Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Saturday, December 25, 2021

YEAR C 2021 christmas day

Christmas Day 2021
Isaiah 52-7-10
Psalm 98
Hebrews 1:1-4
John 1:1-14

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

There’s a famous scene at the end of the movie Thelma and Louise.  Perhaps you’ve seen it, or at least the clip of the final scene.  In a tribute to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thelma and Louise sit in a car, poised to be captured.  They point the car at a cliff, and drive off into the air. . . The movie ends.  People are moved.

But the original ending of the movie showed the car actually falling, bouncing off the cliff, and exploding at the bottom.  You know why they changed it?  Because the test audiences said it was too sad.  Too final.  Too hopeless.  As ridiculous as it seems, just showing the car driving off into the air left some glimmer of hope, however tiny, that something miraculous might happen, once the characters left the certainty of the camera lens.  Always a chance . . .

There are many books that, when translated onto the screen, get a completely different ending.  I am Legend, and Bladerunner, and the Time Traveler’s Wife all got massive remakes of their ending, because . . . well, we do not want a hopeless ending in our movies.  Han Solo was supposed to die in the sixth Star Wars, and instead everyone goes to an Ewok party.  (Of course, that particular choice was based less on hope, and more on the sales of plastic figurines.  But the principle remains.)

We want hope.  We want there to be some glimmer of possibility that things might just turn out all right in the end.  We want to know that some day, some how, it really will be alright in the end.  As Julian of Norwich wrote, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  That’s the kind of assurance we want before we close our eyes at night.  The confirmation from somewhere that this deep longing we have to trust in the future is not misplaced.  We want somebody outside ourselves to tell us that it really is going to be alright.

And I’m not just talking about times when we are suffering.  Because, oddly, that kind of reassurance doesn’t always help.  When we are truly suffering, hearing a friend say, “It’s going to be okay,” doesn’t necessarily make you feel better.  Because, come on, how do they know?  How do they know your medical bills will get paid?  Or that a new job will be there?  Or that you will be able to feed yourself, or do anything?  They don’t know that, and deep down, we know that they don’t know.  Sometimes, hearing “It’ll be okay” is not the least bit helpful.  In fact, sometimes--in the very worst times--it can make things worse.

Because the person saying, “It will be okay” isn’t there to look at the empty chair on Thanksgiving.  They aren’t there the first Christmas morning when our loved one isn’t sitting next to us by the tree.  Though our friends are trying to be helpful, hearing “it will be okay” doesn't help when there’s no glimmer of “okay” on the horizon for us.  And that’s because our friends don’t have a plan for making it “okay.”  Our friends do not have a solution that is going to make “all manner of thing” well.

In the reading we just heard, there is a promise.  It’s a subtle promise, to be sure, but there it is:  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

This may be the most powerful statement in the whole of scripture.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  That is the message of Christmas.  And even if we’re not aware of it, that is why we put lights on our houses, and bring pine trees into our living rooms.  To remind ourselves that light shines in the darkness—that something stays green through the winter.  

And, in some way, that is why we so resonate with this Christmas story we observe each year . . . Because it’s a story about a baby.  Babies bring hope, and a new beginning, and a chance to start over.  It wouldn’t be the same if Jesus showed up as an old man, would it?  Old guy with a beard and a cane . . . Cute, but not necessarily going to inspire us to have hope for the future.

Jesus’ arrival as a baby is a reminder that things might be different this time.  Maybe you’ve heard that saying, attributed to Mother Theresa, “Every time a child is born, it is a sign that God hasn't given up on the world.”  And I would add to it this, from Martin Luther, “Even if I knew that the world would end tomorrow I would still plant an apple tree today."

Or, to put it another way, even the most cynical people I know still love babies.  People may think the world is all screwed up and hopeless and beyond redemption . . . And they set all that aside when you hand them a baby.  And the reason for that is hope.  Babies bring us hope.  And everyone accepts a baby.  Everyone.

