Sunday, December 29, 2019

Christmas 1, 2019-A: A synergy of grace

Lectionary: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

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In today’s gospel, the evangelist speaks of the distinction between the law and grace: The law indeed was given through Moses; “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

The law of Moses was a gift from God that helped the people of God know what to do (and not do) to be in right relationship with God and one another. The gift of God’s own self in Jesus guides us all on how to be: full of grace and truth.

People of all times and all places want to be set free from whatever is oppressing us in our lives. For some, the poverty, hunger, and prisons are real and actual. For others, they are perceived. They experience a poverty of joy or freedom, a hunger for meaning and purpose, prisons of anger, abuse, or addiction. Whether actual or perceived, oppression is real and the outcome is the same: it becomes what occupies our time and attention, and we spend our time surviving rather than living.

As many of you know, I worked in the field of victim advocacy for many years, specifically in the areas of domestic and sexual abuse. As a survivor myself, I can attest to how real this oppression is. I can also share with you how freedom enters this darkness as light.

But first, I want to share with you a paraphrase from a book I recently finished called, “The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd. This book is a novel based on true events surrounding the lives of the Grimke sisters from Charleston, SC in the 19th century. Sarah and Angelina Grimke were the daughters of a land-owning, slave-owning judge in Charleston. Members of the elite social circles, the Grimke sisters left behind their privilege and even their religion; moving from being Anglicans to Presbyterians to Quakers as their first-hand experience of slavery led to an increasing intolerance of it. These women were eventually even expelled from the Quaker fold when they insisted that slaves not only be freed but given equal rights. In fact, they promoted equal rights for all people, including women, being among the first to write and speak publicly about women ‘s rights, influencing and sharing friendship with such notables as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott.

In the novel, Sarah Grimke is struggling against the gender discrimination of her time as she seeks to fulfill her life’s purpose, first as a lawyer, then as a Quaker minister - neither of which she accomplished. A slave girl named Handful, owned by the Grimke family, shares this wisdom with Sarah: “Mama said some of us are slaves in our bodies, others are slaves in our minds. I’m the first kind of slave, but you’re the other.” (paraphrased)

Whether our freedom is stolen by the circumstances of our lives or by our perception doesn’t matter. The end result is the same. Oppression kills the soul.

In every case, freedom happens in community. Freedom enters the darkness of oppression as a hand that reaches down into the darkness to grab and hold onto us and lift us into the light.

When we are set free from what oppresses us, it’s as if we can suddenly breathe deeply the sweet fragrance of life which fills and renews our bodies from the inside; and our vision expands opening before us a plethora of new and exciting possibilities and the courage to run into them.

This is what the writer of today’s gospel is describing: God’s own hand reaching down to us, holding onto us, and lifting us to new life. It’s what Jesus did and it’s what we’re called to do as well.

We have neighbors who are slaves in their bodies and others who are slaves in their minds, as Handful said. It is up to us to be Christ to them - to go into whatever darkness oppresses them and bring them the light of Christ that is in us as a gift from God, a gift given at our Baptism. To be able to do that without stomping further on their freedom (as so many Christians do nowadays) we must first be transformed ourselves.

In the novel, when Handful decided to run away, Sarah tried to stop her. Handful was determined, however, choosing to risk dying or 20 years imprisonment over being a slave for another second. Sarah’s response was classic and illustrates the subtlety of servant ministry. She asked, How can I be of help to you?

Evelyn Underhill was another voice in the 19th century - a mystic, pacifist, and writer who called upon all Christians to be mystics. (Mystic meaning someone who simply finds themselves, places themselves in the presence of God, in direct experience with God). Evelyn called everyone, all Christians, to be mystics. She believed that all Christians would benefit from entering into the presence of God and being transformed by God’s love because as she said, it isn’t just about us.

Underhill said, “As well as the solitude of my soul before God, there is the responsibility of my soul to my fellow-men, as a member of the Mystical Body of Christ… I must in some way show [the]… characteristics of Christ in my life… according to my special call. I am part of the organism through which Christ continues to live in the world.” (The Light of Christ, Morehouse-Barlow Co., p 15)

That is our goal as a community, a church. As you’ve heard me say many times, every church is an intentional action of the Holy Spirit. Each of us has unique gifts and God intentionally draws us into community, bringing these varied gifts together, creating a synergy of grace upon grace, and sending us to testify to the light by our lives and our service to the particular needs present in our corner of God’s garden.

