The Good Shepherd
Rev. Deacon Ken Boccino's Sermon, Easter 4, Good Shepherd Sunday, the 25th of April 2021
Jesus as the Good Shepherd is perhaps the most renowned, beloved and comforting images in all of Scripture. Between the context of the words, the pictures we create in our minds, endless works of art and the occasions in which this is all used - it’s no wonder why. But did you know that the verses we hear of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in today’s reading is only a part of a larger thread of scripture. John’s depiction of the Good Shepherd actually extends for a full chapter (John 10:1-42) and we heard the middle piece of it today (v. 11-18), as we are in Year B (2nd year) of our Lectionary’s 3-year cycle. Last year in Year A, verses 1 - 10 are proclaimed and next year, for Year C, we will read verses 22-30. I commend the entire chapter to you as I believe that you might gain a better understanding of why Jesus chose these “figures of speech” (as quoted in John) instead of one who might care for goats, cows, oxen or pigs.
Closely correlating to John 10, is today’s psalm - Psalm 23. The Psalm is read every year on Good Shepherd Sunday in its entirety. Here as well the Lord is described as our Shepherd who looks after us and cares for us. He provides for us with abundant food and drink, leads us in on the right paths, cares for us in our time of need, puts our fears to rest and protects us. These are amazing and comforting words and we hold tight to these words when we are calling on God and Jesus to raise us up and get us through difficult times of trouble, pain and loss.
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus describes to us how he is the Good Shepherd and exactly HOW he will care for his sheep, but the greater population and I don’t even think at this point, his disciples closest friends are really getting what he is talking about and what he needed to do in order to make this all happen and for Scripture to be fulfilled. The job of a Sheep Herder / Shepherd was fairly common in the Holy Land in Jesus’ time and most knew of the hard work, the commitment and the danger that shepherds faced and that they WOULD lay their life on the line for the sheep of the fold that they tended. My sense is that Jesus was trying to make it as plain and simple as possible in terms he hope that they would begin to understand. But alas - it was a lot easier said than done and I would think that after this attempt and many others, I can envision Jesus staring blankly, subtly shaking his head and letting out a **SIGH**.
As our Shepherd, Jesus commits to protect us. Throughout John 10, Jesus attempts to use a number of “figures of speech” or analogies to describe how he will protect us and what we need to do in order to benefit from that safety and protection. This is described in the verses we would have read last year - v. 2-5…The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. “The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” We hear Jesus’ name, we recognize him and we follow him and therefore we, in shepherd-speak, enter into his gate and into the safety of his fold.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus further explains that he must and will, as the Shepherd, be willing to “lay down his life for his sheep”, where he continues to foretell of what is to happen “in order to take it up again” in which he is describing his own Crucifixion and Resurrection and affirms that this is of his own choice, in accordance with God’s will in order for Jesus to carry through on his earthly mission. Jesus performs this act not for his own self-satisfaction and glory, but for US.
While Jesus does make it clear that he will look after us and “have our back” he also takes some time explain who or what we need to be protected from. Here in Scripture, he talks of “thieves, bandits and hired hands” those who might not, or better yet, should not be familiar to he followers (i.e. “sheep”) who run the risk of leaving the flock and enter into another, not so safely guarded fold. Those who follow the voice and the commands of the shepherd will be guarded and remain a part of the fold, but there are those who will stray from the fold, hearing the other voices of ‘false shepherds’. Jesus continues to calls these sheep back into his fold. There are also sheep that are not part of the Shepard’s current fold, those that do not hear his voice, but eventually will.
From my personal perspective, I believe that this is one of the most complete discourses of Jesus describing his mission, what he was called to do by his heavenly Father, what is means for us and what we need to be mindful of entering into this sacred relationship. I’d like to share with and invite you to consider how I perceive the pieces of this dialog (or arguments with the crowds - to get to that piece, I encourage you to read from verse 19 on) all fit together.
Jesus is called by God to be our protector - our Shepherd. In order to do that, much like a Shepherd, he must be ready to give up his life for his flock, under any circumstance and he does exactly that. He selflessly gives up his life for the sole purpose of caring for his flock and guide them to richer pastures, namely salvation and everlasting life. Jesus also reminds the members of this flock that there is much wrongdoing in the world that they/we need to be aware and mindful. There are others - bandits, thieves and hired hands - who do not hear or heed the Good Shepherd’s word, and attempt to draw the sheep from his fold with the hope that no longer listen or hear the Shepherd’s voice and leave the flock.
My friends, the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is a wonderful and timeless. It also carries with it a message which I believe still resonates with us as a COTS Parish Family on this 4th Sunday after Easter in New Jersey in 2021 purely by us being here Zooming on a Sunday morning in April - listening to God’s word, remembering and celebrating the life of Jesus. We are following our Good Shepherd and are members of his fold.
We not only know his voice, but hear and also listen to his words and understand what is expected of us to keep ourselves and the rest of the flock safe. As Christians, we strive to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and be living examples of his Word and he stood, and lived and died for.
We know of the bandits and thieves and sometimes listen to their voices and stray ourselves or see others leave the fold. Even in this case we know the voice of our Shepherd and he calls one by on - by name to come back into the fold. We ask to be forgiven for straying and not listening and are welcome back both lovingly and unconditionally. I believe that we all have moments where we turn away from God and are not the best of examples in living out the life of Jesus, but by repenting & saying we’re sorry, we are forgiven and are welcome back into the flock.
Furthermore, when we do hear the voices of the bandits and thieves and choose to disregard it, we are not expected to ignore them. Our Shepherd calls us to ensure the safety of ourselves and those who are in the fold. As Christians we do this through acts of service as individuals and in community. We speak up and stand up our for the the forgotten, marginalized and those who are considered “the other” in our fold. We are called to care for our planet - looking for ways to lead ‘cleaner and greener’ lives. Over the past month, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to a number of folks and learning about the many niches of outreach happening within our parish family and from what I can tell my brothers and sisters - there is so much more than meets the eye. I look forward to continuing these conversations to see what we’re called to do in the ‘care of the flock’ as we move into a post-pandemic world.
Being called into the fold of the Good Shepherd is a wondrous thing, but there are no promises to a life free from challenges, disappointments, hardship or loss. We know at these times we can call on the Shepherd, who knows and calls us by name, to be there along side of us giving us strength to overcome the difficulties in our lives and to keep from go astray by ignoring the bandits, thieves and hired hands. As a welcome member of the fold, our Shepherd calls us to ‘feed his sheep’ and ‘tend his lambs’ and not simply be one of them. He called his disciples to do the same.
"God of the Gaps"
The Reverend George C. Wong Sermon
The Fifth Sunday in Lent, 21 March 2021, Hebrews 5:5-10“Mind the gap.” Most will recognize the distinctly British phrase. The recorded message reminds subway riders to watch out for the open space between the platform and the train.
Reading this week’s Epistle and with the horrific events of this week on my mind, I had a picture of a different kind of gap, not between a platform and a train, but a gap that imperils and threatens not merely our physical bodies, but our very life here and beyond.
I am talking about the yawning gap between the world we inhabit and the world that God envisioned at creation.
The news of the hate-filled murders in Atlanta and countless other racially motivated attacks around the country streamed onto my computer screen. Even when I tried to shut out such news out of fatigue and despair, such news seemed to find its way to me. The impact of the news testifying to this gulf can be discouraging and disheartening.
