Advent 3, Year A, 2011

Listen to the sermon here.

John the Baptist was a confident man.  You might have picked up on that in last weeks’ readings.  He had no problem wearing crazy clothes and eating bugs and spending his time shouting at people with great assurance in his words.  John was a prophet and he behaved like a prophet.

John the Baptist’s job was to prepare the world for the coming of Jesus.  Jesus was already alive and well, fully adult, but he had not yet begun his ministry.  We don’t know exactly what John the Baptist was expecting in a Messiah, but if you’ll remember he walked around saying things like, “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  One gets the sense he was expecting at least a little bit of violence!  A little revolution!

In today’s reading we skip seven chapters ahead.  Jesus’ ministry has begun and it is filled with a lot of . . .talking.  Talking and healing.  Jesus has been saying things like : So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” And “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” and “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.” Boooooring.

Jesus has not distributed any weapons, or talked at all about overthrowing the Romans or even the Pharisees.  When Jesus sends his disciples out, it is not to recruit an army, but to cast out demons and heal the sick and raise the dead.

By this point John has been imprisoned, so he is hearing about Jesus’ ministry second hand.  And John seems a little surprised about what he is hearing.  John’s confidence starts to seem a little shaky for the first time.  John had certain expectations about the Messiah that are not being met through Jesus’ ministry.  John sends a messenger to Jesus, asking him, “Are you the one to come, or are we to wait for another?”

I love this question.  It’s a really polite way to ask, “What the heck are you doing?”

John asks the question a lot of us ask Jesus at some point in our lives.  “Jesus, is that you?  Because you’re not really living up to my expectations.”

John the Baptist expected a warrior.  What do we expect Jesus to be?

Many Christians have all kind of misconceptions about who Jesus is.  They expect Jesus to be their matchmaker, their job head hunter, their addictions counselor, their financial advisor.  In their minds, Jesus becomes an errand boy and when Jesus does not provide the lover or employment opportunity or willpower or windfall, people think either that Jesus has let them down, or they have some how let Jesus down and they are being punished.

But Jesus is neither a personal assistant nor the head of a political revolution.  Initially, both we and John the Baptist are a bit disappointed.  Our Messiah is not who we think he is.  We are not being saved from what we thought our problems were.

Do you remember the line that Mr. Tumnus used to describe the Christ-figure Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia?  Alsan is not a tame lion.

Jesus is not a tame Savior.  Jesus is not interested in meeting our expectations.  Jesus is not even interested in meeting John the Baptist’s expectations.

The expectations that we have for Jesus are pretty small.  We expect him to be a little baby around December and to be resurrected in April.  We expect him to comfort us when we are grieving.  We expect to feel his presence in church, but maybe not think about him too much the rest of the week.  And, occasionally, we expect Jesus to act like our personal assistant.

And the expectations John the Baptist had may not have felt small to him, after all—a revolution is a pretty big dream—but compared to what Jesus had in mind, even John the Baptist’s expectations were small.

Jesus had a much bigger revolution planned than John the Baptist could imagine.  Rather than a political revolution, Jesus was conducting a spiritual revolution.

When John sent his messengers to ask Jesus that slightly passive-aggressive question, “Are you the one to come or are we to wait for another?”  Jesus replied with these words “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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Jesus gently points John in a new direction.  Instead of saying, “Gee, John, not very loyal, are we?”, Jesus points to the amazing things he has been doing as signs of what kind of Messiah he is.  He reorients John’s understanding of Messiah from warrior to healer and life-giver.

As we pray and mature in our faith, Jesus reorients our understanding, too.  We learn that God does not exist in order to make us happy, but that God exists because God exists.  And God created us to be in relationship with him

Whether we are aware of it or not, our lives are made up of much more than our every day routines.  We are people created by God, who are actively loved by God. For generations human beings tried to love God back, but we always screwed up.  We ended up worshiping false idols, or got caught up in political or financial power.  We could not sustain a relationship with God.

And that’s where Jesus comes in.  God became human so he could show us that no matter what we do—even if we murder this enfleshed God—we cannot stop God from wanting a relationship with us.  God is stronger and more loving than our worst impulses.  Jesus spent his time healing and exorcising demons and teaching about new ways of living so that we could know this loving God more fully.

Being loved by God is not about having a warm and fuzzy relationship in which God just tells us how fantastic we are all the time and goes out and gets us lattes.  Being loved by God means we become a worker for the Kingdom of God—we become people who bring love and justice and mercy to this planet.  The more we pray and listen for God’s voice in our lives, the more we will hear about who we are and what we are called to do.

We may have a specific vision of who we are, but God will always expand that—our visions are almost invariably too narrow for what God can do through us.  You can do more good and affect more people that you can even imagine.

This Advent we’re invited to imagine—Imagine a God that created human beings out of love, and pursued us for thousands of years, even to the point of becoming human, so we could hear and touch and understand him in a new way.  Imagine a God who wants a relationship with us even after we reject his message and hang him on a cross.

Imagine a God who created you, who knows you, even all your flaws and poor choices, and who loves you anyway.  Imagine a God who created you to really make a difference in the world around you.  Imagine a God who created you to be part of Christ’s very body, enacting God’s love in the world.

This is the God that we celebrate and for whom we keep watch this Advent.  That’s the God that was born as a little baby, two thousand years ago.  That’s the God whose Spirit moves in this place and in our lives.

Thanks be to God.


Advent 1, Year A, 2010

Listen to the sermon here.

(stage whisper)  Guess what?  Jesus is coming!

Aren’t you excited?  There is going to be a little baby and a manger and a star and some shepherds!  It’s going to be so great!

Today we start Advent, so we can stop complaining about all the Christmas decorations at Starbucks and the mall and finally yield to the inevitable.  Yes, you too, will soon be humming Christmas carols and craving eggnog, even if we at Trinity dutifully stay dressed in our Advent blue and hold off singing Christmas carols until Christmas.

