Friday, December 27, 2019

Merry Christmas, Chuck

Christmas Eve 2019
Luke 2:1-14

Like many of you, when our kids were little, Ann and I found ourselves trying to explain to them, at Christmastime, what all the hubbub was about.  Family gatherings and candles and presents – it all feels like a giant birthday party, right?  And so it is, we’d say to our kids: Christmas is our birthday party for Jesus.  It’s not a bad explanation for a little kid.  Maybe not so bad an explanation for the rest of us, either, given our perennial need to remember what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
But, of course, the best answers usually lead to even better questions.  We’re celebrating the birthday of Jesus the Messiah, which means God’s anointed king.  So, if Jesus is the King, why did he end up crucified as a traitor?  If Jesus is the King, why’s the world in the state it’s in?  If Jesus is the King, where is he now, when we need him most?  The kids don’t ask that when they’re 4 or 5, but they do eventually.  And so do the rest of us, right?
And even before all those good questions, another one comes first: What the heck was God thinking, making an entrance into the world the way we just heard in that famous Christmas story?  We’ve heard it so many times, from Linus and in church, that it’s probably lost its punch.  But if you try to hear it with fresh ears, the story’s just crazy.  We would claim that the baby in this story is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity … so, actually, fully God.  Fully God … that’s whose screaming in the dirty straw, in the animal’s feedbox, in the middle of the night.  And to proclaim the coming of God into the world, a divine messenger appears in the night to a bunch of guys working in a field, telling them, of all people, about this “good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10).  To the nobodies on the nightshift, God has come as Savior and King.
Of all the ways God might have chosen to intervene in human life – to restore the broken bond between us and our Creator, to heal people’s hearts and make us one – to do all that, God chose the path of most resistance.  God chose salvation from the bottom up.  God chose to get picked on by the bigger kids on the playground.  God grew up in a household where the father struggled to earn a living and feed his family.  God learned a manual trade and went to work whether he liked it or not.  God lived under an oppressive foreign empire that existed to take resources away from regular folks.  God came to know, firsthand, just how hard human life is – the consequences of our choices to turn away from God and from each other.  That’s good news of great joy for all people?  Yes, it is – because God still walks through it alongside us, leading us into a contrast reality, a kingdom of love that heals.
So, let’s think about those other great questions in the hearts of kids of all ages – the questions that seem too tough to ask out loud on a night like this, for fear of spoiling the holiday fun. 
If Jesus is the King, why did he end up crucified as a traitor?  For me, the short answer is this: Because, God says, I’m willing to let you do your worst and still give you life that lasts forever.  That’s how much I love you.
Well, if Jesus is the King, why’s the world in the state it’s in?  For me, the short answer is this: Because, God says, I’m willing to let you make your own mistakes.  For love can’t be demanded; it must be chosen.  And you can’t choose love without the chance to choose against it.
Well, if Jesus is the King, where the heck is he now, when we need him most?  For me, the short answer is this: Because, God says, salvation’s only just begun.  Jesus will walk with you through everything you face, if you invite him along.  The Holy Spirit will mend your broken heart, if you open it wide enough to be healed.  Eternal life is yours for the asking now, in this world and in the paradise that follows it.  But, God says, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.  Hang on for act three, in the fullness of time, when our current mopping-up campaign is over and Jesus returns, love uniting earth and heaven forever.
OK, but still:  Where’s Jesus right now?  As we throw this wonderful birthday party, where’s the guest of honor? 
I want to tell you a story.  Like the best stories, it’s one now making its rounds.  I heard it at last week’s meeting of our Vestry, our church’s governing board.  At the end of our monthly meetings, we take time for something that appears on the agenda as “Catching Jesus in the Act.”  We tell stories of how we’ve seen God at work in the world and in our own lives.  We don’t call it “examples of the doctrine of the Incarnation” … but that’s what it is. 
So, at the Vestry meeting last week, Deacon Bruce Bower told a story about something that happened as St. Andrew’s volunteers served at the pantry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Westport.  St. Paul’s Pantry is one of our outreach partners.  Three times a week, hundreds of individuals and families come to the pantry to get food and personal items they can’t afford otherwise; and volunteers are there to serve them.  Those volunteers include St. Andrew’s folks the second Wednesday of the month.
Well, on this night, one of the guys who came to the pantry was someone most of the volunteers recognized – a regular named Chuck.  He’s disabled, he uses a crutch, and he never says much of anything.  In fact, he’s kind of withdrawn and doesn’t make much eye contact … and he’s picky about what he wants in his grocery bag.  That’s because he can’t let his bag get too heavy, given that he’s walking with a crutch and lives a long way away. 
