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 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 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 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.

Amen.

Epiphany 2, Year A, 2008

A dear friend of mine recently moved to New York City.  She is a gifted actress, recently graduated from UVA, and is working in a legal office by day and acting in a play by night.  Every few months she sends long, gossipy emails about her new life filled with stories of life in a small apartment, working in a big city office, the auditioning process, and of course celebrity sightings.

Recently, she went to see Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner.  After the play, they went around to the back door in order to catch a glimpse of the stars exiting the building.  My friend was at the back of the pack of people, and I’ll quote from her email to tell you what happened next,

We were reconciling ourselves to trying to get pictures of the famous people by waving our camera in the air over our heads (which yielded a surprisingly awesome picture of JG) when a little door immediately behind us opened and a bodyguard-ish type person poked his head out.  We looked around in surprise, as we were the only people who noticed him, and he holds the door open and out sails MATT-freaking-DAMON.  Matt Damon.  Matt Damon saw the show the same night we did.  And of course, OF COURSE we didn’t take his picture/speak to him/tell him we loved him because we were too busy squealing at each other and yanking each other’s arms and squealing some more.  I am way too easily starstruck to be an actor. 

I tell this story, because I think her experience parallels the experience of those who followed Jesus in our Gospel reading today.  People had flocked to be baptized by John. They were fascinated by him, drawn by his message.  While they were excited to see him, they were also expecting to see him.  Seeing Jesus, however, was a huge surprise.  A few of the disciples start following him around, star struck in their own way.  He senses they are behind him, turns around and asks them, “What are you looking for?”

And they become completely flustered.  This was not just a movie star they were following, this was God.  Even if they did not realize that consciously, they sense there is something wonderful about Jesus.  They cannot pull themselves together, and instead ask the Messiah, “Um, uh, where are you staying?”

Jesus next issues the most important invitation these people will ever receive.  He invites them to “Come and see.”

Come and see.  Jesus does not give them a direct answer.  He does not lecture them.  He does not bombard them with theological arguments or grandiose pronouncements about himself.  He simply invites them to come and see for themselves. 

The experience of knowing Jesus can never be fully explained or taught.  In order to know Jesus, one has to encounter him. 

This invitation to come and see is repeated an additional three times in the Gospel of John.  Soon, after Jesus offers his invitation, Philip is talking to his friend Nathanel who asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Philip says, “Come and see”. Next, after Jesus engages with the woman at the well, she goes and tells her friends, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”  Finally, when Jesus has come to visit a grieving Mary and Martha after their brother Lazarus’s death, he asks where the tomb is, and they invite him to come and see.  Ironically, it is they who will really see and understand when Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead.

Can you imagine what it must have been like for these star-struck followers of Jesus to be issued an invitation to come and see?  I can assure you, Matt Damon did not invite my friend to follow him around, and even if she had, I don’t know that she would have gotten much out of it. 

Following Jesus, however, is another matter.  To follow Jesus, to observe Jesus as he went about his daily business, was a chance to observe God.  To follow Jesus, was an opportunity to engage with the God who created all of us, to understand what his love means for us.  To follow Jesus was to learn about how to be fully human.

Thankfully, Jesus’ invitation to come and see is not limited to those encounters recorded in the Gospel of John.  We, too, are invited to come and see.  To come and see what happens when we begin to pray more regularly, or study scripture, or serve the poor.  We’re asked to come and see what Jesus was doing in Biblical days and what Jesus is doing today.

And while it may not feel like it, our annual meeting is another chance for us to come and see what Jesus is doing in our midst.  The administrative part of church life may not feel as uplifting or spiritual as the ritual or fellowship part of the church life, but Jesus works amidst those decisions, too. 

As we choose our leaders for the next year, and engage in conversations about issues relevant to our life together, we have the chance to discern where Jesus is working in this church and in the greater community. 

So, come to the annual meeting and listen very, very carefully.  You may hear Jesus invite you to come and see.