The First Sunday after the Epiphany: A Sermon

Readings

Then as now we’ve never lacked idiots declaring—often with sandwich boards—that the end is near. Perhaps that’s why Luke gives us two long chapters of backstory so that we take this “idiot” John the Baptist seriously.

First there’s Elizabeth’s extraordinary pregnancy when she and Zechariah are “very old” (CEB). Then Mary’s even-more extraordinary pregnancy, being a virgin. John is born to Elizabeth, and his father Zechariah responds with a lengthy prophecy speaking of “a mighty savior” and of being able to serve God “without fear.” Mary, even before Jesus’ birth, sings what we know as the Magnificat:

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

After Jesus’ birth the shepherds convey the words of the angel and the angelic military chorus, and Simeon and Anna add their witness in the temple. So, John the Baptist is no ordinary “idiot.”

John’s message is, I think, three-fold: (1) “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” God is coming to set things right. (2) Repent! When God comes it’s prudent not to be obviously part of the problem: stop hoarding, stop extorting! (3) Me, I’m just the warm-up act. It’s all very apocalyptic. The newspapers might have called it the “Apocalypse Now” tour. Things have to be pretty bad for apocalypse to sound like a good idea, and the crowds flocking to John give us a pretty good idea of life in the benevolent claws of the Roman Empire.

And, at the end of today’s Gospel: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In those words of the Divine Voice many hear echoes of three biblical texts:

The new king’s witness in Ps 2: “I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you’” (Ps. 2:7).

The Lord’s introduction of the servant in the midst of exile: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isa 42:1)

The Lord’s words to Abraham: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you” (Gen. 22:2).

John is hardly underplaying what’s going on here! And all three of these texts continue to echo in Luke’s Gospel. Psalm 2: Jesus sorting out his messianic role, which is essentially about what it means to live as a human being. Isaiah 42: Jesus assuming the mantle of the servant—and invites his followers to do so as well. What sort of service pleases God? Genesis 22: Jesus continuing on a trajectory over which he has limited control.

There are many things that we might explore in this and the other readings. Since we’ll be doing the renewal of baptismal vows in a few minutes I’ll focus on just two.

First, this salvation that everyone’s been celebrating—Zechariah, Mary, Simeon, Anna, John—doesn’t play out predictably. Luke’s mention of John’s imprisonment brutally yanks John offstage, and signals what Jesus is getting himself into. This is probably not what John had in mind when he proclaimed “every tree…that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And Simeon had warned Mary “and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” And the echo of the words to Abraham in the words to Jesus. Fast-forwarding to Paul, who started his career very certain of how God’s salvation was going to play out, being baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection means giving up our illusions of control.

Second, for all that Zechariah, Mary, John, etc. get right, there’s plenty that they don’t get right, plenty of room for ongoing repentance. Zechariah responds with so little faith to Gabriel’s announcement that Gabriel decides it would be better for all concerned if Zechariah would just shut up until John’s birth. The story we heard last week of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple: every parent’s nightmare, but also evidence that Mary and Joseph had no idea who was living under their roof. This pattern continues with the disciples, so that in Luke’s telling they chose the Last Supper to continue their argument about who’s the greatest (22:24-30). They all end up abandoning Jesus. So, when in the renewal of the Baptismal Covenant we say “I will, with God’s help,” Luke would probably want us to remember that “God’s help” includes graciously accepting our repentance. Jesus tells us to accept a brother’s or sister’s repentance even seven times a day (Lk 17:3-4); our firm hope is the God does likewise.

Let us close with the collect for Friday from Morning Prayer: “Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.”

The Second Sunday after Christmas Day: A Sermon

Readings (Using Gospel from Luke)

Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas—in spite of entering the new calendar year still besieged by the COVID 19 pandemic. It’s been brutal, and tends to eat away at hope. My focus on hope is inspired by Paul’s in our second reading: he celebrates the Ephesians’ faith and love, but thinks their hope could use a little support—as could mine.

Jeremiah’s vision of new exodus (our first reading) lays out an extravagant vision of hope: the Lord will again make a way through the wilderness, a way that even the lame and very pregnant will be able to negotiate. At the end, full-throated worship in the temple, with the land’s staples—grain, wine, olive oil—in abundance. That’s the Lord’s heart, the Lord’s passion, on full display.

And, by the Lord’s power, there was a return in the 6th century (Haggai, Zechariah, Ezra, Nehemiah). But it was ambiguous enough that most readers of Isaiah and Jeremiah thought the new exodus was still to come. The editors of Daniel, for example, working in the second century, thought that when Jeremiah talked of 70 years of exile he was talking about 70 weeks of years, that is, 490 years. So Jesus’ family celebrating Passover (the first exodus) would have been hoping for the Lord to do it again.

Which is essentially what John the Baptist and Jesus were announcing: this is it! It’s no accident that Jesus focused on “the Kingdom of God” and that the first mention in the Bible of the Lord’s kinship is at the climax of the song Moses and Miriam sang on the far side of the Red Sea: “The LORD will reign forever and ever.” Or that in Luke’s account of the transfiguration Jesus, Moses and Elijah speaking about Jesus’ “exodus” “which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (translated “departure” in the NRSV). As the Gospels tell it, Jesus’ death and resurrection is not the derailing, but the fulfillment of the new exodus hope. “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast” (1 Cor. 5:7-8 KJV).

