Sunday, February 12, 2017

Choose Life, Love More, Love Better

Sermon from Sunday, Feb. 12
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

Today, as we celebrate Scout Sunday, we welcome the boys of Troop and Pack 16, as well as their leaders and parents.  Let me take a moment for a shout-out to a man who’s had to deal with two of the most demanding roles I can imagine:  Dave Banks.  One of those demanding roles has been serving as our Troop 16 Scoutmaster, a job of great sacrifice from which he is stepping down at the end of this month.  The other, even more demanding, role has been getting stuck with following in Morgan Olander’s footsteps.  Dave has given countless hours in his service to the Scouts of Troop 16, their families, and the family of St. Andrew’s – so please show him your appreciation.
So, as we mark Scout Sunday, I want to be clear in what it is we’re celebrating.  We’re not honoring a community partner, some organization we allow to use the building each week.  We’re raising up one of the primary youth and family ministries of our church.  I draw that distinction because Scouting is about formation – from a Christian perspective, it’s about forming followers of Jesus in how they represent Jesus to the world.  And the same could be said about the Girl Scouts, too.  Scouting isn’t just campouts; it’s discipleship.  And that journey of growing as a disciple, of growing more and more into “the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13) – that’s a journey God asks every last one of us to be taking.
A bit later today, six of the boys of Troop 16 will become Eagle Scouts.  As you know, it’s the pinnacle of Scouting achievement.  But, as I’m sure we’ll hear in the remarks this afternoon, it’s also just the beginning for these boys.  Their lives will change the world – certainly in small ways, maybe in big ways, too.  So, although these Scouts will earn the fruit of their labors this afternoon, they’re definitely not finished with the work God has given them to do.  And that illustrates what may be the best characteristic of Scouting, and certainly something Scouting shares with other ministries that form us as Jesus’ disciples:  Scouting is aspirational.  There’s always another merit badge to work on; there’s always a further rank to attain.  As the grown-up Eagle Scouts among us demonstrate every day, there’s always a greater difference to be made, a greater benefit to bring to the world and the people around you. 
Aspiration runs through the readings we heard this morning, too.  In Deuteronomy, we hear Moses trying to explain to the people of Israel that, when it comes to God’s Law, the stakes are so much higher than they imagine.  The Law is not simply a list of rules and regulations for people about to move into a new land.  The Law is God’s path of blessing for a people set aside to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth.  Following the Law is the way wilderness wanderers become a great nation, how wayfaring strangers become a light to the world.  As Moses tells his people, following the Law is the great choice God asks them to make, in that time and place.  I have set before you two options, the Lord says through Moses – the way of life and prosperity or the way of death and adversity.  It’s just that stark.  This path of blessing, for yourselves and for the world, is not something you can simply sample as it suits you, a path of convenience.  This path of blessing brings you life, and it brings the light of God’s life to the world.  So, Moses cries to his people, choose this steeper path.  “Choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him,” Moses says.  Aspire to be the beloved community, living out nothing less than the reign and rule of God. 
That kind of aspiration runs through the Gospel reading this morning, too.  This is the part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is teaching something that might make us good Christians stop short.  We like to think about Christianity replacing the Jewish Law with the good news of grace – that God’s salvation can’t be earned, only gratefully received.  True enough.  So following the Law isn’t something we do – but that’s not because the Law’s intentions missed the mark.  Actually, Jesus takes the Law of Moses and raises the bar even higher.  “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder,’” Jesus says.  “But I say to you, that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.…  You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’” Jesus says.  “But I say to you that everyone who looks at [someone else] with lust has already committed adultery … in his heart.” (Matthew 5:21-22,27-28)  To me, we miss the point if we focus on what Jesus means by the “hell of fire” (5:22), the consequences that come when we miss the mark.  To me, the point is where the mark lies. 
The kingdom of God, the beloved community, is about always aspiring to love more.  For example, to name one of the elephants in the room that comes out of this reading – hear what Jesus is saying about divorce.  Clearly, Jesus is not a fan of divorce, and you can find that in other Gospel accounts, too.  But what he’s saying here isn’t about judgment for people who find themselves in the tragedy of relationships broken beyond repair.  What he’s saying here is that the minimum requirement of the Law just isn’t enough.  For that time and place, there was some love in that Law about divorce.  It said a man couldn’t just abandon his wife if he didn’t like her anymore; he had to write a certificate of divorce, which relinquished his property claim on her and allowed her to remarry rather than wandering unprotected as a social outcast.  But for Jesus, that’s not enough love.  He’s looking to protect the woman, the powerless one in the relationship in that time and place, from being tossed aside on a man’s whim.  My point is that Jesus looks at the Law, at the minimum requirement of love, and he says, “You know, that’s not enough.”  Living faithfully isn’t about whether we check the boxes of legal requirements, whether we do just enough to pass the test, or what might happen to us when we fail, as we surely will.  Living faithfully is about recognizing that God raises the bar because God wants for us as much love as we’re willing to choose.  Each day, God sets before us the choice to be a blessing.  So “choose life,” God says, “that you and your descendants may live.”
What does that look like for us, in our present moment?  Well, here’s one way I believe God is calling us to aspire to love more and love better, to go beyond the minimum requirements of the law.  It has to do with how we see our opponents, those who disagree with us; and the ways our small, daily actions bear that out.  In a tweet the other day, the president called people who oppose him “haters.”  Really?  By the same token, on Facebook I saw posts from people on the other side that called people they disagree with “sexist fascists” and “thieves.”  Anymore, we throw around demeaning language as if words don’t matter.  But they do.  And it’s not just the potential pain those words inflict on others.  Throwing around demeaning language to describe other children of God forms us to see those other people as something less than children of God.  And it forms us, as a nation, to live far below the heights where the “better angels of our nature” dwell, as Abraham Lincoln said.  Whether you see it on a protest sign or in a presidential tweet, any message that denigrates those who disagree with you has no place in the kingdom of God.  That’s not how we follow our baptismal promise to “respect the dignity of every human being.”  Because every human being is a child of God.  Every human being – maybe especially those with whom we most deeply disagree.  As Paul writes in the reading from First Corinthians this morning, “As long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you … you are behaving according to human inclinations” (3:3), not aspiring to grow more and more into the measure of the full stature of Christ.  Instead, choose a different path.  For we “have a common purpose,” Paul says.  “We are God’s servants working together” (3:8-9).
The six boys who will become Eagles today didn’t have to choose the path they chose.  They didn’t have to work toward one merit badge after another.  They didn’t have to freeze through winter campouts.  They didn’t have to learn to lead their peers.  But for them, the Scout Oath and Scout Law pointed them down a path of aspiration.  If they were truly going to do their best to do their duty to God, and to their country, and to the other human beings around them, then they had to choose the steeper path, the path toward Eagle. 
The call to us from God’s Word says very much the same thing:  If we’re going to do our best to do our duty to love God and love neighbor, to live out the Baptismal Covenant, then we’ve got to take the steeper path, too.  We’ve got to choose to be better than we have to be.  We’ve got to choose be a blessing to the people we encounter.  We’ve got to choose life, that we and our descendants may live.  

