Humility

The breaking of the bread

A sermon for the third Sunday of Easter, April 30, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

I wrote this sermon three years ago, for a church in Westchester County, New York.

And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”

This is a gently amusing story. We have all been told at the outset that it’s Jesus himself who has fallen in step with these two disciples. They are the only ones that don’t know what is going on. He says, “What are you talking about?” And they stop.

Cleopas says to him “Are you the ONLY ONE who doesn’t know the things that has happened?” If this were a play, I would expect Jesus to take a quick look at the audience, maybe even wink, before turning to Cleopas, “What things? Tell me how you would describe it.” So Cleopas and his companion tell Jesus the story that we have all gone through in the last month, in order that he can understand why they are so depressed, confused, and discouraged. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” So Cleopas is telling Jesus that he’s clearly not the one that is to redeem Israel.

Like many of us, Cleopas knows what he knows, and the things that he expected and wanted didn’t go the way that he wanted and hoped for them to go, so he knows it’s all for naught. So Jesus starts walking with them again—and talking—this one who is to redeem Israel, why is it that he should not suffer? What is the real life of Moses and the prophets, if not filled with both suffering and the Glory of God?

Cleopas and his companion are very real, very understandable—and a lot like most of us. And like most of us, they found it easiest to focus on their own expectations, what they thought should happen, how the good things that they like should continue always in a straight line, always getting better. It’s easy to focus on ourselves, our own problems, and our own solutions. Another way of saying that is that it’s easy to not listen to the Gospel. God has something new and different for us, and we find it in this real world, often not in the ways that we predict, and almost always not by looking for what we ourselves want.

I always wanted to get a doctorate and be a famous professor. At the time I went through seminary, it was fashionable for bishops to require that anyone who was going to be ordained, be first interested in full-time parish ministry, not in primarily an academic calling. So I told him that’s what I wanted to do. I finished seminary and found positions in parishes in the Midwest—with the expectation that I would return to graduate school and become a professor with valuable parish ministry experience informing my scholarship and teaching. The thing is, nothing came out as I expected. I won’t go into the details and personal drama, but the timelines that I had sketched out didn’t work out, the prospects for funding and careers for graduate students in the humanities were quickly drying up, and I realized that the jobs that I envisioned were only going to the superstars and the extremely fortunate, not to those who were just good enough. There weren’t huge scholarships coming my way, or high-powered recruiting.

With three small children, I had to give up that scenario that I had created in my mind. As that was happening, I had the opportunity to watch the work of academic reference librarians and I realized that the work that they did was far closer to my own strengths and the things that I enjoyed than the dissertation writing and classroom teaching of professors. At the time, that meant giving up many things in the story I was telling myself, especially the status that I projected for myself. It also meant giving up employment by the church—it was almost 20 years before I joined the faculty of the General Theological Seminary as the Director of the Library and I never earned that doctorate. There was difficulty in giving up that story I wanted for myself, but I have never regretted it—the enjoyment of doing those things that I was meant to do far outweighs the pursuit of fame and honor.

Of course, after I wrote this sermon, more things happened. My colleagues and I left the institution where I was librarian and I found that I was called to preach the Gospel and minister in parishes from a new perspective, one that is fulfilling to me in ways I had never expected. While I regret the pain that some have suffered, I have no regrets about any of the turnings of my life.

My story isn’t that unusual; almost everyone has their own version of it—either career related or something personal—we have all experienced grappling with disappointments and setbacks and eventually giving up on something we thought was all-important, only to discover something even more meaningful.

God has something new for us, and I certainly never predicted that it would be my being a librarian. These guys out on the road, they thought they knew how Israel was to be delivered, and this Jesus guy seemed like he might have the stuff to be the right kind of leader. Maybe, finally, there would be one person who would wield power justly—but Jesus didn’t wield power at all.

It was not an instantaneous thing for the followers of Jesus to realize that his crucifixion was the source of their hope, not their utter defeat. You can see the church struggling to come to terms with this, not just in this story, but in the whole of the New Testament. Giving up this story about ourselves and how great and powerful we are, and accepting this even more exciting story about how God brings life to the humble, and defeats death with love.

