Wednesday, December 26, 2007

1 January 2008: The Holy Name of Our Lord

And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb (Luke 2:21, ESV).

Collect of the Holy Name of Our Lord
Eternal father, you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

28 December: The Holy Innocents

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

"A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted,
because they are no more" (Mt 2:16-18, ESV).

The Holy Innocents the church calls these children -- in a true sense the first martyrs for our Lord. We remember them this day and honor their sacrifice.

The sacrifice of Holy Innocents is not merely a moment in history, but is an ongoing reality around the world: in refugee camps in Darfur (seen in the icon above), in the slums of Haiti, in the tenements and homeless shelters and under the overpasses in cities scattered throughout the United States -- in our very midst. It is not in our power to rewrite history: Herod had his way for a moment and Rachel's children are no more. But we can change the present and rewrite the future.

Compassion International:

Food For The Poor:

Partners In Health:

Collect of the Holy Innocents

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tryants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

27 December: Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:1-5, ESV).

So begins the Gospel of Saint John, a simple fisherman transformed into a mystic theologian by Jesus the Word, an angry "son of thunder" transformed into the beloved apostle of love by Jesus the Word. Poet and prophet, John's words in Gospel, letters, and Apocalypse are among the most beautiful and meaningful in Scripture.

According to Church tradition, Saint John conducted his primary ministry in Ephesus in Asia Minor. During the reign of Emperor Domitian, he was exiled to the prison island of Patmos for his witness to the Lord Jesus. There, likely near the end of the first century, the Word of Jesus came to John in a series of visions which he recorded in The Apocalypse (Revelation) -- visions which assured a beleagured church of the ultimate triumph of Christ and the certain coming of the Kingdom of God.

John likely ended his life once again in Ephesus, the last living apostle of our Lord.

Collect of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist
Shed upon your Church, O Lord, the brightness of your light, that we, being illumined by the teaching of your apostle and evangelist John, may so walk in the light of your truth, that at length we may attain to the fullness of eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

26 December: Saint Stephen, Deacon and Martyr

Now in those days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty" (Acts 6:1-3).

Among those chosen was Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit. Filled with grace and power, Stephen performed great wonders and signs among the people as he proclaimed the Word and confounded those who opposed the Way. Stephen was brought before the high priest and the council on false charges where he fearlessly preached Jesus as the fulfillment of God's covenant with Israel, as Messiah, and as the Son of Man crucified, resurrected, and ascended to the right hand of God. For this faithful witness, Stephen was cast out of the city and stoned, receiving the first crown of martyrdom.

Collect of Saint Stephen, Deacon and Martyr
We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Christmas Images

Monday, December 24, 2007

St. Romanos Nativity Kontakion

Orthodox writer and speaker Frederica Mathews-Green offers a beautiful introduction to an ancient eastern nativity hymn, the Nativity Kontakion of St. Romanos, on a recent Ancient Faith Radio podcast. It will make a wonderful addition to your celebration of the Nativity of our Lord. You may find it through Frederica's website as follows:

1. Access
2. Select Here & Now, Ancient Faith Radio.
3. Play the St. Romanos Nativity Kontakion podcast.

If you prefer to download the mp3 file, you may do so at the following url:

You may also access Ancient Faith Radio through itunes.

With our Eastern brothers and sisters may we celebrate the little child, God before the ages.

Christmas Prayer (Byzantine, traditional)

Christ is born; give him the glory!
Christ has come down from heaven; receive him!
Christ is now on earth; exalt him!

O you earth, sing to the Lord!
O you nations, praise him in joy,
for he has been glorified!

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.

Homily: The Nativity of our Lord (25 December 2007)

The Nativity of our Lord: 25 December 2007
(Luke 2:8-20)
Emmanuel: God With Us

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Once God looked upon the great wickedness of man – that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time (Gen 6:5) – and God came among us as a tempest, a deluge, a flood over all the face of the earth. And every living creature with the breath of life in its nostrils was destroyed, save for eight souls and an ark full of animals. Emmanuel: God with us.

Once God heard the outcry against the grievous sin of man – that his cities were filled with violence and lust and depravity – and God came among us as fire and brimstone. And every living creature in Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities of the plain was destroyed, save for three souls: Lot and his daughters. Emmanuel: God with us.

Once God hearkened to the cry of Israel – that their lives were miserable with forced labor and harsh taskmasters – and God came among us as plague upon plague: darkness and famine and thirst and death. And every firstborn son of Egypt – from the firstborn son of Pharaoh to the firstborn son of the slave girl and all the firstborn of the cattle – was struck down, save for those souls protected by the blood on the doorposts and lintels, those souls passed over by the death angel. Emmanuel: God with us.

Twice God beheld the idolatry and injustice of his own people – that they sacrificed to the gods of the nations under every spreading tree on every high place, that they sold the needy for a pair of shoes and dispossessed the orphans and widows – and God came among us as the ruthless and barbarous armies of the Assyrians and Babylonians. And the fortified cities and the temple itself were utterly destroyed and the pride of Israel – its young men and maiden daughters – was marched captive to foreign lands. Emmanuel: God with us.

Is Emmanuel – God with us – a blessing or a curse, something devoutly to be desired or something fearfully to be avoided? Perhaps both. Perhaps either.

8And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased" (Luke 2:8-14, ESV)!

The angel came this night to announce Emmanuel – God among us, God with us. Is it any wonder the angel began, “Fear not!”? God is on the move. God is once again among us. God is now with us. I can imagine normally fearless shepherds – What are lions and bears and wolves to them? – cowering in terror at the sight of the angel and covering their ears to avoid the dreaded pronouncement of God’s judgment. “Fear not,” the angel began. It is good news that God is among us. It is great joy for all people, for Jews and Romans and Greeks alike. For the Lord comes among us not as tempest and flood, fire and brimstone, plague and death, destruction and exile. No, the Lord – God before the ages – comes as one of us, as the least of us, as a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. Fear not. God comes among us not as Judge, but as Savior. To which news the only proper response is, “Glory to God in the highest!”

15When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us" (Luke 2:15, ESV).

God is among us; let’s go see. How remarkable. Can you imagine that response earlier, before the assurance, “Do not fear,” before when God came as Judge? This advent of Emmanuel – God with us – is light and life, and people are drawn inexorably toward both.

This story of the angels and the shepherds and the baby in a manger is history, we’re convinced. But it is more; it must be more. This story of Emmanuel, of God among us and God with us, must become a guiding metaphor for the church, which is the present incarnation of Emmanuel. The church among us, the church with us must be good news of great joy for all people. The church among us, the church with us must be salvation and not judgment. It hasn’t always been so and it isn’t always so now.

How often is the church among us – the church on the move in the broader world – perceived as judgment and not salvation? Now, of course, we must speak missionally and prophetically to the world; that is part of our calling. But we must always do so in the context of good news of great joy, of salvation always and not of condemnation only. How can signs that announce God hates fags! in the hands of the church among us at gay pride rallies be good news of great joy? How can screams of “Baby killers burn in hell!” in the mouths of the church among us picketing abortion clinics be good news of great joy? How can the shouts of war and the building of fences be good news of great joy? How can conspicuous consumption in the face of global poverty be good news of great joy? How can the false promises of health, wealth, and prosperity made available to those simple ones who donate money they cannot afford to false prophets of greed – too often the image of the church among us – be good news of great joy? This is not Emmanuel – God with us, God among us. This is not the gospel of the Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

We must proclaim to all the people of the world – in all their diversity – “Fear not, for behold we bring good news of great joy to all people.” The church among us should be good news to atheists, to Muslims, to prisoners, to poor, to rich, to gays, to addicts, to prostitutes, to soccer moms, to unwed moms. The world should be better because the church is among us – the whole world and not just special enclaves.