Christians have long noted the existence of such a chasm. St. Augustine described the City of Man and the City of God. The earthly city was characterized by strife and evil, and the City of God was characterized by peace and the eternal truths of God. Ultimately, the City of God will triumph, but the contest is fierce and all consuming, essentially he wrote that the battle lines are drawn between good and evil.
Like Augustine, I see that the gap between so much around me and the City of God. At times, it seems like the City of Man is winning. Our text from the book of Hebrews describes Jesus as a member of the royal priesthood of the order of Melchizedek. In this role, Jesus mediates between God and man, and intercedes on our behalf.
As the mediator between heaven and earth, Jesus bridges the gap between our world and the world that should be, one definitely more heavenly in nature and character.
It is comforting that Jesus is our high priest and mediator, and came to give his all for us. But the fact that Jesus acts in this role begs questions about the nature of God, given that Jesus was not spared suffering and death even though he prayed fervently and was without sin.
Why did God allow Jesus to suffer and die?
Is God a cruel, masochist that demands the suffering of others including his own Son?
These questions seem to make sense but it helps to view the suffering of Jesus from another point of view, which helps us see God not as cruel but as one who would do anything for us, anything include suffer for and alongside us.
As the one who came to mediate between our reality and the heavenly reality, Jesus did not opt to stand apart and help us from a safe distance.
Instead of minding the gap, Jesus jumped fully into the gap, into harm’s way, with us.
God surely could have stood apart and away from distance. God had and has that power and ability. God chose to be in solidarity with each of us. God chose to be in harm’s way for us.
And, it was a costly decision, which meant the painful death of Jesus, a fate that even he initially wanted to avoid.
It was also a decision by God that revealed to us the true character of God. God who is all powerful is also self-giving, full of compassion is also willing to adopt a posture of humility, lowliness and endure suffering for our sake.
Jesus is not the distant mediator, a remote figure, but an in the trenches mediator, who got down in the muck with us. In this ongoing mediation, we have a part to play—an essential part which will determine if such a mediation will work. Many a mediation has fallen apart when there is no sincere effort to bridge a gap by all parties involved.
God has shown faithfulness to us by going into the gap for us in the person of Jesus. But, Jesus needs our help and cooperation. God will not force us to cooperate.
We must make the decision to participate in our own healing and reconciliation with God.
When we do that, we will experience the peace which passes all understanding and we will experience life in the community of the beloved.
God loves us each and all.
God has and will continue to do everything possible to create the conditions for our healing and wholeness. But we need to meet God with our own desire for healing and wholeness. God will not wave the magic wand over us ever.
Our participation is a big reason that it is so important in Lent to take on a posture of humility, remorse for what we have done and what we have failed to do, forgiveness for others and to amend of our lives. We signal our decision to turn to God by being active participants in worship, prayer, study of scripture, mediation, reflection and holy conversation about things which separate us, like racial hatred.
In these ways, we become better able to be inspired by the Spirit to close that chasm between this world and the hope and of world that is yet to fully emerge, infused with the Peace that passes all understanding.
As that particularly British subway recording says with unintended meaning beyond the underground: “ mind the gap.”
Watch out for the pitfalls of the City of Man and all its distractions and allures. They are glittery and compelling and catch our attention and eyes. But, it is important to remember that if we fall into the pit, that Jesus has been there in the depths praying out to God. He knows us. Jesus gets us. Jesus sees us as we are.
Augustine wrote speaking of the fork in the road that we all eventually face: “if he had remained firm with the help of God, he would receive his merited reward.”
Called to persevere and to fight the good fight, if we make the decision to turn towards Jesus who gave his all for us, he will bridge that gap for us and we will be given a taste of the eternal life here and then taste it fully in the City of God, the home God longs for us to live and thrive in.
The Fifth Sunday in Lent, 21 March 2021, Hebrews 5:5-10
The Master’s Masterclass
The Reverend George C. Wong's Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, 7 February 2021, Gospel of John 2:13-22.
Masterclass is a company which sells subscriptions for online lectures and tutorials taught by celebrities and experts on subjects like cooking, art, composing, acting and designing, writing and others. The classes are highly polished productions, and are mostly meant for the viewer to have fun and to be affirmed. But Master classes have been around a long time especially in the classical piano world.
I recently watched one such Master class, where the instructor was Daniel Barenboim, the world famous pianist and conductor, who is also known as one of the finest interpreters of Beethoven. He listened intently to Lang Lang, who has since become one of the world’s elite classical pianists, but was then a promising young conservatory student. With Barenboim sitting nearby, Lang Lang played the 1st movement of the Appassionata sonata, a very difficult sonata to play well.
Lang Lang played with great skill to the delight of the gathered. But their approval was a foregone conclusion. His eyes rose up to meet Barenboim’s, clearly seeking the approval of the master. Barenboim did not immediately respond and everyone held their breath.
Then he said: “really Lang Lang that was wonderful and had so much color.” Then he proceeded to offer critiques, and went measure by measure about ways in which Lang had missed the mark. To most people, Lang Lang played perfectly, like a virtuoso. To Barenboim’s ear, the playing was correct note-wise, but did not convey the intent of the composer and thus was incomplete as an interpretation.
Barenboim’s intent was to offer Lang Lang some clear assessments about his playing which was very good, but could not be considered sublime. This was because Lang Lang was not conveying meaning the composer had intended. He could only do so by hearing honest feedback about his where he missed the mark—shortcomings which most would overlook gladly. Lang Lang was already an up and coming star in the world of classical piano, yet, he sat at the feet of his teacher and took it all in—a sign of his humility and also to his great benefit—often only those willing to be torn down can build back up.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is running his own kind of Masterclass with his own brand of honesty, prophetic words. Jesus storms into the temple grounds and begins overturning the money changers tables. Incensed, he chases everyone out with an improvised whip of cords. Jesus was furious that the temple, his Father’s house, had been defiled and that the ground had degenerated into a seedy marketplace.
In principal, there was nothing wrong with money changing. Worshippers could not use Roman coins to buy sacrificial animals in the temple. Caesar’s face appeared on every coin, so to use coins to transact on the temple grounds would have been considered idolatrous. So the money changers served a needed function.
But the practice of money changing had taken a wrong turn under the watch of the temple leadership. The moneychangers had been taking advantage of their sanctioned monopolistic position to exploit the poor, those who had often traveled some distance to be observant worshipers and who were just trying to be faithful believers.
The holiest place on earth, the dwelling place of God, had been defiled.
The Father’s house was intended to be a place of prayer, a special form of prayer, sacrifice, that is taking the form of offering up one’s very best to God in a posture of thanks, humility and gratitude. Jesus knew his actions of cleansing the temple grounds would infuriate the temple establishment.
He knew that he would likely be a man marked for death from then on.
But of course Jesus knew that. It did not stop him because what he knew is that he himself would become the offering in the end. That is the reason Jesus makes reference to the temple being raised in three days. Jesus was not talking about the physical edifice of the temple building, he was talking about his body as the temple. Jesus would be crushed, his body lifeless, made a sacrifice but he would rise up in three days.
Jesus became the new temple, and we are invited to become the Body of Christ.
