Monday, December 17, 2012

Third Sunday of Advent

3 Advent, Year C
December 16, 2012

Zephaniah 3: 14-20
Canticle 9
Philippians 4: 4-7
Luke 3: 7-18

+ In the name of the God who creates us, who redeems us, and who will never leave us alone.  Amen.

            Today is the Third Sunday in Advent, otherwise known as Gaudete Sunday.  The word “gaudete” is the Latin word for “rejoice,” the word that began our Epistle reading today.  We note this Sunday of rejoicing in an otherwise solemn season by lighting a pink candle.  Sometimes the Third Sunday in Advent is also referred to as “stir up Sunday,” from the first words of the collect for today:  “Stir up your power, O Lord.”    Today’s lessons give us both cause to rejoice and to stir up our own hearts.  Let’s see what these lessons might have to tell us today.
            Our reading from Zephaniah is meant to comfort and encourage the early Hebrews living in exile, to reassure them that God won’t let the time in Babylon last forever.  All of this reading’s phrases speak of joy and comfort.  “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!  The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies.”  Likewise, “The LORD, your God is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love.”
            The first song of Isaiah reinforces the sense that God loves us, that God offers us care and protection rather than judgment.  “Surely, it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid.  For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and he will be my Savior.”  If you’re not feeling loved and protected by now, Philippians will surely reassure you with some of the most comforting words scripture has to offer:  “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
            All of these readings are wonderful for us to hear on this Third Sunday of Advent.  It’s hard for us, in our time, to feel such assurance.  We’re worried about our jobs and our access to healthcare.   We’re worried about our environment and the likelihood that there will be a livable earth for our children and grandchildren.  At home we lock our doors and turn on burglar alarms, and far away, our thoughts turn uneasily to the political tinderbox that is the Middle East.  Most disturbing at all, not even forty-eight hours ago, twenty schoolchildren and six adults lost their lives in a mass shooting in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.  When children aren’t even safe in a place dedicated to their nurture, we have to wonder if there’s any safety for any of us anywhere at all.
            If we listen to Zephaniah, Isaiah, and St. Paul, we get to escape from our daily worries into a world where God takes care of us, where life is safe and secure on many levels.  These readings give us the same warm feeling that we might feel on a chilly night when we’re snug in a warm house with our nearest and dearest, with a fire crackling in the fireplace, and some fragrant gingerbread in the oven.  It’s very comfortable in this emotional space, and we’d like to enjoy it forever and ever.
            But we’re not done with today’s readings.  What do we do about Luke’s account of John the Baptist?  John blows through our door like a very unwelcome cold wind.  You might wonder what he’s doing here.  You might wonder exactly what the makers of the lectionary were thinking when they assigned this Gospel to the same Sunday as the other readings.  John’s not very hospitable, to put it mildly.  Crowds have come to be baptized by him, and the greeting they get from him is, “You brood of vipers!”  These words didn’t sound any friendlier two thousand years ago than they sound to us now.  John has more to say that’s uncomfortable for us to hear.  John talks about judgment.  He talks about cutting down trees with an ax and throwing branches into the fire.  Why should we even listen to him?  It’s very tempting to tell him to just go away.
            But John isn’t going anywhere.  He makes us awfully uncomfortable, but we need to hear him.  John has something important to tell us today.  He’s announcing Jesus’ coming, and he’s telling us something else as well.  John is telling us about the way God works in the world.  God is well known for working in mysterious ways.  God tends to send messengers who may seem quite inappropriate.  God tends to send messengers who shock us out of our complacency. And, God sends messengers whose news doesn’t necessarily sound like good news to us.  John is one of those messengers.