Love Small

Sermon from Sunday, Jan. 29
1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12

In our readings today, we hear about truth that just doesn’t make sense.  In First Corinthians, Paul is trying to explain the logic of the Cross, the astounding claim that God chose to go about saving humanity by coming among us as a human, the One who then completely empties himself of everything the world understands as power and wisdom.  What seems to be the worst possible outcome – Jesus’ brutal death – turns out to be the way to show the world God’s power and wisdom.  With God, new life comes where you’d least expect it, redeeming the most horrifying thing you can imagine.
And then, in the Gospel reading, we heard Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes – again, the world turned upside down.  In the moment, Jesus’ followers could easily look around their society and see who was blessed.  Blessed were the wealthy, for they have more than enough.  Blessed were the religious authorities, for they had privilege and respect.  Blessed were the Romans, for they had power and might.  You didn’t have to be a rabbi to understand who was blessed.  But Jesus was teaching them something different:  No, he says, things aren’t always what they seem.  Blessed are the broken in spirit, for theirs is the true kingdom.  Blessed are the meek and the powerless, for they shall inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled with God’s own righteousness. (Matthew 5:3,5-6)  Those who seem hopeless, aren’t.  Instead, Jesus says, blessing comes where you’d least expect to receive it – to those at the end of their rope.
So, what does it mean to be blessed?  That word rings our ears after this reading.  Some versions of the Bible translate that word from Greek into English differently.  Sometimes, you see it given as “happy,” which, to me, is even harder to understand.  If you’re broken in spirit – to say nothing about facing sinking poverty or experiencing physical hunger – you’re not happy.  But, Jesus says, you are blessed.  In fact, you are a “privileged recipient of divine favor.”1
It’s also important to note that Jesus isn’t conferring a new state of blessing when he speaks these beatitudes, nor is he giving these classes of people some power they didn’t have before.  He’s in the role of the color commentator in the broadcast booth, calling it like he sees it.  The poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the persecuted, the pure in heart – they simply are blessed.  And congratulations to them, for God promises that their sorrow will not stand.  When God’s beloved community is realized in all its fullness, when the earth once again mirrors heaven as it was in the beginning and ever shall be, then the folks now suffering will participate in God’s blessing in all its fullness. 
As I say these things, I have to take note of the news from the past couple of days.  I don’t pretend to be an expert in public policy related to refugees and immigration.  But I hear Jesus, in today’s reading, looking out over the people listening to him – the poor, the persecuted, the people in mourning – and observing how blessed they are in God’s eyes.  And I can’t help but think about those who will be caught up in our president’s order to exclude refugees from seeking refuge in our nation of immigrants.  There is much that is dubious in Scripture, much that requires a razor’s-edge approach to interpretation – and then, there are the clear imperatives.  In Deuteronomy, a book that shares the perspective of the Israelites just before they took Promised Land away from the people living there, Moses says to God’s people, “The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords … who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the stranger, providing them food and clothing.  You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (10:17-19)  I hear the same imperative from Jesus in today’s Gospel reading:  “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy,” he says. (Matthew 5:7).  I know we’re afraid of potential terrorists.  I get that.  But being afraid doesn’t relieve us of the obligation to show mercy, particularly to those who seem to meet Jesus’ criteria of blessing.  As he says, “Blessed are you when people revile you, and persecute you, and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely…” (Matthew 5:11).  I grant you that those we are now turning away are not being persecuted for their faith in Jesus.  But I would invite us prayerfully to consider under what circumstances Jesus would exclude the stranger seeking to come among us.
So, let’s recap:  The law of Moses calls us to love the stranger.  Jesus tells us that blessing comes to the people we’d least expect to receive it.  Paul tells us that salvation comes from the God who chose to die a horrific, criminal death in order to call us home.  And this morning, in our worship at 10:15, we will live out the astonishing mystery that we get to take part in this amazing process of dying and rising again by joining the blessed in baptism and living as blessings ourselves. 
Today, we’ll baptize four new followers of Jesus who couldn’t get to church for baptisms two weeks ago because of the ice.  In this rite and in their baptized lives, these children will be taking the same journey the children of Israel took when they passed through the Red Sea.  They’ll be taking the same journey Jesus took when he passed through the grave and gate of death and walked away from an empty tomb.  They’ll be taking the same journey we took in our own baptisms, and the same journey we take again and again in our own lives.  As followers of Christ, we pass through the waters of death time after time, taking on the forces of Pharaoh and the seductions of self-centeredness, and we march on through to the other side.  With Jesus, we rise from death as new creations, our lives made more than they once were, our hearts blessed by relationship with God, and our hands empowered to be blessings to the people God loves.
We find ourselves among the blessed when we join God in the blessed life.  And that blessed life looks a very particular way.  It’s a life of downward mobility.  It’s a life of stooping into love.
The Psalms say that God “stoops to behold the heavens and the earth” and “takes the weak up out of the dust and lifts the poor from the ashes” (Psalm 113:5-6, BCP).  Paul tells us that God chose the way of the Cross intentionally, shedding all power and “taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7) to show that “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25).  Centuries earlier, the prophet Micah saw the same truth – that God’s way is the path of humility, and that what the Lord requires is not fancy sacrifice but simply “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8).  We are called to stoop down to behold God not only because God is our sovereign but because, astonishingly, God stooped down first – creating us for the joy of it, relating with us for the love of it, then dying and rising again for the victory of it, defeating sin and death to open the doors to eternity.  We walk that way of salvation on our knees because God got down on God’s knees first.  As the story goes, an old rabbi once said to his student, “In olden days, there were people who saw the face of God.”  The young student replied, “Why don’t we see God’s face any more?”  And the old rabbi said, “Because nowadays, no one stoops so low.”2
The exclamation point on this mystery is that we are called to stoop into the relationships that mark God’s way of blessing.  We do it through joining in the apostles’ fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers.  We do it through resisting evil and continually turning our hearts in God’s direction.  We do it through living and telling our own story of Good News to others.  We do it through seeking and serving Christ in all people.  And we do it by respecting the dignity of every human being, no matter where they come from.  Those are the promises we make in baptism – the roadmap of the way of the Cross, the job description of the blessed.
These can seem like abstract promises, a lovely vision that may seem impossible to achieve.  But think about how God stoops into relationship with us.  In Christ, God chose to make redemption personal.  God’s M.O. is not to work in generalities but in specific times and places, linking real people with other real people, and changing the heart of one real person at a time.  Our call is the same.  None of us is called to love the world.  Instead, each of us is called to love the person in front of you.  
So, give it a shot.  Each day this week, take someone seriously.  Listen to someone’s story.  Share some of your own story.  Link someone with something life-giving.  Invest yourself in the call to love small.