What readings greet this auspicious beginning of such a joyful season?  Will it be the story of the Holy Spirit coming to Mary and offering her a really strange proposition?  Will it be that amazing scene where Mary and Elizabeth, both miraculously pregnant, greet each other in joy?  Whatever our readings are, they are bound to be cheerful and about that adorable holy baby, right?

Oh.  Maybe not.

Instead of sweet tableaus about the Holy Family, we’re speeding past Jesus’ birth this morning, we’re speeding past his childhood, his ministry, his death, even his resurrection!  The creators of the lectionary speed up the film of the story of Christ this first Sunday of Advent, to remind us that we’re not just waiting for a baby.  Rather than, “Guess what, Jesus is coming?”  The tone seems to be more of, “Watch out, Jesus is coming!”

The waiting of Advent is twofold.  We wait for Christmas morning and our chance to remember the birth of Christ.  But during Advent we also wait for the completion of Christ’s kingdom.  We remember that the birth of Christ was just the beginning of an incredible story and that we are still in the midst of that story, eagerly longing to see its conclusion.

Well, we’re supposed to eagerly long for its conclusion.  I’ll be honest with you, this passage from the Gospel of Matthew just makes me really, really nervous.  I’m the daughter of an elementary school principal and perhaps that makes me more prone to feel like I’m always just about to get into really big trouble.    Apocalyptic passages just make me worry that Jesus will come back right when I’m making fun of someone or eating a gluttonous meal, or spending money on myself instead of donating it to the poor.  Apocalyptic passages make me want to hide under a blanket, so I can be sure not be doing anything too rotten should Jesus decide to come back.

Luckily, theologians with more mature and sophisticated understandings of these kinds of writings have spent lots of time thinking about what this return of the Son of Man might mean.

Karl Barth explains what is happening in this passage.

the revelation of [The Kingdom of God’s] hidden reality will come soon and suddenly, like a thief in the night. . . .[the revelation] will come soon because it is the goal of the limited life in time of Jesus of Nazareth and will follow hard on His death and therefore in the foreseeable future.  And it will come suddenly because it is foreordained and foreknown by God alone, and will occur when men are least expecting it, beneficially, if terrifyingly upsetting all their expectations and plans, and thus their anxieties and hopes, as actually happened in the first instance of the resurrection of Jesus. (Barth, Church Dogmatics III.2, p. 499)

Barth understands the return of Jesus as an extension of the revelation that God has already begun.  This revelation begins with the birth of Christ—as we realize that the God of the entire universe has chosen to walk around on Earth—to fully live the human experience.  The revelation continues with Christ’s death—a God who is willing to sacrifice himself for us.  The revelation continues with Christ’s resurrection—a God who is more powerful than death.  However, the revelation does not end with the amazing news of the resurrection.

The next part of the revelation is about the Kingdom of God.  Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God all the time in parables.  The Kingdom of God is like a pearl, a mustard seed, a woman who has lost her coins, the metaphors go on and on.  The Kingdom of God is when Christ finally reigns over all of humanity and justice and peace and mercy are the markers of the human community.

We do not need to be afraid of this reign of God, because we already know what God is like!  God is not a scary monster in the sky who wants to zap us.  God loves us so much he became incarnate and ate with us and redeemed us through the life, death and resurrection of his Son.  The ultimate reign of Jesus will be a continuation of that process, which will reveal even more about God’s loving character.

And this reign of Jesus does not begin in some far off future when he comes back in some mystical blaze of glory.  In fact, the Kingdom of God began immediately after the resurrection and continues to grow through the work of the Church.  We function as the Body of Christ, doing our best to bring peace and justice and mercy to our planet.  We don’t sit idly by, anxiously waiting for Christ’s return.  We don’t hide under a blanket!  We do our work.  We love our families.  We volunteer and give away our money.   We hope and we expect, even when hope and expectation seem irrational.

The anthem at our 9:00 and 11:00 services today is Paul Manz’s E’en So, Lord Jesus Quickly Come. If I had known earlier in the week this would be our anthem, I would have been tempted not to preach at all and just have the choir sing this to us several times!  Legend has it that Manz wrote this piece in 1953 when his young son was terribly ill and hospitalized.  The anthem perfectly captures the tension between the difficulties of our lives and the hope we still carry for Christ to make himself known in this world.

The text comes from Revelation and ends with the expression, “E’en so Lord Jesus, quickly come, and night shall be no more; they need no light nor lamp nor sun, for Christ will be their All!”  And unfortunately for those of you in the 8:00 crowd, the text only begins to express the tension and grief and hope of this piece.  The music perfectly captures the longing of what it means to be human.  We live these everyday lives, peppered with great losses, but still Christ breaks in to give us light and hope.  And that taste of light and hope makes us yearn for even more.  That is the promise of the completion of Christ’s kingdom.  That is why we can eagerly await Christ’s return rather than hiding under a blanket.

That is why we can say with great excitement.  Guess what!  Jesus is coming!


Advent 3, Year C, 2009

Rejoice in the Lord Always!  You brood of vipers! Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Do not worry about anything.  The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Our Epistle and Gospel readings are having a strange conversation today, aren’t they?

On one hand, we have the Apostle Paul telling the Philippians to relax, rejoice, not to worry! On the other hand, we have John the Baptist screaming “You brood of vipers!” at the crowds of ordinary people following him around. Nothing says Christmas Spirit like a bearded man in a hair shirt screaming insults at you!

At first glance, these readings may appear to have nothing to say to one another.  But, when we dig a little deeper, we can see that they are really dealing with the tensions and the hopes of living in a world in which the Kingdom of God is not fully manifested.

