Fourth Sunday of Advent: God is With Us
My sermon on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2022, at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church.
It is the Fourth Sunday of Advent! Can you believe another Advent Season and another year have almost wrapped up!? Next Sunday is Christmas Day and the next is New Years! Our four candles are lit, and only the Christ Candle remains for when we celebrate his birth next weekend! God is good.
Our Gospel reading shifts on us a bit this week. We’ve been spending more time this year with John the Baptizer and Jesus, but this week we pivot back to Mary and Joseph, especially Joseph. Matthew doesn’t tell the broad sweeping narrative of Luke’s Gospel… in Luke we hear of Gabriel appearing to Zechariah and to Mary announcing the births of John and Jesus, and we have the travels of Mary to see Elizabeth and Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. Matthew seems much less interested in the dramatic and leans more toward the pragmatic; he shortens the story to a few lines of what happened and an unnamed angel who is sent to save the day when things get a bit too uncomfortable for Joseph.
I’m glad that Joseph gets a few lines in Matthew’s Gospel. We get to see a bit of the man’s character and I think we get a healthy reminder that God also chose Joseph just as Mary was chosen. Joseph has gotten a short shrift in some corners of the church over the years… some traditions, reading outside the Gospel accounts, have assumed him to have been very old when marrying Mary and incapable at his age of being a true husband and partner to her. They have viewed him as too old to be fathering the siblings of Jesus. He has been made in some traditions to be little more than a placeholder.
In the Gospels however, we find a much more relatable groom, looking forward to his wedding and seemingly crushed when things go awry. Matthew presents us with a Joseph who is fully “engaged.” Rather than a placeholder with no intentions of having a family with his new bride, Matthew goes so far as to point out that Joseph will later wait until after the birth of Jesus to consummate his marriage. This is not placeholder groom playing at the role of husband, but a committed partner to Mary. I think we’re reminded that God chose Joseph just as God chose Mary, to raise Jesus. We know from the Gospels that Joseph did just that; we last see Joseph when Jesus is 12 years old, but Jesus is still known by the locals as the carpenter’s son, Joseph, years later during his ministry. What a gift to have the stories of both Mary’s faith and Joseph’s faith when God comes calling on them. When God comes calling and it sometimes makes life a little complicated, scary even!
Life can get messy, even for good people!
Joseph is happily engaged when the unthinkable happens: his fiancé turns up pregnant! All Joseph knows for sure is that the baby isn’t his. I bet Luke would have given us some dialogue between Joseph and Mary if he told this part of the story, but Matthew simply tells us who Joseph is and what he plans to do:
- Joseph is a good man, the scriptures say he was righteous; he’s a decent and non-vindictive man, and so
- Joseph plans to end his engagement from Mary in the least damaging way for her that he can.
Do you think Mary tried to relate the message from Gabriel to her soon-to-be husband? Do you think he tried to wrap his mind around everything happening and had to ask himself, “Is this the kind of start I want to my marriage?” Has anyone told you a story lately that’s just too much to believe, even if you want to believe it? I suppose I can’t find much fault at all with Joseph if he’s struggling to accept things as explained to him, when all of it on the surface just looks so bad, so embarrassing and not what he thought he was getting into with this new chapter of life.
What do good people do when life gets difficult? What do good people do when someone lets them down or hurts them? What happens to good people in bad situations? I think that Joseph being a righteous person, a good person, must have been a main part of the reason for God choosing him as part of the parental team to raise Jesus. It’s surely a big part of why Joseph reacts the way he does. He doesn’t blast Mary on social media and he doesn’t add to rumors or pile on his own anger or disappointment to what must have been a tense time for her… you can imagine the rumors that must have been flying around. No, Joseph sets out to minimize the trouble and to protect Mary from anything more if possible. He’s going to quietly end their engagement and save her from what trouble he can.
Wow. That can’t have been an easy decision. He’s got to be feeling some major hurt from the whole situation. But he’s going to minimize what Mary has to face in her life. What do good people do when life gets difficult? What happens to good people in bad situations? Hopefully, they remain good. Hopefully, they do good. Cultivating goodness in one’s self can be a powerful anchor in the storms of life.
Now, let’s turn the story around.
I think that the goodness of Joseph is also part of his ability to receive, believe and trust a message from God’s angel. When the angel comes and explains things to Joseph in a dream a good man’s heart is strengthened and he awakes ready to follow God’s call and raise this unexpected child.
And what was the message from the angel? The message was that Joseph can trust God and trust that God will be doing good things through the situation in which Joseph finds himself. Don’t be afraid. Trust. Because of all this, all you don’t really understand, all that has been promised and foretold, boils down to this: God is with us.
What can we do if we remember that God is with us? What can we achieve and overcome if we remember that God is with us? What can we faithfully dream and do if we remember that God has also called us, called us and placed us in the church and never leaves our side?
I think of all of Paul’s letters to the churches, we find in his letter to the Ephesians a constant reminder of their calling, and our calling, in Christ Jesus.
…from Ephesians 1
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us.
…from Ephesians 2
17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone; 21 in him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
…from Ephesians 4
14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
This is what it all comes to: we are a called people, just like Mary, Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth! We are a people given a message of hope and strength for our times. We can cultivate goodness in our selves and be ready for what life brings us, remembering always that God is with us. Amen, amen and amen.