Jesus comes to us as a baby not a warrior, because babies bring hope.  Jesus comes to us as an infant instead of an adult because babies offer hope.  Everyone accepts a baby.  And, in the end, it is hope that lures us to face a new day, and a new year.  Because deep down, we all have an unshakeable sense of the truth of the gospel:  
“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 24, 2021

YEAR C 2021 christmas eve

Christmas Eve, 2021
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

There is always so much one could say each year about these Christmas readings.  But every year, on Christmas Eve, I get stuck on a word.  Just one word, whether from the readings or from somewhere else.  A few years ago it was angels, and a couple years back it was drains, and last year it was tradition.  This year, I can’t let go of the etymology of the word “manger.”  I know, you’re all pins and needles, right?

But let’s start with the shepherds.  After the terrifying appearance of angels, and the glory of the Lord showing about them, they are told, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  That’s the sign.  Aren’t you struck by how . . . ordinary that sounds?  I mean, other than the manger part, it’s just  . . . a baby.  After that stunning display in the nighttime sky where they are scared out of their minds, you’d expect the shepherds might get to hear something like, “This will be a sign for you: Giant squids shall climb out of the ocean and devour the Roman oppressors!”  But no.  Sorry shepherds.  Your sign will be a baby, wrapped in cloths.  And,  well, lying in a manger.

When I was a kid, I thought the manger was like the whole structure that Mary and Joseph were standing under.  Like I thought that whole scene was called “a manger.”  And then there would be a little cradle-looking thing that Jesus gets put into on Christmas Eve.  Of course, come to find out, the whole nativity scene is called a creche, and the thing Jesus is lying in is the manger.  And it’s always a cute little spotless porcelain or wooden thing, with some blankets flowing over the sides.  But that’s not how mangers work.  Not in the real world.

I was recently talking to a couple pastors who grew up on farms.  And they were both saying that the two things about mangers is, 1.  they’re usually really big, and 2.  they’re always really disgusting!  At best, you have a whole lot of cow slobber in there.  At worst . . . well, I won’t elaborate.  The point is, for most of us, the word “manger” conjures up something quite different from the reality of what a manger actually is.

And now these days, when I hear the word “manger,” I still usually picture a little feeding trough that looks like a window box on legs.  But this year, I’ve also been thinking about how we got the word manger, the etymology of the word, as I said.  (This is the pins and needles part.)  The starting root is from Latin, which is manducat.  When it gets into French, we get mangeure, and eventually in middle English it becomes manger.  There’s an interesting relation between “manger” and the word “mandible” from the Latin word for chewing.  And, of course, anyone who grew up like I did in a Italian city is familiar with a grandmother’s must-be-obeyed command mangia!  The point of all that is, as far as word origin, there’s a very strong connection between the manger and eating.  

But let’s go back to that other aspect of the manger . . . the messiness of it.  Humans can be sloppy when we eat, which is why we have napkins and placemats.  Still, once we graduate from our high chairs, we learn to be a little more refined in our eating.  Animals have absolutely no reason to get beyond the stage of a one year old with a birthday cake.  Animals are messy.  A manger is pretty gross.  2,000 years ago—without running water—a manger would be extra super gross.  And that’s what Jesus gets for a crib.  A disgusting smelly mess.  Goodnight little baby Jesus.

So, taken altogether, we have the shepherds being told to look for a sign, which will be a baby—nothing special—wrapped in cloths—nothing special—lying in a manger—nothing special.  That’s the sign?  Nothing special?  Look for the most important event in the history of the world, and you’ll know you’ve found it because it looks like nothing special

The sign they are too look for—a baby wrapped in cloths—is the most common thing imaginable, and you’ll find him in the most messy setting imaginable.  Which is just so incredibly perfect!  Because it reminds us that Jesus is at home in our world, at home in our lives, at home in our hearts.  Starting at the moment of his birth, Jesus shows up in the simplest ways in all the messy places where we think he is too good to be found.  Where we would never go looking for him.  Where it would take an act of God and angels to make you even think to look for him.

We want Jesus to remain pure and spotless and spiritually set apart.  But that’s not how babies work, and that’s not how God works.  In order to meet us where we are—to really know how things are—Jesus is born into our world, just as helpless as any other infant, wrapped in whatever cloths might have been laying around, and laid in a manger which was last cleaned who knows when.  That’s how God enters our world.  Vulnerable, risky, and messy.

