Sunday, December 31, 2017
Wednesday, December 27, 2017
I have four children. The oldest is ten, and the youngest is two. I vaguely remember how excited I was when my first child was born, when she rolled over, when she crawled, when she babbled, when she took that first step, when she went to preschool, and when she lost her first tooth. I don't remember sharing any of those moments on Facebook, but I do remember being filled to the brim and overflowing with love and gratitude and excitement that my child was going through all of those things.
Of course, my two-year-old has had none of that. Sure, there are moments of celebration, but, when you're the fourth one to take that first step, you'd probably be thankful if both parents even noticed. Because it's been ten years since my first child went through all of that, I tend to roll my eyes when I see others posting exuberant videos on social media of their children's first everythings, but I understand where that joy comes from. I have known that joy. I still remember that joy. Secretly, I still harbor that joy at each of my children's moments even if I don't broadcast them to the world.
On Sunday, when we hear the words of Isaiah the poet-prophet, we hear words of rejoicing that cannot be contained:
In the Episcopal Church, we read the same lessons every year on the First Sunday after Christmas Day, which means this song of Isaiah is always sung during Christmas. Although the prophet had no idea about Jesus, about the Incarnation, about the birth of a savior-messiah in Bethlehem, or about the redemptive sacrifice that the Son of God would endure on the cross, these words of uncontainable joy are appropriate for us to sing at Christmas.I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
When God sent God's Son to be born of a virgin and to take our human nature upon himself, all of creation exulted in God because God has clothed us in the garments of salvation. Although experienced in a different age and through a different medium, the prophet knows what it means for the whole earth to celebrate God's deliverance: "For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations." The prophet can say without hesitation or equivocation that God's distressed-but-now-rescued people will be "a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord." These are the words of a prophet who cannot contain his celebration. Are they our words?
Christmas has come once more. Presents have been opened. Churches have been decorated and undecorated. School is still on holiday, and parents are becoming exasperated with the round-the-clock attention that their children require. But are we sill singing with the joy of the Incarnation? Are we still in touch with the salvation that God has brought to the earth in the birth of God's Son?
Let these words ring out in our churches and in our hearts this Sunday. Let them be our own uncontainable joy. Jesus is born! Salvation has come! May we shine with that light to the ends of the earth!
Tuesday, December 26, 2017
Our church's offices are closed again today, as they are every year, as we all recover from the Christmas sprint. This year, this break seems particularly important as we had the fullness of a Sunday morning plus Christmas Eve and then another service on Christmas Day all in a row. I'm discovering for the first time in eleven years that a Christmas Eve on a Sunday isn't as hard as I expected it to be. It's kind of nice to have all of that push at once instead of splitting up the week. But now it's time to prepare for a sermon for this coming Sunday, and I find that I have a bit of an incarnation hangover for which the hair of the dog might be the only cure.
This year, we all had to work hard to keep Advent as Advent and transform the church and our hearts into Christmas in between the morning services and the evening celebrations. Because of that--because of that intentional delay--it was easy to over-indulge on Christmas when it got here. The "Merry Christmas"es that were exchanged at church Sunday evening felt particularly celebratory, and the joy of that night seemed as splendid as ever. Because I'd been denying myself (and my poor family) the Feast of the Nativity for so long, we all dove in head first. I've woken up today, the second day of Christmas, to sort everything out. Is it really Tuesday? Who's having surgery today? Who needs a hospital visit? And am I really preaching on John 1 this Sunday? Another incarnation sermon?
As I read John 1 this morning and wonder what in the world a sermon might look like this week, I am drawn to the transition between verses 13 and 14: "And the Word became flesh and lived among us..." Up until that point, the Word was described with words like light and life. The light was coming into the world and John the Baptizer was sent to proclaim the coming of that light and the world did not know him, but still the Word was light and life--not flesh. Then, all of the sudden, in verse 14, the Word becomes flesh and yet still we see the glory--the light--within it. I love how John gives us two glances at the incarnation--the light that was coming into the world and the flesh that the Word became.
I'm not ready yet, and that's ok because I have a few more days to think and pray and study a super-familiar text. Unfortunately, it's a short week, and I'm still a little stunned from the last few days. I'm going to sip on this gospel text slowly and trust that in time things will begin to come into focus.
Monday, December 25, 2017
Thursday, December 21, 2017
In Sunday's short epistle lesson from Romans 16, Paul uses an interesting phrase that seems to fold together his entire letter. What does Paul mean by "obedience of faith?" How does this relate to his theology of justification? How is this different from obedience to the law? From slavery to sin?
