Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Saturday, December 24, 2022

YEAR A 2022 christmas eve

Christmas Eve, 2022
Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20
Psalm 96

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

Now that the sun has set, I can safely say, Merry Christmas to you all.  To those foolhardy enough to come out tonight, as well as those joining us online at home.  It has been a bitterly cold couple of days across the country, which has led us to check in on our family and neighbors, even more than usual.  To make sure they’re okay, and that they have everything they need.  And in many ways, this fits perfectly with the entire concept of Christmas:  That God was born a human being and became one of us, fully human, in every sense of the word.  Needing help from those around him.  Our savior was born as a helpless baby; God has taken on human flesh.

And there are important changes in our world because of that.  God becoming human is a reminder that life is sanctified, a stamp of approval on creation.  As we are told in the creation story in Genesis, we are made in the image of God.  And Jesus taking on human form completes that cycle.  You could say,  we are made in the image of God, and now God is made in the image of humans, in the person of Jesus.  And, what’s more, every single person is made in the image of God.  Whether we like it or not, God’s image is standing right in front of us, sitting right next to us.  Gay, straight, or trans, Democrat or Republican, Ohio State or Michigan fan.  No matter what we think of that person, we are looking at the image of God.

And thinking back on the story we heard, just imagine what the glorious angels thought of those lowly shepherds.  What the shepherds thought of the selfish innkeeper.  What humble Mary thought about the angel Gabriel.  What Joseph thought about his mysteriously pregnant fiancee’.  And later on, what the wise kings  thought of the disgusting manger setting.  Each and every one of them made in the image of God.  None of these people belong together.  And yet, here they are, altogether, in one of the most well-known stories ever told.

And why are all these people gathered together tonight?  Well, the shepherds told us:  because this thing has taken place.  This event brings them all together.  The shepherds say to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place.”  This thing.  They don’t even know what to call it; they certainly don’t understand it; they don’t even know what has happened.  But they leave their flocks behind, because this thing has taken place.

Which leads me to ask, what brings you here tonight?  Why did you bundle up and drive on over to this lovely old building with the red doors?  I’m sure some are home visiting family, and it’s a tradition.  Some came because you come every year.  Some because your grandparents came every year.  Some came because your mom made you.  Some because you like to sing the Christmas carols, or look at the pretty lights.  Some because it wouldn’t be Christmas without coming to this place, on this night.

But why?  Why do we go through all this, despite the weather and the hassle and whatever else?  Why are any of us here tonight?  Well, the answer is THIS THING.  We are here because this thing has taken place.  And we keep coming back.  We come out of hope.  We come out of duty.  We come to see the spectacle.  We come wondering if it all just might be true.  We are all in the same boat here.  Whatever you think about God and Jesus and humanity the rest of the year, you’re here tonight.  Because of this thing that has taken place.

The story is the same every year.  And it will never change, no matter why it is that we show up.  Because THIS thing has taken place:  God, the creator of all that is, has come to dwell among us.  The One in whom we live and move and have our being has shown up, and keeps showing up.

In the midst of despair and sadness and tragedy and grief, there is also hope and joy and laughter and babies.  Because God has come to dwell among us, and is still here.  Don’t ever lose sight of that point: because Jesus was born this night, God dwells among us.  No matter what or why or how, this thing HAS taken place, and it changes everything.
Merry Christmas!


Wednesday, December 21, 2022

MACCA Advent Service

Thoughts on The Innkeeper
St. Jacob’s Lutheran Church, Massillon OH
Luke 2:1-7

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

First off, I used to play in a band.  And we actually played two concerts in this church.  The most-recent of those was in 1987.  So . . . it's good to be back

So the assignment for the preachers these four Wednesdays in Advent is to put ourselves in the place of one or more of the characters in the Christmas story.  I decided it would be fun to go with the Innkeeper, since I had some thoughts about that already in my head.  Except here’s the thing:  There really isn’t an Innkeeper in the story.  At least not in the way that there are shepherds, or Joseph, or angels.  The only mention of an inn is in Luke, the verse we just heard, and that mention is simply “because there was no place for them in the inn.”

An Innkeeper might be implied in our 21st century hearing, but there certainly isn’t one in the text.  The inn itself is just sort of mentioned as an afterthought.  An explanation for why they’re out back in the stable.  We aren’t given a whole lot to go on here, but we can imagine.  

