Speedy Delivery

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It isn’t just the holy Scriptures that are living and active, but truly every written text can be multivalent, carrying many different levels of meaning and open to various interpretations.  This came to mind this morning as I read the Collect appointed for Advent 3 and my mind was immediately taken to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood’s mailman, Mr. McFeely who’s catch phrase was “Speedy Delivery.”  In the prayer, sadly, the only “stir up” prayer we have left in our current Prayer Book, we that God’s abundant grace and mercy might “speedily help and deliver us.”

It is likely due to the fact that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is in theaters now and that Mr. Rogers has been in the media spotlight of late that I heard this prayer in a new and different way, but I think that’s how God works through written texts.  As we read words, especially those that are familiar to us, with intentionality, God, through the Holy Spirit, is at work in our minds, causing synapses to fire, memories to be triggered, and new meaning to burst forth.  So it was this morning as the words I’ve read hundreds to times “speedily help and deliver us” made me think of Mr. McFeely and took me down a rabbit hole of what we mean when we ask God for deliverance.

My first stop was my trusty copy of the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms.  That’s right, when they’re not holding internationally famous dog shows, the folks at Westminster are publishing dictionaries for nerds.  In it, the word deliverance is noted to have come to us from the Latin deliberare which means “to liberate.”  The deliverance we ask for in this prayer and hope for in our faith in Christ is liberation – freedom from our enslavement to sin.  It makes sense, then, that we would pray for such deliverance to come quickly.  Anyone who has taken honest stock of their lives will realize that the consequences of sin are what make life hard.  Broken relationships, dysfunctional systems, out of balance power dynamics, hurt, and sadness are just some of the things we pray would end “speedily” when we ask God for deliverance.

Next, I cracked open Marion Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book, which expanded my understanding even further.  Hatchett notes that this phrase “speedily help and deliver” is a 1662 expansion of the original prayer from c. 750 AD.  By adding the word help, the revisers of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer made this an intentionally Advent-y prayer.  “… this prayer sets forth better than the others the themes of the two advents: the first in which [Christ] came in great humility, and the second in which He comes in power; the first in which He came to save (read, “deliver”), the second in which He comes to help and relieve.

So, a random synapse fire helped me learn some new things today and will deepen my prayer life going forward.  I hope it helps you too, dear reader.

What are we looking for?

I am a walking dichotomy.  On the one hand, I write a blog that I hope a lot of people will read.  I post on instagram and facebook, hoping for lots of likes.  I lead a congregation that I hope will grow.  On the other hand, I have deep misgivings about the rise of religious celebrity and the cult of personality that seems to be at the root of much of what calls itself Christianity in 21st century America.  The world in me wants to be somewhat church famous (with the justification of, it’ll lead more people to follow Jesus in what I’ve deemed to be the right way).  The Holy Spirit in me wants to be anonymous and to let God take care of the soul saving work.  The world in me looks down my nose at folks like Joel Osteen, Franklin Graham, and people still using the Royal Wedding sermon to prop up our Presiding Bishop.  The Holy Spirit in me argues that there is no competition in the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is a struggle I deal with on a regular basis.

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Being rich because of the poor is a lot of fun.

This dichotomy is hitting home this week as I read the Gospel lesson appointed for Advent 3A.  Eight chapters after we first met John the Baptist in the wilderness of Judea last Sunday, this week, we’ll get the continuation of the JBap story.  John has been arrested.  As was the custom of the time, his disciples ministered to him in jail.  As they brought him food and clothing, they also shared news from the outside.  Jesus was on the move.  His fame was beginning to increase.  He was preaching repentance, healing the sick, and his followers were growing.  Something was missing, however.  John had expected the Messiah to do or say something that Jesus wasn’t, and so he asked his disciples to go meet Jesus and to make sure he really was the one they had been waiting for.

In response, Jesus hits this dichotomy of worldly fame and godly faithfulness right on the head.  First, Jesus lays out a vision for the Kingdom of Heaven.  Despite thousands of years of expectation, both before and after the coming of Christ, the vision set forth by Jesus isn’t about power, prestige, or fame, but rather, its about humility, compassion, and good news for those on the margins.  Second, Jesus challenges all who would wish that God was more interested in political power by reminding them, and us, that what brought people out to see John, and by extension, what brought them out to see Jesus, wasn’t those in the soft robes of the palace, but the messiness of the wilderness.  It is there, amidst the locusts, dust, and the poor that the Kingdom of God will be found.  It is in humility, poverty, and suffering with, not in expensive suits, fancy houses, private jets, and book deals that the Kingdom of God will be found.

