Friday, December 28, 2012

Christmas 2012.

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Christmas 2012. 


            Before I say anything else, I want to thank you for coming this evening to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord.  I especially want to greet those of you who are visiting, and to wish you all a very happy Christmas.


            At this feast, we celebrate the gift of gifts.  The King of Kings.  We meet again with the angels, shepherds, and a young family, attempting to do the right thing—attempting to be faithful both to what God has asked, and what the emperor has decreed.  And in the midst of it all, in the midst of the hassle of leaving hearth and home to travel to an ancestral town brimming with visitors, such that no room is available for them to spend the night, the birth of the Messiah comes.


            Mary and Joseph, huddled together, far from family and friends who know them and have cared for them.  The timing is inconvenient, and the conditions are squalid, but humanity in all our frailty, and in all our brokenness, gives birth to one who was before all worlds.  God from God, light from light, true God from true God. 


            At Christmas, the Church pauses to receive the Gospel anew—to reflect on the grace of God, to consider the unenviable conditions of his birth, but then make the transition from head to heart, wherein we discover the magnitude of what this means.


            Christmas is something you can spend a lot of time thinking about.  But as with all genuine expressions of generosity, it is the love of the giver that touches us most deeply, and draws us most tenderly.


            God gives his only born son.  We had received everything else.  We had received the gift of our existence.  Marveled at the beauty and sensuality of our fearfully and wonderfully made selves.  Marveled at the sun and moon in their courses, and "this fragile earth our island home."  From the beginning God wished to be in relationship with us, and always has.  God has always encouraged humanity to strive for the peace and well-being of all of God's creation.


            Jesus was sent and came among us to show us the way to live, and the way to die—the way to give of ourselves, trusting in the provision of our heavenly Father.  Through Christ's life, death, and resurrection, we see what God wishes to do for humanity.  God wishes to provide the means of enjoying this life in righteousness and peace as a foretaste of the life to come—a life of communion and community—until God brings together all things in his son.


            It may be tempting to focus on the life to come as a means of escaping the tragedy and sinfulness of the present age.  Who among us has not regarded the recent events in our country, and in the world, and not prayed for God to hasten the coming of his kingdom? 



            But it was into this life that Christ was sent.  Christ came into the economic, and social inequality of first century Palestine.  We look back through the filters of nostalgia at a simpler age, but forget the horrors that went with it.  Life spans were brief, food was not always safe, medicine was a distant hope.  No electricity or sanitation.  No assurances of any kind that the future would be brighter than the past. 


            If God is willing to send his son to be born—literally—into that age, how much more will he send him to be with us spiritually in our day?


            God's gift is eternal—never limited to space and time.  Christ is always coming to be born among us—always offering himself, his life and his being.  And always rising from the tomb to offer us life.  (Pause.)


            We all have our own story: the place of our birth, the family that surrounded us, the imperfections of our youth, the first successes and failures of adulthood.  We are intrinsically meaningful and beloved by God.  We are living our lives as bravely as we can, and they all intersect with Jesus Christ, who has come to walk the road beside us, to raise us up when we fall, to be our Lord and our Shepherd.


            When this holiday has passed, do not succumb to the temptation to tuck Jesus away in the closet with the crèche and the ornaments.  Do not let this liturgy be only a momentary glimpse of the holy on the way to other things.  Our lives have intersected with the life of God. 


            If you have been "walking in darkness," as Isaiah writes in the Old Testament lesson…  If you have been overwhelmed by your own circumstances or the circumstances of others—by the tragedy in Connecticut, by the wearying changes and chances—tonight you have seen "a great light," "for a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."


            Put your trust in him.  Do not lean on your own limited capacity to control your life.  Put your trust in him, and let him be your Lord. 






Blessed is she who believed

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Advent 4C.  23 December 2012.