In today’s gospel, Jesus did not destroy the temple; he came to protest its current state, he came to speak the truth in order to save the temple. Jesus came to deepen our understanding of what it means to be in line with God, the creator. It was also a message worth dying for in order that we might have a chance to correct our course and turn back to God.
We have found that time and time again, the church, the body of Christ has had to find renewed direction and chart a course back to union with God.
By the time of the Reformation, the institutional church had become obsessed with its own power, wealth and influence. In effect, the temple was destroying itself, rife with corruption, hypocrisy and rot. Martin Luther came onto the scene with the 95 Theses. He meant to reform the Catholic church but along with other reformers ended up turning Christendom upside down.
And today, we are at a point where the mainline churches have been struggling and in decline for the last fifty years or so. We might ask ourselves—is something not right in the temple? What are we to do?
I don’t have a simple answer to the complex challenges of being church in a post-modern times, where truth is often the very first thing sacrificed when each person’s opinion hold sway and when everybody has access to a platform to speak their truth. All this certainty on the part of so many who know so much has not done away with the reality that there is much uncertainty about the fate of the world: how we will secure social justice for all, how we will care for the environment, and how to live in what is basically a small interconnected planet, where both good and bad can spread almost overnight and so on. Many things are uncertain as we go forward in faith. But it is 100% certain that Jesus shows us in today’s gospel that it is not enough to be correct or to do things by the letter of the law, or the way things have been done, just because.
What God most deeply desires of us is that we offer ourselves back to God and to the world with kindness, authenticity, humility and gratitude. We must put on the Spirit of God in Christ. How are we doing? Our natural preference and tendency is to think that we are doing well and that we are faithful. This type of thinking is typified by the thought that: “It will all be better when this or that happens. We don’t need to take any action.” But we all know that is not always the case. Sometimes we need some honest words even confrontational words spoken in righteous anger.
Jesus used a wide range of pedagogical approaches ranging from the indirect as in his use of parables, to the very direct. Whatever the particular method, Jesus was always 100% honest and authentic. Jesus did not so much hew to the slick online Master class approach, but often said what needed to be said for the sake of teaching for the sake of the salvation (the healing) of those he taught.
Think of his compassionate and probing conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well: “If you knew who asked you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
-Or, think of Jesus working inviting the crowd to reflect on their own souls, when he said to the people poised to stone the woman: “let anyone without sin cast the first stone”
-Or in the mode of chastisement when he said to Peter: “get behind me Satan”
In today’s gospel, Jesus goes all in in terms of being direct even disruptive by his expression of righteous anger.
Sometimes, an urgently needed wake-up call does not come in the prettiest or most polished way. I think we all know the feeling of having to hear something in the most honest, blunt and forceful way in order to hear a particular message.
The life changing and life giving prophetic word can have the force of being smacked with the ends of a whipcord. Sometimes, in order to grow, we need to have people turn over the tables we have set with a word or two of truth. I wonder:
What would Jesus have to say to us today as a community?
Where is it that we as a community need to hear the truth?
What is Jesus urging us to reconsider our thoughts, our ways and our habits and where are we called to change for the sake of the temple, the Body of Christ?
“The Gift of Faith”
Rev. Deacon Ken Boccino Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent the February 28, 2021
Good Morning! We are now turning the corner into month of March with a sense of what I believe is great anticipation to see all the remaining snow piles go away with a fervent wish for the coming of Springtime. Creation begins its annual “rebirth” - trees and flowers bloom, grass turns a bold green and grows so fast you can almost watch it, people (like hibernating animals) emerge from their homes, and spring sports begin. A response that I often hear in conversation when waiting in anticipation for something is...”have faith, my friend”. We often here this term, “have faith”, and in context – what does that really mean? I think our Scripture readings today do a “bang up” and particularly clear job in giving some us an idea of what “faith” means to us as Christians in our daily lives as well as on our ultimate journey to be with God to experience “salvation and everlasting life” that Jesus promised in his teaching. What does the term “faith” mean to you – and this is NOT a Catechism question for my other former Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. But I really DO like this question. Please don't be surprised if I used this one again in the future as a way to kickoff a bible study and small group question. But truly – what does faith mean to you? For me, I generally like NOT to overcomplicate things when seeking further understanding so to any theological scholars out there – my definition may seem a bit lame. For me, faith is the ability to accept something without seeing or touching it, knowing a “The Gift of Faith” 2/28/2021 – 2 nd Sunday in Lent Episcopal Church of the Saviour, Denville, NJ Rev. Deacon Ken Boccino Page 2 of 6 lot about it or having any proof that it really exists. I believe (something that I believe goes hand in hand with faith) that I'll have a great lawn this year, I believe that I will get my taxes done on time and I also believe that God created us and Jesus is our Savior who died for our since for salvation and eternal life. For these we do not necessarily have empirical proof that it will happen or it exists, but our FAITH gives us sense of comfort and can strengthen a sense of certainty, given a determined effort on our part. I'll come back to this a little later... The term “faith” appears 8 times in today's appointed Scripture (at least from the New Revised Standard Version) and the Old Testament, the Epistle and Gospel weaves a beautiful testimony of “faith” for 3 of the most prominent figures in The Bible: Abraham, Sarah and Jesus. In Genesis, The Lord Yahweh appears to Abram and the Lord establishes a Covenant between them. This covenant establishes Abram (now Abraham) as the Father of the Jewish nation through God's promise to become the ancestor of “a multitude of nations...”. At the Lord's command, Abraham picks himself from from Ur – a city in then Mesopotamia and moves Canaan – a trip of what is believe to be over 7,500 miles. This was a land that neither he nor (Sarai) Sarah knew nothing about and based the foundation of taking on this journey solely on God's command and their steadfast faith that they would arrive safely and Yahweh would live up to the his end of the bargain. They didn't have a GPS, AAA Trip-Tiks or much less a papyrus map to show them they way, but they did have their faith in the Almighty. “The Gift of Faith” 2/28/2021 – 2 nd Sunday in Lent Episcopal Church of the Saviour, Denville, NJ Rev. Deacon Ken Boccino Page 3 of 6 I'd like to talk first about the Gospel before Paul's Epistle since that this excerpt provides an excellent segue between the Old Testament Scripture and the Gospel. In Mark's reading today, Jesus is preparing his Disciples of what was foretold and is to come. He will be betrayed by his “own people”, sentenced to death, crucified and be raised from the dead. Thinking that this is totally preposterous, Peter takes Jesus aside and suggest that he not speak this way and is rebuked by Jesus saying - “hey Peter, your mind is in the wrong place - don't you believe me – where is your faith that I'm really speaking the truth”? While Jesus is trying to get Paul back on track and prepare for this final journey with his “face set for Jerusalem” (as its written in Luke) to fulfill Scripture and God's will. Surely this must have been a tremendous act of faith – Jesus trusting in God with what was about to happen and knowing that this would be pivotal for humankind and a game changer for our future relationship with God in an entirely new type of covenant. This new covenant was nothing about the obedience and the law, but was based on love, repentance and forgiveness. I believe that Paul here is the glue that ties these to accounts together and it is done quite cohesively (something that I don't always see in Paul). It's in Paul's writings where 7 of the 8 times that faith is used in our readings today, so I guess it's easy to tell what he's getting at. Paul makes a strong connection between what drove Abraham and Sarah on a 7,500 mile – 40 day journey journey to a land they knew nothing about. I sense it would be like someone telling us to pick up our