Why Do I Believe in God? Why Do I Believe in Jesus? (Why Do I Believe…?–Part 1)

On November 7, during a lunchtime offering of “Stump the Priest” at the University of Alabama’s Ferguson Student Union Building, I spoke with a young woman whose story—like many other young people’s stories I have heard—revolved around her growing up in a conservative/fundamentalist Christian household that was unwilling to accept differences of theological opinion, alienating her and anyone else who did not believe in the literal interpretation of Scripture.  Seeing both my colleague and I wearing clergy collars, this young woman took advantage of the opportunity to see who these Episcopal folks were and where they stood on things.  For about 15 minutes, she and I talked about many things—the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Bible: literal or inspired, salvation, Heaven and Hell, and a couple of other topics.  As the conversation ended, the young woman thanked me for taking time to speak with her, helping her see that it is OK to be a Christian that does not have all the answers and asks questions.  But before she left, she asked me one final question: “Why do you believe?”

In Part I, Question 2, Article 3 of the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas asserts that all that exists “cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence…Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end, and this being we call God.”  It is rational to me that all of the created order had to have begun from one central force—one whose abilities are completely perfect to have organized all that exists to operate in the ways that they do.  For me, it is the very existence of all that is created that makes me believe in God’s own existence.  From this, I get the assurance that God’s existence was, is, and forever shall be and that His grace manifests itself throughout creation and within each and every one of us.

Jesus—the Incarnate Face of God—reinforces my belief in God’s existence.  In the same section of the Summa, Aquinas replies to an objection against God’s existence by stating that part of God’s infinite goodness is for Him to allow evil to exist, but that He achieves ways for good to be brought forth out of it.  In our Eucharistic Prayers, we acknowledge how humanity turned against God and one another, which brought evil into the world.  But we also acknowledge the One who was sent by God, born of a woman, to fulfill His Law, so that freedom and peace would be made open to us.  I believe in Jesus because I see Him as the representation of God’s infinite goodness and love arising out of evil and His crucifixion and resurrection forever ensuring that I, created in the image of God, have been freed from the bondage of sin, evil, and death.  I take to heart the testimony that “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one” and that “He is God’s way of dealing with our sins…” (I John 2.1-2, Common English Bible)       

In the words of Blessed John Henry Newman: “Firmly I believe and truly God is Three, and God is One; And I next acknowledge duly Manhood taken by the Son.”

“Tales of My Granny” (October 19, 2013: Celebration of the Life of Anne Marie Riley Montgomery–DeForest Chapel, Talladega College, Talladega, Alabama)

“Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.”

II Timothy 1.13-14[1]

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

All of you who know my family well will know my Uncle Darryl to be the family comedian and master storyteller.  This week, as my family has grieved the loss of our mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, Anne, my uncle’s particular gifts for laughter and historical recollection have been a welcomed comfort and a reminder of how joy can be had, even in the midst of grief.  One of my uncle’s particular stories took place years ago when he, Momma, and Aunt Debra were young kids, with the three main characters being Granny, Aunt Debra, and a man known as “Governor.”  In this particular story, Granny, Momma, Aunt Debra, and Uncle Darryl were all together, walking home from an event at the Spring Street Recreation Center.  Nearby was Governor, described as an especially odd person who, at the time, was (probably) in his 40s.  Seeing Governor nearby, Aunt Debra told Granny that she was nervous about walking past him.  Granny, wearing a nice dress, long coat, high-hill shoes and carrying a big black purse, told Aunt Debra, “Go on.  You’re going to be alright.  Go on over there,” then, with a stern look, warned Governor, saying, “Governor, don’t you touch my daughter.”  As Aunt Debra was nervously walking forward, Governor unwisely ignored Granny’s warning and got up close to my aunt, making weird motions at her.  At an instant, Granny took Aunt Debra’s majorette baton from her hand and started hitting Governor, yelling, in synch with it swing, “I…TOLD…YOU…NOT…TO…MESS…WITH…MY…DAUGHTER!!!”  The scene was so exciting that it caused several Talladega College students who saw it to go to my grandfather’s Sumner Hall office, reporting to him, “Mr. Montgomery, have you heard?  Your wife beat up Governor!”

A particular story I remember from my own childhood involved me asking Granny a question regarding her hair.  Back then, she had a full head of hair, but it was all gray.  I can’t remember exactly why I became concerned about Granny’s hair color, but just remember thinking that maybe she could fix it up a little bit, perhaps make it brighter, more colorful.  From that thought, I went to Granny, sitting in the den of our house, and asked her, “Granny, have you ever thought about getting your hair dyed?”  Granny’s response effectively ended the conversation: “I don’t need to dye my hair.  I’ve earned every gray hair I got.”

These and the many other stories in which my family and I have been recounting amongst each other during these last few days paint a profile of one who was very dear to us and, for a long time, was the link that held us all together.  They paint a profile of a lady who had an equal balance of graceful poise with a strong-willed determination.  Back in the day, her graceful poise made her one of Talladega College’s leading administrative spouses, having a gift for elegant social hosting and the ability to “cut a rug” on the dance floor (supposedly, while my grandfather was just content watching off to the side).  Her strong will gave her the ability of not being ashamed of keeping the record straight and/or you in check, all coming from a place of wanting to protect those whom she loved and to instill a necessary lifelong lesson to her children.