Be blessed, Rev Todd
Third Sunday of Advent, the Rose Candle
Our Gospel reading today is from Matthew 11:2-11, another interaction between John the Baptizer and Jesus. I’ve had a difficult time with my sermon this week. It’s been a tough one because in some ways I feel like this week’s Gospel reading is the perfect time to talk about the times when the holidays don’t feel all that festive for some of us. And yet, it’s the Third Sunday, and that means we are lighting the rose candle and talking about Joy as an Advent theme. What to do!?
Let’s start with the Gospel reading.
You may recall we already talked about John and Jesus being cousins, and yet they never really seem to relate as having grown up knowing each other at all. We’ve seen the way that John did his work as the voice crying out in the wilderness preparing the people and pointing to Jesus… but in today’s reading we are moved a little down the road now and John’s landed in prison.
We mentioned last week that some of the things John and Jesus had in common were the practice of speaking truth to power and ultimately being put to death by the Roman authorities. John had been publicly shaming Herod Antipas and was now imprisoned in the fortress of Macherus, which know from the Jewish historian Josephus, and where we know we will soon be beheaded by Herod.
It’s during this imprisonment that John who proclaimed “Behold the Lamb of God” pointing to Jesus, who said he’s coming to baptize you with the Spirit and fire, and who said he wasn’t worthy to fasten the sandals on Jesus’ feet, now sends some of his disciples to Jesus with the question, “Is it really you? Are you the One?”
Does it sound to you like John is maybe at a low point? He’s maybe a bit shook? It doesn’t sound like the John who so clearly proclaimed Jesus in the streets and so surely pointed to the way to the One… it sounds like John is struggling. Maybe being thrown in prison wasn’t in his game plan. Maybe life has thrown him for a bit of a loop.
Sometimes life does that to us, doesn’t it? Sometimes, even when we’re in a season with twinkling lights and happy carols, it’s tough to feel the joy. Sometimes when others around us are right where they want to be, we can feel a bit out of place. I think that’s exactly where John has found himself, in a moment of doubt when he thought all doubt had been settled, in a moment of uncertainty when he certainly had thought he had all the answers. We can relate to that, can’t we?
So, now let’s talk about Jesus.
Do you think Jesus might have been a bit surprised by the question? He could have been like “Hey man, you said I’m the One, and now you’re asking if I am?” I actually love the answer Jesus gives to the disciples to take back to John. “Tell him what you see and hear. People are being blessed, God is on the move.” He doesn’t chide John for questioning. Instead, Jesus broadens John’s view: “Look, John, you’re in prison, and that’s not easy. It’s also not the whole story.” Look at how God is moving and good news is spreading!
And we know that Jesus doesn’t judge or think any less of John for having questions or doubts. He goes on in Matthew 11 to tell the crowd that John is pretty amazing, that no greater prophetic has arisen or been born; John is an Elijah figure among them. I don’t know how Jesus could have been more complimentary of John. When Jesus hears that John has been murdered, in Matthew 14, he goes off to be alone for a while in a deserted place. We may not have a record of their spending a lot of time together, but Jesus values John and keenly feels the loss when he is killed.
We can find ourselves in all kinds of prisons in life, literal ones and prisons of our own making: prisons of doubt and fatigue, prisons of loss, illness and frustration. Prison walls of all kinds can block the light.
Maybe if the rose candle has a chance of leading us to Joy when life has got us caught in difficult and frustrating times, it’s going to be when we, like John, hear Jesus:
- We hear Jesus deciding not to judge or to be angry with us over our doubts and questions, and
- We hear Jesus pointing us to Good News that is bigger than the immediate circumstances of our lives. Pointing John to the news of what God was doing in the lives of other people didn’t immediately change John’s own circumstances, but it did broaden his view of blessing. Sometimes that’s what we need, a broader view of God’s goodness in the world.
Did you notice that all our other readings today from Isaiah, the Psalm and the short bit from James, all assure us that patience pays off. Waiting for God and keeping our eyes on God will lead to joy, even if through some hard days and struggles. Faith never promises to do away with all the struggles or make our lives an easy journey without tough times, but we are promised that Joy awaits, and not only awaits but is begun now, even in these days.
Let’s let that rose candle remind us to look around and notice what God is doing, and in broadening our view of God’s blessing we’ll find some blessing and joy of our own. Whatever prisons would capture and hold our hearts in this Advent Season, may the joy of God’s blessing in the lives around us and our own chip away at those walls until the Light finds us and helps settle our doubts and fears. Amen, amen and amen.
Be blessed, Rev. Todd
Second Sunday of Advent, Dec. 4 2022
Have you lately given thanks for the forerunners in your life? You know, the ones who came before you and built lives of faith, struggle and wisdom upon which we have built our lives? Who were they in your life? I often think of a couple of people in my own life who truly and literally went before me to show me what and sometimes what not to do.
- My aunt Norma – a saint to me… I came home from Elementary School with head lice after the infamous Hat Day I hope they stopped having in school. I was kept home from school for treatment and I had to wear some cutoff panty hose on my head! My aunt Norma came over and I hid in the backyard because I was so embarrassed. She came out and found me and sat with me to love away my shame. She taught me, in example, an early and memorable posture of grace and love.
- And then I have an older brother… thankfully I saw enough of the rough life in his early decisions to help me avoid quite a bit of trouble as a teenager. Today he’s in a totally different place in life, walking with Christ… but wow did I benefit from his getting there! I had straighter paths and an easy way learning from his mistakes, and now get to enjoy watching his faith in action and family.
