This morning, our Scripture readings speak to us in one common voice. And that common voice tells us that God’s values are different from many of our default human values. Let me say that again. The common voice in our scriptures this morning tells us that God’s values are different from our default human values.
Think about it. Our society tells us that the most important thing we can do as humans is to have power. To have wealth. To have prestige. To be successful. To be great again. Listen to the news. Watch a commercial. See a movie. It’s everywhere we look. But, our readings from both Micah and Matthew remind us that those human values are NOT God’s values.
Speaking through Micah, God says to the people – I freed you from slavery. I brought you out of Egypt. I don’t want empty worship. I don’t care about the bulls and the rams and the oil in your offerings. I want you. And I want you doing for others what I have done for you. I want you DO Justice. I want you to LOVE kindness. I want you to WALK humbly with me.
What does that mean? It means that God wants how we live our lives to reflect who God is and God’s love for the world. And we do that through our DOING of Justice, our LOVING of Kindness, and our WALKING in Humility.
The words are tricky. We receive them in English, but because Micah 6:8 is translated from Hebrew, we miss the nuance. Let me try to explain.
Justice is an English translation of the Hebrew word mishpat. To us justice is a legal term, but that’s not its primary scriptural definition. Justice is something we DO to be certain that all the people of the earth have what they need for their well-being. Caring for our brothers and sisters is a scriptural imperative. It’s not optional. Exodus 22 explains it this way: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan…. If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.”
The word translated as kindness is the Hebrew word chesed. It has no direct English translation. It’s related to love, loyalty, and faithfulness. Frankly, kindness isn’t nearly a strong enough word to convey the meaning of chesed. Chesed describes the key element in human relationships – whether that relationship is one of marriage, friendship, or community. It’s also meant to characterize our relationship with God. So, we are to LOVE loyalty, love, and faithfulness in all of our relationships – and to act out of that love. We don’t do it because we are manipulated or afraid, we do it because God loves the world – and we are part of the world that God loves.
And, we are to WALK with God. Our walk should be humble or circumspect (both good translations of the Hebrew), to put God first and live in conformity with God’s desires.
And, if we’re wondering about what God’s desires might look like, we can turn to the Beatitudes for some ideas. Jesus spoke the beatitudes to a crowd gathered around him on a mountain top. We know the whole speech as the Sermon on the Mount. They were Jewish people, living in an occupied country, experiencing daily oppression from their Roman occupiers.
Jesus had good news for those people – and it continues to be good news for us.
Because Jesus tells us who and what God values. Once again, we see that the world is turned upside down: Who’s blessed? Jesus says these folks are blessed: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and those who are reviled and persecuted for the sake of the Gospel.
Since August, it’s been my privilege to worship with you, work alongside of you, and partner with you for the sake of the Gospel. I’ve heard painful stories of how the racism that infects our country has impacted your lives in the past and continues to do so today. And, I’ve watched you hungering and thirsting for justice. I’ve watched you being peacemakers. And, I’ve heard amazing stories of what DOING justice, LOVING faithfulness in relationships, and WALKING humbly with God looks like in real life in our community.
Text: Matthew 4:12-23
In today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, we hear the story of the call of Andrew, Peter, James and John. They are preparing to go fishing in the Sea of Galilee, when Jesus calls them to follow him. Matthew tells us that they immediately drop their nets, leave their jobs, and follow Jesus.
This reading seems a particularly appropriate one for reflection as we worship together in advance of our Annual Meeting. It’s a reading that tells us our common destination as a congregation: The Kingdom of Heaven. And it’s a reading that tells us our common call: Fishers of People.
When Jesus begins preaching after John’s arrest, he uses John’s own words: Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. Sometimes as Christians, we get confused about what Jesus means. Theologian N.T. Wright says that this Kingdom of Heaven isn’t about “our escape from this world to another one, but to God’s own rule ‘coming on Earth as it is in Heaven.”
At the end of this passage, Matthew describes how Jesus went about they work of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven near. He says, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” Teaching. Proclaiming. Healing. Those are the relational actions that help to bring near the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s the common destination of this and every congregation.
Jesus tells Andrew, Peter, James and John that he will make them fish for people. That’s our common call. Often, when people think about this verse, they think about Evangelism. And that’s certainly one key way to “fish.” But, it’s not the only way. Whenever we reach out to love and serve others in Jesus’ name we are, in fact, fishing for people. That's the common call of this and every congregation.
The Sunday of our annual meeting is a perfect day to reflect on how we have been open to the call to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven by teaching, proclaiming, and healing in 2016. And, how doing these things led us to fish for people. It is also a perfect time to begin to talk together about how we see ourselves continuing that journey in 2017.
Here are just a few ways that I’ve seen our congregation respond to the call to Teach, Proclaim, and Heal in 2016, thereby fishing for people:
WATTS - We've just finished up our time of service at WATTS - the Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter. Members of Grace and St. Mary's helped set up the shelter, cooked dinner on Wednesday and breakfast on Thursday, worked at the shelter on Wednesday night, helped out again on Thursday morning, and finally worked to break down the shelter. Those actions were ways to proclaim and heal, thereby fishing for people.
