Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Striving Toward the Joy of Beloved Community

 

 


At this point it goes without saying that all of my sermons for the next several weeks, months, and possibly years will be primarily for the congregation at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Valdosta, GA. My tenure at Christ the King has come to an end. This is also my last weekend as the "Deacon in Charge" at St. B. On Saturday, January 22nd, I will become their "Priest in Charge." Much rather be a PIC than a DIC. LOL!

I had probably a hundred different thoughts and ideas and musings about what I could say about the Gospel story of the wedding at Cana and Jesus' first recorded miracle. Thinking about it being MLK, Jr. Day weekend pushed me to consider not just the Gospel lesson, but the reading from Isaiah in which the prophet calls on God to make good on the promises made to Israel, while delivering a message of uplift to a bunch of people who have been kicked in the teeth and scattered all over the place. What follows is how I married these two passages with their "wedding" imagery. 

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There are two ways to know when a party is over: one is that the music stops. The other is when they run out of refreshments…and in the world of adults…I’m talking about the wine.

And that’s what’s at stake here in the scene from our Gospel.

There’s a wedding in the village of Cana in Galilee. Back in those days, weddings were big “to-do’s.” We’re talking a seven-day blow out celebration, a party ‘til you drop affair. So to have the wine run out…and it’s only day three…that would throw cold water on the jubilant and festive mood and be the height of embarrassment for the bridegroom’s family, the hosts of this happy occasion.  

Mary…Jesus’ mother…sees this social catastrophe on the horizon and turns to Jesus to let him know that the wine is running out. And Jesus looks at his mother and says, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”

This isn’t the only time in the Scriptures where we hear Jesus say something to a woman that might make us think, “Ouch!”

Remember the Syrophoenician woman in Mark with the sick daughter? She seeks out Jesus for help and he tells her that his food is for the children of Israel and not the dogs? And we know how she responds to that…not backing down from her ask and pointing out to Jesus that “even the dogs under the children’s table eat the crumbs” (Mark7:28).

Mary is also undaunted. Even as Jesus is asserting that his “hour has not come,” she knows from everything she’s been pondering in her heart that if anyone can respond and keep this party going, it is Jesus. John doesn’t tell us how she responded to his remark, but clearly she had full faith and confidence that Jesus would not sit idly by.

She tells the servants to follow his directions. And Jesus proceeds to do his first miracle…turning water into wine.

And the party continued.

Jesus heard and understood what needed to happen…even if he seemed at first to be reluctant or unwilling to intervene.

His hour may not have come…but this party was going to fall apart if he didn’t act.

The prophet Isaiah is in a similar situation. The Babylonians had wrecked Zion and Jerusalem. Those who had been in exile are now coming back. Those who had been left behind were traumatized and resentful. Joy is nowhere to be found. And Isaiah turns to God in this time of an uncertain future:

“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn and her salvation like a burning torch.” (Isaiah 62:1)

In the same way that Mary can see that something is awry and needs Jesus’ attention now…Isaiah isn’t going to let God forget the promises made to rescue Israel and restore its dwelling place of Zion and Jerusalem. Isaiah envisions a time when not only will Israel be in right relationship with God; the relationship will be made new…a new name…and the Lord will delight and rejoice as a bridegroom seeing his bride.

And here we are back at the image of weddings…high times…and festive occasions…and lots of joy!

In both these stories…there is an action to get God’s attention. Whether it is Isaiah crying out for the restoration of Israel…or Mary seeking the key element needed to keep a party going strong…someone seeks…and finds God is listening.

I’m wondering how many times each one of us has found ourselves in a situation where we stand in the middle of a dilemma and call out…in exasperation or tears or deep heavy sighs…we seek to get God’s attention to our plight?

This is the weekend where we remember Georgia’s native son the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his place in our country’s history in the struggle for civil rights for people of color.

There is a story about the night of January 27th 1956…almost sixty-six years ago…when Dr. King took a phone call that shook him to his core. *

King and his young family were living in the parsonage of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama. He was involved in the bus boycott at the time and had become accustomed to receiving death threats by mail and phone. But this call apparently rattled his nerves.

It was about midnight…and the caller growled a threat…laced with racial epithets…that King better leave town in three days or the caller was going to “blow up your house and blow your brains out!”