And now, let’s make this personal. If you bear the name Christian, then you are Emmanuel in your world: in your marriage, your family, your school, your workplace, your neighborhood, your coffee shop, your bowling league, your exercise group, your book discussion group, your political party meeting, your club, your life. Are you good news of great joy there? Does your life proclaim, “Fear not!”? Do the people who know you want to go see this great thing that has come to pass in your life? If so, the Nativity of our Lord is more than history to you and to those around you: it is metaphor, it is living reality, it is the pattern of your life. There is born in you this day and every day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And those who witness the birth of the Savior in a human life -- if they but listen – will hear the heavenly host, and the earthly host as well, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth, peace among those
with whom he is pleased” (Luke 2:14, ESV)!

May the joy of our Lord’s birth be yours this day and every day. May Christ – Emmanuel – be with us and among us now and for ever. May we be Christ’s presence in the world proclaiming the good news of salvation to all people until Christ – our Emmanuel – shall come again to reign unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Collect: 4 Advent (23 December 2007)

God of Peace,
your eternal Word took flesh among us
when Mary placed her life at the service of your will.
Prepare our hearts for his coming again;
keep us steadfast in hope
and faithful in service,
that we may receive the coming of his kingdom,
for the sake of Jesus Christ the ruler of all,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Collect: 3 Advent

Almighty God,

You sent your Son into a world
where the wheat must be winnowed from the chaff
and wickedness clings even to what is good.
Let the fire of your Spirit purge us of greed and deceit,
so that, purified, we may find our peace in you
and you may delight in us.
We ask this through him whose coming is certain,
whose day draws near,
your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

Semon: 3 Advent (16 December 2007)

3 Advent : 16 December 2007
(Isaiah 35:1-10/Luke 1:46b-55/James 5:7-10/Matthew 11:2-11)
Dark Night of the Soul

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Great saints – men and women like us in kind though perhaps different in degree – often experience a dark night of the soul, a time when the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit are apparently withdrawn. It is a time when the presence of God is known only by its absence, when his mercy feels harder than stone, when prayers reach no higher than the ceiling and are met only with silence. It is a wilderness time. I’m not referring to the typical waxing and waning of devotion, to the cycles in the spiritual life that we all experience. I’m not referring to the gradual cooling of fervor of the newly converted. I’m not referring to a falling away from the faith. No: I’m referring to the utter desolation of the utterly faithful. I’m referring to Jesus crying out from the cross in extremis, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I’m referring to Jesus, utterly abandoned, utterly alone in his moment of deepest need, searching, crying for his God and Father who has gone inexplicably missing. The dark night of the soul, the Spanish mystic John of the Cross described it in the 16th century. Thérèse of Lisieux knew it in the 19th century and Mother Teresa experienced this sense of abandonment almost continually from 1948 through her death in 1997. Some think it a great grace given to great saints by God, a gift to draw them even closer to God-As-He-Is by destroying all false images of God-As-We-Want-Him-To-Be. Some think it a weaning from the selfish love of the gifts of God – peace and consolation – to the pure love of God himself solely for himself. If it is gift, I am not anxious to receive it. If weaning, I’m not anxious to mature.

It’s all there in Scripture, too. Job lost wealth, family, standing, health. And all this he could stand. What nearly broke him was his loss of confidence in the righteousness of God, the destruction of his understanding of God, the loss of the presence of God. He longed, more than anything else to plead his cause before the LORD, to see the LORD face to face. This was Job’s dark night. Elijah, that faithful prophet of Israel, running for his life from the idolatrous Queen Jezebel, ran right into the dark night of the soul and asked the LORD to take his life. He could no longer sense the LORD: not in the earthquake, wind, or fire – until finally the LORD spoke in the quietness, in a still, small, voice. Read the Psalms. David was no stranger to the darkness. That man after God’s own heart was often left alone and desolate, seeking for God but not finding him. This dark night of the soul seems to be common to our great ancestors in the faith; I suspect it is common to the great saints among us even now, though it seems rarely mentioned.

And now there is John, son of Zechariah, called the Baptist: the herald of the kingdom, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, the forerunner of the Lord, the one of whom Jesus himself said, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Mt 11:11a, NRSV). This John, the prophet of the Most High, sits alone, chained in Herod’s prison, in his own dark night of the soul. The certainty with which he proclaimed Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” is but a dim memory. His own sense of calling – of being caught up in God’s great messianic plan – seems to be evaporating. He looks for God but his eyes do not see. He listens for God but his ears do not hear. He seeks to walk the way of God but his ankles are chained. He remembers those days by the Jordan when he confronted the Pharisees and Sadducees: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Mt 3:11, NRSV). One is coming. John cries out in prison, perhaps in confusion, perhaps in desolation, certainly in his dark night of the soul: “Are you that one, Jesus? Or must we go on waiting?”

John sent his disciples to ask Jesus those very questions: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another” (Mt 11:3, NRSV)? These are simple enough questions, almost yes or no. Yes, I am the one. No, you need wait no longer. But Jesus doesn’t give simple answers; Jesus almost never gives simple answers. Instead he speaks into John’s dark night of the soul: speaks light into being there dazzling dimmed eyes, speaks words of life there shattering the silence.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Mt 11:4-6, ESV).

I don’t know about the dark night of the saints and mystics. Beyond the seemingly random ups and downs of my own spiritual experience I’ve never felt a profound absence of God, a prolonged time when prayer seemed especially empty. Perhaps you only notice such things when your normal experience of God is much more acute than mine. But this I do know: Jesus came to end the dark night of the soul, for all and for ever. Jesus came to be Emmanuel – God with us – and not Deus Absconditus – God absent from us. Jesus came to be the Logos – the Word of God – for all with ears to hear and not the silence of God. Jesus came to be the Light of the World in whom there is no darkness at all. Jesus came to be the way for the crippled and lame to walk, the good news for the poor to hear, and the life eternal for the dead to live. Jesus came to be the Daystar and not the dark night. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist – that John who now sits in his own dark night awaiting word from Jesus – Zechariah prophesied about the end of the dark night of the soul in and through the Messiah, Jesus – the Messiah that John, himself, had announced.

In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the
shadow of death, *
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
The Song of Zechariah, BCP 21

And so Jesus answers the disciples of John.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Was that answer enough for John? I’d like to think so. I’d like to think the dawn from on high broke upon him in his prison even as his daddy foretold.

Jesus went about doing what prophets go about doing, proclaiming the kingdom of God in word and in symbolic action. For Jesus, the coming of that Kingdom meant the end of the dark night of the soul: first for his people, the new Israel gathered about him, and secondly for all who would believe on his name, even those far off, even us. And so, by word and deed, Jesus banished that dark night. How many blind men did Jesus heal: ten, twenty, one hundred, more? And each pair of eyes opened was a symbolic proclamation that the dark night was over. How many times did Jesus say, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”: ten, twenty, one hundred, more? And each pair of ears that turned his way was a symbolic proclamation that the silence of God was over. How many paralytics did Jesus set to dancing: ten, twenty, one hundred, more? And each pair of feet dancing along God’s highway – the Holy Way – was a symbolic proclamation that the exile was over. How many mothers’ sons and fathers’ daughters did Jesus call back from the place of the dead: ten, twenty, one hundred, more? And each beating heart was a symbolic proclamation that the gloom of the shadow of death was over.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

I don’t know about the dark night of the saints and mystics, but I do know a dark night when I see it. And I see it everywhere I look: in the hopelessness of inner city neighborhoods and warehouse schools; in the over-capacity homeless shelters and overflow underpasses; in bullet-riddled school rooms and mall stores; in bombed out communities in Iraq that will never be rebuilt and in flooded out communities in New Orleans that have yet to be rebuilt; in the coal-covered faces of the working poor in Appalachia; in the botoxed and plasticized faces of the formerly famous and powerful in Hollywood; in the pantiless escapades of Britney Spears and the drunken escapades of Paris Hilton; in the sexual exploitation of students by teachers and alter boys by priests; in the binge drinking campus parties – high school and college – and the escalating drug use in our own region; in the desperate fear of deportation in the illegal alien and the desperate fear of the illegal alien in honest, hardworking, upstanding citizens; in the digital addiction of people who cannot stand the thought of being disconnected – of introspective quiet – for more than a few seconds; in the horn-honking, finger-flipping, tail-gating drivers who menace our highways; in the always more-is-better consumers in shop after shop after shop; in the perpetually peppy, prosperity-peddling, mega-church moguls on television and book covers; in the cynical, jaded, been-there-done-that–moved-on critics of the faith; in the looking-for-the-next-fix religion junkies moving from church to church and experience to experience. Yes, I know a dark night when I see it. And I see it everywhere I look.

