Archives for November 2013

Expecting the unexpected Messiah, 3 Advent (A) – 2013

December 15, 2013

Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9 or Canticle 3 or Canticle 15; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

What happens when our expectations don’t get met? How about when it’s our expectations about God that don’t get met?

A few years ago, Steve Johnson, a wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills, voiced his surprise on Twitter when things didn’t turn out the way he hoped during a football game. After Johnson dropped a potentially game-winning touchdown pass during overtime, the Pittsburgh Steelers won the game 16-13. The New York Daily News reported that Johnson blamed God and tweeted:

 “I praise you 24/7!!! And this how you do me!!! You expect me to learn from this???How??? I’ll never forget this!! Ever!! Thx Tho.”

If your theology says that praising God causes God to reward you by favoring your football team, then what if you drop the ball?

Maybe Johnson should just be commended for the honesty of his prayer, for being in communication with God about his questions and doubts.

Maybe his expectations were not met. Either God wasn’t keeping God’s end of Steve Johnson’s deal, or Johnson’s world had just shrunk, with God operating outside the box he tried to fit God into.

Or maybe God doesn’t like Buffalo.

John the Baptist’s world had shrunk. Literally. The one who was preparing a way in the wide-open wilderness is held captive in a prison cell. The one who baptized the Son of God in the Jordan River is dependent on his jailor to bring him a cup of cold water to drink. The one who was so sure of who Jesus was, now wonders, Are you the one who is to come? Really?

Matthew writes, “When John heard what Jesus [the Messiah] was doing  …” Actually, what Matthew could have written is, “When John heard what the Messiah was not doing …”

Jesus was not following John’s outline for his ministry. Jesus was not following John’s mission statement for him, his step-by-step plan for successful Messianic ministry. John had told people the axe was lying at the root, ready to chop down the unworthy trees. He had promised the chaff would burn with unquenchable fire. But Jesus didn’t seem to be pointing the finger of judgment. There was no smoldering woodpile of sinners. And this must have meant more than mild disappointment for John: He was at that very moment sitting in prison, awaiting his own beheading because he had dared to stand up and challenge King Herod for Herod’s unrighteous marriage. If Jesus were looking for some chaff worthy of burning, he could start by lighting a match to King Herod, and get John out of prison.

Instead, Jesus is pronouncing forgiveness, healing the sick, bringing Good News to the poor. Was this really what Jesus was supposed to be doing? Are you the one who is to come? Or should I hope for someone else?

Sometimes Jesus said and did some strange things, or certainly unexpected things, or things that aren’t what we hope for. And because of that, John asks, and the disciples ask, and we ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for someone else?”

Each of us has expectations about the kind of Savior we want. Some do want a brimstone and fire-breathing Messiah who points out where everyone else is going wrong. Some of us want a Jesus who will champion our favorite cause, who will assure us that God is on our side of the issue.

Or maybe we want a gentle shepherd who will not demand anything of us, but only assure us that he loves us.

Sooner or later, though, our ideas of Jesus bump up against reports of what he is doing, either in Scripture or the world. Jesus – the real Jesus, the real Messiah, Lord, Shepherd, Savior, Friend, Redeemer – will at times upset our expectations. And he will ask, “Do you want to follow the living Christ, or do you want to worship your idea of who he should be? Do you want the thrill and hope and challenge of a life with the living Christ? Or merely the comfort of worshipping an idol of your own making?”

John wondered if Jesus was really the one in whom he should hope. So he went to Jesus to ask. John couldn’t get there in person, so he sent his disciples. But John went to the source instead of just muddling along, or making assumptions, or staying in the dark about who Jesus is.

We are invited to do the same – go to Jesus with our questions, concerns, wondering. Participate in the ways Jesus has given to his church to know him better. Gather in community. Study with other Christians and wonderers. Pray. Take communion. Worship. Praise him – even when you drop the ball.

Maybe Jesus wasn’t exactly what John was expecting: He brought fire – but it was the fire of the Holy Spirit. He sought out sinners – and forgave them. He really let the unworthy have it – but what he let them have was grace. Grace upon grace.

