Monday, January 10, 2011

Epiphany I: Baptism of Christ

This is my final homily as rector of St Anne's (Warsaw, IN). The next time I preach on a Sunday may not be until March 20. So there will probably not be any new entries on this sermon blog until that time.

There’s so much going on today—so many layers of meaning in the 90 minutes or so that we spend in here, and then whatever time we spend next door afterward—that I hardly know where to begin. So I think I’ll begin with Jesus. That’s usually a pretty safe choice for a preacher, but I actually do think that, by starting with Jesus, I’ll be able to tie everything else together in a way that might make sense to most of us.
Today we celebrate the debut of Jesus as a public figure. He’s a mature adult, and has lived his entire life to this point in obscurity as a carpenter in a backwater Galilean village. We know nothing about what went on in his mind and heart. We know nothing about what led him to the behavior we read about in the gospels. But whatever it was, Jesus evidently came to the conclusion that he had a vocation, a calling, and that this vocation came from God.
So he traveled down from Galilee to the Judean wilderness and the banks of the Jordan River—approximately the same distance as from Warsaw to the Illinois state line, only he walked the whole way—he traveled to the banks of the Jordan River where one of his own relatives, John, is drawing crowds and calling them to repent of their sins and be baptized by him in the river. Jesus joins that crowd, and takes his place in line, and when his turn comes, presents himself to John for baptism.
The irony, of course, is that, of everyone there on that occasion, Jesus is the only one who, strictly speaking, didn’t need to be baptized. So what does it means that Jesus was, in fact, baptized by John? The best clue we have toward an answer to that question can be found in what Jesus did immediately following his post-baptismal “retreat” in the desert: He recruited followers. He wandered the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he walked through the towns and villages of the region, picking up disciples, saying to people, “Follow me.” And the last thing he ever said to those disciples that scripture records for us was a command that they continue in that activity: “Go into all the world and make disciples…”.
That has been the Church’s mission ever since—making disciples of Jesus. The fact that you and I are here in this place at this time is only because Jesus, acting though his Body, the Church, has called us to be here. He has said to each of us as surely as he said to Peter and Andrew and James and John, “Follow me.” And by submitting to the baptism of John, Jesus shows us how to do precisely that. The one who calls us into discipleship also shows us, by his own example, how to be a disciple. In his baptism, Jesus accepted a vocation, a calling, and he becomes the model for anyone accepting a vocation, anyone responding to a call.
One of the layers of meaning in what we’re doing today, of course, is that this is the final time I stand in this spot to break open the word of God, and the final time I stand at this altar to preside at the Holy Mysteries of Our Lord’s Body and Blood—as the Rector of this parish, at any rate; I do hope there will be occasions when I am invited back here in the future. This is true, of course—and I hope you have no doubt about this—not because I take any pleasure in leaving you, but because I am persuaded that I am accepting a vocation, a call from the Lord, to become the Bishop of Springfield. When I was still a young child, I heard the voice of Jesus saying, “Follow me.” And when I was in high school, I finally said back to him, “I will follow wherever you lead me.” And that is precisely what I have endeavored to do over the last forty-some odd years. When Brenda and I came to Warsaw three-and-a-half years ago, it was because Jesus called us here. As we take our leave from you now, it is because Jesus calls us to Springfield. As the Roman centurion said to Jesus, “I am a man under authority.” I go where my orders send me.
One of the other layers of meaning this morning is that we’re baptizing two little ones—Parker and Emerson. The Feast of the Baptism of Christ is one of the four occasions for which we “save up” baptismal candidates during the year, and I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to be baptizing on my last Sunday at St Anne’s. The vision of this quite wonderful font that we have here played a significant role in the discernment of my call to come to this parish, so this has just worked out so beautifully, as far as I’m concerned! As we bring these two precious children to the water, we do so with an awareness that we are, on their behalf, accepting a vocation, a divine calling. We are, on their behalf, saying Yes to Jesus, saying, “Yes, I will follow you wherever you lead.” It is an awareness of vocation that we will expect them to grow into as the years go by, and we are all promising to take a share in the responsibility of forming Parker and Emerson in that awareness. We welcome and receive them into the Body of Christ, and we will never stop inviting them to confess the faith of Christ crucified, to proclaim his resurrection, and to share with us in his eternal priesthood.
St Anne’s also has a vocation, also has a calling. It would be a huge mistake to think or feel that this parish is, from God’s point of view, simply “collateral damage” in the aftermath of my call to Springfield. I’ve personally always taken great comfort from the assurance given by St Paul in his letter to the Romans that “all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose.” The accent here is on “work together.” St Anne’s—both collectively and in its individual members—is called according to God’s purpose. There was a meaning and a purpose behind my call here in 2007. From the perspective of history, our time together, brief though it has been, will be known to mean something, to have served a worthy end that makes St Anne’s a sharper instrument in God’s tool kit. And my departure—at this time and for this purpose—will be seen to have meant something, to have served a worthy end. These meanings and these ends are not clear to us today, nor should we expect them to be. But in time, it will all become clear. The gift of faith that enables any of us to say Yes to God’s call assures us of that much.
So we bring Parker and Emerson to the font of new birth now. What a holy moment! What a Spirit-impregnated moment! God is about to act in their lives in a powerful way, a way that they cannot now understand, but, then, who among us can? For this moment at the font, the barrier between heaven and earth, between this world and world to come, between time and eternity—this barrier is breached. We catch a glimpse of the glory of God, and as we commend Parker and Emerson to the holy vocation that is being laid upon them, we reconnect with our own. We reconnect with Jesus looking into our souls and saying, “Follow me,” and with our response, “Yes, I will follow you wherever you lead.” And Jesus himself, standing in the waters of the Jordan River, looking into the soul of John the Baptist, is himself the model that we pattern our response after, the Master showing those who would follow him how to be a disciple.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Second Sunday after Christmas

 Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

In the Prayer Book office of Compline, which is a prayer service for the late evening, just before bedtime, is a collect that, at various times, has meant a great deal to me:
Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changeless.
We who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life. Indeed, if the life stories of those of us who are assembled in this room this morning were told, what a collection of “changes and chances” it would make! Before a casual and unplanned conversation with Bishop Little at General Convention in 2006, the only thing I new about Warsaw, Indiana was that it was on the road between Fort Wayne and Valparaiso and that a priest named Michael Basden once served here because I met him in a Wisconsin bar in 1992! And before another casual and unplanned conversation with Bishop Little about a year ago, it never occurred to me to take very seriously being elected bishop of anywhere, except perhaps the planet Pluto. 

Uncertainties, changes of plan, circumstances beyond our control—the very shape of our lives has been determined by such changes and chances. We all live, for example, with the nagging fear of sudden death—our own or that of somebody we love. Serious illness seems to be changing the  plans of a friend or neighbor or family member every time we turn around. The great change that none of us can halt, of course,  is that of aging, and we are brought up short by those moments when we are reminded that time indeed is marching on and taking us with it.  In our social environmnet, one of the great “chances” of life is the reliability of our employment.  Members of our own parish have faced unemployment over the past year, and others face the threat of it even now. Relationships change, sometimes gradually and sometimes suddenly. Old ones slip away and new ones are formed. 

The members of the holy family—Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—were certainly not exempt from the “changes and chances” of this life. Think about it: Joseph planned on marrying a nice hometown girl, who wouldn’t get pregnant until after the wedding, and raising a nice normal family in Nazareth. But angels kept talking to him in dreams, and it never worked out quite like he imagined. 

Changes and chances. 

Mary planned on making the trip up to Bethlehem with Joseph in order to be enrolled in the census that the emporer had ordered, and then returning to Nazareth in plenty of time to have her baby at home, attended by close members of her family.  Instead, labor pains came just as they were getting to Bethlehem. 

Changes and chances. 

Joseph planned on being able to find a hotel room when they got there, but discovered that the Motel 6, in this case, did not leave the light on for them, and that he should have gone online and made a reservation before he left home. 

Changes and chances. 

After the baby was born,  and they had done their civic duty,  Joseph planned on taking his family home to Nazareth to set up housekeeping, but, no—another dream and another angel, and it was off to Egypt to escape the sword of King Herod’s soldiers. 

Changes and chances. 

While living in Egypt, they reflected on what they’d been told about just who this child of theirs was, and they thought that maybe Bethlehem, with all of its royal and messianic associations in the scriptures, would not, after all, be a bad place to raise Jesus to adulthood.  But after Herod was dead, yet another dream carried the message that they were to go all the way back home to Nazareth. Of all the changes and chances of their lives, this is perhaps    one that Joseph and Mary were tempted to resist, for Jesus’s sake. “Jesus of Bethlehem” had a certain attractive ring to it. It sounded like the kind of messiah that would do his parents proud. But God apparently didn’t have in mind anything like “Jesus of Lake Tippy” or “Jesus of Stone Camp.” He was thinking more in terms of  “Jesus of Claypool” or “Jesus of Milford.” So it had to be Nazareth.  

Changes and chances. 

In each of these instances of change and chance, Mary and Joseph and Jesus were faced with uncertainty and fear. So much was completely out of their hands, out of their control. Yet, in each case, they behaved obediently. They acted not in fear, but in faith. And, in every instance, God also acted “in faith”; he kept faith with them. Mary said to the angel Gabriel, “Let it be to me according to your word” before knowing what Joseph’s reaction would be. Joseph went ahead and married a fiancĂ©e who was pregnant with a child not his own, not knowing the social consequences. In both instances, their acts of faithful obedience were rewarded. 

Perhaps this is what gave them the courage to face giving birth in a cold, dark, and smelly stable. And even there, the sustaining and redeeming presence of God was manifest in the shepherds who showed up unannounced with a tall tale about angelic choirs in the heavens, and later on in the foriegn astrologers with their exotic gifts and their story about a star that led them from distant lands in the east. And without that encouragement, perhaps they wouldn’t have been able to face the prospect of fleeing to Egypt and finding a place to live and a way to make a living, and for how long, God only knew.

Through their faith and obedience, the Holy Family eventually made it home, quite some time—years, probably—later than they planned when they set out to sign the emporer’s register in Bethlehem. They had experienced more than their share of changes and chances, and it is precisely in these changes and chances—not in spite of them, but in them—that the redeeming grace of God was revealed. At every step of the way, what looked like defeat was turned into victory, and the loving purpose of God was made clear. 

