For March 31 (Lent 3, Year C)

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (online here)

“The Prodigal Son” is probably one of the best known parables in the Bible, but  we sometimes get so sentimental about the story that we gloss over the discomforting details.

To begin with, we don’t always notice how hateful the younger son is. We tend to think of him as foolish and immature, but not downright hateful. And yet in Jesus’ day you could hardly come up with a more painful rejection than to ask for your inheritance while your parents are still living. The son might as well say, “Why aren’t you dead yet?” His request is calculated to inflict pain.

Don’t forget that Jesus told this story to answer a question. His critics wanted to know why he kept company not just with sinners but with tax-collectors. Tax-collectors aren’t just the IRS. This is a subjugated, occupied country. Tax-collectors are traitors, people who don’t mind harming their own neighbors to get ahead, people to be feared for what they can do to you. They’re not unlike a son who wouldn’t mind seeing his own family dead.

So what does the father do? He doesn’t even rebuke his son. He says nothing about the pain that request must have caused. He simply does what he’s asked. Our translation reads, “He divided his property between them,” but the word for “property” also means “life.” He divided his very life between them. He gives everything away. And apparently the younger son is still welcome to stick around, because several days pass before he decides to strike out on his own. Nobody asked him to leave. It was his decision alone.

So honestly, it’s hard not to feel a little satisfaction when he makes a complete mess of his life. And if this were a morality tale, that’s where the story might end. Do you remember Aesop’s fable about the grasshopper and the ant? The grasshopper fiddles all summer long while the ant stores up food, and when winter comes the grasshopper starves and freezes. End of story. Don’t be like the grasshopper.

But this parable is not a fable about how to manage your resources. Nobody’s left out in the cold. In the end, the younger son’s better off than ever. He’s practically treated like royalty. And he didn’t even have to finish his confession.

I’m not sure I like that. I’m a younger brother myself, and I can summon a lot of sympathy for people who make bad financial decisions. I’ve made plenty of my own. But really, shouldn’t there be some consequences here? In a twelve-step program, wouldn’t we want to warn the father about being an enabler? Doesn’t the older brother have a point? Take him back, maybe, but don’t let him think he could get away with this again. But instead the father loses any semblance of dignity he might have retained and makes the younger son the guest of honor.

It really isn’t a very good model for a functional family. But what else can you expect from a parable? Practically speaking, Jesus’ parables usually don’t make that much sense. There’s always something a little exaggerated, maybe even a little twisted, about the way they turn out. This one comes third in a cluster of parables, and all of them sound a bit silly. A shepherd risks his entire flock to find one stray sheep; a woman spends a whole day looking for one coin that isn’t worth that much; and a father throws a party that’s bound to give the wrong impression.

Don’t try to figure this out. There’s no explanation. There’s no accounting for the father’s behavior, just as there’s no accounting for God’s love. God’s love is beyond all reckoning. It can’t be explained, can’t be measured, can’t even be taken for granted. Maybe the most exasperating thing about it is that God’s love always seems to find us in a place where we don’t expect it to be. Maybe like the younger son we lose all hope in ourselves, can’t imagine anything more than a hired-hand status, only to find that God doesn’t look at us that way. Maybe like the older son we feel resentful, overlooked, and just when it all boils over and we’re telling God off, we find ourselves invited to a party, of all things.

That, apparently, is how God’s love works: never quite predictable, often downright exasperating, but there is one thing we can count on. There’s always more love than we could imagine, not less, more than we could ever measure. Somewhere St. Augustine said, “God loves you as if you were God’s only love, and God loves everybody else in exactly the same way.” I can’t even begin to imagine how that’s possible. But it’s true anyway. There’s no rule of human making that God wouldn’t break in order to be your God, and mine, and everybody’s. And the love doesn’t run out, or even run low.

I suspect the reason the older brother feels resentful about the party is that he can’t believe there’s that much love for him too. But the father says, “All that is mine is yours.” We call this parable “The Prodigal Son” but maybe it should be called “The Prodigal Father,” or maybe even “The Prodigal God.” To be prodigal is to be wasteful, to squander everything you have. Isn’t that what this father does? Isn’t that what God does? Doesn’t it look a little foolish?

“All that is mine is yours,” the father says. And so says God. But God never runs out. It’s love beyond all reckoning. It’s all for us, and it’s all for everyone else too. Even here, in the middle of Lent, before we can finish confessing our failures, there’s a party waiting for us. And each one of us is the guest of honor. Welcome.

Fr. Charles  

For March 24 (Lent 3, Year C)

Exodus 3:1-15 (online here)

Moses wants to know how to name God. And God’s answer is really annoying. “I AM Who I AM.” That doesn’t exactly settle anything. Of course the answer can also be translated, “I will be who I will be.” Or it might even be, “I am who I will be.” In Hebrew it all spells and sounds the same. There’s no reason not to hear it all three ways. But however you hear it, it’s still an irksome answer. What does it settle? Nothing.

But irksome as that is, it may just be the only answer that turns us to God. God says, “I am who I will be,” because God is not in the business of settling things. Instead, God is in the moving business. God is in the business of moving us, because even God is on the move. God is moving us, and moving with us, toward God’s own celebration of justice and peace and wholeness and liveliness that can’t be contained or controlled. And the only way to know this God is to let ourselves be caught up together into that motion. It won’t prevent our making mistakes. It won’t prevent disasters. But it’s all that life was ever meant to be, and the best we can do is make way for it to happen.

You see, we learn that God’s name isn’t just, “I am who I will be.” It’s, “I am who we will be.” The God who moves us toward this endlessly unfolding celebration is the God who has been our God all along—the God of our ancestors, of our friends, of people we don’t know or don’t like, of everybody’s past celebrations and failures. God is moving all that you and I and they have ever been toward celebrating a communion we still only glimpse in fits and starts. “I am who we will be.”

Fr. Charles

For March 17 (Lent 2, Year C)

Luke13:31-35 (online here)

When she became the first woman to be elected Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, the Most Reverend Katherine Jefforts Schori preached a sermon that many found offensive, because of one sentence. This one: “Our mother Jesus gives birth to a new creation—and you and I are His children.” Two words, “Mother Jesus,” set off a frenzy of reactions from the heresy hunters in the land.