John couldn’t see it for himself, locked away in his prison cell, so he asked; and in reply, he received a beautiful vision: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

 

 — The Rev. Dr. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.

New life stirring in an old stump, 2 Advent (A) – 2013

December 8, 2013

Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

We encounter a strange image for the coming Messiah in our lesson today from Isaiah 11: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Now picture what this looks like, you’ve seen it before. A tree gets chopped down to a stump, and a little shoot starts growing out of it at some point.

Most people view this as an unwanted eyesore. These little shoots that grow out of stumps are actually known by the unflattering name of “suckers,” and there are all kinds of remedies on the Internet for how to seal off a stump and prevent it from giving out new shoots of life. Having these ragged little branches growing out of it makes a tree stump look unkempt and messy and homely.

Israel’s enemies had tried every way they knew to seal off the stump of Jesse that was the root of the throne of David. War, slavery, imprisonment, starvation – Jesus’ ancestors suffered all this and more. There had not been a viable king on the throne of Israel for generations. And yet, somehow, there is still life stirring in this burnt-out old stump.

Now, in the season of Advent, is when we see the little tiny shoot begin to sprout. It is so fragile! One wrong move and it could die. Too much water, too little water, the wrong amount of sunlight or wind, even a tiny bug could come along and destroy it, and it is totally defenseless.

When you think about it, it is an odd image to use to describe Jesus. He’s the new King of Israel, and he is described as a fragile branch growing out of an unsightly old stump. Not a very triumphant or powerful image. But that’s what Advent is all about. It is about coming to terms with the profound knowledge that God chose to come to Earth in such a vulnerable state: a defenseless human baby.

Neither a baby nor a wee branch growing out of stump is going to last long against any enemies. But that is also part of reorienting our mindset during Advent. The angel says to the shepherds, “Be not afraid.” That is what lies behind the courage to let Jesus be born as a helpless baby, the little shoot out of the stump that could be cut down at any moment: The knowledge that we have entered a new era of peace. God’s kingdom has arrived. Isaiah paints a picture of what that kingdom is like in our lesson today: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”

Peace and wholeness, the Kingdom of God, have arrived. We are in a safe place. It is safe to be vulnerable, to reach out, to stretch out and grow. The interesting thing about branches on trees is that they grow right on the edge. Very little of the growth of a tree happens internally, down in the trunk. New cells are produced right at the very edge and build outward, fragile but brave.

What are the edges of your life that need your attention to really start growing? What are the parts of you that feel unfinished and vulnerable, that you are afraid to let out into the light? We must internalize the message of the angels of peace, we must hear and respond to the command “Be not afraid” in order to let that new growth within ourselves have half a fighting chance.

It feels strange to be talking about the fragile budding growth of new tree branches when we’ve just now really settled down into winter. But that is an important sign as well. The new life and new growth that Jesus brings do not always arrive in the obvious places. We need to look for birth and growth within ourselves and our neighbors in the cold, forgotten, frosty and inhospitable places as well.

And the storms that we experience are important also to our new growth. Back in the ’90s you may recall there was a project called Biodome, an effort to create a totally self-contained biological environment, a mini-Earth sealed away from the outside world. Some of it was successful, but one of the most baffling disappointments was the trees. They had the sunlight and water and nutrients they needed, but as they grew, they couldn’t stand up straight. They flopped over on the ground, weak and limp.

The scientists finally realized one vital ingredient of the outside world they had forgotten: wind. In nature, the wind blows and causes tiny microcracks in the trunk and branches of trees. Trees rely on this trauma for their growth. Standing straight to the wind, breaking a little but rebuilding at the same time, is what helps them grow stronger. Did you ever think that you might need the fierce storms of your life? That they might be as pivotal to your growth as the good days of sunshine?

Because John the Baptist does descend like a furious storm in our gospel today. He arrives with locusts and vipers and axes and fire. How does his warlike message of the wrath to come square with the promised peace of the wolf lying down with the lamb?

