Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Sermon October 12, 2014

The 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
Proper 23

Matthew 22:1-24

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

      Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.”  So many times when we read Bible passages we have to exert ourselves in order to understand what is being said.  After all, the cultural references of an agrarian society of two thousand years ago are very different from ours today.  Things such as sheaves of grain, vineyards, and the ways of sheep and shepherds aren’t part of everyday reality for most of us.  But the context of today’s passage isn’t as great a stretch for us.  Even if wedding customs have changed a great deal over two millennia, we can appreciate that a wedding banquet is an important event indeed, particularly a wedding banquet given by a king for his son.
            We can appreciate the trouble someone goes to when holding a wedding reception.  When our daughter was married almost four years ago, my husband and I didn’t kill any oxen or fat calves for the dinner. But like most of you who have planned a wedding for a daughter, we went to considerable expense and trouble to make sure our guests would be well fed.  We hired a hall and caterers and arranged for beautiful flowers and an enormous and elaborate cake.  With our daughter and prospective son-in-law, we spent a great deal of time putting together a guest list and making suitable seating arrangements.  All of us would have been devastated if too many reply cards came back marked “will not attend,” or worse, if we received no reply at all.
            So now envision the king in Jesus’ parable.  It is most certainly rude to blow off a wedding invitation from a friend or a relative.  It’s absolutely unthinkable to blow off a wedding invitation from a king.  Worse, some of the invited guests mistreated or even killed the bearers of the king’s invitations.  Kings in those days could do things most of them could never do today. This king retaliated by killing the scorners in return.  This affair is far more serious than  a breach of etiquette, however unfortunate such a breach might be. I think it might also be a good thing to remember that this is a parable and not an account of an actual wedding  banquet.
            We are meant to understand the characters in this parable to have cosmic significance.  As you might imagine, the king represents God.  The son represents Jesus.  The first invited guests are intended to be seen as the nation of Israel. The first slaves who were killed by them are intended to stand for the Hebrew prophets.  The group of slaves sent out to the highways and byways to find substitute guests are the later missionaries.  Finally, the new wedding guests, the ones who actually show up, are meant to be seen as the people who will come to follow Jesus.
            At this point I feel compelled to say a word about what is NOT going on here.  This story should most definitely not be understood as a condemnation of Israel.  Scholars assert that this parable doesn’t excuse an attitude of smugness by Christian readers.  Scholars likewise maintain that the parable is most definitely NOT espousing anti-Judaism.  Jesus makes very clear that the guests who actually attend the wedding banquet are not the “good” guests, as opposed to the “bad” ones who turned down the king’s invitation.  When the last group of slaves went out to the streets to find guests, Jesus tells us quite clearly that they “gathered all whom they found, both good and bad.”
            Badness, however one defines it, isn’t a reason for exclusion from the party.  Yet we have the curious instance of the man whom the king orders to be thrown out.  The king notices that one man isn’t wearing a wedding robe.  When the king asks the man why he isn’t wearing a wedding robe, the man offers no answer.  The king tells his attendants “to bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Now if you’ve ever shown up for a party and found you weren’t wearing quite the right outfit—and many of us have--you might be able to identify with the man without the wedding robe.
            The unnamed man has committed an offense, but one that isn’t a mere dress code violation.  The wedding robe isn’t just a wedding robe, just like the king in this parable isn’t just a king, but a symbol for God.  The lack of a wedding robe is more than the simple failure to prepare properly to attend a wedding, though it is indeed that too.  There is an association in scripture that links a change of clothing with conversion. Galatians 3:27 contains such a reference.  “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”
            Also, the original disciples hearing this parable would have been familiar with the Jewish concept of kavanah.  Kavanah refers to the mindset required for the performing of Jewish rituals or for the praying of Jewish prayers.  Kavanah is the appropriate turning of the heart and mind and soul to God, a prerequisite for worship.  Just as an aside, I have to wonder if it was intentional on the part of the novelist Jan Karon that the name of the beloved priest in her Mitford series is Timothy Kavanagh.  Father Tim most certainly has his heart and mind and soul turned to God most of the time. 
            So it’s not enough, the parable tells us, just to show up at the feast.  It’s not enough just to show up at synagogue services or for church services.  We need to come properly dressed, metaphorically speaking, with our hearts and minds and souls disposed to worship God. We understand that.  However, that might still leave you feeling just a bit awkward, because not everyone comes to church exactly in a spirit of kavanah.  We often arrive rushed, stressed, and with our mind on the argument we just had with our spouse or with the teenager who refused to get up this morning.  It happens, even to the clergy sometimes.  We’re living life, not a parable.
            What I think would be a good thing for us to do at this point is to go back a few lines earlier in the parable and consider something else that the story might be saying to us as a church.  Remember that the slaves went out and “gathered all whom they found, both good and bad.”  Does this look to you like the mission of our church? By our church I mean both the Episcopal Church in general and St. John’s in particular.  I can think of many strategies for church growth that involve recruiting young families into congregations.  Nobody disputes that recruiting young families is a good thing.  It is indeed a good and joyful thing to be a community that forms young souls in the faith. 
But have you often—or ever, for that matter—heard of strategies to fill our pews with other people whom life has already formed in ways that seem less than desirable?  Do we go out and seek homeless people, people who’ve served time in prison, or people who are suffering from addictions to drugs or alcohol?  We have programs for these populations. They all fall under the heading of “outreach.”  The word “out” speaks volumes about our approach. I invite you to join me in thinking about just whom we invite IN to our Eucharistic feast every Sunday.  The king of the parable had his slaves gather ALL they found, the good AND the bad, to the wedding banquet.  We might consider how we might do the same.
We also might want to consider whose church this is.  St. John’s isn’t our church.  St. John’s is God’s church.  Our weekly eucharist is God’s to share, not ours.  Every Sunday the King holds a wedding banquet for his son. All may attend, good and bad, however we define those terms.  There is no dress code, save that we be clothed in Christ.  And because we live in a real world and not in the parable, we might come late or grumpy or both.  The important thing is that we’ve come, come to the wedding banquet that we know as Eucharist.  Amen.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Advent 4A, December 22, 2013