Ultimately, I think we are all walking dichotomies.  Our motivations are often mixed.  Our deepest desires are shaped by the world even as we strive to live for the Kingdom.  In Christ, however, we have our exemplar.  In John the Baptist, we have one who came to point to the way, even as he struggled with this dichotomy himself.  Across thousands of years of Judeo-Christian history we have all kinds of examples of those who feebly struggled to live for Christ and not for self, and this Tuesday in Advent, as I’ll once again be asked to leave a room while the Vestry talks my stipend for 2020, I’m grateful for the examples of those who don’t trust in fame or riches, but in the power of the lamb.

Patience!?!

Advent 3 is a pretty evil time for the RCL to assign James 5 and a call to patience.  It is as if they’ve never had a seven year-old waiting for Santa in their homes.  By the time the ides of December are upon us, I think every parent in Christendom feels like the late, great, Grumpy Cat.

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And yet, as we enter upon the busiest fortnight of the year for both church and secular society, laity and the ordained, the call to patience is probably a really good bit of advice.  There is a tendency to rush, rush, rush, this time of year.  We can get so caught up in what’s next – dance recitals, Christmas parties, angel tree gifts, family dinners, school projects, shopping, pageant rehearsals, and other special events, that there is no time left to be present to the moment, let alone, to simply sit and wait.

This was the theme in our staff meeting today.  As the daylight continues to grow shorter, it feels like the days themselves are coming faster and faster.  The threat of becoming a slave to our to-do lists is very real.  Yet, the word we get from James this week is to wait.  To rest.  To be patient.  Sure the farmer toils.  From sunrise to sunset, the farmer toils to make sure the yield in her field is as fruitful as possible, but ultimately, it is a waiting game.  The harvest won’t be ready until the harvest is ready.

Jesus won’t be born again on Christmas until December 25th.  No amount of slavishness to our own expectations will bring Christmas any sooner.  Perhaps the threat of deforestation from our bulletin production will bring about the second-coming a little faster, but I doubt that highly as well.  Even as work to provide our families, friends, and congregations a very special Christmas, it is important that we make space for patient waiting.  Did you hear that, me?  I’ll say it again, Advent as a season of preparation is a season of patient waiting for the first and second advents of Christ.  Take some time, rest in the Lord, enjoy the twinkling of the lights, and wait with patient and hopeful expectation.

Is Jesus the one? a sermon

You can listen to this on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.


What a difference a few months can make.  It was just last week that we heard the story of John’s bustling ministry down by the riverside.  John was a baptizer, but more than that, he was a prophet.  To say he got it honest would be an understatement.  His father, Zechariah, was a priest, and his mother, Elizabeth, was from the priestly tribe of Aaron.  Even before he was born, John was already in touch with the power of God, leaping in his mother’s womb when he heard the voice of Mary the Mother of our Lord.  Thirty years later, John was out in the wilderness, on the banks of the Jordan River, baptizing people and calling them to repentance in preparation for the Messiah who was coming.  Matthew tells us that John’s life and ministry were the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah some seven hundred years earlier.  He was the one who was sent ahead of the Messiah to prepare a path.  As Bishop Russell told us, John’s job was to smooth out peoples’ hearts in preparation for the love of God that was enfleshed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

There on the shores of the River Jordan, John the Baptizer seemed so confident.  He was even willing to challenge, head on, the religious leaders of the time.  He called the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers,” right to their faces.  He promised them that judgment was coming upon them and upon the whole world.  The one who would follow him was coming with a winnowing fork, and the chaff would be burned with unquenchable fire.  When Jesus came to be baptized by him, John balked at the idea.  He wasn’t worthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals, and yet he was faithful in his call, and watched as the heavens opened, and the dove descended, and the voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

If anyone had reason to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, it was John the Baptist, and yet here we are, just a few months later, and doubt seems to be creeping in.  Of course, a lot has happened in the meantime.  John is no longer working down by the river.  His brash preaching style went too far when he openly challenged King Herod’s marriage.  See, Herod’s wife, Herodias, had been married before – to Herod’s brother.  Aside from being generally uncool, this sort of marriage arrangement was unlawful, and John made sure Herod knew about it, which of course didn’t sit well with the King or his wife, and so John’s ministry came to an abrupt end when he found himself arrested and put in jail.  We can’t be sure how long John was in prison by the time our Gospel lesson for today takes place, but context tells us it’s been a while, and John has had plenty of time to think.  Too much time, in fact.

While it was the state that could put you in jail in Roman occupied territories in the first century, it wasn’t the state’s responsibility to take care of you once you were there.  Food and clean clothing came to prisons from their families and friends, which meant that communication lines with the outside world were wide open.  While John was behind bars, he was able to keep up with what his cousin Jesus, the Messiah, was up to.  The first thing he heard was that Jesus decided to set his basecamp in Capernaum, a small fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, at least a four days hike from Jerusalem.  Why had the Messiah who had come to save Israel from her captors, to set her free from oppression, and to restore right religion in her Temple decided to set up shop so far from the seat of power?  John could not have been too happy with this turn of events.