Luke 1.39-55


            Luke begins his Gospel with the story of two angelic visitations.  In the first, the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah to foretell the pregnancy of his wife Elizabeth, who will be giving birth to the prophet we come to know as John the Baptist.  In the second, Gabriel appears to Mary to foretell the birth of Jesus.  Luke is attempting to write what he calls in verse 3, an "orderly account" of the gospel, the life of Jesus.


            These two stories are annunciations, or announcements of God, and they produce a spirit of expectancy and awe.  Part of this is the drama of the narrative, and part of it is the eloquent and economical language Luke uses.  He tells these two stories side by side, and then he brings them together in the story we read for today, the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. 


            Mary enters Elizabeth's house and Luke records that Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaims, "Blessed are you, and blessed is the child you will deliver!  How wonderful that the mother of my Lord should visit me!  What have I done to deserve such an honor?  As soon as I heard your voice, my own child leapt within me.  Blessed are you who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what God has told you!"


            That's my own paraphrase.  Luke's language is much more eloquent, but I wanted to give you what I believe is the plainest meaning of the text.  This is how the Church remembers, and wants to remember, the time of these two pregnancies—with awe and expectancy. 


            And Mary responds to Elizabeth with a similar exclamation: "My soul magnifies the Lord!"  Or perhaps, if you'll let me paraphrase, "I am so happy!  My heart is filled with inexpressible joy in what God has done for me and for us all!  He has valued me, even little me.  Everyone will call me blessed because God has done this, and God is holy.  His mercy is on those who respect and believe in him.  He has shown his power in mercy to those who need it, and by toppling from power those who esteem themselves too greatly.  He has lifted the lowly and cast down the proud.  He has fed the hungry and sent away the satisfied.  He has remembered his covenant of promises to Abraham and his descendants."


            To my mind, the theological power of this encounter is summed up in the words of Elizabeth: "Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what the Lord had spoken to her."  Blessed is the person who hears the promise of God and believes that God will be faithful to that promise."  (Pause.)


            I recently went over to my shelves and pulled down a book of sermons from one of my favorite preachers.  I would never preach another cleric's sermon.  It wouldn't be honest, because much of this work involves authentic study and spiritual engagement.  You can't fake it.  Well…you can, but it wouldn't be right, and it wouldn't be helpful to anyone.


            But as anyone who preaches will tell you, we need to hear a good sermon just as much as anyone.  We need to be reminded that God's promises and love are for us, just as much as those we try to serve.  We are Christians, too, after all, and we get hungry.


            The sermon was about faithfulness.  And one of the things the preacher said was that people come to church because they want to know—or be told, or be reminded—that God will be faithful to the promises he has made.  That may sound obvious to you, but I hadn't considered it in some time. 


            And he started to talk about the reasons why some people don't come to church, or why come for a little while and then stop, or maybe come just every once in awhile.  Now, let's be honest, there are many reasons why people come and don't come.  But he said it wasn't that people who don't come all the time didn't believe as much as people who do, in fact many of them believe fervently in God. 


            He said that some of these folks believe in the Gospel very, very much, but don't feel that people in church do, too.  And it's not some sort of self-righteousness that keeps them home, they just don't believe that the church really trusts God to fulfill what God has promised.


            I was particularly stung by the preacher's ideas, because I have learned—and have to re-learn over and over—that none of this is ultimately beneficial, if I don't trust God. 

            I think most of us want to be able to let go of our anxiety and trust God more, but it's not easy to do—especially in troubled times.  It seems Pollyanna to trust that all shall be well, when you flip on the news and politicians are fighting; there has been another incident of violence against innocent people; you name it.  Someone who speaks to you about faith can sound naïve.  It seems so much more grown-up to be jaded and cynical, and roll your eyes.  Mark Twain said, "Faith is believing in something you know just ain't so." 


            And so people come to church, and hear about faith, and want to be with people who believe, and apparently some of them simply don't think that we are any different from the cynical, tired, world-weary people. 