Matthew 1:18-25

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Here we are, this Sunday morning, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent.  Already.  While it seems like Thanksgiving was just yesterday, Christmas really is just three days away.  When we were children, this might have been a time of giddy anticipation.  Even if our families weren’t well off materially, there was still the expectation of something extra, something in the way of baked goods or presents or parties that made Christmastime special for us.  We see the same joyful expectation in the faces of our young friends and family.
For those of us of riper years, the holiday is a bit more complicated.  We’re haunted by the ghosts of Christmases past, frazzled by the preparations of Christmas present, and worried about the Christmases yet to come.  Thanks to the influences of Norman Rockwell, Hallmark, consumer capitalism, and Martha Stewart, we have high expectations of our Christmas holiday.  The d├ęcor should be perfect, the food uniformly delicious—no burnt cookies in this picture.  The presents should be plentiful and the atmosphere harmonious.
            Of all our expectations for holiday perfection, the one about family harmony is the one most fraught with worry.  Past Christmases may have lacked something in this area.  Too many of us can remember a Christmas dinner that some relative or another left in the middle because they were unable to deal with something that someone said or did at the dinner table.   Maybe we were even the person who left, or the one who provoked the departure.  It’s hard to remember how the trouble got started.  The details don’t matter; it’s the sense of uneasiness that’s engraved in our memory.  It probably doesn’t help that we are in literally the darkest days of the year, just before the days start to lengthen again.
            Going into this Christmas, less than pleasant memories are close at hand, and we’re uneasy.  We’re hoping that great-aunt Mary doesn’t comment on our daughter’s newest piercings or the tattoos that cover our son’s entire left forearm.  We’re praying that granddad doesn’t ask our sister’s son when he’s going to bring a girlfriend home to meet the family, because our nephew has recently confided that he’s gay but isn’t ready to be out to the whole family.  We’re holding our collective breaths that Uncle Al doesn’t drop by while our cousin’s here with her new boyfriend, because the boyfriend happens to be Muslim, and Al can’t be depended on to keep his prejudice to himself.  We might be worried about the influence of alcohol on all of the above.
            As if we don’t have enough on our minds, there are concerns beyond this Christmas.  Looking ahead to next year, we fear that by next Christmas Grandma won’t be with us any longer.  Her congestive heart failure is nearing the end stage.  More immediately, we know that there will be layoffs at work early in the new year.  We made it through the last round, but the rumors have been flying that our department will be the next to be hit.  The bills will still roll in even if the paychecks dry up.  We’re not sure how the festivities and the presents will be paid for.
            Odds are that one or more of the aforementioned worries are your worries too.  We’re wishing we could have the perfect Christmas, with plenty of food and presents, and all of the family present and able to put aside their issues and worries at least for a day.  Isn’t that what Christmas is supposed to be?  Wasn’t that was what Christmas was like in the good old days? 
            It depends on whose good old days we’re talking about.  If we go back to the very oldest days, the very beginning of Christmas, the very first Christmas, we don’t find much comfort at all.  We think our families have troubles!  Think about what’s going on in the Gospel reading for today.  Really think about what’s going on here.  It’s a mess of epic proportions. 
