’ first advent, namely, the angelic annunciation to Joseph.

But before addressing that Gospel story, let me say something about the first reading from Isaiah. We get this story about a prophecy to King Ahaz for one reason, and one reason only: it serves as a proof-text in the Gospel of Matthew. The original context of this prophecy is the Syro-Ephraimite War. King Ahaz is besieged by his neighbors and fears that Jerusalem will fall. At God’s behest, Isaiah comes to reassure him with a prophetic sign that Jerusalem will not fall, at least not yet. King Ahaz, feigning piety, refuses to accept a sign—he is afraid that God’s intervention might limit his political options. Well, Ahaz gets a sign anyway! Isaiah famously proclaims, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and she shall name him Immanuel.” He promises that, by the time the child is weaned, the threat to Jerusalem will be gone. There is no mention of a virgin birth, no hint that the child will be the Messiah.

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Jumping ahead to the Gospel reading, we get another prophesied birth, that of Jesus of Nazareth. Now, Joseph and Mary were engaged, which in Jewish law was as binding as marriage. And according to Jewish custom, the engaged couple were not to have physical relations before marriage. Somehow, Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, and he knows that he is not the father. As a righteous man, it is his duty to publicly denounce Mary for adultery. But Joseph defies the demands of the Law; instead, he decides to spare her from shame and to divorce her quietly. Before he can proceed with his plan, Joseph is visited in a dream by an angel. He is told that the unborn child is from the Holy Spirit and that he should proceed with the marriage. The angel goes on to say that the child will be a boy and that his name should be Jesus (which means “The Lord is salvation”), because he is destined to save his people from their sins.

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Wake Up, and Get Ready!

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible Readings

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and we start a new year in the liturgical calendar. This season is named for the Coming of the Lord. Or to be more precise, this season is named for the two Comings of the Lord. The first coming was about 2000 years ago, when Jesus was born. The Second Coming, when Jesus will return in glory to judge the world, is yet to take place. Liturgists debate about whether this season is a season of penitence or a season of preparation. Perhaps the correct answer is that it is a bit of both. For spiritual preparation often includes penitence.

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The world outside the church has already turned its eyes to Christmas. Trees have already been decorated. Strings of colored lights are going up on houses even as I speak. And Macy’s is already playing Christmas carols over its loudspeakers. But those of us inside the church are asked to slow down a bit, to allow ourselves some time to contemplate the coming feast of Christmas, and more importantly, to allow ourselves some time to contemplate the Second Coming of Christ.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us that, in the time of Noah, the people who were destined for destruction went about their daily lives oblivious to their situation until it was too late to act. Jesus goes on to say that the great Day of Judgment will come at an unexpected time. Even he does not know the day and hour. And so he counsels his followers to be ready at all times. We are expected to be alert to our spiritual situation—to be aware of the consequences of both our actions and our inactions.

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Time To Testify

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible Readings

As we approach the liturgical season of Advent, we begin to hear Bible readings that make us uncomfortable, oracles and predictions about the End Time. Even the Gospel reading, which is supposed to be about Good News, sounds a whole lot like bad news. Well, in the words of Mick Mulvaney, “Get over it!” Human sin has consequences.

The first reading today from the book of the prophet Malachi talks of a great day of judgment, “when all the arrogant and all evil-doers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up.” Fortunately for us, there is an alternative: to revere God and to keep his commandments. For those who do these two things, the dreadful day of judgment will instead bring healing.

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But being good is tiring. Being merciful is tiring. Forgiving others is tiring. Being righteous is just plain hard work. And sometimes, we are tempted to sit back and take a rest from following the Lord. Maybe we decide to skip church one Sunday. Maybe we decide to cut our pledge. Maybe we decide to stay home and keep quiet when our country is falling apart right before our very eyes. Well, in the words of St. Paul, “Brothers and sisters, do not weary in doing what is right.”

But is the fight for justice and righteousness worth it? Will good ultimately win out? The answer to both questions is a resounding yes. But to be absolutely honest, it is going to get worse before it gets better—much worse! In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus and his disciples contemplate the Jewish Temple, the center of their world and the portal to their God. And Jesus predicts that it will fall into ruins.