For me, personally, these stories make me think of Granny as a woman who lived a long, storied life.  Having been raised by her, seeing that gray hair, day in and day out, always made me wonder about my Granny’s journey—the good times, the bad times, what all she had seen, what all she had experienced, where all she had been.  There were only snippets of her journey pre-1985 that I knew: 1) she was born on February 11, 1932 in Nashville, Tennessee to James Riley and Lizzie Riley Dickerson; 2) she married my grandfather, Fred Douglas Montgomery, on July 1, 1951 in Nashville; 3) she had four children, Fred Douglas, Jr. (who, unfortunately died at the age of 2 from an irreparable heart condition), Dudley Gail, Debra Anne, and Darryl Travis; and 4) her husband, my grandfather, died in June 1980, after which she began working at Talladega College in a career that spanned 21 years.  Other than that, Granny never spoke about her past journey with me and I, for some reason, never thought of a reason to ask.  Somehow, though, that gray hair became an adequate enough testament of my Granny’s long journey and the wisdom I felt instilled in me by her from it.  Remembering Granny’s gray hair makes me think of these words written by Saint Paul: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”[2]

When Uncle Darryl asked me to preach Granny’s funeral sermon, I instantly felt the Holy Spirit draw me to II Timothy 1.1-14.  At the time that Paul wrote these words, he was sitting in a jail cell in Rome with his execution drawing near.  Many of the people that once supported Paul in the spread of the Gospel message have deserted him, due to the increasing persecution of Christians in the mid-first century Roman Empire.  The end is near for Paul and he knows it.  Timothy was a young man who traveled with Paul for many years, being mentored by the older apostle and spreading the Gospel message with him in places such as Phrygia, Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, and Macedonia.  Timothy’s main focus centered upon Ephesus, with tradition stating that Paul consecrated him as its first Christian bishop in AD 65.  Paul and Timothy’s relationship was a close one, with Paul saying of Timothy, “…I have no one like him…As a son with a father he has served with me in the Gospel.”[3]

Seeing his end soon approaching, Paul writes Timothy to encourage him to endure for the sake of the Gospel.  He reminds Timothy of Lois and Eunice, his grandmother and mother, from whom the foundation for his faith in Christ was laid and in which Paul is assured continues on in him.  Paul exhorts Timothy to “not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord…but share in the suffering for the Gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling.…”  The mentor is encouraging the mentee to hold firm to the truth of the Gospel—that it is by the grace of Jesus Christ in which, through faith, we have been saved, that Christ’s Gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes,”[4] and that by having faith in Christ’s Gospel, centering one’s life within the splendor of its truth, all of life’s rigors can not, do not, and shall not defeat us, for the Gospel will give the ability to fight the battles and press on to victory.  It is this Gospel message—“the good deposit entrusted to you”—that the older Paul rallies the younger Timothy to keep, preach, and spread after he is gone.

As I was listening to the Spirit in my writing of this sermon, I came to see the similar characteristics of Granny and I’s relationship with that of Paul and Timothy’s, which made me have an even greater appreciation for her than I already had.  Realizing this made me see how living with Granny really impacted me and contributed to the person that I feel God molded me to be.  Many of the things I hold dear, activities I like to do, and values I espouse came as a result of Granny and now that she’s gone, many of those things that she helped instill in me during my early life I now see as a “good deposit” to which I should hold fast and continue with.  One of those many things was my love for public television.  Every Saturday night, Granny and I sat in the downstairs den and watched reruns of The Lawrence Welk Show and classic British comedies, with our favorite being Are You Being Served?  I enjoyed these Saturday evenings with Granny, listening to great “champagne” music and laughing hysterically at certain innuendos, which, at the time, I had no clue about.  But from these Saturday evenings arose me seeing the greater picture of the role of public television.  It was from viewing public television documentaries and children’s educational programming that I developed my love for learning and seeing the value of acquiring a great education.  It was from watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in which the seed of the “Golden Rule” was planted in my head and heart and I began to have my lifelong fascination with jazz music.  Until now, I never realized how Granny’s sharing with me of her Saturday evening television time grew to play such a prominent role in me becoming the person I am today.  I am who I am largely because of it.

But the most important lesson, I feel, I learned from Granny had to do with the nature of the Church.  She was never officially a member of any particular church in Talladega and there are only a handful of times in which I can remember her ever being in church.  One particular Sunday, as Momma and I were getting ready to go to church, I asked Granny why she wasn’t going with us.  She said, “ I believe in God and feel that He and I have a great relationship.  I don’t have to go to church in order to feel that God loves me.”  Despite in my young age disagreeing with the notion that I had to go to church and she didn’t and in my older age respectfully disagreeing with the non-necessity of joining up in fellowship with other Christians, her comment that morning emphasized the truth that the Church isn’t a building, but “the Body of which Jesus Christ is the head…The People of God, the New Israel, a holy nation, a royal priesthood, and the pillar and ground of truth.”[5]  As one who has been called forth by that Body to perform the functions of the ordained vocation within it, only recently have I learned the full extent of Granny’s answer, having myself promised “to make Christ and His redemptive love known” and “to love and serve the people among whom [I] work, carling alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor”[6]—in other words, all people!  Even though, in my lifetime, Granny wasn’t officially affiliated with a particular group of Christians, she was still very much a part of the Church—the entire Christian family—and I thank her for helping me begin to see the real meaning of what it means to be the Church in my early age.