So, Chuck came to the toiletries station, and dear Priscilla Long tried to engage him: She asked, “Do you need any shampoo for your beautiful curly hair?”  Someone else asked if he’d like frozen ham, or turkey, or chicken, or pork to take home.  As always, Chuck had little to say, just mumbling a few things here and there.
But, amid the mumbling, one of the volunteers heard him say something significant – that he was an orphan and that today was his birthday.  Priscilla picked up on it and announced the special day to everyone there: “Today is Chuck’s birthday – let’s sing!”  And the pantry erupted in song.  The look on Chuck’s face was priceless as a shy smile grew.  Bruce Long, Priscilla’s husband, said to the person working with him, “I wish I’d had my camera ready.”  His coworker asked why, and Bruce said, “Chuck’s been coming here for years, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen him smile.”  And as it turned out, this was also the first time anyone had ever sung him “Happy Birthday.”  And as pantry volunteers left not long after, they saw the guest of honor waiting for his bus and called out, “Happy Birthday, Chuck!  See you next time, Chuck!  Merry Christmas, Chuck!”
Now, I suppose you could see this as a random interaction among a bunch of good-hearted church folks trying to make a dent in hunger in our city.  Or, you could see it as catching Jesus in the act. 
But even with that, even recognizing that Jesus was at the pantry that night, we could see him a couple of ways.  We might see the volunteers as Jesus – putting flesh and bones on his loving heart in our own time and place, respecting the dignity of people who often become invisible to the culture around them.  And that would certainly be right, seeing Jesus at work in our world through us. 
But, of course, it’s also true to see those roles reversed.  Remember Jesus’ instruction to his followers – to us – as he neared the end of his earthly ministry.  When the King comes in his glory at the end of the age, Jesus told his followers, he’ll set some people at his right hand and some at his left, “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:32)  You probably know the story.  The King will say to those on his right, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry, and you gave me food.  I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink.  I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.  I was sick, and you took care of me.  I was in prison, and you visited me.…  Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family” – just as you did it to Chuck – “you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:34-36,40)  
So tonight, at Jesus’ birthday party, remember: This is no abstraction we’re celebrating.  The guest of honor is here.  Jesus is here in the hearts of you lovely people in this room.  He’s here in the struggles we each face, day after day, week after week.  He’s here in the rancor of our politics.  He’s here in the cries of the poor.  He’s here in the kids who don’t have enough to eat or a safe place to grow up.  He’s here in the young adults who make a mistake and find there’s no way to come back from it.  He’s here in the heads and hands and hearts of everyone who tries to bridge a gap and make a difference for good.  And he’s here in the face of Chuck, the man whose smile we finally got to see.
As the old carol says, “Ye who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.”  For Jesus the King is here, now, in “the least” of his brothers and sisters.  And Jesus the King will return, God’s own Love coming in power and glory to unite heaven and earth forever.  Blessed are we whom the King will find ready when he comes.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Blessing in the Darkness

Sermon for Dec. 15, 2019
Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

It’s almost Christmas, so that means we’re supposed to be merry and bright.  Right?  But for many of us, this is a tough time of year.  If you look at WebMD or the Mayo Clinic’s website, you find resources specifically to help people cope with holiday stress and depression because it’s an actual public-health concern.  
That stress and pain can come from the intensity of our schedules, our expectations of ourselves, and our expectations of others – the folks we can’t change but sure want to.  It can also come from having lost someone you love, or having lost a relationship, or struggling with depression generally.  It can be hard to keep on smiling through what’s supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year,” even for those of us quite talented at proclaiming, in the midst of our struggles, “It’s all good!”  Well, sometimes it’s not.
Anyway, we all know life can be tough and that the holidays don’t necessarily help.  Maybe more surprising is what we heard in today’s Gospel reading – that life became tough enough even to shake the faith of John the Baptist.  Just last Sunday, we heard John in all his prophetic certainty, railing against the Romans and the Jewish religious leaders, calling them to recognize the presence of God’s true king, to practice justice, and to get ready for the judgment to come.  This morning, eight chapters later in Matthew’s Gospel, we find John languishing in King Herod’s prison with no hope of justice for himself.  John’s in prison because Herod’s afraid.  Herod has his ear to the ground, and he hears the rumbling of a coming rebellion.  Herod’s one job, as Caesar’s functionary in Palestine, is to keep the peace; so, he throws John in prison.  We don’t know how long John’s been there at this point, but it must have been quite a while. 
