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Be Lamps to the World and Rays of Righteousness

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent. Traditionally, it is called Laetare Sunday from the Latin word for “rejoice.” On this Sunday, there is a lightening of the penitential austerity of Lent, and in some parishes, the celebrant wears pink vestments to mark this change. Since I’m not overly fond of pink, I’ve decided to stick with violet. However, in keeping with the lessening of our penitence, you will get a rather jaunty spiritual for the communion anthem.

Now let’s turn to Chapter 9 of John’s Gospel and the story of the man born blind. The story opens with Jesus’ disciples asking him whose sin was the cause of the man’s blindness, his or his parents. It seems a strange question to our ears. I doubt that most people today believe that their sins will be visited on their offspring. But in Jesus’ day, this idea was still prevalent. That explains the possibility of his blindness being due to his parents’ sin. But how on earth could his blindness be due to his sin, if he was born blind? The answer, of course, is that he must have sinned in the womb. According to Jewish tradition, this was possible. For example, if the mother worshiped an idol while pregnant, the fetus was considered guilty of idolatry as well.

In any case, Jesus dismisses both possibilities. The man’s blindness was due neither to his parents’ sin nor to his own. Instead, Jesus says, “He was born blind so that God’s work might be revealed in him.” The Greek here is ambiguous. It can be translated “He was born blind in order that God’s work might be revealed in him,” implying that his blindness was part of God’s purpose. Or it can be translated “He was born blind, and as a result, God’s works will be revealed in him.” Here, there is no implication that God willed his blindness, only that good will now come of it. Needless to say, I prefer the latter translation. I prefer to think that God was pleased to bring good from a bad situation that he had not willed, rather than that God actually willed the bad in order to bring about the good.
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Come, See, and Drink!

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

Today’s Gospel reading requires a bit of background if we are to appreciate what is going on. First, we need to know something about the Samaritans and their relationship with the Jews. Second, we need to know something about the significance of a man meeting a woman at a public well.

The Samaritans were a people of mixed religious and ethnic heritage. When the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians, the Assyrians populated the region with peoples from five foreign tribes. These peoples intermarried with the Israelites who remained, and they worshiped their own gods alongside the God of Israel. By Jesus’ time, the Samaritans were politically part of the Roman province of Judea and worshiped the God of Israel; even so, the Jews considered them unclean foreigners because of their mixed ethnic and religious heritage. In particular, a Samaritan woman was considered a source of ritual pollution from the day she was born till the day she died. It was considered wrong for a Jewish man to speak to a Samaritan woman, and if he touched anything that she had touched, he too would become ritually unclean.

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But there is more to be said about the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. In Jesus’ day, there was an implicit sexual tension in any meeting between a man and an unescorted woman. But to meet a woman at the public well had a special significance that is lost on us today. In the stories of the biblical patriarchs, it was not unusual for a patriarch to meet his bride at a public well. So, the very setting of the story hints at the possibility of an interracial betrothal, only furthering the impropriety of the encounter.

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Hear, Obey, and Follow

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible Readings

Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and the story of the Transfiguration completes the season by bringing us back full circle to the theme of manifestation. (As you may know, the English word epiphany derives from the Greek word for manifestation.) The season started on the Feast of the Epiphany with the story of the Magi, symbolizing the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Today’s Gospel story deals with another epiphany, the divine manifestation of Christ to his three closest disciples.

the-transfiguration-1520This year, we hear Matthew’s account. And in some ways, his version is the least difficult. In the other accounts, it’s not clear how we are meant to understand this story. Is it real? Is it describing something factual that any bystander would have been able to witness? Matthew’s Gospel helps us here. In this Gospel, Jesus himself refers to what has occurred as a “vision.” Is it real? Yes, but on a level of reality that transcends the everyday. Would any bystander who was at hand have been able to witness this event? Maybe not. Divine visions often belong to the realm of private mystical experience.

moses-receiving-the-tablets-of-law-1966Given that the Transfiguration story is a vision, we should not be surprised by the occurrence of symbolism that requires interpretation. And we find such symbolism in the very first words of the account. The Gospel reading starts by telling us that six days after the Confession of Peter, Jesus takes his three closest disciples to a mountain top. Now in the Old Testament, many numbers had special numerological significance. But 6 isn’t one of them. There is only one place where the number 6 has a special significance—in the story of Moses on Mt. Sinai that we heard read in the first reading. For six days, a cloud covered Mt. Sinai; on the seventh day, God spoke to Moses from the cloud. In the story of the Transfiguration, the very timing of the event has symbolic significance. It hints that what is about to happen is as momentous as the giving of the Law to Moses.

