Advent IV, Year A, 2016

In the Gospel of Luke we get the annunciation from Mary’s point of view. We get the Angel Gabriel and Cousin Elizabeth and the Magnificat. We tell Luke’s version of the story every year in our pageant. Luke’s version appears in Christmas cards and children’s books. But Luke’s is only one version of our Christmas story.

The Gospel of Matthew has a different story to tell.

“Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, Mary’s annunciation happens off stage. Mary initially is a problem to be solved, not the heroine of the story.

In one of the first scenes in the Sound of Music, the nuns are gathering to express their concerns about their flighty postulant. Maria has been off spinning in circles on top of mountains again and they are tired of her shenanigans. The nuns sing, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”

I imagine Joseph singing the same tune about Mary! How is he, a faithful Jew, going to go forward now that he has found out that his fiancée is pregnant? He knows that, according to the law, he has the right to dissolve the marriage. In fact, the correct legal thing to do would be to have a public tribunal, where Mary would be be shamed publically. She has been unfaithful, clearly—despite all this crazy talk about the Holy Spirit—but he doesn’t want to shame her, so he plans on dismissing her quietly.

But God has different plans for Joseph. God understands that Mary’s situation is a huge gift, not a problem, and that Mary is going to need Joseph to fully live out her call to be Jesus’ mother. While God has given Joseph the law as a tool, he is calling Joseph beyond the law to love and risk.

So, in the Gospel of Matthew an angel appears to Joseph, not to Mary. Just like his namesake, Joseph has an incredible dream given to him by God. And in the dream an angel appears before him and reassures him that Mary’s story is true, that this baby is of God and will save humanity. The angel tells him to marry Mary—and so Mary is able to fulfill her call.

Joseph is a vital part of Mary’s story. Joseph gives Mary the legitimacy she needs to raise Jesus. Joseph gives Mary and Jesus protection. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph also gives Jesus lineage. The savior must come from the line of King David, and Joseph does. So Joseph, though not his genetic father, becomes Jesus’ legal father and bestows the line of David upon Jesus.

Joseph is the often-unheralded backdrop of Jesus’ ministry. We don’t hear much about Joseph later. This is his one really heroic act as far as we know, but in cooperating with God he allowed so much goodness to come into the world.

Joseph’s movement beyond the letter of the law to an act of great love and trust also gives us a preview of how Jesus is going to live in the world. Over and over again, Jesus shows that God gave us the law as a tool to love each other and love God better. Joseph’s story begins to give us a glimpse of who our savior is going to be.

We each have a call from God—to serve him in some particular way. And each of us needs the cooperation of our family and communities to make that call happen. I think back to Maria from the Sound of Music. She thinks her call is to be a nun, because she loves God so much. But it takes her cloistered community and a family of children to help her live out her true calling–to be a loving mother who helps a family to heal through music and has the courage they need in a time of danger.

Joseph gives us a model of how to respond when God is calling someone we love to something we don’t understand. We can get ideas about who the people we love are and what is best for them. We want to keep them safe and close to us. But sometimes God calls people to risk—to love people we wouldn’t choose, to move to parts of the world far from us, to make less money so they can serve the world. It can be tempting to want to corral and give advice and keep our people safe. But Joseph shows us a different way forward.

Joseph was willing to believe God was doing something miraculous through and with Mary. Joseph was willing to take the risk of public shame and humiliation by marrying someone who carried someone else’s child. Joseph was willing to trust that God was calling him beyond the letter of the law to an act of love and faithfulness. Joseph was willing to be Mary’s partner on a terrifying and exciting adventure, to give up his own ideas of what his future might hold so that he could serve God.

And this risk was its own end. When you list biblical heroes, Joseph isn’t at the top of the list. He never slayed a giant or led people out of Egypt. He probably died before Jesus’ public ministry, which is why we know so little about him. But he had the privilege of living with the Son of God, and watching him grow up—an experience that must have been incredibly moving. The part of Jesus’ life that Joseph affected is hidden from us, is something he and Mary kept in their hearts. And perhaps that intimacy with our Lord was enough of a reward for Joseph. As Christians, we talk about having Jesus in our hearts, but how Joseph and Mary must roll their eyes at us, for they know Jesus in a way no one else ever will, in all of his vulnerability and humanity. They taught him how to toilet and brought him to Temple for the very first time. They told him his first stories, and fed him his first loaf of bread. They taught him to love his neighbor, and gave him space to pray to his Father. They literally made a home for the living God in their hearts and in their house.

This final week of Advent, we are invited to make a home in our heart, too. We may not be called to rock the infant God to sleep, but God does choose to be born in us. God chooses to dwell in us and transform us. God chooses us. May we follow Joseph and say yes to God’s call.

Amen.

Advent 1, Year A, 2016

This week while visiting my in-laws in Texas, I received a text from my landlady. “Do you guys have an evacuation plan?”

This is not a text I expected to get. I found my heart pounding and my brain racing. I wrote something articulate, like, “Um, what?”

She explained that Peebles Hill, the mountain on which our houses are built, was on fire. The forestry department had come through and warned everyone to make an evacuation plan.

That woke me up. In fact, it took me about three days to come down from that text, even after I read the reports of how the forest service bulldozed a barrier so the fire would not come down the mountain and burn Lovingston.

Do we have an evacuation plan? We do now. We quickly got a list together of paintings and jewelry and important documents and texted it to our dog sitter and a friend. We know now what we consider essential.

This Advent I ask you: Do you have an evacuation plan?

And I don’t mean the kind where you gather up your grandmother’s jewelry and your passports. I mean the kind you would need for the situation Jesus describes in the Gospel of Matthew:

so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

Now, if Jesus sent you that text, it would make your heart race a little, right? Matthew describes a terrifying and disorienting scenario in which Jesus’ return means people start disappearing left and right! In this kind of evacuation scenario, I’d be tempted to gather up all my good works in a bag to show Jesus. “See Jesus, I gave to my church, I was basically nice, I bought an Angel Tree gift every year!”