Sunday's reading is from the end of Romans. The phrase "obedience of faith" is from 16:26--the penultimate verse in the entire letter. But this isn't the first time Paul has used it. Back in the first chapter, Paul opens his letter with these same words as he defines his calling and ministry: "Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ...through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name." In other words, if you asked Paul what his job was, he might very well say, "My job is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ to bring about the obedience of faith among the Gentiles."
In my preaching, I don't talk a lot about obedience. It's a turn-off word. Like a light switch, it turns off my attention because it quenches all my hope. Obedience? I know that I'm supposed to be a better priest, a better husband, a better father, a better disciple of Jesus. Obedience is the reality that I'm supposed to maintain but can't. Anytime someone talks about obedience, I think about an overbearing parent or a strict teacher or a guilt-dispensing preacher. But this is Paul. This is Romans. This is justification by faith. This is grace over law. This is hope for the hopeless. Where is the hope in this obedience?
Obedience of faith is a different sort of obedience. As the rest of Romans makes clear, this is an obedience that parallels the obedience to which Israel was invited through the Law, but faith opens up a new means for fulfillment. First comes justification. Jesus is the faithful one, and faith in his victory over sin and death imputes to the faithful the justification (made-right-ness) that means we belong to God. When we have faith like Abraham and faith like Jesus, we are given right-standing before God. Then the fruit of that righteousness is manifest in the lives of the faithful. We remain obedient through faithfulness. It is faith that enables obedience. We become slaves to righteousness. We are shaped, remade, rebranded by the right-standing that we have been given so that our lives reflect that obedience. I like to think that Paul's readers in Rome saw that complex phrase in his opening lines and spent the rest of Romans learning what it means. By the end, they were able to say with joy, "The gospel has given us obedience of faith."
So what does that mean for us? It means when I recognize that I could be a better priest, better father, better husband, and better disciple of Jesus, the answer isn't to try harder but believe more fully. I must believe that God has the power to make me perfect in his sight and that that power comes not from within me but from Jesus' victory over my faults--my sin. Believing in that--staying grounded in that faith--is what evokes obedience. I am obedient when I am faithful. My job is to believe in God's transformational grace and let that faith shape my every moment, my every decision, my every word, my every thought.
Wednesday, December 20, 2017
On Sunday morning, we will read from 2 Samuel 7 and will hear King David ask the prophet Nathan whether it is time to build a house for the Lord: "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent." Nathan understood what David is hinting at, and he confirmed for the king that his plan was a good one: "Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you." But, that night, the Lord appeared to Nathan and told him to reverse course: "Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?"
It made perfect sense that David would build a temple for Yahweh. God had given David and the people of Israel security and prosperity. The place of worship, the place where Yahweh dwelt, however, was still in a tent. I don't know about you, but I like living in a tent for one night. I've never been on one of those fancy safaris, on which "tent" means "palace with canvas walls," so I might change my mind and stay for three nights in one of those, but I like living in a house with real, solid walls. And, if King David is going to live in a palace with cedar paneling, it makes sense that God would live in a similar abode.
But God isn't ready to move into a house yet. Instead, God uses this gesture by the king to double down on his investment in David: "I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth...Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever." This promise of a "house" doesn't mean a palace in which the king will live but a house--a dynasty--that will persist forever. God tells Nathan to tell David that his lineage will rule on the throne forever.
Of course, it doesn't. Solomon screws up, marries lots of foreign woman, and, in his old age, begins to worship foreign gods. As a result, God rips the kingdom from him and gives ten twelfths of it (all but the tribes of Benjamin and Judah) to another king. The monarchy is divided. Eventually, both kingdoms will fall. The throne of David is defeated. There is no heir to serve as king.
But God isn't in the business of breaking promises. Part of what the angel Gabriel announces to Mary in Luke 1 is the restoration of David's line through her son, Jesus: "He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." It may have been dormant for a while, but the promise made to David is resurrected in the birth of Joseph's son, Jesus.
There's an Easter story here. Death always precedes resurrection. God's promises are always sure. As God's never-failing faithfulness overcomes the failure of David's heirs, we remember that with God nothing is lost. With God, there is always hope.
Tuesday, December 19, 2017
I don't believe in luck, but I do believe that some people are luckier than others. By that, I mean that I don't believe that random events are meaninglessly random, but I do believe that some people, through no fault of their own, are the recipients of a disproportionate number of otherwise inexplicable favorable events. And I also believe that some people are the disproportionate recipients of the "bad breaks" in life. Sure, some people "make their own luck," which is to say that people who go through life unprepared or inattentive or pessimistic are more likely to stumble their way from day to day, but I also know too many people who have endured too much hardship to think that it's as simple as cause and effect.