So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him…

Let us share bread, and perhaps our eyes, too, will be opened.

In remembrance

A sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“When the hour came, he took his place at the table”

It was a solemn feast, of deep religious and national significance when Jesus gathered his apostles with him that evening.  He says to them, “I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Jesus’ ministry, from beginning to end, was the proclamation of the Kingdom of God. His prayer for his disciples: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” was a prayer of the Kingdom of God. God’s direct rule of God’s people, the dropping of human manipulations and oppressions, the welcoming joy of life with God without the death and downward pressure of human sinfulness: that is the Kingdom of God.

This was Jesus’ last meal, certainly his last meal with his apostles. I have no doubt that he knew it, and all the others in the room were expecting it as well.  The Kingdom of God is hard for human rulers to take—and not just kings. Jesus had brought freedom and healing to people in ways that inconvenienced all sorts of people who profited or gained status by demeaning or hurting others. It was uncomfortable for them when Jesus revealed their hypocrisy, mendacity, greed or cruelty by speaking simple truths or telling stories with a humorous or ironic take on life.  This had reached a point when everyone could see that something was about to give, and Jesus entered Jerusalem in a mock triumphal procession—on a donkey, instead of the horse that a conquering king would ride.

The wine, the cup of blessing, the cup of the celebration of God’s Kingdom, “take this and divide it among yourselves.” Anticipating the Kingdom.

The bread, simple sustenance or bread of affliction. Perhaps the bread that the Israelites baked in such a hurry that they could not let it rise, because they were fleeing the Egyptians. But Jesus wasn’t going to flee the Romans. “My body” “For you” “Do this in remembrance of me.” In memory, we re-member, re-assemble the love of Jesus for us. We are one body in Him, because his love is re-membered in us.

And the final cup, the Gospel says it is the same as the bread—“Poured out for you as the covenant in my blood.” We are remembered by God in the remembrance of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.

Of course, no sooner had he said this than they began to act like every other church assembly or other human assembly since then. “A dispute arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.”  The text doesn’t say whether Jesus did a “face-palm.” It might not have been a current gesture back then, but nobody would blame him if he did.

“Not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” Clearly, Jesus saying it hasn’t made it magically true among Christians of any age. But he is clearly meaning the same thing as in the Gospel of John where he says, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another,” as he interprets his washing of the disciples’ feet. The word “Maundy” refers to the Latin word for commandment, and there is only one commandment for Christians, that we love. That love is not so much a nice feeling as an attitude of our will to actively seek the best for another. In other words, we are commanded to serve God’s people as the love of Christ.

The institution of the Holy Eucharist is founded in this commandment of love. We remember that it is God who first loved us in Jesus Christ, we remember that we are bound together in his love, we remember that he is among us as our servant, and we become that love of God by partaking of Christ’s Body and Blood in this bread and wine which he gives us.

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings, and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Walk humbly with your God

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 29, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see god.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are YOU when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

In the Sundays leading up to Lent, our lectionary is taking us through the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Matthew. Last week he called the first disciples and the lesson ends: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

The next thing Matthew says is a description of the great crowds who travelled from all over that started following Jesus. Jesus’ response to those crowds was to teach them. Over the next four Sundays we will be going through this detailed account of the teaching of Jesus which is known as the Sermon on the Mount. This teaching is the fundamental foundation of Christian spirituality.

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The introductory part, which I just read, is called the Beatitudes—the blessings, or the description of those who are blessed. Sometimes people take these Beatitudes one at a time, but really, taken together, they are Jesus’ outline of the spirituality of the Christian life.

The Beatitudes start with “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Who are the poor? They are those who have little or nothing left to lose. The more that people and organizations have things that they might lose, the more afraid they become of risking those things for the sake of the Kingdom of God. But it is the Kingdom of God that gives life, not the things that we might have lost or still could lose.

And yet, many of those things that we might lose are good, are created by God and give us joy. It hurts to lose them. The second beatitude is “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Sometimes the things we give up or lose are things, or status or parts of relationships that we like. And adjusting to that is a type of mourning. Sometimes we mourn for people who have meant much to us. In our own community, we have lost people, long-time members—and we grieve. Losing a spouse or a child or another close loved one hurts immensely, and it continues to hurt for a long time. The comfort that God gives does not take that hurt away, or explain away our sorrow. God comforts us by traveling the road with us, healing our hurts and giving mercy.