First of all, I’m intrigued that it says, “There was no room for them at the inn.”  Is that because nobody wants all that noise in the room next to them?  Is it because the last place a pregnant mother wants to give birth is at a crowded inn?  And it raises the question, did the innkeeper reject them, turn them away, or is it that there just isn’t any room?  Both of those questions can sort of turn back on us.  Jesus is coming.  Do we reject him?  Or do we turn him away because there’s just no room for him in our lives?

Of course, that idea could be used to make you feel bad for focusing too much on buying presents and stuff.  Like I could shake my fist at you and ask, “ARE YOU MAKING ROOM FOR JESUS THIS CHRISTMAS?”  But that’s not really my style, and it’s not very grace oriented, is it?  I’d be chased out of a Lutheran church for suggesting that you could be guilted into welcoming Jesus.  Martin Luther would put me on his naughty list.

But how about this idea.  Maybe the Innkeeper is actually being a gracious host.  Like, imagine that the Innkeeper sees Mary is about to give birth.  The inn is crowded with noisy strangers.  And in an act of compassion, the Innkeeper takes her around back and finds a quiet stable for her to bring this baby into the world.  Maybe the Innkeeper is compassionate and caring, rather than someone who slams the door in the face of stressed-out parents.

My thinking is that the Innkeeper is all of these.  A perfect metaphor for whatever you need to see.  Some of us don’t have room for Jesus, and need to be reminded to make room for Jesus in our lives.  And some of us need to look outside ourselves, and to be reminded to watch out for those who need our help.  The Innkeeper is sort of the perfect blank slate for all of us at Christmas time:  Some of us are ready.  Some of us turn him away.  Some are making extra steps to make others comfortable.  

And in a way, it doesn’t matter how the Innkeeper treated Mary and Joseph when they knocked on the door.  Because Jesus came into the world either way.  Whether welcomed or rejected, this baby is coming.  Salvation is coming, ready or not.

The song we’ll be singing in just a few minutes captures this idea perfectly, in my opinion.  The fourth verse says, “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray, cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.”  Our hearts, our lives are like that manger.  And you notice that it’s not up to us to get that manger ready for Jesus?  The song asks for God to cast out our sin and enter in.  The Innkeeper might have rejected Jesus; the Innkeeper might have had compassion and set Mary up as comfortably as possible.  But it is God who sends the baby, whether we are ready or not.  Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.  Indeed.  Come, Lord Jesus.


Sunday, December 18, 2022

YEAR A 2022 advent 4

Advent 4, 2022
Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

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

So this gospel text we just heard, you probably know it very well by now.  The angel comes to Joseph in a dream and tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, even though she is pregnant.  It’s kind of key to the story, right?  Or at least key to how Matthew tells the story.  And speaking of how Matthew tells the story, there are couple things we need to know in order to understand the story correctly.

First of all, Matthew is writing for the Hebrew people.  Mark wrote for the Romans; Luke wrote for the Gentiles; Matthew wrote for the Jews.  And for this reason, Matthew is always emphasizing the connections to the Hebrew scriptures, what we sometimes call the “Old Testament.”  In Matthew, we are likely to find phrases like, “This happened in order to fulfill the scriptures.”  So for Matthew it’s important to make these connections to the Jewish faith, so his audience would understand that Jesus is the Messiah.

That’s why in the first chapter of Matthew, we get what is called “The Genealogy.”  The first 17 verses of Matthew’s gospel never come up in the readings in church (thankfully), because it’s just a long list of names to you and me.  However, that long list of names is important to his Jewish audience.  Because it ties Joseph all the way back to the beginning of the line of David, and to Abraham.  

On the other hand, this is an odd thing for Matthew to do.  Because although it proves that Joseph is descended from Abraham, Joseph is not the father of Jesus, as we just heard.  I have never understood this, and I’ve never seen a good explanation for it, so I probably shouldn’t have brought it up.  But I did.

But there are two things I want to talk about from this reading we just heard.  Mary is great with child, and “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”  That doesn’t seem too crazy to you and me, right?  It’s like, Joseph is a decent guy, and he’s just going to kind of do right by Mary, even though he is probably personally devastated to find his fiancĂ© is pregnant.  Except here’s the thing . . .

A righteous man would not dismiss her quietly.  A truly righteous man would report Mary to the authorities, and she would then be publicly humiliated and stoned to death.  A righteous man does not ignore the religious codes in order to save a sinner, even a sinner whom he loves.  A righteous man follows the rules, even if that means a horrible outcome.  That’s what it means to be righteous.

