Saturday, December 27, 2008

Sermon: 1 Christmas (28 Dec 2008)

Sermon: 1 Christmas (28 December 2008)
(Isaiah 61:10-62:3/Psalm 148/Galatians 4:4-7/Luke 2:22-40)
The Feast of the Incarnation: Ripples of Grace

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

The world has moved on – “revolved from night to day,” as the hymn sings – leaving Christmas behind. Now it is plunging head long toward a new year: toward resolutions no one really plans to keep and toward bills accumulated during the holidays that no one really wants to pay. So be it; “Why Can’t Everyday Be Christmas?” is a fine song title but an unrealistic attitude. Christmas is over and “real life” has begun anew: time to move on.

But it is different with the church. In our best moments – when we are aware and intentional – we yield up Christmas to the world and ourselves to Christmas: to families and friends, to parties and banquets, to merchants and malls, to mistletoe and holly, to Rudolph and Santa, to Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole. We enter into the festivities with gladness and abandon, and share our joy with the whole world; after all, the birth of Christ is good news, even if the world doesn’t know quite what to do with it. And our Lord Jesus never refused a good banquet himself – even if hosted by tax collectors and sinners who knew him not. Yes, we yield up Christmas to our world, but not the Feast of the Incarnation. That belongs to the church; it is ours, and if we are wise, we guard it zealously. It is the Feast of the Incarnation the church celebrates on 25 December – at least the church in the West – and on the twelve days following. And the Feast of the Incarnation – the incarnation itself – is not left behind on day thirteen. We don’t move on from the incarnation back to real life, for the incarnation creates a new and different real life – a life of the ages. The heart of God plunged into the heart of human history in the incarnation and sent ripples of grace propagating outward into all creation. And creation never has been and never will be the same again. The logos, the very Word of God and essence of God, the one by whom and through whom and for who all things were created, the source of light and life – that “Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth,” and from his abundance we have all received grace upon grace upon grace (John 1:14, NKJV, and 1:16, paraphrase). You do not pack that away with the decorations and ornaments, pack it away in the attic, pack it away out of mind for another year: not if you are the church of the Incarnate One.

The Lord Jesus Christ is the fulcrum of history, and at his incarnation the creation begins to tilt toward God. Everything before the incarnation looks forward to it and everything after the incarnation radiates outward from it. Isaiah saw it afar, and in words of prophecy spoke for Jesus.

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations (Is 6:10-11, NRSV).

The Lord God clothed his only begotten son with the garments of salvation. And with what was Jesus clothed if not with our humanity? What mystery is this that our fallen humanity – when put on by the Incarnate One – becomes the garment of our salvation! The Lord God covered his only begotten son with the robe of righteousness. And with what was Jesus covered if not with God’s divine nature? What mystery is this that God’s divinity – when covering the offspring of the Virgin’s womb – becomes the robe of righteousness! And so the Lord God has caused righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. As Jesus was clothed with our humanity and covered with God’s divinity, so now all of us who have been baptized into the Incarnate One have clothed ourselves with Christ, so that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, but all are one in Christ Jesus, all are Abraham’s seed, all are heirs according to the promise, all are children of God through faith in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:26-29). Blessed mystery of the incarnation!

When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God (Gal 4:4-7, NRSV).

This is who we are, children of God through the Incarnate One, though our minds can scarce comprehend, through our eyes are blind to the glory. So we eagerly wait for our revelation as sons and daughters of God. And we do not wait alone.

For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility – not willingly but because of God who subjected it – in hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children (Rom 8:22-23, NET Bible).

Through the first man Adam, sin entered the world and with sin, the curse of disobedience, binding all Adam’s children to death and all of creation to futility and corruption. And though God could release creation by fiat, by simply speaking the word, God has instead bound creation to us in hope, so that creation will not be restored apart from us, but through us – through our adoption as children of God in the Incarnate One. And so now creation stands on tiptoe, eagerly waiting, impatiently longing for our full revelation as God’s children – waiting for us finally to live as children of God. In the meantime, creation groans and suffers – groans and suffers with birth pangs until Christ is born fully in us and God’s will is done fully on earth as it is in heaven. And on that great day when the last Adam, the Incarnate One Jesus Christ, is revealed in us creation’s groaning shall cease and creation’s praise shall resound.

Psalm 148 (BCP)

1 Hallelujah!
Praise the Lord from the heavens; *
praise him in the heights.

2 Praise him, all you angels of his; *
praise him, all his host.

3 Praise him, sun and moon; *
praise him, all you shining stars.

4 Praise him, heaven of heavens, *
and you waters above the heavens.

5 Let them praise the Name of the Lord; *
for he commanded, and they were created.

6 He made them stand fast for ever and ever; *
he gave them a law which shall not pass away.

7 Praise the Lord from the earth, *
you sea‑monsters and all deeps;

8 Fire and hail, snow and fog, *
tempestuous wind, doing his will;

9 Mountains and all hills, *
fruit trees and all cedars;

10 Wild beasts and all cattle, *
creeping things and wingèd birds;

Rarely are hymnists theologians, and more rarely still are theologians hymnists; but, on those rare occasions of convergence – when music captures truth and gets it just right – what glory we experience.

Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns;
let all their songs employ;
while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
nor thorns infest the ground;
he comes to make his blessings flow
far as the curse is found,
far as the curse is found,
far as, far as the curse is found.

The incarnation is joy not to the sons and daughters of God only, but joy to the earth, to all creation, as well; for all creation now sees its future revealed through the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the adoption of men and women as sons and daughters of God – not revealed fully as yet – but revealed enough, enough to sustain hope and awaken praise.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:25-32, NRSV).

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

This old man and this old woman are sign and symbol of the hope of all creation, incarnations in human flesh and blood of the expectation and longing of the world for the revelation of the Incarnate One. They are also sign and symbol of the faithfulness of God to his promises. Simeon and Anna see in this baby before them the redemption of Jerusalem, the glory of Israel, and a light of revelation to the Gentiles – not fully revealed as yet; it is a baby, after all – but revealed enough to satisfy hope and awaken praise.

The world has moved on – “revolved from night to day,” as the hymn sings – leaving Bethlehem, angels, shepherds, stars, magi, Simeon and Anna – leaving the first Christmas – behind. Now it is plunging head long toward a new year: toward problems no one really seems to understand and toward solutions no one really has confidence will work. So be it; “Why Can’t Everyday Be Christmas?” is a fine song title but an unrealistic attitude. Christmas is over and “real life” has begun anew: time to move on.

But it is different with the church. It is the Feast of the Incarnation the church celebrates on 25 December – at least the church in the West – and on the twelve days following. And the Feast of the Incarnation – the incarnation itself – is not left behind on day thirteen. The Word has become flesh and has dwelt among us. The Incarnate One has united in one person his divinity and our humanity and has thereby made us sons and daughters of God, filling us with the Holy Spirit and setting us on a journey of restoration into the very image and likeness of God. The Incarnate One has been revealed to all creation sustaining creation’s hope that one day it will be released from futility and bondage to corruption – sustaining creation’s hope and awakening creation’s praise. The heart of God has plunged into the heart of human history in the incarnation and has sent ripples of grace propagating outward into all creation. You do not pack that away with the decorations and ornaments, pack it away in the attic, pack it away out of mind for another year: not if you are the church of the Incarnate One.


Friday, December 26, 2008

The Collect Challenge

The Collect Challenge
(While this "challenge" is specifically for the members of Trinity Church, we invite all our friends to join us. If you choose to, please email from time to time to describe your experience with the Collect Challenge.)

The Service of the Word during each celebration of Holy Eucharist commences with this exhortation:

Let us now read from the Holy Scriptures
given to us under direction of the Holy Spirit,
that we might know God and his will for us
and that we might love him more.
Thanks be to God.

Then before the first lesson is read the service continues with this prayer:

Almighty God,
open our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy Spirit,
that as the Scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed,
we may hear with joy what you say to us today, and, having heard, we may fully obey him who came and is to come,
even Jesus Christ our Lord.