For a moment, I invite you to think of those who helped chart your course in life, who opened doors for you and pointed the way.
We have mentioned that the readings for our Advent Season this year, the fours Sundays leading up to Christmas, focus a lot on Jesus and his cousin John, whom we know as John the Baptizer. John appears ahead of Jesus as the one foretold to announce the arrival of the Savior, the awaited King. Here in today’s Gospel reading of Matthew 3:1-12, and in Mark’s Gospel as well, we’re simply presented with John’s arrival and the content of his ministry:
- He’s the fulfillment of Isaiah’s foretelling of a voice in the wilderness saying “prepare the way,” and
- He’s preaching and immersing people at the Jordan River for repentance.
I’m personally so glad we also have Luke’s Gospel to give us more on John’s parentage and preaching. It’s from Luke we learn of the angelic foretelling of John’s birth, his parents Elizabeth and Zechariah, and through that Gospel we know that he and Jesus are kin, some manner of cousin through Mary and Elizabeth’s family connection.
Is it crucial to know their family connection? I’m not sure it’s something we couldn’t live without, but it helps me to understand the person of John the Baptizer a little more, especially as he arrives to do his job and in his own words from John’s Gospel, “Jesus must increase and I must decrease.”
John and Jesus have so many compelling similarities and connections:
- John and Jesus are both prophets, understood by the crowds of their day to be sent by God and worthy of attention.
- They are related by blood, though honestly we have no record of them growing up together or spending formative years together; and in truth, they don’t seem to really know each other in a familiar way when they cross paths.
- They both are going to speak truth to power, especially to religious leaders of their day, and they both will be put to death by the pollical powers of the day in very gruesome and unjust ways. John will be beheaded for publicly shaming King Herod, at the request of his dancing niece-turned-step-daughter. Jesus will be sentenced to death by Pilate, at the request of the religious leaders, for sedition against Rome.
The content of their teaching is sometimes contrasted with John being seen as this fire-and-brimstone style of preacher while Jesus is presented a with different kind of Good News proclamation, and maybe you felt some of that in our reading today when John calls the religious leaders a brood of vipers and starts talking about axes chopping roots and unquenchable fires. But I actually don’t seen a huge difference in much of their preaching, with the exception that in the records of John’s ministry we don’t have near as much of his teaching or have things like the parables, healings and face to face conversations Jesus had with people as he travelled about.
Again I’m grateful to Luke’s Gospel for filling in more of what little we know of John’s preaching. When others came to them they would find both John and Jesus with applicable, doable preaching, lots of opportunites to change for the better… and we hear it especially in Luke’s chapter 3: if you more than you need share your food and clothes with those in need, if your job is being a tax collector or a soldier, treat people justly and fairly. Both those positions, tax collector and soldier, were easily abused. We can clearly see the justness, fairness and mercy of John’s preaching amplified in the ministry and preaching of Jesus. And when John got mad and called out the hypocrites, we see that in the ministry of Jesus as well, especially when dealing with the religious leadership of the day.
What about a personal cheerleader in your life? Who in your life has believed in you and pumped you? Who has always been in your corner and pushed you to achievement? I think that we see John doing this for Jesus. In today’s reading it is the clear message that I am not worthy even to be a butler for the One who is arriving, I’m not even worthy to fasten his sandals. You think my preaching is good, hehe, wait until he gets warmed up! I’m immersing you in water, but the One to come will set things on fire! And in John’s Gospel he’s pointing to Jesus and crying out “Behold, the Lamb of God!” After the second time John does this a couple of his disciples start following Jesus, and one of them is Andrew who goes and gets his brother, Simon Peter, and they follow Jesus. Yeah, that Peter.
Oh, John is coming into focus! He’s so much more than just a voice in the wilderness. He’s laying the foundation for the ministry and message of Jesus in his own preaching, he’s witnessing to the crowds, and he’s connecting Jesus to people we know are going to be pretty important down the line. John was many things it turns out, doing a lot, and always pointing to Jesus.
Always pointing to Jesus.
I believe that understanding John the Baptizer is key to understanding Advent. I believe that understanding John the Baptizer is key to understanding my preparing for Jesus to arrive… it’s not just about preparing me. Sometimes it’s also doing all I can to be a voice, to witness to the One who is Light and Life, and to always be ready and able to point to Jesus.
I’ve heard a variation on a good exercise done several times in different ways, and I’d like to offer it this morning as something we can take with us into this week of Advent as an exercise of preparing to ourselves to point to Jesus. It’s a fill-in-the-blank:
“When I got to know Jesus, _____________ changed in my life.”
Are we prepared to talk about the change Jesus has made in our lives? How would you fill in that blank? In John’s day, calling Jesus the Lamb of God made sense and got people listening, but we need to be able to point to Jesus in our lives in ways that make sense to people today. John talked about the way the sky opened and the Spirit descended to Jesus at his baptism. What is it today for us? What can we express clearly about knowing Jesus and experiencing Jesus in our own lives?
The more we think in this way, making straight and clear paths not in the wilderness but in our own thoughts and language, then the better prepared we are to point to Jesus. We’ll be better prepared to join John in that great work of calling out to the would-be and soon-to-be disciples of Jesus around us and helping them know the Way, the One worth chasing.
First Sunday of Advent, Nov 27 2022
These are the notes of my sermon for the First Sunday of Advent at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church.
