Ash Wednesday — The Rev. Karen C. Barfield

Psalm 103
Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

In the name of the one, holy and living God:
Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifying Spirit. Amen.

“Amazing grace!
how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me!”

For us Episcopalians the common theme of Lent is all-too-often our wretchedness.

And for a few of us who grew up in certain denominations, our wretchedness – our sinfulness – is not relegated to six weeks but is a year long focus!

This year I want to offer us a slightly different focus: GRACE! Continue reading

Second Sunday after the Epiphany — Dr. Joel Marcus

“On the Third Day”

Isaiah 62:1-5
John 2:1-11

Our Gospel reading from John is a beautifully symbolic story, perfect for this season of Epiphany. The symbolism already begins in its first few words, which speak of a wedding “on the third day.” In our Old Testament reading from Isaiah—and this is not the only Old Testament passage in which this happens – a wedding becomes a symbol for the hoped-for reunion of Israel with its God. The wedding spoken of here symbolizes the end of exile, the return of the Jews from Babylon, their triumph over all the nations that have oppressed them—in short, the beginning of the redemption of the world.

So the wedding is the controlling symbol here, but there’s also symbolism in the fact that it takes place “on the third day.” John doesn’t usually tell you what day events occur on; he’s usually content with vague expressions like “after that.” So when he does tell you about a particular day, it’s worthwhile to pay attention. And probably John’s first audience couldn’t have heard this expression, “on the third day,” without thinking of Jesus’ resurrection “on the third day” after his crucifixion. A little later in this chapter, Jesus will refer to his resurrection elliptically by saying, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”And the other miracle that Jesus performs “on the third day” is his resurrection of Lazarus. So the third day is especially associated with resurrection. So when, at the end of the story about the wedding at Cana, we are told that Jesus “revealed his glory” by the actions he performed at this wedding, it seems clear that this is meant to foreshadow the glory that will dawn on the world when he is raised from the dead, and thus begin the restoration of the world that Isaiah prophesied.

But this manifestation of God’s glory takes place, in our story, against a background of dearth, insufficiency, and anxiety. The third verse of the story begins, “And when the wine had run out,”and the significance of this depletion is highlighted by Jesus’ mother saying, “They have no wine.” The lack of wine is what Alfred Hitchcock called the “MacGuffin” in the story—the problem, or absence, or question, which sets the plot in motion. The whole narrative is based on the contrast between the promise hinted at by “after three days” and the problem hinted at by “when the wine had run out.”

This phrase, “when the wine had run out,” points to a familiar feature of our world—the pervasiveness of dearth. Your gas tank approaches empty. Your refrigerator runs out of food. Your town runs out of clean water. Or you yourself run out of energy–you just don’t feel like you have the resources to face the world anymore. Continue reading

Fourth Sunday of Advent — Dr. David Walbert

Children of the (Christmas) Revolution

Luke 1:39–55

May I speak in the name of the one holy and living God, to whom we give all glory.

That’s a heck of a greeting Mary gets from her cousin. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”

Still, you don’t meet a lot of people who would respond even to that by crying out “My soul magnifies the Lord!”

If you tried that, people would smile pacifically and back slowly away.

On the up side, you’d have that seat on the bus all to yourself.

Seriously, though, did you ever wonder what kind of person Mary really was? We know so little about her, and we have so many agendas. Growing up Methodist I didn’t hear much at all about Mary; we didn’t have pictures of her hanging up in the church, she barely got a mention. Except at Christmas — when suddenly she’s everywhere, loitering on front lawns with her husband and the kings and the lone representative shepherd that came packaged with the Wal-Mart crèche. It’s hard to learn much about her from most of these setups, and those you can… well, let me give you an example.

Take the people who used to live next door to me in my old neighborhood. I knew they were churchgoers, because the bumper sticker on their car said so. They had the polite but stern and unhumoring quality I had learned as a child to associate with certain classes of evangelical Protestant. They had a perfectly maintained lawn that they never, ever used, not even the clean white porch swing in the side yard. And every Christmas they put a crèche out front, a simple one: Mary, Joseph, Jesus in the manger, and a tiny shelter representing the stable. There may have been an angel; I don’t remember. What made this display noteworthy was that all of them — Jesus, Joseph, and Mary — were represented as babies. It was the complete inversion of the Medieval practice of representing the infant Messiah as a miniature adult, with adult proportions and an adult expression. Out on my neighbors’ lawn, even Mary and Joseph had disproportionately large heads, like babies of almost any mammalian species—it’s how you can tell Charlie Brown is a little boy and not a balding old man, and how the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind were made to look safe and innocent instead of weird and scary. Worse, they wore the placidly idiotic expressions of baby dolls. They were cute, like pandas or someone else’s puppy. If they hadn’t been made of cheap plastic they might have been cuddly.

When my former neighbors bought that house and I saw their crèche for the first time, I was not a Christian. I was coming out of a long atheist interlude, drifting in a direction people call “spiritual but not religious” — sensing that something was missing, casting about for it, open to ideas and suggestions and potentially convincing narratives.

What I saw in my neighbors’ front yard was not a potentially convincing narrative.