One conservative website offered some predictable commentary. But what struck me were the keywords—the subject headings—they used for people surfing the web: Try searching under APOSTATES; HOMOSEXUALAGENDA; JESUSHATERS; RADICALFEMINISM; RADICALLEFTISTS; or WARONJESUS. One subscriber to another blog responded with these words: “Presiding Bishop-elect Jefforts Schori, in the name of the God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son and the Holy Spirit, I rebuke you for your BLASPHEMY and call upon you to recant … REPENT or face God's righteous judgment. You are walking a very bad road, and worse, you are leading others down it.” The rector of a 4,500-member parish in Texas complained to Christianity Today: “When the Presiding Bishop–elect had a chance to build consensus, she chose to interweave the Cross with radical feminism. It seemed Gnostic.” So much for giving up fear …

In today’s Gospel, Jesus had a chance to build consensus, but he chose to interweave the Cross with, well, maybe not radical feminism—he wouldn’t have known what those words meant. But as he alluded to his impending death, he did choose to speak of himself as a mother. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

For people who like to speak of God in both male and female terms—and I’m one of them—this is a classic passage. And it doesn’t stand alone. Before St. John called Jesus the Word made flesh, St. Paul spoke of him as Sophia (Lady Wisdom) made flesh: “Christ Jesus, who became for us Lady Wisdom from God” (1 Cor. 1:30). Paul knew all about what we now call the Wisdom Literature in Jewish Scriptures and other spiritual writings. It speaks of Wisdom not just as a virtue but as a person, and not just as a person but as a woman, and not just as a person or a woman but as in some way divine, present and active at the beginning of creation (cf. Proverbs 8:22-31). Nobody objected that this was blasphemy. Nobody called it “Gnostic.” Nobody called Paul a Jesus hater.

Much later—over 1,000 years—St. Anselm prayed to Jesus as his mother. “Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you; you are gentle with us as a mother with her children." That’s from one of my Church's authorized canticles. We have another fourteenth century canticle by Julian of Norwich: “Christ came in our poor flesh to share a mother’s care. Our mothers bear us for pain and for death; our true mother, Jesus, bears us for joy and endless life." She may have been the first woman to write a book in English. But our Church doesn’t call her a Jesus hater. Instead we give her a feast day, Anselm too, even though they both chose to interweave the Cross with Jesus’ motherhood.

All of this is to say that, as usual, those who shout most loudly on behalf of the Bible or tradition frequently don’t know very much about either. They only know enough to make themselves dangerous to everybody else. They act as if the Bible or our traditions were uniform and simple, which they most definitely are not—not uniform, and not simple.

What we have instead is a diverse, complex collection of testimonies, and the only thing that holds them together is an underlying plot: the boundless, insistent compassion of our God. It speaks of a God who desires again and again to gather us together “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” It speaks again and again of God’s people, then to now, as wayward children who keep refusing the invitation. And it speaks again and again of a God who won’t take even our most violent “No” for a final answer.

Lent is a time for us to hear that with Christ God still stands ready to gather all of us together “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” And that will never change. We can afford to give up fear. We can afford to hear God named in unfamiliar terms. We can afford even to listen to people who seem hateful, knowing that they can do nothing to halt the boundless, insistent compassion of God at work in the world.

“Our mother Jesus gives birth to a new creation—and you and I are His children.”

Fr. Charles

For March 10 (Lent 1, Year C)

Luke 4:1-13 (online here)

(Dave Brubeck setting)

This is the first Sunday in Lent, and so it's not surprising that the Gospel lesson would be about Jesus' temptation in the wilderness.

When we hear this story, it helps us be patient with our own temptations. We know we’re not alone. Just like you and me, Jesus knew keenly what it was like to be pulled away from loving God, pulled away from loving the people around him, even pulled away from loving himself. He knew what it was like to feel a constant, insistent tug away from the common life that God was living in and around him. He felt that tug all the time. God felt it with him and in him.

The only difference, we’ve come to believe, is that he never quite let go of the love that wouldn’t let go of him, no matter how much he got tugged in other directions.

People called him sinless, but that can be misleading.

It’s not that he never broke any rules—he was always breaking rules, even Biblical rules. It’s not that he was a nice little boy who always obeyed his parents—every time they even hinted at telling him what to do, he told them to back off. It’s not that he never had to be taught anything about the reach of God’s love—just ask the Canaanite woman who practically tricked him into healing her daughter. It’s not that he never had any second thoughts—just watch him praying that last night in the garden.

It’s just that through all of that apparent misbehavior, short-sightedness, and indecision he never quite let go of the love that wouldn’t let go of him. That’s the only difference. And it doesn’t separate him from the rest of us. It only brings us closer.

And now we can look at our own temptations in a new way. They don’t take us away from God. They bring us closer. Or at least they can.

Fr. Charles

For March 6 (Ash Wednesday, Year C)

Service for Ash Wednesday (online here)

The very name for this day focuses on “the imposition of ashes”—the moment where the minister dips a thumb into the ashes and traces the sign of the cross on the worshipper’s forehead. It can be a memorable moment, or … not, depending on where you are in your life right now. Either way, it’s a powerful moment that doesn’t always depend on how much you pay attention.

The ashes connect us to our mortality, to our earthiness: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” They connect us to the brokenness in our lives. This is a time to be fully honest with yourself and God about all the things you haven’t accomplished, all the things you probably won’t ever accomplish, all the pain you’ve caused, and all the pain you’ve suffered from others. It’s a time to stop pretending that we can keep any secrets from the one who knows us better than we know ourselves. That’s what the ashes do with us.

But we don’t smear these ashes all over ourselves. Someone uses them to trace the sign of the cross on our foreheads. There’s another time we do something like that. Right after you get baptized, the minister marks your forehead with the sign of the cross and says that “you are marked as Christ’s own forever.” The ashes connect us to our mortality, but the sign of the cross connects us to our risen life in Christ.

It works that way even if you never got around to being baptized. We believe that, most particularly in Jesus Christ, God has taken up all the dust of this world into the endless common life that God simply is. God looks on you and all creation as already baptized, marked as Christ’s own forever. So remember that, in one way or another, you’re not just dust—you’re baptized dust.

That’s why you can afford to be fully honest about where you are. When you know that the only barriers between you and God’s common life are the barriers you put up yourself, when you know that God’s love doesn’t have any barriers, you’re free to open yourself to God and even to the person next to you.

That happened for me once, and right in the middle of an Ash Wednesday service. I was brought up to be a tolerant and welcoming person. But in my early college years I got caught up in a very intolerant brand of Christian faith. There were powerful moments of grace back then, but they got mixed in with a need to put up barriers to shut out people who didn’t share our experience.

I actually got to a point where I wouldn’t take communion with other kinds of Christians, and most especially Episcopalians. I didn’t think they were properly baptized, and I especially resented the fact that one of my friends had joined up with them. But I couldn’t help loving the liturgy, and I would sometimes go to services with my friend Alan and even go up to the communion rail, where I’d fold my arms across my chest to indicate that I wouldn’t receive the bread or wine.