Why?  Because we hear John say the last thing we’d expect from the one who was announcing the coming of the Messiah last week.  From prison, he sends his friends to ask Jesus, “Are you [really] the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3).  So much for prophetic certainty.  Whatever has happened to John in prison, his spirit is broken.  At this point, he’s not sure whether Jesus is the king or not.  
So, if you’re feeling a little less than merry and bright this time of year, don’t feel badly because you’re in good company.  Even for John the Baptist, the curtains of darkness were closing over hope. 
But here’s the thing.  We can’t let fear and sorrow have the last word. 
Go back to the Old Testament reading this morning.  Last week, the reading from Isaiah was from the time of the defeat of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, when the once-great empire of David and Solomon had been cut to a stump.  Today, the Isaiah reading comes from a few decades later, from the period of the exile in Babylon, when God’s people were languishing in a foreign land and aching to come home. 
In that time of desperation, when the people must have thought God had abandoned them, the prophet offered hope once again:  “Here is your God…,” Isaiah says, “he will come and save you” (35:4).  God will bring the people home by a road opened across the desert, a way made straight through the trackless wastes of what’s now Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.  No one in his right mind would travel there on foot.  But don’t worry, the prophet says, because waters will spring up in that desert, and you won’t die of thirst along the way.  The wild beasts won’t harm you, “but the redeemed will walk there,” those whom God has liberated from the despair of exile (35:9).  And in the power of that liberation, the prophet says, God will heal the spiritual disabilities of the exiled people:  “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.” (35:5-6)  The people of Israel sit in captivity in Babylon, asking God, “Are you really going to come and save us?  And God says, “Despite what you see – yes.  I am your deliverer.  I am your healer.  I am your king.  Just watch.”
Jesus picks up the same refrain with the followers of John the Baptist.  When they ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?” Jesus says, look around.  “Go and tell John [the Baptist] what you see and hear” (Matthew 11:4). 
And what would that be?  Well, for the last seven chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has been curing all kinds of diseases, teaching huge crowds, performing miracles, and giving his followers the power to heal, and cast out demons, and proclaim the kingdom of God at hand … despite the persecutions this work brings.  So, Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 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 preached to them.” (Matthew 11:4-5)  Yes, he says.  Despite what you see –  despite persecution, despite John rotting in prison, despite the cost that will come to Jesus himself – yes, he says.  I am your deliverer.  I am your healer.  I am your king.  Just watch.  And, don’t let fear have the last word.
Of course, that’s hard to pull off in the world we know, from our national life to our personal lives.  There’s plenty that keeps us up a night.  The news tells us that not only do our leaders seem unable to work together, they don’t even seem to be living on the same planet.  Even in a strong economy, millions of people struggle to feed their kids or risk losing their homes.  Illnesses afflict us; and death comes knocking, even at Christmastime.  
But in our all-too-real strife, Jesus says, choose what you’ll pay attention to, for God is at work even in the hardest times.  Let me share a couple of examples.
As you know, parishioner Bill Meeker died a couple of weeks ago with no warning, a day after coming here for worship.  In a sense, going suddenly is a great way to go; but on the other hand, it doesn’t leave time to tie up loose ends.  And I’m not telling any secrets in saying that Bill could be a challenging person to relate with.  But I have been struck, in the past couple of weeks, at the number of people who’ve said something along the lines of, “You know, I’d just had a great conversation with him” or “We were really making progress” or “We’d finally been able to clear the air.”  That’s blessing, even in the darkness.
Here’s another.  I know a family struggling with grave illness.  Death will come soon, and they know it.  But in the midst of trying to make peace with that, the person who’s sick was focused on being sure a message of thankfulness got to his friends, letting them each know how important they’d been to him.  That’s blessing, even in the darkness.
Here’s another.  I know someone struggling with the prospect of losing his home.  He’s been fighting to keep it, but the odds aren’t good.  Yet in that drama, he noticed that someone on the other side of the legal issue had actually taken a step in his interest, trying to give him every chance to resolve the issue favorably.  That’s blessing, even in the darkness.
And here’s another.  I can predict something that will happen this Saturday, when we offer the Free Store at Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral.  There, hundreds of people will be served Christmas dinner, and then they’ll have the chance to shop from a variety of coats, hats, boots, and gloves to help them stay warm this winter.  And I can tell you how several of those conversations will go.  People from St. Andrew’s will be sitting at tables with them during lunch, or helping them shop through the Free Store afterward.  And we’ll ask guests this question: “How are you doing?”  And I guarantee that we will hear this response:  “I am blessed.”  I am blessed.  Even in poverty.  Even in the darkness.