family from Northern New Jersey and resettling in Bemidji, Minnesota or Saskatoon, Saskatchewan – although I'm sure that they are really nice places. Paul writes....”the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law, but through the righteousness of faith...” It was “The Gift of Faith” 2/28/2021 – 2 nd Sunday in Lent Episcopal Church of the Saviour, Denville, NJ Rev. Deacon Ken Boccino Page 4 of 6 their believe in the Lord God and their hope that drove their faith to fulfill God's command. Paul then binds a connection to Christians, stating “it was reckoned with him” - signifying God and Abraham – but also applicable to us in our relationship with Jesus Christ as it “will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” - Abraham's God is our God. And the very same God who fulfilled the promises to Abraham will fulfill the promises made to us in Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. And now as promised (or threatened as some may believe), I'd like to return to my earlier thought. What DOES faith mean to you? We have 2 biblical stories of faith in action and there are so many more recounts on act of 'unconditional faith' in the Bible which we resonate with – or not so much. My friends, faith is the fiber which connects us to God. Much like Abraham and Sarah – through our belief and hope our faith let's us “know” (and not guess) that we are God's children. Through our faith we also know that we are loved and being cared for. I stated earlier that for me, faith is know that something or someone exists without being able to see or hear or touch or have solid data as to their existence. I also believe that there is more to that – faith is a gift. Faith is a gift given to us by the Grace of God which allows us to be in relationship with God and with God's creation. Faith gives us the wisdom on how to be in that very relationship with God and how we interact with each other as human beings and more so as Loving Christians. With it being a gift and something is not instinctive or rooted in our DNA, it is something that is to be fostered and developed. Our relationship with God and Jesus Christ our Savior is one that we should continue to nurture and deepen through our life experiences, personal relationships and Christian practices. I like to “The Gift of Faith” 2/28/2021 – 2 nd Sunday in Lent Episcopal Church of the Saviour, Denville, NJ Rev. Deacon Ken Boccino Page 5 of 6 equate it to a solid, meaningful friendship. Long-time friendships are a wonderful thing to have and in many cases are “low maintenance”. You know everything there is to know about each other, you know what you both like to do and what sustains your friendships. In contrast, do you have one of those friendships – regardless of its longevity, one that continues to grow – where you constantly learn a little more about each other over time and seek out different experiences and conversations? I'm blessed to have a few of those friendships and they are based on the continued growth and “freshness” of that relationship. I like to hope that is the same approach I take with my relationship with God – finding different ways to connect and deepen that relationship. There is really no “set time” in our Liturgical Calendar to set aside for this practice as it should be ongoing, Lent is an opportune time explore your relationship with our Creator and his son, Our Savior. It is a time of reflection and opportunity to explore and deepen your relationship with God. There are a “multitude” (from today's Scripture) of ways to do that – offerings through COTS (Bible Study, Racial Reconciliation, Centering Prayer), through the Diocese and so many other sources. If you would like to explore these further, please reach out to George or me. Lent is a season of Penitence, but it can also be a season of renewal – exploring your deepening relationship with God not only for the long-term promise of everlasting life, but in our everyday lives. Jesus did it – by calling the 12 disciples and equipping them to travel with him through Canaan and the surrounding areas teaching and healing (know his ultimate fate) but also in his final days as he “set his face to Jerusalem” “The Gift of Faith” 2/28/2021 – 2 nd Sunday in Lent Episcopal Church of the Saviour, Denville, NJ Rev. Deacon Ken Boccino Page 6 of 6 knowing what was to happen, preparing and caring for those around him. By who we are and what we do for God, others and ourselves in the name of Jesus show our Creator in Heaven that we are truly grateful and appreciated of our gift of faith. AMEN
“The Wait was worth it”
The Reverend George C. Wong Sermon for the 1st Sunday of Lent, 21 February 2021
One could read the entire prologue of Mark in a few minutes. The prologue is very tightly structured and crafted in bringing us those incredibly important few words for us to hear. We start reading the prologue on the first Sunday of Advent.
With Christmas season and the Feast of the Transfiguration on the winter calendar, the lectionary spreads out the fifteen verses of the prologue over two months. It is divided up and read on or near the beginning of the seasons of Advent, Epiphany and now Lent. Because, as we talked about last week, the beginning of the gospel or most any story is telling, we would be well advised to reflect upon the prologue, and assemble it one unit to do so.
First, it is important to remember just how much Mark wants to get right to the start of the ministry of Jesus. Recall that he skips over the genealogical and birth narratives of the type conveyed by Matthew and Luke. There is a sense of urgency on the part of Mark—when Mark does things he does them quickly, immediately. So, it is ironic that we have to wait months to finish reading the entire prologue. It might be a case of hope being deferred.
You might recall, that on the first Sunday in Advent in December, we read from the gospel of Mark, the first three verses.
It starts off: “The beginning of the good news.” To begin the gospel in this way, reminds us: this is all about the good news and the coming of Jesus Christ. Like a good warm up act at a concert that know how to make a mark but not too much, John left an impression. Some people even confused him for the main act, Jesus.
Mark’s use of the word beginning is also clear reference to Genesis, which starts of “In the beginning” suggesting or rather, indicating that what John is heralding is connected to the first creation, but this will be a follow up, in essence a “new creation” and like the first creation, the power behind it will be none other than God. There will be a cleansing and judgement, but in a world gone wrong, a serious housecleaning was a good and needed thing. Something new was desperately called for.
Over a month later on the second Sunday in Epiphany, we returned to the prologue and picking up at verse 4 and reading through verse 8.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
This deceptively simple text, again just a few words, points to Jesus, but upon closer inspection, the text is not so simple at all.
For starters, what exactly does Mark mean by a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?” What is the connection between baptism, repentance and forgiveness of sins. What is our role versus God’s role?
Scholars have spilled tons of ink dissecting this complex phrase. As for me, I think all three are connected in a way we don’t have to split hairs over. What the text seems to suggest is that the spirit will be the initiator and the force behind: Baptism, repentance and forgiveness.
This highlights why it is important to keep the notion of the new creation in mind. The Spirit was ushering in a new creation, and these three things are expression of the movement of the Spirit. We cannot do it alone, but the Spirit is there to move us forward in a life giving way.
This also answers the question about why John calls Jesus the more powerful one. Jesus is more powerful because he comes endowed by and infused with the Holy Spirit, which is why Jesus is able to baptize people in the Spirit, unlike John who works with water.
This brings us to today’s gospel and the final verses of the Markan prologue, the Baptism of Jesus which we read about today. Mark records the story in a way very distinct way from Matthew and Luke. In it, Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he came out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. God speaks claiming Jesus as his Son.
It is interesting that the baptism itself is pretty routine or uneventful. It is what the baptism sets in motion shortly after that is unusual. The tearing of the heavens strongly suggests a world changing event. A rip in the heavens is never normal, but forebodes something huge to come. It is interesting that a dove accompanies the tearing, which connects us to the account of the flood, part of which we read today. The dove signifies the time after the great flood waters are receding.
And, when God claims his Son, it is certain that Jesus is linked not only to the Spirit but to the Father.
Immediately, the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness, or rather to a different part of the wilderness. He is tempted there.
Even Jesus must undergo his trials. No one is exempt from that kind of tempering experience, but he is able to withstand the temptations. Mark again curiously says very little about the temptations, almost nothing.