            I don't know.  Maybe he's on to something, but I don't like sitting in judgment in that way.  My perception may be wrong, but I think we do trust in God.  It isn't perfect.  But we try. 


            I have always believed that people who come to church are trying.  I know I am.  I didn't seek ordination because I achieved any level of perfection.  I pray to know God more, and trust God more all the time—and if this means something to you, I'm sure you do, too. 


            Choosing to have faith that God will fulfill his promises is—and has always been—the choice of the minority; and I would guess that part of that is because we know ourselves only too well.  We believe more in the fallibility of our nature than in God's ability to work through us—or in some cases—in spite of us. 


            Our liturgy gives voice to this in our confession, when we confess what we have done and left undone.  In the 1928 Book of Common Prayer it reads, "And there is no health in us." 


            I remember hearing someone say how offended they were to read those words.  Didn't God create us good?  Wasn't it our theology that God "wonderfully created and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature."  And I would say yes, God did do all those things.  But it was God who did it, not we ourselves.  There is no health in us—our health comes from God.  Health—in this context—is not the absence of illness, but the presence of God's spirit. (Pause.)


            Elizabeth exclaims to Mary, "Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment…"  "Blessed is she who believed that there would a fulfillment of what God had promised to her."


            Mary had said, "Let it be with me according to your word, and the angel departed."  The Holy Spirit came upon her, and the power of the Most High overshadowed her, as Luke wrote.  What incredible images! 


            The power of the Most High overshadowing—God coming in both power and tenderness…         And time passed.  Mary believed that God would be faithful to what God had promised, and when Elizabeth recognized the presence of her trust, she called Mary, blessed.  Blessed because Mary believed that it would happen, and that it would be all right.


            Both of these women would give birth to sons who had been foretold by angelic visits.  And in both visits the angels had said, "Fear not."  "Do not be afraid."  Fast forward in the narrative.  John is beheaded in prison, and Jesus is crucified.  How could the angels say, "Fear not"?


            It's not fearlessness that makes Mary or Elizabeth blessed; it's their belief that God would fulfill the promise.  God did not promise an easy life to Elizabeth or Mary, or their husbands, Zechariah and Joseph.  God did not give an easy life to John the Baptist or Jesus, but he promised to be faithful.  He promised not to let go.  And by not letting go, God brought about the salvation of the world.


            "Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what God had spoken to her." 


            In these Sundays of Advent, this theme has come up again and again, and I have been preaching on it, that God is the one who brings things to fruition.  God is called to fulfillment and we are called to believe—to put our trust in, God. 


            And as I said before, it can sound and feel as if doing so is somehow not holding up our end of the deal.  The popular religious expression is, "Pray like it all depends on God; act as if all depends on you."  That's a very seductive line of thought, especially for clergy, but it's not in the Bible, and I don't think it's what prompted Elizabeth to celebrate Mary's devotion.  "Blessed is she who believed." (Pause.)


            One of the other things the preacher said in that sermon I was reading—the other side of the thought about why people don't come—was that we who do come to church come to draw strength from God for our lives. 


            That may be obvious, but it needs to be said, because the strength really does come from God.  It doesn't come from me.  It doesn't come from the organ.  It doesn't even come from The Book of Common Prayer.  It comes from God who sends his Holy Spirit into us to allow us to preach, and sing, and play the organ, and pray, and celebrate the Sacraments.  God brings the church together.  God does it for his glory; God does it for the strength and courage you need to live your life.  God will be faithful.


            And blessed are we who believe that there will be a fulfillment of what God has promised.






If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.





Monday, December 17, 2012

Rejoice, O daughter Jerusalem. Your God is coming.

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Advent 3C.  16 December 2012.