But now, my Granny is gone.  She has fought the good fight; she has finished the race; she kept the Faith.  In his exhortation to Timothy, Paul gives a glimpse into the glory of the Resurrection, proclaiming the Gospel as having “been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do.”  In I Corinthians, Paul says, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”[7]  Even though I grieve the loss of my Granny and miss her very much, what is helping me through the grief is my deep faith and trust in Jesus, believing that Granny now fully lives into the glory of Christ’s Resurrection.  Deep in my heart, I truly do believe that Jesus, Himself, is alive and that Granny, who believed and trusted in Him, has been raised with Him and now lives in the glory that is Heaven.  Just like Paul, I believe “that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[8]  From that, I stand before you, with full conviction and trust in the living God, to proclaim that Granny is not here, but she has risen!  She no longer lives on Earth, but now lives in Heaven!  My Granny is not dead, but is alive and lives in the glory of Christ Jesus!

But the Resurrection doesn’t confine itself to those who are no longer here with us.  We who still live our lives on Earth are also called to live into the Resurrection, living our lives as God’s loved, ransomed, healed, restored, and forgiven people.  Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”[9]  That, my friends, is a powerful testament to the Resurrection, an attestation of the indissoluble connection between you and God, both in the here-and-now and in the time to come.  For my family, I believe that this is what Granny would want us to believe and live into.  She would want us to remember the good times, hold fast to the lessons and values she strove to instill in us, and to hold each other up as a family.  She would also want us to continue to live—to live our own lives; to not focus to much on the past, but to be focused on the present and look forward to our future; to remember the lessons she taught and apply them in our efforts to do good towards others; to remember that even though she is no longer here, we are and that we should live our lives to the fullest, enjoying the time that God has blessed us to have.  May we, together, as a family, honor Granny by continuing to live, being faithful stewards of the time we have been given.

Granny, as you prepare to go down to the dust, in my heart, I feel that you are singing “alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”  Therefore, with a grateful heart, I sing “alleluia, alleluia, alleluia” with you, for in Christ you have found your rest; suffering and pain are your affliction no more.  May God’s perpetual light forever shine upon you and your soul, through God’s loving mercy, rest in peace.

Thanks be to God: Amen, alleluia!!!

[1] Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

[2] II Timothy 4.7

[3] Philippians 2.20, 22

[4] Romans 1.16

[5] “The Church,” The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David According to the Use of The Episcopal Church (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 854

[6] “Ordination of a Deacon” and “Ordination of a Priest,” Book of Common Prayer (1979), 531, 543

[7] I Corinthians 15.26

[8] Romans 8.38-39

[9] II Corinthians 5.17

Time’s Prisoner: The Right Reverend Charles Colcock Jones Carpenter and the Civil Rights Movement in the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama

Click to access brandt-montgomery-thesis.pdf

Many of Alabama’s older Episcopalians remember the late Bishop Charles Colcock Jones Carpenter with great warmth, admiration, and profound respect and classify his 30-year episcopate, from 1938-1968, as having been one of the Diocese of Alabama’s golden eras.  Under his leadership, the Diocese of Alabama experienced tremendous membership growth, planted several new mission stations and brought several others from mission to parish status, and established Camp McDowell, firmly marking Alabama’s place in the offering of summer Christian camp opportunities for youth and young adults. 

But of all the good that was accomplished during the Carpenter years, it was also accompanied by the challenges of social change.  His episcopate were times that included the Second World War, the Second Red Scare, the Korean War, the recession of Jim Crow segregation, and the modern Civil Rights Movement.  It was the latter that provided the most challenging experiences of these years, causing Bishop Carpenter to find himself caught in the middle of Alabama’s social struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.  He was a clergyman whose “moderate” civil rights position was enigmatic and his ambivalence on the racial question garnered him heat from both sides—as a race traitor and liberal from segregationist whites, and a closeted, affirming segregationist from integrationist blacks.  Bishop Carpenter believed that a gradual approach to integration was the best way forward, thinking that integration’s incorporation into Alabama’s social life in calm, slow, and discreet phases would bring about racial progress in a respectable, levelheaded way.  His genteel Southern manner made him a prisoner of his time, advocating for racial integration to be accomplished “in time” and not by civil disobedience.  The culture into which he was born and reared was radically changing and the effects of the modern Civil Rights Movement wreaked havoc on his love of tradition, calm, and order.

