Saturday, December 25, 2021

The Christmas We Really Need


December 24, 2021 – Christmas I

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the whole service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 54:40.

How many of your packages didn’t arrive in time? In our house, we “watched” one present go from Texas to Missouri to Iowa to Tennessee before finally getting the notification that it wasn’t going to make it before Christmas. We got our hopes up when it left the facility just a few hours away from us but then were confused and ultimately disappointed as it inexplicably moved farther and farther away. You can get a degree in supply-chain management, but that wouldn’t help you get your presents on time.

For reasons other than presents, I have been looking forward to this Christmas for twenty-one months. Last year, we couldn’t gather together inside. The best we could do was encourage folks to watch the service on the livestream and then drive down to the church, line up on East Avenue, and come into this sacred space one household at a time to receive Communion before getting in their cars to go back home. It was a wonderful night, and I was so thankful to see people I hadn’t seen in months, but it wasn’t the same. So much was missing. As I drove home after the midnight mass, I just knew that this year’s celebration would be different.

Thankfully, it is. We are here together. We are singing together. We are celebrating together. But not all of us. The timing of the Omicron variant could not have been worse. Its arrival has forced some of us to stay home, stay away from church, even stay away from family and friends. Some of my colleagues in hard-hit communities have had to cancel in-person worship. We can’t help but wonder whether that will be the case for us before too long. Many of you have cancelled Christmas dinners and trips to see loved ones. A year ago, I imagined something different for us. This Christmas was supposed to be better, and it is, but it still isn’t perfect. 

In those days, Luke tells us, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. The emperor could do that whenever he wanted—could order people all over the world from one place to another in order to be counted—and there wasn’t anything Mary and Joseph could do about it. It didn’t matter that she was nine months pregnant. It didn’t matter that they would have to travel for days down seventy miles of dangerous roads to get back to Joseph’s ancestral village. It didn’t matter whether anyone living there would have room for the young, expectant couple when they arrived. Imagine what the holy couple felt when they learned of the decree and counted the weeks, knowing how far they would be from home about the time she was likely to give birth. Nine months pregnant is a terrible time for a woman to be travelling. In many ways, it was a terrible time for the Son of God to be born.

And so it was, Luke tells us, that, while they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. Literally, “the days were fulfilled.” They “were accomplished.” What a statement about timing! Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and swaddled him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger—a feeding trough—because there was no room for them in the inn. Hardly any preparations could be made. Mary and Joseph didn’t even have a room for themselves. Likely bedding down with some distant relatives, there were no usual guest accommodations for them—a concept translated for us somewhat carelessly as “room in the inn”—so they slept on the floor, down with the chickens, goats, and sheep, while the family they hardly knew slept up in a loft. 

What an inadequate way to welcome the birth of a savior—not in the palace or in the temple, not even back home where loved ones might gather to celebrate and help out, but in a one-horse town, barely a speck on the map, where hardly anyone even noticed. It wasn’t supposed to be like that. It was supposed to be different. It was supposed to be better. What kind of divine cosmic timing is that?

But God’s sense of timing has the power to disrupt our lives in wonderful ways that surprise us when we need it most. Because of the intrusion of the emperor’s decree, Mary’s child was born not in Nazareth, but in the city of David. And yet, usually when we hear about “the city of David,” we think not of Bethlehem, where the shepherd boy grew up, but of Jerusalem, where the king’s palace was located. Yet God interrupted human affairs in a way that made sure that the world received its King of Kings who is as much a faithful shepherd as a mighty ruler. 

Think also about the ones to whom the good news of this birth was first shared. Instead of announcing the savior’s arrival to close family and friends, for whom this would be a wonderful local affair, God made sure that the first to hear of it were some anonymous shepherds, strangers in the fields, whose adoration of the Christ child was as rustic and uncouth as their lifestyle. God knew this good news needed more than a small-town celebration, yet, instead of ushering in this messianic age by declaring Jesus’ birth to powers and principalities, God shared this glorious moment with the lowly and meek, who become the first to carry the message of the angels to others. Knowing what we now know about Jesus, the friend of sinners and outcasts, could the good news of Christmas have been shared in any other way?