Do you have an evacuation plan? Do you have a plan for what you will do or say if Jesus was to suddenly appear in a cloud before you? It’s a terrifying prospect, all these images of people disappearing, imminent destruction. Advent, the season in which we anticipate Jesus’ birth at Christmas, is the season when we also anticipate the second coming.

Jesus’ work of salvation began during his birth, but is not yet fully complete. He promises us a Kingdom where everything is perfectly in line with God’s vision—no more grief, no more sickness, no more broken relationships. But we all know that world has not arrived yet.

Some people believe that this perfect world won’t be ushered in until Jesus returns to earth in one cataclysmic event as described in the Gospel of Matthew.

Other folks believe that this perfect world will start to unfold gradually. In fact, that God’s Kingdom is right here, right now and we get to participate in building it with God. We carry the presence of Jesus in us, through our baptism, and renew it through our weekly communion. The Holy Spirit helps us to share that presence of Jesus with the world and grow God’s kingdom.

If that’s the case, maybe we don’t need an evacuation plan. An evacuation plan is the easy way out, right? You pack your suitcase of self righteousness and say beam me up, Jesus! I’m ready for my time share in heaven!

If God’s Kingdom is here now, always unfolding, right before our eyes, then Paul’s admonition to the Romans makes a lot of sense: Wake from sleep! Wake up! Look around you! Paul describes salvation as being a little closer than it used to be because Paul understands salvation as an event in history, not someone’s personal moral and ethical condition. For Paul, salvation started at Jesus’ birth and continues through this mysterious second event. Paul doesn’t care about our bags of good deeds. For Paul our salvation is not about our behavior, but about Jesus’ acts in history and the future.

And Paul doesn’t say anything about an evacuation plan. Paul wants his readers to put on the armor of light, not as a moral response to salvation, but because the armor of light is just what people who have been saved by God wear. Whether we realize it or not, each of us has the armor of light in our closet. It comes free with our baptism. I often tell kids who are being baptized that after they are baptized they will be a little bit like superheroes. If we are superheroes, this armor of light is our costume.

What if we thought about Jesus’ second coming not as an evacuation route, but as a chance to be strap on our Armor of Light and participate in the new world he wants to create? Whether Jesus is actually going to come in a historical event or whether Jesus is already here, at work through the Holy Spirit, through each of us, our role doesn’t really change.

Paul describes the Armor of Light as giving us the power to live honorably and with self control.

The world really hungers for honor and self control these days. Whether you’re a Real Housewife or an Internet troll, it seems our society rewards those who can make the biggest splash or be the most hurtful. But the fabric of the Kingdom of God is and will be made up of the quiet, the faithful, and the kind.

The town of Lovingston was saved this weekend because of faithful employees of the Forest Service and faithful volunteer firefighters. Now, I don’t know if I have ever heard of a splashy story about a member of the Forest Service. I can’t even tell you what they do, exactly. But I know this week they spent about three days in bulldozers, creating a fire line between the fire and our homes. They sacrificed holiday time with family in order to serve us. And dozens of the residents of Nelson County brought by granola bars, fruit, sandwiches and water as a thank you.

None of this is headline news if you don’t get the Nelson County Times. And I don’t know if any of these folks are Christians, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they were. Their faithful, sacrificial work is exactly the kind of work needed to knit together the Kingdom of God.

And they did not do the work in order to fill up their bags with their good deeds. They fought the fire, because that is who they are, what they have been trained to do.

How has God been preparing you to wear your Armor of Light? How are you part of the completely ordinary and completely supernatural coming of the Kingdom of God? How will you communicate God’s love to the world? How will you enact God’s justice?

Each of you has a vital role to play in the creation of God’s kingdom. And you don’t have to become someone else to do it. God created an Armor of Light that perfectly matches your temperament and interests. Only you can do the specific thing that God has designed for you.

My prayer for each of us this Advent is that we wouldn’t plan our evacuation, but that we would plan to stay, to put on our Armor of Light and to show up for God and the people who desperately need him. Amen.

Advent 1, Year C, 2015

In Madeleine L’Engle’s great novel A Wrinkle in Time, Meg an ordinary daughter of two scientists, is propelled on a hero’s journey. Meg’s father, who has discovered a form of travel through space and time known as a tesseract, has become imprisoned on another planet.

Meg meets a mysterious woman, Mrs. Whatsit, who, with her friends Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, leads her through space and time to various planets before they begin the hard work of rescuing her father. Meg’s little brother, Charles Wallace and a friend, Calvin go along for the ride.

In the fourth chapter of the book they glimpse a shadow covering the planet on which her father is trapped. L’Engle writes

It was a shadow, nothing but a shadow. It was not even as tangible as a cloud. Was it cast by something? Or was it a Thing in itself?…What could there be about a shadow that was so terrible that she knew that there had never been before or ever would be again, anything that would chill her with a fear that was beyond shuddering, beyond crying or screaming, beyond the possibility of comfort?

This terrifying image has stayed with me the last few weeks, as I worry about the violence that has overshadowed our country and the world the last few weeks. But this image also is evoked by the apocalyptic images of Advent found in the Gospels.

The Gospel writer Mark was convinced that the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 was an apocalyptic sign—a revelation that Jesus’ return was imminent. But years have passed and Jesus hasn’t returned, so Luke is recasting the expectation for first-Generation Christians. Yes, Jesus will come back, and there will be signs leading up to his return, but we cannot know when that will be.

We are in the middle of the story, and we don’t know when it will end.

Jesus has died and been resurrected. As the biblical scholar David Lose puts it, “We live, according to Luke, between the two great poles of God’s intervention in the world: the coming of Christ in the flesh and his triumph over death . . . and the coming of Christ in glory at the end of time and his triumph over all the powers of earth and heaven.”[1]

Being in the middle of the story means we still have to face dark clouds. We still have to wait for a time when there will no longer be violence, no longer be suffering, no longer be tears.