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No, You Do Not Have to Hit Back!

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

The Gospel reading today is from the Sermon on the Mount. Last week, we heard the first four of the six so-called “Antitheses.” Today, we hear the last two. As you may recall, the Antitheses are not really antitheses. Jesus is not replacing the commandments of the Law. Instead, he is protecting them, by building a fence around the Torah, so that his disciples do not even come close to breaking any of its commandments.

Sermon On The Mount
with the Healing of the Leper
Cosimo Rosselli, 1481

Jesus starts out by speaking about the law of retaliation, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” No law has been so misinterpreted by so many for so long! The original purpose was not to require retaliation, but to limit it. In the bad old days before this law, if someone stole a man’s sheep, he might kill the thief. And while he was at it, he might kill the thief’s wife, parents, and baby children—just to get the point across that he is not to be messed with. The extended family of the slaughtered might then decide to declare war on the extended family of the man who killed their kin. And the violence only escalates. The purpose of the law of retaliation was to prevent just such an escalation.

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Building a Fence around the Torah

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

For the last two Sundays, we have been hearing excerpts from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Last week, we heard Jesus say, “… not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Today, we hear what biblical scholars used to call “The Antitheses.” (To be more precise, we hear four of the six Antitheses; the other two will be heard next week.) Now, an “antithesis” is a rhetorical contrast of opposites. And the presumption has often been that Jesus is opposing his new laws against the old Jewish laws. But considering what Jesus said about not abolishing even one stroke of one letter of the Law, it seems unlikely to me that “The Antitheses” are, in fact, antitheses!

What then, is Jesus up to? Well, he’s doing something very Jewish, and Judaism even has a term for it. He’s “building a fence around the Torah.” It has long been a practice in Judaism to draw a legal circle around a commandment, so that one would never even come close to breaking the original commandment. A classic example is the commandment not to eat a baby goat boiled in its mother’s milk. From this came the prohibition against eating meat and dairy products at the same meal. And from this came the further prohibition against cooking meat and dairy products in the same pan or storing meat and dairy in the same refrigerator. I think that this is what Jesus is up to in today’s Gospel reading!

With that in mind, let’s go through each of the four so-called “Antitheses” and try to figure out what Jesus was asking of his disciples then and now.

anger-or-the-tussle-1516The first “antithesis” deals with the issue of anger. Jesus starts out by reminding his audience of the biblical prohibition against murder. He then says that calling someone a fool in anger is tantamount to murder and will land the guilty party in Hell. Now, rest assured that Jesus is using a bit of hyperbole here. Be that as it may, he does so, in order to drive home the point that anger can be deadly, both literally and figuratively.

Jesus then expands on this point with two “mini-parables.” In one, a man has traveled to Jerusalem to make an animal sacrifice at the Temple for the expiation of his sins, when he remembers his sin against a fellow Israelite. He leaves his sacrifice incomplete, travels back to his home town, makes up with his neighbor, and then heads back to Jerusalem to make his peace with God. It’s an improbable scenario. But it points out that reconciliation with God is only possible if we are reconciled with one another first. When we share the Peace later in the service, it is more than just a casual greeting to a neighbor, it is a liturgical sign that we who are gathered here today are reconciled.

The next “mini-parable” is about one man taking another man to court over unpaid debts. Jesus says that if the debtor has any sense, he’ll settle out of court and not risk going to debtors’ prison. This little parable is an allegory. The key to the allegory is that the word “debt” in Aramaic is also the word for “sin.” In this parable, the judge is God, and the debtor’s prison is Hell. The decoded message is to make your peace with your fellow human beings before you die, lest you suffer divine condemnation!

