Archives for 2013

Baptism of Our Lord, 1 Epiphany (A) – 2014

January 12, 2014

Isaiah 42:1-9Psalm 29Acts 10:34-43Matthew 3:13-17

Having a baptism today gives us something to celebrate. Whether the person to be baptized is a child or an adult, a baptism done on this day is more than special, it is triumphant.

In a world that celebrates life achievements mostly for celebrities, the church rejoices at the baptism of a person into the church as well as into their own unique relationship with Jesus, as they are sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever.

But even if there is no baptism in this congregation today, it’s a good opportunity to renew our Baptismal Covenant, the promises we made, or if we were infants, that others made for us. This is a day to renew our commitment to Christ and each other.

The readings today particularly stress the nature of Jesus’ baptism and our own. The passage from Isaiah gets right to the heart of the matter: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”

Recently a congregation was present for the baptism of a 55-year-old man who had just started coming to church. His first question was “What do I have to do to be baptized?”

On the day of his baptism, with the bishop present, he stood at the small font, a tall, athletic man, and bowed his head as the priest poured water on him and the bishop sealed him with chrism, marking him as Christ’s own forever.

Afterward, he shared how moving the experience had been for him. He told how something had always been missing in his life. He had been a counselor until retirement, and he now realized the wholeness given to him, just as he had often tried to help others find it in their lives.

He is now a servant, volunteering at a food pantry, and on Christmas Day he offered to help cook and serve Christmas dinner for others at a local health clinic. He spent Christmas weekend with his family, but the day itself was marked by his servanthood.

The second reading today is Peter’s dramatic speech about life in the Spirit, and how he now realizes that God shows no partiality. In our baptismal vows, we take that realization seriously as we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.” We also promise to respect the dignity of every human being. The reality of refugees and migrants among us brings this issue right to the front of our minds and hearts. We approach all persons, especially the alien, the stranger, as gifts from God to us, and we extend our hospitality to them because “anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

In the gospel reading we are shown our Lord’s own humility because, “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Righteousness has to do with the way God intends things to be, and God obviously intends us to submit to one another in service and sacrifice.

Recently, a woman found herself being prodded to do something about the lack of housing for the poor and homeless in her community. Among them were people who were undocumented, people who were out of work, single mothers with children, and several who were simply alone.

She tried to get the attention of her church about their plight. A committee was formed, but nothing happened. Then she decided to take matters into her own hands and began meeting with the people themselves. They organized a housing co-operative and before long they found a small vacant motel they could buy. Having no funds, they began to search for resources, and through a process of diligent work and generosity, put together a financial package to buy the motel. They found a man willing to be their residential manager, and now on cold winter nights and in the heat of summer several dozen people have housing. Her church has now become an integral part of the enterprise as well.

This is what baptism can lead to: a strong sense of servanthood, and mission that fulfills what it means to be righteous. While the baptism of a child is precious, an event that leaves us all smiling and joyful, we cannot know what God has in mind for this person if they are nurtured in the love of the Lord. Often we don’t get to see “the rest of the story”; but if we, did we would be amazed. There are countless stories of people who go on to a servant’s vocation, backed by their vows of baptism and their bond to Christ and his church.

Take a moment now and reflect on where your baptismal journey has brought you.

What have you done as a result of your life in Christ? How has Jesus led you to use your talents and gifts for righteous actions? What has been joyful for you on this journey?

Then look around at your sisters and brothers, and give thanks that together you can celebrate your life in Christ and look forward to further adventures.

 

— Ben Helmer is a priest in the Diocese of Arkansas. He lives with his wife in Holiday Island and is currently vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church, Eureka Springs.

Were the Magi real?, Epiphany (A,B,C) – 2014

January 6, 2014

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

Were the Magi real? Did they actually make their way from a distant land in the East some 2,000 years ago, following a mysterious star all the way to Bethlehem? And did they really bring the Child Jesus those gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh?

Good questions.

Every year around this time of course, astronomers, both amateur and professional, offer some innovative scientific – skeptics might say “pseudo-scientific” – explanation for the appearance of the star. An unusual conjunction of planets, they most often explain. And reputable historians will be happy to tell you that soothsayers and traveling shamans were undoubtedly a colorful and important element of the ancient world. Then as now, people wanted to understand the deeper meanings of life.

So it all could have been just as related to us in the Gospel of Matthew. The gifts of precious metal and aromatic resins are perhaps a bit more problematical – not exactly what you might think to get a little boy for his birthday these days. Evidence perhaps – as some commentators and parents puckishly suggest – that the wise men did not have children of their own.

Still, whether the Magi and their star and gifts were real or not remains anybody’s guess. Many reputable Scripture scholars, in fact, question their actual existence. They remind us that much in Scripture was never intended to be taken literally. The stories of Jesus’ birth, they go on to say – the so-called Infancy Narratives – are simply parts of an ancient midrashic, or interpretive, genre of biblical narrative, not intended as strictly factual accounts.