When Jesus says “Blessed are the meek,” we need to understand something about that word. Meek has taken on a meaning in the past century that is misleading. We are inclined to think of meek as meaning primarily passive and submissive, but the word in this passage does not mean that—it means gentle, courteous and humble. One doesn’t inherit the earth by being timid or weak; rather it is by the strength of being humble, listening and giving credit to the dignity of others. The humble person neither trumpets their advanced status in the Kingdom, nor resents what they have given up for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Being meek does not mean that you don’t speak out when you see wrong or injustice. It’s only the meek and humble who can authentically hunger and thirst for justice (which is the same word as righteousness). Those who, in the core of their being, hunger and thirst for righteousness are fed, not by seeing it completed in this world, but by humbly receiving sustenance and life in God’s Kingdom so that they may continue to look for, and find the possibility of a little more justice in this world.

And as we struggle to find just a little bit of justice or righteousness in the church or in the world, we would become embittered and lost, were it not for God’s mercy to us, guiding us into the path of being merciful human beings. For who can be just or righteous in this world? It is certainly not those who are always convinced of their own rightness. It is in dwelling in that mercy that we can approach pureness in our heart and mind, perhaps getting a glimpse of what God has in store.

Notice here, that we have gone through all of this before we get to peacemaking. Making peace is not something you achieve by splitting the difference, or agreeing to not talk about disagreeable things. Making peace where there has been real contention takes the most profound of risks, courage, humility and strength. The children of God who are the peacemakers must be living day by day in God’s kingdom for anything like peace to make sense.

Jesus is totally in the real world. Notice that the next step in the beatitudes, indeed the consequence of making peace, is being persecuted for righteousness sake. Don’t expect living as a Christian and as a peacemaker to make your life peaceful and easy. For instance, it never occurred to me that the President of the United States would ever make an order that caused long-time residents of this country and whose permanent visas were in order to be detained and refused re-entry into the country as happened this weekend. That order embodies fear and anger and uses power to gain satisfaction for that anger by scapegoating people like the U.S. Army translator who was detained and threatened with return to Iraq. At times like this, when Christians speak out for the dignity of people there is a real risk of suffering for it.  The peace and love of Jesus Christ can be profoundly disruptive, particularly for those who think they have this religion thing under control.

So that summarizes Jesus’ outline of the Christian spiritual life.

Jesus teaches us and the crowds the way of life. But what he teaches is not important because it is new or different. It is important because he lived it and shared God’s mercy and compassion.  It is a mistake to talk about the Sermon on the Mount as representing “New Testament teaching” as if it were different from the “Old Testament.”  His life and teaching are consistently a commentary on the scriptures of Israel.  Hear again our Old Testament lesson for today: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Over the next three weeks, the Sermon on the Mount will illustrate how Jesus’ humble walk with God interprets the scriptures of Israel. God blesses those who accompany him on that walk, rejoicing in God’s Kingdom, finding God’s peace, purifying their hearts, receiving and giving God’s mercy and comfort.  May all of our spirits become poor enough and empty enough to inherit the reign of God.

 

Come and see

A sermon for the second Sunday after Epiphany, January 15, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.”

st-andrew-iconWhen I became the director of the library at the General Theological Seminary, my wife Paula gave me a special gift. She commissioned an icon of St. Andrew to be painted (or as the Orthodox more properly state it, written) for me.  On a luminous red background with a gold border and nimbus around his head, it shows a man with scruffy hair and beard holding one hand up in blessing and in the other, holding a scroll—identifying him as a preacher of the word. There is a caption written in Greek on the red background, “ho hagios Andreas Protokletos.”

That caption refers to our Gospel story this morning. It means “Holy Andrew, the first-called.” St. Andrew is important to me—largely because we share a name, I identify with him.  So, what does this mean, “the first-called?”