In many ways, that first Christmas could not have come at a worse moment. It came at a time when earthly powers seemed to be in control of how history unfolded and when that control seemed to run counter to God’s perfect plans. Yet we now recognize the ways in which God made sure that the birth of Jesus could not have been more perfectly timed. This year, our Christmas celebrations have been overshadowed by the terrible timing of supply chain issues and the new Omicron variant. Just when we most needed to hug our family and friends and travel to places where life feels normal again, something largely out of our control has gotten in the way. But isn’t that exactly what the miracle of Christmas means for us? Isn’t that why the birth of our savior came about in the first place?

Christmas comes not when the world is prepared to receive it but when the world needs it most. Jesus is born not when it fits into our plans but when God knows that our sense of timing needs disrupting. And doesn’t our sense of timing need disrupting now? We need God to come and take the messiness and imperfections of our world and redeem them, and that’s exactly what happens at Christmas. In Jesus, God comes and saves those whose lives aren’t perfect, whose plans are falling apart, whose need for love and connection are most profound. In other words, at Christmas, God comes to save each one of us.

On this night, we celebrate a God who refuses to let anything stand in the way of God’s love coming to the earth. Because of Jesus, there is nothing that can prevent salvation coming into your life. No matter how messy things have gotten, no matter how delayed your hopes and dreams may feel, at Christmas God comes to you. And that’s why this Christmas is exactly what we need most.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Faith Deep Within


December 19, 2021 – Advent 4C

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio is available here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 23:50.

It is Joshua Waitzkin sympathetically offering his opponent a draw in the film Searching for Bobby Fischer because he can see that in twelve moves he will have beaten him. It is Lane Kiffin raising his arms in celebration even before his quarterback has let go of the ball because he knows that a touchdown is coming. It is Tiger Woods taking off his hat and extending his hand to the other golfer before the putt is even halfway to the hole because he knows that he has won the match.

It is the kindergarten teacher smiling as her students plant beans in plastic cups because she can already feel their delight, which will come when what has been planted begins to sprout. It is the artistic genius marveling at a lump of clay or a blank canvass because she can already see what inspiration will produce. It is the visionary who mortgages her home and puts everything at risk to invest in herself because she knows that her idea will change the world.

Some people have the ability to see what the rest of the world cannot. They know deep inside themselves not only what is possible but what is certain. They have faith in what they know to be true even if they are the only ones who know it. And that faith is enough for them to live as if that truth has already come about. Because of Jesus, God invites us to know what God has in store for our future, even and especially if the powers of this world are set against it, and in today’s gospel lesson two women—Elizabeth and Mary—show us how to believe in that future even though we cannot see it yet.

Before she set out to visit her relative Elizabeth, Mary had been visited by the angel Gabriel, who told her things too wonderful to believe. The angel declared that this unwed woman would conceive and bear a son and name him Jesus. The angel explained that this child would grow up to be great and would be called the Son of the Most High. The angel said that he would be given the throne of his ancestor David and rule over God’s people forever. And the sign that the angel gave to reassure this young woman that God would make this impossible thing possible was a parallel pregnancy. Even in her old age, Mary’s relative Elizabeth, who was said to be barren, was expecting her own child, John the Baptist, the promised forerunner of the Lord. And Mary believed what she had been told. She believed what God had promised, so she went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she could greet her kinswoman and share with her this thing that God was doing in their lives.

When Mary came to Elizabeth’s home and called out to greet her elder relative, the older mother-to-be felt something powerful within her belly. The child that had been growing within her for six months leaped in her womb. More than a coincidental kick, this fetal movement signaled a significant encounter between two unborn cousins and the mothers who carried them. Reminiscent of the twins Esau and Jacob, whose wrestling within Rebekah was a sign of two nations, a rivalry that would eventually become a conduit for God’s salvific plan, the leap that Elizabeth felt was a sign that God’s promises were coming to fruition. And Elizabeth believed them. 