And so we are reminded that our reading is more than mere custom, more than something we do because the order of service directs us. We read primarily that we might know God – not in the academic sense of an object of study, something to be “figured out” – but know in the biblical sense of establishing an intimate relationship with another: we read to know God that we might love him more. This type of reading requires a listening heart, a heart that grasps with joy the knowledge that God is speaking to us today in the words we read, a listening heart that finds joy even in those words of God that wound and convict, that finds joy in those words of God precisely because they are the words of God. We read to learn God’s will for us that we may fully obey him who came and is to come, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

This reading is intimate communication of the Beloved One with his beloved ones, an intimate dialog if we take our part. Our part is prayer – prayer based upon a contemplation of God’s holy words and response to those words. This prayer may take many forms: praise, wonder, confession, intercession, tears, silence. It may be spontaneous or structured.

One structured form of scriptural prayer is the collect, a form often associated with the Anglican Communion and the Book of Common Prayer. The collect consists of five parts: an invocation or address to God, a scriptural or theological basis for the prayer, a petition, a reason for the prayer, and an ascription linking the prayer with the life and work of Jesus.

Take, as an example, the collect for the second Sunday after Epiphany (BCP).

Invocation: Almighty God,

Scriptural Basis: whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world:

Petition: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and
Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory,

Result: that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends
of the earth;

Ascription: through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the
Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

A reading of the collects in the Book of Common Prayer reveals a great flexibility in this form: sometimes the result is omitted; sometimes the invocation and scriptural basis are blended together. The form is, of course, less important than the purpose of the prayer: to engage us in intimate dialog with God who has spoken to us in his word that we might know him, love him, and obey him.

And now comes the collect challenge for this year. Each week our service sheet will include a listing of the lectionary readings for the following Sunday. Starting on Monday, prayerfully read the lessons – not once but several times. Meditate on them often during the following week. And then, when and as the Holy Spirit moves, respond to God in prayer by writing a collect. Include this collect in your daily prayers for the remainder of the week. Offer it, should you feel it appropriate – it might be too personal for corporate use – during the Prayers of the People on Sunday. Record these collects in a “prayer journal,” a record of the year’s conversations with God through these scriptural prayers.

What results should you expect? In one sense the question is not quite appropriate. The goal of praying is simply to spend time worshipping in God’s presence, to open ourselves to him in intimate relationship – and that happens not as the result of prayer but simply in the act of prayer. But, I would also expect that the scriptures will take on deeper meaning as they become the source and impetus for dialog with God and that your relationship with God will deepen as you fill yourself with his word. Let us pray.

Almighty God,
you spoke the word into the darkness and worlds were created;
in the fullness of time you spoke the Word into a darkened world, a Word in flesh and blood, Jesus Christ our Lord – a Word of new creation and eternal life:
open our hearts and minds to the word spoken, the word written, and the Word made flesh who lived among us manifesting your glory, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Nativity of Our Lord: Prayers

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us.We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:1, 14, NIV).

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!
(Byzantine Christmas Prayer, Trad.)

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born this day of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again, and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

(Collect: The Nativity of our Lord, Book of Common Prayer)

Homily: The Vigil of the Incarnation (24 December 2008)

On this holy night, on this Vigil of the Incarnation, I stand down to place you in the care of one far more able to open for us the great mystery of our faith -- the Word made flesh. Hear the words of St. John Chrysostom -- Golden Mouth -- from the 4th century, words cherished by the church for their truth and beauty. As we listen, may the Incarnate One bless us with his presence. Amen.

A Christmas Sermon:
St. John Chrysostom

BEHOLD a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of justice. And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed; all things yielded in obedience to God. This day He Who is, is Born; and He Who is, becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His. Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became He God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassability, remaining unchanged.

And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him Angels, nor Archangels, nor Thrones, nor Dominations, nor Powers, nor Principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.

Since this heavenly birth cannot be described, neither does His coming amongst us in these days permit of too curious scrutiny. Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation I have learned to venerate in silence and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech. For with God we look not for the order of nature, but rest our faith in the power of Him who works.

What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth. The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend.
Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace! The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see. For since men believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.

Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the lowliness of our nature. For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.
For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit, that He may save me.
Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been in planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things are nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him. Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star.
To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Ghost, we offer all praise, now and for ever.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Sermon: 4 Advent (21 December 2008)

Sermon: 4 Advent (21 December 2008)
(2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16/Luke 1:46b-55/Romans 16:25-27/Luke 1:26-38)
Sweet Kissing: The Mystery of the Incarnation

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

This icon – Sweet Kissing – written by the hand of our own sister, Susan, graces our small chapel at Trinity Church. I am drawn to it, particularly during night prayer when all is still and the lamps and candles cast a soft glow on mother and child. Like all true icons, it is more than art, more than image; it is a window into the mystery of our faith. This particular icon beckons us to contemplate perhaps the greatest of these mysteries – the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The mystery of the incarnation is expressed not merely in the figures in the icon, but in its sacred calligraphy, in eight letters representing four words.

MP ϴY : matēr theou – mother of God

IC XC : Iēsous Christos – Jesus Christ

There is great theology here, and great history. The fourth and fifth centuries witnessed dramatic Christological debates in the church – attempts to answer the questions, Who is Jesus? and What is his nature? These debates were efforts to understand and resolve the apparent paradox of the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ. There was a continuum of thought on the issue, and it was easy to be drawn from the center of orthodoxy to one of the opposite poles of heresy. There you might find the Gnostics and Docetists who denied the humanity of Jesus or, at the other extreme, the Ebionites who denied his divinity. But the church, the orthodox church, knew better, and defended the truth at all costs – and the costs were often high. Paul, not so distant in the past for these fourth and fifth century Christians, had written conclusively and authoritatively of both the divinity and the humanity of Jesus Christ, and these scriptures were still regularly read during worship by the faithful.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (Col 1:15-20, NRSV).

In Christ is the fullness of God, Paul writes, insisting on Jesus’ divinity. And the church’s Creed reflects this understanding.

[I believe]…in the one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-Begotten, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father; by whom all things were made.

But this scripture by Paul was also read during worship.

5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (Phil 2:5-8, NRSV).

In Christ Jesus is the fullness of humanity, Paul writes, insisting that Jesus was born in human likeness. And the church made this, too, part of its Creed.

[Jesus]…for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

The Christological debates reached their zenith at the Third Ecumenical Council of the church held at the Church of Mary in Ephesus, Asia Minor, in 431. There, amidst charges and counter-charges, excommunications and reciprocal excommunications, the church finally spoke with one, united voice through the 250 gathered bishops. The church declared the Nicene Creed the true symbol of the true faith. The church condemned as heresy any doctrine which denied either the divinity or humanity of Christ. The church affirmed – as the only true doctrine -- that Christ unifies in one person both his divine and human natures – that Jesus Christ was, is, and forever will be fully God and fully man.

And these eight letters on the Sweet Kissing icon bear eloquent testimony to this fifth century victory of orthodoxy; for, at this council, the church bestowed upon Mary the title Theotokos – the God-bearer – and matēr theou – the Mother of God. This was no effort to establish a doctrine of Mary, but rather to affirm the mystery of the incarnation – God made man through the Holy Spirit and the virgin. This was no effort to worship Mary, but rather to affirm that her son – the man, Jesus – was truly the second person of the Holy Trinity and therefore supremely worthy of worship. This was not really about Mary at all, but about her son – her son and God’s Son – Jesus.

And all that, too, is right there in the icon, there for all to see: Mary’s head bowed in humility; her eyes not haughty, but downcast, her gaze averted; her hand directing attention, adoration, worship toward her son. Her title, Theotokos, – God-bearer – notwithstanding, it is not so important that she bore God, but it is essential that it is God whom she bore. Her title, matēr theou, -- mother of God – notwithstanding, it is not so important that she was the mother of God, but it is essential that is was God whom she mothered. That is the faith of the church. That is the mystery of the incarnation, the mystery revealed in the sixth month of barren Elizabeth’s pregnancy when

the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary (Luke 1:26-27, NRSV).