Our culture tells us the season leading up to Christmas is a fun, happy, kitchy time of the year to decorate wildly, eat foods we wouldn’t otherwise allow ourselves, and shop for gifts to demonstrate our love for others.  But we all know that Christmas is more complicated than that.  Christmas can also be filled with longing, regret, and grief.  Even the first Christmas story, THE Christmas story, had its own ambiguities.

The birth of Christ came out of great pain, pain that goes well beyond any discomfort Mary might have experienced, or the humiliation of being born in a stable.  Christ came into the world in God’s radical attempt to save humanity from the pain of its own brokenness.  People had longed to be saved from the war and heartbreak and frailty of the human condition as long as they had a concept for God.  Without that pain and alienation, there would have been no need for the birth of Christ in the first place.

The crowds that followed John around hungered for connection to God.  They longed to be liberated from cycles of brokenness in their lives.  Why else would they follow this strange locust-eating man around the wilderness? But that kind of liberation, that kind of connection to God, has a cost.

Prophets throughout the Scriptures have had the job of shaking humanity by the scruff of the neck and John the Baptist is no different. Inertia is a powerful force in the lives of human beings, and John’s job is to disrupt the lives of his followers so they can break free of that inertia and prepare themselves to receive the incredibly good news of God’s incarnation.

John the Baptist’s first words are harsh.  He calls the crowd vipers and tells them they cannot rely on their identity as descendents of Abraham to be saved.  He’s alerting the crowd that they will not be able to encounter God without experiencing some kind of change.  His words are so strong that his crowd is left very worried about what advice might follow.

Will John the Baptist ask them to sacrifice everything in their lives to encounter God?  Will they have to live extremely ascetic existences?  Will they have to join John as he wanders through the wilderness eating honey-dipped locusts?

John’s audience is alert, holding their collective breath, ready to hear John’s advice.

John’s advice is comically simple.   John tells a tax collector not to steal money.  He tells a soldier not to extort money.  He tells others in the crowd to share their cloaks if they meet someone who is cold.

John the Baptist doesn’t tell the soldier that he needs to leave the military.  He doesn’t tell the tax collector he needs to resign from his post.  He does not demand that these employees of the Roman state abandon their professional lives and their ties to the Roman government.  John the Baptist makes it clear that Jesus is coming for all people, wherever they are.  The members of the crowd surrounding John the Baptist are challenged to get their ethical houses in order, but they aren’t asked to abandon their lives.

So, although John the Baptist probably smelled funny and was definitely rude, he brought good news about the Kingdom of God to his followers.  Jesus’ coming into the world was not just for priests and rabbis and scribes.  Jesus’ coming was for all humanity-tax collectors and soldiers and every day people.  This news is joyful.  And this is where our Gospel and Epistle readings intersect.

When the Apostle Paul tells the community of Philippi to rejoice, he’s not chirping empty-headed platitudes.  Paul has been through hell.  He has been traveling for years, been ship wrecked, and now is arrested and in prison.  The people of Philippi are on edge because Christians at the time were a persecuted people.  They are afraid because their faith puts them in danger. Paul is speaking of a joy, and gratitude, and a sense of peace that is not bound by circumstances.  Paul is speaking of joy, and gratitude, and peace that come hand in hand with the kind of challenges and pain life brings us.

The joy of Advent is not an empty-headed happiness because we get to eat more sugar cookies than usual.  The joy of Advent is a joy that acknowledges the pain of our broken world while still rejoicing in the wonder of Christ coming into the world for even the most humble person.

The joy of Advent invites us to believe God will show up in our lives even when we are at our worst or experiencing our deepest pain.

In my last parish, the adult son of a parishioner died unexpectedly and suddenly. The funeral was very sad and very beautiful.  The family chose a Celtic service and hundreds of white candles illuminated the sanctuary.  After the funeral, several people came up to me and mentioned how moved they were by the hope in the mother’s eyes as she went to communion.  She was not happy, she was hopeful.  She grieved the death of her son, but she had confidence that somehow God was still with her and still with her son.  Even though her world had shattered, she had the expectation that one day she and her son would be reunited in the Kingdom of God, one day she would feel Christ’s peace.

Life is full of pain and disappointment, even in the happiest lives.  Christ reaches out to us, even in the midst of that pain.  Even when we’ve been betrayed or lost our jobs or have a child we cannot reach, Christ extends himself to us, just as he did 2000 years ago.

You do not have to leave your job or your marriage or this town to experience the joy of the incarnation.  You don’t have to go on pilgrimage or pray for a week straight or fast for a month for Jesus to find you.  Jesus calls each of us, wherever we are.  He calls us to prepare ourselves, but always in ways that are accessible to us.  As counterintuitive as it may seem, the God who created the entire Universe wants to be in relationship with us.  God wants to be in relationship with the brood of vipers right here in this room.

And because God reached through time and space to bring Christ to us, and because Christ continually reaches out to us, inviting us into relationship with his Father and our Creator, we join the Apostle Paul and we rejoice in the Lord, we pray with thanksgiving, and we welcome the Peace of Christ into our hearts.


Advent 3, Year B, 2008

God will make a way.

On this third Sunday of Advent, we have rounded a corner from the repentant beginning of Advent to the great celebration of Christmas.  We light the rose colored candle on the Advent wreath because it represents joy and the act of rejoicing as we begin to anticipate the birth of our Savior.

The problem for us, is that this third Sunday in Advent does not feel very joyous.  Half a million Americans are unemployed. I know I have a handful of friends who work in various state jobs who are nervous about losing their jobs come budget cuts in January.  I have had three serious conversations with friends who are preparing either to move in with relatives or have relatives move in with them should the worst come.  I even have friends who have just flat out cancelled Christmas. We are a nation at edge faced for the first time, in many years, for a dramatic change in the way we live. 

And yet, I tell you today, despite all of this, that God will make a way.  I can say this with confidence because that is just who God is-he is One who makes a way.  Mary’s story reminds us of this.

