Archives for 2012

Sharing Frensdorff’s dream, 1 Epiphany (C) – 2013

January 13, 2013

Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Wesley Frensdorff was the bishop of Nevada in the early 1970s. He also served as assisting bishop of Arizona and interim bishop of Navajoland. He was one of the early visionaries of a movement called “total ministry,” a strategy for living out our Baptismal Covenant in community.

Our Baptismal Covenant, the promise we make together at every baptism, calls us, among other things, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

At its very heart, Frensdorff’s ideas of total ministry push the limits of how we carry out our baptismal promise in the world, and how we “do” church. His ministry was not without conflict and opposition.

Tragically, he died in a plane crash on the rim of the Grand Canyon in 1988. But 30 years ago, before he died, Frensdorff wrote a poem called “The Dream.” The poem begins:

“Let us dream of a church in which all members know surely and simply God’s great love.”

This first line of Frensdorff’s poem brings to mind a metaphor that the great Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, used in the sixteenth century: “Can a rock that has been in the sunlight all day not fail to give off warmth and heat at night?”

Martin Luther leads us to ask ourselves, Can a Christian who has lived in the sunlight of God’s love not fail to give off warmth and love?

The answer is no. But we can’t radiate God’s love until we’ve opened our hearts and let it in.

We can’t expect ourselves or anyone else to simply start loving each other and be nice. We must first live in the sunlight of God’s love. We need to bask in the sunlight of God’s compassion. We need to absorb God’s light, allowing it to replace all those parts that are not of God within us – all of those past hurts that take up our inner space and block out God’s life-giving light.

Once we allow God’s love in, we can then begin to give off that love.

Let us dream of a church that radiates God’s love.

Thirty years ago, Frensdorff dreamed of a church unafraid of change. Is the church any less afraid of change than it was 30 years ago?

Maybe not. In fact, it may be even more afraid, which is understandable. Our world is changing so fast that sometimes a changeless church might seem the only refuge in a world that may be almost unrecognizable from what we used to know.

So we cling to what was, for comfort. But in so doing, we cut off the growth of new generation.

A woman tells the story of how, when she moved into a house in Connecticut, she decided to trim back the wisteria vines on the front of the house. The vines grew with abandon and flowered prolifically. In her attempts to shape it up a bit, and redirect it, she went out and bought some electric shearers, which she described later as being a big mistake. Not being an experienced gardener, she began to cut and cut and cut. And you know what? That wisteria never flowered again.

It didn’t die, she explained. It was still alive. Sort of. It lived as a brownish stalk that would only shoot out a few weak green bloomless tentacles each spring. She later learned that wisteria only produce flowers from the previous year’s new growth, and those few weak green shoots were unable to capture the nutrients necessary to bring forth flowers.

Let us dream of a church so vital and alive that it grows and flowers with abandon.

Thirty years ago, Frensdorff wrote in his poem that he dreamed of a church “so salty and yeasty that it really would be missed if no longer around.”

Let us share that dream and envision a bold church that exists beyond its walls, a church that fearlessly speaks out against the unjust structures of society. A church that doesn’t always choose the safe route. A church that is nimble enough to continue to be relevant and responsive in our rapidly changing social context.

A church that is not satisfied with feeding its members pablam, but instead takes risks, speaking out, and acting, regardless of consequences, against those things that are not of God.

A church where the members are so on-fire by their own conversion experiences that they can’t help but reach out and share the good news, both with people “like” themselves, and people who are very different.

Have we lost our salt? Let us, as Frensdorff did, dream of a salty church.

Thirty years ago, Frensdorff dreamed of a church where “each congregation is in mission and each Christian, gifted for ministry; a crew on a freighter, not passengers on a luxury liner.”

Let us also dream of a church united by a common vision defined by Christ’s teachings. A church where the mission of the church is the mission of Jesus Christ, and each member, regardless of ordination status, is part of the one crew.

Frensdorff’s vision was of each member as part of a crew on a freighter. But when we look at the church universal, with an estimated 38,000 different Christian denominations, when we look at the fractured Anglican Communion, and even when we look at the dynamics within individual communities, it’s hard to see one freighter. Instead there appear to be thousands of individual life rafts floating adrift.

Let us dream of a church where each member is part of that crew on one boat with a common vision. How much more could we do if our forces were united?

And finally, 30 years ago Frensdorff dreamed “of a people called to recognize all the absurdities in ourselves and in one another,” and a people “serious about the call and the mission but not, very much, about ourselves.”

Let us share his vision of a playful church, a church that takes its ultimate goal seriously, but itself – not so much.

A church that acknowledges that we might have a lot to learn. That we don’t know all the answers. And that we fall short, corporately and individually. A church where the members are blessed with hearts that forgive, and a sense of humor. That worships a God who we know also forgives, and who, we pray, has a sense of humor.

Consider this image of one day coming to know the nearer presence of Our Lord.

God is there to welcome you. You talk. God reminds you of your Baptismal Covenant – the same covenant that we will reaffirm together today. God reminds you of the teaching of Holy Scripture.

By now your post-earthly-life stomach might be turning, whatever that feels like.

But the conversation moves on to one of mercy, with God’s eternal words of welcome: “My dear child, you tried. Sometimes you even came close to getting it right. But other times, well, you missed the mark. Sometimes you fell a little short, and sometimes you got it really wrong. Sometimes your efforts were actually silly, and they even amused, giving us a good laugh. But my dear child, you tried. Your heart was in the right place. You are forgiven; you are loved; come on in anyway.”

Let us dream of a church that is serious about God’s love, and just maybe, not so serious about itself.

Today as we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, and all the baptisms today throughout the church, let us ask ourselves, What kind of a church are we bringing our new members into?

Will it be the kind of church that we dream it could be?

Will it be the kind of church that Frensdorff dreamed it could be?

Will it be the kind of church Jesus dreamed it to be?

All of us who are gathered have a part in shaping the answer. What kind of church are we going to create for these beautiful children?

 

— The Rev. Suzanne Watson has served in congregations in California, New Zealand, Connecticut and on the staff of the Presiding Bishop in New York. She is currently exploring a call to medical missionary work, and just completed her first semester of medical studies at St. George’s University in Grenada, West Indies, where she is also serves as  a priest.