And this is all a very good and fitting reminder for us right now, as we head toward the end of our second year living in this deadly, divisive, seemingly never-ending COVID pandemic.  Like Mary, we are exhausted, and frustrated, and scared.  And God shows up in the messy unease of our unpredictable lives; God joins us in the dark places that scare us; God shows up even when we don’t want God to show up!

And this leads me back to thinking about the etymology of that word “manger,” and the connection to eating.  If you’re looking for a sign that God is with us, still among us, well we have the same sort of sign the shepherds received.  Something as completely regular and unremarkable as a small piece of bread, placed in the manger of our ordinary hands.  Maybe the last place you’d expect to see God show up is in palm of your very own hand.  And maybe it takes us joining with the angels in singing “Holy, holy, holy,” to help us know where to look.

But God shows up—and God keeps showing up—in the sacrament we receive, in the love and friendship of our family, friends, and neighbors, in the unexpected kindness of people we don’t even know, and in the yearly celebration of the birth of the Christ child: the surest reminder that God has not given up on this world, and that God has not given up on you.  Jesus is still with us, right here with us, in the regular, ordinary, messy reality of our lives.  

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.  Thanks be to God.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Funeral of Dr. Edward Hill

Dr. Edward Hill, 12/19/21
Isaiah 25:6-9
Revelation 21:2-7
John 14:1-6

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

They say it isn’t what you know but rather who you know that counts.  And that’s true, though maybe not in the way you’re thinking.  We’ll come back to that in a minute.

You are probably well aware of Edward Hill’s remarkable life out in the world.  I mean, that’s why you’re here.  Because you knew Dr. Ed Hill.  Out in the world.  But a funeral is really about Ed’s life in the church, his relationship with God, and—more importantly—God’s relationship with him.

I find it interesting that Dr. Hill was born during a pandemic, and died during a pandemic, and in between he dedicated his entire life to healing the sick and attending births.  I find it quite moving that a man who served in World War II chose so many songs about peace for his funeral service.  People who have not seen the horrors of war might want “Onward Christian Soldiers” at this service.  Ed wanted “Let There Be Peace On Earth.”

Edward Hill accomplished a lot during his lifetime, and the world is a better place because he was in it.  Some people accomplish a lot, and some people don’t.  And in the eyes of God they are all the same.  George H. W. Bush was an Episcopalian, and at his funeral the priest read the same commendation that I will read for Ed today, which is the same commendation I read at the funeral of people I’ve never even met.  In the eyes of God and the Church, we are all the same.  And that is very good news . . . to most of us.

Yes, there are lots of people who make the world better, like Dr. Hill.  But there are not a lot of people as dedicated to God and the Church as he was.  Some people walk through those doors on Sunday morning and parishioners ask me, “Who is that person?”  No one ever asked that about Dr. Hill.  Everybody knew who Ed Hill was.  And you know why?  Because he was here, every single Sunday, no matter what.

He insisted that he was going to walk in that door rather than the parking lot door as long as he could still climb the steps.  He insisted he was going to come up to the Altar for communion as long as he could still walk.  That’s his pew right over there, which I’m thinking we’ll need to put a plaque on some day.  

Even during COVID, once we could open the doors, Ed kept coming.  Kept showing up.  Kept wanting it all to work.  Kept telling me we needed to have a sock hop for the kids, and reminiscing about adult forums where everybody would smoke cigarettes and drink coffee in the parish hall.

But here’s the thing I want to make sure you know and remember about Dr. Edward Hill.  At the spry young age of . . . 99, he invited his YMCA workout buddy Jackie to come to church with him.  And.  She.  Came.  And she keeps showing up.  All the research shows that the best way to grow a church is not for the priest to come up with clever new programs and things “for the kids.”  No, the best way to grow the church—to spread the love of God—is for the members to invite people to come to church.  And that’s what Ed Hill did.

On page 304 of the prayer book, in the Baptismal Covenant, we promise to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.”  That is a veritable checklist of how Ed Hill lived his life.  Learning about God with his friends, receiving the Sacrament, and praying in this room.  Dr. Hill kept his promise to do those exact things right up until the end.