So we gather together every Sunday, because Sunday’s the day of the resurrection: “Christ is risen from the dead, / trampling down death by death, / and on those in the tombs bestowing life!” Or, as we say in the Great Thanksgiving: “Christ has died. / Christ is risen. / Christ will come again.” Death can only dream of having the last word, playing the last card.

As Paul tells it, the same divine power evident in the resurrection continues to work, gathering communities of believers throughout the Empire—like Ephesus. Eventually “throughout” transitions to “beyond,” so here we are in Wisconsin!

Ephesus: capital of the Roman province of Asia, home to a magnificent temple to Artemis—four times larger than the Parthenon. This is where some of the merchants started a major riot in response to Paul’s preaching on the chance that he might make enough converts to cut into their temple trade profits. Paul describes God building another temple: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” So the visions of pilgrimage to God’s temple, God’s glory, in Jeremiah and the psalm are not stuck in past, but descriptive of our reality—in the middle of Empire. And it’s not that the church in Ephesus simply survived. It thrived, planting churches in multiple neighboring cities, and, later, hosting a major ecumenical council (431).

One final observation from that letter. In the middle of Paul’s glowing affirmations and many specific instructions: “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” That’s important: Christian life, congregational life, is not a turnkey or scripted affair: experimentation and improvisation are essential. So Jesus “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” This isn’t something Jesus grows out of; the Gospels are packed with Jesus’ questions. And to the degree that we’re listening we hear Jesus asking us questions, including, for some of us, “Why are you so hard on yourself?”

And sometimes Jesus asks us questions through the questions one of us asks. Here’s the thing: groups—including congregations—tend to have unwritten rules about what questions can be asked and what questions can’t be asked. I doubt that these rules serve us well. Between Jesus’ example in the temple and Paul’s “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord” we may well need everyone’s questions.

We’re entering a new year already weighed down by a brutal pandemic. We don’t know how that’s going to play out. We do know that Christ is risen from the dead, and that Christ has a strong track record of nurturing life-giving communities from Ephesus to Baraboo. “Christ has died. / Christ is risen. / Christ will come again.”

Merry Christmas.

The First Sunday after Christmas Day: A Sermon (V.2)

Sometimes you plan one sermon and end up giving another one. This was one of those days.

Readings

Merry Christmas!

“…and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Glory: that word shows up repeatedly in the Bible and in our liturgy: “Glory to God in the highest…we praise you for your glory…in the glory of God the Father.” What are we talking about?

‘Glory’, we might say, points to what generates awe, the gut-level recognition that things are off the scale, that—recalling that scene from Jaws—“We need a bigger boat.” The Old Testament often uses extreme weather to imagine glory: God’s giving the law at Sinai is accompanied by thunder and lightning. The prophets would have liked Wisconsin’s weather, in which we can sometimes get a snow storm combined with thunder and lightning!

My most profound encounter with this sort of glory occurred while backpacking in the high Sierras in California above tree line. There was a full moon, and the crystals in the exposed granite did wonderful things with the moonlight. So I stood facing one direction, trying to take it all in—unsuccessfully. Then I’d turn 90° and repeat the process. I probably spent over half an hour trying to take it all in. Finally crawled into the sleeping bag; too much glory to take in.

“…and we have seen his glory” John says, and in the Gospel readings throughout the year we get some sense as to what that was like. But Jesus ascended, so where does that leave us? Where does that leave the world?

Paul’s answer is disconcerting: “You are God’s building… God’s temple is holy and you are that temple” (1 Cor 3:9, 17). Paul is writing to the Corinthians, of all people! Recalling all the other things he needed to say to them, he nevertheless says this: “you are that temple.” You are where God’s glory is to be visible.

How does that work? Here are two stories from my time in World Vision in Latin America.

For various historical reasons the division between Protestants and Roman Catholics is often very sharp there. It’s common for each to define themselves as not being the other. Throw the Bible into the mix and too often the arguments coalesce around the Pope and the Virgin Mary. Since World Vision’s community development projects tryto bring the faith traditions of the community into the process and since virtually everyone self-identifies as Protestant or Roman Catholic, that’s a challenge.

Now, community development is basically about two things: power and money: how do resources get distributed, and who gets to decide? Who’s at the table; who’s not at the table? And, since as Kissinger observed, power is the most potent aphrodisiac, decisions about how sexuality gets used or exploited can come into the mix as well. Jesus, of course, has a great deal to say about money and power. So we worked at crafting Bible studies that focused on these: how did Jesus handle issues of money and power, and how might this shape our conduct and procedures? Some time later the field directors from the various counties came together (as they periodically did) and observed one of these studies being facilitated in one of the projects. They left the experience flummoxed: they couldn’t figure out if the facilitator was a Protestant or Catholic. Glory! In that admittedly limited time and space there was some healing of a very old wound in Christ’s body, some greater possibility of God’s glory being visible.

