A Song of Hope, Advent 4 (C) – December 23, 2018


[RCL]: Micah 5:2-5a; Canticle 15 (or 3) or Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

Liturgical seasons are worthwhile because they reflect the rhythm of life itself. Advent reflects seasons of our lives that are filled with hope and anticipation. We often associate these with happy times: waiting for a wedding, waiting for a baby to be born, or waiting for the arrival of a loved one who has been away for a long time.

But the first Christmas wasn’t exactly happy and bright, and the readings of Advent itself aren’t particularly happy, either. Advent speaks of awaiting God’s help in the midst of desperation, reminding us that we can find echoes of Advent as clearly in the homeless shelter as in the maternity ward.

Advent calls to us in the midst of the weight on our shoulders, and it speaks hope. As we watch the news and see the pain in the world, we are faced with our own powerlessness. As snow and ice and cold weigh down the landscape of many northern climes, we too feel weighed down: by our ever-extending holiday to-do lists, by the suffering in the world, and by our own personal struggles.

Advent is here to remind us that we cannot save ourselves, but that there is yet hope.

Today, with four candles lit, the Song of Mary soars through the Gospel reading and into our hearts again, as it does every year.

Mary, the unwed mother, the fiancé of a poor carpenter. Mary, who knows depths of desperation that many of us will never have to know. Mary, who felt herself powerless but sang to God who was about to save the whole world.

We often think of Mary as gentle and meek, but today, Mary is brave and bold, singing loud and strong.

Everything — the very shape of human history — is about to change.

The new dawn is on the way, and Mary sings out to greet it. The weight lessens; hope is born.

In the first installment of the three-part series The Hunger Games, there is a scene in the movie that is not in the book, but it well sums up the trilogy’s theme. President Snow, the dictator of the dystopian, futuristic country of Panem, is walking in his rose garden with the chief “game maker,” Seneca Crane. Crane is the man responsible for creating a game that pits young people from the twelve districts of Panem against one another in a highly publicized fight to the death each year. The winner of the Hunger Games is then held up as a brave, strong hero that represents the spirit of Panem.

President Snow asks Seneca Crane why the games must have a winner. If the Capitol simply wanted to show its power and to instill fear and control, he says, why not simply execute people? Why the games? Why a winner?

Seneca Crane does not understand. He stares back, confused.

“Hope,” President Snow says simply. “Hope is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.”

A little hope, says Snow, would allow the games to entertain the people and would allow them to have a hero to root for, while also keeping the Capitol firmly in control. A lot of hope would topple Snow’s oppressive regime entirely. The books and movies, as you either know or can probably guess, are about that spark not being contained. The second installment of the story is called Catching Fire as hope — a lot of hope — is revived in the country of Panem.

Hope is more than mere optimism. A lot of hope can shake the foundations of everything that weighs us down. A lot of hope can change the course of history.

For Mary’s part, she doesn’t initially greet the news of her pregnancy with her soaring song and blazing hope. When Luke’s Gospel first introduces us to Mary, she is more like the traditional image of Mary — young, meek, seemingly timid, but ultimately faithful. When the angel tells her the news, she consents, but she’s not singing yet.

As she’s absorbing the news from the angel Gabriel that she will conceive and bear a child, he tells her, perhaps to console her: Elizabeth, your relative, is pregnant too, even in her old age!

Gabriel doesn’t actually tell Mary to go to Elizabeth, but Luke says she still “made haste” to go to the Judean town in the hill country to see her.

Mary wants to be near someone who understands. Elizabeth is also pregnant by a miracle. Elizabeth, Mary knows, won’t think she’s crazy. And here, with another human being who understands that God works in really weird and unexpected and direct ways, Mary is able to find the courage to sing her song of hope. Not ordinary optimism, but great hope. The kind that catches fire. The kind that sings loud.

Today, Mary sings as she invites us into the vulnerable territory of daring to hope big. Optimism looks behind us to find comfort in what we’ve experienced before. Hope — the big, world-shaking, musical hope of Mary — looks ahead, knowing that we cannot imagine what God is able to do.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with optimism. Optimism hopes for good fortune, for fun with friends and family during the holidays, for a blessed and happy new year, and for love and warmth to surround us. There is nothing wrong with a little optimistic Advent cheer.

But if you have experienced the depths of despair, if you have seen the pain that exists in the world, you know that optimism is not enough on its own. It is too difficult to sustain. The world is too broken, too violent, and too divided, and we alone cannot fix it. Our one spark of hope is that God has spoken and told us that someday, all things — all things — from our personal struggles to the weight of the world’s pain, shall be made right. That hope is why Mary sings.

Today, the Gospel story invites us, like Mary, to seek out others in order to find our song of hope. It wasn’t until Mary was with Elizabeth in the Judean hills that her hope burst into song. And maybe, whether we know it or not, that’s what we’ve done today, too. We have made haste to seek one another out, to gather together so that we, too, can sing songs of hope.

Our song is one of extraordinary hope. Hope that has seen the broken and divided state of the world and knows that it cannot afford to hope too small because we cannot repair the world on our own. Only God can, and only God will. In the meantime, we are called to make our corner of the world that God so loves a less divided, more trustworthy, more hopeful place. We are called to sing.

The best part about Mary’s song of hope is that it is never hope unfulfilled. Every year, we remember her bold song to remind ourselves that God has already broken through. Even in the darkness, even in the deepest disappointments, even when we are betrayed, and even when the world looks most broken, we keep this crazy hope alive that God has and God will break through. And today, we make haste to find each other to sing that hope again, to fan that spark into flame again.

The Reverend Joseph Peters-Mathews, an Episcopal priest in Washington State, puts it this way: “That’s why I love Advent … Jesus never doesn’t get born. We long, hope, wait, anticipate, and we are never let down at the last minute.” Every year, Christmas always arrives. Even if we are exhausted or brokenhearted, the Light of Christ always comes to the Church. Always. The final candle is always lit.

Advent and Christmas are here every year to remind us that God has already broken through. Despite the world’s pain, the dawn is well on the way.

And that is why Mary finds Elizabeth and sings her heart out. So, let us today find one another and sing our hearts out to the God who breaks through, who sustains our lives, and who dares us to hope big — and beckons us to sing loud. Amen. 