‘Us’ and ‘them’, Epiphany (A,B,C) – 2013

January 6, 2013

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Today we pass out of the Christmas season, beyond the simplicity of Luke’s story of a humble birth with angels and shepherds, and beyond John’s exquisite message of the Word becoming flesh and living among us.

Today we begin the Epiphany season – shifting from rejoicing at God’s coming among us to reflecting on what it means – to us and to the life of the world.

Christmas is a traditional time for unity. Even during world wars, combatants often stopped fighting and sang to their enemies or even walked across the battle line to share gifts with them. Christmas ceasefires also became common during the Korean, Vietnamese and Gulf Wars. At the local level, rarely is conflict tolerated at Christmas, a time when everyone seems to be able to focus primarily on peace.

But Christmas has passed. And if we are honest, we understand that also any temporary spirit of peace has passed away. If we are honest, we will admit that no assessment of the current world and national culture is clearer than the realization that people everywhere seem willingly to tolerate a deep ideological divide. We live in a time when compromise is often seen as a negative – as a weakness. We live in a time of party and tribal purity, in which the classic “us”  verses “them” dominates.

“We” are the good people, the ones with the right way of thinking and acting. “They” are the bad people, the ones with a wrong way of thinking and acting. “They” constitute a threat and everything about “them” is suspect.

This is a time of asserting that every social ill is “their” failure. Emotionalism, blaming and scapegoating take precedence over reason and accepting responsibility. This is a time of believing that if you are not like us, you must be against us. If you do not agree with us, you must be wrong. Only “we” have the right answer or access to God.

This is a time when the list of “us” verses “them” seems almost endless: whites against people of color; pro-life advocates against pro-choice supporters; liberals against conservatives; Westerners against Middle Easterners; Muslims against Christians; rich against poor; male against female; native against foreign; whoever against someone else. “Us” against “them.”

The early biblical story is instructive in this regard. It presents an account of ancient Hebrew people developing a strong ethic of internal unity against all who were “other.” In part, this resulted from an understanding that God set them apart as an example to the nations. It also served as a form of self-defense, as they sought to acquire or protect land their considered God-given. And in part, it came from an attempt to maintain the purity of their faith; the intrusion of outsiders into their realm threatened the integrity of what they saw as God’s demand. Therefore, they divided the world into “us” and “them”  – the people of Israel on the one hand verses all others, whom they termed “gentiles.”

They felt forced into a distinction common among human beings and similar to the opening lines of “Outwitted,” a poem by Edwin Markham:

“He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.”

Israel, out of a perceived necessity, drew a circle around itself, seeing its particular people as a race specially chosen by God. Gentiles, foreigners, were anathema.

Nevertheless, there were other faint voices in Israel’s literature that envisioned a more universal reality. That view finally found fulfillment in Christian expression. Today’s classic gospel story opens the door for a new understanding. Jesus, born in a small town in a totally Jewish environment, was visited by wise men from another world. These foreigners came into the midst of the chosen people and claimed it for their own. And in so doing, they claimed it for all people.

The story of wise men paying homage to the Christ child marks the beginning of the new understanding. It is the story of a God of all people, a God of unity, a God who moves his people beyond the trap of “us”  against “them.”  It is like the final two lines of Markham’s poem:

“But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!”

Wise men, bringing gifts, highlight the fact that the ultimate gift is that God loves all people, in all times, in all places – a gift for every contentious “us”  against “them,” empowering movement toward a spirit of fundamental unity.

The Epiphany gospel story is a powerful symbol of something critically important in the development of our faith – in the understanding of who and what God is. The transition from “us”  versus “them”  to a clearer view of the unity of all people does not come easily, however. The early church struggled mightily to understand what God was doing in Christ. One of its earliest conflicts centered on whether Christians had to be Jews first, whether the new faith would be only a reformation of Judaism or a whole new and expanded one. Ultimately, the Spirit moved first-century followers of Christ to accept a broader understanding.

Today’s epistle reading provides an insightful view of this new reality. The writer of Ephesians, speaking in Paul’s name, clarifies the truth that beneficiaries of Christ include not only Jews who followed him, but also gentiles, like the wise men. He spoke of a mystery being revealed by which “the gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

The meaning of today’s readings reminds us of the challenge for all people to live in a spirit of unity. The Body of Christ is a unifying image that can draw us toward the challenge of eliminating the current divisiveness of our national and global environments. Clearly, this also applies even among Christians today, because an uncompromising spirit of “us”  against “them”  continues to divide and damage.

The three foreigners of today’s gospel remind us once more that our task is to embrace and teach the view that no one is so different that we dare treat them with less love or less respect than we would show those whom we know as brothers and sisters. The epistle reminds us that there is no gentile, no “other” who exists beyond the circle of God’s love. It reminds us that divisiveness like we experience so often is not consistent with the values of God.

Both lessons remind us of the Godly reality of the unity of all people – Jew and gentile, Christian and Muslim, conservative and liberal, rich and poor, male and female, black and white and red and brown, brave and cowardly, married and single, gay and straight, young and old – “us”  and “them.”

Through a unifying God, we are related to all people – not just related like the kinship of a common humanity, but related in a much more profound way – through the Christ honored by the wise men and acknowledged as Lord of both Jew and gentile.

Today’s lessons help us paraphrase Markham’s poem into a useful watchword in a divisive environment:

They drew a circle that shut “us” out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love of God had the wit to win:
Christ drew a circle and took all in!

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of “John E. Hines: Granite on Fire” (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.

An invitation to intimacy with God, Holy Name (A,B,C) – 2013

January 1, 2013

Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7 or Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21

When we think about January 1st, usually, what comes to mind isn’t the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus – also know as the Feast of the Circumcision. Nonetheless, today was the Feast of the Holy Name long before it became New Year’s Day. In fact, January 1 has only been called “New Year’s Day” since 1752. Before then, for more than a thousand years, we observed March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, as the beginning of the year.

At the same time, finding some significance in the ceremony by which every Jewish male was formally given his name eight days after he was born is a bit trickier than putting up the new calendar. It’s tempting to see the whole thing as just odd; and to ask, with Romeo, “What’s in a name?” The answer, as Romeo himself found out none too happily, is that there’s a great deal in a name, and that names are pretty special things.