A big part of getting ready for the coming of our Savior and King is deciding what we’ll hear and see.  So, look for the thirsty ground that God is watering to bring you out of spiritual exile.  Pay attention to what you learn from reporters of hope, rather than those who profit from driving us further apart in fear.  Seek the healing presence of people around you in those moments when life brings you pain. 
And then, be that reporter of Good News yourself.  As Jesus says to John’s followers, go and tell others what you’ve heard and seen.  The blind receive their sight.  The lame walk.  The lepers are cleansed.  The deaf hear.  The dead are raised.  And those who are poor, in so many senses, have good news brought to them.  Yes, we find ourselves in exile sometimes.  But death doesn’t get the last word.  For “the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come [home] with singing … and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10).

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Kingdom at Hand

Sermon for Dec. 8, 2019
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7,18-19; Matthew 3:1-12

Well, that’s quite a Gospel reading!  Here we are, sending cards and decorating trees and buying presents; and here comes John the Baptist, wearing animal skins and eating locusts, crashing our pre-Christmas party.  Prophets are good at that, coming onto the scene with just what folks don’t want to hear.  And, of course, that puts me in the role of standing up here, two and a half weeks from Christmas, and talking about fire and wrath and repentance.  Just call me Fr. Buzz-Kill.  
Well, I want to start this morning with a little history.  If you aren’t a fan of history, hang in there because we’ll then move to a little prophetic witness.  And if you aren’t a fan of prophetic witness, still hang in there because all this will come down to you, in the end.
So, here’s the history:  That first reading we heard, from the prophet Isaiah, comes from the time of the Syro-Ephraimite War in the 730s BCE.  That little-remembered conflict may not mean much to us, but for the people of the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah, it meant a lot.  Here’s the short version:  Israel and another tiny kingdom decided to ally against the major power of the day, Assyria.  They tried to get the Kingdom of Judah to come along, but Judah declined to kick the Assyrian bear.  In the end, none of the small kingdoms made out well.   Israel was taken over by the Assyrians, who began deporting the conquered people.  Judah, and its capital of Jerusalem, turned into a vassal of Assyria, losing its autonomy.  So, when Isaiah writes about the “stump of Jesse,” he’s acknowledging that the Kingdom of Judah has become next to nothing, just a stump, compared with the glory days of kings David and Solomon. 
But even in this sad situation, Isaiah says, don’t lose hope.  From that stump will spring new growth, a green shoot no one expects from dead wood.  A descendant of King David will arise, and he’ll reign like David, only more so: bringing God’s rule to the people once again, governing with righteousness, bringing justice to poor and powerless people – in fact, ruling so faithfully that God’s peaceable kingdom will arise, the paradise of the wolf living with the lamb, the leopard lying down with the young goat, and a little child leading them all.
OK, here’s some more history.  Fast-forward 700 years, and we find ourselves out in the desert wilderness, near where the Jordan River empties into the Dead Sea.  The Jewish people are still waiting for their faithful king to arise, and the waiting has only gotten harder over the centuries.  At this moment, the Romans are the imperial oppressors du jour, and the people are yearning for freedom and justice and empowerment more than ever.  
Into that world, God raises up our Christmas-party crasher, John the Baptist.  John goes out into the deadest place you can picture and proclaims hope – that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2).  Matthew identifies John as the prophet expected for centuries, returning to get people ready for the coming of God’s king, even wearing clothes that harken back to stories about the prophet Elijah.  John and his message are attracting quite a following, with crowds coming out from Jerusalem to hear him rail against their oppressors and to purify themselves through baptism, to make themselves worthy of God’s intervention on their behalf. 
But John isn’t content with haranguing the Romans; he broadens the indictment to include some of the folks in the crowd.  He sees “many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism,” and he calls them out:  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matt 3:7).  Now, it helps to know who those folks were.  The Pharisees were legal rigorists, calling people to apply the law of Moses strictly to daily life while missing the point of relationship with God that the law was intended to nurture.  The Sadducees were powerful, aristocratic priests, concerned primarily with position and authority.  Together, the Pharisees and Sadducees were the religiously privileged and powerful, fighting with each other while failing to lead regular people to love God and others, thereby bringing God’s kingdom to life. 