On Ash Wednesday of my junior year, I went with Alan to a morning service. I was in a grumpy mood that day and wasn’t sure why. I had been feeling a bit stifled lately, or blocked. I wasn’t finding much joy in things any more. And as the service unfolded that day I slowly began to realize that I was being a total jerk. I was the one stifling myself. Here was grace happening all around me, too obvious to deny, and I was letting theological hair-splitting keep me from celebrating it. So when I went up to the communion rail on that day, I extended my hands to receive the bread and wine. And from that point on lots of barriers started coming down.

Barriers are still coming down today. Learning to be fully honest, learning to live into God’s common life is a life-long process. I still need that connection in the form of ashes traced in the sign of a cross. We all need it. Remember that you are dust. Remember that you are baptized dust, marked as Christ’s own for ever. Thanks be to God.

Fr. Charles

For March 3 (Last Epiphany, Year C)

Luke 9:28-36 (online here)

Imagine that you’re part of a group that’s going on an overseas trip. Over the months you’ve gone to a whole series of preparation sessions. Every time, you get a new handout, and on every one of them you see in giant, bold letters, “Make sure you have a current passport!” Then at the very last meeting your guide reminds everybody one more time ... And somebody says, “Wait a minute, I need a passport? Why didn’t somebody tell me?”

Imagine your exasperation, assuming you’re not the person who said that. I’ll bet you’ve seen something like that happen more than once in your life. Somebody keeps repeating a crucial bit of information, and later the people who most needed the reminder act as if nobody ever said anything. Were they even listening?

Today is the Sunday of the Transfiguration, the last Sunday in Epiphany, the last Sunday before Lent, our last chance to be festive before everything turns somber and we give up saying “alleluia” until the Easter Vigil. So we might be tempted to put all our attention on how fabulous Jesus looks. Just watch him glow! Alleluia!

So in the middle of all this last-gasp festivity, there’s a good chance we won’t have listened carefully enough to a detail Luke adds to his version of the Transfiguration. It’s easy to miss. I’ve missed it most of my life. One reason is that it doesn’t show up in Mark or Matthew, just Luke. Another reason is that the Lectionary plucks this episode out of its setting in a string of linked episodes, so before I tell you what this detail is, let me set things up for us.

Here’s what happened shortly before and shortly after the lesson we just heard: Peter tells Jesus, “You’re the Messiah.” A bit surprisingly, Jesus says, “Shut up! Don’t tell anybody!” Then he predicts his execution in no uncertain terms and calls his followers to take up their own crosses—daily. Then Jesus, Peter, John and James have their mountaintop moment—today’s lesson. Then they come down from the mountain, and Jesus shows up his incompetent disciples and amazes everybody with God’s healing power. And then again he says, “‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.’ But [the disciples] did not understand ... And they were afraid to ask him about this saying” (44-45).

So here’s the link in all these episodes: every time Jesus’ disciples try to turn his ministry into a victory party, they’re called back to reality. They’re told that all their hopes and dreams of triumph are about to be dashed to pieces on a cross. Only they’re not listening. They’re not listening.

Now, back to the Transfiguration, here’s the detail we might miss. Maybe we want to miss it. Like his disciples, here we are picturing Jesus shining away, in the company of such major figures as Moses and Elijah, having a conversation. (By the way, did you ever wonder how the disciples know who these two guys are? I mean, were they wearing name-tags or something? It’s not like they had seen them on the news.) But back to the conversation—just what are these three radiant heavyweights discussing? They’re not talking about how fabulous Jesus looks. They’re talking about his impending execution, his shameful-looking death. Right in the middle of this impromptu festival of light, all they’re talking about is facing death. It’s their Transfiguration Sunday, but it looks as though Lent is already happening.

And Peter, John and James are not listening. They’re actually starting to nod off in the middle of one of the most stupendous events they’ve ever seen. Maybe they’re tuning out because the conversation topic seems out of keeping with this moment of exaltation. So Peter acts like the topic never came up. With all his babbling about making this scene into a permanent tourist attraction, it’s clear he wasn’t listening while they were talking. He apparently hadn’t listened before they came up here, and he didn’t notice anything this time either.

That’s why this voice from the clouds interrupts Peter’s babbling and says, “Listen to him!” In effect the message is, “You haven’t been listening. You’re still not listening. For God’s sake, start listening!” But they’re not listening. They see only what they want to see and hear only what they want to hear. They see Jesus transfigured and assume that from now on it’s going to be one glorious success story after another. Moses, Elijah and Jesus say right in front of their noses that things are not going to go that way, but it doesn’t even register. So when they’ve come down from the mountain Jesus tries to get through one more time: “Let these words sink into your ears.” But his words still don’t sink into their ears. They’re not listening.

So what about us? Are we listening? Actually some of us might be. Just blocks away it’s also Transfiguration Sunday at North United Methodist, and we can be pretty sure that they are not in any danger viewing their life together as one glorious success story after another. They’ve seen their John-Wesley-inspired vision of inclusion dashed to pieces not in Jerusalem but in St. Louis. Yes, I’m sure they were singing alleluias today, but with a more defiant tone as they refused to be overwhelmed by forces aiming to silence them. Jesus doesn’t have to repeat himself there. His words have already sunk into their ears. They didn’t have any trouble listening Jesus’ words of impending rejection.

So yes, sometimes events force us to listen. Jesus’ disciples couldn’t filter out his words once they got to Jerusalem. But that voice from the clouds wants us to listen before these events overtake us. Right now. In the middle of this celebration. It’s fine to have a church year sorted into festive seasons and penitential seasons. It’s not OK to make them into airtight compartments, though that’s what we’ll do if we’re not careful.

It seems as though we’re practically programmed to presume that we can’t rejoice in the midst of devastation, or vice versa. But in fact, people do just that. Imagine again what’s been happening at North. Tears? Of course! Hugs? Probably way too many for this introvert. Courage? Most definitely! Alleluias? Yes, I mentioned those already but definitely alleluias. We can be pretty sure that all of this is happening. We can be pretty sure because we’ve had moments like this ourselves.

I won’t presume to speak for everybody, but when I recall moments like these in my own life, these are the moments that still carry me the most today. I’m not less grateful for moments where I could focus almost 100% on celebration, and it does help to recall them, but they don’t have nearly the power of those moments where laughter and tears, loss and community, mingled inextricably. They call me back to reality. They keep me from shutting my eyes to what I would rather not see. They give courage.

It’s no coincidence that when Episcopalians celebrate the Eucharist, the one place in the prayerbook where the word “alleluia” occurs is when we break Christ’s body. Joy and brokenness mingle there. So why shouldn’t a hint of Ash Wednesday mingle with Transfiguration Sunday?