This may be easier to get at when we start with ourselves and our own names, and the names of people around us. After all, we not only have a name, we have quite a few of them: We have first names, and middle names, and last names and titles; many of us have married names, maiden names, nicknames, pet names, and those other names we would rather forget. And which of those names we use and the way they are used says a lot.

For example, one male priest described his family’s reaction when he was first ordained; his brothers and sisters had a ball talking about “my brother, the father,” or one sister who still sometimes calls him “Father brother.” Which is all good fun, but imagine what it would mean if he actually insisted that his brothers and sisters address him only as “father.” It would not only be weird, but also hurtful, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, he’d be saying something harsh about his relationship to them, since the names we use acknowledge and express our relationships. And second, since his name is a sort of key to who he is, insisting on a title instead of a name would be a way of hiding the real him, his personal self, from his family.

The opposite thing is going on when some 16-year-old smart aleck working in a fast-food restaurant insists on calling customers by their first names. And we all know plenty of other examples of that sort of thing.

What’s happening in all of these cases is a sort of dishonesty. These are times when names – which do turn out to matter quite a bit – get used in ways that don’t properly acknowledge and express the relationships that in fact exist; and so, an important insight into who we are and what we are about is being misused – and something false is implied.

Now, with all of this in mind, we can look at another name, the name of God the Father. Remember, God the Father has a specific name – a name he revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Depending on what translation we’re using, both the reading from Numbers and the psalm make this point more or less clearly. Both readings include God’s name, Yahweh, which is sometimes translated as “THE LORD” in capital letters. Yahweh is probably the way that the proper name of God was pronounced when it was spoken in Hebrew, but there’s some debate about that.

About 600 years before Jesus was born, and well after today’s readings from Numbers and the psalm were written, the divine name, the name God gave Moses, was not spoken in Israel, so attempts to re-create how it sounded have led to a variety of conclusions.

The name of God was not spoken, in part to keep it from being profaned – you couldn’t take the name of God in vain if you didn’t say it – but on an even deeper level, not speaking God’s name says something very important about how Israel had come to understand God, and Israel’s relationship to God.

The name of God was not spoken – and at the same time Israel came more and more to understand God as distant, as apart from his people.

In other words, Israel was no longer on a first-name basis with God; and this lack of the use of God’s name was both a way of expressing and of constituting this new, and more distant, relationship, and of removing from Israel an important key to God’s immediate presence.

This is why the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is truly important; and why it belongs right next to Christmas.

The point here is not that we’re celebrating the fact that Jesus was named “Jesus” instead of, say, “Floyd” or “George.” Instead, today we celebrate the fact that God has again spoken his name to his people – and not just as a word, but as the Word made flesh.

God has spoken his name to us as a person. Eight days after Christmas, God again gave us his name, this time with a force, a potency and a significance that overshadows Sinai, and for us, supersedes whatever Moses was told on the mountain.

For in speaking his name as “Jesus,” God has changed forever his relationship to us – from the studied formality of a name too holy to speak to the special intimacy that is implied by being on a first-name basis at its best – and more.

It’s not that in the name “Jesus” we have some kind of magic word, a sort of verbal talisman we can wave around and make things happen. That’s not it all. That’s superstitious magic. Instead, God has given us the fullness of what is only hinted at in our own names. We have been given the gift of a new relationship with God, a first-name relationship that is more intimate than casual, more immediate than informal.

And with that comes an invitation; an invitation to intimacy with God – to intimacy with all of the power, the love and the inherent connection to all of creation that are parts of who God is. Remember, the name of Jesus is the name of God the Son, and it is in the person, the whole person, of Jesus Christ that we see and know most clearly and most completely who God is, and what God is about as far as we are concerned.

So we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus for the same reason we celebrate Christmas: the promises to Mary and Joseph and Israel have been fulfilled, a virgin did conceive and bear a son, and his name most certainly means that God is with us. It is the name that is above every other name, and – in joy and thanksgiving – at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow.

 

— The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma.

The Word, the logos, the Christ, 1 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2012

December 30, 2012

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or Psalm 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

Love Christmas. Love this Gospel. For this is John’s Christmas story. Or perhaps it makes more sense to say that this is John’s version of the Incarnation. No shepherds, no star, no kings, no Bethlehem, no manger, no Joseph and no Mary. Had John been Rogers and Hammerstein, he would have started his version of the good news of Jesus with the words, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”

And so we are transported way back to the beginning of time. To before the beginning of time. Before anything at all was created, before the world began, the Word, the logos, the Christ, was with God and was God.

Was God. In the beginning, the Word was God. Astonishing! We are meant to be astonished. We are meant to be hushed. All our fumbling theologizing about Christmas and the Incarnation is silenced by this pushing back of the story to the very beginning of all things.

For the very next thing we are told is that “all things were made through him.” That would be as in all things, everything and every one. Simply breathtaking.

Which would explain everything about who we are. We are those people who have promised, and continually promise over and over again, to seek and serve Christ in all persons. Not some people, not most people, but all persons.

Most unfortunate, this good news John is proclaiming at the outset of the fourth gospel. Unfortunate because very often we do not want to recognize the Word, the logos, the Christ, in all persons. There are some persons we might not want to be of Christ so as not to have to serve them!

So we might not wish John had started at the very beginning. The beginning is not a very good place to start at all. It is hugely inconvenient to start there because it leads to all this seeking and serving of persons, quite frankly, we just would rather not seek and serve.

Christmas is so much easier if you just stick to the nativity scene and think about cuddly sheep, and a cow in the background, and hay in the manger, and shepherds falling all over themselves with excitement like so many children under the Christmas tree, which, just as inconveniently, does not seem to be a part of the story.

Until you get to the part about light. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Martin Luther is said to have lit the first Christmas tree with candles so as to make it look like the stars in the sky!

Now when you light a candle, you tap into an ancient and nearly never-ending cycle of life-giving energy. The chemical energy of photosynthesis in plants is passed up the food chain, for instance, to grazing cattle and then on to tallow in a candle. As Roger Highfield, in his book “The Physics of Christmas,” explains,  when the candle is lit in the gloomiest of nights, it releases “cryptic sunlight” and returns the complex fat or wax molecules to the form in which the plants found it in the first place – water and carbon dioxide that can be incorporated into living things all over again.