The Canticle we [read/sing] today are the words of Mary as she fully absorbs the news that she is bearing God’s child.  This news was absurd on many levels. 

First of all, Mary has never been with a man, so her being pregnant isn’t even a possibility.

Second of all, why Mary?  She’s a young girl from a small town.  She’s not from a powerful family.  She’s not rich.  She’s a nobody.

Another word for this kind of absurdity is grace.  Mary is blessed by God not because of who she was or what she did, but because God is a gracious, loving God, who breaks into our world and transforms it.

In the Gospel of Luke, Mary’s annunciation is paired with her cousin’s Elizabeth’s annunciation.  There are many stories of miraculous pregnancies though out the bible and Elizabeth’s fits the pattern beautifully.  Like Sarah and Hannah before her, Elizabeth is older and believes she is barren.  She and her husband are extremely pious.  Zacharias is even a priest in the temple!  They both deeply desire a child and are granted the gift of a child late in their life, much to their surprise.

Placed so close to Elizabeth’s story, we realize how shocking Mary’s story really is!  God made a way to enter the world through Mary in a way completely unprecedented.  Mary’s annunciation happens in a different way so that we know that God is doing something really unusual. Mary does not fit the mold of annunciation stories. Mary is not an older woman who is longing for children.  In fact, children are probably the last thing on her mind!  She is a young teenager, betrothed to Joseph, minding her own business.  The angel Gabriel comes to her not in a temple, but in an ordinary city, probably in an ordinary home or street.  Gabriel does not reassure Mary that she and Joseph will be able to have children, but suggests something entirely different-that the power of the Holy Spirit will come upon her and she will bear a child via a miracle of God.

God makes a way to enflesh himself with humanity and he does it in cooperation with an ordinary girl in an ordinary town.  God does not enter our world through the most powerful family or the most religious family.  God makes a way to enter into and redeem our experience by being born of a girl who was willing to be completely open to God’s will for her life.

A month after her experience, Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth.  While there she has a moment of clarity about what is happening to her and she speaks or sings the words of the Magnificat.  The Magnificat is all about Mary’s astonishment at God’s decision to visit his grace upon her.  She understands the deeper implications of this-that God’s grace will no longer be expressed via the kings and the hierarchy, but to the lowly, every day person.  She understands that God is continuing the relationship begun with Abraham, but that he is transforming the nature of the relationship completely.

Mary is no more deserving than other girls of her temperament or background, but she is favored by God as an act of grace.  Jesus’ whole life will be about explaining how the love of God works.  How God loves us without pre-condition and despite our seeming inherent compulsion to betray him.  Our God is a god of grace.  He bestows upon us love, acceptance, forgiveness because of who he is, not because of who we are.

We currently live in a meritocracy, so we have a hard time understanding grace.  We believe we have earned everything in our lives because of our hard work and intelligence.  Our country is now in a time when suddenly hard work and intelligence is not enough.  Good, hardworking, smart people are still losing their jobs through no fault of their own.  The sands are shifting beneath our feet and it feels, for good reason, really frightening.

But God will make a way.

And when I say God will make a way I don’t mean that God is going to swoop in and solve this financial crisis.  I don’t even mean that God will swoop in and solve your personal job or retirement crisis.

What I mean is, that God will make a way for grace in the midst of difficult times.  God will make a way for the unexpected to occur. 

God will make a way to provide for you when you least expect it.  God will make a way for you to experience love and deep connection in your community.  God will help you experience his love for you in new and deeper ways. 

Many of us will be faced with difficult decisions in the next few years, and most of us will have to make some level of sacrifice.  But in the end, what I hope for us, is that in retrospect we will have experienced this economic crisis as a time when the members of Emmanuel really put their trust in God and really opened up to one other.  We are the beloved community.  We are the family of God.  We have the capacity to help each other-not just through moral and practical support, but through holding one another in prayer and asking that we each may experience God’s grace in a new way.

No one could have predicted how Jesus would enter the world.  No one can predict how God’s grace will break through to us over the next few years.  But we know it will-not because we deserve that in-breaking, but because God is a god of grace who extends himself to us over and over and over again.  We join Mary in rejoicing in the goodness of our God and waiting in expectation to see what God will do next.

God will make a way.

Advent 1, Year B, 2008

Happy New Year!

The world is going to end!

Today, this first Sunday in Advent, we celebrate the beginning of the new church year.  Advent is the season of repentance as we prepare to welcome Christ into the world.  However, Advent is also the time in the church year during which we remind ourselves that Christ will come back again.  This creates a little cognitive dissonance within us.  After all, Christ coming into the world the first time is really exciting and, even . . .cute!  Jesus started as a little baby.  Babies are adorable. What is less adorable are the scary and mysterious apocalyptic images we read during our Advent lessons about the second coming of Christ.

Today’s lessons reminded me of one of the darker moments of my seminary experience.

In order to be ordained an Episcopal Priest, you must take an exam called the General Ordination Exam.  This exam is taken over a four-day period, early in January, after Christmas break.  If we failed the exam, our ordination could be postponed, so we were appropriately terrified.

Most of the questions on our exam were manageable, but then Tuesday January 4th, 2005 at 1:30 PM, we opened our Church History question.  Now, to take the exam, we would go to the library, pick up the question in a sealed envelope, and then go to our dorm rooms to answer the question on our computers.  At 1:30 PM on that fateful Tuesday, I opened the question and suddenly heard a scream from across the hall, and then some cursing from upstairs.  When I read the question, I understood why.

I won’t read the whole question, but the first part of the question was this:

During the second quarter of the 19th century, a modern form of apocalypticism known as Dispensational Premillennialism (or Premillennial Dispensationalism) arose in Britain, crossed the Atlantic to the United States, and subsequently played an important role in the development of Protestantism in this country.

