The Good News – a sermon

People were desperate for some good news.  It was somewhere around the year 540 BC and the people of Israel were exhausted with grief.  For more than forty years they had been in exile in Babylon.  Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon lay in ruins.  Their home country had been destroyed, and foreigners had been brought in to settle their land.  In Babylon, they served a king who demanded that they worship false gods, and they worked as slaves.  They were hopeless, unable even to lift their instruments to sing the songs of their faith.  They were desperate for some good news when God spoke to the prophet Isaiah and said, “Comfort, O comfort my people.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”  What follows is the good news of Israel’s impending restoration.  Soon, they will be allowed to return to the land promised by God to Abraham and begin rebuilding their lives.

Something happened not long after their return to Israel, however.  For 400 years, the voice of God went silent.  The prophets who had been so prevalent before and during the exile went mute.  The long-awaited restoration was short-lived as outside kingdom after outside kingdom ruled over them.  The people were starving for the Word of God when a man began to preach out in the wilderness.  They were reminded of those words of hope from Isaiah: a promise of restoration that brought with it word of one who was to come, a voice that would come from the wilderness and say, “prepare the way of the Lord!”  A voice that would declare the power of God in the midst of life’s uncertainty.  A voice that would call upon the people to forsake their sins and turn toward God’s will for God’s creation.

After four hundred years of silence, God called John the Baptist into the wilderness to proclaim freedom from bondage and fear.  John’s dress was like that of Elijah, the prophet who was to return ahead of the Messiah, and he called on the people to change their ways.  For the Hebrew people, their occupation by the Romans was a sign of God’s punishment.  In John the Baptist, for the first time in 400 years, the people heard a message of hope for God’s reign to return to their land.  So, they came in droves.  By the hundreds and thousands, they came from Jerusalem and all the surrounding countryside to see the long-awaited prophet who was baptizing them for the forgiveness of their sins and inviting them to prepare their hearts for the one who was to come.  It is there, Mark tells us, that the Good News of Jesus Christ begins.  In the hope-filled promise of God to a people in exile, bondage, and sadness the Gospel of God gets its start.

I don’t want to be overly dramatic, so I won’t say that I am desperate for good news, but I honestly wouldn’t mind hearing some. It’s been a rough few weeks here at Christ Church.  While the rest of the world is rejoicing in the Christmas season, I have been deep in the throes of Advent.  Blue vestments may be a symbol of hope, but blue is also the color of mourning.  Purple candles may remind us of Christ’s royalty, but they also shine bright with a call to repentance.  Twice this week, we lit the Christmas candle all by itself as a replacement for the paschal candle, trying to remember to celebrate resurrection while mourning dear friends who have gone to larger life in God.  It’s been a tough few weeks, and so I’m thankful for the Good News that Mark brings, and I’m especially thankful for the strange way it starts.

I think Mark must have known that people have always and will always need to hear good news, and so he begins his gospel with a very peculiar opening.  It certainly doesn’t start at the beginning.  Luke starts at the beginning, with the Annunciation to Mary that she will bear a child, her Visitation to Elizabeth, and the beautiful birth narrative filled with shepherds watching their flocks by night, angels bringing good news of great joy, and babe, born in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.  Luke is great at beginnings, and so we read from Luke every Christmas.  Likewise, John’s Gospel starts at THE the beginning. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” John takes us to before the beginning where all that existed was God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to tell the grand story of God’s plan of salvation.  Matthew lands somewhere in the middle.  By giving us Jesus’ genealogy, he places the story within the larger framework of God’s salvation history, while also giving us the familiar stories of Joseph’s dream and the visiting wise men.  Mark, on the other hand, doesn’t start at the beginning.  Mark starts somewhere in the middle.  Mark starts some five hundred years after the Good News of Isaiah, in the wilderness, with a wild preacher named John crying out, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

I think Mark starts the way it does so that every person can find their place in the story of God.   I think that maybe we are invited to jump into this story with our whole selves, and the only way to really do that is to be thoroughly discombobulated.  In our confusion, we have to spend some time getting our bearings.  Who are these characters?  What is the Isaiah quote telling us?  How does John’s appearance affect the story?  What about this one who is to come?  There won’t be much time to get settled, however.  Mark’s favorite word is immediately.  On forty-two separate occasions, Mark will use it to speed the story along.  This Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God is too important to spend time lollygagging, it must be told with haste because there is not a soul in the world that does not urgently need to hear the Good News.