And here’s the kicker: the Word, the logos, the Christ is in all of that. The logos is in the photosynthesis and the cryptic sunlight. “Without him was not anything made that was made.” Oh, my. That no doubt includes fruitcakes, that awful necktie from Uncle Joseph and every one of the Pittsburgh Steelers in town for one day only to make or break the Ravens’ season.

This is more complicated than Christmas ought to be. But here it is, in black and white, Christmas as seen through the eyes of the fourth gospel, John. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us … and from his fullness have we all received grace upon grace.”

“Dwelt” means something like “pitched his tent” among us. This means that when we pick up our tent stakes and move on, the Word can pull up and travel with us. And the fullness of this Word from which all life, all things, all light doth proceed, is shared with us all. As in “all.” Not some, not a lot, but like creation itself, all persons and all things receive this grace. Have received this grace. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.”

So here in this corner is the Word, and all that he has done since before time, in time and beyond time. And in the other corner is John, the man who was a lampstand. “He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.”

So now, maybe we could do that, too. We could bear witness to the light that comes from the Word who was with God and was God in the beginning. Maybe we could be like John and be a lampstand from which this light that comes from the Word who was with God and was God in the beginning can shine forth. Think here of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” Think Bilbo Baggins, Frodo and Sam, think Gandalf and Aragorn, think Pippin and Merry, think, yes, even Boromir and Gollum.

We might ask, which character in “The Lord of the Rings” is most Christ-like? But then, that would be the wrong question. Each character of Middle Earth fighting the forces of darkness carries something of the light, the logos and the Christ within them. All together they are the body of Christ. Alone, none of them can get the job done, move history and the world forward. Together the world is saved. Changed, but saved.

This is what we are called to be and do: bear witness to the light and do all in our power to help others do so as well. This is best done by seeking and serving Christ, the Word, the logos, in all persons, everywhere, at all times.

None of us can be Christ-like unto ourselves. Yet, we each carry some particular Christ-like characteristic. We each carry a piece of the light. All together we can make up a Christ-like community. That is why, when we baptize new members of the Body of Christ, the whole body is changed and made new. That is why it is so important to take the promises we make seriously. Especially the promise to do all in our power to support one another in our lives in Christ. Because the piece of Christ that I need is the piece you have, and the piece you need is the piece I have. Together we can strive for justice and peace for all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. We are the body of Christ.

Together we make up the mosaic that is the Word, the logos, the Christ, for the world. Merry Christmas! God bless us every one. Amen.

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek has served as rector and assistant in a broad variety of parishes over the past 28 years. He is currently chaplain and teaches at St. Timothy’s School for girls, the diocesan girls’ boarding school in the Diocese of Maryland, where he teaches World Religions and IB English. His sermons are archived atwww.perechief.blogspot.com.

Finding our way in the dark, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2012

Finding our way in the dark

December 25, 2012

Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20

Have you ever stumbled in the dark? Better yet, have you ever had to do something without the benefit of adequate light? Not only is it difficult, we have a higher chance of messing up or injuring ourselves. (Remember the last time you stubbed your toe moving going to the bathroom or kitchen in the middle of the night?) Most often we feel comfortable enough making the attempt to move through the darkness in familiar surroundings, because we are accustomed to where things are and we feel safe while in our homes and offices.

Most of us aren’t so adventurous or courageous when we are in a place with which we are unfamiliar; yet doesn’t it seem that life is a lot like that? We are often asked to move into the inky darkness of life, in ways that are not so much different than our stumbling through our houses late at night. But even as we think about how difficult it is to navigate without adequate light, we are rarely, if ever, in complete darkness. Whether we live in urban or rural areas, even without our personal lights on, we are never in complete darkness. Even when we are far away from so-called civilization, away from man-made light, even without the moon, under a cloudy sky, there is still some ambient light that allows us to see something.

In many ways, that is what the Nativity of Christ is all about – finding our way in the twilight to that place where and that time when God’s glory breaks forth and floods our lives, and the world. God’s light, shining through the infant ruler, Jesus, is the light that, even in its brilliance, helps us to see more clearly. The shepherds, Mary and Joseph and maybe even the angels, did not know what to expect. The shepherds were treated to a heavenly concert that they hadn’t even bought tickets for. Mary and Joseph just wanted to do their civic duty – be counted and pay their taxes – and to have their child born safely and healthy. The angels were bringing the message that they were given, but no one really knew what was going to happen or even what the outcome would be. They were all stumbling through the dark, trying their best to do what they needed to do, but with just enough light, just enough information to give them some measure of courage to continue to move forward.

They all continued with the hope that the end of this leg of their journey would make a difference. They trusted that, even without all of the details, they were going to experience something wonderful.

Friends, we have seen the savior in many ways and through many people. Some have even heard the angel’s message and their song:

“Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

We know the end of the story, we know the baby, where he was born and what he was born to do. We don’t have to fear the times when we have to stumble through the darkness – Christ’s light is so bright that even when we are traveling through deep valleys and languishing in the darkness of a closed building or room, if we can get continue to move toward a place where we can get out and look forward, we will see the light increasing and our way brighter and more sure.

Remember, on this day and throughout the days of this Christmas and Epiphany season, that we need not stumble for long in the darkness, because the Light has come.

Remember the words of Hymn 91:

“Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light and usher in the morning. Ye shepherds shrink not with afright, but heed the angels warning. This child now weak in infancy, our confidence and joy shall be. The power of Satan, breaking. Our peace eternal, making.”

 

— The Rev. Lawrence Womack is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem, N.C.

God comes to us in our gritty reality, Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2012

December 24, 2012

Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Christmas Eve: Is there a more magical time? In the larger culture, this is often one of the few times when family and home regularly take precedence over other concerns. People light fires in their fireplaces, fill their households with candlelight and the smell of cinnamon; families eat special meals together with the glow of memory surrounding them.

There’s some irony to the coziness of Christmas Eve in our culture, since what we celebrate is the birth of a child to a couple in challenging circumstances far from home. The outbuilding in which Jesus was born did not smell of cinnamon brooms or roasting turkey. It wasn’t decorated in lights and bows. It smelled quite frankly of animals and hay. It’s hard to imagine Mary feeling completely at ease in these circumstances, much less glowing with that supernatural light that appears on Christmas cards. The first Christmas Eve was a struggle for Mary and Joseph; they had been traveling  – and we’re not talking planes, trains or automobiles; Mary was doubtless in pain; Joseph had to be worried and frustrated that there was no place for them to be secure.