The same God who called the Holy Family to faithful obedience invites that response in us today. Our vocation, to be sure, may be more modest than that of the Holy Family.   We may not have angels speaking to us in dreams. But the life of faith to which we are called, the obedience to which we are called, is no less holy. Our lives are filled with changes and chances, and in each of these uncertainties lies an opportunity to respond in faith and obedience and witness God’s redeeming grace present and active in our midst. Do we dare to take these opportunities?  Do we dare to trust that the same God whose wisdom and power and redemptive purpose is revealed in the life of the Holy Family will reveal that same wisdom and power and redemptive purpose in the changes and chances of our lives too? 

My prayer for you—individually and as the community of St Anne’s—is that you will have that trust, and I hope your prayer for me is that I will have that trust, and that, even as God, acting through the changes and chances of our lives, has called us to labor in different sections of the vineyard after next Sunday, we will nonetheless, acting in faithful obedience,witness a mighty work of the Holy Spirit in our midst during 2011. Amen.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

First Sunday after Christmas

                   John 1:1-18

Just a few days ago, we passed the shortest day of the earth’s annual trip around the sun. This is a dark time of year. For most of us, it’s dark when we get up in the morning and dark when we come home in the evening. And for that very reason, it’s also a time of year that is full of light. Whether we use candles, or oil lamps, or incandescent or flourescent bulbs, we go to great lengths to surround ourselves with light in the midst of the pervasive darkness. Most of the houses and lawns that have brightened our neighborhoods with their multi-colored lights will continue to do so for a few more days. The lights on our Christmas trees adorn our living rooms and dens. We are entranced, in an almost mystical way, by the power of light shining in the darkness.

When the ancient people of Israel escaped from slavery in Egypt, the Lord led them to their eventual homeland through an extended period of wandering in the desert. The Israelites were at that time a people who walked in darkness—figurative darkness all the time, literal darkness about half the time. During the hours of daylight, they were led by what the book of Exodus describes as a “pillar of cloud.” It must itself have been luminous, glowing like a winter fog across Indiana cornfields glows when you can tell it’s going to burn off in another hour or so. During the night time hours, the Israelites were led by a “pillar of fire.”  This was surely a sight to behold! They began to associate light with the presence of God in their midst.

In due course, Moses, their leader, erected a special tent, called the Tent of Meeting. Within the tent there was a place called the Tabernacle, which means, literally, to “encamp,” to “pitch a tent” in a particular location. Moses alone would enter the Tent of Meeting and commune with God at the Tabernacle, receiving instruction and wisdom for his demanding leadership duties. When Moses emerged from the tent, his face glowed with the very glory of God, such that he actually had to wear a veil in order for his countrymen to be able to look on him. The tent itself was luminous with the glory of God—one might say that it “lit up like a Christmas tree.” It was experienced by Israel as the place where the Lord dwelt among             them, the place where his glory abides.

You and I, in our natural human condition, are just as lost as the ancient Israelites. The universe is a dark place, an “old” place, terminally ill, in bondage to the power of sin and death. We are, in a profound spiritual sense, homeless within it. We are, in fact, homesick for Heaven, even though we’ve never been there. We are born refugees. We yearn longingly for a far country that we know is our true and lasting home, but we’ve forgotten where it is, or how to get there. We desperately need a light, a pillar of fire to illuminate the darkness, a luminescent tabernacle that glows with the glory of God.

Blessedly, there is just such a source of light available to us. St John tells us about it in his marvelous prologue to the Fourth Gospel. He tells us of the eternal Word of God, who was with God in the beginning, and who is, in fact, himself God. Of this Word, John says, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” He is the “true light that enlightens every man.” And then, in that climactic fourteenth verse of the first chapter of John, we read that “the word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”

When John says that the Word “dwelt among us,” he uses the same Greek word which also translates the Hebrew for “tabernacle.” Jesus, the Word made flesh, is our tabernacle, the dwelling of God in our midst, the place where his glory abides.  Jesus is, in effect, our ticket home. He knows the way, and if we hang out where he hangs out, we’ll eventually arrive at that far country that we long for with such intensity.

After his resurrection from the dead, of course, Jesus ascended, in thee words of the creeds, back to “the right hand of the Father.” But his presence with the Father does not mean he is absent from us. He has left us the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, a sacrament which nourishes and sustains his people with his very presence every time they gather to dine on his broken body and poured out blood. In fact, the place where we put the “sacred leftovers,” the consecrated bread and wine which is reserved for the communion of the sick, is, in fact, called the taberncle, and a lamp is perpetually lit near it, signifying the presense of God’s glory in our midst. This is the house of God, the place where his glory abides. Bending the knee before his tabernacle is an entirely fitting and proper act of reverence. We are as privileged as Moses, and if we realized just how privileged we are, I wonder how much more brightly our faces would glow
as we emerge from this Tent of Meeting back into the world.