Sunday School - I'm impressed with our Sunday School. We have 30 to forty children and teens participating in our program. They are guided and mentored by a number of adults who love and care for them. And they are supported in their learning by so many in this congregation who show up for activities and fundraisers. It's how we teach around here, thereby fishing for people.
Backpack Program - Every week, our church provides meals for 37 children in the Clarke County Schools whose homes are food insecure. On Fridays, they are sent home from school with enough food to feed them all weekend. This ministry originated here and has now spread to many of the churches in Berryville. All told, 97 children receive food every weekend. It's another way we proclaim and heal, thereby fishing for people.
As we look forward to 2017, here are two things we’ll talk about during the Annual Meeting. Our question will be, "How do we hear God’s voice calling us in for 2017?"
Shrine Mont Retreat - Clarke Parish has held an annual retreat at Shrine Mont for man years. This year, we will focus on our liturgy. We'll learn about the different parts of our liturgy, working in intergenerational groups. It will be one way we proclaim and teach together.
Mission Trip - I've heard from many of you that you miss the regular mission trips that have been part of Clarke Parish's history. This year, we will bring that tradition back! Plans are in the works to go to West Virginia to help rebuild communities devastated by last spring's flood. That mission will proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven, and heal those whose lives have been devastated.
We are called to follow Jesus. To listen and discern his voice calling us to follow him. We are called to be his hands and feet in the world today to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven through our teaching, proclaiming and healing, thereby fishing for people. Will you continue to join together and respond to that call?
In today's Gospel reading from the Gospel of John, we hear the story of Jesus' first encounter with two of the men who will become his disciples. At the time he meets them, they are disciples of John the Baptist. John tells them about Jesus. Then, they decide to find out more, so they follow him. When they ask Jesus where he is staying, Jesus says, "Come and see."
This morning, I want to talk about these words: come and see. And, I want to talk with them particularly in the context of Evangelism. In the Episcopal Church, we have a lot of anxiety about Evangelism. The practice of Evangelism has been misused in some Christian churches, so we have tended to give it a pretty wide berth. In fact, there's a statistic that says that average Episcopalian invites someone to come to church with them once every thirty-two years!
So, this morning, I want to talk about what we mean by Evangelism in the Episcopal Church, and how these words come and see might inform our actions.
My guess is that many of us have had a negative experience with evangelism. Perhaps someone has knocked on your door to give you materials that tell you that you are not saved - and that unless you align yourself with this person's particular beliefs about God, your eternal salvation is in jeopardy. Or perhaps you've seen someone on a street corner, shouting about hell and damnation. While it's possible that those behaviors could fall into the loosest definitions of Evangelism, they are NOT what I am talking about here.
When Jesus says to Andrew and his friend that they should come and see, he's not using coercion. He’s not using power. He doesn't threaten them. He doesn't tell them that they will go to hell if they don't come. Rather he issues an invitation. And after they accept the invitation, they stay and talk and begin to develop a relationship. What Andrew hears is so compelling that he goes off to find his brother Simon (whom we'll come to know by his nickname Peter) and issues the same invitation: come and see.
Perhaps my thoughts turned readily to Evangelism this week because we've been working on the Annual Report for our annual meeting next weekend. As Robin and I made our way through all of the topics to be included in the Annual Report, I asked, "What did we do about Evangelism in 2016?" After several long minutes of silence, we both said, "Huh. Nothing." Later, when I was telling this story to another parishioner, she replied, "Do you mean like standing on street corners and talking to strangers?" Friends, the good news is NO! That's not at all what I mean.
But, during this year 2017, I am going to invite us to consider some simple things that we can do around Evangelism. And those simple things will be related to our words for this morning: come and see.
I have a colleague from my days of ministry in New Hampshire who created a whole process for Evangelism around these words. Charles described it like this: if you have a child who is in a school play, you might well invite your friends to come and see your child in the play. You aren't inviting your friends to join the drama group, or to take a part in the play, or to join the pit band, or even to sell treats at intermission. You're inviting them to come and see your child in the play. And you do so because you love your child and want to share your child's accomplishments with your friends.
To my mind, that's how the best evangelism works. You have found something that gives your life meaning here at Grace/St. Mary's.
Y'all come to church week after week - and it's NOT because you're bored and have nothing better to do on Sunday mornings! Perhaps you have a friend or neighbor or colleague who might also benefit from being a part of this community. Some Sunday, you might invite them to come and see.
There are two key things that distinguish a come and see invitation from other types of evangelism - and they are crucial. The first is that it's not about power. Your invitation doesn't come with some kind of threat or fear. And the second is related. Your invitation comes out of your own interest. If you invite someone to come and see, you do so from a place of sharing your joy - just like the school play analogy.
It was a little horrifying to realize that we had done nothing Evangelism related in 2016. One of my hopes for this year is to have a particular Sunday where we focus on and encourage one another to invite a friend to come and see. Stay tuned.
I want to end with a personal testimony. As some of you know, I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church. I was active in that tradition until after I graduated from college. In my new town, I visited the five Roman Catholic churches, and not one of them felt particularly welcoming. A work colleague expressed interest in how it was going - and when I was feeling pretty dejected, she invited me to come to church with her. I felt immediately welcomed in her UCC church, and quickly made their community my new church home. In fact, I joined three different churches as an adult before eventually going to seminary. In each case, I found the church I joined because someone in the congregation that I knew said something like come and see.