The Rev. Anna Tew is a Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born in rural Alabama, considers Atlanta home, and lives in and adores New England. She has worked in a variety of ministry settings, urban and rural, both in the parish and in hospital chaplaincy. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics.

Download the sermon for Advent 4 (C).

What Should We Do?, Advent 3 (C) – December 16, 2018


[RCL]: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, traditionally called Gaudete – or Rejoice – Sunday. It comes from today’s lesson from the Letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”

In the other two lessons, the prophet Zephaniah also calls for shouts of joy: “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” It is because the King of Israel is in her midst. The prophet Isaiah also tells people to rejoice and sing the praises of the Lord, “for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.”

Advent is a season of waiting, expectation, and preparation for the coming of the Lord. We know that Jesus the Christ will be born very soon. We certainly need to rejoice.

However, in the Gospel reading, there comes the straight-talking prophet, John the Baptist. He is yelling at those who came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers!” It does not sound like he is rejoicing, though. What has caused John to call others vipers?

After this outburst, John continues his theme of repentance. He tells the crowd not to take for granted their status as children of Abraham as a guarantee of salvation. He tells them they need to bear fruits from repentance. He warns them that an ax is waiting by the roots of the tree, should no fruit be borne. It is not who they are or who their ancestor was, it is what they do that is most important.

One might have thought that those who came and were yelled at would turn around and leave. Nevertheless, they did not leave John. John may sound harsh to us, but people probably felt his sincerity, his telling the truth with love, and his concern for the people.

There is a joke that people like to go to Episcopal churches because there is absolution of sins every Sunday. They say that people can do whatever they like and sin during the weekdays and be absolved every Sunday. Is that what confession and absolution are about? Only doing lip service? It is probably these kinds of people that caused John to call them a brood of vipers. In the confession, people say, “We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.”

We are truly sorry and humbly repent. This is a confession from the heart. It is not lip service; it is not just showing up and reciting the Confession of Sin.

These people not only do not leave, but rather they stay and ask John for an alternative: “What then should we do?” — a true wish to repent, to get into action so as to turn from their old ways of life. John the Baptist knows the Messiah is coming soon. He feels the urgency, he wants people to be prepared and to bear fruit. He gives them advice.

John’s advice to the crowd is much easier than Jesus’. John tells people to share what they have—an easier task than when Jesus tells the young man to sell all he owns. John says if they have two coats, share. If they have food, share. In other words, care for others who have less than they do.

Then come the tax collectors. They too ask, “What should we do?” At that time, the tax collectors were mostly Jews hired by the Romans; these collectors were paid a portion of whatever they collected, so they tended to collect more than was required from the people. John tells them to be fair and not to collect more than they should.

Here comes the third group, the soldiers, probably Roman. They ask the same: “What should we do?” This time, John tells them not to exploit people or make false accusations. That is, they should live with integrity and honor.

This passage shows the diversity of the group. The crowd seems to represent the Jews who have enough; the tax collectors, the outcasts; and the soldiers, the gentiles. They all seek to change their lives. Even though John is harsh in the beginning, he gives advice to them all. John’s advice is not dramatic, he just asks them to turn from what they are doing their own way, and instead to start doing things the right way—God’s way.

The people want to change and are waiting for their Messiah to come. With John’s urgent teaching, they suspect him to be that Messiah, but he knows his call is to clear the way for the real one to come. John is to introduce the coming of Jesus, guiding people to see God’s way. He tells the people that the Messiah, the Christ, is coming with the Holy Spirit and fire. Jesus the Christ will come with the power and great might of God to be among us. The great fire is to cleanse us from our wrongdoings.

John the Baptist is teaching us to care for those in need, to seek justice, and to have integrity. Actually, those are part of what following Jesus the Christ is about. With true repentance to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, rejoice!

John the Baptist is preaching in the wilderness, a place where one may get lost, a barren place that seems to have no life or hope. Wilderness is a good metaphor for us right now. We are in a world bombarded by media, especially social media. We are certainly bewildered by news and fake news, truth and alternate truth. There seems to be no peace in the world. Natural disasters seem to be occurring more often than usual. Hope seems to be dwindling in the world.

We Christians need to ask a question: “What should we do?”

We should carry the prophetic voice of John the Baptist, calling out to the brood of vipers for true repentance. We should change our way of life. The gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” is increasing in society; are we willing to share with those with less? Or are we to continue taking more from others who are already struggling to fill their pockets? Are we to continue to benefit ourselves? Are we to elevate our status at the expense of hurting others? Are we to offer false accusations by telling half-truths or even totally lying? Are we willing to call out ourselves and those who do these things?

John the Baptist has given us the direction to be prepared for the coming of Christ. Are we willing to turn around? Are we courageous enough to hear and heed his prophetic voice?

The third Sunday of Advent is also called Stir-Up Sunday because today’s collect says, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.” May God the Almighty with the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit also stir up our hearts to truly repent and to follow Christ. Amen.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Ada Wong Nagata is priest-in-charge and director of Ah Foo Jubilee Community Center at Church of Our Savior, Manhattan, a bilingual congregation with English and Cantonese in Chinatown, New York. She is a board member of Li Tim-Oi Center, an Asian Ministry Center of the Episcopal Church based in the Diocese of Los Angeles, and honorary canon of the Cathedral Center of St. Paul, Diocese of Los Angeles. Ada earned her Doctor of Ministry from Episcopal Divinity School in 2015. She served as Convener of the Chinese Convocation of Episcopal Asiamerican Ministries (EAM) from 2009-2016. Ada loves hiking and meditative walk.

Download the sermon for Advent 3 (C).

Who Needs A Prophet?, Advent 2 (C) – December 9, 2018


[RCL]: Baruch 5:1-9 or Malachi 3:1-4; Canticle 4 or 16; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Who needs a prophet anyway? Prophets have an annoying habit of pointing out our flaws, airing family secrets, and being all around nuisances. They love to call us out when we stray from God and when we have lost sight of truth. At best, they are a nuisance; at worst, they are meddling. Who needs these messengers of discomfort and sacrifice? What are they good for? Wouldn’t it be best for them to get on their soap boxes and protest and preach and prognosticate somewhere, anywhere else but here?