Briefly identify the origins and major features of this type of apocalyptic thought. Trace its history in the United States from the later 19th century to the present, noting major developments and situating them in the context of their times.

The reason my neighbors screamed and cursed, was that none of us had ever heard of Premillennial Dispensationalism.  We had no idea what the subject of the question meant. We were toast.  Thankfully, the question was open book, so we were able to fudge some answers, even though the term was not even covered in our Oxford Dictionary of Theological terms.  It turns out the people who did best on the test were those who were raised in fundamentalist households.  Premillennial dispensationalism, as it turns out, is the theology that undergirds books like the Left Behind series, and many fundamentalist churches.

And, I still don’t fully understand premillenial dispensationalism, even though dispensationalism does rate its own Wikipedia entry now.  Basically, premillenial dispensationalism is a theology begun in the late 1800s in England, which eventually ended up on our shores.  This theology has a very complicated understanding of end times that takes the Bible literally and takes clues from the Bible’s apocalyptic passages to divide time into thousand year blocks that outline when Jesus will come again.  This theology involves tribulation, the anti-christ, and the State of Israel and much, much more.  Those who believe in this theology are very certain about what the end times will be like.

We, as Episcopalians, however–in typical fashion–are less sure.

We talked about the idea of the end of time in Seminary.  I remember lots of graphs about the word parousia, which is the word the Bible uses to describe Jesus’ coming again.  But the graphs never told us anything about what the parousia would be like.

And this is where I think our passage today is helpful.

No, not the spooky part about the sun being darkened.  Not even the elusive part about the green leaves of the fig tree.  No, I mean this part:

But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake– for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.

This part of the passage reminds us that no one really knows when Christ will return.  No one really knows what life for people on earth will be like when Christ returns.  We can make guesses, based on texts and what we know about Jesus already, but in the end, even the most certain person will be surprised by Christ’s re-entry into the world.

What God calls us to do is to remain in the present.

We cannot control the end of time by worrying about it, or hoping for it, or trying to predict it.  All we can do is be responsible for our own hearts, minds and actions.

We prepare for Christ’s coming by leading the life the un-mysterious parts of Scripture call us to lead.  We are called to follow Jesus, to pray, to read Scripture, to love our neighbor, to take care of those in need.

What we want to do as we go through life is to pay attention.  Jesus calls us in this passage from the Gospel of Mark to “keep awake”.   When life is stressful, or even boring, it is  easy to disconnect and stop paying attention to the world around us. Sometimes escape-physical, mental and emotional-can be really tempting.

But when we keep alert, when we pay attention to the world around us, we give ourselves the opportunity to really live.  When we stay awake, we are also awake to the opportunities that God gives us every day.  We are awake to opportunities to love and serve.  We are awake to opportunities to grow and learn.  We are awake to opportunities to give thanks.

God does not always speak to us in a booming voice.  Opportunities do not always jump up and wave their hands and shout, “Hey!  You over there!  God wants you to pay attention to me!”  To fully serve God, and prepare ourselves for Christ’s coming again we must be fully aware of our present and open to the experiences it brings us.

In the end, we do not need to know the exact details of what Christ’s second coming will look like in order to be prepared to receive him.  We just need to open ourselves to what Christ is doing here and now in the world around us.  If we participate in what Christ is doing now, we’ll be able joyfully meet him later.

This Advent, as we prepare to receive Christ into this world, we are invited to brush aside the distractions and stresses of the holiday season and to really focus on staying alert to the work God is doing in us and around us.


Advent 2, Year A, 2007

God never shows up in quite the way we expect.

I wake up to NPR in the mornings and this Wednesday, after a story about funeral homes for pets, another of the endless stories about faith and the Presidential campaign began to play. At a recent speech, when explaining his faith, John McCain told a story. 

When John McCain was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, at one point his hands were tied tightly behind his back and he was forced to sit with his head between his knees.  After a few hours of this, one of his captors snuck back in the room, put his finger to his lips and quietly loosened his bonds.

Weeks later, during one of McCain’s rare ten minute breaks outside in fresh air, the same captor came alongside of him, gave him a meaningful look, and then drew a cross in the dirt with his foot.

If I were McCain, I would have wanted God to show up as a liberating army, not a kind captor.  I would have been surprised, and maybe even a little disappointed at the way God appeared.

In the Christmas story, for the most part, God communicates in a way that is pleasing to us.  In Luke’s Gospel anyway, Mary and Joseph have dazzling encounters with Gabriel, shepherds are alerted by a choir of angels; wise men are alerted by stars.  The signs pointing to Jesus’ birth are spectacular and beautiful.

Today, though, we’re reminded that not all signs pointing to Jesus as the Christ were what we might want or expect.  Instead of Jesus announcing his ministry with fireworks, and seas parting, and spectacular healings, we get a scene that does not even contain Jesus.

Instead we get John.  Weird, wilderness-dwelling, locust-eating, hair-shirt wearing John.  Why would God send a smelly, gruff, loner from the wilderness to announce the arrival of God incarnate?  John is not what we expect.

Jesus’ birth, life and the ministry that John announces were not God’s way of doing show and tell.  God does not need to show off.  God is pretty spectacular on his own.  But God does want to communicate-and communicate with US. 

When God chooses John in the wilderness, God is making no mistake.  Instead, God is speaking to us in images that have been familiar for thousands of years.  The wilderness has been a rich place for God’s people ever since Moses and his followers wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.  Moses and the Israelites did not want to wander in the wilderness.  Wandering is the wilderness is rarely any person’s choice, but, in their case wandering was a consequence of their betrayal of God.  Instead of arriving in the Promised Land in a prompt manner, the Israelites wandered.  And it was in the wandering, and in the wilderness that they learned who God was and who they were as a people. 