When it comes to people who just can't catch a break, poor people must be at the top of the list. It's hard to win the game of life when you start out with half a deck. Although there are exceptional cases when individuals break through the vicious cycle of poverty, most people who are born poor will stay poor. In this country and in most countries, the quality of education that a poor child receives is directly related to the income of her parents, and it's hard for a really smart kid to make good on those smarts when she is trapped in the worst-funded school in the county. One of my children has not been to the doctor for a sick visit in two years. That's not luck. That's access to good nutrition, good hygiene, good preventative medicine, and a stay-at-home parent, which are all things that a child in a single-parent, barely-making-it household probably doesn't have. Access to affordable health care is essential, but so is providing enough nutritious food for a growing human body to function properly.
People come into my office all the time looking for financial assistance. I presume that 99% of them are stuck in their poverty because of the choices that they have made. But they aren't choosing between turkey and ham, between Advil and Tylenol, between hiring a babysitter or taking a day off of work when their kid is sick.
They choose to be homeless because they are living with an abusive partner and have no where else to go. They choose drugs or alcohol because they don't have the mental health support to cope with a hungry baby who won't stop crying. They choose soup kitchens and disability checks and handouts because they don't have enough money to buy a car to look for and get to the job they need to turn their life around. They choose chaos because they don't know peace. They have never known peace.
And what does God say to them? In the eyes of God, you are blessed, you are loved, you are not forgotten.
Monday, December 18, 2017
Last night, my religiosity got the better of me. Having seen one too many colleagues advertise on Facebook that next Sunday they will have Christmas Eve services in both the morning and the evening, I made a cranky comment about Christmas Eve not starting until after the Fourth Sunday of Advent has finished. I wish I could tell you that it was because I wanted to honor the commitment of our Altar Guild and Flower Guild who will have to spring into action as soon as the 10:30am service is over and transform our church from the austere purple of Advent into the resplendent white of Christmas. I wish I could tell you that I was thinking of the organist and the choir, who will play and sing their usual, full Sunday-morning routine before coming back to do it all over again in the evening. In fact, the only thing I had in mind was that rules are rules, and the rules in our church say that you can't dispense with a Sunday morning's observance simply because it doesn't suit your congregation's calendar. (Just think how ridiculous your Advent wreath would have looked this year if it only had three candles in it!)
Actually, there's a better reason than my fastidious grumpiness to hold off on celebrating Christmas until it's Christmas time, but we have to travel back in time nine months to see it. This Sunday, when we observe the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we will rewind the calendar to March and hear the story of the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary and announcing to her that she would bear a son. Every year during Advent, we spend one week hearing about Jesus and the end of the world and two weeks hearing about John the Baptist and the message of repentance. Only in the fourth week do we hear anything about the nativity. And what we hear this year is actually the heart of the Christmas story. In fact, if you pay careful attention to that story, you'll discover that Jesus' birth in Bethlehem is as much an accident of what is proclaimed to Mary by the angel and again by Mary to her cousin Elizabeth in the Magnificat as it is its own moment in salvation history.
Of course, God is with us, active in our lives, all the time. But the moment when God reached down from heaven and intervened in the course of human history didn't happen in Bethlehem but nine months earlier, back in Nazareth. That's where the Christmas story is set in motion. That's where our annual celebration at the manger gets its meaning. We would never know to make the journey to the stable behind the inn where there is no room unless Mary found room in her womb for God. And our journey to Christmas loses its focus if we don't stop to hear the story of the Annunciation first.
The angel doesn't show up simply to give Mary a baby. Mary doesn't need one of those. She's not even married yet. This miracle birth is about something much bigger than a bundle of joy. It's about God reaching down and changing things from the way they have been to the way God dreams they might be. It's a reset switch. It's a reboot for human history. It's God showing up to a young woman, barely old enough to have a baby, and using that ordinary person in an ordinary circumstance with no particular claim to power to reverse the course of history.
In some congregations, the Magnificat was read/proclaimed yesterday. We've reserved it for this week since it seems to be Mary's response to what God has done for her and for the world in the Annunciation/impregnation that occurs in Sunday's gospel lesson. These are her words about what God has already done by choosing her to be the vessel through which God's salvation enters the world: "[God] has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty." This is what Christmas is supposed to be about--not presents (that belongs in Epiphany) but the reordering of power. Those who have always had it are stripped of it, and those who never imagined that they would be on the side of power find that God has aligned himself with them. Can we afford to make it to Bethlehem without first hearing this proclamation? What would Christmas be without the Annunciation?