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth prophesied blessings upon Mary and upon the fruit of her womb. Speaking of a pregnancy only a few weeks old, faithful Elizabeth asked, “Why has this happened to me that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Elizabeth’s faithfulness called out in celebration to her counterpart’s faithfulness, as she exclaimed, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Elizabeth and Mary—two women, two mothers, two participants in God’s great work of salvation, two examples of deepest faithfulness. Their faith not only enabled them to become vessels for God’s saving love but also enabled them to see what would come to pass even when it was still growing within their wombs. They knew deep within themselves that this thing that God was doing was even to save God’s people from all that threatened them. Their faith was more than a hope for the future. It was more than an anticipation that someday, when their sons were grown, God would use them to do something great in the world. The faith that these two women held was a sure and certain belief that God’s ancient promises were already coming to bear not only within their bodies but throughout the world.

Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is not a prophetic proclamation of future events. It is a young, pregnant woman’s definitive declaration of what God has already done. The child growing within her is the salvation of the world, and faithful Mary, the mother of God, already knows it. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she explains, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior because God has looked and seen even the lowliness of God’s servant. From now on, all generations will count me as blessed because the Mighty One has done great things for me—the One whose name is holy.”

Mary knows that God’s saving work comes into the world from the bottom up, breaking forth within the lives of those of low estate and bubbling up until it fills the whole world. God’s salvation is the powerful being pulled down and the lowly being lifted up to take their place. God’s salvation is the hungry being filled with good things and the rich being sent away empty. God’s salvation is the haughty being scattered in their own prideful imaginations while God’s own strength gathers together those who had been lost. In every case, God’s salvation is manifest in the world in ways that the powerful cannot see until that salvation is already finished. Yet those who look to God in faith can already see it. They can see not only that which is beginning to grow but also that which has already been fully accomplished even before it has come to pass. Like Mary and Elizabeth, we are called to live our lives within that reality that is sure and certain even though the world cannot see it yet.

Will we have faith like Mary? Will we have faith like Elizabeth? As Christmas comes again, will we have faith not only that God’s salvation has begun breaking into this world, but, because it has, will we have faith that God is already bringing all things to their perfection? Will we see and know that God’s perfection is a certainty into which we can fully live even now? If we are to see that salvation in a world in which power and greed and exploitation continue to thrive, we will need to see it with the eyes of deep faithfulness. As people of faith, we are called to look out into the future and see what is absolutely certain—what has already been accomplished because of the one whom Elizabeth recognized and whom Mary bore. May we see what those women saw, and may their faithfulness become ours as well.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

When Forgiveness Comes And Finds Us


December 5, 2021 – Advent 2C

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of the sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon starting around 21:30.

Although it has been about ten years since I have seen it, just thinking about a video we used to show at Cursillo weekends still has the power to awaken within me the range of powerful emotions that accompany a story of brokenness and reconciliation. Cursillo is a movement in the Episcopal Church that focuses on spiritual renewal and congregational leadership. It exists throughout the church but seems to have gone dormant in this diocese. 

Anyway, the video I have in mind is one that portrays a terrible argument between a son and his parents—one so severe that the relationship between them disintegrates as the son leaves, promising never to come back. It has been so long since I have seen the video that I don’t remember the whole story, but I do remember that somehow years later word got from the son to his parents that, if he was still welcome in their home, if they were willing to accept him back, they should keep a lamp on in his bedroom window in case he came by and found the courage to knock on the door. I cannot recall exactly how things worked out, but I can remember tears streaming down my face as I watched two parents wrap their arms around their desperate son in moment of tender reunion.

Stories like that always make me cry. There’s something about the idea of being cut off from my family and then being welcomed back home or losing touch with a child and finally seeing them come back that tugs at tenderest part of my heart. But what if leaving a light on isn’t good enough? What if the brokenness is so deep that the one who is estranged never bothers to come back? What if the idea of returning home or welcoming someone back is so painful that we simply cannot do it no matter how much we love someone? We need a story that presents reconciliation not as something that is waiting for us if we find can ever the strength to turn around and come back. We need a savior who comes out and finds us where we are.