A voice says, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” “Let these words sink into your ears.” Listen. Alleluia.

For February 24 (Epiphany 7, Year C)

Luke 6:27-38 (online here)

We’ve heard Jesus say Love your neighbor as yourself. That sounds safe enough, even though we regularly confess we haven’t done it. But love your enemies? That’s not safe. In fact, it sounds downright foolish. But that’s what he said: love your enemies.

And he’s not just talking about enemies you might hear about, or read about on your newsfeed. He’s talking about people close enough to cause you harm, who may have already caused you harm, not just emotional harm but physical harm.He means somebody you might run into today who hates you or curses you or abuses you or takes things away from you or even physically assaults you. This is the person he insist you should love.

Does that sound impossible? Maybe it is, at least for us. According to Luke, Jesus says, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” But in Matthew’s version he says, “Be perfect ... as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Wonderful. If any of us could be as merciful as God, I guess we would be perfect. But I know I can’t do that, and if you told me you could, I wouldn’t believe you. It sounds impossible.

But impossible or not, surely Jesus didn’t mean for us to throw our hands in the air and give up, did he? Maybe it helps to realize that there are some things he’s not expecting us to do.

He’s not expecting us to work up a warm, fuzzy feeling for people who hate us enough to harm us. The kind of love Jesus is talking about starts not with how we feel toward others but with how we treat them. Do them good, pray for their well being, don’t retaliate, share what you have with them, in a word, “Do to [them] as you would have them do to you.” Mind you, if you treat them that way, no matter how reluctantly you start out, in time you will probably start to feel more kindly towards them. It’s an example of “fake it till you make it.“ But the focus is still more on doing than on feeling. “Do to [them] as you would have them do to you.”

Jesus doesn’t expect you to be a doormat, either. Let’s face it—in the past this passage has been shamefully used to to keep vulnerable people in abusive relationships. Wives were counseled to stay with their husbands even when they were repeatedly beaten. Some Christian leaders still teach that. But in our Church we counsel that confronting abuse is actually more loving than letting it continue. Sure, “pray for those who abuse you.” But get out of a situation where it can keep happening—that is, if you can get out.

Of course, there are situations where you can’t get out, and it seems that Jesus has those particularly in mind. When your whole country and all the countries around you are occupied by the Romans, where could you possibly move? When most people don’t even ask if it’s OK that you’re a slave, what can you do about it? You know that every violent rebellion you’ve ever heard about only ended in disaster for the rebels. And when there’s no Chapter 11 to protect you from ruthless creditors, you’re a left at their mercy.

Even so, even when you’re in an unfair situation you can’t escape, you don’t have to be a doormat—even when you love your enemies.

That bit about turning the other cheek, scholars tell us these days, is a nonviolent act of defiance. The one who strikes you is claiming to be your social superior (maybe a Roman, maybe your master). It takes a little explaining, but turning the other cheek is a way of facing the perpetrator as an equal, not an inferior. Instead of responding with more violence, or with subservience, you claim dignity as God’s beloved offspring.

And when you can’t pay your debts, a wealthy creditor can take your coat as collateral. But if you give not just your coat but your underwear (that’s what “shirt” means), according to social customs of the time that would actually shame the creditor more than the debtor.

So sometimes loving your enemy means making them face the harm they’re doing, but without adding more violence to an already violent situation. People call it Jesus’ third way—standing for our equal dignity before God without resorting to violence. (More here: https://cpt.org/files/BN%20-%20Jesus'%20Third%20Way.pdf)

So, don’t be a doormat, but still, love your enemies. Do them good, though they may not like the good that you do them. When we do that, Jesus says, we are doing what God does. Because it’s God whose very nature is to love God’s enemies.

And isn’t that a good thing? Aren’t we glad that God loves enemies? After all, don’t we regularly confess that we are among God’s enemies? We say that we sin against God in thought, word, and deed. And we do. We withhold love from God, from others—and even from ourselves.

Yes, do notice, we withhold love even from ourselves. I said a few moments ago that the enemies Jesus is talking about are people near at hand. And one of those people near at hand is you. The more we get to know ourselves, the more honest we are about ourselves, the more we come to see that we are our own enemies. You have probably heard it said that what we abhor in other people reflects what we abhor in ourselves. So if we hate others as our enemies, when we curse them, we are not just hating or cursing them. We are hating and cursing ourselves along with them.

But the other side of that coin is that what we are starting to love in others reflects what we are starting to love in ourselves. It works both ways. If we do good to others who wish us harm, if we bless them instead of cursing them, we do good to ourselves, we bless ourselves.

Thank God! It is, after all, God who does good to us and blesses us first. Through Jesus’ life, death and risen life God is saying to us, “No matter how hard you try to be my enemy, you can’t. I have no enemies. You are my beloved, even at your most hateful. Now go and do likewise.”

"I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Why? Because this is what God does for us. How? God is already nudging us in that direction. We might as well stop pushing back and let it happen. Amen.

For February 17 (Epiphany 6, Year C)

Luke 6:17-26 (online here)

If you’ve sat in church much, you hear words like “Blessed are you…” and you probably think “Oh yeah, The Sermon on the Mount.” Well, that’s not what you heard today. Today’s Gospel lesson is known as The Sermon on the Plain. You find the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, and you find the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. Each of our Gospel writers likes to take Jesus’ teachings and show them to us against different backgrounds. Put Jesus on top of a mountain and you have everybody picturing another Moses giving God’s law. That’s Matthew’s Jesus. Put Jesus on a plain, “a level place,” and you have everybody picturing a God who comes down to wherever we are, somebody who gets dirty with us and actually makes a difference in how we keep breathing. That’s Luke’s Jesus.

Matthew has Jesus start out, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” But Luke has Jesus begin with, “Blessed are you who are poor”—not poor in spirit, just poor, period.

There’s still an echo of the Sermon on the Mount. Only this version sounds a little more threatening. For every blessing there’s a corresponding curse. If you’re poor, hungry, sad or unpopular, then you’re really OK. But if you’re rich, well-fed, happy or popular, then you’re in deep trouble. Everything’s turning inside out; nothing stays the same.

Let’s listen to another translation of this. This one’s from the Jesus Seminar, and it puts things a little more bluntly. Here’s the nice part: “Congratulations, you poor! God’s domain belongs to you. Congratulations, you hungry! You will have a feast. Congratulations, you who weep now! You will laugh. Congratulations to you when people hate you, and when they ostracize you and denounce you and scorn your name as evil …! … [T]heir ancestors treated the prophets in the same way.”

