Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Quinquagesima 2018

II Kings 2: 1-15
Mark 9: 2-9

Again, good morning.  As we see on the leaflet, Quinquagesima on the old Calendar, the third of the Three Sundays of what we used to call the “Pre-Lenten Season,” and on the new calendar the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. In the church year a major point of transition.  The last hint of the Silent Night of Bethlehem disappearing from the rear view mirror.  We stand with Jesus and his disciples in this holy moment on the Mount of the Transfiguration, and we can begin to make out the glow on the horizon of the Holy City, Jerusalem, crowds of pilgrims already beginning to arrive for the great Passover Festival-- and as we come down from that mountaintop and are stepping toward Ash Wednesday this week we will begin to prepare ourselves for what will soon be here in Holy Week: Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday.  We’ve spent the last couple of months talking about what happened at Christmas, and now we turn to the next question: why did it happen?  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, so that: Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday.  The two great doctrinal centers of Christian faith, Incarnation and Atonement, inextricably linked, bound together, and connected here today.  Stepping across the continental divide into a new watershed.

In the Address that follows the sermon on Ash Wednesday the formal opening is announced in these words: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”  When we commend each other to a “good Lent, a holy Lent” these are the categories we work in.  In all the busyness of our day to day life Holy Week still seems a long way off, but the message for us this week is that it will all be here before we know it.   So if this Lent is going to do us any good, there’s no time to waste.  As our last hymn will remind us once again this year, we put aside our singing of joyful alleluia’s for a season now, to enter into a quiet time of personal austerity and spiritual contemplation.  The front page of our St. Andrew’s website will have links to a couple of resources for daily reading and reflection in Lent.  We can follow that on our phones while we’re waiting for the coffee to drip in the morning.  That great Old Testament reading from the second chapter of the Book of the Prophet Joel always catches my attention.  I know for me it is always something dramatic as our first reading at that early 7:15 a.m. service on Ash Wednesday morning: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain!  Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near . . . .”

So here, right at this pivot, a moment of transition, turning the page, and so interesting that in our Old Testament reading we have what is also one of the great transitions in the Holy Story. 
The Prophet Elijah has for a generation been God’s great man in a troubled world.  He has spoken truth to power, an army of one, facing down the mighty armies of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, a solitary, bold prophetic voice, boldly proclaiming the power and holiness of the Lord God of Israel in the face of an apostate religious establishment given over to the worship of false gods.  Alongside Elijah perhaps only Abraham, Moses, and David would stand in stature among God’s Chosen People.

But Elijah’s days are coming to an end, and there is a great anxiety.  Change is always a little scary, and here this big change is coming, on its way soon.  With Elijah there, we all know where we stand, we faithful can fall in behind him, unite our voices to his voice.  But as we think of his departure from us, there are all these doubts, fears.  What will we say now to the rulers of this world?  How will we defend ourselves against the powers that seek to destroy us and to ruin the great plan that God has for his people?  We will be like sheep without a shepherd, lost, unable to find our way.

So we come to the end of the story in the reading this morning, and we see Elijah riding the circuit through the land on this symbolic pilgrimage, a kind of farewell tour, enacting the pilgrim story of the people, their ancient journey through the great wilderness, crossing the Jordan.  Alongside Elijah, his reluctant disciple Elisha, who wasn’t sure at first that he even wanted to begin this journey with the Master and for sure didn’t want to leave home and family and the comforts of his settled life and his wonderful farm—who has no idea what his role is going to be, why he has been chosen to come along, what God intends to do.   He asks the Prophet to pray that he will be up to the task, whatever the task is going to be, because he doesn’t see how he can possibly rise to the occasion in his own right.  I’m going to need a double dose of the Holy Spirit to be even half the leader you have been, Elijah, and I just don’t know how that is going to happen.