Zephaniah 3.14-20


            This morning I've decided to preach on the lesson from Zephaniah.  It is best known as the text of that lovely aria in Handel's Messiah.  "Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice greatly O daughter of Zion!  Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem."  That's how it is in the King James Version.  The New Revised Standard is not as poetic, but is closer to the intention of the Hebrew, not "daughter of Zion" or "daughter of Jerusalem," but daughter Zion, daughter Jerusalem, which are both the same.  Zion means Jerusalem; and here the prophet is using poetic language to convey the tenderness of God's relationship to the city—that the city is like a daughter to God—beloved.


            Whenever I hear these words in Handel's Messiah, the tune—for me—conjures up images of a pretty young woman dancing without a care in the world.  So unlike the Jerusalem that Zephaniah is speaking to. 


            Last week we read from Baruch to the people of Israel in exile in Babylon.  Zephaniah was writing roughly 100 years before that, during the early reign of King Josiah.  And when I say early, that really is significant, because King Josiah came to the throne at the tender age of eight!  Can I just tell you the story? 


            Okay, Manasseh had been king for about fifty years.  And his background is somewhat complicated.  He wasn't a devout Jew, and in this period the Temple fell into deep corruption.  Fertility cults were rampant, thanks in part to the cultural dominance of Assyria.  In the Temple, you could find altars to the astral gods that the Assyrians venerated.  Part of the ritual surrounding fertility was called sacred prostitution.  There was nothing sacred about it.  People would pay to have intercourse with prostitutes as part of their worship of these gods.


            Manasseh allowed it to go on in the Temple, which makes us want to say, "He was bad," but it's also reported that he had a conversion experience that makes us want to say, "He was good."  But! his conversion didn't lead to any real moral reform, which makes us want to say, "He was bad" again.  As the saying goes, "It's complicated."  We actually have a Canticle in our Prayer Book that is meant commemorate Manasseh's conversion.  It's Canticle 14 in Morning Prayer, A Song of Penitence, or the Prayer of Manasseh. (pg. 90, 91)


            When Manasseh's reign ended, his son Amon took the throne, but Amon was a weak leader, and was assassinated after two years on the throne.  The next in line was Josiah, who was only eight years old.  For the ten years between his accession to the throne at eight and his coming of age at eighteen, there were no visible reforms. 


            This was a time when the people had a king, but in name only.  There were likely regents governing, who were mostly keeping their hand on the wheel, but not really doing anything lest the young king come to power and be angry with their stewardship.


            So for a moment think with me about the cultural and political climate at the time of Zephaniah's writing.  They have a king who is too immature to reign, and therefore unable to enact any real moral reforms.  You have the threat of Assyria to the north, which is both a threat of actual military invasion, and an already current symbolic invasion—or at least religious encroachment—with these fertility cults.


            Meanwhile, this is not the Modern era with sanitation, plentiful food, and clean drinking water.  Almost everyone was cold, tired, and hungry.  The good old days weren't so good.


            So when Zephaniah writes "Rejoice, Jerusalem!" I would imagine many of the people thought he was crazy.  And maybe he was.  But still this theme comes to them: the in-breaking of God, who comes into their hopelessness.  And think of that for a moment.


            Few of us—I would venture to say, almost none of us—have ever lived in this kind of social, political, economic, and religious hopelessness.  To have absolutely no power to change anything about your circumstances, and the one who is in power is only eight years old.


             Zephaniah writes, "Rejoice!  Sing aloud, O daughter Zion.  Rejoice and exult with all your heart…The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies."  He is speaking prophetically—that the time is coming.


            Now look at this!  He writes, "The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more."  He says the king of Israel is not the boy Josiah, but the Lord.  The Lord God. 


            It is God who will be enacting the political and moral reforms.  It is God who will be protecting his people.  It is not by human agency—not that the Hebrew people would take up pitchforks and torches, but that God would be bringing about the redemption of his people.


            And guess what happened.  Josiah reached an age of maturity, and saw the corruption, idolatry, and general waywardness of his people for what it was.  Young men around eighteen, and young women, too, have a way of seeing hypocrisy.  Parents of teenagers know this.  The young man sees the distance between what is said, and what is done.  And the parent nods and says, "Well, you think you can change the world?  Wait till you get out there."