Next, he would have heard of the crowd with whom Jesus surrounded himself.  Guys like Peter and his brother Andrew, James and John, all small-time fishermen from Capernaum and Matthew, a tax collector from the same backwater burgh.  Who were these people?  What could they possibly do to help Jesus in his role as Messiah?  They weren’t military strategists.  They weren’t men of much means.  There wasn’t anything about any of them that was particularly impressive.  What good could possibly come from Jesus hanging out with this ragtag group of country bumpkins?

Eventually, word came to John about Jesus’ ministry; how he was preaching repentance and the coming of the Kingdom of God.  Certainly this made John feel a little bit better, their messages were in agreement, Jesus must have been on the right track.  Not long after that, however, heard about a big sermon Jesus gave from the mountainside.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit?”  “Blessed are the meek?”  Blessed are the peacemakers?”  No, no, no!  This wasn’t right at all.  If Jesus was the Messiah then he was supposed to come with power and might.  His message was to be one of revolution and God’s vengeance of those who had led Israel into sin.  What was Jesus doing?!?

Finally, he heard of the miracles.  There might have been just a little relief in John when he heard that Jesus was tapping in to his God given power, and yet, the miracles he was doing, what was the goal?  Healing a leper?  The servant of a Roman Centurion?  A couple of blind men?  Even raising the daughter of a synagogue official from the dead?  To what end?  What was Jesus up to?  Why was he wasting his time on these small time parlor tricks?  Why lavishly waste the power of God to help a Centurion or synagogue leader?

John had heard enough.  After months of bouncing around a jail cell with nothing but thoughts to fill his time, John needed some reassurance.  Was Jesus really the one he had been waiting for?  Was the scene at his baptism for real, or had he imagined it in a hope filled hallucination?  Is Jesus the Messiah or not?  And so John sent a few of his disciples to go and ask Jesus plainly, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus stops short of answering “yes” to the question, but this might be the closest thing we ever get to a straightforward answer from Jesus.  Note that his response is exactly what caused John to ask this question in the first place, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard.”  What John has seen and heard has him doubting the whole enterprise, but Jesus turns it on his head.  “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought to them.”  Like John in his ministry, Jesus goes back to the prophet Isaiah.  There, in the thirty-fifth chapter, Isaiah describes what the restoration of Zion will look like, “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, like many others in his day and ours, had fundamentally misjudged what God was going to be up to when his Kingdom came to earth as it is in heaven.  Instead of coming with power and might, God comes to us in the form of a child, born in a stable, to a frightened, unwed mother.  Instead of overthrowing the religious and political powers-that-be with armies of men and violence, Jesus took down the power of evil by being crucified by those very same powers-that-be.  In the years in between, God didn’t coerce, he didn’t surround himself with the rich and powerful, he didn’t do favors for the elite.  Instead, Jesus ministered to the poor, the vulnerable, the meek, and the outcast.  Jesus brought the Kingdom of God to precisely those who never thought it could be for them so that he could bring the Kingdom of God for everyone: even John the Baptist, even a Centurion, even a Synagogue official, even you and me.  This Advent, we once again prepare for God to come to earth in a most unexpected way and to bring about his Kingdom for a world that desperately needs it.  We may doubt God’s way of doing things, and we would be in good company, but Jesus reminds to see, to hear, and to take part in his work in the world about us: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and poor have the good news brought to them.  That is good news my friends, Good News, indeed.  Amen.

Stir Up!

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Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and forever.  Amen. – The Collect for Advent 3

As I mentioned on Monday, for all my dislike of Advent as it plays out in 21st century America, I love Advent 3.  I love the pink candle.  I love the Magnificat.  Above all, I adore the Collect for Advent 3.  Dating all the way back to the Gelasian Sacramentary, this prayer has been on the lips of Christians since c.750.  It was the last of what used to be a series of four “stir up” prayers that were used in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  It is a 1979 novelty that it falls on Advent 3.

Because of its age, I dug out my copy of Massey Shepherd’s Oxford Commentary on the [1928] American Prayer Book to see what the good Doctor had to say about this prayer.  What I discovered there is that this comforting phrase “stir up” doesn’t actually appear there.  Instead, the 28 Book reads, “O Lord, raise up, we pray thee,…”  In his Commentary on the 79 Book, Marion Hatchett seems to infer that the Latin excita means “to stir up,” but what is actually happening there, is he is showing us the translation.  So, I went digging, and found that excita, can be translated in several different ways.  The Latin Word Study Tool from Tufts University suggests, “to call out, summon forth, bring out, wake, rouse.”