            Mary and Joseph are engaged to be married.  In their cultural context, an engagement meant more than a ring on prospective bride’s finger and a hefty deposit on a reception hall.  The commitment was sealed; all that was lacking was for the couple to share a home.  Imagine, then, that Mary is found to be pregnant, and that Joseph is not the father.  That’s pretty scandalous right there.  Actually it’s more than scandalous.  Such a pregnancy would have been evidence of Mary’s unfaithfulness, and would have been a capital offense in first century Palestine.  Unfaithful women in that time and place could be stoned to death.  That Mary is supposed to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit doesn’t make things any better.  Mary’s parents must have been beside themselves.  Joseph would have been well within his rights to call off the engagement in a public manner that would expose Mary to disgrace at best and possibly even to death by stoning.
            If you read the geneology in the very first verses of Matthew, you’ll find that Joseph marrying an already pregnant Mary wouldn’t be the first marital irregularity in this family.  In the sixth verse of chapter one, Matthew states that “David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife.”  Do you remember the story of David and Bathsheba?  Bathsheba was Uriah’s wife, but David was so infatuated with her that he conceived a child with her and then sent Uriah off to be killed in battle so that Uriah would never discover that the child wasn’t his.  Matthew makes no secret that Joseph’s—and by adoption, Jesus’s—family history has a dark chapter indeed.
            Now let’s return to Joseph and the dilemma he faces.  Joseph was a compassionate man, and he was loath to hurt Mary.  He decided not to deal with her harshly but planned instead to “dismiss her quietly,” as Matthew tells us.  Before he could act on his intention, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  In case we’re not as convinced as Joseph was, Matthew further tells us “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’”
            In these few verses, Matthew gives us two names for our consideration, and they are important names indeed.  First, the angel tells Joseph that he and Mary are to name the child Jesus.  Now Jesus—or Yeshua in Hebrew—was a very common name at that time.  The child doesn’t get a name that stands out, but an ordinary name that makes him at least by name like everyone else.  In our time, Jesus might well have been named John Doe.  Second, the prophecy from Isaiah that Matthew quotes says that the son born to the virgin is to be named Emmanuel, meaning “God is with us.”  The baby Jesus is to be at the same time totally ordinary, yet at the same time is to be God with us.
            So what then does our reading from Matthew’s gospel say to us today, the twenty-second of December in the year of our Lord 2013?  What does Matthew have to say to us as we compare the perfect Christmas we imagine and long for with the Christmas we actually look forward to with both anticipation and considerable concern?
            Matthew’s gospel has abundant good news for us today.  God is coming into the world to present for us literally and in human flesh.  God is coming into the world to be present for us not in idealized circumstances but in a situation that is as broken as any we can imagine.  As Christians we know well about Jesus’ saving us through his death and resurrection.  But God’s saving us through Jesus didn’t begin with the crucifixion.  God’s saving action began right with Jesus’ entry into the world, indeed even before then.
            God didn’t choose to come into the world in the form of the baby born to a powerful family, or a wealthy family, or into a family that was even proper in the world’s eyes.  God didn’t choose to come into the world as anyone who was marked as an extraordinary person with an extraordinary name; Jesus was a common name indeed for a baby boy.  God came into the world as a baby boy who was less than ordinary, questionable as his parentage appeared to be.  God chose to come into the world to be with us in our brokenness, not avoiding it.  Emmanuel means “God is with us,” not with us in perfect lives, but with us in the lives we actually have.  O come O come Emmanuel. Amen.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