To some extent, I can see the logic behind Bishop Carpenter’s admonitions for order and time in the implementation of racial integration being rooted in a desire to sincerely bring Alabama’s majority “to the light” on a very important issue.  This would explain his firm resistance to civil disobedience demonstrations and strong objections to non-Alabamians coming into the state, aiding and abetting in activities that he felt were doing more harm to the cause than good.  He saw these activities as contributing to the ill-will that Alabamians already had towards the Civil Rights Movement and did not want to deal with issues that would make the ill-will even worse.  Bishop Carpenter felt that order and time would be the most effective approach in changing the hearts and minds of the majority in the area of civil rights and the demonstrations occurring within his Diocese were, to him, severe setbacks in his quest to bring about such change.

Yet I also fully understand the argument made by Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and other Civil Rights Movement leaders that the appeal for patience and time emanated from a philosophy that was counterintuitive to the Gospel.  Bishop Carpenter, by virtue of his office, was a Defender of the Faith—a Faith that calls for the social unity of all God’s people, regardless of skin color, ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation, or any other form of human difference.  Bishop Carpenter’s “in time” rhetoric was seen as complicitous with the evils of segregation.

It is my view that Bishop Carpenter was not a racist, but, rather, in the words of Blessed are the Peacemakers author S. Jonathan Bass, a very “conflicted moderate.”  Considering the position that the majority of Alabamians had regarding race, Bishop Carpenter’s moderate position was the more positive for the times.  Although his racial gradualism was very frustrating and vexing for many, on the whole, Bishop Carpenter was open to the idea of integration and generally not resistant to it.  But it was the argument of “yes, but in time” that did him in, rendering Bishop Carpenter unable fully to be on the front lines for racial change through both word and action.  It was in this way that he missed the mark.  In the end, it wound up being Bishop Carpenter’s moderate civil rights philosophy, no matter how much more positive it was from the majority opinion, that caused him to be wrong on the issue of race and on the negative side of civil rights history.

I am a recently ordained 28-year-old priest of the Episcopal Church, who happens to be of African-American descent, serving at a parish on the campus of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, remembered by many as a parish that was radically on the front lines for integration and helped pave the way for the wider Church to be a future reflection of Paul’s words in Galatians 3.28.  As I honor the courageous heroes of yesterday who helped pave the way for the rights of all people of today, how I wish that I could count Bishop Carpenter as one of those heroes.  How I wish that Bishop Carpenter could have seen the folly of his thought and inaction, which would have made his civil rights legacy be more positive than it is now.  Deep down, Bishop Carpenter was a good man, but one whose decision to avoid the front lines for civil rights allowed the time’s social evils to linger.  Instead of being a part of a positive solution, he became an unintentional factor in an immoral problem.  His unwillingness actively to be on the front lines produced unfortunate circumstances—both for him and for all involved in the time’s racial struggles.  How unfortunate it is that in the area of civil rights, Bishop Carpenter remains a figure left behind in a realm of lamentable controversy. 

In this landmark anniversary year for civil rights, let us all be reminded of our call to love our neighbor as ourselves and strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.  

“Jesus and the Resurrection: Too Marvelous for Words” (Saturday, March 30, 2013: The Great Vigil & First Eucharist of Easter–Canterbury Episcopal Chapel, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL; Sunday, March 31, 2013: Easter Sunday–The Episcopal Church of the Epiphany, Tallassee, Alabama)

“…Why do you seek the living among the dead…”—Luke 24.5b[i] (Great Vigil of Easter)

“…I have seen the Lord…”—John 20.18a (Easter Sunday)


I once heard a story that on one particular Easter Sunday, a Sunday school teacher asked her young students, “What did Jesus first say after rising from the grave?”  An enthusiastic student raised her hand, shouting at the top of her lungs, “Ooh, ooh, ooh, I know, I know!”  Being recognized, she jumped up out of her chair, flung her hands way up in the air, and said, “TA-DA!”  (A highly appropriate story to help begin the Easter season, I think.)

For the 1937 musical film Ready, Willing and Able, famed lyricist Johnny Mercer wrote lyrics for what would become the movie’s most popular song and a standard piece of the Great American Songbook.  He wrote:

You’re just too marvelous

Too marvelous for words

Like glorious, glamorous

And that old standby amorous 

It’s all too wonderful

I’ll never find the words

That say enough, tell enough

I mean they just aren’t swell enough 

You’re much too much, and just too very, very

To ever be in Webster’s Dictionary

And so I’m borrowing a love song from the birds

To tell you that you’re marvelous, too marvelous for words[ii]

            Mercer’s lyrics highlight the singer’s inability to adequately describe the affections that he/she has for an admired individual.  The person in question has caused the singer to become so overcome with positive emotion that no word is good enough to convey his/her feelings.  To put it more bluntly, the singer is simply unable to express his/her feelings with any particular word.  Through Mercer’s pen, we are presented with the idea of a kind of love that is so overwhelming, so beyond our imaginations that no word within any language can amount to the highest of praise.  What Mercer gives us is a paradox—one that shows language’s rare inability to give expression about someone that has made a deep impression on us, yet endeavoring to find someway, somehow to tell him/her about it.

