God is With Us! Advent 4(A)

[RCL] Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80: 1-7, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25

Fourth Sunday in Advent, and one wonders: What remains to be said about the season?

Year after year, preachers and priests must wonder: How can one tell the story of Jesus’ birth without falling into historical and cultural clichés, without being accused of mythologizing? Or: Without being accused of not following the Scriptures word for word? How can we make the familiar exciting again?

It is so difficult to preach on the birth narratives that most pastors and priests find it easier to let the story be told by the children, in their Christmas pageants—something beloved by almost all parishes. Presenting the story of Jesus’ birth dramatically, rather than in a sermon from the pulpit, may be the better solution. Why try to retell the most beautiful story ever told when it is already written so simply and perfectly by Matthew and so masterfully by Luke?

The simple beauty of the story as found in the two gospels cannot be improved upon. Only great artists have found another way – through their works of art – to help us see with new eyes. Centuries later people still flock to the world’s great museums to see depictions of the Birth story by the finest of painters. A few well known artists come to mind: da Vinci, Caravaggio, El Greco and so many others not as well known. Their creations tell the stunning story of God entering the human realm. Nothing proclaims the Christmas news as movingly as some of these works. And it is not only visual artists who accomplish this.

The most evocative poetry has been written about that one night in Bethlehem, while the great composers continue to lift us to a heavenly realm when as they sing of this unique birth. Please, pause for a minute and try to think if any song as exquisite to your ears as the melody and words of “Lo, how a rose e’re blooming on tender stem hath sprung . . .” And now recall the words of Christina Rosetti’s poem, “In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood still as iron, water like a stone . . .” Each word is a jewel.

Now sing it to the melody by Holst and let you heart melt within you. Isn’t that the ultimate Christmas feeling? This is a deliberate question. At Christmas time we want to feel, not to think. This is why children are so happy at Christmas; they allow themselves to feel anticipation and joy without worrying about practical details that ultimately don’t matter.

When we grow up and reach maturity, we tend to examine the words we say and sing. We ask questions about their meaning, questions that in all probability cannot be answered. “If the birth of Jesus really happened as the gospel writers tell us, what happened to the promises of peace on earth, good will toward all human beings?” After we look at the world around us and despair of the answers we do receive, many of us turn to books and theology, and that too is helpful. It is good to examine the questions, but let us admit it: these are at best intellectual exercises.

Let us instead throw ourselves into the music and drama of the story and perhaps then we shall find peace and even joy. It is undeniable that visual art, music, poetry, and drama take us out of ourselves as they communicate the gospel story in ways that bring us peace and even joy. The story of Jesus from his birth to his death and resurrection is the perfect drama.

The great Dorothy L Sayers in her masterpiece, The Man Born to Be King, writes that for the dramatist the theology in the story of Jesus “locks the whole structure into a massive intellectual coherence.” She continues: “It is scarcely possible to build up anything lopsided, trivial, or unsound on that steely and gigantic framework.” And she fulfilled this conviction by writing, in 1943, her twelve radio plays on “The Man Born to Be King.” Very few had attempted a dramatic presentation of the life of Jesus before her. Only medieval plays and the depiction in Oberammergau had done so. Yet, the ancient Greeks worshiped by going to the theater; seeing the great tragedies of their myths was a religious experience. Theater started as a religious expression.

We also, citizens of this already troubled twenty-first century, enjoy the emotional appreciation of the nativity story fully when we see it acted out. But it doesn’t mean much in the long run unless we make the effort to move from the enjoyment and emotion to this “massive intellectual coherence” which is so effective as drama. We cannot remain starry-eyed in the worship of an infant; we must move forward to the ministry of the man Jesus without losing the mystery of the divine drama. How can we possibly tell in ordinary words this stunning, startling event of God’s breaking through in what has been called “the scandal of particularity,” of the Timeless entering Time?

It so troubling to many of us in this season to talk to Christians who speak of the coming of Jesus without trembling at the thought of the Incarnation, of God deliberately taking on flesh! This fearful, truly awesome reality has become so ordinary for us that we mention it without really taking it in. It is such an unprecedented event, this unique event in history, that Matthew and Luke tell it in the simplest terms but with heavenly imagery.

