Reading the Signs

wafflehouse

This is, by far, one of my favorite signs to see.  Despite the well worn jokes about its cleanliness and the decidedly unhealthy amount of butter they use to keep the scrambled egg pan lubed, I can’t help myself.  When I see a Waffle House sign, I know I am going to be in for a good meal at a reasonable price.  There are times when that is what I’m looking for, but more often than not, the Waffle House sign serves only as a temptation.

I think the same is true of the signs that Jesus describes in Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  After three Sundays of apocalyptic parables from Matthew’s Gospel, Advent 1B opens a new Church year, and we begin our every-three-year journey with the Gospel according to Mark.  The themes are similar, as one might expect in a season devoted to being prepared for the Advent of Christ, both his first one on Christmas, and his second Advent at the day of judgment.  It seems reasonable, having heard about it week after week, that we might begin to see the world through eschatological glasses – seeing signs of the end at every turn.

Many a “prophet” has made a lot of money off humankind’s tendency to be tempted by signs.  They’ll point to wars and rumors of wars; earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters; the United Nations and the World Bank; whatever they can cram into the scripture passage they’ve pulled out of context, to convince us that the world is coming to an end, and because you won’t need money after the coming of the Son of Man, you should probably send yours their way.

Like a Waffle House sign on the interstate at 2:30 in the afternoon, nothing good comes from following these temptations.  Jesus is clear, “about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  When he invites his disciples to “keep alert,” the Greek is more simply, “stay awake.”  When we are looking for signs, we will always find them.  Rather, Jesus is inviting his disciples, and us, to keep at the work of the Kingdom: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, proclaiming the Good News; because the signs will trick us, we do not know the day or the hour, but when he comes, like a thief in the night, our laziness will not be rewarded.

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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.

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?”

Aorist Mary’s Song

Despite my oft written about uneasiness with the season of Advent in its current 21st century Amercian incarnation, the third Sunday of Advent, often called Gaudete Sunday, is one of my favorites of the entire church year.  To start, we get the last remaining “Stir Up” prayer in the American Prayer Book.  More on that later this week.  The lessons for Advent 3, a day that is set aside for joy, are always interesting, even if John the Baptist’s doubt leads to some difficult preaching.  More on that later as well.  Beyond all that, the absolute best part of the Lectionary for Advent 3 is the opportunity to sing Betty Carr Pulkingham’s setting of the Magnificat.   Unfortunately, I can’t find a recording of it to share with you.

marys-magnificat

The setting is beautiful, but only because the words of Mary’s song are so powerful.  You’ll recall that this song comes from Luke’s Gospel account of the birth of Jesus.  Shortly after Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel and informed of her new identity as the theotokos, the Mother of God, Mary heads to the hill country to spend some time with her cousin Elizabeth.  Elizabeth was old and had long since given up hope of having a child, but she too is pregnant, miraculously, with the one who be known as John the Baptizer.  The unborn John leaps in his mother’s womb when he hears the voice of Mary.  Elizabeth offers the first Hail Mary, and in return, Mary sings her song.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior…”

What I find particularly striking this morning is the verb tense that Mary chooses.  My favorite Canticle, sung on one of my favorite Sundays, uses my favorite Greek tense: the aorist tense.  As I’ve written before, the Rev. Dr. Tony Lewis, my Greek professor, taught the aorist tense this way.  Occasionally, the refectory [a fancy word for cafeteria] will feature the sausage bar.  There are Kielbasas, hot dogs, Italian sausages, and the fiesta dog.  The aorist tense is like the fiesta dog, you eat it once, and its effects last forever.”

Listen to some of the things Mary puts in aorist tense: that is, it has already begun and is ongoing:

“He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.”

A brief study of the news will tell you that none of this seems true.  It was perhaps less true in Mary’s day and age, and yet she sang with confidence and hope that her being chosen to bear the Son of God meant that God’s plan for salvation was already underway.  The lowly were being lifted up. The hungry were being fed good things.  The social structures that oppressed people were being subverted.  The world was being turned right-side-up.

It may be really hard to see the truth of Mary’s promise.  We may scoff at her choice of the aorist tense, but that’s what Advent is all about.  We wait.  We watch.  We work.  We proclaim the greatness of the Lord who has already defeated selfishness, pride, oppression, and death

Bear Fruit

In John’s Gospel, it comes from the lips of Jesus at dinner with his disciples during in his final hours.  “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.”  It comes as part of his final instructions; Jesus is imparting his most important lesson at a critical hour, and his word is “bear fruit.”

In Matthew’s Gospel, where we will find ourselves for the duration of Year A, the same admonition comes near the beginning.  This time, it isn’t Jesus who is offering this important lesson, but rather his cousin, John the Baptist.  The NRSV translates it prett close to the Greek, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” but I’m finding myself partial to the New Living Translation because it parallels nicely with the Johannine Last Supper, “Prove by the way you live that you have really turned from your sins and turned to God.”

At Saint Paul’s we often ask the question, “if we closed our doors today, would anybody notice?”  Other times, people are asked about their personal lives, “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be evidence to convict you?”  Both are kind of cheesy ways of raising awareness of an issue that was at the heart of the ministries of both John the Baptist and Jesus: Are you bearing fruit?