            But Josiah actually could change the world.  He was the king.  And he cleansed the Temple of prostitution and the altars to the Assyrian gods, and he centralized worship in the Temple, and brought about what are known as the deuteronomic reform—taking the precepts of the Book of the Law, the Book of Deuteronomy.  He reinstituted the Passover feast, in which the people remembered their ancestors' exodus from Egypt, and God's desire that they should be faithful to him.


            And you and I can look at that history and say, "You see…if you have the right people in place..," but wait a minute.  It's not as simple as that.  Josiah's reforms were real, and effective.  And for a time, the faith of the people was restored, but after that, in time, the observances again became stale and formulaic, and the hearts of the people wandered again.


            Josiah was killed at the battle of Meggido, and his second son Eliakim, who changed his name to Jehoiakim, succeeded him.  Jehoiakim was in league with Egypt, and through twists and turns eventually Palestine fell to King Nebuchadnezzar, and Jerusalem was destroyed.  The Exile began and lasted for fifty years.  (Pause.)


            To the student of secular world history, these are minor fluctuations in the geography and governance of Palestine.  But to us, and to our ancestors, and to modern Jewish people, this is the story of being faithful to God and enjoying his favor, or not being faithful to God, and wishing for his intervention.


            What stands out to me when I read these events and the poetry of consolation and hope is the tenacity of prophets in their belief that it is God who brings about true reform.  Human beings are notoriously lousy at cleaning up our own messes.  Like children, we need our heavenly Father to come and help.  And like a Father, God does come.  Eventually, in the story that becomes our story, he also sends.


            Stay tuned.  Next week, we will find God coming to a daughter of Zion, who will be asked if she is willing to help lead her people out of bondage, out of despair, out of exile.  Her name, as you know, is Mary.  Upon her answer, the world, and every human being in it, was for ever changed.  (Pause.)


            I'd like to end this sermon by praying again the Collect for this Sunday, the 3rd Sunday in Advent, and I ask you to listen to how it echoes the hope of Zephaniah.  Let us pray.


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; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and
the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.





Remember the words of the Lord Jesus,

when he said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive."

Monday, December 10, 2012

Arise, O Jerusalem

Advent 2C.  9 December 2012.

Baruch 5.1-9

TAKE OFF the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the everlasting; for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven. For God will give you evermore the name, "Righteous Peace, Godly Glory." Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them. For they went out from you on foot, led away by their enemies; but God will bring them back to you, carried in glory, as on a royal throne. For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God. The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God's command. For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.


            I have decided to preach on the reading from Baruch.  If that name sounds unfamiliar to you, it's because Baruch is found in a set of books that were denied canonization in the Bible.  It may be that Baruch's words were not deemed authentically his, or it may be that since he continues many of the themes already covered by other prophets that his book simply wasn't thought necessary.  I'm so grateful that the Revised Common Lectionary includes (what are called) "the deutero-canonical texts"—which is a scholarly way of saying "redundant material." 


            If you did not know it, you might think we were reading from Isaiah, because the themes are the same.  This is a poem of consolation, written for the exiled Jews, who were waiting for their return from captivity in Babylon.


            The Babylonian captivity lasted for 50 years, beginning around 587 and ending around 539 in the years before Christ.  The Exile was a pivotal event in the life and culture of the Hebrew people.  The Exodus had brought them together, and God promised to be their God as long as they were faithful. 


            The people were not faithful, and many were taken by King Nebuchadnezzar of Assyria to Babylon—Jerusalem was destroyed.  Under Cyrus of Persia, the Exile was ended and the Jews returned.


            Much of our Old Testament was written to the people in Exile, reminding them that their welfare depended on their return to the God who had brought them out of Egypt and made a covenant with them.