Dr. King went to the stove, made himself a cup of coffee, and then sat at his kitchen table. After a short while, he put his head in his hands and began to pray aloud:

“Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right … But … I must confess … I’m losing my courage.”

It’s not surprising he’d have made a prayer like that. Challenging the status quo and being regarded as an outsider in every way and knowing the history of violence against people of color must have been terrifying.

King says the response he got back was an inner voice that said to him:

“Martin Luther, stand up for truth. Stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness.”

In that moment, he felt a sense of calm wash over his body. He gained assurance…and knew he had to keep going.

God listened. God heard. And God responded.

God met King in his place of fear and desire to retreat. In that moment, King became aware that what he was doing was important and necessary, and no threat could stop him. He was calling a nation to come into right relationship. He was pressing on us to treat everybody right, rejecting the sin of exclusion and racist hatred and fear, and lean into the joy of beloved community.

We’re still working toward that dream of beloved community, when we can all live in harmony and joy.  

Income and health care disparities still exist…and we’re still wrangling over access to the ballot box. Indeed…sometimes it feels as if the promised land is still many miles away.

Or are we so pre-occupied with seeking a pre-determined answer that we don’t see the ways God is working God’s purpose out? That’s another part of our Gospel lesson.

The steward at the wedding in Cana couldn’t understand how it came to be that the wine the bridegroom was serving on day three was of the top shelf variety. The steward was thinking that should’ve been served first and then once the guests can’t tell the difference anymore, the bridegroom can pull out the Manischewitz (apologies to anyone who likes Manischewitz ).

The steward’s attention was on the task at hand, and he was oblivious to what Jesus had done, this miracle of changing ritual water into wine. He was too focused on the details to experience the joy.

We, too, can get so wrapped up in the mundane or our disagreements and division in the nation that we fail to see how God’s purpose is getting worked out day to day in our lives to bring us to the party.

We see it here in our diocese with the Racial Justice and Healing Commission, a group dedicated to working through the troubled history of the past…one relationship at a time…and realizing a hopeful path to a future. The evil that was the murder of Ahmaud Arbery has made this work take on even more importance.

As I mentioned in a sermon during Advent, the clergy in Brunswick pulled together across denominational and faith boundaries to begin the process of addressing injustice not with shouting…but with praying, sharing, listening, and learning.

My hope is that we will see in the next several months opportunities for us in Georgia to do some exploration of the past that leads to something that looks more like the joy of God’s dream of beloved community.

That dream of a beloved community…where all people…no matter our age, color, gender, orientation, status, or identity…  can drink the sweet wine of God’s love…and respect the dignity of every human being.

What a festive wedding banquet that would be!

In name of God…Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

 

*Story related here: Martin Luther King’s defining moment: A kitchen, in Montgomery, Alabama, past midnight - Lisa Singh

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, January 10, 2022

Yes!! to the Beloved Baptized



Hello again! Because I have been finishing my service at Christ the King, I didn't have to preach for either of the two Sundays of Christmas. And, because we had a supply priest at St. Barnabas for Christmas Eve, I didn't preach that evening either. And because St. Barnabas is 80 miles from my home, and I didn't sense a great desire to have a Christmas morning service, I didn't have to preach on that day either. Instead, I helped my wife and her Temple Israel team prepare and serve a Christmas dinner to those living at Tallahassee's homeless shelter, a Christmas tradition for us since about 2003. 

All of this to say that after four weeks of preaching about the impending incarnation, and all that I had on my mind with the preparation for celebrating that feast, I was kind of like Moses...taking the people to the border of the promised land, but not getting to preach about the experience of entering it. Pity. 

Not really. I was glad for the reprieve. It has been more than just a little bit daunting to be "Deacon in Charge" at one place and "Assistant Clergy" at another place. I feel as though I went from swimming in the kiddie pool at seminary to being thrown into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with everyone screaming at me to "Swim!!!" And with my ordination to the priesthood now only 12 days away, I am still feeling a bit shaky as to whether I'm fully prepared to lead just the one congregation. Thanks be to God I am not being asked to do two!

OK, enough of all that. Yesterday, we had the reading from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 3:15-17;21-22) about Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River. And what a great opportunity to preach on baptism, and lead a
congregation in that (IMHO) Baptismal Covenant with its five questions:

1. Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

2. Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

3. Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

4. Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

5. Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

To each of these questions, we answer "I will, with God's help." May it be so!


