Lost and Listening

       Back in the 90s, when I was still a baby-faced young adult, I worked part-time as a youth minister for St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Lancaster, PA.  At that time, indoor rock climbing was just becoming a thing, and a few of my students were all about it.  We decided one Saturday to head to Reading, PA, about 45 minutes down the road, to spend the afternoon in a rock-climbing gym up there.  It being the 90s, smart phones and GPS weren’t available, so I went online and printed out directions on MapQuest.  Maybe you remember those bad old days when your directions couldn’t automatically recalculate.  They were not good times.  We proceeded to get epically lost.  After an hour of driving around Reading, which isn’t really that big of a town, we finally found ourselves back on the right road.  Looking at the numbers on the buildings, we weren’t that far from where we hoped to go, until, as we passed through an intersection, the name of road changed.

       Realizing that we were lost again and that there would be no rock climbing this day, I slammed my fists against the steering wheel and yelled, “Awwww BLEEP,” at the top of my lungs, forgetting entirely who else was in the car with me.  The bleep was another, strong word, and the kids laughed at my lack of personal censorship.  We stopped and got ice cream and had some great conversations about how our mentors and the adults in our lives are real people, who, like everybody else, fall short of the glory of God sometimes.  It turned out to be a great afternoon, and the Druce brothers still know that they can call me anytime they need support because, most likely, I’ve been right where they are.

       God shows up just when we need it, no matter where we are or what is going on around us.  That’s the lesson I learned that delightfully frustrating Saturday afternoon in Reading, PA.  I believe Luke is trying to get across that same lesson in the opening verses of chapter three that we heard this morning.  He begins by setting the scene with a list of powerful men who were the political and religious leaders over Israel.  It was the fifteenth year of the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate was the Roman Governor of Judea, and Herod, Philip, and Lysanias were figure-head tetrarchs over the land.  Annas and Caiaphas held the role of Chief Priest.  It was either 28 or 29 CE and a man named John, whose lineage was priestly on both sides of his family, had eschewed all claims he had to power and privilege and was in the wilderness, dressed in camel hair, subsiding on locusts and wild honey.

       Whether you live in first century Palestine or twenty-first century America, if I asked you where the word of God would arrive, 99 times out of 100, you would answer, “in the Temple.”  The word of God has long been associated with the religious powers-that-be.  That’s why we have them.  They hear and interpret the word of God and then bring it to the people in a way that they can understand.  That was the system in place in 28 CE.  The people went to the Temple to fulfill their religious obligations and people like Annas, Caiaphas, and John’s father, Zechariah, received their gifts, proclaimed the word of God, and offered God’s forgiveness.  The last place we would expect God’s word to show up was in the wilderness, what with all its barrenness and foreboding.  Earlier in his Gospel, Luke tells us that the wilderness was John’s home.[1]  He’d been there for years, praying, growing, and deepening his relationship with God.  After years and years in the wilderness, the word of God came to him right where he was.

       The word that came to John was the same word that had come to the prophet Isaiah during the Babylonian exile, God is going to rescue God’s people.  Not only that, but God is going to make it so that salvation is available to everyone, no matter what.  There will be no more desolate valleys, all will be filled in.  The haughtiness of the mountains will be humbled.  Every path will be made straight.  Even the rough patches will be made smooth.  No matter where you live.  No matter your socio-economic status.  No matter whether you can walk with ease, shuffle along, or require a wheelchair.  There will be no obstacles between you or me or anyone else and the kingdom of God.  That’s some pretty good news, and it kind of makes sense that it would arrive as a word to someone like John who found his home about as far away from the seats of powers in his world.  Creating obstacles is precisely what the powerful do to maintain control.  The harder life is, the further away God seems, the more difficult God’s grace is to access, the more intermediaries are required.  This word of universal ease of access to God couldn’t possibly come to the Chief Priests in the Temple.  It could, I suppose, but it would probably fall on deaf ears.

       This idea of God’s word of hope coming in the heart of the wilderness, to the least and the lost, spoke to me this week.  Not because Christ Church is the least.  We are well resourced and connected closely to the power structures in our community.  Rather, what struck me is how the whole world has spent the better part of the last 20 months living in the wilderness.  Many of us have been disconnected from the communities that sustain us.  Whether it is our community of faith, work colleagues, classmates, extended family, and friends, the vast majority of us spent quite a bit of time separated from the people who make us who we are. Some of us remain disconnected even today.  Many were isolated from the vocations that we love.  For nine weeks, millions of people weren’t allowed to go to work as barbers, dental hygienists, or personal trainers.  For much longer than that, many of us “worked from home,” kind of doing our jobs, but not really, and definitely not in a way that was fulfilling.  Everything we knew about the world we lived in changed back in March of 2020, and we’ve spent the last 20 months wandering around the metaphorical wilderness, not sure what was next.