Are you the one, Jesus, or should we look for another?

Go and tell them what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.

Sometimes people come to us – stumbling in their dark night of the soul they’re not even sure they have – and ask just that: Is Jesus really the one, or should we look for another? And how are we to answer? These are simple enough questions, almost yes or no: Yes, he’s the one and No, you need look for no other. But a simple answer isn’t the way of Jesus and cannot be the way of those who would follow him. Come and see: that’s the answer. You must decide for yourself based upon what you see and hear: that’s the answer. But before we dare answer this way, we must be sure that we are busy opening the eyes of the blind, dancing with the lame, washing the sores of the lepers, singing songs of joy into unstopped ears, breathing life into dead bodies and hopeless situations, and preaching the good news to the poor, in part by ending their poverty.

The early church grew, in spite of suspicion and on-again-off-again persecution, because theirs was a community in which the dark night had given way to the dawn from on high.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (Act 2:42-47, ESV).

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need (Acts 4:32-35, ESV).

Is Jesus the one, or should we look for another? Well, come and see Jesus alive among his people – still opening eyes and ears with truth, still raising up the fallen, still announcing good news to the poor, still visiting orphans and widows in their distress, still welcoming the aliens and the outcasts, still praying for enemies, still forgiving one another, still serving the least and forgotten, still taking up crosses and laying down lives, still loving. Then, go tell what you have seen and heard. Of course this kind of answer only works if we are actually doing all these things.


Saturday, December 8, 2007

Collect: Advent 2

Merciful God,

You sent your messengers the prophets
to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation.
Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins,
that we may greet with joy
the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.


Sermon: 2 Advent (9 December 2007)

1 Advent: 9 December 2007
(Isaiah 11:1-10/Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19/Romans 15:4-13/Matthew 3:1-12)
Isaiah and House

May grace come and this world pass away. Come, Lord Jesus.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I generally don’t care for television: the Family Channel isn’t and the reality shows aren’t; sex is glorified – often between kids (they think they’re adults, but they’re kids) – and faith is ignored or ridiculed; heroes are essentially indistinguishable from villains, except the villains are usually portrayed as more interesting. All in all, television is a medium that aimed very low and undershot.

Except for House. I know I shouldn’t like House for so many reasons. Gregory House is the prototypical, modern, television anti-hero: self-absorbed, sex-obsessed, manipulative. He is an atheist who hates the fact that he’s not God. He is abusive to his patients, his colleagues, and what few friends he has. House gets by with this – and I guess I watch the show – because he’s brilliant and it’s fun to watch his mind work. And, I keep hoping for some redemption, hoping that House isn’t beyond hope.

For the first three seasons a team of three specialists assisted House: Foreman, a neurologist; Cameron, an immunologist; and Chase, an intensivist (a specialist in the treatment of critically ill patients). It was interesting to watch each doctor interpret a patient’s symptoms through the lens of his or her own specialty. Foreman always diagnosed a brain or central nervous system disorder, Cameron an autoimmune disease, and Chase – ever the suck-up – whatever he thought would endear him to House. It consistently fell to House to look beyond the narrow confines of the specialties to the larger problem, to the one diagnosis that tied together all the disparate symptoms. And therein lies the character’s brilliance.

The narrow-mindedness of the specialists is almost an unavoidable problem: If the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem becomes a nail. I’ve done it myself time and time again – filtered a problem through my narrow set of experiences and expectations, totally misdiagnosed the situation, and developed a great solution for an entirely different problem, a solution that could not possibly work for the real situation at hand. It is true: your perception, your understanding of the problem determines the nature of the solution you will propose. It’s true in medicine – even on television. It’s true in business. It’s true in family life. And it’s true in faith.

Advent is the story of cracked eikons, the story of men and women created in God’s image who through rebellion and sin defaced that image. And that rebellion effected the entire created order: it corrupted human relationships with self, others, God, and creation; it brought death into the world; and it subjected all creation to futility. The disease man now carries – we rightly call it sin – has many different symptoms: in one it manifests as lust, in another greed, and in yet another anger. Just as with a medical specialist, the symptoms you focus on will determine the nature of the cure you propose.

Isaiah is with us again today as the great prophet of Advent. He is with us as one of us – a cracked eikon living amidst cracked eikons. He puts it a bit differently at the beginning of his prophetic ministry, but it amounts to the same.

1In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!"

4And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5And I said: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts" (Is 6:1-5, ESV)!

As Isaiah looks about and considers the state of his people Judah, several symptoms of the sin that infects the nation are apparent: true wisdom is in short supply, as is fear of the LORD; judgment is often perverted or withheld; the poor are systematically oppressed; the meek are denied equity. Isaiah filters these symptoms through his experience, through his specialty – under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we believe – and proposes a cure for the patient: a new righteous king from the Davidic dynasty. And, prophetically, he sees one on the horizon, though perhaps quite far off.

1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit (Is 11:1, ESV).

The great trunk of David’s line was felled by the division of the kingdom: only two generations, David and Solomon, ruled a united Israel. Upon Solomon’s death, and his son Reheboam’s folly, ten tribes seceded from the nation to form the northern kingdom of Israel. Two tribes, collectively called Judah, remained with the Davidic dynasty. The dynasty that should have been a massive tree had, by Isaiah’s time, been reduced to little more than a stump. And the stump itself had begun to rot as successive kings – with a few notable exceptions – moved Judah farther from God and away from the Law.

So, Isaiah prescribes a new king, a true son and heir of David as the cure for the nation’s social and spiritual illness. He envisions a king who blends David’s righteousness and justice with Solomon’s wisdom.

1There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.2And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.3And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear,4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.5Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins.

This king’s rule will be Spirit-filled: wisdom and understanding and counsel and might and knowledge – all these from the Spirit of the LORD. And these result in righteous judgments, not based on human perceptions of sight and sound, but upon the fear of the LORD and upon faithfulness. The poor and the meek will rejoice in Isaiah’s king; he will bring the justice and equity so long denied them and exercise the preferential option for the poor that God mandates in the Law. He will be the incarnation of Psalm 72, a coronation psalm of Solomon likely used for generations to come.

Give the King you justice, O God,
and your righteousness to the King’s Son;
That he may rule your people righteously
and the poor with justice;
That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people,
and the little hills bring righteousness.
He shall defend the needy among the people;
he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.
He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure,
from one generation to another.
He shall come down like rain upon the mown field,
like showers that water the earth.
In his time shall the righteous flourish;
there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.
All kings shall bow down before him,
and all the nations do him service.
For he shall deliver the poor who cries out in distress,
and the oppressed who has no helper.
He shall have pity on the lowly and poor;
he shall preserve the lives of the needy.
He shall redeem their lives from oppression and violence,
and dear shall their blood be in his sight
(Ps 72:1-7, 11-14, BCP).

Yes, this is Isaiah’s cure for what ails his people – a Spirit-filled king of righteousness brought forth from David’s line to reign faithfully over God’s renewed people Judah.