Moses wrote down the rules for the children of Abraham to follow.  It is clear in the Torah exactly what is supposed to happen to a woman who has sexual relations before marriage.  And a righteous man would follow those rules.

So why do we hear that because Joseph was a righteous man, he is going to violate the religious laws?  Well, I think the answer is one that we have run into before.  God loves people more than rules.  Or, in the words of Jesus, the Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around.  Or to put it another way, because of Jesus, the very definition of righteousness has been transformed.  Compassion and sympathy are what is righteous.  No longer is strict adherence to the Law more important than saving human beings.  Joseph, in his righteousness, saves Mary from the righteous Law.  A righteous man saves her from righteousness.  Everything has changed, because Jesus has come to fulfill the law, not to replace the law.

And the angel tells Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife.  Because she will bear a son, and you will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.  She will, you will, he will.  Isn’t that interesting?  In one sentence, she will, you will, he will.  She will bear a son, and you will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.  And what I love is how all three wills work together.  Mary must give birth.  And Joseph must name him Jesus, because the name Jesus means “God saves,” and that’s what Jesus does: he saves.

And here’s where maybe there actually is a connection to that Genealogy I brought up earlier.  Joseph is descended from the House of David—from Abraham’s line.  In giving this child the name Jesus, Joseph is making the connection for us.  Joseph, a descendant of David, a child of Abraham, is announcing to the world that God saves, because of Mary’s son.  

But there’s another name we heard this morning as well.  We heard it in Isaiah’s prophecy to Ahaz, in the first reading.  Isaiah says, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”  And then in the Gospel reading, Matthew writes,
All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
Which is a very Matthew thing to do, as I mentioned earlier.

So, today we hear that Jesus means, “God saves.”  And Emmanuel means, “God is with us.”  God is with us, and God saves, both promises coming together in the birth of this Messiah.  God is with us, and God saves. 

And here’s what I find truly important about Joseph’s situation here.  It is messy and confusing and by no means what we’d call “neat and tidy.”  And not coincidentally, the birth of a baby is also not neat and tidy.  And when it comes right down to it, life itself is not neat and tidy.  In our day to day lives, we never know what is coming, and when it arrives, it is rarely what we expected.

But notice how God meets Joseph where he is, in the midst of the not-neat-and-tidiness of his life.  The angel brings a message from God that there is another way.  That he need not be afraid to do what his heart tells him to do: to let Jesus be born into our messy world.  The story of Joseph and the angel and Mary and the baby are reminders to us, that God has not given up on this world.  God meets us in the not-neat-and-tidiness of our lives, and reminds us that we are not alone.  God is with us, and God saves.  And this morning, you will stretch out your hands and receive that reassurance in bread and wine, the body of Christ and the cup of salvation.  You are not alone, and God is with us, and Jesus saves.


Thursday, December 15, 2022

Ordination of the Rev. Maureen Major

Ordination of the Rev. Maureen Major
Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 132:8-19
Philippians 4:4-9
Matthew 9:35-38

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

As we heard, Paul wrote to the Philippians, Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

We’ll come back to this in a few minutes.  But first . . .

This is the first Ordination I’ve ever preached at.  I’ve been to a few, and been ordained twice myself.  So let’s start with that famous opening line from Admiral Stockdale at the 1992 Vice-presidential debate:  Who am I, and why am I here?

I’m Fr. George Baum, Rector of St. Timothy’s Church in Massillon, where the football comes from.  I was Mother Mo’s fieldwork supervisor, and I’m here to support her, and also to preach this sermon.  Now, if I ask you who you are you and why you are here, your answer will be different from mine.     Mother Mo’s answer will certainly be different from all of ours. As will Stephen her husband’s answers. And the Bishop’s answers, and so on. Each one of us will have a different answer to those two questions.  Who am I and why am here? 

Now, the Philosophy major Mo Major knows there are deeper existential questions at play here.  Because it gets to the heart of our existence to really probe these questions.  Who we are, and why are we here, and who God created us to be, and who we will one day be. They’re not the same for any of us, because we are constantly changing. 

I am going to risk alienating some of my clergy colleagues by saying that I am a big fan of Process Theology.  (We burn our bridges where we dare.)  But one aspect of Process Theology is that part of us remains the same, and yet we are constantly changing, being shaped by our experiences.  Always being lured into what we were meant to be.  And at the same time, never what we will one day be.