Then we get the dramatic conclusion.  Elijah is lifted off into heaven, the chariot of fire, the horses of fire!  One of the most dramatic and even cinematic moments in all of the Bible.  And in that moment, something happens.   A pause.  And Elisha leans over, picks up the mantle Elijah dropped as he entered the chariot, and wraps it around himself.  And in our mind’s eye and imagination we see something happen to him, in him.  One of those Holy Spirit moments, no question about it.  Where before he was anxious, full of doubt, now he strides to the Jordan, strikes the edge of the stream with the cloth, and miraculously again the waters part, just as they had for Elijah.  And when the prophets of the nearby village see him coming they know right away, right away, what is going on.  They can see it with their own eyes!  They sing out in joy and wonder and relief, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.”    And from this day forward Elisha sets out in Israel on a prophetic career of miraculous power and testimony.  A different vocabulary from that of Elijah, what we would call a different style of public ministry.  But with absolute confidence that the God who spoke to his people through the mighty words and miraculous acts of power of Elijah had not gone anywhere, but would continue to lead them and guide them, continue to call them to himself.

The moral of the story really summarized in the words the Prophet Jeremiah would one day sing in his Lamentation over the fall of Jerusalem, which is the lesson the Children of Israel and all of us seem to need to learn again and again and again, in the Biblical story and in our stories, whenever we wake up in the night fearful about an unknown future.  “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.”

Change is always difficult, of course.  Scary.   The kids are always growing and changing, our marriages and families, what’s happening at work, in the world around us.  The changes of our own physical bodies from health to sickness, from youth to age.   Are things changing in those places in our lives this year, this Lent?  Maybe we all can fill in our own blanks there.  And looking around for Elijah’s mantle, I suppose.  The outward and visible, sacramental sign of God’s presence.  Sort of what those practices of Lent might be.  Prayer, fasting, self-denial—reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. 

The point in Lent: taking that seriously even for just six weeks or so, and to see what might happen, in us and around us.  And we’ll see how it unfolds for us this year.  I would just invite you to join me.  Figuring out in our own particular context how this Ash Wednesday and Lent and the unfolding story of our lives, one chapter, one page, one sentence at a time, can be connected in new ways and even powerful ways to God’s story.  Prayer, fasting, self-denial—reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. 

Everybody, and Elisha especially, was worried about what would happen without Elijah around.  But it turned out they really had nothing to fear.  That God had a plan better than the best plan any of us could ever have come up with on our own.   It’s a prefiguring of the mystery of the Cross, as we enter this Lent.  At our weakest point, broken and defeated, lost, not able even to lift a finger in our own defense, we can leave it all in his hands.  He’s got this.  And in him, better things than we could ever ask for or imagine.   “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.  They are new every morning, new every morning, great is thy faithfulness.” 

So blessings, as we turn now to the Lent of 2018, to see what God has in store for us this year.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God. 

Monday, December 25, 2017

A Poem for Christmas

This piece by the English poet Jude Simpson is one that I return to in this season year after year.

If your heart yearns for a more it doesn’t know,
if you’ve suffered blow after blow
and can barely dare to lift your head,
if you’ve ever wished you’d rather been -
if you’ve bled, or tried to bind a wound
if you’ve cried then tied a knot to choke
the flow of hope before it can open up
a way to disappoint again
and leave you broken
then this is for you.
If you’ve longed, if you’ve wronged,
if you choke on the words to your favourite song,
if you need a Doctor,
or you’re beyond
medical help
then come.
If you’re cracked, if you’re splintered,
if your Winter is just too long,
if this Winter is just too long,
(but the thought of Spring is terrifying,)
then come.
Because Jesus came
for the broken brother and sister,
the ache, the pain and the blister,
the wrong decision,
the open wound
the blurred vision
the won’t-ever-hope-again.
Jesus came
for the insane, the unfulfilled, the searching
the street child, the tramp and the urchin,
the poor little rich girl snorting coke and
cursing, and the man who sold it to her.
Jesus came for those nursing a need,
nursing a drink
out of control,
on the blink,
on the brink,
falling overboard, and about to -
sobbing at the kitchen sink.
Jesus came for those the world drives mad,
for the bad, yes the bad,
Jesus came for the bad,
so if that’s never been you,
then fine, just go, because
Jesus didn’t come for the well, the swell,
“the hell – I’ve got everything I need”
the nothing’s-lacking, the non-cracking up.
He’s not interested in courting the sorted
he came to fill the cup of the thirsty,
the worst, the broken, the burst open,
Jesus came for the sick.
 the cracked-up, the packed-up,
the smashed, hopes dashed, and the picked-on,
the meek, the weak, the stuttering,
those who blush when they speak
and the walked-out-on.
Jesus came for those left behind,
for the cheats and the cheated,
the ones who crossed the line
and the ones who still don’t know where to begin.
Jesus came for the people who know how it feels
when you say “sin”
for the broken to open,
to break for those who choke,
for the people who don’t have everything we need,
for the ones who know we need hope.
© Jude Simpson 2007