Good morning, St. Timothy’s family, friends and everyone gathered for worship. As we embark on the Advent Season once again, and delve into our scriptures, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Today is the first Sunday of four in the Advent Season, a journey we undertake each year of waiting and preparing for the arrival of Jesus. Of course, that happened already, according to the witness of our scriptures, he arrived about two thousand years ago. But each year in our cyclical liturgical calendar we retell and relive the stories. The First Sunday of Advent is a new year’s day of sorts when our calendars begin again with the period of waiting and preparing for Christ’s birth.
In the Sundays of Advent, year after year, we find opportunities to talk about many different themes: waiting and preparing, welcoming, arrival, incarnation and more. We’ll go over the story of when Christ was born, and we usually hear about the main characters of that story: Mary and Joseph, John the Baptizer and his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, and more. You may or may not know that our readings rotate in a three year cycle, and this Advent begins Year A, rolling back to the beginning of our cycle. I mention it only because this year’s Gospel readings for Advent spend a lot of time with Jesus and his cousin John, and the ideas of waiting and preparing.
This week we hear from Jesus much later in his ministry addressing questions he is often asked about the future. Our Gospel reading for today is Matthew 24:36-44. The idea of gaining an advantage by a timely heads up is nothing new… the disciples of Jesus had questions about the future and would ask how to know when things were about to get crazy for them, or momentous changes might happen. The answer Jesus gives is rather simple: 1) you can’t know when things are going to happen, and 2) you should act like they’re happening. ~ It’s a very active way of waiting.
Truly, “waiting” in the way Jesus teaches his friends to wait, is not a passive sitting back and watching things unfold. Instead it’s an active way of living life in view of what we believe or hope for, whether we’re seeing it unfold in the moment or not. I was laughing to myself this week because I couldn’t help but think of the way we speak today in some circles saying “Yeah, sorry, not sorry.” If you’ve heard that before, it’s a facetious way of saying sorry without meaning it… Jesus is sort of saying, “Yeah wait, but don’t wait.”
He is going to go on in Matthew’s Gospel to tell parables about how to wait… and it’s all about being prepared, staying awake and watching. It’s almost as though he hears the question, “When will something happen?” as the question, “When do I need to start paying attention to life?” And the answer is now. Don’t close your eyes, don’t drift off to sleep, don’t think you can ignore life and what matters most and somehow jump up and make everything meaningful and right later on, it may be too late… live your life now, in view of God’s future fulfilled promises.
We just mentioned that Jesus told parables about being prepared, active waiting…
- He tells the parable of faithful and unfaithful servants, contrasting the faithful way and unfaithful ways they cared for the household when left in charge.
- He tells the parable of the bridal party, contrasting those who made themselves ready for the wait stockpiling lots of lamp oil, with those who didn’t prepare.
- He tells the parable of three servants given three amounts of money and the various ways they were faithful or fearful in caring for and investing the money.
- And finally he tells that very familiar story of the final judgment when God blesses those whose faith was active, feeding the hungry, satisfying the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and the imprisoned.
Jesus says “keep awake” and tells four stories about trusting in God to handle the timing while we get busy with our faith now. Jesus is calling us to lives of action and faith in this day, here and now. No need to wait while we wait. No need to be inactive while we wait for promises made.
We say it in some of our Eucharistic prayers, proclaiming the mystery of our faith… say it with me “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.” We can trust God with the timing of all that, for nowhere is our faithful watching and staying awake going to be misplaced. We can live lives now in view of when God fulfills what may remain to be seen and done.
That’s the beauty of a liturgical calendar that cycles year after year. We have this reminder coming to us again and again in the hustle and bustle of life, keeping us pointed in the right direction. Changing from green to purple on the altar is not the reason for the season of Advent… it’s just part of the reminder that we shouldn’t be asleep. We don’t have to wait while we’re waiting.
So, how will we answer the call to stay awake and keep our faith alive and active? How will we live now in view of what God will do in fulfilled promises? How do we stay awake? Really, how do you? Caffeine! Go for walk! Turn on the light! How do we make ourselves ready and keep ourselves ready, for whatever comes our way and whatever God’s timing looks like for our lives?
How do we stockpile our oil like the bridesmaids who were prepared for a long night waiting? The easy answers are a bit like the proverbial low hanging fruit… we dig deeper into our prayer, into our study and into our service. But what concrete steps lay ahead for us?
- The Advent study beginning this week could be a great place to start. The link and the book it’s based on will be in the newsletter.
- Perhaps it’s a community of support and faithful partnership like the Brother of St. Andrew, Daughters of the King, or even something like my Anglican Dominicans.
- Maybe it’s reinvesting in communities of ministry here at St. Timothy’s like ECW, MoST or even service on the vestry.
Instead of just saying, I want to pray more, perhaps I can work to build a habit of morning prayer, or evening prayer. There are countless ways to do it and many resources available to us. I should probably start by setting an alarm on my calendar.
Instead of just saying, I want to study more, we have to open our eyes and look at our schedules to make time for it. And we need to go find the resources to fill the need.
Instead of just saying I want to serve more, we need to open our ears to needs and our eyes to opportunities all around us.
And partner up! Grab a partner, or partners, to get into some good trouble with this stuff. Grab a partner for mutual accountability and for support as you build a plan and move forward, someone who can help you stay awake and stockpile the stuff you need for the best life.
- We wait faithfully for Christ and for God’s promises, but we don’t wait to start living faithfully in view of those promises.
- We wait for God, but we don’t wait to open our eyes to the world around us and to get busy in life, love and living.