So, were the Magi real?

Hard to say. Maybe – just maybe – we should give them the benefit of the doubt.

What does it mean to be “real” anyway? Perhaps the Magi are as real as real gets. After all, when you stop to think about it, there are a lot of people in our contemporary world who could stand to get real. We meet them at work and at the mall, sometimes even in our own families. And most of us, if we look at our own lives, would have to admit that they are filled with the unreal and with our own fair share of improbabilities – events and happenstances that we could hardly have predicted before their occurrence. Yet, here we are – in the flesh, with our all-too-real contradictions and accumulated paradoxes.

So, perhaps a small troop of mystics or sages arriving from the East – note, by the way, that Matthew does not mention the number three – are not so odd or implausible as we might at first think. The Magi were, to be sure, outsiders in most every sense of the word – gentiles after all, surely as incongruous and out-of-place as anything or anyone could be in the heartland of the ancient Jewish world. And most likely, if we read between the lines, they were clairvoyants and prestidigitators of sorts – practitioners of the occult arts, if you will – and filthy rich. How else explain those gifts, costly in any age? For all we know, the Magi may well have been the David Copperfields of their day.

Yet for all that, their agenda was deceptively simple and straightforward: to find the King of the Jews, to worship him and to bring him their gifts. And it is this simple agenda that leads them from their own far-off land to King Herod and beyond on an unlikely journey of discovery and epiphany.

What could be more real than that?

Epiphany remains for us in our own age an astonishing sign or manifestation of the hardly believable yet very much real – God’s wisdom masquerading as human weakness and folly. For as we readily see, God’s eternal wisdom is found not at King Herod’s magnificent court, but rather in the humble village home of a small and vulnerable child and his parents. Perhaps it does take show-business-like conjurers – themselves no doubt masters of surprise and the unexpected – to recognize the real in the impossible.

There is, of course, always a fine line between the real and the impossible. All too often it is indeed the impossible that inevitably comes to pass: An obscure South American cardinal with a heart for the poor is elected pope; a former rising oil executive known for the gift of reconciliation is appointed archbishop; and a humble man at long last unites the peoples of his native land after decades of Apartheid and rigid racial segregation.

There are wise men – and women – among us still.

But if there is a fine line between the real and the impossible, there is sometimes an even finer distinction to be drawn between true wisdom and our own self-deceptions and doubts. We must admire the perspicacity and persistence of the Magi making their way methodically and sure-footedly across wilderness and desert, seeking an out-of-the-question reality they were certain had come to pass. Few of us are so sure of ourselves and our paths. Too many among us never even dare leave home.

But the Magi, their task accomplished, return home from their journey “by another road” as the gospel tells us, and have not been heard from since. For all we know, they may still be on their way. For all we know, they may be journeying among us here and now in our congregations and communities, bequeathing to us from time to time their precious gifts of wisdom, knowledge and understanding – gifts that remain as rare today as gold, frankincense and myrrh in any age.

Perhaps that is why the church has given us this special festival day of Epiphany, to celebrate the wondrous and amazing things in our own lives. And to give us courage to follow, in our day, the star of the Magi as it leads us – just as it did them – to Bethlehem and the Child Jesus.

If the Magi are not real, who is?

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is currently chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary, a ministry of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” Saint Margaret’s Facebook page at www.anglicanbudapest.com. Isten hozott!

Welcoming the Light, 2 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2014

January 5, 2014

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84 or 84:1-8; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15,19-23 

We find ourselves in the gospel landscape of Matthew. It is a story of angelic messages delivered in dreams. It is a story without shepherds, without a manger, with no mention of other animals. It is a story that features some strangers, undocumented aliens from Persia or thereabouts – “Magi,” whatever such a word might conjure in our imaginations: astronomers, magicians, inquirers, maybe even the first-century equivalent of scientists! They come following and seeking the Light, the Word, the logos and, they say, “the Christ.”

It is a story of a gathering darkness and danger, featuring the irritability and selfishness of all human tyrants in the person of Herod. For Israel, Herod and his family represent the failures of the last attempt to convert gentiles into the world of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is easy to understand that the Jewish people from the time of Herod forward cease all attempts at proselytizing and conversion!

Those familiar with the biblical narrative will see in Herod all the negative attributes of that earlier tyrant, Pharaoh, and the tell-tale signs of all future tyrants with names like Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Amin, Hussein, Mugabe – the list is sadly endless. They will also see the child, Jesus, connected to three formative events in the history of Israel: born in Bethlehem, home to the shepherd King David; time in Egypt, the place from which the Exodus/Passover event occurred; and a reference to the Babylonian Exile.

The last, alas, obscured by the lectionary’s curious editorial choice to omit verses 16-18, which reads:

“When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children;  she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’”

To edit out these verses renders the story meaningless. Rachel, of course, was one of Jacob’s wives, believed to be buried in Bethlehem; and Ramah was the place of mourning for the Exile. It seems the lectionary is a bit squeamish about presenting the genocidal slaughter of so many innocent children in the Christmas season.