As we think about building a strong future for Grace Church, increasing our membership and strengthening our particular branch of the Body of Christ will be one important step. Maybe you'll invite a friend to come and see our backpack ministry. Maybe you'll invite them to come and see the Christmas Pageant. Maybe you'll invite them to come and see a bible study. Whatever it is that brings you joy and fulfillment through being part of this community – invite someone else to come and see.
Text: Acts 10:34-43
Professor James Thompson says that the conversion of Cornelius, the story we hear a small portion of this morning, is the pivotal text in the pair of books written by Luke – the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. In the story, a Roman leader receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, and is baptized along with his household. It’s safe to say that this story changed the course of the early Christian movement, opening the practice of faith in Jesus to those who were not Jewish.
There are two related concepts that are important for us as we strive to understand this story and what it means for us. The first is that God shows no partiality because people from every nation who fear God and do what is right are acceptable to God. The second is that this good news about who is welcome came through Jesus, who preached peace.
This morning, we’ll start by looking at the whole story of Cornelius, since we pick it up in the middle! Then, after know the whole story, we’ll explore these two phrases and what they mean for us today.
Cornelius was a Roman Centurion, responsible for a group of 100 Roman soldiers. We are told at the start of his story that he feared God, gave alms, and prayed constantly. One afternoon, while praying, he had a vision and was told to send for Peter, who was in Joppa. The following day, while he was praying, Peter also had a vision. In it, he saw a sheet filled with animals considered to be unclean, being lowered from heaven. A voice told him to take and eat. After he protested, the voice repeated itself. After a repeated protestation, Peter head the voice of God say, "Nothing I make is unclean."
At that moment, there was a knock on the door. The Cornelius' servants were there to bring him to Cornelius. When they arrived in Caesarea, at Cornelius' home, Peter said, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. Now may I ask why you sent for me?” Cornelius told Peter about his vision. Peter responded with the passage that we heard this morning. At the conclusion of his speech, the Holy Spirit entered the room and landed on Cornelius and his household. Peter then called for the Gentiles to be baptized.
This is a remarkable story. In the first century, Jews and Gentiles did not associate with one another at all. It was illegal, according to Jewish law, for a Jewish person to visit the home of a Gentile or to share a meal with them. And, Cornelius is part of the Roman occupying army – he wasn’t just any Gentile, he was literally an enemy to Peter. Imagine, then, what it would have been like to hear Peter say, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality” and then go on to say that in EVERY NATION those who fear God and do what is right are acceptable to God. These words would have been shocking to both Jews and Gentiles.
It was an important and pivotal teaching then – and remains one today. What makes us acceptable to God has nothing to do with externals and everything to do with who we are inside. It’s not about race or class or culture. What makes us acceptable to God is reverence (that’s a better translation of the word fear) which leads to our acting accordance with God’s will because of that reverence. At the very start of Cornelius’s story, we hear three things that Cornelius does: he fears God, he gives alms, and he prays constantly. Cornelius’ almsgiving and prayer follow from his “fear” or reverence.
Secondly, Peter says that this teaching came through Jesus, who was “preaching peace.” We tend to think of the word peace as the absence of war. The Hebrew word shalom has a much fuller definition. It can mean: completeness, wholeness, health, peace, welfare, and safety. When Jesus came preaching peace, he wasn’t talking about an absence of war. In Luke’s Gospel, He begins his earthly ministry with these words from the prophet Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. This is the kind of peace or shalom that Jesus preached consistently in his Gospel.
It’s not a surprise then that Professor Thompson sees this story as so pivotal. Cornelius and his family are acceptable to God because of their faith, which informs their actions. Peter, going against all that he had been taught, recognized God and the Holy Spirit at work, and welcomed them into the Way of Jesus. The early church saw God at work, and opened the way of the Gospel to all people. Without Cornelius and Peter, the work of Paul in spreading the Gospel might not have happened. Without Cornelius and Peter, we might not be here!
What does this story mean for us? It seems to me that we are very good at dividing the world up into us vs. them. We are black or white. We are gay or straight. We are Republicans or Democrats, liberal or conservative, rich or poor, legal or illegal, from here or away…. You name it, and we can place ourselves in one category or another and then take sides against those who differ from us. It does seem to a part of human nature. Maybe at some point divisions served an evolutionary purpose, but they don’t serve us now.
God shows no partiality. Those who fear God and do what is right, as shown by Jesus who came preaching peace, are acceptable to God. The story of Cornelius and Peter invites us to see God at work in the lives of people who are like us and people who are very different from us. The story of Cornelius and Peter invites us to recognize that worshipping God and doing God’s will are the two things that God requires of us and of all people. The story of Cornelius and Peter invites us to step out beyond our comfort to embrace those whom God finds acceptable.
My Mama, Barbara, would be 91 today if she were still alive. This picture of her makes me smile. She's got a kind of mysterious, Mona Lisa-like smile. I wish I knew what she was thinking. And that bow! I've got a box of them in my closet. She apparently loved big bows when she was a girl - and saved them her whole life.