To be able to do that, we must, as St. Paul says in his epistle to the Galatians, we must be transformed ourselves from slaves to daughters and sons of God. We must live the transformation we are called to share. If we are to show [the]… characteristics of Christ in our common life, according to our special call, we must be willing to let go of our plans and open ourselves to ask God and our neighbors: How can we be of help?

Some of you may not know it, but this is the transformed approach our Campus ministry team has taken this year. Rather than making a plan for campus ministry then going to the students at WCU and telling them what program we will offer them, the team went to the students and faculty and told them, “we’re a small church and we don’t have a lot of resources, but we want to use what we have to serve the students. How can we best do that?

Immediately a variety of important needs surfaced, some we could have guessed and some we couldn’t have. We began doing the little things we could do now while we move into the formal development of the program with diocesan support - little things like the exam bags and intentional invitations to the soup suppers where the students’ hunger for home-made food and warm hospitality have been satisfied. Now these same students want to help build the program with us as we proceed.

I hold up this ministry as an example of servanthood that reflects the characteristics of Christ and meets our responsibility as the mystical body of Christ in the world. As we heard in today’s gospel, the law of Moses helped the people of God know what to do (and not do) to be in right relationship with God and one another. But we are children of God, siblings of the Savior who guides us all on how to be, which then reveals to us what we can do.

It’s a tall order, and must be done in community because “being” rather than “doing” means staying flexible, welcoming change (of direction, thinking, and action), and tolerating a certain amount of uncertainty all the time. It means dying to self in order to follow Jesus, who has poured his light into us that it may shine from us into the world.

As we move into this new year, may God’s light shine brightly through us, bringing freedom to us and to all we serve in Christ’s name.


Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Christmas, 2019-A: Our sacred story

Lectionary: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14-20

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

This truly is the greatest story ever told - and it never gets old, does it? We hear about this intrepid family who guard the secret of a new life given to them by God in a most miraculous way. Our backs and bodies ache with very pregnant Mary as she rides for hours and hours on a donkey. We feel ourselves tense up with Joseph as he searches in vain for a safe place for his wife to deliver their baby. Time is running out and the lack of compassion they face is astounding!

If you’ve ever been a parent awaiting your baby’s delivery you know how anxious that time is. TV often depicts this moment with hilarity - people running around chaotically scrambling to get the pregnant mother to the hospital to deliver, often running out the door without the mother! It’s a nerve-wracking time, especially for first-time parents.

In our sacred story, Mary gives birth in less than ideal conditions: with no mid-wife and no women family to support, encourage, and watch out for her safety in the delivery. By the end of this adventure Joseph probably knows a whole lot more about child-birth than he ever dreamed he would!

But the new life has arrived and they are awestruck by it. There is a peace that passes understanding in this part of the story, a peace beautifully described in the hymn, Silent Night, which we will sing later in order to share in this deep, resounding, soulful peace.

This sacred story demonstrates for us the rhythm of the process of divine love: chaos transformed into peace.

If we move from what happened to those particular people on that particular night and look at it as a prototype for all humanity in all time, what we see is how God’s loving redemption plays out eternally.

The reality is people are ostracized – for lots of reasons. They are shunned by people who matter in their lives, left out in the cold to fend for themselves. In their powerlessness, they accept the derision directed at them, maybe because they learned to believe that they deserve it or maybe they know they don’t deserve it, but they aren’t going to change the minds of those who believe they do.

In this story, they focus on something bigger already happening: the birth of a new life. This new life for them has been conceived by God and is now ready to be made manifest. It will be so real they can see it, touch it, be awed by it; and others will too – because this new life will reveal the love of God in a whole new way.

It starts small, this new life. It’s as delicate and vulnerable as it is beautiful. The people given this new life know they’re going to have to tend to it for a long time before it comes into its fullness.

This means they have to commit to doing the little things, the everyday, homely, inglorious, things that will bring this new life to its fullness. Then, when it comes to its fullness, this new life, conceived by God, will have its effect.

For Mary and Joseph, that meant breastfeeding a crying baby Jesus, changing his dirty diapers, schlepping back and forth between Bethlehem, Egypt, and Nazareth to keep him from being murdered by an insane, paranoid ruler, teaching him to be a carpenter, taking him to church, and watching his trial and execution. Through it all, the parents of our Savior had to deal with the continued shame of the rumors about how Mary really got pregnant - because, really, would we believe the story Mary and Joseph told if we heard it today?