The shepherds, who have graced their share of beatific Christmas cards themselves, did not bring tiny white lambs to the crèche. Shepherds were pretty far down the ladder in status and economic standing. They were almost certainly dirty, and perhaps staved off the cold with something to drink.

Our lovely Christmas-card illusions of the first Christmas Eve detract us for the gritty reality of the story, where the extraordinary nature of this story actually lies.

God came to us in Jesus. God came among us, not in the first-century equivalent of a Lear jet or a black limousine, but to a humble couple of travelers far from home and family. Jesus’ first attendants were from the edges of polite society, not from the center. This appears to be a clear signal from the writer of the Gospel of Luke that God’s story in the life of Jesus is going to unfold in unexpected ways, far from the trappings of royalty, distant from the centers of religious authority, among the poorest and the least. And that is by God’s choice.

What are we to understand about God through this story?

The writer of the Gospel of Luke goes on to tell the story of Jesus’ life with a particular emphasis that’s consistent with this birth story; Jesus continues to deal kindly with people on the margins, and tell stories with unexpected heroes, such as the Good Samaritan. The God we see through the portrayal of Jesus in Luke is a God who reaches past the boundaries of race, class, gender and religion to touch people who are on the outside, and it starts with the story of this night.

The earliest Christians did not celebrate Christmas. This observance came later, when Christians began to talk about Jesus as more than a prophet; they began to see him as divine, and therefore to think about his whole life as a message to humankind from God. They began to talk about a concept called “the Incarnation,” by which they meant that God entered human history in a human life. This made the birth of Jesus a signal event in history, an event that changed the world forever.

In Luke’s account, the conception and birth of Jesus follow the pattern of stories from the Hebrew Scriptures, in which God is always acting in unexpected ways to make relationship with God’s people. Just as Sarah conceived when she was old; just as Hannah conceived when she had been barren; just as Moses was called to lead, though he felt inadequate to the task – so Mary, another person who was nobody special, became the mother of Jesus. The place and time were not ideal: they were far from home and Mary went into labor. The historical timing was difficult, too; Mary and Joseph were of the Twelve Tribes, but they lived in an occupied nation and had to answer the call of the Roman governor to be counted.

In the midst of ordinary human history, with one more oppressor occupying one more province; in the midst of ordinary human experience – a pregnant woman and her betrothed, traveling uncomfortably and surprised by a birth far from home – God’s presence is known. God comes to us in the everyday; God is not excluded from a hard day at the office, a challenging commute, a hospital room, a government office. The birth of Jesus says to us that God’s desire is to be with us in all times and places, not only when the house is clean and the children are asleep. Those who visit him in Luke’s account suggest further that this good news is for everyone, and perhaps especially for those whose lives on the margins make them most open and receptive to good news.

One of the names for Jesus in scripture is Emmanuel, “God with us.” This familiar story of a man, a woman, a baby and the unlikely companionship of angels and shepherds, claims for all time that God is indeed with us, wherever we find ourselves, however difficult the path may be. As Martin Luther points out, the angels declare that he is born “unto us,” not merely born. Ultimately, we are called by this story to understand the birth of Jesus as a gift, something precious that blesses us and binds us to the Giver in love.

Like all the best gifts, this one can change our lives, if we let it. We always have the option of merely visiting this story once a year and allowing the Christmas-card images to wash over us, enjoying the sweet story without really entering its power. But this story’s true value comes in its gritty reality, its affirmation of human experience, its narrative of God’s great love for us, known in Jesus of Nazareth.

God intends for love to grow us, change us, heal us, remake us – not merely to delight and comfort us. This story takes its true power, not from birth, but from resurrection, the continual rebirth of all that is good and true and beautiful, the conquering of the powers of darkness and death that are seen most visibly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Tonight we remember just the beginning of that story, and its sweetness can sustain us through the coming year.

Let every heart prepare him room. Amen.

 

— The Rev. Kay Sylvester is the rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tustin, Calif. She is a teacher, trainer, retreat leader and preschool chaplain. Her prior experience includes teaching piano and guitar, and selling volleyball and wrestling equipment. 

4 Advent (C) – 2012

Reflections at the end of Advent

December 23, 2012

Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

Don’t you love it when people ask you, “Are you ready for Christmas?” A good answer is, “No, but it’s coming anyway, so let’s all be joyful!”

This week we pay for that bridge week between Thanksgiving and Advent by having a truncated fourth week in Advent. It barely begins before we move to Christmas Eve, then Christmas itself. But, truly, we’re never ready. Advent is a deliberate escape from the frantic pulse of getting ready. It gives us breathing room; only, this year, almost a week less than usual.

In today’s readings we are taken to a very different space from preparation, a space of ancient prophecy in Micah, theology in Hebrews, and a docudrama of Mary and Elizabeth in Luke. You will not likely find any holiday arts or crafts for sale that help us reflect on these spaces, yet each of them contributes greatly to our end-of-Advent experience, and spills over into Christmas. Let’s look at them in turn.

Micah was an eighth-century prophet. He is one of a group whose prophecies are primarily designed to call the Kingdom back to its common core values of righteousness and justice, especially for the poor. This passage today should not be understood in any other context. It is not to be viewed as a prediction of the birth of Jesus, though Christians often interpret it that way. It is rather a vision of restoration, of righteousness with kingship that cares for the values of a nation that have been lost.

While the image “she who is in labor has brought forth” is often equated with Mary, the phrasing in its original Hebrew is ambiguous, and the “she” could refer to the nation or something else. Micah is concerned about political history and its future, and how God will deliver God’s people, but he is not necessarily prophesying a Messiah in the way many have chosen to interpret his prophecy.

The significant message of Micah is that in the midst of turmoil and in a nation that has lost its bearings, God’s plan will continue to be revealed and it will involve leadership that brings in a reign of peace. This is a message of hope we badly need to hear in our time.

“Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” The psalmist picks up this longing for restoration and is a great lead-in to the reading from Hebrews.

Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that God’s plan involves a restoration not based on sacrifice and expensive offerings, but on God’s gracious action of sanctifying each of us as holy beings, worthy of being loved by our Savior and Redeemer. Now that’s a Christmas present!

You can feel the emotional movement from Micah to Hebrews, a faint hope now answered in the birth of Jesus, a resounding message of peace for all humanity; those who have gone before, the living and those yet to come.