Christmas Eve

December 24, 11 p.m.

In the name of the One who is Emmanuel, God with us, the child whose birth we remember so richly this night, who sits enthroned at the Right Hand of the Father, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns now and forever.  Amen.

Friends, grace and peace, and always, always to wish you a Merry Christmas.   Much merriment and warm hospitality, tender memories.  May this Holy Night, and the birth of our Savior,be a sign for us of all joy, healing, renewal of life: turning a corner, a new page, fresh beginning.  He was born for us as perfect gift.  Of the Father’s love begotten.  The gift of his own person, God from God, Light from Light, very God from very God.   He lived for us.  He died for us. His one oblation of himself, once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction.   In his victory over sin and death, in his resurrection life, there is the one and only victory of our lives.  Chosen by him, names inscribed in the Book of Life from before time and forever.  Living in him, dying in him to the old world of sin, setting aside the rebellion of our hearts, lifted by him from the realm of the Prince of Darkness and raised in him to new and everlasting life.   In him, grace and peace, forgiveness, and the sanctifying gift of his Holy Spirit.  To strengthen us in all goodness, to prepare us in heart and mind for the life of the world to come.  A world where Christmas is no longer simply a day  on the calendar, but a present and everlasting reality and state of being, around the throne of the King.  Where it is always Christmas.

In our reading from the Old Testament, Isaiah the Prophet.  Standing in a moment of crisis and conflict, looking forward to a certain immediate future of defeat, devastation, exile.  Enemies from beyond the borders pressing down with relentless and overwhelming ferocity.  And  a corruption eating away from within.  Just as bad as it can get.  The ancient heritage of God’s chosen people, the memories and values and loyalties of the Patriarchs, of Moses and Joshua, of Samuel and David, all passing away.   Greed, deceit, false-dealing, in the highest places, and an insidious disease and rebellion in the hearts and minds of men and women of every station of life.  Every false god.  Moral failure.  Loss of faith.  Sin is a condition, but it is also a choice, and with consequences, and those consequences now about to cascade upon them.  A massive implosion.  The falling of the House of David and the ruin of Jerusalem not simply a geo-political disaster, though it is that, a national catastrophe, defeat, the brutal destiny of slavery and exile.   But a catastrophe for thousands upon thousands, home by home, family by family.  The end of every hope and plan and dream.  The Holy City in flames.  All in ruins.

And yet even as this horrible darkness gathers, for Isaiah, looking far ahead with confidence in God’s goodness and God’s faithfulness, there is hope.   So the vision of the prophet.  Beyond the catastrophe.  How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation.  Even as the darkness gathers, he can see them.  The early Sentinels, the dawn of the new day and the Dayspring from on High, the return of the Lord to Zion.  God himself entering his throne room.  Ascending in glory. Restoring the ruins of Jerusalem, raising them to a new magnificence.  And not just that Holy City.  All creation.  Time and space.  Eternity itself.

And this is where it happened.  Returning to the source, to the place of beginning.  The great convergence, every holy promise and prophesy.  This holy night.  And Bethlehem.  Where the ancient Prophet Samuel saw the hand of the Lord rest upon a shepherd boy, and where God’s Chosen, David, was anointed to serve and lead God’s people.  Here:  Mary and Joseph.  Shepherds abiding in the fields.  Angels singing.  A Savior who is Christ the Lord.  The King shall come when morning dawns and light triumphant breaks; when beauty gilds the eastern hills and life to joy awakes.

