Category Archives: Sermons

What were you made for?

The Rev. Noah Van Niel

St. John the Evangelist

January 14th, 2018

Epiphany 2 (B): 1 Sam 3:1-10; Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-17; 1 Cor 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

I am aware that when we are singing the Anglican chant settings of the psalms, it can sometimes be hard to process what the words are saying while trying to get all the notes and markings correct. Beauty comes at a price. However I want to call your attention Calling-of-Philip-Nathaniel-e1483799461281back to Psalm 139 a portion of which we sang this morning because I think it is one of the most profound psalms in the entire Bible.

I can tell you the first time I noticed Psalm 139. It was January 18th 2015, the second Sunday after the Epiphany, in the second year of our three year cycle of Sunday morning readings, precisely the same Sunday we find ourselves at today. Melinda was about 10 weeks pregnant with Vincent and so when the psalmist used the wonderful metaphors of gestation to try and articulate just how intimately God knows each and every one of us—it’s as if God created our inmost parts, and wove us together in the depths of the earth—it hit me with greater poignancy and power than it ever had before. How amazing to have a God whose power reaches so high that we cannot attain to it, and so low that He is knitting us together in the womb. How wondrous.

Three days later the psalm took a turn in a different direction however, when we went in for an ultrasound to check on how things were progressing. No one should ever have to experience the feeling of rising anxiety as the radiologist goes silent, and starts digging around on the belly. The already dark room closes in around you, your stomach ties up in a knot, your heart rises into your throat. “Is something the matter?” I asked, after a few minutes, not wanting to know. She stopped digging around and turned to face us. “I don’t see a right hand,” she said. “Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb…”

I won’t pretend that I was thinking of Psalm 139 in that moment. In fact I wasn’t thinking much of anything in that moment or for the days that followed. This news knocked us off our feet for a bit. But those lines echoed back to me eventually and, to be honest I thought it a cruel joke. For what kind of a God is a God who would leave those limbs unfinished in the womb?

But if we’re being honest, more honest than we usually are in church, our bodies are rarely a place of divine encounter. For a very few they are a source of great vanity. And for the rest of us, even those of us with all the normal number of fingers and toes, they are a source of, shame, frustration, and embarrassment. To think that God made us this way—with all these wrinkles and rolls, blemishes and boils, scabs and scars, aches and pains—is not exactly to experience joy and wonder in the face of the Almighty. Our bodies are often a place to focus on our flaws—both the external flaws we work hard to hide from all but a very trusted few and the internal flaws that we know make up our minds and hearts. If God made all this, I’m not so sure I should be saying thank you.

And yet, if we can find a way to step back and look not at the flaws of our creation but the fact of it, the very fact that we have these complex biological machines which can do so many incredible things, and think so many incredible thoughts and feel so many incredible feelings, then despite its limitations our body and the person it houses becomes a miracle. Each and every one of us, a miracle. And we can start to see why Paul would be going on so strongly about our bodies as Temples of the Holy Spirit, to be treated as sacred gifts from our creator. The truth of Psalm 139 is not in the perfection of our creation, but in the marvel of it. “I will thank you because I am marvelously made,” not “I will thank you because I am perfectly made.” And by God is Vincent marvelously made. We didn’t know it would feel like that back in January 2015, but I can say it with absolute conviction now. I don’t believe that God made him this way on purpose, but I do believe God made him the boy he is, and that boy is marvelous.

What the Psalmist is trying to communicate through the language of incubation is not some scientific theory of reproduction, but a location of divine revelation. A place for an epiphany. God’s wonder and power is made visible in the marvels of our bodies. God knows our physical flaws and our selfish thoughts. God knows our shameful feelings and our frequent failings. He knows us that intimately, that closely. But all those things we see as flaws, that make us feel embarrassed or different from everyone else, are actually the things that make us uniquely who we are. They are our unique markings that make each of us capable of a unique relationship with God and a unique impact on this world. Our bodies are God’s handiwork, through which we can glorify and encounter the Almighty. For even through those things we see as broken in us—and not in spite of them, but because of them—God can say, “my works are wonderful, and I know it well.” Do we know it well, too?

God’s knowledge of and manifestation in the marvels that are our bodies, leads to a second aspect of the God that is closely related and just as important. God is one who creates AND, because of that, one who calls. It is because God has searched us out and known us, because God knows our sitting down and rising up and discerns our thoughts from afar that God doesn’t just make us, but makes us for a purpose. Our readings from 1 Samuel and from the first chapter of John are stories of call. Of people who were living fine lives, whom God came to—in a voice at the early hours of the dawn for Samuel, or in the person of Jesus Christ to Phillip and Nathanael—and said I have more in store for you. I made you for more than this. “Where did you get to know me?” Nathanael asks, Jesus. “I saw you under the fig tree before Phillip called you,” Jesus responds. “You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways.”