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I would imagine most of us here have been baptized, probably as infants…which means we don’t likely remember a whole lot about what happened that day.

The sights, the sounds, the words spoken to us, or the promises made on our behalf.

It did happen.

And… if it was in an Episcopal Church prior to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer…it might have been a very private ceremony with just the family and Godparents.

Thankfully, one of the major changes that came with our current prayer book is that baptism is a communal event.

Each person baptized into the Body of Christ is not only receiving support from the parents and Godparents; the whole church community becomes the extended family of the one being initiated into the faith.

It’s a moment when we all become a parent, a sibling, a caring relative of this new member as they join us in the journey of faith…at whatever pace we’re walking it.

Now…I’m also guessing that none of us heard a voice from heaven…or saw the Holy Spirit descending as a dove at the time of our baptism.

But God and God’s spirit were still present.

And here’s the best part: even if the person doing the baptism…a priest, a bishop, or even a hospital nurse…even if they were not a model citizen or a particularly good Christian, it doesn’t matter, because God is the one doing the action through the priest or bishop or nurse. Thanks be to God for that!

And that gets us to this scene in our Gospel lesson with John baptizing Jesus. If we pay attention to what John is saying, he’s doing the baptism that is the Jewish rite of purification, cleansing of sins. In Judaism, this is done in what is called a mikvah, which is a ritual bath that looks like a small swimming pool, with water that is partly from a natural source…such as a river or rainwater.

John was performing the ritual in the Jordan, and as we hear, people were coming to him to receive his baptism. But when they start speculating that he’s the messiah, he quickly tells them…No, he’s not the one. There’s another coming after him who will not baptize with water but with another element…with fire. And John goes on to give a big vision of what that will look like with a winnowing fork…separating wheat from chaff.

So…it’s a little odd that Jesus then comes and seeks out John’s baptism. If Jesus is the Messiah…and if John is “not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals” (Luke 3:16c), then why is Jesus needing John to baptize him?

It’s one of those brain teaser type questions that can keep theologians occupied for hours.

And it’s an important point for us to think about during this season of Epiphany…as we see each week…a new revelation…a new unfolding…of who is Jesus…what’s he all about…and why does this matter to us sitting here in the 21st century in Southwest Georgia.

Take a moment and pull out the insert and look at the very last part of today’s Gospel lesson…where it starts with “Now when all the people were baptized.” In Luke’s version of this scene, we don’t get the actual baptism of Jesus.

Instead, Luke tells us that first the people were baptized, then Jesus was also baptized.

He didn’t cut in line.

He didn’t insist that he go first because he’s the important one here.

Jesus joins with the people, becomes one with everyone else. He goes into those same waters. He places himself in the hands of his cousin and is fully immersed in the experience of purification from sin…even though tradition says he had no sin.

And then he prays.

Perhaps he prays for the world and what it had done to the people.

I have to wonder…now that he’s gone down into the waters of the Jordan after so many others seeking John’s baptism of purification and repentance, how did that experience affect him?

Did this full immersion…perhaps lead him to pray for all the sins left behind in those waters: the pettiness, the selfishness, the greed that helps to create systems of us vs. them?

Did he need prayer for himself…for strength and courage. He’s living in a society where the fragile egos of the rulers could be costly for those speaking truth to power.

Afterall John will be imprisoned for having called out Herod’s illegal marriage to his brother’s wife. And we know that the Baptizer is eventually beheaded as party favor at a depraved birthday party.

As Jesus is praying…the heaven “was opened” and the Holy Spirit descended in “bodily form like a dove” (Luke 3:21-22a). And then he hears those words: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

That statement…that wonderful affirmation…sounds so similar to what God says to Isaiah in the reading we had today: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:16c).

This is not a distant and remote God.

This is an intimate and deeply caring and personal God. A God of relationship.

You are my Son. The beloved. With you I am well pleased.

Whatever it was that Jesus sought in that time of prayer after his baptism, the answer from God is an unmistakable and resounding, Yes.

Yes, no matter what comes at you, you are mine.

Yes, no matter what powers and principalities oppose you, you are the beloved.

Yes, even when the world mocks and scorns you and believes it has defeated you, I am well-pleased with the work you have done.

That resounding “Yes” from God was not just for his only and begotten Son; it’s our “Yes” as well. A “Yes” that’s meant to be shared.