1.      Danker, Frederick William.  A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed.  Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000.  611.

2.      Stoffregen, Brian.  “The History of the Word ‘Makarios’ (‘Blessed’).”  Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at Crossmarks.  Available at: http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/allsaintb.htm.  Accessed Jan. 27, 2017.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Stories and Storytellers

State-of-the-Parish Address, Jan, 22, 2017
Matthew 4:12-23

I’d like to invite you this morning to hear our Gospel reading through the ears of our patron, St. Andrew.  I’d also like you to imagine the reading not as a piece of journalism, not a report by a detached observer, but as part of Andrew’s story, which he’s telling years later.  Andrew is telling this story as he’s hanging out in the ancient equivalent of a coffee shop, talking with someone who’s become a friend.  Andrew is trying to share something about what matters most in his life.
So he sips his latte and gives a little background.  “This guy named Jesus,” Andrew says, “he was from my region, and he came to settle in my own village.  I’d been hearing things about him – that what he had to say made people listen, that it brought people hope.  And it made me think about how people have been finding hope for centuries when God manages to take the hardest things in life and help you find blessing in them instead.  Well, my brother and I were working one day, out fishing, and this guy Jesus came up near us on the beach.  For no good reason, he asked us to come along and see what he was up to.  And, well, we did.  You know, I was dealing with my own problems, and I needed a little light in my life.  So, we started talking with Jesus, and he said, “Hey, come along with me, and I’ll teach you to fish for people instead.”  I wasn’t sure quite what he meant, but we went along; and he invited other guys to come along, too.  And, you know, we saw and heard the most amazing things as we traveled with him.  We heard him teaching about how life could actually mean something, and we watched him heal people and give them a new lease on life.  You know, I didn’t realize how badly I needed that hope and healing until then.  But it’s made all the difference to me.”
There’s the Gospel of St. Andrew, over a latte with a friend in an ancient coffee shop.  It’s a story of hope and healing – not just for Andrew but for the guy across the table, too. 
So what I’ve just described to you is an example of what I see as our greatest need in this church family, as we begin a new year together.  We need stories and storytellers – as the old saying goes, stories told by one beggar to another beggar about where to find bread. 
Why do we need stories and storytellers?  To make love real.  To give it flesh and bones.  That person you have coffee with, or exercise with, or work with – God loves that person more than anything.  And God uses us to show it.  Nothing communicates love like love stories.  So God needs stories and storytellers.  And so does our parish family. 
When I look at our congregation, here’s what I see.  I see a lot that’s good.  I see hundreds of people serving God and loving the people around them, week in and week out.  At the parish meeting downstairs, you’ll get a copy of the annual report, and the ministry it describes is really pretty stunning – people giving their time and talent and treasure to serve in worship, and take care of the building, and raise more than $100,000 for people in need, in addition to the giving that comes from the operating budget.  People who teach children, and manage finances, and visit others who are sick or alone.  When you pull back and look at the ministry that happens week in and week out, the ways people share hope and love, the news is truly good. 
When I look at our congregation, I also see people who love this place and all that it represents.  We were founded 104 years ago when our bishop at that time, the Rt. Rev. Sidney Partridge, said, “Our own city – right here – is our greatest and most crying mission field.”1    Since then, St. Andrew’s has been an outpost of God’s mission of love in this community, and we’ve touched hundreds of thousands of people.  I see a congregation that still believes in that mission and wants to ensure we have the wherewithal to help God accomplish it. 
One way I’ve seen this belief is in your response to the Christmas appeal to help us replace the air conditioner in the children’s wing and the undercroft.  A generous parishioner offered a match of $90,000, and we asked you to give toward meeting that match.  Long story short: You gave enough not just to meet the match but another $80,000 beyond it.  As I said in a letter this week, we’ll use those gifts to address water damage in the lower levels of the church, and redirect the way water drains off the roof, and fix the elevator.  It’s a stunning example of your love for this place and for its work to bring hope to real, live people.
When I look at the numbers, I also see some signs of hope.  Pledging is up – $35,000 more pledged than last year, 134 increased pledges, and 39 brand new pledges.  That’s a testimony to the fact we’re improving the way we tell and live the stewardship story.  Good job, Stewardship Commission and the Vestry callers!
And … when I look at our congregation, I see challenges, too.  Sunday attendance dropped this year, and membership is flat.  Pledge payments dropped even as pledges rose.  All this has something to do with challenges of the moment – the nave’s air conditioner dying and us worshiping in the undercroft certainly didn’t help attendance or giving.  But the challenges run deeper, too.  When I was growing up, attending church regularly meant going every week, unless you were sick in bed.  Today, attending church regularly means once a month, or less.  And along with that come demographic challenges to attendance and giving.  If you look out across the congregation this morning, you see a lot of gray hair – including my own, increasingly.  And the people with that gray hair do most of the serving and the giving in this place.  Forty-six percent of our pledges last year came from people over 75.  Forty-eight percent came from people between 48 and 74.  So six percent came from people younger than 48.  We have real work to do – increasing attendance, incorporating new members, encouraging people to fulfill their pledges, and broadening the base of pledge support.  These will be among the Vestry’s top priorities this year.  