And here he is. As Isaiah said, foretelling.  Tonight.  In majesty.  Ruling heaven and earth from his manger throne.   For his royal court, the rustic shepherds.  For his palace a stable.  Don’t let appearances deceive you even for a minute this evening.  He is turning upside down and inside out all our expectations.   Power in weakness.  To win victory by forgiveness.   Whose absolute power is known as perfect mercy.  To rule by blessing.  To govern in love.

The Law and the Prophets in grand procession, all shown this night to be true and reliable and given for us, for our encouragement and our benefit.  The word to Eve in the Garden.  The promise to Abraham.  That through his seed all nations would be blessed.  In fact, every word of Scripture pointing us to this hour.  In all truth.  To guide our lives and to fill our vision.  When darkness gathers, hope.   Fulfilled on this bed of straw.  Wrapped in swaddling cloth.    The ancient story not distant anymore, but now perfectly present.  Not about people long ago and far away, but about us, about the world we live in.  Who came for us, to die on the Cross, taking in himself our brokenness, our sin, and then to rise from death.   In the mystery of this midnight hour of Christmas, the fullness of Easter.  For us, for our salvation, he came down from heaven.

So, St. John: He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.  He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to come children of God . . . .

This is not a children’s story, though it is the story of a child.   Encountering and mastering every hard reality of our lives and of our world.  Bending back the darkness, overcoming the force of evil that rides so high in the world around us and in the secret corners of our hearts.  Forgiving sin, as we return to him in faith; bringing peace and reconciliation.   Come: bow down and bend the knee and kneel before the Lord our Maker.  Like the Shepherds.  For we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.  Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Let the whole earth stand in awe of him.

To know that this story is our story--not because we try through some act of will to make it true, to convince ourselves, but because his Spirit has prepared us, come to dwell in us, cleared a space for this gospel good news to be planted and to take root.  To know who we are by knowing first whose we are.  Is there a place prepared in you, ready to receive him now?

An invitation.  If we’ve never heard it before, perhaps we will hear it now.  There is a right time to receive this gift, a providential moment.  And perhaps tonight, as we listen carefully.  Scripture and song and the ancient prayers of his holy Church.  What do you hear?  What is the news?   For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called “Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore.”

Blessings this night.  Peace in Bethlehem and in all the world.  Let this invitation be fresh and new for each of us this evening.  Listen carefully, as the angels sing.  He comes to us so that we might come to him.  Christ the Lord, the Newborn King.

Fourth Advent

December 24, 2017, 10 a.m.
Luke 1: 26-38

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

Let us pray: Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to thee, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we maybe wholly thine, utterly dedicated unto thee; and then use us, we pray thee, as thou wilt, and always to thy glory and the welfare of thy people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

There are these fork-in-the road moments that happen in our lives on occasion, the big decision events.  Maybe not quite as huge on the cosmic stage of eternity as the choice that Mary has in front of her.  But big at least in our world here and now.  We have a choice to make, and we are aware with some clarity that what we decide will have a significant impact on our lives.  Of course, sometimes the little decisions we make, even without thinking much about them, turn out to have huge consequences.  That happens all the time too.  I decide to go to the grocery store today rather than tomorrow, and then while I’m stopped at the light I get rear ended by an uninsured driver.  Small decisions, but larger consequences.  But I’m thinking here this morning of the kinds of questions we sometimes have before us when we know with clarity right away that we’re standing at a cross-roads moment.  An eighteen year old high school senior weighs acceptance letters from several top choice colleges.  A mid-career executive has a job she likes, but almost out of the blue she has another offer that looks really attractive, a big step up--but that would involve picking up the family and moving across country.   A young man has been dating a young lady for a year or so now, and the relationship seems to be moving in a serious direction.  But, is it time yet to buy the ring?  To pop the question?  And if he does pop the question, then the ball of course is in her court.  Big decisions.