Luke, ever the physician with an eye for clinical detail, says it over and over like a refrain: Gabriel was sent to a virgin; the virgin’s name was Mary; Mary was perplexed, being a virgin. The gospels and the apostolic church resolutely affirm that Mary was a virgin and that her virginity is essential to the incarnation of Christ. Only through the virgin birth can heaven and earth meet and God and man become one in Jesus.

The 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” (Luke 1:35, NRSV).

The incarnation thus announced by the angel Gabriel is not incidental to our salvation and to the restoration of the world. It is not merely a way for Jesus to enter history on his path toward the cross and salvation. No. The incarnation is an essential part of our salvation. In the incarnation, Jesus took upon himself our humanity that he might bestow upon us his divinity. Jesus united, in himself, divinity and humanity so that mankind might be restored in the image of God, grow in the likeness of God, and be reconciled fully to God. In the incarnation Jesus embraced our corruptibility and gave us his incorruptibility. In the incarnation Jesus bore our sins and offered us his righteousness. In the incarnation Jesus suffered our death and bid us live his life eternally. The human and divine met in Jesus – embraced and kissed – that we might become the true sons and daughters of God, partakers ourselves in the divine nature. What a laudable exchange; what a great and praiseworthy blessing (Laudable Exchange, music and lyrics by John Michael Talbot) is the incarnation! Once we were children of Adam only, heirs of corruption and death, of nature distorted and bent toward sin. But now, through the incarnation, we are children of God through the new Adam, Jesus, and heirs with him of righteousness and life, of nature restored and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Through sin, what was true of Adam became true of all his children – all of humanity. Through the incarnation, what is true of Jesus is true of all his brothers and sisters – all who have become one with him through faith, baptism, and the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

Mary knew none of this when she responded to Gabriel: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, NRSV). It took the church some four hundred years of worship, prayer, study, and contemplation to reach an orthodox consensus on the meaning of the incarnation. But Mary knew this: the Lord had done great things for her and, through the son she would bear, the Lord would do great things for his people. So she proclaimed to Elizabeth, the barren one great with her own child.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever (Magnificat, BCP).

Here is the Sweet Kissing icon, here is the mystery of the incarnation, not in line and form and color, but in prayer and song and proclamation: the virgin of Nazareth in Galilee blessed by God as Theotokos, graced by God as matēr theou; the mother-to-be, head bowed and eyes averted, directing attention toward the God of her fathers and toward the Son she would soon bear. Here is the one who will, throughout all ages, be called blessed, not because of who or what she was, but because of God’s divine grace and Mary’s human “yes.”

The mystery of the incarnation began with Mary’s “yes,” but it does not stop there; it rushes forward throughout all time and into every place where the gospel is proclaimed and the proclamation is received. Each of us is called by God to incarnate Jesus Christ, to unite our humanity with his divinity, to be flesh and blood sons and daughters of God in this world of ours.

26[For] in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:26-28, NRSV).

We are called to be Theotokoi – God-bearers – not as Mary was, but no less than Mary was. We are called to be Sweet Kissing icons of the incarnation with heads bowed in humility; eyes not haughty, but downcast, gazes averted; hands and hearts and lives directing attention, adoration, worship toward the son of Mary and the Son of God. We are called to pray and sing and proclaim Magnificat: our souls magnify the Lord, for he has done great things for us. We, too, are called by God to be blessed throughout all generations, unto the ages of ages. Let the words of Mary – Theotokos and matēr theou – become our words: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sermon: 3 Advent (14 December 2008)

Sermon: 3 Advent (14 December 2008)
(Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11/Psalm 126/1 Thessalonians 5:16-24/John 1:6-8, 19-28)
A Certain Style

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

He comes fresh from his first preaching tour of Galilee. Following hard on the heels of his baptism and victory over Satan in the wilderness, the tour was wildly successful; his reputation as rabbi and wonder-worker has spread throughout the region and now precedes him from village to village. And now he comes home to Nazareth. It is the sabbath and, as is his custom, he attends the synagogue; but, he attends now as a celebrity, as a hometown boy made good. Jesus is asked to read Torah and speak to family and family friends that day. Luke takes up the story.

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ (Luke 4:16-20, NRSV).

The text chosen by Jesus that day – or perhaps the text chosen for Jesus that day – is a portion of the Old Testament lesson chosen for us this day: Isaiah 61, in which the prophet looks to the future and sees an anointed one, a messiah, sent by God to bring good news to his people, to announce Jubilee, to heal what is broken, to release what is bound, to open blind eyes and deaf ears, to dry tears and to comfort mourning hearts. How many times has this passage been read in the little synagogue in Nazareth? How many years have the people longed for the one to come, for the anointed one? “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” Jesus says. Today, your wait is over. The one speaking in the midst of you is the anointed of God, the Holy One of Israel.

Sitting in that little synagogue in Nazareth that sabbath morning Jesus is absolutely certain of his identity and his vocation; he knows who he is and what he is called to accomplish. Throughout his ministry others get confused and try – sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally – to redefine Jesus or to substitute their agenda for his. Satan in the wilderness: “If you are the son of God.” Jesus’ mother at the wedding in Cana of Galilee: “They are out of wine.” The Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar: “I see that you are a prophet.” The multitudes everywhere: “Feed us bread as you fed the thousands.” The scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees in Judea: “Give us a sign.” And Peter, time after time and place after place: “Surely, Lord, this shall never happen to you,” or “Surely, Lord you shall never wash my feet.” Well, no matter the others: Jesus was absolutely certain of his identity and his vocation. They came from his Father, through the words of the holy prophets.

This is important, I think. Jesus did not define himself; he was no self-made man in that sense. His nature and vocation were determined by his God and Father. “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38, NIV), Jesus said to the crowds. And to the Father, at his moment of greatest trial, “Yet, not as I will, but as you will” (Mt 26:39b, NIV).

Because Jesus allowed God to define his nature and determine his vocation, Jesus’ life had a certain – and here I’ve struggled to find the right words – his life had a certain style or character to it – a flavor or aroma, in sensual terms – seldom experienced in his time or in ours. You see it in the unwavering trust he had in his God and Father and the resulting lack of worry. Read the Sermon on the Mount again; it is a manifesto of trust.

25 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
34 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today’ (Mt 6:25-34, NRSV).

Or again,

7 ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him’ (Mt 7:7-11, NRSV)!

Because Jesus allowed God to define his nature and determine his vocation, Jesus lived carefree in the care of God (from Luke 22:24, Message) – total trust in the Father, total rejection of worry – and he wanted the same for his disciples.

You see the style and character of Jesus’ life in his leisurely attitude toward ministry. Did anyone ever have so much to accomplish in so short a time? And yet, Jesus never seems hurried. Do you remember Jesus’ reputation among his detractors? They declare him a glutton and a wine-bibber – isn’t that an interesting phrase – because of the significant amount of time he spends at banquets and parties, time spent largely in the presence of notorious sinners. And though his disciples think he is too important and his time too valuable to waste on children, Jesus – on more than one occasion – holds children up as model disciples and takes time to touch and bless them. He spends quiet evenings with friends and disciples in Bethany at the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus – and this during his last week of earthly ministry. He travels extensively, walking throughout Galilee and Judea, but there is no record of him running or rushing from place to place. Because Jesus allowed God to define his nature and determine his vocation, Jesus knew that ministry was not what you did in another place and another time, but what you do right here and right now. Wherever he was, Jesus was Isaiah’s anointed one, bringing good news to the poor and proclaiming release to the captive. Wherever he was, that was the very center of God’s will. Larry Huntsperger, in his novel of St. Peter – The Fisherman – has Peter voice this description of Jesus’ ministry.

His approach to Israel was simple: He stepped into the center of our world. Through his words and his actions he enabled everyone to see exactly who he was and what he was like. Then he allowed us to decide for ourselves what we would do about it.

Jesus could allow everyone to see exactly who he was and what he was like because he knew exactly who he was, because he allowed God to define his nature and determine his vocation.