We help to create this same powerful loving affirmation when we gather as a church community and participate in a baptismal service. When we say in one voice that we will support a person who is committing their life to Christ, we become that incarnation of the Holy Spirit that appeared as a dove for Jesus, and that bold announcement to the world that here is another beloved with whom God is well pleased.

Baptism is our entry into the death and life of Christ. We become a member of his eternal priesthood. The waters of baptism…whether dunked or sprinkled…whether we are infants or toddlers…teenagers or adults…those waters are the outward symbol of our abiding and unbreakable connection to Christ. We can draw on his strength and courage to weather the various storms we encounter in our own lives.

We don’t have anyone to baptize today…and I look forward to a time when we do have a person wishing to join us in this journey of compassionate ministry. But it is always a good practice to be reminded of who we are and whose we are in Christ through our baptism.

With that, I’m going to ask you now to open your prayer books to page 304. And in place of our traditional use of the Nicene Creed, we are going to use this format of the Apostle’s Creed followed by the five questions. Each question should remind us of our own baptism and the commitments we make as members of the Episcopal Church to God and to each other.

(Turn to page 304)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Mary the Prophet: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent at St. Barnabas


 Back to St. Barnabas, I feel as though I was picking up where I left off when I was last with them two weeks ago. When I was in seminary, I didn't dream that in my six months of my diaconate that I would be called on to preach each Sunday of Advent. But there's been nothing "usual" about my journey from day one, so why start now? And so on the Sunday when eight of my classmates presumably were celebrating their first time as presiders at the Eucharist, I was preaching my fourth sermon in as many weeks on a theme inspired by a statue on the VTS campus. 
 

O Day Spring, splendor of eternal light, Sun of Righteousness; come and enlighten the darkness of our minds. O Key of David, come and open wide the secret places of our hearts that we may receive you who came among us at Bethlehem, and who comes among us daily in the unfolding of our lives, and will come again in glory in the age to come. Amen.--"Advent" Praying Our Days by Bishop Frank T. Griswold.

 

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

The tune is written in a minor key, but this hymn and the Gospel lesson from today are full of hope and exuberant joy…full of promise that God has never forgotten the people and is coming to dwell in us…around us…and beside us always. Even more amazing: God is coming to do some radical reordering of things. Any notions of “well this is the way that it has always been” is about to go out the window. With apologies to those among us who like things neat and tidy…God is about to shake things up like a snow globe. And—because we are in the Year of Luke’s Gospel—the women are going to be leading the way.

We get that in today’s encounter between Mary and her Aunt Elizabeth.

This story is often called “The visitation of Mary to Elizabeth.” But that doesn’t quite cut it for me.

On my seminary’s campus, there is a statue by the artist Peggy Adams that is near the VTS chapel. Adams titled her work, “Mary as Prophet.” It shows two women…one very old and one much younger. The older one has her hand on the shoulder of the young woman and is leaning into her, while the younger one raises her eyes to the sky and seems to be exclaiming something deep within her. I think that’s a pretty accurate description of what is happening in this scene.

Our Gospel lesson picks up right after the moment we just sang about where Gabriel comes to Mary and tells her she is going to be the God-bearer. She’s blown away by this news…and really who wouldn’t be? Think about it: you’re about thirteen or fourteen years old. An angel shows up out of nowhere and tells you that you’re pregnant…in a society where that’s not supposed to happen until you’re married.

Oh, and this is not just any child: this is the Son of the Most High!  You’re given instructions about his name and he’s going to sit on the throne of David...

I mean…this is wild!! And if it gives you goosebumps…well…yes.

And young Mary…brave Mary…wipes the sweat from her brow and gives her consent to this news. Now, she could have gone into hiding…and who could blame her under the circumstances.

But the angel told her that her cousin Elizabeth was also pregnant and….

What?!?!?! Elizabeth?? Old lady Elizabeth? Barren Elizabeth whose husband the priest has been struck dumb??

This story is getting crazier!

So, Mary heads out to the Judean hill country.

Was she going because she was afraid?

Was all this news too much and she must see for herself?

Or was she…as Peggy Adams’ statue suggests…a prophet? Not just the womanly womb carrying the Christ child…but is she also a prophetic witness heralding the incredible goodness and greatness of God?

I think that gets confirmed in the exchange with Elizabeth. Even before Mary could say much of anything beyond…”Cousin!”…Elizabeth felt her baby John leaping and kicking and stirring for joy…as the Holy Spirit filled her heart.