It's hard for me to put the disparate pieces of my mother's life together: the girl who loved big bows doesn't quite fit alongside the woman who wore her hair in the same wash and set for the entire 48 years that I knew her (and goodness knows how many years before that). And that Mona Lisa smile doesn't quite match the woman who learned to see life as a series of disappointments.
When I look at pictures from Barbara's childhood, she seems carefree - and free to be herself. Somehwere along the line, someone or a series of somethings taught her that life was NOT carefree and that her self wasn't good enough. I'm grateful that a week before she died, I was able to say to her, "I wish you could see yourself the way that others see you." Her response was our family's typical response to a conversation we didn't want to have, "How 'bout them Red Sox?" At least we both laughed.
I thought about all this conversation again tonight after reading Facebook. Each year on her birthday, I post a few pictures along with a remembrance. My feed began to fill with other remebrances - from Grafton, from Western Mass, from Berlin, NH, from California. People who knew my mother, primarily through me, reflecting on what they appreciated about her. A class act. A beauty. A card shark. A firecracker. I loved her. I miss her. All true and all things I loved about her, as well!
I think if Barbara were alive today, she'd be astonished to read these words. Somewhere along the line, that confident girl lost some of herself and never was able to find it again.
It's a cautionary tale really. And one I often need to remember myself. We're only here for a short time. Don't waste this beautiful life worried about not living up to others' expectations or standards. Be your beautiful self with whatever big-bow equivlaent you need to shine. Be a class act. Be a firecracker. Be yourself. Take your inspiration from the girl with the Mona Lisa smile.
Scripture Text: Matthew 1:18-25
This morning, we hear the story of Jesus’ birth as the Gospel of Matthew tells the story. It’s not the one we’ll hear next week on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We’ve got no census, no trip to Bethlehem, no inn, no shepherds, no angels. Instead, there’s a young girl and her fiancé and an unexpected pregnancy that causes a crisis. The key to our story this morning is that Joseph, the aforementioned fiancé, is righteous.
We’ll start by taking a look at what that word righteous means. Then, we’ll explore how Joseph’s righteousness plays out in this story. And finally, we’ll take a look at how we are called to live righteously in our own lives.
Righteous and righteousness appear in the Bible 579 times! That’s 344 times in the Old Testament, 109 times in the Apocrypha, and 126 times in the New Testament. In Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel alone, the word righteous appears 77 times. And, in the much shorter Gospels, righteous appears 32 times. That’s a lot of righteousness! Noah is the first person described as righteous in Genesis 6, and the righteous are encouraged to continue their righteousness in the final chapter of Revelation. It’s safe to say that righteousness is a concept that is shot through our Bible from start to finish. But, the problem with churchy words is that they often wind up defining themselves. It's not super helpful to say that be righteous is to live in righteousness. So, what does righteous really mean?
The most common definition of righteous is living a life pleasing to God. This most often gets demonstrated in how a righteous person cares for others. Here’s an example from Isaiah, chapter 33: Those who walk righteously and speak uprightly, who despise the gain of oppression, who wave away a bribe instead of accepting it, who stop their ears from hearing of bloodshed and shut their eyes from looking on evil, they will live on the heights; their refuge will be the fortresses of rocks; their food will be supplied, their water assured. Later, Isaiah describes righteousness as something we can put on like we do an article of clothing. We are called to be righteous - to live lives that are pleasing to God, as demonstrated by how we care for others.
What does all this have to do with our story this morning?
Mary’s fiancé Joseph was a regular guy living an un-extraordinary life when an unexpected thing happened. All we know about him, according to Matthew, is that he was righteous. He was living a life pleasing to God. He cared for others and he was not interested in oppression.
Joseph learns that his fiancé is pregnant, and he knows that there’s only one reasonable explanation for a pregnancy. And he knows that he was not a part of that reasonable explanation. So, Joseph draws a logical conclusion – that his fiancée Mary has been unfaithful to him. It’s not an unreasonable conclusion.
In first century Palestine, marriage practices were different from ours. At the moment of betrothal, the couple was already considered married, although they were not yet living together. The legal system of patriarchy favored males. Joseph would have been well within his rights to make a big public fuss. He could have made a public accusation, and divorced Mary in a way that would have caused her great public shame. In fact, it might well have led to her death. It certainly would have destroyed her social standing – and likely would have forced her into slavery or prostitution.
If their marriage, like so many in the first century and throughout the ages, was something that had been negotiated by their parents, then Joseph might have even taken a great deal of pleasure in shaming Mary. After all, his male reputation would have been at stake. So, Joseph could have salvaged his ego and his pride at the expense of Mary, her child, and the future the mother and child might have together.
Instead, Joseph stopped. He took a breath. He didn’t act oppressively. Matthew says it’s because he was righteous. His righteousness prompted him to decide to quietly divorce her, another legal option open to him. In this scenario, Mary and her baby would still have a difficult life, but Joseph would not have violated her.
