Sunday, December 8, 2019

Advent 2: Peace in believing

Lectionary: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12



(Note: If the above player doesn't work for you, click HERE for an .mp3 audio format)

En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

As a pastor and a spiritual director, I have the privilege of being invited into conversations with people when their faith is being challenged, or they’re experiencing a “dark night” where they feel no sense of the presence of God in their lives. Some are seeking faithfully to discern God’s path for this moment in their lives. Others are trying to stay faithful, having made a decision based on that discernment, but now things have gone array and they’re wondering if they’d made the right choice.

In all of these conversations, what is foundational is the person’s relationship with God. Who is God to each of these? How do they relate to God and how does God relate to them in particular and to all of us as the created?

Whatever religious doctrines or practices or theology we have, when life is challenging, it’s our belief in and relationship with God that carry us through. Some of us who grew up in the church learned how to understand and relate to God in certain “acceptable” ways. Others among us either didn’t grow up in the church or grew up being taught awful, sometimes unfaithful doctrines that continue to affect how we relate to God. Still, others have had personal, mystical experiences leading to an intimate, convincing relationship with God.

What I’ve noticed is that the challenging moments of our lives often affect our belief in God. I think of medieval mystic Julian of Norwich whose physical challenges led her into an experience of God that completely transformed her believing, and therefore how she related to God, leading her to her famous description of Christ the Mother of Mercy and her equally famous proclamation that “God is not wroth” which she clarifies by saying that wrath is found in humans, but not in God who loves us mercifully, tenderly, and completely.

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul is encouraging the members of the new church in Rome to relate to one another differently: to live in peace and harmony. Jews and Gentiles, Roman occupiers and those they occupied are now members of a new community of faith. The Scriptures, he reminds them, foretold that God’s plan of salvation would be revealed through the Jews, but that it would reach all nations and peoples – and that habitual enemies would live together in peace and harmony.

This is what we heard described in the reading from Isaiah. The coming of the king will signal the inauguration of a time of profound peace born of right relationship. In this new era, the peace and harmony will be so deep, so complete that even natural enemies will share cooperative, peaceful lives.

Looking around then and now, this seems like a dim possibility, but our belief assures us that with God, nothing is impossible. So Paul exhorts the church in Rome to continue to hope and believe praying this beautiful blessing over them: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Peace in believing…

If we believe that God is just and kind, full of compassion and mercy, that God cares for those who suffer and hears their prayers, that God’s love for us is steadfast and sacrificial, then even when things have gone array, we can have peace in our believing. Even when the world has gone wrong, our belief that God chooses to be in loving, sustaining relationship with us will sustain our hope.

What gets in our way is sin, but that word is so variously defined. How do we understand it?

I suggest that sin is what disrupts the harmony of being. In his book, “The Shaking of the Foundations,” theologian Paul Tillich describes sin as a three-fold separation: from God, from each other, and from ourselves. This separation, which is caused by the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, distorts all of our relationships. It is only by God’s grace and our willingness to repent that we are reconciled and restored to righteousness, that is, to right relationship.

This is the kind of repentance John the Baptist is calling the people to in today’s gospel. John is proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven is coming near and they need to repent so that they can recognize and receive the grace about to come in the one who would come after him, the one who is more powerful than he, the one who would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire.

And the people were flocking to John to hear his teaching and to be purified by his baptism. They wanted what he was offering – a new way of being in relationship with God and each other.

Even the religious authorities were coming, but when they arrive, John doesn’t mince words with them. Imagine what the response might be if I called visiting Canons or Bishops, who show up for worship, a “brood of vipers.”

Why was he so caustic with them? We can’t be sure if the Pharisees and Sadducees came to observe what John was doing in order to prepare an “official response” or if they were, like the many others, coming to him drawn by the message of this new way of being. My guess is, it was probably a bit of both.

John’s prophetic teachings used apocalyptic language familiar to the listeners of the day. We have taken them to be punitive, but they really are promising and uplifting. Otherwise, why would so many flock to hear him?

The scariest thing John says in this gospel is probably this: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So let’s look at it more deeply.

The Messiah is coming to judge the world. The winnowing fork enables him to separate fruit that is ready to be used, from the chaff which isn’t useful in its present form. Chaff is a natural by-product of the whole process, however, and of itself isn’t bad. It just isn’t useful in its present form so it is burned.

The habitual association with hell-fire and eternal punishment often clouds our thinking on this, but John says the chaff will be burned in “unquenchable fire.”

As we’ve discussed before, fire is biblical language for the presence of God. Think of the burning bush and of John’s proclamation that Jesus would baptize them with fire. God’s steadfast love and mercy cannot be quenched by us or anything we do. In God, whose mercy endures forever, all who aren’t ready in their present form will be made new by the unrelenting presence and love of God.

We sin. That doesn’t make us bad – just human. Advent calls us to own that and repent, trusting that God loves us and desires to restore us to right relationship. When we choose to repent, we may find ourselves “struck by grace,” as Tillich says, the way St. Paul was on the road to Damascus, knowing deeply the truth that God loves us with an incomprehensible love...”

Repentance opens the way for all of our relationships to be changed, empowered by the grace of God’s unquenchable love. Trusting in the steadfast love of God who is always faithful, we can choose to repent in the way John the Baptist taught and change the way we’re in relationship with God and with one another. Then we can live together in peace and harmony in a way that is otherwise impossible and we will have in ourselves peace in our believing. Amen.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Advent 1, 2019-A: Christ is always coming

Lectionary: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44



Note: If the above player doesn't work for you, click HERE for an mp3 format.