A New Commandment

5 Easter Year C
April 28, 2013

Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I invite you to imagine, if you will, that you’re sitting at the table with Jesus and the other disciples.  You’re all in the upper room with the door shut, maybe even locked.  The atmosphere is filled with fear, sadness, and tension.  You’ve known for quite some time that your beloved teacher is in grave danger.  He’s been making the authorities nervous; he’s been even making his followers nervous.  He’s definitely making you nervous.   Nobody else talks the way he does, about his relationship to his Father—and he says God is his father—and about the new kingdom.  He’s just done something really strange—he’s washed everyone’s feet.  That was a really weird thing for a teacher to do for his disciples.  Most upsetting is his talk about going to a place where no one else can come.  For a while it was possible to deny that Jesus, your beloved teacher and friend, was going to die.  But there’s no more denying it now.  Judas has left the room, clearly heading for the authorities to betray Jesus.  You long for a word of consolation, of wisdom.  Surely, you’re thinking, Jesus will have a detailed plan to help cope with this catastrophe.  Surely he will have clear instructions to be followed in his absence.  They will be complex, you expect, and you and the others will have to pay close attention to the details.  You’re not prepared for what Jesus actually does say, not at all.
As it turns out, there’s no big plan for what to do after the unthinkable happens.  Jesus first talks about the Son of Man having been glorified and that God has been glorified in him. Glory, you think?  Really, Jesus?  How does that work?  It was looking bad for you, and now, courtesy of Judas, the Roman government is definitely going to kill you.  That’s glory?  If anyone else had said this, you would have argued.  But this is Jesus talking.  Jesus continues, and he catches you up short.  “Little children,” he says, “I am with you only a little longer.”  Little children?  You’re an adult; so is everyone else in the room.  Nobody’s called you a little child for a long time.  But that’s what you feel like right now: a little child, a frightened little child who will soon be separated from the one you have come to trust, and yes, even believe in.  Jesus’ next words aren’t quite what you expected, either.  His instructions are surprisingly simple.  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”  Your first instinct might be to say, “Is that all, Jesus?”  You’ve been telling us all about love all along.  You’ve told us to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Of course, that’s not exactly original to you.  Loving your neighbor as yourself goes all the way back to Leviticus. 
But Jesus has more to say to those gathered around him.  “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  Just as I have loved you.  We’re in totally different territory now.  How has Jesus loved his disciples?  Jesus’ love has gone far beyond the love of neighbor.  Jesus loves the disciples, his first Twelve and all of us since, even more than he has loved himself.  As Jesus will say a couple of chapters later in John’s Gospel, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” 
This love, this love that goes into, through, and beyond death, is to be the defining mark of what it means to follow Jesus.  The disciples will show they are true followers of Jesus through their love for one another.  Jesus tells them, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  It will be the love for one another that will be the distinguishing mark of Jesus followers, not knowledge of the scriptures, not adherence to the purity laws, not orthodox belief.  This idea might be painful for some us Episcopalians, but Jesus’ followers won’t be known by meticulously performed liturgy, either.  The world will know Jesus’ followers by their love for one another.
Let’s fast forward nearly two millennia to the 1920s.  On May 3, 1926, The New York Times reported on a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Henry Sloane Coffin, then the president of Union Theological Seminary.  Just in case you’re wondering, he was the uncle of minister and activist William Sloane Coffin, who lived more recently.  Dr. Coffin’s message was that love, or what he called friendliness, is the essence of Christianity.  Friendship, he said, was the only weapon used by the betrayed Jesus to fight the forces of evil.  In Dr. Coffin’s words:  “A life was once lived in the earth which embodied friendship.  Can one not sum up pretty much the whole of Christianity in the simple phrase—a friendly Christ revealing a friendly God and producing friendly men and women?”  It may seem odd to us to hear of friendliness spoken of in this way.  For us today, friendliness has more lighthearted connotations and isn’t a word we would use in connection with Christ’s self-sacrificing love.  It doesn’t seem like the appropriate word to use about Jesus, who is being betrayed and who will eventually die; it doesn’t seem to acknowledge the gravity of Jesus’ situation.   But love, or friendliness, can have more power than we might imagine.  Dr. Coffin has more to say on the subject.  He writes:  “Life is cruel with its betrayals.  The best are often those most ill-used.  And there is just one weapon with which to fight, one remedy on which to rely, one tool with which to recreate the world—an unfaltering and unceasing friendliness which goes the length of a body broken and blood outpoured.”
Fast forward another seventy years or so.  I heard this story more than twenty years ago, but it’s something I’ll never forget.  It was at a Lenten program featuring four clergywomen in a panel discussion.  Each woman began by giving a brief account of how she’d come to faith.  Most of the stories contained themes I’d heard before.  One of the women grew up in a devout family, was orphaned, and then found a surrogate family in her faith and in the church.  Another came to faith after being cured of a serious illness.  The third converted to her husband’s faith and made it her own.  The fourth woman, who I’ll call Susan, had another story to tell.  Although she was at this point an Episcopal priest, she’d grown up in England in a family that seldom if ever went to church.  She went from primary school to high school and eventually to university, never feeling the lack of religious affiliation or experience.  But after graduation from university, things changed for Susan.  She took some time off to travel around the country to visit friends, work at a few odd jobs, and to try to figure out what career path might suit her.  At one stop at a university town, she looked up friends of friends in hopes of finding a free place to spend the night.  The friends of friends turned out to be part of an intentional Christian community.  At first, Susan was rather put off.  She didn’t know anyone who went to church, much less committed themselves to communal living in the name of Christ.  But Susan found herself quickly drawn to this community and wanted to become part of it.  Why, you might be wondering?  She said, “They loved each other.  I wanted so much to be a part of that love.”
They loved each other.  It sounds so simple.  It was so simple.  But it was compelling.  Have you ever encountered a group of people whom you could describe in that way?  Have you ever encountered a group of people who loved each other so much that you wanted to join them and be part of that love?  If you have, you’ve never forgotten the experience.  I hope you may have had that experience here at St. John’s.  Very few of us in human history have had the chance to have God speak to us through a burning bush, and all those who met Christ through Jesus of Nazareth are long gone from the earth.  But you can still meet Christ through others in a Christian community where people truly love and care for one another.
You can meet Christ through others right here and right now, in this very room, and later as we gather in the parish hall.  You can also meet Christ today in the Eucharist, which we will celebrate in just a short while.  In receiving that “body broken and blood outpoured,” we remember the one who loved others more than he loved himself, and who commanded us to love one another as he loved us.  Amen.