Now here’s the not-so-nice part: “Damn you rich! You already have your consolation. Damn you who are well-fed now! You will know hunger. Damn you who laugh now! You will learn to weep and grieve. Damn you when everybody speaks well of you! … [T]heir ancestors treated the phony prophets the same way.”

It just so happens that the fellows of the Jesus Seminar don’t think he really said any of that “damn you” stuff, just the nice part. They blame Luke and the early church for all the threatening stuff. But Anglicans like me don’t have that easy way out. We believe that the way the church remembers Jesus can be just as important as any Jesus cooked up by the latest scholarly fashion. So we’re not going to take the easy way out today.

There’s no escaping this down-to-earth Jesus. This Jesus stands with a whole company of prophets before him who insist that for God it really makes a difference what we have, and what we do with what we have. Yes, God loves everybody, no exceptions, no matter who they are or what they have. That’s true enough, but that’s exactly why God has a special regard for people who don’t get to share in all the good gifts this world offers. That’s why God even comes to us, in person, as someone who knows from the inside out more than a fair share of poverty, hunger, grief and rejection.

Remember, when Jesus preached this sermon, he preached it to his disciples—to the people he’s already welcomed. They’ve already gotten through the front door. And so have you. But he is colorfully describing how God’s reign can be both comforting and discomforting at the same time.

Here’s what the reign of God is. It’s something that’s already happening. The reign of God is our being caught up into the resurrected, common life that God already is, right here, right now, down here on the plain. God’s Spirit is making all of us one body in the risen life of Christ. In God’s common, risen life, we’re all becoming members of one another. We’re all beginning to share one another’s joys and accomplishments, and that can sound appealing, but we’re also beginning to share one another’s griefs and losses, and that may not sound so appealing. It’s awfully intense, and it’s certainly not convenient.

But that’s the way God lives with us, and that’s the way God draws us to live with one another, like it or not. We can try to slow the whole thing down, and in fact we seem to have done a pretty good job of it for at least 2,000 years. But God has all the time in the world, and God’s not giving up on us—not ever.

And it’s strange but true that the less you have, and the more you know of grief and loss, the easier it is to get drawn into God’s common life, and the easier it is to find the joy of resurrection in sharing everybody’s highs and lows. It’s those of us who have stuff, those of us who want happiness without noticing who’s paying for it, those of us who want to rely on ourselves and nobody else, who won’t find it so easy to join in.

It’s those of us who think this stuff gives us control over our lives who get frustrated over and over again when nothing ever turns out the way we plan. That’s most of us, at least most of the time. Most of us live in a place and time where it’s very easy to keep ourselves insulated from the intensity of living fully. But there are still times when that intensity breaks through anyway.

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you didn’t know whether you wanted to laugh or cry? For lots of us that happens at times of major transitions—baptisms, confirmations, graduations, weddings, funerals, and, let’s not forget, ordinations. Those are times that can expose us to life’s intensity, where the day-to-day stuff that insulates us gets interrupted for a while and we just might have to deal with the overwhelming grandeur that surrounds and fills every beginning and ending.

Jesus’ down-to-earth Gospel tells us that we respond with this mixture of laughter and tears because we’re getting a very heavy dose of reality. We’re beginning to sense what it means to be members of one another, sharing in one another’s highs and lows, gains and losses. And there’s no telling where that glimpse of reality might take us if we let it make us over. It might move us to live into a community where nobody’s basic needs ever got neglected. Imagine that!

That’s where God is taking us, like it or not, and we can’t hold out against it for ever. And when we come here week after week to offer our very lives and receive them back in broken bread and shared wine, we dare to believe that little by little, or sometimes all at once, God is fashioning Christ’s body even out of the likes of us.

For February 10 (Epiphany 5, Year C)

Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 5:1-11 (online here)

In the presence of God, Isaiah cries, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” In the presence of Jesus, Peter cries, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” In the presence of God, Isaiah and Peter are both overwhelmed with their own sense of unworthiness.

For the past 20-plus years, whenever I hear somebody in the Bible say, “I am not worthy,” I can’t help picturing a Saturday Night Live skit where Mike Myers and Dana Carvey grovel before Madonna, repeating, "We're not worthy!" Madonna impatiently responds, "Okay, shut up! You're both worthy," and then the groveling's over, and they start playing Truth or Dare.

We're not worthy!

Okay, shut up! You're worthy.

You know, the Book of Common Prayer says something like that too if you do a little cherry picking. There's the Rite 1 Prayer of Humble Access (on page 337 if you absolutely must check it out): "We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table." Then there's the Rite 2 Eucharistic Prayer B: "In him, you have … made us worthy to stand before you." "We're not worthy!" says the Prayerbook, but then later it says, in effect, "Okay, shut up! You're worthy."

Now this sense of unworthiness is apparently natural. The Bible and other religious scriptures are full of stories like this: stories of people awakening to a power and presence so uncontainable, so valuable, that they can't help feeling immeasurably inferior. (Rudolf Otto famously called this a sense of the numinous, involvement with a mystery that is both fascinating and terrifying—mysterium tremendum et fascinans.)

Moses has to take off his sandals (Exodus 3:5). Isaiah cries, "Woe is me!" Peter says, “I am sinful.” In the Bhagavad-Gita the warrior Arjuna discovers that his chariot driver is actually Krishna, an embodiment of the God Vishnu, and he cries out, "O all-pervading Vishnu, ... I am afraid ... I cannot keep my balance ... In all directions I am bewildered.” St. Augustine prays, "When I first came to know you, [O God,] you raised me up to make me see that what I saw is Being, and that I who saw am not yet Being. And ... I trembled" (Confessions 7.10.16).

"Woe is me!" “I am sinful.” "I am afraid, unbalanced." "I am not yet Being." "We're not worthy!"

When we awaken to the presence of God, if it's really God who's involved with us and not some imaginary buddy, we can't help noticing how un-Godlike we are. We start to feel utterly insignificant by comparison. In the presence of uncontainable meaning, we start to feel that even a grain of sand on the beach makes more of a difference to us than we could ever make to God. In the presence of boundless goodness, we start to notice how, no matter how much we lower the bar, we never live up to our own adjusted standards, much less live up to the standards of boundless goodness.

And that, folks, happens to us even before we turn on the news to see once again how determined we are to find new ways to tear ourselves apart. What we see around us confirms what we see within us—we're not any more ready to receive the boundless goodness of God than Isaiah or Peter. We're not worthy.

This is not our imaginary buddy. Yes, we speak to God the way we speak to another one of us, because God is so intimately engaging that we can't help being reminded of a level of intimacy that only happens with another person. But we know that God's engagement with us is immeasurably more than that. God is not a sub-personal, heartless force, but neither is God just another one of us. Every time we kneel or bow (we do a lot of that in my church), we’re reminding ourselves that this is God, the power and presence so uncontainable, so valuable, that we can easily feel reduced to almost nothing. We are so un-Godlike.