Lest we draw any wrong conclusions, Matthew offers a subtle distinction easily overlooked by the casual reader. Instead of suggesting that God in any way caused this unmitigated evil to occur, Matthew has changed his usual language to introduce Old Testament prophecy, “this was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet” to the words “then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet.” A subtle change, but a change nonetheless.

As Thomas Long observes in his commentary “Matthew,”  this change suggests that “the message is not that God summons evil to accomplish divine purposes, but that the scripture knows the tragic human destruction written into the fabric of history, and that not even evil in its most catastrophic form, evil as cold and merciless as the murder of innocent children, can destroy God’s ability to save.”

Rather than look for a silver lining, we are to join with Rachel, who represents all mothers everywhere who lose their children to such senseless tyranny, and weep over this tragic loss of life, and that the Son of God, the Light and Life of the world, is sent into exile. The terrible rage of Herod proves his helplessness, and the helplessness of all tyrants like Herod past, present and future. The child survives, returns, and lives on to this day!

We also learn something about the strategy of the Light in its unending battle to transform all darkness into Light. The Light cannot be destroyed, but it can be forced to withdraw; it can be hidden; worse still, it can be shut out. Surrounded as we are by great and little Herods in our day, it is easy to overlook that we must also contend with the Herod who resides in our own souls. We are all too capable of shutting out the Light that lives inside of us, and refuse to see the Light that lives inside others – all others. So often the Light remains hidden, and we are too busy to stop, look and listen for its presence in our midst.

The growing number of Episcopalians who experience and practice Centering Prayer are beginning to learn about the barriers we construct that shut us off from the God within, from others, and from our true selves. Together we sit in silence to let go of the busy-ness of our lives and the barriers we believe necessary to carry on such busy-ness, and listen quietly for the presence of the Light, the Word – the Word that becomes flesh to dwell among us.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul describes it in the words, “Christ lives in me.” The German theologian Meister Eckhardt called it “the birth of the Son in the castle of our soul.” The Quakers call it “the Light Within.” All of them agree that this light appears by grace. The human soul, as it were, is its mother; the father is the eternal Spirit.

At Christmas we are to celebrate this coming of the Light, this virgin birth of Christ within each one of us. The Christ we promise in our baptism to seek and serve in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.

The Holy Innocents, the victims of Herod’s holocaust, died for the Light, the Christ, though they did not know it. Their parents, like Rachel, mourned the death of these first martyrs of our faith.

This Second Sunday of Christmas means to ask us, Will we allow the birth of this Son in the castle of our souls? Will we let down a draw bridge across whatever moats we construct to keep Him at some distance from us? Can we join with those Holy Innocents in whatever way possible to bear witness against the Herods of our own time and place? How might we console Rachel to know that her children and all innocent victims of tyranny in fact live on in, with and through Christ throughout all generations?

In our reading from Ephesians today, Paul prays that the “eyes of your heart” be enlightened so that you may “know the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”

May Paul’s prayer and the lives of all those innocent children come alive in us this day.

 

— 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 Diocese of Maryland girls’ boarding school, where he teaches World Religions and International Baccalaureate (IB) English. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com.

The name of Jesus on our lips, Holy Name (A,B,C) – 2014

January 1, 2014

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

If we start with Christmas Day, December 25, and count eight days, we come to today, January 1. It is on the eighth day of Christmas that the church celebrates the Holy Name of Jesus.

We celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus on this eighth day of Christmas because it was on the eighth day that Jesus was circumcised and received this name. This story is told in a single verse of the gospel we just heard.

The shepherds, summoned by an angel, have visited the baby in the manger. They return home, praising God for what has happened. Then comes the focus of today’s celebration. “After eight days had passed,” we hear from the gospel, “it was time to circumcise the child; and he was named Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

“It was time to circumcise the child.” Following the Law of Moses, Mary and Joseph have their child circumcised on the eighth day. Thus he becomes a participant in the covenant, a son of Israel.

Circumcision brings with it the shedding of blood. What happens to Jesus on his eighth day is the the first small step in the shedding of his blood for the redemption of the world.

His blood will be shed abundantly when his life draws to it close.

• In the Garden of Gethsemane he will pray so urgently that his sweat will resemble clots of blood falling to the ground.
• Blood will drip when he is scourged with whips by Roman soldiers, and when they press a crown of thorn branches deep into his head.
• Blood will drip as he carries his cross on the long walk to Calvary, and when spikes are driven through his feet and hands.
• And blood will drip even after he is dead, when the sharp point of a Roman lance cuts into his heart.

The blood shed at his circumcision is only a small beginning, the promise of what awaits him.

But something more than circumcision happens to Jesus on his eighth day. He receives his name. Among the Jews, circumcision is when a boy is named.

