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?