- We wait for Christ, but we don’t think for a for a minute that’s it’s just nap time until things really get going.
The truth is that while we wait, God is going to be moving full steam ahead and beckoning us to join the fun! So with eyes wide open, let us wait like the wide awake! Amen, amen and amen.
Be blessed, Rev. Todd
An Advent Posture of Peace
Today marks the beginning of a new Advent Season, a new year for the Christian Liturgical Calendar. Some of the passages for this special day pulse with the theme of peace and call us to a mental posture of prayer and sobriety. It feels right to stop and think on peace in such times of disagreement, civil unrest and conflict around the world.
Perhaps we can embrace a posture of seeking and desiring more peace. Perhaps getting drunk on power and lust is not going to make the world so needed by our millions of hurting neighbors. Perhaps we can begin in this new advent Season to speak more and act decisively and help create a greater peace in our homes, school, communities, nations and world. Perhaps the only question is if we will, not if we can.
Allow me to share some of today’s good stuff.
Today’s Collect… Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
From Psalm 122… Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers. For my brethren and companions’ sake, I pray for your prosperity. Because of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek to do you good.”
From Isaiah 2… For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
From Romans 3… You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
And from Jesus in Matthew 24… Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
And I’d like to end with a benediction we often hear at St. John’s, attributed to the Rev. William Sloane Coffin. It makes for in inspiring and challenging close to worship!
“May God give you Grace
never to sell yourself short!
Grace to risk something big
for something good!
Grace to remember
that the world is too dangerous
for anything but truth
and too small
for anything but Love!
The Blessing of God Almighty, Father,
Son and Holy Spirit be with us
now and remain with us this day and always.
Be The Peace
My message this morning at Church in Bethesda for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, lighting out Peace Candle…
We’ve been lighting candles each week for the themes of Hope, Love, Joy and now Peace.
I pray that your holidays are blessed, safe and joyful!
Fourth Sunday of Advent: Peace
December 20, 2015
I’m a life-long Shakespeare fan. Back when I lived in East Africa at the ripe old age of nineteen I bought a paperback complete works of Shakespeare at a bookstore in Mombasa, Kenya, and I read many if not most of his plays. Perhaps you know the opening scene of conflict in Romeo and Juliet, when young men of the Montoague and Capulet families square off for a public brawl, and one young man tries to keep he peace…
I do but keep the peace. Put up thy sword,
Or manage it to part these men with me.
What, drawn, and talk of peace? I hate the word,
As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee.
Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet, Act 1 Scene 1
How easy it can be to choose another path than peace. How easy it can be to choose conflict. How exciting and romantic it can be! And how elusive peace can be in this world when we can so easily fight and rip and tear at one another. It seems too often that live in a world which when we ask for peace replies, “We hate the word!”
Our peace candle is lit, but peace is still far from so many in our world. So, let’s talk about peace, about our passing the peace, about the little choices we make which bubble up into a redeemed world. One of the things that has been catching on in the Protestant Christian world for the last few decades is the practice of passing the peace in worship, sometimes called a “love feast” or just a few moments of greeting. This is an old practice for the Catholic, Orthodox and older Christian communities.
In fact, it’s sometimes been a point of controversy for communities as it is can be considered too raucous a celebration that breaks the solemnity of the worship service! I guess we can have controversy about anything, including passing a bit to peace to one another.
But I’m a fan. I like the passing of the peace. As a worship element and as a celebration it’s not something explicitly seen in scripture or commanded of us, but it is such a beautiful expression of scripture and a way of life that was taught and modeled by Jesus. Scripture references associated with the passing of the peace begin in Matthew 5 when Jesus blesses the peace makers and then goes onto explain in the same chapter the importance of reconciliation between us, even over and before worship and religious obligations.
Scripture also shows us that Paul begins his letters to churches in a very formulaic way, offering peace each time to his audiences. And so the idea of reconciliation and offering peace becomes today’s ritual and exercise of greeting. I have also heard that it is importantly placed before the Table practice of worship to realize the admonition of Jesus to do reconciliation before approaching the altar. So before we gather at the Table we make sure that we have restored our relationships. Can it be a bit perfunctory and less meaningful as a weekly practice? Of course, like anything we say and do, we carry the burden of making it meaningful with our intent and sincerity. And I hope we always do just that… sincerely offer peace to one another.
I like the peace passing because it reminds us of a couple of important ideas. First, God is our peace. Peace is God’s inclination toward us: peace in reconciliation and peace in our lives. Secondly, peace is one of our prayers that we begin to answer even as we speak it. Peace is not relegated to a far-away time and place, a hope and a dream of days to come… peace is our now when we choose it. We pray for peace and can immediately begin with God’s help to answer the prayer in our words and our actions, today.
Paul eloquently warns of the other side of our choices, when peace is left far behind… to the Galatians, a church wherein he himself has been held suspect by some and come under accusations: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” Galatians 5:13-15
There are consequences to choosing conflict over peace, but the real motivation is the wealth of dividends that are paid by choosing peace. Peace is bound up in the presence of God and peace is the chance we give to one another to restore brokenness, advance joy and heal the hurting. Peace is a gift that we can share among ourselves, like a fine meal, like a treasure. It’s a prayer that we not only say, but do. Peace is a plea that we ask and beg, and then begin to answer and realize, with God’s help. We are not without the ability or the opportunity to be the peace. Everyday, every greeting, every person in our lives, every disagreement we have: these are opportunities to plant the peace we would see cover the earth.