Until this point, Isaiah has been playing the specialist; his is the voice of a Foreman or Cameron or Chase, looking narrowly at the symptoms of his people while the real problem lies much deeper. All creation is out of joint, in bondage to decay, groaning as a woman in childbirth awaiting delivery. There are none righteous, none who seek after God. Sin and death reign supreme. There’s no room for a specialist here; we need House to see the big picture, to look at all the symptoms and diagnose the underlying problem. And Isaiah now does just that. He broadens his vision – the Spirit broadens his vision – to a time beyond his, to a people beyond his, to the day when the true Davidic king – son of David and Son of God – will appear to renew all creation. Isaiah looks to the day when, through the true King of kings,

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as waters cover the sea (Is 11:6-9, ESV).

This is nothing less than the return to Eden. This is the restoration of the cracked eikons and the renewal of all creation. This is Isaiah’s grand Advent vision, a vision that will come to pass through the King of Righteousness. Did Isaiah know who he was, who he was to be? It’s doubtful; the Spirit spoke through Isaiah for our benefit, not for his. The prophecy is for our time, not for his.

Isaiah never saw his righteous king. Judah continued its downward slide toward destruction, often led by its unrighteous kings. There were a couple of notable exceptions – the good kings Hezekiah and Josiah – but their religious and social reforms were short-lived and quickly rolled back by their successors. So, Isaiah waited. Isaiah watched. Isaiah prophesied. And Isaiah died with his prophecy yet unfulfilled, with his longing unsatisfied, with his dream of restoration unrealized. Perhaps that’s what makes Isaiah the great Advent prophet. He knew how to wait and how to remain faithful in the waiting.

There is another great Advent prophet, though, some seven centuries after Isaiah, who saw the Righteous King – who not only prophesied his coming, but who announced it. This great prophet proclaimed, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mt 3:1-3, NRSV).

Isaiah saw the righteous king afar. John saw him near. Isaiah waited in faith for his coming; that’s what made Isaiah an Advent prophet. John announced his immanent arrival; that’s what made John an Advent prophet.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Then Jesus came…(Mt 3:11-13a, NRSV).

The wait is over. Isaiah’s righteous king has arrived in the person of an unknown, carpenter-turned-rabbi from the sticks of Nazareth, a descendant of David of somewhat questionable birth – hardly what Isaiah had in mind. This king will have no palace; he will be homeless. This king will not reign; he will serve. This king will win no military victories; he will lay down his life. This king will have no throne; he will have a cross. Had Isaiah seen all this would he have understood? Probably not, at least no better than those who witnessed the events; that is, not at all. Isaiah the specialist wanted a cure for Judah, for God’s covenant people. That’s far too small. The Righteous King who came and who is to come, brought the cure – is the cure – for all creation. He is the perfect eikon of God who alone can restore all cracked eikons and release creation from bondage. He came not to rescue Isaiah’s Judah, but to create a new Judah from every language, tongue, tribe, and nation – a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father and our God and Father. He came to fulfill Isaiah’s universal vision. He came, not as Foreman or Cameron or Chase might have predicted, but as House surely would have.

So we’re told, and so we believe. But that’s not what I see. Is our world any less corrupt than Isaiah’s Judah? Are the poor and the meek in substantially better condition now? Are justice and faithfulness evident in our societies? Does the wolf dwell with the lamb and the leopard with the goat? Are children safe and free from fear? Is the earth full of the knowledge of the LORD as waters cover the sea? No and no and no and no and no and no. No to all these questions and to a thousand like them. Like Isaiah we are stuck in Advent, with a vision of what is far but not near, then but not now. We believe the Righteous King has appeared. We believe that his incarnation, ministry, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension truly accomplished all that Isaiah foretold and much that Isaiah could not see. We believe that cracked eikons are even now being restored to the image of God and a new and holy people are being created around and in and through Jesus, the Righteous King. We believe that sin and death are vanquished foes with no power to terrify or destroy. We believe and we await the completion of all these things.

Like Isaiah we are called to be great prophets of Advent. We have a true vision of what will be when Christ, the Righteous King, is all and in all. We announce that vision now. We work for and pray for that vision now. We live within that vision now. We live out that vision now, in our families and communities, in our churches and in schools and in our places of business through acts of faithfulness and righteousness and justice, through a preferential option for the poor and meek, through service, and through peace. We watch for the small signs that that vision is emerging and growing and happening among us even now. Like John we say, “The kingdom of God is at hand,” and like Isaiah we say, “The day of the Lord is coming.” It’s a strange Advent we live: an already but not yet time, a fulfilled but incomplete promise. The great advantage we have over Isaiah is this: we have seen the coming of the Righteous King. Now we await his coming again.


Sunday, December 2, 2007

Collect: Advent 1

Faithful God,
your promises stand unshaken through all generations.
Renew us in hope,
that we may be awake and alert
watching for the glorious return of Jesus Christ,
our judge and savior,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

Sermon: 1 Advent (2 December 2007)

Advent 1: 2 December 2007
(Isaiah 2:1-5/Psalm 122/Romans 13:11-14/Matthew 24:36-44)
Act 1: Problem and Waiting

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we enter a new season in the worship of the church: Advent. Many differences are obvious: rich hues of purple and blue replace the green and white of the previous season; the Advent Candles reappear after a year’s absence; neither the Gloria nor the alleluia is heard in our liturgy for a time – and that marks a change to a penitential season with an increased emphasis on the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, spiritual reading, and almsgiving. None of these changes is cosmetic only; there is significance to each element of the church’s observance of Advent. Of course, not all churches mark these changes; not all churches observe Advent or follow the liturgical calendar. These practices are, after all, inventions of men not mandated by, or even specifically mentioned in, Scripture. Though they are not part of my spiritual heritage, I now find great value and deep meaning in them. In fact, the longer I try to understand and live the gospel of Jesus Christ the more important Advent seems to me. I think it is a self-impoverished church that fails to observe Advent; I know it is a self-impoverished culture that neglects it.

Formal Advent observance dates from the 6th century, though informal, local observances may have begun even earlier. All this is still relatively early in the development of the Christian liturgical calendar. Advent marks the beginning of the church year. Why Advent? we might ask, and probably should ask. The church could have chosen Christmas, the celebration of the incarnation – Emmanuel, God with us, -- the birth of Jesus as a fitting start to the year. Or it might have selected Easter, the moment of new creation, new birth, as an appropriate marker. There is an argument to be made for Pentecost, the birth of the church – the moment of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the creation of a holy people – as a candidate for Christian New Year. Each of these days – Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost – is a single, significant moment in the life of the church and speaks of beginnings of one sort or another. But none of them would do to mark the beginning of the Christian year – at least not as well as Advent. Each of these other moments – Christmas, Easter, Pentecost – is an essential act in God’s great redemptive drama of atonement. Each of these moments is a crucial part of the solution to the problem of creation gone wrong. Each of the moments is a partial answer to the question of how God intends to put creation to rights again. But none falls rightly in the opening act of the drama; all emerge later as the play unfolds. Advent is the opening act.

It’s dark. The moon glistens on the barren, snow-covered prairie and a fierce wind whips the snow along the ground. In the distance there’s the sound of approaching horses, growing louder as two riders come galloping into view, heads held low, eyes squinting against the wind. Everything about these men tells a tale of urgency. The riders notice a faint light in the distance and change course a bit to head directly for it. The light becomes a lonely farmhouse and they spur their horses onward, sure now of their destination. As they arrive and hurriedly dismount the door swings open to reveal a young woman who rushes out onto the porch to embrace one of the men. Together they hustle the other rider inside and the door closes. So ends Act 2 of our play. Your task is to write Act 1, the opening act.