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.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

New Blog on the Block: Veritable Verger

My fellow Episco-nerds may want to check out my friend Mick's new blog, Veritable Verger--see my bloglist.  Before ordination, I served as verger at a couple of churches.  I'll let Veritable Verger explain just what it is a verger does and why vergers add so much to the liturgy.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

17th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Proverbs 31: 10-31
Psalm 1
James 3: 13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9: 30-37

+In the name of God, our creator, our redeemer, and our sustainer.  Amen.

It’s only the twenty-third of September, or on the church calendar, the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost.  The weather has just begun to cool off after our horrendously hot summer. Fall is definitely in the air.  While we’d like to savor the season, our nation’s retailers are pushing us on towards Christmas with those catalogs that have started to show up in our mailboxes.  Though the church calendar keeps us firmly rooted in the present, today’s Gospel reading nevertheless makes me think ahead, too.  It makes me think about Santa Claus.  You’re probably wondering what I’m thinking of at this point, but please let me explain.
According to the song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” Santa Claus knows if we’ve been naughty or nice even without being able to see or hear us.  He’s making a list and checking it twice.  This idea is a wee bit disconcerting, to say the least.  Popular culture endows Santa Claus with the omniscience that we usually attribute to God, who also knows when we’ve been sleeping, when we’re awake, and if we’ve been bad or good.  You know the rest.  When I was a small child I remember feeling some confusion between God and the bringer of Christmas presents.  Maybe you did too.  I thought that Santa Claus both loved little children and could read their minds.  I also thought that God made lists and kept score.  It wasn’t a comfortable idea at all.  Reward wasn’t guaranteed. Punishment—in the form of coal in one’s Christmas stocking or something eternal—was a real possibility.  Please hold that thought for a little while.
            Let’s go back to our reading from Mark now.  As Jesus and the disciples travel through Galilee to Capurnaum, Jesus tells the disciples that he will be betrayed, killed, and then rise again in three days.  Mark tells us “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”  Now we’ve heard this story over and over again through the years, and it doesn’t strike us as strange or frightening, even though it certainly is.  We affirm Christ’s death and resurrection every Sunday when we say the Nicene Creed.  We know how it all comes out and we know that through the terrible event of the crucifixion comes the salvation of the world.  But the disciples aren’t us.  They are first century Jews living under Roman oppression, walking down a dusty road with the man they’ve given up everything to follow.  They don’t know the end of this story, not in their hearts.  They’re scared.  So what do they do rather than face their fear?  They focus on something they can handle, something they can understand.  They argue about who will be first in Jesus’ kingdom; they argue about who is the greatest among them.
We know that they argue because Mark tells us that they do.  Mark doesn’t include the argument itself.  He doesn’t let us in on which disciple claims the top spot for himself.  We don’t get to hear the dispute, and Jesus apparently doesn’t hear it either.  Jesus asks the disciples what they’d been arguing about, and understandably the disciples don’t want to tell him.  If they’re afraid to ask him about what he’d been teaching them earlier, they’re even more afraid to tell him that after hearing about Jesus’ eventual death, all they’ve been doing is fighting over who’s going to be number one.
It turns out that Jesus doesn’t need to ask the disciples about their dispute.  Without being told, he just knows what they’ve been bickering about.  Mark doesn’t say so, but I think we can safely assume that the disciples were caught up short.  Here is one more sign—on top of all the death and resurrection talk—that their teacher is no ordinary rabbi.  Here too is a clear indication that the disciples have displeased their master.