And then finally, after John is arrested, Jesus proclaims the good news. We have covered the entire prologue. Pretty easy to go over? Yet, we have only scratched the surface of the meaning, detail and imagery packed in fifteen verses. The prologue tells the tell of Jesus, the one who comes to bring a new creation, powered by the Spirit. He will overcome all temptation and he will proclaim the good news.
In our baptism, we are just as Jesus was, are named and claimed by God.
We are called to see that the time is at hand for the Kingdom to come near,
We are called to repent.
We are called to face our temptations during these forty days, just as Jesus did.
We are reminded to believe in the good news, that the Spirit of God which defeats all the powers of evil and defies Satan, that Spirit is with us at all times, in all the circumstances of life.
I am grateful that we are able to embark on this Lenten journey together. This is year which has felt like Lent in many ways even before the season of Lent began. We have been waiting and wating for a return to “normalcy.” But with the Spirit in our midst, if we attend to the words of the prologue of Mark, the waiting will be worth it, because we will come out the other side closer to the promised land and life as God intends for each of us having repented, been forgiven and free from all that diminishes us as part of the renewed creation.
“Hanging on for transfiguration”
The Reverend George C. Wong Sermon for the Last Epiphany, 14 February 2021
Each Last Sunday in Epiphany, we read a gospel account of the Transfiguration, where Jesus and the disciples climb up the mountain and encounter Moses and Elijah.
In conjunction, today, we also read from 2 Kings about Elijah in his final moments. Elijah’s experience with Elisha in those moments before his departure hold relevant insights for those of us on the faith journey—that is, all of us.
The mountain top is a place of transfiguration. But Jesus and the disciples had to climb the mountain first. Does the very process of scaling mountains unlock some faith related insights?
I am not an expert on climbing, but it is clear that an elite climber must possess an extraordinary amount of stamina, tenacity, skill and courage to succeed. And I have learned, there are mountain climbers and then there are free climbers, in many ways the most intrepid of climbers. One such climber is Tommy Caldwell.
Caldwell has long been regarded as the best free climber in the world. He was a climbing prodigy. His gift took him around the world.
To train further, he went to the mountains of Kyrgyzstan with some training partners, including Beth, his then girlfriend also an outstanding climber. They were in the midst of a hard climb when gunshots rang out. They were captured by a group of Kyrg rebels. Eventually, left with one guard and fearing for their lives, Tommy pushed the man down the cliff. The climbers were able to make a harrowing escape.
Tommy was deeply burdened by guilt over the man’s death, and took it hard. He was greatly dispirited by the terrible dilemma he faced--that was to take on the burden of killing in order to save his friends. Years, later it turned out that the rebel soldier had miraculously not actually died. Tommy did not know this and this might have been the end of his climbing but slowly he did return to climbing.
He and Beth, then his wife, decided to build a cabin in the woods and continue climbing. One day, late in the afternoon, he was cutting a piece of wood and accidently sawed off his index finger. It could not be re-attached. That should have been the end of his climbing career. Free climbers depend on having all their fingers as all the techniques depend on having a grip of crevices and small rock outcrops. Caldwell figured out a way to climb with the missing finger.
The most challenging free climb in the world is the Dawn Wall in Yosemite, a 3,000 sheer granite wall. Tommy could not climb parts of it even with 10 fingers. So, it would be object of a quest.
Along with his training partner Kevin Jorgensen, who was an incredible mountaineer, but actually had no previous big wall experience, Caldwell spent six years, pain staking planning and mapping out the Dawn wall climb. Each hand grab and each foot hold had to charted and then tested.
Most people in the climbing world felt the climb was an impossible feat. Yet, in 2015, they made their attempt. It went smoothly at first, but the weather started to worsen. They had to spend more time living on the side of the wall on a portage. Each day they got weaker.
Then they got to the most difficult section what is known as pitch 15 a blank spot as it offers almost zero places to grab onto—just tiny, jagged rocks in some stretches. Tommy went first and failed a number of times, but he eventually made it across through a highly creative but exhausting round about climb, less technically demanding but incredibly exhausting and time consuming. The ascent was a one person at a time deal, so Kevin attempted to cross the pitch 15 traverse. Time after time, he stretched across the rock face, holding on by his finger-tips often in a cruciform shape. He fell again and again— his safety ropes catching him each time. Exhausted after each try and fingers completely shredded and bleeding, each renewed attempt meant resting until the next day on the wall.
Tommy continued to ascend and stopped below the top as he refused to summit alone without Kevin even though his dream was within his grasp and the chance could have been lost with a turn in the weather or conditions.
As a large media contingent watched their every move below through long range lenses and telescopes, Kevin eventually made it on what was likely his last attempt. In the process, he mangled his fingers and split one in five places. But clear of the hardest pitch, they both made it to the summit.
Along with the accounts of Elijah and Elisha, the triumphant summit of Tommy and Kevin holds a lot of pertinent lessons, not just for climbers but also for those who aspire to be faithful.
It was quite remarkable that Tommy refused to summit alone without Kevin. Instead he risked the prospect of exhaustion or a surprise weather event either or both could have forced him off the wall. He was willing to risk his ascent out of a loyalty to his friend. This kind of loyalty is reminiscent of how Elisha refused to leave the side of Elijah, not once, or twice but three times. Elisha was warned and knew it might be dangerous to stay, but he remained by Elijah’s side.
Climbing also helps us see clearly the importance of community. They relied upon a large, dedicated support team bringing them supplies like food, medicine and other gear like replacement ropes. In the course of their time on the Dawn Wall, over 800 pounds of supplies were lowered down to the pair of climbers. There was also the filming team which recorded the whole endeavor. The climb could not have happened without the support of many. Don’t we know this in the church world too!
And, finally, sometimes the journey will push us to the limit and find us at a particular stopping point where we are stretched to the max. Despite all their planning, the traverse was the point where they needed to push beyond, against all the odds. Elisha did not think he could go on without Elijah, but he did.
In spiritual terms, a point (or points) of great difficulty may come in nearly countless forms. Maybe we find it impossible to get past a past hurt, maybe we find it too much to forgive someone, maybe we find it hard to put away bias and prejudice against certain groups, maybe we find it hard to confess our shortcomings to God,
The list could go on but it is certain that we all face something like pitch 15 in our spiritual lives. That is a place which we find nearly impossible to get over or through.
But perhaps we find our finest moment, our moment of transfiguration, if we tackle the most yawning and difficult spiritual spans in front of us.
To me climbing and the mountains have an incredibly spiritual dimension. In ways, it is not surprising that the Dawn wall, actually first called the Wall of the Early Morning Light, was given its name because when the sun rises the face of the wall is brilliantly illuminated. From the first time he saw it Tommy Caldwell described seeing the light hit the Dawn wall as a spiritual experience which changed him—perhaps you could say a moment of transfiguration.
The stories of Caldwell and Jorgensen, and scriptural account of Elisha and Elisha have much to teach us. These lessons come to us at a time when they can offer us much for our own journey, even if we are not mountain climbers like Caldwell and Jorgensen or prophets like Elijah and Elisha.
In the daily news and on social media we constantly, almost endlessly
-hear of people who refuse to recognize their indebtedness to anyone else
-we see an almost pervasive lack of willingness of individuals and institutions to take on challenges that are daunting and demanding, like immense imbalances in the distribution of wealth, poverty, injustice, environmental degradation, and the list goes on.