So it's only natural to respond with something like, "We're not worthy!" Isaiah and Peter are just doing what comes naturally, and so are we.

But notice, when Peter abjectly professes his own unworthiness, he’s doing this in the presence of Jesus. And Jesus is not doing what comes naturally. He’s doing what comes gracefully.

Getting baptized, washing smelly feet, inviting shady characters to break bread with him, getting executed, inexplicably showing up afterwards to embrace even his executioners—Jesus keeps refusing to do what comes naturally, or even what we think ought to come supernaturally. Instead he keeps doing what comes gracefully. We are so un-Godlike, we confess, but in Jesus we're dumbfounded by God's insistence on being so us-like—more us-like than we know how to be.

Here's one of our own whose post-mortem life among us embodies meaning and goodness that are so uncontainable, so boundless, that our own standards of significance and worth don't work anymore.

Yes, in the whole scheme of things, we're just tiny bits, like grains of sand, easily swept away. We're here only for a brief moment. But in the presence of uncontainable meaning and boundless goodness, even a grain of sand, even a quark, even a microsecond, is irreplaceable, significant and worthwhile beyond measure. There's no need to ask who's inferior and who's superior, because there's no competition here. In this whole, graceful scheme of things, you already matter more, you're already worth more, than you can ever imagine. Just when you feel that nothing matters less than you, you're astonished to realize that nothing matters more than you—or the person next to you, or the people you're not noticing at all.

Maybe it's only natural to feel unworthy when we first catch a glimpse of all this, but it's time to get over that. Like a knee-jerk we say, "We're not worthy!" But in Jesus' graceful life we hear God say, "Okay, shut up! You're worthy." Worthy beyond measure.

It's happening among us now. When Augustine realized how un-Godlike he was, he trembled. But he didn't remain stuck there: "I found myself far from you, [O God. Yet I] heard as it were your voice from on high: 'I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And ... you will be changed into me.' ... I heard in the way one hears within the heart, and all doubt left me" (Confessions 7.10.16).

That's what's happening here. We confess our un-Godlikeness. Sometimes we kneel and bow in awe and reverence. But in the bread and wine we bless and share, we're sharing the food of the fully grown, God, uncontainable meaning and boundless goodness filling and renewing the likes of even us. Whether all doubt leaves us or not, we are being changed into the likeness of the God who dares to be so us-like.

"We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table." "In him, you have … made us worthy to stand before you." You are worthy, right now, more than you'll ever fathom.

 *******

Commonly Asked Question:  You keep talking as if a lot of us have this experience of uncontainable meaning, presence and goodness. I’m not sure I’ve ever had such an experience,  and I think I speak for a lot of people. 

Counter-Question: I’m in no position to tell you what you actually experience. But have you ever experienced this deep sense of your own insignificance or unworthiness?  How would that experience even be possible without at least some dim sense of deeper meaning and goodness with which you are comparing yourself? 

For February 3 (Epiphany 4, Year C)

1 Corinthians 13:1-13 (online here)

This week’s Lectionary readings include St. Paul's famous chapter on love. It's probably one of the best passages ever written by anybody anywhere. But what amazes me about it is remembering who wrote it. Because, if you had first read everything else Paul ever wrote, you'd never have predicted that he would write this.

Paul was known for his scrappy disposition. He didn't get along with any of the other Apostles, especially not Peter. He liked to lecture. And yet here he is, interrupting himself in the middle of an exceedingly contentious letter, to say something that invites all of us to let ourselves be interrupted—by the sheer wonder that such a thing as love can be real.

From that white-hot expansion of energy billions of years ago, who could have predicted that anything like love would emerge anywhere in the universe? And yet if love didn't have the power to remake us and our relationships, if it couldn't renew trust and patience when promises seem to fail us, none of us would have any friends or relationships left.

We think of love as a feeling, but it's more than that. Feelings fail. "Love never fails." Love is a power that we surely do feel, but it doesn't depend on our flickering moods. For as Paul knew, "love" is just one of our tamer words for God.

There's a power at work in and around us that won't leave us to our own devices. It interrupts us when we feel like arguing, just as it interrupted Paul when he felt like arguing. It makes us aware of the things that matter more than winning, more than proving ourselves right. It points a way forward even when we can't see how to take the next step.

Feelings fail; arguments fail; plans fail; love never fails. We tried killing it once, but it came back. Paul himself tried to kill it, and then he wound up preaching it—well, at least sometimes. You can't get rid of love, not even when you think it's gone. It comes back on its own power, in its own time, when you let yourself wait for it.

Love never fails.

For January 27 (Epiphany 3, Year C)

Luke 4:14-21 (online here)

Luke tells us that Jesus went to the local synagogue every Sabbath, and in this reading we hear what happened when he preached at his hometown synagogue.

There are two crucial points to notice:

First, he reads a passage from Isaiah to describe his own ministry:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor” (Isaiah 61:1-2a, Luke’s translation).

Jesus does not say he’s here to save disembodied souls after they die. He’s here to make liberating, healing difference to embodied people here and now, before they die. What happens when we die matters, but it’s secondary. That’s the first crucial point.

Here’s the second, something I never noticed until recently. It’s not what Jesus did choose to read from Isaiah, but what he chose not to read.

You see, Isaiah doesn’t stop with “to proclaim the year of the Lord‘s favor.” If you keep reading, Isaiah says, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.”

Jesus chose not to read that phrase about vengeance. Why? It just didn’t fit his experience of the God whose very life he embodied. So he used his Bible selectively.

By the way, this is not an example of Jesus vs. Judaism or Jesus vs. the “Old” Testament. Rabbis of Jesus’ day used this strategy too, and so did writers of Jesus’ Bible. They used earlier writings selectively, in light of their own experience of God.

Example: Jonah says, "You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing" (Jonah 4:2). He’s quoting Exodus 34:6-7, but he quotes it selectively. Here’s the full passage: “The Lord passed before [Moses], and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’” Jonah left out the vindictive part, because it did not fit his experience of God. (Also, it seems a bit self-contradictory: “forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” vs. “by no means clearing the guilty”—which is it?) So Jesus is following the book of Jonah’s example. (Jonah was actually complaining that God was too forgiving! But the book is poking fun at Jonah’s attitude.)

They both seem to be hinting that some parts of the Bible just shouldn’t be passed on—especially the parts that portray God as vindictive.

Why are so many Christians so slow to notice that?

