Here is a selection of recent sermons by our rector, the Rev. Derrick Muwina, Ph.D.
Advent 2, December 8, 2019
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last week, we began the season of Advent. I said then that Advent is more than preparation for Christmas, it lays the ground for a new Christian year and points to the final return of Jesus. Advent is a time when we prepare ourselves, patiently waiting, to receive Jesus as a baby in the manger at Christmas, as Christ the King at his final return, and as Lord of our lives every day.
On this second Sunday of Advent, we continue to patiently wait for the birth of Jesus and for his return, we encounter John the Baptist who comes with a very clear message: “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Now John’s message does not arise from a vacuum. He is part of a long tradition, the prophetic tradition. Moses is called a prophet, the prophet par excellence. His is somewhat of a special case; he is in a class of his own.
The prophetic tradition I am talking about here emerged in Israel around 1200 BC. Initially, prophets were part of schools or guilds. They travelled in groups and with the help of music and dance, they would work themselves into a state of frenzy, of divine possession. They were more like foretellers of the future. There is no record of these prophets being involved in the moral and religious issues of the times. (For more, read I Samuel 9 and 10.)
About a hundred year later, by the time of the first kings of Israel, Saul, David, and Solomon, the role of the prophet had begun to change. While prophetic schools were still in existence, we begin to see the rise of individual prophets, functioning separately from their schools. Among them were Elijah, Elisha, Nathan, Micaiah, etc. And another change was their concern for justice. For example (I Kings 18), King Ahab wanted to buy a vineyard that was next to the palace from a man named Naboth. But Naboth would not sell the land because it belonged to his family. Ahab got Naboth killed and grabbed his property. When the prophet Elijah heard the news, he took the side of the wronged man and confronted the king, denouncing him to his face for his unjust and evil acts. Prophets were beginning to get involved in the moral issues of land. They became critics of kings and those in power.
The third stage came around 750 BC and was the climax of the prophetic tradition. The prophets of this stage left books bearing their names. They are called the “writing prophets”: Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zachariah, etc. What distinguished them from earlier prophets was the broader dimension of their concern for justice. Justice for them was no longer about the individual acts of kings but rather the less conspicuous acts of injustice concealed in the social fabric. They challenged corruption and oppression within institutions and the social order in Israel. They were critics not only of those in power but also the society at large.
The final writing prophet, Malachi, died about four hundred years before Jesus. During those four hundred years the prophetic voice went silent. Some people have gone as far as to claim that in this four-hundred-year period, God was silent in Israel. (There are books that were written during this time, but their authority is disputed.) The silence was finally broken when John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea with a message calling the people to repent.
The description of his clothes, his food, and his location suggest that John stands in this long prophetic tradition and that he represents Elijah in particular. It was believed that Elijah would return before the coming of the Messiah (Matthew 3:1, 4; see 11:14). Malachi 4: 5-6 says, “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD.” You can see that prophetic zeal in John when he warns the religious leaders to bear fruit worthy or repentance! He calls them out, he challenges them: If you are coming to get baptized, it had better be genuine.
John calls the people to repent. Because that is at the heart of the Gospel. The English word “gospel” derives from the Anglo-Saxon “godspel,” meaning good news, which in turn is a translation of the Greek word “euangelion,” meaning the good news of God’s saving act in Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:1-11). At the center of our faith is the belief that God became a human being in the person of Jesus and that through his death on the cross and resurrection we are saved. We are set free. Set free from the power of sin. Set free from the power of this present world. That is the central message of the Gospel.
Now some of you might ask, “Isn’t love the central message of the Gospel?” No. The central message of the Gospel is that God is saving us through Jesus, but Jesus calls us to love all people as he has loved us. The love we are called to exercise is the love that results from having been born again. (By the way that is a biblical term that Jesus himself used. It does not belong a particular group of people. We believe in being born again; we might call it other things but we do!)
Jesus comes to unshackle us from the power of sin. And sin is “seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.” Sin is as real as the air we breathe. I once had someone say to me, don’t preach about sin, it just makes people feel guilty, it makes them feel bad! Well, that’s part of it. I want you to feel bad about your sins, I want me to feel bad about my sins. I want to think about times I have failed God and failed people I love, the times I have failed myself, times I have acted angrily, or impatiently, times I have refused to listen, times I have acted selfishly, inconsiderately, yes, I want to feel bad about all that. But it doesn’t end there. There’s redemption through Jesus Christ.