There is so much more. We could speak of Jesus’ integrity – never the hypocrite, always true to his nature. We could speak of his authority, which even his detractors grudgingly acknowledged. We could speak of his power. But all these – everything Jesus demonstrated himself to be – hinged on this one thing: Jesus allowed God to define his nature and determine his vocation.

It was the same with John the Baptizer. He wasn’t his own man; he was a man under authority, a man defined by God’s will. And because of this, he knew exactly who he was and what he was to accomplish.

1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
1:7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
1:8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
1:19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?"
1:20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah."
1:21 And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No."
1:22 Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?"
1:23 He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,'" as the prophet Isaiah said (John 1:6-8, 19-23, NRSV).

Who are you? the authorities want to know, and John can tell them. Here is a man absolutely certain of his identity and vocation. They came from God Almighty, through the words of one, old priest, and the words of the holy prophets.

76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins (Luke 1, 76-77, NRSV).

Zechariah made certain John knew who he was and what he was about – and that he knew these things came from God.

Because John allowed God to define his nature and determine his vocation, John’s life had a certain style or character to it – a flavor or aroma, in sensual terms – seldom experienced in his time or in ours. You see it in his willingness to be just a voice – not a complete person even, just a voice – a voice speaking a script not even its own. You see it in his willingness to fade away, to decrease so that the bridegroom might increase. You see it in his refusal to be silent when being silent was the safe thing to do, the expedient thing to do, but not the righteous thing to do. There is so much more. We could speak of John’s impartiality – his willingness to accept the pious Jewish Pharisees and the pagan Roman soldiers on, and only on, the same condition of repentance. We could speak of his humility when contemplating Christ and especially on meeting Jesus: “I should be baptized by you, and you come to me?” We could speak of discipline and asceticism, of time alone in the wilderness and the life-long nazirite vow. But all these – everything John demonstrated himself to be – hinged on this one thing: John allowed God to define his nature and determine his vocation.

This really makes all the difference in this world and the next, doesn’t it? Thoreau once said that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and my experience doesn’t lead me to challenge him. We wake in the morning and drag ourselves out of bed to do something that someone else says is important – or even that we think is worthwhile – something to pay the bills, something to fund a retirement account that will allow us one day to do something we really want to do. And we wonder what that will be. If we could do anything with our lives we wanted, what would we do? How many of us can even answer that question without much soul searching? We move through the day largely on autopilot, mindlessly doing tasks that can be done mindlessly or else so caught up in the challenging tasks at hand that we don’t have time to breath or think or reflect. We wear ourselves out and wear ourselves down in the service and name of – what? At night we eat a meal – or grab a bite – scarcely pausing to think of the holiness of the bread we have received. We fill a couple of hours with – well, we fill a couple of hours – and then drop into bed, wondering what’s become of our days and our lives.

Admittedly, this is an overly dismal picture; our days aren’t really so bad – they are punctuated with excitement and meaning and joy and love. But not many of us – at least not many of us from my experience – lead lives of style and character like Jesus and John the Baptizer. And why not? Because we are still holding on, still trying to define ourselves and determine our own vocation. We, too, can have lives like Jesus and John; but, there is a price to be paid. We must relinquish hold of our lives. We must let God, and God alone, define our nature and determine our vocation: tell us who we are and what we are to accomplish.

“See what love the Father has given us,” St. John writes,

that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now (emphasis added); what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure (1 John 3:1-3, NRSV).

Start here, start now, with the knowledge that God declares you to be his beloved child in Christ Jesus. The world may – the world almost certainly will – tell you otherwise to suit its agenda. No matter: we are determined to let God, and God alone, define our nature, and he calls us sons and daughters.

And what of our vocation? Paul gets us started – those of us in Christ Jesus.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (emphasis added). Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:16-23, NRSV).

Start here, start now, with the knowledge that God has called you to a holy vocation: to rejoice, to pray, to give thanks, to embrace the good and reject the evil. The world may – the world almost certainly will – tell you otherwise to suit its agenda. No matter: we are determined to let God, and God alone, define our vocation, and he calls us to holy work, to kingdom work, to work of eternal value. Not some of us, but all of us. Not somewhere else, but anywhere we are.

If we are resolute in this commitment to let God define our nature and determine our vocation then we have this blessing and this promise:

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, NRSV).


Friday, December 5, 2008

Sermon: 2 Advent 2008

Sermon: 2 Advent (7 December 2008)
(Isaiah 40:1-11/Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13/2Peter 3:8-15a/Mark 1:1-8)
The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

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

Among the four canonical gospels, Mark was written very early – possibly as early as 55 A.D. and almost certainly before 70 A.D. Modern scholarship places it first; church tradition locates it second behind Matthew. Either way, Mark was among the earliest written records of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Being first, or even second, places an extra responsibility and burden upon an author. First sets the standard for and perhaps the direction of those to follow. I imagine this was a daunting task for Mark – to pen for the church, local and beyond, and for posterity, an authoritative record of Jesus: to research, compile, edit, and organize the various stories about Jesus and teachings of Jesus into a coherent narrative. There were many choices to be made: thematic arrangement or chronological, historical record or theological, Jewish readership or gentile – where even to begin?

Having made his choices, Mark sits with pen and parchment – himself the pen and parchment of the Holy Spirit – and writes.

Arch­­ē tou euangeliou Iēsou Christou huiou theou: the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God.

This opening is masterful; Mark stands astride two worlds – two cultures – and proclaims the good news of Jesus to the Greeks, i.e., to the gentile Roman Empire, and to the Jews. Mark begins with the euangelion, which is typically translated as gospel or good news. And, while these are good translations, they miss the powerful connotations of the word that Mark’s readers would instantly have recognized. Euangelion was the good news of a royal birth or a stunning military victory. Euangelion – the word might go out – the Emperor has a newborn son who will one day rule the empire. Or, Euangelion! Caesar has won the victory and brought peace and prosperity to the empire. For Mark’s audience – particularly for the gentiles – Euangelion was a political proclamation: hail to the emperor who brings us peace. But just here Mark co-opts the word and puts it to work in service of the faith. His, too, is a political proclamation – a proclamation of a new kind of politics, a new kind of emperor, and a new kind of victory.

Arch­­ē tou euangeliou Iēsou Christou huiou theou: the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God.

Euangelion – Mark proclaims – a son is born who will one day rule not just the empire, but all creation. A victory is even now being won – not in a clash of human armies – but a victory over sin and death, a victory which will finally ensure true and lasting peace, the reconciliation of man to God. Euangelion is a masterful way to begin the story.

But so, too, is Iēsou Christou – Jesus [the] Christ – words rich in meaning for Mark’s Jewish audience. They would hear these words not in Greek, but in Hebrew: Yeshua meshiach – savior, messiah. Whatever he may be to the gentiles – and that is yet to be fleshed out in Mark’s narrative – to the Jews, Mark proclaims Jesus as the liberator of Israel, the anointed one of God. This Jesus is the climax and embodiment of all that has come before: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the patriarchal covenants; Moses and the Law; Joshua and the promised land; David and the kingdom; Solomon and the temple; prophet after prophet and the call of God to repent; Sheshbazzar, Jeshua, Ezra, Nehemiah and the end of exile – particularly the end of exile. If the messiah is here, then surely the end of exile is at hand. Iēsou Christou is a masterful way to begin the story.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God, Mark writes: the proclamation of a royal birth – the birth of the Son of God who will rule all creation and bring everlasting peace; the birth of the anointed liberator who will fulfill covenant, law, and kingdom and end the exile of his people. And this is just the beginning of the gospel, Mark promises.

Then, as Mark writes, a voice breaks the four hundred year silence of God, the voice of God’s messenger, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” For those steeped in the Hebrew prophets, this voice comes as no surprise: hadn’t Isaiah foretold its coming?

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 40:1-5, NRSV).

Jerusalem has served her term of exile in Babylon and a voice is calling her forth – forth into the wilderness, forth into the desert. There God has prepared the way for her: leveled hills, filled in valleys, and made a highways for her to walk. There God himself will lead her.

See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep (Isaiah 40:10-11, NRSV).