In the next line of the play Romeo and Juliet, Tybalt says to Benvolio, “Have at thee, coward!” and attacks. Tybalt sees peace and an effort to keep the peace among neighbors as a weakness and a cowardliness in Benvolio. How little we’ve changed since the days when Shakespeare played out our prideful lives on his stage. We too are often lulled into the romance of conflict, the adrenaline of violence and the hope of domination. We fall into the Tybalt Trap of seeing peace as a weakness or a fear. It is in truth a strength. And as Benvolio in Shakespeare’s story, we will pay a price for standing for peace. But unlike a fictional character upon a stage, we stand in the reality of God’s good world and God’s kingdom business of making peace. With God’s help, we will be the peace. We will do the peace. We will plant the peace. Amen.
Peace, my beloveds… Todd
The Prophetic Voice of Faith is Love
I’ve been so wearied and heart sick from the on-going violence and hate speech across our country and world. Most days I say something like “Well, my sinuses are acting up” when someone questions me, but the truth is that I’m simply soul fatigued by the darkness that is so often heard exploding from stages, pulpits and the barrels of guns. Preparing for this day’s Advent message on Love, I am reminded that there is a remedy for the hate. There is a prophetic voice that answers the bigotry and fear. It is not a fight fire with fire kind of answer or a choice to out-shout, out-hate or out-bigot the worst that we hear on a daily basis. It is love. Love released, love shared and love unfettered among us.
It was a challenge to prepare this sermon, sort of like those occasional nights as children when we woke in the darkness and groped along for what seemed like hours to find the light switch. All we wanted was to get to the bathroom and have some relief, but it seemed so impossible in the darkness to get there. We will get there. We will love. We will keep the prophetic voice of our faith. In humility and my in own soul-weary dance, I offer this message and reminder that we have a purpose higher than the politics and brighter than the darkness. We have love.
The Second Candle of Advent: LOVE
December 6, 2015
Our scriptures are big enough and old enough and engaged enough with humanity that within them there will always be some things that confuse me, things that anger me, and things that frighten me.
But within them I also find again and again the great themes and underlying truths keep me bound to God and to Christ, such as the prophetic themes of love, justice and mercy. The theme of God’s great love that cannot be taken from us is one of the constants of our scriptural narrative and record. The theme of our essential goodness and the struggle to avoid the darkness which will hide it is another great theme which calls us to renewal. I cherish the theme of needful justice for the oppressed and disenfranchised, and then mercy for those who have abandoned justice and need to be restored.
Our scriptures continue to inspire, comfort and convict, even in the midst of the challenges I mentioned before, because they are prophetic. They are prophetic, and the prophetic voice of scripture is love.
What does it mean to say that the prophetic of scripture voice is love? When we use the word prophetic we think of oracles and predicting the future, but we also are talking of the past and the present and a voice which often loudly and coherently binds them all together in a meaningful narrative and message. Such is love. Love is our past, our present and love is our future. Love is the meaning of our effort and struggle, the hope of our need and the joy of our suffering.
So the narrative of love begins in scripture with God’s great love for us and all creation, and God’s understandable discontent when the darkness of our hatred and violence kills and destroys. But God’s love continues, and so much of the Psalms are verses singing about that steadfast and deep love. And even though God’s anger is understandable at our failure to match that steadfastness, God’s love rolls on and on.
And in Isaiah 11, the prophetic voice of love reminds the downcast and the oppressed that hope is not lost. That prophetic voice casts a vision of a coming reality when love reigns in the coexistent harmony of so many seemingly incompatible things: infants and serpents, bears and cows, lions and lambs, the wise and the old being led by children and the unlearned. Can we just stop for a moment and notice the obvious truth here, that love is more often unlearned in our species than learned? The children lead us in love for they have not yet had its light extinguished by our older fears, bigotry and hatred.
The prophetic voice of love rings in the most difficult teachings of Jesus. If we are honest with each other, and I hope we are, the most difficult teachings of Jesus for our lives are not the “stop sinning” kind, but the “start loving” kind. Love enemies. Love and pray for those who persecute. Love one another. Love God. Love neighbor. Love as he Christ has loved. (Matthew 5 & 22, John 13)
These are the teachings that often confound us, but also that shape and create a coming future in which the seemingly incompatible can exist in peace.
We live and make our way in a time of global terrorism, gun violence in our streets, schools and places of work. Domestic violence and sexual abuse scandals are not uncommon in our headlines. Bigotry seems to have become a popular political platform on which to win elections. Neighbor turns against neighbor in fear and ignorance of those Muslims, those Christians, those Republicans, those Democrats, those refugees, those gays, those, those, those…
The prophetic voice of love says not those, but we. Love is patient when patience and civility have become lost virtues; love is kind because kindness is more powerful than fear or hatred. Love isn’t envious of others or lacking in hospitality or generosity. Love doesn’t divide us into factions and parties to put others down and feel better about itself. Love isn’t proud to the point of insufferable arrogance, insult or discourtesy. Love is not rude, violent, or in the habit of making jokes about its neighbors. Love accepts others when they are different in thought, belief and background. Love is not waiting to be angry or carrying old resentments just waiting for a chance to pull them out and inflict the world with more angry hateful speech. Love is not excited by violence or thrilled by vengeance, but committed to making peace. Love carries burdens. Love believes the best of its neighbors. Love kindles hope in darkened lives. Love only grows stronger when resisted. Love cannot fail, end or be extinguished for it is the past, the now and the future. Love casts out and ends the fear that threatens our weary souls. Love is God among us, God in us and God through us. (My personal mashup of some of 1 Corinthians 13 and 1 John 4.)