Finally, we get to this wonderful drama in the Gospel of Luke, the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. It helps to recall that Mary is a very young girl, likely in her early teens, while Elizabeth is older, mature. They have the intimacy of being related; but did they talk only of domestic things? One doubts they did. Both of them had remarkable experiences surrounding their pregnancies, and they share the awareness of Divine involvement. Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat, rings down through the centuries, a fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy, and the validation of a God who cares for all creation and loves it into redemption with justice and grace.

The early Christian church used this story of the Visitation in Luke as a foundation for the Incarnation. Luke includes it as part of the birth narrative because the church was seeking to explain and affirm that the birth of Jesus was not just another one of those “virgin births.” Many rulers had claimed similar origins to justify their deification. The forming church wanted to clarify the God incarnate, man divine, as an affirmation of humanity, and that is what begins to attract people to this remarkable gospel and to Jesus.

This last Sunday of Advent gives us a brief time to reflect upon and kindle within ourselves the light of the incarnate Lord. The foundation is laid for what we will find at the manger. Now let us prepare to join the shepherds and the angels in great joy over what God has done for us.

 

— The Rev. Ben Helmer is an Episcopal priest serving as vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Ark.

3 Advent (C) – 2012

Complex darkness

December 16, 2012

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9 (Isaiah 12:2-6); Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

Technically, Christmas lasts 12 days. It starts at sundown Christmas Eve and continues until January 6, the Epiphany. In the old days, Christians refrained from Christmas celebration until Christmas Eve. Not even the tree would go up before then, as people respected the holy anticipation of Advent.

However, faith often follows practice, and practice has effectively changed the timing of Advent and Christmas Advent no longer occupies the four weeks before Christmas. To the extent it exists at all, Advent falls between Halloween and Thanksgiving. Christmas is inaugurated by a regal Santa floating down 34th street, at the end of the Macy’s parade. It continues until Christmas Day, when it stops cold in its tracks.

So here it is, nine days before the end of pop Christmas, and we’re weary-worn, tired of hearing “Silver Bells” waft through the canned-goods section at the grocery store.

But why complain like Scrooge? This isn’t the first time Christians have folded to pop culture. Both Christmas and Easter arrived at their current locations on the calendar in part because of pagan celebrations: Easter, mimicking both popular spring fertility rituals and the vernal equinox; and Christmas, honoring winter solstice celebrations. So what if retail stores command Christmas observance long before the exact day? Who are we to complain?

The problem is, John the itinerant Baptist does complain. He refuses to let you or anyone else skip Advent.

John is shouting at the top of his lungs: “You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?”

You just wanted to buy one more Christmas present.

“I’m talkin’ to you!” John continues as you walk down the sidewalk toward him.

Who? Me? You look up to see this homeless guy pointing his boney finger at you, spittle coagulating at the edge of his thick beard.

“God doesn’t need your so-called-faith,” he continues. “God can turn these stones into Christians!”

You can tell – this guy is crazy.

Only he isn’t crazy. He is tenacious; but he isn’t crazy.

Time to live your faith.

You mutter to yourself about the city and how it won’t take care of the riff raff, all the while fishing in your pocket for a $5 bill to drop into the Salvation Army bucket.

“That paltry donation isn’t going to buy anybody anything! I’m talkn’ to you. Who told you to flee the wrath to come?”

The man is exhausting your already waning Christmas spirit. If he hopes you’ll give him a ten, he’s sorely mistaken.

Only, he doesn’t want your money; he wants your soul. He wants to know: What difference do you really make? In this confused world of complex darkness?

The man’s eyes are God’s eyes, and now you can’t help but wonder the same thing: What difference?

Complex darkness.

The winter solstice takes place this coming Friday, December 21, at 11:12 a.m., Greenwich Mean Time. At the solstice, the complex darkness of an empty winter expands like bellows inhaling light, exhaling darkness. Darkness overwhelms and crushes; the soul is lost in a sea of nihilism. It is winter yet again? And your imagination wonders, just like John asks, What am I doing here? Do I have purpose?

Seasonal affective disorder, holiday blues, simple self-questioning. What’s it all about, anyway? Winter darkness can seem so very, very oppressive.

Only, don’t you know? Darkness is not the same as eternal night. Paradoxically, light is hidden within darkness, in its corners, beneath thick blankets. Playing hide and seek, light waits eternally for you to discover grace.

In her poem, “Twelfth Night,” Laurie Lee writes:

“No night could be darker than this night,
no cold so cold …
O never again, it seems, can green things run …
from this dark lung of winter.”

Darkness and cold, night and eternal sleep. John the Baptist frames the darkness for you: What are you doing here, anyway?

What you don’t know is this: Hidden in the dark words of John’s question is resplendent light. When John wonders, “What are you doing here?” he is actually claiming, “You have purpose.”

But John is not one to let you off the hook easily. Meaning: Faith is not simple; it isn’t easy; it takes attention. “God can turn these stones into Christians!” he reminds us. Don’t take your faith for granted.

But this is Christmas, and all you want is a little peace.

“You brood of snakes.”

The Revelation of Peter is an extra-biblical text that was discovered in 1945 among the Dead Sea Scrolls. When written at the end of the first century, Christians faced fierce persecution, and many, Peter included, were being tortured and killed. Christians needed to know that God had not abandoned them – in the stadiums, facing lions, being crucified upside down. They needed to know their life was not being given in vain, that they had purpose.

The times were dark, and these people needed light.

The Revelation opens with a visit to Peter from Jesus. Peter sees himself in the Temple, when a murderous hoard of people run up to attack him. Peter is afraid, but Jesus reassures him: “Put your hands … over your eyes, and tell me what you see.”

Peter covers his eyes, and answers, “Nothing.”

Jesus tells him to do it again.

This time in the darkness, Peter sees a bright light – brighter than the sun. Only the light is not new, it is a light that had been there all along, only Peter couldn’t see it. This light infuses Peter with strength and hope, enough to face persecution and ultimately death.

Enough to share with the other Christians, also facing death. Light – hidden under the thick blanket of darkness.

Light – and hope and confidence that there is more to reality than what you see.