I have had the unique privilege of watching Mother Mo growing into the person God is calling her to be. And she has had a unique vantage point of watching me continue to grow into the priest God is calling me to be.  Point being, we are who we are, and yet we are always changing.

There’s a scene in Oscar Wilde’s, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” where Lord Henry says, "You don't really object to being reminded that you are extremely young.”  Dorian responds, ”I should have objected very strongly this morning.”  And Lord Henry says, “Ah! this morning! You have lived since then.”  We are who we are, and we are always changing.

Today is a landmark day.  But it is also really at heart just all of us watching Mo continuing to respond to God’s call on her life.  And it is also a landmark day for the Universal Church. Because as Mo becomes a priest, the Church itself will be changed as well.  Ordination to the Priesthood feels like the end of the road. Crossing some finish line. But it’s not. It’s more like opening a gate, into an endless field of possibilities.

It all led up to this . . . so that this can lead to something else.  You will be made a priest so that you can do priesty stuff.  A long and twisty process to get you here, and the process has transformed you to do the next thing.  And here’s a secret that I’m probably not supposed to tell you:  The next thing will never be what you expect it to be!  Many people will say, this is the most important day of Mo’s life.  But I will paraphrase the great homer Simpson and say, It is the most important day of Mo’s life . . .  so far. 

Who am I and why am I here?  Mo will have even different answers to those questions when she leaves this room today.  She entered as a deacon, and she will leave as a priest, but will still be a deacon.  I don’t want to go too far down this inside-church-baseball track, but this is because of what we call “ontological change.”  These Ordination mysteries mark a change in who we are, and they cannot be lightly undone.  Mother Mo will always be a Deacon, and starting tonight, she will always be a Priest.  

But everything is also about to change for Stephen Major.  Last September he underwent his own ontological change when he became a husband.  And now, he’s going to be married to a priest.  The ones closest to us see the changes most dramatically, because they know us the most intimately. This morning, Stephen woke up married to a Deacon.  Ah, this morning. But you have lived since then. 

And of course, everything is also about to change for the people of St. James Church.  The good people of this parish are willing to take a chance on someone new, knowing that who you are and why you are here are always changing as well. You are not who you were, you are not who you’ll be, but you know why you are here.  And now, this Sunday, you will once more have a priest standing at this Altar, bringing the priesthood into your midst.

Back to where we started . . . Philippians.  I feel like Paul gives us the answers to our two questions tonight.  Do you want to know who you are, and why you are here?  Think about whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Sounds almost desperate, doesn’t it?  Like Paul has stripped things down to their essentials.  Think about those things.  It’s like, when Sam says, “there’s still some good in this world Mr. Frodo.”  It’s a ray of hope, in case you run into the absolute depths of despair.  Like Paul is saying, if you live in NE Ohio as we approach the winter solstice, look for this light.  Think about these things.

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

And if we think about these things, with God’s help, we will know who we are, and why we are here, and where we are going.

God bless Mother Mo and Stephen Major.  God bless the people of St. James Church.  May you all be reminded every day who you are, and whose you are, and why you are here.


Monday, December 12, 2022

Installation of Fr. Alex Barton

Installation of the Rev. Alex Barton
Church of the Redeemer, Lorain OH
Joshua 1:7-9
Psalm 146
Ephesians 4:7, 11-16
John 15:9-16

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

For those I haven’t met, my name is Fr. George Baum, I am the rector at St. Timothy’s Church in Massillon, where the football comes from, and I’m honored to be here with you on this festive night.  I grew up in Niagara Falls, where the carbon plants used to be, which is very close to Buffalo, where the steel mills used to be.  And now we live in Massillon, where the steel mills used to be, and we’re gathered tonight in Lorain, where the steel mills used to be.

The common thread there, of course, is the phrase, “used to be.”  So many cities in this part of the country hit their peak of success in manufacturing a particular thing that was once in high demand.  The people who owned those plants and mills got rich, and the workers got by.  When factories close down, the rich folks move on to the next thing, and the workers tend to be stranded, needing to find new ways to support their families, in a town that has lots of empty buildings.  And that cheerful opening obviously brings me to the sewers of London in the 19th century. 

Henry Scott Holland was an Anglican priest in the slums of London in the 1890s.  He campaigned for better sanitation in the city’s poor districts, and was told to stop interfering in secular affairs, because priests’ opinions don’t belong in such earthly matters.  You know, stay in your lane, as they say.  His response was, "I speak out and fight about the drains because I believe in the Incarnation.”