Joseph’s pause makes all the difference. Because in that moment, God intercedes. An angel, a word which simply means messenger from God, appears to Joseph in a dream and communicates and unexpected and decidedly illogical reality about this child Mary is carrying. It doesn’t make any sense. And yet, Joseph believes this messenger and takes his righteousness to a whole new level.
So, what does all this have to do with us?
It seems to me that the options open and available to Joseph are very much part and parcel of the human condition. As we move through this thing called life, we are given countless opportunities to serve our egos or to serve God. We are given countless opportunities where we can act rashly or we can act righteously. The choice is ours.
Except that it’s rarely that easy, right? We’ve been shaped and formed by experiences that don’t always bring out the best in us. We’re busy. We’re stressed. We’re broken. We look out for ourselves first, almost by instinct. So what hope is there?
For me, the first step is always awareness. I know what God hopes for from me and from each of us. Righteousness. Living a life that is pleasing to God because of how we treat others. We can take that quote from Isaiah 35 that I referenced at the beginning, and put it in contemporary language: Walking righteously. Speaking truth. Despising oppressing. Being honest in our economic practices. Not gossiping. Turning away from evil. This is what living a life that is pleasing to God because of how we treat others looks like.
And, when I can’t do it all on my own, which is regularly, I plead with God in my prayers to give me these gifts. I ask God to send angels who can guide me in living this way. And when I realize I’ve blown it, I ask for forgiveness, and move forward to try again.
Our world today could use more righteousness. On this fourth Sunday of Advent, I invite you to join me in using Joseph as your model. AMEN.
Scripture: Isaiah 35:1-10
This morning’s reading from the prophet Isaiah is a poem that embodies hope. Addressed to those living in exile, it promises that God sees the plight of the exiles and promises to act to restore them to their home on Mount Zion. This poem is a word of hope to us, as well. From that age to this one, God sees the plight of God’s beloved and promises to make a Holy Way to guide us home.
In 587 BCE, the Babylonians conquered Judah, destroyed Solomon’s beautiful temple, and took most of the residents of Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside into captivity in Babylon. They were forced into slavery and to remain in exile in Babylon. This exile continued for over fifty years, until the Persians conquered Babylon, and their king, Cyrus the Great, gave the Jews permission to return home.
Today’s reading from the Isaiah was written to those living in slavery and exile in Babylon. It’s the same message that God gave to those living in slavery in Egypt many generations before this one. God hears your cries. God sees your plight. God will act to deliver you from this horrible situation.
This morning’s poem is filled with signs of hope. The desert will blossom. The barren and rocky places where the jackals live will become swampy marshland. Those who are weak and infirm, including those who have been harmed by the Babylonians, will have their health restored. And, God will bring the people home. God will make a Holy Way – a path in the desert – that will bring them back to their home in Jerusalem on Mount Zion. And, here's the good news – it's a path that is so straightforward that “not even fools shall go astray!”
From that time, all those millennia ago, to this day, these words continue to be God’s promise to us. God hears our cry. God sees the plight of God’s people. God will act to make a way forward, a way of health and healing, that will lead us back to God. It’s striking that when John the Baptist sends word to Jesus to ask if he’s the one, Jesus’ response echoes many of the signs that Isaiah foretold: 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.
I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that we are living in a particularly scary time. Our news is filled with stories of people in perilous situations. The news out of Syria is horrific. Our relationship with China seems super rocky at the moment. ISIS continues to wreak havoc in a variety of places. In recent weeks there have been earthquakes, a tsunami, tornadoes and forest fires. In the United States and around the world, right now, young women are being trafficked and sold as sexual slaves. We continue to read about issues of racism in our country and abroad. In my own circle of friends, people I know and love are struggling with cancer, the loss of loved ones, the ending of long-term marriages, and prolonged unemployment.
Periodically, I shake my fist at heaven and ask God to get busy on this blooming desert and Holy Way home thing. Haven’t we been waiting long enough? I don’t know about you, but I’m tempted to ask if it hasn’t happened yet, after 2500 years, are we foolish to keep hoping. In another passage from Isaiah, the prophet cries, “Why don’t you rend the heavens and come down?” Yes, God. Please. Now.
I have some words of hope born of my reading of scripture and my own deep convictions, that I fall back on when I am in that fist-shaking mood.
First, we are all just a breath away from that moment of homecoming. When we take our last breath, we will be brought into that world where, as the book of Revelation tells us, “Death will be no more; sorrow and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” When we breathe our last, we will walk that Holy Way to a new way of being where “all things will be made new.” It doesn’t change my desire to want this world to look more like the world to come – but when all hope feels lost, it’s helpful to remember that this world is not the end of the story.
Second, for Christians, we see Jesus as the fulfillment of that promise that God makes in Isaiah 35. Jesus’ answer to John the Baptist shows that he saw himself as that fulfillment, as well. When we live fully into our calling as followers of Jesus, loving God and loving our neighbor, we become part of God’s way of making that Holy Way.
Which leads me to my third point of hope. Here I quote that great theologian Mr. Rogers (who was, in addition to being my children’s television hero, a Presbyterian pastor). Mr. Rogers said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” Everywhere we look we are given the bad news. It’s because bad news sells. But if you sift through that bad news, you will find the helpers. You’ll find those who run towards the danger, not away from it. You’ll find those who are working hard to make the desert bloom, the irrigate the barren places, to bring healing to those who are in pain.