And therein lies the drama. A very pregnant virgin and her husband travel over difficult terrain from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Both the virgin and her future husband are visited by angels. Angels break through and sing of glory after the baby is born, while animals and the poorest of the poor gather around a little baby to sing of peace and good will. How else can something so dramatic be told in order to shake us out of complacency?

St. Paul gives it a try in the opening greeting of his letter to the Romans, the passage we read today, and ends up trying to contain the immense drama in 102 Greek words that form one long sentence. He speaks of “. . . his Son, who descended from David according to the flesh and was declared Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead,” and the sentence is still not finished.

He trips over his words in speaking of this astounding event. But when writing to the Philippians he succeeds fully in utter and profound simplicity: “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,” he says of the eternal, the cosmic Christ. This is what Matthew means when he writes that the angel said to Joseph: “. . . for the child conceived in her 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.” We imagine Joseph hiding his face and thinking, “I don’t understand any of it, but I will do as you say.”

The excellent American folklorist, John Jacob Niles, heard three words sung in the Appalachian town of Murphy, North Carolina and went on to compose the heart-breaking, simple melody and words of “I wonder as I wander right under the sky how Jesus the Savior did come for to die. . .” We must never stop wondering.

To move from drama and simplicity to the greatness and baroque richness of Bach and Handel, is to experience fully the reality that God dwells also in the beauty of sound. The whole drama of the biblical story of the Christ, from the Fall to the song of the angels and beyond, is found in Handel’s masterpiece Messiah. Those of us who have sung this oratorio through many years have memorized, together with the music, the words of the great prophets. Thanks to Handel and his brilliant lyricist, Charles Jennens, who poured over the Authorized Version, countless folks who have never read the Bible have memorized the most beautiful and comforting words of Scripture!

“Comfort ye my people.”

“Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked, straight. . .”

“He shall feed his flock like a shepherd and carry them in his bosom.”

And from today’s lesson: “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel, God with us.”

God with us! What a wondrous promise. What a loving reality. Hold on to that. Hold on to the drama of the Eternal entering Time, of the Invisible becoming Visible in the face of Jesus, a baby in human form who grew up to show us the heart of God. And enter into the season of Christmas with the feelings of a child and the meditations of wise Christians. Immanuel: the mystery and glory of the Incarnation.

Katerina Whitley lives and writes in Boone, NC. She has used drama in her five books published by Morehouse and also in her novel of the first century, A New Love, published by Material Media. For more on her retreats and dramatic presentations visit her website. www.katerinawhitley.net.

Download the sermon for Advent 4(A).

Can You See and Hear God’s Presence in Your Life? Advent 3(A)

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

We are well into the third week of the Advent season. Advent is a season of waiting, expectation, and preparation for the coming of the Messiah.

But who is this Messiah? Do we have any preconceived idea how we would like this Messiah to be?

John the Baptist seems to have certain ideas.

In today’s Gospel, after hearing what Jesus did, John sends his question to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

It seems John may have doubts about the identity of Jesus.

But in the Gospel of Luke, we know that John the Baptist jumped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb before both he and Jesus were born when the two mothers met. (Luke 1:41) In last week’s Gospel, John introduces Jesus as, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matt 3:11)

John the Baptist knows perfectly well who Jesus is. So, why is he questioning?

Well, remember, John is in prison! Has his imprisonment has caused him to doubt Jesus?

The Messiah is not saving John from prison, and the one who is supposed to take away the sin from the world is not taking away the sin away from Herod. Would you blame John the Baptist or anybody to doubt in such situation?

After hearing the question, as usual, Jesus does not answer directly but tells John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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.” (Matthew 11:4-6)

We see that the doubt of John the Baptist gets his disciples to be mindful of what Jesus does. The doubt of John the Baptist is pointing people to pay attention to see and hear Jesus.

Uncertain, scary, and helpless times can shake one up and cause doubts in one’s faith. Today’s Gospel is a good reflection of our spiritual journey. We can be like John the Baptist. When we are moved by the Holy Spirit, we vow to follow God. It is very clear and true. Or when we receive blessings, we are sure Jesus is our Savior.