So, to these privileged and powerful religious leaders, John says, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt 3:8) and then come back and see me about baptism.  You’ve got bigger trouble ahead than me calling you out in public, John says.  Someone’s coming who will indeed baptize you –purify you – but with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  He’s coming to separate the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff, and guess where you folks in charge will fall?  Good luck, coming out here and going through the motions, John says, because “the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt 3:12).
John the Baptist, and the prophet Isaiah, and our psalm this morning all call us to righteousness and justice and repentance.  So, it’d be good to understand what these concepts mean on the ground, in our day-to-day lives, because we may not all hear these churchy words the same way. 
For example:  We might hear “righteousness” as being about personal holiness – doing good things and not doing bad things.  But God’s intent is deeper, because righteousness is the orientation of our hearts.  Righteousness means being in right relationship with God – giving God praise and glory, following God’s heart of love, living out the dictum that God is God and we are not. 
Similarly, we might hear “justice” as being about the proper functioning of legal systems.  But God’s intent is deeper, because justice is the outcome of righteousness in the world around us.  As we note in our Baptismal Covenant, justice means honoring the inherent dignity of every human being – sharing opportunity with the poor, hearing the powerless, giving challenging people the respect and love we’d want for ourselves.  
Similarly, we might hear the call to “repent” as a call to be sorry for things we’ve done and left undone.  But God’s intent is deeper, because repentance is the choice to reorient our way, to choose a new and Christlike path, to turn toward righteousness so that justice will roll down from it like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).
So, there’s your bit of history and your prophetic call.  I appreciate you hanging in there, because now the rubber meets the road.  Ultimately, neither John the Baptist nor Jesus Christ came to clarify concepts for us.  They came to offer us a choice.  This prophet, and our Savior, each came proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 3:2, 4:17).  Now, that’s not exactly news.  Preachers calling for repentance is not groundbreaking stuff.  But here is some news, and it is good:  Your repentance, your choosing to turn toward righteousness and justice – this isn’t just your personal ticket out of unquenchable fire, though it is that, too.  It’s also where your life finds its meaning.
Let me give you an example, a story we celebrated just last Sunday.  In the Jewell Room after the 10:15 service, we honored the 100th birthday of parishioner Jean Dooley Peterson.  Most of us probably know her as Ann Hyde’s mother, and the two of them sit up here near the front at 10:15.  What you may not know is that Jean Peterson earned a doctorate in psychotherapy and religion, and she worked for years as a family therapist, improving people’s lives and honoring their inherent dignity at every turn.  Several years ago, she decided she wanted to be confirmed, and I got to know her in that process. 
Now, at about the same time, Jean was the first person at St. Andrew’s to challenge us to provide hot lunches to the 150 or so students at our partner school in Maniche, Haiti.  Jean saw the connection between full bellies and minds ready to learn, so she sponsored lunch at the school one day a week.  And that support went on, year after year.
Fast-forward 12 years, and the school has grown to more than 400 students.  As we heard from Kathy Shaffer last Sunday, it’s still open and forming young minds even in the midst of Haiti’s worst political and economic crisis in decades.  And as she turns 100, once again Dr. Jean Peterson has renewed her gift in support of the lunch program at St. Augustin’s School.  Years ago, she made a choice to turn her heart and her life Christ-ward.  In her faithfulness, she became an agent of God’s justice, respecting the dignity of those children by opening doors of opportunity for their futures.  After 12 years, she’s been responsible for more than 75,000 lunches served at our partner school.  Through her witness, the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Of course, the truly amazing thing is that Jean’s story is just one of hundreds in this room.  Some of you bring the kingdom of heaven near through lives of prayer for the well-being of others.  Some of you bring the kingdom of heaven near by mentoring children at local schools.  Some of you bring the kingdom of heaven near by creating living-wage jobs that lift people out of poverty.  Some of you bring the kingdom of heaven near by hiring or renting to people others might write off.  Those choices do not go unnoticed by the One with the winnowing fork in his hand.
Now, I imagine that, for most of us on any given day, we may not feel like we’re particularly vital parts of God’s work of salvation.  In fact, on our more challenging days, we may doubt the holy value of what we have to offer.  But here’s the surprising truth:  God brought the shoot of new life, Jesus the righteous King, out of what seemed the dead stump of the house of King David.  God brings the hope of divine justice to people oppressed by one imperial power after another.  God calls us to turn our hearts and our lives toward righteousness and justice, committing ourselves to follow this king and bear fruit worthy of repentance.  Our stories can mean so much more than we think.  Our choice for repentance and righteousness and justice can change the world, one person at a time. 
And the time to make that choice is now, as we see the Lord coming toward us this Advent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.