Monday, December 16, 2013

John the Pointer - a sermon for Advent 3, 2013

Today is Gaudete Sunday. The name comes from the first words of the traditional Entrance Antiphon – “Rejoice: the Lord is nigh.” It is the Sunday on which we light the rose candles and today the deacon and I are wearing our rose-colored vestments, the ancient color emphasizing joy. Today as Christmas draws near, the Church emphasizes the joy in our hearts at what the birth of the Savior means for the world. The great joy of Christians is the twofold coming: the first coming in Bethlehem, God-become-man, born of Mary and the second coming in glory when his kingdom is fulfilled. The oft-repeated chorus of “Veni” (“come”) during this season echoes the prophet and establishes our desire, found also at the conclusion of the Apocalypse of John: “Come, Lord Jesus!”
But not just Gaudete Sunday, today is also known colloquially in England and Wales as “Stir Up Sunday.”  
As cooks all over England heard these words from the collect, it would remind them that they needed to hurry home – after the service, of course – to mix their batters. They needed to go home to “stir up” the batters of plum pudding and fruitcake that had been fermenting now for so many weeks. The traditional English batter would be settling in, condensing and otherwise thickening. It needed to be “stirred up” so that it could finish its work.
So I once had the pleasure of taking a slow driving tour through what became my favorite county in all of Ireland. County Donegal, in Ireland’s northwest, is a fascinating place where the sheep outnumber people at least four to one. It’s a county that boasts the world champion sheep shearer and one of the only surfing communities in the north Atlantic. Friendly people, good beer, and edible food abound. But what really stuck in my head in County Donegal were two signs. One sign said simply, “This is a sign. Please follow it.” That was all. Nothing more. Clear as mud. The second sign read: “This sign belongs here. Do not move this sign.”
Well, these signs are a bit comical and mostly because they have no real purpose. They don’t point beyond themselves to something else. They have no meaning.
John the Baptist lies deep in Herod’s prison. He is, no doubt, aware of his coming execution. Perhaps he is beginning to doubt. Does he perhaps wonder if he got it right. John was not the sort to hold back. John would never have been short of an incendiary sermons, a relentless judgment of the oppressor, and good-old-fashioned proclamation of the coming wrath of God.
But John was also always a signpost. He was also one to be pointing to the one far greater than himself – the one who was to come after him – the Messiah. If you look at ancient and medieval icons of John the Baptizer, he is usually portrayed with his index finger raised, pointing away from himself, toward Christ.
So as John sat in the depths of his dark prison, what he had heard of Jesus confused him. This Jesus wasn’t what he had expected. Jesus’ message didn’t conform to the message of repentance and wrath that lay at the heart of the prophecy of old. So he sent his disciples to Jesus. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus’ response is plain. “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.” In other words, Jesus is telling the John’s disciples to go back to John and tell him that they have seen the signs foretold by Isaiah. These are the signs of the “year of Jubilee” – the inauguration of the kingdom of God.
Perhaps what John has forgotten for the moment, are the different roles to be played by him and Jesus. John, we are told, is the greatest born of woman. But even the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptizer.  
You see, John is the hinge on the door. John is keeper at the gate. John is the doorman who opens the door and ushers the rest of us through. John points the way to life more glorious than what we have yet dared to expect or imagine.
John was there to thrust open the gate – to burst open the door. John was there to usher us to Jesus – to make straight the way for the Lord. John is there to show us the possibility of new life, transformed life. Not just a return to the “good old days,” but as St. Paul declares, “Glory to God whose power working in us will do infinitely more than we could ask or imagine!” It’s a brand new life that John is pointing to in Jesus.
We are so busy very busy these last days of Advent. We are setting out decorations, wrapping presents, and going to parties. All wonderful things so long as we aren’t distracted from the profound wonder of what God is birthing among us. Indeed, John points to a world transformed, the very advent of the Kingdom of God.