John’s wild behaviors and rough garments evoke images, too.  Images of long-dead prophets, who were called by  God to call God’s people to repentance-to a changing of ways. 

So, while the image of John in the wilderness would have been shocking to the sophisticated Jews of Jesus’ time, the shock would have come with a pang of recognition.  These images mean something, they were familiar and stirring.

What better place for God to announce that he is sending humanity his son, than in the wilderness?  The wilderness is a place of chaos and fear and emptiness.  God’s desire for us is order and love and wholeness.  John announces Jesus’ ministry in the wilderness as a symbol to all his listeners, then and now, that God is not afraid to tackle those places.  John announces Jesus’ ministry in the wilderness, because it is in the wilderness, when all niceties of life are stripped away, that listeners can truly hear him.

People of Jesus’ time did not expect the Messiah to come.  They really didn’t expect the Messiah to come in a small manger in a barn somewhere in Bethlehem.  So, John needed them to change their minds. The word John uses that we translate as repent is metanoeo, which literally means “to change one’s mind or purpose”.

Even John’s mind needed to be changed.  Later in chapter three, John finally sees this Jesus about whom John has been prophesying and Jesus asks to be baptized by John.  This completely flusters John who doesn’t understand why Jesus needs to be baptized.  Later, in chapter 11, when John is imprisoned, and he hears of the work Jesus is doing, he writes Jesus a note that reads, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” I love the sub-text here.  I wonder if the next paragraph read, “Because really, you’re not doing that much.  A healing here and there, an occasional miracle, and a LOT of talking.  Dude, where is the revolution?  When are we going to overthrow these Romans?”

After all, remember the tone John used when he was predicting Jesus’ coming:

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. 

John is expecting Jesus to be a powerful leader who will lead the Jewish people to a political uprising.  John is expecting Jesus to be different.  Jesus needs to change John’s mind.

Just as John’s mind needed to be changed, ours does, too.  We need our own metanoeo experience.  And this is why we celebrate Advent.  We celebrate Advent, not just to extend holiday cheer or to think about how cute baby Jesus is, we celebrate Advent in order to prepare ourselves for the coming of God.  Not the coming of God 2000 years ago, not the coming of God 2000 years in the future.  We celebrate Advent in order to open our minds to the reality that God is here.  The function of the annual retelling of the Christmas story is to remind us that it really happened-God came to earth in human form.  The God that created the entire universe saw fit to limit himself so we could experience him more closely.  He chose to sacrifice himself so we could engage with him more intimately. 

We don’t expect that from God.  In a world where we don’t see direct evidence of God, it is terribly difficult to remember that God is real and that God loves us with great passion.  We have a hard time believing that God hears our prayers.  Or, we tend towards the opposite trend.  We get upset when God doesn’t answer our prayers exactly like we’d like him to.  We think of God as our divine servant whom we punish with our resentment when he does not come through like we expect him to.

We are invited this Advent to change our expectations of God, to spend time in quiet reflection with open hearts.  We are invited to dispose of any images or ideas we might have about God and make room for God to come to us as he actually is.  We are invited to stand in awe of Christ and to delight in Him.


Advent 1, Year C, 2006

Today marks the first Sunday of Advent-the liturgical time of the year during which we wait, with eager anticipation, for God to enter the world.

This waiting has been happening for a long time and will continue for a long time.  And, as Christians, we become those who wait.  We wait for God to come back, to usher in a time and justice and peace.

Throughout history there have been those whose most important roles in life have been to actively wait for God, and to prepare those around them to meet God.

The prophet Jeremiah is one of those people.  He was a prophet, who for forty years, warned his society about the ways they were straying from God.  He lived in a tumultuous time, about six hundred years before Christ came into the world.  During his time as a prophet, Jerusalem, which had been ruled by kings in the line of King David, was invaded by the Babylonians.  They removed the rightful king, and replaced him with a puppet king named Zedekiah.  All went according to the Babylonians’ plan for awhile, but  eventually Zedekiah was convinced by the people of Jerusalem to rebel and he did, but was crushed by the Babylonians. 

The people of Jerusalem were devastated and they prayed that God would free them from his captors.  Babylonia was not the only powerful nation of the time, and soon the Egyptian army marched to the area.  The Babylonians backed off of Jerusalem and the people of Jerusalem were thrilled!  Their prayers had been answered!  God had delivered them!

Jeremiah had the unpleasant job to tell them to hold onto their horses for a minute.  He warned them this break was just a reprieve, and he was right.  In the year 586 BC Jerusalem fell to Babylon again. 

The words Jeremiah speaks in our passage today are spoken after Jerusalem has fallen.  Strangely, they are words of hope, not what you would expect in the middle of such dire circumstances. Before our passage today, Jeremiah explains that God has hidden his face from Jerusalem because of its inhabitants’ wickedness.  But his words don’t end there.  Jeremiah describes to his listeners a vision of a restored Jerusalem in which its inhabitants will experience security and abundance.  He speaks of life replacing the desolation that currently describes the town.

In our passage today, Jeremiah speaks specifically of the righteous Branch of David who will execute justice and righteousness in the land.  Righteousness is a key term here.  Remember the figurehead king we discussed earlier? The word for righteousness in Hebrew is Zedek, and the king’s name is Zedekiah.  Unfortunately, this king could not live up to his name.

So, when Jeremiah speaks of a righteous Branch of David, he is specifically contrasting this image of an upright leader with the image of Zedekiah, a corrupt leader.  Righteous not only means just, as we think of it today, it also has connotations of being right-of conforming to norms and expectations.  So, the Branch of which Jeremiah speaks will not be grafted in, as Zedekiah was by the Babylonians, it will be a Branch of the true line of kings-the line of David.  But, this branch will also be righteous in the sense of being holy and aligned with God.  This branch will conform both to lineage and to God’s standards for kingship-being just and merciful.  In fact, this Branch of David will be called righteousness. 