            John’s message is a rather blunt way of telling us to get ready for the coming of Jesus.  Getting ready means doing some serious spiritual housecleaning and reorienting. Getting ready means repenting.  The word “repent” literally means “to turn.”  Part of repenting is leading our lives differently and caring for our neighbor:  “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  If we have a position of power, as the tax collectors and soldiers in our reading do, repenting means not abusing our authority to oppress those who are powerless.  John cautions that it’s not enough just to be one of God’s chosen people.  It’s not enough just to be a descendant of Abraham.  John tells us to clean our spiritual house and prune our spiritual orchard.  Whatever isn’t bearing good fruit needs to be cut down and burned.  John announces that one who is more powerful than he is—Jesus—is coming after him.  Jesus will sort out the chaff from the wheat and throw the chaff into the fire.
            This talk of fire is very unsettling.  When we hear about fire, we tend to think about hell-fire.  We twenty-first century Episcopalians don’t like to think very much about hell.  If pressed, most of us would say it doesn’t exist, or if it does exist, that nobody’s there.  We don’t even much like talk about judgment.  So, how then do we reconcile today’s Gospel with our other readings from scripture?  There seem to be two opposing views of reality here.  Which is the right one, and how do we figure that out?
            It’s possible, likely even, that both of these views are right.  We may not need to choose between them.  It’s not an either/or situation, but a case of both/and.  The first thing to keep in mind here is that God operates in ways that to us are hard to fathom.  We can’t say this often enough.  We’re so used to the story of Jesus that it’s easy to forget how strange it is that God would choose to take on the flesh of a baby born to a poor Jewish girl in Nazareth.  But God does exactly that.  It’s even stranger that God’s saving act in Jesus would involve being executed by the Roman government.  But God does exactly that.  God defies conventional wisdom over and over again.  So as strange as John the Baptist might appear to us, his strangeness and his harshness don’t his behavior a departure from God’s way of acting in the world.
            John’s words are strange.  They’re frightening.  This is the time to remember that God is a God of mercy and not of wrath.  If you look at our collect for today, you’ll notice that it contains the petition, “let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.”  In a little while, we’ll all say the Nicene Creed and the words, “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.  For us and for our salvation.  FOR us.  God’s purpose for us is a saving purpose.  God isn’t against us.  God is for us.  Not only is God for us, but God has a dream for us.  God’s dream for us is that we’ll live in a reordered creation, where we will care for our neighbor in need.  Those who have material goods in abundance will share with those who have none.  God’s dream for us envisions a world where those of us in positions of power will refrain from exploiting and oppressing those who have no power. And, I think, God’s dream for us envisions a world in which small children sent off to school in the morning come home safely to us in the afternoon.
            So there is room for all the viewpoints in today’s lessons.  ALL of their points of view are the gift of God.  God so wants us to draw near that God is willing to shake us up in order to make sure that we are ready to welcome Jesus and to attain God’s kingdom.  Zephaniah, Isaiah, and St. Paul give us the vision to keep before us.  Luke’s John the Baptist gives us the wake-up call that will make sure we don’t lose sight of that vision.  God loves us enough to rouse our spirits out of sleep, to stir up our hearts, so that we don’t miss out on God’s promise incarnate in Jesus.  For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.  Let us rejoice and prepare to welcome Jesus into our midst. Amen.