Isaiah’s vision is of a barren desert rejoicing and blossoming with abundance. Weak hands are strengthened; fearful hearts are given hope; waters break forth to create flowing streams in the desert. The way home through the desert is made new into a broad and straight highway.
How much do we dare hope about the gift being given us this Advent and Christmas? Are we looking for the best of what we’ve experienced before, or dare we look for more?
John the Baptizer stands among us still, pointing toward a transformative future. The great challenge facing us today is join John the Baptizer, offering our church and our world a fresh visions of a renewed and transformed world.  The Kingdom of God drawn near to all of God’s children and all of God’s creation. It is our job to point it out.
The Kingdom of God revealed in Jesus the Christ is different. It is far more than we could have even imagined. May we awaken Christmas morning to the joy of opening up that gift of life –  unexpected and more than we had dared even ask for. And thereby, through our life together, that same gift will be given not to us alone, but to the whole world.
that’s the kind of “stirring up” we can all use!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

God still comes. Christ is born. - a sermon for Advent 2, 2013

As young children, the task of setting up the family’s creche would often fall to my brother and I. I remember carefully arranging Mary and Joseph in the manger and setting out the sheep and the cow. My brother would hide the baby Jesus somewhere memorable and then he’d move it – everyday so that I couldn’t find it. I’d set the shepherd and the three kings off at a distance from the whole scene, moving them just a little closer as the days passed. Now the task of setting the creche has fallen to my own children who do it with as much care as I did. But it takes them quite a bit longer. Indeed, our creche at home has expanded from the traditional Mary, Joseph, a shepherd, and some kings to include quite a few characters I’m pretty sure aren’t in the story – at least in the one told by Luke and Matthew. Yes, my most generous mother-in-law adds to the scene every year on my wife’s birthday. So now we have the woman at the well, the boy playing his flute, and an oasis. The kings acquired some camels and the shepherds were hard-pressed to tend a flock of just one sheep and one goat. Then there are the chickens, the dog, and the cats. The tabletop on which the figures stood grew to small so now the scene is set atop the piano.
It’s quite the scene and well worth the investment of time to set up. It really does tell a grand story. However, when we examine the biblical story as told to us by Matthew and Luke the scene described is fairly plain and somewhat empty. There really aren’t that many folks around. Today we invited you to bring your babies Jesus from your home nativity scenes for a blessing. We’ll do that in just a few minutes. I’d like to take just a few moments to now to look briefly at the characters that are found in the stories of Matthew and Luke. Who are they? What are they doing just prior to and at the birth of Jesus?
Let’s start with the obvious. After reconciling over Mary’s unplanned pregnancy, being reassured by the Holy Spirit through the Angel Gabriel, Joseph and Mary are wed. They have to travel, almost immediately, to Bethlehem from their home in Nazareth in order to register for the census. When they arrive in Bethlehem, Mary can tell that it is almost time for her to give birth.  They are in an unfamiliar place with no family ties and no friends to stay with. And of course, there is no room at the inn.  They end up in a stable out back.
In both gospel stories, we hear very little about the birth itself. It just happens as all mothers will attest is how it goes (J LOL). We hear that angels are off putting on concerts for shepherds and that a star has appeared in the sky to guide some wise men from the east. But we aren’t told of any angels coming to visit Mary and Joseph to reassure them and to guide them at this most anxious moment.
Mary and Joseph are often held up as paeans of trust and acceptance. Mary’s “Yes” to God and Joseph’s obedience are indeed models of faithful servanthood. When Joseph awoke from his dream, he “did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.” And Mary’s simple response to Gabriel revelation was “Let it be with me according to your word.” Both Joseph and Mary show tremendous courage and deep faith.
But I can’t help but wonder if on that night – that night they wondered into Bethlehem as strangers with no place to go except the home of an old cow (at least according to my childhood creche), as Mary and Joseph awaited the child’s arrival, did they start to have some misgivings. Mary is preparing for the birth of her first child. And Joseph has a new wife and a coming child to look after. This must surely have been anxiety producing enough without also having to worry about a roof over their heads, food to eat, and strangers coming to visit. And who will they call if something goes wrong?