The name Jesus receives is heavy with significance. It is the same as that of Joshua, the Old Testament hero who leads Israel into the land of freedom. The name means literally “The Lord is salvation.” This is the name that Gabriel, at the Annunciation, tells Mary to name her child. It is the name that Joseph is told to name the child by an angel who appears to him in a dream.

And so it is not a name thought up by the baby’s parents. It is a name that comes from God. The name of the Savior, the salvation he brings, and he himself all come from God.

We would miss the significance of the name of Jesus if we took that name as only a label, a way to distinguish one person from the next. The name of Jesus points us to who he is, who he is for us: the Savior, the one who delivers us, rescues us; leads us, as did the Old Testament Joshua, into a land of freedom, a different way of life.

The name of Jesus is, as today’s collect states, “the sign of our salvation.” Given to us by God, this name is a verbal sacrament, something spoken that conveys to us the grace of God. When this name is used by us with faith and reverence, it is for us a prayer. Indeed, of all prayers it is the best. No other prayer is so simple. None is so great.

Do you want to pray, my friends? Not only with your lips, but from your heart? Then use this holy name. Whatever your condition, whatever your circumstances, this holy name can be your prayer.

Say the name of Jesus with faith and reverence many times each day. Let this prayer, this name, rise and fall with the rhythm of your breath. JESUS! JESUS!

Let the name of Jesus become for you a holy habit, a second nature. You will never wear out this word. You will find in this great name enough sweetness and consolation, enough courage and joy to last you a lifetime, whatever may come upon you. The saints of the church from many centuries and many countries bear witness to the power and renewal they have found in making the name of Jesus their frequent, oft-repeated prayer.

There is a story about the power in this prayer, a story recounted by a member of the Dominican Order, Paul O’Sullivan.

The year is 1432. The place is Lisbon, Portugal. A terrible plague has broken out. All who are able to do so, flee from the city, and thus they carry the plague to every corner of the country. Thousands of men, women and children are swept away by the cruel disease. People die from it everywhere – at table, in the streets, in their houses, in shops, in marketplaces, in the churches. From one person to the next it spreads, or from a coat, hat or any garment used by the plague-stricken. So many people die from the disease that bodies lie unburied in the streets of the city.

Among those left helping the sick is a bishop named Andre Dias. He sees that the plague grows worse each day, so he urges the people, both those dying and those not yet afflicted, to repeat the Holy Name of Jesus. “Write it on cards,” he said, “and keep these cards on your persons; place them at night under your pillows; put them on your doors; but above all, constantly invoke with your lips and in your hearts this most powerful Name.”

Bishop Dias goes about as an angel of peace, filling the sick and dying with courage and confidence. The poor sufferers feel within them a new life. Calling on Jesus, they wear the cards on their persons and carry them in their pockets.

Before long, the sick begin to improve, those near death rise from their beds, the plague ceases, and the city is delivered from the worst suffering ever to inflict it.

The news spreads across the entire country. Soon everyone is praying the Holy Name of Jesus. In a very short time, all Portugal is free from the dread disease. Grateful for what has happened, the people continue to love and trust the Holy Name, to call on and honor the Name of their Savior.

What happened in Lisbon was not magic or superstition. It was what all prayer is: not an attempt to change God’s mind, but an opening of ourselves to God’s purpose. The people of Lisbon prayed fervently the name of Jesus, opened themselves to divine mercy to a remarkable degree. They became different. Their world became different.

We can become different, our world can become different, through an increasing reliance on the Holy Name, a fervent praying of the Holy Name. What are the plagues that beset us as individuals, families and as a society? Do these afflictions make us indifferent, apathetic, cynical? Or do they drive us to prayer and to action that reflects our prayer?

A new year lies before us. We do not know what it contains. But we can pray with fervor the Holy Name of Jesus.

• Perhaps some of us will die during the new year. We can leave this life at peace with God, with the name of Jesus on our lips.
• Some of us may face great trials. We can meet them confidently, with the name of Jesus on our lips.
• Some of us may experience wonderful joys, new opportunities, unique blessings. We can express our gratitude, with the name of Jesus on our lips.

A new year lies before us. May it be for each of us a year when we pray our Savior’s Name with faith and fervor, a year when we discover that this world can be a very different place through the power of the Holy Name.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of ”A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

 

The light of Christ, 1 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2013

December 29, 2013

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

Have you ever noticed that when you get together with your family and start telling stories about when you were growing up or what happened years ago, the same events sound very different as different people tell the story? Depending on who’s describing it, the guy who used to live across the street was a scrooge or a saint; or moving from one town to another was either a disaster, a wonderful escape or a thing indifferent, hardly noticed. Same event, different folks in the family, different points of view.

This is not unlike the wonderful poetry of the first 18 verses of John’s gospel we just heard. This is the Christmas story, the third time the Bible tells it. It’s the same story we heard on Christmas Eve, the story of the manger and the shepherds and the angels. And it’s the same story Matthew tells in his gospel, with Joseph’s dreams, the wise men and the flight to Egypt. But the point of view is different, and John’s gospel sounds strange to ears more accustomed to crowded inns and angel choirs. That’s because different folks in the family are telling the same story.