So, how should we wait? In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers,

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. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.

We are to stay alert, but not panic.

That is not so easy, is it?

Over and over again, when Angels bring the good news of Jesus’ birth to human beings they introduce themselves by saying, “Fear not!” We are fearful people. We fear violence. We fear change. We fear the other. We fear not having enough. We fear not being in power. When we are afraid we can lash out, overreact, panic.

The other extreme is to bury our head in the sand. If we just detach from whatever is troubling us, then we can avoid the fear. We play make-believe and only engage with what makes us feel better.

But in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus suggests a third way. Jesus says “Be on guard” and “Be alert”.

Followers of Jesus need not lash out in fear or retreat in denial. Our job is to stand up, be alert and to live out our Christian vocation, those promises we made in our baptism.

To return to A Wrinkle in Time, a point comes where Meg and her friends are given the call to stand up, to be alert and to live out their vocation. We pick up in Chapter 5.

Mrs. Which’s voice reverberated through the cave. “Therre will nno llonggerr bee sso many pplleasanntt thinggss too llookk att iff rressponssible ppeoplle ddo nnott ddoo ssomethingg abboutt thee unnppleasanntt oness.”. .

“Who have our fighters been?” Calvin asked.

“Oh, you must know them, dear,” Mrs. Whatsit said.

Mrs. Who’s spectacles shone out at them triumphantly, “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

“Jesus!” Charles Wallace said. “Why of course, Jesus!”

“Of course!” Mrs. Whatsit said. “Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They’ve been lights for us to see by.”

“Leonardo da Vinci?” Calvin suggested tentatively. “And Michelangelo?”

“And Shakespeare,” Charles Wallace called out, “and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein!”

Now Calvin’s voice rang with confidence. “And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis!”

L’Engle recognizes the many, many ways human beings can live out their vocations as light-bearers of the world, whether they are Christian or not. L’Engle was famously an Episcopalian, so she would have read our baptismal vows every time there was a baptism at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine where she worshiped in New York City. And she knew that whether you had a vocation to ordained life, or making art, or being a scientist, or any thing else, really, you have the power to spread Christ’s light in the darkness.

I think of the mom in California who is collecting and sending baby carriers to refugee parents in Greece and the volunteers who are traveling to Greece to distribute and fit the carriers. I think of Sarah Staudt, the daughter of a Virginia Theological Seminary professor. She is now a lawyer who represents young people of color in the Chicago courts. I think of my former neighbor Sam Greenlee, who picks up Syrian refugees from the airport in Sacramento and drives them to their new lives. He writes their stories in Facebook posts so that we might be reminded of their humanity. I think of each of you who are teachers and nurses and doctors and social workers and painters and musicians. I think of you who use your wealth to bring beauty and education into the world. I think of each of you who prays for our world, who writes letters to our legislators, who teach your children the way of peace.

The dark cloud can seem so overwhelming, but we are not powerless. The light of Christ empowers each of us to do our part to illuminate the darkness. And so we stay alert, we keep our heads up and we dot he work of Christ while we await his return.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=480

Advent 4, Year B, 2014

God the Father decided to come down to earth and encounter his creation. Now, how to do it? He could show himself directly, but then ran the risk of so overwhelming human beings that they wouldn’t be able to process what they saw—or worse be killed by the power of being in the direct presence of God. He could just boom loud messages from the sky, but that might frighten humans so much they would obey out of fear. Instead God decides to send his Son, the Beloved, part of himself, to become a human being. The vast, cosmic God, creator of the entire universe, decides to send his Son to unite to a single human cell in a particular woman’s uterus and become a person who is entirely human and entirely divine.

And for this moment to happen, there had to be one particular woman to bear this divine child.

Mary is often lifted up for her willingness to bear this life, this desire to please God. But if you read the text carefully enough, you’ll see she isn’t really given a choice. The Angel Gabriel tells her what is going to happen:

 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.

Mary acknowledges her role in the matter, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The word servant here is actually the word doule which is more accurately translated slave.

In the Gospel of Luke, the power of God is non negotiable. God chooses Mary and Mary concedes that she belongs to God.

This concession of Mary’s, this acknowledgement of her position before God is not the enthusiastic response we remember from the Christmas story. We remember the Magnificat, of course. But before Mary can rejoice at what God is doing, Mary has to acknowledge that she belongs to God, completely.

In our baptisms, we acknowledge that we belong to God completely, as well. And when we first realize that we belong to God completely, it can be sobering. We are called to follow God all the time, at home, at work, with our friends, with our enemies. Once baptized our lives are completely reoriented. Our lives become a vehicle for God’s grace to be enacted in the world. Our lives are no longer for our own pleasure, our own enrichment, but now belong to God.

Mary doesn’t stay in a place of resignation, of course. The Angel Gabriel encourages her to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is also experiencing a miraculous pregnancy. Mary visits this older cousin, and Elizabeth’s joy shakes something loose in Mary. Mary is able to take a step back and rejoice about the miracle that is taking place within her. Mary sings the Magnificat as she realizes her discipleship will birth God’s grace and love in the world.

God’s grace and love continue to pour into the world, but now, we baptized replace Mary as the people who carry and birth God’s grace and love into the world.

Even those of us who were not looking for God, who do not seek to be Christ-bearers, we are all chosen by God to do his work.

That work can seem overwhelming in a world that seems to devalue holiness, a world that wants to turn God into a commodity that can be shaped to fit any argument. A world where the rich and poor get more and more isolated from one another. A world in which hundreds of mothers in Pakistan and Nigeria are mourning their dead and missing children this week because of hatred and violence born out of a misunderstanding of who God is.

And yet, despite our bleak landscape, we join Mary in singing the Magnificat. We take a stand with Mary and with her holy child. We sing because we know that despite everything, Christ is alive in the world. We sing because God’s power is at work in ways we cannot see. We sing because our God is one that grieves the loss of those Pakistani children and is even now surrounding the missing in Nigeria with his love and care. We sing because we believe there are powers greater than those who wield death and grief. We sing because we believe love will conquer all. We sing because love already has.