Those concerns are real, but they don’t tell our full story.  When I look at our congregation, and the 2017 budget, I see a church family seeking to love more and love better, both within and beyond our congregation.  We’ve received an incredibly generous gift to fund a full-time positon to help us build engagement – with newcomers, with people who use our church during the week, and with people on the periphery of our membership, the folks we don’t see very often.  We’re also bringing on someone part-time to help us start a ministry of planned giving, following up on the incredible work that Charlie Horner has put into stewarding our endowment.  We’re adding hours in formation of children, youth, and adults to help us do more to serve people within the congregation and to reach people in the community around us.  We’re planning a series of spiritual conversations in a coffee shop and more participation in community celebrations and events.  As of this week, we’ll have a new staff member leading communications, a woman named Shelby Lemon, who will help us share the Good News of God’s love among ourselves and beyond ourselves.  Even Mtr. Anne’s coming sabbatical is an investment in love, as she develops resources to help “care for the caregivers,” a role many of us know.
Several of those investments in love fall into the category we’ve called “Gather & Grow ministries,” which is shorthand for reaching people around us in new ways.  The Gather & Grow initiative has always been about reaching people and developing our physical resources to enable that work.  As you know, plans for work on HJ’s hit a major roadblock last spring, when construction estimates came back much higher than we were initially told.  It led the Vestry to some soul-searching over the summer and fall, discerning whether to come back to you asking for more funding.  We discerned God was asking us instead to see that what you had given is enough – and to move forward accordingly.  So we’ve been working with an owner’s rep, Pete Lacy, who grew up in this church, to help us get the best facility we can across the street within the resources you’ve provided.  The Vestry will use part of its upcoming retreat to decide whether to renovate the existing building or build a new, more efficient one.  But in either case, the point is to enable ministry. The point is not to build a building but to connect with people around us in new ways.  And doing that doesn’t have to wait for a new building, which is why we’re working to build those ministries now.  These ministries are about going fishing for people – following Andrew as he followed Jesus and sharing our stories along the way. 
To do that, I see something else we need as a congregation.  We need to read the Bible.  Now, I know that’s not a shocking thing to hear a preacher say, though it may feel a little shocking coming from an Episcopalian preacher.  But in order to tell people Good News about the presence of God in our lives and the value that a relationship with Christ gives us, we have to know two stories: God’s story and our own.  We have to know what God has done and is doing in the world, and we have to be able to link that love story with the love we know when we feel the Sprit moving in our own hearts.  So, we’re going to offer an opportunity to read the Bible together.  And better yet, it’s sort of a condensed version of the Bible, navigating around some of the more distant material from a very distant time.  The resource we’ll use is called The Path, and it’s just that – a manageable journey through God’s story.  Here’s how it will work:  We’ll suggest people read certain chapters each week, and we’ll have a weekly time, after coffee hour, for teaching and discussion.  Our youth will be doing the same thing, by the way, also gathering after church; so parents and youth can both take part; and the younger kids will be using a kids’ version at the same time.  In addition, it’s a great resource for small groups or book discussions.  You’ll get more information about it in the next few weeks, and you can sign up at the annual meeting to find out more.
I firmly believe that this will make a difference for our congregation, if we will commit the time and energy to turn toward God every week.  When we know God’s story and feel it connecting with the grace and love God has shown toward each of us – when our heads and our hearts are aligned with the knowledge and love of God – then we receive the power to speak and act as participants in that divine love story.  We receive the power to serve as Christ calls us each to serve.  We receive the power to give sacrificially and to trust that it will bring us blessing.  We receive the power to reach out to people on the margins of this congregation and draw them deeper into this family.  We receive the power to share our story with someone else and invite him or her to experience what we’ve experienced. 
That’s what our patron, St. Andrew, was doing in his conversation with a friend in that ancient coffee shop.  He wasn’t hawking a product or promoting an institution.  He just identified someone he knew who needed to hear that life has meaning and that hope is real.  Andrew had thought about how his own experience with Jesus fit into the bigger picture of how God has been loving the world from the beginning.  And he thought about how he might tell his story in a way that made sense to the guy across the table. 
As I look at our congregation this year, here’s what I see.  Our greatest need is for stories and storytellers.  To say it in church-speak, we need to build a culture of evangelism.  To say it in the language of real people, we need to know who God is, know who we are, and put that into words. 
So, I began this with my take on our patron saint’s story, based on today’s Gospel reading.  Let me end with my own story.  It’s not beautiful or stunning or theologically deep, which is what I used to think it took to offer “a witness.”  Because I didn’t think my story was compelling or dramatic, I didn’t think I had a story.  Now, I know better.
I grew up in a family that went to church but didn’t talk much about what we believed.  I knew prayers, but I didn’t know the God to whom I was praying.  As a young man, I was working as a writer and editor; and that was OK, but it didn’t mean anything.  I had a wife and a little kid; and when we moved back to Kansas City, and I thought I ought to find us a church because good parents do that sort of thing.  Over the next couple of years, mostly through conversations with two people at work and the priest at my church, I realized that something I thought was impossible might actually be true: that God wanted what I had to offer.  At the same time, Ann and I came to one of those periods couples experience when your relationship goes south, and I had to ask some hard questions about where my life’s meaning really lay.  I started reading the Bible … what a concept.  There, I found a God who is all about new life.  I found a God who loved us enough to come and be one of us, and experience all the ugliness I experienced, and in the end, live resurrection.  Remarkably (or not), at the same time, I also found our marriage resurrecting, too. 
It seems like a story worth telling.  So now I’m telling it.  And if I’m telling my story, you can tell yours.  As Jesus said to one of the people whose life he made whole, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you and what mercy he has shown you” (Mark 5:19).  You don’t have to tell your story to everyone.  You just have to tell it to the one who needs to hear it.