When I first read this, I thought it was the most profound thing I’d ever heard.  As he later wrote, “The more you believe in the Incarnation, the more you care about drains.”  I find it’s such an important and moving idea.  And when I quote that line to people . . . well, I tend to get a blank stare in response.  You know, like I say to someone, “It’s like, the more you believe in the Incarnation, the more you care about drains, right?”  Nothing.

Okay.  The “Incarnation.” This is the fancy word for God becoming a human being.  To incarnate something is to bring it into the flesh, right?  So the Incarnation of God is just church speak for Jesus’ being born in Bethlehem—same name as the steel plant outside Buffalo.  Now we already make the connection between people’s physical wellbeing and the Incarnation, even if we don’t know it.

When you put your loose change in the Salvation Army kettle.  When you cook a bunch of turkeys for people on Thanksgiving.  When you offer community meals with produce from the church gardens.  When you gather up toiletries and fill an entire room with them to give away to your neighbors in need.  Whether we know it or not, we are proclaiming the link between the physical person of Jesus and caring for people’s physical needs.  We could say, the more you believe in the Incarnation, the more you care about children having enough food to eat.

Church of the Redeemer and Fr. Alex have already done so much together, and it looks as though you are just getting started!  You’re making the rest of us look bad.  And that’s why I’ve often thought, if I could serve at any church in the Diocese, I would choose to work alongside Fr. Alex and the people of this parish.  And if you tell anyone in Massillon I said that, I will deny it till my dying breath!  But together, you all seem to be doing the exact work that Jesus would have us do, rather than what Jesus himself would do.

And speaking of that, I’ve never found it helpful to ask ourselves the question, “What would Jesus do?”  Asking ourselves what Jesus would do sets up a whole list of things we cannot possibly do, including ushering in the Kingdom of God and redeeming all creation.  I feel like a more helpful question we might ask is, say, “What would Karl Marx do . . . if Karl Marx believed in the Incarnation of Jesus?”  Not what would Jesus do, but rather what would a Christian version of Karl Marx do?  That gives us a completely different list than what Jesus does.  A list that is directly connected to the Incarnation of God and caring about the drains.

Because that question leads us to fight against systemic injustice, to defend those who are oppressed, to help those who are out of work, to give food to the hungry, to make sure everyone has enough.  That question would lead us to buy up abandoned property to plant organic gardens, and use the produce to cook food to feed our neighbors delicious healthy meals.  Doing all the kinds of things that the church should be doing everywhere all the time.  In a very real sense, the Church of the Redeemer is redeeming the Church . . . from the inside out.  “The more you believe in the Incarnation, the more you care about drains.”  You folks believe in the Incarnation, and it shows.

But enough of me talking about you.  Let’s talk about marriage.  That gospel reading we just heard, from John, is often used at weddings and is also used at a celebration of new ministry, like this one.  As we heard, Jesus says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.”  And I think our immediate takeaway is, “Oh no!  I have to keep a bunch of commandments in order to abide in the love of Jesus?”  I can hardly keep my calendar straight, how am I going to keep all these commandments?  If it’s up to me, I stand little chance of abiding in God’s love.  And that’s true.  However . . .

Jesus goes on to say, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  It turns out, it’s just one commandment.  It’s not a long list of behavior modification requirements that we can never fully achieve.  It’s just one thing:  Love one another.  But there’s a catch!  Love one another as I have loved you.

As I have loved you.  And that’s exactly why I love using this reading at weddings.  Because we can then ask ourselves, okay, so how does Jesus love us?  And the answer is, unconditionally.  Jesus loves us for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part, and even beyond that veil when we pass into the arms of angels.  Jesus loves us unconditionally, and that is how we are to love one another.  Without regard to any of the things society tells us are important.  Without regard to status, or wealth, or social position, or anything else.

And when it comes down to it, this celebration of a new ministry is very much like a celebration of marriage.  The people of the Church of the Redeemer and Fr. Alex Barton are finally getting hitched tonight!  For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health.  You are all taking your relationship to the next level, where you will abide together in the love of Jesus, keeping his commandment to love one another as Jesus loves us.

And the love you have for one another is what will carry you into the future together.  A future of feeding those who are hungry.  Of reclaiming blighted plots of land and turning them into a source of food.  Of welcoming every person who walks through those doors and loving them unconditionally.  In short, of caring about the drains.