At the national office in another country the staff routine included morning and afternoon coffee breaks. In that particular context those coffee breaks were an important marker of being white collar, of having arrived. But this meant that if someone from one of the projects had to travel to the national office for some administrative issue—usually by a multi-hour bus ride—they might have to wait an additional 15 minutes while the staff enjoyed their coffee break. We’d been focusing on what Christian witness meant, that it was a witness we gave whether or not we were intending to witness to anything, and the staff came to the conclusion that making folk from the projects cool their heels was witnessing to some lord other than Jesus. So they reworked individual schedules so that while everyone got their coffee break, there’d always be someone available to attend immediately to folk from the projects. Glory. What’s important about this is that regular coffee breaks were part of the landscape, part of “they way we’ve always done it.” But Jesus’ Spirit was able to do some creative meddling and a little more glory became visible.

“You are that temple.” That’s Paul’s word to the Corinthians, and to Good Shepherd in Sun Prairie. Here is where God wants God’s glory to be visible.

There’s a corollary to that: the past is prologue. God’s process of transforming us so that God’s glory is ever more visible means that things can keep getting better. Another, small, example: this week my wife and I celebrate 43 years of marriage, and it has kept getting better. We’re two garden-variety sinners, but even with our very imperfect discipleship it has kept getting better. And that’s God’s desire for all the communities in Christ’s Body. It can keep getting better; God’s glory can become increasingly visible. That’s God’s desire and passion for Good Shepherd, Sun Prairie.

Merry Christmas.

The First Sunday after Christmas Day: A Sermon

Readings

Good morning, and Merry Christmas!

Our lectionary has set a rich feast before us; the sermon could go in any number of directions. We might focus on John the Baptist and the surprising logic of being a witness. The Word the Gospel celebrates is described as a light. Why does the light need a witness? We might focus on Jesus’ coming as opening the path to our becoming God’s daughters and sons. Or we might—and we will—wonder about the odd disconnect between the passion for Jerusalem in Isaiah and the psalm and those sober lines in the Gospel: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”

Jerusalem, both a specific city at a particular longitude and latitude and one of the Bible’s central symbols for God’s passion to create and preserve a life-giving community. God deals with us individually. But because to be human—as Aristotle memorably defined it—is to be a political animal, dealing with us individually means dealing equally with our communities and institutions.

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.

So Isaiah. And in the psalm the salvation of the individual and the salvation of Jerusalem are inseparable:

13 Worship the Lord, O Jerusalem; *
praise your God, O Zion;
14 For he has strengthened the bars of your gates; *
he has blessed your children within you.
15 He has established peace on your borders; *
he satisfies you with the finest wheat.

And in the run-up to Jesus’ birth as described in Luke’s Gospel this vision and these hopes are on full display. And then the lines in the Gospel prologue: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.

How do we make sense of this strange story? The convenient answer: well, what do you expect from the Jews? Tapping into the latent anti-Semitism in our culture is convenient, because it lets us off the hook. But with Jesus, the apostles, all the New Testament writers being Jews, that’s a non-starter. How do we make sense of it all going sideways?

Let’s go back to Isaiah’s words:

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.

In Jesus’ time Jews argued about how to hear those words. At one end of the scale: Jerusalem’s vindication as the condemnation of the gentiles. (The Zealots were here: the only good Roman is a dead Roman.) The other end of the scale: Jerusalem’s vindication as the salvation of the gentiles. And that’s where Jesus was.

It starts already in the angel’s proclamation to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10).

Fast forward to Jesus reading Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” From a nationalistic perspective, so far so good. But then Jesus chooses examples: Elijah in the famine providing for a gentile, that widow at Zarephath in Sidon; Elisha healing Naaman the Syrian of leprosy.

That argument keeps popping up, so that at the end when the Jerusalem crowd has the choice of sparing Barabbas, who’s killed Romans, and Jesus, who hasn’t…

“He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him”—because Jesus did not offer vindication on their terms.

So God’s story ends in defeat or in a long drawn-out stalemate? Hardly. “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” Receiving Jesus, believing in Jesus’ name: beginning with Holy Baptism that’s a life-long process. We’d don’t easily give up getting vindication on our own terms. But through this process God’s glory is visible, which was and is the point of Jerusalem’s vindication. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “You are God’s building… God’s temple is holy and you are that temple” (1 Cor 3:9, 17).

Hear Isaiah again:

2 The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the LORD will give.
3 You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

Jesus is not content that God’s glory be confined to Jerusalem, or Rome, or Washington, but be visible wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, Sun Prairie for example. That glory, that “grace and truth” that came through Jesus: the world in its better moments is hungry for that, and Jesus’ dream is that it be found here. For that we come together. For that we extend our hands to receive into ourselves Jesus’ Body, Jesus’ Blood.

Amen, and Merry Christmas!

Christmas Day II: A Sermon

(Readings)

Good morning, and merry Christmas!

Our readings present us with an intriguing collage; let’s take a few minutes to ponder it.