You see, Luke, who wrote the familiar story we heard on Christmas Eve, was a bit of an historian. He was very concerned with getting the dates and rulers right, and with locating everything in time and space. He also may have been a gentile, and he was clearly very concerned about people who, like the gentiles, were considered outsiders. So, Luke is more interested in shepherds – who were social outcasts – than in kings. And Luke tells the story from the perspective of Mary – a radical move since women were even lower on the social ladder than shepherds.

Matthew is more traditional. He was certainly a Jew and may have been a scribe. He was very concerned with making it clear that Jesus fulfilled all of the Old Testament prophecies as the Messiah, the King of Jews. So, shepherds didn’t interest him as much as the royal wise men from the East. The child is surrounded by his peers. And he paid a lot of attention to the flight to Egypt because of the parallel between the Exodus and Jesus’ own return from Egypt to Israel. Also, the more conservative Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s point of view.

Then there’s John. John may have heard of the stories in Matthew and Luke, but he’s not primarily an historian or a Jewish royalist. John is a theologian and a mystic. So he writes of the meaning of Jesus’ birth, and he writes from his theology, and from the holy imagination of his prayers. But he’s still telling the same story – all three are talking about the same birth – all three are saying the same thing.

John does begin the story earlier – he reminds us that Christmas really begins where Genesis begins, in the beginning, with God in creation. So, using language evocative of Genesis, John begins by talking about the Word of God. The Word here is God in action, God creating, God revealing himself, the one whom the church has named the second person of the Blessed Trinity. This Word was with God, and this Word was God.

Then John tells the Christmas story – in nine words. “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” He who was with God in creation, the one who is God revealing himself to humanity, this one became a person, became flesh – as completely human as you and I. Not God in a people-suit; not a really good person who God rewarded and made special; not a super angel God created early and saved up for Bethlehem.

But a person, who was the Word – who was God’s own self. Soaring words for the most down-to-earth thing that ever happened. But it’s still the Christmas story, still the story Matthew and Luke tell – the story of the birth of Jesus.

In addition to telling the same story, Matthew, Luke and John also share one special way of telling it: There is one image, one symbol, and only one, that they all use to talk about the birth in Bethlehem. Can you think of what it is?

They all talk about light – the light of the star, the light that shone around the shepherds, the true light that enlightens every man. These all echo Isaiah’s vision of vindication shining out like the dawn, of salvation like a burning torch. Where Christ is, people, who understand talk about light. They have to – there’s no better image of what’s going on. The light shines in the darkness, John proclaims. And somehow we understand this, and we understand that this truth cannot be better expressed in any other words, with any other image.

In large part, I suspect we understand this because we know about darkness ; we know what it’s like to live in and with darkness. Remember what it’s like to try to walk through an unfamiliar room that is completely dark, or to wake up confused in the middle of the night in someone else’s house, trying to get somewhere.

We know what it’s like when we don’t know where things are, or what we’ve just bumped into, or whether we’re going where we want to go, or if our next step will be OK, or if we will break something and make a mess. We know how easy it is to go in circles in the dark, and to get turned around, and to stub a toe and get angry and hit whatever’s handy.

And we know what it is like to live like this in broad daylight.

What John, and Luke and Matthew all say about Christmas is that a new light begins to shine. Gradually, quietly, but with absolute certainty, and by that light we can begin to see.

By that light we can begin to see who we are and who we are created to be. For it is in the person of Jesus that what it means to be a human being is finally made clear. In him we see that our lives are made whole only as we surrender  in love and service; in him we see that really being alive means risking everything for – and because of – the love of God and the Kingdom of God.

In him we see that hope needs never be abandoned – never – and that we contain possibilities beyond our imagining.

Also, by that light that has come into the world we begin to see God clearly for the first time. “No one has ever seen God,” John reminds us. But God is made known to us in Jesus. This means that everything we ever thought about God, everything we had figured out, everything that we were sure we knew about God – all of this is put to the test in Jesus. Who God is, in relationship to us, is fully revealed in Jesus. Not in one saying or one parable, or one miracle,  but in all of Jesus – in his life, his ministry, his teaching, his death and resurrection; in these all together we finally have the light we need to see God.

The light of Christ, the Word made flesh, comes among us at Christmas, and we celebrate its coming into the world. God had revealed himself and his love to us in Christ.

That first Christmas, the light shone – and it continues to shine. By that light we have been given the power to become children of God and to take our places with the light.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. This is the Christmas story. This is our story.

All of those other lights – the ones on trees, shopping centers, houses and office building – these are, at best, a faint reminder of the light we celebrate during this holy season, the new light that shines from Bethlehem and from the very heart of God that is our gift, our legacy, our prize, and – always – our sacred calling to name and to share.

 

—  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. 