Fr. Alex, people of Redeemer, you are an inspiration to so many across our Diocese and beyond.  May you continue to walk in love, as God loves us.  May you abide in the love of Jesus, following his commandment to love one another unconditionally.  And may your ministry among the people of Lorain continue to be a beacon of hope, and a reminder to all who meet you that God has not given up on this world, and God still cares very much about the drains.


Sunday, December 11, 2022

YEAR A 2022 advent 3

Advent 3, 2022
Isaiah 35:1-10
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11
Psalm 146:4-9

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

Jesus asked the crowd, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?”  That question cuts to the heart of the readings today.  Essentially, what were you expecting?  It fits perfectly with our journey through this Advent season.  We’re all waiting; but what are we waiting for?  Put another way, depending on our expectations, we might end up mightily disappointed.  But we’ll get to that.

The first reading, from the prophet Isaiah is just beautiful.  I love this reading so much!  Even though it’s from a completely different part of Isaiah, it fits perfectly with last week’s reading, where the lion and the lamb will lie down together and a little child shall lead them.  And in this section today, we hear all about the setting that will one day be.  The desert shall rejoice and blossom.  Water in the wilderness, burning sands will become pools.  A hostile environment shall become lush with greenery and growth.  

And the best part of is right toward the beginning.  Like the crocus, the desert shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.  That phrase, “like the crocus” really speaks to me, because where we live now, every spring those little guys just pop up all over our yard.  At first it’s just a few, and we treat them like little sacred beings.  Be careful not to step on those scarce fragile beautiful signs of springtime and renewal.  And then there’s a few more, and a few more.  And then one day, we come outside and they are everywhere!  Rejoicing and laughing and singing.  To say that the desert shall be like the crocus, well, finally there’s a metaphor that I get!

And speaking of metaphors I finally get, another line I love in this Isaiah reading is this:  A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way . . . and no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.  Not even fools can miss it.  Not even fools can get lost.  As my wife well knows, after all those years of touring, I can easily find my way around Omaha, and Des Moines, and a hundred other random cities in America without a map.  But ask me how to get from our house to somewhere five miles away, and I’m hopeless.  But one day, there shall be a highway where no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.  Excellent!

But back to flowers.  The reading we heard from James offers up this analogy about expectations:  "The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.”  Last month, a certain lady I know planted 1,350 tulip bulbs in our backyard—perhaps trying to upstage those crocuses.  She put those things in the ground, and now she waits with patience for their arrival.  Sure, it’d be great to have tulips popping up out of the ground during the bleak midwinter, but that’s not how flowers work.  You plant the seeds and bulbs, and then you wait.  You let them do the thing that makes them into what they are meant to be.  And, hopefully, what you get is exactly what you were expecting.  She waits with expectation.

And Jesus asked the crowd, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?”  What were you expecting?  And his follow up questions tell you what they were expecting.  A frail reed.  Someone dressed in soft robes.  A prophet.  That’s what they were expecting.  And what did they get?  Well, you remember, we heard it last week.  A socialist who wears camel fur, eats grasshoppers, and yells at respectable people.  Not what they were expecting, to put it mildly.

But before that part, John the Baptist sends his disciples to talk to Jesus, to ask Jesus a straight-up question:  Are you the one we are expecting, or are we to wait for another?  It’s a bold question, but quite simple.  Either Jesus is the One they’ve been waiting for, or they will be waiting for another.  Simple as that.  Jesus could have told John’s disciples, yes or no.  A simple up-or-down vote, as the politicians like to say.  I mean, it really is a yes or no question.  Just answer the question Jesus; it’s just one question.

But Jesus gives them a completely different kind of answer.  He says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”  That’s his answer to the yes or no question.  And why does he say all that, of all things?  

Well, remember what Isaiah says in the first reading today?  When the Day of the Lord comes, “then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

John was expecting a vengeful warrior on horseback who would overthrow the Romans while kicking things and taking names.  John was tough.  John expected the Messiah to be tough.  John was expecting the arrival of the ultimate fighting machine.  John is not expecting the arrival of  . . . a baby.

 But Mary is.  Mary is expecting, and in fact, there’s probably a whole lot of stress in your life right now because Mary is expecting.  And so are we.  We’re expecting a baby.  Kind of.  I mean, we all know that Christmas is about a baby being born.  But it’s very easy to let that thought go on December 26th and start wondering, like John did, when we’re going to get the vengeful warrior on horseback who will overthrow the Romans while kicking things and taking names.  