And that was the message John the Baptist came to bring, calling people to repent. The Greek word for repentance, “metanoia,” means to turn away from, it means a change in thinking that leads to a change in behavior and our way of living. Tertullian, a church theologian from Carthage, speaks of repentance as conversion. And in a commentary on this passage John Calvin says, “Repentance is an inward matter, which has its seat in the heart and soul, but afterwards yields its fruits in a change of life.” It is not enough to profess grief for wrongdoing. We have not truly turned from sin if our lives are unchanged (Isa. 29:13–14; James 2:14–26).
To repent is to take a serious look at how our lives collude with the assumptions and behaviors of this world, to turn away from such involvement, and to turn toward God and the attitudes and actions of His Kingdom.
The values of our world are not always congruent with the values of God. Sometimes they stand in opposition to the Kingdom of God. This world teaches us that your value is determined by your profession, the size of your bank balance, or your physical attributes, things like that. But in the Kingdom of God your value as a person is predicated on nothing other than that eternal truth that says you are created in God’s image and nothing besides that determines your worth.
This world teaches suspicions toward the other and meanness concealed in “telling it as it is.” But scriptures say to us in Romans, “Live in harmony with one another, welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you.”
This world operates from a shortage mindset, the idea that we don’t have enough. We hold on tightly to what we possess, refusing to share, and generosity to the stranger is seen as weakness. How many times have you heard someone say, “Why should we help migrant families at the border when we have homeless veterans? Why do we send money to that poor county when we have starving kids at home?”
You’ve heard the arguments. It’s a zero-sum game. Only one of us can win. If I win you lose. These arguments might seem sound but all they really do is to polarize us and perpetuate the status quo. They ensure that very little happens, including, helping the very people we claim to care about.
But the Kingdom of God operates from the perspective of abundance. We have enough, more than enough, enough to go around! Isaiah shows us a peaceable kingdom full of astounding abundance. The lion and the bear are grazing together. There’s enough for the ravenous wolf and enough for the lamb.
On this second Sunday of Advent, John calls us to repentance, to bear fruit worthy of repentance, to turn to our Lord Jesus Christ and allow the Spirit to transform us as we await his coming in glory. Amen.
Advent 1, December 1, 2019
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Welcome to the season of Advent. Starting today and continuing through the day before Christmas, it will be the season of Advent. The name for this season is derived from the Latin word “Adventus,” which means “coming.” And in the context of our Christian calendar, this means the coming of Christ. Now, this might come as a surprise, but the coming of Christ we prepare for in Advent is not necessarily Christmas—it is his expected return at the end of the age.
That is why the readings for today and for every first Sunday of Advent deal with this theological idea called eschatology, that is to say, teachings of the last things, the end of time and history, and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Now I read somewhere that eschatology is the most popular word among seminarians because it is a big word that makes people appear intelligent!
So, Advent is a preparation for the final coming of Christ. And that is why we wear purple vestments in Advent, a color we also use for Lent, because it symbolizes repentance and preparation. And in this case, it is preparing ourselves to receive Christ who will return as King.
Now, there is more disagreement about eschatology within the Christian church than about any other theological idea. When and how is it going to happen? You might also think, this is not something the Episcopal Church really believes in. well, the Nicene Creed that we recite every Sunday says in reference to Jesus, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end” (see the Nicene Creed, Book of Common Prayer, p. 359). So this teaching about the return of Jesus is not some fringe theological idea but an important part of our Christian hope.
In fact, I was reminded of how common this idea is within the Christian tradition in a restaurant this week. On Monday we went to the downtown library, and after spending some time reading and browsing, we went to a food court for sandwiches (Philly steaks). The whole place was awash in Christmas music. And what song was playing? “Joy to the World.” The most published Christmas hymn in North America. Many artists have recordings of it: The Supremes, Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Cash, Nat King Cole, Pat Boone, and Whitney Houston. It’s a very popular Christmas song.
And the thing is that while “Joy to the World” is primarily sung at Christmas, it’s not about the birth of Christ. Rather, the song tells the story of Christ’s return—his second coming. When Isaac Watts published the song in 1719, his intention was to point to Jesus’ second coming. For example, in verse three Watts talks about sins and sorrows being no more: yet we know that this is not yet the case. There is plenty of sin and sorrow in our world. But sin and sorrow will be no more when Christ returns and begins to rule. So there you have it.
And this expectation for the coming of Christ finds expression in the season of Advent. We understand the Kingdom of God to be already present through Jesus’ resurrection but yet to be fulfilled perfectly until He returns at the end of time.