Now, I could quit right here, because there’s unspeakable good news in what I’ve already said, more than ample reason to “make Eucharist,” which is to offer thanksgiving. But there’s more. There is, as they call it in Louisiana, lagniappe, something extra, an unexpected bonus. Out of this tabernacling in our midst, we not only see God in his glory, but we also see, in the light reflected from the face of Jesus, our own true selves. In Christ, we know ourselves more completely than we ever could before. We see ourselves to be simultaneously a people walking in darkness, miserable offenders, struggling under the grievous memory and intolerable burden of sin, and also as a people who have seen a great light, forever united to the One who has so mercifully “pitched his tent” among us by assuming our human flesh and human nature.

The very fact that we are at all able to live under Grace, the fact that we are able to pray, able to love, able to forgive—this is all made possible by the marvelous light of Christmas, the light of the incarnation, the light of the Word made flesh. So keep the lights turned on. It’s Christmas. The Lord has shone forth his glory. Come, let us adore him. Amen.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Eve

How are you tonight? No…I mean, really. How are you tonight? Are you feeling a little under the weather, perhaps? There are a lot of bad bugs flying around this time of year. Or maybe you’re feeling pretty good, but you know that all is not right with your body, and you’re facing some pretty daunting physical health challenges. Perhaps you even know that you’re dying—not just in the abstract, but within a particular time frame. Are you lonely? Maybe you yearn for a certain person to be with you for Christmas, but you’re here, and they’re…wherever they are—not here. Are you afraid? Perhaps you live in dread of an e-Mail or a letter or a phone call or a knock on the door that will bring news you very much don’t want to hear. Are you wounded in your spirit? Has a loved one let you down, or outright betrayed you? Are there painful memories that seem to just always weigh you down emotionally, and you can’t ever really get past them? Are you angry? Maybe someone treated you unfairly or rudely and it just makes you boil.  Are you upset with the policies of the government, or with those who are upset with the policies of the government? Are you bored? Are you uncomfortable being in church, and are here out of a sense of obligation—either generally or to a particular person? Are you cynical about what’s happening in this place at this hour? Do you wish you were somewhere else?

Well…I don’t mean to depress you. I’m just trying to encourage honesty, and the truth is that, amid the festivity of the season and the joy of this liturgical celebration of Christmas—all of which is completely well and good and meet and right and legitimate—even as we rejoice, we are, each one of us, broken people. We are broken in multiple ways, and when dried up Christmas trees litter the curbs—in a couple of days or a couple of weeks, depending on how one keeps the feast—when life gets back to normal, “normal” will include our brokenness, and we may even be a bit more acutely aware of it, just for having been through this season of mandatory joy.

My wife has a nine-year-old border collie, with whom she has formed a mutual admiration society. I would really rather not have a dog, but I have so far avoided giving Brenda an ultimatum—“It’s either the dog or me!—because…well, let’s just say, I’m smarter than that. So I somewhat reluctantly share my living space with a four-legged creature named Lucifer—which, as Brenda reminds me, means “light bearer.” Lucy, as Brenda calls her, is, like most of her kind, quite fond of raw meat. But she has a fear that outweighs even her appetite for a nice, fresh chicken thigh or a piece of beef heart. She suffers from a compelling and overpowering fear of abandonment. Lucy is certain that, if she lets Brenda out of the house—or, worse yet, both Brenda and me out of the house at the same time—there’s a high probability that we will not ever return. The mere sight of a suitcase sends her into a depressive tailspin. So Lucy can know that there’s fresh meat out in the yard, but unless Brenda goes out there and stays within sight of Lucy while Lucy eats it, she may not even go out the door. The dog has serious abandonment issues, and I suppose may need expensive therapy before she can get better. I don’t know.

Well, one feature of our individual and collective brokenness is that we, as a human race, also have serious abandonment issues. We are afraid that, not only are we miserable, but that God has abandoned us in our misery. We are afraid that God has given up on us. We are afraid that sickness and death are all there is, in the end. We are afraid that fear and anger have the final word. We are afraid that loneliness and boredom and cynicism have the last say in the matter.

Christmas is the therapy we need to deal with our abandonment issues. The birth of Christ, the incarnation of the Eternal Word of God in the infant whose parents were instructed to name him Jesus, is a sign of hope that God has not abandoned us in our state of misery. Because a young woman named Mary had the courage to say Yes to a very strange vocation, and give birth in the uncomfortable squalor of a barn, and set the baby down in a feeding trough, because an honorable man named Joseph had the courage to say Yes to the very strange vocation of raising as his own a child whom he did not father—because of all this, you and I have hope that God has not abandoned us in our misery, but is, in fact with us—that he is, in fact, one of us. Because of Christmas, God knows. God knows. Whatever we’re feeling, God knows—not just because He’s good, but because He’s been there.

Are you sick? God knows, and the birth of Christ makes it possible for you to share God’s eternal wellness and wholeness and health.

Are you lonely? God knows, and Jesus’ nativity makes it possible for you to participate in the very life of God, to share in the perfect community of the Holy Trinity,

Are you afraid? God knows, and Christ’s birth makes it possible for you to know the deathless love of God that banishes all fear.

Are you angry? God knows, and the birth of Jesus makes it possible for you to see God’s own vision of a world where justice reigns, where crime doesn’t pay, and all wrongs are put right.