Even if we are comfortable and even if we hide out in the cozy, yet illusory cave called denial, there remains a sense that all is fraught with risk of loss and it feels to many like we face the impossible without any hope:
But none of this is how it has to be! That is not what God intends for us. The world would be a more harmonious, hopeful place if we each chose to walk the path of transfiguration. We do this not so much to become transfigured, but to live into our identity as the ones who are already transfigured.
For God intends for us to be self-giving and sacrificing, God intends for us to be supported by community and to support the community. And God fully expects us to take on and prevail over the “impossible” things that stretch us to the limit. Recall that Jorgensen’s body formed a cruciform shape on the wall, he gave all that he had to offer, and he came across the traverse.
In all these things, we have described, we have outlined, the life and mission of Jesus, our companion and model for the journey. So, as we end the season of Epiphany, let us resolve to walk in the footsteps of Jesus in the way he did, and then with certainty, we will meet our friend and Saviour on the mountaintop in the brilliant light of transfiguration.
The gift that cannot be kept
The Reverend George C. Wong Sermon for the 7th of February 2021, The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Accomplished writers will often tell aspiring writers that the beginning and the ending are the most critical parts of a narrative or storyline.
After successfully using the reading strategy in high school, I found out it doesn’t get you an “A” on a college paper. Yet, reading the beginning and end of a book does tell you a whole lot about what comes in between. So, we should pay attention beginning of the gospel of Mark as it is markedly different from the other gospel accounts. Instead of dwelling on the background and early life of Jesus, very quickly Mark describes nascent ministry of Jesus.
In last Sunday’ reading from the first half of Chapter One, Jesus broke the hold of demons on those afflicted. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus builds upon his healing ministry. He broke a fever which had gripped Peter’s Mother in Law.
In some ways, the first set of healings demonstrates the character and the raison detre of Jesus’ ministry. Following the will of the Father, Jesus had come to break the bonds that held people and society captive whether were demons, a fever or the unholy cultural, systemic and occupation forces which enforced or which aided and abetted oppression, bondage and exploitation.
Jesus must to some have appeared to be just another healer of which there were many in his time.
Jesus healings were different in important ways critical to our faith. Why are accounts of Jesus healing so critical to emphasize nearly 2, 000 years after his ministry ended on the cross Gethsemane?
There are many reasons of course. I want to explore two that have Roman roots. It may seem unlikely but two Latin words; munus and donum hold a lot of potential for explaining why the healings of Jesus are so important for Christians.
Munus has a rich variety of meanings which center on the obligation of a citizen to give back to their city or the state. It captures a sense of the obligation of a single person to the larger group in which they live and from which they benefit.
The meaning of donum is closely related to munus, with a different focus that being a gift or an offering.
The philosopher Robert Esposito set out to explore the roots of community. His work led him to deeply examine the meaning of munus and donum in his quest. His powerful, creative insights can be applied to help break open and deepen our understanding of the work of Jesus, and understand how it informs true Christian community.
In his book entitled Communitas, Esposito arrives at a conception which emerged from through his immersive study of the Roman conceptions of munus and donum.
Esposito re-imagines the obligation as a gift which is too rich and too important to keep for ourselves. The munus, the obligation, and donum, the gift can be described as the obligation to share the gift that one has. Esposito expands further: this is the “gift that one must give and because one cannot give.” The gift in essence is bigger than the holder; it is beyond the control of the one who possesses it. That is the true sense of donum and is a primary component of true community. Esposito writes densely in dialogue with other philosophers. He is not a theologian; yet his work, in a stunningly profound way, he illuninates important aspects of the foundations of the ministry of Jesus.
For instance, was not Jesus’ gift for healing people and for restoring the wholeness of people a gift that he could not keep for himself?
It was a gift which was far too significant and impactful not to share.
Of course, we have the benefit of knowing of the importance of his gift, because his gift emanated from God.
We also know that Jesus was following a much larger plan of salvation by healing people. It was the tiniest of the tip of the iceberg signifying a sea change to come. Offering salve to a small group of people prefigured the salv-ation of all of mankind.
The impetus or underlying motivation for the offering is free from ulterior motive. An ulterior would shatter the life altering potential of the gift, the authenticity of the gift, and more important, the power of the gift to point to an alternative outside the transaction giving, in philosophical lingo—an alterity.
By contrast, a healer peddling their healing power for their own gain cannot be said to be offering a true gift, because it is transactional or in exchange for something in return. This is not alternative pattern, but of the old ways—it is quid pro quo.
When one demands something in exchange for a gift, it ceases to be a gift.
Note there is no record of Jesus demanding anything in exchange for this healing. Because he did not ask for anything.
If we fast forward to the end of Jesus ministry, we see that his own death conforms to the pattern of giving the gift that cannot be kept for himself.
And the gift of Jesus moves us to a new spiritual dimension, because he gives himself, an offering out of love for the sake of the community, that group beyond that of the individual, the community of the entire world and all of creation.
Jesus was himself that gift unexcelled offered freely to the larger community, the munus, in this case, the world.
It is important to note that this giving of the gift may come at some or even great cost. We will explore this aspect of giving in community more next week.
But for now, perhaps, we can focus our attention on how we might offer the gifts that we cannot keep for ourselves.
What must we share? What can we not share?
The answer is something that each of us is invited to pray about, listening for the will of God, as did Jesus in that deserted place.
We are of course not expected to be the Saviour—there was only one and none are expected be Jesus.
Yet, when we act in the way he did, we bring a piece of salvation to the world. What we do when giving freely for the sake of the world has an immediate impact on everyone around us.
Like a stone dropped in the center of a pond, an authentic gift has a ripple effect which spreads across the pond. If you have received a true gift or given a true gift you know of its undeniable power. A true gift always has salutary and healing impact.
Returning to the gospel once more, it is also important to note that after healing the woman and many others, that Jesus departs to a deserted place to pray. This strongly suggests that we need to pray in quiet, which is to listen and not speak in order to hear the will of God—to act without listening to God’s will, what we would call contemplating, falls away from the pattern Jesus set for us.
As Epiphany, the season of the revelation of the light of Christ, comes to a close, we might take the time to see clearly what Jesus was doing in these healings— offering his gift freely and in turn, we might accept the invitation to offer up our own gifts—the very best and most precious gifts we possess which we are called to share.
Jesus was the divine gift with no equal, who went ahead so that we might follow in his footsteps.
What is it that you would like to offer up in recognition of the fact that your donum, your gift is graced and meant to convey offer something precious and life affirming to all those around you, and indeed, the whole world?
Rev. Deacon Ken Boccino Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, the 31st of January 2021
“They were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22)
“They were all amazed and they kept asking each other, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority?” (Mark 1:27)
Good morning. In looking through the Scripture readings today, these 2 verses
caught my attention. From my recollection, it's not very often that we see the same
word used so closely together in the Bible. It “called” me to want to dig in a little more to see what Mark was trying to say here.
Before getting deeper into today's Gospel reading, I thought it might be helpful
for us to remember that the Gospel readings for the past few weeks are from early on
in Jesus' ministry with a focus on the Gospel of Mark. Early in January, we heard the
beginning of the Mark's Gospel which start with the story of John the Baptist. Last
week, the text continued with the calling of Simon, Andrew, James and John.