Well, the options are seemingly endless, aren’t they? Countless Act 1 scripts could come from what we’ve seen of Act 2. We have the sense that every detail is important: the location – especially the isolation of the farmhouse – the timeframe – when horses were still the primary mode of transportation – the apparent urgency of the riders – galloping across the prairie at night – the eagerness of the woman and her apparent familiarity – perhaps even intimacy – with only one of the riders. Important details, yes, but, we don’t know what to do with any of them. We lack the context for rightly interpreting them. If there is a right answer, a true script for Act 1, we’re unlikely to recreate it here. Oh, we’ll come up with something, just probably not the right thing.

Lest you wonder, here’s the real Act 1 – my sermon, my story, my play, so this is the right answer.

The small house is lit only with oil lamps. The young woman rocks her infant child and from time to time feels her cheek. The fever is worsening. It’s been two days since the child has eaten and now she’s becoming lethargic and unresponsive. The young man, the baby’s father, is pacing the floor. “I’ve got to go now!” he says firmly. “But the snow…” she questions. “It doesn’t matter,” he responds. “The doctor is day and a-half away. If I don’t start now, it may be too late,” he says as he grabs a coat, a canteen, and a couple of biscuits. “I’ll bring him. I promise. You just wait here for us. Do what you can. Pray. Look for us in about three day.” And with that, the man is gone, into the snow and the night, galloping across the open prairie toward his only hope. And the young mother? All she can do is wait and pray, in hope that the doctor will arrive in time, in fear that he might not. She listens for the sound of horses.

Do you see how Act 1 gives meaning to the details of Act 2? Each significant moment in Act 2 is a crucial part of the solution to the problem presented in Act 1. Each significant moment in Act 2 depends on Act 1 for its proper meaning. Only Act 1 can rightly serve as the beginning of the play. Problem and waiting: these are the keys to Act 1. Unless we know the problem and what we are waiting for, Act 2 makes no sense.

So it is with Advent. Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost are all Act 2 (or even Act 3) events; they are partial solutions to a problem that arises in Act 1. We will never understand these solutions unless we know the nature of the problem and what we are waiting for. And that is precisely what Advent is all about: problem and waiting. And that is precisely why Advent must mark the beginning of the church year – it is the beginning of the story we tell, the story we find ourselves in.

Let me give just one example of the kind of problem that arises when Advent is ignored. Christmas. That’s the problem. In our first world, Western culture, Christmas is a travesty. And I think this is true in large part because our modern culture doesn’t understand, and thus ignores, Advent. Without Advent, Christmas is a solution in search of a problem – an Act 2 with no Act 1. Our culture fills this vacuum by defining the problem on its own terms, by writing Act 1 – and it gets it exactly wrong. It seems that our society can conceive of no greater problem than the lack of personal happiness, the absence of self-satisfaction. And we all know what it takes to be happy: more stuff! If you define the essential human problem in this way, then a Christmas celebration that focuses almost exclusively on conspicuous consumption is the logical outcome. But start with Advent, with a true understanding of the fundamental human condition and need, and it is lot harder to say, “Christ the Savior is born. Here, have a tie.” We need Advent to set the context for Christmas, for Easter, for Pentecost – for the entire human condition.

More than any other, I consider Isaiah to be the great Advent prophet. His are the words that define the human problem. His are the words that call us to wait on our powerful and gracious God for the solution. His is Act 1.

4 Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity,
offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly!
They have forsaken the LORD,
they have despised the Holy One of Israel,
they are utterly estranged (Is 1:4, ESV).

Isaiah knows the true problem of the human condition, and it’s not the lack of stuff: it’s the presence of sin. God created man in his own image, to be his eikons – his image-bearers. He created man in perfect relationship with one another, with the created order, and with God himself. He set tasks before us: stewardship, fruitfulness, obedience. But we rejected these and we rejected God. We sinned through our own fault. And, to borrow Scot McKnight’s imagery[1], we became cracked eikons. And this sin which cracked God’s eikons also cracked all our relationships – with ourselves, with others, with the created order, and with God.

I’ve enjoyed watching Susan, our resident iconographer, guide our girls in the writing of an eikon during the past few weeks. I’ve especially appreciated her reassuring mantra: “There’s no mistake you can make that we can’t fix.” Susan may have heard that at one of the eikon workshops she attended, but it originates with God, himself. Looking at his cracked eikons in the Garden, I imagine our God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – whispering over fallen man, “There’s no mistake you can make that we can’t fix.” And so God set about the process of restoring his eikons, of renewing his image in man.

God established covenants with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – covenants that called into being a people, a single people blessed to be a blessing to all peoples. Through this people God began restoring his cracked eikons. God delivered his people in the Exodus – the defining moment in the life of God’s first-covenant people – delivered them from oppression, led them through the sea to freedom, and revealed himself to them through the Law. Restored eikons must be holy as God himself is holy, and the Law showed them how a holy people lives in a holy society. The Law moved them toward restored eikonic relationships – with self, with others, with the created order, and with God. God led them into the land he had promised on oath to their fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey, and established them there in safety and prosperity. God raised up judges and prophets and kings to call the people to righteousness, faithfulness, and justice – all this to restore his cracked eikons.

This was the history of Isaiah’s people, a history of God’s refusal to abandon his cracked eikons. But it was also the history of those cracked eikons refusing God’s restorative grace. God made them a people, delivered them from oppression, gave them the Law, settled them in a land, and established their kingdom – all acts of restoration. The people rejected God and worshipped pagan deities; forgot God’s deliverance and neglected Passover observance; acted unjustly and unfaithfully and ignored righteousness; and split the kingdom asunder through civil war. The northern part of the kingdom – Israel – had been conquered by the Assyrians. The southern kingdom, Judah, was awaiting imminent destruction by the Babylonians. And God laments over his cracked eikons, eikons which refuse to be restored.

2 Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the LORD has spoken:"Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me.3The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib,but Israel does not know, my people do not understand" (Is 1:2-3, ESV).

And Isaiah, the great prophet of Advent, joins God in the lament by singing a song to God, a song of God’s vineyard.

1Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard:My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.2He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
3And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,judge between me and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
5And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.6I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting;and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed;for righteousness, but behold, an outcry (Is 5:1-7, ESV)!

And this is the problem of Advent in a nutshell: God’s cracked eikons refusing his restoring grace. Isaiah is left to wait, trusting that what God has whispered is true: “There’s no mistake you can make that we can’t fix.” Amidst a land of cracked eikons, from deep within his waiting, Isaiah speaks:

2 It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORDshall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills;and all the nations shall flow to it, 3and many peoples shall come, and say:"Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob,that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths."For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.4He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD (Is 2:2-5, ESV).

“It shall come to pass.” Wait on it. The Lord will yet have his way. The cracked eikons will be restored. In this problem, in this waiting, in this hope lies Advent, Act 1. Christmas, Easter, Pentecost: all these lie in Act 2. All these are moments in the solution of the Advent problem. All these are moments in the fulfillment of Advent waiting. Only in the light of Advent is Christmas more than stuff, Easter more than marshmallow bunnies, and Pentecost more than just another Sunday. Advent is the only proper beginning.

I’ve heard that the first step to true recovery is to admit that you have a problem. “Hi. I’m John and I’m an alcoholic.” If that’s true then maybe the church should focus more on Advent for awhile and less on Christmas. The world has a problem: it is populated with cracked eikons who need not more personal happiness, not more self-satisfaction, not more artificially manufactured self-esteem, but rather God’s restorative grace. And let’s be clear – the church doesn’t look much better. We may have submitted ourselves to God for restoration, but we’re not very far along in the process, and we are doing everything we can to avoid the hard work and discipline of that restoration. We, too, need the Advent message. We, too, need to hear God’s lament and join Isaiah in the Song of the Vineyard. We may just need to live awhile in Act 1 before Act 2 makes any sense.


[1] A Community Called Atonement, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007).