God calls us because God knows us. And calls us not generally but specifically. God called Samuel to be a prophet and priest who had a vitally important role in the anointing of King Saul and then King David. Jesus called Phillip and Nathanael away from their lives in Galilee to a life of discipleship and all the wonders and hardship that entailed. Where is God calling you? Too often we talk about a “calling” only in the context of ordained ministry. But I can assure you, God calls people to far more interesting and important roles than that. I know a man who, mid-career, left a job at a big pharmaceutical company to become a High School English teacher. That was what he had always wanted to do, it was his calling. It can’t have been an easy change to make, it certainly didn’t pay as well. But last year he emailed me a video of himself giving the school’s faculty commencement address. I was so impressed. Not because the speech was good, though it was. But because I have rarely seen such a happy man. It was clear in his communication and in his speech that he was loving life, loving work all because he had the courage to follow where God was calling him.

He’s not alone. I’ve heard stories of calls fulfilled from and nurses and doctors who love their work, from artists who cannot help but create, from mothers or fathers whose calling is to rear an excellent family, heck we have an exterminator who comes to address a small mouse issue at the curacy who seems to just adore his job. I hear that kind of vocational fulfillment less often from lawyers, bankers and financial advisors, but I do hear it. Friends, our lives are such a gift, and they are so short. Where is the God who made you, who knows you better than you know yourself, who presses on you in front and behind, calling you to go? What were you made for? Even if it can’t be your profession, do not neglect your calling, for in doing so you neglect the gift of a life full of glory.

God creates and God calls. The challenge of this life is to make those two things match up; to be the person and do the things God made you for. If you are someone who has found that calling, congratulations that’s a wonderful gift. But don’t stop listening because even still God may have more in store for you. This is the work of our lives, and we will spend years, maybe even decades deciphering the answer. Would that it were as clear as it was for Samuel, or the disciples. Would that we could be sure how God wanted us to use these bodies He fashioned and would that we had enough time to figure it out. “How deep I find your thoughts, O God, how great is the sum of them. If I were to count them, they would be more in number than the sand; to count them all, my life span would need to be like yours.” That is the hard part but it is also the fun part. Taking our bodies, our minds, our hearts, those unique and specific things that make you, you, and then searching, listening, trying, praying, asking, thinking about how you can align yourself with God’s purposes for you. It’s like a great treasure hunt, full of U-turns and dead ends, with long stretches of wandering in the desert seeking some direction and some little successes along the way where you know that yes, this is what I was meant to do on this earth. It is exasperating and it is hard and it is never-ending but I tell you what, if you stick with it, with following God’s call for you, it won’t be perfect, but it will be marvelous because you are marvelously made.

A Child of God

The Rev. Noah Van Niel

St. John the Evangelist

December 31st, 2017

Christmas I (B): Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; ChildofGod-300x240John 1:1-18

“Child of God,” is one of those phrases of faith that have been used so often through history and in so many different contexts that it is danger of losing its meaning. First of all there are Adam and Eve, who were God’s first children, then it was used throughout the Old Testament to refer to the chosen people of Israel. And then things get really confusing when Jesus shows up because here’s one we refer to very clearly as not just a child of God, but the Son of God, which is and isn’t the same thing. Then we have Paul talking about how we become children of God through faith, which sounds exciting but also confuses the matter some more. And then in more modern parlance we get phrases like, “she is a beautiful child of God,” or “we are all God’s children.”

In our day and age, when people talk about “children of God” I think they mean to communicate that everyone is created and beloved by God regardless of class, color or creed. That is true. But that’s not quite the same thing as what it has meant through Judeo-Christian history to be a “child of God,” because, being a “child” implies a relationship, a reciprocity, or at the very least, an acknowledgement of the divine. To be a child of God is to recognize that you are not the source of your own existence. Without that recognition we remain creations of God, not children of God.

Now I don’t know about you, but I’m more interested in being a child of God than a creation of God. And not because God distinguishes between the two as far as how much He loves and cares about them; God’s abundant love and mercy is bestowed equally on all. But embracing our identity as children God is more about what we gain from it, and what the world gains from it. Because to try and live in to our identity as children of God is to try and live in a way that draws us deeper in to the heart of God so that our lives and, hopefully the lives of those around us, are made fuller, richer, more wondrous and more glorious.

So how do we go from a creation of God to a child of God? What does that look like to live as children of God? Our readings this morning give us three answers. I’ll take them in order, even though none of them supersedes the others; they are all equal, and all essential to living in to becoming a child of God.

In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah gives us an exuberant exposition of how one is to live outwardly as a child of God. For Isaiah, to be a child of God is to be clothed with righteousness and praise. Every step, every word, every action aspires to goodness and love. And when it does, God’s glory shines through us as a beacon to the world. I know you’ve had times in your life where people have so inspired you by the kindness of their words or generosity of their deeds that your interaction with them became a holy moment. Being a child of God means being one of those people. But it doesn’t take being a hero.