1.       The Silver Jubilee of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri. Commemorative booklet from the parish’s 25th anniversary, Oct. 9 and 10, 1938, held in St. Andrew’s archives.  Page 10.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Resolve to Live Eternal Life

Sermon from Jan. 1, the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus
Numbers 6:22-27; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:15-21

Happy New Year!  But that’s not the name of the holiday on the front of this morning’s bulletin, is it?  There, it says we’re celebrating the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus today.  Actually, there is no feast day on the Church calendar for New Year’s Day.  The Church’s new year is the first Sunday of Advent, in late November or early December.  So instead, on January 1, the Church celebrates ... circumcision.  The Feast of the Holy Name used to be titled the Feast of the Circumcision – the day we remember Jesus being circumcised, when he was eight days old.  No wonder that observance never really caught on as a secular holiday....  So, let’s talk about circumcision!  That will be fun. 
Circumcision is something most of us think about maybe once or twice in our lives, if we have to decide whether to follow the cultural practice of having it done to our newborn sons.  It’s a practice that’s been on the decline for years now because the physicians will tell you circumcision is medically unnecessary.  But of course, theologically, circumcision is a rich symbol, marking a man’s membership as part of God’s people, the children of Abraham – and if the man was part of that faith family, then so were his wife and daughters and … other possessions….  God made a covenant with Abraham that his descendants would inherit the land to which God had led him, as well as the blessing that came with being God’s missionary presence to the world.  As today’s Old Testament reading puts it, God’s covenant community received not just land but divine favor:  The Lord promised to bless them and keep them, and make his face to shine upon them, and be gracious to them, and lift up the divine countenance upon them, and give them what all humanity longs for, which is peace (Numbers 6:24-26).  And not just peace in the sense of the absence of conflict, but peace in the sense of God’s wholeness and wellness, the peace of right relationship, the peace of God’s kingdom, the peace of shalom.  Circumcision was the mark of the people’s wholehearted commitment to the God who offered that kind of peace.  Of course, as our new year’s resolutions remind us, it’s comparatively easy to make a commitment.  The challenge is sticking with it – in this case, sticking with the God of Israel when the gods of the nations, and the idols of our lives, sing their siren song.
Well, Mary and Joseph were devout Jews, so of course they brought their baby to undergo this procedure on the appointed day, the eighth day of his life, as the Law prescribed.  Who knows how much they thought about it, but I’m sure they wanted to ensure their son would be fully part of this covenant community, that he would feel God’s blessing shining upon him.  Plus, this boy’s divine vocation called for it.  If he’d come to “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21), he had to be part of those people in every sense.  So Jesus receives the mark of the covenant, the mark of belonging to the people God would never abandon.  He was one with those he’d come to save. 
That vocation to save people – it’s right there in the baby’s name, Jesus, which means, “he saves.”  The name was given by God, but it wasn’t just this baby’s name.  Jesus is a form of the name Joshua, Israel’s great leader who took over for Moses as the people stood at the edge of the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.  Joshua was the one who finally led the people across the Jordan River and into the land they’d been seeking, into the reward promised to those who would keep God’s covenant faithfully.  You can see Joshua up there among our beautiful windows, near the middle of the nave, all decked out as a military commander.  Now, to our ears, Joshua’s story in the Old Testament is a little problematic.  He saved God’s people by killing a lot of other people and occupying the land that had been theirs for generations.  That’s another sermon, one that might wrestle with blessings that come to us at other people’s expense, as well as our temptation to see blessing as a zero-sum game.  But at the end of the day, problematic though it may be, Joshua did save God’s people by bringing them out of the wilderness and into the good land God had promised. 
Jesus does the same thing.  He leads us out of our wildernesses, guiding us in living faithfully according to the covenant we’ve made and ushering us into the blessing that comes when God’s face truly shines upon you.  The difference between Jesus and the first Joshua is a matter of both form and content.  As I said, Joshua’s process for saving God’s people was by dispossessing other people, something I have trouble seeing Jesus affirming.  But Jesus also differs from Joshua in the terms of the covenant God offers through him.  In the Old Covenant, the promise was about life in the here and now – land and blessing for a chosen people.  In the New Covenant, the promise extends past this world – life and blessing, now and always.  Eternal life, in fact.  It’s the same gift, in a sense – God’s wholeness and wellness, God’s reign and rule and beloved community.  But with Jesus, the offer grows.  With Jesus, God expands the boundaries of blessing not just to the physical descendants of Abraham but to humanity by offering adoption into God’s family for all.  With Jesus, God expands the boundaries of blessing to include not just God’s favor in the life we know now but the light of God’s countenance shining upon us eternally.  “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry,” Jesus will grow up to say, “and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).  “I am resurrection and I am life,” he will promise.  Anyone who lives and believes in him will never die. (John 11:25-26)  It’s the peace of shalom, the peace of God’s beloved community – but both now and forever.
We’re tempted sometimes, when we think about eternal life, to think it’s out there somewhere, in the future.  As children, we’re taught (implicitly or explicitly) that if we’re good, we’ll find heaven; and if not, hell’s waiting for us.  And for many of us, that’s about as far as we go in thinking about Jesus’ new covenant, that promise of eternal life for those who believe.  But, you know, that childhood view is too small; and you don’t have to be a theologian to understand it a little more fully.  How many of us have known moments of heaven in this life?  And how many of us would say we’ve spent time in hells of our own choosing?  Well, as that good Anglican William Shakespeare once observed, “What’s past is prologue.”  The future is not divorced from the present; instead, it’s foreshadowed by it.  Eternal life is a both/and – a promise for the future, but also a reality right now.  Jesus doesn’t just save us later.  He cares too much about the messy, real lives of the people he loves.  Jesus saves us now, if we’ll take him up on it.  The kingdom of God is within you and among you, Jesus says, right there for the taking.  So the choices we make for God’s kingdom, or against God’s kingdom – those choices have consequences both now and later.  We can choose to live as adopted children of God, as inheritors of the covenant of divine blessing, as those beloved of the Father and blessed with peace – or, we can choose not to.
So maybe this is a New Year’s Day sermon after all.  I wonder, what would it be like to resolve, in this new year, to see your whole life differently?  What if we resolved to find heaven within us and among us?  What if we resolved to seek out the Lord whose face shines upon us, and who’s gracious to us, and who gives us peace?  You know, commentators, and my own children, have described the year now past as “the dumpster fire that was 2016.”  Fair enough; there was a lot not to like about 2016, as there is every year.  So let’s take Jesus up on the opportunity for a new start.  But don’t just leave that offer at the low bar of resolving to lose weight, or drink less, or go to the gym.  Take Jesus up on the offer of the New Covenant.  Resolve to find and foster eternal life every day you’re blessed to wake up in 2017.  For you, what needs to go?  What needs to grow?  Whom do you need to love?  Whom, or what, do you need to let go of?  What debt needs forgiveness – for you and by you?  What does the peace of shalom look like for you?  After all, it is your birthright.  For “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts” because “you are no longer a slave but [God’s] child, and if a child then also an heir” of heavenly life (Galatians 4:6-7). 
So, in 2017, resolve to remember the moments when you gaze into heaven and know the peace of God’s kingdom.  Resolve to choose the reality that stands in contrast to the dumpster fires of our lives – how the Lord has made his face to shine upon you, and been gracious to you, and given you glimpses of peace.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Sin and Christmas