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All Is Not as It Seems!

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible Readings for Sunday January 29, 2017

“All is not as it seems!” That would seem to be the underlying message in each of today’s readings from Holy Scripture.

micah_prophetThe prophet Micah narrates a divine lawsuit that God himself is pursuing against the nation of Israel, with the hills and mountains serving as members of the jury. The people of Israel have turned from their God. Oh, yes, they worship the Lord in his Temple. They are willing to sacrifice thousands of rams, rivers of oil. Some are even willing to sacrifice their children. But what they are not willing to do is do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with their God. The people think that their outward piety is enough to gain God’s favor. But they are quite wrong. All is not as it seems!

probably_valentin_de_boulogne_-_saint_paul_writing_his_epistles_-_google_art_projectSt. Paul speaks of the foolishness of the message of the Cross to those who insist on their own self-destruction. Paul knows just how hard it is for people to see the truth behind the scandal of the Cross. The Jews want miracles before they will believe. The Greeks demand philosophical argument and mathematical proof. What they get is the Cross. What they get is a Son of God who is shamefully and painfully executed as a troublemaker. To those in power, the God of the Christians is weak and pitiful. He cannot save even his own Son. They are blind to the fact that the death of God’s Son offers the whole world salvation. All is not as it seems!

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Be United in the Mind of Christ

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible Readings

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

Over the years, you have probably noticed that I tend to preach primarily from the Gospel reading. But not today! Something in St. Paul’s epistle drew me to it; it seemed to speak to the situation in America today. So you won’t get yet another sermon about evangelism and fishing for people. Instead, you will get a homily on what it might mean to share the mind of Christ.

st_paul1St. Paul is writing to a small church that he started in the city of Corinth. He has been informed that the church is splintering into factions. As their spiritual father, he is determined to put the kibosh on that. After a few introductory remarks, he gets to the point: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

Although elsewhere Paul refers to himself as the Corinthians’ spiritual father, here he calls them “brothers and sisters.” Here, he emphasizes that they are all of equal stature in Christ, and most importantly, that they are all one family. Paul explicitly calls on the name of Jesus to emphasize the solemnity of his exhortation, which is to be united in the same mind. Now, in today’s reading, it isn’t obvious what Paul means by sharing the same mind. But in his letter to the Philippians, he makes it crystal clear:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:1–8)

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“Come and See!”

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel reading

Echoes of the Epiphany resound in today’s Gospel reading. Last Sunday was the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, and we heard St. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism. As I stated last week, that account is the principal reading in the Eastern Church on the feast of the Epiphany, whereas in the Western Church the story of the Magi is proclaimed. Today we get a second echo of the Epiphany in John the Baptist’s account of Jesus’ baptism—or to be precise, in his remembrance of that recent event.

mural_-_jesus_baptismIn Matthew’s account, Jesus sees the heavens open up and the Spirit descend like a dove. It isn’t absolutely clear if anyone else sees what Jesus sees, or hears what he hears. St. John’s Gospel answers that question. John the Baptist also saw the descent of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism. And for him this was the sign he had been waiting for that the One who was coming into the world had arrived.

lamb-of-god-stained-glassThe Baptist announces to all within hearing distance that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” One wonders exactly what he means by this curious expression. Elsewhere, Jesus is proclaimed as the great Shepherd of the sheep, a reference to his status as the Messiah. But here, he is not the shepherd, but the sheep, and a baby one at that! The most common interpretation of this metaphor is that John is equating Jesus with a paschal lamb, the animal that was slaughtered, roasted, and eaten once a year in commemoration of the Exodus. The blood of a paschal lamb was a symbol of redemption. Recall that at the first Passover, the Israelites smeared their lintels with the blood of a lamb, so as to be spared from God’s wrathful visitation upon Egypt. While the killing of a paschal lamb was not originally a sacrifice, by Jesus’ day, when only the priests in the Temple were permitted to slaughter the lambs, the slaughter and communal sharing of a lamb was commonly thought of as a Temple sacrifice. We see this sacrificial understanding of the Passover when St. Paul writes, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us,” a phrase that should sound rather familiar.