Friday, November 23, 2007

Sermon: Christ the King (25 November 2007)

Christ the King: 25 November 2007
(Jeremiah 23:1-6/Psalm 46/Colossians 1:11-20/Luke 23:33-43)
Jesus for President

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In 1801 Thomas Jefferson won a hotly contested presidential election, made more contentious by issues of religion. His opponents accused Jefferson of being an atheist and stirred fears that, if elected, he might abolish the free expression of religion, close churches, and confiscate Bibles. The Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut was also concerned about religious freedom, but for another reason altogether. Congregationalism was the officially recognized state religion of Connecticut and the Baptists there had apparently heard rumors that Jefferson intended to make that federal policy, thus establishing the Congregationalist Church as the national church. This would, of course, marginalize the Baptists on a grand and official scale. They wrote to Jefferson congratulating him on his recent victory and seeking assurances that he would respect their rights as a religious minority. His response has profoundly affected the way we think of, and even speak of, the relationship between church and government to this day. In part he wrote:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

Here, Jefferson appeals directly to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

But Jefferson went farther than the strict language of the Constitution by advocating the erection of a wall of separation between church and State. It is Jefferson’s concept and language that often dominate discussions of the relationship between religion and politics.

How solid is the wall of separation between Church and State? Has the state any role in the regulation of religious practice? Well, yes, but only to the extent that religious practice would otherwise violate state or national law: no religious group could defend human sacrifice for example – or even the sacramental use of marijuana – on the basis of the First Amendment because these activities are outlawed, not for religious reasons, but for societal ones. But the State cannot establish a national religion or interfere with the legal practice of any religion. The wall is pretty solid from that direction.

But what about the other direction: has the church any role in the political process? (And here I narrowly restrict myself to a discussion of the Christian church; I have neither the right, the knowledge, nor the desire to speak more broadly – for mosque, temple, or other worshipping community.) There really is no consensus among Christians on this issue; rather, there is a continuum of thought. At one extreme of this continuum lies absolute withdrawal of the church from the political process: no holding political office, no voting, no military service, and the like. At the other extreme lies active engagement with the political process, engagement intended to influence and utilize the legislative process for Christian purposes: ban abortion, return prayer and the Ten Commandments to schools and all public life, feed the poor, and the like. The wall is more porous from this direction: too porous for some, not nearly enough for others.

Regardless of where you fall along this continuum – or perhaps even if you hover somewhere above it – it’s difficult not to recognize Christianity as an essentially political endeavor. Our faith is about creating a people, a kingdom and priests for our God (Rev 5:10) drawn from every language and nation, and that is political. Our God is the only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Tim 6:15), and that is political. Our Savior, Jesus is Lord (1 Cor 12:3) – so we believe and so we proclaim – and Caesar is not, and that is political. Jesus, the King of the Jews, is born in a manger and Herod, puppet king and vassal of Rome, trembles with fear in his palace, and that is political. John the Baptist heralds the advent of the Messiah and condemns the immorality of Herod the tetrarch, and this Herod imprisons John and beheads him, and that is political. This Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, rides into Jerusalem on a donkey hailed by the people as the Savior, the son of David, and that is political. The Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians and the priests openly oppose Jesus and secretly plot to murder him and that is political. Pilate, the Roman procurator, flogs Jesus and crucifies him with a sign atop the cross announcing to all: King of the Jews. And that is political. This same Jesus harrows hell and burst asunder its gates, for death could not hold him – so proclaims Peter at Pentecost:

This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified (Acts 2:23-24, 36, ESV).

And that is political. Thomas Jefferson notwithstanding, Jesus destroyed once and for all the wall of separation between Church and state long before our founding fathers even sought to erect it. Our faith – the faith in the Lord Jesus Christ – is necessarily political because it is the announcement that the Kingdom of God is at hand in and through the redemptive work of the Lord Jesus Christ and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.

Since all this is political, then on this Christ the King Sunday, I say let’s start a grassroots movement to elect Jesus for President. Can you imagine the campaign? Just picture Jesus on stage at a debate among all potential candidates. The moderator begins.

Moderator: Mr. Christ, the first question is for you. Where do you stand on family values?

Jesus: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26, ESV). 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Mt 10:35-39, ESV).

OK. That didn’t go so well. Jesus’s handlers will need to work on that one before the next debate. Let’s move on, put that topic behind us, and try to recover.

Moderator: Mr. Nazareth (Let me interrupt to say we’ve got to work on this name recognition thing a bit – the moderator doesn’t even know what to call our candidate!) – Mr. Nazareth, immigration is a divisive issue in our country just now. How would you address immigration?

Jesus: "A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. 17And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, 'Come, for everything is now ready.' 18But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, 'I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.' 19And another said, 'I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.' 20And another said, 'I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.' 21So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, 'Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.' 22And the servant said, 'Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.' 23And the master said to the servant, 'Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. 24For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet,'" (Luke 14:16-24, ESV).

Oh no! Didn’t we talk about this? Sound bites, sound bites, not more stories! What works on a hillside in Galilee doesn’t necessarily translate to the debating stage. Well we can’t worry about that now; the Moderator is starting again.

Moderator: Mr. Galilee, the Social Security system is headed toward bankruptcy in just a few years. How would your administration assure that our senior citizens receive adequate provision?

Jesus: "Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. 23For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 26If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? 27Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 28But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! 29And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. 30For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.
32"Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” (Luke 12:22-34, ESV).

Moderator: I’m not certain I understand your answer, Mr. Messiah. Are you telling everyone that, even though the Social Security fund will shortly be empty, they should not worry? Is that your plan?

Jesus: "The land of a rich man produced plentifully, 17and he thought to himself, 'What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?' 18And he said, 'I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' 20But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' 21So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God," (Luke 12:16-21, ESV).

Well, the other candidates are loving this. All they have to do to score points is keep their mouths closed, shake their heads, and roll their eyes. The Moderator again.

Moderator: As a result of the 911 attacks, we are presently engaged in wars on two separate fronts: Afghanistan and Iraq. National security and the war on terror are perhaps the two most important and challenging issues of our time. As Commander-in-Chief how will you exercise your responsibility to defend our country from all aggression, both foreign and domestic?

38"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' 39But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles,”(Matthew 5:38-41, ESV).

Well, let’s end our fictional debate here. It’s really already over, isn’t it, at least for candidate Jesus? There never was any real hope of election. I’ve listened to snippets of recent presidential debates and speeches and not one of the candidates – though we have Baptists, Catholics, Mormons, and Church of Christ represented – not one of these men or women who claim to follow Jesus as Lord has espoused even one of his ideas on how to live in this world. Oh, they all have ideas about how either to prosecute the war or extricated our troops from it, but none of them advocates a strict stance of peace: none says, “Do not resist the one who is evil.” Oh, they all have ideas about immigration – building fences, widening the Rio Grande, granting limited amnesty – but not a one of them says, “Go and compel the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame to come in that our nation may be filled.” Oh they have ideas about our economic issues – taxes, social security, the stock market, trickle-down or bottom-up economies – but not one of them talks about laying up treasures in heaven and being rich before God. Every single one of them acts publicly as if the Kingdom of God simply doesn’t exist or else doesn’t matter. And so generally does the Church. I mean, it’s just not practical or possible to live like Jesus said, is it? Surely he intends these principles to apply in the future when the Kingdom of God is fully realized? Yeah, we tell ourselves this and we’d like to believe it, but we know better. “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” Jesus said repeatedly over 2000 years ago – not just in the future, but already at hand. And he closed the Sermon on the Mount, his kingdom manifesto, with these sobering words:

15"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

21 "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' 23 And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness,'” (Mt 7:15-23, ESV).

As Christians, as resident aliens here, we simply cannot live among the nations of the world as if the Kingdom of God doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. To do so is to deny our King. It is to erect a wall of separation of Church and state that Jesus died and rose again to abolish. We celebrate Christ the King Sunday. It’s past time that the Church begins to live Christ the King Monday. It’s past time that the Church lives up to its name – ekklesia – the “called out ones,” those called out from among the peoples of the world to be holy unto God; those called out for mission – to return to the world announcing the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God in word and deed, in faith and practice. It’s past time to take Christ the King seriously.