She bursts out…”Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!!”

There is amazement…astonishment…and tearful acknowledgment of how incredible it is that her young niece is coming to her…the older woman…and her own baby is dancing a jig…as they both realize that Mary is the mother of the Son of the Most High.

My New Testament professor describes Luke as the Shakespeare of the Bible because of his beautiful and poetic language.

But I sometimes like to refer to him as the Rogers and Hammerstein…or even the Verdi of the Bible because of moments such as this one…where these two pregnant women…overcome with the Holy Spirit…break into a recitative followed by the aria of the Magnifcat:

My soul magnifies the Lord

And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

My soul **magnifies** the Lord!

Elizabeth’s response confirms the Angel Gabriel’s message…and Mary hearing that senses deeply that she…a teenage mother…is getting swept up into a larger than life mission. Her song goes on…

He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones

And lifted up the lowly;

He has filled the hungry with good things,

And sent the rich away empty.

As I said at the start of this sermon…God is shaking things up. This mission is not one where the C-E-Os or the well-heeled or the rich and famous get to take center stage. No, no! God is working God’s purpose out by bringing the Light…that’s capital “L” light…to the nations from the least likely and the most easily overlooked and ignored. Mary…acting as a prophet to the marginalized, the disinherited.. is announcing:

Rejoice! Rejoice! Israel…Emmanuel…God with us…the Almighty has remembered the covenant. We aren’t forgotten! We aren’t forsaken! Rejoice!

Rejoice…even in this time where we live as subjects to an empire.

Rejoice…even in this time when we get bullied by Roman soldiers and tax collectors.

Rejoice…Sing…Dance…you, young girl and old woman! God is with us!

Elizabeth…the elderly mother of John…joins with Mary…the youthful mother of Jesus. The Old Covenant sings in harmony with the New Covenant. One generation is passing the torch to the next…with the great expectation that something good…really good…is about to happen.

What an intergenerational and unconventional moment this is! Two pregnant women…filled with the Holy Spirit…and having a grand old time of it!

If I were to put this in our contemporary witness…this would be like having a Baby Boomer and the youngest member of Generation Z (which is the group even younger than Millennials) laughing and conspiring in the Spirit with one another. It’s kind of fun when the Holy Spirit sweeps aside preconceived notions and prejudices and let’s joy take over.

And perhaps that is the thing that needs to happen for us now. Luke has been guiding us through an Advent where…even amid this unsettled life of pandemics…health crises…and unexpected losses …we are reminded that God is with us…and is coming in joy and in the most unconventional ways that defy our expectations. We’re invited to see how God is showing up in our friends and family who lend a hand to help us when we’re in need.

We become the Christ someone seeks when we take the time to listen and enter the experience of another person’s pain or happiness.

We’ve been told to be alert…to get prepared…to bear fruits to show that we are ready to move in a new direction in our lives.

Now we are invited into the song and dance of Mary and Elizabeth…free from fear and delighting in the subversive nature of a God who appears first to the least likely characters in our Scripture. How much more so will God appear to the likes of us?     

O come, O come Emmanuel!

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Brood of Vipers? It's Not Too Late to Change: a Sermon for Third Advent at Christ the King


What a strange set of readings for this Sunday! There's such hope and joy coming from Zephaniah. Then there was Paul's Letter to the Philippians, a church he actually liked, which starts with "Rejoice! Again rejoice!" 

And then John the Baptizer is screaming insults at people coming to be baptized. 

This was possibly the last sermon I am going to be preaching to the congregations of Christ the King Episcopal Church in Valdosta. I have enjoyed preaching there because the congregation is more likely to spontaneously respond to what I'm saying...not something that is typical of most congregations in the Episcopal Church. But then again, CtK is not your typical Episcopal Church. They were, until 1988, an Assembly of God congregation. 

I put my theater skills to work in this sermon, which shocked the 10am congregation. They weren't expecting someone to scream at them "You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee the wrath that is to come?!" 

But then...I don't think "the crowd" was ready for John's smackdown either!

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Prayer: God, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing;

Let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightening,

Illumines the darkness in which we walk.

Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.

And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness,

and exclaim… in wonder… how filled with awe is this place…and we did not know it. Amen.—Shabbat Evening 1, Mishkan T’filah, 53.