       What if, instead of seeing these last 20 months as a burden, we spent this next phase of late-stage pandemic life listening for a word of God that comes to find us in the wilderness?  What if we spent this next season looking for the ways in which we, as the body of Christ at Christ Episcopal Church, are being called to the work of filling in some valleys, humbling some mountains, and making the salvation of God accessible to all of humanity?  What if we took being lost in wilderness as an opportunity to meet some new people, to hear their stories, and to show the world that, flawed as we all are, together, we can make a difference?  Getting lost turned out to be exactly what God needed me to be in Reading that day.  In the wilderness is precisely where John the Baptist needed to be to hear the word of God.  What if in this extended wilderness experience, God is calling us to work, to change, and to grow?  If only we would have ears to listen.  Listen, can you hear the word of God calling you?  Listen.  Amen.


[1] Luke 1:80

Zechariah’s Song

For a guy who wakes up at 5 am most days, I’m really not a morning guy.  I hate getting out of bed.  It takes me at least 90 minutes and two cups of coffee to feel safe operating a motor vehicle.  I rarely wake up excited to start a new day.  So it is that I’m not one who can pull out their Book of Common Prayer and a Bible and read morning prayer.  Navigating the Psalms, appointed lessons, and the Collect of the Day is enough to make me want to crawl back in bed.  I rely instead on the good people at Forward Movement who provide up-to-the minute accuracy on the Daily Office website.  It might be cheating to not have to do the page flipping, but that it keeps me from cursing seems to be a fair trade off, and besides, I own a pellet smoker, so I’m kind of OK with taking the easy way out.

Still, I’m not a morning person, and so I’m often either teetering on the edge of falling back asleep or pushing my luck in the amount of time I have before the kids get up.  Should I be planning my own Morning Prayer office, I’d probably choose the shortest canticles every morning, but because I rely on the coding skills of the FM staff, I’m at their mercy.  If they choose all three section of Canticle 12: A Song of Creation, I’m stuck reading it.  I can remember early on in this phase of my Daily Office habit getting frustrated with what seems to be a strong affinity on behalf of the coders for Canticle 16: the Song of Zechariah.  It’s pretty long, and it spends half of its time rehearsing Old Testament prophecy.  Couldn’t it just jump from the first verse to “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High…”?

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In the years that have passed since restarting a Morning Prayer routine, I’ve learned to love Zechariah’s Song, which is appointed in place of a Psalm for Advent 2C.  I love it contextually, as it comes from the mouth of the temporarily mute priest Zechariah who doubted God’s ability to produce a child for this long barren couple. I love that it is sung in direct response to his fear-filled neighbors who wonder, “What will this child become?”  And yes, now I even love that it takes the time to cover the promise of God to the people of Israel through the prophets, all the way back to Abraham.  What I love the most, however, is the blessing Zechariah bestows upon his son.  Like it is for Mary, I’m sure that Zechariah knows that this particular blessing will bring with it pain for John and his family, but in faithfulness, the blessing is proclaimed nonetheless.

“You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prayer his way,

To give his people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.

In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, *
and to guid our feet into the way of peace.”

A Good Work Begun

Given the baptismal theology of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, that is that baptism is “full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church,” it has often been said that Confirmation is left as something of a vestigial service, a liturgy in search of a theology.  While I’ve not done the deep research to confirm, I have it on good authority that in the months leading up to the 1976 General Convention, it was thought that Confirmation would not end up in the final draft of the revised Book of Common prayer.  Evidence in the book suggests that even as it was inserted late in the game, its placement in Pastoral Offices, rather than the Episcopal Services, betrays the fact that many thought that it was unlikely Confirmation would stick around as the thing bishops did when they showed up in a parish.

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Deep within this vestigial liturgy, tucked way behind eight graders looking to graduate from Sunday school and that certain kind of person who actually takes changing traditions seriously enough to mark it liturgically by way of Reception, is the possibility for one to reaffirm their Christian faith.  It gets nary a mention in Concerning the Service or the Additional Directions, so we’ve had to kind of make up what it means.  Still, I think it is actually the most useful portion of this service, and we ignore it to our detriment.  Although it only gets less than three lines of text, the prayer that the bishop is to pray for those who are reaffirming their baptismal promises is a powerful one:

N., may the Holy Spirit, who has begun a good work in you, direct and uphold you in the service of Christ and his kingdom. Amen.

If you’ve been reading ahead to Sunday’s Second Lesson from Philippians 1, you might recognize these words as being grounded in Scripture.  In the opening acclamation appointed for Advent 2C, we hear Paul doing his normal thing by heaping prayers and praises upon the heads of the Christians in Philippi.  Included are these words, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

In the Greek, the words translated as “completion” has its root in telos, which means something deeper than simply checking a task off the list.  Instead, the telos of God’s good work begun is its perfect end.  It is Paul’s prayer for the Church in Philippi, and while the Reaffirmation prayer doesn’t include the full text, I believe it is what we are praying for in that service as well.  Those who come to make a public reaffirmation of their baptismal promises do so for a reason.  It might be because they are coming back to the Church after time away.  It may be because they’ve found a new calling in lay ministry.  Whatever it is, the prayer we offer to God on their behalf is that whatever good work has begun, whether 9 weeks or 90 years ago, might be brought to its perfect end, to the benefit of the Kingdom, through God’s direction and upholding.