When we face adversity and disasters, we question if Jesus really is the Savior. We question why bad things happen, why God is not there for us, and doubt even if God really exists. We tend to think God only exists when we are in good times. That is our preconceived idea of our Savior and why we are in doubt when things do not go our way. We are wrapped up in our own world and cannot hear or see God’s presence.

Nevertheless, being in doubt may get us closer to God. John the Baptist may be in doubt but his questioning points people to question God also. Then people pay attention to hear and see, find God’s grace and bring back the good news of Jesus to the doubter.

Doubting is part of our spiritual journey. However, the process may seem unbearable. We need to point each other to hear and see God’s grace to keep our faith. Sometimes we do have to wait in uncertain, and anxious moments before the truth comes out.

Advent is a season of waiting, expectation, and preparation for the coming of the Messiah. We are blessed that we know the certainty of the birth of Jesus. Yet, we are still waiting for the second coming of the Messiah. This time of waiting can be anxious and fearful time.

There is chaos in different parts of the world. We have our fair share of chaos causing disappointment, anxiety, fear, and anger in our own country right now. Enough people question the presence of God.

Will we be able to not be distracted by our own self-centeredness, and anxiety or our own pre-conception about God but look for God, and go and tell people what we see and hear about the presence of God?

As Christians, during Advent we are to slow down, reflect, and pray while waiting for the coming or our Lord. We need to reflect on what it means to be followers of Jesus our Lord, and our seeing and hearing of our Lord.

In a sense, we all have experienced what Jesus said:

The blind receive their sight.

The lame walk.

The lepers are cleansed.

The deaf hear.

The dead are raised.

The poor have good news brought to them.

If we are baptized, aren’t haven’t we experienced these things?

Through baptism, weren’t we once blind and deaf, but now can see and hear God’s good news?

Weren’t we once crooked but now could stand straight?

Weren’t we once uncleaned, but now cleansed by God’s Holy Spirit?

Didn’t we die to our previous life and now live a new life?

Didn’t we, the once poor in spirit, receive good news?

Truly, if we keep our eyes and ears open, we will hear and see plenty of God’s mighty work literally and metaphorically even in bad times. We will be able to go and tell.

It is time for us to share the good news and hope with others especially with those who are in doubt.

Br. Curtis Almquist of Society of Saint John the Evangelist writes in one of his daily meditations that:

“All of that stuff that isn’t right yet in us and in those whom we love will be satisfied and healed, but most likely it won’t all happen in this life. And in the meantime, sometimes a very mean time, we continue to come back to Jesus to be reminded of his real presence with us, and his provision to meet our immediate and ongoing needs.”

We are waiting in uncertainty but we are waiting in hope because of Emmanuel – God’s presence with us.

In the last few weeks, we have been reading from the Prophet Isaiah. He has been bringing the good news of Emmanuel to us.

Today Isaiah says:

“They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’ … And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

Yes, the Lord shall return.

Traditionally the third week of Advent is joy. When we can see and hear God’s presence – Emmanuel, in good times and bad times, and know God is coming again, isn’t that joyful? Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Ada Wong Nagata is Priest in Charge and Director of Jubilee Community Center at Church of Our Savior, Manhattan, a bilingual congregation with English and Cantonese in Chinatown New York. Ada served seven years as Convener of Chinese Convocation of Episcopal Asiamerican Ministries (EAM), recently finished her term. She is a board member of Li Tim-Oi Center, an Asian Ministry Center of The Episcopal Church. Ada earned her Doctor of Ministry from Episcopal Divinity School in 2015. Ada loves hiking and often goes on meditative walks.  

Download the Sermon for Advent 3(A).

Bear Fruit Worthy of the Gift of Repentance – Advent 2(A)

One has to love John the Baptist! Not for his sense of fashion – although camel’s hair clothing is quite trendy. And definitely not his diet. But our fondness for John the Baptist can be rooted in the fact that he is a ‘tell it as it is preacher.’ He doesn’t fit in the box of safe, well-dressed, predictable, comfortable religion. He understands his purpose fully and is living into his calling.