Are you wounded in spirit? God knows, and what we celebrate at Christmas makes it possible for you to receive the consolation and love of one who is known as the Man of Sorrows, and is acquainted with every human grief.

Are you bored, cynical, unbelieving? God knows, and Christmas can be a sign to you of hope that there is an alternative way of looking at your own life and the whole human condition.

Are you dying? God knows, and the birth of Christ is a sign of God’s intent that death not have the last word, but that it be swallowed up in the victory of life.

Christ is born, the Word is made flesh, and God knows. Come, let us adore him. Amen.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Year A: Advent III

Matthew 11:2-11
            Isaiah 35:1-10

There was once a man—we’ll call him “Fred”—who lived in a      cabin in the woods in a low-lying area. (Some of you, I’m sure, have heard this story, so just bear with me.) Fred was a very religious man: He prayed every day and never missed church on Sunday unless he was too sick to get out of bed. 

One day it started to rain, and it rained all through the night, and all the next day, and all night again. The flood waters began to rise, and the message came over the radio that the entire area of the county in which Fred lived was to be evacuated. About that time, Fred was in prayer, and he had a deep sense of assurance from that Lord that the Lord would take care of him, that he would not come to any harm, and that God’s faithfulness would see him through this crisis. 

Just then, a sheriff’s deputy knocked on the door. “Fred, come on, get in my car, I’ll take you to high ground.”  But Fred replied, “No, you go on, the Lord will take care of me.” A few hours later, the entire first floor of Fred’s house was covered with six feet of water.  So Fred went up to one of the upstairs bedrooms. When he looked out the window, he saw his cousin in a rowboat, rowing toward him as fast as he could. “Fred!  Don’t worry!  Get in the boat and I’ll take you to safety.”  But Fred just smiled and said, “Why cousin, that’s awfully kind of you, but the Lord is going to take care of me.” 

By daybreak the next morning, Fred’s bedroom was covered with six feet of water, so he climbed up onto the roof. About that time, a National Guard helicopter hovered overhead, and a rope ladder was lowered.  Someone with a megaphone shouted, “Climb on to the ladder and we’ll pull you up.” But Fred just shook his head and shouted back, “No, thanks, the Lord will take care of me.” 

A short while after that, Fred was covered with six feet of water, and he drowned. 

When Fred arrived at the Pearly Gates, he was in something of a huff. Before St Peter could even say “Welcome to Heaven”, Fred blurted out, “The Lord said he would take care of me! How come I drowned?”  Peter replied, “Well, Fred, we sent the sheriff with a car and your cousin with a rowboat and the National Guard with a helicopter. What more did you want?” 

After pondering this, Fred probably went and looked up John the Baptist, because they had alot in common. They were both confused by a discrepancy between their expectations of what God would send, and what God actually sent.  John the Baptist expected the Messiah to be an axe-wielding chaff-burning purveyor of divine wrath. 
When Jesus arrived on the scene, John publicly announced his arrival.  “Pay attention to this guy. He’s the one we’ve all been waiting for. He must increase and I must decrease.” 

But Jesus never does live up to all of John’s expectations, so he begins to wonder, “Maybe I was wrong.  Maybe Jesus is not the one.”  So, from prison, he sends his own disciples to put the question to Jesus directly.  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 

John—and Fred, for that matter—is not unique, is he? We can all see something of ourselves in his moment of doubt. We are all prejudiced to one degree or another by what we expect God to do, or by what we expect God to say, or expect God to approve of, or condemn, or whatever. And our expectations then sometimes blind and deafen us to recognizing Jesus for who he is. It’s often difficult for us to really experience Jesus as the one who reveals—breaks open, manifests, shines the light on, announces, ushers in — the Kingdom of Heaven. 

It reminds me of many of the stories I’ve heard over the years—the sort of story I always enjoy hearing—of how married couples “found” each other. What a mysterious process courtship is!  Our “normal” expectation is that two people, when they meet, have at least an inkling of whether they’re attracted to one another, and they think, “Maybe this is the one”. And then a stressful experience of trial and error finally reveals whether “this one” is “the one”.  But, as often as not, the story goes something more like this:  “At first we were just friends. I didn’t think she was my type”, or “I didn’t think I had enough in common with him”, or however the failure to meet expectations in defined. “But as we worked together, or went to church together, or hung out in a group together, we found that we loved each other in a way that neither of us anticipated.” In the experience of relationship, the true identity of this person as “the one” was revealed. 

Jesus’ identity as “the one we’ve all been waiting for” is authenticated in the same way.  When the disciples of John the Baptist pose the question to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”, he doesn’t answer them directly.   He simply invites them to observe what was going on around him. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Tell John all this and let him draw his own conclusion.”

Jesus’s advice to John applies equally to us. We may not be able to observe and report all the same signs that John’s disciples were able to observe and report, but we’re not lacking for experiential data on which to base a conclusion about Jesus’s identity.  St Anne’s church is our local manifestation of the presence of Jesus. What do we see? 
We see a place where the revolutionary values of the kingdom of God are preached, and sometimes even practiced. We see a place where sin is forgiven, and people are supported in their desire to repent and sin no more. We see a place where fear and despair give way to trust and hope. We see a place where people give and receive love and spread it on one another’s sorrow like soothing ointment on open sores. We see a place which people support with hours of precious time and thousands of dollars of hard earned money. We’re not perfect—we announce the kingdom, we try to model it, but we’re still a mere shadow of the reality. Yet, the parish church, the body of Christ in a particular place, is by definition a place where the blind see, the lame walk, and the hopeless hope. 