From these accounts in Mark, it appears that Jesus began his teaching in Galilee, about 100 miles from his hometown of Nazareth. This week we learn of Jesus' traveling to the town of Capernaum, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Here according to Mark, he performs his first “public” miracle/act – cleansing a man of an unclean spirit, the spirit knowing both by name and mission. By virtue of this cleansing act, the demon's knowledge of Jesus and the impact of his teaching I think it is safe to say that the local's had not seen the anyone like Jesus in those parts. There are so many words that could have been used by the the folks in Capernaum, but Mark chose the word “authority” and reinforces that by using it twice in this passage. And even more interesting, the use of the word “authority” is not used to describe the removal of the unclean spirit, but focuses on Jesus' teaching. It seems here that Jesus' words, a “new teaching”, left more of an impact on the people of Galilee.
So what is this “sense of authority” that is described here?
The word “authority” can have a number of different definitions and meanings,
but I was interested in limiting my focus in how it might be used in the context of the Bible and particularly the New Testament. After some research, I discovered an article written in 2003 by Arland Hultgren which was helpful and concise. Mr. Hultgren is a New Testament Scholar and Professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. He describes three types of “ideal authority” which is demonstrated in the New Testament. These include:
•The traditionalist type, whose grounding is in the "elder" (prince, patron, etc.) of
a social unit, who maintains what has been.
• The charismatic type, in which an extraordinary person (prophet, leader) acts
with inspiration and conviction, gathering a following.
• The third is the legal type, which is administered by bureaucratic structures, and
that is typical of modern societies, with the three of these types manifest at
different times and places in Scripture.
For me, it seems clear that Jesus acted with “charismatic authority”, teaching in
parables of what is to come and what is to be, in contrast to the scribes, whose role it
was to act and lead solely through interpretation of Jewish law and who followed a
more legal sense of authority. Based on what heard and seen in the synagogue, the
people of Capernaum took Jesus' teaching as being credible and reason for his name to be spread throughout Galilee and surrounding regions.
What made this sense of authority so “special”? Jesus' primary mode of preaching and teaching was through Parables, a simple story with a deep and powerful meaning. He did not focus on the intricacies of Jewish law which had bee the “way to live” for centuries, which focused on diligence and obedience as a way to attain
salvation. The impact of his teaching addressed a radically “new law” or way of living
which was one of love and forgiveness. His acts were what caught peoples' attention,
but that was not the focus – it was his teaching. Words powerful enough to draw
crowds and with so much impact to start a totally new movement where Jewish Law
was not the focus but love, forgiveness and salvation were the prime forces.
Throughout his life Jesus shared this “authority” with others. After assembling
his 12 disciples, and before he sent them out “two by two”, he gave them authority
over impure spirits (Mark 6 – the commissioning of the 12). Very late in Jesus' ministry, after his Resurrection before leaving his friends for the final time, he once again shares the authority that God bestowed on him with his now 11 disciples and commands them to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations...teaching them to observe all I have commanded you. I am with you always, to the close of the age (excerpts from Matthew 28:16-20).
By virtue of Christ's suffering, crucifixion and resurrection, and living as Christians in community I'd like you to consider that we are also invited to share as active participants in Jesus' authority and teaching. While we might not be able to command unclean spirits, walk on water, or calm the winds, we can all have an amazing positive impact on the world walking a similar path of the disciples over the ages.
The original disciples were given special gifts to help Jesus solidify his ministry.
As time passed, other disciples have walked and continue to walk along side of Jesus
Christ though living out Jesus' Great Commandment that you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:30 –31). They used their gifts and talents given to them to build up Christ's church to create a community of sharing, love, charity and compassion much like the legacy created by the founders of The Church of the Saviour and what we do as we faithfully move our way through the pandemic and focus on our 4 year Plan of Faith through prayer, community, justice and joy.
My friends, we are called to live into Christ's new teachings and live into them
with the authority that Christ demonstrated through his 33 year ministry and shared
with his disciples and followers. We are reminded every Sunday on how we are asked to model and carry out our lives in love with grace and in service through our
“thoughts, words and deeds” and “not only with our lips, but in our lives.”
“Gather at the river and be gathered”
Rev. George C. Wong's Sermon for the 10th of January, the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord
A feast day that falls on January 10 is at peril of getting lost in the afterglow of Advent, Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany. Yet, it would be short sighted to gloss over this day. It is a significant feast day inextricably linked with those preceding celebrations as a day on which we remember the Baptism of Jesus.
The baptism of Jesus transports us to the banks of the river Jordan. The river is more than an incidental backdrop for the Baptism of Jesus; that smallish river barely weighs in above a creek in status, yet was chosen to be the site of the pinnacle of John’s ministry and the place of initiation for the ministry of Jesus. In many ways the river connects with and highlights the larger mission of Jesus.
Rivers have always fascinated me, perhaps because I only knew a man-made version for many years. I grew up about 200 yards from a stretch of the Los Angeles River, which is nothing like a bona fide natural river. Fearful of its power to sweep away anything in its way during rainy season, the residents of Los Angeles lobbied the government to tame the river. The LA River long ago ceased to be a river; instead it is flood channel and an enormous engineering endeavor which literally shaped nature to fit the requirements of a sprawling metropolis. Built by the Army Corp of Engineers, the riverbed and its banks are an immense concrete channel which snakes fifty miles through the heart of downtown, the inner city and on into the sprawling outer suburbs. Occasionally a patch of weeds or shrubs will break through the concrete. Tires and shopping carts form part of the landscape down in the channel. In short, it is a bleak, industrialized picture of a river.
The naturalist and poet named Lewis Mac Adams starting off his loving elegy for the much maligned river with the words: “Where did it go?”
Even concrete rivers draw people. I went to school with a kid name Ron (not his actual name) who lived in a nearby neighborhood, also by the river.
A friend since first grade, Ron changed over time. Perhaps to compensate for his shyness, he began looking for ways to get attention. If I heard the occasional explosion in the riverbed, I guessed it was likely Ron throwing an M-80, essentially a super-sized firecracker, off the bridge into the channel. Ron loved that the boom of the initial explosion as it echoed off the massive concrete walls of the river. He never got in trouble, probably because he could pass for a choir boy maybe even a human cherub with ruddy cheeks, freckles and green eyes. I think being one of seven children with two working parents, he got lost in the shuffle of his large family. The choir boy and cherub on the outside was lost.
I will come back the desire to be noticed later, but I want to speak a few words about other aspects of rivers.
Most here know that the rectory sits less than 200 yards off the banks of the Rockaway River. I am glad that even though the Rockaway River has at times flowed over banks as it did during Sandy, that it hasn’t been paved over—which would be a huge loss to me and many I see walking along it and fishing in it.
It recently dawned on me that the Rockaway River and the Jordan River bear a surprising resemblance to each other. The Jordan is deeper and also murkier, but if rivers could be such cousins, they are. One particular thing about the Jordan river is that it runs along the border of Israel and Jordan. A checkpoint restricts access on the Israeli side; we had to wait about three hours on our bus during which time security boarded and scrutinized our passports and confirmed that we were on a religious pilgrimage.
Additionally, our amazing, seasoned guide from St. George’s College reminded us to not to make sudden movements on the banks and not to venture into the river too far. That could have been taken as trespassing into Jordan and we could be arrested or possibly shot by a jumpy border guard.