I wish I could claim the words of this prayer as my own…but truthfully I lifted them from the prayer book at my wife’s Jewish temple. We were at the Friday evening Shabbat service for the sixth night of Hanukkah. Everyone had been invited to bring their menorahs from home and set them up on tables at the front of the sanctuary to light for the service. During a moment of silent prayer and reflection, my eyes landed on these words…which seemed so perfect in that candle-lit space. They work well with our own season of Advent…where we are constantly being reminded to look for the light of God’s presence in our world which is often full darkness.

And speaking of one noticing the light in the darkness…we have John the Baptizer in the wilderness. Now…last week…was John One-point-oh. His was the voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way…make the crooked paths straight. And perhaps we didn’t quite get it the last time…so this week…on “Stir up Sunday” it’s John Two-point-oh. He’s not just crying out somewhere off at the county line anymore. Now he’s all up in the faces of the crowd:

“You brood of vipers!! Who warned you to the flee from the wrath that is to come?!!”

Well, OK, then!

I wouldn’t recommend “brood of vipers” as a Christmas card greeting. No wonder Hallmark doesn’t have a niche market for Advent cards!

The choice of words is strong. And insulting, really. Vipers have these really long venomous fangs and had the reputation for eating their way out of their mother’s body…thus killing their own mama.

In Luke…we hear that John is slinging these words at “the crowd”; in Matthew’s version of this same moment, it’s the Sadducees, scribes, and Pharisees. These are the groups that our hippie hero prophet John, who’s out there in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey, has tried to escape. He’s on the outskirts of town to get away from what he thinks of as a corrupt religion and has become the leader of another group of Jews…the Essenes…in what he believes is a purer religion that’ll get back to being in right relationship with God.

There’s this word…”brood.” One commentator I read noted that the word “brood”—and what word that is “brood”—is not the actual pit of vipers itself but the offspring of these snakes. So this “brood of vipers” represents, for John, generations of dull and corrupted Judiasm.

Add to this the presence of the tax collectors: now THERE’S a particularly hated group, right?

Nobody likes the I-R-S…and in those days…the I-R-S was really hated because they were Jews hired by the Roman Empire to collect the taxes from their fellow Jews. They were seen as traitors. And it didn’t help that there were many who would engage in fraud, overcharging the taxed and pocketing the change.

Oh, and then who else is in this crowd but the soldiers! They were kind of like “Herod’s henchmen” who would bully and shake down the Jewish citizens.

So all kinds of representations of Empire and Classism and Brutality…everything that is the polar opposite of John…they’ve all come out into the wilderness…seeking John’s baptism in the River Jordan. You can imagine how thrilled he was to see them!

After John gives this brood of vipers a tongue lashing…they look at him, blinking, and say, “What then should we do?”

“Well,” John says, putting his hands on his hips…

Soldiers: don’t extort or threaten people.

Tax Collectors: only get the money actually owed.

Jewish leaders: You know what the code says: You have two coats: give one to the person who has none.

To put it another way: “You need to get yourself right! You need to take a good look at yourself and realize that there are things you’re doing, behaviors you’ve had, that have been harmful to your fellow human. Get yourself right with God…now! Because the Light is coming…capital “L” light…is coming.”

And we know that’s true even today.

Each week…one more candle gets lit on the Advent wreath…to remind us that even in the midst of days that are growing darker earlier…during times where we might feel down, depressed or overwrought…the Light is coming and getting brighter and brighter. And, as difficult as it can be to hear that accusation—‘brood of vipers’—we need to hear John’s message behind those words.

Because we are the crowd, too.

Just like that crowd at the Jordan…we are products of the society in which we live that has allowed for disparities of wealth and divisions among people to grow. We may not be actively participating in causing harm to others, but we often benefit from the way our society is structured that keeps some on the margins…out of sight and out of mind.

I think about what happened with all the shutdowns that came with the pandemic. Suddenly, we learned that “essential workers” were not just nurses and doctors in the hospitals; it was their janitorial staff.

Essential workers were stocking shelves and checking out people at the cash registers in grocery stores.

They were… and are… farmworkers and the meat packers in neighboring communities, helping to keep the supply chain of food going so that there would be something in the grocery stores and restaurants (another set of “essential workers”).

While some of us stayed at home, others simply could not.