This is the same light neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander observed and described in his new book, “Proof of Heaven.” During his very real, near-death experience, Dr. Alexander was ushered into a pitch-black void, a darkness that Alexander described as paradoxically and simultaneously brimming with light. Complete darkness containing absolute light.

Later, Dr. Alexander quoted the 17th century poet Henry Vaughan to explain his experience: “There is, some say, in God a deep but dazzling darkness.”

In God, a dazzling darkness.

John the Baptist, full of the Spirit of God, interrupts your dull light of Christmas cheer with disturbingly dark words. But these dark words are meant not just to break, but to heal; not just to crush, but to build.

Do you need real light this Christmas season? Do you need real hope?

Perhaps you will find tucked deep into John’s dark accusation some ray of hope. For there you will find the promise that God refuses to leave you, or anyone else, alone.

Laurie Lee continues her poem: “For see, beneath the hand, the earth already warms and glows.”

And it is out of utter coldness that the babe is born. That hope is born. Which is what Isaiah meant when he beat John the Baptist to the punch and proclaimed, “The people who lived in deep darkness, on them a light has shined.”

Fear not, for I bring you good news of great joy.

 

— The Rev. Rob Gieselmann is the interim rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, California. Before entering the ministry, Rob practiced law for ten years, he is the author of The Episcopal Call to Love (Apocryphile Press, 2008), and is the father of two wonderful children.

2 Advent (C) – 2012

This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be

December 9, 2012

Baruch 5:1-9 or Malachi 3:1-4; Canticle 4 or 16 (Luke 1:68-79); Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Have you ever thought to yourself, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be”?

Maybe it was the latest report of rockets falling in Israel. Maybe it was images of the security fence along the West Bank. Maybe it was a report on dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay. Maybe it was the story of the mother of an aspiring 13-year-old cheerleader hiring a hit man to kill the mother of a rival cheerleader. Maybe it was the latest family gathering that ended in shouting. Maybe it was the stupid thing I said when I just should have kept my mouth shut.

“This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.”

If you have ever felt this way, then you have a sense of the biblical concept of sin. As you may have noticed, it is complex. Two things are actually going on when you say, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.” First of all, you have a sense that something is not right. But there is also a second thing. In order to say that something isn’t right, you also need a vision of what things are supposed to be like. So sin, in the biblical tradition, is a derivative concept. First, you have to have some sense of what is right. Only then can you say something is wrong.

In the biblical tradition the vision for how things ought to be is called shalom. We translate this word as “peace,” but it means much more than an absence of warfare or a calm state of mind. Shalom or peace in the scriptures means universal flourishing, wholeness, harmony, delight. The prophets spoke of a time when crookedness would be made straight, when rough places would be made smooth, when flowers would bloom in the desert, when weeping would cease, when the lion would lay down with the lamb, when the foolish would be made wise, when the wise would be made humble, when humans would beat their swords into ploughshares. All nature would be fruitful and benign, all nations sit down together for a sumptuous feast, all creation would look to God, walk with God, and delight in God.

As Cornelius Plantinga says in his book “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin,” shalom is a “rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights.” In the Bible, shalom, or peace, is the way things are supposed to be.

Sin, the way things aren’t supposed to be, is the violation of shalom. Of course, sin is an affront to God, but it is an affront to God because it breaks God’s peace. And what breaks God’s peace? Twisting the good things of creation so that they serve unworthy ends. Splitting apart things that belong together. Putting together things that ought to be kept apart. The corruption of personal and social and natural integrity. A moment’s reflection or a look at the evening news can easily supply specific examples.

Now, all this talk about sin may sound like a bit of a downer. Especially on December 9. Many of us are getting into the holiday spirit. Decorating the tree. Listening to Christmas carols. Feeling jolly. We even came to church this morning! But instead of the baby Jesus and heavenly choirs of angels, we get John the Baptist, a rough prophet prowling about in the Judean wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Not exactly “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas”!

But here’s the strange thing. We still refer to this message as good news. After the gospel lesson is read, the deacon or the person appointed to read this passage will have the audacity to say, “The gospel of the Lord.” That is to say, “the Good News of the Lord.” How can this be? Some of us will say, “No way.” An Old Testament prophet wagging his finger at us and calling us sinners is definitely not good news. Others of us may be willing to admit the importance of John’s message, but only as a prelude to good news, something we must do to get ready for good news of the birth of a savior. We need to go through the hard process of acknowledging and repenting of our sins so that we may make ourselves ready for the gift of Christ. It may be a necessary process, but we still wouldn’t call it good news. The doctor who tells us we have to give up fatty foods and start exercising may be telling us a truth we need to hear, but we won’t really rejoice and burst into song when we hear it.

And yet there is a way that John’s message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins can actually be seen as good news, and not just as a necessary, grit-our-teeth-and-get-through-it prelude to good news. After the lesson, the deacon will say, “The gospel of the Lord,” and we can respond, “Praise to you, Lord Christ” not with a palms-up, raised-eyebrow puzzled expression. We can really mean it.

How?

I think we can see John the Baptist’s proclamation of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins as good news in three ways. First, if we hear John’s message and it rings true, if we have ever said, “This is not the way things are supposed to be,” then we already know God’s peace. As noted before, in the biblical view, sin is a derivative concept. We must already have a vision of how things ought to be if we feel as though things aren’t that way. We must have some sense of God’s peace, to know when it is broken. And this is good news. We do have a vision of God’s shalom, God’s peace. It has been given to us in our scriptures, and in our religious traditions, and in our reflection on creation. We have been given a vision of the world as created and redeemed by our good and generous God, a world made to be fruitful, abundant, harmonious, life-giving, peaceful, whole, filled with deep and abiding joy. If we hear and respond to John’s message about sin, then we must already know about God’s peace. And that is good news.

A second way we can see John’s message as good news is that if we hear and respond to his call to repentance for the forgiveness of sins, then we must believe that there is something we can do about it. John is not saying things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be and they never will be; get used to it. His is not a message of futility in the face of the brokenness of God’s creation. Rather, it is a liberating and joyful call to realign our individual and collective wills with the purposes of God. If we already know of God’s vision of shalom, we can be people who promote flourishing, seek wholeness and restore harmony. We can be repairers of the breach. To hear and respond to John’s message is good news, because in spite of the fact that things aren’t the way they should be, they can change and so can we. People can stop killing each other. Hungry people can get fed. Parents can love their families and raise healthy children. Enemies can become friends. It is good and, indeed, joyful news to know that we are free to respond to God’s call to shalom.