Here’s a concrete example: In the African American community, there’s a saying – that God will make a way out of no way. In other words, when it looks like there is no way to go forward, God will make a path. During the height of the Jim Crow laws and racial segregation in this country, African Americans worked together to make a way out of no way. They developed ways to address their needs and aspirations that fostered values of community, service, and mutual support. Prayer, music, and worship were a vital part of making that way for many people. When ways forward were closed to them because of race, they made new ways forward.
Jesus tells us that we are to love God and love our neighbor. That word love isn’t just an emotion. In Greek, it’s an active action verb. It’s another way of saying “be a helper” or “make a way out of no way.” How is God calling each of us to live that out in this day and time? It’s a question for each one of us.
Right at this very moment there are those among us who are having the very best moments of their lives. And there are those going through the worst things imaginable. Most of us are probably somewhere in the middle. God’s promise to each of us, wherever we are on this journey is that God sees us. God hears us. God restores us. And God is building a Holy Way, with whatever helpers show up, to lead us home. Some days, we are desperately in need of those holy helpers. Other days we are the helpers. AMEN.
On this, the second Sunday of Advent, we encounter John the Baptist. We find him in the wilderness, at the Jordan River, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The powerful religious leaders of his day, who were generally in conflict with one another, were united in their opposition to John (and later also to Jesus). Their curiosity, coupled with their desire to make trouble, led them to follow the people out of Jerusalem into the wilderness to see what was going on. John’s message for them is also an important message for us today: Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
This morning, we will begin by unpacking the rich symbolism and the cultural context of this passage. Then, we’ll explore what it means to bear fruit worth of repentance and how we might do that in our own lives.
The rich symbolism in our passage begins in the opening verse. We hear that John the Baptist appears in the wilderness. The wilderness was a significant place for the people of Israel. Beginning in Genesis, the wilderness was a place where people encountered God. In the story of the Exodus, the wilderness was the place where the freed Hebrew slaves wandered, with God accompanying them, for forty years! And, by the time of John the Baptist, the wilderness had become a place of resistance. People distressed by the collusion of the elites with the occupying Roman government left the seat of power in Jerusalem and fled to the wilderness. So, we encounter John proclaiming repentance in a place where God is known to show up that is also a place of resistance to power.
Next, we find symbolism in John’s attire and dining menu. Matthew tells us that John wore clothing of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. The choice of camel’s hair clothing sounds odd and uncomfortable to us – but for John, it was the clothing of the poor – it was Bedouin dress. Combined with the leather belt, this clothing also symbolized the prophet Elijah. In 2 Kings 8, Elijah is described as, “A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” And just as camel’s hair was clothing for the poor, locusts and wild honey were food of the poor. In John’s choices, we see an alignment with a beloved and revered prophet, as well as with the poor of the region.
With some understanding of the symbolism under our belts, we may begin to understand what drove the Pharisees and Sadducees to the wilderness to investigate what was going on. Together, they represented the upper and middle classes of their day. The Sadducees were aristocrats, who used their wealth and position to gain power in the Jerusalem temple system. Usually the chief priests and the high priest were Sadducees. The Pharisees tended to be from the merchant class. They also held great power. Theologically, the Pharisees and the Sadducees did not see eye-to-eye, but they found common cause in their opposition first to John the Baptist and later to Jesus. They depended on Rome for their power, and both John and Jesus threatened the status quo.
Our final symbol to explore this morning is found in what John calls these religious leaders. He addresses them as a Brood of Vipers! Let’s just say that it’s not a compliment. A viper is a type of snake. The snake is unclean in Jewish tradition, so calling them snakes would have been a big insult. But, there’s further symbolism in the use of this name. If you think back to the Garden of Eden, you may remember that it’s the snake who tempts Eve to eat the apple and share it with Adam. And, the snake does so by telling Eve lies. If you re-read the story, you’ll find that the snake’s words are full of lies and half-truths designed to get Eve to do what he wants.
To recap: We find John the Baptist, in the wilderness, behaving in ways that show solidarity with the poor, dressed like a beloved prophet, and criticizing those who abuse their power. He tells both the people who come for baptism and the leaders to repent. To the leaders he says, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
So what does John’s call mean for us today? Remember that repentance isn’t about beating on your chest, or throwing yourself to the ground, or feeling guilty. The Greek word metanoia, which we translate as repentance, simply means to turn around. When a person repents, he or she turns away from whatever draws them away from God, and turns back towards God. Or, as John Burgess says, “Repentance isn’t about guilt feelings, it’s about God’s power to transform us into Christ’s image.”
What does it mean to bear fruit worthy of repentance? Beginning with the prophets, the word fruit began to be used to describe the end result of behavior:
In Advent, as we prepare for the coming of the Christ, we are also called to bear fruit worthy of repentance. We are called to allow God to transform us into Christ’s image, and to have our fruit – the end results of our behavior – demonstrate that transformation.