This return from exile language is Exodus language; it harkens back to God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Exodus language: God delivering his people with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm from all that would enslave them, God leading his people into the desert and through the sea to freedom, God feeding his people on the bread of angels and sustaining them with water from the flint rock, God bringing his people into a good land – a land flowing with milk and honey. Euangelion, Mark proclaims: all this is happening again. Hear the voice of John the Baptizer, a voice emerging from the wilderness, through the water of the Jordan, into the land of promise. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” he says. “One is coming,” he says, “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:7-8, NRSV). This is where it begins, Mark reminds us – the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Good news: the Lord of heaven and earth has come and Rome’s power is no more; he has won the victory over sin and death and has conquered the gates of hell. The messiah has ended the exile of Israel – and of all humanity – and has brought her forth through the wilderness, through the water, into an eternal habitation: the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Mark the Evangelist and John the Baptizer might well take their script from the psalmist:

Let me hear what God the LORD will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps (Psalm 85:8-13, NRSV).

Yes, Mark knows just how to begin – two worlds, gentile and Jewish, captured in seven words (eleven in English, of course):

Arch­­ē tou euangeliou Iēsou Christou huiou theou: the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God.

Like Mark, we find ourselves astride two worlds – one apparently dying and one struggling to be born. Modernity, the world of our parents and their parents for generations past, made grandiose promises: unbounded progress through science, unlimited freedom through democracy, unparalleled prosperity through capitalism. Cast off the chains of ignorance, superstition, and religion in favor of objective truth; cast off the chains of church and state in favor of personal freedom; cast off the chains of mutual responsibility and community service in favor of personal gain and you will experience the true potential of humanity and find personal fulfillment. So we were told and so we believed. But modernity’s promises now ring a bit hollow, don’t they? Science has brought us much good for which we can and should be thankful. But it has also brought ethical dilemmas with which it cannot help us. Science can tell us what we can do, but not, it seems, what we should do. And, there are those nagging, unintended consequences of scientific and technical “progress”: pollution, weapons of mass destruction, environmental degradation, exhaustion of natural resources. Modernity promised progress, freedom, and prosperity and yet the last century produced two global wars, countless local ones, and genocide on an unrivaled scale; ideological slavery through communism, socialism, and fascism; and global redistributions of wealth that have impoverished the many for the sake of enriching the few. Terrorism, global economic collapse, pandemics, fossil fuel depletion: these are the step-children of modernity – not to mention the disintegration of family and community and the isolation of the individual. Is it any wonder that children are rejecting the values of their parents in favor of a postmodern worldview?

And yet, postmodernity, as it struggles to define itself, is presently a negative way seemingly devoid of much hope. It is far more interested in and capable of deconstructing the past than in constructing the future. It doubts modernity but does not tell us what, if anything, it trusts. It rejects objective truth but offers little beyond personal experience to replace it. Postmodernity shrinks the world to my truth, my experience, my story.

The present world is very much an advent world, a world waiting for something, longing for something: the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, son of God – though the world doesn’t recognize this as its need. The present world is very much an advent world, a world waiting for something, longing for something: the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” – though the world seems largely deaf to such a voice.

We stand astride these two cultures, modernity and postmodernity – cultures with a divide as large as the chasm between gentile and Jew – and we hear Jesus say,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20, NRSV).

Like the apostles, like Mark, we have been commissioned to proclaim the good news. Like Mark, we must find the language that speaks to our world, to both cultures. Finding that language – using it as masterfully as Mark did – is among the greatest challenges facing the church.

My suspicion – and it is only my suspicion, which means it may be ignored safely – is that much of that language must be nonverbal: body language it’s often called, though in this case, body with a capital B. Body Language is the sights and sounds of the church, the Body of Christ, living out its love for God and neighbor in tangible ways both within the community of the faithful and beyond its confines. Body Language is the church filled with the Holy Spirit – unified in love and empowered beyond its own ability. Body Language is the church truly engaged in worship, focusing not on its own, self-centered “needs” but upon the glory of God – a church which exalts God in its midst. Body Language is the church truly committed to the fellowship of believers – to sharing all things in common, to ensuring that there are no poor in the body because all needs are met, to serving one another in humility, and to esteeming all others as greater than self. Body Language is the church on its knees in repentance, on its feet in prayer, on its way into a broken world caught between the old and the new and waiting for the proclamation of good news, waiting for a voice crying out in the wilderness.

Body Language is the church living as redeemed people restored in the image of God and making that image visible in the world. Body Language is Christian artists – poets, painters, composers – bringing God’s beauty into the world; Christian teachers engaging students in a search for truth, knowing that truth always points toward the One who is the truth; Christian lawyers fighting for justice – God’s justice that only comes when the world is put to rights; Christian laborers who work not just for a paycheck, but as unto God; Christian parents who raise the next generation to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with the Lord. Body Language is the church touching the untouchables of our society with the love of God; offering forgiveness and healing to the sin-sick and broken among us; sharing blessings with those left behind by the distorted economic priorities of our world. Body Language is the church rejecting the unholy trinity of power, sex, and wealth and embracing instead the values of service, love, and gospel poverty. Body Language is the church being the church. Body Language is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, son of God. Body Language is the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

When the church learns to speak this language without stammering, then our words, too, will be heard by this advent world. And that will be,

Arch­­ē tou euangeliou Iēsou Christou huiou theou: the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Sermon: 1 Advent 2008

Sermon: 1 Advent (30 Nov 2008)
(Isaiah 64:1-9/Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19/1 Corinthians 1:3-9/Mark 13:24-37)
Advent: Stories and Lessons

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

St. Irenaeus, the second century bishop of Lyons and vigorous apologist for the faith, was only once removed from the apostle John: Irenaeus was mentored by John’s disciple, Polycarp, whose own faith was crowned with martyrdom. What Irenaeus has to say about the apostles, then, has about it the mantle of authenticity, the ring of truth.

So, recently I read with interest one of Irenaeus’ few surviving works: On The Apostolic Preaching. I’m not certain what I expected to find there: a theology of preaching, an apostolic how-to manual on sermon construction and delivery, transcriptions of great sermons by St. John? What I did find there was the story. Starting with creation, Irenaeus tells the story: the rebellion of man and the introduction of sin and death into creation; the calling of a man, Abram, and the creation of a people, the Jews, through whom God would redeem and restore creation; the making of covenants and the giving of Law. Irenaeus tells the story of judges, kings, and prophets; of a kingdom lost and restored; and of Jesus – first and foremost of Jesus, the fulfillment of the story.

What has this to do with the apostolic preaching? This is more creed than sermon, more catechesis than oration. And yet, it is the apostolic preaching – the content, the essence of the apostolic proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. When they preached, the apostles told the story; Acts makes that clear – Peter, Stephen, Philip, Paul. The early evangelists told the story of what God had promised through Israel to the world, and of how God had fulfilled those very promises in Jesus of Nazareth: born of a virgin, crucified under Pontius Pilate, raised to new and everlasting life through the power of God, ascended to glory at the right hand of God Almighty, and coming again to judge the living and the dead. Apostolic preaching, Irenaeus reminds us, is the telling of the story – the telling of this particular story and no other.

So it is that the church today – the one, holy, catholic and Apostolic church – continues to tell the story. Our scriptures tell the story. Our hymns tell the story. Our prayers – most fully our Eucharistic Prayers – tell the story. And – please, God – our lives tell the story.

We tell the story in time: in daily and weekly and yearly cycles. We rise in the morning and it is the dawn of creation. We pass our waking hours in toil, earning our bread from thorn-infested ground, sure sign of the fall. We live and laugh and love and sin. And each night we lay ourselves down to die, confessing our sins, committing ourselves into God’s keeping, and hoping for resurrection in the morning, for new life in Jesus Christ – the story told in a day.
For six days each week we remember the old creation, pronounced good and very good by God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and ruined by our father Adam and our mother Eve and by every one of their descendants since – everyone save one. On the seventh day, which is for us the first day of the week, we celebrate new creation, the restoration of all things through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the new Adam in whom and through whom the curse of sin and death is destroyed, in whom and through whom all things are made new and pronounced once again good and very good – the story told in a week. Week after week, season upon season, we celebrate the feasts and keep the fasts of the church: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost and back around again – the story told in a year. Days make weeks, weeks make seasons, seasons make years, and years make lives: our lives tell the story in time.