Sermon from Christmas Eve
Luke 2:1-14

So, what are the kinds of things people usually talk about on Christmas Eve – preachers included?  Chestnuts roasting on an open fire … the love of family and friends … gifts we can’t wait to unwrap … the gifts of ourselves that we offer to the Baby King.  So Christmas Eve probably seems like an odd time for me to talk about sin.  That’s especially true about Christmas Eve in an Episcopal church, I think.  We don’t do a lot of fire and brimstone here – which sometimes makes people think the Episcopal Church doesn’t care about sin.  Plus – hey, Christmas is supposed to be a time to eat, and drink, and be merry, right?  So it may surprise you to hear me say that Christmas is actually all about sin. 
It might also surprise you to hear me say that, despite the weeks (and months) we’ve been living through the pre-Christmas shopping season, and even despite the Church’s season of preparation we call Advent, Christmas is not a conclusion.  And, even though we just heard the Gospel account of a baby’s birth, Christmas isn’t really the beginning of the story, either.  Christmas is a chapter in a much bigger story, the story of God redeeming creation and saving humanity – including each one of us.  And all the way through, just like it is in all good stories, the action is compelling because of the villains.  Those villains are death and sin.  And tonight, on Christmas, it’s God’s conquest of sin that takes center stage.
So, what do I mean by that?  I am not saying that the true meaning of Christmas is that you’re a bad, sinful person.  Absolutely not.  Instead, I mean that Christmas is all about God healing the things that separate us from God and each other – healing the divisions of sin.  In Christmas, and in Easter, God is doing nothing less than defeating the powers of sin and death in order to heal our deepest wounds – the wounds that separate us from our heavenly parent who loves us more than we can imagine, and the wounds that separate us from other people who show us the face of Christ up close.  And because God is too good a writer to allow a predictable storyline, God chooses to conquer sin and death in the way we’d least expect – from the inside out, from the bottom up.
This Christmas story is one we know too well.  In fact, we know it so well that we may not really even hear it on a night like this.  That Gospel reading tonight is just crazy – a story of contrasts, a story of top-down giving way to bottom-up.  It begins not with God but with Caesar.  The Emperor Augustus is asserting his authority, a royal reign that had brought the Pax Romana, peace through an iron fist.  Official inscriptions in conquered Roman lands hailed Augustus as “god” and “savior of the world.”  The date of Augustus’ birth was honored as “the beginning of the good news … for the world.”1  This Roman version of “peace” involved counting and collecting and conscripting.  At the point we pick up the story, the empire had decreed a census in order to strengthen tax receipts and bring more bodies into the Roman army.    
So that’s the top-down action in this story we know too well.  Then the story shifts to bottom-up.  An unwed mother and her yet-to-be husband are traveling to the man’s hometown to be part of the census.  But they weren’t going to just any small town; they were going to Bethlehem, the place from which Israel’s prophets said God’s true king would come.  Mary and Joseph both knew they were part of something much bigger than themselves.  Angels had visited them both and told them this baby “will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and … of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33).  So, though Mary would be giving birth to God’s true king, the couple found no place to stay because the little town was filled with everyone else caught up in the empire’s order.  So, when her time came, they camped in a barn or a cave and put the screaming baby in the animals’ feed trough. 
Then, the scene shifts to the fields, and a divine messenger appears, scaring the living daylights out of some unsuspecting shepherds.  The angel tells the shepherds this baby’s birth is precisely the thing it looks least like.  Augustus may have proclaimed a census, but the sovereign of the universe proclaims the coming of the real king.  Augustus may have stationed his armies across the empire, but the sovereign of the universe deploys the heavenly host, the army of God.  It turns out peace on earth comes not from the Pax Romana after all, but from this tiny baby lying in the slop.  God decides to confront the powers of sin and death by entering directly into the life of people oppressed by the powers of sin and death.  Christmas is God saving us from the bottom up.
Now, even if we understand that this is what Christmas is all about, we’re still tempted to keep this story at arm’s length.  That temptation is precisely why God chose to live the story this crazy way.  You can’t keep God at arm’s length when God insists on crashing your party, showing up in the most unlikely places and hanging out with the most unlikely people – then and now.  Prostitutes and tax collectors; priests and politicians.  Shepherds and fishermen and other small-business owners.  People who struggle to pay their bills, and people who live like royalty.  People who endure the slander of bigotry, and people who do the slandering when they think God’s not listening.  This unpredictable God chose to “move into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message) and take up residence among everyone living there, regardless of where they fall on the continuum of sinfulness.  Because, you know, we’re all there, on the continuum of sinfulness.  Despite all the times we shine with the light of God’s love, there’s not a one of us here tonight who isn’t also separating himself or herself, one way or another, from God and the people around us.
So God comes into this broken world, and into our broken lives, as Jesus – a name that means “he saves.”  And to do his saving work, he steps directly into the muck and mire of embodied life.  Anyone who’s witnessed a baby being born might wonder why the sovereign of the universe would choose that way to make an entrance – not to mention choosing a dirty barn for a delivery suite and a feed trough for an incubator.  And still, despite the powerless setting, the generals of the heavenly army appear before the baffled shepherds and affirm that this baby is actually their commander-in-chief, who is taking up the last mission anyone would have expected – a personal mission to step into human life and serve as the true Lord, the true emperor, who longs to save us from all that holds us hostage.  Every pomposity that puffs us up, every hardness that hinders our hearts, every smallness that shrinks our souls – God has come in person to save us from our sin by entering directly into it.  This king will live as part of an oppressed community.  This king will flee from a government that wants him dead and live as a refugee in a foreign land.  This king will find himself homeless and unemployed.  This king will speak against the religious and civil authorities trying to silence him.  This king will lead a demonstration in the streets that becomes the way of the Cross.  And this king will die at the hands of those he’s come to save.
Any force that seeks to drive us apart from each other, from other children of God whoever and wherever they are – that force stands opposed to this newborn king.  Any force that perpetrates division and creates categories of “us” and “them” stands opposed to this newborn king.  Any force that whispers in our ears that we can set our own course and do as we please stands opposed to this newborn king. 
And the tragedy is, we each choose those forces from time to time.  In our own settings and in our own ways, we each choose to hold ourselves back from our neighbors.  We each choose to judge those who disagree with us.  We each choose to follow our own path when we know full well that God is directing us differently.  We each choose to be our own Caesar, the emperor of our own small worlds.
And God’s response on this night, as it was in the beginning and ever shall be, is to speak the Word we least expect:  I love you anyway.  I love you anyway.  To you is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  His name is Jesus, and he comes into our world and into our hearts with this mission: to save us from the time of trial, to deliver us from evil, and to bring peace and goodwill among all those he loves. 
Whatever sin, whatever separation, entombs your heart, let this tiny king break it open and set you free.  Then come to the manger, and come to the Cross, and come to this table to receive the God who comes to love you – in the flesh.  In fact, come and receive the God who loves you in your flesh, and let your broken heart beat new.

1.       Fitzmeyer, Joseph A.  The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX).  The Anchor Bible, volume 28.  New York: Doubleday, 1970.  394.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Is He the One Who Is to Come?