Did you find what you were looking for?, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2013

December 25, 2013

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

“Did you find what you were looking for?” You have likely heard this phrase uttered many times over these past few weeks during Christmas shopping forays. It’s rather ubiquitous, isn’t it? “Did you find what you were looking for?”

Most of the time, you likely answered, “Yes, thank you,” or perhaps you inquired about something you had not been able to find. And in the context of purchasing something, you probably didn’t give your answer much thought beyond the immediate transaction.

But today, on this Christmas Day, let’s consider the question again: “Did you find what you were looking for?”

On this day we once again hear the old familiar story of an unwed teenage mother-to-be named Mary and her fiancé Joseph making the trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem under orders to be enrolled from their Roman overlords. The birth of Mary’s son happens, and we hear that a messenger from God appears to shepherds who get the initial report of the birth of the Messiah. The messenger gives them a sign by which they will find the baby, and a great number of the heavenly host appear to glorify God. The shepherds decide to go check this out, and they find things just as the angel had reported to them. They found what they were looking for!

We know this story, don’t we? Even if all we know of it is hearing Linus deliver its strains in King James English as a monologue in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” we know this story. We know the shepherds found what they were looking for: the baby Messiah, the Anointed One. What they perhaps did not know and could not fully comprehend in that moment over 2,000 years ago is what this child would mean for them – and for us.

While Luke tells us the events of Christ’s birth, in essence, answering the “What happened?” question, we are left with another question: “Why did it happen?” Why did God choose to come to us and live as one of us?

Part of the answer is found in the three short verses from today’s reading from the Letter to Titus:

“When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy … so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

This passage is paraphrased to clarify the point of the author: The birth of Christ happened to save us.

It happened precisely because we could not save ourselves from the mess of living life on our own terms. If we could have done so, we would have, right? But human history has proved that we can’t do it in and of ourselves. So God took the initiative and set about this saving work, not because we earned it in any way, but solely because of God’s grace.

What a radical idea this is – especially in light of our capitalistic meritocracy-based culture. We did not earn this salvation – it was freely given to us by God’s grace. Grace is that unmerited, unearned love that God has for all of creation. The letter goes on to say that this grace “justifies” us, which means it makes our relationship with God right and balanced. God initiates making the relationship with us right. Make no mistake, we have the obligation to respond to this invitation and participate in a right relationship; however, we are not the initiators of that action – God is.

And the reason God makes this relationship right is so that we might become heirs, children of God, with a hope of eternal life. Eternal life is an often-misunderstood concept and often posited as “going to heaven when you die,” which turns it into some kind of celestial evacuation plan. But that isn’t what the scriptures mean by the term eternal life. Eternal life is living fully and freely in the present now, loving God and each other. This lifetime of loving presence happens right here and now and continues forever.

So when we think about the birth of Christ beyond the story of what happened and consider why it happened, it leads us back to the question, “Did you find what you were looking for?” Perhaps you haven’t considered that question in this context, but do so for just a moment.

You are here, in this church, on Christmas. Why did you come? You didn’t have to come, you know. Oh, sure, some here will give a nod to attending church on Christmas being part of your family tradition, or maybe it was to appease parents or grandparents, and some of you are accustomed to regularly attending church. But regardless of why you think you are here, ponder in your heart for a moment what you are really seeking, because perhaps something deeper brought you here. What are you really looking for?

If we are honest, we all have a deep longing – a sense of something missing in our lives. Some call this the “hole in our soul.” It is the nagging feeling that we are incomplete and lacking. We humans are consciously aware of our fragility, our finitude, our faults and our failings. It is a fearful thing to acknowledge this truth. Most of us spend our lives running away from this stark reality by attempting to fill this hole in our soul with anything that promises to fulfill or fix us.

But try as we might, we cannot fill this hole ourselves because it was placed there by God when we were breathed into existence. It was placed there for a purpose: to draw us to say “yes” to God’s free gift of love in Christ.

Christmas is the proclamation that God spoke an eternal “yes” to us by slipping through the back door of history as a helpless baby, to grow up and live with us, die for us, and be raised from the dead to prove once and for all that our fragility, finitude, faults and failings are not the last word.

Christ is still renewing, redeeming and giving life to us – all of us, no exceptions.

No matter what your life circumstances are this day, God called you here to speak a word of eternal life and love to you: a love that you didn’t have to earn or prove yourself worthy to receive. God’s movement is toward us and for us in the birth of Jesus Christ.

This love is mystical, and it is the only enduring and life-giving way to fill the hole in your soul. It comes to us through Word and Sacrament and is present through this community.

So come. Come to this Table. Come as you are. Come here today and you will find what you are looking for.

 

— The Rev. Anjel Scarborough is priest-in-charge at Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick, Md. She and her husband are the parents of two teenage daughters. She can be followed on Twitter @ReverendMom and blogs at innumerablebenefits.blogspot.com.