For us, it means doing the menial spiritual and worldly work that feeds and nurtures the new life God is giving us. Practicing the disciplines of daily prayer and weekly corporate worship, participating in the councils of the church, being patient, loving, and hope-filled even as tensions rise and compassion seems absent, caring for our bodies as the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.

It means suffering through the moments that are devastating, illogical, and totally unfair, knowing, as Mary and Joseph did, that God has a perfect plan of love and is working redemption even in what feels like a present darkness.

One of the reasons this story never gets old, I think, is because it is so deeply within us that we’re no longer listening the way we did as children - to the sacred story of the birth of Jesus to Mary and Joseph. We’re listening now to the sacred story of all humankind and the birth of new life, redeeming life conceived by God, and brought to manifest reality through us.

This is the sacred story of the eternally happening birth of the Christ.

When people draw near to us, the parish of St. David’s, they are like the “shepherds,” those regular, hardworking, unpretentious folks in our sacred story who draw near to see and experience the Christ made manifest in our lives. Because I know what they’ll find here, I believe that they too will be amazed and give thanks to God; and they’ll run to tell others that this is not only possible but real and they know where to find it.

The new life, being conceived right now by God at St. David’s is about to become manifest through everyone here. Chaos is being transformed into deep, resounding, soulful peace as the Christ is being born and nurtured here in a whole new way.

Trust the process. Ours is the sacred story of the eternally happening birth of the Christ - and it is truly the greatest story ever told. Amen.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Advent 4, 2019-A: Our invitation to God

Lectionary: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

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I hate to break it to you, but do you realize we’ve just invited God to make daily visitations to us? In our Collect, we prayed: Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation…

In my experience and from what I read in Scripture, God doesn’t barge in uninvited. God’s love for us is way too respectful for that. But God does hear and answer prayer, and since we’ve all just asked God to visit us daily, we believe that God will do it. Our task now is to notice when God shows up and notice what happens, in us and in the world, as a result - because something will surely happen! Are you ready for it?

Here’s an example of what happens when God makes visitations: the Angel Gabriel is sent to ask Mary if she would bear the Christ to the world. She could have said no, but in the presence of heaven broken through to earth, in the presence of the overwhelming love, affirmation, and care of God, how could anyone want to say no?

In today’s gospel, God visits Joseph in a dream, calls him by name, and tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, that she has been faithful to him. The child she is carrying was from the Holy Spirit, as had been prophesied.

Joseph could have said no. But in the presence of God who speaks to him in a dream, calls him by name, and quotes Scripture to him, how hard would it have been for Joseph to say, No, God. This isn’t for me.

The experience of a single visitation from God, much less a daily one, would be so powerful, so exiting, so motivating that anything would seem possible, any risk worth taking, any price worth paying because the Creator of the universe is there with you.

The price Joseph was being asked to pay was huge. He was being asked to receive into his home and his care one whom society insists “good people” should reject. Nobody around their tiny town would know that Mary came up pregnant by the Holy Spirit. They’d have done what folks usually do – put the pieces together in a way that makes sense to them.

Mary and Joseph are engaged, but not living together yet and Mary turns up pregnant. The obvious conclusion is that someone besides Joseph got to her. Since the Holy Spirit isn’t an obvious first choice for explanation, the one that fits is that it was some other man – making Mary an adulterer and Joseph a fool.

The law gave Joseph the right to have Mary stoned to death for being adulterous. He must have been a really sweet guy, though, because his inclination was to just “dismiss her quietly,” and dissolve their marriage contract. That would have spared Mary’s life, but it also would have destined her and her child to a lifetime of poverty, and shame.

In order to take Mary who is pregnant into his care, Joseph has to put his own reputation aside because a man with an unfaithful wife would have been openly scorned by the “good people” in his village. Yet, when Joseph awoke from his sleep, “he did as the angel of God [had] commanded him.” He walked forward in faith, letting go of his own plan for his future. Joseph willingly sacrificed his reputation and committed to quietly endure whatever judgments were made against him by his own friends, family, and community.

Joseph could have said to himself, ‘God doesn’t speak to someone like me.’ Or he might have reasoned that God wouldn’t ask him to violate the laws God gave his people. He could have written off the whole thing as nothing more than a delusion. But he doesn’t. When he awakens, Joseph does as he was commanded to do – as strange and uncomfortable as that was.

Joseph continued living quietly as he had done before. He married Mary and raised Jesus as his own son.