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Anointed by the Spirit to Be Gentle “Christs”

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Bible readings

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

I would like to start out by commending you all for braving this morning’s storm to attend church. By so doing, you have undoubtedly added to your treasures in heaven. Now for the actual sermon!

Last Friday was the feast of the Epiphany. In the Western Church, the focus of that feast day is the manifestation of the Christ child to the Gentiles in the persons of the Magi. But in the Eastern Church, the focus is the Baptism of Jesus. So in a sense, this Sunday is a liturgical tip of the hat to our Eastern brethren. And as the focus of the day is baptism, the Episcopal Church commends this day either for baptisms or for the renewal of baptismal vows. That explains the insert found in your bulletin.

baptism-of-christ-1483Our readings begin with a poem about God’s Servant, taken from the 42nd chapter of Isaiah. I call it a poem, because the Hebrew is written in a classically poetic style. But the reading comes across more as a service of installation or commissioning than an actual poem. The unnamed Servant of God is first commended to the listeners. Then, he is directly addressed by one who speaks on behalf of God. We learn that this anonymous figure has received God’s Spirit and will be a bringer of justice to all nations, not just to Israel. He will be a light to open the minds of those who live in spiritual darkness. And he will free those who are imprisoned, both literally and metaphorically. What is particularly striking about this Servant of God is that he will be exceedingly gentle to the weak and the vulnerable: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” Now, the identity of this Servant of God is a source of some debate between Judaism and Christianity. Our Jewish brothers and sisters see the Servant as a personification of Israel, while we Christians have consistently maintained that the Servant of God is none other than Jesus Christ. And today’s Gospel reading, we see that Isaiah’s proposed service of commissioning was, in fact, fulfilled in the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan.

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The Only Christmas Gift Anyone Really Needs

By the Rev. Darren Miner

Gospel Reading

Merry Christmas! Today is a special day for all Christians, but it is an especially special day for the Church of the Incarnation. Since this parish isn’t named after a saint, we don’t have an annual patronal feast. Instead, we have a feast of title, and today is it—the feast of the Incarnation!

If you attend Midnight Mass or a sunrise service in an Episcopal church on Christmas, you get the story of baby Jesus from Luke’s Gospel. But if you attend the main Christmas Day service, you get something very different. Despite the fact that you see a papier-mâché stable in front of the altar, you didn’t, in fact, hear the story of Jesus’ birth in a stable. No shepherds in the field. No angelic host singing, “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” Instead, you got an excerpt from a mystical poem about the doctrine of the Incarnation. To be honest, I miss the charming stories of St. Luke, but this profound poem of St. John is, in fact, the very foundation of the Christian understanding of Jesus Christ. So take a deep breath, and let us plunge into its mystical depths!

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As does any good storyteller, St. John begins at the beginning—in this case, the very beginning! While St. Luke starts his Gospel with the birth of a baby prophet, St. John begins with the birth of the Cosmos, and he tells us about the relationship between God and a divine being called “the Word.” This Word existed with God before time itself was created, and all Creation was mediated through him. In the original Greek, the name of this being is Logos. Yes, it can be translated as Word. But it has other translations that are just as pertinent here, such as Reason or Order.

nativity-iconThe existence of such a divine Logos was the subject of both Greek and Jewish speculation well before the time of St. John. This pre-existent divine person was understood to be the giver of reason and order to the Universe. He is the one who maintains structure in the face of chaos. He is the one who maintains the possibility of life in the midst of deadly disorder. He is the one who allows for the existence of light in the midst of darkness.

For John, the Logos is also God’s Word spoken to the Cosmos and to us. He is the divine self-expression of God’s love for the whole world. This divine self-expression of God’s love was “spoken” by God at Creation; was proclaimed to Israel by their prophets; walked among us as a preacher of peace; and continues to speak to us in Nature and in Church, in starry sky and in Holy Scripture, in the companionship of a pet and in the Blessed Sacrament. According to John, the unity between God and the Logos is such that one can even say that the Logos is God.

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