We tell the story, in part, because it forms us: it tells us from whence we’ve come, who we are, and where we’re headed. There are other stories, of course, and all of us are storied people – no exceptions. There is no truly self-made man or woman; each of us is the product of a culture and therefore the product of the culture’s stories. We believe this story, and so we tell it again and again. We believe it is true. We believe that it is life giving. We believe that it gives order and meaning and direction to the smaller stories of our lives.

A story is always on the move, always going somewhere. It not only has characters; it has plot – purposeful movement toward its climax. But, there is always some danger of getting stuck in a story, of refusing to let the story carry you along. If you know where to look, you see evidence of this in the church. There is the man who has reduced the faith to keeping the rules, who seeks to establish his own righteousness by strict obedience to the “law of God” – a harsh, rigid, fearful man. Such a man is stuck on Mt. Sinai, stuck in the wilderness, stuck with the Pharisees. He has not let the story carry him along to the grace of God in Christ Jesus. There is the woman who keeps Jesus in the manger in Bethlehem, who is so captivated by the gentleness of the holy infant, meek and mild, that she refuses to move with Jesus to the cross and beyond. Life is always Christmas and never Good Friday; worse still, never Easter. There are groups – like the Corinthian Christians to whom Paul wrote – who get stuck in Pentecost, constantly demanding charismatic proof of God’s presence, and who never move on to love, the greatest of the Spirit’s gifts. And, perhaps worst of all, there are Christians who become mired in the Ascension, who see Jesus as absent and so very distant, who have lost all hope of his return.

There is always some danger of getting stuck in a story, of refusing to let the story carry you along. That is one reason the church tells the story – the whole story – each year, time and again. Mother Church refuses to let her children get stuck; the worship of the church forces you along in the story, sometimes against your will, sometimes kicking and screaming, but moving nonetheless.

Today, the church begins the story anew with Advent. It is a chapter of characters: the great epic prophet Isaiah, the elderly and dubious priest Zechariah, his barren wife Elizabeth, and their seriously odd son John, the forerunner and herald of Jesus. Characters, yes, but there is plot, too; in the story, the chapter we call Advent takes us somewhere. Advent always looks beyond itself toward the coming of God Almighty.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence (Is 64:1-2, NRSV)!

This is the Advent for which Isaiah longs: God’s return to a desolate Israel, to an exiled people; God’s return to deliver and vindicate his chosen people and to judge the nations. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” And yet Isaiah’s advent longing is filled with trepidation: Israel, too, is filled with iniquity and, like the nations, deserves God’s judgment. So, while Isaiah calls upon God to tear open the heavens and come down, he does so with a plea for mercy:

8Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity for ever. Now consider, we are all your people (Is 64:8-9, NRSV).

This is Isaiah’s advent lesson to us today: any invocation of God – every invocation of God – must also be a plea for mercy:

Holy God, Holy and Mighty,
Holy Immortal One:
Have Mercy upon us.

“For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us,” we pray: and well we should.

We listen to Isaiah and learn his advent lesson, but the story moves on and we are swept along with it; there are other advents.

It is Holy Week as Jesus and his disciples exit the temple.

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ 2Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’
3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished (Mark 13:1-4, NRSV)?’

This is the advent that brought tears to Jesus eyes as he approached Jerusalem – an advent of immanent judgment and destruction.

41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God (Luke 19:41-44).’

What can one do in the face of such an advent? Simply this: be ready. Be found faithfully about the Master’s work when the Master returns.

33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake (Mark 13:33-37).’

This is Jesus’ advent message to us today: keep awake, keep alert, watch, work. Then you will be among the elect gathered by the angels from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

We listen to Jesus and learn his advent lesson, but the story moves on again and we are swept along with it; there is yet another advent.

“Grace to you and peace from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” our brother Paul writes to the church in Corinth. Unruly, undisciplined, outrageous, but enthusiastic and faithful: Corinth was the worst the church had to offer, and the best. And Paul gives thanks for them always, for the grace of God given them in Jesus Christ.

5[For] in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— 6just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— 7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:5-7, NRSV).

This is advent future – the advent yet to come – the revealing, the apocalypse, of our Lord Jesus Christ. More than any other, this is the advent chapter of the story in which we live. Isaiah caught us up in the story and Jesus swept us along. Paul incorporates us and gives us our script as we wait for the final revealing of the Lord Jesus Christ. And what is Paul’s advent lesson for us?

8He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Cor 1:8-9, NRSV).

Paul’s advent lesson is a promise to us and to all who believe: The God who called us into the fellowship of his Son is faithful and will preserve us, strengthen us, and present us blameless on that great day of the Lord’s appearing – on the great day of that final advent when the dead in Christ shall rise and we shall all be forever with the Lord. What, beyond this, the story holds, no eye has seen, no tongue can tell, no heart can imagine.

So, let us once again enter the great story this Advent season – a story of longing and repentance, a story of waiting and watching and working, a story of promise.

Let us pray.

Faithful God,your promises stand unshaken through all generations:Renew us in hope, that we may be awake and alert,ever 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.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Advent Prayer

Prayer Rule of St. Pachomius

For those Christians who follow the Western calendar, Advent -- and the new church year -- begins on Sunday, 30 November. The season is one of preparation for the advent (coming) of our Lord: not just in the historical incarnation (nativity) but in our lives and in our world as his kingdom comes on earth as it is heaven, and of course in the parousia, the great day of the Lord's appearing. We are encouraged repeatedly in Scripture to be awake, to be watchful, and to be faithful as we await and hasten his coming. This is a primary focus of Advent observance.

Prayer is an essential element of faithfulness, and a renewed emphasis on prayer is especially fitting during Advent. If you do not currently have a rule of prayer, or, if it seems good to adapt your existing rule during Advent, we offer the following adaptation of Rule of St. Pachomius for your consideration.

May you have a blessed season of Advent as together we remember the great promises of our God and Father, and celebrate their fulfillment in Jesus Christ our Lord. May we all be holy and blameless on that great day of his appearing.

The following is an adaptation of the Prayer Rule of St. Pachomius (292-346), the founder of Egyptian, cenobitic (communal) monasticism. It is one of the earliest recorded rules of prayer. The heart of the rule is the Trisagion, Psalm 51, The Jesus Prayer, the Creed (the Nicene Creed in the original rule), and the Lord’s Prayer. The Jesus Prayer is generally offered a fixed number of times (30, 50, or 100) -- a prayer rope is useful for this -- or for a fixed period of time.

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

Trisagion (thrice)
Holy God,
Holy and Mighty,
Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

Psalm 51
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving‑kindness; *
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
2 Wash me through and through from my wickedness *
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, *
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you only have I sinned *
and done what is evil in your sight.
11 Create in me a clean heart, O God, *
and renew a right spirit within me.
12 Cast me not away from your presence *
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
13 Give me the joy of your saving help again *
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
16 Open my lips, O Lord, *
and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.

Jesus Prayer
Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Apostles’ Creed
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven,

hallowed be thy Name,

thy kingdom come,

thy will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive those

who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom,

and the power, and the glory,

for ever and ever. Amen.

(Intercessions, Petitions, Thanksgiving)

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

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving Homily: 26 November 2008

Thanksgiving Eve: 26 November 2008
(Deuteronomy 8:7-18/Psalm 65/2Corinthians 9:6-15/Luke 17:11-19)
Between the Dreaming and the Coming True: A Thanksgiving Cycle

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

6Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 7let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts;let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 9For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth,making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty,but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
12For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace;the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off (Is 55:6-13, NRSV).