We can all imagine moments in our own lives like that.  Some more dramatic than others, but something that we know right away is going to be really important, even if it’s true, as it is always true, that we can’t really predict what all the consequences of our decisions might actually be. 

So what to do?  For Christian people there is either spoken or unspoken the thought  that “I’m going to need to pray about this.”  A time of reflection, where we put the decision to be made, and ourselves, and all those who would be affected by the decision before us, those we know about and those who will be affected whom we may not know, at least directly—where we put it all for a moment in God’s hands.  Perhaps to ask for clarity.  Perhaps to ask for protection.  For wisdom in discernment.  For peace.  Some folks make this a regular practice even when the smaller decisions are on the table.  But for sure when we really think there’s a lot at stake, it’s key.  Susy and I are making our way through the second season of the television series, The Crown, and it’s notable that we see the young Queen Elizabeth kneeling in prayer at her bedside each night.  Which I understand has been her practice since early childhood and continuing to this day.  When you have a sense of responsibility, of duty, of the importance not just to yourself but to others, that you get things right.  As the old hymn says, “take it to the Lord in prayer.”

Sometimes we might think particularly of looking to Scripture for guidance in this reflection.  Probably the most significant act within prayer for any of us.  Which is what Mary says in response to the Angel.    Mary, who is in some sense lifted up in St. Luke’s gospel and in the long course of Christian history the model and example, the first Christian.  “Let it be to me according to your word.”  God speaks.  God’s Word given as this gift, to shape our minds and hearts and wills.  For Mary, the word of the Angel calling up the whole great story of Israel, the Law and the Prophets, all streaming together to this point, and the whole created world waiting breathlessly for her response, her assent. 

What the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 119: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” Of course, we don’t all have the benefit of a radiant Angelic Being standing before us.  But we do have God’s Word, which is the key thing.  “Let it be to me according to your word.”  Sometimes it seems to take some effort and care to hear the word, or to discern its meaning in our lives.   Perhaps  in some cases there are pretty direct connections and applications.  Thinking about a specific word in the Ten Commandments.  Thou shalt not steal.  Something like that.  Thou shalt not kill.  Thou shalt not covet.  Thou shalt not commit adultery.   I know sometimes we try to make it complicated, with nuance and levels of definition and meaning, and sometimes it is complicated.  But when I run too far in that direction I find it sometimes necessary to take a look in the mirror to say, “Methinks thou dost protest too much.”   Is it really so complicated, or am I just stalling because what God is saying and what I am wanting him to be saying turn out to be different things?   Of course, sometimes the word seems to come indirectly.   It’s less about some specific instruction, and more about character, value, heart and spirit--something at a deeper level.  I find for me sometimes in those crossroads moments maybe there’s a story from Scripture that might come to mind.   A character, a situation, an image of poetry.  The time when Joseph has in his power to bless or to destroy the brothers who so long ago sold him into slavery.  The time when Ruth chose to follow Naomi instead of returning to her own family.  The time Elijah was called to stand in solitary witness against the murderous apostasy of King Ahab and his Queen Jezebel.  The time in the wilderness when a little boy came forward in the midst of a hungry and restless multitude to offer his simple lunch bag to Jesus, with truly no idea what would happen next.

The story may not give us a specific direction.  Thou shalt not do this. Thou shalt do that.  But the pattern of the story, even just a word, an image,  begins to shed some light on the question I am asking about our lives, about what we do next.  There is something so powerful about Mary’s decision.  I guess partly because as we stand at the edge of the scene and overhear her word of acceptance and agreement, we know so much more of the story than she knew.  Just because we’ve prayed about it, opened our ears and our hearts to his Word, sought his guidance—that doesn’t necessarily mean joy and peace and success as outcomes.  Jeremiah found himself at the bottom of a well.  And on the journey from this moment, Mary would find herself very soon, very soon,  at the foot of the Cross. 