Let’s not even get started on the disruption to education. Some school children could get on the internet and attend classes remotely; many others didn’t have a stable enough connection. Some classes could switch over to remote learning; others were far more challenging…and to the point where some teachers put away their planners for the last time and took early retirement.

As long as we’re comfortable and undisturbed by the gaps that exist in our community, and as long as we sit idly by when we hear phrases such as some place being in the “good part of town,” we run the risk of being just like that clueless crowd out in the wilderness, looking dumbstruck as John gives them what for.

And that’s why we need John…and we need Advent.

We need to get that push… that shake up… to take a look at ourselves and what’s around us.

Last week…we prepared the way for the Light’s return. Now John is saying…get rid of the behaviors and let go of those things which are holding us back.

When the light illumines a place and reveals what has been hiding in the darkness…don’t look away.

Address it.

Deal with it.

The answer to “What should we do?”

Be ready because “the way things have always been” is coming to an end and a new thing is about to happen.

And let the church say, “Amen.”

 

Monday, December 6, 2021

Prepare and Proclaim: A Sermon for St. Barnabas at Advent 2

 

I knew it was coming. 

When people started arriving at St. Barnabas yesterday, I heard the grumbling about how their "mostly annual" Christmas Giveaway event, where they literally give away baby clothes, puzzles, toys, dining room sets, etc. etc., did not have the same overflow turnout as the time before. There was stuff leftover that would need to be carted away. They didn't have the long line stretching out to the road. Oh, what a miserable failure it had been...

But it wasn't. 

Things had been given away. People had shown up and left with two large garbage bags full of clothes and toys. And even if they didn't have a line (we're still living in a pandemic and people just aren't interested in standing in lines with strangers), about 200 people showed up...and those 200 people left happy. 

And once more, this congregation that is so small by comparison to others that I have been associated with, managed to make something happen. And it was good. And it needed to be named as such. 

At Advent, we take stock of what maybe amiss in our lives, but we are not allowed to just sit there staring into the void and thinking "Woe is me. I'm so broken. The world is going to hell in a handbasket." We are to see those things with the knowledge that there is light shining through the cracks of our lives...and that light is the promise of God that is always there: we are not alone. We are loved. Clear out the clutter and see that light shining." 

+++

God, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing;
Let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightening,
Illumines the darkness in which we walk.
Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.
And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness,
and exclaim… in wonder… how filled with awe is this place…and we did not know it. Amen.—Shabbat Evening 1, Mishkan T’filah, 53.


When we hear the phrase, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” how many of us immediately think of the opening musical number from Godspell? If you remember the movie, the John the Baptist character has his arm wrapped around a statue in the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park in New York City as he sings out “prepare ye the way of the Lord.” And from all over the city, a ragtag motly crew of hippies in their beads, scarves and bellbottoms flock to this fountain and join the song, joyously splashing in the waters. It’s an upbeat, energetic, playful scene.

What a great way to imagine the hopefulness and excitement of this news…singing, dancing, and splashing in the water. This enthusiastic moment captures the liberating feeling of the Holy Spirit…

And it tells us a lot about John.  

The Baptizer is full of the Spirit. He’s one of the important characters in the Gospels whose entire life is about heralding this “new thing” that is coming with the advent of Jesus.

So let’s take a moment to talk about John…and John’s parents Zechariah and Elizabeth…and what they might have to say to us in our world right now.

Our Evangelist for the season…Luke…is a careful and meticulous keeper of the records. All those names we heard this morning in the Gospel: those might seem to be a lot of blah-blah-blah Pilate blah-blah-blah Herod. But really what our Shakespeare of the Bible is doing here is establishing an historical time frame…and a particular set of power brokers. These are the forces of empire and status who are the polar opposites of John, the hippie back-to-the-land, prophet who eats locusts and wild honey. John was the leader of the Essenes… a group that had moved out into the wilderness in an effort to rediscover and live into what they considered a purer form of Judaism. 

In Luke’s Gospel…the births of John and Jesus are both detailed and bear one striking similarity. We’ve heard the story of the Angel Gabriel visiting Mary to tell her that she will be the God bearer? Well…Gabriel appeared first to Zechariah, the priest to announce John’s birth. Here’s what happened.

It was Zechariah’s turn to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer up incense to God. He departs from the crowd that had gathered to pray and enters the sanctuary and who should be waiting for him but Gabriel. The angel tells him that his wife, Elizabeth, is going to have a son and he is to be called John.