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The God of the Living

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible Readings

Today’s Gospel reading from Luke is the story of a convoluted religious debate between Jesus and some Sadducees. The topic seems to be marriage in the afterlife. But the real topic is the existence of the resurrection of the dead. You see, the Sadducees were a priestly sect who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. Instead, they believed that, when a person died, his spirit sank into the ground and remained in a dark and joyless realm, known as “Sheol,” separated from God forever. The Sadducees even had a slogan about this dismal doctrine: “The Lord is God, not of the dead, but of the living.”

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Now, the Sadducees in today’s Gospel undoubtedly knew that Jesus taught the resurrection of the dead. And they wanted to publicly ridicule his teaching. So they posed a hypothetical question. What if seven brothers, one after the other, all married the same woman? When they had all died and then been resurrected, which man would own the woman as his wife? (Clearly, it would be an abomination for all seven to share ownership in the same wife!) Now, the Sadducees couldn’t care less about marriage after the resurrection. Their true aim is to discredit belief in a resurrection life!

But, as you know, Jesus is a rather clever fellow! He knows right away what these Sadducees are trying to do. He does address the question of marriage after the resurrection, if only obliquely, but then moves on to the real theological question: the resurrection of the dead. As is often the case, Jesus does not actually answer the question that his opponents have posed. He never says whose wife the woman would be after having married seven times. Instead, he states that the institution of marriage as it existed in his day (namely, a man taking a wife for the purpose of ensuring his posterity) will cease to exist in the World to Come. Now, for those of you who are widows or widowers, rest assured: Jesus does not say that the spiritual bonds of love are broken by death, only that the legal bonds of marriage no longer apply.

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Complacency and Contempt: Our Nation’s Sins

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible Readings

Today we heard Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The point of the parable is clear: don’t be like the Pharisee! Now, the parable is so clear, so self-explanatory, it may seem that it needs no further explanation. Even so, I will proceed with the sermon!

The first point I would like to make is that the Pharisee in the parable lives a righteous life according to the standards of his society. He does what the Jewish Law requires of him—and then some! He is not, in fact, a hypocrite. That is not the issue here. But there are issues with his attitude—two issues, to be precise. The first issue is that he thinks he has earned his salvation and he is complacent about it. The second issue is that he holds others who do not meet his high standards in utter contempt.

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The Pharisee may be righteous with regard to his actions, but he is not right with God because of his attitude. His “prayer of thanksgiving” is no prayer at all, but a declaration of self-satisfaction and self-praise. And there is no hint of contrition, no hint of repentance, for in his mind he deserves his salvation. After all, he has worked hard to earn it. But Jesus warns his followers to turn to God for salvation. He teaches that we humans are incapable of saving ourselves. Even so, we are not without hope. For what we can do is to turn to God, confess our sins, and receive our salvation as pure gift.

On most Sundays, we recite the General Confession. You may have wondered why I leave that uncomfortably long pause between the bidding to confession and the joint recitation. The purpose is to give you, and me, time to recollect, to think back over the past week, and to offer up to God our most grievous sins. For only then can we hope to receive absolution for them.

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Prayer and Perseverance

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible Readings

This Sunday, life is made easy for the preacher, because there is a clear theme to all of today’s readings. And that theme is made explicit in the Collect of the Day: we are to “persevere with steadfast faith.” We find perseverance in the story of Jacob struggling all night with his mysterious opponent. We find the author of 2 Timothy urging his readers to “be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.” And we find perseverance in the parable that Jesus tells about a widow and an unjust judge, which will be the main focus of this sermon.

Now, Luke tells us that the parable of the widow and the unjust judge is about “the need to pray always and not to lose heart.” And I won’t gainsay him. But I think that there is more to be learned from this parable than just that. In this story, a widow repeatedly comes before a judge who has no respect for God or man. Again and again, she appears in court demanding justice. Now, in Jesus’ day, a woman would not ordinarily plead a case in court. That was the job of her nearest male relative. So we may assume that she had no male relatives and was forced by her need to violate custom and plead her own case before the unjust judge. She fails again and again, but rather than give in to despair, she bravely, and obstinately, keeps on demanding the justice that is due her.

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We are told that the unjust judge eventually gives in. Most English translations have the judge saying that he decides to give in because otherwise the widow will “wear him out.” But what the judge literally says is that he is giving in because he fears that the widow will “punch him in the eye”! Modern translators literally take the punch out of Jesus’ punch line!