As we move into the heart of the Advent season, and the celebration of Christmas looms over the horizon, our invitation is to look around us at these signs and see Jesus for who he is: The hope of Israel, the desire of nations, the one we’ve all been waiting for—the sheriff in his car, Fred’s cousin in his rowboat, the National Guard in its helicopter.  Our only alternative is to conclude that Jesus is not the “one who is to come”, and to continue to search for our Messiah among the false gods worshipped by our neighbors in this world: political or social or economic ideology, “good causes”, success, health, or status of race or class.  These are false gods, who will desert us in our hour of need, and leave us hungering for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Is it not infinitely preferable to experience the hope, the peace, the purpose, and the joy of simply falling at the feet of Jesus?—the Jesus who opens our eyes and ears with his words, the Jesus who appeared in our own human flesh in a Bethlehem cattle stall, the Jesus who will come again to judge the living and the dead?
Come quickly, Lord Jesus.  Amen.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A: Advent II

           Romans 15:4-13
Isaiah 11:1-10
Matthew 3:1-12

When the Roman Empire finally crumbled in the latter half of the fifth century, western Europe was plunged into an era which has been widely referred to as the Dark Ages. Life in the Dark Ages has been described with three brief adjectives: nasty, brutish, and short. We like to think that we have made a great deal of progress since the Dark Ages,  but I wonder whether the essential core of human experience is really all that different. You don’t have to do anything more than pick up a newspaper to be reminded that life,  for a great many people, is still nasty and brutish. Disease and depravity and disappointment abound, at home and abroad. And, although we’re living longer, life still seems short. The older I get, the shorter it seems. Way too short to fulfill all the hopes and dreams that the human spirit is capable of conceiving; way too short to repair all the regrets that human behavior is capable of producing. It’s called by many names: alienation, soul-sorrow, existential angst. The New Testament calls it the “power of sin and death.”

Whatever you call it, though, it’s a universal human experience. Our “default” condition, that which we naturally slip into in the absence of any other intention, is one of radical doubt and fear which is both personal and cosmic. We are doubtful and fearful about our own personal existence in particular, and the universe in general. We want to know—when all the dust settles, will there be justice on the earth? Will wickedness be punished and righteousness be rewarded?

Whether we’re aware of it or not, these are the really deep questions. They bother us. They are the ultimate source of that low-grade anxiety that every man, woman, and child carries around twenty-four hours a day. This anxiety has consequences. They’re all around us. Among them are depression, denial, dysfunction, destruction, death, and despair.

Let’s take those one at a time.

There seems to be a virtual epidemic of it. I wish I could go back in time about 25 years and buy stock in some of the pharmaceutical companies that have marketed anti-depressants. If I had, I would be taking more exotic vacations than has been my custom!

Our culture is descending more and more into godlessness—or, I should say, the denial of the true and living God who has revealed himself in history in exchange for a number of lesser gods who reveal themselves only in our desires and imaginations. This is a denial of reality itself.

Only recently are social scientists beginning to document what Bible students and theologians could have told them decades ago, and that is that no-fault divorce as an easy way out of marital and family dysfunction is inflicting incalculable damage on generations of the children of those families.  But dysfunction is not limited to the domestic scene. Our political and social fabric is also unravelling before our eyes; Americans are more polarized than ever before.

The century we left behind only a decade ago may indeed be remembered as the true “dark ages.”  It was the most violent in the history of the human race.
There were more victims of war, political    repression, and crime, both organized and casual, than at any other time. When art and literature depict the future, it is more often than not a grim, apocalyptic picture that is painted.

The late Pope John Paul coined the phrase “culture of death” to describe the prevailing viewpoint in the western world. Life seems increasingly cheap, at both ends now, perhaps in the middle not too far from now. Whatever your politics are with respect to abortion or assisted suicide, the sheer number of abortions being performed, and an ever more casual attitude toward assisted suicide, have got to be alarming. We are indeed a culture of death.

Despair is loss of hope, and for this reason, is the ultimate sin, the summation of all the deadly sins. Despair is radical unfaith, throwing in the towel, surrendering to alienation, normalizing the sub-normal. Pride is the source of all sin, and despair is the culmination of all sin. What pride starts, despair finishes. And it’s all around us.

What then can we say in the face of all this anxiety? What can we say in the face of depression, denial, dysfunction, destruction, death, and despair? If we are stunned into silence in the face of so great a mystery, thank God that St Paul, at least, is not. Listen to his words, handed down to us through the fifteenth chapter of his epistle to the Romans:

 “...whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and encouragement of the scriptures, we might have hope.”

That we might have hope. Hope is the opposite of despair. And what does Paul suggest is the medium of this hope? The encouragement of the scriptures, which were written in former days for our instruction. Before the most recent round of Prayer Book revision, the “hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” collect that most of us are familiar with, and which we used three Sundays ago, was appointed for today, the Second Sunday of Advent, and it was chosen specifically in the light of this epistle reading from Romans. The first step in combating the cosmic anxiety of this age is to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the encouragement that is ours in the words of holy scripture.