Christ the King Sunday


November 25, 2012

John 18: 33-37

+In the name of God, our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Sustainer.  Amen.

            Today is the day in our church calendar when we celebrate Christ the King.  Since we’re members of the Anglican family of churches, we Episcopalians are a bit more fascinated with kings than are members of other denominations.  Not surprisingly, we’re especially intrigued by one king in particular:  Henry the Eighth of England, who was king during part of the sixteenth century and who was the king most closely identified with our history.
      Henry is a fascinating character.  The young Henry was reputedly handsome; we get some idea of his looks from the famous Holbein portraits of him in his prime.  As Holbein portrayed him, Henry was tall and powerfully built.  His posture and his facial expression in these portraits contributes to the impression of forcefulness.  Henry’s obviously expensive clothing displays wealth as well as power.  He was reputed to have possessed a formidable intellect.  He wasn’t easy to intimidate.  Henry didn’t cower before anyone in his time, not the other rulers of Europe, and not even the Pope.
      Henry the Eighth was all about power and about asserting his will.  The object of that will for all of his reign was a male heir to succeed him.  Nothing, not even his famously devout Catholicism, was going to stand between Henry and his desire for an heir to his throne.  As we all well know, the Pope refused to grant Henry the annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, which he needed to marry Anne Boleyn.  So Henry broke with the Pope and became head of his own church in England.  He married four more women after Anne.  Henry’s quest for an heir involved considerable bloodshed.  He had two of his wives beheaded.   He had several clerics and courtiers tortured and executed as well.  For Henry, maintaining and assuring the future of the monarchy was a violent business indeed.
      Henry is hardly unique in the  history of monarchy.  Kings tend to use brute force to preserve their power.  They often operate in a culture of violence.  They are often surrounded by courtiers and soldiers who swear allegiance to them, but yet can never be completely trusted.  As King Henry the Fourth said in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”  As history will attest, kings must constantly be on the lookout for the next attempt to usurp their throne.  For all their power and might, a sense of safety and security and peace isn’t theirs.   
       Since today is Christ the King Sunday, it’s natural that we might wonder how Jesus fits in with these ideas of monarchy.  He doesn’t seem to fit into any traditional conception of monarchy at all.  So how can we celebrate Christ the King Sunday and still be faithful to the Jesus who is the Good Shepherd, the Jesus who laid down his life for the sheep?  Well, we’re going to have to revise our ideas of kingship somewhat.  Actually, we’re going to have to revise those ideas completely.
      Imagine you are a bystander in the scene we have in today’s Gospel lesson.  You’re in Pilate’s rooms when some soldiers bring in a man.  This man, Jesus of Nazareth, is someone you might easily pass on the street without noticing.  He’s not remarkable in any way, at least in any good way.  He’s not very well dressed, and he looks like he’s been roughed up pretty badly by the soldiers who brought him in. His shabby clothing is torn and not very clean.  His grooming leaves something to be desired; he’s quite dirty and bloody.  You might be able to come up with several adjectives to describe this man, but “royal” or “kingly” wouldn’t be among them.  As you look at this man Jesus, you realize you’ve seen him before, followed by a rag-tag band of associates who seem to hang on his every word.  But now his friends are nowhere to be seen. Another bystander tells you that the friends disappeared the moment Jesus was arrested. Even worse, his closest associate wouldn’t even admit to knowing him.
      Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus’s reply is, to put it mildly, rather strange.  “My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
      Pilate hopes to get a clearer statement from Jesus.  So he asks Jesus, “So you are a king?”  Jesus’s reply this time is as baffling as before. “You say that I am a king.  For this I was born, and for this I came into the world to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
      Jesus’ notion of kingship doesn’t begin to fit Pilate’s frame of reference.  This man Jesus is about as different as anyone can be from Pilate’s own king, Caesar Augustus.  Pilate can’t think of anything else to say except, “What is truth?”  Pilate is done with Jesus at this point.  Jesus doesn’t fit Pilate’s idea of a threat to Roman rule, and anyway, Pilate isn’t interested in having a philosophical discussion.  He offered to release Jesus to the Jewish authorities, but they preferred to have a man named Barabbas released instead.
      While Pilate was done with Jesus, we aren’t.  Far from it.  The question for you and me on this Christ the King Sunday is, “What kind of king IS Jesus?”  What does his kingdom look like? What are we praying for when we say, “thy kingdom come?”  The answers to these questions aren’t obvious.  The disciples certainly didn’t understand Jesus’ kingship.  They squabbled about who was going to sit at his right hand.  Jesus reprimanded them.  He reminded them that in his kingdom the first would be last and “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant.”
      Jesus’s kingdom is every bit as unusual as its king.  It doesn’t make any sense in the conventional understanding of kings and kingdoms.  Jesus’s kingdom has no borders to be defended.  Jesus’s kingdom has no army to fight against anyone who might attack it.  Jesus’s kingdom has no stockpile of weapons.  While there is certainly great power in Jesus’s kingdom, that power lies not in might but in service.  In Jesus’s kingdom, might isn’t right and the strong and rich don’t dominate. Those who would otherwise be insignificant in other contexts matter in Jesus’s kingdom.  The lost sheep is found and brought back into the fold, not left to be eaten by the wolves outside.  The wounded man left by the roadside is picked up and cared for, not by a priest or a Levite, but by a Samaritan, of all people.  The prodigal son is welcomed home before he can even begin to beg for his father’s forgiveness.  Jesus doesn’t shun sinners, tax collectors, and even prostitutes.  He invites them to be his dinner companions instead.
      Jesus’ kingdom is unusual in another respect.  Other kingdoms only exist in a single time period.   But Jesus’ kingdom existed in first century Palestine, it will exist when Jesus comes again in glory, and it exists in the here and now.  Here-and-now.  Jesus’ kingdom exists right here, right now, in Wake Forest, North Carolina.  Imagine that! You can find bits and pieces of Jesus’s kingdom all over this town, wherever people who are hurting, hungry, or homeless are healed, fed, and sheltered.  Tri-Area Ministries’ food pantry is part of Jesus’s kingdom.  ChurchNet, which helps people in need pay bills, is part of Jesus’s kingdom.  The dedicated folks who run our local Meals on Wheels are part of Jesus’ kingdom. These are just a few of the places where you can find Jesus’ kingdom alive and well every day, right here.
      Next Sunday is the First Sunday in Advent.  Then we’ll begin to anticipate actively both Jesus’s entry into the world as a homeless baby and his coming again in glory.  As Matthew describes the scene in his Gospel, when Jesus returns he will sit on the throne of his glory, and say, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.”  Amen.