At best, it was nice. Pleasant. Polite. Sentimental, yes. Safe? Very safe. But I didn’t need pleasant and polite. I didn’t need sentimental. I could find those things elsewhere, plenty of places — and they weren’t enough. I didn’t need a god who was merely pleasant. Although I may not have recognized it at the time, I didn’t need a god who was safe. I needed a god who could shake things up — who could change things — who could change me, who could save me. I needed a god who could kick some butt — mine, when necessary. And that was going to take more than a really super nice guy. It was going to take more than a god who would pick a babydoll to be his mommy.

Now, having been raised Christian, having been exposed in my collegiate singing career to Latin masses and the works of Thomas Tallis, and having studied and written about the Old Order Amish, I was aware that Babydoll Crèche did not represent the full breadth and depth of the Christian experience.

Nevertheless, when I saw that crèche… well, I thought, if these people don’t take their god seriously, why should I? Continue reading

Third Sunday of Advent — Rev. Karen Barfield

Canticle 9: The First Song of Isaiah
Luke 3:7-18

In the name of the one, holy and living God:
In whom we live and move and have our being. Amen.

Today the voice of John the Baptist still echoes from the walls…

“You brood of vipers!
Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Get over yourselves and let go of your arrogance.
Even as we speak, the ax is lying at the root of the trees.
Time is short: bear fruits worthy of repentance.”

And after that tirade, someone actually had the nerve to ask, “What then should we do?”

The crowds of people stuck around because they were filled with expectation…
expectation that the Messiah would come and turn things around,
make life worth living again.

And perhaps this man, John…perhaps he was the Messiah.

So they ask:
What do we do?
How do we live?

The necessary beginning, John says, is to take a look at yourselves…
a deep look…
an honest look.

Move beyond assumptions about yourselves and your community,
thinking that just because you are the people of God that you’ve got it made.
God has the power to raise up holy ones out of folks you’d never imagine.

Taking a deep look at ourselves is perhaps the last thing we want to do!
It is a frightening prospect. Continue reading

First Sunday of Advent — Rev. Karen Barfield

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-9
Luke 21:25-36

In the name of the one, holy and living God:
who enlightens our darkness
and offers us the hope of eternal life. Amen.

Today is the first day of Advent,
a season of waiting,
a season of preparation…
for birth
and re-birth.

Advent comes to us as a pinhole of light in the midst of darkness,
beginning with the lighting of a single candle on the Advent wreath.

“In those days” are the scriptural bookends of this Season.

“In those days” begins the Gospel of Luke on Christmas Eve, pointing us back to a specific day and time in history…. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1).

On a specific day and time in our past,
God became human…
Jesus was born.

But, on this first Sunday of Advent, Jeremiah turns his vision not backwards toward a specific day and time but points ahead toward a future time, “In those days and at that time….”

“In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David;
and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (Jer 33:15)

Jeremiah speaks to an exiled and crushed people, offering them hope for their future. Continue reading

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost — Dr. Joel Marcus


Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Mark 9:38-50

A few weeks ago, Karen preached a good sermon on Mark’s story of the Syrophoenician woman. But she indicated that initially she didn’t like the assignment very much, and briefly flirted with the idea of asking me to preach that Sunday.

Well, I wish she had, because maybe then I wouldn’t have to preach about today’s Gospel text. Mark 9:38-50, with its parallels in the other Gospels, is one of the New Testament passages from which the doctrine of the eternal punishment of the wicked is derived. In other words, hell.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Hell is all about revenge, and I like the theme of revenge as much as the next guy. I like the Die Hard movies, and the Dirty Harry films. When I was trying to get started writing this sermon, I also began to think about some of the early James Bond movies with Sean Connery — still, in my opinion, the definitive portrayal of Agent 007. Specifically, I began thinking about the end of Goldfinger. I couldn’t remember all the details, so I rented the film to rewatch the ending, and then of course I needed to put the ending in context, so I ended up watching the whole film. This was research, you understand, and if there’s anything I’m a stickler for, it’s good, hard, exegetical research.

The scene I was specifically trying to remember, and remember exactly, so I could recount it to you, was the death of the villain of the piece, a repulsive, obsessively greedy man named Auric Goldfinger. Having been foiled by Bond in his cunning plan to blow up Fort Knox with a dirty atomic bomb and therefore make his own gold holdings ten times more valuable, Goldfinger manages to escape. He does so by dressing up as a U.S. general and killing the soldiers guarding the small private jet that is to fly Bond to Washington to be congratulated by the President. The plane, as it turns out, is being flown by Goldfinger’s chief pilot, a woman whose name I cannot even mention in a family-oriented sermon. This woman had at first, strangely enough, seemed impervious to Bond’s charms.

She eventually succumbed, of course—no woman is a match for the charms of James Bond– and she then helped Bond foil Goldfinger’s plot. But now she seems helpless as Goldfinger holds them both hostage with his solid-gold gun as the plane flies through the air. Bond, however, manages to divert Goldfinger’s attention momentarily and grab for the gun, and in the melee that follows he shoots out the window on the plane and the evil Goldfinger, who has killed two of Bond’s girlfriends and several other people in particularly nasty ways, himself meets a horrible end—sucked out of the plane with a terrified look on his face. Bond, stumbling forward to the cockpit, is greeted by his new girlfriend with the words, “What’s going on? What happened to Goldfinger?” And Bond says, “He’s playing his golden harp,” as the plane goes into a nose dive, from which they escape just in the nick of time, I won’t tell you how, because I don’t want to spoil the movie for you.