But this is about trust.  Faith.  The last moment for us in Advent, almost literally here on this 4th Sunday, with Christmas Eve about to happen as soon as this service is over and Penny and the Altar Guild can begin to change the paraments to white for this afternoon’s services.  The last word of Advent, which has been a season about what we are expecting, what we are hoping for.  The Birth of the Christ Child, the Second Coming of the King in his glorious majesty.  And in and with those, all the expectations and hopes of our particular lives. 

In some 19th century illustrations the Angel Gabriel comes to Mary as she is hanging laundry on the line in the backyard of her Nazareth home, transforming the scene with his radiant presence.   Most of the time the decisions we have come in less dramatic ways.  But the prayer for us is that we would in all our decisions and all our lives tune our ears and our hearts to recognize the Father’s voice.  To seek his wisdom and guidance by placing ourselves in the care of his Word, through all the Advent of our lives.

Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to thee, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we maybe wholly thine, utterly dedicated unto thee; and then use us, we pray thee, as thou wilt, and always to thy glory and the welfare of thy people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Second Advent, 2017

II Peter 3: 8-15

I don’t know if you’ve had the chance yet to read Bishop McConnell’srecent meditation on “Waiting in Advent.” I thought it was really quite insightful—and of course from him, always beautifully written.  I’ve shared it with the St. Andrew’s Facebook page and sent a link also to our E-mail distribution list.  And by the way if you haven’t seen it yet because you haven’t “liked” the St. Andrew’s Facebook page or because your e-mail isn’t on our distribution list, please let me know and we can get you connected.  For those who don’t want to work via the digital technologies, there are paper copies as well on the credenza in Brooks Hall.  A very nice resource to add to our Advent.

Again, about all this waiting, and this morning, from 2 Peter 3

The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.  But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.  Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the Day of God?   Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

I think a lot of what gives Advent its richness and resonance is the elegant way in which it holds in tension, in balance, the anticipation of Christmas, which is of course all around us--the annual re-telling of the story of the Birth of Jesus, with all the liturgical and cultural and social and commercial expressions built around that re-telling—and what we might call the gestational anticipation that all Christians have of the Great Day, the Great Day, when we shall see and know and experience his Second Advent,  in power and great glory, to judge all peoples according to his righteousness.  To set things right once and for all.  It’s not like we choose one Advent or the other.  We hold them both at the same time. 

These two Advents--across the range of holy time, past and future--and so profoundly connected that in some sense neither can be true and fully known without being seen clearly in reference to the other.  We remember, and as we remember we at the same time lean forward in hope, in expectation.   Insofar as we celebrate the Savior’s Birth, a time of warmth and joy.  I heard someone say the other day, “God is crazy about you.  That’s the meaning of Christmas.  God is crazy about you.  And then at the same time as we look toward the East for his arrival on the clouds to bring judgment and justice, a time of sober penitence, prayer and fasting.  Our patient preparation, in the space of God’s patience, while we come around to him, while the Holy Spirit works in us.  He is crazy about us, he loves us so much that he will give us this space of time as the Spirit works in us, so that we will be ready when he comes.

And so we go on living our lives.  Days, weeks, years, decades, and it turns out centuries.  Generations.  The fullness of the Kingdom, the Manger, the Empty Tomb, the promise of his return: already, but not yet.  And to think about how we live in Advent, these weeks in December that we as Christians set aside in a special observance, as a way of thinking about how we live our lives.   What the theologians call an “interim ethic.” Those reborn in Christ, baptized into his death, joined to his resurrection, are gradually over the course of our lives prepared here in this world for the life of the world to come.  What will he find in us, when he comes?  Every once in a while someone will say that we Christians are called to be “Easter People,” and of course the victory of his resurrection is the lens through which the whole story must be read.  But in another way, and I think in a richer way, it is right to say that we are called to be “Advent People.”  In this middle ground.  Where we don’t get it perfectly, not on this side of the Kingdom, but where we somehow do what we can to make progress, if we make progress,  just a little at a time.  The Holy Spirit working in us.  But nourished by Word and Sacrament to live and to serve him in newness of life.  Just to find an hour a day to pray, to read his Word.  Or five minutes . . . .  So our Advent is to describe how we get ready for Christmas, and this second Advent—how we get ready for the fullness of his Kingdom, when he comes again.