We look around and we don’t see God crushing our enemies underfoot (whatever that might mean), and we don’t see God fixing all the problems in our lives (whatever they might be).  Something is not living up to our expectations here.

We understand that a baby is coming in a couple weeks, sure, sure.  But I suspect that around mid-January or so, we’re all going to be a bit like John the Baptist.  We’ll look out from inside the contained space of our lives, and we’ll want to send our friends to ask Jesus that question:  Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?  Because right now, we’re not seeing a whole lot of kicking things and taking names on our behalf.  Of course, we don’t dare say that.  Aloud.  No, we just kind of press on, secretly waiting for the God who is going to clear the threshing floor and trample our problems underfoot.  But inside ourselves, at some point or another, we’re each going to be asking: Is this the Savior who is to come, or should I wait for another?  What are we expecting to see?

And what does Jesus say to us?  Pray harder?  Be stronger?  Straighten up and fly right?  No.  Jesus sends the messengers back to us to proclaim the gospel:  the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  And if that is true . . . if that is true, then there is hope for me and you.

Because if Jesus can heal the sick and cure the lame, then Jesus can heal us too.  If Jesus can rise from the dead, then Jesus can raise you from your grave as well.  We may not be literally blind, or lame, or deaf, but we have something like those things going on in our lives.  Something that needs the healing touch of Jesus.

We have our expectations.  But we never really know what to expect.  We have an idea of how we want God to show up.  Maybe in a big red suit, rewarding the good people, and punishing the bad ones.  That’s what we expect, but that’s not what we get . . . thank God.  Because God does not save you because you are good.  And God will never reject you because you are bad.  In all cases, God saves because of Jesus, whether the things you do are naughty or nice.  

And speaking of expectations . . . In a little while, you will come up to this altar, expecting to get some bread and wine.  And you’ll get those, when you hold out your hands.  But you’ll also get much more than that.  Because God is always giving us more than we expect.  More than we can think to ask.  God is always giving life, and forgiveness, and a chance to start again.  No matter what you’ve done or where you’ve been.  Jesus is the one who is to come.  You do not need to wait for another.

Go and tell the world what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  No matter what we might have been expecting, Jesus is coming to save us.


Sunday, December 4, 2022

YEAR A 2022 advent 2

Advent 2, 2022
Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

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

Well, here we are in our second scary week of Advent.  I hope you’re enjoying our journey toward Christmas as much as I am preaching about it.  But let’s start here . . .

It’s important to keep in mind that every word spoken in the Bible does not get equal weight.  The words of God in the beginning of creation, speaking everything into existence, are not on an equal plain with Job’s friends telling him to curse God and die.  And in a similar way, the words of John the Baptist today are not on the same level as any words spoken by Jesus.  In fact, at this point in the story, John has not even met Jesus, and does not know who Jesus is, so he’s definitely not speaking for Jesus.  Just a point to keep in mind.

Now, specifically, the reading we just heard, that confrontation between John the Baptist and the Pharisees and Sadducees needs a little context.  As the historian Josephus tells us, there were three main political groups operating among the Jews in Jesus’ day.  You had The Pharisees, who had extra rules and believed in the resurrection.  And you had the Sadducees who stuck to the written word with fewer laws, and denied an afterlife.  But John, they say, belonged to a third major group, called the Essenes, who shared all their possessions in common, and stayed out of public life.  Pharisees and Sadducees would have been John’s political enemies.  

So the situation we just heard would be like a group of republicans and democrats heading out together into the wilderness and walking into a Bernie Sanders rally.  “The Pharisees and the Sadducees are nothing but a brood of vipers!”  So, yes, this is a religious confrontation, but it is also a political confrontation.  And it’s important to keep that in mind when we hear this episode in Matthew.  Like, these guys have history, as they say.

And then John the Baptist says, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  Now I’ve talked about this before, but I want to ask again: whose fault is it when a tree does not bear good fruit?  Sometimes it’s the gardener’s fault; sometimes it’s the soil’s fault; sometimes it’s the insects’ fault; but under no circumstances is it the tree’s fault.  There is nothing within a tree’s power to control the quality of fruit it produces.  If what you want is to change people’s behavior, this is just a bad metaphor John, because trees have absolutely no say in what kind of fruit they produce.  They are what they are; they produce the fruit they produce given their circumstances; just as God created them to do.