 

Making room, Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2013

December 24, 2013 

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

Christmas is an occasion that brings families together. Surely there is at least someone here tonight wondering how he is going to be able to sleep on that fold-out couch that awaits him. That bar across the back starts to get really uncomfortable sometime in the middle of the night. And someone else is wondering how she’ll fair on the floor whether in an air mattress or in a sleeping bag. That’s what it likes when families gather, the house overflows with people, and we make room.

In the Palestine of Herod the Great, families also looked out for their own. And extended families could get quite extended in some circumstances. This is what makes Mary and Joseph’s dilemma such a problem, as Luke’s gospel tells us that Mary, “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

What were they doing in a stable with no bed for their baby but a manger, which is a polite word for a feed box? Where was their family? Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral home. If Joseph had to go to Bethlehem, so would have his brother and sisters, father and mother, and his cousins, too, at least whichever of those family members were still alive. Each of them would have had to have found room in Bethlehem, and once they found room, they would have been obligated by duty to make room for Joseph and his very new, so obviously pregnant wife, Mary.

So why were Mary and Joseph in a stable? Perhaps the family had piled into the inn and Mary and Joseph were living in the overflow section. That explanation would work, except for Mary’s pregnancy. Even an elderly uncle or an odd second cousin could have given up a bed for a woman on the verge of childbirth.

Mary and Joseph were in a stable as there was no room for them in an inn. The shepherds did not find a stable overflowing with extended family knocking themselves out to make some better arrangements for the new baby. The shepherds found a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. No mother-in-law, no aunt, no cousins and no sisters-in-law. Just a very young mother, doing for her baby what she knew to be best, with the father trying to make things a bit better, the best he could under the circumstances.

Why this happened is a mystery. We can guess, as some have, that it was because Joseph was older, and Mary was his second wife. He had no surviving relatives to make room for him and his young bride. Or we can guess with others that the scandal of Mary’s pregnancy had stretched the limits of family to the point that the Holy Family was left out when it came time to sort out sleeping arrangements back in Bethlehem.

But what we know, and know with certainty, is that Mary and Joseph were left to fend for themselves. No family had made room for them in Bethlehem. In a town packed to the rafters with fellow ancestors of King David, no one could find room for Mary and Joseph, who had every reason to feel quite alone as they laid their baby in the manger.

This scene makes Jesus’ words of the coming judgment in Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew all the more poignant:

“‘I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’”

Mary and Joseph were strangers, and no one invited them in. And those who shut their doors to Joseph as he looked for room for his great-with-child wife, were shutting their doors on God incarnate. When they did not make room for that one pregnant girl, they did not make room for the maker of heaven and earth to be born among us.

Yet, the story of Christmas is a story of good news of great joy for all people, not just those surrounded by family tonight, and not just those who will celebrate by exchanging expensive gifts. Christmas is exceedingly joyful good news because in coming to a couple who were themselves lost and left out, God turned the world upside down.

For the Christmas story did not start with Mary and Joseph alone in that stable in Bethlehem. Nor did the Christmas story begin with the angel appearing to Mary, or even with the prophets who foretold of the event centuries earlier. The Christmas story began with God looking on creation, so lovingly made and so needlessly gone astray.

God’s bold and daring plan was incarnation, the Word of God becoming human. In becoming human, God sided with the oppressed and the outcasts, and showed it by coming first to poor, lowly and even despised people.

The idea of God becoming human in lowly circumstances is wondrous, for it means that God knows you and loves you even as you are, whether you spend tonight alone or trying to sleep on a fold-out couch in a house full of extended family. The miracle of Immanuel, “God with us,” is that we see that though Mary and Joseph may have been forsaken by others, they were never forgotten by God.

Jesus was raised by Mary and Joseph – people with nothing but their love of God and neighbors to recommend them for the job. They had no status, no power and no wealth. The only thing they really had to offer was love. Having nothing to offer but love is exactly what the creator of heaven and earth had in mind all along.

And we who gather tonight in the warm glow of the light of God’s love should be challenged by this vision of a world turn right-side-up by a baby in a manger. For having seen that he who the universe could not contain may be found in a stable, and in the bread and wine of communion, how much better our eyes are to be focused on seeing our Lord in the people in need all around us. And it is this vision of the world that is indeed good news of great joy for all people.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia.

The faith of Joseph, 4 Advent (A) – 2013

December 22, 2013

Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

In our gospel lesson for today, the spotlight falls on Joseph. On this last Sunday of Advent, before we gather to celebrate the birth of Christ, the mystery of God coming to us as a child, we have this story about an ordinary, quiet, faithful man named Joseph. Joseph might have been uncomfortable in the spotlight. But our gospel asks us to look closely at him, because through the quiet faith of this ordinary man, God was accomplishing extraordinary things.