In the gospel reading we heard just a little while ago, Jesus has gathered the disciples and is telling them that he must leave them now.  But he tells them they need not worry nor be troubled, because they know the way.  And Thomas—the logical guy—says, “Uh Jesus?  No offense but, we don’t even know where you are going.  How can we possibly know ‘the way’?”

And Jesus says to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Edward Hill knew the way and the truth and the life.  And that’s why he kept showing up here every single Sunday.  He lived his life knowing Jesus, knowing God’s love, knowing that the good news is something you tell your friends about.  What made Ed Hill such a remarkable man wasn’t what he knew, but who he knew.  Not what Ed accomplished, but what Jesus accomplished for him and through him.  It was an honor to know Dr. Edward Hill, and it was always a pleasure to spend time with him, because Ed knew the Way.


YEAR C 2021 advent 4

Advent 4, 2021
Micah 5:2-5a
Psalm 80:1-7
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-55

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I have always loved this scene we call “The Visitation.”  And I am in good company here, as there are probably more paintings of this scene than most others from the Bible.  Many people seem to resonate with this story.  But the funny thing is, I don’t know exactly why people are drawn to it.  I don’t even know why I am drawn to it.   Maybe it’s the fact that at the very start of the story of Jesus’ life, two women get center stage, and the only man in the house, Zechariah, has been struck mute because of his lack of faith.  (I have to admit, I find that part hilarious.)

And there’s that marvelous moment in the narrative when Elizabeth asks, “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”   Why, indeed?  Who is Elizabeth that Jesus would come to her?  We might rephrase the question, “Who am I that my Lord comes to me?”  And that is a question we can ask with Elizabeth.  Who am I that our Lord would come to me?  Who are you that our Lord would come to you?  The temptation of course is to say, well, we’re the ones who have been preparing.  We’ve been waiting for him.  Getting ready for a month now.

But what if we made all these preparations and Jesus doesn’t show up?  What if we have been decorating our houses, and buying those presents, and sending out Christmas cards, and on and on since the day after Thanksgiving . . . and what if it was all for nothing:  Jesus doesn’t show up?  And you’re thinking, well that’s just plain silly.  Of course Jesus is going to show up.  And you’re right.  Of course he will.

Whether we prepare or not, whether we are ready or not, Jesus is coming.  Whether we’re ready or not, this baby is coming.  That’s the nature of babies, isn’t it?  When it’s time to be born, the baby is coming:  ready or not.

So, sure, we all agree that Jesus will be here on the morning of December 25th.  But the thing is—and it seems to surprise me every year—the thing is that after December 25th, we’re still going to be waiting for Jesus to come.  When we wake up on December 26th, there will still be wars around the world; there will still be systemic racism and economic inequality; there will still be those who go to bed hungry, and homeless, and forgotten.  Jesus isn’t here yet, but even after he gets here, nothing is going to change . . .

Unless, of course, everything already has changed.  What if this baby is not the one who will change everything but is, instead, the one who already has changed everything?  Hold that thought for a minute.

The second part of today’s gospel is usually called the “magnificat,” because that’s the first word in the Latin version.  As many people have noted, it seems an intentional parallel of the Song of Hanna in the book of First Samuel.  It is interesting that in Hanna’s song, everything is in the present tense or future tense. She sings, the Lord will do this, and the Lord will do that.  The future is on Hanna’s mind as she rejoices in her child.  In Mary’s updated version, the verbs are all past tense:  God has already accomplished the deeds that she proclaims. 

Mary’s song points to the fact that God chooses “what is low and despised in this world,” as Paul says in first Corinthians.  Mary starts by saying her soul magnifies the Lord, for he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.  Mary is not boasting in her humility here, and she is not gloating in being chosen to bring Christ into the world. 

Though some people get uncomfortable with too much praise for Mary, there is a very real sense in which she is the first disciple of Jesus.  She is the first person who actually believes the promises about Jesus, the Word of God, when she hears them from Gabriel.  She trusts God, and the Word comes to her.  (And we have Zechariah as the first one not to believe, and we see that the word is literally withheld from him, since he cannot speak until he sees John the Baptist; the one who prepares the way for the Word.)