As we read about John the Baptist’s preaching, it’s very clear that he wasn’t concerned about being Mr. Popular. When we read about John the Baptist, we see he was a straight talker, no filler words or smooth talking with John; and he wasn’t afraid to offend people in order to tell them the truth.

We meet John the Baptist at the beginning of each of the gospels – today in Matthew. He is an advance man for Jesus. He comes into the territory and gets people ready to hear what Jesus is going to preach.

He comes bearing news. He comes offering something amazing. But only if one’s heart is in the right place. John wants to see everyone around him benefit from what he has to offer.

We hear John tell his listeners in verse 8, “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” That is, if you repent of your sins, if you confess your sin, say you will turn to God, then there must be something to show for it. It MUST affect the way you live.

It might be helpful in this great season of our Church, to ask ourselves the hard question of what fruits are we bearing? What fruits are we bearing in this Advent season?

“Bearing fruit worthy of repentance” as Chris Surber puts it, is living in such a way, as to outwardly express the reality of what repentance has produced in our lives. In other words, it means that our lives reflect a lifestyle, action, and choice pattern which are consistent with having repented of sin – that is – with having made a declaration against the destructive things of this world in favor of aligning ourselves with the beautiful things of the Kingdom of God.

We are all being called to bear fruits that are worthy of the gift of repentance. The New Living Translation of the Bible breaks it down a little more for us, it says “Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones.” (Luke 3:8)

John the Baptist is telling us to live in such a manner befitting of having repented.

Repentance is an integral part of the Christian life.

Repentance is not a onetime act of confession or a onetime recital of a certain prayer or creedal statement.

Repentance is the declaration of the heart, of the soul, of everything that is in us, in response to the terrible burden of our own sin and the great weight of God’s love for us, in turning from that which is destroying us to that which saves us!

Repentance is more than a deep abiding inward decision to reject this life for the life of Christ! It is the ongoing and living decision to choose Christ and live for Him daily; even more so to allow Him to live in us!

Repentance is the attitude of the heart, which is thankful for the grace of God…

The papaya tree is a fascinating tree because sometimes there will be a papaya tree that didn’t bear fruit at all. It will go as far as flowering, but those flowers never produce fruit. It isn’t until the head is cut off, will it start growing again and produce fruit. There is probably a good scientific explanation for that – however for the purposes of this message, sometimes there are things, situations, people even, that we have to cut away from our lives in order for us to bear fruit.

When it comes to fruit trees, it’s important to know that the quality and quantity each season is largely based on the watering, pruning, fertilizer and care the tree receives.

These analogies beg the questions, How are we the Church preparing ourselves to bear fruit? What is does the quality and quantity of our fruit look like? What are some of the things we have to cut away? And are people rushing into our doors because of our fruit?…

The season of Advent marks a time of preparation and hope for the coming of Christ. Perhaps in this Advent season we individually, as faith communities and as a Church use this time as a time to water, prune and fertilize so that we bear quality fruit in abundance.

Our brother John teaches us in this gospel several things – three things worthy of mentioning today.

The first is The Power of Preparation. In the seasons when we don’t water, prune or fertilize our fruit trees our crop isn’t as big or successful. Alexander Graham Bell got it right when he said “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”

So how do we prepare? Well our brother John has laid the foundation for us. One of the first steps will be to repent. And because God isn’t through with any of us, we might have to do it several times a day.

Preparation takes various forms. Some include praying, staying grounded in the Word of God because you can’t live by it if you don’t know it. One cannot practice what’s not imbedded in them.

The second thing we can learn from this Baptist – is to Seek God. None of us are entitled to God’s grace, favor and mercy. John reminds us ever so profoundly that not because we can point to God’s inheritance as ours does that mean that we don’t have to recognize that God could chose whomever God wants.

We heard in last week’s gospel lesson “That two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. And we are charged to keep awake for we do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” If we are seeking God daily, we don’t have to worry whether we are going to be the one taken up or not.

Preparation and continuously seeking God helps with the third thing John teaches us today and that is humility. John was the forerunner for the modern day evangelist as he unapologetically shared the good news of Jesus Christ. He was a man filled with faith and a role model to those of us who wish to share our faith with others.