In the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberius, which is about 29 AD, the word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. Unlike the other gospel writers, Luke provides the backstory to John the Baptizer and how he made his way out into the wilderness in the first place. The son of a priest, John’s birth had been announced by the angel Gabriel, who explained that this child would grow up to become a mighty prophet and that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. Luke doesn’t tell us about camelhair and leather belts or locusts and wild honey, but he doesn’t have to because everyone knows that a Spirit-filled prophet will have a hard time finding a home amidst city-folk. From the time he was an adult, Luke tells us, John made his home in the wilderness, on the edge of civilization, where he waited for God’s call.

John the Baptizer wasn’t the only religious figure of his day to dwell out beyond the reaches of society. The Essenes were an ascetic religious group who gave up on the Jerusalem temple as a spiritually corrupt institution and established their own Jewish community amidst the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were eventually found. Before his prophetic call, it seems likely that John made his home among them. In his work Antiquities of the Jews, first-century historian Josephus gives an extracanonical account of John the Baptist, describing him as one who emphasized personal righteousness and piety and who taught that ritual washing was necessary for physical purity before God. [1] Josephus’ description of John sounds a lot like something the Essenes would have taught, but, when God’s long-expected word came to the Baptizer, he broke away from that community in order to proclaim a different teaching.

Having received God’s call, John the Baptist went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. He didn’t go out and invite people to come back to the temple. He didn’t encourage folks to leave their homes and lives and devote themselves to the Essene way of life. He didn’t assure those who were estranged from society that the religious authorities would leave a light on for them if they would only come back. He went out and met them in the wilderness and delivered to them the good news that God’s salvation was coming out to find them. He told those who were unable to find a welcome in their local synagogues or in the Jerusalem temple that reconciliation and forgiveness were not waiting on them to come back but that the opportunity for turning things around had come all the way out into the wilderness to meet them where they were. And in Jesus Christ that’s where it meets us as well.

Sometimes we just don’t know how to take that first step. Sometimes the wounds of rejection run so deep that we can’t even imagine being welcomed back. In those moments of most profound brokenness, it doesn’t matter how eager people will be to see us if we ever darken the door again. We can’t even get to that threshold because we are convinced that we don’t belong there. But the good news of Jesus Christ is God’s promise that salvation and redemption and forgiveness are not conditional upon us finding our way back. They are brought out and handed to us even when we are stuck in the barren places, cut off from others. The path to reconciliation is one of repentance—of turning around—but John the Baptist helps us hear that the forgiveness we seek isn’t waiting for us when we complete the journey but is offered to us even before we take that first step.

In some ways, of course, this message of unconditional forgiveness and reconciliation isn’t intended for those who already come to church on Sunday mornings and already know that they will have a place in one of these pews and already believe that they will be embraced by God at the altar. Most of the people who need to hear the good news of God’s limitless grace and mercy are the ones who aren’t here. They’re the ones who have been pushed away by religious groups and institutions like ours—by the very people who think that leaving a lamp on in the window and waiting for penitent sinners to come back is all we are called to do—those who believe that it’s up to the ones who have gone astray to get their lives back in order before they walk through that door. But that’s not the gospel of grace. It’s just another way of saying, “Saints are welcome, but sinners need not apply.” And that’s not what it means for us to be the body of Christ.

Those of us who have received the good news of unconditional love are called to do more than welcome those who return. We must share that good news with those who doubt that they would ever have a place in a church like this one. We must reach out to them and go to those places—both physical and metaphorical—where broken relationships pile up, where three strikes and you’re out is the rule of life, where hope is hardest to find. Those are wilderness places, where city-folk like you and me are usually scared to go. But they are also the places where, in the tender compassion of our God, a new dawn from on high breaks upon sinners like us. 

If you already know in your heart that that dawn is breaking, you must go out and share that good news with those who have given up hope that there could ever be a new day. And, if you are among those who have been led to believe that God’s love and forgiveness will never be real for you until you become a better person and get your spiritual act together, hear this good news today: God has come out to meet you where you are. Even in the wilderness, a voice of hope cries out that God makes the crooked paths and rough places smooth and straight in order that all flesh shall see the salvation of God. 

1. Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.5.2., accessed 3 December 2021.