In particular, the lectionary readings appointed for the season of Advent are especially helpful. We hear in them an invitation to abundant hope. Even passages like today’s gospel, which sound somewhat harsh on first hearing, are filled with hope if we read between the lines. Yes, John the Baptist is speaking words of judgement, words of warning. But in words of warning, there is marvelous hope. There is yet room for repentance, room to change behavior. When the “low fuel” signal comes on in my car, that’s a word of warning, an invitation to repentance. I know that I’ve got only about fifty miles before I run out of gas, and that I can’t just keep on driving indefinitely. I’ve got to change my behavior or suffer the consequences. I am grateful for that warning. Before such technology, I did run out of gas from time to time. Since then, I don’t. It’s a source of encouragement, a reason for hope!

St Paul concludes this selection from Romans with words of blessing:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the holy spirit you may abound in hope.
It’s important to remember the distinction between wishing and hoping. When I wish for something, it may be pure fantasy, highly unlikely if not impossible. For example, I wish that I might win the lottery, but I don’t hope that I do, because it’s  highly unlikely that I will. Hope, on the other hand, is grounded in a solid foundation. I hope that I will get through the rest of this sermon, and the rest of this liturgy, without any major mishaps. I don’t know that I will, because any number of things could happen at any moment. But I hope that I will, and my hope is founded on such things as prior experience in similar situations, and a conviction that God is glorified when he is worshiped decently and in order.

Well, all of our hope as Christians is founded on the amazing historical reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from from the dead. From that fact flows all of our hope—hope that all the private wounds of my inmost spirit will be healed, hope that sins which I have confessed and repented of are forgiven and put away as far as the east is from the west, hope that relationships in my life which have been marred and soured by failure on my part and the part of others will be restored and strengthened, hope that the physical and emotional ailments which can be so discouraging and crippling are not the last word in our lives and in God’s plans for us, hope that the poor will not remain poor forever, hope that violence and war will themselves be put to death, hope that injustice and fear and oppression and hatred will be banished from the universe.

The scriptures, once again, give us a glimpse, a sneak preview, of this glorious vision in the wonderful scene described by the prophet Isaiah:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed together; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the the adder’s den.

Try finding that on the Nature Channel!

The hope that is ours, the encouragement that is ours, on this Second Sunday of Advent, calls us to live in the light of God’s truth, to agree with God rather than our own limited experience and intuition, to choose courage and responsibility rather than denial and dysfunction, to choose peace over violence and destruction, to choose life over the culture of death, to choose faith over doubt and despair. Having received in our hearts a down payment on Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom, we are able to lead lives filled with purpose, peace, and joy.

Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A: Advent I

        Matthew 24:37-44
Isaiah 2:1-15
Romans 13:8-14

Having raised three children into adulthood, I’ve had many occasions on which to reflect, over the past several years, on the differences between the environment in which they were raised and the environment in which I was raised. In many respects, my children and I were raised in very different worlds. But there is one experience, at least, which they and I share. We’ve all had some version of the following conversation—I with my parents, my children with me: “Why do you want to do that?”  “Because all the other kids are.”  “Well, if all the other kids were jumping off a cliff,  would you want to do that too?” And the conversation usually breaks down at about that point with a sigh and rolled eyes. Peer pressure wasn’t new yesterday and it won’t be old tomorrow. It’s part of growing up, a universal experience that young people have to deal with.

But what we may be less aware of is that peer pressure is not just for young people anymore. All of us—whether we’re seven or seventy-seven, or any other age—we all experience a tremendous amount of sometimes subtle but always present pressure from our peers in the culture around us. Pressure from our cultural surroundings is intense, virtually irresistible at times. I was raised in a Christian subculture that was opposed to social dancing. (If you’ve ever seen me on a dance floor, this fact becomes painfully obvious.) When I was in first grade, my teacher decided that, on the last day of school, we’d have a dance. She told us to bring our favorite records. When I conveyed this request to my mother, she had a fit! She instructed me to tell my teacher that dancing was “against my religion.” My mother and I experienced peer pressure from our culture. I can’t say I was crushed by having to be a wallflower at my first dance. But I didn’t quite get it either. Dancing seemed pretty normal to me—people did it on TV all the time. Later, when I was in high school, I was a little more wistful about it. I was aware that being the kind of Christian that my parents had raised me to be placed me outside the norm of the larger culture. What was normal for most people was not normal for me.

We all want to be normal. We want to fit in. We don’t want to call attention to ourselves by being odd or quirky. And most Christians like to think that it’s possible to be a Christian and still “go with the flow,” to be a Christian and still be quite “normal.” Episcopalians, in particular, seem to be invested in not calling attention to ourselves by our religiosity. We don’t want our piety or our prayer or our religious language to cause us to stand out in a crowd. We want to practice Christian religion in the most “normal” way possible, along with being “normal” voters and drivers and homeowners and parents and grandparents and patriotic citizens.