The first reading, written when Jerusalem was under the heel of the Persian (Iranian) Empire, calls on the Lord to do something. The psalm, probably written when the Lord’s kingship was mirrored by the Davidic king in Jerusalem, but continuing in use when the Davidides were a distant memory, sounds the same notes: “Zion hears and is glad, and the cities of Judah rejoice, / because of your judgments, O Lord.” And the psalm imagines all this playing out in terms of the familiar contrast between the righteous and wicked: “The Lord loves those who hate evil; / he preserves the lives of his saints / and delivers them from the hand of the wicked.”

The Gospel. I love the scene of the angel and heavenly military appearing to the shepherds: it’s the Good Lord handing out cigars scene. And the angel’s announcement promises the fulfillment of all the hopes voiced in Isaiah and the psalm: “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” However: Jerusalem is now under the even heavier Roman heel, so that we might wonder whether what Jerusalem needs is this baby or Arnold Schwarzenegger making a Terminator-style entrance into our space-time coordinates. Some years later Jerusalem wondered this too, and opted for Barabbas for the now-grown Jesus who kept spouting nonsense like “love your enemies.” And with the events of Holy Week any self-serving understanding of the psalm’s “righteous/wicked” contrast went out the window, as the religious authorities handed Jesus over to the Romans and the disciples fled. And Jerusalem, who had for so long pleaded for the Lord’s intervention said, when the Lord showed up, no thank you. Now what?

All that’s the backstory for Paul’s words in Titus: “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy.” Not because we got it right back then, or because we can be counted on to get it right now.

The Persian heel, the Roman heel, the many institutional and systemic heels today that grind down too many: the Lord responds not with Arnold, but with this baby. What does that tell us about how God understands power, about how God goes about getting things done?

Here’s the thing. Our culture treats the Christmas story as a sort of Rorschach, onto which we project all our assumptions and hopes. But the Christmas story is too specific for that: it affirms some of our hopes and overwrites most of our assumptions. To whom should the angel and heavenly military appear? To Caesar? To Herod? To the High Priest? God opts for the shepherds. Or, from Matthew’s account, Matthew describes Joseph as being a “righteous man,” and Joseph qua righteous man responds to Mary’s pregnancy with a plan to dismiss her quietly. So the first order of business is for an angel to have a quiet conversation with Joseph about what being righteous means. God would use the Christmas story, I think, to breathe life into our hopes and shake up our assumptions.

Luke tells us that “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” We might do the same.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Day I: A Sermon

Readings

The psalm we prayed announced “The Lord is King.”

For a few centuries in ancient Israel that was obvious: a glorious temple, powerful kings. But then the destruction of the temple, the fall of the monarchy, and the Jews a small people in the middle of brutal empires: Persia, Greece, Rome. In these empires “The Lord is King” expressed the pretty crazy hope that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would again show himself King of Kings in this violent world.

Our first reading speaks of that violence: “For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.” And it sounds like the Lord’s response is going to be pretty violent too.

And the King comes: Immanuel, God-with-us—as a baby, so helpless, so vulnerable.

Now, this baby grows, and we have the whole church year for this grown Jesus. But this moment, his manner of coming, is so important, because it shows us that he has no interest in being another normal king. Normal: using violence or the threat of violence to get what he wants.

In a few minutes we’ll remember, again, his royal self-giving for us, exalted in the cross, gaining our salvation. Not the usual conduct of the powerful, true?

So, this birth that we’re celebrating is both good and bad news.

Good news: the powerful with their lies and violence will not have the last word. Immanuel: God with us.

Bad news: that part of us that desires the moment in which God crushes our enemies—that part doesn’t have anything to do with this Baby. We have to let it go—and keep on letting it go.

Recall our second reading, ending with “zealous for good deeds.” It’s so easy for our culture to define these “good deeds,” and so to respond to our fears and anger with violence. No. We need to keep letting Jesus teach us by his words and deeds about that “good deeds.” And so Paul earlier in that reading:” training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions.”

And, so, learning from this Baby, the joy of this night can accompany us throughout the year.

Amen.

The Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year C): A Sermon

Readings

There’s a double dose of good news in today’s readings: God is indeed coming to set things right, and God generously invites us to be part of this. We’ll start with the invitation, then move to the setting things right.

The Gospel reading starts out “In those days…” If we ask “which days?” we need to go back a few verses and hear the angel Gabriel saying to Mary: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

“Do not be afraid…” first, probably, because angels are powerful creatures. Gabriel’s one of the more powerful and he’s standing right there in the living room. But “Do not be afraid…” also because Mary’s a Jew, whose people have been colonized by a series of pagan empires for over five hundred years, Rome simply being the latest. Mary has to think back over 500 years to remember a time when the Jews were free—if only in theory. If we had to think that far back it’d put us before Columbus. After all that time, can the God of King David, who many think has been conspicuously absent for the last 500 years, be trusted?

Mary trusts, and at the end of the conversation responds “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” God gives Mary—gives us—the quite amazing dignity of being agents in this story. Recalling our reading from Hebrews, Jesus is able to say “See, I have come to do your will” because Mary has given her “Here am I.” Jesus offers up his body because Mary has offered hers up: “let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary’s response brings us up to today’s reading, in which Mary heads for the one person who might understand what she’s just gotten herself into. Elizabeth, her relative, is also pregnant, despite being “advanced in years” and previously judged barren. An angel had been involved in that one also. A year before all this happened, neither Elizabeth nor Mary would have had any thought of being part of a divine project of this magnitude. But here they are.

