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!


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.