Thursday, December 14, 2017
Yesterday, I wrote about John the Baptist's response to those who wanted to know what he had to say for himself. When asked to justify his peculiar, wilderness ministry, John replied, quoting Isaiah 40, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord.'" In other words, the Baptizer (and those who retold his story) understood his relationship with Jesus to be about preparing for the coming of the Lord and the great leveling of all things that comes with him.
It's hard to read the first lesson for Sunday from Isaiah 64 and not be reminded of another moment in the gospel when Jesus describes his own ministry. It might not be fair to borrow from Luke on a Sunday when we are reading from John, but, when Jesus picks up a scroll in the synagogue and reads these words from the prophet, he announces that they have been fulfilled in the congregation's hearing. These words proclaiming that anointed-one being is being sent to bring the good news of release and healing to God's people are the words that Jesus uses to define his ministry, which means they go hand in hand with those that John the Baptist uses for himself.
Perhaps it's fair for us to make the comparison since Isaiah used both the leveling of the rough places from chapter 40 and the lifting up of the downtrodden from chapter 64 to describe the day of the Lord. John the Baptist is laying down an eight-lane expressway through the wilderness so that Jesus the anointed-one can come speedily and bring release, recovery, and comfort to God's people. The question for us is whether that leveling means the arrival of good news or bad news.
The Lord is coming. The Lord is bringing relief to those who have suffered. The Lord will bind up those who are brokenhearted. The Lord will set free those who are imprisoned. But the leveling of the rough places means the elimination of the obstacles to that reorientation. It means the impediments (literally the "foot-obstacles") along the road are removed. Advent is about preparing for the coming of the Lord by discerning ways in which we wait for the good news and the ways in which we stand in its way.
Hear the words of Isaiah as they come into focus this season. We are not only preparing for a birth in Bethlehem but for the transformation of the world that Jesus' birth represents--a transformation that continues to take place and that reaches its fulfillment at the coming of the Lord. Are we ready for the kind of world that Isaiah envisioned? Are our expectations for the anointed-one based on God's hope for the world? Or are we pretending that God's dreams will conform to our own?
Wednesday, December 13, 2017
In the liturgical calendar debacle that is the Episcopal Church, today is officially a "nothing" day. It is Wednesday in the Second Week of Advent. Like every day in the year, it has its own readings for Morning and Evening Prayer. And, like the other days in Advent, it has its own Eucharistic lessons, too. The official liturgical calendars from the Book of Common Prayer and Lesser Feasts and Fasts, 2009 have no entry for December 13, but the unofficial calendar, Great Cloud of Witnesses, which has been approved for optional use (whatever that means), like its now-defunct predecessor Holy Women, Holy Men, reserves this day for St. Lucy or Lucia, who is often called "the bringer of light." Typically, at St. John's, we don't bother with GCoW, but I've always liked Lucy, and I wanted to remember her witness to us.
Lucy was a Christian girl from Italy who lived in in third century. Like many Christians in that time, she had to practice her faith in secret for fear that she would be tortured or killed by the Roman authorities. Also, like many of her peers who were convinced that the horrific Diocletian Persecution surely meant that the Lord's return was imminent, she wanted to remain a virgin so that she could devote not only her life but her chastity to her Lord. Unfortunately, her parents weren't interested in having a virgin for a child, and they planned for her to marry a pagan. But Lucy, empowered by the Holy Spirit, succeeded in convincing her parents to let her escape the arranged marriage and give the dowry to the poor instead. Her husband-to-be, however, was not pleased at the arrangement, and, when he learned that her Christian faith had gotten in the way of his conquest, he turned her over to the Romans. They demanded that she recant and offer a sacrifice to a pagan god, but she refused, so they ordered her to be imprisoned in a brothel where her consecrated virginity would be defiled. Yet, as legend has it, when the guards came to carry her away, she was so firmly fixed to the spot that even with a team of oxen they could not move her. So they piled up firewood and set her ablaze on the spot. And, as the legend goes, despite the flames, her body would not catch on fire, so they beheaded her with the sword on the spot. She may not have survived this life long enough to meet the Lord at his coming, but her faith enabled her to meet him in the next life.
Do we have faith like Lucy? Do we celebrate the light that has come into the world? Does our faith in Jesus become a light that draws others to the true light?
John tells us that in the incarnation "the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world." But, as we know not only from John's prologue but also from our own lives, not everyone knew him. All through John's gospel account, the question of faith persists. Who sees Jesus for who he really is? Is he recognized as the Son of God, the light that has come into the world? Do people see his "signs" as more than works of power? Do they see that those signs point us to something bigger? Right here in the beginning of his account, John lets us know that those who believe in his name are given power to become children of God. Those who see that light and believe in it are transformed. Is that us?