As Martin Luther says, we do Mary an injustice when we say that she gloried in her humility or in being chosen by God.  Luther writes, “She gloried in neither one nor the other, but only in the gracious regard of God.  Hence the stress lies not in the ‘low estate’, but on the word ‘regarded’.  For not her humility but God’s regard is rather to be praised.”  In other words, God’s regard is what counts, whether she is lowly or not.  The emphasis is on God, not Mary.  And God consistently seems to choose the opposite of what you and I would choose.  We would pick Zechariah the priest and Herod the governor, rather than Mary and Elizabeth.  We would have Jesus born in a castle far away, not in a stable nearby.  After all, who am I that my Lord would come to me?

In spite of her “lowliness,” God has chosen Mary to bear this child.  And that is the nature of God, right?  Abraham, Moses, and Esther; David, Saul, and Mary; a baby born behind some hotel in Bethlehem--the least of towns as we heard from Micah—a whole host of absolute nobodies, chosen by God to save the people, to save the world.  As Luther also says, God rides the lame horse, and God carves the rotten wood.

Who am I that my Lord would come to me?  Absolutely nobody.  And that’s the beauty of it.  Here in Mary’s song, this magnificat, we get the promises, like lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, sure.  But we also get what sound like curses:  scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, brought down the powerful from their thrones, sent the rich away empty.  And what do the proud, powerful, and rich have in common?  Their false belief that they are going to stay that way forever.  The self-confidence of being rich, proud, and powerful does not lead to being lowly servants.  (We don’t usually think of Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos as God’s handmaidens.)  Maybe the reason God doesn’t pick the powerful, rich, and proud is because they cannot hear God’s voice.  They are too busy being . . . well . . . powerful, rich, and proud. 

But as Mary’s song proclaims, it is already a given that the proud have been scattered in the imagination of their hearts; it is already a done deal that the powerful have been brought down from their thrones; it has already happened that the rich have been sent empty away.  These things have already happened to them; they just don’t know it yet.  But if that sounds like judgment to you, fear not.  Because you know what they’ll be then?  You know what we call the formerly rich, proud, and powerful? 

We call them lowly, hungry, servants.  Nobodies.  The kind of people who can ask, “Who am I that my Lord should come to me?”  The people who can’t expect God to take notice of them; and those are the people God seems to regard.  

And maybe now you’re thinking, uh, Mr. Priest, what if I am one of the rich and proud and so forth?  Will I be brought low, and sent hungry away?  Well . . . yes.  The judgment is already put into place; remember the “done deal?”  The rich and powerful are brought low.  One day we each will be lowly, penniless, and eventually forgotten.  But that is not bad news.

In fact, that’s actually the good news!  Because remember what God does for the lowly, oppressed and broken hearted?  Remember whom God has regarded?  You will never be in better hands than when you are brought low.  And you can never be brought lower than in death itself.  We worship a God who specializes in resurrection.  No matter our current state, when we give up and are given up, then we will be raised up and lifted up.  We all end our lives where power and riches mean nothing.  God will raise the lowly, and who can possibly be lower than dead?

In the grave, the thoughts of the proud are scattered, the powerful brought down from their thrones, and the rich sent empty away.  And then, THEN God can do what God does best, which is to lift us up and fill us with good things.

And that is why we can live our lives with confidence, whether rich or poor, powerful or weak, Jeff Bezos or some overworked/underpaid worker in his warehouse, God starts with us at the same place of new birth, because of the child whose birth we await.

It is no coincidence that the one who sings the magnificat is the one who is carrying the Christ child, the Word of God.  Mary knows the truth of God’s promises, because she is experiencing these promises firsthand.  God has regarded the lowliness of his servant; she has been filled with good things.  Mary is not just filled with good things, she is filled with the best thing of all: the one who brings all good things and makes all things new.

And today we come to this Altar, trusting in those same promises.  God will lift up the lowly, give us good things to eat, strengthen the weak, and sustain us, as we await the birth of the Christ child.  Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, and the one she carries within her comes to visit us in this place.  And you and I rightly ask, “Who am I that my Lord comes to visit me?”  And even though the correct answer is, “nobody,” here at this Altar, Jesus still comes us, that our souls might magnify the Lord, and our spirits might rejoice in God our savior.  For God has regarded us.