And when we understand ourselves as being part of God’s great love for the world, suddenly the burden of discipleship is lifted. We do not follow Jesus because God requires it. We follow Jesus because we cannot help ourselves: because Jesus brings light to a dark world, because he heals our torn bodies and hearts, because we want to be part of bringing light and healing to a world we love so much.

May the Spirit fill us with Christ’s light and love so we can join Mary in bringing God to the world.

Amen.

Advent 2, Year B, 2014

I need you to do something for me.

I need you to do a mental wipe. I need you to forget all about Angel Gabriel, and pregnant Mary, and sweet baby Jesus in the manger.

This Sunday, we begin the Gospel of Mark. And Mark, my friends, has no time for baby Jesus. Don’t worry, the creators of the lectionary are gentle folk and you will hear part of both Luke and Matthew’s account of the infant Jesus once we get to Christmas. But for now, I ask you to join me in a world that has absolutely no interest in the nativity.

The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The earliest Christians had letters from Paul telling them about Jesus, but the Gospel of Mark was the very first biography of Jesus. In fact, because of the way Mark phrased his opening line—the Good News—or the Gospel–of Jesus Christ—everyone began calling these biographies of Jesus Gospels.

So, the very first time many people heard the story of Jesus, was through Mark’s words. And Mark has an urgent story to tell.

Mark has no time to waste. Mark is not interested in Jesus’ life before his baptism, before his public ministry. He wants to get right to the point.

The point, for Mark, is that God is breaking into the world in a new way. God is going to shake up the world and set it right again, through Jesus.

But before he gets to his point, before he gets to the Father breaking in to Jesus’ baptism to declare his love for his son, Mark takes a beat and gives us some context.

He introduces us to John the Baptist, the man God chose to prepare the world for God’s in-breaking. John is this very Old Testament prophet-like character. He wears really strange clothes and eats strange foods. He grabs your attention. Mark compares John to the messenger in a passage from Isaiah. John the Baptist is like one who is the wilderness shouting, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

This reference to Isaiah roots Mark’s readers into a narrative that continues from the Old Testament. God is breaking into the world in a new way, but this God is the same God who has broken into the world before. This is the same God who walked in the garden with Adam, and showed Moses his back. This is the same God who sent an angel to wrestle with Jacob, and who lifted Elijah into heaven. God breaks into our world over and over and over again.

I listen to NPR most mornings driving into work, and this week they were doing an end of the year funding pitch. The host said something like, “This year we have brought you stories of the Malaysian Airline jet crash, violence in the Ukraine, Ebola, the rise of ISIS, Ferguson and alleged sexual violence at UVA.” The litany of news stories took my breath away. It has been a really, really hard year. And they didn’t even mention the climate change tipping point we may have reached this summer or this week’s lack of indictment in Eric Garner’s death.

It can seem sometimes, that God has left the building.

We talk about God breaking into the world, through the birth of Jesus. We also talk about how we wait for Jesus’ return. Where does that leave us in the meantime? We feel like John in the wilderness, hoping people will repent, hoping God will show up.

Jesus hasn’t left us. After his death, he baptized those faithful disciples in the upper room with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit blew through that early church, as Peter, James, Paul and all the other early Christians figured out what it meant to follow God after Jesus’ ascension. Following God has never been easy. But the Holy Spirit continues to blow through the life of faithful communities, uniting us with Christ and the Father, so we can do God’s work of love and reconciliation in the world.

God broke into our world through Jesus and taught us what it means to live in a Godly manner—with humility, joy, love, patience, self-giving. And every Sunday we enact our faith at church. We hear Scripture and a sermon to remind us who God is and who we are. We repent when we confess our sins together. We pray for God to make the world a better place and to help us make it better. We encounter the living Christ in the Eucharist, and then we take that living Christ into the world with us.

Eric shared a quote from Stanley Hauerwas this week from Hauerwas’s book Hannah’s Child that resonates here: “The way things are is not the way things have to be. That thought began to shape my understanding of what it might mean to be a Christian – namely, Christianity is the ongoing training necessary to see that we are not fated.”

The power of God is alive and well in us and in spite of us. We are not doomed. God is breaking in.

This week religious leaders including our own Archbishop Justin Welby, Pope Francis, a representative for His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, a representative of Thich Nhat Hanh, leaders of both Sunni and Shiite Muslim groups, leaders of Jewish and Buddhist groups and many more gathered together to stand united against human trafficking. I cannot imagine the logistics needed to get nearly every highest level religious leader in the same room. Frankly, they looked strange these men and women. They each wore their traditional garb, so the picture is full of clothes that evoke other eras and places. Clerical collars, cassocks, saris, and at least five different kinds of religious hats. They reminded me a bit of John the Baptist, actually. They weren’t afraid to be anachronistic, they weren’t afraid to grab our attention, to tell us to repent, to point us to God.

In a year where the news seems incredibly bleak, these souls, with all their differences, with all the bloody history between the groups, got together and declared the goodness and worthiness of human life. No one is property. Every life matters.

I’m not sure what our ecumenical and interfaith friends would think of this, but I can’t help thinking of this meeting as an Advent gift to us. Here is a sign that God’s spirit lives. In the middle of a disintegrating world, a historic moment of unprecedented unity. A moment when God broke in to say, “If I can make this happen, I can make anything happen.”

Mark is right. The gospel message is urgent. The world needs to know that God has broken into the world in order to love us and in order for us to love each other. If we don’t know that deep in our bones, if we don’t treat everyone we meet like we believe they are beloved, next year’s news stories will be as bleak as this year’s.

We who carry Christ into the world, who help facilitate God’s in-breaking into the lives of those around us, have an enormous responsibility. Will we take up John the Baptist’s mantle and make a way for God in our world? Will we join the evangelist Mark and share the good news of God’s in-breaking? Will we be the hope for which we have been waiting?