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Does your life look any different than the lives of those for whom their god is their belly? Is the call to repentance, literally to change direction, evident in your life?  Or, in a country where it is quite easy to be a Christian and where the Church is rather intimately tied into the culture of the empire, is your life simply about the pursuit of selfish goals and desires?

A tree bears fruit.  It is simply what it does.  However, it can only do so in the right conditions.  Bearing fruit requires fertilization, the right amount of rain, proper sunlight, and the occasional pruning.  The same goes for the life of faith.  Are you studying the Scriptures?  Are you taking time for prayer?  Have you learned to listen for God’s voice?  Is God asking you to repent, to give something up, or to take something on?  Are you bearing fruit worthy of repentance?

Advent need not be dour

Before you read my post today, click here and read my friend, Evan Garner’s, excellent post from yesterday.

My Facebook Memories section this morning featured not one, not two, but three different blogposts on my discomfort with the season of Advent.  In 2008, 2010, and again in 2014, I discussed why I dislike this season so much.  It is partly because I find the music to be absolutely dreadful, but mostly because I have such a hard time disconnecting from the wider cultural impact of the Christmas season.  I get that Advent is now seen as “counter-cultural,” but the majority of my Facebook friends who comment on it “not being Christmas yet” just sound obnoxious, and the Good News of Jesus Christ was never meant to be obnoxious.

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So what are we to do with this season that if full of awful music and lessons about the end of the world while the rest of the world is doing the whole peace and joy thing that the Kingdom of God is supposed to be about?  How can the Church be counter the culture of rampant consumerism without the counter the culture of time spent with family, sharing cookies, and trying to make the world a better place?  Maybe we take the chance to preach from somewhere other than the Gospel lesson.  Let Jesus handle the “signs in the sun, moon, and stars” and instead focus on Paul’s summation of what this Seasons of Advent and Christmas should really be about.

“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?… And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.”

Let’s focus less on whether the altar should be blue or purple, less on whether we should say “Merry Christmas” before Christmas, less on the fact that the twelve days of Christmas don’t actually start until Christmas Day, and focus more on what it means to spend the next month and half rejoicing because Emmanuel has come and will come again to ransom us from bondage to sin and restore us to the everlasting life of peace, hope, and love, to paraphrase the only decent Advent hymn.

The Church doesn’t have to give up on Advent.  We don’t have to stop being countercultural in this season of excess, but we should probably quit the whole Debbie Downer routine and celebrate that for at least 30 days each year, the usually critical of religion world we live in embraces the core tenants of our faith.  We should pray, like Paul did, for an increase in love for one another and for all.  It seems to be what we say Christmas is all about, so why not live it, whether the Church calendar says its Christmas or not.

When waiting breaks your heart

“How long, O Lord?”  That is the cry of the Psalmist and the Prophets.  “How long must we wait for your dream to become reality?” remains the cry for the faithful even today.  Since yesterday at about 8:26pm CST, I’ve been pondering this question of “How long?” and thinking, in light of the lessons for Advent 1, and the call to holy waiting, how I can faithful live in the meantime because living in the meantime can be heartbreaking.

Living in the meantime means living as a broken and sinful human being in a broken and sinful world.  It means paying the penalty for sin: my own and a myriad of systemic ones.  It means that sometimes a young black man, after a lifetime of living in fear of the police, makes a terrible choice and ends up dead.  It means sometimes that a young white man, in a position of authority and carrying a gun for a living, makes a terrible choice and kills that young black man.  It means sometimes that a grand jury, bound by laws that aren’t perfect makes a decision that is devastating to a family and a community.  It means sometimes that a group of people so fed up with the way things are takes to the streets to exact vigilante justice that devastates whole families and communities.  It means watching as conservative bloggers say some crazy racist stuff that gets liked by a friend on Facebook.  It means watching as liberal bloggers say some crazy insensitive stuff that gets retweeted by a friend on Twitter.  Living in the meantime means having your heart broken again and again by bigotry, injustice, violence, and hatred.

Living faithfully in the meantime means being a force for justice, hope, peace, and restoration.  It means putting a stop to the cycle of demonization, anger, violence, and vitriol that perpetuates the broken system.  Too often, in the emotional aftermath of an event like the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, even the Church forgets this call.  Too often, the Social Media accounts of the clergy look like the same bubbling cauldrons that the 24 hour news cycle has taught us to worship.  Too often, Christians forget to be harbingers of peace in the midst of conflict.

How long, O Lord, how long?

My heart breaks for the family of Michael Brown.  My heart breaks for Darren Wilson and his family.  My heart breaks for every African American person who lives in fear of the police, and my heart breaks for every police officer who lives in fear of every young black man they see.  My heart breaks for Ferguson, and for every place where the dream of God, that all should be united one to another and to God, has yet to be realized.  And so this morning, a few days ahead of the start of Advent, I will begin this year’s Advent Practice.   Following the suggestion of Bishop Matthew Wren from way back in 1662, I will pray the Collect for Advent 1 at least once each day.  I will pray through the waiting and through the heartbreak, trusting that through God’s grace, I can be a part of a Church that casts away the darkness of this broken and sinful world, and puts on the armor of light, of hope, of peace, and above all, the armor of love.  Won’t you join me?

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Advent Prayer