Joseph couldn’t have known how God would redeem all of this for him, he simply trusted in God, recognizing that there was a much bigger plan in play and his concerns about his own and Mary’s reputations just didn’t matter much anymore because God was being made known in a new way and Joseph was asked to help make it so. Joseph’s ‘yes’ to God was just as important in bearing the light of Christ to the world as Mary’s ‘yes’ to God was. That’s an honor that far outweighs any earthly judgments or achievements, which suddenly seem so small and inconsequential.

Joseph’s willingness to respond to God’s visitation to him stands in sharp contrast to Ahaz in the story from Isaiah. Ahaz clings so tightly to the law in Deuteronomy (the one that says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” 6:6) that he can’t release his grip on what he believes and what he’s always done, even when God asks it of him. In this story, God is ready to act. God is asking Ahaz to open a new way for God to be made known, but Ahaz just can’t do it.

We’re not so different from Ahaz sometimes. We often cling to what we feel comfortable believing and doing.

Yet, God continues to visit us and call us out of our sense of comfort, beyond what we think, believe and usually do, into new ways of living in holiness and righteousness. Any church in transition can attest to that, right?

Daily visitations from God will most assuredly lead us to discover ever new ways of making God known in the world, but we must be willing to be like Joseph and walk forward in faith, letting go our own plans for the future, and committing to do what God asks of us, even when there may be a price to pay for it.

As a community we asked God today to purify our conscience, that is to make us one with the inner voice in us which guides us forward – the voice of the Spirit of God who dwells in us. This voice of God within our community leads us forward in the way we are meant to go. This voice bears the command Jesus gave us after his resurrection and before his ascension: bring the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ to all nations and peoples. We do this by living our lives in such a way that everyone we meet has the opportunity to hear the Good News, see the living God in us, and come to believe.

St. Paul tells us that we have been prepared to do this, having received grace and apostleship from Jesus Christ in order to make God known to all. This is the Jesus Movement, as our Presiding Bishop calls it, and as the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, we are by definition a gathering of apostles – a people who are sent on a mission.

Did you know that our official name of the Episcopal Church, our legal name, is the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society? Our continuing mission is to use everything we’ve been given and risk everything we have, so that God can be made known and God’s love can be made manifest through us in new and unprecedented ways.

As we practice our last week of Advent together, I pray that we will listen faithfully and fearlessly to the voice of God within us and respond as Joseph did, with our “yes” as strange and uncomfortable as the path ahead may seem, whatever the price to be paid.


Sunday, December 15, 2019

Advent 3, 2019-A: The God of Mary

Lectionary: Isaiah 35:1-10, Canticle 15; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

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

Ever since I was a child, I have been profoundly moved by the Magnificat, Mary’s proclamation of her understanding of God. Her words gave me confidence to believe as she did, to hope as she did, and to rejoice as she did – even knowing the way her story as the God-bearer played out in her life.

The theology in Mary’s Magnificat is what she taught and modeled for her son. Think about that. It isn’t possible to characterize the utterer of these words as meek, mild, or servile as she is so often portrayed in Christian art and music. Mary was amazingly strong. She knew who the child she was bearing into the world was and the cataclysmic effect his presence would have. She knew and rejoiced in it, proclaiming the greatness of God for it.

The God of Mary is merciful and just, strong and tender, and very present. Mary’s song of praise, like Hannah’s before her, not only celebrates but also prioritizes that God looks with favor on the lowly and breaks down the mighty who oppress them, giving hope to the hopeless from generation to generation. This merciful action of God isn’t just to free the oppressed but also the oppressor, whose delusion of personal power impedes their ability to be in harmonious relationship with God and neighbor. God’s plan of reconciling love is for all.

Have you heard about the continuing controversy over a song that comes up each Advent and Christmas season? The song is “Mary Did You Know?” by Pentatonix. It a beautiful song with admittedly poor theology, if you take the lyrics literally anyway. The answer to the question is: of course Mary knew. But this song isn’t church doctrine – it’s a poem that reflects on the very human experience of encountering God in Jesus; of being a God-bearer in a world that rejects the notion of Emmanuel.

A quick review of the online comments shows that the song successfully reaches beyond the thoughts of many people about God into their experience of God. I know when I first heard it, the beauty of it gave me the chills. I had a similar response the first time I heard “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot. In fact, every time I hear that aria it reaches to some place deep inside of me and I share the emotional power of the song – even though the lyrics are in Italian (which I don’t speak).

And isn’t that what art does? It’s a vehicle that gives shape, form, color, and sound to shared human experience and offers a gateway to something bigger than us, bigger than now.