Sunday, December 12, 2021

YEAR C 2021 advent 3

Advent 3, 2021
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Brood of vipers.  Seriously, John?  Brood of vipers?  I’m guessing John the Baptist was not a hit at parties.  And he obviously didn’t have an ear for how to start a sermon.  On the other hand, the people definitely listened to him, so maybe we preachers should take a hint from his dramatic opening today.  He certainly got the people’s attention with that “brood of vipers.”  And their response is to ask, “What shall I do?”

And then John has a prescription for each group.  To the general folks he says, share what you have with those less fortunate.  To the tax collectors he says, don’t cheat people.  To the occupying forces he says, don’t use your power to oppress people or take advantage of them.  Despite John’s crazy, radical opening, these are not crazy, radical demands.  And they sit nicely with you and me because they honestly sound a lot like saying, take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.  Don’t take your sister’s toys without asking.  When visiting a friend in Columbus, do not cheer for the University of Michigan.  Common sense rules of decency.

It almost seems like the people ask John, what must we do to be saved?  And John says, everything you need to know about being saved, you learned in kindergarden.  There’s nothing all that radical here.  Be nice, play fair, don’t cheat people just because you can.  If you do this, the world will be a better place.  And I hate to sound flippant, but . . . Duh!  If everyone was nicer to others, the world would be a better place.  But, does it follow that if I am nicer to my neighbor, then I too will be saved?  It seems to me, there’s no need for Jesus in this proclamation.  Everyone just needs to be a little nicer, okay?

In fact, if that is John’s point, then he’s really getting us ready for Santa Claus, not Jesus.  Making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out which tax collectors have been overcharging and which soldiers have been taking advantage of the weapons in their hands.  If you want candy instead of coal in your stocking, then by all means start being nice to people.  And there’s the rub . . .

If it were simply a matter of our decision and effort to treat people better, we’d have no need for Jesus.  If it were within our power to make the world into the kingdom of God, then we would not need a Savior.  

I know it’s tempting to turn this Gospel reading into a be kind to others kind of message.  And I know many priests and pastors will be doing just that with this text.  Which is not to say that’s wrong, but--well, I’ll just remind you--I grew up Lutheran, and my catechism teacher would never forgive me if I told you that the point of Christianity is to be nice.  If I told you that being nice would save you, then I would forever be haunted by the Ghost of Catechism Past.  There simply has to be more to this text than, be nice, and play fair.

And, of course, there is.  But before we get there . . . You might have noticed that the readings this month are a little on the scary side.  One of the points of this time we call “Advent” is to remind us why we need a Savior.  To remind ourselves why we cannot do it alone.  Why it is that we welcome the birth of the long-awaited Messiah of God.

From the very start of our Scriptures, God lays out what people need to do to be reconciled to God and one another.  Way back with Cain and Abel it’s as simple as “don’t kill the only other child on the planet.”  And before that it was, “don’t eat the fruit off this one tree over here.”  Whether you view these stories as factual historical episodes, or as mythical plot points, the resulting message is the same: We can’t seem to follow simple instructions.  Oh, sure, we think we can.  The ten commandments seem pretty straight forward . . . until we dwell on the meaning of the word “covet” . . . or until we consider what gods we put ahead of our Creator.  

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

That’s how today’s gospel reading ended.  Remember that?  Did it strike you as almost funny in the context of what John tells this brood of vipers?  Like he lays out all this scary stuff about a winnowing fork and unquenchable fire and hell and damnation and then we get, and in many other ways,  “he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

That’s the good news, John?  Really?  Please don’t say you’ve got some bad news, right?  But let’s follow the arc of this overall story here . . .

The people come to John to be baptized.  A few verses before today’s gospel text, he has been walking up and down the Jordan River, on both sides, telling the people they need to repent and be baptized.  And when the people come to John, he calls them a brood of vipers and asks, “who told you that you could flee the wrath that is to come?”  It’s tempting to picture them saying, “Uh, you did John.  Remember how you just told us to repent and be baptized?”  And this is a sticky little point we have to look at:  John tells them to repent and be baptized, but he never says that it will save them from the wrath that is to come.  It seems as if John is saying they need to repent and be cleansed, but the wrath that is to come is a completely different animal.  And that’s because, well, He is.