Christian history is full of failed predictions of the return of Jesus. Think about the many groups that have claimed have claimed to have cracked the code, figured out the time and day of Jesus’ return only to be proven wrong. The reason this happens is that people refuse to heed his warning: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” If the angels don’t know and Jesus the Son of God doesn’t know, I can assure you no amount of time spent trying to decode scripture will reveal the day and time.
Jesus says to his disciples, “Do not concern yourselves with trying to figure out when it will happen. Your job is to keep awake and not be like the people in the days of Noah who went about eating, drinking, and marrying, and not paying attention to what going on around them.”
Now maybe you have heard before that people in the days of Noah were laughing at him as he was building the ark. Well that is not true. They were not laughing. They were so preoccupied with their daily routines that they missed entirely what was going on: a man building an ark in one of the driest places on Earth! They were too preoccupied with their lives to see what God was going to do. And this happens to us too—when we are distracted by everything else around us, we miss what God is doing in our world.
Paul writes to the Romans, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” The word for time here is the Greek word “kairos,” which means God’s time, a time for action, different from “kronos,” general time, chronological time. For Paul the time had come for the Romans to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for sin.” Paul calls the Romans to a different way of life and grounds the motivation for doing so in the assertion that they are now living in a new time, kairos, God’s time, which began with the sending of Christ and will conclude in his return.
The catechism in The Book of Common Prayer states that “the Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the world” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 861). That is what Advent is all about. It is time to orient our hearts more and more to Christ. It is a reminder that God has a plan that is unfolding in our world even if we don’t see it. Even in the midst of bad news, God is still at work. And it is not a coincidence that the first candle we lit today is the candle of hope.
Hope is not wishful thinking. We often use the term “hope” to refer to something that may or may not happen. I might say, “I hope it snows today. I hope I get a raise. I hope to get married one day.” When we use the word “hope” that way, we are saying we wish for something to happen but have no assurance it will happen. This type of hope is not a guaranteed hope because it is subject to changeable people and changeable circumstances.
But Christian hope is not the same. As Dr. R. C. Sproul says, “Hope is not taking a deep breath and hoping things are going to turn out all right. It is assurance that God is going to do what he says he will do.” The reality of hope is so sure that it serves as an anchor for our souls (Heb. 6:13–20). Christian hope is big and bold. Look at Isaiah’s vision of peace among the nations: swords beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, Christ descending to call a stop to all the pain and stress and evil in our world. That is a bold vision.
But let’s be honest. It’s hard to hope big. We are afraid of setting big goals because we afraid to fail and become a laughing stock. Sometimes our hope seems doomed or just foolish. Sometimes our hope fails because of lack of imagination, lack of courage, or because we waste it on small projects that require no boldness on our part.
And besides, people like to say be realistic! Which usually means think small. Limit yourself. And limit God. And yet, if we were realistic wouldn’t we think big and bold knowing that we worship a God so great and wonderful, frightening and loving, just and forgiving, to whom belong the earth and the fullness thereof, whose promises will come true? The reason we read the scriptures is not just to remind us of what has happened in the past. Scripture is a record of God’s power breaking into our world, and just as God broke into our world in the past, God breaks into our world today to transform us.
Advent is a time to open our hearts more and more to Christ. Advent is a reminder that God has a plan that is unfolding in our world even if we don’t see it. And for that, we are free to give up any obsession we have with the past, past wounds, past anxieties, past hurts, fears, and doubts, and live freely in the present, with hope. Amen.
November 3, All Saints’ Day, 2019
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is one of my favorite days of the church year. That might be because of the sugar high from all the Halloween candy, coupled with the extra hour of sleep I got this morning! But All Saints’ is a great day because we sing great hymns and we take time to remember the saints of the church on whose shoulders we stand. In old Christian tradition, All Saints’ was a day to remember the those who are named as saints—St. Paul, St. Mary, St. James, St. Luke, St. Peter. And then the following day was All Souls’ Day, a day to remember all the Christians who had died in the faith but do not carry the title of saint.
With time the two celebrations have somewhat merged so that All Saints’ Day is the celebration of all Christians, both those who have died and the living. We do this because we believe that there is a powerful spiritual bond between those in heaven, called the Church Triumphant, and those still living here on Earth, called the Church Militant—that is, the body of believers.
So today we celebrate the communion of saints to which we belong. For one thing, the word “saint” in the New Testament refers to anyone who has been baptized. Paul addressed his letters to the saints in Ephesus, Colossae, Corinth. And you heard in our prayer this morning that God has knit us together in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of his Son, Christ our Lord. The living and the dead and those to come are held together in one communion and fellowship in our Lord Jesus Christ.