The feast of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ comes on December 25--just twelve days from now. When the date was set, a few centuries after Jesus' birth, no one remembered exactly what time of year Jesus was born. The Annunciation had long been fixed in March since the spring seemed like a good time to celebrate the promise of new life. Nine months later is December, which made for a happy coincidence. Plus, the pagan celebration of the winter solstice was a well-observed habit that the newly Christian Roman emperors wanted to transition from a godless festival into a celebration worthy of the Christian faith. More than that, however, by fixing Christmas near the winter solstice, we are able to see the coming of Christ as the coming of light. The days will soon be getting longer. The darkest part of winter is almost over. You may not be able to see it all at once, but, if you look carefully enough, you may notice the coming of light right around the coming of Christmas.
Lucy is one who saw the light of Christ that came into the world and invited others to see it through her life. She believed in the power of that light to shine in the dark places of life so fully that she was willing to give up her life for it. She believed that the light of Christ meant more to her future than the comforts of a pagan life. Traditionally, Christians in northern Scandinavian countries celebrate this night by dressing a young girl up in a white dress and placing a ring of candles in her hair and inviting her to process into a banquet hall. It's a sign that the light of the world is about to be here. But seeing that light isn't always easy. And it doesn't always come naturally. Will we see it?
The light of Christ has come into the world. Those who believe in his name are given the power to become children of God. Do we see that the best hope for the world and for our lives is found in the light that shines on the darkest corners of the globe and in the darkest corners of our hearts, or would we rather claim the fleeting light of our own accomplishments? Which light is illuminating our lives--the light of Christ or the light of prosperity, the light of power, the light of greed? In whom will we put our faith? In whom will we believe? Beholding the light of Christ means recognizing what God is up to all around us even now. Believing in the one who brings that light means trusting that God's future is the only true hope that we have. That means allowing the lights we are more comfortable with--those of our own creation--to dim and even be extinguished. Sometimes the light of Christ shines dimly on our path--so dimly that one can hardly see it. It can be a scary thing to put down our own light and navigate only by the light of Christ. But there is only one light that will see us through to the end.
As I prepare to preach this Sunday, I am drawn not only to this week's readings but also to the passage that John the Baptist uses to define his own ministry. In the gospel lesson, when the representatives of the religious authorities ask John who he is and what he has to say for himself, John turns to Isaiah 40: "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord.'" It will be the second week in a row in which we will hear those words from Isaiah. Last week, Mark used them to inaugurate the ministry of Jesus through the proclamation of John the Baptizer. This week, John the gospel-writer also uses them but, unlike Mark, he places them on the lips of the Baptist. And all of that leads me to think that, if I want to understand John the Baptist and his relationship with Jesus and their collective role in the season of Advent, I had better spend some time studying Isaiah 40.
In this seminal passage of scripture, God interrupts the course of Israel's history to instruct the prophet to bring words of comfort to God's people: "Comfort, comfort my people! says your God." In this moment, God's words are words of compassion: "Speak compassionately to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended, that her penalty has been paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins!" Jerusalem, the capital city of the southern kingdom, was the epicenter of the Babylonian destruction, and the torment that her people had experienced was now over. On behalf of God, the prophet announces that the Lord is near and that the time to prepare the highway through the desolate places so that God and all of God's people can return to the city of Zion is upon us: "Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God! Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened. Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain. The Lord’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together; the Lord’s mouth has commanded it."
How does John the Baptist define his ministry? What does John the Evangelist think of this moment when Jesus appears on the scene? How does Mark envision the ministry of Jesus? This is their framework. This is their reference. This is their understanding of what God is doing in Jesus and what John the Baptist is doing to prepare the spiritual landscape for it.
In many ways, the birth of Jesus fits into the gospel as preparation for this moment. Luke's telling of the Annunciation and the journey to Bethlehem and Matthew's story of the wise men coming to bear gifts are all ways of saying that God is showing up in Jesus to bring God and God's people back together. In effect, therefore, we should skip ahead and celebrate what happened in the manger as a prelude to this Sunday's story of the "real" arrival. Of course, that's a terrible idea, and I don't endorse it, but it is worth noting that this Sunday isn't about getting ready for a birth but getting ready for what that birth will enable about 30 years later. That two very different gospel writers--Mark and John--both use Isaiah 40 to inaugurate Jesus' ministry through John the Baptist suggests that the first Christians identified this prophecy as central to the work of Jesus. This is what it's all about.
Don't climb into the pulpit or slide into the pew without taking some time to live in Isaiah 40, allowing the Holy Spirit to fill you with its words of hope.