May it be so.

Advent 3, Year A, 2013

John the Baptist came onto the scene in a big way.  He was a bold and unapologetic man.  He wore camel hair and ate weird things like locusts.  His was so charismatic that even though he preached in the wilderness, people traveled miles and miles to hear him.  The message he proclaimed was as bold as he was.

John the Baptist stared people right in the eye and told them to repent. He called them vipers!  He warned people to get their acts in order.  He warned people someone was going to come after him and that person was going to baptize people with the Holy Spirit and with fire!  This man was going to clear out the threshing floor and separate the wheat from the chaff.

This man, of course, was Jesus.

John put himself out there, ignoring social convention, probably losing friends.  Does anyone really want to hang out with a hairy man eating bugs? John took a huge risk, which finally paid off when he met Jesus face to face.

They had a brief meeting in which John baptized Jesus.  Can you imagine John’s excitement?  He is a prophet who gets to actually experience that about which he prophesies!

Unfortunately, soon after he met Jesus, things went downhill for John.

This fierce Jesus about which John told people didn’t materialize.  Well, Jesus materialized, he just didn’t do what John expected him too.  Instead of kicking tail and taking names, Jesus went around healing people.  And John himself got arrested and put in prison.

When in prison, John had lots of time to think.  Maybe he started to get nervous.  Maybe he started doubting his whole ministry.  How ridiculous would you feel if you spent years dressing like a crazy person and baptizing people in the middle of nowhere shouting about this mythical person who is supposed to come restore Israel to its rightful place… and then you start thinking you’ve been scammed?

In any case, he sends a note to Jesus via one of his disciples.  “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?”  Ouch.

You guys, John the Baptist had a moment of doubt.  John the BAPTIST!  Is there anyone in the bible who sounds more confident and full of faith than John the Baptist?  Every Advent we get at least two weeks on him because he is such a hero of faith.  Yet, even John the Baptist’s faith fails for a moment.

St. Paul’s Church in Auckland, New Zealand puts on these little videos with their kids.  One of them is an adorable Christmas pageant that takes place in heaven as God makes the decision to send Jesus to earth.  In it this little blond boy wearing glasses dressed like an angel keeps saying, “Brilliant!  They won’t be expecting THAT!”

Whoever wrote the script gets the incarnation just right.  John the Baptist was not expecting the Jesus that showed up.  His imagination was too small.  John the Baptist, and many who expected the Messiah, expected someone fierce.  They expected someone powerful.  They expected someone who could overthrow the status quo.  Jesus is fierce and powerful, but in spiritual ways, rather than political ones.  Jesus is not who they expected.

In the Christmas pageant video, the angels keep trying to figure out what God is doing.  When God wants to straighten things out on earth, they assume he’ll send an army of angels.  When they learn he just wants to send one person, they assume he’ll pick someone big and strong.  When they learn he plans to send a helpless infant, they assume he’ll send the baby to a powerful ruler who could protect him.  When they assume he’ll send a normal baby, he tells them instead he’ll be sending the Prince of Heaven, his son.  Every time God corrects their assumptions, the small angel repeats his line, “Brilliant!  They won’t be expecting THAT!”

Jesus rarely meets expectations.  But he certainly exceeds them.  Jesus doesn’t directly answer John the Baptist’s question.  Instead he points to his activities that line up with Scriptural descriptions of what the Messiah will do with his time.  Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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.”

Jesus’ legitimacy doesn’t come from physical, political, or military power.  He doesn’t need to overthrow a government to start bringing about the Kingdom of God.  In Christ’s incarnation, God shows us who he really is and what his interests are.  In the video the child playing God says, “When the Prince is done, nothing will get between them and my love.”

In Jesus, God comes alongside humanity.  God restores people to themselves and to community.  He reverses deafness and blindness and leprosy.  He changes the narrative about wealth and poverty, reassuring the poor that their poverty is not a punishment. He forgives sins. He even restores the dead to life. He wants people to be able to fully participate in life.  He wants people to be able to fully participate in a relationship with God.

The tables are turned even for what it means to be holy. Prophets have always had an exalted position, but Jesus tells his followers that “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.“  He is not denigrating John the Baptist here.  He goes on to talk about how important John the Baptist is.  He’s just saying Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are so going to change the rules that even the least significant person included in the Kingdom of Heaven is going to have an incredibly special place with God.  Because in the Kingdom of Heaven there is no significant or insignificant.  We are all united with God and therefore incredibly important.

At the same time, we are ALL united with God, so none of us are more important than any other.

This is important for us to hear.  We are so driven in this little part of the world. My favorite example of this recently is the controversy over whether to keep class rankings at Western.  There are so many students pushing to do well that you can have excellent grades and not be in the top ten or even 25% of your class!  These same students are encouraged to play school sports and club sports and do mission trips and develop interesting hobbies.  They are expected to do hours of homework every night while also getting plenty of sleep.  It’s all impossible!  And we who parent and grandparent them aren’t much better with our striving to make more money and dress nicely and volunteer with every board that asks us.  We forget that we are enough not because of what we do, but because of how God loves us.

Jesus turns things topsy turvy for us too, you know.  We expect Jesus to be a certain way.  We excpect Jesus to stay out of the way, mostly, except for when we need a little comfort.  We don’t really expect Jesus to show up when we’re making decisions about our kids’ schedules, or about whether or not to take the promotion, or in the middle of a fight with someone we love.

But Jesus is in our lives, too.  In unexpected ways.  All the time. He calls us constantly to join him in the work of making the Kingdom of God a reality.  He calls us to examine our culture critically and decide what parts of it work and what parts need be rejected for us to live holy lives.  Jesus is intrusive in only the way someone who really loves us can be.  And the angels in heaven are quite possibly looking down and chuckling as they say to themselves.  Brilliant!  They weren’t expecting that!”