            Baruch's poem of consolation, like Isaiah's, is meant to encourage the exiles to return to God, and to remind them of the great, sweeping narrative of the Hebrew faith.  God comes.  God redeems.  God delivers.  God delights.  God wishes to make his home with these people.


            So Baruch writes, "Take of the garment of sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem.   and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the everlasting; for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven."


            When he writes, "O Jerusalem," he is not talking to the geographical place Jerusalem, but the people who are in exile who used to live in Jerusalem.  In calling them by their place, Baruch is trying to blend together two very important ideas.  One, that Jerusalem is both a people and a place—a spiritual home to which they want to return, but also an identity that they are known by.   And two, that that home is the place that God gave them.


            It is in the narrative of the Exodus from Egypt that God was giving them the land flowing with milk and honey.  Jerusalem and the surrounding cities and villages are not just a physical home; they are spiritual home.  To live there and be there is to be in the place that is the place where God resides.  The Temple is like the ground-zero of the place, but all around it is the land God swore to give to his people.        It was unthinkable that God would allow them to be moved anywhere else, and yet, it happened.


              Calling them "Jerusalem" is nostalgic, and you know what nostalgia does.  Nostalgia is looking back with a heightened sense of emotion.  It's the good old days that really weren't so great, it's just that we remember them that way.  But this nostalgia is a special kind—it's looking back so you can look forward in hope.


            "Take off the garment of sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem."  It's a command.  Do this.  Take off your sorrow and affliction in the same way you might take off the heavy terrycloth robe you wear when you get sick. 


            The metaphor for changing is changing clothes.  Take off the old sickly garment, and put on the robe of righteousness—not self-righteousness—but right behavior, right speech, proper comportment as befits a member of royalty.  "Put on the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting; for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven."


            "Arise, O Jerusalem…"  Do you feel the spirit of those words, which is the beginning of the spirit of resurrection?  "Arise…stand up on the height; look toward the east, and see you children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them."


            It's a vision of all the Diaspora, all the Jews scattered throughout the world by the Exile, to return home to the place that is the place that God gave them. 


            "For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up."  It's the same theme, almost the same exact words in Isaiah's fortieth chapter. 


            Baruch casts this vision of God drawing his people back to the home he gave them, which is a spiritual and physical home place.  And in response, even nature rejoices.  "The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God's command.  For God will lead Israel with  joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him."


            Now, let me just unpack the theology behind these words.  Notice what the people do, and what God does for the people.  All the people are asked to do is to change clothes, metaphorically—to change their attitudes and their behaviors and return to the holy hope that is their identity as the children of Israel.  It is not through their agency that they will return to their home; it is through God's agency.  God will bring them home in the same way that God led them out Egypt. 


            This is a very important point that is often overlooked in this kind—actually, any kind—of apocalyptic language.  It's not that God's people are meant to do much of anything except repent and be faithful.  Deliverance—whether it be from Egypt, Babylon, or anywhere else—is from God, who alone delivers and sets free.


            At present in the Holy Land, and in much of the Middle East there continues to be conflict over the land.  Both Israelis and Palestinians have a claim.  It must be said from time to time, because people need to be reminded, that the modern nation of Israel is not the same thing as the Israel of the Old Testament.  The land is much the same, but the political reality is complicated.  There are Palestinians who are Jews.  There are Christians who are Israelis. 


            The theme of Jews physically returning to their homeland is as old as the scriptures, but what is not part of that theme is using human violence or racism to promote it.  Also, the vision of scripture is very much tied to the simpler political reality of a smaller world population and no followers of Islam.


            God is the same, and the scripture is the same, but we live in a very different world.  Again, look at the text—it does not envision human agency in the cause of deliverance, but God alone.


            This becomes crucial to our understanding of how Jesus comes to us and delivers.  It is not by our agency that God sent Jesus, but by God's own desire to send him.  Humanity did nothing to deserve such a gift, yet it pleased God to give him to us.  In the same manner, we wait for the fulfillment of the kingdom—the end of the cosmic battle between good and evil that Jesus has won, but has yet to be fully realized.