But I love that line, “He’s playing his golden harp.” Isn’t it just so fitting? The man who has so cruelly dispatched others, even suffocating one of Bond’s lady friends by having her unconscious body painted from head to toe in gold paint—this terrible Goldfinger himself meets a horrible end, and the instrument of his destruction is his own golden gun. Doesn’t that make you want to stand up and cheer? Continue reading

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost — Rev. Karen Barfield

Mark 7:24-37

Well, there’s not much to say as intro to today’s Gospel other than that I wished I had looked ahead and asked Joel to preach!

But (obviously) I didn’t… so I’ll just dive in, offering my reflections for your consideration, sometimes quoting the Rev. David Henson, an Episcopal priest, who has worded his, and my, thoughts so beautifully that I cannot improve them.

Until a few days ago, I have always read the story of the Syrophoenician woman and Jesus as another healing story of someone – in this case a child – possessed by a demon, albeit a story of an uncharacteristically brash Jesus.

As I reflected more deeply on the story, however, I began to wonder if this also might be a story of the healing of Jesus! Continue reading

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost — Rev. Karen Barfield

Song of Solomon 2:8-13
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

“The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills….
My beloved speaks and says to me:

“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.” (Song of Solomon 2:8-13)

When hearing these words, it is difficult not to get caught up in their life-giving Spirit!

Whether the beloved is a human lover or a loving God, one cannot help but take delight upon hearing the words:

“Look, he comes…leaping upon the mountains…bounding over the hills!”

The beloved takes such joy in us that he comes leaping and bounding.

“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away….”

The cold and wet winter is past,
the flowers are blooming,
the birds are singing,
the air is filled with fragrance,
fruit emerges on the vines.

Life is full,
and overflowing with richness.

It is a moment to breathe deeply.

It is God’s gift of creation
and re-creation.
It is good.

The tenor of our first reading echoes in the first words of today’s reading from the Letter of James:

“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above…he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” (James 1:17-18)

We are created by a loving and compassionate God to extend God’s loving embrace to the world in which we live.

When we hear words such as these from the Song of Solomon, it is easy to remember and feel embraced as God’s beloved, and yet as we are reminded in the remainder of the reading from James and in our reading from Mark’s Gospel, it is all to easy to have our hearts swayed by the world around us. Continue reading

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost — Rev. Karen Barfield

I Kings 8:1,6,12-11,22-30,41-43
Psalm 84
John 6:56-69

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

In today’s scripture readings we hear words of challenge, promise and home…a place of being and belonging in the presence of God.

When you were a child or maybe even an adult and were experiencing something frightening, did someone ever tell you: “Go to your happy place?”

What might that place be for you?

….the place where you feel safe and protected…surrounded by the love of God?

For me, one of the places I visit in my mind and heart when I am in need of some Peace is a hillside in Scotland. The grass is green and the air is crisp, but the sun is gently warming my face as I lie there looking up at the clouds drifting by.

At the bottom of the hill is a stream with an old water mill slowly turning.
The ducks are quacking as they search for food.
Occasionally a child laughs in delight.

There is stillness
and life
all at the same time.

In today’s Psalm we hear that

“the sparrow has found her a house
and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young;
by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts…
Happy are they who dwell in your house!” (Ps 84:3-4)

Whatever the place that you find rest in God…hold that place in your heart while we journey into the gospel…. Continue reading

Combat Theology: Developing Martial Competency for Ministry

Saturday, August 8, 9:00 am – 3:00 pm, Blacknall Presbyterian Church

Since 2008, Centurions Guild has ministered with men and women in the military as well as their dependents, learning together what it means to have been called by Christ but touched by war. What we have learned is that war is too often thought of and taught in abstractions, overlooking the very soldiers and veterans whose lives make war possible. The result is that the people and ideas produced by war often become dismembered bodies left in its wake. Combat, on the other hand, is personal, specific, and impossible to ultimately define. Rather than abstract speculative theologies about war, the Church needs radically engaged theologies of combat and its effects on people we care for.

In this introductory Combat Theology workshop, Iraq veteran and Executive Officer Logan Isaac will provide attendees with resources for meaningfully engaging military personnel in congregations and classrooms alike. Whether you are a pastor, a seminary professor, or a layperson with connections to the military, you will walk away with a better understanding of the complicated intersection of Christian faith and military service. Ticket includes all the materials provided and light break-time beverages & refreshments. Suggested donation to cover costs is $10 – $15.

Join us before the workshop at 8am for “First Formation” (AKA Morning Prayer, from the Book of Common Worship) led by Rev. Karen Barfield in the sanctuary of St Joseph’s Episcopal Church. Blacknall is located right across the street from St. Joseph’s at 1902 Perry Street.

Space is limited; attendees are asked to register in advance.