It is hard enough trying to be a good upright, churchgoing, tithe-giving, Sunday school-teaching person without one of these annoying prophets calling us to care for the poor, to look out for the downtrodden, to seek after justice and righteousness. Don’t we do enough already?

It would be nice if they would go bother the people in power, the people who can actually do something for the poor and the needy. Why do these prophets insist on bothering good people? But here they are, calling us once again to repentance, and forgiveness, and hope. You would think that they were broken records, spinning the same thing over and over and over again.

Here comes another one called John, son of Zechariah—John the Baptist, some call him. He’s no ordinary prophet; he doesn’t just preach that we need to repent, but he has the nerve to insist that people get baptized in the muddy River Jordan no less. It would be nice if John sang a different tune for a change. He is always running around, “Repent this! Prepare that!” Haven’t we heard this message before? And yet he persists. Like crazy old Isaiah preaching about paths being made straight, and valleys and mountains being filled and made flat.  The thing about straightening crooked places and valleys being filled and mountains being brought low is that we like our paths crooked, our valleys deep, and our mountains high. We like things the way they are and the way they have always been.

Who needs a prophet anyway?

We need prophets. The people who sit in darkness, in deep despair, they need prophets. The people who look around and see destruction and desolation, they need prophets. The people who have no voice, no rights, no hope—they need prophets, because prophets proclaim a new and better way. Prophets are truth-tellers to a world longing and praying and looking for glimpses of hope.

Our world needs prophets. Prophets are harbingers of hope and hope is found in the one whose coming we await. The message foretold by John breaks into our world with deafening silence and shatters the dark of despair with the light of love.

Who needs prophets? We need prophets. We need those annoying, nagging nuisances that call us to be better followers of Jesus. As Rachel Held Evans reminds us, “Biblically speaking, a prophet isn’t a fortune-teller or soothsayer who predicts the future, but rather a truth-teller who sees things as they really are—past, present, and future—and who challenges their community to both accept that reality and imagine a better one.”

We need the voice of one crying out in the wilderness because things happen in the wilderness. In the wilderness, the needs are raw and real, and sweet words and hollow sentiment are not enough. We need prophets especially when we have grown so full of ourselves that we neglect to see the orphan, the refugee, the migrant, the widow, and the stranger. We need prophets to call us back to God, back to a place where hope is found not only in church, but in the world around us—in the interaction of strangers, the joys of difference, and in the radicalness of love.

Like Jesus and John, we are tasked with holding lightly to the things that do not matter, in order to be open to a hope-filled future to which God calls us. Now more than ever, our communities, our nation, and our world are in desperate need of the glimmer of hope found in Jesus Christ. Now more than ever, we need to not only hear the cries of the prophets, but to take on the mantle of the prophets.

We, as the church, the people of God, the followers of Jesus, are called to claim our prophetic birthright and be the voice of the voiceless, the hope of the hopeless, the love of the loveless.

Often in the church, we can feel small and powerless, wondering how we will survive, being concerned about ourselves rather than those in need. But God’s prophetic grace often falls not on the powerful or the mighty, but on extraordinarily ordinary people who turn the world right-side-up. We are called to remember that we are not a group of people who believe all the same things; we are a group of people caught up in God’s plan of redemption and salvation with Jesus in the center.

The question facing us as Christians, who seek to follow where Jesus leads and to heed the call of John, isn’t “Do we need prophets?” The question we must answer is “Are we willing to be prophets?” Are we willing to let God’s light shine through us so much so that we can show the world a new and better way? Are we willing to be prophetic enough to walk out in faith and break bread with people who may not look like us, or talk like us, or vote like us or speak like us? Because that is the Good News that we have to share; that is the prophetic vision that has the power to transform our world.

There are prophets in our midst. There is one sitting next to you right now. Look around. Listen. Keep awake. There is still darkness and despair and shattered dreams. There are still sins to be forgiven and enemies to turn into friends. It may not look like it, it may not sound like it, it may not feel like it, but in Jesus Christ, love has already won. The light of love and the glimmer of hope has broken through the gloom. The crooked places have been made straight, the valleys and mountains made smooth, the rough places made plain. Look and you will see the salvation of our God breaking through in a thousand pinpricks of light.

So, tune your ears to the voices crying from the wilderness, pay attention to the weirdos who speak of Good News and forgiveness and repentance and hope. Be the prophet who points to Jesus coming once more into our world. Amen. 

The Rev. Deon Johnson serves as Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brighton, Mich. A liturgical consultant, Deon specializes in helping communities revision their worship spaces to better reflect both their needs and the theology of welcome found in the Eucharist. In his spare time, Deon enjoys working on websites and is an avid photographer.

Download the sermon for Advent 2 (C).

We Need A Little Hopefulness, Advent 1 (C) – December 2, 2018


[RCL]: Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-9, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36

On May 24, 1966, a new musical opened on Broadway. Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, starring Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur.

It’s the story of the madcap life of eccentric Mame Dennis and how her bohemian, intellectual, arty clique is disrupted when her deceased brother’s 10-year-old son Patrick is entrusted to her care. Rather than bow to convention, Mame introduces the boy to her free-wheeling lifestyle, instilling in him her favorite credo, “Life is a banquet, and most [people] are starving to death.”

At one point in the course of the play, Mame and her new ward are feeling sad. Patrick is mourning the death of his father, and Mame her brother, after all.

She decides to make happy, leading into the song We Need a Little Christmas. In the midst of the song, Patrick protests, “But, Auntie Mame, it’s one week past Thanksgiving Day now,” as if to say it is too early to decorate or celebrate Christmas.

That was 1966, when one week past Thanksgiving was too early for Christmas.

Fast forward to 2018, barely fifty years later. In August, one could encounter Christmas decorations and trees in the local home improvement store. And by November 15th, the Singapore Airport was adorned with “Merry Christmas” banners and the PA system was blaring Frosty, the Snowman. (And that in a country where they recognize four official languages, and the Christians—who are mostly ethnically Chinese—represent less than a third of the population.)