Remember the image of the shoot growing up out of the stump? Take a step back and consider how that environment was created. A tree had to be chopped down to a stump in order for the new shoot to grow up out of it.

John the Baptist says, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.” He is the very personification of that message. He has arrived to shock us out of our complacency, to call us to chop down and root out all the old habits of greed and shame and selfishness that have grown up in our souls.

Advent is the beginning of the new church year, and it is time to begin with a fresh slate. We are told by John the Baptist to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” What does that mean? All the old condemnations of ourselves and others are to be chopped down and thrown away, making room for the new shoot of Jesse to grow up within us. That is how we prepare the way of the Lord. John the Baptist is not preaching a message of condemnation, but rather one of liberation, of freedom from the thick, choking overgrowth of sin that has trapped us in misery and hopelessness.

And for all the ferocious strength of his message, which we must take seriously to heart, what action does John the Baptist take? From what act does he take his name? Baptizing. Even as he pours down the fire of his words, he also pours out the gentle stream of water on the heads of the inquirers and seekers at the River Jordan, blessing them with the cleansing stream that foretells the Living Water. He waters the potential of the believers, that a new shoot of life might have the chance to blossom and grow.

So too is the season of Advent our own opportunity to test the edge of the waters of Jordan, gathering our courage to let the Holy Spirit of baptism – with the fierce fire that burns away the brambles of sin and the gentle water that nurtures the fragile growth of new life – once again cleanse our souls as we prepare for the Christ child.

In the season of Advent, the season of expectation and possibility, the spirit of the coming Christ is looking for fertile ground in which to grow up, a new shoot out of the old stump. Isaiah proclaims that “on that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”

We can make ourselves that dwelling place, made glorious and new by Christ’s presence. Let us dedicate ourselves to hosting the coming Christ within us, and we will find ourselves manifesting grace in completely new ways that we never expected, newborn shoots of life growing up to bear good fruit.

Let’s be like Jesus, and branch out.

 

— The Rev. Whitney Rice is priest-in-charge of the shared ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Shelbyville, Ind., and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Franklin, Ind., in the Diocese of Indianapolis.

 

Remembering God’s time during our time, 1 Advent (A) – 2013

December 1, 2013

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

How does your time look between now and Christmas?

Is your calendar for the next four weeks a jumble of “musts”?

There’s shopping, wrapping, shipping, delivering. There are the Christmas cards. There’s the tree to be bought, trimmed and watered every day. There’s the outside decorating. There’s whatever baking we might do. There’s a “Messiah” concert and a family gathering. There’s an Advent wreath-making dinner and a caroling party in two weeks. There’s the school holiday program and the office Christmas party. Don’t forget the gifts for the folks who help us get through: the person who cuts our hair, the letter carrier, in some places the doorman and the super. There are people to pick up the airport, perhaps. Maybe there are some December birthdays, for good measure.

It’s all there on your calendar, be it paper or digital, and it’s all your time.

And then there’s God’s time. It’s all contained within the circle of the Advent wreath, the wreath with the first candle lit this morning. It’s the beginning of Advent, the beginning of the church year, that big wheel of time that every year turns us from the waiting of Advent to the joy of Christmas, to the waiting of Lent to the joy of Easter, to the waiting of Eastertide to the joy of Pentecost, to the joy of life in ordinary time and back again.

So here is the span of God’s time we enter this morning. This candle marks the beginning of the time we will spend with the prophet Isaiah, that prophet from the Hebrew Scriptures known and trusted and quoted by the writers of the New Testament.

The light of this candle infuses today’s readings. Isaiah implores his listeners to walk in the light of the Lord into the kingdom where people do not learn how to make war but instead turn their energies toward cultivating the earth and not destroying it.

Paul echoes Isaiah’s vision when he urges his listeners to wake up, to leave the works of darkness and to put on the armor of light. Paul also echoes what he had heard that Jesus said to his disciples, the words that Matthew attributes to him: “Keep awake therefore.”