Gabriel goes on to tell Zechariah that John will be filled with the Holy Spirit, will get the people of Israel to return to the Lord, parents and children will find each other, and the disobedient will become wise and righteous…all in preparation for the Lord.

Now…this is Advent…and Advent is a season just begging for us to engage our brains in imagination.

So put yourself in Zechariah’s shoes. You’ve entered the sanctuary expecting to perform a religious ritual you’ve done countless times before. And there’s an angel standing there telling you about this son you never thought you were going to have and that he’s going to be this prophet to lead Israel into a new era of peace.

Keep in mind both Zechariah and Elizabeth already have their A-A-R-P cards.

They know what time the early bird special is being served, so the idea that Elizabeth is going to have a child is outrageous.

So, can we really blame Zechariah for being a bit skeptical?

He says to the angel:

“Mmmm….how do I know this is true?”

And Gabriel, being a bit irritated that anyone would doubt such great news, tells him: Look, dude: I’m Gabriel. God sent me to tell you this. And since you’ve doubted me, I’m going to make you mute.

Zechariah emerges from the sanctuary and he can’t say anything. And the people gathered are like, “Whoa! Something happened to him!”

Fast forward about nine months. John is born and on the eighth day, which is the customary time for Jewish babies to be named and the male children circumcised…the people gather and ask Elizabeth: So what’s your baby’s name?

And she says: John.

And their like: John?! What sort of a name is that? There isn’t a John in your family?!

And…as happens all-too-often…the woman’s word must be wrong, so they all turn to Zechariah to straighten this out. Zechariah takes a writing tablet. Everyone leans into see what the old man is scribbling down. And then there is the collective gasp as they read the from the tablet:
His Name is John.

Instantly, Zechariah’s tongue is loosed…his mouth is opened, and he simply can’t contain himself. After nine plus months of being speechless… his heart sings out:

“Baruch ata Adonai!

Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel

He has come to his people and set them free!”

His joy bursts forth…

“This was the oath that he swore to our Father Abraham

To set us free from our enemies,

Free to worship him without fear,

Holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.”

And then…turning to gaze down into this baby cradled in the arms of Elizabeth:

“You, my child, shall be called the Prophet of the Most High

For you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,

To give his people knowledge of salvation

By the forgiveness of their sins.”

This canticle is so common to our Morning Prayer worship to the point that it becomes rote and may just seem like words, words, words. But this is Advent… a time to slow down and pay attention…and notice what Zechariah is proclaiming.

A new thing is coming…and his son is going to be the one to prepare the way.

We can get a sense that this whole family has been touched by the Holy Spirit: Elizabeth in her declaration of John’s name; Zechariah in his proclamation of John’s future…and John with his announcement to prepare the way for the Lord.

All against a backdrop of empire, classism, and haves and have nots. The light of peace and promise is going to break through the darkness of despair and there’s no way to stop it.

And maybe that’s the preparation we are all called to be doing at this time of Advent. Not to be a Pollyanna and say everything in the world is wonderful. But we also need to be careful to not let those things that we carry around in our hearts…worries about the world, our jobs or relationships…keep us from seeking God and noticing those signs of beauty and love that are still happening even in trying times. And naming them when they happen.

I had a great example of that this past Wednesday when I pulled into our church parking lot. I can’t tell you how grateful I was to see a bunch of cars, and then to walk into our parish hall and witness it bustling with activity…with folks laying out items for the Christmas Giveaway. There was a spirit of collaboration and co-operation as people made space for one more dining set…and arranged brightly colored baby clothing…or set up books. There was so much love that went into making our parish hall into a shopping bazaar.

The sight of those cars and that room and knowing that what we were offering to the community could bring a smile to someone else helped to sweep away some of the weight of worry that was on my mind that afternoon. Even if the turnout wasn’t huge, we made some people happy and THAT is enough!

John’s cry in the wilderness:

"Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight.

 Every valley shall be filled,

and every mountain and hill shall be made low,

and the crooked shall be made straight,

and the rough ways made smooth;

                            and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

When doubt and despair begins to cloud our minds…remember that John is calling us to not get fixated on what is broken, but to look for love in action and proclaim it. Prepare for God’s inbreaking. Get ready. A new thing is about to happen.