            Yet again, our role is unchanged.  We are called to faithfulness.  God is called to fulfillment and fruition.  (Pause.)


            That is what Baruch and Isaiah seem to be saying in their context, but what would it mean to take this poem of consolation into your own life?  What would it mean to take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction and put on the robe of righteousness and the diadem of the glory of God?  I can't think of a lovelier image and metaphor for the Church and for individual Christians.  Imagine with me that each moment of prayer and each heartfelt thanksgiving is an act of righteousness.  Not self-righteousness. 


            It seems to me that the word righteousness is another one of those words that popular usage has co-opted and destroyed.  Righteousness is attempting to live an honorable life—a life lived in reverence before God, without false dealing, without cloaking or dissembling, but honorably, kindly, gently.


            Baruch encourages the exiles of Jerusalem to take off the self-pitying, self-defeating mentalities that assume God is aloof and uncaring, and put on a new life of faithfulness, trusting that God will be faithful—that God does know and care and in God's own time, deliver.


            It's a very modern mentality that thinks, "Well, if God wants this, then the sooner the better.  Let's help God along with his wishes."  But consider this: God also wants the baby to grow for about nine months inside the mother before being born.  God does not bring the flower before the seed and stalk.  Time is not the enemy of God.


            The Exile ended when Cyrus the Great conquered Persia and issued the Edict of Restoration.  Cyrus respected the cultures and religions of the people in the lands he conquered.  But before it happened, through the prophets, the people had returned in their hearts to the God of the ancestors.  They were delivered spiritually before they were delivered physically.          First the stalk, and then the flower.


            And maybe that's the right order of things, anyway: to be first set free in heart and mind.


            Many years ago, I was going through a very personal struggle, and I remember hearing a sermon that really helped me.  I don't remember any of it, except for this one sentence, and if I pass it along to you, maybe if you think about it, it will help you, too.   The preacher said, "Sometimes God doesn't deliver you from you situation.  Sometimes, God delivers you in your situation."      




If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.


Monday, December 3, 2012

The Ultimate Fulfillment

Advent 1C.  2 December 2012.

The Rev. Alexander D. MacPhail


Luke 21.25-36

            It was just two Sundays ago that we were reading apocalyptic language from Jesus, as it is recorded in Mark's gospel.  I did not tell you then that scholars like to call that lesson—Jesus' prediction of the end of the Temple—"the mini-apocalypse."  And I'm sure you recall that I got on my little soap box about the word apocalypse.  It's a word that is used in common parlance as a synonym for disaster or catastrophe, but really means simply to reveal.

            I think the word carries its connotation for disaster because of the signs that Jesus and St. John the Divine told us would come before the apocalypse.  People have sort of conflated the two ideas into one.  I'd like to see the church recover the word apocalypse, as a good thing, but to do that, we have to hold up the belief we have that God is good, and that God wishes to bring about good things.

            Let's look a bit more closely at the gospel lesson for today, which is from Luke, and contains warnings from Jesus of an apocalyptic nature.

Jesus said, "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 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. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

            Now, again, at first blush, it is easy to fixate on the mysteriousness of these signs.  Jesus doesn't spell out precisely what they may be.  Signs in the sun the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  

            Could this be hurricanes?  Could this be a rise in ocean levels due to global warming?  Yes, no?  Every generation has read these words and drawn contemporary inferences.  Jesus said, "People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming up on the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 

Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near…

"Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."

            We read these words as we enter into Advent, like an alarm clock that goes off each year to remind us that what is going on in front of us—the world we see, the politics and injustice we despise—is not the only story, and certainly not the best story.

            I am sure manys the time you and I have sat down to the evening news and had a few anxious thoughts about the future of the human race.  We hear wildly conflicting reports—in one breath of the violence of the lone gunman, and in the other, the resilience and affection of the community that surrounds the victims.