For January 13 (Epiphany 1, Year C)

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 (online here)

John the Baptizer had been praying for God to step in and take over this conflicted world. And this is how his prayer got answered: Jesus showed up and followed an upside-down script. Instead of taking over the world, he let this conflicted world overtake him, he gave himself into the world's hands, and then rose into the life of God's Beloved.

That's the story of Jesus' baptism. Jesus showed up, and instead of taking over John's ministry and baptizing John, he gave himself into John's hands, submitted to John's baptism of repentance, and then rose into the life of God's Beloved.

So in a way, this story of Jesus' baptism is also the story of Jesus' whole life.

And Jesus' followers eventually realized that this is also the story of God's whole life. Instead of taking over the world, God is giving God's very self into this conflicted world's hands, suffering its worst, and yet rising to transform even this world's worst into new opportunities for reconciliation, so that all of us—friends, family, strangers and even enemies—can share the life of God's Beloved. That's the life God has always lived and the life God is living with us now. Jesus made it a visible, tangible life, and that's what his followers are summoned to do—keep making it visible, tangible.

Maybe you remember when you were baptized, or maybe you don't remember, or maybe you were never baptized, at least not with water. But all of us are sharing in the baptismal life of God's Beloved whenever we stop trying to be in control and instead risk giving ourselves into one another's hands. When we dare to do that, we make God's life, and Jesus' life, visible, tangible.

Let's keep daring that.

For January 6 (Feast of the Epiphany, Year C)

Matthew 2:1-12 (online here)

Christmas ends with the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. The word “epiphany” means “disclosure,” and in this case it refers to the first disclosure of Jesus’ arrival, and of God’s universally reconciling presence, to non-Jews (aka “gentiles”).

The Gospel of Matthew tells us that the first non-Jews to learn of Jesus’ birth were “Magi” from “the East.” These were not just “wise men,” nor were they kings, and we’re not told how many they were—probably more than three.

Here’s the shocker: Magi were astrologers, sorcerers, experts in the occult! Many Christians today would expect these practices to be condemned, but according to Matthew, these were the very practices that led some people to God’s saving disclosure! It suggests that God is always communicating to people on the terms available to them, not just in one prescribed way.

These foreign sorcerers pay homage to Jesus, and then they leave and return to their own land. They did not convert to Christianity! But Matthew’s Gospel does not criticize them for that. Instead it seems to be hinting that Jesus has friends and allies who may never describe themselves as Christians.

That’s worth pondering.

For December 25 & 30 (Christmas Day & the Sunday After, Year C)

 John 1:1-18 (online here)

First was Meaning*
Godward and Godful
Entry to all else
Lively and all-enlightening.

Then was Meaning enfleshed
Living among us
Shining bountifully and truthfully
Unquenched by rejection
In the face of Jesus Christ.

No one has ever seen God.
Lively, all-enlightening Meaning
Enfleshed, rejected, unquenched
Uniquely born of God’s own heart
Powers all who are open
Into godful birth**
Making God known.

*This is not an exact translation, but I take it to indicate "Meaning" that endures in John 1:1-18. "Logos" CAN be translated as "Meaning." That is at least one way in which the passage speaks to me today.
**John later attributes this birth to Spirit (3:5-8). But he has not worked out a doctrine of the Trinity.

For December 23 (Advent 4, Year C)

Luke 1:46-55 (Canticle 15 Book of Common Prayer, Magnificat, below)

“This song of Mary’s is the oldest Advent hymn. It is the most passionate, most vehement, one might almost say, most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. It is not the gentle, sweet, dreamy Mary that we so often see portrayed in pictures, but the passionate, powerful, proud, enthusiastic Mary, who speaks here. None of the sweet, sugary, or childish tones that we find so often in our Christmas hymns, but a hard, strong, uncompromising song of bringing down rulers from their thrones and humbling the lords of this world, of God's power and of the powerlessness of men. These are the tones of the prophetic women of the Old Testament: Deborah, Judith, Miriam, coming alive in the mouth of Mary.”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from a 1933 Advent sermon (http://locusthoney.blogspot.com/2011/12/sermon-on-magnificat-by-dietrich.html).

Have you ever heard of liberation theology? It’s a movement, or cluster of movements, that began in the 1960s and 1970s. Liberation theologians claim that God is not politically neutral—God actually sides with the marginalized and against the privileged. That was controversial. Conservative critics claimed that liberation theologians were just Marxists in disguise. More moderate critics insisted that a God of universal, unconditional love couldn’t take sides.

But liberation theologians were not Marxists in disguise—they liked Marx because he reminded them of biblical prophets. And they didn’t deny that God loves everybody unconditionally. They simply recognized that universal love insists on eroding rigid structures that privilege some and marginalize others. God stands with the marginalized and against the privileged for the sake of all—privileged and marginalized alike. 

Liberation theologians recognized that some of our favorite texts from the Bible are anything but politically neutral. And one of the favorite texts they appealed to was what has come to be known as the Magnificat, the Song of Mary. God “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.” God has always been the God who takes sides, who undoes structures of privilege.

Of course, you can’t overturn these structures if you simply get individuals to switch places. Nothing really changes if you simply drag some people from their thrones and replace them with others. What has to change are fixed structures that fail to honor the diversity of gifts each of us brings to our common life, regardless of how marginal any of us appears. Those structures have to change so that all can find life to be a blessing.

The Magnificat ends by recalling the promise of mercy God made to Abraham. In Genesis God promised Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing … and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12:2-3). God sided with Abraham, but only because through Abraham and his descendants God intended to bless everyone. God sides with the marginalized for the same reason, so that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

******
Canticle 15 Page 91, BCP

The Song of Mary Magnificat

Luke 1:46-55

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
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.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.

For December 16 (Advent 3, Year C)

Philippians 4:4-7: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

The third Sunday in Advent is known as “Gaudete Sunday.” “Gaudete” is Latin for “rejoice,” and the service for this day traditionally began with singing a chant based on this passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete—“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (example: https://youtu.be/sTGik1NcTws). That’s also why the third candle in the Advent Wreath is typically colored pink for this Sunday, to indicate joy.

It’s important to know that when Paul was writing this he had every reason not to rejoice. He’s in prison (1:13, 17). He knows he might be killed (1:20). He knows that some of his coworkers are actually delighting in his imprisonment (1:17). Sometimes it feels as if he is being “poured out as a libation” (2:17). And yet, repeatedly and inexplicably, he finds himself full of joy (1:18; 2:17). Obviously, this is the sort of joy that, like the peace of God, “surpasses all understanding” (4:7).