Elizabeth greets Mary, and her speech takes up most of the Gospel reading. We read Mary’s reply, “The Song of Mary,” between the first two lessons. It’s one conversation.

Why did Luke include this scene? It doesn’t particularly advance the action. But it shows us something we almost never see elsewhere in the Gospels, and never at this length: two disciples talking to each other. And what comes through in both their speeches is a combination of “Oh, good, I’m not crazy,” wonder at being in the story at all, and a fierce joy at what God is doing.

“Oh, good, I’m not crazy.” Neither of them say that; I suspect both were thinking it: Elizabeth, preparing to be a mother when most of her friends are enjoying being grandmothers, Mary, with the angel’s voice—it was an angel, wasn’t it?—ringing in her ears. When you get caught up in God’s projects it helps to have someone with whom to run a sanity check. This is why God puts us into congregations.

Both are a little dazed at being in the story at all. “[W]hy has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” “[F]or he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” And the joy: present in Elizabeth’s “the mother of my Lord” and developed throughout Mary’s song.

Repentance, about which we’ve been speaking these last weeks, is not the focus of the Christian life. That would be like a photographer spending all her time cleaning her lenses. But it’s necessary so that something interesting can happen. And in the encounter between Elizabeth and Mary, we have an image of what that “something interesting” might look like. Two strong women, dreaming dreams and seeing visions, supported by and rejoicing in each other’s friendship, rejoicing in the first stirrings—quite literally—of what God is doing in their midst.

God’s generous invitation to be part of God’s good news, extended not just to Elizabeth and Mary, but to each one of us. Recall Paul’s absurdly mixed metaphor: “My children, I am going through the pain of giving birth to you all over again, until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19 NJB). Until Christ is formed in you.

Now, what about this business of God coming to set things right? Here we might focus on these lines from Mary’s song:

He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

Mary’s channeling pretty much the entire biblical witness here: we as a race have turned away from God and as a result regularly commit atrocities against our neighbors, all of whom bear God’s image. So “setting things right” is more than a bit of reform here or there. The status quo is inhuman. No wonder that the British banned the singing of Mary’s song in India during their rule, or that in the 1980’s the Guatemalan government banned its public recitation, or the military junta in Argentina banned its public display.[1]

Is God’s coming good news? If my status and riches depend on oppression and violence, not so much. So, not surprisingly, some of the most pointed prayers in the Book of Common Prayer are assigned to these four weeks of Advent:

Week 1: …give us grace to cast away the works of darkness…

Week 2: …Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins…

Week 3: …because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us;

Week 4: Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation…

So, in one of our prayers of confession, we acknowledge “the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.”Is God’s coming good news? Depends on which side I’m on, the sheep or the goats, and the Advent season pleads with us to take this seriously.

OK, preacher, how do we witness to this? If the status quo is inhumane, what do we do? A good chunk of the New Testament is devoted to this question; consider these snapshots:

Jesus’ instruction: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mk. 10:42-44)

Philemon is a slave-owner and Onesimus a slave: Paul tells Philemon they need to treat each other as brothers in Christ. That plants the seed that eventually results in many countries abolishing slavery.

The first witnesses to the resurrection are women, and Junia is recognized among the apostles (Rom 16:7). Things like these plant the seed that eventually results in women winning civil rights and, in some parts of the Christian Church, the barriers falling to ordination.

“Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17)—and hold the empire accountable for the pretty language it uses to describe its values (Acts 16:35-40).

In short, the default strategy is consenting to God transforming our life together in the church (“let it be with me according to your word.”) and that acting as a catalyst—as leaven—for the whole loaf. And, when it comes to it (“We must obey God rather than any human authority.” ([Acts 5:29]), not being afraid to cause “good trouble.”

God is coming to set things right and—wonder of wonders—we’re invited to be a part of that. How might that play out in the week ahead?


[1] See http://enemylove.com/subversive-magnificat-mary-expected-messiah-to-be-like/, accessed 12/7/2021.

The Second Sunday of Advent: A Sermon

Readings

In our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians we heard: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians is known as Paul’s joyful epistle: God is powerfully at work in Philippi; Paul and the Philippians get to be part of it. But Paul’s words caution: there’s been a good beginning; there’s still a good way to go for the completion. And in between the beginning and completion he calls even the Philippians to repentance.

Paul, we might say, is happy to channel Malachi and John the Baptist—also when addressing the baptized!

Last Sunday we entered Advent praying “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness…” Casting away the works of darkness is, of course, not simply what we do the first week of Advent, but what we do continually as Christians. We learn—and it is a lifelong task—how to recognize ourselves as sinners. It is like peeling an onion: layer after layer, and sometimes involving tears. As Luther put it in the first of his 95 theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

Repentance, of course, is not a stand-alone project. The “entire life of believers” revolves around loving God and neighbor. Repentance is about what gets in the way of that love.