As John says, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming. . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  Water cleanses; fire purifies.  John baptizes with water; Jesus baptizes with fire.  What does this mean?  

If your car is broken down and also dirty, John will come along with a bucket and a sponge and clean the outside.  But your car still will not run.  If your house needs painting and the foundation is crumbling, John can slap a new coat of paint on it.  If you’re lying on your deathbed and your hair is messy, John has a comb he can use to straighten things out.

But on your deathbed, you need more than a cosmetic makeover.  You need someone who will save you.  You need someone who will purify your soul.  You need someone with a “winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

You need Jesus.

In the here and now, you need to be baptized with water, yes.  And if you ask the preacher how you should live, the answer is to be nice to your neighbor, and share with those less fortunate, and not take advantage of people less powerful than you.  But those answers do not save us from the wrath that is to come, silly brood of vipers that we are.  What saves us from the wrath that is to come is one thing and one thing only: The baptism by fire of the little baby whose birth we are eagerly awaiting.  Only Jesus can purify our hearts.  

The winnowing and the threshing floor and the unquenchable fire are not the wrath.  They are the purification.  The sanctification.  The things that make us what we were meant to be.  What is burned away is not what we are.  What is burned away is the rust that has accumulated.  The barnacles on the boat.  The stuff that clouds our true nature as redeemed children of God.  The wrath comes in not trusting the one who can make us whole.  The only wrath we face is the self-imposed one of not opening our hands to let go of the chaff and receive the gift of life.  

And today, at this altar, we have yet another opportunity to unclench our fists, let go of that chaff, and receive the gift of life, in the body and blood of the One who is coming to save us.  We need not fear his coming, because he is coming to cleanse us with a purifying fire, to be what we were always meant to be.  To sanctify us, that we may faithfully receive this holy sacrament, and serve him in unity, constancy, and peace.  And at the last day, this brood of vipers--this thing we call the Church on Earth--will join with all the saints, of every time and every place, in the joy of God’s eternal kingdom.


Monday, December 6, 2021

YEAR C 2021 advent 2

Advent 2, 2021
Malachi 3:1-4
Canticle 16
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I figure it never hurts to remind us all that every Advent, the Church begins a new year.  And when we begin a new year, we make the move from one gospel book to another.  And this year, starting last week, we switched the spotlight to Luke, which is my favorite of the four gospels (but please don’t tell the other gospels).  And using the phrase “switch the spotlight” is perfectly appropriate for Luke’s gospel, because the first three chapters are really like a little musical.

Luke’s story just moves along and—when there’s a dramatic moment—the characters are beside themselves with excitement, and this calls for a song!  Early on, two pregnant women, Elizabeth and Mary, get together, and they’re so thrilled that Mary breaks into what we now call the Magnificat, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”  Then, Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist is born, and his father is so happy plus he can finally speak again, so he sings out the Song of Zechariah—which today’s bulletin insert calls “Canticle 16.”  “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel.”  Then, the Spirit of God tells Simeon that he would not die before seeing the Messiah, and when he sees the baby Jesus in the Temple, he breaks into Simeon’s Song, “Lord, let your servant depart in peace.”  Luke’s gospel has just got started, and we’ve already got three chat-topping hits—arguably the three most popular songs in the history of the Church.

So, that’s one reason I love Luke so much: because of all the songs.  But let me interrupt myself here to complain about what the church year does to Luke’s narrative flow.  In the section of Luke that we just heard, John the Baptist is, you know, somewhere around 30 years old, and he’s out in the desert.  And soon, Jesus is going to come to him to be baptized, because Jesus will also be around 30 years old.  (Six months younger than John, by tradition at least.)  But the Canticle we {heard from the choir} [read] today is the song of Zechariah, which happens right after John has been born.  And, since this is the Second Sunday of Advent, that means Jesus himself won’t even be born for another 20 days.  Because of these assigned texts, today is sort of a wibbly wobbly timey wimey kind of day.  You’ve just got to go with the flow, disjointed though it might be.