In most of these United States, the stores have unleashed a frenzy of sales events, special promotions, and cheery ads featuring Santa and his reindeer.

The Hallmark Channel is advertising its Countdown to Christmas movie fest, which began on November 1st.

And now there are folks insisting that the twelve days of Christmas begin on December 14 –so they can end on Christmas Day. Traditionally, of course, the first day of Christmas is December 25, and at the end of the twelve days, we have the feast of the Epiphany, on January 6.

And all of this is not about the birth of a Savior, it’s about spending, spending, spending. And spending a lot.

Remember the song I’ll Be Home for Christmas? It’s a Bing Crosby song from 1943. It speaks of “presents on the tree.” These were just little and usually handmade trinkets. Not presents under the tree, huge stacks and piles of purchased merchandise—but simple little gifts that could be hung on the tree’s branches.

And in the midst of all this, the church offers the season of Advent, which is definitely not about shopping for presents. As we heard in today’s gospel story, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”

This is a prophecy of the end of times, a.k.a. the apocalypse, the Omega, Armageddon, Parousia, the End Times, the promised return of Jesus to judge both the living and the dead. It makes you feel a bit Scrooge-like, doesn’t it?

But perhaps you too have this odd, peculiar hope. Because we need a little hopefulness:

  • Hope that the severity of our political rhetoric is precisely what we need to come out of our illusionary comfort zones into a dangerous world and stand up for what is right and good and just.
  • Hope that we can rest in an unshakeable belief that we will be cared for in this life, that we will persevere in adversity, and that we will move on to life eternal.
  • Hope that we will be freed from our fear and become bright beacons to the brokenhearted, even as we too face the storm, knowing that God has our back.

But, wait a minute. What about this Christ returning in glorious majesty thing? What about last judgment? When we proclaim, “He will come again in glory to judge,” should that not make us quake in our boots? So—should we not be afraid that God will punish us?

Because, we need a little hopefulness, but, let’s face it, we are perfectly content to demand revenge when we get hurt, to live fat and happy surrounded by poverty, and to pick fights whenever we are confronted.

We are not sinister in this, just oblivious. We see only our own materialistic, xenophobic, retaliatory image. Not the image of God, who is quite different from the powers of empire and imperialism:

  • This Jesus we follow was born as a homeless traveler, whose family struggled to find welcome.
  • This Jesus we follow lived and ministered in poverty, at the mercy of the generosity of others.
  • This Jesus we follow offered no exceptions to his table of hospitality.
  • This Jesus we follow held more power than anyone on the planet—before or since—yet never once used the force of that power in the face of oppression, or violence, or even his own torture and execution.

Jesus showed an unquenchable, confident optimism—even in seemingly dire situations. And he commanded us not to fear, but live in hope.

And we need a little hopefulness.

  • Because horrors run non-stop through our news feeds, fanning our fear.
  • Because merchandise is offered to make us feel better, but really only increases that fear.
  • Because we fill up our lives with mostly meaningless activities, because it somehow is less frightening to keep busy.

In the relentless pursuit of acquisitions and wealth and power, we risk becoming spiritually disoriented, losing sight of anything sure and steady.

And then faith leaks out bit by bit, more and more fear seeps in, and we start sinking.

Once fear becomes the dominant force in our religion and our lives, we end up even more terrified, more desperate, more jittery. So we seek more and more stuff, we fill up more of our time with entertainment and events, and we grow more hostile to others, more contemptible of those who are different, more drawn to self-protection, mimetic violence, and even aggression.

In other words: we become less and less like Jesus. So we seriously need a little hopefulness.

The very heart of Christianity is inclusion and welcome and invitation. It is trust and contentment and hope that cannot be overtaken. It is serving and yielding and sacrificing.

It is not a scared narcissism that vilifies the other, relentlessly accumulates material goods and wealth, and seeks power or prestige.

And we can and will live in hope, not fear. Because you see, Jesus will come in glory to judge the living and the dead.

Adolph Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, every tyrant that ever was will one day stand before the judgment seat. So we need not fret about judging them—or anyone else.

Now, there’s a little hopefulness: the Last Judgment will put things right.

And, remember: we will stand before the judgment seat, as well.

Christ the King will know everything we’ve done or left undone. Everyone we’ve hurt. Every evil intent, every neglectful moment, every time we gave in to fear.

And he will say, “I forgive you. Welcome into paradise.”

Now, that’s more than a little hopefulness: that’s comfort, reassurance, glad tidings of great joy. “I forgive you. Welcome into paradise.”

So let us not be afraid. Let us prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior. Let us strive to emulate Jesus.

  • Jesus, who offers not fear but forgiveness.
  • Jesus, who offers not hate but sacrificial love.
  • Jesus, who offers not condemnation but life eternal.

What would this world be like if we, each of us, lived more and more into that sure and certain hope?

Father Barrie Bates lives in Jersey City and Michigan. He wishes to draw your attention to the Advent Project (theadventproject.org), which calls for a seven-week season of Advent, something the Revised Common Lectionary already supports. By this means, preachers will have the opportunity to speak of the Advent season and Christmas before the major Thanksgiving shopping rush. It’s worth considering.

Download the sermon for Advent 1 (C).

My Soul Magnifies the Lord, Advent 4(C) – 2015

[RCL] Micah 5:2-5a; Canticle 3 or 15 or Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

“My heart exults in the Lord … My strength is exalted in my God …”

Sound familiar?

Today we hear the Magnificat, that great song of Mary that the author of Luke and Acts has blessed us with.

But this quote isn’t from the Magnificat. It’s not even from the gospels. It’s from the Book of Samuel. It’s sung by another pregnant woman, Hannah the mother of Samuel, the great priest and prophet.

Hannah was unable to conceive and bear children because we are told, “The Lord had closed her womb.” In time, however, she does conceive and when she dedicates her son – her only son – to the temple, to become a priest she sings a song. Luke uses this song as a model for Mary’s song.

In both the mighty are laid low, and the lowly are raised up. God is active and acting in the world. And so these women sing, “My heart exults in the Lord!” “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

That’s an arresting phrase: My soul magnifies the Lord. MY soul magnifies the Lord. This is sometimes translated as “my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” which means sort of the same thing. But there’s something more profound in saying “my soul magnifies the Lord.”