Our candle called LOVE is burning. This is our reminder and our calling to let love so burn in us. Love is our prophetic vision, our voice and oracle of all things to come, and we must not ever let the darkness hide it or take it from us. We cannot allow fear or ego to dampen it. We must answer it’s call and remain in it’s path.
May love’s Advent never end, but may the arrival continue, lighting the dark corners of our lives and the world around us. May we never lose hold of the goodness with which we are made and continually chosen by God to experience and share enduring love. May we never exchange this great prophetic voice for any other message or meaning. For in this endeavor, in this embrace of love, we join the deepest narrative and truth of scripture. We enter into the millennia old work of God to enact justice, to promote mercy and to the humbly journey together.
How could we choose any other voice of prophecy? How could we allow any fear or worry to obscure this love? How could we claim any truth above this love? How could our identity be known by any other mark?
Jesus said… “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” from John 13:31-35, NRSV
Advent Week Four: Love and Favor
So Christmas week got a bit busy and I didn’t get a fourth blog out for the introduction to Jesus from Mark’s Gospel. I hope you all had a beautiful holiday with friends and family and I’m praying that you have an amazing new year! Today, I’d like to combine that missed week with the text we used this past Sunday at Church in Bethesda, because they are linked in a special way.
Mark doesn’t give us the dramatic birth narrative or any youthful Jesus at all. He begins with the prophetic voice of Isaiah and then the contemporary voice of John the Baptizer telling the people to pay attention, “The One is coming.” And the One who is coming is all about Good News.
1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”– 3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ” 4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Mark 1:1-8
Jesus is the awaited good news. Jesus is the intersection of the vast narrative of God with humanity in a special way, the fullest way, and he comes to us with Spirit. It’s a brief yet exciting introduction in my humble opinion.
And then the One arrives to be baptized by John and we finally have a bit of good narrative drama… the sky is torn wide open and that previously mentioned Spirit falls on Jesus as a dove and the voice of God proclaims, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Mark 1:9-13
And so we meet Jesus, the very image and presence of God’s love and favor. In Mark’s Gospel we find the beginning of the story with Jesus rooted in the prophetic story of God and fueled by love and favor. God is pleased and announcing love. It must have been an amazing time for Jesus. I believe it was also formative for Jesus as love and favor become the core of his ministry and message.
Yesterday we turned back to Luke’s Gospel for a passage that is often described as the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry. We know from the Gospel accounts that he has already been traveling and preaching, but it’s a special time in Nazareth when he sits in the synagogue and again we hear the words of the prophet Isaiah, which Jesus claims as his own. He truly is inaugurating something special…
14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. 16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. Luke 4:14-22
God’s love and favor expressed at his baptism seems to become the core of what Jesus sees as his ministry, and he announces just that very favor in the synagogue of Nazareth. Again, there is the Spirit upon Jesus that now speaks through him to announce good news: favor for the poor, liberty for prisoners, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and a time of God’s favor. He sets his ministry firmly in the soil of God’s raging favor, rich love and grace for the least expecting, least powerful, most disenfranchised and often the least deserving.
He doesn’t announce a new reign of greater power for the powerful. He doesn’t promise greater glories for those in authority. He doesn’t come with reward for the faithful, but instead he offers hope to the hopeless and favor to those without merit. The weak and without power, the blind and captured ones, find sight and liberty. The guilty ones, the prisoners who have been captured in their own culpability, find freedom.
Jesus brings favor to those most needing it, not to those most deserving it. This is a fundamentally important aspect of his ministry and purpose that we must not lose. We must hold to the Jesus who brings God’s favor to all the unsuspecting and unexpected. This truly qualifies as good news.
So, what will your 2015 be like? Have you made plans? Have you laid out goals for the year? Do you understand that you are not trying to attain God’s favor, but you already have it? Have you breathed deep the love and favor of God to fill your lungs with vital life and readiness? Can you stop for a moment and imagine the sky torn asunder and the Spirit wrapping you in a warm embrace while God whispers, “I love you. You are amazing and I’m so happy you are mine.”
Go into the new year daring to stand in that embrace. Go into 2015 believing in the favor and the love of God. If you need to see, if you need to be freed, this is the what the favor does. If you struggle against a poverty of body, mind or soul, this is what the favor comes to help you with. Jesus is the image of favor offered, not favor earned. Claim it, for it is yours.
“You don’t have to change
for God to love you.”
Anthony de Mello SJ
Advent Week Three: BEHOLD!
In looking at Matthew’s introduction to Jesus we focused on the story of Joseph, and it only makes sense to cover Mary’s story with Luke’s Gospel. Luke gives us the grand narrative of the birth of Jesus, beginning with the drama surrounding his aunt, uncle and cousin, and then his own parents traveling to Bethlehem in that iconic journey which comes to rest under the star. He has angels galore, shepherds and an all-booked-booked-up inn. We have women breaking out into song and a guy with temporary muteness. Luke really delivers.