A few months ago I was out for a walk with both my boys in our double stroller. I came to the crosswalk right outside the church here that cuts across Main St. to the west side of Water St. Now people are often cruising along Main St. at that point and don’t see you waiting at the crosswalk so we’ve learned to be extra careful crossing there to make sure people really are going to stop. That morning one car blew right through the crosswalk while we were waiting. It wasn’t a big deal, happens all the time. He passed and we went on a few seconds later to continue our walk. But as we got down towards the train tracks on Water St. a car pulled up and stopped in the middle of the road. A young man rolled down his window.  “Excuse me,” he shouted across the street. “I just went right through that crosswalk that you were waiting at, and I shouldn’t have done that. I just wanted you to know I was sorry.” I was rather stunned by this confession (especially since I’ve spent most of my life in Boston), but I managed to thank him, tell him it was no big deal and he went on his way. Now I wasn’t wearing my collar or anything, so there was no reason he should feel compelled to have turned his car around and come searching for us other than the fact that, for some blessed reason or another, this man decided that he wanted to go above and beyond to do the good thing, to live righteously. And I’ll tell you, I was surprised by how deeply that gesture affected me, for in it was revealed the potential of people to shine as a beacon of goodness in even small ways, to live as a child of God and inspire others to do the same. That level of goodness is not beyond us. When people see us they should be dazzled by the way in which we shine with God’s love. That’s how “our whole being [can] exult in [our] God.”

In that sense Isaiah is telling us what it means to be a child of God in our bodies, in the activity of our lives. Our second reading, from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, teaches us another aspect of what it means to be a child of God. It is through the heart, the working of the Spirit deep within that implants in us a longing, a desire, a crying out for our “Abba!” which means “Daddy!” It is that longing for God which comes not from a cognitive place, but from the mysterious caverns of our souls where our instincts and emotions reside. The place which houses those things we feel most strongly and where God’s Spirit works within us to make us long for a connection. When I hear my sons crying out for me, and not just whining, but crying out “Daddy!” it comes from a place of pure emotion, straight from the heart and it’s a wild, untamed part of us. They may be overreacting, or unnecessarily afraid but for them it is an authentic explosion of need and longing that cannot be stifled. It is that Spirit, welling up from within us, that drives us to our knees, or calls to us through the dark, or causes us to pray with sighs too deep for words. That, according to St. Paul, is what makes us children of God. To be a child of God is to be in touch with those deep places in our souls—our wants, our hopes, our dreams, our fears, our passions—and to spend time dwelling in them, bringing them in to the light because in those deep places, we often find God speaking most clearly and we know most purely how it feels to be God’s child.

This Spirit that dwells in our hearts is in many ways similar to the Word which John’s Gospel introduces as our co-eternal creator with God. God’s Word, God’s very life is planted in us, his beloved creations. And that divine life is “the light of all people.” But there’s more to being a “child of God” for John than just that divine spark within all of us. For John, to be a child of God we need to receive and believe: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” Isaiah tells us what it means to be a child of God in our body, Paul in our heart, and John, in our mind. For it is through this choice, this very conscious choice to receive the Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ and to believe in him, that we become children of God. To be a child of God in this instance means it is our responsibility to engage in the questions of faith; to listen, to learn, to consider and contemplate, and then ultimately, hopefully, to receive and to believe. For it is in cultivating our minds, our reason, our Logos, that we realize being a child of God is to exercise the most incredible creation God has implanted in us—our minds—and use them to find the answers to the most puzzling and persistent questions of our lives.

We stand here at the precipice of a new year, a future full of possibility, unrealized and unknown; a time of resolutions and changes. This year commit yourself to being a child of God not just a creation of God. Live adorned with righteousness and praise so that when people encounter you they are blinded by the radiance of God’s glory and goodness shining through you. Spend time in prayer so as to let loose those deep yearnings from within your soul, for it is in those stirrings of your heart that God speaks most directly and most clearly. And then learn, listen, contemplate and consider, wrestle and receive and believe all that wisdom that has been given unto you through Jesus Christ. For if you do those things you will know what it truly means—in mind, body and soul—to be a child of God. That’s the kind of resolution that could make this quite a happy new year indeed.

The Christmas Question

The Rev. Noah Van Niel

St. John the Evangelist

December 17th, 2017

Advent III (B): Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thess 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Every so often you need to start a sermon with a confession and today is one of those days: I love Christmas. I love the cards and the colors and the candles. I love the bells and tXMas Decorationshe boxes and bunting. I love that as a society we collectively decide to thumb our noses at 4pm sunsets and bedazzle our homes with resplendent lights. I love that in the face of bare branches all around we defiantly swag our doors with evergreens. I love the music: the joy of melodies well written and well sung, harmonies that create new beauties of sound and lift your soul to greater heights. I’ve had the choir of King’s College Cambridge Christmas CD on in my office for weeks now, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I love that for days, people spend time thinking about those they love, and those in need, and for once, instead of walking through malls or searching on amazon thinking only of themselves, they try to stand in the shoes of another and wonder what they might want. I love the parties, the magical warm spirit that permeates the world this time of year, I love Santa, I love the cookies, and good lord, I love Eggnog. I love Christmas. Everything about it. Continue reading