But it is tempting to look at the saints and imagine them to be people of virtue and holiness. After all, the men and women we recognize as saints were responsible for extraordinary accomplishments that most of us can only dream about. There is a hymn about saints that has this opening line: “I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true.” It’s a great hymn with great stuff in it, but that opening line isn’t one of them. Because the saints by and large were not “patient and brave and true.” They were often cantankerous, and craven, and dishonest.
St. Peter, the chief disciple, was impulsive, ill-tempered, and unreliable. He denied Jesus, not once, not twice, but three times. St. Paul, the great apostle to the gentiles, was full of self-pity, egotism, and accusation. St. Jerome, one of the brightest minds in the church and the man who translated the Bible into Latin, never took criticism well. He once wrote a nasty public letter to another theologian addressing him as “my most simple-minded friend.”
And then we have Mother Teresa, now St. Theresa. She could occasionally be caustic with any of her sisters whom she suspected of being lazy! Writing to one convent she said, “You live with the name of the poor but enjoy a lazy life.” And by the way, the confessions written in her diaries reveal that she suffered moments of extreme emptiness and despair. Many, many times she reached out to God and still felt empty. She even doubted the existence of God.
But as flawed and imperfect as they were, the saints allowed God, the light that sets the world free, to shine through them.
And not because they possessed a special holiness and perfection, but because they allowed God to work through them. After all, holiness is not synonymous with perfection. To be holy means to be set apart for God. The holy person accepts the call to dedicate their entire life to God and strive to live life according to the way that Jesus has shown for us, to the best of their abilities. So that when we make mistakes, and we will, we remain constantly open to correction. When we sin, and we will, we always repent and seek to be reconciled.
Sainthood is not something that we seek. We are called to it.
In our Gospel reading today we hear Jesus calling us to a way of life, the saintly life. You might know these as the beatitudes: Blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, blessed are the mourners, Jesus says. In other words, blessed are the ones who are struggling and on the edge. The broken ones, the ones who have messed up in their lives, the ones who yearn for a peace and wholeness that the world cannot give. They are blessed because in spite of and maybe because of their lives they make room for God. They are blessed because to be blessed in one sense is to be unburdened, to be released, to be freed! Being a saint has little to do with being perfect or achieving extraordinary things in your life. Saints are the ones who have taken life’s pains and injustices and their shortcomings and instead of being overcome by them, they let God’s love flow through them and use their experience to unburden others, to bless others, to speak truth to power, and transform the world.
But it is equally tempting to look at saints and see a kind of courage of which only a few are capable. I mean, who can look at the life of Mother Theresa and not see great courage? Who can examine the life of Dr. King and not see grit of will and mind and spirit? Yet Dr. King was a reluctant saint. He had no ambitions to become a national leader and the face of the civil rights movement. All he wanted to do was get his Ph.D. from Boston University, get a wife, move back south, and pastor a church like his father and his grandfather. When the bus boycott began in 1955, he assumed it would take a few days and so it didn’t worry him to host meetings in his church and be a leader at the time.
But as days turned into weeks and weeks into months, Montgomery was on edge. A steady stream of threatening phone calls started coming to his house. As many as 40 a day. And one late Friday night in Jan 1956, Dr. King came home after a long day of strategizing. He found his family already asleep. He was emotionally and spiritually worn out. And then the phone rang, and the voice on the other end said: “Leave town immediately if you have no wish to die.” He felt a surge of fear run through his body. He hung up the phone. He started pacing around his kitchen, and with trembling hands, put on a pot of coffee and slumped into a chair at his kitchen table overcome with fear, his coffee untouched. Then he prayed to God to give him an exit plan without appearing a coward. He prayed, “I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.” And at that moment he experienced the presence of God as he had never experienced it before, and a voice spoke to him, saying, “Martin, stand up for justice, stand up for truth, and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once, his fears began to fade. His uncertainty disappeared. He was ready to face anything.
Three days later his house was bombed. His family escaped by a hair. But he says, I received the news of the bombing with calmness. To be a saint is not about being some sort of fearless superhero for God. God is not looking for any of that in us. God is not looking for your ability, God is looking for your availability. The saints did great things not because they were able but because they made themselves available to God. And the beauty is, should you ever be afraid of stepping into saintliness, the voice that spoke to Dr. King on that kitchen table on that frightful night is speaking to you now, saying, “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; for God is at our side forever.” Amen.