But in Mary’s story a single word has captivated me this season: Behold. You almost have to go back and grab an old translation for this, and I chose to study and read from the King James Version this past Sunday, Luke 1:26-38…
26 And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, 27 To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And the angel came in unto her, and said, “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” 29 And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be . 30 And the angel said unto her, “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. 31 And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. 32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: 33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”
34 Then said Mary unto the angel, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” 35 And the angel answered and said unto her, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. 36 And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. 37 For with God nothing shall be impossible.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” And the angel departed from her.
Mary said “BEHOLD!”
It was interesting to look into newer translations and see verse 38 expressed in different ways. Many simply had Mary say something like “I am the Lord’s servant” or a variant thereof, and some at least allow her to say, “Here I am…” In the Greek she says idou, which is “see me, perceive me.” She really does say behold!
I think that Mary was often presented to me as someone who acquiesced to God’s will… but this is not acquiescence, this is proclamation! She turns the table on the angel and says, “Ok Gabriel, now you pay attention and see that I am God’s gal!” She’s not giving in, she’s buying in.
Mary is sounding very prophetic here. This part of her story reminds me of Isaiah’s moment of identifying himself in God’s plans, “Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.” Isaiah 6:8, KJV.
This Is A Powerful Woman.
Why does it matter that Mary said behold? It matters because she is on the cusp of major life joys and changes, and God arrives to announce the impossible, the unlooked for and the unimaginable… and she buys in. She has her moment of how can this be?, and then she squares her shoulders, takes a deep breath, and gives herself to God’s insane sounding plan. This young woman hands it all to God and allows herself to be caught up in something she does not control, accepting all the repercussions to come. We think of Christ being incarnated in the Advent story, but this is an moment of faith being incarnated, strength incarnated and courage incarnated.
You Are a Powerful Woman (or Guy).
The story of Mary matters because it is our story as well. I want to be like Mary. I want to hear God’s crazy sounding will for peace and good news, grace and reconciliation, and believe it! I want to see a place for me in that plan, and I want to buy in like Mary.
I want faith to be advented in me, incarnated in my own behold! If we were all Mary in our own communities, Mary in our schools, Mary in our homes… if God’s insane grace, love and forgiveness were allowed to interrupt our daily plans and advent something new… if only. How many cycles of abuse would be stopped? How many cycles of insult and hurt would end? How many hearts would be reconciled in God’s peace? What do I miss when I insist on the plans I have made?
I’m not sure I can always be as strong as Mary when confronted with God’s work in the world. Many days I feel more like Zechariah, questioning and struck mute by my doubts. (Luke 1:5-25) But that’s ok, because Zechariah’s mouth was eventually reopened, his words are returned to him, and he sings a beautiful song…
“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them…
…because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Let’s go advent some faith. And if we don’t have the words at a given moment, keep believing and the words will come. Yes, Mary was blessed among women, and she is also a prophet and a inspiration for us all.
Adventing Grace: Living for People’s Honor
It’s the second week of Advent! Woot! At Church in Bethesda this past Sunday we dug into the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel to explore his introduction to Jesus. Matthew begins with a lengthy genealogy of Christ (which we’ll skip over for now), but he then moves into a birth narrative, the subject of our discussion this week. Let’s take a peek at that in Matthew 1:18-25…
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). 24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Matthew stands alone as the Gospel writer giving us the story of the annunciation to Joseph, something we usually associate with Mary (and which we’ll see in Luke’s Gospel). Joseph stands in a similar situation to Mary in that his marriage plans and future marital hopes seem to be coming apart at the seems… his betrothed has turned up pregnant. He would be understandably upset, angry and hurt. He would understandably feel betrayed, and most of us would lash out at Mary in our hurt and anger.
But Joseph is a good man, a righteous man, and that leads him to grace instead of disgrace in his dealing with Mary. He’s a righteous man. The Greek word there means that Joseph is a keeper of law, both human and divine, and is as he ought to be. And that leads him not to judge or to disgrace Mary, but to move in a way that protects her from any further hurt or harm. The circumstances look about as bad as they could be for Mary and as hurtful as they could be for Joseph. She’s not yet fully married, but now unexpectedly pregnant, and Joseph moves to shield her from further trouble.
When it says that Joseph did not want to expose Mary to public disgrace the word in the Greek does mean to put on display. Isn’t that what we so often do to deflect any blame or wrong-doing that might be accredited to us? Isn’t this what we do to punish people when they hurt us? We usually make sure everyone knows who deserves disgrace and blame. Joseph shows us a better way, a way of grace.
Still, Joseph does plan to divorce her, right? He does plan to end their betrothal. I’m glad he is a righteous man and plans to do so quietly, but I’m even happier that God steps in and expands on the grace Joseph would show Mary. When God enters the picture Joseph is called to greater faith and less fear. He is called to courageously embrace the very circumstances which had caused him pain and embarrassment, and to love Mary without fear.
This Advent Season let us remember that the arrival of Jesus is shrouded and immersed in grace, grace shared between people. Can we become a people who daily advent grace into our lives and communities? Oh, yes. We can choose to put aside a righteousness that demands others be judged and demeaned and choose a righteousness that honors others and protects them, even in the worst of circumstances.
Choose grace. That is our Advent message for the week. Choose to look past the circumstances and be not afraid. Protect those around you, even if they seem to deserve worse than they are getting.
God of no fear,
and God of greater love…
May we not ever be a people of disgrace,
but a people who plant a seed of grace
in the worst circumstances of life,
and then watch you it into grow a beautiful thing!
May our righteousness always be a gift
to those most in need of our best.
People are worth the effort and the cost,
now and ever more, world without end. Amen