I read a story this week about two families in Florida. One family was a newly arrived Syrian refugee family. The other was an American family of four. While walking on the beach, the American mom and dad encountered two of the children in this Syrian family. The children were afraid of the water. So, the Americans began speaking with them. They used words and actions to show that the water was safe. Slowly, the children approached the water, and soon were laughing and having fun. The adult with them explained that they were refugees who had just arrived from Syria.
As they returned to their home, the American mom and dad passed the large extended Syrian family. The Syrians motioned them over and offered to share their meal. They cooked a sort of pizza using pita bread, olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, cheese and fresh mint. The Americans got ice cream for everyone, as well as some toys and shoes they’d planned to donate. The mom said, “It was the most remarkable night of my life.” Another night the families again encountered one another on the beach and another meal was shared. This time, the American’s children were with them and all the kids played together.
The American dad said that these encounters opened his mind to what is happening with refugees, and that he now felt ashamed that he ever thought refugees should be turned away.
What are the fruits of repentance in this story? Love. Openness to the other. And a willingness to examine long held beliefs and change them when faced with new evidence.
Maybe your issue isn't refugees. I don't know what areas in your heart God is trying to soften. I know what those areas are in my own heart. And, I know that God is calling each of us to bear fruit worthy of repentance. It’s not about guilt. It’s about being open and allowing Christ to transform our lives.
Scripture: Matthew 24:36-44,
Today, we celebrate our Stewardship Sunday and the first Sunday in Advent – and we mark the beginning of a new year in our church calendar. There are several ways you’ll notice our liturgical change. The hangings are now purple. The hymns are different. And, we move to a new Gospel this week. After hearing mostly from Luke since last Advent, we now enter Lectionary Year A, where we’ll hear primarily from Matthew.
We’ll have a better understand of the themes, the hymns, and the readings during this Advent season, if we start this morning with a bit of an Advent introduction. The word Advent means coming and we mark the season of Advent on the four Sundays before Christmas, as we await the coming of the Christ Child. Our work during the season of Advent, is to prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of Christ. We do this preparation as we anticipate his coming into the world.
Many theologians describe our current time as the time “between the ages.” Our present age is marked by sin, idolatry, exploitation, injustice, conflict between humans and nature, violence, and death. The coming age, also known as the Kingdom of God, will be marked by authentic worship, forgiveness, mutual support, heath, peace between humans and nature, and eternal life.
This morning, we hear Jesus calling on his followers to be awake and engaged. Biblical scholar Warren Carter says that the issue is not that we might miss the return of Jesus. That will be evident to all. “Rather, the point concerns not being distracted or diverted from God’s purposes, but living faithfully for this goal.”
As followers of Jesus, we are called to live faithfully for the goals of the coming age, the kingdom of God. We are called to stand against what is broken about our present age. Things like injustice, oppression, and environmental degradation. And, we are to lived lives marked by authentic worship, mutual support, forgiveness, health, and eternal life.
Another way of saying this is that we are to be awake to the problems of this current age, and engaged in solutions that help to bring about the coming Kingdom of God.
What does that mean in practical terms? Let me give you some real life examples.
My friend Rocky is a personal trainer. She does her work primarily in senior living communities. She also spends time working with people who are ill, helping them to get more physically fit, in order to live longer and healthier lives. Rocky is an active member of her church. She plays her flute in church each week and sings in the choir. One of Rocky’s close friends at church is a lady named June. For over a year, Rocky has been visiting June several times per week, and bringing a puzzle for them to do. I know that Rocky’s presence has helped June to feel less lonely, especially since she moved to a nursing home.
I have another friend named Arthur – he’s an immigrant to this country from Nigeria, and he’s a pharmacist. After years of working for a corporate pharmacy, Arthur decided to open his own shop. He lives in a pretty affluent community and could certainly have opened his shop there. Instead, he opened his shop an hour from home in a community I would describe as a healthcare desert. Arthur saw that people in parts of Vallejo lacked access to healthcare and medication and chose to place his shop in that community.
My final example comes from our eight-year-old granddaughter Lily. For as long as I’ve known Lily, she’s had a heart for animals. These days, she’s most concerned about the plight of the dolphins. Earlier this year, she baked cupcakes and raised $100 to send to an organization that protects dolphins. And she’s let us know that for Christmas, she wants a membership in this same organization. Our other grandkids asked for Legos!
There’s a word that young adults and others who concerned about issues of racism and social justice, are using these days, and that word is woke. It’s a play on the past tense of wake. These seekers after justice are challenging one another to stay woke or to be aware. I would describe Rocky and Arthur and Lily as woke. They are woke to needs in the world – and are engaged in responding to those needs.
The work of the first Advent has not yet been completed – and as we await the day of Christ’s return, we are called to stay woke and to be engaged with the world. We are called to live the values of the Kingdom of God, until Christ returns.
As I reflected on this reading in light of Stewardship Sunday, it seemed quite appropriate. St. Mary’s is the place where we each come to be inspired. We enter this place each week to worship God, to be moved by the Spirit, the hear the Good News proclaimed and to stay woke!
St. Mary’s enables us to be the people that God calls us to be. This church serves as a conduit for us to act to bring about the values of God’s new age to come. We give a portion of our time, talent and treasure to make that happen. In just a few moments, we will have our offering – and at that time, I will invite you to place your pledge card into the offering plate as a sign of your commitment to come together to do the work God has called us to do as we await Christ’s return.