This story is very early in the Gospel of John, in the first chapter, immediately following the Prologue and the introduction of John the Baptist. John is at the Jordan baptizing people for repentance. Andrew was a follower of John, working with him, learning from him. John says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” And Andrew and one other disciple followed Jesus. And when he turns and talks to them they ask, “Teacher, where are you staying?” They are asking to listen to the teacher, and his response is immediate, “Come and see.”  We don’t know who the other disciple was, but Andrew was the first of the Twelve Apostles. He spent the day listening to Jesus and went and found his brother, Peter: “We have found the Messiah!” After this point, Peter is chief among the disciples, the most important leader of the church and Andrew pretty much fades into the background. But Andrew was the first one to be called.

Think about that for a minute. We human beings like to put things in order of priority; the most important or the most powerful first. We can only focus on a few things, often only one thing at a time, so we focus on the biggest, the most important and then, wanting attention, we seek to become the most prominent or the most powerful. But our focus and wants have nothing to do with reality as God gives it to us.  The First Called was an obscure disciple and not a hero or a leader—not the biggest or the best, nor any other superlative, not even the least or the worst. Andrew heard John: “Behold the Lamb of God.” And he responded by following—and in interacting with Jesus he was called: “Come and see.” His call did not come out of the blue, it came in the context of a life of searching. The call of God never comes without the context of a life—of human possibilities and needs.  We see here that this obscure Apostle is also deeply important in the development of the church—how can you tell the story of Christianity without St. Peter? Yet Andrew knew that Jesus was the Messiah from sitting in his presence and listening—even before any of the rest of the story unfolded.

We are all called to know God and to witness to God in the context of our own lives. Like St. Andrew, the most significant things in our lives are not the big achievements or awards, but our simple witness to the truth of God and our simple living of Christ’s love. “He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon, son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter, or Rock).”

Tomorrow we celebrate the life of a saint of our church, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In his “drum major sermon,” Dr. King acknowledged that he had received many accolades in his life. But he also said that upon his death, what he most wanted was for people to remember the following:

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

 

King makes it clear, that he means that it was not any of the attention or awards that he received, that were of any significance, but the ways in which his life was of service to others. We are also called to use our gifts, individually and as a congregation to serve the good of others.

Since Fr. Bill Rontani retired, St. James has been in a period of transition. This interim time is not a time of drift or emptiness. It is an opportunity to reflect on God’s call to us—to “Come and See” Jesus and discern the direction where God may be inviting us to travel. As God’s disciples, we live realistically in the real world. We live in hope, but not in delusions. We know the love of God as we have experienced it, not as we imagine it might happen at other places that get the attention or success.

An important part of this time of discernment is today. After our final hymn, we will gather for an exercise that has the label “Appreciative Inquiry,” after the method in which I have been training to be a certified Interim Minister.  The most important part of Appreciative Inquiry is that every person’s story will be heard.  No matter how retiring or insignificant a person may think of himself or herself, every person has a story and that story is a vital part of who St. James Church is. I invite each of you to come and hear and tell one other person’s story.  There is a simple, concise and un-embarrassing structure of how we will do this. The goal is to have people who know each other the least interview one another, and to introduce their new partner to a small group. I assure you, the depth of insight from this exercise will enhance the life of this congregation, and the most important statements will come from surprising sources. After this week and next week, the information from our experience will be used by the Parish Profile committee to help draft the document that will guide St. James’ search for a new priest. That priest is not some sort of savior or solution to all problems, the priest will hold you accountable to your vision of who you really are as a congregation, and will assist you in your life as disciples of the true Messiah.

As St. Paul said in today’s epistle:

“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call of the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him…”

 

“Come and see.”

The darkness did not overcome it

A sermon for Christmas Day, December 25, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“The Light Shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Each time that I am the celebrant at the Eucharist, after the service I say the beginning of the prologue of the Gospel of John, which is our Gospel lesson today. I say it as a prayer of thanksgiving, and I end with those words: The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

The Gospel today is the Christmas story, as John tells it—and Christmas is the essence of Christianity. Whether the story we read is the baby in the manger, with shepherds running out of the hills to see him, or later on when the astrologers from the East come asking at the palace of Herod, because they want to give gifts to the infant king. (oops–not such a good idea, see Matthew 2:16-18–), or as we say it today, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”—God is in this world with us, born of a human woman. God’s choice was not to do this in the most secure or powerful place, like the palace of the Roman Emperor, or even of the King of Judea, but rather in the most precarious of circumstances.