En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

Those who know me well, know that one of my all-time favorite movies is
“My Cousin Vinny.”

The character in it known as Mona Lisa Vito is a she-ro for me. I love her tell-it-like-it-is, loving yet hard-edged character. She’s devoted to her fiancĂ©, is not easily pushed around, is unimpressed by worldly power, is smart yet humble about it, and knows what she wants – a traditional life of love and family.

There’s one scene in this movie where Mona Lisa is being questioned by the District Attorney who wants to discredit her as an expert witness in the area of “general automotive knowledge” so he asks her a question about the correct ignition timing for a specific make of car in a specific year.

Mona Lisa dismisses his question in her characteristic hard-edged, smart but humble manner – with an expletive. “It’s a BS question” she says. Pressed by the DA who thinks he is about to discredit her for not knowing the answer, Mona Lisa testifies that the question is impossible to answer. “Nobody could answer that question.” Then she proceeds to blow the DA and the courtroom away by offering an answer that corrects the error in the DA’s question AND demonstrates her astounding expertise in general automotive knowledge.

I always think of this scene in that movie when today’s gospel reading comes up. Jesus has been teaching his disciples about the destruction of the temple, referring to both the building in Jerusalem where worship happened and also his body – the temple of the Holy Spirit of God.

The disciples ask a reasonable question: “Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” Using apocalyptic language familiar to his listeners, Jesus harkens back to the message in Isaiah where God is about to do a new thing, to inaugurate a new way of being in the world.

Then pointing to the last covenant God made with the people, the covenant of Noah, Jesus says it will be like that… people will go about living their daily lives, completely unaware that a momentous occasion is about to happen. God is inviting the world into a new way of being and so much of life as they know it is about to be destroyed.

Only Noah and his family, who are awakened to this invitation, will be “left behind” to begin the new era and carry life into this new world. Likewise, only those in Jesus’ time who are awakened to this invitation will be “left behind” to carry life into the new world being inaugurated. And today, we who are awakened to this invitation bring new life into the world today – a world, which includes us, that is replete with darkness in need of the transforming light of Christ.

In response to the disciples’ question, Jesus offers the Mona Lisa Vito answer: It’s impossible to answer this question. No one could answer it. Not even the Son of Man.

Why? Because there is a fatal error in the question. Try as we might, we can’t pin God down to a moment, a day, or even a millennium because Jesus’ second coming is happening now. Jesus promised not to leave us orphaned after his resurrection and ascension. He then breathed his Spirit into humanity eternally uniting himself to us, and sending us forth to share this invitation for a new way of being in the world.

This is the unexpected new thing God did in Jesus: inaugurating a new age where the divine Spirit of Christ dwells in the mortal bodies of each of us, and in all of us as the body of Christ. The transformation of the darkness of the world is happening now by the armor of light that covers, protects, and shines forth from us.

This is the hope Advent calls us to remember and ponder and now is the time for us to awaken to this new thing already happening in us and through us. The spirit of Christ has been given to us as a gift from God, breathed into us as it was into the disciples on that first Pentecost. Are we awake to the astonishing nature of that gift? Are we sharing it as Christ bid us to do?

The light that has been given to us shines on the darkness in our own hearts and souls as well as that of the world. We are mistaken if we believe that being temples of Christ’s spirit rids us of our own inner darkness. It doesn’t. It illuminates it for us so that we can see it and choose to let go whatever anger, resentment, control, pride. or fear is within us that leads us to hinder God’s plan for us, for our parish, or for the corner of God’s garden we inhabit.

The light that has been given to us illumines the dark memories that cast a shadow over our current thinking, setting us free to be whom God made us to be in all our fullness. The light of Christ in us shows us the way to forgiveness, to wholeness, to holiness.

If we choose to now, we can enter this amazing and troubling season with hope… the expectation that when we go to the dark places within us, within our community, and in the world, we will trust the light of Christ to illumine it, and follow the path of new life that is revealed in that light.

This won’t just happen for us because we’re Episcopalians in the season of Advent. The preparation we do, and the transformation it offers, will be a direct result of the intentional effort we give it.

Noah had to build an ark, a vessel to carry him into the transforming work of God. During Advent we, too, build a vessel to carry us there. Our vessel may be built using a daily meditation like “The AdventWord online series, or a prayer discipline like praying regularly with the icons I set up in the upstairs parish hall, or coloring an Advent calendar (I can hook you up to several resources) or perhaps you prefer a book (I have a couple of references I can offer).

Whatever the method, building the ark is our part of the deal. We do the work, even when the world mocks us and goes on about its business oblivious to God’s invitation for transformation.

As we proclaimed at the lighting of the candle for this first Sunday in Advent, “Christ is coming. Christ is always coming… always entering a troubled world, a wounded heart.”

Let us pray.

Give us grace, Eternal God, to prepare ourselves to answer your invitation to new life. Like Noah, we will use this season of Advent to build our arks, certain that you will lead us through whatever darkness exists in ourselves, our community, or our world into new life. By your redeeming love, transform us and make us ready to be sent forth as bearers of your light, temples of your Holy Spirit, and sharers of your holiness. Amen.