The image of righteousness springing up from desolation, from hopefulness is a beautiful one.  And this image is really the image of Advent. 

Advent is about waiting for God, waiting for righteousness to enter the world.  Waiting for life to come from desolation.  Waiting for salvation.

American protestant theology usually describes salvation in terms of the individual.  We think of a person being “saved” at a prayer meeting, for instance.  When Jeremiah speaks of salvation and God’s righteousness, though, Jeremiah is thinking in terms of a community’s salvation. 

So, what is the difference between individual and community salvation?

When we think of salvation in individual terms, we think of one person’s righteousness.  We think of this individual confessing his sins, being forgiven by God and going on to have a relationship with God.

However, righteousness is not simply about the relationship between individuals and their God.  Righteousness is about a way of life.  When you think of salvation in terms of a community, you begin to understand that righteousness is not just about being connected to God, but it means living out that relationship with God by your relationships with the people around you.  If you are ‘saved’, but are a jerk to your kids, you’re not experiencing righteousness.  If you’re ‘saved’, but are not taking care of orphans, widows, and the poor, you’re not experiencing righteousness.  If you’re ‘saved’, but not seeking to be in right relationship with others, you’re not experiencing righteousness.  Righteousness is a way of life in which a community conforms to the righteousness of Christ.

And in America, I think a lot of our recent culture wars have to do with different groups having different interpretations of what it means to be a righteous people.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness by sticking with traditional values.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness by eliminating AIDS.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness by protecting ourselves from terrorism.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness by slowing down global warming.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness by fixing inner city schools.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness when all races and both genders are treated equally.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness when we narrow the gap between rich and poor.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness when the media becomes tasteful again.  Some believe we’ll achieve righteousness when we all believe the same things. 

I don’t think we’ll ever achieve righteousness as a nation by backing the right issues.  Our only hope, really, is Jesus.  Our hope rests in a prayer that Jesus will let us conform to his righteousness. This kind of conforming takes effort and sacrifice and cannot be undertaken without the power of God behind us.

Jesus does more than save us from death.  Jesus changes us.  When we are truly in relationship with Christ, we are constantly challenged to grow, deepen and be transformed.  And that transformation is always toward righteousness. 

And for that transformation, we need to wait.  But this is no passive waiting, this is a waiting that is full of longing-longing for Christ, longing for God, longing for righteousness.  This is a waiting full of prayer and of study and of relationship.

This is a waiting full of hope.

Like Jeremiah, we know that God is for us.  And with Jeremiah, we wait for Him.

Advent 4, Year B, 2005

King David was a manly man.  He slayed giants. He slept with other men’s wives and killed their husbands.  He led the armies that secured Jerusalem.  He established a kingdom.  (He also danced through the streets naked, but that is another sermon.)

Sweet Mary, on the other hand, was by all accounts a nice girl from a good family.  She was open, receptive, non-confrontational.  She was even a virgin.

Somewhere, Gloria Steinem is pulling out her hair.  These descriptions are a feminist’s nightmare, right?  Manly men and wimpy women.  Women of my generation were told we could grow up to do anything, be anyone we want to be.  Women before me had fought for their rights to work alongside men in every field you could imagine, and I certainly reaped the benefits of their hard work.  After all, I was born the year after the first women priests were ordained. What women are not supposed to be is passive, waiting around for some man (or God) to fulfill our destiny.

So, what do we do with these images of David and Mary?  These contrasting images of aggressive and passive behavior.

The good news is, we don’t have to choose just one.  (Though I’d be careful which attributes of David you emulate.)  God uses both David and Mary in Jesus’ conception.  In the Lukan geneaology of Jesus, Joseph, Jesus’ father, was descended from the line of David.  We’ll never know how the genetics of the assumption work, whether Jesus inherited any of Joseph’s traits, but for all legal purposes, Jesus could trace his heritage back to David.  

Throughout Jesus’ life, his incredible faithfulness to his heavenly Father will be a powerful combination of both David’s aggression and Mary’s ability to yield to God.  We see David in Jesus when he stands up to the powers of the day, when Jesus throws over the tables in the Temple.  We see Mary’s quiet faithfulness when Jesus yields to God in prayer over and over again, especially when he must choose to follow the path that he knows will lead to his death.  And in this struggle, we learn that yielding to God, as Mary and Jesus do, can be the most courageous and frightening way of faithfulness possible.  Yielding to God is not wimpy.

Mary was a woman who knew where her life was going.  She was marrying a carpenter, and would have a lovely quiet married life in which she’d take care of her husband and raise their children.  All this is interrupted when the Angel Gabriel comes to her and tells her that she is the favored one of God.

When Mary accepts God’s unexpected plan for her life, she yields to a future she cannot predict.  She does not know whether Joseph will accept or reject her, whether her family will shun her.  She certainly cannot know that she will one day have to watch her son be brutally murdered. 

When Mary yields to God, she surrenders her very understanding of how the world operates.  She surrenders her understanding of how God intervenes in the world.  Mary is open to God behaving in a completely new and unanticipated manner. 

Yielding to God is no small thing.  When we acknowledge that we do not control our destinies, we face the terror that we cannot predict our future.  There is no way to ensure that we or our loved ones will be safe, secure, or happy. 

Still, the Angel Gabriel refers to Mary as “favored one”. This Greek word translated as favored-charitoo– means, “endowed with grace”.  God chooses Mary, not because she is perfect, but because he chooses to endow her with his grace, just as he chooses to endow humanity with grace through the life and death of Jesus.

So, where is the grace in this yielding to God? 