If Mary and Joseph were at all human, they must surely have had some doubts, some fears, some misgivings. At the very least, they must surely have wondered how all this is going to work out. But Christ was coming into the world whether they were ready or not.
What about other characters in the story? Where were they? What were they up to? The innkeeper is a much maligned character but I think he was probably just a pragmatist.  A pregnant couple shows up on his doorstep. There are already too many folks spending the night. But he comes up with the best solution he can on this busy night of the census. “I’ll let them use the stable. It’s easier for me and it bothers no one except perhaps the old cow. At least it’s a roof and out of the wind. Surely she won’t give birth tonight.”
The shepherds are generally unaware of what’s happening in town. They have been out with the flocks for weeks, fending of wolves, herding the lazy sheep, rounding up the few that wandered away, and fighting of the cold night air. And then they are visited, not just by one angel, but by a whole multitude of the heavenly host who bring them “good news of great joy for all the people. “A little dramatic to tell us we can go home,” they might have thought. But they listen to the announcement that a savior has been born – the long expected Messiah, the Lord. They have to go see for themselves. And so they go. They hear the promise and they search it out, not resting until they have seen the child. These strangers with their sheep show up at the birth. What must Mary have thought. And did Joseph try to keep them away.
The magi show up a few days later bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Led by a star, they came from great distances to pay the baby homage and to lay a treasure at his feet. Did Mary know that her son would be priest and king? What must she thought of the myrrh – an oil to embalm the dead? 
So we’ve got Mary and Joseph, an innkeeper, some shepherds, some magi, and, perhaps, one temporarily homeless old cow. These folks lived so long ago. What can we take away from their stories? How does that night connect to our Christmas night?
Well, from the start Mary shows us that it takes only one person’s “Yes” to create a space for God in this world. Mary says “Yes,” and suddenly there’s a possibility where there wasn’t before.
And then, even for those who aren’t so sure: God still comes. Christ is born.
The shepherds were just minding their own business but when they heard they went. The shepherds were willing to heed the proclamation and suddenly there was possibility where there wasn’t before.
And then, even for those who aren’t so sure: God still comes. Christ is born.
The magi were in the east and saw with clear eyes the coming star. They saw because they were ready to see. And when they saw they went on a journey and suddenly there was possibility where there wasn’t before.
And then, even for those who aren’t so sure: God still comes. Christ is born.
The innkeeper was to full of too full of customers. Maybe he offered the best he had but he seems rushed to me. There is always possibility to see and find those who are looking for mercy on an uncertain night.
And then, even for those who aren’t so sure: God still comes. Christ is born.
Christ is born in the midst of the lost and the rejected. Christ is born in the midst of the poor and the lonely. Christ is born in the midst of the wandering foreigner and the distracted businessman.
Christ was born to those who had no family and friends to stay with – who couldn’t find room at the inn. They’re in the stable out back. And then, even for those who aren’t so sure: God still comes. Christ is born.
Joseph and Mary don’t quite have things sorted out. The innkeeper is woefully ill informed about the arrival of the son of God. The shepherds don’t even have time to bathe and the magi were twelve days late. But God still comes. Christ is born.
Do we see ourselves in any these characters? Are we Mary, who is ready and willing to embrace all that God has planned, though maybe not just yet? Are we Joseph, with our own misgivings, but trying to be supportive for a spouse or other loved one who has a sense of God’s plan? Are we the shepherds, awaiting for the dramatic – choirs of angels to point the way and announce his birth? Are we the magi, still some ways off but making our way the best we can? Are we the innkeeper who is too busy with appointments or errands or commitments to be bothered by the poor, young pregnant couple in our midst. Or are we someone else tonight?
Whoever we are, God still comes. Christ is born.