The more traditional (Rite I) version of the Magnificat has yet another translation that opens up an even deeper level, a more profound paradox.

It reads, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” and then a little later it says, “For he that is mighty hath magnified me.” I magnify the Lord, but the Lord also magnifies me. It’s a double magnification and it’s maybe a little “through the looking-glass.”

But that’s where we are in Advent. Advent prepares us for Christmas, which takes us through the looking glass. There, everything looks familiar but everything is utterly and profoundly different. Because God has become incarnate, enfleshed, one of us, and that changes everything.

At the beginning of the service we prayed “that when Jesus comes he will find in our hearts a mansion prepared for him.” That should sound familiar too. In John’s great mystical account of the God-magnifying life of Jesus, Jesus says that he goes to prepare a mansion for us (“in my father’s house are many mansions … I go to prepare a place for you.” John 14:2) And now as we are on the cusp of welcoming God (again) – recognizing God as living and moving and acting among us (again) – we are told to prepare a mansion for God. You know the song: “Let every heart, prepare Him room.” We are told to prepare God a space, so that God might be born again in us. So that we might be born again. Our souls, our bodies, our very being will thereby magnify the greatness of God.

We delight in singing about the mighty works of God this time of year. We find it easy and comforting to sing about what God brings about in the world. We sing about God bringing joy and peace. Mary’s song invites us to consider not only the what, but also the how. The Magnificat can be read as an invitation to sing along with Mary about our part in that divine action. This is what Jesus’ incarnation tells us. It’s what Mary is telling us. That God goes about bringing peace, and joy, and love, and hope to the world through us. By magnifying God’s grace and spirit through us.

“My soul magnifies the Lord,” can mean that through me, through you, through us others can see the Lord more clearly. Through me and through you, through the way we choose to live our lives and practice our faith in the world people can catch a sustained glimpse of that peaceful kingdom. They can experience the righteous reign of God’s justice and peace. They can share in God’s dream of shalom.

Through each of us, through our words and our actions, through all that we do, we magnify God. We magnify God’s being with our own bodies. We magnify God’s action with our own practices. We magnify God’s word with our words in the world.

God is the one who acts. We magnify that action and give it hands and feet and hearts and minds. We collaborate with God in the divine actions of lifting up of the lowly, feeding the hungry. A good question to meditate on in the remaining time before Christmas might be: how do I magnify the Lord?

That’s a big question. It’s easy to think that it’s too big for any one of us to handle. But another important lesson the Magnificat teaches is that you are enough. Whoever you are, whatever you have or haven’t done, you are enough. The song of Mary reminds us that all of the scripture points to the little, the lowly, the “who me?” as the vehicle for salvation.

Bethlehem is nothing special. Hannah is a long-suffering, put upon other wife who endures the incessant teasing of the wife who is able to bear children. Elizabeth was also thought to be barren, and endured disgrace because of it.

And Mary is no one. An underage woman from a nowhere town – Nazareth (“what good can come from there?”) – engaged to someone we’re told is from the house of David but that doesn’t really make Joseph all that special; a lot of people were distantly related to David.

All throughout scripture whenever God wants to do something it’s the little, the ordinary, the unexceptional that God uses. When God wants to create God reaches into the mud. When God wants to raise up a king for Israel, God chooses the youngest of many children, the one sent out to watch the flocks. When God wants to redeem all of creation God enters that creation fully and completely as one of the most vulnerable creatures on the planet, a human child.

It is through human beings, through human flesh, the substance that is also the vehicle for all sin in the world. It’s through this fragile and easily broken substance that salvation happens. It is through us that God works. Through us that God is magnified.

In Acts, St. Paul says that “God is that in which we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) Mary reminds us that we are how God lives and moves and brings about God’s will in the world.

It is not through magic, but through a human being. Through Mary, and her child Jesus, and with the help of the Holy Spirit through apostles, prophets and martyrs – and even through us – that God transforms God’s dream of shalom into the reality of God’s realm of justice and peace.

And just like Mary and Hannah, though little, we are enough. Each of us is enough to magnify God. Imagine what would happen if we let God work. If we truly made room for God to be born in our hearts. If we let God magnify the good work that God has begun and is already doing in each of us. What if we joined together with others to magnify that work? Imagine the world that would be born from that.

As we prepare to welcome Christ once more into our hearts and our homes, may our souls magnify more and more the glory of God and our hearts exult in the goodness of God, this day and always.

Amen.

Download the sermon for Advent 4C.

Written by The Rev. Richard Burden, PhD
The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden was called as Rector of All Saints Parish in 2014. Born and raised in Colorado, Richard received a BA in Theatre Arts from Colorado State University, an MA in history from the University of Colorado at Denver and a PhD from the University of Chicago, where he studied Christian conversion in early 20th century China. He began his first career as a bookseller working at the Tattered Cover in Denver, and after a journey through academia he discerned a call to ordained ministry which led him to the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, in Berkeley, CA. Richard was ordained in 2009 and was first called to the Episcopal Diocese of Lexington to serve as Priest in Charge, and also to help develop a groundbreaking program of leadership and congregational development known as The Network for Pastoral Leadership. In 2013, he began to sense God calling him in a new direction, this time to New England. He is a Fellow of the Beatitudes Society. He says, “I went into ordained ministry because I wanted to be a catalyst for individuals and communities to become the people that God needs them to be and to do the work God so urgently needs them to do.” With his spouse Monica, he is also a parent to two school aged children. His recorded sermons are available at allsaintsbrooline.org, you can contact him through the All Saints Brookline Facebook page, twitter @allsaintsbline, and instagram.  

Rejoice and Seek, Advent 3(C) – 2015

[RCL] Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

“The rural quiet you encounter at Mepkin Abbey is a thingish presence, the texture of all that can be experienced. To pass through the gates is to move into ‘another intensity,’ a spreading flatland park of live oaks that dips suddenly into the waters of the Cooper [River], which run beside it for three miles: imperceptible in its flow and impenetrable at its surface.”[1] These are the images Dr. Frank Lentricchia uses to describe the Trappist Monastery Mepkin Abbey near Charleston, South Carolina. The contemplative monk, Thomas Merton, visited Mepkin. Many seek this place today for a deeper encounter with God. It is an enchantingly sacred wilderness.