Mark frames his story as Good News, euangelion in Greek. The Greek u looks a lot like a v, which makes the jump to evangelism an easy one.  In a world desperate for good news, those of us who have been blessed to find it in our time of need, have no choice but to share it.  There may not be time to start all the way at the beginning.  Like Mark, our version of the Gospel of God may need to begin right were we are.  It may need to root itself somewhere in the middle of God’s ongoing story of redemption and restoration.  It may include strange characters doing strange things.  It might even take a little while to get to Jesus.  The key to evangelism is not getting caught up in how the Good News needs to be told, but rather to whom we should tell it.

People are desperate for some good news.  The world is badly in need of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  As our nation slides deeper and deeper into fear.  As those on the margins feel the edges of society slipping from their grasp.  As members of our community deal with grief, illness, and tough questions.  As we wait for God to come and set us free from our bondage to stress, anxiety, and fear.  We who have heard the Good News of God are expected to share it.  Mark’s strange beginning offers us an entry into the story of God’s salvation.  We are a part of the Good News of God.  We carry the story out into the world, showing God’s love in good deeds and telling God’s love by sharing the cause of our hope.  In every place where people need the Good News, God is there in the person of a disciple of Jesus who carries the Good News in their hearts and on their lips. Anytime the hope-filled promise of God is shared to a people in exile, bondage, or sadness, the Gospel of God gets its start.  As we await the second Advent of Jesus, we are called to be the beginning of the Good News of God’s salvation for someone who needs to hear it.  To whom will you tell your story?  Amen.

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Words of Comfort

We have done a lot of damage to the words of the Church.  Evangelism now conjures up images of firey preachers with megaphones, yelling about the damnation of all who disagree with them.  Grace is this cloyingly sweet concept that God’s love for creation means we can do whatever we want, with impunity.  Come to think of it, we’ve done similar damage to the first amendment to the United States Constitution, but I digress.  Perhaps the most violence beset upon a churchy word in 21st century America has been inflicted upon the word prophet.  Both sides, if there is such a thing, have used this word to assert their authority over the other.  On the left, there are plenty of self-proclaimed prophets willing to decry everything the Republican Party says and does.  On the right, similarly self-proclaimed prophets are quick to get up in arms about whatever bleeding heart liberals might be fighting for.  Neither, it would seem, quite have it.

A prophet is never, and can never, be self-proclaimed.  God always appoints the prophets because what makes a prophet isn’t opinions or motives or prognostactive ability.  What makes a prophet a prophet is that they serve as the mouth piece of God.  Sometimes, those words can be harsh.  In today’s Daily Office lesson from Amos, we hear God’s word of judgment and subsequent punishment.  Other times, the word a prophet is called to bring is a word of comfort and hope.  This is the case in the Old Testament Lesson for Advent 2B.  After a period of punishment and exile, the time has come for the fortunes of Israel to be restored.  God, speaking to the angelic council, allows the prophet to overhear this word of salvation and restoration.

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord‘s hand
double for all her sins.

Maybe it is the forty-three weeks of apocalyptic parables we’ve heard of late, but I feel ready for a word of hope; a message of comfort.  Perhaps I’m projecting, but I feel like we might all be in need of a prophetic word of consolation.