Okay, but here is what I most want to focus on: the opening sentence of today’s gospel reading.  And I’ll tip my hand from the start by asking, see if you hear an active voice in the following:  In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas . . .”  And now I’ll answer my own question: No, you did not hear an active voice.  ALL of that stuff is what we call a dependent clause.  (And by that I don’t mean Santa’s children.  Hey, Dads gotta Dad Joke.)

All of those names and places are dependent on the action part of the sentence, which is, “the word of God came to John.”  That’s the point of the sentence: the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  All those other names and stuff are like Luke adding the phrase, “One day,” before the action part.  The beginning of the sentence doesn’t really do anything.  Which raises the question, why is it there?  Why tell us which leaders were ruling which things, and who led the Priesthood, and all that?

Well, two things.  First, has it ever struck you as odd that the name Pontius Pilate comes up in the Nicene Creed?  Like we’re just going along with all this really ethereal language and these theological concepts and suddenly there’s this guy, whose name we only know because he put Jesus to death.  Why is he in there?  Well, one reason we say his name in the Creed is to anchor the life and death of Jesus to a specific point in human history.  Historians will always be able to tell us what years Pilate was in charge, which means we know when all this happened, like in actual human years.  When you look at Greek and Roman mythology (other than maybe the Fall of Troy) there are no anchor points tying them to real history.  And that’s why we call it mythology.  Could have happened last week, or a billion years ago.  But Jesus was put to death at a specific time and place.  And Pilate’s name tells us when.

So, one of the reasons Luke names all those people in today’s reading is to tell us where and when we are in human history.  John the Baptist was in the wilderness when Tiberius was Emperor, and etc etc.  Tiberius is in the history books, so we know John lived at a particular time and place, and later on, Jesus will come to be baptized by him.  (You know, 30 years after he’s born . . . later this month.)

But as I said earlier, all those names and titles are a dependent clause to “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness,” so linguistically speaking they’re not important.  And here’s why I love Luke so much:  Because at that time those guys are important . . . to the important people.  Luke turns everything upside down.  The beauty of that sentence focusing on John in the wilderness is that those other people are important in society’s eyes.  In fact, they’re the only people who are important!  That list is a who’s who of everyone you need to know in first century Palestine.  And yet . . . the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  Who is Zechariah?  Nobody.  Who is John?  Nobody.  Where is the wilderness?  Nowhere.  The word of God came to John . . . son of Zechariah . . . in the wilderness.

You would expect the word of God to come to the Emperor, the governor, the ruler of Galilee, the high priests.  But the word of God came to John.  In Luke’s Gospel, God comes to the lowly, the outcasts, the unimportant.  To Mary, to shepherds, to Bethlehem, to the wilderness.  God is at work where nobody expects to see God working.  Lifting up the lowly and casting down the proud.  Raising up the valleys and leveling the mountains.  God bypasses the rich and powerful, living in their important cities, doing their important things, and seeks out John, a nobody, in the wilderness.

And, quite frankly, that is the best news you and I are going to get.  Because in the 21st year of the 21st century, when Joe Biden was President of the United States, and Mike DeWine was Governor of Ohio, and Kathy Catazaro-Perry was Mayor of Massillon, and when Michael Curry was the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, and Mark Hollingsworth was Bishop of the Diocese of Ohio, the word of God came to . . . the people of St. Timothy’s Church, in Massillon, Ohio.

God does not need for you to be strong and good and rich and powerful in order to come to you.  God does not need you to be popular and worthy and upstanding to seek you out.  In fact—at least the way Luke tells the story of Jesus—you’re almost better off not being any of those things!  Because the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  And the word of God comes to you.

And as I never tire of reminding you, we all receive the bread of heaven just as a beggar receives bread, or a child receives a gift:  with our hands stretched out in front of us, expecting nothing, but hoping for everything.  Deserving nothing, but hoping for a miracle.  And God bypasses the rich and powerful and important things of this world to come directly to you, because you are loved, more than you could ever imagine.

The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness, and the word of God comes to you.  To you!  Thanks be to God.