Oil Lamp with Ancient Inscription in Background

Oil Lamp with Ancient Inscription in Background

The image of the light shining in the darkness would have been understood in antiquity as a lamp—a little dish with oil in it, and a wick—with a flame like a candle. In those times, a room at night would be black with overwhelming darkness, but one small light would push the darkness back—indeed with your eyes accustomed to the dark, you could see everything in the room. The tiny light would overcome the huge darkness. Just as the baby—born in poverty and vulnerability—brings salvation into the world.

Soon, people will start to throw away their trees. Christmas is over as soon as the presents are opened. Nobody, except for a few Episcopalians, pays any attention to the twelve days. But our celebration is not of a day, or a season, or of trees or of gifts. The Gospel puts it, where? “In the beginning”—that is to say, in the beginning before anything at all was created, the Word was there with God, and it is the life of that Word that is the light that shines in that little baby in Bethlehem and continues to shine and overcome the darkness of the cross in his Resurrection.

This light, then, shines in the darkness. It does not need to be the great white lights on Broadway, nor the TV lights in a football stadium that outdo the sun during the broadcast of a game, nor the sun itself or even a star. Our faith is in that small, quiet light, the light that tells of the life of the Word, of Jesus.

Christians sometimes get confused. Sometimes they think, oh, if we can do so much with this little light, how much more could we accomplish if we had more and bigger lights, and lots and lots of power? And maybe then we could get EVERYBODY to celebrate Christmas our way, then everybody would be much better Christians. Of course you need a lot of power for all those lights, so maybe you should deal with the people who have the power and forget about those guys in the stable.

 

Our hope, as Christians, is not in the big lights and the big productions, but in that one small and humble light. That hope is not wishful thinking, but the sure and certain triumph of the love of God. Though we might live a life of vulnerability along with Christ, and we might lose one thing or another that we might like to have, the reality that is the love of God will never fail. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father… And from his fullness have we all received all the gifts of God and lives filled with confident hope.

 

Merry Christmas.

The one who is to come

A sermon for the third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Are you the one who is to come?”

Last week the sermon was about the preaching of John the Baptist. This week, John got himself thrown into prison—imagine that. He preached repentance and justice. He told tax collectors to collect only what they owe and soldiers not to extort and abuse people. So, Herod Antipas, a ruler who lived for power and self-indulgence, heard the call for repentance as a challenge and he had John put in jail. Imagine that.

But John heard of Jesus, of what was happening out in Galilee and he sent the question, “Are you the one?” Jesus’ reply was very simple and specific: “the blind receive their sight, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus was not about random miracles and showy acts of power—he is here healing those things that are wrong in this world, that disrupt and destroy the fabric of human life.

Of course, one could speak at length of each of these: blindness, leprosy, deafness, the dead and the poor.  All of these can refer to physical or literal conditions or be spiritual or metaphorical at once. But it’s also important to understand Jesus is grounding them in real, physical conditions. Blindness, deafness, and leprosy are all conditions that isolate people—while the person is suffering, others withdraw, out of fear, or indifference, or impatience to get on to the easy comfort in their own lives.

Likewise, Jesus says, “the poor have good news brought to them.” You may remember that Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth of Galilee was on the text, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” This morning, rather than a psalm, the lectionary has appointed the song his mother Mary sang, when she knew Jesus was in her womb: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior: for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” Her description of how God loves his people is this:

“He has shown the strength of his arm and has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”

The Kingdom of God is good news to the poor. Specifically, it is God’s promise to those who are suffering or oppressed that God remembers them and will comfort them. There is no comfort to those who are proud, who regard themselves as entitled to comfort and privilege because they have wealth or power. The gate into the Kingdom is narrow—it requires humility—acknowledgement that we are each on the same level as the leper, the blind, the deaf, the poor.  Indeed, the isolation of the blind is nothing in comparison to the isolation of those who trust in their wealth. Or in games to get and hold power.  That isolation is death. Jesus brings life, which is generosity and humble acknowledgement of the infinite value of all God’s people.