Repentance, the core of our work in Advent. The classic treatment of repentance is in one of the homilies Queen Elizabeth sent to us clergy in 1562. This sermon is simply a summary and contextualization of that homily. Repentance: a process involving four steps: contrition, confession, faith, and amendment of life.

Contrition Contrition is expressed chiefly in the confession itself: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, / which we from time to time most grievously have committed, / by thought, word, and deed… / We do earnestly repent, / and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; / the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, / the burden of them is intolerable.” A great deal of Scripture’s testimony is condensed in these words. God loves us—yes. We’re created in God’s image—yes. But we’ve responded to that love rather badly and marred that image. And so we return again and again to these words. They may or may not match my current self-image. If there’s a disconnect between the words and my self-image, the problem isn’t with the words.

Contrition involves both awareness of sin and sorrow for sin. Sometimes this comes easily. We screw up royally, we know it, we do what’s necessary so that it doesn’t happen again. There are some mistakes we only have to make once. That’s how contrition is supposed to work.

Often awareness of sin and sorrow for sin don’t come quite so easily. The minority party within us is aware; the majority is all for blurring the issue, changing the subject. We lack the imagination to see the effects of our sin on us and those around us.

Here’s one test. I should be able to talk about everything I do with someone. If I’m doing things that I can’t talk to anyone about, that isn’t simply a red flag. That’s all the klaxons going off and all the red lights flashing.

Sometimes the contrition we need has to do with sins we’re completely unaware of, but which those around us are quite aware of. So here’s the question: am I listening for what they might be telling me? Most of us do not like criticism, and our neighbors know that. So they’d be crazy to give a direct answer to “Tell me what you really think.” But if we’re trying to listen to both what is said and to the silences—with minimal filtering from our own fears and agendas we might pick up what we need to hear.

But whether it takes a short time or a long time to get to awareness of and sorrow for sin, in all cases it’s a matter of keeping the eye on the goal, love of God and neighbor. What’s making that harder? What’s eroding my desire to even achieve that goal?

And when for a particular sin we get to awareness and sorrow, it’s time to move on to the next step. There’s no value in wallowing in contrition (“Oh, what a terrible person I am!”), and it can quickly become counterproductive.

Confession Confession,expressed chiefly in the confession itself, is a matter of taking responsibility for these manifold sins and wickedness. Of course, none of these happened in a vacuum, but however much nature or nurture made these easier, they are still our acts, and we remain trapped by them until we acknowledge them as ours, until we confess.

Faith Here we’re not talking about faith in general, but the faith or trust that God will in fact forgive my sins, be merciful to me. There’s an important circle here that can spiral either upwards or downwards. If I feel little need for God’s mercy, I don’t need much faith in God’s mercy. I may not dare open myself to knowledge of that need without some of that faith. As I learn how much I need that mercy, the faith needs to keep up with the knowledge, or I end up in denial, spiral downwards. To assist that faith, in Rite I itself, after the absolution there is the option of reading one or more sentences that emphasize God’s mercy (page 332). To the degree that I’ve let myself acknowledge my need, I may really need to hear those! And, hearing those, I can continue to grow in self knowledge, and in faith in God’s mercy, and the spiral can continue upward.

By the way, sometimes believing that God will forgive my sins, be merciful to me, is difficult enough that it’s worth scheduling private confession with a priest. Sometimes hearing “The Lord has put away all your sins” face to face is exactly what I need to hear.

Amendment of life The invitation to confession already points us toward amendment of life: “and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways” Toward the end of the confession we pray “and grant that we may ever hereafter / serve and please thee in newness of life, / to the honor and glory of thy Name.” In the Absolution: “confirm and strengthen you in all goodness”: this is not going to be easy. Were it easy, “strengthen you” would be an unnecessary petition.

Amendment of life isn’t easy. It involves change. It can be painful. The good news is that we don’t have to do it alone. It helps to have a friend with whom you can share your journey and get some accountability. You have a deacon and will soon have a regular priest: make use of them!

In our tradition we don’t expect to reach perfection in this life—but that’s no reason not to work towards it. We might work towards it for the sake of better loving God and neighbor, but few of us are far enough along spiritually for that to be a reliably sustainable motive. So here’s a more sustainable motive: the alternatives to amendment of life are even more painful. Recall M Scott Peck’s opening argument in his book The Road Less Traveled: “Life is difficult.… What makes life difficult is that the process of confronting and solving problems is a painful one.… Fearing the pain involved, almost all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, attempt to avoid problems” And, finally, this attempt “becomes more painful than the legitimate suffering it was designed to avoid.” So, amendment of life, the less painful option.

“And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” We live between the beginning and the completion, and repentance is an ongoing part of our commitment to love God and neighbor. Repentance: Contrition, confession, faith, amendment of life. Sustained and empowered by Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let us renew our dedication to this work as we continue in Advent.

The First Sunday of Advent: A Sermon

Readings

This morning’s readings set before us a feast, beginning in our first reading from the prophet Jeremiah. King David will have a descendant—we might mentally cue up “Once in royal David’s city” as the sound track—through whom through God will establish, well, righteousness. “A righteous Branch… execute justice and righteousness… Jerusalem… called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

“Righteous” and “righteousness” are today pretty much restricted to religious contexts. That’s a pity, because ‘righteous’ (tsaddiq in Hebrew) is a remarkably useful word. A person who is righteous is a person who does what needs to be done to fulfill the obligations of a relationship.