For us, the Resurrection of our Lord brings up a similar paradox.  It’s an event that makes Jesus have an even deeper impression on us, causing us to love Him more than we already do.  Yet our love makes us so overcome with deep appreciation and emotion that it renders us unable to fully “find the words that say enough, tell enough” of the thanks we have for what Jesus has done.  Just like the singer of Mercer’s lyrics, there simply aren’t enough words around that can help us express our love, thanks, and praise for Jesus.  It’s because of the exorbitantly high price He had to pay for the Resurrection to even be possible.  As one of my friends recently said in a Facebook status update on Good Friday, it is “something about the deepest sorrow, hearing the Passion read [that] always breaks me down, humbles me…”  The disciples’ betrayal, the scourging, the people’s mockery, the intense pain of the nails being hammered into Jesus’ hands and feet, Him being laid in the tomb, and now having triumphantly risen from the grave are events that have all humbled us.  That is why we are unable to fully “find the words that say enough, tell enough” of how thankful we are to Jesus.  Because Jesus’ Good Friday death was done for us, serving as our reconciliation with God the Father in Heaven, we, therefore, have now been raised with Christ in His Resurrection, sin and death having forever been swallowed up in victory.[iii]  We have been given this victory through our Lord Jesus Christ![iv]  Is it possible for us to ever say “thank you” enough to Jesus?  Will we ever find the words that convey our highest praise for the victory He has won for us?  I just don’t think that it’s possible.

But, yet, we strive in finding someway to tell Jesus just how thankful we are and how enormous our love for Him is for what He has done.  Although they may not be perfect, words help us convey our deepest feelings and affections for the Lord.  But in addition to words, we tell of our love and thanks by living out Jesus’ command to “…love one another: just as I have loved you…”[v]  The Resurrection was done out of the love that Jesus has for us.  For our friends who know that we are Christians, it is through our sincere love of and for them, as well as ours of and for others beyond them, that lets them know that we are really Christians, with our love pointing them to the truth of Christ’s Gospel.  Jesus said that “as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.”[vi]  By “talking the talk and walking the walk” of love, Jesus doesn’t hold our paradox of expression against us.  This makes our words of praise, whatever they may be, good enough for Him.  In the spirit of Julian of Norwich, all has been made well, all is well, and all manner of things shall be well.  God hears our praise; He hears our “alleluias!”  Because of the Resurrection, whatever we say in thanks and praise to God is good enough.

For Jesus, Mercer’s lyrics have the opposite effect, for they are absolutely perfect in explaining the fundamental reasons for the Resurrection.  Listen to them again; only this time, picture Jesus saying them to you directly:

You’re just too marvelous

Too marvelous for words

Like glorious, glamorous

And that old standby amorous 

It’s all too wonderful

I’ll never find the words

That say enough, tell enough

I mean they just aren’t swell enough

You’re much too much, and just too very, very

To ever be in Webster’s Dictionary

And so I’m borrowing a love song from the birds

To tell you that you’re marvelous, too marvelous for words 

            Friends, the Resurrection happened because Jesus thinks we are “just too marvelous.”  We are all that wonderful to Him that He was willing to go through the uttermost darkness of despair to cease our strife and forever win for us the battle for eternal life.  How better can it be said?  Jesus loves us.  Jesus died for us.  Jesus has risen from the grave for us.  The debt for our sin has been paid.  We have been freed from the shackles of sin and death.  The strife is over and the battle is done.  We now live because Christ lives.  That, my friends, is THE Good News.  Thanks be to God!


[i] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Old Testament Section, Copyright 1952; New Testament Section, First Edition, Copyright 1946; Second Edition © 1971 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[ii] “Too Marvelous for Words,” lyrics written by Johnny Mercer and music composed by Richard Whiting for the 1937 musical film Ready, Willing, and Able, starring Ross Alexander and Ruby Keeler and distributed by Warner Bros.

[iii] I Corinthians 15.54b

[iv] I Corinthians 15.57

[v] John 13.34 (ESV)

[vi] Matthew 25.40

“In Christ Is Found Our Unity”: Sunday, January 27, 2013 (The Third Sunday after the Epiphany: Septuagesima Sunday)

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”—I Corinthians 12.27[1] 

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

In the late 1930s, when swing music was becoming increasingly popular throughout the American musical stage, jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman was widely considered among his professional colleagues and jazz fans to be the “King of Swing,” the “Patriarch of the Clarinet,” and “Swing’s Senior Statesman.”  When he organized his first full-size band in 1933, it included no black musicians (being that America was still in the time of de facto and/or legal racial segregation).  However, jazz critic and producer John H. Hammond (who later became Goodman’s brother-in-law), an unapologetic racial liberal and civil rights activist, both encouraged and pushed Goodman to integrate his band, wanting to both highlight the musical talent of African-American musicians and help make jazz become a visible symbol of the unity that should exist between all of the human race.  In 1935, because of Hammond’s insistence, Goodman took a chance and integrated his band, hiring African-American musicians Teddy Wilson, a pianist, and Lionel Hampton, a drummer and vibraphone player.  Goodman’s hiring of Wilson and Hampton turned out to be one of the best decisions that he ever made and played a major role in bringing about the downfall of segregation that existed within jazz.  Years later, when he was asked to reflect on jazz’s role in integration, Goodman said, “It takes the black keys and the white keys, both, to make perfect harmony.”