This song is art in musical form, much like Dante’s Divine Comedy is art in literary form. Sadly, many people forget that Dante’s interpretation isn’t church doctrine or theological truth. I wonder if he had haters in his time too.

No one would interpret an icon to be a photographic image of the holy ones depicted – not anymore anyway. They are windows into an experience of the divine, enabling us to connect prayerfully with God.

The song, “Mary did you know?” speaks of the details of the ways Mary’s child would live out his divine purpose and identity: walking on water, giving sight to the blind, calming a storm – and no, she couldn’t have known those. At the same time, the song proclaims important truth about who Jesus is as the Christ using simple, homely words and images. For example, the song asks, did you know the child that you delivered would soon deliver you? Did you know the sleeping child you're holding is the great I AM? The movement is back and forth between the humanity and divinity of Jesus – a mystery most of us struggle to understand all our lives – leading us into the dynamic nature of that mystery where we ultimately surrender to the experience of it and let go trying to “know” and understand it.

Like Mary, most parents know that their child will have an effect on the world. They can’t know the details of the ways their child will live out their divine purpose, but they know the world will be different somehow because of them and they know their role as parent is to help their child live into their divine purpose whatever the cost. In this way, Mary is very relatable.

This, by the way, is also the role of the church – to encourage and empower everyone to live into their divine purpose. When I was a teenager, I heard a Catholic nun ask, “What if everyone treated their child as the son or daughter of God?” Her question has continued to resonate in me ever since. What if people in church treated everyone as a child of God…

Mary is also a human, like we are. She isn’t important or powerful or well educated. What connects us is that Mary epitomizes the lowly whom God lifts up in her hymn of praise. In today’s world, there are so many people, invisible for the most part, who have been wounded by the church or people or events in their lives who quietly wonder where God was when they were suffering. Some are angry, feeling abandoned by God, and afraid of God’s response to their anger. Some are afraid because they believe they are too unworthy to receive the promises God made to everyone else.

Mary’s Magnificat assures us that God’s response to all of that is mercy. The song reminds us what that mercy looked like – the great I AM asleep in the arms of his lowly mother.

The song asks when Mother Mary kisses her child, does she know she is kissing the face of God? What was it like for Mary to gaze upon the face of her child – God’s child – God Incarnate? What is it like for us now as we prepare for the coming of the Christ child again at Christmas?

Emmanuel, God with us, is an important truth easily lost in present-day human systems that focus on Jesus’ divinity and skim over or ignore his humanity. But it’s the fact of Jesus’ humanity reconciled to his divinity, the Incarnation, that is our hope, our joy, and our salvation. Focusing on Jesus’ divinity alone also relieves us of our responsibility to be God-bearers in the world today, which is why so many in the church do that, but Emmanuel isn’t something that happened once long ago. It’s something that is happening eternally and in our very human bodies right now.

The song, much like today’s reading from Isaiah reaches its crescendo with descriptions of how human experience will be transformed by the love of God: the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again. The lame will leap, the dumb will speak the praises of the lamb…

Mary, did you know? Yes, she knew then, just as we know now.

We know who the Christ child is and what his coming birth means for the world. We can’t know the details of the ways the eternal Christ will live out his divine purpose and identity in our time, but we do know that mercy, healing, wholeness, harmony, and peace will happen in ways we’ve never dreamed.

To advance rather than inhibit that process, we strive together to heed the gentle reminder from Jesus’ brother, James, who encourages us to be patient as the farmer who awaits the precious crop from the earth is patient. The Christ is coming. The Christ is always coming.

Even John the Baptist, who knew Jesus his whole life, didn’t know the details of the ways the Christ would live out his divine purpose and identity. John’s entire life and ministry had been about preparing the way for the Christ, the Anointed One, but Jesus’ ministry didn’t fit John’s messianic expectations, so in the end, he had to ask: “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus, in his divine mercy and very human love for John, responds with, “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” assuring John that he has faithfully completed his divine purpose on earth. Then Jesus sang the praises of his cradle-mate and kin, his childhood friend and precursor, using his love of John to demonstrate the love of God for all: No one born of woman is greater than John the Baptist yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

This is the God Mary described in her Magnificat, so yes, she knew. This is the God we proclaim, so yes, we know too, and even though our sin, which divides us, sorely hinders us, we know that mercy, healing, wholeness, harmony, and peace will happen in ways we’ve never dreamed.

God promised it. Jesus delivered it. We proclaim it. Alleluia!

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

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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.