Paul has found joy where, earlier in his life, he never would have looked for it, precisely because Paul has found God where he never would have looked for God. (Or rather, the God he was not looking for found him!) He has been captivated by his own awakening to the story of God’s very life being poured out as a libation in the life, death, and mysteriously risen life of Jesus (2:5-11). That story is beginning to overturn his very idea of God and of how God works. The God who lives as Jesus lives is not the all-controlling power but the all-suffering power whose relentless love wins by refusing to be driven away even by rejection and execution. Paul has come to realize, “in fear and trembling,” that this all-suffering power of God is inescapably at work in all of us (2:12-13).

Joy, suffering, fear and trembling, peace—they all flow together in the incomprehensible intimacy of Immanuel (“God-with-us”). So when Paul says, “rejoice,” he’s not just talking about a passing mood. He’s asking us to open ourselves to an enlivening power already at work in us, not separate from the messiness and even devastation we might be undergoing, but relentlessly here, right now. It surpasses all understanding, but are we surprised? If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be God.

For December 9 (Advent 2, Year C)

Luke 3:1-6 (below): Advent, we’ve said, is a season of waiting. It’s also partly a season of make-believe. We act as if we’re still waiting for Jesus to show up, two thousand years after he actually did. But this isn’t just make-believe. Yes, Jesus did show up, but that didn’t put an end to the story, and it certainly didn’t put an end to waiting. He got something started in us, and it’s something priceless, but he never pretended that everything was finished. After his death, when we’re told he showed up again, his followers thought that everything must surely be almost finished. They didn’t expect to be around much longer, but they turned out to be wrong by about 1900 years (and still counting). So here in the 21st century we’re still waiting to see if what Jesus started in us will ever come to fruition.

So let’s try hearing Isaiah’s and John the Baptist’s call with fresh ears: Prepare the way of the Lord. This is not a call to impose our way of life on everyone else. After all, “prepare” doesn’t mean “take control.” “Prepare” means, well, “prepare.” It means we need to get ready for surprising things to happen. It’s a call to make room for a God who acts like Jesus. It’s a call to start living like that God, not some divine dictator who makes the trains run on time. It’s a call to be just as patient as God seems to be with followers, like us, who keep missing the point and having to start over again and again. It’s a call to trust that, no matter how long it takes, no matter how many obstructions we put in the way, a day will come when “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Prepare, get ready, make room, start living, be patient, trust.

Jesus “broke bread with outcasts and sinners, healed the sick, and proclaimed good news to the poor.” That’s how my favorite Eucharistic prayer sums up his ministry. He spent his time with people on the margins of his culture—outcasts, sinners, the sick, the poor. His behavior was probably more irritating than threatening to people in power, but either way it eventually it got him killed. When he started showing up again, it didn’t make headlines, except among his closest followers. Everybody else could dismiss the news as one more irritating rumor.

But with that news something got started that still, even today, draws people into new ways of looking at God, new ways of looking at power, new ways of looking at outsiders, new ways of sharing a meal. It doesn’t solve all our problems for us, but nevertheless, something did get started 2,000 years ago that nobody’s been able to stamp out yet.

We’re not done with waiting. We’re not exactly sure what’s coming next. But we know that something’s already begun that’s made the waiting worth every moment. Prepare the way of the Lord.

******

Luke 3:1-6: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

For December 2 (Advent 1, Year C)

Jeremiah 33:14-16 (below): Our sponsoring Lutheran and Episcopal churches follow the traditional calendar of the church year. Unlike the calendar on your computer or mobile device, the church calendar begins with the first Sunday in Advent. This year, that's December 2.

One thing you might notice on the first Sunday in Advent is a change in the Gospel lessons read most often during the year. This past year the lessons came mostly from the Gospel of Mark. Starting December 2 this year, the lessons will come mostly from the Gospel of Luke. That's because our sponsoring Episcopal and Lutheran churches follow a lectionary, a three-year list of scripture lessons shared by many other churches—Roman Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ, American Baptist, United Church of Christ, etc. That's just something worth noticing. The point is that a new cycle has begun, and that it begins with the season of Advent.

Advent is a season of waiting. As early as the year 480 it became common for Christians to spend an extended period of time waiting for the celebration of Christmas. It's intended to remind us that, like our ancestors before the time of Jesus, we are still waiting for the arrival of God's long-promised universal community of peace and justice.

Advent is a recognition that, although the church aims to be that universal community of peace and justice now, it has always done a very poor job of that. We stand with the people Jeremiah addressed, a people living in exile, longing for a new day immeasurably better and more just than the the days of King David. We are still waiting.

Yes, we certainly have much to celebrate in what's already here. That's what we do especially during the seasons of Christmas and Easter (which, incidentally, are never just one day in length—Christmas gets 12 days, like the song, while Easter gets 50). But all of these celebrations point to something immeasurably more than what's already here, something we may never live to see, but for which we refuse to surrender hope.

This is the season when we say to ourselves, "God's world deserves more than what has happened in it so far. We yearn with God for a universal community, a community where none go hungry and where violence is a distant memory, where all live in safety."

We can't force that vision of universal community on the world as it is, because to force it would be a denial of that very vision. All we can do is keep trying to live out the vision in our personal, social and political life, and, of course, learn how to wait, to wait with God's persistent waiting. Advent is all about learning to wait persistently.

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Jeremiah 33:14-16: The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The Lord is our righteousness."

For November 25 (Proper 29, Year B)

John 18:33-37 (below): In this week's Gospel reading, Pilate mockingly asks Jesus, "Are you King of the Jews?" And in so many words Jesus answers, "Not the way you think of kings. If I were an ordinary king you'd see plenty of violence. But I was born to depend on truth as my only weapon—the truth that God's enfleshed love won't stay dead even if you kill it. My kingdom is not based on the business-as-usual model of this world—it's the relentless, reconciling, enfleshed  presence of God that nobody can banish, not even you."

Well ... we know where that answer got him—crowned with thorns and enthroned on a cross. It's only with that anti-crown and from that anti-throne that he lives and reigns among us today. He does live, because the enfleshed life that God lives with him wouldn’t stay dead. And he does reign, because the power he unleashes in the world is the power of a love that will always outlast any attempt to stop it. But this is no ordinary life, and no ordinary king.

The power of an ordinary king looks impressive for a while, but it always fails. Nobody today celebrates the real presence of Pilate or Caesar—any Caesar. We do celebrate the real presence of Christ, and that in itself shows that there's another kind of power at work in our world that may not look impressive but that doesn't fail. That's the power of Christ, the power of God-with-us, the power of God's enfleshed love that won't stay dead even if you kill it.

When Christ is king, all our ideas of royalty get turned on their heads. Trains definitely do not run on time. But enfleshed love remains stubbornly undefeated. This is no ordinary king.

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John 18:33-37: Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”