In today’s epistle lesson from First Corinthians, Paul’s analogy of the human body with that of the Christian Church conveys the basis upon which those who call themselves “Christian” should stand and hold themselves in relationship.  The division that is being caused by many within the Corinthian Church is happening out of a sense of arrogance, brought on from a belief that certain gifts possessed by some are better and more highly valued than those possessed by others, leading to the implication that those not possessing gifts viewed as being adequate contributions to the Christian way are not really part of the body of Christ.  This infection of arrogance and division has hindered the Corinthian Church from fully being a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit and living faithfully into the Gospel mission.  Paul’s purpose in writing to the Corinthians is to set the record straight, that through Jesus Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit within us through baptism, all within the Christian community are equal to each other and the gifts that they possess, though different, are all valuable to God and equally contributive to the mission of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ on Earth.  From Paul, we learn that in order to live in and be the community of Christ, we must be in relationship with each other, building upon the foundations of unity, for anything different is the antithesis of the Gospel.

Through his eloquent rhetorical skills, Paul gets to the heart of the Christian concept of unity and relationship.  The Christian’s relationship with both God and others comes from our inherent gift of goodness from God and all of humanity’s common possession of that gift.  As told in the account of creation in Genesis, upon God’s creation of humanity in His image, He declares that “it was very good.”[2]  Despite our inherited sinful nature brought to us by the fault of Adam and Eve, our first parents, the goodness of God, which dwells within us through His creation of us, remains a part of our very being as humans.  By the coming of Jesus Christ on Earth and His achievement of our reconciliation to God on our behalf, our inherent goodness from God gives us the ability to be in relationship with Him and in equal relationship with our fellow humans.  This goodness that is inherent within us by virtue of God’s creation and humanity’s sharing of that goodness makes Christian unity a divine thing, being centered upon the divinity of Jesus, as well as being part of Jesus’ very divinity itself.  Jesus’ humanity and divinity form the very foundation for Christian unity and to allow arrogance and division within the fabric of our common life is to deny the indwelling of Christ that makes up part of one’s very humanity.  One of the fallbacks of being human is that our fallible nature makes us prone to falling victim to arrogance and division.  As Christians, being mindful of Jesus as the very definition of Christian unity helps us combat such negative forces and promote the common goodness that we all have through God and share with each other.

Beginning eight versus before the start of today’s epistle, Paul writes that “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”[3]  Paul writes this to confront and put down the view that there are certain gifts that are more valuable in service to God and that those in the community not possessing such valuable gifts aren’t full and equal members of the Christian family.  Paul’s written tone conveys his view that this circulating thought is a lie and is completely and utterly wrong.  If God, by His creation of us, has declared us good, with that declaration having been confirmed by the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, from which our humanity now dwells at the right hand of God through Jesus, then that must mean that the respective gifts we possess, which help define who we individually are, are all good in their own way.  God’s declaration of our goodness helps convey the notion of how our gifts, though widely different, have the ability to bring about unity amongst all within the larger community.  In Christian theology, the term “charism,” coming from the Greek word charismata, is meant to denote any good gift that flows from God’s love down to humanity.  With that, God equips us with a variety of gifts to help us promote His love to others and to promote the common good. 

Through his emphasis upon the “same Spirit,” “same Lord,” and the “same God,” Paul is telling the Corinthians that what makes all people’s gifts equally contributive to the community’s Christian growth and equally valuable in the eyes of God is that no matter what the gift may be, it is a gift given from God.  With our gifts given to us from God, they are deemed by Him to be suitable forms of service to His glory and toward the mutual benefit of all humanity.  By God blessing us with such a variety of gifts, we see and experience endless possibilities of God’s grace, love, and fellowship unfolding among us and being present in our relationship with others through the power of the Holy Spirit.  All gifts, no matter how different from each other they may be, are created and given by God to His people for the promotion of unity, both with Him and throughout the wider community.  From unity comes love, which brings out the best in us and others and embodies God’s greatest hopes and desires for all of us, His beloved children.  God’s gifts make all people full and equal members of His body.  God through Jesus has declared His people reconciled to Him and equal to one another and any declaration to the contrary will always be in strict contradiction to God’s promised and fulfilled Word.