Is such a life practical? No, not as the world might understand practical. But it is filled with promise.

24"Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock,” (Mt 7:24-25, ESV).

And now, to him who is the image of the invisible of God; the firstborn of all creation; the creator of all things seen and unseen, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities; the firstborn from the dead; the King of kings and Lord of lords; to Christ the King be glory and honor and power and dominion now and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Sermon: Thanksgiving Eve (21 November 2007)

Thanksgiving: 22 November 2007
(Deuteronomy 26:1-11/Psalm 100/Philippians 4:4-9/John 6:25-33)
Local Exception

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Eastern Orthodox churches are in the midst of their Advent fast: from November 15 through December 25 these Christians prepare themselves for the nativity of our Lord through fasting, prayer, spiritual reading, and almsgiving, much like our Western Lenten disciplines. So what about Thanksgiving, which falls near the beginning of the fast? No ham, no turkey and cranberry sauce? No dressing and broccoli casserole? No homemade bread and pumpkin pie? Well, let’s not grieve too much for our Orthodox brothers and sisters; they’ve worked this all out. Orthodox Christians in America are granted a local exception to the fast to allow for Thanksgiving observance; the fast is put on hold for the day, in the United States, to allow for local, American custom[1].

This solution, which might initially seem “hokey” to us, is actually quite elegant – and I think theologically sound – on so many levels. First there is the notion that for Christians, feasting takes precedent over fasting. While we should and do mourn our sins, we also celebrate the great redemption that is ours in Christ. While we fast from the things of earth for a time, we do so to build our appetites for the things of heaven so that we may feast all the more joyously on them. Fasting, rightly understood, is the prerequisite to all true feasting. Even in the midst of fasting periods – at least in the Western church – every Sunday is a feast day celebrating the resurrection of our Lord. Feasting takes precedence over fasting.

Then there is the notion that local custom – at least in some cases – takes precedence over universal practice. I just love this. It really follows St Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian Christians that the stronger brother ought to give way to the weaker so as not to damage his faith. If the Americans feel a need to celebrate a local holiday with feasting, well the universal church will give way and relax the fast so as not to tempt the Americans to break it. This is an act of grace to “weaker” brothers. What I love about this is the humility implied in the decision. And I’m not thinking primarily of the humble graciousness of the universal church. No, I’m thinking about the humility with which the American church must receive this kindness as the weaker brother in the body of Christ. And then there is the designation of Thanksgiving as a local custom. We are usually so jingoistic – so wrapped up in ourselves and convinced of our central place in the universe – that we can’t conceive of anything related to the United States as merely local. Surely the rest of the world observes our holidays! Sorry, no. So, the church makes a way for us to be who we are in the universal body of Christ without letting us forget that we no more or less important than any other member of that body. All this is a beautiful outworking of 1 Corinthians 8 – Paul’s instruction about eating meat offered to idols – a section many people skip, thinking it hopelessly outdated. It is refreshing and life-giving to see the church take that Word – take all the Word of God – seriously.

All of this has me thinking about Thanksgiving as a local, American custom. It seems only good and right that we should have such an observance; if ever a nation had cause for Thanksgiving, it is surely ours: this is not ethnocentrism – not national self-centeredness – but rather a humble acknowledgment of God’s many blessings to us. I feel personally and nationally as David, the sweet psalmist of Israel, did when he penned these words:

5The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. 6The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage (Ps 16:5-6, NRSV).

I understand why so many foreigners seek to enter the U.S. either legally or illegally: our boundary lines, our borders, do indeed enclose pleasant places; we do have a goodly heritage. So Thanksgiving ought to be a local, American custom; it’s only fitting and right. Oh, we have our problems, too, of course: homelessness, poverty, lingering racism, cultural disintegration, consumerism. But we have the means and resources to solve these problems; all we lack are the will and wisdom to do so. Pleasant places. Goodly heritage.

4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:4-7, NRSV).

Paul’s words to the Philippian Christians ring true here in the United States, here on the eve of our local observance of Thanksgiving. It is easy to rejoice when your boundary lines enclose pleasant places, when your real worries on Thanksgiving Day revolve around overeating or your favorite football team losing its game.

There is another world, though, other locales with other customs. In this other world more than 1.5 billion people live on less than a $1 a day. In this other world a child dies every three seconds from AIDS and extreme poverty, many before their fifth birthday. In this other world more than one billion people do not have access to clean water. In this other world more than 50 percent of Africans suffer from water-related diseases such as cholera and infant diarrhea. In this other world nore than 800 million people go to bed hungry every day, 300 million of them children. In this other world only eight percent of these 300 million children are victims of famine or other emergency situations. More than 90 percent are suffering long-term malnourishment and micronutrient deficiency. In this other world four out of every ten people don't have access even to a simple latrine. In this other world, in sub-Saharan Africa a woman has a 1 in 16 chance of dying in pregnancy, compareed with a 1 in 3,700 risk for a woman from North America.[2]

Yes, our boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places, but not so for this other world. I wonder if they have a local exception from the church to break their fast and celebrate Thanksgiving Day with feasting? Would it make any difference if they did? I wonder how they hear the text?

4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:4-7, NRSV).

The world into which Jesus came looked a lot like this other world: poverty, homelessness, hunger, brutality. His boundaries encompassed a manger and a cross. He knew all these harsh realities personally. He came to offer an exception: not a local one, but a universal exception. He came to be that exception.

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21‘Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.‘Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
22 ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you
on account of the Son of Man. 2323Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets (Luke 6:20-23, NRSV).

Break the fast. It is time for a new local custom that will be for all people. Feast on the bread of heaven. Drink living water from the springs of salvation. Raise the cup of the covenant. Come you poor. Come you hungry. Come you sorrowful. Come you persecuted. Come break your fast and join in the feast, for in Jesus the Kingdom of God is at hand. And that kingdom can be yours.

This is just another of the great paradoxes of our faith: that heirs of the Kingdom of God may be found living in abject poverty, that the hungry have life-giving bread of which the world knows nothing, that the homeless have an eternal dwelling with God, that those in deepest sorrow may yet rejoice in the Lord, that those burdened and crushed by the world may rise to walk in newness of life everlasting. Of course none of this releases us from our obligation to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and visit the orphans and widows and prisoners in their distress. But it gives us good news – gospel – to bring along with our turkey and dressing or peanut butter sandwiches and Vienna sausages or bags of rice and beans, our warm blankets, our socks and shoes and gloves, our rides to the shelter, our embrace. It gives us a feast to share with those who have known too much of fasting.

Orthodox or not, let us enjoy the local custom of Thanksgiving tomorrow. Eat. Drink. Rejoice in the Lord. And let us share the feast – the blessings of our table and the Lord’s Table – with the world.

[1] Ancient Faith Radio podcast of Frederica Mathews-Green, Frederic Here and Now, 11 November 2007, From Mennonite to Orthodox, available through i-Tunes.
[2] Taken from the Wikipedia article on extreme poverty.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Sermon: 25 Pentecost (18 November 2007)

25 Pentecost: 18 November 2007
(Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6/Psalm 72/Jude 20-25/John 14:1-14)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In prior centuries, when scholars were more broadly literate than today, mathematicians concluded their formal proofs with a Latin flourish: Q.E.D. you would see written at the end – quod erat demonstrandum, that which was to be proved. Now mainly you just see little rectangular boxes – some blackened in, some mere outlines – like you often find at the end of magazine articles: No need to turn the page, the article’s over, these boxes announce.