In the history of Christian reflection on the birth of Jesus, from the heights of Renaissance art to the folksiness of Christmas pageants, Joseph is almost never front and center. In paintings of Mary and the child, Joseph is often absent. If he is present, he seems set off uncomfortably to one side. He seems like a guy who is not too fond of family pictures. When the camera comes out for the family photo, Joseph is like the husband who is a bit embarrassed by the whole thing. He knows that as wonderful as pictures are, they distort reality, because life isn’t all wonderful moments. Life is more about the grace of daily obligation, the hundreds of small decisions we make every day. For Joseph, a carpenter, a man who was probably more comfortable working with his hands than talking, life is more like finding the right tool for the right job than a series of photographable moments.

In Christmas pageants we all know who the star is: Mary. While we’ve all probably heard plenty of stories of little girls who were disappointed because they did not get to play Mary in the Christmas pageant, there are fewer stories of little boys who felt slighted because they didn’t get to play Joseph. If you are a little boy, you want to be one of the three kings, or, if not a king, at least a shepherd so you can wear a bathrobe and your father’s tie wrapped around your head. After all, when you think of Christmas pageants the images that probably come to mind are of Mary and the baby Jesus, the three kings bearing gifts, shepherds and angels, maybe even oxen and sheep. Joseph almost seems like an afterthought.

If Mary was the first to hear the good news of the birth of Christ, Joseph must have been the second. But for Joseph, the news that Mary was pregnant was anything but good at first. In fact, it must have been quite a shock, because he knew the child could not be his. Our gospel says, “Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child.” In those days, there were two steps leading to marriage. The first was betrothal. This was a legally binding period that lasted a year before the couple actually married and started living together. If anything happens during the betrothal to dissolve the relationship, it’s legally the same as getting a divorce. Mary and Joseph are in this first stage, legally bound to one another, awaiting the day of their marriage. So when Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, it is not good news. It’s bad news, very bad news.

Joseph, like any man in his position, might have felt hurt, humiliated, disappointed and even angry. But Joseph must have been a man of few words. At least, Matthew does not tell us what Joseph was feeling. What we do know is that Joseph was an ordinary man. He learned the woman he was engaged to was pregnant. He knew the baby wasn’t his. He drew the obvious conclusion. What more was there to say?

But Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man, which means Joseph loved God and tried to follow God’s law. In all things, a righteous man will try to follow the commands of God. So when Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, he turns to God’s law for guidance. According to the law, he has two options. His first option is to bring charges against Mary in public. He could publically accuse her of the sin of adultery. The penalty for adultery under the law is death. His second option is to divorce Mary privately. In the presence of two witnesses, he can write out a paper of divorce and present it to her. In this case, there would be no public charges against Mary. There would be no penalty. People would eventually find out that Mary was pregnant and unwed, but she would be at least spared the public hearing and punishment.

Because Joseph was a righteous man, he had to choose one of these options. As much as he might have loved Mary, he could not disregard the law. He could not put his own will above the will of God revealed in the law. To do so would be to say that his relationship to Mary exists outside of their relationship to God. Unthinkable. He was a righteous man. But as Joseph surely knew, God’s righteousness is always tempered with mercy. He decides to dismiss Mary quietly. Righteousness tempered with mercy.

Then something extraordinary happens to this ordinary, righteous man. Joseph has a dream, and in this dream an angel of the Lord says, “Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her womb is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

This is an amazing revelation! Yet, how does Joseph respond to this extraordinary news? Matthew’s narrative is terse, but it fits exactly the character of Joseph. He responds like the ordinary, righteous man that he was. When he awoke from his dream, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded. Period. Joseph was a righteous man. He spent his entire life trying to follow God’s commands. Out of a lifetime of devotion to God and to following God’s law, Joseph knew when he was being given a message from God. He needed no extra words, no extra explanations.

The young Mary, when she had heard the news of the birth of Christ, quite naturally asked, “How can this be?” But Joseph was older. The fruit of a lifetime of devotion to God’s law are eyes and ears attuned to the Lord. Joseph would have known the passage from Isaiah: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” When Joseph awoke after the angel of the Lord told him he should take Mary as his wife and name their child Jesus, that is exactly what he did. No extra words. No extra explanations. Joseph, an ordinary man, a faithful man, a man of few words, did what the Lord commanded him to do. He had been doing it his entire life.

The wonder of this story is that through the faithfulness of an ordinary man, God was doing something extraordinary. The amazing news that God is sending his son to be born of a virgin, to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world, is working itself out in the faith and obedience of a humble man like Joseph. The angel proclaims the miraculous news that God is coming among us as a little baby, and unlike Mary, who responds with joyful exuberance by saying, “my soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” Joseph speaks no great words. Joseph was not a big talker. He was a carpenter, a practical man.

Joseph was also a faithful man, but he didn’t need to make a big show of it. He listened for God’s word, and he tried to follow it. And when God spoke to Joseph in a dream, Joseph got up and did all that the Lord commanded. He married Mary. He got them to Bethlehem. He named the child Jesus. And through his no-nonsense, faithful response, God was working out his plan for the salvation of the whole world. And this is amazing!

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md., and co-author of “A Man, A Woman, A Word of Love” (Wipf & Stock, 2012).

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.