John the Baptizer is in the wilderness by the Jordan River, “imperceptible in its flow and impenetrable at its surface,” preaching repentance and baptism. John’s words to the crowd are harsh, rather uninviting, and somber rather than joyful. “You brood of vipers! Even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree.” (Luke 3:7ff) Theologian Joseph Fitzmyer said, “John’s words are a warning against their smugness of salvation, which is their undoing.”[2] This is the poison or venom in their destructive behavior.

John’s images are the opposite of what many expect to hear for Rose Sunday on the Third Sunday in Advent. This is traditionally is Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin, “Rejoice!” taken from Philippians 4:4. John the Baptizer in Luke 3 sounds more like he is raging and not rejoicing. John is raging in order to punctuate the importance of his message of repentance, the importance of seeking and returning to God. John baptizes with water. The Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. John preaches that Jesus’ baptism will have the two-fold benefit of purification and refinement. Repentance in John’s mind resembles the actions in Luke 3:11: share your coat, do not overcharge, do not extort money, and do not bring threats or false accusations. In other words, do share but do not swindle, strong-arm, or support scare-tactics. John’s words invite the crowd to examine their personal actions that stand in the way of a deeper relationship with God and humanity.

The African American artist Jonathan Green is one of American’s great painters. He has ties to the community near Mepkin Abbey. The head of the monastery commissioned Jonathan Green in 2006 to create a work of art honoring a newly discovered burial ground on the monastery’s property, holding the graves of Africans and African Americans from the time during and after slavery. As Jonathan and Abbot Francis walked the grounds of this once rice plantation, Jonathan thought about his spiritual awakening growing up with the Gullah community off the Charleston, South Carolina coast. He reflected on his experience of “seeking,” the Gullah community’s process for preparing early adolescents for baptism. These adolescent “seekers” entered the wilderness for a week as part of their rite of passage. Seekers took a vow of silence, only speaking with a community elder during their wilderness experience. The seeker picked a tree in the forest where she or he went to meditate, pray, and meet the elder. Seekers could not kill any insect or perform any “worldly” task during this period of fasting and prayer. After a week, the seeker re-entered the community, telling those gathered about a transforming encounter with God. After meeting the approval of the community, the adolescent entered baptism at a time in the near future. As a teenager, Jonathan, walking in a similar path of his ancestors, made his way to living waters wearing “regular clothes.” Immediately after his baptism, a group shuffled the newly baptized from the congregation’s sight. They returned wearing shiny white robes; symbolizing leaving behind a “regular life” while embracing a new life is Jesus Christ. One observer noted, “There was a great difference in their looks when they came into the church the second time.”

John the Baptizer invites all who seek a deeper relationship with God to examine what stands in the way of that relationship. Perhaps the joy or rejoicing in John the Baptizer’s rhetoric is that our present condition does not have to be our future reality. John admonishes the crowd not to rely on their status or smugness of salvation but to repent. Repentance is sharing, being honest, and exhorting or encouraging others in John’s eyes. Consider thinking about repentance as meaning, “to look anew.” What does it mean to look anew at life? The Trappist monks at Mepkin looked anew at a once abandoned rice plantation to see a monastery of prayer and worship. The artist Jonathan Green visited that monastery to look anew at a “spreading flatland park of live oaks” to create a breathtaking painting pulling together his encounter of “seeking” Jesus Christ with the voices from the African cemetery. Listen to God’s call to examine our lives. John’s delivery is deafening. His message is clear. Be open to God’s Spirit of transformation and await the coming of Jesus Christ.

Download the sermon for Advent 3C.

Written by The Rev. Jemonde Taylor
The Rev. Jemonde Taylor is the eleventh rector of Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church, Raleigh, North Carolina. Jemonde serves the Diocese of NC by being a part of Diocesan Council. He is a consultant to the Office of Black Ministries of The Episcopal Church. Prior to serving Saint Ambrose, Jemonde was priest missioner at Saint Michael and All Angels Church, Dallas, TX as a part of the Lilly Program. Jemonde studies the spirituality, worship, and history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and leads pilgrimages to Ethiopia for Epiphany.


[1] Ferraro, Thomas J. Catholic Lives, Contemporary America. Frank Lentricchia. “Making it to Mepkin Abbey.” p. 110.
[2] Fitzmyer, Joseph, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX of The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985), 467.

Finding Balance , Advent 2(C) – 2015

[RCL] Baruch 5:1-9 or Malachi 3:1-4; Canticle 4 or 16; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

I’m reading a book right now by a person who really irritates me. I’m not sure that is the right description. She bothers me; she gets under my skin; she makes me cringe. I’m actually surprised that I’m even reading the book. I’ve never met her but I saw her at a conference once. I thought she was pushy and obnoxious. She interrupted people. She talked over people. She made off-hand comments that I thought were inappropriate. So when, for a variety of reasons, I had to read this person’s book, I thought to myself, “Oh great, this is going to be like listening to finger nails on a chalk board.”

And in some ways it has been a grating experience. Her writing is not really my style. She speaks in broad generalizations. She makes bold pronouncements about people and their spiritual lives. Her confidence can sound like superiority.

But here is the thing that caught me completely off guard: she is often right about what she is saying. I got to one section on the ways in which our spiritual lives are out of balance, and I had to put the book down. This person I had thought of as an obnoxious know-it-all had hit the nail on the head. She actually just knew. She was describing many of the ways in which my life was out of balance. I didn’t particularly care for the source or for the way she said it but I had to acknowledge a hard truth: my life is often out of balance and she made me confront this hard truth about myself.