The Bishop won’t be coming for several months, but this Advent 2, my prayer for each of you, dear readers, is that God’s good work begun in you might be sustained and fulfilled by its perfect completion.

Repentance isn’t a bad word

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John the Baptist preached repentance, there is no denying that fact, but the myriad of self-proclaimed, English speaking John the Baptists who have followed in his footsteps seem to have missed the point.  Repentance isn’t a bad word, something to be beaten into a would-be disciple, but instead, the baptism of John, the precursor to discipleship under Jesus, was about entering into a relationship of love.

According to Dictionary.com, the English word “repent” means to feel sorry, regretful, or contrite for some past word or deed, which is woefully short of the Greek word “metanoia” that Luke used to describe the Baptism of John.  Even the second definition, which goes on to include felling so sorry as “to be disposed to change one’s life for the better…” misses the mark, in my opinion.

Instead, I’m drawn to the  Young’s Literal Translation of Luke 3:3, which more appropriately captures the depth of meaning behind metanoia. “…and [John] came to all the region round the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of reformation — to remission of sins…”

Metanoia, as you no doubt know dear reader, literally means “to turn around” or “to have a change of heart.”  While it is likely that the impulse for metanoia might well be sorrow or guilt, to place the focus on that is to lose the real meaning.  God isn’t so much interested what brings us to a change of heart, only that it happens.  When the YLT calls John’s baptism a baptism of reformation, it captures that idea wonderfully.  We are called to be remade in the image of Christ, to seek after the will of God in all circumstances, and, ultimately, to a life of love for all creation.

 

What Zechariah Teaches Us

Between Canticle 16 and the Gospel lesson from Luke 3, we get just enough of JBap’s origin story to leave your typical congregation thoroughly confused.  We find out that JBap is the son of Zechariah, and we hear his daddy’s song, but the context as to why it is important eludes us.  The preacher who is dealing with JBap and Zechariah would do well to spend a moment or two reminding her members, roughly 20% of whom have never read the Bible, where this story comes from.

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If you’re reading this blog, you probably aren’t a part of the growing trend toward biblical illiteracy, so I will spare you the gory details.  Suffice it to say that Zechariah has experienced the wrath of God.  Having doubted the word of God’s messenger, Zechariah was made mute for the duration of his wife, Elizabeth’s, gestation.  The words we hear in Canticle 16 are the first words spoken by Zechariah since he asked, “How can this be” 40 or so weeks earlier.

Imagine how frustrating that time must have been.  Zechariah had no one to blame but himself, and yet, he couldn’t  tell of God’s great miracle in Elizabeth’s pregnancy after years of barren sadness.  For 9ish months, the anger could have welled up within him, but it didn’t.  Instead, in his quiet time Zechariah learned of God’s great love as he watched the promises made to him, the promises he doubted so honestly, come true again and again.

When Zechariah finally did speak, he didn’t warn of God’s coming anger, but instead, he sang the Good News of God’s “tender compassion,” literally God’s bowels of mercy that will lead to the way of peace.

There is plenty to learn from Zechariah, but rather than steering negative (i.e. don’t doubt God), I wonder if we might follow his example and highlight the good in his story; God’s love overflows and his tender compassion is open to all.

Pure and Blameless

Another week of Advent, and another opportunity to preach an Epistle lesson that is full of joy rather than doom and gloom.  In fact, thanks to the RCL’s decision to keep the introduction of JBap short, other than an almost sidebar reference in the Gospel lesson, you don’t have much of a chance to preach repentance at all on Advent 2C.  As you might guess from my constant complaining about Advent, this doesn’t bother me much.  Still, if I were preaching both Advent 2 and 3 in Year C, I’d save my JBap sermon for next week and focus on Paul’s joy for the Church in Philippi.

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One of the chief complaints about Paul’s letters is that they are overly moralistic and, as such, they are heavily dependent on time and place.  We hear this often in the conversation around human sexuality, especially the three of “Those 7 References” that occur in the Pauline Corpus.  While this is probably a fair critique of the way Paul gets used in contemporary Christianity, I’m not sure that it is really Paul’s fault.  In fact, while Paul did spend considerable time calling the early Christians to live lives worthy of the Gospel, his focus wasn’t so much on self-sanctification, but on the power of Jesus at work in the lives of believers.  We get a glimpse into that hope in Sunday’s lesson from Philippians 1.

While it is true that Paul calls the Philippian Christians to lives that are “pure and blameless,” he makes no mention of a moral code of discipleship.  There is no law in his call to sanctification, save the law that Jesus gave, “that you love one another.”  For Paul, the key to living lives that are pure and blameless is living lives of love.

“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” – Philippians 1:9-11

By modeling Christ’s life of love for the world and following his commandment of love for our neighbor that our lives our changed.  Sanctification doesn’t come by beating the sin out of ourselves, but by living lives of love empowered by the Holy Spirit, we will become pure and blameless as the sinful desires of our hearts slowly melt away.  Discipleship, or as the Season of Advent would have me say it, being ready for the return of Christ, need not be about following a strict codes of ethics.  Instead, if we choose to live lives that overflow with love, the moral life will naturally follow.