Advent 1, Year A, 2013

You may have caught on to this already, since Target has been draped in tinsel for weeks, but Christmas is coming! Today we begin a new church year and the season of Advent.  Advent, the four weeks preceding Christmas, is a season of waiting and preparing for Jesus’ birth.

But Advent isn’t just about getting ready for the baby Jesus.  The first Sunday of Advent always begins with an apocalyptic text.  I don’t know about you, but when I get to church in December I want to hear sweet stories about Mary and Joseph getting ready to welcome baby Jesus.  Instead, we get stories of women disappearing while minding their own business.  That doesn’t usually show up in Advent Calendars, does it?

No matter how uncomfortable they make us, these kinds of apocalyptic texts are pretty common in the New Testament.  They understand Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as part of an as of yet incomplete journey for human kind.  Jesus has already done the work of saving us from ourselves, but the work of completing the Kingdom of God—a time when peace and justice will mark humanity’s relationships—is still to come.  Theologians call this time we are in the parousia:  the already, but not yet.

We are already saved by the incarnate, resurrected Jesus, but our world is not yet fully redeemed.  Our world is still marked by human brokenness.  In Advent, we are called not just to remember the infant Jesus coming into the world, but we are also supposed to prepare for his return.

And how do we prepare?

We stay awake.  Not literally awake, of course.  Jesus doesn’t want to come back to be greeted by delirious believers clutching bottles of “5 Hour Energy”.  Jesus wants us to stay awake spiritually.

There are Christians who believe if you compile all the parts of Scripture together that reference Jesus’ return, you can map out roughly when he’ll come back.  But our passage today refutes that notion.  Jesus reminds his listeners that Noah’s contemporaries could not have known that there would be a great flood.  In the same way, Christians cannot know when Jesus’ return will happen.  We don’t need to obsess over it.  We don’t need to try to predict when it will come.  We just need to stay awake.

In our culture, we are experts at doing anything but staying awake and alert to our present.  Our culture has trained us to long for what is next.  Our next meal out, a fancier car, a better job, a more elaborate home.  We think about the future all the time.  We worry about the future. Will we get married?  Will we be able to have kids?  Will we have jobs we love?  Will we be able to afford retirement?  We can even put off our own happiness, thinking that our happiness will come at some point in the future—when we make a little more money, when we lose the weight, when we meet Mr. Right.

In the same way we can put off our own spiritual lives.  Oh, I’ll start going to church when I have kids.  I’ll start studying the Bible when I retire.  I’ll go to that fellowship event once my work settles down a bit.

But this one Sunday a year it is my job to say this to you:  Wake up.

Wake up!

You don’t know what time you have left.  Jesus could come back tomorrow.  You could get hit by a bus on your way home.  Our time on this earth is short and unpredictable.

Would you be ready if you had to give an account of your life today?

Have you checked in lately with God to find out where he is calling you to serve? Have you been paying attention to the needs of your neighbors?  Are there widows, orphans, or other people on the margins in your life who need attention?

These kind of questions make us feel vulnerable and nervous.

In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown tells us that we numb ourselves to avoid feeling vulnerable.  We put ourselves to sleep to avoid the pain of our lives. We put ourselves into a stupor by endlessly checking Facebook, by watching TV, by drinking every night, by stuffing our faces with brownies or queso.  We would rather sleep walk, than live fully awake.

We only have this one life.  We only have this one life to feel the joy and pain of what it means to be human.  We only have this one life to take emotional risks.  We only have this one life to love and serve other people.

When I yell “Wake up!” at you, it may sound like a nag.  Like something your mother used to do when you were just exhausted before school and all you wanted was a few more minutes of rest.

But I really mean to yell “wake up!” at you as an invitation.  Jesus invites us to live a full, rich life drenched with meaning.  Jesus invites us to live lives in service to God and other human beings.  I want you to wake up, not so you can check off a checklist of “good deeds” you’ve done.  I want you to wake up so you can feel the exquisite joy of being a human being made in God’s image.  I want you to wake up so you experience the human life that God made holy by his incarnation in Jesus Christ.

Your life is ordinary and extraordinary.  Just as it is now—with the same job, home, marital status, friends, pets—your life is really something special.  You don’t have to sell everything and ditch your life to follow God.  Your path to a meaningful, holy life is right in front of you.  So wake up!  And live!

Advent 2, Year C, 2012

Right now, as we sit huddled together in the warmth of this church, there are people living in exile.  People living in the wilderness.  Right now, there are children in Syrian refugee camps fighting over blankets, huddling together for warmth, dreading the setting of the sun when everything goes dark.  They are without a home, without a country.  They cannot go back and they cannot go forward.  They are in the wilderness.

Twenty five hundred years ago, Judah was in the wilderness, too.  Babylonians had invaded and enslaved the people of Judah, and they too, were forced to leave their home, abandon Jerusalem.  Their identity as a people would be forever changed.

Out of this wilderness came a prophet.  He wrote the middle part of the book we know as Isaiah.  He wrote these words:

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the LORD’S hand
double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Isaiah spoke hope into hopelessness.  He spoke light into the dark. He gave the Jews in the wilderness hope that one day, God would lead them home again.

When John the Baptist appropriates these words, he knows the emotional weight they carry.  By the time he is preaching in the wilderness, the Jews have returned to Jerusalem, they have even built a new Temple.  Order has been restored.

And yet.

And yet, while the community might no longer be in the wilderness, individuals were.  While God’s presence rested in the Temple, people were still too sinful, too broken to have a direct encounter with God.  Priests and sacrifices mediated the relationship.  God wanted a more direct relationship with his people.  God wanted the mountains between himself and his people trampled down, he wanted to make a way.

Here is the thing about exile in the wilderness; the person in exile cannot end the exile.  The Jews couldn’t just say, “Excuse me Babylonian captors, we’re just going to slip out and head back home now.  Thanks!”  Those children in the Syrian refugee camp can’t just decide to go home.  They aren’t allowed to go home.  They aren’t even allowed to leave the camp!