Finally, we can hear John’s message about a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins as good news because if we already know God’s peace, if we can respond to the call of God’s peace, then in some deep way we already trust in the eventual triumph of God’s peace.

In our gospel lesson, John is described by the words of the prophet Isaiah as:

“the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough way made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

It is an emphatic message: all flesh will see the salvation of God. And this is good news, the Good News. Yes, things aren’t the way they are supposed to be. But we already know God’s vision of shalom. We can turn our hearts and minds to God’s purposes. And we can trust that someday all things will be put to rights, all tears will be wiped away, all swords will be beat into ploughshares, and all flesh will see the salvation of God. God and God’s peace will be triumphant in the end. And we know this because in the birth of Jesus, these eyes of ours have seen the savior, who is Christ the Lord, and he shall be called “Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

Things aren’t the way they are supposed to be. We know this because we already know God’s peace. Through a process of repentance we can align ourselves with God’s purposes, God’s peace, the way things are supposed to be. And we can do this in spirit of gratitude, joy and trust because we have been given a promise of the eventual triumph of God’s shalom in the birth of a baby who is the prince of peace.

That is Good News!

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md.

1 Advent (C) – 2012

The Kingdom of God is as near as a prayer

December 2, 2012

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and waves.”

Jesus foretold of horrors so great that people would faint with fear at the end of the world. Over the 2,000 years since Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection, the surest way to prove oneself a false prophet has been to name a date for the return of our Lord. According to prediction after prediction, we should not be here at all.

Jesus says, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

The world should have ended 1,000 years ago when the first millennial scare hit. Or maybe one of the many other times a warning went out that the end is near. Time and again, people have wrongly predicted the end of the world. We only have to look back and snicker at how the Y2K threat fizzled out with hardly a whimper to see how big scares can turn into nothing.

Jesus says, “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”

The disciples thought Jesus would come back soon, maybe, probably, even in their lifetime. They lived their lives thinking that at any moment Jesus would return. It’s like holding off just a few more moments by saying, “Wait for it. Wait for it. Now!” But they had the “Wait for it. Wait for it.” And “now” never came. In fact, it has yet to come. The Christian church around the world has been collectively holding its breath for nearly twenty centuries – always waiting, always watching. And still the time has not come for Jesus’ return. Not yet.

Jesus says, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Advent: the word means “coming.” This is the first day of the new church year, and like every church year, we start by remembering when Jesus first came into the world and remembering that he will come again. Yet we can’t walk around all the time with our heads raised to the sky in anticipation, can we? We would look silly and nothing would be accomplished. What are we supposed to do if we think the world is falling down around us? The great reformer Martin Luther was asked this very sort of question. Someone challenged, “What would you do if you heard that Jesus would return tomorrow?” Martin Luther said that he would plant a tree. For in all likelihood, the rumor would be untrue. After all, Jesus said elsewhere that no one knows the hour or day when he would return. No one but the Father. So why not plant a tree and plan for the future? Then if Luther was wrong and his Lord did return, he would find Luther taking care of the earth.

Jesus told this parable, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”

The signs will be there for anyone to see. We need only look around us to see that the world is coming to an end. But there have been so many signs. Thirty years after Jesus’ death, the Romans crushed the Jews in a horrible war that destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. Many Christians at that time still worshipped at the Temple. How could that not be the beginning of the end? Or what about the fall of the Roman Empire, or the rise and fall of the Nazi Empire, or Stalin’s reign of terror in Russia, Pol Pot in Cambodia or the many other conquests for power that have ended in the deaths of tens of thousands? Were these not the signs of the end?  How could we possibly know what truly signals the end of times?

So if we humans have proven stunningly bad at reading the signs of the times, what good are passages like this? Why bother with the Apocalypse anyway? We may get an Apocalypse – an end of the world sometime. But the Apocalypse is always immanent. Soon and very soon. When will the Apocalypse be now?

Today is the end of the world, right now. This is the day for somebody. Thousands of somebodies – maybe a million or more. All over the world, today is the day of judgment. Many, many people will die today. Many others will reach an important point of decision. For all those people, the end is very near.

Passages like this remind us that we don’t have forever to decide what we think about this Jesus of Nazareth. There is a time to decide, and that time is always now. We always have now. Jesus reminds us that we don’t always have later. Jesus either was who he said he was, the Son of God, or not. And if he was who he said he was, we can have a relationship with him right now. Then the end of the world is more or less irrelevant, as we have already begun eternal life. But if he wasn’t who he said he was, then he was just plain crazy and we should drop the whole thing. It’s that straightforward.

Passages like the gospel reading for this morning remind us that we are in a radical option situation right now. We can accept or we can reject. Either way, the Kingdom of God is near. If we accept God, we enter into that kingdom here and now. If we reject God, then we are still standing by waiting and watching.

Chicken Little runs around in the fable yelling, scaring everyone with the news that the sky is falling. All that happened was an acorn fell on her head, but she just repeated, “The sky is falling. The sky is falling. The sky is falling,” until everyone but the fox was scared, too. Today, some folks have said the end is near so often that they can sound about like Chicken Little to us. But try this Christian version: Instead of “The sky is falling,” think “The Kingdom of God is near. The Kingdom of God is near. The Kingdom of God is near.” Because whether Jesus returns in glory before this service is completed or he waits another millennium, the Kingdom of God is near.

The Kingdom of God is as near as a prayer. The Kingdom of God is as near as the bread and wine in this communion service. God is here among us, and the Kingdom of God is very near indeed.

Jesus says that we are to be on our guard that our hearts are not weighted down. He told us to be alert at all times, praying. But we need not fear the end of the world. If there is distress among the nations or even if the sky is truly falling, we need not be afraid. That Christ is coming is Good News. And as the Body of Christ gathered on this day, we rejoice that Jesus is not waiting to come into the world at the end of time alone.

Yes, we affirm a belief in Jesus’ return in glory at the end of the age, but more importantly, we affirm that Jesus is here in our midst right now as more than two or three are gathered.

And in our hearts as we worship, the Kingdom of God is near. Thanks be to God! We need not fear the signs of the times, we only need to trust in our Lord.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Georgia. He blogs on congregational development at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.