So let’s forget about the “brood of vipers” and the trees with bad fruit, and let’s look at what else John says here.  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  The word “repent” comes from the Greek word metanoia, which means “a change of mind,” or, “a change of heart.”  So John is saying, “change your minds, change your hearts, because the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  So what does that mean?  Well, first off, saying the kingdom of heaven has come near implies that it was not near before, right?  God’s kingdom coming near to us is a new thing.  And so, hearing that the kingdom is now near to us, how should we change?  What would be different from how things were in the past?

For this, we can helpfully turn to the other readings we heard this morning.  And I think all of these readings can best be viewed by looking at the distinction between hope and fear.  Who has hope, and who is afraid?

Let’s start with today’s Psalm, from Psalm 72.  You may remember last week I said that peace and justice must go hand in hand.  In an unjust society, there will be no peace, since inequality causes violence and unrest.  So, look at how Psalm 72 starts out, “Give your King your justice, O God, that he may rule your people righteously and the poor with justice.”  And it goes on . . . rescue the poor, crush their oppressor . . . the righteous will flourish and there will be peace until the moon shall be no more.  So, who’s got the hope here?  Well, the poor and the oppressed of course.  The poor and oppressed have hope.

And the fearful ones would be the oppressors and the wealthy.  Their fear would come from losing power and wealth; and the hope would be for a just and peaceful society.  You see how the goal of hope is NOT to become the oppressor?  Hope wants equality and justice; fear wants the status quo, where some people are oppressed—as long as I’m not one of them.  Hope and Fear stand opposed to one another, and they have different goals.

In the first reading, from Isaiah, it’s even more pronounced.  From the opening verse, we have a stump (which we might consider dead) and we have a shoot growing out of it (miraculous life, in the midst of death).  The “stump of Jesse” here refers to King David’s father, Jesse; so this is a new and surprising branch growing out of the line of David.  And, as with any family in power, fear is what kept David’s line going.  All sorts of scandalous things along the way, but David’s line continued all the way to Joseph.  Fear kept the family line limping along until it was all but dead, but Hope appears in this little shoot growing out of a stump.  

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him.  The spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge.  But I find it fascinating that he will judge not by what his eyes see, nor by what his ears hear.  How would it affect our judgment not to use our eyes and ears?  Not to accept society’s standards of value, and judgment, and justice?  Not to judge with eyes and ears, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.  The spirit of the Lord rests upon him, and he will judge the people with righteousness.

And then what?  What difference would that make in the world?  Well, just look at that list!  The wolf lives with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the lion and the calf, and the little child shall lead them.  But it gets worse!  The cow and the bear will graze together?  The lion will eat straw beside the ox?  Children playing with poisonous snakes?  What kind of crazy world is this?  I imagine this is a world that scares us, to be honest.  This is not the way the world is, according to our eyes and ears.  It’s not the world we expect, and maybe it’s a world we have some fear about seeing.  But imagine this for a minute . . .

What if that crazy world, the one where the wolf and the lamb are at peace, and where lions and bears eat grass, what if that world IS the normal world?  What if that’s the way things are supposed to be?  What if the way things are is the wrong way?  What if in order to truly judge with equity we had to close our eyes and ears?

We can’t imagine a world where the lion and the lamb lie down together because the images burned into our heads are the ones from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.  We think of lions taking down gazelles, not lying down next to them.  But this impossible branch from the stump of Jesse sees the world differently than we do.  “On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”  Hope and fear.  Do we hope for that day?  Or do we fear that day?  

Which brings us back to John the Baptist.  Repenting: changing our minds, changing our hearts.  Knowing that this kingdom has come near, this world where lambs and wolves live peacefully together, where the lion and the calf are friends, where a little child shall lead them.  Knowing that kingdom has come near, how does that change our minds?  How does that change our hearts?  

Maybe you felt a jolt of fear when John the Baptist says, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  Scary stuff!  But maybe that’s because you are worried about the chaff.  The extra.  The shells.  Jesus saves the wheat and gathers it into his granary.  It’s the other stuff, the useless stuff that is carried away and burned.

You and I are the grain in this imagery.  All that extra stuff that gets burned away is what keeps the world from being what it is meant to be.  Our fears and our prejudice and our selfishness, those are the chaff.  And when those are burned away, there will be nothing left but good fruit, in a world where the lion and the lamb lie down together.

The little child who will lead them is on his way, and as we anticipate his birth, we are reminded that a different world is possible, because the kingdom of heaven has come near.  And together, we are filled with hope for a better world.  A world of peace, and justice, and righteousness.  Where a little child will lead us.  Come quickly, Lord Jesus, and lead us into that world.