The Lord, precisely in this sense, is righteous. It doesn’t matter how powerful Israel’s enemies are. It doesn’t matter how deep a pit Israel has dug herself in. The last thing the Lord will say is “Well, you brought this on yourself; what do you expect me to do?” The Lord is righteous. If that means bringing Israel out of Egypt, the Lord will do it. If that means toppling the Babylonian Empire so the exiles can return home, the Lord will do it. If it means taking on human flesh to live as one of us, the Lord will do it. The Lord is righteous.

It’s that confidence in the Lord’s righteousness that animates the psalm. It doesn’t matter what combination external enemies and self-inflicted wounds the psalmist is dealing with: the Lord can sort it out.

The psalm—and there’s more to it than we read a moment ago—does a good job of balancing awareness of being a sinner and being sinned-against. That language is Raymond Fung’s, who served for years as the WCC’s Secretary for Mission and Evangelism. We are both sinners and sinned-against, and as we acknowledge both the Lord’s righteousness is good news.

It’s that confidence in the Lord’s righteousness that animates the Gospel reading. For this reading, however, we need a bit of context. It occurs in the conversation that starts with some touristic oohing and aahing over the temple. “Not one stone—says Jesus—will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” Asked for more information, Jesus responds with a collage of images and instructions that—like most prophecy—intermingle the immediate and the distant future.

Toward the end of this we get “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” The NRSV sets off ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ in quotation marks since it’s a quote from one of Daniel’s visions. In that vision four monsters, each worse than the last, stake out their turf. That’s Daniel’s take on about 500 years’ worth of empires in that region: four ill-tempered beasts. But God intervenes and vindicates a human figure: “with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom.”

Our future is not bestial but human. The terrorists will not have the last word; the institutionalized terror of the nations will not have the last word. The advertisers with their pictures of happy mindless consumers will not have the last word. Alleluia!

Jesus has been using “Son of Man” as a way of referring to himself; he hears the phrase in Daniel’s vision as pointing to himself, and so uses it later in the week when, now a prisoner, he’s questioned by the council about his identity: “But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God” (22:69), at which point the council either turns leadership of the meeting over to Jesus or sends him off to Pilate for crucifixion.

Scriptures like today’s second reading, together with our creeds and Eucharistic prayers confess that Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” Through repetition it can easily go right over our heads, but it’s profoundly good news: our future, the future of this world, is human, not bestial. It’s good and dependable news: this Jesus is righteous, and will continue to do what it takes to make it happen.

Alleluia. Notice, though, Jesus’ warnings toward the end of the text: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.… Be alert at all times…” Why be on guard/be alert? Mark’s account spells it out: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (13:32). So these elaborate interpretive machines into which we dump Jesus’ collage of images and instructions so that they can spit out a precise timeline? Save your money.

We do know what Jesus’ coming again will mean. It is the definitive triumph of God’s righteousness, God’s willingness and ability to move heaven and earth for our salvation. Our salvation: the people who harvest our crops not themselves suffering from malnutrition, the people who build our homes not themselves living in leaking shacks, all of us offering worship not to the idols that teach us to hate, and rob us of our humanity, but to God alone, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

That’s not a future we can bring about. It is a future to which we can—and must—witness, a witness expressed also in response to Jesus’ words: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly… Be alert at all times…” To the degree that we believe in this future, dissipation, drunkenness, etc. are not temptations. But, if all we can expect is one more ill-tempered beast after another, then dissipation etc. begin to sound pretty good. Advent is about there being a better future for this world than it deserves, a better future than any of its current trajectories would lead us to expect. Because of that better future, that Jesus-shaped future, it makes perfect sense “to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.”

Someone once asked Bishop Lesslie Newbigin whether he was an optimist or a pessimist on some issue. His answer was “I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.” The Lord has acted and will again act in righteousness, remaking heaven and earth. “Be alert at all times?” Sounds like good advice.

Christ the King: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

Today is the Sunday before Advent, now known as the Feast of Christ the King. This feast is a recent addition to the Church Year: in 1925 Pope Pius XI proclaimed it for the last Sunday in October, and the calendar reforms of Vatican II moved it to the last Sunday before Advent. So we’re just following a Roman innovation?

Not entirely. In both the English Book of Common Prayer (1662) and our 1928 edition the texts assigned for the Sunday before Advent were Jeremiah 23.5-8, a prophecy regarding the coming Messiah (King), and John 6.5-14, Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, which ends with the crowd wanting to make Jesus king on the spot. So already our lessons were pointing in the direction of Christ the King. Nudged by the Romans we’re naming an already-existing reality.