Sermon from Sunday, Dec. 11
Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

I remember once visiting a man in prison.  I had known about his situation, but I’d never met this man before a cold, bitter afternoon in a cold, bitter place.  It only took being there a short time to feel the oppressive sense of anonymity and loneliness in that prison.  Everything about it felt dark and gray. 
I found my way to a common room and met up with the man.  His primary issue was fear.  Not fear for his safety or fear that he would never get out; he was being treated relatively well, and he was scheduled to get out in a year or so.  But he was still afraid. 
He feared that he’d lost the life he had known before.  He had been successful in business, confident in his friendships, and especially confident in his relationships with people at church.  At church, he’d felt loved and accepted, and that had helped him to see he was loved and accepted by God, too.  Now, he thought, everything had changed.  He had lost his business.  Most of his friends had stopped writing him or visiting him.  He feared he’d been abandoned by the people he thought would stick with him, so he feared that he had been abandoned by God.  And the future was frightening, too.  He worried about what he would do for a living, whether he would be accepted again by his church and his friends.  It’s amazing how being out of relationship with people and being distanced from your community can make you live in fear.
I think we hear a similar fear from John the Baptist in today’s Gospel reading.  At this point, 11 chapters into Matthew’s story, John the Baptist is no longer standing in the Jordan River, calling the people to repent.  Instead, he’s been taken away by King Herod’s police and thrown in prison to keep him from leading a revolution.  We don’t know how long John’s been rotting in prison, but he was arrested shortly after he baptized Jesus.  So he’s been locked away for some time now.
And after months or years of fearful isolation in Herod’s prison, John might well have wondered whether he’d been right about Jesus being the messiah – the one who was going to usher in God’s time of judgment, separating the wheat from the chaff and burning the chaff in unquenchable fire.  John probably wondered what Jesus had been doing, other than not getting John out of prison or leading a rebellion against the Romans.  Well, in the time since John had been thrown in prison, Jesus had had healed a leper, and a soldier’s servant, and Peter’s mother in law; he had cast out demons; he had healed a paralytic and a woman with a hemorrhage; he had given sight to two blind men and speech to a man who was mute; and he had brought a young girl back to life (Matthew 8 and 9).  Meanwhile, John had every reason to be afraid, sitting there alone in Herod’s prison.  What had seemed so clear in the waters of the Jordan looked much darker from a prison cell.  So, in the reading this morning, John has his followers ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3).  In other words, I think, John is saying, “Are you really who we thought you were?  I’m afraid.”
Well, what Jesus sends back to John is the opposite of fear, which is hope – hope with flesh and bones on it; hope that you hold not because you’re na├»ve but because you’ve seen signs of a power greater than the darkness that surrounds you.  Jesus sends the messengers back to John with a simple answer: “Go back and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus says: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:4-5).  That’s the kind of hope the prophets proclaimed.  That’s hope with flesh and bones on it. 
That same kind of hope is what the man I visited in prison finally came to see.  That afternoon, as I talked with him, I could see his fear slowly giving way to hope.  He began to name people who hadn’t abandoned him – family and friends who’d kept their letters coming and challenged him to use his time in prison to seek redemption.  He remembered acts of deep kindness from friends just before he turned himself in, people who ministered to him at his lowest moment.  And his eyes filled with tears when he heard, out loud, that God was right there with him in prison, loving him just as much as ever, offering him the chance for a new life, the chance to bring something holy out of the pit that his life had become.  He could see that God’s kingdom, God’s beloved community, was out there, waiting for him, because he’d seen glimpses of it in the love of his friends and family.  He could remember the flesh and bones of dignity and hope.
There are all kinds of prisons we inhabit.  The prison of illness or disability … the prison of unhealthy relationships … the prison of debt … the prison of economic immobility … the prison of our own broken choices that lead us away from God and the people around us.  And part of the way we break free from our prisons is by bringing the liberation of dignity and hope to others – by offering glimpses of the kingdom that stands in contrast to the way the world works.
We’ll get the chance to open doors to the kingdom and look inside next week, at the Free Store downtown.  Everything about the Free Store intends to shine the light of dignity and hope for people whose day-to-day experience teaches them something very different.  And those people include both those being served and those doing the serving.
We’ll begin in the nave at the Cathedral with worship and hospitality for guests and volunteers alike.  Then the guests will be seated at round tables for lunch from the Kansas City Community Kitchen.  Servers will come and take their orders, offering guests the power of choice that is so much a part of the practice of dignity.  There at each table will be a member of the Order of St. Luke, our ministry of healing prayer, who will be there to listen and talk and be present in the moment – and to pray, when that seems right.  After lunch and conversation, a personal shopper will take each guest to choose among socks and boots and coats and hats and gloves, helping them find what each one needs.  For those who need additional help to deal with other challenges, we’ll connect them with agencies there onsite that day. 
I have no delusions that lunch and shopping at the Free Store will solve the problems of these 400 people.  Neither will the daily offer of dining with dignity that comes from the Kansas City Community Kitchen week after week.  But I do believe there is power in the practice of dignity and hope, because the practice of dignity and hope brings the kingdom of God to life.  And the love of that kingdom, the love of God’s community, throws open the doors of our prison cells.  When love takes flesh and dwells among us, we remember the truth that puts the world’s darkness to flight. 
And what is that truth?  This time of year, people will ask you about it – maybe not in so many words, but they will still be trying to find out whether you believe Jesus really is the one who is to come, or whether we should wait for another.  Well, you can say what you have seen and heard – at the Free Store, and in Haiti, and right here in the life of this church.  The hungry are fed.  The lonely are cared for.  The friendless are welcomed.  The poor have good news brought to them.  The spiritually dead are raised.  Regardless of whether the world calls us rich or poor, our prison cells do not define us, and fear will not have the last word.  Instead, the voice of the prophet rings out:  “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.  Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’  Here is your God. …  He will come to save you.” (Isaiah 35:3-4)