Every three years, when Isaiah 40 comes around on Advent 2, I’m grateful for its words of comfort and for my friend John Talbert, who took these words, paraphrased in Hymn 67 of our Hymnal, and performed them beautifully.  As the week begins, with two funerals headed our way, you’ll find me listening to John’s version of “Comfort, comfort ye my people” on repeat, giving thanks for a prophetic oracle of consolation and hope.

Comfort, Comfort Ye My People from John Talbert on Vimeo.

 

Named as saints – a sermon

My final sermon at Saint Paul’s is available on the website, or you can read it here.


Some of you may not know this about me, while some of you have experienced it firsthand.  I am terrible with names.  So bad, in fact, that there is a voice inside my head that actively encourages me to steer clear of them whenever possible.  As I’m shaking your hand, giving a hug, or just making eye contact, I can hear it start.  “You think her name is Sue, but you aren’t sure.  You should know her name, but you’ll mess it up and hurt her feelings.  Just don’t do it; just say, ‘Hello dear,’ or something equally pathetically innocuous.”  Being bad at names is really a poor quality in a priest.  Names are powerful.  We feel known when someone calls us by name.  We feel equally unknown when we are called “buddy,” “darling,” or “dude.”  More than that, our names carry meaning in them.  Some carry generations of family history.  For example, after my grandmother died, we found in her genealogy records that my dad, John Pankey, carries the same Americanized name that our ancestor Jean Pantier took when he emigrated from France in the early 18th century.  How cool is that!?!  Other names carry the weight of even more history, names that are imbued with meaning from deep in the past.

In fact, names have carried meaning for thousands of years.  The Old Testament is rife with names with deep meaning.  Even in the very beginning, we get the name Adam for the first man from the Hebrew word which means both “man” and the “dust” from which humankind was created.  His wife, Eve, is named the Hebrew word for “life” because she is the mother of all humanity.  Place names were important as well.  After wrestling all night with God near the Jabbok, which means “emptying,” Jacob (trickster) gets a new name, Israel (God prevails) and he named the place Peniel, which means “the face of God.”  All throughout the Old Testament names do more than simply name people and places, but they fill them with meaning.  Nowhere is this more true than in our lesson from Isaiah this morning.  Here we find ourselves in the middle of the story of King Ahaz who is fearful as he is about to come under attack from the Assyrians.  Isaiah, God’s prophet and mouthpiece, promises that if Ahaz remains faithful to God, he will prevail.  The sign of the promise will be the birth of a baby to a young woman who will be called Immanuel, or God with us.  Ahaz is ultimately unsuccessful; he just can’t keep the faith, and the promised birth of Emmanuel doesn’t happen.

More than seven hundred years later, Matthew interprets the circumstances of the birth of Jesus to his young mother, a virgin named Mary, as the fulfillment of that ancient promise.  The child’s given name is Jesus, which means “God saves;” a name given to both of his parents by an angel of the Lord, but there is no doubt in Matthew’s mind that Jesus is the child promised to Ahaz as the assurance of the final victory of Israel, when God moved into the neighborhood for good.  Emmanuel, God with us, was born to Mary, whose name means both “bitter” and “beloved;” she will experience both in her life, and her betrothed Joseph, whose name means “may God increase.”  What is amazing about this story, seven hundred years after it was supposed to take place, is that once Emmanuel came to be God with us, God never left.  God was with us, God is with us, and God will forever be with us, thanks to the life-giving sacrifice of sending God’s only Son to be born of a virgin and to live and die as one of us.