In case you didn’t notice, when Mary’s son and nephew said these simple things, people were not pleased. Both of them were arrested and killed. The reality is, people do not like their wealth or power to be challenged—even by an offer of life.

This Christmas season, we celebrate that God is here in this world, blessing the things of this world.  But it is not our wealth that God blesses, it is our generosity and compassion for others. It is in our willingness to learn and to be blessed by the deaf, the lepers, the blind and those we might think of as poor that we receive the gift of life. Jesus tells the disciples of John, “the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them.” We receive the blessing of resurrection from the dead, not in our comfort, or even in our focus on being spiritual and good, but in our own brokenness and humility. God brings the blessing of life in our ability to hear with the deaf, and see with the blind.  Indeed, I have realized over the past few months that I receive life and blessing in visiting and remembering with and for those who have lost their memory.

From our lesson from the prophet Isaiah: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom: like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” The blessing of God, the majesty of God is in opening life for all people. “Then they shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and makeleap-like-a-deer firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God…’ Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

We rejoice in the coming of Jesus. He is the one to come, the one who brings us life.

Salvation is nearer to us now

A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2016

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

sawtooth

“In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.”

Today is the first Sunday of what?

… It can’t be Christmas shopping season, because that started at least two weeks ago. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and in Advent the church looks forward to the coming of the Lord… not to the coming of the Christmas tree and presents, and not really to Christmas at all, even the “real Christmas” that some people say is under attack. Advent points to the ultimate coming of the Lord, as the collect for today says:

“That in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal…”

We think of that day as Judgment Day, a scary and dark time for anybody who has anything to be afraid of. Of course, most of those who really deserve to be scared think we are talking about somebody else. But this season we look forward to the final reckoning, when God’s justice is established–of course we want some details on that: who, what, where, WHEN?

Of course, religious folk turn to their Bible, and what does Jesus say? Nobody knows. “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” That’s such a disappointment—because you know, if we just knew exactly what was going to happen, then we would have so much power—we would know when to invest in the stock market, or when to take vacation so that the storms would hit somebody else …

There are plenty of people who think that that is what religious faith is supposed to do—give you magical powers or special knowledge that take you outside of the ordinary difficulties of human life. It is easy enough to see Christians who completely ignore what Jesus has to say today. They make pronouncements about the future of the world, or the future of the church, or their own personal future, somehow alluding to hints in scripture, or similarities of some political event with some surmise about an image in scripture, or perhaps to interpreting God’s promises in such a way that God has to give them specifically what they want right now.

Jesus says to be watchful, now and every day—the day of the Lord can be here at any moment. We often think that we know what will happen, or even what is happening. When I was a teenager, I was particularly susceptible to this kind of thinking: a good word from a teacher or a good result in a musical performance and I was going to be a tremendous success—maybe I would be a star at the Metropolitan Opera or President of the U.S. And if something went wrong, my life would be over, everything was a failure. As we grow up and mature, we get a bit of a handle on our expectations, but still the temptation is there to project that recent events will follow in straight lines… /  up  … or \ down . Or we look around us, and assume that possibilities are limited to what was, and things can never change.

But the real world is not like that. When something new and creative happens everyone’s expectations are turned upside down—no one predicted Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, neither could anyone envision that the most amazing music of the baroque period would be produced at its very end, by a conservative named Johann Sebastian Bach. The Day of the Lord overturns our expectations, our grandiose self-serving expectations, and our demoralized and discouraged expectations. The Kingdom of God comes, not when we want, or when we think the preparations are done—two women will be grinding meal together, one will be taken and one will be left… a baby is born of a teenage mother, and the universe is changed. When the pride of the powerful is at its height, their plans collapse. And in the midst of collapse and discouragement, love and sharing are set free to change the world.

I believe in the Day of the Lord, which we focus on in this season of Advent. The specifics, I do not know, any more than Jesus did… but that Day brings life and new things because God’s people are prepared in humility and joy to follow him into new possibilities.

In today’s lesson from his letter to the Romans, St. Paul says:

“For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”