Like the servant who doesn’t know when his master will return.  Who has to get things ready and to keep things ready, so that all will be in order when he arrives.  Like the well-prepared virgin bridesmaids, whose lamps were filled with oil. Like the Steward who can give a good account to his Master of the Talents left in his care. 

How do we live in the meantime?  What sort of people are we to be, as Peter sets the question before us this morning.  John the Baptist seems to have a pretty clear idea, in his preaching out there by the Jordan River.  Especially in our modern lectionaries he rises up as a defining character of Advent.  Preaching baptism for repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.   What kind of person should I be? How do I live in the meantime.  To be engaged, to enjoy.  To tend my garden, care for my family, complete the work here that he has given me to do, with creativity and enthusiasm as best I can, but without trying to hold on to the things that are passing away.  What kind of church are we supposed to be?  A good question to ask and think about.  As a lot of us are.  What’s going on around St. Andrew’s right now?  What kind of direction and correction and repentance and renewal are we being called to?  Why we need Advent.  Just as the Hebrews needed those 40 years of Wilderness life to be cleansed of the vestiges of their Egyptian slavery, to be prepared to take possession of the Land of Promise.  Just as the ancient Jews needed their decades of exile in Babylon and Egypt and Persia, to come to terms with their unfaithfulness, to re-orient their lives in relationship to God. 

So, this Advent, for us.  Peter says that this space, this interval, this wilderness, this life we share, December 2017, all of it, is for us the patience of God, he’s holding back, not turning the page quite yet for the next chapter of the story, while the Spirit works in us to sort things out.  The First Advent in one hand, the Second in the other.  And certainly in the meantime to cultivate this Advent quality in our own lives.  At church, at home, at work.  Patient with one another.  Patient with ourselves.  The Eastern Orthodox call Advent a “Little Lent,” and it is a space for us like the days of Lent,  remembering the call to observance on Ash Wednesday, to the observance of a holy season, “by self examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”  A reminder to make good use of the time we have.

The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.  But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.  Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the Day of God?   Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

Blessings again in this Advent, this New Year of our lives.  While we still have time, in this Advent, walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Advent Sunday, 2017

Dan Isadore's sermon this morning.  Isaiah 64: 1-9

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Last after Pentecost, Next before Advent, Christ the King

Matthew 25: 31-46

So this is a Sunday of transition in the Church Year, a day with something of an “identity crisis,” with several titles, as you see on the cover of the leaflet.  First, and this is the official name of the day on our Episcopal Church calendar, simply the “last Sunday” of the Church Year, this long season of Ordinary Time after Pentecost and Trinity Sunday.  Next Sunday, December 3, is Advent, a new year, and our annual retelling of the Holy Story will begin again with the ancient Prophets.   So the last page of the book, the final scene of the play.  Winding things up.

On the other hand, in the Church Calendar of the Anglican world, ours also in the Episcopal Church until the 1979 Calendar revision,  this Sunday is and was set aside not as an ending, but as a prelude.  Not the last page of the old book, but the preface of new, not the final scene, but the overture—that moment when we lean forward with anticipation, as the curtain is about to come up for the story to begin.

The Book of Common Prayer Collect for this Sunday next before Advent, was “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing fort the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded.”   The Collect to remind us in prayer that we are capable of no good work, until God stirs up the capacity for, the desire for good within us, and that we deserve nothing, that we have earned ourselves no reward, except for the reward that he gives to those who call upon his Name.  What the theologians call “prevenient grace.”  That we love him only because first he loves us.    That we desire the good only because he first plants that desire in our hearts and minds and imaginations.  “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people.”    So the day is “Stir up Sunday”—though I didn’t have Michelle put that title on the leaflet also.   As a footnote, in Victorian times the custom began to have this “Stir up Sunday” mark the beginnings of preparation of the Christmas Pudding.   Which needed to be stirred in a big bowl.   I guess we might think of it as something like the Christmas fruitcake.