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God: The Obsessive-Compulsive Party Host

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

In today’s Gospel story, we find the Son of God hanging out with folks from “the wrong side of the tracks.” The Bible refers to them somewhat cryptically as “tax collectors and sinners.” Perhaps it would be more meaningful if we referred to them as “collaborators, swindlers, partyers, and prostitutes.” The Pharisees and the scribes, the devout churchgoers of their day, don’t approve! So, Jesus uses this situation as a teaching moment. And he tells the Pharisees and scribes two teaching stories about the nature of God.

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The first story is addressed to the men who are present. In the Greek, the parable literally begins with these words: “Which man among you…?” Jesus poses a situation in which a shepherd owns 100 sheep and one gets lost. Jesus then  asks a rhetorical question of his audience: Wouldn’t they leave behind the 99 sheep to seek the one lost sheep? Wouldn’t they be so overjoyed when they found it that they would carry the sheep home on their shoulders and then throw a party for the guys next door? The way the question is posed, the expected answer is surely, “Yes, we would!” But let’s stop and look at the parable before we commit ourselves, because I think Jesus is tricking us! Realistically speaking, what shepherd in his right mind would abandon 99 defenseless sheep in the wilderness to seek out one stray? It doesn’t make a bit of sense. Unless there is some assistant shepherd that we don’t know about, why would anyone risk 99% of their savings to recoup the loss of 1%? So, if Jesus’ audience had had time to consider the implications, they just might have said, “No, we would not abandon the 99 sheep to seek the one that was lost—that’s crazy talk!”

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Division in a Time of Crisis

By the Rev. Darren Miner

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In 1939, Winston Churchill gave a famous speech about Russia that included the following phrase: “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.” The same could be said about today’s Gospel reading! Here we have Jesus Christ, Son of God and Prince of Peace, telling us that he has not come to bring peace to the earth, but rather division. He goes on to describe how even families will be divided because of him. What are we to make of this? Well, as Winston Churchill said, “Perhaps there is a key.” And I think that the key is the word “crisis.”

In English, “crisis” connotes a time of catastrophe, a time when everything is going very wrong. But the English word “crisis” derives from a Greek word that has a somewhat different meaning. That Greek word means “a moment of judgment” or “a time of decision.”

The terrible division that Jesus describes is not something that he particularly wants to take place; it is something that he knows will take place in response to the Gospel. He came to bring Good News to the earth, and yet Jesus knows very well that many people will reject his teaching. Today, just as on every Sunday, we hear the Good News of Jesus Christ proclaimed, and we are presented with a moment of judgment, a time of decision, a personal crisis. Will we side with Jesus Christ, or will we side with the world?

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Well, folks, this entire nation is facing a crisis. As a people, we are faced with a moment of judgment, a time of decision. Every day, we all must ask ourselves, “Whose side am I really on?” The psalm today reminds us of God’s commitment to the vulnerable people of the world. He says, “Save the weak and the orphan; defend the humble and needy; rescue the weak and the poor; deliver them from the power of the wicked.” What God does not say is to support the politically powerful, to defend the mighty, to give tax breaks to the rich. He just doesn’t! God is primarily concerned with those in need. The rich and powerful have already had their reward.

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There Is Need of Only One Thing

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

This week a preacher is presented with an embarrassment of riches. Each of the readings deserves a sermon of its own. But, considering the state of affairs here at church, I have decided to preach on the story of Martha and Mary.

The story is short. The plot is simple. But the moral of the story is annoyingly ambiguous. Consequently, biblical interpreters throughout the last two millennia have proposed a wide variety of interpretations.

The Church Fathers were fond of allegorical interpretations. One Church Father explained the story of Martha and Mary as an allegory contrasting the contemplative life (represented by Mary) with active life in the world (represented by Martha). He thought that this story was included in the New Testament to encourage Christians to abandon life in the world for life in a monastery.

With all due respect to the Church Fathers, I think I might prefer a more literal interpretation! So let’s take a closer look at this story of a dinner party gone wrong.

Jesus arrives at an unnamed village and is welcomed by Martha into her home. Her sister Mary then sits at Jesus’ feet to listen to his teaching. Already we know that the women of this family don’t feel bound by custom. For according to custom, Jesus should have been welcomed by a male family member. And Mary should have been in the kitchen, preparing the meal.

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But the violation of custom is not the real problem here. The problem is that Martha is going crazy trying to prepare a banquet for their distinguished guest, and Mary isn’t helping. Martha suspects that her sister won’t listen to her, so she tries to get a third party (in this case, Jesus) to take her side in this family dispute. (Nowadays, we have a word for this little trick, triangulation.)

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