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 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.

Amen.

Thanksgiving, Year B, 2006

Today we gather to celebrate Thanksgiving, when we take a break out of our regular lives to stop and give thanks to God for all he has given us.  Unfortunately, developing an attitude of thankfulness is not that easy! 

The Israelites needed 40 years in the wilderness to develop thankful hearts.  Forty years!  They were not thankful when God freed them from the Egyptians, or when God led them with by a pillar of fire and pillar of smoke.  They were not even thankful, for long anyway, when God made manna and quail rain down from the heavens.  The Israelites needed forty years to fully appreciate that everything they had was from God. 

Ironically, it was not until the Israelites had all their creature comforts stripped from them, that they were able to deeply understand the nature of God’s providence.  God provides everything.  Every morsel of food that passed through their lips.  Every drop of water that refreshed them after a long day of walking.  God provided every stick that they used to build huts to provide them some shelter against the elements. 

In order not to forget the hard lesson learned in the wilderness, those of the Jewish tradition continue to celebrate Sukkot, a holiday during which they build huts out of sticks and remember God’s provision for the Israelites in the wilderness.

We continue this tradition of giving thanks to God during the American holiday of Thanksgiving.  History tells us that Thanksgiving was first celebrated by pilgrims in 1621.  Like the Israelites, the pilgrims were strangers in a strange land and relied on God and friendly natives to provide for them.  Their dependence on the elements must have been terrifying.  In the fall of 1621, when the pilgrims saw the abundance of their harvest, they were overjoyed and grateful to God for his provision.

An attitude of thanksgiving is a key part of our faith, but it can be easy to forget that.  Even in the midst of the Thanksgiving holidays, we can get caught up in worry.  “What if the turkey is dry?  What if our guests don’t get along?  What if we need something at the last minute but the store is closed!”  (Of course, I don’t worry about these things, but I’ve heard some people do.) 

Our Gospel reading today reminds us that Jesus told his listeners “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”

Remembering that we are dependent on God is difficult.  Remembering that we are dependent on a gracious, giving God is even more difficult.  Yet every day, as we go about our days, we are living lives that have been granted to us as gift.  And the proper response to a gift, is an attitude of thanks.

Thanksgiving is not just a holiday or a once-a-year remembrance.  Thanksgiving is a frame of mind and a way of life. 

We can live like the Israelites did, resisting the truth of God’s care for us, for the next forty years.  Or, we can begin to explore the possibility that God is for us, with us.  That God has been and will continue to provide for us our entire lives. 

And so, we pray alongside the great poet and writer George Herbert, saying.

Thou hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more, – a grateful heart;
Not thankful when it pleaseth me,
As if Thy blessings had spare days,
But such a heart whose pulse may be Thy praise.

Amen.

Proper 14, Year B, 2006

Someone in your home is baking a loaf of bread.  For an hour now the warm fragrance has drifted around corners and under door frames and over tables to tease you with its inviting scent.  Despite Dr. Perricone’s warnings about the dangers of simple carbohydrates, you know that when the loaf of warm bread is ready to be sliced, you will be first in line to cut off a large piece, slather it in butter, and slowly savor the way it melts in your mouth.

As you put the bread in your mouth, digestive enzymes begin working, breaking the bread down into smaller, more manageable pieces.  As the bread travels through the stomach and intestines, it is further broken down and becomes fuel and nutrients. Much of the bread literally becomes part of you, providing the energy for your day and some nutrients to help your body function.  Once the bread passes through your mouth into your stomach, eating the bread shifts from a sensory experience to a primal, biological one.

We are disconnected from the nutritional importance of bread, but for many around the world, that piece of bread would literally give them life.  That piece of bread, with all of its nutrients and carbohydrates would fill their bodies with energy, boost their immune systems, and give them hope.

Thousands of years ago, wandering in the desert, God’s chosen people also needed bread.  They had been walking for years, without regular food and drink, and were exhausted.  To make sure they relied completely on him, the only food they received was directly from God.  When God did choose to provide food for the wandering Israelites, he first chose to shower them with manna, a mysterious, heavenly food that resembled, of course, bread.

This manna fed the wanderers, but did not ultimately satisfy them.  After a few hours of eating manna, they were starving again.  And when they became hungry again, God’s generosity completely slipped their mind and they began complaining almost instantly. But still, the manna sustained them for many years.

Finally, after 40 years of wandering and complaining, the Israelites entered the promised land.  The land was rich with food-fruit, vegetables, meat, and ingredients for all the bread they could bake.  The Israelites needed the manna no longer. 

Fifteen hundred years passed, and even though the Israelites complained about the manna while they were in the desert, as a people they never forgot about it.  Manna became a symbol of God’s faithfulness, and the importance of relying on God, rather than your own resources. 

Do you remember two weeks ago, when the gospel reading was about the feeding of the 5000? (Yes, yes you do.)  This is the passage in which Jesus miraculously turns a few fish and a loaf of bread into an abundant feast.  The people who experienced it were amazed, and told all their friends. 

Once Jesus gets off the mountain, people start following him, hoping for a repeat performance.  Maybe they are curious, maybe they are hungry, but they want to see the magic man make some bread!

Immediately before our passage today, Jesus makes a speech to them, explaining that they are looking for the wrong thing.

Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.

They go on to ask for a sign, for Jesus to prove that he is special. 

So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you. What work are you performing?  Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'”  Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.

Jesus is redirecting their curiosity and question.  He is saying to them-if you focus on the bread, you’re missing the whole point!  Neither the manna, nor the feeding of the 5000 are about bread, they are about God-about God’s abundance and faithfulness.  These miracles are about God’s love for his people and the way God looks after us and provides for us.

Jesus is the height of this provision and love.  Jesus is explaining that he has been sent as a new kind of bread-a bread that never runs out, that never will leave us, and that gives us not only life-but life eternal.

Manna and other kinds of physical bread, no matter how miraculous-or delicious–will never satisfy us, never fill up all the places in us that are broken, lonely or grieving. 

Physical bread cannot give our lives meaning, show us avenues of hope, or help keep us off our high horses. 

God sends Jesus to feed us, to be our fuel, to give us the nourishment we need to live lives that are pleasing to God. 

At the Eucharist, we consume the body and blood of Jesus.  Early Christians were accused of being cannibals because of this.  As Episcopalians, we believe that the bread and wine we eat and drink, doesn’t actually turn into flesh, but does contain the full presence of Christ.  When we consume them, we consume Christ.  Just as a warm slice of bread breaks down and becomes part of us, somehow at the Eucharist we consume Jesus, Jesus becomes part of us, becomes incorporated into our mind, and heart, and hands.  As he becomes part of us, we become part of him.

The Eucharist is more than ritual and tradition.  The Eucharist is more than remembering.  During the Eucharist, we take Christ in to our very being, not only our spirit, but into our flesh.  And so the Bread of Life lives on in us, and we in him.

Amen.