In the end, here is where we stand: (1) having been created in God’s image, God has declared us to be “very good”; (2) by God coming to Earth in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ and offering Himself to be the perfect sacrifice for humanity’s redemption, God’s declaration of our goodness is confirmed and still in full effect; and (3) God has bestowed within each of us a particular gift, which all, regardless of difference, make us see Him as the one true God and the foundation of our common life together.  These three key points form the total basis for Christian unity and mutual accountability and undergird Paul’s statement that we are uniquely created individuals united together through Christ as His body, the Church.  Jesus came to Earth to reestablish a relationship between God and humanity, making what was crooked straight and all the rough places plain.  Because of Jesus having reestablished our relationship with God in Heaven, we are charged with the duty of advancing the cause of unity amongst ourselves, recognizing, valuing, and cultivating each other’s gifts, which help us to see the love of God at work within us and throughout the world.  Arrogance and division are a dishonor to God, for when we deem anybody’s gifts to not be up-to-par and unsuitable for the advancement of God’s kingdom, it becomes us who hinder the advancement of God’s kingdom, for we convey a message that’s completely out of sync with God’s message and become liars and hypocrites of the redemptive word of God.  From all of this, we are reminded of the fact that God is love and that because God’s love is unconditional, all of us and all of our gifts are equally pleasing unto Him and help all of us catch a glimpse of the foretaste of the glory of God that is to come.   

Benny Goodman spoke truth when he said that “it takes the black keys and the white keys, both, to make perfect harmony.”  Although they both have their particular functions on a keyboard, with their notes producing different colors of musical tones, they all have the same goal—to make perfect harmony all together.  So it is with the gifts that God has given us—they’re all very different, but what makes them the same is their pointing to the same Spirit, same Lord, and the same God.  May we honor God and our neighbor by cultivating our own gifts and those of others, recognizing each other as God’s equal, ransomed, and restored community.  Amen!                   

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Old Testament Section, Copyright 1952; New Testament Section, First Edition, Copyright 1946; Second Edition © 1971 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] Genesis 1.31b

[3] I Corinthians 12.4-7

Spring 2013 Preaching Schedule

Lately, many people have asked about when and where I will be preaching.  Below is my (current) guest preaching/celebration schedule for the Spring 2013 semester.  If any of you are around in these areas, you are more than welcome to attend.  Peace and love!

Spring 2013 Guest Preaching/Celebration Schedule

February 3–Guest Lecturer, “Singing a Faithful Song–A History of Black Leadership in the Episcopal Church,” Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church, Metuchen, New Jersey

February 13 (Ash Wednesday: 12:00pm & 6:30pm)–Guest Preacher and Celebrant, Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Birmingham, Alabama

February 24–Guest Preacher, Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Montgomery, Alabama

February 26–Guest Preacher, Lenten Series, Trinity Episcopal Church, Demopolis, Alabama

March 3–Guest Preacher and Celebrant, Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, Alabama

March 8–Guest Preacher, Lenten Preaching Series, Episcopal Cathedral Church of the Advent, Birmingham, Alabama

March 20–Guest Preacher, Wednesday Lenten Series, Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, Selma, Alabama

“There’ll Be Some Changes Made”: Sunday, January 13, 2013 (The First Sunday after the Epiphany: Baptism of Our Lord)

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”—Isaiah 43.1b[i]

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

I am a huge lover of jazz—specifically of traditional standards and songs associated with the Great American Songbook.  One particular song that I enjoy was first written in 1921 and the lyrics are as follows:

For there’s a change in the weather, there’s a change in the sea

So from now on there’ll be a change in me.

My walk will be different, my talk and my name,

Nothing about me is going to be the same.

I’m going to change my way of living and if that ain’t enough

Then I’ll even change the way I strut my stuff.

Cause nobody wants you when you’re old and grey.

There’ll be some changes made today, there’ll be some changes made.[ii] 

On today, the First Sunday after the Epiphany and the commemoration of our Lord’s baptism, these lyrics help to convey a mostly synonymous image of the outward and inward effects of both an epiphany and of baptism.  The word “epiphany,” coming from the Greek word epiphaneia, can be interpreted to mean “manifestation” and a “sudden and striking realization.”  Baptism, being one of the two dominical[iii] sacraments of the Church, is an outward and visible sign through water of the inward and spiritual grace that Christ gives to us through His death and resurrection, His forgiveness of our sin, and our new life in the Holy Spirit, all of which incorporates us into His family, the Church.[iv]  All in all, the common characteristic of all these meanings is that of a change.  More specifically, the common characteristic is that of a positive change—something that points us in the right direction and helps us be better at being human.  The commemoration of our Lord’s baptism, as well as the entire Epiphany season, points us to the revelation of Jesus Christ as the divine agent of positive change, the manifestation of God in incarnate form.  For us, Christ’s baptism is the signal that the time of promise, the time of fulfillment, the time of Jesus has officially begun, never slated to come to an end.

There are three factors regarding our Lord’s baptism that warrant serious consideration—the first being the preparation for our Lord by John the BaptistJohn is the representation of the turn from that which is old and unsubstantial to that which is new and continually substantial.  His role as the forerunner of Christ was preordained, as it had been proclaimed by an angel of the Lord to Zechariah, John’s father: “With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”[v]  Zechariah, himself, proclaimed that his son would “…be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins…”[vi] As the preordained forerunner of Christ, John the Baptist is the link of the cessation of the old covenant age to the beginning of the new kingdom age personified through Jesus.  He is the first person to proclaim to God’s people the Good News of Jesus Christ.  John’s wilderness cries were a turning point, a shift, a proclamation of a new, positive change and his baptizing was the symbolization of one’s inward spiritual change, of their acceptance of the coming new kingdom age, and their changing from the old way of thinking and living to the new, opening themselves up to the ways of the Coming One.  Because of John the Baptist’s preparation, the link between God’s Old Testament promise of salvation and His salvation of the people through the person of Jesus Christ in the New Testament became solid and built on firm ground.