If the disciples expect a reprimand, they don’t get one, or at least not the kind of reprimand they expect.  Jesus simply calls the disciples and says to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  What Jesus does next is even stranger.  He takes a child and puts it among the disciples.  The twelve would have been taken aback.  We’re used to seeing pictures of Jesus with children and probably grew up singing songs like “Jesus Loves the Little Children” and “Jesus Loves Me.”  In our time and culture children are cherished and singled out by law for special protection.  But the culture of first century Palestine was not like our culture today.  Children were virtually invisible in that society; they might as well have not been people at all.  It’s quite possible that their low status was the response to their high mortality rate; an alarming number of children of that time didn’t live to grow up.
For the disciples, Jesus’ next words are also deeply shocking:  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  In a few words, Jesus undermines the disciples’ assumptions about how God’s kingdom works.  Jesus demonstrates by word and action that everything and everyone the world holds up high is not as valued by God as the littlest and least among us.  No one counted for less in first century Palestine than a child, but Jesus tells us that even the little child is precious in his sight and in the sight of his Father.  The disciples’ notions, and our notions, of who will be first in God’s kingdom mean nothing at all.  God has a different value system entirely.  God cherishes the very ones who were of so little account in Jesus’ time as to be almost invisible.
In our Gospel lesson today the disciples’ notion of who matters in God’s kingdom has been completely turned upside down.  Maybe our notion of who matters in God’s kingdom could stand to be turned upside down too.  Who are the last and the least in our world today?  The undocumented farm worker who picks the food we eat is one of them.  The person standing on the median strip in the intersection with a “Please help” sign is another of the last and the least in our world.  The young mother with several children who stands in endless lines for food and clinic services is among the last and the least.   So is the person in the nursing home who never seems to have any visitors and so is the person with schizophrenia who talks to people we can’t see.
  While most of us here today are relatively privileged people, we’ve all experienced lastness and leastness at one time or another.  For the young, it’s not being picked for a sports team or not being invited to that party that all your friends are talking about.   In our middle years, it’s being laid off from a job or being cast aside by one’s spouse of many years.  As we age, it’s people treating us as if we’re too old to contribute to society any more or as if our opinions no longer matter.  For the rest of us, feeling last and least is what happens when others see our color, gender, or sexual orientation and ignore everything else about us.
The last and the least will be first in God’s kingdom, Jesus tells us.  In a few words Jesus tells us what the kingdom looks like and what being a disciple entails.  Like Jesus and the One who sent him, the disciples are to welcome those whom the world  values least.  As Jesus’ twenty-first century disciples we are to do likewise.  NO ONE is of so little account that they are beyond God’s love and concern, and NO ONE is of so little account that they should be beyond our love and concern either.
Like the disciples in our reading today, we won’t always succeed in living into this charge.  We may fall back into just the kind of disputes that prompted Jesus’ correction of the disciples.  God will know when we welcome the least in the kingdom and when we fail miserably in doing so.  But we don’t have to worry about whether we’ve done well enough to deserve the Christmas present or whether we’ll only get the piece of coal in the stocking.  God isn’t in the business of reward and punishment, and God isn’t in the business of assigning high and low status.  Jesus takes the little child in his arms.  That little child is each and every one of us.  My prayer for us all this week is that we will welcome all the little children among us as we ourselves have been welcomed.  Amen.