I’d like to think that the grace, for Mary, came from her relationship with her Son.  She had the privilege of watching this incredible man grow from the baby and young boy she had nurtured to the powerful, wise and self-giving man he would become.  She experienced the grace of knowing God first hand, for a longer period of time then anyone before her.  She lived with this incarnate God 24 hours a day for years.  I’d like to think somewhere inside of her was a Jewish mother who got a chuckle out of the thought of disciplining the Lord of the Universe.  Potty training God?

In the same way, the grace when we yield to God, is that we get to learn more about God, we get to sit in his presence for a bit, and get a tiny sense of who he really is.  Yielding to God is not always about doing the will of God, it can also be a emotional or psychological transaction.  For instance, if you have a hard time trusting the father figure in your life, that distrust probably plays out in your prayer life with God.  If your dad abandoned you, why shouldn’t God?  In that case, yielding to God might be a moment of epiphany when you realize that God loves you, that God is not going to abandon you.  In that moment, you feel your body relax, your defenses lower.  That is yielding to God. 

You might believe you don’t need God.  In that case, yielding to God may happen when you get hit with a major crisis.  In a moment, in a flash, you realize that you are finite, that you don’t have all the answers. 

When we yield to God, we become God’s favored ones.  Not because we earn the distinction, but because God longs to bestow his grace upon us. 

And it is only when we yield to God, that it becomes appropriate to have a more confrontational, aggressive faith like David.  When we have yielded in prayer to God and have a sense of God’s call in our lives, we can then live out the “masculine” side of our faith.

Some of us might be called to fight for justice-writing letters to legislators, or organizing protests.  Others of us might be called to bring bible studies into local prisons or to work with the Bread Fund. 

The Christian life is a dance of yielding and responding to call.  The Christian Life is a dance of prayer and action. 

We are called to be both Mary and David.

As Jesus came into life through David and Mary, we are called to bring Jesus to life in this world.


Advent 2, Year B, 2005

It is time to come home!

This is the good news the prophet is speaking in the passage from Isaiah we hear today.  You see, Jerusalem was the symbolic and physical home of the Israelites.  They had journeyed for hundreds of years, and finally secured Jerusalem under King David’s leadership.  The Israelites believed their wandering, their suffering was finally over.  Unfortunately, years later, the Babylonians swooped in and took over Jerusalem, exiling all the Jews. 

The Israelites understood this defeat as not only a political and military defeat, but a spiritual defeat as well.  They believed that their sins had caused the loss of Jerusalem.

When the Lord says, “She has served her time and her penalty is paid” in this triumphant passage from Isaiah, he is telling the Israelites the good news that they will no longer be punished by exile, but will be allowed to return home.

It is time to come home!

John the Baptist repeats some of these words from Isaiah when he proclaims the coming of Jesus Christ. 

See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
`Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,

Why echo this message of homecoming?  Jesus was not going to come in and drive out the Roman occupiers of Jerusalem. 

What is a home, anyway?   I’ve been traveling for a couple weeks, a little vacation, then some continuing education, and each time I drove back to Crozet, and sunk into my big comfy bed at the end of a long day, I could feel myself relaxing into being home.  Some of you have lived in this area since you were tiny and some are as new as I am, but somehow we have all come to associate this place with home.  Home is more than a physical place.  Home is an emotional and spiritual idea, too. 

When John announced Jesus’ coming, he was announcing a whole new idea of a religious home.  No longer would home be a physical place like Jerusalem.  Home would now rest in a person-the person of Jesus. 

It’s time to come home.

To come home to Jerusalem, the exiled Jews would need to a do a lot of work.  They would pack all their tents, hitch their belongings to their donkeys or camels, and begin the long walk back home. 

Coming home to Jesus takes work, too. 

John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance.  He knew that in order to encounter Jesus, the very embodiment of love, the people around him would need to cleanse themselves of their sins.  He knew a life of sin would prevent a homecoming with Jesus.

I read a wonderful book over vacation called A Song I Knew by Heart by Brett Lott.  This novel is a retelling of the Ruth and Naomi story, but with a big twist.  In this story, after years of dealing with the painful issue of infertility, Naomi and her husband have grown distant from each other.  In a fit of anguish, Naomi throws herself at her husband’s best friend and they are intimate together one time.  Naomi goes immediately home where she sits in a cold bath, trying frantically to feel clean and finds herself unable to move, but shivers uncontrollably in her cold and guilt.  Her husband comes home, finds her, lifts her out of the tub, then takes her to their family bed, where he covers her in quilts and lies next to her until she warms again.  Throughout the rest of her life, she is tormented by her guilt and thinks of her sin as a separation from love. . . a separation from love.   Instead of turning toward her husband, who loved her so, she separated herself from that love and clung to another.

Sin as separation from love. . .a powerful image isn’t it?  When we sin, we separate ourselves from love, we separate ourselves from home.  When we repent and are forgiven, we bridge that separation, we experience a profound homecoming.

Naomi feels the weight of her guilt for the rest of her life.  She never tells her husband what happened, and they stay married and eventually have children.  At the end the book, at the end of her life, she finds out that her husband’s best friend told him what happened immediately after the indiscretion. 

So, when Naomi’s husband picked her up out of the frigid tub, and warmed her with blankets and his own flesh, he KNEW what had happened.   He was forgiving her, loving her, despite her betrayal.

For forty years, Naomi carried around a guilt that separated her from her husband, her children.  If she had only spoken of her guilt to her husband, she could have experienced the depth of her husband’s forgiveness, God’s forgiveness, much sooner.  Perhaps she could have even forgiven herself.

Like Naomi’s husband, God is eager to forgive us, eager to wrap us in the blanket of his love, his acceptance.  God is eager to welcome us home. 

As we wait for Jesus’s arrival this Christmas, we can prepare for his arrival by coming clean, coming clean before ourselves, our loved ones, God.  We can examine ourselves for the ways in which we have separated ourselves from love, and turn to welcome love back in our lives. 


It is time to come home.