Someone with greater authority has to step in.  A government has to say, we will take you. You are welcome here.  You may leave exile now and come to your new home.

Or, in our case, the God of the Universe has to say, “I understand that you cannot make your way to me.  I will come to you.  I will send my Son to you, but first I will send John.  John will help you get ready.”

So God sends us another prophet–a camelhair wearing, locust and honey eating man named John.

John helps us, because the barriers between our exile and coming home to God are not mountains and rough places and twisty roads.  The barriers between us and coming home to God are selfishness and broken relationships, idolatry and greed, jealousy and lust.

So John comes, and tells everyone to come meet him in the wilderness and while they are out there everyone takes a good hard look at themselves.  They see the good and the bad and then John washes the bad away.

What the crowd doesn’t know is that soon among them will be the God of the Universe.  Among them will be a man named Jesus who is going to share in their baptism, who is going to love them and listen to their stories, and tell them about how God sees the world.  This Jesus is going to so identify with them—both their good parts and not so good parts—that he is going to be killed so that final barrier between people and God will be broken.  This Jesus is going to rise from the dead to show this crowd that nothing—not even the worst thing—can separate us from God’s love.

Every Advent we remember John the Baptist’s story.  John reminds us that we still have rough places in our lives. We still have mountains of brokenness.  And it is still a good and healthy thing every once in awhile to take stock of the mountain.   And boy, does the holiday season throw that brokenness right in our faces!  Every day we get cards in the mail with pictures of perfect families and catalogues filled with incredibly attractive and thin models in expensive clothes and perfect make up.  But the reality is that the perfect family started snapping at each other the moment the camera stopped flashing and the perfect models stumbled into the studio looking tired and crabby and make up artists and hairstylists spent two hours brushing and painting them into shape.

No one is perfect.  No one is happy all the time.  We all wrestle with feelings of still being in exile—still feeling alienated from God, from our families, from our friends.  We worry that if people knew the real us, the broken, needy, messy us that we would be rejected.

John the Baptist’s words speak hope to you, too.  No matter your situation, God is at work flattening those mountains and straightening those roads, so you can be one with him.  We no longer have to be in exile.  We do not have to stay in the wilderness.  All we have to do is acknowledge our brokenness, our selfishness, our imperfection and ask God for help.  Advent is a perfect time to stop the cycles of shame and doubt and ask God for help.

(Pause)

Even after we accept God’s help, we still live in tension though, don’t we?  Because we still live in a world where children can fight for blankets in a refugee camp.  We still live in a world that is marked every day by violence and betrayal and horror.

This is the other side of Advent.  We are so grateful that Jesus came to us, identifies with us, forgives us, loves us, but we want more.  We long for a different world.  We long for a world without evil.  We long for a world without car accidents, cancer, war.

We have a Christian hope that one day we will live in such a world and every Advent we remind ourselves of that hope.  We hold on to each other and we face forward and we pray that God’s kingdom could come to fruition here, now.  We pray that we could be peacemakers instead of warmongers, agents of justice instead of deception, bearers of love instead of hate.

Because it does starts with us.  We wait for Christ to come back, but in the meantime, we are the body of Christ.  We are the power for good in the world.  We are the powers that can influence governments to release refugees.  We are the people who organize blanket drives and food drives and sit ins and petitions.

We wait for Jesus.  We long for Jesus.  But we also act.  We are weak and imperfect and broken, but we are also healed and filled with the Spirit and as powerful as any army.  We are God’s people.  We have hope and we are hope.

Amen.

 

Advent 3, Year B, 2011

Listen to the sermon here.

You’re in a movie theater.  Everything goes dark.  The screen opens pitch black.  You are looking at a picture of the vastness of space, the camera zooms slowly onto our planet and focuses closer and closer until all we see is a man.

John.

In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist is just John.  We do not get The Gospel of Mark’s vibrant descriptions of his camel hair clothes or locust and honey diet.  He is not called John the Baptizer, as in Mark or John the Baptist as in Matthew and Luke. We just get a man sent from God who testifies to the light.  We are left to fill in the details with our imagination.

We are not the only ones puzzled about this John’s identity.  The priests and Levites come to question this man. They want to pin him down.  They want to see his ID.  They want to know why he is saying the radical prophet-like things he is saying.  Why is he talking about the coming of the light?

When they ask him, “Who are you?” he tells them he is not the Messiah. They then ask him whether he is Elijah.  Elijah was an Old Testament prophet, who legend has it, did not die but was taken up bodily into heaven.  While some of the other gospels do make the connection between Elijah and John the Baptist, here in the Gospel of John, John simply says no.  Next, they ask him if he is the prophet.  Again, he says no.

We are no closer to knowing who John the Baptist is. He is still an enigma.  Still a mysterious figure in the wilderness.

When the priests and Levites ask him to give them a little more information, he quotes Isaiah.

I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’

John does not even identify himself as a person.  He sees himself as a voice.  He has something to say, something terribly important.  He does not need a title or even an identity.  He just wants to communicate.

John is a witness.  John is a witness to the Messiah, who is coming after him.  He baptizes so that people will be ready to meet this Messiah.  John’s entire orientation is towards Jesus.

Jesus has that affect on people.  Throughout the Gospels you see people giving up their lives and following Jesus.  From his first disciples dropping their fishing nets, Jesus inspired thousands of people to stop what they were doing and reorient their lives, often instantly.  And even when Jesus tells them not to, people throughout the Gospels can’t help telling other people about him.  When the blind man regained his sight, when the woman at the well had her history interpreted so honestly, when the lame were healed, they all were compelled to witness to what they had experienced.

This experience of Christian witness did not stop with the New Testament. Something about the encounter with Christ was so powerful that people were compelled to talk about Christ even at the risk of martyrdom.  Christianity spread globally because people kept encountering the risen Christ and telling other people about him.