And, it is severely polluted, its natural flow mostly replaced by partially treated sewage water generated by all the occupants of the region. Like almost everything else in the Holy land, the River Jordan is both a source of life and also subject to complications and messiness borne of regional rivalries, geopolitics and the struggle for water and resources. In short, it is a thin watery thread of life that is perfect by virtue of being so ordinary and flawed.
2,000 years ago some of these political, and environmental challenges were not the same; but it was still a small, brackish, non-descript river. Remember the story of Naaman, the leper, who had initially refused to wash in the Jordan because it was not pristine like the great rivers of his homeland.
So, given that the Jordan river has such shortcomings, why did Jesus choose to be baptized in the Jordan?
Perhaps, by jumping into that murky river—the baptism of Jesus stands as a prime example of the willingness of Jesus to get into the muck alongside each of us.
We might like Ron feel down in the muck and lost in the shuffle especially these days in the midst of pandemic, social and political unrest. I think Ron was desperate for an Epiphany; no amount of misguided acting out or needy antics could substitute for a spiritual breakthrough—one that let him know he was loved and worthy of love. It has been many years since our days in grade school and I long ago lost touch, so I don’t know if Ron ever found the comfort and peace. I don’t know if he ever had an Epiphany.
But we are fortunate today, because today we celebrate of the Baptism of our Lord, one of the three Epiphanies of Christ. Perhaps it is something we have been hungering for as well. At the Jordan river, Jesus shows that he will plunge in with us; from the banks of the Jordan on that day, he showed that we are not alone even if it feels like it sometimes.
The Son of God descended from the heavens on high and stood in that murky, undersized river.
In process, as the fisher of men and women, he casts a net that is wide enough to catch all of humanity:
The poor and the rich
the black, the white, the brown, the yellow,
the able bodied, the disabled,
the sick, the healthy,
the wise, the uniformed,
the hurting, the successful,
the educated, the uneducated,
the young, the wizened
the ones who are ignored, the ones who are the center of attention,
the hopeful, and the discouraged, that is to say, all of us with all our better and more challenged dimensions.
God never fails to be there for us smack dab in the river of life—Jesus showed that back then, and it remains true today for all those who follow in his footsteps and for those who are led by the power of the Spirit Jesus left behind to guide us.
Let us then you and I go down to the river and wade in the water with Jesus, the one who came to gather up, console and make whole each and every one of us.
A conjunction and more
The Reverend George C. Wong Sermon for The Feast of the Epiphany
The 3rd of January 3, 2021
We recently experienced a conjunction junction. No, I am not talking about the catchy School House Rock “conjunction junction what’s your function. Hooking up phrases and clauses”.
School House rock holds a special place in my memory but I am talking about an even more impressive conjunction, a celestial conjunction.
This Christmas, astronomers said Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction. That happens when the two planets orbit so closely together that they appear in the skies to be a shining star. It has been over 800 years since the conjunction has shown as brightly. The amazing thing is that it could be detected even with all the light noise present in our skies.
Apart from a few far flung, remote locations around the globe, we do not have access to the nightscape free of light pollution. So, even if you can detect something like a conjunction, no one can really know what the star of Christmas like 2,000 years ago in the pristine pitch black skies free from any man made lights to distort or distract.
We don’t have access to those kinds of skies but we can easily imagine that the Wise Men’s attention must have been captured by an exceptionally radiant star--its shimmering visible to eyes turned towards heaven. We have learned much about stars even within the last few years. Only recently able to do so with the help of new technology, astronomers, including some working locally at the American Natural History Museum, were able to calculate and confirm that there are billions of stars in the universe. But on that night, out of the billions of stars, one in particular illuminated the skies and the town of Bethlehem.
William Wordsworth described just such a divinely illuminated nightscape in the first lines of his poem, Ode: Intimations of Immortality
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light
As learned scholars, the Wise Men would have been trained in the reqisite disciplines of the day, including astronomy. So, they would not have followed just any star but only a star which dressed the earth in celestial light. When they detect this impossibly brilliant star, they packed up some very precious gifts and supplies for a journey and began to follow its movement. They arrived at Jerusalem, at the center of power and prestige—quite the fitting place for things of great magnitude to occur. They make inquiries of the powers that be: “Where is the child? We have observed his star at his rising, and we have come to pay him homage.”
The Wise men must have been surprised that there was not a gathering around the child in Jerusalem. Why did they not see the child anywhere in the city? Why was there no talk of the child on the streets? Christopher Smart poses a similar question in his famous poem about the whereabouts of baby Jesus:
Where is this Stupendous Stranger?
Prophets, shepherds, kings, advise!
Lead me to my Master’s manger,
Show me where my Saviour lies.
Alerted by these three foreign scholars, word of the birth of the child sends the chief priests and the scribes into a frenzy because they know the prophet Micah had long ago written that Bethlehem would give rise to the King of the Jews, the King of all Kings.
Herod knows he cannot possibly hold a candle to this Messiah. So he seeks to extinguish the life of that baby boy, by trickery and lies and by any means necessary. Only by virtue of a dream, are the wise men led away and thus avoid leading Herod to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem.
The light and the baby that the light pointed towards stirred up much action even commotion. The Wise Men left Jerusalem, having understood what they were looking for was elsewhere. They recalibrate and move towards Bethlehem to find the promised One.
For his part, Herod seeks the baby to eliminate a potential rival and to suppress any and all competition.
The contrasting reactions of the Wise Men and Herod demonstrate something very important about the birth of Jesus.
In a way, the birth of Jesus and Epiphany is a time of decision. Which way do we turn?
We can like as did the Wise Men scan the horizon and take notice of the signs of wonder pointing towards Jesus.
We can follow the star of Wonder, the star of night.
We can bring and offer Jesus the best of what we have in paying him homage.
All of these would be to recognize that Jesus has come to be our star, to be our light. A light which lifts us out of the abyss that surrounds us.
Or we can do the opposite like Herod and react in fear.
Or, perhaps liking neither of those options, we can do nothing.
The grammatical conjunction helps illuminate what is possible and not possible because the one thing we cannot do is to turn both towards Jesus AND turn away from Jesus—that conjunction does not work in life, at least not at the same time.
On the matter of this kind of choice, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams wrote in an essay called the “The Two Ways” that we are invited to decide if Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, or not.
And Williams writes further, just as God was free to send his Son to be with us in the guise of a baby boy, we are free to choose Jesus. During the season of Epiphany and at many other junctures, we are given signs to help point the way to Jesus whose life began in the most humble, unassuming way possible in that manger. What might we decide?
The decision changes everything because it impacts the entire arc of our journey from that point on. It is important to remember that the Wise Men started with Bethlehem, but it was just a start.
Epiphany continues that celebration started at Christmas and draws us towards Jesus. Arriving, we find the light that has shone from the beginning of creation, but which was revealed to us in Jesus.
May we in the words of the refrain of our sequence hymn, We Three Kings, find ourselves moving towards Bethlehem always:
O star of wonder, star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light
And this season may each of you bask in the warming, illuminating, transforming, energizing, life-affirming light of Christ!
George C. Wong
is the Rector
M, T, Th 7:45 am - 2:30pm
(1) 973 627 3304
155 Morris Avenue, Denville, NJ 07834