Next Sunday we will light the first and the second candles, and Isaiah will remind us what happens in the light: growth, a green shoot from a dead stump. Paul will remind us of Isaiah’s prediction about that dead stump of David’s line bearing new fruit in the person of Jesus. John the Baptist, the one Isaiah predicted would come, will appear in the blinding sunlight of the desert, telling us to prepare the way for the one who will use water and fire to make us his own.

On the third Sunday when we light three candles, Isaiah will tell us about deserts that bloom, the blind who see and the lame who leap. James will remind us in his letter that it takes time for the earth to bloom. He will use the prophets as examples of those who waited patiently for their faith to bear fruit. Jesus will confirm John the Baptist’s suspicions about him: indeed, he is the one whom Isaiah predicted. Through him the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the people hear the good news of the coming of the kingdom.

On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, four candles will burn in this wheel and the promises will soon be fulfilled. Isaiah will tell us about a young woman who will give birth to a son and name him Immanuel, “God with us.” Matthew will set Jesus’ birth to Mary and Joseph in the light of Isaiah’s prediction. Paul will tell the Romans that Jesus fulfills everything the prophets promised us.

Finally, we will light this central light and on Christmas morning we will hear John begin his gospel with those mysterious and powerful words: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all the people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. … And the Word became flesh and lived among us … full of grace and truth.”

And so the circle of Advent time comes around again. But Advent is not a time when we go through the motions of remembering a story whose ending we already know. It’s worth remembering that we begin our journey around this wheel this morning with Jesus’ own prediction of how he will come to us again. Advent is about Jesus coming once and promising to come again. This time of Advent is about the light shining in the darkness but not obliterating the darkness. It is about the kingdom having already come near to us but not yet having been fulfilled.

There is much work left to be done – and not just all we face these next four weeks. But you know what? Christmas always comes whether we get it all done – perfectly – or not.

Will the kingdom come in a similar inevitable way? What will we have done to hasten its coming? Will we recognize it when it comes? Who are we? Which farmer in the field? Which woman grinding meal? Will we go about our pre-Christmas tasks, marking out our time, and forget about the Advent stories of God’s time?

Or, perhaps, can we overlay these two arcs of time, taking good care of the tasks that will make for a special holiday season and staying awake for the signs of the kingdom – of God’s time – breaking into our time?

Because it is not that we shouldn’t enjoy the hustle and bustle of the secular season of “X-number of days until Christmas” – even though some preachers are known to guilt us into thinking it is less-than-Christian to fall for this month’s commercialism. Last year about this time, J. Mary Luti who is a United Church of Christ pastor, wrote in her blog that she was “simply getting tired of listening to sermons in Advent that draw a sharp line between the bad world of getting and spending which barely acknowledges or even notices the reason for the season, and another good world in which none of that goes on and into which Jesus is born properly, cleanly, to the sound of angels singing, not cash registers ringing.”

That second world, she said, doesn’t exist. We only have one world – this world we live in, the one in which God finds us and loves us because of our longing for something beyond ourselves. Jesus never asked us not to be human, Luti pointed out. Jesus became human and came into the chaos of our world to show us how to navigate our way through it using love and compassion as our touchstones.

In a book of prayerful poems called “Being Home,” Gunilla Norris strives to live in the overlap between our time and God’s time. She wants to be a steward of her everyday tasks in such a way that allows her not to despise the din of the world and its tasks, but to use them as a portal into deeper living.

In a poem called “Polishing the Silver” she prays:

As I polish let me remember
the fleeting time that I am here. Let me let go of
all silver. Let me enter this moment
and polish it bright. Let me not lose my life
in any slavery – from looking good
to preserving the past, to whatever idolatry
that keeps me from just this –
the grateful receiving of the next thing at hand.

 

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg, D.D., is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service. Prior to joining ENS in the fall of 2005, she was curate and then assistant rector at Christ Church in Short Hills, N.J. She is priest associate at Christ Church in Shrewsbury, N.J. and lives in nearby Neptune. She worked for nearly 25 years as a journalist before becoming a priest.