Sunday, December 4, 2016

Advent Purple

Sermon for Dec. 4, 2016
Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12

I think God is trying to get my attention this Advent.  It started off with the odd juxtaposition of ancient words coming through the earbuds of my iPhone.
I’ve shared with you before that I pray Morning Prayer as I take a walk with my dog in the pre-dawn darkness.  Well, it just so happens that, as we enter this season of Advent and prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ among us, the podcast of Morning Prayer that I use has evaporated.  I wonder what’s happened to the priest who’d been dutifully providing it each day.  So, on Monday, I went looking for another podcast of Morning Prayer, and the only one I could find was from the 1928 prayer book.  OK, I thought, this will take me back to my childhood.  So I subscribed.  And as I began my walk in the darkness, these are the words that welcomed me into Advent:
Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us, in sundry places, to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloak them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy.  (BCP 1928, 5-6)
It went on like this for several more sentences, imploring me to confess my manifold sins and wickedness.  And then the voice launched into the old words that shaped the humble hearts of generations:
Almighty and most merciful Father; we have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; according to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of thy holy Name. Amen. (BCP 1928, 6)
So, here we are today, gathered to offer our prayers on this second Sunday of Advent.  You’ll notice some variety in the colors the clergy are wearing this morning.  Many of us of a certain age will remember an earlier day when the season of Advent was bedecked in purple, just like the penitential season of Lent.  In fact, Advent was seen as a mini-Lent, with people preparing for the coming of Jesus Christ with a sense of holy foreboding.  The readings still implore us to get ready, or else.  As we heard in the Gospel reading last Sunday, Advent begins with a vision of the end of days, when Jesus returns in judgment; and we are told to “keep awake, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matthew 24:44).  Today, we hear the prophet John the Baptist calling us to account, along with the Pharisees and Sadducees.  He says, “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7).  Yikes – that’s pretty intense for people with Christmas parties on their minds.  So, a generation ago, many Episcopal churches switched to blue to shine the light a little more fully on the expectational sense of Advent.  Blue is the color associated with the Virgin Mary, and it helps us join with her in waiting hopefully for God-With-Us.  But whichever color we choose, Advent is a “both/and.”  In these four weeks, we live in the tension of repentance and expectation, aware of God’s judgment and God’s unending love for the people and the world God has made.
Love and judgment certainly run through the words of the Old Testament prophets, including the prophet Isaiah.  In the reading this morning, it’s loving hope we hear, the promise that the ideal king from the house and lineage of David will come to rule God’s people – a shoot from the stump of Jesse, King David’s father.  But the prophet’s hopeful promise also comes with judgment implied.  This coming faithful and righteous king will stand in contrast to the kings who had led Israel and Judah into the state in which we find them by Isaiah’s time.  The king was thought to be God’s viceroy, the descendant of David anointed to lead the people into faithful obedience to God’s law.  If the people followed faithfully, so God would bless the nation.  But faithfulness and blessing hadn’t exactly been the story in the years following kings David and Solomon.  Israel became divided.  Both the northern and southern kingdoms suffered invasions, and Isaiah lived during mass deportations of his people by the invading Assyrians.  Not long after Isaiah, the people of both kingdoms would find themselves in exile, their nations destroyed.  Eventually, the judgment of exile gave way to God’s faithful and loving restoration of the people to their promised land.  But they came back without the restoration of God’s monarchy.  The people waited and hoped, but a national monarchy was not going to inaugurate the kingdom of God. 
We see a similar truth today.  We can’t rely on secular or governmental efforts to inaugurate God’s rule and reign in our time.  The United States is not the kingdom of God, no matter how much we love our country, no matter who our elected leaders may be.  The message of Advent is this: that God’s king has already come and will come again, inaugurating a new kind of kingdom, a peaceable kingdom; a new kind of community, God’s beloved community.  The world around us will not follow him, and we have the Cross to prove it.  But this ideal king asks each one of us to choose to follow him instead.  And when we do, we bring to light the true kingdom that stands in contrast to the world – and we can invite others to join us in its light.
How?  It starts with our repentance, our turning in a new direction, which is why John the Baptist and Jesus both begin their ministries with that startling call: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” (Matthew 3:1; 4:17).  John is dressed in camel skins, and he survives in the desert on locusts and wild honey.  To us, that makes him sound crazy.  But to the people of John’s time, the crazy get-up said something else.  In the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah dressed like this (2 Kings 1:8), and the return of Elijah was the sign that God’s messiah, the anointed king, was about to make his appearance (Malachi 4:5).  So, the people, the regular folks, go out to the wilderness to see John, and confess their sins, and be baptized as a mark of turning their hearts in a new direction, getting ready for the king.
And that’s great, as far as John the Baptist is concerned.  But along with the regular folks, John sees the religious elites coming out for a piece of the repenting action.  The Pharisees and Sadducees were ones who set the rules, the burdens too great to bear for the peasants trying to follow the Law of Moses (Matthew 23:1-36).  Conveniently, those rules included practices that took resources from poor peasants and enriched the aristocratic religious leaders instead (Mark 12:38-40).  So John the Baptist stops them short:  “You brood of vipers!” he says to the religious elites.  “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” 
Bear fruits worthy of repentance.  It’s not enough to feel badly for the poor choices we make, says John the Baptist.  Guilt is not God’s bottom line.  Don’t come to the Jordan confessing your sinfulness unless you intend to do something about it.  The trees that don’t produce for the kingdom will be “cut down and thrown into the fire,” John says (3:10).  The one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire is coming soon.  “His winnowing fork is in his hand” to separate the wheat from the chaff, says John, and “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (3:12).
Well, if you think I’m going to try top that sermon, think again. 
I can’t say precisely what repentance looks like for you, but I’ll bet you’ve already got a pretty good idea.  This much I do know:  It involves bending the knee of your heart to God, listening to what God has to say about your journey, and being willing to change your life in ways that align with the practices of God’s kingdom, God’s beloved community.  In your own life, what doesn’t align with the reign of a king who seeks “equity for the [poor and] meek of the earth” (Isaiah 11:4)?  In what specific ways might God be asking you to turn in a new direction?  In Advent, even as the world calls us to shop and decorate, God calls us to do some interior housekeeping and sweep out the dark corners of our lives to make them ready for the king who’s about to come. 
So, I’ll ask again:  In what specific ways is God asking you to turn in a new direction?  Maybe it’s about mending broken relationships.  Maybe it’s about saying “no” to habits and practices that isolate us from other people’s struggles.  Maybe it’s about being and working with people who are poor or sick or imprisoned.  Maybe it’s about paying more to the people we employ.  Maybe it’s about raising our voices when you see injustice.  Maybe it’s about quieting our voices so others might be heard. 
We might want to write off John the Baptist, with his bizarre foods and his crazy prophet’s get-up.  But his call to the religious authorities applies to all of us who find ourselves in the category of the elite: Bear fruit worthy of repentance.  Bear fruit worthy of the kingdom of heaven that has now come near and will come nearer still.  In these next three weeks before the king comes into our world and into our hearts once again, ask yourself:  What would it look like for me to join the wolf that lives with the lamb?  What would it look like for me to follow the little child who leads the peaceable kingdom?  What would it look like for my life to reveal God’s reality in which people do “not hurt or destroy on all [God’s] holy mountain” (Isaiah 11:9)?  How can my brief time on this side of eternity help bring about the day when “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9)?  What fruit of repentance is God asking me to bear?