            Always we see this pattern emerge: tragedy and solace.  People seem to know intuitively at a moment of crisis that we are capable of being the hands and feet of God—collaborators in the struggle for redemption.  And with these thoughts also, sometimes, comes a nagging question that cannot be answered by the human mind: to what extent are we to blame? 

            There are times when the situation is as easily explained as a crazy man or woman who grew up isolated and afraid who went out an bought a gun.  The questions of why will surface, but knowing our own dark moments, we chalk it up to mental imbalance and wearily go on. 

            But then there are the natural disasters—the signs in the sun and moon, and the roaring of the waves—things completely outside our control that wash houses and communities away.  And the thought comes to mind, was this an act of God?  It might meet the legal definition of "an act of God," which has always irked me.  Why can't something wonderful be the legal definition of "an act of God" instead of something catastrophic? 

            For as long as I can remember, I have heard from the margins of the church and from alarmist clergy that the natural disaster might be divine retribution.  And each time I've heard it, my whole being rejects that.  Classical Christian theology rejects it. 

            We believe that God "wonderfully created and yet more wonderfully restored" humanity.  We do not believe that God wishes to use overwhelming violence to correct our misbehavior.  The idea that God would be so indiscriminant and fickle in his affections that he would toss his creation aside is utterly unimagined by Christ.

            And yet, I would guess that despite the calm, thoughtful, reasonable dismissal of those thoughts, they still come to mind driving across town.  Did God do this to teach us something?  Of course not, we say.  But "there are more things in heaven an on earth…"

            I think it would be much closer to the Church's theology and teaching to understand it apocalyptically—as a revelation.  And as a revelation of several things we actually already know.

            First, a revelation that we are not God.  Big surprise, but we have always had an arrogance about our ability to control.  Natural disasters, in particular, have a way of reminding us that we are creations and not the Creator. 

            But when the tragedy has taken place because of humanity—violence, bloodshed, injustice—the revelation may be that the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus have yet to become fully realized. 

            Now let me pull that apart.  The overarching vision of the Revelation to John is about the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God that comes at the end of a cosmic battle between God an evil.  And you might then ask why, since it's not a fair fight?  God has the overwhelming force.  What is the point of the battle? 

            The battle, I think, is the battle for humanity to desire God over evil.  That it's not meaningless that we struggle in this way, but that for God's own reasons, he wants us to have the time to renounce the selfishness and hatred that brings about evil.  To desire God more than anything else—because God desires us more than anything else.

            The gift of Jesus is the Sacrament of God's love.  Humanity took that ultimate gift, and through our complete blindness and sinfulness, we put him to death.  The resurrection indicates God's forgiveness of our ultimate sin against God's ultimate gift. 

            Easter morning started the clock on the end of the world, as we knew it.  But don't be afraid of that.  The end of the world is not ultimate destruction, but ultimate redemption.  The destruction is damage from that cosmic battle for the soul of humanity.  And look at how it plays out.  With each sign of destruction, people come together.  Redemption follows crucifixion. 

            It's a cycle that is repeated again and again—a battle of good and evil—until humanity becomes fully alive to who Jesus really is, and believes him to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life. 

            God is bringing evil to death.  God brought evil to death in us at our Baptism.  Our lives were buried there with Christ, and we have been raised to end of time—the end of violence, hatred, and injustice.  Our mission is to spread that Gospel, to foster wholeness and soundness of being, to hasten the coming of Christ who inaugurates a newer and better world. 

            So, wake up!  It's Advent.  Christ is coming.  The Church prepares to welcome the beginning of our story, the birth of Jesus, who set in motion the redemption for which humanity desperately longs.  That fulfillment is happening in bits and pieces all around us, though it may seem out of control at times.  But remember, as Mark wrote, the tumult is like "birth pangs."  The ultimate fulfillment is a beautiful and holy thing, like a baby being born in Bethlehem.



If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.