We left town last Sunday after church, so I was not able to post last Sunday's sermon right away. Glad to have a chance to make it live ahead of this coming Sunday!
Scripture text: Luke 23:33-43
Today, on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. We’ll begin by looking at the Feast itself - its origin and history. Then, we’ll move to Scripture, in order to answer the question “What sort of king is Jesus?” Finally, as always, we’ll explore what it means for us that Christ is King.
The Feast of Christ the King is one of the newest feasts in our Christian calendar. Pope Pius XI began writing at length about Jesus Christ as King in the aftermath of World War I. Pius deplored the rise of class divisions and unbridled nationalism. Looking at the chaos and destruction that followed that war, he became convinced that individuals must allow Jesus to reign over their whole lives - their minds, wills, hearts, and bodies. (Adapted from Ubi arcano Dei consilio, 1922 and Quas Primas, 1925) Pius XI officially named a Feast of Christ the King in 1925. It was moved to its current location in the liturgical calendar, and is now celebrated in many denominations around the world, including many Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist and Moravian churches. The Feast of Christ the King invites Christians to re-order our lives according the the teachings and values of Christ and his Kingdom.
Let’s turn to scripture to learn more about Christ the King. If Christ is truly king over all, then Christ must have a kingdom. What does this kingdom look like? In Luke’s Gospel alone, the image of the kingdom of God appears 43 different times! It’s most often linked to justice for the oppressed, help for the poor, and food for the hungry. When Jesus acts on behalf of the oppressed, the poor and the hungry, He says, “The Kingdom of God has come near.” In another place in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus describes the Kingdom of God as belonging to little children. He also says that it’s like bread dough that is mixed with yeast so that it rises. The Kingdom of God is active and transformative.
This morning’s Gospel passage, designated for Christ the King Sunday in our Lectionary Year C, presents us with a shocking image of Christ as King. Today, we encounter Jesus on the cross. He has been stripped of all he has, tortured, humiliated, and he is being executed at the hands of the Roman government. We often think of rulers and leaders as having power and prestige. Many rulers and leaders behave with great entitlement. The crucifixion of Christ is the opposite of power, prestige, and entitlement. Instead, we see Christ the King yielding. We see him behaving with humility and lowliness. We see him suffering without complaint. These are the ways that Christ is King.
Finally, in his first letter to Timothy, St. Paul describes Christ as “King of King and Lord of Lords.” This is Paul’s way of saying that Christ rules, as King, over every person on earth. Even other kings. Even people with power and prestige. Even the Roman Emperor. Roman leaders crucified Jesus. At the time that Paul was writing, the Romans were continuing their persecution of Christians. Rome would eventually put Paul to death. No matter how difficult things are, Christ and his values are the “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”
Now that we have a greater understanding of the purpose of this Feast Day, and we have some understanding of how Christ is King, what does that mean for us?
The examples of the Kingdom of God from Luke’s Gospel speak to our core values. We know that the Kingdom of God is among us when the oppressed receive justice. We know that the Kingdom of God is among us when the hungry are fed. These are the same values that spoke to Pope Pius in the aftermath of World War I. In response to the death and destruction brought about by that horrific World War, he called on Christians to align their lives with the values of the Kingdom of God. When we work in Christ’s name on behalf of those who are in need, we are honoring Christ as King and his Kingdom.
When we turn to this morning’s reading about the crucifixion, it could be easy to say that this story does not speak to us. We aren’t leaders and rulers. At this moment in time, none of us is facing capital punishment. But, speaking for myself, there are certainly times when I am in danger of taking advantage the power and prestige that I have been given. There are times when my sense of entitlement gets in the way, and prevents me from behaving according to the values of the Kingdom of God. When we live into the values of God’s Kingdom, our lives are characterized by the words that describe Jesus on the cross - yielding, humble, lowly.
Finally, turing back to Pope Pius, this Feast Day provides us with guidance about how we should order our lives. Pius wrote, “Not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire.” And Pius goes on to say that all of our lives - our minds, our will, our hearts, and our bodies - are to be wholly subject to Christ. Being subject to something or someone is difficult for Americans. In November of 2010, David and I were on our honeymoon in England. On Christ the King Sunday, we were with our friend Rod, who is an Anglican priest. He preached a great sermon. At lunch after church, Rod said to us, “You Yanks don’t do well with Christ the King - you aren’t used to having Kings.” We laughed - and realized that Rod was totally right. We don’t like being told what to do. There’s a strong strain of individualism among us. We take pride in being our own people. As Christians, we give up some of that privilege. A collect in our prayer book says it this way, “ By his grace we are able to triumph over every evil and to live no longer for ourselves alone, but for him who died for us and rose again.” That’s what it means for us to be subject to Christ the King.
Friends, we need Christ the King. We are invited to place ourselves - our hearts and minds and souls and bodies - under Christ the King. We are invited to allow Christ to shape our values. We are invited to ask Christ for the grace to be yielding and humble when those traits are needed. Our world needs the values of the Kingdom of God. And we are called to be the bearers of God’s Kingdom in this age.