It was the late Nelson Mandela who described humility as a quality within easy reach of every soul – and among others is the foundation of one’s spiritual life.

Mandela’s life just like John’s are examples to us of the seriousness with which we are to approach the Christian life and our call to ministry, whatever that may be.

John remained humble in his ministry recognizing that he was not Jesus; and that his purpose was significant and different from that of Jesus. John exemplifies humility in the lay leadership he provided as Jesus’ forerunner.

When we prepare ourselves and consistently seek God daily we live lives that reflect a humble attitude of gratefulness to God for God’s love and mercy. And we become more able to bear fruit for the Kingdom of God!

When we in reverence bow our heads, or kneel at the confession we are each offered an opportunity to repent. We are offered the chance to turn back from those thoughts and habits and actions that take us out of step with God. We are invited to move back again in harmony with God’s vision for us and for our world as we remember the savior who died for our sins and rose again and will come again.

During this season of waiting and great preparation, as we seek to find again the one who first called us, to follow him; who still sends messengers like John to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation. May that God, give us grace to heed their warnings and strength to forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ.

Amen!

Written The Rev. Arlette Benoit. Benoit is a graduate of General Theological Seminary in New York City where she earned her Masters in Divinity with a Certificate in Spiritual Direction. She was ordained to the priesthood in June 2013 in the Diocese of Atlanta. While at seminary Benoit interned with The Episcopal Church’s Office of Black Ministries. She continues to be involved with the Office of Black Ministries, and assist and provides consultation for the planning of the S.O.U.L (Spiritual Opportunity to Unity and Learn) Conferences for youth and young adults, in addition to working with a team of clergy and lay leaders to develop The Rising Stars (RISE) Experience — a new initiative aimed at countering the “School-to-Prison Pipeline” where children are pushed out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Benoit was also recently appointed to serve as a Youth Ministry Liaison for the Office of Youth Ministries representing Province Four of The Episcopal Church. She has also served as seminarian at Trinity Wall Street and St. Ann’s Church for the Deaf during her time in New York City. She now serves at St. Paul’s Episcopal Atlanta GA, as Associate to the Rector.

Download the sermon for Advent 2(A).

Be Awake and Ready – Advent 1(A)

The hippopotamus is an awfully deadly animal. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica hippos are the sixth most deadly mammal to humans on the planet. Hippos follow elephants, horses, deer, tigers, and of course, other humans as the most dangerous mammals to human beings. Most of us, I suppose, think of hippos as cute and cuddly, serene, floating in the waters of Africa. Those who have been on or near those waters know that the hippopotamus is an extraordinarily aggressive and territorial animal that is very prone to attack.

There is an amazing athlete named Juliet Starrett. She is a two-time extreme whitewater canoe champion, she is also a lawyer and a survivor of cancer. A few years ago Juliet was canoeing through the Zambezi River in Eastern Africa. It was on that trip that her canoe was disturbed by a hippopotamus. Not so much disturbed as exploded. The way that Juliet tells it, she was paddling along one second and the next she was ten feet in the air above the water. She says that she looked down and saw the chomping jaws of the hippo turning her performance canoe into splinters. While in the air, Juliet says that she spotted the nearest shore and began swimming – while in the air! She was swimming in mid-air!

That kind of thinking while in the midst of a disorienting and dangerous tragedy, that cool appraisal of the situation and the prioritization of survival, that kind of thinking demonstrates what is sometimes called the “ready-state.” Ready-state is a notion of health in any particular situation or system. A good ready-state in an immune system for example would be the ability to bounce back from an illness quickly and completely. Ready-state can also be used to describe relationships. Ready-state relationships are healthy and resilient.

In a person, a ready-state is characterized by the ability of that person to enter into just about any situation with equanimity and openness. Fragility, on the other hand, is the opposite of ready-state. Ready-state is not about being anxious and hyper-vigilant, but is instead about mindfulness and well…readiness.

Most of all ready-state is due mostly to advance-work, namely: training. Consistent, intentional training, over time, allows for the ready-state. Juliet, the canoer on the Zambezi, was not expecting or planning for the hippo attack, instead she was simply trained and ready; and when the time came, her training and general ready-state kicked in.