For roughly two thousand years now, Jesus hasn’t been on earth, and yet, God continues to be with us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit keeps Emmanuel in the present, always here to show us the way to the Father, the how-tos of the Kingdom of God.  The Spirit, a lifetime of God with us, is a gift given to every one of us in our baptism.  With deference to the power of names in the Old Testament, the Church has long tied baptism and the gift of Emmanuel with naming.  For hundreds of years, a child was formally named at their baptismal ceremony.  Those who were baptized later in life often changed their name at baptism, giving up the pagan names of their youth for Christian names of discipleship.  Some of you may have a second middle name from a long ago Roman Catholic baptism for the very same reason.  This morning [at 10 o’clock], we welcome Hadley Caroline Wing into the Body of Christ.  I’ve not had a chance to talk with her parents as to why they chose Hadley Caroline, but even if they just thought it was pretty, it still comes with great meaning.  Hadley is an Old English word for a field covered in heather, a gorgeous purple flower.  Caroline is a feminine form of the name Charles which means strong.  May she be a perfect balance of splendor and strength.  She is born to her parents Andrew and Kacey.  Andrew means manly and Kacey is the Gaelic word for watchful or vigilant.  Hadley Caroline, under the care of strong and careful parents, today receives a new name, one that all of us who are baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ share: saint.

Though names are also important in the New Testament, what with Simon (listener) becoming Peter (rock) and Saul (inquired of God) becomes Paul (humble), what seems to be even more important is our common relationship in Jesus Christ.  Throughout the New Testament, all the disciples of Jesus are referred to again and again as saints.  In Greek, saint is hagios which means “set apart by God, holy one, or consecrated.”  To be saints, then, is first and foremost to acknowledge our total dependence upon God.  Every good work, every possession, even our very breath comes from God.  We are invited into sainthood, it is not earned.  The very act of becoming a saint is the grace-filled gift of God, which is why in the Episcopal Church we baptize infants.  This is the sign for us that none of us are able to work our way into God’s love, but rather it is the gift of a God whose very nature is love and relationship.

In response to the gift of God’s love, and with the help of the Holy Spirit who is always with us, we engage in the work of holiness, which is summed up in the Baptismal Covenant that we will all reaffirm in just a few minutes.  By the power of the Spirit, God with us at work in our lives calls us to live lives worthy of the Gospel; lives of faithful service to God and to each other; lives committed to the restoration of right relationship with God, with one another, and with all of Creation.  Today, on a day that the Scripture lessons are all about names, we welcome Hadley Caroline into the family of saints, and make our vow to labor alongside her in building up the Kingdom of God.

I would be remiss to not mention that today also happens to be my last sermon here at Saint Paul’s.  On a day that is also about sainthood, I give thanks for the saints of this congregation.  You have loved me and allowed me to love you in return.  You have raised me from a baby priest.  You have cared for my family, loved on my children, and supported us in good times and in bad.  I will be forever grateful for our time together as we have sought to learn what it means to be disciples of Jesus and saints of God.  May God bless Hadley Caroline.  May God bless her family.  And may God bless the Saint Paul’s family as you continue working with the Spirit to discern the power of Emmanuel, God in your midst, from this day forth and forever more.  Amen.

Immanuel – God with Us

Thank God for 1980s Amy Grant.  I can’t read the lessons appointed for Advent 4, Year A without immediately hearing those great synthesize riffs.  See, in Year A, Advent 4 is all about the name of Jesus.  Not Yeshua, as his name would be in Aramaic, but the name promised by the Father through Isaiah as the sign for Ahaz of his impending military success.

Some seven hundred years later, Matthew took this yet unfulfilled prophecy and attached it to the birth of Jesus, which followed the model of the original.  Like the prophecy, which told of a child born to a young woman, almah, likely unmarried but of marriage age, Jesus was born to Mary, a young girl, engaged to Joseph but not yet known by him (Biblical euphemism that means they had not yet engaged in intercourse).  Ahaz had failed to live up to God’s intention for him or his kingdom and was, of course, duly punished.  In the intervening years, there had been no fulfillment of the promise, no child born to an almah who would come close to being Immanuel – God with us.

Until that fateful day when Mary and her betrothed saddled up their donkey to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of a taxation census.  Then, according to Matthew’s interpretation, the promise was finally fulfilled, God was born on earth.  God was here.  Or as Eugene Peterson has famously translated John 1, God moved into the neighborhood.