We have much in common with some of our prehistoric ancestors, those who were around in what Jesus refers to as “the days of Noah.” Now, when you read the book of Genesis, it’s quite clear that the reason God destroyed the earth with a flood in “the days of Noah” was because of rampant violence and evil in human society. But Jesus, curiously, doesn’t mention anything about that violence and evil. When Jesus talks about the “days of Noah,” he mentions eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage—all pretty normal, boringly normal, stuff. It was, in fact, their attachment to those and other perfectly normal activities that caused them to be blindsided by divine judgement when it arrived in the form of a flood.

I fear that we in our society are also allowing ourselves to be set up to be blindsided by divine judgement. We want to eat and drink and marry and give in marriage, and go to school, and travel, and work, and make friends, and save for and enjoy a comfortable retirement, and have some fun along the way, and—some of us, at least—to even be a little religious along the way, as long as we don’t make too big a deal out of it. Until relatively recent years, our society has fostered the notion that being a good Christian is really just an extension of being a good citizen—live by the golden rule and attend the church of your choice on Sunday. All very normal. Until it starts to rain and the flood waters rise and we realize, too late, that we should have been paying more attention to that kooky fellow named Noah (nothing normal about him) who spent so much time building a boat in his backyard.

However, it’s not only our attachment to the normal that will blind us to the impending judgement of God, but also our seemingly endless capacity to normalize that which is really ab-normal or sub normal. There are several examples I could point to, but one in particular impresses me just because of the work that I do. I would suspect that, forty or fifty years ago, an unmarried couple who were living together, but wanted to do the right thing, and get properly married, would probably expect that the priest whom they hoped would officiate at their wedding would require them to first move to separate addresses, and probably also ask them to plan a low-key and informal wedding. There was an element of appropriate shame involved in the whole process. Thirty or forty years ago, the same couple would at least try to conceal the fact that they share sleeping quarters, and if they couldn’t conceal it, to at least smile shyly and act duly apologetic and embarrassed. Nowadays, and for the last 25 years or so, the same couple wouldn’t even think to either conceal what they’d been doing or be embarrassed about it in the least. It strikes them as eminently normal, simply the way things are done—and they’re right, it is the way things are done. You meet somebody, sleep together, live together, and then, if everything works out, you get married. You may even have a child or two first!

We have indeed normalized the sub-normal, in this and in so many other ways. And in our attachment to the normal—whether it’s true normality or false normality—the last thing we want to hear is the message of Advent, which is a message of consequences, a message of responsibility, a message of judgement. It’s a message that confronts us, of course, all throughout the year, but in Advent it takes on a tone of urgency. Jesus says, “Watch, therefore, for you do not know on what day your lord is coming.” Right there is a challenge to the normal. It’s not normal to be always watchful, always vigilant, always aware that cataclysmic radical change may arrive at any moment.

But that’s the attitude that Jesus urges us to have. And if we’re looking for comfort on this first Sunday of Advent, we won’t find it from St Paul. His message is just as pointed at Jesus’:  
“ know what hour it is, how it is full time for you now to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light...”.  
Advent is God’s alarm clock waking us from our complacent attachment to the normal. It’s time to wake up and smell the coming of Christ!  It’s time to get up, and lay aside what’s normal  and make a radical decision, a radical commitment to Christ, lest we find ourselves in the position of those who lived in the days of Noah, but also died in the days of Noah, because they weren’t on the ark when the rains came. It’s time for us normal Episcopalians to start doing and saying things that risk getting the attention of those around us, things that might relegate us to the margins of our culture, for the sake of Christ and the gospel of Christ. We need to learn from the experience of some of our Christian brethren in other traditions—traditions we may have looked down on as marginal or fanatical or a little odd—but traditions which have maintained a healthy critical distance from the prevailing secular culture.  We may not agree with them in the details—I, for one, don’t think the dance floor is the beginning of the road to Hell—but they have learned a point of view, a habit of the heart, that we would do well to imitate. Dancing may not damn us, but an attachment to being “normal” just might.

Jesus says that when he comes again in power and great glory to judge the world, people will be found doing normal things. Two men will be working in the field, two women will be grinding at the mill. We might add signs of normality that are more appropriate to our experience: two men on the same factory floor, or on the same putting green; two women working in the same office, or taking their children to the same park. At first glance, one is indistinguishable from the other. But Jesus says, at the moment of his coming, they will look very different indeed. One will be revealed as among those who have been co-opted, seduced, by normality, who have persistently excluded God from their lives, and will therefore be allowed to reap the fruit, the natural consequences, of those choices. The final portion of the Godless is to be without God. The other will be revealed as part of the community of the redeemed, the company of those who have yielded their hearts and lives to the Lord of history. They will enjoy the vision of universal justice and peace which Isaiah, the prophet of the Advent, writes about so movingly: “...they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

Are we willing to risk being a little bit “different,” a little bit “abnormal” now, for the sake of being numbered among those who are “taken” rather than “left” on that great day? Now is the hour of decision, the crisis is now. Jesus wants to do business in your heart, in my heart, today. But he can’t do the work he wants to do if we don’t let loose of being normal. Are we ready to give it up? The phone’s for you. It’s Jesus. He’s on hold, waiting for your answer. What’s it going to be?

Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.