In today’s gospel passage, Jesus is reminding us that not even he, nor the angels, know when God will come. Some like to think that God will come in terrible retribution with flames and violence. These people look for signs in international politics and weather patterns that God is coming to judge and destroy the world. This is the Day of the Lord, the great apocalyptic coming of God to be with the creation fully. The reason that so many doom-sayers with signs that say, “The End is Nigh,” say what they say is because the prophets and gospel writers, even Jesus, used language like this: great tribulation, division, floods of fire and water.

The point they are trying to make is that when God comes to be fully wedded to creation, the existing order of things will be reversed. Instead of violence and oppression being used to secure economic and political flourishing for some, the Kingdom of God will be established so that peace and justice will walk hand-in-hand.

These reversals of the worldly ordering of life is a trademark of God’s presence and it always comes as a surprise because that kind of life, one marked with peace, justice, presence and love can be achieved in the here and now.

And Jesus, in today’s reading, is calling us to be awake and prepared for it. Jesus is reminding us of the importance to be in a ready-state for God’s coming. This is part of what Advent is all about. Advent, it turns out is not, is not, a countdown of shopping days until Christmas but a reminder of the ready-state, a call to training our spirits for God’s arrival.

The Christian tradition recognizes that God has come, and will come, to be with us in three distinct ways.

The first coming of God was when God walked with us in Jesus of Nazareth. We will celebrate that coming in a few weeks at the Feast of the Incarnation, otherwise known as Christmas.

Another coming of God is the final coming which Jesus makes mention of in today’s reading, when God and creation will be as they were meant to be, fully united. The strongest image the Bible has for this union is a marriage between God and creation and, make no mistake, heaven is coming to Earth (Rev. 21).

The third coming of God happens between the first coming and the final coming of God, between the coming of Jesus and the final marriage of God and creation. This coming of God is the daily visitation: God with us in our prayers, finding God in our neighbors, seeing God in those we are privileged to serve.

What we see in these three visitations is that all of them are the hoped for Day of the Lord. Each of these visitations carries with it the reversals of the normal, worldly order but also the loving and just presence of God.

How are you in a ready-state for God’s coming? How then can we be awake and watchful for the coming of God, whether in the final coming of the daily visitation of God?

There is a telling portion of Scripture that happens when the disciples have just seen Jesus ascend into Heaven. The disciples are looking up, dumbfounded. Finally, some angels appear and ask, “Why are you looking up, trying to find him?” The implication is, “Don’t look up to find Jesus, look out, look in.”

Jesus is always one step ahead, going into the city, into Galilee, into life, we are meant to seek and find him there. That’s how we stay ready for God’s coming, we daily, hourly stay on the lookout for God, not in the clouds, not in the powerful events of the world, but in the quiet, domestic ways that God visits us. God may indeed someday come in the clouds but it more than likely will come in your life.

Advent is a reminder of the ready-state, be awake and ready for God. This is why Advent tends to be described as preparatory, not just for the great celebration of Christmas but for the final coming of God and also for the ever-present daily visit of God with us in the here and now.

God is not as deadly as the hippo, but God is as disruptive to our normal hard-hearted ways as the hippo was to the canoer on the Zambezi. Be ready, be awake because the love of God will disrupt, explode and turn over our comfortable notions of how things ought to be. God will launch us into the air and into the waters of justice, peace, presence and love. It can be disorienting, but if we have trained ourselves to be ready, then we might work with God to establish God’s Kingdom more deeply in our hurting world.

Let us pray: Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Written by The Rev. Josh Bowron. Bowron is the rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, NC. He holds an M.Div. from The School of Theology at the University of the South and is also currently working on a Masters of Sacred Theology there, with a particular interest in modern Anglican theologians. He enjoys a zesty life with his wife Brittany and their three children.  

Download the sermon for Advent 1A.

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.

 

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.

Depends on God’s giving, 4 Advent (A) – 2010

December 19, 2010

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

At this time of the year, expectation is very nearly overcome by exhaustion. Whether that expectation is Christmas dinner and a pile of ill-afforded presents, or the Coming of the Son of Man, the lead up now seems interminable, like an overlong engagement, and the pressure to do the right thing by the right people seems overwhelming.