What is amazing about this story, seven hundred years later than it was intended to take place, is that God never left.  Immanuel, more commonly spelled with an E these days, never again went away.  God was with us, God is with us, and God will forever be with us, thanks to the life giving sacrifice of sending God’s only Son to be born of an almah and to live and die as one of us.  As the days continue to get shorter ahead of the winter solstice, this lesson seems vitally important.  The darkness of the season is often matched by the darkness of our hearts and minds.  Depression is common, suicides increase, disappointment seems to be around every corner.  There is much in this season that can make us wonder if God really is still here, but the promise of Isaiah, reinvigorated by Matthew, assures us that in Jesus, God’s Emmanuel, God is here.

Comfort, Comfort ye my people

The Advent/Christmas season is always a tumultuous time.  There are seemingly never ending demands on our time.  There is the grief that comes as we remember those who are no longer with us.  There is the stress of buying the perfect gift and the right price on the right credit card for maximum point accumulation.  There is the December cold and flu season staring down each of us.  And there is, of course, the slow and steady plummet toward the darkest night on December 21st.  What was once a season of hope and joy, has, thanks to our 21st century appetites for consumption, become a season of anxiety and stress.

The readings for the season of Advent could be seen as adding to the problem, and God knows I’ve been critical of them over the years, but this particular year, on this particular day, I’m thankful for the inclusion of Isaiah 40 in the Propers for Advent 2, Year B.  Those opening words of God to the prophet, his command that Isaiah be about the work of comfort is working to ease my discomfort this morning.  I can sense God inviting me into his presence and the peace which surpasses all understanding.  Even the voice crying out in the wilderness is not a voice of judgement to me this year, but a voice of calm.  “Prepare the way of the Lord” in the context of Isaiah 40 is preparation to be enveloped in God’s loving embrace, an invitation to be loved by God whose very nature is love.

I’m thankful for this invitation this year.  And I’m thankful to my friend, John Talbert, for his beautiful take on one of only two Advent hymns I consider worth singing, “Comfort, comfort ye my people.”

Comfort, Comfort Ye My People from John Talbert on Vimeo.

Inside the Brackets

Every once in a while, a Lectionary text will have some optional portions.  These are usually noted by parenthesis in the chapter and verse reference.  Often, the optional portions, while in line with the theme of the rest of lesson, contain some material that preachers and listeners might find troublesome.  Like I said, it happens every once in a while.  This week, however, three of our four readings have optional sections.  And if you take my advice from yesterday and read chapter 5 from the beginning, you could end up with a seriously long set of scripture readings come Sunday morning.

Which is not a bad thing.

As this week’s preacher, the Parish Administrator asked me which options I would like to use for Sunday so that she could get started on the Sunday bulletins (She doesn’t know of my plan to expand the Gospel lesson (I should really tell her about that)).  I decided that I thought we should hear the optional text in Isaiah, but decided to skip it in the Psalm and 1 Corinthians lesson.  Some of that decision was based on length and some on the content, but as I read the optional verses from Isaiah 58, I knew we had to hear them.  They begin with these words from the prophet to a people who have become hollow religionists rather than followers of the LORD their God, “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” (NRSV, emphasis mine)

Those words that I have set in bold above are the verses we use in advertising our donations to the food pantry here in town.  Sure, they are taken out of context, but I don’t think the intention is harmed in it.  As the LORD seeks to draw his people back, he reminds them that the goal of their religion shouldn’t be help for themselves, but it should be for the good of their community, especially the weak, hungry, and powerless among them.  (For more on this, listen to this week’s Sermon Brainwave) The people of Israel were called to be a light to the Gentiles.  We are called, in Sunday’s Gospel lesson, to let our light so shine before others that they might see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven.  In neither place is the call to a life of faith about punching a ticket to heaven or felling good about yourself.  Rather, the life of faith should be outward focused, as in “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.”  The world is full of people who will sell you the false theologies of self-help and prosperity, but if we take time occasionally to read the stuff that is inside the brackets, we find that God has bigger and much better plans for this world.