And that, I think, is the fundamental lesson of Christmastide: Christ is born. Christ comes in the innkeeper’s back yard, in the cow’s stable, in the territory ruled by the oppressor. Christ comes in the midst of our work though we might not know it apart from an angelic proclamation. Christ comes, in spite of Mary’s and Joseph’s anxieties and misgivings. Christ comes in spite of our anxieties and misgivings. No matter who we are in this story, Christ comes.
Christ comes and is born among us.  The Word, present at creation of is cradled in a mother’s arms. Christ comes and sleeps and cries.  That is what we celebrate with carols and pageants. That is what we celebrate with presents and cookies. Christ comes!  Christ comes and shows how ordinary lives can be made holy. Christ comes and works our lives into his unfolding story of redemption. Christ comes as a child, born under a star, the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Christ comes.

Let Us Go to the Mountain of the Lord - a sermon for Advent 1, 2013

Off the coast of Italy, there is an island called Ponza. Though one might depart from a number of ports, the only way to get to the island is by boat – either ferry or hydrofoil. My friend and I decided to go to the island one weekend – just for a little adventure. We left from Anzio via hydrofoil which was a ninety minute trip, if I remember correctly. The morning that my friend and I went to Ponza the sea was like a sheet of glass and the cloud-dotted sky produced a very light breeze. It was smooth sailing, making for a very pleasant beginning to our adventure. We soaked in the sun, the breeze, and the salt air.
We had a very pleasant visit to the island. Hiking the island form end to end, exploring caves by the sea, and eating some wonderful local cuisine and drinking some magnificent wine.
When we were leaving the island three days later, however, the weather had changed. Where there was once no wind, a blustery, hurling, frothy wind now blew. Where there was once a sheet of glass, there were now white-capped waves. "È il traghetto ancora in corso?” (“Is the ferry still going?") I asked the pilot. "Si, se certo, questo è niente,” (“Oh yes, this is nothing.) he said with a chuckle. 
We held up remarkably well, my friend and I – for about 15 minutes. But before long, the pits of our stomachs swelled and our lips began to pray. The pilot took one look at my friend, saw his color, and said in simple English, "Sit down, look at the shore. Focus on it."
And so we did. And there was, far away on the rocky shore of the mainland, one point that was higher than all the others. It was a peak upon which stood a large white house. More like a compound, that’s where I focused. My friend would admit that he focused on a building closer to the marina, imagining it be a café with perhaps a little something to settle his stomach. After a few minutes, my stomach did begin to calm and my head cleared. "We’re going to make it," my friend said with new assurance. And so we did!
Isaiah lived was a choppy and chaotic world, where injustice reigned and wars ensued. Israel was a nation tossed about the storm, threatened by the powerful Assyrians to the north and menaced by the Egyptians to the south. The king and his advisors were occupied with what they needed to do to protect themselves. Events were getting out of their control.  Fear was running rampant.
Human life began to be qualified solely on the basis of wealth and material possessions. A harsh wind was blowing and the waters were being stirred. People began to sink. The neediest of the needy – the orphan and widow – were neglected. And many people just didn't seem to care. "I might as well just go with the current,” they thought. “That's just the way it is...always has been...always will be. Nothing I can do about it."
And others concentrated on building bigger and stronger armies to fight the might of Assyria or to quell the flexing of Egypt.
But out of that turmoil – out of that storm-tossed world – there was a voice that cried out. There was a voice that stood out as a voice of God's own voice which bore the vision of God's own vision. To the world that was warring and killing and groping and sinking in the angry sea, the voice of Isaiah rose up. And that voice would call out:
"Come, let us go to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”
Isaiah called out, giving Israel that place to look: Focus there. Focus your eyes upon the mountain of the house of the Lord...that is your shore.
Now, here is the question: Was Isaiah just being a foolhardy idealist? Was Isaiah just an impractical, other-worldly thinker? Or, was Isaiah’s vision a vision of real possibility and did Isaiah’s vision penetrate deeply into the reality of God?