The second factor is that of Jesus’ baptism itselfUnlike today’s Gospel account, as well as that found in Saint Mark’s Gospel, Saint Matthew’s Gospel highlights a short, yet highly significant exchange between John and our Lord before the latter’s baptism by the former.  Various biblical translations have interpreted Jesus’ response to John in either one of two ways, yet both of them clearly give the reason as to why He submits Himself to John’s baptism.  Across most of the major translations, John’s question and insistence to Jesus is pretty uniform: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  The Revised Standard, New Revised Standard, New International, and English Standard Versions and the Common English Bible similarly translate Jesus’ answer to John as this: “Let it be so now; for [thus] it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  But both the New English and Good News Bibles similarly translate Jesus’ answer differently: “Let it be so for now.  For in this way we shall do all that God requires.”[vii] 

Saint Matthew’s noted exchange between John and Jesus provides the crucial reasoning and context for the need for Jesus, who ranks above John, to submit Himself to John’s baptism.  The overall crux of the context is embedded within Jesus’ divine nature and humanity and of what His divine nature will accomplish by His taking upon Himself humanity’s form and substance.  In his first letter to Timothy, Paul states that “the saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”[viii]  Saint John augments that by stating that “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”[ix]  As God incarnate, Jesus Christ came to Earth, within the course of our own time, to be the agent of reconciliation between God the Father and the human race.  He came down to Earth to be the full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice for the world’s sin, casting away wrath and condemnation and replacing it with God’s forgiveness and mercy.  In order for Jesus to have effectively carried out His mission of restoring all of humanity unto God and fully be the expiation of its sin, He had to submit Himself to John’s baptism.  By doing so, Jesus, through His human nature, though without sin, identified Himself with us and our sin, signifying the beginning of a new way and the shortening of the Law and the elongation of grace.  Jesus’ submission to John’s baptism and His identification with the human race by it is the beginning of that which will be achieved on the Cross—deliverance from the sting of death and beginning a new life through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Lastly, the third factor is the nature of the sacrament of baptism upon all Christian believersPerhaps the best definition regarding baptism comes from The Book of Common Prayer: “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church.  The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.”[x]  Today’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah goes even further: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters I will be with you…For I am the LORD your God…your Savior.”[xi]  Through Jesus’ submission to John’s baptism, done in the form of our humanity, identifying Himself with our sin, and bringing about humanity’s restoration to God through His sacrifice on the Cross, once and for all, God’s assurance from Isaiah falls down to us by virtue of our own baptism.  God’s words from Isaiah are reconfirmed by the sound of His voice coming from Heaven after His Son’s baptism: “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”[xii]  Through Jesus, we, who have been ransomed, healed, restored, and forgiven through Him and made new creations through the waters of baptism, are pleasing to God.  Heaven has been opened to us; it has not, nor will it ever be closed to us again.  Through our own baptism, we are all brought back home to God and are the living proof that God does save and still saves all who earnestly desire His love, mercy, and presence.  Because of Jesus, we can have the full faith and assurance to believe that the establishment of an indissoluble relationship with God through the sacrament of baptism is true and ever sure.

For there’s a change in the weather, there’s a change in the sea

So from now on there’ll be a change in me.

My walk will be different, my talk and my name,

Nothing about me is going to be the same.

I’m going to change my way of living and if that ain’t enough

Then I’ll even change the way I strut my stuff.

[Cause God always wants you, even if you’re old and grey.]

There’ll be some changes made today, there’ll be some changes made.  [Amen!]

[i] Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Old Testament Section, Copyright 1952; New Testament Section, First Edition, Copyright 1946; Second Edition, Copyright 1971 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[ii] “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” first published in 1921 with music composed by Benton Overstreet and lyrics written by Billy Higgins.  This song is a well-established jazz standard.

[iii] The New Oxford American Dictionary (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) defines “dominical” as being “of Jesus Christ as the [L]ord.”  Therefore, a simpler definition of a “dominical sacrament” is a sacrament that is directly “of the Lord.”

[iv] “Holy Baptism,” from “An Outline of the Faith commonly called the Catechism,” The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David According to the Use of the Episcopal Church (New York, New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 1979), 858.

[v] Luke 1.17 (NRSV)

[vi] Luke 1.76-77

[vii] Matthew 3.13-15.  At 3.15, the Common English Bible specifically translates Jesus as having said: “Allow me to be baptized now.  This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.”  Jesus’ answer in comparison between the New English Bible and the Good News Bible comes specifically from the Good News Bible.  The New English Bible translates Jesus as having said: “Let it be so for the present; we do well to conform in this way with all that God requires.”

[viii] I Timothy 1.15

[ix] I John 2.1b-2

[x] From “Concerning the Service” regarding the liturgy for Holy Baptism, The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 298.

[xi] Isaiah 43.1-2a, 3.

[xii] Luke 3.22