We also have in the deeper texture of this Sunday—and actually also for the last two Sundays--the earlier practice in the Church of the Middle Ages that was called St. Martin’s Lent.   November 11 is the feast day for St. Martin of Tours, and the three Sundays then before what we now call Advent and the four Advent Sundays were a season of penitential prayer and fasting parallel to the 40 days of Lent from Ash Wednesday through Easter.  If we’ve been listening to the epistle and especially the gospel readings for the past couple of Sundays we have been alerted to this with the increasing focus on “getting ready for the end, for the final accounting”—all of that to set the table for us as we prepare to encounter the four great themes traditionally associated with Advent, the “Four Last Things:” Death and Judgment, Heaven and Hell.  

The wide world outside the Church of course prefers a somewhat different focus for the Holiday Season.  But in the church along with the gentler customs of Advent and our preparation for the annual celebration of the Birth in Bethlehem, we pause perhaps not with the fasting of St. Martin’s Lent, but even so on the Sunday next before Advent, to remind ourselves that the reason Jesus was born for us is that we who are lost, we who are condemned, we who are without any grounds for appeal or to request mitigation of sentence—we really do need a savior.   That’s the foundation of Christianity, the theological convergence of theology and anthropology.  That’s what Advent is supposed to remind us, and in a way that would simultaneously wake us up and flood our hearts with gratitude.  Christmas and Good Friday and Easter are essentially meaningless unless we begin here.  So the Pre-Advent Little Lent of St. Martin.  We really do need a savior.

In any event, finally, the third title for this morning, the Feast of Christ the King, is not actually on the Episcopal Church calendar, although it obviously informs the Collect of the Day.  The feast was first put on the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar at the last Sunday of October in 1925, particularly as a counterpoint to the rising tide of state-sponsored atheism in the new Soviet Union--and later when the new post-Vatican II calendar was published in 1970 it was moved to the Last Sunday in Ordinary Time.  The pre-Advent focus on Last Things is of course still very strong in our readings, and especially in this Parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 this morning, but it is framed for us at the same time in the Collect and the hymns and anthems of the day by the acknowledgment and acclamation of the eternal Lordship of Christ, the One above all others, King of kings and Lord of lords.

Just briefly: the Parable of the Last Judgment, the Sheep and the Goats, is the third and last in the sequence of the Parables of the Kingdom in Matthew 25.  Two weeks ago we heard the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens.  The contrast between those who kept their lamps full and at the ready for the Bridegroom’s return and those who slept thoughtlessly and were caught unprepared.  Then last week the gospel reading was the Parable of the Five Talents.  The contrast between the three Stewards, the two who took the resources the Master had left for them to manage and fearlessly invested them for the Master’s benefit, and the one who was more concerned about his own skin than about the Master’s welfare, who fearfully hid in the ground what the Master had put in his care.   And this morning the Sheep and the Goats.  Those who were so deeply attuned in their faith that even when they didn’t see Jesus directly with their eyes, still served him day by day, in every encounter and opportunity, and those  who were so caught up in themselves that they didn’t notice Jesus as he made himself known to them in the lives of the hungry, the naked, those in prison. 

In this context I love the Thursday Collect in the 1979 Prayer Book service of Evening Prayer.  There’s an evocation of the Easter Evening story of the Disciples and Jesus on the Road to Emmaus, which seems just right for us as a prayer at the end of the year, as we gather ourselves to prepare to kneel once again in just a few weeks at his manger throne:  “Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past; be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope, that we may know thee as thou art revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread.”  A prayer to see Jesus, to know him.  At the end of the old year, leaning forward to welcome the new year,  to honor Christ our King.   In the Word and the Breaking of Bread.  In the face of the poor, the suffering, the lost.  That we might see you, Jesus, where you choose to be, even when those places may not be the ones where we expected to find you.  Kindle our hearts, and awaken hope.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.