We are called to be part of that story, to be John’s transparent witnesses. We are called to point the way to Christ when people ask who we are.  We are called to let Christ shine through our personalities and professions.   We are called to be witnesses of Christ’s work in our hearts and in our world.

Advent is the perfect time to practice being a witness.  We have such wonderful examples.  Mary witnessed to God’s extraordinary love by bearing him into the world in human form.  Joseph witnessed to God’s faithfulness by sticking by Mary, even under such strange circumstances.  The three wise men witnessed by defying the Pharoah and undertaking a dangerous journey in order to bring the new Messiah their gifts.

Even Santa Claus is a witness.  Don’t believe me?  Well Santa Claus, wasn’t always Santa Claus you know?  Santa Claus was originally called St. Nicholas.  Nicholas was the Bishop of Myrna in the 4th Century.  Many legends grew up around St. Nicholas, because he was such a loving and generous man.  He loved helping those in poverty, since Jesus loved the poor so much.

One legend has it that there was a man who had three daughters.  This man was very poor so no one would marry his daughters, because they came with no dowry.  If no one would marry these daughters they would become even poorer and might be forced to make a living on the streets.  St. Nicholas heard of this story and wanted to witness to Jesus’ love for these young women.  The night before the first daughter came of age, St. Nicholas slipped a bag of gold coins into the father’s window.  The father was amazed!  He had no idea who had done this, so he thanked God.  The night before the second daughter came of age, St. Nicholas did the same thing!  The father was even more amazed!  Now two of his daughters could get married!  The night before the third daughter was to come of age, the father was so curious about who was slipping these coins into his window that he stayed awake all night to catch the generous person.  St. Nicholas was clever, though, and snuck up onto the roof and slipped the coins into the chimney.  He must have really liked that technique of delivering presents since as Santa Claus he still uses it today!  Santa Claus’s generosity began as a response to the amazing love of God.  Santa’s gifts are intended to point us towards Jesus, just like John the Baptist’s words.

This Advent we are invited to join John the Baptist, Mary, Joseph, and even Santa Claus as witnesses to the amazing good news of the Gospel.  Our religion may be thousands of years old, but Christ is just as alive and just as important today as he was in the days of John the Baptist.  This Advent, let us join John the Baptist in becoming witnesses to our loving, incarnated, resurrected God.   This Advent, let us get out of our own way and let the light of Christ shine through us.

Amen.

Advent 1, Year B, 2011

Listen to the sermon here.

The days got short and dark quickly, didn’t they?  Even though the shortened days come like clockwork, every autumn I am surprised.  I feel rushed into the falling leaves and apple cider.  I want to cling to warm, long days and fresh peaches just a few more weeks.  The early darkness is ominous somehow.  Darkness shrouds our world every afternoon, earlier and earlier, pushing us inside where we can take shelter in the warmth of our homes.  But we know the darkness is out there and it leaves us on edge.

Is it any wonder that we start flooding our world with cheerful Christmas lights and tinny holiday music and gingerbread lattes?  We cannot help ourselves. We cannot wait for Christmas. We cannot handle the anxiety of the darkness.  We have to mitigate the discomfort the darkness creates in us.

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Now imagine this same darkness, the same cold nights without the luxury of electric lights or piped in Christmas music.  Imagine the darkness without a hot mug of peppermint mocha.  Imagine being eight months pregnant, the hours stretching before you, the weight of your body pressing down on you, the anxiety of bearing the Lord’s child weighing on your mind.  Pregnancy has a way of slowing down time, pulling days into impossibly long stretches of time as you feel each creak of your joints, as you look at your nursery, so ready for a baby.  As you worry each time you don’t feel the baby kick or roll.  As you imagine the delightful and the horrific possibilities–the smell of a new baby and the violence of birth.

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Each Advent we join Mary in her agonizing wait.  We know that Jesus will be born alive and squirming.  But Mary did not.  We know Jesus is God incarnate, but will still be a normal human baby, easy to hold and to love.  But Mary did not.  Mary must have wondered who this strange child would be.  Is the God of the universe capable of loving his mother?  Is the God that created all life able to be contained within a human exterior without destroying the vessel that contains him?  Oh, how Mary must have worried and waited.

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Mary was not the first person to anxiously wait for God.  Longing for God has been part of the human condition since Adam and Eve were banned from the Eden.  The separation we have from God is not natural, not how we are meant to be.  The Psalmist today is miserable.  He cries

How long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
our enemies laugh among themselves.

The Psalmist feels that God has turned his back on his people and calls out to him

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

The Psalmist does not ask for God to intervene, to defeat the Psalmist’s enemies, to change their situation.  He asks God to shine his face upon his people.

The Psalmist expresses our deepest desire so simply.

At our core, we long for God.  We long for the intimacy of knowing and being known by God.  We long to be restored to the days of Eden, when we could walk with God in a garden.

When we are in our darkest corners, what we want is for God’s light to break through somehow, so we know we are not alone, so we know he will sustain us no matter what happens.  We can survive any number of personal tragedies so long as we have a sense of God’s presence in our lives.

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

We live in an in-between time.  Biblical scholars refer to it as the parousia.  The already, but not yet.  Jesus has come, but we are not yet fully restored to intimacy with God.  We live in-between the incarnation and the coming of God’s Kingdom.   We live in-between knowing God loves us enough to die for us but not seeing mercy and justice dominate our world.  We still wait.  We wait for Jesus to come back.

Advent gives us a liturgical space to live into this tension.  The nights are dark, but it is not yet time for Christmas.  Michael’s stinks like potpourri and Quakerbridge Mall has prepared Santa’s throne, but we know in our hearts we are still waiting for that baby to be born.  Still hoping that baby will bear God’s light.  We light one candle every week to give us hope, to remind us we will not be stuck in the dark forever.  Eventually we will light the center candle, the Christ candle.  Eventually that baby will be born.  Eventually he will come back.  Eventually we will be restored to perfect intimacy with our Creator.

But for now, we wait.

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.