But just what are we doing when we celebrate Christ the King? Pope Pius XI is quite clear about his intentions in 1925. The feast will remind Christians and non-Christians alike of Christ’s spiritual and civil authority, and, specifically, check rising anti-clericalism: “The right which the Church has from Christ himself, to teach mankind, to make laws, to govern peoples in all that pertains to their eternal salvation, that right was denied.” The Pope is probably in part responding to the then current crisis in Mexico, in which President Callas is enforcing the provisions of the 1917 Constitution, which among other things outlawed monastic orders, prohibited religious organizations from owning property, and took away the right to vote from clergy. In this context “Christ the King” is a clear shot across the bow of secular governments —probably Mexico’s in particular. Certainly many Mexican priests, monks and nuns went to their martyrdom with Viva Cristo Rey on their lips. So “Christ the King” is not a bad moment to remember the many Christians who suffer for their confession of Christ the King around the world and in this country.

As a cleric, any effort to combat anti-clericalism sounds like a Good Thing. Nevertheless, there is more than a whiff of Madison Avenue in the Pius’ encyclical: promote Christ, and some of the glory will rub off on the clergy. Just how this fits with Jesus’ “My kingdom is not from this world” isn’t obvious!

So, let’s go back to the texts we heard this morning and wonder what they might want to tell us, whatever we call this Sunday.

Our first reading, David’s oracle, does sound like a self-serving bit of political propaganda: God has made an everlasting covenant with my dynasty. Nevertheless, David gets at least one thing right in the third verse: “One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God…” The king, no less than the most humble commoner, is accountable to justice and the fear of God.

What justice and the fear of God mean comes through more clearly in our psalm: “If your children keep my covenant / and my testimonies that I shall teach them, / their children will sit upon your throne for evermore.” What is required of David’s children above all is obedience. Without that, “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” won’t be of much use.

As we begin to see a trajectory in these texts that leads us to Jesus before Pilate in the Gospel, there’s an additional text from the prophet Isaiah that’s important. Speaking to the people the prophet says “Incline your ear, and come to me; / listen, so that you may live. / I will make with you an everlasting covenant, / my steadfast, sure love for David. / See, I made him a witness to the peoples, / a leader and commander for the peoples” (55:3-4). Of all the ways Isaiah could have described David—king, poet, shepherd, etc.—he calls him a witness. And perhaps because he is a witness, he is fit to be leader and commander. Recall that as Israel passed from one pagan empire to another there were periodically times when all that faithful Israelites could do was bear witness, testify to their faith, even when it meant certain martyrdom.

And it is Jesus as witness, as martyr—it is the same word in Greek—that we meet in the lessons from Revelation and John. Jesus Christ “the faithful witness” in the first, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” in the second.

The psalm promises an eternal throne to David’s children if they keep the covenant and testimonies; Isaiah and the New Testament texts focus this obligation in terms of the obligation to the truth.

The first thing these texts tell us about Christ the King then is that Christ is the King because Christ himself—in the language of the psalm—keeps the covenant and the testimonies. Christ is obedient. He is fit to be our king because he lives as we are called to live.

Second, these texts remind us that Christ the King was and is Christ the witness to the truth. “Honest” and “politician” are not mutually exclusive categories; one might almost say that Jesus died because he held the two together. Jesus and Pilate typify the alternatives: truth as something that can seriously challenge us, or truth post-“spin.”

Third, Christ’s Kingdom is not defended by the sword. Recall Jesus’ words to Pilate: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting…” These are words we have had trouble hearing. Early in the fifth century St. Augustine used the words from one of Jesus’ parables (“Compel them to come in”) to mobilize the Empire against those whom the bishops identified as heretics. (Muhammad was born into this world about two hundred years latter, and we are still dealing with the fallout.) Only in the middle of the 17th Century did an exhausted Western Christendom relinquish the sword, and reasonable and enlightened men have insured unbroken peace in Europe since then.

What does it mean for us to celebrate this feast? (This is almost a matter of connecting the dots and then sitting down.) As Jesus’ followers, we’re renewing our commitment to keep the covenant and the testimonies. Since we can’t very well keep what we don’t know, in the middle of busy schedules we make time to read the Bible and to talk to God about what we find there. There are lots of different ways we may do that, but twenty centuries of Christian experience is pretty unanimous in identifying this rhythm (read and pray) as the foundation for any sustainable friendship with God.

And, as Jesus’ followers, we’re renewing our commitment to offer our witness to the truth, both when it is easy and when it is hard. Not too long ago it was easy: society assumed that good people were in church on Sunday morning; all we had to do was open the doors. Today it’s not so easy. Nevertheless, it’s a safe bet that each of us rub shoulders with folk—whether friends, neighbors, acquaintances, strangers with whom we strike up a conversation—for whom it’s true that if they’re going to hear that Jesus brings life, it’ll be us through whom they hear it.

Finally, there’s this business of the sword. We’re in literal compliance with Jesus’ words. Even if we talk of evangelistic crusades, we don’t outfit the ushers with brass knuckles. But here strict literalism is not going to help us: our temptation is not the sword, but the tongue, an even more lethal instrument. Confessing Christ as our King, praying daily for Christ’s Kingdom to come, means scrupulous use of that member, whatever the disagreement.

Before the lessons we prayed “Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule.” We prayed that for all the peoples of the earth; we prayed that for us. As God answers our prayer, may we recognize the answer, and respond with joy.