Isaiah was no grinning Pollyanna. He knew Israel was in the midst of a difficult time. He knew suffering was real. He knew that walking in the sight of the mountain of the house of the Lord would be a test of faith and practice of hope. He knew it might be hard.
But Isaiah had a vision. It was the same vision, if you really get into it, that God had given Israel time and time again – with Noah, with Sarah & Abraham, with Moses, with Deborah, with Judith, with Samuel & David. Israel should have had this vision and maybe they did. But the thing that separated him from the others was that he actually believed in it. Isaiah believed in the vision. Isaiah – like the prophets of old – believed in the vision that we must “walk in the light of the Lord.” Isaiah believed in the vision the sickness which overcomes us – the sickness of sin that draws us toward the myriad of our violent insecurities must be stopped!
Our future has always depended upon that remnant of people fixing their hearts, minds and souls on an alternative vision...on a landmark established by God. We are reminded of that vision in Nelson Mandela, who have our prayers as he lies near death in South Africa. Mandela had a vision of a people of great and wonderful and magnificent diversity living in equality and peace. He had a vision where justice reigned and peace lived. Others have had that vision – Gandhi, Thic Nhat Hanh, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  
And without that vision, the prophet says, the people perish.
But it’s important to remember that Isaiah wasn’t simply pointing to the future. He was envisioning the possible. But, the possible is possible NOW. Isaiah, more than pointing to some future day, was speaking about the present.
Did you notice how he began this prophecy? "In days to come," reads our NRSV translation. "In days to come..." But the literal Hebrew seems a bit more nuanced so that we might read "in the back of the days" or "in the midst of days."  Isaiah is suggesting that it is not the future’s promise nor the future’s place. Indeed, it is the present moment that is ripe. Or to use an appropriate Advent term, it is the present moment that is pregnant with God's justice and peace.
Now, I hope that it doesn't surprise any of you who are listening but I've never been pregnant. I remember, however, talking with a pregnant woman not too long ago about the first time she felt movement in her womb. “It was subtle, almost imperceptible,” she said. So subtle, in fact, that she almost missed it. So she tried to be very still and very quiet so that she might be sensitive to the hidden reality inside of her.
The prophet's gift is not to see magically into the future. No, the prophet’s true gift is in discerning the mystery of the present. And that mystery is our history and our present. The day when people "shall beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks" is nearer than we can imagine!
Do you believe that? Or is the prophet just a wild-eyed, dreamy, impractical  idealist? Jesus surely believed it. In fact, he staked his very life on it. That is the question before us this Advent season: Can we watch, be ready, and claim this vision? Can we move towards this vision, now, in the midst of the present? 
On this first Sunday in Advent, the prophet Isaiah tells us of God’s beautiful vision set before us. Along the way to living the vision, though, we have broken some things: trust, hope, joy, unconditional love, forgiveness. Sometimes we did it intentionally and sometimes we did not. But some of our relationships have been broken…in our families, our churches, our communities, our nation, and our world. And we can make it right again. It matters that we acknowledge, not only our sin, but also that we can begin to bring healing again where brokenness lies. This is what Advent is about: bringing healing and wholeness to a broken world.
If we believe the words of the prophet, then we hope for, watch for, prepare for, and work for work for God's kingdom of justice, love and peace right in the midst of time – our own time, now.
And we just might make it! For it's closer than you think.
Let us pray:  O come, O come Emmanuel. Come into our lives this Advent, a season of deep  longing for what we have learned to call the Day of our Lord – the day when you come with love and power and justice and mercy – the day when we stand up and become all that you have created us to be. So come to us, Emmanuel, in this season and on this day. May it be the day when swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. May it be the day when cold hearts melt and relationships are made whole. May it be the day when the hungry are fed, the thirsty given drink, the naked clothed, the prisoners visited, the sick comforted, and foreigner welcomed. May it be the day when there is peace. In the name of the Prince of Peace we pray.  Amen.