Isaiah sings this song to his captive people. He sees – whether in visions or in reality, God only knows – he sees the temple destroyed, the holy city razed, the land desolate, and the people exiled. It is dark; it is night. But in the dark come dreams, and Isaiah has a dream. In Isaiah’s dream, his people call upon the Lord – a Lord who will be found. In Isaiah’s dream, his people forsake their wickedness and unrighteousness and return to the Lord – a Lord who will have mercy, a Lord who will abundantly pardon. In Isaiah’s dream the Lord speaks to his people, “Come forth!” and as surely as Lazarus will one day respond to Jesus’ call to come forth, Israel responds to their Lord and comes forth from their tomb of exile, comes forth into a living land and a land of the living. In Isaiah’s dream the Lord speaks and his people go out from the land of exile in joy and are led home in peace. This is Isaiah’s dream: when the Lord speaks and his word accomplishes that for which it was purposed, then joy and peace shall reign and the land itself – all creation – will be restored. Then the land itself – all creation – will join in praise and thanksgiving to God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, Redeemer of his people. The mountains and hills will burst into song, the trees of the field will clap their hands, the curse will be rolled back – the cypress will replace the thorn, and the myrtle will replace the brier. It is a prophet’s dream.

Centuries later another prophet sings to his people: John the Evangelist, prisoner of Rome, exiled on Patmos. He sees – whether in visions or in reality, God only knows – he sees the coming true of Isaiah’s dream, the liberation of all God’s Israel, all those from every language and people who are united through Christ, and with Christ, and in Christ. He sees all God’s Israel – and all God’s creation – united around the heavenly throne joining in praise and thanksgiving of the Lord God the Almighty.

6b Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. 8And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,‘Holy, holy, holy,the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come’ (Rev 4:6b-8, NRSV).

Whatever else they may be, the four living creatures around the throne are symbols of the fullness of creation: the lion, wild beasts; the ox, domesticated animals; the human, all sons of Adam and daughters of Eve; the eagle, the birds of the air – all creation redeemed and restored and given voice, so that the created order might offer praise and thanksgiving to its Creator and Redeemer. This is the coming true of Isaiah’s dream. The Lord has spoken; his word – Jesus – has accomplished his everlasting purpose; joy and peace have begun their reign; and the land itself – all creation – has been restored. Hear the mountains burst into song. Watch the trees of the hills in standing ovation for the Lord their God. In the dream, all shall be praise and thanksgiving. In the coming true, all is praise and thanksgiving.

But, as Robert Benson notes so well and so truly, we live between the dreaming and the coming true: between Isaiah’s dream of a redeemed and renewed creation filled with praise and thanksgiving and John’s vision of the living creatures giving voice to all creation around the throne of God. How then are we to live as God’s people of praise and thanksgiving between the dreaming and the coming true?

Paul faced this very issue and works it out in the epistle text. The saints in Jerusalem – the Jewish church – were in the grips of a devastating famine. Their terrible necessity provides Paul, and his gentile churches, with a glorious opportunity: organize a gentile relief effort for the Jewish church to demonstrate gentile/Jewish-Christian solidarity. And so Paul encourages “his” churches to join in this goodwill offering – in this text, particularly the city church of Corinth, in the region of Achaia.

9Now it is not necessary for me to write to you about the ministry to the saints, 2for I know your eagerness, which is the subject of my boasting about you to the people of Macedonia, saying that Achaia has been ready since last year; and your zeal has stirred up most of them. 3But I am sending the brothers in order that our boasting about you may not prove to have been empty in this case, so that you may be ready, as I said you would be; 4otherwise, if some Macedonians come with me and find that you are not ready, we would be humiliated—to say nothing of you—in this undertaking. 5So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you, and arrange in advance for this bountiful gift that you have promised, so that it may be ready as a voluntary gift and not as an extortion.
6 The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. 9As it is written,‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness
endures for ever.’ 10He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. 13Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, 14while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. 15Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift (2 Cor 9, NRSV)!

We find here a Christian cycle of thanksgiving.

God, in his surpassing grace, has given us an indescribable gift: adoption as his sons and daughters through Jesus Christ our Lord and unity with one another through the Holy Spirit.

God, in his surpassing grace, has given us an unparalleled opportunity: the ability to share our material resources – food, money, clothing, etc. – with our brothers and sisters in Christ who are in temporary need. This sharing with the saints is not only a responsibility, but also an act of praise and thanksgiving to God.

God, in his surpassing grace, has given us an unimaginable privilege: the power to help turn Isaiah’s dream into John’s reality by drawing all creation into a great chorus of praise and thanksgiving. Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians – and us – that through the ministry of sharing, “11You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; 12for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.” Through the thanksgiving act of sharing resources, those who receive will themselves be caught up in thanksgiving, so that the creation begins to overflow with many thanksgivings to God. Between the dreaming and the coming true we have been given the power to hasten the dream toward its coming true.

To all God’s people in Christ the thanksgiving message is clear: Let us be thankful for the indescribable gift of God in Christ. Let us share what we have with others so that they, too, might have ample cause for thanksgiving. And let us join with all creation in praise and thanksgiving of God Almighty – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – as we await and hasten the dream come true.


Monday, November 24, 2008

The Reign of Christ (Christ the King) Sunday

I have posted no sermon for The Reign of Christ Sunday simply because I did not preach. Instead, our youth conducted the service and provided a wonderful and insightful dramatic commentary on the gospel text, the Sheep and Goats Judgment. I appreciate their hard work and that of their teacher.

Later this week -- Wednesday, God willing -- I will post a Thanksgiving homily.

Peace of Christ,

(Frederica Mathewes-Green has an excellent discussion of the dual message of the Christ of Sinai icon, above, on The link follows for the short (2-3 minute) video.)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sermon: 27 Pentecost (16 November 2008)

Sermon: 27 Pentecost (16 November 2008)
(Zeph 1:7, 12-18/Ps90:1-12/1Thess 5:1-11/Mt 25:14-30)
Missing the Point: Talents and Judgment

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

My friend Gary wrote to tell me that he is purging his library of heretical authors and to offer me his titles by Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo, and Jim Wallis. Since I either have those books – in the case of McLaren and Campolo – or don’t want them – in the case of Wallis – I don’t know what Gary will do with them, though I can imagine him sitting outside on a fine fall evening, smoking a good cigar, and toasting marshmallows on a roaring fire fueled with “banned books”.

McLaren and Campolo actually co-authored a book; I guess Gary will consign that one to the nethermost regions of banned-book hell. It has a great title though: Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel. The more I read the gospels, the more they do seem like an adventure in missing the point. Did anyone understand Jesus: his mother Mary; his apostolic rock, Peter; his public friends and secret disciples like Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Joseph and Nicodemus; the religious and political leaders – scribes, Pharisees, priests, Sadducees, Herodians? No: the gospels, from beginning to end, are largely an adventure in missing the point. We see that, of course, in hindsight; through the lens of Easter, everything is much clearer. The point of the gospel was made on the cross and in the empty tomb: this Jesus whom you crucified is both Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36). Confronted with the resurrected Christ, even the slowest of heart and mind got the point. The Acts of the Apostles could even be subtitled Adventures in Getting the Point: How the Spirit-controlled Church Conquered the Culture.

I’m inclined to generosity toward the pre-resurrection disciples of Jesus. Yes, they often missed the point, but I doubt I would have fared better. In fact, I’ve spent my fair share of time missing the point of the gospel, and I suspect I still do. Not the major point, mind you – not the essence of the faith as found in the creeds – but subtleties like…well, like some of Jesus’ parables, like the Parable of the Talents, for example. I’ve often missed the point of such parables due to my self-centered reading of the text. I want the parable to be spoken to me, for me, and about me. But, if I proceed on those assumptions, I will almost certainly miss the point. While the parable has great meaning for me – for us – that is its secondary meaning; primarily it was spoken to someone else, for someone else, and about someone else. To get the point is to understand the parable in that other, original, context.

Take the Parable of the Talents. Assume it is directed primarily to us. What is its point? It becomes a parable of absence, return, and judgment. Jesus is gone – for a long time now – the master visiting a far country. In the meantime he has given us certain resources – talents (not natural abilities, but large sums of money in the parable) – and has instructed us to use them for the growth of the kingdom. In some unknown future he will return unexpectedly to judge our success with those talents. Use them well and we will receive a reward. Use them poorly and we will be cast away from his presence, into a place of punishment and distress. It is, all in all, an unsettling and frightening story that leaves us always with the question, Have we done enough? Have we used our talents? Make this parable primarily to us, for us, and about us – strip it from its historical context – and it becomes a cautionary tale of works righteousness, fearful judgment, and eternal destiny. Make this parable primarily to us, for us, and about us – strip it from its historical context – and it becomes an adventure in missing the point.