The Christmas tree, which somehow wandered into the living room before Thanksgiving, looks a bit shabby now, or if it is artificial, it probably needs dusting. Perhaps the dog tore into one of the packages. There’s still last-minute shopping to be done, a turkey to be bought – is Thanksgiving now like Christmas, or Christmas like Thanksgiving? – and we still haven’t decided whether to invite old Uncle Harry over and endure his endless war stories.

The gospel today reminds us of another person whose anticipation may have been exhausting. Joseph is informed by God’s messenger that his young fiancé is going to have a baby, and he is ordered to keep quiet. He isn’t the father, Matthew implies. Perhaps we are a bit more used to such a situation today, and we may commend Joe for sticking with Mary despite her questionable morality. But after all, morality is subjective, isn’t it?

A first-century Jew thought otherwise. And quite apart from the moral issue, a matter of the Law, Joseph was faced with the practical matter of just how one hides a pregnancy, a teenage pregnancy probably. And then there was the matter of Joseph’s own feelings. It looks as if the pregnancy occurred after he became engaged to Mary. How could she do such a thing? And if the messenger was right, and he wasn’t dreaming dreams, the child to be born had Yahweh, the God of Israel, as its father. What on earth would such a child be like, look like, act like?

How do we, like Joseph, do right by Mary and the child she gives to us? For we, too, can react from the ground of the secular world in which we live. We can be equally cynical about what God was doing through Mary. Our feelings, our self absorption may intrude. The demands of faith may be just too much, an optional extra for which we have no time, and an investment of faith and action that has no room in our cluttered, busy lives. Regarding Christmas as a story helps us push it to one side, to be picked up or laid aside as time permits.

Yet the faithful Joseph was a Jew. He believed in a God who acted first and required a human response of obedience and awe. He didn’t believe in a God who waited around for human suggestions or obeyed human laws like the law of nature. This God didn’t think much of those who thought that God was bound by what humans conceived as unbreakable laws. The God of Abraham did as He thought fit.

While we rush around creating Christmas and getting it all wrong, Joseph walked in faith, expecting God to get it right, to shield Mary from the censure of prying eyes, to heal his bewildered feeling, and to ensure that the child born, while truly God, was winsomely and engagingly human. Humble Joseph calls us to that very same faith and commitment.

The problem for Joseph, and perhaps for us, is that he expected God to act in power and might as God did on Sinai after he brought Israel out of Egypt, as God intervened to rescue Israel. This time there seemed to be a difference. God was intervening in vulnerability and weakness in the form of a baby. Such a version of God isn’t much to our liking. We like a bit of force from God, and we like a bit of muscle when we think we are representing God. We just can’t get our minds around loving-in-weakness being the solution. Joseph probably wanted to lock Mary in her room, subjecting her to hours of criticism, and then once the baby arrived, divorce her. He didn’t. He looked after her, loved her, and struggled down that road from Nazareth to Bethlehem with her. Once the child is born and reaches maturity Joseph just fades away and is mentioned no more. If Mary is extraordinarily faithful in accepting God’s calling to be Mother of the Eternal King, the Messiah, in his own way, Joseph shares in that faithfulness to a remarkable degree.

It is not too late to get Christmas right this year, to stop, reflect, realize that all you have done since Thanksgiving has maybe been many things, but it isn’t Christmas. This year, perhaps in the next few days, you can stop thinking that all depends on your presents and your cooking. It all depends on God’s giving.

Like Joseph, you may expect, but not control. And when God acts by dwelling among us and taking our humanity into himself, then keep Christmas joyfully during the twelve days, give a present a day, stretch out the feast, and give thanks that we are saved in and through the Child.

 

— The Very Rev. Anthony F.M. (“Father Tony”) Clavier is a retired priest and a missioner in the Diocese of Springfield.

Stirring up, 3 Advent (A) – 2010

December 12, 2010

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

“Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”

When cooks attending services in villages all over England would hear these words from the Collect of the Day, they would hurry home afterward to stir up the fruity batter that had been fermenting in their kitchens for weeks, the prime ingredient for their Christmas plum puddings and fruitcakes. Although the reading of this Collect used to occur in November, since 1979 it has fallen on this Sunday in December. The traditional English batter for Christmas puddings and cakes would be too thick by now to stir, but we still refer to this as “Stir Up Sunday.” How many sermons have been preached on Stir Up Sunday on what needs to be stirred up in our souls, to be prepared to receive what God is birthing among us at Christmas?