Here’s the part that got me. She said,

“With the invention of the light bulb, balance became a myth. Now human beings could extend the day and deny the night. Now human beings could break the natural rhythm of work and rest and sleep. Now human beings could begin to destroy the framework of life and turn it into one eternal day, with, ironically, no time for family, no time for reading, no time for prayer, no time for privacy, no time for silence, no time for time . . . Our time gets totally out of balance. We spend it all on friends, or we spend none of it there. We spend it all on work, or we spend it all on our compulsions. We spend it all on the body, or we spend none of it on the body. We spend it all talking, or we spend none of it talking . . . We wake up one day and realize we haven’t heard from old friends for years; we haven’t been to see our ageing relatives for months; we don’t know the names of our cousins’ children anymore; we haven’t written a personal letter for years; we haven’t sat in a large easy chair and read a good novel for ages . . . and life is flying by. All skewed.”[i]

Ouch. This hurts. I still don’t like the way she puts things. But, if I’m honest, I have to admit, she is pointing out a hard truth. About myself. About the way I spend my time. About the way life seems to be flying by. It’s a hard thing to hear, but it is true. I can’t get out of it by saying I don’t like the person who says these things or the way she says them. If I’m really honest I have to admit it: “she has got my number.”

We are in Advent, now, and that means we are in the time of the Church year when we get to meet another person who may really irritate us: John the Baptist. When it comes to people’s lists of favorite saints, I don’t think John the Baptist would at the top of anyone’s. St. Francis, maybe, with love of animals and creation. Peter, whose hard-headedness is sort of endearing or can make us feel like geniuses compared with him. But, as I said, not many people really like John the Baptist. He’s an unsettling Old Testament type of prophet who comes on the scene proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Talk about spoiling the Christmas mood. We wouldn’t want to invite John to our holiday parties. He would seem an obnoxious and self-righteous intruder in the midst of our holiday cheer.

And yet, the Church says every year, we need to hear John the Baptist’s message because the season of Advent is not the season of Christmas. It doesn’t matter that in our contemporary culture we start celebrating Christmas right after Thanksgiving, with its relentless marketing and endless soundtrack of carols. In the Church year, it is Advent, and that means we have to confront John the Baptist. Bah, humbug. Right?

But here’s the point: as irritating as John the Baptist may be, as much as he may get under our skin, he has an important message for us. At least, that is what the Church is saying. It is saying that before we rush to the joy of Christmas, before we receive the great mystery of God with us, we have to prepare for this event through a time of self-examination and penitence. That is, we need to set aside some time to examine our spiritual lives, to look with utmost honesty at all the ways our lives are out of balance, to look at all the ways we are involved in self-destructive behaviors, and to try clean out the spiritual trash, to try bring about some harmony in ourselves and in our world. As John says, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” So in Advent, we hear John’s message as an invitation to spiritual reflection. Just as we might clean our house in preparation for a special guest, so the Church asks us to take stock of our souls and to be at our best when the special day arrives.

The writer who got under my skin, who got me thinking about John the Baptist and self-examination, is a religious writer named Joan Chittister and the book I am reading is on Benedictine spirituality titled, Wisdom Distilled From the Daily. Benedictine spirituality, which has had a great influence on the Anglican tradition, is a spirituality of balance and harmony and wholeness. Benedict is saying that all facets of our daily lives can be holy and sacred: what is needed is to bring all these things into harmony: a balance of work and prayer and study and leisure and service. As Chittister says, our time:

“was to be spent on listening to the Word, on study, on making life better for others, and on community building. It was public as well as private; it was private as well as public. It was balanced . . . No one thing got exaggerated out of all proportion to the other dimensions of life. No one thing absorbed the human spirit to the exclusion of every other. Life was made up of many facets and only together did they form a whole.”[ii]

And then, after she lays out this beautiful ideal of spiritual harmony and balance, she let’s us have it. Like John the Baptist, she starts pointing out all the ways in which our lives are out of balance these days. Here she is on our tendency to slump in front of the TV at the end of the day rather than to do something that truly feeds our souls:

“We all tell ourselves that things are just too hectic, that what we really need is play, not holy leisure. We all say we’ll do better tomorrow and then do not. We all say that the schedule is too crowded and the children are too noisy and the exhaustion is too deep. But, if we do nothing to change it, the schedule just gets worse and the noise gets more unrelenting and the fatigue goes deeper into the bone. The fact is that it is our souls, not our bodies, that are tired. The fact is that we are so over-stimulated and so under-energized that the same old things stay simply the same old things, always.”[iii]

Easier just to slump in front of the TV and delude ourselves by saying that tomorrow will somehow be different.

Like I said, “Ouch”! Who really wants to hear this? But, is it true? Are our lives really out of balance? Do we need to confront this hard truth about ourselves?

Here’s the good news, here’s the hope: we can get our lives back into harmony and balance. And here’s even better news, it doesn’t call for extraordinary feats of spiritual gymnastics. Benedictine spirituality, Anglican spirituality, is not saying that you should add more things, super-spiritual things, to your “to-do” list. Rather, it’s saying that you can and should rethink your whole list. Here is how Chittister puts it:

“people with a sense of Benedictine balance see that life is a medley of multiple dimensions, each of which must be developed. They have become more than either their work or their play. Nothing consumes them and everything taps something new in them. They walk through life smelling the flowers. They need enough money, some play, good work, steady friends, spiritual growth, intellectual stimulation, and harmony with nature . . . they make time for every facet of life. They live a rhythm of life that includes the natural, the spiritual, the social, the productive, the physical, and the personal. They can tell you each week what they have done in each area. They live life well. They are in fact fully alive.”[iv]

That sounds like a pretty good vision of spiritual wholeness and balance. Actually, that sounds like a classically Anglican vision of spiritual wholeness and balance. In any event, it sounds like something many people are longing for these days.

The hard truth is that for many of us our lives are out of balance. Perhaps that’s why we need people whose style we find grating to point this out for us. Perhaps that’s why we need confront John the Baptist every Advent. If we are to prepare for the coming of the Lord, we need to spend some time examining our lives and trying to get things in order. The painful truth is that life feels out of balance for many of us today. The promise and the hope, however, is that we can do something about it. We can change, and we can find a rhythm of life that makes time for every facet of our lives. Through humility and prayer and study we can move to a greater sense of wholeness and harmony in our lives. Advent is a holy season set aside for this type of spiritual reflection. The really amazing news is that even as we engage in this process of seeking wholeness and balance in our lives, we are also preparing for the greatest of all spiritual gifts: the gift of God coming into our lives once again at Christmas.

Amen.