So, what are we to make of it if not this? It is Holy Week and Jesus is engaged in holy battle on several fronts. Jesus is struggling with the Adversary, Satan, as Satan works behind the scenes to subvert God’s plan through human intermediaries – most notably Judas. Religious authorities stand arrayed against Jesus, dogging his steps and questioning his every word and deed: scribes and Pharisees, priests and Sadducees. Soon, the political powers will enter the fray against Jesus: Herod and his lackeys and ultimately Rome in the person of Pontius Pilate. Gone is our simplistic icon of gentle Jesus meek and mild. Jesus is on the attack, fiercely taking the battle to his opponents. Just read Matthew 23 as Jesus pronounces judgment on the Pharisees. Woe to you, Pharisees: hypocrites, blind fools, brood of vipers, children of Gehenna. God will hold you and your generation accountable, Jesus says, for the righteous blood of the prophets which your fathers shed -- murder approved by the present generation of Pharisees. But Jesus doesn’t stop with condemnation of the Pharisees; Jerusalem, too, is under judgment. With sorrow and tears Jesus pronounces the coming desolation of Jerusalem for its failure to recognize the time of God’s visitation, the time of Jesus’ appearing.

And so begins Jesus’ parables and discourses on judgment – not some far distant, eternal judgment, but the immanent judgment and destruction of Jerusalem, the temple, and the religious establishment: scribes and Pharisees, priests and Sadducees. This is the context for the Parable of the Talents. At the most basic level, this is not a parable of future absence and long delayed return. It is a parable proclaiming that, in Jesus, God has already returned after a long silence, has already returned and is even now pronouncing judgment upon those who fail to recognize him and submit to him. Read this as a parable of judgment directed to Jesus’ contemporaries – which is the primary context of this section of Matthew’s gospel – and it makes sense. Moreover, it fits hand-in-glove with the gospel, the good news of God’s restorative justice and grace.

Perhaps we are so familiar with the parable that it will be difficult to hear it this way if we simply read it again. Allow me, then, a retelling.

A noted philanthropist called his three top aides together and announced, “I’ve been asked to lead an international relief effort covering several third world countries. I will be overseas for an extended period of time; it’s uncertain yet just how long. While I’m gone I don’t want to let our inner city work here languish. So, I’ve decided to place each of you in charge of one of our major efforts: Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Knoxville. I’ll provide you with financial resources appropriate to the size of the task. You know my heart and you know my goals. Carry on my work.” With that, he left.

Months passed with little communication. Then one day – quite unexpectedly – the philanthropist returned and sent for his aides. “Exciting things have been happening overseas; I’ll fill you in later. But right now, I want to hear about your work here,” he said. The first assistant reported on the work among the homeless in Philadelphia – some innovative approaches he was pioneering with mixed, inner city housing, rich and poor living as neighbors in communities and condos. The second aide told of the work among the alcohol and drug addicted in Atlanta, about mentorship programs and faith-based and political coalitions. Both aides were excited about the work and their enthusiasm spread to the philanthropist. “Well done,” he said. “Well, done. You have exceeded my expectations and I hope you will continue with the work you’ve begun and even expand it. Of course, I’ll continue to supply all the resources you need.” The third aide was absent; he had ignored the summons to the meeting. When sent for again, he grudgingly came and began his report. “I know how limited resources are, even for you,” he said, “and I was determined not to waste your money, especially when I saw how my colleagues here spent precious dollars on undeserving people: those too lazy to work for shelter and those too weak to kick their drug habits. So, I hired a crack team of investigators to determine those people really worthy of help – good people who through no fault of their own ended up on the streets. I’ve built a building to house our offices and bought the latest computer data systems. I’ve even…”. “But, wait a minute,” the philanthropist interrupted. “How many people have you actually helped? How much of my money have you spent on alleviating homelessness, or combating drug addition, or providing educational assistance, or any of the other efforts that are important to me?” The aide looked stricken. “Well, we’re really just getting started,” he said. “How many people have you helped?” the philanthropist asked again. “Well, we haven’t really moved our programs into the inner city yet,” the aide replied. “We’re still trying to determine who is worthy of help.”

The philanthropist looked at his aide with a mixture of grief and severity. “You knew what was important to me; you’ve been with me for years. You know I would rather waste money on a hundred than fail to meet the needs of one. I love these people. But you, you helped only yourself. And now, you’re fired. Security will escort you to your desk to collect your personal belongings and then escort you to the street. The contracts of your investigators and computer analysts will be terminated effective immediately, and your building will be sold off to recoup some of the money you squandered. I had such hopes for you. You can’t begin to imagine my disappointment.”

This parable is not about absence but about return, not about future eternal judgment but about present accounting for resources used and resources squandered. God, the true philanthropist – lover of mankind – had presented Israel with all the resources necessary to bless the nations: torah, temple, Sabbath, and God’s own presence. But, Israel had hoarded these resources, these talents, as their own possessions. They had refused to be Israel as God intended – a holy people, a kingdom of priests, and a light to the nations. A religious elite – not least the Pharisees – arose, misrepresented God, and by their actions erected barriers between the masses – tax collectors, sinners, the poor and disenfranchised – and God. This parable, and others that Jesus told in this section of Matthew, clearly proclaims that the religion of the Pharisees was an adventure in missing the point. And that misadventure had dire consequences for them and for Israel – the destruction of everything they held most dear: their positions of prestige and authority, their national identity and their land, Jerusalem and the temple – all gone because they buried the talent God had entrusted to them. But others in the parable – the ones we often overlook in our obsession with judgment – others used their talents by investing them in Jesus: Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Mary and Martha and Lazarus, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdalene, the seventy-two disciples, the twelve apostles, Paul, and tax collectors and sinners unnamed and unnumbered. And these faithful servants received their reward, in this world and in the world to come. They missed Jesus’ point many times, too, but they didn’t miss him. And, after all, Jesus is the main point of it all anyway.

So, that’s the Parable of the Talents in context – a proclamation that God has returned in the person of Jesus to demand an accounting of the Pharisees’ stewardship of his blessings, and a judgment on their failure to be Israel as God had intended – a light to enlighten the nations and the glory of his people. It is also a pronouncement of blessing and reward for those who got the point and joined the grand gospel adventure of Jesus. What awaits those in Jesus is not fearful judgment, but the promise of full redemption. That is why the Epistle lesson from 1 Thessalonians is so appropriately paired with the Parable of the Talents. Consider it a commentary on that parable – a commentary directed toward the two, faithful servants – as much to us, and for us, and about us as them.

5Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. 2For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3When they say, ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, NRSV).

Both the Parable of the Talents and this text from Paul address judgment, but the focus is entirely different: Jesus spoke of immanent loss for the Pharisees and Israel; Paul writes of eternal blessing for those in Christ Jesus. When we think of judgment, it is this promise that must be foremost in our understanding: 9For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him (1 Thess 5:9-10, NRSV). There are talents here, too, implied in this epistle text – God’s resources given to us through the Holy Spirit for building up his kingdom: 6So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation (1 Thess 5:6-8, NRSV). Yes, we are to work in and for the kingdom of God, not from fear of judgment, but in thankfulness that we already have been judged in Jesus Christ and declared righteous. This is good news, news by which we are to “encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”

When it comes to judgment, we dare not have an adventure in missing the point. To those in Christ Jesus, to “those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, [God] will give eternal life” (Rom 2:7). For those in Christ Jesus, judgment is gospel – good news of creation restored, of righteousness vindicated, of faithfulness rewarded. This is the point after all: redemption, reconciliation, restoration – new creation in Christ. So, let us not grow weary in doing good. “Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:1b-2a, NRSV), as we encourage one another and build up each other. Amen.