The Creed also comes to us from another time, from prior centuries when theologians seemingly were more broadly immersed in the full life of Christ’s costly gospel than today. Many of the framers of the creeds – certainly it’s the case with the Nicene Creed – still bore on their bodies the marks of Jesus Christ, marks branded on them in times of intense persecution, marks like medals of honor and faithfulness. Αμην, these heroes of the faith wrote at the end of the Creed in their Greek language – amen.

I would like to think that Q.E.D. was more than a grammatical stop sign in the earlier proofs. I would like to think it sounded a note of triumph, that it served as a bold affirmation of the truth of all that went before, that it challenged the student to make the proof his own and to explore – perhaps for a lifetime – the implications of that proof. For some, it was only an ending: no need to turn the page, the proof’s over. For others though, it was a beginning. I’ve completed the work I was given, says the author. Now what will you do with it? asks the Q.E.D.

I would like to think that Amen is more than a theological stop sign in the Creed. I would like to think that it, too, sounds a note of triumph, that it serves as a bold affirmation of the truth of all that goes before, and that it challenges the church to make the creed its own and to explore – for a lifetime and beyond – the implications of that creed. For some, amen is only an ending. The Creed’s over. Now we can hurry through the next part of the service and maybe beat the Baptists to Calhoun’s. For others though, it might just be a beginning. We’ve completed the work we’ve been given, the great saints say. Now what will you do with it? asks the amen.

Is there a sermon here, in this single word amen? I think so. I think there’s a whole life to be lived inside this single word. It just may be that amen is as close as we can come to a distillation of the whole Christian experience into a single word. Amen is a proclamation of truth, a shout of praise, an agreement of faith, and an acceptance of God’s will: all in a single word.

The sound of the amen was never far from Jesus’ lips, particularly in the Gospel of John. Three times in his short discourse with Nicodemus we hear it, doubled for emphasis: Αμην, αμην, λεγω σοι – Truly, truly, I say to you. Truly, truly: Amen is a proclamation of truth. Of course, that’s problematic in our present, Western culture which apparently values tolerance over truth, political correctness over truth, “spin” over truth – a culture in which truth is in diminishingly short supply. We say we want the truth but then we run kicking and screaming from it. “I want the truth,” says LTJG Kaffe in the film A Few Good Men. “You can’t handle the truth!” replies Col. Jessup. That could be the script of our times. Politicians routinely lie to us for power because they think we can’t handle the truth, the truth that citizens are often little more to them than votes and contributions in their quest for election. Businesses and advertisers routinely lie to us for profit because they think we can’t handle the truth, the truth that humans are little more to them than consumers and sources of revenue. Academic institutions routinely lie to us for pride and prominence because they think we can’t handle the truth, the truth that man is not the measure of man, the truth that there is a God and that we are not that God. Worst of all, peddlers of God’s word – men who preach the prosperity gospel of health, wealth, and success, and practice it by living in opulence from the contributions of their flock– routinely lie to us because they think we can’t handle the truth, the truth that discipleship means taking up your cross and laying down your life.

In the midst of all this deception comes Jesus with his bold proclamation: I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me. Αμην, αμην, λεγω σοι – Truly, truly, I say to you. Amen is a proclamation of truth. And so, the final word in the Creed is amen. By that single word we proclaim the truth of all that has gone before: that God is, that he created the heavens and the earth, that Jesus Christ is his Son and our Lord, that he was born of a virgin, that he suffered and died for our sins and rose again for our salvation, that he ascended into heaven, that he will come again, that we are his in the church and through the Holy Spirit, that we will one day stand before Christ the Judge, that our resurrected bodies will live forever in his presence. Amen. Truly it is so. We want the truth, the world says. This is it, we reply. Amen.

The sound of the amen was never far from Paul’s lips; it’s there in all his letters.

33 O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways! 34‘For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?’ 35‘Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?’ 36For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever. Amen (Rom 11:33-36, NRSV).

3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen (Gal 1:3-5, NRSV).

20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen (Eph 3:20-21, NRSV).

20To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen (Phil 4:20, NRSV).

17To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever.
Amen (1 Tim 1:17).

On and on they flow from his heart and pen, these doxologies, these words of glory. Amen. Amen. If there is a natural language of humankind, a tongue heard in Eden before the fall, it is the language of praise. Amen. Amen. And when all is said and done, when Christ has trampled all enemies under his feet, when God is all and in all, it will be the language of praise that echoes throughout all space and time unto the ages of ages. Amen. Amen.

13Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lambbe blessing and honour and glory and mightfor ever and ever!’ 14And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshipped (Rev 5:13-14, NRSV).

When we stand together and pronounce our faith before one another and the world in the words of the Creed we give voice to the praise of all creation. Amen! we say with the four living creatures and with the elders we fall down and worship. Amen is a proclamation of truth. Amen is a shout of praise.

The sound of the amen was often far from the lips of the Corinthian church. Instead, some spoke in unintelligible tongues, spiritual language – a gift of the Holy Spirit apparently abused by the Corinthians. And still others were silent. Paul wrote them, in part, to restore the amen to its rightful and essential place in their worship.

13 Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. 14For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive. 15What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also. 16Otherwise, if you say a blessing with the spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say the ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since the outsider does not know what you are saying? 17For you may give thanks well enough, but the other person is not built up. 18I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you; 19nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue (1 Cor 14:13-19, NRSV).

The amen is an agreement of faith, a voice of unity and solidarity. The amen is the voice of we and not merely the voice of me. The amen is the common voice of the common faith and prayer of the church. Through the years of my experience with the church I have heard many lousy prayers: prayers dripping with personal agenda, prayers founded on terrible theology, self-serving and self-promoting prayers. And these always leave me feeling cheated and sometimes angry. And why? Because the one praying should be voicing the common faith of the church. Because I should be able to add my amen – So be it! – to the prayer. Because prayer and worship may be private but never personal; it is always corporate. When we pray, even in our closet as Jesus advised, we pray with and for the church. When we worship, even with only two or three present, we worship with angels and archangels, with all the company of heaven, with martyrs and with the communion of saints in heaven and on earth. And all these long to cry out Amen! in their voice of agreement, of unity, of solidarity. However you may feel about liturgical prayer, those prayers voiced and preserved by the church through the centuries, those prayers endorsed by the church as expressions of our common faith, allow us to voice the amen. And that is worth something.

So, too, with the Creed. It has been voiced and preserved by the church through the centuries and endorsed by the church as an expression of our common faith. It protects me from idolatry – self-worship – and from heresy – misdirected worship. The creed allows me to say amen to the faith, and not me alone, but all the faithful in every time and place. This amen binds us together through Christ and with Christ and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, and brings glory and honor to God the Father. Amen! Amen is a proclamation of truth, a shout of praise, an agreement of faith.

The sound of the amen was never far from Mary’s lips, never far from her heart.

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He 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. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ 35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her (Luke 1:26-38, NRSV).

Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel voiced the perfect amen: “Let it be with me according to your word.” This may well be the most basic meaning of amen: “let it be,” or “may it be so.” And is this not the essence of the Christian life – a willingness to commit oneself fully into the hands of the Lord, to live in obedience to his will, to humbly submit to his word? We seek to understand the word and will of God. But it is more important to stand under the word and will of God. And here, Mary’s son Jesus is our greatest example.

42‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done’ (Luke 22:42, NRSV).

Your will be done. Let it be. May it be so. Amen.

When we voice the amen at the conclusion of the Creed we do so in an act of trust and submission and we commit ourselves to a life founded upon those words. Let it be to me according to these words. May it be so. Amen. Amen is a proclamation of truth, a shout of praise, an agreement of faith, and an acceptance of God’s will: all in a single word.

Is there a sermon here, in this single word amen? Or, as they might ask in Africa, “Will this preach?” Will a life lived inside this word preach to the world? Will it proclaim truth and shout praise? Will it witness to the solidarity and unity of a common faith lived in submission to God’s will? I think so.