It is doubtful that there are resurrection connotations to this word, but it certainly assumes that something has gone dormant.  How often do we quell the power of God in our lives?  Isn’t is so much easier to lull that piece of us to sleep so that we can go about the motions of life, unencumbered by the fearful power of God?  It is a common fact of modern, western Christianity that the Spirit, that dangerous force that calls us to God’s will, is undervalued and systematically hushed.

This prayer, then, is a dangerous one.  It is asking God to rouse that power that we would much rather keep quashed.  It invites the Spirit to work in our lives for the restoration of our souls and the whole world.  It ought to be taken quite seriously.  This Advent, are you interested in stirring up, rousing, reinvigorating the power of God in your life, or would you rather keep things safe and calm, removing yourself from the possibility of being an agent of God’s reconciling love in the world?

How are we judged?

When John’s disciples approach Jesus with their teacher’s question, Jesus doesn’t balk at it.  In fact, it might be the only question Jesus answers in a straightforward manner in all four gospels.  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” is, despite my attempts to soften it yesterday, a question of judgment.  Even if there is hope behind John’s question, there is also a question of truth.  “Are you, Jesus, really the Messiah?” is about as forthright a question as you can get, and Jesus doesn’t shy away.  In fact, he responds the their question by giving them the criteria by which he wishes to be judged; which also happens to be the criteria by which his Body, the Church, and her members will also be judged.

“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.”

Jesus asks to be judged based on his words and his actions.  He wants the disciples of John to take back to him the lessons they have heard, specifically Jesus notes “the good news for the poor,” as well as his acts of mercy: the blind see; the lame walk; the lepers cleansed; the deaf hear; and the dead alive.”  These are the criterion of the Kingdom of God, and as such, they serve as the basis of discipleship in our everyday lives.

Advent is a season in which judgment is at the forefront.  It is a season that makes us uncomfortable because we don’t like being judged, but I think our fear of judgment is mostly based on the fact that we feel like we don’t know the rules by which we will be judged.  Here, we get those rules laid out for us very clearly.  As we prepare for the coming of Jesus as a child born in a stable and descending with power and might to judge the world the season of Advent is a perfect opportunity to take stock of our lives.  Are we being faithful in sharing the Good News to the poor, that is, the good news of God’s economic reversal to the physically poor and the Good News of God’s saving grace to the spiritually poor as well?

Only then should we begin the process of answering the “what do you see” question.  Are we reaching out in loving service to our neighbors?  Are we challenging unjust systems?  Are we bringing healing to the world?  Or, as Jesus says to wrap things up, “are our words and actions creating a stumbling block for Jesus, or are we living lives worthy of the Gospel?”

Doubting John?

Saint John the Baptist in Prison 19th-Century Print

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John the Baptist gets plenty of love.  Off the top of my head, I think he is featured in the Lectionary at least three times each year.  We hear the story of his ministry as a baptizer (often multiple times a year), his beheading at the hand of horny Herod, and, at least in Year A, the story of his crisis of faith in prison.  With all the love that we pour on John, I can’t help but wonder why this particular story doesn’t stigmatize him in the same way the story of Thomas’ doubt follows him around.  Why do we call Thomas “Doubting Thomas” but not call John “Doubting John the Baptizer”?  There are other stories about Thomas in the Bible.  In fact, Thomas is the disciples who proudly announces that he will follow Jesus to his death (John 11:16) and at the Last Supper inquires as to they might follow Jesus to the Father (John 14:6).  So why all the dap for John and no love for Thomas?

The answer, I think, lies in this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, and it comes with the help of the Matthew, our narrator.  You see, Matthew uses this story to reintroduce a word that has been absent since the birth narrative, Messiah.  The scene is set this way: John has been arrested and while in prison he heard stories about what the Messiah was doing.  In Greek, Matthew uses the Greek word “Christ,” which essentially means the same thing.  Anyway, by choosing this story to be the first place he identifies the adult Jesus as the Messiah/Christ, Matthew sets this encounter up not so much as one of doubt, but of assurance.

John has heard the stories of Jesus preaching and teaching and healing all sort of people with all kinds of conditions, and he is hopeful.  John sends his disciples, at least as I read this story, in expectation of the answer.  He wants to be sure that the one who he saw as the Lamb of God really is the one that he was waiting for.  Even though the message and ministry of Jesus doesn’t quite look like burning the chaff with unquenchable fire, John seems to know, or at least that’s what Matthew wants us to think, deep down, that Jesus really is the one.

I’m not big on calling Thomas a doubter.  In fact, I don’t think he doubted at all.  Equally so, I’m glad we don’t put the weight of the doubter tag on John the Baptist either.  These were both good men, faithful disciples, who loved Jesus, but needed to see his Messiahship with their own eyes.  I, for one, can understand that.