[i] Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled From the Daily: Living the Rule of St Benedict Today (San Francisco: HarperOne Reprint Edition, 2009), 75-76.
[ii] Ibid., 74.
[iii] Ibid., 106.
[iv] Ibid., 77.

Download the sermon for Advent 2C.

Written by The Rev. Dr. Joseph Pagano
The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is associate rector at St. Anne’s Church in Annapolis, MD. His ministry at St. Anne’s is focused on Adult Christian Formation, Outreach, and Pastoral Care. Dr. Pagano’s gifts for preaching, teaching, and care are all grounded in joyful and grateful service to God, to the Church, and to the world. He received a Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics from Marquette University. His research interests focus on theology and contemporary society, science and religion, religious pluralism, and the theology and ethics of H. Richard Niebuhr. He holds an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. He previously served parishes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Baltimore, Maryland. He also served as Assistant Professor of Theology at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and currently serves as an Affiliate Faculty Member in the Theology Department at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Pagano is married to the Rev. Dr. Amy Richter and is delighted to serve with her at St. Anne’s. They have co-authored two books, A Man, A Woman, A Word of Love, and Love in Flesh and Bone.

Be Alert, Advent 1(C) – 2015

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

“Be on your guard,” our Lord advises us in no uncertain terms in today’s reading from near the end of the Gospel of Luke. Odd advice, we might be tempted to think, at the beginning of yet another Advent season – a time when we are more inclined to anticipate the joy of the coming Christmas season than to be on guard against unspecified perils. Still, mindfulness is indeed Jesus’ admonishment to us this day. Pay attention to the details – to the signs about you. “Be alert.”

And, it is perhaps good advice after all.

The world is still full of surprises and not all of them are pleasant. Just catch the latest news on the internet or television if you have any doubts on that score. The “distress among the nations” of which our Lord also speaks in our Gospel account is with us still, though the names and boundaries of the nations in question may have changed a bit over the years. Conflicts and wars remain with us today as in centuries past. The “fear and foreboding” of which Jesus warns are as real and deep as ever.

Indeed, they are palpable even in the midst of our sacred Advent season, as airliners are threatened by terrorist bombs in lands faraway and gunmen massacre innocents on the streets of Paris and on campuses and street corners in our own cities.  The machinery of evil may have changed over the centuries but the technology of the human heart remains the same as it ever was.   And, in times such as these, it is easy to become — if you will excuse the infelicitous expression — gun-shy; to hunker down and love only those we already love; and trust only what we know for sure — even when it is manifestly not so.

Yet it is just at times such as these that God so often insists upon challenging our deepest anxieties and prejudices and surprising us yet again with divine mercy and redemption. That is also the message of today’s Gospel narrative. Even in the midst of the world’s confusion and chaos, Jesus reassures us, “The kingdom of God is near,” as difficult as it may sometimes be to discern its presence. Rather than hunker down, “Stand up,” commands our Lord, “and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Our Lord too lived in turbulent times not so different from our own – born of destitute and near-homeless parents forced to seek shelter for the night in a backyard village lean-to of all places – not exactly the palace of a prince or king. Yet, the surprise of Christ’s incarnation forces us to look again in our own age at the “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars;” and to consider anew the signs of God’s intimate involvement in the world about us.

Advent is the season when we learn to overcome our “fear and foreboding” and once more open our hearts to others just as God has disclosed and demonstrated his love for us in Christ. Advent requires a certain element of mindfulness – of keeping awake and alert to the universe around us – and to the cosmos within us. It requires as well, a certain sense of recognition and acceptance of others with all their spiritual baggage and insecurities – no small order in an age of polarization and mistrust.

Of course, being on the spiritual welcoming committee has never been an easy task. Who or what are we waiting for, we might well ask. Who or what are we welcoming? Refugees perhaps, from lands far different than our own? Homeless beggars at freeway on-ramps? Christ after all came in a manner completely new and unexpected. Would we have recognized him at rest in that feed-trough outside Bethlehem so long ago? Would we have known to welcome him? His coming is still hotly debated and even denied, his very existence a sign of contradiction for many.

He brought joy, but we still know sadness. He brought life, but we still know death. So, putting out the welcome mat and hanging the “Open for Business” sign in the window of our hearts can seem a scary proposition this Advent season or anytime. As we secure our airports, screen our visitors, and look over our shoulder it can become all too easy to forget about welcome and human commerce altogether.

The near-apocalyptic scene painted in our Gospel account of confusion and distress has become an unfortunate reality in too many parts of our world today. Sometimes even our neighbor can seem the enemy. Come to think of it, perhaps we need to install a metal detector here at the entrance to our church building. One cannot be too careful these days.

Good thing God did not – and does not — see things that way. Good thing God thought we and our world were worth yet another chance. Otherwise, we ourselves might still be left out in the cold and dark; left alone with our “fear and foreboding”; left alone perhaps in a smelly old barn bereft of angels, shepherds, and virgin mother.

So Advent is also a season of hope. It is a time that reminds us, in God’s scheme of things, the laws of entropy do not necessarily apply and the universe will not continue to get darker and colder forever. Our spiritual winter will come to an end. The fig tree – and dogwood as well – will again blossom and bloom. “Summer is near,” our Lord reassures us – even at the beginning of Advent. “Our redemption is drawing near.”

Perhaps only a genuine follower of Christ can remain vigilant and on guard for the coming of God’s kingdom in a world such as ours. Perhaps only a genuine follower of Christ, mindful of the incarnation, can hear of a spiritual summer of redemption and understand that – no matter the human or earthly season – Christ’s word and promise to his people “will not pass away.”

 

Download the sermon for Advent 1C.

Written by Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is currently chaplain and area dean at 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 website page at www.anglicanbudapest.com

 

4 Advent (C) – 2012

Reflections at the end of Advent

December 23, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

3 Advent (C) – 2012

Complex darkness

December 16, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You just wanted to buy one more Christmas present.

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

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

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

You can tell – this guy is crazy.

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

Time to live your faith.

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

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

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

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

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

Complex darkness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You brood of snakes.”

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

The times were dark, and these people needed light.

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

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

Jesus tells him to do it again.

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

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

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

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

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

In God, a dazzling darkness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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