Years ago, Bishop Harold Robinson, retired bishop of Western New York, addressing the Annual Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, told a story of a bike tour he and his wife took through the English countryside. They kept finding the most curious signs. One said simply, “This is a sign.” That was all. Another read: “Do not move this sign.”

These signs are comical because they have no purpose beyond themselves. A sign is meant to point beyond itself, or it has no meaning at all.

John the Baptist, restless, in the depths of Herod’s prison, no doubt convinced of his impending execution, begins to doubt, or at least to wonder, “Did I get it right?” John had never held back. His incendiary sermons and actions had been relentless, proclaiming the coming wrath of God and pointing to the one with far greater power, who was to come after him.

John is always portrayed in icons with his index finger raised, pointing away from himself, toward Christ: John the “pointer.”

But as John sat in the depths of his dark prison, what he knew of Jesus confused him. It didn’t conform to the message of repentance and the wrath to come that lay at the heart of the prophecy he had been sent to proclaim. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are YOU the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus’ response is plain and clear. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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.” These are all the signs foretold in the prophecy of Isaiah, signs of the “year of Jubilee,” of the inauguration of the kingdom of God among us.

Perhaps what John has forgotten for the moment, are the different roles to be played by him and Jesus.

John is the hinge on the door of the gateway into the Kingdom of God. John, we are told, is the greatest of all who have come before Jesus, but all who live in the Kingdom of Heaven, creation transformed by the life of God-with-us, will know fuller life and purpose than John. John is like the doorman, who opens the door and ushers the rest of us through, pointing the way to life more glorious than what we have yet dared to expect or imagine.

Consider that hinge on the gate into such fullness of life as somewhat rusted – stuck in place. It takes the force, the harshness of the message of John the Baptist, to bust that gate open. But what lies before those who pass through with Jesus is life of an entirely different quality and tone.

Life transformed – brand new! Not just a return to the “good old days,” but as St. Paul will declare, “Glory to God whose power working in us will do infinitely more than we could ask or imagine!”

We are so busy these last days of Advent leading up to Christmas Day, bringing out and setting up the decorations and traditional trappings of this beloved holiday season, intent on revisiting the warmth of Christmases past, that we are too often distracted from the profound wonder of what God is birthing among us.

John points not to the best of what has been, but to a world transformed, the very advent of the Kingdom of God.

The prophet Isaiah proclaims the vision of barren desert rejoicing and blossoming abundantly, with joy and singing! Weak hands being strengthened; fearful hearts given hope; waters breaking forth to create flowing streams in the desert; the way home through that desert being transformed into a broad and straight highway that even a fool can travel safely through.

How much do we dare hope about the gift being given us this Advent and Christmas? Are we looking for the best of what we’ve experienced before, or dare we look for more?

Today, John the Baptist stands among us still pointing. He is not pointing behind us, that we might return to the “good old days.” John points us toward a transformative future.

The great challenge facing our congregations today is not how to revive or resuscitate faith communities gone stale. The challenge facing us is to offer the church and the world fresh visions of a renewed and transformed world – the Kingdom of God drawn near to all of God’s children, all of God’s creation, and not just the “faithful.”

The Kingdom of God being revealed in the person of Jesus Christ is different. It is far more than we have yet imagined. And unless we are yearning in this moment to discover something brand new among us and before us, we are likely to miss the point of all this entirely.

John the Baptist stands among us this day pointing to life transformed in Jesus. May we awaken Christmas morning to the joy of opening up that life, unexpected, more than we had dared even ask for. And thereby, through our life together, that life will be given not to us alone, but to the whole world.

And that’s the kind of “stirring up” we can all use!

 

— The Rev. Steve Kelsey is a retired Episcopal priest, living with his family in Arizona. He is currently serving part time with a team of ministry developers among the Diné (Navajo people) in the Navajo Nation.